Friday, July 27, 2007

Vaethanan (Rashi)

For more material on this week's portion, see the archives of this blog for August 2006.

Shocking Anthropomorphism?

This weeks’ parashah contains a number of verses and passages of great theological significance: not only the Shema and the repetition of the Ten Commandments, but various statements bearing on HWYH (“the Lord”) being the only God, and the obligation to reflect upon this. Two such verses appear in the passage also read on Tisha b’Av (Deut 4:25-40; verse 35 is also familiar as the keynote verse of Simhat Torah). Rashi’s interpretation of this verse is almost shockingly literal:

Deut 4:35. “You have been shown to know that the Lord, He is God, there is none other than Him.”

Rashi: “You have been shown.” As in its translation, ithazita. When the Holy One blessed be He gave them the Torah, He opened the seven heavens before them. And just as He ripped open the upper ones, so did He rip open the lower ones, and they saw that He was the only one. Therefore it is said, “You have been shown to know…”

My first reaction upon reading this was to be reminded, in reverse, of Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin, the Soviet astronaut who, in 1961, was the first human being to visit in outer space, allegedly said, “There is no God up here”—as if to say, if God exists He must be a physical being dwelling in the heavens; but, as he saw no such Being up there, He must not exist. This reflects, of course, a very corporeal, even gross concept of God.

And yet Rashi seems to be presenting here much the same argument, albeit in reverse: if one opens the firmament one can see God, but no pagan deities: ergo, they do not exist. On the linguistic level, this comment seems to be based on a literal reading of the verb הראת לדעת, “you have been caused to see, so as to know” rather than a more metaphorical, idiomatic reading, such as, “made to understand” (a usage familiar in English from such phrases as, “See what I mean?”; and see Maimonides’ Guide, I.4).

Most of us have been raised with the axiom that the Jewish concept of God is of an incorporeal, wholly spiritual being, who has no image—an idea articulated at great length in all of Maimonides’ writings, and given pithy expression in the Thirteen Principles and in the liturgical poem Yigdal. Interesting, perhaps the clearest expression of God’s incorporeality appears shortly before our verse, in 4:15 ff.

But there are in fact numerous sources in which God is described in concrete, tangible ways. Thus, Moses is described in Num 12:8 as “looking upon God’s image”; in the cleft of the rock, where he is only granted a view of God’s “back” but not of His face, the implication is that God does in fact have a face, but “no man shall see Me and live” (Exod 33:20-23; I shall not discuss here the contradiction between these passages). Isaiah, in his vision, sees God seated in majesty in the Temple, the trains of His robe filling the Sanctuary (Isa 6:1); Ezekiel, in his vision of the Divine chariot, sees above the ophanim a majestic human figure seated upon a throne (Ezek 1:26-27).

Arthur Green, in an extremely interesting article published several decades ago (“The Children in Egypt and the Theophany at the Sea,” Judaism 24:4 [no. 96; Fall 1976], 446-456) discusses a midrash in which the Israelite children thrown into the Nile at Pharaoh’s order were kept alive miraculously by a mysterious, handsome young man who fed them and cared for them; years later, at the splitting of the Sea, they recognized this same figure in the God who redeemed them, and declared “This is my God and I will extol Him” (Exod Rab. 23.8). Green elaborates there upon the more concrete, non-philosophical conception of God, as one enjoying equal validity in the traditional sources. All of which is to suggest that the Maimonidean theology we take so much for granted is not the only option.

And yet, I must admit that I am personally bothered by many of the more coarsely corporeal and even quasi-magical religious manifestations practices often seen today. For example: people attributing protective powers to certain sacred objects, such as a book of Tehillim, or Sefer Raziel ha-Malakh, or an amulet written by a holy man worn on the body; or the concept of the Western Wall as a gigantic Divine mailbox in which one delivers prayerful notes to God—a custom that has been reinforced by modern technology through the installation of a fax near the Wall.

The First Verse of Shema: Eschatology Rather than Theology

This parashah contains what is often considered the credo of Judaism: the Shema, which, together with its following verses and two other paragraphs, constitutes the center of the Morning and Evening prayers.

But Rashi interprets this cardinal verse in an unexpected way. We are accustomed to seeing the Shema as a declaration of God’s kingship or rulership, and of His unity. Again, Maimonides, the great formulator of Jewish creed, devotes much space to elucidating precisely what is meant by such unity, including the exclusion of internal divisions within God, or of any emotions, actions, or even attributes in the usual sense of the word. Alternatively, the Kabbalistic view describes the unity of God in terms of the unity of God’s transcendence and His immanence, notwithstanding His multifarious activities in the universe by means of the Sefirot, understood as tools or vehicles that He emanates from within Himself. But Rashi takes a different tack:

Deut 6:4. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Rashi: “The Lord,” who is now our God but not the god of the nations, will in the future be “the Lord is one.” As is said, “Then I will turn the nations about [to speak] with a clear language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord” (Zephaniah 3:9). And it says, “On that day the Lord will be One and His name One” (Zechariah 14:9).

Rashi here completely bypasses the theological issue. The two central phrases of this verse (following the opening invocation to Israel to listen and give heed), are not a declaration of HWYH’s being the only deity—eloheinu being the generic term for godhood; that is, not a name of God, but a statement of who He is in relation to us—followed by a declaration of His unity. Rather, the two halves of the sentence represent two contrasting historical ages: the present era is one in which HWYH, the Master of all Being and the Life of the Universe, is only known to Israel; all the other nations worship falsehood, idols, fetishes. “HWYH is one.” Better: “HWYH shall be one”—that is, at some undefined eschatological future, the nations will join us in recognizing the one true God.

Why did Rashi interpret the verse thus? Perhaps he felt that the theological sense was, (a) self-evident, and (b) already stated eloquently in the two verses mentioned in Chapter 4. Thus, he wished to address the issue of the place of Israel, and of Israel’s vision of the one God, in the actual world that he knew—a medieval world of brutal inter-religious conflict, in which Jewry suffered a vastly inferior power position; a world of Crusades that, in the name of an ostensibly sacred ideal, pillaged and rampaged entire Jewish communities in the Rhineland (although I’m not certain that Rashi, who died in 1104, wrote these words after 1096).

This line of interpretation also helps to explain something else. It is the general custom for the entire congregation to recite the first verse of Shema aloud. The concept seems to be of collective acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven by Keneset Yisreal—now, in anticipation of what will be “then.” Thus, it is not meant as a private, quiet, inner meditation, as some think. Indeed, this mode is even established in the halakhah (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 61.26, and see Rema ad loc)

“All You Need is Love”

Immediately following the first verse of Shema we have the imperative to love God with all we have—heart, soul and “strength.” Rashi comments on each phrase at some length, mostly reiterating what is said in the ancient tannaitic midrash, Sifre:

6:5. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Rashi: Perform His words out of love. For one cannot compare one acts out of love with one who acts out of fear. One who serves his master out of fear, if he troubles him [too much] will leave him and go away.

Love and fear are the two pillars, the two central axes of Jewish religious life; both are of great importance. Yet, interestingly, Rashi here emphasizes the superiority of love; indeed, while the commandment “you shall fear the Lord your God” does appear elsewhere in this book (see, e.g., Deut 6:2, 13; 10:12, 20), it was not chosen as part of the three passages recited as Keriat Shema.

I would define yirah as closely related to obedience, the sense of obligation to do mitzvot: what some philosophers call “heteronomy,” the sense that one is obligated to perform the commandments by dint of a force external to oneself. It seems to me that, in old-style Orthodoxy, the emphasis was (and in many places still is) on simple obedience: one is to perform the practical mitzvot dutifully, without asking too many questions. Hence, the feeling among many that a person who becomes more “serious” about his Judaism may best express it by ever-increasing strictness in practical observance (humrot). But this is also what turned off many people. One hears stories of the old-time heder teachers who would rap students on the knuckles if they didn’t study properly or seemed to be violating one of the mitzvot. I remember vividly a friend of my parents who described how, the first time she went out to work on a Saturday, out of sheer economic necessity, she was convinced that she would be struck by lightning the moment she touched the typewriter. When this failed to occur, her whole religiosity fell apart like a deck of cards.

It seems to me that the central theme, the common denominator of what I have referred to as the “New Spirituality”—whether the school of Shlomo Carlebach, the new egalitarian-style Orthodoxy of Shira Hadasha, Jewish Renewal, or various New Age groups—is the emphasis on what might be called “love” as against “fear.” The emphasis is on personal feeling, inwardness, cultivation of the individual’s religious consciousness, experimentation with new modes of public worship and meditation, and personal choice. All this is a healthy reaction to the severe and censorious face of the “old-style” Orthodoxy.

But love without fear has its own drawbacks and problems of which one also needs to be wary. To mention but a few: (a) the emphasis on love alone tends to deemphasize or even eliminate the role of the moral conscience. The negative commandments or proscriptions of the Torah are connected specifically with “fear.” People find it easy to recognize wrong-doing in others, but usually believe that they themselves always act with the highest motivations. (b) One can easily confuse the love of God with the self-pleasure one takes from davening, from participation religious ceremony. The pleasure is more sublime than that one takes from a good meal or even from a good book or concert—but the orientation may still ultimately be one of pleasure. (c) If based upon personal choice, a person may throw it over more easily. Rashi’s argument that one who serves out of fear may walk out on his master, while one who loves his master will wish to remain loyal to him, because he himself wants to be with him, is correct insofar as it goes—but it ignores the well-known fickleness of love (as witnessed by our generation of nearly ubiquitous divorce). Moreover, even if one continues to serve God, one goes about with a feeling of autonomy, that one can choose in an ongoing way whether or not to observe in general, and each detail in particular. “Maybe I won’t fast on Tisha b’Av because I’m not sure I really miss that I miss there not being a Temple and animal sacrifices,” or, “Maybe I won’t regard chicken and other fowl as fleishakh because it doesn’t make sense and is logically inconsistent.” And so on.

The Many Dimensions of Love

I will begin with a discussion, left over from last week, about the verse in Vaethanan about the love of God, which defines the extent to which one should love God, in various modalities or dimensions. The homily brought here by Rashi appears, not only in Sifre, but also in Mishnah Berakhot 9.5. (Note: those portions of Rashi’s commentary that do not appear in the mishnah are set off in square brackets; the one phrase in the Mishnah not quoted by Rashi is set in italics.) I quote it phrase by phrase:

6:5. “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” Rashi: v. 5. “With all your heart.” With both your impulses. [Another thing: that your heart should not be divided before the Omnipresent.]

Rabbinic teaching constantly refers to the two “impulses,” “urges” or “drives” within man: Yetzer ha-Tov and Yetzer ha-Ra, the Good Urge and the Evil Urge. But the Evil Urge is not really evil as such; rather, it refers to the basic biological urges and drives within the human being, which may be directed towards the good or remain in their given state, undirected and potentially even chaotic. Or, to use Freudian language, Yetzer ha-Ra corresponds roughly to the Id, while Yetzer ha-Tov might be compared to the Super-Ego, that element within man which is tamed and civilized, which represents the internalized norms of society (or, for our purposes, the Torah) as its own. Hence, the teaching to serve God with both one’s impulses means that one ought to channel one’s inchoate, raw impulses—whose paradigm the Sages saw in sexuality—in the service of socially and religiously constructive goals: e.g., marriage and building a Jewish family, etc.

Rashi’s second peshat seems in a way to be logically prior: that is, before one can even begin to speak of channeling the instinctual side in one’s personality towards the love of God, one first needs to have a unified, non-conflicted approach to the basic question: is one in fact committed to serving God wholeheartedly, to devoting oneself to Him. One can love God casually, as a kind of leisure-time hobby, but there is a major part of oneself that is not really interested in the whole business but is centered on oneself, then there is a serious danger that the love of God is largely lip-service. We continue:

“With all your soul.” Even if He takes your soul.

This is the classic source for the most extreme and demanding imperative in Judaism: Kiddush Hashem, the willingness and readiness to die a martyr’s death to sanctify God’s Name, if need be. This was a major subject of concern in the Middle Ages, e.g., during the Crusades in the Rhineland, and is too vast a subject to treat here. In principle, the basic logic is that authentic, passionate love for God means placing Him before all else, including one’s own life. This demand runs contrary to the great value placed on the individual and his self-fulfillment in contemporary Western culture; I sometimes wonder how many people today would truly be willing to die for Kiddush Hashem if called upon to do so.

“And with all your might [lit., “muchness”; i.e., abundance].” With all your wealth. [There is a person whose wealth is dearer to him than his own life; therefore it says, “with all your wealth.”] Another thing: “with all your me’od.” In every attribute that He measures out to you, [be it a good measure or a measure of catastrophe], be very grateful to Him. [And thus regarding David it says, “I shall lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:13); and “Trouble and sorrow come upon me, yet I call upon the name of the Lord” (ibid., 3)].

Before discussing the ideas implicit here, a few words about the linguistic and other mechanics of this homily. First, the word me’odekha is itself difficult. This verse is one of only two places in the entire Bible (the other, 2 Kings 23:25, is a close parallel, where we are told that there was no one like King Josiah “who returned to God with all his heart and all his soul and all his might”) where מאד is used as a noun. In the overwhelming majority of cases (see Mandelkern’s Concordance, were מאד andמאד מאד appear some 300 times) it is used as an adverb and, on a few occasions, as an adjective: “very,” “much,” “greatly.” Hence, the abstract noun extrapolated from it means something like “muchness” or “plentitude”—be it physical strength, as in the conventional translation, or material abundance.

In the Sifre, Rabbi Akiva questions why our verse in fact includes the phrase, “with all your muchness.” After all, it would seem to be an obvious kal vahomer, an inference from minor to major: If one is to love God with all one’s soul, with one’s very lifeblood, shouldn’t it be obvious that one should love Him with one’s wealth and property? The first answer given is: No. There are people who love their wealth more than their very life; they are called upon to love God with their wealth. This may mean to follow a philanthropic path, an answer perhaps structurally similar to that of serving God with one’s Evil Urge: giving generously to synagogues and study houses, supporting the indigent and needy, and various other good causes in one’s immediate and broader community. Alternatively, this phrase may be saying that there are certain people who make money their ultimate value. Clearly, this is not a good way to be, nay, it is almost tantamount to idolatry; hence, to love God with all one’s plentitude means: do not make property the be-all and end-all of your life.

The second peshat rejects “with all your wealth” as a solution to R. Akiva’s question, perhaps because it is somehow too trivial; it is not a cardinal, central idea like the first two, which may be read “with all your personality” and “with your very life.” The idea here is that one must accept whatever God dishes out to one; take both the good and the bad in life as coming from God. Incidentally, this homily seems a bit forced linguistically—i.e., the reading of מאד as מידה, “attribute” or “manner” seems more like clever word-play than a philologically correct interpretation of the word. Rashi here reinforces the tannaitic material with a pithy little homily on two verses in Psalm 116, where David praises God, both when he encounters “trouble and sorrow” and when he partakes of the “cup of salvation.”

This last section is the reason for the inclusion of this entire unit in the mishnah: namely, that the mishnah articulates here the law that “One is to bless God for the bad as one does for the good.” The central idea is that a person must accept all that happens to him in life as coming from God: this is the notion of tzidduk ha-din, justifying or accepting God’s judgment. Again, this idea seems to run contrary to the mood of much of contemporary secular life. There are people who expect everything to go well in life, and find it difficult, emotionally and psychologically, to accept hard times. There is even an approach that putting up a good fight against death is somehow a manifestation of one’s human dignity. Thus, Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and its refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Or there is the image of death as tantamount to defeat, as in the film The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman (who died this past week) in which the figure of Death, a pale, gaunt figure wrapped in a black robe, plays chess with the protagonist, who is allowed to remain alive until he loses the game.

On this point it is interesting to compare Judaism with Buddhism. The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that life inevitably involves suffering, that it is fundamentally unsatisfying because of its transient nature. Its corollary, the second Truth, is that this suffering can be reduced by learning to adopt an attitude of a certain inner detachment that follows from that knowledge—what’s sometimes called in the West a kind of “philosophical acceptance.” It seems to me that in some ways this approach is similar to that expressed here: we must accept, and even thank God, for all that happens, because he is the Author of Life itself. (This theme is particularly stressed in Hasidism, which Rivka Schatz as described as a Jewish form of the religious mood known as quietism—namely, that one does what one needs to do as a Jew and as a human being living in the world, while knowing that ultimately all is in God’s hands.) The major difference, of course, is that Buddhism is a-theistic: at least in its classic form, it is really more a philosophy of life than a religion, indifferent to the issue of the existence a personal or otherwise God, whereas in Judaism the whole process of acceptance of death and other bad things takes place in relation to a personal God, who knows all and decides all.


Post a Comment

<< Home