Friday, April 24, 2009

Tazria-Metzora (Zohar)

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

“When a Woman ‘Gives Seed”’

As this week there are many addenda and postscripts, I shall only present a very brief passage from the Zohar on this week’s portion. Our parashah begins with some text relating to conception and childbirth, and its halakhic ramifications viz. various kinds of impurity. Zohar III: 42b:

“When a woman brings forth seed…” (Lev 12:2). We have learned: “If the woman gives seed first she bears a male; [if the man ejects seed first, she gives birth to a female]” (b. Niddah 31a).

Rabbi Ahha said: We have learned that the blessed Holy One decrees whether a given drop will be male or female, yet it says “If the woman gives seed first she bears a male”?

Rabbi Yossi said: Certainly! The blessed Holy One distinguishes between the drop of a male and the drop of a female, and because he distinguishes between them, he decrees whether it shall be a male or a female.

Rabbi Ahha said: “and he gives birth to a male.” Since she gives seed does she give birth? (as is written: “and she gives birth”). Rather, that verse should have been phrased “When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male”! What is meant by “when she gives seed… and gives birth”?

Rabbi Yossi said: A woman, from the day she conceives until the day she gives birth, talks about naught but her offspring, whether [or not] it will be a male. For this reason [it says] “When a woman gives seed and gives birth to a male.”

This Zohar passage revolves around a well-known gloss of Hazal on the opening verse of this week’s parashah. The language of the verse is somewhat unusual: “when a woman brings forth seed and bears a male.” The literal meaning is no doubt something like: ”When a woman gives birth [i.e., delivers her seed, her offspring] and it is a male, then…..” But the Sages were troubled by this choice of word, and assumed that it must refer to something that happens during the act of coitus because of which conception occurs: i.e., that the woman emits something equivalent to the male seed—the emission of fluid during coitus or close to orgasm. Some people have suggested that, as the average man presumably wants a son, this saying may have been meant to encourage the man to give his wife pleasure first, implying that he will thereby be rewarded with male offspring.

The Zohar then records a pair of exchanges between Rabbi Ahha and Rabbi Yossi on this passage, in which the former posits a question and the latter answers them. The first question is based on the conception that the seed itself is predetermined to become either a boy or a girl (a view that accords with what we know today of genetics: that the infant’s gender is fixed by whether the particular sperm that impregnates the ovule bears a X or Y chromosome); what difference does it make, then, if the woman “emits seed” first or not? Rabbi Yossi’s answer is that this in itself is how Providence operates: God determines which “drop” (if at all) shall in fact form the fetus to be born; in other words, Nature and Providence are not dichotomies, opposed to one another, but in fact work in complementary ways. (If you wish, an almost Maimonidean approach to the problem of reconciling natural order and God’s “miracles that are with us daily”)

The second question relates to the linguistic peculiarity mentioned at the beginning: why des the Torah use the rare construction תזריע rather than the more usual הרה, “to conceive”? The answer given is based on ordinary human experience: that from the moment a woman gives seed (i.e., sleeps with her husband) she talks about nothing but the prospect of pregnancy and the sex of the child. Or might the butt of the Zohar‘s joke be, not the women, but the men who only appreciate male offspring (at times in really cruel ways), and project these concerns onto women?

A general comment prompted by this passage: We are accustomed to thinking of the Zohar primarily as an esoteric, mystical text; in certain circles there are even vociferous arguments, particularly among those with a strongly halakhic and/or rationalistic bent, as to whether it is at all a “legitimate” Jewish text. What I find interesting is that this entire passage belongs to the genre of commentaries on the aggadah, of attempts to understand the traditional Rabbinic interpretation of the Torah. In other words, it is thoroughly within the mainstream of Rabbinical discourse: there is a biblical verse, there is a widely-known Rabbinic saying on it, there are difficulties and contradictions that arise in the process of reading and understanding that text—and the Zohar here is very much part of that process. There are no sefirot, no Kabbalistic symbols, no esoteric secrets of Torah being revealed here. Indeed, Rabbi Yossi’s answer to R. Ahha’s second query seems almost “ballebatish”—so down-to-earth as to seem almost too simple, too banal.


“The Lord is a Man of War”

A totally different aspect of the reading for the Seventh Day of Pesah: the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15); the haftarah that accompanies it when read in its proper sequence in the annual Torah cycle, at Beshalah—namely, the Song of Deborah (Judges 5); and the haftarah for its reading on the Seventh Day of Passover—David’s Song, uttered at the end of his career as a military leader, offering thanksgiving to God for saving him “from all his enemies around, and from Saul” (2 Samuel 23)—all belong to a special genre known as shirah: that is, epic narrative poetry which celebrates dramatic events, mostly war, and the death and destruction of enemies. (Notwithstanding this word’s grammatically feminine ending in kametz-heh, which prompted its use as part of the name of a local feminist–oriented minyan, there is nothing soft, feminine or life-giving in most of the chapters that bear this title.)

The reading of this chapter this past winter, a time marked by the difficult and rather problematic war in Gaza, elicited long and somber thoughts about warfare and Judaism, which suddenly assumed a timely relevance. But as I do not wish to reawaken the political furor inspired by my essay, “The Land is Burning” (HY X: Vayeshev), and as in any event do not have the time to properly discuss the ethical and halakhic issues involved in war, and especially the killing of civilians, I will confine myself for now to those things which are more properly divrei Torah.

It seems to me that, notwithstanding the military theme of the three biblical poems mentioned (to which list we may add David’s elegy for Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1, Psalm 144, and various other passages), the Judaism of the Bible (not to mention that of the Rabbinic or Medieval periods) does not celebrate war as something glorious or manly or heroic per se. The common denominator of all these poems is the emphasis on gratitude to God, who assists the people and the individual in times of war and danger. This is so, whether the deliverance occurs in a totally miraculous way, as in the Splitting of the Sea (the key verse there is “the Lord will wage battle for you, and you shall be still”), or through God helping or “fighting with” the human combatants, such as David, or Deborah and Barak. War per se is not depicted as something laudable or epic, but as an aspect of life, an unpleasant reality, that needs to be dealt with in a pragmatic way when it is inevitable or necessary. The Song of Devorah begins by describing the all-pervasive chaos that preceded the battle with Sisera king of Canaan (בפרוע פרעות בישראל; “when locks went untrimmed / wild in Israel”: NJPS to Jdg 5:2) and the fear felt by people (חדל פרזון בישראל; people no longer felt safe or comfortable living in the countryside, called פרזות or פרזון, the unfortified places, and moved to the cities to hide behind their strong walls). Which is not to say that these poems are lacking in graphic and even bloody details: note the detailed description of Sisera’s crafty assassination by the Kenite woman Yael, and the gloating over the scene in which his mother waits in vain for his return (5:24-27║4:17-22; 5:28-30).

But compare this with the martial spirit of the Iliad, or for that matter with “Rule, Britannia, Britannia rule the waves,” which to this day is sung at the last night of proms in London (albeit today with an admittedly ironic spirit). I found it instructive to read Maurice Samuels’ The Gentleman and the Jew, in which he contrasts the connection between being a “gentleman” and the military spirit of European culture, and the Jewish eschewal of things like hunting and combat sports, at least in the pre-modern world. Of course, Zionism introduced the notion of the “new Jew”—tough, strong, at home in nature, able to defend himself. Even so, Israel’s army, which has come under fire lately from certain quarters, is mostly very pragmatic in its orientation: it has little of the hierarchy, of the spit and polish and marching drills of “serried ranks assembled” found in traditional European armies (although admittedly the world is rapidly changing). It is difficult to describe it as militaristic in the sense that this word has been used traditionally, although at times the adulation of former generals who enter politics is disturbing. On this point I find myself walking a tight-rope: while finding much to criticize in Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Arabs living in the territories, I am also well aware that in the world at large there is much exaggeration, misinformation, distortion, and downright lies circulated about Israel, whose motivation is far from pure or rooted in a balanced humanitarianism.

More on the Rav and the Zohar

My short essay for Rav Soloveitchik’s Yahrzeit (HY X: Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah: “The Rav and the Zohar”) seems in retrospect to have been somewhat meandering and unclear, so I will add a few points.

First, the Rav himself consistently sought out and developed spiritual ideas from within the halakhah. Reading some of the erudite, lengthy public lectures delivered over the years in memory of his father (Shiurim le-zeker Abba Mari ztz”l; 2 vols.), I observed a typical structure in almost all of them: a series of questions and seeming contradictions, followed by detailed halakhic analysis of the chosen subject, culminating, whether this language is used or not, in a distinction between ma’aseh and kiyyum mitzah (“mitzvah act” and “mitzvah fulfillment”), in which the kiyyum is almost inevitably an inner “religious” or “spiritual” experience. The subject matter chosen for these lectures is usually of a spiritual–psychological nature: the laws of tefillah (prayer, in the broadest sense of all aspects of Jewish liturgy), aveilut (mourning) and teshuvah (repentance). Thus, the Rav used traditional halakhic form and methodology to develop insights addressing the inner, spiritual life.

Second, a certain biographical development: In his younger years, he was very much oriented towards mathematics and such abstract sciences as physics: in Halakhic Man, written in 1942, he uses science as a model for understanding halakhah as an objective system, through whose prism “halakhic man” perceives the universe. The essay may also be read as a celebration of the specific family tradition within which he was raised, a note reiterated in his eulogy for Brisker Rav, Mah Dodekh mi-Dod, written around 1960. It is not altogether clear whether in these essays the Rav is speaking of himself, or creating a phenomenology of the type of “halakhic man” that he knew well.

In his later writings, from 1960’s on, he became more interested in what might be called the existential human condition (a change attributed by some to age, and to illnesses of both himself and his beloved wife Tonya). His great essay of this period, Lonely Man of Faith, is a typology of the human situation, based upon two archetypes which he sees in the chapter on the creation of humankind in Genesis 1 & 2, in which he clearly stresses the emotive needs of “Adam the Second”—for companionship, existential meaning, and community.

From a somewhat later date in this period (ca. 1972) comes the “Eulogy for the Talner Rebbe,” in which he contrasted the majesty (Malkhut) of the Lithuanian Rabbinic type, with the quest for holiness (Kedushah) and even a type of self-abnegation that he sees as typifying the Hasidic tzaddik, whom he sees as almost a feminine type. (For more on the tension between masculine and feminine as key concepts in understanding the Rav, see my essay, “On the Rav and the Eternal Feminine,” below, April 2006.)

How does all this relate to mysticism? Somehow, the Rav’s more spiritual concerns seem closer to the intuitive, even mythic mentality of the Zohar than to the objective, matter-of-fact world of the halakhah (albeit later Kabbalah becomes much more systematic and objective in its detailed mapping of the Sefirotic system).

On Birkat ha-Hamah: Reactions

My essay, “Birkat Ha-Hamah: Some Heretical Thoughts” (HY X: Pesah, Pt. I) elicited many reactions. Some raised factual objections: that my claim that this was the first time Birkat ha-Hamah fell on Erev Pesah since the Exodus was untrue—it did so also in 1925 and 1309; that it does not always fall in early Nisan, as I asserted, but on occasion in Adar, as in 1701, or later in Nisan, as it will next time, in 2037. Also, the actual “return” of the sun to its alleged creational position occurs in this and last century, not on April 9, but on the evening of April 8; the berakha is said the next morning for obvious reasons. I should also mention a letter to Ha-Aretz that attempts to justify the 365¼ year as the average between the sidereal year (i.e., the time it takes the earth to complete one orbit around the sun viz. a fixed point of reference, such as the stars) and the tropical year (i.e., the progression of the seasons; e.g., the time between one equinox and the next, measured by the intersection of the ecliptic, or plane of the earth’s orbit, and the plane of the equator). One being 11-odd minutes shorter than that time interval, and the other 9-plus minutes longer, the two almost cancel each other out, so we should still accept Shmuel’s tekufah. A bizarre argument!

Most readers, while conceding my objective argument, saw the occasion as an opportunity for reinterpretation in “intuitive” terms: for a celebration of nature and of the cosmos, for teaching and reflecting upon ecological issues, etc.

Certainly, I am the last person to object to the creation of new midrash or interpretations or new mythical readings of our sacred calendar. But what bothers me here is that the blessing Oseh ma’aseh Bereshit (referred to in this context as Birkat ha-Hamah, but really a blessing recited on a variety of occasions relating to the seeing of “creational” natural phenomena, such as meteors, comets, even lightning) is otherwise recited in immediate reaction to experience, to something that makes a clear and definite impression in itself. In this case, we only know that something is happening because the gemara and its calculations (which I have argued to have been erroneous) says so, and not in response to anything tangible or objective.


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