Thursday, August 17, 2006

Re'eh (Torah)

Centralization of Worship

With Chapter 12 of Deuteronomy, we turn from the lofty air of Moses’ homiletic rhetoric, drawing general lessons from history, to the practical, down to earth details of the laws of the Torah and the construction of a society. In very broad, inexact terms, the next three portions may be classified as follows: Re’eh is focused upon laws relating to religious worship and the cycles of time; Shoftim establishes the basic institutions of society; Ki Tetsei sets forth a large number of miscellaneous laws and rules of all sorts, general speaking more on the micro than on the macro—on the individual, and particularly upon the family and issues relating to sexuality. (Again, this is not a full or an exact description, but only a rough schematic overview.)

Re’eh (11:26-16:17) may in turn be divided according to the Medieval headings of olam-shana-nefesh — space, time and person. Chs. 12 and 13 deal with the centralization of worship in the Temple and the all-out war on idolatrous worship; Ch. 14 focuses on the sanctification of the individual, through a brief law pertaining to personal appearance (refraining from making incisions or tattoos in ones flesh) and, especially, through dietary restrictions (a compact recap of Leviticus 11); Ch. 15 deals with the three-year cycle of celebratory tithes and tithes given to the poor, culminating in the sabbatical release every seven years; while Ch. 16 continues the motif of time by presenting a summary of the three pilgrimage festivals. Significantly, in both 15 and 16 the laws of the various special times sacred cycle are interwoven with an emphasis on caring for the needs of the poor and unfortunate members of society. The motif invoked here is “and you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (15:15; 16:12)—the implication being that, as you were once in the situation of these unfortunates, you should therefore never become unable to identify with their lot.

To return to the beginning: the turn from homiletics to law is not sharp or sudden. Chapters 12 and 13 are both largely rhetorical in tone, filled with repetitions, and seem a natural continuation of the exhortations in Moses’ sermon, particularly with the emphasis on eschewing idolatrous worship. Interestingly, this chapter appears in the Torah scroll as the direct continuation of the end of Chapter 11, without so much as a small white space (parasha setuma) to separate the two. Chapter 12 introduces the centralization of worship in “the place that the Lord will choose to make His Name dwell there”—i.e., the Temple to be built in the future in the Land of Israel, in an as-yet unspecified locale (the Torah, strangely, very deliberately avoids using the name Jerusalem). It repeatedly stresses that there, and only there, is one to bring all ones sacrifices: “your burnt-offerings, your whole-offerings, your tithes, your heave-offerings, your vows and voluntary offerings, the first born of your cattle and flock” (v. 6; cf. 11, 13-14, etc.). This theme is closely intertwined with two other themes: the rejection of pagan worship, including the command to break down and smash their altars, high places and ceremonial stones (12:2-3, 29-31); and the strict rule against eating blood (23-25, 27). Chapter 13 in turn elaborates upon the dangers entailed in idolatry, outlining in detail three possible directions from which this threat to the people’s spiritual integrity may emerge: a false prophet, who invokes miraculous signs as proof of his supposed mission (13:2-6); a religious seducer from ones intimate circle —a wife, a brother, a best friend (7-12); or an entire city that goes astray after paganism (13-19). (Question: why is 17:2-7, which is directly related to this same theme, not placed adjacent to these parshiyot?) In each of these three cases, the Torah explicitly warns against being seduced by these persuaders, and the imperative to uproot it by all means necessary, including violent warfare—specifically warning not to show them compassion.

Why is the Torah so insistent upon one central place for worship, and what, if any, is its connection to idolatry? Off hand, the one, central Temple serves as a powerful symbol of the oneness of God, through the oneness of His worship. Prof. Binyamin Uffenheimer once wrote of the intense sense of the Divine Presence that must have been experienced by the pilgrims who came to the Temple for the three annual pilgrimage festivals. Many passages in the psalms reflect this: “My soul longs for the courtyards of the Lord, my heart and flesh sing to the living God…” (Ps 84:2); “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’... For there the tribes of Yah go up...” (122:2-4); “But one thing do I ask of the Lord, this do I seek: to dwell all the days of my life in the house of the Lord… “ (27:4); “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I went leading the throng in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and thanksgiving, a multitude celebrating the festival“ (42:5)—hamon hogeg. Psychologically, the presence of masses of people, all celebrating in a sacred context, itself inspires the individual who is part of this throng, infusing him with a living sense of God’s presence.

Even when one was unable to come up to the Temple, it served as a sacred center, a kind of conduit for all the prayers in the world. In his prayer dedicating the Temple, Solomon speaks of people throughout the world “praying to the Lord via the city You have chosen and the house you have built to your name” (1 Kings 8:44-45; see also vv. 31, 32-33, 35, etc.). Certainly, during biblical times, when the pagans worshipped a multiplicity of divinities, each with its own high place and its own altar “under every leafy tree,” the exclusivity and uniqueness of the Temple as the locus for sacrificial worship embodied the idea of His oneness.

But the theological implications may be seen as cutting the other way as well. The sense of enthrallment and holiness felt as a result of participating in a procession with the throng can easily be explained away as mass psychology, light years away from real Ruah ha-Kodesh, “the Holy Spirit.” More important, the centralization of worship can be seen as suggesting a localization of God, a limitation on His universality. If “the Lord is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon him in truth,” then he may be worshipped in all places—for He is ultimately to be found in the depths of those who open their heart “to let him in.” Judaism knows of a certain tension between these two positions. A well-known homily told in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe describes the high priest entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur—the three holinesses of place, time and person converging at one mysterious point, like a blinding laser beam of holiness, so to speak. But then, he adds, “every person, in every place, at any time” may be home for the Divine Presence.

The latter view, it seems to me, is closer to the contemporary temperament. One might say (as Prof. Yosef Ben-Shlomo once observed regarding the “return of the mythic” in Kabbalah) that the pagan world of worshipping a different god “under every leafy tree” is so remote that it no longer constitutes a danger, so that we may adopt a more decentralized model without the same danger of paganism. On the other hand, the idea of God’s Presence being present in every place requires a certain sophistication of which not everyone is capable, and perhaps the Torah adapts itself to the lowest common denominator of understanding (there are a number of examples of this). Then again, as in practice this tension expresses itself in the dichotomy between verbal prayer and sacrificial worship; and since, so long as the Temple is not standing, the entire issue of Korbanot is essentially a hypothetical halakhic construct, the entire issue remains, for us, a theoretical one.

As the month of Elul begins, one may wish to apply this same insight to the realm of time: viz. the tension between sacred time and all time. The approaching season of the Days of Awe is a sacred period, a special time when we think of God as being close to us, as “the king in the field.” Rosh Hashana itself is a “day of judgment”; but that selfsame passage in the Talmud (R. H. 16a) states that “man is judged ever day…. every hour.”

This same tension is reflected, in a somewhat different way, in the interplay between the institutions of public fast days and the Ten Days of Teshuvah. Essentially, both have similar halakhic structures—Selihot; the motif of teshuvah; even fasting (originally, in Medieval Ashkenazic practice, the ten days of Teshuvah were observed by at least some pious individuals as fast days). But whereas the motto of the Ten Days is “Seek the Lord when he is to be found” (Isa 55:6)—i.e., that this period is a special time of divine availability; that of the public fast days, usually called in response to some emergency or trouble, is “like the Lord our God, [who is present to us] whenever we call upon Him” (Deut 4:7)—i.e., that the living relationship with God is not confined to special times.

“At the end of seven years you shall make a release”

In 15:1-6, the institution of shemitah, the Sabbatical year, is presented in a completely different context than in Leviticus 25. Here, no mention is made of the cessation of working the land; instead, there is only one single law presented: the cancellation of all debts. This reflects a great and profound idea, a kind of primitive socialism, that saw all individual wealth as ultimately arbitrary, since all wealth ultimately stems from God. It also reflects a strong idea of the mutuality of the entire people, of all Israelites being responsible for one another’s welfare. Hence, if a person became impoverished and went into debt as the result of ill turns of fate, he enjoyed an opportunity to return to his former status by the cancellation of debts.

This was, to be sure, a great and wonderful ideal. But already in the Torah, it is clear that this went against certain deeply seeded tendencies within the human being. Hence, unlike almost any other law, the paragraph presenting this law is immediately followed by another (7-11), sternly warning people not to have “a base thought in your heart,” refusing to lend money to their needy neighbor because of the approaching shmitah year and the fear of losing the money. And, some centuries later, as society moved away from the model of agrarian village life and became more urbanized, it clearly became untenable. Towards the end of the Second Temple period, Hillel introduced the prozbul— essentially, a legal fiction enabling creditors to collect debts past the end of the shmitah year, by pro forma turning over their collectible debts to the court (m. Shevi’it 10.3 ff.). This procedure enabled a mercantile society to function in a normal way, without a wide-scale elimination of debts that would wreak havoc with the orderly conduct of business; it simultaneously enabled people to feel that they were not actually violating the Torah’s proscription. On the other hand, it effectively reversed the clear intent of the law, which was to implement the idea of the basic equality of all, by specifically redressing the imbalance between rich and poor. A very radical idea; indeed, perhaps too radical for this world.

I would like to explore this idea of halakhic fictions, and laws that become in effect dead letters, a bit further. Let us imagine a person in today’s society who has fallen into debt. He does not benefit from the cancellation of debts, because of the prozbul. Nor is he protected from paying interest on his bank loans, due to the heter iska, the “loophole” allowing banks to function in a normal way (although he may borrow relatively small sums from the Free Loan societies that exist within the religious communities). If he does not work the land, as most people do not, shmitah does not function as a “sabbatical year” enabling him to study Torah, an aspect suggested by the Hakhel, the mass gathering to haer the Torah read at the end of the year, described in Deut 31:10-13. Even shmitat karka’ot does not entitle him to eat the fruits of the land on equal footing with the land owner; if he is strict about shmita, it is merely one more headache, requiring him to shop for special fruits and vegetables for his household—and possibly an added economic burden as well. In brief, on almost every imaginable level, the shmitah year has ceased to function in the manner originally intended, as an egalitarian mechanism for leveling and renewal of both society and the individual; what is left is a formal, basically empty shell.

A revealing aside: this coming year, which is a shmita, the Jerusalem Rabbinate has decided to adopt an unprecedentedly strict policy. Rather than respect the historical heter mekhira (the fictitious sale of the Land of Israel to non-Jews, to facilitate working the land; a legal fiction similar to the sale of Hametz for Passover) which, as far as I know, was first introduced in 1881, long before Rav A. I. Kook even came to the Land of Israel, they have decided to impose the strict rulings of the haredi rabbis on the general public. To my mind, this is an arrogant misuse of Rabbinic authority.

Or, perhaps, there is a certain poetic justice here, a kind of death knell of agrarian Zionism. After all, this has become a land of banking and hi-tech; the kibbutzim in the center of the country are selling the land, given them as a trust by the people, at high profits to suburban housing developers. The land of milk and honey has become the land of asphalt and kanyons (i.e., shopping malls; not the wild, stark vistas of the Negev where you are overwhelmed by the God’s raw creative power). But, sarcasm aside, all this relates to a much broader problem: that larger and larger segments of the halakha have become ceremonial or formal legal obstacles to be gotten around, rather than “Torat Hayyim,” a Torah of life.

Another example relates to the laws of marriage. Any decent person will acknowledge the self-evident value of the commandment against adultery. But the halakhic definition of adultery, defining as adulterous any relations in which the woman has not received a get, a Jewish religious divorce writ, turns tens of thousands of decent, ethical people into adulterers. Admittedly, this situation is the “fault” of secularism and assimilation, which have led Jews to abandon their tradition, or of Reform Judaism, which (at least historically) has seen divorce as a secular matter, not concerning the synagogue. But the situation as such creates a growing cognitive dissonance between the average person’s common-sense, and the Torah. To make matters worse, the mainstream of the Orthodox Rabbinate has eschewed various creative, if unconventional, halakhic solutions which have been suggested to deal with this urgent problem—such as the late Rabbi Prof. Eliezer Berkovitz’s suggestion to revive tenai bekiddushin, “conditions” in marriage law.

There are those Orthodox thinkers and polemicists who may argue that strict adherence even to the formal, “meaningless” aspects of halakhah is a Kiddush Hashem, demonstrating Jews firm, unquestioning commitment to the halakhah. But “credo qua absurdum est” is in fact a Christian approach view (Origen). On the contrary, the Torah is compatible with life, and reinforces and helps to develop the deepest ethical insights of human beings. The present emphasis on formalism is an anomaly.

It is not my aim here to attack or to suggest rejecting legal fictions, nor to question in principle the central role of halakha in Jewish religious existence. But there is a very definite danger in too much legalism. When the proportion of legal fictions and of legal formalism reaches a certain critical level; when the spiritual and intellectual energy expended by people in preserving the system and in inventing apologies for it seems to take up a significant portion of their time; then something vital has died within. My feeling is that this has happened in the traditional Orthodox community. To the average dati Israeli, the definition of “what it means to be religious“ is commitment to the halakhah, as an entirely external, heteronomous set of behaviors. Anything spiritual beyond that is “Kabbalah,” esoteric, “not for me,” etc. This trend, ironically, was first articulated by the maverick Yeshayahu Leibowitz; today, it dominates religious education. There is a profound need for a rethink. The call of the hour is for a spiritual revival from within.

An Afterword on Love and Fear

After I sent out my page on Ekev, I realized that the distinction between love and fear is precisely the essence of the difference between the two accounts of the Golden Calf incident: that in Exodus centers on the message of love and compassion; that in Deuteronomy 10 on fear. What do we mean by fear? Often, modern people, especially those who are psychoanalytically oriented, object to religion as being based upon fear: suppressing life energies and vitality; eliciting guilt about everything healthy and natural in life; etc. This accusation is particularly brought against the “old-fashioned” religions (such as Orthodox Judaism and Roman Catholicism), with their strict disciplines and their censorious attitude toward sin. Ironically, the contemporary return to spirituality seems to be based largely on the feeling that modern secular culture, on a deeper level, stifles the individual. Despite widespread prosperity, conveniences and creature comforts, many people lack a sense of their own center. Human worth in our society seems to be based largely on money, social status, appearance, “sexiness,” etc.

The appeal of what is seen today under the name of spirituality is, first of all, of restoring a sense of self to the individual: in the broadest sense, this corresponds to the attribute of ahavah, of Divine love and forgiveness. (I would raise only two caveats about this new movement toward spirituality: one, that it is important to avoid solipsism, focus or emphasis on the self to the exclusion of all other goals; two, that in our market society, that inevitably cheapens and distorts the true values of whatever it touches, it too often seems that spirituality itself has become a “product.”) Only after a person has this root sense of self-value, of being loved and accepted for himself (or, in theological terms: for the soul, for the Divine image, the Tzelem Elohim within him) can one even begin to speak about yirat shamayim, the “fear of heaven”—which, to my mind, corresponds to a sense of the objective reality of God and of his Torah, of there being norms in the world. But what seems to be a prerequisite for our generation, is that this not be accepted in a heavy, oppressive way (which is in any time and place a mistake), but as the stern face of God’s love (din = “tough” love?).

“Separate tithes, so that you may be rich”

A famous homily on a key verse in last week’s Torah portion, ’aser te’aser (“tithe, surely tithe, all the crops of your field”; Deut 14:22), engages in word-play on the second word, altering the letter sin to shin: ‘aser te’asher, “You should tithe, so that you may be wealthy” (Sifre; Ta’anit 9a). That is, you needn’t fear poverty or loss of wealth as the result of giving a portion of your produce to the priestly class or to the indigent, because as a consequence God will reward you with wealth.

One of the early Hasidic teachers, R. Nahum of Chernobol, in his book Me’or Einayim, offers an interesting psychological explanation of this saying: if you give tithes, you will learn the quality of being satisfied with what you have, midat ha-histapkut. Hence, you will be rich in the deeper sense of the teaching, “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion” (m. Avot 4.1)—that is, whether what you have is objectively a lot or a little, you will feel content in your life and thus “rich.”

The basic idea is that whatever a person has ultimately comes from God, so to speak on loan from Him, and hence is meant to be shared with others. For whatever wealth or property one has, one merely plays a custodial kind of role (this is also true of mankind’s role in the world in general: Adam was placed in the Garden “to work it and to guard it”; some see this as the basis for a kind of ecological theology). In any event, what concerns here is that on the individual level as well, a person’s attitude towards wealth should be a custodial one, and not one of absolute ownership. This is also conveyed in the figure of Joseph = the Tzaddik = middat yesod, who is seen as a kind of channel through which blessing flows down to the concrete world.

It is interesting that at times those who are most generous—whether with Shabbat hospitality, giving of their time and effort to others, or giving or loaning money per se to others—are not always those who have the most. Often, those who are themselves struggling are more forthcoming than those who are wealthy, perhaps because they can identity more readily with the needs of the other person. Understood properly, this is a highly radical teaching, that challenges the most basic assumptions of present-day Western society. We live at a time during which more and more people, notwithstanding their nominally religious or other spiritual beliefs, see Homo Economicus as the dominant idea in life. Indeed, the idea that money is the main source of meaning, happiness and motivation in life is very widespread.

Perhaps I’m naive and seeing things that happened thirty or forty years ago with the rose-colored glasses of retrospect, but it seems to me that this preoccupation with money as the sine qua non has become more and more predominant, in more and more areas of our cultural life, during the course of these few decades. It is assumed by many that profit is the only conceivable motivation for anyone doing just about anything. In certain circles, if one speaks of the pursuit of excellence as an end in itself, of the impulse to create a worth-while work, or even of simple intellectual curiosity, as motivations, one is laughed and ridiculed.

Even in the world of Torah study, more and more institutions seem to be charging admission for public lectures on Torah subjects. Or, in the world of New Age spirituality, spiritual knowledge has become a cottage industry of sorts. Or, as my brother recently commented to me (in both his name and those of other colleagues), graduate students in science seem motivated less by a sense of curiosity and the quest for excellence as an end in itself, and more by the hope of doing “significant” work so as to get a well-paying job. Something similar seems to have happened in the area of literature, among writers: how many aspiring authors want to write “the great American novel,” that will express the spirit of the age, and how many want to be the next Stephen King ?

At the risk of being misunderstood, I would suggest that one (not the only!) of the moving forces in the emergence of the feminist movement has been the increasingly competitive economic atmosphere, and the fact that the traditional female roles, of wife, mother, grandmother, etc. , are not paid and do not produce “wealth” that can be counted in the GNP. Hence, these roles, together with the human values that go with them, have become devalued, and woman have increasingly sought self-respect and dignity in the workplace. This in turn led to a heightened dynamic of confrontation with all the various aspects of sexism, destabilized the family, and in turn led to more and more single-parent families and the necessity of women’s involvement in the workplace—and so on. Of course, much of this is a “chicken-and-egg” kind of question. In any event, it seems to me no accident that much of the discussion of women’s issues these days focuses on the higher professional and managerial echelons, and the so-called “glass ceiling.” But these are complex issues and, as I said, this is only one of many aspects.

But all this was really brought home to me, and to many other people, by Hurricane Katrina, and the fact that the wealthiest country in the world did not know, or its leadership did not have the will, to handle a human disaster of this type in a timely manner [NB: this was written in 2005]. Overnight, New Orleans looked like the Third World. People were left without food, water, or even basic sanitation, for four or more days. Within days, the surface of American friendliness and affability broke, and the anarchy and chaos lying just beneath the surface came through. Quite early, too, it was announced that the Police and other bodies would be used to protect property rather than to search for survivors! This sounded to me like real midat Sedom! I was reminded of the story in the Talmud tractate Yoma about a kohen who knifed another kohen to death in his frenzy to take part in offering the sacrifices—and after the event, people were more concerned about issues of ritual impurity than about the death of their fellow!

There are many other questions raised as well, such as: Did certain geographical features of New Orleans, whose planning was perhaps dictated by greed and the desire for profit, upset its delicate wetland ecology, destroying the marshland’s natural function as a kind of buffer zone between the built-up parts and the gulf? And, on a larger level, to what extent may global warming have contributed to increasingly frequent and horrendous disasters world-wide (the Tzunami only a few months ago; freak heat waves in Europe; melting of hitherto perennial snow-covered mountains in Europe and Asia; etc)? Is economic greed, and the West’s addiction to the private car, powered by fossil fuels, leading all of humankind into an irreversible disaster?

When will people begin to rise up against these evils and begin electing leaders with real conscience and responsibility for the welfare of all? Both figuratively, and now literally, for the people of Louisiana, one can say: Ba’u mayim ad nafesh… tava’ti be-yevein metzulah. “Water has risen up to my neck, I sink into the deep mire, without a foothold” (Ps 69:2-3) How long, O Lord?! How long?!


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