Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Jacob Milgrom z"l

Jacob Milgrom died this past weekend. He was a great scholar and the world's foremost authority on the Book of Leviticus. This past summer I had the pleasure of meeting him. I was introduced to Jacob and his wife Jo by their daughter Shira, a friend and colleague and for this introduction and meeting I will always be grateful. I have often struggled with balancing doubt alongside faith. Do too many questions undermine faith? What happens if we can't find the real Mount Sinai or prove the veracity of the exodus? I asked Professor Milgrom how he balanced the requisite doubt and skepticism of scholarship with the faith and trust of belief. His person was his response. He did not find it to be a struggle. You can regard Torah as holy. And at the same you can pull apart the strands of Torah, labeling some verses as written by one author and others by another school. Skepticism need not become cynicism. Scholarship points toward faith and in fact fortifies belief. Like the physicist who sees in the stars evidence of quarks and as well evidence of God's handiwork, Dr. Milgrom sees in the Torah evidence of God and humanity reaching towards each other. Faith is about bringing God into the world. Scholarship is about uncovering the hidden meanings in the Torah, and these are sometimes discovered by unraveling the many generations of writers who authored the Bible. Doubt must not as well undermine prayer. Not only can you pray, but you must pray, as Milgrom did on a daily basis. He once said (as retold by his son), "Of all things in the universe that God created, only the human is capable of chasing God out of his mind and heart. The human being, however, with his free will and his power of creation can fill his mind and heart with negativity and darkness, and expel God. However when I daven [pray], even if kavanah [proper feeling] doesn't come, at the very least I have dedicated a few minutes every day in which I don't create any negativity and darkness. In this way I have created a space for God to come in and fill me. This is the most important thing in life, because we can't base doing anything good in life on having experiences of kavanah. For kavanah is a gift for which we can't be accountable. But opening a space for God a few minutes each day we can do, and for this we can be accountable. Ultimately these few minutes each day are the foundation of hope that we can create meaning in our lives and they are the first step in tikkun olam [repair of the world]." I have come to see that questions renew and strengthen faith. I have also come to recognize that the greatest meaning can be derived from chance encounters and meetings. I admire Jacob Milgrom for balancing questions and devotion and of course for sharing his person with me.  May the memory of Jacob Milgrom always serve as a blessing.

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