Elie

About Rabbi Elie Mischel

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So far Rabbi Elie Mischel has created 68 entries.

A Christian Writer’s Defense of Orthodox Halacha

At the height of World War II, the great Christian author, C.S. Lewis, published The Abolition of Man – a short but powerful argument for the continued relevance of traditional values in contemporary society.  In his spirited defense of traditional morality and natural law – which he refers to as the “Tao,” for convenience – Lewis rejects the moral relativism of modern thinkers who seek to undermine the legitimacy of traditional values. Over time, this concise book – more accurately described as a long essay – has achieved renown as one of the greatest works of non-fiction written in the 20th century.

Reading Lewis’ penetrating words from a traditional Jewish perspective, it struck me that his arguments in defense of tradition could also be read as a powerful defense of traditional Jewish law (Halacha).  Simply replacing the word “Tao” with “Halacha” yields a powerful defense of Orthodox Judaism against the arguments of modern reformers, who argue that traditional Halacha must be changed in order to remain “relevant” to the modern Jew.

The following are direct quotations from C.S. Lewis, with only one change: I have replaced the word “Tao” with “Halacha”:
 “A theorist about language may approach his native tongue, as it were, from outside, regarding its genius as a thing that has no claim on him and advocating wholesale alterations of its idiom and spelling in the interests of commercial convenience or scientific accuracy… A great poet, who has loved, and been well nurtured in, his mother tongue, may also make great alterations in it, but his changes of the language are made in the spirit of the language itself: he works from within…  It is the difference between alteration from within and alteration from without: […]

By |January 8, 2015|

Rationalism: A Hard, Tasteless Piece of Meat

Tsemakh Atlas, the tortured protagonist of Chaim Grade’s classic novel, The Yeshiva, was besieged by religious doubt.  “He felt someone unknown pounding at his mind, as though beating fists on closed gates… ‘Do you even really believe in a Creator who gave the Torah?’ Trying desperately free himself of these doubts, Tsemakh began to burrow into medieval philosophical texts.  But the old Jewish philosophers, whose style and ideas were Aristotelian, asserted that it would be incomprehensible to conceive of the existence of the world without a Creator – and that sort of philosophy exhausted Tsemakh; it bored him and made his head ache with despair at finding nothing there to help him.  It also left him with a feeling of nausea, as if he were chewing a hard, tasteless piece of meat that did not stay his hunger but lodged in his cavities and between his teeth.”

We live in a world in which rationality and reason rule the roost.  Rationalists insist that our beliefs be based upon the pillars of knowledge and reason – upon hard facts, if we are fortunate to have them, and upon clear minded, logical thinking.  Clear thinking and “modern” people are happy to argue for or against the existence of God, but those “vague” emotions, those ineffable impressions and experiences of God – these feelings are deemed irrelevant, even unworthy of acknowledgement in the public square.  And so blockbuster movies that are based upon Biblical stories – like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings – bend over backwards to remove any experiences of the Divine from the story.  In today’s movies, God does not (or cannot?) speak to Noah directly, and Moshe is portrayed as a schizophrenic who hears […]

By |December 31, 2014|

Newspapers: Worth the Time?

The sweet pleasure of reading a printed newspaper, and the attendant joys of retrieving it from the bushes in front of the house, will no doubt be lost to future generations.  But the fascination with news, in whatever form it is imbibed, will no doubt continue.  Every day, millions of people tune into to news radio, watch it on television, and read (or, more likely, skim) articles upon articles of news online.

But is there any value in this mass obsession?  Henry David Thoreau, critical as usual, thought not: “I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.  If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked… we need never read of another.  One is enough.  If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad of instances and applications?” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond)  Though the names and characters change, the underlying stories to be found in newspapers remain the same.  The masses turn to newspapers for novelty and excitement, but in reality, the “newness” of newspapers is superficial; there is nothing new under the sun.

C.S. Lewis agreed, and derided those educators who encourage in adolescents the bad habit of reading newspapers.  “I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers.  Nearly all that a boy reads in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost importance.  Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired […]

By |December 22, 2014|

Spires and Towers

In his spiritual memoir, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis describes his first trip to Oxford University as a young man in 1916.  A scholarly boy, Lewis travelled to this fabled center of learning, known as the “city of dreaming spires,” with tremendous anticipation.  But upon leaving the train station, Lewis became more and more bewildered; could this succession of “mean shops” and unimpressive streets really be Oxford?  Lewis walked through the unimpressive town until he reached open country; only then did he turn around and look.  “There, behind me… never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers.  I had come out of the [train] station on the wrong side and been all this time walking into the mean and sprawling suburb of Botley.  I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life.”  The glories of Oxford, its spires and towers, were right behind Lewis, after all.  All he had to do was turn around.

The spiritual seekers of our community – and there are more than we realize! – are frustrated; they are yearning for “spires and towers,” but finding none.  Though we constantly fill our days with the rituals and obligations of Judaism – religious, communal and social – we are left with a gnawing feeling that somehow, we are missing the main course.  For the most part, Judaism is perceived and experienced as a set of ritual and ethical practices – practices that may make us better people, but which have little relevance to our deep, inner yearning for a relationship with the eternal.  We know that there must be something deeper, something far more extraordinary in Judaism – if only […]

By |December 16, 2014|

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|