Saturday, March 28, 2009

Vayikra (Zohar)

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

The Sacrifices as a Feast of Agape

I will begin with what is perhaps a strange question: this Shabbat we begin reading the third of the five books of the Torah. That is, we are not yet even half- way through it: the midpoint of the Torah, whether counted in verses, words, or letters, is still before us; likewise, the midpoint of the liturgical year, Pesah, in some ways the “counterpoint” to Sukkot, is imminent, but not yet here. Yet today we begin the third of the three volumes of the standard edition of the Zohar (like the Talmud, the Zohar has a standard system of pagination, in its case based on the 1558 Mantua edition). My question is: why is the Zohar “top-heavy”? Perhaps because the first two books contain such central moments in the spiritual history of God, Israel and the cosmos, as the Creation, Sinai, the erection of the Mishkan, and the lives of the three patriarchs, who serve in the Zohar as veritable mythical archetypes—all of which serve as rich material for exegesis. But perhaps my own “friends and beloved companions” more versed in such matters will enlighten me.

Parshat Vayikra is the beginning of the exposition of the sacrificial offerings offered in the Sanctuary/Temple, a subject of great importance to the Zohar. I present here a brief passage from the opening of the parashah, in which the Zohar expounds a verse from Song of Songs in relation to this subject. Zohar III: 3b-4b:

“And He called unto Moses, and the Lord spoke to Him from out of the Tent of Meeting, saying” (Lev 1:1). R. Hiyya connected this with the verse, “I am come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk, [Eat, O friends, drink and be drunk, O beloved ones]” (Song 5:1). The former part of this verse does not accord with the latter, nor the latter with the former. It says, “I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk,” and thereafter, “Eat, O friends.” If a man invites another [to eat, he does so] while the food is spread before him. But after he himself has eaten, how can he invite others?

But happy are Israel, whom the blessed Holy One wished to purify, and befriend more than any other nation, and once He befriended them, wished to rid them of all the Accusers in the world. Come and see: On the day when the Tabernacle was erected below, on that same day another Tabernacle was erected above, as is written “the Sanctuary was set up” (Exod 40:17)—i.e., without specifying [where]. And that day was one of great joy to the blessed Holy One. But once the Tabernacle was erected, it is written that “Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting” (Exod 40:35) [“because the cloud rested upon it” i.e., it was filled with the overwhelming direct Divine Presence]. Once the blessed Holy One saw this, He said: How is it that the Tabernacle has been raised by the hand of Moses, yet he must remain alone [outside]? Straightaway, “He called to Moses” (Lev 1:1). He said to him: Moses, how does one dedicate a house? Not with a banquet! Therefore, “when any man of you offers an oblation unto the Lord” (Lev 1:2). Of this it is written, ”I am come into my garden, my sister, my bride.”

The Zohar sees here a striking paradox. On the one hand, God ordered the construction of the Sanctuary because He wished a place that would serve as a focal point for Hios friendship, intimacy, even love with Israel—“to dwell among them.” Yet His own holiness, the awesomeness of His presence, was so great that no man, not even Moses, “the man of God,” could enter the Tent of Meeting when He was there. The solution was to make the Sanctuary also a focus for a kind of love banquet (what I have called Agape feast, a phrase used in early apostolic Christianity, referring to a communal feast of all, rich and poor)—a meal in which God and the people are united in one fellowship (see esp. Exodus 24:11 re the feast following the covenantal ceremony at Sinai). And all this is seen alluded to in our verse from Song of Songs.

Another interpretation of [that same verse]: “I am come to my garden.” “Garden” is the supernal Garden of Eden. “My sister, my bride” is the Community of Israel [used here in the sense of Shekhinah / Malkhut], for on that day all unions were consummated, there being unions in that Garden of Eden, all being blessed from the water of the supernal stream, and each one being connected to his beloved one. Of this it is written, “I have gathered my myrrh with my spices, I have drunk my wine with my milk”—all drank and were satiated by that flowing stream. “Eat, O friends, drink and be drunk, O beloved ones”: all those that are below, and all the branches were blessed and nourished when those were blessed above. And with what were they all blessed and regaled? With the [sweet] odor of the sacrifice.

Come and see: When the Community of Israel came down to make her abode on earth, the blessed Holy One proclaimed this verse to her, for there was blessing and joy in all the worlds, and she too was firmly established as a source of blessing to all. For when those Six [grades; i.e., the six central sefirot, from Hesed to Yesod] are blessed, then all the worlds are blessed below as one, and are blessed above, and Israel draw blessing from all of them….

R. Eleazar said to him [R. Shimon]: We have seen that the term “beloved” [dodim] is the more precious of the two. Why then does it refer to those below? He answered: Those who yearn for one another, but are not always together, are called “beloved” (dodim), whereas those who are always together and never hidden or separated from one another are called “friends” (re’im). And for that reason these are called “beloved” and these are called “friends”: these, with the friendship of inseparable unity, these with their yearning, make up a complete whole, for the blessing of the Community of Israel and the joy of all the worlds.

At first blush, one might say, quite simply, as we might be prone to use these words, that “beloved” refers to the erotic tension and yearning of the love between man and woman, while “friends” is the steadfast, fellowship of same-sex friendship. Indeed, in Song of Songs, the great poem of love and Eros, with striking scenes of parting, distance, yearning and reuniting (see. esp. Songs 3:1-6; 5:2-6:2), the word dodim is used almost exclusively. Ye the sixth of the Seven blessings recited at every Jewish wedding refers to the newlywed couple, modeled after the original couple in Eden, as רעים האהובים, “loving friends,” or perhaps “friends and lovers” (see Baer, Siddur Avodat Yisrael, p. 564, for variant readings and their meanings).

The Zohar is primarily concerned with the vacilitating rhythm of Divine-human relations, with its “arousal from below” and “arousal from above,” as described in numerous Zohar passages—but it may also be read as a portrait of human love, whose wholeness somehow requires both—distance and longing, and togetherness and fulfillment—to be complete. Whose heart does not thrill by the charm and magic of tales of clandestine lovers who meet secretly—like the lovers in Shir ha-Shirim; and who does not rejoice at a wedding, the public celebration of two people’s love, or take pleasure in seeing or living the quiet joy of happy domesticity?

R. Hizkiyah applied that verse to the sacrifices, because they are the banquet that is brought before the King, and the Accusers [negative, demonic forces?] also partake of it and are satisfied, so that joy is diffused everywhere. R. Ahha applied this verse to the time when the Shekhinah entered the Tabernacle, blessing and joy being then universally diffused, and the Shekhinah ascended like a bride entering the marriage canopy. And then Israel is perfected below and joined to the blessed Holy One on earth; of this it is written, “and they shall make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them” (Ex 25:8), and thus those above and below are regaled.

Postscripts: Zohar Vayakhel

A few further thoughts on last week’s discussion of Berikh Shmeiah. First, in wake of my postscript about Kegavna and my anecdote about the Brisker minyan where they refrain from reciting Kabbalat Shabbat, a friend asked me whether the Briskers recite Berikh shemeih. And indeed, I once heard Rav Soloveitchik mention something about this in passing: that his grandfather, Rav Hayyim of Brisk, refused to recite this prayer because of the phrase therein, “before Whom and before whose glorious Torah I bow at all times.” Rav Hayyim said that the Torah, sublime as it is, is ultimately a nivra, a created entity, and not something comparable to the Creator. Hence, this phrase borders on heresy, in equating the Creator and any element in the created world. The Rav concluded that he himself did say Berikh Shemei, but omitted the offending phrase.

All this is of course a far cry from the Zohar and Kabbalistic tradition, for whom “He who touches the Torah is as if he touches Himself.” Moreover, in many aggadic and midrashic texts as well, one finds the noption than one may attach oneself to God —who as such is a “consuming fire” and too dangerous to approach—through attachment to and study of Torah, or even through attachment to talmidei hakhamim. In Kabbalah, the Torah seems to be conceived almost as an apotheosis of God, a kind of tangible presence of God in world, and a necessary intermediary between corporeal man and the ineffable, transcendent God.

In this context, the act of public Torah reading assumes a mystical meaning: note in particular the sentence immediately preceding Berikh Shemei in the Zohar text—“When the Book of the Law is taken out to be read before the congregation, the mercy-gates of Heaven are opened, and the attribute of Love is stirred up above”—in which the moment of opening the ark is described as a moment of special Divine grace. One more thought: in a section that I did not bring last week, but summarized, the Torah scroll is seen as embodying the Written Torah (=Hokhmah), which is almost too sublime for this world, while the Oral Torah is described as including, not only the rabbinic tradition of Torah exegesis, but the vowel sounds and cantillation (=Binah). As one who regularly reads the Torah in public, I realized that this is an exact description of my own task: the Torah reader approaches a scroll, which has nothing but letters and words; his task is to supply from his own head the vocalization and cantillation notes that makes the reading coherent, as articulated words and syntactically complete sentences. In other words, he gives over to the public what he sees before him, plus what he has learned through studying codexes (i.e., printed books) containing the Masoretic tradition: that is, he pulls together and united the Written and Oral Torah.

VAYKHEL, General

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe used to say that the title of each parasha is indicative of a central theme that runs through the whole. Vayakhel, “And he [Moses} gathered…” introduces things said in a “gathering” of all Israel. It is one of the few places in the Torah where this root is used, whether as a verb, or in the noun kahal used in reference to the Isrealite people. It also appears in Kedoshim (Lev 19), a chapter upon which “many basic rules of the Torah are taught”; and in Exodus 12, the chapter read this same Shabbat as Parshat Hahodesh, commanding the first paschal sacrifice, a formative rite of the Jewish collective.

Here, the verb is used to introduce two brief verses about the observance of Shabbat, followed by a detailed account of the making and assembling of the Mishkan. The latter, described here in great detail, is of course the major religious project of the entire whole people; but what of the Shabbat? The Shabbat is not only a private day of rest for each individual and each family, but is also a social institution, shaping the rhythm and public life of the Jewish community. Of all the Ten Commandments, the Shabbat is arguably almost the only one that is not primarily individual.

Addenda: Art Green—A Birthday Tribute

Two small addenda to the supplement sent out earlier this week. First: the title of Greens forthcoming book based on the Rosenzweig Lectures, is Radical Judaism: Hasidism for a New Era (Yale University Press; projected for the end of 2009), and not as listed in the bibliography, based upon an earlier title.

Second: in discussing the various categories of Art’s writing, I neglected to mention that he has written extensively on a wide gamut of issues, whether relating to the American Jewish community, to general American political and social questions, or to the State of Israel. By this, he exemplifies the tradition of the engaged intellectual, who does not retreat into an ivory tower but is passionately concerned with the life of the world around him. These writings really constitute a fourth category, and have appeared in such forums as The Reconstructionist, Tikkun Magazine, the Philadelphia Jewish Observer, Conservative Judaism, and many others. Because they are both more numerous and also far shorter than his scholarly and theological writings, it is difficult to list in a bibliography (perhaps the Festschrift now being planned for his 70th birthday will include a comprehensive bibliography).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Vayakhle-Pekudei (Zohar)

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

“Blessed is the Name of the Master of the Universe”

A few weeks ago we discussed Kegavna, a Zohar passage familiar to worshippers in shteibels or synagogues that follow the Hasidic prayer rite. This week’s Zohar contains a prayer found in almost every traditional Siddur and thus familiar to almost all synagogue goers: Brikh shmeih de-marei alma, “Blessed is the name of the Master of the Universe,” recited when the Ark is opened for the Torah reading.

The context is interesting. Elaborating an early verse in the parasha referring to the Sanctuary—“Take from among you an offering to the Lord” (Exod 35:5)—the Zohar enters into a length discussion of prayer (today’s form of “offering to the Lord”), both of weekdays and Shabbat, interpreting various elements of the prayer liturgy, including the three prayers of the Shabbat day, the three meals, the Torah reading, the special meaning of Shabbat afternoon, etc. Due to restrictions of time (there is also a lengthy Supplement to follow), I cannot present these passages with any depth, but will mention one or two ideas and images that particularly struck me. On II: 205b, the Zohar singles out Nishmat kol Hay, described as the “Hymn of the Souls” (תושבחתא דנשמתא), and then refers to El Adon as “the Hymn of the World to Come” (תושבחתא דעלמא דאתי). This appellation relates to the contrast between it and its weekday counterpart, El barukh gadol de’ah, which is likewise an alphabetical acrostic (both these prayers are very ancient, hearkening back to those Byzantine paytanim influenced by the sensibility of the Merkabah school). But whereas the latter , having one word for each letter of the alphabet, is known as “the praise of the small letters, “ El Adon, which has one strophe for each letter, is the prayer of אתוון עלאין קדישין, the “supernal holy letters.” The letters of the Hebrew language are central mystical symbols in their own right which, God willing, we will discuss in detail another time.

The passage continues by focusing on two high points of the Shabbat prayers: the Kedushah recited at Musaf (which begins with the word Keter: “Crown”), the “praise of all Israel… that reaches to the holy throne… the praise that raises up all praises”; and the Amidah of Shaharit. This prayer begins with the same blessing as on weekdays, the blessing of Abraham (“the essence of the patriarchs”; עקרא דאבהן), but then turns to the phrase Yismah Moshe, “Moses rejoiced”—i.e., in the Torah—and enters into a discourse on the unity of the Written Torah, which is very high and sublime, and hence is written without verse divisions, vowel marks, or cantillation, and the Oral Torah (=Binah, the supernal feminine), as yet another of the supernal unifications that occurs on Shabbat.

The Zohar then turns to the public reading of the Torah, its laws and its significance. Zohar II: 206a:

In [reading] the Torah scroll, there must be only one voice and one speech, whether reading the Order [i.e., parasha] to the holy people on this day, and on other days. A throne is prepared, called the Teivah [reading-desk], to which one ascends by six steps, no more, as in the verse, “and there were six steps to the throne” (2 Chr 9:18: referring to the royal throne in Solomon’s palace), with one step [i.e., the horizontal dias] above on which the Scroll of the Law may rest, and where it may be seen by the whole congregation. As soon as the Book of the Law is placed thereon, all the people below must assume a posture of awe and fear, of trembling and quaking, and turn their hearts as though they were at that moment standing beneath Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. They should be attentive and bend their ears; one is not permitted to open one’s mouth, even [to say] words of Torah, and all the more so other matters—but all must be in awe and fear, as if they had no mouth. As we infer from the verse, “And when he opened it, all the people stood up” (Neh 8:5), and “the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (ibid, v. 3: these verses describe Ezra’s public reading of the Torah to the returning exiles, an event that serves as a paradigm for public reading of the Torah).

First, regarding the rule that only one person should read. The Zohar reiterates these ideas immediately after the text of the prayer that is to be recited on this occasion: “One should hear naught but one single voice and not two voices, for the holy tongue stands alone… and if two were to read simultaneously in the Scroll of the Law, it would be a lessening of the secret of Faith and of the honor of the Torah…. “

The Torah reading itself is conceived as a kind of reliving or re-experiencing of the Sinai epiphany. The six steps leading to the Bimah (rarely seen in recently built synagogues, even in those with a raised central Bimah) make it comparable to a royal throne, while the Torah, both as an abstraction and in its physical embodiment in the scroll, are a kind of apotheosis of the Divine King Himself. The six steps also represent the six central sefirot, while the dias on which the scroll itself rests corresponds to Malkhut—seven in all. (An aside: While writing these words, I wondered whether the image here is of a Torah read vertically, like those Sephardic Torah scrolls housed in round containers, or horizontally, dressed in garments removed during the reading, as customary among the Ashkenazim.) The seven steps, like the seven aliyot of Shabbat, are a number of wholeness, completeness, representing the seven lower sefirot.

In contrast to the Zoharic view of Torah reading as replicating Sinai, even to the detail of the raised Bimah being the mountain and the people standing below, Rav Soloveitchik (in one of the chapters in Shiurim le-zeker Abba Mori z”l), entertains two divergent interpretations of the Torah reading: the Sinai paradigm, and the study paradigm, in which it serves the more pragmatic, educational-instructional function, of insuring that the people hear the contents of the Torah regularly.

Interestingly, standing during Torah reading is not explicitly mandated here, although it is perhaps implied. It is a widespread practice today, primarily in Lithuanian yeshiva circles, based on the custom of R. Meir of Rothenberg, repeating the posture of the people at Sinai. Hasidim and Sephardim sit during the reading. Can one sit with fear and trembling? An interesting question.

We now come to Berikh Shmeih itself, one of the few or even the only place in the Zohar in which R. Shimon specifically instructs the people to recite a specific prayer in a specific setting. The prayer itself is not especially Kabbalistic, but seems to me that it could be the prayer of any pious, believing Jew:

R Shimon said: When the Book of the Law is taken out to be read before the congregation, the mercy-gates of Heaven are opened, and the attribute of Love is stirred up above, and every person should recite the following:

Blessed is the name of the Master of the Universe; blessed is Your crown and place. May Your favor accompany Your people Israel forever, and the redemption of Your right hand may manifested to Your people in Your Sanctuary, so that we may enjoy Your goodly light, and You accept our prayers with mercy. May it be Your will to prolong our life in goodness, and that I, Your servant, may be counted among the righteous: that You may have mercy upon me and guard me and all that is mine, and all of Your people Israel. You are He that nourishes all and sustains all, You are ruler of all, You are ruler over kings, and the kingdom is Yours.

I am the servant of the Holy One blessed be He, before Whom I bow and before His glorious Torah at all times. I put not my trust in man, nor do I rely upon angels, but upon the God of heaven, who is the God of truth, and whose Torah is truth, and whose prophets are true prophets, and Who does much goodness and truth. In Him do I put my trust and to His holy and glorious name do I sing all praises. May it be Your will to open my heart to Your Torah, [and to grant me male children who shall do Your will: this phrase is omitted in many Siddurim], and may You grant the desires of my heart, and of the heart of all of Your people Israel, for good, for life, and for peace. Amen.

—based on Soncino Zohar, IV:198-200, with extensive revisions

Vayakhele-Pekudei (Supplement) Art Green - A Birthday Tribute

This essay, originally planned as a 65th birthday tribute to my dear friend and teacher, Arthur Green, is offered after a delay of three years. Art was born sixty-eight years ago, on March 21 1941 (Adar 20 5701). His birthday thus falls during the week preceding Shabbat Vayakhel-Pekudei, and shortly after Purim. He is very much a man of prayer, a subject to which this week’s Zohar portion is largely devoted, as well as being a “Purimdik” Jew—one of whose outstanding qualities is the ability to laugh at himself and the world, with an appreciation of his, and its, absurdities. Notwithstanding, his lightness of touch does not detract from the seriousness and depth of his thought and religious consciousness.

This essay begins with the personal, and only thereafter do we discuss the professional and intellectual aspects. Ultimately, as I have tried to convey in essays about other important .significant teachers and mentors in my life, the way in which a life is lived is far more important than the ideas expressed in writing. The latter are deemed more important by the scholar and biographer simply because they can be documented and footnoted. But the former reflects the person and his spiritual creative insights, and precedes the analysis of written manifestos or writings.

1. The Man

I first met Art Green during my junior year at Columbia College, in the fall of 1966-67. A friend of mine studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary, just up the street, told me of a rabbinical student who gave a class in Hasidism several times a week, early in the morning, before Shaharit. The idea somehow intrigued me, so I went. I’m not sure what I expected to see, but the class was given by a tall, clean shaven, burly, massive young man just a few years older than myself, who spoke with a mid-American accent (‘though, as I was later to learn, he had been born and grew up only a short distance across the Hudson, in the less fashionable, urban part of New Jersey). The overall impression given was more like that of a football player than of a future rabbi (or my image of what a rabbi was supposed to look like). He passed out some mimeographed pages with a brief text from Torah Or—a book by the first Habad rebbe, a companion volume to Likkutei Torah. The text discussed the question as to why the phrase Ahavat Olam, rather than Ahavah Rabbah, is used [i.e., among Hasidim] in both the morning prayers as well in the evening. It explained that the phrase Ahavat Olam (“eternal love,” which may also be read as “earthly love”) implied a love that could be contained in this world, whereas Ahavah Rabbah, “great love,” implied a love that was excessive, that was more powerful than the “vessels” human beings had, than what they could bear.

I was deeply impressed. I had never before heard this type of religious language, which spoke openly about religious emotion per se, about God’s love of us and man’s reciprocal love for Him, about different kinds of love—as well as the insight that even love could be excessive, could be too much. The Jews I knew, whether Conservative or modern Orthodox rabbis, or even Hasidim, usually talked about halakhah, about Israel, about the Jewish people, about Talmud, but hardly ever spoke about God, and what it meant to love, and be loved, by Him.

In retrospect, this first meeting seems emblematic of Art’s concerns: with the religious experience per se, with the innerness of life lived with God, but not in a spacey or flakey way, as these words too often sound today, but utterly grounded.

Fast forward 35 years. Arthur Green is a prominent figure on the Jewish scene, a distinguished professor and author, who has been invited to give a talk at Yakar about what is meant by Jewish spirituality today; about the dilemma of the modern man who seeks a spiritual path and life, but is not prepared to jettison everything he has learned in the secular world; and about why Hasidic texts are important to him in this quest. One of the listeners, a tall man wearing a cloth hat and an Abe Lincoln style beard, whom I knew casually as an Orthodox Jew steeped in the thought of Rav Soloveitchik, seemed puzzled. Following the lecture he asked a question: if the speaker didn’t believe in the literal revelation of the Torah and the obligation to fulfill the mitzvot, then did he believe in God, and in what sense? And why did he bother with all this Jewish religious stuff? Art answered, with utter simplicity: leit atar panuy mineh, “There is no place empty of Him.” There was a rare feeling that an answer had been given, not from the position of the scholar or from that of standard Rabbinic apologetics, but from a place of utterly simple religious faith.

Returning to the late 1960’s: I next met Art Green in the Boston area—in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass.—during the early years of the Havurat Shalom, an institution initially called a “community seminary,” but in essence a new kind of learning-worshipping community; Art was instrumental in its founding. (This and other early havurot were later to become the model for a new type of informal, intimate, egalitarian, non-hierarchical alternative to the “establishment” suburban synagogue.) I had initially gone to the Boston area for graduate studies at Brandeis, and found myself spending my shabbatot oscillating between staying with families in the very traditional Hasidic community of the Bostoner Rebbe, and staying at home in Cambridge and davening at the Havurah. Some vignettes from those years: Shabbat morning: Twenty or thirty young people are sitting cross-legged, barefoot or in stocking feet, on a carpeted floor in an old house in Somerville. After Shaharit, which was filled with much singing and meditation, the Torah is taken out, placed on a low table in the middle of the room, and sections of the parshat ha-shavua are read. After the reading and its translation into English, there follows what came to be known as a “Quaker-meeting” style Torah reading. The leader—often Art, but it might be any of the members of the group—raised a problem or question relating to what had just been read; read a commentary, traditional or modern, or a relevant passage from contemporary thought or literature; or might propose his own radical interpretation. The discussion then opens up to other participants. The tone is earnest, engaged: how do we feel about this? Is this a part of the tradition that we can accept, or do we find it problematic? How do we, as Jews living today, deal with this—morally, intellectually, emotionally? The questions and comments were challenging, but somehow reverent, coming from a love of and commitment to the tradition, coupled with an insistence on intellectual and ethical integrity, rather than simply saying, “This is the tradition and we must accept it thus.”

Seudah Shlishit at the Havurah. Late Shabbat afternoon, people are sitting around the table in semi-darkness, eating a light meal, singing a quiet, meditative melody. It is Parshat Bo, and Art is speaking about the verse “Come to Pharaoh.” He talks in a personal way about his own struggles with the tradition: that at times he sees it as somehow squashing and limiting him, while an inner voice that seems more religiously authentic says “Liberate”—to forge ahead on new, experimental, non-traditional paths. The voice of the tradition, with its constraints and rules and limitations, is compared to Pharaoh or Mitzrayim—“the narrowed one.” Nevertheless, he concludes, we learn from this parasha that the seemingly timid, conservative voice, which many would reject, also comes from God: it is the voice of the Torah saying “Come unto Pharaoh.” That is, one must live in a constant dialectic beyond “liberation” and “tradition”—and not choose the seemingly more liberating path of throwing off all fetters. And all this, in an inverted, paradoxical way, he finds in a teaching of the Degel Mahaneh Efraim.

It is Rosh Hashanah 1969—the second year of the Havurah, the first year in their own building in Somerville. That year, Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, meaning that, according to a tradition going back to the Mishnah, one does not blow shofar. Art stands up and gives a little sermon, which goes something like this: At one time, the Temple was the center of Judaism; thus, the one place that was an exception to the rule prohibiting blowing the Shofar on Shabbat was the Temple precincts. After the Destruction, the leading rabbis, led by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, decided to blow the shofar in Yavneh, at the Beit ha-Vaad, as if to say: the center of vital religious life has shifted from the Temple with its offerings, to the center of the Oral Torah, where the Sages sit and deliberate. (R. Yitzhak Alfasi made a similar move when he blew shofar in the Diaspora, in his yeshiva at Kairouan.) Today, the center is within each person’s soul; “wherever they gather to call upon My name, the Presence can dwell.” And so, today, here, in Somerville, Massachusetts, we have decided to blow shofar here, in this community of sincere, intense seekers of the voice. Tekiah!

Recalling this incident to him years later, Art seemed a bit embarrassed at the rashness of his youth. Today, he has far greater respect and derekh-eretz for the time-honored tradition. Nevertheless, the story is a significant one, reflecting an important part of the mood of those days.

Going to Art and Kathy’s home for Shabbat lunch, beginning with his off-tune but for-all-that moving and spiritual Kiddush. There is lots of good food, good conversation—but always, at some point, as the focal point of the meal, learning Hasidut at the table. Reading and trying to understand the text—Rav Nahman of Bratslav, R. Nahum of Chernobol’s Meor Einayim, Amud ha-Tefillah from Sefer Baal Shem Tov are among the favorites—but thereafter asking the existential question: how do we connect to this? Other times, I would go to his house early in the morning on Shabbat, to study in preparation for prayer. I’d seen “real” Hasidim learning before davening—Habadniks in Crown Heights—but this was somehow different.

2. His Work and Thought

Art Green received his rabbinical training at JTS, where he was particularly close to Abraham Joshua Heschel; thereafter, he studied at Brandeis University, under the aegis of Alexander Altmann, where he wrote his dissertation on R. Nahman of Bratslav. It was during the latter period that he was active, in many ways the guiding figure, of Havurat Shalom. From the early 1970’s he lived in Philadelphia, where he taught in the Religion Department of the University of Pennsylvania, and then served successively as Dean and President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary; as such, he in a certain sense filled the position played by Mordecai Kaplan. Arguably, two central works of these men—Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization and Green’s Seek My Face, Speak My Name—dramatically indicate the profound change in religious mood between the two halves of the twentieth century: the turn from the formal and communal to the intensely personal; from the rational, empiricist, and scientific to the subjective and intuitive. In 1993, Green returned to the Boston area to teach at Brandeis University and, more recently, in 2003, he left Brandeis to found a new kind of Rabbinical Seminary, outside the usual denominational framework, at Hebrew College in Boston, of which he served as Dean and then Rector.

In his writing, Art Green combines the role of objective academic scholar with that of religious teacher, for whom religious concerns are of profound personal importance, both to himself and to what he sees as the needs and concerns of the generation. In this, he differs greatly from most of his colleagues in academia. He thus has both students and talmidim—although the two often overlap. Hence, his written work falls into several diverse categories: (i) Academic Studies: e.g., his biography of Rav Nahman; studies of archetypal religious symbols and concepts, primarily in Kabbalah and Hasidism, such as the axis mundi, Keter, Shekhinah, etc.; (ii) Readers and Introductory Works—collections and introductory volumes addressed to the intelligent adult, particularly the religious seeker, who does not have specialized Judaic knowledge. These include three readers of Hasidic texts, taken from the teachings of R. Nahum of Chernobol, of the Sefat Emet, and from the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings on prayer, each of which includes an introduction, translation of texts, and notes, as well as an introduction to the Zohar, a “dictionary” of Jewish words, and more. (iii) Personal Religious Writings: He has written three books and several shorter essays in which he attempts to formulate his own religious world-view, inter alia with the hope that his own struggles and (provisional and tentative) answers to the question of how to live in the modern world as a serious religious Jew, with intellectual integrity and honesty, may be of value to others. These include: Seek My Face, Speak My Name; Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow; and a forthcoming book, his most thorough, systematic theology to date, based on the Rosenzweig Lectures that he delivered at Yale University in Autumn 2006.

Needless to say, the boundaries between these categories are not airtight: there is much of the personal even in his “scholarly” writings, just as his popular writings reflect his vast erudition. A short bibliography of his books and several of his more important essays and studies appears at the end of this tribute. One might begin to talk about Art Green’s religious concerns and thoughts in terms of the people he has chosen to write about. Thus, his first book, Tormented Master (an expansion of his doctoral dissertation), an attempt to understand the complex and angst-ridden personality of R. Nahman of Bratslav, reflects at least in part his own keen awareness of the complexities and difficulties of religious faith. His interest in R. Nahum of Chernobol, about whom he composed a reader for Paulist Press, expresses his affinity towards what he calls “non-dualistic mysticism”—a mysticism which somehow avoids the psychological pitfalls of dualism of body and soul. His essay “Three Warsaw Mystics” relates to the issues posed by modernity and the quest for an approach that integrates religious depth with intellectual honesty and a modern sensibility, through three emblematic figures: the late 19th-century Hasidic teacher R. Yisrael Alter of Ger; Hillel Zeitlin, who may be viewed as a kind of precursor of the Havurah model with his attempts to create an intimate religious circle whose members would foster one another’s spiritual growth; and Art’s own mentor, A. J. Heschel. All three of these figures, like Art himself, might be described as modern persons who were unable to be naive believers, yet sought to live a rich, authentic Yiddishkeit, even lives of holiness, within the modern context. It is worth mentioning that the Sefat Emet, to whom Green devoted an entire volume, and is usually seen as a more traditional figure (and who has of late enjoyed an impressive revival among Israeli religious circles, perhaps more so than any other Hasidic teacher), is also perceived by him as a radical figure. He is found of quoting Heschel’s words: “Radical theology in Judaism begins with Sefat Emet and R. Zaddok of Lublin.”

As noted earlier, Green’s books on personal theology make a fascinating contrast with Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, and may be taken as emblematic of the weather-change in Jewish thought between the two halves of the twentieth century. Yet, in a peculiar way, he may also be read as a continuation of Kaplan. There is a similar struggle, born of the modern zeitgeist, with the idea of the super-naturalism; but whereas Kaplan rejected the supernatural, almost dogmatically, Green attempts to see the natural as supernatural. Quoting Heschel, he emphasizes that “there is no religion without a sense of the miraculous.” In a certain sense, one might say that the naturalistic, this-worldly conceptions of the founder of Reconstructionism—a movement with which Green was significantly involved for well over a decade—are transformed through his mystical lens, the sociological categories of Kaplan being replaced by the passionately religious language of “neo-Hasidism”—an approach as remote from Kaplan’s Deweyian-Durkheimian purview as can be imagined.

It seems to me that there is also an interesting proximity between Green’s thought and that of the French Jesuit philosopher, paleontologist and geologist, Teilhard de Chardin, who developed a philosophy of the cosmos and of creation which integrated the views of modern science. Teilhard spoke, in largely naturalist terms, of the universe as being guided by a teleology, moving its evolution in a purposeful way towards every higher forms of being and of consciousness, what he calls an “Omega point.” In his more recent writing, and particularly in his newest book, Green speaks a great deal about evolution, describing the universe as an enormously complex, evolving organism, which in its totality is itself God: a classical panentheistic position (but not pantheistic, to cite a distinction often used with regard to Rav Kook), in which the whole is somehow more than the sum of its parts. I’m not sure I can follow him to that place nor, indeed, am I certain that I fully understand him.

His first book-length theology, Seek My Face, Speak My Name, may be read as an attempt to translate religious language into an idiom comprehensible to contemporary man. Green’s approach seems rooted in the insight that the alienation of many modern people from religion stems from a confusion of the archaic and quasi-mythical language of religion with its contents. To put it in perhaps overly graphic language: they think of religionists as believing in God as “the old man in the sky with a long beard” of children’s Sunday school stories, and as such not even worthy of serious thought by modern educated adults. The entire first section of that book is devoted to breaking down this stereotype: he begins by re-sensitizing his readers to the core experience of religion—the sense of the ineffable in the universe in everyday life (Heschel’s “radical amazement”), the intuitive sense of Oneness—without using what is for them the alienating language of the tradition. He then turns to a serious discussion of the nature of religious language as such (an excellent discussion of the name of God as fluid and flowing as suggesting the ineffable nature of the Divine; change of imagery from the vertical to that of “innerness”), so that they may ultimately be able to hear the language of the tradition itself in a new way.

To make what at first blush might seem an outrageous statement: I would suggest that, in an important sense, Green stands foursquare within the Maimonidean tradition. Book One of the Guide for the Perplexed is essentially an elaboration of the classic Rabbinic dictum: Dibrah Torah bilshon b’nai adam—“The Torah speaks in the language of man.” It is in this light that Maimonides develops his reading of anthropomorphic and anthropopathic religious language as metaphor, and as such requiring reinterpretation, as well as his negative theology or concept of “negative attributes.” Green, by constantly hammering away at the distinction between imagery and the thing itself, does much the same thing within a modernist semiotic context. But, as a champion of the Kabbalistic rather than the philosophical approach, Green also revels in the luxuriant richness of the imagery of the Kabbalah. Already in a youthful essay (written, in the heady days of the ‘60s, in the context of the psychedelic drug movement), he suggested that the very richness of imagery of the Kabbalah, rather than conflicting with the pristine monotheism of Judaism, helps to free the religious imagination from any one rigid image of God, thereby serving to open the way toward the One.

On another level, Green might be placed within the context of contemporary radical theology, beginning with the Christian “Death of God“ school of the 1960’s. (It is no accident that Harvey Cox, author of The Secular City and one of the key figures of that movement, used to visit the Havurah periodically, especially on Purim [“Festival of Fools”], and seems to have found a common language with Art and others there.) One of the key concepts of that school was “demythologization”: a phrase used by Rudolf Bultmann and others to denote the need to go beyond the mythological and/or poetic language of religious imagery to the concrete theological meaning underlying behind it. (This, too, is a legitimate enterprise within Jewish tradition. ) But, unlike many of the Christian demythologists, who sometimes read as iconoclasts and “atheists in a dog collar,” Green moves beyond the rationalist “deconstruction” to rediscovering a new and imaginative religious language: “to reinvigorate the tradition with the richness of myth—so long as we know that it is myth!”

Another important point of comparison for his thought is that of Martin Buber. In broad terms, Art Green may be identified with the school of “Neo-Hasidism,” often associated with the name of Martin Buber; the model community he founded in the ‘60s, the first Havurah, drew much of its inspiration from the Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus in Frankfort am Main, in which Buber played a prominent role. Like Buber, he found a powerful model in Hasidic thought and community life but, unlike traditional Hasidism, both remained outside the orbit of Orthodox halakhah—although, in practice, Green lives a very traditional life. Moreover, while Green finds much inspiration in Buber’s writings, and is deeply interested in ethical and inter-personal issues, the theme of dialogue as such does not occupy the central role in his thought that it does for Buber.

A reviewer of Green’s book in the Israeli Orthodox-academic-oriented journal Akdamot noted a certain congruence between the writing of Green and that of Rav Soloveitchik, in the sense of the intensely personal style of the theology of both men; as I have noted here on various occasions, in his public lectures the Rav spoke at times in extraordinarily personal terms. But Green never seemed to find much of interest in either the Rav or in his thought. Though the two lived in the same city for a period of six years, I do not believe they ever spoke face to face. On several occasions, Art and other members of the Havurah went to hear the Rav’s Saturday night shiurim at Maimonides School, but they went home disappointed. (Albeit he once mentioned to me that he was much impressed by a talk in which the Rav addressed a circle of secular Yiddishists in Boston.) Even the Rav’s interest in Hasidism (he credited his sensitivity to religious experience to his childhood melamed in Khaslovich, a Habad Hasid) was “Litvish,” whereas Green’s orientation, both temperamentally and ideologically, leans far more towards Polish and Ukrainian Hasidism.

In his writing, teaching and conversation, Art Green has described himself as identifying most strongly with what he calls the radically non-dualistic stream within Jewish mysticism. One figure who comes readily to mind as an influence in this regard is R. Aaron of Starosselye, one of the close disciples of R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, who formulated an uncompromising unitive mysticism, ultimately rejected by the mainstream of Habad. But even more so, one of Green’s favorite thinkers is R. Nahum of Chernobol, a first-generation disciple of the Maggid of Mezhirech, author of Me’or Einayim and progenitor of over a dozen Ukrainian Hasidic dynasties (many of which, such as Talner and Harnistopol, are to this day known for their sanity and moderation, and rejection of the general “khnukhishness” of latter-day Galician Hasidism).

Art is fond of summing up the conflict or difference between Hasidism and its opponents by saying that, whereas to the latter the focus was upon halakhah, and the model one of obedience, even punctiliousness, about every detail thereof, in Hasidism the ultimate goal was always avodah—service of God with all one’s heart—with halakhah serving as the path, the means, but not the essence of what it’s all about per se. Perhaps it was this, more than anything else, that hindered Green from taking more than a passing interest in Rav Soloveitchik’s teaching.

A word about his relation to the Jewish community: although, as founder of the Havurah movement, he was a central figure in the “Jewish counter culture” of the 1960s and early ’70s, he is today very much involved in and sensitive to the problems of the mainstream Jewish community. Were I to compare Green to such figures as Zalman Schachter and Art Waskow, who together with him were perhaps the leading figures, teachers and thinkers, in the early decades of the Jewish counter-culture, he seems far more “mainstream,” less “New Age” than them. Thus, for example, in a series of columns he wrote in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent during the years he lived in that city, he writes about problems such as intermarriage, Jewish education, the importance of Hebrew, and other problems, in a way that exudes normality. The non-denominational Rabbinical Seminary, adjunct to the Boston Hebrew College, to which he has devoted most of his energies during the past five-odd years, is an attempt to create use a new educational and leadership model for the American Jewish community in a pluralistic age, in which the traditional denominations will be increasingly irrelevant. He once spoke of his educational philosophy as being based upon that of the Frankfurt Jüdisches Lehrhaus: “Expose people to the classical sources and your love of them, without imposing restrictions on either thought or behavior, and it will lead them to Jewishly and humanly positive lives.”

Also worthy of mention, in rounding out a picture of the man, is his connection to Hebrew. He speaks a beautiful Hebrew—putting to shame at least 50% of the American olim I know who have been living here for decades!—and loves the language. But he is well aware that, at this point in time, Hebraism as such will not become a major movement in American Jewry and that Hebrew is not likely to be a major avenue of discourse among American Jews, and acts and educates accordingly.

* * * * *

A few words about his approach to halakhah and religious praxis. Some years ago, when I first thought of writing about Art Green (originally, in the context of a review-essay of Seek Your Face, Speak Your Name for Tradition or another modern-Orthodox forum), I planned to include a section explaining my own interest in Art as an Orthodox Jew. I imagined that many of my fellows in the Orthodox world would wonder what I, as an Orthodox Jew, find so attractive and positive in the thought and personality of a thinker who is so clearly outside of the halakhic orbit of ”shelomei emunei Yisrael.” But upon rereading what I wrote then—both my apologetics for my interest in his thought and my polemic with certain points therein—I felt that there was something artificial, preachy, even self-righteous about the manner and tone. First, as always in life, one begins on the personal level: I simply like the man. He has great personal charm, an unassuming, frank warmth; even when we disagree, there is an honesty, depth and sincerity to his religious quest that makes it impossible to dismiss him as an “apikoris.” We have been friends for well over half a lifetime; the five-year difference between us is small enough to say that, in a sense, we have “grown-up-together”: we have known one another through the proverbial thick-and-thin.

But beyond that, in terms that go beyond my particular biography, there are a few points that nevertheless require clarification. Green loves tradition, is a deeply religious person, and lives a very traditional life style viz. Shabbat, prayer, etc.—but, in principle, does not see the halakhah, as a system, as binding upon himself in any formal legal or juristic sense. He prefers to speak about Judaism—certainly, of its “religious” or theocentric elements, of mitzvot bein adam lamakom—as a “symbol system,” which he finds deeply evocative and which brings him to the experience of the Presence, of the Holy, within the universe. (Interestingly, the Havurat Shalom and other new-style prayer groups in which Art has been involved were largely inspired by the warmth and intensity of Hasidic prayer—and the attempt to relive it, not by “converting” to mainstream, Orthodox Hasidism, but by creating a new kind of prayer environment, which brings these qualities into one’s own, modern milieu.) But ultimately, it is no more true or false than any other symbol system or tradition, which at their best work in similar ways for their faithful; he sees the Torah, not as the one truth, but as one of many paths leading to the One.

In terms of ethical issues—i.e., the need, often evoked by religious thinkers, for the certainty of revelation to provide a firm grounding for morality—Green speaks of one central commandment: to know that Man, that every human being, is created in the Divine image. All else—as in Hillel’s “Golden Rule”—follows from this. (By this, following Peter Berger’s Heretical Imperative, he conceives ethics and/or religious truth, not as a deductive legal system, derived from axioms and formal precedents, as in Kelner’s philosophy of law, but as more inductive and perhaps even intuituve.) My own caveats with his approach boil down to two key points:

First, the heteronomous nature of the Torah, and of morality, is very important to me; it seems to me that Green advocates a far more autonomous ethics. I’m not sure whether this difference is rooted in a different perception of human nature: certainly, Art is hardly sanguine about the evil of which human beings are capable, but he seems less inclined towards the model of milhemet hayetzer—which some might see as a Jewish equivalent of almost Calvinist modes of thinking—in which human life is depicted as a constant moral struggle, fought within the soul of each individual, in which even one’s own seemingly best judgment may also be slanted. But, ultimately, he is more a (mystic) theologian than a moral philosopher—assuming the two can really be separated.

Secondly, my own commitment to halakhah, to what Rav Soloveitchik called “the Masorah community,” is in the end an existential, a priori one, which Green does not share. It’s not even a question of “belief” or “non-belief” in Torah min ha-Shamayim, as Orthodox Jews in the modern age are fond of putting it: among other points, what we actually practice as Jews in everyday life is about 90% Rabbinic anyway. Rather, it is the acceptance of authority of Hazal and their successors as an existential, life decision. (Although I should add here that, in traditional halakhic legal theory, the basic notion is that of כפה עליהם הר כגיגי—that, except for the case of the proselyte, a Jew doesn’t make a personal decision to accept halakhah, but it is imposed upon him willy-nilly.)

Third, notwithstanding my own modernist problems with Biblical criticism and historical, critical thinking viz. the traditional understanding of Sinai, I find within myself a certain core of belief—something that goes beyond words, which cannot be expressed except in the “mythic,” esoteric language of the mystics—that something, somehow happened at Sinai. I believe, too, in a certain objective holiness that enters with Shabbat enters: something that is somehow far more than a sociological or semiotic or even legal construction.

In any event, these issues—how the modern Jew is to deal with the whole issue of Revelation—pertains only indirectly to Art Green, and is a subject for discussion in its own right. Indeed, last year I published here, for Shavuot, the first half of a major essay on this theme. Due to various personal factors, I did not complete the second half in a timely manner, so I now hope to present it for the coming Shavuot.

3. A Personal Conclusion

When asked by people whom I regard as my most important teacher or rebbe, I invariably reply that there is no single individual whose path I have accepted unreservedly, but that there are three teachers who have most profoundly influenced me and shaped my thinking: Rav Soloveitchik, Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, and Art Green, yibadel lehayyim arukim. It seems to me that my own relation to each of them may best be described in terms taken from the second mishnah in Avot: “On three things the world stands: on Torah, Avodah, and Gemillut hasadim.” Clearly, Rav Soloveitchik was for me the central source of Torah learning per se: of Talmud, of halakhah, of the core texts of our tradition. Just as clearly, for Shlomo, everything comes back to love—of God and of one’s fellow man—limitless, infinite hesed, without boundaries. From Art, I learned about avodah: of the Hasidic path in prayer, of devotion, of the meaning of religious worship, and of that which is prior to avodah: how to approach the problem of God, the meaning of knowledge of God and faith, with honesty and integrity, and yet with awe and humility in this crazy modern world.

So, in answer to my Orthodox friends and colleagues who are sometimes puzzled and wonder “what I see” in this Heterodox thinker, I answer: the words may at times be apikorsish, but the music is the music of an authentic Jewish neshome—combining great love of the Jewish people, its tradition, and its God; thorough erudition; a lively, clear writing style, that is easy to read without being simplistic; a keen, insightful eye for reading text; and intellectual honesty, which never allows him to be satisfied with sentimentality or cliche. I can only conclude by wishing Arthur Green, and his dear wife Kathy, many more healthful and productive years.

4. Bibliography

Academic Studies

Tormented Master: The Life and Spiriual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. University of Alabama, 1979; (rept: Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 1992)

Keter: The Crown of God in Early Jewish Mysticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Devotion and Commandment: The Faith of Abraham in the Hasidic Imagination. Cincinnatti: Hebrew Union College Press, 1989.

Editor of: Jewish Spirituality from the Bible Through the Middle Ages and Jewish Spirituality from the Sixteenth Century Revival to the Present. 2 vol. New York: Crossroad, 1986-87. (World Spirituality. An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest. 13-14)

“The Children of Israel at the Sea” Judaism (ca. 1975)

“The Song of Songs in Early Jewish Mysticism,” Orim: A Jewish Journal at Yale 2:2 (1987) 49 ff.

“Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic Symbol in Its Historical Context,” AJS Review 26:1 (2002), 1-52.

“Zaddik as Axis Mundi in Later Judaism,” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45 (1977), 328–347.

“Hasidism: Discovery and Retreat,” in Peter Berger (ed.), The Other Face of God (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1981).

“Typologies of Leadership and The Hasidic Zaddiq,” in his (ed.) Jewish Spirituality II (World Spirituality. 14; New York: Crossroad, 1987), 127-156

“Three Warsaw Mystics,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought 13 (1996), 1-58

As stated mentioned earlier, Green’s scholarly writing has throughout the years been complemented by more popular comment on issues confronting the Jewish community, and shorter essays on religious and theological issues.

Readers & Introductions

Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer, with Barry Holtz. 3rd ed.: Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1993.

Upright Practices and the Light of the Eyes (from R. Nahum of Chernobol’s Meor Einayim).. New OYork: Paulist Press, 1982.

The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet. Philadelphia: JPS, 1998. Includes important introduction

A Guide to the Zohar. (The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, 1). Stanford University Press, 2002 (?).

These are the Words: A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life. Woodstock, Vt: Jewish Lights, 2000.

Theological Writings: Personal and Programmatic

Seek My Face, Speak My Name: A Contemporary Jewish Theology. Northvale NJ–London: Jason Aronson, 1992.

Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow. Woodstock, Vt: Jewish Lights, 2003.

Radical Judaism: A Hasidism for a New Era. The 2006 Rosenzweig Lectures. Forthcoming: New Haven, Yale University Press.

“Confessions of an Aggadic Jew” (forthcoming in the Neil Gillman festschrift).

“The Role of Jewish Mysticism in a Contemporary Theology of Judaism,” Conservative Judaism 30:4 (1976), 2o ff.

“After Itzik,” in The New Jews, A. Mintz & J. Sleeper, eds. (New York: Vintage Press, 1971).

Itzik Lodzer (pseud.), “Notes from the Jewish Underground: On Psychedelics and Kabbalah.” Originally published in Response 2; reprinted in The New Jews (above).

About Art

Lawrence Fine, “A Warsaw Mystic in Newton: The Kabbalistic Thought of Arthur Green,” Tikkun (Jan/Feb 2004).

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.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Tetzaveh-Purim (Zohar)

For more teachings, both on this parashah and on Purim, see the archives to this blog at March 2006. This week I have chsoen to depart from the usual format, and to bring a few insights about the parasha as well as, in a lighter vein, some teaching related to Purim.

“And You Command the Children of Israel”

All the commentators note that this week’s parasha is the only one in the entire Torah (from the point that he first appears on the scene), in which Moses’ name is not mentioned. Instead, the opening verse, and the opening verse to the section about the priestly vestments (Exod 27:21 and 28:1), begin quite simply with the pronoun ואתה (“and you”), whih by implication is addressed to Moses.

The usual interpretation is that, as this portion always falls during the week following the 7th of Adar, the traditional date of Moshe’s death, the omission of his name alludes indirectly to his death—his “absence.” Another interpretation, suggested by UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is that this parasha deals entirely with the priestly or Aaronide pole of the priestly-prophetic dialectic so central to Judaism—one half is dedicated to the priestly garments, the other to their seven-day long initiation; hence, the name of Moses, “father of the prophets,” is absent.

I would like to suggest an opposite reading. The absence of Moshe’s name does not signify his absence or distancing, but rather, his being addressed by ואתה implies greater intimacy. It is a common social convention that, when people stand in a formal relation to one another, they address one another with titles: Mr. A, Ms. B, Dr. C, Prof. D, Rabbi E, etc. The change to addressing others on “first-name basis” signifies a certain familiarity, or at least informality. But the greatest intimacy (Martin Buber has constructed an entire doctrine of relationships revolving around the “basic words” I and Thou) is that in which we call the other “You.” (This is particularly strongly felt in those languages, such as French and German, which have both intimate and formal terms for “you”: tou & vous; du & ihr. The “Thou-ing” of Quakers was originally intended to signify brotherhood and fellowship among all. Some old-fashioned Hebrew speakers make this distinction as well, addressing non-intimates in the third person: "כבודו"). In this context, addressing Moses as “you”—in the use of the word ואתה at the beginning of the parasha, and continued with second-person imperative verbs throughout the parasha—indicates a sense of intimacy between God and Moshe. This, it seems to me, is related to the ultimate purpose of the Sanctuary/Temple: as a locus of intimate relation between man and God: אשר אועד לך שמה—“where I will make Myself known to you” (Exod 29:42).

A second insight about the parasha concerns the hoshen mishpat, the breastplate worn by Aaron and subsequent high priests on top of their robe and tunic. I would like to see this in the overall context of parallelism between the synagogue and the Temple. The two are not only parallel in function, in that both are focii of public communal worship, nor even in the fact that the synagogue is called mikdash me’at, a “little Temple,” but in their actual physical layout. The Temple had two focal points: the altar and the Holy of Holies. The one is the focus of worship through the sacrificial offerings offered thereon; the other is the (symbolic?) dwelling place of the hidden, unknowable God who dwells in darkness (see Solomon’s prayer, at 1 Kings 8:12). The synagogue likewise has two focii: the Bimah (like the altar—square, raised, and located in the center of the sacred area), from which the Torah is read; and the Aron Kodesh—the Ark, whose very name parallels that of the Ark of the Covenant—in which the Torah scroll, the representative or embodiment of the Divine presence among us, is housed. (NB: I should add that the traditional synagogue also has a third important focus: the amud ha-tefillah, the Prayer Leader’s stand, usually located in front of and slightly to the right of the Ark, usually a simple stand just large enough for a Siddur and some sort of lamp or candelabrum. Does this perhaps correspond to the incense altar, suggesting a parallelism of prayer/Torah // incense/animal sacrifice? In any event, of late I’ve noticed a tendency in many synagogues to conflate or combine the bimah and the amud—which, to my mind, seems rather problematic.)

Having said that, what about the garments of the Sefer Torah? The Torah is always covered with a decorative cloth garment, known as a me’il. In many synagogues, the Torah is also covered with one or more (halakhically optional) ornate metal decorations, at least when taken out of the Ark to be read: the breast plate, which sits on top of its garment; a crown (Keter), that fits on top of the two wooden poles (atzei hayyim) to which the scroll itself is attached; or, alternatively, two silver adornments, often with tiny bells, placed on the two poles, known as Rimonim. All of these things—breastplate, me’il, rimon, and bells—correspond to one or another of the high priest’s garments, suggesting the thought that that the Torah itself somehow corresponds to the high priest (who, on Yom Kippur, is the only one to stand before the Aron inside the Holy of Holies). What it all means is food for further thought.

Finally, two questions. Tetzaveh is generally very difficult to understand. It demands very careful reading for one to understand exactly how each the various items of clothing were made, especially those relating to the high priest and his breast plate, with the shoulder-pieces and chains and threads and rings and cords used to hold it in place above the ephod, so as not to move. In that context (and preparing to read the Torah publicly) the question occurred to me: why are vv. 13-14, which describe the gold filigree plates or settings (משבצות), and which, we later learn (v. 25), serve as a kind of base for the breastplate, with its woven cloth and inlaid jewels, set apart from the text in a separate parasha, only two verses long. Note: the division of the Torah into parshiyot is an important part of the oral tradition governing the writing of a Torah scroll, and each one has its own significance.

Second, in v 22 we have the wordsשרשות גבלות , translated as “twisted” or “braided chains.” Is this simply a corruption of שרשרות, the common word for chain, used earlier in v. 14—perhaps an error in transcription by a scribe who dropped the second resh? Or does it mean something else? (Rashi here is interesting, seeing שרשות as derived from שרש, that which “roots“ or hold something down in a fixed place, like the roots of a tree; but then he notes that it is analogous in meaning to שרשרת, as indeed does Onkelos. Or is the latter word perhaps derived from שרש?)

The Torah of Purim or Purim Torah?

The reader is invited to decide how seriously to take this.

Why do we eat Hamantaschen on Purim? Some say it’s in memory of Haman’s three-cornered hat (after all, that’s what he’s shown wearing by medieval European artists, and they should know), some say his ears, and some say they are “Haman’s pockets.” In any event, these three-cornered dough-cakes with pockets are traditionally filled with poppy seed or prune jam, symbolic respectively of Daniel’s (or Esther’s) eating only seeds while staying in the royal place, and of the verse “the sun has burned me” (ששזפתני השמש; Songs 1:6). But woe to us! Today there are innovators, worse than the Reformers, who dare to call themselves “faithful” (neeman), who fear not that which their fathers feared, and who brazenly sell Hamantaschen filled with chocolate and pareve cream stuff and other unmentionables, in clear violation of the custom of Israel, who if they are not prophets are surely sons of prophets. אוי לנו כי השברנו, ואןי לעיניים שרואות ולאזניים ששומעות דבר נורא כזה

To return to our question: all the foods of Purim are prepared in a modest, hidden manner, alluding to the Almighty’s hidden way of bringing about the deliverance, and some say also in allusion to Esther, the modest, “hidden” one (מל' הסתר אסתיר), who maintained her modesty and inner purity even in the hands of the vulgar sheigetz king. Hence, the custom to eat Hamantaschen, and especially various dishes stuffed with meat, such as khaloptzies (stuffed cabbage), stuffed peppers, kreplach mit zoup, and the like, all of which signify the hidden nature of the Purim miracle.

But I wish to reveal a deeply hidden secret, of the secrets of the Torah, that I heard one day from an elderly man, a reincarnation of the donkey-driver of Zohar Mishpatim, whom I met one day on a bus from Ramat Gan to Beit Dagon, and who taught me the secret of the three corners of the Hamantasch.

Three, as is well known, is the number of dynamics, of change, of growth, of renewed life, as in the words of the Divinely-inspired wise philosopher Hegel. The first apex of the triangle is that of Mordecai and Esther, that of goodness and life and Israel. They are two, man and woman: like Adam Kadmon, the pre-Creation human, who was both male and female. But their relation is ambiguous. They are both innocent and experienced, child and adults, like the cherubim in the Temple whom some say were children, and others say were an adult man and woman in passionate embrace. Was Mordecai Esther’s uncle, or her husband, or perhaps lover? Or is perhaps the former bond truly closer? In his famous essay eulogizing Reb Velvel of Brisk, the Rav ztz”l read the verse from Song of Songs, Mah dodekh midod, as “Who is your uncle among the uncles?”— adding that Reb Velvel was not only betrothed to the Torah, but married to it! (What would all our post-modern scholars make of the gender symbolism here, I wonder?)

The second apex is that which mediates between Mordecai/Esther and Haman—the king, who leans first one way and then another. But this apex is also double: “the king” is at one and the same time Ahashverosh, the buffoon king who is swayed by his emotions and by chance events—and by the wine he has imbibed (hence, חייב אנוש לבשומי וכו'); but also the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He, who transcends the polarity of good and evil, raising up one and letting the other fall. Both sacred and mundane, both the Almighty and the earthly king. He who has (Haman’s)-ears shall know which is which.

And at the third apex is Haman, the embodiment of evil and pure cussedness. But this apex is also double, for his name, המן, is also that of the life-sustaining manna which our forefathers ate in the desert, the purest, highest, holiest, deepest food there is. So it comes that good and evil, life and death, are really mirror sides of one another. If you turn a corner in a Klein bottle Mordecai the Jew may turn out to be Mordecai the greatest sinner, vehamaskil yavin. All is one. All distinctions disappear in the profound insights that you get when you are truly high, higher and higher and higher… “Life is a bowl of cherries.”


All of the above are my stream of consciousness thoughts for this Purim. But I will conclude with an idea prompted by something I read in R. Nahum of Chernobol’s wonderful book, Me’or Einayim, on both Terumah and Tetzaveh. He interprets the midrash stating that Haman’s choice of the month of Adar to kill all the Jews was prompted by the fact that this was the month during which Moses died. What he forgot was that Moses was also born on that same day. The Chernoboler goes on to interpret this in terms of Moses symbolizing the quality of da’at, religious knowledge or consciousness; his death thus signified the “departure” or “removal” of da’at; but even after his death, through studying Torah with attachment to its Divine root, Jews reintroduce da’at into the world. “Moses“ is thus constantly reborn.

I wish to connect the notion of הסתלקות הדעת, the “departure of consciousness,” with the idea that, one week after Moses’ yahrzeit, one is supposed to drink so much on Purim עד שלא ידע..., “until one doesn’t know.” On Purim, we reenact the departure of da’at by becoming stoned out of our minds, and then are reborn in a higher da’at. Perhaps, one might say, the idea of Purim is in some way to let go of one’s old, conventional consciousness (“thinking in boxes”) and in some way become reborn in a new, clearer consciousness—the ideal being to be just drunk enough to laugh at one’s own, and other’s, ego-pretenses and other falsities. This is what Hasidut calls bittul ha-yesh, negation of ones’ own selfhood—not altogether unlike the Buddhist idea of negation of attachment.

Postscript: ZOHAR— Kegavna

After writing about Kegavna two weeks ago, I had a brainstorm, of the variety of “Why didn’t I think it earlier? It’s so obvious.” Why des this Zohar passage stress the recitation of Barkhu as the moment upon which all the supernal joy, unification, etc., is focused? Because, at the time Zohar was written, the prayer service we know as Kabbalat Shabbat service did not exist! It was introduced by the school of Tzfat, during the early or mid-sixteenth century. Indeed, even the Shulhan Arukh, compiled in 1554, and even the 1580 edition with the glosses of the Rema, does not contain so much as a single word about Kabbalat Shabbat—not even about the truncated version, consisting of Psalms 92 & 93, recited when Shabbat coincides with or follows immediately upon festival days (see Sh.A., Orah Hayyim §667). Thus, the recitation of Barkhu in fact marked the beginning of Shabbat!

I must share a personal experience about this subject. When I was a young yeshiva student in Israel in the early 1970’s, I decided that I wanted to see the “Yerushalmi Briskers”—the cousins of my teacher, Rav Soloveitchik, a school equally known for their intellectual acumen and their strange customs. So one Friday evening I set out to recite Kabbalat Shabbat at the minyan of the Briskers which, I was told, met in the home of the late Reb Velvel of Brisk, located on a quiet side street in Geulah. I arrived just about sundown, to find only two people studying Humash in a small room lit by gaslight: a middle-aged man and a chubby young boy, both with the characteristic roundish clump of hair at their temples which serves as the Brisker version of payot. I found something to study meanwhile, and bit by bit more people drifted in. When more than half an hour had passed, I asked a young man, who appeared to be an American bokhur from a “Litvishe” yeshiva, how soon they would begin Kabbalat Shabbat, and was told, “They don’t daven Kabbalat Shabbat here!”

At first I thought I had misheard, but then I understood: the Brisker school has a pristine, almost purist approach to halakhah, one that disregards the layers of custom which have accrued over the centuries and returns to direct interpretation of the Talmud as the source of halakhah. And, since Kabbalat Shabbat is required neither by the Talmud nor by the rishonim, they see no good reason to recite it. And so, I waited another half-hour until “Reb Beryl” (the “other” Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, also z”l) came in, and straight away began the call to prayer: Barkhu et Hashem Hamvorakh!