Friday, May 11, 2007

Iyyar (Months)

In Eretz Yisrael, Iyyar is considered the first month of yemot ha-hamah, “the days of sun-heat,” i.e., summer: following the brief transitional spring of Nissan, when trees blossom and flowers start to bloom, there begins the steady, gradually increasing warmth of summer, with its slow ripening of fruit and grain. The zodiacal symbol of the month is Taurus, the bull—one of the two such symbols that appears in the Divine chariot of Ezekiel’s vision, alongside the lion of Av. The bull, even more so than the lion, is a symbol of brute strength: the main farm animal in Israel, used for heavy labor, capable of pulling enormous weights. The tribes of Joseph are blessed as “a first-born bull, to whom is splendor; he has horns like a wild ox …” (Deut 33:17). Some people say that, following the simple joy of liberation and birth celebrated in Nissan, in which we experience Divine protectiveness as a sheep turning to its shepherd, the bull symbolizes the hard work of inner growth that one must do during Iyyar, in preparation for receiving Torah.

There are four main features of this month particularly worthy of comment: the counting of the Omer; the Torah portions; the new Israeli-Jewish days of commemoration and celebration of this month; and Lag ba-Omer.

1. Sefirat ha-Omer

The predominant mitzvah of this month is Sefirat ha-Omer, the counting of forty-nine days between Pesah and Shavuot. Although it begins during the latter half of Nissan, straight after Pesah, and continues into Sivan, Iyyar is the only month during which it is performed every single day. Interestingly, Lurianic Kabbalah relates Iyyar to the activity of thought. Thought—that subtlest, most intangible of all activities, the one least susceptible to sharp definition. In nature, one might say that this corresponds to the slow, hidden process of growth of trees and plants, from first flowering and blossoming to ripening and giving of first fruits around Shavuot. So, too, the intellectual and moral process of preparation for receiving the Torah, which is the main spiritual work of this period, cannot be measured quantitatively or defined in clearcut, objective terms.

Indeed, one might argue that there are two different aspects of Torah study. Rambam, following the gemara in Kiddushin 29a, speaks of three aspects of Torah study: miqra, mishnah, and gemara. The first two of these refer to the study of texts from the Scripture and from the Oral Torah: that is, learning, mastering a particular body or unit of material: Humash, Mishnah, etc. This is the origin of the concept of the daily shiur—a word used today to designate a class or lesson, but which really means a fixed quantity. A person can resolve to study a chapter of Tanakh, a page of Talmud, a section in the Tur or Shulhan Arukh, a chapter of Mishnah or Rambam, every day. But there is another type of learning, which can hardly even be called study in the textual sense: reflecting upon what one has learned, trying to understand it, to discern the relationships and interconnections among the different laws, their underlying logic, to attempt to understand the rationales for the mitzvot, or even to try to attain knowledge of God (all these, of course, within the limitations of the human mind). It is these latter that Rambam refers to as gemara (see Talmud Torah 1.11-12; and our discussion in HY V: Shavuot): an ever-deepening process of inner understanding and growth that by its very nature cannot be defined, and is a highly individual process. The image this evokes for me is one portrayed by Rav Soloveitchik in his essay on Halakhic Man: of Rav Hayyim of Brisk sitting in the study house one evening after Ma’ariv, reflecting upon a certain problem that emerged in the course of his learning with such profound concentration that he was totally oblivious to the passing of time—until the shamash came in as dawn was breaking to prepare the synagogue for Morning Prayers.

Nor can the ethical preparation for Shavuot be sharply defined or quantified either. The process of tikkun middot, of character improvement, is one of gradual inner growth and change, of uprooting bad ways and habits. It is a life-long project, of almost imperceptible maturing and ripening of the soul. (Occasionally one hears of a person who goes “cold turkey”—who stops using cigarettes, coffee, or alcohol; or of a ba’alei teshuvah who starts observing Shabbat or kashrut all at once—but these are the exception rather than the rule, and even then only apply to discrete, specific areas of life.) A person can never say “Now I have done complete teshuvah for everything I’ve ever done wrong” or “My character has now attained perfection” (R. Jonah Gerondi’s statement to the contrary in his Iggeret ha-Teshuvah is highly puzzling). Human failings may, if we’re very lucky and assiduous, become subtler, but they never disappear. All this, I see as somehow symbolized in the act of counting the days—nothing more, really, than simple attentiveness to time.

2. The Torah Portions: On Purity and Holiness

The Torah readings for the month of Iyyar correspond roughly to the second half of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus. This year we read Tazria-Metzora on the Shabbat of Rosh Hodesh, followed by the other portions of the book (some of them doubled up) during the weeks that follow. (Bamidbar, the opening, title reading of the Book of Numbers, is always the last portion before Shavuot, and almost always falls during or on the eve of Sivan, as this year.) The salient feature of the second half of Vayikra is the repeated use of such phrases as “that you may be holy” or “you shall be holy,” and the like—phenomena that led some Bible scholars to refer to it as “the Holiness Code” or the “Holiness document.”

The subject matter and themes of Vayikra may be roughly divided into three: (a) the sacrifices and their rules, concluding with the ceremonial investiture of the priests and the dedication of the Tabernacle, and the fiasco of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (Lev 1-10); (b) laws concerning tum’ah & taharah (“impurity” and “purity”): specifically, laws governing those creatures fit to eat or that are “tamei/ impure to you” and thus unfit to eat; the scaly skin disorder called tzara’at; various bodily discharges (Lev 11-15), culminating with the annual ceremony of atonement and purgation of the holy place, the altar and the Tent of Meeting “from the impurities of the children of Israel… among whom it dwells in their impurities” (Lev 16:16, 33); (c) a variety of laws, ranging from the slaughter of animals, to forbidden sexual connections, to various laws about interpersonal relations, through special rules governing the personal life of priests, the holy seasons of the year and the special sabbatical and jubilee years, ending with a chapter invoking blessing and curses upon the people, depending upon whether they observe or violate the covenant (Lev 17-26). The leit-motif of this last group of chapters is the frequent reference to ”holiness,” which reaches its high point in the introduction to Ch 19, “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The final chapter, Lev 27, is a kind of addendum, if not an afterthought (see Behukotai [Torah]).

It seems to me that the key to understanding this transition, and thus the book as a whole, is: what is the meaning of these two terms—purity/taharah and holiness/kedushah? While I cannot begin to undertake a comprehensive philological analysis of these terms, I can suggest one or two ways of thinking about them. The first point that stands out is that taharah, purity, is defined in a negative way: as the absence of tum’ah. And tum’ah, in turn, is concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with the body, with the world of physical phenomena. Taharah thus seems more a precondition for other, “higher” states than a value in itself—at least in its biblical definition.

Kedushah, by contrast, seems to be defined in a positive way. True, in one or two places here it is set off against its opposite, halal, (e.g. “you shall not profane My Holy Name” – Lev 22:32; or the profanation brought about by the harlotry of an Israelite or kohen’s daughter, as in 19:29; 21:9), but more often than not hullin is defined as an absence, a kind of “hollow” or space that calls out to be filled with holiness (yemei hol, lit., “profane days,” are simply the ordinary working days of the week).

On one level, the positive definition of kedushah implies “separation,” connected with withdrawal and separation from gross physicality (“Wherever you find [separation from] licentiousness, there you find holiness”—Rashi at Lev 19:2); when we speak of God as holy, indeed, triply so, the image conjured up is of Him dwelling in the remote heavens, ensconced in the recesses of infinity, untouchable, awesome, even frightening.

But the striking thing about the kedushah passages in Leviticus is that kedushah is presented there as a human possibility: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2). This verse, a kind of general heading, is followed both by “religious,” ritual laws (Sabbath, respecting the Temple, animal sacrifices to be offered in a whole-hearted way, etc.), and by a series of laws about inter-personal actions. Moreover, these latter include not only overt, clearly definable actions, but also inner attitudes, things that reflect a sense of human solidarity and caring for the other, of community and mutual responsibility which cannot be legislated, certainly not enforced, but depend upon the conscience of each individual: do not stand by the blood of your fellow; do not put a stumbling block before the blind (interpreted broadly as: do not do anything to mislead others, relying on the thought that you won’t be caught); don’t hold grudges or engage in vindictive actions; and the crowning, “golden” rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If the opening verse, “you shall be holy,” is read as a heading, then this definition of holiness embraces, not only the body and its ritual purity, but the mind, the emotions, the very soul.

Among Musar authors, those medieval pietists who articulated the spiritual goals to which a Jew ought to strive, we find holiness near the pinnacle of those stages to be attained. Thus, in R. Hayyim David Luzzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim, based on R. Pinhas b. Yair’s progression of stages in growth, kedushah stands near the top, while taharah is somewhere in the middle, slightly above “zeal” and “carefulness.” But there are also places were the two are mentioned in tandem: the phrase be-kedushah uve-taharah (“with holiness and purity”) appears prominently several times in the liturgy. Indeed, in the concluding section of the special blessing for the Shabbat Amidah it is purity that seems to be the ultimate goal, in the phrase ve-taher libenu le-ovdekha be-emet, “purify our hearts to serve You in truth.”

An interesting point about the understanding of kedushah implied by these passages in Vayikra is the position occupied by sexuality, in both the positive and negative senses. The above-mentioned “holiness” chapter, Leviticus 19, is surrounded on either side by laws dealing with forbidden sexual liaisons: the one, Ch. 18, listing forbidden relations, while the other, Ch. 20, gives the sanctions pertaining to them. What I find interesting is that the former speaks of forbidden sex in terms of tum’ah, using variants of the root tamei no less than six times in vv. 24-30; while the latter has repeated variants of the word kadosh: that is, by refraining from these acts, one becomes holy (e.g., 20:7, 26). I see this duality as corresponding to the dual nature of sexuality itself: on the one hand, a biological interaction between two physical bodies, identical to that performed by the beasts of the field, yielding direct and immediate bodily pleasure; on the other hand—and this is the source of both the problematic and the fascination and intrigue of human sexuality—it is an act that contains the potential for expressing the deepest feelings of love, of intimacy, of union of both body and soul, possible for two human beings—of two beings who, by dint of their humanity, are centers of consciousness, feeling, thought, spirit, etc. Or, to put it slightly differently, sex is perhaps that area in which we most consistently encounter the ebb and flow of duality and unity in the very cosmos—but more on that another time.

To return to our main theme: understood as embracing the mind, the spirit, that uniquely human which is made in the Divine image, the theme of kedushah/ holiness dovetails well into the themes of Sefirat ha-Omer and of thought mentioned earlier.

3. Israeli National Holidays: Thoughts About A New Jew and an Old Jew

For most ordinary Jews, certainly those living in Israel, Iyyar is first and foremost the month of the modern Jewish national holidays: Yom ha-Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, that falls on the 5th day of this month. Moreover, at least in the cycle of Israeli “civic religion” and public commemoration, in public ceremony and in printed and electronic media, the entire period from Pesah on is one of reflection and celebration of various events in Jewish peoplehood: from Pesah itself, the festival of our ancient liberation; through Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on 27th Nissan; to Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for those who fell in establishing or defending the state; to Yom Ha-Atzmaut itself; through, towards the end of month, Yom Yerushalayim, the day on which Jerusalem was reunited in the Six Day War.

In previous years I have addressed the ideological issues raised by the role of Israel and Zionism in modern Jewish life, as well as the need for a new liturgy to mark this day properly (some of these have been posted on my blog; see below for the URL). This year, however, I would like to discuss Yom ha-Atzmaut through the prism of two lives that, in recent months, came to an end in any meaningful sense. The first of these two figures is Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister, who suffered a massive stroke in the opening days of 2006. Since that time he has been in a deep coma. While he is still alive, his active public life is clearly over; indeed, it is highly doubtful whether he will ever even regain consciousness. With the official installation of the Olmert government, probably later this week, he will cease to hold even nominally the title of Prime Minister.

I see Sharon, with both his faults and virtues, as embodying the model of the “New Jew” the new human type which Zionism, and in its wake the State of Israel, sought to create. Sharon, as the last major figure of the generation of the War of Independence to have remained active in public life (while Shimon Peres, at 83, is still very much alive and kicking, his career was exclusively that of a civilian, a senior civil servant and diplomat/statesman; he was never immersed in the world of the military, which is such a quintessential part of Israeli experience, and as such belongs to a very different mold as Sharon), thus represents the end of an era. There is a sense that the heroic age of Israel is over: that the country has reached a certain maturity, uneasy and insecure as that may yet be; that the time when each individual saw himself as being called upon to engage in ongoing personal sacrifice and intense dedication to the state has clearly passed. Today, Israel is very much a private society, like other established Western societies.

Interestingly, this year’s Independence Day marks Israel’s 58th—in gematria, noah, a word that can mean either “comfortable” or “complacent.” In much the same way, our Sages disagree as to whether the biblical Noah of the flood was a hero, defying his generation, or a mediocrity, outstanding only when compared with the evil men of his time.

What are the characteristic features of the “New Jew”? First of all, secularism: a substitution of the land, the Hebrew language, the history of the Jewish people per se for the religious tradition (Moshe Idel recently remarked that, during a certain point in recent history, historians rather than rabbis were seen as the authorized interpreters of Jewish existence). An emphasis on the Tanakh as The Jewish Book par excellence, to the exclusion of such Diaspora creations as Talmud, Midrash, Jewish thought and mysticism, halakhah, etc. An almost sacred mystique of “knowledge of the land,” with the tiyyul, the foot-trek into every corner of the Land of Israel, as an almost religious ritual.

Second, the New Jew cultivated bodily strength and masculinity, at times even a kind of machoism, in pointed contrast to the ghetto Jew. Where the latter was weak, pale, a creature of the indoors, who pored over dusty old books, cultivating mind and soul at the expense of the body (thus the stereotype), the New Jew was vital, strong, able and ready to fight when need be—and if he had an eye for the ladies, and more, that was a mere peccadillo, that could be forgiven someone cut in the heroic mold. There is a kind of brashness in the “Israeli national character” (again, we are speaking here in archetypes, if not stereotypes), a sense of rugged independence, a bit like the pioneers of the American West or the rugged Yankees of rural New England. There is a certain attitude that “nobody can tell me what to do”—even to the point of defiance of the authority of the Jewish state that was created to fulfill this dream, or of the orderly chain of military command.

Closely related to these qualities of “rugged individualism” is a certain element of improvisation, of resourcefulness—often considered of as quintessential Israeli qualities: le-alter, to invent a solution to a problem when no conventional answer is ready at hand. To make do with what is available—an often indispensable quality in a young, relatively poor country, without a long tradition of how things are done. But the downside of this is the idea that the ends justify the means, and that “rules are made to be broken.” Together with this goes a certain informality, of dress, manner and speech; a refusal to stand on ceremony and—to my mind, a very positive virtue—a certain rudimentary equality among all, in which even national leaders refuse to hold themselves above ordinary citizens. An important concept in Israeli society is the Hevreman—the person who cares about other people, who remembers old friends, who talks in a down-to-earth, “unbuttoned” manner to high and low alike, however important the position he may hold.

While the above portrait is a composite picture of the “New Jew,” much of it applies to Sharon. He was certainly “a man of the land”: he knew every stone in Eretz Yisrael, walked its length and breadth, and believed firmly, more than anything else, in Eretz Yisrael as the natural home of Jewish people. He grew up on a moshav in the north and, when not in the Army, lived on the land: he saw himself, perhaps somewhat romantically, as a farmer, with a large private farm in the northern Negev, Havat Shikmim, where he raised sheep and cattle.

Sharon is perceived as always having had a strong mind of his own: even in the military, where hierarchy and acceptance of orders from ones superiors is a sina qua non, Sharon often went off on his own, from the period of his command of Gedud 101 in the early 1950’s on. Some say that, despite his great personal charisma and abilities, he never became Ramatka”l, Chief of Staff, because he annoyed so many people in the military hierarchy. This trait reached its pinnacle during the Lebanon War when, together with the late Raful, he planned the campaign that went all the way to Beirut, without consulting either Begin or the other cabinet ministers. During his years in the Housing and other Ministries, he was likewise notorious for disregarding regulations and hijacking budgets to establish settlements or to push other projects that were close to his heart, earning him the title of “bulldozer.” Again, Sharon’s famous insistence on going up to the Temple Mount in September 2000 is seen by many as, if not a deliberate provocation, at very least an act of gross insensitivity, reminiscent of nothing so much as the proverbial bull in the china-shop.

Another classic problem of the New Jew—perhaps his Achilles heel—was that, in attempting to invert the worldview and priorities of the ghetto Jew, who had to kowtow to the Gentiles (again, according to Zionist historiography), he adopted an attitude of arrogance and lording it over the “natives.” Ben-Gurion’s saying, “It doesn’t matter what the nations say, but what the Jews do.” In the case of the Arabs, who were both our closest neighbors and our bitterest enemies, this led to an attitude of seeing the Arabs “through the sight of a rifle.” There was a certain arrogance towards them, never a real dialogue. Even after Arafat’s death, which seemed to many to herald the possible opening of a real dialogue, Sharon studiously ignored Abu Mazen. His much heralded turn-about, from supporting West Bank settlements to dismantling Gush Katuf, was really a unilateral action, not based on any attempt at cooperation with Palestinian leadership.

By all accounts Sharon was not an aloof or distant leader—notwithstanding his often high-handed behavior within his own party and in dealing with ideological opposition. This was doubtless part of his enormous popular appeal. He always looked unnatural in a sit and tie. Indeed, he was rather inarticulate as a speaker, inspiring by deeds rather than words. Yael Dayan, in a book written as a young soldier when she was still in her 20’s, describes Sharon standing atop of a tank in the Sinai during the 1967 War as a figure radiating strength and courage.

For me personally, his charisma and popularity remain a mystery. I nevertheless see him as a symbol of something vital and fundamental in Israeli life. His passing from public life symbolizes the end of an era, and signals the need for Israel to grapple with basic issues of how to live in a post-heroic age, with leaders who are no more than life size.

I now turn to my second figure. One Shabbat in mid-winter, Rav Yitzhak Kaduri, known as the elder of the Kabbalists in Israel, died, aged somewhere between 106 and 112. If Sharon was a quintessential “New Jew,” Rav Kaduri may rightly be seen as his antithesis, as an “Old Jew,” not only by virtue of his venerable age, but because of what he symbolized culturally. I see him as a symbol of a strange and unexpected direction taken by Israeli culture in recent decades.

It’s difficult to say much about Rav Kaduri’s life. There are those who believe he was a gadol batorah, a great Tzaddik, certainly a master of Kabbalistic literature. As far as I know, he was not a prolific or a creative author, nor did he develop a new system or startlingly new insights into Kabbalah—or if he did, it was only within his own narrow circle. (I first heard of him in the early 1980s, from a friend, a highly educated professional who suffered from a severe chronic illness, who went to him—out of desperation?—for a cure where conventional medicine was of no avail.) But he was known as a “practical Kabbalist,” as someone who knew how to use his knowledge of esoteric, secret traditions to manipulate cosmic spheres and influence the affairs of men. About twenty years ago, Rav Kaduri—alongside with several other such Kabbalists—began to emerge on the public stage as a figure offering blessing, healing, and advice on crucial life decisions on the basis of esoteric knowledge gained from the Kabbalah. Later still, politicians started coming to him, and he became a political force of sorts, along with the ghosts of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Babba Sali.

It is my sense that Rav Kaduri had a great reserve of innocence and simplicity. Some say that he was a simple man of faith, an artisan who earned his living most of his life through the labor of his hands, studying Kabbalah in his free time; it was only in his old age that he was “discovered,” became a wonder-working Kabbalist, and gained a popular following. His deepest striving was to be a holy, pious man. There was an almost child-like innocence about him. He spoke in utter simplicity about talking to the angels, or of exorcizing demons by asking them to show respect for his advanced age, etc. Whatever public hoopla surrounded him seems to have been created by others—whether family, political leaders, or others—who took advantage of his charisma for financial or political advantage.

What is more interesting is that he became popular, not only among the pious, nor even among non-observant Sephardim, who have a tradition of respecting “holy men,” but among thoroughly secularized, Westernized politicians, entertainers, and business people. One finds the notion among many Israelis that, even if one doesn’t oneself aspire or make any attempt to implement Judaism in ones own life, one can express religiosity by respecting and revering some old rabbi with a long white beard as a holy man.

There are those who surely dismiss the whole phenomenon as representing a kind of escape from modernity, with all its problems and conundrums, retreating to the most primitive, irrational, even superstitious, pre-modern aspects of “old-time” Judaism. Yet even if not articulated in those terms, it seems to me that this phenomenon and others related to it—the whole phenomenon of hazarah beteshuvah, of revival of religious Judaism in all its variety and different schools—go deeper. They reflect a certain discontent with secular Zionism and the image of the New Jew; an intuitive feeling among many that the attempts of secular Zionism to define Jewish identity have proven inadequate, are somehow disappointing or even bankrupt. That they have failed to nourish the deeper longings and needs of the human soul, and that return to “old-time religion”—at times, in its most bizarre forms—somehow provides a better, alternative answer.

4. Lag ba-Omer

Finally, in mid-Iyyar, we have the half-holiday of Lag va-Omer, at whose center is the figure of R. Shimon bar Yohai, the reputed author of Sefer ha-Zohar, the central work of Jewish mysticism. Whatever may have been his actual inner world, both Talmud and Zohar paint him as the quintessence of the other-worldly, theocentric mystic. Due to considerations of time and space, we shall postpone our discussion of him, and of his holiday, to a later date (see below, in the archives).


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