Thursday, October 27, 2005

Bereshit (Torah)


The White Space before the Black Letters, or The Mysterium Tremendum of Creation

One year on Shabbat Bereshit, approaching the Torah scroll just before the reading, I observed the expanse of white parchment preceding the first word. I commented to my neighbor at the bimah that the white parchment may be seen as representing the endless mystery of what there was, even before the “in the beginning” described in Genesis.

As we once again read the story of the Creation, we ponder anew the ineffable mystery of Being itself. We speak of the grandeur that is the cosmos as being created ex nihilo, from nothing; but in fact, there was never truly nothing, for God was there “before any thing was created.” Where and what was God before there was even a world? Genesis 1:2 speaks of tohu vavohu, the deep darkness, the great void, a world of chaos, water. Even the Kabbalah, that Jewish teaching which delves most into the secrets of the cosmos, focuses primarily upon the lower seven sefirot, representing the means by which God emanates and suffuses His Presence into the world as we know it. The highest sefirot—Keter, the Divine Crown, and beyond that Ein Sof, “He who is without limit”; the realm of El Mistater, Deus Absconditus, the hidden aspect of God, sequestered in the hidden recesses of being—is only spoken of by allusion. It is utter mystery, beyond human speculation.

In recent years, some religious scientists have tried to delve into the mysteries of Creation, with an approach synthesizing modern science and Torah. Physicist Gerald Schroeder of Bar Ilan University has written two significant books, The Science of God and Genesis and the Big Bang, in which he attempts to interpret much of the scientific data in terms of the Torah, using some unexpected keys that he has worked out. Some of the arguments for an intelligent Creator guiding the physical processes of Creation are very powerful and impressive (the wild improbability of the origin of matter itself; the fortuitous preponderance of carbon in the universe, essential for organic life; the precise gravitational balance of our earth, enabling the existence of life, etc.). Others (particularly his attempt to to maintain the literal idea of Six Days of Creation by using complex mathematical calculations to reinterpret the term “day” relative to the relationship between the thermal heat at the time of the Big Bang and the present mean temperature of the universe), are more questionable. He also finds fascinating parallels between the theory of the Big Bang and the descriptions of the creation found in the Zohar and in Ramban's Torah commentary.

For myself, I find a greater fascination in Bereshit in the accounts of the beginning of humanity, and in the fundamental datum of our own existence in this world, conveyed through the seemingly artless, naive stories of Adam and Eve and the Garden. One finds there all the basic elements of human life as we know it: work, sexuality, violence, hatred, intellectual curiosity, consciousness of shame, etc.

Ramblings on a Theology of Sexuality: Lust and Intimacy

Reading Parshat Bereshit, with its tale of the first man and woman, is perhaps an appropriate occasion to reflect on the nature of sexuality and the whole gamut of relationship between the sexes, the nature of family life and the family in the strange century just ended. Suddenly, during the past fifty years or so, all the conventions that held society together around the family and man-woman relations seem to have spun apart. Perhaps no aspect of human life and experience has been more problematic for this age, which has so prided itself in its modernity and rationality.

A fruitful avenue for understanding the root of this problem is that sexuality is paradigmatic for the deepest antinomies within the human being. Sex is, on the one hand, a blind, instinctual act, driven by seemingly irresistible, overwhelming force, associated with the most intense pleasurable feelings, without any relation to the “human” qualities of ones partner; and, on the other hand, associated with our deepest, most tender, private feelings and needs, for intimacy, trust, tenderness, etc., and inextricably linked with the worlds of emotion, of affection, of feeling, of a unique choice (who hasn’t felt the absolute uniqueness of one's beloved?)—in brief, of all that makes us “human."

The dichotomous nature of our sexuality may be seen in the opening chapters of Genesis. Various contemporary modern Jewish religious thinkers have attempted to resolve the sharp contrast and apparent contradiction between the two parallel descriptions of the Creation of the universe and of man in Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. This group of contradictions, which also gave rise to the “Documentary” school of Bible criticism, is interpreted by some as intended to point up the dichotomies, paradoxes and antinomies of the universe and of humankind’s own experience and self. The two accounts, rather than contradicting one another, are thus seen as highlighting different aspects of the complex, multi-faceted mosaic of our existence. This approach has been highly developed for the entire Torah by Rabbi Mordecai Breuer. But perhaps none has done this more profoundly and interestingly for the Creation story, developing an entire Judaic philosophic anthropology, than the late lamented Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his monumental essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith.”

The Rav does not specifically address himself there to the issues of sexuality. Instead, he interprets the verses relating to the creation of man and woman in terms of human community, and the significance of fellowship and companionship in the context of the two ideal human types: “Majestic Man” and “Existential Man” or, more simply put, Adam the First and Adam the Second. If, however, we apply his method to the specific issues of sexuality we will discover an interesting contrast.

In Genesis 1 (v. 26ff.), male and female are created together. Their coupling is seen as entirely natural, as a given, simple fact without any element of deliberation or volition. (Perhaps it was this that prompted the Midrashic reading of this verse, parallel to or in wake of the Greek myth of the primordial androgynous human being, who was severed in two; see Gen. Rab. 8.1;b. Erubin 18a and par.). Man and woman seem to mate as easily and unreflectively as the flocks and kine of the field; albeit there is perhaps a hint of power and even violence in the Rabbinic reading of “and you shall subdue it/her” (ve-kivshuha in 1:28 being taken as referring, not only to man’s mastery and dominion over the earth, but to his subjugation of woman; b. Yevamot 65b).

Chapter 2, by contrast, shows woman being created as an answer to man’s loneliness. “It is not good that man be alone” (v. 18). There is a full cycle here of loneliness, seeking a partner, courtship, and finally union—followed by a statement of the way of the world, in which the young couple leave their parental homes and establish a new, independent social unit (al ken ya’azov ish…). It seems significant that the flow of this account is interrupted by two seemingly irrelevant verses (vv. 19–20): God brings all the various animals before Adam to see what he will call them, Adam dutifully gives names to each animal, but the pair of verses ends with the melancholy observation, “and for Man there was not found a help­mate (‘ezer kenegdo). Why are these two verses interjected seemingly out of nowhere? Can it be to suggest the conscious rejection of mere animal sexuality? The various other creatures were brought before Man as potential mates, so to speak, but he rejected them all, not going beyond giving them each names. (Why did he give them names? Because names, language, is emblematic of meaning. We encounter man here as a creature of consciousness, evaluating and conveying significance upon the world surrounding him.) These two verses can also be seen, if you will, as symbolic of the gap, so keenly and universally felt in our society, between longing and fulfillment. We can imagine Adam dissatisfied, looking for something or someone that he did not even know how to articulate. Only when Adam encountered the Woman, who had been created specially for him, not only as an anonymous hole to be filled, to put matters rather coarsely, but as a human personality, meeting his need for companionship as well as for raw sex, could he say zot hapa’am ezem me-‘atzamai uvasar mibesari: “This time, this one, is someone who truly "complements me, like a familiar, long-lost friend—of my own bone and my own flesh.”

Some questions: What are we to understand by the putting of Adam to sleep, and the removal of his rib to make the woman. Perhaps sleep is suggestive of the unconscious realm, the world of dream and archetypes (Jung’s animus and anima?) and pre-rational connections. And perhaps the rib is suggestive of the presence of the self in the other: the simultaneous strangeness and sameness to self one discovers in a mate. And what does the legend of primordial androgynous humanity mean, in depth?

In brief, our sexuality relates to our being biological, animal-like creatures, driven by instinct—and at the same time creatures of consciousness. Indeed, these two aspects are inextricably linked, inasmuch as the sexual act is connected with the body of another human being, so that the object of our lust, no matter how transient or purely “animalistic,” is him/herself another human person with consciousness, feeling, an entire world of memory, thought, experience, etc.

This antinomy is, of course, one of the central paradoxes discussed in numerous places in our tradition: man as lowly, mortal creature, a child of the physical world—and at the same time endowed with consciousness , with spiritual longings, seeking meaning, etc. The two slips of paper which Rebbe Elimelekh of Lizhensk carried in his pockets: mah adam va-teda’ehu and vat’hasrehu me’at me-elohim (“What is man that You should know him?” and “You have made him but little lower than the angels” – both from Psalm 8); man as afar min ha-adama, “dust of the earth” and tselem elohim,“ in the image of God.” Or, to quote the final section of the Yom Kippur liturgy: We speak of man as being no more than the animal (u-motar mhaadam min habehema ayin) and in practically the next breath say ata hivdalta enosh me-rosh va-takerehu la’amod lefanekha: “You have separated man from the beginning and taught him to stand before You.” Religious consciousness, the ability to stand before God, is seen as the crowning glory of human experience.

Sin in the Garden

One of the cliches of modern liberal Jewish apologetics is that Judaism has a “healthy,” “positive” attitude toward sex, in contradistinction to Christianity. Exemplary of this is, of course, the Garden of Eden story. Christianity sees the sin of Adam and Eve as the Original Sin, and as more or less identified with the discovery of sexuality. They only mated after the “Fall”—after eating of the fruit. Until then, they did not know the sexual nature of their bodies. “The two of then were naked… and were not ashamed” (2:25) (see Milton’s Paradise Lost). Shame—and sexual desire—only came after eating of the fruit. Sexual intercourse is only referred to for the first time in Gen 4:1: “and Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and birthed a child, and she called his name Cain …,” suggesting that it only occurred after they left the Garden.

Judaism reads this story differently. The phrase in 4:1: veha-adam yada’ et havah eshto, is in fact in the past perfect: “And Adam had [already; possibly in the Garden] known Eve his wife.” This is in striking contrast with the usage elsewhere (4:17, 25; 1 Sam 1:9), vayeda … et ishto, where it is an imperfect verb.

We are left, then, with the image of a possibility of sex as innocent: the lost paradise is not a child-like, pre-puberty state, but a holy, innocent, joyful, uncomplicated sexuality. This motif may be seen, for example, in those Rabbinic interpretations which portray the cherubim in the Temple as a man and woman, who even served as a kind of weather vane for the state of relations between God and Israel: when in harmony, they were locked in embrace, while when estranged their backs were turned to one another. One Midrash even relates that when the Romans entered the Temple they and were scandalized to see the cherubim as two naked figures. (Albeit there are admittedly other streams in the Midrash that are deeply uncomfortable with this, and see the cherubs as pre-pubescent children).

Three further examples of a celebration of innocent, nay, holy sex in Judaism. One, the role of marital sex in the celebration of the Sabbath; in Kabbalah, in particular, sexual union one Friday night is seen as the very culmination, the apex of the mystical service of that evening. Two, the Sheva Berakhot, the seven blessings recited under the Huppah and at a wedding feast, hearken back to the Garden of Eden, as a time emblematic for the rejoicing of man and woman together and with one another. And third, of course, the simple, unselfconscious joyfulness of love as reflected in the pages of Song of Songs, in a literal, non-allegorical reading.

What then was the sin of eating the fruit, and why did it bear the dire consequences that it did? Many modern philosophers see it as the discovery of willfulness, of the possibility of not obeying God. Thus, Erich Frohm in You Shall be as Gods speaks of the knowledge of good and evil as equivalent to knowledge of one's own free will, of the ability to choose. As such, it is seen psychologically as a necessary stage in maturation, and the “expulsion” from the Garden is not so much a punishment as an inevitable consequence of this new knowledge.

Without rejecting this interesting reading, I would like to suggest an alternative reading. In a simple reading of the text, one senses a strong element of sexuality. “And the snake was more crafty/naked (‘arom) than all the other beasts that the Lord God had made.” Indeed, the Midrash sees him as being sexually aroused by the sight of Eve, his ruse being motivated by jealousy of Adam, in hopes of seducing Eve. More significantly, the immediate result of their eating the fruit was “And their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked … and they sewed fig leaves to cover themselves” (3:7), in striking contrast with their lack of shame at their nakedness noted in 2:25. If the knowledge of good and evil was connected with the making of choices and moral autonomy, why the sudden awareness of their nakedness?

It seems to me that the eating of the fruit (which is itself seductive, almost erotically sensuous, as described in v. 6) is somehow connected, not with sexuality in itself, but with the sense of sexuality as somehow shameful, embarrassing, evocative of guilt. It was no longer the simple, natural, joyous coupling that it was before. Why? What is it in the nature of sexuality that leads to these ambivalent feelings? I have no simple answers to these questions, albeit I have certain very tentative theories (in brief, that it arises from the almost unbearable, innate tension between the two poles described above; ve-day la-hakima), but we know that this complex of feelings exist in very many, if not all, human cultures—and certainly in the more complex, “advanced” ones.

One of the leit-motifs of post-Medieval, Enlightenment culture—i.e., that which was “free” of religion in general and Christianity in particular—has been the attempt to restore the sense of child-like innocence to sexuality. The list is a long one, and includes Jean Jacques Rousseau, with his romanticism of the “noble savage”; the Nudist movement, which began with the Germany Nacktkultur of the turn of the last century, which advocated a healthy attitude toward the body, a greater frankness between the sexes, and disowning shame or guilt; the Hippie communes of the ‘60’s, with their attempt to create new extended “families,” without sexual exclusiveness and without jealousy. William Blake gave poetic expression to these wishes and to his criticism of the creation of guilt by religion in some of his “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” such as “The Garden of Love” and “A Little Girl Lost.” (“…and priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, and binding with briars my joys & desires”). Aldous Huxley, in a curious little essay entitled “Appendix,” describes the attempt of a nineteenth-century community in the town of Oneida, New York, led by one John Humphrey Noyes, to “separate the biological from the human function of sex,” thereby presumably overcoming the ugly, animalistic effects of lust. This was accomplished by means of “complex marriage,” in which the sexual act served as a “sacrament and mode of mystical knowledge,” through the practice of coitus reservatus among all members of the community. Huxley goes on to mention the presence of such ideas already among Medieval Christian heretical groups, such as the Cathars, in twelfth-century France, or the Adamites, or Brethren and Sisters of the Free Spirit, in thirteenth-century Flanders. The restoration of innocence to sexuality, as the psychological sin qua-non of the lost Golden Age, is thus one of the leit-motifs of modern anti-clericalism.

Have any of these groups succeeded? The historical evidence is, to say the least, far from encouraging. (Interestingly, Sigmund Freud, who is often blamed for the obsession with sex of modern culture, never advocated such ideas. An unbiased reading of his Civilization and Its Discontents and his other broader philosophical works makes this point abundantly clear.)

To conclude, my reading of this chapter is similar to that of Christianity in seeing the Garden of Eden scene as related to sexuality, but differs in perceiving the Edenic state not as one of virginity, but of innocent eros. The logical consequence that follows lies in seeing the married state, rather than celibacy, as the ideal. But woe to he who tries to literally restore the lost Paradise of innocent erotism in the here and now. That way lies madness, societal and individual.

Adam and Eve: A New Midrash

Last year, I speculated about the nature of the sin of eating the fruit, and why their new-found “knowledge” led them to feelings of shame. Unlike Christianity, we do not see sexuality as inherently evil or as paradigmatic for wrongdoing, as in the doctrine of ”Original Sin.” Yet that there is such a connection is suggested by the fact that initially Adam and Eve were naked “but were not embarrassed” (2:25) while straight after eating the fruit “they knew they were naked” and sewed fig leaves and hid themselves from God (3:7–8). The following “new midrash” is an attempt to wrestle with this problem.

When Adam and Eve were first created, they were like two innocent, artless children—trusting, open, delighting in the sheer joy of life without a thought for the morrow. They found in one another delightful companions, sporting and playing together and—because they were, as we are told, created with fully-grown, adult, sexually developed bodies—they quickly discovered the delights of love-making, in purity and innocence, with a childlike love and friendship and joy in one another.
There was also a Serpent who lived in the Garden. We don’t know exactly who he was: some midrashim say he was the Satan, or the embodiment of the Evil Urge, while others say he was a real serpent, only unlike today’s snakes he walked upright. But one thing is for sure: he was far more innocent, but was filled with guile and wickedness, sheer meanness and cussedness; he was totally cynical, and no doubt took pride in his sophistication and wisdom in the ways of the world, thoroughly understanding what we today call human nature (which at the time only existed in potential) and its weaknesses. Moreover, he was glib and clever, and could easily talk circles around Adam and Eve, who were naive, childlike souls in adult bodies. One day, he saw the two of them sporting together. Some say he desired Eve; or perhaps he couldn’t stand other creatures delighting innocently in the sheer joy of being alive. In any event, he set out to get them into trouble, and offered Eve the fruit of the tree.
The “knowledge” contained in this fruit was not knowledge of sexuality—they had already discovered the pleasure to be derived from their bodies; nor was it the knowledge of moral autonomy and making choice (as Erich Fromm was to write millennia later). It was similar to the other fruits of the garden, which were pleasant to see and good to eat (2:9), but it had two more features: it added a dimension of desire, of intensity and lustfulness, to what the eyes saw; and it gave those who ate it the properties of knowledge and understanding (3:6). It awakened both memory and imagination. Adam and Eve no longer lived in the eternal, joyous presence of the Garden alone, but remembered what had happened in the past, and imagine possibilities in the future.
The next day, Eve went off by herself. Perhaps she was playing with one of the tame and friendly animals (even those who would later become fierce predators were gentle and approachable); or perhaps she was exploring the endless variety of trees and flowers and vegetation in the garden; or perhaps she was lying down in the grass to take a nap, soaking up the warm but gentle sun. In any event, Adam came across her, and this time his eyes saw her in different light. The sight of her naked breasts and thighs awakened the memory of what it had been like the last time they had lain together, and his imagination conjured up the desire to lie with her there and then. But she was absorbed in her own activities, and didn’t want to just then. Before, when they made love, there had not been taking and being taken, an initiator and one who responded, but things happened spontaneously, playfully, with mutual desire. This time it was different. Adam only knew that he desired her: his imagination, his newly awakened faculty of desiring-sight, propelled him on, without regard for her feelings or wishes, and he took her, by brute force. The first rape in human history had taken place.
Afterwards, she cried, and he comforted her. But gradually, over the course of days and weeks, things began to change between them, and they both realized that this thing which we call sex, and which they only knew as the simple delighting together of man and woman, was not so simple, and that there was a darker side to their delightful game. “And they knew that they were naked.” And not only in the sexual sense. The faculty of imagination, of desirous seeing and perception, ultimately changed everything. They began to find something shameful, not quite clean or innocent, in their nakedness, so they wove simple garments to cover themselves—perhaps from one another, perhaps from God, perhaps from both. Until that fateful day when God went walking in the Garden at the time of the evening breeze (He of course knew already knew what had gone on with them), and they hid themselves from God.

The text tells us of Divine curses and expulsion from the Garden. But perhaps this was no physical expulsion from the Garden. It could be, that once they discovered these bitter, unhappy truths about themselves, Eden simply ceased to be Eden, and became just another place. And the curses laid upon them by God—of the subordination of the woman to her man and her dependence upon him; the power relations between the sexes; the facts of lust and desire sometimes getting in the way of human love and companionship, rather than expressing intimacy—all these were not curses or punishments imposed upon them at one particular moment, but facts of their existence that they discovered, as a result of their newfound consciousness and awareness.

“And your longing shall be to your husband, and he shall dominate you”

After Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the garden, God imposed curses upon each of them, and upon the snake (3:14-19)—curses that are emblematic of the human condition. The woman was told: “I shall greatly increase your pain in pregnancy; you shall bear children with pain. And your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall dominate you.” The latter sentence seems to me a frank admission that, for countless generations, human society has been ruled by men; that women, to put it somewhat crudely, more often than not get the raw end of the stick.

There has been much discussion in recent years, in wake of the nascent Jewish religious feminist movement, of the morning blessing “shelo asani isha” (“who has not made me a woman”). The discussion usually goes back and forth, in a dialogue of the deaf, between those woman who say that this blessing is insulting because it implies that women are inferior; and the familiar line of Orthodox apologetics, that it really refers to mitzvot alone, and is an expression of men’s happiness that they have the opportunity to perform more mitzvot than women. Some people add that women are in fact more spiritual by nature, and thus do not require so many, constant reminders of their connection to God, etc., etc.

But perhaps another line of interpretation is possible. This blessing is not one looking down at women, but seeing their state with real empathy, as if the man is saying: “Women have a harder lot in life than do men; thank God I don’t have to put up with this.” A woman, by virtue of her being female, needs to cope with circumstances no man ever needs to confront: the shame and social sanctions connected with her sexuality are far greater than that of man. A woman can become a prostitute; a woman can be raped; a woman can become an old maid. (This line of interpretation may, in my opinion, be supported by the first opinion in Rashi on this subject, Menahot 43b, s.v. haynu isha. I hope to discuss on another occasion the halakhic issues involved in a community abolishing a statutory blessing that has become distasteful to them, and whether such a change is desirable.)

Adam’s Curse is focused on the realm of labor, and the unyielding nature of the soil: "The earth shall be cursed because of you, and you shall eat its fruits only by much effort … by the sweat of your brow … it shall yield thistles and thorns.” And concludes: “Until you return to the earth from which you were taken, for you are dust and to dust shall you return.” The man, perhaps because he is not stuck in a subservient sexual role, is more concerned with the intractable, stubborn nature of the physical world which he tries to conquer, and of his own eventual mortality.

Cain and Abel: The First Murder

The story of Cain and Abel is a familiar one. I picture Cain as a physically powerful but inarticulate, introverted, silent person, who mulled over real and imagined grievances for days and months, until one day, without warning, it burst forth in a sudden act of violence. But the account elicits as many questions as it does answers.

Why was the sacrifice of one brother accepted, and not that of the other (4:3-5)? Is this connected to the fact that one was a tiller of the soil and the other a shepherd? (An interesting answer is provided to this question in Daniel’s Ishmael, a contemporary ecological tract.) What is the meaning of the divine admonition in vv. 6-7, in which “sin” seems to be personified as a being with a will of its own? And what is the significance of the exact parallel between this verse and Eve’s curse in 2:16, in which sin “desires” Cain as a woman desires her man?

After the murder, and Cain’s notoriously evasive answer, he is “banished” from the face of the land. There seems to be a parallel here to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, as well as to the curse of the land (compare 3:17-19 with 4:11-12). How are we to understand this? As a further level of alienation from “the good life”?

What about Lemech’s boast to his wives in 4:23-24? Did he kill Cain, as the midrash suggests? It would seem that, for some women at least, male violence is a sexually arousing thing: the midrash says that this little speech was his way of getting his recalcitrant wives back into his bed. It is an unfortunate truth that women may at times be attracted by violence in a man; no doubt an atavistic throwback, connected with it showing his ability to provide for, defend and protect his woman, ward off rivals, etc.

Turning to the deeper significance of this whole story: the Torah seems to be telling us something about the archetypal, permanent nature of the human propensity to violence and to bloodshed. Anyone who has lived though the past month in the Middle East will be hard put to disagree, and is liable to be pessimistic about “the lion lying down with the lamb.” Violence certainly ranks as an ineluctable feature of human behavior, alongside whatever one reads as the sin in the story of the Garden. Violence surely brings about an internal exile from the Good Land as surely as does the former.

An interesting midrash (Genesis Rabbah 22:7) attempts to understand the nature of the “words” that Cain and Abel had with one another when they were in the field. One view says that they divided all the property in the world: one took all the land, and the other took all the moveable objects. The one who owned all the mobilia told the other: “Strip! Even the clothing you wear isn’t yours!” The other responded: “Fly! You’re not even allowed to stand on the ground!” A second view says they argued over the privilege of the Temple being built on their land. A third view says that they fought over a woman: either Eve (!), or a twin sister born with Abel.

Rav J. B. Soloveitchik taught this midrash as reflecting upon the three great causes of human strife: property, religion (or, more broadly, any ideology over which men dispute intensely), and sex. To which I would add: one may read twentieth-century history as, among other things, the attempt to eliminate these causes of war and violence, and the gradual sobering to the sad knowledge that it is all but impossible to do so. Socialism was an attempt to eliminate strife over property, by eliminating inequality. Some champions of atheism claimed that, if there were no religion, there would be no division or rancor between people based upon belief (see the Beatles’ song, “Imagine”). Advocates of free love hoped that it would be possible to educate people away from sexual jealousy and possessiveness; that a rational attitude to sex as a simple biological act would make “crimes of passion” a thing of the past. Unfortunately, all three have been shown to be vain hopes, as has pacifism, the attempt to abolish war as an instrument of national policy.


1. Tradition 7:2 (1965): 5-67; reprinted in book form.

2. For a good scholarly article summarizing the two positions, see Gary Anderson, “Celibacy or Consummation in the Garden? Reflections on Early Jewish and Christian Interpretations of the Garden of Eden,” Harvard Theological Review 82:2 (1989), 121-148.

3. I hope to demonstrate this, through an analysis of the Sheva Berakhot as centered on the creation and Edenic experience of man and woman, on another occasion.

4. Aldoux Huxley, “Appendix,” Collected Essays (New York: Bantam, 1960), 82-89.

Bereshit (Haftarah)

“Who has chosen goodly prophets”

The origin of the institution of haftarot is not entirely clear. The Talmud, in its discussion in Megillah 24a ff. and elsewhere, seems to assume it as a given. There are those scholars who suggest it was first instituted at a time—perhaps the Seleucid persecutions that preceded the Hasmonean revolt—when the public reading of the Torah, indeed, any public study of the Torah or affirmation of cardinal Jewish beliefs, was viciously suppressed by the ruling authorities. The reading of a chapter from the prophets, bearing some connection to the censored Torah portion, served as a reminder to the people of the Torah reading, and perhaps as an expression of hope that they would soon be able to once again engage in its study. Alternatively, others, such as Adolph Buechler, suggest that it was introduced much earlier, to reaffirm the importance and canonical standing of the latter sections of the Bible against the attacks of such groups as the Sadducees or the Samaritans, who held that only the Five Books of the Torah themselves (Sadducees) or the “Hextateuch” (Torah + Joshua; Samaritans) enjoyed sacred status. The name itself comes from the root “to part” or “to take leave”: that is, it is thought of as a kind of “taking leave” of the Scriptures before placing the Torah back in the Ark.

The reading of the haftara raises some interesting questions about the attitude of the Rabbis towards the standing of the various sections of the Bible. The blessing recited before the haftarah speaks of God as He “who has chosen Torah, and Moses his servant, and the true and righteous prophets”—as if to emphasize the connection of the Prophets to the Torah of Moses, and the primacy of the former. There also seems to have been more than a little ambivalence about granting official status to the public study or reading of portions of the Bible other than the Written Torah: i.e., Nakh, the latter two sections of the Bible. The Talmud, at Shabbat 116b, mentions that there was a rule against reading Kitvei kodesh at the time of the Beit Midrash. During the course of Shabbat (usually late Shabbat morning, after the regular order of prayer and Torah reading and a light morning meal), a public lecture on Torah was delivered by the local rabbi or teacher, whose focus was the Oral Law—the halakhah. The Rabbis seem to have been concerned that people would devote too much time to the “lighter,” more emotionally appealing and aesthetically elegant books of Proverbs, Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and the like, which were filled with colorful imagery, to the detriment of the serious study of the halakhah. The latter was detailed and complicated, somewhat dry, more demanding intellectually, but of great immediate importance for practical everyday Jewish life. On the other hand, according to one Talmudic source, there was also a “haftarah” at Minha of Shabbat, taken from the Holy Writings (Ketuvim).

I wonder whether all this may relate to the midrashic method. The classical midrash form, the petihta, as found, e.g., in many sections of the Midrash Rabbah on the Torah, opens with a verse from Ketuvim (“the Holy Writings”), presents a comment on it, sometimes turns from there to a verse from Prophets or to other homilies based upon the same verse from the Writings, and ends up by linking the verse and its interpretation to a key verse from the weekly portion being expounded. This linking together of different strata of Scripture has an almost mystical import. It is told that Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel used to sit and expound Torah, “connecting the Writings to the Prophets, the Prophets to the Torah,” until “the letters rejoiced and danced as on the day of their giving at Sinai.” During this intense study, the wings of the birds flying overhead were singed from the intensity of the holy fire thereby created.

The connection between the haftarah and the weekly Torah portion may also relate to the petihta form of the Midrash. Jacob Mann, in his book, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Ancient Synagogue, develops this idea, particularly with respect to the triennial cycle observed in the Land of Israel, noting parallels between the haftarot and verses found in various midrashim.

Taking this subject one step further: might this be related to the tension between the approaches to Torah of Babylonia and Eretz Yisrael? And this, in turn, relates to the friction between aggadah and halakhah (aggadah being related to the more biblically-oriented study method of Midrash)? I am here conjecturing, and there is no doubt abundant scholarly literature on this subject, but the idea is intriguing. That is, that in ancient times there may have been a more imaginative, bible-centered, popular school of study, alongside a more elitist, scholastic, legal-oriented study of Mishnah and halakhically-focused midrashim.

During the early years of the State of Israel, there was an attempt to revive a Bible-centered Judaism as a model that would provide cultural roots for a secular renascence of Jewish national life. This movement emphasized the historical, geographical, linguistic, and belletristic aspects of the Bible over and above its more specifically religious or philosophical aspects; its foremost advocate, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, saw it as an alternative model to the Talmud-oriented culture of traditional Rabbinism and religious Orthodoxy. There was also something rather self-conscious and more than a little artificial in the approach, and in this respect was of course quite different from the ancient Bible-Midrash nexus about which I conjecture.

Another interesting question, thinking about the haftarot, is: why are the Prophets grouped together as a unit as they are? After all, the “Former Prophets” and the “Later Prophets” (nevi’im rishonim and nevi’im aharonim), in fact consist of two completely different genres: the one is a narrative history of Israel, from the death of Moses through the Destruction of the First Temple and the exile to Babylonia that followed in its wake, while the latter is a collection of prophecies, each containing the utterances of a different prophetic author. I was struck by this in recent years, during which I have had occasion to make use of the RSV (Revised Standard Version) Protestant Bible translation. I must admit to a certain logic in the Christian arrangement of the Bible: all the historical books together, followed by the “Wisdom literature” and the books of actual prophecy. Thus, Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah follow straight upon Kings; Ruth is inserted between Judges and Samuel; and Lamentations follows the Book of Jeremiah. What then is the rationale behind the traditional Jewish arrangement? (Incidentally, some details of the Jewish order differ between the original Talmudic discussion in Baba Batra 14b, codified in Rambam’s Hilkhot Sefer Torah 7.15, and the present arrangement, based upon the Masoretes.) The primary basis for the Jewish division into “Nevi’im” and “Ketuvim” is not one of subject matter, but of different levels of sanctity, of authority: those books collected in the Prophets were written under prophetic inspiration, while those gathered in the Writings were written with the lesser level of Ruah Hakodesh (the Divine spirit).

The Prophet of Consolation

I will discuss here the first three haftarot of Bereshit (Genesis) together. All three are taken from the second half of the Book of Isaiah. This bloc of chapters (40-66) has a strikingly different tone and mood than do Chapters 1-39; indeed, modern historical biblical criticism sees this as evidence that they came from the pen of a different author or authors (“Second Isaiah”), whereas the traditional view maintains that they were spoken with far-reaching prophetic vision. Whereas the former chapters contain a melange of harsh rebukes to Israel, prophecies again the nations, and accounts of the prophet’s conversations with King Hezekiah and with Rabshekah at the time of the Assyrian invasion of 721 BCE, the second half is filled with visions of comfort and of the ultimate glorious restoration of Zion, and are rich in theological reflection. For this reason, all the haftarot for the seven weeks of consolation that follow Tisha b’Av are taken from this section.

Another interesting aspect of these haftarot concerns their connection to the Torah portion they accompany. At first glance, each seems to be have been chosen on the basis of one isolated verse that connects it to the respective Torah reading. However, closer perusal reveals a deeper thematic connection running through each of these haftarah as a whole. I will elaborate.

Bereshit: The statutory haftarah for Bereshit (not read this year), is Isaiah 42:5 - 43:10. The opening verse is an invocation of God who “created the heavens and stretched them out, who spreads the land and its offspring, giving a soul to those the people who are upon it, and spirit to those who dwell there.” Interesting: in two balanced halves of the same verse, God as Creator of heaven and earth, and of humankind.

At first blush, only the opening verse relates to the Creation as such. But upon close reading, it becomes clear that the entire passage is pervaded with a theology of the Creation as proof of God ‘s efficacy and His ability to keep promises. The chapter is, in a sense, an “introduction” of God: as He who called the prophet, who opens blinded eyes, the One who does not share His glory with others, but whose very being negates the very possibility of validity to idols. God’s creative great power is the surest guarantee of his ability to restore life, and a source of hope to a “robbed and plundered people” (v. 22).” All this is essentially a theological spelling out of what is implicit in the opening chapters of Genesis.

Bereshit (Midrash)

Introduction to Series on Midrash

Having completed two years of Hitzei Yehonatan, I would like to begin with praise and thanksgiving to the Holy One blessed be He for having kept me alive and well and filled with energy and a mind filled with new ideas—blessings that we usually take for granted, but that are in fact never self-evident. Second, thanks to my readers, for their interest and receptiveness to my variegated musings, as well as for the occasional but invaluable comments, feedback, arguments and criticism. Thanks, finally, to my beloved wife Randy, for her support, encouragement, and for just being there for me.

After devoting two years mostly to peshuto shel Mikra—to delving into the direct, literal, immediate meaning of the biblical text, searching out its overarching structures and implicit assumptions, and trying to analyze the points of confrontation between its values and those of our own day: the first year devoted to reflections on the weekly Torah lesson, or parashat hashavu’a, and the second to the oft-neglected haftarot—I would like this year to turn to the Oral Torah, as it elaborates and interprets the Written Torah. I have decided to focus upon the world of midrash, which elaborates, enlarges, deepens, and enriches the seemingly sparse but infinitely suggestive world of the written word. During the course of the coming year, I plan to present each week a translation, glosses and discussions of at least one piska (section) of the Midrash Rabbah—the “great Midrash,” the collection of five midrashim on each of the five books of the Torah and on each of the five megillot—on the weekly portion.

In addition, I will continue on occasion to present various other materials. At various times I have mentioned here my wish to present some commentaries and reflections on the Siddur, the traditional Prayer Book: the recent Yahrzeit Shiur in memory of my father on the subject of Pesukei de-Zimra was a hopeful start in that direction. I likewise hope in due time to return to my commentary on Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), a project begun before Rosh Hashana. In addition, there are several essays in the works: the long-promised sequel to the theological essay begun on Shavuot, as well as the third part of my “Kuntres Semikhat Nashim,” my study on the possibility of ordination of women to the Orthodox Rabbinate. With God’s help, I hope to present all these to the readers of Hitzei Yehonatan III one fine day.

I also hope that the material from the first two years will be available on a website in the very near future, both for those who wish to reread them and for newcomers who have never seen them. In the meantime, the material on “Bereshit” is being sent out to those who joined the list since this time last year (or by request to others); in the long run, I also hope to reorganize and edit this material in book form, with the aim of eventual publication.

On the Style of the Midrash

Two introductory remarks. At first blush the world of the midrash seems one of pure imagination, consisting either of stories elaborating the rather spare language of the biblical text, or of fanciful homilies, applying phrases from the individual verses in outrageously non-literal ways. However, as Rav Adin Steinsaltz has recently noted in his Strive for Spirit, it is the nature of Judaism to utilize concrete images to convey complex, abstract ideas. Although Steinsaltz spoke there primarily of Kabbalistic concepts and Talmudic legal categories, the same may be said equally well of the midrash. Often, profound ideas, which in Western culture would be expressed in the language of abstract concepts, are expressed in Judaic texts in concrete, seemingly naive symbols. But this is not the result of lack of sophistication, but rather of the use of a different type of language and, if you like, a sign of the difference between Hebraic and Greek modes of thought. As most of us are nevertheless, for better or worse, children of Western European culture, part of the task of interpreting midrash will involve translation of these concrete images into a language more familiar to us. Second, an important stylistic feature, that appears on nearly every page of the Midrash. A large number of midrashim, particularly the longer ones, begin with a verse from the Writings—from Psalms, Job, Proverbs, or Kohelet—or, on occasion, from the prophetic books, which is then subject to a series of different interpretations by various sages. At times, one is hard put to find the connection between such a midrash and the weekly Torah portion in whose rubric it is included; at times, only the last in a series of three or four such derashot returns us to the original verse from the Torah portion. This formula is known as a petihta: an opening.

Underlying this technique is Hazal’s basic belief in the underlying unity and interrelationship of all the books of the Bible. The Jerusalem Talmud relates that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua once sat and expounded words of Torah with great intensity, “connecting words of Torah to the Prophets, words of the Prophets to the Writings, and the words [of Scripture] rejoiced as on the day they were given at Sinai.” It adds that they were surrounded by a heavenly fire, for “were not the things given in fire?” (quoted by Tosafot to Hagiggah 15a, s.v. Shuvu banim shovavim)

What is Man?

I would like to begin this year’s studies with Genesis Rabbah 8.1, a section that may best be described as a series of reflections on the nature of the human being. It is unfortunate that Shabbat Bereshit falls so closely upon the heels of Simhat Torah, without even allowing a full week to study this initial portion of the Torah, so rich in material, both midrashic and otherwise. In contemporary terminology, these chapters would be described as providing the fundaments of Judaism: its cosmology (Gen 1 & 2), philosophical anthropology (the story of Adam and Eve in Gen Chs. 2 &3), and ethical philosophy (the story of the snake; Cain and Abel). And indeed, the midrash on the parsha reflects the centrality of this parsha: with the possible exception of Parshat Naso, this is the largest, most extensive parsha in the midrash, and the only one in Mirkin’s 11-volume set that itself occupies an entire volume. We shall now turn to the text of this midrash:

“And God said, let us make man in our image, in our likeness” [Gen 1:26]. Rabbi Yohanan opened: “Aft and fore You have shaped me, and placed your hand upon me” (Ps 139:5).

Psalm 139, an extremely interesting psalm in its own right, being a meditation on God’s omnipresence and ubiquity as experienced by the individual in every aspect of his personal life, and the impossibility of fleeing or escaping from Him. Verse 5, quoted above (ahor va-kedem tzartani), serves as the petihta for a series of ten homilies by different sages. The underlying theme of them all is the paradoxical nature or antinomies of human existence (the polar opposites implied by “aft and fore”) on various different levels. It is interesting that the word tzartani, understood by all these midrashim as “you have shaped me,” in the original context probably means “to beset,” “to beseige” or “to hedge in”—both verbs being cognates from the root zw”r. This is the first of many examples we shall encounter in which the midrash allows itself great poetic license—or shall we call it “midrashic license”—in using its biblical sources.

[1] Rabbi Yohanan said: If a person is deserving, he enjoys two worlds, as is said, “you have formed me aft and fore,” but if not, he is held to a reckoning, as is said, “and you placed upon me your hand.”

We find here the basic idea of human accountability, coupled with the surety of Divine judgment and recompense. The diametrically opposed possibilities reflect the contradictory nature of man’s moral character, with potential for both good and evil.

[2] Rabbi Yermiyah ben Eleazar said: When God created Adam, He created him as an androgynous being, as is written, “And he created them male and female… and called their name Adam” [Gen 5:1].
[3] Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said: When God created Adam, He created him diprosiphon, with two faces, and He sawed him in half and made him with two backs: one back this way, one back that way. They answered him: But is it not written, “he took one of his ribs [ahat mi-zalotav]…” [Gen 2:21]. He answered them: [this refers to one] of his two sides, as in the phrase, “and for the [northern] side of the sanctuary…” [Exodus 26:20], which the Aramaic translation reads as, velistar mishkena.

These two units deal with the mystery of sexuality, and the great antimony within the human race resulting from the existence of two sexes. On the immediate textual level, these exegetes need to explain the mechanics of fitting their interpretation into the biblical text. Rabbi Yermiyah arrives at his androgynous “Ur-human” by noting that the original male and female were called “Adam,” in the singular; R. Shmuel bar Nahman interprets the word in Gen 2:21, usually explained as “rib,” as being a “side.”; hence, rather than the creation of woman as a secondary, derivative being from one organ of the originally male Adam, we find an equal division of a Janus-like, bisexual being.

What is the outlook on sexuality, on the division of humankind into two very distinct groupings, expressed by each of these midrashim? The first view, which speaks of the primal man as being androgynous, may suggest the intermingling of the two sexes within the human soul (à la Jung?): each man contains something of the feminine within himself, as each woman contains something of the masculine. This view would tend to deemphasize the differences between the sexes, as each person has within him/herself the basic makeup of “human being.” This approach doesn’t explain how the sexes came to be divided, taking that as axiomatic, but seems to assume a basic unity; one might extrapolate from this something like the modern egalitarian, emphasizing more fellowship and camraderie between the sexes, and less pre-determined roles. The second view, in which the original human was diprosiphon or, in the Hebrew form of this Greek word, du-partsufin, having two faces, and was subsequently split in two, the separate creation of the two sexes, and the idea of the polarity between the two, carries greater metaphysical weight.

Interestingly, this debate is echoed in a halakhic discussion. The Talmud, in b. Ketubot 8a, mentions variant customs, in which there were other five or six wedding benedictions (i.e., six or seven, including the blessing over wine). The crux of the issue is whether there was only “one creation” of both, so that the blessing “He who created man in His image… and made from him an eternal building,” is adequate, or whether God first created man, necessitating a separate blessing, Yotzer ha-Adam, “He who creates man,” and thereafter created woman separately.

[4] Rabbi Tanhuma in the name of Rabbi Benayahu and Rabbi Berekhyah in the name of Rabbi Eleazar said: He was created as lifeless matter, and was thrust down from one end of the world to the other, as is written: “my form was seen by Your eyes” [Ps 139:16].

This section notes that man was first created as inert matter, possibly to reassert the basic antinomy in man between matter and spirit: that the human body, before being animated by the Divine spirit that is “breathed” into it, is just so much raw material.

[5] R. Yehoshua bar Nehemiah and Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon said: He created him to fill the entire world. From east to west from whence: “aft and fore you have formed me”; from north to south from whence, as said “and from the end of the heavens to the end of the heavens” [Deut 4:32]. And from whence that even in the hollow of the world? As is said, “and You placed Your hand upon me”; as is said, “Keep Your hand far away from me” [Job 13:21].

This derasha suggests an almost Promethean motif: of man as a superhuman, preternaturally large being, dominating the entire world, possibly even representing a challenge to God’s hegemony. Although this motif is couched in physical terms, of Adam’s body extending everywhere, it may be read as a metaphor for the unique qualities of the human race, and the ability of civilization to develop techniques that do in fact subdue and dominate almost all aspects of the natural world—a fact whose darker side we have just begun to realize in the last century. The ability of human beings to live almost anywhere on the globe, unlike other species, each of which has its specific “natural” habitat, is a concrete manifestation of this quality. The final phrase, in which God places his hand’ upon man, according to some (Mirkin, citing b. Sanhedrin 38b) suggests God diminishing the stature of man.

[6] Rabbi Eleazar said: “after” the creations of the first day, and “before” the creation of the final day. And this is the opinion of Rabbi Eleazar, for R. Eleazar said: “let the earth bring forth a living spirit” [Gen 1:24] —this is the spirit of Adam.
[7] Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish aid: “After” the acts of the last day, and “before” the acts of the first day. This is the view of Resh Lakish. For he said, “and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water” (Gen 1:2). This refers to the spirit of King Messiah, as is said, “and there shall rest upon him the spirit of the Lord” [Isa 11:2] If man is deserving, they say to him: you preceded the ministering angels. And if not, they say to him: A fly precedes you, a mosquito precedes you, a gnat precedes you.

These two sections reflect the ambiguity of humankind’s position in the moral order of the universe, again alluded to in the Creation text. On the one hand, humanity is seen as the telos of the entire cosmos, with even the eschatological plan for Messiah woven into the predetermined fabric of creation; history, including its end, is seen as already planned in Six Days of Creation, indeed, at their very beginning. On the other hand, man’s actual creation was postponed to the very end, suggesting on the one hand that he is the “jewel in the crown” of creation but, on the other, if he fails in his task, he is seen as the least significant of all creatures. Once again, we find the motif of man’s free will and his choice as to whether or not to choose the good, and the resultant moral extremes that mark his behavior; he is capable of great good, and of equally great evil.

[8] Rav Nahman said: “After” all actions, and “before” all punishments.

The same idea is continued here, this time in relation to man’s greater responsibility, hence his being subject to punishment and sanctions before all other living things.

[9] Rav Shmuel said: Even in the praises he only comes at the end, as is written: “Praise the Lord from the heavens” [Ps 148:1], and he recites the entire chapter, and thereafter it says, “Kings of the earth and all nations… young men and maidens…” {ibid. vv. 11-12]
[10] Rav Simlai said: Just as his praise only comes after animal, beast and bird, so is his creation: it only occur after animal, beast, and bird. Why? It says: “And God said, Let the water crawl with living things” [Gen 1:20] and thereafter “and God said, let the earth bring forth a living spirit” [v. 24] and only thereafter, “and God said, Let us make man.” [v. 26].

Bereshit (Hasidism)

Introduction to Chasidic Cogitations

With the new cycle of Torah reading, we have decided to devote this year’s Hitzei Yehonatan to Hasidic homilies on the weekly Torah portions; specifically (but not exclusively), the teachings of early Hasidism.

Why Hasidism? There are two main reasons: public and personal. There is enormous interest today, almost everywhere in the Jewish world, in Hasidic thought and writing. The current revival of Jewish spirituality seems to take much of both its spirit and contents from Hasidism. Classes on Hasidic texts are ubiquitous: in my own extended neighborhood, there are shiurim on different Hasidic books almost every night of the week: Sefat Emet (Ger), Mei Shiloah (Izhbitzh), Netivot Shalom (Slonim), and of course Sefer Baal Shem Tov. There are times, on Shabbat morning at Yakar, when it seems that almost everyone around me is busily studying some Hasidic text or another.

On the personal level: thinking back, I realize that Hasidism was instrumental in my turn towards a more serious involvement with Judaism. During the year immediately after my bar mitzvah, when my interest in things Jewish began to go beyond the usual for an American Jewish child, my mother brought home a pair of newly released recordings of music of the Modzitzer Hasidim, which she had been given by a colleague at the Jewish day school where she taught in the Rockaways. (At that time recordings of Hasidic music were virtually nonexistent; there was a certain pristine purity and simplicity to these records lacking in later recordings: a few male voices and a piano.) Something in this music spoke to my soul. Similarly, a copy of Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim that I was given as a Bar Mitzvah by an Israeli friend of the family awakened my curiosity about this movement. Both of these whetted my appetite to see and experience “real” Hasidism and, on the Simhat Torah just before my 14th birthday, I visited a Hasidic synagogue for the first time: Rabbi Eichenstein’s shteibel, in the “distant” world on the other side of Queens Boulevard. I arrived early, and was greeted by a man who looked exactly like the picture of Elijah the Prophet in the my Hebrew school Haggadah, with a long flowing beard, a brocaded knee-length robe, and speaking English with a strange accent. What struck me most about the service was its utter informality and spontaneity, in striking contrast to the big Conservative synagogue in which I’d grown up a few short blocks away; there was a sense of authenticity, and of prayer being at once important, personally engaging and joyful in the rather nasal singing of the Hallel by Rabbi Eichenstein, accompanied by the soprano voices of his three young sons.

During my college years, I began to have more serious exposure to “real” Hasidic life: several weekend encounters with Lubavitch, with the intense energy of the Rebbe’s farbrengen, the deep faith and devotion expressed in almost every conversation with the Hasidim, and the intricate mystical world view found in the pages of the Tanya; my ongoing involvement with the community of the Bostoner Rebbe throughout my six years in Boston, enjoying the warmth, hospitality and real caring of the Rebbe and his family, and observing a Hasidic Rebbe “close up,” at the tish, the davening, and at home; occasional forays into Boro Park, where I was especially impressed by the grace and dignity and sense of the ineffable in the Bobover court. I also became seriously involved with what might be described as the intellectual neo-Hasidim of the Havurah movement: a seminar on Rav Nahman of Bratslav at the Boston Havurah; occasional study of Hasidic texts with Art Green before davening Shabbat morning; the attempt at creating a neo-Hasidic mode of prayer at the Havurah. And, of course, I came to know the unique figure of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, who existed somewhere in a twilight zone between “mainstream” Hasidism and the American counter-culture and new style of spirituality.

More recently, I have also uncovered a certain Hasidic component in my own family background. My great-great-grandfather, Rav Eliyahu Yosef Galante of Radzhynova, was a disciple of Rav Simhah Bunem of Psyshcha, while my grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Gallant, noted preacher in New York City during the early part of the twentieth century, is cited by latter-day scholars of “American Orthodox sermonics” as the one among that group who was closest to Hasidic sources.

* * * * *

What do we mean by Hasidism, anyway? A few initial thoughts; the question will return again and again the course of this year. Martin Buber, perhaps the first one to attempt to bring the message of Hasidism (as he understood it, of course) to Westernized, “modern” Jewry, spoke of it as “Kabbalah made praxis”—that is, a movement that forged the lofty, esoteric , teachings of Spanish and Lurianic Kabbalah into a way of life accessible to entire communities of Jews, of varying levels of erudition and even of piety. To such Haskalah historians as Simon Dubnow and Raphael Mahler, it was first and foremost a populist rebellion against the dry scholasticism of the Rabbinic elite. According to Art Green, contemporary American scholar and spiritual teacher, the essential hallmark of Hasidism lies in the shift of emphasis from halakha to avodah. That is, from concern with the questions, “What is the Law? What is permitted and what is forbidden? How am I to be yotzei—to fulfill the formal minimal requirements of the Torah regarding such-and-such a mitzvah?” to “How do I best serve God? How do I make prayer into more than a collection of words? How do I become close to Him?” To its opponents, at least in the early days (i.e., till the death of the Vilna Gaon in 1797), it was a near-heretical cult which threatened to destroy Jewish piety as they knew it. To its adherents, it bore within itself the seed of the light of Messiah. Hasidim are fond of telling a story in which the half-legendary founder of the movement, the Baal Shem Tov, encountered Elijah and asked him, ”When are you coming, Sir?” to which Elijah replied, “Until your wellsprings [i.e., Hasidic teachings] spread outwards.” And one could go on and on. (I have not, for example, mentioned the views of such major academic interpreters of Hasidism as Gershom Scholem, Rivka Schatz, Moshe Idel, and Joseph Weiss.)

* * * * *

A few comments about the nature of the Hasidic homily, or derush. Hasidic teachers make unabashed use of the Torah text as a symbolic structure. That is, they are almost totally uninterested in peshat—the literal, straightforward meaning of the text. Nor is their approach that of midrash, which is a kind of synthesis between old and new, between exegesis of the existing text and creation of a new story. (In a book now in preparation, Joshua Levinson of the Hebrew University speaks of the combination of exegesis and narrativity in the midrashic narrative.) Here, we are dealing with what is essentialy an entirely new creation. The texts we will study this year are based upon and by-and-large arranged according to the weekly Torah portions, but the Biblical text is really no more than a kind of peg on which to hang whatever issues and ideas the authors want to discuss: the nature of prayer, man’s internal struggles with his various inclinations, how God acts in the world, or whatever.

Some people are taken aback by this, and are unable to enter into this world because it seems to misread the biblical verses. Prof. David Weiss Halivni, one of the great Talmudic scholars of our day, a man of a strong critical bent, describes in his autobiography how he could not appreciate the “Mussar talks” of Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner—a rosh yeshiva who gave theological talks with emotional overtones, based on a strongly Kabbalistic conceptual framework, which later became the basis of his multi-volumed work Pahad Yitzhak—because he could only see the “the holes and not the cheese in these talks.” For him, “The distortion of the plain meaning of the texts… was unacceptable” (Weiss Halivni, The Book and the Sword, p. 148). Although Hutner came from a somewhat different school than Hasidism, the basic tradition is the same—one in which the biblical or Talmudic text is frankly used as a symbolic framework, which takes on flesh and sinew as its author wishes. Indeed, the Hasidic authors seem to take delight in turning a verse or dictum on its head, unabashedly reading it in a manner diametrically opposed to its literal sense. Call it literary convention; call it a mystical approach to the Torah as a Divine entity which contains within itself infinities of meanings, some of which bear little or no relation to the syntactic or lexicographical meaning of its words or sentences—this is the nature of the animal, and if one wishes to read it and learn from it one must accept it on its own terms.

“How does one Dance before the bride?”

Having spent so much space on the introduction, I shall bring a relatively brief passage. As this first issue is in honor of the marriage of the daughter of one of my oldest and dearest friends (a Hornistopol hasid, as it happens), I shall bring a passage from Toldot Yaakov Yosef from this week’s parashah that talks about weddings. This book was the very first Hasidic book ever published, in 1781. Its author, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye, was a noted scholar, originally a Mitnagged (opponent of Hasidism), who “converted” to Hasidism in mid-life, through the aegis of the Baal Shem Tov himself. His writing has an unusually strong emphasis on Talmudic learning, the texts used often involving halakhic issues, Tosafot, etc.—which are then interpreted in a spiritualist direction. In this passage, appearing on the very first page of his book (following the introduction), he interprets a familiar Rabbinic dictum, the first half of which is the text of a song sung at almost all religious weddings:

In the name of my teacher, of blessed memory, who explained the controversy between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel: “How does one dance before the bride? Beit Shammai says, ‘One speaks of the bride as she is.’” That is, that in general one should know that His Glory, may He be blessed, is hidden in every place, as mentioned above.
“Beit Hillel say, ‘Beautiful and personable bride.’” That one should know in a specific way how the light of the sparks of holiness fell within the shells. And alien thoughts came to him at the hour of prayer, so that he might to correct them. And he needs to separate out and to remove the shell and to uplift the sparks of holiness from within it, so as to adorn it. That she may be ”a beautiful and personable bride.”

This passage is composed of two parts: the Rabbinic text, and its allegorical, metaphysical interpretation. The debate discussed in the text itself—a baraita quoted in Ketubot 17a—is itself interesting. How is one to “dance” before the bride: that is, what kinds of things is one to say in her praise on her wedding day? May one tell a “white lie,” praising her beauty and pleasant personality, even if everyone knows that she is ugly and bad-tempered? Or must one be brutally honest, “telling it as it is,” even on this special day in her life, because speaking falsehood is forbidden under nay circumstance? Here, the schools of Shammai and Hillel seem to split along the classic, well-known lines of rigorous, high-minded ethical standards as against a softer, more humane approach, willing to bend harsh standards for the sake of human need and social harmony.

But then the “Toldot” gives it a characteristic Hasidic twist. Specifically the rigorous Beit Shammai is seen as a kind of panentheistic mystic, perceiving God’s goodness everywhere in His cosmos—even in this ugly, nasty young woman being led under the huppah. And Beit Hillel, by saying Kallah na’ah ve-hasudah (“beautiful and personable bride,” says that one is uttering a kind of prayer or call that she should in fact be thus. In this view, it is not enough to lay back and enjoy God’s harmonious universe; man is charged with the task of tikkun, of correcting and fixing God’s world, so that all things will in fact be whole and beautiful, not only “in general,” but each thing in its specific reality.

To return to Art Green: on another occasion, he spoke of “the essence of Hasidism” in terms of two Yiddish “mottos” found in correspondence between Hasidim. One “motto,” mentioned by a Habad hassid, was “Alts iz Got”—“Everything is God.” Or, in the better-known Aramaic formulation, “Leit atar panuy mineih”—“There is no place that is empty of Him.” The other, from the school of Kotzk, says that the central motif of Hasidism is “arbetn oif zikh”—“a person must work on himself.” These two approaches or traditions may be seen as reflected in the two positions described here by R. Yaakov Yosef: on the one hand, unitive mysticism, the overwhelming sense that God is present everywhere; on other, the ethical call for tikkun, for correction of the world, which clearly must start with a person’s one self, with the constant process of teshuvah.

The imagery, “that he should know in a specific way how the light of the sparks of holiness fell within the shells” and “to separate out and to remove the shell and to uplift the sparks of holiness from within it” is taken from the central myth or archetype of Lurianic Kabbalah: the idea that the imperfection of the world as we know it is the result of the primordial cosmic catastrophe known as shevirat hakelim, the “breaking of the vessels,” in which the holy vessels of light through which God emanated His being into the universe somehow got out of control and were broken, fragments of Divine light or energy being scattered throughout the universe in a state of chaos and disorder. Man’s task, accomplished both through performing the mitzvot and in general, is to somehow find these fragments of light and return them to their source. As I read it, by calling the ugly bride “beautiful and personable” one is in fact finding and somehow redeeming the points of beauty and grace—that is, of Godliness—that exist within this person.

This process of course takes place not only at wedding parties, but throughout life, and especially at the moment of prayer. “And alien thoughts came to him at the hour of prayer, so that he might to correct them.” One of the central subjects of early Hasidism is this matter of “alien thoughts”—that is, unbidden, irrelevant thoughts that come to one during davening. I imagine that almost everyone who tries to recite the prayers regularly encounters this problem: how to focus on the words of prayer, and not have ones mind wander far afield, to unrelated, distant thoughts—and on occasion even into lewd and sinful thoughts. In a nutshell, the solution offered by most Hasidic thinkers was that, rather than attempt to suppress these thoughts, one should on some level accept them, understand that they came for a reason—i.e., that they somehow represent the chaotic world of the unredeemed “sparks” of Divinity—and that one should try to “elevate” them. In contemporary psychological terminology, rather than suppression of the unconscious, one should strive for its transformation and liberation to a higher plane.

Bereshit (Rambam)

Introduction to Rambam Theme

The theme we have chosen for this year’s studies is the thought and spiritual life of the Rambam, Moses Maimonides. This choice may seem surprising to some, constituting as it does almost a 180-degree turnaround from last year’s theme of Hasidism. From the emotional ecstasy and untrammeled religious enthusiasm of Polish Hasidism, we turn to the seemingly cold, formal, rational, intellectual elitism of the Rambam, a figure whose main concerns—halakhah and philosophy—seem to focus entirely upon the highly disciplined realm of the intellect rather than on the spontaneous outpouring of the soul that we found in the persona of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples.

I hope that by the end of the year I will have demonstrated that this is not in fact the case, and that there is an intense and passionate spiritual life waiting to be discovered within the pages of Rambam’s writings. The idea for this year’s studies was first conceived just twenty years ago, when Arthur Green asked me to translate a series of Hebrew articles for the two-volume set of essays on Jewish Spirituality that he edited as part of the encyclopedic set, World Spirituality. At the time I suggested to Green that I would write an essay on “Maimonidean Spirituality,” seeing that there was nothing in these volumes on that central, towering figure of medieval Judaism; but since at the time I had not yet matured as a scholar or a thinker, and was thus hardly ready to undertake such a daunting undertaking, nothing came of the idea. The basic intuition I felt then, and which has not left me in all the intervening years, is that, over and beyond Maimonides’ tremendous intellectual acumen and knowledge, and even beyond his pivotal position at the crossroads between traditional Jewish religiosity and the predominant intellectual stream of his day, that of neo-Aristotelian philosophy (the central problem that, for example, exercises David Hartman in his Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest), Maimonides had a very specific ideal conception of the nature of the inner spiritual life of the religious individual—a conception which as yet awaits its phenomenological description. During the course of the coming year, I plan each week to present a different selection from the Maimonidean oeuvre, and in the course of my discussion to seek an answer to the question: how does the passage in question, the interpretations and views expressed, reflect his understanding of the religious life?

There are two more factors that draw me to the Rambam. First, my beloved teacher, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik ztz”l, who was a central formative figure in my life, was a Maimonidean in two different senses. First, as a teacher of halakhah and Talmud in the Brisk tradition, he constantly referred to the Rambam, taught his Mishneh Torah as a central text, etc. Second, as Hartman also notes, the Rav was, perhaps more than any other traditional, Orthodox figure in many centuries, one who himself followed in the footsteps of the Rambam by his own profound involvement in both halakhah and philosophy, on a level unparalleled by any other recent figure. Second: something of my own predilections. As I have remarked before, I am perhaps equally drawn to the intellectual and rational and to the emotional and mystical side of Judaism. My family background contains both Hasidic and Mitnaggedic elements. In our present zeitgeist, I find Kabbalah and Hasidism to me enormously popular. Classes in Sefat Emet, Mei Shiloah, Peri Zaddik, and Bretslav proliferate and seem to draw impressive crowds. Journalists like to refer to the latest movement among Israeli religious youth as “Habakkuk”—a mélange of Habad, Bretslav, Kook, and Carlebach, all of which relate in one way ir another to Hasidism and mystical thinking. In the US as well, neo-Kabbalah of all sorts prevail, especially among New Age circles. In light of all this, a certain contrary spirit within me says: ifkha mistabra. Perhaps it is time to give a serious airing to the more intellectual, closely reasoned alternative? Is it in fact so utterly cold, uninspiring, without a relevant spiritual message? Or does it perhaps need to be perceived more profoundly? It is this question that I raise, and to which I hope to provide an answer in the coming year.

A few brief introductory sentences, for those unfamiliar with Rambam. Moses ben Maimon, generally considered the single most impressive, seminal figure of medieval Judaism, was born in Cordoba in Spain in either 1135 or 1138. In his early youth, when the fanatic Almohad Islamic dynasty came to power in Spain, the family moved to North Africa, where his father, Rabbi Maimun, served as a much beloved Rabbinic leader. But the spirit of fanaticism and intolerance struck there as well, and they fled that country as well, and Maimonides eventually settled in Fustat (old Cairo) in Egypt, where he became leader of the Jewish community, while serving professionally as physician to the sultan. He died in Egypt in 1204.

His main works are: (i) the Commentary to the Mishnah (began 1158) or Siraj. This is mostly a brief textual commentary, but it incorporates three important essays: the Introduction to Seder Zeraim, which is a discussion of the nature of Oral Torah generally; the Eight Chapters (Introduction to Avot), in which he presents the outline of his moral philosophy and theory of personality; and the Introduction to Perek Helek (Sanhedrin Ch. 10), in which he discusses the nature of aggadah and the principles of the faith. (ii) Sefer ha-Mitzvot (ca. 1180?), a compilation of the 613 positive and negative commandments, written as kind of introduction to his code of law, including a lengthy methodological introduction, with 14 principles (or what we might call algorithms) for enumerating the mitzvot. (iii) his halakhic magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah or Yad ha-Hazakah (completed 1185), his vast, comprehensive compendium of all of Jewish law; and (iv) the Guide for the Perplexed (1195), his major philosophic work which, as its name suggests, attempts to answer the theological perplexities faced by the educated Jew of his day, and to resolve the contradictions between the traditional tenets of Jewish religion and the philosophical assumptions widely accepted in his day. (v) Occasional writings. These include: his numerous pastoral epistles to various Jewish communities around the world, the best know of which are: The Epistle to Yemen, The Letter of Apostasy or Ma’amar Kiddush Hashem, and the Essay on the Resurrection of the Dead; halakhic responsa; medical writings; and a brief treatise on logic. All of these writings, with the exception of the Yad, were written in Arabic, and are known today mostly through Hebrew translations, whether of his contemporary Judah ibn Tibbon, or of modern scholars, most notably the late Rabbi Joseph Kapah.

Several questions that will be constantly raised in our discussion of Maimonides, in our quest for his exegetical and spiritual personality, are the following: 1) What are his Talmudic and Geonic sources and how does he select them and use them? 2) Order: How does he arrange the halakhic material in the Yad, and what conception is reflected by this arrangement? In general, order and arrangement are important elements in Rambam’s writing; 3) What are Rambam’s own novella? While there is much in his great halakhic work, the Mishneh Torah, that is simply taken verbatim from classic rabbinic sources—as in any code or compendium of Jewish law—there are also many passages of his own, which are particularly revealing of his own world-view. This is true of the perorations of each of the fourteen books—but not only of them. 4) Internal contradictions within his oeuvre, especially between the Yad and the Guide. Can these be harmonized or reconciled and, if not, how is one to understand them? Crudely put, “Who was the real Maimonides?” Needless to say, we shall have much more to say during the course of the year about the background, methodology, and nature of Maimonides’ work.

Maimonides did not write any commentary on the Torah such , although his work abounds with quotations from and comments on biblical verses. Indeed, Book One of the Guide is an attempt to deal with one central problem in understanding the Bible generally: namely, the abundance of anthropomorphic and anthropopathic expressions in the Tanakh. Each week during the course of the coming year, I shall bring a different passage from Maimonides that is connected in some way to the subject of the weekly parsha. If I may be so bold as to compare my work with one of gedolei Yisrael (albeit only in the programmatic sense): this is somewhat akin to the spirit of R. Yosef Hayyim b. Eliyahu Al-Hakam, the 19th century Baghdadi scholar, whose halakhic compendium Ben Ish Hay, arranged to be read over two full annual cycles of Torah readings, draws at times imaginative connections between the halakhic topic chosen and the Torah lection.

Without further ado, then, we now turn to this week’s portion: Bereshit: the portion of beginnings.

In the Beginning... There was God

Bereshit always seems the richest and fullest of all weekly parshiyot—philosophically, anthropologically, even “mythologically,” it presents a veritable embarrass des richesses. Maimonides’ thought is certainly rich in this area. Tel-Aviv University scholar Sarah Klein-Braslavy has written two full-length studies on Maimonides’ approach to this section alone: one on his interpretation of the Creation, the other on his interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve (both in Guide III, around Chs. 29-30). But it seems to me that Bereshit is linked to beginnings in another sense as well: the Mishneh Torah begins with a summary of the first principles of religion: the existence of a God, who is called the First Cause, and what follows from that. Hilkot Yesodei ha-Torah (Laws of the Fundaments of Torah) 1.1:

The basic fundament and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a first cause, that brings into being all that is. And all that exists, in heaven and earth and all that is between them, only exist because of the truth of His being.

This opening makes an interesting contrast to other classical Jewish books. The Talmud, for example, begins with the question “From whence does one recite Shema in the evening?”—that is, it jumps right into the laws governing the performance of one of the practical mitzvoth—in this case, one pregnant with theological meaning (interestingly, Rambam opens the second book of the Yad with that mitzvah). The two other great codes, the Arba’ah Turim and the Shulhan Arukh, begin, even more prosaically, with the beginning of every person’s daily routine—walking up in the morning: “He should rise, strong as a lion, to do the will of his Creator.” (Interestingly, the nearly-modern Rav Yehiel Mikhal Epstein begins his Arukh ha-Shulhan with a discussion of basic principles of the faith, in part quoting from this chapter in Rambam.) Midrash Rabbah opens with the pre-created Torah, which was God’s “plaything” even before Creation, and which also served as a kind of blueprint for creation. Only the Zohar also begins with Creation—but with the plastic imagery of God “hewing” the Creation from the primordial point.

Maimonides, in contrast with all these, starts with the most basic statement: that all being began with the Creator. Hence, to understand the universe, and man’s place within it, we first need to establish several truths about the Creator. This chapter continues with a discussion of what is meant by God’s unity, His incorporeal nature, and an extremely abbreviated discussion of the Bible’s use of anthropomorphic language and imagery, which seems to contradict this (all of these issues are discussed at great length, and with numerous illustrative examples, in Book I of the Guide). We shall return to the actual contents of these ideas at a later date.

It is important to understand, in terms of where these things fit into Rambam’s schema, that for him it is impossible to worship God, perform mitzvot, or talk about God, if one has improper conceptions of Him. The rejection of paganism was absolutely central to his understanding of Judaism; but for him, Avodah zarah, “paganism,” also includes worship of improper conceptions of God, in which one worships constructions of the imagination rather than the true, living God. For this reason he is such a stickler for theological correctness, devoting the opening page of his magnum opus to clear definitions of who and what God is.

Only after having done this, in describing what he defines as the first two mitzvot—knowing that there is a God, and that He is One— can he now turn to what are in human psychological terms perhaps the most basic mitzvot of all: the love and fear of God. (Hasidism, by contrast, sees the love and fear of God, dehilo u-rehimo, as the starting point, without feeling it necessary to work through the two theological mitzvot.) After briefly stating these as mitzvot, and invoking suitable biblical verse, he proceeds to ask the question, in 2.2, of how one achieves that state:

And what is the path to His love and fear? When a person contemplates his wondrous and great acts and creations and sees from them His wisdom, which is without limit or end, immediately he loves and praises and extols and greatly desires to know the Great Name. As David said, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” [Ps 42:3]. But even as he thinks these very things themselves, he straightaway recoils backwards and is afraid, knowing that he is a small, lowly, shadowy creature, who stands with paltry and inadequate knowledge before He of Perfect Knowledge. As David said, “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, [the moon and the stars which You created], what is man that you should remember him?” [Ps 8:4-5]. And in light of these things I shall explain great general rules regarding the works of the Master of the Universe, so that there might be an opening to He who understands or love God. As our Sages said regarding the matter of love, that through this you know He who spoke and the world came into being.

Two central points here. Maimonides assumes a close relation between the mind and the emotions: that something which leaves a powerful impression upon the mind will in turn inspire the heart, the perception of the grandeur of creation in turn evoking feelings of love and awe of God. A Jerusalem rabbi-psychologist who make extensive use of graphology once commented about a specimen of Rambam’s handwriting, that it revealed “a man of powerful passion, ruled by an even more powerful will.” It was thus natural fir him to see the emotions going through the cognitive faculty, and knowledge of a certain kind producing love.

Second, there is an interesting interplay here between love and fear. The same wonders of nature that inspire love and the ardent desire to know God, the next moment awakens a sense of fear; comparison of the mortal human self with the Infinite (“He of Perfect Knowledge,” tamim de’im, is an epithet largely peculiar to Rambam; I do not know its history) inspires a sense of fright, of “recoiling backwards.” Maimonides is anything but sentimental. Religion is not only sweetness and light, comfort and tranquility and “feeling good about yourself.” There is something frightening, overwhelming, even terrifying in the encounter with the mysterium tremendum that is God, what Otto called the “Wholly Other.” Again, it is impossible to imagine Rambam talking to the “ribonosh’lolam” with the casual intimacy of a R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev.

This passage is followed by two and a half chapters devoted to a detailed discussion of cosmology, the arrangement of the universe, the celestial bodies with their orbits and spheres, etc.—material intended, in practical terms, to guide the reader in his contemplation of God’s greatness as reflected in the Creation. All of this, rooted in the medieval, pre-Copernican, four-tiered universe, with angels and other intelligent, sublime celestial beings.

I cannot elaborate upon this further. Those who are able to do so should read Yesodei ha-Torah 4.13; Talmud Torah 1.12; and Teshuvah 10.6—texts to which we shall return later.

* * * * *

I will conclude with a brief comment linking all this to our liturgy. In the daily prayers, both morning and evening, we recite two blessing before reading the Shema: at the Morning Prayer, Yotzer Or and Ahavah Rabbah (“He who creates light” and “Great love”), and in the evening, Ma’ariv Aravim and Ahavat Olam (“He who brings on the evening” and “Eternal Love”). In each case, the former blessing refers to Creation, as felt in concrete terms through the natural diurnal cycle, while the latter refers to the Torah.

What I find of great interest is the emphasis in the first blessing of each pair on wisdom. Nature reflects the Divine wisdom, and teaches our minds about the Creation. In Ma’ariv, we have the key phrases behokhma … u-tevunah (“with wisdom… with understanding”). The poem of the Merkavah mystics which we recite on Shabbat morning, El Adon, states: yetzaram beda’at be-vinah uve-haskel (“You have formed them with knowledge, with understanding, and with intelligence.”). Or, in the same blessing, both weekdays and Shabbat (in Nusah Sefarad) we quote the verse, “How great are Your works, all of them you have made with wisdom” [Ps 104:24], which may serve as almost a leitmotif for this blessing.

By contrast, the second blessing, about Torah, stresses Divine love: it is filled with words like ahavah, rahamim, hemlah gedolah ve-yeteirah (“love, mercy, great and excessive compassion”), etc. That is, even though the Torah is elsewhere considered as an embodiment of the Divine attribute of wisdom, here the giving of the Torah to Israel is primarily perceived as an expression of Divine love. A point worthy of reflection.

Bereshit (Psalms)

Introduction to Studies on Psalms

Once again, a new year begins with the end of the festival season and the reopening of the Torah from its beginning. This year, Hitzei Yehonatan will be devoted to a topic only indirectly related to the weekly Torah reading: the Book of Psalms, or Tehillim. The Psalms are perhaps the best-known book of the Bible, both in the Gentile and in the Jewish world. Psalms form a basic component of every Jewish prayer service; many Jews recite Psalms on a daily basis, completing the entire book once a month, or even every week. The Tehillim zugger (“Psalms sayer”) was a familiar figure among the ordinary Jews of Eastern Europe, as he/she is today among Jews of all sorts. Reading Psalms is a deeply emotional act; there is a sense in which the words of Tehillim are often more expressive of the immediate, heartfelt feelings of the ordinary Jew than the more elegant, at times abstract and universal formulae of Hazal found in the Siddur. Indeed, about half of the Psalms are in fact a heartfelt cry of an individual in distress.

But in another sense, the Psalter is one of the lesser known books of the Bible. Unlike the Five Books of the Torah, or the Five Megillot, there is no set framework for studying the Psalms as a text per se. True, there were some notable exceptions to this: it was said of the mid-nineteenth Neo-Orthodox community of Samson Raphael Hirsch in Frankfort a/Main that, “Everywhere else Jews study Talmud and recite Psalms; here they study Psalms and recite Talmud.” And indeed, Hirsch’s Commentary on Psalms is a classic of Psalms exegesis. The late Talner Rebbe, Prof. Yitzhak Twersky, used to study Tehillim at the Third Shabbat meal in his synagogue. But these are exceptions that prove the rule. For too many people, the Psalms are simply a holy text, to be read with or without understanding.

Moreover, while the traditional observant Jew who worships three times a day finds a certain segment of the Book of Psalms very familiar, forming as it does the backbone of his daily and weekly prayers, these include only about forty or so psalms. Thus, the average Jew, unless he is a Tehillim zugger, will have regular contact with somewhat less than a third of the Book of Psalms. Hence, the aim of our studies this year will be twofold: to open up those two-thirds of the Psalter that is generally neglected, as well as to find new meanings and depths in those that are already familiar. I don’t know whether I will come up with any radically new interpretations, but hopefully it will stimulate and encourage readers to open the Psalms and read them with fresh eyes.

Each week, I plan to present and discuss one or two psalms—where possible, ones bearing some relation to the weekly Torah portion. As the subject is a relatively new one for me as well, it may prove to be something of an intellectual adventure. As the Psalms, unlike the texts examined in my studies of previous years, are readily available, both in Hebrew and in translation, I shall only reproduce the actual text where special comment is called for.

The selections will be based, at least in part, upon a calendar of Psalms corresponding to each of the 54 weekly portions that I once saw in a small pocket Siddur. A web-acquaintance, Michael Poppers of New Jersey, has kindly provided me with a copy of that list. While we will not follow this schedule strictly, it will be used as the first source for choosing which psalms to discuss each week. During the course of our studies, we shall deal, both with some of the numerous theological, linguistic, literary, or human-spiritual-psychological issues raised by the psalm, as well as with certain technical issues, such as the significance of the division of the Psalter into five books, and the particular characteristics (if any) of each book; the headings of the psalms, and whether there is any common denominator to those Psalms bearing the same superscription, such as Lamenatzeah (“for the Choirmaster”) or Liv’nai Korah (“for the sons of Korah”). But mostly, my role will be as a first reader, raising questions about each Psalm studied, pointing out interesting facets and raising questions not immediately obvious to the casual reader.

Psalm 104: “How great are your acts, O God”

So without further ado, we shall turn to our subject, and to the opening portion of the Torah: Bereshit, “In the Beginning.” This parshah, speaking very broadly, has two main subjects: the Creation of the Universe, in a schema of six days, and the origins and early history of humankind. (There are of course innumerable sub-themes and events, making this quite probably the richest portion of the entire Torah. One could spend an entire year, if not a lifetime, studying it, and still barely scratch the surface.) The central themes, then, are the grandeur and majesty involved in the Creation of a well-ordered, harmonic universe; and the problematic, ambiguous moral nature of this strange creature called man, and his quest for a relationship to the world and its God. Concerning these themes, we have chosen Psalms 104 and 139.

Psalm 104 portrays, in beautiful strokes, the creation and working of the cosmos, and especially of this earth, as a well-run, harmonious whole. This psalm is used liturgically on Rosh Hodesh (a minor festival of renewal, marking the beginning of each lunar month), and is recited by many Jews as the first in a group of psalms recited every Shabbat afternoon during the winter months. As a teenager, I was much impressed by a statement quoted in the Birnbaum Siddur, variously attributed to German romantic poet and literary critic, Johannes Gottfried Herder and to Benjamin Franklin, that it was worth studying Hebrew for ten years just to be able to read this psalm in the original.

In any event, Psalm 104, or Borkhi Nafshi, as it is called in Hebrew, presents a picture of Creation very roughly corresponding to the first chapter of Genesis. The portrait shown is not a stable or static one, but a dynamic one, full of motion and interaction among its individual parts. The psalm I would divide it into the following main sections:

1) Verses 1-9. The actual act of Creation. God is shown enwrapping Himself with the firmament, riding upon the clouds as his throne or vehicle. There is a struggle with the chaotic forces of waters, which first cover the foundations of the earth, and are then sent back upon God’s angry rebuke, the mountains and valleys rising up from the flood and taking their places.

2) vv. 10-18. All living things gain their sustenance from God’s bounty. The rivulets flow down the mountains, providing life to the animals that drink from it, and to the birds who dwell above it (presumably in the trees that grow on its shores, not mentioned here); nourishing and fertilizing the vegetation, used by animals for food, and harnessed by man to irrigate the fields and orchards from which he derives the three stables of his existence: wine, oil and bread.

3) vv. 19-23. The diurnal scheme of life on this earth. Nightfall, ruled by the moon, which marks off the seasons, is also the time when the wild beasts go forth to seek their prey; come morning, they crawl back to their lairs, while man sets out to work until evening—and the cycle repeats itself…

4) vv. 24-26. The pivotal verse, “How great are Your works, O Lord, all of them are made with wisdom; the earth is filled with Your creatures.” Nehama Leibowitz said that each psalm has one particular verse which captures its essence, advocating the search for this key verse as a good educational exercise. This verse is followed by two verses referring specifically to the sea: note that the Bible repeatedly divides the world into the three realms of heaven, dry land and sea. (Thus, in the commandment of Shabbat, Exod 20:11, or in the praises about God giving life to all, in Nehemiah 9:6.)

5) vv 27-35. The peroration describes how all life turns to God, and is dependent upon God for sustenance. It is He who can withdraw His favor, whereupon they die and return to the earth, just as it is He who then renews the earth with new life. The psalm concludes with verses of praise to God, ending with the word Hallelujah, which here appears here for the first time in the Book of Psalms (see Berakhot 6b for an interesting aggadah about this point).

Psalm 139: Between Jonah and R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev

The “official” psalm for Shabbat Bereshit is Psalm 139, a psalm which describes the existential situation of man confronting God. Beginning with the rather strange phrase, “O God, who have examined me and know me,” it describes how God, as He who created and formed man, knows every aspect of his existence. “You know my sitting and standing… my walking and reclining You have measured out, and You are familiar with all my ways…. You have formed me fore and aft, and laid Your hand upon me.” (This last verse gave rise to many interesting midrashim, including the famous one that the human being was originally aphroditic and was then split into male and female—but this will take us too far astray.) The conclusion of the first section, which focuses upon the wonder of the creation of the human being, is similar to the lesson of Psalm 104: the wondrousness of the Divine, as reflected in His creative activity. “It is beyond my knowledge; it is too sublime, I cannot fathom it” (v. 6).

But at this point the author turns to a series of verses describing the ubiquity, the omnipresence of God, and the impossibility of escaping from His presence! “Where can I escape from Your spirit, and where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven You are there, if I plummet down to the Netherworld, You are there too.“ Even if he flies far away, across the sea, or seeks refuge in darkness, God will find him there too. The final section of the psalm (vv. 17-24) is somewhat of an anticlimax, involving a more conventional prayer for protection from enemies, and their eventual downfall.

What is the emotional sense of these verses? I think it can be read in two diametrically opposed ways. On the one hand, the author bewails the fact that he can never escape from God, that wherever he goes he will be found out. One is reminded of the prophet Jonah, who tried to run away from God and the mission He imposed upon him—but found himself pursued by God far away from his own country, on the high seas. There is something about the human being which is annoyed by the sense of an omnipresent God who watches his every step, nay, who is aware of every word that he says, even of his innermost, secret thoughts. Which among us has not wanted, now and again, a “moral holiday”—to do things that we know are wrong, simply because we want to do them? God’s knowledge of our actions, and the sense that he is judging us, not only for the face we put on in public, but even for acts done in utter privacy, is extremely burdensome (and certainly runs contrary to the post-modern ethos of individual autonomy and the relativity of values). There is no escaping God: one may live a double life vis-a-vis human society, indulging ones harmless or not-so-harmless impulses when no one is watching—but God is always there, and always knows.

This conflict is an essential one within man: man may be grateful for God’s protection, for the feeling of taking shelter under His wings, and for enjoying the bounty of His goodness; he may even appreciate the sense of holiness and transcendence afforded by a nice Shabbat with friends, or a good davening—but this is not the case with His omnipresence and the fact that that the flip side of His plentitude is that He knows where we are and what we are doing at every movement. This theme is at the crux of our Torah portion: Adam and Eve, after eating the forbidden fruit, suddenly sensed that they were exposed, sewed together fig leaves to cover their nakedness, and attempted to hide from God deep among the trees of the Garden. Even when confronted by God, they sought to flee from responsibility: Adam says blames “that woman You gave me,” while she passes the buck to the serpent who tempted her.

On the other hand, this psalm may be read as a joyful hymn of praise, celebrating the sense that God is a constant companion who never lives our side. This mood is captured in a Yiddish song by R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, one of the greatest disciples of the Maggid of Mezhirech, who was renowned for the passionate ecstasy of his love for and service of God, and his love of each and every Jew. In his song, A Dudele, he celebrates the constant presence of God as an intimate, ever-present companion (whom he addresses in the intimate second person, “Du”—from whence the name of the song):

Master of the Universe! Master of the universe! I will sing you a Dudele. “Where shall I find you? And where shall I not find you?!” Wherever I go, there are You; whenever I stand, You. Only You, again You, always You, forever You! When things are good, it is again You. Or if, God forbid, there is trouble, that too is You. You, You, You, You , You! You are here, You were here, You will always be here! You have reigned, you do reign, you will reign! The heavens, You, the earth, You Above is you, below is You. You, You, You, You! North is You, south is You, east is You, west is You. You, You, You! Wherever I turn, Wherever I reach out —is You!

Yet upon reading more closely, it is clear that this sense of God being omnipresent is not merely a kind of love song to an intimate friend addressed in the second person, but a mystical, panentheistic celebration of the fact that everything, everywhere, is really God! “Alles is Gott!” On some level, the cosmos itself, as an independent entity, is a delusion. (These ideas, which scholars of religion describe as “acosmism,” find explicit expression, in Kabbalistic language, in the writings of Habad—whose founder was a friend and colleague of R. Levi Yitzhak)

Thus, Psalm 139 can be read, not as a complaint (I can never have any privacy because You are also there; I can never run away from You), but as an ecstatic celebration of God’s ubiquity as a constant source of wonder, as a reminder of the unfathomable gap between God’s transcendent, all-encompassing Being, and our own limited, circumscribed existence as humans.