Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Bereshit (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives below for October 2005.


This year, rather than having one central theme, we will follow a somewhat different approach. During the first half of the year, I plan to focus on “unfinished business” that I feel calling me before turning to a major new project. For quite some time, I have been working on a number of major essays, that await their makeh ba-patish, the finishing touches. These include: an attempt at creating a Jewish philosophy of sexuality, parts of which I have presented in the past; an essay on human aggression and violence; the long-overdue essay on Simon Rawidowicz and the contemporary implications of his thought; several studies on contemporary personalities: a (much belated) study on Art Green and his thought, originally intended for his 65th birthday; an impressionistic essay about Zalman Schachter; further insights about Shlomo Carlebach, “Rebbe and Minstrel”; my response to the homosexuality brouhaha in the Conservative movement; and a major personal-theological essay. In addition, there is the series on Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, begun over a year ago, which I wish to continue and to complete; then, if there is any time left, further studies on some of my favorite Psalms which I did not get to during the year that I wrote on Tehillim. 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)

During the second half of the year, having hopefully completed these self-appointed tasks, each week will be devoted to one or two passages from Pirkei Avot—a much beloved text, traditionally read over several times during summer Shabbat afternoons, between Pesah and Rosh Hashana.

But in order nevertheless to have some unifying theme, each week I will present a brief, one-page essay about one mitzvah that is in some way related to the parasha, though not necessarily formally derived from it by the classical texts (for example, it is well-known that the entire book of Bereshit contains only three commandments). In this, I follow in the spirit of the He’emek Davar, who says that the purpose of the entire Torah is to teach halakhah, proper Jewish behavior, in the broad sense.

“Be Fruitful and Multiply”

So, to begin: The very first mitzvah—and one which all agree is indeed derived from Genesis 1:28—is to propagate and perpetuate human life. This is an interesting starting point. The Mishnah and Talmud begin with the recitation of Shema in the evening; the Shulhan Arukh (and the Tur before it) begins its presentation of Jewish law with getting up in the morning to serve God, preparations for prayer, etc.; Maimonides starts with first principles, the belief in God; but the Torah itself (and those collections of mitzvot that follow its order, most notably R. Aharon Halevi of Barcelona’s Sefer ha-Hinukh) starts with the proliferation of life itself—i.e., to begat and bear children. In brief, the very first mitzvah focuses upon the continuance of life itself.

But this is a problematic mitzvah in several senses. First, one wonders why it needs to be commanded at all. After all, God has implanted the sexual instinct, with its intense power, and the concomitant mechanism of reproduction, in every human being, as He has in innumerable life forms beginning quite far down on the great chain of being. Throughout most of human history (at least until the invention of contraception, which in historical terms was but yesterday), people had children willy-nilly, as a result of the irresistible urge to copulation. Secondly, the phrase פרו ורבו (“be fruitful and multiply”) is couched in the Bible as a blessing rather than as an imperative, and is repeated as such almost verbatim after the Flood, in Gen 9:1ff.). I have no answers to these questions: all this is food for thought.

Interestingly, also, the halakhah states that men are obligated in this mitzvah, but not women. One widespread explanation is that man initiates courtship, while a woman must, so to speak, wait for a man to want her—or so traditional thinking holds. (There was an interesting polemic over this point some three decades ago between Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Rackman—viz., do modern, “emancipated” women still regard things in that way, being willing to settle for just about anyone just in order to be married? ואכמ"ל) A second explanation is that childbirth is a risky business; until about the 1930’s death in childbirth was a not uncommon occurrence, and the Torah cannot command a person to undertake a potentially fatal enterprise.

But I would suggest a different, almost opposite peshat. Women have powerful mothering instincts: they don’t need to be commanded to desire children. For men, if my readers will pardon my putting things in rather crude terms, the goal of sexuality ends with union with woman, with the moment of ejaculation—the biological instant of potential fatherhood. (See the interesting albeit harsh comments on this in R. Yehiel Michal Epstein’s Arukh ha-Shulhan at Orah Hayyim 240.2, where he uses it to construct a teleological interpretation of sex.) Fatherhood in the cultural sense—that is, remaining with the woman, supporting the children as they grow into adulthood and independence, educating them, shaping their values and commitments—is a function of civilization, a learned pattern of behavior, something to which men must be socialized. Or, in halakhic terms, that must be commanded.

I am reminded here of someplace where R. Nahman of Bratslav speaks of the purpose of the Creation as “to fill the world with b’nei adam,” which he immediately translates as “b’nei da’at”—that is, with human beings, whose humanity is most fully reached through da’at— (religious) knowledge and consciousness. This dovetails with the classical Rabbinic notion that “disciples are called children”: that is, teaching others, whether ones biological children or not, conveying one’s life experience and insight to them, is “parenting” in the deepest sense.

I will end by observing the convergence of the biological and cultural sense of reproduction in the very fabric of the Hebrew language. Many linguists suggest that there are “families” of roots, in which two of the three letters are the same. Biological parenting, impregnation and conception, are called הרה (hr”h), from which comes the word הורים, “parents”; ירה (yr”h; literally, “to shoot”; by extension: to point out, to instruct, to teach), from which derive מורה (“teacher”) and תורה (“teaching, instruction, Torah”), denotes parenting in the spiritual sense.

The First Four Parshiyot

The late David Zeller, z”l, in his autobiography, presents an interesting mystical interpretation of the titles of the first four Torah portions, that he learned from Pascal Themanlys, in relation to the spiritual development of the individual: Bereshit—one begins in the mind, with Wisdom, that is called reshit; Noah, rest—one must achieve a certain inner calm and quiet; Lekh lekha—the inner spiritual journey: “go” to your true self; then, Vayera, “and [God] appeared”—after all these, you are ready for some Divine insight. (The Soul of the Story, pp. 159-161)

On Empiricism and Subjectivity

Before Rosh Hashana I briefly alluded to John Updike’s novel, Roger’s Version. In addition to the usual sexual hanky-panky and an interesting insider’s view of upper-middle class WASPs—which is valuable for New York-bred Jews like myself, for whom this important ethnic group is in many ways terra incognita—what I found significant in this novel was the presence of some serious theological ideas (and davka ones that are most appropriate to Shabbat Bereshit).

The plot centers around the encounter between a professor of theology—ironically, an expert in the history of heresies, both ancient and medieval—and an earnest young man, an Evangelical Christian from the Midwest who works in the fields of computers and mathematics, who is convinced that he can provide an objective proof of the existence of God, using a series of physical and biological arguments bolstered by computer-generated mathematical models and probability theory, all of which point to the presence of a “guiding hand” in the universe (these are somewhat reminiscent of Gerald Schroeder’s The Science of God).

In one of the central scenes of the book (pp. 219-236, in the 1986 Fawcett Crest ed.), the young man appears before a grant committee, consisting of the various theology professors—men steeped in Barth and Tillich, Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard, Bultmann and Niebuhr—the young man’s arguments are dismissed as so much “pseudo-science,” leading down the primrose path to “magic and fundamentalism of the least defensible sort. Good-bye, moral imperatives; hello, voodoo.” The essential issue here is: ought religiosity to be grounded in subjectivity, the inner world of the human spirit, of man’s struggles with good and evil and his intuitions of the impact of God’s existence on the moral life; or with objective, empirical “proofs” of the order and design reflected in Creation.

In brief, for these serious modernist believers, the proper realm of God is ultimately subjective—and it is good that it is so. That is, their faith is grounded more in inner existential choice than in any objectively provable truth.

Similar issues have been joined in contemporary Judaism. Many outreach types in the Teshuvah movement (or, them more bluntly, “missionaries for Orthodoxy”), use so-called “objective” proofs to bring assimilated (and usually philosophically unsophisticated) college students or backpackers into the world of Torah. One noted personality in the Teshuvah movement gives an introductory course offering with “8 proofs for the existence of God and 8 proofs of the Divine origin of Torah.” In recent years the “Torah Codes” (hidden messages allegedly planted within the Torah text, only discoverable by computers) have come to occupy an important place in such outreach work. There is ongoing debate among mathematicians as to whether these codes are valid, or so much sleight-of-hand. To me, this point seems rather besides the point. As I’ve commented here in the past, such arguments are not only irrelevant, but somehow demeaning and cheapening the real message of Torah.

But there is nevertheless a difference between the Jewish take on this issue and that of Updike’s fictional but true-to-life professors of theology. True, I would assert that traditional Judaism is closer to the “subjectivist” position than it is to that of “empirical” proofs. I know any number of Jews who are not at all sure whether or not they believe in God, but follow a more-or-less traditional or even halakhic life-style because it makes moral sense or conveys a feeling of meaning and order to their lives (or, as suggested in David Hartman’s recent writings, makes sociological and anthropological sense). In this light, I would read Rambam’s suggestion that contemplation of the greatness of creation are the path to the love and fear of God, e.g., as in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2.1-2—which is read by some as implying the religious value of the study of science to deepen religious belief—as essentially an appeal to an experience of wonder, not unlike Heschel’s “radical wonder,”—not as an ironclad proof such as that discussed here.

But in truth, Judaism is based on a third option: a faith based on tradition, what the Rav calls the “Masorah Community,” based on a living faith and way of life passed on from parent to child, from grandparent to grandchild, thereby making it stronger than either the intellectual understanding or moral conscience of any single individual.


Post a Comment

<< Home