First, I need to make clear that Stienzaltz did not give a traditional "mussar schmooze" (a speach of moral exhortation). Nor did he give a clear scientific vivisection of why those who had invited him and conducted this conversation were part of the problem. No, he was much more subtle, which is why so much of it clearly went over the audience's head.
Last night my son's school, the Melvin J Berman Heberew Academy (MJBHA) held an event to commemorate the yartzeight (anniversary of the death) of a Robin Gross, who died of breast cancer five years ago at the tragically young age of 42.
To explain for my non-Jewish readers- It is a common tradition in the Jewish community to mark the anniversary of the death of a close relative (usually only a parent, sibling, spouse or child). For many of us, it is sufficient to light a memorial candle and say the Mourner's Kaddish at the daily service that day. Others, however, seek to mark the occassion by learning torah in the memory of the deceased, or sponsoring some event around the learning of Torah. It is hoped that not only will this elevate all of us who attend the memorial learning, but that it will in some way "elevate the soul" of the deceased in coming closer to God (either because the deceased him or herself will feel the joy of seeing Torah learned in his/her name, or because God will view this meritorious deed as proof that the deceased left a positive legacy).
I did not know the woman memorialized here, but her daughter -- who could not have been more than 12 or 13 at the time of her mother's death -- spoke very movingly. So did the Rabbi of my synogogue, as she was also a parishoner. These talks were what one might expect, rememberances laced with homiletic lessons as to how the life of the woman in question exemplified certain positive attributes such as love of family, faith in God despite terrible illness at so young an age, etc.
Then came the "conversation." For those unfamiliar with modern Jewish religious writings, Adin Stienzatltz is one of the great and controversial figures. Born to a secular family in Israel, he has both a considerable secular education and a considerable religious education. He is, in many ways, the complete anathema of both the extreme left of the Reform and Reconstructionist wings of Judaism and the extreme right of the "Ultra Orthodox" wing. To the extreme left, it is inconcievable that a man who began his life raised in a secular family, having the benefit of a modern secular education, shown tremendous aptitude in the fields of engineering and art as well as in Jewish philosophy and the study of history, should willingly embrace the anachronistic structure of the halacha (traditional religious law). To the extreme right, his insistence on the value of secular learning for its won sake, his insistence on an understanding of the real history of the Jewish people and its leaders and Biblical figures, warts and all, as opposed to the fictional hagiographies and revisionism with which they justify practices that have no basis in tradition, make him a heretic. (Worse, his ascendance without "yichus," that is to say, without a lineage of religious parents stretching back to great scholars, is a slap in the face to the emphasis placed on such things in the current yeshiva world.) His books have on occassion been banned in some communities.
To further complicate matters, this educated man is also a student of chassidus and a defender of mysticism in the Jewish community. This is uncomfortable to a number of Jews in the modern Orthodox community, who would prefer to keep the mystic stuff quiet or the province of other Jews we politely refer to as "wackos."
Stienzaltz is probably best known for his comprehensive translation of the Talmud, but he has written numerous other works. Most recently, his book We Jews: Who We Are and What We Should Do, has stirred considerable interest and debate. Among many things, Stiensaltz argues that the American Jewish community (of all stripes) has become too complacent, too concerned with "continuity" and imitation of our non-Jewish socio-economic cohort who take their religion as serious but without passion. (During his talk, he accused the American Jewish culture of imitating "New England morality.")
The main event was billed as a "conversation" with Rabbi Stiensaltz, conducted by the Principal of the High School, Avi Levitt. Rabbi Altshul, the Headmaster, would collect index cards from the audience with questions on them. The title of the "conversation" was 'Is Creativity Necessary?"
So last night's presentation was packed, as everyone showed up to hear the Great Man inform us whether we need creativity or not. Levitt started with "what is creativity." Steinsaltz was uncomfortable. He fidgeted. At first I thought it was the disomfort of an old man in the spotlight. I realized later that it was trying to be polite. So after a bit of discussion, Stiensaltz replied that he felt creativity was about developing a new thing or idea and generating a positive force. He felt creativity was linked to passion, and that one could not have creativity without passion or generate passion without creativity. But then Avi proceeded to ask what I considered to be rather uninteresting questions. "Is art creative, and does it have a place in the Jewish curriculum." Stiensalz, getting a little testier, explained that "creativity" did not have anything to do with beauty or necessarily with art. You "introduced it" into the Jewish curriculum by letting it happen. You provide students with avenues for expressing their connection with God creatively and eoncourage them to have passion.
Then the question turned to davening (prayer). "How can we get more creativity in our davening?" Asked Levitt. Stiensaltz, losing some patience, agreed that 'creativity' doesn't mean throwing the modern prayer book out the window. But he asked when had Levitt or anyone else here genuinely prayed, as opposed to simply reciting the prayers. Worse, those who "pray" in the sense of asking for stuff aren't usually being creative. Usually, they view God as some kind of ATM they can go up to and ask for stuff -- even if they don't have anything in their accounts. "You will get out of prayer what you put into it," said Stiensaltz. "Does prayer excite you? If someone got up in shul and started dancing, because he was so excited about praying, would you lock him up?" Finally, Stiensaltz suggested that too many people pray to "HASHEM" instead of praying to God. "The word 'HASHEM' is a neutral word. God means something to people. It has resonance. Why do people insist on translating the real name of God into 'HASHEM'? It's not a translation. It makes God neutral and removed from us."
Levitt continued to press for basic instructions on how to generate creativity or passion in various circumstances, with Stiensaltz getting testier and testier. Stiensaltz suggested, for example, that we could generate more creativity by getting rabbis to stop giving sermons in synogogue. "When did you last feel uplifted by a sermon you heard? They are all about politics, or intellectual recitations of what other people have thought about before. If you went to a church in DC, you would hear people preaching about hellfire with real passion." He went on, "they used to say that the dofference between Demosthenes and his rival orators in the Pelpansian wars was this: when other orators called for war, the crowd applauded. When Demosthenes called for war, they didn't applaud -- they went home and got their swords. Does this school make students get excited about 'getting their swords,' or do they just learn to sit and nod."
Levitt then switched to Stiensaltz's latest book. "It seems to me, you left out a chapter," said Levitt. "You say the problem is that the Jewish community in the United states is tooc omfortable. That we care about continuity, but are lacking in creativity and passion. How do we fix that?" At this point, Stiensaltz really started to lose it. "The problem isn't your material wealth. The problem is that you have this very bad immitation of yeke learning which you don't understand and never existed in the first place. You have absorbed this New England morality, that Religion is something quiet and intellectual and sits in a separate compartment in your mind from being a doctor or being a lawyer. And this is why you all have small families! How can you hope to produce children when you have no passion in your lives? You ask me how to have passion and creativity. Aren't you married? Do you and your wife just fall asleep in front of the television set?" (It also came through that Steinsaltz had not been terribly happy with the selected format.)
[Yekke is Yiddish for "German." Here, it means a precise and intellectual approach to learning which combines secular learning with Jewish learning.]
Levitt's body language continued to evidence total cluelessness. It was clear that he expected the Great Man to provide a prescription for our ills. That Stiensaltz could tell us the right thing to read or think and we would suddenly be "creative." This was the equivalent to the scene in the Saturday Night Live "Get a Life" skit when the fan raises his hand and asks Shatner "So you think we should be paying more attention to the movies?"
The buzz I got off the audience was that they were likewise clueless and confused. When Stiensaltz made his more provocative comments, they laughed nervously. But they clearly didn't get it. They kept waiting for the Great Man to provide them with answers, and as he got more and more outrageous they lost interest. A few seemed to understand the implied criticism and radiated anger. And a very few were positively excited by the whole thing.
For myself, I found myself recalling not Kohelet, but Song of Songs:
Love is hotter than the hotest fire
It is stronger than the grave
Many waters cannot quench love
And if a man offered all his belongings for love, it would be scorned.
It was my privilege growing up to be educated by a true yekke, a man of brilliance and integrity who had gone to the concentration camps for his belief and come through the ordeal with his love of God and passion for Torah made stronger, not weaker, by the experience. It has certainly been my attempt in life to bring both passion and intellect to the study of Torah, and to seek creative things in learning. I remember when I was in Yeshivah, and went through a "dry spell" when I couldn't think of any new chiddushim. Many of the Rebbeim did not understand why this was important. Rabbi Feigenbaum understood immediately, that the inability to see new things in the text was a severe problem that needed to be addressed. Perhaps this experience caused me to interpret R' Steinsaltz's remarks in the way I did.
Still, I have always believed that Jewish life is like the writing of poetry with rigid rules of form. The study of the law and the life of the Jew is informed by structure but lifeless without creativity. Anyone can write a limmerick, or haiku, or sonnet. We do these in English class as exercises. One can even become quite good at the craft. But what separates a Shakespeare or a Petrarch from the mere craftsman is the spark of creativity.
Many folks reject structured poetry as inimical to creativity, just as many reject the structures and adherences of Judaism as inimical to "true" religious feeling. Certainly form and structure can become a crutch. A Jew can go through his or her whole life coasting on structure, finding the rhymes for ABABCDCDEFEF GG like moon, June and spoon. But the nature of structure can channel creativity into something lasting through the ages. And while free form can provide a vehicle for creativity, it very often serves to mask a lack of depth and talent. Go to a poetry slam sometime and see if "free form" automatically equates with creativity.