Consider and Converse: Na’aseh v’Nish’ma

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to Na’aseh v’Nishma / We will do and we will hear

Introduction

Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the core of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of Na’aseh v’Nishma / We will do and we will hear.” This short phrase suggests a nuanced and textured examination. It’s a rather common phrase, one that — on the surface — suggests a certain unexamined obedience to God and Torah: We, the Israelites, at Mount Sinai, declare that we will follow and perform before we fully hear and understand. On this verse, interpreters have offered myriad glosses. Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes, “The insistence that ‘na’aseh’ precedes ‘nishma’ … allows for the creation of a coherent community unified by its practice, even while allowing for discussion about the details and significance of this practice.” She goes on to quote the commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra, who says na’aseh v’nishma indicates “an acceptance not only of the immediate laws of the Torah, but also of all of the laws to come.” Some interpreters scoff at such obedience, noting that we must first understand before we can accept and obey. Another interpretation suggests that since we can’t perform all of the 613 commandments given in the Torah (some commandments are only for Priests, for example), our collective acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the declaration na’aseh v’nishma committed Jews to be responsible for one another and a collective observance. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who describes Judaism not as a leap of faith but as a “leap of action” writes that a person is asked to “do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.” In other words, when we commit ourselves and observe Judaism’s call to action, we eventually attain greater insight and learning. Rabbi Shai Held deepens the learning, connecting the action to our collective memory: “One of the Torah’s central projects is to turn memory into empathy and moral responsibility.”

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth in your discovery of ideas and questions independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Salem Pearce, director of organizing at T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, mobilizes rabbis, cantors, and their communities to protect human rights. Building on her experiences, she brings new insight into the idea of na’aseh v’nishma, the command to do and then to listen. She writes: “It is also not enough to simply act and obey. The cultivation of that empathy and moral responsibility is not just commanded. The Torah is not making a rational argument for such behavior; the motivation for protecting and promoting the interests and rights of the stranger is our memory of being strangers in Egypt. Acceptance of the covenant — “All that God has said, we will do, and we will obey” — is also acceptance of the Torah’s insistence upon the deep connection between memory and morality.” What does it mean to dutifully obey without understanding underlying reasons? What are the unexpected benefits of doing and then knowing? Is it more meritorious to observe Jewish law and mitzvot if there is no “reason” to do so? The Israelites were praised for “committing to obey” before fully “hearing.” Is that an act worthy of praise?
  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators examine a line from the first chapter of Pirkei Avot distinguishing “learning” from “doing.” In privileging action over learning, our commentators consider the role of listening and the importance of seeing oneself in the textual conversation. Rachel Adler, the David Ellenson Professor of Modern Jewish Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, notes that “Shimon Ben Gamliel recommends silence and listening above speech and argues that acts outweigh words.” She goes on to write that we “receive the words of tradition, but the only way to determine whether they transform us is action. Action is the inevitable result of words. It reveals whether the speakers are embodying their words or using them as disguises for far different outcomes. Actions also expose how well we listened to other conversation partners, how seriously we took their concerns and well-being.” Jay Michaelson, author of Enlightenment by Trial and Error and the forthcoming The Holy Heresy of Jacob Frank, responds to Rachel Adler’s interpretation of Pirkei Avot with, “Silence can mean a lot of things, many of them awful; there are silences of assent, conformity, obedience, intimidation, violence.” Daniel Holtzman, the executive director of the Jewish Student Press Service, raises questions about who owns Jewish sacred texts and their interpretative renderings. In your estimation, what is more important, “words” or “actions”? Why? And when does the significance of one flip to greater importance? What dangers lurk when someone’s silence can be interpreted in multiple ways?
  • Ross Andelman, a pediatric and adult psychiatrist, examines the relationship between the behavior of an adolescent teen and the adolescent B’nai Yisrael, the Israelites in their rebellious years. We watch as the Israelites grow “from a completely dependent and confused people, kvetching about food and water, to a more mature though not-yet-adult nation seeking spiritual sustenance and a greater role in leadership.” Ross explains how the human brain develops, and the differences in development between the brain’s rational and emotional centers. He writes, “the adolescent brain, not yet fully formed, is more flexible. And an adolescent’s risky behavior can serve a greater purpose; it allows for exploration, innovation, and creativity. So, when the People Israel assert, ‘We will do, then we will learn,’ they are letting God know not just that they will learn by doing but — like the adolescent people they are — they will explore, innovate, and create their own ways to follow God’s commandments.” What is the relationship between “na’aseh v’nishma” and risk-taking? Is there anything special or unusual about the teenage brain that determines how teenagers approach risk? Is risk-taking linked to a developmental phase? Does this risk-taking mirror in any way the notion that the Israelites were an adolescent nation when they uttered “na’aseh v’nishma”?

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Rabbi Zac Kamenetz, director of Jewish Living and Learning at the JCC of San Francisco and co-director of Beloved Berkeley, shares the intimate story of his experiences with psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in “magic” mushrooms. As part of a study conducted by the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Johns Hopkins University exploring the nature of consciousness and mystical experiences, Zac took two “trips” and relates his experiences through the lens of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav’s teachings on na’aseh v’nishma. While several mystical and Hasidic traditions draw on this phrase to examine the process of integrating mystical experiences, Rebbe Nachman, in his work, Likutei Moharan, writes, “…every person must proceed from level to level and from world to world, until they merit each time to attain a higher aspect of ‘we will do and we will hear,’ so that every time for them the aspect of ‘we will hear,’ the aspect of the hidden will become the aspect of ‘we will do,’ the aspect of the revealed…, until they come to the primal beginning point of Creation, which is the beginning of Emanation.” (22:10) Zac shares with readers his work at integrating his psychedelic journeys and experiences into his life: “after the ecstasy, the laundry.” How do you understand the rungs, or levels of understanding, that Rebbe Nachman describes? Are there rungs of understanding that preclude your Jewish involvement? Is there a connection between listening, nishma, and understanding — and what is that connection?
  • Sam Berrin Shonkoff, an assistant professor of Jewish studies at the Graduate Theological Union and editor of Martin Buber: His Intellectual and Scholarly Legacy, explores how modern Jewish thinkers — especially the philosophers Martin Buber and Emanuel Levinas as well as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel came to understand the idea of “na’aseh v’nishma.” While the classical rabbinic and mystical commentaries on “na’aseh v’nishma” understand it as a commitment of unconditional obedience (we shall do the commandments before hearing what is commanded of us), Hasidic interpreters suggest that “hearing is a result of the doing. Moreover, they suggest that this ‘hearing’ intimates a newfound theological awareness or understanding.” Sam goes on to explain that modern notions of “freedom and autonomy, coupled with separations of church and state, render images of the Israelites’ unconditional obedience uninspiring at best. If religious observance is a personal choice, then those actions must offer something to seekers. The new interpretation of na’aseh v’nishma does just this, exchanging an image of subservience for a promise of enlightenment.”How do see these interpretations of na’aseh v’nishma evolving for Jews with less commitment to Jewish law? When thinking about the relationship you have with God, do you need to understand what is expected before choosing to obey? What about in your relationships with friends and family: In “na’aseh v’nish’ma” moments, when you are asked to obey before fully understanding, how do you proceed?

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Sh'ma Now

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