Sunday, May 28, 2006

Shavuot (Essays)

“And All the People Stood Against the Mountain” vs. “The Prophecy of Moses our Teacher”

Maimonides perception of Ma’amad Har Sinai (the Sinai epiphany), in Guide for the Perplexed II.33, is rather interesting—and very different from that which seems to be conveyed by the main thrust of the Jewish tradition. Consistent with his general emphasis on the intellect as the gate to the Divine, Maimonides contends that Moses alone experienced the full force of the Divine revelation, clearly hearing the Ten Commandments; the rest of the people only heard “the voice” or “sound” (kol) of the first two commandments, and even that not as clearly articulated words. Hence, there was a profound gap between Moses’ experience of revelation and that of the people.

Was the experience of the people then only a vague, indistinct sense of something overwhelming, uncanny, with lots of noise and impressive sights? Was this the sum total of the great Sinai experience that we are constantly told to remember, to pass on to future generations (see Deut 4:9-10), that is constantly invoked as the incontrovertible proof for our Torah, etc., etc.? (Kuzari, Book I, and elsewhere in polemic literature, medieval and modern) Indeed, the people, did not have the spiritual fortitude to hear the Divine voice for more than a few moments, telling Moses: “You speak with God and we will listen, and let not God speak with us lest we die” (Exod 20:16). The Midrash says that this already happened after the first two commandments; inferring that 611 of the 613 commandments were conveyed through the intermediacy of Moses, and not heard directly from God (Makkot 23b-24a).

Elsewhere, too, Rambam consistently refers to nevuato shel Moshe Rabbenu, “the prophecy of Moses our Teacher” as the source of the Torah, enumerating the various dimensions in which there was a qualitative difference between him and all the other prophets. In his Mishnah Commentary, (Hakdamah le-Perek Helek), where he lists Moses’ prophecy as the seventh of the thirteen basic principles of the faith, he states that Moses completely transcended his limitations as a human being, and achieved the level of the angels, which he equates with pure intellect. Why, then, was the epiphany before the entire people necessary at all? To give testimony to the truth of Moses’ prophecy, and by extension to the binding authority of the Torah (thus Rambam in Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah, Ch. 8).

Maimonides was forced to this view by his particular philosophical approach, which equates the highest religious experience, that of prophecy, with a cognitive apprehension of the “Active Intellect,” and thus of necessity confined to a small elite, after long and rigorous training. This seems to contradict another powerful motif in Jewish thought, which insists that the entire people experienced the Sinai epiphany. Indeed, one of these legends focuses specifically upon Moses as representative of human beings in all their weakness. It is related that, when Moses ascended on high to receive the Torah, the angels challenged him with the words, “What business has one born of woman, among us?” He answered that, precisely because human beings are mortal, and have bodily needs and human passions and emotions, they need the Torah, which is specifically oriented towards the human condition (b. Shabbat 88b-89a).

Perhaps we can suggest the following synthesis: Whether or not the people of Israel clearly heard the words “Anokhi” & “lo yihyeh lekha” (“I am the Lord…” and “you shall not have…”) does not really matter: the overwhelming experience of the numinous, of the divine presence, in and of itself, WAS the “Anokhi” experience; the source of the strongest, surest and most certain knowledge that “I am the Lord your God.” Likewise, the concomitant fear of God, verging on sheer terror and panic in the face of His overwhelming Presence, WAS, existentially, the source of “you shall have no other gods before me”: they felt the quintessential fear of Him that is the root of all the negative commandments, and first and foremost the prohibition of idolatry.

I would like to quote in this context an idea propounded by the Christian theologian Jacques Maritain. In one of his books, Maritain explains that the philosophical proofs of God’s existence—he speaks particularly of the epistemological and the argument from design—are not only for philosophers, but have their counterpart on another level for ordinary people. The same arguments established by philosophers with rigorous, closely reasoned, step-by-step argumentation, correspond to basic truths intuitively grasped by ordinary people. The philosopher may demonstrate logically why every existing thing must have a prior cause, working back logically until he reaches the First Cause; the simple man looks up at the starry sky, or at the brooding beauty of a deep forest, or at a stark desert landscape, and bursts into praise of the Creator: “How great are your works, O Lord!” The philosopher presents the epistemological argument: the fact that we can conceive of God at all proves at He must exist; the simple man feels faith in his heart, directly. And so on. The same holds true for Sinai. The people tangibly felt the Presence and Glory of God, giving birth to a kind of intuitive, inferential faith, which led to “Anokhi,” the acceptance of His sovereignty—and from there to the acceptance of all the mitzvot they were taught by Moses their teacher.

Some Short Thoughts on Shavuot

The “sixth,” non-canonical chapter of Pirqei Avot, is specially added on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot to round off the series of Shabbat afternoon readings during the Counting of the Omer with one appropriate to the receiving of the Torah. This chapter, known as Kinyan Torah, contains a beraita enumerating the 48 ways in which the Torah is acquired. This is a vast subject; a noted Jerusalem rabbis, Rav Noah Weinberg, has written an entire book for neophytes to Judaism in which he elucidates in detail each of these ways. But what is most striking about this is that which is also most obvious: that the study of Torah demands complete devotion, giving ones all. Before even beginning to enumerate the ethical and social virtues that must be acquired, the 48 ways lists a series of disciplines: studying, listening, repeating with ones lips, understanding with ones heart, clarifying and sharpening the precise meaning of what one has learned with ones cohorts, serving the Sages, etc. ; but also the demand to reduce to a bare minimum all those other aspects of life that ordinary people take for granted—sleep, ordinary conversation, business, pleasure, laughter, [presumably, lawful marital] sex, etc.

Why such a strict, puritanical regimen? one may ask. Is not the Torah a Torah of life? Surely, none of these things are bad per se. At one time in my life, I would have found such passages oppressive and off-putting, reading it as heavy yeshiva mussar (moralistic preaching). But on further reflection, it seems to me that this must be read as simply stating a fact of life, almost a law of nature: in order to become a true scholar, one whose personality, whose very being is shaped by Torah, one must make it the center of ones existence. Indeed, so as to accomplish anything in life in a serious way, certainly in the field of intellectual endeavors, one cannot do things in a half-hearted way. An hour lost can never be regained. That, perhaps, is one of the reasons why Shavuot is the Festival of Time, the only holiday whose very name is a unit of time, one which comes after 49 days of counting the most basic unit of time. Ultimately, learning Torah is, inter alia, about learning to use time properly, and understanding its true value. For that reason, Reb Zalman used to write on his Sefirat Haomer calendar the verse “Teach us to number our days, that we may have a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12).

"You are Standing Here This Day"

Sefat Emet (Yitro, 5652, s.v. be’inyan ma’amad har sinai) reflects on the use of idioms relating to standing in connection with the Sinaitic revelation: Ma’amad Har Sinai (lit., “the standing of Mount Sinai”), and the verse “the day that you stood before the Lord your God on Horeb” (Deut 4:10). The concept of standing is of being like angels, of having reached a certain state of completion. By contrast, the normal human state is described as walking: a process of constant growth, of constantly moving from one level to another. (And I would add that the word for Jewish law, halakhah, is likewise derived from “halikhah,” walking -- a dynamic, ongoing process). Nevertheless, the moment of receiving the Torah is one of “amidah”—of stasis, of a momentary sense of having achieved, or having been graced with, a certain completeness.

Perhaps this is the symbolism of standing on a whole group of ritual occasions: first and foremost, during the Amidah, the Prayer par excellence, which is described in the halakhah as “standing before God”; during Kabbalat Shabbat, which is also a time of “receiving the Shekhinah,” as explained by Rab Soloveitchik (whose own practice was to stand throughout Kabbalat Shabbat); and, according to the ancient Ashkenazi custom originating with Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, during the reading of the Torah, which is a kind of reenactment of the Sinai moment.

Ten Commandments or 613?

There is a certain ambivalence in Judaism toward the Ten Commandments. On the one hand, of course, they are of great importance, the very quintessence of God’s Law, the concrete contents of the Revelation at Sinai (at least according to a straightforward reading of Exodus 19-20). On the other hand, they do not encompass all of God’s Torah, but are more like an outline, a set of chapter headings or perhaps a condensed version, given to the masses of the people at Mt. Sinai, for what He was later to teach to Moses in detail.

This problematic was reinforced by the polemic with Christianity. At the time of the Temple, the Ten Commandments formed a central element of the daily liturgy; they were recited by the priests, alongside the Shema, as part of the daily verbal worship service which they conducted in the Chamber of Hewn Stone prior to offering the morning sacrifice. Later, when early Christianity began to emphasize the exclusivity of the Ten Commandments, the Rabbis removed it from the daily liturgy, lest it be thought that the other mitzvot were not an equally integral part of the Divinely revealed Torah (Berakhot 12a). It is printed in some Siddurim, but only at the very tail end of the service, to be recited privately by individuals. In Maimonides’ time, this controversy again flared up over the question as to whether the congregation was to stand up for the reading of the Ten Commandments. The Rambam lambasted this custom in passionate terms, making it clear that he saw it as a matter of principle; all the Torah, and not only the Ten Commandments, was given at Sinai; hence, it bordered on the heretical to stand for this chapter and not for the others.

On the other hand, some Medieval poets saw all 613 commandments as embodied in the Ten, in a midrashic or metaphorical sense. In olden times, one of the most popular genres of piyyutim (liturgical poetry) for the holiday of Shavuot was the Azharot, poems enumerating the 613 commandments. Many of these were based upon a scheme in which all of the commandments were subsumed under the basic Ten: thus, commandments relating to civil law and torts were subsumed under “thou shalt not steal”; all laws of holidays and special times under the Sabbath; those concerned with the active service of God in general under “I am the Lord your God”; those prohibitions rooted directly or indirectly in the rejection of a pagan way of life under “thou shalt have no other gods..”—and so forth.

It is perhaps significant that, in the aggadah which serves as the source for the 613 commandments, reducing them to ever more basic principles—“David based them on eleven... Isaiah on six… Micah on three… again, Isaiah based them on two… Amos… and Habakkuk based them on one” (Makkot 24a)—the Ten are not even mentioned.

Esther and Ruth

In three of the Five Scrolls a woman serves as a central figure: Ruth, Esther, and the Song of Songs. (As in the latter the female protagonist is painted in rather vague terms in terms of her personality, and indeed it is not clear whether the book even has a plot in the usual sense, we may discount it). Of these, Ruth and Esther make an interesting study in contrasts. The Book of Esther is set in the sumptuous royal palace city of the Persian empire. One can almost feel and touch the highly polished floors of marble and precious stones, the sumptuous banquet of who-knows-how-many courses served in gold and silver vessels, with the company reclining upon soft linen and crimson cushions. Yet all this pomp and circumstance is set against an atmosphere of corruption and decadence: a foolish king who spends his days partying with his princes and viziers, determines the fates of entire provinces and ethnic groups on the basis of a whim or at the advice of an intriguing courtier, and spends each night in the arms of a different beautiful young virgin, who has been prepared for this moment after being soaked for six months in myrrh and six months in various spices (a procedure that always seemed to me more appropriate to a cucumber than to a human being). Esther, too, gained her pivotal and fateful position of influence through her own beauty and feminine charms; or is it possible that Ahasuerus may have been captivated by the contrast between a certain modesty and bashfulness on her part, which we may presume to have been part of her Jewish heritage, and the blatant, unsubtle sexuality of the Indian or Persian girls, who were raised on the models of Indian erotic sculpture and the Kama Sutra?

In any event, the Book of Ruth, set in time perhaps 700 or 800 years earlier, provides a striking contrast to Esther. Boaz is a wealthy man (ish hayil), but only in comparison with his fellow townspeople. We do not so much as glimpse the inside of his home; he lives a simple, unadorned, rustic life. He sleeps outside during the harvest season, together with his workers, on the hard ground among the haystacks. He eats simple bread dipped in vinegar; a kerchief filled with six measures of barley constitutes a special gift for him. But the contrast with the Persian palace life is just as great in the moral dimension, and in the opposite direction: here, there is not the smallest hint of corruption or unseemliness in the behavior of any of the protagonists.

Two crucial moments in Ruth’s life pique our curiosity. What was the inner processes that went through her soul, that led to these decisions? First and foremost, the decision to go with her mother-in-law, Naomi. The two young widows accompany their mother-in-law—an old, broken vessel, with bitterness written on her very face— towards the Land of Israel. “Go away, my daughters, return!” (1:8-14) she exhorts them repeatedly. But while Orpah returns to her own family, Ruth persists, saying “Wherever you go, there I shall go; wherever you lodge, I shall lodge; your people shall be my people; your God, my God; wherever you die, I shall die, and there shall I be buried” (vv. 16-17). We are accustomed to reading this little speech as the essence of an act of conversion to Judaism; but it is equally an expression of intense personal attachment to her mother-in-law. What motivated this: a sense of responsibility? Devotion? Love? Pity? Contemporary feminists would (and doubtless do) celebrate this book as an expression of female bonding, of inter-generational friendship between women; or, perhaps, as an idyll of mother-in-law—daughter-in-law relations, so often marked by acrimony. In any event, we are left pondering the question: From whence did Ruth draw this strength and these spiritual resources. Ultimately, there is a certain mystery to conversion: what causes one human being make the incredible jump from one culture to another, and particularly from one that is pagan to a deeply spiritual culture?

The second central scene is that of Ruth’s night-time visit to Boaz at the threshing floor (3:6-15). Here she was risking both her virtue and her reputation. What sort of woman goes to visit a strange man late at night, in a deserted spot in the field? What would others think of her, and what would he think? Here, we need to read between the lines: she must have sized up his character as an honest, decent man; that his fatherly, protective demeanor (warning her of the young men who would be only too ready to take advantage of her weakness, and ordering them not to molest her; allowing her to glean after the harvesters; sending her home with a bundle of barley; etc.) was authentic, and not a cynical maneuver to gain her trust. At this stage, she must have made up her mind to trust him completely, and to risk losing all. When she lay down next to him in the field, he could easily have taken his pleasure with her; or he could have priggishly pushed her away with words of rebuke: “Get thee away, you brazen hussy!” That he did neither—that he listened to her, and agreed to go to the gate and arrange things properly and legally with the elders of the town—could not be taken for granted. What stands out here, more than anything, is Ruth’s intuitive, instinctive judging of people. Where did this Moabite girl get this clear, true sense of others character?

A Note on Eruv Tavshilin

In light of the above, I would like to make a few comments about Eruv Tavshilin. First, on the practical level, I would like to remind all readers, both in Eretz Yisrael and abroad, that this year one must make Eruv Tavshilin prior to the beginning of the festival this Thursday evening (I believe this is the first such occasion since I began writing Hitzei Yehonatan). Basically, this means that: in order to cook, or even to light candles or do such minimum preparations as heating food for Shabbat on Friday/Yom Tov afternoon, one must set aside some foodstuffs (a small portion of cooked food and a roll or bread) that are reserved for Shabbat before Yom Tov starts, thereby symbolically demonstrating that one has begun Shabbat preparation before Yom Tov.

What is the halakhic significance of this gesture? Why is it required? There are two basic schools of thought: one which focuses upon the status of the Shabbat, and another concerned with that of the Yom Tov (festival day). The Talmud at Betza 15b gives two reasons for this prohibition. Rabba sees it as intended to reinforce the honor of the Shabbat, so as to assure that even before Yom Tov starts a person will set aside a goodly portion of food specifically for Shabbat, rather than neglect or overlook it in the flurry of preparations for the festival. (Especially given that on Yom Tov there is a special emphasis on elaborate and sumptuous meals or, as on Shavuot, a different kind of menu altogether and special customs relating to food.) Yom Tov does not “threaten” the holiness of Shabbat, but it might lead to the neglect of its kavod, of its celebration in a dignified manner after all the effort put into the hag. There is a danger that Shabbat may come as a kind of anti-climax, psychologically; Eruv Tavshilin is intended to mitigate this.

Rav, by contrast, explains that one makes an Eruv so that people won’t think that one may cook from Yom Tov to weekdays. Maimonides, in Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.1-2, elaborates this view, explaining that basically, on the level of Torah law, one is allowed to prepare from Yom Tov to Shabbat; however, the Rabbis prohibited doing so, so that people won’t draw the mistaken conclusion that one is allowed to cook or do other labors on Yom Tov even for ordinary weekdays. Having done so, they introduced the Eruv Tavshilin as a kind of sign (heker) to indicate that when one does in fact prepare for Shabbat on the afternoon of Yom Tov, this is something special, out of deference to the superior sanctity of the Shabbat, and even then one that requires a symbolic matir, a special act indicating the status of Yom Tov.

This is necessary because: a) as one does engage in certain labors on Yom Tov, one might tend to be careless about it if it were not surrounded by this reminder to reinforce the sense of its sanctity; and b) if one is a bit more learned, one might also realize that much of the formal structure of the proscriptions in affect on Yom Tov are derabanan—i.e., that the Torah permits all acts of okhel nefesh, of actions connected with preparing food, but the Rabbis went and prohibited whole classes of melakha (i.e., those “prior to” kneading in the list of 39). Hence, Yom Tov needs a certain reinforcement.

What world views underlie these two approaches? Conceptually, one might perhaps align these with the two types of holiness discussed above. Rabba is concerned with proper respect for the Sabbath, as a day of supernal kedusha. Shabbat is holy through total abstinence from work; it is a transcendent, God-like day, a remembrance of the Six days of Creation. Even if its actual holiness is honored, there is a danger that its practical gestures of honor may be neglected.

Rav focuses on Yom Tov, which is a more worldly day, one that mixes human celebration (gashmiut) with spiritual concerns. It is “half for God and half for you” (an idea expressed on that same page of the Talmud: that on feast days one should divide ones time equally between prayer and study, on the one hand, and feasting, with good meat and wine, on the other). In this sense, Yom Tov seems very much an affirmation of what might be called the non-dualistic, world-affirming view of holiness, rooted in the mundane, corporeal world of human beings, in a very down-to-earth sense. (Incidentally, there is a view, cited in the parallel to our sugya in Pesahim 68a, that this is even truer of Shavuot than of other holidays.

Paradoxically so: precisely because of its spiritual message, celebrating so-to-speak the meeting of heaven and earth in the great epiphany of Sinai, it must be celebrated in an earthly way; thus, Rav Eleazar was always careful to ate the choicest kind of meat on Shavuot.)

Eruv Tavshilin thus expresses the concern that, because of this mixture embodied by Yom Tov, one not stray too far into the purely secular, but maintain a balance with the sacred, of reverence for the day. Hence, one is permitted to engage in labors to further its human celebration, but only within the confines of that day, of its sacred, commemorative time maintained as a framework outside of the weekday.

Shavuot (Haftarot)

Ezekiel’s Vision of the Merkavah

It is with some trepidation that I approach the task of writing about the haftarah for Shavuot—Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkavah, the Heavenly Chariot (1:1-28; 3:12). Jewish tradition, both mystical and otherwise, regards this text as the central mystical text of the Bible, alluding to profound, esoteric secrets about the Godhead. The Mishnah, in Hagiggah 2, describes this as the most carefully guarded subject matter in the entire Torah, not to be taught publicly, but only in an intimate teacher-disciple setting, to one who is “wise, and understands by himself”; even then, the Talmud adds, only “via its chapter headings,” that is, allusively. There is even an opinion in the mishnah that, due to the esoteric and potentially dangerously nature of this passage, it is not to be read in the synagogue, but this is overridden in terms of the halakhah (m. Megillah 4.8). Even so staunch a “rationalist” as Maimonides saw this chapter (interpreted by his own lights) as a central element in his own theology; the exposition of Ma’aseh Merkavah was one of the central purposes in his writing the Guide to the Perplexed, which he proceeds to do obliquely and indirectly, in the spirit of the mishnah, in the opening chapters of Book III.

The reason for the choice of this reading for Shavuot seems clear enough. Just as Shavuot was the day for the great public epiphany at Sinai (described in the Torah reading from Exodus 19-20), it is also seen as a time uniquely suited for personal mystical epiphanies. (See what I wrote last year here on this subject, regarding Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, Rav Yosef Caro, etc.) In this selfsame context, Ezekiel’s vision is seen both as the archetype and as a source for personal mystical vision.

In contrast to the deep reverence and even awe with which this chapter is regarded by the tradition, there is a tendency of some modern people to dismiss this chapter out of hand as the ravings of a lunatic. I have heard people of a rationalist bent, including those who are religiously observant, dismiss this and other bizarre visions in the Book of Ezekiel as, essentially, expressions of a half-demented, if not deranged personality.

I would not venture to interpret this text per se. But what does need to be emphasized is that there are certain experiences in this life that are beyond the ken of the average person, and a certain respectful silence and suspension of judgment are the best counsel for approaching this chapter. The chapter as a whole is an attempt to convey an overwhelming vision, an experience that culminated in a sense of the presence of the Divine, through which Ezekiel felt that he came to know certain profound secrets about the very essence of God. It must be read as a kind of puzzle, as an attempt to convey in words and in the description of visual symbols that which ultimately cannot be expressed. If we do not understand it, it behooves us to acknowledge the fact that perhaps the lack is in ourselves, and not to engage in reductionism.

Carl Jung and his followers spoke of certain images which are part of the “collective unconscious” of mankind; symbols for the deepest levels of our experience, of forgotten truths, in some cases known by mankind in ancient times. These were obscured by layers of the more pragmatic, functional, technique-oriented civilization of later ages, which created sophisticated technologies and highly organized societies, but in the process blunted mankind’s sensitivity to these depth symbols. Perhaps such an approach may be a way to enter into this chapter, and its strange symbols—the wheels within the wheels; the creatures with the four faces, of ox, lion, eagle and human being; and above them all the mysterious figure of God enthroned, his upper body disappearing into the impenetrable mists of the Infinite. Perhaps the best way to conclude is with the words of the Slavonic Apocalypse of Enoch, which describes a similar mystical epiphany:

“Thus even I saw the face of the Lord. But the face of the Lord is not to be talked about, It is so very marvelous and supremely awesome and supremely frightening. And who am I to give an account of the incomprehensible being of the Lord, and of his face, so extremely strange and indescribable?” (2 Enoch 22:1-2, MS. J)

Habakkuk’s Hymn

On the second day of the festival, celebrated in the Diaspora, the haftarah is the prayer/song of the prophet Habakkuk, with which the book that bears his name concludes (2:20-3:19). The opening section of this poem provides a dramatic account of the Sinaitic revelation: “God approaches from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran, his glory covers the heavens, the earth is filled with his praise… rays flash from his hand… He stood, and measured the earth, looked and shook the nations…” (vv. 3-6). Even those parts of the poem that do not directly relate to the Sinai revelation are imbued with a sense of God’s power and his awesome presence, beginning with the very first verse: “The Lord is in his holy Temple, let all the earth be silent before him.” In some congregations, the atmosphere of mystery and holiness is further enhanced by the recitation of the mystical poem Yetziv pitgam (somewhat analogous to the poem Akdamot read on the first day), following the first verse of the haftarah.

Shavuot (Midrash)

An Essay on Holiness

The theme of holiness (kedusha) runs like a thread through Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus), whose reading we completed last week: the opening imperative of Parashat Kedoshim, which stands at the center of Vayikra is “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:1). This theme is likewise of central importance for the festival of Shavuot: Ibn Ezra and others note that this chapter may be seem as a kind of reworking of the Ten Commandments of Sinai, and “You shall be holy” may be seen as a gloss or interpretation on “I am the Lord your God.” Moreover, the call, “you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6), stands at the introduction to the revelation at Sinai. But what is meant by holiness?

My friend Mark Kirschbaum, in his weekly parsha sheet “Radical Readings,” recently raised an important issue relating to this question. (This parsha sheet is quite interesting, and in many ways sui generis, presenting an amalgam of post-modern thinkers in the areas of language, art, critical theory, etc, with various Hasidic thinkers, both early and late; those interested may contact him at ) He notes that the conventional definition of kedusha as a human goal is defined largely in a negative way, in terms of living an abstemious, somewhat ascetic way of life, confining ones enjoyments of physical pleasures to a minimum, etc. “The medieval paradigm for holiness entails a withdrawal and distance from sin… a negative definition, whose attainment requires a distancing of oneself from temptation.”

Holiness is defined in the Bible in terms of distinction (havdalah) or separation (perishut); God is celebrated, in Havdalah, as He who draws multitudinous distinctions (cf. Lev 11:44-47; 20:25-26). Commenting on the first verse of Parshat Kedoshim, Rashi identifies kedusha with perishut, with separating oneself or withdrawing “from prohibited carnal relations and from that which is forbidden” (i.e., species of animals forbidden for food, and the like). Ramban, in his famous polemic with Rashi on that verse, adds that “holiness” consists not only in separation from that which is explicitly forbidden but, more generally, living a life of “separation” and aloofness from excessive indulgence in physical pleasures. A person, he argues, can be ”a boor with the permission of the Torah,” focusing the bulk of his time and energy on consuming sumptuous kosher meals, indulging in frequent sex with his wife or wives, and speaking in a coarse and vulgar manner. Lev 19:1, he argues, enjoins us to behave in a circumspect, modest, even ascetic manner, over and beyond the formal limitations of the Law.

But there is a possible alternative viewpoint. This ascetic, negative approach is one which many if not most modern people are likely to reject as somehow too repressive and confining, fearful, life-denying, pinched, and old-fashioned. (And, some might add, because the demands are so inhuman, such an approach almost seems to invite a kind of hypocrisy or cant, a kind of pious posturing; compare, e.g., see the numerous portrayals in literature of the typical neuroses of Catholic girlhood.)

Is there a viable alternative? Kirschbaum finds in Ibn Ezra, in R. Obadiah Sforno, and especially in R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto (better known as Ramhal: 18th century Italy), a model in which holiness is defined more in terms of human ethics, caring, fellow community. He quotes Mesillat Yesharim (specifically, in the recently published 1738 “dialogue” version from one of the recently released Petersburg manuscript collections), who says that ultimately holiness consists in maintaining the inner spark of God consciousness, of attachment to God in all aspects of life, throughout ones everyday round: “the holy person, who is constantly attached to his God and whose soul walks among the true intelligences with the love and fear of his Creator… is himself like a sanctuary and a temple and an altar.”

Maimonides posits a similar goal at the end of the Guide of the Perplexed, where he speaks of the wise man and “lover of God” who, while performing everyday tasks and engaged in interaction with his fellow man, is constantly aware of the all-enveloping Divine presence. In Guide III.51, he speaks of “one who has apprehended the true realities peculiar only to Him after he has attained an apprehension of what He is… Through his apprehension of the true realities and his joy in what he has apprehended, [he] achieves a state in which he talks with people and is occupied with his bodily necessities while his intellect is wholly turned toward Him… so that in his heart he is always in His presence… while outwardly he is with people.”

Kirschbaum remarks, with more than a little irony, that even in our “post-auratic age (i.e., when nothing bears an aura)” we still “recognize an individual who is ‘holy.’” I visualize in my mind's eye the image of those rare people who seem wholly at peace with themselves, radiating a kind of inner joy, calm and serenity. I think of old photographs of Rav Kook, or recall the serenity on the face of Rav Gedaliah Koenig z”l, an old-time Yerushalmi hasid, or even of the mystical peace and wisdom that shins from the face of one of my friends, a hippy, New Age seeker who as far as I can judge has attained some deeply-rooted insights through his own personal synthesis of paths (no, not through drugs). All of this is so different from the obsessive, compulsive type of religious behavior that one tends to see in certain parts of the Orthodox world, of the religious perfectionist who tries to perform every mitzvah in a perfect way, who is obsessed to distraction with not wasting time on things other than Torah study; I think of certain faces that seem filled with an almost unbearable tension and nervousness, and wonder why they don’t collapse. (Perhaps this is why attempts to introduce meditation as a Jewish option have been met with lack of understanding in certain such circles. Not so much for being suspect of non-Jewish roots, but because its emotional resonance is almost diametrically opposed to what is commonly thought of as “yeshivish.” At some point, the mystical path involves an emptying of ones mind to receive the Divine presence. The idea that a person’s mind need not be working at a ferocious pace every waking moment seems contrary to that ethos. Even Habad, with its mystical meditation, is more a highly structured, intense form of mental concentration on certain cognitive symbols than a mystical path in that sense.)

I would like to add that perhaps there is much to be learned about holiness from the feminist movement, or more properly from the resurgence of feminine consciousness in today’s culture. Judaism has traditionally , been intensely male dominated; halakhic analysis is oriented toward sources and precedents, based upon book learning, a male mode of thinking (see Haym Soloveitchik’s important article, “Rupture and Reconstruction,” published in Tradition around 1994, bewailing the ever greater tendency in contemporary Orthodoxy towards reliance on formal written sources, and away from the mimetic way of traditional Jewish society). I have recently had the experience, in Internet discussion groups and elsewhere, of people (admittedly not necessary learned) looking at halakhic problems in rigid ways, totally without context, without the human angle, and without the sense of breadth that comes from, if one may put it this way, God consciousness.

The concept of “feminine intuition” may not be considered politically correct, but there is nevertheless much truth to it. Women tend, on the whole, to be less ego-centered and aggressive, somehow more human and compassionate than men—no doubt due to the experience of bearing and nurturing children, coupled with centuries-old tradition in almost all human cultures in which, thanks to this role, they stand at the vital, emotional focus of families—both immediate and extended—and thus become adept at the more subtle side of human relations. Women more often seem to have the intuitive sense of what is required in any human situation, of how to calm an angry person, how to comfort one in pain, how to calm an ugly dispute—less with words of reason, than by their very being: by a look of the eye, by a touch of the hand. This is a spiritual advantage as well: their approach tends to be less polarized and dualistic, more unitive than the classic male one; humility, self-effacingness, make them more open to the touch of the Divine spirit. (All this is of course true of men who are open to the “eternal feminine,” the anima within themselves, as well.)

To return to our main theme: the first verse of Kedoshim may be read, not as relating to that which precedes it in its biblical context (i.e., the chapter on forbidden sexual relations in Lev 18), but to that which follows: the series of laws in Leviticus 19, which taken as a whole seem to emphasize human relations, that seek to construct a model of human society based upon mutual responsibility, empathy and caring, and to imbue the individual’s thought and outlook with these same values (see vv. 9-15 and 16-18, respectively). Thus, this chapter expands and extends the idea of holiness, not in the direction of theocentric, mystical transcendence of the human condition, and of the world itself, but more in the spirit of the Kotzker’s comment on another verse: “You shall be holy people to Me” [Exod 22:30]; anshei kodesh tihyon li—with a human kind of holiness; in Yiddish, menshlikhe heiligkeit.

This is likewise the sense of the midrash in Lev. Rab. 24.9: “You shall be holy for I am holy.’ Could it be that this means [that you must be holy] like Myself? The Torah says, ‘for I am holy.’ My holiness is above your holiness.” That is to say, the call to holiness is not one to superhuman asceticism, beyond ordinary human capability; but rather, a spirituality based upon acceptance of the human condition, of ones “thrustedness” into this situation of living in a body, with all the demands and needs of the body—and living in a godly way within those parameters.

I cannot enter here into a discussion of the issue of purity, which is closely related to that of holiness, and which is also a central theme in the book of Leviticus. What is the precise meaning of the term? In what way does it differ from holiness? Why are the two so often paired together? With God’s help, I will elaborate this point on some future occasion.

An Excursus on R. Pinhas ben Yair

A brief word concerning the baraita of R. Pinhas ben Yair, upon which the Ramhal bases the scheme of his book Messilat Yesharim. This passage presents a graduated scheme of a series of personal characteristics that lead upward, culminating in the Eschaton and the resurrection of the dead. There are two rather different versions of this text. The first one, used by Luzzatto in structuring his book, appears in the Talmud, Avodah Zarah 20b:

Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair said: Torah leads to carefulness (zehirut), carefulness leads to diligence (zerizut), diligence leads to cleanliness (nekiut), cleanliness leads to abstinence (perishut), abstinence leads to purity (taharah), purity leads to piety (hasidut), piety leads to humility (anavah), humility leads to fear of sin (yirat het), fear of sin leads to holiness (kedushah), holiness leads to the Holy Spirit (ruah hakodesh), and the Holy Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead.

There is a mixture here of qualities that a human being can presumably attain through his own concerted effort, through will-power and systematic changing of habit, etc. On the other hand, the higher levels, those of the Holy Spirit and the Resurrection, are clearly Divine gifts: the one a rare gift granted to certain individuals, the other a feature of the messianic End of Days. In any event, kedusha, “holiness,” is here viewed as the highest level among those attainable through ordinary effort (or is it too a gift?). But the continuation of the sugya seems to belie this conclusion:

And piety is greater than them all, as is said, “of old You spoke in a vision to Your pious ones” [Ps 89:20]. R. Joshua ben Levi dissented from this, saying: Humility is greater than them all, as is said, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to bring tidings to the humble ones” [Isa 61:1]. It does not say here “His pious ones,” but “the humble ones.” Hence, we learn that humility is greatest of all.

I shall leave aside the question of the relative merits of humility and piety. What seems clear here is that the final conclusion is that either “piety” or “humility,” both more obviously ethical qualities, rather than the more spiritual, theocentric, possibly ephemeral quality of “holiness,” is seen as the ultimate human good. The other version of this text points in a similar direction. This text appears as a kind of addendum to the Mishnah text—appearing in some manuscripts and printed versions but not others; sometimes in parentheses or smaller letters, sometimes in regular print. Epstein’s Mavo le-Nusah ha-Mishnah puts this under the rubric of festive “additions at the conclusion of tractates” taken from beraita material. Mishnah Sotah 9.15:

Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair said: Diligence leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to purity, purity leads to abstinence, abstinence leads to holiness, holiness leads to humility, humility leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to piety, piety leads to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead, and the resurrection of the dead comes about through Elijah, may he may be remembered for the good /well. Amen.

Again, the emphasis is on hasidut, “piety,” rather than kedusha. This term, whatever its exact meaning, comes from hesed, “loving-kindness.” It may be best described as God consciousness spilling over into an effulgence of good deeds, whether passionate, ecstatic prayer, enthusiastic performance of mitzvot, or acts of love and caring towards the other based upon Hesed. It is not holiness in the sense of withdrawal from life, but rather active doing.

Nevertheless, Why “Separation”?

Having come to this point, and presented an alternative, world-affirming, maybe even a “humanistic“ interpretation of holiness, I must nevertheless address a fundamental issue. What is the great power of the negative definition of holiness? In virtually all cultures, we find images of the “holy man” as one who withdraws—from the sexual life, from eating meat (in Eastern religion, especially), or from society altogether. This is the origin of the hermit, whether he lives on a mountain top in Tibet, in a cave (like Elijah for significant periods of his life?), in a monastery carved out of desert rock (as in Wadi Kelt), or on the top of a pillar, like Simon of the Desert. All these diverse examples suggest that this derives from something deeply rooted in the human psyche—a Jungian archetype, if you will.

Where does this come from? My intuitive feeling is that this somehow relates to what philosophers call the Mind-Body Problem. There is an inherent duality in human experience: between our mental and spiritual life, which somehow occurs within a thinking, reflective consciousness located in the mind or brain; and our bodily experience, which occurs in a physical world independent of our consciousness. Thus, the mind observes bodily pleasure at the very moment of it being experienced from a certain distance (“In the midst of my pleasure I was very much pleased”). As God is perceived through the mind, the spirit, the soul, the intellect, there is an almost natural sense of dichotomy between it and the body. For a certain kind of theocentric mystic, the body is seen as a kind of dead weight, preventing man from soaring to higher worlds. (There is even a concept of mystic death, of mystics who died because their souls “forgot” to return to their bodies after mystic ascent. Some medieval Kabbalists even went to the point of abjuring their soul to return to their body afterwards, so as to prevent this from happening).

One last thought about a possible basis for an alternative, non-dualistic theology of holiness. A famous saying of Hazal (whose source I cannot locate at the moment) tells that God, in response to the rather foolish prayer of certain pietists, agreed to slaughter the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Urge. Instantly, the whole world came to standstill: no chickens laid eggs, no calves or lambs or babies were born, no man wanted to lie with a woman or even get up in the morning to go to work. The point of the story, of course, is that our corporeality, our carnality, is the source of vitality; and vital life energy is the truest manifestation of the Divine Life within the universe.

Shavuot (Hasidism)

“God spoke one word, we heard two” (Psalm 62:12)

The first verse of the poem Lekha Dodi, recited at Kabbalat Shabbat, begins, “Shamor & zakhor were spoken in one word.” This poetic rendition of a midrashic theme seems to me to provide a key to an entire perception of the Torah. On the simplest level, this phrase is an attempt to explain the fact that the version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, which we would have expected to be a verbatim repetition of Exodus 20, in fact includes some unexplained and significant differences from it. Thus, the Sabbath commandment in Exod 20:8 begins with the word zakhor (“Remember the Shabbat day…”), while that in Deut 5:12 reads shamor (“observe” or “guard the Sabbath day”). Our tradition explains that the one refers to the commemorative, cognitive aspect of Shabbat, embodied most succinctly in the Kiddush, while the other refers to the practical act of abstaining from labor. The Talmud in Shavuot 20b states that the two were spoken by God in one word, “in a manner that the human mouth cannot speak, and the ear cannot hear.”

The same principle is invoked in a whole series of cases in which there are internal contradictions in the Torah law: e.g., the ban on marrying one’s brother’s wife (which ranks with other incest prohibitions!) and the law of levirate marriage, which requires a man to do so if his brother dies childless; the prohibition of wearing garments with sha’atnez (linsey-woolsey) and the commandment of wearing tzitzit (tassels) on the corner of one’s garments, which ideally (if the special blue dye is available) are made specifically from that forbidden mixture of fibers; the prohibition of all labor on Shabbat, and the commandment to slaughter animals in the course of Temple sacrifices; etc. These contradictions are all resolved in practice by homiletic reasoning that determines which rule takes precedent in any given case.

But there remains the question, on the spiritual level: from whence do such contradictions derive? The answer offered is that the Divine word possesses qualities that transcend human comprehension, even so to speak in its manner of delivery. On a deeper level, it both encompasses and transcends contradiction and paradox. A whole series of midrashim sees this idea alluded to in the verse, “God spoke one word, I heard two” (Ps 62:12) and in, “Is not my word like fire, saith the Lord, and like a hammer that smashes the rock” (Jer 23:29). In the latter verse, the sparks sent off by the hammer are seen as a metaphor for the numerous interpretations for every verse of the Torah.

Torah Temimah, Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein’s wonderful compendium of Rabbinic dicta on the Torah, compiled at the very beginning of the twentieth century, makes some interesting comments about the specific case of Shabbat. Shamor and zakhor do not in fact contradict one another, but in their usual interpretation are complementary. He suggests that the contradictory aspect is found in the Mekhilta’s statement that “remember” refers to the period prior to or at the onset of Shabbat, while “observes” refers to its conclusion. From this, the Rabbis inferred that “one adds from the holy to the mundane.” That is, one observes all the stringencies of Shabbat during the twilight hours of both Friday and Saturday, even though this involves a logical contradiction: if 7:50 pm on this Friday is in fact Shabbat, then 7:50 pm on Saturday ought to be weekday, and vice versa. The fact that we observe Shabbat for somewhat more than 24 hours stretches the common-sense definition of a “day.” (Actually, the two versions of the Shabbat commandment differ even more dramatically in their closing verses: one gives a purely theological reason for the Shabbat, “because in six days God created the heavens and the earth and the sea,” while the other gives a social, perhaps humanistic reason, “and remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” We will return to this discussion, God willing, on Shabbat Vaethanan.)

These ideas express a profound insight: that the message of the Torah is not a simple, one-dimensional one, but that each word simultaneously embodies many layers and nuances and over- and undertones. Rabbi Mordecai Breuer, Israeli teacher and Bible exegete, uses this concept to understand the internal contradictions within the biblical text. Rather than reflecting different authors and documentary strata, these indicate the complexity and multi-facetedness of the Divine message.

To continue: yet another midrash based on this verse speaks of how all ten commandments were somehow spoken all at once, and then deciphered by Moses, who transmitted them to the Jewish people (Bamidbar Rabbah 11.7). Even more daringly, it is suggested that the entire Torah was somehow spoken in a single burst of Divine speech—a kind of verbal counterpart to the Big Bang, if you will. This idea—that the 613 commandments were all somehow contained and encapsulated within the Ten uttered at Sinai—underlies the Azharot, a genre of liturgical poem or piyyut for Shavuot that used to be recited in most Jewish communities, in which the 613 mitzvot are all seen as alluded to within the rubric of the Ten Commandments. Or even more than that: the entirety of the Oral Law—the vast literature of the Jewish tradition: Mishnah, Talmud, midrash, Halakhot, Kabbalah, poskim, responsa, etc.— is seen as somehow implicit, inherent in the Torah revealed at Sinai. Indeed, in Jewish mystical writings the Torah is seen as a Divine Name; as an organic entity—Cosmic Man (Adam Kadmon) or the Tree of Life; as a kind of map or blueprint from which the Universe itself was created; as the embodiment of Divine Wisdom, which somehow starts from the single point symbolized by the letter yod of the Divine Name; or even, most daringly, as a kind of apotheosis of God Himself (see the passage brought from the Me’or Einayim last week). Gershom Scholem discusses and gives sources for many of these ideas in his important essay, “The Meaning of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism.”

Implicit here is a central theological concept: that the process of revelation involved an inherent difficulty, which was only partly overcome—namely, the infinite gap between the Creator and His creatures. The revelation at Sinai, was more than an act of law-giving, a juridical, constitutional act; it was an epiphany of the Divine, a self-revelation of the Infinite. In some ways it may be seen as a second creation (the ten words of Genesis 1, “and God said,” parallel the Ten Commandments; both parallel the ten sefirot, which are the building blocks of the universe), or as a revelation of the inner meaning of Creation (thus Sefat Emet). This bridging of the gap between God and man is symbolized by the very figure of the mountain: a place in between heaven and earth. Indeed, some midrashim stress that this gap remained unclosed, and that God hovered ten hand-breadths above Moses; even the “father of all the prophets,” the human being who attained the highest degree of apprehension of the Divine, in the end experienced this distance.

On the simplest, literal level: our comprehension of Torah is in some sense a translation, an interpretation, a “reading” or “unpacking” or “deconstruction” (to use fashionable jargon), a “contraction” into human terms, of the Infinite. Even on the rational, juridical level, we cannot really understand the internal contradictions in Torah law, but simply accept their presence there with faith; all the more so the mystical “unity of opposites” present in the World/Torah/Divine Name. This idea has far -reaching implications for our understanding of Torah min ha-shamayim: namely, that what we know of Torah is only that part of the primordial Torah which our minds can comprehend, the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The halakhah, the directives of the Torah, are obligatory; but they are in some sense still one remove from the Divine voice.

Or, to give this a mystical reading: the great unitive vision, which is how God sees the world, and how properly speaking human beings should perceive God, is beyond human powers. “I heard two”—human beings, even at their most sublime, hear a multiplicity of things, and see reality in differentiated terms. In any event, the human perception of what happened is severely bound by the inherent limitations of human being, of human perception and its ability to comprehend. “God spoke one word, we heard two things.”

"The Great Voice That Did not Cease"

Hag ha-Shavuot—the holiest, most mysterious night of the Jewish year. The end of seven weeks of quiet, inner preparation. Of counting, of expectancy, of waiting upon the word that sounds from Sinai—the voice heard long ago, and the voice that echoes down through time, renewed in every age, and received anew by each person on Hag ha-Shavuot.

There are two ways of hearing this voice. There is the “standing at the foot of the mountain”—the path of the tradition, of the halakhah. Where receiving the Torah means to receive the entire tradition: the great body of law, of imperatives, of traditions, of texts—the 613 mitzvot; the 63 tractates of the Mishnah and Talmud; the thousand-plus sections of the Shulhan Arukh, with its tens of thousands of sub-sections and details and rules; and the books of commentary and novellae and responsa—not to mention the works of Kabbalah and Midrash and Musar and thought and apologetics—without number. “Turn it over and turn over, and do not move from it; delve deeply into it, for everything is in it.” The Torah is a broad and deep sea, in which one can immerse oneself one’s whole life, and which no one—not even the wisest and oldest and most learned “gadol”—can ever know completely.

The novice can easily feel daunted and overwhelmed by its very size and depth and complexity. Here, a midrash gives sage advice: study one chapter today and another tomorrow and a third one the day after—and slowly, imperceptibly, so gradually that you don’t even notice it happening, you begin to understand and know more and more, and if one is dedicated, and persistent, and applies oneself, one may even, with help from Above, become one of the wise.

The other mode is what might be called “ascending the mountain of the Lord.” Here the goal is not only practical knowledge of the Law—“to study and to teach, to observe and to do”—but “knowledge of the Lord”—or, in contemporary language, “religious consciousness.” Of the life of Torah as one of constantly growing and deepening insight and understanding, of the study of Torah making one into a different person.

On one level, this is thought of as esoteric teaching for the few; but on another level, there are hints throughout the tradition that this is the ultimate goal of Torah and mitzvot for all. And the essence of the path is not one of arcane, obscure symbols, but one of the utmost simplicity. Of opening one’s heart to God; of a changed consciousness. But this altered consciousness is not like the sense of disconnectedness and the unreal “high” one gets from a drug, but more like turning a corner in your mind. To know that there is a God. It is this that Hasidim speak about when they say that leit atar panuy mineh, that there is no place empty of Him. That the main thing is avodah—to serve God in all one’s ways, through all one’s life.

There are those who would say that these two paths are mutually exclusive. That authentic Judaism is halakhah, halakhah, and more halakhah. That the true love of God is expressed through dikduk hamitzvot, through punctiliousness in the practical mitzvot. That all this talk of the spirit is a foreign planting, an intrusion from the Gentile world. Since the Enlightenment and the emergence of reform movements in Judaism, many Orthodox Jews have redoubled their adherence to the old ways, to halakhah as the be-all and end-all, and have been loath to speak of this other dimension, except in closed circles of an elite few. Add to that the revival of “spirituality” in our world today, with its at-times bizarre mixture of precious gold and dross, of wise and deep teachers (of all backgrounds and paths) alongside charlatans and manipulators and sybarites— and one can well understand the attitude “he who treasures his soul will stay far away from them.”

There are others who say that, if God is truly one, and omnipresent, dwelling within the soul of every son and daughter of Adam, then the path to the holy transcends any organized religion, and we do not need the particular Torah of Israel. That we live in an age of enlightenment, of spiritual insight, and that soon all mankind will join shoulders in a new, higher level of consciousness, heretofore unknown in the history of mankind. (To which one can only say: Halvai! Would that it were so! But that, like the Hasidic rebbe in the famous story [the Kotzker? Avraham of Strelisk?], the world I live in, even here in the Holy City, in the “back garden of the Shekhinah,” doesn’t smell of Redemption.)

But in truth, properly understood, these paths in their root are not mutually exclusive, but intertwined and even complementary. The voice heard at Sinai is referred to by Deut 5:19 as kol gadol ve-lo yasaf—an ambiguous phrase, that may be translated as “a great voice that did not continue” or “A great voice that did not cease.” A singular, unique event, never repeated, unchanging, a fixed paradigm for all eternity; or a continuous, ongoing process, echoing down throughout all time, waiting to be heard in its unique way within the soul of every person. Somehow, it is both.

Shavuot (Rambam)

Three Beginnings to Talmud Torah

At times, I like to think of Shavuot as a kind of “Rosh Hashanah” for Torah study: as a time when a person evaluates his devotion to Torah study during the previous year, and accepts the Torah anew: meaning, not only a life based on performing the mitzvot of the Torah, but one in which Torah study itself plays a central, vital role.

It is thus a truism to say that the study of Torah occupies a unique place among the mitzvot. “Talmud Torah is equivalent to them all.” Traditionally, the act of study is of the highest value; since hoary antiquity the talmid hakham has been a central culture hero of Judaism. But it is also great because it “leads to action”—knowledge of Torah is necessary in order to perform the other mitzvot, and in general to leave a good, ethical, holy life; that is, it performs an instrumental function in relation to the rest of the Torah.

For all these reasons, Hilkhot Talmud Torah (“the Laws of Torah Study”) enjoys honor of place in Rambam’s Yad as the third treatise in Sefer ha-Mada, the book of basics, immediately after the Fundaments of Torah (basic theology and premises), and Hilkhot Deot (ethics, character building), as an essential building block of the Jewish religious personality. Like them, there is nothing quite like it in the other standard halakhic codes. As if to say: after correct belief and decent ethical traits, the central thing a Jew needs (prior even to rejecting idolatry?) is knowledge of Torah.

Many years ago I heard a talk by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, in which he stated that this work really has “three beginnings”—by which he meant that there are three separate, albeit interrelated and intertwined, aspects to Torah study that are treated in this treatise, which define the contours of its internal division. Our shiur for this Shabbat, sometimes known as Shabbat Kallah, in which Israel prepares itself like a bride for the great day of Shavuot, will be based on these texts, and some of their features:

We begin at the beginning, with Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1.1:

1. Women, slaves and minors are exempt from Torah study, but a minor is to be taught Torah by his father, as is said, “and you shall teach them to your sons, to speak of them” [Deut 11:19]. And a woman is not required to teach her son, as whoever is required to study is required to teach.

This is a very strange beginning. Why does Rambam begin with a negative listing of those who are exempt from this mitzvah, rather than defining who is obligated to do so, or even more, what the mitzvah itself is all about? Basically, this is a slightly roundabout way of getting at the essential, paradoxical point: that the focus of Talmud Torah (at least in this, its first aspect) is upon a class of people who are themselves not obligated in the mitzvah: namely, minors, i.e., small children. In other words, Torah is first and foremost the vehicle for transmitting the tradition to the next generation. As such, almost by definition, it must start with those who are ignorant of it, and need to be taught (Is not that, after all, the goal of all education: to convey knowledge to those who do not yet possess it?).

I won’t elaborate here upon the issue of women and Torah study, even though I can imagine that many women readers will be riled upon reading the first words of this passage, not to mention §13, which implies that they are not even allowed to do so: first, because it is a vast subject, whose discussion would take us too far afield; and second, because much has been written about it, and there are in fact many far-reaching rulings and interpretations both permitting and encouraging women to study Torah, many institutions of higher Torah learning specifically for women, both here and in a fair number of places in the Diaspora, etc.

I will only comment that Rav Soloveitchik often spoke of the central role of women in the education of children. He said that, whereas the task of the fathers is to convey formal textual learning, the “discipline of thought and discipline of action,” the “what” of the halakhah; whereas the women taught the “how,” the “flavor” of the mitzvot, the living experience of Jewish life. “Without [my mother’s] teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive…. The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mothers lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor.”

2. Just as a man is required to teach his son, so is he required to teach his grandson, as is said, “and you shall make them known to your children and your children’s children” [Deut 4:9]. And not his son and his grandson alone, but it is incumbent upon every sage in Israel to teach all of the students, even though they are not his children. As is said, “you shall teach them to your sons” [Deut 6:7] From the oral tradition we learn that “your sons” refers to disciples, for the disciples are called sons, as is said, “and the sons of the prophets came out” [2 Kgs 2:3] If so, why is he commanded concerning his son and his grandson? To give priority to his son over his grandson, and to his grandson over the son of his neighbor.

Several important points here. The law about teaching one’s grandchildren as well as one’s children is derived from the dictum of R. Yehoshua b. Levi that “Whoever teaches his grandson Torah as if he received it at Mount Sinai” (Kiddushin 30a; compare Berakhot 21b, where the reading is “son”). That is, in addition to the obligation to transmit the contents of the tradition to the next generation, there is a sense in which an important element in teaching Torah is conveying the actuality of the Sinai experience. The young child, upon hearing words of Torah from his grandfather, may well imagine that this old, hoary-haired man was himself present at that great event—since, at a certain age, the child does not yet understand the difference between a gap of 60 years [or even less!] and one of 3000 years!). Somehow, on a very primal level, such an experience conveys the great antiquity of the Torah.

The above halakhah also touches upon the relationship between rebbe and talmid, or teacher and disciple, as one of the strongest relationships in Judaism. The process of teaching, of transmitting the tradition, that takes place in every family, occurs in greater intensity among those who engage in study as adults, in the Study House or the yeshiva; the relationship there is in many ways like that of parent and child, perhaps in idealized form. Moreover, it was not uncommon for a scholar to give his daughter in marriage to his brightest student, so that “the disciples are called sons” became a literal truth. (Incidentally, the laws of kavod rabbo, the honor to be shown to one’s teacher, occupy a central place in the later chapters of Hilkhot Talmud Torah, and there are many interesting parallels to the honor due to parents.)

The idea of masoret, or what the Rav used to call a masorah community, a community based upon a tradition, in which the act of transmitting the tradition is perhaps the central cultural enterprise, is a very important Jewish concept, and one that is markedly different from the modern mentality. Where modernity sees constant change, progress, renewal, and innovation as a central value, the idea of masoret takes as axiomatic the notion of continuity with past.

After elaborating, in §§3-7, the obligation to teach one’s child, to hire a tutor if need be, etc., Rambam turns in §8 of this chapter to what might be called the “second beginning” of Hilkhot Talmud Torah—the obligation of each individual to study Torah for himself:

8. Every man in Israel is required to study Torah, be he wealthy or poor, whole in body or beset by suffering, be he a youth or an old man whose strength has waned. Even if he is a poor man sustained by alms who goes [begging] from door to door, and even if he had a wife and children [to support], he is required to set aside a fixed time to engage in Torah study, by day and by night, as is said “you shall meditate upon it day and night’ [Josh 1:8].

Here we have what many would consider the basic obligation of Torah study per se: the obligation of each person to set aside times for Torah study every day, known as kevi’at itim latorah, “fixing times for Torah.” This rule created what is one of the most striking and unique features of traditional Jewish society, both past and present: the ideal of ongoing, continuous adult study as a natural, self-evident part of life, almost literally from the cradle to the grave. This fostered, as a matter of course, nearly universal adult literacy, at least among males. In the shteitl, there were study circles suitable for everybody, at every conceivable level: from the Hevra Tehillim or Hevra Ein Yaakov for the simple folk, for reciting Psalms or the study of Rabbinic legends; through Hevra Mishnayos, to the Hevra Shas, for serious daily Talmudic study by those capable of it. Rambam defines the desited curriculum for such study in a passage we shall bring in our next issue.

The third “beginning” describes the person who chooses to devote himself entirely to Torah; who decides, so to speak, to “pick up” the “crown of Torah.” Here, we turn to Chapter 3:

1. Israel were crowned with three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of kingship. The crown of priesthood was given to Aaron, as is said, “And it shall be for him and his seed after him an eternal covenant of priesthood” [Num 25:13]. The crown of kingship was given to David, as is said, “His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as long as the sun is before Me” [Ps 89:37]. The crown of the Torah is set aside, waiting and ready for all Israel. As is said, “The Torah commanded us by Moses is a heritage for the congregation of Jacob” [Deut 33:4]. Whoever wishes to may come and pick it up. Lest you say that these crowns are greater than the crown of Torah, it says, “By me kings reign, and rulers legislate what is just, by me princes rule” [Prov 8:15-16]. [From this] you learn that the crown of Torah is greater than both of these.

What is symbolized by a crown? It connotes, first of all, power and honor, that the one wearing it is accorded recognition and even homage by the public. But also, that the one wearing it embodies something greater than him or herself: the Queen of England in some sense embodies the State (the abuses of absolute monarchy in days gone by were justified by this self-same conception; see Louis Quatorze’s notorious “L’êtat c’est moi”): the respect shown the queen is not for the flesh and blood Elizabeth Windsor, but for the concept of England that she symbolizes and in some sense incarnates. But the crown symbolizes not only something greater than its wearer, but also something far more ancient; in a certain sense, the king or queen is important as a point on an unbroken continuum going far back in times, to its distant origins. Thus, today’s Elizabeth is in a sense an embodiment, an avatar, of the first Norman kings.

Returning to the world of Judaism: the talmid hakham, who wears the “crown of Torah,” in some sense embodies the Torah itself; the respect shown him is a sign of respect for the Torah. Indeed, a great Torah sage is often referred to as “a walking Sefer Torah” (just as the physical Torah scroll is itself really a symbol, an embodiment of the metaphysical, cosmic idea of Torah). In a certain sense, every king of Israel is an avatar of King David; every priest is an avatar of Aaron; (Hasidim might add here: every Rebbe is an avatar of the Baal Shem Tov); and every talmid hakham is an avatar of … Moshe Rabbeinu. It is for that reason that, in the Talmud, when one of the sages expresses a sharp insight, it is often responded to with the words, Moshe, shapir kamart! “Moshe, you have spoken well!”

But what is implied when it states that the crown of Torah is “set aside and waiting” for those who wish to “pick it up“? Essentially, that the ideal of the Torah sage is a democratic ideal; unlike the Davidic monarchy or the Aharonide priesthood, the Torah is not hereditary, but is a function of devotion to study, knowledge, arduous training, and intellectual power. It is no simple matter, and demands much hard work, but in principle it is available to all. “Be careful of the children of the poor, for from them shall come Torah.” True, there have been and are families of hakhamim, entire families all of whose members have been distinguished rabbis, a certain “aristocracy of learning”—but it is not an inheritance passed down automatically. If someone doesn’t cut the grade, his Rabbinic “yihus” is worthless, and there are many stories of great sages who emerged from obscurity—from Rabbi Akiva on. In our own day, quite a few outstanding figures have started as ba’alei teshuvah, people who started from assimilated families without any religious tradition to speak of.

Finally, the concept of a “crown of Torah” implies that Torah differs from every other mitzvah, in that it is not something which one performs with a sense that one has ever completed it and fulfilled one’s duty. Rather, it is something to which a person can devote his entire life. Thus, after quoting various Rabbinic dicta in praise of Torah study, in 3.6 Rambam redefines the mitzvah of Talmud Torah with the words: “... One who has decided to perform this mitzvah properly and to be crowned with the crown of Torah…” should live in thus-and-such a way.

There is thus a minimum requirement of Torah study incumbent upon every Jew, as described in 1.8-12; and then there is the life of one who wishes to be “crowned with Torah,” which has its demanding rules. The Torah is described as a sea, that is literally infinite. We shall continue with this concept, and several other related passages, below.

****** ******** *******

The great moment of the Revelation at Sinai, celebrated on Shavuot, was two things: it was a moment of epiphany, when the seemingly unbridgeable gap between heaven and earth, between the human and the Divine, was for a moment somehow bridged, like the mountain itself on which the Shekhinah descended. And it was also the moment when the Torah was given, that entity—book? code of law? teaching? concretization of Wisdom? — that was to serve ever after as an eternal bond between man and God, a kind of crystallization of that great moment. Hence, study of the Torah is the supreme religious act that ties man to the Divine.

Torah Study and Pardes

In the passage devoted to the “second definition” of Talmud Torah, Rambam describes the basic curriculum of Torah study: that knowledge which every Jew is to devote himself to acquiring over the course of his life. His presentation is based upon the Rabbinic statement, found in Kiddushin 30a, that “a person ought to divide his years in three: one third in Scripture, one third in Mishnah, and one third in Talmud (or ‘gemara’).”

This discussion sheds some light on the mishnah in Avot 5.25, describing the ages of man, in which these three levels are introduced at five-year intervals, suggesting that each one should be studied intensively for five years: Bible from age 5 to 10, Mishnah from 10 to 15, and Gemara from 15 to 20, with a man marrying at 18 and, at age 20, beginning ”to chase” —i.e., to earn a living in a serious way. But after raising the obvious point that no person knows how long he will live, the Talmudic discussants conclude that this tripartite division must be made in an ongoing way: either that one ought to divide the week into thirds, or even that one should make sure to study all three of these areas every day. Rambam presents his “take” on this saying in Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1.11:

11. A person is required to divide his study time in three: one-third in written Torah, one-third in Oral Torah, and one-third he should reflect and understand the conclusion of a thing from its initial premises, and infer one thing from another, and compare one thing to another, and understand the principles by which the Torah is expounded, until he knows the essence of these rules and how to derive what is forbidden and what is permitted and the like from those things that are learned by tradition. And this subject is called gemara.

Rambam here offers an interesting interpretation of this text. Obviously, neither “gemara” nor “Talmud” can refer to the text of the Talmud itself, as that book had not yet been redacted when this statement was made; hence, it must refer to a certain mode or method of study. If Mishnah refers to simple learning of a certain body of traditions or texts, understanding them on a simple level of knowing what the words mean and what it is talking about, and repetition so that the information therein becomes part of one’s acquired body of knowledge, then gemara means understanding and reconstructing the innate, internal logic of the halakhah, how its laws are derived from its first premises and from the biblical text itself.

This last is particularly important. A central and often vexing problem of Oral Torah is how the rules are derived from the biblical text—and for that reason it is a central concern in numerous Talmudic sugyot. In modern times, a frequent complaint of neophytes to Jewish practice, and an ideological criticism raised both by Christianity and by certain modernist schools in Judaism, is that the halakhah often seems far-fetched in relation to the biblical verse on which it is based. “Moses didn’t say to have two sets of dishes. He only said to ‘do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk!” This problems was a central one in Maimonides day as well. The Karaite movement, which claimed to follow the written law alone without the “frills” of what they called “Rabbanism,” was a vigorous and very articulate opponent of and alternative to Rabbinic Judaism, in Egypt, in Babylonia, and throughout the Middle East, against which Maimonides directed much of his polemics. Hence, any teacher of Torah, and for that matter any thinking Jew, needed to know how to “derived one thing so from another,” that is, how the tradition itself arrived at its conclusions. But he then takes this further. He continues:

12. How so? If he was an artisan and engaged in labor three hours a day and studied Torah nine. During those nine [hours]: for three he reads Written Torah, for three Oral Torah, and the other three he reflects in his mind about how one derives one thing from another. And those things received by tradition are part of Written Torah, and their interpretation are part of oral Torah. And the matters we have referred to as Pardes are included in the gemara.

Note, first of all, Rambam’s expectations in terms of the division of time, even if only offered by way of example: three hours work and nine hours of Torah study daily! He also makes it clear that “things received by tradition”—that is, halakhic contents based not upon exegesis, but upon ancient orally-transmitted traditions (for example, how to make tefillin), known as halakhah li-Moshe mi-Sinai, “halakhot given to Moses at Sinai”—are considered an integral part of the Written Torah. More important is the seemingly innocent remark in the final sentence, that the discipline referred to as Pardes is part of gemara. We shall return to this remark below.

To what does this refer? To the beginnings of a person’s study. But once he grows in wisdom and no longer needs to study Written Torah nor to engage constantly in Oral Torah, he should periodically read Written Torah and engage in the orally received tradition, so that he not forget any of the laws of the Torah. But he shall spend all of his days in gemara alone, according to the breadth of his thought and the composure of his mind.

This is an important innovation. The three-fold division is not a fixed measure that must be followed throughout a person’s lifetime, but refers primarily to the earlier stages of study, before a person gains mastery of the Torah (of course many people, perhaps the majority today, never get much past this stage). Once a person knows all the halakhot, at least in some basic way, the goal of his study changes, from acquiring basic knowledge (including practical information needed for observing the mitzvot in everyday life) to ever-deepening understanding of Torah, in accordance with the method of gemara.

I should interject here that the Rambam wrote the Mishneh Torah, in large part, as a kind of “substitute mishnah.” Indeed, he states in the Introduction to this work that it was written “so that a person may read, first the Written Torah, and then this book, and he will know all of Oral Torah and not need any other book between them,” rather than having to plow through numerous different sources—which by then included not only the Mishnah and its parallel tannaitic works (Tosefta, Mekhilta, Sifra, Sifrei), not only the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, but also the edicts and rulings of the Geonim and the latter sages up to his own day, scattered through a variety of books.

Up to this point, the picture painted is one suitable, say, to a traditional Lithuanian talmid hakham who, having mastered the basic literature, spends most of his time in deeper reflection upon and study of the vast body of Torah literature. The image of the sage “reflecting in his mind” upon the underlying principles and interconnections of Oral Torah conjures up the image of Rav Hayyim of Brisk, whom Rav Soloveitchik once described spending an entire night, from 8 pm till dawn, sitting and reflecting in his mind about a certain problem in the Talmud until worshippers came in for the morning prayer—and his powers of concentration were such that he was totally unaware of the passage of time!

But remembering his remark about Pardes being included within the rubric of gemara, it seems that Rambam had something quite different in mind. To understand this properly, we shal need to turn to a passage that we briefly mentioned at the very beginning of our studies on Rambam. Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 4.13:

13. The subject matter of these four chapters in which we have expounded these five mitzvot, are that which the early Sages called Pardes, as they said “Four entered Pardes” [Hagigga 14b]. And even though they were leaders of Israel and great sages, not all of them had the power to know and to apprehend all these things clearly. And I say that no one is suited to stroll in Pardes save one who has filled his belly with meat and bread. And meat and bread means, to know the forbidden and the permitted and the rest of all the mitzvot.

The Talmudic story alluded to here tells the story of four sages who “entered Pardes”: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuyah and and Rabbi Akiva. Of the four, Ben Azzai ”looked and died”; Ben Zoma “glanced and was harmed“ (i.e., went crazy]; Elisha ben Abbuya “uprooted the plantings” (i.e., became a heretic, and from then on was known as Aheir, “the other one”); and only Rabbi Akiva “entered in peace and left in peace.”

What is meant by Pardes? The word itself is a late Persian loan word that appears only three times in the Bible, meaning an orchard, or a grove of fruit trees—and as such is a pleasant, even tempting, attractive place. But the term is understood here to refer to some sort of hidden, esoteric teaching. Some say that this alludes to what later became known as Kabbalistic teaching, with its secrets of the Godhead and the hidden cosmic meanings of the Torah, the mitzvot, etc., adding that the initials of the word Pardes alludes to the four levels of teaching of the Torah. Other historians say that it alludes to Gnostic religion, or perhaps to proto-Christian theology. In any event, it involved profound, hidden matters, an involvement entailing certain dangers.

The reactions described here, in which certain people, plumbing the depths of esoteric knowledge or experiencing mystical visions (some traditions say they literally ascended to Heaven!) either go crazy, break with their inherited tradition and go astray after heretical ideas, or even drop dead from the overpowering nature of the personal epiphany. Such things are perhaps not unfamiliar to modern readers. In our day, some people using psychedelic drugs saw or felt things that were too frightening, too uncanny, for them to absorb. This may be the essential point of the idea that “no man can see Me and live”—that direct knowledge of God is too deep, too frightening, too overwhelming for a human being to absorb.

But Rambam takes all this in a different direction. He defines Pardes as ma’aseh bereshit & ma’aseh merkavah: that is, the hidden meanings of the Account of the Creation in Genesis 1, and that of the Divine Chariot in Ezekiel 1, as natural science and the philosophical knowledge of God. These are subjects with which he deals in Chapters 1-4 of Yesodei ha-Torah as necessary prerequisites of the mitzvot of knowing that God exists, that He is one, and His love and fear. We continue:

And even though these things [i.e., halakhic studies] are called a small thing by the Sages, for our Sages said, ”’A great thing’: this refers to the Works of the Chariot; ‘a small thing’: the premises of Abbaye and Rabba” [Sukkah 28a]. Nevertheless, it is fitting that they should come first. For they settle a man’s mind initially; moreover, they are the great good that the Holy One blessed be He gave for the inhabitation of this world, so that people may inherit the life of the World to Come. And it is possible for all to know them, great and small, man and woman, a person of broad thought and one of narrow scope.

The Way of Torah

This past Shabbat we began to present Rambam’s “Laws of Torah Study.” The third chapter of this treatise, in which Rambam describes the qualities and way of life of the person who strives to be adorned with “the crown of the Torah,” gives a glimpse of his conception of the ideal Jewish spiritual personality. As we mentioned at the beginning of this year, one of our goals here was to recreate a picture of Maimonides’ conception of what would today be called “spirituality.” It seems to me that this chapter, together with the description of love of God in Teshuvah Ch 10, and that of the prophet in Yesodei ha-Torah Ch 7, combine to provide a picture of what this looks like.

Following the introductory halakhah, and a series of passages quoting Rabbinic sayings in praise of Torah, Rambam addresses the question of how a person who wishes to acquire mastery of Torah ought to live. It is significant that the emphasis is placed, not on the curriculum of what he needs to learn, but on the ethical discipline of learning. Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3.6:

He who has decided to perform this mitzvah properly and to be crowned with the crown of Torah, will not turn his mind to other things, and will not have in his heart [the idea] that he will acquire Torah together with wealth and honor. For this is the way of Torah: eat bread with salt, and drink water by measure, and sleep on the ground, and live a life of pain, and labor in Torah [Avot 6.4]. And the labor is not for you to finish, but neither are you free to neglect it. And if you have learned much Torah, you shall earn much reward, and the reward corresponds to the pain trouble.

What is striking here is the ascetic tone, the strident opposition to any sort of creature comforts, the idea that Torah study is a single–minded, all-embracing endeavor that leaves no room even for the simple, ordinary pleasures of life. “Live a life of pain” (or: difficulty). Indeed, it sounds almost like monasticism—in the sense of a tough, no-frills existence, devoted to a sacred cause—except for the assumption is that one will be married. He particularly condemns (in §§7-9, which we have not brought here) the idea that one can combine Torah study with earning and enjoying wealth.

10. Whoever has in mind that he shall engage in Torah and not perform labor and will be supported by alms, such a one has profaned God’s name and shamed the Torah and extinguished the light of religion, and caused evil to himself, and removed himself from the life of the world to come. For it is forbidden to derive benefit from words of Torah in this world. Our Sages said, “Whoever derive benefit from words of Torah, has removed himself from the world.” And they also commanded, saying, “Do no make them a crown to aggrandize yourselves therewith, nor a shovel with which to dig.”

11. It is a great virtue that one support himself by the labor of his own hands. And such was the way of the early Sages. And by this he shall merit to all the honor and goodness in this world and the next…

12. Words of Torah are only sustained by those that exhaust themselves over them. Not among those who study out of luxury and eating and drinking, but by one who kills himself over them and constantly pains his body, and does not give sleep to his eyes nor to his eyelids rest. Our Sages said, by way of metaphor, “This is the Torah, when a person dies in a tent” [Num 19:14]. The Torah is only sustained by those that kill themselves in the tent of the wise. As Solomon said in his wisdom, “If you faint on the day of adversity your strength is small” (Prov 24:10). And he also said in his wisdom, “also my wisdom remained with me [i.e., stood me in good stead]” (Eccles 2:9). That wisdom which he learned through travail was that lasted.

Our Sages said, a covenant is made, that whoever labors in Torah in the Study House, does not quickly forget. And whoever labors in secret becomes wise, as is said. “but with the humble is wisdom” [Prv 11:2]. And whoever makes his voice heard in the study house at the time of his study, his learning lasts. But one who reads silently, quickly forgets.

13. Even though it is a mitzvah to study at day and at night, a person does not learn most of his wisdom save at night. Therefore he who wises to merit the crown of Torah will take care about all his nights, and not waste even one of them in sleeping and eating and drinking and idle conversation and the like, but in studying Torah and words of wisdom. Our Sages said, the song of Torah is only heard at night, as is said, “Arise, cry out in the night” [Lam 2:19]. And whoever studies Torah at night, a string of grace is stretched over him by day, as is said, ‘By day the Lord commands His steadfast love, and at night His song is with me, a prayer for the living God” [Ps 42:9]….

The chapter concludes with the converse message as well: the negative impact and dire evil of the neglect of Torah. Although Chapter 4 is mostly devoted to issues of teaching, and the conduct of yeshivot and other communal institutions of Torah study, he has something more to say about the ethical qualities of both Torah students and leaders:

4.1 One does not teach Torah except to a student who is proper and decent and pleasant in his acts. But if he had gone in a bad way, one is to return him to the good path and teach him to behave in the good way and one examines him, and thereafter brings him into the Study House and teaches him. Our sages said whoever teaches a student who is not good is as if he threw a rock to Mercury [i.e., engaged in idolatrous practice], as is said, “Like one who binds the stone in the sling is he who gives honor to a fool.” [Prv 26:8] And there is no honor other than Torah, said, “the wise shall inherit honor” [Prv 3:35].

Similarly, a teacher who did not walk in the good path, even if he was a great sage and all the people need him, one does not study from him until he returns to the good. As is said, “For the lips of the priest shall teach knowledge, and you shall seek Torah from his mouth, for he is an angel of the Lord of Hosts” [Mal 2:7]. Our Sages said that if the rabbi is similar to an angel of the Lord, seek Torah from him; if not, do not do so.

Shavuot (Psalms)

Psalm 119: The Grand Eight-fold Psalm

No psalm expresses the centrality of the Torah in the Jew’s life, which is ultimately the central theme of Shavuot, as much as Psalm 119, which begins with the words ”Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the Torah of the Lord.” The longest chapter in the Psalms, and in the Bible as a whole, it consists of a whopping 176 verses—almost twice as many as the next longest chapter, Numbers 7, with its 89 verses. It has a unique structure: an eight-fold alphabetical acrostic, it consists of twenty-two groups of eight verses, in which every verse in each group begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet; hence its name, tamnei apei, “the eight-fold psalm.” (Interestingly, this psalm is well-known for its use in a popular memorial custom: when visiting a grave, it is customary to read a certain sequence of seven psalms, followed by those verses from Psalm 119 that spell out the name of the deceased, sometimes followed by the letters of the word neshama, “soul.”)

Due to its great length, it is difficult to identify any clear-cut structure or pattern to the psalm, beyond the alphabetical rubric. But notwithstanding the constraints imposed upon the author by its alphabetical arrangement, it is very poetic and suffused with the message of love and devotion to the Torah and its laws. Reading through, one gains the impression that each group of eight verses is in some sense an autonomous unit or section; many seem to focus upon one or another theme. Some speak of the strictness of the law and the awe of God entailed in the observance of its laws; others emphasize the love or joy connected with Torah; still others, of the intense longing and desire to draw close to the law. The nature of the Hebrew language imposes its own constraints as well: almost all of the verses in the section beginning with bet begin with the preposition bet, as do those with kaf, correspondingly; those starting with vav use that letter as the conjunctive; many of those in heh tend to be phrased in the hiph’il (causative) construction, those in nun in the nif’al (passive voice), and so on.

But beyond these formal features, one is struck in this psalm, more than anything else, by the constant use of images of love, joy, even of pleasure and playfulness, related to the study of Torah. This point is in sharp contrast to the harsh stereotype of “The Law” often encountered in Western civilization, under the influence of Christianity, as something stern and frightening, dwarfing man and forcing him to mindless obedience, to a kind of coerced, anxiety-producing behaviorism. This idea was promulgated by Paul of Tarsus, who was obsessed with the notion that the Torah demanded a kind of unreachable perfectionism, so that to live under the Law is to feel that one is never doing enough, that one is constantly inadequate, not “justified.” His solution was to throw out the baby with the bath water: to act as if humankind does not require law or norms at all, or that they are in any event irrelevant to the religious enterprise, and to posit a religion of divine grace and kindness and love which, nice as it may sound on paper, ignored major areas of human nature and ended in the cruelty and fanaticism of crusades, inquisitions, witch-hunts, pogroms, or garden-variety violence, coupled with apathy to this-worldly violence and human suffering.

But to return to our psalm: the themes that come across clearly and repeatedly are those of joy and happiness and love. “How I love Your Torah; it is my discourse the whole day long” (v. 97). Several particularly powerful verses deal with the idea that the Torah serves as a psychological stave for the person who is otherwise hounded and persecuted from all sides. Thus, in verses that became the text for one of the most moving songs to emerge from the Holocaust: "This has been my comfort in my affliction, that Your word gives me life. Wicked ones greatly taunted me, but I did not turn from Your Torah”—vv. 50-51); or “Were it not for Your Torah that was my plaything [or: delight], I would have perished in my affliction”; v. 92. This last verse serves as the text for one of Shlomo Carlebach’s most beautifully haunting melodies.

I would like to focus upon the concept of the Torah as “a plaything,” a source of pleasure and happiness in a world otherwise filled with darkness and evil, threatening figures. What is meant by this usage of the root sh'ash'a, repeated eight times in the course of this psalm in various forms, and also used, e.g., in Proverbs 8:30 (the verse used in the very first section of Midrash Rabbah), where the Torah is referred to as God’s “plaything”? Clearly this word, whose root meaning is “to sport, take delight in, to be an object of delight” is used, not in a trivial, childish sense, but as that which brings deep joy, a sense of meaning and order in a chaotic and confused world. Far from being something dark, heavy or somber, the Torah lightens a person’s burden in this world, filling it with “sweetness and light” (qualities that Matthew Arnold mistakenly attributed only to Hellenism, not to “Hebraism”).

Interestingly, the noted Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, in his book Homo Ludens, writes of play as an essential feature of human culture. He defines play as that which is performed, nor for any utilitarian end, to fulfill a concrete biological or other need, but for the pure enjoyment and pleasure of the mind. Thus, we speak of “playing” a musical instrument, of that performed in the theater as a “play,” of puns and such as “word-play,” of the “play” of the mind—but also to “play” games, “sex-play”—etc. Homo Ludens illustrates the role of play in law, war, science, poetry, philosophy, and art. Huizinga saw the instinct for play as the central element in human culture; all human activities are in a sense play: “Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play.” (Compare Ernst Cassirer’s concept of culture as the unique project of human society in An Essay on Man, in which he elaborates a somewhat similar idea, albeit with a different terminology.)

So, too, the Torah contains an element of play. We see this in such things as gematria (homilies based on the numerological values of various words or phrases), notarikon (the reading of the letters of certain words in the Torah as initials spelling other phrases), or in the recombining of the letters of a given word into others (thus, Tikkunei Zohar derives no less than 70 words from the opening word of the Tanakh, Bereshit). Similarly, there are numerous derashot of Hasidim which turn biblical verses and rabbinic dicta backwards and inside-out. And, most recently, with the emergence of powerful and rapid computers, we have a new form of “Torah play” in the Torah codes, the unveiling of hidden messages imbedded within the text at regular letter intervals. (A friend of ours recently told us of a game she sometimes plays on Shabbat which might be described as a form of Torah play, but also as a light-hearted meditative tool. The aim is to find a term descriptive of God for each letter of the alphabet (English or Hebrew, as the case may be), but with one crucial rule: no clichés or hackneyed, standard phrases allowed!)

But there is in fact a great deal of intellectual play even in the “straighter” modes of Torah study. There is a certain joy and intellectual satisfaction derived from the sheer inventiveness involved in discovering a hiddush—a new way of looking at things, a new explanation or conceptual framework for a seemingly well-known Talmudic passage. Certain yeshivot place particular emphasis on studying Torah lishmah—“for its own sake”—that is, in specifically studying the more abstruse, non-applicable subject areas of Torah, simply because they are part of Torah, for the sake of the act of engaging in Torah per se. Thus, R. Hayyim of Brisk especially liked Kodashim, the collection of tractates dealing with sacrificial offerings, currently a halakhic “dead letter,” precisely because it is such an obstruse way subject, providing plentiful latitude for creating hiddushim and constructing new conceptual models. Was this work or play? At times it is difficult to say.

Of course, the Torah is seen as something Divine, not merely an artifice of human culture, but something beyond that. Perhaps, in the spirit of the Rabbinic rule that “the Torah speaks in the language of man,” we might say that the Torah assumes the guise of a plaything, of something that sits well within the rubric of homo ludens. In any event, much of this “play” element is found specifically in the Oral Torah, which may be defined as kind of meeting place between the human and the Divine. The point is that Jews are not dour, unsmiling Puritans, but people who love play. Indeed, the Talmud notes that the Holy One blessed be He Himself has in his daily schedule, so to speak, a period during which he plays with the Leviathan—the great sea-monster which He doubtless treats like a puppy.

Gershom Scholem, founder of modern Kabbalah studies and a self-declared religious anarchist, writes of the tremendous exegetical freedom made possible, paradoxically, by the belief in the literal divinity of the Torah. In one of his more personal essays, he writes:

the basic assumption upon which all traditional Jewish mysticism is based… [is] the acceptance of the Torah, in the strictest and most precise understanding of the concept of the word of God…. Each and every word and letter, and not merely something general and amorphous lacking in specific meaning, is an aspect of the revelation of the Divine Presence… It is only for this reason that they were able to find infinite illuminating lights in every word and letter, in the sense of seventy faces to the Torah—of the infinite interpretation and endless understandings of each sentence…. Once a person has accepted the strictures of this faith and this quality of faith… he enjoys an extraordinary measure of freedom… He is able to uncover level upon level, layer upon layer, in the understanding that the gates of exegesis are never closed… This decision allows wide latitude for religious individualism, without leaving the fixed framework of the Torah…

Such an approach can justify even such outrageous multi-lingual puns as my late grandfather’s reading, half tongue-in-cheek, of “you shall not boil the kid in its mother’s milk” as an enjoinder to parents and educators that one cannot bring a “kid”—a child—to mature understanding of Torah if you only feed him watered-down, “milky” intellectual fare (Abraham Gallant, Mashal u-Melitzah, II; Bo, 47-48). In the words of Ben Bag–Bag in Pirkei Avot 5.26: “Turn it about and turn it about, for everything is in it.”