Friday, August 10, 2007

Re'eh (Rashi)

As you can see, the blog is now again up and running. Thanks to all those who wrote to express their concern and suggest solutions. For additional teachings on this portion, see the archives for August 2006 below.

Milk and Meat as Metaphor

This week’s parashah begins the actual recapitulation of the laws taught in the first four books, including those of kashrut, which is treated as a single subject. This is in contrast with the original presentation, in which the rules of permitted and prohibited species and the ban against cooking milk and meat together are treated in widely separated places—the former in Leviticus 11, the latter in Exodus 23:19b and 34:26b). Rashi, after commenting on the straightforward meaning of this law and some of its halakhic ramifications, offers an unusual metaphorical interpretation related to the placing of the rule on milk and meat adjacent to the rule of tithes:

Deut 14:21-22. “… Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. [new section] You shall surely tithe all the produce of your seed….” Rashi: What has this to do with that? The Holy One blessed be He said to Israel: Do not make Me boil the young goats of the grain while they are still in their mothers’ womb. For if you do not tithe properly, as it is ready to ripen, I will bring an eastern wind and blast them; as is said “and shall blast it before [it becomes] standing grain” (2 Kings 19:26). And similarly regarding the matter of first–fruits.

The idea of semikhat parshiyut, that the placing of seemingly unrelated subjects in close proximity to one another is in some way meaningful, is an accepted and widely-used method of Biblical exegesis in Hazal. What is unusual here is that, when invoked, it is usually done to show some unexpected or non-obvious connection between the two in terms of their literal, straightforward meaning. Here, in a source borrowed by Rashi from Midrash Tanhuma (Re’eh, §17), the former verse (clearly halakhic in its simple sense) is read, not as a behavioral rule, but as an ethical admonition relating to the latter: do not perform an act which will cause the “kid” (i.e., the unripe grain) to be “boiled” (i.e., scorched or blasted by the hot sun and extremely dry wind) while yet in its “mother’s womb” (i.e., on the stalk, where it is still growing).

The basic idea of the lesson brought here is one repeated many times in the Torah, particularly in Deuteronomy: the principle of reward and punishment, that neglect of the mitzvah brings in its wake consequences, Divine punishment—and swiftly so.

The last three words, “and similarly regarding the matter of first–fruits,” puzzled me until I read Chavell’s footnotes to Torat Hayyim. He states that the same principle applied here to the proximity of this verse to the matter of tithing may also explain its coupling with bikkurim, “first-fruits.” This may help to explain why Rashi choose to quote this unusual midrash here: the adjacency of the milk & meat rule to agricultural mitzvot in three separate places is striking, and calls for comment.

I would like to add an additional thought about milk and meat. It seems quite clear that the diet in Biblical times was far closer to macrobiotics or vegan than it was to the modern Western diet, centered on animal flesh and dairy. In our culture, many people today find this rule—and, specifically, the Rabbinic stricture requiring that one wait “between one meal and the next” before eating dairy following meat—vexing. It’s difficult to tell a small child that he can’t have ice cream at 4 o’clock in the afternoon just because he’s had hamburgers for lunch. But in ancient times, it would seem that both meat and dairy were more peripheral foods, the former especially only consumed on somewhat special occasions, as occasional additions to a diet of fruits and vegetables, grains and legumes. Hence, the two were separated from on another, because they were seen as representing opposing principles—the one life-giving and “maternal”; the other the direct product of the animal’s death; or, perhaps, the one contracted, concentrated, the other expansive. (Incidentally, there are those who state that the emphasis on animal-based food, with the large herds of cattle and sheep and fowl this requires, is a contributing factor to the global warming that is now threatening our planet.)

An indication of the centrality of vegetable food may be seen in the second paragraph of Shema, found in last week’s parsha, which speak of blessing in terms of דגנך תירושך ויצהריך “you shall gather your grain, wine and oil” (Deut 11:14)—a threesome which appears in numerous other in Devarim and in the Tanakh generally.


Marcel Dubois—A Eulogy

A little over a month ago Father Marcel Dubois died, at age 85. Father Marcel was a monk and priest who many years ago chose to make his home in Israel, where he headed a small Dominican community, “Isaiah House” on Agron Street, as well as serving as Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University, where for many years he served as Chair. An active figure in the Israeli cultural and religious scene, he will perhaps best be remembered as one of the greatest friends of Israel and the Jewish people within the Church. (Interestingly, earlier this week word came of the passing of another such figure, Cardinal Jean Marie [Aaron] Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris—albeit for many Jews the fact that Lustiger was a converted Jew makes him a far more ambivalent figure.) Father Marcel also served as delegate from the Holy Land to the Papal Commission on Inter-Religious Dialogue with Judaism, and was always an outspoken supporter, not only of the Jews’ connection to the land, but of the notion of the Divine Providence operating through the Jewish people, including its most secularized parts, and the State of Israel.

But I wish to speak more of the personal side. I worked closely with Father Marcel for five or six years during the early 1980s, in the context of a bi-annual journal of inter-religious dialogue and scholarship entitled Immanuel. Father Marcel was Editor-in-Chief and I was Managing Editor: he suggested ideas for articles, set down general guidelines, chaired the editorial broad, which consisted of a Jewish and Christian scholar for each of the five sections, while I nagged tardy contributors, edited copy, reviewed page proofs and layout, and saw the journal through to press. As Marcel said in his self-effacing and gently humorous way, “I give the blessing and he does the work.” We met at least once a month, spoke often on the phone, and on several occasions he was a guest at our home for Shabbat meals.

What struck me most strongly about him was his unassuming manner, his warmth and love; his genuine acceptance and caring for others, of all religions and walks of life. In this, he embodied the true ideal of Christian love. We Jews have good reason to be sceptical about Christian love, in light of the Church’s history through much of the European Diaspora, and such things as the Inquisition, in which “love” might mean putting someone to death at the auto-da-fé to save their soul. Knowing Marcel was a reminder of what Christian love can be when it is authentic, and not ideological or fake.

He did not stand on ceremony and protocol and, while a man of deep faith, was not overly fussy about some of the more peripheral aspects of religion. Thus, I would see him walking around the house wearing a brown Benedictine robe, rather than the white Dominican robes of his own order, because he found the former more comfortable. Nor was he hesitant to criticize those things, in his own church as outside it, which troubled him. He was a true devotee of the modernization and opening up of the church brought about by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Hence, from time to time in private conversation he would indicate his dismay at the direction taken by the latter’s successors, and drew a sharp line between official binding church doctrine teaching as expressed in papal bull or encyclical, and the personality and views of the reigning pontiff.

I would like to add some comments about Jewish–Christian dialogue generally. This is an area in which I never imagined myself becoming involved, until the work with Immanuel virtually fell into my lap, opening to me an entire new world, hitherto unknown to me. I had grown up believing missionizing to be a central motif in virtually all Christian groups, an ulterior motive that might on occasion be kept concealed but which was always present. “There is no salvation outside of the Church.” What I discovered at Immanuel, both on the part of Father Marcel and among the other Christian members of the board, both Protestant and Catholic, was an ethos of genuine respect and curiosity about Judaism, a sense of Judaism being “the older brother,” the source upon which Christianity originally drew, as well as a sense of guilt and responsibility for the bad treatment of the Jewish people by the Church in the past (a tendency which, I believe, started with Father Edward H. Flannery’s The Anguish of the Jews in 1964; as well as in Rosemary Reuther’s Faith and Fratricide and, earlier, in James Parkes’ Church and Synagogue).

This was reflected in the very structure of the magazine—both the overall concept and the specific areas of interest. The mandate of the journal was to Christian readers who did not read modern Hebrew some small part of the intellectual and scholarly creativity occurring in Israel among Israeli-Jewish scholars, by means of summaries of lengthier journal articles, book reviews, full-length translations of papers published in Hebrew, and original articles commissioned for the journal. The five sections were: “Hebrew Bible,” a title chosen to deliberately avoid the connotations of “Old” and “New Testament,” reflecting an interest in how Jews themselves read the Bible, without the “foreshadowing” of the Christian gospel usual in traditional Christian exegesis; “New Testament and First Centuries Judaism,” which included papers by Christian scholars of Rabbinics, who sought the roots of Christianity in Hazal (a spirit reflected in such works as E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism and W. D. Davies’ Paul and Rabbinic Judaism; “Jewish-Christian Relations, Past and Present,” which included research in the history of anti-Semitism, and an acceptance of certain negative themes in the Christian past; “Jewish Thought and Spirituality”: primarily, papers on medieval Jewish culture, in such areas as Kabbalah, philosophy, and halakhah, expressing a Christian interest in Judaism as an independent world of religious creativity; and “Contemporary Religious Life and Thought in Israel.”

Since working at Immanuel, I have had opportunity to meet other Christians who reflect this more open, accepting attitude—but one rooted in deep rootedness of each side in their own faith, not in the type of superficial, “All religions are basically the same” attitude often purveyed by popular interfaith dialogues. I think, for example, of the members of the Beatitudes community with their center at Latrun, who as Christians celebrate the Shabbat and various other holidays.

All this is not to gloss over the weighty issues involved in interfaith dialogue. As is well known, Rav Soloveitchik, in his essay “Confrontation,” took a strong position against formal dialogue, partly on purely theological grounds, a kind of respect for the integrity of each religion as a world unto itself; partly because he was suspicious of its tainting by the political aspect, in which Jewish defense organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, might be more involved as spokesman than Jewish theologians and thinkers. To what extent might Jews be seen as being involved in “bargaining” about such issues as supercession or changes in the Catholic liturgy (this was clearly a focus of his concern in 1962, prior to the Vatican II Council). But there is much to be said on all this, and I can only touch here upon a few high points.

Having said that, I will return to Father Marcel. Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, in his eulogy published in last Friday’s Ha-Aretz (Tarbut ve-Sifrut, Ha-Aretz 3 August 2007, p. 1), made some significant points about Father Marcel’s approach: He taught me an important lesson in accepting the Other: not through blurring of identities, nor from a stance of relativism, but, to the contrary: out of fulness of my own identity, out of breadth and depth of philosophical examination of whom I am, and the ability to find points of contact, the common denominator with people and other worlds, worlds that are truly other.

For me, the most important thing was Father Marcel as an individual, as a warm, living human being, whom it was an exceptional pleasure to know and to work with. He will be sorely missed.

As a Sign on the Hand and the Head: On Foxes and Hedgehogs

As is well-known, the tefillin worn on the hand contain only one compartment, all four passages therein being written on a single scroll, while that of the head has four separate compartments, and four separate scrolls. A popular homily on this mitzvah —one that appears both in Vaethanan and Ekev (6:8; 11:18)—explains that one wears a single scroll on the hand, the source and focus of our actions, to indicate that our action (i.e., the halakhah, the practical mitzvot) must be unified, one, while the tefillin of the head is multifold to symbolize diversity in thought. In Judaism, practical action and behavior must be one, with relatively little room for deviance—the same mitzvot are applicable to all Jews; while in the realm of thought and belief there is no fixed dogma or catechism, as there is in Christianity, but there is room for intellectual pluralism, for a multiplicity of ideas and approaches to even the most basic questions. Even Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, which are often taken as obligatory articles of belief, are in fact widely disputed and open to debate and dissent, even within Orthodox circles. (I began a series on the Thirteen Principles over a year ago; I hope to return to it in due course, hopefully early in the new year).

This thought brought to my mind the famous essay by Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox, whose title is based on the adage of the ancient Greek thinker Archilochus, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin speaks there of two basic human types: those who know one big thing, who adhere to one central idea that explains all phenomena, and to which all their thinking ultimately returns; and those who know “a lot of little things,” who revel in the diversity and multiplicity of life and of humankind, and who are sceptical about any all-embracing theories that, by their very nature, tend to obscure differences and individuality. (Years ago, a college acquaintance named Henry Gibbs, made the memorable, if rather cynical statement, that “A truly elegant theory can only be disproved by another, even more elegant theory.”)

Berlin gives the example of Tolstoy, as someone who wanted to be a hedgehog, i.e., who tried to explain everything by means of one big truth—in his case, his own idiosyncratic spin on Russian Orthodoxy, a mélange of Christian doctrine mixed with a primitive socialist love of “the people”—but who in fact was really a “fox,” because he was full aware of the complexity and unexplainable quality of many things. This may have been what made him a great writer: i.e., that he knew and was fascinated by the individual.

There are many kinds of hedgehogs: Communism, which sought to explain cultural and social phenomenon, art and music, even a pure science such as genetics, in Marxian terms, certainly fostered hedgehog thinking. Certain kinds of orthodox Freudians are hedgehogs. Both groups can easily refute any and all objection to their theories by alleging the hidden resistance of the critic: “You disagree because it threatens your class interest” and “You disagree because of your own subconscious resistance,” respectively.” Among our own Zionists there can be a dogmatic approach which tries to explain all of Jewish history in terms of Zionist—and damn those facts that don’t fit in! The same can go for atheists, laissez-faire capitalists, “Neo-Liberals,” “Neo-Cons,” Jungians, etc. The hedgehogs are reluctant to consider the flaws or limitations in their own theories.

But it is in religion that the tendency to know “one big thing” is most prevalent: that God exists, that there is no place in the universe empty of His presence, that He is One, that He revealed Himself and His Torah at Sinai. Once one knows that, it is argued, everything else we know is of secondary importance. (Obviously the “hedgehog” type also knows many things: the “one big thing” refers, not to information, but to central organizing ideas. Any traditional talmid hakham must know a vast literature, with tens of thousands of halakhot—but he believes in the one central truth of God and His Torah.)

My question is: can one be a religious person and still be “a fox”? That is, may one know “many little things”—appreciate the unique world of each human being, and the fact that life does not always fall into neat categories—without compromising one’s religious authenticity. Not infrequently, I find myself in the company of Torah teachers or ba’alei teshuva who are great enthusiasts, who want to convert everybody in the world—or least every Jew—to see their Truth. (Ironically, the person who first told me about hedgehogs and foxes ended up as a militant religious zealot.) My problem is not so much that I may differ with them philosophically or theologically—I basically affirm the same central values and commitments as they do—as that I differ with them temperamentally: that is, I somehow feel that things are more complicated, and that there needs to be room to acknowledge this.

For me, to be a “religious fox” means to somehow accept traditional Torah teaching, and yet somehow accept, in a loving human way, those that are outside of this rubric. For example, during my recent visit to the USA I saw how intermarriage, and driving on Shabbat, and many other violations of the halakhah, “make sense” in a certain milieu. For those living in the sprawl of suburbia, or even more so in small-town rural America, the alternatives may be driving on Shabbat—perhaps to have Seudah Shelishit with kindred spirits living two or three towns away—or almost unbearable social isolation. Similarly, while I affirm the traditional proscription on homosexuality and on homoerotic acts, for profound philosophical and theological reasons I will detail another time, and am deeply critical of much of the craziness of today’s politically correct “homophilia,” I also have homosexual friends, and can empathize with their situation and even understand in an intuitive way how that, and only that, works for them.

Perhaps this is the difference between the writer and the ideologue. I’ve never written fiction, but in a certain way I feel I have something of the novelist or story tellers in my soul. For it is through stories of real human beings, more than through doctrinal formulations, that we can illustrate the paradoxical and contradictory side of things.

An interesting Kabbalistic insight: that the division between the male and female sides of the Kabbalistic tree is based on woman being more attuned to the individual—because women bear children, care for and worry about the individuals in their families, while through most of history men have been free to indulge in great, all-encompassing theories. But in Kabbalah the feminine is seen davka as the negative side, of Gevurah, of Sternness and Rigor, because the woman judges in terms of the specifics of individuality, not in terms of expansive, all-embracing, universal love (thus, at least, according to the person who explained this theory to me; albeit, “masculine” Law and other universals can also be rigid and impervious to individuals).

Postscript to Tisha b’Av

A short postscript to one aspect of the laws of Tisha b’Av, which we studied a few weeks ago. As is well known, it is forbidden to engage in the study of Torah on Tisha b’Av, just as one is during personal mourning, because it “rejoices the heart” (Ps 19:9); an exception to this rule being “Job, Lamentations and the sad things in Jeremiah,” which enhance the experience of mourning and remembering. There is, however, one odd point of contention in the sugya in which this issue is discussed in the Talmud, at Ta’anit 31a. The beraita there states that this rule only applies to the recitation of familiar material, whether from scripture or Oral Law, but “he may read in a place where he is not accustomed to read…,” whereas R. Jeremiah syas that even the latter is forbidden. Rashi explains that this is so, because studying new material involves a certain “pain”—that is, an intellectual effort and straining of one’s mind, whether in trying to decipher unfamiliar and rare words or difficult biblical syntax, in imagining the realia involved in legal or other passages or, particularly in Mishnah and even more so in Gemara, in trying to figure out the underlying logic and at-times intricate, multi-layered arguments.

What is the kernel of this dispute? It seems to me that this may be talking about two kinds of people, or two kinds of Torah-study experience. For the rank and file Jews, “bale-batim,” reading Torah text provides a certain sense of comfort and good feeling, enhanced by its familiarity. Studying something new is difficult and challenging, and somewhat off-putting, and thus not a joyful process per se. Then there is a small group—an intellectual elite, if you will—for whom the challenge of learning and understanding something new, the tough intellectual effort that must be invested, and the satisfaction once they succeed in understanding it, is one of the greatest and most sublime joys imaginable in life. A joy that far outweighs the various creature comforts that are part of the regular “package” prohibited on fast days. It was for such people that R. Jeremiah forbade all study but that focused on the meaning of the day (and his view is brought as halakhah in Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 554.1-2; regarding ordinary mourning on this point, see Tosafot to Moed Katan 21a, s.v. ve-assur).


DEVARIM: On Moses’ Talk

One of my readers, a friend from my Young Judaea days, Betsy (Bat-Ami) Glass, offered an interesting interpretation of the first verse of Deuteronomy, with its long list of place names:

Here’s my drash on the time/place confusion. Moses is getting old. His mind is not functioning as sharply as it did when he first began to talk with God. Also, he is angry. When one is old, a bit forgetful and angry, one begins to confute people, places and things. Even I (not quite so old as Moses), when angry and upset, just blurt out a stream of consciousness of events, not always in the correct order. So maybe Moses is just furious and doddering… and his anger and frustration give him something more for which to atone in Elul.

Whoever wrote the Torah was a master at conveying the mood and mind of the characters. The perplexing incongruities of this docudrama hold us captive, like the bush afire and unconsumed. It is dramatic, enigmatic, and its complexities and seeming contradictions certainly hold our attention over the millennia….

VAETHANAN: Shocking Anthropomorphism?

The following is a brief but very interesting response I received from R. Avraham Leader on the issue of anthropomorphism:

The question of anthropomorphism is a huge one, especially in light of the Idrot in the Zohar and Shiur Koma texts. In one sentence (as you said, it’s Erev Shabbat), I would say that at least in the Zohar, the zelem elohim [Divine image] is interpreted in this context as meaning that man should work towards becoming more divine, not the divine being made human (although aspects of that can also be taken up vis-a-vis t’nu oz lelohim) by projection.

And in the same parsha as ata horata we have ki lo re’item kol temuna [“for you saw no image…” Dt 4:15] and the very interesting declaration that the stars, etc., were distributed to the other nations (an interesting near-validation of avoda zara, that is foreign worship—that is foreign to us but maybe not to others), which conflates with what you bring from Rashi on Shema.

Re the Katzav Case

In response to my comments on the Katzav imbroglio, Rahel Jaskow wrote:

Regarding the Katzav case, it seems to me that another law from the Torah has been disregarded: “And you shall cleanse the evil from among you” [Deut 13:6]. In this case, the evil was denied, swept under the rug, as it were, rather than fully brought out into the open and dealt with. This is also my complaint regarding the attitude of many people in the Jewish community that we should not “air our dirty linen in public.” In fact, if we do not bring it out into the open and deal with it, we allow the rot to keep growing and festering. Ultimately this leads to far greater shame and much greater suffering and anguish.

Which would we rather have said of us: that when we detect evil acts, no matter how highly-placed the perpetrator may be, we deal with them quickly and decisively, or that we deny them, allow them to continue and ignore the suffering of the victims?

Meanwhile, the High Court has begun to review the Legal Advisor’s scandalously lenient modification of his original indictment, and there is hope that some reasonable sort of justice will yet be done. And we have a new president: the grand old man of Israeli politics, the dignified, ever visionary Shimon Peres—albeit someone who during his years in active partisan politics had more than his share of enemies. We can only conclude by blessing him in the uniquely appropriate words of the Psalm for Shabbat: “May he yet bear fruit in old age, ever verdant and fresh.”


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