Friday, September 07, 2007

Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parasha, and on Rosh Hashana, see the archives of this blog for September 2006.

Do We Still Believe in Teshuvah?

As we enter the week of Selihot and the final preparations for the Days of Awe, with their intense focus on the issue of teshuvah, the great turning or repentance each Jew is called upon to do, I find myself asking a simple, almost banal question: Does contemporary man still believe in teshuvah? By this, I refer both to the necessity for teshuvah, and the possibility of teshuvah.

In recent years, I have encountered what amounts to a non-belief or disinterest in teshuvah in many and surprising quarters, including observant Jews, so much so that it could well be described as a leit-motif of contemporary culture. There are those who think we don’t need to do teshuvah because they believe that people are basically good, and a healthy, joyous life is one in which one accepts oneself, with all one’s faults, peccadilloes and shortcomings. This view may blame religion, society, the person’s neuroses, or the proverbial Jewish mother for ”laying a guilt trip” on otherwise healthy people. A variation of this theme, or perhaps a statement of its underlying assumptions, is the view that there are no objective or universal ethical standards. This view believes in the absolute freedom and autonomy of each individual and, in the spirit of “post-modernism,” the subjectivity and relativism of all standards and norms. Then there are those who think that we cannot do teshuvah in any significant way, because man is a creature of deeply-engrained habit; but more than that, that his basic personality, emotions, feelings, even choices, are predetermined by genetics, by the “hard-wiring” of his brain connections, etc.—a notion seemingly strengthened by much of modern brain research. In this view, human freedom and ethical choice is largely an illusion: man is essentially a biological creature, a highly sophisticated and complex animal.

And then there is a rabbi who every year during this season speaks emphatically about the idea that one should not dwell overly much on one’s sins, nor engage in Heshbon Nefesh, in the type of soul-searching in which one searches out and attempts to uproot the faults and dark spots in one’s personality and behavior. This gentleman is fond of quoting R. Simhah Bunim of Psyshcha’s dictum, “If your mind is in the muck [i.e., dwelling on the sins you have committed], then you are in the muck.” Rather, one should see this season, and especially its culmination on Yom Kippur, as days of standing before God, and hence as days of the highest joy, in which one may experience a “rendezvous with the Infinite.”

Or I remember in my student days a certain Hillel rabbi who felt that the whole idea of “commandments” as something obligatory, binding, heteronomous, imposed on the individual from without, wouldn’t go down with today’s youth; hence, he preferred to speak of the mitzvot as “invitations.” I find this approach altogether too coy, if not intellectually dishonest, an attempt to “sell” a prettified version of Judaism.

I will not attempt to refute “post-modern” relativism, nor biological determinism, nor the other arguments, some cogent and some less so, mentioned above. These are subjects which one can debate all day long, and still get nowhere, as these matters ultimately boil down to faith affirmations. In a certain way, I see Judaism as saying “nay” to many assumptions of our culture—and it is important, even while living in the midst of the secular world, to know this. The bottom line of my faith—and, so it seems to me, of any classical Jewish faith—is “to love and to fear Your Name,” and the principle of free-will. As I’ve discussed in recent weeks (see HY VIII: Vaethanan, Ekev)—and here I address mostly the approach which says that love and yearning for God are sufficient, without the component of sternness, and rigor of the law, and fear (including, perhaps most of all, a clear awareness of one’s own negative tendencies)—traditionally, the love and fear of God go hand in hand, complementing and balancing one another. Just as sternness and threats of Divine sanctions unmitigated by God’s love and compassion is incorrect and leads to pallid and lifeless places, so too the opposite is no good.

These things are exemplified in this weeks parashah, which is always read the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. It opens with the declaration, “You are all of standing this day before HWYH your God”—which may be seen as allusive to the festive “coronation” of God as your king with the shofar blasts. But this is followed by a powerful warning of the consequences of apathy and disregarding God’s law, including a specific warning to the wayward individual who thinks that he can get away with sin by “disappearing into the crowd,” so to speak, and which includes awesome and frightening images of waste and destruction—“brimstone and salt is the whole land, burnt out; nothing can be sown and r grows” (Deut 29:22)—which for our generation conjures up images of Hiroshima or of some other place laid waste by an atomic bomb.

But most interesting is the final section of this parasha, known as Parshat ha-Teshuvah (Deut 30). Reading it this year, it suddenly occurred to me that there is a certain symmetry or balance between the Garden of Eden story near the beginning of Genesis, and this week‘s parasha, with its “chapter of teshuvah” (Deut 30), in such a way that the beginning and end of the Torah form close a kind of circle. (Some years ago I mentioned Professor Jacob Milgrom’s theory that the Hextateuch, i.e. the Torah plus the Book of Joshua, is structured as a giant inversion—that is, that it has an overall symmetrical structure, on the model of ABCDEFGG’F’E’D’C’B’A’—with Moses’ encounter with God in the Cleft of the Rock at the center; see HY I: Ki Tisa for my attempt to understand why, and what this means).

At the beginning of the Torah we read that Adam and Eve were barred from eating of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”; the punishment for eating of it was death, or mortality, while refraining from it would assure life (perhaps even eternal? see Gen 3:22). Thus, the central theme in the life of humankind, from the time of our first primeval ancestors, was the pair of choices—between life and death, and between good and evil—which seem to go in tandem.

In this week’s parasha, in which Moses begins to sum up his own lengthy parting address to the Jewish people, on the eve of his own death and their crossing over (after a suitable period of mourning) to the Land of Israel, we read of a similar choice: “Behold, I have put before you this day life and good, death and evil… Therefore, choose life, that you and your children might live!” (30:15, 19). Thus, here too, near the very end of the Torah, we find the selfsame moral choice: between good and evil, between life and death. And is not that the ultimate challenge and purpose of man?

It seems to me that this is a central theological insight of Judaism. Many years ago, my late lamented friend, Father Marcel Dubois, commented to me that Good Friday was a kind of Christian equivalent to Yom Kippur. With all due respect to his memory, he was wrong. There is of course an external parallel: both are days of solemnity, of long hours spent in the house of worship, and even of certain bodily abstentions, whether full or partial (I believe that Greek Orthodox monks may fast the entire day, or nearly so)—but the theology is almost diametrically opposed.

Christianity, at least in its classical Pauline version, speaks of man as being in a fallen state, and thus dependent upon Divine intermediacy for his salvation. Its view of the human being is not a dynamic one. Thus, Christianity in fact has no “Yom Kippur,” because man cannot do real teshuvah: plagued with Original Sin, he must turns exclusively to Divine mercy and grace. Judaism also sees humanity as prone to sin, and even situates this propensity in the same Eden story: but he is capable of improving and transforming him/herself. Even his biological needs and instincts are not “evil” or part of his fallen nature, as classical Christianity would have it, but opportunities to serve God, forces that can be turned towards either good or evil. Thus, teshuvah epitomizes the essential difference between the philosophical anthropology of Judaism and that of Christianity: in the former, man has free will, and hence is constantly confronted with choices, towards which he has the ability to act.

This contrast is portrayed in somewhat humorous terms in John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version:

… these heartland people have such an inexhaustible, tiresome gift for self… Self-examination and moral acrobatics all day long: every bedroom, every breakfast nook an apologetic forum haunted by the hand-wringing ghosts of Biblical prototypes… Our Puritan heritage. How did these old Israelites get their hooks into us so deeply, sticking us with their frightful black Bible and its imprecations while their modern descendants treat the matter as a family joke, filling their own lives with violin music and clear-eyed, godless science? L’Chaim! Compared with the Jews we Protestants do indeed dwell in the valley of death. (p 396).

The above point brings us to another meaning of the opening words of Parshat Nitzavim: “You are standing this day before the Lord your God.” These words are echoed at the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, in the Neilah Prayer of Yom Kippur: אתה הבדלת אנוש מראש ותכיריהו לעמוד לפניך; “You have separated man from the beginning, and taught him to stand before You.” Teshuvah, the human being’s capability to change and to recreate himself, enables us to know God in the deepest moral and spiritual sense.


Last week we spoke about Rashi’s comment on the verse “A wandering Aramean”—an interpretation (shared with the Passover Haggadah, Sifrei, and Targum Onkelos) which makes mincemeat out of any normal reading of the syntax of the sentence, disregarding all rules of grammar and sentence structure. By interpreting the opening phrase of the verse as referring to Lavan, rather than Jacob, the former becomes an paradigm for future enemies, whether Rome, the Christian Church, or Jesus himself. Such a move is perfectly natural to midrashic thinking. The great story of Midrash is the drama of the Jewish people in history; hence, many verses are interpreted in its light.

The problem for us moderns relates to the issue of midrash vs. peshat, the plain or literal sense of the verse. We tend to think of truth or falsehood in binary terms: the verse, any verse, means either this or that, not both. Our thought patterns, in every area, are largely influenced by empiricism, carried over from the realm of natural science. We are scandalized by what looks like fuzzy thinking. But in the traditional perspective, the text is a window to a multiplicity of meanings: a prism, reflecting the Divine light into a whole spectrum or rainbow of meanings; or, to use the image of the midrash itself, like a blacksmith’s hammer hitting the anvil, emitting sparks in seventy directions. The tradition speaks of four levels of interpretation, PARDES—peshat, remez, sod & derash: literal, allegorical, mystical, and homiletical (not unlike the “foursquare interpretation” known to medieval Christian exegetes), and the truth of one reading does not exclude that of another, even if directly contradictory of the first. Different views complement and complete one another, rather than conflicting. So long as one is not dealing with a practical halakhic issue, there is room for many views. In this sense, to refer to another recent essay of mine, Jewish exegetes are more like foxes than like hedgehogs.

Regarding another part of last week’s discussion: we mentioned that Rashi reads Deut 27:24, “Cursed is he who smites his neighbor,” as referring to malicious speech, which, even though it does not deliver a physical blow, may often be far more harmful. Last Shabbat I had an interesting lesson in the dangers of lashon hara. I had heard some time ago about a scandalous affair involving a certain rabbi in the US, pertaining to a halakhic issue with which I had a certain interest. Last Shabbat I met this man, and spoke with him, and discovered that all the gossips completely omitted or failed to know or mention a crucial fact which put everything in an entirely different light.

Finally, a clarification: In my exchange with Mark Kirschbaum (HY VIII: Ki Tetsei), his references to a particular new age thinker were in response to my own comments in which I expressed discomfort with igul-kav splits based on their misuse by this same individual.


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