26 February 2013

Textually-Speaking: Why I Am So Into Using Texts

Although it may seem obvious that someone who is ordained as a rabbi and serves as a rabbi would be really into text study, since studying texts is the bread-and-butter for becoming a rabbi as well as the area of expertise for rabbis.  However, I have been surprised in my three-plus years of serving as a rabbi that I am quite text-heavy (apparently compared to others?).  (Although we can speak of a variety of media of texts, for the purposes of this post, I am referring to written and printed texts.)
When it comes to leading any classes or learning with people, my preferred style is "text-based discussion" whereby texts from the Jewish tradition are front-and-center and informing our conversation.  Although I happen to lean heavily on Talmudic texts, primarily since they are foundational (I also particularly happen to enjoy studying them), I do use other texts, as well.  Although one thing I have had to learn in my current position is that most Jews do not particularly enjoy going through texts of heritage, there are still those that actually do, and, amongst some of those, like going more in-depth.  Fortunately, I am still able to ply my trade with these Jews :)
Anyways, I have gotten a sense that there are those that don't use texts so heavily and prefer to simply speak about Judaism and about a variety of Jewish topics.  While I may avoid that method because I don't trust my memory as well as others may, I actually avoid it for two primary reasons.  The first reason is that by placing out a visual text that all may see, we have equal access to the text.  We can unlock that text together - it is all of our shared heritage - and I see my role as being the one who can furnish the text and provide a space for a conversation to take place around it.  One thing that this method does is allow the participants to engage with the texts in an intimate way and really wrestle with it, as opposed to hearing a [potentially] one-dimensional view of the text out of a rabbi's mouth.  Another thing that this does is actually selfish on my behalf: it allows me to show some neat textual approaches.
The second reason is that I don't like when other rabbis say that "Judaism takes a ____ approach to ___" or "the Jewish view on _____ is ____" because it makes it so simplistic, when, in truth, many topics are actually quite complicated.  By having texts in the discussion, it offers the audience an opportunity to participate in grappling with the texts and having a greater sense of personal ownership to them.  Moreover, I actually dislike it when other rabbis say that because I either don't like what they're saying, that they are lacking important nuance (making them kind of wrong), or that they are straight-up incorrect.  So, I am avoiding a method I dislike.  Another thing that avoiding this approach accomplishes is that if I say "The Jewish approach/view to _____ is ____", I may end up sounding somewhat flippant, but worse, it would be common for people to pipe up, "But, I thought Judaism says _____ about ____?"  I would then say, "Yes, but..." and a weird conversation would ensue.  Basically, it cuts out that uncomfortable conversation and allows them to see the complexity of the issue (and, of course, perhaps my view of the topic).
For those two primary reasons, I like to share the texts and, apparently, am considered pretty textual(?).

25 February 2013

The Image of God Problem for Same-Sex Couples II: Chief Rabbi of France Agrees With Me

Last week, while using the elliptical machine, I read Rabbi Gilles Bernheim's essay that was translated as "Homosexual Marriage, Parenting, and Adoption" for First Things.  It was a fascinating essay, for sure.  It is really interesting.
Anyways, I am bringing it up here because he actually echoes a thought of mine about which I wrote in June that Genesis 1:27 describes the Image of God to be Male and Female.  Rabbi Bernheim writes not so dissimilarly from my thoughts that "It is significant that, in the Bible, sexual difference is mentioned just after the affirmation of the fact that man is in the image of G-d. This means that sexual difference is embedded in this image and thus blessed by G-d."  He also writes
The biblical account grounds sexual difference in the act of creation. The polarity of masculine–feminine pervades all that exists, from clay to G-d. It is part of what is given primordially and what guides the respective vocations—the being and the agency—of man and woman. The duality of the sexes is part of the anthropological constitution of humanity.

Thus, every person is brought sooner or later to recognize that he possesses only one of the two fundamental versions of humanity and that the other will remain forever inaccessible. Sexual difference is thus a mark of our finitude. I am not the whole of humanity. A sexed being is not the totality of the species; it needs a being of the other sex to produce its likeness.
Although I am glad to have my ideas ratified by the Chief Rabbi of France, I am happier that he wrote them eloquently :)  Here are a couple further paragraphs from the piece about this topic:
Genesis finds the similarity of the human being with G-d only in the association of the man and the woman and not in each one taken separately. This suggests that the definition of a human being is perceptible only in the conjunction of the two sexes. Because of his sexual identity, each person is referred beyond himself. From the moment a person becomes conscious of his sexual identity, he is thus confronted with a kind of transcendence. The person is required to think beyond himself and to acknowledge the independent existence of an inaccessible other—that is, of one who is essentially related to himself and desirable yet never wholly comprehensible.

The experience of sexual difference thus becomes the model for all experiences of transcendence; it designates an indissoluble relation with an absolutely inaccessible reality. On this basis we can understand why the Bible so readily uses the relation between man and woman as a metaphor for the relation between G-d and man: not because G-d is masculine and man is feminine but because it is man’s sexual duality that most clearly manifests an unsurpassable otherness within the closest relation.

20 February 2013

Intending What You Mean To Say and Not Just Direction: כוונה (Kavanah) and כוונת הלב (Kavanat haLev)

People all too often confuse kavanah with kavanat halev
All too often, I hear people saying it is good to have כוונה (kavanah).  What they mean to say is it is good to have intention.  They get this sense from rabbinic literature.  However, when the rabbis of the Talmud speak about כוונה, they mean direction.  
If one wants to say intention, one would say כוונת הלב (kavvanat halev), which means mental direction.  An easier way of saying that is intention.  
Thus, when people say kavanah is a good thing, they are actually saying having direction is good, which is true, but not what one is trying to impart.  They should really be saying one should have kavanat halev.