Sunday, May 25, 2008

Behukotai (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog at May 2006 and May 2007.

Arkhin – “Valuations”

This parasha is best known for the tokheha, the imprecation or rebuke that seems the culmination of the message of the Book of Leviticus. (Thus Mary Douglas, who in her Leviticus as Literature describes the arrangement of Vayikra as a “walk” around the Sanctuary, sees this chapter as the literary counterpart to the spacial “Holy of Holies.”) But that chapter has no mitzvot. The book, however, concludes with one more chapter, whose purpose is rather difficult to fathom—the section of Arkhin, “valuations.” The Torah describes a situation where a person vows to pay a certain fixed sum of money, known as his erkhekha, his valuation, to the Temple treasury. This chapter, Leviticus 27, lists the “valuation” for the two sexes and for different age groups, from infancy through childhood, youth, and adulthood, and into old age, as well as discussing valuations of animals and other property, and various miscellaneous laws about substitutions made between sacrifices, etc.

My question is this: we know that a person may make a vow to bring an animal or other sacrifice to the Temple, or simply bring one voluntarily (neder or nedava). He may also pledge money or a specific valuable to the Temple coffers. Then there are offerings of gratitude (todah) that may be brought when appropriate. Why, and under what circumstances, would a person be moved, rather than bringing a lamb or goat (or a bushel of grain, or olives, or wine), to say “I shall bring my valuation”? I of course haven’t read everything, but I have never even come across a discussion of this question, let alone an answer. (Perhaps one my readers can help me with such a source)

The only answer I can come up with—and this is speculative—is that such a vow was moved by a sense of being totally in God’s hands, that one owes one’s entire life, one’s very being, to the All Merciful , and one wished to express that idea symbolically by offering one’s “value” to God. This might be the result of deep contrition, of having committed a sin of such magnitude that one feels worthless—as if to say, “By rights, He ought to take my life”! Or it might be the result of great joy or relief, perhaps after recovering from grave illness or experiencing some dangerous, near-fatal event. Of course, the sacrifices of todah, or hatat, and in a certain sense even olah, may also serve this purpose; indeed, there is a homiletic line of interpretation in which animal sacrifices in general are seen as corresponding to the person’s own “vital-animal soul,” the korban being offered in the person’s stead. But somehow the wording of erkhi ‘alay is more suggestive of the offering made being very specifically keyed to the person‘s own self (or that of another person—wife, child, elderly parent) whose “value” is being offered.


Chapter Four

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every man…. Who is brave? He who conquers his own urges. … Who is wealthy? He who rejoices in his portion….. Who is honored? He who honors others.

This chapter consists mostly of sayings of the tannaim from the generation of Yavneh and the Hadrianic persecution that followed, including both those who died a martyr’s death during that period, and those who survived and helped to establish the new, alternative center of Torah in the Galilee thereafter.

In this mishnah, I have omitted the proof texts, preferring to concentrate on the message of the mishnah per se. This mishnah might be compared to a Zen koan: that is, a brief epigram (or, in this case, four short epigrams on one theme) whose purpose is to upset preconceived, conventional notions—in this case, as to what it means to be an outstanding person. The wealthy man is not the millionaire, but the one who knows how to accept life, whether he has much or little. The wise man is not the erudite expert, but the person who knows the limits of his own knowledge, and that, even though he may be expert in a given field, he has much to learn from other people. (This is perhaps the distinction between knowledge or, as we would say, information, and real wisdom.) The hero is not only one who can withstand external threats, but who is master over his own inner desires, which may be chaotic or egotistical. (Whenever I read this I think of Natan Sharansky, surely a paradigm of modern Jewish heroism, who after bravely withstanding the crushing force of the Soviet regime, confronted the totally different test of involvement in the quagmire of Israeli political life. I think he acquitted himself not badly.) There is a saying—I’ve heard it used in Jewish Musar sources, and that it originates in Islamic sources—that soldiers returning from the front are told “You have won the small battle; now you must face the great battle!” That just about sums it up.

A Halakhic Quandary

This week I received a rather unusual and intriguing question, one of the strangest I’ve ever received in my life as a rabbi:

Rabbi, Why isn't there a brakha for when you see a very beautiful girl-woman? Aside from the obvious answer that the Sages knew that this would lead to...... We say a brakha over a king and a big hakham. I hold that instead of thinking “Wow!” when seeing a certain kind of woman, we should quietly say a brakha. A birkat ha-nehenin [i.e, a blessing recited when experiencing pleasure from a given thing]? Or should we say it outloud and have others say Amen?... Some might say no Amen is required. Others would hold that, rather than thinking “Wow!” or say “Did you see that?,” they should instead say Amen... Is this Modern Orthodox Halakha here?

To begin: the most obvious problem is that the Sages were greatly concerned with the Yetzer ha-Ra, the sexually arousing aspect of seeing a woman. Thus, there is the statement in b. Shabbat 64b that “Whoever gazes at the little finger of a woman is as if he gazed at the place of her nakedness.” This is even codified as halakhah! (Rambam, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 21.2; Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer 21.1)

But, for better or worse, most of us do not live in a society in which women and men lead almost completely separated lives—and most of us would say that this a good thing; that our ideal ought to be a “mixed but modest society.” True, there are certain kinds of ways in which men look at women which are offensive, or which may even be felt by the woman who is their object as invasive, as an assault upon their person. (And, by the way, aren’t women sometimes sexually attracted by seeing an attractive man? Why is the halakhah formulated in a one-way manner? Tovah Hartman addressed this problem some few years ago in an interesting piece in the magazine De’ot.) On the other hand, I have heard from more than a few women that deliberate avoidance of eye contact by the pious makes them feel uneasy and uncomfortable, as if emphasizing their sexual nature above all else. One friend of ours, herself quite strictly Orthodox, said that she never went to speak with a certain rabbi whose writings she greatly admired because she feared an awkward encounter of that type.

It seems to me that for us, in our culture, reciting a blessing upon seeing a woman (or any person) whose beauty draws our attention in a striking way could be a positive thing. The goal of such a brakha would be to elevate the experience to its source in the Divine—something particularly important in this case, where the response to female beauty, for the ordinary man, doubtless involves a mixture of the sexual and the aesthetic. This is actually a basic Hasidic idea. Thus, R. Nahum of Chernobol states several times in Me’or Einayim that one who feels love (including erotic attraction?) towards someone, should turn it towards its root in the Divine quality of love, thereby elevating it to its source.

Prof. Ben Ravid of Brandeis, in a discussion among friends on this subject, mentioned the saying at the very end of Yerushalmi Kiddushin, “A person is held culpable for whatever he’s eyes saw and from which he did not derive pleasure.” This reflects another, more down-to-earth approach to the problem. The saying expresses an anti-ascetic tendency, one suggesting that the person who is overly abstemious in avoiding life’s legitimate pleasures is not holy, but merely prudish: enjoying those things God placed in His world is a way, indirectly, of acknowledging His blessings. Of course, in its original context this saying refers primarily to gastronomic delicacies and the like; in the case of a woman, the pleasure is obviously limited to seeing and appreciating her beauty, and not to other kinds of pleasure one might readily imagine.

The secondary question that then arises is: if so, what blessing ought one to recite for female (and human) beauty? At first blush, I thought it might be most appropriate to model a blessing after those recited upon seeing a wise person or a mighty leader: שחלק מחכתמו ליריאיו/לבשר ודם and שחלק מכבודו ליריאיו / לבשר ודם: that is, that human wisdom and human honor or grandeur is a reflection of Divine wisdom or Divine grandeur. Thus, one might recite a blessing alluding to human beauty as reflecting a Divine trait; perhaps something like שחלק מהודו/ מיפיו לבשר ודם.

But the accepted halakhic principle today is that the repertoire of blessings is closed. We cannot create new brakhot, but can only apply the existing formulations to new cases or new applications. A survey of friends and colleagues yielded two main options: משנה הבריות , “He who varies the creatures,” recited over seeing a person of unusual appearance; and שככה לו בעולמו, “that there is such in His world,” recited over beautiful sights. The former is more associated with people of bizarre or freakish appearance; the latter is classically recited upon encountering impressive and beautiful scenic vistas. On balance I tend more towards the latter, as less problematic. And I conclude this little essay by thanking my friend for inspiring, perhaps unwittingly, such a fruitful and significant discussion, which ultimately touches upon crucial issues of the application of halakhah in our modern world of changing values and perceptions.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Behar (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives of this blog, below at May 2006.

“When your brother waxes poor…”

This parashah, which essentially consists of a single chapter, Leviticus 25, encapsulates the Torah’s economic philosophy. It begins with the institutions of the Sabbatical and jubilee years: the laying fallow of the soil, the freeing of Hebrew indentured servants, a general moratorium on debts (Deut 15:1-11), and the restoration of ancestral homesteads to their original owners. It continues with laws against unfair pricing in business and rules fixing the value of a field in relation to the number of years left till the jubilee. The first section (vv. 1-24) concludes with a promise of Divine blessing and abundance, despite the moratorium on agricultural labors, if those laws are observed.

The sequel to the sections about shemitah and yovel is a series of paragraphs, covering a variety of different situations, all of which begin with the words כי ימוך אחיך—“when your brother waxes poor…”: if he sells his ancestral homestead… if he sells a house within a walled city… if he goes into debt… if he sells himself into slavery to another Israelite… if he sells himself to a stranger…., etc. In all these situations, one is obligated to do whatever is necessary to extricate the person from his difficulty.

The term used here to refer to the person who helps his misfortune brother is go’el. This term, from the root גאל, is familiar to most of us from the concepts of national redemption—ge’ulat Mitzrayim / ge’ulah ha-atidah—the redemption from Egypt, or the future messianic redemption of the entire nation. In both these cases the term bears more than a touch of miraculous overtones, and is something performed by God Himself, in the context of redemptive history, or perhaps meta-history. But here the act is identified with that of a person who redeems another individual from his private predicament—who lays out cash to restore his land or his home, to buy back his freedom, etc. In the Book of Ruth (which we’ll be reading shortly, on Shavuot), Boaz performs an act of geulah for the family of his late kinsman Elimelekh by redeeming the lost property of the family plus marrying his widowed daughter-in-law, Ruth. In Numbers 35:9 ff. the goel hadam, “redeemer of the blood,” is one who is zealous to avenge the spilt blood of his relative that has been spilt through accidental manslaughter.

How ought one to understand the underlying social and economic philosophy here? The Torah’s legislation occupies an interesting position outside of the modern dichotomy of capitalism and socialism, but is if anything closer to the latter. (All this, notwithstanding those, like 19th century sociologist-economist Werner Sombart, who drew a connection between Judaism and the capitalist spirit—which may have existed de facto in the early modern world.) To be sure, there is private property, and clear halakhic definitions of who owns what. But the central rule is not that of each man looking out for himself and his immediate family, of the accumulation of wealth as the greatest aspiration of every person. Rather, the basic idea is of life as a network, a weave of obligations, of responsibilities, of caring. It’s not clear to what extent the help given by the goel is an absolute obligation, and to what extent it devolves upon whatever member of the extended family is able to help out. Thus, one who sells himself into servitude to a Gentile is to be redeemed “by one of his brothers, or his uncle, or his cousin, or other flesh from his family” (vv. 48-49).

All this is in striking contrast to the dominant mores of our times. We live in a time of ever more powerful, monolithic capitalism; of globalization, of multi-national corporations that, despite the upbeat rhetoric, and the fact that they may bring jobs and capital to far-flung parts of the world, essentially concentrate wealth, power, and decisions about the shape of our countries and our world in a small number of hands.

More important: the cultural impact of these developments is deeply negative, destructive of both true humanism and true spiritual values. The underlying philosophical assumption of such capitalism is that “man is a wolf to man”—that is, that competition, ruthlessness, the attempt to outfox the other, is not only essential to human nature, but is the most salient feature of human nature. I intend to write about this at greater length on another occasion (I submitted a proposal on this idea to the Bronfman Competition at Brandeis, which received honorable mention and was posted at their site), but it seems clear to me that one of the central features of contemporary life—so ubiquitous that we often fail to see it—is the disintegration of community, the centrality of the individual and his feelings, needs, perceptions, without any clear basis for the idea of duties and responsibilities to the larger society or polis. (Without elaborating, I see today’s far-reaching changes in the areas of sexuality and family as also stemming from this.)

The individual is taught from an ever earlier age to see him/herself in largely individual terms, as competing in life with others. I understand that some schools in the United States deliberately break up and reshuffle classes every year, so that students will not form deep, long-term friendships that might interfere with their developing of the competitive instincts needed to “succeed” in our society—the ability to go for the jugular. (I guess that by this standard the Baal Shem Tov or the Hafetz Hayyim would be considered outstanding failures.) All this is justified as the pursuit of “excellence” and “achievement”—as if these were the only conceivable goals in life.

Incidentally, the widespread notion that both the dictatorial nature of Soviet communism and its subsequent fall somehow “prove” that socialism is unworkable and against human nature, in fact proves nothing of the kind (viz. Fukayama and others). Recent events in Russia would suggest that the faults of the USSR have as much to do with the Russian national character and its political tradition, harkening back to the days of the Czars, as they do with Marxist-Leninism.

Of course, things are not all black and white. The ideal of mutual caring and responsibility is still very much alive in many circles, and inter alia is still inculcated to an extent within religious Jewry. A few examples: this week I heard about a woman I’ve known for some time, well past retirement age, who explained that works full-time as a consultant from her home, not only because she enjoys using her skills and knowledge, but also in order to earn money needed to help various members of her extended family. Within my own extended family, I am reminded of the case of a young woman with over a dozen children, all still at home, whose husband died of leukemia before the age of 40. The brother-in-law (who had been the hevruta and best friend of the deceased husband) supported the widow, so that she could devote herself to raising her children without economic worries. A third example relates to Moshe Klibanov (see HY VIII: Aharei-Kedoshim), whose first yahrzeit was observed this week by our community. One of the things mentioned about him at the azkarah was that, while his own economic situation was far from being prosperous, he never turned away anyone who asked for help empty-handed, even when he himself had virtually nothing. Perhaps these stories are not so unusual, after all; perhaps the idea of helping one’s extended family in time of need is a natural human response, and the idea of turning a deaf ear and a cold shoulder, of “social Darwinism” taught by a certain version of capitalism, is that which is alien to human nature.



I am beginning, somewhat belatedly, a new series: comments and insights on the Mishnaic tractate of Avot, better known as Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” which is customarily read during the summer months, and especially between Pesah and Shavuot. In Ashkenazic practice it is read following Minhah of Shabbat; among some Sephardim, it is read at the end of Musaf. One chapter is read each week; a sixth chapter, known as Beraita Kinyan Torah, which is not strictly speaking part of the Mishnaic tractate, is read on the sixth week, so as to complete the cycle of six non-festival weeks between Pesah and Shavuot, as well as to serve as a kind of introduction to Shavuot, the festival of Giving (or, some would say, Receiving) the Torah. The cycle is repeated a second time between Shavuot and the 17th of Tammuz; a third time between 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh Elul; and yet a fourth time, albeit truncated and doubling over the final chapters, during the month of Elul.

Our presentation will be keyed to this cycle: each week we will discuss a few mishnayot from the reading for that week, proceeding chapter by chapter, and returning where we left off in subsequent cycles. Hopefully, by the end of the summer we will have covered a good part of this well-loved little book.

An introductory comment: the tractate as a whole serves two distinct purposes. The first, more familiar and obvious to most, is to present a series of epigrams about life, morality, Torah, how a person ought to behave—brief but profound sayings that the various Sages were in the habit of repeating, perhaps as a kind of “summing up” of their life philosophy: hence its popular English title, “Ethics of the Fathers.” The second and more central aim of the tractate is to authenticate the Oral Torah by enumerating the links in the chain of tradition, thereby showing its ultimate roots in Sinai. This is especially clear in the opening mishnah, but may be seen in the organization of the tractate as a whole, which presents quite a complete listing of the generations of the Sages, with brief epigrams cited in the name of each one. Thus, following the introductory mishnah, the first chapter is organized around the zugot, the pairs of senior sages, nasi and av bet din, from the Great Assembly that existed in the earliest days of the Return to Zion, down to Hillel and Shammai. The second chapter centers upon Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and his five disciples, the key figures in establishing the Torah center in Yavneh following the Destruction of the Second Temple. And so forth.

Chapter One

1. Moses received the Torah at Sinai, and gave it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the prophets, and the prophets gave it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be moderate [or: deliberate] in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah.

The underlying concept of this tractate, as mentioned earlier, is shalshelet hadorot—the chain of the tradition through the generations. Rav Soloveitchik often repeated the idea that Judaism, more so than it is a religion of revelation, is a religion of a “Masorah community,” of received tradition, of faith in our predecessors, who have passed down the tradition as they received it. Reportedly, when the Rav gave semikhah to his students, he would say, “You are now charged with passing on the tradition of Torah as you have received it.” In such a community, being able to say “I do such-and-such in this way because I saw my father / my teacher doing it thus” is one of the more powerful arguments that may be evoked; more so, even, than saying “It is written thus in such-and-such a book.” In much the same way, we are expected to pass it on; hence, the essential act of Talmud Torah (e.g. in Rambam, Talmud Torah 1.1-2), more so than for a person to himself study at fixed times, is for each father to teach his children.

And tradition, most essentially, means Torah sheba’al peh, the Oral Torah, which is intimately bound with the process of human transmission, of teaching, of the relationship of direct contact between rebbe and talmid, mentor and disciple. Note: this involves, not only the actual contents of what is taught, but the very being of the teacher, a certain way of being in the world, a model to be emulated, that is somehow also transmitted through this process.

One of the reasons for emphasizing the authenticity of the tradition is that the Sages were well aware of the gap between the written Torah and the traditions of Oral Torah; they realized that the laws found in the Oral Torah often seemed like a tour de force, presenting concepts and practices whose connection with the scriptural text often seemed tenuous at best (“the laws of Shabbat are like mountains hanging from a hair; the laws of releasing oaths are as if suspended in mid-air”—Mishnah Hagiggah 1.8). Hence, the exegetical reasoning that fill many pages of the Talmud, combined with the faith in the chain of tradition, were crucial to support its validity.

We now turn to the second half of this mishnah, the saying quoted in the name of the Men of the Great Assembly (itself a rather ambiguous group, whose historicity has been questioned by some). Note that all three clauses of this saying are addressed, not to everyman, but specifically to the Sages, to those who function in capacities of Torah leadership among the people—in brief, the members of the Sanhedrin. (This pattern may be seen in many other saying in Avot, which is a mélange of internal discourse among the leadership, and epigrams of more general purport.) The first phrase (“be deliberate in judgment”) refers to the process of judgment itself; “raising up many disciples” relates to teaching, the quintessential activity of the ”chain of tradition” described earlier; while “making a fence for the Torah” alludes to the legislative function of the Rabbis, to protecting the integrity of the Torah and its observance by various precautionary measures (e.g., muktzeh and Rabbinically prohibited labors as a kind of “fence” around Shabbat laws; separate sets of dishes and other kitchen utensils as a fence around kashrut; the avoidance of close physical contact or intimate situations between the sexes as a “fence” against sexual license; etc.). All this is based upon a keen sense of the psychology of temptation.

2. Shimon the Righteous was among the remnants of the Great Assembly. He said: The world stands upon three things: the Torah, on the Divine service, ad on the practice of acts of kindness.

Here, too, we have a list of three central ideas: a list of those things that are most essential to the existence of the world, namely, three central areas of Divine service (based on the notion that the universe itself was created for the sake of man’s, or more specifically Israel’s, service of God). These three might also be described as three dimensions of human spiritual-cultural activity: the intellectual; the spiritual-theological-devotional; and the ethical-inter-personal.

Note that none of these can exist without the other two. Thus this mishnah, in addition to identifying these fundaments as such, is also about the importance of harmony or balance. The image of the world standing on these things is a concrete physical one: a three-legged stool, the minimum number needed for any kind of stability. Or, one might say that these three represent not only polarities, but also built-in checks and balances (as in the three branches of government in the US system). Each of the two balances a certain potential for excess that exists in the third; each one by itself counterbalances the drawbacks of the other two.

I am reminded of a Hasidic saying—what they call a sharfer vort, “a sharp word”— I heard once from Rav Adin Steinsaltz. In the original Yiddish: “M’darf zein klug, und frum, und gutt. Klug alayn ist a ganiff; frum alyn ist a galakh; gutt alayn ist a noyef!” This translates, roughly, to: “A person needs to be clever, and pious, and good. One who is clever alone can be a thief! One who is pious alone is tantamount to a [Christian] priest; one who is good alone [i.e., kind-hearted, with a tendency towards sentimentality] can be an adulterer!” In essence, this saying is about the same three fundaments: Klug is Torah; frum is Divine service, worship, taken by itself; and gutt alone is deeds of kindness.

Of course, we have always had personalities or movements in Judaism that primarily emphasize one or another of these three: there is the talmid hakham, the scholar, devoted exclusively to study of Torah, who is a walking repository of knowledge and erudition; there is the ba’al avodah, the pietist who has cultivated the soul attitude characteristic of prayer as the central paradigm for his religious life (the conventional wisdom is that the debate between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism was essentially as to which of these two models I most central); and then there is the ba’al hesed, the man (or woman) devoted to deeds of human kindness and caring, who is always visiting the sick, arranging help for the indigent, inviting the lonely, attending every funeral, shivah, brit and wedding, etc. etc. (Gershom Scholem has a little essay entitled “Three Types of Jewish Piety” in which he elaborates upon three different, but related models).

Chapter Three

And a brief taste of Chapter Three, this week’s chapter. I don’t have a clear sense of the organizing principle underlying the specific choice of sages quoted here, so I will go straight into the first mishnah without further ado:

Akavia ben Mehalallel said: Look at three things and you shall not come to sin. Know from whence you come, to where you are going, and before whom you will need to give an accounting. From whence did you come? From a putrid drop [of semen]. To where are you going? To a place of earth and worms. And before whom will you need to give an accounting? Before the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.

Whenever I read this mishnah, I see in my mind’s eye the Jew from the Hevra Kaddisha of Kehillat Jerusalem, who chants this mishnah in a lugubrious voice at the end of every funeral,. Interestingly, the opening mishnah of Chapter 2 is concerned with the selfsame question: “Rabbi [i.e., Judah the Prince] said: Look at three things, and you shall not come to sin. Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds recorded in a book.”

What is the difference between these two formulations? The mishnah in Chapter 3 is what might be called “powerful medicine,” administered when all else fails, pulling man into line morally and spiritually by reminding him of his mortality and attempting to arouse disgust and contempt for life itself, with all its pleasures and pains and loves and hatreds. We all owe our existence to the almost random event of a particular act of love or lust which, possibly without any deliberate intention, led to our conception. (King David is portrayed by the midrash as being drive half-mad by this fact; see Lev Rab. 14.5, elaborating on Ps 51:7; and see HY III: Tazria-Metzora= Tazria-Metzora [Midrash]). And, at the other end of life, we will all end up with our body moldering in the grave.

Yet these thoughts, taken by themselves, might well lead one to despair, or to its seeming flip side—hedonism; living for the present moment; cynicism about any absolute truth or values. Without “the fear of God”—which I interpret to mean, not only fear in the literal sense, or even awe of the Divine majesty, but the basic sense of norms and ethics rooted in the presence in the universe of a Creator—there is no firm basis for morality. Of course, there are many good men who call themselves atheists and agnostics, just as there are many pious and outwardly “religious” scoundrels, and many wise men have worked hard and written thick tomes to provide a secular basis fur moral philosophy—but the end result remains shaky and tenuous.

The mishnah in Chapter 2 arrives at the same conclusion, but without invoking the stark and gruesome images of our physical mortality. As the Rav puts it in Halakhic Man, the two mishnayot might be compared to the healthy-minded, confident approach of “halakhic man,” as against the preoccupation with death and sin and pietistic stock-taking that are the stock in trade of certain Musar schools. He concludes with the caustic observation that strong medicine is needed only for the sick, not the healthy.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Emor (Mitzvot)

Due to the work involved in setting up our new home, we have not yet had time to write the promised commentaries on Pirkei Avot, which was to have begun immediately after Pesah. These will hopefully follow soon. Meanwhile, for more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog, below at April/May 2006.

“These are My Appointed Times”

This week’s parashah contains, in Leviticus 23, the most comprehensive summary of all the festivals or mo‘adim (“appointed times”) of the year, each in turn with their special mitzvot. Rambam lists a total of fourteen mitzvot relating to these days in a general way: two mitzvot—to rest on each of these days, and not to perform labor therein—for each of the seven days. (The Gaon of Vilna, somewhat whimsically, applied to these days the verse: “Six days you shall work, and on the seventh you shall rest.” On six days—the First and Seventh Days of Pesah, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, First Day of Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret—we are permitted to engage in labors relating to okhel nefesh, preparation of the food needed for the festive day; while the seventh day, Yom Kippur, is a day of complete cessation of all labors.)

Is there a basic conception underlying the festival days, over and beyond the specific meaning of each day and its peculiar mitzvot? It seems to me that the mo‘adim imply a particular conception of time. Whereas the modern, scientific view sees time as an undifferentiated medium, subject to objective, uniform measure, the Torah sees each time period as unique, as rich in contents and meaning. The Shabbat, especially when counterpoised to the servitude in Egypt, is based on the notion that man is more than a beast of burden, that he requires time to be at rest, to “take breath” (שבת וינפש), to reflect upon deeper questions of life. The festival days, even more so, see man as imbued with memory, as a creature of culture and symbols. These days are set aside to impress upon him a whole complex of meaning. As Samson Raphael Hirsch once put it: “The calendar is the catechism of the Jew.” That is, we don’t have a systematic set of dogmas, but through the cycle of the year the Jew relives the full gamut of messages and historical experiences of his people.

Our Sages viewed the Shabbat as part of the very fabric of Creation, implanted within the universe from the beginning of time (this, despite the fact that the week is the only unit of time that, unlike the day, month and year, is not based upon natural phenomena, upon the movements of the heavenly bodies). The mo’adim are commanded in the Torah, but they are somehow turned over to man—specifically, to the Sanhedrin, the Highest Court of the Jewish people—who are commanded to set up a calendar, to sanctify and declare new moons, and even to intercalate an extra month when needed. The Midrash states that even God and the heavenly entourage address Israel to ask when Rosh Hashanah, Pesah, or Yom Kippur fall.

Yom Tov—the festival day—also differs from Shabbat in its halakhic structure. It is easier than Shabbat, a day on which the most irksome restrictions, on cooking and carrying, do not apply. This is so because, in addition to being occasions of teaching-by-doing and eliciting memory, the festivals are also times for joy and celebration—which are facilitated by its lighter restrictions.

In the Bible we find the expression ka’et hayah—literally, “when time comes alive,” meaning, “at this same time next year.” The notion seems to be that the year turns back upon itself, that a given date contains within it some of the qualities of that same date in an earlier time—and never more so than on the various festival days. (Whether this is to be taken literally or metaphorically is an ongoing debate between Kabbalistic and rationalist-philosophical approaches within Judaism.)

Kiddush Hashem vs. “Religion”

In the Western world religion is often thought of as an optional” leisure time activity—and at that one that is relatively minor. Christians go to church on Sunday, Jews to synagogue on Saturday or Friday night—and that is about it. The mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, of “sanctifying God’s Name,” inferred from verse 22:32 (but see our discussion earlier this year in connection with the Akedah: HY IX: Vayera), is significant in two ways: first, that it implies complete devotion, willingness to die rather than violate God’s mitzvot if need be. Quite simply, the Torah is the central commitment of one’s life, the source and focal point of all values and meaning. Moreover, even if one is hopefully not confronted with the ultimate test—of having to choose between death and violating the three cardinal prohibitions of bloodshed, idolatry, and sexual immorality—Kiddush Hashem is manifested through living a holy life (viz. last week’s discussion). Thus, the Talmud relates that Rav said that Hillul Hashem (i.e., the flip side of Kiddush Hashem) occurs whenever a Jew, especially a learned person, behaves in an unethical fashion—even failing to pay his bills on time (Yoma 86a)—in such a way as to set a negative example.

Secondly, the words “Kiddush Hashem” are understood quite literally: namely, that by our actions we sanctify God’s name in this world. By our behavior, including willingness to undergo martyrdom, but also by less dramatic, everyday actions, we give testimony to God’s presence in the world.

Yom ha-Atzmaut (Mitzvot)

Israel at Sixty

Some time ago I was invited by Michael Lerner of Tikkun Magazine to participate in a symposium on the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary. While at the time I did not submit my thoughts to that forum, the questions he posed seem a useful framework for our discussion here.

How ought a religious or secular Jew think about the State of Israel at the time of its 60th anniversary?

I conceive of Israel as an historical, not a meta-historical entity—and this does not bother me as a religious Jew. The formula used by official Religious Zionism, reshit tzemihat ge’ulatenu, implying that the State is the harbinger of the ultimate messianic Redemption, does not particularly address my concerns as an Israeli. One of the central messages of classical Zionism was that Jewry or Jewishness is defined in terms of nationhood, peoplehood, being a tribe, civilization, culture, or whatever—in short, of belonging to a collectivity, without any preconceived religious definition or mission. In the modern world, secular Jews are an important part of the mosaic called Judaism. I call myself a religious zionist (lower-case letters), who sees Zionism as the most significant historical enterprise of the Jewish people of the past millennium or more, and one in which religious Jews should have a significant input. However, its Jewish value does not stand or fall on grandiose theological definitions. As Yeshayahu Leibowitz once said, “Zionism originated in the sense of being fed up with being ruled by Goyim.” (To my mind, such an approach also goes a long way towards answering the objections of people, such as a friend of mine, who does not say Hallel on Yom ha-Atzmaut “because I have a bit of the Satmarer in me.”)

One might add, only half in jest, that the widespread custom of celebrating Yom ha-Atzmaut by making mangelim (barbeques) symbolizes the concrete, even carnal nature (in the root sense of that word—“fleshly”) of Zionism—i.e., the return of Judaism, and of Jewry, to a focus on concrete, earthly reality.

On a more personal level, after living here for more than a third of a century, what keeps me here, far more than ideology, is that I have learned to call Israel home, and to feel that the Israeli people are my people—and, at this point, to even feel a certain alienation and strangeness upon encountering my former compatriots, the Americans.

To what extent does the actual history of the past 60 years of Israel speak to or nurture your soul and make you feel proud, and why? To what extent is Israel tied to a worldview based on the notion that domination of others is the way to achieve security, rather than a worldview, implicit in the Torah command of loving the Other, that security comes through generosity and caring toward others?

At times, in our frustration with the very real problems confronting Israel, we forget the great accomplishments of the past 60 years (and of the pre-State Yishuv), and that it is important to “count our blessings,” and not only criticize: the revival of the Hebrew language, the creation of a new Hebrew culture, and of a flourishing center of Jewish knowledge, study, and research; the ingathering of exiles from diverse and far-flung places, many of whom had literally no other place to go where they could live without fear or repression; the creation of a flourishing economy, with particularly outstanding accomplishments in the areas of computer software and medical technology—the latter, in particular, being of great humane value; the creation, with all its warts and imperfections, of a free, democratic society; etc.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to celebrate this sixtieth year of independence with a full and unfettered heart; indeed, the hoopla surrounding this anniversary somehow seems hollow and artificial, on the order of “bread and circuses.” This is so for three main reasons:

1. Corruption of Political Leadership: Slightly over a year ago our ceremonial head of state, President Katzav, was removed from office on strong suspicion of sexual offenses, including actual rape of women working under his aegis. Just a few days ago, the head of our government, Prime Minister Olmert, was questioned by the police “under warning”—i.e., on suspicion of serious offenses. While a heavy veil of secrecy has been imposed on the investigation, it would appear that the charges involved major involvement in bribery and other corruption, and there is a feeling that this time he may well lead be forced to resign. In light of this, his pompous remarks at the various Independence Day celebrations will sound even more hollow than usual. Moreover, Olmert in this respect as first among equals”—he heads a long list of other ministers and Knesset members who have been subject to investigations and indictments in recent years. Thank goodness for Shimon Peres, who manages to project a sense of dignity and vision.

2. Lack of Social Cohesion. The “miracle” of the creation of a vital Jewish society and state in Eretz Yisrael occurred largely thanks to the sense of solidarity, social cohesion, and common purpose which existed at the time of its creation. In recent years there has been a growing sense of fragmentation. Israel has come to seem more like a pastiche of diverse sub-cultures and sectors—Mizrahim, Russians, Haredim, Westernizing secularists, West Bank settlers, and of course Arabs—than it does a unified society. More troubling, over the course of the past thirty years the social gap has grown enormously, in the sense that the gap in wealth and income between the richest and poorest is far greater than it was in, say, 1975. From one of the most egalitarian societies in the developed world, it has become one of the least so. Many Israelis seem enamored with American culture and the ethos of “management” in an uncritical way, without taking into account its shortcomings. Under the guidance of an ideology of unfettered capitalism, numerous functions formerly assumed by government have been “privatized”—largely to their detriment. The universities, once the pride of those who saw in them a focal point in which the Jewish love of learning was translated into secular, universal terms, producing intellectual accomplishment and Nobel Prizes, are on the decline, and seem on the way towards becoming institutions for preparing young people for remunerative careers rather than as centers of research and creativity; the humanities and history are suffering particularly. Elementary and secondary education are also on the decline, and seem less likely in the future to provide opportunities for bright but disadvantaged children to advance in life. How long can Israel continue to be what it was if this trend continues? (On all this, see the interview with Yaakov Weinrot in Musaf ha-Aretz, 2 May 08.)

3. The Palestinian Issue: But the most vexing problem is the ongoing conflict with the Palestinian and many parts of the Islamic world. Put simply: Israel cannot survive as the country it is if the occupation and bitterness and hatred surrounding it continue for another forty years, or even much less. In this area, I am filled with fear and trepidation, and I do not know, at this point, what if any is the solution to this problem. Many liberal intellectuals in the West condemn Israel for the situation almost exclusively, seeing the Palestinians as an oppressed Third-World people. It is important to realize that much of the blame lies on the other side: Arab Islamic culture is still largely stuck in Medieval world, in which the concept of religious toleration, one of the fundaments of modernity, hardly exists. Hence, the triumphalist and jingoist rhetoric of extreme Islamicists finds ready ears, and even when they do negotiate their positions are often intransigent. That, plus a deep-seated ressentiment against the West, represented by Israel, makes me despair.

But as a Jew, and an Israeli, I must make the moral reckoning of my own side. Israel ought to have yielded, in at least equal measure, the carrot and the stick. After all these years, we still do not seem to have realized that oppression and constant restriction of people in their everyday life breeds hatred and the desire for revenge, and can never bring about a solution. At times, I think that the words of Abraham Lincoln, “No nation can long endure half slave and half free,” are peculiarly apropos to our own situation. Fantasies of “crushing” the enemy are just that: fantasies that are either impossible or, if theoretically possible, ones whose moral price and international stigma would be too heavy to bear. We must free ourselves of the “occupation”—for our own good!

Some of my friends on the Left blame the Mitnahalim, the West Bank settlers and their political lobby, for all our troubles. But I believe the basic problem goes far beyond the West Bank and the Palestinians, or even beyond the specific problems encountered in negotiations. I see the Achilles Heel of Zionism in what is commonly known as Bithonism—the ideology of defense, of reliance on our own military power and/or powerful patrons, as the central assurance of our survival here. It is this syndrome which, among other things, has brought retired generals with an essentially military-centered world-view to political power, time and time again.

This problem has its roots, via a rather strange dialectic, in what is most healthy in Zionism. Zionism began, inter alia, as a reaction to the historical passivity of the Jew of the Galut (a far more powerful word than Diaspora) in the face of history. Early Zionist thinkers spoke of creating a “New Jew”—strong, healthy, at home in his own body and, during the early years, paradigmatically an agricultural laborer. It was this notion that led to the creation of Hashomer—the first self-defense group—the Haganah, and ultimately the IDF.

But in the process of creating this new type, the Zionist movement threw out the baby with the bath water. It rejected, not only Exilic culture and religious creativity, but was also so ashamed of “weakness” and galutiut that it was unable psychologically to deal with enemies in ways that would bridge differences, and help to cultivate and encourage moderate forces in the Arab side. Many of our leaders forgot that (as I once heard Yitzhak Rabin say, quoting Von Clausewitz), militarism must be an instrument to achieve national goals, not an end in itself. By implication, the use of force must go hand in hand with diplomacy. Instead, the covert belief of many otherwise intelligent people—and I refer here, not only to the Right Wing, but to the mainstream, central movement in Israeli politics—is that every problem has a military solution, and that every aggressive move by the enemy must be met by counter-force. We thus have the present pattern in Gaza of escalation, revenge and counter-revenge, and of a persuasive and populist Right Wing that denounces the smallest move towards calm and compromise as treason. In recent years, this pattern has repeated itself ad nauseum.

* * * * *

But despite all the problems and difficulties, today is a day to celebrate our sovereignty—which, in the memory of many people still alive today, is a great hiddush. We can only conclude with a prayer and hope that, with the help of the Almighty, and with the help of Jewish wisdom, resourcefulness and ingenuity, the State of Israel will prevail and go on to many more years, decades and even centuries of freedom and growth, ad bi’at go’el tzedek.

Kedoshim (Mitzvot)

“You Shall be Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy”

What does it mean to be holy? Several weeks ago (HY IX: Tazria), in discussing the concept of purity, taharah, I suggested that the notion implies the avoidance of “contamination” by contact with various negative kinds of things, and that kedushah must involve something more.

Since then, my good friend Rabbi David Greenstein sent me his English translation of the following passage from R. Shimon Shkopf, the Lithuanian Talmudic giant of the early twentieth century, which appears in the Introduction to Rav Shkopf’s magnum opus of Talmudic analysis, Sha’arei Yosher (Warsaw, 1928):

If we say that the essential meaning of the holiness that God demands of us in the commandment “You shall be holy [for I, God your Almighty, am holy]” (Lev 19:2) is to distance ourselves from permitted enjoyments, such holiness has no relationship at all to God, may He be blessed. It therefore appears to me, in my humble opinion, that this commandment incorporates the very basis and root of the purposeful goal of our lives, which is that all our service and toil should always be dedicated to the good of the collectivity, that we not avail ourselves of any act or motion, benefit or enjoyment, unless it involve some aspect that is for the good of those other than ourselves… In this manner the notion of this holiness imitates the holiness of the Blessed Creator, to a small degree. For just as the act of the Holy Blessed One in the entire Creation, in addition to His sustaining the world in each and every second, is that all His actions be dedicated to the good of that which is other than Himself, so too is it His will, may He be blessed, that our actions always be dedicated to the good of the collectivity and not to one’s own benefit. (But compare Maimonides, Hilkhot Tum’at Okhlin 16.12).

To elaborate and explicate this idea somewhat, it seems to me that there are two distinct aspects of kedushah. The one is indeed associated with perishut, with withdrawal from the world, from the enjoyment or pursuit of pleasures, if not actual asceticism. Indeed, the root meaning of the verb קדש relates to separation, limitation, boundaries. Hence, Temple property and sacrifices set aside to be offered on the altar are described as sanctified, kadosh. Similarly, a married woman is described as mekudeshet, as “set aside” for one specific man. (The double standard implied here is a vexing problem, but one that will concern us another time.) In that sense, kedushah belongs to the same semantic field as taharah, purity, being concerned with the avoidance of certain negative acts, objects, obstacles, etc. This is the source of the commonly-held view, according to which personal holiness is defined in primarily theocentric, world-transcending terms.

But if this were all, as R. Shimon Shkopf notes, it would be illogical to speak of God as being holy—for if, by His nature, He constantly gives life to the entire cosmos, is concerned with every being therein, how can we speak of Him as withdrawing or separating Himself therefrom? Rather, there is a second aspect as well: kadosh in the sense of being dedicated, separated from something else for a distinct purpose: the essence of kedushah is then the purpose for which this separation occurs. In this sense, the command to be holy as God is holy relates primarily to a positive goal: imitating God’s giving nature, the fulness of His generosity, His love, His outpouring of blessing and plentitude to the world.

We arrive at a similar conclusion if we take a totally different approach as well. The opening verse of the parashah—“you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2)—may be read, not as a command standing by itself, but as a general heading or introduction to what follows. The meaning of kedushah is thus inferred by the totality of the diverse mitzvot, the overall gestalt, of the chapter as an entirety. What then stands out most of all is the call for menshlichkeit, for human decency, caring, responsibility, involvement with others.

Israeli scholar Yair Eldan, in a study related to this chapter, describes the entire section from vv. 9-18 as constituting:

A social framework that is… quite impressive from the ethical viewpoint… First, the construction of a just social system that imposes obligations enabling all of the individuals in society to live therein—not to steal, not to delay paying wages to workers, concern for the livelihood of the poor, and protecting the vital interests of those with limitations (i.e., not placing a stumbling bloc before the blind or cursing the deaf, in the broadest sense of the word)…. The phrase, “but you shall fear your God,” is a warning that God will see the forbidden act even if its victim cannot do so….

On a second and higher level, [in the bloc of verses from vv. 16-18], the Torah imposes obligations whose aim is… the direct shaping of thoughts, beliefs and opinions.… The dominant component in these commandments is the element of outlook or attitude rather than that of action (whether active or passive). This section enumerates the prohibitions against going about as a talebearer; against standing by over blood; the commandment not to hate one’s neighbor in one’s heart; the obligation to rebuke ones neighbor; the prohibition against holding a grudge or taking revenge; and the commandment to love ones neighbor as oneself.…

The underlying thread connecting all these mitzvot with one another is the creation of desired relationships among the individuals composing society. These relationships redefine, not only the relationships among the different individuals, but also, and primarily, the feelings and emotions of each individual towards the other. This principle is known in Jewish culture as the principle of mutual responsibility of Jews toward one another: “All Israel are responsible for one another.” The first and most important meaning of this principle is in the area of thought and apprehension: it creates or points toward a relation that imposes an obligation not to speak gossip that are likely to harm another person, not to hate him, not to bear a grudge or to take vengeance upon him and, finally, to love him. The prohibition against standing over against the blood thus fits within this framework. The silent picture created by the Torah, of a person standing in a pool of his neighbor’s blood—an image that imposes ethical responsibility upon the one who stands over the blood, a responsibility that cannot be divided into two or more points-of-view because of the sparseness of the picture and its silence—is itself a creation of the mutual relation…. The thunderous silence of the picture imposes ethical responsibility upon the one standing over, and thus creates an unbreakable connection between one person and the other.