Friday, October 31, 2008

Noah (Zohar) - Special Essay

After Hiroshima and Auschwitz: Avoiding Gog and Magog

Thoughts on Aggression, War and Judaism

We continue to “e-publish” some of my longer and long-postponed essays. It is fitting to do so now, as Bereshit and Noah introduce, along with other aspects of the human condition (such as sexuality, treated at length in the essay presented last week), the phenomenon of human evil: from the defiance of God’s decree in the Garden, through the spontaneous violence of Cain in killing his brother, the arrogant sexual appropriation of the Nefilim, to the complete corruption of the Generation of the Flood. A brief selection from this week’s Zohar will follow later.

The bulk of this essay was written in August 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a shorter Hebrew version was published at that time in the newsletter, Shabbat Shalom. The threat to Israel implied by Iran’s nuclear program, combined with the worldwide uncertainty about the future—financially, environmentally, and also politically—make these issues unfortunately more relevant than ever.

And the land became corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence—Genesis 6:11

Where have all the young men gone, long time passing… when will they ever learn… – Pete Seeger

A person does not sin unless there enters into him a spirit of foolishness. — Talmud

1. The World after Hiroshima

The explosion of the first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945—a horrendous event, in which over 100,000 innocent human beings were killed in one blinding flash, in a fraction of a second, and myriads more were maimed, blinded, suffered horrific burns and other injuries, or died slowly and painfully from various radioactively-generated diseases over the course of months or years—ushered in a new era in human history.

Many historians and others have questioned whether this awesome display of might was necessary, even from a narrow strategic, military or geo-political viewpoint. In what might be called a revisionist reading of the event, the questions are asked: Was it, as the official American line claims, in fact necessary, or was it based on haste, a desire to humiliate the Emperor Hirohito, to make the defeat all the more utterly and totally conclusive? Was there an element of demonstrating power for power’s sake? Was there an element of racism in its use specifically against an Asian people, rather than against a European country, Germany, whose Nazi government had started and launched the war (not to mention committing far greater atrocities than the Japanese)? And was there a brazen disregard for the consequences of this act, in its opening a Pandora’s box? Interestingly, Albert Einstein, who, through his understanding of the sub-atomic processes involved and the possibility of converting matter to energy, first realized the possibility of designing an atomic bomb, strongly warned against its use in his famous letter to President Roosevelt.

Following my father’s death some twenty years ago, I came across a copy of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 1947 or ‘48, containing an article by a highly placed US official severely criticizing this action (my memory, notwithstanding other things more hawkish things he wrote and said on the subject, is that it was by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson). Among other things, this author adamantly challenges the claim that dropping the Bomb “shortened the war” or “saved American lives,” stating that all that was needed at the time to end the war peacefully would have been to provide Emperor Hirohito with some minimal face-saving gesture. The sense of this article was that the Americans were intent upon proving their own power. But, as the old saw has it, history is written by the victors, and all these reservations have largely been forgotten.

2. The Anomaly of Human Nature

More recently, I began reading Arthur Koestler’s book, Janus: The Summation, in which he makes the frightening statement, difficult to deny or confute, that the atomic bomb has drastically changed the existential situation of humanity itself. Whereas previously the individual knew that he was mortal, but that the human race per se would continue indefinitely into the future, the atomic bomb raised the real possibility of the self-destruction of humanity itself. The mind balks at even contemplating for long such a terrifying thought.

Koestler goes on to discuss this potential for self-destruction, considering an idea suggested by philosophers of previous ages: that the human race is fatally flawed by a kind of “insanity” or paranoia. He goes on to note the fact that, unlike most animal species, that only kill for food, the human being has the potential to engage in intra-cohort lethal violence—i.e., murder or warfare. This is in striking contrast to intra-species competition among other mammals (e.g., fights between males competing to mate with a given female), who suffice with symbolic gestures of submission. To put matters simply: whereas mankind’s intellect, in which he takes such pride, has engendered impressive accomplishments in the conquest and mastery of matter through science and technology, in the emotional and moral realm, that of control over his own self and behavior, there has been virtually no “progress” and there has been hardly any change since the dawn of history. To invert Maimonides’ words about the prophet: regarding the vast majority of human beings, “His Impulse is not in his hands, but he is in the hands of his Impulse.”

While the title of Koestler’s book is taken from the Greek myth about the god of war, Janus, who has two faces turned in opposite directions, it could easily be applied to human beings as well: a “two-faced” being, suggesting the moral antinomies, paradoxes and ambivalences that mark human life. This idea is well-expressed in a series of Rabbinic midrashim about the creation of man. One particularly apt midrash on the creation of man appears in Genesis Rabbah 8.5:

R. Simon said: When the Holy One blessed be He set out to create Man, the ministering angels were divided into different factions and groups. Some of them said: “May he be created,” and others said: “May he not be created.” Concerning this it is said: “Loving-kindness and truth met; justice and peace kissed” [Ps 85:11]. Loving-kindness says: “May he be created, for he will perform acts of kindness.” Truth says: “May he not be created, for he is full of lies.” Justice says: “May he be created, for he performs acts of justice.” Peace says: “May he not be created, for he is filled with disputes and quarrels. “ What did the Holy One blessed be He do? He took Truth and threw him down to earth, as is written, “And He threw truth to the earth” [Daniel 8:12].

The ministering angels said: “Master of the Universe, why do you insult Your Seal [an allusion to the notion that ‘Truth is the seal of the Holy One blessed be He’]? Raise truth up from the ground!” Of this it is said, “Truth shall blossom forth from the earth” [Ps 85:12].

What is implied in the image of God thrusting truth down to the earth? (Needless, to say, in its original context in Daniel this verse has nothing to do with such an image, but alludes to the great “he-goat,” symbolizing the Grecian empire and its offshoots, which desecrated the Sanctuary). The essential point seems to be that God’s creative impulse, His love, His “need” for man, are stronger than His adherence to the absolute yardstick of truth. The world—meaning: life, vitality, with all the diversity and tempestuous change implied by the word—cannot survive under the hard coin of immovable truth. Ultimately, God wishes there to be life, with all its imperfections and troubles, above the unsullied, perfect, quiet, peaceful purity of an undifferentiated Infinite.

This midrash portrays the confrontation between two pairs of attributes or values. On the one hand, truth and justice are hard, absolute values—uncompromising, unyielding norms, leaning toward harshness and severity, without “taking into consideration” mitigating, situational factors. Love and peace are gentle, humane values, that appeal to every sensitive, caring person; but their very softness—their pliability and flexibility and tolerance and openness to compromise—are ultimately a source of weakness. Thus, the “meeting” or “embrace” of one with the other lends a completeness to the picture that would be missing were each taken by itself.

Our text sheds sharp light on the struggle between good and evil impulses within humankind. Each person has within him/herself a certain potential for love, an ability to act kindly and selflessly, to overflow with generosity, caring, empathy, nurture, etc. But by the same coin, every human has a tendency towards weaknesses, which typically emerge when he/she withdraws into the self, adopts an egocentric attitude, and thinks only of his own interests: he then lies, cheats, conceals the truth. This in turn often leads to arguments and quarrels, which may in turn cross over into violence and even bloodshed and, on the tribal or national level, warfare.

What can one do with such a contradictory creature? At one moment he is filled with the most elevated, sublime, generous impulses; at the next—with meanness, cruelty, xenophobia, pettiness, and hatred. Every group endeavor of human beings—be it religions, political movements, aesthetic and philosophical schools, even self-help groups—seems destined to split into groups, sub-groups and sub-sub-groups.

3. “And Cain Rose Up and Slew Abel, His Brother”

The subject of human aggression is a vast one. In the limited space available here, I can barely scratch the surface and make a few very general comments on Judaism’s approach to this issue. Freud spoke of two basic drives of the Id, of the unmediated, raw stuff of the human psyche, before the civilizing affects of parents and socialization into adult society begin to modify them, which reemerge in all kinds of situations: Eros and Thanatos—love, sexuality, and the pleasure principle, on the one hand; and the death wish, the inchoate desire to do violence to others and, at times, to self, on the other. Contemporary psychology tends to see aggression, or “assertiveness,” as an important human function, if kept within reasonable bounds, and certainly not as something that can be quashed. The ideal of assertiveness has gained particular importance in the feminist movement of recent decades, the underlying assumption being that, if women are too calm and accepting of whatever others do, they will be stepped upon, victimized, and not get their fair share of what is ones due.

Interestingly, traditional Judaism, in both Hazal and in Kabbalah, speak of two basic forces in life—concepts of yirah & ahavah, love and fear—which roiughlky parallel these. Both are vital, necessary to life, and both, uncontrolled, can have profoundly negative effects. Our society at least thinks that it knows how to deal with sexuality, and certainly talks about it enough, but Thanatos seems less well controlled.

The midrash and other branches of Jewish literature provide a rich store of discussions on humankind’s propensity towards violence: from the midrashim on the story of Cain and Abel, through the generation of the Flood—or, for that matter, the case of Adam and Eve after the sin of the Tree, when man-woman relations began to be based upon elements of power and patterns of domination/submission, rather than upon equality—a factor which many feminist thinkers see as a crucial element in the development of culture ever thereafter.

But the starting point for any discussion of violence and aggression must be the story of Cain and Abel—the first murder in human history. Two years ago, on the occasion of his being honored as Hatan Torah at Yakar, Professor Uriel Simon gave a talk about Cain. Essentially, he described how the biblical text, in a few choice phrases, portrays Cain as a weak person, incapable of bearing frustration or disappointment, easily surrendering to moods. After his sacrifice is rejected by God—for whatever reason, which we are not told—Cain is angered and “his face falls.” The crucial verse is Genesis 4:7, in which God tells him: הלא אם תיטיב שאת; ואם לא תיטיב, לפתח חטאת רובץ, ואליך תשוקתו, ואתה תמשל בו (”if you do good, you will be accepted [or: there is uplift - NJPS]; but if you do not do good, sin crouches at the gate, and its desire is towards you, but you shall rule it”). That is, his anger is the result of a child-like self-obsession, a limited view of the world, in which he blames others for the consequences of his own shortcomings or for what goes wrong in his life. The challenge presented to Cain was to show maturity, responsibility for his own action; otherwise, “sin”—a personification of all negative human traits—lies in wait to take over. Yet even then, he may yet rule it—life is a constant struggle with these negative impulses, which is never conclusively decided one way or another. Unfortunately, Cain failed the test and, in the next scene, in the course of a quarrel with his brother that was perhaps so petty that Scripture doesn’t even bother to describe its cause, he rises and strikes a fatal blow against his brother. Humankind has been paying the price, repeating this paradigmatic fratricide, ever since.

The Rabbinic midrashim on this incident ridicule aggression and conflict as stemming from an absurd perception of reality, and from petty concerns. Thus, Bereshit Rabbah 22.7, discusses the verse immediately preceding the first murder—“And Cain spoke to Abel his brother; and it came to pass when they were in the field….” (Gen 4:8):

What were they discussing? They said: Come, let us divide the world. One took all the land, and the other took all the mobilia. This one said: The land you are standing upon is mine; and that one said: What you are wearing is mine! This one said: Strip! That one said: Fly! [or: Jump!]. Between this and that, “Cain rose upon his brother Abel and killed him.”

R Yehoshua of Sakhnin said… [No} This one said: The Temple shall be built in my territory! And that one said: The Temple shall be built in my territory! As is said: “and it came to pass when they were in the field.” And “field” refers to the Temple, as is said: “Zion shall be plowed like a field” (Micah 3:12). From this: “And Cain rose up…” etc.

Yehudah b. Rabbi said: They were arguing about [the original] Eve. R Aibo said; Eve had returned to the dust. About what then were they quarreling? R. Huna said: an extra twin sister was born with Abel. This one said: I will take her, for I am the first born! And that one said: I shall take her, for she was born with me! From this….

Interestingly, this midrash does not paint Cain in any blacker colors than it does Abel: both were arguing and adhering stubbornly to positions about what might in the end turn out to be ridiculous matters. One year, Rav Soloveitchik devoted a series of his Saturday night philosophical-aggadic shiurim at the Maimonides School to this chapter. He suggested that this midrash presents a caricature of what might be described as the three main reasons for human conflict, be it on an individual or a collective level: namely, property, sex, and religion/ideology. All three, stripped of their high language, appear in ridiculous and mean light: the notion of one person owning all of the land property, or all of the movable objects, is a reductio ad absurdum. Similarly, “in my territory shall the Temple will be built” ends up sounding rather less like religious fervor and more like sheer egotism or desire for prestige: viz. the passions excited by control of holy sites here in Jerusalem (between Jews and Moslems re the Temple Mount; between different Christian churches a few hundred meters away, at the Holy Sepulchre), in India, in the Punjab, and elsewhere. Finally, the idea of “owning” another person’s sexuality (without her having any voice in the matter) is either cruel and barbaric, or absurd.

4. Aggression: an Halakhic Perspective

Turning from the realm of midrash and archetypes to an analysis of the phenomenon itself, we must divide the discussion between aggression and violence on the individual level, and on the collective level. Beginning on the individual level: The halakhah is clearly opposed to virtually all expressions of aggression, whether of a verbal, psychological, or physical nature. “Resh Lakish said: He who lifts his hand against his fellow, even if he did not strike him, is called a sinner, as is said ‘And he [Moses] said to the evil-doer, Why shall you [i.e., in the future tense] strike your neighbor?’” (Sanhedrin 58b; quoting Exod 2:13). Rambam, in portraying the basic character traits a person ought to cultivate, speaks of striking a ”golden mean” between the two possible extremes in almost every aspect of life, a kind of neo-Aristotelian, Hellenic ideal of balance, equipoise and inner harmony. But there are two notable exceptions to this rule: pride (govah lev) and anger (ka’as). Even the slightest measure of arrogance and haughtiness is forbidden: a person must minimize his pride, his ego-expansion and imposition of self upon others, to be humble, modest and self-effacing. The same holds true for temper and anger: the ideal is one of almost total calm and equanimity. Yet here Rambam makes an interesting exception: a person is never allowed to become truly angry, but may feign anger, make a show of apparent anger, in order to chastise, to teach or discipline others, especially children. Otherwise, how will they learn? A certain healthy fear of the anger of others, a desire to “stay on the good side” of parents or other authority figures, is seen as an important tool in the repertoire of the effective teacher. One cannot radiate sweetness and light at all times—or at least thus have Jews traditionally thought.

… Anger is an extremely bad trait, and it is fitting that a person should separate himself from it to the other extreme, and train himself never to be anger, even concerning those things about which it might be appropriate to be angry. And if he wishes to impose fear upon his children and the members of his household…. so that they may return to the good, he may make himself before them as if he is angry so as to chastise them, but his mind is calm within him, like a person feigning anger but who is not really angry. (Hilkhot De’ot 2.3)

But once we turn to the collective level, of the nation and of the Collectivity of Israel as a whole, matters become more complex. There are abundant biblical and halakhic precedents for warfare, and an understanding of the use of violence as something that is at times necessary, and even positive. The Torah clearly makes allowance for warfare, and even lays down, in Deuteronomy 20; 21:10-14; and 23:10-15 various definite rules and regulations governing warfare—both “volitional’ and “required” wars, and even milhemet mitzvah, “a commanded war.” The historical books of the Former Prophets are filled with accounts of battles and sorties against enemies; some of the best-known biblical poems—the Song of the Sea, the Song of Deborah, the Song that David sang “on the day that God delivered him from all his enemies” (2 Sam 23=Ps 18), the lament over Saul and Jonathan (indirectly), Psalms 68, 110, 144, and more—celebrate warfare, victory and heroism in battle (including the Divine element in which God Himself, “a man of war,” strides at the head of the serried forces, His garments, so to speak, crimson with the blood of His enemies). In a particularly striking passage, Maimonides writes with passion of war as a religious mission:

Once he has entered into the battle front, he shall rely upon the Hope of Israel and their Redeemer in times of trouble, and he should know that he is waging war for the unity of the Name. And he should take his soul in hand and neither fear nor be frightened, and think neither of his wife nor of his children, but should erase their memory from his heart and turn from everything else to war … As it says explicitly in the tradition: “Cursed is he who is slack in doing God’s work, and he who withholds his sword from blood” [Jer 48:10]. But whoever wages war with all his heart and without fear, and his intention is to sanctify God’s name alone, is assured that harm will befall him…. (Hilkhot Melakhim u-Milhemoteihem 7.14)

On the other hand, there is the renowned vision of universal, nay, cosmic peace, as the crowning glory of the End of Days: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more” (Isa 2:4)—and, again, many similar passages.

What is the source of these diametrically opposed views? The sad fact is, that human experience teaches that issues of war and peace are far from simple: There are just wars, against powers of stark evil which threaten to inundate and enslave the world; and there are wars that are no more than the result of obstinacy and greed on both sides, of the will of nations and their leaders to expand, to gain profit, territory and resources at the expense of other, weaker nations—and of their own soldiers, who are often but too willing to serve as “cannon fodder.” The two world wars of the twentieth century may be taken as object lessons of these two types. The following passage, from a review of some books about World War One, articulates the dilemma:

The last century, through its great cataclysms, offers two clear, ringing, and, unfortunately, contradictory lessons. The First World War teaches that territorial compromise is better than full-scale war, that an “honor-bound” allegiance of the great powers to small nations is a recipe for mass killing, and that it is crazy to let the blind mechanism of armies and alliances and trump common sense. The Second teaches that searching for an accommodation with tyranny by selling out small nations only encourages the tyrant, that refusing to fight now leads to a worse fight later on, and that only the steadfast rejection of compromise can prevent the natural tendency to rush to a bad peace with worse men. The First teaches us never to rush into a fight, the Second never to back down from a bully.

Happy is he who can clearly distinguish the two: a knave with a good speech-writer can easily turn a cynical, ruinous exploit into a great moral crusade!

* * * * *

Particularly in the post-Hiroshima world, it is imperative that we understand that war is the scourge of mankind; that it only rarely resolves the problems it was meant to solve (viz., but one recent example: Regev and Goldwasser as justification for the Second Lebanon War); that it more often than not escalates beyond the proportions originally envisioned by the armchair strategists (including those with epaulets on their shoulders); and that it appeals to the lowest, jingoistic instincts of the masses of men. Yet, notwithstanding all that, the position of absolute pacifism is no solution either. Simply ignoring the dangers posed by ongoing aggression is sticking one’s face in the sand, and in a very dangerous world is no workable alternative either—certainly not for the Jewish state existing in a conflict-ridden dangerous part of the world, nor to the Jewish people, who have undergone collective traumas making it reluctant to accept the counsel of “turn the other check” (suffered, not least, at the hands of the alleged devotes of that counsel).

In concluding, there is much more to be said on this subject. I have deliberately avoided directly addressing the problems confronting the State of Israel at this juncture in its history, as well as the difficulties created by certain aspects of the Israeli mentality, shaped as it was in reaction to the negative image of the “Galut Jew.” Suffice it to say, that I believe that these problems must be approached by our leaders with solemn gravity, not with unbearable lightness; with a world-view that transcends the merely military; and with awareness of the qualitative difference between the post-Hiroshima era and earlier times. Everything possible—everything, even talking with people we despise—must be done before making the decision to go to war, or even to engage in a “preemptive strike.” Dealing with the problems and dilemmas of this world is a knotty problem, but it must be done with full awareness that “not by might nor by bravery [alone], but by My spirit, says the Lord” (Zech 4:6).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Bereshit (Supplement)

The One and the Two: On God, Man and Woman-- Towards a Jewish Theory of Sexuality


The idea of writing a series of studies on the Judaic understanding of sexuality originated several years ago, during the course of my studies of Rambam. In those studies, we noted that Rambam, in his treatment of sexual matters, posits a sharp dichotomy between spirit and matter, between mind and body—and, by extension, between male and female (see HY V: Emor). Essentially, in Hilkhot De’ot and other sources, he describes sexuality as: (a) the means by which the human race (and the Jewish people) reproduces itself; (b) a kind of hygienic necessity, to be indulged in only when absolutely necessary; (c) a marital duty of the husband towards his wife. The path of maximum holiness, like that of Moses, “the father of the prophets… the teacher of all Israel,” is that of celibacy, of withdrawal from and transcendence of all such bodily needs.

For we moderns, this approach is problematic in two different ways. First, we are far more aware than were our medieval forebears of the personhood of woman, of woman as a spiritual-intellectual as well as a biological being. We tend to see marriage as an institution whereby the two sexes complement one another, achieving wholeness. (See Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings on this subject, e.g. in his respective eulogies of the Talner Rebbe and the Talner Rebbitzin and, especially, in his book Family Redeemed). Second, living in the post-Freudian age, we see sexual pleasure as a vital part of the complete life, and celibacy (i.e., self-imposed sexual frustration), not as a path to holiness, but as more likely an obstacle to mental health. To put matters simply, as a culture we like sex, and are not embarrassed to admit it.

But on another level, sexuality is an area in which our culture is deeply troubled, confused and conflicted—whether aware of it or not—and, as I have written in the past, headed on a potentially dangerous path in terms of social cohesion: if the smallest cell of society, the family, is in trouble, this must inevitably reflect back on society as a whole. But more on that another time.

My treatment of this issue began during Year VIII of Hitzei Yehonatan, in my discussions of Rashi. In three separate passages in Parashat Bereshit, Rashi makes significant comments on man and woman, which in turn prompted further reflection. Two of these I commented on in that series (HY VIII: Bereshit; Hol Ha-Mo’ed Pesah); I have reposted these essays on my blog for the reader’s convenience. The third and final essay in this series is presented below.

This is preceded by a more theoretical essay, in which I attempt to present a certain new model for thinking about sexuality within a traditional Jewish framework. I will also append two other as-yet-unpublished essays related to this theme.

I. The One and the Two: On God, Man and Woman

God is one. Man and woman are two.

God is one, but the universe He created is multiple, divided into different, at times even conflicting, objects. All multiplicity, conceptually, philosophically, begins with two. Even atoms, the smallest building blocks of the universe, are composed of positive and negative particles. In Genesis, creation is described as beginning with the division into two: light and darkness, heaven and earth, water and dry land, sun and moon—therein laying the basis for havdalah, separation, as the necessary counterpoint to kedushah, sanctification… and ending with the duality of man and woman. Halakhic thinking begins largely with dualities or separations—pure and impure, holy and mundane, Shabbat and weekday, milk and meat, etc. Thus, too, the traditions of the Far East adopted the yin-yang as a basic symbol for universe.

This basic duality is epitomized in the duality of the sexes, of male and female. Indeed, sexuality is the very paradigm for duality. Even in the linguistic sense, sexuality relates to two-ness. The English word “sex” is derived from the Latin sexus, which in turn is derived from the root secare, meaning “to split / to divide in two”— the same root from which we derive such familiar words as “section,” “second,” etc.

The problem of unity and multiplicity is an essential one in religious thought (as noted by Martin Buber, among others). Unlike the pristine unity of the Divine in which God dwells in the hidden recesses of the Infinite, the dynamic, ever-changing aspect of life is related to twoness, to duality. The duality embodied in sexuality is thus that instrument by which God fills His world with life, the mechanism through which He acts in the world. Far from being antagonistic to the principle of unity, it embodies the vital force of the One within a multifaceted universe. Beyond the level of the simplest organisms, all life—mammals, birds, fish, even vegetation and many species of insects—reproduces itself through sex. This is so of necessity: all life, all change, all growth, comes about through the interaction of two beings. This assumes concrete form in the creation of life through sexual union and in the very laws of genetics that govern sexual reproduction; every child is a kind of synthesis of its two parents: not a clone, but a new being, reflecting something of the being of each one, while also being something new. Thus, just as every breath taken by a living creature may be seen as God breathing life into His world, so too is every act of coupling, whether of human or beast, an act in which God, so to speak, replenishes and revitalizes the life of His universe.

But human sexuality involves further antinomies and polarities. It is this fact that lies at the root of medieval philosophers being wont to speak of the two sexes in terms of spirit, or form, and matter. Translated into modern concepts, we might speak of: consciousness and biological impulse or, in more philosophical terms, determinism and freedom. Sexuality embraces the most intensely personal elements of life, the longing for emotional, spiritual, intellectual completion through union with another; at the same time, the act of union may be, and often is, limited to its purely physical, instinctual aspect; indeed, it may be a brute, violent, even non-consensual act, powered by what we call pure lust—that is, drive or instinct.

There is thus much duality and ambiguity in sexuality in the moral sense as well. One need hardly belabor the point that sex involves the potential for good or for evil; it is one of those areas in which the ordinary person is confronted with moral choices. Christian moralists often speak of love and lust as opposed poles, tantamount to good and evil. Hazal, the Jewish Sages of yore, spoke of Yetzer Hara, of “the Evil Urge,” predominantly, or paradigmatically, in sexual terms—as the desire for sex with forbidden partners. So, too, the examples of “compete teshuvah,” whether the archetypal case invoked by Rambam in Teshuvah 2.1 or that of the profligate Eleazar ben Dordai in Avodah Zarah 17a, involve sexual transgression.

This duality is also expressed in the very polarity of self and other entailed in sexuality. In the sexual act, one derives pleasure from an act committed with an Other, while simultaneously giving pleasure to the other. What is the balance of self-pleasuring and other-pleasuring? There is giving and taking; generosity and selfishness; love and deceit; pretense of love and authentic, whole-hearted caring commitment; perception of the other as an object, used for one’s own pleasure, or as a subject, a locus of consciousness in his/her own right; of deception, of self and of other, and honest confusion: all of the subtle, mercurial ebb and flow and changes of human emotion. (So long as Western culture has the sexual norms it currently has—and I don’t expect radical changes in this area in my lifetime—of wide acceptance of sex outside of marriage, so that the ordinary person will have experience with several partners in the natural course of things, often rather casually, these moral problems will be accentuated and the concern of the many.) Of course, the moral ambiguities involved in sexuality echo the moral choices involved in human existence generally; or, put differently, the duality of human nature itself.

There are also dualities in love itself: in the ebb and flow of desire and satisfaction, of coming together and separating, indeed, in the polarity existing even in the most intimate relationship between bonding and autonomy, between the two basic human needs for individuation and coupling, the need for the other and for space for oneself. (As many have noted, this is reflected in the halakhah in the laws of niddah, in the constitutive laws of marital law, with their insistence that there is “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” [Eccles 3:5].)

II. “And The Two of Them Were Naked and Were not Ashamed”

“Was there, or could there ever be… a reconciliation between sexuality and innocence?“ (Anita Shreve, Where or When, p. 212)

Let us begin with a simple question: was the apple, the “forbidden fruit” eaten in the Garden, a metaphor for sexuality? What exactly happened in the Garden between the Serpent, Eve and Adam? And: did Adam and Eve already have sexual relations in the Garden, in a perfectly natural way, or did this only happen in the wake of their disobeying God by eating the fruit? As we shall see presently, these questions have far-reaching ramifications for the basic attitudes towards sexuality, and the diverse answers given to it are emblematic of the differences between Christianity and Judaism. We shall begin with a Rashi on a somewhat later verse:

“And Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and bore a son, Cain…” (Gen 4:1). Rashi: “And Adam knew…” (veha-adam yada’). Already prior to the above matter, before they sinned and were expelled from the Garden of Eden; similarly regarding conception and birth. For had it been written , ve-yada’ adam, “then knew Adam…”, this would imply that after they had been expelled he begat children.

Rashi begins with a seemingly technical question—When did Eve become pregnant with Cain? Building his argument on an almost technical linguistic point, he observes that, in other verses which speak of various figures having carnal knowledge of their wives, the phrase used is always in the form va-yeda’ peloni et ishto (see, e.g., Gen 4:17, 25), using the verbal form conventionally known as the future tense, but which in biblical grammar denotes the imperfect tense—indicating an incomplete, continuous or ongoing act, whether past, present, or future. Thus, “and Kain knew his wife…” Here the phrase is the opposite, vaha-adam yada’ et hava ishto, phrased in the past perfect, completed form of the verb, meaning “and Adam had known his wife Eve…” Thus, the first sexual act had already taken place some time prior to what is described immediately preceding this verse—namely, the conversation with the serpent, the eating of the forbidden fruit, the punishments meted out by God, and the subsequent banishment from the Garden (thus, Rashi on 3:1 already notes that the serpent had seen the two engaged in intercourse and desired Eve, and therefore devised this plan to cause Adam to die).

This point is exemplary for one of the crucial difference between Judaism and Christianity. In Christian readings of the Garden story, Original Sin is closely linked to sexuality. There are hints in their sources that, prior to eating the fruit, Adam and Eve sported together in virginal innocence, like children; sexual knowledge was the direct result of eating the forbidden fruit, or may even itself have been the “knowledge” alluded to in the tree’s very name.

A classical example of the Christian reading of this passage is that of John Milton in Paradise Lost—namely, that all sexuality ultimately the devil’s doing, a consequence of Original Sin. In Book IX he describes the consequences of eating the fruit of the tree, as follows:

As with new Wine intoxicated both / they swim in mirth, and fancy that they feel / Divinity within them breeding wings / Wherewith to scorn Earth: but that false Fruit Far other operation first display’d, Carnal desire inflaming, hee on Eve Began to cast lascivious Eyes, she him as wantonly repaid; in Lust they burn: Till Adam thus ‘gan Eve to dalliance move. … There they thir fill of Love and Love’s disport took largely, of their mutual guilt the Seal, The solace of thir sin …. (Book IX: 1008-1016, 1042-1044; New York: Odyssey Press, 1962, ed. M. Y. Hughes, pp. 229-230)

Thus, sex in and of itself is both the seal and solace of their mutual guilt—an act of pleasure to compensate for their having disobeyed God.

In Judaism, by contrast, while there does seem to be a certain sexual component to the sin (see HY I: Bereshit), another view sees it as having to do it basically with the discovery of moral choice, the introduction into human life of behirah hofshit. The exercise of choice, the decision to disobey God, or even the very discovery of that possibility, is itself the “fall from grace.” In that sense, eating the fruit was both inevitable and necessary for human beings to become fully mature, morally responsible, to exercise freedom in any meaningful sense. (See on this, for example, Erich Fromm, You Shall be as Gods; as well as numerous midrashim and commentaries from the mainstream of the tradition).

And yet, whenever I read this chapter, I cannot escape the feeling that there is also a certain sexual resonance to the story as well. Note the references to nakedness—first, “and the two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed/bashful” (Gen 2:25)—and thereafter, “and the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves…” (3:7). While “nakedness” could be read in these verses as a metaphor for ignorance or moral bankruptcy, they also suggest, indeed, invite, a sexual meaning. Hence, I would suggest a third reading, one that places the meaning of this story somewhere between Milton and Fromm: that clearly, the story has something to do with sexuality, but not it alone.

I would suggest that what they discovered at that moment was the potential for non-innocence in sexuality. Until then (and here we return full circle to the subject with which we started), their sexuality had been an idyllic, Shir ha-Shirim taking of innocent delight in one another. (NB: in Song of Songs innocence is a state of mind, which in no way contradicts full consummation: as in שם אתן דודי לך [Cant 7:13] or לא ידעתי נפשי שמתני מרכבות עמי נדיב [ibid., 6:12].) It is this utterly guileless, conflict-free, almost childlike mutual pleasuring that was the gift of joy they were given in each other by their Creator, alluded to (with nostalgia for the lost Eden? as a living option?) in the nuptial formula כשמחיך יצירך בגן עדן מקדם (“as your Creator rejoiced you in the garden of Eden as of old”).

The poisoned fruit came into play in the introduction of elements of power and competition into the relations between man and woman. Many years ago (HY II: Bereshit), I wrote a kind of “creative midrash” on this theme, suggesting, somewhat fancifully, that the traumatic event was, or might have been, the first rape. But more recently, I realized that the textual proof of this motif had been staring me in the face all along: in the verse where God administers curses or punishments to the serpent, to Eve, and to Adam—which are really no more than the sad facts of life in the new post-Edenic world. For the woman, these involve two things: first, that pregnancy and childbirth will be filled with pain and difficulty; second, ואל אישך תשוקתך והוא ימשל בך—“To your husband/man shall be your longing, but he shall rule over you.” No longer do we have childlike, spontaneous sexuality, but a framework of domination, of imposition of the will of one over the other.

Of course, the Shir ha-Shirim aspect of sexuality still exists. It is that of which romance is made, the stuff of delight-filled love affairs; it is the source of the hope and joy that make weddings such special events. For a fortunate few, it may even be the dominant mode of their marriages through a lifetime (I have a friend, now 92, who always refers to his wife as “my good wife”). But if so, it always exists in an uneasy truce with another, second theme, a sort of counterpoint in a minor, even dissonant key, which is also very much part of human life. The Bible seems to present two basic archetypes of human sexuality: on the one hand, the idyllic one of the Garden and Song of Songs; on the other, the poisoned fruit found in the curses at the end of Genesis 3, the proscriptions of Leviticus 18 and, even more so, the fulfilled-desire-turned-into-hatred of 2 Samuel 13:15 (Amnon and Tamar).

All this brings us back to the broader issues of free will, of the freedom of choice to do what one wants as implying both good and evil. That one makes choices on the basis of impulse, reason, conscience, intuition—i.e., the whole gamut of human faculties—but no longer simply as obedient, innocent children of the Almighty father-God.

III. “And They Shall Be One Flesh”

After the first Woman was taken from the side of the first Man (it should be noted that Adam is not a personal name, but simply the generic term for man; throughout Genesis 1-4, he is consistently referred to by the definite article: ha-Adam, “The Man”; similar, until Gen 4:1, his partner is not called “Eve,” but “The Woman,” ha-Ishah), he exclaims, “This time, [she is] bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for she was taken from Man” (Gen 2:23). Unlike the animals and beasts, who were brought before him in vv. 19-20, and whom he feels to be alien to him, she is of the same stuff as he. The Bible (in narrative voice) then continues: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall be of one flesh” (v. 24). Rashi comments here:

“One flesh.” The fetus is formed by both of them, and in it their flesh becomes one. (Sanhedrin 28b)

The phrase “one flesh” may be understood in several ways. A literal, common-sense reading, might easily see in this phrase a graphic, concrete, even earthy description of man and woman engaged in the sexual act—an act during which, at least for a few moments, their flesh is in some sense literally one (“the creature with two backs”). Certainly, this reading comes aptly to the modern reader, living in a culture for which the moment of sexual union and pleasure tends to be the focus and center of what we think of as sexuality.

In the ancient world, this phrase was read in a slightly different way: not the sexual act as the manifestation of being “one flesh,” but the sexual act making the two into “one flesh” in the legal sense: that is, that marriage and/or sexual union creates an indivisible union. Thus, according to Prof. Aharon Shemesh, the Judaean Desert or Dead Sea sect believed that the initial sexual union between a man and a woman (even without formalized marriage!) created an unbreakable, quasi-biological bond between them, which is seen as having been predestined (A. Shemesh, “4Q271 3: A Key to Sectarian Matrimonial Law,” Journal of Jewish Studies 49 (1998) 244-63).

Early Christianity similarly held that marriage was indissoluble—a position continued in principle by the Roman Catholic Church to this day, although in practice the Church today uses the instrument of annulment to deal with the widespread problems of marital incompatibility. Or, in the words of Jesus quoted in the Gospels, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). Interestingly, at least one midrash on our verse mentions an ancient tradition in which, among the non-Jewish peoples, marriage was for life.

… [Even] illicit intercourse acquires [i.e., creates a marital bond] among the children of Noah. And from whence do we know that they do not have divorce? R. Judah in the name of R. Simon, and R. Hanin in the name of R. Yohanan said: [either] they do not have divorce [at all], or the two of them divorce one another. (Genesis Rabbah 18.5)

This is reminiscent of Rambam’s concept of pre-Sinaitic marriage (Ishut 1.1-4; and see HY V: Vayeshev): as an essentially private arrangement between a man and a woman, without any societal involvement or formal solemnization: if the two of them wished to do so, he takes her into his home, has sex with her, and she becomes his wife. But unlike this midrash, he sees the option for divorce as open, with the same simplicity as marriage (see Hilkhot Melakhim 9.8). But Rambam also recognizes, it being as old as the hills, the existence of casual sex/harlotry – a man and woman desire each other for the moment, for an hour, and then part ways. Thus, in Maimonides view sex per se does not constitute an indelible bond. His is thus a very realistic, down-to-earth approach—one that frankly acknowledges what might be called the dual nature of sex, corresponding in turn to the dual nature of man: freedom and determinism, biology and consciousness, lust and love—in brief, that sex as such is fraught with ambiguity.

The idea that sex per se constitutes a powerful bond, is also reflected in the Rabbinic saying אינה כורתת ברית אלא למי שעשאה כלי —“a woman does not create a covenantal bond except with the one who made her a vessel” (Sanh. 22b); that is, that sexual initiation, whether or not in the context of marriage, is a powerful, central life experience, that leaves a powerful mark and in some sense a unique bond between the woman and her first lover. And, thus it is implied also by our midrash, all this is a kind of law of nature.

Leaving the mystique of defloration aside, the implication is that monogamy is seen as the natural state, a kind of archetypal way of behavior implanted in all human beings (whether or not realized in practice). Hence, it is seen as part of the Seven Noachide commandments, which I read as a kind of Jewish counterpart to natural law (see HY V: Noah).

Several medieval Jewish commentators, such as Sforno, Hizkuni, Radak, offer what might be called a modified version of this view, explaining “one flesh” as a psycho-social-mental unity—the sexual act itself serving to unite them, through pleasure, into a long-standing union. Ramban, commenting on this verse, sees it as referring to the emotional component of the marital/sexual union. Unlike the animals, a human male, “Because the woman is ‘flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone,’ and she was in his bosom like his own flesh, he desires that she be with him always constantly; there is thus implanted in man the desire for the male to be attached to their females. They leave their father and mother and see their wives as if they were one flesh with them.” He goes on to explain the etymology of she’ar basar, used in Lev 18:6 etc., to refer to those relatives forbidden because of consanguinity, as also reflecting this.

All of which is a long, roundabout introduction providing the background to Rashi’s somewhat surprising reading here: that they are united in the flesh of their child, which is formed from both of them. (This is certainly a psychological reality: even in the event of divorce, the now-separated parents remain united through their connection with the children: rejoicing at weddings or the births of grandchildren; or feeling anxiety in times of trouble—e.g., regarding their children’s safety upon hearing of terrorist attacks.) Philosophically, Rashi here engages in teleology: the ultimate telos of the union of man and woman is offspring, who embody the fleshly, physical reality of the two parents in a concrete way. He thus places the union of man and woman in the larger perspective of procreation of the next generation: an obvious enough point, and very much part of traditional Jewish thinking, but one that in today’s pleasure-oriented, individual-oriented world, is often forgotten, with the almost exclusive emphasis on equating sexuality with the pleasure-giving act alone—which is, in a certain sense, a very male view; for women, sexuality clearly includes gestation, childbirth, nursing, etc.

IV. “The First Human was Created Androgynous”: Two Creations or One Creation?

Shortly before the verse discussed in our earlier study (HY VIII: Bereshit), in which a man leaves his parents to cleave to his wife and to become one flesh, we read of the creation of the first woman from man. After God brings all of the various animals and beasts before Adam as potential companions, without success (although Adam does give each one a suitable name), God casts a deep sleep upon him:

Gen 2:21. “And the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man, and he slept, and he took one of his tzela’ot (ribs? limbs? sides?) and closed the flesh beneath it.” Rashi: “One of his tzela’ot.” From his side, as in the verse, “And on the side (tzela’) of the Tabernacle” [Exod 26:20]. This is what we have said: They were created with two faces/sides.

This verse is often thought of in modern times as the height of male chauvinism, establishing the inferiority of woman by the fact that she was fashioned from man. But Rashi—who is very brief here, if not cryptic—clearly states that this is not so: the word צלע, often translated in the Christian tradition as “rib,” in fact means “side” or “half” of the body; a proof-text is invoked from the description of the construction of the Sanctuary in the wilderness. The original human had two sides; one became man, the other woman. Hence, there is no inherent inferiority to woman; man and woman were created as equal in stature.

To understand this motif more clearly, let us examine Rashi’s sources. This is based a midrashic motif that appears in several different places—Genesis Rabbah 8.1; Lev. Rab. 14.1; Midrash Shohar Tov (Tehillim) 139.5; b. Berakhot 61a; b. Eruvin 18a; and, in truncated form in a halakhic discussion, at Ketubot 8a—each with certain variations.

Genesis Rabbah 8.1. “Fore and aft You have created me” [Ps 139:5]… R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: When God created the first man, he created him androgynous. Of this it is written, “Male and female he created them… and he called their name Adam” [Gen 5:2]. R. Shmuel b. Nahman said: When God created the first man, He created him diprisophon (i.e., with two faces), and severed him and made him two backs—one back facing this way, and one back the other. They challenged him: But is it not written, “And he took one of his tzela’ot” [Gen 2:21]? He replied: [One] of his two sides (sitrohi), as one says, “And the side (tzela’) of the Sanctuary” [Exod 26:20], and its [Aramaic] translation is, velistar mishkena.

How are we to imagine this first human being? Like Siamese twins, with two heads, four arms and four legs, and two torsos, who simply needed to be separated into two individuals? And were they, perhaps, in sexual embrace (“the beast with the two backs”), whom could reasonably be described as Siamese twins joined at the genitals? According to one midrash, particularly beloved by some of our latter-day prophets of a re-eroticized Judaism, the Roman invaders were scandalized upon breaking into the Holy of Holies to discover that the cherubs that crowned the Holy Ark were representations of a male and female figure in intimate embrace. Or was he/she, as the word androgynous is used today, a single individual, with a dual sexual nature?

It seems significant that, in the versions from the great midrashic collections, such as that quoted above, the sexually androgynous nature of the human being is but one of many dualities mentioned, alongside moral, existential and philosophic dualities, all of them inferred from the verse “fore and aft You have formed me.” (For a fuller discussion of this passage see HY III: Bereshit, or Bereshit (Midrash) in the blog archives for October 2005)

I will begin my discussion by reiterating a point I have often made in the past: midrash is to be read, not as a literal account of events, but as myth, in the positive sense: as an image, a paradigm, used to convey some universal, eternal truth about human beings or the world. To say that something is myth is not to dismiss it as untrue, but to acknowledge that it expresses a depth-insight that cannot be expressed as well in conceptual language. The question then, as Levinas would say, is what issue is being discussed by the rabbis in the guise of this seemingly mythical language?

What, precisely, is the point of the distinction between “androgynous” (or “hermaphrodite”) and diprosaphon or du-partzufi (i.e., Janus faced?) in the Talmudic reading of this midrash? I read the idea of the first human being as androgynous as suggesting that the archetypal human being transcends sexuality, so that each of the two sexes represents only a part of the full range of human capacities. The primal androgynous represents an ideal image of humanity, combining the ideal characteristics of both sexes (bracketing the contemporary issues as to whether these are innate or “cultural constructs,” and certainly whether they are “politically correct”): initiative, abstract intellectual qualities, creativity, physical strength, leadership qualities, “conquering worlds,” of the male; and the more nurturing, intuitive, tender, intimate, home-building qualities, connected to the stuff of life itself, and typically more readily sacrificing self for others, of the female. (These spiritual qualities seem to be symbolized by the Kabbalistic identification of male and female with the qualities of mind known as hokhmah and binah, “Wisdom” and “Understanding/Intuition”; sexual union, known as da’at, “knowledge, is simultaneously a merger or synthesis of the two. See Chapter 1 of Pseudo-Ramban’s Iggeret ha-Kodesh.) Of course, no individual embodies all of these qualities. Their presence in the paradigmatic Adam suggests that neither sex is sufficient unto itself. The fully human is a synthesis of the two, that doesn’t exist in realty, but only in the archetypal world of the Golden Age, of Creation itself.

The du-partzufi image, on the other hand, suggests two fully-formed individuals, man and woman, who were originally joined and then, as part of their creation, severed in two. Here the emphasis is on man/woman as an incomplete creature, who seeks completion through mating with a partner, who is so-to-speak a lost part of himself. Or shall we say, rather, that human life is a constant two-step dance of uniting and parting, autonomy and togetherness, the relationship/community of man and woman being a basic, elemental part of world. (An interesting Jerusalemite strictly-Orthodox female Kabbalah teacher and scholar, Sarah Yehudit Schneider, has written at length about these issues in her Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine)

I see at least three basic ideas implied by these midrashim:

1. The basic common humanity of man and woman. The differences between the sexes, insofar as based on status or power, are temporary imperfections (even if long-standing in terms of historical time), and not innate. The curse of Eve, as the origin of male supremacy, is a fault in the world as we know it.

2. Sexual attraction as a search for a lost part of oneself. Elsewhere (at the end of b. Kiddushin) Hazal compare a man’s quest for a mate to that of one seeking a lost article. Marriage, and its sexual consummation, is a restoration of the primordial state of oneness. That is why various firms of solipsistic sexual gratification—i.e., those oriented toward self-pleasure alone—are seen as contradicting this verse (see Sanhedrin 58a-b, where the entire Noachide teaching on sexuality is learned from Gen 2:24).

3. Male and female are present in the psyche of each person (as in the Jungian notion of the animus and the anima, a part within the psyche representing the opposite sex within the individual’s own identity). Hence male and female, man and woman, are not exclusively, or even primarily, biological, physical concepts, but spiritual definitions. Each is a component of the “full stature” of humanity. Therefore, a person must seek wholeness not only through personal integration, but through his relationship with a partner.

In the Talmudic discussion, two further elements are introduced: were man and woman created in one act of creation, or in two separate acts? (Some say that the third and fourth of the seven nuptial blessings allude to these two aspects of human creation.) And was the “side” or “rib” from which Eve was created a face or a tail? At first blush, the latter view sounds like an insult to woman. But Emmanuel Levinas, in his Nine Talmudic Readings (Bloomington–Indianapolis: Indiana U. Pr., 1990, pp. 161-177), suggests that the issue here is whether the essence of sexuality has to do with a spiritual difference between man and woman, something about the human essence of each, or whether the difference between them is in fact a strictly biological, functional difference, relating to the “lower” functions of the body—what is referred to in the Talmudic versions as “the tail.” That is, the point is not that woman is “tail-like,” but that she shares in the full, singular humanity of man, and it is only their relatively marginal biological functioning that makes the sexes different.

An Interesting Postscript: Just over six months ago, I was present at a wedding at which Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat recited the fourth of the seven blessings. He made a small but significant departure change from the usual version of this blessing, printed in all the Siddurim and “benchers.” Rather than the traditional:

ברוך אתה ה' אלקינו מלך העולם, אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו, בצלם דמות תבניתו, והתקין לו ממנו בנין עדי עד. ברוך אתה ה' יוצר האדם. Blessed are You, O Lord God King of the universe, who has formed man in His image, in the image and likeness of His pattern, and created for him an eternal building. Blessed are You, who forms man.

He read:

ברוך אתה ה' אלקינו מלך העולם, אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו, ובצלם דמות תבניתו התקין לו ממנו בנין עדי עד. ברוך אתה ה' יוצר האדם. Blessed are You, O Lord God King of the universe, who has formed man in His image, and in the image and likeness of his pattern created for him an eternal building. Blessed are You, who forms man.

By moving the conjunctive letter vav, and thus grouping the phrases together differently, the whole syntax of this sentence changes. It is clear in the latter version that woman is not merely an appendage of man created to provide as a “eternal building”—in vulgar terms, a breeding machine, a source of ongoing offspring and thus eternal continuity—but herself made in the Divine image and likeness just as is man. This change is highly significant—far more egalitarian, and portraying the relationship between the sexes in far more complementary terms.

Though I had heard about this alternative reading, I had until then never heard it recited publicly nor seen it in print. I approached Rav Riskin afterwards to ask him about this, and he explained that he had learned this reading from Rav Soloveitchik, and that other students of Rav Soloveitchik (including Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who was also present at this wedding) also used it. It seems clear that this reading is as ancient and legitimate as the more familiar one. Later, I consulted the article in Encyclopaedia Talmudica (IV.646) on Birkat Hatanim, where I found the sources for this alternative reading given as Semag, Aseh §48, citing R. Saadia Gaon.

V. The DaVinci Code, Haeros Gamo, and the Zeitgeist: Sex as Spirituality

The following essay was begun in the summer of 2004. During the course of my visit to the United States, I noticed that there was a copy of Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, in every home I visited. Subsequently, following the making of the movie, there was a public controversy, involving the Catholic Church, particularly over the historicity of the portrayal of the Priory of Zion order, and the belief that Jesus was married. Some rabbis responded that, from a Jewish viewpoint, married sexuality was of course the Jewish ideal and there was no reason to be upset at the book. But it seemed to me that something basic was missing from the discussion…. .

While I of course concur with Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s statements about Jesus’ humanity and the Jewish affirmation of sexuality and family life insofar as it goes, I see a far more problematic message in the book. This message, possibly reacting to the other-worldliness and asceticism of historical Christianity, does not pose as an alternative the kind of healthy-minded, middle path taught by Judaism, but goes to the other extreme—that of a kind of neo-paganism. Let me explain. But first, two side comments:

First, whether or not Jesus ever married, whether he married Mary Magdalene, whether they had offspring, and whether any individuals living nearly one hundred generations later can trace their ancestry back to that couple, is virtually impossible to prove, and must rank as a “just-so story.”

Second, while the Priory of Zion is a real order, it bears little resemblance to that described in the book. It is nowhere near 1000 years old, but closer to 150 or 200 at most. And all the stuff in the book about Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, etc., being members is almost certainly a-historical, or the result of an elaborate hoax.

What is significant about this book is that it is symptomatic of a certain kind of reaction of contemporary Western culture against the anti-sexual and body-soul dichotomy spread by Christianity. It is nothing less than an attempt to create an alternative religious myth or model—that of the female body as the holy grail (viz. the pentacle symbolism) and the sexual act as a kind of sacrament. Consider the following, to my mind rather extraordinary passage:

… Hieros Gamos had nothing to do with eroticism. It was a spiritual act. Historically, intercourse was the act through which male and female experienced God. The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine. Physical union with the female remained the sole means through which man could become spiritually complete and ultimately achieve gnosis—knowledge of the divine. Since the days of Isis, sex rites had been considered man’s only bridge from earth to heaven. “By communing with woman,” Landon said, “man could achieve a climactic instant when his mind went totally blank and he could see God.”

“Orgasm as prayer?”…. Sophie was essentially correct. Physiologically speaking, the male climax was accompanied by a split second entirely devoid of thought. A brief mental vacuum. A moment of clarity during which God could be glimpsed. Meditation gurus achieved similar states of thoughtlessness without sex and often described Nirvana as a never-ending spiritual orgasm.

Sex begot new life—the ultimate miracle—and miracles could be performed only by a god. The ability of the woman to produce life from her womb made her sacred. A god. Intercourse was the revered union of the two halves of the human spirit—male and female—through which the male could find spiritual wholeness and communion with God. … (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, pp. 410-411)

This passage is followed by remarks about ancient Judaism involving ritualistic sex—sacred sex in Solomon’s Temple, Raphael Pattai’s notion of “the Hebrew goddess,” men “seeking spiritual wholeness” by visiting priestesses in the Temple, etc. This would no doubt also be seen as symbolized by the (naked?) embrace of the two cherubim (which Brown doesn’t mention, but which is a popular symbol among some Jewish New Agers), plus a spurious etymology of the Tetragrammaton as being derived from “an androgynous physical union between the masculine Jah and the pre-Hebraic [sic!] name for Eve, Havah.” (He doesn’t even know to spell properly in Hebrew!) What he neglects to mention is that, in Chapters 8-9 of the book that bears his name, the prophet Ezekiel hits the roof about what may very well have been these selfsame practices. Portrayal of “greater abominations than these” being performed within the Temple—so horrible that he can only hint at them. “The women weeping the Tammuz.” The passage continues:

… “For the early Church… mankind’s use of sex to commune directly with God posed a serious threat to the Catholic power base. It left the Church out of the loop, undermining their self-proclaimed status as the sole conduit to God. They worked hard to demonize sex and recast it as a disgusting and sinful act. Other major religions did the same….” (p. 411)

This is an excellent description of the pagan perception of the motif of the Sacred Mother. Worship of the feminine, not as a perversion or excuse for licentiousness, but as a coherent approach. Nevertheless, it is a form of paganism, what we call avodah zarah—a variation of Canaanite cults of Baal and Ashtarte. Sacred prostitution is, at least in the ancient Canaanite case, also a form of sympathetic magic: a kind of prayer-in-action that the rain may fertilize the earth, as the man fertilizes the woman. Judaism rejected them then, and must reject their like now.

Long-time readers of Hitzei Yehonatan will remember my passionate and intensely negative reaction to Mordecai Gafni’s proposal for creating a synthesis of “paganism and prophecy, eros and ethos” some years ago—a reaction confirmed by the subsequent revelations about that man’s own scandalous behavior. One of Gafni’s erstwhile colleagues, Ohad Ezrahi, experimenting with similar ideas of discovering spirituality through eros, opened a commune near the Dead Sea with workshops teaching both “theoretical and practical” aspects of this idea. Unfortunately, this mélange of religious and sexual ecstasy is an idea that is in the air today, far beyond these two gentlemen. There are people who describe themselves as worshippers of Gaia, or Mother Earth, for whom sex, preferably pluralistic and non-possessive, is a sort of sacrament. The current atmosphere is also one in which many “political-correct” people see anything that is pro-female, that celebrates women, as “feminist,” and therefore fail to see its deeper implications (see, e.g., Newsweek’s cover story about Brown’s books celebration of Mary Magdalene as a model for feminist religious leadership).

For me, such schools cross a line that is fraught with danger and, to use a word a tolerant, pluralistic soul like myself hesitates to use, heretical from a Judaic perspective. The basic problem in the above is the concretization of the divine. This is also, on another level, the Jewish objection to the Christian doctrine that God was made incarnate in a human being, in Jesus, in man. This is, if anything, ten times worse! As I’ve said other times: just as we don’t see sex as a dirty, demonized act, disgusting and sinful, nether do we see it as intrinsically, automatically holy. Like almost every other human act, it is itself neutral, with a potential for both good and evil (albeit perhaps greater, in both directions, than almost any other human act!).

At this point, someone one may well be asking the question: what about sex in the Kabbalah? Many books and papers, both academic and popular, have been written on this subject over the past decade or two. Marital union on Shabbat evening is not merely onat talmidei hakhamim, but in some sense a sacred act. But, to the best of my knowledge, it is not viewed as an attempt to gain mystical gnosis, but at most an acting out below of the union that takes place above (this is, perhaps, a plausible interpretation of a line in the passage from Zohar II:135a-b recited by Hasidim at Kabbalat Shabbat, “just as there is union above, so is there union below”). Similarly, pseudo-Ramban’s Iggeret ha-Kodesh speaks of carnal knowledge (da’at) as a union of hokhmah and binah. But it is a long way from being a short, sure-fire recipe for religious enlightenment, as implied here. (In any event, such gnosis in Judaism is not the main goal, but no more than a possible by-product of religious acts.) Basically, coition on Shabbat is a mitzvah which serves as a kind of tikkun. Gnosis can only come after a long process rooted in cognitive knowledge, practice of mitzvot, learning Torah, moral purification, etc. (Interestingly, the specific scene of Hieros Gamos in the Da Vinci Code turns out to be an act of coitus involving a couple who, though living apart and in different countries, were secretly married, thereby dulling the shocking edge of the act; moreover, they are linear descendants of the “holy couple” of Jesus and Mary Magdelene — uva letzion goel)

One last question: what is the nature of consciousness during sex, at the moment of orgasm, as cited in the above passage? In what was for me perhaps the most striking and strangest sentence in the entire book, Brown writes: “the male climax was accompanied by a split second entirely devoid of thought. A brief mental vacuum. A moment of clarity during which God could be glimpsed.” The moment of orgasm may well entail a kind of blanking out of all conscious thought, and specifically of the object-subject distinctions of everyday life in which we live and at the same time observe ourselves living (by the way, the above statement seems impossible to verify, as it would seem to require maintaining a portion of one’s brain in observer-mode during orgasm—an interesting but somehow unappealing mental exercise). And there is the idea in Judaism, and other spiritual traditions, that God is above all human thought (leit mahshava tefisa beih kelal), and that knowledge of God is only possible through a mystical “blacking out” of thought, a kind of trans-conscious merging of mind with other one. Nevertheless, there is a simple logical fallacy here: the fact that A and B (in this case, sexual orgasm and mystical experience) both share a common feature, C (cessation of normal thought) does not make them identical or equivalent. Ultimately, sex, pleasurable and at times even ecstatic as it may be, belongs to the “earthly garden of delights,” not to the supernal realm of the transcendent.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bereshit (Zohar)

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


There is something both refreshing and frustrating about Shabbat Bereshit. On the one hand, it is the Shabbat of Beginnings, when we recommence the study of the Torah; as such, it implies an invitation to begin studying this book of books “in which there is everything”; perhaps to try a new perspective, a new perush (commentary), a new midrash, the approach of a different and unfamiliar school. Moreover, the parashah itself is extraordinarily rich: it is, after all, an account of origins, of the creation of the cosmos, the beginnings of humankind, with all its problematics and complexities—the temptations of defiance, the emergence of man and woman from the Garden of Delights into the cruel and difficult situation met in the real world, the first murder, the first rape and domination of man (and woman) by his fellow. One wishes one could study this parashah, not only for a few days or weeks, but for at least a whole year, if not a lifetime. On the other a hand, it is frustrating: coming on the heels of Simhat Torah, it is one of the few parshiyot which (unless the hagim fall on Shabbat) is not preceded by the full complement of weekdays during which to study it, one section at a time, but one has barely a day or two to study it and reflect upon it.

I have decided to devote this year to studying with my readers a short passage from the Zohar each week. I feel that I am venturing upon unknown and dangerous waters; as I wrote on the eve of the last hag, I risk rising to my level of incompetence, à la Peter Principle. The Zohar is a difficult, dense, and opaque text, with which I am not overly familiar. Even today, after Gershom Scholem has established the study of Kabbalah as an academic discipline with is watershed work, and generations of disciples and disciples of disciples have written innovative and insightful studies and glosses on this book, it is still a work largely for the cognoscenti. And even though Kabbalah has become in our age common fare, and is broadcast, so to speak, at every virtual street corner; and even though I have passed the requisite age and half that again; I still feel something of the traditional reticence: that one does not reveal the secrets of Torah casually, but only to one who is worthy and mature and knows how to understand matters by him/herself.

And yet, there is a fascination exerted by this book (which is really more a library, nay, a whole literature, than a “book” in the usual sense) that draws me to its study. To begin with the obvious point: it is the central, canonical text of what is known as Jewish mysticism or, more exactly, sitrei Torah, “secrets of Torah” or Jewish esoteric teaching. Along with the Tanakh, the Talmud, and the Midrash (itself a genre more than a specific collection), it is one of the fundamental works that has shaped Judaism. That, plus the vast popular interest in Kabbalah in contemporary culture (often in debased and corrupted form), and the involvement of many of my friends and fellows in this book, have led me to the conclusion that the time has come for me to at least dip my feet in the living waters of Kabbalah.

I will save a fuller introduction to the Zohar for another time. It emerged on the Jewish scene sometime in the late thirteenth century (whether, like modern scholarship, one believes it to have been written at that time, by R. Moses de Leon and perhaps others of his circle or contemporaries; or if one accepts its traditional attribution to R. Shimon bar Yohai and its oral transmission until it was recorded in writing ca. 1290), as the culmination of Spanish Kabbalah, a movement that generated a revolution in religious thinking, introducing a whole series of images, concepts, concerns, and even practices hitherto unknown. All later Kabbalah and Hasidism drew upon it in one fashion or another as the sacred text of Jewish mysticism.

I make no claim to being a scholar of Zohar. What I shall present here largely be what Ruth Calderon—one of the founders of Alma in Tel-Aviv, and a pivotal figure in the revival among secular Israelis of what has come to be called “the Jewish book-shelf”—once referred to as “barefoot reading.” That is, a direct encounter with the text itself, without the background of years of study, and without relying upon the prism of an exegetical tradition and reference to commentaries and super-commentaries. In fact, truth be told, this has to a large extent been my approach throughout the years I have been writing Hitzei Yehonatan. I have asked myself “What is in this text itself?” referring only to a minimum of commentaries and reference books, usually when necessary to understand a difficult word or clarify some other problem. Such was the case with my reading of peshat of Torah in the very first year; with Psalms, Rambam, Rashi, Midrash, and the other texts I have treated over the years—and so shall it be this year. In the case of the Zohar, this is perhaps especially important: I see the Zohar as a mystical midrash; a text that is first and foremost suggestive, impressionistic, evocative; that, as Melilla Hellner-Eshed suggests, is intended to awaken the sense of religious wonder and mystery, more than it is to teach a specific doctrine or theosophy. In the centuries following the Zohar, dozens of books were written which attempted to systematize the concepts seen as inherent within the Zohar—first and foremost, the system of ten sefirot and their interactions—whether systematic handbooks, such as Joseph Gikatilla’s Sha’arei Orah or, somewhat later, in Tzfat, the great treatises of R Hayyim Vital and Moses Cordovero, or line-by-line commentaries on the Zohar per se. Valuable as these (and the writings of modern researchers) may be, my approach is first of all to listen to what the text itself is saying.

Unlike my practice in previous years, I shall not translate the text myself, but use an existing English translation. Fortunately, we live in a time when a scholar who is both erudite and poetic has undertaken, with the generous assistance of the Pritzker family, a monumental new translation of the Zohar into English, of which about one-third has already been published. I refer of course to Daniel Matt’s work, being published by Stanford University Press. Prof. Matt has graciously allowed me to quote short selections from that translation, for which I express my deep thanks and gratitude. (Note: Due to technical reasons, in this issue I shall use Matt’s translation of this passage published in an early work, his collection, The Essential Kabbalah [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996], p. 52).

I will conclude with a few suggestions for background reading, for those who wish to pursue this study further: the two chapters on the Zohar in Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism which, despite being written nearly seventy years ago, is still an excellent introduction, and includes a valuable discussion of his deliberations regarding the authorship of the Zohar; Isaiah Tishby’s Mishnat ha-Zohar, a two volume collection of thematically arranged Zohar passages, translated into Hebrew and with an extensive introduction, both to the Zohar as a whole and to the various sections and ideas (in English translation by David Goldstein in the Littman Library); and Arthur Green’s A Guide to the Zohar, which serves as an introduction or companion volume to Matt’s translation. In Hebrew, there are numerous other works.

“In the Beginning”

And so, without further ado, we shall begin, appropriately enough, “in the beginning.” Zohar I:16a:

When the King conceived ordaining [or: in the beginning, in the King’s wisdom], he engraved engravings in the luster on high. A blinding spark [or: spark of darkness] flashed within the concealed of the concealed from the mystery of the Infinite, a cluster of vapor in formlessness, set in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all.

When a band spanned, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, imbuing colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of the Infinite. The flow broke through and did not break through its aura. It was not known at all until, under the impact of their breaking through, one high and hidden point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known. So it is called the Beginning.

Genesis begins its account of creation with the physical universe—with the pre-Creation chaos, the formless void in which the earth was covered by water (that matter which is most formless), from which God shaped all things—light, the firmament, the dry land, etc.—at His word. The Zohar goes back further, beginning with the mystery of: how does Being come about from Nothingness? What existed, where was God Himself, before there was anything? The emergence of being from the “concealed of the concealed,” “the mystery of the Infinite,” that hidden realm within which Godhead resided before Creation itself. Being begins with a process of “engraving” in the supernal luster, the tehiru i’la’a, with a “blinding spark”—butzina de-kardunita, perhaps better translated as “a spark of darkness,” to suggest the paradoxical nature of light coming from a place where there is no light. The cluster of vapor set in a ring, colorless—some scientists find this image evocative of the great clouds of gas that existed before matter cooled and congealed into stars and planets; and the “spark of darkness” as an image not entirely remote from the “Big Bang.” A world of primordial matter, without shape or color, not covering the earth, but in a place that is not yet a place at all. What is the band that caused this ring of vapor to suddenly yield colors? What is the flow that “broke through and did not break through”? And what of the נקודה חדא סתימא עלאה, the “high and hidden point” that shone with brilliance? Later tradition speaks of this point as the letter Yod of the Divine name, as the sephirah of Hokhmah, as the concentrated energy or will of Divine wisdom; as pure potentiality, without dimension or extension of any sort (like the super-condensed matter from which the Big Bang occurred?), from which the cosmos was shaped and fashioned by a process of drawing out, in length and breadth.

More than it explains or elucidates the process of Creation, this account evokes a sense of mystery: how is it that there is existence at all? How did anything, everything, emerge from nothingness, from the world of concealment? The Zohar uses paradoxical, even contradictory expressions, such as “broke through and did not break through,” or repeated phrases such as setimo de-stimo, “concealed of the concealed,” to convey this mystery. This is the essential religious moment: the response of “radical amazement,” the realization that there is a point “beyond which nothing is no known.” It is called Bereshit, not because there is nothing before it, but because prior to that point there is only God, “the King,” dwelling in a place we cannot imagine.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Simhat Torah (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on Simhat Torah, see the archives to this blog at October 2006.

Between Joy and Ecstasy

All the festivals are joyous. Sukkot, more so than any others; indeed, it is known as zeman simhatenu, “the time of our joy.” Simhat Torah, at least in the Jewish religious culture we’ve inherited from medieval Ashkenaz, is the most joyous day of all (perhaps transferring the joy of Simhat Beit ha-Sho’evah, which was the epitome of joy in Temple times, to the final day of the festival). It is known in many places as a time for outbursts of ecstasy, of dancing and singing till the wee hours of the night. Hence, it is a suitable time to discuss the mitzvah of “rejoicing in the hag.”

The question that occurred to me was the following: are their any limits upon joy? There is a movement afoot today, among certain sectors of the Jewish religious world, to pursue ecstasy. This is surely one of the sources of the current revival of mysticism, of interest in Kabbalah and Hasidism. I have heard more than one person speak of “ecstasy” as a kind of goal of religious life, as the end result of prayer and other religious activity: to achieve intimacy with God through joy, through forgetting the self, the ego, in supreme ecstasy. There is a feeling in many circles that the more singing and dancing and clapping that occurs during the prayer service, the more lively the melodies one uses, the more authentic and “spiritual” the synagogue experience. Surely, singing and dancing are very fine things—this morning I was at a wonderful Hoshana Rabba davening, where Hallel was sung to the accompaniment of guitar, mandolin and fiddle, and the Shaliah Tzibbur danced, leapt, twirled about, and kakatzkad—but there are of course other components to the spiritual as well.

I brought this question with me to my reading of the Rambam’s discussion of this subject, in his treatment of the mitzvah of “rejoicing on festival days” in Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.17-21. Interestingly, he doesn’t use the active verbal form לשמח, “to rejoice,” but the passive phrase, להיות בהן שמח וטוב לב, “to be on them [those days] joyful and good-hearted.” He then places a series of limitations or qualifications on just how this joy is to be manifested. As I have discussed and translated this and a related passage previously (HY V [Rambam] Emor, Sukkot), I will merely review them here in cursory fashion. First of all, he stresses the ethical dimension of sharing one’s rejoicing with others—i.e., that one’s rejoicing may not be self-centered, restricted to one’s own family and invited friends; second, that one must not eat and drink and carouse all day long, but devote time to worship and Torah study (“half to yourselves and half to the Lord”); third, the avoidance of drunkenness, and the foolish hilarity that comes with it (especially salient in light of his view that in our time, when there is no Temple and hence no possibility to eat the flesh of the sacrifices, drinking wine is a central expression of “rejoicing in the festival”—see Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Aseh §54); fourth and finally, he places particular attention on the avoidance of sexual impropriety and debauchery, which can easily accompany ecstatic rejoicing (viz. the carnival in Rio).

He goes on to say that joy is to be seen as a form of Divine worship; a theme further elaborated in his discussion of Simhat Beit ha-Shoevah in Hilkhot Lulav 8.12-15, where he cautions against another kind of egotism: that of the sage who considers it beneath his dignity to sing and dance and revel with the ordinary folk.

In brief, Rambam presents here an aristocratic, Apollonian ideal of joy—one rooted in intellectual clarity, in transcendent spirituality, and a strong code of self-discipline and restraint at even the most ecstatic moments. It is an ideal of joy animated by an inner love and even mystical attachment to God—but without the Dionysian surrender to the present moment, to the instinctual, intuitive, and vital, that seeks the erasure of all boundaries and the dissolution of individuality in the oneness of existence.

This polarity between intellect and feeling is one of the major polarities of our age. Indeed, it has been a major motif of Western culture since the days of Rousseau and, in his wake, the Romantics, but it has gained a renewed popularity and vitality since the middle of the last century, with the profound disappointment felt by many in what they saw as the disastrous consequences of modernity and rationality. There are major movements in contemporary Judaism that wish to reassert feeling, after it having supposedly been quashed for so long by the much-celebrated Jewish “braininess.” But has this movement in turn gone too far, surrendering sober judgment even when feeling leads one in inappropriate, nay, disastrous directions?

But of course Rambam is not all of Judaism. Are there other sources in Judaism that hold otherwise? Part of the appeal of Hasidism to today’s world is that it seems to promise unrestrained joyousness and spontaneity of religious feeling. An interesting passage in the late 19th century Hasidic thinker, R. Mordechai of Izhbitz, seems to suggest an alternative approach. In Mei ha-Shiloah, Parshat Ki Teitsei, he speaks of the value of teshukah, “passion” or “desire” (even, or perhaps specifically, in the sexual sense!) as a positive emotion, albeit one that needs to be channeled in the right direction. The piety of the person who serves God without passion, without excitement, without passionate longing for knowledge of the Divine, even mystical union, is somehow deficient. (Indeed, each one of us, thinking of those moments in our lives when we felt most alive, would surely point to those moments when we were possessed with feelings of passion, of intensity of feeling, of presence—be it in romantic love, in moments of overcoming great challenges, in surges of creativity, in moments of rapture in the experiencing of great beauty, or perhaps, even, in fleeting glimpses of the Divine. What Abraham Maslow referred to as “peak moments.”) But is even the Izhbitzer truly Dionysian? Would he have said, like the ‘60s hippies, “If you feel, with all your being, that it is the right thing to do in this time and place, then just Do It!” Contrary to a certain reading of his thought that is popular today, I think not.

* * * * *

And so we come to the end of another year. I am grateful that the Almighty has given me the health and strength to continue, despite all obstacles, to record and share my thoughts on Torah with a reading public—and one which seems to contain more than few learned people. If at times I have not had the time to expand upon them as fully as I may have in times past, perhaps that too is to the good: some say that brevity has made my musings more readable. Be that as it may, I am grateful to my readers for their moral, intellectual, and at times material support (here I reiterate my pre-Rosh Hashanah)—and even for just being there. My thanks, too, to my wife Randy for putting up with my occasional preoccupation with this project—which I consider one of the most meaningful things I have done in my life. I account it a privilege to teach Torah in this manner, and hope that I may continue to do so for many more years.

Some comments about the continuation of Hitzei Yehonatan. As I have noted a number of times, I have written several major papers that have been residing in nearly-complete form on my computer for far too long; some of these were originally intended for milestones that have long since passed. These include: reflections on the thought of Simon Rawidowicz and its contemporary implications; a birthday tribute to Arthur Green; thoughts about sexuality (viz. Bereshit); on violence and warfare (these two being the beginnings of a kind of philosophical anthropology); Part II of my “Sinai” paper, Part I of which was sent out on Shavuot; and an expanded version of my proposal to the Bronfman competition, for a full-length book on the issues of modernity, individuality and community, and their relation to Judaism. I have decided to publish these, even if not in the fully finished form originally intended, during the coming weeks.

As for the new theme for the coming year: I am still very much torn between two options: the Ramban and medieval Torah commentary, and Sefer ha-Zohar. The former may be taken to represent the tension between the mystical and the rational, the proto-Kabbalistic and the halakhic: a thinker who was at once highly erudite and closely reasoned, and more than any other engages in carefully argued polemics with other parshanim, and on the other hand deeply involved in the world of Hokhmat ha-Nistar, hidden or esoteric wisdom. The Zohar is, of course, the canonical text of the Kabbalah, a poetic, mystical midrash on the Torah, which holds deep fascination and attraction for many in our generation—yet I fear that, in the manner of Parkinson’s Law, I may rise to mystical heights that are beyond my competence. But perhaps studying such an esoteric text will present an interesting intellectual challenge.

I may postpone starting the new theme until these major papers are “off my desk” and out in the world, so to speak—or, at least, treat the new theme only every other week until the latter have been completed.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hol Hamoed Sukkot (Mitzvot)

Sukkot Miscellanea

• Continuing the theme of Sukkot as a return to nature: it would seem that this festival, which ends the annual cycle, both of festivals and of Torah reading, may be viewed as a prelude or transition to Bereshit—the Book of Beginnings. The return to basics, to the elemental reality of our life, on Sukkot, is a prelude to the opening chapters of the Torah, that describe how it all began, and sketches the essential situation of the human being.

• The sukkah may also be seen as a locus in which one feels the Divine Presence: according to Kabbalah, the skhakh represents makifin, the transcendent aspect of the Divine, hovering over and protecting us. It may also be seen as analogous to the Holy of Holies, entered by the high priest on Yom Kippur or, on another level, to the huppah (also a symbolic home, and linguistically homologous to sukkah), under which bride and groom are united and rejoice.

• The mitzvot of sukkah and lulav both symbolize totality, comprehensiveness, inclusiveness. The sukkah is unique in that it is performed by the entire body and, at least in its ideal halakhic definition, encompasses all life activities—eating, sleeping, learning, meeting with friends, even praying. In theory, one may conduct oneself in such a way as not to leave the sukkah for the entire seven (or eight) days. Indeed, it is related that the Gaon of Vilna remained in the sukkah for eight days straight, and only needed to recite the blessing over the sukkah once. Similarly, the four species symbolize the unification of multiplicity: the four winds or directions of space, the four letters of the Divine name, four human types, four basic organs of the body, etc.

• The Five Megillot and the Feminine. An odd thought crossed my mind: that all five of the scrolls read on festivals and other commemorative days involve a feminine element. Two—Ruth and Esther—are named for woman, who are central characters therein; Shir ha-Shirim (Song of Songs) celebrates the love of man and woman; while the other two, Eikhah and Kohelet (Lamentations and Ecclesiastes) are rooted in a passive attitude towards life, and their titles may be read as feminine nouns. In traditional gender symbolism (admittedly schematic and stereotyped), the masculine is seen as constantly striving, pushing forward, attempting to leave a mark on the world, whereas the feminine is seen as more passive, even-keeled, accepting of life as it is, and thus, if you will, more resigned to and accepting of the limits of the human condition. The quintessential female act, childbirth, is deeply rooted in nature and its limitations. (Of course, woman can be and are active, dynamic and energetic—but we are speaking here of archetypes.) In any event, Eikhah expresses the grief and resignation felt upon the destruction of Jerusalem and the sufferings of the people; while Kohelet is a philosophical monologue of an older man, who has tried everything and has reached a certain point of resignation about life.

YOM KIPPUR: Jonah as Everyman

Two and a half millennia before Herman Melville, Jewish literature had a morality tale set (at least in part) on the high seas. Although its text is less than one percent the length of Moby Dick, and can be read aloud in ten minutes, one may ponder it for a lifetime.

It is difficult to identify the prophet Jonah ben Ammitai historically (notwithstanding that, in addition to the book called after him, he is mentioned in passing in 2 Kings 14:25) beyond saying that he lived “sometime during the First Temple period”; indeed, there is little evidence for the historicity of the story. But that is really besides the point; it seems to me that the story of Jonah may be read as that of Everyman. In this respect, the book is comparable to that of Job: the story of a paradigmatic figure, who may never have lived in actuality, whose life expresses certain problems and ideas. (Indeed, every year before Yom Kippur Aviva Zornberg delivers a shiur on the Book of Jonah, largely from an existential and psychological perspective; she recently remarked that each year she finds it more enigmatic and difficult to understand.)

In the first section of the book, Yonah is called upon to prophesy to the city of Nineveh, but instead flees from God. When a violent storm breaks out at sea, and all the sailors pray to their respective gods, he descends to the depths of the ship and falls asleep. Awakened by the captain, he gives an answer that pretends to piety, but is belied by his actions. “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, who made the sea and the dry land,” but the sailors know that “he was fleeing from God, for he had told them.” (Is there not something innately paradoxical in fleeing from God, who is everywhere, and who by Jonah’s own words made both the dry land and the sea?) This attitude is in striking contrast to that of the sailors who, notwithstanding their pagan belief, are essentially God-fearing, in the sense that they possess a sense of natural piety, decency, ethics, and responsibility for others. At a certain point Jonah, knowing that the storm is on account of God’s anger with him, specifically, asks them to throw him into the sea—possibly expressing a certain suicidal tendency, later articulated in the repeated words “I prefer death to life”—but they refrain from doing so until it becomes unavoidable. They know that throwing another person to his presumptive death, even to appease the gods, is wrong; only when all else fails do they do so, reluctantly. At this point, Jonah is in fact swallowed by an enormous fish, in whose innards he lives for three days, and even engages in eloquent prayer; this fish serves as the vehicle transporting him to the shore close to Nineveh. (Someone asked me an overly literal-minded klutz-kashe [nuisance question]: where exactly was he spit out? Even the closest point on the Mediterranean shore, or even the Black Sea, would be many hundreds of miles from Nineveh, near Mosul in northern Iraq. The fish could hardly have crossed over to the Persian Gulf and swam up the Tigris—and all this in three days!)

The second half of the book, Chapters 3 & 4, occurs in and near Nineveh. Here, Jonah is revealed as adhering to a punitive, even vindictive ethos. When the people of Nineveh, responding to his call that “in another forty days Nineveh will be overthrown,” in fact abandon their evil ways, he is disappointed because God forgives them. He fails to understand that this, and not their destruction, was the whole point of his mission. He wanted punishment, blood; it would seem that he believed the laws of Divine retribution to be automatic and unchanging. (Here, I would disagree with Zornberg’s suggestion that Jonah’s objection was that the Ninevites’ teshuvah was superficial, based upon external display only, i.e., sackcloth and fasting. The text explicitly states that they abandoned their evil ways; indeed, the Talmud quotes this verse as proof that change of deeds is the essence of teshuvah.)

The book concludes with a strange conversation between God and Jonah relating to the gourd, or castor-oil plant, that shades the latter from the harsh east wind, and then withers. One way of reading this is that this little episode revealed Jonah’s essential selfishness or self-preoccupation: that is, he is not an idealistic moral personality at all, demanding Divine justice, but an ordinary person concerned with his own comfort. His anger at Divine compassion stems from an indifference to the fate of others, coupled with an unreflective, conventional code of morality.

Why is this book read on Yom Kippur? There are two basic messages of Yom Kippur, seemingly contradictory. On the one hand: teshuvah, meaning: acknowledging and encountering God, accepting responsibility for one’s actions, and not attempting to escape from the seriousness of life. Jonah, as the man who “flees from God” (an idea that is really a theological absurdity), expresses an impulse present within every person: to flee from responsibility for one’s life, from confrontation with meaning, with the gravity and seriousness of the moral life. His descent—to the sea, to the hold of the ship, and thence into sleep—are all forms of escape. The captain’s call to awake and cry out to his God is comparable to that of the shofar, which calls upon every person to wake up and stop wasting his/her life in trivial concerns (Rambam, Teshuvah 3.4). Jonah’s sleeping may be contrasted with the motif of wakefulness, that characterize the days of teshuvah as a whole: rising before dawn for Selihot, as well as the widespread practice to daven earlier on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur than on an ordinary Shabbat.

The second message of Yom Kippur is God’s forgiveness, as a kind of compassionate response to our own teshiuvah: the atonement granted on the Holy Day is a gift of love, notwithstanding the sins of Israel. Jonah’s unforgiving posture vis-à-vis the people of Nineveh is diametrically opposed to this.


On the First Day of Rosh Hashanah, our dear friend Zelig Leader passed away. When I first thought about writing a eulogy about Zelig, I thought of the phrase tzaddik nistar, a “hidden righteous”—but decided against it because, notwithstanding Zelig’s kindness and modesty and the love he inspired in so many people as witnessed by the vast turnout at his funeral, it’s too bombastic. Zelig, like the rest of us, had his share of faults; he was an ordinary person, who struggled to muddle through: to make a living, to deal with the vagaries of children and women.

One of those who eulogized him at the funeral—I think it was David Litke of the Jerusalem Scrabble Club—spoke of his slightly bemused, at times cynical, way of looking at the world. Though he was an observant Jew, the son of a rabbi, and reasonably learned, there was also something in him of the outsider, looking on at life, including religious communal life, somewhat from the side (in a certain way, similar to what I wrote about Agnon last week). There was also a certain aura of sadness and loneliness about him.

Zelig was born in America in 1943, the oldest son of Tzfat-born rabbi of Hasidic descent, who served in Conservative pulpits in various far-flung places such as Idaho and New Mexico. The children returned to Israel as young adults. I know that Zelig worked professionally in the field of computers; at another time he worked, like myself, as a translator; some years ago we even collaborated in translating a book about “happiness.” He was the father of four children: Ebn David, Amir, Oren and Talya. Following his divorce, he never remarried; although he was together with his life partner, Heather, for twenty years, they lived apart, adding to the sense of his being something of a loner.

He was highly gifted with words. A champion Scrabble player, he was one of the central figures and organizers of the Jerusalem Scrabble Club, particularly after Sam Orbaum’s death. His monthly emails announcing the meetings of our minyan, always addressed to ”Holy Prayer-Sayers,” were a minor art form in their own right. On occasion, he would also speak at the minyan, in a kind of ironically visionary, metaphorical language: about conversations with old-time Jews he met on the street on his way to shul, or recalling a dream about a boat…

I first came to know Zelig through the minyan. I would call him to arrange to read the Torah at the next meeting of the minyan; we would go on to talk at some length. I remember these conversations with warmth; somehow, they always filled me with new ways of looking at things, with a sense of Zelig’s warm humanity and caring, a certain life wisdom he had.

A word about Amika de-Bira, or “the Leader Minyan”—a unique Jerusalem institution that meets once a month, on Shabbat Mevarkhim. This minyan was started by Zelig and his brother Avraham to fill a certain lack they felt, stemming from dissatisfaction with the existing synagogues. They wanted a place where they could really daven—seriously, slowly, with a real attempt at kavvanah, without the sense of hast and time pressure that one finds in most synagogues even on Shabbat. In the broad sense, it took its inspiration from Shlomo Carlebach and his attempt to translate the ecstasy and soul-elevation of old-time Hasidic prayer into a modern idiom; its regular participants could all be described as in some sense off-beat, outside the main stream of conventional middle-class Isreali “dati’ut.” The minyan started in Avraham’s basement over twenty years ago, and gradually grew and attracted more and more people. It has wandered through a variety of locations in southern Jerusalem. The service lasts four to five hours—which sounds daunting, but really creates a warm atmosphere, so that one hardly feels the passage of time.

The prayer tradition of the minyan was largely shaped by Zelig’s brother Avraham, and by his son, Ebn David (who now teaches in the United States). Zelig’s role involved much of the unsung organizational details—arranging the place, seeing to the physical supplies for Kiddush, recruiting people to read the Torah, etc. Zelig himself loved reading the Torah, and blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (so long as he was physically able). In recent years, that task was passed on to Michael Kagan who, symbolically, blew one long blast on the shofar at the conclusion of Zelig’s funeral.

But most of all, there was something about him that elicited love. When I went to the shivah, I left with a strong sense that the person I must wanted to talk to wasn’t there. Haval al de-avdin