October 27, 2020 |

Echoes of Reality

When I was a college freshman at Boston University, one of the great Rabbis of our generation - Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik - passed away. I am embarrassed to say that I didn't yet know much about this impressive modern Orthodox Rabbi-philosopher[1]. I was not a rabbi, had no plans to be a rabbi and my studies in Judaism were still very immature. But I managed somehow to be among the attendees in the main room during his funeral service and remember vividly hearing the main eulogy. Though I did not understand all of it, it has stayed with me and is a message worth hearing this Rosh Hashana.

As is true of many great men, the Rav's (as Rabbi Soloveitchik was known) students and disciples have disagreed about his legacy. Was he really a philosopher or only a rabbinic scion? Did he really value modernity or was that an external face? What did he think about secular studies, Zionism, women's place in Judaism? The Rav was a complex individual and, like many great men, his own words - the message of his own shofar call -- have been understood differently according to the prejudices and inclinations of those who read them. Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, the Rav's brother, tried to explain what was special about this man in the history of the Jewish people and to do so, he turned first not to Torah, but to physics.

He explained that light (this is true of sound as well) experiences three kinds of changes when it goes from one medium to another. It can be reflected back, like a mirror, in which the light waves are returned back in the direction from which they came. It can be refracted, in which it changes speed and therefore direction, like a straw seems to bend in water. Or it can be diffracted in which it 'bends' around the new medium, like water crashing around a jetty. The Torah is compared to light in many places, such as Proverbs 6:23:"The candle is the mitzva (deed) and the Torah is the light." So, too, each of these three processes can be sued to transmit the heritage of the Jewish people from generation to generation.

For some people - and some generations - The Torah must only be reflected back to them, unchanged, unvarnished and whole. They may lack time or education, but if the Rabbi and teacher will take the rays of Torah and reflect them back, they will be nourished from its rays. (Incidentally, one of the traditional explanations of the Jewish people being "a light unto the nations" is that we are the moon to God's sun. The moon has no light of its own, but it reflects back to Earth the sun's rays. So too the Jewish people reflect back to all of humanity the reflection of divinity that we have been instructed to convey.)

But for some generations, the Torah cannot be properly appreciated via reflection alone. It needs to have its speed changed. Each generation has its own idiom and culture and, if the Torah is to be taught and understood, it must be refracted into a wavelength that can be understood by that generation. This idea is a very delicate one and hard to fully appreciate in a short essay. This is not a suggestion that Judaism or Torah be distorted, God forbid, but that it be perceived and taught differently in, say, 21st century America than 19th century Poland or 12th century Egypt.

Finally, diffraction allows light to bend around an object that would otherwise block it, like turning a corner. In some generations, when the light of Judaism is challenged and looks as if might blocked or nullified, the light of Torah can actually be flexible enough to curve around the obstruction. The incredible creative capacity of Judaism allows its teachers to interpret the Torah in new ways and to teach it in new ways that make it always new and always relevant[2].

There is both a tremendous beauty and danger in this analogy. In both refraction and diffraction, a wave of "white" light is exposed as being much more colorful and variegated than it first appeared. A talented teacher can show, like a prism, that what one thought was just white light is also red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Many people mistakenly assume that Judaism is simple, irrelevant, old-fashioned or primitive. But what one thought was the boring old Bible is also much more: psychology and social work, physics and finance, dramatic and daring. Judaism in its full depth and complexity is a full spectrum of brilliance, which can elicit oohs and ahhs from Jews who never knew. There is nothing more exciting than discovering and sharing such penumbral brilliance.

However, there is also a risk. Physics determines how light is refracted, but if one changes the speed of Torah in a new medium, how do you know if you've done it correctly, faithfully, or if you have bent it the wrong way? How do we know that we are seeing and being wowed by the REAL Judaism and not some mirage, an illusion of Judaism? Moreover, if we expose the rainbow of Torah in all its brilliance, how do we prioritize and balance all its colors? It will be at our great peril if we only think about the Jewish reds or blues and ignore the oranges and indigos.

No matter what you do with the light, though, we want the light to be an accurate transmission of the original light of God, the light of Jewish tradition. Its reflection, refraction and diffraction are all ways of bringing out the glory pf the original light, not a mirage or illusion, not a different light or a change in its nature. This is the key and the challenge to our Jewish leaders, to maintain an authentic chain of our tradition while allowing it to phosphoresce in our generation. There may not be simple solutions, but I will put one thought on the table this Rosh Hashana.

The Mishna in tractate Rosh Hashana 27b[3]states "One who blows [the shofar] into a pit, a cellar or a barrel, if he hears the sound of the shofar, he fulfills his obligation [to listen to the shofar.] If he hears the sound of the echoing, he does not." The Mishna goes on to say that two people could hear the same sound with two different results. The one who "directs his heart" (kivein libo) has heard the shofar; the one who does not "direct his heart" has only pretended to hear the shofar.

From a physics perspective, the echoes and reverberations of sound waves that occur when you blow a shofar in a closed place are reflections, refractions and diffractions of sound. All of them come from the original sound of the shofar, but they are not the original sound. At the end of the day, when we listen to the shofar, we want to get back to the source, to the original sound. We do not want it reflected, refracted OR diffracted. We want the true sound, not a replica.

It's not that we mind the echoing of the shofar. Let it echo far and wide! But we have to "focus our hearts" on the truth, on getting back to the source. Ultimately, all the changes in the shofar's sound are not the essence of the shofar. "Hear O Israel" means hear it yourself, not through echoes and reverberations.

May it be true this Rosh Hashana that we experience both these ideas: by studying Torah and Judaism with talented teachers, we can come to see its many colors, its brilliance, it wide range and relevance to every Jews' life. But by directing our hearts, may we cut through and penetrate back to the truth, and experience the sound of the shofar as if we ourselves were receiving the Torah today.

May you be written and isncribed for a good year -
Rav Avi


[1] A number of his monographs, including the "Lonely Man of Faith" and a fuller treatment called "Halachic Man" are often required reading in university courses. Notes of his class lectures are widely studied in many yeshivas. Some of his public High Holidays lectures are collected in "On Repentance" (in Hebrew, "al ha-Teshuva.")

[2] Rav Ahron understood the Rav to be a diffractor of Torah, but much of what he said about exposing the full spectrum of meaning in Torah could also be said regarding refraction. I can't remember well enough to say more.

[3] The Mishna is an early compendium of Jewish law (compiled 2nd century CE).


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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Manny and his two kids are members of Congregation Beth Shalom. He approaches Torah as an actor and lawyer, looking for character motivation.

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