Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vayera (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Abraham: “To Do Justice and Righteousness”

As I commented last week, the sequence of Avraham chapters, that spreads over the two parshiyot of Lekh Lekha and Vayera, contains, alongside seemingly more mundane incidents, a series of turning points or guidelines for his developing relationship with God and his role as the harbinger of a new approach to human life in this world, in light of knowledge of the One God. The Akedah, the test of the Binding of Isaac, which serves as the culmination and high point of this process, builds upon comes before.

Avraham’s conversation with God regarding Sodom very important; here Avraham stands in the breach, so to speak, trying to persuade God to relent of his plan to destroy five entire cities. (This is reminiscent of, or more accurately a foreshadowing, of Moses’ pleading on behalf of the people Israel in the incident of the Golden Calf. But here, significantly, Avraham does so in a purely selfless manner, on behalf of an abstract conception of justice [“shall the Judge of all the land not do justice?!], because he has no direct interest in these people.)

In one of the opening verses to this section, God spells out exactly why he is approaching Avraham on this occasion, and describes what He sees as Avraham’s mission and way of being in the world:

“For I have know him, that he might command his sons and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice…” (Gen 18:17)

This verse closely parallels other Biblical verses that present a kind of summum bonnum; e.g. Jeremiah 9:23, where the goal of “knowing God” is summarized as involving three qualities: השכל וידוע אותי, כי אני ה' עושה חסד משפט וצדקה בארץ (“knowing… that I am the Lord, who does goodness, justice and righteousness in the land”—the verse which Maimonides chooses to conclude his monumental philosophic work, the Guide for the Perplexed); or Micah’s summing up (6:8) of the three central things a man must do: עשות משפט, ואהבת חסד, והצנע לכת עם אלהיך — “to practice justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with your God: and walking humbly with God.”

The Sages, in their aggadic comments on these words in the Talmud, attempt to understand the words tzedakah u-mishpat, here translated “righteousness and justice:

“His sons and his household after him… to do righteousness and justice.” His sons for justice; his household for righteousness. Women are not commanded concerning laws.—b. Sanhedrin 57b

The word “house” (beito) is here equated with females, just as in the prelude to the Sinai revelation (Exod 19:3), the phrase “sons of Israel” and “house of Jacob” are similarly interpreted as referring to men and to women. “A man’s wife is his house.” Women are traditionally seen as the pillar of the private, familial realm, whereas men are more identified with the public realm of, inter alia, officiating in courts of law.

We live in an age in which such sayings are not received well; gender distinctions of this type are seen as somehow offensive. I will not enter into the discussion as to whether this still holds and whether this are possible options for altering the halakhic assumption that women cannot serve as witnesses or judges, nor the broader issue as to whether the social changes that have brought the changes in how we think about these issues harbinger good or ill for the future of human culture. Suffice it that fur centuries, nay, millennia, these were accepted social conventions, and HAzal must be understood within the terms of that world.

Another linguistic nuance: tzedekah, which derives from the root tzedek—meaning, “justice,” “the right”—is here in fact counterpoised to mishpat, justice. Where mishpat alludes to formal justice, tzedakah is identified by Hazal with charity, alms-giving—in brief, acts of generosity, caring, sympathy for the other and his needs that go beyond the strictly legal realm of right, of what a person is formally deserving or entitled to, into something closer to the traditional feminine role of nurturing.

This contrast is even more explicit in a comment by Rashi slightly earlier in the same sugya:

“Righteousness and justice”—that is, compromise and law.—Rashi at Sanhedrin 56b, s.v. dinei kenasot

There are two ways of resolving disputes between contending parties: the one is a formal hearing before a judge or court, based upon the strict letter of the law, in which the judge determines, on the basis of the information before him, the testimonies he has heard, and the stipulations of Jewish law itself, how the case at hand is to be decided. “Let the law penetrate the mountain.” Even if a poor man must pay money he doesn’t have, the ruling of the judge is seen as reflecting the voice of the Torah.

Then there is a second course: that of peshara, “compromise.” The judge may suggest to the parties that he act, not as a judge, going by the book, but as a mediator (or even as an arbitrator, imposing a settlement), helping the contending parties to find a middle way, a compromise in which both sides go away satisfied. In our own times, this approach has been increasingly advocated, for example, in divorce disputes. Rather than the two parting spouses investing their financial and emotional resources in getting the largest possible settlement out of the other side, hiring the cleverest and sharpest lawyers to “take the other to the cleaners” (and perhaps besmirch and shame them publicly in the process), a mediator will assist the two sides to respect one another’s needs and dignity even as they go their separate ways, helping to create as peaceful an atmosphere as possible for the sake of the children, etc.

Would it be “sexist” to suggest that the path of mediation, as against that of the letter of the law, is in some sense a more feminine, hesed-full approach. The man, at least in traditional stereotypes, is more often seen as advocating abstract principles of equity and justice; the woman may be more concerned with the interpersonal, with reconciliation and decent, harmonious relations between people, even if bought at the price of one side or another foregoing some of their rights? Ideally, these two approaches, whether or not embodied in the two sexes, are not opposed, but complement one another. There is need for the rigor of the law, as a standard by which to judge; and there is need for the softer, more “feminine” virtues of compromise, of making peace between people, of “forgiving” one another. “Kindness and truth met; justice and peace kissed” (Ps 85:11; see also what I wrote about Din and Rahamim, HY X: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur).

We conclude with another, rather different interpretation that, among others, quotes this same verse:

There are three signs in this nation: they are compassionate, bashful, and perform acts of kindness. Compassionate—as is written, “And he shall give you mercy and multiply you” (Deut 13:18). Bashful—as is written, “that His fear may be upon your face” (Exod 20:17). Performing acts of kindness—as is written, “that he might command his sons and his house after him” (Gen 18:17). Whoever has these three signs is deserving to cleave to this nation. — Yevamot 79a

Here we don'thave the dialectic between truth and peace, between abstract principles of equity and human sympathy; all three of these qualities, seen as “signs” that somehow express the essence of the Jewish people, are among the “softer,” more “feminine” virtues. Due to lack of time, I cannot elaborate upon the biblical prooftexts invoked, some of which seem rather cryptic. I will conclude by noting the concluding sentence, which seems to suggest that the ultimate criterion for Jewishness (are they speaking here of prerequisites for conversion? for political alliances in ancient times?) is not biological, nor halakhic, nor even based upon acceptance of basic principles of faith. Rather, it is based upon the humane qualities of compassion, kindness ,and “bashfulness”—a certain humility and lack of brazenness. What our ancestors would have called basic “menshlichkeit.” And, as Hillel might have said, “The rest is commentary; go and learn.”

SUPPLEMENT: Reflections on Shlomo

Two weeks ago—Tuesday, 16 Heshvan—marked fifteen years since the death of Shlomo Carlebach. As long-time readers of Hitzei Yehonatan know, every year at this time I try yet again to understand and to shed new light on this often enigmatic, and paradoxical, but also inspiring figure, who has touched so many lives.

1. Shlomo and the Rav. Perhaps ironically, on the night of Shlomo’s yahrzeit I participated in a class taught by my friend Steve Copeland on the subject of “religion without illusion,” in which our text for the evening was Rav Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith. It is difficult to imagine two Jewish teachers and thinkers more different from one another than Shlomo and the Rav—the one highly cerebral, introverted, even shy, highly sober and serious in demeanor, the heir to a great Lithuanian, Mitnaggedic tradition; the other effervescent, constantly surrounded by people, radiating joy and happiness (at least to a superficial eye; if one looked more deeply, there was an underlying sadness and loneliness in Shlomo, a quality that came out especially in his hauntingly beautiful, soulful singing voice), deeply emotional in his teaching, and (by choice, not by birth) steeped in Polish Hasidism.

In the above-mentioned essay the Rav speaks, among other things, of the irresolvable tensions, paradoxes and anomalies that beset human existence. We also discussed a lengthy footnote in Halakhic Man in which the Rav speaks in scathingly critical terms of those who see the purpose of religion as “peace of mind” (a popular idea in the early post-war years; the phrase was the title of a best-selling 1946 book by Rabbi Joshua L. Liebman; a similar mood was also expressed in Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking from the same period), seeing religion as constantly challenging man, filling his life with disquiet, challenging him to improve himself and the world.

Shlomo, by contrast, painted a vision of a perfect world of peace, harmony, and love, in which miracles and Divine intervention are almost routine occurrences: the world of the “Great Shabbos,” of people davening and singing and celebrating Shabbat as if there were no limits. I remember, as a young man, coming home from an evening of Shlomo’s teaching, story-telling and singing at Boston University Hillel, feeling as if I were riding upon ananei kavod, the clouds of Divine Glory. The next morning I would wake up and say to myself: what, in essence, did he say? I found in him something of a Jewish Pied Piper of Hamlin, who enchanted all, old and young, with his charisma and his beatific vision.

Shlomo carefully avoided the harsher, stricter aspects of the halakhah, the gezerot and takkanot of Hazal; nor did he speak much about the idea of responsibility, a motif underlying the halakhah—an idea whose absence was one of the major failings of the Hippie culture in which he found a home of sorts. Neither did he speak of the battle with and reality of the Yetzer Hara—the human propensity towards wrong-doing, to surrender to the temptations of self-centered, basic instinctual drives, and to rationalize whatever behavior the self desires. (On a week when the Israeli public, on two consecutive days, awoke to read banner headlines about Jewish criminals—first of a right-wing terrorist who hated and killed, or tried to kill, just about everybody: Arabs, leftists, homos, and Christian missionaries; then, of a Russian waiter who stabbed to death a family of six in cold blood, including two small children, in revenge for being fired from his job—I found it difficult to be overly sanguine about human nature. Such events make one keenly aware of the power of the chaotic, irrational side of the human being.)

Shlomo basically spoke to the heart, not to the mind. He evidently felt that emphasizing the Messianic vision, the picture of the ideal world we wish to build, and the positive points in every person, was the high road to holiness. He was concerned, not with teaching the absolute truth of Torah, with the rigorous details of halakhah, but with healing souls, by doing whatever he could to sow love and compassion, to compensate for the vast amounts of hatred and violence in our world.

In the end, “these and these are the words of the living God.” The Rav’s path was for an elite of sorts, a path based upon both intellectual acumen and personal discipline, that not everybody can achieve. Shlomo’s way was one deliberately crafted to speak to all Jews—nay, to all human beings—to reach out and try to return the lost sheep of the Jewish people, wherever they might be (he and Zalman Schachter were in at the very beginning of the Jewish outreach movement, as the very first Lubavitch emissaries to college campuses way back in 1949 or 1950). To paraphrase the Talmud in Berakhot 35b: “Many tried the way of Rav Soloveitchik, and not all succeeded; many tried the way of Shlomo, and did succeed.”

2. Prayer. The theme of the this year’s memorial evening at Yakar was prayer: Shlomo’s relation to prayer, the emergence of Nusah Carlebach, etc. Shlomo taught prayer as something infinite, without limits, an act which demanded and engaged all the powers of a person’s heart, mind and soul. Unlike prayer in many modern synagogues, which may be “knocked off” quickly, he would tell stories of Rebbes of old, who would pray for hours—and whose preparation for prayer, waiting for an ‘et ratzon, a propitious time, for the proper state of mind, to begin praying, might also take hours, well past the “official” time or prayer. But then, he told, prayer, more than anything else, might break through the often-locked gates of Heaven. And indeed, prayer among his followers might well last for many intense hours.

For our generation, Shlomo has provided a path into prayer, more than anything else, through his soulful melodies. Nusah Carlebach, a certain group of Shlomo’s melodies organized into a fixed liturgy, particularly for Kabbalat Shabbat, has “conquered” shuls throughout the world. But it seems to me that Shlomo eschewed any and all “gimmicks” to make prayer “easier” or more popular, whether the guitar service of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the creative prayer and original readings favored by many in Reform, the use of Kabbalistic kavvanot by rank novices, or singing in unison—including “Nusah Carlebach.” For him, the bottom line remained “praying with the bench and the floor”—meaning: the person simply sitting down to worship God, with an open soul and an open heart.

Shlomo was an original, unique spirit, but he was also a living repository, a conduit of Hasidic tradition. He taught, not only his own hiddushim, his innovative interpretations based on an often free reading of the holy books of R. Nahman of Bratslav, R. Mordechai Izbitz, R. Zaddok Hakohen, and others—but also attempted to convey the tradition of Hasidism in as whole a fashion as possible. He had encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of Hasidic tradition (all this in addition to his great knowledge of Talmud and poskim, the bread and butter of Jewish learning, acquired in his long years in yeshivah before beginning his career as an “entertainer”): the teachings of the numerous rebbeim, as recorded in their printed works; the stories and oral lore; the music of the various courts; the minhagim, the customs and practices of each group; and the complex history, the convoluted ins and outs of the various dynasties and chains of family and discipleship. Thus, when he talked about prayer, he tried to convey the role tefillah played in the lives of the Rebbes and their communities.

Moreover, Shlomo understood that this tradition could not be conveyed to American-born youth in the old-worldly garb of the Yiddish language, the long coats and black hats and all the rest, but that it needed to be translated into a language that could reach the hearts and minds of those who had grown up in a very different world. At this, he was a genius.

In his own life, Shlomo had close connections with two very different schools of Hasidism. The one, the Habad school which originated in White Russia, emphasized the intellectual study of the complex system of Habad Hasidic thought, and deep meditation—and, during the past half-century or so, mixed with a missionary, messianic fervor. The other was the more expansive, emotional Polish-Galician school, with its more visible outward fervor and rich ceremonial around the Rebbe’s court. When he and his twin brother, Elyah Hayyim, first became interested in Hasidism, during their teenage years in New York City, they started at Lubavitch, and later sought out the other Rebbes who came to America during the immediate post-war years—Bobov, and to a lesser extent Vizhnitz, Ger, Modzitz, and others.

These two types of Hasidism taught radically different types of prayer. Habad stressed meditative prayer: the ideal was tefillah be-arikhut—lengthy, contemplative, mystical prayer. At times individuals who were adept at this might daven Shaharit well into the afternoon. Particular emphasis was placed on Shema: a true Habad hassid might spend half-an-hour reciting the first verse of Shema! The focus of all this was on God awareness, “Gottlichkeit”—meditation that took one out of the mundane world to an emphasis on the Godhead, to experiencing His infinity, the ubiquity of the Divine presence, and the illusory nature of the visible world. A Habad Hassid might pray with great inner intensity, but without revealing any external signs of ecstasy. Thus, the late Rebbe prayed relatively quickly, without moving, but radiating a sense of great inner power.

The other, Polish-Galician school, would emphasize praying for simple human needs. Shlomo was particularly fond of Bratslav, which taught the way of Hitbodedut, of talking with God in the vernacular, in one’s own words, about one’s concrete need and troubles: worries about health or livelihood, one’s children and family—whatever. Such prayer was much more emotional and expressive—at times ecstatic, at times wracked by human pain, filled with shouting, weeping, and “carrying on.” Shlomo, through his background, drank deeply of both worlds. But ultimately, as I’ve written previously, he chose the path of the heart over that of the mind—and, as one part of this choice, he chose the path of Polish Hasidism; and, even more so, a teaching focused on human beings, how they live their lives, their relationships and how they interact. And this may be seen in his hasidim, and also in how they regard prayer.

3. Was Shlomo a Rebbe? An interesting question. On the one hand, he was clearly not a Rebbe in terms of the traditional Hasidic model: he did not have a court or hold a tisch (ceremonial Shabbat table), accept kvitlakh (written requests for prayer, intercession, or for a personal interview), notr did he hold himself aloof and distant from his hasidim. In Hasidic theology, too, the Rebbe ias conceived as a tzinnor (“conduit”) or behinat tzaddik, an embodiment of the Kabbalistic Sefirah of yesod, bringing down the Divine shefa (“plentitude”) in some literal sense.

Shlomo was clearly none of that. He was totally informal; he insisted that people call him simply “Shlomo,” without any titles and not by his surname. One often felt that he felt most at home with the hippies; he did not see himself as a missionary who sought to teach them the truth of Torah—though he did that too. There was no real sense of distance; he was simply one of them, a kind of big brother, who happened to be a little older (by 20-odd years!) and more learned Jewishly than they—but essentially these were his people, his friends. He had broken with/been rejected by the Orthodox Torah world in which he had grown up, and was made to feel like a black sheep—a fact which, as I glimpsed on a few occasion, continued to pain him throughout his life.

On the other hand, he was a teacher—and a highly gifted one. He was revered and loved by his disciples as the one who brought them to Judaism, in a way that no one else could have done. An interesting aside: this was not only true of hippies. I remember an encounter late one night on the Midrehov in Jerusalem with a young man who was obviously part of the Lithuanian yeshivah world. We started to talk, and he said that it seemed that I was “one of Shlomo’s people” (the highest possible compliment!). Then he added, “Since Shlomo died the whole world is dark—העולם חשוך.” What he meant, as I understand it, is that the yeshivah world to which he belonged taught him laws and texts, but did not give him the emotional or spiritual sustenance that he desperately needed.

Shlomo’s task was to heal souls. Paradoxically, because he was far from being perfect, and certainly was not a model of Rabbinic piety as generally understood, he was able to identify with the suffering—emotional, spiritual, and concrete—of others. This, perhaps more than any other thing, was his greatness.


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