Friday, October 23, 2009

Bereshit (Aggadah)

Hadran Alakh

Before beginning the new year of Torah and a new series of studies, a few concluding words on our Zohar series, beyond the few short words I penned hastily late in the afternoon last Erev Shabbat.

First and foremost, I owe a special debt of gratitude for the Zohar series to two individuals: first, to Daniel Matt, who graciously allowed me to use his translation of The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, including as-yet-unpublished material, up to the point that he has reached in his own work on this massive project. We look forward to the appearance of further volumes, and anticipate that the Pritzker Zohar, once completed, will become a staple addition to the English reader’s library of Judaica (as the existing volumes already have become). Danny was also helpful from time to time in answering various queries, and providing information, bibliography, suggested readings, etc.

Secondly, to Avraham Leader, a true talmid-hakham and unsung hero of scholarship. Working totally outside of any institutional framework, whether academic or yeshiva, he has a wealth of knowledge and insight into the Zohar and other Kabbalistic works; he is a living example of what an auto-didact can accomplish if he approaches his field with enough devotion and passion. Avraham was always there, a phone call away, and helped me in innumerable times in understanding arcane and difficult passages. His aim, like my own, was to understand the peshat of the text; in this, he helped me to separate between the Zoharic world-view from the overlay of Lurianic Kabbalah, through whose lenses is automatically seen by so many people.

One more thought: Avraham and Danny are both living proof that something wonderful has happened: Jewry has renewed itself, like the legendary Phoenix, from the ashes of destroyed European Jewry, and produced, not only a new generation devoted to continuing Jewish life, but among them learned, scholarly Jews, masters of our ancient tradition. Each of these men started as “regular American kids” (albeit admittedly both are sons of rabbis), who somewhere in early adulthood discovered a love of Jewish learning, and in time mastered one of the seemingly most obscure and difficult branches of Jewish literature.

Finally, I can also bless myself, and my readers, with the traditional blessing upon competing the study of any Jewish book: hadran alakh zohar ha-kodesh, vehadrakh alan— “May we return to you, O Holy Zohar, and you return to us.” In ages past, Zohar was part of the daily bread of any educated Jew: reading, for example, the teachings of R. Zaddok ha-Kohen of Lublin, one finds that he assumes literacy in and familiarity with Talmud, midrashim and Zohar as the background of his readers. I am well aware that I have hardly begun to scratch the surface of this amazing compendium library of Jewish thought and mysticism. If, at the beginning of the year, the Zohar was terra incognita to me, it is only somewhat less so at its end. Hence, this is hardly a siyyum in any real sense, but merely a small taste. May we merit to return to its study in ever more comprehensive and deeper ways.

Aggadah: An Introduction

After a year of grappling with the often difficult and obscure texts of the Zohar, I have decided to “take a rest” (relatively speaking) this year and to devote Hitzei Yehonatan to what is, at least on the face of it (and I emphasis these words) a simpler and more straightforward genre—Rabbinic aggadah. (And, in response to feedback from some quarters, to confine each issue to two or at most three pages, to make things a bit easier on the reader.) But in truth, it is simpler only in the sense that the units of text to be studied are much shorter: many aggadot occupy only a few lines in the Talmudic text, or less. But, as we shall soon see, what lies beneath the surface of the aggadah is no simple matter. We shall do our best to understand and explain this, with the hope and prayer that “He who graces man with knowledge” will grant me wisdom, understanding, and strength.

Rambam, in the Introduction to Perek Helek (=Mishnah Commentary, Sanhedrin Ch. 10), portrays three ways in which people understand aggadah (his son, R. Abraham Maimonides, reiterates many of these ideas in his own Introduction to Ein Ya’akov). There are those who read it in a naive manner and believe, with all the force of their emunah in Torah, the literal truth of ever word of aggadah: that Rabba bar bar Hanna and his shipmates literally landed on an island that turned out to be the back of a gigantic tortoise; that the various conversations recorded between God and various biblical personalities are verbatim transcripts of actual dialogues; etc. This often leads to absurdities which, moreover, give religion a bad name as demanding that people to totally suspend their reason. And indeed, the second group agrees that aggadot are meant to be taken literally but, seeing the positions to which this position may lead, reject it all as nonsense and, so to speak, throw out the baby with the bath water. The third and smallest group understands aggadah to contain truth, but couched in allegorical or symbolic language. The task of the intelligent reader is to “decode” this language. I see my task this year in these latter terms.

To begin with a few elementary definitions: Rabbinic literature—the two Talmuds, the Mishnah, the midrashim, etc —is divided into two basic genres: halakhah, meaning discussion of the Law; and aggadah, which means, basically, everything else—usually translated “legends,” it includes philosophy, speculation, linguistics, stories of the lives of the Sages, and, perhaps most important, reconstruction or “filling in the gaps” of the Biblical narrative (a friend of mine who is an aggadic scholar, Joshua Levinson, has written a book, in Hebrew, entitled The Twice-Told Tale, around precisely this theme). For our purposes, we will focus upon those aggadot that deal in some way with the text of the weekly parasha, and attempt to “read between the lines”—i.e., to answer these questions that are not answered by the biblical text itself. (As Erich Auerbach has written in his classic book on literary interpretation, Mimesis, the Biblical narrative is famous for its extreme brevity and laconic style, leaving much room for commentators and storytellers alike to attempt to reconstruct the gaps.)

I shall mention a few helpful tools for studying aggadah. First, Bialik and Rawnitzky’s classical topically-arranged compendium, Sefer ha-Aggadah, which attempts to bring the riches of the Jewish tradition to a new kind of Hebrew-reading public which no longer swims in the sea of the Talmud. (available in English in the excellent translation of Chaim Pearl, z”l, entitled The Book of Legends), Second, Torah Temimah, by Barukh Halevi Epstein. This work, in the format of a traditional Humash in five volumes, contains the text, Onkelos, and Rashi and, at the bottom of the page, every Rabbinic saying that quotes the verse in question, plus the compiler’s very illuminating commentary on almost every passage that he brings. Another such work, albeit far less known and less comprehensive, is Yalkut Yehudah, by an early 20th century Orthodox rabbi from Denver, Colorado, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginsburg, who specifically chose those passages with moral and ethical relevance.

Finally, another valuable tool is Toldot Aharon: a system of cross-references to the aggadah, printed in standard editions Mikraot Gedolot, giving, for each verse in Torah, the page numbers where discussions thereof appear in the Talmud. This is particularly useful in finding the clusters of aggadot on a given topic that are often concentrated in a particular place in the Talmud.

So without further ado, we shall turn to this week’s opening portion of the Torah: Bereshit, the chapter of Beginnings.

What Was the Tree of Knowledge?

What was the fruit that Eve and Adam ate, with disastrous consequences? Many of us, raised in Western culture steeped in Christianity, with its rich visual iconography, will automatically answer “the apple.” It is an apple that appears in many of the medieval and early Renaissance paintings of this scene, hanging in art galleries throughout Europe and North America. If my memory serves me right, John Milton in Paradise Lost names the fruit as an apple.

But the apple is really not indigenous to the Bible lands. Apples hardly grow in Western Eretz Yisrael; the apples sold here are by and large from the Golan Heights, a region with a rather different climate and sort of soil, more hospitable to this fruit. The tapuah mentioned in Song of Songs (2:3, 5; 7:9; 8:4) and elsewhere is quite possibly a different fruit than that which we know as an apple (perhaps an apricot?). In any event, there is no particular prima facie reason to identify it as such.

The Talmud, at Sanhedrin 70a-b, gives three answers:

Rav Hasda said in the name of Rav Uqba, and some say, Mar Uqba in the name of Rav Zakkai: The Holy One blessed be He said to Noah: Noah, oughtn’t you to have learned from Adam, whose [downfall] was caused by wine? As is said: The tree from which Adam ate was the grapevine. As we taught: Rabbi Meir said: That tree from which Adam ate was a grapevine, for there is nothing which brings wailing to mankind but wine.

Rabbi Yehudah said: It was wheat, for an infant does not know how to call, “Mommy, Daddy,” until he tastes the taste of grain.

Rabbi Nehemiah said; It was a fig, for by the same thing by which they acted badly they were corrected. As is said, “And they sewed together fig leaves” (Gen 3:7).

The three answers given by the Talmud—grape, wheat, and fig—are all very different from one another.

Interestingly, although I don’t suggest that there as a one-to-one correspondence between them and the three suggestions offered for the identity of the fruit of the Tree, in a key verse the fruit of the tree is described using three distinct phrases: ותרא האשה כי טוב העץ למאכל, וכי תאוה הוא לעיניים, ונחמד העץ להשכיל – ותקח מפריו ותאכל, ותתן גם לאשה עמה ויאכל “And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat; and it was desirable to the eyes; and the tree was pleasant that one might know—and she took of its fruit and she ate, and she gave to her man with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6). The three stages can be described as: the directly appetitive (“good to eat”); aesthetic/sensuous (desirable to the eyes”—an interesting turn of phrase, suggesting also that desire generally may start with the eyes); and intellective (“pleasing to know”).

Grapes—because wine leads to drunkenness, to loss of control, and from there to doing things which cause sorrow, weeping and wailing. This answer is preceded by an elaborate introduction: that Noah, the first drunkard, ought to have learned from Adam’s bitter experience.

Wheat—wheat and wheat products are associated with “knowledge” because the ability to digest wheat (i.e., bread, the staff of life”: the most basic foodstuff, at least in ancient tradition; one which has a central role in Jewish eating etiquette, in the halakhic definition of a meal, etc.) is taken as a sign that the infant has emerged from infancy into early childhood, and is now capable of learning, particularly of language. There is no change of causation connecting wheat with knowledge; rather, one is a symbol of the other.

Fig—the relation of this fruit to the Tree is also indirect. Our aggadah, based on a more general Rabbinic concept of middah keneged middah, of a certain moral balance in the world, asserts that “In that which they sinned, they were also corrected.” Thus, from the fact that they used fig leaves to cover their nakedness, we infer that the “Tree of Knowledge” was a fig tree.

The real question being asked here, I submit, is: What is Man? What is the nature of the human being, and what most tempts him or her?

Wine relates to drunkenness—in other words, oblivion. A state in which one escapes from mundane, possibly boring reality; from responsibility; from awareness, from consciousness, from conscience. To be fully human is a demanding, heavy burden, in which one is morally accountable for every action, every word spoken to another, possibly even every thought; for very deed of commission or omission. No wonder that there is something attractive, even seductive, about going on a drunken binge, taking a “moral holiday” in which one “doesn’t give a damn.”

Wheat, as mentioned, relates to knowledge. To be human means to want to know, to be curious—at times insatiably so—to wish to understand the universe. For hwo many modern people is knowledge—scientific knowledge, but also other kinds of knowledge as well—almost an alternative religion. And indeed, the ban on eating from the Tree is explained by the Serpent with the words “you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (3:5). To the ancients, Wisdom, Sophia, Logos, was a Divine quality, and too overbearing a desire for certain kinds of knowledge was seen as a dangerous form of hubris (see HY IX: Noah-Supplement)

And what of the fig? I would suggest here a certain connection to sexuality. Adam and Eve first became aware of their nakedness only after eating of the fruit (3:7); the Bible pointedly emphasizes, one verse before the fateful encounter of Eve with the serpent, that they were both naked and were not embarrassed (2:25). Hence, so it seems to imply, eating the fruit somehow made them aware of this, thus inviting the further question: what was it about this fruit that made them aware that they were “naked”?

Christian tradition associates the sin in the Garden with sexuality, with the dawning of sexual awareness, and sees the first sexual act as performed only when they were already in a “state of Sin.” Judaism decidedly rejects this approach (see HY X: Bereshit – Supplement, where I discuss this issue at some length).

Nevertheless, it seems that there was, inter alia, some connection between eating the fruit and sexuality. Did they perhaps learn, after eating the fruit, that sex can be lewd and “dirty.” At bottom, I would subject, lewd or dirty sex means: sex based on a subject-object relation to one’s sexual companion; from uninhibited, childlike play as friends and lovers, sex became part of a power relationship, of dominator and dominated (see, e.g., the curse placed on Eve in Gen 3:16). Or, to go the Buberian route: the basic word spoken turned from “I-Thou” to “I-It.” Perhaps by way of derush, can could interpret our aggadah as follows: the correction for out-of-control, “I-It” sexuality, is found in sexuality itself, but done in a loving manner, in aware of the other as a fellow person with consciousness and subjectivity—i.e., turning to the “I-Thou.”


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