Category Archives: Halakhah

In Praise of Distraction

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Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) was born in Frankfurt and, amongst many things, studied Talmud in a study group with Franz Rosenzweig and Erich Fromm under the famed Rabbi Nobel.
Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) was born in Frankfurt and, amongst many things, studied Talmud in a group with Franz Rosenzweig and Erich Fromm under the famed Rabbi Nobel.

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.


Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg and the Modern Challenges to Faith

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.

Rabbi Jechiel Jacob Weinberg as a young rabbi.

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.