The last two weeks have provided many venues – in print and online – for valuable discussion and thoughtful responses to Professor Noah Feldman’s article in the New York Times Magazine. I was especially gratified to read, for example, the insightful arguments and incisive prose of my teachers and mentors, R. Norman Lamm and R. Shalom Carmy.
Additionally, the recent revelations about the infamous newsletter photo should certainly remind us all of the danger in rushing to judgment – or to pontificate – at the same time it underscores the wisdom of the Sages’s adage (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, ch. 26) “seyag l’chochmah shetikah” – sometimes silence is not only prudent but wise.
There are many important issues raised directly and indirectly by Feldman’s essay and most of them have already been dealt with by others. There is one issue, however, that I am not sure has been sufficiently discussed.
After initially reading the article, my overwhelming impression was that Feldman came across as petulant; after all, what was he thinking?! In fact, my only real disagreement with R. Lamm was that I didn’t think the article was well written at all. Many of Feldman’s references were misleading and tendentious and whatever the merits of his various points, the connection between them was tenuous at best. By throwing in everything he could think of – including the proverbial kitchen sink – he really appeared to be throwing a tantrum.
With the benefit of further reflection I would like to modify that estimation – if only slightly but importantly.
More than an article or essay or even a polemic, what we really have here is a cri de Coeur.
Notwithstanding the substantive – if debatable – arguments that Feldman makes, ultimately the piece strikes me as a primal cry of pain. It’s exactly for this reason that the article lacks clear form and, to borrow R. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb’s apt formulation, strains credulity. Prof. Feldman was speaking from his clearly broken heart more than his evidently sophisticated mind.
But this is where I believe there is a critically important lesson to be learned. I don’t believe – as some have suggested – that the true source of his pain are any of the so called “social sanctions” he claims to have suffered. That the Maimonides School won’t (rightly, I might add) publish birth notices of his children may be hurtful to him but it doesn’t begin to explain his decision to publish, let alone the substance of, the article.
Rather, it is likely that there is a different, deeper, fount for his anguish.
In this coming week’s Torah portion we are taught that there are certain foods – for example, ma’aser sheini, the “second tithe” taken four out of every seven years – that may not be eaten in one’s home but rather must be consumed in Yerushalayim. After articulating these rules the verse concludes, “You should rejoice before God (v’samachta lifnei Hashem) in all of your undertakings” (Devarim 12:17-18).
Two difficulties present themselves in this discussion.
First, the prohibition is expressed with the surprising phraseology, “lo tuchal le’echol,” which translated literally means that one is “incapable” of eating the food at home. While the commentators ultimately understand the verse to legislate – as previously cited – the location where we must choose to consume these foods (see Rashi), this understanding really begs the question.
After all, why didn’t the Torah just say that plainly, as it does just two chapters later (14:3) – “lo tochal,” you may not eat – regarding non kosher animals? Why use the confusing formulation of “you are not capable of eating?”
Second, the mention of simchah, rejoicing or happiness, in this context is somewhat curious; after all, does the Torah mention simchah at the conclusion of every law? Why, of all places, is it mentioned here?
Perhaps there is one resolution to both questions. (I thank R. Josh Hoffman for first alerting me to the possible connection between these two issues in the text.)
R. Elya Meir Bloch (Peninei Da’as) suggests that “lo tuchal le’echol” conveys the notion that, in truth, we ought to view the Torah’s prohibitions not merely as things we shouldn’t do but as things we simply cannot do.
Perhaps we can expand on – and adjust slightly – this idea and suggest that the choice of language in the verse actually contains a fundamental insight into the human condition.
Human beings are comprised of body and soul. The Torah’s commandments are intended to regulate the physical behavior of our body in a way that corresponds to the spiritual essence of our soul.
A life lived in accordance with the values and directives of the Torah is one in which the physical and spiritual realities are synchronized. Ultimately it is our body that decides which actions we do and don’t perform; we have the freedom to choose and sometimes we make the correct choice while at other times we don’t. But, deep down, our neshama, our soul, knows what is right. If we were consistently loyal to the yearnings – nay, dictates – of our neshama we would be incapable of doing anything (“lo tuchal”) that conflicted with this essence.
This understanding may also explain the surprising mention of simcha in this context.
True happiness is achieved only when a person acts in harmony with his or her spiritual core; or on more prosaic level, one finds happiness only when they are true to themselves. Actions which are inconsistent with our inner spirit may offer fleeting joy but they will not provide lasting happiness. On the contrary, they will ultimately cause inner turmoil and existential pain.
The Torah mentions simcha now because herein lies the secret to realizing it: To the extent that one correlates his physical behavior to his spiritual essence happiness can be attained. In other words, simcha is the byproduct of the marriage between “lo tuchal” and “lo tochal,” aligning what we can do with what we must do.
One of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s most well known halachic insights corresponds to this understanding of our Torah portion (see, for example, Shiurim le-Zecher Abba Mari z”l, vol 2, pp. 188-190 and U-Vikashtem mi-Sham, n. 19).
R. Soloveichik is bothered by the Talmudic assumption that avelut and simchat Yom Tov, mourning and rejoicing on the Festivals, are mutually exclusive. On an emotional level this may seem obvious but from a halachic perspective it is far from clear. After all, there is nothing that a mourner is proscribed from doing that we are required to do in fulfillment of simchat Yom Tov.
In the course of resolving this difficulty R. Soloveitchik develops the idea that simcha is ultimately not achieved by any physical action – something we must do – but by an inward sense of closeness to the Divine (which is, in fact, incompatible with avelut when the mourner feels – and is supposed to feel – a degree of distance from God).
According to R. Soloveitchik’s understanding, the reference in our Torah portion to “v’samachta lifnei Hashem” (see also Deut. 16:11 and 27:7) is not incidental but definitional; simcha is defined as being lifnei Hashem.
And this is consistent with our explanation of “lo tuchal le’echol.” The obligation to rejoice on the festivals is an intensive manifestation of the simcha that results from compliance with all of the Torah’s commands. If we are true to our self and our soul then we will be lifnei Hahsem and we will achieve true happiness.
I don’t know Prof. Feldman. Even if I did I couldn’t know the secrets that lie in the deepest recesses of his soul. Yet it seems to me that the above explanation accounts – at least in part – for this whole sorry spectacle.
The real source of his pain – so evident throughout the article – isn’t what anyone else may have done or said to him but what he did to himself. Feldman is right when he states that, “Our life choices are constitutive of who we are,” and that “different life choices would have made us into different people.”
Many of Feldman’s own life choices – especially but not limited to his decision to marry out of the faith – seem to have created a spiritual estrangement which has wrought much anguish. His alienation isn’t just from Orthodoxy but – ultimately – from himself and his spiritual essence.
It is ironic – agonizingly so – that Feldman has missed this most important lesson from, of all gedolim, R. Soloveitchik, the founder of the Maimonides School. When a person’s neshama is lifnei Hashem then he or she will achieve real simcha. But when the neshama is distant from its true source it will suffocate; and the person will suffer from existential angst and pain.
This is the truth of our existence and there is value, at the very least, in reminding ourselves of this reality. Whether it is also the – or at least a partial – explanation for Feldman’s decision to publish and the pain that seeps through his article I can only speculate.
Why Feldman’s inner turmoil has taken the form of lashing out in this most public and damaging of forums, while others who have made similar life choices seem to be content with just abandoning our people and faith, I don’t know. But I do know that this level of energy and attention – as we were all taught as children – is a sure sign of interest and continued connection.
I am not naïve but I am curious about what the future will bring for Prof. Feldman. Will he ever reconsider his decisions and return to the fold? I hope so; for our sake and, more importantly, for his.
Thank you to Aron U. Raskas for his helpful suggestions in the preparation of this article.