Monday, October 30, 2006

Noah (Rashi)

For further teachings on Parshat Noah, see archives for November 2005.

“Righteous in His Generation”

“These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a righteous, innocent man in his generation” (Gen 6:9). Rashi: “in his generations.” Some of our Sages expound this to his praise: all the more so had he lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. And there are those who expound it to his defamation: by the standard of his generation he was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been considered as nothing.

This first Rashi on the parsha is particularly well-known. (In general, there is a tendency of many preachers to “get stuck” on the opening verse or two and never get past them; even as great a Hasidic thinker and darshan as the Sefat Emet devotes a disproportionate number of his derashot, over thirty years, to the first passage from the Midrash on each weekly portion.) The problem in the verse is a double one: first, that following the words “these are the generations of Noah,” the text doesn’t go on directly to listing his offspring, as one would expect, but stops to comment on his upright character. Second, the word “in his generations” (bedorotav) seems extraneous: surely it would suffice to say that “Noah was a righteous and innocent man”?

Interestingly, both the midrashic and Talmudic sources for these two views (Gen Rab 30.9; b. Sanhedrin 108a) places the answer denigrating Noah before the positive one. It seems to me that this is done so that the latter may be read as a kind of refutation of the former: i.e., you might think that the words he was “righteous [only] in his generation” was a kind of damning through faint praise; that it was only by comparison with the utterly corrupt people of the generation of the Flood that he looked at all good and decent. Bu no: his ability to be righteous in that generation is itself the strongest proof of the power of his character. Thus, the positive answer, “all the more so in the time of Abraham,” is intended as the bottom line.

The question posed here, on a deeper level, deals with the relation between the individual and society. How is a person influenced by living in a society, in a generation, of bad people? Does it inevitably influence him in a negative way, or may his mettle best be proven precisely through his resistance to negative forces in society? Indeed, can one speak meaningfully of a person’s character outside of social interaction? A person may be a pious individual in a closed room, spending his days in prayer and study; he may even attain what we call holiness, but may he be called righteous? I see Noah as the forebear of all those who showed toughness and resistance in difficult times: members of the anti-Nazi underground in Europe who risked their lives to behave in an decent, humane, moral way and to save the lives of others; righteous Gentiles such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer; indeed, those who resisted fascism, communism, totalitarianism and evil in the name of the state in whatever form.

The Nature of Evil

The story of the flood raises an obvious question: what was the nature of the wickedness of the generation of the flood, that prompted such a catastrophic punishment? Rashi, in the opening verses of our chapter, gives two separate answers:

“And the earth was corrupted before God, and the land was filled with violence” (Gen 6:11). Rashi: This is language of sexual licentiousness and idolatry (Sanhedrin 57a; 108a), as in the verse “lest you be corrupted” (Deut 4:16).

And a little later we read:

“For the earth was filled with violence” (v. 14). Rashi: Their sentence was not sealed except for theft (Sanhedrin 108a)

The picture portrayed here is of a society that has gone completely berserk, that has lost all sense of decency or basic morality, of respect of one human being for his neighbor, of any kind of norms or rules that are agreed. (Yet another midrash, quoted by Rashi in verse 12, sees this anarchy carried over into the animal kingdom: even the beasts and fowl, who normally instinctively followed certain sexual boundaries, violated these to cohabit with members of other species.) It is no coincidence that the first two of these correspond to two of three “cardinal sins” of Judaism, which a person must die rather than violate (see Sanhedrin 74a ff.); and, in the version of their sins given in the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 31.6), the term hamas is seen as referring to all three: sexual licentiousness, idolatry, and bloodshed.

Taking the two versions together, one has four of the seven Noahide laws: specifically, those concerned with the basic morality of the individual in society. The other three—setting up courts of law, not eating the limb of the living, and not profaning the Divine Name—pertain to other areas: the need for order and authority in society; humane behavior toward animals; and basic respect for religion. Eschewing paganism is seen as central because it implies, at least covertly, acceptance of the belief in one god.

At the risk of overstretching my homiletic license, I would also suggest a certain parallel between these sins and the Garden of Eden story and its sequel. Certain potentialities for human behavior were first discovered in the Garden and in its aftermath. First of all, hubris and arrogance, the belief in the unlimited and unrestricted potentiality of the human being, first cousin to idolatry. Second, even though sexuality itself is not perceived as sinful in Judaism, there was certainly discovery the power and attraction of sexuality, as well as the possibilities for its misuse—i.e., violence and oppression of the other through sex. Third, immediately after the expulsion from the Garden, we have the discovery of violence with the first murder, an act of fratricide.

It seems to me that these three areas are still very much with us in the contemporary world, and indeed relate to the greatest dangers facing humankind. Violence and warfare have always lurked just beneath the civilized façade of the human beast, but in modern times, with nuclear weapons and other diabolical tools of mass destruction, they carry an utterly different significance, making the resolution of conflicts in peaceful way—which seems an utterly quixotic idea, particularly in our region—an urgent imperative. The very real threats to the ecology of the planet earth have their roots in hubris: in the belief that we humans are little gods and can exploit and abuse our environment without consequence. Finally, sexuality: it seems to me that the sexual mores that have emerged in Western countries over the past half-century have lead to a cheapening of our culture and to a weakening of family structure that may, again, have grave and unforeseen social repercussions.

A second question raised by this passage: why is theft, specifically, mentioned as the crowning note? What is meant by “Their sentence was only sealed because of theft”?

In examining the various sins mentioned, we find that bloodshed involves the greatest violation of another person—destroying his very life. Sex, whether consensual or not , is also concerned with intimate penetration of the boundaries of the other’s body. By contrast, gezel, theft, has to do with a person’s property—a certain extension of the person’s identity to certain objects around him, that are reserved for his exclusive use. In a certain sense, then, it seems more tangential and arbitrary than these other violations of person.

Indeed, there are many forward-minded people who would celebrate the ethos of Robin Hood, “to rob from the rich to give to the poor.” Many socialists would see the root of all social evils in the notion of private property. But Judaism cannot accept such a radical position. The respect for private property, even its sacrosanct character, in some sense relates to respect for the person himself. Whatever quasi-socialist ethos the Torah may advocate in passages such as Leviticus 25 is based on an underlying concept of private property, in which certain categories of property are made public by dint of specific rules and legislation—hefker of produce of the sabbatical year, the corners of the field and other portions reserved for the poor, release of debts in the seventh year, restoration of property to its original owners in the jubilee year, etc. It never suggests abolishing the category of private property per se.

At this point in history, it is clear that the Soviet experiment in state communism was an abysmal failure (which does not mean that we need to recite Hallel Hagadol over neo-liberal capitalism). Similarly, the kibbutzim have to a large extent reinstated the concept of private property. There is sharing, equality, a sense of mutual responsibility for the collective realm, but they have rediscovered the importance of a certain private sphere that belongs to the individual and/or nuclear family unit. Even if, e.g., the “means of production” are collectively owned, there is still a realm of personal property that remains inviolate.

Finally, a speculation: it occurs to me that, in a certain, semi-technical sense, the sin of eating the fruit of the tree might be categorized as gezel, as theft. The Garden belonged to God; He gave permission to Adam and Eve to eat everything therein except for the fruit of the one tree; hence, by picking it and eating it they in a certain sense committed an act of theft. (The idea that one needs to “acquire” the right to partake of food that grows in God’s world is suggested by the Talmudic discussion stating that, prior to a person reciting the blessing, “The earth and its fulness is the Lord’s,” while afterwards “The heavens are the Lord’s, and the earth he gave to the children of men.”) Imagine that you invite a guest for dinner. You place food on the table, which he is clearly welcome to eat; but later on you find him, without asking your leave, rummaging through your refrigerator and helping himself to whatever he fancies. You will feel a sense of violation: perhaps you were planning to serve this item the next day, or perhaps he consumed the last fruit of the season which you were planning to eat. The sense of violation may be trivial, but it is nevertheless there, and the act is one of gezel.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bereshit (Rashi)

NOTE: Teachings on Bereshit from previous years-on Torah, haftarot, Midrash, Hasidism, Rambam, and Psalms - may be found in the archives for October 2005.

Rashi: Introduction

The theme for this year’s Hitzei Yehonatan is Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah. At first blush, this is often considered a simple text, intended for children and simple, naïve adults; traditionally, it is the first commentary studied by children in Heder or in the early grades of their schooling. It is generally very brief—often no more than a line or two on any given phrase—and only rarely engages in the weighing of numerous options and polemicizing with other commentators such as is found in Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and others. But upon closer reading, one discovers profound depths of understanding and insight. Indeed, it was not for naught that Rashi is referred to fondly as parshandata, “the explicator of the Law,” and was one of the most beloved Jewish teachers of all times.

Rashi (Rabbenu Shlomo Yitzhak), lived close to the beginning of the age of medieval Jewish life in Europe. He was born, lived most of his life, and died in the city of Troyes, northern France (1040-1105), where he served as leader of the community, and had a yeshivah in which he trained numerous disciples. In addition to his famous Torah commentary, he wrote the most important and widely used commentary on the Talmud (again, brief, to the point, at times almost telegraphic, yet unfailingly incisive and useful); halakhic responsa; compiled a Siddur; and more. A full-length biography of Rashi by historian Avraham Grossman, one of the first of this figure, has recently been published. Grossman sees Rashi as an innovator, even a somewhat revolutionary figure; a consummate teacher and guide; a man of liberal, tolerant spirit for his age. During the course of the year we shall elaborate further upon the biography of Rashi.

Rashi’s Torah Commentary has engendered a whole literature of super-commentaries, too numerous to mention by name, down to our own day. Virtually every traditional Jewish thinker dealing with the Torah text begins with Rashi, explaining why they either agree or demur from Rashi’s interpretation.

The talks of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe at his Shabbat afternoon gatherings (farbrengen)—later published in thin pamphlets entitled Likkutei Sihot, delivered in segments interrupted by singing and drinking vodka—were always based upon Rashi. He would usually pick an obscure, at times even technical comment of Rashi, which was then examined from every possible angle: Why was his question phrased thus and not in another way? What were his sources? etc.

Nehama Leibowitz was renowned for always asking her students: Mah hayah kasheh le-Rashi? What was difficult for Rashi? That is, why does he comment on some verses and phrases and not others? The implication is, that a seemingly simple, obvious comment is intended to clarify/resolve a difficulty, which on closer reading comes to light; or that another explanation was available, which Rashi wishes to reject by explaining things as he does.

Another contemporary project worthy of mention is Rashi Hashalem: a project of the Harry Fischel Institute, which contains a critical edition of Rashi al ha-Torah with full annotation and sources.

Unlike, e.g. Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Rashi does not seem as systematic or methodical in his presentation. He does not elaborate, explain, polemicize, or quote other sources, as they often do; indeed, at times he is almost too concise, leaving his readers to “fill in the blank spaces.” The majority of his comments are very brief, no more than three or four lines in standard editions, if that. He hardly ever cites other commentators with whom he argues—in part because he was almost at the beginning of the process of post-talmudic biblical interpretation.

To a large degree, Rashi’s commentary may be seen as a distillation of the classical Rabbinic tradition, both halakhic and aggadic; much of his work is based upon classical midrashic and talmudic literature. In the narrative chapters of the Torah, which includes the first dozen or more weekly parshiyot—all of Genesis plus the opening chapters—he quotes abundantly from Bereshit Rabbah and Shemot Rabbah and other midrashim; in the halakhic sections he distills the essence of the Rabbinic discussion, as it appears in the ancient tannaitic midrashim, in the Mishnah, and (mostly) in the Babylonian Talmud. And yet, as we shall see presently, his own personality and world–view come through clearly in many of his words—and at times, as we shall see presently, he is not afraid to strike out in new direction, without prooftexts from the tradition.

* * * * *

In addition to our weekly discussions of Rashi, in which I intend to present one or two of Rashi’s comments on verses in the parshah, followed by analysis and discussion, we hope over the coming weeks and months to present a number of longer essays on a variety of topics. I have been working on a number of major essays for some time, several of which have long been awaiting the makeh ba-patish, their finishing touches: a discussion on the meanings of sexuality, two sections of which, relating to Rashi, are presented here (for where does a Jewish philosophy of sexuality start, if not with Adam and Eve?); an expanded essay on human aggression and violence; several studies on various personalities: a biographical essay on Shlomo Carlebach, “Rebbe and Minstrel”; a long-overdue essay on Simon Rawidowicz and the contemporary implications of his thought, originally intended (now rather belatedly) to mark my father’s centennial birthday; an (even more belated) 65th birthday study on Art Green and his thought; an impressionistic essay about Zalman Schachter; the continuation of my series on Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles; and a major personal-theological essay. I have for too long felt these essays “writing themselves” within me, like beings with a life of their own demanding that I bring them into the world. As Martin Buber once wrote:

This is the eternal origin of art, that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power…. The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of the experienced world. (I and Thou, Kaufmann ed., pp 60-61)

“And They Shall Be One Flesh”

After the first Woman was taken from the side of the first Man (it should be noted that Adam is not a personal name, but simply the generic term for man; throughout Genesis 1-4, he is consistently referred to by the definite article: ha-Adam, “The Man”; similar, until Gen 4:1, his partner is not called “Eve,” but “The Woman,” ha-Ishah), he exclaims, “This time, [she is] bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for she was taken from Man” (Gen 2:23). Unlike the animals and beasts, who were brought before him in vv. 19-20, and whom he feels to be alien to him, she is of the same stuff as he. The Bible (in narrative voice) then continues: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall be of one flesh” (v. 24). Rashi comments here:

“One flesh.” The fetus is formed by both of them, and in it their flesh becomes one. (Sanhedrin 28b)

The phrase “one flesh” may be understood in several ways. A literal, common-sense reading, might easily see in this phrase a graphic, concrete, even earthy description of man and woman engaged in the sexual act—an act during which, at least for a few moments, their flesh is in some sense literally one (“the creature with two backs”). Certainly, this reading comes aptly to the modern reader, living in a culture for which the moment of sexual union and pleasure tends to be the focus and center of what we think of as sexuality.

In the ancient world, this phrase was read in a slightly different way: not the sexual act as the manifestation of being “one flesh,” but the sexual act making the two into “one flesh” in the legal sense: that is, that marriage and/or sexual union creates an indivisible union. Thus, according to Prof. Aharon Shemesh, the Judaean Desert or Dead Sea sect believed that the initial sexual union between a man and a woman (even without formalized marriage!) created an unbreakable, quasi-biological bond between them, which is seen as having been predestined (A. Shemesh, “4Q271 3: A Key to Sectarian Matrimonial Law,” Journal of Jewish Studies 49 (1998) 244-63).

Early Christianity similarly held that marriage was indissoluble—a position continued in principle by the Roman Catholic Church to this day, although in practice the Church today uses the instrument of annulment to deal with the widespread problems of marital incompatibility. Or, in the words of Jesus quoted in the Gospels, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). Interestingly, at least one midrash on our verse mentions an ancient tradition in which, among the non-Jewish peoples, marriage was for life.

… [Even] illicit intercourse acquires [i.e., creates a marital bond] among the children of Noah. And from whence do we know that they do not have divorce? R. Judah in the name of R. Simon, and R. Hanin in the name of R. Yohanan said: [either] they do not have divorce [at all], or the two of them divorce one another. (Genesis Rabbah 18.5)

This is reminiscent of Rambam’s concept of pre-Sinaitic marriage (Ishut 1.1-4; and see HY V: Vayeshev): as an essentially private arrangement between a man and a woman, without any societal involvement or formal solemnization: if the two of them wished to do so, he takes her into his home, has sex with her, and she becomes his wife. But unlike this midrash, he sees the option for divorce as open, with the same simplicity as marriage (see Hilkhot Melakhim 9.8). But Rambam also recognizes, it being as old as the hills, the existence of casual sex/harlotry – a man and woman desire each other for the moment, for an hour, and then part ways. Thus, in Maimonides view sex per se does not constitute an indelible bond. His is thus a very realistic, down-to-earth approach—one that frankly acknowledges what might be called the dual nature of sex, corresponding in turn to the dual nature of man: freedom and determinism, biology and consciousness, lust and love—in brief, that sex as such is fraught with ambiguity.

The idea that sex per se constitutes a powerful bond, is also reflected in the Rabbinic saying אינה כורתת ברית אלא למי שעשאה כלי —“a woman does not create a covenantal bond except with the one who made her a vessel” (Sanh. 22b); that is, that sexual initiation, whether or not in the context of marriage, is a powerful, central life experience, that leaves a powerful mark and in some sense a unique bond between the woman and her first lover. And, thus it is implied also by our midrash, all this is a kind of law of nature.

Leaving the mystique of defloration aside, the implication is that monogamy is seen as the natural state, a kind of archetypal way of behavior implanted in all human beings (whether or not realized in practice). Hence, it is seen as part of the Seven Noachide commandments, which I read as a kind of Jewish counterpart to natural law (see HY V: Noah).

Several medieval Jewish commentators, such as Sforno, Hizkuni, Radak, offer what might be called a modified version of this view, explaining “one flesh” as a psycho-social-mental unity—the sexual act itself serving to unite them, through pleasure, into a long-standing union. Ramban, commenting on this verse, sees it as referring to the emotional component of the marital/sexual union. Unlike the animals, a human male, “Because the woman is ‘flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone,’ and she was in his bosom like his own flesh, he desires that she be with him always constantly; there is thus implanted in man the desire for the male to be attached to their females. They leave their father and mother and see their wives as if they were one flesh with them.” He goes on to explain the etymology of she’ar basar, used in Lev 18:6 etc., to refer to those relatives forbidden because of consanguinity, as also reflecting this.

All of which is a long, roundabout introduction providing the background to Rashi’s somewhat surprising reading here: that they are united in the flesh of their child, which is formed from both of them. (This is certainly a psychological reality: even in the event of divorce, the now-separated parents remain united through their connection with the children: rejoicing at weddings or the births of grandchildren; or feeling anxiety in times of trouble—e.g., regarding their children’s safety upon hearing of terrorist attacks.) Philosophically, Rashi here engages in teleology: the ultimate telos of the union of man and woman is offspring, who embody the fleshly, physical reality of the two parents in a concrete way. He thus places the union of man and woman in the larger perspective of procreation of the next generation: an obvious enough point, and very much part of traditional Jewish thinking, but one that in today’s pleasure-oriented, individual-oriented world, is often forgotten, with the almost exclusive emphasis on equating sexuality with the pleasure-giving act alone—which is, in a certain sense, a very male view; for women, sexuality clearly includes gestation, childbirth, nursing, etc.

Heshvan (Months)

Introduction: The Month as a Unit

Judaism is nearly unique in having a solar-lunar calendar—that is, one based both upon the cycles of the moon and upon the changes in season controlled by the sun. Unlike the Western calendar, in which the months are arbitrary divisions of 30 or 31 days, the first day of each Hebrew month corresponds to the actual beginning of the lunar cycle; unlike the Muslim calendar, which consists of twelve lunar months that wander over the year, the Hebrew months each have fixed positions in the cycle of summer and winter, rain and sun, sowing, planting and harvesting. The only other calendars of this type, as far as I know, are those of the Far East—the traditional Tibetan and Han (Chinese) calendars.

There is much to be said about this delicate balance between sun and moon, both in terms of the complex technical adjustments required to maintain it—leap years of intercalated months 7 out of every 19 years, and the “fine tuning” accomplished through interruptions of the clocklike alternation of 30 and 29-day months—as well as in terms of the philosophical symbolism of sun and moon, linear and cyclical perceptions of time.

The importance of the moon is greatly reduced in modern society, where people are accustomed to walking on city streets that are illuminated all night by electricity, or to drive in cars which carry their own headlights. But in pre-modern times, especially walking at night in the countryside, one was keenly aware of the phases of moon (see, e.g., the novels of Thomas Hardy). The full moon brilliantly illuminated one’s path; for at least half a dozen days in mid-month, it is bright enough to cast clear shadows, or even to read by. Indeed, in my experience as an army reservist who often served at remote outposts without electricity, I learned to value and make use of moonlight; I met those, such as one particularly keen-sighted Bedouin tracer, who could detect the reflection of moonlight on a metal sign over a kilometer away.

In Midrash and Zohar, the moon is associated with the people Israel (“Who shall can raise up Jacob, for he is small”), with the Divine attribute of Malkhut, and with the feminine. The moon’s cyclical appearances, constantly waxing and waning, are seen as an apt metaphor for the fortunes of the people Israel, oft persecuted and suffering constant changes in fortune, but constantly returning to life with renewed vitality. The sun and the moon correspond mythically to gold and silver, to man and woman, to large and the small—but also to the fixed and steady vs. the elusive and constantly changing. A famous midrash (for text and discussion, see the archives for August 2005 on my blog) declares that God Himself seeks atonement for “diminishing the moon”—i.e., for the inherent injustice entailed in relegating certain forces or beings to secondary importance.

The association of the moon with woman, related to her monthly biological cycles, is an obvious one. The very word used in English for these cycles, “menstruation,” derives from the Latin mensis, for moon. Today, with a certain type of self-awareness on the part of many religious women, there is a renewed interest among many women in the observance of Rosh Hodesh—whether as a focus for public prayer, as among the “Women of the Wall,” or as an occasion for joint study and celebration. The meaning of the Hebrew months has also emerged as a popular topic for women’s classes. One widely used source for this is B’nai Yissakhar, a Hasidic book by Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh of Dinow (d. 1841), disciple of the Kozhnitzer Maggid (i.e., 3rd generation of Hasidism), organized around the theme of the different months. In his scheme, each month has its own special tikkun, an area upon which to focus one’s religious work, as well as its own letter of the alphabet, organ of the body, permutation of letters of the Divine name, one of the twelve tribes, etc.

The lunar cycles also invite interest in astrological symbols. Regardless of what one thinks about astrological influence upon human life (a subject about which there was sharp debate in medieval Judaism, between those who accepted it as part of their objective knowledge of the world and those, like Rambam, who rejected it as “stupidity” and akin to pagan worship), the signs of the various months are used in symbolic or iconographic ways in Judaism. Some old-fashioned festival mahzorim illustrate the piyyutim for Geshem—the prayer for rain recited on Shmini Atzeret—with woodcuts of the twelve zodiacal signs. In similar spirit, a calligrapher friend makes illuminated ketubot based upon the birth signs of the bride and groom. Among the interesting correspondences: the sign of Libra, “the scales,” falls in Tishrei, the month of the Days of Awe when God “weighs” our deeds; Aries, “the goat,” falls in Nissan, the month of Passover with its Pascal goat or lamb; Gemini, “the twins,” corresponds to Sivan, the month of Shavuot, celebrating the Sinaitic covenant between God and Israel (twins = two-ness = relationship)—and so on.

Heshvan: “Fall is at the windows and in my heart”

Strangely, the actual names of the months are in fact of non-Jewish origin, taken from Babylonian culture—the Torah identifies the months simply by number, Nissan, the month of the Exodus from Egypt, being the first month (see Exod 12:1-2). The official name for the present month, Marheshvan, is taken from the Accadian, varhu shamnu, “the eighth month.” Its popular name, “Heshvan,” is a shortened form, considered incorrect by some lexicographers. It is a single word, Marheshvan, not “Mar Heshvan,” as often thought by Israeli school-children, who grow up thinking of the Mar (Mr.) as a kind of honorific; nor is it “bitter” simply because it is one of the few months completely bereft of festive days. In 1 Kings 6:38 the month is referred to as yerah bul.

Its zodiacal symbol is Scorpio (akrav), the scorpion, a lethally poisonous insect— probably the most sinister of all the signs of the zodiac. One of the interesting habits of the scorpion is that it only eats food that it has itself killed, ignoring things that are already dead. Thus a young man of my acquaintance, who during a certain period of his checkered career kept a live scorpion, needed to trap live beetles, ladybugs, ants and the like to feed his “pet.” One might, by way of derush, see this as emblematic of Heshvan in a certain way —a month that in part derives its vitality from the residue of the previous month. Indeed, there are certain people who derive their own life-energy from the vitality of others. The trick is, of course, how to move on from that point to become “self-motivating,” to generate ones own source of inner life and joy without drawing parasitically on others.

Heshvan is most often thought of as the month of the Yoreh—the time of the first rain in Israel (remembering that in Israel there are only two real seasons—yemot hahamah, the hot, sunny days of summer, and the cold, rainy and often cloudy and windy days of winter, yemot hegeshamim). Quite appropriately, the Torah reading for the first Shabbat of Heshvan is that of Noah and the Flood—a Shabbat that is often marked by rain, or at least by wind and clouds. The rainy season leaves an important mark on the liturgy: the phrase mashiv haruah umorid hageshem, “he who turns about the wind and brings down the rain,” is recited in the second blessing of the Amidah from Simhat Torah on; while the phrase tal umatar, “give dew and rain,” is added to the weekday petitionary prayers, in the blessing concerning the fruitfulness of the earth, from the 7th of Heshvan in Israel (this year, the evening of Tuesday, November 8). Strangely, in the Diaspora it is always introduced according to the Gregorian date, on December 5th.

Rain is an essential component of life, the basic fructifying element of the world, too often taken for granted in our modern culture (much like the moon itself). One hardly needs to belabor the point that abundant water is a basic requirement of human sustenance: without rain, no grain, fruits, or vegetables can grow, resulting in starvation and even death (note the famines in Africa in recent years). Hence its central role in prayers, serving also as a link to our agrarian past and roots. The Sages of old considered the “key of rain” as one of the central “keys” held by the Almighty, which He only rarely shares with flesh and blood—comparable to the “key” of childbirth, of healing the sick, and of reviving the dead.

In modern society, with its great material prosperity and dizzying variety of consumer products, we have lost our ties with the elemental realities of life on this earth. At time, with the encroaching threats of polluted air, massive climatic change, the disappearance of numerous natural species of flora and fauna, not to mention the threat posed by nuclear weaponry, that this age of plenty may yet prove to have been a passing moment in the history of mankind, which more often than not has been marked by the elemental struggle for survival. Even the economic struggles of those who experience a sense of real difficulty and pressure in providing their needs are of a different order than those of, say, the farmer in antiquity who prayed for rain so that his crops might grow and his children not starve. A point deserving of reflection.

A puzzling halakhic phenomenon: the Talmud refers to this prayer simply as “asking for rain,” implying that an entire prayer ought to be devoted to the subject. For reasons that are not clear to me, the Ashkenazim fulfill this instruction by adding merely two words to the blessing of barekh aleinu: “ten tal umatar al p’nei ha-adamah” (“give rain and dew on the face of the earth”), whereas the Sephardim alter the entire text of this blessing in wintertime, making it into a full-scale prayer for rain— an idea which, as I said, seems far closer to the Talmud’s original intent. For the benefit of those who have Hebrew fonts, the text of this blessing follows:

ברך עלינו יי אלקינו את השנה הזאת ואת כל מיני תבואתה לטובה, ותן טל ומטר לברכה על פני האדמה, ורווה פני תבל, ושבע את העולם כולו מטובך, ומלא ידינו מברכותיך ומעושר מתנות ידיך. שמרה והצילה שנה זו מכל דבר רע, ומכל מיני משחית, ומכל מיני פורענות, ועשה לה תקוה טובה ואחרית שלום. חוס ורחם עליה ועל כל תבואתה ופרותיה, וברכה בגשמי רצון ברכה ונדבה. ותהא אחריתה חיים ושבע ושלום ושובע וברכה כשנים הטובות לברכה, כי אל טוב ומטיב אתה ומברך השנים. ברוך אתה יי מברך השנים.
Bless this year for us, O Lord our God, with all kinds of produce for good, and give dew and rain for blessing upon the face of the earth, quench the face of the earth, and satisfy the entire world with Your bounty. Fill our hands with Your blessings and the richness of the gift of Your hands. Protect and save this year from any bad thing, and from all kinds of destruction, and from all mishap, and make for it good hope and a peaceful end. Have pity and compassion upon it and upon all its yield and fruit, and bless it with free and blessed and generous rain. May its end be life and sustenance and peace and fullness and blessing as in the good years, for You are a good and beneficent God who blesses the years. Blessed are You, O Lord, who blesses the years.

The liturgical phrase, mashiv haruah umorid hageshem, may also be read on a metaphoric level: “He turns back the sprit (ruah = both wind = spirit) and brings down the material (geshem may be read as rain, or as “matter”). Reciting Geshem on the very last of the festival days of Tishrei, one strongly feels the sense of Heshvan as the quintessential month of hullin—of secular, mundane life, of ordinary “days of small things” following one after another, without the intense spiritual energy of the Days of Turning and the festival days of Sukkot that follow in their wake. The challenge of this month, so to speak, is how to carry the spiritual high, the sense of elevation and joy and solemnity and inner renewal that can be experienced on the festival days of Tishrei, into the dull, uneventful, (and often gray and cloudy) weekdays of Heshvan and thereafter?

My grandfather used to tell the story of a shteitl Jew looking at the third volume of Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim, with pages upon page devoted to each of the special days of Tishrei in turn, in great, even minute detail. Then, following the laws of Simhat Torah, one turns the page, and immediately—there is Hanukkah. “Why couldn’t the author have put in even one page with a few potatoes and some firewood to help us get through the winter”?

The Book of Beginnings

In terms of its Torah readings, Heshvan is very much a time of beginnings—a month during which we read the opening parshiyot of the Torah, concerned with the basic questions of the nature of man, of what it means to be a human being. If we include the tail-end of Tishrei, during this period we read roughly the first half of the Book of Genesis: Bereshit, Noah, Lekh Lekha, Vayera, & Hayyei Sarah—comprising, together, the origins of mankind and the beginnings of what was to become the Jewish people—the founding of the clan or family of Abraham, the father of the covenant.

One could spend an entire lifetime studying just Parshat Bereshit: the mystery of Creation, the issues posed by the integration of a faith understanding of beginnings with modern cosmology; but also, perhaps even more central, the basic questions of what is known today as philosophical anthropology: What is man? How does one deal with the basic dualities of human existence: the ambivalence between freedom and determinism, biology and consciousness; the nature of our sexuality and the issues presented by the changing roles of man and woman; the problematic issues of our innate instinct for toward aggression and violence; man’s Promethean drive for infinite knowledge and control. All these have their origins, so to speak, in the Garden of Eden. I hope to address these issues in two, or possibly three, major essays, now in preparation: “The One and the Two: God, Man and Woman”; “From Cain to Hiroshima—and Beyond”; “Adam and Prometheus: The Seductiveness of Unlimited Knowledge.”

On Biography: A Month of Yahrzeits:

But there is another sense in which Heshvan may be thought of as “the month of man” as well. The following may be a purely subjective, personal association, but for me Heshvan is a month filled with yahrzeits—anniversaries of the deaths of people who died prematurely, in sudden and unexpected ways. This is of course the month in which Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated (12th Heshvan), an event which is still felt in Israel as a kind of traumatic watershed. It is also the month when Shlomo Carlebach died, one year before Rabin, of a sudden massive heart attack (16th Heshvan). Both men, though on either side of 70, were still very much in the middle of their active lives. On a personal level, both of my mother’s brothers, Earl and Joe Gallant, died during Heshvan (the 7th and 14th, respectively)—my first real encounter, occurring in my later childhood years, with the death of people whom I knew and whose presence in my life would leave a hole—and both, again, were sudden. Most shocking of all, a young woman, Beckie Collins, daughter of a close friend, died suddenly at age 22 of an unsuspected heart defect (also 12th Heshvan, but in 1996). Finally, a man remembered by most as a demagogue and hate-monger, who symbolized certain boundaries or dangers in Jewish and Israeli public life—Rav Meir Kahane, founder and leader of the extremist Kakh movement—was assassinated on the 18th of Heshvan in 1990.

The death of an individual raises the issue of biography—of the mystery of the life of any and every man, and his personality. Rav Soloveitchik often stated that the institution of the hesped, the eulogy delivered at a funeral or one the various memorial occasions—shivah, sheloshim, the end of the first year, subsequent yahrzeits—is not intended merely as a “tear-jerker,” to elicit weeping at the passing of a beloved person. He saw its function as biographical—to attempt to describe, understand, insofar as possible even to evaluate, the life of the deceased: who he was, what his life was about, his contribution to his milieu—whether that of family, community, or the Jewish people as a whole. The Rav, himself a master of the art of the eulogy, would quote the verse “from afar God was seen by me.” While a person is alive, we see him, we encounter him in the street, in the marketplace, in the synagogue, in the home; we speak with him, we think we know him. Suddenly, he is gone, and we ask ourselves: who was this person, really?

For various reasons which I will not elaborate here, over the past year I have given some thought to the issues involved in writing biography. To begin with: is it permitted at all for a religious Jew to write biography? Like other traditional cultures, traditional Judaism views the entire enterprise with some scepticism. To begin with, why bother? Is biography Torah? Few biographies were written in the medieval world, and those that were were mostly for edifying purpose, not to uncover the “truth” of a person’s inner life. Its purpose was to provide an example of a holy life, a model to be emulated. Such is still the fashion in Haredi circles to this day; in the Christian world, too, there were and still are pietistic “lives of saints,” hagiographies celebrating the lives and wondrous deeds of holy individuals. They were all models of self-discipline, even as small children, devoted long hours to study or prayer, were models of selflessness and kindness, etc. Where I have know the subjects of such biographies, I have invariably found them to involve distortion and falsification of the person’s life, if not downright untruths.

An interesting experience I had some years ago illustrates the pre-modern attitude to biography. A certain group of people were involved in a scholarly project concerning the Lehem Mishneh, R. Abraham de Boton, one of the “armor bearers” or classical commentators on Rambam, who lived in 16th century Salonica (which, I learned, was a flourishing Jewish community and arguably the most important center of Jewish learning in its day). I was asked to translate a eulogy of his father, R. Moses de Boton, given by R. Moses Almosnino, consisting of twenty pages of closely-set, old-fashioned Hebrew type. In the entire eulogy, there were perhaps two or three lines that told the reader whom the deceased was and what he did during his life. The vast bulk of the sermon was, first, reflections on the meaning of death generally (the question posed was: Why are people sad when someone dies, since the deceased is in fact ascending to a higher, better place than where he was?), and second, an exegesis of David’s lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam 1) —one of the most beautiful biblical poems but hardly relevant to the question that would be asked by a modern reader—Nu, so who was this Moses de Boton anyway?

There are those who say that biography as such, in the modern sense, began during the Renaissance, with the emergence of humanism, with its greater sense of the individual and its interest in the human being per se. All this is not to slight earlier biographies, whether of the confessional genre, such as the autobiography of Augustine of Carthage, or those written in the world of Greco-Roman cultural orbit, which perhaps had more interest in the individual, such as Plutarch’s Lives.

A second problem: how deeply may one delve into the life of the deceased? To what extent may one reveal the secrets of another person’s life, which he/she may have taken pains to conceal during his own lifetime? Isn’t there more than a measure of lashon hara, of gossip and talebearing, involved in the whole enterprise? (Indeed, in the general, secular world, a certain genre of biography is notorious for its seeking out the scurrilous, and there have been more than a few public scandals and law-suits surrounding biographies.) But beyond that, for the religious Jew there is a certain sense of reverence for the human personality; a sense of something sacred about the human being, if only because of man being created in God’s image. Surely a certain sense of reticence must apply to the dead as well as to the living, if not more so.

On the other hand, for that selfsame reason, recalling the life of a person may also be approached as a religious act. If man is created in God’s image, then each person is in a certain sense a facet of the Divine, and his story is in some way a piece of the great cosmic Torah. God is ineffable, unknowable; but the reflection of the Divine that is found in a human life, is something that we can fathom, if only in partial measure.

Yet all this must be approached with great trepidation and reticence, with fear and trembling. Not only in the fear of violating privacy, of shaming the memory of the dead (and irritating living relatives), whether inadvertently or not, but also out if the sense that one doesn’t, and can never know, the complete truth. Every person is, in the end, a mystery. What really motivated him or her? What—in the case of an artist, writer, composer, thinker, inventor—was the mysterious source of their creativity? At times, one can sense the tension between the persona presented to the world and the inner core; at others, one may sense its presence, but does not know what it is. To quote an old Hasidic phrase, “he reveals a handbreadth and conceals two thousand ells.”

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Simhat Torah (on the festival)

“Rejoice and Be Glad in Simhat Torah”

Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah, the final festival of the Jewish calendar, is described as an intimate rendezvous between God and the Jewish people. Unlike Sukkot, there are no “official” mitzvot, no external, physical symbols of the holiday. Instead of seven days, a number symbolic of completeness and fulness of all Divine aspects, there is but one day. (In both of these respects, it is analogous to Shavuot, which is similarly called “Atzeret,” and also a festival centered around Torah) Rather than the seventy bullocks sacrificed during the course of Sukkot, seen as symbolic of the nations of the world, there is but a single one. The midrash speaks of God asking Israel to tarry with him one more day, comparing him to a king who made an elaborate celebration for his extended entourage, at whose end he asks his closest and most intimate friends to stay for one more day, to say goodbye in a more intimate way. “It is hard for me to part from you” (b. Sukkah 55b; Num. Rab. 21:25).

The Hakkafot (processions) of Simhat Torah open with a series of biblical verses, the first of which is, “You have been shown to know that the Lord is God, there is none other but him” (Deut 4:35). This last day is the culmination of the “spiritual knowledge” that is the theme of all the festival of Tishrei: the knowledge that there is ultimately naught but God. Paradoxically, it is both an intimate holiday, and simultaneously one marked by an outburst of ecstatic joy.

Another verse recited before the Hakkafot is “And it shall be said on that day: Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited; this is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his deliverance” (Isaiah 25:9). An interesting aggadah in the final lines of Tractate Ta’anit (31a) relates that “God will make a dance for the righteous in the Future; each one shall point with his finger [upon seeing the Divine glory, visible to their eyes], and say ‘this is the Lord for whom we have waited!...’” Rav Soloveitchik once contrasted the synagogue processions of Sukkot and Simhat Torah as follows: During Sukkot, the Jews stand on the periphery of the circle, holding in their hands the lulav and etrog, an “object of mitzvah,” while the Torah scroll is in the center. On Simhat Torah, the Jews holding the Sifrei Torah are on the periphery, while there is seemingly nothing in particular in the center. But no: in the center, invisible to eyes of flesh and blood, is the Divine Presence. The Jews dancing on Simhat Torah anticipate the eschatological dance of the righteous.

What is Simha?

What do we mean by simha (“joy”) anyway? When we wrote last week about Sukkot and the dwelling in the Sukkah as a locus for our joy, we described it as a kind of calm, contented, tranquil joy in which each person feels happiness in simply being in God’s good world. But there is another kind of simha: the energetic, intense, at times even ecstatic and explosive atmosphere generated at great public gatherings such as the Hakafot of Simhat Torah or the Simhat Beit ha-Sho’evah in olden times.

One may learn much about simha from a close reading of Mainonides’ presentation of the concept of Simhat Yom Tov, “rejoicing in the festivals,” in Hilkhot Yom Tov, 6.17-21, as well as from his remarks at the end of Hilkhot Lulav (8.12-15). This can be done, first and foremost, by a negative process of elimination.

First, simha is inconsistent with selfishness. Rambam lambasts those who celebrate the festival in the closed circle of their family and friends, “locking the gates of his courtyard,” all the while ignoring the poor, unfortunate and embittered (this presumably includes the lonely). Such a festive meal is not a “simha of mitzvah” but simhat kereso, “a celebration for his own stomach.” Simha must go with Hesed, with acts of loving kindness to others (§18).

Second, true simha is sharply contrasted with holelut & kalut rosh (§20): frivolity and emptiness, what might be called in good colloquial American “fooling around.” Many people equate “joy” with foolishness, with license to perform practical jokes, or with the often vulgar, standardized humor of professional comedians.

Third, true simha is inconsistent with lewdness, with intermingling of the sexes for questionable purposes. Rambam calls upon community officials to be vigilant against flirtatious gatherings in the “gardens and orchards or by the rivers” on festive days (§21). This comment was of course rooted in a very traditional society, with very strict norms of separation of the sexes. For those of us who advocate a society that is “mixed but modest,” the same issues present themselves, albeit with different implementation. Unfortunately, there are places where Simhat Torah is notorious for degenerating into a gigantic mixer.

Fourth, simha involves a certain spiritual goal. The Talmud (Beitza 15b) is much exercised to find the proper balance between sacred and profane activities on the holidays: “for God” and “for yourselves.” On the one hand, as we human beings are creatures of flesh and blood, the festive meal is an integral part of simha: “there is no joy without meat and wine.” Indeed, the more spiritual the message of the holiday—as in the case of Shavuot—the more essential it is that it be celebrated davka with physical expression. On the other hand, a significant part of the day must be spent in religious spiritual activities: study, prayer, etc. (§19).

Having defined the negative parameters, Maimonides also gives a succinct positive definition of simha: “to be joyous and good hearted, he and his household” (§17), and that this joy involve “the service of the Creator of All” (§20).

But that is not all. In Hilkhot Lulav, he describes how, during Sukkot, there was simha yeteira, a greater rejoicing than the regular rejoicing of the other festivals. He refers by this to Simhat Beit ha-Sho’eva, the “Rejoicing of the House of the Water Drawing,” a special celebration held in the Women’s Courtyard of the Temple, with torches, musical instruments, and pious men “dancing, clapping, leaping, twirling, jumping,” etc. He adds that one who refrains from participating in this uninhibited rejoicing out of pomposity and a sense of his own self-importance commits a sin (Lulav 8.15).

I believe that our own rejoicing during Simhat Torah derives in part from the sense that Sukkot is an appropriate time for “extra rejoicing,” transferring the aura of Simhat Beit ha-Shoe’va from the intermediate nights of the festival to the final day, and from the subject of water to that of Torah (which are symbolically related). Interestingly, almost the identical words as are used above by the Rambam (and the Mishnah) are used in describing the behavior of Gaon of Vilna during Simhat Torah, adding that “wisdom enlightened his face, which shone like a burning torch” (Ma’aseh Rav, in Siddur Ishei Yisrael, p. 519).

VE-ZOT HA-BERAKHAH: “God has come from Seir”

The actual text of this final portion of the Torah, Ve-Zot ha-Berakha (Deut 33-34), is often overlooked in the excitement and hullabaloo of the festival of Simhat Torah. This is a shame, as it is one of the most beautiful and poetical of all the sections of the Torah.

Its central theme is the blessing given by Moses to each of the twelve tribes prior to his death, on the eve of their crossing over to the Land of Israel/Canaan. It is in many respects similar to Jacob’s blessing of his sons in Genesis 49, and a point-by-point comparison of the two would be instructive. But Moses’ blessings, unlike those of Jacob, are addressed to the tribes rather than to individuals, and allude more explicitly to their collective destiny and future. There is much foreshadowing of future events. The conflict for leadership between Joseph and Judah is more to the fore than in Genesis; the assimilation of Simeon within Judah by the end of the First Temple period is already foreshadowed by its non-mention here. There are other examples, as well—Zebulun’s sea-faring, Asher’s settling in the olive-rich hills of the upper Galilee—and others too numerous to mention.

This blessing also differs from that in Genesis in the presence of a lengthy introduction and epilogue, retelling in very concrete terms the story of the Sinai epiphany as well as reciting the praises of God, and of Israel as a whole. “The Lord came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir… with myriads of holy ones, a flaming fire (or, probably midrashically, “law”: ashdat) at his right hand…” And straight after that, the central role of Moses as conveyor of the Torah: “Moses commanded us a law, as the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” And the royal rule of God: “And there was a king in Jeshurun, when the people gathered together, all the tribes of Israel…” (vv. 2-5). And afterwards, the peroration: “There is none like the God of Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens at your help, and his majesty through the skies… Happy are you, O lsrael, a people saved by the Lord… and you shall tread upon the high places” (vv. 26-29).

“And the people of Israel wept Moses for thirty days”

The very final chapter recounts the death of Moses. A well-known midrash states that Moses himself penned the final eight verses, recounting his death, with tears in his eyes. There is perhaps a certain irony that the reading for this most joyous of all Jewish holidays should relate the death of the outstanding leader of all time, and the thirty days of mourning that followed in its wake (34:8). Perhaps it is meant as an important reminder of the mortality of us all, even the greatest of men; paradoxically, this knowledge provides the psychological basis for the capacity for true joy. This, too, is clearly one of the reasons for the choice of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) as the scroll read on this festival.

This verse (34:8) in fact serves as the basis for the institution of sheloshim, the thirty days of mourning observed after the death of close relatives. Hence, I would like to take this opportunity to recount in written form some things I said on the subject at the sheloshim honoring the memory Hy (Hayyim) Faverman, father of a close friend, who passed away in the summer of 2000.

Although we are accustomed to thinking of sheloshim in connection with death and mourning, the unit of thirty days is a central one in Jewish life and in halakha, in a variety of contexts. Thirty days, or one lunar month, is a basic, natural unit of time; coming in between the day and the year, it contains, perhaps more than any other unit of time, aspects of proximity combined with significant duration. Unlike the year, which spans a complete full cycle of the seasons, after one month events are still fresh and relatively immediate in ones mind. Thus, for many purposes, an unspecified period of time is considered to be thirty days: one who takes an oath, without specifying its duration; one who becomes a Nazirite; a divorce writ given “on condition” (e.g., that the husband not return within a given time period)—the typical examples given for all these in Rabbinic literature are thirty days. Thirty days also represent a full cycle of those things which are not fully seen: the phases of the moon; the unseen phases of a woman’s bodily cycle (so central in Jewish marital life): when these things come full turn, a new phase has begun.

So it is, too, in mourning: the death of a parent or a child, a sibling or a spouse, is not so easily forgotten, but once the moon has crossed the sky in all its different phases, and returned to the position it was the time of the death, it is as if the sad event has lost some of its immediacy and begun to recede into the past. One of course remembers and grieves, but one no longer wears ones mourning as a badge.

But there are actually two, or even more, phases to mourning. The most intense and immediate is the shivah, the seven days following the funeral, devoted exclusively to mourning. Most strikingly, one stays at home, does not go to work, does not even go to the synagogue to say Kaddish. Rather, friends and the community come to one—to comfort, to commiserate, to allow one to retell the story of the one who is now gone forever. Seven days: not a natural, astronomical cycle, but the seven-day cycle of work and rest, of holy and mundane, that is at the heart of Jewish religious existence. During the month of sheloshim, by contrast, one goes out in the world, but carries a certain aura of mourning: one does not cut ones hair, groom oneself, wear freshly laundered and pressed clothes; nor does one party or travel.

Beyond that, in the special case of the death of a father or mother, some of these observances continue, in more limited scope, for an entire year. Why a parent, one might ask? Surely, the death of a child is more poignant, more shattering; the death of a spouse, a lifelong companion, may be more painful, touching a more intimate spot inside oneself. Nevertheless, it is parents who brought one into the world; it is they who are described as God’s partners in ones creation; it is they those whom one is ipso facto required to honor. Hence, their loss is more heavily mourned.

Torah, God and Israel

Two short thoughts for Simhat Torah. First, in wake of our earlier discussion (Rosh Hashanah) about malkhut—the majestic, uncanny, transcendent, “Wholly Other” aspect of the Divine: It occurred to me that Torah somehow serves as a kind of buffer or even as a kind of intermediary to bridge the unfathomable gap between God and man. Instead of concerning ourselves with theology, Jews have Torah, which is in some sense an apotheosis of God, certainly a Divine gift, but something which addresses itself to the human world and the concrete problems of human life: the Torah is concerned with ethics, with the government of society and its norms, with family life, with business, with how to deal with the raw biological impulses for things like food and sex—in short, how to be a human being. Thus, the “happy/blessed” man of Psalm 1 “ponders” the Torah day and night.

In a peculiar way, it occurs to me that this is one of the essential differences between Judaism and Christianity. We, too, have an entity that somehow bridges the Divine and human, but rather than a mortal human being who is both man and God—something that, to my Jewish and sometimes-Litvishe mind, taxes human understanding, not to mention several basic principles of our understanding of God, beyond its limits—we have the Torah, a multi-leveled text/law/literature/Wisdom.

Simhat Torah: Ein Eidele Tog

Many years ago I spent Simhat Torah with a family of Bobover Hasidim. During the evening meal, the father commented that Simhat Torah is Ein eidele tog—a Yiddish phrase best translated as “a gentle/refined day.” It is a day of joy, perhaps even of ecstasy, but within which there burns the pure light of a certain holy spirituality. The day even carries certain echoes of Yom Kippur. In the old-time tradition, many of the piyyutim or other phrases from the liturgy for the Days of Awe are sung on Simhat Torah, during the Hakkafot or at the table: Simhah le-artzekha, Va-ye’etayu, ha-Aderet veha-Emunah, and others. As if we return to the solemn air of the High Holy Days, but without the element of fear and tension and anxiety as to “will we be inscribed for a good year or….”

The joy, as the day’s name itself implies, is a joy in the Torah, not joy as an end in itself. Too often, it seems, Simhat Torah is taken as an excuse to make noise, to let off steam, to engage in boisterousness. Need it be said that this is not the point of the holiday? I recall a conversation with Rav Nahman Bulman, ztz”l, in which he described how he wanted to convey this feeling to the boys at Yeshivat Or Sameah, where he served as spiritual guide: a kind of oral tradition as to how to celebrate this very special day as a day of refined, elevated, Jewish joy—ein eidele tog.

Simhat Torah in the Zohar

Someone recently pointed out to me what may well be the earliest reference to the holiday of Simhat Torah—in the Zohar, III:156b (Pinhas). I shall present it here without commentary:

“And on the eighth day there shall be a convocation… one bullock, one goat” [Num 28:35-36]. The masters of Mishnah compared this to a king who invited guests. After he sent them away, he said to the members of his household, I and you shall make together a little feast. And what is meant by atzeret (“convocation”)? As is said, zeh ya’atzor be’ami (“He it is who shall rule over My people”; 1 Sam 9: 17), and ‘atzor means naught but kingship. From the aspect of the Supernal Shekhinah [Binah?] they made a great feast, and from the aspect of Kingship [Malkhut] they made a small feast. And the people of Israel are accustomed to make a rejoicing, and it is called “the Rejoicing in the Torah,” and they adorn the Torah scroll with its crown, for the Torah scroll alludes to the Tiferet of Shekhinah, “the crown of glory.”

And from Sukkot on to Simhat Torah

It seems clear to me that, at some point in the later Middle Ages, this idea of “rejoicing before God” became embodied in the festive day of Simhat Torah, and specifically in the hakkafot. Perhaps, because after the destruction of the Temple, Jews felt a sense of direct contact with the Divine specifically by means of the Torah and its study. The following passage shows something of the feeling of this latter holiday in the Study House of one of the greatest figures of Eastern European Jewry—the Gaon of Vilna. Interestingly, the very same phrases quoted by Rambam from 2 Samuel, were in turn used to describe the celebration of Simhat Torah. (The passage is from Ma’aseh Rav, a brief collection of the Gaon’s practices, published in Siddur Ishei Yisrael, p. 86):

The Gaon was most joyful on the festival of Sukkot, and particularly on Shmini Atzeret, because, according to the secret teachings [i.e., of the Kabbalah] it is more joyous than all the others days of the festival. And liturgical poems are recited with joy and song: Ha-Aderet veha-Emunah, Va-ye’atayon, Titbarekh ve-tishtabakh (found in the Ma'amadot after Ani maamin) and similar piyyutim. And there was great joy. And on Simhat Torah they circled the Bimah seven times with the Torah, no less than seven times, but one could add to them; and they sang the above praises, as well as Barukh shimkha from the Ari’s book, Shaarei Zion.

And he [the Gaon], of blessed memory, would walk before the Torah scrolls very joyfully, with great strength and splendor, and [that] man’s wisdom would light up his face [after Eccles 8:1] like a burning torch, and he would clap his hands together, and leap and spin with all his strength before the Torah scrolls. And after the singers concluded each verse, he would sing it after them. But once the scrolls were returned to the ark, he would not be quite so joyful, but only as on the level of other festival days.

To conclude, a description of Simhat Torah as it was celebrated just over a hundred years ago in the Polish town of Zakroczym (which happened to be my own grandmother’s shteitl):

On the afternoon of Shemeni Atzeret and the early evening of Simhat Torah, the members of each society would gather in the home of its leader or in the home of the gabbai of that month for a “festive meal.” This was a light repast, at which they would drink and enjoy various pastries, kechlakh, smoked fish, lentils, fruit and the like. My brother, the rabbi [i.e, Rabbi Yonah Mordecai Zlotnik; i.e., great-uncle of this author-JC], visited each group, tasted something, and spoke about the significance of the day. He then went on to the next society, accompanied by the leaders of the group, by the light of a special lantern carried on a pole (with the name of the particular society written on the glass of the lantern). Finally, he was accompanied by all of them to the Hevra Kaddisha [Burial Society]. From there, while holding a Torah scroll, he was led under a huppa [canopy used at weddings] with songs and music, accompanied by the entire congregation and all the lanterns, to the synagogue for the Hakkafot [the dancing procession with the Torah scrolls that is the central feature of Simhat Torah]. One who has not seen this rejoicing, will find it difficult to believe that it took place in our town, in the exile of Poland. Yet even when Messiah son of David comes—may he come speedily in our day—the joy of Simhat Torah will not be greater than that of Simhat Torah in Zakroczym in those days.

One is reminded by all this of the words of Rabbi Eleazar in the final lines of Tractate Ta’anit (31a): “In the future, the Holy One blessed be He will make a dance for the righteous, and He will sit among them, and each one points with his finger and says: ‘And it shall be said on that day: behold, this is our God for whom we have waited; this is the Lord for whom we have waited, let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation’ [Isa 25:9].” Significantly, this is also one of the verse recited before the Hakkafot. This saying, and the verse, remind me of something Rav Soloveitchik once said: on Sukkot the Jews form a holy circle, with their lulav and etrog held in their hands and the Torah in the center; on Simhat Torah, everything is elevated by one degree: the Jews form a circle while holding the Torah scrolls, while the Shekhinah itself is present in the center of the circle.

Sukkah and Lulav

A few more insights concerning some of the customs and mitzvot of the festival. First, regarding Ushpizin, the custom of inviting “supernal guests”—the seven “shepherds,” the central figures in Jewish history—into ones sukkah on each of the seven nights of the festival. This may be understood on two levels. First, as an extension of the mitzvah of inviting flesh and blood guests during Sukkot. Extending hospitality to others, particularly to the poor and unfortunate, is regarded generally as an important act of hesed, of practicing lovingkindness towards others; it is told that Rav Amram Blau, better known as one of the most extreme zealots of Jerusalem, never sat down even to an ordinary weekday meal without at least one indigent guest at his table. But this is doubly so on Sukkot. Perhaps it is because the sukkah as such creates a certain sense of levelling: it comes to teach a sense of the frailty of our existence, of the tenuous nature of our hold on our possessions, and by extension on life itself; an awareness of our ultimate dependence on God, and of the ultimate equality of rich and poor. All this is expressed in the idea that “It is fitting that all Israel dwell in one sukkah”—related, perhaps, to the idea that each individual family’s sukkah is somehow a branch of a universal, metaphysical sukkah.

But beyond that, each of the Ushpizin or supernal guests invited symbolizes one of the seven lower sefirot, the “building blocks” of the cosmos, and thus invites a certain meditation on the sefirot. This is in turn reinforced by the seven-fold processions conducted both on Hoshana Rabbah (with lulav and etrog), and on the night and day of Simhat Torah (with the Torah scrolls), replete with verses and other readings focused upon each of these sefirot.

I already mentioned last year that I see Simhat Torah as a latter-day borrowing or transferal of the intense, explosive joy of Simhat Beit Hashoevah in olden times to a slightly different phase of Sukkot. It occurs to me that this may also explain an interesting custom. In almost every synagogue I’ve ever visited for Simhat Torah, the last of the seven hakkafot is concluded with a dance to the words “Next Year in Jerusalem Rebuilt”—the same words used to conclude both the Passover Seder and the Neilah prayer that concludes Yom Kippur. In both these cases, this cry reflects the idea that the observance of these two holidays, rich and deep as they may be, are nevertheless felt as lacking something essential in the absence of the rebuilt Jerusalem with the Temple at its heart. Passover without the paschal sacrifice, offered and consumed by each extended family in the courtyards of Jerusalem; Yom Kippur, without the impressive atonement ritual for the entire Jewish people, are but a pale shadow of what they are with these elements. So, too, Sukkot, is classically the pilgrimage festival par excellence: with numerous sacrifices, public and individual; with its unique ritual of pouring water upon the altar, preceded by the ceremonious drawing of the water from the depths of the Shiloah, in turn preceded by an all-night ecstatic celebration with pious elders dancing and juggling torches; the processions around the altar with lulav and etrog; the long willow branches placed leaning upon the altar, to cries of “Beauty to you, O altar”—all these are but distant memories, known from ancient tomes. So, at the very end of Sukkot, we declare our hope that this festival, like Pesah and Yom Kippur, will soon be renewed in its ancient splendor.

Yet another aspect to Sukkot. The aspect of hiddur mitzvah, of glorifying or beautifying the mitzvah, is specifically emphasized in connection with all the mitzvot of Sukkah. It is well known that the requirement of hiddur, of physical beauty and perfection, applies to the selection of the four species. But there is also a kind of sliding scale in terms of the manner of its performance as well. The minimum Torah requirement is that one simply hold the four species in ones hands for a brief moment on the first day. But Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai already introduced the practice of taking them all seven days, in memory of the Temple. Beyond that, it is customary to hold them throughout the recitation of Hallel—the psalms of joyous praise recited on the holiday—as a way of “rejoicing before the Lord,” waving them toward all six directions of the cosmos at certain key verses. Finally, the Talmud tells that there were certain people—Yakirei Yerushalayim, the “distinguished men of Jerusalem”—who used to hold the four species in their hands throughout the day: during all the prayers, when they went to make a social call or visit the sick, and even during meals would place them prominently in view.

Similarly, the mitzvah of sukkah has a kind of ”sliding scale.” The mitzvah may be fulfilled in a minimal way: eating an egg’s worth of hallah in the sukkah on the first night, and refraining from eating a “fixed meal’ outside the sukkah the other seven days. But many of the pious, from the time of the Talmud, were careful to eat everything, even the smallest morsel, even fruit, light drinks, and water, in the sukkah. Beyond that, the ideal is to literally “live” in the sukkah: to sleep there, to spend time there in between meals, to study or talk with ones friends there, to “hang out” there (metayel basukkah). It is told that the Gaon of Vilna did not leave the Sukkah between the first night of the festival until the night of Simhat Torah. There are even hasidim who (incorrectly) refuse to leave the sukkah when it rains. The Talmud calls such people “fools,” to which they reply that at least they are “holy fools” (I have known such people personally!). There is also a concept of noy sukkah, of beautifying and decorating the sukkah: already the Tosefta mentions the practice of adorning the sukkah with “decorated carpets and woven stuff, nuts and almonds, peaches and pomegranates, clusters of grapes, sheaves of wheat, wine, oil and flour” (Tosefta Sukkah 1.4; quoted in b. Sukkah 10a). I see all this as related to the idea of simha: of the mitzvot as the instrument of our connection to God. Since this religious connection is the source of true joy in life, we emphasize hiddur on every level of Sukkot.


A few comments about Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes read on Sukkot. This book is a perennial riddle: filled with scepticism, a seemingly nihilistic negation of every conceivable aspect of life, the obvious question is: what is this book doing in the Bible, anyway? Indeed, the consensus of modern scholarship on the subject is that it is rather more influenced by Greek philosophy, perhaps of the school of the cynics, than by indigenous Hebrew thought.

Be that as it may, I have found the following reading of it useful. Typically, religious-ethical exhortations and sermons are based upon what might be described “deductive” thinking. The preacher starts by asserting initial faith axioms—the existence of God, the Divine origin of the Torah, etc.—and then proceeds to demonstrate why one must live a pious, god-fearing life of Torah and mitzvot. The mood of such “Mussar” is often heavy and puritanical, negating the world as ”traif” as opposed to the world of holiness and purity of the Torah.

Kohelet starts from the opposite end of the pole, beginning with a thorough examination of life and of the world. Using what one might call the “inductive” mode (the term is used, in a somewhat different context, in Peter Berger’s The Heretical Imperative), the vast bulk of the book is a rather meandering, unsystematic presentation of the authors’ varied experiences during a long and busy life. He describes how he tried just about everything: the pursuit of wealth, of pleasure, of political power, of wisdom, etc., finding in the end that “all is vanity.” The words hevel, sikhlut, holeleut—“vanity,” foolishness,” “empty-headed hilarity”—are repeated almost endlessly. Life seems meaningless, first of all, because it is filled with injustice and unfairness: the diligent and industrious man leaves his carefully saved, hard-earned wealth to a stupid, hedonistic lout of a son who blows everything he worked so hard to build in a giant spending spree. The rise and fall of entire nations is similarly dependent upon such quirks of fate as whether they have a wise or a foolish king? Secondly, the fact of death, the transitory nature of life, makes a mockery of everything. The fool and the wise man, the good person and the wicked, the pious and the sacrilegious, all end up in the same place. At one point, given all this, he suggests as his preliminary conclusion something that may be roughly paraphrased as follows: Since nothing lasts or matters in the long run anyway, live as best as you can, with a woman you love, and enjoy yourself during your few days on this earth (9:9-10). But then, in the peroration, he reaches a more pious conclusion: in the final analysis, the only thing that makes sense, that lasts, is to fear God and do His commandments (12:13). It is as if he is saying: since all human answers to the riddle of life have been shown to be full of holes, and ultimately unsatisfying, one can only fall back upon the old truths of religious tradition.

Kol Mevaser ve-Omer: for Hoshana Rabbah

The most profound interpretation I have ever seen for the strange rituals of Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, is that of the Sefat Emet. He explains the central role of the willow branch on this holiday, with which Sukkot as such concludes, on the basis of the classical midrashim on lulav and etrog. The willow responds to the simple Jew, who has “neither taste nor flavor,” neither learning nor good deeds. Having no merit, he falls back upon simple prayer: pouring out his heart before God, he begs for mercy, for acceptance not based upon any special virtue. And with what does he do this? According to another midrash, in which the four species each correspond to a different part of the body—the heart, the spine, the eye—the willow corresponds to the lips. So at the very final sealing of the Divine judgment—after a month of awakening and reciting Selihot, and ten days of intense soul searching and even greater penitence, of fasting and confessing on Yom Kippur, of being busy with numerous mitzvot throughout Sukkot—we are ultimately thrown back on Hoshana Rabbah upon the simplest, most heartfelt emotions, pleading for mercy with our voices, and hoping to awaken God’s fatherly instincts, so to speak.

Shmini Atzeret-Simhat Torah-Hol Hamoed (Haftarot)

“And they blessed the king”

1 Kings 8:54-66 is as the haftarah for Shemini Atzeret—the only “Second Day of Yom Tov for the Diaspora” which actually precedes the first day. That is, the liturgy used in Israel on the one and only day of this hag—i.e., that for Simhat Torah, with its Hakkafot, the ending and beginning anew of the reading of the Torah —is actually practiced on the second day every else.

This reading continues the chapter read on the Second Day of Sukkot in the Diaspora, in which the dedication of King Solomon’s Temple is concluded with his blessing the people. This is done in a brief prayer, in which he calls upon God to bless His people Israel, at whose end he and all the people offer sacrifices. The final verse is interesting: “On the eighth day he sent the people away, and they blessed the king, and returned to their homes with joy and gladness of heart.” Rav Soloveitchik once observed that this verse serves as the basis for the old-fashioned custom, whereby on Shemini Atzeret people would go to the home of the rabbi (“Who are the kings? The Rabbis!”), give and receive blessings, and return to their homes to enjoy a particularly festive holiday meal. This in turn spawned the custom of matan yad, of pledging money to charity on those days (in the Diaspora only!) when the verse Deut 16:17 was read from the Torah (i.e., the 8th day of Passover; 2nd day of Shavuot; Shemini Atzeret), which in turn seems to have been the origin of reciting Yizkor on these pilgrimage festivals.

Simhat Tora: Joshua’s New Beginning

Our haftarah for Simhat Torah is Joshua 1:1-18: the sequel to Moses’ death, describing the final preparations before going into the Land of Israel. Like the Torah reading for this day, this haftarah is both an end and a new beginning: it picks up immediately after where the Torah ends, with the death of Moses, and begins the readings from the Prophets at the very beginning. It depicts a gathering of the people, in which Joshua speaks to the people with words of encouragement and strengthening: “be strong and of good courage”—hazak ve-ematz.

Apocalypse, Redemption, and Sukkot

We asked earlier why haftarot relating to the messianic age, particularly the passages from Zechariah and Ezekiel describing violent apocalyptic events, are read during Sukkot? One answer is to be found in Franz Rosenzweig’s famous three-fold scheme in the Star of Redemption, in which the three pilgrimage festivals are seen as corresponding to the three stages of sacred history in Judaism: Creation, Revelation and Redemption. The Exodus from Egypt, commemorated by Pesah, in a certain metaphorical sense may be read as the moment of creation and beginning of the Jewish nation; Shavuot, the festival of the great epiphany at Sinai, is of course Revelation; while Sukkot, as the final, and in a sense unhistorical one of the triad, points toward the future, as yet unknown, age of Redemption.

But the three festivals also correspond to the three ages of the individual: youth, maturity, and old age. The three scrolls read on these days illustrate this clearly: Song of Songs, at least on the literal level, portrays the lyrical romance of youth, the total absorption of the two lovers in one another. The Book of Ruth depicts the serious, practical concerns of maturity, of middle life; even the “romantic” interest is depicted in terms of responsibility within a social context. Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, looks back upon life with a certain sense of distance that is only possible in old age, drawing conclusions in retrospect about the entire course of life. So too Sukkot comes at a time of completion, of fulness, of harvest—but also a point at which one awaits the beginning of the next cycle, where one must first go through the chill and hibernation of winter, a kind of “mini-death” in the natural world. (Interestingly, in Rabbinic doctrine the judgement on Rosh Hashana is seen as a kind of miniature or muted version of the judgment passed on each person at the end of his/her life. This may also take on an added meaning in light of the equation: Sukkot/Tishrei = old age/death = passage to the future.

To take the analogy one step further: just as death, even if seen by the believer as a transition to a new stage, is fraught with fear, pain and uncertainty, the prospect of life after death being “the great unknown”; so too the Eschaton, the age of messianic Redemption, as the “third stage” in history, is the great unknown in the historical sense. Like the Afterlife, knowledge of its existence altogether is a matter of faith, rather than of concrete, empirical knowledge. Having said all this, we may now understand that the joy of Sukkot is of a very peculiar sort: not the unfettered, spontaneous, almost instinctive joy of youth, of simple joy in life itself, but rather a kind of enlightened, almost philosophical, bitter-sweet joy, tempered by the knowledge of the passing nature of all things, and rejoicing in the eternity of God, of the Torah and mitzvot, and of the Jewish people.

I remember, as a young man, visiting the Gerer shteibl on Manhattan’s West Side on one of the days of Sukkot. After the davening, an elderly man sitting in the sukkah kept on repeating (in Ashkenazic pronunciation) the phrase from Pirkei Avot, hayeludim lawmoos (“those who are born are to die”), with a strange sort of joy. I interpreted this as a deeply religious, almost quietistic, acceptance of his, and our, mortality, which somehow epitomized the essence of Sukkot.

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.