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.


Blogger elliott malamet said...

I just came across your blog as I have been thinking about/ researching The Guide 2:33. I found your comments lucid and illuminating. Part of the issue or problem with the notion of dividing up the Sinai experience into the people's (inchoate; heard 'a voice" but not clear content) vs. Moshe's (receiver of all mitzvot) is that it brings to mind an argument between Hermann Cohen and Martin Buber over what is the essence at Sinai - is it experience or content? If,as Rambam explicitly indicates, the people were oblivious to content (save perhaps "Anochi" and "Lo Yihyeh") then the entire Sinaitic epiphany is there to establish Moshe's "bonafides" as a prophet. The people really have no clue about the content of Torah and must trust Moshe exclusively to get it right. It's almost as if there are two different Sinai experiences - the peole have one of God and Moshe has one of God plus Torah. This still places our belief in Torah's accuracy squarely in Moshe's lap. It also raises questions, as you note about tradition's emphasis on the whole people being present for revelation. But what were they present for?

Keep up the great work.

Prof. Elliott Malamet, Toronto

10:05 AM  

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