Sunday, May 20, 2007

While off in the Dead Sea for the last six days of Pesach, I kept myself occupied with two books: Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Teshuvos Minchas Usher on Hilchos Pesach (in the back of the hagadah). I read Dennett mostly while lounging poolside and Rav Usher on Shabbos and Yomtov and as chazan insurance in shul.

This caused extreme frumkeit swings in the expected directions. But these swings had nothing to do with venue. On the contrary, poolside lounging often evokes in me a certain, um, harchavas hada’as, while interminable davening usually leads to hirhurei kefira.

No, it was the reading material, but not for the obvious reasons.

Dennett’s book is a broadside against religion, the main point of which is that there are good evolutionary reasons for the emergence of proto-religious phenomena. The argument itself is debatable (and deserves its own post) but in any case is irrelevant to the truth claims of any given religion. That isn’t what did it. And Minchas Usher (at least the teshuvos section) is dry halacha, not intended as inspirational literature.

Yet, the impact of each was powerful and undeniable. This deserves explanation.

Let me give a mashal. Think of being Jewish as being in a play that lasts for centuries and has a cast of millions. It’s an avant-garde production in which the members of the audience are also participants. There’s a very old script but the actors get to ad lib a lot and, although the original printed script itself is unaltered, it is overwhelmed by the ongoing accretion of hand-written interpolations. New actors join the show and are instructed by older actors who eventually leave the show. The director is never seen.

Now when I say that my frumkeit swings upward I don’t mean that I’m reading my lines from the script more precisely. I mean that I’m into the play. This happens when the play “works”, when one can read one’s lines with a sense of authenticity, when one can sense the director’s invisible guiding hand. Often, though, this is not the case because the stars who have mastered the script and get the best lines seem to lack the subtlety of character to grasp the plot’s meaning.

Rav Usher’s teshuvos are so masterful and so attuned to the underlying meaning that my sense of identification with the play is restored. In teshuva after teshuva, he responds to questioners looking for idiotic chumrahs extending the definition of chametz (all the water in the Kineret, cigarettes, soft Sefardi matza). In each case, he goes through all the relevant sources dispassionately marshaling proofs for and against. And in each case, in the end he says the equivalent of “Oh come off it, that’s perfectly idiotic.” (BTW, although he says the “cigarettes are chametz” claim is completely without foundation, he repeats his oft-stated view that smoking is generally forbidden and certainly so on yomtov.) In other cases, he is machmir with exactly the same degree of brilliance and common sense.

As for Dennett, his book is effective not because of any argument he makes but rather because he makes you change perspective. He focuses your attention not on the stage but on the scaffolding behind the stage. That scaffolding is indeed the same for the Greatest Show on Earth and for an amateur off-off-off Broadway production. Which is exactly why it’s not where you want to be looking if you want to get into the play. It is this misdirection on Dennett’s part that really does “break the spell”.


Blogger bar_kochba132 said...

Thanks for mentioning the ridiculous humrot for Pesach. The "water in the Kinneret" one really drove me crazy when I first heard of it. To be honest, I don't have as strong a background as I should. I started becoming observant in college in the US, learned about a year full-time in an English-speaking yeshiva in Israel for Hozrim B'Teshuva, got married, moved to Israel, learned Hebrew, became part of the "National Religious" community, attended Daf Yomi for several years and attended a couple of weekly shiurim, one of which deals with the theoretical aspects of halacha. I state all this in order to show that I am totally unqualified to be a posek or even to be able to judge poskim. GIVEN THAT, it struck me that the humra about the Kinneret water is totally ridiculous. It goes against common sense! When they said a "mashehu" of hametz is assur on Pesach, they couldn't have possibly meant that included the Kinneret situation. I asked an "open-minded" Haredi Rav about it and he justified the humra.
Afterwards I read Eliezer Berkovitz's book "Not In Heaven" where he emphasizes "sevara" as being important in the halachic process, and now I hear you saying the same thing, backed up by an important talmid hacham. All I can say is that you made my day!

8:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A choshuva Rav once told me that a mashehu has to be at least big enough to be seen by the naked eye.

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the chametz thing is all allegorical, it was really talking about your beliefs and how even a mashehu of skepticism will make you chametz

9:56 PM  
Blogger ADDeRabbi said...

is that r' usher veiss? his stuff's been reccomended to me. i should check it out.

12:04 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

You should check it out. You won't regret it.

12:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Definitely check out Minhas Usher, and also hear him speak. I am forever indebted to Ben for introducing me to Rav Usher's thought.

And Ben, this mashal of yours is up to your usual excellent standard (very similar to your also fruitful mashal of "language learning"). Is the Dennett actually worth reading?

6:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rav Usher's common sense on single malts (if it has to soak in it for 7 years -- that's not nosein ta'am) has made me feel much better about being someich on Rav Moshe.

Glad you've moved away from making choizek about middle-aged Americans bringing their families to EY for Yontif. Not that you were off base, but it's getting closer to home.

For simplicity in anti-relgious thought, you math/physics types can skip the British koiefer chiger (in descending order of insult) and can instead harken back to Nobel Prize winner and Zionist Steven Weinberg's words (it's application to the Arab world over the Chareidi world being more scary only because they use gun powder more effectively and there's a billion of them):

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

1:21 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i wanted to respond to this post with something substantial, since it's really good, but then i noticed that your sitemeter says "66,666". :-)

2:23 PM  
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1:50 AM  
Blogger Yonathan said...

I can sympathize with the Pesah stuff. I waged an online war this year as I was "fighting for truth and abandoning shtuth" at the blog of the Kitniyot Liberation Front. We've been a bit inactive as of late, but I'd love for you to post some tidbits from Teshuvos Minchas Usher on Hilchos Pesach.

Machon Shilo ( is also trying to inject some realism--and some Yerushalmi--into the practice of Torah Judaism.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Yonathan said...

Please stop by

2:06 PM  

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