Saturday, October 30, 2004

Thoughts on Shlomo (archives)

An Abrahamic Soul (2001)

This past Friday, the 16th of Heshvan, marked seven years since the death of Rav Shlomo Carlebach, ztz”l. As the years pass, I find myself reflecting over and over again about this charismatic and paradoxical figure, who deeply touched so many lives and at the same time embodied so many of the contradictions and dilemmas of our era in Jewish life.

In writing about any person who has left this world, I am reminded of the words of Rav Soloveitchik, ztz”l, perhaps the master eulogist of our generation, in which he takes the verse in Jeremiah 31:2, “from afar the Lord appeared to me,” as emblematic of our relation to the deceased. I take this to mean that during his lifetime, we more often than not fail to truly see the person. The hustle and bustle of everyday life, the routine, utilitarian or pragmatic nature of most of our human encounters, tends to obscure our perception of the other person’s Divine soul, the reflection of God within his soul (helek eloha mima’al), the unique letter in the Torah to which he is a counterpart. Suddenly, after he dies, we begin to understand how much more there was to that person, and howl little we truly understood of his essence.

Since Reb Shlomo’s death, there has been a great resurgence of interest in his figure. “Shlomo minyanim,” which use his melodies and try to emulate his informal, emotive style of prayer, have spring up all over the Jewish world. But for many of his posthumous admirers, he is perhaps little more than a latter-age Jewish minstrel, a composer of catchy but soulful tunes. (And serious music critics might add that these were not even particularly sophisticated compositionally or harmonically. Indeed, Shlomo was an auto-didact in the field of music, so much so that it’s not clear whether he even knew how to read sheet music! His tremendous creativity seemed to enter him from someplace else—as if the Shekhina were singing from his throat!)

At the risk of indulging in the mysticism of dates, I find it significant that Shlomo died during the week between Lekh Lekha and Vayera, as he himself was what might be called an “Abrahamic personality.” I would like to begin by discussing a relevant Talmudic passage about Abraham:

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: “And I shall make of you a great nation” [Gen 12:2]. This [alludes to] our saying “God of Abraham.” “And I shall bless you” [ibid.]: this alludes to “God of Isaac.” “And I shall make your name great” [ibid.]: that alludes to “God of Jacob.” Should we perhaps conclude [the blessing] with all of them? The Torah says, “And you shall be a blessing”—we close with you and we do not close with all of them. (Pesahim 117b, quoted by Rashi on Gen 12:2)

The Talmud sees the various components of this verse as alluding to the structure of the first blessing of the Amidah, recited by every observant Jew several times daily. The Amidah begins with an evocation of “God and God of our fathers,” immediately goes on to specify that God is ”God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob,” but concludes by calling God “the Shield of Abraham.”

What was so central about Abraham, as opposed to the other two patriarchs? If one must choose only one of the three patriarchs, should one not choose Jacob, who was renamed Israel, and was thus by his very name the father of the nation? Again, in Kabbalistic thought Jacob is Tiferet, the center of the sefirotic tree, the central role that harmonizes the tensions and antinomies of the others. I would suggest two answers.

First, Jewish faith originated with Abraham. Isaac inherited Abraham’s faith, and was loyal to it, deepening it in a very personal way; Jacob developed it, brought it out into the world further, expanded it by raising his family of twelve children—but Abraham was the one who first discovered God. He was “Abraham, who loved me.” Without him, Isaac and Jacob would not have been what they were.

Second, Abraham is identified with the divine attribute of Hesed: of kindness, of generosity, of expansiveness, of giving to others without limit and without bound. Of course, unlimited Hesed, like any other unlimited quality, can be exaggerated, harmful, requiring the checks and balances of Yitshak’s Gevurah, his rigor and judgment, setting limits and pulling back inward. But the core impulse of the religious life, as of the ethical life, must be Hesed: generosity, selflessness, the movement from the self to others. Without the initial Hesed impulse, the sternness and discipline of Isaac is cold, dead, and life-destroying. Even the harmony of Jacob only makes sense within the context of the thesis-antithesis in which Abraham’s Hesed is the starting point met by Isaac’s Gevurah.

In both these senses, Shlomo was a quintessential Abrahamic personality. First, he was a living embodiment of the quality of Hesed: in his generosity, in the simple sense of giving both of his material resources and of his heart. His caring and his reaching out in a personal way to the tens of thousands of people he met on life’s path was quintessentially Abrahamic—even if, viewed from the perspective of “sensible” and “prudent” bourgeois values, they were utterly exaggerated, leaving nothing for himself or his family.

Second, he was a latter day Abraham in his efforts to spread the light of Torah to as many people as possible, in this age of Jewish ignorance, estrangement and massive assimilation. He saw his life’s mission as specifically reaching out to those who were distant from the tradition, who were not reached by the Jewish, and certainly not by the Orthodox, establishment: to the hippies in the communes and crash-pads and Eastern ashrams of San Francisco; to the ignorant Jews behind the Iron Curtain, long before concern for Soviet Jewry became de rigueur; to alienated Jewish college students in far-flung campuses, way back in the early ‘50s when no one else was engaged in such outreach—to all, observant or not, young or old, learned or ignorant.

Two Basic Choices

I see Shlomo’s life and career as having been shaped by two basic decisions. One was the choice to reach out to the entire Jewish world, in the utterly unorthodox, individualistic path he created for himself. Concomitant with this, he needed to turn his back on the “straight” Orthodox world from which he had come, and in which he remained spiritually rooted to his dying day—and which in turn rejected him. This seems to me one of the things that most deeply pained him, and one of the sources of the underlying sadness and even tragic aspect to his demeanor. Despite everything, he saw in men like Rav Aaron Kutler, the Bobover Rebbe, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe the source, the fountain head, of unreconstructed, authentic Jewish holiness.

The model for this mission may be found in such Hasidic concepts as the “lifting up of sparks”; of the “soul connection” of the Tzaddik or Rebbe to his disciples, in which he takes upon himself the correction of the souls of those connected to him, or even of an entire generation; the notion of yeridat hatzaddik, of “descent” into the word of “impurity” in order to lift up from there the souls that were lost. This was manifested in his life in the most practical, concrete sense: by going to San Francisco, and living among the hippies who, in innocence and naivete, certainly without any malice or bad intention, lived in a way that violated many Torah principles. There he founded the House of Love and Prayer: part commune–crash pad, part shul—Beit Midrash, which was run with a very loose, free atmosphere, but offered Yiddishkeit for those who wanted it. Nor was he afraid to go to totally alien places to share his message. In 1971 I participated in a visit by Shlomo to the Integral Yoga Ashram in San Francisco: Shlomo and half a dozen of the “hevra” entered a room filled with young men and women dressed in white robes and seated in the lotus posture on the floor. He sang a few songs on his guitar, he told a few Hasidic stories, he talked a bit about Shabbat, and was received warmly and attentively. His visit surely left an impression—if only to get across the idea that there is another, “different” Judaism than what these people, many of whom were Jewish by birth, had learned in Hebrew School or in their suburban communities.

The second key decision in his life was the choice of the heart over the head, of emotion over reason, of the teaching of the heart over erudition and book learning. Legend has it that Shlomo was considered an extraordinary intellect in the yeshiva milieu, and was a favorite student of Rav Aharon Kutler at Lakewood. How true this was, and whether his analytic powers were superior to his fellow “Yeshivah bakhurim,” I cannot judge. What I can personally testify is that he was blessed with a remarkably retentive memory, and an encyclopedic knowledge of everything related to Judaism, and especially to Hasidism. In any event, he seems to have made a clear, conscious choice away from all that. His teaching, with rare exceptions, was geared to the heart. In a certain sense, it seemed that there was almost a suppression of the intellect, at least in the sense of the critical, analytic functions. There was an artlessness, a conscious simplicity to his teaching; an intuitive ability to translate the complexities of Hasidic texts into simply expressed but profound concepts that could be comprehended even by those untutored in traditional Judaism.

The choice of heart over mind lay at the root of Shlomo’s intellectual predilections as well. Future researchers will surely ask the question: what were the literary roots of his Torah? He loved teaching Hasidic texts; his suitcase was always bulging with at least half a dozen Hasidic books, wherever he went. But those on which he most focused, and which he most frequently utilized in his own teaching were, on the one hand, the works of R. Nahman of Bratslav, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and a towering figure of early Hasidism (and, like Shlomo, well known for dressing his teaching in the form of stories rather than in more abstract elucidation of Torah verses and Rabbinic dicta); and, on the other, a small group of late 19th century Polish Hasidic thinkers: R. Mordecai of Izhbitz (Mei Shiloah); his son R. Yaakov (Beit Yaakov); and, to a slightly lesser extant, R. Tzaddok Hakohen of Lublin (author of Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, of the five-volumes of Peri Tzaddik, and many other works); and R. Alter Meir of Ger (Sefat Emet). The common denominator of all these is that they emphasized the simple truths of the heart: of faith, of avodah shebelav (prayer as “service of the heart”), of returning to the “central point” within the heart, of reliance upon God and surrender to God’s will. (In the case of the Mei Shiloah, in a manner that at times transcends halakha and even teeters at the edge of antinomianism.)

In terms of the theocentric-anthropocentric axis upon which we have dwelt in recent weeks, Shlomo came down squarely on the side of a human-centered Torah. Whatever the original intention of his sources, in Bratslav and Izhbitz and so on, for him they became a teaching of how man is to behave with man—and with woman. (Some of his deepest Torahs were those spoken at weddings and Sheva Berakhot—or those relating to the disturbing and all-too-frequent marital breaks-ups of this generation.) Ultimately, his was a very simple, at times almost naive, teaching—about how to fill the world with more love, with more understanding, with more compassion. At times, I would go home from a marathon session with Shlomo with the sense that it was almost a dream. In a strange, paradoxical way, he forged a kind of synthesis of age-old Jewish teaching with the depth yearnings expressed in the ethos of the ‘60’s, “Flower Child” generation. So much so, that it often seemed to me that the his circle was the closest living replica to the milieu of the Baal Shem—an unsophisticated, warm, joyous piety, exuberant, even extravagant in its display of emotion.

By contrast, he only rarely taught Tanya or other Habad texts, notwithstanding the fact that his formative years as a hasid were spent in a Habad environment. This was doubtless due to the excessively intellectual, abstract, not to say abstruse nature of Habad teaching. Indeed, Habad Hasidim themselves draw a distinction between Habad—the teaching based upon the spheres of the Divine intellect known as Hokhmah, Binah and Da’at—and Gaha”t—the Polish Hasidism of the heart, rooted in the more emotional spheres of Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet.

Shlomo, Elvis and Jesus (1999)

This heading will no doubt sound at once blasphemous and frivolous. So let me explain.

This past week marked five years since the passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, known in his lifetime as the controversial singing, hippie rabbi. During the years since his death he has become something of a cult figure, even for those far removed from the milieu in which he flourished. Why?

When I was younger, and perhaps more of a yeshiva bachur and would-be “halakhic man,” I was torn between loving Shlomo’s word—whenever he came to Boston I would go to hear him teach, accompanying him till the wee hours of the morning—and, in a more sober mood, after the euphoria wore off, feeling that he there was something superficial in his teaching, excessively light and easy in his attitude to halakhah. Clearly, Shlomo did not project the seriousness and solemnity of the great established Torah leaders of the day, whether rashei yeshiva and rebbes (Lithuanian yeshiva deans or Hasidic rebbes)— figures like Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Yitzhak Hunter, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Shlomo’s own mentor Rav Aharon Kutler, or the Lubavitcher or Bobover or Vishnitzer Rebbes. Shlomo did not seem to carry the tradition of generations of Jews on his shoulders in the same grave, weighty way as did these talmidei hakhamim. Alongside his learning and brilliance and aura of piety, there were certain obvious, glaring failings and shortcomings, his fondness for the fair sex being perhaps the most evident one.

And yet, there was something in his figure that was tremendously attractive to our generation. Shlomo did not marry until his mid-40’s; for years, he lived out of a suitcase, travelling throughout the States, to Israel, to Europe, to Russia, to wherever there were Jews —staying every night in a different hotel room; sometimes calling girls he had met at his concerts, in whatever part of the world they were. On occasion, he would describe himself as “the loneliest person the world.”

We live in an age plagued with problems of relationships between men and women. In some way, I submit, Shlomo symbolized the troubles of an entire generation, writ large. Shlomo was blessed with charisma, with the power to uplift and inspire people: through his music, through his stories, through his teaching -- which were themselves extraordinary exercises in finding contemporary, immediate meaning in sometimes difficult, dense (and often theologically radical) Hasidic books like Mei Shilaoh and Beit Yaakov and Sefat Emet. At the same time, at least for those who came to know Shlomo at all closely, his failings and humanity and underlying personal unhappiness were painfully apparent. He would be known, on occasion, to describe himself as “the loneliest person the world.” And precisely that, in my view, was the source of his power. He was a teacher with whom people could identify, in his suffering, as well as in his Torah greatness. And it is this quality, which made him so different from all the other rabbis, that made him so appealing.

Where do Elvis and Jesus enter into this schema? During the years since Elvis Presley’s death, a quasi-religious cult has sprung up around his memory. There are mass pilgrimages to his home, Graceland, and to his grave, especially on the occasion of his ”yahrzeit”; there are even holy relics. About a year ago, at a three-day academic conference held about the meaning of Elvis as a cultural symbol, one of the conclusions was that there was a profound identification with Elvis as an examplar in his suffering: the ”Passion of Elvis,” if you will. The handsome, sexy star, who had mobs of teen-age girls literally swooning at his feet, in a way hitherto unparalleled in American popular music (at least among white people), married and divorced several times, who died tragically young, addicted to alcohol and to pills, bloated from overeating. His figure somehow held a tremendous power for many ordinary Americans—and others. Instinctively, they felt that his suffering was somehow their own suffering. The similarity to Shlomo—without , of course, the dimension of transcendence and genuine piety and holiness expressed in the word Torah, and with the element of suffering and tragedy rather more obvious—is striking.

Finally, at the risk of offending just about everyone: what is the relation of both to Jesus? Jesus was of course the great-great-grand-daddy, the very archetype of this type of figure. The psychological power of Christianity, its appeal to masses of human beings, lies in the myth and mystery of an incarnate, suffering, human god. God as we believe He is—God the Creator, the Lawgiver, who rules over the entire universe, extending over millions of stellar systems and galaxies—is far too overwhelming and distant and incomprehensible for ordinary human being to relate. A human being needs someone, something, to whom he can relate on an intimate, personal level. (Such, truth be told, is also the appeal of the Hasidic Rebbe.) The legend of the Incarnation—of a god who walks among people, radiating love and compassion, and who himself knows and experiences suffering and pain—is infinitely appealing. Such, Christians claim, was Jesus. And such were, in their very different paths, Elvis and Shlomo.

Who Was Reb Shlomo? (1998; originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

November 5 (Marheshvan 16) marked four years since the passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the singing rabbi. Interestingly, during the years since his death, his influence and following seem to have grown, his name becoming a symbol for a new, different and refreshing approach to Jewish religious life. Prayer groups modeled upon his teachings and rooted in his music have sprung up in many different places. In Jerusalem alone, half a dozen Shlomo minyans meet every Shabbat, attracting those seeking a more vibrant, emotional, intense type of worship.

Who was Reb Shlomo? What was the secret of his appeal? Where did he stand on the big issues of Jewish life today? Was he a Hassid? A modern Orthodox Jew? A proponent of halakhic reform within Orthodoxy? A religious Zionist? A supporter of the Whole Land of Israel, seeing the Messiah as coming as just around the corner? Where did he stand on the role of women, and the issues raised by feminism?

To pose the questions is to already suggest the answer. Clearly, he defies categorization in terms of nearly all those issues with which we ordinarily understand the Jewish world, and certainly the Orthodox one .

Shlomo was regarded as something of a black sheep in much of the conventional, straight Orthodox world. He was ostracized by the yeshiva world in which he grew up for his lifestyle as a sort of itinerant Hassidic minstrel; for his involvement with the hippies of the 1960s; and for what was perceived as a generally free and loose approach toward halakhah in an age of increasing strictness.

A few basic facts. Shlomo Carlebach was born in Vienna in 1926 and came to the United States with his parents in his early childhood. His father, Rabbi Naphtali Hartwig Carlebach, was rabbi of one of the major congregations on Manhattans West Side. During his youth, he was known as one of the most promising and beloved students of Rabbi Aharon Kutler, founder of the Bet Midrash Gavoha in Lakewood, New Jersey, one of the earliest and most prestigious Lithuanian yeshivot in America. Some say that he was an iluy, a Talmudic prodigy.

During their early 20s, he and his twin brother, Eliah Hayyim, sought a more intense and emotional spiritual life in Hassidism, frequenting Lubavitch and Bobov, the two major Hassidic courts in the US in those days. While still in yeshiva, Shlomo began playing the guitar and composing his own songs the simple, soulful melodies, which became his hallmark and which were to awaken the Jewish spark among so many. He barnstormed college campuses with Zalman Schachter another young follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who was later to strike out in dramatically different ways and began performing to synagogue and student groups. In 19591963 he launched his career as an entertainer with an evening at the Village Gate in New York’s Greenwich Village, a performance which became the basis for his first recording.

But Shlomo was always far more than a mere entertainer. His concerts and kumsitzes and teaching sessions were always marked by a deeper purpose to reach out to lost Jews, wherever they were, and to reignite the spark of yiddishkeit that lay dormant within them.

During the 1960s, with the emergence of the hippie movement and the widespread disaffection of middle-class youth with the establishment, he made it his mission to reach out to these youth, and began spending time in San Francisco where, together with his first hippie/baalei-tshuva, he set up the House of Love and Prayer. Part commune, part synagogue, part would-be yeshiva, its doors were open to all and every comer, Jew and non-Jew alike.

He traveled all over the world, singing his songs, telling hassidic stories and homilies, and talking about Shobbes to people in far-flung corners of the world. As such, he was among the first Jewish teachers to go behind the Iron Curtain to reach out Jewishly to the captive Jews of the Soviet Union.

As his hippie Hassidim matured and began to seek a long-term path, some left him to study at straight yeshivot; while others, who had meanwhile married and began raising families, shared in his dream of setting up a community in Israel that would live his unique path. After an abortive attempt to set up a community in the village of Migdal near Lake Kinneret a Shlomo moshav was created at Meor Modiim, which is today the center of Shlomo people.

Who, then, was Reb Shlomo? At times it seemed as though the atmosphere pervading the circle around Shlomo was a contemporary recreation of the original Hassidism of the circle of the Baal Shem Tov a simple, straightforward Torah of the heart, without the pomp and circumstance of the cult of Zaddikim (charismatic holy men) that developed from the time of R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk and on.

Like the Besht, he reached out to the more marginal elements of society in his case, the drop-outs of the 60s and 70s, whom he was fond of calling his holy beggars. His seeming simplicity and even naivete seemed to have been born of a deliberate strategy of cutting through the complexities in order to reach out to alienated Jews . Shlomo touched people very deeply on an emotional level, whether through music, story, homily, or more formal teaching. He knew how to spoke the language of the heart, naturally, without cynicism or manipulation . There was a deep, genuine love for others, that at times bordered on the extreme. Perhaps we moderns are too cynical to fully appreciate the simplicity and, in a certain sense, even holiness and purity, of such a person.

Speaking in mythical, Kabbalistic terms, Shlomo’s behavior might be described in terms of yeridat hazaddik: the conscious descent of the righteous man into the world of impurity, in which he knew he would have to compromise his standards; a descent motivated, at least on the conscious level, by the desire to redeem the souls of the assimilated Jewish souls whom he could only reach by going to the place where they were.

The texts Shlomo most loved teaching: the writings of R. Nahman of Breslav; the Sefat Emet by R. Alter Judah of Gur; the numerous books by R. Zakkok of Lublin; the Mei Shiloah by R. Mordechai of Izhbitz all strongly emphasize the core faith experience, with relatively little Kabbalistic or halakhic super-structure. Rather, the emphasis is on the basic awareness of the presence of God, of the reality of the potential for holiness within the world, especially of the Shabbat as the time in which man can tangibly feel and taste the Divine presence. All these texts emphasize the immanence of the Divine; all is holy: it is not good to dwell too strongly on feelings of guilt or sinfulness or the donts. In short, a message uniquely suited to the youth culture of the 60s and 70s, to the creation of a new type of Hasidism, adapted to late 20th century, assimilated American-Jewish (and worldwide) youth.

On another level, insight may be gained by examining the historical and family context from which he emerged. Shlomo was the grandson and namesake of the Luebecker Rav, R. Salomon Carlebach of Luebeck (1845-1919), a central figure in German Orthodox Jewry, whose sons and sons-in-laws in turn fille d many major pulpits in preWorld War I and interWar Germany.

The Luebecker Rav represented a significant approach during this period, which was marked by the emergence of a self-conscious, ideological Orthodoxy. He came to maturity during the first generation after Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Neo-Orthodoxy. This movement advocated Torah im derekh eretz (“Torah and worldliness”) a strict, uncompromising Orthodoxy combined with involvement in Western culture together with a strategy of setting up separatist Orthodox communities.

Seeing those truly committed to Jewish halakhic observance as a beleaguered minority not only vis a vis the Reformers (who introduced an organ into the Hamburg Temple in the 1810s), but also in relation to the nonobservant householders who continued to attend a nominally Orthodox Synagogue, where the old rites were performed as they had been Hirsch, as rabbi in Frankfort am Main in the 1840s and 50s, set up the first austritzgemeinde, a community organization that required as a condition of membership unqualified personal commitment to halakhic observance, with its own separate synagogues, schools, kashrut supervision, and even cemeteries.

By contrast, the Luebecker Rav and his son represented the old-fashioned gemeinde, pan-communal approach, which opposed Hirsch’s separatist, Orthodox-elitist approach. Their approach was inclusive of all Jews, while uncompromising in halakhah and not trying to create any synthesis. The Orthodox synagogue was simply the center of the Jewish community as a whole, whatever may have been the level of its individuals spiritually or halakhically. The rabbi saw his task as being the leader of all; embodying, exemplifying the halakhah, but having the discretion and wisdom not to examine too closely those things in his flock which did not bear scrutiny. This conflict may be seen as foreshadowing a pattern which repeated itself, in various guises, within Orthodox Jewry throughout the twentieth century: between the Torah va-Avodah(“Torah and Labor”) philosophy of pioneering Religious Zionism and the anti-Zionist Agudath Israel; between the Torah u-Mada (“Torah and Science”) approach of Yeshiva University and American modern Orthodoxy and the black hat yeshiva world; etc.; but the principle remained the same.

May it be that the Lubecker Rav’s grandson, in the vastly different milieu of late 20th century America, translated this philosophy of Jewish unity and wide-ranging acceptance of every Jew into his own unique approach, transmitting a simple, heart-to-heart Jewish message through the medium of song, story and homily? Perhaps his own motto may be seen in the words of one of his earliest and still best-loved songs: Am Yisrael Hay! The People of Israel lives! Wherever Jewish souls are to be found, there is also Jewish hope.

From the Midrash on Vayera (archive)

The Moral Dilemma of the Akedah

There is perhaps no chapter in the Bible that presents greater philosophical and ethical difficulties than that of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, found in this week’s parasha (Genesis 22). Whatever position taken—ranging from humanistic rejection of the values it implies; to anthropological-historicist reduction of it as an “archaic” document reflecting the remnants of antique concepts of human sacrifice; to its theocentric celebration of it as showing man’s submission of his will to that of the Absolute; to the anti-rationalist existentialist interpretation of Soren Kierkegaard, who saw in it the “teleological suspension of the ethical,” in his famous phrase from Fear and Trembling, perhaps the first and most famous modern discourse in the Akedah—the concern is, first and foremost, with the ethical problematic raised. The modern sensibility seems to agree that this chapter is scandalous from the perspective of nay normal standards of ethics, and demands profound examination and interpretation.

But this is not necessarily the immediate association evoked in classical Jewish thought upon reading this chapter. The classical midrashim run a wide gamut: from exploration of the nature of the trial; to painting in sharp colors the harshness of Abraham’s dilemma, both his emotional reaction and the contradiction posed by this test to earlier promises; but only rarely directly challenging God’s justice in posing such a test. In the medieval world, as eloquently demonstrated by Shalom Spiegel in his study The Last Trial, medieval Jews themselves with the figure of Isaac. For many, the Akedah was a powerful metaphor for the martyrdom of the hundreds if not thousands who perished in Kiddush Hashem during the Crusades, in 1096 and on other occasions. Spiegel’s book culminates with a liturgical poem on the Akedah by Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn, which includes the phrase: “You were bound once, but I was bound many times”—i.e., the Jewish people as the sacrificial victim.

This week, we shall attempt to examine some of the meanings of the Akedah in two midrashim which portray the dilemma in clear terms. First, Genesis Rabbah 55.4:

[1] “After these things” [Gen 22:1]—after thought about things that were there. Who thought? Abraham thought and said: I have rejoiced and caused rejoicing to all the others, but I have not put aside for the Holy One blessed be He even one bullock or one ram?! The Holy One blessed be He said to him: so that I may ask you to offer your son, and you will not refuse.

The phrase, “I have rejoiced and rejoiced others” refers to the feast made by Abraham when Isaac was weaned (Gen 21:8)—an occasion for celebration, evidently, because it marked the transition from babyhood to early childhood and the beginnings of the child’s life as an independent figure in the family circle and not merely an appendage to his mother—and thus, in later Rabbinic tradition, the earliest stage of education and training towards a life of mitzvot. In any event, Abraham expresses here his misgivings that he did not make a proper offering to God on that occasion.

The dilemma stems from the basis religious impulse toward sacrifice, to offer something of one’s own to God. Hesed, the impulse toward expansiveness and generosity, is here directed toward God. (Incidentally, this is a basic need fulfilled by the mitzvah, which provides a vehicle directing man’s inchoate energy of wishing to serve God.) But there is a paradox here: What happens if God asks for more than what one bargained on giving to Him? Deep down, the average person wants to show appreciation to God, to reciprocate in some small measure His infinite love, to acknowledge the gift of life itself—but to remain a human being, to go about in the world, to live his life, to enjoy the mundane pleasures, small and great, of earthly life. The Akedah represents, in principle, the idea of giving everything to God; of mesirat nefesh, of being prepared to lay down one’s very life, of there being nothing else but God (see the Kabbalistic interpretations of Shema, of Tahanun, etc.). Its spiritual logic may be impeccable, but it is certainly scary, taking one to a realm far beyond that at which human life is ordinarily lived.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz was wont to refer to the Akedah as paradigmatic of Judaism. He contrasted the Crucifixon with the Akedah: in the one God sacrifices Himself for man; in the other, man sacrifices that which is dearest to him for the sake of God. Leibowitz thus drew a sharp dichotomy between the theocentric and the anthropocentric moment. Torah and mitzvot are Avodat ha-Shem, Divine service; as such, they transcend reason, need not make any sense, nor express any of our own feelings emotions, but are purely God-focused.

[2] According to the view of R. Eleazar, who said: “and God” (veha-Elohim) refers to Him and his court. The ministering angels said: Abraham rejoiced and caused rejoicing to all the others, but he did not put aside for the Holy One blessed be He even one bullock or one ram?! The Holy One blessed be He said to them: So that I may ask him to offer his son, and he will not refuse.

The sequence of events described here is almost the same, with one “small” change. In the first case, the Akedah comes about as a kind of extension or expansion of Abraham’s own initiative; here, it is the angels who draw God’s attention to Abraham’s omission. This makes all the difference. Are the angels jealous of man? One is reminded of the opening scene in the Book of Job, where Satan comes up with his devilish scheme to test Job, destroying first his family, his property, and then subjecting him to painful physical suffering—and God acquiesces without protest. Or of the midrash of the jealousy of the angels, when Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah (see Shabbat 89a).

[3] Isaac and Ishmael were disputing with one another. This one said: I am more beloved than you, for I was circumcised at thirteen years; and the other said: I am more beloved than you, for I was circumcised at eight days. Ishmael said to him: I am more beloved than you. Why? Because I could have objected and did not object. At that moment Isaac said: Would that the Holy One blessed be He were to be revealed to me now and tell me to cut off one of my limbs, and I would not object. Immediately: “and God tested Abraham” [ibid.].

Here the focus moves from Abraham or the Celestial Court to Isaac and Ishmael. What at first seems a childish dispute, one more incident in what was doubtless endless squabbling between the siblings, perhaps of jealousy or rivalry for the affection of the parents, is quickly revealed as something deeper: as a contest for Divine favor. (Were this Midrash not ancient, no later than the 5th century, one might suspect this passage of being a covert Jewish-Muslim polemic.) The comment I made earlier, about “getting more than he bargained for,” applies equally well here. Incidentally, it is ironic that this section ends with the verse saying that God tested Abraham when the test is no longer seen here as Abraham’s, but as the fruit of Isaac’s impulse.

[4] [An alternative version:] Ishmael said to him: I am more beloved than you, for I was circumcised at thirteen years, but you were circumcised in your infancy when you could not protest. Isaac said to him: All that you gave to the Holy One blessed be He was three drops of blood. But I am now thirty-seven years old, If the Holy One blessed be He were to ask me to be slaughtered, I would not object. The Holy One blessed be He said to him: This is the hour. Immediately: “and God tested Abraham” [ibid.].

Here, the impulse comes from Isaac himself, expressing his full willingness to be sacrificed. There is something almost masochistic here. The impulse is not simply one of showing ones gratitude to God, the putting aside of a token offering by the self-satisfied bourgeois baal bayit (householder), nor even longing for mystical knowledge of God, but the total self sacrifice of the God-intoxicated mystic, who disregards everything in the world. (This line of thought reminds me of friend, a deeply pious and somewhat unbalanced Hasid who, after a regimen of years of intense mystical prayer, routinely fasting most if not all of the day, died of anorexia.) The average reader will ask: Is this “healthy” or “normal”? But such definitions of health or normality are irrelevant and even meaningless when speaking of those who are totally consumed by such God-centered yearnings.

Let us now turn to another midrash, which to my mind addresses the “modern” questions in about the problematics of the Akedah more directly. Genesis Rabbah 56.4:

[1] “And Isaac said to Abraham his father…” (ibid., vv. 7-8). Samael came to Father Abraham and said to him: Grandfather! Grandfather! Have you lost your heart [i.e., your mind]? A son that was given to you at the age of one hundred years, you are going to slaughter? He said to him: Nevertheless so. He said to him: And if He tests you more than that, can you stand? “If one tests you with some thing, you will be exhausted” [Job 4:2; read here as “If one ventures a word with you will you be offended”]. He said to him: Nevertheless. He said to him: Tomorrow He will say to you: “You have shed blood! You are guilty of shedding your own son’s blood.” He said to him: Nevertheless so.

Samael is one of the names for Satan, the Tempter, the Arch Enemy of all that is good and holy. But while Satan or Samael was definitely part of the mythic world of Hazal, I wonder whether he may not serve here as a kind of personification or mouthpiece for the “heretical” thoughts of the Rabbis themselves, who were doubtless disturbed by many of the same problems regarding this chapter as are we moderns.

He puts forward three arguments: first, all the hopes that Abraham has pinned on Isaac, his son and heir, which will now be swept away as naught. Second, that the trials may in fact be never-ending (the use of the verse from Job, where trials seem to be an end in themselves, and Satan is constantly convincing God to “up the ante,” in what seems a concerted effort to break Job, is perhaps intended to allude to this). Third, “Tomorrow He will say to you: You have shed blood!” Suppose you’re found culpable of murder! The argument here is either that God will change his mind, completely nullifying his command retroactively and somehow holding Abraham guilty; or, what seems to me more likely, that perhaps Abraham was deluding himself, and the voice he heard was not that of God, but some kind of self-deception.

My friend Dr. Joshua Levinson, a Midrash expert, called my attention to the phrase al menat ken (here translated “Nevertheless so”), used repeatedly. He noted the usage of this phrase in Tosefta Sanhedrin, in the context of the formal warning given to a murderer, or one about to commit a capital crime, to which he answers al menat ken, to show that he is fully aware of the consequences of his action.

[2] Since he didn’t get anywhere with him, he went to his son Isaac. He said to him: Miserable child, he is going to slaughter you. He said to him: Nevertheless. He said to him: If so, all those beautiful garments that your mother made for you will be inherited by Ishmael, the hated one of your house. Do you not take this to heart?

Note the banality of Satan’s argument: what will happen to the clothes that your mother made for you? Of course, what he is invoking here are Isaac’s presumed feelings of rivalry, jealousy, even hatred. He starts with something that is seemingly petty, but Samael is really a shrewd psychologist: in general, one of the strongest forces in life are the hatreds, grudges, jealousies, etc. that people bear towards others for all kinds of reasons. While all this is highly negative and undesirable, and most all religious teachers, ethicists and psychologists would agree that it would be best if these could somehow be eliminated from life, and certainly not allowed to fester—in reality they are very powerful, and serve as a powerful driving force in all kinds of life situations, whether between individuals or between nations and even whole civilizations (the Twin Towers?).

[3] [He said to himself;] If the word is not accepted, perhaps half a word will be. This is what is written: “And Isaac said to Abraham his father, and said, ‘Father!’” Why did he say “his father ,” “Father” twice? So that he might be filled with compassion toward him. “And he said: behold, here is the fire and the knife.” He said to him: May He rebuke that man [i.e., Satan]. In any event, “God will show him the lamb, my son,” and if not “you are the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”

“And the two of them walked together”—this one to bind, and that one to be bound; this one to slaughter, and that one to be slaughtered.

Finally, Samael decides to go for at least a partial success: if he can stop neither Abraham nor Isaac, perhaps he can somewhat upset the perfection of their intention in performing the act, by awakening ordinary paternal emotions of compassion, thereby “spoiling” what was intended by God to be a perfect, unblemished, supreme act of faith. But he fails in that too: between the lines, we are told that Abraham discloses to Isaac what is going to happen, and “the two of them walked together”—this time with perfect unity of purpose. (This verse, which is located in the exact middle of the narrative, is seen by Nehama Leibowitz and others as the dramatic climax of the story; hence its position at the center of a chaistic literary scheme.)

Joshua Levinson also noted that some manuscripts, brought in the Theodor-Albeck edition, add here a passage in which the Satan tells Abraham: “I heard from behind the veil [i.e., from Heaven] that you won’t have to slaughter him.” But Abraham disbelieves him, for “one does not listen to a joker [i.e., a known deceiver].“ In other words, Samael tries to demolish the seriousness of Abraham’s devotion by telling him that the whole thing is a kind of ”play-acting,” and not for real—but in this too he fails.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Vayera (archive)

Prelude: The Path of Seeing

Lekh Lekha and Vavera, the two Torah portions devoted to the life of Abraham, seem to form one continuum. Indeed, Nehama Leibowitz (no doubt among others) has noted the symmetrical, chiastic structure of these chapters, molding them into one integral, cyclical unit. What, then, is the significance of their division into two parshiyot, and at the particular point where this was done?

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe commented that Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision, constituted the turning point in Abraham’s life. Until then, he only knew God in a mahazeh, a dreamlike vision (as in Chapter 15). After Brit Milah, he saw God clearly, speaking to Him intimately, like a man conversing with his friend. The very first word of the parshah, Vayera—“And he [God] appeared to him..”—is emblematic of this new relationship. This phase of Abraham’s life thus represents living with God on a transcendent, covenantal level, quite different from the natural, spontaneous piety of the earlier stage. Interestingly, its first major manifestation was Abraham’s standing up as defense attorney for the righteous people within Sodom against God Himself!

The Paradox of the Akedah

So much has been written about Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, with which this portion concludes, that it seems impossible to say anything new. Nevertheless, one can hardly ignore this story, which is one of the great pinnacles and paradigms of Jewish faith.

The power and paradox of the Akedah have been strikingly articulated by the 19th century Danish Christian theologian, Soren Kierkegaard. In his famous essay, Fear and Trembling, he speaks of Abraham as a “knight of faith,” the intensity and reality of whose faith, of his burning love for God, being the overwhelming reality of his life to which all else was subsumed. Kierkegaard defines the Akedah as the “theological suspension of the ethical.” However much morality and religion seem intertwined, the latter providing the anchor and rationale for the former, a point comes at which man must choose between morality which, divine though its roots may be, is still somehow a function of the “normal” standards of human society, and the theological—the all-consuming passion and demand for devotion to God, and to Him Alone. Kierkegaard movingly describes how, at each step of the journey to Moriah, Abraham never ceased to wonder and question whether this command was in fact from God, or was the voice of some demon.

But is this at all a Jewish approach? The consensus seems to be that in Judaism the whole point of the Akedah is God’s intervening to say, “I do not want such sacrifices,” and the substitution of the ram for Isaac. (This is perhaps strengthened by the midrash about the use of this ram in central movements: its skin became the tunic worn by Elijah; its sinews, the string of David’s harp; and its two horns, the two shofars—the one sounded at Sinai, the other, set aside to announce the coming of the Messiah). A key Rashi says that God never said, “slaughter your son” but only “offer him up as a burnt offering,” seemingly hearkening back to the fine halakhic distinction between the sanctification of an offering, as a significant act in itself, and the actual performance of the sacrifice, which comes thereafter.

But that seems to be begging the question. If God does not want, nay, abhors, human sacrifice, then why should he want Abraham to obey Him by following an order that so perverts His very essence? What sort of religious mind-set can God want, that requires Abraham to overcome his own decent, human sense that the act he is being asked to do is dreadfully wrong? That way lies the type of fundamentalist mind-set that would reject any and all autonomous morality as a religious category, and insist that moral acts are only so because they are commanded in the Torah, rather than vice versa.

An interesting bypath was taken by many Medieval Jews, who had their fill of their own troubles. Shalom Spiegel, in his “The Last Trial,” demonstrates how the Akedah was often used in a half-ironic, half-midrashic/poetic way by liturgical poets, who compared the Binding of Isaac, which was in the end averted, with the “hundreds of bindings” suffered by the Jewish people in the Diaspora—specifically in the Crusades of the 11th and 12th century, in which such venerable Rhineland Jewish communities as Speyers, Worms, and Mainz were decimated.

But let us take another turn. There is an interesting play in our chapter between the two Divine names, “Elohim” and ”HVYH” (conventionally translated as “God” and “Lord”). At the beginning of the chapter , the former name is used; only at the turning point, when Abraham is told to stay his hand, is the name HVYH used. A conventional Kabbalistic reading would say: but of course. Elohim, which signifies Midat ha-Din—stern Divine sternness and severity and Judgment— calls for the ultimate sacrifice. HVYH—the name of Midat Harahamim, the Divine quality of compassion and mercy, the power that forgives sins and makes covenants with imperfect human beings—calls a halt to this cruel and bloody drama.

I would like to take this idea a bit deeper, and in a slightly different direction. In other essays in this series, I have spoken of the typology, perhaps most fully elaborated by Rav J. B. Soloveitchik in his essay Uvikashtam misham (“And you shall seek from there”), of two kinds of religious experience—the natural and the revelatory. The natural experience is the product of the innate religious drive present in man himself; together with the more instinctual and pragmatic elements in human makeup, every man and woman has an inborn, natural impulse to seek meaning, to discover the ultimate truth of his existence. (This is also the characteristic quality of Abraham, who sought to know his Maker through ceaseless questioning and reflecting and pondering over the strangeness of the world—and ultimately attained it; as against Moses, the father of the prophets).

But like all other natural impulses, the religious drive can, in some individuals, dominate the personality to the exclusion of all else, just as can the other natural impulses. Thus, just as a person may become a hedonist, immersed in lust and sexuality; or by driven by an overwhelming desire for power or violence or money; or by intellectual curiosity and the thirst for knowledge; so too may he be dominated by the drive for mystical union with or knowledge of God.

Is this a good or a bad thing? On the face of it, the God-preoccupied obsessed man, the one filled with Ahavat Ha-Shem day and night—“like one lovesick with longing for a certain woman, only more so”—is the ideal type (Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah, Ch. 10).

Yet there is a darker side to this. The impulse to serve God with all ones being is a familiar one in the history of human culture. It is the impulse underlying monasticism, in Christianity and in the religions of the Far East. Think of the early Church fathers —of Simon of the desert, who stood upon a pillar for twenty years in order to mortify his flesh, to withdraw from the corruption of an ungodly world. Christianity, in its classic form, is beset by the contradiction between worldliness and faith. Jesus telling his disciples to come and follow him, without even stopping to say goodbye to their father and mother, is a classic example. Or, to take a random example I came across recently, 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 exalts the unmarried state because “the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided”—and vice versa for the married woman. It is the single-mindedness made possible by the state of chastity, and not so much blue-nosed objections to sexuality per se, that underlie the Christian celebration of virginity.

Nor is this extremism confined to the Christian camp. Recently a prominent rabbi, allegedly elucidating the teachings of Rabbi Soloveitchik, wrote that anyone who engages in any other activity—watching a movie, reading a book, talking with friends—when he can be engaged in studying Torah, is guilty of ki devar Hashem baza —“because he has despised the word of the Lord” (Num 15:31).[1] (This same extremism, welded to ideological, political single-mindedness, may give birth to truly demonic acts, as we witnessed in horror at the conclusion of one of these Abrahamic sabbaths just a few years ago—a true sacrifice of Yitzhak. The assassin was no madman, but a fanatic, enjoying the support of an entire community of thought and feeling—much as people would like to forget it.) Fanatical, world-rejecting devotion as the sine qua non of true religion is thus a basic moment in human life—and one manifestation specifically of what the Rav called “natural religious experience”—which for some becomes the dominant theme.

One of the midrashim of the Akedah speaks of God being “put up” to the test of the Akedah, by the taunts of Satan, or of the prince of Ishmael. Sanhedrin 89b describes a heavenly scene reminiscent of the opening chapters of Job, in which God boasts to Satan about the unswerving and unquestioning loyalty and devotion of his servant Abraham. Almost like two drinking buddies in a bar, they make a wager: that Abraham will follow God even to this ultimate absurdity. The test was thus NOT one of whether he would maintain his sense of the truth of God, and be able to say, “This cannot be.”

This strange bet was perhaps met by an equally strange stirring within Abraham’s soul. What greater expression of his own burning passion to serve God with all his being could Abraham find—Avraham ohavi, the one who loved Him with a crazed yearning and thirst—than to sacrifice that which was dearest to him. Precisely because this was the son of his old age, for whom he had yearned and prayed for so many years, until at last, at the age of 100, long after his wife’s body had withered and dried out, her fecundity was miraculously renewed.

In that light, what is signified by the climactic moment of transformation, when the angel of HVYH tells Abraham, “and lay not your hand upon the lad”? I see this as the intervention of the message that the true way of God is not that of fanaticism, of denying ones humanity, of rejecting human needs, but, on the contrary, of their acceptance, and of knowing how to perform the fine balancing act between the service of God and living in the world, between the theocentric and the anthropocentric.

Applying these ideas to the earlier-mentioned typologies, perhaps this balance is paradoxical provided davka by the “revelational experience.” The Jewish understanding of revelation, of Sinai, is not focused upon mystical union, nor even upon a few simple principles (viz. the ambiguous and ambivalent attitude toward the Ten Commandments), but rather upon the Torah in its entirety: the Torah as a complex, multi-faceted book, nay, an entire tradition, of which the written Torah is merely the tip of the iceberg, entering into every area of life. Perhaps the reason for the Revelation being connected to such complex and all-embracing, specific contents is that the Almighty, in His infinite compassion and wisdom, understood that, left to his own devices, man can easily stray from the balanced, holistic life; hence, He gave us the Torah, with its precise guidelines to lead us among the multiple impulses, each one valid and good in themselves, to reach some kind of balance and integration in our lives.

[1] Moshe Meiselman, in Tradition.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Lekh Lekha (archives)

Who was Abraham?

There is perhaps no other figure in Jewish life whose image is so much shaped by Midrash as that of Abraham—and no other who has so shaped the Jewish sense of the ideal self as he. Moses’ personality was somehow too transcendent, too overpowering; but Abraham was “the first Jew,” the one whom we constantly mention in our prayers, and who is in some sense a model for what we strive to become. At times, looking at Abraham, one almost feels as though one is looking at two almost completely different figures: the Abraham of the midrash, and the Abraham of the actual biblical text.

Almost everyone, as a small child, heard about the Midrashic figure of Abraham the iconoclast, breaking the idols in his father’s shop; Abraham, the home-spun philosopher who questioned the assumptions of his pagan environment and discovered God by pondering the world; Abraham, whose “two kidneys became two founts of wisdom.”

Maimonides uses an interesting term when speaking of Abraham: Avraham ohavi (Isa 41:8) or Ohev Hashem, “Abraham, the lover of God.” Moses was a prophet, a visionary, a man who lived his life in the rarefied space between heaven and earth; he was Moshe Rabbenu, the Teacher par excellence of the Jewish people; their stern leader, who was oft enough livid with anger at them, but was also the one who pleaded on their behalf and defended the people before God. Abraham was none of these, but was, quite simply, one who loved God, and who brought men “under the wings of the Shekhinah,” going about and spreading his message far and wide. Or perhaps Avraham ohavi may be read simply as “Abraham my friend”: that is, God’s “friend” in the world; His partner in teaching the path of decency, of knowledge of the One God, of doing acts justice and righteousness in the post-diluvian world, after humankind’s capacity for evil had been revealed to the full extent.

God, so-to-speak, faced a problem after the Flood. In making the covenant over the rainbow (9:8-17, esp. 13-15; cf. 8:22-23), He signaled his rejection of the path of total destruction, and His decision to allow human history to continue. Yet He knew full well that the weaknesses in the human soul expressed in the generation of the Flood were still very much alive; indeed, they had already showed themselves in the tower of Babel and in the rampant idolatry of the generation of Terach. So He needed to combat the tendencies toward evil by another means: initially by means of a single individual who “knew Him” and would spread knowledge of Him; thereafter, by means of his descendants, who would become a nation that would live in accordance with Divine teachings. “For I have known him, that he might command his household after him, to perform righteousness and justice” (la’asot tzedaka umishpat; Gen 18:19).

These two paths may be seen as emblematic of two basic religious strategies for the survival of goodness in a wicked world: the one, that of withdrawal from the world (like Noah in the ark?) in self-enclosed communities of the righteous concerned with their own spiritual survival, leaving the rest of mankind, in thought or in actuality, to damnation and, if not waging war against them, at least wishing them dead. The second path is that of Abraham: of living in the world; of accepting wickedness as an inevitable feature of human life; of spreading goodness and righteousness insofar as possible, both by example and by teaching; and of “drowning” evil-doers in the milk of human kindness and love. (sorry, couldn’t resist the outrageous metaphor.)

We spoke last week, in the context of the Noachide commandments, of “natural religion” and “revelation” as two different, possible complementary paths towards the knowledge of God. But it would seem that there is a strong strain of “natural religion” in Abraham’s path and personality, as well. He knew God intuitively, naturally. Abraham’s path was the quintessential pre-Torah, pre-revelational path. True, some traditions hold that Abraham and the other patriarchs observed all details of the Torah even before it was given. But another strain insists that they performed yihudim, acts of unifying the Divine, without mitzvot. Rather, Isaac, by digging his wells, Jacob, through his tricks of animal husbandry with the peeled sticks in the water troughs used by the flock, accomplished the same thing as we do today through tefillin or Shabbat. That is, to strip the idea of its Kabbalistic trappings: by living in the world in a holy way.

Some twenty-five years ago, at a conference held in Beer-Sheva honoring the centennial of Martin Buber’s birth, Professor R. J. Zwi Werblowsky spoke of Buber as an “Abrahamic” personality. By this, he meant to say that Buber was, in a paradoxical sense, “anti-religious,” meaning that he was against the formal rituals and structures that we think of as “religion,” as too often getting in the way of true knowledge of God and a Godly life. God is known, according to Buber, through the direct, immediate encounter—be it between man and man, or between man and God. Whatever one may think of Buber’s position vis-a-vis the mitzvot, it is clear that Abraham’s path was indeed a “pre-Torah” path—based upon unmediated awareness and knowledge of God, and cultivation of the ideal human personality and character—and as such one that was indeed without the trappings of “religion.”

The second aspect of the “midrashic” Abraham, which dovetails with this image, is that of a man who was wholeheartedly devoted to performing deeds of Hesed, of lovingkindness (indeed, in the Kabbalah he is the very embodiment of this quality). He was one who constantly reached out to others, whose tent was always open in all four directions, to welcome any and all visitors. This Hesed, we are told, went far beyond the boundaries of conventional, decorous giving to others, to a caring for others that makes no distinction between ones own family and others.

This type of extravagant, wild generosity is part of the spiritual physiognomy of Jewish tzaddikim in every generation, encountered in the most unexpected places. It also overlooks the faults in the one receiving, who may be eccentric, strange, repulsive, even grasping and manipulative; all this does not matter to the Ba’al Hesed, who only sees a fellow creature of God in his need. Of all the traits making up the complete Jewish personality (and Hesed is indeed meant to be balanced by other traits), Hesed is the most basic, because it opens up the self to the world of others. Periodically, usually when somebody dies, one hears that he cared for the needs of such-and-such a person “as if he were a member of his own family.” Most recently, I heard this told of Professor David Flusser. It was certainly true of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, a true Abrahamic personality, whose sixth yahrzeit falls this week (on the 16th of Heshvan). Would that I might enjoy the merit of being unreasonably generous to one person.

Interestingly, on the periphery of these opening sections of Genesis we are introduced to two minor figures, each one of whom has an innate God consciousness. Enoch “walks with God”; when he dies the Torah uses the unusual phrase, “and he was not, because God had taken him” (Gen 4:21-24). In this week’s portion we encounter Malchizedek, king of the city of Shalem (Yerushalayim?), who was “priest to the Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth” (14:18-20). We are told tantalizing little about these men, leading us to wonder from whence they derived their evidently highly developed religious consciousness. Interestingly, both Enoch and Malchizedek became the central figures of eschatological books in the Pseudepigraphic literature.

The mention of the town of Shalem, or Jerusalem, brings to mind an interesting comment by the Meshekh Hokhmah (Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Kohen of Dvinsk). We have already mentioned that “Shalem” was Jerusalem. In the chapter describing the Binding of Isaac on Mt. Moriah (= Jerusalem), this same place is called by Abraham “Hashem Yera'eh” (“God will see”; Gen 22:14). The Meshekh Hokhmah comments that the words yare’eh plus shalem together comprise the name Yerushalayim. He goes on to explain that these two names symbolize seeing, i.e., spiritual perception (hasaga) and wholeness of character (middot)—the two components of the complete religious personality and, I might add, the two essential “Abrahamic” qualities.

The Abraham of the Text

How much of this is present in the biblical text? The Rabbis (m. Avot 5.4) describe Abraham’s life in schematic terms as a progression of ten tests. The central events in his life, as described in the two “Abrahamic” parshiyot of Lekh Lekha and Vayera (Gen 12-22), were all such tests, and simultaneously encounters with the Divine: the departure from his native land for the unknown land which God “would show him”; the “Covenant Between the Pieces” (brit ben habetarim), the uncanny night vision in which God passed with a torch between pieces of animals, and told him of the future—a scene pregnant with a sense of destiny; the covenant of circumcision—a test accompanied by Divine promises and blessings, but no mean feat for a man who was already quite old; the visit of the three angels announcing Sarah’s expected child—here he manifested his famed hospitality; the argument with God over Sodom; and, the culminating act of his life, the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac.

In counterpoint to these central moments, we have a series of separations, of parting from people and places who were important in his life: leaving his fatherland and birthplace; the separation from Lot; from Hagar; from Ishmael; his difficulties with Sarah in Egypt (and later, his becoming a widower); culminating in the Akedah, his willingness to relinquish his own beloved son. Is there a connection between these two movements: Abraham’s drawing closer and closer to God, while gradually separating himself from human attachments? Couched in those terms, the idea seems more Buddhist than it does Jewish, but perhaps there is nevertheless a certain truth here about the demands of attachment to God (see Rambam on prophecy, Yesodei haTorah 7.2).

Friday, October 15, 2004

Noah (Archive)


An Essay on Evil

The portion of Noah is, at first glance, one of the most familiar in the entire Bible. Everyone knows the story; practically every children’s book of Bible stories includes a colorful picture of the big boat with two of every conceivable kind of animal and bird and reptile waiting to board the ship, or getting off it, with the rainbow in the background. Many is the children’s nursery that is decorated with a wall poster showing the same vivid scene.

Or else, on a more sophisticated level, there is popular discussion of the comparative origins of the myth of the Great Flood: the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, etc. Or there are those who search for historical confirmation of the Flood story: archeological remnants of a petrified ark somewhere in the Turkish mountains; theories of cosmic catastrophes that upset the global climate, leading to the great flood, such as Emanuel Welikovsky’s Worlds in Collision and other books, etc. And indeed, the existence in a number of different cultures of a legend of a cataclysmic flood strengthens the case for its historicity.

But while all these may be important, it seems to that both the childish stereotypes, and the attempts to confirm the literal truth of the text, ultimately hinder understanding and miss the point. For me the focus here, as in many other passages of the Torah, lies in the perennial question of the Toldot Yaakov Yosef: what does this teach us “for every person, in every place and every time”? In other words, what message does this convey about the nature of the human being and man’s situation in the world?

We are told that God was so angry with humankind that he regretted creating them, and decided to destroy the entire race, kit and caboodle, save one isolated individual (and his family)—Noah, of whom we are told, rather curiously, that he “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen 6:8). The question that begs for an answer is: what was the nature of the evil for which they were punished so?

One finds a progression in the opening chapters of Genesis through four levels of sin: Adam’s avoidance of the Divine call “where are you?”(ayeka); Cain’s unwitting (?) manslaughter; the generation of the flood; and the hubris of the tower of Babylon. What then was the sin of the generation of the flood? What was so uniquely terrible about it to as to deserve total annihilation?

Martin Buber, in his classic essay Good and Evil, speaks of two kinds of evil: the first is that bred of confusion and misdirection, in which the individual, overwhelmed by the myriad options and temptations offered by life, falls into a “whirlpool” of non-focused actions and fulfillment of desires; an evil bred of failure to focus his energies on the good. The second is a kind of radical evil, in which the person “surrenders his soul to evil with his innermost being,” basing his entire life upon the attitude of the lie, upon malice and destruction of other people. Evidently, the generation of the Flood belonged to this second type.

The opening verses of the chapter mention two reasons for the Flood: “the world was filled with violence (hamas)” and “all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (hishhitdarko al ha-aretz) (6:11-12). Rashi comments that the former phrase refers to rampant theft, while the latter to sexual licentiousness and to idolatry. Genesis 6:1-4 relates that, just before the Flood, “the sons of God” or “the Nefilim” took women “from whomever they choose,” combining sexual greed and lawlessness with violence. Whomever these may have been—more powerful groups of men within human society, descendants of mythic giants, or “fallen angels”—the nature of their sin is clear: the violent seizing of women by the stronger men, leaving the weak— their fathers or rightful husbands—standing helplessly by. More broadly, their sin was the complete rejection of all natural morality: a combination of violence against property with sexual hedonism. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that, unlike today’s hedonists, who present themselves as gentle pleasure-lovers (as in the 60’s slogan, “Make Love not War”), the release of sexual hedone as such is ultimately linked to violence as well.

A close reading of Rashi’s comment here—that hashahat derekh is equated with sexual licentiousness and paganism—implies that there is a derekh, a well-known, proper way, in the areas of both sexuality and in that of the worship of God. We may infer from this a notion of Natural Law; the idea that man, from the Creation, is granted innate intuitive knowledge of right and wrong in these two areas. In Parshat Bereshit I discussed in extenso many issues related to Edenic and post-Edenic sexuality. The path of monogamy is evidently seen as the native, natural condition of the human race—primitive marriage consisting in a man and a woman making a covenant between them. Likewise seen as part of hashahat derekh is homosexuality and the mating of different species—in brief, ­sexuality of all kinds run riot.

Equally, if not more interesting, is the concept of a “path” in the worship and knowledge of God. Maimonides, in the first chapter of Hilkhot Avodah Zarah, propounds the theory that man is inherently monotheistic. Adam knew God. It was only after Enosh that men began to stray. Interestingly, the “error” described by him has an almost Hegelian dialectic: the good carrying within itself the seeds of its own antithesis. Knowledge of God contains the seeds of its opposite: through their wish to honor God, men accorded honor to his celestial creations; then built idols to represent them; then began to worship them; and ultimately forgot why they did it in the first place.

This idea is significant, because contemporary rationalism, the heir of the Enlightenment culture that has shaped the course of the “high culture” of the latter half of the millenium now ending, assumes man to be naturally atheistic. Religion is seen either as: the product of fears, a projection onto the cosmos of parental figures (Freud); a tool of economic domination (Marx); a reification of society (Durkheim); or primitive attempts at explaining an unknown, mysterious world, long superceded by philosophy and science.

The above mentioned passage, by contrast, suggests the idea of an innate, natural religious and ethical sense within mankind. The relation of this idea to the concept of the seven Noachide commandments is a knotty and difficult question in its own right. It is often held by modern promulgators of Noachide religion, on the basis of Rambam’s remark in Hilkhot Melakhim 8:11, that a Noachide must perform those commandments applicable to him because he believes them to have been commanded by God in the Torah, via Moses. If, however, he performs them as the result of reason—i.e., because he discovers them to be self-evident, innate ethical principles—then he is “neither among the pious of the nations, nor one of their sages.” However, the late lamented Rabbi Joseph Kapah, noted Maimonidean scholar and translator and latter day champion of the Maimonidean tradition of the Yemenite “Dor Deah” movement, in his critical edition of the Yad, alters the reading of that passage. The proper reading, he asserts, is not “and not of their sages” (ve-lo mehakhmeihem) but rather “but one of their sages” (ela me-hakhmeihem). A single letter changes the meaning entirely![1]

Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik, in his major essay on the nature of the religious experience, “Uvikashtem misham” (“And You Shall Seek from There”), develops a phenomenology of what he describes as the “natural experience” and the “revelational experience.”[2] The former is based upon a combination of innate intuitions within the human soul and man’s reaction to the grandeur and mystery of nature. The latter manifests itself, most outstandingly, in the Jewish encounter with God at Sinai, the revelation of the Torah, and the historical experience of the covenantal community created as a result. The Rav places greater emphasis upon the latter, which he sees, if not as more authentic, as leading man to a higher level of objective encounter with the divine, as well as providing the basis for a stable, more lasting religious commitment.

Speaking personally for a moment, I see the two central influences in my own life, the two teachers between whose approaches I find myself oscillating—Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l, and Arthur Green, sheyibadel lehyyim arukim—as exemplifying these two different approaches. The Rav was not one for “proofs” of the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim, but he certainly saw the focus of Jewish religious expression in the study and observance of the halakhah, as the objective embodiment of the Sinai epiphany, whose fact and the contents of which are known to us via the tradition.

Art Green, throughout his life-work, and most succinctly in his Seek My Face, Speak My Name, teaches what he describes as a heterodox mystical theology of Judaism. For him, both the knowledge of God and the life of mitzvot which are the living symbol of that consciousness, are ultimately rooted, not in the absolute authority of the tradition, but in the personal response to the cosmos, the development of a certain human faculty, a response to Life Itself as pulsing with the Divine.

But the Rav too, when he speaks of “Adam the Second” (in Lonely Man of Faith), likewise speaks of the ­religious quest, of the asking of existential questions, as based upon an innate aspect of human nature. Indeed, Medieval Jewish theology constantly speaks of Creation as a central theological category. Ramban’s Torah Commentary, Sefer ha-Hinukh, etc., speak of such mitzvot as Shabbat, Pesah, etc., as intended to inculcate the doctrine of Creation; in other words, the truth that this is a created world is one of the basic sources of religious knowledge.

Too often, there is a problem within the Orthodox community of an overemphasis upon the aspect of “revelation”—the call for a faith that transcends reason, the Jewish counterpart of “Credo que absurdum est,” emunat hakhamim, of almost rejoicing in the “oddball” effect of certain halakhot—as if to accentuate the difference between oneself and the non-observant, rather than seeing religious faith as first and foremost a natural faculty of the human being as such. (Readers of these pages will note my consistent attempt to lay the basis for a more “naturalistic,” non-doctrinaire and non-dogmatic type of “Orthodoxy.”)

Who Was Noah?

The last verse of Parshat Bereshit, “and Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord,” is strange, and cries out for commentary. Who was this Ish Tzaddik Tamim, this man who was simple in his righteousness, or perhaps righteous in his simplicity? (To add to the difficulty: tamim may be variously translated as “simple,” “whole,” “perfect,” or “innocent.”) Was he like Adam and Eve before they ate of the fruit? The midrash sees in this title both praise and a certain criticism: he was righteous by the standards of his own generation, but he couldn’t hold a candle to Abraham. He walked “with” God, but not “before” or “ahead of” Him. There was a certain innocence, straightness, doubtless an almost simple-minded honesty to him—but he was also without the “fire in his belly,” the intensely focused will to serve God and to spread the word with his every breath, with very act of his life, that is the hallmark of the true tzaddik.

The only other biblical figure described in such a manner is Job, who is introduced in the first verse of the book in his name as ish tam ve-yashar ve-yerei elohim ve-sar me-ra: “innocent/whole/simple, straight, fearing God and turning away from evil.” Job was filled with natural piety and decency; it may be that there was initially an element of bourgeois self-satisfaction, which may have been what caught Satan’s eye in the first place (that, and what he no doubt found to be God’s rather tedious boasting about him), but during the course of the book he emerges as scrupulously honest and courageous in his relentless pursuit of the truth of God’s ways.

I see Noah, by contrast, as a good-hearted soul, who executes God’s orders to the letter, but does not show any great initiative of his own. It is difficult to imagine him as understanding the motivations of the evil doers of his generation. In the end, he offers sacrifices to God in childlike, innocent gratitude—and then promptly proceeds to return to his worldly preoccupations (ish adama), drinks too much wine, and gets obscenely and embarrassingly drunk, to his children’s deep shame.

“All the Thoughts of Their Hearts Were Only Evil all the Day”

The story of Noah and the Flood is framed by two nearly identical verses. Prior to the Flood, after seeing the violence and disregard of elementary morality that seemed to characterize human action (the logical development of their discovery of the possibilities offered by life after eating the Tree of Knowledge?), God concluded that mankind was utterly perverse, degenerate and generally no good: kol yetzer mahshevot libo rak ra kol hayom—“all the impulses of the thoughts of his heart are only evil all the day” (Gen 6:5). He regretted having created mankind, and decided to destroy it, together with all other life on the world of which he was master. But yet—and here comes the mystery of God’s strange, arbitrary choice—there was one man in this big bad world that God liked. Thus, notwithstanding His plan for utter, cataclysmic destruction, He assured the survival of this ambiguous species by means of the ark, together with the future of all the other animal species by the careful preservation of one male and female—enough to reproduce.

When Noah offered the sacrifices after the Flood, God somehow further relented. Something tender inside Him, so-to-speak, was moved. Perhaps he then saw that man is also capable of good, that the Evil Urge is a necessary part of the natural order, and not stark evil. The offering of sacrifice betrayed an almost childlike wish to pacify God, to make peace, to show gratitude—like a child, or an errant spouse trying to pacify his/her spouse after having an affair. (Question: What is the relationship between Cain’s sacrifice, and this sacrifice?) He came to see people as frail, weak, almost child-like: ki yetzer lev ha-adam ra min’urav—“for the impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (8:21). Note the subtle changes in wording: not “all his impulses,” but “his impulses”; not “only evil,” but “evil”; not “all the day” but “from his youth.” Perhaps, to return to Buber’s terminology, God realized that men weren’t “radically evil,” after all, but merely confused, lacking in backbone, suffering from indigenous problems of weak character. Hence, He concluded, it is pointless to destroy him; rather, he must find another way for dealing with the weakness and flaws in humankind’s character—the path of teaching, of instruction, of what we call Torah.

* * * * *

Rereading what I wrote this week and last, I feel too much pessimism. My words seem lacking in joy, in love, in excitement at the beauty and grandeur of Creation. Genesis is also the beginning of the human potentiality to do great things: to achieve holiness; to approach God; as well as the simple joy of creation of new life, of children, of families, not to speak of man’s sublime creative powers in the cultural realms (symbolized already by the fathers, respectively, of urban civilization, of the fine arts represented by music, and of technology represented by metallurgy: Yaval, Yuval, and Tuval-Kayin: 4:20-22). Perhaps these aspects are overlooked, somehow taken for granted. Then, too, the tales of the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the Flood, naturally turn ones mind towards the negative side of the balance sheet. Moreover, writing in Israel under the present situation, one sees how fragile is the positive aspect within man’s heart, and how easily masses of people can be whipped into a frenzy—by pain and frustration and suffering, played upon by all-too-willing demagogues. At the moment, it is mostly the Arab Palestinians—but at other times Jews, too, have been roused into unthinking mob violence.

[1] See on this Eugene Korn, “Gentiles, The World to Come and Judaism: The Odyssey of a Rabbinic Text,” Modern Judaism (1994).

[2] Ha-Darom 47 (1978/79), pp. 1-83; reprinted in Ish Hahalakha ba-galuy uva-Nistar. An English translation of this seminal essay is rumored to be in preparation.