Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Emor (Torah)

“For the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him…”

The first half of this weeks’ portion (Leviticus, Chs. 21-22) consists of a series of laws addressed specifically to the Kohanim, the members of the hereditary priesthood: special regulations governing their personal life even outside of the Temple; rules disqualifying them from offering sacrifices if they have certain physical blemishes or imperfections or if they are in a state of impurity; rules about the bodily integrity and perfection of the sacrificial animal; etc.

The first two sections (21:1-9; 10-15) are concerned, respectively, with the ordinary priests and with the kohen gadol (“high priest”), and contain certain prohibitions that apply only to them. These are concerned with three areas: ritual impurity and avoidance of contact with dead bodies; avoidance of pagan-like mourning practices; and restrictions on marriage to certain categories of women. In each of these three areas, the rules applied to the high priest are more stringent than those applying to the rest of the priestly caste. Thus, regarding contamination with the dead, exceptions are made for the regular kohanim for death of immediate family members, while the high priest is allowed no exception whatsoever. In terms of marriage restrictions, the ordinary kohen is not allowed to marry women who have been divorced, harlots, those who have been “defiled” (and, by Rabbinic exegesis, proselytes to Judaism), while the high priest is barred even from marrying a widow, but must take “a virgin from his own people.”

The underlying concept seems to be that the priest must be on a higher level of purity than others, and that this purity involves, not only ritual purity, so as not to “defile” the Temple and its offerings, but also a certain moral purity. (We mentioned the intertwining of these two kinds of tum’a, the “technical” and the moral, earlier.) This includes avoiding contact with women who are seen as somehow impure or “defiled.” Like many things in the Torah, especially in Leviticus (as we mentioned earlier in connection with kashrut), the root of this law lies as much in the realm of what might be called “sensibility” or “aesthetic” as that which can be explained in self-evident, rational terms. There is something objectionable to a woman passing through too many hands. (Vladimir Lenin’s quip—that a woman should be like a glass of water, contact with too many lips rendering her/it unaesthetic— comes to mind) The Torah “sensibility” finds something distasteful in a woman having been with too many men—for whatever reason.

These laws are among those that are most problematic to many modern people, on both the principled and the practical level. On the level of principle: the entire institution of the priesthood seems objectionable, as “anti-democratic,” based on a hierarchical conception of society, and on the implication that one person can somehow be ”closer” to God than another. On the practical level, the objections to these rules focus particularly on the restrictions on marriage. What sense does it make to place so many irksome restrictions on the kohen—particularly as today’s kohanim do not perform any particular religious function, beyond being called up first to the Torah and reciting the Priestly Blessing a few days a year, at least in the Diaspora (it is done daily in most parts of Israel)? Stories of kohanim who fell in love with divorcees or converts, and were unable to marry their beloved, are legion. Moreover, most of us would doubtless agree that there is nothing inherently “wrong” with a divorcée. (All the more so, given the ubiquity of divorce today, and both the absence of stigma to it, and the feeling that many divorces are clearly not in any sense the wife’s “fault”—e.g., situations of philandering, abusive, or even dangerously violent husbands, etc.) So why should they be prohibited to the kohen?

Perhaps we can begin to understand this hierarchical model, at least on the structural level—even if we may find it difficult to accept—by referring to the three “dimensions“ of traditional Jewish (and especially Kabbalistic) thought. These are: Olam, Shanah, Nefesh: “world” (i.e., space), “year” (i.e., time), and “soul” (i.e., the diversity of human individuals). Just as we accept it as natural that there are holy place and holy times—in the realm of holy space, at least, there is even the Mishnah’s model of “ten levels of holiness” (Mishnah Mikva’ot, Ch. 8), in which the world and the Land of Israel are pictured as consisting of a series of concentric churches of sanctity—so too are there differentations among people.

This three-fold aspect of kedusha, of holiness, is described in a famous story attributed to one of the Hasidic masters: There was no holier moment than when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur: a confluence of holiness in time, space and person. Yet, he added, every person, at every moment, at every place, is potentially able to attain holiness, like the high priest in that unique moment in time and place. This dictum expresses the tension between awareness and acceptance of this hierarchical scheme of holiness, and the “democratic” notion of the universality of God’s presence, and His being “close to all who call upon him in truth.”

Israel Knohl, in his book The Silent Sanctuary, speaks of the religious experience of the priests as being far more sophisticated than hitherto thought. He writes of the underlying conception of the sacrificial “cult” being based upon an intense sense of the Divine transcendence, of being pervaded by an atmosphere of awe and solemnity. God is experienced as the mysterium tremendum, the “Wholly Other”; as transcending the realm of the personal. Hence, worship in the Temple was marked by utter silence. Perhaps the restrictions placed upon the kohanim are somehow related to this numinous quality of their experience.

I might add that I have experienced in my own life some of this sense that there are people who exist on a wholly different spiritual level than the everyday person. My own religious sensibility has been shaped more than a little by certain occasions of encountering or observing Gedolei Yisrael. Some of these men were, to my mind, a testimony to the presence of the Shekhinah in Israel: of the reality of holiness in the life of human beings.

What I have written above are, of course, not definitive answers, but more on the order of personal ramblings and struggle with what is a difficult and unresolved issue.

“Teach us to number our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12)

The festivals and holy times of the Jewish year, treated in Leviticus 23, a chapter known as Parshat ha-Moadot, is a vast subject. Indeed, as Franz Rosenzweig once said, “the calendar is the catechism of the Jew.” I have written about some of the holidays in their turn, and will with God’s help treat them all in due course. Today, I will speak of only one aspect—Sefirat ha-Omer—which is also apt in terms of the season we are in.

The section in vv. 9-22—the longest single unit within the chapter—is striking. It describes the ritual surrounding the harvest of the first sheaf (‘omer) of new grain in springtime and then, seven weeks later, the bringing of the first baked offering of the new grain harvest, on a day referred to only as a “holy convocation.” What is interesting is that, read without preconceptions—meaning, also, without the guidance of the Jewish Rabbinic tradition—this entire section does not specifically refer to Pesah or any other calendrical date at all. (As is well-known, the proper date of the ceremonies described here was the subject of one of the most acrimonious polemics in Rabbinic times between the Pharisees and the Saducees). Read literally, the text simply states that the first sheaf of the grain harvest should be brought to the priest, who waves it before God, “when you reap your harvest”—i.e, when the grain is ripe, which is usually around Passover, but can easily be a week or two before or after!

In any event, we have here a seasonal, agricultural ritual, presumably intended as a sign of gratitude and acknowledgment of God’s bounty and blessing. In this, it is similar to many other offerings and rituals related to the first of just about everything, from first fruits, to the first sheering of a sheep, to the first born of man, cattle, and even of donkey, to the first portion of bread and dough baked in the oven.

The act of counting is interesting. Agriculture is characterized, more than anything, by its hidden character. Like other organic processes, grain grows within the earth, slowly, unhurriedly, hidden from human eyes, much like the gestation of a child within its mother’s womb.

But these seven weeks also correspond to the seven weeks between Pesah and Shavuot, the bridge between the Redemption from Egypt and the Epiphany at Sinai, and the counting described in verse 15 is known as Sefirat Haomer, the “Counting of the Omer.” Interestingly, while the Talmud contains only two or three lines on this practice, it is greatly elaborated in later Jewish tradition: both in terms of its halakhic structure; in terms of the customs of semi-mourning associated with this period; and, especially, in its great elaboration in the Kabbalah as a time of tikkun—of both personal and even cosmic repair. One prayer recited by many people involves reflection upon a series of combinations of the Sephirot, the Divine potencies or building blocks of the universe; others see it as a time of preparation for receiving the Torah and of reflection on the “48 qualities” needed to acquire Torah; popular folk custom has one studying Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of the Fathers,” during the six Shabbat afternoons between Pesah and Shavuot; etc.

I would like to draw a certain connection between its agricultural meaning and the spiritual and personal/psychological interpretation by seeing Sefirat ha-Omer as focused on the hidden processes of growth within the human soul. I find it interesting that the name of the festival that comes at the culmination of the seven weeks is called Shavuot—literally, “weeks”—a word that refers to time. It is as if to say: personal growth towards becoming a vessel for receiving Torah cannot be rushed or forced; ultimately, it is not dependent or contingent upon human effort or will. One can learn “material”—Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, halakha—but the inner qualities, ethical, emotional, spiritual, that make one a “Ben Torah” are in the final analysis matters for maturation and growth, just like the grain slowly ripening within the earth or in the field.

One can look at the counting of the Omer as a period of meditation on the nature of time. Time is the fabric, the element within which we live our lives. It cannot be altered or hastened. Such a modality brings to mind the ambience of the Eastern religions (and the contemporary interest in “Buddhist-Jewish” synthesis). The Zen koan, a paradox upon which one meditates, intended to “break down logical thinking,” to open our minds to the sense of the ineffable in life, “out there” or deep within. Something similar can happen through simply meditating on time as that through which one flows. Too often, in the “standard” Jewish religious world, one feels that the quintessence of religious intensity and seriousness is expressed in a certain quality of tension, the acme of religious life being a constant sense of effort, of striving, of pushing. We could do with a bit of silence, of feeling the “still small voice” within the flow of time. Again, the art of slow, meditative prayer, of not “getting through the davening” but of “entering into the word” seems to be a lost art among all but a handful. Certain modes in Hasidism seem to point in the same direction: as in the story of the proud Yeshiva bokhur, who strutted around the Beit Midrash, boasting of how “I went through ten pages of Talmud today,” to which his mentor answered, “Yes, but how many pages of Talmud went through you?” Many have observed that Judaism is more hospitable to the aural than to the visual, to the word rather than to the image (see what I wrote on imagery in Yitro). Perhaps one might add that, within the three-fold hierarchy mentioned earlier, holiness in time is far more cultivated by Judaism, and far less problematical, than holiness of either person or place.

Interestingly, the section about the harvesting and waving of the omer, the counting of seven weeks, and the observance of Shavuot, concludes with a single verse containing the mitzvot of pe’ah and leket: the leaving of a corner of the field, and of the gleanings of the harvest of field, vineyard and orchard for the poor—a system set up by the Torah for the benefit and protection of the poor. Its location here is strange: this is the only place I can think of where the Torah, in the midst of a discussion of one topic, that of special days, intersperses a totally non-related commandment: in this case, one related to procedures of harvesting (which is the subject), and of ethical/societal concern. A weighty question, deserving of further reflection.

An Excursus on the Counting of the Omer

First, a brief “lomdishe” (Talmudic-halakhic) excursus on the laws of Sefirat ha-Omer. One of the halakhic disputes concerning this mitzvah revolves around the question as to whether or not a person who had forgotten to count the Omer one day may continue to do so thereafter. The classic position of the Sephardic rishonim (Medieval authorities) is that one may do so, implying that the counting for each day is an independent entity; while the Ashkenazic poskim, most notably the Halakhot Gedolot, state that, if one misses one day, one has essentially lost the entire mitzvah, and cannot resume counting thereafter, as the counting is one interdependent entity; just as in “real” life, if one misses one unit of any thing one “loses count.” Contemporary Ashkenazic practice—that one continues counting, but without the blessing—is essentially a compromise between these two positions. A second difference between the two schools concerns the precise wording to be used in counting: “Today is so-and-so many days and weeks la-omer” (“of the Omer”) or “ba-omer “(“in the Omer”). Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l once explained this dispute as follows: the underlying issue is whether the counting of the Omer involves cardinal or ordinal numbers. Is the mitzvah to count one day after another, until one “accumulates” 49 days, and knows that it is time for Shavuot—making any omission crucial; or is it merely to note ones position within the continuum of 49 days—and thus even if one misses one day, one may continue, so long as it is possible to accurately reconstruct ones correct position within the days?

This discussion seems pregnant with philosophical implications concerning the nature of time. Is time flowing and continuous, or a collection of disjointed units, of which the day, as the basic unit of time, is the most elemental? (Interestingly, Prof. Gershon Brin of Tel-Aviv University, in a new book on the nature of time in the Bible, notes that the word yom is the fifth most frequently used word in the entire Bible.) Is time cumulative, or an “ever-present moment”? One is reminded of the conventional wisdom as to the difference between concepts of time in Eastern and Western religion. Judaism (and in its wake Christianity and Islam) is said to see time as an arrow, moving towards ultimate eschatological redemption. In Eastern thought, time is perceived in more cyclical terms, as an eternal continuum, ever-returning to its starting point; or, even more radically, as an illusion (maya), to be pushed aside to reach inner psychological enlightenment. Is it possible that within Judaism too there is a valid sub-current which sees time in less arrow-like ways?

“He who curses the name of the Lord shall be put to death”

The incident described towards the end of Emor, in which a certain man, during the course of a quarrel, blasphemed and cursed the name of God, and was subsequently stoned (24:10-23), seems very alien to our way of thinking. The idea of putting a person to death merely for a certain use of words, no matter how shocking, seems to us moderns “primitive,” chilling, frighteningly inhuman and uncompassionate.

What is it about this story that is so distant to us? Ultimately, the assumption made in the Bible is that words are taken with utter seriousness. A word, a name, in some sense not only symbolizes or represents a given thing, but also captures its essence, or may even in some sense BE that essence. For us, words are more often thought of as arbitrary signs, symbolic means of referring to that which is, in fact, “real.” During the 1960’s, one of the important expressions of the youth counter-culture was the use of explicit language as a way of combatting what was perceived as the “hypocrisy” of established society, particularly in sexual matters. Girls began to use four-letter words, hitherto considered unladylike. Significantly, the first massive student movement of the ‘60’s, even before the Columbia revolt of’68, was the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink some of these issues. I recently came across an aggadic passage that stresses the importance of seemliness in speech, noting that the Torah deliberately uses wordy circumlocutions to avoid “impure” forms of expression (Pesahim 3b). In any event, it is clear that biblical man felt that words contained real power, and hence the man who cursed God’s name was challenging and undermining something very central to society. Precisely because God is ineffable, unknowable as He is in Himself, unutterably transcendent… for that reason His Name—His “handle,” in old Western slang, meaning, that by which one grasps hold of the other—must be treated with the reverence due Him, as so-to-speak one of the points of meeting between God and man. Interestingly, the phrase “Kiddush Ha-Shem” means, literally, the sanctification of God’s Name. The imprecation in Deut 28:58 speaks of fearing “the weighty and awesome name, the Lord your God.” Again, if we say that the essential uniqueness of the human being lies in his being medaber, a speaking creature, than words and names are important as a basic instrument of expressing and creating culture (this is also a theme of modern philosophical anthropology and semiotics—but that’s another discussion).

Perhaps I’m becoming an “old fogey” with the passing years, but I find myself increasingly having second thoughts on the liberal, tolerant society (see also Marcuse’s Critique of Pure Tolerance). There is something very negative in the attitude, which seems to be carried to an extreme in today’s society, that sees tolerance, pluralism and democracy as the ultimate values in themselves. The underlying assumption is that there is no absolute “truth,” and that ultimately human beings themselves, alone, create whatever standards they wish. The logical consequence of such a position is the erosion and erasure of all standards—which is, of course, diametrically opposed to the most basic axiom of Torah; that there is a Law, and a Law-giver.

This relates back to my earlier discussion about homosexuality. Joanne Blindman also commented that I sounded almost like American Protestant fundamentalist preacher/politician Jerry Falwell when I said “hate homosexuality, but love the homosexual.” My answer to this is two-fold. First, it all depends where one places the emphasis: on the hatred of sin, or on genuine love and compassion towards ones fellow human beings, including the “sinner.” I would hope that my personal track record, both in terms of what I have written here, and my personal behavior, including willingness to accept and help a very broad spectrum of people, regardless of their beliefs or practices, makes it clear where I stand. Perhaps because I have come from such a tolerant and open-minded place, I feel more strongly today the need to reassert certain standards and absolutes.

Our culture today “loves”—meaning, it tolerates and accepts—just about everybody. We are extremely reluctant to judge others. “Don’t be judgmental” is almost an eleventh commandment of modern, psychoanalytically healthful culture. The opposite pole —that of clearcut moral standards right & wrong—seems to be in retreat. The Falwells and their ilk, who have made themselves a self-declared “Moral Majority,” have emerged with intense venom and hatred in reaction to the excesses of liberalism and tolerance. In a certain sense, it is an understandable and expected reaction, indicating that society is going in a wrong direction; but of course, the hatred that simmers just below the surface is unhealthy and potentially destructive. (I will try to define my own quest for the “golden mean” and balance in the next week or two).

Priests and other Leaders: the Quest for Purity

My mother-in-law and loyal reader, Joanne Blindman, made the following comments in wake of my discussion of priests and the requirement that they have personal holiness:

Interestingly, in your discussion of the responsibilities of the priestly class and the wish that they should be even more pure than those that they minister to, you echoed some sentiments written lately by many political writers: viz. the [issue of] character analysis re Clinton and more recently Mayor Giuliani. Some people believe that public performance and private behavior and character are disconnected. You can be a good president (prime minister, mayor) and an irresponsible man; a good mayor and a cruel man. Some people argue that we shouldn’t obsess about these flaws. But you can't ignore them either—if you concede that character counts, then private behavior is relevant. The inconvenient fact is that people aren’t so easily divided in two; public and private lives are always connected at some level.

I can say Amen to that. I would add that here in Israel we have been positively plagued lately by low doings by those in high office, from Weizman and Netanyahu (and Barak’s campaign machine, if not himself) down. The main difference is that here the scandals are more often about money than about sex. The attitudes are also similar. When Moshe Dayan ran off with another man’s wife many years ago, and the betrayed husband wrote to Ben-Gurion asking him to remove Dayan from office, BG answered him very much in that vein: that personal morality and contribution to the public welfare (especially in the sensitive area of defense), were two quite different things.


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