Alvin Rosenfeld, Shabbat D’var

Home / Alvin Rosenfeld, Shabbat D’var


Alvin Rosenfeld

Rosenfeld Digs Deep – Our Recent Shabbat Study

How do we maintain our Jewishness while at the same time choosing to live in a time and place where boundaries are open to an attractive outside world? This was the essential question addressed by Professor Alvin Rosenfeld during Shabbat and Selichot in September. In three provocative sessions which simultaneously stimulated, annoyed, and engaged us, (and which have kept us talking since), he facilitated us in considering the depth of our practice, our scholarship, and our understanding.

A couple of years ago, Professor Rosenfeld found himself in Antwerp, in the home of an insular ultra-Orthodox family. Because his presence as a modern Jew was less threatening to this family in Europe than it might have been to a similar family in America, he was able to spend time in their home. He was impressed by their seriousness, unadulterated commitment to Judaism, their academic achievement (the children could speak a number of languages), and unquestioned sense of self. In some ways, they epitomized the goal of everybody’s effort at Jewish continuity.

Yet for him, as it would be for us, their Judaism was totally unacceptable.

This experience led to his focusing on the choice he had made, to live in a place where America and Jewishness come together; a place that, he felt, actually was harder to exist in than the insular world of the insular Orthodox family.

For the Orthodox Jew, he said, identity is an all or nothing affair. In a 1917 novel, a character named David Levinsky changes his Orthodox clothing into the style of the day and forgets his religion.

That’s not our situation. Instead, we live in a complex world with Jewish and secular/American forces both competing and complementing each other. We have many “identifiers”, which interact subtly and in ways in which we may not even be aware. What is needed is a conscious, disciplined, and knowledgeable approach.

In America, in particular, Rosenfeld felt, there is a danger of losing depth in our Jewish knowledge and practice.

On the one hand, this can come from an uncomfortable relationship with Jewish identification. He noted, for example, that there is a category among Jews of “too Jewish”, a concept that puzzled him when a museum curator thought that a painting was “too Jewish” to include in an exhibit of Jewish art.

How can something be “too Jewish?” he asked, noting that the stakes of Jewish survival are great. If Italians assimilate, they still have Italy. If Jews assimilate (and assuming contemporary Israeli culture is different from Jewish culture), something will disappear.

On the other hand, in addition to this trepidation about Jewishness, there may be even a greater danger from a comfort with superficiality which he perceives is fostered by a similar tendency in the larger culture. What happens when we see Jewish culture through “American” eyes?

For some the problem is alleviated by simply focusing on those elements common to both cultures. Celebrate where Judaism and Americanism coincide and ignore those areas where they are in conflict. You can even read the Torah with an eye to finding themes which resonate with America and ignore directives for life which lead us to be in conflict with American individualism and personal choice. If we merely applaud the shared American and Jewish goals of education and achievement, charity, and compassion, we end up being confronted with and consumed by the question, “Why be Jewish?”

A lot of times, for example, Jews get involved in American pop culture at what he considered its most vulgar. He particularly noted a winter catalogue from a Jewish bookstore which had an American hearth integrated with a Menorah. In addition to what may or may not be an identification with Christmas imagery, there were pictures of Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh menorahs — a superficial Judaism reacting with a superficial view of American culture.

The net result might well be a further thinning the depth of both cultures. Consider the multiple levels of ramifications of Isadore (Irving) Berlin’s I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas and Easter Parade. What were their effects on Christians? On Jews? And on America’s relating to the values of religion and even the depth of its own story?

Noting that the search for spirituality is popular in both the dominant and Jewish cultures, he felt that some contemporary methods of seeking spirituality were based on surface experience rather than the stronger mental and emotional connection that comes from integrating a powerful spiritual search with historical and cultural knowledge.

He saw this as a particular possibility with some of the Jewish Renewal teachings which can be taken at face-value instead of at their intended, more in-depth practice.

He mentioned feminism as an additional theme in American culture which can be used in an “automatic” fashion, rather than through careful consideration of its lessons and implications.

The irony about the American influence is that there is probably no other country in which a discussion of the relationships of the culture to Jewishness would take place on a Shabbat.

No where else in the world are feminist and spiritual concerns being thought about or interwoven with traditional Jewish ideas. How do we think of ourselves in such a world?

He noted the morning’s parasha which included the phrases “God will open your heart… in order that you may have a choice between living and not living.” What must we do in order to answer how we live life, he asked?

The subtle suggestion was that real “life” comes with searching; examination and building on the knowledge of what has come before.

Turning to prayer, he asked us to examine it with fresh perceptions, without our preconceived ideas of what it is and how to relate to it? What it would be like to see or hear people praying if we were to encounter the behavior for the first time, for example, he asked?

From this fresh perspective, he noted, we might notice that prayer is not like anything else we do. It appears to have no functional aspect. In that respect it is similar to love.

Prayer is, however directive, which implies that a decision has been made as to what and how to pray. The implication is that it would be a more complete and useful experience if we make this decision with background and thought.

Noting the term “avodah” often applied to prayer to represent work or service towards God, Rosenfeld implied that prayer takes work to do well. In fact, he compared it to the learning of a foreign language, noting that the more time we put in the better we get at it.

We develop the ability to pray when we reach the point where we realize we’re subjects of God, he suggested, noting prayerbook language of praise and thanksgiving.

Not too many people have the ability to pray, he feels. He also noted that prayer “works best” when we make the effort to learn the prayers by heart. We need to learn them as if we wrote them, as if we’re doing them for the first time, he suggested, in order to connect with the full force of their potential.

As a technique, he also suggested discovering what the thing is that moves you to pray and finding a Psalm that “speaks” to you for this process.

Using the 121st Psalm as an example, he urged us to examine the words, looking for both conflict and parallelisms to gain a deeper knowledge of what the words might imply.

He used as example two versions, the traditional and a modern feminist rewrite of the 121st psalm (See Box on Page 14).

Discussion was vehement in response to the Psalms. Some felt the feminist version bizarre. Others saw it a different and parallel. Others felt very comfortable with it as a substitute and others were more open to consider it.

To those who objected simply on the basis of tradition, Suzy Greenwald noted, “Tradition is only as old as what your parents told you.” And to those who were consumed by one or the other version, she pointed out that reading the new version focused her on appreciating the old. She related to it as she never had before.

Rosenfeld also discussed readings from Understanding Jewish Prayer by Jakob Petuchowski, particularly a section talking about kavvanah (intention) and keva (rote recitation).

The reading quotes seemingly contradictory conversations between the rabbis, taking for granted the fixed and obligatory character of a particular prayer. At the same time insisting that the worshippers inject their own feelings and expressions.

Petuchowski notes that the existence of books of prayer “underlines the importance of realizing that the balance struck by the early Rabbis between kavvanah and keva, between the respective claims of spontaneity and tradition, was a balance which met the needs of their own times, and of their own times only.

That balance has had to be struck anew time and again in the history of Jewish prayer; for in that history, we can discern the operation of a basic law of liturgical development: One generation’s kavvanah becomes another generation’s keva.

In response to this two-thousand-year-old tension, Rosenfeld notes that what is involved is a dialectic. Thus suggesting that it is in the process of resolving these seeming opposites that the answers occur.

Petuchowski then continues, “…Nothing is easier than to affirm the principle of private prayer, and the superiority of spontaneity over tradition. Nothing, however, is harder than finding the appropriate words for actual communion with God.”

Most of us, said Rosenfeld, are not good enough poets to link us in devotion to God. At the same time, there is an emphasis in Judaism to connect through words.

Christian belief is different; Saul experienced epiphany on the road to Damascus. In Judaism, the way to come closer to God is through language. Judaism doesn’t ask us to believe in God, but to participate in the words, he notes.

There is a complex interplay between one’s own intuitions and one’s capacity to use language and metaphor which has become part of character through previous experience and study.

If we remain too limited in our capacity to express ourselves to ourselves or out loud, despite our desires, our experiences are not satisfactorily rich.

If the majority culture is experienced in a trivial or superficial way, it survives nonetheless.

But if a minority culture loses is distinctiveness in any profound way it is lost. Judaism, which evolved for 2,000 years in minority status, is particularly vulnerable when its ideas, which are subtle to begin with, aren’t understood or appreciated with any depth.

To deal with this quandary, Rosenfeld suggests ongoing, engaged study and mitzvot. Quoting Rabbi Saul Berman, he challenged us to:

· Spend one hour a week learning Torah with another Jew

· Gather together at least one time a week to engage in communal prayer.

· Do at least one good deed a week for someone not a member of our family to help someone who needed help.

There are Jews who have chosen a distinct and easy path. They follow a read on Judaism which is pure and straightforward but ignores the rest of the world.

For Alvin Rosenfeld, and most of us, the path is more complicated and less certain. It involves a weaving and separating of what comes from the Jewish past, and what from the dominant culture in which we are living.

If what we have as Jews is to remain and have value, it must interact, integrate and distinguish itself, with and from American culture, at a sophisticated and not trivial or superficial level.

To do that, we who are on the cutting edge of developing a new American Judaism must do so with knowledge, depth and respect.