Sunday, June 22, 2008

Shelah Lekha (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, please see the archives to this blog, at June 2006.

Thoughts on Tzitzit

I will begin with something I heard last year from Prof. Reuven Kimelman of Brandeis University: the tzitzit are not simply reminders of the mitzvot, but a kind of royal garment. Tekhelet, a shade of deep blue (some translate it as “azure”) reminiscent of the sea and of the purity of the sky, was a royal color. The basic idea of the tzitzit, whose distinguishing feature is its blue thread, is that all Jews are in some sense nobility, “sons of the king.” The blue-fringed garment might be compared to the striped coat worn by Joseph, which aroused his brothers’ jealous precisely because they clearly understood that it signified his superior status; or to the high priest’s garments, made from a mélange of fibers and colors including tekhelet (Exod 28:5, passim.), as did some of the tapestries and draperies used in the Temple, such as the partition between the courtyard and the sanctuary (ibid. 26:31). In a secular context, one might recall the rich tapestries mentioned in the Book of Esther, both at Ahasuerus‘ banquet (Est 1:6) and in the garment worn by Mordecai upon his triumphant appearance following Haman’s defeat and his appointment as royal viceroy (8:15). This may also have been part of the motivation of Korah in wrapping himself and his three hundred followers in garments of tekhelet: as if to say, we too are nobility, like Aharon the high priest.

If such is the case, then the tzitzit’s function of reminding us of the mitzvot is not so much rooted in anxiety over the dangers of sin, in the fear that a person may go astray, but in a sense of noblesse oblige: you are nobility, and therefore it behooves you to behave in an appropriate and princely manner, to honor your Divine father by faithfully executing His wishes.

In another direction, I wish to compare the interpretation of the key verse in this passage, the selfsame warning “do not go astray after your heart and after your eyes” (Num 15:39), as interpreted by Rashi and Rambam, respectively. The contrast between the comments of the two on the same verse seems to me illustrative of a basic distinction between the approaches of these two central teachers of medieval Jewry. Rashi, having a more pragmatic, practical orientation, speaks of concrete, fleshly temptations: primarily, sexuality. His gloss on the verse reads:

“And you shall not go astray after your heart…” [Taturu, “Go astray”] is like the word tur, as in “… from going about / surveying the land” [Num 13:25]. The heart and the eyes serve as two spies acting on behalf of the body, procuring sins for it; the eye sees, and the heart desires, and the body performs the transgression.

The image here—which, quite interestingly, draws a linguistic parallel between our verse and the story of the Spies with which the parasha opens—is one in which the different organs of the body perform different functions, with one end in mind: to search out and enjoy physical pleasure, regardless of its being forbidden by the Torah. Here the heart and the eye are integrated in awakening sexual passion; the Talmudic source upon which Rashi draws (Berakhot 12b) reads “heart” and “eyes” as alluding, respectively, to thoughts of idolatry and thoughts of sexuality.

Maimonides’ approach is far more intellectually and ideologically oriented. He introduces our verse, not in the Laws of Tzitzit, but in the context of a lengthy discourse in Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 2.3. There he warns, not only against concrete acts of pagan worship, but that a person ought not “turn in his thoughts after idolatry, nor to any thought that causes a person to uproot any of the principles of the Torah: we are admonished not to raise it in our hearts and not to turn our thought towards it… For a person’s mental comprehension is limited, and not all are capable of apprehending the truth thoroughly. For if every person were to follow the thoughts of his heart, it would destroy the world, because of the limitations of his mind.” (For a fuller discussion of this passage, and especially its implications vis-à-vis the modern cultural milieu, see HY V: Shelah lekha = Shelah lekha [Rambam].) He then continues:

And concerning this matter the Torah warned, saying, “And you shall not go astray after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you go wantonly” [ibid.]. That is, that one should not be drawn after his own limited mental comprehension, imagining that through his thought he apprehends the truth. Thus said our Sages: “’After your hearts’ refers to heresy, and ‘after your eyes’ refers to licentiousness” [Berakhot 12b]. And even though [violation of] this prohibition may cause a person to loose the World to Come, it is not subject to corporal punishment.

Only at the very end of this halakhah, almost in passing, does Rambam mentions that one of the aims of tzitzit is to avoid, not only incorrect theological thinking, but also sexual licentiousness. This is in striking contrast, both to the above-quoted Talmudic source, which seems much more emotion- and body-centered, and to the main thrust of Hazal’s thinking on this matter generally. A famous aggadic passage describes how an errant talmid was about to sin with a particularly elegant and expensive courtesan. At the last moment he was deterred when, in the process of disrobing, he saw his tzitzit and was reminded of hwo he was and what they were meant to signify. The lady involved was so impressed by the moral fiber exhibited by this man, as a result of Judaic teaching, that she herself converted and gave a third of her ill-gotten wealth to charity. (Menahot 44a)

Rambam, by contrast, seems far more interested in minut than in zenut. It is almost as if sexual misconduct, like heretical thought, is caused by incorrect thinking; as if one might surrender to sexual lust due to incorrect philosophical conclusions. Maimonides seems to have believed that the mind and the will are capable of fully ruling the more unruly parts of the human personality (see, e.g., our discussions of Hilkhot De’ot).

Our experience seems to show the opposite to be the case. How many wise men and great intellects—including people who considered themselves pious, upright, ethical, etc.—have had their head turned by a pretty face or a shapely body, fueled perhaps by a situation of loneliness and emotional aridity in their life? How many kopf menschen (“mind people”) are emotionally childish? We moderns seem to be less sanguine than the Rambam about the power of the mind, and more aware of the complexity of human psychology and of the chaos that lies within each of us. In this respect, the seemingly artless and unsophisticated formulation of Rashi seems, at least to me, far closer to the human truth.


Chapter Two

The first part of this chapter jumps all over the place, chronologically: it begins with a saying attributed to “Rabbi” (i.e., Judah the Prince) and to his son, Rabban Gamaliel III, then jumps back to a series of sayings attributed to Hillel the Elder, perhaps two centuries or more earlier. But the bulk of the chapter, from §9 on, is concerned with Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the figure who masterminded the survival of Judaism after the Destruction of the Second Temple, and his disciples, including: a listing of their names and their qualities (§§10-11); a comparison among them, in two different versions (§12); the answers of each one to the questions, “What is the good path a man ought to pursue / follow?” and “What is the evil path a person ought to avoid?”( §§13-14); and, finally, three short characteristic sayings of each one (§§15-19).

9. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai received [the Torah] from Hillel and from Shammai. He used to say: If you have learned much Torah, do not credit it to your own good, for it was for this that you were created.

10. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai had five disciples. …

11. He would enumerate their praises: Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is a like a well- caulked cistern that does not lose a drop; Yehoshua ben Hannania: Happy is she who bore him! Yossi ha-Kohen is pious; Shimon ben Netanel fears sin. Eleazar ben Arakh is like an ever-flowing spring.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s general motto was: Don’t be arrogant about the Torah you’ve acquired over the years (even though in ancient Jewish society, as in contemporary Haredi society, the talmid hakham, the Torah sage, was the most highly respected type of figure), for such is your natural goal in life; it is for this purpose that God created you. This may be one of the first times that this ideal is stated in quite such clear and unequivocal terms: learning Torah is the summum bonum, the highest good.

The praises of the various disciples are interesting, in that they are not all of a piece. Not all of them relate to scholarly traits: rather, two are of an intellectual nature; two pertain to the individual’s moral or spiritual character; and one is a general statement that is difficult to apply to any specific trait. We shall start with this last one: “Happy is she who bore him” or, in colloquial American, “He would make his mother proud!” Those of us who grew up in twentieth century America, with jokes about Jewish mothers and their pride in their children (“my son the doctor”), as well as with Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and the stereotype of the domineering Jewish mother, may find this faintly amusing, or perhaps naïve. What mother doesn’t think her son is God’s gift to humanity? Just this week, the Israeli police arrested a 15-yaer-old youth in the case of a brutal and senseless murder, and the news reported that his mother stated “But he’s a good boy!”

But joking aside, what we can say is that Rabbi Yehoshua was in some sense an all-around ideal figure, one who made all those who knew him admire him. I imagine him as a warm, loving, generous figure, who uplifted the spirits of those near him by his mere presence, filling their lives with joy and love, even without any unique teaching or moral traits that one could point to. I visualize someone like the Bostoner Rebbe, who even in advanced old age and with serious health problems always seems to have a smile on his lips and to exude love and inner strength.

Rabbi Yossi ha-Kohen and Shimon ben Netanel, hasid and yerei het, are a pair. ”Fear,” particularly “fear of sin,” implies meticulous attention to mitzvot and even anxiety lest one err in some aspect of one’s halakhic performance, with special punctiliousness about negative commandments. Hasid, even in a pre-Beshtian context, connotes religious enthusiasm, a constant flow of action and joyous emotion, one who prays and performs the mitzvot with fervor and intensity, who goes above and beyond what is formally required of him, and who does them as an expression of love and not merely duty.

Finally, there are the two very different intellectual traits of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and of Eleazar ben Arakh. The one is characterized by tremendous knowledge and, the necessary precondition thereof, a powerful and retentive memory. Particularly in an era before the Oral Torah was recorded in writing (but even thereafter, and even after Gutenberg), the man who knew a lot was an essential link in preserving the Jewish tradition, which contains a myriad of diverse details. Such a person was known as Sinai, a walking Torah scroll. The other type is renowned for his intellectual creativity, his sharpness of analysis, for constantly thinking about and in Torah and coming up with new ideas and interpretations, bubbling over like a mountain spring. He is also called oker harim, the “uprooter of mountains,” the man of incisive critical acumen, who causes others to rethink their most fundamental assumptions. Interestingly, the following mishnah records two divergent answers to the question as to which of the two is more important.

I now turn to a passage from one of the five disciples—Shimon ben Natanel, the pious—who, perhaps characteristically, focuses upon prayer. We will hopefully get to at least some of the others next time around:

18. Rabbi Shimon said: Take care about reading Shema and reciting Prayer; and when you pray, do not make your prayer a fixed thing, but rather [asking for] mercy and beseeching the Omnipresent, as is said, “for He is merciful and compassionate…” (Joel 2:13); and be not evil in your own eyes.

This past week I happened to study the parallel to this passage in Berakhot 29b, where the gemara discusses precisely what is meant by not making prayer “a fixed thing.” One view is that one should not relate to prayer as a burden, an obligation to be discharged. There is a certain paradox here, because the very fact that it is defined as a mitzvah, an obligatory religious duty, with certain parameters and minimum requirements, makes it a duty to be discharged. Indeed, this tension is inherent in the very nature of the halakhah as a legal system that is simultaneously a religious teaching. The halakhah itself wants people to perform prayer as “service of the heart,” as an inward act, at the same time that it is nevertheless obligatory, fixed. Somehow, despite its formal, statutory character, it must be treated as something beyond mere duty, as a thrice-daily living encounter with one’s Creator. Anyone who has ever tried to follow this discipline knows how difficult it is.

A second view states that one must innovate something in each prayer, that it not be mere rote recitation of a fixed text. Finally, what I find the most interesting approach is that one must should endeavor to pray be-dimdumei hamah, “by the faint light of the sun”— that is, at dawn and at dusk. This last view is seemingly even more restrictive and formalistic (think of the Hasidim who insisted on breaking free from the fetters of “clock Judaism,” and were notorious for davening outrageously late). But in fact, the idea here is that both sunrise and sunset represent quasi-mystical times of grace, uniquely suitable to prayer and to arousing Divine mercy.

The concluding phrase in this mishnah, “Be not evil in your own eyes,” is a warning against the dangers of self castigation. A certain modicum of self-awareness and self-criticism is a necessary component of any serious, ethical life. But it is a far cry from that to a feeling of chronic guilt, a sense of almost existential sinfulness and inadequacy, such as is found in certain streams of the Mussar movement (not to mention classical Christianity).

is interesting (and again, this was written 1600 years before the movement we know as Hasidism) that it is specifically the hasid, Rabbi Shimon, who emphasizes the dangers of negative thought. The emphasis of Beshtian Hasidism on joy is not simply a matter of singing and dancing and jumping about, as it is sometimes taken today, but a conscious antidote to the dangers of excessive self-criticism and negativity (see Rivka Schatz’s book Hsidism as Mysticism, which has an entire chapter on this subject).


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