Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Amidah Ia

The first paragraph of the Amidah, or Shmoneh Esreh, is the most important. Chazal tell us that if we don't have proper kavvanah, intent, while saying this paragraph, the rest of the Amidah is ruined for us. At its least, kavvanah means intending the words and knowing their meanings. So I thought I'd share with you what I've been thinking about while reciting the first paragraph of the Shmoneh Esreh lately. Note, your mileage may vary. And I expect that as I continue to grow and learn more about it, my understanding will change, as will yours. Still, this is where I am at this moment in time (age 47, 2010).

Blessed, or (R' Schwab) we join together with:

You - which establishes our relationship to God as an I-Thou, relating to the Other as a person, implying a certain intimacy, relatability, etc. But:

O God, the Tetragrammaton, the unreachable transcendent God. How does that relate to Atah? There is a dialectic tension set up here, only partially synthesized by:

Our God, the aspect of God through which we relate, perhaps the immanent God, as the Kabbalists would say, the Ohr Pnimi, the Internal Light, the Divinity that permeates reality. The two, the Transcendent and Immanent God, are of course One, and our relation to Him is through this dialectic tension.

V'elohei Avoteinu
And God of our Fathers. We don't only relate to Him directly, but because of, and in part mediated by, the experiences of our ancestors, particularly the Three Fathers (and fore mothers? not specified, except in certain heterodox rituals, but surely implied).

Elohei Avraham
Elohei Yitzchak
V'elohei Yaakov
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob. Why repeat Elohei for each? The commentators suggest it's that each acknowledged God as individuals, not just as an inheritance from their father. I would go further, noting that each Father had a different experience of God, yet they all related to the One God.

Avraham discovered God, through an "intellective" process, and inspired by that, spread God's word and goodness to all around him, eventually converting 318 of his soldiers/retainers.

Yitzchak experienced God through being the sacrificial victim, saved at the last minute by that God - so he experienced the fear of God innately, both physical fear of death in a Godly act, and the spiritual "yirah me'ahavah", the fear of God knowing that on Him hangs one's life, and one then loves God who sustains and saves his life (viz. R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev on Vayosha').

Yaakov was the wanderer. Perhaps his essence was to be a "simple man, a dweller in tents", but he was forced by circumstance to wander, spending 22 years with Lavan, and decades more in Egypt at the end of his life, praying to God at each cusp of his life to help him deal with all difficulties. Yaakov's God is perhaps closest to most of us, as we are in exile, and need the aid of the Deus Absconditus, not knowing if we deserve it or even can get it at all.

(continued later)

The Failure of the Contemporary Yeshivot

The contemporary yeshiva structure, with its thousands of young men sitting and learning for years, is a tremendous thing. It has massively increased the number of men learning seriously, and the amount of Torah studied overall. Since Torah is the heart and soul of Judaism, this is all to the good. But what was the goal of such mass learning, unprecedented in Jewish history?

It should be clear by now that R' Dessler's advice, which is the foundation of the modern movement for everyone to sit & learn all day, was empirically wrong. He advised, to replace the gedolim lost in the War, that we throw a thousand into the mill of the yeshiva, in hopes of producing one godol, and if we lose a few along the way, the price is worth it.

The problem is, gedolim are not trained by mass yeshiva learning. That may be how to start out, but the potential of true gedolim is generally recognized at an early age, and they are pulled out of the yeshiva and given private tutelage, to maximize their potential.

We see this today. We have no gedolim like the prewar Gedolim, no real Yiftach in our generation as it were. Not in any school of thought. We have ideologues, we have partisans, we have all kinds of hacks, but no real Gedolim who are looked to by all branches of Orthodoxy.

It sounds like R' Aharon Kotler, in calling Lakewood a "sh'at hadechak", a temporary measure, understood that R' Dessler's advice was meant to be temporary, an experiment, to remedy a one-time loss. But by now, too many interests are entrenched for the Charedim to find a better, more productive way in both Torah and communal life. Also, the desire to avoid army service and its corrupting social influence, for many Chareidim, means that they *have* to take the exemptions for lerners.

It will take massive social changes to undo this system, find a way for more than a few Chareidim to serve in the IDF or National Service, return Chareidim to the workforce (which is what Chasidism was meant to help - the working Jew, the hoi polloi - while learning is a goal, all-day learning is not necessarily for everyone) so that they can support the next generation of Chareidim in better than abject poverty, and recognize true genius and support it to create the next generation of gedolim.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Rambam in Yedid Nefesh

Something occurred to me during Frinite davening. We say, in Yedid Nefesh, az titchazek vetitrapei, then she will be strengthened and healed. So, Healing suggests Doctors, which suggests the Doctor (no, not that Doctor), Rambam, the most famous Jewish doctor before My Son the Doctor. But is it really referencing the prime Rationalist in a Kabbalistic poem?

Well, the words certainly suggest it. Titchazek, suggests the Yad ha Chazakah, the Rambam's primary legal opus, so called in part because the gematria of Yad matches the 14 books of the work. 14, of course, is the Rambam's magic number. Many of his works contain 14s: the aforementioned legal code, 14 chapters in the Work of Logic, 14 categories of commands in the Guide for the Perplexed, etc. The most likely reason for this is that Rambam was born on 14 Nissan, Erev Pesach, much like my wife's chavrusa, who thus never had birthday parties, but I digress.

But we need some stronger proof. So take the other word, Vetit'rapei, And she shall be healed. The gematria of Vetitrapei is 1087. Count it up, you'll see. Now, the Bach's BWV 1087 is a brief set of short pieces, written highly encoded on one sheet of paper, called the Vierzehn Kanon, or 14 Canons, a Canon being a contrapuntal work of less complexity than a Fugue. The canons are based on the theme of the Goldberg Variations - you know, Dum dum dum dum dum da dum dum. So, now we see it all. 14 canons, which is Rambam's magic number, based on a theme with one of the most stereotypical Jewish names, Goldberg, whose Bach-Werke Verseichnis number is the gematria of a medical word, tells us clearly that R' Azikri, the author of the Sefer Chareidim, and the author of the Yedid Nefesh, wanted us to think about the Rambam at that point, perhaps that his mind should be strengthened to the point where he could accept the mystical tradition which was invented a hundred years later.