Thursday, August 09, 2012

How Jewish are the Olympics?

I don't mean to spoil the party, but I need to say that there is something very cruel about the Olympics. An athlete trains, wins competitions, spends years of discipline, toil and sweat in dedication to their sport, excels in their field, and then is named the leading sportsman of their country. Then the athlete travels to the Olympic games, and comes 8th. No medal, no national anthem. The next day, the newspaper discusses their "failure" and they are interviewed on national radio in a spirit of commiseration and disappointment. Now, let us get this in perspective - this is the most supreme athlete in their country. This person is the 8th fastest/ strongest/ most skilled sportsman in the WORLD. This person lost by a fraction of a second, or by a 1/100th of a point. And they are cruelly discarded into the  garbage dump of history.

Now does this make any sense at all?  Why is this competition so narrow, so inconsiderate? The winner takes all, and the loser? ... what is left for the loser?

All of this gave me pause to consider Rav Soloveitchik's comments in his article, Catharsis (Tradition, 1978)

The mere myth of the hero gave the aesthete endless comfort. At least, the classical aesthete said to himself, there was an individual who dared to do the impossible and to achieve the grandiose. In short, the hero of classical man was the grandiose figure with whom, in order to satisfy his endless vanity, classical man identified himself: hero worship is basically self-worship. The classical idea of heroism, which is aesthetic in its very essence, lacks the element of absurdity and is intrinsically dramatic and theatrica1. The hero is an actor who performs in order to impress an appreciative audience. The crowd cheers, the chronicler records, countless generations afterwards admire, bards and minstrels sing of the hero. The classical heroic gesture represents, as I said before, frightened, disenchanted man, who tries to achieve immortality and permanence by identifying himself with the heroic figure on the stage. It does not represent a way of life. It lasts for a while, vibrant and forceful,  but soon man reverts to the non-heroic mood of everyday living.
This depiction accurately describes the Olympic games. It is about the human with superhuman strength - the figure of the "superhero" - who demonstrates the limits of human achievement and thereby wows us, somehow generating the confidence that we too share some of that greatness, that someone will save the world. It is about the show, the cheering crowds, but what does it have to do with me? Rav Reuven Ziegler explains the Rav in the following way:

"Catharsis" is a Greek term denoting purifying or purging (as when one purges gold of its impurities in a crucible). In his "Poetics," Aristotle defined the function of tragedy as catharsis of the emotions of terror and pity. Man is often troubled; he is full of anxieties which interfere with his social success. When he watches a tragic drama at the theater, he releases these emotions in a controlled and safe environment, emerging from the experience cleansed.
Although the Rav does not directly compare his notion of catharsis with that of Aristotle, the contrast is staggering (and certainly intentional). For the Rav, catharsis is not the passive response of a theatergoer but an active and demanding way of life. It is designed to attain not equanimity but redemption, to produce not an arrogant patrician but a sanctified personality balancing majesty and humility. While Greek tragedy teaches that man is an object acted upon by random forces and suffering an inexorable fate, Judaic catharsis is a means for man, as a subject, to connect himself actively to a higher destiny.
So what does Rav Soloveitchik offer as an alternative to the brute strength of the athlete, the theatrical experience of the "Games"? Rav Soloveitchik proposes that every person can become a hero! They will not be the fastest or strongest; but גבורה as opposed to כח (brute strength) is a quality of the mind, a spirit of endurance. For Rav Soloveitchik, adherence to Halakha that takes place in the privacy of a Jewish home; the commitment and self-control inherent in that system - THAT is heroism. And this is a different type of Catharsis, because it actively purifies our lives, our spiritual selves. It is not a show; it is life itself:
"It often happens that a man takes a wife when he is forty years of age. When... he wishes to associate with her, she says to him, 'I have seen a rose-red speck (of menstrual blood),' he immediately recoils. What made him retreat and keep away from her? Was there an iron fence, did a serpent bite him, did a scorpion sting him? ... Only the words of the Torah which are as soft as a bed of lilies." ( Shir ha Shirim R. to Song 7:3.)
Bride and bridegroom are young, physically strong and passionately in love with each other. Both have patiently waited for this rendezvous to take place. Just one more step and their love would have been fulfilled, a vision realized. Suddenly the bride and groom make a movement of recoiL. He, gallantly, like a chivalrous knight, exhibits paradoxical  heroism. He takes his own defeat. There is no glamor attached to his withdrawal ... The heroic act did not take place in the presence of jubilating crowds; no bards will sing of these two modest, humble young people. It happened in the sheltered privacy of their home, in the stillness of the night.

Of course athletes have enormous self-discipline, and yet, for me, the Olympics fail to relate. Judaism is not measured by who comes 1st, second or third, by the speed of the 100m, or the most exquisite equestrian performance. Rather, it is about the sanctity of the homes that we create, of the small acts of kindness, of the daily self-control, of the struggle with the evil inclination, of the life lived in adherence to a higher calling, of dedication to God, which in turn elevates and purifies man.

Pirkei Avot expresses the irony that the גבור - the athlete or hero - is not the person who exhibits greatest physical  prowess, but rather the inner strength - הכובש את יצרו.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

King David. Two Perspectives (Daf Yomi - Berakhot 3b-4a)

On the Israeli Religious Zionist scene, a storm has raged in recent weeks about the proper way to study Tanakh (Bible). Does one study the text itself, or does one approach Tanakh exclusively through the filter of Hazal (the early Rabbis)? Now this is a highly politicized debate, but at some level it has focused upon the appropriate manner in which to treat Biblical characters, in particular the heroic ones. Should they be viewed as real people, great people, but with human achievements and also failings, or, alternatively, should they be seen as exemplary, almost superhuman role-models, whose sins are not open to assessment on a regular human sale of measurement?

This question is regularly brought to the fore in my Tanakh classroom, when studying Jacob's trickery of his father, or David's sin with Batsheva and Uriah. How should we assess these figures?

Well, in today's Daf Yomi, we see a classic example of one Rabbinic way of viewing King David that seems at variance with the Tanakh text.

Berakhot 3b-4a views David as the most pious of men, who spends his nights studying Torah and praying to God.
R. Ashi says: Till midnight he (King David) studied the Torah, from thence on he recited songs and praises.
He is a posek, a Rabbinic expert who issues Halakhic rulings on laws of Nidda and the like:
Thus spoke David before the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the world, am I not pious? All the kings of the East and the West sit with all their pomp among their company, whereas my hands are soiled with the blood [of menstruation], with the foetus and the placenta, in order to declare a woman clean for her husband
David's advisor Benaayah is the head of the Sanhedrin, and the Kreti and Pleti are the scholars themselves.
I have frequently pondered upon the difference between a Tanakh-based education in the regard, as opposed to a Talmud based education. Let me explain. My children, and the students in the Religious Zionist school system meet David first as a warrior through the pages of Sefer Shemuel. He is the man first described in I Samuel ch. 16 as a man who is:
"... skillful in playing (the harp), a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him."
Our students hear about how he kills the lion and bear, they watch him defeat Goliath and rise up the ranks in the army. They also know him as a principled man who will not kill the king, who wishes to build the Temple,  who understands his place "before God" as he dances in a sense of wild abandon before the Ark, who occasionally sins, but who lives his life with a palpable sense of God in all that he does. They may also know David's religious persona - his humility, passion, repentance, thankfulness, faith, God-awareness - from the Book of Tehillim. But the primary perspective of David is of a man involved in state affairs, a warrior, a deeply religious man, but a worldly person. This is the rpism through which they will view the trials and tribulations, the sins and triumphs that characterized his life.

But for the student who draws a perception of David from Massechet Berachot, David arises every night to sing God's praises, he is a man who debates technical Halakhic minutiae; he is first and foremost a man of prayer, a Talmud scholar. In a similar perception, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 49a) turns Joab's assassination of Avner into a complicated Halakhic debate about the laws of Halitza. David's warriors: Banayahu, Joab, Avner, are in fact, warriors of the Law.

My children see David in army uniform; the children of Meah Shearim see him in a long black coat sitting in the Beit Midrash. The difference is huge.

I am fully aware that at the foundation of this discussion is the genre of Talmudic aggada. Should aggada be understood as metaphor or read literally? When the Rabbis discussed biblical (and even Rabbinic) figures, were they discussing the past, or describing their contemporary reality? 

But I return to the fundamental point. What is my base line? When discussing characters in Tanakh, do I start with the Tanakh or the Talmud?