Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bibliogestions: Spring 2013

I've taken a long vacation from politics, which is probably from the best. The governments of America and Israel continue to disappoint, terrible things continue to happen in the world, and every time I turn on talk radio on my drive to work, my urge to punch the dial rises. (Mrs. Yid has banned me from playing anything on the AM dial when she's in the car.)

On the other hand, work and personal study/practice have been going well. I blogged about the latest shul-happenings over at TCFS, but I've also been pleased at having been slowly getting through some meaty Judaica books over the last few months. Here are some highlights:

- Shabbetai Zvi was really, really nuts. But also a pretty interesting figure inasmuch as he was able to convince as much as 1/3 of the world's Jewish population that he was the Messiah. John Freely, a Turkish historian of British extraction, though not Jewish, does a great job delving into the medieval background of the time as well as the place. He also capable dissects Zvi's theology and helps chart his legacy among his various branches of followers. I feel like this was great background to prep me for reading about Jacob Frank.

- Yehuda Amital was a true mensch and a great model for our time. Personally traditional in practice, he understood the primacy of ethical behavior and cooperation with people as well as institutions that he didn't always agree with. Perhaps one of the best examples of a principled moderate within the last 50 years, in so many different spheres and contexts: politics, culture, religion, the Holocaust, and more. Amital doesn't shy away from wrestling with harsh truths and sometimes contradictory values, and frequently comes to some sort of decent, if not always perfect, compromise. He's also quite admirable to me in that he tried to avoid creating a cult of personality around himself and emphasized the need for his students-- and by extension, everyone-- to think independently for themselves.

Amital would be the first to admit he wasn't perfect, and his principled moderation has its limits. If you believe in certain absolute values, be they territorial maximalism a-la Gush Emunim, or full equality for women and GLBT Jews, for example, Amital poses a bit of a conundrum. There were causes that were important to him that he seems to have subjugated in order to not go too far against the status quo. In some ways, it's easy to look back on his actions with nostalgia and say, "If only we could all be more moderate like him." But at the same time, I recognize that there are absolute values worth fighting for, and sometimes they require the willingness to fight the status quo, and not always try to change it from within. However Amital's ability to be honest about conflicting values and at least try to balance them (while still, in principle and practice, trying to be open to other points of view) makes him a very powerful, inspiring, and IMO, modern figure that more Jews could benefit from learning about and from.

- Elie Wiesel continues to inspire my Jewish imagination. Wiesel isn't for everybody, and sometimes his style can be a little off-putting, but I think I have enough right-to-left brain that I'm basically able to admire his poetics (particularly impressive given it's in translation) while also not letting it distract from the ideas. After having a couple of Wiesel books kicking around for a while I finally got around to finishing them and was quite impressed with the force of personality and imagination of the early Hasidic masters.

It may just be my own biases, but I think Wiesel is at his best when describing the "darker" rebbes who lived in poverty or conflict but who still had wonderful human qualities rather than the fancier rebbes like the Rizhiner, who depending on your POV come across as verging on exploitive and pompous (despite Wiesel's attempts to present their opulence as a "facade", such as the claim that the Rizhiner wore golden shoes but no soles on the bottoms). Simcha Bunim of Pryzucha, the Kotzker, the Seer of Lublin and the Holy Jew are the men that speak most to me, because they do not seem to be hiding the pain of life behind the curtain of joy. They know what true pain is and continue in spite of it (or sometimes don't). I find that far more powerful than other personalities who seem like they basically don't have as much to wrestle with.

For this reason I was particularly interested by another Wiesel book which focused specifically on Hasidic masters and melancholy. In examining Pinhas of Koretz, Naftali of Ropshitz, the Seer of Lublin, and Baruch of Medzebozh, Wiesel shows the other side of the great leaders, the darker, pained, and human sides, and how each of them dealt with these issues, with various degrees of success. I was reading this book while coming to terms with my own mental health issues and history (and exploring medication), and found it to be very resonant.

- Finally, I also read-- and greatly enjoyed-- 9 1/2 Mystics, a book I had heard about for a while but only remembered as being "the one with an anecdote about naked Gershom Scholem." I really enjoyed it, it reminded me a bit of Jew in the Lotus but is far more grounded in Jewish contexts. The author, Herbert Wiener, is both an educated and liberal Jew as well as an intellectual and spiritual seeker, and those qualities, combined with his strong perseverance as well as good luck to have been around and writing in the 1940s-80s, results in a fascinating compendium of interviews with some of the greatest mystical minds of the last century: Weiner helped organize lectures for Scholem, studied with Steinsaltz, chatted with Buber, visited the Belzer court, had several audiences with M.M. Schneerson, and challenged Zvi Yehuda Kook on how close or far he had reinterpreted his father's teachings. Most fascinating from an Orthodox sociology POV is Weiner's experience and reportage of various Jewish groups that have since gone through major developments, such as Rav Ashlag before the Kabbalah Centre boom, Chabad when Schneerson was still alive and kicking, Breslov before they became as visible as they now are (and before the Uman pilgrimage became the new Jewish Woodstock), and of course Zvi Yehuda Kook back when he was still a man and not yet a departed saint.

Not only does Weiner's book contain fascinating insights into what Jewish mysticism - or mysticisms-- is and could be, but, much like Arthur Hertzberg's Jew in America, also does a wonderful job of showing the living history of a religion and culture still being formed, reformed, and endlessly debated. Anyone who's interested in the topic or any of the personalities I mentioned will find it a fun read.