The Torah of the Kishkes

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Elli Fischer


Rabbi Shimon said [of the patriarch Avraham]: No father taught him, nor did he have a rabbi, so from where did he learn Torah? The Holy One arranged for his two kidneys to become like two rabbis, and they would gush forth and teach him Torah and wisdom. (Bereishit Rabbah 61:1)

Moshe Koppel’s Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures (Koren, 2020) is the latest installment in the author’s extended argument in favor of what he variously calls fully-internalized, intuitive, non-ideological, instinctive, natural, unself-conscious, and organic Yiddishkeit. On its surface, told through profiles of fictional characters like Shimen, Heidi, and others, the new book is a critique of the universalism that tries – and fails, in his telling – to replace community-based moral systems. But in truth it is a critique of any attempt to develop a moral community based on explicit principles that dictate the proper course of action. Such systems, which he terms “ideological”, are necessarily reductionist, disembodied, and distortive. This applies to universalism as much as it applies to every flavor of contemporary Judaism, all of which are in his sights.

To better situate Judaism Straight Up, let’s go back to Koppel’s earlier works in this vein, starting with Meta-Halakhah: Logic, Intuition, and the Unfolding of Jewish Law (Aronson, 1997). The “intuition” of Meta-Halakhah’s subtitle, a key element of Koppel’s account of lived Jewishness, connotes a source of information, judgment, or action that cannot be fully captured and formalized as a set of rules. Human beings are not always aware of the multitude of environmental factors and cues that influence our decisions, of how we prioritize our values and needs. Often – more often that we might deem comfortable – our minds are like black boxes: sensory information enters, and we decide that one person is credible while another is not. Interestingly, this sort of decision-making is described in many languages in terms of body parts other than the mind. We feel it in our hearts, the pits of our stomachs, or our kishkes. Perhaps we have a gut feeling, because something smelled funny or left a foul taste in our mouths. The midrash cited at the beginning of this article speaks of how Avraham learned Torah from his kidneys. This means that while Avraham did not have any text to study or corpus to master, he was able to intuit what God wanted from him. His gut feeling was itself Torah.

Koppel is a professor of mathematics and computer science, and an expert in artificial intelligence. The sort of conundrum posed by phenomena like intuition is precisely the sort that occupies people who are trying to develop algorithms that enable machines to think like humans. In Meta-Halakhah, Koppel introduces concepts of computability to argue that intuition is comprehensible and not reducible to a static model. Any attempt to translate intuition into a set of instructions or routines will, of necessity, lose something.

Within this theoretical framework, Koppel argues that Halakhah develops in a manner that is neither random nor predetermined, but autonomous, based on the collective intuition of its adherents. The history of Halakhah, per Koppel, is the history of organic development of norms within communities of practitioners, punctuated at times of crisis and upheaval by attempts to summarize and codify practice. These codifications then provide the basis for continued organic development.

Meta-Halakhah reads several key rabbinic texts in light of his theory of halakhic development, to great effect. For instance, it has long been noted that rabbinic literature seems to incorporate two opposing views about the nature of dispute: one that sees it as the students’ failure to learn from their masters, and another that idealizes dispute as different aspects of a single divine truth. Many scholars assume that there is simply a multiplicity of voices within the rabbinic tradition, that the rabbis dispute the nature of dispute.

In Koppel’s hands, however, these attitudes become two sides of a single coin. Dispute arises, according to the Talmud, when students fail to apprentice (le-shamesh) under their masters. Apprenticeship is the type of learning in which one develops intuitions and instincts by holistically absorbing the attitudes and teachings of a master. The Talmud privileges apprenticeship – shimush – as the optimal form of study: “Others say: Even one who read (Scripture) and memorized (Mishnah), but did not apprentice (ve-lo shimesh) Torah scholars is an ignoramus. Rabbi Huna said: The law accords with the Others” (Berakhot 47b).[1] From this perspective, dispute is a function of becoming distant; it indeed implies a loss of intimacy and intuitive grasp. It is necessary to engage in cognitive, conscious effort to recover what was lost, and this process, though less than ideal, can nevertheless indeed yield new insights and realize latent potentialities in the contents being interpreted. There is no conflict in understanding dispute both as a result of lost intimacy and as a means to develop Torah more fully.

During the decades between the publication of Meta-Halakhah and Judaism Straight Up, Koppel published several articles that further developed his ideas. The first was “Yiddishkeit Without Ideology: A Letter to my Son” (Tradition 36:2 [Summer 2002]). Here Koppel adopts a curmudgeonly persona to argue against an overly bookish conception of Judaism and in favor of a homier, grittier, more reflexive Judaism. Commenting on a school he attended, he writes:

The place suffered from a Litvish coldness that had adapted neatly to the American technocratic mindset to produce a somewhat formal and not very heimish version of cookbook Yiddishkeit. You asked somebody there if it was okay to daven in your gatkes, they started pulling books off the shelf…. [T]hey tended to undervalue the little hard-to-pin-down gestures and manners that give substance to Jewish distinctiveness. (p. 47)

The titular non-ideological Judaism of the article refers to Koppel’s argument that it is not necessary to bring one’s ideas about Judaism and one’s personal commitments into perfect alignment. On the contrary, “I shouldn’t have been defining either my Yiddishkeit or my commitments at all. To do so is to reduce Yiddishkeit to ideology, which is exactly what it is not” (p. 49). Institutions, which tend toward book knowledge and ideology, failed to impart or sustain “normal heimish Yiddishkeit, full of humor, creativity and authentic yiras shamayim that simple Jews have lived naturally in communities around the world for thousands of years.” Institutions, he argues, teach Yiddishkeit as a second language, “awkwardly constrained by poorly internalized rules of grammar.” It is by being immersed in Jewish communal life that one learns Yiddishkeit as a first language.

In this article, Koppel also introduces us to his grandparents, Polish hasidim whose judgments were made based on instincts that were far from romantic or ideological. They supported the State of Israel simply because they thought it was good for the Jews and had seen the alternatives. Koppel writes to his son:

Have you ever stood at a Yom Hazikaron ceremony and wept for those who did not survive to share our astonishing fortune at having a state, for the awesome sacrifices we Jews have made to preserve that fortune, for the suffering of our ancestors for millennia… and at the same time cringed at the mind-blowing inanity and vapidity of these pompous, imitative, goyish ceremonies? I hope that one day you will.

The years after the publication of “Yiddishkeit Without Ideology” coincided with the heyday of Jewish blogging. One of the more interesting blogs, “Ben Chorin,” was written by a self-described “post-denominational frummer yid.” In an early post, the anonymous blogger wrote something about Yom Yerushalayim that clearly echoes the paragraph quoted above: “Can’t we be happy about not getting killed without working it into some grand concept? And can’t we be sad about Jews getting killed without working that into some grand ideology? Lamentably, around here the answer to both questions seems to be ‘no’.”

I do not mention this to “out” Koppel as the blogger behind Ben Chorin, though he has neither confirmed nor denied the fact; as will become clear, he made no real attempt to hide this fact (even when “citing” Koppel). The blog addressed a broader array of topics than those tackled in Meta-Halakhah and “Yiddishkeit Without Ideology,” as befits a bona fide polymath.

My own introduction to Koppel’s writing was through the blog. It was consistently thought-provoking, funny, and trenchant, but I also felt that I had found someone who had worked through a lot of the questions that I was working through and reached conclusions that were on the right wavelength. Perhaps most importantly, he disliked a lot of the things that I disliked, but he articulated why these things could stick in my craw. Moreover, blog readers learned that Ben Chorin/Koppel was born to Holocaust survivors and grew up in the US, but the family is now entirely in Israel. In historical terms, they had a cup of coffee in America. I am about 20 years younger than Koppel, and aside from some important geographical differences, the basic contours of the story are the same: My grandparents were all survivors, my parents were born in the US, and they, with all their descendants, now live in Israel. The brief American leg of our family’s journey has ended.

But I did not always frame my experience in these terms; for a long time, my American-ness loomed large in my own consciousness, distancing me both from recent generations in Germany and Transylvania and from my present and future in Israel. For Koppel, the instinctive Jewishness of the old country, and the hope for a return to the same in the new one, bracket the American experience as a historical anomaly. His contextualization of his own Jewish experience has helped me embrace my own.

The blog eventually became a sounding board for the ideas that would underpin Koppel’s next publications. For about six months in 2010-2011, there appeared on Ben Chorin a series of blog posts that set out to, in the author’s words, “take a long view of religious-political issues” by clarifying the distinct roles that ought to be played by states and religious communities and asserting what happens when they usurp each other’s roles. He then applies his conclusions to the Jewish community in the State of Israel.

The central metaphor of this series, through which he develops his central theses, is apparent from the title of its article form, which appeared in Azure in the autumn of 2011: “Judaism as a First Language.” Expanding on a distinction he made in “Yiddishkeit Without Ideology,” he discusses how a community that speaks Judaism as a first language, not as a set of formalized rules, will instinctively balance three “flavors” of morality: universal morality, which, as its name indicates, is theoretically not contingent on any particular community and includes concepts like autonomy, fairness, and justice; community-based morality, which includes concepts like duty, loyalty, honor, and respect for authority; and divinity-based morality, which covers ideas like purity, sanctity, and self-restraint. He sometimes treats the latter two flavors as one so as to contrast universalist morality with any form of morality specific to a community. This admittedly reductive variation on Jonathan Haidt’s writings allows him to advance his central argument, namely, that a community whose “first language” is the norms and values of the prevailing society, and whose Jewish “second language” is subject to assimilationist pressure, will fall into disequilibrium. Some members will cave to the assimilatory pressure and others will become culturally isolationist, privileging morality based on community and divinity over universal morals. The center will not hold.

For Judaism to be learned as a first language, as it ought, it needs an “an economically and politically self-sufficient society committed to Jewish social norms,” something that has been absent for the greater part of Jewish history. It is here, however, that Koppel expresses guarded optimism that Judaism can re-emerge as a first language in Israel, provided that people allow it to evolve naturally and that the State does not usurp communal roles.

Koppel returned to these themes – and to blogging – in 2017, when he started a new blog called “Judaism Without Apologies,” this time under his real name. Structurally, this series, which constitutes the first draft of Judaism Straight Up, is very similar to “Judaism as a First Language.” It too takes up the theme of community-based morality versus universal morality, but with a stronger emphasis on elaborating why universalism simply cannot form the moral basis for a durable society. In addition to the moral sociology of Haidt, Durkheim, and others, which appeared in the earlier publications, Koppel spends a good part of “Judaism Without Apologies” (and Judaism Straight Up) developing the idea of “signaling,” the measures taken by members of a community to demonstrate that they have skin in the game and thus have credibility within the community.

In my yeshiva years, a close friend came up with the concept of “frum points” to describe the social capital that can be accumulated and spent within traditional communities. Drawing on the fields of behavioral economics, network theory, game theory, and sociology, Koppel develops the economizing of frumkeit into a theory with great explanatory power (but which still makes for a fun diversion during morning seder). It is through “frum points” that hierarchies of piety emerge and authority accumulates, and it is through them that communities internalize the relative gravity of different norms.

In Koppel’s telling, communities develop signals in the form of seemingly arbitrary traditions that may have independent meaning but also serve to demonstrate a member’s trustworthiness. Observance of certain taboos, for example, show one to be capable of self-restraint, an indispensable quality of any productive member of a community. The relative value of signals can change with time and place – in Israel, for example, sending to a Jewish school, living within an eruv, and keeping kosher are not nearly as costly as elsewhere, so costlier signals, like stricter kashrut standards and eschewing all secular education, emerge – and tradition itself is constantly adapting to this flux. This adaptability, whereby communities autonomously and unself-consciously recalibrate the value of signals, is what gives traditional communities longevity. The entire fourth chapter of the book, and several other sections to boot, are devoted to the assertion that, in contrast to traditional communities, attempts to form communities on the basis of abstract, absolute, universal principles alone are doomed to fail.

Part of the charm of Judaism Straight Up is the cast of characters he develops. Instead of addressing ideas and attitudes in the abstract, he introduces us to Shimen, a clean-shaven Gerrer Hasid who survived the Holocaust, and Heidi, a Jewish American who was raised with some tradition, for which she still has a soft spot despite having developed an aversion to particularistic moral systems. The next generation includes Ben and his first cousin Yitzy, respectively Modern Orthodox and Yeshivish, and Amber, Heidi’s progressive daughter who has no qualms about marshaling state power to enforce equality and punish specific types of speech. And each has an Israeli analogue – Bentzi, Itcha Meir, and Adi, respectively. Shimen is the hero: non-ideological, loyal to his friends, fair and honest in business, and viewing the world through a deeply Jewish lens. He is a Jew by instinct and intuition. All the others fail to varying degrees, though there are signs that the Israeli cousins are starting to develop a new common language and way of being.

I have a few quibbles with the details of Koppel’s presentation. For one, he portrays the process by which traditions adapt as a naïve one – the community spontaneously reacts to disequilibrium until the response that best restores equilibrium is accepted, and the others are rejected. While he does not weigh all community members equally, one still gets the sense that equilibrium is restored almost automatically when a weighted majority of community members adopts a particular approach. My view, which underpins much of my research, is that the “supply-side” plays a much larger role. That is, would-be makers of opinion and policy develop elaborate, self-aware strategies to persuade their audiences. They operate in a competitive environment and are aware of this fact. To give a concrete example, I am far from certain that USDA-certified milk would have been accepted as the default kashrut-standard in American Orthodoxy if not for some very deliberate rhetorical strategies deployed by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.

Another quibble is with his use of the term “tradition.” By and large, he recognizes it as something anchored but flexible and adaptable. On a few occasions, however, he treats it as something far more rigid. On page 43, he refers obliquely to “traditional norms regarding the inception and end of life.” In the Jewish context, it is hard to pin down what norms he is referring to and where they come from, but in a very real way, these norms have changed significantly in living memory. I am not referring to questions of terminating pregnancy (though Koppel may be), but to the way that Jews instinctively respond to things like stillbirths and infant mortality. In our generation of family planning, superior medical care, and genetic testing, people are far more likely to mourn the loss of a baby or even a fetus than in centuries past, when such tragic phenomena were far more common, and they are much more likely to give spontaneous ritual expression to such grief – observing aveilut, saying Kaddish – even against an explicit ruling of Shulhan Arukh. This in no way implies that these shifting norms make transgressing the sins of feticide or infanticide any more or less severe. The point is, rather, that the norms concerning when a child is considered a bona fide “life” for the purposes of mourning has shifted before our eyes.

Early in the book, Koppel tells us that he will try to do justice to the worldview of Heidi and Amber. This second quibble indicates, I think, that he did not ultimately do them justice. My concern is not that he is unfair to characters who are ultimately the products of his imagination. They are his creations, and he can do with them as he pleases. Rather, the book is a sustained argument for the interdependence of different types of morality. Certain needs are hard-wired to the human condition, and that without religious communities to address those needs, humanity may revert to more primitive instincts, elements of which can be seen in Amber’s “ersatz religion.” While this can be a valuable heuristic – treating recycling as a form of sacrifice to the angry god of the environment comes to mind – being too dismissive of Amber’s moral claims carries a risk of insufficient attention to the universalist flavor of morality, which remains, in Koppel’s account, indispensable.

Beyond these quibbles, there is an issue that I wish Koppel had fleshed out a bit better. He makes a compelling case for the virtue and necessity of tradition and the flaws of its would-be replacements. His contention that tradition can be reconstituted after a breakdown is likewise comforting and largely convincing, even if one suspects that it might take much longer than we might hope. The problem is what we do in the meantime, and what we do when the intuitions that we developed over centuries are no longer appropriate.

To take an example, Koppel does not tell us what Shimen’s parents did during World War I. If they were like hundreds of thousands of other Polish Jews near the front in Eastern Europe, they ran. Two of my grandmother’s brothers mutilated themselves to avoid conscription into the Austro-Hungarian military. These and other habits were useful given the Jewish situation as an oft-persecuted minority. In the land of Israel, both before and after the founding of the state,[2] these habits became detrimental. This is certainly not true of all, or even most, habits formed in exile and the Diaspora, but it is certainly true of some of them, and the patient approach is inadequate when bullets are flying. Koppel does not address what happens when instincts and intuitions must be reversed, and with some urgency.

I will conclude with a bit of a confession: I did not read Meta-Halakhah until preparing this article. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised to find that several ideas and interpretations that I wrote about in the article I contributed to Tradition’s 25-year retrospective on Haym Soloveitchik’s watershed article, “Rupture and Reconstruction” are similar to what Koppel articulates in Meta-Halakhah.

Upon realizing this, I texted Koppel to assure him that I had not read the book before penning the article. He responded with disappointment. He prefers when people internalize his ideas to the point that they think they came up with them by themselves. It is hardly surprising that he wants his readers to internalize his ideas, absorb them into their vocabularies, and view the world through their lenses. After rereading some early Ben Chorin posts, I can allay his disappointment. I indeed internalized ideas that Koppel articulated in the blog – where I first encountered them – in later essays, and now in Judaism Straight Up. They became part of my bloodstream and got into my kishkes.

Perhaps the best example is something Koppel wrote in a post from 2007.[3] He recounts that he occupied himself over Pesah with two books: Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Rabbi Asher Weiss’ responsa on the laws of Pesah, published in the back of Haggadat Minhat Asher. The former is a broadside against religion, the latter a relatively dry legal correspondence. Yet Koppel found himself experiencing “extreme frumkeit swings” as he alternated between the books, as each had a “powerful and undeniable” impact. He explains with a parable:

Think of being Jewish as being in a play that lasts for centuries and has a cast of millions. It’s an avant-garde production in which the members of the audience are also participants. There’s a very old script but the actors get to ad lib a lot and, although the original printed script itself is unaltered, it is overwhelmed by the ongoing accretion of hand-written interpolations. New actors join the show and are instructed by older actors who eventually leave the show. The director is never seen.

Now when I say that my frumkeit swings upward I don’t mean that I’m reading my lines from the script more precisely. I mean that I’m into the play. This happens when the play “works”, when one can read one’s lines with a sense of authenticity, when one can sense the director’s invisible guiding hand. Often, though, this is not the case because the stars who have mastered the script and get the best lines seem to lack the subtlety of character to grasp the plot’s meaning.

Rav Usher’s teshuvos are so masterful and so attuned to the underlying meaning that my sense of identification with the play is restored. In teshuva after teshuva, he responds to questioners looking for idiotic chumrahs […]. In each case, he goes through all the relevant sources dispassionately marshaling proofs for and against. And in each case, in the end he says the equivalent of “Oh come off it, that’s perfectly idiotic.” […] In other cases, he is machmir with exactly the same degree of brilliance and common sense.

As for Dennett, his book is effective not because of any argument he makes but rather because he makes you change perspective. He focuses your attention not on the stage but on the scaffolding behind the stage. That scaffolding is indeed the same for the Greatest Show on Earth and for an amateur off-off-off Broadway production. Which is exactly why it’s not where you want to be looking if you want to get into the play. It is this misdirection on Dennett’s part that really does “break the spell”.

Koppel (regretfully, he tells me) does not use this metaphor in Judaism Straight Up, but it usefully frames the book’s entire purpose: to get us to “think of being Jewish as being in a play.” Viewing Judaism as a drama allows us to absorb the attendant distinctions between front stage, backstage, and off-stage and between stilted, adequate, and virtuoso performances. It provides a rubric for considering the relationship between script and performance. Even if Dennett is right that all religions, like all dramatic performances, have similar structural features and evolved to meet specific human needs, it does not mean that they are all the same, nor does it mean that one can simply opt out of being human, of being part of the show.

Whether one chooses a linguistic or dramaturgical metaphor, the upshot is that what marks success is not technical execution or memorization of lines and rules. Such an approach leads to a stilted, mechanical speech and performance that will hardly be compelling. Speaking a language and playing a role in a drama demands internalization to the point where the words and lines become second-nature, intuitive. It’s got to get into the kishkes.

[1] One who consults the Koren Steinsaltz translation of the Talmud will see that the passage is translated, “and did not serve Torah scholars.” This troubled me because I was the translator of that chapter eleven years ago. I consulted my draft, and sure enough, I translated the passage as above. I had not, at that point, read Meta-Halakhah, but by then I had already developed similar ideas resolving the conflicting sources about the nature of dispute.

[2] The story is told that R. Velvel Soloveitchik (the Brisker Rav) left Palestine for Switzerland when war was imminent in the late 1940s. Rav Herzog is said to have told him, “We have a mesorah (tradition) that there will not be a third galut (exile).” The Brisker Rav answered, “I have a mesorah that when they shoot at me, I run.” There is little doubt that the Brisker Rav’s behavior indeed embodies the “traditional” Jewish reaction to warfare. There is also little doubt that such an approach by the masses would have rendered a Jewish state unsustainable.

[3] The comment thread on this post actually records an important moment in my life: when I began taking an interest in Rabbi Asher Weiss.

Elli Fischer is an independent writer, translator, and editor. He is editor of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha series in English and cofounder of HaMapah, an project that applies quantitative analysis to rabbinic literature. He is a founding editor of The Lehrhaus, and his writing has appeared in numerous Jewish publications. Among the issues he writes about are religion and politics in Israel; the interplay between legal and nonlegal elements of the Talmud; Jewish religious culture; and Central European Jewish History. Previously, he was the JLIC rabbi and campus educator at the University of Maryland. He holds degrees from Yeshiva University, rabbinical ordination from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and is working toward a doctorate in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University. Originally from Baltimore, he currently resides in Modiin, Israel, with his wife and four children.