Friday, December 12, 2008

Vayishlah (Zohar) + M. Rosen Eulogy

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to the blog, at December 2005.

The Power of Thought

This week’s parasha includes two ugly sexual incidents: the rape of Dinah followed by the massacre of Shechem committed by the brothers in revenge; and Reuven’s lying with his father’s concubine Bilhah. In discussing the latter incident—which both the Talmud and the Zohar interpret as not having literally happened, but as a metaphor for something else—reference is made to various other sexual indiscretions throughout biblical history (e.g. that of the sons of Eli at Shiloh; David’s sin with Bathsheba [in the Talmud]); the Zohar then turns to the conception of Reuven himself. Zohar I:176b:

Come and see: Blessed be the name of the blessed Holy One forever and ever, for all His acts are true, His way just [a conflation of Daniel 2:20; 4:34], and everything He does accords with supernal wisdom. Come and see how decisive human action is! For everything a person does is inscribed enduringly before the blessed Holy One. Look! When Jacob entered into Leah, all that night his heart’s desire focused on Rachel, since he thought she was Rachel. From that conjugal union, from that first drop, from that desire, Leah conceived, as they [i.e, the Rabbinic midrashic tradition] have established. For if Jacob had not been unaware, Reuben would not have attained the count. So he didn’t attain a recognized name, but rather an unspecified name: ראו בן—Re’u ven: “See, a son!” Nevertheless, the action returned to its site. Just as the original desire was enacted for Rachel, that desire reverted to her, for the birthright reverted to Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn. The site of desire was Rachel, and all ascends to its site, since all acts of the blessed Holy One are entirely true and just.

translation from Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, III. 65

The moment of Reuben’s conception, Yaakov’s wedding night with Rachel, involved an interesting problem: the halakhah states that a man may not sleep with one woman while thinking/fantasizing about another—even if the latter is also his lawfully wedded life (and all the more so, one might add in our culture, if she is a former paramour, or a media sex-symbol; there is an obvious element of bad faith, insult and even abuse of the woman for the man to imagine he is with someone else while connecting with her bodily).

Offhand, Ya’akov clearly did just that—his heart had been attached to Rachel for seven long years, and during that time he had no doubt anticipated spending this night with her. But that his thoughts were not on Leah, the woman he was with, was no fault of his own; rather, it was due to the act of deceit played on him. Hence, because he did not know what was happening in fact, he committed no sin, and the fetus conceived from that night was without blemish.

The underlying assumption here is that the thoughts each of the partners have during sex exert a spiritual influence on the nature of the fetus. This is already implied in the Talmudic sugya about various improper activities within the marital bed (b. Nedarim 20b)—e.g., having relations while one or another partner is drunk, or sleeping, or unwilling (i.e., marital rape), or angry with the other, or “divorced in one’s heart,” or if one engages in sex out of fear or coercion. That passage is based on a verse from Ezekiel 20:38, interpreted to mean that the offspring of such union will be morally defective (“those who rebel and sin against me”) if one does any of these things.

This idea gains even greater importance in the Zohar and in later Kabbalah. The basic idea of the importance of the thoughts one has during sex is rooted in a conception of the human being as a psycho-somatic unity. Sex is not conceived merely as a biological act uniting genetic material, as in modern scientific, empirical thought. Nor is it only an act of mutual pleasuring and expression of love between the couple in the present—although these are clearly desirable. Rather, the conception is more spiritual: sex is the means of “bringing down” souls from the World of Souls to this corporeal world. It is for that reason that the thoughts one has are so crucial.

The Zohar‘s attitude to sexuality is that unity and harmony between man and woman is the highest ideal, a precondition for attaining holiness, for the Shekhinah residing among human beings. Improper sex acts or masturbation, on the one hand, and celibacy, on the other, are equally violations of this idea, and both of them banish the Shekhinah. Indeed, on the previous page (in a passage I could not bring here due to lack of space), the Zohar states that Jacob knew which of his wives or concubines to sleep with on a given night because he saw the Shekhinah on that bed.

Two more points to be noted here, specifically, about Reuven. First, that the various midrashic sources are in agreement that Reuven was conceived from the ”first drop” of Yaakov’s seed—not only from his first act of intercourse, but that he never even had a nocturnal emission until then. Thus, the phrase ראשית אוני, “the beginning of my vigor/ potency,” in Yaakov’s blessing in Gen 49: 3, is read hyper-literally (see, e.g., Gen Rab. 98.4; b. Yavamot 76a; Rashi at Gen 49:3; and elsewhere). Second, there is a certain ambiguity here about Reuven’s identity: he was conceived and carried by Leah, and indeed, thought of her as his mother in every respect (note his helping her with the business of the mandrakes in Gen 30:14); but Yaakov’s thoughts at the moment of his conception were of Rachel. Thus, in some sense he spiritually, metaphysically, belonged to the latter. Hence, the name Reuven as read as Re’u ven: “See, a son.” Almost all of the children were given names indicating that their birth somehow vindicated their mother in the competition between the two sisters, in which each child born was chalked up to one side or another (see Gen 29:32-35; 30:6-8, 11-13, 18-20, 23-24); but he, Reuven, is in this reading simply a son.


A Man of Prayer: A Tribute to Mickey Rosen

When I moved out of the Emek Refaim neighborhood a little over six months ago, I had planned to write an essay “After Ten Years,” about various aspects of the milieu I was leaving; a large part of which was Yakar, the synagogue and religious-cultural-study community to which I belonged. But somehow, there were a myriad of other concerns, and I kept putting it off. But now events have caught up with me. Two and a half weeks Rabbi Mickey Rosen, the founder and moving spirit behind Yakar, collapsed, and this past Sunday night, 11 Kislev (December 7th), died. The following are some thoughts about the man and his life-project.

Rav Soloveitchik used to say that, whenever someone dies, we suddenly realize how little we know about him; applying the verse, “from afar I saw God,” to the mystery of human personality, he commented that, when someone dies, a person whom we might have seen and met regularly, perhaps every week or even every day and whom we thought we knew, suddenly becomes an enigma. All the more so a leader, a creative personality, one who so clearly forged his own path and bucked the conventional path, as Mickey Rosen. Who was he? And am I at all capable of conveying the wonder that was this man?

Perhaps we should start with the simple fact that, to everyone in the community, he was simply “Mickey”; he never stood on ceremony or asked to be called “rabbi.” He had a deep sense of modesty, that turned the focus away from his own role, standing, and authority, to the goal—the quest for God and knowledge of Torah. Another sign of his modesty, that I discovered while preparing this eulogy, is that a Google search under various possible names failed to turn up a single photograph of him on the internet.

I have entitled this essay “a man of prayer” because prayer was a central part of whom he was. Under his leadership, a special style of prayer was developed within the Yakar community. People sometimes think of Yakar as a “Carlebach minyan.” While Shlomo’s niggunim certainly played a role there (and Shlomo himself taught regularly at Yakar during the last years of his life), the davening there was not simply a string of “happy-clappy” or upbeat songs. Rather, music served as an avenue towards creating a meditative mode that prepared the soul for the act of prayer. Mickey was deeply concerned with the sincerity and authenticity of prayer at Yakar. When he led the davening, he tried with all his being not to strike a false note, steering a path between the Scylla of superficial enthusiasm and the Charybdis of either rote reading of the words or cloying sentimentality. The essence of prayer, for him, was not so much beseeching God for one’s needs, nor praise and extolling God as such. More than anything else, it was the yearning for communion, the quest for God’s presence.

Early on—perhaps the second or third year that I davened at Yakar, when I was just beginning to join the roster of those who led the Shabbat morning prayer—Mickey took me aside and said to me that I was beginning to understand the most essential thing: that the role of the shaliah tzibbur is not to impress others with his vocal power or musical virtuosity, but to lead the community. Needless to say, this vision is diametrically opposed to the usual notion of the cantor as a kind of sacred performer, with a good voice, a broad repertoire of compositions, and an ability to execute difficult compositions. To Mickey, the best hazan was the one who left behind his ego, and davened with simplicity and a whole heart, and was focused on taking the congregation with him.

The night after Mickey fell ill three weeks ago, on a Thursday evening, there was a prayer session at Yakar dedicated to his recovery. Such occasions usually involve the simple recitation of Tehillim aloud. Here, the reading of Psalms, led in turn by his three sons, alternated with the singing of many of the slow, meditative melodies he so loved. I saw in this a kind of tribute to him, and an impressive demonstration of the religious culture of the community he had created. There were, among others, Nishmat kol hay (“the soul of every living thing praises Your name”), which Mickey led every Shabbat morning; Yedid Nefesh; and Peli’ah da’at memeni, from Psalm 139:6ff.—possibly his favorite biblical text, which I think of as a kind of motto reflecting his path (these words are also inscribed in relief on the ceiling molding of the prayer room at Yakar):

It is beyond my knowledge/ It is a mystery; I cannot fathom it/ Where can I escape from Your spirit?/ Where can I flee from Your presence?/ If I ascend to heaven, You are there/ If I descend to Sheol, You are there too!

Mickey was interested in Hasidism, but of a very special type. He sought a Hasidism without the personality cult of rebbes, and without the trappings of a Kabbalistic superstructure; he sought in Hasidism a teaching as to how to be a better person and a better Jew—and found it in the school of Psyshkhe (Przysucha), in the figures of the “Holy Yehudi,” R. Simhah Bunim of Psyshkhe, and in R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk: a school which demanded a rigorous spirit of truth, of honesty with one’s self, of authenticity, of eschewing conventional models of piety or external ecstasy. Indeed, an important part of his intellectual legacy, at least in the narrow sense of publications, is the book he wrote on this subject, published less than a year ago: The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim (Jerusalem – New York: Urim, 2008).

What is Yakar? Yakar is a unique kind of institution, founded in London in 1982, and begun in Jerusalem ten years later, when the Rosen family came on aliyah; last year a branch was started in Tel-Aviv. The secondary title on its logo, “Center for Tradition and Creativity,” tells much of the story. The idea was of a center that would combine the activities of synagogue; Beit midrash/learning community; a center for arts and music; and an arena for social concern.

One might explain the underlying thread animating this concept in terms taken from this week’s parashah: In Vayishlah, the two brothers, Yaakov and Esau, meet again after a separation of 22 years. Traditionally, this scene is read as one of pro forma reconciliation, colored by a deep-rooted underlying suspicion, with the idea that “you go your way and I go mine,” seen as symbolic of the tense relationship between Jewry and the non-Jewish world. It seems to me that Mickey was one of those who dreamed of a better way: he loved the Western humanistic tradition, and dreamed of a Judaism which drew upon the best that Western culture had to offer; he was committed to the values of democracy, tolerance, and the dignity of very human being, and sought a genuine reconciliation between the children of Israel and the children of Ishmael.

Thus, alongside Shabbat prayers and classes and lectures on various aspects of Judaism, Yakar hosts various cultural events: there is an art gallery, with rotating exhibits, in the upstairs hall; various musical events (I remember once, particularly, a lecture on Shostakovich and the Jews; there is also an acapella choir); poetry slams; and various lectures on the long summer Shabbat afternoons which, alongside series on Jewish thought, have included lectures on notable Jewish fiction authors.

But Mickey was also misunderstood by some people, on several different levels—first and foremost, perhaps, that of his social concerns. In a contemporary Israeli Orthodox milieu that is predominantly nationalistic and hawkish on the Arab-Israel conflict, he was that rarity, an outspoken supporter of peace with the Palestinians, and an advocate of human rights. An important feature of Yakar, both in Jerusalem and in London, was a Center for Social Concern, a forum that sponsored public discussion of controversial issues, and invited spokesmen from all viewpoints. It must have been one of the few places under Orthodox religious auspices in which Palestinian spokesmen were regularly invited to participate in discussions of the burning national conflict here; at one point, Yakar also held a joint Midrasa/Bet Midrash, at which Jews and Muslims together studied sources of both traditions, at an effort at mutual understanding. The Center is headed by a former South African, militantly anti-apartheid journalist, Benjamin Pogrund.

Alongside his political convictions, Mickey believed in principle in pluralism and tolerance, and had a great deal of curiosity about different people and different viewpoints. He seemed to enjoy inviting diverse people to Yakar, and enjoyed the role of interviewer, which he performed with great aplomb.

Another point on which he was criticized by some had to do with feminism. When the new “Orthodox feminism” began to emerge, and particularly with the creation of Shira Hadasha, he was criticized by some for not giving aliyot to women, or even at least having the men and women side-by-side, with a mehitzah running from front-to-back of the synagogue; instead, Yakar maintains the more traditional front and back arrangement of men and women. But while Mickey had the highest respect fur women’s intellect and their spirituality, he never accepted the standard “PC” line on such issues. In essence, his approach to halakhah was rooted in a traditional model of Jewish religiosity, and he clearly was not interested in the “sexual politics” of halakhic change. Women gave shiurim in Yakar, and women were welcome to recite Kaddish for a loved one. But the important thing for him was the spiritual path, the quest for intimacy with God, not political statements or positions about gender.

At the funeral, his wife Gilah (a learned woman and a distinguished Torah teacher in her own right) spoke of certain things which were perhaps not widely known or publicly discussed: that Mickey suffered, through much of his life, from a serious degenerative disease (which may also have hastened his death). Despite the pains and limitations this imposed, he never felt sorry for himself: he saw life as an arena for action, for working, for accomplishing things. To paraphrase her words (I quote from memory): “He dreamed, and he worked and he accomplished; and again he dreamed, and worked and accomplished—until almost the very end. Until a few moments before he collapsed on that Wednesday, he was busy working. He saw each day as a gift from the Almighty, and pushed himself to the maximum.” A small example: he did not have powerful lungs, possibly related to his physical condition, and was unable to project his voice as strongly or as well as others. But this did not discourage him from leading public prayer at Yakar; instead, he developed his own gentle, quiet style of prayer that created a unique ambience.

More than anything, he was his own man, and had his own inner compass; he was a non-conformist, what might be described as an “English eccentric” in Rabbinic garb; oblivious to “trends,” he had a clear vision of what Yakar was meant to be, as a center for a certain type of Jewish cultural, religious and ethical renewal (joining, in his own modest way, the tradition of such people as Rav Kook and Hillel Zeitlin.) May his life-work continue and flourish after him.

May his memory be a blessing.


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