Monday, December 22, 2008

Vayeshev (Zohar)

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to present a Zohar selection this week. Instead, I present here some miscellaneous thoughts, both on the parashah and related to issues of the day. For more teachings on the parashah, and on Hanukkah, see the archives to the blog at Decemeber 2005.

The Land is Burning

This past week’s parashah contains some the most violent and unpleasant incidents in the Tanakh, exposing many of the less pleasant sides of human nature—from male hypocrisy and denial of responsibility; through uncontrollable lust whose frustration is followed by malicious, spiteful libel; ending in the arbitrary whims of the high and mighty and ingratitude. But the opening scene, of fraternal hatred and violence, is perhaps most emblematic of all. Strife between brothers, ending in real or potential bloodshed, is a leitmotif throughout the book of Bereshit (Genesis), beginning with Cain and Abel, reappearing in the conflict between Esau and Jacob, and reaching its climax in this week’s parashah, with the story Joseph and his brothers. What is most striking is the petty background for these quarrels—a long-forgotten, trivial exchange in a field; a bowl of lentils; a striped robe—all of which symbolize much deeper, life-long struggles: for love, for parental affection, for that elusive thing called a birthright; or perhaps visceral repulsion from someone’s personality—a spoiled little brother who “puts on airs,” who’s not “one of the guys,” who’s “too clever for his own good.”….

But in this essay I will not engage in textual analysis or in-depth midrash. Over the years I have written much about inner spiritual matters—this year’s topic is doubtless particularly esoteric—and will continue to do so, and only rarely have I commented on actual political events and public affairs. But at this moment I feel that such detachment is a luxury I cannot allow myself. Troubling things are happening here in Israel, and I must bear my heart.

I hardly know where to start. Two weeks ago violence between Jewish settlers and local Arabs seems to have taken a new turn, when settlers in Hebron, in reaction to a court order requiring them to evacuate a certain unlawfully occupied house, turned their wrath against local Arabs: beating, looting, destroying property, breaking storefronts and smashing cars belonging to Arabs—in brief, actions that, if committed by Gentiles against Jews, would be called a pogrom, or simple fascism.

In terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Tahadiya, the six-month cease fire between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza, has come to an end, and in recent days rockets have again landed in Sederot and other nearby towns, and there are many voices saying that a full-scale military operation on the part of Israel is almost inevitable.

The political scene is also dismaying. The coming Knesset elections promise nothing but more of the same—or worse. Moshe Feiglin, and his militant ultra-right-wing “Jewish Leadership” faction within Likud, won a surprisingly large number of votes in that party’s internal elections. Netanyahu utilized certain technical manipulations to minimize the damage to the “moderate” image of the party mainstream—but what is significant is that such ideas enjoy increasing popularity. There is a feeling of despair in the political system on the part of many, and this is understandable: a peaceful solution, based on reconciliation with the Palestinians, seem more distant than ever. The solutions offered by the Right—which play more on fear, xenophobia, and ethnocentricity than on more positive emotions—speak to many.

I would add that the coming elections seem to mark the further decline, if not demise, of several political movements which, for me, represent the best Zionism has to offer. I was raised on the ideals of Labor Zionism—of Mapai and other democratic-socialist parties that drew much of their inspiration and strength from the kibbutz movement. That movement seems to have died a slow death, both in terms of electoral strength and in terms of ideology. Avodah has long since abandoned both the labor-socialist vision and the active pursuit of peace. The ideology of the so-called Left is a combination of bithonism—a focus on security and a strong military to the exclusion of almost all else; American-style unfettered capitalism (whose literal bankruptcy was revealed by the recent economic crisis); and a penchant for retired generals as leaders.

As a religious Jew, I have long been distressed by the decline of old-style Religious Zionism, which at one time combined a commitment to Torah with a tolerant approach to other Jews and a moderate political platform. This election officially seals the transformation of Mafdal (the National Religious Party) into an uncompromising, ultra-nationalist party somewhere to the right of Likud, with its merger with various other Right-wing parties. Similarly, Meimad, which originated in 1988 (and in whose founding, I am proud to say, I took some part) as a moderate alternative to the NRP, is foundering.

Add to that gangland assassinations in the streets of our cities, with gangsters treated by the media as romantic celebrities (just like in the movies!) rather than as the lowlifes that they are; and tragic traffic accidents rooted in a macho driving culture. A particularly shocking example occurred this past week, when 24 Russian tourists were killed when their bus driver attempted to pass another bus on a hairpin desert curve while going too fast; it turned out that he had a long record of driver violations , which was apparently dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders. Why he was still allowed on the road as a “professional” driver responsible for the lives of others is a mystery.

The common denominator of all these phenomena, as I see it, is a certain acceptance of violence, and the root of this evil—even if it started as a necessity—lies in our ruling another people by force for more than four decades. To reiterate an idea I’ve written in the past: one of the basic causes lies in a certain paradox, or dialectic, innate in Zionist thought. Zionism sought to create a “new Jew,” a culture of men one who knew how to fight, how to stand up and defend themselves. The Galut Jew was rejected as weak, effeminate, powerless; the tzabar was meant to embody more positive, healthy, “normal” qualities. All this was doubtless necessary for the creation of a new nation, especially in as hostile an environment as the Middle East is. But along the way we seem to have lost the abhorrence of violence that was a deeply-rooted part of the Jewish ethos, and the belief that violence is never more than a necessary evil, to be avoided except when absolutely necessary. Moreover, all this has been accomplished many, many times over. To be sure, Israel, must maintain military readiness and superiority against its potential enemies—but along the way we seem to have forgotten how to make peace, and how to perceive that, just as we are frightened and threatened by Arab violence, so are the Arabs threatened and frightened by us. We are caught in a negative cycle from which neither side can break out alone.

In January 1995 I heard a lecture on this subject by none other than the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the launching of a forum in memory of Noam Cohen. He began by citing Von Clausewitz’s theory of war, which taught that power is not an end in itself, but a means for accomplishing long-range strategic goals. For Israel, this is, most importantly, the attainment of peace; through awareness of our military might, our neighbor’s will come to understand that we are here to stay. I would continue from that point by saying that, what Israel most needs at this point in our history is not ever-more expensive and sophisticated weapons of attack or defense, but to learn how to make peace. Of course, everyone says that they want peace, but “there’s no partner” and “the time isn’t yet ripe” (after 41 years of occupation!)—but one gets the feeling that this is often not much more than lip service, something to play with indefinitely, knowing that it won’t result in any need to make real concessions—and meanwhile Abu Mazen is such a nice, polite gentleman to talk with. But time is against us; things will only get worse. What is needed is a genuine attempt to build reconciliation, and to ask ourselves, collectively: what can be done to change the atmosphere, little by little, and to make the Palestinians—yes, even the Islamic fundamentalists—into partners in building a modus vivendi in which both peoples can live reasonable lives?

I wrote about some of these issues some months ago in a lengthy essay published here as a supplement to Noah, but I fear I may have lost many readers with the rambling style and lengthy digressions about Arthur Koestler, Hiroshima, and the exposition of various midrashim, etc. So let me reiterate in simple, direct, straightforward fashion the essence of what I wished to say there:

The world is in grave danger. There is a serious crisis of the environment, of global warming, of a world-wide ecological upheaval. But in addition to the gravity of this situation in its own right, it also poses a serious threat of war and conflicts. If millions of people are displaced from their homes by climate changes and disasters, flooding, drought, etc., that will surely exacerbate situation. Humankind, if it is to survive at all, must learn how to resolve its problems in new ways. If the people Israel has a mission in the world, it is surely not to be belligerent and strong, nor even to “do teshuvah” in a purely theocentric, “vertical” way by becoming pious Jews and Torah students, but rather to learn and teach new ways of solving conflicts. Perhaps—thus I found myself musing—Divine Providence has returned us to our ancient homeland in this unexpectedly difficult situation, renewing our sovereignty and facilitating the ingathering of exiles, not to set the stage for apocalyptic pyrotechnics in a war between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” but to teach us, and the world, a far deeper lesson, to present us with the ultimate ethical test: how to “seek peace and pursue it”—and to persist in this path despite seeming intransigence and unreasonable demands on the other side. (a “heretical” thought: might it be that we appear intransigent to them?).

Last week a gathering was held at the Yedidiah Synagogue in protest against the sort of attitudes found within the religious camp—“our own children,” at least in the collective sense—represented by the trashing and rioting directed at Arabs. Among others speakers, Uriel Simon spoke with particular eloquence. As a bible scholar, he started with Cain and Abel, repeating some of the things that I attempted to quote from memory in my “Aggression” article (HY X: Noah), but more movingly (and, of course, the things are now fresher in my memory).

In essence, he said, the problem is not political, nor of “extremist fringe-elements” within the religious camp, but of a basic human tendency, old as Cain’s fratricide, that needs to be recognized, harnassed, and curbed: the attraction of violence as an easy solution to problems. In this respect, the story of Kain (and of Jacob and Esau, and of Joseph and his brethren) are archetypical, paradigms of human life in every place and time.

What, then, is so attractive about violence (and, as an aside, this may also explain the great popularity, on the sublimated level of entertainment, of movies, TV series, and mystery novels dealing with murder)?

First, it promises quick results, a simple solution to problems: kill your enemy and he is gone (as in the slogans “Kill the Arabs”; “Bomb Iran”; etc.).

Second, in violence one can ignore the long-term results of one’s actions, because one isn’t looking beyond the immediate future. It’s like a chess player who only sees one or two steps ahead, not five or ten. But this is the root of the problem: that in real life, acts have consequences. Even after a war, in which thousands or tens of thousands of the enemy are killed, there is still a situation to be dealt with—and more likely than not it’s no better than the one that precipitated the war, if only because the survivors on the other side are now filled with anger and hatred and the desire to extract vengeance from the “victorious” side. By the way: can anyone list any positive results of the Second Lebanon War?

Third, the dehumanization of the Other. In violence, one doesn’t have to relate to the other as a human being, with feelings, with an ordinary life, with wife and children and family, with life projects; he is simply “the enemy.” To paraphrase Milan Kundera: there is an unbearable lightness to acts of destruction. One ought to contemplate the hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of hours of human labor that went into building a single square block in a bombed city: the human investment, in the raising and education and perhaps professional training of the people who lived there; the thought and skill and energy that went into the physical objects destroyed—the houses, the furnishings and decorations in each whom, the books—all of which may, perhaps, be destroyed in a fraction of a second. How can people who consider themselves even remotely civilized perform such an act?

Simon added that the current fascination with violence in certain circles (such as those in Hebron) reflects a profound alienation, of dissociation, not only from the Arab as Other, but from secular Israeli life. In certain hitherto Zionist religious circles, one can find today a categorical rejection of the state, expressed in language reminiscent of Neturei Karta, and with it a rejection of any non-religious, “peoplehood–civilization–cultural definition of Jewish identity that might provide a sense of common ground with those who do not accept Torah in traditional ways. There is also a rejection of cautiousness, of self-restraint (a traditional Jewish value—what are all the “thou shalt not”s of the Torah if not lessons in self-restraint and moderation?); those who are not “spontaneous” are seen as weak and freier. Finally, said Simon, there is an alienation from the intellect itself, from common sense, from reason.

But this discussion is not intended to criticize any particular ideological party or group of people. Rather, remembering that the Torah speaks to all people, in all places and all times, it is to impress upon ourselves the power and fatal attraction of violence for all people. Kain is Everyman; there’s a little bit of Simon, of Levi, of Yehudah, in each of us. All the more reason to be cautious of the seductive power and sweet illusions presented by violence.

And, one concluding note: there are many intelligent and moderate and even ethical-thinking people who accept it as axiomatic that Hamas is “beyond the pale,” part of the “axis of evil,” and certainly not people one could talk to. But does not the Torah say, unequivocally, that before waging war against a city one must “call to it for peace” (Deut 20:10 ff.)? Who knows? Perhaps if we sat down and talked, even with them, we might be pleasantly surprised.

NOAH Postscript: Onanism

We now turn to a totally different subject. Some weeks ago, we discussed a Zohar passage on Parashat Noah in which the sin of the Generation of the Flood is identified as masturbation. I remarked there that, when halakhic sources say that this sin is “more serious than any other sin in the Torah,” they are engaging in hyperbole, and that “Torah here is presumably being used in the broader sense of Jewish tradition generally, as there is no biblical verse that specifically prohibits it, notwithstanding the incident of Onan.” One reader responded:

What do you mean “notwithstanding… Onan”? I thought that is the basis for regarding this as a sin de-oraita. My 12-year-old grandson was recently taught this in his “modern-Orthodox” yeshiva and came away greatly disturbed, probably because he realizes that he will never be able to be a truly observant Jew. Needless to say, this disturbs me as well.

Since the incident involving Onan, who “spilled his seed on the ground,” appears in this week’s parashah, as part of the narrative of Tamar and Judah, I shall bring here my response. I wrote then, among other things (with some additions):

Your letter raises an important issue, both in terms of halakhic substance, and that of educational policy—that is, how and whether to teach this prohibition to young children, or to perhaps treat it with “studied neglect.” Torah Temimah on Gen 38:8-9 states that… at times the Talmud uses the phrase hayyav mitah [a person is culpable of the death penalty] when referring to a Rabbinic prohibition, in order to bolster its importance. This clearly seems to be the case here.

Indeed, he cites there various Talmudic passages (all aggadic)—Yevamot 34b and Niddah 13b—which state that Onan was killed because of this sin and that, by inference, whoever “spills his seed in vain” is likewise culpable. But nowhere in the Torah is there a direct statement that it is forbidden to do so, in the same explicit manner in which the Torah presents other prohibitions, such as the sexual rules enumerated in Lev 18, or those of kashrut in Lev 11. In fact, to the best of my knowledge masturbation is not listed as one of the 365 lavim (negative commandments) by any of the “enumerators of the mitzvot,” such as Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Ramban’s glosses on the same, or Sefer Ha-Hinukh. Hence, one is forced to the conclusion that the Onan story is invoked in this regard as an asmakhta be-alma, that is, a verse invoked in support of a certain concept, but not a legal source per se. Indeed, the entry on this subject in Encyclopedia Talmudit (s.v. הוצאת זרע לבטלה) invokes as the biblical source Isaiah 1:15, “… your hands are filled with blood” (i.e., one who masturbates so to speak spills the blood of his future potential children and other descendants). Needless to say, this is a highly metaphorical and non-peshat reading of the verse. …

Incidentally, the act committed by Onan was not what has come to be called “onanism,” but rather coitus interruptus, which only by a great stretch might be described as “intra-vaginal masturbation.” But the real point of the story seems to be that he did so in order to avoid yibbum—an act which the Kabbalah sees as particularly important in that it enables his dead brother’s soul to be reborn….

As for your grandson’s question, my reasoning goes something like this: if the urge to masturbate is so strong that he feels he cannot control it, then his act will fall under the category of שוגג קרוב לאונס: that is, an act that is not fully volitional, but performed as a result of coercion, albeit in this case the coercion is not external, but originates from within—and I believe God will surely forgive him (I leave it to you to translate this into 12-year-old language). I also think that one may invoke in this case the principle used by the Sages elsewhere, טוב שיהיו שוגגין ולא יהיו מזידין (“it is better that they perform a violation out of ignorance and not deliberately”): that is, that in a case where it seems unlikely that those addressed will in fact successfully observe a certain law, it is better to keep one’s silence, for otherwise one risks their seeing the halakhah generally as irrelevant, or lacking in human understanding.

In a letter to some scholarly friends, I added:

The more I examine this issue, the curioser it gets. The phrase in Shulhan Arukh (Even ha-Ezer 23), עוון זה חמור מכל האסורים שבתורה, if read carefully, means that it’s stricter than any Torah prohibition, but that it is itself not necessarily from the Torah at all! Nor is it a “regular” Rabbinic prohibition, in the sense of גזרו א' אתו ב, nor does it specifically state that they made a gezerah unconnected from the danger of any other transgression. Like התרת נדרים, the whole thing is suspended in midair, without any formal halakhic basis at all! It's pure aggadah! The Sages thought it wasn’t a nice thing to do, period.

Also, the first reference in Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 23 cites Beraita Niddah and Zohar, neither of which is ordinarily a proper legal source. As Daniel Sperber demonstrates in his book on women’s aliyot [forthcoming in English by JOFA], Beraita de-Niddah is in fact a source of probably Karaite provenance, erroneously accepted for centuries as a source for all kinds of humrot (strictures) regarding women.


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