Friday, August 31, 2007

Ki Tavo (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives at my blog for September 2006.

“A Wandering Aramean”

The opening section of this parasha is the Vidduy Bikkurim, the declaration recited upon bringing the first fruits to the Temple, which contains a capsule account of the enslavement in Egypt and the Redemption, ending with being brought to the Land of Israel and enjoying its bountiful produce. This passage is the basis for the midrash that lies at the heart of the Passover Haggadah—the narration of the Exodus story per se that follows the lengthy preliminaries (which in many homes take up much or even most of the Seder evening). The interpretation of the very first phrase in the first verse presents special problems. Rashi’s interpretation here, based on the Sifrei, is essentially the same as that of the Haggadah:

Deut 26:5. “And you shall respond and say… A wandering Aramean lost my father [or: was my father], and he went down to Egypt, and dwelt there few in numbers…” Rashi: “A wandering Aramean lost my father.” He recalls here the kindness of the Omnipresent… Laban wished to uproot all when he pursued Jacob. And because he thought to do so, God considered it as if he had done it. For in the case of the nations of the world, the Holy One blessed be He considers a [bad] thought as tantamount to an act.

There are three problems here. First of all, the midrashic interpretation of the opening phrase goes against all rules of Hebrew grammar and syntax. As Ibn Ezra, perhaps the greatest of the pashtanim, the literal exegetes of the Torah, points out, oved is an intransitive verb; had it referred to Lavan, it ought to have read ארמי מאביד/מאבד אבי. Moreover, the sequel in the very next phrase, וירד מצרימה, “and he went down to Egypt,” can only refer to Yaakov; Rashi/Sifrei/the Haggadah thus have the verse changing its subject in mid-sentence, something in violation of any coherent syntax! Sforno and others concur with this view; but Targum Onkelos, on the other hand, agrees with Rashi. What we find here, then, is a clear preference of midrashic meaning over linguistic correctness.

Which brings us to the second problem: Why? What lies behind this midrashic motif, which makes Laban out to be the “bad guy”—even worse than Pharaoh himself! As the Haggadah puts it, continuing the above sentence: “Pharaoh only thought [to destroy] the males, but Laban wanted to uproot everything.” Israel Yuval, in his book Two Nations in Your Womb (pp. 84-86) suggests that Laban appears here as a prototype, either of the Romans (a play on Arami and Roma’i?), of Jesus, or of Christianity in general—perhaps in response to Melitos’ portraying Jesus as the wandering Jacob.

Third: the concluding sentence puts forward the thesis that, in the case of the non-Jewish world, God considers bad thoughts, or at least plans to do evil, as equivalent to wicked deeds. This is an interesting inversion of the well-know Rabbinic dictum that “God combines thought to act”—that is, if a person (i.e., a Jew) wished to do a good deed, but was prevented from doing so by circumstances beyond his control, it is considered as if he had nevertheless done so, and he is entitled to reward, etc. Here, this rule is turned on its head, stacking the odds against the non-Jew. Again: why? Offhand, such an attitude clearly reflects centuries of hostility, persecution, and at best subservient status vis-à-vis “the goyyim,” making it all but impossible to see them in a positive or even neutral light. (Today, at least in the West, most Jews enjoy a rather different experience. But it should be mentioned in this context that even here, in the tension-filled Middle East, one sometimes encounters simple human decency that crosses these lines. Earlier this week, an Israeli Army officer somehow blundered into the main street of Jenin and, after a mob torched his car, were about to lynch him, as happened to two reservists in Ramallah in September 2000, at the very beginning of the present Intifada. Several members of the Palestinian police, at great physical risk to themselves, pushed back the mob and brought him to safety, thereby saving his life.)

Why Wasn’t Shimon Blessed?

The later part of this parasha contains a number of blessings and curses and covenantal ceremonies—no less than three separate such, plus several more in the coming parshiyot: the setting up of twelve giant stones upon which were written “the words of this Torah, clearly expounded” (27:1-8); the antiphonal recitation of a series of blessing and curses by all the tribes, aligned facing one another on the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal (27:11-26); and the awesome Tokheha or “Admonition,” the enumeration of the blessings that will accrue to the people if they obey God’s voice (28:1-14), and (in much greater detail!) the elaboration of the horrors that will befall them should they fail to do so (28:15-69)—a parallel to the conclusion of the laws in Leviticus with similar blessing and curses (Lev 26:3-46). We will comment on one Rashi in this section that elaborates upon a seemingly peripheral feature of this passage:

Deut 27:24. “Cursed is he who smites is neighbor in secret…” Rashi: this refers to malicious speech.

What is the guiding principle behind the selection of these particular sins for a public malediction? All of them are secret sins, ones which a person could commit without fear of public exposure: making and worshipping an idol in secret; misleading the blind; moving a stone marking the boundary with one’s neighbor’s property to gain some land; taking bribes, or distorting a judgment involving the weak and poor, who are powerless to protest; certain kinds of sexual transgressions which are particularly unlikely to be discovered; etc. In all these cases, there is need for special sanctions, to “put the fear of God” into the person who thinks that his deed will not bear social repercussions. The repeated use of the phrase “I am the Lord” in Leviticus 19 (Parshat Kedoshim) seems to serve a similar function to that of the curses here: namely, to remind the potential transgressor that there is a Judge and an Authority far above and beyond human society, who knows, judges, and punishes all of men’s actions.

If you like, one could say that this and similar passages signify a kind of transition from what anthropologists call a “shame culture” to a “guilt culture”—that is, one in which people eschew wrongdoing, not because they are worried about the public shame to which they would be exposed if their negative deeds were known, but because of an inner sense of guilt or conscience, of a belief in right and wrong independent of social sanctions. Or, to put it in more positive terms: a culture based upon personal responsibility and conscience, rather than upon external sanctions and disapproval. (The brazen hutzpah of our leaders, who think that by silencing those who battle governmental corruption they will eliminate it, suggests that our society still has a very very long way to go on this score.)

I find it significant that the above Rashi interprets “smiting one’s neighbor in secret” as speaking malicious gossip. Perhaps because an actual blow, which would leave a bruise, is more likely to be discovered (notwithstanding the proverbial wife abusers who take care to beat their women on concealed parts of the body); or perhaps because harmful speech is a more secretive, hidden, concealed activity. Rashi then comments upon the fact that there are only eleven curses here rather than, as might be expected, twelve, corresponding to the twelve tribes. (He evidently disregards verse 26, “Cursed is he who does not uphold the words of this Torah to do them…” presumably because it is a general phrase, a kind of overall summary; cf. Hizkuni). He suggests an interesting explanation:

I saw in R. Moshe ha-Darshan’s Yesod that there are eleven curses here corresponding to the eleven tribes, but there is no curse corresponding to Shimon, because he [Moses] did not intend to bless him before his death when he blessed the other tribes; therefore he did not wish to curse him.

Shimon has a long history of being the least favored of all the tribes/sons of Jacob. It was he, together with Levi, who initiated the massacre of the entire town of Shechem following the rape/kidnapping of Dinah and Shechem (Genesis 34); many commentators, by a process of elimination, identify him as the one who threw Joseph into the pit and even proposed murdering him (37:20); this view seems confirmed by Joseph’s later singling out of Shimon to be kept as hostage the first time the brothers returned to Canaan (42:24); and, finally, he received a negative deathbed blessing from Jacob (49:5-7).

But here, we find this negative attitude carried over to Moses’ time. Because he did not wish to bless him, he refrained from “cursing” him as well. To understand this more fully, we need to see Rashi’s comment on Vezot haberakha, Moses’ farewell blessing to the tribes, from which Shimon is pointedly excluded. But, Rashi notes, Shimon is nevertheless included by implication, within the rubric of the blessing of Judah:

Deut 33:7. “And this is for Judah, and he said: “Hear, O Lord, the voice of Judah…” Rashi: Another thing. “Hear O Lord, the voice of Judah.” Here it alludes to the blessing for Shimon within the blessing of Judah (Sifrei). And even when they divided the Land of Israel, Shimon received [a portion] within the lot of Judah, as is said, “And from the territory of the sons of Judah, there was an inheritance for the Shimonites” (Josh 19:9). And why was he not given a blessing in his own right? Because he [Moses] had a grudge against him because of what he did in Shittim. Thus is it written in Aggadat Tehillim (Midrash Shohar Tov 90.3).

At Shittim the people were led astray by the seductions of the Midianite women, the central figure in this story being the “Israelite man” who publicly copulated with a Midanite woman in broad daylight, “in the eyes of Moses and in the eyes of the entire congregation” (Num 25:6)—perhaps in a special cubicle (קבה, an ambiguous word) set aside for sacred prostitution. The two of them were summarily killed by Pinhas. This man is then identified as none other than Zimri ben Salu, a prince of one of the clans of Shimon (v. 14). Mala sangria, “bad blood,” as a South American friend of mine would put it.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Ki Tetzei (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parasha, see below, and the archives for August 2006.

“The Torah Only Spoke In Light of the Evil Urge”

The opening, title paragraph of this parasha—which is richest of all the parshiyot in both number and variety of mitzvot—involves one of the most difficult and puzzling mitzvot in the Torah. It describes a law whereby a soldier, perhaps in the heat of battle, desires a captive woman whom he sees from afar; he is allowed to take her home and, after a series of acts (which many exegetes, including Rashi, say are intended to discourage him by making her ugly and repulsive), may marry her. Rambam states (Melakhim u-Milhamotehem 8.2) that all this occurs after he has in fact already had sex with her once (rape?).

We shall leave aside all the “modernist” questions we are bound to ask, such as: What about the woman’s own feelings? Mightn’t she have had a husband at home? Children? Parents? What about them? Rashi’s comment reflects the deep problematics he felt about this passage:

Deuteronomy 21:10-11. “When you go out to war against your enemies… And you see among the captives a woman comely of figure, and you desire her, then you may take her to you as a wife.”

Rashi: “And you may take her to you as a wife.” The Torah only spoke here in reference to the Evil Urge. If the Holy One blessed be He were not to allow this, he would marry her in a forbidden manner.

But if he does marry her, in the end he will hate her, as it says thereafter, “When a man has [two wives, one beloved and one hated]…” (ibid., 15-17); and in the end she will give birth to a wayward and defiant son (ibid., 18-21). Therefore these sections were placed in proximity to one another.

I shall not elaborate on the second half of Rashi, which indicates clear disapproval of this arrangement and, like several other Rabbinic homilies, infers a particular (negative) scenario from the order of laws in the Torah, implying a certain sequence of ongoing events (compare the homilies on the repeated use of the phrase “when your brother waxes poor” in Kiddushin 20a; cited in Torah Temimah at Lev 25:13).

Rashi’s first comment here is: “The Torah only spoke in reference to the Evil Urge.” In other words, the Torah’s legislation has an unsentimental grasp of human nature, and walks a narrow line between sublime idealism and frank realism. It recognizes that human beings (in this case, and particularly in sexual matters, the male of the species) have certain intense urges which easily get out of control. All the more so in times of war: the confrontation with death is known to produce a kind of crude, coarse affirmation of life through the most elemental sexual expressions. That is why, inter alia, there are proverbially always brothels near large army camps and at sailors’ ports of call. War, as an elemental, chaotic activity, brings to fore the most primitive, instinctual side in man. A direct line is drawn between seeing an attractive woman, to desiring her, to having her, without the civilized niceties of courtship or seduction.

The approach here is a shrewd, worldly-wise one—better to allow what’s going to happen anyway, to give it some sort of halakhic and social context, to offer some minimal protection and status to the alien woman, rather than to retreat behind a moralistic “verboten!.” The man cannot simply discard her, nor keep her as a mistress, nor sell her as a slave-woman. If he keeps her at all, she must have a proper marriage with all the rights that entails; if not, he must send her home. But I read the phrase here, “The Torah only spoke in reference to the Yetser Hara,” does not merely suggest the kind of sage, balanced, pragmatic acceptance of reality such as the halakhah invokes in other difficult cases. It is more like a kind of throwing up of its hands in despair. “There is nothing we can do about it!” And, as is made clear in various ways, the Torah considers it far better that the man soberly reconsider such a match once his initial passion is spent; therefore, it arranges for him to see her at her least attractive, day after day (“He goes out and she is there; he come in and she is there…”), in the hopes that he will send her back where she came from.

The phrase yefat toar, “comely of figure,” used by Hazal to describe this halakhah, is interesting. This is in fact the only place in the entire Tanakh where this phrase alone is used to describe a woman’s, or a man’s, physical beauty. It is more usual to use the double idiom, יפה תואר ויפה מראה, which I would translate as “comely of figure and comely of appearance”—thus with regard to Rachel (Gen 29:17), Esther (Est 2:7), and Joseph (Gen 39:6). Variants of this are found in describing Rebekka (Gen 24:16: טובת מראה מאד), the beloved in Shir Hashirim (passim), and David (1 Sam 16:12: אדמוני עם יפה עינים וטוב ראי). The closest approximation to the above appears in introducing Avigayil, wife of Naval the Carmelite, described in 1 Sam 25:3 as יפה תואר וטוב שכל, “comely of figure and sharp of mind.” But vive la différence! She is perhaps the only woman in the Bible praised for her intellect. Mareh means appearance—I would say, first and foremost, a beautiful face—while toar refers to shape, form, outline: that is, the woman’s figure. (The verbal form also refers to the “incline” of a hill—perhaps analogous to a woman’s curves?) All this suggest further that the appeal of the captive woman was of a very direct sexual nature.

If war, then, is such a chaotic, elemental situation, leading to moral anarchy, the release of all moral and social codes and of the inner mechanisms of self-restraint and control (incidentally, the halakhah permits other ordinarily forbidden things during warfare as well, such as eating swine or nevelot and terefot), what does this teach us about the nature of war itself? Is it not clear that it is understood as an essentially barbaric act, outside the bounds of all that is considered civilized? And if so, is it not imperative that it be considered only as the absolutely last resort, after all other possible measures have truly been tried and exhausted? Meditate on the unbearable lightness of warfare: on how a bomb dropped over a neighborhood destroys, in an instant, both human lives and physical objects, whose creation and shaping represent hundreds, thousands, collectively perhaps million of hours of labor, of thought, of loving dedication and education. And, more likely than not, it accomplishes nothing—or it brings the sides to a solution identical in most major particulars to what they would have reached had they started by negotiation rather than shooting.

Can anyone honestly say that last summer’s war, so seemingly casually began, with barely a few hours of deliberation, accomplished anything at all? Is Hizballah any less of a threat than it was before? Is Israel’s position in any way more salutary or secure? It is frightening that the healthy reaction to Galut passivity that was part of the initial impulse to Zionism a century ago or more—the creation of a new, strong, self-confident Jew—has been perverted into a type of militarism, at times real jingoism, certainly an unwarranted worship of ex-generals. (Yitzhak Rabin outgrew that mentality, and he received a bullet in the head for his troubles.) What would ouir country, and our world, look like if only 5% of the emotional and intellectual energy that goes into preparing for war, thinking about it, etc., were to go into genuine “seeking and pursuing peace.” (Or, to invert the formula: ought those who devote 95% of their talents, intellects, planning, etc., to “defense” and “security,” building ever higher fences and walls, both physical and social, and only 5% to peace-making, be considered the desirable or proper leaders of that great project of renewing the national life of the Jewish people called Zionism? Or, for that matter, of the great, self-congratulatory American democracy?) Equally frightening in some ways is the so-called denial of warfare: the week before the present one, every single day’s paper carried a banner headline stating that Syria isn’t interested in war, that IDF experts think it’s not likely in the immediate future, etc. Methinks the lady doth protest too much….

SHOFTIM: Postscript

The final section of Parashat Shoftim (Deut 21:1-9) describes the ritual known as eglah arufah, the calf that is decapitated in connection with the discovery of an unknown murdered body in the wilderness. The elders of the adjacent town slaughter the calf and wash their hands, saying “our hands have not spilt this blood.” The Rabbis say this is both to draw attention to the case, as well as for atonement: the nearest town is responsible for providing safe passage to strangers. Perhaps they saw this person and not care for him?

The halakhah classifies this ritual under the rubric of shehutei hutz: that is, of animals slaughtered for some ritual purpose, but outside of the Temple. (Its propitiatory function is demonstrated, inter alia, by the halakhah cited by the Rambam in Rotziah ushemirat hanefesh 10.10; that the calf was to be killed even after Yom Kippur, and even after several years.) The other two are: sa’ir hamishtaleah, the “scapegoat” or goat of atonement sent into the wilderness on Yom Kippur bearing the sins of all Israel; and parah adumah, the Red Heifer whose ashes were used for purification from contamination through contact with the dead. Someone recently asked me: what have the three in common?

The themes of the three are: murder, death and sin in general. Ramban associates the Yom Kippur goat with the attribute of gevurah, Harsh Judgment, and seems to allude to the idea that this is almost a kind of sacrifice to various demonic, negative forces that live in the wilderness and that need to be placated. What does this mean? In modern terminology, we would speak about things that we need to expel from our consciousness, destructive elements that interfere with an orderly, harmonious life in society (see above, re the Yefat toar). But we cannot simply ignore them: that way lies hypocrisy, double standards, sham and pretense, with all the deleterious psychological results that are sure to follow. (I’m reminded of the norm in Haredi society of hiding black sheep, of denying anything that may be wrong in life. If someone in a family is divorced, or became non-religious, or has a serious illness, this is hushed up, because it supposedly will affect one’s children’s chances of finding “a good shiddukh.” This society is unwilling to face the simple fact that everyone has one or another “skeleton” in his closet.) We somehow need to expel, purge, purify ourselves from these negative forces, while acknowledging their reality, their presence in our lives.

RE’EH: An Exchange

Long time reader Mark Kirschbaum wrote about my essays two weeks ago:

As far as the division of men and women in mystical cultures, that is very well described in Hinduism, Kali Yuga, etc. But it goes both ways: from Oedipus onward, the obvious connection is that children are generally punished more by their mother, who is more directly involved in moment-to-moment care. Overall, the Besht had it right when he pointed out that yir’ah is really the more profound love, it’s the love of the parent teaching the child to walk (stepping away, seemingly punishing, but really trying to make the child take the steps by him/herself). I wrote about the idea that the feminine Torah is really above all this, corresponding to the mahol, the circle dance, rather than to a right-left division (kav vs. igul, line vs. circle).

I’m also not sure about your anthropology. Hunter/gatherer is prior to farmer and community life. And despite the predominance of new age people in Katamon, there is certainly no similarity between any natural diet anywhere and macrobiotics (not even in Japan; macrobiotics is based on extreme Buddhist ideas, while the local diet is very hunter/gatherer—fish, meat, raw and baked, even the vegetables tend to be gathered, e.g., seaweed).

Of course, the long period of separating meat from milk is not Biblical, the Rambam’s advocating so-and-so many hours is based on how long he felt meat lasts in the teeth, so it’s hard to extrapolate from biblical anthropology to our current prohibitions.

My response: the point about men and women and harshness, etc., was actually the least important part of my fox & hedgehog essay, purely a speculation borrowed from someone else. But the point is not so much men and women in mystical cultures, but how a mystical world-view sees men and women in culture generally.

As for hunter/gatherer vs. agriculture-based diet. Maybe I exaggerated somewhat, but it’s clear, davka from Parshat Re’eh’s heter basar ta’avah, that eating meat is somewhat special and unusual. Maybe it’s more like the US govt.’s recommended “pyramid” of foods—grain, wine, and other vegetation on the bottom, with meat and fowl and even milk closer to the narrow apex. (Many Oriental Jews will tell you that in the “old country” they hardly even knew what dairy was) And your point on macrobiotics was well-taken; I liked the image of grain etc. in the center and milk and meat being two food types splitting off in opposite directions, like yin and yang.

I of course know that X hour separation is Rabbinic, but it’s experienced by many or even most Orthodox people as more important than it is in strictly halakhic terms, because it shapes life patterns (telling a child “no” when the Good Humor man comes around - itself an archaic image, no doubt).

And his postscript:

How a culture sees its men and women may not reflect their status in society. One scholar points out how Roman women flocked to Christianity, where women were denigrated in the “mythology” as compared to the mystery religions and official cults, where women were worshipped as gods.

Thematically, kav vs igul is at the core of Etz Hayyim and all the post-Lurianic speculative systems, including Rav Kook, etc. Where some New Age mystics go wrong is in refracting everything through a bizarre libidinal lens and turning a spiritual concept (where the imagery is a bit more free flowing and metaphoric) into some kind of binary, black and white physical law. What true mystics warn against as kotzetz ba-netiot

I do recall that Yehuda Liebes had an article on this in that blue volume from Hebrew U {Mehqerei Yerushalayim? -jc) and it’s in his book, though given the unmistakable import in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, it has been around in religious phenomenology for a long long time.

As far as the hunter gatherer bit, that’s pretty well established. My wife witnessed a war with a fatality over a stolen pig in Papua New Guinea. And if you recall why we eat dairy on Shavuot, it conforms more to the standard. First basar nehirah, then a retreat to vegetarianism, then a gradual reacceptance of meat at a limited level. Anyway, the world is different now in many ways. One no longer gets to experience that bittersweet Jewish-American abjection of the ice cream man and the culture he represents as Good Humor has a big OU on it :)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Ki Tetsei (Misc.)

A Multiplicity of Mitzvot

Ki Tetsei is the Torah portion with the widest variety and densest “cluster” of mitzvot in the entire Torah—its 110 verses contain, according to Sefer ha-Hinukh, no less than 74 positive and negative commandments. A well-known midrash, elaborating on the verse “they are a garland of grace on your head,” describes the Jew as surrounded by mitzvot wherever he goes and whatever he does: whether he builds a new house, puts on his clothes, trims his beard, plows his field, or simply takes an idle walk during which he encounters a bird’s nest.

But in trying to describe the atmosphere of this parasha, I noticed something else rather interesting. One way of approaching the mitzvot is in terms of an idealistic, almost utopian striving for holiness and purity, demanding the highest level of perfection of which human beings are capable (see, e.g., Parshat Kedoshim or the earlier chapters of Deuteronomy). Yet here we find something quite different: in the first few sections, there are situations involving intense human passions: a man goes to battle, sees an attractive woman among the enemy prisoners, and is filled with intense desire for her: he feels that he simply must have her. What is to be done? There is a bigamous family in which the man loves the second wife more than the first one and wants to favor her children financially. How is the fierce competition among the rival wives and their offspring to be resolved? A child grows up wild, uncontrollable, defying his parents, drinking and guzzling. What does one do with him? And one could go on and on.

The Torah accepts the reality of these primitive, amoral urges. It sets limits; it creates procedures, for example, in the case of the beautiful enemy woman, intended to cool the man’s ardor; it introduces certain measures to insure that the weak and powerless are treated in a minimally decent, humane, even dignified way—but nevertheless, the Torah clearly “speaks in light of the Evil Urge.” That is, it accepts as givens various things which are clearly not desirable or the way things should be, the way people should behave, in an ideal world, and deals with them in a realistic way. Rambam even rules that the soldier is allowed to sexually possess the yefat toar one time, in the heat of battle and the heat of his own need: in other words, even rape is accepted as a fact-of-life in wartime.

In brief: the Torah is a tree of life, not only in the usual sense of it being a source of guidance and enlightenment, of “sweetness and light,” but also in the sense that it does not only deal with the rarefied atmosphere of pious, disciplined, restrained, upright people, but with the nitty-gritty reality of life as it is lived. It addresses the intense passions and feelings, the clashes and conflicts of wills and desires, that is the stuff of life. It knows and on a certain level even accepts sexual lust, the desire for progeny and for preserving the family name. Jealousy, anger, hatred, spite, meanness, trickery all find their place here.

Much of the parasha deals with family law and sexual matters. One passage which caught my eye this year was that of ta’anat bitulim—a husband’s claim that his wife was not a virgin on their wedding night, complete with the scene of the girl’s relatives displaying the proverbial blood-stained bedsheets in her defense (Deut 22:13-21). I found myself asking the following question: the Torah, in its succinct way, describes how a man “marries a woman, goes to her (i.e., has intercourse), hates her, and says libelous words against her…” What is going on in the mind of such a man? How does his love, or at least interest in marrying this particular woman, turn so rapidly, not only into hate, but into a vicious, nay murderous, scheme? We have several such cases in the Bible: we can well imagine a scenario in which the yefat toar is hated after the man’s initial passion is spent; after David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, we are told that “the hatred [disgust? loathing?] with which he hated her was more intense than the love with which he loved her” (2 Sam 13:15). A friend of mine suggested (and this seems to match what we know from life) that a man may obsess about a woman, fantasize about how happy he will be to be with her a certain woman—and as soon as the fantasy is realized, the woman turns out to be simply a woman, and the anticipated erotic ecstasy is simply a certain physical pleasure within the limits of what exists in the real world, his disappointment and frustration may be turned against the object of the fantasy. (The same is true, for that matter, for any other fantasy or daydream, such as acquiring some possession—a house, a car, a precious object; getting a long-coveted job; visiting a certain “exotic” place).

Another subject treated here is divorce. I have dealt with this issue in the past, specifically with the three different tannaitic approaches to the reasons for divorce given in the final mishnah of Gittin (see the essay on my blog, which should be read in conjunction with what follows). Two or three additional insights on this: 1) the Shammaite approach says that adultery alone is the only ground for divorce. Suddenly, I remembered that this was the predominant approach in Western culture until less than half a century ago. I recall as a child, when I was first starting to read adult things, reading in the Times about proposed changes in this area, the introduction of so-called “no-fault divorce” in certain states, and the opposition of the Catholic Church and some stricter Protestants to these changes. In those days, there was much hypocrisy around these things, and couples who were miserable together were even known to fabricate false testimony of marital unfaithfulness. The question is whether society as a whole, which is closer today to the liberal view of R. Akiva, is better off and happier with these laissez faire divorce laws? 2) The approach of Rabbi Akiva—the romantic who sees Song of Songs as the holiest book of all—is to allow divorce more or less at will. His view, as I interpret it, is based on a view of marriage as based on the mutual will of both parties, and a worldly-wise perception that if either party no longer wishes to be with the other, nothing will really help. I remember late one night, a newly-divorced friend of my wife saw me in the street and delivered me an hour-long monologue bewailing the situation—“If only I had done this differently, if only I had been more submissive and compliant, if only I’d done that, or perhaps the other…” I told her to stop castigating herself, and that ultimately her husband’s leaving her boiled down to a matter of will, of what a person wants. And Will, as we know from the Kabbalah, is the most irreducible of all qualities, human and Divine alike; it is that which s desired, for no reason prior to itself. 3) A fourth approach to divorce, one not mentioned in the above mishnah, holds that divorce is not permitted under any circumstance—i.e., the position of the Catholic Church. The biblical basis for this is that man and woman become “one flesh,” interpreted as meaning that they cannot be separated. Interestingly, there is controversy among scholars as to whether or not the Dead Sea sect permitted divorce. Some, such as Aharon Shemesh, say that they did not—and that this, as well as many other of their views, came down into early Christianity. Similarly, there is one view in the midrash that the Noachide code leaves no room for divorce, but knows only immutable marriage. More on this subject another time.

Returning to our overview of the parshah: in all these things, the Torah is concerned with countering, at very least, the worst aspects of these unruly passions, and assuring that people are dealt with as fairy and decently as possible. It occurs to me that all this may be read with a certain irony. During Elul, we deal with teshuvah, with the attempt to refine and conquer our negative character traits—things like anger, jealousy, meanness towards others, gluttony, lust, sloth, etc. At times, latter day moralists make it sound as if such moral perfection is attainable, indeed, a simple matter. This portion seems to come along and remind us “where we’re really living”: that is, in a world swarming with chaotic, difficult, uncontrolled emotions and acts.

I also read this parasha during Elul as reminding us of the centrality of simple menshlichkeit, of human decency and consideration—which, to my mind, is at once the simplest, the most important, and the most difficult kind of teshuvah. Around this season, people seem to invest a lot of energy in so-called “religious” issues—in improving the level of punctiliousness of their observance of details, typically, of laws of kashrut, Shabbat, prayer, modesty in dress, learning more Torah, etc. These are the subjects that the movements dedicated to “teshuvah” seem to emphasize.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Shoftim (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parasha, and on Elul, see the archives of this blog below, at August 2006.

The Merit of Righteous Courts

The verse near the beginning of this week’s parasha, “Justice justice shall you pursue” (Deut 16:20), is seen as something of a motto among Jews who advocate social action. The pursuit of justice is one of the central motifs and imperatives of the Torah; perhaps the central one in the social realm. The French Jewish psychiatrist and philosopher, Henri Baruch, wrote a book entitled Zedeq in which he identified this idea as the central motif in Judaism. Yet Rashi, in his commentary on this verse, gives the verse a considerably narrower interpretation:

Deut 16:20. “Justice, justice shall you pursue; that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God gives you.” Rashi: “Justice justice shall you pursue.” Seek a righteous court (Sifre). “That you may live and inherit…” The appointment of fit judges is sufficient to give Israel life and to [entitle them] to settle on their land.

One could explain this seemingly narrow reading by Rashi on the basis of textual arguments: the immediate context here is that of courts and judges, who are to be appointed everywhere (“in all your gates”—which the halakhic tradition reads as: “in every city and every tribe”). This is immediately followed by a promise of Divine blessings, suggesting that they too relate to the same subject.

But there is more to it than that. Courts and the mechanism of justice play a central role in Judaism and in Jewish law. The central figure in the Rabbinic tradition, the talmid hakham, is both teacher and authority on halakhic matters for his community, and judge. In certain towns in Eastern Europe the rabbi was known as the Matz or Datz—Moreh Tzedek or Dayan Tzedek. Ordination was couched in the formula, Yoreh yoreh (“he shall teach”) and/or Yadin Yadin (“he shall judge”). Many of the epigrams in Pirkei Avot are addressed to judges and to the proper performance of their function. Rav Soloveitchik, in his famous essay Halakhic Man, quoted his grandfather, Rav Hayyim of Brisk, as saying that the role of the rabbi is “to redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.”

Moreover, the establishment of courts of law plays a central role in the seven Noahide mitzvot, which I believe ought to be read as a kind of codex or counterpart to what is known in Christianity as natural law: that is, those laws incumbent upon every human being as such, which (according to what the late Rav Joseph Kapah rather convincingly argues to be the correct reading in Rambam Melakhim 8.11) may be derived or inferred through one’s own intellect or conscience (see Eugene Korn’s illuminating study in Modern Judaism 14 [1994], 265-287; and cf. my own discussion in HY V: Noah = Noah [Rambam]). Interestingly, the seven mitzvot consists of six negative proscriptions which apply to individuals—the prohibitions against murder, sexual licentiousness, idolatry, cursing God’s name, theft, and wanton cruelty to living creatures (“eating the limb of the living”); plus a seventh: the injunction to each society to set up courts of law to enforce, administer and judge violations of the other six laws (“they are required to place judges and magistrates in every city to judge these six mitzvot and to admonish the people”—Rambam, ibid., 9.14).

The underlying idea is quite clear: the establishment of courts and a system of justice are essential to the existence of a decent society. Judaism does not believe in anarchism, nor in the Rousseauvian vision of “the noble savage”—namely, that left to their own devices without the corrupting influence of civilization, human beings will be naturally good. The alternative to courts, to a system of administering and enforcing law, is chaos—the war of all against all. In a state of nature, the strong will lord it over the weak. כל דאלים גבר “Whoever is more violent shall overcome.”

Unfortunately, observing contemporary society, one too often sees abuses of justice itself—and examples from the front page of any day’s newspaper are too familiar to even require mention. Law has become an elite profession which, more than it attracts idealistic young people who strive to correct injustice, perfect society, and help the poor, tends to attract those who want to make a lot of money. Too often, the individual who is able to hire the more expensive, and thus “better,” more skilled or clever lawyer, has a decisive advantage over the poor and weak, in the face of principles of true ethics and justice.

But all this is not to argue against the validity of law and institutions of justice per se, but rather of the universal tendency towards violence and power: the tendency of the strong to exploit the weak is so powerful, so deeply rooted in human nature, that even within a system dedicated to the pursuit of objective justice and righteousness, it can often become predominant. The challenge is to assure, as Rashi puts it, that the courts are filled with honest, decent, competent and wise people, who can make them at very least a minimum focus of decency and justice for all of society.

Jury or Beit Din?

This past winter, while thinking about Parshat Mishpatim, an interesting question occurred to me. While in Western countries criminal cases and certain large-scale civil cases are tried before a jury of one’s peers, with a requirement of unanimity, in Jewish law all civil and criminal cases are tried before judges, in forums of various sizes and levels, and decided by majority vote of the judges. What underlies this difference?

Before considering this question per se, I would like to briefly survey some of the basic rules and procedural principles that operate in Jewish law, as to how the courts are to operate and arrive at their rulings and decisions.

1. בית דין נוטה, the “slanted court.” The court system is set up in such a way as to always yield a definitive result one way or another; there can never be a tie. The halakhah knows of three kinds of courts: an ordinary tribunal of three for regular civil cases (דיני ממונות); a “small Sanhedrin” of 23 for capital cases (דיני נפשות) and for certain other particularly serious matters (NB: there is no imprisonment as such in halakhah); and the Great Court (בית דין הגדול) of 71, the Great Sanhedrin that sat in the Chamber of Hewn Stone (לשכת הגזית) on the Temple Mount for decisions relating to the entire Jewish nation. (Interestingly, this is modeled after Moses and the seventy elders, who are first mentioned as such, by number, in Exod 24:1 ff.). What is striking is that all three of these courts are composed of an odd number of members.

2. Two vote margin. To convict a person in criminal cases, where the issue may be one of capital punishment and not merely awarding monetary payment to one side or another, there must be a margin of two votes, and it may not turn on a single vote: לא כהטייתך לטובה הטייתך לרעה. הטייתך לטובה על פי אחד. הטייתך לרעה על פי שנים. (סנהדרין ב,א). “Your ‘leaning’ towards good is not like your ‘leaning’ towards evil. ‘Leaning’ towards good [i.e., acquittal] is [even] by one vote; ‘leaning’ towards evil [i.e., conviction] must be by two votes.” (Sanhedrin 2a)

3. Multiple judges. In principle, all court rulings must be made by several people: אל תהיה דן יחידי, שאין דן יחידי אלא אחד. “Do not be a lone judge, for there is no lone judge but the One” (Avot 4.10). The objection to an individual sitting by himself on the bench is ultimately theological: human beings are imperfect, and prone to error; only God is omniscient and perfect in His judgment.

But, in practice, the Talmud makes a certain allowance for this, recognizing that an individual of outstanding intellectual accomplishment and expertise in the legal tradition, and who enjoys a public reputation as such, is as fit to judge as a tribunal of three ordinary people: ואם היה מומחה לרבים דן אפילו יחידי (סנהדרין ה,א) “And if he was a ‘public expert’ he judges, even by himself” (Sanhedrin 5a). And indeed, it was common practice in many places for the local rabbi of a town to serve as judge in various kinds of disputes. Isaac Bashevis Singer In My Father’s Court, describes his own father’s activity as rabbinic judge in their neighborhood in Warsaw; my mother had similar memories of her own father. In the secular court system in Israel today, too, a single judge sits on many levels.

4. No jury trial. Most important: Jewish law does not have the concept of a jury trial, of the ultimate decision of a person’s fate being made, not by a professional judge (whose function in the West is rather like that of an umpire), but by twelve peers, voting unanimously to convict or acquit. In fact, not only is there no requirement of unanimity in the halakhah; halakhah is suspicious of unanimity.

A Sanhedrin who began to consider a capital case, and all of them said “he is guilty,” he is exempt [from punishment; i.e., treated as innocent], until some of them support acquittal, so that they may consider his innocence. If those convicting are more numerous, then they may execute him. (Maimonides, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 9.1)

The idea here—as articulated by Rav Kahana in a Talmudic statement (Sanhedrin 17a)—is that consideration of the possibility of the persons’ innocence, as represented by at least one of the discussants, is an integral part of the judicial procedure.

Between the lines, too, there is the feeling that something is suspicious if twenty-three wise, learned judges all have the same opinion: that they must have been under the sway of demagoguery, or perhaps the junior members who thought differently were afraid to open their mouths before their elders. I’ve never been present at a jury trial in the United States or Britain, so I don’t know what it’s like in reality, but from the representations I’ve seen in TV and movie dramas, the lawyers’ rhetoric and ability to move the jurors’ emotions is often a major component in their decision.

To return our original question: The institution of the jury, as far as I can tell, originated in the days of Magna Carta, with the emergence of the bourgeoisie, a “middle class” between the peasantry and the titled, landed aristocracy, as a major element in society. The basic idea was that a person ought to be tried by his peers, rather than by the arbitrary fiat of king, who was supreme authority in all matters. The requirement of unanimity, at least in some cases—certainly for the death penalty, the one punishment that is irrevocable, but also for imprisonment, and even in cases where a major fine or large monetary settlement is imposed—presumably derives from the quest for an element of certainty in the court ruling.

It seems to me that the basic concept underlying the option taken by the halakhah is that while, on the one hand, Judaism sees human beings as fallible, on the other, we are charged with running our world (under the Torah as a codex); we are not commanded to achieve perfection. Ultimately, “The Heavens belong to God and the earth is given to human beings” (Psalm 115:15). In other words: we must judge according to the best of our ability; no certainty is possible; that there will be disagreements among the judges is only human, and society must somehow live with this. Perhaps one might say that Judaism, precisely because of its deep faith in God and in His perfection, accepts the fallibility of human beings, the imperfect nature of a trial, and lays down rule of majority decision.

The concept of safek, of doubt, is a central one in halakhah. One of the central problems in halakhic literature generally is: how does one cope with doubt? Doubt may be based on inadequate knowledge of the facts (e.g., is a given piece of meat treif or kosher? does a given object or sum of money belong to A or B?); it may be based on a disagreement among the Sages themselves as to what the law is, or how to interpret the Torah (an unresolved mahloket between equally great authorities); or it may be intrinsic in reality itself (does the twilight period belong to day or night, to Shabbat or weekday? How does one classify an androgynous, a person of ambiguous sexuality?). But this is precisely the point: in all these cases there are rules for resolving the doubt or, better, for conducting ourselves in light of doubt—because the Torah is a Torat Hayyim, a Torah of Life, given to live by in a real world in which we do not always enjoy the luxury of absolute certainty.

But secondly: there is a certain skepticism, or even elitism, in the halakhic system. It tends to mistrust the ordinary person to have sufficient knowledge, or the kind of disciplined thinking and informed judgment, to rule on another’s fate. Thus, the deciding body must be a court of trained sages, whether a tribunal or a larger forum.

Another drawback to the jury system is the possibility of a “hung jury.” Where differences of opinion do emerge in a jury trial, they are required to remain cloistered until they reach a unanimous decision, or until they realize that neither side will ever succeed in convincing the other, and move for a mistrial. (In Sidney Lumet’s famous 1957 film, Twelve Angry Men, one is shown a murder trial in which one juror who holds out for acquittal gradually convinces all eleven others of his point-of-view, of the element of doubt and the gravity of executing the accused should they prove to have been wrong. But I wonder how often such things happen in real life.)

POSTSCRIPT: A Digression on Buddhism

A few short comments in wake of my passing reference to Buddhism in Ekev, where we discussed the idea that the love of God must include acceptance of all that befalls us in life. While classical Buddhism articulates this point very well, as one of the Four Great Truths, I am wary of those today who attempt to create a kind of synthesis between Judaism and Buddhism (an example is a book I recently read, Sylvia Boorstein’s That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist). While clarity of mind is clearly an important and valuable thing, my own instinctive reaction is that the great investment of time and the intensive effort put into meditation, sitting, retreats, etc., could be better spent on learning Torah, doing mitzvot, helping others, etc. On the other hand, one of my pet peeves is that too many Jews completely ignore the meditative, quiet aspects of prayer. The depth of tefillah in our synagogues, on weekdays and often, sadly, even on Shabbat in many places, could certainly benefit from a period of silent preparation, however brief—and this, in the spirit of the Hasidim rishonim, as we’ve discussed on other occasions. I find it dismaying when I see a shaliah tzibbur (Prayer Leader) who begins to rattle off Ashrei or Hodu while still walking to his place. Even one or two minutes of sitting quietly, even taking a few deep breaths, could make a profound difference in the atmosphere of seriousness and inner calm required for tefillah. If we need to learn meditation from the Far East, so be it; but these ideas are basically part and parcel of our own tradition.

On the negative side, there are profound problems for Jews in what I would call folk Buddhism, with its imagery of the Buddha as a deity. There is also a tendency of many “Buh-Jews” to gloss over other profound differences between Judaism and Buddhism; the simplistic idea that “All religions basically teach the same thing” is one of the great bugbears of our day.

POSTSCRIPT: On Pornography

A few weeks ago, my friend Shaya Kelter sent out a piece on Parshat Pinhas, that, taking off from the figures of Zimri and Kozbi, discussed the contemporary issue of pornography. Inter alia, he states that:

In the Western world today, and very much so in Israel, sex is promoted openly and ubiquitously, in seemingly every media. Cars are sold by using sexual imagery as are ice cream and soft drinks and sports events. Sexual imagery and fantasy sells…. Pinhas understood the danger of licentiousness to our mission to be a holy people. He had the guts to rise up from the silent majority and to halt thsee social mores that threatened to destroy everything that God aspired for in Israel and, through Israel, for all humankind.

This story is not anti-sex. It is about the holiness of human love…. If God is everywhere, how could there be room for creation?, thinkers asked many years ago. The Kabbalah, answers that God contracted Himself (in Hebrew the word is Tzimtzum) to make room for creation, to make room for The Other. According to this theory, the act of Creation was an act of Divine Love… To paraphrase Pirkei Avot, I would add: “Who is a lover? One who makes room for the other.”

In human love, we make room for the other. We recognize the uniqueness of the other as a full human being also created in the image of God. Sex as part of human love is so beautiful and so holy. Sex as selfish self-gratification is just a pleasurable physical act, a far cry from holiness…. In pornography, people are conditioned to think of other human beings as objects for their own selfish satisfaction, with no hint of love. There can even be mutual selfish satisfaction but no holiness. Not only are people turned into objects, but human body-parts become defined as sex objects instead of aspects of whole holistic loving human beings. From an early age and during adolescence, impressionable minds and souls are deeply damaged by distorted images of what to aspire for in sexuality, of particular types of bodies for which to lust.

Pornography is terribly destructive to the human soul. It is promoted commercially and subliminally. It is not holy. As I emerge from my American adolescence I am beginning to understand the damage that pornography has wreaked on my own soul. I used to think that Pinchas was a bloodthirsty zealot. I now understand that Pinchas was zealously protecting not only God's holy mission but my own holy soul.

In my response, I wrote:

Your piece evoked some further reflections on pornography (a subject on which I once started writing a piece, in response to a rather sad query from a friend of mine who was seeking a heter, and never completed—ve’od hazon lamo’ed).

In any event, your piece evoked the following insight, suitable to Vaethanan and Sefer Devarim generally: that pornography stands in relation to love-making as idolatry does to the sense of immanent Divinity within the world. By this, I mean that love-making can be one of the most precious gifts in life—or it can be no more than a banal act, an exchange of purely physical pleasure. What animates it and makes it special, in emotional and human terms (as well as in terms of the potential for physical ecstasy) is that which is hidden: the thoughts and emotions of each person, the currents of feeling that flow between them during their bodily union, the memories of everything that went into the relationship up until that point. Pornography—say, a film clip showing two people engaged in intercourse—by its nature cannot show any of this; all it can show is the purely physical side, the two bodies interjoined. That which is most vital is missing.

The reason Judaism is so strict about imagery, and specifically prohibits making images of that which may be considered divine, while being far more tolerant of the spoken word, sound, etc., is because imagery by its nature flattens out these subtleties and complexities (see HY I: Yitro).

I would also draw an analogy, in part, to books and movies. Almost inevitably, whenever I have enjoyed reading a certain book, and then see the movie, I am disappointed. No matter how skillfully made, the movie cannot begin to capture the depth of characterization, the background writing, the opportunity to let one's own imagination portray the protagonists, etc., of the book.

This is a broader cultural problem as well. Our modern culture is so much based on visual images—movie, TV, even the notion of “photo opportunities” in politics as a substitute for serious diplomacy, real discussion of issues and genuine peace making, etc. Then, people have far less patience than in earlier days for non-instant forms of communication; they are less educated to relish subtleties and complexities. All this is a very serious problem, which in my more pessimistic moments I see as heralding a new Dark Ages.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Elul (Months)

For more teachings on the parsha and on Elul-related themes from previous years, see the archives below, for August and September 2006, on the relevant Torah portions.

The Month of Elul

Elul is a unique month—the final month of the year, “the month of mercy and forgiveness,” a month of expectancy and preparation for Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe; a month during which, as several Hasidic darshanim put it, “the King is right here, in the field.” Among Ashkenazim, it is marked by blowing the shofar every morning, and by reciting each morning and evening Psalm 27, a special psalm expressing the longing “to dwell in the house of the Lord.” Sephardim begin reciting Selihot before dawn every morning from Rosh Hodesh on, while Ashkenazim do so only from the last week or so before Rosh Hashanah.

The month’s astrological symbol is Virgo (Hebrew: Betulah), the virgin. In Western culture, much influenced by Christian myth, the immediate association of virginity is as the highest form of purity (even in this age of sexual latitude), but in Judaism there is no celebration of virginity as a value in itself. She is a tabula rasa, an unwritten slate: one who symbolizes anticipation, readiness, “not yet…,” a certain guarding and holding of herself for the future. As such, a virgin also signifies receptivity, a certain openness (to both the good and the bad), of potential for moving onto a new stage.

This concept of pristine, almost naïve purity, seems to me to dovetail with the theme of teshuvah. Teshuvah is about new beginnings, of the individual remaking him- or herself. Unlike the month of Sivan, whose symbol of Gemini, the twins, suggests relationship, even intimate encounter, the “I-Thou” (as between God and man at Sinai), here we focus upon a single individual—a single, lone human being encountering life, first of all, within his/her own inner self, and attempting to return to a certain primal simplicity, freshness, purity: to remove the stain, the dross, the burden of various kinds of negativity that have accumulated over a year, or over a lifetime—and to begin anew.

In this sense, the virgin is perhaps more suggestive of what some thinkers (Paul Ricouer seems to have originated the term) have referred to as “second naïvete” or “second innocence.” A person who, having gone through many life experiences, and having experienced disillusionment, a sense of moral contamination and corruption, perhaps a certain jadedness and cynicism, suddenly somehow comes full circle to seeking a kind of purity, innocence, freshness in life—albeit on a different level than the innocence of a child, youth or maiden.

This loss and recapturing of innocence may be felt on at least two senses: First, a loss of innocence about ourselves. Sin reveals to us the negative, selfish, thoughtless things of which we are capable. Every one is born with certain illusions about himself, everyone likes to sees him/herself as good. Often we go through life with an enormous amount of self-justification, even for the most heinous sins and crimes. Thus, authentic teshuvah requires, first of all, honesty with our selves, recognizing and acknowledging our sin; being able to say: I did such-and-such a thing, this act belongs to me. (Imagine, for example, the image of Eleazar ben Durdai placing his head between his knees, weeping for the years of debauchery and of life wasted in the pursuit of no more than coarse carnal pleasure.)

True, on another level teshuvah also means transcending the evil acts one has done, ”moving on,” changing the self, reaching the point of feeling that “I am a different person; I am not the same person who did these acts” (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.4; cf. the lyrical description of the transformation possible through teshuvah in Chap. 7, which I will post on the blog presently). But before reaching that state, one must first acknowledge one’s sin, and one’s perennial capacity for wrongdoing. The “second innocence” of such a person is thus of one who has undergone the full life trajectory: from initial innocence, to performing cruel, immoral, or lustful acts—or simply acting and living without mature cognizance of what one is doing; to a kind of inner revulsion at one’s self, and seeking with all one’s being to recreate him/herself in the image of a better, purer, higher self. This is perhaps the insight expressed by Hazal in their saying, “One who does teshuvah out of love, willful transgressions are transformed into mitzvot.” That is, there is a certain finer self that is somehow revealed specifically through the process of sin and the “recovery” therefrom.

Second: there may have been a loss of innocence in one’s very faith. One “raised in the faith” may start out with a simple, even naïve acceptance of basic Torah dicta, and even one who has embraced Judaism at a later point in life may start by accepting “whole-hog” the doctrines taught by one’s teachers. But the modern world presents many alternative approaches or “explanations” of the Torah, which sooner or later will cause the intelligent person to begin thinking and questioning—whether these are in the realm of psychology (sublimation of parental figures); history and textual analysis (questioning the Divine authorship of the Bible; historicistic explanations of the development of halakhah), economic theory (religion as an instrument of social control, the “opiate of the masses); evolutionary biology or neurophysics (mechanistic interpretations of the human brain itself, with its thoughts, emotions, and spiritual experiences), etc., etc. Or one may question a naïve belief in sekhar va-onesh, in Divine retribution, once one begins to see “bad thing happen to good people.” Be it through personal encounters with suffering, tragedy, or premature death of dear ones, or through learning about catastrophic events such as Auschwitz, one begins to doubt Gods goodness.

Second naïvete (Ernst Simon talks about this somewhat) means moving past these questions to a more subtle, mature, kind of faith. Such a “second faith” does not deny the difficulties posed by modern thought or try to sop them off by facile, slick apologetics, but somehow moves to a place where it hears Torah addressing an utterly different dimension of truth.

The Tur (Orah Hayyim §581) begins its presentation of the laws of Elul (and of Rosh Hashanah) by quoting the midrash in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, describing how, when Moses ascended the mountain a second time to receive the second set of tablets, a shofar was sounded in the camp as a sign that Moses had in fact ascended, and to instill the people with a sense of awe and teshuvah.

This association of Elul with the second tablets, again, coincides with the theme of teshuvah and “second innocence.” The relationship of the people with God, and with the Torah, was different after the incident of the Golden Calf. It was no longer one of simple, innocent faith—but neither was it one of rebelliousness and protest. The people longed for things to be as they had been, but knew that they were different. Henceforth the relationship would be more troubled, complex; however intense the renewed love, passion, faith and trust, beneath the surface there would be always be the seeds of faithlessness, of the potential to realize the betrayal (much like a married couple trying to rebuild their marriage after betrayals on one or both sides, with the knowledge of what happened suppressed, unmentioned, but somehow present just below the surface).

God’s relation to this, too, was different. He understood the people’s weakness, that they could not be counted on to stand unwavering in their loyalty to Him—and He realized that He would have to exercise a greater measure of compassion, of forgiveness, of turning a blind eye to their shortcomings. This was the secret of the Thirteen qualities of mercy, revealed to Moses in the crevice of the rock on that first Yom Kippur—and which have served since time immemorial as the leitmotif of the Selihot, from Elul on through the Holy Day. (See my detailed discussion of this in HY I: Ki Tisa and on the blog at Ki Tisa (Torah))

In Hasidism, the second tablets also symbolize the Oral Torah: somehow, in wake of the rift caused by the Golden Calf, and the painful reparation of the breech, man began to take a more active role in shaping, transmitting, and interpreting the Torah. Elul thus symbolizes two kinds of creativity: the creativity entailed in Oral Torah, and the re-creation of self involved in the act of teshuvah.

A brief word about the Torah readings for Elul. These consist basically of the latter half of Devarim: the recapitulation and summary of the law, with certain new laws pertaining particularly to the news type of life to be lived in the Land; and admonitions, ceremonies of ratifying the covenant, and Moses’ Song of Warning. All these clearly relate to the theme of renewal, of rebirth, of preparation, of return. And just as obviously, counterpointing these to the stories of Adam and Eve at the beginning of Genesis, we find ourselves in a far more complex, mature, and ambivalent moral world—again, suitable to “second naivete.”

Two Models of Leader: Belated Afterthoughts on Shoftim and Elul

In our piece at the beginning of the month, we observed that Elul corresponds to the time of giving of the Second Tablets, also seen as the Oral Torah. It is interesting in that light that the key passage for the entire notion of Oral Torah, and of the interpretation of the Torah generally being assigned to a specific authorized body—the “priests and Levites and judge who shall be in those days,” i.e. the Sanhedrin who sit in the Chamber of Hewn Stone on the Temple Mount—appears in the first portion read during the month of Elul: Shoftim. (Deut 17:8-13).

Also interesting, and a point I noticed for the first time this year, is that the Torah describes in nearly adjacent passages two parallel human channels for receiving Divine guidance during the post-Sinai era, when there is no longer direct, visible revelation: the one, the Sages, the “pillar of the Oral Torah,” as mentioned above (see my blog for elaborations from past years); the other, the prophets who will be sent by God from time to time (18:15-22). Interestingly, the passage dealing with prophecy appears immediately after a group of verses about a third, clearly forbidden source of esoteric knowledge: magicians, necromancers, soothsayers and diviners of various sorts. The need for the prophet is presented here as directly arising from the fact that, on the great day of the assembly at Sinai, the people specifically asked Moses to speak with them, and not to hear further God’s direct voice or to see the great fire, because it was too frightening (v. 16). Thus, the prophet is seen as a kind of intermediary, a channel or vehicle for God’s word.

Slightly further on, in vv. 20-22, the Torah addresses a problem that always arises in relying upon human authority: how does one know for certainty that what they are saying is really from God? Various signs and tests are then put forward to determine whether a given person is in fact speaking in God’s name or is a false prophet (see also 13:2-6). And, one might add: at a later age, the accuracy or correctness of Rabbinic rulings may also be problematic, a subject for no little discussion as well (viz. the stove of Akhnai and like disputes).

Moses himself wore both hats: he was the greatest prophet—the “man of God,” who constantly communicated with God, and even “ascended on high”—and the first and greatest “Rebbe”—teacher, sage, scholar, etc. Ahad Haam once wrote an essay entitled Hakham ve-Navi (“Sage and Prophet”) contrasting the two forms of leadership: the charismatic prophet, who may at times speak in a paranormal, ecstatic, visionary state, where “the Shekinah speaks through his mouth”; and the sober, learned sage, who makes no pretence of having a “hot line” with the Almighty, but simply has the breadth of knowledge and intellectual power, coupled with human insight, understanding, and wisdom, as well as piety and ethical probity, to teach the closest thing to the word of the living God in a post-prophetic, post-revelatory age. It is the latter, Ahad Haam says, who has been the dominant model for Jews over the past two millennia or so.

But there is always a tension between them. Nowadays, there seems to be a certain revival of “prophetic” types: Kabbalists, mystics, charismatics of all sorts, who claim to be able to see “beyond the curtain.” One hears stories of great figures, such as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who allegedly display uncanny knowledge of things, past and future, that no ordinary mortal could possibly know… On such matters, I for one find myself preferring the skepticism of my Lithuanian and rationalistic forebears.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Re'eh (Rashi)

As you can see, the blog is now again up and running. Thanks to all those who wrote to express their concern and suggest solutions. For additional teachings on this portion, see the archives for August 2006 below.

Milk and Meat as Metaphor

This week’s parashah begins the actual recapitulation of the laws taught in the first four books, including those of kashrut, which is treated as a single subject. This is in contrast with the original presentation, in which the rules of permitted and prohibited species and the ban against cooking milk and meat together are treated in widely separated places—the former in Leviticus 11, the latter in Exodus 23:19b and 34:26b). Rashi, after commenting on the straightforward meaning of this law and some of its halakhic ramifications, offers an unusual metaphorical interpretation related to the placing of the rule on milk and meat adjacent to the rule of tithes:

Deut 14:21-22. “… Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. [new section] You shall surely tithe all the produce of your seed….” Rashi: What has this to do with that? The Holy One blessed be He said to Israel: Do not make Me boil the young goats of the grain while they are still in their mothers’ womb. For if you do not tithe properly, as it is ready to ripen, I will bring an eastern wind and blast them; as is said “and shall blast it before [it becomes] standing grain” (2 Kings 19:26). And similarly regarding the matter of first–fruits.

The idea of semikhat parshiyut, that the placing of seemingly unrelated subjects in close proximity to one another is in some way meaningful, is an accepted and widely-used method of Biblical exegesis in Hazal. What is unusual here is that, when invoked, it is usually done to show some unexpected or non-obvious connection between the two in terms of their literal, straightforward meaning. Here, in a source borrowed by Rashi from Midrash Tanhuma (Re’eh, §17), the former verse (clearly halakhic in its simple sense) is read, not as a behavioral rule, but as an ethical admonition relating to the latter: do not perform an act which will cause the “kid” (i.e., the unripe grain) to be “boiled” (i.e., scorched or blasted by the hot sun and extremely dry wind) while yet in its “mother’s womb” (i.e., on the stalk, where it is still growing).

The basic idea of the lesson brought here is one repeated many times in the Torah, particularly in Deuteronomy: the principle of reward and punishment, that neglect of the mitzvah brings in its wake consequences, Divine punishment—and swiftly so.

The last three words, “and similarly regarding the matter of first–fruits,” puzzled me until I read Chavell’s footnotes to Torat Hayyim. He states that the same principle applied here to the proximity of this verse to the matter of tithing may also explain its coupling with bikkurim, “first-fruits.” This may help to explain why Rashi choose to quote this unusual midrash here: the adjacency of the milk & meat rule to agricultural mitzvot in three separate places is striking, and calls for comment.

I would like to add an additional thought about milk and meat. It seems quite clear that the diet in Biblical times was far closer to macrobiotics or vegan than it was to the modern Western diet, centered on animal flesh and dairy. In our culture, many people today find this rule—and, specifically, the Rabbinic stricture requiring that one wait “between one meal and the next” before eating dairy following meat—vexing. It’s difficult to tell a small child that he can’t have ice cream at 4 o’clock in the afternoon just because he’s had hamburgers for lunch. But in ancient times, it would seem that both meat and dairy were more peripheral foods, the former especially only consumed on somewhat special occasions, as occasional additions to a diet of fruits and vegetables, grains and legumes. Hence, the two were separated from on another, because they were seen as representing opposing principles—the one life-giving and “maternal”; the other the direct product of the animal’s death; or, perhaps, the one contracted, concentrated, the other expansive. (Incidentally, there are those who state that the emphasis on animal-based food, with the large herds of cattle and sheep and fowl this requires, is a contributing factor to the global warming that is now threatening our planet.)

An indication of the centrality of vegetable food may be seen in the second paragraph of Shema, found in last week’s parsha, which speak of blessing in terms of דגנך תירושך ויצהריך “you shall gather your grain, wine and oil” (Deut 11:14)—a threesome which appears in numerous other in Devarim and in the Tanakh generally.


Marcel Dubois—A Eulogy

A little over a month ago Father Marcel Dubois died, at age 85. Father Marcel was a monk and priest who many years ago chose to make his home in Israel, where he headed a small Dominican community, “Isaiah House” on Agron Street, as well as serving as Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University, where for many years he served as Chair. An active figure in the Israeli cultural and religious scene, he will perhaps best be remembered as one of the greatest friends of Israel and the Jewish people within the Church. (Interestingly, earlier this week word came of the passing of another such figure, Cardinal Jean Marie [Aaron] Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris—albeit for many Jews the fact that Lustiger was a converted Jew makes him a far more ambivalent figure.) Father Marcel also served as delegate from the Holy Land to the Papal Commission on Inter-Religious Dialogue with Judaism, and was always an outspoken supporter, not only of the Jews’ connection to the land, but of the notion of the Divine Providence operating through the Jewish people, including its most secularized parts, and the State of Israel.

But I wish to speak more of the personal side. I worked closely with Father Marcel for five or six years during the early 1980s, in the context of a bi-annual journal of inter-religious dialogue and scholarship entitled Immanuel. Father Marcel was Editor-in-Chief and I was Managing Editor: he suggested ideas for articles, set down general guidelines, chaired the editorial broad, which consisted of a Jewish and Christian scholar for each of the five sections, while I nagged tardy contributors, edited copy, reviewed page proofs and layout, and saw the journal through to press. As Marcel said in his self-effacing and gently humorous way, “I give the blessing and he does the work.” We met at least once a month, spoke often on the phone, and on several occasions he was a guest at our home for Shabbat meals.

What struck me most strongly about him was his unassuming manner, his warmth and love; his genuine acceptance and caring for others, of all religions and walks of life. In this, he embodied the true ideal of Christian love. We Jews have good reason to be sceptical about Christian love, in light of the Church’s history through much of the European Diaspora, and such things as the Inquisition, in which “love” might mean putting someone to death at the auto-da-fé to save their soul. Knowing Marcel was a reminder of what Christian love can be when it is authentic, and not ideological or fake.

He did not stand on ceremony and protocol and, while a man of deep faith, was not overly fussy about some of the more peripheral aspects of religion. Thus, I would see him walking around the house wearing a brown Benedictine robe, rather than the white Dominican robes of his own order, because he found the former more comfortable. Nor was he hesitant to criticize those things, in his own church as outside it, which troubled him. He was a true devotee of the modernization and opening up of the church brought about by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. Hence, from time to time in private conversation he would indicate his dismay at the direction taken by the latter’s successors, and drew a sharp line between official binding church doctrine teaching as expressed in papal bull or encyclical, and the personality and views of the reigning pontiff.

I would like to add some comments about Jewish–Christian dialogue generally. This is an area in which I never imagined myself becoming involved, until the work with Immanuel virtually fell into my lap, opening to me an entire new world, hitherto unknown to me. I had grown up believing missionizing to be a central motif in virtually all Christian groups, an ulterior motive that might on occasion be kept concealed but which was always present. “There is no salvation outside of the Church.” What I discovered at Immanuel, both on the part of Father Marcel and among the other Christian members of the board, both Protestant and Catholic, was an ethos of genuine respect and curiosity about Judaism, a sense of Judaism being “the older brother,” the source upon which Christianity originally drew, as well as a sense of guilt and responsibility for the bad treatment of the Jewish people by the Church in the past (a tendency which, I believe, started with Father Edward H. Flannery’s The Anguish of the Jews in 1964; as well as in Rosemary Reuther’s Faith and Fratricide and, earlier, in James Parkes’ Church and Synagogue).

This was reflected in the very structure of the magazine—both the overall concept and the specific areas of interest. The mandate of the journal was to Christian readers who did not read modern Hebrew some small part of the intellectual and scholarly creativity occurring in Israel among Israeli-Jewish scholars, by means of summaries of lengthier journal articles, book reviews, full-length translations of papers published in Hebrew, and original articles commissioned for the journal. The five sections were: “Hebrew Bible,” a title chosen to deliberately avoid the connotations of “Old” and “New Testament,” reflecting an interest in how Jews themselves read the Bible, without the “foreshadowing” of the Christian gospel usual in traditional Christian exegesis; “New Testament and First Centuries Judaism,” which included papers by Christian scholars of Rabbinics, who sought the roots of Christianity in Hazal (a spirit reflected in such works as E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism and W. D. Davies’ Paul and Rabbinic Judaism; “Jewish-Christian Relations, Past and Present,” which included research in the history of anti-Semitism, and an acceptance of certain negative themes in the Christian past; “Jewish Thought and Spirituality”: primarily, papers on medieval Jewish culture, in such areas as Kabbalah, philosophy, and halakhah, expressing a Christian interest in Judaism as an independent world of religious creativity; and “Contemporary Religious Life and Thought in Israel.”

Since working at Immanuel, I have had opportunity to meet other Christians who reflect this more open, accepting attitude—but one rooted in deep rootedness of each side in their own faith, not in the type of superficial, “All religions are basically the same” attitude often purveyed by popular interfaith dialogues. I think, for example, of the members of the Beatitudes community with their center at Latrun, who as Christians celebrate the Shabbat and various other holidays.

All this is not to gloss over the weighty issues involved in interfaith dialogue. As is well known, Rav Soloveitchik, in his essay “Confrontation,” took a strong position against formal dialogue, partly on purely theological grounds, a kind of respect for the integrity of each religion as a world unto itself; partly because he was suspicious of its tainting by the political aspect, in which Jewish defense organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, might be more involved as spokesman than Jewish theologians and thinkers. To what extent might Jews be seen as being involved in “bargaining” about such issues as supercession or changes in the Catholic liturgy (this was clearly a focus of his concern in 1962, prior to the Vatican II Council). But there is much to be said on all this, and I can only touch here upon a few high points.

Having said that, I will return to Father Marcel. Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, in his eulogy published in last Friday’s Ha-Aretz (Tarbut ve-Sifrut, Ha-Aretz 3 August 2007, p. 1), made some significant points about Father Marcel’s approach: He taught me an important lesson in accepting the Other: not through blurring of identities, nor from a stance of relativism, but, to the contrary: out of fulness of my own identity, out of breadth and depth of philosophical examination of whom I am, and the ability to find points of contact, the common denominator with people and other worlds, worlds that are truly other.

For me, the most important thing was Father Marcel as an individual, as a warm, living human being, whom it was an exceptional pleasure to know and to work with. He will be sorely missed.

As a Sign on the Hand and the Head: On Foxes and Hedgehogs

As is well-known, the tefillin worn on the hand contain only one compartment, all four passages therein being written on a single scroll, while that of the head has four separate compartments, and four separate scrolls. A popular homily on this mitzvah —one that appears both in Vaethanan and Ekev (6:8; 11:18)—explains that one wears a single scroll on the hand, the source and focus of our actions, to indicate that our action (i.e., the halakhah, the practical mitzvot) must be unified, one, while the tefillin of the head is multifold to symbolize diversity in thought. In Judaism, practical action and behavior must be one, with relatively little room for deviance—the same mitzvot are applicable to all Jews; while in the realm of thought and belief there is no fixed dogma or catechism, as there is in Christianity, but there is room for intellectual pluralism, for a multiplicity of ideas and approaches to even the most basic questions. Even Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, which are often taken as obligatory articles of belief, are in fact widely disputed and open to debate and dissent, even within Orthodox circles. (I began a series on the Thirteen Principles over a year ago; I hope to return to it in due course, hopefully early in the new year).

This thought brought to my mind the famous essay by Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox, whose title is based on the adage of the ancient Greek thinker Archilochus, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin speaks there of two basic human types: those who know one big thing, who adhere to one central idea that explains all phenomena, and to which all their thinking ultimately returns; and those who know “a lot of little things,” who revel in the diversity and multiplicity of life and of humankind, and who are sceptical about any all-embracing theories that, by their very nature, tend to obscure differences and individuality. (Years ago, a college acquaintance named Henry Gibbs, made the memorable, if rather cynical statement, that “A truly elegant theory can only be disproved by another, even more elegant theory.”)

Berlin gives the example of Tolstoy, as someone who wanted to be a hedgehog, i.e., who tried to explain everything by means of one big truth—in his case, his own idiosyncratic spin on Russian Orthodoxy, a mélange of Christian doctrine mixed with a primitive socialist love of “the people”—but who in fact was really a “fox,” because he was full aware of the complexity and unexplainable quality of many things. This may have been what made him a great writer: i.e., that he knew and was fascinated by the individual.

There are many kinds of hedgehogs: Communism, which sought to explain cultural and social phenomenon, art and music, even a pure science such as genetics, in Marxian terms, certainly fostered hedgehog thinking. Certain kinds of orthodox Freudians are hedgehogs. Both groups can easily refute any and all objection to their theories by alleging the hidden resistance of the critic: “You disagree because it threatens your class interest” and “You disagree because of your own subconscious resistance,” respectively.” Among our own Zionists there can be a dogmatic approach which tries to explain all of Jewish history in terms of Zionist—and damn those facts that don’t fit in! The same can go for atheists, laissez-faire capitalists, “Neo-Liberals,” “Neo-Cons,” Jungians, etc. The hedgehogs are reluctant to consider the flaws or limitations in their own theories.

But it is in religion that the tendency to know “one big thing” is most prevalent: that God exists, that there is no place in the universe empty of His presence, that He is One, that He revealed Himself and His Torah at Sinai. Once one knows that, it is argued, everything else we know is of secondary importance. (Obviously the “hedgehog” type also knows many things: the “one big thing” refers, not to information, but to central organizing ideas. Any traditional talmid hakham must know a vast literature, with tens of thousands of halakhot—but he believes in the one central truth of God and His Torah.)

My question is: can one be a religious person and still be “a fox”? That is, may one know “many little things”—appreciate the unique world of each human being, and the fact that life does not always fall into neat categories—without compromising one’s religious authenticity. Not infrequently, I find myself in the company of Torah teachers or ba’alei teshuva who are great enthusiasts, who want to convert everybody in the world—or least every Jew—to see their Truth. (Ironically, the person who first told me about hedgehogs and foxes ended up as a militant religious zealot.) My problem is not so much that I may differ with them philosophically or theologically—I basically affirm the same central values and commitments as they do—as that I differ with them temperamentally: that is, I somehow feel that things are more complicated, and that there needs to be room to acknowledge this.

For me, to be a “religious fox” means to somehow accept traditional Torah teaching, and yet somehow accept, in a loving human way, those that are outside of this rubric. For example, during my recent visit to the USA I saw how intermarriage, and driving on Shabbat, and many other violations of the halakhah, “make sense” in a certain milieu. For those living in the sprawl of suburbia, or even more so in small-town rural America, the alternatives may be driving on Shabbat—perhaps to have Seudah Shelishit with kindred spirits living two or three towns away—or almost unbearable social isolation. Similarly, while I affirm the traditional proscription on homosexuality and on homoerotic acts, for profound philosophical and theological reasons I will detail another time, and am deeply critical of much of the craziness of today’s politically correct “homophilia,” I also have homosexual friends, and can empathize with their situation and even understand in an intuitive way how that, and only that, works for them.

Perhaps this is the difference between the writer and the ideologue. I’ve never written fiction, but in a certain way I feel I have something of the novelist or story tellers in my soul. For it is through stories of real human beings, more than through doctrinal formulations, that we can illustrate the paradoxical and contradictory side of things.

An interesting Kabbalistic insight: that the division between the male and female sides of the Kabbalistic tree is based on woman being more attuned to the individual—because women bear children, care for and worry about the individuals in their families, while through most of history men have been free to indulge in great, all-encompassing theories. But in Kabbalah the feminine is seen davka as the negative side, of Gevurah, of Sternness and Rigor, because the woman judges in terms of the specifics of individuality, not in terms of expansive, all-embracing, universal love (thus, at least, according to the person who explained this theory to me; albeit, “masculine” Law and other universals can also be rigid and impervious to individuals).

Postscript to Tisha b’Av

A short postscript to one aspect of the laws of Tisha b’Av, which we studied a few weeks ago. As is well known, it is forbidden to engage in the study of Torah on Tisha b’Av, just as one is during personal mourning, because it “rejoices the heart” (Ps 19:9); an exception to this rule being “Job, Lamentations and the sad things in Jeremiah,” which enhance the experience of mourning and remembering. There is, however, one odd point of contention in the sugya in which this issue is discussed in the Talmud, at Ta’anit 31a. The beraita there states that this rule only applies to the recitation of familiar material, whether from scripture or Oral Law, but “he may read in a place where he is not accustomed to read…,” whereas R. Jeremiah syas that even the latter is forbidden. Rashi explains that this is so, because studying new material involves a certain “pain”—that is, an intellectual effort and straining of one’s mind, whether in trying to decipher unfamiliar and rare words or difficult biblical syntax, in imagining the realia involved in legal or other passages or, particularly in Mishnah and even more so in Gemara, in trying to figure out the underlying logic and at-times intricate, multi-layered arguments.

What is the kernel of this dispute? It seems to me that this may be talking about two kinds of people, or two kinds of Torah-study experience. For the rank and file Jews, “bale-batim,” reading Torah text provides a certain sense of comfort and good feeling, enhanced by its familiarity. Studying something new is difficult and challenging, and somewhat off-putting, and thus not a joyful process per se. Then there is a small group—an intellectual elite, if you will—for whom the challenge of learning and understanding something new, the tough intellectual effort that must be invested, and the satisfaction once they succeed in understanding it, is one of the greatest and most sublime joys imaginable in life. A joy that far outweighs the various creature comforts that are part of the regular “package” prohibited on fast days. It was for such people that R. Jeremiah forbade all study but that focused on the meaning of the day (and his view is brought as halakhah in Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 554.1-2; regarding ordinary mourning on this point, see Tosafot to Moed Katan 21a, s.v. ve-assur).


DEVARIM: On Moses’ Talk

One of my readers, a friend from my Young Judaea days, Betsy (Bat-Ami) Glass, offered an interesting interpretation of the first verse of Deuteronomy, with its long list of place names:

Here’s my drash on the time/place confusion. Moses is getting old. His mind is not functioning as sharply as it did when he first began to talk with God. Also, he is angry. When one is old, a bit forgetful and angry, one begins to confute people, places and things. Even I (not quite so old as Moses), when angry and upset, just blurt out a stream of consciousness of events, not always in the correct order. So maybe Moses is just furious and doddering… and his anger and frustration give him something more for which to atone in Elul.

Whoever wrote the Torah was a master at conveying the mood and mind of the characters. The perplexing incongruities of this docudrama hold us captive, like the bush afire and unconsumed. It is dramatic, enigmatic, and its complexities and seeming contradictions certainly hold our attention over the millennia….

VAETHANAN: Shocking Anthropomorphism?

The following is a brief but very interesting response I received from R. Avraham Leader on the issue of anthropomorphism:

The question of anthropomorphism is a huge one, especially in light of the Idrot in the Zohar and Shiur Koma texts. In one sentence (as you said, it’s Erev Shabbat), I would say that at least in the Zohar, the zelem elohim [Divine image] is interpreted in this context as meaning that man should work towards becoming more divine, not the divine being made human (although aspects of that can also be taken up vis-a-vis t’nu oz lelohim) by projection.

And in the same parsha as ata horata we have ki lo re’item kol temuna [“for you saw no image…” Dt 4:15] and the very interesting declaration that the stars, etc., were distributed to the other nations (an interesting near-validation of avoda zara, that is foreign worship—that is foreign to us but maybe not to others), which conflates with what you bring from Rashi on Shema.

Re the Katzav Case

In response to my comments on the Katzav imbroglio, Rahel Jaskow wrote:

Regarding the Katzav case, it seems to me that another law from the Torah has been disregarded: “And you shall cleanse the evil from among you” [Deut 13:6]. In this case, the evil was denied, swept under the rug, as it were, rather than fully brought out into the open and dealt with. This is also my complaint regarding the attitude of many people in the Jewish community that we should not “air our dirty linen in public.” In fact, if we do not bring it out into the open and deal with it, we allow the rot to keep growing and festering. Ultimately this leads to far greater shame and much greater suffering and anguish.

Which would we rather have said of us: that when we detect evil acts, no matter how highly-placed the perpetrator may be, we deal with them quickly and decisively, or that we deny them, allow them to continue and ignore the suffering of the victims?

Meanwhile, the High Court has begun to review the Legal Advisor’s scandalously lenient modification of his original indictment, and there is hope that some reasonable sort of justice will yet be done. And we have a new president: the grand old man of Israeli politics, the dignified, ever visionary Shimon Peres—albeit someone who during his years in active partisan politics had more than his share of enemies. We can only conclude by blessing him in the uniquely appropriate words of the Psalm for Shabbat: “May he yet bear fruit in old age, ever verdant and fresh.”

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ekev (Rashi)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives for August 2006.

“But to Fear God”

Last week’s discussion focused on love of God; this week we shall discuss the fear of God, which is an equally central motif in these portions. Interestingly, many people today seem to have problems with the notion of “fear of God,” and prefer to construct a Judaism based exclusively of love. Or perhaps, as I suggested half jokingly to one reader, they are taking too much to heart FDR’s famous saying in First Inaugural Address: “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

More seriously, perhaps the idea of fear is associated too much with authoritarianism, with a kind of blind obedience and often dry, mechanical performance of mitzvot, as opposed to the motif of love, which suggests acts done out of inner conviction, and identification of the self with the mitzvot. Or perhaps it seems ultimately self-centered—I do mitzvot because I am afraid that God will punish me; a motivation based, not on God-consciousness, but of fear for one’s own survival and well-being, whether in this world or the next. But, as we shall see, this is not the correct understanding.

There are several verses in both last week’s and this week’s parasha about fear. Two verses are nearly identical: Deuteronomy 7:13 and 10:20: את ה' אלהיך תירא [ו]אותו תעבד [ובו תדבק] ובשמו תשבע. “Fear the Lord your God, serve Him, [be attached to Him], and swear in His name” (the bracketed phrase appears only in the latter). But perhaps the most important verse on this subject, which serves as the introduction to a whole new section, is the following:

Deuteronomy 10:12: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.”

Rashi: “Now O Israel.” Even though you did all those things, His mercy and affection are still upon you, and despite your sinning before Him, he asks nothing of you but to fear him, etc. “But to fear.” Our Rabbis inferred from this, “All is in the hands of Heaven but the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b).

The “things” that they did refers to the catalogue of their sins and rebellions in the desert (above, 9:3-10:11), from the Golden Calf on down. The previous section is a veritable harangue against self-righteousness: “Remember that you are not going into the land on your own merits, because you are the most stubborn of all peoples. Remember how you infuriated Lord your God…” etc. (9:6-7).

The essential point brought here by Rashi—“All is in the hands of Heaven but the fear of Heaven”—is an interesting approach. On the one hand, there is a kind of determinism or even fatalism about the concrete events of life—whether one will be healthy or sick, wealthy or poor, live a long or a short life—is determined by God. But, in the realm of one’s moral and religious behavior, all is up to man. For our purposes, what is significant is that yirat shamayim is identified with human free will, or better, the basic attitude underlying how that will is exercised.

The Talmud, in discussing this verse, suggests that the phrase, “What does God demand of you but to fear Him, is rather ironic. The word “only” or “but” (כי אם) seems inappropriate; fearing God is no small or simple thing! וכי יראת ה' מילא זוטרתא היא? The answer given there is interesting: since Moses is speaking here, for is Moses, our Teacher; and for him, fear of God was indeed a simple thing, “like a person who has a great vessel, and is asked for something small.”

Thus, while Abraham is seen as the archetype of love of God, it would seem that Moses was the paradigm for fear of God. What does this mean? Perhaps it is connected to the idea of modesty, that “the man Moses was exceedingly humble.” The essence of the fear of God is not, as often thought, fear of punishment of harm; rather, it is the awareness of the gap between man and God. A person is attracted to God, fascinated by Him, wants to draw close to Him, to know Him, even “to see His face”—and then, at a certain point, he becomes aware of his one’s own “creatureliness,” his mortality, the limitations of his mind, even the potential faultiness of his own moral judgments—and then he draws back, in humility, in fear and in trembling. This is what is known as yirat haromememut—awe of the Divine transcendence and majesty.

A second point that I find interesting here is that, in all these verses, the fear of God is, as Hazal say, the key to all else. Unlike love, which in 6:5 is only amplified in terms of its modalities or dimensions, in these verses fear is coupled with other attributes: serving God, cleaving to Him, swearing oaths in His name, even with loving Him and “walking in (i.e., imitating) His ways.”

A third point: in our prayers, such as Ahavah Rabbah, we speak of love and fear in tandem as central motifs. But, as Hazal observe, in human relations love and fear cannot go together, cannot be associated with the same object. If you love another human being, there must be intimacy, openness; the barriers between people fall. Fear goes with differences in status and rank, hierarchy, formality, limits to closeness. (This idea is reflected in the recent laws about sexual harassment, noted in the recent high-profile cases in our country: if a woman has relations with her boss, who has the power to fire her or to grant her favors, the presumption is that it is fear, rather than love, that is involved.) But matters are different in relation to God; indeed, one cannot exist without the other.

Fear without love can lead to dryness and aridity, a kind of discharge of formal duty without any joy or feeling of inner identification with the mitzvot. In the case of Rabbinic authorities, this fear may express itself in rigidity, formalism, fear of change or innovation, which—if not tempered with love of God, including love for man and woman created in His image—may lead the way to a kind of harshness and cruelty, causing unnecessary human suffering, and inviting abuse by the greedy and vindictive. Many have questioned whether such “fear” is in fact fear of God, or faer of the Shulhan Arukh—or perhaps, fear of being considered insufficiently pious by those who stand to one’s right.

The ideal, of course, is that fear of God creates the framework for loving God, preventing it from bursting out in uncontrolled ways. For there are dangers in love without fear as well: religious anarchy, without structure or limitations; violating boundaries in ways that make others uncomfortable; and, specifically, sexual excess and transgression (Kabbalistic and Hasidic works speak of אהבה רעה, the negative side of love, typically expressed in uncontrolled sexuality). Only in the union of the two is true wholeness to be found.