Wednesday, 13 January 2010

18. Acquiring a Scroll of Law

I was troubled by the recent Yeshiva University panel on homosexuality in Orthodoxy, but only as a symptom of (what seems to me to be) a much larger problem, only as I would be similarly troubled by a panel of the same format discussing Zionism or the Role of Art in Orthodoxy or any other such topic facing religious Judaism today. The venue was important politically, socially, and, I would say, morally. For a Torah-absent world, this was, perhaps, an important panel. But for a world that traces its lineage back to Revelation, this kind of panel concerns me.
When we reflect on the experience at Sinai, we envision a moving, inspirational occurrence. And this may very well be an accurate depiction of what happened there. But the essence of the experience is the transmission of Truth. Can the giving of the Torah be accomplished in a manner that does not make the heart race? Perhaps not. But when we study the giving of the Torah at Sinai, we are particularly attuned to the veracity of the gift, not its believability.
In a Torah World, there is an objective, attainable Truth. Though the modern scientist may be the greatest historical advocate of an atheistic conception of the universe, he is also one of my closest ideological relatives, far closer, in many respects, than the average spiritualist, politician or, truthfully, common theist. Because the scientist responds to reality with the overarching hypothesis that this existence is ours to comprehend systematically. That is, the scientist seeks quantifiable, verifiable, universally communicable answers. The manner in which a scientific discovery is presented will have no bearing on its eventual acceptance (at least among other scientists) as real or false: even the driest, dullest presentation of the roundness of the Earth will not make the world flat.
But political leaders will often rise or fall on the basis of their skills as an orator. So, too, the illusionist, the magician, the psychic, the preacher, or the activist. When I heard that George Clooney had arranged an MTV telethon for Haiti, I thought it was good and necessary. But, I hope, not for Orthodox Jews. What is my halachic role in this world tragedy? The factors that go into answering this question are complex and extensive. But my obligation probably does not hinge on George Clooney’s (or the cast of Twilight’s) ability to rouse my emotions.
This is not to say that my emotional response is irrelevant in halachic decision-making. Certainly the broad scope of viable charities today presents me with choices when fulfilling my tzedakah obligations. On a larger scale, my choice of community, shul and/or rabbi must predate ‘blind’ faith. The role of the individual in Halacha is essential. But personal choices should be propelled by the same fuel that is expected to fuel general halachic analysis: the pursuit of Truth.
While we do not really understand what the pursuit of Truth entails, we can accept that there is no Truth without honesty. To be honest, though, means more than simply expressing facts. It means that all agendas are abandoned for the only agenda that should matter to us, the Truth-driven agenda.
Was there a Truth-driven agenda behind the homosexuality panel? To a certain extent, I believe there was. But it is also obvious that the purpose of the panel was not merely to inform the public of a certain plight in modern Orthodoxy—it was also to increase sympathy and to convince the public that this issue requires more attention. Had the panellists admitted beforehand that they were going to speak about how homosexuality was a minor issue that did not deserve anybody’s attention (which is, obviously, not what they said), would they have been included on the panel?
George Clooney will not ask someone to speak on his telethon who will say that Haiti is not where we should be sending our money right now. Not because such an opinion is evil or unfounded, but because it acts counter to his agenda. I don’t know if this is a problem in a world that does not believe in an accessible, objective Truth. Since I believe that I am working my way towards something outside of myself, though, I do not want to be stirred towards sympathy, neither for Haiti nor for homosexuals (or Zionists or Jewish artists, et cetera), because such tactics distract me from the external and blur my focus.
But I don’t think we should be critical of the people who put together this panel. What else could they do? This is the environment in which they find themselves. Somewhere along the way, the Orthodox world became susceptible to persuasion. And not only susceptible to it but, apparently, endorsing it. I don’t know where it originated or how far back it goes. I know that the ba’al teshuva movement seems like an easy target: how can an NCSY advisor tell a sixteen year-old boy that his personal desire to be religious is significant and then tell him that, now that he is religious, his personal emotional responses should be secondary to his attempt at an objective assessment of reality? If we tell the non-religious person that his/her spiritual/emotional/psychological/philosophical impulse to enter the door into religion should be heeded, how can we tell the religious person that his/her similar impulse to exit that door should be dismissed?
But, most likely, the ba’al teshuva movement is a response to this reality, not the originator of it. On a global plane, the same can be said of the advertising industry: did infomercials create the 3am shopper or did the 3am shopper demand infomercials?
If teenagers are asking for spiritual satisfaction, isn’t it necessary for Judaism to have an answer for them? (Is it better that they look elsewhere?) If Jews are ignoring the tragedy in Haiti, doesn’t somebody (be it George Clooney or the local JCC) need to compel us towards, at least, awareness? If homosexuality is being compared to bestiality in an Orthodox yeshiva, don’t we need to present the depth and weight of the homosexual struggle?
Yes, of course we do.
The problem cannot be seen to be simply that a panel of this nature was held in an Orthodox environment. The much bigger problem is: why did anybody care? You’re telling me that the frum-from-birth Talmud-scholar with homosexual desires deserves a great amount of sympathy? This is supposed to be newsworthy?
I do not want George Clooney to tell me what to feel. I want to be presented with the facts and I would like to be able to trust myself to respond with emotional sincerity. Unfortunately, when I invite persuasion, I weaken my ability to accurately accomplish this task. Try, for example, watching a sad movie on mute (with subtitles)—without the soundtrack, you are less likely to cry. I think it was Woody Allen who said that with the invention of the laugh-track, television writers didn’t have to be funny anymore.
If we believe that a Torah World inherently includes accessible Truth, then we cannot accept an agenda driven by anything other than Truth. That means we have to fight against our subservience to persuasion. But before we can do that, we need to reintegrate the cerebral and the empathetic. It is not acceptable that a yeshiva student lacks the inherent ability to empathise with his homosexual chavruta. This sensitivity should emerge concurrently with the Halachic investigation. Until this happens, the Halachic world will continue to ask for emotional psak—“Rabbi, how should I feel about the homosexual?”—and will continue to be susceptible to emotional persuasion. We will move further and further from Truth as we lose our ability to be honest, and, though we will provide assistance to Haiti and spiritually curious Jews will gravitate towards Orthodoxy and, yes, the homosexual will be treated better by the halachic world, what will any of it have to do with Torah?


Anonymous said...

I've read almost everything that's been written about the panel since the event itself and, without a doubt, this is by far one of the most poignant and crucial pieces I've seen. And, when the issue has died down and people have settled into a quiet disapproval or empathy (depending upon which emotion their rabbi demands of them) - I hope that this is still being read and discussed. We have to stop letting ourselves be in awe of the salesman and remember the awe of Sinai - it was Gd's voice - with its words of Truth - that knocked us out, not the floor show.

Binah said...

I am at once elated, intrigued and puzzled by your post. I do agree with the above comment in the hope that the topic you address takes precedence in future discussions, as it is the core of so much faltering within the Torah World.

Maybe it is the word 'panel' that is bothersome. Maybe it should have more rightfully been called a lecture?

I once asked my Rabbi, "Besides where it is explicitly written, when and how does one mitzvah take precedence over another?" He said that's a big part of the struggle ... I think this sentiment can be applied to the persuasion vs. the cerebral debate.

The Truth at Har Sinai was too much for us (fainting, and the like). The pure, pure Truth – God’s voice essentially – was too much for our human composition.

Our composition is a combination of intellect and feeling. And I think persuasion falls into the category of feeling. I think persuasion is there to guide us towards the Truth.

Even Scientists get excited. Generally they follow their instinct when deciding which part of the experiment to pursue/which direction to go. It is an essential part of the discovery.

The idea of following a feeling does break down though - specifically at Homosexuality - which makes your blog post even more interesting...

The question I think (instead of getting rid of persuasion) is, how far does persuasion take us? Where does persuasion meet fact? Do they meet?

What is the place of emotion in the pursuit of Truth?

Can you further clarify what you mean by ‘emotional sincerity’?

Jacob from New Jersey said...

Awesome post!

I have been struggling with my thoughts about the panel since it happened... your post has helped me clarify my response.

Thank you.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

It may be interest to note that it was the presentation of the second luchot that stuck. The presentation of the first luchot, with all its dramatics -- lightning and thunder -- did not stick. It was followed by the Golden Calf and the need for Moshe Rabbeinu to shatter the luchot. It was the second luchot, given quietly, that had lasting effect. There is perhaps an inherent limit to our emotional responses and there is a need to respond continuously to the thought, not the emotions and fireworks.

After saying all this, though, Hashem did first present the luchot with all the fanfare. There must have been a reason for this. Personally, I have always found the recital of mareh Kohain on Yom Kippur to be most inspirational. I wonder about the awesomeness of this event as the Kohain Gadol came out from the Kodesh Hakodesh, bright in his face as he knew the nation received kapparah. It must have been remarkeable. But in having these feelings I also recognize that there is an emotional side to existence and even to the pursuit of truth. We are emotional beings -- but we must be careful how we express our emotions -- and most importantly use our emotions in our pursuit of truth.

Maybe one should donate to Haiti whether one saw George Clooney's telethon or not. Yet maybe also just the intellecual conclusion that one should give is still not enough. Maybe one should should allow his/her emotions to be touched, not because it will change the rational decision which one made or should make, but because there is value in bringing our emotions in line with our thoughts. Maybe there is a value in this continued duality.

I would think that it is obvious that thought should not be overridden by the emotion but maybe the emotion still has value in raising a question that thought alone may have not asked. Maybe this is the place of this panel within the pursuit of truth: not to offer a solution but to further the question. The rational thought of Torah, though, must always supersede and dominate.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Binah said...

Rabbi Hecht,

Thank you very much for clarifying my thoughts and further delving into the topics raised by Chai's blog post 'Acquiring a Scroll of Law'.

This gives me a lot to think about and incorporate into my life.

All the best,