Friday, August 29, 2008

Re'eh (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at August 2006.

We mark with sadness the passing of Abie Nathan, hero of the Israeli Peace movement, a “quixotic” individual who inspired others and made a difference.

“… To the place where I shall cause My name to dwell”

In Parshat Re’eh, as in the two parshiyot that follow it, we are again in a section rich in mitzvot—the recapitulation of the legal contents of the Torah, which is in many ways the heart of Sefer Devarim (at least, if not more so, than the rhetorical-historical contents of the first three parshiyot). The mitzvot in Re’eh focus entirely, in one way or another, on the service of God, radiating from twin but opposite foci: the Temple and the centralization of worship, and the prohibition, nay, all-out war against pagan worship. Thus, following the declaration that one is to serve God (i.e., through animal sacrifices) only in “the place where I shall cause My name to dwell” (an interesting circumlocution for Jerusalem), we have: the permission to slaughter meat freely for “secular” purposes, coupled with the prohibition of blood; a series of laws relating to pagan worship and idolatry—the warning against the false prophet, against the “missionary” for paganism from among one’s own people (masit umadiah), and the law that one must destroy a city that has gone over completely to paganism (‘ir ha-nidahat); the laws of permitted and prohibited species of mammals, fish, and fowl, evidently a spin-off from the discussion of animal slaughter in a ritual context; laws relating to priests and Levites and their portions, as well as the related laws of the three-year cycle of tithing and, by extension, the sabbatical year (shemitah); and, finally, the three annual pilgrimage festivals.

The central theme, thus, is centralization of worship vs. idolatry. Returning to the initial verses of Chapter 12, where the halakhic section begins, we find the imperative to shatter and smash and destroy all the places where the nations worship their gods, “on every mountain and hill top and beneath every leafy tree.” In short: the war of the Israelite god with paganism is against nature worship: the celebration of that which is visible and concrete; the purely immanent; natural cyclicity and no more. “That which is, is good.” (And from here, I would suggest, it is one short step to the cult and near-worship of sexuality—the most natural and easily available symbol of fertility, blessing, growth, even fecundity and lushness; note the opening and closing verses of Leviticus 18, parshat arayot, which frame the actual list of prohibited incestuous connections with the warning “Do not do the deeds of those nations… whom I am spitting out before you… lest you contaminate the land.” And is our own age that different? “Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose.”)

From this dramatic contrast with paganism, we may understand the need for a single, centralized place of worship a bit differently. If God is universal, why does one need a Temple? Is He not everywhere? How, as Solomon asked, can this house built by a human being, magnificent and sumptuous as it may be, contain Him, who fills the heavens and the earth—and beyond? (1 Kings 8:27; and see my discussion in HY III [=Midrash]: Vayetze, Vayishlah, and esp. Terumah, for some instructive midrashim on this subject). Perhaps the idea of God being worshipped, at least in the public-ceremonial framework of animal sacrifices, in one central place, serves to emphasize His transcendence, His ineffability. Just as He has no image, so too He cannot be identified with the numinous places in nature. Worship “under every tree and on every high place” somehow makes God too immanent, too familiar, too much identified with life as it is, and with human beings as they are, perhaps giving us an exaggerated idea of our own immanent holiness.

I find this to be a problem in the much-touted “spiritual” revival of contemporary culture. It tends to be too immanent, and as such too much self-oriented. At times, spirituality is treated as one more consumer item. A few nights ago I saw on television an expert on “contemporary spirituality,” a young woman with the improbable name Dr. Mariana Ruah-Midbar, proposing a “salad-bar” model of spiritual practice. A little Judaism—Shabbat, traditional prayer, some Hasidic teaching, no doubt some Carlebach niggunim; a little Christianity—the Sermon on the Mount; some Zen Buddhist koans as a side order; perhaps a bit of shamanism and witchcraft for added spice. All this seemed to miss the point: the submission of the individual to something beyond himself, awe-inspiring, transcendent; and, by extension, the sense of finite limits to the conscience—and ego—of the individual. Some of this feeling, and more, must have been felt by the pilgrims who went up to Jerusalem three times a year, among the festive throng from all corners of Israel, to receive the Presence of the Lord God.


Responses to “New Atheism” Essay

My essay two weeks ago about the “New Atheism” elicited several interesting responses. Yehuda Gellman, Professor of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University, wrote:

Do you really think that religions do not compete with science on cosmology and history? Visit almost any Orthodox neighborhood or every Muslim neighborhood in the world, or the evangelicals in the USA. Look at the myriad of websites dedicated to debunking evolution and scientific archeology. I would guess that more religious people in the world use their religion to compete with science than do not. As far as tolerance, there are clear elements of intolerance in Western religions. Judaism believes in throwing people into pits, and believes that most other religions are idol worship, to be destroyed if we only could do it. Christianity has a horrible history of intolerance, and Moslems will let you stay alive as long as you accept second-class status. Hindus and Moslems have been killing each other for a long time in the Indian subcontinent. Open thinking? Catholic censorship and Orthodox Jewish creeds and curses tell me otherwise. And of course you have the great Muslim mind-death.

What you are talking about is religion that might exist in pockets here and there, but is drowned out by the shrillness of antiquated beliefs about the world, of intolerance, and of closed-mindedness. I think Dawkins is right about at least an impressive part of religion, even though wrong to make this the whole of religion. But the conclusion is not the delusion of atheism, but a going forward in religion in the spirit of Smith’s book that you mention. In that respect, Dawkins is doing a service for a “perennial religion” approach to world religions.

Marc Kirschbaum, veteran HY reader and interlocutor, a cancer researcher now living in the greater LA area, writes:

A crucial element is missing. It is true that in authentic Jewish tradition there is hermeneutics, a more fluid response to science, etc. However, “religion” has been sociologically redefined by Protestant terms in the US, and thus rejection of evolution, of science, of modern medicine, etc., in a passive-aggressive type of rejectionist mode, has suddenly become the new default “religious” position. In Israel an added factor has been the novel Da’as Torah conception in which, paradoxically, the Litvak community decides upon a central figure who decides what is or is not to be thought, believed, etc (going way beyond the Hasidic tzaddik...). Remember that in the Protestant tradition of back-to-the-text, the apparent words of the text are sacred as they are, beyond interpretation, so that the appeal to hermeneutics and interpretation is exactly what they are opposing.

To which I responded:

My main point about pluralism within religion is NOT that I deny the existence of intolerance in lots of religions, and perhaps even more on the level of folkways, among religious people, but that the opposite also exists. Dawkins has a chapter in which he claims that “there’s no such thing as moderate religion”—by which he seems to mean that even the liberal churches expect the faithful to accept certain irrational propositions on faith. This is simply not true—certainly not in the non-Orthodox schools within Judaism, or even in the “liberal” school within Orthodoxy, within which I move.

But this is a problem in both Gellman’s and Kirschbaum’s responses. There's a tendency to think that the fundamentalist fire-eaters are somehow more authentic representatives of “religion” than the more moderate types. There is an element of truth in that: a) they tend to be more vocal and visible publicly (as you say, myriads of websites), but also b) that they are often more passionately committed to their faith than the more moderate. Indeed, whenever I hear Jewish demographers like Della Pergola cite the statistic that Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish religious group in America, I feel that this is largely irrelevant, because the Orthodox are so much more committed and live their Yiddishkeit in a vital, everyday way. Much the same may be said for the “main-stream,” liberal Protestant churches, and even more so for their European counterparts, in contradistinction with the Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Southern Baptist, etc. Indeed, there are some people who find it hard to accept the present Archbishop of Canterbury as an authentic Christian because he’s so liberal and PC.

What you say towards the end, that what’s needed is a “going forward in religion in the spirit of Smith's book,” is a partial answer. If something like that eventually comes out of the “New Age,” notwithstanding its weirdness and advocacy of magic and shamanism, as well as commercialism and charlatanry and at times honky-tonk feel—that is, a real raising of human consciousness, as people like Ken Wilber seem to say—it will perhaps prove to have been for the good. (For those who feel that the term “New Age” has a connotation of things that are flighty, flakey, not intellectually respectable or serious, and prefer another term, like “perennial religion”—so be it. I suspect we’re talking about pretty much the same thing.)

I would add that I’m also frightened of the growing power of fundamentalists; at times, I feel that our Haredi and Hardal brethren have created a new religion lacking in much of the humanity and compassion and down-to-earth understanding of ordinary life that seemed to mark the best of the old-time rabbanim and poskim. If Israel ever becomes a theocracy, as Feiglin and even more seriously learned people like Itamar Warhaftig would like to see it, I might seriously consider leaving the country. It ain’t gonna be no malkhut shamayim. A friend of mine, itinerant Kabbalah scholar Morris Faierstein, once remarked: “When I was growing up, it was rare to find a hasid who didn't have a sense of humor; today, it's rare to find one under the age of 50 who does.”

Right now, I'm reading a book by an Iranian professor of literature, a woman named Azar Nafisi, entitled Reading Lolita in Tehran which, in the course of describing a semi-underground seminar in English literature she held in her home, gives a vivid description of what it was like to live under the Islamic Revolution. Very frightening.

But all this is ultimately besides the point. In principle, I’m interested in religion, and God, sub specie aeternitas—as Dawkins also claims to do. Meaning: we all know about the numerous abuses of religion, the endless doctrinal conflicts—whether expressed in physical violence or in verbal antagonism, the brainwashing of the young, etc. The question is whether the God idea per se, the phenomenon of religion, of the human quest for ultimate meaning, for the transcendent—if you like, for Otto’s “Wholly Other”—is invalid, false, and dangerous per se, as Dawkins seems to say. I find him guilty of numerous sweeping generalizations, some of which are incorrect or heavily slanted, which come from his choosing the religious phenomena he wants to talk about, rather than studying religion as an aspect of human culture, in all its complexity, with an open mind. This places him, notwithstanding his academic credentials, only a few steps above Madelyn Murray and The Realist (a 1950’s satire magazine, which included numerous pseudo-sophisticated anti-religious jibes). Admittedly, all this leaves people like us, who in sociological terms belong to the Orthodox world, living a constant juggling game.

I continued further:

To repeat: one must reiterate the basic distinction between sociological manifestations of religion, especially in our present world situation, however mischievous and wrong-headed they often seem to be, and the principled issue, of the validity or not of the God idea, religion, etc. The New Atheists, while touching on contemporary problems, at least claim to be discussing issues on the level of principle; hence we must do the same.

This touches, among other things, on a very basic question regarding world–views and philosophies generally: Do ideas follow socio-economic, geo-political and other aspects of reality, or vice versa? Marxists and many others say that religions and ideologies and the like are reflections of the real economic interests and other societal factors that move people. Others, so-called “idealists,” see history molded by great ideas. All this sounds abstract and theoretical, so to put it in concrete, schematic terms very close to our own interests: Is the core cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the socio-economic oppression of the Palestinian Arabs—unemployment, long waits and humiliations at IDF blockades, the present embargo on Gaza, etc—or Islamic fanaticism and intolerance, the notion that it is forbidden for Muslims to ever cede sovereignty over “waqf” soil to “heretics,” etc. (whether this intolerance is structurally inherent in Islam, or an historical “accident” of the modern period)? Obviously, there is a little bit of both at play; nevertheless, one can see that these two theoretical positions lead to diametrically opposed positions, both in terms of “Who’s to blame” and in terms of hopes and strategies for future resolution of the conflict. Are Hamas, Hizballah, et al simply reacting to Israeli oppression and limitations, their religious language being no more than a tactic for whipping up the crowds into a frenzy, or vice versa?

Second, the tendency towards violent conversion or imposition of one’s faith on others seems to be a problem specifically in text-based monotheistic religions. It’s called fundamentalism. Does one find the same thing among, e.g., Buddhists, except when their own religious freedom is suppressed? (Moshe Halbertal once wrote a paper on the paradoxical fact that pagan religions tend to be far more tolerant and inclusive than monotheism, and in that sense somehow preferable.) If one has a sacred text, certainly one that is ostensibly “shared” by different religions, as the OT is by Jews and Christians, one ends up with arguments ad nauseum as to what constitutes the true revelation of God, and the meaning of various contested passages. This is a fruitless sort of discussion, that never can be resolved; Christians and Jews can throw verses and interpretations back and forth at one another endlessly. The alternative, an idea I hope to develop further elsewhere (in the long overdue Part II of my Shavuot “Sinai” essay), is a God-consciousness centered religion. I hold that the conflict between Mitnaggedim and Hasidim is really about halakhah vs. avodah (i.e., Divine service) as the focus of religious life. Thus, the latter option isn’t heterodox, but can be perfectly “Orthodox” position. I thus end up defining my own [position, in what sounds like an oxymoron but really isn’t, as that of an Orthodox but non-fundamentalist Jew).

EKEV: The Second Set of Tablets

For some years I have been receiving and reading a very interesting parasha sheet (in Hebrew), edited and assembled by Asher Yuval, known as Mehalkei Mayim. This consists of a selection of midrashic and other, mostly classical-Rabbinic, texts related to some theme in the parashah, along with his notes and comments on each. The URL is Last week his sheet was devoted to the difference between the second set of tablets and the first.

Among the texts he cited was Ibn Ezra’s commentary, quoting R. Saadya Gaon (with which Ibn Ezra demurs), who enumerates differences between the two sets of tablets. This contains several interesting and provocative ideas. First, that the second set of tablets is to be identified with the second version of the Ten Commandments, brought in Deuteronomy 5:6 ff.

Related to this, he mentions an almost mystical idea: he notes that the second version of the Dibrot contains the phrase, in the Fourth Commandment, למען ייטב לך, “that it may be well with you.” Thanks to this addition, this latter version includes all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (or 27, if one includes the final form of the letters. Stan Tenen, who has done work on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as a universal language system, stresses that the final letters are to be considered as separate entities. The number of letters in this count, 27, yields a mathematically and geometrically significant number: 3 to the 3rd power). In any event, the idea is that the Ten Commandments are in some way the quintessence of the Torah as whole, and thus contains all those letters with which the cosmos was created. (The same holds true of Keri’at Shema, which likewise contains all 27 letters of the alphabet.)

The second tablets combine both human and divine action: i.e., Moses chiseled out the stone tablets upon which God than wrote the second set of commandments —whereas the first tablets were wholly Divine.

The second tablets had an ark made for them, in which they were then placed (Yuval notes the contrast on this point between Exod 34:1 and Deut 10:1-2).

Most important of all: there is a midrash in Exodus Rabbah 46.1, based on a verse in Job 11:6 (“that He would tell you the secrets of wisdom!”), stating that the second tablets include halakhot, aggadot, and midrashim! In other words, the second tablets somehow represent the dual nature of the Torah, which consists of both Written Torah and Oral Torah.

What does this mean theologically? I think the key idea here is that, after the Sin of the Calf, God came to understand that anger, fury and destruction don’t work. If He wished to have a relationship with the human beings that He created, and for them to live their lives with knowledge and awareness of Him, this had to be done in a different way. First of all, there was need for forgiveness: acknowledgement and acceptance of human weakness (parallel to the new order established after Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden, and after Noah’s return to earthly life after the Flood). In a paradoxical way, God realized that a limited, “flat” Torah of categorical, “epidictic” laws alone won’t work. The covenant at Sinai, of Shavuot, had been based mostly on yirah, on fear and unqualified acceptance of Divine authority. The covenant made in the Cleft of the Rock, on Yom Kippur, was based on something else. (See my discussion of this whole subject at HY I [Torah]: Ki Tisa).

The methodology of Oral Torah, of midrashim, of constant study and back-and-forth discussion and arguing and quest for understanding, is broader, and somehow allows more room for human creativity, for involvement in and even co-creation of Torah. The idea is one of cultivation of human wisdom, of conscience, of inner commitment, of self-restraint, of a sense of love and fear together. This was a more immanent, approachable Torah, one that must be studied in depth to be understood. Perhaps God, in his profound wisdom, understood the need to “immunize” men against hubris and against their desire for absolute mastery over their world. (See on this them Erich Fromm’s You Shall be as Gods and David Hartman’s A Living Covenant).


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