Friday, March 30, 2007

Tzav - Shabbat Hagadol

For more teachings, both about Pesah and on this week’s parsha, see the archives of this blog at April 2006.


During the study last year at this time, in the context of the Daf Yomi (daily page of Talmud), of Masekhet Pesahim, I was struck by the emphasis placed on the mitzvah of bi’ur hametz, the removal and elimination of leavened foodstuffs from our homes prior to the onset of Pesah. The first two chapters of the Talmudic tractate dealing with this holiday are devoted primarily, if not exclusively, to the mitzvah of biur hametz; only thereafter does it turn to the rules of Passover itself, suggesting that this is an act of central importance to the festival week as a whole.

In what follows, I shall present and analyze several Talmudic debates relating to bi’ur hametz, in an attempt to determine whether there is some common motif that repeats itself in all of them. My approach here will be somewhat in the spirit of the late French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who constantly sought the philosophical underpinnings of even seemingly trivial or technical discussions of the Sages. “Beneath questions of ‘acts to do’ and ‘acts not to do’… they are arguing about fundamental ideas without appearing to do so.” Hence, after surveying the sugyot per se, I will attempt to derive certain philosophical conclusions.

1. Biur Hametz as “Fence” or as Essence?

First, a general question, not discussed in quite these terms in the Talmud: namely, what kind of a mitzvah is bi’ur hametz? There is a tendency to think of it as somehow ancillary or preparatory to the main mitzvot of the holiday: the dramatic ceremonial and extended conversation of the Seder night, the eating of matzah during the following seven (or, abroad, eight) days of the festival, and the numerous special kashrut rules and restrictions that apply. It is possible to view the elimination of hametz as a preventive measure, a kind of “fence around the Torah”: because the eating of hametz, even in the smallest quantity, and even when mixed with other foodstuffs, is strictly forbidden and described as a serious violation (indeed, it is one of the few dietary laws that carries the severe sanction of karet), the Torah prohibits us from even having it in our possession (bal yara’eh u-val yimatzei, a phrase taken from Exod 13:7), and specifically commands that it be destroyed and/or removed prior to the beginning of the festival.

Alternatively, it may be viewed as a mitzvah in its own right, not only in terms of its being counted among the 613 in its own right (a point on which all the “counters of the mitzvot” agree), but on some conceptual level as well. This idea would seem to be reinforced by the sheer effort invested in this mitzvah: the thorough cleaning of every corner of the house, which some housewives begin a month or more before the holiday; the scouring of year-round utensils in a caldron of boiling water or by fire; and, finally, the candlelight search for hametz the night before Seder, and the burning by fire of the last remnants of hametz the following morning. No other Jewish festival even approaches Pesah in he intense investment of time and energy in its physical preparations. (The Days of Awe entail intense inner preparation, in which some may invest many hours, but that is a different story entirely.)

It is interesting to compare this mitzvah to other “fences” around the Torah: e.g., shevut, those forms of labor that are Rabbinically prohibited on Shabbat, described by Rambam as “things that are similar to melakhot [forbidden labor] or that are an edict, lest they lead to the performance of melakhot” (Hilkhot Shabbat 21.1). Rambam goes on to say that these restrictions are in fact anchored in the language of the Torah—tishbot, “you shall rest” (Exod 23:12). Another example of a law structurally homologous to bi’ur hametz is kiruv basar—the law prohibiting erotically-charged intimacy with individuals, full sexual relations with whom would be forbidden by Torah by dint of incest or adultery. This rule is classified by Rambam as in itself a Torah law, while Ramban and others demure (see Issurei Biah 21.1; Sefer ha-Mitzvot, lo ta’aseh 353, and Ramban’s Hasagot ad loc.); at least according to the former, it is an interesting example of a Torah law that is at one and the same time a preventive measure, a “fence around the Torah,” as well as prohibiting the derivation of pleasure from such acts as more than improper in their own right (there are subtle differences of wording in Rambam between Yad and Sefer ha-Mitzvot which suggest this—but I shall discuss these another time).

But I find it difficult to see the prohibition against owning hametz as merely a harhakah, a preventive measure; rather, it in fact lies at the very heart of the laws of Pesah. On Pesah, bread, the most common of all foodstuffs (which in ancient times was universally seen as The Food par excellence, the flesh-based diet so common in Western society being unknown), is set apart as being forbidden in every possible way. Moreover, unlike the cases mentioned above, its period of being forbidden is ushered in by a positive act: a comprehensive purgation of the home of all hametz, the removal of any trace of this common foodstuff, the burning by fire of its final remnants, and then starting the food cycle with a new, fresh, differently- and rapidly-made flatbread—the matzot, rich in historical associations, that today stands at the center of the Seder night.

Or, to couch it is halakhic terms: at the center of Pesah lies issur hametz, the definition of all leavened substance as prohibited, with a series of different levels, both on the dimension of action—eating, benefit, and even passive ownership—and that of time—the prohibition coming into effect half a day before the actual beginning of the festival, and another hour before that, and extending beyond the festival week in the prohibition against using eating or using hametz that was owned by Jews during Pesah. This prohibition is ushered in, towards the end of the morning of Erev Pesah, by the concrete act of destroying/removing all the hametz in ones possession, whose nature we shall attempt to define in what follows.

2. Why From Midday?

One of the first sugyot dealing with bi’ur hametz concerns the rather peculiar halakhah, unparalleled for any other festival, that hametz is forbidden in use, possession and eating from mid-day of the 14th of Nissan. (NB: halakhic practice requires that the elimination of hametz be completed a full hour before mid-day, and that one desist from eating it yet another hour prior to that time—further “fences” around the Torah, to “keep one far” from possible violation.) The Talmud at Pesahim 4b-6a asks why this is done, not at nightfall just before the Seder, nor at dawn of the day concerned, but at mid-day—the day being divided precisely in half, high noon marking the line of demarcation, so to speak, between the realm of hametz and that of Pesah. The sugya is somewhat lengthy and rather meandering but, eliminating the various side discussions, the following is the gist, the halakhic core, of the debate:

... In any event, hametz is prohibited from the sixth hour of the day onwards. From whence do we know this? Abbaye said: From [comparison of] two Scriptural verses. One says, “Seven days leaven shall not be found in your homes” (Exod 12:19), while the other says, “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your homes” (ibid., v. 15). How so? To include the fourteenth [of Nissan] for eliminating hametz. But might one not say that [this phrase] alludes to the night of the fifteenth?… Or might one not say that it applies from daybreak? The word akh (“but”) comes to divide [this day]… Ravva said: From this verse: “You shall not slaughter the blood of my sacrifice upon hametz” (Exod 34:25). Do not slaughter the Pesah offering so long as hametz still exists…

After stripping away all the side issues brought in this sugya (fascinating and important as these may be in their own right), we are left with two basic approaches: Abbaye derives this rule from a turn of phrase, the use of the word akh, a word traditionally understood as being used by the Torah (along with such words as rak and pen) to indicate diminution (mi’ut), that something less than the whole is indicated; that the Torah indeed adds an extra time period, anticipatory to Pesah, during which the laws against hametz apply, but that this is not a full unit of time, a full day or even a full daylight period, but only a partial, fragmented, divided one. Hence, this rule stands by itself, a priori, as something unconnected to any other law or aspect of Pesah.

The second approach, that of Ravva, associates the prohibition of hametz with the Paschal sacrifice, offered from mid-day on. The time for korban pesah is itself based on the phrase bein ha-arbayim (Exod 12:6): lit., “between the evenings,” interpreted, interestingly, as that period between the moment the sun begins to decline towards the west, just after its zenith, until sundown. Moreover, Ravva’s proof text is interpreted in the broadest, most all-encompassing sense imaginable: not only may one not offer fermented bread as part of any offering in the Temple (a rule applying year-round to meal offerings in the Temple; see Lev 2:11); not only is no hametz to be allowed in the vicinity of “my sacrifice,” assuming that this refers specifically to the Paschal offering (a claim that, while it may seem far-fetched, may be defended by saying that the Pesah is the zevah par excellence: a kind of paradigm for korban shelamim, those “peace-offerings” eaten by their owners in a festive manner); but that the individual must be free of possession of any hametz, even in his/her own private domain, even in a locked storeroom far away from the Temple courtyards. Moreover: all this applies, not only at the time the paschal lamb is slaughtered in actuality—which may occur at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon (“between 8½ and 9½”), but from the beginning of the time period theoretically allotted to it—i.e., high noon. (For that reason Rambam grants a special status of a semi-festival to the afternoon of Nissan 14th, beyond that of other festival eves; see Hil. Yom Tov 8.17-18.)

In brief, whereas the first approach sees the time limit on hametz as a rule standing in its own right, in the second view there is an intimate link between the Paschal offering and the prohibition, one might even say the banned status, of hametz. Thus, unlike the sharp line drawn by some contemporary Bible scholars between Hag ha-Pesah and Hag ha-Matzot, the Talmud clearly sees the two as interrelated: the rules of hametz and matzah clearly apply to the time of slaughtering the Pesah as well. Could our sugya have been polemicizing with sects or schools who thought along such lines?

3. The Blessing: “to eradicate” or “concerning the eradication”?

R. Judah said: One who searches [for hametz] must recite a blessing. What blessing does he recite? Rav Pappi said in the name of Ravva: “to eradicate hametz.” Rav Pappa said in the name of Ravva: “concerning the eradication of hametz..” (Pesahim 7a, at the bottom of the page)

Like any other mitzvah, one recites a blessing over bi’ur hametz, and the time for this, interestingly, is not when one completes the process with the burning of the hametz and the recitation of kol hamira on the day of Erev Pesah, but the evening before, when one begins the candlelight search for hametz. The amoraim Rav Pappi and Rav Pappa argued whether the formula to be used in this case is to be couched in verbal terms, beginning with the infinitive (le-va’er) or refer to the mitzvah in the nounal form (‘al biur hametz).

While the halakhah quickly resolves the specific dispute in favor of the latter position, the issue itself—why the blessings for some mitzvot are phrased in the infinitive, beginning with “l…,” while others take the nounal form, designating the title of the mitzvah act, ‘… ‘al…” is a knotty one. The answers suggested are as numerous as the great halakhic thinkers who have tackled this issue. A whole group of rishonim—most notably Rosh, Ran on the Rif, , Rambam, and Tosafot—have attempted to construct orderly, consistent rules to explain when one or the other is used, and it is difficult to say that any of them has succeeded entirely in explaining every last case.

A common–sense reading of the words suggests that the use of the infinitive suggests action by the person, while use of the noun places the emphasis on object, or on the mitzvah as an entity in itself. Or, to phrase it slightly differently: the one relates to the action of the self, while the other is applied primarily to the external, material world, of the object or heftza.

4. Bi’ur or Bittul: Destruction or Dissociation?

All of the above has been, in a certain sense, by way of introduction. The central question, to my mind, which is discussed in several different Talmudic passages, is quite simply: what is the essence of this mitzvah?

R Judah says: Eradication of hametz is only through destruction by fire. But the Sages say: even crumbling and casting it to the wind or throwing it into the sea. (Mishnah Pesahim 2.1 = Bavli 21a)

We are presented here with two basic views: R. Judah sees bi’ur hametz as requiring physical destruction, the literal obliteration of hametz, its total removal from the world. The Sages, by contrast, say that it suffices to perform some action such that it no longer maintains its identity as a foodstuff, or at least not one which the normal person would be tempted to eat: crumbling, and casting it to the wind or the sea, are enough. We are not concerned with whether the hametz as such exists, only with whether it is in our possession as a recognizable foodstuff.

A brief exchange, that appears in the course of discussion of the above, considers the possibility of selling the hametz to a Gentile, drawing astonishingly strict conclusions regarding this possibility:

“And he sells it to a Gentile.” Is that not obvious?! To exclude that which was taught in a beraita, as they taught: Beit Shammai said: A person should not sell his hametz to a non-Jew unless he knows that he will consume it before Pesah. And Beit Hillel said: So long as one is permitted to eat hametz one is permitted to sell it [to a Gentile]. R. Judah ben Betaira said: Kutah [a kind of whey pudding with bread crumbs] and all kinds of kutah one is forbidden to sell to a Gentile thirty days before Pesah.

The implication here seems to be that once hametz has belonged to a Jew, it must be physically destroyed. Selling it to a Gentile—even a real sale, in which the Gentile physically removes the hametz from the premises for his own use; not the legal fiction familiar to us—is inadequate. Hametz —even the breaded yogurt known as kutah habavli, which is a kind of mixture—must not exist. This sugya, or more precisely the Shammaite opinions within it, seems to mitigate very strongly for the total destruction of hametz regardless of its ownership. We shall return below to try to understand what this may mean.

Elsewhere in the Mishnah, we are introduced to the concept of bittul, of “negating” hametz. Thus, the mishnah at Pes. 3.7 (=b. 49a) discusses the case of a person who had set out on a journey to perform a mitzvah—perhaps to perform the mitzvah most typically associated with Passover, the slaughtering of the paschal lamb; or any other mitzvah—and, while on the way, on Passover eve, suddenly realized that he had left hametz behind in his home:

One who went to slaughter his Paschal sacrifice, or to circumcise his son, or to participate in a betrothal feast in the house of his father-in-law, and remembered that he has hametz within his home: if he can go back and destroy it and return to his mitzvah, he should return and destroy it; but if not, he may negate it in his heart. [But] to save [another person] from Gentiles, from the river, from bandits, from a fire, or from a landslide, he should negate it in his heart.

“Negation in one’s heart “ is presented here as a court of last resort, a kind of stopgap option available for emergency cases: either if one cannot return to one’s home to destroy it and also perform the mitzvah incumbent upon one, or if there is a situation of actual danger to another’s life. We find this concept further elaborated in other texts. Thus, at 6b:

R Judah said in the name of Rav: One who searches for hametz must [also] negate it. What is the reason? If because of crumbs, they are not considered [as forbidden hametz]. Ravva said: It is a precautionary edict, lest he find a nice pastry and set his mind on it…

Here bittul is not only an emergency option, but part of the normal procedure of searching one’s home to remove all hametz—albeit still as a kind of backup. If one inadvertently missed something before Pesah—a rich cake in a back corner of the freezer? a bottle of fine whiskey?—and suddenly finds it during the middle of the festival, the mental act of bittul saves one from the transgression of owning hametz on Pesah, because legally, as a result of bittul, it is either a non-entity or no longer one’s property.

What then is bittul hametz? From the context here, it would seem to be defined as a mental act of dissociating oneself from hametz, of stating (or possibly merely fixing in one’s mind?) that any hametz inadvertently remaining in one’s possession is as if it does not exist; or, according to some, is hefker, ownerless. This is articulated in a verbal formula, “kol hamira,” in which one states that any hametz located within one’s domain is “like the dust of the earth”; but, in terms of pure halakhic conception, the essence is the mental act, not the verbal articulation. Rambam defines this most clearly of all the major authorities. In Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah 2.1-3 we read:

[1] It is a positive commandment of the Torah to desist from hametz prior to the time that its eating is prohibited, as is said, “On the first day you shall remove leaving from your homes” [Exod 12:15] … [2] And what is this desisting spoken of in the Torah? That he should nullify it in his heart and consider it as if dust, and to fix in his heart [the thought] that he does not have any hametz at all. And that any hametz which is in his possession is like dust, and like a thing of which there is no need whatsoever. [3] And from the words of the Sages, that he should search out hametz in all the hidden places and cracks, to search and to remove it entirely from his domain. And also from the words of the Sages, that one must search and nullify hametz on the night of the fourteenth [of Nissan], from the beginning of the night, by candle light….

From Rambam’s words here, it is clear that bittul hametz is not merely a stopgap option or “backup measure,” but that it is the quintessential act of bi’ur hametz. Indeed, for Rambam it is the physical searching for hametz and its elimination that is secondary, a Rabbinic measure introduced to insure that one not inadvertently stumble upon hametz during the festival week.

But there are also opposite views to be found among rishonim. Thus, the very first Tosafot of our tractate:

“On the night of the fourteenth one searches for hametz…” Rashi explained, “So that he not violate ‘You shall not see and it shall not be found…’ And this is difficult to R. Yitzhak, for as one is required to perform bittul, as is stated in th Talmud, ‘One who searches must also negate” (6b), and under Torah law mere negation is sufficient, why did the Sages require searching at all? And it seems to R. Yitzhak that, even though negation is in itself is sufficient, the Sages were strict in insisting that one search and remove it, so that one not come to eat it… (Tosafot, at 2a)

Thus, while Rashi seems to think in a simple way, that the essence of the mitzvah is the physical destruction of hametz, both Rambam and Tosafot, in their different ways, each see bittul as the essential thing.

5. Some Tentative Conceptual Conclusions

To summarize, it seems to me that the dispute about bi’ur hametz centers on the issue of the relation of mitzvot to the world of matter. Pesah, in stark contrast to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is strongly focused upon a particular item of physical realty—hametz—and the basic question debated between the rishonim concerns whether the commandment to eradicate it pertains primarily to the physical, practical world (bi’ur in the literal sense) or on the level, of inner mental attitude (bittul).

Yochanan Silman, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan University, has written extensively about the philosophy of halakhah, its underlying philosophy, and certain basic lines of dispute which run, like a crimson thread, through almost all of halakhah. He notes that one of the major themes is what, for want of a better term, might be called the dispute between realism and nominalism (as in medieval European philosophy). Regarding a whole range of topics relating to “statuses”—whether the personal status of individuals (e.g., marital status, Jewish identity); the status of objects as tamei and tahor, or as sanctified or secular (e.g., vis-à-vis animals or other objects dedicated to the Temple); property ownership; and a host of other areas—there is a debate as to whether statuses are in some sense an inherent, almost metaphysical property thereof (realism), or simply a formal legal category (nominalism). Thus, for example, in the area of kashrut: there are those who view non-kosher foodstuffs as containing some inherently negative or even demonic property, as in the dictum, oft-quoted in sources influenced by Kabbalah, that such food “stupifies the heart,” even when eaten by mistake; or, alternatively, there are those who interpret the kosher laws in a predominantly educational or psychological light, the discipline of not eating certain things and the consciousness that creates somehow refining the human personality. Or, regarding a larger question: does one see the difference between Jews and non-Jews as something metaphysical, an inherently different quality of their very souls (as in Judah Halevi’s Kuzari or in many Habad writings), or purely in terms of the ideas and ideals with which the former are imbued (see, e.g., Rambam, Avodat Kokhavim Ch. 1). Understood properly, these issues strongly impinge upon some of the central issues confronting Judaism today, such as some of the issues we discussed last week, viz. how rabbis treat such issues as marriage, divorce, and conversion to Judaism.

It is usual to refer to these approaches as “mystical” and “rational,” and to see the fault line as running, beginning in tannaitic times between R. Akiva and R. Ishmael; in medieval Jewish thought, between Kabbalah and philosophy; and, in a later stage, between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism. But this is not entirely true. Within Jewish mysticism itself, certainly among its contemporary interpreters, there are those who view the Zohar as a kind of guidebook to the supernal realms and the sefirot as representing in some sense literal realities, while others read the Zohar as written in a kind of symbolic language, whose main concern is to awaken religious sentiments of awe, fear, and love of God. And there are philosophers or “pure” halakhists who follow what Silman has called a “realist” approach.

These issues are vast, the hour is late, and I have only been able to touch upon these ideas in the most sketchy and superficial way, for which my apologies. In conclusion, I shall return to bi’ur hametz. A widespread interpretation describes hametz as symbolizing a whole series of negative forces in the world: the Evil Urge, the 49 “gates of impurity” found in Egypt, the traits of pride and arrogance. As we approach the “Zero Hour” for purging our homes of hametz, do we see the “enemy” as the bits of breads and crumbs inadvertently overlooked, or is the true “enemy” our own ego and our true task, as we sit down at the Seder table, to encounter our own personal Egypt?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Vayikra (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see the archives to this blog at March 2005.

“And God Called…”

This new book begins with a seemingly mundane verse stating that God called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting, followed by all the numerous laws, about sacrificial offerings and other matters related to the sanctuary, which he was told on that occasion. But let’s see how Rashi treats this verse:

Lev 1:1. “And he called unto Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying…”

Rashi: “And he called unto Moses.” All speech, and all saying, and all commandments, were preceded by calling: a language of affection, the language used by the ministering angels, as is said, “and they called to one another” (Isa 6:3). But God revealed Himself to the prophets of the pagan nations only in a passing way and in language of impurity, as is said “and God chanced upon Balaam” (Num 23:4).

Rashi begins here by noting that God called upon Moses: that the first step in all communication begins with calling, with addressing the other by name—“a language of affection.” Notwithstanding the practical purpose of this speech, namely, to convey various laws, God begins by addressing Moses, presumably in a personal way. Rashi is perhaps suggesting hat there is an echo here of all the other places in the Bible where God calls people by name: Abraham before the Akedah, Jacob, Moses at the burning bush, Samuel as yet a small child in Eli’s spartan dwelling place, Elijah… I find something rather Buberian here: beyond the actual words spoken, the important part of every meeting between two beings is the dialogue, the fact of being present and speaking to one another—perhaps like two lovers who meet after a separation. In ordinary human relations, too, calling by name is a sign of affection.

But it is also used to draw an important contrast: in a subtle play of language, the “call” to Moses (ויקרא) is contrasted with God’s manner of addressing Balaam, in a chance, by-the-way manner (ויקר). (But note: the root קרה is used, not only of chance events, but also of impurity; note the description of Amalek אשר קרך בדרך, “who met you/rendered you impure on the way.”

“And he called unto Moses.” The voice went and reached his ears, but all Israel did not hear it. Could it be that the calling was also for the pauses? The text says, “And he spoke.” The call was for speech, but not for pauses. And what purpose did the pauses serve? To give Moses a certain room to reflect between one portion and the next, or between one subject and another. All the more so an ordinary person learning from an ordinary person.

Rashi is trying to understand the nature of this Divine voice heard by Moses alone. But first he comments about the pauses, about which he offers some simple, practical wisdom. There is need to reflect, to think, to internalize the idea of each thing one learns, and not simply plow ahead. When I was in yeshiva I once had a hevruta who would read the text of an entire page of Talmud without interruption, in a few minutes. He had a brilliant, retentive, very fast mind—but our partnership didn’t last much more than a week.

“From the Tent of Meeting.” This teaches that the voice was interrupted and did not go outside the tent of Meeting. Might this be because the voice was low? The verse says, “the voice.” What is meant by “the voice”? This was the same voice as is explained in Psalms: “The voice of the Lord is in strength, the voice of the Lord is in grandeur. The voice of the Lord smashes the cedars” (Ps 29:3-4). If so, why does it say “from the Tent of Meeting.” To teach that the voice was interrupted. Similarly, “and the voice of the wings of the cherubim was heard as far as the outer courtyard” (Ezek 10:5). Could it be because the voice was low? The verse says, “like the voice of Almighty God when he spoke.” If so, why does it say “to the external outer courtyard.” That once it reached there it was cut off.

Here Rashi is dealing with the wondrous fact that God speaks to a human being—even if not in the dramatic epiphany at Sinai, even if to only one person, and even if to an individual on as sublime and elevated a spiritual level as Moses. Every aspect of Moses’ communication with God was somehow special, unique, noteworthy. Moses was a man whom we have already seen at the Golden Calf incident arguing and pleading with God, acting as intercessor on behalf of the people and, according to the midrash, ascended to the very heavens to bring down the Torah; a man who was at much at home with God, so to speak, as he was with the company of his fellow people. There was something extraordinary, exceptional, outside of the normal rules of nature, of acoustics, even, in the Divine speech. The voice heard by Moses in his private discourse with God was the same powerful voice which thundered at Sinai, or in the Flood scene portrayed in Psalm 29, or in Ezekiel’s vision.

“From the Tent of Meeting, saying.” Might it [the voice] have emanated from the entire house? The verse says, “from above the kaporeth” (Num 7:89). Might it have been above the entire kaporeth? The verse says “between the two cherubs” (ibid.).

“Saying.” Go and tell them words of comfort, words that “conquer” the heart. For your sake does He spoke with me, for we find that throughout the 38 years that Israel were in the desert as a people who were shunned, from the time of the spies on, the Divine speech was not heard by Moses. As is said, “when all the people of war had finished dying, the Lord spoke with me, saying” (Deut 2:15-16)—[only] then did the speech come to me. Something else: Go and say to them my words, and I will reply whether they receive it, as is said, “and Moses returned the people’s words [to God]” (Exod 19:8).

The central idea here is that even Moses, the man of God, was not spoken with for his own sake, but as the leader of the people and as the go-between between God and the people; in other words, as the bearer of a mission. There is in this idea a certain anti-mystical message, one opposed to private religious consciousness as an end in itself.

SUPPLEMENT: The Celebration of Marriage—and Its Obstacles

The midrash about the brass laver which we presented last week, quoted by Rashi on Exod 38:8, celebrates the importance of marriage, the union of man and woman, and the bearing of children, as something in which the Almighty himself rejoices. And yet, for many people, Jewish, halakhic marriage—the path towards marriage, and its registration and performance by the Rabbinic establishment here in Israel; and even more so, the path away from it, towards dissolution in the event of intolerable unbearable marital strife and incompatibility—is strewn with obstacles and difficulties.

One of the most painful problems in contemporary halakhah is the issue of agunot & mesuravei get—typically, of women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get, a divorce writ, despite the fact that the marriage has become, to all sides involved, a dead letter; where the couple is living separately, and are de facto as-if divorced. Recalcitrant husbands often openly use their superior bargaining position under Jewish law—in which the man’s consent is a sine qua non for divorce—to either extort money, or to sadistically torture their ex-wives.

Some months ago, in November 2006, a conference of leading rabbis from all over the world was supposed to have taken place here in Jerusalem, under the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate. At the last moment—literally, a day or two before its scheduled start—Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who had called this gathering, cancelled it. It was widely believed that the cancellation was the result of pressure from Haredi elements, including such leading poskim as Rav Eliashiv, who feared that the conference would entertain (note: discuss, not necessarily adopt!) solutions which some mahmirim considered invalid.

This was shocking for two reasons. First of all, it was as much as if to say that the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel—an institution in which religious Zionists like to take pride as the highest halakhic authority of the Jewish people, and which, with the rebirth of the State of Israel, was seen as a supreme, central religious authority which was to revitalize the halakhah—is nothing of the kind, but in practice has totally surrendered to the authority of the Haredi rabbis. If that is so, who needs them? Was not this move a declaration of moral bankruptcy?

Second, and far more serious, is the substantive issue: Isn’t the task of the rabbis, as Rav Soloveitchik puts it in Halakhic Man, “to save the oppressed from their oppressors, to right wrongs, to battle injustice”? Where is the Rabbinate’s sense of ethics, their human sensitivity to the plight of women who find themselves “chained” to husbands who exploit their power to extort money or to make them miserable, by preventing them from getting on with their lives? And what are halakhically-committed Jews with a certain minimum humane concern to think?

Then, just this past week, there was another troubling development in this same area. The committee for appointing dayyanim, which had not met for three years, appointed 15 new Rabbinic Court judges—all but three of them from the Haredi world, (six from the Ashkenazi orbit of Rav Eliashiv and six of them Sephardim, backed by Rav Ovadiah Yosef), who are expected to continue the strict approach observed thus far.

There is a crying need for reform on these issues, within the framework of halakhah, and it is possible. While this is hardly the forum to enter into a detailed examination of these questions, I would like to mention a few specific sources, so as to go beyond mere demagogic rhetoric.

Rambam mentions two halakhic rules which, if properly applied, could go a long way towards freeing women from husbands who utilize the system to abuse them. The first of these is the concept מאוס עלי (“he is disgusting to me”): that is, that if a woman declares that she has come to a pass where she finds her husband—specifically, the very idea of marital sex—repugnant, she is entitled to a divorce, albeit she does forfeit certain monetary rights. Rambam articulates the underlying moral principle here, in the words: “that she is not a captive, to be forced to submit to intercourse with a person she finds hateful” (Ishut 14.8; see b. Ketubot 63b).

The second concept is one that appears in the Talmud (Gittin 88b) and is codified in Rambam in Gerushin 2.20, which states כופין אותו עד שיאמר רוצה אני (“he is coerced until he says, ‘I want [to give the get]’”); that is, in that circumstance where the Court, after duly considering the entire marital situation of the couple, arrives at the conclusion that the husband must divorce his wife, they may use coercion (the example given in the sources is of actual physical force; today, various jurists have suggested fines, suspending the man’s driver’s license and/or passport, and even imprisonment) until he agrees. The Rambam discusses the paradox that, even though the consent to divorce is extracted under coercion, it is nevertheless considered an act of his own free will.

In both these cases, there are other rishonim who strongly dissent from Rambam’s position (particularly the Ba’alei ha-Tosafot, who are considered instrumental in establishing Ashkenazic halakhah). One objection raised to the use of coercion of the man to obtain a get is that this might be considered גט מעושה, a “manufactured / made divorce writ,” seen as especially problematic. But in fact the Shulhan Arukh codifies both views, leaving the issue undecided. This is the crux of the issue: the reluctance of the Haredi rabbis to even discuss the problem in an official forum, and to raise these controversial approaches as possible solutions to this thorny problem, stems from a certain reluctance, whenever there is a dispute among earlier authorities, to rule on the basis of the lenient opinion.

But all this applies, assuming other things are equal—that is, in the normal course of events. But there is a definite tendency within the halakhah—one might even say, a time-honored way of dealing with “special cases”—of relying upon the more lenient opinion among the classical authorities, when there are strong extenuating circumstances: “emergency circumstances” (שעת הדחק), “great need” (צורך גדול), “public need” (צורך רבים), “human dignity” (כבוד הבריות), or even “substantial monetary loss” (הפסד מרובה). The general rule is koah de-hetera adif, “the power of leniency is preferable”—meaning, a Torah sage who is able to legitimately ease the irksome burden imposed upon a human being by certain situations—needless to say, when there is a valid halakhic solution to the problem—is to be praised for doing so, for both his wisdom and for his human compassion. These principles are routinely used in the Shulhan Arukh, for example, in the areas of kashrut, in civil law, and in many other areas. There are even cases—e.g., the almost universally accepted practice of carrying objects on Shabbat in the streets of a city which has an eruv—based entirely on a lenient opinion among the rishonim, despite the fact that there is an equally venerable group of rishonim opposed, simply because most of the public would find it an unusual hardship to observe such a stricture; only the unusually pious, in certain circles, adhere to the stricter view. And here too, no less than in marital law, the issue at stake is one of a Torah law involving a sanction of karet—i.e., the most serious level of prohibition!

Surely these principles can be applied here! Indeed, in at least one aspect of marital law, Hazal did in fact promulgate a policy of great leniency, easing the requirements of testimony for an individual’s death (“even a single witness, even that of a woman, even that of a Gentile relating things in innocence/good faith”) so as to prevent the widow being left an agunah, unable to marry. Yet today we often find the halakhah being used by the husband to behave in cruel and sadistic ways: when it is clear beyond all doubt that the marriage is a dead letter, that the husband has no interest in restoring marital harmony, but is simply using his own superior position to “punish” his wife and to deprive her of the opportunity to enter into a new, potentially happier marital relationship. What could be a greater hillul hashem than such a situation? Moreover, knowing the reality of the current modern world, such a policy seems almost guaranteed to deepen the rift within the Jewish people. Again, I must stress that I am not proposing that the entire structure of halakhic marriage be revised from A to Z (as some have suggested), notwithstanding the asymmetry involved in the man being the one, at least formally, to both initiate and severe the marital bond. Rather, I call upon the halakhic authorities to utilize the precedents existing in the halakhah itself—from no less a figure than the Rambam, the “Great Eagle” of medieval Jewry—to rule on these matters in a more decent, humane way.

Why then are the Haredim so adamant on this issue? (1) First, because the area of marital law is viewed as a particularly sensitive one since, if one releases a woman from a marriage unhalakhically, she may retroactively be seen as still married to her first husband, her relations with her subsequent husband as adulterous, and her children from that union as mamzerim—illegitimate. Hence, there is, I believe, a genuine component of yirat shamayim here, in the reluctance to decide between the differing halakhic shitot, lest one somehow be proven to be “wrong.” (There are certain methodological, juridic, and even philosophical assumptions here that to my mind are questionable, relating to the nature of safek, uncertainty—but that’s another discussion.) (2) But second, there are also certain social pressures, if not actual fear of ostracism, at play. There is a kind of religious McCarthyism today in parts of the Orthodox world, in which anyone who proposes even the smallest change or deviation from the way things are done is likely to be labeled as “Reform” or “not really Orthodox.” This is a strange phenomenon, unique to the modern world, in which the existence of non-Orthodox movements somehow has led the Orthodox to associate any change or leniency, no matter how deeply rooted and authentic within the tradition, with “Reform.” Such fear of the opinion of others is surely a great sin, albeit understandable in terms of human nature. The story is told in the Talmud that Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai was visited by his disciples prior to his death, to ask for his blessing. He said: “May your fear of God be equal to your fear of men.” They asked him: “Is that all?” to which he responded: “That’s a great deal; know, that when a man sets out to perform a sin, he says to himself, ‘I hope no one sees me.’” (3) Finally, I suspect there is also a certain element of old-fashioned male chauvinism, of a tendency of the (male) dayyanim to identify with the husband in many cases, and a certain insensitivity towards the woman’s side, and her human rights. This may be rationalized, perhaps, in terms of genuine concern over the divorce rate—which everyone would agree is one of the rampant evils of modern society. But allowing the husband to cynically use the halakhah to cause his wife suffering, assuming the conditions mentioned earlier (total estrangement, no movement of any kind towards restoring harmony, etc.), is hardly a productive way to assure the health and welfare of the Jewish family.

A side comment. Rav Eliashiv and others of that school of thought are usually referred to as mahmirim—those who are strict in their interpretation of halakhah. But this description is in fact incorrect: they are strict about get me’useh, but are lenient about the wife’s (and often also: childrens’) financial rights. The same halakhah which governs the procedures for writing a get also governs the equitable division of property, the husband’s obligation to provide for the support of the woman and/or children, etc. By scrupulously avoiding the smallest hint of coercion on the husband, they are in effect allowing the husband to impose economic coercion (or, to use plain language: blackmail) upon the wife, and to deprive her of the rights to which she is entitled by the halakhah.

In point of fact, only rarely are there cut and dry cases of mahmir & meikel. A humra (stringency) in one place may often be a kula (leniency) in another. The story is told of a great rabbi (I forget whom) who was rather easy-going in applying the law permitting ill people to eat on Yom Kippur. How could he be so flippant regarding the holiness of this holiest of all days?, someone asked him. His answer was “I’m not lenient in Yom Kippur; I’m strict in pikuah nefesh (saving life).” This, I would assert, is the authentic spirit of halakhic thinking.

Sad to say, I fear that the Haredi and Rabbinic leadership has fallen into a kind of worship of the dead letter, rather than serving the living God, and responding in a timely way to the needs of the living community. (For further material on this subject see Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s book [in English], Women and Jewish Divorce: The Rebellious Wife, the Agunah and the Right of Women to Initiate Divorce in Jewish Law. A Halakhic Solution [Hoboken: Ktav, 1989]).

Retroactive Nullification of Divorce

Another incident relating to this subject, equally distressing, was reported in the newspapers during the course of this past winter, not long after the cancellation of the planned agunah conference. A woman, whose husband had divorced her two years earlier, and who had meanwhile found a new life-partner, and was even pregnant by him and was planning to marry him, was suddenly told that her divorce had been declared null and void by the Rabbinic Court. It seems that the woman had attempted to reopen certain aspects of her financial agreements with her ex-husband in civil court. The nullification of the get was apparently taken by the rabbis in response to this action, their argument being that the get had retroactively become a get meuseh, a divorce given under coercion, because it was obtained under false pretenses: had the husband known that his ex-wife would reopen their financial agreement in the civil courts, where the atmosphere would be less favorable to himself, he would never have granted the divorce. Now, the fact that the rabbinic courts are not even-handed in their treatment of men and women but “everyone knows” they favor the husband is scandalous enough. But this move is shocking in that it potentially causes the unborn child to be declared a mamzer, an illegitimate child unable to marry virtually anyone. The rabbis seem to have chosen to use what might be called a “doomsday weapon,” forcing the woman to back down, over what is largely a struggle of prestige. But what is even stranger is that, to my mind, it goes directly against everything that Jewish law has to say about divorce: namely, that it is final, absolute, unambiguous, and separates the hitherto married couple from one another such that each party is absolutely free to continue their life, and enter into new marital relationships without hindrance. Indeed, this is the central premise of the well-known mishnah at Gittin 4.2:

Originally they would make a Court in another place and nullify it [i.e., the get, divorce writ]; Rabban Gamaliel the Elder made an edict that they not do so, because of tikkun olam.

This mishnah is the first in a long series of mishnayot in that chapter containing edicts on a variety of subjects concerned with tikkun olam (lit., “the fixing of the world,” i.e., the just and proper conduct of society). The basic concept is a simple and clear one: that certain matters, particularly relating to personal status, must be final and absolute. Once a woman is divorced she is divorced. For that reason, the convening of another court to (secretly?) nullify the divorce is intolerable. When I was divorced, the Mesader Gittin, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg—one of the outstanding poskim of our generation, a paragon of human sensitivity and understanding, who departed this world for the Heavenly Academy a few months ago—asked me if I had ever made a vow that any divorce I might give this woman would be null and void. Even thigh my answer was negative, they then proceeded to perform a nullification of the non-existent vow. This is a standard part of the divorce ritual, introduced to alleviate even the remote suspicion that the divorce might be non-absolute due to some hidden vow.

Why has this court behaved in a way diametrically opposed to this mishnah? The very possibility of such an action will make every divorced woman feel insecure: is her get really final? The woman here entered in good faith into a relationship with a new man, as a divorcee, and conceived a child. The nullification of her get sounds purely like a tactic in a battle over money. It’s possible that, in terms of contract law, the woman was in the wrong, backing out of a signed agreement; but it is equally likely that she felt that her husband was taking unfair advantage of his superior position in the Rabbinic Court. In either event, is she to be made retroactively into an adulterer and her unborn baby into a mamzer? Who has ever heard of such a thing? I don’t know what Rabban Gamaliel would have said, but I say that these rabbis, as learned and pious as they may be, are acting like the people of Shechem in Parshat Vayishlah (the Torah portion read at the time this incident was reported): treating a Jewish woman—our sister, in the collective sense—as a whore.

Giyyur Resolution

Another area in which the religious establishment seems to be behaving in contradiction to classical halakhah, in a manner strict to the point of insensitivity to those needing its services, is that of conversion to Judaism. This winter, a new law was proposed in the Knesset, with the support of all the religious parties, including Mafdal/Ihud-Leumi, to exclude all converts from the Law of Return. Here too, as in the cancellation of the conference on agunot, it seems that the Haredi rabbis took the lead, pressuring the Chief Rabbinate, which is an organ of the State, to come in line with them.

The aim of the law is to bypass the ongoing and often acrimonious debate between Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups over the definition of “Who is a Jew?” In the past, the religious parties tried to pass an amendment to the Law of Return stating that a Jew would be considered any one who was born to a Jewish mother or who had converted ka-halakhah—i.e., under Orthodox auspices. The Reform and Conservative groups, in the US and elsewhere, were understandably up in arms. The theory behind this new resolution (which, I am told, has fortunately little chance of being passed) is that, by eliminating all converts, they will bypass this controversy, and thereby unite Diaspora Jewry, since Conservative and Reform Jewry will no longer be discriminated against.

But those who proposed this law simply don’t understand the social reality and the probable reaction to it; in other words, they were simply stupid and uninformed in their sociological evaluation.

More important, such a law is totally against halakhah. Ka-ger kaezrah. “Like the resident, so shall be the proselyte.” A proselyte, once converted, is 100% like any other Jew. The basic concept is that giyyur (like divorce) affects a real, irreversible change in the status of the person involved. Even should a convert revert entirely to living as a non-Jew and to practicing his former religion, his halakhic status is that of a mumar Yisrael, an apostate Jew, and not that of a Gentile.

Unfortunately, all of this seems to express a negative attitude towards converts and conversion generally on the part of the Rabbinic establishment. Admittedly, many people may convert for reasons of marriage, but equally so, there are many sincerely pious, religiously–motivated converts. I am personally acquainted with several dozen such people; over the years, several of them have become my best friends on this earth, and it goes without saying that I can testify to their seriousness and sincerity. Given the limits of any individual’s circle of acquaintance, I can reasonably say that there are thousands of such people living among the Jewish people, each one of whom is gravely insulted by this proposed law. But one only needs to turn to Rambam’s Letter to Obadiah the Ger to see the authentic attitude of the great halakhists towards conversion:

As for your teacher answering you improperly, and shaming you and calling you a fool—he sinned grievously in this, and it seems to me that he did so by mistake; and it is fitting that he ask your pardon, even though you are his student. Let him then fast and weep and pray; perhaps God will forgive him… did he not know that the Torah admonishes us concerning “strangers” in thirty-six [different] passages? … Before concerning himself with the question of whether or not the Ishmaelites are idolators, he should have examined himself concerning his temper, which caused him to put a righteous proselyte to shame. …

And yet he called you a fool! Astounding! A person who left his father and his birthplace, his country and its power, understanding in his heart that he should go and attach himself to this people, who are today “an abominated nation” and “enslaved to rulers”; one who recognized the truth and righteousness of this people’s religion, and that all religions are taken from their religion … Shall such a person be called a fool? Heaven forbid! Not foolish has God called you, but enlightened, understanding and wise, walking upright, disciple of our father Abraham, who left his father and his kindred and inclined Godward. …

“To Your Tents, O Israel”

Having presented all these facts, what is to be done about all this? My sad conclusion is that, at this point in history, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, as an institution, has shown its moral and halakhic bankruptcy. At one time, certainly when founded by Rav Kook, and under the leadership of such giants as Rav Herzog, Rav Unterman, and Rav Goren, all ztz”l, there was genuine hope that it might revitalize the halakhah, serving as a kind of religious counterpart to the renascence of the Jewish nation in the modern return to Zion. But, sadly, that is no longer the case—and the political constellation is such that, even if there are creative halakhic minds “out there” among the younger generation of rabbis, their chance of occupying high office in the Rabbinate or influencing maters in a positive way is virtually nil.

Hence, the only solution I see—and this will be extremely difficult to implement for all kinds of reasons, and would surely face formidable opposition on the part of the religious establishment—is to create a Movement for Independent Orthodoxy. This sounds like where it all started, with breakaway groups in 19th century Germany and Hungary, but in this case the platform would be, not separatism from the negative influence of modernism and Haskalah, but a liberal, humanistic, (words that cannot appear in the name of the movement, because it would be taken as suspect!) compassionate approach to halakhah. This movement would perform and register marriage, divorce, and conversion, but in a mentshliche way. Unlike Tzohar, it would charge for its services, because it would be completely independent of the official State Rabbinate, but at cost. It would be peopled by learned, broad-minded rabbis who understand the reality of contemporary Israeli society, most of whom would have other primary sources of income, but would offer a certain number of hours per week.

There is precedent for such a group: the Haredi community maintains its own batei din (Rabbinic courts), who function as autonomous registrars of marriage, divorce and conversion. What’s sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander: in terms of principles of equity, it would be difficult for any court to deny the right of another Orthodox kehillah to have its own courts—although, nevertheless, things being what they are, it will be a long, difficult, and costly struggle. At this point, it is no more than a vision. I invite those who share this vision to contact me, and perhaps it may gradually become a reality.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Nissan (Months)

“This shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:2)

So much has been written about the month of the Nissan and the festival of Pesah that stands at its center that one wonders what is left to say. An old Kabbalistic tradition states that each month has its own special permutation of the four letters of the Divine Name—twelve in all. (Ordinarily, a four-letter word such as the Holy Name would have 24 permutations, but the repetition of the letter Heh divides that number in half.) The permutation of Nissan is that in which the Divine Name is read in its normal order: Yismehu Ha-shamayim Ve-tagel Ha-aretz. “Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad.” It is the month when everything is straight, in order, when all things fall into place—when the world is as it should be.

A Rabbinic midrash debates whether the world was created in Nissan or in Tishrei.

Tanya (a teaching of our Rabbis). Rabbi Eliezer said: In Tishrei the world was created; in Tishrei the patriarchs were born; in Tishrei the patriarchs died; on Passover Yitzhak was born; on Rosh Hashanah Sarah, Rahel and Hannah were visited [i.e., told that they would bear child]; on Rosh Hashanah Yosef was freed from prison; on Rosh Hashanah our forefather’s servitude in Egypt was nullified; in Nissan they were redeemed, in Tishrei they shall be redeemed in the future. Rabbi Yehoshua said: In Nissan the world was created; in Nissan the patriarchs were born; in Nissan the patriarchs died… [the middle section repeats the approach of R. Eliezer] … in Nissan they were redeemed, in Nissan they shall be redeemed in the future. (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a)

To the ordinary Jew, raised on the idea that Rosh Hashanah, in the early fall, commemorates the Creation (its liturgy even says so), this discussion is surprising. While Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua concur regarding the four events listed in the middle, they disagree on the most crucial events in human (sacred) history: the Creation; the birth and death of the founding fathers of the covenantal family/ people/ community who came into the world to disseminate knowledge of God throughout the world; and messianic redemption at the end of history. What are they really debating? Perhaps: does everything begin at the turning point from summer into winter, with the new cycle that begins start after the harvest, with the hidden germination of seed in the soil, with the nearly inert, invisible processes of winter; or does it begin with the budding and flowering of the field in springtime, in the visible manifestations of creative force? Or, to borrow an analogy from human life: does life begin with conception, the moment of impregnation in which the germ of life is planted, followed by the hidden process of pregnancy; or is it the moment of childbirth? The moment of union of the opposites of male and female, or the moment of separation of the infant from its mother, the moment of individuation, of distinctive identity? (The fourth section of Tanya, Iggeret ha-Kodesh, compares these two events to Simhat Torah and to the Seventh Day of Pesah).

(Note: The statement above that life begins at conception is meant on the symbolic, paradigmatic level, and as no bearing on such halakhic-ethical issues as abortion, stem-cell research, and the like. Unlike certain Christian views, halakhah sees the fetus as an autonomous human being only from forty days after conception, and in some views at the end of the first trimester; moreover, even after that, abortions may be permitted under certain extenuating circumstances far later.)

Alternatively, R. Yehoshua may be expressing the view that the Exodus from Egypt is so central, so crucial, not only to Jewish history, but to our whole conception of the world, of the nature of human life, of society, that it is somehow paradigmatic for Creation itself. Or perhaps, the two are one: Nissan, the time of visible rebirth, is at once the time of rebirth of nature, and the birth of the Jewish people. David Moss, in his magnificent Haggadah, has an opening page devoted entirely to the sense of the seed, the kernel, as that which is celebrated at the Seder: he attempts to capture the sense of beginning, of newness, of the people emerging from the darkness of slavery, which resembles the darkness of incubation in the womb, or of the seed silently growing deep within the soil.)

The Zodaicial sign for Nissan is Aries, the lamb—traditionally a symbol of innocence. The activity most emblematic of Nissan is siah, conversation—that activity which is characteristic of the Seder night which, unlike, say, the synagogue service, is not at root a liturgy, a text to be recited, but a time of discourse, of talking of many things, of questions and answers, both ritualized and spontaneous. And, if we say that Pesah is the time of formation, of the creation and birth of our people, then one might add: a people is ultimately constituted from families and clans and other units of people who stand in relationship to one another; and that the beginning of such relationship is through speech. Ergo, simple conversation, a family sitting down around the dinner table and talking, is the start of nationhood. (Sadly, how little real speech, face-to-face addressing of others, even if on mass media, there was in our recently completed election campaign.)

Turning to the Torah portions of Nissan: depending precisely how the calendar and the festival falls on a given year, and whether or not it is a leap year, the readings for Nissan are usually more-or-less those from the first half of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus); this year, we read Vayikra, Tzav, Shmini, plus Tazria-Metzora on the transitional Shabbat of Rosh Hodesh Iyyar. That is, those portions dealing with animal sacrifices and ritual purity.

Long ago, there was a tradition that small children began their study of Torah with the sacrifices, “that the pure may involve themselves with pure things.” But times have changed, and for many modern people this book is the most difficult and incomprehensible of all: whereas Genesis and Exodus recount the narratives of the Fathers and of the Exodus, Deuteronomy is moral exhortation and law, and even Bamidbar, the most disjointed and fragmented of the five books, is filled with interesting, if rather disillusioning and even dismaying stories of collective human frailty and weakness, one cannot help but ask: what has Vayikra, with its sacrifices and obsession with purity, to do with us?

Anthropologist Mary Douglas once wrote a strange little book, Leviticus as Literature, in which she draws a series of parallels between the sacrifice itself, the architecture of the Temple, and the human body. That is to say: Vayikra is all about archetypes; it is a kind of symbolic language that needs to be deciphered. The actions and categories and laws outlined therein are not meant to be taken at face value, as ways of magically appeasing God or as mysterious taboos, but as pointing beyond themselves. That generation which grew up during the first half of the twentieth century, for whom modern rationalism and science seemed destined to be the dominant intellectual and cultural stream, thought that religion was a lot of nonsense because it involved such arcane and, in themselves, seemingly pointless actions. They didn’t realize that the key to making sense of Leviticus is to see beyond it, to realize that it is a language that needs to be unlocked. Thus, even if one personally understands only some small portion of it, or not even that, what is important is the knowledge that it is a language to be learned, that has its own inner sense.

Douglas’s specific interpretation is of course but one example. Midrash, Kabbalah, Hasidism, the literature of ta’amei ha-miztvot are all filled with attempts to make sense of these rituals.

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see the archives to this blog at March 2005.

Shabbat and Construction of the Tabernacle

This double parasha, almost the longest Torah reading of any time during the year (only the combination Matot-Masei is longer), is also the sparsest in terms of the quantity of comments by Rashi, what one might call the “Rashi-index.” There are sections of these parshiyot where one sees the remarkable sight of page after page in Mikraot Gedolot of Torah text without a single Rashi—or any other commentator. This is for the simple reason that these two sedrot are largely repetition of the material found in Terumah-Tetzaveh, with the single change that, rather than using verbal forms of instruction or command (“You shall make an ark… You shall make the table… the lampstead…,” etc.), there are verbs in the past tense, indicating the performance or execution of those same commands (“and they made the ark… the table… the lampstead”). The chapter (and the Book of Exodus as a whole) concludes with the festive assembly and erection of the Tabernacle; Moses, like the Creator (!), seeing all that they had done and finding it good; with the cloud, sign of God’s Presence, dwelling over the Tent of Meeting.

But nevertheless, there are of course more than a few illuminating comments by Rashi. The opening three verses of Vayakhel, which precedes the subject of the Mishkan itself, deals with the observance of Shabbat, and deserves special mention:

Exodus 35:1-3. “And Moses gathered together all the congregation of the Israelites and said to them: these are the things which God has commanded that you do. Six days shall you perform labor, and the seventh day shall be holy, a Sabbath unto the Lord; whoever does labor on it shall die. You shall not kindle fire in all your habitations on the Shabbat day.

Rashi: “Six days.” The admonition concerning the Shabbat preceded the commandment of labor of the sanctuary, to say that it does not override Shabbat.

At first glance, the statement that Shabbat takes precedence over the building of the Sanctuary is a simple halakhic statement of priority: that Shabbat, the day of remembrance of God’s creation, the fixed day of rest, the holy day of cessation from labor, with all the grave sanctions related, is not to be disregarded even for the holy labor of building a “home” for God’s Indwelling on earth.

Or one might say, as Rav Soloveitchik did in one of his memorable sermons, that this teaches us that the complex of personal discipline and commitment—the Shabbat, which is incumbent upon each Jew wherever he is, which demands total abstention from certain kinds of action for a 24-hour period every single week of his life—is more important, more deeply shapes the personality of the individual, than the elaborate public ceremony and ritual focused on a particular building, with all the pomp and circumstance attendant upon it, and with all its rich materials—beautifully-dyed fabrics, gold and silver and precious stones. (And perhaps, too, there was a certain implied critique here of the over-emphasis in American Jewry, certainly in the Rav’s heyday, on the synagogue edifice as against the humble, everyday patterns shaping Jewish home life.)

But there is more to it than that: Shabbat and Mikdash are somehow also interwoven with one another—another reason for their being mentioned here so closely together. To begin with, while the construction of the Tabernacle does not override Shabbat, its ongoing ritual—the daily and additional burnt-offerings, the trimming and lighting of the candles, the passing of the incense over the fire in its altar, even the kindling of the woodpile on the altar—are all performed on the Shabbat and do override it. But more than that: the prohibited labors of Shabbat and the requisite labors of the Sanctuary are mirror images of one another. The 39 categories of labor, knows as avot melakah, which structure Shabbat observance, are the selfsame labors that were performed in either the construction or the Divine service of the Sanctuary (see, e.g., Rambam at Mishnah Shabbat 7.2; b. Shabbat 97b)—in the one case prohibited; in the other, imperative. Indeed, the number 39 is itself derived from a numerological homily (itself seemingly far-fetched) on the phrase in our opening verse: aileh ha-devarim (“these are the things”—אלה = 36; the plural form devarim= 2; the article, ha-devarim = 3= total, 39), which can be read as referring both to the immediate context of Shabbat and the construction of the Mishkan described immediately thereafter.

All this brings to mind Heschel’s memorable phrase about the Shabbat: “a palace in time.” Shabbat sanctifies time just as the Temple represents the sanctification of a particular place. And, one might add, just as Shabbat is the culmination of Creation, an everlasting reminder of Creation in the very fabric of time, so is the completion of the Sanctuary described in phrases highly reminiscent of the completion of Creation.

Space and Time. Time and Space. There is one sort of conventional wisdom—one represented inter alia by Heschel’s wonderful little book, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man—that implies that the sanctification of time is somehow more refined, less corporeal, and thereby somehow more befitting the worship of a transcendent God. Time is universal in a sense that space is not; it belongs to everyone, one cannot struggle with others, saying “this day belongs exclusively to me,” as one can over a plot of land. And then there is the opposite view: that it was the great achievement of Zionism to bring us back to the realm of space, to the concrete reality of a land, to becoming a more “normal’ nation through focusing our hearts and bodies on a concrete geographical locale, with the holiness of its unique, specific places. (But with the concrete, comes the struggle and bitterness and even the danger of real conflagration with our ”cousins,” over the conflict “to whom does this holy place belong?”—as witnessed by events of the past month or two over the area adjacent to the Temple Mount).

Are space and time somehow rival kinds of arenas, or ought they really to complement one another? We live in a universe of both space and time: we live within the one, and journey along the vector of the other. Surely, God is to be seen in both, if in different ways—and that, it would seem, is the bottom line of our verses.

The Brass Laver and the Righteous Women

In Pekudei, there is one particularly charming, interesting midrash.

38:8. “And he made the brass laver and the brass base out of the mirrors of the tzov’ot [ministering women?] who served/were mustered together {?} at the opening of the Tent of Meeting.”

Rashi: “with the mirrors of the tzov’ot.” The daughters of Israel had mirrors which they looked at while they adorned themselves, but they did not hesitate to give them as voluntary offering for the Sanctuary. But Moses had contempt for them, because they were made for the Evil Urge. The Holy One blessed be He told him: Accept them, for they are more pleasing to me than anything else, for by their means the women built up numerous hosts in Egypt.

Rashi begins with a textual difficulty: the phrase marot ha-tzov’ot is a strange phrase, indeed, a hapax lagomena. The word מראה is usually used in the Bible in the sense of “vision” or “appearance”; only here does it have the modern sense of “mirror” (and, because this is over a millennium before the invention of glass, which I believe was introduced to our region by the Phoenicians, close to the Mishnaic era, these were made of highly polished brass). The word צבאות is likewise enigmatic: what have women to do with armies or mustering? Thus Rashi, after the midrash which he quotes, suggests the possibly forced linguistic interpretation: “the mirrors used to raise up many hosts.”

The scene between Moses and God is interesting. The mirrors are objects used in connection with primping, self-adornment, enhancing ones sexual attractiveness, or even, as we shall see here, concerned with love play. Moses is shown as straitlaced, puritanical, regarding such things as unbefitting the realm of the holy. But of course: human beings often take an attitude that the transcendence of bodily pleasures is somehow holy. God, on the other hand, has a wider view (naturally, being God!), and sees these things (including their telos of bringing new life into the world) as precious and beloved. The Almighty, as it was, takes a more accepting, affirmative attitude toward sexuality and its place in the scheme of things, as elaborated in the story that follows:

When their husbands were weary from crushing labor, they would go and bring them food and drink and feed them. And they would take the mirrors, and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and would seduce them with their words, saying “I am prettier than you.” And thus they would bring their husbands to desire them, and they would couple with them, and become pregnant, and bear them children. As is said, “under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song of Songs 8:5). And this is what is meant by “the mirrors of the tzov’ot.”

And the laver was made from them, for its purpose is to make peace between man and his wife, that she whose husband was jealous and suspected her of having been alone with another man might have her drink the waters. [and ascertain her innocence; see Numbers 5:11-31]

The Celebration of Marriage—and Its Obstacles

This midrash, more than anything, seems to celebrate the importance of marriage, the union of man and woman, and the bearing of children, as something in which the Almighty himself rejoices. And yet, for many people, Jewish, halakhic marriage—the path towards marriage, and its registration and performance by the Rabbinic establishment here in Israel; and even more so, the path away from it, towards dissolution in the event of intolerable unbearable marital strife and incompatibility— seems strewn with obstacles and difficulties.

One of the most painful problems in contemporary halakhah is the issue of agunot & mesuravei get—typically, of women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get, a divorce writ, despite the fact that the marriage has become, to all sides involved, a dead letter; where the couple is living separately, and are de facto as-if divorced. Often recalcitrant husbands openly use their superior bargaining business position under Jewish law—in which the man’s consent is a sine qua non for divorce—to either extort money, or to sadistically torture their ex-wives. In a supplement to this issue, which I plan to send out in a few days, I will address this painful problem in some detail.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Ki Tisa (Rashi)

“There is No Sequence to the Torah”

Rashi begins his commentary on the incident of the Golden Calf—the central event in this week’s parsha and, many would say, the central moment of rupture in the entire Torah—with a seemingly technical comment about the exact chronological location of this event in relation to what precedes and what follows it:

Exodus 31:18. “And when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave to Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone written with the finger of God.” Rashi: “And He gave to Moses.” There is no “earlier” or “later” in the Torah, for the incident of the Calf preceded the commandment regarding the making of the Sanctuary by along time. For on the 17th of Tammuz the tablets were broken, and on Yom Kippur the Holy One blessed be He was reconciled with Israel, and on the following day they began to volunteer materials for the Sanctuary, and it was erected on the first of Nissan.

There is no “earlier” or “later” in the Torah: that is, one cannot assume that the events described in the Torah occurred in the same chronological sequence as they are described; at times, the description of key events is moved forward or backwards for various reasons. This rule is one which Rashi generally advocates. Thus, at Exod 24:1 he makes a somewhat similar comment, in which he notes that that entire chapter, including a covenantal ceremony including sacrifices, the sprinkling of blood, and the declaration by the people that “we shall do and we shall hearken,” all must have taken place prior to the epiphany at Sinai—perhaps on the 2nd or 3rd of Sivan. There, as here, the great 13th century Catalan commentator, Ramban (Nahmanides), disagrees with Rashi, insisting that the Torah is written, not in accordance with some at-times hidden and possibly obscure conceptual order known only to the Author, but in the actual chronological order of the events as they happened.

Be that as it may: Why is this important? What are the implications of this dispute about dates? What difference does it make? It seems to me that, underlying the debate between Rashi and Ramban on this point, there is a basic disagreement as to the function of the Sanctuary or Temple itself. If, in fact, the command to the people to assemble materials for the Sanctuary and to begin its construction followed immediately upon the Sinai revelation, then the conception is of a place for God’s Presence to dwell among the people as a natural part of life. There is a straight line from the Exodus, to Sinai, to the Divine dwelling place. The building of the Sanctuary is a kind of fulfillment of all that preceded it. One is reminded of the aggadic gloss on Song of Songs 3:11: “Go out, you daughters of Zion, and see King Solomon, in the crown that his mother made him on his nuptial day and on the day of rejoicing of his heart.” This phrase is seen as referring to God: his “nuptial day” was Sinai, while the “day of rejoicing of his heart” was the day the Sanctuary was erected (Mishnah Ta’anit 4.8).

If, on the other hand, the Torah’s account does not reflect the actual order of things, but the order to build the Sanctuary only came later, it may have come as a Divine response to the sin of the Calf. Suddenly, God so-to-speak realized that the people needed a concrete symbol of His ongoing presence. The memory of Sinai, overwhelming as it was at the time, was insufficient by itself to prevent them from being tempted into paganism or syncretism. There was a pressing need for an established religious center—one based on the sense of human fallibility, guilt and the ongoing need for atonement.

Perhaps it was in such a spirit that Rambam alludes to the fact that the site of the altar in Jerusalem was not only the site of the Binding of Isaac, nor even alone the place where Noah offered his sacrifices after the Flood and where Cain and Abel offered their gifts to the Almighty, but the site from which Adam himself was created, and at which he offered a sacrifice: “we therefore find that he was created from the place of his atonement” (Rambam, Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 2.2).

One could say that there are two basic types of religious personality or of religious experience. There is the person who feels a basic sense of at-one-ness with God, who is filled with joy at the knowledge that there is a loving God who lies behind this wonderful creation. And then there is one who is filled with fear and trembling when he imagines himself standing before the Almighty, who is preoccupied with feelings of inadequacy, with an almost existential guilt and sinfulness, and a need to atone for his limitations as a human being. Or, to use the words of William James, there is “the religion of healthy-mindedness” and that of “the sick soul.”

True, the incident of the Golden Calf was not a primordial event like the eating of the fruit in the Garden that led to the Christian notion of “original Sin”; nevertheless, it serves in Jewish thought as central paradigm, as a traumatic event leaving a stain not easily removed.

This latter type—the guilt-ridden, “sick soul”—seems to have played a central role in the modern secularist critique of religion. It is not difficult to find examples of craziness and cruel repression bred by religion, whether in the stories of life-hating nuns in Catholic parochial schools, ruler-wielding rebbes in old-fashioned heders, or, of late, fanatical Muslims murdering their own sisters for real or imagined breaches of “family honor.” The assumption among many people is that religion, in general, means living with unnecessary negative emotions; that only the “empty skies” of the Beatles’ song Imagine enables man to live life to its fullness, without guilt or fear.

But things are not really so, as I trust we have shown in innumerable teachings in these pages over the years. We need only turn to the romantic imagery in the very next section of Rashi to find a very different mood:

“When he completed.” The word “completed” (kaloto) is written with defective spelling [i.e., with the vowel letter vav missing, as if it were the word כלה, “bride”], for the Torah was given to him as a gift, like a bride to a bridegroom, as he was unable to learn all of it in such a short time. Another thing: just as a bride wears twenty-four ornaments, as stated in the Book of Isaiah [3:18-24], so a sage needs to be expert in the twenty-four books.

The figure, either of Israel as the bride of God, or of the Torah as that of Israel—in either case, of Sinai as a kind of wedding—is a ubiquitous one in the midrash. It is interesting that the salient feature of the bride here is that she is barely known to the bridegroom, “like a gift” (this is no doubt an element in the symbolism of a bride traditionally being covered by a veil). In traditional societies—a far cry indeed from contemporary courtship and dating practices—marriage was usually arranged by the parents, and the bride and the groom were nearly unknown quantities to one another.

The 24 ornaments—a traditional number, derived from the not-particularly complementary list of feminine adornments in Isaiah 3—correspond to the 24 books of the Tanakh, while the idea of adorning the bride in preparation for her marriage (imagine the heavily bejeweled brides in traditional Yemenite weddings, for example) serves as the basis, in the Zohar, for Tikkun Leil Shavuot—the study of a sampling of passages from all over the Jewish literature recited on the night of Shavuot, in preparation for the reliving the ecstatic union of Sinai at dawn. There are likewise 24 chapters to the Mishnaic tractate of Shabbat, serving as the basis for the custom of some to read these chapters every Shabbat, divided among the three Shabbat meals.

A Tale of Two Errors

An interesting question occurred to me this year, rereading this perennially fascinating parsha. The main body of the narrative here deals with the sin of the Golden Calf. There is something strange about this: off hand, one thinks of it in terms of idolatry— the people turning to a calf instead of the God who took them out of Egypt and who revealed Himself at Sinai. Yet the immediate cause of their act is the absence of Moses: “for this man Moses, who took us up out of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him” (Exodus 32:1). The calf would thus seem to be a substitute, not for God, but for Moses. Somehow, the people do not want a living, speaking man, a teacher and leader who interacts with them, who guides them and judges their disputes—and at times also scolds them. Instead, they make an inanimate object of metal, around whom they can invent a cult of their own devising.

Later on in the parsha, we read an interesting dialogue between Moses and God. Moses asks God to “show me Your glory” (Exod 33:18). God refuses this request, as if He has placed a certain limit on man’s knowledge of Him; as if the quest for mystical knowledge, to see the face of God, is somehow illegitimate. “For no man can see me and live” (ibid., v. 20). Note: not that God has no face or form, that He is incorporeal, bereft of physical appearance. Rather, He is too awesome, too holy, too “wholly other,” for a mortal human being to see Him and yet remain a denizen of this world.

The question that occurred to me is: what, if anything, do these two scenes have in common? My answer goes something like this: the people wish to substitute the living God, the God who gives them a teaching, a path by which to live, taught by a living man, with a fetish, a molten image of “a bull who eats grass.” Moses, too, was perhaps unduly interested in the “appearance” of God. He, surely, is no idolater, no fetishist, but he wishes to see the Divine image. God refuses him, but instead tells him that he will make His “ways” known to him. Thus, after placing him “in the cleft of the rock,” God reveals to him His “ways”—His way of conducting the world. But what this means, in particular, is His forgiveness, His long sufferingness, His “attributes of mercy”—which mean, essentially, His tolerance for the foibles and limitations of human beings. God is at the outset very stern and strict, very demanding in His moral and ethical and behavioral expectations of human beings. But after the fact, when they fail, He does not destroy, but is ever willing to lift them up anew, to give them another chance. This is an important ethical lesson.

What haveese two scenes in common? It seems to me that the fetishist, on his primitive, gross, corporeal level, and Moses, in his refined, spiritual, transcendent, much more abstract level, both make the same error. Both are preoccupied with God’s essence, His being, with what He is. These questions are surely important—indeed, perhaps they are the most profound philosophical questions that can be asked. But there is something even more basic, in terms of living real human life in light of God: to “know” the living God by living a godly life, by realizing the vision of God’s holiness in the world through acts of goodness, justice and kindness to one’s fellow man.

It is interesting that Maimonides, who is usually thought of as an elite philosopher somewhat removed from the concerns of ordinary folk, concludes his Guie for the Perplexed with words very much to this effect. After discussing the deepest subjects of theology, and expounding the ”knowledge of God” and how it may be attained, he ends the entire work (Guide III.54) by stating that true knowledge of God lies, not in intellectual or mystical apprehension of the Godhead, but in imitating God’s ways in the ethical sense. “For let him who glories take glory in this: that he comprehends and knows Me, that I am the Lord, who performs love, justice and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I take delight, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:23).

Purim Postscripts:

A Prayer and Blessing: May it be His will, that by this time next year our Muslim brethren will have undergone a revolution of consciousness, to know that Allah is present everywhere and in all His creatures, and foreswear the path of violence. That they return to the synthesis of wisdom and culture with natural piety and worship of the One God, as it was in the flowering of Islamic culture in the Middle Ages. That the slogan “Ijtihad, not jihad”—Enlightenment, not Holy War—become the byword for all.

In case anyone was wondering: the distinguished, fin-de-siècle Middle-European gentleman shown in our Purim issue beneath the words “Remember! Do not forget! Oy, what was it I was supposed to tell you?” was Alois Alzheimer (1865-1916), the Viennese neuropath who first diagnosed the disease that bears his name. BTW, my question remains: does anyone know whether or not Alzheimer was Jewish?

Sunday, March 04, 2007


Reflections on Purim

For more teachings on Purim, see the archives for March 2006

Purim is in many senses the strangest holiday of the Jewish calendar year. To begin with, it is in a certain sense the most “secular” of the Jewish holidays. The Scroll of Esther, its central text, is lacking in any definitive religious message, at least on the surface; indeed, the name of God is totally absent from it (apart from one passage which refers, in rather oblique fashion, to “salvation and benefit” coming to the Jews from “another place” should Esther fail to act [4:14]; some old scrolls also hint at the presence of God by emphasizing places where the Divine name can be found in acrostic in the first or last letters of certain four-word phrases). The manner of celebration of the holiday is likewise lacking in the elements of dignity and seriousness, the sense of spiritual uplift and holiness, felt on other festive days. The day begins with the public reading of a scroll that tells a rather bizarre and even outlandish (not to mention improbable) tale, in an atmosphere of noise and total chaos in the synagogue; the rest of the day is devoted to eating, to drinking to excess (including actual drunkenness, which is deemed a praiseworthy state on this day!), the wearing of masks and costumes, including cross-dressing, and various forms of tomfoolery, pranks and generally raucous behavior.

Two Rabbinic dicta relate to this problematic aspect, suggesting that the day as such represents a kind of embracing of opposites: venahafokh hu, “and it was turned around” (Est 9:1), is the slogan of the day. That is, Divine Providence was indeed at work in the events described in the Megillah, but in completely hidden fashion: “From whence do we know that Esther is from the Torah? From the verse, ‘And I will surely hide [my face from them on that day; haster astir panay; Deut 31:18]’” (Hullin 139b). “Wherever the Megillah refers to ‘King Ahashverosh’ it refers specifically to Ahasverosh; wherever it speaks of ’the king’ without elaboration, this refers to both sacred and mundane” (Esther Rabbah, at Est 1:9). That is, the word “king” refers simultaneously to the rather stupid, earthly king of the book, and to the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He, who secretly moves events.

This idea, of Purim and the Megillah enjoying special significance precisely because it is enwrapped in a mundane, secular shell, is developed extensively in later commentaries and works of derush, and especially in the literature of Hasidism, which is replete with homilies extolling the special holiness and importance of Prim, precisely because things are done therein “in hidden fashion.”

But there is a second, more serious problem with Purim. Now and again, one encounters the view that Purim is a festival that somehow celebrates violence, that it is based on unworthy emotions of vengefulness against the enemies of the Jewish people, and rejoicing in their downfall; that the entire story, and the celebration that comes in its wake, is based upon the downfall of Haman, the great enemy, and the rise to power and greatness of Mordecai the Jew.

According to this reading, the behavior of the heroes of the Megillah involves more than a few morally questionable actions: at the beginning, Mordecai sends his niece and ward, Esther, a pure Jewish virgin, to submit to the embraces of a Gentile king—an act on his part hardly better than pimping! Esther herself conceals “her people and her birth,” as if she were ashamed of her Jewishness. Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman, by which he endangered his entire people, may also be seen in negative light—obstinately attaching excessive significance to an act of simple civility and respect to a high royal official. And then, after the turnabout, the Jews themselves engage in massive slaughter of thousands of civilians, who may well have been unarmed; and so on. All this, as mentioned, is an alternative, unsympathetic, but coherent and plausible reading of the Scroll of Esther—one which has been propounded at various points in history.

Recently, historian Elliott Horowitz wrote a book entitled Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton–Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), in which he explores the more negative aspect of Purim, including condemnation of the Book of Esther and/or the festival of Purim by both non-Jews (often with no small measure of hypocrisy) and by a certain strain of liberal, enlightened Jew. Among other facts, he mentions that during the Middle Ages there were certain places were it was customary to conduct a symbolic flogging or burning in effigy of Haman, or to designate someone to play the role of Haman in the “Purim Speil”—at times a Jew and at times a Gentile—who would be subject to blows, spitting, etc. This “Haman” was often in turn identified with the contemporary enemies of the Jewish community.

On certain relatively rare occasions such acts crossed the boundary of symbolic action, and descended into real violence. He mentions two documented cases in history—in Inmestar (near Antioch in Syria) in the 5th century, and in Bray or Brie in Provence in 1191 or 1192—when such Purim “festivities” ended in the actual murder of the victim. But this was overshadowed in our own lifetime, on the awful Purim of 1994, when 29 Arab worshippers were slaughtered in cold blood at the Cave of the Mekhpelah by Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler from Hevron—an event that for some people left an indelible stain on the day.

The sense of repulsion towards Purim on the part of some Jews is indicated by the urban legend that the late Ernst Simon, a religious intellectual of high-minded ethical and humanistic principles—and one of the founding fathers of the early movement for peace and reconciliation between Jews and Arabs, Brit Shalom—deliberately avoided celebrating this holiday. Every year he would spend the 14th of Adar in his home in Jerusalem and then, on the eve of Shushan Purim (the 15th of Adar), he would travel to Tel Aviv.

The question that needs to be considered is: are there aspects of Purim that are in fact unseemly, deserving of condemnation—or is, perhaps, the very foundation of the festival tainted?

Returning for a moment to the element of riotousness, frivolity, and inebriety associated with Purim: Purim may be seen, essentially, as based upon the model of the “carnival,” a kind of “moral holiday,” in which man is freed from the normal restraints of behavioral limits. (On the notion of the carnival and its meanings, see Harvey Cox, Festival of Fools; Mario Vargas Llosa, The Language of Passion, 229-234; and see my own essay on “Mardi Gras and Purim,” HY VI: Purim.) Almost every culture (or, in any event, what might be called “folk” cultures) has its days of riotous behavior, of breaking conventional boundaries, of a structured easing of certain norms, and the temporary erasing or obscuring of boundaries of social class and hierarchy. Put otherwise, one might say that the carnival is a time of ritualized chaos within socially accepted limits. (Incidentally, by comparison with carnivals in other cultures, Purim is generally rather tame—compare, for example, the explicit displays of near nudity and sexuality during Mardi Gras in such places as Rio de Janeira.)

But beyond the joy and levity of the carnival, there is another aspect: in an almost paradoxical sense, beneath the surface of hilarity, there is an almost tragic consciousness, a kind of keen awareness of the absurdity of life: “We laugh, because otherwise we would have to cry.” The carnival is a defiance, for one day, of the human condition: against our mortality; against the social structure of ruler and ruled, of strong and weak, of rich and poor; and against the random, unpredictable nature of life, in which we may be overtaken at any moment by catastrophe, turning our lives around—wars, natural disasters, meaningless violence, disease, accidents, etc. On the depth level, the carnival is a kind of protest against the random, chaotic nature of life itself. We ourselves create chaos, as it were, to protest against the chaos in the universe.

But to return specifically to the Jews and to Purim: there is a particular element of danger and insecurity in Jewish existence throughout the generations. I do not know to what extent the events portrayed in the Megillah occurred exactly as described there, but it does not require much imagination to see in the Jews of Shushan, dependent upon the whims of a stupid, licentious, and drunken king, as an archetype for Jewish communities in all their places of exile, dependent upon the good-will and mercies of Gentile rulers and the clever management of relations with them. (And perhaps one should add: even Jews living in their own independent state find themselves more than a little dependent on the mercy and realpolitik considerations of international powers stronger than themselves, be it in decisions to wage war or to wage peace.)

From here we return to the question with which we began: Purim and violence. While Horowitz’s book is primarily a historical work—and as such I found it fascinating, filled with little-known information on a wide variety of subjects, relating both to the Purim and the Megillah, and to Jewish violence generally—here and there he expresses an ideological position, to which I must take exception. Thus, in the chapter on “Amalek,” he criticizes those who draw a comparison between Amalek and the historical enemies of the Jewish people in recent times, even taking to task those who compared Hitler and the Nazis to Amalek during the 1930s and '40s (pp. 137-145). He mentions in particular a comment by Rav Soloveitchik for advancing “the notion that an Amalekite was anyone, of any background, who harbored unconditional hatred of the Jewish people” (p. 144). I fail to see what is so terrible in this approach. Is not evil, even what might be called absolute evil, part of the reality of our world? Can every conflict between people be understood in purely socio-economic terms that, with a bit of good-will and rationalism, could be explained away and resolved? Are there not individuals or movements towards whom the only appropriate human and value reaction is one of utter hatred and disgust and abhorrence? True, it is too easy to engage in demonization of the other, of the rival who contests one's ownership of the same “God's little acre.” And certainly, I would agree with him that there is such a tendency in the present situation, of seeing all Arabs or Palestinian nationalism as the embodiment of evil (thereby conveniently overlooking the injustices and acts of oppression committed by our side). But there is also a danger of moral relativism, of losing one’s moral compass, in going to the opposite extreme and failing to recognize demonic hatred and religiously-motivated hatred on the other side.

And, I might add, the essay on Purim in which Rav Soloveitchik makes these comments (“On the Metaphysical Meaning of the Festival of Purim” [Hebrew], in his Divrei Hashkafah (Jerusalem, 1995), 175-188, esp. at 182-183) is imbued davka with a universal spirit, with a sense of the universal, existential tragedy represented by Purim, and with the notion of man as imprinted with the Divine image, and the Amalek syndrome as a strange exception in which man “exchanges his Godly personality for a satanic persona…”

To conclude: as I understand it, the Torah allows room for expression of the entire gamut of human experience, including those aspects of life that are not specifically “religious.” By their inclusion in the framework of the mitzvoth, they are uplifted to their source in holiness. Such is the case regarding such things as joy, sadness, sexuality, food, business life, and even the realm of doubt and questioning. The same holds true for the anarchic impulse within mankind. Purim provides a certain release for the human need to leave the accepted social and religious order—within a certain framework that nevertheless involves a certain degree of restraint and discipline—and to live in a world of reversal. The impulse towards violence and aggression is also among the basic components of human personality, and is at times a necessary evil. Thus, even the most ardent lover of peace needn't reject Purim, the festival of a people that has been “scattered and divided among the nations,” that has known much suffering during the course of its long history, and that rejoices in its survival despite the many “Hamans” that have risen up in the attempt to destroy it. Under such circumstances, one may forgive them if, at times, they ignore the verse from Proverbs, “When your enemy falls do not rejoice.”

Four Beginnings of the Megillah

A rather odd Talmudic sugya discusses the question: What is the minimum text that a person is required to read, or hear, in order to fulfill his obligation of reading the megillah on Purim? Say that he arrives late to synagogue, after the reading of the Scroll of Esther has already commenced: is all lost, or can he still discharge his halakhic obligation to hear the festive reading? Or, if reading at home from his own megillah, and his time is somehow limited, can he take any “shortcuts” in the reading?

The mishnah at Megillah 2.3 presents three options: R. Meir says that he must read all of the megillah, from the very first words: “And it came to pass, in the days of Ahashuerus…” The second view, that of R. Yehudah, says that he may begin from 2:4: “There was a Jewish man in the city of Shushan…”—that is, from the point at which Mordecai is introduced. The third view, that of R. Yossi, allows one top start with the third chapter, “after these things,” in which Haman appears. Finally, R. Shimon b. Yohai, in a beraita quoted in the gemara on this mishnah (Megillah 19a), says that it suffices to start from the middle, from the turning point of the story at the beginning of Chapter 6 (“On that night the king’s sleep was disturbed…”). So as to avoid misunderstanding, I hasten to point out that all this is theoretical for us: in practical halakhic terms, the first view, that one must hear the entire megillah, is universally accepted by all poskim that I know about—so make sure, notwithstanding the frivolity and the time needed to dress up in costume, to get to shul on time.

What is the underlying conception here? The discussion in the Talmud itself, à la Rabbi Yohanan, sees each of these four possibilities as really being an answer to the same question: when the megillah, at the very end (9:29), says that Mordecai and Esther recorded the story for posterity, writing “with all strength” (kol tokef), whose “strength” are they talking about? That is, who, ultimately, made things happen? Ahasuerus? Mordecai? Haman? Or perhaps the [Divinely engineered] miracle that begins in Chapter 6—in other words, God Himself—who was behind all this in a hidden way? Then there’s R. Hunna, who turns each of the four into a moral lesson, based on the verse “what they saw in this, and what befell them” (9:26), describing what each protagonist expected, and what in fact happened to them.

Another way of reading this discussion is as expressing different conceptions of poetics, of what it means to tell a story. The first view, of R. Meir, sees the story as a complete, indivisible entity: to understand it, you have to start from the beginning, with painting the background, portraying the ordinary routine against which the action will develop—in this case, the Persian royal court and its endless feasting—and introducing secondary characters—Ahasuerus and his hapless wife Vashti. The former, while important, is ultimately not a central protagonists, but a kind of a passive figure (notwithstanding his royal position!) for whose favor and backing the two opposing sides vie.

The second approach says that a story is about a hero, and everything that happens until he appears isn’t really important, but is merely marking time, and thus dispensable. The third view sees the essence of any story in dramatic tension and conflict: hence, there must be both a hero and a villain. Without the wicked Haman, whom everyone loves to hate, and whom each generation imagines in the image of their own enemies (this Purim, interestingly, we have come full circle: there is no doubt that the number one enemy of the Jews is located in Persia), there would be no story. Finally, there is the guy who is impatient, and wants to get to the “punch-line”: the crux of the story is the turning point, the happy end, the deliverance because of which we celebrate Purim in the first place.

But I’d like to suggest another line of thought: reading the megillah as a book about man and God, and God’s hidden actions in the world, I’d like to read our sugya in light of a bizarre group of aggadic statements in Hullin 139b:

Where is Haman alluded to in the Torah? In the verse: “have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat (ha-min ha-etz; Gen 3:11; the word “from” is written with the same consonants as the name “Haman”). Where is Esther alluded to in the Torah? “I shall surely hide my face on that day” (Deut 31:18; anokhi haster astir et panay; the word “hide” resembles “Esther”). Where is Mordecai alluded to? “You shall take pure myrrh” (Exod 30:23; speaking of the anointing oil?), whose Aramaic Targum is mira dakhya (which resembles the name Mordecai).

It is easy to dismiss the above as no more than entertaining word-play, a kind of Purim diversion of the Sages. But I think each of these puns conceals a deeper insight.

Following the order of the chapters: Mordecai is “pure myrrh”—a symbol of purity, of perfection, of human wholeness. In a Hasidic manner, one might say: it’s a mitzvah to tell the story of tzaddikim, to draw inspiration from the lives of human beings who were on a high level of spiritual and ethical development—a role played in the Purim story by Mordecai.

Haman is linked to the sin of the first human beings, in eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the question they were asked by God when they first showed signs of shame at their own nakedness: “Did you eat of the tree…?” What is the connection between the two?

Just before Purim, I happened to read a short essay by Jerusalem teacher Sarah Yehudit Schneider, entitled Purim Burst 2005. She notes there that verbs relating to anger, fury, wrath, etc. appear frequently in the megillah; indeed, anger is the motif moving the story forward. Anger is an emotion that is particularly characteristic of Haman. Anger is an emotion that is really useless, pointless, “irrational,” one that doesn’t really serve any positive, constructive purpose. Haman (like is ancestor Amalek) was motivated by a kind of meanness, a sheer cussedness, a desire to cause harm to others as an end in itself: because they are different, because they are successful, because they enjoy the favor of others—even if he didn’t get any concrete benefit out of it.

Perhaps the connection with the sin in the Garden is that this anger represents an element of human nature that goes back to hoary antiquity. Perhaps it was something the snake knew how to play to: in his conversation with Eve, he plants the seeds of doubts in her belief in God’s goodness and beneficence, suggesting that He prohibited them from eating the fruit of the tree to keep its putative benefits for Himself. Or perhaps it was somehow implanted in the human race as a result of that sin (Kabbalists speak of zuhama shel nahash, the “poison of the snake”). In any event, it split up the paradisiacal existence in Eden, disturbing the idyllic harmony between man and woman, between human and beast. In any event, Haman is thus not an aberration, an anomaly, an arch-villain, but a kind of everyman—a caricature, if you will, in whom the negative side of human nature is blown out of proportion, until it totally dominates the personality.

The connection between Esther and hester panim, “the eclipse of God,” really connects to the view that 6:1 is the crux of the book (Esther thus referring, not to the heroine, but to the name of the book). “On that night…” By sheer chance, seemingly, the king couldn’t sleep, and again by chance, his servants happened to read the passage in his chronicles reminding him of Mordecai’s unrewarded deed, hereby setting in motion the events leading to Haman’s downfall and saving the Jews. But this is seen, not just as “good luck,” but as a manifestation of the Divine presence, guiding the unfolding of events in a hidden way. There is an old-fashioned custom, when reading this verse, to sing it in a solemn melody from the High Holy days: Ha-Melekh—“The King, who sits on a high and lofty throne.” That is, that this story is as much a tale of God’s presence in history, a song of Hallel, as the accounts of the splitting of the Red Sea, as the defeat of Sihon and Og, as Deborah’s turning back the forces of Sisera, all of which are celebrated in song as overt miracles.

No verse there on Ahashuerus, but elsewhere (Megillah 11a) there is a pun were s name is seen as “ahiv shel rosh; the brother of the head – i.e., Nebuchadnezzar that is, he is seen as a kind of secondary, derivative evil-doer. Malfeaser negative figure who contributed to the description of the Temple, stole Temple vessels (the gold and silver mentioned there. As the cloth fittings ,etc.)

Finally, what do we do with Ahasuerus, with whom the book begins? He is a kind of tabula rosa, interested in the purely physical side of life: wine, beautiful women, Showing off his possessions, whether material (silver and golden vessels; elaborate drapery) or human (his beautiful “trophy wife”). In a certain sense, he is on a much lower, coarser level than Haman. He seems to display automatic, stereotypic needs and reactions; he is easily swayed by both sides in this drama, first one way, then another. Haman at least displays a certain nastiness that is at least interesting, so that, in a certain perverse way, one can’t help admiring for his sheer energy and determination—even if to do evil against our own people! But the gross, earthly, rather stupid is also a kind of everyman —and as such a part of any story about real human beings.

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A brief comment: An observation about the five megillot as a group. Two of them are named for women (the only books in the entire Tanakh that are thus named): Esther and Ruth. A third book, which has an abstract title, Shir ha-shirim (”Song of Songs”) is, at least on the literal level, about erotic love between man and woman. A fourth book carries the name of a presumably male king, Kohelet, but its name also has a feminine note: the letter tav, a typical feminine ending in Hebrew. He is evidently an old man, who looks at life from a certain retrospective, philosophical distance. Perhaps the more masculine, aggressive side of his nature is somewhat quieted and played out, and he has learned to make contact with the more feminine side of his self, his “anima.” Finally, Lamentations, known in Hebrew by its opening word, the exclamation Eikhah—“How does the city sit desolate.” That word, too, has a kametz heh, “feminine” ending. When I was a naïve first-time camper at Tel-Yehudah, my counselor told me that it was named for Jeremiah’s aunt “Eikhah”… Make of it what you will.