About Rabbi Elie Mischel

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So far Rabbi Elie Mischel has created 64 entries.

Dear Journal

When I was a junior in high school, one of my more energetic and insightful teachers suggested that I write a journal (a journal, of course, and not a diary; diaries are for girls).  He explained: “One day, you’ll want to know what you were thinking when you were 16.”  Intrigued, I followed his advice, and kept an “on again, off again” journal for about eight years, until I got married, and that was the end of that.  Possibly for the better, “For an engaged or married man to have a secret super-confidante [i.e., a journal] who knows things which are concealed from his lady seems to me to be deliberate infidelity.” (W.N.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man)

Reading the journal, decades later, I’m struck by how self-absorbed my teenage self was.  But at the same time, I’m hardly surprised, for journals have a way of encouraging egocentrism.  C.S. Lewis argues that writing regularly in a journal is an expression of an unhealthy focus on the self – a flaw which sincere worship of God helped him to personally overcome: “One of the first results of my Theistic conversion was a marked decrease in the fussy attentiveness which I had so long paid to the progress of my own opinions and the states of my own mind…  Self-examination did of course continue. But it was at stated intervals, and for a practical purpose; a duty, a discipline, an uncomfortable thing, no longer a hobby or a habit.  To believe and to pray were the beginning of extroversion.  I had been, as they say, “taken out of myself.” If theism had done nothing else for me, I should still be thankful that it cured […]

By |December 9, 2014|

Wordsworth and the Chassidim: A War on Books

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books; Or surely you’ll grow double;

Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks; Why all this toil and trouble? …

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife: Come, hear the woodland linnet,

How sweet his music! on my life, There’s more of wisdom in it…

(William Wordsworth, The Tables Turned, 1798)

When I first read Wordsworth’s The Tables Turned, I was repulsed.  A diatribe directed at books, the source of all learning – what could possibly be more un-Jewish?  Wordsworth calls us to turn to nature for wisdom; but nature is the realm of Esav, not Yaakov.  “And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yaakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.” (Bereshit 25:27)  We are the people of the book; if any nation has sought wisdom in the teachings of those who came before us (and how else should one define a book?), it is the Jewish people.

But on further reflection, Wordworth’s denunciation of book learning must be taken with more than a few grains of salt.  Wordsworth was educated at Cambridge University, and his studies there – primarily of books – gave him him the literary tools that were essential to his success as a poet.  And Wordsworth, no doubt, was well aware that his poems would be published and read in – you guessed it – books!  Given his own dependence upon books, how can we make sense of Wordsworth’s poem?

Rav Meir of Premyshlan, one of the earliest students of the Baal Shem Tov, makes a truly astonishing argument: that we should minimize the amount of time we spend studying Torah!  “One should not study Torah a great deal, […]

By |November 30, 2014|

The Ironic Teaching of Uncle Moishy: “I’m Afraid I’ll Never be a Talmid Chacham”

Septimius Severus was born to an obscure provincial family, and his extraordinary ascent to the throne of the Roman Empire in 193 CE was due to a “daring ambition [that] never diverted from its steady course by the allurements of pleasure, the apprehension of danger, or the feelings of humanity.” (Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)  But even a man as driven and immune to temptation as Severus could not overcome the greatest challenge: success.

“The ascent to greatness, however steep and dangerous, may entertain an active spirit with the consciousness and exercise of its own powers; but the possession of a throne could never yet afford a lasting satisfaction to an ambitious mind.  This melancholy truth was felt and acknowledged by Severus.  Fortune and merit had, from a humble station, elevated him to the first place among mankind.  “He had been all things,” as he said himself, “and all was of little value.  Distracted with the care, not of acquiring, but preserving an empire, … careless of fame, and satiated with power, all his prospects of life were closed.”  (Gibbon, Ibid.)

Severus’ decline as a leader and human being began at the very moment he had firmly secured the Roman Empire in his grasp.  He had arrived at the very peak of human power, and gazing into his future, his horizon was no longer filled with great mountains to climb.  Without new challenges, he became dispirited and distracted; his final years were the least satisfying and productive of his public career.

What is true of Severus is true for all of us as well.  Human happiness requires that man work towards a future objective; without goals, entropy of the soul sets in.  […]

By |November 26, 2014|

Rav Steinsaltz’s Epistemic Curiosity

This past Sunday, thousands of Jews around the world participated in “The Global Day of Jewish Learning” – the brainchild of Rav Adin Steinsaltz, the rabbinic Renaissance man described by Time magazine as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar.”  Rav Steinsaltz’s literary achievements are astounding (highlighted, of course, by his extraordinary commentary on the Talmud), although his ability to relate to and unite Jews of radically different backgrounds might be even more impressive.

I’ve often wondered about the source of Rav Steinsaltz’s success; how has one man accomplished so much in one lifetime?  In a 2006 interview, Rav Steinsaltz himself offers some insight:  “I’m interested in almost everything – from detective stories to science fiction to mathematics to animals.  I am also interested in people – sometimes I even like them. I am interested in good literature, even though I do not read enough of it… I am interested in science for many reasons, and sometimes in politics… So I’m interested in what people are interested in, and not because I have some reason, but because I am curious…  My first hobby is the Talmud…  I was caught by the Talmud and I really did not want to be a Talmudist. I wanted to deal with it as a hobby, but the hobby grew.  I’m still in love with that hobby of mine.  ” (How Can We Make Judaism Less Boring?,” Algemeiner.com, October 19, 2006)

In his recent book, Curious, Ian Leslie argues that there are two forms of curiosity: diversive curiosity and epistemic curiosity.  Diversive curiosity refers to the attraction to novelty; it’s what drives us to travel to foreign countries and to explore new things.  Epistemic curiosity, by contrast, is what drives our deeper quest for knowledge […]

By |November 17, 2014|

Books that Wound and Stab Us

In January, 1904, twenty year old Franz Kafka wrote to his friend, Oscar Pollak:  “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.” (Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family and Editors)

Most people – if they read at all – read for pleasure.  Much like watching television or surfing the internet, reading provides an escape from the stressors of life; we immerse ourselves in the pleasures of a novel, and temporarily forget our own troubles.  But reading also offers the joy of reaffirming the righteousness of our dearly held opinions and beliefs.  When democrats read the New York Times, and republicans read the Wall Street Journal, they experience the pleasure of reading editorials and opinion pieces that validate their own opinions and beliefs.  In fact, for many people, smugly reaffirming their own wisdom while reading the paper over breakfast is the highlight of their daily routine!

Franz Kafka, however, passionately rejects the pastime of curling up on the couch with a relaxing book.  Instead, […]

By |November 10, 2014|

Reading and Thinking: Separation Anxiety

Richard Rodriguez grew up in Sacramento, California, the ambitious and socially awkward son of Mexican immigrants.  English was his second language, and so he felt, as a teenager, that he had something to prove.  One morning, he chanced upon an English professor’s list of the “hundred most important books in Western civilization,” and Rodriguez, in a fit of idealism, proceeded to read every book on the list.

Rodrigues writes: “Most books, of course, I barely understood.  While reading Plato’s Republic, for instance, I needed to keep looking at the book jacket comments to remind myself what the text was about.  Nevertheless, with the special patience and superstition of a scholarship boy, I looked at every word of the text.  And by the time I reached the last word, relieved, I convinced myself that I had read The Republic.  In a ceremony of great pride, I solemnly crossed Plato off my list.” (Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory, 68)

Reading and thinking, though they might be blood brothers, are not the same thing.  Certainly, reading provides the grist for the mill of reflective thought; it exposes the reader to new ideas, experiences and sentiments that are the keys to deeper thinking.  But reading can easily become a passive activity that provides us with the perfect excuse for avoiding independent thought.

“Reading becomes dangerous when instead of waking us to the personal life of the spirit, it tends to substitute itself for it, when truth no longer appears to us as an ideal we can realize only through the intimate progress of our thought and the effort of our heart, but as a material thing, deposited between the leaves of books like honey ready-made by others, and which we have […]

By |November 5, 2014|

Why I Read

I am a reader.  By which, I mean to say, reading is not simply one of the many activities that make up my day.  For me – and I suspect many others – reading is an essential part of my identity; it is a natural and constant part of my life.  I eat, I sleep, I pray, I read – at this stage in my life, reading is less a choice than a basic daily need.  In between Torah study, diaper changing and making lunches for the kids, reading a book (or books) always finds a place in my day, however hectic the day might be.

For much of my life, I unthinkingly considered the act of reading to be an absolute, unadulterated good.  The underlying message of the children’s television show, Reading Rainbow (“I can go anywhere…”) – reinforced by my parents and teachers – was that good kids read.  Simple as that!

But why? What value is there in spending our limited leisure time on our own, curled up on the couch with a book?

Before diving into high minded justifications for immersing ourselves in books, let’s be honest: reading can be addictively pleasurable.  A good author captures our attention and emotions; we are absorbed, fascinated, even carried away, as the words on the page come alive and evoke powerful feelings of identification and sympathy.  And reading also offers a more sophisticated form of pleasure; that of “being in the close company of someone more thoughtful than you but whose thoughts, owing to the courtesy of clarity, are handsomely accessible to you. (Joseph Epstein, The Intimate Abstraction of Paul Valery).

But pleasure alone doesn’t capture the subtle but very real importance of reading literature.  As Rav […]

By |October 29, 2014|

“On That Day”: Judaism, Christianity and Conversion

At the time of Jesus’ death, around the year 30 CE, his followers consisted only of a small group of Jews who had accepted Jesus as the messiah.  Three hundred and fifty years later, in the year 380 CE, the    Roman emperor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica, officially adopting Trinitarian Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire.  The spread of Christianity and its success in converting    millions of pagans is extraordinary in its own right; but it is particularly striking when compared with the fate of Christianity’s mother religion, Judaism, and those who remained loyal to traditional Judaism.    The size of the Jewish population at this time is uncertain, and debated by historians.  Yet it is abundantly clear that, in the centuries following the destruction of the second temple and the devastation of the  Bar Kochba revolt, Judaism attracted a comparatively small number of converts.  Judaism remained, principally, a religion restricted to a particular people, while Christianity became a world-wide religion,  adopted by a wide variety of peoples throughout the Roman Empire.

Scholars have offered a number of reasons to explain Christianity’s extraordinary growth: it’s missionary zeal, it’s doctrine of a future life, the miraculous powers ascribed to the early church, and the unity and  discipline of the early Christians.  But in addition to these explanations, Edward Gibbon argues that a principal cause of Christianity’s success was its shedding of what he terms the “unsocial” aspects of its  mother religion, Judaism:

“The Jewish religion was admirably fitted for defense, but it was never designed for conquest; and it seems probable that the number of proselytes was never much superior to that of apostates… In the admission of new citizens […]

By |October 22, 2014|

Speak Truth

“The nobles of Persia, in the bosom of luxury and despotism, preserved a strong sense of personal gallantry and national honor.  From the age of seven years they were taught to speak truth, to shoot with the bow, and to ride; and it was universally confessed, that in the two last of these arts they had made a more than common proficiency.” (Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter viii)

“No man quite understands his own artful dodges from the grim shadow of self-knowledge.” (Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim) The art of speaking truth, it seems, is not as easily mastered as the skills of horse-riding and archery.  The difficulty in speaking the truth, simple as it may sound, is not hard to explain.  Truth is generally insensitive, and often harsh; it stubbornly refuses to account for the fragile egos of those who stumble upon it.  And so, particularly when ‘truth’ relates to ourselves, we avoid it speaking about it like the plague.  “Truth is a torch, but a monstrously huge one; which is why we are all just intent on getting past it, our eyes blinking as we go, ever terrified of getting burnt. (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections).

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, recognized the difficulty – and greatness – of speaking truth about oneself.  He writes that “if a man is able to settle his mind and reflect, and perceives that he is drowning in falsehood, and that even his service of God is rooted in falsehood, and he cries out to God and yearns to draw close to the truth, he will arouse the attribute of truth from above and draw […]

By |September 17, 2014|

When Books become Vegetables

With lofty ambition and high minded intentions, I erect small libraries of books upon my night table, eagerly anticipating the vacation I’ve planned for months.  Finally – finally! – there will be time to work through the collection of edifying, ‘nutritious’ books that I’ve assembled over the course of the year based on glowing book reviews and recommendations from friends.  But inevitably, I find myself sitting on a lounge chair, struggling through chapter 2 of Thinking Fast and Slow (which, as Jordan Ellenberg quipped, is more slow than fast), wondering what the fuss is all about.  It’s a terrible conundrum; continuing with the book is a painful proposition, but putting it away is an admission of defeat.  And so, unwilling to give up without a fight, I chip away at chapters 3 and 4 and slowly wade into the endless abyss of chapter 5, finally slipping into a well-deserved nap.  But that’s as far as I get; back from vacation – and still in the middle of chapter 5 – I guiltily return the book to my night table, where it will slowly be buried by next year’s collection of unread books.

I’m not the first person, I suspect, to force myself to continue a book that I’ve started, believing, somehow, that it is ‘good for me’ – like green peppers and raw carrots.  But Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century author, would disapprove:  “Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study.  I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together.  A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task […]

By |September 10, 2014|