Thursday, January 21, 2010

Free to Be Free

So, last weekend I went to a Bat Mitzvah ceremony.  Nothing unusual or especially noteworthy about that, but this wasn't a Bat Mitzvah at a Reform Jewish temple, like my own Congregation Adas Emuno, or even a Conservative synagogue.  No, this was a Bat Mitzvah at an Orthodox shul, and not just Orthodox, but Chasidic.  If you're unfamiliar with that form of Judaism, here's a link to the wikipedia entry, under the alternate spelling of Hasidic Judaism.

Some consider the Chasidim (Hebrew plurals end with "im" or "eem" for masculine nouns) to be ultra-Orthodox, but it is not just a matter of a one-dimensional scale measuring greater or lesser Orthodoxy.  Rather, the Chasidim are an alternative to Modern Orthodox Judaism, and they were originally a reform movement in their own right, diverging in many ways from Ashkenazic Jewish traditions.  
Chasidism was also the first movement to popularize the Kabbalah, moving it from an elitist pursuit to mysticism for the masses; and of course in recent years the Kabbalah has been popularized anew, and taken outside of a Jewish context to some extent (e.g., Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell).  The respected 20th century philosopher Martin Buber, noted for his discourse concerning I-Thou (and the idea of the eclipse of God), was very much taken with Chasidism.  Chasids have sometimes been compared to the Amish because of their 19th century style of dress.

Chasidism is a movement that is actually composed of numerous separate sects, albeit all stemming from a common ancestor, an 18th century rabbi popularly known as the Ba'al Shem Tov.  One of the biggest of these sects is the Lubavitchers, and the particular Bat Mitzvah I attended was held at the Lubavitch on the Palisades.  Their Chabad movement is very open and inviting, and does not require (but encourages) the kind of extreme observance that their leadership practices.  Almost none of the men present at the service wore the 19th century style of dress, and many were not fluent with their manner of prayer (all in Hebrew, and very rapid, much faster than I myself can manage).

But they did maintain the traditional separation between the sexes, so that the women were all at the rear of the sanctuary, and hidden behind movable, translucent screens.  It wasn't until I got there that the thought occurred to me--how the hell are they going to do a Bat Mitzvah?  And as it turns out, they did not waver from tradition.  The women were free to pray along, but could not take the lead in any part of the service, nor could they be called up to read from the Torah, or say the blessings over the holy scroll.  

But what then?  The whole point of the boy's Bar Mitzvah ceremony is for the boy to demonstrate that he can read the ancient Hebrew calligraphy directly from the Torah, and in passing this literacy test, be initiated into adulthood.  The Reform movement introduced equality of the sexes, and with it the Bat Mitzvah ceremony for girls, and the Conservative branch of Judaism followed suit.  Clearly, these ultra-Orthodox congregations were trying to incorporate this contemporary addition to the tradition as well, but how?

As it turns out, at no point did the Bat Mitzvah girl take part in the ceremony.  There were occasional mentions that it was her Bat Mitzvah, her father was given a place of honor, and male family members and friends were called up to say the blessings over the Torah.  But it was only once the service was over that the screens were moved aside, and she was invited up to pulpit to give a speech, and she gave a short Bat Mitzvah speech.  It included her telling us about her Bat Mitzvah project, which involves charitable acts and forms of social action.  But this took place outside of the actual service.

All this is a bit of a preamble, although I think it worthwhile to report on this experience, as I myself had no idea there was such a thing as an Orthodox Bat Mitzvah, or what it would entail.  But what I wanted to relate to you was something of the Rabbi's sermon that caught my imagination.

I should add that one of the distinctive features of the Chasidic movement was a shift from a tradition of somber, serious, often mournful religious observance to one that emphasized joy and love, music and dancing, and celebration.  The sense of joy and optimism was apparent to me in the Rabbi's attitude, and this is related, to some degree, to the Messianic fervor of the Chasidic movement.  They believe that the Messiah will come, that he's coming sooner rather than later, and that doing mitzvahs (fulfilling God's laws and commandments) have a direct effect in hastening the Messiah's arrival, and the establishment of paradise on earth.  Every prayer and every good deed counts, and has a real power in this way of thinking!  

Actually, some among the Lubavitchers believe that the Messiah has already come, in the form of the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, whom they still refer to as "the Rebbe"--you might well ask how anyone could continue to entertain the belief that he is the Messiah after his death, but of course there is ample precedent for that, dating back a couple of thousand years.

I should interject that my own branch of Reform Judaism does not take the concept of the Messiah all that seriously, and instead suggests that we all have to work together to bring about a Messianic Age.  And although we are on the opposite end of the spectrum from the ultra-Orthodox, Reform congregations have incorporated aspects of Chasidic ceremonies into our services.

So, anyway, back to the Rabbi's sermon, where he talked about the terrible devastation from the earthquake in Haiti, and emphasized that, unlike in the past, this time every nation on earth had come to the aid of the citizens of that Caribbean country. And he took that as evidence that we are living in Messianic times.  Whether he meant that the Messiah's arrival was immanent, or that his arrival had already happened, was left ambiguous, no doubt to reflect the difference of opinion among the Lubavitchers themselves, as they wait for the question to be resolved by some further action or event.

 I admire that perspective, and the sense of hope and optimism that goes with it, even if I don't exactly share the same beliefs.  I also liked the fact that the Rabbi noted the commonality between the Haitians, who fought for their freedom not only as a nation, but for their freedom from slavery, from France and Napoleon.  And he related it all to the week's Torah portion.  I found the message inspiring, and in searching for the source of the Talmudic commentary, I found that his sermon was drawing from an essay posted on the website of another Lubavitcher congregation, Chabad Prospect Heights (fair use, as sermonizing goes).  The essay, by Rabbi Y. Y. Jacobson, is entitled Haiti: When the Slaves of Haiti Revolted Against Napoleon, and you can click on the title to read it in its entirety.  But for now, I want to call your attention to an excerpt:

When Napoleon suddenly invaded Russia on June 23 1812 (Hitler also suddenly invaded Russia on June 22 1941), most leaders of Russian Jewry enthusiastically supported Napoleon as the man who would finally grant liberty and equality to the isolated and persecuted Jews. Some Jews even hailed him as a Messiah. There was one leader, Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the founder of Chabad [aka Lubavitch Chasidic sect] and one of the greatest Jewish thinkers and leaders, who loathed Napoleon. He felt that the French emperor’s thirst for power and self-aggrandizement knew no bounds and that his secret motif tearing down the ghetto walls was not human dignity but a desire to take over the world and to destroy the inner spiritual and religious core of the Jewish people. The Rebbe believed that Napoleon would cause mass Jewish assimilation and millions of Jews would be lost to our people and he actively supported the Czar against Napoleon.

When Napoleon advanced deep into Russia, Rabbi Schnuer Zalman, not wanting to live under his rule, fled. He passed away on December 27, 1812 (the 24th of Taves 5573), while running from Napoleon.
Indeed, when it came to the half-a-million black slaves in Haiti, the ethos of freedom was obliterated from Napoleon’s vocabulary. The fact remains that the Haitian slaves are the first to collectively and successfully overthrow their colonial masters, in this case, the French. The slaves ended Napoleon’s ambition to dominate the Americas and have paved the way for the first black republic. After the Egyptian Exodus, this is the first recorded instance in history where a nation of slaves set themselves free.
The tragedy of Haiti is that if it was a hell on earth under slavery, it did not change after the slave revolt. Africans plucked and sent to Haiti to work under the lash and suddenly freed were not a model constituency for civil society. Some of the former slaves became tyrants. Haiti went from the largest sugar exporter in the world to chaos. The plantations were deserted. The former slaves refused to work on the places they were enslaved. Haiti may have been called “the mother of liberty,” but after 200 years of independence, it remains an impoverished and troubled nation. Two-thirds of the country’s workers are unemployed, and most Haitians live on about $1 a day. Life expectancy is little more than 50 years.
The last thing Haiti needed was this devastating earthquake. It is our duty and privilege to help this crushed nation and an ode to the United States of America for contributing 100 million dollars to rebuilding the country.

He then proceeded to discuss the passage in the Torah which, somewhat unexpectedly, indicates that God tells Moses to tell the children of Israel first that their slaves must be freed, before going to deliver the same message to Pharaoh.  Of course, as slaves themselves, the Israelites had no slaves, so this was a matter of instructing them about how to behave in the future, when things got better for them.  And here now is the part of the essay that really moves me:

The Jews were now groaning under Pharaoh’s yoke. What sense is there is instructing them that one day – psychologically a million light years away—they ought to free their slaves.

What is more, as the Torah states, “G-d commanded them to the children of Israel, and to Pharaoh the king of Egypt to let the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” Before sending them to the Egyptian leader to liberate the downtrodden slaves, G-d first sends Moses and Aaron to instruct the Jews that one day after many many years they must set free their own slaves. What’s the connection between the two things?

Who Is Free?

The answer is simple and moving, and it is a critical idea for history.

The message the Torah is trying to convey is that freedom is a gift and you are only entitled to it if you are ready to share it with others. If you are enslaving others, you deprive yourself of the right to be free.

This is true not only morally but also psychologically.

Before Pharaoh could liberate the Jewish slaves, they must be ready to become free. You can extricate a man from slavery, but you cannot extricate the slavery from within the man, that is up to him alone. He must learn to take responsibility to create his own life and make his own decisions. He must learn the joy and dignity of freedom, of self-accountability, and of self-respect.

What is the first symptom of bring free? That you bestow freedom on others.

The dictator, the control freak, or the abusive spouse or parent, is not only an enslaver but also a slave. He is too small, too insecure, mediocre, narrow minded, to allow others to shine. He feels compelled to force others into the mold that he has created for them because he never truly embraced himself as a free human being. He lives in a cycle of psychological imprisonment, in fear lest someone else overshadow him, expose his failings, or usurp his position. Outwardly he attempts to appear powerful and successful, but inwardly he is miserable and alone, shackled and insecure.

The truly free human being is comfortable with himself or herself in a very deep place. He is aware that he has his individual calling in life, and that no one can replace his true contribution. He knows that he has a light all his own, but that others carry a light all their own and must be encouraged to share that light.

Only when one learns to embrace others, not for whom he would like them to be, but for whom they are, then can he begin to embrace himself, not for whom he wishes he was, but for whom he is. When we free those around us, we are freeing ourselves. By accepting them, we learn to accept ourselves.

Who is powerful? He who empowers. Who is free? He who can free others. Who is a leader? He who creates other leaders.

 And that last paragraph pretty much sums it up for me, sums it so very, very well.  Indeed it bears repeating, and highlighting:

 Who is powerful? He who empowers.

Who is free? He who can free others.

 Who is a leader? He who creates other leaders.

Amen, and mazel tov!

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