Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Order and Chaos

Apologies for the relatively long, post-less stretch...I've been enveloped by the End of School Year Craze and everything that goes with it.  After seemingly endless hours typing progress reports for all of my students, the idea of sitting at a computer to write anything else just seemed...unappealing.  But, I'm back, and I'm bringing with me some ideas that have been percolating for a while!

I wrote my last post after attending a shiur given by Rav Avi Weiss, the Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the founder of Yeshivat Maharat in New York City.  In case you haven't been following all the infighting taking place within Orthodox Jewry, I'll summarize very briefly by saying that Rav Avi Weiss has been at the center of a fair amount of controversy.  He promotes "Open Orthodoxy," a movement of Modern Orthodoxy that emphasizes adherence to Halacha while also supporting innovation and flexibility, particularly in the area of women's involvement in Jewish ritual and practice.  Yeshivat Maharat is the first American institution to ordain Orthodox women as Halachic authorities and spiritual leaders.  Needless to say, all this innovation and flexibility doesn't sit so well with many members of mainstream Orthodoxy, and Rav Weiss has received a lot of criticism from many rabbinic leaders, including the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

As I listened to Rav Weiss speak, I was struck not only by what he was actually talking about in that moment, but also by the realization that there, in front of me, was a man who was not afraid to have people disagree with him.  His presence was gentle and humble, but also forceful.  He is a man who stands by his principles and explores new territory, and when people push back, he holds his ground and keeps going.  Say what you want about his positions on various issues, but you can't argue with the fact that Rav Avi Weiss does not let himself be swayed by disapproval.  That is a quality I do not have...and one that I really admire.

On Shavuot, I read an essay by Rav Abraham Isaac Kook titled, "Souls of Chaos," in which he describes the profound inspiration and energy of people who dare to destroy the status quo in an effort to raise humanity to a higher level.  Rav Kook explains, "The conventional pattern of living, based on propriety, on the requisites of good character and conformity to law--this corresponds to the way of the world of order.  Every rebellion against this, whether inspired by levity or by the stirring of a higher spirit, reflects the world of chaos." He then goes on to explain that although people who prefer the world of order are often afraid of those who bring chaos and cannot tolerate their disruptiveness, the truth is that chaos is a necessary ingredient for the perfection of the world.  According to Rav Kook, "These storms will bring fructifying rain, these dark clouds will pave the way for great light, as the prophet envisioned it: 'And the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness' (Isa. 29:18)."

I try to avoid making absolute statements, but I'll say that I am 99.9% firmly within the world of order.  I like to please people; I don't like to invite disapproval or disagreement.  I love rules and predictability, and I am not what one would call a "trailblazer."  If I happen to have a point of view that diverges from that of the group, I might stick to it in my head but I certainly will be quiet about it.  It is, I have found, just easier that way.

Easier, yes.  But not very inspiring.

What Rav Kook is saying, and what Rav Weiss is demonstrating, is that we need people who are not afraid to make waves, because they are the change makers.  If there was no one brave enough to stand up against the status quo and say, "I disagree--and I think I have a better way," how would we ever make progress?  We don't need to live in a chaotic world, but we do need a little bit of chaos interspersed among the order, because by shaking up the landscape we make room for new growth.  Similarly, within our own selves we need an element of change and disruption in order for us to break out of our patterns and stretch in new ways.  Obviously, being 100% chaos is going to be a problem...but so is being 100% order.

I am probably never going to be one of Rav Kook's "souls of chaos," nor am I likely to ever be as confident in the face of disapproval as Rav Avi Weiss.  But I like to think that I can learn from both of these men and give myself permission to experiment with making some small waves in safe places.  Even if I continue to prefer conformity, I don't have to be afraid to go against the current now and then.  Although I am comfortable in my habits and like the predictability of routines, I am allowed to "break my own rules" when doing so feels positive and exciting.  I'll be honest:  residing completely within the world of order has worked in some ways, and cost me dearly in others.  It might be time to search out more of a middle ground.

We don't have to leave a trail of destruction in our wake, but perhaps the take-away here is that when we do find ourselves face to face with a little bit of chaos, we don't need to run and hide immediately. We can check it out, try it on, see how it feels.  Who knows--maybe a little shake-up is exactly what we need.