Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Devarim-Hazon (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah and on Tisha b’Av, see the archives to this blog at July 2009.

Winding Down

Even though an entire book of the Torah remains to be read, and it is nearly three months till Simhat Torah, we have at this point almost reached the end in our series on the Zohar. The Zohar, as I noted some time ago, is “top-heavy”: two of the three volumes in the standard editions, based on the first printing in Mantua in the mid-16th century (each 400 to 500 pages in length) are devoted respectively to Bereshit and Shemot, while the Zohar on the last three books of the Humash are crammed into one volume. Moreover, in that volume, the lion’s share goes to Vayikra and Bamidbar while, beginning with Matot & Masei, we encounter parshiyot in which there is no Zohar whatsoever (e.g, Mas’ei, Devarim, Re’eh, Ki Tavo, Nitzavim, Vezot Haberakha) or in which almost all of the material turns out, upon closer examination, to consist almost exclusively of Ra’ya Mehemna—a product of the Zoharic school devoted mostly to expounding ta’amei hamitzvot. The one great exception to this general rule is Ha’azinu (in the Torah, Moshe’s farewell visionary poem of warning), which contains Idra Rabba, the climax and culminating teaching of the Zohar, containing Rabbi Shimon’s teaching on his last day on earth.

Strangely, even the most learned Zohar scholars are puzzled, and can offer no more than hypothetical, very tentative conjectures. One scholar of whom I inquired suggested that the Zohar was somehow more interested in the narratives of the Torah found in the first two books, of the Patriarchs and the Exodus, culminating in Mount Sinai, then they were in the detailed legal sections of the Torah. But that’s only partially true, as the Zohar is deeply involved in the inner mystical meanings of ritual, whether those of the ancient sacrificial order or those practiced by Jews today. Art Green sent me the following informal, “off-the-cuff” reflections:

It's not about narrative. First, there is plenty of narrative, as well as plenty of mysterious material, in Bemidbar, and they don’t do that much with it. I have an idea the problem was more in the editing (whenever this took place!) than in the need for or lack of narrative. The parshiyot of the Mishkan got stuffed so full (especially Terumah and Vayakhel), so that the bulk of material in the collected teachings of the Zohar circle got used up there. Someone(s) realized that it was getting repetitious and was running out of steam, and decided—or was forced?—to cut it short. This of course may have to do with the death of an editor, the passing of a generation—we just don't know. We (or at least I) don't understand the relationship between the creative work of the Zohar circle from, say, 1270 to 1310, and the editing of the Zohar text. Did the Hevrayya not deal much, in their own wanderings, with all those wanderings “in the wilderness”? I somehow find that hard to imagine. But whoever was editing the materials into book form, and thus making or re-making the link of Zohar teachings to Torah texts (how much later did this take place?) was simply unable to keep it up. They got weary after Parashat Vayiqra, I think... After that you only have longer text where there are currently observed ritual halakhot (i.e., Aharei Mot, Emor).

I think we might also ask something about narrative (I mean the Torah narrative, not the Hevrayya tale) and ritual in the Zohar. Both types of passages are after all just pegs on which to hang the new narrative of Sefirot and hishtlashelut [devolution of Divine energy from above to below–JC]. But the Zoharic interest in the ritual, it seems to me, begins to win out. That’s why Terumah and Vayakhel can be so long: it’s as though they don’t need narrative any more...

We must remember that the Zohar was not written as a systematic, or even as a stream-of-consciousness, commentary on the Torah; one would be hard pressed to argue that the parashah is a significant unit in the Zohar. The Torah text, as Art put it, serves more as a “peg” on which to hang the Zohar’s mystical midrash, which is in turn presented in the framework of the wanderings and peripatetic conversations of the Hevrayya, the dozen or so members of the Zoharic circle whose “adventures” are recounted here.

Thus, even the halakhic material is not necessarily presented at the logical place. To mention one pithy but striking example: the section of Sabba de-Mishpatim, contains a major series of homilies on yibbum and halitzah, mitzvot that appear in Deut 25:8-10, presented under the rubric of Exodus 21:1ff., because the Old Man of Mishpatim interprets the “Hebrew slave” mentioned in that chapter as referring, symbolically, to the soul of the man who dies without offspring and who seeks rebirth through the levirate union of his brother and his widow. Once having presented these ideas there, the Zohar has no further need to return to them in their “proper” place in Ki Tetzei—and thus that parashah remains “barren,” so to speak.

In light of the sparse Zoharic material, during the coming weeks I will present Zohar passages only when feasible. In many places I will instead present various essays, short and long, which have been sitting on my hard desk far too long, begging to be shared with others. These will include: a new essay on the Amidah; “Shall Man Cleave Unto Man? Four Comments on Homosexuality and Judaism”; a major essay on Individual and Community, to honor my father’s 25th Yahrzeit; and more.

“Judge small and great alike”

This year, I understood an additional reason (besides the use of the word eikha in Deut 1:12) why Parashat Devarim is always read on the last Shabbat before Tisha b’Av. In this chapter, with which Moshe Rabbenu’s farewell address begins, he recounts the setting up of the court system shortly after Sinai. He then warns the judges, among other things, “You shall not prefer persons in judgment; hear great and small alike; de not fear any person” (Deut 1:17). A judge must avoid favoritism, must not allow himself to be influenced by the social status—or lack thereof—of the litigants standing before him. Some three and a half millennia before the framing of the American Constitution, and the familiar image of blindfolded justice that symbolically suggests this principle, the equality of all before the law was a fundamental principle in setting up ancient Hebraic society.

The basic idea is that the courts represent objective law, and as such are perhaps the most important component of government under traditional Jewish law. The Sages and prophets were well aware that society is often governed by power and interests and Hobbesian struggle among different forces and groups. Within this realistic awareness, judges and courts are meant to serve as a kind of last resort and sanctuary of truth, justice, and equality of persons, protecting the weak and powerless from his/her oppressors. Thus, if that process becomes corrupted, and judges may be bribed or swayed from the pursuit of truth (whether by money or more intangible goods, such as the promise of political support for a desired promotion, even if couched in high-sounding language), it bides ill for the state of society as a whole.

Perhaps that is one reason why one of the psalms read in the weekly cycle of psalms for the days of the week—Psalm 82, read on Tuesdays—is concerned with judges and judgment. The psalmist berates corrupt and dishonest judges who act as if they thought they are like gods. But, he says “you will die like men”—and God will ultimately vindicate the right when He comes to judge the world.

Unfortunately, these high ideals are not always carried out in the real world. In recent weeks the Israeli newspaper and media have been filled with discussion of a decision rendered some time ago by Judge Moshe Drori of the Jerusalem District Court. The case drew particular attention because his name had been bandied about as a candidate for one of the “religious” spots on the Supreme Court—and my own interest was attracted because I know Judge Drori from the days when I lived in Ramat Eshkol. Over a period of several years we davened in the same weekday morning minyan; moreover, his younger brother and his wife were next-door neighbors of myself and my ex-wife, and they had several daughters the same age as my own daughters, who were childhood friends and school-mates of them.

The case decision involved a young man, a kollel student, who refused to pay the toll at an underground parking lot. When the parking attendant, a young Ethiopian woman, trued to force him to pay by—in an act over and above the call of duty—lying down on the hood of his car, the driver zoomed off, throwing the parking-attendant off and causing her minor injuries. The judge decided not to convict the offending driver, for two reasons: first, so as not to spoil the young man’s chances of being appointed as judge in a Rabbinic court; second, in light of the fact that he had expressed regret for his ill-conceived act and offered apologies to his victim, who accepted them. Following the trial, the identity of the accused was expunged from the public record.

What became known over time was that he was son of a prominent rabbi, chief rabbi of the medium–sized Israeli city of Haderah. Moreover, it ensued that Drori had been subjected to pressure from various quarters, ranging from one of the leading rabbis of the Sephardi hazarah beteshuvah movement, to the chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, and including the Interior Minister and head of the Shas religious party, all of whom asked the judge to exercise “the quality of mercy.” The Supreme Court recently reviewed the case on appeal—an unusual move—and Justice Edmund Levi declared that the lower court judge’s decision made no sense to him in light of the facts; Drori’s ruling was reversed, and the errant driver was convicted—albeit he was given a suspended sentence.

What struck me, first and foremost, was the blatant favoritism and special consideration given to the accused because of his position and his family and other connections. If this is not the “favoring of persons” mentioned in our parashah, I don’t know what is. It is as if there is a certain elite of learning, professional status, and power—in this case centered on the Rabbinic world—that is subject to different rules and can get away with trampling, in this case quite literally, a person from a lower, more marginal position in society. The unspoken message that, as the son of an important rabbi, he was as-if born to be a Rabbinic judge. And all this cloaked in the language of “compassion” for the young man whose future Rabbinic career was likely to be ruined by a conviction—as if he didn’t deserve to have it ruined because of his own callous and irresponsible, if not downright criminal behavior, which surely revealed serious character flaws.

It was argued that “the public needs him” because he is supposedly learned. But if he shows such arrogance and disregard for another person, ought he to be a candidate for the post of judge, which according to Jewish tradition and halakhah is meant to be the preserve of those who have sterling character, and not just book-learning? If anything, Jewish law and tradition consistently hold leaders to a higher, more stringent standard than ordinary people. The classic example of this is Moshe Rabbenu and his hitting the rock—surely a misdemeanor but hardly a mortal crime—as a result of which he was denied entering the Promised Land.

Some cynics might say that it has always been thus. In Diaspora, too, Jewish society was ruled by an oligarchy, an alliance of wealth and Rabbinic families. (I am currently translating a book about the Rabbinate and communities in the Ottoman empire on the eve of modernity—Aharon Harel’s Intrigue and Revolution, forthcoming in Littman Library, 2010—filled with stories of dirty politics, nepotism, etc. in places like Aleppo and Damascus). Certainly, Jews, as part of the human race, have their fair share —and sometimes it seems more so—of the lust for power and honor and wealth. And at times, religion can be used an more avenue for gaining these things, as witnessed by the above story. For myself, I remain religious not because of the rabbis, certainly not those of the “official” Rabbinic establishment, but despite them. I have had the good fortune in my life to have known truly humble, decent teachers of Torah—as well as simple, God-fearing Jews—who serve as a model and a beacon.

On the subject of contrition: Does contrition exempt an offender from being punished for his crimes? And beyond that, how does one know that a particularly person is genuinely contrite and repentant, and is not engaged in mere lip service—particularly when made under the pressure of a court room? On occasion, I see a scene on American TV talk programs in which an offender—a philandering husband, an alcoholic wife, a violent teenager, a drug addict who has ruined his/her family’s life through their habit—saying “Oh, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” and perhaps even shedding a few tears. It may be good television, but is it authentic teshuvah?

Moreover, while Jewish tradition sees contrition and asking forgiveness of a wronged party as important elements of teshuvah, they are not sufficient unto themselves to restore the individual’s tarnished public reputation; e.g., if he is a shohet who has sold treif meat as kosher, he is not allowed to slaughter animals again until there is a dramatic public demonstration that he has altered his ways—e.g., is willing to lose money on a treif animal that he could have concealed (see Rav Soloveitchik’s chapter on this subject in his book Al ha-Teshuvah). Repentance affects Divine forgiveness, but that alone; the human community must suspend judgment unless there is concrete evidence of his change of heart.

This point sheds light on an interesting turn of phrase in Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.1: "He who knows the secrets of men will testify that he will never again return to this sin.” I read this passage as implying that God alone, who knows the secrets of men’s hearts, can know for certain when teshuvah is sincere and when it is false—but a human being may easily be taken in by an act.

We are told that, whereas the First Temple was destroyed because of such grave sins as of idolatry, bloodshed and sexual licentiousness, whereas during the Second Temple period the people were meticulous about such things and were even pious and meticulous about ritual matters. But their relations were marked by “groundless hatred”—in other words, the society was rift by social distance and disharmony—and these were the things that ultimately broke up society, and led to the Destruction.

In terms of a Zionist theological perspective: The first stage of the ancient vision of Redemption was to a large extent realized in the early years of the State and thereafter in the massive ingathering of exiles from beleaguered Jewish communities in the newly-reborn Eretz Yisrael. The second stage of or redemption (following the order of the set of petitions for communal needs in the middle section of the weekday Amidah), the creation of a just, Jewish society in the land, has been dragging on far too long, and there are too many signs that the state of public morality and social cohesion and solidarity is if anything far worse than it was in those early years. Those who dream and speak in bombastic terms of “Mashiah now” or regaining Jewish presence on the Temple Mount, or over “Greater” Eretz Yisrael, would do well to focus their attention upon these concrete issues of social justice and ethics between man and his fellow. Perhaps it is this insight that is expressed in the closing words of the haftarah for Shabbat Hazon: ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה: “Zion will be redeemed by justice, and its inhabitants with righteousness” (Isa 1: 27).


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