Monday, April 25, 2005

On Rav Soloveitchik (Archives)

On The Soloveitchik Centennial: A Personal Reminiscence (2003)

Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik was born in Khaslovich, White Russia, on 12th Adar, 5663—exactly one hundred years ago this Sunday. What can one say about such a towering figure, about whom so much has been written? He was one of the great figures of our age; one who made contemporary Orthodoxy, or at least the modernist wing, what it is today. First, on the most basic level: it is quite possible that, over a period of forty years when he was the senior rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, he may have trained and ordained more pulpit rabbis (certainly, Orthodox ones) than any other figure in history. His impact is thus felt in hundreds, if not thousands, of synagogues across the United States and even around the world. Second, he was a tremendous talmid hakham in the traditional sense, the gadol hador, known both for his overwhelming knowledge of all areas of Torah, and his great creativity and originality is his interpretations and analysis of Talmudic sugyot, taking the Brisker methodology of conceptual analysis several steps beyond his forebears. Third, he was a great teacher and fascinating darshan; whether dealing with the area of Talmud and halakha, or that of philosophy, midrash, and Bible exegesis, he was a riveting speaker. Fourth, and perhaps most significant, as a philosopher he wrote about the deepest and most central religious and human issues, in a manner that interrelated between Torah with Western thought, based on his profound erudition in both areas. In this respect—that is, as a thinker and scholar of the first rank in both disciplines—he was unique, and can be properly compared only to his beloved Maimonides.

Like many great figures, already during his lifetime, and certainly thereafter (he died in 1993), his legacy was subject to a variety of interpretations. Just as in general philosophy there are “Right Hegelians” and “Left Hegelians”; so in Jewish thought there are what might be called “Right Maimonideans” and “Left Maimonideans” (i.e., those who see the halakhic and those who see the philosophical side of his life endeavor as central; see on this Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest, where David Hartman argues for an integrative view of these two aspects). Similarly, one might say, there are “Right Soloveitchikians”--those who see him as essentially a traditional Lithuanian talmid hakham, with great knowledge and creativity harnassed to those areas, who wrote philosophy and gave talks with a Western veneer to keep more peripheral Jews within the fold; and “Left Soloveitchikians”—who see him as a model of integration of philosophy and Torah, who was fully aware of the difficult intellectual challenges of the modern world and attempted to confront them.

In truth, he was a profoundly multi-faceted figure; I find that, each time I think about him, I see him a little differently. At times, it seems to that scholars have chewed over the Soloveitchik corpus ad nauseum, analyzing, organizing, comparing themes and archetypes in Halakhic Man, Lonely Man of Faith, and all the rest. Thus, rather than present yet another summary of his ideas or attempt to present my own twist on one or another item in his oeuvre, I would like to honor him on this occasion by presenting some personal, first-hand anecdotal material.

I first encountered the Rav on Motzaei Shabbat Shuvah, 1968 (5729), when I attended the weekly shiur he gave every Saturday night at the Maimonides School. What struck me most about his presentation was his intensely personal tone. He spoke of the concept of teshuvah as beginning with hirhurei teshuva, “inklings of repentance,” which he explained using a highly personal analogy: his inner denial of his beloved wife’s death, and his struggle to accept the terrible knowledge that she was in fact gone forever.

On two occasions during the years I spent in Boston, I was privileged to have personal audiences with the Rav. The first time, in the winter of 1972, we spoke for over an hour. Two points in this conversation particularly stand out. I asked what he would recommend that I study to build an authentic hashkafa (Jewish world-view); in response, he advised that I study the aggadot of the Sages and Ramban’s Commentary on the Torah—and, of course, learn as much Talmud as possible. What I find interesting, in retrospect, is that he did not recommend studying a systematic philosophic work, such as Maimonides’ Guide; nor, on the other hand, some Rabbinic “handbook,” such as Mesillat Yesharim. Rather, he seemed to tell me to create my own synthetic picture from classical Rabbinic sources and rishonim (medieval authorities). The emphasis on aggadah is interesting, not withstanding that it is often seen as less “serious” by the yeshivish crowd; fit for women and unlearned, “Eyn Yaakov” Jews. The comment, I think, reveals some important things about the man and his world.

At one point in the conversation, I mentioned that I was doing a graduate degree in Judaic Studies at Brandeis, and that Alexander Altmann was among my teachers. He praised Altmann highly, saying that I could profit immensely from studying with him. “Of course,” he added, with a kind of twinkle in his eye, “his hashkafa is not our hashkafa,” and immediately corrected himself, “or at least not my hashkafa,” but he concluded that he was one of the most erudite and finest people I could choose as a mentor.

This remark was interesting in two respects. Altmann, who was personally observant, and had even been ordained by the Berlin Rabbinershul and served during the war as rabbi in Leeds, England, was a Central European scholar cut in the classical Wissenschaft des Judentums mold: that is, with a critical historical and comparative approach to Jewish sources, which might well be anathema to a traditional figure such as Soloveitchik. The Rav’s warm and heartfelt praise of Altmann, and especially his recommendation that I learn from him as much as I could notwithstanding his different hashkafa, revealed a broad tolerance of other views and approaches to the study of Judaism, so different from the parochial, censorious attitude I had until then encountered in so many Orthodox circles.

Second, his correcting himself: “our hashkafa… that is, at least, my hashkafa,” betrayed a keen awareness of the plurality of views even within his own Orthodox community—and an acceptance of it. The comment showed great respect for the autonomous views of his interlocutor—even, as I was then, for a student in his early 20’s.

I will conclude, as our main subject this year is Hasidism, with a few words about the Rav’s attitude to Hasidism. On the one hand, he shared in the traditional Litvishe valuation of learning and intellect above all. On the other hand, he was far from beginning a Mitnagged, in the sense of one who denigrated Hasidism. At times, he conveyed the clear feeling that the Hasidim had something valuable—piety, God consciousness, a certain inner fire—that his own school lacked.

That first winter I spent in Boston (1968-69), he was the guest speaker at the Lubavitcher Day School dinner. He introduced himself, rather wryly, as “the scion of a family which have been among the leading and outspoken opponents of Hasidism in general, and Habad Hasidism in particular, for generations.” He then told a story, passed down in his family, about how at one point, during the height of the anti-Hasidic polemics of the 1780’s, R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady and R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev went to Vilna in an attempt to meet with the Gaon and make peace. The Gaon peeked through the keyhole and saw the radiant, holy faces of these two men—and sneaked out the window, to avoid being overwhelmed, against his better judgment, by their aura of kedusha.

The Rav often spoke of his childhood melamed (teacher), a Habad Hasid from his small town in White Russia, telling how he would surreptitiously teach the children Tanya when they were supposedly learning Gemara. He said that it was from him that he learned what religious emotion was all about.

Somehow, the Rav often associated the Hasidic with the feminine, both of them representing for him the emotional, inner side of Judaism. This is expressed in his eulogies for the Talner Rebbe and Rebbitzen (Rabbi Meshullam and Rebbetzin Rivkah Twersky), which appear among his published lectures. The two eulogies, taken together, paint a picture of his emotional roots; of, if you wish, his sense of the eternal feminine. One might describe the Rav’s thought as almost consistently marked by a major chord and minor chord. The major tone: that of the halakha, with an emphasis on the objective, the normative, the clear and exoteric. But there was also always an undertone: the subjective, the emotional, the spiritual element, or what he sometimes called the “flavor” of the mitzvah.

Were these two chords in harmony or discord? It seems to me that the Rav constantly strove for harmony, but that perhaps one of great disappointments of his life was that among his disciples these two elements were discordant. Returning to that same conversation mentioned earlier: at one point he expressed disappointment with the way Modern Orthodoxy had turned out. He described how, the previous winter, he had tried to study a bit of Hasidut with his students—for a brief period, 15 or 20 minutes—at the end of his long, central Talmud shiur; to his chagrin, people were openly bored, rude and disinterested. “They serve God with their minds and their hands, but not with their hearts,” he concluded.

May the memory of our revered teacher, who served God with mind, hands, heart and soul together, be for a blessing.

The Rambam of Our Age (2004)

This past Thursday, the second (in Diaspora: first) day of Hol Hamoed Pesah, marked the eleventh anniversary of the passing of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. It seems to me that, probably more than any other individual of our era, the Rav may justifiably be described as a Maimonidean figure, in at least three ways.

First, as a scion of the Brisker tradition, he focused strongly upon Rambam in his learning and teaching of Torah, both in his Talmud shiurim at Yeshiva University ad elsewhere, and in his famous ”teshuvah” lectures, which were invariably based upon Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah.

Second, more than any other Jewish thinker in 20th century, he followed the Maimonidean pattern, not only in living within a certain tension between the world of halakhah and that of philosophy, but in that, like Maimonides, he was a giant in both fields. There have been other modern Jewish philosophers equal to him in philosophic erudition, and there have been other great talmidei hakhamim, but no other figure equals him in belonging to the first rank in both areas.

For that reason, quite independent of the contents of his thought, he was of great symbolic importance for modern Orthodoxy—even among those who didn’t bother to read him, or found him too abstruse and difficult to understand—representing as he did a model for bold confrontation with modern thought from a position steeped in profound knowledge, both of the tradition and Western thought.

Third, as a result of this, the central question that needs to be asked in evaluating his life and thought is the same as that which must be asked about Rambam: namely, what is the relation within his thought between philosophy and Torah? To understand such a thinker, one must ask: what was the relation between the two sources of truth: the Divinely-given revelation of religious tradition, and that truth accessible, in principle, by every human being through his reason? Which did he regard as the ultimate? (These issues of course present themselves to any intelligent, reasonably well-read modern person, but not with the same intensity or profundity as they do to these intellectual giants.)

Some weeks ago we mentioned David Hartman’s analysis of Maimonides thought, in which he analyzes this problematic and enumerates four logical possibilities for dealing with it (I paraphrase his presentation very loosely): 1) that primacy is given to religion, and that philosophical writings are seen as mere “handmaidens” to Torah, as a form of apologetics or as a language needed to convey Torah to the uncommitted; 2) that philosophy enjoys primacy of place and conventional religion is of value primarily as a means of ensuring social order and decent, civilized behavior among the masses, who are unable to comprehend philosophical truths; 3) that the two areas of endeavor exist in isolation from one another, and no serious attempt at synthesis is made (compartmentalization); 4) finally, that the thinker creates a harmonious synthesis of the two.

The same range of options that exists regarding Rambam exists as well regarding Rav Soloveitchik—and among his exegetes one can probably find examples of the same four possibilities. Thus, there are many who see him primarily as a Torah thinker, his other writings being apologetic, in some sense less serious, intended to communicate to the more assimilated element of the Jewish public: thus, Aryeh Strikovsky speaks of “the translated message” and “the direct message” within the Rav’s thought. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who treat Soloveitchik primarily within the context of general philosophy. At least two non-Jewish philosophers have written about his work in terms of the issues engaging modern philosophy. Thus, Reiner Munk has discussed the Rav as an exegete of Hermann Cohen and Kantianism, while Christian M. Rutishauser, of the Center for Spirituality, Interreligious Dialogue and Social Thought in Schonbrünn, Switzerland, recently published a book in German, entitled Josef Dov Soloveitchik: Einführung in sein Denken (Stuttgart: Kolhlammer, 2004), in which he describes the Rav as promulgating a “free, creative personhood as a vision for Orthodoxy in the modern age.” Similarly, Haggai Dagan, a young secular Israeli philosopher, has suggested a comparison between the thought of the Rav and that of Karl Jaspers. Finally, there are those who see the Rav as struggling for integration (thus Hartman, who often gives the impression that he sees his own life struggle as patterned after or parallel to that of both Rambam and Soloveitchik).

A case can be made for each of these positions, and it is not my intention here to resolve these issues. I tend to see Torah as uppermost in the Rav’s thought (as it is indeed in Rambam’s, as I read him). It is important to note that the Rav’s philosophical writings are rooted in the method of phenomenology, a school in modern philosophy more concerned with the description and analysis of phenomena than with issues of truth. Similarly, in the opening passages of Lonely Man of Faith the Rav states that he was never seriously disturbed by challenges to his faith from such objective sources as bible criticism, evolutionary theory, historical empiricism, etc. His own commitment is a given, rooted in profound faith experience and a sense of belonging to what he calls the Masorah community, going back to childhood. (This may explain the otherwise bizarre conclusion of his Hebrew monographic essay, And You Shall Seek from There, in a scene of early childhood memories of listening to his father and grandfathers debating points in Rambam.)

I would like to address today another conflict within his thought, possibly more significant, and to my mind far more interesting. David Singer and Moshe Sokol, in an important study, pose the question, ”What kind of an Orthodox Jew is Soloveitchik?” By this, they allude to the profound tension in Rav Soloveitchik’s thought between the world of intellect and that of the emotions. (Again, this poses an interesting parallel to Rambam. A noted rabbi-graphologist, examining a specimen of Maimonides’ handwriting, commented that it revealed “a man of intense emotion held under control by an even more powerful will.”) This conflict is epitomized in what are generally considered the Rav’s two most important works: Halakhic Man (1944) and Lonely Man of Faith (1965).

Halakhic Man is essentially a phenomenology of the classical Lithuanian Talmudist. This religious type, as he notes, is utterly unfamiliar and strange to Western religious thought—an individual for whom the study of legal texts, the overwhelming majority of which have nothing to do directly with “theological” or “spiritual” experience, but with such mundane subjects as family law, torts, damages, details of realia, etc., is the highest form of Divine worship. He counterpoises two ideal types: homo religious and scientific man. To briefly summarize his long and intricate argument: the religious ideal of Judaism, of halakhic man, is focused upon an objective, worldly-oriented form of experience, based upon the acceptance of the halakhah as a kind of a priori set of standards and norms imposed upon the universe—which, because it is Divinely revealed, contains within itself a spiritual content, and whose implementation is the central religious imperative.

The essay thus implies a sharp critique of romantic religion and the world of subjective feeling that seems to typify Protestant religion (and much of liberal Judaism) in the early twentieth century. He likewise polemicizes with movements in Judaism that pay excessive attention to the subjective and/or transcendent realm, including bith Hasidism and Mussar. His ideal is objective, normative, and this-worldly, rejecting all mysticism and metaphysical speculation in favor of the dedication to realizing the halakhah in the real world: an ideal almost majestic in its objectivity and inner power.

At times, this ideal of self-discipline can be chilling, even inhuman: thus, he brings several examples of confrontations with death, in which halakhic man is expected to completely subjugate his own feelings of sadness and mourning to the demand of the halakhah, as when it conflicts with Shabbat or Yom Tov. In brief, he seems to celebrate the mind and the will alone. The mind, which masters the halakhah, analyzes it, and engages in intellectual creativity therein; and the will, which overcomes the subjective inclinations of the heart.

In Lonely Man of Faith, written more than two decades later, we find ourselves in a completely different mode. He begins by noting the sense of loneliness or alienation felt by the religious person, both as part of the nature of religious consciousness, but particularly in the modern world as a result of the material, achievement-oriented civilization. In this civilization religion is not rejected, but perhaps worse than that: it is confined to a minor cultural niche, treated as a harmless, irrelevant “Sunday pastime.”

The central part of the essay is devoted to a midrash on the two accounts of the creation of man in the opening chapters of Genesis. Here, there is once again a dichotomy, a typology of two opposing human types: this time, both are portrayed as elements existing within Everyman. He designates these as “Adam One” and “Adam Two,” or “Majestic Man” and “covenantal man.” The former is essentially interested in mastering the objective, physical world, in technological. scientific and economic achievement; the latter is preoccupied with the pursuit of meaning, and overcoming the existential loneliness which he knows to be the ultimate fate of every human being: first through depth community, and then, from within the covenantal community, through a relationship with God. (Does he here anticipate the thirst for spirituality that was to mark the closing decades of the twentieth century, among people one, two or even three generations younger than himself?)

In any event, what strikes the reader here is the almost compete turnabout from the celebration of the cold, analytic, mind-centered world of halakhic man, to the passionate, emotional yearning of Adam the Second. The counterpart to “scientific man,” who in the earlier essay seems to serve as the model for halakhic man, is here “majestic man,” who is here portrayed as shallow and superficial, while the counterpart of homo religios, played down in the former essay, here assumes the form of Adam the Second. Interestingly, too: whereas in the earlier essay Torah study is the quintessential religious act (he tells the story of how, as a child, his father once “caught” him reading Psalms on a Rosh Hashana afternoon, placed a volume of gemara Rosh Hashana on his lap, and said, “If you wish to serve God now, go learn!”), here prayer (and prophecy) are at the center—if you like, much as they are in Hasidism.

How are we to understand these almost polar oppositions in the Rav’s thought? There are those who try to reconcile the two conceptually. David Hartman, in his recent book on Soloveitchik (Love and Terror in the Divine Encounter) makes great efforts to reconcile these opposing images into one system. But Hartman, notwithstanding his many years of personal contact with the Rav, here seems to fall into one of the traps of academic philosophy: through intense engagement with ideas, and the attempt to create a consistent, harmonious system out of works written over a period of many decades, one forgets that thinkers are first and foremost human beings, who live and experience various events and, like all of us, move from youth to middle life to old age, with all that implies.

The Rav’s son, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, in a eulogy for the Rav delivered not long after his death, spoke of a certain change in the Rav. During much of his teaching career at YU, the Rav was notorious for the strict and demanding atmosphere in his classroom; it would be no exaggeration to say that many of his students found reciting in his shiur a daunting and even frightening experience. Haym reported that at a certain point, in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, after having been in Israel for some years, he returning to New York and visited his father’s classroom. He found him surprisingly mellow and even gentle with dull and poorly prepared students.

In Haym’s view, this change was the result of certain experiences undergone by the Rav during this period. In 1958, he was hospitalized with cancer, and after a lengthy illness recovered. During the following decade, his wife, whom he deeply loved, and with whom he was exceptionally close, was in and out of hospital with cancer, until her death in 1968. (Lonely Man was written in the midst of this period). Somewhere along the line, said Haym, the Rav realized that, contrary to the approach with which he and his forebears in his family had been raised for generations, the mind cannot solve all problems.

This change spilled over into his writing: in the 1930’s, when he wrote Halakhic Man, the Rav was a young man in the prime of life, filled with a sense of self-confidence and the power of the mind to conquer all obstacles. Later, confronting some of the problems and difficulties and tragedies of life—tragedies of a kind that almost every person confronts sooner or later during the course of life, simply as a result of aging and advancing in life—he gained a certain humility, and found the existential philosophers speaking to him more.

This is not to say that the Rav underwent a radical transformation from one extreme to another; it was more a matter of emphasis and nuance. Some years ago, I wrote about the antinomies within the Rav: the existence of an emotional, subjective, impressionistic, “Hasidishe,” “poetic,” feminine side alongside the more orderly, disciplined, analytic, sober, rational, systematic, “system-building,” “Litvishe” “masculine” side. Singer and Sokol interpret this as an unresolved inner conflict—but conclude that this as a prime source of his rich creativity. In general, I tend to agree with their view; I would only add, that it seems to me that these polarities only came to the surface in his later years, in wake of the events and life changes mentioned earlier.

On another level, Halakhic Man may be read as expressing the overwhelming need of Orthodox Jewry in the ‘40s and ‘50s to assert the central role of halakhah in Jewish life on the new soil of America; this was a polemical tack needed to counteract the subjectivism and rather vague, amorphous spirituality of the liberal schools of Judaism (for example, the “peace of mind” school, mentioned earlier re Christianity, had its Jewish counterpart in a popular author of the time named Joshua Loth Leibman). One of the Rav’s noteworthy halakhic rulings from this period was his statement (ca. 1952) that it was forbidden to enter a synagogue with mixed seating, even in order to hear shofar being blown on Rosh Hashana: a ruling of landmark importance in drawing a sharp and clear line between Orthodoxy and the other movements. During the later period, when both “modern” or “centrist” Orthodoxy and “right-wing,” Agudist Orthodoxy had become firmly established, the Rav also criticized the failings of Orthodoxy. During the 1970’s he was heard to express, at least within closed circles, his disappointment in the “pan-halakhism” of many of his students. “They serve God with their minds and hands, but not with their hearts.” It would seem that his ideal—the intellectual acumen and erudition of the Litvak combined with the inner fervor and feeling of the Hasid (possibly hinted at in his famous halakhic formulation, “acts performed with the hands, combined with fulfillment [of the mitzvah] by the heart”)—as yet remains to be realized.

On the Rav and the Eternal Feminine

The third day of Hol Hamoed Pesah (in the Diaspora, the second day), i.e., the 18th of Nissan, marks the anniversary of the passing (in 5753/1993) of the great teacher of our generation, “Ha-Gaon He-Hassid” Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zekher tzaddik livraka. So much has been written about “The Rav” that it would seem that there was nothing new left to say. Nevertheless, I will try to convey some personal and highly subjective insights gained from what I felt and sensed about him, during those few years that I was privileged to spend a modicum of time in his presence. One of the salient characteristics of Rav Soloveitchik’s personality, one that distinguished him from almost any other talmidei hakhamim of whom I know, was the highly developed aspect of the feminine side of his personality. He was connected to what the Jungians call the “anima,” and also deeply longed for the feminine, which was for him embodied in the persons of his mother and of his wife. The death of both these women (as well as of his brother Dr. Samuel Soloveitchik) during the course of a few short months in the Winter of 1967-68, was a central, traumatic event in his life, of which he never ceased to speak thereafter.

By “connection to the feminine,” I refer to the emotional, subjective, impressionistic, poetic side of his nature which existed alongside—whether in harmony, or in (unacknowledged?) tension or even open conflict—with the more orderly, disciplined, analytic, sober, rational, systematic, system-building, “Litvishe,” masculine side of his persona.

As we have just been discussing Shir ha-Shirim, it bears mentioning that this aspect was also expressed in the essay containing the footnote I mentioned earlier. Indeed, the essay begins with a lyrical description of the relationship between God and Israel as a kind of lovers’ “hide and seek” between the dod and the ra’ya, the lover and his beloved. The Song of Songs motif also figures prominently in his other writings, most prominently in the essay “Kol Dodi Dofek”—“The Voice of my Beloved Knocks,” much quoted by his stauncher religious Zionist followers, which is structured around the “knocks” of the beloved.

I believe that this may be the key to the dichotomies and antinomies, the tensions and polarities, which one so constantly encounters in nearly all his philosophical or “theoretical” writing. Of course, there are also intellectual roots to this dialectical pattern of thought: both from his Brisker heritage, with its constant “tzvei dinim” (the differentiation between “two principles” underlying any Talmudic or halakhic contradictions), and from the Hegelianism he no doubt absorbed during the years spent in Berlin (although he was more of a Kantian, writing his doctoral dissertation on the Marburg school of Hermann Cohen). But it seems to me that there is a deeper, more emotional root to this dichotomistic way of thinking.

A few examples: The first time I ever heard the Rav speak was at a public lecture he gave on Motza’ei Shabbat Teshuvah 1968, when I first moved to Boston. In the course of a discussion of hirhurei teshuvah, “thoughts of repentance,” he mentioned the only partial incorporation into his consciousness of the fact of his wife’s death. He spoke of how his grandchildren, prattling in the house, would almost casually mention the fact of their grandmother’s death—while he would be shocked anew each time. On another occasion, he spoke of “fixing times for Torah,” not only as a “rendezvous with the Shekhinah” (as he wrote several times), but as providing “the unique privilege of being able to unite with the figure of ones departed mother.” This was one of the underlying motifs in his pull toward Hasidism, in which he saw the emotionally expressive, “feminine” side of Judaism (thus in his 1972 eulogy for his mehutan, the Talner Rebbe, in which he spoke of the duality of Kedusha and Malkhut: the Hasidic leader embodying sanctity, while the more intellectual Lithuanian type symbolized kingship”). What, ultimately, are cognitive man vs. homo religious (in Halakhic Man), or Majestic Man vs. Man of Faith (in Lonely Man of Faith) if not these selfsame polarities?

If I may descend for a moment to popular culture: It is interesting to note that a widely-quoted pop psychology book, John Gray’s Men are From Mars, Women Are from Venus, describes the basic dichotomy between the mentality of man and woman in terms that could have been lifted directly from Lonely Man of Faith: “Martians [i.e., men] value power, competency... success and accomplishment... They are more interested in ‘objects’ and ‘things’ rather than people and feelings... Venusians have different values. They value love, communication, beauty and relationships... their sense of self is defined through their feelings and the quality of their relationships...” (pp. 16, 18). The Rav, of course, as a religionist, saw the spiritual quest for God/meaning, rather than human relationship alone, as the pinnacle of the second, more emotive /existential type—but the essential typology is strikingly similar.

Or perhaps we may even speak of a certain parallelism: man/woman || Mitnaggedism/Hasidim || German Idealistic philosophy / existentialist philosophy. That is, the move during the Rav’s life was from a philosophy which more exacerbates the rational, system-building mentality, as celebrated in Halakhic Man, to the later, more emotive message of Lonely Man of Faith.

One more incident. During my student days in Boston I had a friend, a non-religious Jew, who used to visit the Rav now and again and talk, for several hours at a stretch, of all sorts of human matters, as a friend. She found him very open, human, cosmopolitan in his interests, and tolerant and accepting of her as a non-Orthodox Jew. “Perhaps today not every Jew is meant to observe Torah and mitzvot,” he used to say. In short, a very different figure than the ideologue of “halakhic man,” or even “pan-halakhism,” which many find in his “official” writings. As the Rav himself said in one of his eulogies: often we think we know a person, to discover after his death that we didn't really know him at all; that every human being is ultimately an enigma.


Pesah (Archives)

The Seder: Discursive or Experiential?

“How is this night different from all other nights?” I’d like to suggest a fifth answer to this question (if you read carefully, the so-called “four questions” are more declarations of fact than they are questions; the mishnah at Pesahim 10.4, and the Talmudic sugya that follows, suggest that the son’s actual questions are meant to be rather more free-form): namely, that on this night we talk more than we engage in other, more ritualized activity—recitation, prayer, etc. The central mode of the evening is discursive rather than ritual or experiential; it seems to speak more to the mind than to the heart.

The other central celebrations of the Jewish year are characterized by mitzvot that function as symbolic acts, rituals that make their impact on the pre-verbal level: the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the waving of the lulav or dwelling in the sukkah on Sukkot, the lighting of candles on Hanukkah, etc. Even these mitzvot which involve the recitation of texts—be it daily or Sabbath prayer, the singing of Hallel, the dramatic, moving piyyutim read on the High Holy Days or the Kinnot on Tisha b’Av—easily lend themselves to an emotive, expressive reading.

On Passover, by contrast, we talk an awful lot. The central experience of the holiday is not so much the reading of a text—the Haggadah—as it is the discursive experience. “You shall tell it to your sons.” The Seder, as experienced today, is mostly words. A good Seder is one in which there is much discussion, in which one hears new interpretations, gleaning new insights and understandings of the Exodus. The Haggadah itself is intended, not so much as a recitation, but as a telling, an explanation, a narrating of the formative event of our people’s history—if you like, a banquet/symposium, doubtless shaped by the forms of Roman culture that were so predominant in Rabbinic times. Or, to put it somewhat differently: if Judaism ordinarily seems to encompass both the rational, intellectual, discursive mode, and the emotive, symbolic, celebratory mode— if you like, the Lithuanian and the Hasidic—on Pesah the atmosphere of the Beit Midrash seems to predominate. The central act of the Seder, Sippur Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the relating of the story of the Exodus through the midrashic mode, was once described by Rav Soloveitchik as “an evening of Talmud Torah devoted to the theme of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim."

Why so? The Seder is the Jewish educational tool par excellence. Its central purpose is to pass on to the next generation the central formative event of our history, one that determines much of our consciousness and our sense of who we are in the world—the Exodus. Thus, each generation of parents is charged with the task of passing on this knowledge to the next generation—which, more than factual knowledge, entails internalization of that knowledge, the formation of a specific consciousness, an attitude toward life, a sense of location in the world—what is today fashionably called ones “narrative.” And, when there are no longer small children in the home, one still has the obligation to rehearse this message, to discuss it with ones adult children and friends on a deeper level, with ones spouse, or even, if there is no one else at the table, to rehearse it to oneself. For all these reasons the discursive mood, rather than the pre-verbal symbolic one, seems essential.

What is the nature of that message? That the Jews are a strange hybrid of nation and religion: neither a religion alone, by virtue of doctrine and God-vision alone, nor a nation in the simple, uncomplicated sense of sharing a common language and soil and culture. A nation born in exile, in suffering, that celebrates its ancient liberation and painful birth in the desert so long ago. A nation by virtue of its beneficent God, and by virtue of its Torah; but also a religion that is defined through its peoplehood, its ethnicity, its peculiar history. A nation that has known many exiles and many periods of foreign domination, so that the Enslavement is as much an archetype as is the Liberation—and the Exodus, not only a past event to be celebrated, but also an archetype for that future event which we constantly hope and await. This paradoxical identity so thoroughly permeates our existence that even the newly-forged Israeli nation, despite all its protestations of normality, cannot really feel itself a nation among nations, defined by land-language-culture, in any uncomplicated sense. It is this message that makes the Passover Seder such a powerful experience, attracting even those Jews with precious few other vestiges of Jewishness.

But ultimately Pesah does in fact transcend the discursive mode. The Seder itself is clearly rich in symbolism, in eye-catching ritual and ceremony: the tableau of the Seder table itself, laid out with elaborate tableware and shining goblets, with the raised Seder plate as its centerpiece; the singing, with each community, if not each family, having its own special Seder melodies; the elaborate ritual, with the various dippings and hand-washings and covering and uncovering of the matzah, raising and lowering of the cup. In ancient times, the earliest Passover celebrations in the First Temple seem to have been marked more by celebration than by discourse: the eating of the Passover offering and the singing of songs of praise, the Hallel, were the two central moments. Virtually all historians say that the Haggadah as we know it took shape only gradually. Thus, in ancient days, the Torahitic mitzvah of telling the story may have been performed in a much simpler, briefer manner.

But even on the halakhic level, the Haggadah may be seen as constructed, not only to further discourse and discussion as an end in itself, but to ultimately bring each participant to the level of feeling, in his or her very bones, that he himself has gone out from Egypt that very night. Somewhere around the passage from Rabban Gamliel— “whoever does not say these three things on Pesah has not fulfilled his obligation”—there is a transition from the discursive mode to the experiential. We turn from recalling past events to the attempt to relive them, to identifying with them in our own innermost being. “In each and very generation a person must see himself as if he has gone out of Egypt.” Thus, we focus upon the symbolic meaning of the special foods we eat on this night—the most powerful, direct, visceral form of experience; and then we declare that it is our obligation to render thanks and praise to the Lord who did all these things for us, bursting into songs of praises and reciting the first two, perhaps most directly apt, psalms from the Hallel (the splitting of the Hallel in half, part before the meal and part afterward, is one of the peculiar features of the Seder).

Four Sons and Four Levels of Consciousness

But even the narration itself, the telling of the story, may be viewed in a more meditative, mystical light. Yaqub ibn Yusuf taught me a different reading of the famous passage in the Haggadah about the four sons, one that turns the usual reading on its head: very much in the manner of the Hasidic pshet’l—or of the Jewish-Sufi synthesis.

The wise son, usually seen as the ideal Jewish type, is here interpreted as being stuck on the lowest, most mundane level of consciousness—that of the rational, analytic, operational intellect. His questions, learned and clever as they may be, are confined to the concrete world of action visible to his corporeal eyes. “What are the laws and ordinances…” He is answered in the same coin, but given a hint, a pointer guiding him towards another level of apprehension: “… one does not add any afikomen, any additional thing, after the Pesah offering.” That is: you have to actually eat the Pesah (or matzah), you have to experience what it’s about, and not only engage in intellectual gymnastics—and stay with it as the last item of the night.

The next year, having learned this lesson, he returns to the Seder, only to ask the question of the “wicked son”: “What is this service to you?” By this point he is aware that the Seder is more than merely a formal legalistic structure, but that it deals with an experiential dimension; he has reached what Ken Wilber calls the existential crisis, the point at which he begins to question the adequacy of purely rational, cognitive tools for understanding the world. But he excludes himself from the celebrant community—and this point is the focus of the answer he is given. “If you would have been there, you would not have been redeemed.”

The third son (or perhaps the same son, having attained yet another level) is on the mythical or archetypal level, and intuitively apprehends the nature of symbolic language. He simply asks “What is this?” and is given a deceptively simple answer, “With a strong hand the Lord took us out…” (This deceptive naivete, concealing profound depths of religious consciousness, reminds me of the figure of the Bobover Rebbe ztz”l, at a Seventh Night of Pesah tisch that I visited perhaps thirty years ago. After the traditional reenactment of the Splitting of the Sea, he told his hasidim with a voice full of awe and reverence: “Milyon’n fun yidd’n tantzen in yam!”—“Millions of Jews dancing in the sea!”)

The fourth son, finally, has no need of words: he already approaches the Seder table with a mystical-unitive consciousness, that is at one with the One who redeems. He “does not know how to ask,” because he is on the level of total unity. To the outsider, there is something naive, child-like or even simple-minded in his bearing. His consciousness is so outside the ken of the work-a-day, pragmatic, ambitious people that populate our world that the latter cannot even comprehend that there is something special going on here. Or perhaps his knowledge is like that of which Maimonides says, “the end of knowledge is knowing that we do not know.”

Note: although I have described these four levels using a modern conceptual framework, they equally reflect the four worlds of the Kabbalistic paradigm.

On Eliminating Hametz: Some Halakhic and Aggadic Perspectives

The halakhah recognizes two basic methods of performing the obligation of Bi’ur Hametz, the elimination or removal of all hametz, all leavened or fermented grainstuff, from ones possession on the Eve of Pesah. The first is the physical removal or destruction of hametz: burning it by fire, casting it to the wind or into the sea. This method operates in close tandem with the search for Hametz on the night before Pesah, to assure that one in fact finds all the hametz in ones possession. The second method is that of bittul hametz, of “negating” hametz within ones heart: a purely mental act, expressed in a verbal declaration made on Erev Pesah morning, that all and any hametz in ones possession or located on ones property is null and void, “like the dust of the earth,” and of no interest or value to oneself. Bedikat hametz, in this light, is simply to assure that one doesn’t inadvertently leave behind something really valuable or desirable, which one may inadvertently discover during Pesah and “reacquire.”

Much ink has been spilled on the difference between these two approaches, providing grist for the mill of many a rosh yeshivah’s shiur kelali on Pesahim. I do not intend to compete here with my learned erstwhile mentors, but to make two points: one a practical one; the other, an application of this insight on a metaphorical level.

In practice, no one seriously advocates not cleaning ones house for Pesah and simply leaving all the hametz in one possession in situ. However, the principle that bittul hametz, a purely mental act, can be efficacious to “cancel” ones legal ownership of hametz may validly justify, for those strapped for time, a more perfunctory going-over of all of those rooms in ones home except for the kitchen. It is notorious that Orthodox women work themselves to the bone for weeks before Pesah, cleaning every inch of their homes, turning out drawers and closets and miscellaneous storage spaces where no food normally enters, in order to be certain that they have eliminated every microscopic crumb of hametz. And then they arrive at the Seder table exhausted, grumpy, surly, and neither they nor their family and guests enjoy the hag. Judicious use of bittul hametz might solve some of these problems (assuming, of course, that housewives might not feel the need to do thorough “spring cleaning” anyway).

Second, and more important: a well-known motif of Hasidic and Kabbalist Mussar literature holds that hametz is equated with the attribute of ga’avah, pride, or with the Evil Urge in general. Here bedikat hametz becomes an inner search, a stock-taking of ones life situation to eliminate negative character traits and behavior patterns. These, as anyone knows who has tried, are far more stubborn and difficult to remove than even truck-loads of foodstuffs.

I once gave a shiur, a short talk on this subject at Yakar, at which I suggested that the above two methods of bi’ur hametz might also be applied to this moral quest. Ba’alei ha-Mussar, Jewish ethicists, particularly of the school of Rabbi Israel Salanter, are wont to speak of two means of combating the Evil Urge: tikkun ha-middot and kibbush hayezer. The former, usually translated as “character correction,” refers to thorough-going attempts at reshaping ones character, involving stock-taking and hard self-discipline. The ultimate aim of this approach is to literally eliminate the bad traits, so that a person no longer feels, even inside himself, pride, jealousy, anger, or whatever, but is actually driven by kindness, generosity, humility, etc. In this sense, the process may be compared to physical destruction of hametz. This path is most appropriate to a person’s earlier years, when character is less fully formed and has not yet been fixed through the patterns of long decades of adult life. In youth, too, a person may be more emotionally free to work on oneself, being less burdened by the responsibilities of family life, career, etc. A classical example of such character work was the program of the Mussar yeshivot of the nineteenth century, in which a good part of the daily schedule was devoted to text study and spiritual exercises geared towards such character change.

By contrast, Kibbush ha-Yetzer, “suppression of the Urge,” may be described as a kind of holding action. The character is not fundamentally altered, but one learns to exert ones will power every time the option of wrong-doing presents itself. This approach may be compared to bittul hametz belibo, to mentally dismissing the hametz from ones ownership. As such, this approach is more suitable to the grown adult in his/her middle years, when the basic character is more rigid, but the person has learned over the years how to marshal will power and to resist or postpone gratification.

Finally, a brief word on the Hasidic approach to this question. The conventional image of Hasidism is of a movement based upon a simple joy, in the sense of a “happy-clappy,” naive type of effervescent bonhomie—lots of singing and dancing, perhaps with the help of drinking lehayyim. But, as Rivka Schatz has demonstrated in her book Hasidism as Mysticism, Hasidic joy was far more dialectical and sophisticated, addressing itself to a far deeper complex of issues. Essentially, Hasidic joy was a response to the nexus of guilt, contrition, and melancholy that might easily result ensue within a person who takes the moral and intellectual imperatives of Judaism seriously and, as is almost inevitable given the nature of human beings, finds himself wanting. At this juncture the call to joy says: leave behind your guilt and negative feelings, which are but one more device of the Yetzer Hara to distract you from your real task; worship God with joy, rather than mulling over your failings; be happy in the positive things you have done: if you are busy doing mitzvot, learning, singing, praising God, you won’t have time to sin.

Matzah Before Midnight and Matzah After Midnight

One of my favorite Pesah teachings is from Habad: a teaching from R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady’s Likkutei Torah: Parshat Tzav, the first of two Torahs with the heading s.v. sheshet yamim tokhal matzot (Brooklyn 1972 ed., p. 25ff.). Because it is long and complicated, I will depart from my usual custom and bring several salient ideas in a paraphrase summary.

The teaching begins by pondering the apparent contradiction between two verses in the same passage of the Torah, one stating “Six days you shall eat matzah” [Deut 16:8] and the other that “Seven days you shall eat matzah” [ibid., v. 3]. It resolves this by stating that the verses refer to two different obligations: one includes the matzah eaten in Egypt on the evening of Passover, which it calls “matzah before midnight”; the other refers to the matzah eaten the remaining six and a half days of Pesah, “matzah after midnight,” which was taken by the Israelites on their backs and eaten in the way, and which was unleavened “because their dough did not suffice to rise.”

(This difference is also reflected in the halakhah, in at least two ways. The matzah eaten at the Seder is called “matzat mitzvah”: eating it is an absolute obligation, accompanied by the blessing “who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to eat matzah.” The other matzah, eaten the rest of the week, from lunch on the first day of Yom Tov on, is called “matzat reshut”: its consumption is not a formal requirement. Moreover, there are two differing explanations given as to why we eat matzah altogether: that of the Mishnah and Rambam’s text, on the one hand (“because they were redeemed”—m. Pesahim 10.5; Yad, Hametz u-Matzah 7.5; but see 8.4!), and that of the Haggadah, in the section “R. Gamaliel said,” on the other.)

Likkutei Torah goes on to explain this difference in terms of the spiritual significance of the two kinds of matzah. The matzah before midnight is called nahama dimhemenuta— “bread of faith,” eaten as a demonstration of faith and trust in God. Indeed, it is said that on the Seder night we are eating at “the Divine table”; partaking of the matzah is a kind of “awakening from below,” a demonstration of human love for, longing for, and waiting upon God.

To explain the “matzah after midnight,” the Alter Rebbe describes two kinds of Divine presence in the world. The more usual one is that of cause and effect: a long chain of causality, through a series of intermediaries (both natural and sefirotic) by which the Divine fulness is brought down into our physical world. There is thus no immediate or obvious sense of Divine presence, unless one reflects deeply upon how all this has come about.

But occasionally there are moments of grace, in which God’s majesty makes a dramatic irruption into history. In particular, there were three great moments—the night of the Exodus; the splitting of the Sea; and the Revelation at Sinai—when the Almighty burst through this chain of causality to make Himself known in a direct, immediate way. This moment was so powerful, that even inanimate matter such as dough was, so to speak, overcome by awe of the Divine Glory and did not rise, but remained flat, unleavened bread—matzah. Thus, the matzah is a tangible expression of the miraculous aspect of Pesah. Indeed, R. Shneur Zalman continues, in a certain sense the matzah eaten during the week of Pesah is of even greater holiness than that eaten at the Seder, reflecting as it does the overwhelming manifestation of Gods’ kingship and majesty in the world.

To return to the contrast between Purim and Pesah, alluded to a few weeks ago: Purim symbolizes the hidden, immanent Divine presence, not overtly felt in history, but hidden within the labyrinth of causality, often involving mundane and even mean, petty events and motivations of their human facilitators. There is an almost cynical pessimism about life—were it not for God’s hidden but guiding hand, human life and history would be no more than “a bunch of stuff,” simply one thing after another. During Pesah, by contrast, the grandeur of the Divine direction of history is tangibly felt: raising up this one, lowering that one.

In the Spring of 1974, Rav JB Soloveitchik ztz”l spoke on two separate occasions of the meaning of Pesah and the counting of the Omer that follows it. He said that the sense of Divine Kingship, of grandeur and order, of all being right in the world and of history working out as it should, is fleeting. Already during the middle days of Pesah we begin Sefirat ha-Omer which, for reasons rooted both in Kabbalah, in Jewish historical memory, and in his view even in the peshat of the Torah itself, is seen as a somewhat melancholy period, based on a sense of the earthbound and mundane nature of human life.

This talk was delivered, significantly, in wake of the Yom Kippur War in Israel. The Rav seemed to be giving vent to the sense that the elation, the jubilation and ecstasy that followed the Six Day War of ’67, the almost-messianic euphoria that accompanied the reunification of Jerusalem and the opening of the entire Land of Israel to Jewish presence, was shattered by the reality of the ’73 War. Even though Israel did eventually come out on top, there was a sense of fiasco, of failure, that Israel was far from invincible, and that we had returned to the vagaries of history, with all its caprices and uncertainties.

And if things were thus back then, in ’74, what shall we to say today, after all that has happened since? There are no doubt those who see the renewed struggle between the Cross (in the form of American democracy) and the Crescent as a portent of the final conflict that will end in the vindication of the House of Israel. I prefer to say, with R. Haninah b. Dosa: May he come, but may I—and my children, and their as yet hypothetical children—not see him.

A Meditation on Matzah

Matzah is described by the Torah as lehem oni. The Talmud offers two interpretations for this term: one, the literal sense, “bread of poverty”; the other, based on word play, reads it as if it meant “answering bread” or “bread upon which many things are said.”

Lehem oni: Matzah is a poor man’s bread. It is the quintessence of simplicity: simple flour and water, baked quickly, before it can rise. Without yeast, so that it does not puff up and expand. Lowly, humble, like a poor person used to others lording it over him. It may not be kneaded with any rich additives: wine, oil, honey, eggs, milk or fruit juice. If it is, all agree that it may not be used for the “matzah of mitzvah” eaten at the Passover Seder; others (thus the Ashkenazim) add rule that may not be eaten at all during Passover.

The Maharal of Prague speaks of the simplicity of matzah as emblematic of the meaning of the holiday: of returning to the fundaments of our lives. Like the truth itself, it is unadorned and simple. Without the trappings of civilization, of elegance, of luxury brought about through the accident of success. There is something primal, immediate in its taste, something that brings us back to other times and places, to other levels of existence. That challenges the pursuit of material things, of possessions, of opulence, of money as the source of success and happiness in life.

Lehem oni. The Haggadah opens with words sometimes translated as “This is the bread of affliction.” The Jews are a peculiar people. What other nation traces it origins back to slavery, and still, three and a half thousand years later, celebrates its liberation from that miserable state as the basis of its existence? According to the Mishnah, each and every one of us is commanded to see himself and to show himself, as if he himself has just come out of Egypt. What does it mean to know that we were once slaves?! First of all, it means knowing how to empathize with the lowest of the low. To know that even the poorest, uneducated people, those who do the most menial and demeaning work, are in some sense ourselves. To literally see every other human being, no matter how great or small, at “eye-level.” Not merely to give him “charity” with noblesse oblige of the patrician, but to know that he is literally like ourselves.

Jews have a history of being “liberals,” of being in the forefront of movements for social justice; sociologists comment, at times with astonishment, that Jews are almost unique in not voting according to their economic interest. (Perhaps this is why many of us feel such a sense of betrayal that the so-called Left has joined the knee-jerk campaign against Israel.) Some explain this in relation to one or another aspect of recent Jewish history—the conditions of the Emancipation, the poverty of the shteitl, the marginality of the Jew in Western culture, the advantages to the Jews of a society based on merit and libertarian principles rather than one with an entrenched aristocracy. But I would like to think that there is in this also something of the collective memory of the enslavement long ago in Egypt. Matzah is also Lehem she-onim alav devarim harbeh. The bread upon which we recite/ answer many things. Matzah is the bread of conversation, of discourse. The Seder is a kind of banquet/symposium. During the Seder, we talk for hours: about the Exodus … but also about many related matters that it brings to mind, by association, by implication, by analogy, by other connections. And throughout the Seder, this thin, unadorned bread—perhaps round, hand-baked matzah, with its bumps and unevenness and rough edges and burnt, blackened spots, and the unique aroma that it brings with it from the hot fire—is visible on the middle of the table, enjoying honor of place.

What do we talk about at the Seder, anyway? What is our story? In a world in which culture is becoming increasingly superficial, transient, “international” and “globalized,” we persist in passing down our ancient, seemingly arcane memories.

We read and talk about the text of the Haggadah, of course. The slavery, and the Exodus. Of God and His miracles. Of the state of slavery, of how we got there, and what that bitter experience. We talk about the shock of liberation, the time spent in the desert, the difficulties of being responsible for ourselves—the rebellions, the murmurings, the Israelites desire to turn back. And God, working miracles, and feeding us like a nurturing mother. And how He drew us close to His service. And we speak of the ultimate goal—Eretz Yisrael, a land of our own.

And we speak of our own redemption. It is said that the Haggadah, as we know it today, was shaped in an age when there was no longer a korban pesah. The matzot and the words are a kind of substitute for the Temple ritual. Words, words: the words that Jews love so—words of wisdom, words of depth, words of vision.

The rabbis of those early days saw their own redemption as imminent. For them, the Future Redemption and the redemption from Egypt were one continuum, at times almost one and the same. Pesah mitzrayim, Pesah dorot. Geulat mitzrayim, geulah atidah—the Redemption from Egypt and the Future Redemption. Such words sprung naturally to their lips.

Even before Pesah starts, on Shabbat Hagadol, we read the words of Malachi, the last of the prophets, who says, “Behold l send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord.” Why Elijah? He is not a part of the Pesah story, but he is a central figure in the story of the future, faithfully following the Jews through every generation of their exile. At times he is the beggar sitting in rags in Rome, or the holy beggar, the mysterious stranger met in an odd, life-changing encounter. And he is, of course, the harbinger of the Messiah.

According to historian Israel Yuval, when we talk about the redemption, we also talk about that which differentiates us from the Christians.

Each historical period, and its redemption.

The halutzim, self-declared atheists who founded the first kibbutzim in Israel, created Haggadot and celebrated a form of Seder in which the story of the latter-day Return, the rebuilding of the Land, the story of the New Jew, are interwoven; songs of springtime, the lyrical eroticism of Song of Songs, and Alterman’s “the Silver Platter” all have a place in these new haggadot. Auschwitz as enslavement and Beit Alfa or Degania as redemption.

And then, in the 1960s in America, someone suddenly wrote a Freedom Seder—published in the radical Ramparts, no less!—which expanded the scope of the Exodus story to encompass all men, wherever they are, of whatever race or nation, who struggle to overthrow the yoke of oppression and be free. “Kevin Barry” and “We Shall Overcome” joined hands with “Dayyenu.”

And finally, there is the inner story. The Haggadah of inner growth. This is a story well-known to many Hasidic thinkers. The true Exodus is that of psychological redemption: liberation from that which holds you captive within your own soul. The hametz you must burn is within your heart; the meaningless habits, the false ideas, the hang-ups, that weigh you down, that you must let go. One of the new haggadot found in the bookstores this year is Michael Kagan’s Holistic Haggadah, that begins, Zen-like, with the question, “How shall you be different this Passover night?” The Seder as an opportunity for each individuals to start his life afresh, to break through to new insight and new life energy.

And so the story goes on, down through the generations. The Torah has seventy faces. From the one story of the Exodus of the slaves, many stories are born. Pesah is like a symphony, with the many stories and words that Jews tell over the matzah.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Metzora (Archives)

Tum’a and Tohara, contd.

Parashat Metzora continues the theme of tum’a and tohara, usually translated as ritual purity and impurity. The salient feature of this parasha, following passages that round off the laws of “leprosy” began in last week’s portion, is the group of laws concerning various forms of impurity that issue from the body. Chapter 15 consists of laws of impurity issuing from sexually related discharges of both men and women, including discharges (presumably) originating in venereal diseases, menstruation, and even a brief period of impurity from ordinary sexual intercourse.

One of the explanations put forward in recent years (I think it was first articulated by Rachel Adler in The [First] Jewish Catalog in the early ‘70’s; perhaps it was also a spin-off of the work of such anthropologists as Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, and of course Claude Lévi-Strauss) sees the central theme of tum’a as related to the human encounter with various manifestations of mortality, and the consciousness of the vulnerability and transience (what the Christian Scriptures call “corruptibility”) of ones own body. Thus, tuma’ is always ultimately connected with death and mortality: whether through birth or sexuality (the spilling of seed, containing the germ of life, but also the potentiality for new life to not be created); menstruation (in which the life-giving potentiality in a particular month has been missed); the deterioration and corruption of the body experienced in disease, such as tzara’at (“leprosy”) and zivah (presumably gonorrhea); and, ultimately, contact with death and dead bodies, called by our Rabbis avi avot hatum’a, the ultimate source of impurity, to which a special chapter is devoted further along in the Torah, in Numbers 19.

Purification from tum’a is in turn affected through water, the universal source of cleansing and purification; life-giving (in biblical thought, water is sometimes pictured as fructifying a field in much the same way as the male impregnates the female; e.g. in Isa 55:10); ever fresh and renewing (i.e., spring waters or mountain streams); as well as dissolving and washing away all in its path. When I first encountered these concepts in my youth, I was taught to think of tum’a largely as a formal, halakhic category. Tum’a was no more than the opposite or absence of tohara, that state of ritual purity required to enter the Temple precincts and to partake of certain priestly foods. This dialectical link between tum’a and the mikdash is neatly expressed in a verse towards the end of our portion—“You shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die (!) in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst” (Lev 15:31). Today, on the face of it, there is no need for tohara—since in any event we neither eat kodashim (sacred things) nor (apart from a few crazies) enter the Temple Mount. Furthermore, in the absence of the ashes of the red heifer, we are all formally considered tame’ei met anyway.

Yet upon further reflection, it seems clear that tohara is a desirable religious condition, while tum’a is seen as a reprehensible state. Thus, the Haverim, the early Sages in the generations during and immediately following the destruction of the Temple, strove to conduct their ordinary, mundane life activities in a state of tohara. Similarly, many latter-day Hasidim immerse in the mikveh, the public ritual bath, every morning so as to achieve the maximum degree of purity before beginning their morning prayers.

I look at these phenomena with mixed feeling. On the one hand, Soloveitchik’s “halakhic man” would see this as an exaggerated, unnecessary preoccupation with things one is not obligated to do. A psychological perspective might add that this seems to reflect an inability to come to terms with ones corporeality. On the other hand, there is here a certain genuine striving for spirituality. As one grows older, one sees how much of ones life is consumed, either by bodily lusts and desires, on the one hand; or by the corruption, the inevitable deterioration and aging of the body, on the other. The desire to transcend all that, at least symbolically, is somehow understandable.

Moreover, upon closer reading it becomes apparent that there are places in the Bible where the word tamei is used in a moral sense as well, independent of its generating formal ritual impurity. Thus, in the case of the unfaithful wife (Num 5:11-31, at 13-14, 19-20, 27-29); in that of the woman who returns to her first husband after marriage to another man (Deut 24:1-4, at 4: “after she had been rendered impure,” a surprisingly strong term for what had been legitimate marital relations); and in the context of kashrut: these animals, birds, etc. are tamei lakhem, “impure to you” (Lev 11, passim). And there are no doubt other passages that escape my memory. Thus, the rules of tum’a and tohara seem to be part of the larger activity of “world construction,” which we noted earlier in the context of kashrut.

”Seven Days She Shall be in Her Impurity”

The one aspect of the laws of purity and impurity that is still in effect today is that pertaining to menstrual impurity, and the separation during that period between husband and wife, observed today by many traditionally observant and most Orthodox Jews. This observance has spawned an entire apologetic literature, beginning with the quaint, slightly quixotic Secret of the Jew of the 1920’s, to Maurice Lamm’s classic A Hedge of Roses, through literally dozens of books, pamphlets, etc. (providing a ripe mine for future doctoral dissertations, as Isaac Bashevis Singer once quipped about the future of a Yiddish literature without native readers). The most usually offered explanation is that the observance of periodical sexual separation assures the freshness and romance of the marriage, making life into a constant “honeymoon.” Rabbi Shmuely Boteah, the enfant terrible of Oxford, has even advocated selling the idea to non-Jews. A second line of explanation notes that the effect of the practice of “family purity” (as Hilkhot Niddah was rather sanitarily renamed by some unknown Victorian rabbi) is to maximalize Jewish fertility, through assuring that the couple will generally have intercourse as close to ovulation as possible (i.e., on the 12th day from beginning of menstruation, following the predominant custom today).

Partly because I enjoy the role of iconoclast, and partly because this approach presents real problems, I would like to speculate on an alternative explanation. The “romantic” line of apologia ignores one simple, stark fact. As the law appears here (15:19-24), it merely states that any man who lies with a woman during her impurity shall himself be considered impure for seven days. But the specific prohibition against sexual relations during menstruation appears in Chapter 18, alongside the rules against incest, adultery, and other highly serious sexual transgressions, all of which are collectively referred to as “abominations.” Further on, in 20:18, it specifically states that one who lies with a menstruant, “uncovering the fount of her blood… shall be cut off from his people”—i.e, shall is subject to the very serious sanction known as karet. This seems rather strong for a law whose aim is merely to obviate marital boredom. Moreover, it is interesting that this is the only sexual regulation relating to a bodily state, i.e., prohibiting relations between two people to whom they are ordinarily permitted. All this suggests that there was seen something horrible, unnatural, in the idea of menstrual sex.

Again, the answer is so simple as to be easily overlooked. Milton Himmelfarb observed years ago there is something in the Jewish sensibility (one might almost call it the Jewish “aesthetic”) that abhors blood, seeing both blood and a certain type of unfettered sexuality as antithetical to Judaism. “Inchastity is the piety of paganism… Bloodshed is likewise the piety of paganism… They did not need to read Ovid or Petronius or Tacitus or Juvenal to know how the pagans were about sex and about blood.” Alongside the proscription against sex with a menstruant, there is a very strongly written law—one might almost say, taboo—against eating the blood of an animal. The elaborate regulations surrounding the soaking and salting of meat in the kosher home are well-known. Alongside the great reverence for life, and for the blood that symbolizes it, there is a certain recoil from casual use of, or contact with, blood. One does not shed blood, one does not eat blood, and one does not, so to speak, have sex in blood.

An entirely different set of questions, upon which I can only touch in passing, deals with the issue of possible change in certain details of this observance. Our contemporary halakhic observance is based upon three or four separate seyagim, Rabbinic or customary “fences,” superimposed upon the original biblical law. Today’s separation of nearly two weeks is passed upon counting seven days from the end, rather than from the beginning, of menstruation. Due to certain exegetical difficulties in Mishnah Niddah 4.7 (and especially the difficult line of interpretation of the Rambam in Issurei Biah 6.6 ff., which proposes a strictly mathematical-conceptual model, that to my mind contravenes both common sense and experience), we apply the rules in vv. 25-30, rather than those in vv. 19-24, to every menstruant, even one who has her period with the regularity of a Swiss watch. This strict regimen is one that is extremely onerous to many couples, particularly in light of—how can we avoid it—contemporary attitudes towards sexuality. It is impossible to know how many young couples may be discouraged for this reason from adopting this basic Jewish observance. I thus ask, on a purely speculative basis, and not lema’aseh, whether there is not room for reversing some of these strict customs, and restoring the situation as it was before the series of strictures described by Rambam in I. B. 11.1-10.

Shabbat Hagadol (Archives)

Sabbath and Passover Eve

As I did on Shabbat Purim, I present here a kind of Shabbat Hagadol lesson, divided in two parts: halakha and aggadah. This year we have the rather unusual juxtaposition of Shabbat and Passover Eve, the 14th of Nissan, with the Seder being celebrated on Saturday night. This presents certain halakhic difficulties and questions. In particular: how does one balance the prohibition against eating or even owning hametz from mid-morning, and the requirement that one must eat three (or at least two) meals during the course of the Shabbat, at which one must eat some form of bread, presumably hametz, in order to recite hamotzi and Birkat Hamazon. Since this problem has been written about and discussed extensively in many public forums, I will not repeat what has already been said by others.

A second problem involves the procedure for Kiddush on Seder night, in which one needs to combine the sanctification for the festival with Havdalah for the departing Shabbat. The Talmudic discussion (Pesahim 102b-103b) suggests no less than seven different permutations and combinations of the blessings constituting this Kiddush; the accepted solution, printed in every Haggadah, is known by the acronym Yaknahaz. An interesting sidelight is that many illuminated haggadot from Medieval Europe contain a picture of a rabbit hunt on this page, replete with horns, hunters mounted on horseback, etc. What does this have to do with Passover? The answer lies in a pun on the old German word for hare hunt: “Jagenhas.” But David Moss, a contemporary artist who has created a beautiful Haggadah rich in carefully worked-out original symbolism, suggests that there may be more to this than merely fortuitous word-play. The hare hunt may be seen as symbolically akin to the drama of the Jewish people in exile, persecuted and pursued by enemies, but always persisting, sustained by the vision of redemption symbolized by the Seder. (And, taking it one step further: this theme is particularly apropos to a Seder held at the departure of the Shabbat, when we reenter the week-day world, which likewise is seen as corresponding to Galut).

Hillel the Elder and the Passover Offering

All of which is perhaps an overly verbose introduction to my real subject here: the classical Talmudic problem of what one does with the Korban Pesah, the “Paschal lamb” or Passover offering, when the 14th of Nissan falls on Shabbat. Does the performance of this offering in fact override the Shabbat, so that one is in fact required to bring it on such a Passover? And, if so, what are the parameters: what labors relating to it may be done on Shabbat, and what is postponed till after the Shabbat?

The discussion concerning this subject, on Pesahim 66a, relates that, because this happens so infrequently, it happened once in late Temple days that the people forgot the law since the last occurrence. Suddenly they remembered that there was a man named Hillel, who had recently come from Babylonia, and was reputed to be very learned. Hillel gave two separate answers: one based on a gezerah shavah, a comparison between two verses using the same word, and one based on a kal vahomer, a logical inference “from minor to major.” As a result of his lucid and self-confident erudition, he was then and there named Nasi—“Prince,” i.e., chief religious and political authority of the community—and thus began his public life.

They then raised a second question: how is one to behave if one forgot to bring a knife to slaughter the lamb? It was forbidden to carry any object through the streets on the Sabbath, and the solution used today, of the eruv, was not yet widespread in those days. Hillel’s answer was unexpected: to observe the popular custom. “See what the people do. If they are not prophets, at least they are sons of prophets!” The rabbis go out and see the sheep being led through the streets of Jerusalem with the knife stuck in their fleece (a rather macabre solution, if you think about it). He then adds a brief but significant remark: “Now I remember that I learned this halakha from Shemaya and Abtalyon!”

Many years ago I taught this passage publicly in my old shul in Ramat Eshkol. I suggested then that this passage may be read as an object lesson in the methodology of halakhah. Hillel appears here as a virtuoso of halakha, utilizing all possible methods of learning Torah: application of traditional hermeneutic rules; invocation of tradition received from past generations, whose roots ultimately lie in the oral tradition revealed at Sinai; and minhag, actual folk practice. These methods roughly correspond to the classical functions of the Sanhedrin described by Maimonides in Hilkhot Mamrim 1.1: namely, tradition; logical inference; and legislation of edicts and regulations (this last rubric also includes minhag; i.e., the ordering and giving of some sort of Rabbinical stamp of approval to popular custom).

I would like to return to the substance of Hillel’s answer. He argued that, “Is there only one Passover during the year? Are there not more than 200 Passovers during the course of the year!” The reference here is of course to the public burnt-offerings offered routinely on each and every Shabbat of the year: two lambs for the regular daily offering, and two lambs for the Musaf, multiplied by 50-odd weeks in the year. Just as these override the Sabbath, so too does the Paschal sacrifice override the Sabbath—and he brings a gezerah shavah, two parallel verses using the same word, mo’ado, “in its time,” to clinch the point.

But is this not begging the question? After all, it seems clear that the main premise of the question was that the Passover is an “individual” offering, one owned by a havurah, a group of people, usually members of a clan or some other family unit, who bought it with their own money. As such, it was hardly comparable to the fixed public offerings, the Temidin and Musafin offered in the name of entire Jewish people, which served so to speak as the back-bone of the Temple service. These latter were purchased from funds collected from the half-shekel, so as to represent all Israel before their Father in Heaven in an equitable way.

Hillel’s answer is that these, too, are “passovers.” Or rather, to invert the formulation, that the Passover is analogous to them. True, it is not a public offering, purchased with common funds. Indeed, it is not even a burnt-offering, one consumed entirely on the altar and as such given over entirely to God—both of which factors were ordinarily required in order to justify a given sacrifice overriding the Sabbath. It is more like the shelamim, the “peace-offering” eaten by its owners in a celebratory mode (see HY 5760: Vayikra, on these concepts). Nevertheless, in essence, the Passover is an offering of entire Jewish people. Clearly, Hillel agrees here with those who claim that “All Israel are fit to eat one paschal lamb.” What is the meaning of this rather bizarre statement? To translate it into conceptual terms: the reason so many pesahim are offered is not an essential one, one inherent in the nature of the offering, but a technical reason: that there is just so much meat on any one animal, so that perhaps 20 or 30 people can partake of any one lamb (or goat). Hence, the need for groups. But these groups, viewed collectively, constitute the entire Jewish people. Thus, in a certain almost metaphysical sense, the Korban Pesah is a public offering, consumed collectively by all of Knesset Yisrael, “Collective Israel.”

It seems to me that one can draw an analogy between the role of the group “counted” for each individual korban pesah, and the institution of the minyan, the traditional prayer quorum. A minyan gathered for prayer is not just the people present—the ”ten ordinary Jews,” as the Rav once put it, “who gather together… perhaps on a rainy winter afternoon”—but is theologically a microcosm or “embodiment of the entire Knesset Yisrael… past, present, and those yet unborn.“ Unlike other private offerings brought during Temple days: the todah, the thanksgiving offering brought in gratitude for personal joys; or the sin-offering, brought to atone for personal wrongdoing, the Pesah is by its very essence related to the idea of Jewish peoplehood. The event it comes to commemorate—through the eating of the Passover lamb, the singing of hymns of praise, the narration of the story— namely, the Exodus from Egypt, symbolizes the crux from which the people emerged. Hence, it is treated as a “public offering writ small”—and thus overrides the sanctity of the Shabbat.

Aggadah: Passover as Beginnings

David Moss, whom I mentioned earlier, begins his very beautiful illuminated Haggadah with a frontispiece based upon the motif of seed. He explains that the essence of Passover is beginnings: springtime, with its sense of renewal and the beginning of the agricultural year; the Exodus, as the birth of the Jewish people; etc. This is also the symbolism of purging all hametz, everything that ferments, from our homes: food, one of the most fundamental elements of life, is subject to a kind of total renewal, a new beginning. Ones entire stock of old food is destroyed or removed, purging whatever may have had even remote contact with that which is stale, old, fermented (remember that yeast is a living, self- germinating microbe culture; in principle, the yeast used in baking leavened bread may pass on its vital, fermenting element from one batch to another indefinitely); and beginning with that which is fresh, new, pristine.

The seed is an apt symbol for this, containing within itself all that is to grow in the future the whole. Just as the seed contains in potentia that which is to become actual in the grown plant (or living creature), so does the experience of Pesah contain, in microcosm, all of later Jewish history.

This seed-like relation of potential and actual is also perhaps part of the mystery of Creation itself. The Zohar tells us that God created or “carved out“ the universe from a single point, the nekuda penima’ah symbolized by the letter yod, which was then expanded and developed in all directions and dimensions.

My grandfather once spoke of the three festivals as corresponding to the ages of man: Passover to youth; Shavuot to maturity; Sukkot to old age. Pesah is thus a return to youth, to freshness, to renewal, to new beginnings. I must admit that, as I grow older, I find this concept more difficult to realize than I did in my youth. What does it mean for a person who is in mid-life to “return to the beginning”? This is, if you like, the secret of the verse, “They shall bring forth fruit in old age; they are full of sap and freshness” (Ps 92:15). There is a certain sense of renewal, of rediscovery of youth, of freshness, of experiencing the wonder of the world, that is possible at any age. A. J. Heschel spoke of the capacity for “radical amazement” as a fundamental element of the religious personality. Rav JB Soloveitchik, too, often repeated that faith requires a certain childlike faculty.

What is the meaning, in practical terms, of the notion that the Exodus contains in potentia everything that the Jewish people were to become? I see this as true in four aspects.

1. The experience of being enslaved, of Exile, as the fundamental, axiomatic given of our historical condition. The movement from Exile to Land, the dialectic of Galut and Ge’ulah, is central to our way of being in the world; how we look at the world, at other nations, at the sense of “security and permanence.” George Steiner, and other modern Jewish intellectuals, are wont to say that the Jew anticipated the modern experience of alienation. This statement contains elements that are both truth and false: the Jew rooted in his own tradition may feel insecure and a wanderer, and socio-politically uprooted in Exile, but he never feels alienated: both the Torah and the Jewish community are powerful substitutes for a geographical home.

2. Equality. The experience of being slaves, together, led to a certain social solidarity, an ideal of a type of primitive communism, as reflected in Leviticus 25. As a result of slavery, there is a sense in which the possession of great wealth by any given individual is accidental, not based on any inherent virtue or “entitlement.” A wit once said that Jewish wealth never lasts more than three generations: either they cease to be wealthy, or they cease to be Jews (I think I first heard this remark from the late Prof. Abraham Duker). Jews can never be like the New England WASP’s or the British aristocracy.

3. Avdut / avodah. The second dialectic of the Exodus is that between servitude and the service of God. God took us out so that we might serve Him: Exodus was followed by, and for the sake of, Sinai. This is symbolized in the intimate link between Pesah and Shavuot. The purpose of life is neither individual nor collective aggrandizement, or even “self-realization,” which moderns tend to connect with freedom. “For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt” (Lev 25:55).

4. Acceptance and love of the stranger. On numerous occasions the Torah repeats such imperatives as “you shall love the stranger,” “you shall not oppress the stranger,” etc. Many of these verses appear in conjunction with the reminder, “because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Admittedly, the Halakhah interprets “stranger” as ger—the convert, the righteous proselyte. (Incidentally, that mitzvah is problematic enough. Too often, the Jewish community doesn’t know how to treat gerim with the due respect.) But I read the term gerim, in addition to the traditional halakhic peshat, as more encompassing. It seems to me that, in the original biblical context, it meant “the stranger,“ “the sojourner”—i.e., the Other, especially one who dwells among you. Thus, the link to the Exodus is: we were slaves, we were the other in Egypt, so we should be able to empathize with the situation of the stranger, the outsider.

There is an interesting paradox here. Passover is the most family-oriented of all Jewish holidays; it first and foremost celebrates the group, its origins, history, and values. Indeed, there are elements in it that, particularly in a kind of desacralized modern context, can easily slide into a vulgar type of clannishness, especially in light of the Jewish historical experience of “us against the world.” (It is interesting to analyze the Seder scenes in American Jewish novels, beginning with Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, in which the Seder becomes a focus of tensions within the family, and between the group and the outsider). Interestingly, while writing these words, I began to read Daniel Boyarin’s book A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. He analyzes there the tension between Paul and “normative” Rabbinic Judaism in terms of there embodying models of universalism and particularism, respectively. Paul advocates abolishing all differences between people, be these based upon gender, ethnicity, or whatever: “There is neither man nor woman, Jew or Gentile…” (interestingly, Jews and women serve here as models for the archetypal other). In Boyarin’s view, both models are inadequate, each having definite shortcomings.

Yet in principle, as noted, classical Judaism contains many important elements of openness and empathy to the stranger, and tries to counter the natural human proclivity towards group chauvinism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Pesah, which contains a strong emphasis on the particular, through the specificity of the birth of the Jewish nation, and the universal, be it through the message of freedom as such, the implication drawn of empathy for the stranger and the weak, and even in the concluding hymn, “the breath of every living thing will praise you.”

The Multiple Layers of the Passover Seder

People are familiar with the “fourness” of the Pesah Seder celebration: the four questions, the four sons, the four cups of wine, the four “languages of redemption” (Ex 6:4ff.) from which these are derived, etc.—all of which, in turn, perhaps reflect the four levels of interpretation of the Torah (Pardes) and, some would say, the four worlds of the Kabbalistic world-scheme. But upon reflection I realized that there is also a basic “two-ness” to much of the Seder. This, on at least three levels:

The Haggadah relates the story of the Exodus in two parallel paths, with two separate beginnings. These are already mentioned in the Talmud: “One begins with our degradation and concludes with praise. What is meant by ‘degradation’? Rav said: ‘Originally our ancestors were idolators.’ Shmuel said: ‘We were slaves…’” (Pesahim 116a). According to one view, the narrative is to focus narrowly upon the specific events of the Exodus from Egypt, with its liberation from physical enslavement and political subjugation. The other narrative paints a far broader canvas, beginning with the pagan origins of the Jewish nation in pre-Abrahamic times, through the descent to Egypt, the enslavement, and the liberation, whose ultimate goal was, not merely political liberation, but the covenant with God and the epiphany at Mount Sinai. (Hence the well-known link of Pesah and Shavuot to one another).

On a second level, there is a duality within Maggid, the narrative or expository section of the Seder that precedes the festive meal, in terms of the experiential dimension. The first part of the Haggadah (following a kind of prelude, which concerns itself with the laws of and justification for the Seder itself) is essentially a narration, or better, a free-flowing discourse and dialogue between parents and children and among all those seated at the Seder table, about the formative events that shaped the Jewish nation long long ago. This is a kind of legend of origins, if you will, told through the medium of midrash, and focused on a series of key points. But then, at certain point, the Seder makes an abrupt turn. “In each generation a person must see himself as if he himself went out of Egypt.” From a historical, traditional narrative mode we turn to the immediate, experiential, existential mode: we ourselves want to relive the Exodus, to feel as if we ourselves were among the miserable rabble who were suddenly set free from the harsh reality of grinding, brutal slavery to… the unknown. This note is struck at the very beginning: “For if the Holy One blessed be He had not taken us out of Egypt, we and our children and our childrens’ children would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”

In concrete terms, this experiential dimension is expressed through the act of eating the Matzah, the Marror, and (in symbolic, commemorative fashion) the Paschal lamb (this is the significance of the paragraph beginning “Rabban Gamaliel used to say…”), and by eating and drinking while reclining “like free men.” It reaches its culmination in the recitation of hymns of joy and thanksgiving, in the section beginning with the word Lefikhakh, through the two psalms from the Hallel recited at the end of Maggid, and ending with the blessing “for our redemption and the liberation of our souls” and the second cup of wine.

Then there is a third duality: that between the personal and national levels of interpretation or, put differently, between the allegorical and literal level. Do we read the Exodus only on the literal level, as an ancient historical event, or is it also a metaphor for inner spiritual processes, for the individual’s existential situation. Each person needs, so to speak, to leave his own personal Egypt. Rather than national redemption, the focus is on the redemption of each Jew’s soul—breaking the chains of the Evil Urge, of attachment to material things, so as to become truly free in the spiritual sense. This last motif appears prominently in many Hasidic and other texts, which constantly stress this theme. Thus, the Maharal of Prague, in his explanation of the symbolism of matzah (Gevurot Hashem) states that matzah symbolizes freedom because it is the only food which is completely “simple,” being made without any additives. As such, it is exemplary of the individual who seeks spiritual freedom.

Another widely known example of this line of thought is the prayer recited after the burning of the Hametz on the morning of Passover Eve, printed in many Haggadot. “May it be your will, O Lord... that just as I have burned hametz [leavened matter] from my home and from my property, so... shall You burn away the spirit of impurity from the land, and burn the Evil Urge from within us, and give us a heart of flesh… and all wickedness eliminate as smoke... just as you destroyed Egypt and their gods in those days at this time.”

The common denominator of all three levels is the tendency toward a more expansive, open-ended approach to the text. The liberation was not only political, but also had a covenantal-religious dimension; it was not only something long ago, of mere antiquarian interest, but something living and vibrant with which each person may and should identify; not only one specific event, but also an inner, personal process. In brief, the Exodus, and the Seder, is a paradigmatic, archetypal event, rich in multi-layered meaning and symbolism—and inviting each generation to add their own levels.

It is in this spirit that we find during the twentieth century that Jews of all stripes, including “secularists” of various sorts and ideological orientations, have found their own meaning in the Haggadah, filling “old barrels with new wine.” (A few years ago I wrote an article for the Jerusalem Post on this subject; what follows is a somewhat revised and abridged version of that piece.) Thus, during the period of the Yishuv and the early years of the State of Israel, many secular kibbutzim created their own, untraditional versions of the Haggadah. These generally deleted all reference to the religious dimension of the Exodus; substituted biblical passages for the Rabbinic midrash that forms the core of the traditional Haggadah (following the approach of Ben-Gurion and others, who stressed the Tanakh as against the Talmud); added passages from the Song of Songs and from modern poetry celebrating the renewal of nature at spring time, thus reviving Pesah as a nature festival; and, of course, adding passages celebrating the political and national renascence of the Jewish people in our own day (Shlonsky, Alterman, etc.) . On the visual level, these Haggadot are among the finest examples of the new style of Israeli graphic art, together with the many newly-published Haggadot using the traditional text.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Tazria (archives)

On Tum’a and Tohara

Of all the sections of the Torah, the readings for this week and next, Tazria and Metzora (Leviticus 12-15, which on non-leap years are “doubled over” to be read together on one Shabbat), are perhaps the most difficult ones about which to say anything significant or meaningful. As a friend of mine once said, only half in jest, ”Whoever succeeds in saying something relevant about Tazria-Metzora brings redemption to the world.”

This week’s portion consists of two main sections. The opening, brief chapter of eight verses describes the procedure followed by a woman following childbirth. There is a two-stage ritual impurity, consisting of an initial seven days (or 14 for a girl) of strict impurity and separation from her husband; this is followed by a second period of 33 days (or 66 days, for a girl) of modified impurity, known by the term dam tohar, “blood of purity,” during which, under old Torah-based Rabbinic law (mishnah rishonah), the woman was allowed to resume marital sexual relations with her husband, and to partake of some priestly gifts and holy things, but not to enter the Temple precincts.

The perennial question here is: Why the distinction between the birth of a boy and that of a girl? A variety of answers have been given: some taken from ancient and medieval medicine, asserting that the fetus of a girl takes twice as long to be formed as that of a boy, and hence requires a longer post-partum purification process (Sages, cited in Rabbenu Bahye); to that a female’s nature is “cold and moist,” requiring more purification (Ramban); to the statement that the Torah, concerned that the parents be able to enjoy closeness at the time of a circumcision, “so that they not be sad, and all the others rejoicing,” limited the woman’s impurity in this case to seven days; to the recent suggestion by Prof. Tirzah Meacham of the University of Toronto, that an infant girl occasionally discharges blood from her own infant womb, in response to the high estrogen level within the pre-natal environment, and thus an additional seven days were required for her own “impurity.” There are many other answers as well, some imaginative, some filled with moral lessons, but none of them convince this reader that they are the authentic, “original” peshat. All that can be said with any certainty is that the experience of birthing a girl is understood by the Torah as fundamentally different from that of birthing a boy.

To this, I would add a second question: why is this chapter placed at this particular location, rather than together with the other laws concerning impurity derived from various sorts of bodily discharges, in Ch. 15? As it stands, it is separated from these laws by Chapters 13 and 14, which deal with the totally different subject of tzara’at, “leprosy.” In addition, there are a number of puzzling features in the internal arrangement, both of Ch. 15, and of Chs. 13-14. More important, the entire concept of tum’a and tohara, of “purity” and “impurity,” is a strange and difficult one to us; we shall discuss some of these problems next week, in connection with these chapters.

The Priest as Physician

Chapters 13 and 14 deal with an ailment known as tzara’at, traditionally translated as “leprosy,” but in fact referring to some sort of highly contagious, lesser skin infection (for simplicity’s sake, we shall use here the traditional term). This was evidently a well-known disease, which aroused strong feelings of revulsion and danger among the public. The horror with which it was regarded is suggested by the total isolation and ostracism imposed by the Torah upon the victim of this disease. “… he shall sit outside of the camp, his hair shall be loose and his clothes shall be disheveled, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Impure! Impure!’ All the days of his impurity he shall dwell alone, outside of the camp” (13:45-46).

Beyond that, it is not made clear why the Torah deals with the subject at all. What we are given is a dry description of the disease, given in a series of brief paragraphs, each one of which gives a description of the symptoms, followed by what to do in border-line cases. Two points stand out: one, that the picture of the disease is a very dynamic one, in which in many cases the person is shut up for seven days, to be examined a second time. Second, that the priest plays a crucial role in diagnosing the disease, and in issuing instructions as to whether to consider the victim pure, impure, or to continue his border-line condition another seven days.

Subsequent sections (these spill over into the next portion, Metzora) deal with “leprous” infection of inanimate objects, to wit, garments or the stones from which a house is built, as well as the interesting ritual for expatiating leprosy after its cure. The question is: why does the Torah trouble to present this in such detail? There is something jarring, discordant between this chapter and the other sections of the Torah, even in Leviticus.

Interestingly, this is perhaps the only section in the entire Torah which is interpreted by most major mefarshim (exegetes) on the level of midrash: that is, as one whose meaning and true importance are not conveyed by the plain sense of the chapters themselves. I say this, notwithstanding that in Mishnaic times Negaim and Ohalot (the tractates dealing with the laws of tzara’at and with impurity related to enclosures or coverings over the dead) were considered the “meat and potatoes” of halakhic studies. The only comparable example of such a strongly midrashic line of interpretation is the Song of Songs, which in Rabbinic lore is always read metaphorically or allegorically.

Most midrashim take it as axiomatic that tzara’at is a punishment for evil speech, lashon hara. This is strengthened by the other places in which tzara’at is mentioned in the Torah. In one of the signs shown to Moses in the scene at the burning bush, God asks him to place his hand within his bosom, and when he takes it out it is “leprous, white as snow” (Exod 4: 6-7). This is seen by Rashi and the midrashim as punishment for his speaking ill of the Israelites and doubting their readiness to believe his message. The second case involves Miriam being struck with leprosy when he and Aaron speak about Moses‘ “Cushite” wife (Num 12, esp. at v. 9). This episode presumably prompted the instruction in Deuteronomy to take care regarding “all that the priests and Levites may instruct you” regarding the signs of leprosy, followed immediately by the admonition to “remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way…” (Deut 24:8-9). This juxtaposition is very strange, unless it was already taken as axiomatic that leprosy was a punishment for lashon hara. (Albeit it is this connection is not mentioned explicitly, it only saying “remember what God did to Miriam,” the implicit assumption being that everyone knew the connection in her case between crime and punishment). In the later biblical books, too, we find leprosy as punishment for other improper misbehavior. Striking is the incident involving Elisha’s servant Gehazi who, after Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, came to Elisha to be cured of leprosy, ran after him to “shnorr” money and gifts. Elisha, disgusted with this demeaning and immoral behavior, curses Gehazi that “Naaman’s leprosy shall cleave to you and to your descendants forever” (2 Kings 5; at v. 27). On the other hand, there is no indication that the four leprous men at the gate of Samaria in 2 Kings 7:3 were guilty of any moral turpitude.

The conclusion to be drawn is that the Torah sees tzara’at as an object lesson, reflecting its deep faith that illness is Divine recompense for wrong-doing; or, viewed in other words, that moral ill is reflected in the body (a kind of reverse “Picture of Dorian Gray” principle), a concrete manifestation of the “just world.”

Unity of Body and Soul

As this chapter involves midrashic thinking, I will add my own reflections on these matters. What this chapter teaches more than anything else (at least in its traditional exegesis) is the integration of body and spirit. Disease is seen as an external expression of an inner rottenness or malaise. The Torah views this in moral terms: tzara’at as an outward manifestation of sin, especially the secretive sin of bearing tales against others. In my own immediate experience, I have seen how closely illness or health may be linked to emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Two striking examples come to mind, in two opposite directions. One: a woman suffering from a serious illness whom, over the course of three years of mostly spiritual and psychological healing coupled with non-conventional medicine, was essentially cured. The opposite case: an older woman, physically strong and healthy but deeply depressed and grieving the death of her husband, was hospitalized for a relatively routine operation; a routine pre-op exam triggered a series of events that were nearly inexplicable in medical terms, until three months later she died.

We are at a strange cultural juncture in human history. On the one hand, science and technology are striding forward by leaps and bounds. The computer and new communications technologies are changing the way we work, shop, do business, receive news and information, even socialize—virtually every aspect of our culture. Biotechnology is changing how we raise crops for food, how animals are bred, and is even beginning to change the way in which we reproduce as human beings. Geneticists recently announced the imminent decoding of the human genome, suggesting the possibility to diagnose and cure genetic faults and diseases—and perhaps to “engineer” the makeup of human beings. Neurologists are claiming to understand more and more fully the workings of the human brain. But together with that, more and more people, specifically in advanced Western society, seem to be disillusioned with this “brave new world,” and are seeking an anchor for their lives in other, more traditional forms of wisdom. Among some, there is a return to more holistic, organic ways of looking at the universe; in another group, there seems to be a more and more deterministic and reductionist view of the human being.

I believe that the deepest intellectual challenge to religion in general, and to Judaism in particular, during the new century will be from a kind of “biologism”: a view that asserts that man can be understood as a purely biological creature, as essentially a product of his genetic makeup, no more than a bundle of predetermined predilections. Already one is hearing biologically-based apologia for the ruthless economic Darwinism which has emerged over the past two decades, erasing much of the progress toward a more humane society gained with great struggle by the labor movement and others during the early part of the twentieth century. Popular magazines propound a kind of crude apology for male philandery as biologically natural, and hence somehow OK. The current “politically-correct” acceptance of homosexuality (an issue we shall discuss in Aharei Mot) is also based upon a biological-neurological argument. Ultimately, such an approach undermines two basic foundations of Judaism: the belief in human free will, behira hofshit; and the concept that man is created betzelem elokim, in the Divine image, with a soul that contains within it a spark of the Divine.

These issues are profound ones, on which there is a great deal to be said. For now, I will try to conclude with a few brief thoughts, in telegraphic form. It is important to understand, with all due respect to the wonderful accomplishments of modern science and technology, that the underlying world-view of these disciplines is limited by the tools that it chooses to use. When it becomes an all-embracing, exclusive world-view, it can be dangerous. The empirical view of the universe, and of man, is based upon certain basic perceptual and philosophical flaws; its purview is limited to certain kind of measurable and quantifiable phenomena, which must not be mistaken for the Whole. (Several books that I have found extremely instructive and enlightening in understanding these issues are: vis a vis the question of world-view: Huston Smith, The Forgotten Truth and Jacob Needleman, A Sense of the Cosmos; on the grave cultural effects of technology, a book written nearly 40 years ago, the truth of whose grim prophecy is becoming more evident with every passing year, Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society.)

Paradoxically, at least in light of some of the struggles in contemporary Israeli society (viz. the role of the Supreme Court, and Basic Laws), true protection of “human freedom and dignity” is to be found, not in secularism, but in an authentic, deeply religious world-view.