Friday, January 25, 2008

Yitro (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog at February 2006.

“Make No Graven Images”

In this weeks parasha the account of the Exodus reaches it climax with the revelation at Mount Sinai and the presentation of the Ten Commandments—a kind of summa bonum of the most basic moral and religious laws, seemingly too familiar to all to require any comment.

The first and in some ways most fundamental mitzvah of all is the prohibition against idolatry (there is some dispute among the commentators as to whether the opening verse, “I am the Lord your God…” is itself a mitzvah or a kind of prelude to the mitzvot themselves; as Ramban puts it: “First accept My kingship, and then accept My edicts”), which in some ways is seen as defining a Jew—“Whoever denies idolatry is called a Jew…” (b. Megillah 13a)—and as encompassing all the other commandments.

The striking thing about this commandment is the plastic, concrete nature of the gods whose adulation is proscribed. Immediately following the general rule, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:3)—which is indeed interpreted in the halakhah, in the Talmud Sanhedrin and in Rambam, as referring to an inner acceptance of their divinity—there comes a prohibition against making any images, whether sculpted or two-dimensional, followed by the proscription against worshipping them, or prostrating oneself before them. It would seem that there is something about the sheer tangible, tactile nature of images that is somehow particularly seductive and appealing to the human imagination, and for that very reason dangerous. Or, taken from the other end: there is something about the abstract nature of the idea of God as unseen and unseeable (“no man shall see me and live”) and, if we accept Rambam’s philosophy, incorporeal and wholly transcendent, that is difficult for the ordinary person to accept. There is a human urge to create a carnal god: this is an element in the attraction of Christianity and also, lehavdil, of rebbes and teachers who are embellished with legend and made semi-mythic figures even during their lifetime, not to mention after their deaths.

The problem is that the nearly axiomatic connection between imagery and idolatry no longer seems to hold. Clearly, there is imagery without idolatry, and it would seem that there can also be idolatry without imagery. In today’s world, plastic art serves expressive or decorative functions which have nothing to do with worship of the objects or living beings thereby represented. In practice, Jews did and do engage in various forms of art—at times avoiding the direct representation of living things, or in some cases the representation of human beings, specifically (viz., the famous 13th century “Bird’s Head Haggadah”), but only rarely going to the extremes of Islam, which permits only abstract geometric forms in their mosques or homes. Photographs of revered rabbis or of family events are today commonplace in even the most strictly Orthodox circles, as are paintings. Some pietists may make a bow towards halakhic restrictions by making slight alterations in the human figure, such as chipping off a bit of the nose of a statue or a relief—but by and large art is accepted on its own terms. (Albeit this past summer I saw the handiwork of a zealous young rabbi who rather brutally sawed off a pair of wooden lions from an old-fashioned ark decoration—one that had been in this synagogue for over half a century, and that did not seem to disturb his highly learned, distinguished rabbinic ancestors. Indeed, even the Vilna Shas, the standard edition of the Talmud, has a pair of lions standing guard on the portico that graces the title page of each volume.)

The inverse of this question is: can there be idolatry without imagery? What kinds of behavior or attitudes in our own world may be seen as prohibited by dint of idolatry? If this is such a central theme in Judaism, surely it cannot have become a dead letter simply because fetishism as such, the worship of images, is more or less extinct in those parts of the world where most Jews live. (Imagery is still commonplace in areas where Hinduism and Buddhism, or “pre-modern” animism, are still dominant, just as there are statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints in Catholic churches; but these are really taken more as objects of meditation than as divinities. Indeed, it has already been argued by Yehezkel Kaufmann, in The Religion of Israel, that the ancient Canaanites weren’t fetishists in quite the ways the Bible thought—but that’s a whole other issue).

This problem already vexed Hazal when they said: “Whoever is angry… Whoever is haughty… is as if he worshipped idols.” That is to say, making one’s own ego the center in an absolute way, such that one forgets others, is a kind of idolatry. This may be seen as part of a larger overall trend among the Sages to place greater emphasis on the inner life. Thus, idolatry becomes defined more in terms of the psychological act of accepting another god, rather than upon purely external behavior, as expressed in words, gestures, or rituals of sacrifice or obeisance.

The question then becomes: how far may the definition of idolatry be pushed? Surely, political totalitarianism may be seen as a form of avodah zarah, as in the cult of Stalin, called “Sun of the Nations” in Communist Russia, whose embalmed body (together with Lenin’s) was treated as a shrine. The same holds true for the cult of the leader in North Korea. But is there some rule of thumb, some algorithm, that can sharply define and delimit the realm of idolatry? Some contemporary thinkers have suggested that any ideology or idea that is taken as an ultimate value is idolatry. Does that mean that one ca speak in any more than a metaphorical way of the worship of money as idolatrous? Of power? Of sex (which, coming full circle to the ancient Canaanites, some moderns treat with awe and reverence, in near religious terms)? What about a “fan,” who “idolizes” a certain movie or rock star? Some take it with a certain note of irony, or “camp,” that neutralizes it (e.g., in Star Wars and Hobbit or Simpson fans, who know that it’s a kind of make-believe escape from humdrum life), but what of the cult of Elvis Presley, with pilgrimages to Graceland? And what about addictions?

These are all complex and subtle questions. The halakhah tends to be very practically oriented in its definitions, inducing its rules from specific cases, rather than deducing them from first principles, making it difficulty to construct certain answers to quasi-philosophical issues such as these. But while I have no simple “yes/no” answers to the above questions, surely they ought to be on the agenda of any thoughtful Jewish religious person.

YITRO: Moses and the Positive Other

Yitro occupies a special place in the Jewish calendar as that parasha in which we read of the revelation of Torah; so much so, that we often tend to skim over its opening, title chapter (Exodus 18). There are several problems raised by this chapter. First: Why is it located here altogether? It somehow seems out of place. We are told that Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, heard of the miracles God had wrought and came to visit him. They talk, they offer a sacrifice and eat festive meal; Yitro offers Moses practical advice about the administrative and judicial arrangements—the need to decentralize authority, to set up a hierarchical system so that Moses need deal with only the most difficult cases; let whatever can be adjudicated by others, be done so. The feeling one gets here is of a leisurely, relaxed mood, of “ordinary” time, that surely sharply contrasts with the intense preparation for the Revelation, condensed into a few short days, that began immediately upon them pitching camp opposite the mountain. Thus, both Rashi and other commentators suggest that this visit in fact occurred some time during the long winter or early spring they spent at Sinai: after Ma’amad Har Sinai, after the incident of the Golden Calf, after the first Yom Kippur and the Divine reconciliation that signaled. (But see against that Ramban’s rather difficult view, which insists on the textual and chronological order being one and the same.)

But there are other textual problems, which I shall only briefly mention in passing: How does this chapter connect with the visit of “Hovav” or “Reuel” described in Numbers 10:29-34? Why does he have so many names anyway (assuming he was the same person; perhaps Moses married several women, and had several fathers-in-law?). And what about Moses’ marriage, anyway? Does the phrase “after he sent her away” in verse 2 imply that he divorced Zipporah? Or simply that, following Aaron’s advice, he felt there was no point dragging her and the children along for the difficult tasks that awaited him in Egypt, the confrontation with Pharaoh, etc.? And what about Numbers 12, where Miriam was punished for gossiping about “the Kushite woman” whom Moses had taken, which a midrash, based upon a quite plausible line of argument, sees as referring to his divorcing her (or perhaps merely separating from her, seeking constant purity from sexuality)?

When all is said and done, how are we to characterize Yitro anyway? I would like to suggest four titles or honorifics that may be given him: (1) The first ger zedek—that is, the first convert to Judaism; (2) The first organizer/administrator, viz. the advice he gave to Moses about running his judicial task; (3) The first Bedouin tracker, who was asked to serve as “our eyes” becase of his superior knowledge of the desert (Num 10:31); (4) The first shver or father-in-law, or at least the first such seen as a positive figure (as opposed to, e.g., Yaakov’s cheating, devious father-in-law Lavan or, later on, Saul, the maniacal jealous king whose daughter David married). The father-in-law—son-in-law relation is a central Jewish pattern. There are innumerable examples in which the ties between prominent rabbis and scholars and their outstanding students were cemented by the latter marrying the former’s daughter. Thus: the Bah (Bayit Hadash: R. Yoel Sirkes) and the Taz (Turrei Zahav: R. David Halevi Segal); the sixth and seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes; the Nazir (R. David Hacohen) and Rav Shlomo Goren; Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein; Rav Moshe Feinstein and R. Moshe Tendler, etc. This pattern is known even in non-Orthodox Jewry: thus, Reconstructionist Jews joke about their own “holy trinity”—the father-in-law, the son-in-law, and the ghost writer (Mordecai Kaplan, Ira Eisenstein, and Max Kohn).

But most important, I would call him “the Positive Other.” Judaism is filled with negative examples of figures encountered in the non-Jewish world: Esau, Amalek, Pharaoh, Balaam and, some would say, even Job (in the midrash). Here, Yitro appears as the positive Gentile: a decent human being who appreciates God’s miracles. This encounter may be plausibly read as representing the idea that not only Israel, but also the world, through Yitro, recognize the Exodus and the epiphany at Sinai as positive manifestations of God’s presence and activity in the world and, more specifically, of God’s redemptive hand in the history of Israel.

Two significant incidents about Yitro. The first, a midrash in Sotah 11a and Sanhedrin 106a which speaks of Pharaoh taking counsel with three advisors as to what to do about the threat posed by a savior due to be born to Israel. Balaam approved Pharaoh’s genocidal program; Job remained silent; and only Yitro protested and fled.

Second, Yitro’s first meeting with Moses took place against the background of social justice, viz., Moses’ saving his daughters from the shepherds who ordinarily used their superior physical strength to push them away from the spring at which they watered their sheep (Exod 2:16-21). What impressed Yitro was the stranger’s decency and his willingness to intervene on behalf of a bunch of strangers in the name of what was right and just.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Beshalah (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to my blog, at February 2006.

“Shabbat was Commanded at Marah”

Parashat Beshalah contains the first mention in the Torah of the actual observance of Shabbat: once the Israelites begin traveling through the desert, after the Splitting of the Sea and their conclusive liberation from the Egyptians, God sends them manna to eat every day and, on the first Friday, informs them that they will be given a double portion on that day, enough for both Friday and Shabbat, as on Shabbat there won’t be any manna. This might aptly be described as teaching them about Shabbat through an object lesson, as a day of cessation observed by God Himself (as in Gen 2:1-3), nay, as part of a pattern woven into the very fabric of Creation—and thus Friday is a day of preparation. (This pattern is felt very strongly here in Israel: there is much hustle and bustle and long lines at the bakers and butchers and grocers on Friday, but silence and relative stillness on the main business streets on Shabbat.)

This is alluded to in a rather strange Talmudic saying: that at Marah (the first place they encamped in the desert after crossing the Sea), the Israelites were given “a few laws: dinim [were these certain basic civil laws? or perhaps the rudimentary basis of a judicial system?], Shabbat, and respect for parents” (Sanhedrin 56b). The first of these, at least, is derived from on an enigmatic phrase in Exodus 15:25, “there he gave them statutes and ordinances (שם שם לו חוק ומשפט), and there he tested them.” Shabbat and kibbud av are also inferred from the fact that the latter version of the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:12, 16) refers to these two as if they had already been given prior to Sinai: “Observe the Shabbat… Honor your father and mother… as the Lord your God has commanded you”).

What was the nature of this “pre-revelation” or “mini-revelation”? I would read it as analogous to the Noahide laws, albeit in this case directed to Israel. That is, a kind of natural law concept, of mitzvot as accessible to the human conscience and religious sensibility, on a kind of parallel track to revelation. There are two approaches to the nature of Torah in Judaism: the one, predominant in contemporary Orthodoxy, emphasizes heteronomy, the transcendent nature of the Divine will; the idea of submission, of unquestioning obedience, of man standing before God “like a servant before his master.” But there is also a second view, in which that learned from revelation is seen as conforming to man’s inner nature, to his own higher, or deeper, inner self. This idea was articulated, among others, by Rav Kook, who said that if the Torah learned from books and from one’s inner soul are not in concert, something is seriously wrong. If you will, this is a continuation into the Sinaitic age of what might be called the Abrahamic approach, in which “his two kidneys were made like two founts of wisdom.”

Returning to Shabbat per se: one of the unique liturgical features of Shabbat that has always puzzled me is why, unlike both the weekdays and the other festivals and holy days, Shabbat has three distinct texts for the middle section of the Amidah for each of the three prayers: Ma’ariv, Shaharit and Minhah? Two explanations: one, of a more theological bent, sees each time-period of Shabbat as commemorating a different aspect: the evening (אתה קידשת) relates to Shabbat Bereshit, Shabbat as both culmination and commemoration of Creation; the morning (ישמח משה), the Shabbat of Sinai (hence, Shabbat morning is the paradigmatic occasion for reading the Torah); and Minhah (אתה אחד ושמך אחד), the twilight hours when the holy day is waning, as containing hints of Redemption. The second explanation sees Shabbat as signaling the “wedding feast” between Israel and the Holy One: Ma’ariv, which opens with the words “You have sanctified,” suggests the kiddushin, the nuptial ceremony; Shaharit, when “Moses rejoiced…,” points towards the rejoicing in the festivity; Musaf, with its burnt flesh offering, wine, grain, and oil, corresponds to the menu of the wedding feast; while Minhah, the time of greatest intimacy and yearning—“You are one and Your name is one, and who are like Your people Israel, one nation in the land”— suggests the nuptial union of bride and groom.

Thus, Shabbat is not only a formal structure of “do’s” and “don’t”s but, perhaps more than any other institution of Judaism, has a powerfully poetic quality. To speak of this romantic aspect of Shabbat, for me, calls to mind the book by Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Sabbath; Its Meaning for Modern Man, with its evocative woodcuts by Ilya Schor. I first read this book when I was fourteen years old, and it left a deep impact on me. It is there that Heschel first speaks of the Shabbat as a “Temple in time.” In general, Heschel’s genius lay less in creating a consistent system of Jewish thought than in conveying the feeling of Judaism, the emotional quality of prayer, of Shabbat, etc., to modern Jews who had lost this sense. He taught them how to feel as Jews. Thus, he wrote of such things as “God in search of man”; of the empassioned, involved God of the prophets; or, in his masterly Torah min ha-Shamayim be-aspaklarya shel hadorot, he issued a plea for a Judaism in which aggadah and halakhah would exist in a complementary balance.

“I will sing unto the Lord”

A second mitzvah implied by this parasha is the call to sing out in praise to the Lord. There is an aspect of prayer that involves standing before God in our human vulnerability, in our existential situation, with all our unfulfilled needs and requests—such is Tefillah, Prayer as such, as expressed in the Amidah. And then there is prayer as a song of gratitude, of singing out to God in joy and wonder and gratefulness for His wondrous deeds of deliverance, or in gratitude for the everyday miracles of life itself.

The Song of the Sea, which might well be called the centerpiece of this week’s parasha, is understood by the halakhah as both precedent and archetype for such ecstatic joyous praise, and as laying the foundations for its inclusion in the liturgy. It is thus seen as a model for the laws of Hallel, the collection of six psalms recited on festival days, as well as customarily serving as the final chapter of the daily Pesukei de-Zimra. And, if we may return full circle to our original subject: Shabbat is itself paradigmatic for such songs of praise. The day begins with the six psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, leading up to the hymn Lekha Dodi, while Pesukei de-Zimra of Shabbat morning is greatly extended and recited in more leisurely fashion, including many wisdom psalms reflecting upon the riddles of God and man, and culminating with the great paean of praise, Nishmat kol hai, “the breath of every living thing shall praise You.”

I have long felt that Pesukei de-Zimra is greatly neglected in many if not most of our synagogues, people arriving late or rushing through it without reflection. Hence, some years ago I wrote a study of this important section of prayer (HY II: Ki Teitse–Yahrzeit Shiur) which, for the benefit of new readers, I have now posted on my blog.


Before turning to the next two principles, a response from reader Avraham Leader to my comment about Abulafia not knowing the sefirot:

A very quick response about R. Abraham Abulafia and the Sefirot: of course he was aware of them and accepted the sefirotic construct. There is an oft-quoted sentence of his that researchers have used in order to prove that he didn’t accept the Sefirot, but anyone familiar with his teachings knows that to be grossly untrue. He is held to be a mystic and ecstatic, and is the founder of “prophetic Kabbalah,” but I would venture to call him a scientist and researcher of human consciousness. In this sense his approach is rationalistic, and that is why he saw himself as a student of the Rambam. He viewed Sephirotic Kabbalah as the first level of this study, from which one progresses to Kabbalat ha-Shemot [the Kabbalah of Divine Names] and Kabbalah Nevu’it [“Prophetic Kabbalah”], although in practice the three fields are integrated.

I would argue that, in fact, the ten Sefirot (which of course evolve from Sefer Yetzirah’s “Ten, not nine; ten, not eleven,” and are simply the expression of one of the three sefarim—being sefar, simply the ten basic digits, the base of numbers, along with sefer, 22 letters, the basis of words, which together are the 32 [paths]) are an attempt at reconciling the extreme corporeality of tracts like Shiur Komah with incorporeality, by translating the divine “body” into powers / attributes / qualities, rather than/in addition to body parts. There is much more to be said, but this is not the place to do so…

Here is the relevant quote from Abulafia’s Iggeret Ve-Zot le-Yehudah. As you can see, he does not deny the Sefirot, only the misunderstanding of them:

ואומר כי הקבלה הזאת הנעלמת מהמון הרבנים המתעסקים בחכמת התלמוד נחלקת תחלה לשני חלקים בכלל, והם חלקי דעות השם על דרך עשר ספירות הנקראות נטיעות אשר המפריד ביניהם מקצץ בנטיעות והם המגלים סוד הייחוד וחלק ידיעות השם על דרך כ"ב אותיות אשר מהם ומנקודותיהם ומטעמיהם הורכבו השמות והחותמת והם המדברים עם הנביאים בחלומות ובאורים ותומים וברוח הקודש ובנבואות.... א"כ קבלת עשר ספירות וענינו קודמת לקבלת עוד ידיעות השמות ולא יתהפך זה ולפיכך אודיעך שבעלי הקבלה הספירות חשבו לייחד השם ולברוח מאמונת השלוש ועשרוהו וכמו שהגוים אומרים הוא שלשה והשלשה אחד כן מקצת בעלי הקבלה מאמינים ואומרים כי האלוהות עשר ספירות והעשרה הם אחד, והנה הם רבוהו תכלית הריבוי והרכיבוהו תכלית המרכבה ואין ריבוי אחר העשרה, ואלה יודעים שלא עלה למעלה מעשרה ולא ירדה השכינה למטה מעשרה ולא הבדילו בין הצבור שהם תשעה ובן שליח הצבור שהוא עשירי, והיודעים לחלק הספירות ולכוללן יודעים שהספירות הם תשע נטיעות רמז לתשע מראות שראה יחזקאל הנכללות בפסוק אחד והעשירי שורש האילן אם האחד פרי האילן או האחד שורש האילן והעשירי יהיה קודש לה' והוא הפרי, אבל הסבה הראשונה שבראה אין סוף לפי דרכנו אינה ספירה אבל סופר הספירות והוא אשר נטע האילן משרשו ועד פריו, והגן עד לא כי הוא מקום הנטיעות כולו הנטועים בעדן:

Second, some more general comments on the Thirteen Principles. Some time ago I received an interesting letter from another reader, who commented that some figures in the Sephardi tradition (e.g., that of the Ben Ish Hai) see the Ikkarim in Kabbalistic, rather than philosophical-rationalistic terms; hence, rather than Yigdal, they sing Pizmon Bar Yohai (which also has 13 verses) as a kind of mystical faith affirmation. Along the same lines, I have seen Sephardic Siddurim that contain the words “I believe with perfect faith in God, who emanated ten sefirot….”

Indeed, one might well argue that for many centuries Kabbalah functioned de facto as the main stream in Jewish theology. An often-ignored historical fact is that, notwithstanding the fierce polemic in the late 18th century between the nascent Hasidic movement and the Mitnaggedim, both groups shared an essentially Kabbalistic world-view: the writings of both the Gaon of Vilna and R. Hayyim of Volozhin are steeped in Kabbalistic thought; their differences with Hasidism revolved around other issues, more halakhic and sociological than they were theological. Indeed, if one were to attempt a bowdlerized, extremely abbreviated summary of Jewish systematic theology, one might say that the outstanding landmarks were Rambam’s Thirteen Principles and its philosophical offshoots, mostly in the 14th and 15th centuries; then, both parallel in time and following that age, the whole Kabbalistic nexus—in Spain, in Tzfat, in Yemen and North Africa and Iraq and in Eastern Europe—really everywhere, with a series of systematic works presenting the basic ideas of the Zohar in orderly fashion; and, in recent times, with the emergence of modernity—say, from Rav S. R. Hirsch on—the proposition that belief in “Torah from Sinai” is the single and central platform of a beleaguered “Orthodoxy.”

IV. “He is prior to every thing that was created; He is first, and He is without beginning”

The fourth principle relates to God’s preexistence. In the Rambam’s original context, this implies rejection of the Aristotelian doctrine of the eternity of the universe—perhaps his most important departure from the philosophy of that school. The universe itself is created, finite; God alone is infinite, the First Cause, the origin of Being itself. He is not coterminous with the universe, but precedes it. In terms of modern cosmogonic theories, we would say that He was even before the “Big Bang” that originated the physical universe of matter as we know it. What He was—what existed before there was matter or space or time, the basis dimensions or parameters we use for thinking about existence itself—is utterly impossible for a human being to begin to comprehend or imagine.

Abstract and remote as these ideas may seem, they are of fundamental importance for our concept of God. The fact that He is the creator, but is not Himself created, but always has been, is an essential part of the definition of His existence as the First Cause, implied in the First Principle.

It is also important in that it implies rejection of simple pantheism: that is, the identification of God with some immanent force in the world—which would of necessity have come into existence with the “Big Bang.” Rather, He is transcendent, beyond, “Wholly Other,” in Otto’s words—not identified with anything in nature, and thus His essence is ultimately incomprehensible to the human mind. There is an idea in Kabbalah that we cannot say anything at all beyond the Sefirot of Hokhmah and Binah: the very first Sefirah, Keter, “The Crown,” and beyond it the Ein Sof, the Infinite, are named in the system, but they are not, indeed, cannot, be described in any coherent way. God in His pre-Creation transcendence is identified with Yod, the first letter of the Divine Name that is no more than a point.

This goes beyond any particular scientific theory. Some time ago I saw a TV program about what seems to be the cutting edge of physical cosmogonic theory: the notion of a series of higher dimensions, containing “membrane-universes” that exist outside our own universe; possibly an infinity of such universes, with different rules of physics, existing alongside our own. This seem to confute the idea of our universe being unique, with the suggestion that the Big Bang resulted from the violent collision of other membrane-universes. But be this as it may, basic question remains: How did Being as such start? What preceded Being? Thus, even if the particulars of the known physical universe—the positive and negative charges of electrons, the structure of subatomic particles, the role played by carbon in organic life, etc.—is “late” in the history of cosmos, there was still the “Master of the Universe, who was prior to every created thing.” And, if you wish, the 974 worlds of the midrash that were created and destroyed prior to our own universe may be read as the other “membrane-universes,” while the eleven dimensions may be seen as the Sefirot and Ein Sof.

Beshalah (Supplement) - Pesukei de-Zimra

Pesukei de-Zimra—the collection of psalms of praise recited at the beginning of Shaharit, the weekday and Sabbath Morning Service (following the Morning Blessings, Korbanot, and other preliminaries), and framed before and after by the blessings of Barukh Sheamar and Yishtabah—is possibly the most neglected component of Jewish liturgy. In many, if not most, Orthodox synagogues, this section is frequently treated in off-hand fashion, being raced through as if it were a 100-meter dash—even on Shabbat, to say nothing of weekdays. I have been fortunate enough to participate in a few minyanim where the opposite is the case: Bira Amikta (the “Leader” Minyan), a group which meets once a month in the German Colony, known far and wide for its leisurely-paced chanting and singing of Pesukei de-Zimra, which at certain moments approaches ecstatic heights; and Yakar, where the late Prof. Ze’ev Falk used to lead Pesukei de-Zimra slowly and melodiously, a tradition I have attempted in some small way to continue.

In the following essay, I wish to discuss both the halakhic sources of Pesukei de-Zimra and to reconstruct the underlying religious ideas that prompted its institution, through discussion and analysis of a number of classical Rabbinic texts which I see as the basic sources for this practice.

“And He is blessed above all song and praises”

The only explicit mention of Pesukei de-Zimra by name in the Talmudic literature is in b. Shabbat 118b:

R. Yossi said: “Would that my portion were among those who complete the Hallel every day!” Really? For has it not been said: “One who recites the Hallel every day commits blasphemy!“ Here, they are referring to Pesukei de-Zimra.

Rashi, explaining this rather harsh comment, notes that the “early prophets” instituted the recitation of Hallel at certain fixed times (i.e., on those occasions when Israel were confronted with dire trouble and thereafter delivered from them by God, as stated in Pesahim 117a; cf. Arakhin 10a-b, which enumerates the eighteen [or twenty-one] days of the year when one “completes”—i.e., recites the full—Hallel). If one were to recite it constantly, other than at the appropriate times fixed by the ancients, these hymns of praise to God would be reduced to triviality, to an ordinary song such as one might sing for ones own pleasure, making a mockery of it. Rav Yossi’s position is defended by explaining that the “Hallel” to which he refers here is something altogether different: Pesukei de-Zimra—a term left undefined by the talmudic text, to which we shall return later.

What is the point being made here? Why is the recitation of Hallel proscribed except at certain times, and even considered blasphemous, while the recitation of the hymns of praise known as Pesukei de-Zimra, is permitted? Rav Soloveitchik addresses this question in an essay entitled, “On Matters of Pesukei de-Zimra,” published in his Lectures in Memory of My Father The Rav offers an intriguing theological explanation. He speaks of a tension between two religious moments: the natural impulse of religious man to praise God, coupled with the ethical and halakhic obligation to do so, as an expression of gratitude; and the concomitant awareness that God’s essential ineffability, His transcendence, place Him beyond human understanding, and ipso facto beyond all praise. These two poles are symbolized, on the one hand, by the verse “Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord… May His name be praised from now and forever…” (Ps 114:2) and, on the other, by the verses “Who can tell the mighty acts of the Lord, and make heard all his praise?” and “to You silence is praise” (Pss 106:2; 65:2). This same tension, states the Rav, explains the difference between Hallel and Pesukei de-Zimra—and our puzzling passage.

Hallel is a venerable halakhic institution, of hoary antiquity. We are not allowed to praise God at our own initiative, but only within the context of the halakhah, as legislated by the Sages, who both permitted and required us to praise God at certain times and in a certain manner, through the recitation of specific texts. Anything beyond this automatically falls under the rubric of hiruf vegidduf, scorn and blasphemy. According to this line of thinking, Pesukei de-Zimra is a very limited, essentially personal, private act of praise, and not a formal part of public prayer, which strictly speaking only begins with the Half Kaddish and Barkhu. Moreover, its basic unit is the verse rather than the full chapter or parasha—hence the title Pesukei de-Zimra, “verses of song”—even though it in fact includes several complete chapters, indeed, the entire sequence of psalms from Psalm 145 through Psalm 150. Hence, it does not violate the stricture against “cheapening” Hallel by reciting it every day. Indeed, the Rav ultimately identifies Pesukei de-Zimra not so much as praise at all, but as an act of Torah study—in this case, focused upon texts describing the nature of God’s attributes. (This move of saying “this is Limmud Torah” is very typical of the Rav, reminiscent of his approach to the Passover Seder, Tisha b’Av kinot, etc.)

Thus far the Rav. With all due respect to my revered late teacher, I must confess to a certain disappointment in this essay. I felt that there were several important sources and issues relating to Pesukei de-Zimra that the Rav chose to disregard; the latter half of the essay is in fact devoted to other issues related to public prayer, important in their own right, but is not the comprehensive treatment of Pesukei de-Zimra I had been hoping for, suggested by its title. This lacunum was one of my motivations in writing the present paper.

This evocation of the problematic and ambivalent nature of praise of God brings to mind a number of incidents related in the Talmud. One passage, in b. Berakhot 34b, tells of a certain prayer leader who extolled God with a long string of adjectives: “The great, powerful, and awesome God, tremendous, heroic, fearsome, strong, brave, certain and honorable…” When he had finished, Rabbi Hanina interjected sarcastically, ”Have you finished reciting the praises of your Maker?” He then went on to say that, were it not for the biblical verses that serve as precedent, we could not even recite the well known opening phrase of the Amidah, ha-El ha-gadol ha-gibbor veha-nora.

The parallel version of this story in the Jerusalem Talmud is shorter and more curt. There, Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Yonatan cut the prayer leader short after the first two extraneous words, informing him that, “You have no right to add to the formula coined by the Sages” (j. Berakahot 9.1 [12d]). This is followed by a series of biblical proof texts—Job 37:23, 20; Ps 65:2—illustrative of the inadequacy of human words to properly praise God.

But why turn to erudite Talmudic texts? This same idea is eloquently expressed in the concluding section of Pesukei de-Zimra itself, recited by every observant Jew on Sabbaths and festivals, in the piyyut Nishmat kol Hay. “Even if our mouths were filled with song like the sea, and our tongues song like the multitude of its waves, and our lips were filled with praise like the span of heaven… and our legs swift as deer, and our hands spread forth like [wings of] eagles, we could not praise or thank You… for even one part of the thousands upon thousands of thousands, myriads of myriads of goodness You have done for us…”

Meditation and Prayer, Praise and Study

But Pesukei de-Zimra needs to be understood in another context as well. I hold that this institution as we know it is essentially the translation into practical terms of the Hazalic insight that prayer requires preparation, a certain divesting of ones thoughts of the everyday world, a turning of ones mind and soul to totally different modes. This is expressed in a brief mishnah dealing with the mental attitude required for prayer:

One does not stand up to pray save with a serious demeanor. The pious men of old would wait one hour and then pray, so as to direct their hearts toward their Heavenly father. (m. Berakhot 5.1)

The gemara on this passage, at fol. 32b, adds several interesting elements. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi states that this was not only a pious practice of the “old timers,” but also a normative requirement: the worshipper, presumably every worshipper, must tarry an hour both after and before prayer. (Maimonides, as we shall see later, brings this as halakhah, but interprets it as not necessarily a clock hour, but as a certain amount of time, something like the usage of sha’ah kalah in modern Hebrew.) This is followed by a beraita about the pious men of old, stating that they would wait a full hour before praying, spend an hour in the act of prayer, and then sit for one hour thereafter, so as not to make it seem as though their prayer were a burden they were eager to rid themselves of. Thus, they spent a total of nine hours daily in prayer, leaving precious little time for either work or Torah study. Both of these needs apparently benefited from a special heavenly blessing thanks to their extraordinary righteousness and piety.

We are not told precisely what they did during this hour of preparation, of “sitting” or “staying.” Presumably they engaged in some form of meditation, clearing their minds of the practical tasks and concerns and worries of practical life, and directing their minds to awareness of the Divine presence, as a prelude to the worship of God.

Maimonides relates to this passage in his discussion of the requirement for kavvanah in prayer:

What is “intention”? That he empty his heart from all thoughts and see himself as if he is standing before the Divine presence. Therefore he needs to sit a bit before prayer, so as to direct his heart, and thereafter he should pray leisurely and with supplication… The pious ones of old would wait an hour before prayer, and an hour before after prayer, and pray for one hour. (Laws of Prayer, 4.15-16)

A second text concerning the nature of prayer that sheds light on our subject appears in both Berakhot 32a and Avodah Zarah 7b:

Rabbi Simlai expounded: A person should always arrange (or: order) the praise of the Holy One blessed be He, and then pray.

There is a basic problem in the interpretation of this passage. Both Rashi (on the passage in Avodah Zarah alone), and Kesef Mishneh to Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillah 1.2, see this as alluding to the internal structure of prayer: the threefold pattern of praise, petition, and thanksgiving into which the eighteen (or nineteen) blessings of the Amidah are divided. (Interestingly, Kesef Mishneh misquotes the passage in a way that more closely fits this rubric—presumably an unconscious, if fortuitous, lapse of memory.) By contrast, Bet Yosef on Tur, Orah Hayyim §51 cites this same passage as referring to Pesukei de-Zimra. Moreover, he quotes in this same context a passage a bit further on in the same sugya, in which the need for meditation prior to prayer is derived from the verse Ashrei yoshevei beitekha—a phrase closely associated liturgically with Pesukei de-Zimra, as we shall see presently (indeed, the Tur cites this as the reason for adding this verse prior to Psalm 145). Moreover, I once heard it said in the name of the late Rav Yosef Kapah (by Rav Hananel Seri, one of his younger, close disciples), that the “waiting” before prayer referred to here is in fact accomplished by Pesukei de-Zimra.

“Every day I shall bless You”: The Contents of Pesukei de-Zimra

Of what exactly do these “hymns” or Pesukei de-Zimra consist? As we mentioned earlier, the use of the term in Shabbat 118b without any further elaboration suggests that the term was already a familiar one at the time of the amoraim, whose meaning was regarded as self-evident. Yet what it in fact meant in the Talmudic context is difficult to determine. Rashi’s comment on the passage in question (paralleled by that of Ran and Maharsha) is surprising to those of us accustomed to the modern Siddur: “Pesdukei de-Zimra: two psalms of praise: ‘Praise the Lord from the heavens’ [Psalm 148] and ‘Praise God in his holy place’ [Psalm 150].”

This rather narrow identification of Pesukei de-Zimra with Psalms 148 and 150 is puzzling. Why these two in particular? I would suggest two possible explanations. The first is based on a simple linguistic pattern: the invocation of praise by means of the repeated use of the infinitive of the verb hl”l is seen as the quintessence of praise. A second explanation is that these two psalms, precisely because of their very simple, repetitive structure, invoke a sense of God’s comprehensive, all-embracing nature—and hence of the concomitant praise that is His due. Psalm 148 calls upon all parts of the cosmos to praise God: beginning with the celestial bodies and luminaries, and moving to the earth, from the titanic, inanimate forces of nature, through the vegetable and animal kingdoms, to mankind—beginning with the high and mighty and going down to the ordinary folk: old and young, maid and youth, etc. Psalm 150 presents a similar theme, taking us on a round, so to speak, of all the instruments of the Levitic orchestra of First Temple days, which together make a joyful sound of song to the Lord, concluding with the most sublime instrument of all, the human voice; “all that has breath praise the Lord, Halleluyah.” One can easily understand why these two psalms, taken together, could well be described as the “Hallel of every day.”

But before examining this text further, we must examine a second pertinent text, that relating to what we know as Ashrei:

“Rabbi Eleazar said in the name of Rabbi Avina: Whoever recites ‘A Psalm of David’ [i.e., Psalm 145] three times every day is promised a portion in the World to Come.”

Why is this particular psalm chosen for this distinction? Two answers are offered: One, that it contains all the letters of the alphabet (i.e., it is an alphabet acrostic); two, that it refers to the quality of God providing sustenance, basic life needs, to all His creatures. The obvious objection is raised that there are other psalms that meet these requirements: Psalm 119 contains the entire alphabet, eight-fold; Psalm 136 also contains a verse in which we read that God “gives food to all flesh.” To this, the answer is that Psalm 145 contains both. What kind of an answer is this? Perhaps the combination of these two features suggest the idea of comprehensiveness. The alphabetical arrangement may be significant because of the mystical idea that God created the universe through the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Hence, an alphabetical hymn carries special importance (for which reason the question of the missing letter Nun, with which the sugya continues, is a significant one). Second, God’s providing food to every living creature indicates the all-embracing nature of God’s providence, to all levels of life, “from eagles’ nest to gnat’s eggs.”

In any event, as everyone knows, this psalm occupies a major place in our order of prayers, and indeed, under the name Ashrei, and with the addition of three other verses, Ps 84:5, 144:15 and 115:18, is indeed recited thrice daily—in Pesukei de-Zimra; it the concluding, “winding down” section of Weekday Shaharit, coupled with U’va le-Tziyon; and as the opening prayer of Minha (Afternoon Service).

Thus, taking Ashrei together with the two Halleluyot mentioned by Rashi gives us a “core text” consisting of Psalms 145, 148 and 150, together with the opening and closing blessings. (The latter, incidentally, are among the few blessings of Geonic rather than Talmudic provenance, and have notwithstanding become thoroughly accepted throughout Jewry.). Indeed, this bloc constitutes the minimum that must be recited by one who arrives late at synagogue (SH. Ar., O.H. §52; but see the detailed discussion there for the halakhic niceties applicable under various circumstances). By contrast, Maimonides, following Rif, describes the core obligation of Pesukei de-Zimra—the “everyday Hallel” mentioned earlier, if you will—as consisting of all six of the “Halleluyah” hymns at the end of the Psalter:

The Sages praised one those who read hymns from the Book of Psalms every day, from “a Psalm of David” [Ps 145] until the end of the book [i.e., Ps 150]. And it has already become customary to read other verses before and after them, and they instituted a blessing benediction before the hymns, namely, “Barukh Sheamar,” and one afterwards, namely, ”Yishtabah.” And thereafter he reads Shema’ with its blessings. (Laws of Prayer 7.12)

It is not clear whether this represents an alternative tradition to that of Rashi and Ran, or an expansion of the above-mentioned “core text,” adding the other psalms that appear next to it in the book of Psalms, thereby creating an unbroken sequence of six psalms. In any event, Rif/Rambam’s position can also be supported as a plausible interpretation of the phrase “to complete the Hallel” every day, in that it presents a complete sequence of Psalms, each one of which (with the notable exception of Ashrei) begin and end with “Halleluyah.”

The other psalms thematically complement the first three: Psalm 146 expresses the application of God’s ethical qualities in real life, from human existential viewpoint, applying the abstract phrases of Psalm 145 in more concrete terms; Psalm 147 explores the application of the Divine qualities to history, to human life, on several different planes—from healing the pain of the broken-hearted individual, to acting in the history of Israel, to His hand in nature; Psalm 149 may be read as a bridge between 148 and 150, developing the theme of “singing out to God” in a very specific Israelite way.

We may now return to our original question: in what sense is Pesukei de-Zimra a special category, which constitutes “Hallel” but at the same time is not an act of mockery or even blasphemy? The miracles and wonders for which the classical Hallel, Hallel ha-Mitzri, was introduced were exceptional events, irruptions into history of the Infinite, of the God who ordinarily allows the world to run its course according to the laws which He Himself has set up at its beginning. We believe that God does intervene and make His presence known in history—but not every Monday and Thursday. If one were to recite this Hallel every day, the miraculous, the extraordinary would be reduced to banality. Pesukei de-Zimra, on the other hand, is the celebration, not of the God of history, but of God the Creator, the God of everyday, whose presence is felt in everyday life, but through different aspects than those celebrated by the Hallel (see on this also what I wrote in Hitzei Yehonatan I; Shevi’i shel Pesah). And it is this aspect, rather than that of the spectacular, supernatural miracles, that we must reflect upon so as to prepare our minds properly for prayer. (After preparing this essay, I found a similar idea expressed by the Hiddushei Maharsh”a on this passage in Shabbat).

Finally, to return to the Rav’s thesis, in which Pesukei de-Zimra is seen as a kind of Talmud Torah: to my mind, such a position is possible, but only if Torah study is substantially redefined. It must be understood here, not as “learning” in the usual sense—absorbing a text, repeating it so as to remember it in the future, and engaging in its intellectual analysis of its concepts—but as meditation: reflection and contemplation of various aspects of God’s qualities, so as to internalize them and apprehend them in an existential way, thereby preparing ones mind and soul for the encounter with the divine that is tefillah, prayer.

* * * * *

I find this issue, and especially the above passages relating to kavvanah and the need for deep preparation for prayer, of particular significance to our present religious and spiritual situation. To put things bluntly, contemporary Orthodoxy has largely forgotten how to daven in any true sense. There is great emphasis on piety in the sense of Talmud Torah—whether intellectual acumen or simply “hitting the books”—and/or meticulousness in observance—the widely-observed contemporary tendency toward “humrot.” Somewhere along the way, the idea of prayer as a profound inner act, as demanding intense spiritual investment and concentration, has been forgotten—or is seen as something “optional,” for rare individuals gifted with natural piety, or for eccentrics and religious neophytes. The ineluctable halakhic fact that kavvanah is a mandatory halakhic requirement of prayer (Rambam, Tefillah 4.1, 15; Sh. Ar., O.H. §98, 101.i, but see also Ram”a’s psychologically astute demurrer there ) has been largely forgotten, or ignored. Years ago, the Rav summed up this unfortunate situation (both publicly and in private conversation) in describing his own protegees with the words: “They serve Him with their minds and hands, but not with their hearts.”

Prayer requires a very special frame of mind, one that defies easy description in words—not intellective, but meditative, spiritual, perhaps intuitive-receptive. The transition to this mindset, and the need for some sort of spiritual preparation, is doubly important in our day, because modern culture and life molds people into a mindset that is conceptual, information- and task-oriented, emphasizing control, results, mastery, and cognitive, verbalizable understanding.

As I hope to elaborate in another essay in the very near future, much of modern culture moves along the axis of intellectual and existential experience. Prayer requires a breakthrough to a different, “higher,” meditative-universal mind set. This is, perhaps, one of the insights that we may glean from the New Age spirituality, with all its shortcomings. Who knows? Perhaps the renewal and rejuvenation of Jewish spiritual life will come, not from the “heartland” of the religious community, whether the various Haredi camps, the yeshivot, or the Religious Zionist mainstream, but from these seemingly “quirky,“ marginal communities. (Indeed, what is the posthumous interest in Shlomo Carlebach as rebbe if not an expression of a thirst for something authentically spiritual, stemming from a sense of failure and disappointment in the standard path?)

That the type of kavvanah required by prayer is something outside of normal, cognitive thinking processes is made clear by innumerable sources. Even the celebrated “amor deus intellectualis” of Maimonides ultimately leads to intensely felt emotional experience, as may be seen from the tenth chapter of his Hilkhot Teshuvah, where one finds a passionate description of the love that man ought to feel for God; this side of Rambam is likewise reflected in the interesting biographical fact that his son, R. Abraham Maimonides, adopted a highly mystical path, almost a Jewish counterpart to Sufism, as seen in his Kifayat al-‘Abidin (Guide to the Servants of God).

Similarly, Habad, which stresses a strongly intellectual, mind-centered type of Divine service, and which requires the serious Hasid to master an elaborate intellectual-theosophic structure (interestingly, such an adept is called a maskil, “one with great knowledge”), sees the intellect, not as an end in itself, but as a trigger for arousing the emotions, as may be seen from numerous passages in the Tanya.


Many aspects of Pesukei de-Zimra remain to be explored. What is the source and significance of the numerous additions to the core framework discussed above? These include, particularly: passages from Chronicles and Nehemiah, emphasizing the aspect of God’s involvement specifically in Israel’s history—a kind of historical frame surrounding the more creational and personal/ethical psalms; the Song of the Sea, often considered The archetypal Song of Praise; the abundant additions made on Shabbat, incorporating Psalms 19, 34, 90, 91, 135, 136, 33, 92, 93 and, in the Hasidic and Sephardic rites, also 122, 123, 124, 97 and the mystical hymn Ha-Aderet veha-Emunah; etc. What is the reason for the difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic practice in terms of the arrangement of the psalms, and particularly for those included in the “sandwich” between the two blessings? What is the reason for reading Psalm 30 (Mizmor Shir Hanukat Ha-Bayit), a rather melancholy psalm of supplication (although one that moves from despair to hope, and from self-reliance to thrusting ones burden upon God), just before the beginning of Pesukei de-Zimra?Finally, why is Pesukei de-Zimra recited only in the morning, making Shaharit into what is called by some tefillah arikhta, ”the long prayer service,” and not the other two daily prayers? These questions are, to be sure, abundantly addressed by many Siddur commentaries, but an organized, systematic analysis would be of value and interest.

Kabbalat Shabbat and Pesukei de-Zimra

I would like to conclude with a rather speculative insight. I note a certain parallel between Kabbalat Shabbat and Pesukei de-Zimra. Both are essentially “optional,” non-halakhically structured prayer services, which strictly speaking do not require a minyan. Hence, in many communities in Israel, young children prior to Bar Mitzvah are chosen to lead these services. In at least one congregation (that of the “Yerushalmi Briskers,” the descendants and protegees of the late Reb Velvel of Brisk), Kabbalat Shabbat is not recited at all, and in the Hevron Yeshivah the announced starting time for Shaharit is that for Barkhu. Furthermore (coincidentally?), both services are structured around a sequence of six psalms (as is the Hallel!).

I see the central theme underlying all of these similarities as the idea of preparation. The one involves preparation for the major tefillah of the day, “tefillah arikhta,” with which the Jew begins his day; the other is, of course, the final preparation or act of receiving the Shabbat. The Rav once expressed the insight that many of the laws of Tefillah and Shabbat are similar. One prepares for prayer in various ways, bodily and spiritual; similarly, one performs various acts in preparation for Shabbat, that are seen as expressions of kavod, honor—buying and preparing special foods; donning clean, nice clothing; setting the table and covering it with a cloth; lighting candles; etc. The underlying idea, in both cases, is that one is receiving the Shekhinah; that both prayer and Shabbat represent moments in time in which one encounters Divine presence in the world, in which one experiences holiness in an augmented sense. Hence, both require similar kinds of preparation, in both the physical and, it would seem, in the liturgical sense as well. These practices developed by the Jewish people, which perhaps enjoy the status of minhag more than they do that of formal halakhah, remind one of the saying, “If Israel are not prophets, they are surely sons of prophets.”


Verses of Song Revisited: More Thoughts on Pesukei de-Zimra

To continue the above discussion: The more I think about it, the clearer it seems to me that the Rav’s approach presents but one side of the coin. There is a tension within Judaism between the spiritually abstemious tendency—the sense of being so overwhelmed by God’s grandeur and holiness that even uttering His praise is seen as an act of hutzpah, of arrogance and hubris—and the simple, heartfelt, almost childlike impulse to praise God. “All my bones say, ‘O Lord, who is like unto You!” (Ps 35:10, quoted inter alia in Nishmat). After all, it is a basic human response, in looking upon the wonderful world created by God, to be filled with radical amazement at the beauty, order, and grandeur reflected therein—and to burst into prayer. With all due respect, there is something unfeeling, almost inhuman, in the cold, formalist, “Litvish” response that says: If it’s not in the halakha, I cannot praise God spontaneously. What of the legions of poets and minstrels and plain folk (both Jewish and non-Jewish) who composed hymns and psalms and stories and ballads and melodies without words to express their burning love of God? What would be left of our Mahzor if everyone were to follow literally the counsel of Rav Hanina with his acerbic, “Nu, have you finished reciting the praises of your Master?” (b. Berakhot 33b).

There are many in the Torah world who dismiss Pesukei de-Zimra as being somehow secondary, peripheral, to “real” prayer. I recall a conversation during my student days with a friend—an ex-yeshiva bokhur, a fine talmid hakham who later became an outstanding academic Judaica scholar—who told me that he generally skipped Pesukei de-Zimra because, from a strictly halakhic purview, it was dispensable; unlike Keri’at Shema or Tefillah, it was nether a mitzvah deoraita nor derabanan, but merely based upon a bit of good advice mentioned in passing in one Talmudic dictum.

It is interesting to contrast this approach with that of Hasidut, which speaks of Pesukei de-Zimra as an integral part of avodah shebelev she-hi tefillah—“the service of the heart, which is prayer”—in its own right. In some sources, it is described as part of the progression through the four worlds (see our recent discussion of this in HV IV: Tetzaveh-Ki Tisa), which begins in the World of Action with the morning blessings and the passages describing the Temple sacrifices, and culminates with devekut, the cleaving to God in the spiritual worlds, in the Amidah. En route, Pesukei de-Zimra, with its arousal of the emotional faculties, has an honorable place. Or compare Yesod ve-Shoresh ha-Avodah, which devotes an entire section, Sha’ar ha-Shir, “the Gate of Song,” to this section of the prayer.

To return to the halakhic analysis: It is interesting that the Tur Shulhan Arukh, in Orah Hayyim §51, derives the reading of Pesukei de-Zimra, neither from the ”Hallel of every day” (Shabbat 118b) nor from the hour of preparation for prayer discussed earlier (Berakhot 32b), but from a saying in Avodah Zarah 7b: “A person should always order the praises of God and then pray.” This seems to suggest that Pesukei de-Zimra is an entity unto itself, a significant religious obligation in its own right, albeit one placed in a particular location in the order of the liturgy for a certain reason.

An interesting halakhic controversy appears in Tur Orah Hayyim §52: What should one do about Pesukei de-Zimra if one arrives late at synagogue? Rav Natronai Gaon says that one should join the congregation in Shema and Amidah and not say it at all. Rabbenu Asher b. Yehiel says that one may say it later, but without the opening and closing blessings. Rabbenu Yonah allows one to say the entire Pesukei de-Zimra, even with blessings, after the completion of the regular prayer service. (Interestingly, devotees of the Lurianic school of Kabbalah say that one should recite it in full, in its proper order, even if one thereby misses praying with the community entirely!) The underlying question here clearly is that of the relationship of Pesukei de-Zimra to prayer: is it purely subsidiary to prayer, or an independent entity (or, since we are unsure, do we take an intermediate position, like that of Rabbenu Asher)?

The idea that “A person should always order the praise of God and then pray” is explained by the Bah and Beit Yosef, not in terms of it being psychological preparation for prayer, but as a kind of ethical rule: that there is something almost sacrilegious, self-centered, contemptuous towards God in putting one’s own needs first, and only thereafter reciting His praise. It is more polite and respectful to begin with His praises. But: his praises as an act if significance in itself.

What is meant by “ordering the praises of God”? The phrase seems to imply more than just a random stringing together of inspiring psalms. This is suggestive, even, of “the mystical conception that the hylic material of creation, the letters and words, are subject to various ‘combinations’ and alignments (that is, the universe is created out of divine letters, words, and text)…” (Mark Kirschbaum, in his Torah commentary at the Tikkun website, Parshat Mishpatim). Are we to understand that there is a proper natural, or even metaphysical, “order” or “sequence” to the proper praise of God?

At least one concrete remark on the “order” of Pesukei de-Zimra: there seems to be a definite coherence to the order of the six psalms that form the halakhic core of Pesukei de-Zimra, Pss 145-150. The first three are descriptive of God’s actions and involvement in the universe. Thus, “Ashrei” (Ps 145), which is recited twice more every day, is itself an alphabetical setting forth of God’s attributes; Ps 146 draws a contrast between human transience and mortality with God’s righteous acts; while Ps 147 is a more unsystematic, associative description of various aspects of God’s acts in the world.

The second group of three, Pss 148-150, describes the human response—the act or process of praise itself. (Interestingly, Rashi on Shabbat 118b, and other rishonim, see Pss 148 and 150 as the essence of Pesukei de-Zimra). Psalm 148 is a kind of a catalog describing how the entire cosmos, both heaven and earth, extol God. In Ps 149 Israel praises God, in an almost military setting (this psalm, especially v. 6—“the extolling of God are in their throats, and a two edged sword in their hands”—always reminds me of the song ”Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition”—a bit reminiscent of Bush’s Southern USA piety). Psalm 150, which concludes the entire Book of Psalms, is a call to praise God with a variety of musical instruments, culminating with “Let all that has breath praise the Lord, Halleluyah!”

It is interesting that the Hallel said on festive days emphasizes the particular experience of Israel. Some of the psalms composing it speak of Israel’s redemption (Ps 114, etc.), while in others we can almost see the throngs of pilgrims worshipping in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Pss 116, 118). Pesukei de-Zimra, by contrast, speaks of praises of God in the everyday—i.e., God’s presence in the universal.

We can now return to the saying of R. Yossi in Shabbat 118b: “Would that I were among those that complete the Hallel every day” means: Would that I had the religious fervor, the sensitivity, to praise God every day, to see Him in the “day of small things” (yom ketanot) and not only in the great dramatic events of history.

Three Meditations on Pesukei de-Zimra

1) Pesukei de-Zimra opens with the blessing Barukh She-amar. This blessing is sui generis in Jewish liturgy in that, before the standard opening formula of Barukh atah Adonai, it contains a series of a dozen or so short phrases beginning with the word Barukh: “Blessed be…” These enumerate ion the things for which we praise God. The opening phrase, “Blessed be He who spoke, and the world was,” seems a key to all religious feeling, and for that matter all philosophy. God spoke—and the world was. Why is there Being at all? The very fact that anything IS, is in itself a source of inconceivable wonder. Why should there be a world at all? Why is there not simply eternal nothingness, darkness, an absence of all chemical, biological, or physical activity?

Physicist Gerald Schroeder, in his book The Science of God, notes that the very fact that there are atoms at all, that during the “Big Bang” (assuming there is any reason why such an event ought to have happened at all), positive and negative charges did not totally neutralize one another; that during the first millionth-of-a-second, at super-white heat, fusion took place creating the carbon atoms that would later be necessary as building blocks of all organic life—all this is a great wonder.

2) The liturgy requires us to recite Ashrei (Psalm 145) three times daily. The tendency to recite this psalm on automatic pilot, rushing through its words, is very common, nay, all but ubiquitous in most synagogues I know. And yet, our Sages stress its great importance, saying that whoever says it three times daily performs a meritorious act, and is assured a share in the World to Come.

I have found it useful to sit down for Ashrei and to pause briefly, perhaps taking a breath, between each individual verse. Ashrei was placed before Minhah as a kind of meditation; as a fulfillment, however small, of the idea of a moment of “sitting” or just “staying” in silence prescribed by Hazal before prayer. The awareness of the words, through simply slowing down, may have a profound affect upon one’s davening as a whole.

3) The final section of Pesukei de-Zimra is interesting. First, at the end of the core of this section, i.e., the six final psalms of the Psalter (145-150), each of which begin and end with Halleluyah, one repeats the final verse: “Let all that has breath praise the Lord; Halleluyah!” One can imagine here the entire cosmos praising God: a kind of Nishmat or Perek Shirah writ small (the latter is an ancient work recording the songs recited by each creature in praise of God).

This is followed by a conflation of the concluding verses of each of the first four “books” of Psalms (i.e., Pss 41, 72, 89, and 106; the division of the psalms into five books, like those of the Torah, is very ancient). This is in turn followed by a verse from 1 Chronicles 29:11, seen by Kabbalah as the source for the seven lowest sefirot, the “tools” used by God for channeling His infinite abundance within a finite universe (“Lekha Hashem ha-gedulah….”; “To You, O God, pertain greatness, and might,” etc.).

This is in turn followed by an interesting verse from Nehemiah 9:6, too often overlooked: “You alone, O Lord, are God: you made the heavens and the heavens above the heavens and all their hosts; the earth and all that is upon it; the sea and all that lives therein…” We have here a picture of the three divisions of the universe: the earth’s surface, and that which is above and below: the worlds of mammals, birds, and fish; those realms depicted in the first to third, and fourth to sixth, days of creation. But then, “and You provide life to them all.”

If the mystery of Being implied in Barukh She-amar is a quasi-philosophical issue, too abstract to feel in a concrete way, that of Life, pulsing at very instant within ourselves and within all that surrounds us—people, animals, trees, bushes, insects—is a profoundly existential one. God is the force giving life to all. This verse easily elicits thoughts of the Divine life pulsing within us in every heartbeat, in every breath we take. Without His vivifying touch, there would be naught but death and desolation and eternal stillness and silence.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bo (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog, at February 2006, near the end.

“This month shall be… and you shall make a Passover unto the Lord”

The opening Rashi of the Torah states that, if the Torah were strictly a law book, it would have begun with Exodus 12—this week’s reading. And indeed, according to Sefer ha-Hinukh—a classical compendium of mitzvot arranged by weekly Torah lessons—Parashat Bo is rich in mitzvot, containing nine positive and eleven negative mitzvot. Thus, while we have thus far engaged mostly in creative exegesis, trying to extract the imperatives and norms implied in the first fourteen parshiyot (which, according to most listings of the mitzvot, only contain three mitzvot all told), from here on in we shall deal mostly with things that are explicitly commanded.

The vast majority of these mitzvot are in one way or another concerned with the festival of Passover—the slaughtering and eating of the Korban Pesah, the paschal offering, in fellowship on the 14th of Nissan; various related laws; the eating of matzot and refraining from hametz throughout the seven days; the relating of the story of the Exodus to one’s children; etc. Moreover, one of the few non-Pesah-related mitzvot here, the very first one in the parasha (Exod 12:2), is the obligation imperative upon the central Court of the nation to sanctify the new moon—that is, to set up and maintain a functioning calendar, which is, after all, a logical condition for any observances that need to performed on a certain date.

One might have expected the first mitzvot in the legal portion of the Torah to be concerned with basic moral and ethical norms—personal integrity and respect for the life, person and property of the other—like the universal Noachide commandments, or the Ten Commandments which form the core of the Sinai epiphany a few chapters later. Instead, one has a commandment concerning a time–rooted commemorative occasion, an annual ritual celebrating the foundational experience and identity of the group. Interesting, this is one of only two positive commandments whose neglect bears the punishment of karet, of being “cut off” from the sacred community. (The other, brit milah, is a sign born by each male individual on his flesh; the Pesah, by contrast, relates to a central collective ceremony.)

What is expressed by this ritual? The basic idea seems to be the centrality of the group, as a focus of identification and belonging for each individual; the covenant with God; God’s redemptive acts in history; the nation’s origins in slavery and oppression—i.e., that one’s freedom (and at times prosperity) are not to be taken for granted; and compassion for the stranger and the underdog. (This, in contrast to the sense of perpetual suspicion, hatred and hostility for the other which could be the result of such an experience—which is unfortunately a component of the mentality of many Jews—and which is such an explosive and dangerous element in Shi’ite Islam.) Interestingly, even today, without the Pesah sacrifice, the Passover Seder is an important occasion for virtually all Jews with any sense of connection to the Jewish people.

Much of the revival of interest in spirituality in Western society today tends to stress the individual. Historically, too, the saint, the recluse, the itinerant monk, the mystic, the sage or man of knowledge, were figures of great importance in Christianity and in the religions of the Far East. All these are important, and certainly exist in one form or another in Judaism as well (see, e.g., Scholem’s essay, “Three Types of Jewish Piety”). But on a certain basic level, the holy community is central, serving as a focal point for the possibility of holiness being embodied in earth.

There are certainly problems relating to the collectivity as well. During the course of the twentieth century, marked by fascism and totalitarianism, demagoguery and mass movements of various types, many people learned to be wary of those who spoke in terms of the “nation,” the “folk,” or the “class.” In Israel, many people became weary of talk of “Zionism” and constant sacrifice for “Am Yisrael”; sometime in the ‘60s or ‘70s there was a turn in Israeli culture, e.g., in fiction and in the lyrics of popular music, towards interest in the individual. Aviva Zornberg writes, in the opening chapter of her book on Genesis, of the tension between the vertical and the horizontal—the individual standing upright, with his powerful inner consciousness and knowledge, vs. the swarming mass, essentially biological life—as a central theme in human life. But in Judaism, there is also the notion of sanctifying collective life, as a motif of the Sinai covenant—but really beginning with the Pesah ritual as a kind of founding rite.


II. “He is One, and there is no unity like His oneness; He is hidden, and his oneness is infinite”

The second principle is to know and acknowledge God’s unity. For Rambam, God’s unity carries a whole slew of philosophical implications: his was a very strictly defined, philosophical definition of unity, requiring negation of any and all internal divisions within God, any positive qualities or attributes, emotions, actions, etc.—as we shall discuss later on, in connection with the third and fourth principles.

But there is also a strong connection between God’s unity and the rejection of paganism. His unity (even if not understood in the strict philosophic way that Rambam does) first and foremost negates any duality or plurality within God, and certainly the multitude of gods found within pagan pantheons. Indeed, this is a central principle in Rambam’s halakhic writings: in Sefer ha-Mitzvot, the very first negative commandment is the refutation of idolatry, the prohibition against accepting any deity or power other than He as a divinity. (In Hazal’s succinct quip: Mordecai, in the Scroll of Esther, was called ha-Yehudi, the Jew, because he refused to bow to Haman, and “Whoever rejects idolatry is a called a Jew.”) In Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim as well, following a lengthy historiographic introduction in which he explains the origins of idolatry, Rambam begins the halakhot per se, not with the proscription against concrete acts of worship, which he treats in detail from Chapter 3 onwards, but with the need to avoid intellectual study or speculation that might lead to thoughts of idolatry or, indeed, “to uproot [from our hearts] any of the principles of the Torah”—the central theme of Chapter 2.

It is interesting to contrast this with the discussion in the Mishnah, where the emphasis is more on concrete, practical acts of idolatry: one who bows to idols, offers them sacrifices, libation, incense, and so forth, is culpable, and only thereafter “one who accepts it as a divinity and says ‘you are my god’” (m. Sanhedrin 7.6). This difference may be taken as paradigmatic of Rabbinic vs. Maimonidean thought. The former is concrete, concerned with actions in the world; while the latter, though steeped in halakhah, is in such cardinal areas as this more concerned with the roots in thought and the inner belief system of the person.

A Meditation on Shema

At this point I wish to turn to reflections on these two principles in relation to the Shema from another, somewhat mystical perspective. Whereas Rambam’s interpretation turns unity into a strict philosophical concept (see what I wrote on this in HY VI: Vaethanan=Vaethanan [Psalms]), the mystics sees God as omnipresent in the universe. In much of Kabbalah, there is a constant interplay between what is referred to as makif / sovev kol almin, of God as “surrounding” or “enveloping” the physical universe; and God as memalei kol almin, “filling the entire universe,” tangibly immanent in the world. The meaning of God’s unity then becomes: the unity of His transcendence and His immanence.

The two concepts are very different: the one paints God as Master, as Ruler, as He who is to be obeyed; the other, God as All: an almost pantheistic, some might even say sensual feeling of God’s closeness, of the life pulsating within one’s body with every breath, with every heart beat, as part of the Divine life (as in the concluding verse of Psalms, “all that has breath praises Yah, Halleluyah”).

For some, these two aspects are identified with the Divine names Elohim and HVYH. One could say that the two word-groups (following the introductory phrase, Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel,” which is a call to pay attention) refer to these two aspects: HVYH Elohenu means—God is our Lord, our Master, He before whom, before whose majesty, transcendence, awe-inspiring power, or simply before whose Otherness—we tremble and are overwhelmed. HVYH Ehad: but that same God is really one, meaning: omnipresent, the immanent power hidden beneath the surface, which makes the seemingly diverse and confusing and often conflict-ridden world into a unity.

A friend of mine, Stan Tenen, who has developed some interesting ideas about the Hebrew letters as universal ideograms, elaborated an insight from the Tanya on this same idea concerning the verse “For the Lord God (HVYH Elohim) is a sun and shield” (Ps 84:12). He defines these two aspects of Divinity as “the utter unity and complete Oneness of transcendence” (HVYH or Hashem), and “the all-inclusiveness of His immanence” (Elohim). The one is the name of God as perfection in Itself, like the light of the sun, which is sufficient onto itself; the other, He who interacts with the world, like a shield. “These are the boundary conditions of the cosmos and of our minds. By logical definition, everything must exist somewhere between absolute Singularity and all-inclusive Wholeness.”

This may also shed light on Rashi’s comment on the Shema. He sees the phrase HaShem Elohenu as expressing the reality, an acceptance of God’s kingship that is feasible, even accessible to all, in our age—in the world as we know it, ha-idna. But HaShem Ehad—the unitive, all-encompassing vision of immanent godliness—is eschatological. Hence, the rather puzzling reference in his comment to the nations of the world coming to know God: “on that day God shall be one and His name one” (Zech 9:9). But it may also be read in terms of a more subtle, “panentheistic” mystical consciousness, that sees far beyond sensory reality. Understanding (also like Rambam) that the image of God as personal is itself a metaphor; God as the Ground of Being, as He who unifies all Being within Him/Her/Itself. Going beyond the monarch-subject model, God as “the Boss,” but… that which is beyond words, “that which thought cannot comprehend at all.”

Thus, these two phrases reflect not only different concepts or aspects of God, but radically different kinds of consciousness. One leads to the other, but there is more than a little tension between them. There are some hints of this in Hasidic writings: that the future religious consciousness will be one of God being everywhere (see, e.g., Zaddok Hakohen’s Ressisei Lailah §56 on Hanukah)—but this will only be in the End of Days. There are likewise hints of this in Rambam’s vision of the messianic age when all people will know God (see Hilkhot Teshuvah 8-9, and Melakhim 12).

It was this sense of God’s omnipresence that led to a certain tradition of “religious anarchism” and the celebration of “the holy fool” in some streams of Hasidism: a kind of carrying of this insight to its radical conclusions, even acting in buffoon-like ways. It exists in other traditions as well: the Indian mystic Ramakrishna created a scandal when he gave some sanctified food offerings to a cat that had been lurking around the temple, “for he too is Krishna.” Of course, this approach can also lead to a dangerous antinomianism or a total obscuring of boundaries, e.g. transforming orgiastic sex into an act of mystical worship. In short, relying upon the immanent logic of mystical unity alone may lead to bizarre conclusions—another reason why in Judaism it is largely identified with the End of Days. On the other extreme, esoteric knowledge, such as Kabbalah in Judaism, can itself become a rigid, “orthodox” system: a canonized set of doctrines that clouds the consciousness rather than opening the mind, in which devotees become preoccupied with the myriad details of its symbolism rather than with the vision of the immanent God.

3. “He has not the semblance of a body, nor has He a body; His holiness is beyond comparison”

The Third Principle, which to us today may seem almost trivial or self-evident (who, after all, thinks that God has a physical body?), is in fact a central pillar of Rambam’s theology, spelling out the implications of God’s unity as he understood it. For Rambam, unity is a far-reaching philosophic concept, implying not only God’s incorporeality, but the entire “negative theology”—the idea that one cannot attribute to God anything that would imply any internal division or multiplicity within Him. Hence, not only is He without body or bodily organs, but one cannot ascribe to Him any positive qualities, emotions, or actions. The rubric of God’s incorporeality thus subsumes, by extension, all the “philosophical” offshoots of unity (in the Introduction to Perek Helek, Rambam explicitly states that this principle includes these aspects as well). Historically, this is perhaps the most problematic area of all, in which Rambam deviates most from traditional Jewish theology, whether biblical, Rabbinic, or Kabbalistic thought, from which it differs most radically. If one may put it thus, this the most typically “Maimonidean” of all the Principles.

What has all this to do with the God of the Bible? What Heschel calls the God of pathos, the God who is filled with empathy for and involvement with mankind? The God who answers prayer? The God of history, of whom the psalmist says “I speak of the wonders of God”? How can one pray to an unmoved mover? (for a good articulation of this difficulty, see James Kugel’s book, The God of Old). To the God of the Midrash, who is depicted in heated arguments and debate with the patriarchs, with Moses, or with later figures; who is shown “rising from His Throne of Judgment to his Throne of Mercy”? It is this problem, more than any other, that exercises Rambam, and was one of the main reasons he wrote the Guide. And the only path he found available to himself to reconcile the contradiction between his philosophical conception of God and what was depicted in the tradition was that of reinterpretation—of explaining away all those chapters or blocs of biblical passages terms that speak of a living, acting, feeling, loving, and beloved God, by saying that all this is metaphor, a translation into human language of the Ineffable; figures of speech to convey how we perceive God acting within our limited ken. It’s worth noting that even God’s incorporeality was not taken for granted in ancient times. A book called Shiur Komah, widely known in Rambam’s time and for some centuries prior, gives a graphic description of the Divine body, including colossal dimensions and unintelligible mystical names for each of the various organs. A classical midrash describes how God appeared to the infants whom the Israelite parents had been forced to abandon in Egypt in the form of a handsome young man, who cared for them, fed them, etc. Thus, when they left Egypt, they recognized Him at the Sea, and exclaimed quite literally, “This is my God!”

But the sharpest problem raised by this principle pertains to Kabbalah. What does one do with the Sefirot? There are those Maimunideans who insist that the notion of the ten Sefirot is an impermissible violation of God’s unity, even worse than the Christian belief in the Trinity (“The Christians say God is three-in-one, but the Kabbalists say God is ten-in-one.” Gevalt!). On the other extreme (and I frankly don’t understand or know too much about this view) there are those who try to “square the circle” and somehow try to reconcile Maimonides and Kabbalah, giving him a quasi-Kabbalistic intellectual pedigree. Abraham Abulafia was a Maimonidean—but, though a mystic, and even a visionary, I don’t know if he in any way in fact subscribed to the theory of sefirot, or even knew it.

One rebuttal of the criticisms of those who view Kabbalah as heretical is to view the Sefirot, not as “parts” of God, but as instruments, or even metaphors for God’s own activity bridging between His infinite perfection and His involvement in the world. Literary critic Harold Bloom wrote the following intriguing things:

The Sefirot are primarily language, attributes of God that need to be described by the various names of God when He is at work in Creation. The sefirot are complex figurations for God, tropes or turns of language that substitute for God. Indeed, one can say that the Sefirot are like poems, in that they are names implying complex commentaries that make them into texts. They are not allegorical personifications, which is what all popular manuals of Kabbalah reduce them to, and though they have extraordinary potency, this is a power of signification rather than what we customarily think of as magic.... (Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism [New York: Seabury Press, 1975], 25-26)

Bloom also explains the Kabbalah as an approach that somehow unites the wildly divergent world-views Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism—i.e., the pristine unity of Neo-Platonic god, with the dualities, tensions and antinomies of Gnosticism—into one coherent system.

I will conclude by reiterating that my own approach is that it is virtually impossible to say anything meaningful, in terms of what human beings know, about God Himself. Hence, we must use human language as approximation, as pointers. Perhaps whether one prefers the austere, minimalist philosophical language of Maimonides, or the rich, colorful imagery of Midrash and Kabbalah, is ultimately as much a matter of personal taste as it is of hard-and-fast theological principle. For myself, I prefer the midrashic or biblical language of God interacted with man; that of the Hasidic masters, like R. Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, who addressed God almost as a friend or neighbor. What is He in reality? Words cannot describe. Or perhaps certain piyyutim, such as the Shirei ha-Yihud, that celebrate His ineffability, may show us the way to authentic Jewish spirituality?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Shemot (Mitzvot)

NB: Due to an error in posting, Vaera follows below, rather than preceding Shemot as the more recent. May apologies. For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to my blog, at January 2006.

“You Shall Love the Stranger, for You Were Strangers / Slaves in the Land of Egypt”

This parasha, which launches a new book of the Torah, turns from the family sage of the Avot (Patriarchs) to the birth of the nation of Israel in the crucible of Egyptian bondage. This week’s reading, specifically, paints in brief but arresting strokes the story of the enslavement in Egypt, and of cruelty, oppression and inhumanity which accompanied it. This began with the plan to murder all male children by drowning; continues with the imposition of heavy and arbitrary work quotas, beneath which the Israelites groan (they are too much weakened and demoralized to do more than that) and cry out; the creation of a system of Hebrew work-masters, so as to turn the different elements of the people against one another—a tactic well known from the system of Judenraat and Jewish kapos in Nazi Europe (and in many other times and places throughout the history of man’s inhumanity to his fellowman); and the refusal to allow the enslaved people any cultural or religious distinctiveness—i.e., Pharaoh’s denial of all requests to “go celebrate to the Lord.”

While this week’s reading contains no mitzvot as such, it is clear that the bondage in Egypt, and the identification with the suffering of our ancestors, reinforced through its retelling over the generations, is the source of a basic ethical principle of Judaism: sympathy, compassion and identification with the weak and oppressed. Many mitzvot cite as their rationale, “and you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt”… “therefore you shall love the stranger” …. “For you knew the soul of the stranger” … “for you were slaves in Egypt.” These range from: the Shabbat, granting to all the much-needed hiatus from labor that the slave is denied; sabbatical and jubilee years, in which the individual who has lost all that he owns, or even fallen into debt and become an endentured slave, are restored to their previous situation; just weights and measures; leaving portions of the crops for the poor, the stranger and the orphan (Deut 24:14-22); equitable treatment of servants during their (limited) period of bondage; and, of course, the various commandments to love the stranger and not to oppress him “for you know the soul of the stranger” (Exod 23:9).

Emmanuel Levinas, in his attempt to derive the inherent philosophical underpinnings of Talmudic discussions, gives a central place to the concept of the Other—seeing the ability to transcend the self or those in ones immediate circle with whom one identifies as a kind of extension of the self, to embrace the one who is different and to cultivate sensitivity to him, as perhaps the most basic ethical command. (There are those who will see this as one of the roots of the famed liberal tendencies of many Jews, particularly in the Western Diaspora, to support universal causes, to champion the underdog, and, as one wit put it, “to be as wealthy as Episcopalians but to vote like Puerto-Ricans.” In some cases these sympathies may go to the extent of ignoring or even acting contrary to one’s own group interests—but that’s another discussion.)

There is some question as to the object of the commandment of loving the ger. Does it refer to all aliens and strangers, or only to “righteous proselytes”? The mainstream of the Talmudic discussion and the poskim is that it refers only to converts to Judaism, who are to be accepted fully, without reservations, as part of the Jewish people. But I gain the impression that the original force of this command in its biblical context was far broader: surely, loving the stranger, because you were a stranger and a slave in the Land of Egypt, must mean: to empathize with the alien as such, because you (or your ancestors) were once like him—a stranger, without land, without roots, without friends or family in a strange place.

But even if the definition of the ger is limited to the righteous proselyte, there are many Jews who honor this in the breach. Almost every convert to Judaism can tell stories of suspicion and hostility towards them directed from “real” Jews (i.e., from birth), and the sense of being treated, among certain groups and individuals, as socially peripheral, as semi-outcasts, as second-rate marriage partners for one’s own children—no matter how pious and meticulous they may be in their observance. But there is nothing new in this: one of the epistles in which Maimonides expresses himself most passionately is one addressed to Obadiah the Ger, a learned and sincere proselyte who was insulted and humiliated by his Baghdad community some 800-odd years ago—and whom Rambam defends and encourages. Some Rabbinic courts outright refuse to accept converts, under any circumstance, despite the mitzvah to do so. The Haredi halakhic leadership in Israel today puts countless obstacles in the face of conversion. Recently, I heard that the (US) National Council of Young Israel barred converts from the office of synagogue president. While there are some halakhic sources for this position, there is equally or more abundant ground for a lenient pesak. Sadly, it would seem that, if our universalist Jews at times go too far in the direction of championing all causes but the Jewish ones, those who take greatest pride in their people too easily cross the line from pride to simple racism.

“And it happened on the way, at the night stop”

Last week’s parasha contains one of the most puzzling and opaque passages in the entire Tanakh. I refer to Exodus 4:24-26, in which Moses, while en route to Egypt to bring the people the message of the coming redemption, stops with his wife and family at a night stop. While there, God “met him, and sought to kill him.” Zipporah, surmising (why?) that this is connected to circumcision, circumcises their son (presumably their younger one, recently born? or perhaps the other?), and touches his (whose?) legs with it (the foreskin?), and says “you are a hatan damim, a bridegroom of blood, to me.” He (God?) relents, and she repeats the phrase: hatan damim la-mulot, “a bridegroom of the blood for circumcision.”

Almost everything about this passage is difficult to fathom, beginning with the numerous pronouns of ambiguous reference. But first and foremost: God appears here in an almost demonic guise, suddenly seeking to kill Moses, with no explicit reason given. Why? This is doubly puzzling in light of the context: God has just engaged in a lengthy dialogue with Moses, in which He attempts, over numerous objections, to persuade him to serve as His emissary on earth in executing His world-historical plan to redeem the Israelites from Egypt. In the end Moses, however reluctantly, agrees and sets out on his way. Why, at this point, should God contemplate killing him? In a strange way, one could even read this as a kind of inversion of the Akedah, in which Abraham was asked to kill the son who meant everything to him, and who was to continue his great life project. Here, God Himself is shown seeking to kill the person whom, only days earlier, He had made the key figure in His “life-work.” It simply makes no sense.

I found the traditional commentators and midrashim not particularly helpful in unraveling the mysteries of this passage (though I have not had the time to read as thoroughly as I’d like). Some of the answers given only open new questions. Buber says some interesting things about it in his book Moses, but best discussion I’ve seen so far is that of Shmuel Klitzner in his book Wrestling Jacob (pp. 148-177).

The key to the solution must, it seems to me, relate to its location in the text. The incident seems a direct continuation of God’s anger and frustration with Moses in the burning bush scene. Though that conversation ends with both God and Moses in seeming agreement, it was not really so; all that was required was one small misstep on Moses’ part for God to react with fury. Moses was very resistant to his mission. We may recall the midrash comparing him invidiously to the Fathers, who showed far greater faith and followed God without raising objections every step of the way (see Rashi on Exod 6:21, quoting Sanhedrin 111a). Perhaps when God saw Moses setting off on this mission burdened with his wife and kids, He felt that he wasn’t taking his mission seriously; after all, this wasn’t a picnic or a family holiday, but a life-and-death encounter with a cruel and sadistic tyrant. With all due respect to the value of the Jewish family, some tasks are best done alone—moving lightly and quickly, unburdened by domestic needs and obligations, and free to focus exclusively on the task at hand (one is reminded of many of the Jewish immigrants to America before World War I, among whom the man often came first to “set himself up” and only then sent for his family). When God saw that Moses did not understand even this obvious thing by himself, He was infuriated and thought—perhaps only for a moment—to be done with him. Or perhaps He wanted to give Moses a really good scare to “pull him into line”—although the words ויבקש הציתו (“He sought to kill him”) admittedly mean something far stronger and unequivocal.

But what then does the act of circumcision signify, at this juncture? Perhaps, perhaps—and all this is pure speculation—that Zipporah, the daughter of the pagan priest, the woman who was perceived by God as a possible burden and obstacle to Moses, was the one to most quickly realize the full sense of covenantal responsibility!... (so I too have left many questions unanswered…. zil gemor!)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Vaera (Mitzvot)

For further teachings on this parasha, see the archives for this blog at January 2006. For a new teaching on Shemot, see that parasha, directly below.

“And You shall Know that My Name is HWYH…”

The title verse of this week’s parasha—“I appeared to [the patriarchs] as El Shaddai, but by My name HWYH I was not know to them” (Exod 6:3)—in essence boils down to something very similar to what Rambam defines as the very first mitzvah: namely, belief in, or knowledge of, the existence of God. (For that reason, I have chosen this week to resume, or re-begin, our series on the Thirteen Principles). This same idea appears in several other nearby places in the Torah: in Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, he asks with what name he should “introduce” God to the Jewish people (and to Pharaoh), and is told Ehyeh asher ehyeh: “I am that I am” or “I shall be as I shall be” (Exod 3:14ff.). Likewise in the plagues, the first seven of which are described in this parasha, there are numerous variations on the theme “by this shall they know that I am HWYH”; “that you may know that I am HWYH in the entire land”; “And Egypt shall know that I am HWYH” (see Exod 7;17; 8:18; 9:14; 10:2; etc.). It follows from this that God’s power is somehow connected to His Name and its being known. Likewise in Deuteronomy there are two significant verses (also liturgically), one phrase in the declarative and one in the imperative, stating that “You have been shown so as to know/ you should know today and reflect in your heart—that HWYH is God, there is none other” (Deut 4:35, 39; cf. also, e.g., Ezekiel 36:22 ff.; 38:23).

What is the significance of knowing someone’s name? In the slang of old Western movies, a name is sometimes called a person’s “handle”—something which one can grasp, take hold of, so as to talk about or address someone. (A small anecdote to illustrate the importance of a name: a new road was recently built near my home, after years of construction and no small public controversy, litigation and bitterness; even though it’s now been open for about five months, it still has no name, a fact that sometimes makes things a little awkward. How does one talk about it?) But in biblical thought, it would appear that a name is not merely an arbitrary external referent or signifier, but refers to something essential about the persona—or, in any event, that which can be known about a persona. Indeed, this is most probably the reason why improper use of the Divine Name, as in a false oath, is seen as so grave a sin.

What does it mean to know that God is HWYH? There is something ambiguous about this name: it is a fixed noun constructed from a verb meaning “to be”; an attempt to pin down in stasis that which is constantly moving, changing, flowing. God is Absolute Being, He is Everything, He is the All; but for that very reason, it is hard, nay, impossible, to pin down His nature, to say anything conclusive about Him at all. Even more so the name given at the burning bush, “I am that I am.” God wants us to know Him, to know that he is, but at the same time His nature and being remain allusive, paradoxical, unfathomable. For that reason mystics and prophets of all faiths who have had personal epiphanies, major or minor, usually fall flat on their faces when they attempt to capture their knowledge in words. Levi Lauer recently suggested, in a talk at Yakar, that the true meaning of “A man cannot see me and live” is that no man can see God and communicate his knowledge to others; they are like the dead who cannot speak, who—being no doubt naturally garrulous like most Jews—are frustrated because they cannot communicate with their fellow man.

This is the paradox of religious experience, and knowledge. This is perhaps why knowledge of God Himself (as opposed to knowledge of Torah, of how to live in the world, of guidance for real life) must be conveyed, in the Jewish tradition, by hints, by allusion, by teaching “chapter headings” and allowing the disciple, if he is wise, to figure out the rest for himself; or why Zen masters give their students koans, paradoxical and unsolvable questions on which to meditate.

But human beings, made in the image of God, are themselves in some sense unknowable. Shlomo Carlebach used to explain the custom of the bedeken, the covering of the bride with a veil before she goes to the huppah, as hinting that one can never fully know another person, even a beloved partner in marriage (and, I might add, this notwithstanding that the quintessential act of marital intimacy is called, in several important passages at the beginning at Genesis, “knowledge,” da’at). Similarly, Rav Soloveitchik once noted regarding hespedim, eulogies for the dead, that so long as a person is alive, we think we know him: we see him or her, encounter them on the street, in our homes or in the synagogue, think we know who they are. Suddenly, that person dies, and we find ourselves wondering: “Who was that person, really?” We realize that we did not know him/her at all. Of this, he invoked the verse in Jeremiah “From afar God appeared to me.”

(For further discussion, see the supplement below on the Thirteen Principles.)


An Introduction

I have been interested for some time in Maimonides’ so-called Thirteen Principles of the Faith, the closest thing to a Jewish “catechism,” a condensed version of which some people recite every day after Shaharit, and which also serves as the basis for the hymn Yigdal, recited by many on Friday night. There are various questions raised by this: Does Judaism have dogma at all? What was the attitude of Hazal, the ancient Sages, to matters of belief? Why did Maimonides find it necessary to formulate Jewish belief, and why did he do so In the specific way he did? And what are we, with our modern (or post-modern) intellectual baggage to do with all this? I started writing a series of studies of the Ikkarim a year and a half ago, but stopped after the first few, so I have decided to resume it now, in this year of “miscellaneous essays.” I begin by reprinting the first section of the original series.

My interest in this issue began almost by accident: at times, especially on short winter Fridays, I don’t manage to get to synagogue shul for Kabbalat Shabbat, and end up davening at home with my wife. On those occasions, we conclude by singing together the hymn Yigdal, using a Moroccan melody I learned many years ago at the old wooden hut-synagogue in Omer. This hymn, by Daniel ben Judah Dayyan, is a poetic rendition of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, written in the late 14th century, almost two centuries after Maimonides’ death, one verse for each principle. I began to notice various interesting aspect of this hymn, and to wonder exactly why certain ideas were included while others were excluded, why they were formulated as they were, and on what points they deviated from Rambam’s original formulation.

But before turning to the Ikkarim per se, another, more basic question presents itself: are there in fact “dogmas“ in Judaism? One of the truisms of modern Judaism is that Judaism has no dogmas, and that a Jew is free to believe (or to doubt) as he wishes, and still remain a “member of the tribe” in good standing.

A homely story illustrates this well. A pious and Kabbalistically-minded friend of mine once confessed, rather to my surprise, that he didn’t believe in Torah from Sinai in the accepted Orthodox way. As at that time he was saying Kaddish for his father and leading the weekday prayer service at the local shteiblakh (prayer-rooms), I asked him whether any one objected to him leading services there, given his unorthodox opinions (assuming his theological views were at all known there). He answered, “No, but sometimes they object when I come to shul wearing sandals without socks.” In other words: people can take theological “heresy” in their stride, but even a minor deviation in halakhah, or as in this case from a nicety of socio-halakhic norms, deeply upsets people.

Some years ago Prof. Menachem Kellner of Haifa University wrote a book, Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought from Maimonides to Abravanel (Oxford, 1986), in which he rather convincingly demonstrates that dogma is indeed not a Jewish “game,” and that systematic theology, i.e., the systematic articulation of beliefs and required dogmas, only made its appearance in Judaism in the medieval period. This took place in response to rivals—whether from within the Jewish “family,” such as Karaism, or from without, by Christianity—which presented well-formulated and coherent alternative belief systems, requiring Judaism to defend itself by presenting its own beliefs in an orderly way.

But while Judaism did not have systematic theology until relatively late, it is a far cry from that to saying that Judaism has no beliefs and that atheism is a perfectly acceptable religious alternative. The situation is complicated by the existence of an additional dimension of Jewishness—the ethnic or national or cultural one—a peculiarity that confuses those coming from other religions or conventional definitions of religion. An atheist can be a proud, positive Jew who contributes to the Jewish people in all sorts of ways—but this does not mean that there is no religious content or definition to Judaism. Moreover, even after Maimonides formulated his Ikkarim, they were not universally accepted (see the Kabbalah’s approach to the nature of God, for example—a point upon which we will elaborate in the course of this series), and do not have the same definitive status as the halakhah.

Classical Judaism, of the Bible and the Sages, had a concrete, living faith and sense of God’s presence in the world, but this was expressed, not in sharply-defined points of dogma, but in Biblical narrative, poetry, and reflection, in midrashic stories and Rabbinic dicta; the basic sense of faith and trust in God served as the background, as the underlying ambience, for a wide variety of documents. From Psalms, to the prophets, to the legal chapters in the Torah and in the Talmud, to Job, to the Song of Songs… One could say, perhaps, that this is the truest expression of the ineffable nature of God: that God can only be spoken about or understood in a roundabout way, through frankly anthropomorphic images or even imagined conversations which point, indirectly, to Whom He is. Theology learned by induction, by implication, rather than by deduction, as in a strict logical system; with colorful, vibrant, literary language rather than stiff, formal, abstract philosophical conceptualizations. The totality of these images create a picture that is intuitively grasped more than it is systematically learned.

Turning to Maimonides’ Principles per se: while he was the first to articulate basic principles as such, there were others—R. Saadyah Gaon and R. Judah Halevi, in their Emunot ve-De’ot and Kuzari—who prepared the ground by writing theological treatises or polemics on behalf of “a beleaguered faith.” While the Principles are perhaps best known to most Jews today from the Ani Ma’amin printed in many Siddurim at the end of the daily morning service—thirteen short phrases, each one of which begins with the words “I belief with perfect faith that….”—this too is not from Rambam’s hand, but from an unknown author, who lived some time after him. In fact, the Ikkarim appear in the setting of Rambam’s Commentary on the Mishnah, his earliest major work. This work encompasses three or four major compositions scattered throughout the textual commentary, in the form of introductions to specific sections. The Ikkarim appear as part of the introduction to Perek Helek, the 10th chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin.

Why Perek Helek? This chapter is perhaps unique in all of mishnaic literature in that it contains halakhic statements regarding belief. The opening mishnah begins with the words “All Israel have a portion in the World to Come,” immediately followed by the reservation: “But these do not have a portion in the World to Come—One who says: there is no Resurrection of the Dead [taught in the Torah]; and there is no Torah from Heaven; and the apikorus [epicurean—i.e., hedonist? one who denies God’s existence?].” Why are these two doctrines specified? Was there a polemic edge to this statement, addressed to specific sects who taught these heretical beliefs? And why is it brought at all, if it had to be formulated in the uncharacteristic way, “he has no share in the World to Come,” a punishment which may have moral force for the believer but, unlike most of the sanctions invoked in halakhic, is without juridical force? I asked these questions of several erudite scholars of my acquaintance, who could be expected to be knowledgeable in all of the research literature, and they said that there are no clearcut answers to these questions.

It is against this background that we turn to Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, and to their place in his Mishnah Commentary—the Introduction to Perek Helek. As we have already mentioned, the opening mishnah in this chapter is almost unique in Rabbinic halakhic literature in that it makes statements about matters of faith and belief, declaring that those who deny certain axioms “have no portion in the World to Come.”

The structure or arrangement used by Rambam in the Introduction to Perek Helek is rather interesting: he does not begin by elaborating the correct principles of the faith which will assure one a “portion in the World to Come,” as might be expected of a commentary on this particular mishnah, or if his aim were simply to formulate or systematize Jewish dogma. Rather, he works his way around and into the subject. He begins by discussing the role played by expectation of reward in religious life, whether these be earthly and material rewards, such as long life, material abundance, etc.; or spiritual rewards—partaking in the Afterlife, the Resurrection of the Dead, or the post-messianic world. Basically, he says that the highest goal is to serve God for His own sake, and not for the sake of any “prize” or reward; all such things are basically educational tactics rather than things with which one ought to be concerned (although he takes pain to state that they are true as such). He then turns to a discussion of Aggadah, and the dangers of taking aggadic language too literally.

One could sum quite simply by saying that Rambam didn’t easily abide fools. He was highly sensitive to stupidity and foolishness presented in the name of faith. He saw many of the common people in his day (as in our day!) imbued with false doctrines, folk attitudes and beliefs that corporealized faith, making it gross and superstitious, and taxing the credulity of anyone who thought about things with any degree of seriousness. He saw his basic role as teacher of the faith—both to the sophisticated, to whom he spoke in one way, and to the ordinary masses, whom he addressed in quite another way. He felt that wrong beliefs, even if seemingly related to the true God and integrated within a life pattern of observance of Torah and mitzvot, was ultimately a grave danger since, in effect, those who adhered to them engaged in something that was tantamount to paganism and idolatry. Hence, he insisted upon at least a certain minimal clarity about what we mean when we talk about God, and attempted to uproot and exclude from Judaism certain childish, overly literal and corporeal ways of believing or thinking about God.

Hence, the various parts of the Hakdamah are an integral whole: he begins by attacking two areas in which he found the people to have a particularly gross and misguided understanding of religious teaching—namely, their motivations for doing mitzvot with an eye towards reward; and their naïve way of reading midrashic and aggadic stories. He turns from there to the Principles themselves, which may be conceived as a minimum list of basic axioms of what one may and should believe, after eliminating certain prevalent beliefs that ought to be eschewed.

As I have noted in the past, Maimonides’ theology may be conceived generally as a minimalist one. Many things which are widely accepted in popular Jewish belief, or even in authoritative texts—such as a kind of ubiquity of miracles; angelology; the notion of Divine Providence acting even in the trivial details of life; the widespread power of prayer to change destiny; and the ability of various kinds of “holy men” to “force” God’s hand—all these are greatly deemphasized and marginalized, if not actually rejected, by Rambam. The same holds true for such doctrines as the Messiah: Maimonides firmly rejected attempts to predict a timetable, either for the coming of Messiah, or for the actual events of messianic times. The Ikkarim may thus be viewed as a rather spare, non-inflated Jewish theology. For Maimonides, the Creation itself, the lawfulness of nature, were themselves the strongest proof of God’s greatness and majesty, inspiring awe and reverence.

The Thirteen Principles as such are organized in three major groups, roughly corresponding to the three principles later elucidated in R. Joseph Albo’s Sefer ha-Ikkarim (14th century): God, Torah, and Providence. The Ikkarim reveals that they seem to fall quite naturally into these three groups: five principles relating to God and His nature per se; four relating to Revelation; and four concerned with Divine providence and reward and punishment.

These correspond, in turn, to the first three cases given in the mishnah that forms the basis for this chapter, of those who have no share in the World to Come: “one who denies the Resurrection”—i.e., Divine recompense; “one who denies Torah from Heaven”—i.e., Revelation; and the “apikoris,” broadly construed in Judaism to refer to one who denies God’s existence, or at least His relevance to the world. The term is a corruption of the name of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, ca. 342-270 BCE, who believed in a life of pleasure, albeit regulated by “morality, temperance, serenity, and cultural development”— a kind of disciplined, well-balanced secular humanism: hardly a riotous Dionysian approach, but neither a religious world–view in any sense. In common Jewish folk use, it came to mean a hedonist or one who thinks that the highest goal of life is sensuous enjoyment—or, more broadly, an unbeliever or sceptic.

Or, if you prefer, the three categories may be identified with the three moments mentioned by Rosenzweig: Creation (God); Revelation (Sinai); and Redemption (Messiah, etc.); or, more simply, teachings about God, Torah, and Man.

Turning to the principles themselves: the first two principles seem to contain the kernel of Jewish theology (in the sense of “God talk”), in the spirit of the midrashic statement that the Israelites only heard the first two commandments—“I am the Lord your God” and “you shall have no other gods before Me”—directly from the Almighty.

I. “Exalted and praised be the living God; He exists, and His existence transcends time”

The first principle is, quite simply, belief in the existence of God: what Rambam formulates elsewhere as “to know that there is a First Cause.” Certainly, it is impossible to speak of religion without a God. But more than that, the fact that there is a God in the universe allows for the possibility of meaning and, one might argue, provides the ground both for morality and for human responsibility. And indeed, such serious atheist intellectuals as the French existentialists Sartre and Camus felt forced, by the logic of that position, to state that there is no meaning in life except that which man himself gives to it. (They were “fortunate” enough to live in difficult and interesting times—i.e., the Nazi occupation of France—giving them ample opportunity for dramatic, even heroic and meaning-rich decisions.) In other words, for them man can be the source of meaning, but there is nothing ontological in the universe itself that makes for meaning; moral values are not objectively grounded, but are mere convention. Or, as Ivan Karamazov put it more cynically, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

Or, turning to more traditional Jewish language: the first imperative is kabbalat malkhut shamayim—accepting God’s majesty and kingship. As the Mekhilta (quoted by Ramban both in his commentary to Exod 20:1 and in his Hasagot to Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Aseh §1), put it: “Accept My kingship, and thereafter accept My edicts.” The knowledge that God exists is a precondition prior to everything else: hence, according to some, it is not so much a mitzvah in its own right as an axiom or “pillar” that logically precedes the mitzvot themselves.

What is important here is not only the intellectual knowledge that there is a God, but accepting His kingship. “The Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver, the Lord is our King—He will save us!” (Isa 33:22)—that is, He is the ultimate source of authority, of norms and standards, of power and majesty, and the redemptive force within history. The first principle thus corresponds to the first commandment: Anokhi HVYH Elohekha, “I am the Lord your God,” and to the key phrase in the Shema: HVYH Eloheinu, “the Lord is our God.”


Clarification: Re Conversion and the Young Israel Council

Last week I wrote about the obligation to show understanding and compassion to the stranger, criticizing the decision by the National Council of Young Israel banning the election of converts to Judaism (and women) to the office of president of member congregations. One of my readers wrote me by email, criticizing my statement that “[this] is simple racism.” As he put it “there are specific guidelines regarding the ger, which include certain reservations. … This may be a well-founded halakhic decision. To suggest that it is racism is to undermine the authority of an established Beit Din and is motzi la’az [slander] of Klal Yisrael.”

I wrote about this subject some years ago, in connection with the ordination of women as rabbis (in a paper posted here in HY II: Behaalotkha, and published in To Be a Jewish Woman [Kolekh Conference Volume, II], English section: 9-24). While the issues involved regarding converts and regarding women are not entirely identical, both the halakhic issues and the positions taken by outstanding halakhic figures and the public controversies are of some relevance. I quote here the most salient portions:

It is asserted that women [and converts] are debarred from holding any public office, based on Maimonides’ statement, derived from the Sifrei, that all office-holders in the ideal Jewish society must be male (Hil. Melakhim 1.5, based on Sifrei to Deut 17:15). But the wording of the Sifrei is ambiguous… Moreover, this Sifrei is not brought to this purpose in Talmudic literature, Maimonides’ codification of it being a kind of da’at yahid. During the early 1920s, when the issue of participation of women in elections of the Asefat Hanivharim (the precursor of Israel’s Knesset) shook the Yishuv, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel wrote a major responsum on this subject, arguing in favor of the more liberal position.

[More recently,] participation of women in public life has become part of the zeitgeist of modernist Orthodoxy. For many years, the party of Religious Zionism, Mizrachi, always had at least one woman member as part of its Knesset delegation; after a hiatus of several decades, the deputies to the 16th Knesset also included a woman among their number. In the 1980’s, the issue of women’s participation on local Religious Councils was raised, with the pioneering case of Leah Shakdiel; in that case, the decision in her favor was issued by the High Court and not by the poskim. It is likewise interesting to note the presence of women on executive committees of Orthodox synagogues, and even as chair/president, in both the United States and Israel, and no doubt elsewhere. Today, this is accepted in a matter-of-fact way; by contrast, [Pamela] Nadell records in her book [Women Who Would be Rabbis] that, as recently as the first half of the 20th century, it was still heatedly debated whether a woman could be President of a Reform temple.

For further bibliography, see: Mishpetei Uziel, Pt. 3, Hoshen Mishpat, §6; Menahem Friedman, Hevrah va-Dat (Jerusalem, 1978), 146-184 (on the history of the election controversy, and especially Rav Kook’s position); Justice Menahem Elon in HCJ 153/87 (the Shakdiel case), cited in Ha-Peninah (Penina Rappel Memorial Volume; Jerusalem, 1989), 63-118; and, most recently, Aryeh A. Frimer, “Women in Community Leadership Roles in the Modern Period” [Hebrew], in Afikei Yehudah, ed. I. Warhaftig (Rav Yehuda Gershuni Memorial Volume; Jerusalem, 2005), 330-354. Much of the information about the current bruhaha is taken from an article in the YU student newspaper, The Commentator, Dec 3, 2007

True, one could argue that the ban on converts serving in public office is stated more explicitly than is that on women. But the issue is also whether the office of synagogue president is the sort of position of power Maimonides had in mind in the above-mentioned passage. Frimer (and others) suggest that the concept of serarah applies to positions of unqualified and unquestioned authority, such as that exercised by kings in pre-modern days. But in modern democracies, whose officials are elected by the people, for limited terms of office, and with checks and balances, and in which virtually all decisions are made by a number of officials acting in concert, this would seem to be inapplicable. I would add that, to the best of my knowledge, the religious and even the Haredi parties accepted Golda Meir serving as Prime Minister and even sat in her coalition; if, today, they criticize Tzipi Livni in the Foreign Ministry, it is on grounds of substance, not of gender. If this is the case for actual governmental positions, which wield substantial power, then קל וחומר בן-בנו של קל וחומר, all the more so ought it to apply to the president of a Young Israel, who may at most hire and fire a few individuals and be charged with handling a budget of comparatively modest sums—and even that, in cohort with the other synagogue officers.

But as I read further about the issue, I realized that the ban on converts is “collateral damage.” The real issues seem to be: (a) centralization vs. autonomy: i.e., an attempt by the National Council to concentrate its authority over the movement as against the autonomy of local congregations—an issue on which, as I’m not a member of a Young Israel, and have not even been a regular YI worshipper for nearly forty years, I have no real right or cause to comment; (b) the substantive issue over which this is waged seems to be the ongoing struggle in American Orthodoxy over what has come to be called “halakhic feminism.” This, as shown by the other decisions issued by the NCYI at the same time: a ban on women’s prayer groups and megillah reading in Young Israel synagogues; and the creation of a central committee to vet all Rabbinic appointments by Young Israel shuls, apparently to assure their halakhic and hashkafic adherence to Orthodoxy as understood by the NCYI. The covert purpose seems to be to prevent the hiring of excessively “left wing” rabbis—i.e., code for graduates of Rabbi Avi Weiss’s liberal-spirited and pro-feminist Yeshivat Hovevei Torah. All this sounds like a highly divisive move, an insistence on ideological purity forcing significant groups of people out of the Orthodox world—in much the same way as sharp disagreements in the Conservative movement over the homosexual issue, and the types of comments made there by one side about the other, threaten to split that group in two.

So I reiterate: what would Rambam say? The same Rambam who stressed ahavat hager (“love of the proselyte”) in Deot 6.4 and who wrote the eloquent, impassioned Epistle to Ovadiah the Ger, also wrote the above-cited halakhah. What then would he say about this situation? It’s a tough call.

To All Classical Music Lovers

The following is primarily addressed to those living in Israel: The other day a friend of mine sent me a letter from the Israel Musicology Society followed by a newspaper excerpt, the gist of which was that the Israel Broadcasting Authority has decided to merge Kol Ha-Musika, the classical music station, with Reshet Aleph and Moreshet—other stations that broadcast to “limited” audiences—into a single station. In essence, this signifies the death of Kol ha-Musika as we know it: rather than 24 hours a day of serious music (including “world” ethnic music, artistic jazz, interviews and talk about music, quizzes, biographies of great musicians, live concerts, and more), those of us so eccentric and retrograde in our tastes as not to care for popular music (which has many full-time stations as it is), will be left with a curtailed diet of perhaps six or maybe even four hours a day of out favorite music.

This is but one more manifestation of the insensitivity of our Treasury officials to cultural values. We seem to have a government of bean-counters, who have shown their shortsightedness, if not boorishness, in their open contempt for and ignorance of anything that doesn’t contribute to “economic growth” (a code-word for the interest of the top decile of the population), in their handling of the recent/current teachers’ and university lecturers’ strike, so a move such as this hardly comes as a surprise.

Even those who are not themselves classical music aficionados should be concerned about this development, if only in the name of cultural pluralism. Must society only support the lowest common denominator? Historically, Israel has always had a flourishing classical music culture, far beyond its numbers. It takes pride in the Israel Philharmonic: one of the important features of Yom ha-Atzmaut celebrations is its annual festive concert. The great Arturo Toscanini came here himself in 1936 to conduct the inaugural concert of the then-named Palestine Symphony Orchestra, and remained a close friend throughout his life. In the Diaspora, too, Jews are and were among the outstanding performers and creators of the classical repertoire; the yiddl mit a fiddl was an almost mythic (Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, and Yosha Heifetz are but a few names that come to mind). Moreover, the aliyah of recent decades from the former Soviet Union includes a large number of serious musicians and music lovers, who certainly constitute a significant audience for Kol ha-Musika.

The letter calls upon all those who oppose this move to sign an on-line petition against this move, at (If you don’t know Hebrew, all you need do is to fill in your name in English the yellow space, after typing Alt-Control to change the characters to left to right, after which you’ll see the arrow-head pointing right; and then clicking the green space on the bottom.) They also ask that letters of complaint be sent to Mr. Speigelman, the Ombudsman of the Broadcasting Authority, at I strongly urge all those who care about the future of culture in Israel to sign this petition, and pass it on to anyone whom they think may be interested.

Bruce Blindman: In Memoriam

This past Friday marked the sheloshim of the passing of my father-in-law, Bruce Blindman (Barukh ben Berish), who left this world on December 3 (23 Kislev), and was laid to rest on the Second Day of Hanukkah. Because I married Randy in middle life, when I had already been living in Israel for a long time, and only visited her family in Minneapolis for brief periods, I unfortunately did not get to know Bruce very well. My strongest impression was of an extremely warm, loving person, who accepted everybody as he was, and took deep joy and pride in his family. This memorial piece will thus consist mostly of selections from things spoken or read at his funeral written by those who knew him best—his family. First, his wife of 57 years, Joanne Blindman:

Death always feels surprising even when you’ve been anticipating it. At the same time, the opportunity to participate with a loved one in the process of aging is a gift. When he was still home, Bruce would ask me, “Why are you so good to me?” His vulnerability reminded me of what it means to be a family—love, compassion, trust, touch, surrender and gratitude....

Bruce came from the era that Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” Duty, honor, country, commitment and loyalty were part of his moral fiber. His philosophy was simple—whatever you do in life, work or play, give it your best and maintain your integrity.

He was an involved father long before it was fashionable. He taught our daughters about golf, bowling, football, math, how to skate on our pond and how to swim.… When they became teens, he didn't always see the world the way they did. He demanded that they operate with the highest integrity and honesty… He respected their interests. Randy, who graduated near the top of her class, was interested in art, Debby in theater. He never once asked them to think about something more lucrative. Janny absorbed Bruce’s personality and, except for health concerns, never gave him a moment’s worry. He honored the choices they made about careers, marriage, lifestyles, and child-rearing. You could ask his advice, but he never gave it unsolicited.

When someone you love dies, you grieve for the future as well as for past moments. I remember walking on the golf course with Bruce, the first hole at the Minneapolis Golf Club, on a beautiful fall afternoon and wishing that it could always be as it was at that time. Bruce responded, “Well, I would like another thirty years, but what we’ve had, even with all the ups and downs, has been pretty wonderful. Life has no guarantees. Maybe the next thirty wouldn’t be so great.” Something sad has happened, but something remarkable has taken place as well. We said things during these last weeks that might have been left unsaid and we got to say goodbye. I quoted Shakespeare as I sat near him. “Good Night Sweet Prince. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Next, his middle daughter, Janis Uffenheimer:

A measure of a man.../ How does one measure a lifetime?/ Is it in dollars and cents?/ In accolades and trophies?/ Or in the values and treatment of others,/ The example set and the love expressed?/ How do I measure the treasure of my father's impact on our lives?/ In scattered thoughts I try to gather the memories/ Singularly, our experiences were unique but the overall theme the same./ My father was everything to us./ Yes, he was a provider, a brilliant intelligent, capable, talented man./ He was strong, confident and honest to his core./ A man who loved and protected us./ Who let us borrow his strength so that we too could be strong, learn to be strong/ He was there for us always,/ wherever we were,/ in everyway he could./ He came and shared his assistance, provided his love and support/ by words, by look, by embrace./ His presence brought calm./ His precious, eye-twinkling smile lingers in our consciousness,/ in our hearts./ We feel him still/ and forever will.

His youngest daughter, Debra Blindman Frank:

You truly are my hero. And yes, I am still your little girl...who has always needed you, and whenever I needed you, you were there. Daddy, I have been terrified of this day all of my life. For the past few weeks I have had this terrible ache in my stomach, in my chest, in my heart. But, now that it is here, you know what?... I will be fine. I told you over and over I will be fine...and I will be fine. I meant it, Daddy--I am strong, like you. I fight to the end, like you. I will be OK. You've been fighting a valiant fight and you truly deserve your rest. Watching you battle out the last few weeks, you have taught me so many more lessons about life. Thank you for being such a wonderful father and friend and being proud of me and for loving me…no matter what. … You have always been my best friend. You were both easy on me and tough on me, and both were fine. Even if I disappointed you, which is the last thing I ever wanted to do, I knew you loved me. I don't ever want you to regret anything you did as far as I am concerned. That is why I am who I am today. I could always talk to you about anything and sometimes you would promise not to tell mom, and you wouldn’t tell mom, because you didn’t want to worry her...but you would tell Auntie Faye. Daddy, I know I often disappointed you or worried you or let you down, and I am very sorry... and I know you know that. You understood me, you always have, and I know you love me. I miss your warm loving hugs, your smile, your twinkling eyes, your laugh, I will miss not being able to hear your voice when I call….

Daddy, do not worry about Mama--of course she will miss you each and every day--she loves you so much. We are all so blessed to have someone like Mama--she is so special--we are all so lucky to have her. She tries to be so strong, but I know she cries a lot--she has been so sad and heart broken seeing you suffer like this. Mama will be very, very lonely for you. But, Daddy, we will be there for her, always, and look after her. Please don't worry about mama--Luther and I will take care of her. You do not need to worry. I promised you. We promise you.

Daddy, do you remember teaching me to ride my bike--you were running down the street holding my bike, I would yell, “Daddy don’t let go, please don’t let go,” and when you finally let go, and I was riding on my own, I didn't even know it! That’s what it is like now...I am riding on my own because you taught me how to persevere on my own. I remember you always coming to my rescue [when bad things happened]… my hero, always coming to my rescue. As your little girl, I always felt I was your son you never had, and that was just fine with me--I was a tomboy and loved it...playing baseball, hockey, bowling, golfing, finding stray lizards and cats and bunnies...just like you did when you were a boy. … Week-after-week I would watch you bowl, how you held your bowling ball, and concentrated on the pins, then take a breath, and begin your steps forward... 1, 2, 3, and 4 as you swung your arm throwing that ball down that alley and with that left-handed hook POW--another strike! By 5 or 6 yrs old, I began to copy the way you stood until you were ready, the way you took your four steps, the way you swung your arm and the way you would raise and cross your leg in the air behind you with your style and pizzazz, and I would pretend to throw the bowling ball just like my Dad (except for the left-handed part). You would say, “she really has timing,” and I guess I impressed you, because you bought me my very own “pink lollypop” bowling ball and signed me up for leagues. I was Bruce Blindman's daughter and I so proud of it. I was so proud of you—all those lines of people watching you, Bruce Blindman, my dad, throwing your non-stop strikes. I still have the ruby-diamond ring with the “300” on it… I remember taking you to Sophie’s softball game last year and as you were watching Sophie at bat, you said, “go, Debby.” It could have been a slip of the tongue, but I think you really were remembering and seeing you and me back in those days when we used to play….

Thank you, thank you for being my Daddy. I can still see your smiling face, your twinkling eyes. I can hear your wonderful sweet laugh. Thank you for telling me that you loved me virtually every day of my life…. Daddy, thank you for always, always, always being there for me, no matter what. Thank you for teaching me how to see the good in everything and to always have fun. Thank you for wanting to learn about the things I was interested in. Thank you for respecting my opinion ever since I was a little girl. Thank you for showing me the courage to step forward and to stand up for what is right. Thank you for teaching me how to stick to something until I figure it out, no matter how difficult. You taught me so much about life, about having a positive attitude, about being myself. Thank you for you, for the man you were and will always be to me, and for always loving me so well and so much. Thank you for the world that you brought me and for all the good things I am. Thank you for all the blessings you have given me, and for every day to come. When I think of them or see or experience them, I think of you.

And finally, from his son-in-law, Naty Uffenheimer:

The first time I met Bruce was when Janis and I have just started to go out, It was a couple of years before we were planning to get married. I remember that he told me how much he cared for Janis and wanted her to find the right husband so she would be happy. How typical it is of Bruce. So loving and caring for his daughters and all his family. I remember how warm Janis’ home was with both Bruce and Joanne running the show there – and I thought how wonderful it would be if I could have one day such a warm – loving house and family.…

I always said that Janis was the best thing that ever happened to me, and deciding to marry her was the best decision I have ever made. And obviously, you, Bruce, and Joanne are responsible for raising such a wonderful daughter! I feel lucky to benefit from her good up-bringing. Thank you for doing such a good job!...

I’ll always remember your eyes. How much love and care they expressed when you came to visit us. Your easy going spirit, honesty and generosity always impressed me.

Many wonderful things were also said by his grandchildren—Maya, Ayla, Meka, Sophie, and Bea (Charlie, the one male of the clan, is far too young to articulate things)—and even by Naty‘s sister, Sita, but for reasons of space we cannot include them all.

At the sheloshim held at our home recently, my wife Randy, his eldest daughter, taught a passage from Sefat Emet in his memory. The passage (Toldot, 5648, s.v. be’inyan ha-be’erot; also brought on Song of Songs 4:15), draws a connection among the 48 times the word be’er, “well,” is mentioned in the Torah; the 48 prophets who were sent to Israel over the years (according to the Talmud); the 48 drops of dew which descend from heaven every day, according to the Zohar (“and a river goes out of Eden…”) —and all these to the 48 ways by which the Torah is acquired (in Avot, Ch. 6). The central idea is that there are “wells” of Torah implanted within the human heart, the pre-Sinaitic mode of derekh eretz that precedes Torah, and that the acquisition of Torah means, not only listening to the external voice of the tradition, but also a kind of delving or “drawing up” of that which lies within our heart.

Bruce Blindman was not an observant Jew: he belonged to that first generation of Jews born in America, around the First World War (he was born in January 1922), who first and foremost wanted to be Americans. The obituary in the Minneapolis Star & Tribune stressed his service in the US Army Signal Corps during the Second World War, his proficiency in the sports of golf and bowling (he held a nation-wide record for the highest score in a three-game series by a left-handed bowler), and of course his love for and pride in his family. But he seemed to embody many of the human qualities taught in the beraita of the forty-eight ways: honesty, uprightness, decency, and perhaps most of all, ahavat ha-beriyot—deep caring and warmth for all those he met. It was this that lay at what seemed a central maxim in his life—never to criticize others.

Interestingly, during the week of his death, I was primarily involved in two things: translation of a book about Martin Buber; and attending the opening of a film about Shlomo Carlebach, including a lengthy conversation the next morning with Haskel Roth, an old friend of Shlomo who featured prominently in the film. Both these figures emphasized the interpersonal. Buber, in his dialogic philosophy, specifically rejected the type of other-worldly spirituality that was not keyed to the here and now; that was why, in principle, he did not see mitzvot or fixed halakhah as important or even desirable—hence, his break with traditional Judaism.

Shlomo differed from Buber in that he was a frum person; he also differed from him in that he translated the most abstract, complex concepts into simple, down-to-earth language that could reach every person, as against the philosophical, intellectual style of Buber. But his teachings also basically revolved around the interpersonal. He was very much in the tradition of such Hasidic teachers as Toldot Yaakov Yosef and Me’or Einayim, who stressed that the application to the here and now, to “every person, at all times,” is what is important. (My friend Menahem Kallus once jested that Shlomo was a “Philonic” figure—i.e., like Philo of Alexandria, he read the Torah as allegory, as a source for contemporary lessons). Interesting, both of them cite the same teaching of the Zohar: that there are two questions a person may ask about another: “Who is he?” and “What is he?” By asking the former, he gives him life and light; through the latter, he increases death and darkness. Or, in Buber’s language, one comes from the world of the Thou, the other from the world of the It.

In his life, my father-in-life manifested these insights. Yehi zikhro barukh.