Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Simhat Torah (Months)

“We Shall Return to You”

On Simhat Torah we conclude the reading of the Torah and immediately begin it all over again—all this, amidst great celebration, dancing and song. This year, an obvious but seldom asked question suddenly occurred to me: what does it mean for a culture to celebrate its return, in cyclical manner, to reading a particular text?

The thrust of modern culture is to move ever forward, towards newness, innovation, progress and change. When I was a child, the greatest praise that could be said of someone, at least among those adult circles closest to me, was that a person was “progressive”; the greatest calumny, that he was “conservative.” And yet for the Jew, the concluding festival of the whole complex of holy days and festivals that began nearly two months ago is basically an acting out of the phrase hadran alakh: “we shall return to you”—the “you” here referring to the same old familiar sacred text, whether, as in this case, the written Torah or, in other settings, a Talmudic tractate just completed, an order of Mishnah, Rambam’s Yad, Tanya, the Shulhan Arukh, or any other holy text studied regularly.

Of course, for the Jew who lives inside the tradition it is never “the same old Torah,” but something that is ever new, yielding to the devoted student ever new insights, new depths, new levels of understanding within the old and familiar. “Turn it about and turn it about, for everything is within it”; and “There is no Beit Midrash without hiddush (i.e., innovation, new insight).” Simon Rawidowicz, more a secular Jewish culturalist than a pious sage of old, once wrote an important essay entitled “On Interpretation,” in which he draws a distinction between “commentary,” in the sense of simple textual explication or elucidation, and “interpretation,” implying a dynamic interaction between the contemporary reader and the author who lived in a very different past. He saw this process as a central one in the formation of Jewish culture (I have written a major essay on this and other aspects of his thought, which I hope to share with readers of Hitzei Yehonatan very soon). Interestingly, so-called “post-modern” thinking, with its theories of intertextuality, etc., greatly emphasizes the creative and positive role of interpretation and interconnection to past cultural models. In a sense, this will be the theme of our coming year’s studies, which will be devoted to the Torah commentary of Rashi. And, on yet another level, it seems to me that perhaps the single most important theme in the Hasidic author Sefat Emet is the tension and interaction between Divine revelation and the connection to the root of all in God, and hiddushei torah. He relates these to the tension between Written and Oral Torah, weekday and Shabbat, the generation of the desert that live by miracles and the generation that entered the Land.

To return to Simhat Torah, and the quintessential act, if you will, of rolling the Torah scroll back to the very beginning: the conventional wisdom of a certain kind of modern Jewish apologetics states that the cyclical perception of history is essentially pagan, whereas Judaism is historical, seeing history moving forward into a better future, into, towards the Messiah—whether this is understood in terms of a personal Davidic monarch or as a golden age of peace and plenty, in which human beings will attain heights of ethical perfection, brotherhood and unification in the service of the Divine; in which they will care naught for power, glory, honor, wealth or victory over their enemies, but will be occupied wholly in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. But this interpretation is at best a half-truth—often, I suspect, confusing the modernist faith in progress with authentic Judaism, the Messiah being reinterpreted in either socialist or liberal democratic terms: Lenin or FDR (or, locally, perhaps Berl or A. D. Gordon) with a kippah, so to speak.

For there is also a deeply cyclical strain in Judaism, life itself being cyclical. Much of halakhah is rooted in the marking out of these cycles: the daily rising and setting of the sun, marked out by the three daily prayers; the weekly rhythm of ebb and flow of weekday and Shabbat, of work and rest; the waxing and waning of the moon, marked by the more minor observance of Rosh Hodesh; and the annual cycle, from the nascence of spring, through the growth and blooming of summer, to the “ingathering” of autumn followed by the chill and dormancy of winter, once again followed by the renewal of life in another spring, all marked by the various festivals. We are born, mature, marry, age and die—and if we are lucky, get to watch the next two or even three generations repeat part of the same process. Simhat Torah, as the final day of the last of the three pilgrimage festivals, expresses this well, with the Torah returning back on itself, something like the Ouroborus, the snake returning to its own tail.

Franz Rosenzweig understood this well. His was actually an anti-historical perception or, as some say, a thoroughly Exilic view of Judaism, in which the Jewish people stay alive and persist through the ages by somehow eschewing “real” history in favor of its archetypes of eternity. (Note his chapter on the festivals in The Star of Redemption, in which he calls Simhat Torah “the way back into the year.”) This, I believe, is the reason why we read Kohelet on Sukkot. Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, is a book decisively rooted in a non-linear, cyclical view of life. His message is the vanity, presumably from the retrospective vantage of old age, of all things in life. The pursuit of pleasure, wealth, power, even wisdom, are ultimately of no use. In Chapter 3 he reflects upon how “there is a time for all things”—that is, one ought not to be overly excited about any one thing which one may see as the purpose, the ultimate goal of life, for that too passes: love, hatred; intimacy, distance; joy, sadness; peace, war—all are transient. His final answer (at 12:13) is often read either as a pietistic response to the almost-Greek cynicism and philosophical indifference of the bulk of the book, or as an alien interjection. But it can in fact be read in the same vein as the rest, in very simple terms: the only “answer” is to live life well—meaning, to fear God and to do His commandments. Halakhah: the way in which one is to walk, constantly. But this does not in any way imply a messianic hope or expectation of the end of history, but merely what it says: that this is the best way to life, this is kol ha-adam, “all that is asked of man.”

Moreover, is not the observance of the Torah itself predicated on the ability to repeat the same act—to say the same prayers, to do the same mitzvot, every day, every week, every year—that is, to live in a cyclical way? And is not this one of the criticisms lodged against it by modernity: that it’s boring to repeat the same words, to do the same thing. Indeed, various reformist movements have attempted to “improve” upon the old Siddur by making it more “interesting” for the impatient, constantly-moving, “dynamic” modern person with a limited attention span (I leave it to the reader to judge the success of this enterprise). In fact, they are right: there is an almost irreconcilable clash between the traditional approach to life and that of modernity. To become a truly pious Jew, imbedded in Torah, means in a very profound sense to set aside the modern mentality.

During the week of Sukkot we invite the Ushpizin, the seven archetypal shepherds” of the Jewish people, into our Sukkah; on the fourth and fifth nights we invite Moses and Aaron. This week I was at a gathering at which some interesting things were said about this. Someone quoted the late Rabbi Heckelman of Tzfat, that Moses and Aaron were two brothers who got along, even complemented one another, breaking the model of hostility and even enmity between pairs of brothers in the B ible, such as of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and even Judah and Joseph. But I suggested that Moses and Aaron were nevertheless very different: Moses was the prophet and teacher, the man obsessed with an intense, singular vision, whose life mission it was to convey to others and to implement. Aaron was the first priest: a man who embodied the striving for holiness, for bringing the Divine light down into this world, embodied in an institution—a cult, a temple, a building. Thus, the two in fact represented very different approaches: if you like, they may be seen as the granddaddies of those who advocate a linear vision of history, creating the kingdom of God upon earth, vs. the more cyclical, liturgical, even ceremonial view. Here, too, the secret of repetition is crucial.

Or can we perhaps speak of these as male and female models? Women, I suspect, have a more natural affinity to cyclical ways of thinking: through the inner biological cycles of their bodies, through their involvement in the direct life processes of gestation and birth and suckling, they know life in more circular terms—and are less likely than are men to be tempted by grand illusions of great historical movements and ideologies. And perhaps it is in this that their lies their binah yeteirah, their greater intuitive understanding….


Post a Comment

<< Home