Friday, April 20, 2007

Shemini (Rashi)

For further teachings, both on these parshiyot and for Yom ha-Atzmaut, see the archives for my blog at April 2006.

“When a Woman Conceives…”

As I have attached several substantial postscripts, both to last week’s parasha and to Shemini, my comments on the current week’s very difficult double parasha will be brief. I will pose a negative question, for which I have no answer: who does Rashi omit commenting on a certain issue to which virtually all the other major commentators and several midrashim relate. I refer to the fact that in Leviticus 12, the opening section of Tazria, from which it takes its title, and which dealing with the post-partum mother’s impurity, the period of impurity is twice as long following the birth of a baby girl (14 days of strict separation, including from her husband, and 66 days of a less severe, kind of intermediary stage, called dam tohar) than it is for a baby boy (7 and 33 days, respectively)? Rashi skips over verse 5 without any comment. Why?

The only plausible answer I can think of is: a) that the answers of which he knew, offered by Hazal, seemed inadequate or incorrect, and that, b) he had no better answer. But to analyze this in full would require much more extensive research than I can give it now.

One more observation, which may suggest a direction for answering my question: this whole section of the Torah, including the chapter on the laws of kashrut read last week, seems to center around divisions and dualities within the physical world. We have “pure” and “impure” domestic and wild mammals, birds, fish, even insects; states of purity and impurity; the duality of the particular forms of impurity that beset men and women in Lev 15; and even the split or duality polarity between male and female in terms of the halakhic consequences of the event of their birth. Indeed, the final verse of Shemini, Lev 11:47, speaks of these laws as intended “to distinguish between tamei and tahor, impure and pure.” And such distinctions lie at the basis of the Havdalah blessing. While today we only make mention, at the end of Shabbat, of the differences between night and darkness, Israel and the nations, holy and mundane, Shabbat and the six days of work, an ancient version of the Havdalah, mentioned in Pesahim 104a, contains an option to mention as many as seven different pairs of things that are distinguished from one another, including “impure and pure, water and dry land, the upper waters and the lower waters, priests, Levites and Israelites”—in shor, a catalogue if all the kinds of cosmic and other distinctions mentioned in the Torah.

Yet nevertheless, nowhere in the liturgy do we have reference in as many words to what is perhaps the most fundamental division in human society: that between man and woman. We shall return to this question, with God’s help, in coming weeks.

Yom ha-Atzmaut

This coming week, on Tuesday, Israel will observe its 59th Independence Day. I cannot recall a Yom ha-Atzmaut in which the mood of the nation has been so depressed and glum. Old timers will say that in 1967, when war was on the horizon and people did not know how great and rapid the victory would be, there was a feeling of great fear and trepidation. But this time the cause is different: then there were leaders, there was solidarity among the people, and the threat was external. Today there is a feeling that the leadership is morally bankrupt, that there is no vision for the future, that our leaders do not speak the truth, that there is no sense of accountability or even of shame, and no strategy for dealing with our very real problems beyond either makeshift solutions or PR spin. All we can do is pray that God will plant in our leaders’ hearts wisdom and sagacity—including, perhaps most of all, the wisdom to know that they are not as wise as they think.

PESAH POSTSCRIPTS: Halakhah, Minhag, and Change; Positive Law and Mimesis

For some reason, this year everyone seemed to reevaluating, presenting suggestions for revamping various customs related both to Pesah and to festival observance generally. First there was a ruling by a group called “Beth HaWaadh” of Machon Shiloh, a council of three rabbis led by one Rabbi David Bar-Hayim (none of them particularly well-know figures, as far as I could tell), who issued a public ruling declaring that all those living in the Land of Israel, Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike, were permitted to eat kitniyot (legumes) which, along with rice, corn and millet, have been forbidden by dint of a strongly-held custom for nearly a thousand years. The argument of the Beth HaWaadh people was that: (a) the custom has no sound or rational basis and hence is a minhag shetut; (b) that with the ingathering of the Exiles and the creation of a new, vital Jewish center in Israel, divisive differences among different groups of Jews ought to be abolished to facilitate the full unification of the people; (c) that the historical custom of Eretz Yisrael is that of the Beit Yosef, i.e., the Sephardim, and that custom is determined by place, and not something the individual carries with him on the basis of his particular ethnic origin.

This led me to the responsum on the same subject by David Gollenkin, leading posek of the Masorati (Conservative) Movement in Israel, who covers much of the same round and presents substantially similar arguments, albeit in more erudite and less bombastic tone (although he rather belabors the point that there is virtually no source to suggest that kitniyot is hametz—as if that were the crux of the issue). Then our family’s “eccentric genius” forwarded me a “rabbinic query” as to whether or not marijuana is kitniyot, and the deprivation this might cause people (“although it may be more of a burning issue in the Bay Area than in Israel”—he should only know!).

After that a friend sent me a copy of a brief treatise by one Rabbi Noah Gradowsky, of the Institute of Traditional Judaism, regarding the issue of whether or not one is required to don tefillin on Hol ha-Moed—again, a millennium-old point of contention between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, between Hasidim and Mitnaggedim, between straight “halakhists” and Kabbalists. Throughout Israel, the practice is not to do so, and those who enter synagogues wearing tefillin are quickly told to remove them; there are places in the Diaspora where the opposite is the case, and those without tefillin are required to daven in the lady’s section. The author ends, to my mind rather simplistically, by saying that the preponderance of Talmudic sources, including an explicit Yerushalmi, state that one should wear tefillin on Hol Hamoed, and hence this trumps the Zohar which, he adds, is in any event clearly not of ancient provenance.

Finally, somewhere or other in my travels, I came across a pamphlet, entitled “Shall you Ravish the Queen Even in my Palace?,” criticizing tourists and one-year yeshiva students who publicly observe the second day of the festival while in Israel, even holding second-day synagogue services in the heart of Jerusalem.

I cannot discuss these issues, each one of which is both complex and controversial, in any detail. I will merely note that I was somewhat put off by the tone of the ”anti-kitniyot” camp, who argued as if no one in their right mind could possibly have a good reason for continuing to observe the minhag, except for simple hidebound conservatism. I will mention in this context that one reason often given is a certain fear that real grains of hametz may accidentally find their way into bags of kitniyot. I have, for example, seen bags of lentils containing what looked suspiciously like sprouted wheat berries. Should this be cooked with Pesah foods, no matter how miniscule the quantity, it would constitute a forbidden mixture of hametz, the latter being forbidden במשהו, “in any amount.” For that reason—a fact which neither Gollenkin nor the Machon Shiloh see fit to mention—it is the practice in traditional Sephardic communities, which do eat kitniyot, to sift through the rice and other kitniyot products thoroughly, as many as seven times, prior to allowing it to be served at the Passover table.

More broadly, what troubled me among the conservative (lower-case “c”) halakhists or “traditionalists” in the Conservative movement (including those who have split from the mother movement, whether over the issue of women’s ordination several decades ago or in the present brouhaha about homosexuality, which threatens to split that movement, which I shall discuss in detail another time) is their emphasis on positive law. That is to say, an approach which works almost exclusively from first axioms and sources—Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, etc.—and tends to reject out-of-hand or treat as unimportant that which cannot be traced back to these original sources. There is a certain formalist tone to their work that seems to miss the point: namely, that Judaism is an organic, living religious culture; or, to use the term coined by Mordecai Kaplan, an “evolving religious civilization.” As such, it is not surprising to find certain anomalies and peculiarities, such as the rules about kitniyot, or the 2nd day of Yom Tov (which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense even in the farthest Diaspora, in this age of both instant world-wide communications and a predetermined fixed calendar, and certainly not in the heart of Yerushalayim), or certain variation in halakhic practice over a liminal issue such as tefillin on Hol ha-Moed.

In a peculiar way, it seems to me that the most traditionalist Orthodox Jew might find himself closer to Kaplan’s formulation than he is to the right-wing “positive law” Conservative, although he would doubtless use a rather different terminology: thus, one finds a quasi-mystical status attached to minhag—“If Israel are not prophets then they are the sons of prophets”; or Rav Soloveitchik’s use of the term “a Masorah community”; or the phrase used by his son, Prof. Haym Soloveitchik, who described the Judaism of previous generations as being transmitted “mimetically”—that is, as a culture passed down by imitation, within families, from father to son, from mother to daughter, from grandparent to grandchild, through living example rather than by books. The traditional attitude was that, while the Torah was given at Sinai, the chain of tradition by which it has come down to us is no less important than the specific Sinaitic source. This is the sense of the very first mishnah in Pirkei Avot, which we began to read this past Shabbat: “Moses received Torah at Sinai, passed it down to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.” The balance of the tractate, along with pithy but profound ethical sayings in the names of various sages, serves as a documentation of the chain of tradition, all the way down to the later tannaitic period.

In such a context, something like the Zohar’s statement that tefillin on Hol Hamoed contradict a certain cosmic order is also valid—and it doesn’t really matter whether these words were authored by Simeon bar Yohai in the Galilee or 1200 years later, by Moses de Leon in Castille.

As to the issue of whether custom is determined by place or the individual: in theory, the argument that each place has its own custom is correct, but the reality is that many places do not have one single, consistent, fixed custom, but consist of a series of sub-communities, if you want to call them such, living side by side. This is a matter of sociological reality, which in turn reflects the migrations that have marked so much of Jewish history; hence, one cannot make every Jew living in Eretz Yisrael into a Sephardi by a tour-de-force when it is patently not so. The differences extend to the whole shape and feel of the different religious cultures—liturgy, musical modes, pronunciation, manner of conducting prayers, even seating arrangements in synagogue—which are so different that it’s impossible to imagine “unification” happening any time soon. There are historical precedents for such situations: Renaissance Italy was a melting pot of Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and old families who preserved the ancient “Nusah Roma”—and each group pretty much maintained its customs. Or there were places in Germany both before and after the First World War where “Ostjuden”—Eastern European immigrants—lived completely separate communal lives. I have some older friends who were born on “German” soil, but whose Jewish culture was Eastern-European in every sense of the word. Perhaps as the second and third generations born in Israel come of age, and begin to marry one another, they will gradually ”vote with their feet”—but no one can sit in his study and determine in advance what direction that will take.

Another point re “positive law”: a friend of man, a supporter of the pro-homosexual-ordination camp in the Conservative movement, spoke with great enthusiasm about Gordon Tucker’s teshuvah on that subject. He cited its introduction of “aggadic thinking” (what some have called “meta-halakhah) into the halakhic decision-making process, rather than rigidly confining the discussion to formalistic arguments. In a strange way, I find that I can agree with him on the methodological aspect—although I may well understand something rather different than he does by the “positive law” that he so vociferously rejects. As I pointed out in my discussion a few weeks ago about the policy of the Chief Rabbinate regarding matters of marriage and divorce, there is room for ethical and value considerations in deciding among various possible options within the halakhah. I would mention here A. J. Heschel’s insistence that halakhah and aggadah must be integrated, influence one another, create an organic, holistic Jewish world-view (this was the idea underlying his book, Torah min ha-Shamayim be-aspaklaryah shel hadorot). However, I strongly demur from Tucker’s conclusions re the specific issue at hand, and will critique it on another occasion; I will say here merely that my objections are not only on formal grounds, but also on what might be called the aggadic level—i.e., that are several important value considerations that he ignores.

Last Days of Pesah (Shir Hashirim)

For further teachings on this subject, see the archives to my blog for April 2006.


This past Shabbat we read Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs, that ancient yet ever-fresh book of love poetry: of love between man and woman, between God and Israel, and between the human soul and its Creator. Hence, it seems an appropriate time to return to some issues relating to man and woman. I have for some time been thinking and working on a major project, a study of what might be called a theology of sexuality in Judaism. This theme is one that by its nature draws largely on the opening chapters of Genesis: and indeed, the opening study in this series on Rashi, which I presented on Shabbat Bereshit on the verse “And they shall be one flesh” (Gen 2:24), was intended as a beginning of that series. Today I wish to present two more essay-studies on other Rashi passages from that same section.

Interestingly, Rav Soloveitchik, whose 14th Yahrzeit fell this past Friday (18 Nissan), was much interested in both these texts. His great essay of philosophical anthropology, The Lonely Man of Faith, is couched as a midrash on Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis (albeit the relation of man and woman is discussed there primarily as paradigmatic of the human community—the couple and the family being the smallest and most basic cell of human community); while his typology on the nature of religious experience, Uvikashta misham, begins with a lyrical passage based on themes from Shir ha-Shirim.

Sexuality by its very nature involves duality: the duality of man and woman, the duality of human beings’ potential for both good and evil, the back and forth dance of love itself, and other dualities. The union of man and woman can be one of our greatest earthly joys, a situation in which the ordinary person may most readily encounter ecstasy, both emotional and physical, and in which he/she may even encounter a certain sense of the holy. It is this that is expressed by Shir Hashirim, on both its literal and metaphorical levels, as well as by the Sheva Berakhot, the blessings recited at every Jewish wedding feast, which I see as a kind of midrash on the chapter of Bereshit concerning the creation of man and woman. But sexuality also has its negative, demonic side. I see this encapsulated in a certain way in the curse of Eve in Gen 3:16, as well as in the possibility of its perversion in the chapters on forbidden relations (Lev 18, 20), which we shall read in a few weeks. I will elaborate on these more problematic themes at that time, in Aharei Mot-Kedoshim.

“The First Human was Created Androgynous”: Two Creations or One Creation?

Shortly before the verse discussed in our earlier study (HY VIII: Bereshit), in which a man leaves his parents to cleave to his wife and to become one flesh, we read of the creation of the first woman from man. After God brings all of the various animals and beasts before Adam as potential companions, without success (although Adam does give each one a suitable name), God casts a deep sleep upon him:

Gen 2:21. “And the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man, and he slept, and he took one of his tzela’ot (ribs? limbs? sides?) and closed the flesh beneath it.” Rashi: “One of his tzela’ot.” From his side, as in the verse, “And on the side (tzela’) of the Tabernacle” [Exod 26:20]. This is what we have said: They were created with two faces/sides.

This verse is often thought of in modern times as the height of male chauvinism, establishing the inferiority of woman by the fact that she was fashioned from man. But Rashi—who is very brief here, if not cryptic—clearly states that this is not so: the word צלע, often translated in the Christian tradition as “rib,” in fact means “side” or “half” of the body; a proof-text is invoked from the description of the construction of the Sanctuary in the wilderness. The original human had two sides; one became man, the other woman. Hence, there is no inherent inferiority to woman; man and woman were created as equal in stature.

To understand this motif more clearly, let us examine Rashi’s sources. This is based a midrashic motif that appears in several different places—Genesis Rabbah 8.1; Lev. Rab. 14.1; Midrash Shohar Tov (Tehillim) 139.5; b. Berakhot 61a; b. Eruvin 18a; and, in truncated form in a halakhic discussion, at Ketubot 8a—each with certain variations.

Genesis Rabbah 8.1. “Fore and aft You have created me” [Ps 139:5]… R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: When God created the first man, he created him androgynous. Of this it is written, “Male and female he created them… and he called their name Adam” [Gen 5:2]. R. Shmuel b. Nahman said: When God created the first man, He created him diprisophon (i.e., with two faces), and severed him and made him two backs—one back facing this way, and one back the other. They challenged him: But is it not written, “And he took one of his tzela’ot” [Gen 2:21]? He replied: [One] of his two sides (sitrohi), as one says, “And the side (tzela’) of the Sanctuary” [Exod 26:20], and its [Aramaic] translation is, velistar mishkena.

How are we to imagine this first human being? Like Siamese twins, with two heads, four arms and four legs, and two torsos, who simply needed to be separated into two individuals? And were they, perhaps, in sexual embrace (“the beast with the two backs”), whom could reasonably be described as Siamese twins joined at the genitals? According to one midrash, particularly beloved by some of our latter-day prophets of a re-eroticized Judaism, the Roman invaders were scandalized upon breaking into the Holy of Holies to discover that the cherubs that crowned the Holy Ark were representations of a male and female figure in intimate embrace. Or was he/she, as the word androgynous is used today, a single individual, with a dual sexual nature?

It seems significant that, in the versions from the great midrashic collections, such as that quoted above, the sexually androgynous nature of the human being is but one of many dualities mentioned, alongside moral, existential and philosophic dualities, all of them inferred from the verse “fore and aft You have formed me.” (For a fuller discussion of this passage see HY III: Bereshit, or Bereshit (Midrash) in the blog archives for October 2005)

I will begin my discussion by reiterating a point I have often made in the past: midrash is to be read, not as a literal account of events, but as myth, in the positive sense: as an image, a paradigm, used to convey some universal, eternal truth about human beings or the world. To say that something is myth is not to dismiss it as untrue, but to acknowledge that it expresses a depth-insight that cannot be expressed as well in conceptual language. The question then, as Levinas would say, is what issue is being discussed by the rabbis in the guise of this seemingly mythical language?

What, precisely, is the point of the distinction between “androgynous” (or “hermaphrodite”) and diprosaphon or du-partzufi (i.e., Janus faced?) in the Talmudic reading of this midrash? I read the idea of the first human being as androgynous as suggesting that the archetypal human being transcends sexuality, so that each of the two sexes represents only a part of the full range of human capacities. The primal androgynous represents an ideal image of humanity, combining the ideal characteristics of both sexes (bracketing the contemporary issues as to whether these are innate or “cultural constructs,” and certainly whether they are “politically correct”): initiative, abstract intellectual qualities, creativity, physical strength, leadership qualities, “conquering worlds,” of the male; and the more nurturing, intuitive, tender, intimate, home-building qualities, connected to the stuff of life itself, and typically more readily sacrificing self for others, of the female. (These spiritual qualities seem to be symbolized by the Kabbalistic identification of male and female with the qualities of mind known as hokhmah and binah, “Wisdom” and “Understanding/Intuition”; sexual union, known as da’at, “knowledge, is simultaneously a merger or synthesis of the two. See Chapter 1 of Pseudo-Ramban’s Iggeret ha-Kodesh.) Of course, no individual embodies all of these qualities. Their presence in the paradigmatic Adam suggests that neither sex is sufficient unto itself. The fully human is a synthesis of the two, that doesn’t exist in realty, but only in the archetypal world of the Golden Age, of Creation itself.

The du-partzufi image, on the other hand, suggests two fully-formed individuals, man and woman, who were originally joined and then, as part of their creation, severed in two. Here the emphasis is on man/woman as an incomplete creature, who seeks completion through mating with a partner, who is so-to-speak a lost part of himself. Or shall we say, rather, that human life is a constant two-step dance of uniting and parting, autonomy and togetherness, the relationship/community of man and woman being a basic, elemental part of world. (An interesting Jerusalemite strictly-Orthodox female Kabbalah teacher and scholar, Sarah Yehudit Schneider, has written at length about these issues in her Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine)

I see at least three basic ideas implied by these midrashim:

1. The basic common humanity of man and woman. The differences between the sexes, insofar as based on status or power, are temporary imperfections (even if long-standing in terms of historical time), and not innate. The curse of Eve, as the origin of male supremacy, is a fault in the world as we know it.

2. Sexual attraction as a search for a lost part of oneself. Elsewhere (at the end of b. Kiddushin) Hazal compare a man’s quest for a mate to that of one seeking a lost article. Marriage, and its sexual consummation, is a restoration of the primordial state of oneness. That is why various firms of solipsistic sexual gratification—i.e., those oriented toward self-pleasure alone—are seen as contradicting this verse (see Sanhedrin 58a-b, where the entire Noachide teaching on sexuality is learned from Gen 2:24).

3. Male and female are present in the psyche of each person (as in the Jungian notion of the animus and the anima, a part within the psyche representing the opposite sex within the individual’s own identity). Hence male and female, man and woman, are not exclusively, or even primarily, biological, physical concepts, but spiritual definitions. Each is a component of the “full stature” of humanity. Therefore, a person must seek wholeness not only through personal integration, but through his relationship with a partner.

In the Talmudic discussion, two further elements are introduced: were man and woman created in one act of creation, or in two separate acts? (Some say that the third and fourth of the seven nuptial blessings allude to these two aspects of human creation.) And was the “side” or “rib” from which Eve was created a face or a tail? At first blush, the latter view sounds like an insult to woman. But Emmanuel Levinas, in his Nine Talmudic Readings (Bloomington–Indianapolis: Indiana U. Pr., 1990, pp. 161-177), suggests that the issue here is whether the essence of sexuality has to do with a spiritual difference between man and woman, something about the human essence of each, or whether the difference between them is in fact a strictly biological, functional difference, relating to the “lower” functions of the body—what is referred to in the Talmudic versions as “the tail.” That is, the point is not that woman is “tail-like,” but that she shares in the full, singular humanity of man, and it is only their relatively marginal biological functioning that makes the sexes different.

An Interesting Postscript: Just over six months ago, I was present at a wedding at which Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat recited the fourth of the seven blessings. He made a small but significant departure change from the usual version of this blessing, printed in all the Siddurim and “benchers.” Rather than the traditional:

ברוך אתה ה' אלקינו מלך העולם, אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו, בצלם דמות תבניתו, והתקין לו ממנו בנין עדי עד. ברוך אתה ה' יוצר האדם. Blessed are You, O Lord God King of the universe, who has formed man in His image, in the image and likeness of His pattern, and created for him an eternal building. Blessed are You, who forms man.

He read:

ברוך אתה ה' אלקינו מלך העולם, אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו, ובצלם דמות תבניתו התקין לו ממנו בנין עדי עד. ברוך אתה ה' יוצר האדם. Blessed are You, O Lord God King of the universe, who has formed man in His image, and in the image and likeness of his pattern created for him an eternal building. Blessed are You, who forms man.

By moving the conjunctive letter vav, and thus grouping the phrases together differently, the whole syntax of this sentence changes. It is clear in the latter version that woman is not merely an appendage of man created to provide as a “eternal building”—in vulgar terms, a breeding machine, a source of ongoing offspring and thus eternal continuity—but herself made in the Divine image and likeness just as is man. This change is highly significant—far more egalitarian, and portraying the relationship between the sexes in far more complementary terms.

Though I had heard about this alternative reading, I had until then never heard it recited publicly nor seen it in print. I approached Rav Riskin afterwards to ask him about this, and he explained that he had learned this reading from Rav Soloveitchik, and that other students of Rav Soloveitchik (including Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who was also present at this wedding) also used it. It seems clear that this reading is as ancient and legitimate as the more familiar one. Later, I consulted the article in Encyclopaedia Talmudica (IV.646) on Birkat Hatanim, where I found the sources for this alternative reading given as Semag, Aseh §48, citing R. Saadia Gaon.

Shemini (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see the archives of this blog, below, April 2006.

“And fire came down…”

This week’s parasha is one of the most perplexing in the entire Torah. Particularly puzzling is the incident of the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, at the very peak of the celebration of the erection of the Tabernacle in the desert when they offered “strange fire that God had not commanded them.” The difficulty lies, (1), in understanding the reason for their deaths: Was it punishment, and if so, for what sin? Or was it something else: a kind of gratuitous death somehow related to their very closeness to God? (2) What is the meaning of the enigmatic phrase בקרובי אקדש (“by those that are close to Me I shall be sanctified”; Lev 10:3); (3) There is something arbitrary, even seemingly immoral, if one can say such a thing, in God’s behavior here. What kind of a God is He, anyway? (The haftarah, from 2 Samuel 6, raises a similar question with regard to the story of Uzza, the hapless ox-driver who was killed while trying to steady the ark of the covenant.)

I have discussed all these issues in the past (see HY I, II, III: Shemini) and cannot elaborate upon them here. I would like to point out an interesting linguistic twist that I noticed for the first time this year. In verse 9:24 we read:

“And fire went forth before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fats; and all the people saw and shouted in joy, and they fell on their faces.”

Almost immediately thereafter, in 10:2, we read

“And fire went forth before the Lord, and consumed them [i.e., Nadav and Avihu], and they died before the Lord.”

We have here two verses of strikingly different connotation: one describing the acceptance of Aaron’s inaugural offerings at the Sanctuary, as signified by fire from heaven consuming the meat on the altar; the second describing the sudden death of the two priestly scions by fire which, according to one midrash quoted by Rashi at 10:5, consumed their souls but left their bodies and their garments intact. The striking thing is that the first five words of these verses is identical (indeed, the editors of one popular edition of Mikra’ot Gedolot mistakenly thought the Rashi to 10:2 in fact belonged to 9:24, causing them to omit the verse number—the fact that alerted me to this anomaly in the first place). These echoes cannot but strike a chord in the sensitive reader. Indeed, the Bible frequently uses the repetition of key words and phrases to call the reader’s or listener’s attention to a certain theme. This phenomenon, the use of leitmotif, is central to Buber & Rosenzweig’s German translation of the Bible (Die Schrift) made in the 1920s and ‘30s, perhaps the last great cultural enterprise of German Jewry before the Holocaust; Everett Fox attempts to recreate this approach in his English translation, The Five Books of Moses. (There is also play involving similar sounding words, as in the juxtaposition of Adam and Eve’s nakedness, ויהיו שניהם ערומים in Gen 2:25 and the snake’s cunningness, והנחש היה ערום, in 3:1, although the two words are really from totally different linguistic fields; or ותכלנה / ותחילנה, the end of the good years and beginning of the bad years in Gen 41:53, in the Joseph story). Here, the use of such similar phrases seems to suggest that Nadav and Avihu were also consumed in some kind of “sacrificial offering.” Such a reading makes the phrase “by close to Me I shall be sanctified” more coherent—but such an idea, tottering dangerously close to human sacrifice, is antithetical and even anathema to all that that we understand as Judaism and the spirit of the Torah, a kind of revival of the option that seemed to have been eliminated once ad for all by the Binding of Isaac, one of whose meanings seems to be the replacement of a would-be human sacrifice by an animal one. And yet, here it is. God’s awesomeness seems to be enhanced by his arbitrariness. I present the textual facts, but don’t really know what to make of them.

I will conclude this section by mentioning that I find Rashi on 9:22,23 of particular interest for the way he explains a subtle exegetical problem regarding the two blessings recited by Moses and Aaron, and their unexplained going into the Tent of Meeting; and 10:2-3 on our issue.

Postscript—More on “Fire came down”

After Shabbat I thought further about the story of Nadav and Avihu, formulating it for myself in terms of the perennial question of certain Hasidic texts: what does this teach every person, in every time and place? Why couldn’t the Torah have gone directly from Chapter 9, which ends with the acceptance of the sacrifice and the people shouting in joy, to Chapter 11? One reader, Perry Zamek, suggested the following:

I think the point that the Torah wants to make is that there is a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable in the service of God. The slightest deviation from that which He commands can be fatal (asher lo tzivah otam), no matter who the perpetrator is… I don’t mean to say that any transgression makes one culpable of the death penalty, but there is a lesson to be learned. I once gave a talk focusing on the importance of boundaries in halakhah—e.g., the difference between an action carried out just before the onset of Shabbat, and the same action carried out only a minute later, once Shabbat has begun. Other examples include the idea of sof zman kriat shma, shiurim (in terms of issurei akhila), and so on. The idea is that halakhic practice is not merely a matter of personal inclination (to daven when we want, etc.) but is constrained by rules (daven by a certain time, or you’ve missed out).

But I think there is something else as well: many people derive a great sense of security, of strength, from religious ceremony. Whatever else may be going wrong in their lives, they know they can count on a certain sense of order, of wholeness, of changelessness from the ritual of the synagogue or, in olden times, the Temple or Sanctuary (I can only imagine it, of course, but such a feeling is expressed in many psalms). On one level, of course, there is something positive, reassuring in this fact, but on another level, the Torah wants to upset such a feeling of complacency, of religion as a source of well-being. The idea here is that, precisely on the day of greatest harmony, of closing the circle on the long-awaited day of inaugurating the Mishkan, there is an irruption of chaos, a glimpse into a kind of chasm lying beyond the sense of order and pomp and circumstance—to remind us that God is awesome, frightening, mysterious, that the Holy is also Wholly Other, utterly beyond man’s ken.