Thursday, October 12, 2006

Shmini Atzeret-Simhat Torah (Midrash)

Israel and the Seventy Nations

Sukkot, more than any other festival, bears universal overtones. It is viewed as an anticipation of universal redemption and knowledge of the One God, as illustrated by the haftarah for the first day, taken from Zechariah 14, in which the nations of the world come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. But there is also much tension around this point, particularly in light of the perceived enmity of the world towards Israel, and their (meanwhile) remaining in their paganism. This is particularly symbolized by the tension between the seven days of Sukkot per se and the eighth day, Shmini Atzeret. Thus, Numbers Rabbah 21.24:

“On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly” [Num 29:35]. Concerning this Scripture wrote: “In return for my love they hate me, and I am prayer” [Ps 109:4]. You find that on the Festival [hag: the Rabbinic name for Sukkot, indicating that it is the Festival par excellence] Israel offers You seventy bullocks for the seventy nations of the world. Israel said: Master of the Universe, behold we offer seventy bullocks on their behalf, and they ought to have loved us, but they hate us, as is said, “In return for my love they hate me.” Therefore the Holy One blessed be He says to them: Now offer on your own behalf, “On the seventh [sic! should read: eighth] day you shall have a solemn assembly” [Num 29:26]. “You shall offer a burnt offering, a fragrant odor to the Lord, one bull, one ram…” [ibid., 27].

“One ram”—this may be compared to a king who made a feast for seven days and invited all the people of the state during the seven days of the feasting. Once the seven days of feasting passed he said to his intimates: We have already fulfilled our obligation to all the people of the state, let you and I suffice with what we find, a pound of meat or some vegetables. Thus said the Holy One blessed be He to Israel: “On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly”—what you have will suffice, one bullock and one ram.

The parallel in Sukkah 55b, which is not as sharp in its depiction of the nations’ enmity toward Israel, speaks of this as a se’udah ketanah, ”a small feast.” Yet other parallels depict God saying “It is difficult for Me to part from you; wait with Me one more day…” All the sources agree that it it as a day of intimacy between God and Israel, almost like lovers. This latter, covenantal aspect makes it uniquely appropriate as a day for celebration of the Torah, as well. In any event, this raises a much larger question: How do we, as modern Jews, deal with the doctrine of chosenness, of the Election of Israel? What does it mean? Particularly in these difficult and insecure times, it is tempting to seek transcendent theological meaning in our suffering and ongoing insecurity.

Interestingly, Prof. Shalom Rosenberg has recently suggested that the fact that Hitler, whom he describes in an almost mythical way as the embodiment of Satan, chose the Jews as the object of his demonic hatred, is a kind of negative confirmation of our election. More recent events—the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe; the virulent anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment in the Muslim world; the sense that Israel seems to be at the epicenter of major world conflicts; the anticipated war of the United States against Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq, with the memories it evokes of the’91 war when Israel was totally non-combatant and nevertheless subject to missile attacks, basically, just because of who we were—all point in a similar direction. All these factors easily evoke sentiments of “a nation that dwells alone” and mystical, messianic interpretations of current events. At the same time, for many people they place in question the dream of classical Zionism that a state of our own would lead to “normal” relations between Jews and the rest of the world, making us “a nation among nations.” The severe standards applied to Israel; the readiness of so many European liberals to believe the wildest rumors about the supposed massacre in Jenin; the unprecedented attempt to boycott Israeli intellectuals and academics from international forums (including, ironically, Israel intellectuals who were very much on the Left, such as translation colleague Dr. Miriam Schlesinger, who was removed from the editorial board of an international translation journal) suggests something very strange and even uncanny going on.

Alternatively, one may attempt to explain Israel’s problems in the Middle East in socio-economic and historical terms. I have written about this subject to some of you privately; in brief, there are profound and crucial issues of interpretation involved, from which radically divergent world-views and conclusions may be derived. Is the Palestinian problem at heart a “normal” national-qua-socio-economic conflict, capable of solution through compromise and trust-building, or is it an epic religio-cultural conflict, so deeply rooted as to be virtually irresolvable. I personally often find myself vacillating between two very different understandings of the situation in which we find ourselves.

But it is not my aim here to get into politics. In this context, I am more interested in the theological underpinnings of the idea of Jewish election. The issue is not black-and-white, a matter of either-or, but more a matter of degree, and to what extent we choose to emphasize the different poles.

The typical course of mahshevet Yisrael—Jewish thought or philosophy—as presented in Israeli religious institutions emphasizes those texts and thinkers who stress Jewish uniqueness and the transcendent meaning of Jewish history—Yehudah Halevi, the Maharal of Prague, the entire complex influenced by Kabbalah, etc. There is an emphasis on a mystical, quasi-biological proclivity towards spirituality and connection with God, depicted as being uniquely present in the Jewish people and in the individual Jews who compose it—from the Kuzari’s “inyan elohi” (“Divine element”) through to the Tanya’s “nefesh elohi.” A number of my closest friends, in both the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox world, are deeply troubled by some of the liturgical expressions of chosenness—the blessings recited before reading the Torah (“who has chosen us from all nations”), Havdalah (“between Israel and the nations”), Kiddush and Amidah for festivals (Atah behartanu), etc.—and have even sought substitute readings for these passages. But even without reforming and altering time-honored, halakhically sanctioned texts, many modern, educated Jews are deeply troubled by this issue. We have grown up affirming much of Western culture and civilization; we have acquired a love for the art, literature, music, thought of the nexus within which we grew up; our experience of the Gentile world has by and large not been that of the drunken Cossack pogromist, the Crusader, or the Roman centurion, but of ordinary, by-and-large decent human beings, who exhibit the same degree of sensitivity, intelligence, refinement, even nobility as encountered within Jewry.

And indeed, there are no less significant universal tendencies in Judaism. Interestingly, Rav Kook, the seminal figure in religious Zionist thought, embraces both poles. He is widely invoked as a source for the neo- or quasi-mystical interpretation of Zionism and the settlement of Eretz Yisrael, and is even held as an authority against withdrawal from territories in the West Bank and Gaza. But there is also a side of Rav Kook as a unitive mystic, who saw the entire cosmos as the field of Divine revelation, and envisioned Zionism, not only as the return of the Jewish people to their geographical homeland, but as providing opportunity for the development of the fullness of the human personality in the new, redeemed Jewish culture to be created in Eretz Yisrael, without the neurotic, constricting, suffocating forces of Galut. (There is a major problem—and familiar to many—of interpretation involved here. There is Rav Kook of Orot, and that of Orot ha-Kodesh. The things are well-known, and much ink has been spilled over this debate. Matters are complicated by the assumption that a person’s closest family are often assumed to be his most faithful interpreters; yet Rav Zvi Yehudah z”l of course adopted a particular emphasis and line on his father, which is arguably not a full representation of the “true” Rav Kook.)

Rav Soloveitchik is another case in point for the tension between these emphases. He certainly spoke often, and eloquently, of behirat Am Yisrael, of the mystery of Jewish existence, but at least as often his teaching focused on the religious individual and his existential situation. Some Israeli schools have adopted Hamesh Derashot and Kol Dodi Dofek, with their Zionist themes, as the texts of the Rav most often taught—a choice that seems tendentious and distorted, to say the least.

But it is when we turn to Maimonides that we find an unabashed universalist thinker, whose interest in Jewish particularism was marginal, and of little importance to the main structure of his thought. This aspect of Rambam is part of a larger question: his rationalism, what I would call his ”minimalist” theology, in which he either ignores or downright rejects ideas that play a far greater role in other, perhaps more popularly-oriented religious approaches: his playing down of miracles; the limits he places on specific Divine Providence in the details of everyday life, with a corresponding emphasis on natural causality; his scoffing at wonder-workers and holy men; his strident opposition to magic in the name of religion, to astrology, and to various superstitions that found their way into popular religion; and his emphasis on natural law and the fixed workings of the cosmos. But this is a subject for another study, which others have no doubt already done better than I can.

Reading both the Guide and the Mishneh Torah, one is struck by the rather surprising fact that he hardly speaks of Jewish chosenness at all as such. Thus, his presentation of the Patriarch Abraham in Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 1.3 is of an individual who discovered the unity of God and the folly of idolatry after a process of pondering and philosophical speculation; whose main activity was as polemicist and teacher, gathering around him all those who would accept his ideas. He of course promulgated these ideas to his own family, but they were only the core group of a larger circle of monotheistic believers. Maimonides does mention Israel’s election by God as His inheritance, but this choice is seen more as an instrumental one, to assure that there would be a nation who would know and teach these truths, rather than one entailing any mystical biological traits.

In Yesodei ha-Torah 7-8 Maimonides speaks of prophecy as a gift potentially available to all human beings—not to Jews alone, and not confined to the Land of Israel (as against Kuzari and his school of thought). Prophecy is acquired, partly in a natural way, through the cultivation of ethical, intellectual and spiritual qualities, and partly through Divine inspiration—but in any event it is not unique to Jews. In Chapter 8 he describes the role of Moses. As I discussed at length some years ago (HY I: Shavuot), Maimonides minimizes the people’s role at Mount Sinai, focusing upon Moses’ role as receiver, transmitter, and teacher of the Torah. Hence the characteristic term he uses for the Torah, nevuato shel Moshe Rabbenu (“the prophecy of Moses our Teacher”). Today being the eve of Simhat Torah, it is worth noting that this is probably why the Torah ends with Moses’ death, and the brief three-verse eulogy.

Admittedly, Rambam’s view of Messiah and the End of Days is a strongly specific, Jewish one. But here too his rationalism comes to the fore, in a different way, in that he sees messianism almost exclusively in naturalistic, political terms: “there is naught between this world and the days of Messiah but the [end of] subjugation to the nations.” Interestingly, in Chapters 8-9 of Hilkhot Teshuvah he gives a detailed picture of “The World to Come,” depicted in purely spiritual terms, as a locus in which the righteous will be relieved of all other concerns and anxieties and free to engage in the study of wisdom and to bask in the radiance of the Divine. Here, too, there is no specifically Jewish element, but a universal spiritual vision.

It seems strange that some of the contemporary Jewish teachers of Noachidism, who try to reach out and teach the universal ethical doctrine of the “children of Noah” to the broader entire human community, emphasize belief in the “chosenness of Jewish people” and that God gave Eretz Yisrael to the Jews as essential Noachide teachings. Again, there is no indication of this anywhere, neither in the relevant sugya in Sanhedrin nor in the Rambam’s discussion of the subject. I fervently hope that the integrity of their reading of Torah is not being swayed by ideological considerations.

We might do best to conclude this discussion with Amos’ definition of the true implication of Israel’s election: “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I shall hold you accountable for all your iniquities” (3:2).

A Sort of Hadran

Simhat Torah exemplifies the Rabbinic saying, na’utz sofan bithilatan utehilatan besofan—“Their end is anchored in its beginning and its beginning in its end.” We never stop studying Torah; no sooner do we read the final passage describing Moses’ death, then we turn once again to the Creation. But more than that: the Torah itself is seen as a kind of giant circle, all of whose parts are interrelated to and inherent in one another. (This is also a central assumption of Talmud study. One can begin almost anywhere and, if you study deeply enough, touch upon all the concepts in all the entire Shas. This is an operative assumption, especially, in the method of the Tosafot, which typically invokes sugyot and arguments from all over the Talmud in the course of elucidating any given passage.) In this spirit, I would like to turn, first to a brief Talmudic dictum relating to one of the verses in this final portion of the Torah, and then to the opening midrash of Bereshit Rabbah. First, a brief statement from Pesahim 49b:

“An inheritance.” Rabbi Hiyya taught: Whoever engages in Torah in the presence of an ignorant person is as if he had relations with his betrothed in his presence, as is said: “The Torah Moses commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” [Deut 33:4]. Do not read “inheritance” [morasha] but “betrothed” [me’orasa].

I will not elaborate upon the rather problematic opening sentence here. But the homily drawn—that the Torah is like a betrothed—implies a marital-like intimacy between Israel and the Torah. It is not merely a legal codex, nor only a book, nor even a repository of national/tribal/familial history and traditions, but an object of love, a living entity with whom one engages in constant dialogue and interaction. It is as deep and broad and infinite as the sea. It is, indeed, the very stuff and substance of life. From here, we turn to Genesis Rabbah 1.1:

“In the beginning God created” [Gen 1:1]. Rabbi Hoshaya Rabbah began opened: “And I was with him like a master workman [amon], and I was His delight every day” [Proverbs 8:30]. Amon = nurse; amon = covered; amon = concealed; amon = great. Amon means “nurse” [Greek: pedagog], as in the verse: “as the nurse carries the infant” [Num 11:12]. Amon means “covered,” as in the verse: “those who were covered with crimson” [Lam 4:5]. Amon means “concealed,” as in the verse, ”and he adopted [and therefore concealed from the eyes of others] Hadassah [i.e., Esther]” [Est 2:7]. Amon means “great,” as in the verse “Are you better than No-amon [Thebes]” [ Nahum 3:8]. And that verse is translated: “Are you better than the great city of Alexandria, that sits between the rivers?”

The midrash begins with a series of interpretations of the difficult word amon in the verse chosen for the petihta. Their common denominator is that they all relate to something precious or treasured. The essential point of the derasha appears in the second half:

Another thing. Amon = craftsman. The Torah said: I was the artisan’s tool of the Holy One blessed be He. It is customary in the world, that when a king of flesh and blood builds a palace, he does not built it by himself, but follows the plan of a craftsman. And the craftsman does not build it at his own say-so, but he has maps and sketches to know where to make rooms, where to make passage ways. In like manner the Holy One blessed be He looked at the Torah and built the world. And the Torah said: “In the beginning God created” [Gen 1:1]—and reshit (beginning) is none other than Torah, as in the verse, “The Lord acquired me at the beginning of His way” [Prov 8:22].

A central idea of Judaism is that the Torah is not only an idea, an abstract collection of laws and ideas, but a reality, a concrete thing—almost an apotheosis of God. In this respect, it resembles several other entities—the Shabbat, teshuvah, Yom Kippur—which Western thought, used to positivist, empirical definitions, would call “abstractions.” The Torah is a reality, alongside God, the nation Israel, and the world itself. We find this imagery repeated in the Midrash, in Kabbalah, in Hasidism. R. Nahman of Breslav’s tales are replete with images of a mysterious map or book, in which one looks and gets all knowledge. But if the Torah is an apotheosis of God, it is also an intermediary between God and world. Unlike Rosenzweig’s double triangles of World-Man-God and Creation-Revelation-Redemption, the Rabbinic tradition sees at the center Torah & mitzvot, as the proper way and path. Torah is indispensable, and hence the triad is God-Torah-Man. This is also the message of Ramhal’s paraphrase of the famous Zoharic aphorism: “Israel, Torah and the Holy One blessed be He are One.” The Torah is not only the contents of revelation, but also an entity in the world.

May this be compared to the idea of Platonic archetypes? May one call it a spiritual force, created by God, that functions as a supernal model for this physical world? What is clear, is that thinking Jewishly about Torah requires a radical reorientation away from Western, linear modes of thought about books, literatures, and canons of work.

This unique role of the Torah also engenders certain peculiarities of Judaism, as a text-centered religious tradition. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we say Talmud Torah keneged kulam. The study of Torah is in some way the most central religious act of all—intellectual, textual activity, as more central, more constant, more preoccupying than all else; in some way occupying a niche even above acts of either human concern and kindness, or devotional acts. (Albeit this is also one aspect of the polemic between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism, and is one of the initial messages of R. Israel Salanter, albeit largely muted in the Musar movement as it developed thereafter.) Indeed, the resurgence of Jewish piety in our own day has been identified, more than anything else, with the mushrooming of literally thousands of yeshivot all over the world; of Torah study as a full time endeavor (and nowhere more than in our holy city).

As we end the reading of Torah for this year, and begin again—together with our own our modest enterprise in Hitzei Yehonatan—may we be granted strength to continue learning and teaching, doing and understanding, discovering hiddushei Torah and plumbing the Torah in ever greater depths. Amen.


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