Friday, August 15, 2008

Vaethanan (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this week’s parasha, see the archives to my blog, at August 2006. Due to the length of the special essay beloe, we will post our comments on Pirkei Avot separately, hopefully early next week.

“You Shall Repeat them to your children and speak of them…”

This week’s parasha contains several of the most fundamental mitzvot, known variously as mitzvot temidiyot (i.e., “constant mitzvoth”—those which, as they involve thought and attitude rather than concrete action, may and ought to be performed constantly, if only as ideas held in the background of our thoughts) or hovot halevavot (“duties of the heart”). These include: the belief in God, conveyed in the first verse of the Ten Commandments; to unify Him—i.e., to know and reflect upon His unity; to love Him; to contemplate the fact of his existence (inferred from the verse found early on in this portion, “Uou shall know today and reflect in your hearts that the Lord is God, in heaven above and in earth below; there is none other”—4:39). I shall discuss these mitzvot, or more generally, the idea of and belief in God, in a special essay below, from a somewhat different angle.

Our parashah also contains the mitzvah of Keri’at Shema. While the Shema is a cardinal element of Jewish faith, indeed, the closest thing to a credo that we have, it is also a practical mitzvah, as expressed in the twice-daily recitation of a specific text: the three paragraphs known as Shema, Vehaya im shamo’a, and Vayomer or Parshat Tzitzit (Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num 15:37-41). The actual performance consists of reciting these texts, ideally with their liturgical setting of blessings before and after: when getting up in the morning, before beginning our daily round (and in all events by the end of the third hour after sunrise); and in the evening, after nightfall, before going to sleep.

The connection of the recital of Shema to the diurnal cycle of night and day seems related to its central idea: the oneness of God. The rhythm of our own lives is governed by the dramatic daily dichotomy between night and day, darkness and light, activity and rest: the world of deliberate activity and clear-headed consciousness, discipline, control, and reason; and nighttime, with its surrender to sleep, and to the sometimes phantasmagoric world of dreams and imagination, of inchoate fears and demons and bizarre messages from the unconscious. The message of Shema, recited in both these circumstances, is that God’s unity serves as the backdrop and underlying unified ground of all contrasts, polarities and antinomies.

This idea is also expressed in the literary structure of the first paragraph of Shema: following the declaration of God’s kingship and his unity, verse 5 articulates the imperative to love God in all dimensions of our existence as humans: emotional (“all your heart”), existential (“all your soul/life-being”), and practical (“all your strength/muchness”—meaning, with all your property, and in all situations). This is followed, in verse 7, by a series of contrasting pairs, in each one of which we must speak of God’s unity: not only “when you lie down and rise up” in terms of time, but also “when you sit at home and walk on the way”—i.e., in the privacy of one’s family life and in the public realm; when in a state of activity and in that of relaxation (this, contra Y. L. Gordon’s advice to “be a Jew at home and a man when you go about”). The duality in the injunction in v. 8 to “bind them as a sign upon your hand and… between your eyes”—besides alluding to the concrete mitzvah of tefillin, rooted in a literal, tactile reading of the verse—may also mean to internalize these words in all the different functions of your being, represented by the different organs such as arm, heart, eyes, and head.

Hazal speak of the recitation of Shema in terms of an important epistle (diotgama) that one has received from the king, which one reads aloud and rehearses repeatedly. In this respect, it may be seen as a continuation of the theme of memory discussed last week. Zakhor means to remember, but also to mention, to articulate verbally. (Thus, “remember the Sabbath day” is taken by Hazal as the source for the mitzvah of Kiddush, the verbal declaration of the Shabbat’s sanctity and meanings recited over wine near the beginning of Shabbat.) Speech, repeating something aloud, is a means of remembering, of hammering it into consciousness. Judaism, as a verbal culture, strongly emphasizes the importance of remembering, through repetition. For centuries, the Oral Torah was precisely that: a vast collection of mishnayot and beraitot, formulations of legal traditions repeated orally by the disciples. We are told that, during the time of the Hadrianic persecutions, Rabbi Akiva set up a system in which groups of disciples were assigned to memorize blocs or “orders” of mishnayot, so that they could function as living libraries, repositories of the tradition, to assure the preservation of Torah.

At various points in Jewish history, this idea was emulated by various sages and rabbis who wrote capsule credos, “summings up” of what they considered most important in life, which they asked their sons and disciples to read at regular intervals. We thus have Nahmanides’ Iggeret ha-Ramban, the Gaon of Vilna’s Iggeret ha-Gera, the Zeit’l Katan of R. Elimelekh of Lyzhensk, and no doubt many others.

The New Atheism and Us

As in this parashah we read two of the fundaments of our faith—the Ten Commandments, beginning with Anokhi, “I am the Lord,” and the Shema, “the Lord is One”—it seems an opportune time to discuss a new movement, or better, a newly resurgent old movement, which presents an intellectual challenge to all people of religious faith—the so-called “New Atheism.”

Over the past decade or more—some say, particularly since the Twin Tower debacle of 2001—there has been a series of new books radically criticizing the idea of religious faith per se. The best known of these is Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, but there are others as well: Sam Harris, The End of Faith; Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Dawkins’ book was recently translated into Hebrew, and reviewed extensively in the Israeli press. Dawkins’ critique focuses on three central points: (a) the inadequacy of religious explanations of the world, vis-à-vis those of science; (b) the violence fostered by religion; (c) the dogmatic, anti-intellectual nature of religion. We shall consider these in order.

(a) Religion does not provide satisfactory answers to the big questions of cosmogony, the origin of life, the ascent of man, etc. As against that, science, especially Darwinian biology, does provide the key to answering these questions. This criticism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose or function of religion. Religion, at least since medieval times, does not claim to present a comprehensive explanation of the world, to rival science in the detailed mapping of the physical universe. (Indeed, already in medieval times, many Jewish thinkers recognized the legitimacy of the science of their day, at least as a “handmaiden” to the “queen” of sciences and wisdoms, philosophy or theology.

Contemporary religionists are similar unfazed by the argument that God’s existence cannot be proven. At least since the decline of Neo-Aristotelianism and its ilk, most serious theologians would fully agree with this point. Indeed, the fact that one cannot answer the question “Who created God?” is precisely the point. Religion begins, inter alia, from the sense of mystery that there is Being at all. One can equally well ask “Who created the Big Bang, or the hyper-concentrated, super-hot mass from which its emerged?” At a certain point, science runs up against a point where it cannot go beyond the initial causality. Whether the Big Bang, or the latest cosmogonic theory, “M (membrane)-theory” or “string theory,” all these ultimately do no more than pushes back the point of the unknowable, of the “First Cause,” by a few levels.

Religion (all this, needless to say, in the most general terms) is rooted in what A. J. Heschel called “radical amazement”—the emotion of wonder, of almost child-like incredulity, at the fact that this great big world exists at all, with all its beauty, its variety—and, yes, its terrors and sheer otherness and strangeness. What mystics call the unknowability, the ineffability of God, that which is “beyond apprehension,” me-ever la-ta’am va-da’at.

There is a little book by Huston Smith entitled The Forgotten Truth in which the author—professor of religion at MIT and a Western Sufi practitioner—speaks of Western culture being in thrall to empiricist thinking. There are certain kinds of questions asked by empirical science, which it can answer well (albeit always provisionally: this too, one seems to forgets, is part of the scientific method). The problem is that certain scientists make empirical thinking into a self-confirming system, that excludes categories as “unbreal” or “irrelevant” by definition. Needless to say, the kinds of reality dimensions to be discussed by religion are, by definition, outside of its ken; hence it presents a certain view of reality—one of causality, of material ,physical reality—as the only reality. Smith notes, interestingly, certain similarities among the views of the universe found in almost all cultures prior to Western post-Renaissance culture—what he calls the four-tiered map of the universe, in which there are spiritual dimensions over and above the material one.

I have deliberately “bracketed” the issues of science and religion per se: e.g., can we speak of “Intelligent Design” or a “guiding hand” underlying the development of life on the earth? Some Darwinians, including Dawkins, tend to reject these ideas out of hand – but perhaps this in itself is a kind of dogmatism. I am not certain that Darwinian evolutionary theory has a satisfactory answer to the questions as to how life as we know it evolved. For example: granted that primates evolved into human beings, how does Darwinian theory explain the “jump,” not from one species to another, but the emergence of new phalanxes or orders? Did the egg “evolve” into the womb, or are mammals a new form of life, that developed parallel to fish, insects and birds—from what? For that matter, how did life itself begin? Why, in that first micro-second after the Big Bang, did not positive and negative particles cancel each other out, but instead become hot gasses that eventually cooled into solid matter? Why are carbon and hydrogen atoms so prevalent in our universe, making them conveniently available as the building blocks of organic life? All these, surely, are arguments that should at least allow for the possibility of God-affirming views of the material cosmos.

(b) Religion engenders violence. This is the real contemporary context to the resurgence of a militant movement of atheism at this time: viz. in reaction to the events of “9-11.” Al-Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers brought to the fore the existence of a militant, highly aggressive stream within Islam, prepared to use terrorist violence against civilians, taking thousands of innocent lives—ultimately, so they say, to impose their beliefs upon others, much as the “Prophet” did thirteen centuries ago. But to transform this into the generalization that “religion breeds violence,” as do Dawkins and company, ignores three or four important facts.

First, it ignores the specific context of the present situation: namely, that the danger of religious terrorism, which is indeed one of the biggest danger to our world, originates in radical Islam or “Islamicism” or militant Wahibism. It would appear that PC thinking requires that one be tolerant of all religions and accord equal value to them all—in itself, a praiseworthy, progressive idea. But as a result, one cannot criticize any specific religion, even a specific movement at a specific time, because one might offend. So instead, Dawkins takes the opportunity to be critical all religion. To my mind, this is an example of how PC makes people stupid, by hampering open, intelligent discourse about the reality confronting us.

Secondly, it ignores the ubiquity of violence, and the sad fact that aggression, divisiveness, is part of human nature: of all human groups, religious or otherwise. This is a deeply troubling aspect of our human nature, one that, in light of the destructive power of modern weaponry, may well endanger the future of humankind on this planet. As someone recently said, “Mankind must evolve or die.” But that is a subject for a separate discussion, on which I hope to write soon.

But more than that, this statement betrays either woeful ignorance of 20th century history or, more likely, deliberately ignoring it or not “connecting the dots.” The great blood baths of the 20th century were precipitated by Nazism and Communism, neither of which were religions in the usual sense of the word (although Zaehner, in his Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths, includes both Marxism and Jungianism as “a new Buddha and a new Tao”; and one could argue that Nazism was a resurgence of pagan Teutonic religion). From a Leftist perspective, one might add the mayhem and bloodshed engendered by American imperialism and that of its client states (Vietnam, Cambodia, suppression of revolutions of social change in Allende’s Chile, Argentina, etc.), but these were certainly not based on any religious motivation, but old-fashioned secular economic interest—this, notwithstanding George W. Bush’s crusader-like rhetoric.

Third, Western monotheistic religions have by-and-large learned tolerance, and are marked by genuine attempts to accept the other. Some of the leading Western religious thinkers (including Joseph Ratzinger, the present pope) have made real efforts to create a theoretical basis religious pluralism, to somehow find a basis for accepting multiple truths, or perhaps better, multiple paths to the one Truth or the truth of the One. In any event, these religions have learned to confine their disputes to the verbal realm of polite and occasionally not-so-polite discourse. There are, it is true, certain exceptions: abortion clinic bombers in US; Haredi stone throwers in Judaism; some might say, West Bank settlers in violent confrontations with Arabs (although these latter are more territorial than religious disputes)—but all these are more the exception than the norm.

In passing, it occurred to me that a second, more covert sub-text to the “religion breeds violence” argument lies in the often acerbic political and cultural conflicts in the United States between conservatives and liberals, recently tagged as “Red” and “Blue,” which largely overlaps that between fundamentalist religionists, on the one hand, and liberal religionists and secularists, on the other. Without going into this topic, let me suggest very briefly that there may be good reason for the resentment of “Middle America” against the liberal intellectual elites of the two coasts, and that our liberal thinkers might do well to broaden their empathy and understanding for “the Other,” not only in remote parts of the world, but in their own backyard.

Incidentally, if we are concerned about fundamentalism and bloodshed, there is far more reason for concern about fundamentalist reading of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which was clearly written by human beings, as interpreted by the American Rifle Association, than there is from the direction of religion.

Fourth and finally, re religion and violence: Religion also contains the idea that God is Love, and that love of one’s neighbor is a central ethical imperative. While in popular Western stereotypes the phrase sounds Christian, it is central to Judaism: the practical part of Shema, mentioned above, begins with “you shall love the Lord your God…”; Kabbalah is filled with statements about hesed overcoming din, or “sweetening” harsh judgments; the love and fear of God are two equally cardinal mitzvot; the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are central; etc. (In one of my earliest essays, which is still one of my favorite and I think best, I discuss Sinai and the Cleft of the Rock, and refer to what I call Shavuot faith and Yom Kippur faith; see HY I [Torah]: Ki Tisa.)

In brief: there is a specific problem with contemporary Islam; we can only hope and pray that the forces of reason, peace and love within Islam—and there are such—will engage and win the struggle for the minds and hearts of millions of faithful all over the world, and bring about a change (“Ijtihad rather than Jihad!”) before they destroy much of civilization as we know it. (It is ironic that Islam, which is in a sense the most pluralistic of the great Western religions, recognizing the prophecies of Moses and Jesus—and there are certain Sufi thinkers who accord full legitimacy to Judaism and Christianity—has turned in the direction of dark, hatred-filled fanaticism.) In any event, to blame “religion” for the violence in our world, is incorrect and ignorant.

(c) Religion is doctrinaire, inflexible, and opposed to free thought. Like other things Dawkins says, this is a half-truth. Every religion does entail certain core beliefs, dogmas or doctrines, which the faithful are expected to believe—things like the existence of God, a few basic axioms about His nature; in Judaism: belief in the Torah and the mitzvot, at least in a general way; in Christianity, certain ideas about the person of Jesus, the Trinity, the Incarnation and Passion; etc. But beyond that, the religious communities I know, and those I have read about, both in the present and the past, are marked by a wide gamut of attitudes towards such issues of faith vs. reason, authority vs. individual autonomy, etc., making it difficult to make any generalizations of this sort.

I feel that Dawkins, and the others have set up a straw man—a particularly ugly, unpalatable stereotype of religion—which they then identify with “religion” as such, making it relatively simple to demolish. My own impression is that he is rather ignorant of the vastness and complexity of religion. Religion is a vast field of study —inter alai, in the academic sense—with a lengthy history, or rather histories, embracing hundreds and thousands of schools, thinkers, books, indeed, entire literatures, institutions, practices, liturgies, etc. Surely, one who considers himself a humanist, an educated, enlightened Western man, ought to devote some serious study to religion before writing about it—as he would about any other subject. Would a serious scholar write about literature, art, music, philosophy, political thought, or any other aspect of human endeavor without engaging in in-depth learning of his subject? The sense of the breadth and complexity of religion is sorely lacking in Dawkins’ presentation; in its place are a few shallow generalities on wish he bases his “critique.”

Among other things, he completely disregards the role of hermeneutics: of interpretation and reinterpretation of sacred texts as the way in which religions change and deal with problematic aspect of their own traditions. He seems to prefer the image of religion as literalism, as slavish following of Scripture. Yet in reality, for example, the supposed bloodthirsty nature of the “Old Testament God” is almost entirely irrelevant to the traditional Jew, steeped in Midrash, Hazal, through whose lenses such passages look entirely different. Take, for example, the case of the ben sorer umoreh, the “rebellious son” subject to death, or for that matter the death penalty in general, which are surrounded with so many halakhic requirements as to become virtual dead letter.

The same holds true for many other aspects of religions. For example: the role of the intellect vs. that of the emotions. In Judaism one has the classic line of division or demarcation between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism—the one with its emphasis on prayer and on charismatic holy men-leaders, almost father figures to their flock; the latter with its emphasis on study, knowledge, erudition, and the ability to draw sharp legal distinctions between seemingly similar cases. Or there is the dichotomy of human types, between the more cerebral, “cold,” inner-driven, highly disciplined types vs. the more emotional, devotional, pietistic types. Or that of mysticism vs. more sober, normative religious approaches. Or again, the issue of religious creativity, of human input into religious cannon by means of interpretation (in Judaism this is called Oral Torah or hiddushei Torah) vs. centralized, traditional authority). l , ; _ irha f Pra; tirha) , or perhaps a broad understanding of Oral Torah as the field in which man adds to the Torah through exegesis. Or the variety of views in various religions and religious schools on the burning issues of the day, such as the role of women, in prayer and as religious leaders; attitudes towards homosexuality; issues of sexual behavior, abortion, etc., that so excite controversy in the US; not to mention global issues of war and peace, poverty, ecology, etc., etc.

(d) I would like to add a fourth point: that modern secular culture is somehow shallow; whether because of the rejection of religion, or for other reasons, it seems to leave not enough room for the innate dignity of man, as created in the image of God, or the “natural depth in man,” which as I see as including the quest for ultimate meaning. Can it be that, once one sees man as a purely biological creature, who like the beasts is born, matures, copulates, and dies, one somehow removes the basis for profound meaning from human life? At one time, in the exuberance of 17th or 18th century enlightenment and humanism, it was thought that the end of religion would be a liberating experience for humanity. But more recent experience suggests otherwise. Aviezer Ravitzky once summarized this succinctly: “In the 19th century enlightened thinkers used to say, ‘God is dead! Hallelujah!’ Today, they say, ‘God is dead! Oy, gevalt!’”

I raise this point because one of the reviewers of Dawkins’ work (I think it was Haggai Dagan’s review in Ha-Aretz: Sefarim some time this past June) sees one of the factors motivating the new atheists as the sense of a decline in Western secular culture, a movement away from reason and rational thinking, for which they blame the (alleged) resurgence of religion and the rise of tawdry mysticisms and “New Age” quick fixes.

Yet there are other factors at work. First, economic: capitalism world-wide has evolved into ever more massive, powerful structures that seem to impose the market model on everything. Increasingly, everything one does, more and more aspects of our lives, seem to be dominated by questions of monetary value. Cultural creativity seems more subject to the rules of the market-place than it was fifty years ago: “does it sell” is the first questions one is asked, and intelligent, subtle works of art and music and literature face harsher market conditions. One hears of university departments of humanities, philosophy, even history, languages, etc. dying a slow death. This is not the result of religion, but rather of the domination of managerial or economic thinking. Schools think in terms of lucrative courses; students are more conscious of the need to acquire training for a high-paying career. As a result, more and more students are being graduated who, by the standards of a generation or two ago, are barbarians. Similarly, the proliferation of hi–tech has contributed to a culture of superficiality, of non-complex, easily absorbed messages, in which “information” has replaced “knowledge” or “wisdom.” These, and not some vague bogey-man of “religion,” are the true dangers threatening a world in which a culture of fully human men and women, reflecting in their lives the Divine image, can flourish.


Chapter Four: Some Practical Human Advice

4.23. Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar said: Do not attempt to pacify your fellow at the time of his anger; and do not comfort him when his dead is lying before him; and do not ask him at the time of his vow; and do not attempt to see him in the hour of his shame.

This mishnah gives several pieces of practical human advice, which boil down to one central idea: that human beings, even the best of them, are not always rational beings, and that there are times of intense emotion when appeals to reason, to common sense or to enlightened self-interest, will not and cannot be heard. As the best speakers, comedians and actors say: “It’s all a matter of timing.” So: don’t speak to a person, even a good friend, in the wrong way at the wrong time—or perhaps one should say, not even in the right way, with words of sense and caution and wisdom, at a time that is inappropriate.

There are certain streams within Judaism that advocate a kind of religious perfectionism, that expect a person to be master at all times, not only of his behavior, and not only of his speech, but also of his emotions. Thus, in his essay Halakhic Man, Rav Soloveitchik celebrates certain models of heroic, almost inhuman, halakhic self-discipline. (One could argue that the tenth commandment, “Do not covet your neighbor’s house/wife/livestock…” assumes that a person is capable of such self-mastery that he will not even covet another person’s possession or situation in his heart. Other mefarshim, to my mind wisely, interpret this commandment as restricted to covetous action.) In any event, the present mishnah assumes the opposite: that people are subject to moods, are deeply affected by circumstances, and that certain events are so traumatic and powerful that they cannot even speak of them rationally during a certain initial period.

As Rambam and others counsel us, a person ought to avoid anger. But given the fact that the vast majority of people do feel anger towards their fellows at one time or another, often intensely so, it is not prudent or useful to attempt to calm someone in such cases. In like manner, comforting the bereaved is a great mitzvah, but there is a time and place for it: in the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one (perhaps even if long expected), a person needs to grieve, to weep, even to shout and cry out and shake his fist at heaven if he is so inclined; the time for comforting only comes later. Vows, too, may be made for foolish reasons, and may create difficulties in life and be hard to sustain. But when a person does make a vow (and in the milieu of traditional Jewish society it was perhaps more commonplace than among Westernized people), it is doubtless in response to some deeply felt emotion or need. Perhaps one feels anger at a particular individual (“I swear that he shall never again darken my doorstep so long as I live!”); of gratitude to God (as in Jephtah’s famously foolish oath; see Judges 11:30-40); or by religious zeal and the desire to achieve greater holiness (the Nazirite vow; vows not to eat meat or various other forms of asceticism). In any event, at the moment of the vow, all appeals to reason are in vain. Finally, when a person has done something awful and his reputation is in shambles, and he is too ashamed to show his face in public, even his best friend should avoid forcing himself on him.

But all these things, it seems to me, are general directives. If a person is truly an intimate friend, and knows that even in these extreme circumstances his presence will be not only accepted, but also desired, then he should rely on his human judgment. It seems to me that this matter is analogous to the rule that one should not remind a righteous proselyte of his non-Jewish origins; like taunting a ba’al teshuvah about his past sins, this falls under the rubric of ona’at devraim, causing a person suffering by one’s cruel or thoughtless words (Bava Metzia’a 59b ff.). But if one has a close friendship with a convert (and I have been privileged to have or to have had several such during the course of my life), and that person openly talks about his/her background, and the whole tenor of the conversation is friendly and personal, it seems clear that such talk is permitted. The whole idea of the issur is not to hurt another person’s feelings, to sensitize us to other people; not merely as an arbitrary rule to be followed blindly regardless of context. In inter-human relations, the basic idea is common sense and wisdom—what is sometimes called “the fifth section of Shulhan Arukh.”


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