Friday, June 27, 2008

Korah (Mitzvot)

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

Tithes and Heave-Offerings

This week’s parasha, like Beha’alotkha and Shelah lekha before it, contains a mixture of narrative and laws. The connection between the two is often unclear, making for one of the puzzles in understanding the internal logic of the Book of Numbers. The latter half of Parashat Korah (Numbers 18), following the account of Korah’s rebellion and his dramatic downfall (literally!), describes the tasks assigned to the priestly families in protecting the integrity of the Sanctuary, the statutory portions given them from various sacrifices, and the gifts given both priests and Levites from the produce of the fields—terumot u-ma’asrot. Even though the system as a whole, without the existence of the Temple, is no longer operative as such, the formal obligation to separate these portions from the produce of the Land of Israel still exists even today, due to the sanctity attached to the land. This procedure is performed by the distributors before it goes to market, but there are some pious people who separate these portions at home, not wishing to rely upon them to perform this mitzvah properly.

The essential idea is that a certain proportion of what the land produces must be given to the kohanim and Levites, who have no land of their own, in order to support them and subsidize their sacred activity. The idea of a certain group of people being supported by the faithful, being seen in some sense as representatives of the Divine upon earth, is a widespread one, found in many human cultures. In post-Temple Judaism, we have Hasidic rebbes and various other holy men who are supported by their followers; today, there is an entire sub-culture of Torah students largely supported, albeit modestly, by public stipends. Of course, Marxists and other cynics will say that all this is a means of exploiting the gullibility of the masses, setting up an entire system enabling an entire class of sacred functionaries to live off the rest of the population without engaging in productive labor—and historical examples are legion.

What spiritually redeeming aspects are there to this system, if any? What answer can one give to the sceptics? One might argue that, at least in theory, such people live a more elevated, spiritual life than the ordinary person, and the financial support enables them to engage in such a way of life. Such tithes are also based on a certain notion of surrogacy—of someone else serving God (more intensely than I am able) in my stead.

But has not the whole tendency of Judaism over the ages, in the transition from the sacrifice-centered Judaism of the First Temple period to the late Second Temple and Classical Rabbinic age, been to say that each individual is responsible to study Torah and perform mitzvot himself? This is exemplified, for example, in the concepts of atonement and repentance, in which teshuvah in some sense takes the place of the Yom Kippur atonement ritual, with its proxy-goat sent into the wilderness.

Nevertheless: is the idea of such surrogacy, of paid religious functionaries, entirely negative and improper? There is a traditional Jewish concept of “Issachar and Zevulon”—of division of labor between those who engage in the economic sector and those more engaged in the spiritual realm. The idea, the impulse—which seems to be a universal human one—is that a person engaged six days a week in the struggle for economic survival, feels a sense of vicarious elevation through knowing that there are individuals who engage in something higher—and that he has played a part in their support. Of course, the idea can and has been abused: indeed, such a system at times seems almost to invite corruption and exploitation of their position. But when it works as it should, there is a certain sublime logic to it, providing economic freedom for those touched with a certain religious spirit.

I will close with two incidental questions. The distribution of ma’asar and ma’asar min hama’aser—i.e., 10% to the Levites (18:21-24) and 10% of that, or only 1% of the whole, to the kohanim (vv. 25-32), even when combined with terumah gedolah (the “heave offering”: v. 12, another 2%±), suggests that the Levites are far more numerous than the priests. Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case today in reality. Why?

Second: Why is this halakhic passage placed here, specifically? The obvious answer is that it would seem to be a kind of response to Korah, in that it simultaneously grants significant economic prerogatives to the Levite families, while more clearly ordering the hierarchy between the kohanim and Levites. But might not this arrangement simply reinforce the validity of his accusation that Moses and Aaron are “lording it over us”?

“Korah Our Brother!”

One Shabbat Korah some years ago, I happened to daven at a rather anti-establishment, bohemian sort of minyan. The rabbi–teacher–preacher began his talk on that occasion with the words: “Korah, you are our brother!” He went on to state that the Hozeh of Lublin —a focal figure in early 19th century Hasidism, who bridged between the tradition of the Maggid and the emergent school of Pshyshcha-Kotzk—used to refer to him as der Zeidey Koirakh, “Grandfather Korah.” He added that anyone with commonsense refrained from taking sides in the great controversy between Moses and Korah; it was only after the Divine verdict was issued, in the dramatic form of the earth swallowing Korah, that it became clear that Moses’ position was correct. What is the meaning of this underground tradition that turns everything most of us have ever learned about Korah upside down? Is there in fact ground for a sympathetic, even positive reading of Korah?

A number of the best-known, almost canonical midrashim (Num. Rab. 18.3) about Korah show him challenging several basic halakhic institutions. Thus, he ridicules the mitzvah of tzitzit, in which one thread suffices to make an entire garment kosher, parading before Moses with 300 followers, all dressed in pure blue robes. He similarly ridicules the mezuzah, the small container with two brief parshiyot from the Torah that is a sine-qua-non upon the door of every Jewish home, by asking whether a house “full of books” still needs a mezuzah. Yet a third midrash relates the story of an unfortunate widow whose meager financial resources are depleted by Moses’ relentless demands: first by the ordinances requiring tithes from field crops and fruits, then by the first-born of the flocks, the first sheering of the sheep, etc., etc. Several contemporary Rabbinic scholars have suggested that these midrashim may have served as an outlet for the Sages’ own doubts and qualms about certain aspects of the legalistic, formalistic mind-frame of the halakhah—safely projected onto Korah, the arch-heretic of early Biblical history.

In seeking an answer to these questions, I turned to the arch-master of paradox in the proto–modern period—the Hasidic teacher R. Mordecai of Izhbitz, author of Mei ha-Shiloah. The Izhbitzer has two interesting things to say about Korah: First, that Korah debunked tzitzit because they symbolize yirat shamayim, whereas Korah held that, in a certain sense, yirat shamyim is immanent in every Jew. That is, a person cannot help but do the will of God, because everything that a person does in life ultimately comes from God—even his own personal will. What Korah overlooked, says the Ishbitzer, is that we are nevertheless given free will, even if no more than the “size of a garlic peel,” because God desires that man serve him with at least the illusion of free will.

At first blush, this doctrine seems perilously close to determinism, emptying of meaning the dictum of Hazal, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven” (Berakhot 33b). But one expert on Izhbitzer Hasidism explained to me that this does not mean that man has no freedom but that, on the contrary, he has radical freedom: so much so, that at times the “religiously correct” choice is to be found, not through a conventional halakhic-legalist approach, but by seeking “the will of God.” And indeed, when confronting the truly significant choices in life, the crossroads, the major ethical nexuses, the halakhah is inadequate to show the way a person must walk. At times, God may show him the path: if a person looks deep within his own soul, with absolute honesty and integrity, striving to eliminate any ulterior motives or self-interest, he may merit to hear the voice of God.

Second: Korah was a radical democrat. His basic charge against Moses was that “the entire congregation is holy, and God is in their midst; why then do you lift yourselves up above the congregation of the Lord” (Num 16:3). Korah is portrayed by Mei ha-Shiloah as anticipating that great day, portrayed inter alia in the aggadah at the very end of Ta’anit, in which the righteous will dance in a circle, each one pointing with his finger at the Holy One blessed be He, who stands in the center of the circle, saying: “This is the Lord for whom we have waited and who will save us; this is the Lord for whom we have waited, we will rejoice and be glad in His salvation!” (Isa 25:9). Korah’s error, according to the Izhbitzer, was not in assuming radical equality among all people, but in seeing it as something imminent in his own day rather than as an event that would have to wait for the End of Days.

These two issues—determinism vs. free will, and egalitarianism vs. hierarchy— are central issues in the modern world. Many scientists, in studying the functioning of the brain, will argue that most of our rejections and behavior patterns are “hard-wired” into our physical nature, and that our conscious control and choice regarding our response to various situations is far less than we would like to believe.

One concrete example: the controversy regarding homosexuality, viz. same-sex marriage and ordination of homosexuals as rabbis, which recently rocked Conservative Judaism both here and in the United States, is closely related to the widely-accepted assumption that homosexual orientation is in some sense predetermined, involuntary, and thus not subject to free will in any meaningful sense. Yet in the hundreds of pages of discussion by the best minds of the Conservative movement (at least those major positions that I have read), the issue of free-will vs. determinism is barely mentioned, even though shogeg karuv la-anus, the exemption from liability of one who acts through error tantamount to external compulsion, might have served as a more plausible basis for a permissive position, rather than the dubious heter by Dorff et al. for non-penetrative erotic acts, based on a rather cavalier disregard of Rabbinic and, per Rambam, even Torah prohibitions (but more on that another time). It seems to me that the issue of how to deal with people who seem to be forced by their genetic makeup to behave in ways forbidden by the Torah is a basic one, with far-reaching theological implications, deserving of serious discussion.

The second issue raised by the Izhbitzer, invoked by the image of all Israel dancing in a circle, is that of democracy, of the innate equality of all human beings. There is hardly need to elaborate upon the fact that this is a basic element of the contemporary cultural mood or mentalité; the post-modern reluctance to make any unequivocal moral, aesthetic, spiritual or other value judgments may be traced to the feeling that “Who am I to say that my opinion is truer than that of anyone else?” This is diametrically opposed to the traditional view of Judaism, which accepts the obvious differences between human beings in terms of intelligence, learning, talents and abilities of various sorts, and even moral sensibility. Moses is seen as the true teacher and prophet, the exclusive conduit for conveying the divine Torah to Israel, and as the paradigm for the authority of Sages in later generations. And yet, as the Izhbitzer observes, in the End of Days all will be equal in their direct experiencing of the immanent God. Korah’s “only” error was in “jumping the gun.”

I will conclude, very briefly, with a comment on the haftarah. What is implied by the choice of this particular reading (1 Sam 11:14-12:22)? On the face of it, it seems diametrically opposed to the message of the Korah story. Rather than the “populist” tendencies of Korah, here the people had practically begged Samuel to appoint a king, a centralized, authoritarian leader, “like all the other nations” (8:5)—to which Samuel is adamantly opposed, reminding them here that “the Lord your God [alone!] is your king” (12:12). Perhaps this haftarah was chosen for precisely that reason: that they must not give up on the messianic, utopian vision in which all stand directly before God as king; that the ideal of an egalitarian society, expressed davka through the mouth of Korah , is not a bad thing per se.


Chapter Three

A few words about the arrangement of the chapters of Pirkei Avot: the first chapter, after presenting the basis for the chain of tradition from Moses through the Men of the Great Assembly, takes us down through the zugot, the “pairs,” to Hillel and Shammai; the second chapter introduce the great transitional figure of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and his major disciples; the third chapter fills in some lacuna in the history of the tannaim with sayings from a variety of figures from the era of Yavneh, the second and third generation of tannaim, and introducing the central figures of the two great schools of exegesis, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael (§§16-17). The fourth chapter, which we read next week, takes us north to Galilee, to the Study House in Usha, after the trauma of the Hadrianic persecutions of ca. 135 CE had put an end to the Torah centers in the southern-central part of the Land of Israel. The fifth chapter is based upon a totally different principle of organization—sayings related to numbers, such as ten, seven and four—with only a smattering of sayings whose authors are named at all; while the sixth chapter is extra-canonical.

Our chapter includes a sequence of mishnayot (§§3-4, 6) on the importance of study of Torah at human gatherings of various sizes, whether at the table or in general, and the negative nature of gatherings where Torah is absent. This grouping is followed, or perhaps completed, by two brief sayings (§§9-10) about the sin of allowing oneself to be distracted from one’s Torah or even to forget it. I bring here the most comprehensive of that group:

3.7. Rabbi Halafta ben Dosa of Kfar Hananya said: Wherever ten people sit and engage in Torah the Shekhinah is present among them, as is said “God stands in the Divine assembly” (Ps 82:1). And from whence that even among five? As is said, “and His band is established upon the earth” (Amos 9:6). And from whence even three? As is said, “among the judges He sits” (Ps, ibid.). And from whence even two? As is said, “Then those that fear God spoke [each one to his fellow], and the Lord heard and listened, and He paid heed” (Mal 3:16). And from whence even one? As is said, “in every place that My name shall be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you” (Exod 20:24).

I would like to read this mishnah as a kind of mini-sociology of community, an enumeration of different kinds of human groupings. I will consider these in reverse order than our mishnah, from smallest to largest:

One: Even an individual who engages in the study of Torah is doing something that somehow pleases God and attracts the Divine Presence. That which a person does by him/herself is significant—certainly intellectually (study is in a certain sense always a solitary activity, involving as it does the understanding of the subject matter within the individual brain!), but also spiritually, culturally, and psychologically.

Two: Two human beings engaged in some common action already constitute a “fellowship,” the nucleus of a “community.” In the traditional yeshiva setup, a hevruta, a pair of study partners, constitutes the basic unit of study during most of the day. The testimony of two people is required to verify and witness many things. Man and woman together as a couple are the basis for the nuclear family. Rav Soloveitchik, in his famous essay Lonely Man of Faith, written as a midrash on Genesis 1 and 2, sees Adam and Eve, the first couple, as already constituting a rudimentary form of human community.

Three: Three already form a group with a certain internal dynamic, the possibility of more complex interaction—not only of back-and-forth discourse and perhaps argumentation, but of majority and minority opinions. Hence Jewish law states that the smallest court of law is the tribunal, three being the smallest number capable of issuing a decisive decision without the dangers of an individual deciding the fate of his fellows by himself.

Why does our mishnah skip four? After all, there are four sons in the Haggadah, four different levels of interpretation of Torah (literal, allegorical, symbolic, and esoteric); and a whole series of examples of fours right here in Avot 5.13-19.

Five: Five is called an agudah, a band. The number is called thus, perhaps, because it corresponds to the fingers of the hand. (The thumb, the finger needed together with the others in order required to grasp things, is referred to in modern Hebrew as agudal.) Five, while not a community, is already a substantial group, capable of gathering together for action.

Ten: Ten is a microcosm of Klal Yisrael. It is, as is well known, the minyan, the minimum number required for public prayer because, as our mishnah says, when ten are gathered together the Shekhinah is present. But it can also be a community in the negative sense as well, as in the ten spies in Shelah lekha who brought back a negative report.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shelah Lekha - Supplement (Mitzvot)


In memory of Martin (Mordekhai) Buber, whose 43rd Yahrzeit fell on Monday, 13 Sivan; and of our dear departed friend Moshe Klibanoff, who was accustomed to give a shiur in Buber’s memory every year (on Moshe, see below, May 2007, Aharei-Kedoshim (Rashi).

Many years ago, when he was still among the living, I heard a paradoxical description of Martin Buber as “the religious philosopher who never entered a synagogue.” Hence, there are more than a few religious Jews who dismiss him out of hand. I even know one Orthodox rabbi, generally speaking very liberal and open-minded, who sees Buber’s thought and teaching as having nothing in particular to do with either Judaism or Hasidism.

What was the nature of Buber’s religiosity, which so flagrantly, some might even say demonstratively, flaunted or at very lost ignored even the most basic forms and institutions of Jewish religious life, including the practical mitzvot that form their most basic contents? And in what sense was Buber’s thought Jewish? For a traditional Jew, for whom the Torah and the Holy One blessed be He are in some sense identical, the very idea of an a-nomian religiosity, which questions not only one or another detail of the Torah or the halakhah, but the very concept of law as a central element in religion, seems a contradiction in terms.

The contradiction seems all the more jarring in the case of a figure who was so deeply associated with Hasidism, a movement of religious enthusiasm and ecstasy and deep piety. Buber was perhaps the central figure in a certain modernist revival of interest in Hasidism—again, in a clearly heterodox sense—during the early and middle twentieth century. Many Westerners first came to know about Hasidism through his books and essays on the subject: his two-volume compilation of Tales of the Hasidim (Hebrew: Or ha-Ganuz); his Legend of the Baal Shem and his retelling of the Tales of Rabbi Nahman; his essays in Hasidism and Modern Man and The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism; his mystical chronicle For the Sake of Heaven, in which he portrays the messianic tension in the world of the Hozeh of Lublin and the Holy Jew; and so forth. (An interesting sidelight: Moshe Klibanoff used to say that he first decided to become a hasid through reading Buber; memorably, he stood up and stated this at an international academic conference honoring Buber’s centennial, held in Beersheba in 1977, where he was the only person present of Hasidic appearance.)

To try to comprehend Buber’s definition of religion, we shall begin with what he described, most fully in a major essay entitled “Dialogue” (included in the English volume, Between Man and Man), as the pivotal experience in his life. In his early adult years, during the first decade of the century, he was deeply involved in mystical, ecstatic practices and spent long hours in solitary meditation in pursuit of the state of rapture which he identified as mystical unity with God. One day, he was visited by a young man, whom he received courteously enough, and listened to with reasonable attentiveness. But what he failed to notice, as he put it—perhaps because he was preoccupied with his mystical and meditative practices—was the question that was not asked, the “subtext” of this visit. This young man was deeply troubled, and had come to a crossroads in his life, because of which he was seeking the counsel of a “wise man”—Buber—for an answer to the deepest existential question of all: why bother to live at all? And as a result of Buber’s failure to be fully present—or thus he saw it—something tragic happened. Between the lines, it is hinted that the young man took his own life; Buber was possibly the last person who could have pointed him on the path toward meaning and saved him.

Shaken to the core by this experience, Buber began to change direction, and in due time abandoned his pursuit of an individual, rather introverted mysticism and the pursuit of direct knowledge of God, and began to articulate and devote himself to the path of dialogue, which in 1922 took form in his seminal work, I and Thou.

I shall attempt, in a manner that will necessarily be woefully inadequate, to summarize this profound and complex book, and the philosophy that grew out of it and was further developed over the course of Buber’s life, in a few sentences: Buber held that the deepest, and indeed the only true encounter with God that a human being may experience, is through dialogue with the world—with nature, with living creatures and, most especially, with one’s fellow man. God is real. Buber is often referred to as a “religious humanist”: that is, unlike secular humanist thinkers, who embrace humanity as opposed to embracing God, Buber found God within the encounter with humanity, and with the individual man or woman. One must constantly strive to meet the other as a “Thou” and not as an “It”—that is, in the other’s full personhood, and not as an instrumentality, as an object for fulfilling one’s own needs. Then one meets God as “the Eternal Thou”—He whose being underlies the “Thouness” of every other person. Thus, he rejected contemplative mysticism because he came to see the focusing of one’s religious energy upon solitary union with God as illusory, a kind of dialogue with a fantasy of one’s own imagination (echoes of Rambam’s critique of certain kinds of beliefs!). This is so, not because God is not there, but because the true God is to be encountered within the real world of other human beings. The mystic, by contrast, is seen by Buber as preoccupied with his own subjective states of mind.

Was Buber a Jewish thinker? Or was he, perhaps, a universal thinker of Jewish roots and “background?” Clearly, his model for conventional religiosity was far from the world of Jewish halakhah. In his own way, he was deeply rooted in Judaism: two of the central “texts” upon which he built his world-view, and about which he taught and wrote extensively, were the Bible, on the one hand, and Hasidic teaching, on the other—the latter more in its lived sense and through its tales than through its theoretical teachings. He grew up in the home of his grandfather, Salomon Buber, one of the foremost Rabbinic scholars of the nineteenth century, and the editor of many of the critical editions of midrashim that are used to this day—although he himself never took much interest in halakhic or Rabbinic Judaism. He was among the founders and moving forces of the Frankfurt Freie Jüdische Lehrhaus, a new and unique kind of center for Jewish learning. He was a Zionist, who held high hopes for the realization of a new type of spiritual life in Palestine, celebrating the kibbutz in particular as a dialogic framework, and served among the early faculty of the Hebrew University. He was among the founders of Ihud, a movement for Jewish-Arab peace, along with Judah Magnes and Ernst Simon.

If one were to place him among the continuum of “devotion and commandment”—i.e., religious structure vs. the core experience—or of “priest vs. prophet “ (or perhaps “sage and prophet,” to use Ahad Haam’s terms), he was on the side of the directly experiential, bypassing formal structures. Thus, his conversion experience, discussed above, was between two positions along the axis of the directly experiential—i.e., as a movement from the immediacy of unstructured, introverted mysticism to that of the interpersonal, the dialogic. He dismissed formal structures out of hand: one gets the feeling that they simply didn’t interest him.

One must also note that he drew upon many different religions of the world. He was highly erudite and read widely and deeply in Christian mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as in European philosophy, etc., all of which formed the context for his discussions. Indeed, during his “mystical decade,” 1900-1910, he compiled and edited a volume entitled Ecstatic Confessions, which gathered personal documents from a broad variety of religious documents.

At least two central figures among his circle embraced traditional Jewish religious forms: his close associate Franz Rosenzweig, with whom he founded the Frankfurt Lehrhaus and with whom he collaborated on a translation of the Bible into German; and Ernst Simon, a generation younger, who was also a colleague during the Israeli phase of his life. There is an interesting exchange of letter with Rosenzweig on this subject, translated into English in the latter’s On Jewish Learning.

In essence, Buber’s position, and the source of his objection to the mitzvot, or to any set of rules, is that the response to God, the experience of “revelation,” is rooted in genuine dialogue, in the immediacy of the situation, in the living word; hence, by definition, it cannot be foreseen and cannot be codified. Interestingly, even in his discussion of the Ten Commandments, in his book Moses, he takes pains to interpret these as somehow meeting this dialogic criterion, rather than as categorical “do’s” and “don’t’s.” Similarly, his interest in Hasidism was not with the ritual life, but rather with the energy, the vitality of the community, the interaction between Rebbe and Hasidim, and the communal life of the Hasidim as a whole. (This question obviously requires deeper discussion, and we shall attempt to return to it in greater depth at some point in the future.)

One brief comment: it seems to me that there is room to question the sharp dichotomy Buber drew between finding God in the world and finding Him “outside” of it (viz. his critique if mysticism, as he saw it), and whether his sharp criticism of his earlier path of ecstatic mysticism properly applies to engagement in Torah and mitzvot. Do the latter involve creating a spiritual enclave “outside” of the world? Rav Amital used to tell the story of the Rabbi of Lyady, who sat studying Torah in one room while his adolescent son was sitting learning or meditating in the adjacent room, and a baby was sleeping in the third room. Suddenly the baby awoke and started crying: the “Alter Rebbe” got up and attended to the baby. After he had calmed the infant, he turned to his son, who had been sitting closer to the baby and did not react, saying: “If you cannot learn Torah and also hear a Jew crying, something is wrong with your Torah!” The point here is that human sensitivity and awareness, and transcendent spiritual concerns and yearning, are not mutually exclusive, but complementary aspects of the religious life. Halakhah, as a normative system, at least at its best, teaches and sensitizes people to the constant need to rank priorities, to choose among options, to know that that there are value decisions to be made between two goods, and that such choices are not a matter or either/or.

In conclusion, I wish to locate Buber within the context of the mishnah of the “three pillars” upon which the world stands, read in last week’s selection from Pirkei Avot. At first blush, it seems clear that he belonged entirely, exclusively, to the realm of gemilut hasadim, of “acts of kindness” understood in the broadest sense, as aspects of the inter-human, the dialogic. True, dialogue is somewhat different from hesed: it involves not only giving, kindness, acts of generosity, but also openness to the other and relation to him in his own subjectivity, not only as an object of the mitzvah-act. In any event, Buber was clearly not interested in Torah as a fixed legal teaching, nor in abstract dogmas and doctrines about God. Similarly, avodah in the traditional sense of ritualized liturgical prayer, and all the more so as the ancient cult of animal sacrifices, left him cold.

But on another level, one might say that he saw both Torah and avodah as central: Torah as teaching, and avodah as service in the world: dialogue itself as avodah, as rooted in seeing the Divine within the space between two people; of God being present whenever we speak “the basic word Thou” to the other.

Thus, my answer to Buber’s pious opponents is that, at the very least, Buber serves as a valuable corrective to the unfortunate tendency of so many traditional Jews to emphasize the first two pillars—prayer and Torah, i.e., mitzvot between man and his Creator—and to downplay gemilut hesed in the broad sense of inter-human ethics. But beyond that, I see him as one of the great sons of the Jewish people, who has created a religious teaching embracing many and diverse aspects of human life in the world, addressed to the universal human community. And yet, at the same time, he somehow remains deeply Jewish.

Finally, a note of gratitude: Although I first read Buber during my youth, I have recently had the opportunity for prolonged and renewed engagement in his thought, through my professional work as a translator. At this time I am completing work on the English version of a study of Buber’s thought, its roots in Hasidism and his relation to Hasidic thought and mysticism in general: Israel Koren’s Ha-Mistorin shel ha-Aretz (University of Haifa Press, 2005). Much of what I write above has been influenced, both by my own struggles with the text of his book, and by my conversations with its author. If all goes well, the English translation of this excellent study should be available sometime within the next year, under the title The Mystery of the Earth. My thanks go to Yisrael Koren, both for writing this book, for his friendship, and for his always illuminating comments and insights during the course of our work together.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Shelah Lekha (Mitzvot)

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

Thoughts on Tzitzit

I will begin with something I heard last year from Prof. Reuven Kimelman of Brandeis University: the tzitzit are not simply reminders of the mitzvot, but a kind of royal garment. Tekhelet, a shade of deep blue (some translate it as “azure”) reminiscent of the sea and of the purity of the sky, was a royal color. The basic idea of the tzitzit, whose distinguishing feature is its blue thread, is that all Jews are in some sense nobility, “sons of the king.” The blue-fringed garment might be compared to the striped coat worn by Joseph, which aroused his brothers’ jealous precisely because they clearly understood that it signified his superior status; or to the high priest’s garments, made from a mélange of fibers and colors including tekhelet (Exod 28:5, passim.), as did some of the tapestries and draperies used in the Temple, such as the partition between the courtyard and the sanctuary (ibid. 26:31). In a secular context, one might recall the rich tapestries mentioned in the Book of Esther, both at Ahasuerus‘ banquet (Est 1:6) and in the garment worn by Mordecai upon his triumphant appearance following Haman’s defeat and his appointment as royal viceroy (8:15). This may also have been part of the motivation of Korah in wrapping himself and his three hundred followers in garments of tekhelet: as if to say, we too are nobility, like Aharon the high priest.

If such is the case, then the tzitzit’s function of reminding us of the mitzvot is not so much rooted in anxiety over the dangers of sin, in the fear that a person may go astray, but in a sense of noblesse oblige: you are nobility, and therefore it behooves you to behave in an appropriate and princely manner, to honor your Divine father by faithfully executing His wishes.

In another direction, I wish to compare the interpretation of the key verse in this passage, the selfsame warning “do not go astray after your heart and after your eyes” (Num 15:39), as interpreted by Rashi and Rambam, respectively. The contrast between the comments of the two on the same verse seems to me illustrative of a basic distinction between the approaches of these two central teachers of medieval Jewry. Rashi, having a more pragmatic, practical orientation, speaks of concrete, fleshly temptations: primarily, sexuality. His gloss on the verse reads:

“And you shall not go astray after your heart…” [Taturu, “Go astray”] is like the word tur, as in “… from going about / surveying the land” [Num 13:25]. The heart and the eyes serve as two spies acting on behalf of the body, procuring sins for it; the eye sees, and the heart desires, and the body performs the transgression.

The image here—which, quite interestingly, draws a linguistic parallel between our verse and the story of the Spies with which the parasha opens—is one in which the different organs of the body perform different functions, with one end in mind: to search out and enjoy physical pleasure, regardless of its being forbidden by the Torah. Here the heart and the eye are integrated in awakening sexual passion; the Talmudic source upon which Rashi draws (Berakhot 12b) reads “heart” and “eyes” as alluding, respectively, to thoughts of idolatry and thoughts of sexuality.

Maimonides’ approach is far more intellectually and ideologically oriented. He introduces our verse, not in the Laws of Tzitzit, but in the context of a lengthy discourse in Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 2.3. There he warns, not only against concrete acts of pagan worship, but that a person ought not “turn in his thoughts after idolatry, nor to any thought that causes a person to uproot any of the principles of the Torah: we are admonished not to raise it in our hearts and not to turn our thought towards it… For a person’s mental comprehension is limited, and not all are capable of apprehending the truth thoroughly. For if every person were to follow the thoughts of his heart, it would destroy the world, because of the limitations of his mind.” (For a fuller discussion of this passage, and especially its implications vis-à-vis the modern cultural milieu, see HY V: Shelah lekha = Shelah lekha [Rambam].) He then continues:

And concerning this matter the Torah warned, saying, “And you shall not go astray after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you go wantonly” [ibid.]. That is, that one should not be drawn after his own limited mental comprehension, imagining that through his thought he apprehends the truth. Thus said our Sages: “’After your hearts’ refers to heresy, and ‘after your eyes’ refers to licentiousness” [Berakhot 12b]. And even though [violation of] this prohibition may cause a person to loose the World to Come, it is not subject to corporal punishment.

Only at the very end of this halakhah, almost in passing, does Rambam mentions that one of the aims of tzitzit is to avoid, not only incorrect theological thinking, but also sexual licentiousness. This is in striking contrast, both to the above-quoted Talmudic source, which seems much more emotion- and body-centered, and to the main thrust of Hazal’s thinking on this matter generally. A famous aggadic passage describes how an errant talmid was about to sin with a particularly elegant and expensive courtesan. At the last moment he was deterred when, in the process of disrobing, he saw his tzitzit and was reminded of hwo he was and what they were meant to signify. The lady involved was so impressed by the moral fiber exhibited by this man, as a result of Judaic teaching, that she herself converted and gave a third of her ill-gotten wealth to charity. (Menahot 44a)

Rambam, by contrast, seems far more interested in minut than in zenut. It is almost as if sexual misconduct, like heretical thought, is caused by incorrect thinking; as if one might surrender to sexual lust due to incorrect philosophical conclusions. Maimonides seems to have believed that the mind and the will are capable of fully ruling the more unruly parts of the human personality (see, e.g., our discussions of Hilkhot De’ot).

Our experience seems to show the opposite to be the case. How many wise men and great intellects—including people who considered themselves pious, upright, ethical, etc.—have had their head turned by a pretty face or a shapely body, fueled perhaps by a situation of loneliness and emotional aridity in their life? How many kopf menschen (“mind people”) are emotionally childish? We moderns seem to be less sanguine than the Rambam about the power of the mind, and more aware of the complexity of human psychology and of the chaos that lies within each of us. In this respect, the seemingly artless and unsophisticated formulation of Rashi seems, at least to me, far closer to the human truth.


Chapter Two

The first part of this chapter jumps all over the place, chronologically: it begins with a saying attributed to “Rabbi” (i.e., Judah the Prince) and to his son, Rabban Gamaliel III, then jumps back to a series of sayings attributed to Hillel the Elder, perhaps two centuries or more earlier. But the bulk of the chapter, from §9 on, is concerned with Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the figure who masterminded the survival of Judaism after the Destruction of the Second Temple, and his disciples, including: a listing of their names and their qualities (§§10-11); a comparison among them, in two different versions (§12); the answers of each one to the questions, “What is the good path a man ought to pursue / follow?” and “What is the evil path a person ought to avoid?”( §§13-14); and, finally, three short characteristic sayings of each one (§§15-19).

9. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai received [the Torah] from Hillel and from Shammai. He used to say: If you have learned much Torah, do not credit it to your own good, for it was for this that you were created.

10. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai had five disciples. …

11. He would enumerate their praises: Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is a like a well- caulked cistern that does not lose a drop; Yehoshua ben Hannania: Happy is she who bore him! Yossi ha-Kohen is pious; Shimon ben Netanel fears sin. Eleazar ben Arakh is like an ever-flowing spring.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s general motto was: Don’t be arrogant about the Torah you’ve acquired over the years (even though in ancient Jewish society, as in contemporary Haredi society, the talmid hakham, the Torah sage, was the most highly respected type of figure), for such is your natural goal in life; it is for this purpose that God created you. This may be one of the first times that this ideal is stated in quite such clear and unequivocal terms: learning Torah is the summum bonum, the highest good.

The praises of the various disciples are interesting, in that they are not all of a piece. Not all of them relate to scholarly traits: rather, two are of an intellectual nature; two pertain to the individual’s moral or spiritual character; and one is a general statement that is difficult to apply to any specific trait. We shall start with this last one: “Happy is she who bore him” or, in colloquial American, “He would make his mother proud!” Those of us who grew up in twentieth century America, with jokes about Jewish mothers and their pride in their children (“my son the doctor”), as well as with Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and the stereotype of the domineering Jewish mother, may find this faintly amusing, or perhaps naïve. What mother doesn’t think her son is God’s gift to humanity? Just this week, the Israeli police arrested a 15-yaer-old youth in the case of a brutal and senseless murder, and the news reported that his mother stated “But he’s a good boy!”

But joking aside, what we can say is that Rabbi Yehoshua was in some sense an all-around ideal figure, one who made all those who knew him admire him. I imagine him as a warm, loving, generous figure, who uplifted the spirits of those near him by his mere presence, filling their lives with joy and love, even without any unique teaching or moral traits that one could point to. I visualize someone like the Bostoner Rebbe, who even in advanced old age and with serious health problems always seems to have a smile on his lips and to exude love and inner strength.

Rabbi Yossi ha-Kohen and Shimon ben Netanel, hasid and yerei het, are a pair. ”Fear,” particularly “fear of sin,” implies meticulous attention to mitzvot and even anxiety lest one err in some aspect of one’s halakhic performance, with special punctiliousness about negative commandments. Hasid, even in a pre-Beshtian context, connotes religious enthusiasm, a constant flow of action and joyous emotion, one who prays and performs the mitzvot with fervor and intensity, who goes above and beyond what is formally required of him, and who does them as an expression of love and not merely duty.

Finally, there are the two very different intellectual traits of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and of Eleazar ben Arakh. The one is characterized by tremendous knowledge and, the necessary precondition thereof, a powerful and retentive memory. Particularly in an era before the Oral Torah was recorded in writing (but even thereafter, and even after Gutenberg), the man who knew a lot was an essential link in preserving the Jewish tradition, which contains a myriad of diverse details. Such a person was known as Sinai, a walking Torah scroll. The other type is renowned for his intellectual creativity, his sharpness of analysis, for constantly thinking about and in Torah and coming up with new ideas and interpretations, bubbling over like a mountain spring. He is also called oker harim, the “uprooter of mountains,” the man of incisive critical acumen, who causes others to rethink their most fundamental assumptions. Interestingly, the following mishnah records two divergent answers to the question as to which of the two is more important.

I now turn to a passage from one of the five disciples—Shimon ben Natanel, the pious—who, perhaps characteristically, focuses upon prayer. We will hopefully get to at least some of the others next time around:

18. Rabbi Shimon said: Take care about reading Shema and reciting Prayer; and when you pray, do not make your prayer a fixed thing, but rather [asking for] mercy and beseeching the Omnipresent, as is said, “for He is merciful and compassionate…” (Joel 2:13); and be not evil in your own eyes.

This past week I happened to study the parallel to this passage in Berakhot 29b, where the gemara discusses precisely what is meant by not making prayer “a fixed thing.” One view is that one should not relate to prayer as a burden, an obligation to be discharged. There is a certain paradox here, because the very fact that it is defined as a mitzvah, an obligatory religious duty, with certain parameters and minimum requirements, makes it a duty to be discharged. Indeed, this tension is inherent in the very nature of the halakhah as a legal system that is simultaneously a religious teaching. The halakhah itself wants people to perform prayer as “service of the heart,” as an inward act, at the same time that it is nevertheless obligatory, fixed. Somehow, despite its formal, statutory character, it must be treated as something beyond mere duty, as a thrice-daily living encounter with one’s Creator. Anyone who has ever tried to follow this discipline knows how difficult it is.

A second view states that one must innovate something in each prayer, that it not be mere rote recitation of a fixed text. Finally, what I find the most interesting approach is that one must should endeavor to pray be-dimdumei hamah, “by the faint light of the sun”— that is, at dawn and at dusk. This last view is seemingly even more restrictive and formalistic (think of the Hasidim who insisted on breaking free from the fetters of “clock Judaism,” and were notorious for davening outrageously late). But in fact, the idea here is that both sunrise and sunset represent quasi-mystical times of grace, uniquely suitable to prayer and to arousing Divine mercy.

The concluding phrase in this mishnah, “Be not evil in your own eyes,” is a warning against the dangers of self castigation. A certain modicum of self-awareness and self-criticism is a necessary component of any serious, ethical life. But it is a far cry from that to a feeling of chronic guilt, a sense of almost existential sinfulness and inadequacy, such as is found in certain streams of the Mussar movement (not to mention classical Christianity).

is interesting (and again, this was written 1600 years before the movement we know as Hasidism) that it is specifically the hasid, Rabbi Shimon, who emphasizes the dangers of negative thought. The emphasis of Beshtian Hasidism on joy is not simply a matter of singing and dancing and jumping about, as it is sometimes taken today, but a conscious antidote to the dangers of excessive self-criticism and negativity (see Rivka Schatz’s book Hsidism as Mysticism, which has an entire chapter on this subject).

Beha'alotkha (Mitzvot)

“When you Kindle the Lights”

The opening verses of this parasha contain the commandment to light lamps in the seven-branched menorah in the Sanctuary (Num 8:1-4); a commandment that also appears, in even more condensed terms, at the beginning of Tetzaveh (Exod 27:20-21). The kindling of candles, or lights, is a basic symbol in Judaism, appearing in a variety of settings: the lamps lit daily in the Temple; the candles lit in the home to usher in Shabbat and festival days; the Hanukkah candles; candles lit in memory of the dead , on their Yahrzeit or in a house of mourning during the shivah; candles lit for both the living and the dead on Yom Kippur. In many old-fashioned synagogues, it is also customary to light candles at the Reader’s Desk during prayers.

Light symbolizes two interconnected entities: the human soul, and the radiance presence of the Divine Presence, of the Shekhinah. The two are of course related: the soul is in some sense a reflection of the Divine: נר ה' נשמת אדם — “the soul of man is the lamp of God” (Prov 20:27). According to some Kabbalistic views, the soul is tantamount to the Divine element within man; or, from the opposite perspective, it is God’s “little acre” in this world—an element that is somehow pure, unsullied, at least in potentia capable of holiness—through which He resides in these lower realms.

The candelabra also symbolizes Wisdom. Hazal say: “He who wishes to be wealthy should tend northwards [i.e., the location of the shewbread table in the Temple, symbolizing material plenty]; he who wishes to be wise should tend southwards [i.e., the direction of the menorah, on the southern side of the Tabernacle].”

Thus, the lighting of the Lamp, and of lights generally, symbolizes the human longing for the Divine, for the holy, for the palpable presence of something pure, clean, raising us up to a higher sphere of consciousness and wisdom and understanding, and of connection with the Ineffable.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Shavuot (Mitzvot) - Essay

Sinai: Rabbeinu or Redactor? Towards a Contemporary Theology of Revelation (Part I)

When I began to write my thoughts on the weekly parsha, nearly a decade ago, I defined my purpose to myself as “to find my own voice”—that is, to articulate, originally for a rather small circle of friends, my own beliefs and world-view, as a somewhat idiosyncratic and nonconformist Orthodox Jew (a term that is really a misnomer, its conventional social referent really referring to the Orthoprax), who found himself disaffected with most of the major ideological options available within the mainstream community. Over the years, in the course of attempting to present, in what became Hitzei Yehonatan, my thoughts on the issues raised by readings from a variety of classical sources, I have touched upon many of the major issues in Jewish thought, albeit in a rather unsystematic way. The following essay, of which for the moment I can only present the first half, is an attempt at presenting in a somewhat more systematic way my thoughts on one crucial issue of Jewish theology today. (Ironically, the germ of the following essay is one of my earliest pieces; the earliest draft predating the very first issue of Hitzei Yehonatan.)

1. The Problem

The famous German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig—one of the cultural legends of twentieth century Judaism—was once asked what he though about higher biblical criticism. He replied: “I don’t know whether or not R existed [i.e., as in the term JER, where R indicates the “redactor,” who edited and synthesized the alleged J and E documents–JC], but if he did, the ‘R’ stands for ‘Rabbenu,’ not redactor.”

A doctrinaire Orthodox believer might scoff at this quip as a clever bit of evasion, possibly concealing his fundamental disbelief in the traditional doctrine of Torah min Hashamayim through an expression of pious reverence to the late Redactor. But on deeper reflection, it seems to me that Rosenzweig made here a very profound statement: that the essential issue in accepting Torah is not whether or not the claim of Mosaic authorship is true, but whether one believes that the Divine was working through the process of setting down in writing the book that we call the Torah, and whether we perceive him as a “redactor”—i.e., someone whom we see through the lens of critical scholarship, with a certain aloofness and studied academic objectivity; or as “Rabbenu”—that is, whenever precisely he lived, and whatever his exact identity, as our revered Teacher. In this sense, Rosenzweig’s remark was quintessentially Jewish.

What does it mean to believe in Sinai today? This problem focuses on the very heart of what we celebrate on Shavuot: the meaning and understanding of Torah min ha-Shamayim, of Divine revelation of the Torah as a body of teaching with specific contents, for the contemporary Jew; the conflict between the traditional doctrine of Torah from Sinai, and what many moderns see as the overwhelming evidence of modern Biblical (and other textual) scholarship regarding the gradual, fragmentary nature of the development within history of the document we call the Torah.

How is a person, steeped in the scepticism, rationalism, and to some extent the reductionist, critical approach to the origins of religion—all religion—to find his way to a Jewish religious affirmation? I speak here, not of the challenges posed by Freud, Marx and Darwin, serious as they may be—i.e., the psychological reduction of religion to a solution to psychological conflicts, a projection of the primal family Oedipal complex onto the cosmos; the economic interpretation of religious structures, as a form of social control; and the seeming elimination of man’s uniqueness, of the very concept of him being created “in the image of God”— but of the challenge posed by the historical method itself—that is, by the method of reading texts that sees in them the traces of specific time and place, the confluence of historical circumstances. Thus, the issue is not Wellhausen alone or, more broadly, the specifics of “higher biblical criticism,” as updated and revised by modern scholars—the specific scheme that reduces the Books of the Torah to a paste and scissors job of J, E, P and D, and their variants. The issue is more a certain loss of innocence that comes once one has been exposed to this way of thinking. The acceptance of historical methodology, or of a historical perspective, whatever the specific conclusions one draws, changes the way one looks at texts.

The modern Jew lives in a world in which, if he is intellectually aware, cannot avoid being conscious of the historical development of his own religious tradition. The consensus of modern Biblical Research, as pursued in universities and learned societies throughout the world—in England, the United States, Germany, Scandinavia, the Far East, Israel itself, etc. —is that the text of the Hebrew Bible as we know it, more particularly, of the Five Books of Moses, is a composite text, woven of multiple strands composed anywhere between the early days of the Israelite monarchy until some time close to the Destruction of the First Temple (either before or after).

The issue facing the believing Jew, who would be true both to his own tradition and to what he otherwise knows about the world, is one of intellectual integrity and honesty. If the Torah is true, it must be compatible with other sources of knowledge. Not need to wear intellectual / cognitive blinkers. Today’s doubters are not seeking to deny God but are, so to speak, swept along by the force of their own thinking and their desire not to wear what they would see as intellectual blinders. Hence, to impress the alternative of a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith,” seems somehow contrived, artificial, what is referred to in modern Hebrew as lesahek binidmeh li—“to play ‘as if.’”

Let me begin by describing the dilemma in very personal terms. I am, by choice, an Orthodox Jew; for well over forty years I have attempted to live my life in accordance with the precepts of the halakhah; I have found this way of life a source of deep spiritual meaning, of religious depth and authenticity, of richness and passion. And yet, the more I learn of the history of Judaism, the more difficult I find it to affirm what I have been taught to regard as one of the cardinal, if not The central, tenet of Orthodoxy -- the literal Sinaitic revelation of the Torah, both Oral and Written.

The issue entails two separate levels: the axiological and the experiential.

1. Axiological: At times, even at my mature age, far beyond the age of adolescent identity crises during which one is supposed to have such doubts, I have found myself asking what compelling reason there is for me to continue to observe the halakhah with such meticulous care, or indeed to observe at all. If the Torah is not ultimately rooted in an act of Divine revelation, then perforce the halakhic tradition and authority system of the rishonim and aharonim is not an elaboration and refinement of that awesome, singular moment of revelation, but is in fact the development of a human document whose precise origins are lost in the mists of the Ancient Near East, then why bother about reciting Keri’at Shema at the proper time, or whether or not one must stand up for Hazarat ha-Shatz, or the intricacies of terumot u-ma’asrot (tithes), perot shevi’it (sabbatical year produce) etc.? Or, for that matter, when one is subject to what is quaintly referred to as “temptation,” what real reason is there to refuse? For the traditional Jew, Ivan Karamozov’s famous epigram, “If there is no God, everything is permitted,” is amended to “If the Torah is not Divine, everything is permitted.”

2. Experiential: If the Torah is not in fact Divine, the experience of the performance of the mitzvah is itself diminished. The belief in Torah min ha-shamayim lies at the very core of traditional Jewish religious life as it is lived. The central experience of Torah—its “heteronomic” nature—depends upon this for its very soul and réson d’être. At times, I look back upon certain periods in my life—my college years, particularly, when I had just begun to take Torah seriously and to observe the mitzvot—and remember a certain religious innocence within myself, a purity of heart, a feeling that each time I fulfilled a mitzvah I was performing the will of God in the simplest, most literal sense. I believed then that each time I performed a mitzvah I was doing an act that corresponded to a kind of cosmic, Platonic model—a norm that came from without, something that transcended, not only of my own individual self and ego, but humankind and human culture as a whole. Today my observance is seemingly far more “complete”—I have become a learned rabbi, familiar with and knowledgeable in the classical sources; many intricacies of halakhah of which I was then ignorant have become second nature to me; I know how to “swim” in the vast literature of Judaism—Talmud, halakhah, midrash, even Kabbalah and Hasidut—with an ease and grace and sophistication and knowledge that I could not have imagined in those distant days. And yet, I find myself looking back on those years as a time of religious wholeness and purity and power. How, as a mature, sophisticated, complex adult in my middle years, can I recapture that feeling without a sense of falsehood? That is the crux of my problem.

Gershom Scholem, founder of modern Kabbalah studies, and in his personal belief a self-declared religious anarchist, writes how, paradoxically, this naive, literal belief in the divinity of the Torah facilitates tremendous creative freedom. In one of his personal essays, he writes:

The principal question to which we must now return is the following: What is the difference between this world, in which mysticism is a living phenomenon, and ourselves, who do not pretend to, are not able to, and do not wish to wear the mantle of pious, Orthodox Jews following the tradition of our forefathers?… What is the basic assumption upon which all traditional Jewish mysticism in Kabbalah and Hasidism is based? The acceptance of the Torah, in the strictest and most precise understanding of the concept of the word of God….

Each and every word and letter, and not merely something general and amorphous lacking in specific meaning, is an aspect of the revelation of the Divine Presence; and it is this specific revelation of holiness that is meant by Torah from heaven. It is only for this reason that they were able to find infinite illuminating lights in every word and letter, in the sense of seventy faces to the Torah—of the infinite interpretation and endless understandings of each sentence.

… once a person has accepted the strictures of this faith and this quality of faith… he enjoys an extraordinary measure of freedom, to which the history of the Kabbalah gives abundant testimony. He becomes so to speak a member of the family, and is able to uncover level upon level, layer upon layer, in the understanding that the gates of exegesis are never closed—and not necessarily because the talents of the person himself are unlimited. …

The awesome faith in the power hidden within the divine word, a faith than which there is none higher, served in the past as the basis for the mystical decision based upon the exegesis of this word. This decision allows wide latitude for religious individualism, without leaving the fixed framework of the Torah, which reserves to itself the possibility of unique inspiration, which is only granted to a particular individual whose soul is hewn from the same source or from its sparks.

… There was an absolute belief here in something, but for many of us that very thing was a tremendous, if not an absolute obstacle. We do not believe in Torah from heaven in the specific sense of a fixed body of revelation having infinite significance. And without this basic assumption one cannot move.

The moment this assumption falls, the entire structure upon which mysticism was built, and by means of which it was to be accepted among the people as legitimate, likewise falls. And once this sense of faith in Torah from heaven ceased, it fell—and I dare say that for most of our people this sense of faith no longer exists. This being the case, one must ask the question: Where can one find a firm basis for that same continuity, for that same feeling that the gates of exegesis have not been shut to the infinite wealth of the divine word known in its expansion?

Prof. David Weiss Halivni articulates this problem with both passion and frankness, in his autobiography, The Book and the Sword. (The background to the following passages are the two breaks in his life: with the Orthodox yeshiva world of his youth and the initial period in the United States after the Holocaust; and his break, many years later, with the Jewish Theological Seminary, over the issue of women’s ordination):

As far as religious observance was concerned, I was quite comfortable in the yeshiva. No amount of religious observance, no matter how strict or extreme, offends me. What offends me is intellectual violation…. When I left the Seminary in 1985, it was the reverse. Intellectually, I was very happy there. I studied and taught the way the teachers there did, scientifically and critically. But I left for religious reasons. I was uncomfortable with their not always following the dictates and tenets that halakhah imposes on us as Jews.

How can one reconcile the two, the critical study, the intellectual perception of a text, and the adherence to strict observance, believing in the divinity of the text? This is a subject I try to deal with in the last chapter of my book Peshat and Derash… and in another book dealing with classical Jewish hermeneutics. However, my position—which is epitomized by my leaving the yeshiva because it was intellectually stifling and later leaving the seminary because it was religiously wanting—is apparently difficult to follow. I seem to live with this combination in a certain amount of harmony.

Will others follow suit? I often wonder whether I will succeed in transmitting this position to future generations, or whether it is not unique to my own particular intense Jewish background and people who do not share my background and will experience tension that they will not be able to withstand. They will tend to follow wither the religious side or the intellectual side, but not both.

(And a few pages later) My doubts are even greater in the religious sphere, concerning the combination of “genuine faith and open-mindedness” (the motto of a newly founded rabbinical school, the Institute of Traditional Judaism, which I hope and pray will perpetuate the ideas that I am so ardent about). Intellectually, I am almost indistinguishable from a secular scholar, but, unlike one, I still believe in the holy nature of the Bible, believe that God broke into human history, and feel that religious observance is the best way for a person to approach God. A divine text, made maculate by men, is still divine and leaves no alternative but to seek, search and pursue the maculate document for information on how to live a sacred life… I often think of Moses Mendelssohn, who combined enlightenment with strict observance, apparently to his full satisfaction. I don’t detect any tension in his writings. But he was a total failure with his children. They could not find his harmony, and broke away. So I wonder whether this kind of holding on to both things fervently, passionately, will find adherents… This combination seems to have been a mark of mine very early. Does it make me unique? I hope not. I prefer to believe that the method I champion is objective enough that people who will come after me—religious people—will want to embrace it, to emulate it.

A variety of responses to this problem have been offered within the context of what is conventionally known as Orthodoxy. I offer here a brief survey of some of the solutions (due to limitations in time, I present this in the form of rashei perakim; at some later date I may perhaps explore some of these issues in greater depth). Many Orthodox apologists have attempted to “debunk” the documentary hypothesis, demonstrating that the evidence marshaled by the Bible critics to “prove” the existence of separate strands within the biblical text may be explained using traditional assumptions. This has been done, most impressively and thoroughly, by the 19th century German rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann (in detailed commentaries on Leviticus an Deuteronomy) and by the 20th century Italian-Israeli Bible scholar Umberto Cassutto (in two books giving line-by-line analysis of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, plus a more general discussion in his Torat ha-Te’udot). More recently, operating within the context of “post-critical” theology, David Weiss Halivni, in his Recovering Revelation, has offered an approach admitting certain imperfections in the Biblical text (which he calls “a maculate text”), and positing seeing Ezra as the ultimate source of our text per se (see b. Sanhedrin 21b).

Finally, the late Rav Mordecai Breuer has offered a unique Kabbalistic reinterpretation of the multiple parallel texts in various places, asserting that, e.g., Genesis 1 and 2 are written, respectively, in gevurah and gevurah mixed with hesed. Yet, notwithstanding the enormous erudition and powerful thinking of these authors, each in his own way, I find that their work fails to fully remove the problem, at least for myself.

For years, I was deeply troubled by these problems, and even the best efforts of the “defenders of the faith” somehow seemed artificial and unconvincing. More recently, I have found a certain peace in what might be called a “sideways move”—an approach, semi-mystical, in which the truth claims of texts become secondary, and the issue becomes one of God’s presence experienced through Torah. To this solution, I will devote the second half of this essay.

To be continued

Friday, June 06, 2008

Naso - Shabbat Kallah (Mitzvot)

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

The Nazirite, and Other Vows

Unlike last week’s parasha, which dealt with events in the desert and procedures related to the Sanctuary of that period, Naso is filled with numerous mitzvot—ranging from the laws of the Nazirite, the trial by ordeal of the wife suspected of adultery, the Priestly Blessing, as well as other passages dealing with specific aspects of the Sanctuary/Temple. Indeed, the Talmud relates that this parasha, which in terms of time is still connected to the day when the Sanctuary was dedicated, the 1st of Nissan of the year following the Exodus, was one on which eight separate parshiyot were given. Many, if not most, of these are inapplicable today, but they bear interesting lessons.

One such mitzvah is that of the nazir, or Nazirite: an individual who wishes to live an ascetic life, and who vows to adopt a certain “package” of practices—to refrain from cutting his hair, from drinking wine or consuming any grape products, from entering cemeteries or otherwise having contaminating contact with the dead (much like the kohanim, members of the hereditary priesthood). The language used of such a person is איש כי יפליא, a phrase also used of one who vows to bring the “evaluations,” arkhin, mentioned in Lev 27, alluding to something “unusual, out of the ordinary, wondrous” (the same root, פלא, is also used to refer to miracles).

The Nazirite is a specific, rigorously structured case of the broader category of neder, a vow or oath. A person may make a neder to do anything, or to refrain from any thing, that he wishes (provided that it’s not something prohibited by the Torah, or phrased in a trivial or frivolous way, or physically impossible)—e.g., to bring a gift or offering to the Temple (or make a donation to a synagogue); to refrain from eating meat for a certain period of time, or forever; to avoid all contact with a given person; to make a pilgrimage to a certain place, perhaps to the grave of a Tzaddik; etc.

There are, so to speak, two central concepts governing the idea of neder. The one is that a person must fulfill his vow: When you make a vow to the Lord your God…. that which issues from your lips you shall guard and do” (Deut 23:22-24). The essential concept is that the individual’s will has become embodied in a vow; by articulating this will in a vow or even, in most opinions, by deciding in his heart to do something, a person has made a binding commitment to do that thing. The essential idea is that there is religious significance, not only to the mitzvot a person does, but also to those choices that a person makes of his/her own free will. These are buttressed by the Torah, implying that the halakhah wishes a person to take seriously his own commitments, his own choices, even when the act involved is not a mitzvah per se. One might say that the idea of neder adds force to the entire realm of reshut, of voluntarily chosen acts. (We will discuss the entire question of Judaism’s attitude towards individual will vs. determinism in a few weeks, b”n, on Parshat Korah.)

But there is a second, opposite, halakhic institution relating to this same area: hatarat nedarim, the “releasing of vows.” (This week I officiated at such a procedure, so it is much on my mind.) When a person wishes to be released from a vow or commitment he/she has made which he realizes he cannot follow through, he goes to a tribunal of three learned Jews, who constitute a Bet Din, and asks to be released from the neder. In order to do so, they must find a petah, an “opening,” based on some factor that the person did not or could not have taken into consideration at the time of undertaking the vow.

An example from my own life: as a young man, I accepted a number of pious practices of synagogal behavior of my revered teacher, Rav Soloveitchik—acts that, while mentioned in the halakhic sources, are not generally considered as obligatory halakhah: namely, to stand throughout the Reader’s Repetition of the Amidah and the reading of the Torah, on weekdays, Shabbat, and even during the lengthy prayers of the Days of Awe. Over the years I gained weight, and began to find it physically painful and difficult to stand for lengthy periods of time. I made a hatarat nedarim, based on the fact that, as a young man, though I knew in the abstract that I would one day be older, I never visualized in a concrete way that I might find it difficult to fulfill this practice.

The notion of hatarat nedarim is thus based upon the inevitable limitations of human knowledge and foresight. A person cannot anticipate what will or may happen in the future. It may involve a matter of personal piety, or something involving interpersonal relations. Thus, the Talmud discusses someone who, out of anger, refuses to derive any benefit from a particular individual; some time later that person becomes the only butcher or grocer or teacher in his town. He had not anticipated such a development, and has no real choice but to revoke his vow. Or imagine a bride on her wedding day, undertaking external signs of her devotion and connection to her husband; if she is a traditional religious woman, this might involve covering her hair outside of their own home. Is it conceivable that such a young bride, her heart filled with love and hope and joy, imagines that one day they will end up in divorce court or, worse, in an extended legal struggle where she is an agunah, formally married but, in her own psychological inner reality, chained to someone whom she finds repugnant?

Thus, taken together, the laws of vows reflect a very interesting understanding of human life. On the one hand, the seriousness of human choices; the power and gravity of a commitment a person articulate verbally, on even decides within his heart. At the time it is made, a vow is unequivocal; a person cannot have mental reservations about it, but undertakes it wit a whole heart. On the other hand, the basis for release from vows is some change in the person’s social or personal circumstances that he did not, could not, anticipate; in other words , the inevitable limitations of human knowledge. Thus, these seemingly technical rules reflect the duality of the human being. Man/Woman is at one and the same time a morally serious creature, “little lower than the angels,” the fruits of whose mind and will must be treated with the greatest seriousness; on the other hand, hatarat nedarim is based on the finitude of man’s purview, his weakness and fallibility that stem, ultimately, from his mortality and “creatureliness.”


“Your people are my people, your God is my God”

The entire State of Israel (when not occupied with Ehud Olmert’s cash-filled envelopes from Morris Talansky) has been in an uproar the past month over the conversion issue. To briefly recap the facts: the High Rabbinic Court, led by Rav Sherman, declared invalid all of the conversions made over the past ten or fifteen years by Rav Hayyim Druckman—a leading Religious Zionist rabbi and educator, head of a special Court especially created to handle conversion and thereby relieve the huge back-log of (mostly Russian) immigrants wishing to convert to Judaism. The main argument for this rather drastic step was that Druckman was too lenient, allowing people who are ultimately not committed to a fully observant life style to be accepted as converts.

I will leave aside the political aspect of the issue: i.e., the power struggle aspects, and that over the past few decades the Haredim have gradually come to replace the “Mizrachinikim” as the leading force in Israel determining the direction of religious life, and especially halakhic public policy issues (also regarding issues of marriage and divorce, the agunah question, etc.) Nor will I address the halakhic aspect of the question, including the concept of retroactively nullifying a conversion, which I find most peculiar and difficult to justify, in light of the basic concept of conversion, once performed, as an unqualified, final act (see what I wrote on this and other issues over a year ago, in HY VIII: Vayikra=Vayikra [Rashi]). Nor will I dwell on the grave insult to an entire community of non-Haredi Torah scholars, in the high-handed treatment of Rav Druckman.

I simply wish, in the spirit of Shavuot and the reading the Book of Ruth to make a few short comments about the central issue here: the definition of Jewishness. The core issue is the old one: Is Judaism or Jewishness primarily a matter of peoplehood or religion? The Haredim are clearly pushing a purely religious, halakhic model: one who unreservedly accepts belief in God and His Torah, and commits him/herself to live thereby, may become a Jew; one who does not, cannot do so. (Moreover, even within the religious context, the Haredi model is that of a “sect’ than that of a “church,” to use the language of sociology—but that is another, albeit closely related discussion.) Much of the counter argument, say, in the secular Israeli press, takes the other tack: the Jews are a people, who have lived in Exile, and who have now returned to their homeland. Anyone who participates in the life of the nascent state, serves in its army, speaks Hebrew, participates in its culture and everyday life, and chooses to raise his children here, etc., is a welcome and worthy addition to the Jewish people, regardless of his or her halakhic or theological beliefs or practices, or absence thereof.

Both are in a sense right, and both are wrong. The Book of Ruth presents the classic answer to this question. When Naomi attempts to dissuade Ruth from following her, she replies, “Wherever you go, I shall go; wherever you sleep, I shall sleep; your people are my people, your God is my God. Where you die, there I shall die, and there will I be buried” (1:16-17). In brief, the model for the identity of this woman, seen by our tradition as the paradigmatic proselyte, is that nationhood and religion are welded together inseparably: “your people are my people, and your God is my God.”

In the ancient world, and in medieval Judaism, the two were indeed more or less identical. Thus, R. Saadya Gaon could say that “Israel is a nation by virtue of the Torah.” In the pre-modern world, the sociological reality was that one was born into a given religion and died in it, and only rarely was it a matter of personal choice. Indeed, in the Middle East today religion is largely a matter of communal belonging; in Lebanon, for example, being a Shi’ite or Sunnite or Druze or Christian is first and foremost a matter of birth. There are even those who are atheists, but atheist Shiites, Sunnites, Latin or Greek Christians, etc.

The problem is that, in the modern world, these two elements have come apart. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the only solution to the dilemma—both in terms of intellectual honesty, of stating the simple truth, and in practical terms of public policy—is to understand that Jewish identity is in fact both religious and national/ethnic. Indeed, the Rav made an attempt to provide a theological framework for this insight in his essay Kol Dodi Dofek, where he develops the idea of two covenants: the covenant of destiny (brit ha-goral), i.e., being born into the Jewish nation, symbolized by infant circumcision; and the covenant of purpose (brit ha-yi’ud), symbolized by Sinai, and the voluntary acceptance of the Torah. Thus, a way must be found to conduct conversion to Judaism—which, remember, is also a gateway to Israeli citizenship, under the Law of Return—in a way that recognizes both: the common sense understanding of belonging to the Jewish people, while somehow acknowledging its religious roots. How this is to be done in practice sounds a bit like squaring the circle; particularly as, to avoid a total split within the people, the solution must be one which can be supported, at very least, by a broad reading of the Rabbinic halakhic tradition. (But see on this Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi’s excellent study, Transforming Identity: The Ritual Transition from Gentile to Jew: Structure and Meaning)

More important, all this will require good will and mutual respect, relinquishing power struggles and hatred of ideological opponents—items in notoriously short supply in our country, not to mention the Middle East generally.


Chapter Six

On the Shabbat preceding Shavuot, known as Shabbat Kallah, “The Shabbat of the Bride,” we read a special, non-canonical chapter added to the liturgical cycle of Pirkei Avot, known as Perek Kinyan Torah, the chapter in praise of the Torah and those who acquire knowledge thereof. We shall bring one passage from this chapter:

6.2. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Every day a voice issues forth from Mount Horev and declares: Woe to the creatures for their neglect of Torah, for whoever does not engage in Torah is called “shunned”; as is said, “A golden ring in the nose of a swine [is like] a beautiful woman lacking in taste” [Prov 11:22]. As it says: “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets” [Exod 32:16]. Do not read “engraved’ (harut), but “freedom” (herut), for none is a free man but one who engages in the study of Torah. But regarding those who engage in the study of Torah, it says, “And from Matanah [lit., “gift”] to Nahaliel [lit., “the inheritance of God’], and from Nahaliel to Bamot [lit., “the heights”; Num 21:19].

Due to lack of time, I cannot discuss this fascinating and difficult text, but leave it as a subject for study and reflection by readers over Shavuot. There is much beautiful imagery here, but there are many questions as well: What is the interrelation among the three diverse parts of this passage? And how are we to understand the rather fanciful, if not downright whimsical, use of proof texts? With the help of the Giver of the Torah, we will return to this, whether before or after Hag ha-Shavuot.

Bamidbar (Mitzvot)

For further teaching on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for May 2006/

“And they shall not come to see when the holy things are swallowed up, and die”

This parasha has very few mitzvot ledorot—i.e., mitzvot of a fixed, permanent nature intended for subsequent generations. Rather, it consists mostly of instructions regarding the specific time in the desert: a census of the entire people by tribes, conducted by the “princes” of each tribe; the four-square arrangement of the camp around the Mishkan (Tabernacle); the census of Levites; the substitution of the Levites for the first-born as the priestly family; the assignments of the different Levite clans to various tasks; etc.

But at the very end of the paraaha there is a brief but interesting passage (Num 4:17-20): Aharon and his sons are instructed to pack up (wrapping them in woven cloth and, on the outside, in coarser animal skins) the most precious artifacts used in the Divine worship—the incense altar, the menorah, the table for the shewbread, and the ark of the Covenant—to be transported as they travel from one place to another. The final verse states that the other Levites or the people, who are not specifically charged with this task, “shall not come to see when the holy things are swallowed up, lest they die” (v. 20).

What is the reason for this rule? What was so traumatic or sacrilegious in seeing the holy things “swallowed up”? It seems to me that there was a fear here of “demystifying” the sacred: that there was a certain danger involved in seeing the holy objects, used in worship, as mere physical objects (thus, for example, Rav S. R. Hirsch explains it). By seeing, for example, the Ark of the Covenant, in which the Shekhinah was believed to reside, as a mere physical object, rather than as something that partakes of the transcendent, there was a sense of reduction of its holiness, of the mystery surrounding it, of its awe-inspiring quality. (This would be so even if the violation of the object’s holiness is done by accident, as in the story in 2 Sam 6 of Uzza, who inadvertently stretched put out his hand to prevent the ark from slipping.) This attitude is almost diametrically opposed to the modern attitude, which is one of demystification of “myths” and what is often seen as “arbitrary” reverence towards holy objects and people, of debunking mysteries, of uncovering the concrete reality underlying even the most sacred things.

I would like to draw an analogy between this issue and a totally different area: that of sexuality. (Or perhaps it is not so different: one could plausibly argue that sexuality, as that area in which new life is conceived and brought into the world, is one of the areas in which human beings come most directly into contact with the sacred, or at least with the potentially God-like and holy.) In earlier generations, there was a certain aura of mystery and reticence or modesty surrounding even the discussion of sexuality. Needless to say, the type of graphic pornography that exists today did not exist—or did so in an underground manner. The idea of “frankness,” that anything that is, may be seen, was alien to this earlier mentality. In traditional halakhah, even married couples were not to look at one another’s (or even their own!) intimate parts, even during the act of making love (which halakhah strongly advocates as taking place in the dark). Over the past century, Western culture has undergone a great desacralization, if one may put it thus, of sexuality. Sex is seen as something mundane, available for the individual’s pleasure as he/she sees fit. The result is a loss, not only of the power and mystery, the sense of significance of sex, but even to an extent of romance. When kids have sex in high school, or when young professional adults do so on the first and second date or after pick-ups in single bars, what is there left to dream about in terms of intimacy? There is, of course, emotional, psychic, spiritual intimacy, which is distinct from the act of simple physical release, but when the physical, which is potentially a reflection of these, is cheapened, psychic-spiritual unity seems to become more remote as well.

Re Arkhin and the Rebuke

Last week I asked readers for any sources which might contextualize the “valuations” discussed in the last chapter of Leviticus. R. Avraham Leader drew my attention to the Izhbitzer Rebbe’s famous book of Hasidic derush, Mei ha-Shiloah, in both Vol. I and Vol. II, s.v. ish ki yafli: “He sees Arkhin in response to the Tokhaha. He seems to be saying there is no action that cannot be redeemed. I might expand this to say that, after the assault of fire and brimstone retribution, there is a need to reaffirm self-value.”


Chapter Five

Unlike the four preceding chapters, this chapter, the final one in the canonic mishnaic tractate, is not arranged according to the sayings of any particular group of tannaim, but is organized around sayings based upon number: ten (§§1-7), seven (§§9-12), four (§§13-19), and miscellaneous sayings.

Ten is a number having to do with Creation: the first three mishnayot relate to the Creation and the primeval history of humankind (which the Kabbalistic tradition connects to the ten sefirot): the ten “words” with which the world was created (§1); the generations from Adam to Noah, and from Noah to Abraham (§§2-3: i.e., the issue of the increasing evil in the world and how it was to be dealt with). We find here a a schematic juxtaposition of the Flood and the Generation of Babel, on the one hand; and of Noah and Abraham, on the other. There is also a list of “ten things created on the Eve of Shabbat” (§8)—i.e., the twilight hour, a time of ambiguity lying, so to speak, on the cusp between the natural and the supernatural.

What is the underlying idea of this mishnah? As I see it, the things listed therein—the tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments; the mouth of Balaam’s ass, with which she miraculously spoke; the hole in the earth that opened up to swallow Korah and company; the “ram of Abraham,” which served as a fortuitous substitute for Yitzhak when Avraham was told not to carry out the Akedah; the tablets on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments; etc.—are all items which have a certain quality of the miraculous. By being created as part of the Creation, rather than being introduced by God as a tour de force when needed, the Sages are telling us that these objects are also somehow part of the order of nature. But by being created at the moment of twilight, at a time that was in between Shabbat and weekday, between Creation and post-Creation, between the natural and the supernatural—we understand that these things enjoy a uniquely ambiguous and ambivalent status. The more I reflect upon it, the more I see this as mishnah, despite its seemingly naïve, mythic language, as expressing a highly sophisticated theological position. A full millennium before the Rambam, the Sages were concerned with maintaining the integrity of a universe governed by fixed natural laws, while at the same time allowing room for God to perform miraculous deeds, allowing the incursion of the supernatural into the natural when need be. But the tools needed for the miraculous are themselves part of the preconceived Divine plan, a part of Creation created during this special, fleeting, twilight moment.

Mishnayot §§4 & 6 list ten “trials,” but using the same word in two diametrically opposed meanings: §4 speaks of the trials with which God tested Abraham, through which he faithfully demonstrated his devotion to and trust in God; while §6 numbers the trials with which our ancestors “tried” God—that is, the demonstrations of collective character weakness, rebellious or non-believing behavior, by which they “tried” His patience and forgiveness (these “trials” are, by the way, a central motif in the book of Bamidbar, which we begin to read this Shabbat). Finally, §§5 and 7 deal with miracles: the miracles God performed during the course of the Exodus, in Egypt and by the Sea; and the less dramatic or obvious miracles that allowed the ongoing functioning of the ritual at the Temple in Jerusalem over hundreds of years.

Two more brief associations with the number ten. In our decimal system (which mathematicians will tell us is arbitrary, only one of many possible systems), ten is the first number written with two digits, and thus suggests true multiplicity, the beginning of a multitude. This, and not only the prooftexts cited by the Sages, may be the real reason why ten was established as the crucial number of people needed for public worship: ten is a true plurality, a true community. (And compare the opening mishnayot of Chapter 4, which discuss the significance imparted to Torah study by groups of ten, five, three, two and one.)