I have not yet responded to the many comments on my prior post about my chat with Rabbi Einhorn ranging from Yehudah’s question on authority to the debate of Neil & Micha on Musar. I will, but first several people have emailed me about some examples of his sermons. Thanks to the files at YUTorah we have examples and from his own Social Sermon Experiment we see that he constructs sermons from discrete parts- story, Torah and joke. They are all good sermonic material. Thoughts?
So from these Neo-Mitnaged sermons, what is the image of the gedolim?
1) I start with the story that the good rabbi quoted both when we met and in an email to illustrate the kind of Torah that he likes- juicy chaps. I mentioned that Rav Soloveitchik would not have considered this activity Torah study. Notice the quoting of the Haredi leader and the complete reversal and undercutting in the telling. The sermon illustrates the poaching and evasion found in popular religion that was discussed by Michel de Certeau- see my prior post on Certeau and Orthodoxy.
On occasion I have the challenging, yet rewarding, task of working with at-risk teens. In one pre-Pesach class I decided to present a possibly contentious interpretation of the Haggadah. I was curious to see how these students would react. The interpretation is that of the brilliant Rav Yoel Teitelbaum ZT”L, the Satmar Rov. The Satmar Rov was known for his sharp wit and tough talk. He raises the question of why we perform the yachatz (breaking the middle matzah) before beginning the maggid (recounting of the story of the Exodus) portion of the Haggadah. The Satmar Rov answers that in order to properly begin a holy endeavor we must first discard all that is bad from our midst. We must break off and cast aside the wicked, the apikores, those that tend to bring us down with their moral failings and lack of Jewish observance.
The moment I shared this thought, I could see the blood of my students reddening. But it was the insight of one student, who we shall call David, that shook my perspective of the Passover Seder. David tends to come off as irreverent, lost, and at times depressed. But at this moment he had reached a level of clarity seldom seen by anyone. He turned to me and with blazing passion in his eyes, he said “I disagree! We do not cast away this broken matzah. In fact, we hide it, protect it, and when the time is right – at the highlight of our Seder – Tzafun, the emergence of the Afikomen, we bring that “discarded” one front and center.” We may need an occasional “time out”, but we are never out of love’s reach.
And together we fell to weeping.
— from here.
2) This one is good for Passover but more importantly it is a great lead in for a sermon with the content taken from Rabbi David Wolpe. The Belzer teaches us that we find God in sickness, we find God when we take care of the poor, and we find God when we gather with the family around the table. I would suggest looking at Wolpe’s Why Faith Matters? on the importance of turning to God in health crisis, family, and in social action.
R. Yissachar Dov of Belze suggests a beautiful interpretation. The Gemara in Shabbos 12b says that when we go to visit a sick person, one is able to pray in Aramaic because the Divine Presence is above his or her head and therefore the petitioner does not need a ministering angel to bring the prayer to G-d. The Medrash (Vayikrah Rabbah 34) states – that when a poor person stands at the door, the Divine Presence is there as well. When we say “All those who are hungry come and eat” – Hashem is standing there! G-d is with us at the Seder.— from here
3) Here is a sermon that would serve as a good introduction to Tony Robbins and motivational books. Musar teaches that we need our ego to reach higher levels. And we use our own ego to determine how we help the neighbor. It is musar without the puritanical side, without visualizing how you will burn in gehenna, and without the continuation of the homily on the need to generally break your ego. We have this-worldly growth of ego and community work- the opposite of the original.
Rav Eliyahu Dessler, in a collection of magnificent and creative essays and original letters, asks “why did G-d have to create our Ego so strong?” R. Dessler boldly argues that it is primarily because of our ego that we are able to reach levels of spirituality otherwise unattainable. Our unquenchable thirst for greatness and godliness pushes us beyond our apparent limits. However, left unchecked this ego may go too far. Left unchecked, we may deify ourselves. What keeps us in balance? “Veahavta Leracha Kamocha”, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Meaning, use your ego to first ascertain what we would want for ourselves and in that we can figure out what it is that we must do for our neighbor.— from here
4) Here are selections from a long sermon that combines Bob Dylan with R. Yisrael Salanter and have Rav Dessler. The first thing to note is how Dylan’s religion, who treats his Judaism as ethnicity and follows an Evangelical Christianity, is equated with Orthodoxy. Gabriel’s trumpet of 1 Thessalonians 4:16 is labeled as classic musar. Dylan’s Christian songs License to Kill,” and “Blind Willie McTell,” is linked to the depravity of man and the Vilna Gaon demand for constant progress. The Gra learned day and night without concern for food, family, money, or sleep and in this sermon we have popular American Calvinism.
Rabbi Salanter is presented as about self-improvement without the specifics of the approach in which our imaginations and emotions lead us astray. Rav Dessler is compared to Dylan’s Idiot Wind.
Bob Dylan – The Zemanim they Are a Changin’
The world of Bob Dylan’s songs bring to life a dynamic array of characters, themes, and melodies. But the one constant throughout Bob Dylan’s career, is G-d. While in real life (outside of the printed lyric that is) Bob Dylan’s commitment and connection to Judaism is in some ways mysterious, mercurial, and marginal, as far as his feelings go, Bob Dylan is a religiously inclined individual. He is a man that shows a face interested in the mystical underpinnings of Judaism. He is a man that emerges with ideas that often run congruous to basic Jewish philosophies. He is a man whose yearnings hover surprisingly close to mainstream Orthodox Judaism.
In the 19th Century, Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin, better known as Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, fathered the Mussar movement. This brought a strong and overt focus on ethical development to Judaism. This also meant that one’s flaws were to be highlighted in order to find room for improvement. Maimonides, in his Mishnah Torah, already preempted the overt style of Mussar by noting that the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah was the instrument by which we tell each other – “wake up you sleepers from your slumber.” In the song “Sugar Baby” off of the Love and Theft album, Bob Dylan gives us spiritual council – “Look up, look up – seek your Maker – ‘fore Gabriel blows his horn.” This is classic Mussar – reproach in its most raw form.
One of the most philosophically challenging issues in Jewish philosophy is the issue of Divine Providence, or G-d’s interaction with humans in their present state. Many of our great sages have debated the level and intensity of Divine intervention. Rav Eliyahu Dessler has argued that hashgacha pratis (Divine guidance) can be broken into two components – that which is evident by the external eye and that which is evident by the internal eye. The external eye seems to tell us that this world is controlled by G-d in every sense. Every move we make, every animal that grazes, every flower that wilts is controlled by G-d. Our internal eye lets us feel that we still have some control, G-d lets some things just be. Rav Dessler further develops the reasoning as to why both perspectives are necessary. Bob Dylan is also stranded between this tension of the internal eye and external eye. This duality is clear in several of his songs. Bob Dylan’s apocalyptical “Masters of War” portrays a demagogue that is physically capable and free to cause havoc upon the world. Still, Dylan realizes the eventual “judgment” awaiting the tyrant as he faces a time of reckoning before G-d. “Idiot Wind,” which is a play on the Talmudic concept of a “ruach shuts,” also works within the balance of this fine line between apparent Divine Determinism and Free Will.
What prolific Jewish author can fairly leave out some treatise on personality traits – or what we call Middos? Bob Dylan spends a considerable amount of time weeding out the traits that distance us from both humankind and our Creator. In the haunting “License to Kill,” Dylan preaches – “Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool And when he sees his reflection, he’s fulfilled.” This loaded line has dual meaning; it is both an ode to the Vilna Gaon’s statement of stagnancy – “if you are not going up up you are going down down,” and it is a reference to self pride, Gayva, if you will. Dylan’s distaste for depravity continues in his classic “Blind Willie McTell,” – “well, G-d is in heaven And we all want what’s his but power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.”
I’m a wanderer and stranger here, as someone once said, and as he didn’t say, I’m an am-haaretz and a curmudgeon. So people may find me completely off base. Before reading the two recent posts, I was completely unfamiliar with Rabbi Einhorn, so I will limit my comments to one of the sermons discussed above, “The Wayward Teen and the Satmar Rov” without generalizing.
R. Einhorn quotes “David,” an “at-risk teen,” rejecting the Satmar Rebbe’s explanation of yachatz as recounted by R. Einhorn:
“I disagree! We do not cast away this broken matzah. In fact, we hide it, protect it, and when the time is right – at the highlight of our Seder – Tzafun, the emergence of the Afikomen, we bring that “discarded” one front and center.”
“And together,” concludes, R. Einhorn, “we fell to weeping.”
When I read this it bothered me. Like proffered candy in a dirty hand, what was touching and inspiring suddenly became distasteful, and it took a minute to understand why. It is manipulative.
R. Einhorn is pandering to the all-too-human desire to see the downfall of the great as he sets up Rav Teitelbaum’s interpretation to be felled (“drashed”?) when “David” slings his zinger. And it’s a good one. But try listening with your mind’s ear to the words R. Einhorn puts in “David’s” mouth. A pensive, yet quick-thinking teenager might have had the thought, but would never have expressed it in the words R. Einhorn supposedly quotes. (I could pedantically point out a half-dozen verbal false notes, but will spare you.) “David’s” self-identification with the piece of matzah that is not “cast away,” but hidden in order to be “front and center” is intended to be transparent to R. Einhorn’s audience. But it would also have been transparent to “David’s” listeners and to “David” himself, and the last thing an “at-risk” teenager would want to admit in the presence of his peers and rabbi.
Concluding this touching but highly improbable tale, R. Einhorn recounts that upon hearing “David’s” words, “we fell to weeping,” apparently causing him to fall into faux-biblical idiom. It’s a nasty fall, since nobody in America has fallen to weeping in more than sixty years. I read that phrase as a flag planted in the text to assuage the author’s conscience by warning halfway alert readers that he is fibbing.
Probably the dishonesty doesn’t show when delivered by a good performer to an audience willingly suspending disbelief, but doesn’t it matter nonetheless? Shouldn’t a sermon showcase the Torah and Jewish tradition, rather than an invented human-interest story? Did R. Einhorn need to set the scene in his “challenging, yet rewarding, task of working with at-risk teens,” or recount a saying in the name of Rav Teitelbaum as a foil for “David’s” wisdom in the manner of Jesus’ supposed ripostes to the Pharisees? It may be good theater and good salesmanship and bring people into the shul, but shouldn’t we expect more from a kli kodesh? Doesn’t that expression imply holiness of means as well as ends?
Regarding the turn to secular motivational literature and techniques generally, and the overriding importance given to congregation-building, is no one else reminded of that wonderful remark of Heschel, “the hands are the hands of Jacob, but the voice is the voice of Esau?
I’ve read these posted sermons and I would love to find out what kind of feedback the congregants give Rabbi Einhorn.
If secular references are the bait to draw in people, then is the actual big prize?