Friday, March 28, 2008

Shemini (Mitzvot)

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


This year, due to it being a leap year, we find a rather interesting juxtaposition: Parashat Shemini falls the week after Purim. Purim: the day of drinking, revelry, and the notion of reaching the state of “not knowing the difference between…,” a concept interpreted by many as suggesting a state beyond cognition, a kind of mystical transcendence of the whole realm of comprehension and rationality. But in this week’s parasha, in wake of the story of Nadav and Avihu, who died when they went unlawfully into the Inner Sanctuary to burn incense—an act prompted, some say, by an excess of religious ecstasy or, in another view, after imbibing strong drink—there is a warning to the kohanim that they not drink any wine when “going into the Tent of Meeting”—i.e., when serving in the Temple (Lev 10:8-11).

Interesting, this same rule is extended by the Sages to include the act of teaching Torah (which at one time, as noted in this very passage, was among the priestly functions; cf. Malachi 2:7) and, especially, to issuing halakhic rulings (see Rambam, Bi’at Mikdash 1.3-4). The posek, or the religious court judge, must be cold sober when deliberating and applying words of Torah. In other words: we find here that great store is put on mental clarity, on the ability to make distinctions—often, rather subtle ones.

Purim consciousness, the sense of Ad delo yada, the mystical mentality in general, is one that blurs distinctions, that tends to see the whole world in fuzzy terms, all things flowing and merging into one another. And, to be sure, it is one of the important perspectives forming the kaleidoscope that makes up a religious world-view—one to which we surrender one day a year. But, by contrast, the halakhic perspective of year-round Judaism emphasizes sharp distinctions, “edges.” Things are either permitted or forbidden—and it is essential that these be made out of mental clarity.

Interestingly, Shabbat, which more than any other day symbolizes the quest for unity, has “fuzzy” edges. Of course, this is in large measure due to the nature of twilight: the day segues into night, rather than there being an abrupt, clear transition between the two, as one might have on the moon. But it also seems symbolically appropriate that this be so—although here too, at any given moment the individual is either observing Shabbat or not, even if he adds 72 minutes, or even many hours, of Tosefet Shabbat.

This idea of clear, sharp, distinctions is well exemplified by the very next section of our parasha, Leviticus 11, devoted to the mitzvah of kashrut.

Kashrut: Forbidden Species

This chapter gives the basic rules of what is perhaps the best known and socially most distinctive Jewish observance: kashrut. Interestingly, this chapter does not simply list prohibited kinds of food, but creates an entire structure, dividing the world of living creatures into four main groups—mammals, fish, birds (i.e., denizens of earth, water, and sky), and various types of “creeping things”— reptiles and insects. Within each class, it states “these are those that you shall eat” and “these are those that you shall not eat” or “these shall be unclean” (tamei; often translated “impure”) or “an abomination” (sheketz) to you. The laws of kashrut thus seem as much concerned with building a map of the world of living things, as they are with dietary concerns per se.

Indeed, Rambam, in the very first halakhah in the Laws of Forbidden Foods (Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Asurot 1.1) defines the mitzvot in this chapter, for each category of living being, as including both a prohibition (“not to eat…”) and a positive commandment: “to know the signs of which mammal/bird/fish/insect is clean / pure and which impure.” In this context, he invokes the verse, “to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between the animal that may be eaten and that which may not be eaten” (11:47).

Thus, one might say that the essence of this mitzvah lies in the drawing of distinctions. Interestingly, in recent years some anthropologists have discussed kashrut in similar terms, as reflecting the paradigmatic role in Jewish culture of structure and the imposing of cultural order upon the chaotic physical world (see HY I: Shemini = Shemini [Torah]). One can of course discuss the specifics of kashrut: why are these animals permitted and not others? Many commentators have suggested various schemes for viewing kashrut, such as noting the largely predatory nature of the non-kosher fish, birds, and mammals and the more “gentle” nature of the kosher species, qualities which we somehow ingest by eating them. Alternatively, there is a Kabbalistic view that the non-kosher creatures come from the world of the kelipot, of untamed spiritual energy, and exercise deleterious effect on those that eat them.

But all these ideas are ultimately speculative, and it is important to remember that, like any other mitzvot, one’s observance of kashrut does not stand or fall on one or another “explanation” or “rationale” for the mitzvah, but is a priori. (This, on another level, is one of the central messages inferred from the use of the word hukah, “statute,” in the opening verse of Numbers 19, read this Shabbat as maftir for Parshat Parah). Rather, the fact of making distinctions, of having a kind of map that imposes a certain scheme upon the world of living beings, is in itself important. How so? Nature viewed by itself may be seen as chaos. So, too, the person who relates to food in terms of appetite or the sensation of taste alone—the gourmet, or even more so the gourmand—will eat anything. Kashrut seems somehow related to the idea that God created the world in an orderly way. If Creation was an act of imposing order, then kashrut “imitates” God by imposing order on chaos. (On one level, this might be compared to the scientist, who constructs order, imposing categories of species, orders, phalanxes, etc, upon the raw data of the universe of living things. Notably, Rav Soloveitchik draws a parallel between the scientist and the halakhist in his essay , Halakhic Man.) This idea, coupled with the notion of self-restraint as a quintessential human quality, go a long way towards explaining the centrality of kashrut in Judaism.


“Perfect Writing” vs. “Perfect Reading”

On Purim night, I was present at an informal reading in someone’s home where a woman was asked to read one chapter of the Megillah “cold.” Afterwards, she repeatedly apologized for not reading her chapter perfectly, as if this might have been an halakhic stumbling block of sorts to her listeners. This prompted me to undertake a short investigation of the halakhic nature of the reading of the Megillah, and the difference between Megillah reading and Torah reading.

What I discovered was quite interesting. The halakhah contains numerous laws governing the manner of writing of a Torah scroll, any one of which, if not fulfilled properly, renders it pasul, unfit for use: for example, if even a single word is spelled incorrectly, even if the error in no way affects the sense of the particular word, as in the addition or omission a yod or vav (haser or yater); if the spaces between the parshiyot are incorrect; if the special format used for Shirat Hayam or Haazinu is absent, or used in the wrong place; etc. By contrast, the Megillah may be read even if it has unclear or smudged or torn letters; indeed, even if a few words (up to half the text!) are missing, and the reader recites from memory, his recitation is kosher. Similarly, the parchment on which the Megillah is written need not to have been cured lishmah—with conscious intention of being used for a mitzvah—and, at least in the case of a private reading, for an individual, it may in a emergency even be read from a book (i.e., a handwritten codex) bound with other scriptural texts. Another halakhah stipulates that the sheets of parchment composing the Megillah need not be stitched together from top to bottom as is a Torah scroll, but that three stitches, in the top, middle and bottom, suffice—this, because it is called an iggeret, an epistle or letter, rather than a sefer, a book.

The basic, underlying difference between the two is this: the Sefer Torah, the Torah scroll, is conceived by the halakhah first and foremost as an object of kedushah, of perhaps the highest degree of holiness of any object that we have in our present-day religious life. This, because it is the closest thing we have to an embodiment of the Sinai revelation. It is seen as an exact copy of the Torah given at Sinai, and its public reading is not only an act of instruction, but a symbolic reliving of Ma’amad Har Sinai.

The megillah, by contrast, is seen in more instrumental terms. Unlike the reading of the Torah, the reading of the megillah is an obligation incumbent upon each individual Jew, man and woman, and must be complete, in its proper order (i.e., without skipping around), and without interruption. In principle, one may not miss even one word—for which reason, when noise is made upon reading Haman’s name, many readers go back and repeat the words from that point. The essential thing, in the case of the Megillah, is the act of reading per se; it is in this sense that it is an iggeret, an epistle written to convey a specific message or idea to the public. Its function is to tell the story, to bring the events related therein to the consciousness of listeners. (Hence, it may in theory even be read in a language other than Hebrew, if that is the one best understood by the public—but I have not heard of any physical evidence of this ever being done in practice.) The Megillah as a physical object is an instrument serving this need, so that we are not overly punctilious about its physical-halakhic qualities. Some scholars have suggested that Purim is modeled after festival days in other cultures, that begin with a public reading or telling the story of the event commemorated by the festival, followed by feasting, celebration, general revelry, and gift-giving.

To end with a comparison to another written artifice: the halakhah stipulates that the scrolls used in the tefillin and the mezuzah by written without interruption and without error: כתיבה תמה, “perfect writing.” One might perhaps say that, in the case of Megillat Esther, the corresponding notion is of קריאה תמה, “perfect reading.”

Purim and Shavuot

On Shabbat Purim, Mishael Zion gave a shiur at Shira Hadasha on the notion of Purim as a kind of “parody” of the other, more serious Jewish holidays. He discussed possible parallels and ironic or satiric contrasts between Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Pesah, as against Purim. But another, even more striking relation, is that between Purim and Shavuot, as suggested by the following Rabbinic dictum:

Rabba said: Even though Israel initially accepted the Torah out of coercion, when He held the mountain above them like a barrel, they again accepted it in the days of Ahashuerus, as is said, ‘They fulfilled and accepted” [Esther 9:27]—the fulfilled what they had already accepted. (b. Shabbat 88a]

Purim seems to be viewed here as a kind a second Shavuot, a day of “Accepting the Torah”—and this time, not under compulsion, but willingly, out of love and free choice. Beyond the play on the words קיימו וקבלו (“they fulfilled and accepted,” which in the original context simply refers to the institutionalization of Purim by Mordecai and Esther), what is the underlying idea here? What is unique about Purim that prompted a fuller acceptance of Torah than previously? Is this midrash perhaps saying something about the nature of Jewish Diaspora existence and Torah: that Torah, in the classical Rabbinic sense, is somehow a product of situations of restriction, persecution, the absence of socio-political autonomy and sovereignty? Or perhaps about God’s working in hidden ways in mundane human life as being somehow more persuasive than the dramatic, even bombastic miracles of the Exodus and the Revelation? I have no answers to these questions, but only wanted, at this point, to raise them as issues for reflection and consideration.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tzav-Purim (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives of this blog for April 2006. For more Purim teachings, see March 2006.

“All Fat … and all Blood You Shall Not Eat” (Lev 7:22-27)

With all the hullabaloo, festivity and studied foolishness surrounding Purim (which for us Jerusalemites extends over three entire days, through Shabbat and into the beginning of next week!), one tends to forget that there is also a regular Torah portion to be read and studied. Although this portion, Tzav, contains eighteen mitzvot—nine positive and nine negative, according to Sefer ha-Hinukh—only two of them are applicable outside of the Temple and its era. Moreover, the latter half of the parasha (Leviticus Chap. 8) is concerned with a singular, one-time event: yemei ha-miluim, the consecration or initiation of Aharon and his sons into the priesthood by Moses.

The two mitzvot observed nowadays are the prohibitions, respectively, against eating certain fatty portions of animals (helev), and that against imbibing the blood of both domesticated and wild animals, and of fowl. The former law apples specifically to those fats portions which were offered upon the altar, and which covered certain organs (the entrails, the kidney and the liver); it would therefore seem likely that the prohibition was an extension of the holiness attached to those parts; moreover, the fact that these were vital organs may relate to the theme of reverence for life and its processes, as is the case in the prohibition of blood. (In practice, this law is one with which the ordinary Jew need never concern himself, as in any kosher butcher shop or distributor the forbidden portions are removed prior to sale.)

By contrast, the prohibition against blood is one of the basic rules of kashrut. Today, most kosher meat is sold “kashered,” but until a generation or two ago the preparation of meat for cooking, through salting, draining and washing, was one of the important tasks of the Jewish housewife; the preparation for broiling of those organs that are rich in blood, such as the liver and the heart, was a particularly complex procedure. In any event, the underlying idea is clear enough, and is being articulated in several other places in the Torah where these prohibitions are repeated (Lev 17:11; Deut 12:16 ff.): “the blood is the nefesh (life/vital-soul-matter).” That is, the blood embodies the vitality of the animal; what we eat, after the blood is removed, is essentially dead flesh, not the actual life stuff of the animal.

Two related thoughts. The ban on blood is closely linked with two other laws in Judaism: the prohibition against sexual relations with a menstruating woman, which might be reformulated as “do not copulate on the blood”; and the prohibition against murder, defined as shefikhut damim, lit., “spilling of blood.” There is a kind of aversion to blood, a recoil from casual use of or contact with it, deep within the Jewish mentality; the law suggests and seems designed to inculcate a deep reverence for life. Year ago, Milton Himmelfarb elaborated upon this point, noting that there is something in the Jewish sensibility (one might almost call it the Jewish “aesthetic”) that abhors blood, seeing both blood and a certain type of unfettered sexuality as antithetical to Judaism. “Inchastity is the piety of paganism… Bloodshed is likewise the piety of paganism… They did not need to read Ovid or Petronius or Tacitus or Juvenal to know how the pagans were about sex and about blood.” (Cf. HY I: Metzora)

A second thought prompted by this parasha is that the strict prohibition against blood, as the carrier of life, suggests that vegetarianism is the ideal state, and that meat-eating is a kind of compromise with the reality of the human desire for meat. This has been suggested, most notably, by the late Rabbi A. I. Kook, in his pamphlet Hazon ha-Tzimhonut veha-Shalom, as well as by other rabbis and commentators. In Leviticus 17 the consumption of meat, at least that of domesticated mammals, is restricted to offerings made at the altar; only later, when the people had settled throughout the Land of Israel and it was too difficult from them to get to the altar routinely, eating meat in a secular setting was permitted, but then only “because your soul desires to eat meat” (Deut 12:20 and following). The term used to indicate the desire to eat meat, ta’avah, evokes the appetitive, lustful element entailed in eating meat. Similarly, the laws of dam, of scrupulously removing all blood from the animal’s flesh, emphasizes that (a) this food-stuff was once a living creature, whose life-blood flowed out of it at the time of slaughter; and (b) what we eat is the dead, non-vital component of it. The Edenic ideal of humans eating fruits and grain seems to remain in the background of this law.


Capsule Halakhot

For the benefit of those readers who are confused as to just how Purim is to be observed this year, I present a capsule summary of the laws governing Purim Meshulash (three-day Purim, for Jerusalemites), and Purim on Friday (elsewhere). Note: most of the laws given here apply only here in Jerusalem where, as a result of Shushan Purim falling on Shabbat, the different aspects of Purim are spread over three days. Only the last paragraph, relating to the proper time for eating the Seudat Purim on Friday, applies to other places.

Thursday Night/Friday, 14 Adar II, March 20-21: Megillah reading, night and day & gifts to the poor (matanot la-evyonim) during the day.

Friday night / Shabbat, 15 Adar II, March 21-22: Recite Al hanissim in all prayers and in Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals). Special Torah reading for Purim (Vayavo Amalek; Exod 17:8-16) is read as Maftir; the haftarah is a repetition of that for Shabbat Zakhor (Saul and Agag). One “talks about “ matters of Purim (sho’alin vedorshin).

Sunday, March 23, 16 Adar II: Purim Se’udah (festive meal) is postponed to this day, but one does not recite Al hanissim in the usual place, but as a special Harahaman at the end of benching. Mishloah Manot (sending gifts to one’s friends) In Jerusalem: recite neither Tahanun nor Lamnatzeah; elsewhere: no Tahanun.

Friday, March 21, outside Jerusalem: One holds the usual festive Seudat Purim, with two possible time options: (1) Late morning or early afternoon, finishing (eating; preferably also benching) approximately three hours before Shabbat (i.e., Minhah Ketanah); or (2) One begins the meal in the late afternoon after saying Minhah. In the middle of the meal, once Shabbat has begun, one covers the bread, recites Kiddush, and continues the same meal into Friday night as a Shabbat meal. Both Al hanissim and Retzeh are recited in the Grace after Meals. This latter option is strongly advised for those, e.g. living in the Diaspora, who must work on Friday.

“To You, Silence is Praise”

I have been trying to find something wise or deep or clever or paradoxical to say about Purim. I even started to write an essay on the “mitzvah” of not taking oneself seriously, with fanciful and humorous proofs based, as it were, on various biblical or Rabbinic proof-texts.

But then I realized that all that is besides the point. If one takes seriously the Hasidic teachings about Purim—for example, that the mitzvah of drinking “until one does not know” alludes to a state transcending cognitive knowledge—then one must, at least for one day, go beyond all the words and ideas and hiddushim that we are constantly grinding out, and arrive at the state described by the Psalmist, “To You, silence is praise” (Ps 65:2). I see a person, on Purim, drinking himself into silence. Not the oblivion of the alcoholic (although perhaps a person needs to get really drunk once in his/her life, as is the practice among teen-age yeshiva boys on Purim, to know what it’s all about), but a kind of “spaced-out” mellowness, in which the person, mildly inebriated, is content to simply be: to stop the constant race of the ego to be heard, to be seen, to do, to understand, to comprehend, to create, to innovate—and to simply sit back and be present. I envision an old-time hippie, high on grass, who simply sits and “grooves” on the world. And I am reminded, also, of some sentences from Henry David Thoreau about how even the best conversation eventually lapsing into silence, and that “Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment.” And, long before him, the words of Kohelet, about the surfeit of written words: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccles 12:12).

“He was Ahasuerus”

This year I found myself asking: Who was Ahashverosh? A strange midrash states that, wherever the Megillah refers to “the king” (hamelekh) without mentioning his name, this in fact alludes to God. Thus, “On that night the king’s sleep was disturbed” (6:1) because the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He, was disturbed by the murderous plot being hatched against His people. Who, then, was this king who in some sense served as a dwelling-place/incarnation/vessel (?) for the Almighty?

Quite simply, he was someone who lived out every pubescent boy’s fantasy. Every night he got to sleep with a different beautiful young virgin woman (by my calculation, during the four year period between the deposition of Vashti and the crowning of Esther, even deducting the initial twelve-month period in which they were being steeped in perfumery, he must have been with close to one thousand women —even the Islamic heaven with its seventy virgin can’t compete!), while spending all day drinking and feasting and carousing with his friends. He also like to show off—his wealth, and the beauty of his wife—and when he was thwarted in the latter, he reacted with rage. In short, an extraordinarily immature, self-indulgent individual (another reason women may have to like the Megillah—not only because of the female heroine, but because it seems to confirm the adage current among many feminist women that “all men are basically overgrown babies”). A few more examples of his basic stupidity: at the end of Chapter 1 he issues an edict “that all the women should honor their husbands”—as if such a thing could possibly be legislated! Secondly, in 7:8 he misconstrued Haman’s last-ditch attempt to save his skin by falling at Esther’s feet as an attempt at seduction! Surely, any intelligent person could have understood what was really going on through such things as body language, tone of voice tone, etc. Finally: apart from engaging in sex and acting and drinking, he doesn’t really do very much of anything. If one examines the sentences in which he speaks, he basically gives carte blanche to whomever enjoys his favor at the moment, whether Haman (a classic example of the pompous ass—but that’s for another time) or Esther. He was particularly susceptible to feminine flattery and wiles. After Chapter 7, following the scene of the second banquet and Haman’s conclusive downfall (or was it an upfall, hanging on the 50 cubit gallows?), he essentially turns the running of the empire over to Esther and Mordecai, so as to go back to partying and enjoying himself.

And this is the instrument God chose to affect redemption?! Yes—and that’s precisely the point. Hester panim, God working in concealment, behind the scenes, means that He utilizes precisely the least noble human traits and motivations, which He has Himself implanted in humankind, to turn the world around.

Postscript: I’ve been reading a lot of Phillip Roth lately. In one of his essays on American Jewish writers, he describes Bernard Malamud, especially in his novel The Assistant, as identifying Jewishness with a certain kind of high moral seriousness, if not actual suffering and martyrdom. This was a leitmotif of much of American Jewish culture as he knew it in his early years of writing. Indeed, much of Roth’s own writing is about his hero’s (a thinly disguised alter-ego) attempts to escape this mode, and to explore the ribald, the joyous, the pleasurable approach in life, without guilt. “To put the oy back in Goy, and the Id in Yid.” There is perhaps a little bit of this in Purim—although, unlike the Latin carnival, it’s hardly a holiday from morality.

A gutt’n Purim to all!

Vayikra-Zakhor (Mitzvot)

For more teachings, both on this portion, on Purim and on Shabbat Zakhor, see the archives to this blog, below, for March 2006.

“To Offer a Sacrifice to the Lord”

This week’s parasha gives a systematic presentation or codex of the basic types of animal sacrifice offered in the Temple and the mitzvot involved in their offering. Years ago I wrote about these chapters, asking the perennial question: How does it connect to us today? I suggested there (HY I: Vayikra = Vayikra: Torah) that it may be read as a kind of language or symbolic expression for the basic religious emotions.

To reiterate, I find three basic types of attitude towards God, corresponding to the three fundamental types of sacrifices: (a) awe, reverence, and self-abnegation before God (‘olah); (b) fellowship with God; seeing God (perhaps in radically immanent fashion?) as an intimate friend who shares our table and sits down to eat with us (shelamim); (c) guilt, contrition, failure, the sense of almost existential inadequacy (hatat, asham, me’ilah, etc.). These three are epitomized, respectively, in: the fixed daily offerings; the Paschal offering (Korban Pesah); and the great atonement ritual of Yom Kippur (Seder ha-Avodah; sa’ir ha-mishtaleah). Even though today we have no altar on which to offer these offerings, it seems to me that the emotional tone of ordinary daily prayer, of the Passover Seder, and of the Great Viddui (Confession) of Yom Kippur are very much a latter-day equivalent.

In addition, the basic idea of the sacrifices themselves is that of giving, of generosity, of offering something precious to God, of drawing close to Him by giving something of one’s self. Here too the core emotional and psychological attitude is not limited to animal sacrifices burnt on the altar, but encompasses a broad range of things: tzedakah, in which one gives of one’s wealth to others; prayer and study, in which one dedicates one’s time, the thoughts of one’s heart and mind, towards God; and acts of hesed, in which one performs kindnesses to others for the sake of Heaven. Thus, the basic ideas are in no wise limited to the Temple. As Hasidic writers are found of saying: each individual can become a mishkan for God to dwell on earth, and his service an altar upon which he offers his choicest talents.

Remembering Amalek & Reading the Megillah

This week there are two other specific mitzvot. The one, remembering Amalek, is fulfilled by the reading of the special Torah portion dealing with this subject this Shabbat; the other, the reading of the Megillah, will be performed this year on a single day, Thursday night and Friday, throughout the Jewish world.

The mitzvah of Amalek is paradoxical: at once to eradicate and utterly destroy, even wipe out even the memory of Amalek (originally, a desert tribe that viciously attacked Israel on their way out of Egypt; midrashically, the embodiment of all evil), but at the same time to remember them (“Do not forget!”)—an act performed this Shabbat by ritually reading the brief passage in the Torah that describes this very obligation (Deut 25:17-19; cf. Exod 17:8-16). I interpret this seeming contradiction as teaching that we must be ever conscious of Amalek, of the human capacity or even propensity for evil, both within the self and in the world without; in order to assure that the forces of good will ever have the upper hand (for this evil cannot ever really be eliminated) we must be constantly on guard against signs of Amalekism.

In my reading of the opening chapters of Genesis, I suggested that most forms or varieties of evil are a by-product of basic human drives, that are essential for life; the basic challenge is to civilize, to tame, to harness, to channel these powers into the service of the good and the enhancement of life. Thus, sexuality is needed to create life and build strong marital/familial bonds; aggression and even violence are necessary at times for sheer survival, or as a legitimate defense and protection of the weak; curiosity and intellectual pride are surely the crowning glory of humankind, but at times they may overstep their bounds into hubris, into an overreaching drive for knowledge or an exaggerated sense of one’s own power, as suggested in the stories of the Tree of Knowledge or the Tower of Babel.

Amalek, however, is pure wickedness: what Buber calls “radical evil.” It may be the impulse of the strong, or of the one who thinks he is strong, or who pins his identity on a false machoistic conception of masculinity, to prey on the weak. “And he trailed behind your rear, at all those who were weak, weary and tired…” This is evil rooted, not in any desire for personal advantage or benefit, nor in the service of any irresistible instinctive drive, but in sheer cussedness—hatred of the other, of the different, of the weak, or simply to feel superior.

The second special mitzvah to be observed this coming week is one not mentioned in the Torah at all (although some see it alluded to indirectly: see below), but a Rabbinic one: the reading of the Megillah on Purim night and day, and the other mitzvot associated with Purim. But although of “merely” Rabbinic provenance, it is viewed by the Sages as of great importance; halakhically, it takes precedence over just about everything else but met mitzvah (the burial of an abandoned, unattended, unknown corpse—perhaps the classic example of pure, gratuitous kindness to a fellow human being): possibly with some hyperbole, the Talmud notes that “priests at their Temple service, Levites on their song-platforms, and Israelites at their ma’amad vigils,” and scholars poring over their books, “all stop and come to listen to the reading of the Scroll” (Megillah 3a). Moreover, Rambam states that, of all the holy books, the Megillah alone will continue to be read in the time of Messiah (Hilkhot Megillah 2.18).

The question is: Why? Purim embodies three intertwined messages: a) that God acts in history ; b) that He does so in hidden ways, through the seemingly natural and even tragi-comic, ironic workings of human passion and machinations (there is more than a touch of the Rabelesian element in the Megillah story); and c) that these events take place to affect the salvation of the Jewish people, even (or perhaps especially?!) in Exile, where they are in large measure the passive objects of history. In brief, it is a celebration, more than anything, of the workings of Divine Providence—the most difficult and, some would say, counter-intuitive of all principles of Jewish faith. Perhaps that is why the day assumes the form of a carnival, celebrated with buffoonery and reveling in paradoxes.

This may also help to explain a strange maxim of Hazal we discussed several years ago: “From whence do we know that Esther is from the Torah? As it is said, ‘And I will surely hide My face (ואנכי הסתר אסתר את פני) on that day’ (Deut 31:18).” (b. Hullin 139b). The Talmud here makes a rather far-fetched pun in which the name Esther is based on a verse dealing with the hiddenness (astir et panay) of God’s face: on the one hand, we have the riddle of theodicy in all its force; on the other hand, the implication is that precisely there, in the hiddenness of God’s face, He is somehow, paradoxically, most revealed.


We continue our series, neglected for several weeks, with the third and last group of principles, those concerning God’s providence and His actions in the world. This group is doubtless the most difficult for many modern people. If the first five relate to God the Creator, and the second four relate to God as Lawgiver—which, even if not without certain theological difficulties, is at least perceived as grounding the universally-held human value of law and ethics, the last four principles, God as Author of History and as Judge, meting out reward and punishment to each individual, is far more difficult.

The tenth to thirteenth principles divide into two groups: the first two concern God’s active participation in the life of nations and individuals in the here and now, while the latter two are concerned with eschatology—events in the distant future, of Messiah and Resurrection of the Dead, in which the injustices of this life will be set aright.

X. God’s Omniscience: “He watches and knows our hidden things, He anticipates the end of a thing at its very beginning”

The tenth principle, that of Divine omniscience, is a logical predicate of Divine Providence. In order to judge us and administer just recompense, God must first know our actions, our movements, even the words we speak and our own intimate thoughts. It is the concept of Providence, more than any other, that distinguishes the Judaic God from the remote, uninvolved, “watchmaker” God of the Deists who sets the cosmos in motion and then retreats to His secret recesses.

The idea of God’s omniscience is the source of religious intimacy, and that which makes it possible to pray. It is precisely because He knows the actions of man, “He who looks and gazes to the end of the generations…,” and actively oversees the world, that He can be addressed regarding our mundane human concerns. And it is precisely this almost child-like posture that many modern thinkers find to be a problem.

XI. Reward and Punishment: “He recompenses man with grace [or: to the pious man] according to his acts; metes retribution to the evildoer according to his wickedness”

However, the real problem is not God’s omniscience, but the classical issue of theodicy: namely, How does God conduct His world? Is He actively involved in this world? And, if so, does He conduct it in a just way, causing the righteous to prosper and the wicked, sooner or later, to fall?

This idea flies in the face of ordinary experience of life, in which there too often seems no direct correspondence between a person’s (or nation’s!) moral and ethical behavior, and his/her/its fate. “When bad things happen to good people” is the title of a popular book by an American rabbi, and it is a perennial problem. Writ large, it is the underlying problem of Holocaust theology—but also of the destruction of the two Temples, and of all the disasters and expulsions and persecutions of Jews, and sufferings of other innocent people and peoples, throughout history. To which I would add, the so-called “answers” offered by the pious, from Job’s “comforters” to our own day, tend to be woefully inadequate. Thus, the explanations offered in certain Haredi circles for the Holocaust in Europe—that it was punishment for the assimilation and abandonment of tradition by large segments of German or Westernized Jewry, or punishment for Zionism, in which the Jews defied the Three Oaths mentioned in Ketuvot 111a, not to “force the End”—seem somehow obscene, an insult to the memory of the martyrs, many of whom were pious, devout and devoted Jews by any standard. And yet the alternative—that there is no explanation, that it is unfathomable, makes no sense—brings us perilously close to the notion, traditionally cited as a formulation of rank heresy, that Leit din veleit dayyan (“there is no justice and no judge”); i.e., that God has in fact abandoned His world to chance or, worse, to the vagaries of human evil.

This problem was already pondered by Biblical theology. On the one hand, we have the school of the Book of Deuteronomy, which asserts a clearcut mechanism of reward and punishment: e.g., the imprecations or curses in Lev 26 and Deut 28, or the Vehaya im shamoa read twice every day in Shema, in which God punishes or rewards in accordance with man’s actions. On the other hand, there are at least three biblical books—Job, Lamentations, and Kohelet—that struggled with and puzzled this problem, each in their own way, and that were unafraid to challenge Heaven. In the end, they did not end with any simple or pat answer, but with what were may be read as open-ended conclusions.

The Sages discuss this issue in many places. One classical sugya, in the opening chapter of the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 5a), discusses the meaning or cause of yesurim: human suffering. It begins by stating that, if an individual suffers, he should assume it to be due to some sin on his part, and take this as an opportunity to engage in moral reckoning and soul searching. But then it opens the very real possibility that it may not be punishment at all, but rather yesurim shel ahavah, “sufferings of love”—that is, suffering sent by God to somehow purify the individual, purge him of the dross in his soul, perhaps to alleviate the necessity of him undergoing punishment in the next life. And indeed, elsewhere in Hazal, olam haba, the life of the World to Come, figures prominently as the field in which unjust accounts in this life will be set right at last (but we will turn to that next week).

Maimonides himself set strict limitations on the applicability of hashgahah peratit, Individual Providence. First of all, he observes, most notably, that Providence does not cancel natural causality: that a person who lives in unhealthy fashion, who overeats or eats unhealthy food or never engages in physical exertion, will be more susceptible to illness; were he to have lived today, he would doubtless include a variety of behaviors and addictions—smoking, alcohol, reckless driving, promiscuous sexual behavior, and drug use—in which a person exposes himself to the relentless consequences of cause and effect. Moreover, he adds that not every trivial thing is as manifestation of Divine Providence, and concludes his discussion of this issue (in Guide III.17-18) by saying that only those who are on a high level, who “throw their trust upon God” and conduct themselves on the highest spiritual plane, will truly merit to have their lives governed by Divine providence.

Indeed, this area of Jewish belief is one in which there is perhaps the greatest diversity. As against Rambam’s rather austere and limited view, one finds the Hasidic-Kabbalistic view in which virtually everything that happens is God’s Will; there is even someone like the Izhbitzer, who verges on a type of determinism which largely limits human freedom. This school relies on the opinion within Hazal that “Even a leaf doesn’t fall off a tree in a certain way, pointing a certain direction, without God willing it so.” Incidentally, this view seems to be gaining a new lease on life in New Age writings, many of which stress “coincidence” as the form in which messages from the cosmos are embodied.

Why, then, if Rambam sees providence as applicable to a relatively limited area, does he include it among his basis articles of belief? Providence seems to be invoked here, inter alia, to encourage ethical and/or religious behavior. One must remember that Maimonides had a graduated approach to how and what ought to be taught to different groups of people. On the one hand, he saw the ultimate goal as that a person be motivated to “do the truth because it is the truth—and in the end the good shall come”: a kind of disinterested piety, beyond all ulterior motive, rooted in a deep love and awe of God and grounded in deep intellectual understanding. On the other hand, the path towards that goal, for “woman and children and those of lesser intellect” goes via promises of reward and threats of punishment (but which he also believed to be true; he was no Grand Inquisitor).

While there is much more to be said on this, indeed, I have barely scratched the surface, I must stop here. Perhaps we will continue next week.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Pekudei - Shekalim (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives to my blog for March 2006, below; for Parshat Shekalim, see February 2006.

“That which I feared, has come” (Job 3:25). I am shocked and saddened by the terrorist attack that occurred last night at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, in which eight youngsters were killed, shattering the illusory peace of our fair and holy city. May our leaders have the wisdom of heart and mind to respond to this latest escalation in the long chain of violence in a manner that not only gives vent to the immediate desire for vengeance, but will somehow open the way to true change.

Shekalim–Participation in the Communal Coffers

It is difficult to find any specific new mitzvah in Pekudei; hence, I will instead discuss the mitzvah described in the special maftir for this Shabbat: mahatzit-hashekel, the half-shekel (Exod 30:11-16). Every Israelite is required to donate one half-shekel towards the service performed in the Tent of Meeting, an act which also served as a means of counting the population. In Temple times, the half-shekel was an annual head tax, collected during the month of Adar, by which each person contributed to the maintenance of the ongoing sacrificial worship in the Temple—i.e., the regular daily, Shabbat and festival offerings. The public reading of this parasha on, or immediately preceding, Rosh Hodesh Adar, was a way of reminding everyone of their obligation.

When I was younger, I and most of my friends, who were busy rediscovering their Jewishness and trying to revitalize the community, tended to look askance at Jewish philanthropy. We saw the latter as a Judaism of giving rather than of doing—whether the “doing” was that of Zionism, synagogue activity, Torah study, or social justice. We decreed it, not only because it was an essentially vicarious act, but also because it seemed to be as much about stroking the egos of the wealthy donors as it was about the causes to which they donated. As I grew older, I began to understand that philanthropy has its place in the scheme of things, and that without it all kinds of things that I valued could not take place.

But in any event the idea of the half-shekel is not really about philanthropy in that sense. It is rooted in a very interesting and important concept: that the wealthy and powerful cannot overshadow the ordinary person, that each one has an equal part in the avodat hamikdash. The money used for the ongoing activity of the Temple, for the sacrifices offered in the name of the entire Jewish people, as a collective act of worship (the kohanim are merely the custodians and executors of this activity), must come equally from all. “The wealthy shall not add, nor the poor man diminish, from the half-shekel, to give the offering of the Lord” (v. 15). All are equal partners and, by implication, all are equally beloved in God’s eyes. In late Second Temple times, when there was an extensive Diaspora in Egypt and Asia Minor, the collection of the half-shekel enabled far-flung Jews, who in practice might not come up to Jerusalem for even one of the annual pilgrimages, to feel that they too had a part in this collective worship.

After the Temple was destroyed and sacrifices ceased, the collection of the half-shekel also stopped. But during the early years of the Zionist movement, this idea was revived and transferred, symbolically, to an annual contribution made by each Jew who wanted to identify with and support the movement of national renascence. A similar function was played by the famous blue box of the Jewish National Fund. The idea that the financial participation of every person, be it large or small, was of value, created a sense of social cohesion and that this great national endeavor belonged to all. Indeed, one might say that a similar function is played by membership dues in any organization, be it synagogue, ideological movement, political party, or whatever—namely, that every person counts.

The Four Parshiyot

The reading this Shabbat of Parshat Shekalim is the first in a series of four special Sabbaths during which a special reading is added to the regular Torah portion— Shekalim, Zakhor, Parah, and Hahodesh—each with its appropriate haftarah. There is usually a break or hafsakah in the four parshiyot, but this year, in our holy city alone, we will have the unusual situation in which, for five consecutive weeks, a second Torah scroll will be taken out of the ark, with a special reading for Maftir. Between Zakhor and Parah, on the Shabbat of the “break,” which falls on 15th Adar, Jerusalem will observe the Shabbat of (Shushan) Purim, on which the special Torah reading for Purim will be read as maftir (albeit the reading of the Megillah itself will be advanced to Thursday night and Friday, and the Purim feast postponed to Sunday).

There is much to be said about each one of these four parshiyot, but this year a simple but important question occurred to me: what is the common denominator of these four parshiyot? The practice as such is an ancient one, already mentioned in the mishnah in Megillah. But why were these specific readings chosen? Is there some common thread running through them all? Or is it merely a matter of the congruence of the special seasons— Rosh Hodesh Adar, Purim, Pesah?

It seems to me that the common denominator is that all four relate to a seasonal mitzvah that, while incumbent upon each individual, relates to the sense of Jewish collective, expressing some basic, formative collective experience or memory. Thus, Shekalim represents the participation of each individual in the collective act of worship in the Temple (Interestingly, one opinion in the Talmudic discourse concerning Parashat Shekalim, at Megillah 29b, suggests that the chapter to be read was in fact that of Numbers 28:1-8, describing the daily sacrifice!). Incidentally, as I discussed a whole ago, our own tefillah batzibbur is an act of worship of the public as a whole, not merely of the aggregate of its individuals (HY IX: Hayyei Sarah). Zakhor, the remembrance of what Amalek did to us (Deut 25:17-19), is focused upon the hatred or antagonism of certain elements in the non-Jewish world towards the Jewish poeple—surely, and sadly, a formative element in our historical experience (and one that is still alive, as we were reminded just last night—whatever other factors, socio-economic and nation-political, may come into play in our ongoing struggle with the Palestinian Arabs). Parshat Hahodesh (Exod 12:1-20) is read in preparation for Passover—the holiday that celebrates the birth of the Jewish nation, and whose ritual, whether of eating the Paschal lamb or sitting at the contemporary Seder table, expresses the individuals participation in and identification with the nation.

There would appear to be one exception to this rule: Parshat Parah (Num 19), read the week before Hahodesh, which describes the preparation of the ashes of the red heifer, used in the purification of the individual who had become ritually contaminated through contact with a dead body. But in fact, its reading in this context is clearly intended as related to the preparation for Pesah: the individual who has become impure must prepare himself halakhically to participate in the great group celebration. His purification is not an end itself, but is subservient to that larger end. Years ago, I heard Rav Soloveitchik deliver a Yahrzeit Shiur in memory of his wife on this subject, citing a midrash (Exod Rab. 19.2) comparing the red heifer and the paschal lamb to two noblewoman. “And which one is more important? Surely, that one whose fellow accompanies her to the door and then goes on alone.” Meaning that, paradoxically, the red heifer, because it is indispensable for those celebrating the Pesah, is more important—but only because it, too, is linked with that occasion symbolizing the birth of the community. Thus, these four chapters taken as a group teach the importance and centrality of the group’s collective, historical experience in forging the Jewish mentality.

Postscript: VAYAKHEL

In wake of our discussion last week about the rather harsh admonitions against performing labor on Shabbat, an interesting question occurred to me: It is customary to recite Kiddush on Shabbat morning, preceded by certain verses: usually, Veshamru (Exode 31:16-17) and Zakhor (Exod 20:8-11). Yet unlike the latter passage, Veshamru is read in truncated, incomplete form; only the last two of the six verses that constitute the parasha in Ki Tisa are read. The same holds true for other places where this passage is recited in the liturgy – i.e., in the Amidah of Shaharit for Shabbat and, in some rites, on Friday night just before Hatzi Kaddish.

The question, once again, is: Why? My answer is that, quite simply, the softer, more feminine side of Shabbat, the “Shabbat Queen,” is the dominant one. Whoever arranged the liturgy was reluctant to recite quite such a frightening passage on a regular basis—particularly on the Shabbat, meant to be a day of joy and pleasure. Perhaps, also (at least until modern times), Shabbat observance was so deeply rooted among the masses of the Jewish people, that there was no need to read such strong admonitions on a regular basis.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Vayakhel (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives to this blog for March 2006.

The Two Faces of Shabbat

A few weeks ago (HY IX: Beshalah) we discussed Shabbat as a day of poetic quality, as a “Temple in time,” as a focal point of transcendent beauty, of holiness, and of God’s presence in the world.

But there is also another, sterner side to Shabbat. In the parshiyot of both this week and last week, Shabbat appears briefly, seemingly out of context, in “cameo” passages, if one may speak thus (Exod 31:12-17; 35:1-3). These two brief passages “frame” the account of the revelation of God’s mercies in the Cleft of the Rock; they also serve as a kind of counterpoint to chapters of the construction of the Sanctuary that precede and follow them, suggesting a complex interplay between the ideas of Shabbat and Mikdash. Moreover, in both these passages the emphasis is placed on the prohibitions against doing any form of labor on Shabbat, and on the sanctions—karet, being “cut off,” and/or the death penalty!—for one who violates it. Moreover, from the opening three verses of this week’s parasha, the Sages infer several important legal principles about the laws of Shabbat: that there are 39 categories of forbidden labor (melakhot; inferred, both from the labors involved in constructing the Sanctuary, as well as from certain hints derived from the words אלה הדברים); and, from the verse singling out the prohibition against kindling fire for special mention, they learn that the 39 labors are formally divided from one another, and that each one is an entity unto itself, as far as penalties for violation of Shabbat goes (הבערה לחלק באה).

A few years ago, in our studies of Rambam, we mentioned (HY V: Beshalah; Yitro: Postscript) that, contrary to the familiar image of Shabbat as queen—a gentle, warm, loving, feminine presence—Rambam speaks of the Shabbat as king. He describes a kind of rudimentary Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony, in which one should dress in one’s finest raiment and sit in taut anticipation, saying the words “Let us go out to welcome Shabbat the King” (see Hilkhot Shabbat 30.2; and compare the feminine language in the relevant Talmudic passage, the saying of R. Hanina in Shabbat 119a. Indeed, Reuven Kimelman, in his book on Kabbalat Shabbat, discusses these two aspects: receiving Shabbat as a sublime spiritual presence, and accepting it in the sense of an authority, the “yoke” of Shabbat as a certain rule and discipline incumbent upon one for 24 hours.

It seems unfashionable these days to talk overly much about the harsher or more restrictive side of Judaism—the “don’ts,” which bring in their wake the possibility of violation and transgression, and with them the idea of sanctions and feelings of guilt and sinfulness, and the need for atonement that go with it. But this too is an essential component of Shabbat: ירא שבת, “fear Shabbat,” is one of the seventy permutations that Tikkunei Zohar derives from the word בראשית.

One might draw a certain analogy to a passage in Pirkei Avot (2.15 [or: 10; or: 13]), which I happened to study recently with my hevruta. Here R. Eliezer b. Azariah, after laying out his personal summum bonum, adds a rather strange statement about how one ought to relate to Sages: “Warm yourself by the glow of the Sages, but take care of their glowing ambers, lest you be burnt. For their bite is like the bite of a fox, and their sting is like the sting of a scorpion, and their hiss is like the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like fiery coals.”

What is the point of this ferocious portrait of the sages? Are not scholars and teachers, perhaps more than anyone else, expected to be models of moral and ethical character, which includes first of all eschewing anger and behaving towards others with love and humility? Of course, in the end talmidei hakhamim are like any other people, and run the gamut of personalities. Among the great sages, past and present, there were many who were models of modesty and love, radiating love and devotion to even the simplest folk, while there were others who were marked impatience, zeal, and even anger, all for the sake of Heaven—quite literally, “holy terrors.”

But beyond the anecdotal sphere, both these contradictory aspects are part of the image of the teacher of Torah (both traits can certainly be found within the figure of Moses, father of all teachers!), and they derive from certain innate structural conflicts. I would describe this as the polarity between what Rav Aharon Lichtenstein once called the “love of the father” and “love of the son.” On the one hand, the religious Jew ought to be overflowing with “love of the son”—the love of every Jew, as forming part of the covenant community—and, indeed, the love of every human being as such, as being made in the Divine image—that brings him to humility, to eradicating his own ego, to demonstrate love and warmth and joy to others as much as possible. But on the other, he burns with love of Torah and love of God; he is passionate in his desire to learn Torah, to worship God, and to perform the mitzvot in as perfect and complete a way as possible, and to teach this path to others—and at times, almost inevitably, this may express itself in anger and impatience with those who do not meet these high standards.

To return to the subject of Shabbat: these two faces of Shabbat are emblematic of God’s conduct of the world, of the nature of the Creation which Shabbat symbolizes, and of the Torah which was given and is studied on Shabbat. On the one hand, the strict, even harsh aspect, of law, of discipline, of objective, unbending norms; on the other hand, the maternal, loving, nourishing side (think of a Shabbat table filled with goodies). Or, at the risk of sounding old-fashioned: the strict, disciplinarian father-instructor (Shabbat the King), and the warm, nourishing. loving mother (Queen Shabbat). Even if one argue that these images may belong to a pre-egalitarian age, and in many modern families both parents strive to realize both these functions in their everyday life, in any value-rich reality these two sides surely exist: sternness and love, Hesed and Gevurah, and both are surely needed.

To conclude with a mystical insight, that may perhaps explain the severity of the Shabbat discipline: Shabbat was instituted to recognize and honor God’s creation of the universe. This is done through reciting Kiddush, through prayer and study, but most of all by ourselves refraining from labor that is in some sense “creative”—that alters material reality, as God did during the Six Days. On Shabbat, God so-to-speak rests, withdrawing His creative power from the cosmos. Thus, one who performs labor on Shabbat is as-if making use of an energy that in some metaphysical sense defies the Divine rhythm of the universe.

Postscript: KI TISA—Reader Comment

Last week I stated that: “The second, truly astonishing point is the role played by Moses in all this. Moshe Rabbenu, ‘the man of God,’ is not only the great teacher of Israel, the channel through which they learn the Divine Torah, but also, as it were, one who teaches God Himself.” Reader Susanna Levin, writing in response to this, raised a well-known problem:

The problem here is that if God needs Moshe to teach Him, that then detracts from God’s divinity, i.e., God should “know better.” Your comments?

Susanna’s point is well taken. But I’m not alone in this idea. There are many midrashim which say radical and daring things about the man-God relationship. Note the series of daring midrashim elaborating Moshe’s dialogue with God in wake of the Golden Calf. But not only midrash: When Abraham challenges God viz. the people of Sedom—“Shall not the judge of the whole earth do justice”—this is a similar mode of thinking. The inevitable conclusion is that the perfect God of the philosophers (and I mean our own philosophers, Rambam, his later medieval followers, and the whole slew of 19th century rationalist idealists) is a far cry from the God of the Bible and the Midrash.

At times, the midrashic authors seem to have been overwhelmed by their own theological daring. On such occasion, to indicate the problematic or fen paradoxical nature of their words, the hutzpah involved in reading things this way, they would throw in the words “as it were” or “so to speak” (kivyakhol), or even “Were it not written, we would not dare to say such a thing.”