Friday, August 08, 2008

Devarim - Tisha b'Av (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parashah, and on Tisha b'Av, see the archives to this blog at July 2006.

Readers are asked to pray for the health of Dinah Tzipporah bat Rahel (Deena Garber), a revered Jerusalem Torah teacher.

Zakhor! Remember!

Some years ago Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, of Columbia University, wrote a little book entitled Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. His basis thesis there is that memory is a central defining element of Jewish group identity. The emphasis on memory, in his view, is a unique feature of Jewish historical consciousness, one which defines community no less so than do faith, mitzvot or, on the other hand (as certain secular Zionists would have it) land or language.

Such memory is different from simple chronicling or reconstruction of events from the past. It is selective; it involves a process of interpretation, but of a different kind than that practiced by academic historians, in which the past is filtered in certain very specific ways. In ancient times, in Bible and Midrash, and even in medieval Jewry, this was guided by a theocentric narrative. In the modern age, historical memory has been re-appropriated by Jewry in a very different manner, suitable to a secular world in which there is no longer consensus on a given religious or theological world-view; indeed, one might even say that, for some Jews, historical memory has come to serve as a substitute for religious faith or practice.

Thus far for an extremely capsule summary of Yerushalmi’s book (which is well worth reading). To return to the Torah: while there are no mitzvot as such in this week’s parashah, it is very much historically oriented. Sefer Devarim, the final book of the Torah, which begins with this week’s portion, consists of Moses’ farewell address and admonition to the people. The whole first section of Deuteronomy—Chapters 1-11, corresponding to the first three parshiyot—is centered around the retelling and interpretation of history. In very broad terms, Parashat Devarim is a factual retelling of the events of the forty years between the encampment at Mount Sinai and the point they had reached in the fortieth year, on the steppes of Moab facing the gateway to the Land of Israel. Vaethanan and Ekev in turn are Moses’ valedictory sermon and interpretation of the lessons to be learned from such incidents as the Calf and the Spies.

More generally, Sefer Devarim contains many admonitions to remember: Zakhor!! Medieval Kabbalists introduced a ritual of daily recitation of six verses calling on the Jew to remember; five of these six zekhirot are taken from this book: “Remember, do not forget how you behaved in the desert” (9:7); “Guard yourself carefully, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw… on the day that you stood at Horeb… and tell them to your children and your grandchildren” (4:9,10) And, in Moses’ great Song near the very end of the Torah: “Remember the days of old, contemplate the years of the generations; Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will say it to you” (32:7).

But of all the times of the year, Tisha b’Av more than any other seems to me to embody the imperative to remember. The final chapter of Eikha opens with the words, “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace” (Lamentations 5:1). These in turn form the leit-motif for any number of kinot (elegies) recited on this day. Indeed, the theme of memory serves as an essential part of the halakhic construction of the day. Rav Soloveitchik used to note in his Tisha b’Av shiurim that the recitation of Kinot—which he defined as “engaging in Oral Torah on the theme of the Hurban, the Destruction”—along with the other kinds of study permitted on this day (Eikha, midrashim, Job, “the sad things in Jeremiah”) serves a necessary halakhic function. In contradistinction to personal mourning for the death of a relative, which is felt in a direct, immediate way, mourning on Tisha b‘Av is aveiliut yeshanah, mourning over events long-past. Hence, the sense of grief and mourning needs to be awakened by the act of study and remembering.

What is the nature of this memory?

First, to remember our own sins: מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצינו, “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” All these tragic events were caused by our own faithlessness to the covenant, whether grave sins like bloodshed, pagan worship and sexual lewdness, or social sins, like “groundless hatred.” Rambam, in his reading of the commemorative fast days, is more specific: these fasts are meant to remind us of “our ancestor’s [wrongful] deeds, which are like our own deeds” (Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 5).

Second, to remember what our Gentile enemies did to us, and to appeal to God for mercy and salvation. In more secular terms, this means remembering the widespread scourge of anti-Semitism; that our history has made us different. There is something problematical about this approach: it evokes the desire for vengeance, for self-pity, the sense of victimhood. Salo Baron once referred to this approach rather scornfully as the “lachrymose school of Jewish historiography.” At times, it can also lead to distorted apprehensions of our position in the world; it has arguably led to serious mistakes in Israel’s conduct of its foreign policy. And yet, this idea is an important component of Jewish self-awareness: the world is, or at least can be, a dangerous place for Jews (an idea elevated by some into a metaphysical axiom); a healthy measure of wariness and even suspicion is important for sheer survival. Certainly, notwithstanding the much vaunted Arab hospitality towards strangers on the individual level, Muslim culture is far from welcoming or tolerant towards other national or religious collectivities, certainly in what they perceive as “their” region.

Third, to remember what God did. As the Rav often said; Tisha b’Av is a time when one is allowed to ask hard questions about theodicy, to challenge the justice of God’s actions, to shake a fist at Heaven. “Eikha!” “Why?”

In a world of globalization, where cultures blend with one another, where former boundaries between nations and cultures are blurred and obscured, where there is constant mobility and mingling among groups, including intermarriage—at least within the orbit of Western culture (which in this city can end very abruptly)—the need to strengthen Jewish memory is a vital imperative.

The idea that all Jews have an obligation to remember their people’s past was one fostered, among others, by Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement. Is this a religious mitzvah or a national imperative? I’m not sure it matters, so long as there is historical memory. About thirty years ago I took a group of students from the WUJS Program to meet Kaplan. He was a very old man, 95 years old, living in Jerusalem, but he spoke in lucid and powerful tones. He spoke of the idea every Jewish family, even if they don’t go to synagogue on Shabbat, should make it a practice, every Shabbat afternoon, to read a chapter of Jewish history and discussing it as a family.

Interestingly, in the recent Bronfman competition sponsored by Brandeis University, asking thinkers to propose ideas for “an important Jewish book,” the winning project was that of Yehuda Kurtzer, centered on the theme of Jewish memory, how to revive it and revitalize in our day.

Perhaps this is also the explanation for a certain kind of nostalgia that is rife today. Except for a handful of very elderly people, there is no longer anyone alive who has real memories of, for example, the Eastern European shtetl. There is thus a certain longing for the past, seen through romantic lenses, for what is seen as a more “authentic” model of Judaism. More than a few children of thoroughly Westernized Jewries have even attempted to revive and reconstruct through their own lives what was lost—or at least what they imagine it to have been (at times in absurd ways, what I might call a certain style of “Hasidic chic”).

Where does Tisha b’Av fit in to this scheme? Many people, especially here in Israel, think of it as being “only for the dati’im,” and of no general relevance to Jews at large. It is seen as concerned exclusively with the Temple; who then can relate to animal sacrifices today? (This is a dramatic contrast to the early years of the Zionist movement, when as prominent a Labor Zionist leader as Berl Katzenelson decried those who went on a hike on Tisha b’Av, saying that it ought to be respected by all as the Jewish national day of mourning.) But I see the day as much more, against a far broader canvas, in which the Temple is only as symbol, a paradigm, embodying the entire (melancholy) range of Jewish memory.


Chapter Three — The Dangers of Wisdom

Following a series of mishnayot focusing on the importance of public study of Torah, in groups of varying sizes (discussed in HY IX: Korah), there are two brief sayings about the importance of wisdom being integrated with other values:

11. Rabbi Hanina den Dosa said: He whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom shall be lasting. But he whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom is not lasting.

12. He used to say: He whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, his wisdom is lasting. But he whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, his wisdom is not lasting.

Both these mishnayot, by the pious tanna Hanina ben Dosa, focus on the same issue: the proper place of wisdom vis-à-vis other values. In both cases here, wisdom must be preceded by something else: “fear of sin”—that is, a certain basic ethical attitude; and “deeds”—concrete action, good deeds, in the world. It would seem that R. Hanina had a deeply-rooted fear of what might happen to an individual if “wisdom” were to become the predominant, guiding feature in his personality.

What is the source of this concern? We know that Judaism as a culture has always placed a great premium upon the intellect: the talmid hakham, the person of \deep and extensive knowledge of Torah, must first and foremost excel in intellectual attainment. In modern Jewish culture, admiration for the intellect—the secular critical intellectual, the man of ideas, the scientist—is nearly ubiquitous. But necessary as this may be, R. Hanina —and, I would add, many other sages—saw the danger of intellect unchecked by other qualities. Intellect in itself is value free; it seeks to know, to accumulate ever more knowledge, to understand, to analyze, to compare and categorize and create new theories, or at least “hiddushim.” By itself, it need not necessarily lead to right, good, ethical behavior, to kindness or generosity or caring for the other, not to mention the kind of dedication that is willing to sacrifice itself if need be.

There were those, like Maimonides, who thought that intellect in itself, if properly applied, if rooted in proper training and systematic application of the correct axioms, would lead to right belief, behavior and character. His warning against delving into certain kinds of profound wisdom—whether the religious doctrines and thought of the non-Jewish world, as in Avodat Kokhavim 2.3, or the secrets of the Divine Chariot and of Creation—are based upon the fear that the person who is unprepared may fall into error. But, in principle, he believes, rather naively, that if a truly wise man properly understands the right course he must follow, he will do so.

In another sense, Wisdom may be viewed as a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the Torah itself is identified with Wisdom: see the opening chapters of Proverbs, for example. In Kabbalah, Hokhmah, “Wisdom,” is the highest sefirah of all, an instrument for infusing the infinite Divine light into the universe. On the other hand, in Greek culture wisdom (Sophia, Logos, Gnosis) is also the highest good. There, it seems to be independent of all theological or ethical restraints, but is the highest end in itself. Perhaps the wisdom which R. Hanina b. Dosa wished to be placed behind the fear of God is of this latter kind.

SUPPLEMENT: “Shall I Weep in the Fifth Month?”

Following the creation of the State of Israel, and even more so after the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, voices began to be heard in the religious world asking whether the various practices of mourning related to Tisha b’Av and the period preceding it should continue to be observed as has been done by Jewish communities since time immemorial, as if nothing of significance had changed in the situation of the Jewish people.

In the mid-1960’s, the late Professor Ephraim E. Urbach founded a small movement of religious intellectuals, Ha-Tenu’ah le-Yahadut shel Torah (“The Movement for Torah Judaism”), whose slogan was “The holy will be renewed, and the new made holy.” This group was devoted to examining the entire gamut of issues raised by the confrontation between traditional Judaism and modernity, particularly those precipitated by the return to Zion and the creation of the Jewish state, and to investigating new approaches to those issues, to be rooted in halakhic precedent but attentive to the modern spirit. After the 1967 War, this group turned its attention to some of the issues related to the mourning practices, focusing on three areas: (a) the continued observance of minor fast days, such as the 17th of Tammuz and 10th of Tevet; (b) the various customs of mourning observed during the Three Weeks (“Bein ha-Metzarim) and the first Nine Days of Av; (c) the liturgy of Tisha b’Av itself—specifically, revision of the Nahem prayer recited at Minhah on that day.

Moshe David Herr, Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University, who was among the leaders of that group, described the atmosphere of those days: “There was a tremendous feeling of euphoria after the war. On that first Tisha B’av, the atmosphere at the Kotel was more like a festival day than of a day of mourning.” He continued to describe how, on the 17th of Tammuz of that year, barely six weeks after the victory in the war, a number of members of the movement gathered at a private home for the weekday morning service—without Selihot and the other additions for fast days; afterwards cake and wine were served, and they all drank Le-hayyim.

Regarding the various mourning practices: there was a general consensus that Tisha B’av should continue to be observed as a fast—because of the Temple, which remained to be rebuilt; because of the many troubles throughout Jewish history associated with this date; and because of the horrendous destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it seemed to most that the mourning period need not be so strict as it had become over the centuries, particularly among Ashkenazic Jewry, and a return was suggested to the norms found in the Mishnah and Talmud, which are essentially those observed by Sephardic Jewry: namely, no mourning whatever between the 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh Av; restrictions on excessive rejoicing —weddings, etc.—only from Rosh Hodesh Av; and limiting the restrictions on eating meat and drinking wine, bathing and washing clothes, and cutting hair and shaving, to the week of Tisha B’Av itself.

The Nahem prayer recited on Tisha B’Av afternoon seemed particularly anomalous. The traditional text speaks of “the city in mourning and in ruins, despised and desolate... without her children... like an abandoned woman... ruined by legions, inherited by Gentiles...” etc. This text was clearly not an accurate representation of contemporary reality. Prof. Urbach, together with his late son Abraham, compiled a new version of the Nahem text, drawing upon sources from the Jerusalem Talmud, from the Siddurim of R. Amram Gaon and R. Saadya Gaon, from Maimonides and from the Italian and Yemenite rites, and from the existing text. In this version, rather than depicting the city as being in mourning and ruin in actuality, reference is made to the rebuilt Jerusalem as we know it, alongside bewailing the pain and mourning of past generations and the blood that was spilled. The prayer concludes with thanks to the Almighty for the inheritance of the land, and a prayer for peace. In this version, one prays:

רחם ה' אלקינו ברחמיך הרבים ובחסדיך הנאמנים עלינו ועל עמך ישראל ועל ירושלים עירך, הנבנית מחורבנה, המקוממת מהריסותיה, ומיושבת משוממותיה; על חסידי עליון שנהרגו בזדון ועל עמך ישראל שהוטל לחרב, ועל בניו אשר מסרו נפשם ושפכו דמם עליה. ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה, לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעי מעי על חלליהם, והעיר אשר פדית מידי עריצים ולגיונות. ולישראל עמך נתת נחלה ולזרע ישורון ירושה הורשת. פרוש עליה סכת שלומך כנהר שלום, לקים מה שנאמר: ואני אהיה לה, נאם ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.
Have mercy, O Lord our God, With Your great compassion and faithful lovingkindness, Upon us and upon Your people Israel and Jerusalem Your city, Rebuilt from its ruins, arisen from its rubble, and resettled from its desolation. For the supreme saints who were brazenly killed, and your people Israel who were put to the sword, and upon its sons who gave their lives and spilled their blood for her. Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem lets forth its voice. My heart, my heart aches for their slain, My innards, my innards ache for their slain. And for the city which You have redeemed from the hands of arrogant ones and legions, And to your people Israel you gave a possession, and to the seed of Jeshurun you gave an inheritance Spread over it the tabernacle of Your peace like a tranquil river, to fulfill what is said: “And I shall be to her, says the Lord, As a wall of fire around, and I shall be for glory within her” [Zech 2:9]. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who comforts Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.

Other noted sages, such as Rabbi Shlomo Goren, at the time Chief Rabbi of the IDF; Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, late Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv; and Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld of Great Britain (all of blessed memory), also formulated revised versions of the Nahem text.

There is historical precedence for such rethinking. The book of Zechariah relates that, after the return to Zion in 536 BCE, certain people approached the prophet with the query, “Shall I weep in the fifth month, as I have done these many years?” (7:3). The prophet prefaced his answer with an exhortation concerning the ethical aim of fasting—to pursue truth and justice, kindness and mercy to ones fellow, etc.—and concludes with the hopeful words, “The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts to the house of Judah” (Zech. 8:19).

The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b) puzzles over these words: why are these fast days referred to in one place as “fasts” and elsewhere as “days of joy”? The answer given is that, in times of peace (that is, when Jews are not under the hands of the Gentile nations—thus Rashi), these shall indeed be days of joy; during times of persecution, they shall be fast days; if the situation is somewhere in between, “if they wish, they shall fast; if they wish, they need not fast.” True, historically it was accepted Jewish practice to fast on all four “minor” fast days, and it is codified thus in the great law codes, Rambam’s Yad, Tur, and Shulhan Arukh; and with good reason, for Jews perceived their situation as far closer to “persecution” than to “peace.” But following the return to Zion and the creation of an independent Jewish state, and particularly after the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, many people began to feel that this ancient practice was anomalous, a matter of religious rote. Why, then, have these proposed changes not taken root within the religious world? Prof. Herr sees this as unthinking conservatism, symptomatic of rigidity and fossilization in religious thinking (mitzvat anashim melumadah).

This issue raises basic questions pertaining, not only to Tisha b’Av and the season proximate to it, but also regarding our attitude towards history and its relevance to religious life. Do we see our liturgy and our religious observances as relating to our actual situation in the real world, or as timeless, eternal, “Platonic” archetypes? There is respectable precedent for the latter position among some of the leading Jewish thinkers of the modern age. Thus, Franz Rosenzweig spoke of the Jewish people as living its life in a kind of niche of eternity, outside the vagaries of temporal history. The intellectual historian David Myers has identified an entire school of thinkers espousing an approach that “defies” history: among them Hermann Cohen, Yitzhak Breuer, and Leo Strauss. But is such an approach cogent and acceptable to us?

On the opposite extreme, there is a widespread approach in our day to see the present era as “the beginning of redemption,” anticipating the rebuilding the Temple, the restoration of sacrifices, the Sanhedrin and the Davidic monarchy—not to mention the exclusive sovereignty of the Jewish people over the “Greater Land of Israel.” But are galut and geulah in fact to be seen as a bipolar reality? Either complete redemption, or a secular Jewish state without any religious significance whatsoever? Then there are those who see Zionism—perhaps in reaction to the excesses of present-day organized religious Zionism—in purely secular, political, practical terms. (Such, for example, was the position of the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: “we’re fed up of being dependent upon the mercies of the goyim!”)

But it seems to me that there is yet another possibility, located somewhere between the poles of denying history altogether and realized pre-messianism: one that sees the unfolding of history in gradual, naturalistic terms, yet as nevertheless representing the stage upon which the Divine manifests itself in our lives. The return of the people of Israel to history is an opportunity to shape our national life in light of the values of justice and righteousness of the Torah, while taking responsibility for our destiny and the quality of the society we create. Neither exile nor supra-historical eschatological redemption: rather something new, a new kind of age, not anticipated in the past, within the earthly history of the people of Israel.


Post a Comment

<< Home