“The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Bereshit, 12:1)
There are certain basic necessary ingredients which comprise a typical journey; a starting point, travel companions, luggage and, of course, a destination. Parashat Lech-lecha describes Abraham’s voyage in great detail, but omits one of these key elements. Abraham’s starting point is depicted in great detail, the various constituent elements of the life he is required to leave behind are carefully listed. Abraham’s travel partners and his accompanying equipment are also recorded. Interestingly, Abraham’s ultimate destination, perhaps the most important facet of any journey, is left shrouded in uncertainty. The final stop on his voyage is yet to be revealed. Abraham is simply told rather mysteriously that he will be shown where he is to end up.
The Ramban raises the startling possibility that Abraham’s final destination was hidden for the entire duration of his voyage. The Ramban writes:
“To the land that I shall show you – he wandered aimlessly from nation to nation and kingdom to kingdom, until he reached Canaan, when God told him, “To your seed I shall give this land” (12:7)… Before that, he did not yet know that that land was the subject of the command.” (Ramban 12:1)
Abraham’s journey was a wandering expedition without a clear end goal in sight. Indeed, when Abraham retrospectively reflects upon this journey later in life, he explains that “God made me wander from my father’s house” (20:13). When reflecting back, Abraham viewed this period in his life as one of itinerant travelling, a time without a target or goal. According to the Ramban, the importance of Abraham’s journey lay in the very act of travelling, in the voyage itself, rather than the specific destination.
Developing this thought further, the Sfat Emet (1847-1905) posits that it is no surprise that God’s very first interaction with Abraham revolved around journeys. Journeying itself, the Sfat Emet writes, is a crucial part of the human experience: “Lekh Lekha – Go forth: Man is defined by his travelling, and indeed man must always travel, from one level to the next. One must always aim to extract oneself from habit, from the state of the normal.” The journey Abraham embarks upon represents the journey that all must make, a voyage that breaks free from routines to embrace new heights. In other words, the Sfat Emet believes that man is to be judged by his capacity to change and grow.
The Hasidic thinker, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (the Ishbitzer), proposed that Abraham’s journey was so important as it ultimately led him to better understand himself. Indeed, this is the literal translation of Lech-lecha – “Go to yourself.” The very act of wandering, of uncoupling from familiar surroundings, presents the opportunity to learn more about oneself or, in the Ishbitzer’s terminology, to experience “the root of your life”. Thomas Mann, the early 20th Century German writer, also believed in the power of travelling to awaken knowledge of ourselves, journeys “engender forgetfulness by setting us physically free from our surroundings and giving us back our original, free state.”
Parashat Lech Lecha seeks to illustrate that journeys, be they physical, mental or spiritual, can be sources of great illumination and strength. The very act of movement shifts perspectives, opening up new horizons and possibilities by exposing us to undiscovered parts of ourselves. Like Abraham’s journey, often the end goal is not always so apparent from the outset. And yet, the paradoxical lesson to be learned is that we don’t always need a clear goal before embarking upon a voyage. Indeed, it is precisely the act of faith in the midst of such uncertainty which enables us to see the beauty of the journey itself. Sometimes we can put Waze to one side and we will eventually arrive, like Abraham, precisely where we need to be.
Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, perhaps the most popular poet of Victorian England, spent seventeen years composing his masterpiece, In Memoriam. Tennyson began working on In Memoriam in 1833 as a tribute to his beloved best friend, Arthur Hallam, who died suddenly at the young age of twenty-two. Many of Hallam’s closest friends, including soon-to-be Prime Minister, William Gladstone, regarded him as the outstanding mind of their generation and were left distraught at his unforeseen and premature loss. Deeply affected by this tragedy, Tennyson was inspired to write In Memoriam, a moving reflection on hope in the face of deep loss and certainty. One of the core themes lying at the heart of Tennyson’s poem is the importance of doubt in religious life:
“Perplexed in faith, but pure in deeds/ At last he beat his music out. There lives more faith in honest doubt/ Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gathered strength/ He would not make his judgement blind, He faced the spectres of the mind/ And laid them, thus he came at length/ To find a stronger faith his own…”
Tennyson challenges us to rethink the common conception that faith and doubt exist as polar opposites. Rather, doubt possesses the power to fortify faith. Tennyson believed that the true man of faith would only be strengthened by confronting the doubts lurking beneath the surface. For Tennyson, the ‘spectres of the mind’ could add a qualitative depth to faith absent from those who follow with a certainty that ignores questions. In a sense, the faith that was able to confront and survive doubt had proved itself as courageous and durable. Describing Tennyson’s poem, T. S. Eliot would write that In Memoriam was “not religious because of the quality of its faith, but because of the quality of its doubt” (Selected Essays). In short, doubt too, can acquire a distinctively religious hue.
Other thinkers, however, would contest the compatibility of doubt with religion. Leo Strauss (1899-1973), the German-Jewish emigré to the USA, argued that philosophy and religion were built on fundamentally distinct foundations, each with their own separate means of argumentation and knowledge. In his search for knowledge, the philosopher must be free to doubt even the most dearly held beliefs of morality and religion. Strauss believed that such doubt was incompatible with religion, which asserts certain truths as axiomatic and beyond refutation. In Strauss’ world, doubt and religion belonged to separate spheres and could never meet. Only a select elite could live in both worlds. Building off this core premise, many within the contemporary Orthodox Jewish world cast aside doubt as ‘destructive’ to faith, preferring instead to cultivate absolute certainty as the principal foundation of faith .
What, however, do we mean when we talk about doubt? Doubt has many different variations and distinct meanings. To enable a clearer understanding of doubt, Paul Tillich (1886-1965), the German-American philosopher, has helpfully distinguished between three different types of doubt; methodological, sceptical and existential.
Methodological doubt is that of the scientist, the thinker who questions current theories and ideas in order to advance knowledge. This doubt is a mode of enquiry which challenges the status quo to deepen our understanding of the universe. Within Jewish thought, Saadya Gaon (882-942) made methodological doubt the cornerstone of his philosophical world-view. Indeed, at the very outset of his major work of Jewish philosophy, Emunot ve-Deot (The Book of Doctrines and Opinions), Saadya underlines the legitimacy of such doubt:
“One might ask: ‘How can it be reconciled with the wisdom of the Creator that he allowed doubts and errors to arise in the minds of his Creatures? We may answer this question at once by saying that the very fact that they are created beings makes them subject to doubt and error. For according to the order of creation they require for every work which they undertake a certain measure of time in which to complete it stage after stage. Cognition being one of their activities , it undoubtedly comes under the same rule.”
Saadya carved out a safe space for methodological doubt within Judaism. He believed that doubt comprised a fundamental part of what it meant to be human. Human beings, Saadya argued, never achieve perfection or conclusive results immediately. To be human is to forever exist as a work-in-progress. All earthly endeavours and projects take time to mature and develop to completion. The very same idea can be applied mankind’s beliefs and opinions. Saadya firmly believed that man’s beliefs are never complete but demanded a lifetime of constant refinement and improvement. The very existence of doubt thus ought not to be denied, but rather embraced as a tool that encourages and inspires progress. For Saadya, doubt is critical to man’s intellectual and religious development.
The second form of doubt, according to Tilluch, is sceptical doubt. This form of doubting denies and rejects all certainty. According to Tillich, sceptical doubt, is more an attitude than an assertion, an attitude which leads to “despair or cynicism, or both alternately.”
Finally, we arrive at existential doubt. Here, Tillich’s description is worth quoting at length:
“Existential doubt does not question whether a special proposition is true or false. It does not reject every concrete truth, but it is aware of the element of insecurity in every existential truth. At the same time, the doubt which is implied in faith accepts this insecurity and takes it into itself in an act of courage. Faith includes courage. Therefore, it can include the doubt about itself.”
It is this final form of existential doubt which is implicit in the very act of faith itself. The existential doubter is painfully aware of the fact that he seeks to understand and experience the infinite, an entity which he will never fully grasp. In spite of this deep existential insecurity, the true man of faith is able to maintain his beliefs and convictions.
In the realm of Jewish philosophy, R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg, head of the Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin during the 1920s, also championed the cause of existential doubt as a crucial part of religious life. In 1924, Weinberg penned an essay on the essence of Jewish faith:
“Faith and unbelief are not always pure opposites. There is a form of belief, which is basically nothing more than unbelief, a lack of self-confidence, a negation of inner personality, a renunciation of inner independence. The lethargic, sufficient and comfortable faith often means only inner emptiness and inner carelessness. The readiness to capitulate to strong impressions, which one’s own spiritual armour cannot cope with, robs men of their natural bulwark of personality. They allow themselves to be overrun and overcome by external influences… This person believes because he is unable to deny… This ‘Belief’ does not earn a positive designation. This man only reflects the absence of unbelief and never works as a driving force for creative power. The true, creative, religious belief… springs forth from a profusion of moral strength, it is no passive spiritual perspective, rather the opposite: an impetuous expression of increased spiritual activity, which strives for creative action… This true form of belief does not arise because unbelief has been killed from the heart of man, rather belief comes to these even more and picks it up… Such a religious personality is at once humble and masterly, pays tribute to God and shatters idols, builds with one hand God’s altar and tears down cultic statues down with the other. He builds and destroys, his works of destruction are themselves a constructive work.”
Weinberg believed that religious personalities were able to confront their theological or existential doubts with vigour and confidence. Those who do not fear ‘unbelief’, who positively struggle with and surmount their inner doubts, in Weinberg’s eyes, were worthy of admiration. This celebration of doubt rests upon the core notion that those who acknowledge and confront doubt, on whatever level, transform their own act faith into an active personal decision. The faith which embraces doubt and yet is able to thrive becomes a creative force. In this light, doubt enhances and ennobles the very faith it so often seeks overthrow.
Standing before the crowded theatre in Stockholm in the Winter of 1986, Elie Wiesel surveyed the room as he delivered his Nobel Prize lecture on the critical importance of memory. “Without memory, our existence would be barren and opaque, like a prison cell into which no light penetrates; like a tomb which rejects the living.” Wiesel believed that any leap into the future without a deep awareness of the past would ultimately prove futile. In Wiesel’s words, without dreams there can be no hope, no future without memory.
Memory, of course, plays a central role throughout Jewish thought and practise. Yosef Haim Yerushalmi, in his pivotal study on Jewish history and memory, Zakhor, wrote of the unique emphasis Judaism places on memory: “Only in Israel, and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people.” No commandment figures as frequently and indeed as powerfully as the resounding call to remember. A casual perusal of the Torah reveals a plethora of such instructions: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past” (Dev. 32), “Remember the day you left Egypt” (Dev. 17), “Remember that which Amalek did to you” (Dev. 25) and “Guard yourself lest you forget what your eyes saw…. the day you stood at Chorev” (Dev. 4). By preserving the memory of these pivotal moments of history, we perpetuate the values those events contain into the future.
Whilst memory presents a ubiquitous feature throughout the Jewish year, it receives particularly poignant attention on Rosh Hashanah. One of the names adopted by the Jewish tradition to mark this transition between one year and the next is Yom Hazikharon, ‘the Day of Remembrance’. Rosh Hashanah is thus to be a day dedicated to memories, to recall and reflect upon the past. As the previous year fades into the distance, the Jewish calendar provides a brief period of careful remembrance before the onset of the new annual cycle and the fresh year gathers apace.
Memory also takes centre stage at the very heart of the Mussaf service on Rosh Hashanah. The central blessing devoted to Zichronot summons God’s all-knowing memory: “You remember what was wrought from eternity and heed all that has been formed from of old; before You all secrets are revealed and the multitude of hidden things from the beginning. For there is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory, nor is anything hidden from Your eyes. You remember every deed and no creature is concealed from You .” Evoking God’s memory on Rosh Hashanah prompts us to reflect honestly and frankly upon our selves and our actions. Rosh Hashnah presents a day to gaze earnestly and sometimes painfully at the moments in our past we might otherwise wish erased from the records.
In many ways, Yom Kippur marks a tectonic shift away from this marked emphasis on memory. The very first prayers we utter on Yom Kippur are the words of Kol Nidrei. This harrowing piece is dedicated to annulling the promises, oaths and vows we have taken over the previous year. Yom Kippur thus begins with an act of wilful and concerted forgetfulness. The process of forgiveness and atonement of Yom Kippur can only begin once we have undergone a moment of such forgetfulness. This purposeful act of abandonment, discarding the unrealistic commitments made over the past year, enables us to enter the new year fresh and with clear vision.
In order to move forward and develop, we cannot simply perpetuate the aged and dusty goals of erstwhile years. The very act of self-creation, perhaps the ultimate act of freedom, necessitates a degree of forgetfulness. As Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) proclaimed in the realm of economics, often one needs to destroy in order to create. It is perhaps for this very reason that Yom Kippur itself is ushered in by the tones of forgetting. On Yom Kippur we erase our old vows and thereby unhinge our inner selves to mould a new vision and pave a novel path for the year ahead. Judaism certainly encourages memory, yet a degree of forgetfulness carves out a space for change and, ultimately, hope. Hold on to the past too tightly and we run the risk of replaying and re-enacting a past we wish to avoid.
Remembering and Forgetting Torah
This complex combination of memory and forgetfulness appears, perhaps surprisingly, in the realm of Torah learning too. Here too we see that creativity is spawned through the act of forgetting. The rabbinic caution against the dangerous pitfalls of forgetfulness suggests a distinctively negative vision of forgetfulness. In Pirkei Avot (Chapter 3:8) Rabbi Meir warns that “one who forgets even a single matter of his study, it is as if he is liable for his soul…” Forgetfulness is thus closely associated with moments of sin. The Talmud (Temurah 16a) describes how hundreds of laws were suddenly forgotten due to a momentary exhibition of arrogance on Joshuah’s part. A similar tale (Pesachim 66a) is told of Hillel the Elder who forgot a particularly pertinent teaching after sharply and unjustly reprimanding his questioners.
Despite these condemnations, numerous positive descriptions of forgetfulness abound. The Talmud (Bava Metziah, 85a) writes: “R. Zeira, when he journeyed to the land of Israel, observed a hundred fasts to forget the teachings of Babylonia.” R. Zeira underwent a period of forgetfulness to create a space for the creative regeneration necessary to attain higher spiritual heights.
Another Talmudic piece (Eruvin, 54a) describing Moses’ shattering of the tablets illustrates that forgetfulness does indeed play a vital role within our lives. The Talmud writes: “If not for the breaking of the First Tablets, the Torah would never have been forgotten.” And yet, when Moses does indeed shatter the tablets, God, according to the Talmud, offers His ultimate seal of approval: “Yashar Kochaha.” Forgetfulness thus appears to receive the ultimate sanction.
In a rather remarkable commentary, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukah 3) seeks to explain this positive endorsement of forgetfulness:
“We learn from here a great novel idea, that Torah can grow through forgetfulness, to the point where it is possible to receive Divine congratulations for forgetting the Torah… Not only this, but the whole basis for arguments within halakhah stems from forgetting…. we seen from here that divergence of opinion and the exchange of ideas contributes to the growth and splendour of the Torah which is born specifically through forgetting the Torah.”
According to R. Hutner, forgetfulness and spiritual creativity are intimately intertwined — forgetfulness provides the fertile ground for novel Torah ideas to sprout and flourish. Memory is paramount in any conception of Torah, yet a degree of forgetfulness allows each generation to breathe renewed life into the revered Jewish tradition. It is this oscillation between remembrance and relinquishment that lies at the very heart of the transition from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from memory to forgetfulness.
Whether we like it or not, distractions have become part and parcel of life in the modern world. In 1903, George Simmel, the German sociologist, wrote an essay entitled ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ which described the effects of the modern city on our selves. A century before social media came to dominate all aspects of life, Simmel felt that the modern environment and its constant bombardment of intense stimuli was harming mankind. Overwhelmed by the multiplicity of distractions, man was made blasé, dulled to life’s experiences and indifferent to the world around. Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966), Simmel’s student, argued that the bustling backdrop of modern life encouraged people to avoid precious time alone by filling empty moments of time with monotonous distractions. In his essay ‘Bordeom’, Kracauer writes that “although one wants to do nothing, things are done to one: the world makes sure that one does not find oneself.” For Kracauer, the modern world of constant distraction had alienated man from his core being.
At first glance, Jewish thought appears to frown rather heavily upon distractions. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:9) relates Rabbi Shimon’s declaration: “Someone who is walking along immersed in the study of Torah and interrupts his review saying “How beautiful is that tree! How pleasant is that ploughed field!” He is regarded by Scripture as someone who has forfeited his soul.” When engaged in the study of Torah, the Talmud expects complete concentration, any distractions are deemed to reflect a lack of adequate respect and appropriate attention. Similarly, the Talmud (Megilla 28b) describes how Ravina, Rav Ada Bar Matna and Rava sheltered themselves from a downpour in a synagogue during a Torah discussion so that they could better concentrate on the matter at hand without distraction. As Rashi (1040-1105) describes, Torah requires complete clarity of mind without the most minor of distractions.
Interestingly, whilst the Talmud cautions against diversions, the Talmud itself is replete with seemingly haphazard deviations from the matter at hand. Any page of Talmud often reveals a host of curious distractions from the broader topic under discussion. Even the short talmudic piece (Shabbat 3b) cautioning students from distracting teachers with impromptu Torah questions is itself a diversion from the Talmud’s immediate subject of concern.
The importance of such talmudic tangents are highlighted by Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg in one of his drashot (Lifrakim, Halachah veAgaddatah). R. Weinberg believed there to be two distinct currents within Jewish thought, one represented by halakhah and the other by aggadah. Each strand represents a unique way of experiencing life. The halakhic model is associated with clarity, consistency, reason and, above all, order. The cool legal logic of halakhah reflects “the beauty of order which maintains and matures the old.”
R. Weinberg then highlights a second current within Jewish thought which acts as a foil to the halakhic strand, the non-legal world of aggadah. Weinberg writes:
“There are passionate souls who crave the exceptions to the rule, the abnormal, they desire not the trodden and fixed paths… they yearn to conquer and reveal the new. These individuals are not satisfied with the present, with the regular and the clear, their souls crave for the new and for birth, they pine for the future… These individuals look to the Aggadah which collects and concentrates these rays of light.”
R. Weinberg believed that both these modes of thought are vital components of life. Law becomes dry and rigid without the unpredictable and creative spurts of aggadah. Similarly, aggadah on its own is too frenetic and haphazard to sustain a systematic body of laws to govern society. For a fully balanced life, Weinberg prescribes a healthy melange of order and chaos, halakhah and aggadah.
Seen in this light, distractions might not always be that bad. The Talmud embraces these tangents which often unveil features and emotions inaccessible to pure legal reasoning. The chaotic and random aspects of our lives are ignored if we focus solely on the regimented and legal air surrounding halakhah. Such sporadic tangents bring new and perhaps unexpected insights into otherwise dry topics. They connect previously unrelated areas of thought and action. Opening ourselves to these distractions allows one to see beauty amidst the chaos.
The difference, then, between the distractions sanctioned and proscribed by the Talmud, is thus a question of how instances of distraction integrate with our lives. Diversions are to be avoided if they remain forever disconnected from our existence and present an escape from life. If, however, the meandering and distracted moments of our chaotic minds inform our regimented thoughts and remind us of the turbulent parts of our existence, they are to be embraced.
To avoid the harm inflicted by modern society’s environment of manifold innovative diversions, some advocate for the elimination of distraction from our daily lives. In Matthew Crawford’s recent book, The World Beyond Your Head, one finds a recipe to avoid distraction and a programme to refocus our minds on chores demanding concentration. But, perhaps the problem is not distraction itself, but the way we are distracted today. Perhaps we simply don’t value distraction enough. The onset of social media and the proliferation of YouTube playlists have provided an abundance of ways to occupy every moment of spare time. As Kracauer lamented, our distractions have become predictable, repetitive and, above all, dull. In short, we need to reclaim our distractions and allow our unfocussed and uncensored selves to illuminate our lives. Just as the Talmud invited aggadah into the realm of halakhah, perhaps we too should summon real distraction into our regimented world.
Preparing a eulogy for Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zecher tzaddik livracha, is an incredibly daunting and almost impossible task. Rav Lichtenstein himself was a master eulogiser, he deeply valued the ability to fully capture the unique qualities of the departed and himself was exceptionally gifted at rendering the true inner beauty of a complex character. For Rav Lichtenstein, eulogies were to depict the entirety of the lost persona, to remember and honour the splendour of the individual and their distinctive contribution to the world. In his own eulogy written for Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Lichtenstein lamented the popular tendency to settle for broad, impersonal and hyperbolic exaggerations, quoting extensively from gemaras and Torah sources whilst saying little about the individuality and personality of the soul extinguished in this world.
Rav Aharon was someone who transcended all my expectations of what it meant to be a rabbi, who excelled in so many diverse fields, whose knowledge of Torah was unsurpassed in depth, clarity and rigour, whose humility could make one tear up, whose kindness and sensitivity knew no bounds, and whose religious devotion and yirat shamayim stood as a beacon of inspiration for all who knew him. Words cannot adequately encapsulate the true greatness he embodied and the dark harrowing void that has been created in his absence.
I feel obligated to preface this hesped with the caveat that this perspective of Rav Lichtenstein is a collection of experiences and perceptions of a single talmid who had the great fortune, the incalculable privilege, of learning in Rav Aharon and Rav Amital’s yeshivah almost ten years ago. Many others undeniably understand the depth and breadth of his thought much better than I could hope and knew him on a much more personal level than I ever did. And yet, I count myself blessed to have had the opportunity of spending a number of my most formative years learning in Rav Aharon’s beit midrash and exposed to his personality. Rav Aharon changed my life in perhaps the most profound ways possible; he opened me to a Judaism that demanded the very greatest devotion, he inculcated within me a responsibility towards the world around me, he presented a Judaism of the most profound depth, he showed me that Judaism spoke to the problems of the present and ultimately he embodied my own connection, my link in the mesorah, between Moshe Rabbeinu, the great sages of the Jewish tradition, and the present. Rav Aharon meant the world to me, and I can only hope to express a fraction of his persona and his impact upon me.
One of the things I personally remember most vividly about Rav Lichenstein was his special dedication to his students and his approach to education. I remember seeking for Rav Aharon’s counsel on a number of occasions. Charged and impatient, I approached Rav Aharon hoping for a clear answer to resolve the quandaries puzzling a yeshivah student in his late teens. After posing my questions, Rav Aharon would invariably reformulate my query much more profoundly and sharply than I had originally intended. Then, rather than offering a simple answer, Rav Aharon would subsequently proceed to present a wide range of possible solutions, allowing the manifold voices of the Jewish tradition to bear upon the dilemma at hand. Rav Aharon was ardent in his commitment to truth, he added qualification upon qualification in his responses and refused to deny the multifaceted nature of any problem. Rav Aharon was almost constitutionally incapable of representing only one side of any story, argument or idea. Rav Aharon believed that authentic education did not mask truths from students by presenting simple one-sided solutions. Whilst eminently frustrating for us in yeshivah, Rav Aharon encouraged his talmidim to fully confront the complexity of life’s situations, to empower through knowledge rather than superficially satisfy with half-truths.
Not only would talmidim walk away feeling more confused than before, learning of more considerations than they ever knew existed, but they would also leave somewhat disappointed that Rav Aharon had failed to provide a clear decision. Rav Aharon not only wanted us to appreciate all sides of a problem, but also almost always refused to make decisions on our behalf. Rav Aharon believed in us, he wanted us to take responsibility for our own actions. Whilst frustrating for teenagers seeking clear answers and immediate guidance, in his wisdom Rav Aharon realised that cultivating independent, mature and responsible talmidim was the educational priority.
Rav Aharon’s dedication to his students was reflected in his shiur style too. Rav Aharon’s shiur yomi was never merely a lecture where students passively jotted down the rav’s insights. Rav Aharon’s shiurim were always an interaction, a dialogue between rav and talmid, structured to unpack the depth of the sugiya together, to teach students how to learn and think for themselves rather than merely experiencing a final product.
Rav Aharon always made time for his students and never made anyone feel as though they were keeping him from something else more important, even though we knew we really were. Whenever you spent time with Rav Aharon, he made sure to understand your challenges properly and would treat your question with the utmost respect. Towards the end of my time at Gush, I had a meeting with Rav Lichtenstein to discuss my time at yeshivah and my goals for university. I mentioned to Rav Aharon that I was going to study history in London. In his characteristically pensive tone, Rav Aharon insisted that I read Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian. Rav Lichtenstein felt that Carlyle, through his writings, powerfully illustrated the potential of man to change the world around him, to generate new ideas and to influence society. At the time, what impressed me was Rav Lichtenstein’s knowledge of wider literature. Yet, upon reflection, what has been perhaps more meaningful to me in the long term was Rav Aharon’s aspiration to view all one’s endeavours in life as moments of potential spiritual growth. Rav Aharon taught me that my own university studies can contribute to the development of my broader religious personality too. No undertaking, Rav Aharon believed, should be embarked upon thoughtlessly without consideration.
One of the most inspiring facets of Rav Lichtenstein’s personality was his profound sense of responsibility to the Jewish people which ran deep through his veins. In his habitual candour, Rav Aharon saw communal obligations as elementary, as the default and most obvious way to live one’s life. Rav Aharon impressed upon his talmidim the need to dedicate one’s life towards one’s community and the world around, to educate wherever possible and to do whatever one could, and then some more, to help better society at large. One of the most powerful shiurim I remember at Gush was Rav Aharon’s pre-purim sicha on the story of Esther. At climax of the Megila, Mordechai warns Esther that she faced an existential decision. She could focus on her own fate and be forgotten from history, or she could embrace her communal responsibilities and take action for her people. In Esther’s own personal dilemma, Rav Aharon saw the question all of us ought to face in our own lives, do we look out for ourselves and for our own comfort, or do we ultimately choose to devote our lives to others? Rav Aharon embodied the life lived with responsibility towards the Jewish people and impressed upon us the importance of living with selfless dedication to others. That sense of responsibility will remain with his talmidim forever.
Rav Aharon is perhaps best known for his complex thinking, for his unique ability to theoretically dissect any sugiya or area of Jewish thought with the utmost clarity. Rav Aharon housed a breadth of Torah knowledge and an incisiveness of intellect which I have never witnessed before. Yet, this supreme capacity for complex nuanced and ultimately calm thinking was coupled with a deep inner religious thirst and a core energetic passion for Torah and life as a whole. What perhaps left a greater mark upon me than his commanding intellect, was this powerful inner energy which was tangible in all he did. I distinctively remember Rav Aharon pacing the halls of the yeshivah on his way to give a shiur holding more sefarim than seemed physically possible to bear. Rav Aharon had an unmatched stamina that was fuelled by this deep wellspring of intense energy. This vitality was palpable when he stood throughout yom kippur while others could think only of their stomachs and when he spoke for hours on end without signs of the faintest fatigue. For those who had the privilege of davening in Gush for yamim noraim, who can forget the way in which Rav Aharon stood in prayer for an entire day with the intensity of one praying for his very life? My encounter with Rav Aharon taught me that true Yirat Shamayim, fear of heaven, was not to remain an abstract concept, but a lived reality. As Rav Aharon once wrote so eloquently: “Intellectual assent is essential; but, at the personal level, it is generally not the key. In the final analysis, the primary human source of faith is faith itself.”
And yet none of these great feats stopped Rav Aharon from being the most humble and indeed human person I have ever encountered. Rav Lichtenstein possessed an authentic egolessness. This genuine humility, without a trace of pride, was coupled and fuelled by his respect for all around him. Rav Aharon would queue up and wash his dishes after a meal with the rest of the yeshivah like any normal person without a second thought. I was so touched to see the working staff of the yeshiva lined up and in tears when Rav Aharon’s levaya passed them. Rav Aharon treated everyone he encountered with the utmost respect and dignity.
During my second year in Gush, the English students had a private session with Rav Aharon where he shared some personal reflections on family life and his role as both Rosh Yeshivah and father. Rav Aharon made it clear that his duties to his family were never sacrificed by his communal position. Rav Aharon spoke fondly of how he went cycling with his children, learnt with them individually and helped with their homework like any other normal dutiful father should. For Rav Lichtenstein, the pursuit of Torah went hand in hand with the cultivation of one’s moral and human personality.
Rav Aharon loved poetry, which for him helped express the deepest of human emotions. I will forever remember the day Rav Aharon posted a poem by Robert Frost upon the wall of the beit midrash after expressing shock that one of his talmidim was unaware of its existence. The poem finishes with the following lines: “The woods are lovely dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Analysing these lines in a sicha later that day, Rav Aharon said: “creativity is endless and life is short. Nevertheless, the narrator longs to remain in the snow, by the woods. But he has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps- and this sleep, is, of course, death.” Like the narrator of the poem, Rav Aharon felt the deep sense of responsibility, “the promises he had to keep”, which he kept with utmost devotion until his final days.
Before finishing, I would like to share a piece of Rav Aharon’s teachings on this week’s parashah, Acharei-mot, recently published by Rav Bazak. The parashah details the extensive avodah of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. The avodah on Yom Kippur was particularly meaningful to Rav Aharon, who would legendarily teach these halachot of the avodah on Yom Kippur evening until the last talmid left the beis, no matter how late that was.
In this parashah, the Torah introduces these manifold laws of the Kohen Gadol’s duties for this auspicious day by referencing the death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Why, however, does the torah place these two distinct ideas in close proximity? What is the connection between the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the Kohen Gadol’s obligations on Yom Kippur? Rav Aharon raised two solutions to this problem. One, that Nadav and Avihu’s actions were problematic because they pursued their own religious hunger without considering the wider community. They pursued a personal vision without thought of the collective. The avodah of the Kohen Gadol, by contrast, provides the message that the ultimate and ideal religious act in Judaism is one which takes place on the communal level, with the active participation of the entire congregation. The parashiyot of the Yom Kippur sacrifices are thus a corrective to the sin of Aharon’s sons.
Rav Aharon also provided a second answer, stating that the danger underlying Aharon’s son’s actions was that unbridled personal religious passion can lead to the breaching of barriers and the loss of fear of heaven, the reality that a huge expanse separates the human from the divine. Therefore, to correct this sin of Nadav and Avihu, the Kohen Gadol was commanded a series of extensive halachot to highlight and inculcate the correct balance between love and fear of God. Passion is vital, but cannot go unchecked. These two answers are perhaps most aptly spoken of Rav Aharon himself, who lived his life in complete service of the klal, the community, and did so with a deep love for, and staunch obedience to, the halakhic system.
In a world increasingly sceptical of religion’s value and where true yirat shamayim is ever harder to find, the loss of Rav Aharon is tragically deep and profound. That all these diverse and unique qualities were housed seamlessly within one person is still hard to fully comprehend and makes his loss even more painful. However, when I once asked him how best to respond to catastrophe, Rav Aharon was always resolute. One ought to deeply mourn the loss and appreciate the magnitude of the hurt. Yet, that loss should always impel one to critical self-analysis and ultimately inspire the achievement of greater heights. Rav Aharon lived tirelessly by that axiom every day of his life. May his memory propel and stimulate us to do better, to push ourselves further and may his legacy forever provide the guiding light that awakens the very best within ourselves.
תהא נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים
(Transcript of a hesped I gave in London at an evening of Hespedim for Rav Aharon ZT”L)
Many of the challenges confronting the Jewish world today first took root at the dawn of the 20th Century. The reflections of those who first sensed these impending trials are thus not only of interest to the historian, but also to those seeking to shed light on contemporary goings-on in Jewish life. One thinker acutely aware of these novel perils was the Polish born rabbi, Jehiel Jacob Weinberg (1884-1966). Weinberg believed that modern Jewry suffered from a deep estrangement from halakhah. Many might still be observing the strictures of the halakhic system, yet modernity had somehow quashed man’s inner spiritual drive, what Weinberg termed ‘religiosity’. This disconnect between modern man’s inner passions and his outward religious life was seen as the fundamental problem confronting Judaism in the 20th Century. To rectify this problem, Weinberg encouraged a return to the inner experience of halakhah, to the personal world of faith. A return to the self through psychology, rather than philosophy or metaphysics, would ultimately rekindle modern man’s muted sacred passion. Weinberg’s diagnosis would have very real practical implications for Jewish education policy today.
Weinberg is perhaps most well known for his extensive contribution to halakhah in the modern world. Weinberg’s collection of responsa, compiled into a multi volume series called Seridei Eish, present a compendium of eclectic essays tackling a wide array of halakhic issues in the modern world. These responsa combined fastidious Torah scholarship with an almost unparalleled sensitivity to communal needs, human dignity and broader ethical extra-legal concerns. Weinberg’s originality as a halakhic thinker alone suffices to place him among the pantheon of ‘great rabbinic thinkers’. However, Weinberg also penned a number of essays on Jewish philosophy and the state of Judaism in the 20th Century that have gone almost unnoticed in the province of Jewish thought. These writings add an original and much needed voice to Jewish philosophy, a dimension particularly pertinent to the challenges Jewish faith faces in the modern world.
One of Weinberg’s few publications dedicated to Jewish philosophy was composed during his tenure as rector of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary founded by Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer. In this 1924 essay, entitled ‘Thoughts on Judaism’, Weinberg sought to shift the focus of Jewish thought from metaphysics and halakhic analysis, the long-established arena of Jewish philosophy, to the inner world of the individual. Weinberg’s proposition gains additional meaning given his lifelong devotion to halakhic analysis and his dedication to its application in modern society. Traditional Jewish philosophy, according to Weinberg, has focused largely upon the key beliefs and principles which form the very heart of Judaism. Thinkers ranging from Maimonides and Saadya Gaon to R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and the Maharal devoted much of their lives to understanding God’s essence, the nature of His interaction with the world and His manifold commandments. Whilst these ideas are indeed central to Jewish thought, Weinberg felt that this excessive concern for metaphysics and correct belief had ignored a fundamental element of Jewish life, our very selves. A return to the dynamics of faith found within the individual was equally vital for the flourishing of Judaism in the modern world.
Weinberg believed deeply that Judaism should exhibit a harmony between our inner lives and outward practice. The life of halakhah, Weinberg argued, should ideally flow out naturally from the wellsprings of our core personality. Religious performance ought to wed the age-old Jewish tradition with one’s own present unique character. This core assumption led Weinberg to the radical conclusion that no person observed a mitzvah in precisely the same fashion as another. Each religious performance was the marriage of an objective halakhic act with one’s own subjective personal feeling. From an outsider’s perspective, halakhah might appear blandly uniform and void of individuality. Yet, upon closer inspection, each religious act bears the unique hue of the individual. Each halakhic act thus acquired a distinctively personal dimension. Weinberg believed that a core part of Jewish practice resided within one’s self. No two people experienced shaking the lulav or donning tefilin in identical fashion. Weinberg’s thoughts are worth citing:
“Every period of Jewish history has enriched the practical fulfillment of our religion with its own spiritual contributions. Every single Jewish community and every single Jewish individual lives the very same mitzvoth in a peculiar way, which reflect his own particular beliefs and his unique mentality… every single generation and every single community was compelled to inject religious practice with a new power, a new spiritual quality and a new life-force.”
Weinberg believed that previous generations of Jewish thinkers had struggled to successfully achieve this personal connection to Judaism. Indeed, Weinberg utilised this theory to explain why specific movements within Jewish history flourished during particular periods. The emotional Hasidic movement of the late 18th Century served the unique “romantic” character of Polish Jewry. The drier intellectual disposition of Lithuanian Jewry, on the other hand, proved more fertile for the flourishing of the somewhat more intense Musar movement during the 19th Century. These distinct movements took part in the same halakhic system and yet experienced that very same life in a distinct manner in tune with their own special sensibilities.
The core dilemma facing Jewry in the twentieth Century, Weinberg argued, was that this utopic harmony between personal religious feeling and overt practice had yet to occur. Judaism’s manifold commandments and rituals were sadly fulfilled almost mechanically, a rote exercise dislocated and alienated from core passions and true selves. In short, the life of the modern Jew had become fragmented. “Judaism and its many commandments”, Weinberg writes, “have never been practised as a dry, cold, heartless religion. There was always a fresh strong impulse for Judaism which arose from the depths of one’s heart and generated renewed energies within…. In our days this personal religious impulse has been lost.”
Weinberg was not the only modern figure to encourage authentic inner experience of Judaism. R. Simchah Bunim of Przysucha (1765-1827), the early Hasidic master, and R. Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), who incidentally studied under Weinberg in Berlin, also promoted a Judaism which blended personal feeling with objective halakhic observance. Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) also argued that Judaism’s emphasis on command, Mitzvhah, rather than law, reflected Judaism’s vision of halakhah as a personal encounter with God rather than pure lifeless fulfillment of regulations. In the modern world, Rosenzweig believed, halakhah “must again become commandment.”
Yet, Weinberg appears unique in his scathing criticism of a modern Jewry which failed to ignite man’s inner passion for religion. Weinberg felt that society succumbed to two extreme tendencies, either quashing the inner life of the individual under the hefty yoke of formal halakhah or completely moulding halakhah to the fit the subjective will of the individual. The ideal, Weinberg believed, was to unite respect for this ancient tradition with an authentic youthful and creative vigour. The old and the new ought to merge elegantly in our practice of halakhah.
For Weinberg, this notion had a very real practical application for contemporary Jewish education policy. Weinberg believed that Jewish education had focused too exclusively on pure halakhic legal analysis. The vigorous and youthful world of Aggadah had sadly been ignored by the majority of yeshivot and schools. For Weinberg, Aggadah promoted a religious life of passion and intuition. The world of Aggadah thus provided the ideal compliment to the legal and intellectual world of halakhah. In short, the Jewish education system ought to do more to cultivate and embrace the personal and emotional religious inner lives of its students.
Weinberg felt that no other issue accosting Judaism could be tackled without first solving this key dilemma. Weinberg charged all individuals with the task of finding one’s own personal voice within this rich transcendent tradition. The critical challenge facing Jewish leaders and thinkers was thus to rekindle this connection and forge a profound dialogue between this tradition and our selves once again. Only once this feat was accomplished would Judaism regain its inner beauty and potency.
Sincerity and truthfulness are cherished dearly by the Jewish tradition. As we use it today, sincerity refers to the harmony between our inner thoughts and open expressions, between avowal and actual feeling. The Talmud viewed sincerity with the utmost esteem. It encourages readers to reveal our true selves and discard the many masks we habitually wear. The Talmud states that any Talmid Chacham [scholar] whose outer self does not match his inner self is in truth no sage at all (Yoma 82b). Raban Gamliel ejected all students from his academy who could not live up to this ideal of complete transparency and integrity (Berachot 27b). Seemingly, the talmudic ideal is a life embodying integrity, demanding the complete alignment between the our inner world and outward appearance. After all, truth is considered nothing less than divine, the “seal of God” (Shabbat 55a).
Lamenting the loss of sincerity in modern times, Jean-Jacques Rousseau attacked the culture of ‘politeness and formality’ which filled the court society of his day. Rousseau passionately felt that cultures governed by strict rules of etiquette created an environment of artificiality. He believed that they trap people into formal moulds of propriety and provide a convenient mask for one’s inner thoughts. Rousseau wistfully pined for more sincere company: “How sweet it would be to live among us if the outward countenance were always the image of the heart’s dispositions!” (Discourses, p. 7). George Simmel (1858-1918) felt that the modern world was growing ever more complex and chaotic, leaving individuals increasingly insecure. During such uncertain changing times, the need for trust and sincerity becomes especially vital (Secret and Secret Society, p. 315).
Whilst sincerity occupies a rather positive position in Jewish thought, its precise nature is complicated by the narratives in the book of Bereishit. At the outset of parashat Toldot, Jacob is labelled an Ish Tam, a simple, naïve or wholesome man. Elaborating on this somewhat mysterious description, Rashi writes that whatever appeared in Jacob’s heart would reach his lips, he was “someone unacquainted with deception.” Jacob seems to meet the image of the ideal man of sincerity, unschooled in the art of deception and foreign to the cunning of disguise.
And yet, soon after learning of his naiveté, the Torah describes Jacob engaging in a most elaborate act of deception. Encouraged by his mother, Jacob disguises himself in goatskin to receive a blessing from his blind father, a blessing seemingly intended for his somewhat hairier elder brother. This simple sincere man unable to distort his inner feelings suddenly, and unexpectedly, commits an act of outright fraud. Even Isaac realised the rift between the inner and outer world of the man before him: “the hands are the hands of Esav yet the voice is that of Jacob!” (Bereishit, 27:22).
Many commentators throughout the ages have struggled with these verses and sought to explain why Jacob thought it was acceptable to masquerade. Reluctant to outright accuse a forefather of deception, many commentators, Rashi included, resolve this tension by diminishing the severity of Jacob’s mendacity. However, other thinkers, including Rabbis Abraham Ibn Ezra and Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, acknowledged the grave deception perpetrated by Jacob. Indeed, the numerous times Jacob is deceived later on in life, first by his father-in-law and then his sons, is described as a “measure for measure” punishment for this act.
Another fascinating thinker who followed this second path was Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905), leader of the Ger Hasidic dynasty and conveniently known as the Sefat Emet [The Language of Truth]. The Sefat Emet argued that Isaac had two sets of blessings prepared for his children; one for Esav which reflected his earthy physical existence and another for Jacob which was to propel his spiritual quest to continue the legacy of Abraham. Esav, however, was not yet ripe for his blessing. Jacob was called upon to take on Esav’s mission until he proved himself ready.
Important for this discussion is the Sefat Emet’s description of Jacob’s deception. For the Sefat Emat, impersonation, pursued constructively, represents a desire to expand oneself, to stretch one’s character beyond its previous limits, to learn new roles (Sefat Emet, 5647). In order for Jacob to adopt this new identity, he needed to go beyond himself, to create a false exterior, in a sense, to lie. The Sefat Emet felt that “in this world, deception is necessary to attain the blessing of this world” (Sefat Emet, 5637). The Sefat Emet saw a positive place in this world for mendacity, which allowed Jacob, in a very real sense, “to become Esav.”
The Sefat Emet felt that sometimes masks need to be worn and sincerity momentarily sacrificed to achieve genuine change. Masks serve not only to conceal, but also to stimulate tremendous growth. Forging a false exterior reflects a refusal to accept the world as it is, indeed ourselves as we currently are, and allows us to pursue a radically different reality. In his famous work on the use of language, After Babel, George Steiner similarly argued that if we only ever acted with complete sincerity, conveying frank truths day and night, “we would turn forever on the treadmill of the present. Ours is the ability, the need, to gainsay, or ‘un-say’ the world” (p. 228). Sometimes we need to act first, at times against our ‘true’ inner selves, to awaken dormant aspects of our identity.
If sincerity can indeed be ignored, how are we to treat the talmudic statement cited above demanding complete transparency from our role models? Interestingly, this concept of sincerity appears a second time in the Talmud, with a remarkably distinct flavour. The Talmud relates an interesting account of the deposition of Raban Gamliel, then leader of the Sanhedrin, by his fellow rabbinic colleagues. The Talmud details the changes the new leadership adopted: “On that day the doorkeeper was removed and permission was given to the disciples to enter. For Rabban Gamaliel had issued a proclamation saying that no disciple whose character does not correspond to his exterior may enter the Beth ha-Midrash. On that day many stools were added… Some say 700” (Berachot 28a).
Ultimately, the rabbis departed from Raban Gamliel’s purist approach demanding complete and constant connection between thoughts and actions. They realised that a world without any masks was unrealistic and even undesirable. As the story of Jacob reveals, sometimes a masquerade is necessary to stimulate meaningful change. As the saying goes, sometimes we need to fake it till we make it. Sincerity and truthfulness are still most definitely the core foundation of our interaction with the world around us. Yet, an occasional constructive impersonation is necessary to awaken dormant strengths we never knew existed.
How far can words go to communicate our innermost thoughts and feelings? Can everything find expression in speech? We use language to make our inner worlds accessible to others, allowing those willing to listen a glimpse into our otherwise mysterious and opaque selves. Our ability to communicate affords the opportunity to forge a space of shared understanding and knowledge. And yet, at a certain point, speech and language hit a barrier after which only silence is possible. We cannot escape the unspeakable elements of our lives which evade expression within our vocabulary. As Walter Benjamin once wrote: “Every conversation strives towards silence.” Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.
The notion that silence plays a critical role in our lives was emphasised repeatedly by the rabbis of the Talmud who were particularly careful to praise those who limited their speech and were capable of silence. Rav Dimi stated that “speech is worth one selah whilst silence [shtikuta] is worth two” (Megila, 18a). Similarly, Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel stated: “I spent all my days growing up among wise sages and found nothing better for the body than silence” (Pirkei Avot, 1:17). Taking this idea to heart, Maimonides cautions against idle chit-chat and superfluous speech. All things considered, Maimonides writes: “A person should always accustom himself to keeping silent (lit., ‘should increase his silence’). He should speak only of matters of wisdom or matters pertaining to his living needs” (MT, Deot, 2). Good oratory skills and a gift of the gab may be considered the hallmarks of a successful leader in today’s age. Yet, to these ancient and medieval rabbis, knowing when not to speak was more important than verbosity; “silence is a fence for wisdom” (Pirkei Avot, 3).
In parashat Vayera, this week’s parasha [weekly Torah portion] as it so happens, we witness a drastic change in Abraham’s use of speech. Abraham’s loquacious negotiation with God over Sedom abruptly turns into deafening silence at the akedah [the binding of Isaac]. At the outset of the parasha, learning of God’s impending destruction of Sedom, Abraham challenges God’s decision and pleads for mercy on Sedom’s behalf. Abraham refuses to remain quiet and engages God in a wordy negotiation to halt the annihilation. Abraham only turns quiet once it becomes abundantly clear that no mitigating factors exist and that the path of rescue is firmly closed. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba, 49) highlights the magnitude of Abraham’s speech by explaining that God could not execute His damning judgement upon the people of Sedom until Abraham stopped speaking. Abraham thus illustrates the truly divine power of speech. Language awakens the divinity within man to the point where he can negotiate with God and even change the fate of the universe through the simple utterance of words. Human civilization has achieved so much through its ability to communicate ideas.
And yet, only a few verses later, Abraham suddenly falls silent. God reveals His Will to Abraham once again, this time commanding the proud father to sacrifice his own son. Rather than voicing his legitimate concerns, questioning this command or even uttering a single syllable in protest, Abraham obediently and silently acquiesces to God’s call. The Midrash (Tanchuma, 39) explains that Abraham had a plethora of valid reasons to question God’s judgement and yet nevertheless made himself silent, “like a mute.” The mighty figure who delayed God’s Will through the act of speech now seems bereft of all language. According to Erich Auerbach, the literary critic, the brief and fleeting conversation between Abraham and Isaac about the ram only interrupts the “heavy silence” which purveys the entire akedah scene. The silence surrounding the akedah is further highlighted by Rashi, who points out that Abraham only returns to speech once the whole ordeal is over: “Let me spread out my speech before you.”
Many philosophers have criticised Abraham for this notable absence of speech. In his Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant argued that Abraham should have replied forcefully to this Divine voice: “That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain!” Kant would have had Abraham contest God’s command and, failing that, reject it outright. For Kant, Abraham’s silence during the akedah is a damning false piety and thus worthy of condemnation.
However, Jewish thought opts for a different tact, viewing Abraham’s act of silence during the akedah as worthy of the highest praise. Indeed, the akedah is publicly read during the holiest moments of the Jewish calendar and is repeatedly recalled in liturgy to serve as an example of true faith.
Abraham’s silence illustrates that moments of profound meaning cannot always be adequately met with the right words. At times, a powerful silence conveys more than any speech can express. Abraham’s silence is no mere empty muteness indicating an absence of feeling, emotion or thought. Rather, Abraham’s quiet during the akedah is replete with meaning, indicative of the deep conflict any parent would have felt. Abraham could find no words to respond to the uniqueness of such a singularly personal event of epic dimensions. A moment fraught with profound questions of morality and indeed the very future of his very own family. And yet, Abraham’s silence also betrays a sense of deep inner understanding in the face of the Divine, a deep-seated understanding transcending all expression and beyond verbal communication.
To my mind, a comment by Franz Rosenzweig, the German-Jewish philosopher of the early twentieth Century, helps drive this point home. As I learned from the PhD research of Ynon Wygoda, silence plays an important role within Rosenzweig’s ouevre. Rosenzweig believed that meaningful silence is to be found in many of our relationships in life; both with the Divine and our contemporaries: “First one cannot speak to another; next one can do so; and finally one no longer finds it necessary to do so. One understands the other even without words.” Rosenzweig continues: “There is a silence that no longer needs words. It is the silence of perfect understanding.” For Rosenzweig, our most intimate moments in life often take place under the cover of silence.
Rosenzweig believed that man constantly oscillates between speech and silence. A relationship built on true understanding reaches a point where words become superfluous and communication continues into the realm of silence, through what is conveyed in the unspoken, our silent gestures. As Rosenzweig articulates so powerfully: “Light does not talk, it shines.” Abraham shows us both the power and limitations of our language and speech. The mere utterance of words has achieved so much in this world. And yet, Abraham’s behaviour during the akedah teaches us that our most profound experiences in life, be they religious or personal, require a healthy dose of silence too. Silence does indeed speak volumes.
In today’s age, we tend to instinctively recoil from fear. Perhaps the rise of science and the advance of technology has convinced us that we can master our fate and rid ourselves of situations which expose our weaknesses. Voltaire, the 18th Century French philosopher, confidently declared that modern civlization had finally conquered the terror of the daunting universe: “when I look at Paris and London I see no reason to fall into this despair… I see a place where men are as happy as human nature allows.” It remains unclear whether the Paris and London of today would still inspire Voltaire with such quixotic optimism. Nevertheless, Voltaire thought that modern society had finally vanquished the mystery and fear that gripped past societies.
Where science has not granted mastery over life, society has seemingly grown evermore uncomfortable with uncertainty and anxiety. When confronted with today’s genuine dangers, be it the threat of violent extremism or the silent spread of disease, the fear we do experience is compounded tenfold. In many ways, we are unable to live with fear. A comment made by Montaigne almost five centuries ago still rings true today; “The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear, that passion alone” (Essays, Vol. 1).
Jewish thought, however, seems to place fear at the very heart of its worldview. Not only is it something not to be avoided at all costs, but something to be actively pursued. Rabbinic thought in the Talmud is replete with statements underscoring the many virtues of fear, particularly that of yirat shamayim, fear of heaven.
First and foremost, fear is a trait which God Himself cherishes: “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai stated: God has nothing [of man’s deeds] in His treasury except a store of the fear of heaven” (Berachot 33b). Fear is also seen as the keystone of knowledge: “Where there is no fear, there is no wisdom” (Avot, ch. 3). Torah scholars who lack fear of heaven are “considered to have the inner treasures, but lack the keys to the outer door” (Shabbat 31a). After decrying the futility of all human endeavours and the vanity of man’s efforts to change his world, Kohelet issues one final instruction to mankind: “When all has been considered: Fear God and keep His commandments for this is the whole of man” (Kohelet 12:13). Fear is nothing less than the very essence of man.
Given our innate inclination to escape fear, either by removing the objects of fear or by avoiding frightening encounters, the first question that pops to mind is not necessarily why people don’t fear God much these days, but why would they want to fear God at all? In short, why does fear attain such prominence in Judaism?
Many seem to contrast fear with the experience of love. Love draws people near to one another, removes barriers, spawns intimacy and grants security. Fear, on the other hand, reflects distance, isolation and often breeds insecurity. Translated into the religious realm, moments of love reflect our closeness to God whereas fear represents our incalculable distance from the Divine.
And yet, a strong strand within the Jewish tradition attempts to diminish the supposed distance between love and fear of God. Fear need not necessarily lead to alienation and insecurity. The proper dosage of fear actually encourages closeness and empowers. Love and fear can indeed co-exist as part of the very same complex experience of God.
One figure who sought to bridge the gap between love and fear of God was Rabbi Abraham Eliyah Kaplan (1890-1924). Kaplan was a budding Orthodox rabbi who sought to combine the intensely passionate world of Lithuanian Mussar with the academic and scholarly environment of German Orthodoxy. Kaplan was a remarkably creative and eclectic figure; he composed poetry, began an extensive and novel commentary to the Talmud and wrote numerous philosophical tracts. Kaplan headed the esteemed Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary for four years until his sudden death at the tragic age of just 34. In 1925, Kaplan wrote an essay entitled “In the Footsteps of Fear [Yirah]” where he presents his understanding of fear in the Jewish tradition.
Kaplan argues against those who connect fear with the negative feelings of dread, with those who associate fear with a “bent head, wrinkled brow, glazed eyes, hunched back, trembling left hand, right hand clapping al cheit, knocking thighs, failing knees, stumbling heels.” Fear should never be debilitating. Such associations, Kaplan argues, are “heretical” and disfigure the appropriate experience of fear.
Properly understood, fear offers us the sobering experience of seeing things as they truly are, without charm or illusion. “Fear”, Kaplan writes, “is to see things as they really are… Fear [Yirah] of God’s majesty is in truth the vision [Reiyah] of God’s majesty….Yirah is not pain, not anguish, not bitter anxiety. What does Yirah resemble? The tingle of the concern a father has for his beloved son while he carries him on his shoulders, dances with him, to be careful of him lest he fall… you have here an incomparable joy, incomparable gratification, and pleasurable concern is entwined within them.”
In Kaplan’s worldview, Yirah is the dampening but ultimately rewarding realisation that one is inherently limited, finite and, well, human. To cite another modern rabbinic thinker, Rav Tzadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin; “the very essence of fear is recognition of one’s shortcomings” (Tzidkat Haztadik, 212). Knowledge of one’s flaws allows one to approach life with honesty, sobriety and pragmatism. Unlike dread, which makes us shrink away, those who learn to fear in this positive manner grow ever closer to the feared object. In this work, Kaplan tackles the issue of fear in relation to the Divine, yet he believed it to apply to our wider experiences in life too.
Understood in this sense, love and fear are not as opposed to one another as we might have initially thought. Without Yirah, a sense of perspective, one loses touch with reality and remains less attuned to one’s own weaknesses and human frailties. Confronting our fears admittedly might deprive us of our charmed and fantastical visions of our selves, but, embracing positive fear ultimately grants us a self-awareness that empowers us to experience life in a more genuine fashion. Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1906-1988) compactly summarised this sentiment: “Fear without love, surely there is a deficiency here of love; love without fear, there is nothing here at all” (Letters and Writings, 346).
Laughter has endured a rather hostile reception in the history of philosophy. In his Republic, Plato famously sought to abolish laughter from his ideal state, claiming that laughter was an irrational and unstable human behaviour which negated self-control. Laughter, Plato thought, had no place in a rational society. Plato was either playing a rather elaborate philosophical prank or he would simply faint at the decorum in parliaments today. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the great English political philosopher, was also dismissive of laughter. Hobbes felt that laughter was a product of man’s selfishness and reflected a cowardly desire to ridicule others.
Laughter has also received rather mixed reviews in Jewish thought too. The Talmud (Brachot 31a) states that it is forbidden to fill one’s mouth with laughter in this world. The Talmud also subsequently records the astonishing feat of the amoraic sage, Reish Lakish, who never once filled his mouth with laughter. Seemingly, pure laughter is reserved for a redeemed world where Divine peace prevails.
Yet, in spite of this seeming disapproval of laughter, the Talmud in other places portrays a much more welcoming attitude towards this jolly trait. The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) explains how Raba began his classes with a series of jokes to lighten the spirits of his students. Raba believed that a light-hearted and humorous educational environment was infinitely more productive than a stern joke-free classroom. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Avodah Zara 3b) enigmatically reports that God Himself dedicates a specific hour of each day to laughter and joy. Evidently, laughter has an important role to play in Judaism.
The most significant endorsement of laughter comes from the Torah itself. The very first outburst of laughter recorded in the Torah occurs when Avraham is informed that he and Sarah will yet have a child at their elderly age. Avraham “fell on his face and laughed…” When Sarah overheard the same news a few verses later, she too chuckled to herself: “Sarah laughed within herself [bekirbah] saying, “After I have grown old could I become supple again, and my husband is old!?”
Both Avraham and Sarah react to God’s promise of a child with laughter, yet the response God offered these outbursts differed drastically. After Sarah’s bout of laughter, God accused her of cynically questioning His influence over the world, “God said to Avraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Will I, who am old, indeed bear a child? Is anything beyond the Lord?” God evidently disapproved of Sarah’s laughter. Importantly, God issued no such rejoinder to Avraham. Instead God instructed Avraham to name his son Yitzchak after his jovial outburst, ‘he shall laugh’. Why does Avraham’s laughter receive Divine approval while Sarah’s chuckle is swiftly dismissed?
Onkelos’ translation of the Torah picks up on the fact that Avraham and Sarah laughed in very distinct ways . Onkelos translates Avraham’s laughter as a particularly joyous form of laughter. Sarah’s laugh, on the other hand, is translated simply as “she laughed.” Building on this subtle nuance, Rashi explains that there exist two radically distinct forms of laughter. Laughter can be cynical and doubting, dismissive of the possibility of overcoming obstructions. This laughter mocks the possibility of the extraordinary. Sarah’s laughter doubted that reality could be any different to how it is at this very moment: “After I have withered, shall I again have delicate skin?”
However, laughter can also be noble, lifting one beyond routine expectations and pettiness to envision a radically novel perspective of the world. Avraham laughed at the realisation that his dream would be realised and that his future would indeed be radically different. Humour exists within the dawning revelation that contradictions can be true. Laughter is the ability to appreciate paradox, to realise that periods of great weakness can also give birth to the moments of greatest significance. Avraham’s laughter was filled with hope, with the belief that paradoxes can be miraculously overcome. Sarah’s momentary chuckle simply accepted reality as it was.
At the outset of the twentieth Century, philosophers began examining the positive role laughter plays in society. In 1900, the French philosopher Henri Bergon wrote his Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Bergson felt that we laugh at society’s inconsistencies and paradoxically strange habits. Such laughter allows us to live with and perhaps even correct our quirks. In 1905, Sigmund Freud also published a book dedicated to analysing jokes and their relationship to our consciousness. Freud argued that history’s most successful leaders, Moses in particular, had a sense of humour. This trend affected Jewish thought too. In 1905, Rabbi Pinchas Kohn of the Hildesheimer seminary also published a book entitled Rabbinic Humour: From Ancient to Modern Times. Kohn argued that a good sense of humour and the ability to laugh can be traced to the very first moments of the Jewish tradition.
In very different ways, all these thinkers highlighted the importance of laughter and humour for today’s age. Rabbi Kohn felt that one instance of humour which characterised the Jewish perspective on laughter most clearly could be found in the talmudic tractate of Taanit (22a). The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Beroka, who was strolling in the local market wondering to himself who would merit the world to come. Elijah the prophet suddenly appeared to him and pointed to two jesters who habitually cheered people up when depressed. Furthermore, when they saw people arguing, they would use their humour to make peace between the parties. They, Elijah announced, would merit the world to come.
The Talmud interestingly connects the ability to laugh – a sense of humour and irony – with the development and maintenance of healthy and peaceful relationships, be they personal, professional or otherwise. The ability to laugh allows one to not take oneself and one’s opinions overly seriously and permits the consideration of other perspectives. With the inability to laugh comes an inability to acknowledge the contradictions inherent in every society and relationship. The well-timed joke shows the other party that there may be disagreement, but those differences are not insurmountable and do not necessarily spell the end of all meaningful dialogue. Laughter overcomes separateness and closure. Similarly, Avraham’s laughter took joy in the possibility of the impossible. That is why it is specifically the jesters who merit the world to come. They can inject humour into the most serious of moments and make people appreciate that great difficulties are always pregnant with hope. Perhaps laughter really is the best medicine.