Here are Karen’s opening remarks, delivered on June 17, 2007, at the Young Israel of Century City.
Last year I spoke of the bittersweet joy of hearing new anecdotes about Ariel. A recounting of the briefest of interactions, gaining the perspective of someone Ariel knew but was unknown to me, seeing a photo I had never seen before, are all heaven sent gifts.
For a few seconds I can stop pressing rewind. I can defy memory.
It is important for our family that as we gather to memorialize Ariel, we describe his character in detail. In The Book of Ariel many have spoken of his piety, his courage in the face of illness, his determination, and his kindness. Recently I heard a story from his friend that shed some light on an area of his life that was new to me.
I always knew that Ariel did not have the concept of being “cool.” He had many friends and was well liked, but he seemed to have been born with a sense of self, of knowing who he was without a need to be like anyone else. He was his own person. What I didn’t know was how he could influence others.
In the doldrums of summer the yeshiva boys were restless after a long hot Shabbos. They were letting their tzizzit down so to speak, the closest to a yeshiva bocher, Saturday night ” break out party”. A few games of poker, using chips instead of money, sending out for pizza. Really wild. .
After the game some of the boys lit up cigarettes. Without the slightest hint of condemnation, but with real sincerity, Ariel asked his friend, “ I don’t understand why you guys do that.” From that day on, Ariel’s friend told us, he never picked up another cigarette.
Ariel was not cowed by peer pressure. He did not condemn his friends, or fall into their disfavor by being a “goody goody.” Instead of submitting to peer pressure — he became a Peer Treasure. He gained their respect, and became a positive role model. They looked up to him and marveled at his patience and perseverance. He never said a bad word about any of his peers, never told us of any one giving him a bad time, although that must have happened at some point.
When Ariel got sick he knew how to deal with evil. He confronted it head on, with equanimity, courage, and when he didn’t understand it, he asked the right questions.
Today we are honoring his memory with a lecture that addresses the perennial struggle of reconciling a merciful god with the reality of evil in this world.
Dr. David Shatz, our featured speaker, is Professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University and Adjunct Professor of Religion at Columbia University. He received semikhah, rabbinical ordination, from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. with distinction from Columbia University.
The following is Karen’s summary of Dr. Shatz’s lecture. In the interests of fairness and accuracy, we asked Dr. Shatz to check and correct the summary before publication—which Dr. Shatz kindly agreed to do. Dr. Shatz found no major or minor errors and has endorsed Karen’s summary for publication. Once again, the Avrech family would like to express our deep appreciation to Rabbi, Dr. David Shatz for a thought-provoking lecture that was truly a fitting way to memorialize our beloved son, Ariel Chaim, may his name forever be a blessing.
Dr. Shatz chose to speak about Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s approach to how a religious Jew should understand suffering in this world. The readings he presented were predominantly from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s work, Out of the Whirlwind.
In the course of his lecture, Dr. Shatz mentioned that some talmudic sources reject the idea that all suffering is punishment for sin. Besides citing such passages, he referenced the prototypical biblical case of the suffering man, Job. The latter was advised by his friends that he must have sinned, for there could be no other explanation for his suffering. Dr. Shatz pointed out that the conclusion of the book of Job contradicts the friends’ position, as G-d chastises those who blamed Job for his fate.
Indeed, Talmudic and Midrashic sources present other ways to resolve the eternal question of why good people suffer in this world. Rabbi Shatz reviewed some of these schemas, for example the idea that some righteous people suffer more in this world in order to increase their reward in the next, and the idea that the suffering of the righteous atones for sin.
Rabbi Soloveitchik discusses the concept of evil from two perspectives.
The first is the perspective of what he calls “Thematic Halakhah.” Thematic Halakhah refers to the philosophical and metaphysical motifs of Judaism. (Dr. Shatz suggested it is in effect Aggadah, the theological dimension of Judaism.) When evil is viewed from this perspective, it is held to be justified and explicable by reference to a larger picture. The subjective experience of evil disappears and there is no contradiction in the statement that a perfectly good G-d created all things, including evil. From the perspective of Thematic Halakhah, the concept of evil is in the realm of metaphysical ideas that we might understand in the idealized future. Evil makes sense even if we cannot understand why it exists.
The second approach to evil is not metaphysical, but ethical. It is the approach of “Topical Halakhah”—that is, Halakhah conceived as a set of directives that human decisionmakers must follow. For the Topical Halakhah, the question is not “why does evil happen?” but rather “How do we handle evil, how do we confront it?” Here the Halakhah is very clear. We fight evil and bring all the resources and creative energies of man to banish it. Rabbi Soloveitchik calls this approach an “ethic of suffering” as opposed to a “metaphysic of suffering”.
Dr. Shatz suggested that in contrast to many issues where Rabbi Soloveitchik maintained that two opposing approaches remain in an unresolvable dialectic, here the Rav appears to favor Topical Halakhah. He believes that having a “thematic” explanation detracts from the urgency of the fight against evil, and therefore he stresses the demands of Topical Halakhah.
Professor Shatz cited the tangible passion of the Rav’s words. Here is one quote from Out of the Whirlwind:
Halakhah always preached active opposition to evil. That is why the Halakhah could not understand — and not only Halakhah but we Jews cannot understand — a philosophy of passive resistance to evil.
Certainly this topic addressed serious issues that might weigh heavily for those not enrolled in a university philosophy class. The wonder was that Professor Shatz infused his delivery with humor and enlivened what would seem to be abstract concepts with a freshness and accessibility that was inclusive but not patronizing. He simultaneously stimulated and challenged the intellectuals and rabbis in the audience as well.
Professor Shatz is truly a master conductor. Every tone was correct and well balanced, the lecture’s themes were interwoven seamlessly, and brought to a resounding conclusion. The lecture was an appropriate tribute to Ariel A’H who certainly undertook the battle against evil, but also maintained his faith, Emunah, that there would ultimately be a metaphysical revelation.