Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mishpatim (Torah)

Laws and Ordinances

Following the dramatic account of the epiphany at Sinai, the Torah almost immediately gets down to “brass tacks,” presenting this brief, highly concentrated code of what would today be called civil law, with a smattering of criminal and family law thrown in for good measure. In these chapters (Exodus 21-23), the Torah as a book of law begins in earnest—even more so then in the ceremonial law of Passover presented in Bo (Chaps. 12 and 13). Three thick volumes of the Talmud—the three “gates”: Baba Kamma, Baba Metzia and Baba Batra, which, together with Yevamot and Ketubot and one or two other tractates, stand at the heart of the traditional yeshiva curriculum—draw their source material from these three chapters.

For many people in the “Jewish counter culture” of the late ‘60’s and ‘70s’—in some ways the precursors of today’s “New Age” sensibility—this section always presented severe difficulties. Their perennial question was: How can the Torah descend from the sublime height of religious experience, of the collective experiencing of God’s Being by the entire people, to the nitty-gritty of the ox that gored a cow or the man who dug a pit in a public place. (It is interesting that the focus here is on Sinai as a kind of mystical epiphany, rather than on the specific contents of any of the commandments—but that’s another issue).

On the other hand, the Rabbinic tradition pondered over the relationship between the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Torah from an almost diametrically opposed perspective—one which took the essentially legalistic nature of the Torah as axiomatic. On the one hand, the Ten Commandments were seen as a major focus: these were, after all, the words that God spoke to the entire people at Sinai. According to some views, all of the 613 commandments were seen as being ultimately derived from the Ten; some medieval Hebrew poets composed azharot, liturgical poems for the festival of Shavuot, built around this idea. Originally, the Ten Commandments formed part of the daily liturgy, together with the Shema, recited by the priests in the Chamber of Hewn Stone before offering the morning sacrifice (Mishnah Tamid 5.1). On the other hand, there was also a certain ambivalence regarding them. Once Christianity emerged, and began to polemicize that the Ten Commandments alone constituted the contents of the divine revelation, the Rabbis abolished their recitation in the daily liturgy (Berakhot 12a). Some, such as Maimonides, went so far as to vociferously denounce the popular custom of standing during the reading of the Ten Commandments in the synagogue, lest that passage be given a more central status than other in the Torah. If one wishes to reenact Ma’amad Har Sinai, one stands for either all the readings, or none.

The midrashim written on Parshat Mishpatim may be read in this light. Rashi, in his opening comment on this weeks parshah, quotes the midrash that the chapters of laws opens with the words “ve-aleh” (“and these”), so as to stress their continuity with the Sinaitic revelation: “Just as the former are from Sinai, so too are these from Sinai.” As perhaps symbolic expression of this, the High Court for the entire Jewish people, the Sanhedrin ha-Gedolah, sat within the Temple precincts, in a special chamber just off the courtyards where the sacrificial offerings were slaughtered. By this, perhaps, it was intended to indicate that the juridical-legal-ethical dimension and the ritual-cultic dimension were to form one indivisible whole, neither one being complete without the other.

Another interesting introductory comment of Rashi (like the above, on 21:1) refers to the need to teach the laws to the entire people in a manner whereby they will be understood clearly. “The Holy One said to Moses: do not think that you may repeat each chapter to them two or three times until they know it by heart, like one memorizing a mishnah, and that you need not trouble to help them to understand the reasons for the thing and its meaning. Hence it says ‘which you shall place before them’: like a prepared table, ready for every person to eat therefrom.” (Mekhilta, Nezikin, Ch. 1)

This passage clearly affirms the democratic nature of knowledge in Judaism; unlike Christianity, in which until the Reformation the lay person did not even not even have direct access to the Bible, Judaism always stressed the broadest feasible universal education: that every Jew should know the laws, each according to his ability. In the old-time communities of Europe (and in serious Orthodox communities throughout the Jewish world today) the Beit Midrash (House of Study) was the focal point of the community. Of course, some individuals had both greater mental ability and more time available to study the Torah, and thereby entered the spiritual elite by virtue of their learning; but the situation of a small cadre of aloof priests, who deliberately kept the masses in ignorance, was never characteristic of Judaism.

As for the contents of these chapters, which form, as said, the kernel of Jewish civil law: it is impossible to summarize, its importance lying in its specifics (the Rabbis, even more in these chapters than elsewhere, derived volumes of meaning from every word, and even from every one-letter preposition; note the sheer length of Rashi’s commentary here). Nevertheless, in a general way one can say that these laws are based upon several of the fundamental principles which human society is struggling to realize to this very day: personal responsibility for ones actions, including indirect damage caused through ones possessions (e.g. in the laws of the four avot nezikin, the four major categories of damages: 21:28-22:5); mutual help, even to ones enemy (23:4-5); coupled with a certain reasonableness, i. e, limitation on the culpability of the individual in cases where certain things happened “beyond his control“ (e.g., 21:28; 22:9-12); equality before the law (23:2-3, 6-8), etc. Even the famous (notorious?) phrase, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (21:24-25), without going into the details of the Rabbinic interpretation, reflects a basic notion of a rough sort of equity.

Rabbi Abraham Gallant

This Monday (Feb 27 2006), the 29th of Shevat, marks the 70th anniversary of the passing of my maternal grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Naphtali Gallant. I am writing about him here for two reasons. First, in retrospect, he was for me an almost mythical figure in my childhood: in my subconscious, he must have served as a kind of model or as a source of Jewish inspiration. Secondly, during the past year, I have had reason to think about and read about his life. Last spring, by means of the internet and emails, we reconnected to certain relatives who were involved in researching our extended family’s history. Through them, I learned more, not only about the figure of my grandfather, but also of his own teacher and brother-in-law, Rabbi Yonah Mordecai Zlotnick of Plotsk, and even uncovered some of the latter’s writings and a description of life in his shteitl at the turn of the last century. At just about the same time, my good friend, Prof. Michael Kramer, told me of research in which he and his colleague, Menahem Blondheim, are engaged concerning the Orthodox sermon in early 20th-century America (on which more below).

In contrast with my other grandfather, the retiring lamdan Rabbi Ciepkiewicz, whom I mentioned two weeks ago, Rabbi Gallant was an active, outgoing figure. As rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham in the Bronx, he was known as an outstanding preacher, whose sermons attracted hundreds of people every Shabbat morning. Many of these sermons, or at least their quintessential contents, were gathered in the nine volumes of his writings published during his lifetime and immediately thereafter, between 1924 and 1936.

He was also deeply involved in community affairs, both within the rabbinic world and in general Jewish concerns, particularly in the nascent Zionist movement. Unfortunately, I know rather little about the specifics of his organizational involvements and affiliations. Was he a member of Mizrachi, the Religious Zionist movement, like his friend and relative-by-marriage Rabbi Yehudah Leib Zlotnick-Avida, whom he knew from his student days in Zakroczym and Plotsk in Poland? Or was he more involved in broader, pan-communal frameworks?

His career in the pulpit spanned the first generation of acclimatization to America of the massive Eastern European Jewish immigration to America. During that period, the sermon began to occupy a new, more central role in synagogue life; rather than preaching only a few times a year, and on a highly learned level, as was the custom of rabbis in the older European communities, the American rabbi was expected to preach every week, and his sermons were generally on a far simpler level than those of his European counterpart, in keeping with the lower level of Jewish knowledge of his flock. The sermon was less an exercise in Talmudic and halakhic erudition, and more a means of providing his congregants with guidance and strengthening against the inroads of adjustment to America—a problem which, of course, the rabbi faced within his own family much like all the other immigrants of his generation. (The above analysis draws upon a recent study on the American Orthodox sermon by Israeli scholar Menahem Blondheim, in which my grandfather receives significant mention. A more extensive project, in conjunction with Michael Kramer, is currently under way.)

Reading many of the sermons, both in the five-volume set of sermons on the weekly Torah portion, Mashal u-Melitza, as well as in his other volumes (Davar be’Ito, Hezyonot Avraham, Hemedrash veha-Mishnah, & Moadim le-Simha), one is struck by the recurrence of certain themes: the erosion of Jewish life in America, particularly on the part of the younger generation, and the need to invest time and energy in Jewish education; the call to Zionism, and the hope for the settlement of the Land of Israel and for support of the Zionist cause by all Jews; the value of tradition, in its unadulterated form, and the need to strengthen it in this alien and difficult land. The sermons, as they appear in the book, are filled with humor; Gallant knew well how to add a light touch to his essentially serious concerns, so that almost every full-length sermon contains one or more folk stories brought to illustrate the point at hand. He also drew with some regularity (unlike most other darshanim of that period) on the hasidic parables and teachings which he imbibed from his beloved grandfather, Rabbi Eliyahu Yosef Gallant of Rhadzanowa. This grandfather, who raised him after the death of both his parents in early childhood, had himself been a disciple of the legendary Rav Simhah Bunem of Psyschscha in his youth. The technique of the Hasidic pshet’l, the clever “word” which turns the verse in its head, is reflected in two places in the following passage.

A good example of his sermons which, although it appears in Parshat Bo, includes a play upon a verse in this week’s portion, is the following (my translation):

“We shall go out with your youth and with our elders” [Exod 10:9]. Today, as in Egypt, the in-between generation, between youth and old age, is as if it does not exist, involved in building a world not its own… We have only ”youth and elders.” When you go to a synagogue, whom do you meet there? The grandson, and the old man—those who are on the far side of the drawing-room of life, and those who are still in the entrance hall. You will not encounter there those whom King David praises with the words [Psalm 128]: “Happy is every one that fears the Lord, that walks in His ways. When you eat the fruit of your hands, happy shall you be and it will be well with you… Your sons are like olive trees planted around your table.”… These same grandsons or youths need to say the prayer, “Return us, our father, to your Torah” in a completely different sense: “Bring back to us our fathers”—that is, may God put his spirit in their fathers to return to the Torah...

… And like the interpretation of the conjoining of the words “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” [Exod 23:19] to the first half of that same verse, “The first fruit of your land shall you bring to the house of the Lord your God” is a hint of the obligation imposed upon the fathers when bringing his first fruits, that is, his offspring at the time of their maturation, to “the house of the Lord your God.” But we need to remember also the end of the verse, “Do not cook a kid in its mothers milk.” That is, one should not think that the tender youth (and, as the Torah speaks the language of the people, we may read this verse using the vernacular of this country, understanding the word “kid” in the sense of a youth) can become properly “cooked” [i.e., mature ] “in its mothers milk”! The Torah, as it is known, is compared to milk…. the verse mentions “his mothers milk” in the sense that… it can nourish the infant, make him well and heal him. But under no circumstance can the suckling grow up and develop as a human being with such food—and the same holds true for spiritual sustenance.

The fathers must not think that they fulfill their obligation to their son by bringing them to the house of God when they begin to grow, teaching them one or two sections of the Torah—and that by this they are already developed. “Do not cook the kid with mother’s milk!” With such thin, milky fare as this he cannot become matured!… (Mashal u-Melitza, Vol. II, pp. 47-48)


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