the importance of history
this post has been burgeoning in my bloodstream for awhile, but today i have been moved past the point of reconciliation.
i suspect you'd have to understand the variables independent of each other to feel the weight with which they clash, so if you'll permit me i'll give you the lay of the land first. let's start with my early evening class. taught by a youngish yeshivish rebbe who sometimes manages to stroke his beard and punch his thumb in the air simultaneously, the course chiefly consists of learning specific Torah works by twentieth-century Rabbinic leaders (gdolai ha-dor, in lingo) and then attempting to comprehend (be mechaven? or mechaber? am i right?) their reasoning. it's a decent-sized class of perhaps the most homogenous group of students i have ever seen in an scw course: black-skirted, black-stockinged, black-slippered. sometimes a girl besides myself will wear jeans there, but rarely. there is the standard-issue preppie sweater phenomenon. the teacher himself has an excellent grasp of the english language that he almost never exhibits, preferring to utilize the yiddish terms for everything under the sun that can have one, ranging from the common 'oilem' for world, 'amkus' for depth, 'chashek' for object and so on. he is frequently guilty of the 'translating a term by using the term' rule which i should probably admit tortures me as an english major.
then there is my night course, led for six students by a gaunt and slightly wobbly holocaust survivor with brimming eyes and an enigmatic smile, who communicates to us exclusively in english despite having been born and raised in germany. he employs pretty much the tanach and stories from The Old World, which is mostly synonomous with his childhood and early teaching days. the class here is mixed to the point where each of us six students more or less hail from different continents: there is an israeli, a south american, a french girl, me, etc. the dress code is equally unbalanced. no one wears black except as tribute to minimalism. the teacher slaps the desk with a grave and completely unconscious frequency, to the extent that i can occasionally measure the gravity of his message by how many times he has hit the desk in the last sentence. he gives us a break for dinner, insisting that "hungry talmidot are no kind of talmidot for me"; he will not allow anyone to sit more than a foot away from him; and it is generally a class conducted, on the part of the students, in complete silence, because the man likes to answer his own questions and is kind of hard of hearing anyway.
on the first day of the latter's class, he entered slowly, leaning on his cane, and confronted us all as we rose from our seats.
he shook his head, chiding softly: "for me you don't stand up. it's not good for my ego, to have you all standing up. soon i'm gonna get what, a bloated head, that's what."
he then proceeded to tell us a story about HIS rebbe who never let anyone stand up for him, and when we attempted to do a quick-shuffle rise from our seats the next week, covert-wise, he told us the story again, since we obviously had not heard him correctly the first time.
in the meanwhile, in my young, yeshivish rebbe's class, we were debating the issue of rabanut. or rather not debating, but distilling from the piece he had chosen for us. our introductions to these pieces are short, usually a hitlist of basic facts. as the instructor says:
'this is not a history class. we learn the torah, the actual information. the details of their personal lives is not shayich to us.'
this particular piece was giving me a hard time. it made a number of claims, one of which being that of course you must stand up for a rebbe.
when i related to this teacher the dictum of my night rebbe, he frowned and said, "he has no right to do that. you aren't rising for him. you're rising for his torah. he can't tell you not to respect the torah. the request itself is ego."
i regarded him in dismay. he shrugged and continued the piece.
the piece, over the course of a few weeks, began to grind at my nerves. "you cannot have a personal relationship with your rebbe," it said. to illustrate this principle, the teacher gave us the example of a rebbe and a talmud; the talmud, undergoing a difficult life experience, was studying something with his rebbe when, moved by the talmud's suffering, the rebbe touched his arm in sympathy. the talmud immediately left the beit medrash and found himself a new rebbe, because he realized that the relationship between him and his rebbe was no longer one of pure torah learning but rather a personal relationship which belittles the torah.
clearly this story was meant to be inspiring; and it was inspiring for the girls in my class, who commented excitedly on other stories they had heard which were very similar to the story the teacher had just told, at which the teacher nodded his concurrence, and everyone agreed.
i sat there in disbelief, remembering my night rebbe's parting rejoinder to us students: "I want to be your rebbe for everything, I want to be your rebbe for always, and don't ever be afraid to come to me about anything!"
and besides for that, i thought as i scrolled the remainder of the article, the point contradicted something deep inside of me - some deeply held belief that until now had anchored me, at least in a sense, to the extremely orthodox world in which i was raised. i grew up in a family and a community that prized itself on its complex and complete appreciation of each individual, in a household where my mother spoke with pride about how well the rabbi knew her, how well the rabbi knew her parents, how well she knew the rabbi's children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and how important - how vital for my development as a person - it was for the rabbi to know me.
and i was terrified, too. unlike my mother, i was not one of a handful of children who grew up in my community at the same time; i would say dozens. the rabbi knows who i am and a great deal about my family history, but i am far too removed, by awe and by embarrassment, to go to him frequently of my own initiative to discuss life's challenges, the way my mother does. despite this, on some level my tenous connection to the rabbi has always been a comfort to me. the fact that he knows my parents and my grandparents and therefore by default has some knowledge of me makes me feel as though i have a place and a home in some pocket of the jewish people, something to go back to, in ways the cold automaton described by my early afternoon class could never move me.
but then i would attend the night rebbe's class, us six girls in a dark classroom, picking with as much enthusiasm as we could muster at stern's thursday night dinner while the rebbe gleamed at us from the tops of his bridged fingers. "what your generation is missing," he pronounced one night, "is a little history. you do not know the people who came before you, and there are no such people in existence today. for this you lack. you do not know the story of your own people." he turned to all of us individually, peering down at us with that slight smile. "you have learned books," he continued. "you have learned words. but you don't know the stories! you know nothing of judaism. can it be that you have been so neglected?"
he shrugged. "well, this is the way of it now. but i think - yes, i think for the first part of this semester, better that you should hear the stories and the ideas of the giants who lived in your grandparents' and great-grandparents' days. that way you'll know what it is to be jewish. once you understand that, everything else falls into place."
so the pattern emerged. every afternoon, every night i had class, i swung from one emotional surge to the next. my early afternoon class became ever more unlikeable. everything we learned felt wrong, counter-intuitive, senseless, prejudicial. that laughter and joy are forbidden except on purim? that a rabbi should only teach torah to those who explicitly fish it out of him? that we should take no pleasure in anything from this world, since we're in exile, and the only things we should find pleasurable are otherworldly spiritual matters? i slumped forward in my desk and grappled with an overwhelming sense of frustration. i wanted to leave. i wanted to switch out - but i couldn't, it was too late. i wanted to shout: "but how can you live that way? why would you live that way? what kind of life is that?"
which, to be honest, is not an unfamiliar sensation for me. though the teacher must find this hard to believe by now, i have the most jewish connection to this particular class in the world: guilt. having attended a high school that was only slightly removed from this kind of hashkafic didacticism, i remember clearly rebelling, loathing and steaming through a good two-thirds of my years there - but i also believed that my high school experience shaped much of my core beliefs and helped me to combat some of my baser desires by making them appear that much more abhorrent, a stimulus i rarely receive these days at stern, where everyone walks their own unquestioned path. when i signed up for this afternoon course i thought of it as a balance to the wildly liberationist impulses i come in more frequent contact with here. so i have no one to blame but myself.
side note - there is really nothing for making you want to obliterate a Styrophone cup quite like the knowledge that you have done something to yourself. as proof, please see the cups i have mangled consistently for eight weeks.
but anyway. by the time i leave my afternoon class i am a human crockpot, barely able to keep a polite smile on my face. there's too much of me that is angry and turned off. this is judaism? i think. this can't be. this can't be my religion. this can't be my people. but it is. and i watch as the students earnestly interpret and contort and believe. they do. they accept the proposition that one should lead a life devoid of real happiness and laughter. it's a given.
to counteract this i sometimes write, during this class, everything religion means to me. i guess if nothing else it's served to help me more clearly define my own idea of what judaism is by allowing me to see clearly the edges where it isn't. i write about my shabbos table at home, my friends, my shul. sometimes i do other homework. but it isn't enough, and it isn't the point. i am plagued by fear. these are, after all, legitimate, published rabbis my teacher brings to class, not flunkies that i can discredit. are they right? is it true? do i have to believe this? am i a heretic if i don't?
if that's the case, will i care?
i have just ten minutes between this and my night rebbe's class. usually i am just done seething over the latest conclusion we black-skirters have reached. and invariably, my night rebbe will hang up his cane and his hat, sit himself down, and immediately contradict what i have just learned:
"ivdu Hashem b'simcha," he will say softly. "we are instructed to serve G-d with joy. meaning what? meaning that G-d never intended us to die for judaism. this is not the ideal. rather, G-d intended us to live, to the fullest extent, as jews."
if anyone in the room reads body language, mine must be near 72-point font. in my afternoon class i am slumped back, hands in my pockets, eyes downcast. in this night course i lean all the way forward, keyed in, watching the teacher's face, wanting, although i would never vocalize this in class (we rarely vocalize anything in that class), for the teacher to tell me that everything i have just learned in the last hour is not true, not real judaism, and that real judaism wants me to be a happy and kind person who can strive for comic relief and meaningful relationships and not look down upon every single gentile that i meet. by the time i walk into the night rebbe's classroom i am desperate. i will believe anything he tells me. anything is more believable, more logical, than the kind of world which has just been erected for me.
"emunah," he will say. "what is emunah?"
and we will stare expectantly at him.
"you don't know," he'll say triumphantly. "it's like i thought. they teach you girls nothing these days."
and the night rebbe will proceed on a long and very aish-hatorah-esque, if i do say so myself, explanation of how emunah comes from the word emes, which is truth, something everyone believes but which is independent of their belief; but emunah, he says, is different, because though we believe it, not everyone does, but we have to believe it as though it were something that is no less true for being believed by a select number of people. like christopher columbus going to sleep at night in catholic spain, he tells us.
"yiras hashem," says my night rebbe. "what is yiras hashem?"
"fear?" a student ventures.
"HAH!" he says, smiling again. "fear! do you really think that the beginning and ending, the very foundation of judaism, day in and day out for centuries and centuries, is fear? what kind of religion is that?"
actually, i think, feverishly scanning my notes from the previous class, that is exactly what i think. that is exactly what many people think, if these sforim and these teachers are anything to go by.
then he leans forward, peering at us intently.
"do you believe," he says slowly, "that avraham our forefather, when G-d asked him to sacrifice his son, his son that he waited for 100 years, whom he cherished, do you think avraham told G-d, 'yes, i will do it, with joy'?"
we look at each other. we look at him. we are bewildered. his face and his voice indicate, as teachers who are apt to give themselves away often will, that we should say 'no.' but it wasn't true. everyone knows that avraham said yes. that was the celebration of the akaida.
'NO!' he whispers fiercely. 'no, no, no. no normal father would willingly take his son's life, not for anything or anyone. and if he would, he is certainly no paragon of the human race, no role model, nothing to be emulated. no. this is not the lesson of the akaida. this is not what it means to be yiras shamayim.'
we look at each other again. is he confused? is he kidding?
'but then how do you explain it?' a girl finally asks. 'he clearly was going to go through with it. G-d praises him for listening.'
'no,' the rabbi says. 'if you look, G-d praises him not for agreeing, but for 'not withholding.' '
he takes a breath.
'girls, avraham could not say no to G-d. he had yiras shamayim: he understood the fact of G-d's existence, the importance of G-d's existence, and as such he knew within his heart that he had to follow the will of the Creator. but he could not say 'yes, i will do this with joy.' that was not in his heart. he did what he had to do, because he knew he had to do it. that is yiras shamayim.'
then he tells us something else.
he says this:
'there is something to be learned from all of this. yiras shamayim, emunah, achdus. unity. you can not live as jews unless you understand what these things are in such a way as you can incorporate them into your lives, not impossible, incomprehensible things of which you can only fall short. and you cannot let these factions and intricacies divide you.'
his voice grows quiet. he stares through us for awhile.
'you know,' he says finally, 'what we were just learning now, it reminded me of something. you remember, yes? we asked why avraham had to lie to hammurabi about his beautiful wife sara. hammurabi, as we know and as he says, had a law against adultery! so clearly avraham was in no danger! why did he have to lie to hammurabi and say that sara was only his sister?
'this is what this reminded me of.
'it was the fall of 1938. i was a lucky boy - had my own private, personal rebbe to instruct me. a wonderful man he was, the likes of which you see rarely these days - but that's for another time. seven children he had, and a wife. and he would come to my house to learn with me.
'one day - i'll never forget this - he was learning with me in my living room, when suddenly the phone rings and it's for him. he starts to shake; he nods a few times and says, 'right away.' 'rebbe,' says i, 'what's the matter?' it seemed his house was on fire. give him a few minutes, he says, and he will call the fire department, and all will be well. it's a little fire, that's all. nothing to worry about. so good. he calls the fire department. they talk for a few minutes. he gives them the address.
'then he goes white as a sheet. he hangs up without a word.
' 'rebbe,' says i, 'are you alright, rebbe?'
'he replied to me, 'it seems that my house is the residence of a jew. and just this morning the fire department has passed a new law, that jews are not protected by the fire department.
' 'they will not put out the fire.' '
my night rebbe takes another deep breath, and coughs a little. his eyes are red.
'they all perished. every one of them, and all worthier than i.'
then he says: 'the point is this, girls. two things. avraham knew that laws which are made by men can be changed by men, and this is something that you should never ever forget. only laws that are made by G-d are everlasting.
'and the second thing is that we jews are left to fend for ourselves. this being the case, we cannot leave each other alone. we cannot be cut off from each other. we cannot dismiss each other. we cannot judge each other. we are a people, every one of us into a whole, and we have no one in the wide world but each other. no, not everyone is a nazi, but neither are we ever a hundred percent safe. and yes, i realize there are halakhic disputes, valid halakhic disputes...'
he shakes his head, rallies:
'and you should undertand them. educate yourselves about them. it's important to know these kinds of things. but you must not, must not let them stand between you. we are a great people. we come from great people, each of us. you must not forget these people or what their lives meant - what it is to live as jews.'
rising slowly, shakily, he eases himself into his coat. his hat. his cane. he turns to us one last time.
'good shabbos, girls. as always.'
and he leaves.