Friday, March 13, 2009

Ki Tisa - Parah (Zohar)

The Golden Calf

Two bovines in one week’s Torah reading: “Cowabunga!,” as Buffalo Bob used to say (pardon the excursion into the culture of my early childhood).

The Golden Calf was the paradigmatic trauma of the generation of the Desert; in the Zohar, as we shall presently see, it assumes demonic overtones; indeed, already in the Midrash it is linked with the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden, which was a source of contamination for all future generations: a contamination (zohama) which ceased briefly after the Revelation at Sinai, but was renewed by the sin of the Calf. The following passage is a central Zoharic interpretation of this event.

The passage begins with a panegyric to the love and fellowship among members of the mystical circle around Rabbi Shimon (the ”Companions”). Though not directly relevant to the subject at hand, it is so beautiful and representative of a certain element in the “story-line” of the Zohar that I could not resist including it here. Zohar II:190b-191a:

When they came into his presence, R. Shimon saw a sign on their faces [that something was troubling them]. He said: Enter, holy children! Come, beloved ones of the king! Come, cherished and dearly beloved ones, who love one another! (For Rabbi Abba once said that those companions who do not love one another pass away from the world before their time, but in the time of R. Shimon all the Companions loved one another heart and soul; therefore, in his generation the secrets were revealed. For R. Shimon used to say: All those [students of the Holy Torah] who do not love one another cause a departure from the right path. Moreover, they cause a blemish therein, for the Torah is the essence of love, brotherhood and truth. Abraham loved Isaac, and Isaac love Abraham, and they embraced one another; and Jacob was held by both in love and fellowship, intermingling their spirits with one another [an allusion, on the Sefirotic level, to Jacob, who corresponds to Tiferet, harmonizing and “intermingling” the Hesed and Gevurah of the other two patriarchs]. Therefore, members of the fellowship follow that example in order not to cause any blemish in the Torah.) Having observed a certain sign in their faces and welcomed them thus, they replied to him, saying: Certainly the spirit of prophecy rests upon the Holy Lamp [Botzina Kaddisha; an honorific used to refer to R. Shimon], and so we should have known.

At this point the introductory words of mutual love ends, and R. Shimon prepares to reveal a particularly profound and hidden secret:

R Shimon wept and said: Let me say a word, among those that was revealed to me in a whisper from by the head of the Academy in the Garden of Eden. [A reference to the Metivta de-Raki’a, “the Heavenly Academy” or Metivta de-Rehima, “the Academy of Love,” a Zoharic elaboration of an idea already found in the Midrash; cf. Zohar, Shelah Lekha], which I was told not to repeat openly. This word was told me in secret, but I shall now reveal it to you, my beloved children, children whom my soul loves! What can I do? It was told to me in a whisper, but I will tell it to you openly; and when [the days of Messiah come] when we shall see “face to face” [like Moses in Exod 33:11 and Num 12:8?] all the “faces” will give their consent.

The secret itself relates to the significance of the Calf, which is seen here, not merely as an image made by the people who pressed Aaron to “make us a god,” but as an embodiment of negative forces in the cosmos:

My sons, that sin which the Outsiders (i.e., the “mixed multitude”) committed, and in which the holy people participated, was a sin against the Mother [i.e., the attribute of Binah, also identified with the supernal Shekhinah], as is written, ”Come, let us make us a god” (Exod 32:1)— Elohim, specifically, that is, the Glory of Israel, which had rested upon them like a mother upon her children. This is the secret of the verse: “They changed their glory for a similitude of an ox that eats grass” (Ps 106:20). This is the Glory of Israel, their mother! Therefore it says, “the glory has departed” (1 Sam 4:22) [i.e., when the ark of the covenant was taken by the Philistines, in the time of Eli]—because they caused the Shekhinah to go into exile with them. And for this “They changed their glory.” For what? “The similitude of an ox.”
Herein lies a mystery. Come and see: From beneath the dregs of the wine, the dregs of evil, there emerged an Accuser, a worm/serpent-like figure [the Aramaic ערעורא is difficult and uncertian], the primeval Damager, in the form of a man, approaching the [celestial?] Sanctuary. As soon as he passed from there, in order to descend and wreak evil upon the earth, he needed to embody himself in a garment. So he came down with his hosts, and the first garment in which he clothed himself was the form of an ox. And the first of these accusing demons is an ox. [Is this an inversion of the imagery of the four figures of the Merkavah, the faces of the Divine chariot in Ezekiel 1? The idea is suggestive, but hardly certain], and these are the four “principle damagers” that inflict misery in the world. [In Talmudic law and halakhah, there are four basic forms of damage, avot nezikin, to which laws of liability apply, derived from Exod 21:28-36; 22:4-5: the goring ox; fire; teeth—i.e., a grazing ox or animal that consumes food growing in the field; and a hole or other hazard in a public place; here it is reinterpreted mythically] All of the other three are subsumed under this first ox.

Concerning this it says, “they exchanged their glory for the similitude of an ox.” What is the significance of the phrase ”that eats grass”? We have already explained it, but the essence is that these [evil principalities] have no portion in bread or in the seven kinds of grain [considered the archetypal food for mature, developed human beings; when a child makes the transition from mother’s milk to eating grain he is considered to have attained the age of “knowledge”— da’at, a certain kind of minimal consciousness].

Therefore the “Mother” was not there, and it would have been unfitting for her to be there. But knowing Her love and Her compassionate ways, the Father [Hokhmah, the masculine principle in the Godhead] said to Moses: “My beloved son, let us both concur in this counsel.”

This has been whispered to me secretly, and it was not meant to be revealed, so that the children might see the lash as ever ready to descend, and constantly be in fear and trembling. But the two of them [God and the Shekhinah] are really in one counsel in this, and rule according to the selfsame plan.

—Translation based upon The Zohar, trans. Maurice Simon & Paul Levertoff (London–New York: Soncino, 1933) IV: 142-144, with substantial revisions by myself, and explanatory glosses in italics. I wish to thank Avraham Leader for devoting of his time to help me in understanding and interpreting this passage; I also wish to belatedly thank both Avraham and Morris Faierstein for referring me to Halamish’s article about Kegavna, mentioned two weeks ago.

There is much to be said on this passage, but I will confine myself to two points. First, the demonic, possibly serpent-like figure who embodies himself in the ox, thereby pushing aside the “Mother”—i.e., the supernal Shekhinah who had rested upon, hovered over Israel in protective fashion. Unlike Gnosticism or other dualistic approaches (including various schools of Christianity in which Satan plays an important role), this figure is not an autonomous rival to God, seeking to overthrow Him, but a figure who, harmful and destructive as he may be, has his origins in “the dregs of wine.” This might best be explained as: that which is left over from productive processes within the world, and thus disconnected from its ultimate roots in holiness—like what is left from the fermenting of grapes to make wine. While this notion is not to be confused with the Lurianic one of evil originating in the cosmic catastrophe of the “Breaking of the Vessels” and the presence of “shells” (kelipot) in our universe as a result, it seems to me that, in general terms, there is a certain family resemblance between the two, reflecting a similar mentality.

Second, the role of the “Mother”: There is much sexual imagery in the Zohar, and the subject has been particularly popular among both academic scholars and Kabbalah popularizers in recent years. There are two distinct “couples” within the Sefirotic realm: Tiferet and Malkhut, among the lower Sefirot; and Hokhmah and Binah, almost always referred to as Abba and Imma, in the upper spheres. The section immediately preceding our passage (190b) describes how each member of the Divine couple plays a role similar to those found in many earthly families: the father is the stern, disciplining figure, whose role is to use threats of punishment to frighten his children into behaving properly, while the Mother plays the loving, comforting role, her job being to assuage the anger of the father. “Even when He threatens and raises the lash, the mother comes and takes hold of his right arm so that the lash remains suspended but des no descend, because both are of one counsel.” In simpler words: the whole thing is really a big act, a “set-up” in which father and mother have mutually agreed parts to play.

But when the people made the Golden Calf, Mother-Shekhinah-Binah was displaced and no longer present and Moses, whom God had hoped would take over the mother’s role, did not know what to do, notwithstanding strong hints from God. Hence everything became confused, until God (Abba) had to come and reveal His merciful attributes. For those raised in the pristinely rational, philosophically-constructed monotheism that was the bon-ton for most of twentieth century Jews, these passages raise enormous theological problems, if not outrage—but that is a problem for another day.

NOTES For a fuller discussion of the origin and nature of evil in the Zohar, see the introductions to the various sections in Part II: “The Other Side,” of I. Tishby’s Wisdom of the Zohar.

For a comparison of the role of Mother/Shekhinah in the Zohar with the Christian cult of Mary, see Art Green’s recent study, “Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic Symbol in Its Historical Context” in AJS Review 26:1 (2002), 1-52.


Reader Reaction: ”Notes on Religion and Social Behavior”

A short comment I made on Parshat Bo elicited a rather vociferous and interesting reaction from one reader, which in turn raised some important issues. I had mentioned a study showing that “… there is a correlation between conservative political orientation (Republicans and the like) and generosity in terms of actual contributions to charity. This, notwithstanding that liberals are supposedly more concerned about issues of poverty and social justice. The explanation of this seeming paradox is that conservative political views, certainly in the US context, tend to coincide with religiosity—among evangelical Christians, traditional Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, albeit not among the Black churches— and thus with charity as a religious duty.”

A reader—one who, like myself, is deeply concerned with Judaism involvement in social change, who asked not to be identified by name—wrote:

Take the amount of money (hundreds of billions) being authorized by the liberals to deal with poverty in the current bail-out bill passed by the House and compare it with the amount of money donated to deal with poverty by religious conservatives, and you will see that the liberals are willing to give far more, by raising taxes on themselves to help others, than the religious conservatives. The religious conservatives use a portion of their own money, but the liberals understand that the goal is not just to make themselves feel good (which the religious conservatives achieve by their donations) but also to SOLVE the problems of the poor, which requires much more money than can come from the individual donations and have to come from a community-wide commitment. This is why “we” is so important, and why the Torah does not say “give terumah according to what feels good” but rather commands everyone to give a ma’aser (“tithe”), whether they want to or not. I find your thinking [on this point] to be goyish in the extreme [said with obvious irony, as he later explicated] and anti-Torah in its implications vis-à-vis individual salvation rather than collective action.

I responded that it was not my intention to set up an either/or dichotomy; rather, ideally (and I believe that this is what the Torah demands) we must be involved in society both on the macro level, trying to change things structurally—e.g., as he says, by exerting pressure to allocate tax money in the socially proper direction—but also on the micro, in responding to concrete, individual problems in our immediate environment. Thus, readers will recall my emergency appeal—which enjoyed an impressive response— requesting funds for a particular family who couldn’t pay their electric bill; this obviously made no difference to “society,” but made a great deal of difference to this family, and especially to the small children therein. One does not exclude the other. (Unless one follows Edna St. Vincent Millay, who coined the motto “I love humanity, but I hate people.”)

In any event, I have not converted to neo-conservatism. But sometimes I do like to tease my brethren on the liberal–Left, to remind them/ourselves that we have our own blind spots and pretensions and that we should never think that all the truth is on our side. If I don’t criticize the Right, it’s because they’re totally out of my focus.

I found it ironic that I was criticized on this point, as I’ve actually been doing a great deal of thinking lately about issues of individualism vs. communitarianism, and have even contemplated writing a book about it (a prècis of which will appear in these pages some time soon). I see the individualist focus of our culture, on many different levels, as lying at the root of many different problems. Two specific points: one, the current wave of individualism is at least in part a reaction to the heavy-handed, even totalitarian group-ideologies of the mid-20th century: communism, fascism, and even, in its own sweet way, Zionism. Many Israelis who grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s and early ‘60s were tired of being talked too constantly about ha-am and tehiyat ha-umah and all the stuff they were taught in youth movements (a rhetoric that survives today, mostly, in the nationalist-religious Right), and moved to the other extreme in reaction.

Secondly, just who are the hyper-individualists and who are the communal-spirited people today? The answer is by no means simple. The argument really cuts both ways: the Evangelicals and the frum Jews and the serious Roman Catholics have, so it seems to me, far more tightly-knit communities than the liberals in academia and many in the liberal professions in the “blue” states. Michael Lerner, for example, has written in sensitive ways about the collapse of community and family which have made the Right-wing platform of “family-values” so appealing to so many people in “Middle America,” and the need for the Left to address such issues. I would submit that the very meaning of “Left” has undergone a 180-degree turn-about in our lifetime, in which the politics of personal identity and of individual rights has for many taken the place of class-analysis. This is certainly the case in Israel, which is why, e.g., Meretz has failed miserably in is attempts to talk to the people in Sederot and in the poor neighborhoods (and did so yet again in the recent elections, notwithstanding their rebirth as “the New Movement-Meretz”). And note also the case of Amir Peretz’s short-lived leadership of the Labor Party, the tragic end of Shlomo Ben-Ami’s sortie into politics, etc.

Actually, Obama’s election in the US was a good sign, if for no other reason that it shook up the old fault lines and the old stereotypes. He’s neither a redneck nor a Middle-American fundamentalist, nor a white liberal intellectual snob, but something else again. I envy Americans that; over here it’s the same old faces and ideas, even if Tzippi Livni wears a skirt and is half a generation younger than the other party hacks.

Incidentally, in the Israeli context the lines of Right and Left are further blurred: the idea of budgeting large sums to fight poverty, at least in the traditional sense of welfare funds and a “safety net” for the poorest, has been most strongly advocated by Shas, the Sephardic Haredi Party, in whose platform the social, religious and nationalist elements are mixed in a strange mélange, related to the whole concept of large numbers of adult men studying Torah full-time, not working, and living off the public dole—a kind of “voluntary poverty” that is a peculiar feature of Israeli society.

A final comment on my friend’s admittedly ironic use of the phrase “goyish” to characterize my thinking: I think the time is long overdue for a moratorium on the use of certain words—among them “goyish” and “Christian” as used in intra-Jewish discourse, “Galuti” (Exilic) as used in certain kinds of Israeli discourse, and of course any attempt to define an “essence of Judaism,” which went out at least 50, if not 100 years ago. All these phrases are far too nebulous to be defined in any meaningful way, but are used to express the author’s pet peeve. (Re Christianity: Historian Israel Yuval has proven, I think convincingly, that Judaism and Christianity have cross-fertilized one another far more and in far more areas than conventional wisdom would have it.)

HALAKHAH: “Dew and Rain for Blessing”

Winter is almost past: the present month of Adar is seen as the final month of winter, or ימי הגשמים, “the days of rain,” as they’re known in traditional sources. In addition to our other problems (the aftermath of the recent War in Gaza; the political disarray and attempts to create a workable government; the specter of Iran; unemployment), this winter Israel has suffered from a serious drought—a condition that has repeated itself with distressing frequency in recent years. We have enjoyed numerous balmy, sunny days in December and January, followed by a few wet weeks in February and March—but agriculture, the Kinneret, and the country as a whole will yet pay a terrible price in water scarcity and particularly dry, parched summer months.

Rain, or the lack thereof, is traditionally one of the central subjects of Jewish prayer, going back to our agrarian origins in antiquity; the rhythm of the seasons is marked in the Amidah by the phrase משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם (“He turns the winds and brings down the rain”), either omitted in summer or, in some rites, replaced by מוריד הטל (“He brings the dew”). During times of drought, it is customary in Israel to recite an addition to the weekday prayer, beginning with the words ענינו בורא עולם (“Answer us, O Creator of the Universe”), inserted in the concluding blessing of the middle, petitionary section of the Amidah, Shome’a Tefillah, as follows:

ועננו בורא עולם במדת הרחמים, בוחר בעמו ישראל להודיע גדלו והדרת כבודו. שומע תפלה, תן טל ומטר על פני האדמה, ותשביע את העולם כולו מטוביך, ומלא ידינו מברכותיך ומעושר מתנת ידיך. שמור והצל שנה זו מכל דבר רע, ולכל מיני משחית, ומכל מיני פורענויות, ועשה לה תקוה טובה ואחרית שלום. חוס ורחם עלינו ועל כל תבואתנו ופרותינו, וברכינו בגשמי ברכה, ונזכה לחיים ושובע ושלום כשנים הטובות. והסר ממנו דבר וחרב ורעב, וחיה רעה ושבי וביזה, ויצר הרע וחליים רעים וקשים ומארעות רעים וקשים. וגזור עלינו גזרות טובות מלפניך, ויגלו רחמיך על מדותיך, ותתנהג עם בניך במידת רחמים, וקבל ברחמים וברצון את תפלתינו, כי אתה שומע תפילת כל פה...

While prayer in times of public need and trouble is certainly a good thing, I have always been somewhat puzzled by this practice. Why not simply intensify or add to the language of the existing prayer for rain already found in the Amidah—i.e., the sixth of the middle blessings, Barekh aleinu. And indeed, the Shulhan Arukh at Orah Hayyim 117.2 specifies that in those places where rain is needed in the summertime—i.e., not in the classical rainy season in Eretz-Yisrael between Sukkot and Pesah—one may pray for rain by adding a special petition for rain in Shome’a Tefillah. By implication, in Eretz-Yisrael, and during the appropriate season, the proper place for further petitions for rain should be ברך עלינו! Moreover, the Talmudic source for this halakhah (Ta’anit 14b) seems to bear out this view. I found myself wondering whether, perhaps, the practice of reciting Aneinu Borei Olam in Shome’a Tefillah was in fact adopted without much reflection from a practice that originated outside the Land of Israel. I have, unfortunately, not had the opportunity to research this question properly—which to my mind would involve, for starters, finding the earliest Siddurim in which ענינו בורא עולם appears with those instructions.

Interestingly, the Sephardim practice, both in drought and in winters blessed with abundant rain, is to recite an expanded version of the blessing ברך עלינו in the winter time, following literally the counsel of the Mishnah and Talmud in Ta’anit stating that, beginning from two weeks after the end of Sukkot, שואלין על הגשמים—“one prays for rain.” The Ashkenazic practice, of adding the two wordsותן טל ומטר , seems a minimalist application of this requirement. Why and how the Sephardic and Ashkenazic rites came to differ so dramatically on this point is an interesting question; I would be most grateful to any readers who know anything about this matter, or can refer me to any studies on it.

The Sephardic version of this blessing combines elements of “normal” petition, and certain phrases of a more intensive, poignant, beseeching nature—e.g., “guard this year from all forms of disaster and drought and famine… . and give it a good end.” Hence, I have adopted for myself the following practice: during ordinary winters, I recite a truncated form of this blessing; if and when, sometime in Kislev, it becomes clear that we are in a drought, I add the more intense, explicitly petitionary clauses. Thus:

ברך עלינו יי אלקינו את השנה הזאת ואת כל מיני תבואתה לטובה, ותן טל ומטר לברכה על פני האדמה, ורוה פני תבל, ושבע את העולם כולו מטוביך, ומלא ידינו מברכותיך ומעושר מתנת ידיך. [בזמן עצירת גשמים מוסיפים: שמור והצל שנה זו מכל דבר רע ולכל מיני משחית ומכל מיני פורענויות, ותן בה תקוה טובה ואחרית שלום. חוס ורחם עלינו ועל פרותינו ותבואתנו] וברכינו בגשמי ברכה ונדבה, ותהא אחיריתה חיים ושלום ושובע וברכה כשנים הטובות, כי אל טוב ומטיב אתה ומברך השנים. ברוך אתה יי מברך השנים.

Another interesting aspect of this historical riddle: The prayer ענינו בורא עולם, as we recite it, appears in Tur, Orah Hayyim §579 under the heading of the special prayers for Ta’anit Tzibbur, the public prayers described in the Mishnah as being held when drought continues for a considerable period of time. But ענינו בורא עולם appears there, not among the six extra blessings added in the middle of the Amidah, between Ga’al Yisrael & Refa’enu, as the special liturgy for this occasion, but as an expansion to Shome’a Tefillah—something for which I have been unable to find any Talmudic source. Moreover, the regular Sephardic version of Barekh Aleinu, as can clearly be seen from comparison of the two texts, uses many phrases from that text—or is it perhaps vice versa? Who borrowed from whom? A conundrum for historians of liturgy.


Post a Comment

<< Home