Thursday, November 23, 2006

Kislev (Months, Torah)

On Archery, Dysfunctional Families, and Hanukkah

We have now begun Kislev—that month which, together with Tevet, encompasses the shortest days of the year, including that of the winter solstice. One of the winter months or “rainy season” of the Jewish year—a period of dormancy, of cold, of silent growth, during which the earth rests, storing up its strength and absorbing life-giving rain for the renewed growth of springtime and summer. And yet, in reality, the natural world seems to have gone crazy: in Israel we have enjoyed two straight weeks of summer time, with one warm, balmy day with blue skies following another, people wandering around in shirtsleeves, with temperatures in the mid-to-high 20s C (=80s F). But these balmy days are barely ten hours long, and I pinch myself every day when it gets dark and it’s Minhah time by 4:30. Meanwhile, in Europe and America there have been fierce, nearly unprecedented snow storms and cold spells, grounding planes and even closing the interstates. (written 2005)

I open with a discussion of weather—usually thought of as the most banal and transient of subjects—because of a suspicion that the chickens are coming home to roost: that is, that the ecological hubris of advanced technological civilization is beginning to produce accelerated climate changes, which may yet lead to ever greater disaster. Showing the proper respect for Mother Earth is a subject of deep religious import, not to mention a matter of life-and-death—if not for ourselves, than surely for our children and grandchildren.

In what follows, I wish to tie together three seemingly disparate aspects of the month of Kislev: the holiday of Hanukkah that comes at its end, the saga of the Jacob family which dominates the Torah readings for this month, and the zodiacal sign of Sagittarius, the Archer.

In modern times, Hanukkah has been subject to two divergent interpretations. For the secular form of Zionism, Hanukkah, as that Jewish holiday which on one level is connected to military victory, symbolizes Jews’ ability to defend themselves, to use tools of war, to gain determination of their own destiny and their own way-of-life and cultural milieu against the incursions of foreign conquerors. These ideas were a central plank in the image of the “new Jew,” seen as capable of living in the concrete, physical world of the body as well as in the realms of mind and spirit. The Shomrim, who guarded the early settlements of the Galilee and Jezreel riding on horseback and carrying rifles—the modern equivalent of Sagittarius’s bow and arrow—and the men of today’s IDF, saw themselves as the natural heirs of the Maccabees who, in Zionist historiography, were seen as much as warrior and soldiers as they were pietists and men of God.

On the other hand, those who view Hanukkah in terms of a more traditional religious interpretation see it as a triumph of Jewish spiritual resistance to the incursions of foreign culture—be it the bastardized Greek culture of the Seleucid warlords, the Christianity of medieval and pre-modern Europe, the rationalism and anthropocentrism of Greece, Rome, and Western Enlightenment, or, for that matter, the secularized Jewish culture of modern Israel, or the bizarre syncretism of Hanukkah and Christmas often found in contemporary America—all of which are seen as anathema. Interestingly, there is one codeword that symbolizes all these things: Edom, the historical nemesis of the Jewish people and its faith, the twin brother to Jacob/Israel who reappears throughout history in the guise of Rome, Christendom and the Church, or Europe generally. And, significantly, the conflict between Edom/Esau (whose tools are also bow and arrow-quiver; see Gen 24:3) and Jacob lies at the heart of two of the parshiyot read this month: Toldot and Vayishlah.

These issues of Jewish identity, and the question of whether there is any possible formulation of Jewish identity that can bridge the differences between these wildly divergent groups, is as lively and unresolved as ever. If God gives me strength, and time, I will blei neder share my thoughts on this subject in my long-planned Rawidowicz essay, entitled “A Latter Day Babylon and Jerusalem,” towards the end of Hanukkah.

But on another level, a common theme that weaves it way throughout the Torah portions of Kislev is the Jewish family: more specifically, the story of the paradigmatic family of Isaac, Jacob and the twelve brothers. At the risk of sounding blasphemous about these figures, who are treated with reverence and awe by the Midrash and aggadic tradition, I will ask the simple and obvious question: why does the Torah choose to emphasize what would be described in modern parlance as a thoroughly dysfunctional family? These chapters are filled with every possible form of negativity and destructivity: sibling rivalry and jealousy between brothers, at times reaching a murderous pitch; discordant marriages, with wives scheming against their husbands; a dominant mother plotting with her (at least initially) immature and molly-coddled son to deceive their husband and father; rivalry among women for the affection and attentions of the same man; sexual lust and intrigue.

One traditional, pious answer is that all this was part of the Divine plan, and every detail in the stories of Genesis was intended as a means of bringing about its fulfillment. Thus, Jacob’s trickery was a means of assuring that the covenant would continue with his offspring rather than that of the wicked Esau; Joseph’s arrogant behavior towards his brothers was a means of fulfilling the promise implicit in his dreams; and so on. Even when the figures involved were themselves oblivious to the transcendent meaning of their actions—as when Joseph’s brothers attacked him and threw them into the pit, or when the widower Judah comforted himself with a casual sexual encounter with a supposed woman of easy virtue—God was busy weaving His redemptive plan behind the scenes, so to speak. Indeed, while it possible to read these stories as a family saga, or as a Bildungsroman describing the growth and maturation, first of Jacob and then of Joseph, one must not forget that an equally important role is played by the visions, dreams, and direct conversations with God which introduce a prophetic dimension. Indeed, it might be interesting to analyze these chapters in terms of the back-and-forth interplay between the purely human and divine dimension.

But they can also be read differently. Another commonly given explanation for the bad behavior of so many of the actors in Sefer Bereshit is that the Torah is a thoroughly honest, down to earth book, not at all interested in showing plaster saints. It clearly knows the difference between man and God, and wishes to illustrate the real problems of human life without concealment, as faced by figures of flesh-and-blood such as one might meet in real life, with the same lusts and ambitions and loves and hatreds and desires for power and hope for immortality through their children as people today…

Or, to put in more abstract terms: the central motif in Judaism, which distinguishes it, at least in its pristine, ideal form, from other religious systems, is how to live within the duality of spirit and body, of earthly and heavenly existence. For a Christian or Buddhist, the ultimate ideal is the ascetic, contemplative life of the monk. On one level, such a path is extremely difficult, demanding as it does iron discipline, self-denial, constant resistance of “temptations of the flesh” and renunciation of the body and its demands. But on another level it is easy, in the sense that it involves a singleness of path, a single-mindedness: the knowledge that the focus of life is knowledge of God and mystical unity with Him or, in the non-theistic path of Buddhism, transcendence of and detachment from all transient, worldly things.

In Judaism, by contrast, the idea is to be at once “above” and “below” (a formulation of the Baal Shem Tov). There is sublime God–consciousness, mystical ascent, even a certain ascetic moment in Judaism; but there is also, equally strongly, a desire to sanctify this world and make it holy—this world being the proper locus for justice, righteousness, and loving-kindness to others. One makes the Divine Presence dwell in this world, “below ten ells,” through what is called “service through corporeality” in Hasidism or, more simply, through halakhah—the path of walking in a holy way in the multifold areas of ordinary human life, in society and in the family. And the avatars of this path are not monks or hermits, dwelling on lonely mountain peaks or in cave-like cells carved into the desert rock, but men like ourselves, who live in the world, constantly battling with the complex problems of human relationships, in the family and without—in short, men like the Fathers. Our paradigms for spirituality are thus real men: men of true greatness, of nobility and power of spirit and ability to focus on the transcendent, but who nevertheless also have failings and faults that are nearly as glaring as their greatness.

Perhaps the central problem dealt with by Martin Buber in his life work was the issue of unity and duality, or multiplicity. The central move in his life—what he described as “the great transformation”—was that from a contemplative/ecstatic, “vertically oriented” mysticism, to a dialogical consciousness, rooted in the world, focused on dialogue with one’s neighbor as the highest manifestation of religious consciousness. (Israeli scholar Israel Koren, in his book The Secret of the Earth, has recently offered an alternative reading of Buber’s life trajectory, suggesting that a deeply mystical consciousness informs even his later work, and sketching the underlining unity in these differing stages.) Buber’s rejection of traditional Judaism and of halakhah would seem to stem from his perception thereof (mistaken, in my view) as somehow restricting man’s openness to the world, as belonging to that vertically-oriented spirituality that he rejected. It would be interesting in this light to read a this-worldly centered interpretation of halakhic Judaism, such as that offered by Rav Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man, as an alternative approach to these problems.

An important part of the Jewish call to live both “above and below” entails the acceptance of paradox—not only on the intellectual level, but in one’s whole being: to accept the shortcomings and foibles of even the most elevated and noble human being; to live with unresolved paradoxes. I recently dealt with several chapters of a new book by aggadah scholar Joshua Levinson, The Twice Told Tale, which examines the dialectical relation between Rabbinic midrash and the biblical text which serves as their alleged source. He speaks there of the back-and-forth type of reading that this necessitates, and that, in the final analysis, the reader is not left with any simple, one-dimensional truths, but rather with a constant dialectic, approaching the “Truth” but never quite reaching it. (Unlike the Art Scroll style of reading, which would make a catechism out of Song of Songs Rabbah —where the woman has no breasts, but only “Moses and Aaron”!). The truth only emerges bit by bit, through the dialectical process of learning Torah, which almost always exists on multiple levels. (Interestingly, one of the constantly repeated themes of the Sefat Emet is the constant tension between Oral Torah and Written Torah, serving as constant paradigms for two types of religious experience.)

Perhaps that is also why, in Judaism, marriage and affirmation of sexuality is not merely an option, a concession to the weakness of the flesh, as it is in Pauline Christianity, meant for lower, less spiritual folks, but itself the ideal. After all, what greater symbol is there of the duality or multiplicity of this world then the duality of the sexes; and beyond that, and more broadly, the ambiguities and antinomies of the sexual life—of raw desire and tender love, of biological drive and conscious human choice, of lifelong fidelity and of momentary urges, “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing”—all these are part of the plan of the Torah to educate the human being to somehow unite the one and the many in a higher union.

And to return to where we started: Sagittarius may also be seen as a sexual symbol. Hazal speak of a man who is sexually potent, virile, as “shooting like an arrow”—and vice versa; the quiver/pouch/sheath in which the arrows are kept may be seen as a yonic or vaginal symbol. Or, more broadly: the bow and arrow together form a pair, indispensable to one another. The arrow derives its power and speed, not from itself, but from the tautly drawn bow, all potential energy. Like its opposite number on the calendrical wheel, Sivan/Gemini, “the twins,” Kislev/Sagittarius is one of the few zodiacal signs based upon a pair, a duality that creates a oneness.

HAYYEI SARAH: A Sermon on Marriage

“And Yitzhak took her to the tent of his mother Sarah; and he took her, and she was his wife, and he loved her; and Yitzhak was comforted after his mother Sarah” (Gen 24:67).

As sophisticated post-Freudian moderns, almost our first impulse on reading these verses is to say: “Aha! Yitzhak had a rampant Oedipal complex! He saw his wife as a substitute for his mother!” Indeed, Rashi makes the rather astonishing comment on this verse: “and she was Sarah his mother” (thus most traditional editions; interestingly, Mossad Harav Kook’s Torat Hayyim, whose text is based on careful, scholarly manuscript work, omits the crucial words, והרי היא שרה אמו. Ramban also quotes Onkelos as translating this phrase thus, but again, strangely, it is absent in the printed versions of Onkelos). Less radically, Rashi continues “and she was like Sarah his mother,” and goes on to quote the midrash we shall elaborate presently. There was thus a certain identity, or at least similarity, between the young bride and the dead mother.

In part, this interpretation seems to have been prompted by a certain syntactical awkwardness in the opening words of this verse, which might literally be parsed “And Yitzhak took her to the tent, Sarah his mother” without the expected possessive case, viz. “to the tent of Sarah his mother” (האהלה, אהל שרה אמו). Hence, the midrash quoted by Rashi immediately thereafter (Genesis Rabbah 60.16), elaborates the nature of the identity between these two women. Certain things which took place so long as Sarah was alive—a candle burned from one Shabbat eve to the next; there was blessing in the dough; a cloud [seen as a sign of the Divine presence] hovered over the entrance the tent; the entrances to the tent were opened wide, to receive guests coming from all directions—ceased upon Sarah’s death, to resume once Rebekkah married Yitzhak and established herself as the mistress of the house.

What exactly is our midrash saying? Just one century ago a Viennese Jew, Sigmund Freud, wrote a series of studies changing forever the way Western men and women think about the mind, the emotions, the impact of sexuality on all of these, and the hitherto sacred realm of the intimate web of feelings within the nuclear family. His claim, in a word, is that sexual feelings lie just beneath the surface in every family, that every male child is subconsciously jealous of his father’s sexual intimacy with his mother, and that these complexes carry themselves over into adult life and relationships in various and sundry ways. He saw the ancient Greeks as being aware of these feelings, as expressed in archetypal form in the myth of Oedipus.

Our text—verse, Rashi, and Midrash—is well aware of the equation or identity between the two central women in a man’s life, his wife and his mother, but it sees the comparison, not in terms of the sexual or erotic, of disguised incestuous longings and repressed patricidal fantasies, but rather in terms of a certain spiritual conception of the feminine. The open doors to the tent express hospitality, Hesed, concern for others, openness to strangers; the blessing in the dough symbolizes the material side of warm, comfortable domesticity; the candle burning from one Shabbat eve to the next represents, perhaps, the light of Torah and wisdom; while the cloud symbolizes the Divine Indwelling, present wherever man and woman reside together in peace and harmony.

For Yitzhak, Sarah embodied the principle of femininity. After she died, Abraham and Yitzhak lived like two old bachelors, stumbling around the house, bumping into each other. Their home was without the sense of grace, of Hesed, of a certain kind of spaciousness, of aesthetics, of intuitive wisdom, of that indefinable “feminine touch” that she had provided. It was, if you like, a house in the functional sense, but not really a home. Then when Rivkah entered the scene, things returned as they had been.

Some years ago I polemicized in these pages with Mordecai Gafni, who argued for the resurgence of Eros, of the erotic alongside the ethical, the “pagan” with the prophetic. I continue to view what he wrote then as problematical. But it must be added that he took pains to note that the “erotic” is not only, or even primarily, the sexual in any narrow or specific sense, but rather the whole realm of affirmation of life energy: Eros in contradistinction to Thanatos, life versus death. In this sense, one might argue that the mother is indeed the first erotic “object” of the small child: the source of life and sustenance, a fount of love and nurturing, the very embodiment of what anthropologists and students of myth call “the Eternal Feminine” or “the Great Mother”—ultimately, perhaps, not so different from what Kabbalah and even earlier midrash refers to as Shekhinah or Imma=Binah. Where Freud would have mother, like wife, as a (secret) object of sexual desire, our midrash has the reverse: wife, not only as sexual partner, but as embodiment of the eternal feminine.

Or perhaps we can read this in a slightly different way: one may see Yitzhak as an extreme introvert, a mystic, who spent long hours wandering in the field, meditating, communing with God in utter solitude. He counted on the women in his life—first his mother, and later his wife (whom he never had to court, but who was found and brought to him by a faithful household retainer)—to deal with “the real world.”

This line of thought calls to mind a shivah call I once made to a man whose wife had died of cancer during her middle years, at the height of realizing her manifold talents and abilities. The halakhah, as is known, prescribes that one not speak to a mourner until he/she addresses those who have come to comfort; should he prefer to sit in total silence, even for seven days and nights, as did Job, one must respect the person’s wishes—albeit in practice, the mourner almost always speaks to his visitors within a few moments. But on this occasion the bereaved husband sat on the floor, withdrawn into himself, and did not speak to a soul. After fifteen minutes of sitting in silence I got up, said what one is supposed to say, and left. Some time later I discussed this incident with a mutual acquaintance, who commented that this man, brilliant as he was academically, was almost totally inarticulate and at a loss to deal with life on an everyday human level. His late wife, in addition to being, like himself, highly intelligent and educated, had been graced with human skills—she was warm and vivacious, knew how to connect with others easily, as well as having a practical bent and being a good homemaker. In brief, she had served as his emissary, his contact with the world of people, the one through whom he communicated with the world. Hence, when she died he was utterly destroyed and distraught.

TOLDOT / VAYISHLAH / HANUKKAH: Jacob and Esau: The Eternal Struggle

The conflict between Jacob and Esau, which in Midrash and later Jewish thought is paradigmatic for the difficult relationship of the Jewish people with the Gentile world—really the central fact in our long and strange history—begins with one simple fact: that each of the parents had a favorite child. So much so, that each is referred to in turn, in two successive verses, as “his/her son,” pointedly in the singular: “Esau his son” and “Jacob her son” (Gen 27:5, 6). It all begins way back in childhood, as soon as the character traits of each begins to emerge: “Isaac loved Esau, for he had a taste for game, and Rebecca loved Jacob.” The one is “a hunter, a man of the field” and the other “a simple/quiet man, one who dwells in tents”—but neither one seems inherently superior to the other. In terms of the simple sense of the text, there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for the former to be condemned as Esav harasha, “the wicked Esau.” “A man of the fields” is a more traditionally masculine role. One senses that the parents were playing out certain unnamed conflicts, a certain subterranean, veiled, maybe even unconscious hostility between one another, through their children. At times, even without divorce, there can be deep currents of rivalry and competition between a couple that upset and destroy the natural harmony and cooperation within the home. As a result, each child really had only one parent with whom he bonded in a deep way. Jacob was naïve, young, inexperienced in way of the world, and thus easily manipulated and used as a pawn by Rivkah.

And significantly, it was this split that began within the home, in the unnamed tensions between man and wife, that led to the deep split between Esau and Jacob. Ultimately, at least in the midrashic reading, this was to make the chasm between Hellenistic or Greco-Roman culture and Judaism inevitable. As if to say: the two cultural paths, so different from one another, are ultimately related. The break between the two cultures, the two paths—what Matthew Arnold, in his essay “Hebraism and Hellenism,” characterizes as “spontaneity of consciousness” vs. “strictness of conscience,” ”right thinking” vs. “right acting”—is ultimately a family dispute. The depth of the conflict derives precisely from the fact that they are so closely related.

Can we imagine another scenario, one in which these cultural options somehow complement one another, live in harmony? Or, on another level: might Gafni’s seemingly outrageous proposal of a synthesis of paganism and prophetism, of ethics and eros, not have a grain of truth in it? Or perhaps the problem is not in harmonizing the values per se, but in the fact that their potential unification is messianic, unrealizable in the world as we know it? Greek culture, after all, was not a culture of violence, of licentiousness and self-indulgence as ends. There was a certain vision of beauty, of harmony, of aesthetics (the “classical” proportions of the Greeks), of what Arnold calls “sweetness and light,” that was seen as opposed to the moral earnestness, the uncompromising passion for justice, ethics, and holiness, that were the guiding principles of Judaism.

Perhaps we need to think in terms of healing the age-old rift. Perhaps, davka as a new barbarism from the East threatens to engulf humankind in a new age of fanaticism and bloodshed, the task of our generation is to envision a synthesis, to engage in tikkun of the rift between Esau and Jacob, that will somehow spread the light to all mankind. Truth be told, the history of modern, post-Enlightenment Jewry, even among the Orthodox, or at least among those who have in any way been engaged in modern culture, has been one of synthesis with the best and finest and most noble elements of world culture, not of its rejection. (This was also the vision of classical Reform, that spoke of a Jewish mission to be a light unto the nations—but there it was deracinated, there was too much reneging on Jewish uniqueness, on the specifics of Jewish religious experience, of halakhah, of Shabbat, of the unique ambience and universe of meaning created by the Hebrew language—in brief, of all that gave power, intensity and vitality to the Jewish path. In all this, Reform sinned in being too self-effacing, apologetic.)

All these are thoughts to contemplate for Hanukkah. Must we forever pride ourselves on being “a people that dwells apart”? If our God is Master of all the Universes, is it not strange to view 99.7% of our fellow humans—His creatures—as “goyim” in the pejorative sense? Perhaps we need to make our central task the realization of the vision embodied in Rashi’s commentary on the first verse of Shema—that HASHEM, who is presently our God, will become One, that is, will be accepted as the God of All. (For a fuller discussion of these issues, see Vayishlah (Midrash) in the archives for December 2005)

VAYESHEV: On Genesis and the Dilemmas of Human Sexuality

Parshat Vayeshev, perhaps more than any other section of the Torah, depicts in vivid color several of the nastier aspects of human interaction: the wild, uncontrollable aspects of human sexuality; the potential for hatred and jealousy within the family; the treachery of betrayal and ingratitude. The figure of Potiphar’s wife, who attacks Joseph almost like a wild animal (Hazal call her “the bear”), causing him to flee the house leaving a torn piece of his clothing in her hand, illustrates the wilder aspect of woman’s sexual desire; Tamar’s desire for a child, and the lengths to which she is willing to go to become pregnant, illustrates another aspect of female sexuality, the powerful mothering instinct; so does the fierce competition between the two sisters, Leah and Rachel, to bear children to Jacob (see the reflections on this posted on my blog, under Vayetze (Torah)). On the other hand, Judah’s casual attitude towards sex, when offered to him at a crossroads far from home, is somehow typically male, instantly recognizable to us despite the distance of nearly 4000 years.

Likewise the Esau-Jacob dichotomy, which we touched upon in Vayishlah, applies not only to relations between Jews and the nations, but also to the dichotomy between body and spirit and, by extension, to that of male and female. Taken, first, on the practical level: Jacob and Esau differ profoundly in their attitudes towards women, much as they did in other aspects of their character. Yaakov was a romantic, who loved only one woman his entire life. His polygamous household was forced on him, first by Lavan’s deceit, then by his wives’ insistence on bearing children through their surrogates; but even into old age he loved his Rachel, after her death transferring this preferential love to her sons above all others, blind to its consequences for the family.

By contrast, according to the Midrash Esau was a skirt chaser, one who saw women as conquests—part of the “prey” he sought in the field, “the hunt.” But he was sensitive to criticism on this score. In a poignant passage, the Torah relates that, when his parents disapproved of the Canaanite girls he married, he sought a wife from his own extended family, marrying his first cousin—Mahalath or Basmath, daughter of Ishmael (Gen 28:6-9; cf. 36:3; there is no little confusion about the names of his wives). Both Yitzhak and Rivkah, and the Torah’s narrative voice, are silent about this marriage. This silence speaks volumes. The poor man just can’t get it right; or, as my parents would say, a sheinem dank (roughly translated: “Thanks for nothing!”). Incidentally, an interesting significance of this is that the two mythic enemies of the Jewish people—Christianity and Islam—are united by this marriage.

Returning to the body-soul dichotomy: in generations past, the image of Jacob as “dweller in tents,” as a “mama’s boy” devoted to things of the mind, was a kind of paradigm for the yeshiva bokhur—the stereotypically pale, physically awkward ghetto Jew who devoted all his time to books and study. The counter-image of Esau as “a hunter… a man of the field” expressed the association between the outdoors, bloodshed, the Gentile world, and all that was non-Jewish, if not actively anti-Semitic. The history of modern Judaism may be read as a kind of rejection of these stereotypes, and the creation of a new kind of Jew—primarily in Israel, but also in the Diaspora, with the emergence of a new type of Diaspora Jew who is wholly at home within his environment, healthy, strong, well-groomed, and unafraid (at least superficially so). And yet, the old stereotypes persist. In American Jewish literature, one finds such writers as Philip Roth, for whom Jewishness is associated with emasculation, if not actual castration; or, in cinema, Woody Allen, whose New York Jewish intellectual is the paradigmatic shleimel and luft mensch, constantly thinking, analyzing, talking. On the other extreme, Israel has created the Hebrew soldier, a type which, carried to absurd extremes, can be as ludicrous a stereotype as the other. One thinks of former General Raphael Eitan (Raful), who died last year in the month of Kislev in an almost mythic, Promethean manner, carried off to sea during a storm by a mighty wave. Soldier, man of the soil, generally thought of as inarticulate, slow of speech, halting; enormously masculine, in a classic way; and, one must add, simplistically right wing and racist in his politics. Has not the development of the “New Jew” also led to a distortion in our personality as a nation?

QUOTATION OF THE MONTH: “I converted (to Christianity) out of conviction: the conviction that it is better to be professor in St Petersburg than a melamed (Heder teacher / instructor) in Snipachock” —Prof. Daniel Chwolson, 19th century Russian-Jewish authority on Karaism.

Distasteful as I find apostasy, plaudits are due to Chwolson for his intellectual honesty, in openly confessing his own cynicism and self-serving motivations—unlike many contemporary parties. Sheyirbu kemoto be-Yisrael.


Post a Comment

<< Home