Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Behar-Behukotai (Torah)

Sabbatical & Jubilee Year: “If your brother becomes poor”

In reading this portion (Leviticus 25), attention is most often focused on the Sabbatical year, with its ban on agricultural labor and the numerous practical halakhic issues which arise as a consequence. Since the return of Jews to tilling the soil of the Land of Israel, beginning with the sabbatical year of 1882, this issue has been one of the most controversial polemic points among religious Jewry; it has often served as a litmus test of different group’s attitudes towards the Zionist enterprise, and whether their orientation toward the problem is national and collective, or private and sectarian. All this naturally comes to a head as the shemita year approaches, as it does now. There are numerous rules which affect the lives even of non-agriculturalists, re eating various types of food-stuffs grown, harvested, or stored in violation of these rules. There are various halakhic devices for coping with the Sabbatical year in a modern state: from the controversial “heter mekhira,” in which the entire land is sold to a non-Jew (a procedure reminiscent of the more familiar sale of hametz before Passover); to hydroponics, in which produce is grown in water vats, technically above the land itself; to otzar bet din, in which food that grows by itself is sold through a religious court, which technically speaking only charges for transportation and distribution; to those who buy food from Arab greengrocers (on the often erroneous assumption that they only sell produce from the Arab sector).

But this chapter of the Torah deals with other, far broader issues of economics and the responsibility of society to all its members. Beginning with the institution of the jubilee year, in which all land returns to its original owners, it presents a series of laws stating what one must do “when your brother waxes poor”: when he is forced to sell his homestead, or his house within a city, or to borrow money, or to sell himself as a bondsman to pay back his debts, whether to a fellow Israelite or to a stranger. In general, it is incumbent upon his family members, near and far, and by extension upon society as a whole, to take whatever measures necessary—including substantial outlays of money on his behalf—to help him out and to restore him to his former situation. In brief, the laws here create a wide and extensive social safety net. (To the laws in this chapter one must add the cancellation of debts every seven years, stipulated in Deut 17:1-11) The underlying conception is two-fold: first, that the land, and wealth in general, originate in and belong to God; “they are my servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt” (v. 42). Property is ultimately placed in people’s hands by God as a surety or pledge; it does not really “belong” to its owner. Second, as a corollary, poverty and indebtedness is seen as an accident, a chance event, which does not detract from the human worth and dignity of the person who has become impoverished. Hence, ultimately (although over an admittedly long period of time), certain measures are provided to redeem the poor man from his losses and to assure him his rightful share in the Land of Israel.

These rules may be read as a counterpoint and complement to the social laws of Kedoshim (Lev 19): not to oppress others, not to lie or cheat, not to delay paying wages, etc.—in brief, opposing “unlawful” gain. The basic concept, both there and here, is that one must not treat ones fellow man as an object to be exploited, nor as a rival or even mortal enemy in the struggle for survival, but as a fellow who, like oneself, was created in the image of God and redeemed from Egypt. Here, complementing the mostly negative proscriptions of Ch. 19, we have a series of positive rules requiring one to treat ones fellow as oneself, specifically in the economic area.

After reading this parshah, the connection of pe’ah—the leaving of the corner of the field to the poor—to Shavuot, as noted in last week’s portion, begins to make more sense. If the central theological conception is that God rules over all and owns all, including the land and the people who dwell therein, two interrelated consequences follow: a) that we should acknowledge this fact in various ceremonial ways, many of which are given us by the Torah and the halakha, e.g., the mitzvah of waving the omer; b) that we should look at our fellow man in a brotherly, equal way, sharing with him in God’s bounty—hence leaving the corners of the field for the poor and indigent. Thus the connection between peah and omer and cognate commandments. Beyond that, linking Shavuot, as the festival of Torah, to a representative mitzvah of human responsibility and mutuality also makes sense. A similar connection exists regarding the reading of the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. Theologically: because she was the first proselyte, the first to voluntarily accept Torah covenantal existence, undergoing in the “micro” what the entire people had experienced at Sinai in the “macro.” But also because the setting for the events is “at the time of the barley and the wheat harvests” (2:23), and the encounter with Boaz took place in that setting, in Ruth’s (and by proxy Naomi’s) role of poor people gathering the portions allotted to them.

Thus far as to the text. As soon as one reflects on the reality of modern society, the contrast is striking. In recent years, the axiom that ”man to man is a wolf” has become accepted in broad circles of the Western democracies as normative. We live in an age of “Neo-Liberalism,” in which global capitalism has acquired the power to pursue its agenda unfettered and with impunity. A series of myths have even given this view a veneer of intellectual respectability: that the fall of Soviet Communism somehow “proved” or “vindicated” the validity of the capitalist system (as if democratic socialism or social-democratic alternatives may be rejected out of hand); theories of “drip-down” economics, according to which economic growth and maximal profits for huge corporations will eventually benefit the ordinary citizen (a theory which patently disregards human greed); the grandiose conceit of the “End of History”; the betrayal by university economists of their own intellectual independence and integrity by supporting the policies of the multi-national corporations with hardly a dissident voice; the myths that globalization will make the world a cozy “global village,” making the lives of people in India or Taiwan or the Arab Emirates so much better because they can enjoy “Baywatch” and MacDonalds, etc., etc . Meanwhile, bodies like the World Bank and the WTO dictate internal social policy to smaller countries dependent on them for loans; in more and more sectors, the gains of trade unions are being reversed by the creation of “special contract” work situations for many lower- and middle-grade professionals, without any job security or social benefits—not even holidays, or sick days (I have seen this process with my own eyes in, for example, a major Israeli newspaper); and so on.

What has all this to do with “Torah”? In reading this parasha, so sufficed with egalitarian values and the constant righting of individual economic tragedies, one wonders how any religious Jew can not be a socialist, and not support at least some elementary measures to level off the vast disparities of wealth in our society.

Yet, to be honest, there are difficulties with this picture as reflecting biblical reality. The late Binyamin Uffenheimer, in two articles that relate to this chapter, uses the terms “myth and reality” or “utopia and reality,” to suggest that the picture drawn here is more of a utopian ideal, even a fantasy, than a blueprint for social life that was ever realized in actuality. There is no record of its practical observance in the historical books of the Bible, nor is it clear from the halakhic sources whether it was observed even during the First Temple period; it certainly was not by Second Temple times. The Torah law canceling all debts every seven years was found by the Rabbis to be unworkable. The Torah reinforces the dry law with moral exhortation on this point (Deut 17:7-11), knowing that people would be reluctant to loan money that they would never get back. By Mishnaic times the Sages developed a legal fiction to bypass it: Hillel’s prozbul, perhaps the classic example of Rabbinic legislation intend to reverse unworkable or “outmoded” laws. Similarly, the law in this chapter against taking interest (25:36-37) is bypassed by a mechanism known as heter iska, universally used by banks in Israel today, including the most Orthodox.

Rabbinic aggadah also contains a motif in which poverty is interpreted as the result of moral shortcomings, e.g., as punishment for profiteering in produce of the Sabbatical year. Thus, the various personal disasters found in this chapter are seen by the Talmud (in Kiddushin 20a) as a series of steps in such a person’s downfall, if he does not repent at each stage. This reflects an almost Calvinistic-type morality, in which wealth is seen as a sign of divine pleasure and vice versa.

The fundamental question is: Why is it that, of all human shortcomings, economic greed remains so intractable to religious teaching and law? I do not pretend that Jews were exempt from the lures of the Yetzer ha-Ra, the “Evil Urge,” in other areas, but it does seem that the Torah succeeded, to a large extent, in at least creating communal, social norms that people were reluctant and even afraid to publicly flaunt, e.g., in the laws of Shabbat, kashrut, and basic sexual morality (at least until the modern age). By contrast, in matters of economic greed, the Rabbis were essentially forced to capitulate to popular pressures and reinterpret many basic institutions out of existence. It is a sad commentary on human nature.

Blessing and Rebuke: “If you walk contrary to Me”

The central theme of this week’s, concluding portion of the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the promise and admonition, the blessing and curse, promised or threatened to the Jewish people, depending upon whether or not they follow the Torah. This section is closely paralleled by a similar admonition near the end of Deuteronomy (Deut 28); both chapters serve to conclude and reinforce the lengthy codex of laws that precedes it. The principle is simple: each major unit of law presented in the Torah is concluded, “sealed” by a covenant, in which the rewards and sanctions involved are spelled out. (Even the brief code of civil laws that immediately follows the Sinai revelation, in Exodus 21-23:19, is followed by words of admonition in 23:20-33 and a ceremony of covenant making in Ch. 24). Nahmanides makes this parallelism a central element in his schematic division of the Five Books; he sees the laws of the Torah centered around two “covenants”: the covenant made in the desert, in the initial stages of the Israelites wandering in the desert, which he calls “The Covenant of the Tent of Meeting”; and the covenant made at the end of the forty years, the “Covenant of the Steppes of Moab.” Both chapters succinctly describe the multitude of blessings awaiting the people if they follow God’s laws and, at much greater length and in terrifying detail, what will happen if they disobey them.

On the literary level, there is an ironic contrast between the stark eloquence and vividness of the images used here, and the horror of the scenes portrayed. Beyond the overall structural and thematic similarity, there are also many parallels between these two chapters: the picture of the sky above and the earth beneath becoming like bronze and iron (Lev 26:19; Deut 28:23); the mental confusion and terror of the people, leading to irrational fears and total disorientation (“you will flee at the sound of a driven leaf”– Lev 26:36: “you will stumble at noon like a blind man gropes in the darkness”; “you will say in the morning, ‘when will it be evening,’ and in the evening, ‘when it will it be morning’” (Deut 28:28-29, 66-67) ; the resort to cannibalism and devouring their own children by “the most delicate and sensitive among you” (Lev 26:29; Deut 28:53-57). Finally, after drought, warfare, and famine, the people will be sent into exile in a strange, faraway land—where they will ultimately confess their sins and repent.

Ramban sees these two parallel chapters as corresponding to the two great exiles of the Jewish people: the seventy year exile in Babylonia, and the exile beginning with the Roman-Jewish war, known midrashically as “the Edomite exile,” which continued for two thousand years, in Christian Europe and the Moslem Levant. Maimonides mentions that these two portions were originally read on the Sabbaths immediately preceding Shavuot and Rosh Hashana (today they are read two weeks before): both solemn festivals of spiritual intensity and renewal, for which these readings presumably provided some preparatory material for thought and reflection. On another level, Jewish folk custom viewed the very act of reading this chapter with fear and trepidation, so much so that simple people were afraid to be called up to this Torah reading, fearing that they would be personally stricken by all the terrible things described therein. The custom thus developed for the shamash (warden or beadle of the synagogue) to be called to this reading; but in other places, the rabbi himself took this aliyah, to counteract this superstition (such was the custom, for example, of Hakham Moses Gaster of England).

But notwithstanding the parallels, there are also significant differences between these two chapters. The tokheha (admonition) in Leviticus is shorter and less verbose than that in Deuteronomy, and thus starker and more striking. The opening verse speaks, not only of non-performance of the mitzvot, but of “spurning” and “abhorring” or “being disgusted by” the commandments.” As a consequence, it says that God will be “disgusted” with you. More strikingly, this chapter describes the punishments coming in a series of ascending stages of severity: “If you do not listen to me… but go on walking contrary to me (or: “walking with me by chance / as if by accident / hapstance”)… I will smite you sevenfold more for your sins” (v. 18, 21, 23-24, 27-28, with variations). Finally, a central motif here is that, as a result of the exile, the land will finally get to enjoy its sabbaths—that is, the sabbatical years, just described in the previous chapter—which it did not receive as its due so long as you dwelt upon it (vv. 34-35). (It is interesting that the idea of the sanctity of the land, connected with moral violations, returns several times in these few chapters: as sanction for sexual licentiousness in Lev 18 & 20; with regard to the sabbatical year in Lev 25; and here.)


But beyond the literary patterns and imagery, this chapter presents a basic, vexing theological problem. The picture described here, in which the good enjoy rest and tranquility and bounty on their own land, and the wicked suffer disasters and exile, does not correspond to everyday life experience. Sometimes, terrible things happen to those who observe the commandments and live decent lives. The Jewish people have confronted this in full force during the twentieth century with the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Everyone knows of pious Jews who, after undergoing incomprehensible horrors, lost their faith in the God of Israel. “Holocaust Theology” has emerged as a whole sub-branch of Jewish thought. But in truth, this problem has always existed. The Shoah may differ quantitatively and qualitatively from other examples of murder of innocent people; it probably represents new dimensions in man’s inhumanity to man, due to the strange mixture of cruelty and methodical “rationality,” and the coldness and lack of passion with which the decision to “exterminate” an entire group of people was executed—but, in the most essential terms, it did not teach anything about the problematics of God’s conduct of the world not already known to the author of the Book of Job or to Rabbi Yohanan, who buried ten sons one after the other.

The Talmud, near the beginning of Berakhot, already takes on this problem. It counsels a person, when confronted with seemingly unwarranted sufferings, to “search out his deeds” and repent. “If he searched and did not find—then he may attribute it to bittul Torah, to insufficient devotion to Torah study”—a duty perpetually incumbent upon every Jew, at all times. But if he may honestly say that he is innocent even of that sin, then he should know that these are yesurim shel ahavah—“sufferings” or “chastisements of love.” Elsewhere, of course, we read of Olam Haba, Gan Eden and Gehinnom—reward and punishment meted out after death according to a person’s deeds in this life. But this solution is unconvincing and unsatisfying to many, for other reasons. In brief, despite the efforts of the best minds of each generation, this remains a perplexing, insoluble problem.

Two Paths of Religious Service

But one may also look at the problem, not through the prism of theodicy, but from a totally different perspective: that of its implications for the spiritual and psychological issues involved in the service of God. Traditional Jewish ethical and spiritual literature (Mussar) speak of the love and fear of God as the two basic attitudes towards the religious life. (To avoid confusion, one should note that we speak of “fear” here as simple fear of punishment, whether in this life or the next, and not of yirat haromemmut, “awe of God’s transcendence”). This chapter, and others of its ilk (including the second paragraph of Shema—Deut 11:13-21—recited twice daily) appeal to the individual to serve God and perform his mitzvot out of “intelligent self-interest”: that is, so as to enjoy the good life, and avoid punishment.

And yet, we know that in innumerable places in Hazal this path is seen as an inferior one. The preferred path is that of service of God out of love, for its own sake, as a supreme value in its own right: “Do not be like servants who serve the master to get a reward, but be like those servants who serve the master not for the sake of a reward.” Elsewhere, the Rabbis feel the need to seek justification for the person who studies Torah “not-for-its-own-sake,” concluding that, even if a person has some ulterior motif, it is still preferable that he serve God “not-for-its-own-sake, for through that he will come to do it for-its-own-sake,” and “the light in it will turn him to the good.” Maimonides, in the crowning chapter of his Laws of Repentance, extols the path of those who “serve God out of love”; those who do so “in order to receive blessings or to merit the life of the Next World” are seen as following an inferior path, suitable only for “children, women, and the ignorant.”

Having said all that, one should mention an additional factor: that the present wave of return to Judaism—adults, both young and in mid-life, who are doing so out of personal choice and decision—does not seem to be motivated by arguments about blessings and rain and abundant produce, nor by hopes of the Afterlife, but by a genuine spiritual quest, what Maimonides describes as “recognizing the good because it is good.” Is this not a whole generation of “ovdei me-ahavah”?

The question I have posed to myself, then, is: if the path of ahavah is so positive and desirable, what is the point of “service through fear”? What, if anything, does this chapter have to say to the sophisticated, spiritually aware, modern religious personality?

Two answers come to mind: consistency & solidity. If we are honest, it is difficult to image any figures, apart perhaps from Abraham and Moses, who were consistently on the level of pure, altruistic, disinterested one. A man is close to himself. He has higher and lower moments; times of greater and lesser spiritual clarity and insight: mohin degadlut and mohin de-katnut. For the lower moments, the stretches of spiritual aridity in a person’s life (which may last for hours, days, or at times even months or years at a time), one needs the service through “fear,” to encourage one to plod through at least the minimum mitzvot. (Unless one wants to take the “all or nothing,” idealistic position, of those intense young people who may say that, “if it’s not lishmah it’s not worth anything). Educationally, too, this approach has certain advantages. When raising children, one cannot, at the beginning, expect action motivated by pure love and altruism. Motivation may be based on his seeking the parent’s love—but also fear of the parents’ ire. To those modern, progressive parents who eschew the use of fear and punishment, I would only comment that fear need not be of slaps, but can also be of coldness, of parental withdrawal and displeasure. A pun on the verse Ki beapam hargu ish (Gen 49:6: “in their anger they killed men”), reads “you can also kill (or at least devastate) another person by turning your nose up at them.”

Third, about the neophytes who are serving “out of love”; there is need for a certain honesty and penetrating heart-searching. It is at least possible for there to be a certain admixture of refined pleasure seeking in religious return, too. Sitting in a pleasant synagogue, singing songs on a Saturday morning in concert with other like-minded individuals, and then being invited to someone’s home for a sumptuous repast, can be quite pleasant. I recall on a number of occasions how Rav Soloveitchik would say that the basis for plain, workaday fulfillment of the mizvot is yirah: i.e., simple fear of God.


So we come to the end of Sefer Vayikra, which has taken us through a series of laws: sacrifices; purity and impurity of food, bodily discharges, etc.; holiness in sexual behavior and in general interpersonal ethics; the round of the year, and the grand round of 7 years and 7 times 7 years. And, at the end, concluding with blessing and curse, and the festive (seemingly) final verse: “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws which the Lord made between himself and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai by Moses” (26:46).

But wait! There is still one more chapter: a dry, legal chapter talking about something called “valuations,” with a strange Hebrew name, ‘erkekha, a phrase using the possessive suffix but constructed as a regular noun. And all this, describing a gift that a person chooses to give to the Temple, based davka upon the “value” of himself or his father or mother or child or wife. This whole thing is a kind of anti-climax, a bone stuck in throat. What is it doing here?

I will not address myself here to the substance of this mitzvah. My own explanation for this location (which may be completely off base) is that this is a kind of transitional chapter to Bamidbar, which is most difficult of the five books to understand, certainly in terms of its internal order and arrangement. I shall elaborate this point in Shabbat Bamidbar, which is no longer far away.

A Short Essay on Theodicy

My mother, whose Yahrzeit falls this coming week, grew up in a generation during which most educated people—and certainly that first generation of Jews born in the New World, for whom traditional Judaism carried the slightly musty and old-fashioned air of the remote shteitel—considered themselves atheists, or at least agnostics. The intellectual heroes of the day were such figures as Marx, Freud and Darwin, each one of whom, in their own way, were thought to have succeeded in unceremoniously knocking the Hebraic God off His heavenly throne. Albert Einstein, though a kind of deist, was a living presence those years in Princeton, and somehow held out hope that the human mind, and especially its finest exemplar, the scientific genius, could understand the world through an “integrated field theory,” a comprehensive explanation of all natural phenomenon, thereby eliminating the “ignorance” that allegedly gave birth to religion. Such philosophic lights as John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, and Morris Raphael Cohen (professor at City College who was a kind of intellectual hero to my parents' generation of New York Jews) completed and complemented this picture.

Of all religious concepts, that which presents the greatest difficulty to the modern rational mind, and in a sense fosters such atheism is that of Divine recompense: i.e., the promises of earthly reward and punishment represented by this past week’s parsha and by Ki Tavo (i.e., Lev 26 and Deut 28). Our parsha states, quite baldly, that if the people (and by extension the individuals comprising it) perform the mitzvot, they will enjoy numerous blessings, but if not, they will suffer wave after wave of punishments and disasters. The latter are portrayed at far greater length; four times (Lev 26:18, 21, 23, 27) the Torah repeats, with slight variations, that: “If you do not hearken to Me, but walk contrariwise with Me, then I will walk contrary to you, and will continue to chastise and smite you, sevenfold for your sins.”

A real-life anecdote illustrates how too literal an understanding of this concept led to abandonment of religion: A friend of my parents once reminisced about how, as an 18-year-old girl who had grown up in a traditional Eastern European immigrant home, she got her first job as a secretary, working six days a week, Monday through Saturday. The first Shabbat she sat down at the typewriter, she half expected a bolt from heaven to strike her dead the instant she touched the keyboard. When this failed to happen, seeds of doubt began to grow in her mind. The next Saturday it was somewhat easier to violate the Shabbat, albeit she still had no little trepidation; by the third week, she had become used to it, and was convinced that the whole idea of Shabbat, and of Torah and mitzvot generally, was no more than an old wives’ tale.

This problem is addressed by the tradition, from the Book of Job on: namely, the fact that the picture of a simple, one-to-one equivalence between deed and recompense demonstrably fails to square with observed reality. It is to this problem that people refer when they speak of Holocaust theology, and it is one of the reasons why some people lost their faith in face of its unspeakable horrors.

Quite serendipitously, one of the mishnayot in last week’s chapter of Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”; the mishnaic tractate read on Shabbat afternoons during the summer months, especially between Pesah and Shavuot) addresses this precise issue. Avot 4.19 reads “Rabbi Yannai said: We have neither the tranquility of the wicked nor the travails of the righteous.”

There are two ways of interpreting this mishnah: one, that we do not understand why the righteous suffer while the wicked often enjoy long, comfortable and prosperous lives. Alternatively, this phenomenon is such a well-known one that it hardly evokes surprise, and the author states of himself, and perhaps of his circle, that “we” enjoy neither one nor the other: that is, he sees himself as a mediocrity, who has not even have the firmness of character to sin wholeheartedly and consistently! He is a little bit wicked and a little bit righteous, and thus enjoys neither a calm, peaceful life nor an overly difficult one. In either event, the clear assumption is that what happens in the real world does not correspond to the classic model of reward and punishment, and that we simply do not know how to explain it.

Beyond throwing up ones hands in ignorance and despair, there are three basic answers to this conundrum: First, that the person suffering must nevertheless have done something to deserve his fate. “If a person experiences the anguish of suffering, he should examine his actions.” Thus in the classic Talmudic discussion of this issue in Berakhot 5a ff. If one seeks long and hard enough, one will find some wrong-doing. (Cynics might say that this is the source of the notorious Jewish sense of perpetual guilt.) Even if one is not guilty of any sin of commission, surely he is at least guilty of a sin of omission, of wasting time and neglecting the study of Torah somewhere along the line. But even that is not certain; in such a case, our sugya concludes, there are cases of suffering which can only be explained as yesurim shel ahavah, “sufferings of love.” That is, that these are in a peculiar sense an act of Divine love, intended to refine and purify the person’s character still further.

A second view is that which concedes that there is no reward for performing the commandments in this world, and that the execution of the Divine verdict is, so to speak, postponed to another sphere—namely, to “The World to Come,” to the realm after death, whether in the form of reward to the righteous or retribution to evildoers. This is one of the ideas found, e.g., in Rosh Hashanah 15b-16a where, alongside the annual rendering of judgment for life and death on Rosh Hashanah, there is also a “great day of judgment” at which each soul is sentenced to Gan Eden, to Gehinnom, or to some intermediate combination of states, depending upon its deeds.

A third, quasi-mystical solution, changes the terms of the discussion entirely. It no longer seeks an answer to the dilemma, but loves God gratuitously, doing the mitzvot for their own sake (see on this Rambam, Hil. Teshuvah 10; HY V: Yom Kippur). We do not know what God’s standards of judgments are, nor why He conducts this world as He does, or is it even our task to know. Our task in life is simply to live the most decent, holy, menshlikh lives we can, to accept whatever life metes out to us with a kind of “philosophical“ resignation an even with love.

This was, in a sense, the crux of the Book of Job—where his “comforters” held fast to conventional explanations and insisted that he most have done wrong, Job was caught on the horns of the paradox: he believed in God’s justice, yet also know that he himself was a decent person and had done no wrong to deserve such harsh punishment. The turning point comes, according to many, in Job 13:15: “Even though He slay me, I will trust in Him, yet I will defend my ways to His face.” (The text is difficult, with diametrically opposed ketib and qeri, written and oral traditions of reading, just as in Psalm 100:3. I have followed the oral tradition.)

Indeed, the peroration of the book, with God answering Job from the whirlwind (Chs. 38-41), is really a non-answer. Rather than justifying God’s ways, He simply describes His awesome creative power, the implication being that He exists on such an exalted, distant, different level, that no man can understand Him or His ways. (But contrast the revelation of God’s ways in the central chapter of the Humash, Exodus 34, the epiphany in the cleft of the rock, which is a kind of revelation of Divine mercy and compassion.) Moshe Halbertal once suggested that the answer here lies in the very fact of God speaking: that Job sought, not so much an “explanation,” but simply that God answer him, that He engage him in dialogue over this issue.

David Hartman has on many occasions suggested that the great watershed between Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism took place over this issue. In the Bible, God is seen as actively involved in history, punishing the people for their faithlessness and taking them back when they repent or simply when the measure of Divine compassion overcomes the punishment they have already suffered. Among Hazal, there is a certain abandonment of this expectation. The midrashim also talk about history, of the problematics of Jewish political subjugation, of the Roman occupation and persecution of the Sages, but the overall focus is less on history as the stage on which the covenant is acted out, and more on the Torah itself—its study and the performance of its mitzvot—as acts through which the Jew affirms his loyalty to and love of God. (See further in HY VI: Naso, where we will discuss Psalm 119 as an ode of love to the Torah.) In a somewhat similar mode, Rav Soloveitchik, near the end of The Lonely Man of Faith, speaks of a reversal in the direction of the Divine-human dialogue, turning from prophecy to prayer. For him, the act of prayer, of man addressing God, is also a manifestation of covenantal community.


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