Builders

October 13, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Sukkot, Day 1

In the history of collaborative friendships – Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons – in the category of Modern Jewish Thought, first among equals is the friendship between Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Despite a nearly nine-year gap in age, despite the fact that Rosenzweig’s spiritual trajectory was a passage from a secular youth into tradition, while Buber’s was a journey away from the traditionalism of his youth, for a handful of years the intellectual, institutional, and spiritual collaboration of these two intellectual giants set the contours of the Jewish conversation in pre-war Germany and arguably for decades to come. As told by my doctoral advisor, Paul Mendes-Flohr, in his fabulous new biography of Buber – Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent – the two men first met when Rosenzweig paid Buber a brief visit at his Berlin residence in 1914. In the years ahead the two would review each other’s writings and participate in each other’s publications. Buber would lecture to hundreds at Rosenzweig’s Frankfurt Lehrhaus – the site of an interwar renaissance of German-Jewish learning. Their shared intellectual and spiritual bond seeded perhaps their boldest and most tragic shared venture: a translation of the Hebrew Bible into German, reflecting their shared desire to make the Torah come alive to a non-Hebrew reading German Jewry. They worked on it together even as Rosenzweig was stricken with ALS and in the years leading up to his death in 1929. Buber, who emigrated to Palestine in 1938, ultimately completed the translation in 1961, by which time the German Jewry whom they had sought to bring close to tradition no longer existed. Buber dedicated the translation to Rosenzweig – a small gesture reflecting the immeasurable bond of intellectual and spiritual friendship the two had shared (Mendes-Flohr)

This morning, I would like to focus on one of the most famous exchanges between the two men, taking off from one of the most famous exchanges regarding today’s festival of Sukkot. The primary mitzvah of our festival is clearly stated in today’s Torah reading: “You shall dwell in sukkot/booths seven days . . . that your generations know that I made the children of Israel dwell in sukkot, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23:42–43) At first blush, the verse appears rather straightforward. Just as the children of Israel dwelt in booths in their wilderness wanderings – so we are commanded to do so through the generations. Rabbi Akiva states in the Talmud that it is a commandment to be understood literally: Build sukkot. Rabbi Eliezer, however, understands the verse to refer not to a physical structure, but a spiritual one – ananei kavod/clouds of glory (Babylonian Talmud: Sukkah 11b). To Rabbi Eliezer, the language of sukkot is just a metaphor: Not only is God’s presence not contingent on a sukkah, but the very notion that one would rely on the structure of a sukkah in order to sense God’s presence is actually contrary to how God’s presence is experienced. The debate is not just between Rabbi Eliezer and Akiva, it continues through the ages. The eleventh-century commentator Rashi understands the verse as Rabbi Eliezer did – to refer to clouds of glory. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, disagrees with Rabbi Eliezer and with his own grandfather, explaining that sukkot are the very vehicles by which we achieve a sense of the divine. So many rabbis, over such an expanse of time, disagreeing over one verse! One senses that more than a matter of lexical interpretation is at stake. Rather, at stake is a matter of substantive theological difference. How is God’s presence to be experienced? Must one build a structure in order to experience God’s presence; or, more provocatively, is the very act of building a sukkah actually an impediment to that theological goal?

This debate about sukkot – from Elizer and Akiva through Rashi and Rashbam – continues with Buber and Rosenzweig. To the best of my knowledge, Buber and Rosenzweig never actually debated sukkot, but they did debate the architecture by which our people are meant to experience God’s presence. They did this in a series of letters that I will be teaching tomorrow night in the sukkah. (I invite you to come to the evening session in preparation for the visit of Dr. Paul Mendes-Flohr on October 24, when he will discuss his new book on Buber with our community.)

Our story begins in Vienna in 1918 with a lecture that Buber delivered to a group of Zionist youth called “Herut [Freedom]: On Youth and Religion.” Seeking to prompt a renaissance in Jewish life, Buber tried to give voice to the three primary sources of Jewish religiosity. torato, amo, and atzmo. That is, it is by way of connection to text (torato), to one’s people (amo) and to one’s self (atzmo) that a Jew expresses his or her own faith. Buber wrote at length on all three sources of connection, and while now is not the time to go into detail about each one, he held that it is by way of these three pathways – our literature, our nationhood, and our individual spiritual strivings – that authentic Jewish religious life is to be found. Interestingly, in Buber’s mind these spiritual forces were not distributed equally throughout Jewish history. They were present in the Biblical narratives; they were present in the time of the prophets; they were the driving elements in rise of Hasidism. They were not present, however – and this is the rub – in the time of rabbinic literature – which for Buber would always remain just “hairsplitting casuistry,” the exilic edifice of legislation that impeded, rather than enabled, authentic spiritual behavior. For Buber, Jewish renewal required one to eschew doctrinal orthodoxy in order to access the primal forces of the Jewish people. Simply put: God’s presence is best felt without the “sukkah” of Jewish law.

In response, Rosenzweig penned an open letter to his friend entitled “The Builders.” The letter’s title is a play on a famous midrashic passage: Commenting on the verse “And all thy children (banayikh) shall be taught of Lord…” (Isaiah 54:13), the midrash states: “Do not read banayikh/your children, but bonayikh/your builders.” In other words, for Rosenzweig, it is the very act of fulfilling the law by which we build not just the sacred architecture – the sukkah – to house God’s presence – but we also set our children on the path towards perpetuating Israel’s covenant with God. In language both beautiful and biting, Rosenzweig takes Buber to task for his dismissive approach to Jewish law. He writes:

Is it really Jewish law with which you try to come to terms? . . . Is that really Jewish law, the law of millennia, studied and lived, analyzed and rhapsodized, the law of everyday and the day of death, petty and yet sublime, sober and yet woven in legend; a law which knows both the fire of the sabbath candle and that of the martyr’s stake . . . ? (Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought. Ed. N. Glatzer, pp. 237-238)

For Rosenzweig, the performance of a mitzvah is the ultimate expression of Jewish religiosity: a Jew’s response to divine love. A commandment from God is a form of divine address to which a Jew can respond by way of inner power. Even if, as Rosenzweig concedes possible, the law itself is not divine, it is in the performance of a commandment that a Jew comes closest to accessing the divine will. Surely Buber, who well understood the sacred potentiality of Jewish study, of connection to one’s people and connection to one’s self, could relate to the power of performing a mitzvah/a commandment.

But Buber, as he would make clear in his response to Rosenzweig, could not. Buber would only ever see halakhah/Jewish law as Gesetz – the German word for law –but never Gebote – an expression of the divine will. In Buber’s estimation, commandments are, by definition, coercive in nature, and thus to observe them is somehow to stifle the human spirit. Even worse, to observe Jewish law merely because it was passed on to you by a prior generation is akin to some sort of crude ancestor worship. Having come from a traditional background, Buber did not take lightly his rejection of Jewish law. On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1922, he confessed to Rosenzweig that his decision not to fast on Yom Kippur was far more difficult for him than had he decided to fast. The absence of Jewish ritual and prayer from his life had left a void – a void that could not be filled with anything else. Buber nevertheless remained resolute in his conviction that God’s presence could not be felt by way of the structure, the sukkah, of Jewish law. The letters between Buber and Rosenzweig continued back and forth – the issue never resolved. For Rosenzweig, it was ritual observance, the rhythms of Jewish prayer, the shared sacred calendar that are the cherished acts by which a Jew gives expression to his or her covenantal relationship to God. For Buber, it was these very acts that precluded the authentic striving of the religious soul.

I can think of no better time than this festival of Sukkot to meditate on their famous debate. Sukkot directs us to build shelters according to certain specifications, shelters worthy of housing God’s presence. But more than that, Sukkot is the festival of ritual par excellence. We say particular prayers, we take a lulav and etrog into our hands, we walk in circles around the sanctuary singing hoshanot reenacting the ancient temple ritual. We do all sorts of things – things called mitzvot/commandments. For some, these mitzvot are the very keys towards living an elevated, sacred and holy existence; for others, mitzvot are the very things that alienate us from our faith and maybe even ourselves. The debate, after all, did not end with the passing of these two giants of twentieth-century thought. It is a debate that continues to be played out in yoga studios, Soul Cycle classes, synagogue pews, and wherever Jews are to be found. How shall we best access God’s presence? How can the riches of the Jewish tradition facilitate the contemporary spiritual quest? Buber and Rosenzweig, Akiva and Eliezer, Rashi and Rashbam – all had a point. Woe unto the generation that does not acknowledge both sides of the debate.

Which is, I suppose, the point: the point of the debate and the point of our holiday. If nothing else, Sukkot reminds us of our obligation to be hospitable, to welcome people into our sukkah, around our tables, and into our lives – even those voices, perhaps especially those voices, with whom we differ. Rosenzweig, as noted, died tragically young in 1929. At his request, no eulogies were delivered at his funeral. His one request was that Buber read Psalm 73, the psalm containing the verse that Rosenzweig had requested for his gravestone: va-ani tamid imakh, “I am continually with thee.” Did this last request of Rosenzweig’s suggest the hope that God would forever be with Rosenzweig? Or maybe Rosenzweig intended it to express a hope that Buber would forever be with him? Who knows? I would like to think a little of both. More importantly, I would like to think it expressed the hope that the questions that these two giants asked would continue with us, their children/banayikh, who in keeping the debates of their lives alive in our lifetime will also become bonayikh/their builders.
 

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