Friday, November 02, 2007

Vayera (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on the parasha, see the blog archives at November 2005. For teachings on Shlomo, see at October 2004, November 2005, and November 2006 (Lekh Lekha).

Kiddush Ha-Shem: “Love is Fiercer than Death”

Parshat Vayera contains no formal mitzvot as such. However, the climactic event described therein, Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, may be read as the central paradigm for the Jewish relation to God, whose ultimate experience is Kiddush Hashem, the “sanctification of the Name.” In the narrow sense, this mitzvah (traditionally inferred from Lev 22:32) implies the willingness to die in order to sanctify God’s name; in the broader sense, it encompasses the spirit of self-sacrifice, of dedication and devotion, rooted in love of God, that outweighs and overcomes all worldly considerations. As such, it includes ordinary, everyday behavior: Yoma 86a states that a sage who speaks kindly and gently, who is honest in his business dealings, and thereby inspires others to emulate him and see the model of piety that he represents in a positive light, thereby sanctifies God’s Name; on the other hand, the sage who is seen as somehow corrupt, hypocritical, self-righteous, and not meeting the standards he sets for others (and there are such people in the world, unfortunately), is seen as desecrating the Name.

The Akedah is a very strange and puzzling story, difficult for many modern people to accept. It poses profound philosophical question: what kind of God could expect this of someone? In the course of posing total, unquestioning dedication to God as the ultimate goal, it seems to fly in the face of basic morality, seeming to affirm the legitimacy of human sacrifice, which is defined elsewhere as an abomination.

But more than what it says about God, what does it teach about the mentality demanded and expected of the human servant and lover of God? Søren Kierkegaard saw Abraham of the Akedah as a central paradigm for what he called the “knight of faith.” Not only was he prepared to forego his own personal dreams for the future, as embodied in the son born to him in old age; he was prepared to accept the “theological suspension of the ethical.” But is not the autonomous human moral conscience also a reality? Isn’t there a point at which man is entitled to question issues of right and wrong even of God, when he demands the absurd? (Shades of “do not turn either right or left from what they tell you”—even if they say that right is left and left is right, or only when they say that right is right and left is left?; see my teachings on Shoftim, esp. on Torah and Rambam, at my blog archives for August 2006) The model of total, implicit obedience is widely embraced today by many Orthodox leaders and thinkers, who contrast Torah autonomy with secular-humanist autonomy. But is the matter so unequivocal? Is there in fact room for moral considerations within the halakhah? And is there such a thing as meta-halakhah, as over-arching values, as a positive value attached to “nay-saying” in certain situations? This is a vast issue, and I can only mention here the issues which the Akedah places on the table, not the answers.

What is clear is the mythical role played by Kiddush Hashem in Jewish life and in Jewish memory: Hannah and her seven sons; the martyrs of the Rhineland communities during the First Crusade; all those, throughout the millennia, in various places and circumstances, who were prepared to die rather than to bow, even pro forma, to an alien god. What does it ultimately mean? On the bottom line, Kiddush Hashem means love of God: love that conquers and outweighs all human loves—of parents for children, of lovers for one another, even of the elemental desire to live—and overcomes the fear of death. Indeed, in Kiddush Hashem, the verse from Song of Songs, “love is fiercer than death” (8:6), acquires an unexpected, powerful meaning.

Akedah Postscripts

A central tension in Vayera is that between devotion to God and concern for one’s fellow human being. This is illustrated in the opening verses, in which Avraham breaks off from receiving an “appearance” or vision of God, running to care for three strangers. It is expressed again when he argues with God on behalf of the people of Sodom—a passage introduced by God Himself, who defines Avraham’s task in the world as ושמרו דרך ה' לעשות צדקה ומשפט (18:19; “to guard the way of God, to do justice and righteousness”). It reaches its culmination in the contrast between these passages and the Akedah, where Abraham is called upon to do an act motivated by purely theocentric reason, denying all that is human in him—parental love, ethical conscience—to do God’s will.

Interestingly, Maimonides ends his Guide for the Perplexed (III.54) by saying that the ultimate goal of “knowing God” is accomplished, not through mystical-intellectual cognition of the Godhead, but through imitating God’s ethical qualities in the real world of human activity. He invokes Jeremiah 9:23, a verse quite similar to the above-mentioned verse from Genesis: כי אני ה' עשה חסד משפט וצדקה בארץ, כי באלה חפצתי נאם ה'—“for I am the Lord, who does loving-kindness, justice and righteousness in the world, for these I desire, says the Lord.” This is particularly significant, and not a little surprising, in light of the prevalent image of Rambam as one who saw the purely intellectual cognition of God, knowledge of metaphysical truths finely honed by philosophical reasoning, as the highest goal of mankind.

William James writes of two basic religious attitudes, which he calls “world affirming” and “world rejecting.” One might say that the one is that of Abraham in the opening chapter of Vayera, and the latter that of the Akedah chapter. Read thus, the Akedah is at one extreme of the continuum, while the drawing back from slaughtering Yitzhak signifies a kind of compromise.

This discussion is reminiscent of Martin Buber’s famous “Conversion.” In his essay, “Dialogue,” he describes the central transformative experience in his life. At the time, he was deeply involved in ecstatic, mystical practices and the cultivation of an elevated inner consciousness. As a result, it once happened that he failed to be wholly present (“to hear the unasked question”) when a troubled young man came to him for life advice—with dire consequences. This human insensitivity, brought about by his pursuit of mystical ecstasy, led him to abandon what he saw as the mystical path; henceforth, he saw the proper focus of religious life as involvement in human community, in the most concrete sense, in a godly way—his famous “dialogical philosophy.” (But see Israel Koren’s new book Mystery of the Earth [Hebrew: Haifa University Press, 2005; English version in preparation], which offers a new, rather different interpretation of Buber’s approach to mysticism and to Hasidism). In any event, I find Buber’s exclusive emphasis on dialogue in the world as assuming too sharp a dichotomy between the two. Jewish teaching seems to find it possible to strike a harmonious balance between the two—although this is not always simple.

2. Another, intriguing reading of the Akedah is developed by Aviva Zornberg in her book on Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, pp. 97-98, 114 ff. She mentions a midrash in which the Akedah was precipitated through Satan’s challenge to God, in which he mocks Abraham’s devotion, claiming that he would fail to meet a true test of his unconditional commitment. (The situation is an almost exact parallel to the opening of Job, in which God boasts of Job’s sterling character and fear of God, which Satan challenges). In both these cases, Satan represents cynicism about human character: the belief that every person, if pushed far enough, will break, will compromise his most dearly held principles; or, as common parlance, that “every man has his price.” (This dilemma was dramatized, for example, in the novel-cum-film Indecent Proposal.) God, by contrast, represents the belief in human righteousness, in the capability of the truly righteous man to be good, decent and upright no matter what. One can extrapolate from this that an essential element of faith is trust, a belief in man, perhaps even a certain childlike naïvete. That is, to say, “I believe in God’s perfection, but I’m utterly cynical and skeptical about my fellow human beings” is ultimately sacrilegious.

3. A bit later in her discussion (p. 123 ff.), Zornberg poses yet a third alternative. She discusses the midrash in which Sarah dies of grief, or shock, upon hearing of the Akedah—even though she knew that Her beloved son had survived. She describes this reaction as a kind of vertigo, a sense of emptiness, of the impossibility of believing that such a thing could happen. There is a Hebrew idiom for this: הדעת לא סובלת את זה. As if to say, the human mind can’t put itself around the idea that such things are possible in our world. Moments in which the world ceases to make sense—or, at least, the notion of a God who cares about human beings in any ordinary sense of the word.

Or to put it slightly differently: pushing the Jamesian typology mentioned earlier one step further. The Akedah represents an extreme pole of religious consciousness, in which the negation of the world is so total as to allow for devotion to God to the point of absurdity, so much so that one must accept the negation of everything that is ordinary in life. This is the root of the monastic impulse, particularly in its extreme forms: the Simon of the Desert who stands on a pillar for twenty years; or the Hindu sudha who abandons all to walk half-naked, barefoot, with nothing, around the country; or, for that matter, Kierkegaard himself, whose peculiar religious consciousness somehow made him unfit to live in the ordinary world of marriage and family—and hence he had to reject Regina Olsen, not out of any glorification of celibacy, but out of the sense that he, Soren, didn’t fit into the world.)

Such things exist in Judaism, too. I have known intense mystics who spent four, five, six hours davening every day, eating a bare morsel of food once a day, who barely engaged in ordinary conversation—but this path seems exceedingly dangerous when not moderated by having two feet planted in the ground. In the Akedah, it is modified by the very fact of the angel staying Abraham’s hand—but the very fact of the demand leaves its mark.

4. Yet another reading: the fact that it was specifically Sarah who died of shock when she heard of Akedah suggests that the kind of thinking that allows for an Akedah is in some sense essentially masculine. My thinking is that no woman could imagine something like the Akedah. Women’s spirituality is somehow different than that of men, which can allow for unlimited flights of intellect, for living in worlds of concepts totally abstracted and removed from the concrete world. Women are more earth-bound, more loving and nurturing, and see these roles as part and parcel of their being in an essential way (like the harlot in Solomon’s judgment; 1 Kgs 3:16 ff.). They would do anything to spare their child’s life. Their piety is more like that mentioned above, “know Him in all your ways.” (As I write this, I think of the legend of Hannah and her seven sons, in IV Maccabees, but that is somehow different: that was real Kiddush Hashem in face of the demand to deny God; after all, it is part of human experience that one occasionally encounters tyrants and religious fanatics, and one must respond to them in a noble, non-submissive way. The idea here of God Himself making such a demand is somehow different, contradicting as it does His essential nature; it makes no sense, so much so as to drive a person crazy.)

LEKH LEKHA: Postscript

Sometimes one may overlook the obvious, even for years. Like many people, I was raised with the legend as to how Abraham, as a child, figured out that the idols, fashioned out of clay or wood or stone, were impotent—and, to prove it, smashed one of the idols in his father’s workshop. Again, there is a famous midrash about the “master of the palace,” in which Abraham thought and thought until he arrived at the conclusion that the world must have a master.

And yet in the biblical text itself, we are told that Abraham received instructions from God, conversed with Him, etc. , much as Adam and Noah did before him, and Yitzhak, Yaakov, Moses, Samuel, David, and innumerable others did after him. In short, he is depicted regarding the relationship with God as obvious and self-evident. What then is meant by the midrashic image of Abraham as “discovering” God? What does this imply about his faith, or the nature of faith in general? It seems to me that these stories convey a certain insight about the nature of conversion. As Abraham was born into the pagan world, he had to make a quantum leap, so to speak, to attain insight into the existence and reality of God.

Knowledge of God is not a given; it is not a simple, obvious fact, as self-evident as breathing or eating or talking to your next-door neighbor. Rather, it emerges from a person reflecting on the meaning of life, asking questions about the world and why why anything exists at all, and beginning to see contradictions between what he was taught as a child and what makes sense to his inner heart. Thus, this midrashic motif expresses an important philosophical move—that faith may be derived through reason, or through thinking. (Incidentally, many converts I’ve known say that their path to Judaism began by seeing the contradictions and illogical tenets in Christianity.)

To continue with a few very brief insights about the sequence which follows: Brit bein ha-Betarim, the “Covenant Between the Pieces” (Genesis 15), is one of the weirder and more puzzling passages in the Torah. The sacrifice described there seems necessary as a prelude to Abraham’s vision (a sequence that appears often enough); but more than that, it is an actual covenant, creating a permanent bond between God and Abraham (and his as-yet-unborn offspring). The torch passing between the pieces of the sacrificial animals symbolizes the covenant between the two sides; while the message given Avraham—about his descendant’s future subjugation, redemption, and inheritance of the land—is itself an integral part of the covenant.

Hence, Brit Milah could in turn only come after both these events: the initial contact with God in Chapter 12, and the establishing of the covenant in Ch. 15. Note: circumcision itself, presented in Ch. 17, is not the covenant itself, but the ”sign of the covenant.”

Finally, the Akedah must come at the end, as the climax of the sequence of Abraham stories. It is something else again: a test of total commitment, over and beyond “ordinary” covenantal expectation. Genesis 23-25:11 is then seen as a kind of coda to Abraham’s life, events that occur in old age: the death of his wife; the marrying off of his son to create a new family, who will from here on in be the focus of interest; his own second marriage, which is somehow not really important; and his death.

Shlomo: “A person must receive the face of his master…”

Almost every year since starting Hitzei Yehonatan I’ve tried to write something about Reb Shlomo Carlebach ztz”l on his Yahrzeit (this year, on Sunday). On one level, his activity and the story of his life are well-known. But on another, there is something that remains wrapped in mystery, which each year I try to grasp and convey.

One of the basic questions I ask is: from whence did he get the powers of knowing how to communicate with these American hippie kids? If one thinks about his background—growing up in a distinguished, aristocratic Rabbinic family in Vienna; learning Talmud and poskim virtually every waking moment at Lakewood and other yeshivot; visiting, together with his twin brother, Lubavitch, Bobov and the other Hasidic courts being reconstituted in America—the contrast to the long-haired hippies of San Francisco of the 1960s in astounding. And yet, he succeeded, not only in communicating with them, but in creating a vital, exciting center in the House of Love and Prayer, and in winning over a significant number of people to living a Jewish religious life. There is a special kind of brilliance, an “understanding heart,” as the Tanakh says of the original Shlomo, required to translate an entire culture, an entire world of experience, into concepts, words, stories that not only make that world come alive, but exciting and attractive to people coming from an utterly different world.

I can see in my mind’s eye an image of Shlomo teaching: at Boston University Hillel in the winter of ‘72, at the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco, in Gavriel and Monique’s home in Jerusalem, and elsewhere. He sits with a book, reads a paragraph or two, than places his hand over his eyes, shuckles back and forth gently for a minute or two, and then starts talking: “You know, friends, the holy [R. Nahman, R. Tzaddok, Sefas Emes, Izhbitzer, etc.] says……” He reads one or two lines in Hebrew, translates them, and then continues, perhaps for half-an-hour or more, weaving ideas, stories, examples from everyday life, into a beautiful fabric of Torah, that has every person in the room entranced. “This is mamash the deepest depths…” At some point he starts to sing a melody, stands up, starts to play his guitar, and after a while quickens the pace until the whole room is jumping up and down and dancing in joy.

Shlomo created a new type of Hasidism. A Hasidic vort or saying interprets the Rabbinic saying quoted at the beginning of this piece as follows: לקבל פני רבו, “to receive one’s master’s face…” doesn’t refer to kabbalat panim in the usual sense of going out to greet someone or to be with them, but to “receive,” take within oneself, his “face”—that is, something of his spiritual configuration, his being, his essence. It does not mean that one should become a clone of one’s teacher, as sometimes happens—each person is after all an individual, a world unto himself—but that one may be recognized as part of the same spiritual family, that there is a certain affinity between master and disciple.

Who, then, are Shlomo’s Hasidism? Can one create a group portrait? There is a Hasidic legend that, before the Messiah comes, the Baal Shem Tov will return but no one will recognize him. Sometimes I think that Shlomo’s Hasidim are the closest thing existing to the original mood and feel of early Hasidism, to the circle of the Baal Shem Tov—notwithstanding the profound differences between the 18th century Polish or Volhynian shteitl, and 20th century America.

His Hasidim are characterized, first and foremost, by ecstatic, enthusiastic prayer, filled with uninhibited shouts and gesticulation. If the conflict between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism was originally about prayer vs. Torah, emotion vs. intellect, avodah vs. halakhah—the former aspects are strongly felt, in pristine form, among Shlomo’s “khevre.” Over the generations, most if not all of the “main-stream” Hasidic groups have become established, following a certain fixed routine, which identifies them—from their prayer nusah, to the manner in which the Rebbe’s “tisch” is conducted, through to their dress, daily routine, study program, etc. Shlomo’s hasidim maintain a certain kind of anarchism, a spontaneous, non-conformist attitude.

Second, there is an attempt to emulate Shlomo’s warmth and love for all. There are lots of hugs in greeting; strangers are made welcome, and often invited to share communal and private meals; people may address one other with the honorific “heilige (holy) so-and-so.”

Third, there is a great emphasis on Shabbat—not merely as a routine, or as a halakhic construct with strict rules—but as an anticipation of “the Great Shabbes”—as a spiritual high point, as a time when prayer can break through the barriers of heaven, as a taste of the redeemed world.

(To be continued)


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