Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yom ha-Atzmaut (Zohar series)

For more teachings on Yom ha-Atzmaut, see the archives to this blog at April 2006.

Are We Still Zionists?

Some months ago, one of our guests at Friday night dinner was a woman who had grown up in the same Zionist youth movement as myself, who came on aliyah shortly after graduating college, has spent her entire adult life here, working primarily in the fields of Jewish and Zionist education, and who like myself had undertaken and maintained a commitment to religious observance from early adulthood on.

At one point the conversation turned to what sociologist Daniel Bell, nearly half a century ago, called ”the end of ideologies.” I mentioned that during my parents youth, in the 1930’s, they believed in building a better world through socialism and in the possibility of a revolution that would leave the world a more equitable, just and good place for all; as people began to learn about the cruelty and despotism of Stalin’s rule, their passionate intensity was replaced by disillusionment. Similar disappointments were felt regarding other dreams and ideologies: not only the obviously demonic ideologies of Nazism, fascism and jingoistic nationalism, but also liberal democracy, the somewhat inchoate neo-Rousseauvian ideology of the hippies, and even civil rights and racial equality (soured by the “reversed racism” of the Black Power movement of the later ‘60s). And some would add, in light of the present world-wide economic crisis, neo-liberal capitalism must be added to this list. The problem, it would seem, is not that of one or another ideology, but of ideology itself. Many of us find it difficult to believe in any vision of social change that will bring about a better world—not only because we have become the “older generation” and feel that we’ve seen everything, but because something has changed in the world itself. The younger generation, our own children, the hope of today’s world, seem more cynical, more self-involved, more concerned with advancing their own careers and building their own economic and personal niche than they are with the broader problems of society, urgent as these may be.

At this point, our guest asked the question: among all those ideologies that have disappointed, would you also include one ideology that is very close to us: namely, Zionism? Do you still think of yourself as a Zionist? Has Zionism, too, failed?

My initial response was to recall a brief encounter, a year earlier, just about the time of the Winograd Commission’s report, when one Shabbat morning I ran into the wife of the well-known “post-Zionist” thinker (and erstwhile friend and neighbor of my late parents) Daniel Boyarin. My spontaneous reaction upon seeing her was to say: “You know, I’d like to talk to Danny; I’m beginning to think that I have a common language with him after all.” (That is, that I was beginning to question my own Zionism.)

Since that Shabbat I have found myself returning again and again to this question; hence, I decided to devote this year’s Yom Ha-Atzmaut issue to discussion of this issue.

There are many arguments in support of a kind of “post-Zionist” attitude, even on the part of “good” Jews and loyal, patriotic Israelis. One may well argue that the task of Zionism was to create the State, and this has been done; hence, Zionism is superannuated. Or one may fell a deep sense of disappointment in the reality of the State vs. the dream, especially in light of the widespread corruption of recent years, reaching to the highest echelons; the launching of two problematic wars during the last government’s term of office, in which there was massive bloodshed and destruction without a clear sense of either purpose or goals accomplished; a sense of lack of clear direction on the part of the leadership, beyond empty rhetoric; and the apathy of the public and the decline of public movements of protest, particularly on the Left.

We must begin with the matter of definition. The term Zionism is used today to refer to many phenomena which don’t really get to the heart of the matter. For many Jews in the Diaspora, Zionism simply means being pro-Israel; having a warm fuzzy feeling for Israel as a Jew. Closely related to this is the idea that being a Zionist means defending Israel, its policies, its right to exist in a hostile world, whenever it comes under attack. A Zionist is on the front line of hasbarah against the challenges of the Left, of such things as the academic boycott now being considered in the US, etc. (and, by extension, a Zionist never criticizes anything about Israel). Again, there is the notion that some sort of amorphous “connection” to Israel will save the Jewish people from assimilation; that visiting Israel will convince young people to be committed Jews; that Zionism and Israel (along with the Shoah!) can serve as a focus for Jewish identity, survival and continuity in a world where the role of religion is in decline. While all these sentiments are praiseworthy, I find it difficult to identify them in a serious way with Zionism.

There are also those who identify Zionism with the specific organizational form it has taken, of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency for Israel, a challenge to one being seen as a challenge to the other. Thus, in some circles one cannot criticize the WZO as an unwieldy bureaucracy without being labelled a Post-Zionist, rahmana litzlan.

In our youth movement days, many of us cultivated hopes for Israel as the harbinger of a new kind of society. The notion was that Israel would somehow serve as the locus of a new and better society, a place in which the social ideals of Judaism could and would be realized in practice. The ideas of such thinkers as A. D. Gordon, Berl Katzenelson, Ber Borochov and, in a somewhat different way, Martin Buber, all combined in a vague way with the hopes held out by the kibbutz movement, spoke to many of us. Meanwhile, both Israel and the kibbutz movement have fallen on hard times, belying the promise of earlier days.

What, then, is Zionism? Classical Zionist ideology propounded a certain interpretation of Jewish history: quite simply, it saw “the Jewish Problem”—that is, the periodic outbursts of anti-Semitism, which became increasingly vociferous in the later 19th century, long before the Holocaust—as an inevitable consequence of Exile, of the anomaly of Jewish existence as a beleaguered minority throughout the world. The solution lay in the Jews, as a people in Exile, returning to a normal state of national existence in its ancient homeland. Thus, what some might see as classical religious categories of Galut and Geulah, of exile and redemption, were applied to real, concrete history. (Thus, in the Haggadot written by and for many of the secular kibbutzim during the early years of the state, the story of the Pesah Seder was retold in terms of the contemporary drama of national renascence in Israel.)

Before continuing, perhaps we ought to pause a moment, on this 61st anniversary of Israel’s Independence, to reflect upon the simple, well-known facts of how the State came into existence: of the daring and courage shown, both by those who conceived the above vision and those who brought it to being, especially during the difficulties and overwhelming odds against the state during the 1948 war. During the course of the everyday routine of life, and the inevitable gripes and complaints about all the things wrong with Israeli society, one loses sight of what a remarkable story the creation of Israel was: creating the institutions of statehood, the ingathering of a large portion of the Jewish people, the forging of the exiles of different cultures and drastically different backgrounds into a single nation, the resurrection of a dead language, the “making the desert to bloom” (corny a cliche as it may be), the building of a serious fighting force from a people without any military tradition, and the defending of the country against repeated attacks—all these are truly remarkable accomplishments. In between the grilled meats, the nature hikes (or drives), the evenings of group singing, one should stop to think about these things.

To return to the ideology of Zionism: three covert assumptions underlie the above reading of Jewish history. First, that the Jews are primarily a nation, and not a religious confession or church, as these words are generally understood—a point hardly self-evident even today. Many young Jews abandon their Jewishness because of the confusion over this point, because they fail to understand the simple and historically obvious but seemingly paradoxical point that many of the best Jews have been atheist, or at least agnostics (I cannot elaborate now, but have discussed this many times in the past). The corollary of this is that, as a nation, the Jews have a history; and, third, that the time has come for the Jewish people to return to history as actors, and not as passive objects dependent upon the good graces of others. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the ideological revolution wrought by Zionism.

But there is a problem in this classical Zionist ideology: the history of Israel over the past 61 years seems to belie the idea that national sovereignty would “solve” the “Jewish problem”; that a country of our own would lead to normalization and acceptance in the family of nations. Developments in the Middle East have raised unanticipated problems, and Arab hostility to the state is far greater than anyone seems to have anticipated—so much so that Israel’s acceptance in the family of nations has been limited and problematic—an anomaly among the nations.

There are, of course, broadly speaking two schools of interpretation concerning the reasons for this: the Left (both in Israel and without) see this as a result of mistakes made by the Zionist enterprise, especially the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, creating a Palestinian people who rankled under feelings of oppression, deprivation of basic human rights, chronic unemployment, endless hassles at Army barricades, etc. The Right points to the element of triumphalism inherent within Islam: the concept of Dar al-islam, of the entire Middle East as waqf, as territory that somehow belongs to Islam, in which there is no room for non-Islamic, and certainly not for Jewish, sovereignty; the sense that we are an alien, unwanted presence. Some religious people might add: Sinat olam le-Am Olam (“An eternal hatred to the eternal people”)—anti-Semitism as an almost cosmic, metaphysical force. Most probably, as in all human situations, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Be that as it may: the idea of Israel as a safe haven is, at least for the present and the foreseeable future, certainly the next generation or two, at best a half truth. Some even say: Israel has somehow begat its own variety of anti-Semitism; as a result, they might add, Israel is, in pragmatic terms, the least safe place for Jews to be.

But turning to the other side: assuming that one wishes to see the Jewish people, its civilization, culture and religion survive and flourish in the modern world: are the alternative solutions any more viable? Is Jewish life really viable in free Diaspora? Granted that modernity, secularization, democracy, the pluralistic, tolerant society have largely eliminated anti-Semitism. Is America (and the other Western democracies) the new Jewish homeland? It would seem that we have exchanged the Scylla of anti-Semitism for the Charybdis of assimilation. I am not among the woe-sayers; I am well aware of the renaissance, be it major or minor, of Jewish life in America (and elsewhere in the world). Some of my best friends are professional Jews in America —educators, rabbis, professors of Judaic studies, etc. As I have indicated in my essay on Simon Rawidowicz, the tension between Babylon and Jerusalem is essential to productive, creative Jewish life. Nevertheless, , for the average American Jew, simple survival as a Jew is an uphill struggle, and one must take extreme measures to “assure” that one’s children and grandchildren will not marry out, let alone live vibrant, active Jewish lives. The United States is no Babylonia, and lacks the natural Jewishness of Jews in such the Diasporas of pre-modern times, or even of pre-Shoah Europe, who knew who they were in a natural way (this case has recently been eloquently presented by Eli Kavon, “America is no Babylonia,” Jerusalem Post, March 3 2009).

More important: how much of all this is owed to Israel? Had the State of Israel never been created, what would Jewish life in the “free” Diaspora be like? Of course, this question is unanswerable, and hence perhaps meaningless. (Just as the noted demographer Sergio Della Pergola recently said that had the Holocaust not occurred world Jewish population would have been two or three times greater, because of the vast number of Jews in prime child-bearing years or soon would have reached them who were killed. But what would have happened in the intervening sixty years? No one can ever know) Nevertheless, conventional wisdom holds that the existence of Israel gave world Jewry an infusion of pride and self-confidence which enhanced their lives as Jews wherever they lived.

I will conclude with a few comments on an issue increasingly raised among liberal circles in Israel and outside: what exactly does it mean to have a state that is both “Jewish” and “democratic”? Which of the two takes priority? And is the concept of a nation-state, based upon a specific ethnic-national- group compatible with contemporary ideas of democracy and human rights?

This is a complex question, which wiser and more learned minds than myself have addressed. I am not sure to what extent it is a real or meaningful question in the context of the Middle East, in which societies and states define themselves in ethnic-religious-tribal terms. At times I wonder whether the advocates of a “state of all its citizens,” who suggest changing the flag and anthem (and perhaps even the name) of the State of Israel to avoid offending the sensibilities of the Arab minority, know where they live. May they not be leaning over backwards, perhaps even falling into a cynical trap planned by clever pan-Islamicists who have figured out who to use liberal concepts in which they themselves do not believe to trip up the Jews.

My answer, in brief, is this: so long as a state gives equal opportunities and rights —including not only individual rights, but equally importantly, equitable budgeting of resources for the infra-structures and other needs of the minority and their municipalities and regional councils—there is nothing “undemocratic” about a state having a certain historical tradition, and expressing it in its “civil religion.”

A New Al Hanissim for Yom ha-Atzmaut

Long time readers of Hitzei Yehonatan know that I have long been interested in the creation of a meaningful and appropriate liturgy for Yom ha-Atzmaut, including the need for an Al ha-Nissim prayer to be inserted in the appropriate places in the Amidah and Birkat ha-Mazon. Yesterday I received an email from Avi Shmidman, containing a new Al ha-Nissim prayer, written by himself and Ben-Tzion Spitz. The text follows below.

About the authors: Avi Shmidman, an Alon Shvut resident, teaches at Bar-Ilan University in the Department of the Literature of the Jewish People. He recently completed his doctorate in Medieval Hebrew Poetry at Bar-Ilan University, entitled “The Poetic Versions of the Grace after Meals from the Cairo Genizah.” His academic articles have appeared in such journals as Ginzei Qedem and Pirkei Shirah. Ben-Tzion Spitz, also an Alon Shvut resident, is an engineer, entrepreneur, and graduate of Yeshiva and Columbia Universities. He has studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, Merkaz HaRav, and Har Etzion, and occasionally writes and lectures on Bible, Talmud and other Jewish topics. Recent writings may be found at meromtzion.wordpress.com. The authors have also set up a website for discussion of this text at http://alhanisim.blogspot.com.

על הנסים ועל הפרקן ועל הגבורות ועל התשועות ועת המלחמות שעשית לנו בימים ההם בזמן הזה: בימי קיבוץ שרידי ישראל מארצות חושך וצלמות לחמדת נחלתם, קמו חלוצי אומה , הרימו נס וחברו מגילה, ותבעו את זכות העם לעמוד ברשות עצמו, כממלכה יהודית בארץ מולדתו. בתופים ובמחולות רקדו בחוצות, טף ונשים, זקנים ונערים, בקולות שמחה ובצהלה. באותה שעה תקפום בני עוולה להכחיד מן הארץ שם ושארית, ולים לזרוק כל שומרי אמוניה. ואתה לישע עמך מיהרת, ידי מגיניהם חיזקת, וכלי אויביהם נפצת. תקומת פאר עשית ומדינת הדר הקמת, ראשית שאפת דורותיך, מחסה ומעוז לכל שבות עמיך.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tazria-Metzora (Zohar)

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

“When a Woman ‘Gives Seed”’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“The Lord is a Man of War”

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

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

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

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

More on the Rav and the Zohar

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Birkat ha-Hamah: Reactions

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Shemini (Zohar)

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

Wine, Water and Oil

One of the central incidents related in this week’s parasha is the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, when they offer “a strange fire” before the Lord. The Sages debated the justification for this tragic death, while engaged in holy service on the festive occasion of dedicating the Sanctuary. One view suggests that they were drunk; in wake of this, the Zohar discusses the respective roles of wine, water and oil. Zohar III: 39a:

“Drink neither wine nor strong drink, you or your sons [when you go into the Tent of Meeting…]” (Lev 10:9). R. Judah said: From this passage we infer that Nadav and Avihu were under the influence of wine, since the priests were forbidden to drink it [when serving]. [see R. Yishmael’s view in Leviticus Rabbah 12.5]

R. Hiyya expounded [the verse]: “Wine rejoices the man’s heart” (Ps 104:15). If the priest is required to be glad and have a joyous countenance more than other men, why is he forbidden wine? For it brings joy and a radiant countenance! But rather, at first wine rejoices and thereafter it saddens. Moreover, wine comes from the side of the Levites, from that place where wine is permitted, for Torah and the wine of Torah [which are associated with the Levites, Moses being a Levite, and see also Deut 33:10; but contrast Mal 2:7, where the lips of the priest, specifically, give knowledge and Torah is sought from his mouth] come from the side of Gevurah, [another reading: but both the beginning and the end of the priest’s service must be with gladness]; hence, the side of the priest is from pure and clear water.

R. Yossi said: Each one lends to the other, and they are incorporated in one another; therefore wine gladdens at first, because it contains water, but thereafter it reverts to its own nature and brings gloom and anger and Judgment.

R. Abba said: Wine, oil and water [and milk and honey] all issue from the same place. Water and oil, which are from the right side [i.e., Hesed], are taken and inherited by the priests—oil most of all, which is joy at first and last, as is written, “Like the goodly oil upon the head that runs down upon the beard, upon Aaron’s beard” (Ps 133:2). Wine, which is on the left, is inherited by the Levites, who raise their voices in song and are not silent, for wine is never silent, but oil is always noiseless. What is the difference between them? Oil, which is always silent and unheard, comes from the side of Thought, which is always silent and unheard—hence, it is from the right side. Wine, which is for raising the voice and is never silent, comes from the side of the Mother, is inherited by the Levites and is on the left side, and is for song and raising the voice, and exists in Judgment. Hence it is written, “And by their word shall be [resolved] every dispute and every [case of] damage” (Deut 21:5).

Therefore the priest, when entering the sanctuary to perform Divine service, is forbidden to drink wine, for his service is carried out quietly. And in secret we come and direct our intention, and there couples with whom one couples, and brings blessing to the entire world, and all this in silence. And it is all done in mystery; but wine reveals secrets, for its whole existence is to raise up the voice.

—Translation based on Soncino Zohar, IV: 403, with numerous emendations

Our discussion begins with the observation that, after drinking, people go through a phase of loud boisterousness, when they seem filled with joy—but thereafter comes a stage of sullen depression, perhaps belligerency and argumentativeness. But the approach given here is not a puritanical one, as of teetotalers or prohibition, who would ban alcohol altogether; rather, it imposes certain limitations upon it, particularly for the kohanim, who need to conduct themselves with a state of joy—which I would translate as a state of spiritual elevation, glad-heartedness, a kind of heightened consciousness that is at once joyous and solemn—from beginning to end.

The contrast between priests and Levites is associated with the sefirot of Hesed and Gevurah, the right and left sides. The service of the priesthood is quiet, solemn, a kind of concentrated, focused solemnity—an inner joy, clean and pure like mountain water. (Bible scholar Israel Knohl aptly named his book on Leviticus Silent Sanctuary.) Moreover, oil, even more than water, flows silently; unlike the rushing current of water, it makes no sound whatever when moving.

But why is the song of the Levites, and even more so the Torah itself, compared to wine, and by extension to Gevurah? Gevurah here implies all that is rich, “full-bodied,” variegated, exciting, passionate (including the richness, complexity, intellectual stimulation, geshmack of Rabbinic Torah study!)—all that makes one ”high.” It would seem that both measures are needed.

Our passage ends with an allusion to sexual union, which is performed in private, in modesty and silence—and yet is a source of blessing, of new life. The metaphor of sexuality exists on several levels. Avraham Leader pointed out to me that in the famous passage about the “hind of the dawn” (ayelet ha-shahar: Zohar III:249a—Pinhas), the priests and Levites serve a function analogous to that psychopomps—in Jungian psychology, spiritual mediators between conscious and unconscious realms; here, facilitators of the intra-Divine union between Abba and Imma—the sefirot of Hokhmah and Binah, here referred to as “Thought” and “Mother.” The Levites arouse the passion and desire of the two sides by their loud and full-bodied song, while the priests do so by their quiet, solemn acts that provide light. (May one then say that the priestly function here is like what Matthew Arnold called “sweetness and light”—which is also more fitting to the aspect of “thought”: inner, focused intellect?) On another level, human love may be aroused by music, by strong drink, by words of passion—but it is ultimately consummated in quiet, in modesty. And, on a third level, the prayer service itself culminates in the Amidah: the standing prayer, recited in silence, which is seen as the closest thing to union of the worshipper’s soul with the Divine (and thus compared to sexual union!).

I would like to conclude by suggesting that Hesed and Gevurah may best be understood, not only as expansiveness, love, and generosity vs. sternness, limitation, judgment, constriction, but also, almost to the contrary, as respectively symbolizing the Dionysian and Apollonian mentalities and approaches to life. On the one hand: ecstasy, excitement, sensuality, the feeling of going outside of the constraints and limitations of mundane, ordinary life; on the other hand, quiet, restrained, high solemnity and inwardness.

Returning to Nadav and Avihu: perhaps they offered their “strange fire,” not because they were drunk from wine, but because they were psychologically intoxicated by their own desire for religious ecstasy, by the unrestrained mystical quest itself, understood as the desire for personal experience of the Divine, seeing religion in terms of the subjective emotional sense of being “high” and close to God. The Sefat Emet says as much quite explicitly; see his words at Shemini, 5636, s.v. beshem. All this is not uncommon in today’s religious and cultural climate—on which see the next section.

Thoughts on Word and Melody of Prayer

The reading of the Song of the Sea—the archetype of sacred song in Jewish thought and liturgy—prompts some thoughts about prayer, in word and in music. Over the past decade or two, a new style of worship has emerged in many synagogues, known as Nusah Carlebach. The emphasis has shifted away from silent recitation of most of the prayers, led by the hazan in the traditional recitative mode of nusah, to much singing in unison by the congregation, mostly using melodies composed by the late Rav Shlomo Carlebach—hence the name. In some places, one gets the feeling that, if it is good to sing three songs during the course of, say, a Shabbat morning service, ten are better, and if there are twenty—preferably all lively and lending themselves to lots of clapping, pounding on tables, and dancing—then one has surely had an authentic spiritual experience, and is but a step away from Giluy Eliyahu!

It should be noted, first of all, that Reb Shlomo himself did not daven that way. While my own experience of Shabbat prayer with Shlomo was admittedly, and regrettably limited, it seems clear to me that he took his own model from Hasidic rebbes. He taught prayer, not only through song, but through teaching, and through telling stories of what prayer meant in the classical Hasidic milieu. Such prayer involved not only joy and singing, but emotional and spiritual intensity, weeping, crying out in pain and despair and hope, often following arduous inner preparation and concentration, kavvanah. True, his concerts typically built up to a climax of joyous song and dancing on the stage, and at times a single song might be repeated over and over again for half an hour or more; but all this was only a first step, crafted to fire up the imagination of the neophyte and to whet their interest in Judaism. Shlomo would have been the first to acknowledge that real life is not a Shlomo Carlebach concert.

But going beyond Shlomo: if one reads Amud ha-Tefillah of Sefer Baal Shem Tov (an assemblage of that great teacher’s dicta on prayer), one finds that joy is but one of many elements of prayer. Indeed, as Rivka Schatz has taught us, the Hasidic emphasis on joy was largely intended as an antidote to the depression and self-castigation that are all too common among many people who set themselves too high a bar of religious standards—a far cry from singing and noise as wends in themselves.

A younger scholar, Yitzhak Lifschitz, recently wrote an essay on this question in the Israeli journal Akdamut in which he bewails the widespread departure from the traditional mode of traditional Ashkenazic prayer, presenting a theological model in which prayer is characterized by a certain melancholy, reflecting the sense of ontic distance between the human being and his god, and the desire to imitate the angels. While his formulation is perhaps extreme, his essential point is well-taken: that, as in the above-mentioned Zohar passage, the starting point if prayer must be a certain inner sense of reverence, of standing before the Divine, and not the over-heated, emotional stimulation of lively music.

Seventh Day of Pesah (Zohar)

Two Types of Song

Shirat Hayam (“The Song of the Sea”; Exodus 15:1-21), which serves as the centerpiece of this festival day’s Torah reading, and of its celebration in general, also plays a central role in Jewish liturgy. It serves as a kind of template for Hallel (the Talmud hints that the antiphonal manner in which the Hallel was originally read is modeled after Moses’ reading each verse aloud, and the people responding); it also, as the Siddur has developed to this day, is the final section of the daily Pesukei de-Zimra. As such, it prompts various thoughts about different kinds of song and praise.

In the one place in the Talmud where Pesukei de-Zimra is discussed by name (Shabbat 118b), Rav Yossi says: “I wish that I could recite Hallel every day,” to which there comes the immediate retort, “But one who says Hallel every day is as if he blasphemes!” After it is clarified that he is referring to Pesukei de-Zimra, his interlocutor concedes: “Ah, that is different.”

In what sense are the two kinds of Hallel different? (See what I have written on this at HY II: Ki Teitsei—Yahrzeit Shiur; HY VI: Metzora-Hagadol [Psalms]) Reflecting further on this matter, it seems to me that these two units of praise reflect two very different kinds of models. The Hallel read on festival days, known as Hallel ha-Mitzri, marks God’s acts in history, His incursion into this world of routine and causality and predictability and performing “signs and wonders,” setting aside the laws of nature that He Himself has established, to affect redemptive acts. These songs of praise celebrate God’s dramatic involvement in history, and especially His love and caring for His people Israel, through such redemptive acts as the Exodus; hence its name, “the Egyptian Hallel.” To recite this Hallel every day would be to reduce the great events of our history to the level of the banal, the mundane, the routine; it is precisely their celebration on special occasions that accentuates their significance.

Not so Pesukei de-Zimra. These psalms, recited daily as a kind of introduction to the daily morning prayers and, some say, as a means of entering prayer in a proper mood, celebrate God ‘s involvement in the everyday world, as author of the universe, as He who feeds His creatures, gives them life, is present in their every breath—in short, God as manifested in the round of everyday life itself. The psalms chosen for this unit of prayer speak of God’s ethical qualities and caring for the downtrodden and misfortunate in general (e.g., in Pss 145 or Ashrei, and 146), portray the entire cosmos or all the instruments of the orchestra in a symphony of praise (Pss 148, 150) or His innumerable acts in the “day of small things” (Ps 147).

I would characterize these two kinds of Hallel as reflecting two paradigmatic events in history, around which, one might say, all biblical and Jewish thought revolve: the Creation and the Exodus. To celebrate the Creation means: to recognize God’s presence in all places and all times, to see Him as the “ground of being” (to use the language of the Germanic theologians). To celebrate the Exodus means to see Him forts and foremost as the God of History, and to see history itself as a process leading towards the third great moment: Redemption. Indeed, in the Diaspora, where the final festival day of Pesah is doubled into two days, the Eighth Day of Pesah is devoted to the them of messianic, eschatological redemption, in which God will so-to-speak repeat the miracle of the Exodus, raised to a higher, cosmic level. Thus, the haftarah is taken from Isaiah’s vision in Chs. 11-12, while the Ma’arivit poems, recited in the old Ashkenazic liturgy, present a series of alternating stanzas counterpoising Pesah Mitzraim and Pesah le-Atid (the “Passover of Egypt” and “the Future Passover”).

In a way, these two paradigms reflect what might be called linear and cyclical perceptions of time. There is a certain conventional wisdom which holds that Judaism sees history in linear terms, leading to the betterment of the human condition in the future universal peace and plentitude of the Messianic Age. Some even suggest that the passion with which many secularized Jews embraced movements of social change which sought to create utopian societies, whether socialist, liberal-democratic, or Labor-Zionist, had its roots in this messianic tradition. But this view is only a half truth.

A Creation-oriented theology celebrates the regular, cyclical ordering of the universe, each year returning to the same point where it was in previous years: the regular cycles of day and night, the seven-day cycle of weekday and Shabbat, the phases of the moon, the rhythm of spring and autumn, summer heat and winter rain—and even the life cycle of the human being, from birth, through maturity, to death, repeated endlessly, with each new generation taking the place of its parents and continuing human—and Jewish—civilization and tradition through all eternity (this is one plausible reading of the imperative, “you shall tell them to your children,” which lies at the heart of the Seder).

It has been claimed that a respectable group of thinkers, including Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, Yitzhak Breuer, and Hermann Cohen, represent a school that has been called the “rejection of history” (or at least historicism)—that is, the perception that that which is most significant about Jews and Judaism exists outside the vagaries of history, in a kind of sub species eternitae (see David N. Myers, Resisting History).

The sub-text of this dispute, within the contemporary scene, relates to Zionism. Zionism has been seen as the exemplar par excellence of the Jewish return to history, and the attempt to achieve redemption of the Jewish nation in actual history (Gush Emunim and other post-’67 settler ideologies represent the fusion of this with traditional religious messianism). The alternative, more “a-historical” view, sees our historical moment more in terms of olam keminhago noheg, “the world goes on its usual way,” and our task as religious people as the same as it was 100 or 500 or 1000 years ago: to perceive the Divine presence within the seemingly mundane, secular world, dominated by human greed and passions and at times violent, Hobbesian struggle—and to somehow sanctify that world.

ZOHAR: Redemption as Untying Knots

I wish to present a brief and somewhat enigmatic passage from the Zohar, in which the spiritual process that facilitated the Exodus from Egypt is described as an “untying of knots.” According to this, Pharaoh and his magicians had “bound” the Israelites in knots—a symbol for the forces of impurity which had hold of them; in order to redeem them, God needed to untie or break these knots. Due to time limitations, my comments will be very limited. Zohar II:37b-38a

“[And God killed] every firstborn” (Exod 12:29). All the rungs, high and low, were severed from their links; all those ruling by their wisdom, as is written: “in the land of Egypt” (ibid.). All these rungs, high and low, that were torn from their links are alluded to in the verse, as is written, “from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the first born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn of the beasts” (Exod 11:5). All of them are revealed in the verse!

The gist of the matter: “from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne”—the low crown of regal adornment of supernal Kingship. “To the firstborn of the slave girl’—left crown, below regal adornment; behind four millstones, four camps. [This is implied] because it is written: “behind the millstone” and not “from the millstones.” “And every firstborn of the beasts”—lowest of the low, female of females, found among donkeys and beasts, large and small; males and females are received from them. “To the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon” (Exod 12:29). Those issuing from “the slave girl,” through whom they forced captives to be enslaved to them forever, never going free. [These four levels represent different powers of darkness and impurity; hence, even if in worldly terms they are socially marginal, in metaphysical terms they are potent forces of destruction]

Relying on these rungs, the Egyptians refused—for by them they entangled Israel so that they would never escape bondage. Here the power and dominion of the blessed Holy One was revealed, and this memory will never be destroyed [or: forgotten] among Israel throughout all the generations. Were it not for the might and power of the blessed Holy One, all the kings of the world, sorcerers of the world, and the wise of the world would be unable to deliver Israel from slavery; for He untied their bonds ands smashed all those crowns to bring them out. Of this it is written, “Who would not revere You, O King of the nations? For it befits You, since among all the wise of the nations and among all their kingdoms there is none like You” (Jer 10:7).

Rabbi Shimon wept, raising his voice and groaning. He said: Cluster of chiding! Have you pondered how many times the blessed Holy One praises Himself? “Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt” (Exod 20:2)… [the Zohar goes on to quote a series of verses—Deut 16:1; 5:15; Exod 12:17; 13:3a; Deut 4:37; Exod 13:3b—all referring to God’s performance of the Exodus]

However, it has been taught: There are ten crowns below, corresponding to the pattern above, all of them concealed in these three that we have mentioned. With three knots they bound them on Israel’s three rungs, so that they would never escape their bondage.

Happy are you, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, by whose merit the knots were untied! The blessed Holy One remembered your three knots of faith, as is written: “And the Lord remembered his covenant with Abraham (one knot, of Abraham), with Isaac (a second knot, of Isaac), and with Jacob (a third, complete knot, of Jacob)” (Exod 2:24).

It has been taught: All festive seasons, holidays and Sabbaths are in memory of this, and upon this they all are based; for were it not for this, there would be no observance of festive seasons, holidays or Sabbaths. Consequently, the memory of Egypt has not been eliminated from any festive season, holiday or Sabbath. Come and see: This is the foundation and root of Torah and its commandments and the entire faith of Israel.

From The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, translated by Daniel Matt, IV: 176-178

Pesah - Shir Ha-Shirim (Zohar)

In memory of the illustrious teacher of our generation, Ha-Gaon he-Hasid Rav Yosef Dov (Baer) ben Moshe Halevi Soloveitchik, who ascended to the Heavenly Yeshivah on 17 Nissan 5754 (Pesah 1994). May the memory of his teaching be an ongoing blessing.

Solomon’s Garden

It is customary on the Sabbath of Pesah to read Shir ha-Shirim (the Song of Songs), the lyric love poem most often read as an allegory of the connection between God and the people Israel. Hence, we present here one of the Zohar’s homilies on a verse from that book, from Parshat Terumah. Zohar II: 127a-128a:

“Let them take Me an offering” (Exod 25:2). Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Eleazar, Rabbi Abba, and Rabbi Yossi were sitting one day beneath some trees on the plain by the Sea of Ginnosar [i.e., the Kinneret or Sea of Galilee]. Rabbi Shimon said, “How pleasant is the shade of these trees covering us! We must adorn this place with words of Torah.”

Rabbi Shimon opened, saying, “King Solomon made himself a pavilion from the trees of Lebanon” (Song of Songs 3:9). This verse we have already established and it has been discussed; but “pavilion” refers to the palace below, which is in the image of the upper palace; [And indeed,] the blessed Holy One called it Garden of Eden, which He planted for pleasure, and He desires to delight therein those souls of the righteous who all exist there, enrolled within. Those souls, having no body in this world, all ascend and are crowned there, and have places from which to gaze, to revel in the sublime joy called “the delightfulness of the Lord (YHVH).” And there they are filled with the enchanting rivers of pure balsam.

Afarsimon(balsam) alludes to the upper palace, which is concealed and hidden. And apiryon (pavilion) is the lower palace, which has no [letter] samekh until it is supported (אסתמיך) by the upper palace. Hence the letter samekh is closed on all sides, like the closed letter mem.

The Zohar engages here in an elaborate numerological-word-play on the relation between the words אפרסמון (balsam, referred to in several places in the Mishnah as the most fragrant and precious oil known to the ancient world; NB: the use of the same word to refer to the persimmon fruit is modern) and אפריון (palanquin or pavilion). The word afarsimon contains the letters samekh and mem, the only two letters of the Hebrew alphabet that are closed on all sides. The one, samekh, is roundish in shape, alluding to the highest of all worlds, the Divine “point” or origin in Hokhmah or even higher; the latter is squared off, as if “crouching” above the constellation of lower sefirot. The word apiryon, instead of samekh and mem, contains the letter yod, a simple point, the square of whose value, 10 x 10 = 100, equals the sum of the value of samekh, 60, and mem, 40. It also alludes to Yesod, which inter alia symbolizes the phallus, the conduit of Divine flow from above into the lower worlds.

What is the difference between them? When it is enclosed and hidden within itself, within the supernal point above, She [i.e., Binah] assumes the form of the letter samekh, enclosed and hidden, ascending above. But when She returns and crouches over her children below to suckle them, She assumes the form of the letter mem, revi’a (meaning both “crouching” and “square”), enclosed in the four directions of the world.

Hence, She is both afarsimon and apiryon; and instead of the two letters samekh and mem stands yod, in the mystery of the covenant—ready to receive all, mystery of one hundred blessings—sixty and forty. Sixty [also] corresponds to the six aspects [the six central sefirot] issuing from the letter samekh, and forty corresponding to four the directions of the world—in all, totaling one hundred. And the letter yod fulfills the mystery of one hundred, corresponding to the pattern above. Thus, it is afarsimon, balsam, and it is apiryon, pavilion.

Those rivers issue from this balsam, and the supernal souls that have no body in this world draw upon the radiance emitted from those rivers of pure balsam, reveling in this sublime joy. And souls that ascend and descend, having a body in this world, ascend and suckle from the radiance of this pavilion, giving and receiving—giving the fragrance of the worthy deeds in which they engaged in this world, and receiving of the fragrance remaining in the Garden, as is said: “like the fragrance of a field blessed by the Lord” (Gen 27:27)—the fragrance remaining in that field. They all exist in that Garden, these delighting above, those delighting below.

The Zohar goes on to discuss the use of the phrase Ha-Melekh Shlomo, “King Solomon,” as a symbol for God Himself—who, in making the Garden for Himself, also made it for the souls of the righteous:

“King Solomon made himself—for himself. Now, you might say, ‘Look, souls of the righteous delight within, and yet you say made himself?’ Certainly so! Because this pavilion and the souls of the righteous all exist for the delight of blessed Holy One. “King Solomon”—the King who possesses (shelama), peace—namely the supernal King, as they have established. “The king”—anonymous [i.e., without a name following the title]—is King Messiah. This is the World of the Male; that is the World of the Female. “From the trees of Lebanon—planted trees, uprooted by the blessed Holy One and transplanted elsewhere. These are called cedars of Lebanon, as is said: “the cedars of Lebanon that He planted” (Psalms 104:16). This pavilion was built and decorated with them alone. Again, “From the trees of Lebanon”—these are the six days of Creation, each arranging in this pavilion a fitting arrangement. …

—Translation by Daniel C. Matt, from the as-yet-published manuscript of The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, Vol. 5, which Prof. Matt has very kindly allowed me to use.

Rabbi Soloveitchik and the Zohar

The theme for this year being Zohar, it seems fitting to devote our essay on the occasion of Rav Solovetchik’s yahrzeit to some thoughts—unfortunately truncated brief and inadequate—to the Rav’s attitude towards Zohar, Kabbalah, Hasidism and the Jewish mystical tradition.

The Rav is generally thought of as an arch-Mitnagged—an outspoken opponent if Hasidism. And indeed, one year when the Rav was the keynote speaker at the annual dinner of the Lubavitcher Day School in Boston, he began his remarks by describing himself as belonging to a family who were noted as “fierce opponents of Hasidism in general, and of Habad Hasidism in particular.” But he then went on to speak in rather glowing terms of Habad and its teaching.

More significantly, a major section in the first book-length exposition of his thought, Halakhic Man, harshly criticizes involvement in Kabbalah and mystic flights of imagination, stating that the experience of “halakhic man” is deeply rooted in the concrete world, the halakhah serving both as a kind of conceptual map projected against the universe, and as teaching concrete, practical guidelines and mandated actions (i.e., mitzvot ma’asiyot) towards changing the self and redeeming the world.

But in his later writing and public teaching there seems to be a certain softening of what some have called his ”pan-halahic” approach; here and there one finds positive and sympathetic presentations of passages from the Zohar and Hasidic thought. (A more systematic study of this issue, based on careful reading of his major essays, is a desideratum.)

But one must also remember that the Rav was very much an heir to the tradition of the Vilna Gaon and R. Hayyim of Volozhin, which very much respected Kabbalah and saw it as one of the branches of Torah. The Gaon was deeply involved in Kabbalah, wroting commentaries on such Kabbalistic works as Tikkunei ha-Zohar & Safra de-Tzeni’uta, while Nefesh ha-Hayyim is filled with Kabbalistic quotations that serve to refute Hasidism. Their objection to Hasidism was thus on other grounds.

Moreover, the Rav had a deep childhood connection to Habad—and to Lubavitch. He was fond of repeating the story of his childhood melamed, a Habad Hasid (the White Russian town of Haslavitch, in which the Rav grew up, was almost the only town in the region which did not have a Habad ma”tz or da”tz [i.e., rabbi], but rather the Rav’s own father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik). This melamed clandestinely taught the young boys Tanya when he was supposed to be teaching them Talmud, posting a lookout to quickly hide the “taboo” Hasidic text when the Rav of the town, i.e., the Rav’s father, came by unexpectedly. In later years the Rav stated that he owed his sense of religious experience to this man. When the gates of the Iron Curtain began to open slightly and rabbis from America were permitted to visit the Soviet Union, Rabbi Herschel Schacter (not to be confused with Rabbi Hershel Schachter, currently rosh yeshiva at YU and a generation younger) went there and located this melamed, who was by then an elderly man, and told him that ”Your talmid has become a gadol, a great Torah teacher in America.”

There were also warm personal relations between the Rav and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. When the Rav’s wife died in 1968, the Rebbe, who never left Brooklyn, sent his personal secretary, Rabbi Khadakov, to offer condolences to the Rav.

But this issue goes far beyond the question of the Rav’s personal attitude, and entails broader issues: the relationship between “Talmudic Judaism” and mysticism; the somewhat related issue of philosophy and Kabbalah; or, more broadly, between the legal, behavioral aspect of Judaism and its philosophical, religious and experiential aspects: i.e., which is essential and which is secondary? This is a vast topic, going back to the tension or interplay between halakhah and aggadah in the world of Hazal, of classical Rabbinic Judaism—or even, some might suggest, to the Biblical corpus, with its interplay between priest and prophet, between wisdom and poetic literature and the legal chapters.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common to speak of this issue in terms of Torah and yirah: that is, the balance between halakhic-oriented, text-centered study, and those forms of study or other activity intended to inculcate “fear of God.” In very different ways, this was the goal of the Mussar movement, of Hasidism, and of such diverse ethical treatises as Mesilat Yesharim and Orhot Tzadikkim, all of which warned against excessive focus upon textual mastery alone. In its own way, the rationalist philosophical schools of the Middle Ages also attacked Talmudism and offered an alternative path to knowledge of the Divine. But it seems to me that it was in the modern period, with the Enlightenment and the emergence of movements of religious reform, that one begins to find within the Orthodox world a “pan-halakhic” reaction, which strives to deduce religious thought directly from the details of the halakhah (thus, for example, in such diverse schools as that of R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and the Shi’urei Da’at of Telze).

But ultimately, the issue is one of degree, not of black-and-white alternative options. Certainly, at least in his later years, Rav Soloveitchik was cognizant of the valuable lessons to be learned both from Hasidism and philosophy, as well as from the classical canon of Hazal and rishonim. But due to time restrictions I have barely touched the surface, and the subject requires much further discussion.

Pesah (Zohar)

Birkat ha-Hamah: Some Heretical Thoughts

This year, the Eve of Pesah is marked by an added special occasion: the recitation of Birkat ha-Hamah, the Blessing over the Sun, recited only once every 28 years, always on one of the first Wednesdays in Nisan; this year, most unusually (some say, for the first time since the Exodus), it falls on Erev Pesah. Dozens of books and pamphlets have been written to mark the occasion; lectures and classes on the subject are ubiquitous; many will recite the blessing at mass gatherings —at the Western Wall, at the Sherover Promenade in Talpiyot (which provides an unobstructed view of both the Temple Mount and of the eastern horizon) and, for the hardy, at Metzukei Deragot, near the cliffs overlooking one of the deepest and most impressive wadis in the Judean Desert (and most challenging for snapplers). The simple, one line blessing, עושה מעשה בראשית (“He who creates the works of creation”), has been adorned with an elaborate liturgy, containing psalms, biblical verses referring to the sun, and piyyut.

What is the reason for all this hoopla? Psychologically, most people find the opportunity to recite a prayer which only comes two or three, or at most four, times in a lifetime an occasion for celebration in itself (or, in an untranslatable Israeli word-play, סיבה למסיבה). The explanation given in the Talmud at Berakhot 59b is that it marks the return of the sun, in cyclical fashion, to the exact position at which it was located at the time of Creation, which also coincides with the vernal equinox. But a closer examination raises some troubling questions.

The calculation of the 28-year cycle is based upon the assumption that the solar year is exactly 365¼ days long. Hence, each year the suns returns to its original position one and a quarter days later—if one starts from sunset Tuesday night (the blessing is recited Wednesday morning because the sun is obviously not visible at night), the next year it will fall at midnight of Wednesday, the year after that at dawn on Friday, and so on; hence, only after a complete 28 year cycle (7 x 4) does it return to the same time-period and day of the week. The current Hebrew year, 5769, is 5768 years, an exact multiple of 28, after the year 1; hence, this is regarded as the first year of the 207th 28-year cycle since Creation.

But this calculation, based upon what is known in Rabbinic literature as “Shmuel’s tekufah,” is rooted in an inaccuracy. The actual solar year is about 11 minutes short of 365 ¼ days; thus, in the course of slightly more than a century there accumulates an error of an entire day; hence, since the days of Shmuel, in late antiquity, the date for the blessing—in last century and this, April 9th—is some twenty days after the equinox (daytime today is about 12 hours 40 minutes).

It was this same deviation from an exact quarter-day that led the Catholic Church, under Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, to adapt the revision of the Julian calendar known as the Gregorian calendar, in which the century-years (except for those that are multiples of 400, such as 2000), are not leap years. This was only gradually adopted by Protestant countries, and in Russian only after the 1917 Revolution. An interesting personal sidelight: in my own family, this resulted in some confusion about the proper birthday for my father, who was born in Czarist-occupied Poland in 1906, under the Julian dispensation.

The Jewish calendar per se, through which we determine new moons, intercalate leap years, and thus celebrate our festivals, knows of this discrepancy and accurately calculates the solar year; hence, the festivals always falls in the proper seasons. Birkat ha-Hamah is one of only two observances that perpetuates this discrepancy, the other being the date for reciting tal u-matar in the Diaspora which, rather than November 20, as implied by the Talmud (60 days after the autumnal equinox), begins on December 4th or 5th.

But more than that: the very notion that the sun returns to a specific place where it was at the time of Creation implies a Ptolemiac world-view, in which the sun revolves around earth. In other words, the whole concept of Birkat ha-Hamah ignores the Copernichean revolution of the 16th century, which dramatically revised the manner in which humankind views the position of the earth in the universe—not to mention the issue of whether we understand the “Six Days of Creation” in literal fashion, or as in some sense metaphorical.

The observance of Birkat ha-Hamah thus raises some rather serious questions about Torah and science: if, in light of the above, it is difficult to regard the so-called return of the sun to its original position as in any way corresponding to any actual celestial event, what is the point of it all? Many people have waxed poetic about Birkat ha-Hamah as an occasion for us to “express our appreciation for God for the world in which he has placed us” (thus the Torah Tidbits)—but we do that in many other ways, beginning with our daily morning and evening prayers; this occasion seems ersatz, based on long-outmoded scientific notions. One can perhaps excuse the Haredim, untutored in science, who refer to the heliocentric view of the solar system as “the theory of a Polish galakh (priest)”—a factual, if insulting description of Nicholaus Copernicus. But what of those of us who believe that it is possible to synthesize and even integrate Torah u-Mada (Torah and Science) into a unified world view? (Indeed, those words are the very motto of Yeshiva University.) To my mind, the only way one can recite Birkat hh-Hamah in good faith and with some intellectual integrity is by viewing halakhah as a purely theoretical construction, totally disconnected from the concrete reality of the world. But that is a terribly arid approach, generally, and particularly in relation to blessings, whose whole point is to make us aware of God’s presence in the multitude of phenomena we encounter in everyday life.

Of course, the fact that the blessing occurs so infrequently, and that many of us may well be dead by the next time it becomes a matter of practical observance, in 2037, means that people hardly have reason to give much thought to the issue—or else get caught up in the excitement of doing something so rare and special, whatever the underlying rationale. In the end, I myself don’t know what I shall do tomorrow morning. Perhaps, as a well-disciplined Orthodox Jew, I will nevertheless recite the blessing with everyone else in my shul. But, in principle, there are serious issues here, deserving of thought. I welcome reactions and comments, even after the fact.

Four Sons: A Postscript

Near the end of my Shabbat Hagadol teaching on “Four Sons and Four Questions,” I referred in passing to an interpretation I heard from Deena Garber. As what I wrote was rather sketchy, Deena sent me the following elaboration:

What I said was that one should try reversing the order: i.e., first see the answers and then reflect on the questions…. If you look at answers 1-4 as reported in the Haggadah, you may see how each child, with the kind of communication from the father as indicated by those answers, would tend to produce parallel questions or lack of questions… The first father, with the set of clear answers, produces an inquiring, questioning talmid hakham. The father with an attitude of hakheh, putting down the very cay of questioning, produces a rebellious son, the rasha. The father who speaks of wonders produces the marveling temimut (innocence) of the tam. The parent who speaks first—at petah lo—produces a child who will never ask…

This reversal of the communication paradigm was just a thought I had once when we were learning pre-Pesah at Yakar… I thought about these pragmatics of communication viz. the four sons in the context of parents really opening up a place of true communication and thinking about answering a child's questions and wanting and being able to say, “Yes, I was really in Mitzrayim and Hashem really took me out.” We were, as I remember, thinking about this in the context of trans-generational issues in transmission of trauma and collective Jewish trauma, especially in the context of the Shoah…

I was always rather surprised by the strong effect this idea had on people. At petah lo seems to me very clear: when parents consistently don’t wait for the child to speak but jump in, the child has no space to ask… It may be that it is specifically a feminine form, referring to a certain kind of [mothering] style that interferes with the early expression of the true self—not at all teaching how to ask a question.

But perhaps the Haggadah is indeed teaching us something very much deeper about multi-generational issues, when we learn that the essence of Torah sheba’al peh—of the derashot, narrative and limmud of the Seder—is a parent child process which also transmits faith and the experience of freedom on this night.

One more side issue, inter alia related to what she said above: I realized that a linguistic clarification is in order about the phrase used in the reply to the wicked son: אף אתה הקהה את שיניו, “you should blunt his teeth.” Many people seem to think that this implies physical aggression, as if it were to be read הכה את שיניו, “You should hit ” or even “knock out his teeth.” The Hebrew root קהה is a rare one, appearing only four times in all of Tanakh: three times in variants of the folk-saying, אבות אכלו בוסר ושיני בנים תקההנה “the fathers ate unripe/sour grapes and the teeth of the sons are blunted” (Jeremiah 31:28, 29 and Ezekiel 18:2, and once in the proverb in Ecclesiastes 10:10, אם קהה הברזל והוא לא פנים קלקל וחילים יגבר (“If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, he must exert more strength”). The implication of the phrase is thus one of blunting or “taking the edge” off the hostility and negative force of the “wicked” son, not of violence or destruction.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Shabbat Hagadol (Zohar series)

For more teachings on Tzav, and on Pesah, see the archives to this blog at April 2006.

Four Sons and Four Questions

One of the most popular sections of the Seder is the beraita of the Four Sons. Indeed, I have participated at many Seders in which so much time is spent on discussion of this passage that they ended up running through the rest of the Haggadah in order to begin dinner before midnight. (The Four Sons is also a popular motif of Haggadah illustrators. My late mother, an artist, was perpetually fascinated by the variety of ways in which artists depicted these four figures in different times and cultures.)

There are so many creative interpretations and exegeses of this passage, that one often overlooks the simple meaning of the passage. The basic question we shall attempt to answer here is: What is the role of questions in the Seder night? And, specifically, is the Seder ritual itself conceived as a fixed text, or as the dynamic outcome of dialogue between father and sons? We shall begin by presenting the text itself:

Blessed is the omnipresent, blessed is He. Blessed is He who gave Torah to His people lsrael, blessed is He.. Of four sons the Torah spoke: one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, one who knows not how to ask.

The wise one, what says he? “What are the statutes and testimonies and laws that pur Lord God has commanded you?” And you tell him the laws of Pesah, even [down to that] one does not leave anything after the Afikoman.

The wicked son,. What says he? What is this service to you? To you ;an not “to him,” Since he took himself out of he collectivity, he denied the essence. And you shall blunt his teeth and say: “because of this the Lord did to me when I went out of Egypt.” To me and not to him; had he been there he would not have bee redeemed,’

The simple son, what says he? What is this? And you shall say to him, with a strong arm God took our out of Egypt, the house of bondage.”

And he who knows not how to ask, you shall open to him, as is said “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, Because of this the Lord did to me when I went out of Egypt.”

One of the first things to strike one here is the way in which the Sages “mix and match” the biblical verses that serve as the raw material of their exegesis. The Torah speaks of four sons”—that is, there are four different biblical verses in which the father is told that, at some point in the future, he will be called upon to retell the story of the Exodus to his son, either in response to the son’s question or that he will simply “tell it to your son.” But the Torah’s answers to these questions are totally different from those given in our passage. For purposes of clarification and comparison, we shall present the biblical verses, to which we have assigned numbers based on the order of their appearance in the Torah:

[1] And it shall be when you come into the land… and you shall keep this service. And it shall come to pass, when your son asks you, saying What is this service to you? You shall say: It is a paschal offering to the Lord, that He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt…. (Exod 12:25-27)

[2] And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: Because of this the Lord did for me, when I went out of Egypt. (Exod 13:8)

[3] And it shall be, when your son asks you tomorrow: What is this? And you shall say to him: With a strong hand the Lord took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exod 13:14)

[4] When your son asks you tomorrow, saying: What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the Lord your God has commanded you? And you shall say to your son: We were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. (Deut 6:20-21)

One immediately sees that, while [3] and [2] correspond respectively to the simple son and to the one who does not know to ask, [4], which corresponds to the question of the wise son, and [1], the question of the wicked son, are given completely different answers, while the Torah’s original answers are given elsewhere in the Haggadah (interestingly, the answer to the wicked son is [2], the same as that given the simple son, but with a completely different “spin”). Clearly, the Rabbis had their own picture of the Passover night and of what the sons were asking; as in so many other cases, the Torah verses served merely as a point of departure for their own exegetical creativity.

To complicate matters further, we ought to mention that the Four Sons appear in at least two other places in Rabbinic literature: in the ancient tannaitic midrash, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, and in the Palestinean Talmud, with greater or smaller variations from the text familiar to us—not to mention further alternative readings in the various manuscripts of the above. Thus, instead of the simple son, we have the “foolish” or “stupid” son (בן טיפש); the foolish son is brought second, as the counterpoint to the wise son, while the wicked son is contrasted with the one who does not ask; the answers to the wise and simple son switched around; etc. As this is not a critical textual study per se, I have brought the text from the Yerushalmi in an appendix at the end, for those interested.

The general lesson implied by this beraita is, first of all, that the Passover Seder or, more specifically, the telling of the story of the Exodus which is its central mitzvah of that night (סיפור יציאת מצרים, in halakhic terminology), is not meant to be a fixed ritual, with a canonic text to be recited and no more, but is meant to grow out of the questions asked by the children and the answers given by the parents in response to them. Starting from the obvious insight that children differ from one another in their intellectual capacity and in their attitude towards Judaism—not to mention the obvious differences among variegated age groups—the conclusion is that, notwithstanding the strongly traditional elements of the Seder and its fixed components, the parents must respond in an appropriate manner. In short, the Passover Seder is portrayed here as an occasion for free-flowing dialogue between parents and children about the Exodus, itself understood in the broadest sense, ultimately, as: “What does it mean to be part of this people, anyway?”; “What is the meaning of our peculiar history and destiny?”; and even, simply, “Why bother to be Jews?”

But let us turn to other sources. Prior to reading the passage of the Four Sons, with the four questions and answers, we have the Four Questions, which opens the narrative part of the Seder. After Kiddush, the dipping of the karpas—a kind of green vegetable aperitif—in salt water, and the ceremonial display of matzot with the call “Let all who are hungry come and eat; Let all who need to do so come and make the Pesah with us,” the youngest child recites a series of four questions. This is a central moment in every family, a highlight of the Seder as a child-centered event, with parents and grandparents kvelling (glowing with pride) as their little darlings display their ability to chant the well-rehearsed phrases. Yet the ritualized character of the Four Questions would seem to belie the free-flowing form of the Seder. The Four Questions, and the narrative part of the Seder generally, are described in a mishnah at Pesahim 10.4:

They pour him the second cup. Here the son asks his father And if the son has no knowledge [or: intellectual capacity] his father teaches him: “How different this night is from all other nights…” According to the son’s knowledge/intellectual capacity, his father teaches him. One begins with degradation and concludes with praise And he expounds the passage, ”A wandering Aramean was my father…” (Deut 25:6) until he completes the entire passage.

I have deliberately omitted the text of the Four Questions as it appears in this mishnah, as a detailed discussion of its points of difference from our own text—based upon its rootedness in the reality of the Temple, and the paschal sacrifice which was the focus of the evening there—would take us too far afield. I am more interested in the overall picture conveyed in this mishnah: “Here the son asks his father; and if the son has no knowledge, his father teaches him.” Does the son’s question consist of Mah Nishtaneh, or is it something else entirely? I have heard it suggested—I don’t remember where or by whom—that the passage beginning Mah nishtanah is in fact a kind of introductory declaration or statement with which the father begins his response to the questions: “How different this night is from all other nights!”—followed by a short list of some of those “differences”: “that all other nights we [may] eat hametz and [or?] matzah, tonight we eat only matzah,” etc. Following this initial statement, the father continues to teach, following the guidelines put forward in the mishnah: that he guides himself by the mental capacity (da’at) of the son; that he begins with “degradation” (i.e., the initial negative situation of the people, whether that of slavery or of pre-Abrahamic idolatry) and ends with “praise,” i.e., the positive tidings of Redemption and the Covenant with God; that, in terms of the broad outline, he expounds the verses of the capsule account of the Exodus found in Deuteronomy 26:5-9, the Vidduy Bikkurim (proclamation recited upon bringing first fruits); and, as stipulated in the next mishnah by R. Gamaliel, that somewhere along the line he explains the meaning of the symbolic foods—Matzah, Pesah sacrifice, and bitter herbs—eaten on this night; and that he concludes with the two opening psalms of Hallel, Psalms 113-114.

This picture of the Haggadah as being in response to “free-form” questions is reinforced suggested by several other texts. Thus, the Talmud on this mishnah suggests, at b. Pesahim 116a:

Our Rabbis taught: If the son was wise, he asks him; and if he was not wise, his wife asks him; and if not, he asks himself. Even two learned scholars who know the laws of Pesah ask one another…

Rav Nahman said to his servant Daro: A servant, whose master liberated him and gave him gold and silver, what ought he to say to him? He said: He needs to thank his master and to praise him. He replied: You have exempted us from saying Mah nishtanah. So he began and said: “We were slaves….” [i.e., the beginning of the narration or “answer” part of the Haggadah]

* * * * *

What is the role of questions in the educational process? We know that the Socratic method was based upon the teacher asking questions, coaxing the pupils to think. In Zen Buddhism, an important role is played by the koan, the paradoxical question that forces the initiate to think outside of conventional patterns. A similar motivation may have moved the old donkey driver in the Zohar’s Sabba de-Mishpatim, who asked seemingly absurd questions that proved to allude to deep mysteries.

But all these are questions initiated by teachers. On Seder night, the crucial questions are those asked by the sons, whose education is the ultimate goal of the Seder. Hence, the beraita of the Four Sons emphasizes that each son asks a different question, rooted in his own existential situation, in who he is. Advocates of progressive education (such as John Skinner in his book Summerhill) claim that education works best when based upon the students’ own questions and interests, allowing them to follow their own natural curiosity and interests. And indeed, the best questions are those that come from the person—not merely one learned by rote, a fixed ritual repeated every year by custom or tradition, but one that reflects the pupil’s own inner intellectual or existential world. A person may or may not listen to a lesson, a sermon, or a speech, but he likely to listen, and to listen carefully, to the answer to a question he himself has asked.

But questions can also be dangerous and, especially within a traditional culture or dogmatic religious system, based upon the a priori acceptance of certain beliefs or axioms, even threatening. One sometimes hears people talk about how they were spoiled for Judaism by the old-fashioned religious education, in which questions were not only discouraged (by the proverbial teacher with the ruler smashed over the knuckles of recalcitrant pupils), but actively rejected as apikorsis—“heretical.” In the Four Sons, this threatening aspect of questions is exemplified by the “wicked son” who asks a question that comes from a perspective of alienation, from outside the community framework; to quote the expanded version found in the Yerushalmi: “What is this great bother with which you bother yourselves every year?” Isn’t it the job of the truly committed Jewish parent or educator to wrack his brains, if need be, to find an answer that will cause the alienated youth to rethink his negative posture? Perhaps the phrase הקהה את שיניו must be read as meaning, “you should refute / dull the [speech of] his teeth” with persuasive, eye-opening answers.

On a certain level, this may be a point on which contemporary people differ from the mentality that seems to be implied by the beraita of the Four Sons. In modern, open society, we don’t see any alternative to intellectual openness, taking the intellectual and spiritual risk of dealing with any and every question asked. After all, what good Jewish family doesn’t have its “wicked son“ who asks: Why bother with all this stuff anyway?

Another aspect of this: while it is surely good to encourage questions, existential questions are by their very nature rooted in the present. Yet the whole thrust of the Seder is to open up another kind of consciousness: an awareness of living within a historical continuity, of the past being meaningful, a vital part of ones identity. But in modern times, particularly, people live very much in the present (unless one is an unusual person, who has somehow acquired a different kind of mentality and education). The average person is oriented towards the “Here and Now”—contemporary science and technology and music and writing and entertainment and politics and forms of social interaction. Even advanced degrees, for most, is primarily oriented towards acquiring skills and kinds of knowledge that are marketable in today’s economic climate, and not “culture for the sake of culture” (a kind of classicist, secular counterpart to the old Jewish ideal of Torah lishmah). The classic Jewish mind-set, by contrast, is one in which the individual sees himself as a link in the chain of generations; in which he sees past events as significant in their own right, and as important paradigms for understanding the present (e.g., Ramban’s famous rule, “the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the sons”). Perhaps the rasha represents that kind of one-dimensional, present-oriented mentality—what Eliezer Schweid once called “Akhshavsim,” the cult of the Now—which must somehow be blunted in order to make the story what happened long long ago come alive and be seen as relevant.

* * * * *

Notwithstanding my emphasis on understanding the peshat of the Four Sons, I cannot conclude without bringing my own new vort on this passage. In past years I’ve quoted my friend Yaqub ibn Yusuf’s mystical interpretation, in which the order is reversed, and the one who does not ask questions because he is on the highest level of all, a state of mystical unity with God ; or Deena Garber‘s statement that the four sons really reflect more upon the father’s attitude, and that each parent, through his own attitude towards his children, elicits one of the four responses.

My late friend and mentor, Rav Meir Feist, quoted one of the Hasidic rebbes who said “Ehaaaaa…d hakham; ve-ehaaaaad rasha,” etc. , drawing out the Hebrew word for “One” as one does when reading Shema:. As if to say: God Himself is at once wise, and wicked (the source of evil in this world), and simple, and beyond all questions.

But this year I wish to suggest that each of us must know how to be all four of the sons. The wise son asks what is essentially a conventional question: he is not troubled by any existential dilemmas, but simply requests information: he accepts the traditional axioms without objection, but wants to know more: to fill in the lacuna in his knowledge of Torah. (By analogy, some scientists today say that there are no more great theories to be discovered; the task of science today is simply to fill in the holes in our knowledge of the universe, within the context of an overall picture that is complete). The pursuit of halakhic and textual information is surely important, as far as it goes, but in a certain sense it is no more than an initial stage in the religious quest.

May it be that the question of the rasha is really the best of all? (I can imagine the Kotzker saying something like that) Each year we must ask ourselves: What is this service to you? What is your own personal connection with this rather stereotyped and fixed ritual?

And the tam: what is his special quality? He possesses an innocence, a certain simplicity, naivete of perspective: he sees the thing as it is. What Ruth Calderon, in another context, once referred to as “barefoot reading”—looking at the contents of Jewish culture without any preconceptions. His question, Mah zot?, means: What is this really about? There is a kind of wisdom in this: the ability to erase what one has learned and look at phenomena anew.

And the fourth son, who does not ask at all, what is his quality? Wonder? Acceptance? Simple Presence? Or perhaps Thoreau’s depth that goes beyond speech and sinks into silence.

Appendix: Variant Texts of the Four Sons

One important variant is Mekhilta de Rabbi-Yishmael, ed. Horowitz-Rabin, end of Parshat Bo, pp. 73-74. Several manuscripts read the word טיפש rather than תם, while some exchange tam and rasha: i.e., the contrasting pairs are thus the wise and the stupid; and between the one who provocative challenging questions and the one who does not ask at all.

Far greater differences appear in the Jerusalem Talmud, Pesahim 10.4:

Rabbi Hiyya taught: the Torah spoke of four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a foolish son, and a son who knows not how to ask. What does the wise son say? “What are the statutes and testimonies and laws that the Lord our God has commanded us?” And you say to him: “With a strong arm the Lord took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The wicked son, what does he say? “’What is this service to you?’ What is this trouble with which you trouble yourselves every year?” Since he removed himself from the collectivity, you must say to him: “Because of what the Lord did for me..” He did it “for me” and not for that person; had that person been in Egypt he would never have been deserving to be redeemed forever. The foolish son, what does he say? “What is this?“ So you teach him the laws of Pesah, that one does not leave anything after the Afikoman. That he should not get up and leave this group and go in to join another group [eating its paschal sacrifice]. And the son who knows not how to ask, you open to him first. Rab Yosseh said: Our mishnah said that: “And if the son has no knowledge his father teaches him.”