Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Yitro (Psalms)

Psalm 19: The Starry Heavens and the Perfect Torah

I had originally intended to devote this week’s study to Psalm 68, which contains a stirring portrayal of the theophany at Mount Sinai, accompanied by a brief discussion of the distinction between “theophany” and “revelation” or, to use the Hebrew terms, giluy shekhina and matan torah—the one referring to the overwhelming experience of God’s Presence, without any verbal or cognitive contents, and the other referring to the conveying of the Torah. But, after studying this psalm, I realized that: a) this is probably the most difficult and enigmatic chapter in the entire Psalter, filled with obscure words and peculiar linguistic constructions; b) the description of what happened at Sinai in fact only occupies three or four of its 36 verses, its main subject being God’s victory in battle with the nations and a kind of victory procession in the Temple. Since this psalm is in fact listed for Shabbat Beha’alaotkha, I decided to postpone its discussion till then, and to turn instead to one of the two classic psalms that celebrate the Torah: Psalm 19 (the other is the eight-fold acrostic, Psalm 119, which we will present for Shavuot, with God’s help).

But I most correct my last statement: Psalm 19 actually celebrates two separate subjects: God’s manifestation in the Creation (“the heavens declare the glory of God…”; vv. 2-7) and His Law (”The Torah of the Lord is perfect…”; vv. 8-14). Superficially, this division recalls Kant’s famous statement that two things inspire genuine awe: “the starry sky above and the moral law within,” but there is in fact a fundamental difference: for the psalmist, the “moral law” is not found primarily within man’s soul, but is a gift from the Creator—and in this lies the quintessential difference between Western and Jewish moral philosophy. Man, according to Judaism, is implanted with a conscience, with an internal moral compass, but one that is uncertain and fallible: his soul is in fact a kind of battlefield among various diverse and conflicting impulses and forces; only the heteronomous, Divine Law can serve as a sure guide through the pitfalls of human existence. But if it is far from the sanguine optimism of early-modern rationalism, this view is equally distant from the classic position of Christian moral philosophy, which takes as axiomatic the inevitable and incurable corruption of human nature, rooted in Original Sin and the Fall of Mankind. Judaism thus occupies an intermediate position: sober, skeptical, without illusions about man’s innate goodness, but believing in man’s potential for moral good and for positive change, attaining the good through long and hard effort. (We will return to this subject with a fuller discussion of moral heteronomy and autonomy in Tetzaveh).

This twofold praise of God as Creator and Lawgiver, as known through Nature and through Torah, is a basic organizing principle of the Siddur. The two opening blessings of Keriat Shema recited daily, Yotzer & Ahavah Rabbah, focus upon this same pair of themes: Yotzer is a blessing of thanksgiving to God for the new day, for the rays of the sun that with sunrise permeate every corner of the earth and provide light to all things that He created; Ahavah Rabbah celebrates the Torah as a manifestation of Divine love, and contains a pray that we be able to both study and practice it as is fitting. The two blessings complement one another, and serve as preparation for the Shema, the acceptance or declaration of God’s unity and His rule over us. (Yotzer also contains the theme of the angelic host that sing God’s praises with the words, “Holy Holy Holy,” the model for our own Kedushah here “below”—but that is a subject for another time.)

Regarding this, it is often thought that what is really important in Judaism is only Revelation and Torah, but in fact both elements play a central role in Judaism, as expressed in the balance of Nature and Torah both in this psalm and in the Prayer Book. Some religious scientists, for example, speak of science as a religious experience—the more they understand the underlying lawfulness and order of creation, the sense of telos, of it all having been made for a purpose, the more deeply they are able to feel the presence of God’s hand in the universe. Indeed, Rambam speaks of the contemplation of nature as a source of faith, as the proper path for acquiring the love and fear of God (Yesodei ha-Torah 2.2; and see HY V: Bereshit). In an interesting parallel to this, he states that contemplation of the mitzvot and the attempt to understand their rationale is a valuable activity, in that it enables one to see how the Law fits the nature of man’s soul (see Hilkhot Me’ilah 8.8; Temurah 4.13; cf. HY V: Hukat). Rav Soloveitchik, in Halakhic Man, puts matters somewhat differently: he draws a parallel between the scientist and halakhist, describing how each one relates to the object of his study as raw data, from which he then constructs overarching theories. In another seminal essay, Uvikashta misham, he creates a typology of two kinds of religious experience: the “natural” and the ”revelatory”—the one universal, the other limited to the Jewish People—both of which are needed.

Returning to our psalm: the first part tells how the heavens proclaim God’s glory and how each day and each night “make utterance,” notwithstanding their silence. It goes on to portray the sun’s journey across the sky: emerging from its resting place ”like a bridegroom,” or like an athlete running its course (vv 5-7). Is this section based on a conception of the celestial bodies as sentient, even intelligent beings, or is it merely a literary conceit, a kind of metaphor for the idea that the orderly movement of the stars and planets evokes within human beings an awareness of God’s beneficent power and well-ordered running of the universe? We moderns tend toward the latter view, but in the ancient and medieval world the former belief—namely, that the heavenly bodies are in fact sentient, intelligent beings, ranking somewhere between humans and angels —was widely held (see, e.g., Rambam, Yesodei ha-Torah 3.9). But this, along with angelology, is a vast and difficult subject that demands separate discussion.

The second half of the psalm, on which we shall now focus, speaks of the Torah— the Divine gift whose giving is described in Parshat Yitro. The heart of this section is verses 8-10, which consists of six balanced phrases, each one of which uses a different term for an aspect of the Torah, followed by an adjective and a phrase describing the blessings it brings upon man:

The teaching of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul, The testimony of the Lord is faithful, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are upright, rejoicing the heart, The commandment of the Lord is shining, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, abiding forever, The ordinances of the Lord are true, righteous altogether.

These six short phrases contain within them an entire doctrine of how the Torah provides vitality, wisdom, purpose and direction to human life. If I had more time, I could demonstrate how, in this case, the near-synonyms are not merely another example of Biblical poetics, but that each phrase is perfectly attuned, the adjectives, the nouns, and the phrases describing the human results all fitting perfectly together. There is a natural progression from “restoring the soul,” i.e., the perfect Torah renewing the individual’s vitality, transforming the sense of a person who was lost to his own self to that of a life of meaning; from there, to placing one who is “simple” on the path toward acquiring wisdom; to it being a source of positive joy—and not only removing one from ignorance or stupor; to the enlightenment provided by the mitzvot, which are barah, a word that can imply either “purity” or “brightness,” like that of the sun.

The penultimate phrase is different: the fear of God is not a quality of the Torah, but an inner quality within a human being. Why purity? Because fear of God somehow acts upon the personality, removing mean impulses, cynicism, and immersion in the self with its desires, impulses, and needs, towards something more “pure”—there is no other word. Finally: “righteous altogether.” A kind of summum bonum: the totality of all these aspects of Torah somehow fit together into a harmonious, perfect whole, “sweeter than honey.”

The final section (vv. 12-14) speaks of the human action undertaken in response to all this. The speaker, “your servant,” wants to be careful in observing these statutes, but expresses anxiety about the possibility that he may transgress, using three graded phrases to refer to sin: “errors… hidden things… willful [sins]…” Regarding the latter, he prays that “they may not rule over me,” knowing full well how easily negative acts may come to dominate a person’s life. The psalm concludes with a prayer that he may be “innocent” (az eitam), and that the speech of his mouth and meditation of his heart be acceptable to God. (This last verse has been canonized as the verse used to conclude the Amidah, the regular statutory prayer).

“The Fear of the Lord is Pure”

The phrase az eitam was used by Ernst Simon as the title for an essay in which he discusses the possibility of what he calls “second innocence,” a type of religious faith that he sees as available to modern, sophisticated man, who has been through the critiques of philosophy, of historical criticism, and of all the various kinds of reductionism—psychological, Marxist, evolutionary, etc. —and yet wishes for a certain kind, not only of faith, but also a kind of purity. This differs from the innocence of the naïve believer who has never questioned his faith, but it is far from a willful, arbitrary rejection of knowledge, an anti-rationalistic “leap of faith” or Cartesian wager. Rather, it is a kind of intuitive sense of going “beyond all that,” based on the sudden insight that the issues involved in faith are, in fact, on a different plane than those of empirical truth; that both the questions of modern scepticism and relativism, and the answers given by philosophical apologia for religion, are irrelevant to this pursuit. If one of Ramban’s classic sermons is entitled Torat Hashem Temimah, perhaps an exposition of this position would be Yirat Hashem Tehorah.

It is often thought that this type of innocent faith is only possible among certain pure types who have been somehow untouched by the problematics of modernity. When I first came to Israel, I remember seeing certain old Jews in Meah Shearim or Sha’arei Hesed, in whom one sensed, from the very way they carried themselves and from the very look in their eyes, a certain serenity, a kind of holy innocence, free of all the intellectual and ideological conflicts of modern experience. Today that generation has almost completely died out, and today’s Haredim are too busy being “haredim” in a certain militant, politicized sense, to possess that same temimut.

Nevertheless, such pure faith still exists, and in the most unexpected places. This past week I had a powerful experience in this light. A friend of mine invited me to an evening marking his mother’s first Yahrzeit—learning Mishnah, singing, words of Torah, some food. But there was a certain presence I sensed in this man—an aura of love, of warmth, of reaching out to each and every person at the table—that deeply impressed me. At a certain point during the meal he stood up, sang with his eyes and hands raised heavenward, and I suddenly saw him somehow transformed into an old-time hasid. Now, there are many people who become “ba’alei teshuvah” who learn to imitate the gestures and mannerisms of Torah teachers they have encountered: I have been close to that world for several decades, enough to recognize such shtick. But this was somehow different: there was a temimut in my friend, a sense in which he was one of those holy, simple, pure Jews you read about in stories. There is a Talmudic statement that a person is required lehakbil penai rabo baregel—that is, to go to see his teacher during each of the three festivals. But there is a Hasidic interpretation that reads this literally: that one must “receive his teacher’s face”—that is, to take into oneself something of the very being, the essence, the special qualities of ones teacher.

Hasidism has an entire teaching about the soul teacher: that the function of the Rebbe is not only to teach Torah, be it exoteric Torah or esoteric secrets of the Torah, but to perform tikkun neshamah, to help a person’s soul to fulfill its purpose in entering this world. It’s something like therapy, but on a spiritual plane. This is perhaps the deepest difference between the old Rabbinic path of the “Mitnaggedim” and that of Hasidism: Is the task of the teacher simply to convey knowledge and understanding, on however deep an intellectual level, on however profound and abstract a level of analysis and conceptualization? Or are there people in this world who have the ability and carry the mission to see pierce through to a person’s soul and somehow help to make them whole? Thus, one may find a person who is a scholar, who is filled with “book learning” and erudition, who may revere as his “Rebbe” someone who is relatively unlettered, but from whom he knows he can learn those things that really matter.

But then a certain skeptical, critical voice within me asks: is such temimut wholly desirable? Is not the goal for Jews today to reach a kind of sober, intelligent faith, without psychological illusions or mind tricks, which doesn’t deny what one knows about the world, whatever the source?

A Short Feminist Sermon on Yitro

There is a lengthy aggadic passage in Shabbat 86a-89a dealing with the Giving of the Torah, that starts with a mishnah that takes off from the three days of purification that preceded the Revelation at Sinai. “Be ready on the third day; do not go near a woman” (Exod 19:15). At first blush, the casual reader will think that this instruction is rooted, either in misogyny, or in a kind of Puritanism or duality that bifurcates body and spirit, and insists that the sexual and the spiritual/transcendent must of necessity be sharply separate from one another. But a careful reading of the above-mentioned halakhic sugya discloses something very different. A man, following coitus or other discharge of semen, is ritually impure only for the balance of that diurnal period, until nightfall; a woman in similar circumstance may, at least theoretically, be impure for up to three days—this, based on the halakhic premise that her body may expel the seed that she has absorbed, and that it will remain viable, for up to 72 hours. (This is also the basis, in the laws of niddah, that a woman may not begin counting the “seven clean days” until after the fourth day from the beginning of menstruation: Yoreh Deah 196.xi, Ram”a.) Hence, the proscription against sexual relations for three days prior to Matan Torah was to assure the purity of the women: in other words, that the presence of the women at Sinai was as of great importance as that of the men.


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