Friday, May 25, 2007

Naso (Rashi)

With grief and sorrow we pass on the tragic news of the untimely death of Reb Dovid Zeller, one of the new-old school of Torah teachers who brought people closer to God and Judaism through song and story. The funeral will be at 3 pm this afternoon (Friday May 25) at the Shirat Shlomo synagogue in Efrat.

For more teachings on this and succeeding parshiyot, please see the archives of my blog for June 2006. While I am away, Hitzei Yehonatan will not be sent by email, but may be posted on the blog.

“A Person does not sin unless there enters him a spirit of foolishness”

Although I am leaving Sunday night for a four-week teaching trip to the United States, I did not wish to let Shabbat pass without sharing a short teaching on the parsha. This is particularly so because Naso is both one of the longest and richest parshiyot of the Torah (the longest single one, in number of verses), and traditionally, because it always falls on the first Shabbat after Shavuot, it is a favorite of sermonizers. I have chosen one comment by Rashi about the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery (a very problematic chapter, which I have discussed at length other years; see my blog):

Num 5:12. “When a man’s wife goes astray, and she commits a trespass against him.” Rashi: “When his wife goes astray…” Our Rabbis taught [Tanhuma, ad loc.], that adulterers do not do so unless a spirit of foolishness enters into them, as is written, “When she commits a trespass” (a pun on תשטה and שטות), and it is written of him, “He who commits adultery has no heart” (Prov 6:32).

What is the connection between sin and foolishness? We generally think of sexual sin as motivated by lust and desire as entities in their own right. We think of desire as something that “sweeps one off one’s feet” or “grabs one by the neck”—that is, as a force that cannot be resisted. Indeed, romantic attraction is much celebrated by our culture. A person capable of grand passion—whether moral or not—is seen as somehow better than others, more vital, full of positive energy, as in some sense to be envied.

In what sense, then, is it foolishness? (a) Judaism believes in the possibility of self-control. The constant struggle between will and impulse (Rambam describes the ideal human type as one who “rules his Urge, and his Urge does not rule him”) is a given of the human condition; the good person, when confronted with temptation, will marshal his inner forces to resist it. (I know that it’s fashionable today to quote the Mei Shiloah, who says that at times, no matter what one does, a given desire may overwhelm one, and that in such a case this act, even if a sin, is somehow “God’s will,” a “transgression for His sake,” but this statement—itself highly problematic—is blown up out of proportion. More than one of the Izhbitzer’s latter-day devotees has come to a bad end.)

(b) It is foolishness because, somewhere along the line, the adulterer makes a conscious decision to surrender to his desires; it’s never “bigger than both of us,” but always a deliberate choice. Sin is sweet, attractive, promising pleasure of an intensity and kind that are unique and “irresistible.” But ultimately, it is a foolish, mistaken choice, short-sighted.

(c) This relates to the next fact: that the sinner always thinks he can get away with it. I won’t even refer to the religious dimension: that for one who believes in an all-seeing, omniscient God, who rewards and punishes, this is foolishness. But even on the human plane, sinners and criminals sooner or later betray themselves. The wounded party in the marriage (or marriages) senses that something is amiss: the proverbial lipstick on the collar, the phone number scribbled on a piece of paper, the unaccounted expense on a credit card, the strange absences, or more than all these, the emotional dissimulation—sooner or later the truth emerges, and wreaks havoc with family life.

(d) Wisdom, in Judaism, is seen as implying a certain moral position. Wisdom and conscious evil are seen as incompatible; the philandering professor of ethics is seen as an anomaly. To relate to the initial question: Why does a person chose to engage in adultery? Love affairs do not simply come from a naked impulse, dissociated from any context, but come from boredom—a kind of quest for meaning and excitement, for intense feeling in life—usually, when other things are or seem empty. This may explain a seeming non sequitur in Rambam who, at the end of the Laws of Forbidden Intercourse (Issurei Biah 22.21), says that lascivious thoughts only dwell in a person whose heart is empty of wisdom; that is, when a person doesn’t have loftier, more sublime thoughts with which to fill his consciousness and his interest.

(e) Finally, I would suggest one more sense in which sexual sin is rooted in a kind of foolishness: namely, a confusion between intellectual-spiritual-emotional connection between people, and the specifically sexual. (And here I am speaking as a modern person, and not through the Rambam, a medieval man who looked down on woman). Friendships between the sexes, warm human interaction, camaraderie, are all potentially positive sources of joy in life; but (except within the context of a committed, life-sharing relationship) are not to be confused with the physical.

In the second part of his comment, Rashi returns to the peshat, the literal meaning of this verse. Notwithstanding the human insight and ethics and depth of the above comment, in the final analysis it is based upon a double entendre, a similarity of sound between the words, and is not the proper linguistic sense of the verse. Thus, Rashi feels it is his duty to explain the literal level as well:

And the literal sense of the verse, “when she goes astray”: she strays from the paths of modesty and becomes suspect in his eyes, as in “turn away from it [the evil path] and pass on” (Prov 4:15) and “let not your heart go astray after her ways” (7:25).

Friday, May 18, 2007

Bamidbar (Rashi)

For more teaching on this parsha and on Shavuot, see the archives for May 2006. For Naso on, see June 2006.

As this Shabbat is the one preceding Shavuot, part of this issue will be devoted to matters of the Giving of the Torah (including a teachings originally prepared for Yitro and Mishpatim, but which could not be sent out at the time due to computer problems). But we will begin with a brief comment of Rashi at the very beginning of the new book of the Torah whose reading we begin this Shabbat, Bamidbar:

Numbers 1:1. “And the Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai wilderness in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month…” Rashi: “And [the Lord] spoke… in the Sinai wilderness… on the first day of the month.” Because of their being precious to Him, He counted them on every occasion. When they left Egypt He counted them [see Exod 6:14 ff.]; when they fell in the [matter of the Golden] Calf He counted them to know (the number) of those who were left [see Rashi on Exod 30:16]; when he came to rest his Presence upon them he counted them. The Sanctuary was erected on the first of Nissan, and He counted them on the first of Iyyar.

Nearly this entire opening parsha of the Book of Numbers is devoted to the “counting” of Israel—a general census of all the people, broken down by tribe, followed by the arrangement of the camps around the Tent of Meeting, as well as a separate census of the Levites, broken down into clans with the names of their leaders and their respective tasks. All this is seen by Rashi as an expression of Havivut Yisrael, the precious, unique status of the people of Israel before God. Indeed, the book as a whole might well be called “the book of the people Israel” (see Bamidbar [Torah]). If the theme of Shemot is slavery and redemption; that of Vayikra holiness and purity; if that of Devarim is an overall summary and exhortation to observe the Torah, then Bamidbar is a kind of catch-all of many different kinds of narratives, laws, etc., whose unifying theme is the people itself.

This is a central point, not only for understanding Bamidbar, but is a theme that runs like a gossamer thread through all of Jewish thinking about what we are. “Judaism” (if it’s at all correct to even speak of such a thing!) is not, first and foremost, a “religion,” a system of religious beliefs and principles, or even a system of law and behaviors, that can in theory apply to all humankind (like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc.). This is true, even though conversion to Judaism is possible, and is becoming increasingly common in today’s open world; indeed, the proselyte himself does not become a “believer” in his new-found faith or a “member” of the Synagogue; rather, he/she becomes an adopted son or daughter of the Jewish people. In principle, Judaism is the story of one people and its covenantal encounter with is God. Hence, “Israel, Torah and God are one”—the people as such are an essential element , whose history culture, even in the purely secular sense, are of importance in their own right.

This creates two seeming paradoxes or anomalies: one, that we maintain our particularity as a people, as a specific group, notwithstanding the ultimately universal nature if our ground beliefs: the unity of God, and the singularity / oneness of truth and of the ethical norms that follow from God’s Torah, by its very nature.

Second, that secularism and Judaism are not mutually exclusive or contradictory: something that would be absurd if Judaism were simply a “religion.” In the modern world, in particular, we have many Jews, including some of the most outstanding figures in modern times—such as Freud, Einstein, Ben-Gurion, etc.—who saw themselves as secular. I will leave aside the attempts of some religious thinkers, such as Rav A. I. Kook, to legitimize this in religious terms through complex and fascinating theological dialectics about the presence of holiness within the secular. Quite simply, the existence of secular facts is a fact; they are our brethren, and our differing interpretations of the meaning of our history, cultural heritage, and identity are a family dispute, which should not prevent feelings of love, common identity and cultural interests, and certainly of vital political interest / destiny.

It deserves mention, in this context, that there has just been published a new, major intellectual project: a 5-volume encyclopedia (in Hebrew)of secular Judaism in the modern era, Zeman Yehudi Hadash, under the editorship of Yermiyahu Yovel and Yair Tzaban.

In a peculiar, very different way, we will talk about a similar idea—the idea of the seculum at the very heart of Torah—in some of our teachings for Shavuot.

“And Moses approached the darkness…”

Exod 20:18. “And Moses approached the darkness [where God was].” Rashi: Within three partitions: darkness, cloud, and thick mist; as is said, “And the mountain burned with fire to the very heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud and thick mist” (Deut 4:11). Arafel [here translated as “thick mist”] refers to the clouds, of which it is said, “Behold, I come to you in the thick cloud” (Exod 19:9).

God is portrayed here as dwelling in the darkness, which Moses, unlike the rest of the people, somehow has the courage to approach. What does this image mean? Interestingly, this motif appears a number of times throughout the Bible: not only in the verses cited but also, e.g., in Solomon’s prayer upon dedicating the Temple: ה' אמר לשכון בערפל (“God said that He wished to dwell in darkness”: 1 Kgs 8:12), perhaps an allusion to the Holy of Holies, a dark, unlit, innermost chamber; or in Psalms 97:2, where He is shown surrounded by dark cloud. And yet, God Himself is portrayed as a source of great, brilliant light: “the light of the seven days” that is hidden away for the righteous.

What are we to make of all this? One element is the notion that God’s presence in the universe is not obvious. Rambam says something to this effect in the Guide for the Perplexed: the Divine light, “seeing” God, is a metaphor for clarity of apprehension, of inner understanding, found only in rare individuals, such as Moses—something that may be attained through inspiration from above, or through delving deep within. Da’at Elohim is not so much a startling, external vision that makes one fall on ones face, or even knowledge of an abstruse esoteric teaching, but a subtle yet radical change within the person’s way of looking at the world. It is a kind of inner shift of orientation in which everything is the same, yet at the same time totally different—suddenly, one sees that God’s presence is the most obvious fact in the world and not at all hidden. Perhaps it was this “darkness” that frightened the people, and it was to that place, “behind the curtain,” that Moses dared to venture. (Of course, one must add that Moses was unique: no one else entered so closely, so deeply, into the presence of God; other prophets and “men of high level” perceived things more hazily than he.)

Why “three partitions”? This phrase evokes images of the three concentric four-square formations in the desert mentioned in our parsha, with the encampment of the twelve tribes, the Levitic camp, and the Tent of Meeting; or of the Temple/Tabernacle itself, with its entrance-ways to the external courtyards, to the Sanctuary, and to the innermost sanctum; or even to the different levels of Mount Sinai during the revelation. Anthropologist Mary Douglas, in a rather strange book called Leviticus as Literature, describes a series of tri-partite parallels among Sinai, the Tabernacle, the anatomy of the sacrificial animal, and the literary structure of the Book of Leviticus itself.

What then are these “three mehitzot”? Ultimately, I would describe them as levels of mystical consciousness, and/or as the four cosmic worlds known to us from Kabbalah. One popular “map” of Jewish liturgy sees the four main parts of the daily morning prayer—morning blessings & sacrifices; Pesukei de-Zimra; Shema and its blessings; and the Amidah—as corresponding to a gradual ascent through these four cosmic worlds and/or depth worlds of inner consciousness. These are often described as: Assiyah, the World of ordinary Activity—of concrete, practical human life; Yetzirah, the World of Emotion, or of angelic beings; Beriah, the World of Intellect, the “Thrine Room” or vestibule to the Divine; and, beyond all these, Atzilut, the World of Spiritual Consciousness, of apprehension (however limited) of the Godhead itself. This latter—breaking through beyond the intellect—is perhaps the most difficult of all for we modern people.

Sivan (Months)

For teachings on Bamidbar and Shavuot, see the archives to this blog at May 2006. For the other parshiyot, from Naso on, see June 2006.

Sivan: the Month of Revelation

Sivan has always seemed to me the most mysterious month of the year. Nissan celebrates what is essentially an event of human liberation, the Exodus from Egypt. Tishrei is either about teshuvah—the confrontation of the individual human being, in the depths of his soul, with his own shortcomings and failures; or about the acceptance and “coronation” of God as King. Sivan, at whose heart is the festival of Shavuot, commemorates the meeting between man and God. Let us imagine a clear, crisp spring morning in the desert: a lone figure, Moshe, ascends the craggy mountain peak; the people—some say, with the sands of sleep still in their eyes—standing at the foot of the mountain, having been cautioned to keep their distance; dark clouds, obscuring and surrounding the Divine presence, descend upon the mountain peak—and suddenly, something strange, uncanny, frightening, electrifying happens. The people know that they have heard the voice of God.

Some will ask: how is such a thing possible? In truth, we do not know to explain it in ordinary, rational, conceptual terms; and yet, the reality of this moment stands at the core of our faith as Jews. Upon this desert mountain peak, a place both of this world and not of it, belonging both to heaven and to earth, the eternal and the mortal, the finite and the infinite, somehow met—and the world was changed forever.

The zodiac symbol for Sivan is Gemini: the twins. Figures which may be seen as symbolic of meeting, of perpetual encounter and dialogue. For, we are told, the voice heard at Sinai was kol gadol velo yasaf, “a great voice that never ceased,” one that echoes down to this very day.

Gemini: a meeting of brothers or sisters, of friends, of lovers. In a certain sense, not only the meeting of man and God, but every true meeting of two souls, is shrouded in mystery. But most of all, the two twins may be seen as emblematic of the love between man and woman—represented, some say, also by the two cherubim whose wings hovered over and protected the Holy of Holies—and this love, we know, is a metaphor for the union between Israel and its God. The Sinai covenant is not so much a treaty as it is a wedding. Hence, the Shabbat before Shavuot is known as Shabbat Kallah—the Shabbat of the Bride. And perhaps this, too, is the reason for the choice of Hosea 2 as the haftarah for Shabbat Bamidbar, which always precedes Shavuot—a prophetic text about the ambiguities of Israel’s relationship to God.

The image of Sinai as a wedding canopy suggests that the emphasis in the Torah is not so much on Law, in the sense of obedience, authority, imperatives, penalties for violation, and heteronomy—though that is also surely part of it—but of union, of relationship, of mutual caring and love. The Torah and mitzvot are an instrument of love, for “walking together” with God. Ahavah Rabbah: “With great love have You loved us… place in our hearts [the ability] to intuit and to intellectualize and to hear and learn and teach all the words of Your Torah with love…”

Thus, in a certain sense it seems to me that it would be equally or even more appropriate to read Shir ha-Shirim, the great and holy book of love, on Shavuot rather than Pesah. The Song of Songs shows the lovers bound together, but also a process of hide and seek. For the relationship of Israel and God is a ambivalent one: there are moments of great closeness and wholeness and intimacy; and then there are times of faithlessness and betrayal, of “whoring” with pagan “non-gods” and empty images; and, if one may be so bold, also of God hiding His face in terrifying ways, in which the whole world seems bereft of any order or sense.

The Torah readings of the month of Sivan express this duality, of wholeness and of betrayal. The first two parshiyot of the Book of Numbers, Bamidbar and Naso, read respectively just before and after Shavuot, give a kind of flash photograph of the encampment of the people Israel before the mountain, arranged in a kind of idealized, static, four-square mandala formation around the Tent of Meeting. It is a kind of counterpart to the chapter read on Shavuot, which describes the initial arrival of the people at Sinai. The encampment at Sinai which began with the great and awesome event of Matan Torah continued for almost an entire year—and it is that which is depicted in these Torah portions.

But the portions read later this month–Beha’alotkha, Shelah Lekha, and Korah—are a quintessential portrait of human weakness and failure. The people murmur and rebel over one thing after another: the food is no good; they’re frightened to go into a land populated by such gigantic, powerful people; they want a new, charismatic leadership; Moses is too haughty and above the ordinary person.

The second half of the month, after the pitched expectancy of seven weeks of counting, of attentiveness to time, is thus a return to drab, humdrum human existence. And is not that the test as to whether anything really happened to us on Shavuot? Interestingly, in olden days, fir many centuries, European Jewish communities observed a fast day on the 20th of Sivan, commemorating both anti-Jewish rampages in the Rhineland in 1171, and the Chmielnicki pogroms in Poland and the Ukraine in 1648-49 (To which one might add: much of Hungarian Jewry was deported and murdered within slightly more than one month during the Nazi aktionen in Sivan 1944)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Behar-Behukotai (Rashi)

For more teachings on these parshiyot, see the archives for May 2006, below.

“What has Shemitah to Do with Mount Sinai?”

We shall open with a very brief comment about the opening comment by Rashi on this week’s parsha, which is a popular idiomatic expression in contemporary Hebrew, but used in a manner diametrically opposed to Rashi’s sense:

Leviticus 25:1. “And the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, saying…” Rashi: What has shemitah to do with Mount Sinai? Were not all the commandments spoken at Sinai? Rather, just as the general rules, the details, and the niceties of the laws of shemitah (the sabbatical year) were stated at Sinai, so were the general rules, details, and niceties of all of them stated at Sinai—thus is it taught in Torat Kohanim. But it seems to me that the following is the interpretation: Since we do not find that the laying fallow of the land is repeated at the Steppes of Moab, in Deuteronomy, we infer that all of its general and particular details were stated at Sinai, and Scripture comes here to teach us that every thing that was told to Moses was given at Sinai, in both general rules and specific details, and were repeated at the Steppes of Moab.

In the common idiomatic sense, the phrase “What has shemitah to do with Mount Sinai?” is used as the response to a non sequitur: What has one thing to do with the other. But Rashi asks the question in all seriousness: why does the Torah mention here, specifically, that God’s speech came to Moses at Mount Sinai? Rashi gives two answers, both of which essentially express faith in the overall unity and integrity of the Torah, including the oral tradition. The first answer is that the details of the mitzvot, even if, unlike here, are not stated as having been given at Sinai, nevertheless were. The second answer, Rashi’s own theory (though both are ultimately based on the same tannaitic midrash, Torat Kohanim) draw an equivalence between those mitzvot given at Sinai, at the beginning of the forty years covered by the legal books of the Torah, and those stated at the Steppes of Moab, at the very end. Whether a given law is mentioned in one, the other, or both, does not affect its halakhic or ontological status.

“Sabbatical Fruits: A Unique Kind of Holiness

The first major group of laws in this week’s parasha pertains to the sabbatical and jubilee years (shemitah and yovel): special years that recur in cycles of seven and forty-nine years, respectively. In the former the land lies fallow and its owners are proscribed from engaging in any agricultural labor; in the latter, those who were forced to sell their ancestral homesteads due to economic pressure return to their original share in the Land of Israel (or their children do so):

Lev 25:6-7. “And the Sabbath of the land shall be for you to eat, for you and your man-servant and your maid-servant… and for your animals and for the [wild] beasts that are in your land…” Rashi: “And the Sabbath of the land shall be…” Even though I have forbidden them [its fruits] to you, I have not forbidden them for eating nor to enjoy their benefit; rather, that you not behave regarding them as if you are the householder, but rather all will be equal therein—you and your hired servants and those who dwell with you. “The sabbath of the land shall be for you to eat.” You may eat from that which rests, and not from that which is guarded.

The “holiness” of the shemitah year is of a unique kind, based on a unique social message. The key sentence in this Rashi is, “Even though I have forbidden them to you, I have not forbidden them for eating nor to enjoy their benefit.” Ordinarily, things considered—whether objects, persons, places or special times—bring in their wake some sort of prohibition or ban. But here the holiness is of a very different kind: the one thing forbidden during shemitah is for the land owner to act like a baal-bayit, to enjoy preferential use of that which grows on his own land and to prevent others—who may be indigent, homeless and hungry—from enjoying them. During shemitah one may not actively cultivate the land; one may harvest that which grows by itself (sefihin, which may be a substantial amount), but one may not store it in a closed silo or other place to which others do not have access. What grows on God’s good earth is there to be eaten by everyone—freely, “like the wild beasts of the field.” One year out of seven the Torah legislates a kind of primitive socialism; the “holiness of the seventh year” (kedushat shevi’it) does not require that one eat its produce in a state of ritual purity, as does the holiness of kodashim, terumah or ma’asrot (the holy flesh of animal offerings, priestly gifts, or tithes); all that it requires is a leveling of the usual social differences between rich and poor that prevail the other six years.

Why is Taking Interest on Loans Prohibited?

From sabbatical and jubilee years, which as we have seen serve an equalizing social effect, the Torah turns to a series of other laws dealing with specific cases—beginning with offshoots of the institution of yovel—in which a person sells his homestead, borrows money, sells himself into slavery, etc. These appear in a series of paragraphs, each one of which begins with the words כי ימוך אחיך, “when your brother falls into straits.” Among these laws is the prohibition against taking interest on loans:

Lev 25:36. “Do not take from him advance or accrued interest, but you shall fear your God, and your brother shall live with you.” Rashi: “Advance or accrued interest [i.e., deducted from the loan in advance, lit., “bite,” or added at the time of repayment, lit. “multiplied”]. The Rabbis conflated these two terms as if one, to consider one who takes usury as having violated two prohibitions.

“And you shall fear your God.” Because a person’s mind is drawn after interest, and it is difficult to abstain from it, and he justifies it to himself, saying [that he takes interest] in compensation for his money being idle while it was with him [the borrower]. Hence Scripture needed to say, “and you shall fear your God.”

The basic concept underlying both this law and the other legislation in this chapter is that of social solidarity. The terms used here to refer to the person in need of help are ones that suggest inter-personal connectivity and responsibility, even a quasi-familial intimacy: אחיך (your brother); עמיתך (your countryman); רעך (your neighbor). These terms imply an element of social cohesion and identification with the other that are a far cry from the concept of homo economicus that is the dominant model for most relations in contemporary society.

A second interesting point here is that the desire for wealth is described here in terms reminiscent of the way Hazal describe sexual desire: “because a man’s mind is drawn after interest [i.e. increasing his wealth].” There is something highly seductive about the prospect of gaining money, even significant wealth, while sitting idle and “letting your money work for you.”

The difficulty with the prohibition against loaning money on interest is that, in a complex capitalist economy such as our own it seems patently unworkable, certainly as a general societal norm. Modern society is very different from biblical society, which was mostly agrarian, and money functions as a commodity, as a necessity for any significant enterprise. Admittedly, relatively small loans to individuals, between friends and family members, or through religiously-based free loan societies such as are found in many traditional Jewish communities, do exist—but the main thrust of modern economic life is one in which money “makes” money. The majority of loans, on a global or even nation-wide scale, are for purposes of investment; entire markets, such as the commodities markets in which people buy and sell “futures” on various goods, are based on speculation on money and prices. Nearly a century ago, the sociologist and economist Werner Sombart went so far as to counter the Marxian labor theory of value by describing money as the essential creative and dynamic factor in enabling technological and other innovations.

But in fact, this problem is not only one in modern society. The transition from an agrarian society to a way of life based upon commerce, financial activity, and various crafts and skills that can be practiced in an urban environment, occurred for much of the Jewish people in the early Middle Ages—according to historian Avraham Grossman, already during the 8th century CE in Babylonia and elsewhere. During much of the medieval period, money-lending was thought of as The Jewish occupation. Interestingly, Islam, which has a similar ban on “usury,” is only now confronting this problem in a serious way, as some Muslim countries that have become major players in the world economy thanks to petrodollars are turning to a stricter and more all-encompassing interpretation of Islam—and they must now deal with these contradictions in order to bring “Islamic banking” into the modern world.

One form of halakhic response to this problem is what amounts to a legal fiction: to recognize the reality in which Jews live, and to facilitate their participation in the economy in a manner that will not cause people loss or place them at a disadvantage in their financial lives. This is the basis of the heter iska, which provides the legal basis for banking in Israel as for other forms of money-lending, by making the borrower into a fictitious partner in part of the loan. One nevertheless remains with the question: what of the spirit of Torah? How does one foster, in a faceless, ruthless economy, some vestige of the idea of mutual caring and responsibility of which the Torah speaks here, in which one sees the stranger, at least the fellow Jew, as one‘s “brother”? There are pockets of this in the Hevrot GM”H—the religiously-motivated Free Loan societies that exist in many communities—but they are no more than an island in a sea of greed and rational calculation of self benefit. It seems to me that this is not sufficient, and Jewish thinkers must seek alternatives to “neo-liberalism,” which seems a code word for monolithic, nearly cannibalistic capitalism.

I have witnessed, within the span of my own lifetime, the emergence of a mood in which “achievement” in life is increasingly seen in terms of money and the acquisition of wealth and things: the wealthy seem to be openly adulated for their wealth in a way that they were not a generation ago. More and more young people, with some notable exceptions, seem moved in their choice of a course of study and a career by the “bottom line“—and who can blame them? In retrospect, the protest movements and communes of the ‘60s seem a kind of “last hurrah” of the impulse for radical change based on economic and social equality and gentler, more human values.

Even one of the seemingly most “progressive” movements of our time—women’s liberation or feminism—is largely focused on equal economic and career opportunities for women. Obviously, the demand for a level playing field in the competitive struggle is justified, as are the campaigns to eliminate sexual harassment in the work place. All of these are positive values as such; long-time readers of Hitzei Yehonatan will be familiar with my positions on “Orthodox feminism” in terms of such issues as women reading Torah or Megillah, reciting Sheva Berakhot publicly, and even the ordination of women. But there is a down-side to all this as well: I see the home as becoming far less central in a society where two–career families are the norm; the family dinner table, where parents and children can meet and talk and exchange experiences in a (hopefully) warm and supportive atmosphere is rapidly becoming a thing of the past for many educated Westerners—between long working hours, fast foods, television, and internet. Observant Jews still have Shabbat and the Shabbat table, but even that is only one day out of seven. Given the objective circumstances of people’s lives, women’s equality is no more a matter of elementary fairness and equity; but it must be seen, not as some utopian vision, but as a response to the increasingly harsh and competitive nature of the global marketplace, one which has in turn brought in its wake a real crisis of sexuality and the family—a subject on which I will elaborate on another opportunity.

Though there is much that Michael Lerner (of Tikkun magazine) writes with which I do not agree, he has at least one important insight: that the religious Right in America, with their talk of family values and their militant reaction to such things as abortions and same-sex marriage, are expressing real pain. They see the traditional family crumbing around them, and with it a deep threat to essential human values that these hold dear. Lerner says that these feelings must be accepted, and that any program for rebuilding and changing society must include real concern for community and family—although hopefully with more tolerant and pluralistic, and less militaristic values, than those of the Right, and without a simplistic return to a world in which women are consigned to Kirche, Küche und Kinder —“Church, Kitchen and Children.”

This essay is dedicated to the memory of my mother, whose Yahrzeit falls this Shabbat. It seems appropriate to be discussing davka these subjects on this occasion, as during a good part of her adult life she was actively involved in movements for social change, specifically in a socialist direction. In retrospect, she and others of her generation were guilty of certain errors in these activities, supporting movements that promulgated equality and social justice at the expense of individual freedom and independent thought. But their errors were born of a certain naïvete, even innocence: there were certain horrors and perversions of idealism that, during the 1920s and ‘30s in America, were simply unimaginable. Today, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. Our culture by and large celebrates the autonomy of the private individual, the right to be any thing one chooses, to define oneself and one’s own identity—while equality, the dignity and right to minimal economic security of the ordinary “working man,“ are all but lost. The accomplishments of the labor movement, for which my parents and their cohorts struggled so hard, have largely become eroded. Today’s “Left” seems preoccupied with the politics of identity, of language, of “politically correct” expression, and less with real justice for all. (All this, without even mentioning the Jewish aspect: be it the threat to Jewish communal survival from radical individualism, or the political threat to Israel from simplistic views of the Middle East and knee-jerk support, especially by the British and European Left, of even the most outrageous Arab positions.)

“We were like unto Sodom”

A very disturbing incident occurred this past Sunday, that to me seems to embody the lack of social cohesion in today’s world. A motorcyclist—Moshe Yisraeli, aged 62, from Holon—was knocked off his motorcycle, while riding too close to two trucks, and lay on the central traffic lane at Ezor Junction, motionless. Nearly two minutes passed before anyone stopped to help him; by the time he arrived at the hospital he was dead. I don’t know if he could have been helped or would have died anyway, but the indifference displayed here is shocking: during those two minutes, perhaps 100 drivers passed through the intersection, and not a single one stopped to see what had happened. Did they all think he was no more than a heap of garbage that happened to land in the middle of the road? (Ironically, Yisraeli’s profession was that of driving instructor.)

I was reminded of the story of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman who was raped and murdered in her apartment house in Queens in 1964, in full view of dozens of neighbor’s windows. At the time this was seen as a disturbing symptom of the apathy, indifference and alienation of modern American society. But this happened here in Israel.

Once again, the issue seems that of social cohesion and mutual responsibility vs. the autonomy of the individual that seems to be advocated by “neo-liberalism.” Some years ago a ”Good Samaritan Law” was legislated by Israel’s Knesset, requiring an individual to stop and help if he sees another person in immediate and grave danger. Interestingly, the main opponents of the law when it was discussed in committee were secular liberals, who objected on two grounds: a) the fact that the Hebrew title of the law, which was taken from a biblical verse, “you shall not stand over your neighbor’s blood” (Lev 19:16); b) the “liberal” concept that that government governs best that governs least; in other words, a philosophical position that government oughtn’t to make any laws imposing ethical obligations on its citizens, even those of the most basic and seemingly self-evident kind (see Yair Eldan, Akdamot 11 [2001], 7-37). Last Sunday at Ezor we saw the result of that kind of thinking.

Iyyar (Months)

In Eretz Yisrael, Iyyar is considered the first month of yemot ha-hamah, “the days of sun-heat,” i.e., summer: following the brief transitional spring of Nissan, when trees blossom and flowers start to bloom, there begins the steady, gradually increasing warmth of summer, with its slow ripening of fruit and grain. The zodiacal symbol of the month is Taurus, the bull—one of the two such symbols that appears in the Divine chariot of Ezekiel’s vision, alongside the lion of Av. The bull, even more so than the lion, is a symbol of brute strength: the main farm animal in Israel, used for heavy labor, capable of pulling enormous weights. The tribes of Joseph are blessed as “a first-born bull, to whom is splendor; he has horns like a wild ox …” (Deut 33:17). Some people say that, following the simple joy of liberation and birth celebrated in Nissan, in which we experience Divine protectiveness as a sheep turning to its shepherd, the bull symbolizes the hard work of inner growth that one must do during Iyyar, in preparation for receiving Torah.

There are four main features of this month particularly worthy of comment: the counting of the Omer; the Torah portions; the new Israeli-Jewish days of commemoration and celebration of this month; and Lag ba-Omer.

1. Sefirat ha-Omer

The predominant mitzvah of this month is Sefirat ha-Omer, the counting of forty-nine days between Pesah and Shavuot. Although it begins during the latter half of Nissan, straight after Pesah, and continues into Sivan, Iyyar is the only month during which it is performed every single day. Interestingly, Lurianic Kabbalah relates Iyyar to the activity of thought. Thought—that subtlest, most intangible of all activities, the one least susceptible to sharp definition. In nature, one might say that this corresponds to the slow, hidden process of growth of trees and plants, from first flowering and blossoming to ripening and giving of first fruits around Shavuot. So, too, the intellectual and moral process of preparation for receiving the Torah, which is the main spiritual work of this period, cannot be measured quantitatively or defined in clearcut, objective terms.

Indeed, one might argue that there are two different aspects of Torah study. Rambam, following the gemara in Kiddushin 29a, speaks of three aspects of Torah study: miqra, mishnah, and gemara. The first two of these refer to the study of texts from the Scripture and from the Oral Torah: that is, learning, mastering a particular body or unit of material: Humash, Mishnah, etc. This is the origin of the concept of the daily shiur—a word used today to designate a class or lesson, but which really means a fixed quantity. A person can resolve to study a chapter of Tanakh, a page of Talmud, a section in the Tur or Shulhan Arukh, a chapter of Mishnah or Rambam, every day. But there is another type of learning, which can hardly even be called study in the textual sense: reflecting upon what one has learned, trying to understand it, to discern the relationships and interconnections among the different laws, their underlying logic, to attempt to understand the rationales for the mitzvot, or even to try to attain knowledge of God (all these, of course, within the limitations of the human mind). It is these latter that Rambam refers to as gemara (see Talmud Torah 1.11-12; and our discussion in HY V: Shavuot): an ever-deepening process of inner understanding and growth that by its very nature cannot be defined, and is a highly individual process. The image this evokes for me is one portrayed by Rav Soloveitchik in his essay on Halakhic Man: of Rav Hayyim of Brisk sitting in the study house one evening after Ma’ariv, reflecting upon a certain problem that emerged in the course of his learning with such profound concentration that he was totally oblivious to the passing of time—until the shamash came in as dawn was breaking to prepare the synagogue for Morning Prayers.

Nor can the ethical preparation for Shavuot be sharply defined or quantified either. The process of tikkun middot, of character improvement, is one of gradual inner growth and change, of uprooting bad ways and habits. It is a life-long project, of almost imperceptible maturing and ripening of the soul. (Occasionally one hears of a person who goes “cold turkey”—who stops using cigarettes, coffee, or alcohol; or of a ba’alei teshuvah who starts observing Shabbat or kashrut all at once—but these are the exception rather than the rule, and even then only apply to discrete, specific areas of life.) A person can never say “Now I have done complete teshuvah for everything I’ve ever done wrong” or “My character has now attained perfection” (R. Jonah Gerondi’s statement to the contrary in his Iggeret ha-Teshuvah is highly puzzling). Human failings may, if we’re very lucky and assiduous, become subtler, but they never disappear. All this, I see as somehow symbolized in the act of counting the days—nothing more, really, than simple attentiveness to time.

2. The Torah Portions: On Purity and Holiness

The Torah readings for the month of Iyyar correspond roughly to the second half of the book of Vayikra / Leviticus. This year we read Tazria-Metzora on the Shabbat of Rosh Hodesh, followed by the other portions of the book (some of them doubled up) during the weeks that follow. (Bamidbar, the opening, title reading of the Book of Numbers, is always the last portion before Shavuot, and almost always falls during or on the eve of Sivan, as this year.) The salient feature of the second half of Vayikra is the repeated use of such phrases as “that you may be holy” or “you shall be holy,” and the like—phenomena that led some Bible scholars to refer to it as “the Holiness Code” or the “Holiness document.”

The subject matter and themes of Vayikra may be roughly divided into three: (a) the sacrifices and their rules, concluding with the ceremonial investiture of the priests and the dedication of the Tabernacle, and the fiasco of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (Lev 1-10); (b) laws concerning tum’ah & taharah (“impurity” and “purity”): specifically, laws governing those creatures fit to eat or that are “tamei/ impure to you” and thus unfit to eat; the scaly skin disorder called tzara’at; various bodily discharges (Lev 11-15), culminating with the annual ceremony of atonement and purgation of the holy place, the altar and the Tent of Meeting “from the impurities of the children of Israel… among whom it dwells in their impurities” (Lev 16:16, 33); (c) a variety of laws, ranging from the slaughter of animals, to forbidden sexual connections, to various laws about interpersonal relations, through special rules governing the personal life of priests, the holy seasons of the year and the special sabbatical and jubilee years, ending with a chapter invoking blessing and curses upon the people, depending upon whether they observe or violate the covenant (Lev 17-26). The leit-motif of this last group of chapters is the frequent reference to ”holiness,” which reaches its high point in the introduction to Ch 19, “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The final chapter, Lev 27, is a kind of addendum, if not an afterthought (see Behukotai [Torah]).

It seems to me that the key to understanding this transition, and thus the book as a whole, is: what is the meaning of these two terms—purity/taharah and holiness/kedushah? While I cannot begin to undertake a comprehensive philological analysis of these terms, I can suggest one or two ways of thinking about them. The first point that stands out is that taharah, purity, is defined in a negative way: as the absence of tum’ah. And tum’ah, in turn, is concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with the body, with the world of physical phenomena. Taharah thus seems more a precondition for other, “higher” states than a value in itself—at least in its biblical definition.

Kedushah, by contrast, seems to be defined in a positive way. True, in one or two places here it is set off against its opposite, halal, (e.g. “you shall not profane My Holy Name” – Lev 22:32; or the profanation brought about by the harlotry of an Israelite or kohen’s daughter, as in 19:29; 21:9), but more often than not hullin is defined as an absence, a kind of “hollow” or space that calls out to be filled with holiness (yemei hol, lit., “profane days,” are simply the ordinary working days of the week).

On one level, the positive definition of kedushah implies “separation,” connected with withdrawal and separation from gross physicality (“Wherever you find [separation from] licentiousness, there you find holiness”—Rashi at Lev 19:2); when we speak of God as holy, indeed, triply so, the image conjured up is of Him dwelling in the remote heavens, ensconced in the recesses of infinity, untouchable, awesome, even frightening.

But the striking thing about the kedushah passages in Leviticus is that kedushah is presented there as a human possibility: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2). This verse, a kind of general heading, is followed both by “religious,” ritual laws (Sabbath, respecting the Temple, animal sacrifices to be offered in a whole-hearted way, etc.), and by a series of laws about inter-personal actions. Moreover, these latter include not only overt, clearly definable actions, but also inner attitudes, things that reflect a sense of human solidarity and caring for the other, of community and mutual responsibility which cannot be legislated, certainly not enforced, but depend upon the conscience of each individual: do not stand by the blood of your fellow; do not put a stumbling block before the blind (interpreted broadly as: do not do anything to mislead others, relying on the thought that you won’t be caught); don’t hold grudges or engage in vindictive actions; and the crowning, “golden” rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If the opening verse, “you shall be holy,” is read as a heading, then this definition of holiness embraces, not only the body and its ritual purity, but the mind, the emotions, the very soul.

Among Musar authors, those medieval pietists who articulated the spiritual goals to which a Jew ought to strive, we find holiness near the pinnacle of those stages to be attained. Thus, in R. Hayyim David Luzzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim, based on R. Pinhas b. Yair’s progression of stages in growth, kedushah stands near the top, while taharah is somewhere in the middle, slightly above “zeal” and “carefulness.” But there are also places were the two are mentioned in tandem: the phrase be-kedushah uve-taharah (“with holiness and purity”) appears prominently several times in the liturgy. Indeed, in the concluding section of the special blessing for the Shabbat Amidah it is purity that seems to be the ultimate goal, in the phrase ve-taher libenu le-ovdekha be-emet, “purify our hearts to serve You in truth.”

An interesting point about the understanding of kedushah implied by these passages in Vayikra is the position occupied by sexuality, in both the positive and negative senses. The above-mentioned “holiness” chapter, Leviticus 19, is surrounded on either side by laws dealing with forbidden sexual liaisons: the one, Ch. 18, listing forbidden relations, while the other, Ch. 20, gives the sanctions pertaining to them. What I find interesting is that the former speaks of forbidden sex in terms of tum’ah, using variants of the root tamei no less than six times in vv. 24-30; while the latter has repeated variants of the word kadosh: that is, by refraining from these acts, one becomes holy (e.g., 20:7, 26). I see this duality as corresponding to the dual nature of sexuality itself: on the one hand, a biological interaction between two physical bodies, identical to that performed by the beasts of the field, yielding direct and immediate bodily pleasure; on the other hand—and this is the source of both the problematic and the fascination and intrigue of human sexuality—it is an act that contains the potential for expressing the deepest feelings of love, of intimacy, of union of both body and soul, possible for two human beings—of two beings who, by dint of their humanity, are centers of consciousness, feeling, thought, spirit, etc. Or, to put it slightly differently, sex is perhaps that area in which we most consistently encounter the ebb and flow of duality and unity in the very cosmos—but more on that another time.

To return to our main theme: understood as embracing the mind, the spirit, that uniquely human which is made in the Divine image, the theme of kedushah/ holiness dovetails well into the themes of Sefirat ha-Omer and of thought mentioned earlier.

3. Israeli National Holidays: Thoughts About A New Jew and an Old Jew

For most ordinary Jews, certainly those living in Israel, Iyyar is first and foremost the month of the modern Jewish national holidays: Yom ha-Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, that falls on the 5th day of this month. Moreover, at least in the cycle of Israeli “civic religion” and public commemoration, in public ceremony and in printed and electronic media, the entire period from Pesah on is one of reflection and celebration of various events in Jewish peoplehood: from Pesah itself, the festival of our ancient liberation; through Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on 27th Nissan; to Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for those who fell in establishing or defending the state; to Yom Ha-Atzmaut itself; through, towards the end of month, Yom Yerushalayim, the day on which Jerusalem was reunited in the Six Day War.

In previous years I have addressed the ideological issues raised by the role of Israel and Zionism in modern Jewish life, as well as the need for a new liturgy to mark this day properly (some of these have been posted on my blog; see below for the URL). This year, however, I would like to discuss Yom ha-Atzmaut through the prism of two lives that, in recent months, came to an end in any meaningful sense. The first of these two figures is Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister, who suffered a massive stroke in the opening days of 2006. Since that time he has been in a deep coma. While he is still alive, his active public life is clearly over; indeed, it is highly doubtful whether he will ever even regain consciousness. With the official installation of the Olmert government, probably later this week, he will cease to hold even nominally the title of Prime Minister.

I see Sharon, with both his faults and virtues, as embodying the model of the “New Jew” the new human type which Zionism, and in its wake the State of Israel, sought to create. Sharon, as the last major figure of the generation of the War of Independence to have remained active in public life (while Shimon Peres, at 83, is still very much alive and kicking, his career was exclusively that of a civilian, a senior civil servant and diplomat/statesman; he was never immersed in the world of the military, which is such a quintessential part of Israeli experience, and as such belongs to a very different mold as Sharon), thus represents the end of an era. There is a sense that the heroic age of Israel is over: that the country has reached a certain maturity, uneasy and insecure as that may yet be; that the time when each individual saw himself as being called upon to engage in ongoing personal sacrifice and intense dedication to the state has clearly passed. Today, Israel is very much a private society, like other established Western societies.

Interestingly, this year’s Independence Day marks Israel’s 58th—in gematria, noah, a word that can mean either “comfortable” or “complacent.” In much the same way, our Sages disagree as to whether the biblical Noah of the flood was a hero, defying his generation, or a mediocrity, outstanding only when compared with the evil men of his time.

What are the characteristic features of the “New Jew”? First of all, secularism: a substitution of the land, the Hebrew language, the history of the Jewish people per se for the religious tradition (Moshe Idel recently remarked that, during a certain point in recent history, historians rather than rabbis were seen as the authorized interpreters of Jewish existence). An emphasis on the Tanakh as The Jewish Book par excellence, to the exclusion of such Diaspora creations as Talmud, Midrash, Jewish thought and mysticism, halakhah, etc. An almost sacred mystique of “knowledge of the land,” with the tiyyul, the foot-trek into every corner of the Land of Israel, as an almost religious ritual.

Second, the New Jew cultivated bodily strength and masculinity, at times even a kind of machoism, in pointed contrast to the ghetto Jew. Where the latter was weak, pale, a creature of the indoors, who pored over dusty old books, cultivating mind and soul at the expense of the body (thus the stereotype), the New Jew was vital, strong, able and ready to fight when need be—and if he had an eye for the ladies, and more, that was a mere peccadillo, that could be forgiven someone cut in the heroic mold. There is a kind of brashness in the “Israeli national character” (again, we are speaking here in archetypes, if not stereotypes), a sense of rugged independence, a bit like the pioneers of the American West or the rugged Yankees of rural New England. There is a certain attitude that “nobody can tell me what to do”—even to the point of defiance of the authority of the Jewish state that was created to fulfill this dream, or of the orderly chain of military command.

Closely related to these qualities of “rugged individualism” is a certain element of improvisation, of resourcefulness—often considered of as quintessential Israeli qualities: le-alter, to invent a solution to a problem when no conventional answer is ready at hand. To make do with what is available—an often indispensable quality in a young, relatively poor country, without a long tradition of how things are done. But the downside of this is the idea that the ends justify the means, and that “rules are made to be broken.” Together with this goes a certain informality, of dress, manner and speech; a refusal to stand on ceremony and—to my mind, a very positive virtue—a certain rudimentary equality among all, in which even national leaders refuse to hold themselves above ordinary citizens. An important concept in Israeli society is the Hevreman—the person who cares about other people, who remembers old friends, who talks in a down-to-earth, “unbuttoned” manner to high and low alike, however important the position he may hold.

While the above portrait is a composite picture of the “New Jew,” much of it applies to Sharon. He was certainly “a man of the land”: he knew every stone in Eretz Yisrael, walked its length and breadth, and believed firmly, more than anything else, in Eretz Yisrael as the natural home of Jewish people. He grew up on a moshav in the north and, when not in the Army, lived on the land: he saw himself, perhaps somewhat romantically, as a farmer, with a large private farm in the northern Negev, Havat Shikmim, where he raised sheep and cattle.

Sharon is perceived as always having had a strong mind of his own: even in the military, where hierarchy and acceptance of orders from ones superiors is a sina qua non, Sharon often went off on his own, from the period of his command of Gedud 101 in the early 1950’s on. Some say that, despite his great personal charisma and abilities, he never became Ramatka”l, Chief of Staff, because he annoyed so many people in the military hierarchy. This trait reached its pinnacle during the Lebanon War when, together with the late Raful, he planned the campaign that went all the way to Beirut, without consulting either Begin or the other cabinet ministers. During his years in the Housing and other Ministries, he was likewise notorious for disregarding regulations and hijacking budgets to establish settlements or to push other projects that were close to his heart, earning him the title of “bulldozer.” Again, Sharon’s famous insistence on going up to the Temple Mount in September 2000 is seen by many as, if not a deliberate provocation, at very least an act of gross insensitivity, reminiscent of nothing so much as the proverbial bull in the china-shop.

Another classic problem of the New Jew—perhaps his Achilles heel—was that, in attempting to invert the worldview and priorities of the ghetto Jew, who had to kowtow to the Gentiles (again, according to Zionist historiography), he adopted an attitude of arrogance and lording it over the “natives.” Ben-Gurion’s saying, “It doesn’t matter what the nations say, but what the Jews do.” In the case of the Arabs, who were both our closest neighbors and our bitterest enemies, this led to an attitude of seeing the Arabs “through the sight of a rifle.” There was a certain arrogance towards them, never a real dialogue. Even after Arafat’s death, which seemed to many to herald the possible opening of a real dialogue, Sharon studiously ignored Abu Mazen. His much heralded turn-about, from supporting West Bank settlements to dismantling Gush Katuf, was really a unilateral action, not based on any attempt at cooperation with Palestinian leadership.

By all accounts Sharon was not an aloof or distant leader—notwithstanding his often high-handed behavior within his own party and in dealing with ideological opposition. This was doubtless part of his enormous popular appeal. He always looked unnatural in a sit and tie. Indeed, he was rather inarticulate as a speaker, inspiring by deeds rather than words. Yael Dayan, in a book written as a young soldier when she was still in her 20’s, describes Sharon standing atop of a tank in the Sinai during the 1967 War as a figure radiating strength and courage.

For me personally, his charisma and popularity remain a mystery. I nevertheless see him as a symbol of something vital and fundamental in Israeli life. His passing from public life symbolizes the end of an era, and signals the need for Israel to grapple with basic issues of how to live in a post-heroic age, with leaders who are no more than life size.

I now turn to my second figure. One Shabbat in mid-winter, Rav Yitzhak Kaduri, known as the elder of the Kabbalists in Israel, died, aged somewhere between 106 and 112. If Sharon was a quintessential “New Jew,” Rav Kaduri may rightly be seen as his antithesis, as an “Old Jew,” not only by virtue of his venerable age, but because of what he symbolized culturally. I see him as a symbol of a strange and unexpected direction taken by Israeli culture in recent decades.

It’s difficult to say much about Rav Kaduri’s life. There are those who believe he was a gadol batorah, a great Tzaddik, certainly a master of Kabbalistic literature. As far as I know, he was not a prolific or a creative author, nor did he develop a new system or startlingly new insights into Kabbalah—or if he did, it was only within his own narrow circle. (I first heard of him in the early 1980s, from a friend, a highly educated professional who suffered from a severe chronic illness, who went to him—out of desperation?—for a cure where conventional medicine was of no avail.) But he was known as a “practical Kabbalist,” as someone who knew how to use his knowledge of esoteric, secret traditions to manipulate cosmic spheres and influence the affairs of men. About twenty years ago, Rav Kaduri—alongside with several other such Kabbalists—began to emerge on the public stage as a figure offering blessing, healing, and advice on crucial life decisions on the basis of esoteric knowledge gained from the Kabbalah. Later still, politicians started coming to him, and he became a political force of sorts, along with the ghosts of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Babba Sali.

It is my sense that Rav Kaduri had a great reserve of innocence and simplicity. Some say that he was a simple man of faith, an artisan who earned his living most of his life through the labor of his hands, studying Kabbalah in his free time; it was only in his old age that he was “discovered,” became a wonder-working Kabbalist, and gained a popular following. His deepest striving was to be a holy, pious man. There was an almost child-like innocence about him. He spoke in utter simplicity about talking to the angels, or of exorcizing demons by asking them to show respect for his advanced age, etc. Whatever public hoopla surrounded him seems to have been created by others—whether family, political leaders, or others—who took advantage of his charisma for financial or political advantage.

What is more interesting is that he became popular, not only among the pious, nor even among non-observant Sephardim, who have a tradition of respecting “holy men,” but among thoroughly secularized, Westernized politicians, entertainers, and business people. One finds the notion among many Israelis that, even if one doesn’t oneself aspire or make any attempt to implement Judaism in ones own life, one can express religiosity by respecting and revering some old rabbi with a long white beard as a holy man.

There are those who surely dismiss the whole phenomenon as representing a kind of escape from modernity, with all its problems and conundrums, retreating to the most primitive, irrational, even superstitious, pre-modern aspects of “old-time” Judaism. Yet even if not articulated in those terms, it seems to me that this phenomenon and others related to it—the whole phenomenon of hazarah beteshuvah, of revival of religious Judaism in all its variety and different schools—go deeper. They reflect a certain discontent with secular Zionism and the image of the New Jew; an intuitive feeling among many that the attempts of secular Zionism to define Jewish identity have proven inadequate, are somehow disappointing or even bankrupt. That they have failed to nourish the deeper longings and needs of the human soul, and that return to “old-time religion”—at times, in its most bizarre forms—somehow provides a better, alternative answer.

4. Lag ba-Omer

Finally, in mid-Iyyar, we have the half-holiday of Lag va-Omer, at whose center is the figure of R. Shimon bar Yohai, the reputed author of Sefer ha-Zohar, the central work of Jewish mysticism. Whatever may have been his actual inner world, both Talmud and Zohar paint him as the quintessence of the other-worldly, theocentric mystic. Due to considerations of time and space, we shall postpone our discussion of him, and of his holiday, to a later date (see below, in the archives).

Friday, May 04, 2007

Emor (Rashi)

For further teachings on the parsha, see the archives for May 2006 below.

Holy—Against Their Will

I present a few short comments of Rashi on various points in this parsha:

Lev 21:6. “They shall be holy to their God.” Rashi: Against their will the Court has sanctified them for this (Torat Kohanim).

This verse, which appears in the context of the special laws and restrictions applied to the Aaronide priesthood, speaks of the special sanctity they enjoy, inter alia as a result of those selfsame restrictions. Rashi emphasizes here that this holiness is one that is imposed upon them—indeed, following the original generation of priests discussed here, it comes automatically with their birth into the priestly families—as indicated by the use of the third person: kedoshim yihyu, “they shall be holy.”

It seems to me that this is in clear contrast to the opening verse of one of last week’s parshiyot:

Lev 19:2. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Rashi: “You shall be holy.” You should be separate yourselves from licentiousness and from transgression (Lev Rab 24.6). For wherever you find a boundary of sexual license you find holiness. “They shall not take to wife a wanton woman or one profaned… I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (Lev 21:7).

Here the call to holiness is expressed in action, in certain imperatives, as expressed in the use of the second person, kedoshim tihyu. Rashi reads this as a call to separate oneself from transgression, particularly of the sexual kind, drawing a link between a certain measure of asceticism and holiness; Ramban expands the horizons considerably, defining holiness in terms of “Sanctify yourselves with [even] regarding at which his permitted”; yet others see this as a general heading for the entire gamut of social and ethical norms given in this chapter. Be that as it may, Rashi here comes full circle to our case of the kohanim, noting that they are subject to certain sexual proscriptions over and beyond those applying to other Jews, and that this is seen as sanctifying them in a special way. (At times, this rule makes for no little trouble and suffering for older unmarried kohanim and the women who may love them, in a world where divorce is rife and the majority of available women beyond a certain age are divorcées—but this is by way of an aside).

The implication here—that holiness is in some sense “thrust” upon one—is an important one in today’s world, where Jewish commitment is more often than not perceived as freely chosen by the individual. Hence, there is a greater emphasis today upon love rather than fear, upon inner feeling and experience, upon “spirituality” and one’s “personal relationship with God.” All this is well and good, but it too has its pitfalls. There is a constant need for a balance between such sentiments and the idea of the heteronomy of the Torah, of “He held the mountain above them like a barrel”—that is, that the imperatives of the Torah, as of religious and ethical norms generally, come from a place far transcending the self.

“My Appointed Times that You Shall Declare”

We now turn to the chapter on the calendar and the festivals of the Jewish year:

Lev 23:2. “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them the appointed times of the Lord which they shall declare as holy convocations; these are my appointed times.” Rashi: Set appointed times so that Israel may learn in them [or: that Israel may be used to them; or: that all Israel may be present in them]; for one intercalates the year for the exiles who were uprooted from their place to go up for the pilgrimage feast, and have not yet reached Jerusalem.

The language is a bit awkward, and there is even some certain textual difficulty and alternate readings at one point, but the basic sense is clear enough: the appointed times, which are not only God’s but are declared by Israel, should be fixed in such a way that they are convenient for those making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, particularly the exiles who need to travel a long distance. (NB: During much of the Second Temple period an absolute majority of the Jewish people lived in exile in the Hellenistic world, either in Egypt or north of the Land of Israel, in Asia Minor.) As Rashi implies in a later comment (see below), the consideration here is: intercalate the years so that Pesah won’t fall at the end of winter, so that people won’t have to trudge through rain and mud.

23:4. “These are the appointed times of the Lord, the holy convocations, that you should call in their proper times.” Rashi: “These are the appointed times of the Lord.” Above, it refers to intercalating the year; here, it speaks of sanctifying the new moon.

Here Rashi is concerned by a seeming redundancy in the Torah: why does the Torah repeat almost the identical phrase twice, and in such close proximity? His answer is that this expression, specifically the phrase “that you shall call,” refers to two distinct activities of the Court in fixing the calendar: one, the monthly declaration of the new moon; the other, the occasional (every two or three years) intercalation of an entire extra month, intended to adjust the festival to the proper season. One must remember that the Jewish sacred calendar is basically a lunar one, 12 lunar months of 29½ days each adding to an average of 354 days; but this leaves one 11¼ days short of the solar year, so that if left uncorrected the festival days would wander all over the seasons of the natural year—as indeed the Islamic calendar does. Hence, it is corrected by the periodic addition of an extra month—in ancient times, decided and declared ad hoc by the High Court; today, by fixed formula—making it a “solar-lunar calendar.”

The central idea in both these comments is that the appointed times are determined by Israel, an idea made explicit in the phrase “that you shall declare in their appointed times.” A well-known midrash depicts God himself being asked by his celestial entourage, “Nu, so when is yom tov this year?” to which the Almighty answers: “I don’t know. Ask Israel’s Sanhedrin: whatever they say goes.” (Exod Rab 15.2, in my rather colloquial paraphrase)

These same phrases appear yet a third time, near the end of the chapter, in verse 37, rather strangely breaking up the section on Sukkot in the middle, giving what might be called a “false summation” of the entire chapter (like certain works of classical music in which the composer teases the listener with a premature coda). This is followed by those specific laws of Sukkot which do not relate to the sacrificial system. While Rashi does not comment on this verse as such, in verse 39 he makes a comment that again relates to the establishing of the dates of the festivals by the Court:

Lev 23:39. “But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you ingather the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord…” Rashi: “When you ingather the produce of the land”—that the seventh month shall occur at the time of the ingathering. From this it follows they were commanded to intercalate the years, for were it not for the ibbur, at times it would fall in the middle of the summer or the winter.

“The words of Torah are poor in one place and rich in another”—that is, that which seems ambiguous or absent in one passage is eventually explained elsewhere. From the above example, we may say that the same holds true of Rashi: what is at times terse and laconic in one place, is fully explicated elsewhere.

“Sir, have you no shame?”

I do not ordinarily engage in political discussion in these pages, but this time I cannot be silent. The above words, originally addressed in 1954 by senior US Army counsel Joseph Welch to Senator Joseph McCarthy, may be applied equally well to Ehud Olmert.

I never thought that I would have a good word to say about the late Richard Nixon—crook, conniver, witch-hunter, cold warrior, demagogue—but I must say that in the present situation I long for the sense of shame and dignity he demonstrated when he resigned his high office rather than wait for Congress to impeach him.

Our own Prime Minister has been held accountable for the worst military fiasco in Israel’s short history, whose long-range consequences are yet to be seen. After appointing a hand-picked governmental investigating commission, rather than a blue-ribbon, quasi-judicial state commission, he refuses to accept the implicit findings of that same group—namely, that in the critical moment he revealed great incompetence and ought to resign—and persists in sticking to his chair.

Sabers are again rattling in the Middle East and there is talk of war, perhaps as early as this summer. Cool, mature heads are needed. The people have lost their trust in this man, a situation intolerable in any democracy even in peacetime, let alone one facing the specter of war. How can he ignore 98% of the body politic, and that of his own Deputy PM, who have declared that they have no confidence in him? Drinking Turkish coffee with Gulf emirs and Saudi dignitaries, whose countries don’t have a common border with Israel, won’t solve our pressing problems.

Indeed, there is no shame left in Zion. Ehud is not alone. There is something about Israeli political culture that seems to create people with an exaggerated self-confidence. Perhaps it’s part of the psycho-cultural reaction to the timid, frightened image of the Galut Jew (itself more a stereotype than a reality) that has played a decisive role in the Zionist notion of the “New Jew.” An interview this weekend with the beleaguered Defense Minister includes the line, “Peretz, even though a secular socialist, has faith. He believes in himself…” (!) I fear that Olmert’s ouster, necessary as it is, may be a mixed blessing: waiting in the wings are two former PMs, neither of whose terms were brilliant successes, who will be vying to replace him. They will tell the public that they oughtn’t to be held accountable for their previous record of bad judgments because “I’ve changed; I’ve learned from my past mistakes.” Admittedly, we Jews believe in teshuvah, in the ability of individuals to alter their character—but that does not mean that there should be placed in their hands the helm of that which is most precious to the Jewish people—the future of the Third House, of our rebuilt national home!

An Exchange on Taharah

As this week’s parasha contains the proscriptions against kohanim having any contact with the bodies of the dead (with a handful of exceptions), this seems an opportune occasion to share a recent exchange with a friend on a subject pertaining to Jewish burial. My friend, a member of the board of directors of a Jewish cemetery in Connecticut, told me, during his recent visit to Israel, of a controversy that had arisen around the subject of taharah, the ritual cleaning of the dead in preparation for burial. He later wrote regarding some of the specifics:

• The Cemetery Association was founded by “Conservative-leaning” individuals independent of any specific congregation;

• A burial recently occurred wherein the decedent specifically requested that taharah (or any other ‘Jewish’ act) not be performed;

• Existing by-laws [prior to January 2007] made no mention of mandatory taharah requirements;

• A number of individuals had purchased future interment plots under the assumption that taharah was optional;

• An amendment to the by-laws was recently promulgated requiring the mandatory performance of taharah, resulting in an ad-hoc meeting between the local Reform Rabbi, some of his objecting congregants, and cemetery association representatives; emotions ran high.

• As the question of taharah had never previously been raised (it was always naturally assumed), the Reform Rabbi stated that, in all likelihood, a goodly number of his deceased congregants already interred in the cemetery probably had not undergone taharah;

Thus, in a nutshell, we have the traditionalists objecting on the grounds that the cemetery might somehow be defiled by “impure” burials, while those on the Reform side object, for whatever reason, to the mandatory performance of taharah.

In my response, I stated that taharah is a time-honored Jewish practice, which essentially consists of the washing and cleansing of the body before being laid to rest. The exact details of practice, both in terms of the detailed procedure and of the various prayers and biblical verses recited by some, vary at different times and places. The main halakhic sources I found are Tur and Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah §352; Rambam, Hilkhot Avel 4.1 ff.; and Yehiel Tukazinsky’s Gesher ha-Hayyim.

The Rambam perhaps sums it up when he uses the words minhag yisrael bamet uvekevurah—“the practice of Israel regarding the dead and burial.” My sense is that the obligation falls under the general rubric of “respectful handling of the dead,” which is in turn a major example of the more general obligation of gemillut hesed, performing acts of loving-kindness to others in a variety of life situations, from the cradle to the grave (visiting the sick, rejoicing bride and groom, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming guests in one’s home, and loaning money without interest are all examples). All these acts stem from the concept of imitatio dei, imitating God’s qualities. These obligations are incumbent upon every Jew, and by extension upon the Jewish community as a whole, which often sets up special bodies to perform these tasks, acting in its name.

I nowhere found any indication that lack of taharah is reason to exclude a given deceased from burial. It seems clear to me that taharah is incumbent upon the family of the deceased, or the Hevra Kaddisha, and that the deceased should not be penalized for this omission (even if he/she specifically requested it). Burying the dead is a mitzvah in its own right, and as such not dependent upon any other prerequisite other than that the person be Jewish and, of course, dead.

Regarding an unpurified body somehow “contaminating” the cemetery: there is a certain paradox in the very use of the term taharah in this context, as a corpse is referred to as avi avot hatumah, the highest, gravest category of ritual impurity, incapable of being restored to halakhic taharah. The explanation is that, like many words, the term taharah is used here in a borrowed sense, and not meant literally.

On the other hand, I fail to understand the objection of the Reform camp to the practice of taharah, unless it’s a matter of “freedom of conscience” or the like. Other cultures, most notably the European Christian one, practice “laying out” of the dead, which simply means washing and dressing the body in a reverent way. Taharah is the Jewish equivalent to “laying out,” with certain variations that come with Jewish culture. I wonder whether the objection to taharah may not be that people don’t like to think about the dead being prepared, and professional morticians somehow present an image of sterility and distance that enable relatives to not really think about the process.

The alternative is embalming, which from a Jewish viewpoint is seen as disrespectful, and even somewhat pagan in its attitude toward death, trying to artificially beautify or in some sense deny the reality of death. (For more on this subject, see my article about “Hevra Kaddisha” in The Third Jewish Catalogue [1980], 136-138. I myself served as a member of the Hevra Kaddisha of Greater Boston during the period I lived in that area, 1969-74, and participated in several dozen taharahs.) In any event, in practice the two are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, I might mention that I discussed this matter with Rabbi David Gollenkin, the leading Masorati (Conservative) posek in Israel. He agreed with my general analysis, and referred me to a responsum he once wrote on the matter (in Hebrew) available on the Rabbinical Assembly website,, in Volume 5 of the RAI Responsa. He suggested that a diplomatic way of resolving the problem would be to make a public statement that the cemetery board of directors strongly recommends taharah as a positive Jewish act, but will not exclude any deceased because of its absence. On the other hand, a prominent figure in the mainstream Orthodox world whom I approached on this subject commented that “There are rabbis in Connecticut”—in other words, that he felt it improper to rule on a question originating in an area where there are other rabbis whose jurisdiction it properly is.

On a Lighter Note

Following such a somber theme, here is the URL of a Sports’ Lover Sefirat ha-Omer Calendar: As my late grandmother would say: “America goniff!”

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Rashi)

For more teaching on these (and the next) parshiyot, see the archives below, at May 2006.

Are the Laws of Sexual Behavior “Laws” or “Statutes”?

This week’s double parasha contains the core laws governing arayot, improper sexual liaisons: a list of prohibited relations in Leviticus 18 (Aharei Mot) and their attendant sanctions in Chapter 20 (Kedoshim). Rashi’s remarks on the introductory verse to the former of these two chapters are interesting:

Lev 18:2. “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God.” Rashi: “I am the Lord your God.” I am He who said at Sinai, “I am the Lord your God” [Exod 20:2], and you accepted My kingship upon yourselves; from now on, accept my edicts. Rabbi said: It is known before me that they shall ultimately be drawn after licentiousness in the days of Ezra; therefore I came to them with the edict, “I am the Lord your God.” Know who it is that issues an edict upon you: He who can take recompense and is faithful to reward.

Rashi picks up on the phrase “I am the Lord your God,” used to introduce this chapter, drawing a comparison to its use in the first of the Ten Commandments. This in itself is a bit strange, because the phrase is used several times before here, both in the Book of Leviticus and earlier (e.g., Exod 29:46; Lev 11:44, 45), and appears as a veritable leitmotif in the next chapter, Lev 19, the heart of the so-called Holiness Code. But one could plausibly argue that its position here, at the beginning of the chapter rather than as a festive peroration in the other passages mentioned, indicates that it has a special significance here, as Rashi elaborates. He suggests that it means here “you accepted My kingship; now accept my edicts”—the acceptance of God and of His Torah, while naturally linked, represent two separate and distinct stages in the religious covenant between Israel and god: only once God is coronated, so to speak, is it possible to speak of His authority to issue laws and edicts over the people.

Rashi continues by drawing a connection between the general concept of “edicts” (gezerot) and the specific subject of sexual laws, quoting the statement of “Rabbi” (i.e., Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi, redactor of the Mishnah) in Torat Kohanim (a tannaitic midrash) applying this verse to sexual impropriety: specifically, the taking of foreign wives during the period of the Babylonian exile, which was one of the major social and religious stumbling blocks during the period of the Return to Zion (see Ezra 9 and 10; this is in itself somewhat strange, as marriage with non-Jewish women, while hardly condoned by the halakhah, does not fall under the rubric of arayot—but we must leave that point aside.)

Two verses further along, Rashi provides a definition of this concept:

18:4. “You shall do My laws and observe my statutes, to walk in them; I am the Lord your God.” Rashi: “You shall do my laws.” These are the things that are justifiably stated in the Torah by right, which had they not been said it would be proper that they be said. “And observe my statutes”—things that are edicts of the King, which the Evil Urge challenges: Why must we observe them? And that the nations of the world murmur against, such as [not] eating swine and [not] wearing linsey-woolsey and the purifying waters [of the Red Heifer; see Num 19]. Therefore it says “I am the Lord”: I am the Lord who has made the edict upon you, you are not permitted to excuse yourselves.

The concept itself is a familiar one, elaborated elsewhere (the classic example being the chapter of the Red Heifer; see Num 19:2 and Rashi ad loc., where he uses wording similar to that used here). Essentially, mishpatim are those laws which could be derived by human reason, whose necessity would be recognized by any reasonable human being; enactments that would in some sense be seen as universal, as conforming to the inborn dictates of human conscience or “natural law.” Hukim, by contrast, are those laws that seem arbitrary, even absurd, to the human intellect. These may be laws of a ritual nature; laws whose obedience signifies, more than anything else, the human surrender of the believer to the Divine will. This is similar to the distinction drawn by R. Saadya Gaon, only a few centuries before Rashi, between mitzvot sikhliyot and mitzvot shimi’iyot: “rational commandments” and “revealed commandments.”

But there is a difficulty here. Why does Rashi seem to assume that arayot fall under the heading of gezerot? Why does he introduce the subject of gezerot specifically here, in the context of arayot? Arayot are specifically described in various places in the Rabbinic tradition as falling under the rubric of “rational commandments.” Thus, the reader using Torah Temimah will find, on the very same page as this Rashi, a quotation from a beraita in Yoma 67b giving as examples of mishpatim the proscriptions against “idolatry, arayot, bloodshed, robbery, and blasphemy.” And indeed, any fair-minded, objective observer of human society will reach the conclusion that sexual licentiousness spells trouble, and that rules against adultery, incest, and homosexuality all serve an important social function in protecting the family, which is the basic core or cell of human society. Were a society to permit adultery, people might well end up killing one another out of sexual jealousy (some hippy communes in the 1960s which tried to train people to share sexual partners and to regard jealousy as a vestige of “bourgeois morality” inevitably ended splitting up over one or another romantic triangle); were incest sanctioned, the family would no longer function as a safe unit for raising children (and it would appear that childhood sexual abuse with its dire consequences is far more prevalent than formerly suspected); etc.

Why then does Rashi classify these laws under the rubric of gezerot, in his comments on both these verses? I would like to suggest that arayot falls into an interesting place between these two categories. On the one hand, they are indeed mishpatim, rational laws, in the sense that a philosopher or jurist sitting calmly in his study would come to the conclusion that their utility and necessity are virtually self-evident. On the other hand, a person confronted with actual sexual temptation—say, a man confronted with an attractive woman, sending clear signals of sexual interest, but who happens to be married to another man—will find his Yetzer Hara strongly aroused and prompting him to go ahead and commit the forbidden act; as Rashi puts it, hukim are those “edicts of the King which the Evil Urge challenges.” In such a situation, reason is likely to prove an inadequate brake to temptation; indeed, his ratio is likely to produce rationalizations. What is needed here is “fear of God”—the feeling that there is a God above who has commanded him and judges his actions (even if he is a modern secularist who may call it “conscience,” “ethics,” “values,” “fidelity,” or “I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I did such and such a thing”—it boils down to the same thing).

Incidentally, from a purely halakhic viewpoint, I don’t know of any practical difference if one classifies a given law or group of laws as hukim or mishpatim; it is more a matter of philosophy, of ta’amei hamitzvot, so that there is room here for ambiguity or, as I have suggested, a given type of law straddling the line between the categories.

“The righteous one is gone from the earth, and the upright man is no more” (Micah 7:2)

On Monday, Iyyar 5, R. Moshe Klibanoff departed this world. He was 80 years old. While every human being is ultimately a mystery, carrying the secrets of his life to the grave, this seemed particularly true of Moshe. There was something essentially mysterious about him. Who was he? Of what was his essence made?

I know little about the external facts of his life. He was born in New York City in 1927, to a somewhat traditional, but non-Orthodox family. He served in the US Army in Germany at the very end of the Second World War, where he evidently suffered a trauma of some sort. He studied at. At some time during this period he began to become interested in Judaism. He once mentioned that during the late ‘40s he was part of a group at Columbia College that studied Hasidism with the young Shlomo Carlebach. He came to Israel, where he made his home, in the early 1960s. Here, he studied with Hugo Bergman, and counted among his mentors both Martin Buber and, later, Reb Gedaliah Koenig, an old-time Breslav hassid from Meah Shearim who was open to teaching people from the “outside.” I don’t know if and what his profession was, nor how he made a living. When I first met him he was an old bachelor; he married his wife Yonah quite late in life, with whom he had one daughter, Leah, today 30.

I first met Moshe at the home of Reb Gedaliah in 1971. Because Reb Gedaliah spoke no English, Moshe served as his translator. He performed this task in a singularly soft, cultured, and expressive, almost musical voice. He did not cut what is called “an impressive figure”: he was rather short, wore a somewhat dusty dark suit and beat-up black hat, and his face was dominated by a very full, somewhat unkempt beard and payot.

There are two things that I found particularly striking about Moshe. As one of the eulogists at his funeral commented, he saw himself as a devotee of both Breslav and Buber. In other words, he combined a deep religiosity—meaning not only piety, in the sense of meticulous observance of the halakhah, but also a deep sense of the immediacy of God—with a deep love and connection to the Western humanistic tradition, including such un-Orthodox Jewish figures as Buber. (At an international conference honoring Buber’s centennial in 1978, Moshe, the only person there with beard and payos, stood up to declare that he became a hasid through reading Buber.) Moshe, throughout his life, maintained a lively, one might say eclectic, interest in a wide gamut of subjects. He spent many hours at the Hebrew University library, where I would often encounter him. He was as likely to talk about the Masons and the impact of their symbolism on the great seal of the United States, as he was to talk about Hasidic rebbes or the Talmud. I found this a refreshing contrast to many neophytes to Orthodox Judaism, who often seem to abandon their former cultural orientation and interests.

He also had a deep commitment to peace, to rapprochement between Jews and Arabs, to universal love of humanity—again, in strong contrast to the bon ton of the Orthodox world. One of his projects was to print and distribute the “Prayer for Peace” by Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov (R. Nahman’s Boswell), which he had translated into both English and Arabic. Among his closest friends was a non-religious peace activist, Yohanan, who died tragically young in a hiking accident. He spoke of him with deep pain, gave classes in his memory, and was much concerned about assuring that proper use be made of the vast library he left behind.

Moshe had great intellectual and spiritual vitality. When I heard of the gravity of his illness, just two days before he died (the last Shabbat of his life friends organized a minyan in the garden outside of his house, so that he could hear the prayers and Torah reading through the window of his room—a very moving occasion), and someone mentioned that he was over 80, I was quite surprised. I had never thought of him as “an old man”: there was something timeless and ageless about him; he was now and again beset by health problems, but his mind and spirit and interest in all aspects of life were those of a young person.

The second striking thing about him was that he was a kind of “holy fool” or “A fool of God.” By this I of course don’t mean that there was anything foolish about him: he was a highly intelligent and educated man. His “foolishness” consisted in a certain simplicity, in a sense of utter humility and self-abnegation before God, and a rejection of the cerebral as a standard of human value. This idea is a central theme in Braslav—one of Reb Nahman’s most important stories is about the hakham vetam, “the wise man and the fool”—but Moshe lived this quality in an extreme way. When asked, “How are you?,” he might answer, “How do I know?” or “We are all lost sheep.” He really seems to have seen himself as “nothing”—and not just as a rhetorical flourish. He thus had a particular fondness for the figure of Reb Zusha of Hanipol, that one among the Hasidic masters who, more than anything, embodied the quality of being the “holy fool.” Indeed, the last shiur that Moshe Klibanoff gave at Yakar, some time this past winter, was in honor of Reb Zusha’s Yahrzeit.

It goes without saying that he was a great ba’al hesed, always caring about other people, doing mitzvot to help others, collecting money for this or that needy person. He also much concerned about tikkun hamiddot, constantly trying to improve and perfect his character—even at age 80.

At the funeral, I sensed a great outpouring of love by the large number of people whose lives he had touched, from a variety of different circles: Breslav Hasidim, devotees of Shlomo Carlebach, Yakar people, university circles, etc. May his memory continue to be a source of blessing, and a model for us all.