To Infinity and Beyond.

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Purim and then Pesach dragged me from drunkenness to strict sobriety, from freedom to boa-like constriction. Wandering through Jerusalem on the eve of Purim, its buildings came alive with music, bodies, reddened with wine, struck dance moves at odds with the pulse of the music. Out of sync but still unified, they danced as though alone with the beat. Bouncing. Who knew people could fly? Eyes shut, jumping to experience a moment’s escape from this world, jumping just high enough to peer over the fence into Infinity’s Garden. Or perhaps it was the shock of hitting hard, solid ground again that sparked the delight? Was it the going up or the coming back down? Or both? Perhaps going up meant that upon coming down we gained the ability to laugh at the apparent finitude that Reality loves fooling us with. Yes, Purim was a journey of the absurd. Control abandoned, those strong walls that customarily separate Id, Ego and Superego crumble, and internal worlds stream into one another – hazardous waves, high enough for us to surf.

But Purim slipped quickly into Pesach: a journey of a very different kind. While Purim saw me gingerly leaving my comfort zone, I was now deep in the woods. Chavrutot had had me  greedily tasting everything: ‘Ecclesiastes’ ; ‘Song of Songs’ ; ‘The Kuzari’; Rambam’s ‘Guide to the Perplexed’ but fruit never entirely satisfies, and I found myself seeking something more substantial.

I have been learning in a ‘safe’ environment; one where people reproach each other on the slightest mispronunciation of vowel-less Hebrew text, but affirm with conviction the existence of a benevolent God. Some say that Adam, biblical ‘first man’, ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil so that he would then need to strive for his place in paradise. What is there to a life without struggle or tension? I was off to find that tree.

With all the naivety of a child assuming herself indestructible, I walked away from that benign shelter, ignoring the reassuring trail of breadcrumbs, and plunged into the darkest part of the woods. In the distance I could now see the enchanted house: I would return, back to England for Pesach, back home. Journeys like this tug dangerously at the youthful threads of life’s carpet. With every step forward I took, my desire to look back grew. I was going home but was I equipped? Had I fully understood the challenge that the domestic would throw at my faith?

The flight boarded, my nerves tightened. I feared turbulence would turn to tragedy. As a child I loved to fly: roller-coaster butterflies fluttering during take-off and landing; hostesses handing out small colouring books to restless children; the distinct taste of neatly compartmentalised airplane food and the gallery of distorted, drooling, open-mouthed sleepers. But, then again, as a child everything was easy, possibilities endless – but you get older and such possibilities lose their charm.

My eyes were squeezed so tightly shut that colourful, fuzzy circles began drifting in a sea of black; my slippery hands were pointlessly clenching the indifferent grey armrest. And why was I nervous? It dawned on me that every plane ride I took would, like a sharpener, refine the tip of the pencil that would one day write the story of my life. What had started out a childish desire for adventure was fast becoming my fast-track ticket out of ‘Never-Never Land’.

A minus 8-degree arrival was a more severe welcome than I had anticipated. Home – my imaginary ‘house in the woods’ – was all cake-crumbs and marzipan – little had I guessed how cold it would be! I was numbed physically but also emotionally. It seemed as though my mouth (which has strived unceasingly all year to shape the language of the bible) had been anaesthetised. Had I not listened as a child when told not to speak with my mouth full?

Pesach was fast approaching; let’s face it, a festival hardly known for its culinary delights (unless of course you are my Father and you wait impatiently each year for ‘Cinnamon Balls’ and ‘Bubaleh’, and by ‘impatiently’ I mean, you eat those foods all year round!) I was looking forward to the verbal exchanges I would enjoy at the Seder, when it seems we eat only to replenish the power to speak.

On my return to England I visited a Scottish university. While there, I had faced a cascade of questions from non-Jewish girls curious to find out all about this strange, wondrously mythical creature: the Jew. But the challenge that lay ahead was more daunting; explaining the Jew to the Jews! My Seder table would be as diverse as the Seder plate. The bitter Jew, like a stalk of horseradish, resembling a tree-trunk ripped from its roots and branches; the hard, stubborn Jew who, like the shank bone, has been burnt with the years; the joker who, like the odoriferous Egg, tries to overwhelm the guests; the one whose participation (if the atmosphere consents) is like parsley and goes fairly well with any dish; and the one who tries to bring all of these types together: the Charoset of the bunch.

Sitting at Seder, ‘chad pa’ami’ (single serving) bowls lined the table and familiar, ageing faces took their places. I had banked on making this experience a successful one, but who knew what dark plans were unfolding in the minds of the guests. As we began this meal of orders, my father’s opening order was to pour the first cup. I watched with déjà vu as red liquid danced to the top of my glass. The last time I had faced a cup so large, filled with this spiller-of-secrets, was 30 days before: Purim. Back then, apprehensive, I knew I would be entering an unknown garden where trees stretched out their fruitful branches even to strangers. But this time I knew my crowd. Surrounded by family, I was all too aware of the curved matzo balls that are so easily thrown. At Purim, I was floating, unaware of the shore I was approaching, but Seder night, flushed with wine, the sea parted and I could see the way. A familiar text (and pillow) to lean on, the atmosphere warmed as if in harmony with my feelings.

My house in the woods was indeed enchanted; the wine relieved the chill of just hours earlier and each guest imparted something of value. Scepticism helped us delve deeper and discuss further the ambiguities of the Pesach Haggada. It became evident that conflicting characters adorned our table like the four cups of wine. Here, there was room for all four sons. This house I had imagined as made of cake and confectionary could for once be enjoyed, free of sorcery!

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Chaos and order danced together throughout that Seder night. It didn’t matter that some of us understood the traditional Haggada tales as myth, others as fact and still others as metaphor. The structure of the Pesach meal could easily support all of these outlooks. Purim may have allowed for a peek at The Infinite but, paradoxically, the glimpse was only fleeting. Around the Seder table, however, a few loosening sips of wine and we all felt the presence of infinity. There seemed no end to the telling of our tale, from our birth as a people up to the present moment. Appositely, Rav Hutner explores (in ‘Pachad Yitzchak’) the importance of ‘haste’ to the Israelites baking matzot before leaving Egypt. According to him, this has less to do with their being harried by the Egyptians and more to do with a race against time itself as Israel experienced the transition from a people to a nation and strove to transcend the prison of time and become the children of infinity.

Both Seder nights over, I was straight back on a plane to Israel. Unlike the traditional end to the story, where the curious children finally make it home after escaping that enchanted house in the wood, I saw no harm in returning. If structure could be constructed in the midst of disorder, like it had been in London that Seder night, I no longer felt afraid of the unknown; my uncertain future.

I will leave you with a short but insightful phrase that my Grandfather E-mailed me after our lively discussion at the Seder:

“Debate is no guarantee of arriving at the truth, but at least it opens a door for the search for truth to continue.”

A search I believe to be endless.

Learn to create difference.

I have not written a blog post in a while, the confusion I so naively venerated in my previous posts caught up with me, and I have felt chewed up and swallowed for quite some time. Before, I felt i could control my energy, I could shoot my energy, like a ball, towards some aspect of my confusion and something like the previous posts would emerge. But recently this has felt impossible. Confusion retaliated, attacked this pure energy and enmeshed it. My mind was quick to shut down every time the beginnings of an idea would form, leaving a flickering, frustrated spark, unable to find enough fuel to ignite. The confusion didn’t stop there either; it was attacking with a vengeance. The days where I had no will to learn, I felt compelled to pick up a book that I knew would make me feel completely bewildered about my existence in Midrasha. To some extent these feelings linger. Even now I type with knotted palms and a significant desire to stop writing every few minutes. (Just so you know, I spent the past 45 minutes on this website http://deanjackson.dj/nameanagram/index.php looking up anagrams of people’s names and laughing to myself- anything to avoid writing!)

But I am writing now aren’t I? There must be some kind of breakthrough going on if I can now sit down, despite the enormous effort involved, and write something coherent.

I have just come back from a three-day hike in the desert (Eilat). The trip was not particularly meditative, but I had one thought that seems to have succeeded in unclogging a stubbornaaaazebeenyaaaa blockage within me.

What I learn is not necessarily all for me.

What do I mean? Yes, at first I did not quite understand why this thought brought me a sort of relief. But I think I understand a little better now. There are days when I simply cannot bring myself to learn anything beyond the routine four hours of Gemarah we have each morning. These feelings of inertia I believe are driven by, well, quite simply, heretical thoughts. Thoughts that the material I am learning is not relevant to me and that belief is for the weak who are unable to face the possibility that life is meaningless. I think you all understand. My thoughts, thankfully, do not stop here.

Why is it that we learn? I am not talking specifically about Jewish learning, but all learning. When the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, ““Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” he really was referring to ALL. We could have these feelings about anything we learn at any point.

I don’t wish to explore every aspect of this question. But one idea that has stood out to me over the last few days was that we learn in order to teach. Others form so much of who we are, that we have a reciprocal duty to help them as well. I concluded that I would not feel as though I were doing my job as a teacher (of sorts) with very much integrity were I merely passing along those teachings that satisfied me. I am aware that when we teach others it is inevitable we emphasise information we consider most valuable. However, something seeming of little worth to us now may be of infinite value to another (or to ourselves) at a later stage. I believe we have a responsibility to be able to transmit at least a little of something beyond that which we take momentarily to be central to our own, present lives. This is an idea, I feel, that will help me when I face difficulties or a lack of enthusiasm whilst learning. The more we learn and the wider the variety of teachings we expose ourselves to, the more valuable we become, both to ourselves and to others.

Part of the beauty of this world is its overwhelming diversity, the subtle differences as well as the striking contrasts. The 28-degree weather in Eilat, while storms rage in Migdal Oz! When the bible relates that God ‘punished’ the people who rebelled at Babel because they built a tower to reach the heavens, He gave them all different languages and dispersed them over the face of the earth. OK, it was a punishment, but was not something precious achieved here as well?

Everyone enjoys feeling special and unique (just look at the growth in numbers of Indie/Hipster types). What, more than anything, helps us feel this way? Surely part of the answer is: what we discover makes us different from those around us. You may ask then, why do people talk of ‘putting aside differences’ for the sake of peace? This seems to imply that the ideal is a world where we are as similar to one another as possible. Even the phrase, ‘to embrace our differences’ seems to possess undertones of a suffocating embrace rather than one that frees. As if making others’ differences a part of ourselves were tantamount to appreciating the other, when in reality we are consuming individuality.

twoloversTake the example of two lovers, for instance. We often talk of the ideal love as one where the two lovers become ‘One’; their differences as people suddenly eliminated. Is this really idyllic? What seems to make for a successful relationship is one where one partner succeeds in making the other partner appreciate their own separateness. It does not seem coincidental to me that the most intimate act between two people, whilst bringing them closer also serves to reveal to the couple just how separate they really are. It seems as though the ‘One’ they should become is one system, where each part helps the other to stay afloat, separate from the surrounding sea of people.

Reading this over it seems I have followed a winding path that seems to fade into its surroundings, rather than arrive at a definite destination. So with that I think I’ll end this post.

Responses and questions are welcome. (hanna@baderman.org.uk)

You want to open your eyes? Open your mind.

Leaving Israel for London was difficult, but leaving London to return was hard. The constant pull and push, the so-called  ‘home sick’ feeling corresponded to the two different places at once. Can it be that I am emotionally attached to two fantastically dissimilar countries?  Where is the loyalty in that? Answers, I can reveal, are not exactly forthcoming.Image

On a free day in London I visited the Tate Britain to see the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. I do not know a huge amount about art, except I like it.I feel uncomfortable walking through an art gallery though,I cringe at the imposed dignity (just as I would were I in an open-plan, public lavatory). Only once I succeed at ignoring my immediate surroundings can I ‘get in the zone’ and enter the territory of paintings…

They were magical; the paintings grabbed at some part of you, seducing you, they transported you to a world only slightly different from the one they bid you to leave, but that slight difference made all the difference. I felt a kind of recognition, a sort of, ‘I’ve been here before’. Putting aside the fact that Christ was in the painting, Holman Hunt’s image ‘The Light of the World’ possessed, for me, a deep sense of mystery and awe, a feeling, I decided, probably not unlike the sense of reverie attainable when furiously studying religious text. Rav Kook may have found the light of God in the works of Rembrandt, but I felt pretty sure that if this light existed, some had been hidden here as well.

Hunt’s ‘The Scapegoat’ left a profound impression as well. I felt as though I had understood more through his painting than from learning its source, Leviticus, where the goat, driven off a cliff whilst bearing the sins of the community, is described. The way Hunt painted the animal, weak and stumbling, tragically grotesque before a pallid palate of pale purples, a passive landscape, made me flinch.  Having been drawn in by the colours, it was the details that absorbed my attention. Looking closely, I noticed a skeleton in the Dead Sea in which the goat stood, and more specifically, the remnants of another goat thrown into the sea, its horns drifting on the surface. So the picture seemed not only to imply the discarding of present sins, but of past sins too. Disturbingly, the remains of the previous sacrificial goat were still afloat, haunting the painting’s background. And then I noticed the positioning of the floating horns, their arching curve sprouted directly from the shimmering curved reflexion of the moon. Through this minute detail a burst of inspiration. A mesmerising and beautiful painting also became a comment on the lingering presence of sin and its oppressive and lunar-like cyclical nature.

Feeling both inspired and tormented after the exhibition, my mind quickly turned to seminary. The feelings of wonder, recognition, elation and alarm I had just felt were not emotions I was accustomed to feeling whilst learning in seminary. Why? It cannot be that words on a page do not move me, because they do. And it is not as though I am never emotionally stimulated whilst studying here in Israel. It must be that there are some experiences we can only gain in reaction to certain media, and for each person that media may be different or may be many different mediums.

Perhaps this experience summarised why I later found it so difficult to leave England again. Studying in Israel is an incredibly trying but instructive experience. I have come here for a year to learn, but there are more ways to learn than one and some ways more effective than others. It struck me then why I felt this sort of dissatisfaction with my learning in Israel. The kind of institution I am a part of may offer many different topics of study but it also foregrounds one way to learn them. You must sit, the presence of a book or an accumulation of texts is preferable and you must not leave your area of intense study unless you need to relieve yourself or satisfy hunger. Having already, without ‘sufficient’ permission, taken 4 days off to complete a first aid training course and visited the Dead Sea, I am well aware of the consequences of breaking from ‘the routine’. I was told that I must let someone know every time I leave the seminary’s premises and may not leave for longer than one day at a time. I was reminded (as if I was not aware) that I had chosen to spend my year enriching my knowledge of Judaism and Judaic texts and that going off on ‘little adventures’ was going to negatively affect not only my experience here, but that of the girls around me as well. Admittedly (and ashamedly), I originally felt that perhaps I had been in the wrong and that I was in some ways disrespecting the institution. But after enough time to think, I wholeheartedly withdraw those sentiments.

It seems to me that this sort of rigidity often associated with religious establishments is exactly what drives so many intelligent and able Jews away. Who are we really accommodating when teaching and learning methods are so stringent? It seems that when similar establishments do not advocate the same level of intolerance to intellectual experimentation they are labelled ‘fluffy’ and ‘not serious enough’. Are we to make all those who cannot sit for hours on end in one place feel inadequate as potential Jewish scholars? I for one say absolutely not; and if I am made to feel like an outsider here because of it, well fine.

I have just experienced my 19th Chanukah and having given it more thought than usual I think the festival contains a lot of wisdom regarding Jewish approaches to the pursuit and understanding of knowledge.

“May God expand (or beautify) Yefet and may he (Yefet) dwell in the tents Shem” (Gen. 9:27)

The Talmud’s reading of this verse transforms Yefet and Shem into models for outward beauty (the Greeks) and inward beauty (Israel), respectively. The beauty of the Greeks finds shelter or perhaps even prospers ‘in the tents of Shem’. The Midrash adds: “Let the beauty of Yefet be incorporated into the tents of Shem,” which could mean our capacity to properly synthesise aspects of Greek culture with our Torah.

Shlomo Riskin, writes fascinatingly that (and I intend a rather long paraphrase), the Festival of Chanukah always coincides with the Torah portions recording the struggle between Joseph and his brothers. Parallels may be drawn between Joseph’s struggle with his brothers and Judaism’s struggle with Hellenism.
Joseph’s ancestors were shepherds, the pastoral life allowed his soul to soar; he may have composed music and poetry and meditated on the Torah and communicated with the Divine.

But, Joseph dreamt of a new world. His dreams placed man at their core and seemed to advocate man as the measure of all things. Man, and not God. Joseph was also referred to as beautiful, ‘yaffeh’, which resembles the Greek ‘Yaffet’. He seemed more to embody Greek Hellenism than Abrahamic Judasim; beauty signifying truth, rather than truth signifying beauty. But the narrative progresses and Joseph does develop and see God as the centre: “Not I, but rather God will interpret the dreams to the satisfaction of Pharaoh” (Gen. 41:15).  Joseph and Judah join together, Judah symbolizing Torah and Joseph the receiver of material prosperity. The two join, ‘Righteous’ and ‘Hellenist’ for the glory of Judaism.

The way I see it, like Joseph, just ignore the frustration and static nature of those around you and take the path perhaps slightly lonely and slightly different, but flourish consequently. We cannot all take the ‘straight and narrow’ to get to the final destination, wherever that is. As the name suggests there just is not enough room for us all, and no one likes congestion. Those around you may well lift up your clothes soaked in false blood and proclaim you lost (off the derech), but you ultimately decide your own fate, and the struggle to reach some sort of ‘true’ conclusion lies within you not between yourself and others. We cannot let those around us decide how and in what ways we should be curious and how we should search.

ImageAnd if you do feel constrained, as though your surroundings do not accommodate more than one ‘path’, do what this man did on the London Underground. Shut your eyes, hold on to one thing, and transform the most mundane surrounding into a meditative zone, or just a playground? Our world is just that, ours to transform as we will!

“I think therefore I am.” René Descartes.

Last week I was sitting front row at Tel Aviv fashion week, attempting to find some sort of connection between the feather-clad dresses and Talmud in order to justify my presence there. I left with a clear conscience, having been interviewed by ‘VICE’ magazine’s online documentary  ‘Fashion International’ about style in Israel, where I managed to bring in Talmudic sources and talk about the religious and chiloni communities. (The video should be up December 19th on their website).

The next thing I know Ahmed AlJabari has been targeted by the IDF and killed. ‘Click’. We’re in a state of war. The transformation: instantaneous. It was strange how I felt as though we had returned to the norm, as though we had been holding something very heavy, but being tickled ever so slightly under the arm, dropped it. And dare I say, as the fear level rose and the situation was revealed in all its seriousness, I also thought I heard a sigh of relief. Someone posted on Facebook, “Israelis are being so nice to each other. This war must be very serious.” And I have to say it feels much the same way it does when you fight with a family member and something much more serious occurs and it as if the argument just evaporates. Walking the streets of Jerusalem there is an air of unity that two weeks ago I was scared had been lost. Everyone seems to know his or her post. Families welcoming southern Israelis into their homes, young men putting their uniforms back on, the Kotel ringing with sound of Tehillim. But by far the most exciting has been the crowds of people who have taken to facebook, twitter and blogging to express, to respond, to debate and to conclude. Everyone has a voice, and now everyone has a voice they can make heard. I urge you to listen to these new voices. I don’t think it was for nothing that those who lead the Jewish people to victory were humble shepherds. It is more often those living on the outskirts who have a better view of what is going on, those who aren’t weighed down by the expectations of society.

Next week I am returning to England for a short while in order to attend University interviews and the like. I found myself feeling bad for leaving Israel at such a time. Why? I am not actively doing anything to mend the situation. My presence in Migdal Oz is not vital to the wellbeing of the Israelis in Southern Israel (however tempting it is for some of the girls here to convince themselves that their Torah learning has a direct impact on the war.) However I realise something. The situation, the war, the divide, the conflict are things that have not left my mind, not for a moment. Everyone is talking about it, during class, after class, at lunch, and when I am not talking about it, I’m thinking about it. Yes, even in the most trivial of situations. When I run at 6 30 am and I stop to recover from a stitch, I have the view of all Jerusalem and the surrounding Arab villages glowing golden-pink from the sun’s rising rays, I cannot help but wonder how it is that war is raging while this landscape seems so peaceful?

Then I think about the times when Israel was at war and I was in London. It is clear that I never gave the situation as much thought. Every day I read another article, watch another video or hear and gain a new perspective, but my conclusions are still anything but solid. So what is so important about thinking about what’s going on? This week I overheard (yes, I was eavesdropping on a conversation), one girl state that she didn’t see the point in all these political Facebook statuses and public demonstrations, she didn’t think they could change the situation. Well I believe the opposite. All change, I believe, starts with you, with the individual. If you are not going to think about the situation, who is?  Are we really willing to let things be, to sit passively while we wait for ‘authority’ to decide our fate, the fate of the Jewish people and the fate of the world? I know I’m not. “I think therefore I am”, so think for yourself, think all the time. Engage with the different and varying responses to what is going on and discuss how you feel with others. Talk to peers and to people more insightful than yourself. It seems to me that this is the way to instigate change. So many people idly regurgitate the contents of one article, unthinking, ignorant of the implications. Educate yourselves, because in reality we are our own best teacher.

There is one idea that I have always found striking and which I now find particularly relevant, the idea that saving one person is akin to saving the world. Our world, with the help of social media, has become a very small place indeed. The ‘online’ community spans the entire globe. One person, one small change, one death, one life, can make a significant change; it can alter the view of millions of people and actually change the world. Think about it.

Hello, my name is Hanna Baderman.

Having become the recipient of this year’s Yoni Jesner scholarship I set up this blog in order to document my year abroad in Israel. One of the many great things that Yoni did was that he wrote. He wrote primarily to himself, but  his invaluable advice has now been shared with many others. What Yoni wrote was sincere and honest, probably because his only audience was himself. Nevertheless, I hope to remain as honest and sincere in this blog as I would have been were I writing to myself.

Writing a blog is a more complicated task than it may seem. This being my first, I’m finding it especially hard to choose what sort of blog I want it to be. Writing involves finding and then refining your voice, or in some cases, deciding which of your many voices (thoughts) you will let speak for you. You are, after all, freeing your thoughts, clothing them with words and allowing them to enter the ‘public’, hopefully representing your ideas and feelings clearly and truthfully.  I was given some direction; this must be a blog documenting my experiences, thoughts and feelings while I study in Israel. This seems more like a ‘how to’ guide on writing a diary. So perhaps this is what I should do. Forget that this is a blog altogether and write a sort of ‘open diary’. Anyway, having thought a lot about what I want to say to start, and not having had any ‘light bulb’ moments, I thought I better just sit and see what comes out. Reckless? Perhaps, but maybe it will be more truthful.

The year I have ahead of me seems to be a chance to find where I stand in relation to moral, ethical and religious dilemmas. Well I am going to say it straight out; I don’t know where I stand just yet in relation to most things. I wake up each day and it feels as though I have been invaded by a new set of thoughts, a new perspective completely opposed to the one I held just the previous day. The conclusions which I struggled to form 5 hours prior (yes, that’s how much, or should I say little, sleep we get here) are turned to nought and I know I must strive again to reach that certain peacefulness which I managed just the day before. So all is in tumult. But rather than feel overwhelmed or frustrated by what dangerously resembles chaos, I have to say the experience is enjoyable. Something like going through the mess in your attic and once in a while stumbling across old treasures.

I just want to share two ideas I have learnt over the past few weeks which seem to be key to any form of personal development. One conclusion, (I hesitate when using that word- as it contradicts the very idea I am about to impart), that I have discovered whilst studying at Migdal Oz is that there is nothing wrong with feeling confused. In fact a state of confusion seems the healthiest state of mind to be in. A mind active, vibrant with questions, never satisfied seems better to me than one passively accepting what it’s taught. For every opinion, there exists an opposing one, for every ‘proof’, a rebuttal etc. Does this matter? No, what matters are the questions, the openings; they are what let people in, not shut them out.

Finally something very valuable I have learnt is to not be afraid to voice your ideas, even if you know they are lacking or incomplete. Sometimes, when saying something out loud, you can easier detect the faults within your own argument or you may find it easier to reach, comprehensively, the point you set out to make ‘internally’. Further, we sometimes underestimate those around us, do not realise that their experiences are strikingly similar to our own. It’s always good to remember that thoughts are expressed, even in the mind, using words, language. Language is, after all, a social phenomenon, and so it seems better to express your thoughts socially, amongst peers, especially if you are having trouble making sense of them on your own.