Friday, January 11, 2008

Bo (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog, at February 2006, near the end.

“This month shall be… and you shall make a Passover unto the Lord”

The opening Rashi of the Torah states that, if the Torah were strictly a law book, it would have begun with Exodus 12—this week’s reading. And indeed, according to Sefer ha-Hinukh—a classical compendium of mitzvot arranged by weekly Torah lessons—Parashat Bo is rich in mitzvot, containing nine positive and eleven negative mitzvot. Thus, while we have thus far engaged mostly in creative exegesis, trying to extract the imperatives and norms implied in the first fourteen parshiyot (which, according to most listings of the mitzvot, only contain three mitzvot all told), from here on in we shall deal mostly with things that are explicitly commanded.

The vast majority of these mitzvot are in one way or another concerned with the festival of Passover—the slaughtering and eating of the Korban Pesah, the paschal offering, in fellowship on the 14th of Nissan; various related laws; the eating of matzot and refraining from hametz throughout the seven days; the relating of the story of the Exodus to one’s children; etc. Moreover, one of the few non-Pesah-related mitzvot here, the very first one in the parasha (Exod 12:2), is the obligation imperative upon the central Court of the nation to sanctify the new moon—that is, to set up and maintain a functioning calendar, which is, after all, a logical condition for any observances that need to performed on a certain date.

One might have expected the first mitzvot in the legal portion of the Torah to be concerned with basic moral and ethical norms—personal integrity and respect for the life, person and property of the other—like the universal Noachide commandments, or the Ten Commandments which form the core of the Sinai epiphany a few chapters later. Instead, one has a commandment concerning a time–rooted commemorative occasion, an annual ritual celebrating the foundational experience and identity of the group. Interesting, this is one of only two positive commandments whose neglect bears the punishment of karet, of being “cut off” from the sacred community. (The other, brit milah, is a sign born by each male individual on his flesh; the Pesah, by contrast, relates to a central collective ceremony.)

What is expressed by this ritual? The basic idea seems to be the centrality of the group, as a focus of identification and belonging for each individual; the covenant with God; God’s redemptive acts in history; the nation’s origins in slavery and oppression—i.e., that one’s freedom (and at times prosperity) are not to be taken for granted; and compassion for the stranger and the underdog. (This, in contrast to the sense of perpetual suspicion, hatred and hostility for the other which could be the result of such an experience—which is unfortunately a component of the mentality of many Jews—and which is such an explosive and dangerous element in Shi’ite Islam.) Interestingly, even today, without the Pesah sacrifice, the Passover Seder is an important occasion for virtually all Jews with any sense of connection to the Jewish people.

Much of the revival of interest in spirituality in Western society today tends to stress the individual. Historically, too, the saint, the recluse, the itinerant monk, the mystic, the sage or man of knowledge, were figures of great importance in Christianity and in the religions of the Far East. All these are important, and certainly exist in one form or another in Judaism as well (see, e.g., Scholem’s essay, “Three Types of Jewish Piety”). But on a certain basic level, the holy community is central, serving as a focal point for the possibility of holiness being embodied in earth.

There are certainly problems relating to the collectivity as well. During the course of the twentieth century, marked by fascism and totalitarianism, demagoguery and mass movements of various types, many people learned to be wary of those who spoke in terms of the “nation,” the “folk,” or the “class.” In Israel, many people became weary of talk of “Zionism” and constant sacrifice for “Am Yisrael”; sometime in the ‘60s or ‘70s there was a turn in Israeli culture, e.g., in fiction and in the lyrics of popular music, towards interest in the individual. Aviva Zornberg writes, in the opening chapter of her book on Genesis, of the tension between the vertical and the horizontal—the individual standing upright, with his powerful inner consciousness and knowledge, vs. the swarming mass, essentially biological life—as a central theme in human life. But in Judaism, there is also the notion of sanctifying collective life, as a motif of the Sinai covenant—but really beginning with the Pesah ritual as a kind of founding rite.


II. “He is One, and there is no unity like His oneness; He is hidden, and his oneness is infinite”

The second principle is to know and acknowledge God’s unity. For Rambam, God’s unity carries a whole slew of philosophical implications: his was a very strictly defined, philosophical definition of unity, requiring negation of any and all internal divisions within God, any positive qualities or attributes, emotions, actions, etc.—as we shall discuss later on, in connection with the third and fourth principles.

But there is also a strong connection between God’s unity and the rejection of paganism. His unity (even if not understood in the strict philosophic way that Rambam does) first and foremost negates any duality or plurality within God, and certainly the multitude of gods found within pagan pantheons. Indeed, this is a central principle in Rambam’s halakhic writings: in Sefer ha-Mitzvot, the very first negative commandment is the refutation of idolatry, the prohibition against accepting any deity or power other than He as a divinity. (In Hazal’s succinct quip: Mordecai, in the Scroll of Esther, was called ha-Yehudi, the Jew, because he refused to bow to Haman, and “Whoever rejects idolatry is a called a Jew.”) In Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim as well, following a lengthy historiographic introduction in which he explains the origins of idolatry, Rambam begins the halakhot per se, not with the proscription against concrete acts of worship, which he treats in detail from Chapter 3 onwards, but with the need to avoid intellectual study or speculation that might lead to thoughts of idolatry or, indeed, “to uproot [from our hearts] any of the principles of the Torah”—the central theme of Chapter 2.

It is interesting to contrast this with the discussion in the Mishnah, where the emphasis is more on concrete, practical acts of idolatry: one who bows to idols, offers them sacrifices, libation, incense, and so forth, is culpable, and only thereafter “one who accepts it as a divinity and says ‘you are my god’” (m. Sanhedrin 7.6). This difference may be taken as paradigmatic of Rabbinic vs. Maimonidean thought. The former is concrete, concerned with actions in the world; while the latter, though steeped in halakhah, is in such cardinal areas as this more concerned with the roots in thought and the inner belief system of the person.

A Meditation on Shema

At this point I wish to turn to reflections on these two principles in relation to the Shema from another, somewhat mystical perspective. Whereas Rambam’s interpretation turns unity into a strict philosophical concept (see what I wrote on this in HY VI: Vaethanan=Vaethanan [Psalms]), the mystics sees God as omnipresent in the universe. In much of Kabbalah, there is a constant interplay between what is referred to as makif / sovev kol almin, of God as “surrounding” or “enveloping” the physical universe; and God as memalei kol almin, “filling the entire universe,” tangibly immanent in the world. The meaning of God’s unity then becomes: the unity of His transcendence and His immanence.

The two concepts are very different: the one paints God as Master, as Ruler, as He who is to be obeyed; the other, God as All: an almost pantheistic, some might even say sensual feeling of God’s closeness, of the life pulsating within one’s body with every breath, with every heart beat, as part of the Divine life (as in the concluding verse of Psalms, “all that has breath praises Yah, Halleluyah”).

For some, these two aspects are identified with the Divine names Elohim and HVYH. One could say that the two word-groups (following the introductory phrase, Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel,” which is a call to pay attention) refer to these two aspects: HVYH Elohenu means—God is our Lord, our Master, He before whom, before whose majesty, transcendence, awe-inspiring power, or simply before whose Otherness—we tremble and are overwhelmed. HVYH Ehad: but that same God is really one, meaning: omnipresent, the immanent power hidden beneath the surface, which makes the seemingly diverse and confusing and often conflict-ridden world into a unity.

A friend of mine, Stan Tenen, who has developed some interesting ideas about the Hebrew letters as universal ideograms, elaborated an insight from the Tanya on this same idea concerning the verse “For the Lord God (HVYH Elohim) is a sun and shield” (Ps 84:12). He defines these two aspects of Divinity as “the utter unity and complete Oneness of transcendence” (HVYH or Hashem), and “the all-inclusiveness of His immanence” (Elohim). The one is the name of God as perfection in Itself, like the light of the sun, which is sufficient onto itself; the other, He who interacts with the world, like a shield. “These are the boundary conditions of the cosmos and of our minds. By logical definition, everything must exist somewhere between absolute Singularity and all-inclusive Wholeness.”

This may also shed light on Rashi’s comment on the Shema. He sees the phrase HaShem Elohenu as expressing the reality, an acceptance of God’s kingship that is feasible, even accessible to all, in our age—in the world as we know it, ha-idna. But HaShem Ehad—the unitive, all-encompassing vision of immanent godliness—is eschatological. Hence, the rather puzzling reference in his comment to the nations of the world coming to know God: “on that day God shall be one and His name one” (Zech 9:9). But it may also be read in terms of a more subtle, “panentheistic” mystical consciousness, that sees far beyond sensory reality. Understanding (also like Rambam) that the image of God as personal is itself a metaphor; God as the Ground of Being, as He who unifies all Being within Him/Her/Itself. Going beyond the monarch-subject model, God as “the Boss,” but… that which is beyond words, “that which thought cannot comprehend at all.”

Thus, these two phrases reflect not only different concepts or aspects of God, but radically different kinds of consciousness. One leads to the other, but there is more than a little tension between them. There are some hints of this in Hasidic writings: that the future religious consciousness will be one of God being everywhere (see, e.g., Zaddok Hakohen’s Ressisei Lailah §56 on Hanukah)—but this will only be in the End of Days. There are likewise hints of this in Rambam’s vision of the messianic age when all people will know God (see Hilkhot Teshuvah 8-9, and Melakhim 12).

It was this sense of God’s omnipresence that led to a certain tradition of “religious anarchism” and the celebration of “the holy fool” in some streams of Hasidism: a kind of carrying of this insight to its radical conclusions, even acting in buffoon-like ways. It exists in other traditions as well: the Indian mystic Ramakrishna created a scandal when he gave some sanctified food offerings to a cat that had been lurking around the temple, “for he too is Krishna.” Of course, this approach can also lead to a dangerous antinomianism or a total obscuring of boundaries, e.g. transforming orgiastic sex into an act of mystical worship. In short, relying upon the immanent logic of mystical unity alone may lead to bizarre conclusions—another reason why in Judaism it is largely identified with the End of Days. On the other extreme, esoteric knowledge, such as Kabbalah in Judaism, can itself become a rigid, “orthodox” system: a canonized set of doctrines that clouds the consciousness rather than opening the mind, in which devotees become preoccupied with the myriad details of its symbolism rather than with the vision of the immanent God.

3. “He has not the semblance of a body, nor has He a body; His holiness is beyond comparison”

The Third Principle, which to us today may seem almost trivial or self-evident (who, after all, thinks that God has a physical body?), is in fact a central pillar of Rambam’s theology, spelling out the implications of God’s unity as he understood it. For Rambam, unity is a far-reaching philosophic concept, implying not only God’s incorporeality, but the entire “negative theology”—the idea that one cannot attribute to God anything that would imply any internal division or multiplicity within Him. Hence, not only is He without body or bodily organs, but one cannot ascribe to Him any positive qualities, emotions, or actions. The rubric of God’s incorporeality thus subsumes, by extension, all the “philosophical” offshoots of unity (in the Introduction to Perek Helek, Rambam explicitly states that this principle includes these aspects as well). Historically, this is perhaps the most problematic area of all, in which Rambam deviates most from traditional Jewish theology, whether biblical, Rabbinic, or Kabbalistic thought, from which it differs most radically. If one may put it thus, this the most typically “Maimonidean” of all the Principles.

What has all this to do with the God of the Bible? What Heschel calls the God of pathos, the God who is filled with empathy for and involvement with mankind? The God who answers prayer? The God of history, of whom the psalmist says “I speak of the wonders of God”? How can one pray to an unmoved mover? (for a good articulation of this difficulty, see James Kugel’s book, The God of Old). To the God of the Midrash, who is depicted in heated arguments and debate with the patriarchs, with Moses, or with later figures; who is shown “rising from His Throne of Judgment to his Throne of Mercy”? It is this problem, more than any other, that exercises Rambam, and was one of the main reasons he wrote the Guide. And the only path he found available to himself to reconcile the contradiction between his philosophical conception of God and what was depicted in the tradition was that of reinterpretation—of explaining away all those chapters or blocs of biblical passages terms that speak of a living, acting, feeling, loving, and beloved God, by saying that all this is metaphor, a translation into human language of the Ineffable; figures of speech to convey how we perceive God acting within our limited ken. It’s worth noting that even God’s incorporeality was not taken for granted in ancient times. A book called Shiur Komah, widely known in Rambam’s time and for some centuries prior, gives a graphic description of the Divine body, including colossal dimensions and unintelligible mystical names for each of the various organs. A classical midrash describes how God appeared to the infants whom the Israelite parents had been forced to abandon in Egypt in the form of a handsome young man, who cared for them, fed them, etc. Thus, when they left Egypt, they recognized Him at the Sea, and exclaimed quite literally, “This is my God!”

But the sharpest problem raised by this principle pertains to Kabbalah. What does one do with the Sefirot? There are those Maimunideans who insist that the notion of the ten Sefirot is an impermissible violation of God’s unity, even worse than the Christian belief in the Trinity (“The Christians say God is three-in-one, but the Kabbalists say God is ten-in-one.” Gevalt!). On the other extreme (and I frankly don’t understand or know too much about this view) there are those who try to “square the circle” and somehow try to reconcile Maimonides and Kabbalah, giving him a quasi-Kabbalistic intellectual pedigree. Abraham Abulafia was a Maimonidean—but, though a mystic, and even a visionary, I don’t know if he in any way in fact subscribed to the theory of sefirot, or even knew it.

One rebuttal of the criticisms of those who view Kabbalah as heretical is to view the Sefirot, not as “parts” of God, but as instruments, or even metaphors for God’s own activity bridging between His infinite perfection and His involvement in the world. Literary critic Harold Bloom wrote the following intriguing things:

The Sefirot are primarily language, attributes of God that need to be described by the various names of God when He is at work in Creation. The sefirot are complex figurations for God, tropes or turns of language that substitute for God. Indeed, one can say that the Sefirot are like poems, in that they are names implying complex commentaries that make them into texts. They are not allegorical personifications, which is what all popular manuals of Kabbalah reduce them to, and though they have extraordinary potency, this is a power of signification rather than what we customarily think of as magic.... (Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism [New York: Seabury Press, 1975], 25-26)

Bloom also explains the Kabbalah as an approach that somehow unites the wildly divergent world-views Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism—i.e., the pristine unity of Neo-Platonic god, with the dualities, tensions and antinomies of Gnosticism—into one coherent system.

I will conclude by reiterating that my own approach is that it is virtually impossible to say anything meaningful, in terms of what human beings know, about God Himself. Hence, we must use human language as approximation, as pointers. Perhaps whether one prefers the austere, minimalist philosophical language of Maimonides, or the rich, colorful imagery of Midrash and Kabbalah, is ultimately as much a matter of personal taste as it is of hard-and-fast theological principle. For myself, I prefer the midrashic or biblical language of God interacted with man; that of the Hasidic masters, like R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, who addressed God almost as a friend or neighbor. What is He in reality? Words cannot describe. Or perhaps certain piyyutim, such as the Shirei ha-Yihud, that celebrate His ineffability, may show us the way to authentic Jewish spirituality?


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