Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shabbat Kallah - Shavuot (Special Essay)

For more teachings on Shavuot, see the archives to my blog, at May 2006.



The following, presented in honor of Shavuot, is the second half of my major essay about Torah mi-Sinai began last year. By this, I am continuing my resolve to bring to fruition the many nearly-completed essays that have been germinating on my hard disk for far too long.


Last year, (HY IX: Shavuot; or see my blog archives at June 2008), I began to discuss the problems posed to traditional Jewish faith by modern Bible criticism and its implications for the historicity of the Sinai Revelation, the founding event of Judaism, and my feeling that even the best efforts of the “defenders of the faith” were somehow seemed artificial and unconvincing. My central question was this: Is it possible to accept the Torah as Divine, and the halakhic structure as binding, in the broad sense, without the fundamentalism of a literal reading of Torah mi-Sinai? Can one accept the historical picture of the origins of our sacred texts as presented by modern scholarship, and remain an Orthodox Jew? (It should be emphasized here that the essential problem is not the truth of one or another historical conception of Torah—e.g., the Documentary Hypothesis—which can perhaps be refuted, and which has in fact undergone certain changes and revisions—the focus of much Orthodox polemics of a certain kind—but the historical sensibility per se.)

In the first part of this essay, we discussed various aspects of the problem: I quoted at length from Gershom Scholem, who explained the pivotal importance of belief in revealed Torah as davka allowing for the tremendous exegetical freedom of Midrash, medieval parshanut, Kabbalah ,etc.; and of David Weiss Halivni, who described his own struggles with this issue. I then went on to touch briefly upon the approaches of D. Z. Hoffman, U. Cassutto, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, z”l, and, may he have a long life, Prof. David Weiss Halivni.

But before turning to what I see as possible solutions (at least for me personally), I wish to round out my brief survey of approaches to this problem. The mainstream of Orthodox apologetics and polemics, from the Soncino Humash half-a-century ago down to Art-Scroll and Aysh Hatorah, have devoted much energy to proving the unity of the Torah and attempting to refute the claims of the Documentary Hypothesis. But two of the outstanding thinkers of the later twentieth century, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in America and Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz in Israel, were essentially not concerned with this problem, but found other avenues upon which to focus their faith commitments.

It is of particular significance to me that the Rav, to the best of my knowledge, never engages in debunking biblical criticism. Indeed, it would seem that he did not at all perceive it as a major issue. Thus, in the introductory section of Lonely Man of Faith, he writes:

I have not been perplexed by the impossibility of fitting the mystery of revelation into the framework of historical empiricism. Moreover, I have not even been troubled by the theories of Biblical criticism which contradict the very foundations upon which the sanctity and integrity of the Scriptures rest.

Basically, he sees the faith experience of “halakhic man” or the “man of faith” as in a certain sense self-justifying. To understand his view (his much-vaunted “existentialism,” if you will), it is illuminating to turn to the final page of his late-published typology of religious experience, Uvikashta misham. Rather strangely, he concludes this major theological treatise, in which he develops a phenomenology of two kinds of religious experience, the “natural” and the “revelational,” with a scene from his early childhood. In this passage, he describes memories of the sense of immanent holiness evoked by a homely scene of Torah study around his father’s table, in which he felt Rambam, Rabbenu Tam, Rashi and the other greats of the past participating in the act of study, alongside his father and grandfathers.

What is the point of his bringing this story at this point? In my opinion, the Rav is saying that the experiential root of his deep belief in Torah lies less in the theoretical doctrinal belief in the Sinai event, and more in the concrete experience of Masorah community, of having received this tradition from his father and grandfathers. Or, more precisely, the two somehow merge and become one in his eyes. Among the passages he was particularly fond of quoting from Hazal was the statement in Kiddushin 30a that a grandfather is obligated to teach his grandchildren Torah, because the child who receives it thus feels as if he received it from Sinai. (Of course, sceptics will argue that sooner or later the grandchildren will grow up and begin asking critical question; family tradition itself will be inadequate). This is not to say that Rav was not a revelationist, but that it was somehow not the central axis of his faith; in a way, history was irrelevant.

A second thinker who has left a profound mark upon the thought of what might be described as the non-dogmatic Orthodox world was Yeshayahu Leibowitz (see my discussion of his life and thought at HY IV: Yom ha-Atzmaut). Often considered a maverick, both for his outspoken demurral from the messianic and nationalist tone of the mainstream of religious Jewry in Israel after 1967, and for his passionate espousal of Maimonidean rationalism against popular superstition, Leibowitz’ position has been described as a “voluntarist” position. That is to say, his starting point is the individual’s decision to accept the yoke of halakhah, as the central act of “accepting the yoke of Heaven,” rather than polemics and proofs as to the existence of God, Torah from Sinai, and other doctrinal issues. He also stresses that, in any event, Judaism as we know it is essentially a creation of the Rabbis; even the Tanakh enjoys the canonical status it does because the Talmud says so. Was this position an elegant way, albeit never called such explicitly, of dealing with the problem of historicity of the truth claims of the Torah? Leibowitz was an extraordinarily brilliant and erudite person, both in Jewish thought and literature and in Western thought, science, philosophy, and what not—and surely this included the historical analytic reading of texts à la Wellhausen.

It is also worth mentioning here, in passing, a school that denies the validity of historical argumentation generally. In a recent book by David N. Myers, Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought (Princeton, 2003), this position is seen as exemplified by Hermann Cohen, Leo Strauss, Franz Rosenzweig and Isaac Breuer. While Soloveitchik lived in a different era and came from a profoundly different cultural milieu, being rooted first and foremost in traditional Torah study and only thereafter in Western philosophy, I believe that this description would fit him as well.

Before leaving this part of our essay, I wish to pose two important questions, which I would pose as research desiderata to whoever is willing and able to take up the challenge, related to the doctrine of Torah min ha-Shamayim in modern times. First, an interesting historical question: it is a commonplace today to say that the most fundamental, defining doctrine of Orthodox Judaism is the belief in Torah mi-Sinai. At what point did this become such a cardinal issue? And, is it in fact as central to Jewish thought as popularly claimed today? My intuitive feeling is that this claim, at least in this specific form, is relatively recent, having become the sine qua non distinguishing the faithful from the heterodox only over the past two hundred years or so: i.e., since the challenges of Enlightenment, modernity, 19th century biblical criticism, etc.; or, as a scholarly friend once suggested, it may first have been formulated in this manner in Italy, a place where traditional Jews and scholars were exposed to modern thought earlier and more intensely than their counterparts in Central and Eastern Europe. This also relates to the issue of Orthodoxy conceived in terms of a doctrinal, rather than a strictly halakhic-behavioral yardstick, as its criterion—but that is a complex issue that goes far beyond the bounds of this essay.

A second issue relates to the halakhic use of this belief in a practical sense, as a litmus test for the kashrut of a given individual. The late Rav Moshe Feinstein, widely considered the leading posek of American Orthodoxy, wrote a number of teshuvot, published in his encyclopedic collection Iggerot Moshe, in which he invoked doctrinal criteria as a basis for reading Conservative rabbis, even pious and observant ones, out of the fold. In some of these responsa he not only disqualifies acts of personal status performed by such rabbis—marriage, divorce, conversions, etc.— but even rules that they are not to be counted in a minyan, or that one ought not to answer “Amen” to their blessing of Hamotzi at a communal brunch.

Finally, in a somewhat lighter vein, I wish to conclude this section with two anecdotes that illustrate the gap between official doctrine and the human reality of the Orthodox community.

When I was in my early 30s I read a book entitled Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, written by Moshe Weinfeld and published by JTS. As its name implies, this book is a discussion and explanation of what is known among Bible critics as the D document, dissecting the theology, practice, sociological and historical background, and unique lexicon and philological characteristics of Deuteronomy and related prophetic books, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel. I found this book quite troubling, for as a young yeshiva graduate I felt that its argument—which was convincingly presented and backed by seemingly overwhelming evidence—would, if correct, undermine the entire basis for my faith in Torah as the singular word of God and by extension the entire justification for my religious practice.

About the same time, which was during the early years of my first marriage, my wife and I and our young children used to visit her mother (z”l) for Shabbat every month or so. During those visits, I got into the habit on Shabbat morning of attending the Harel Synagogue on Rehov ha-Shayarot, where there was a very serious minyan that began at the early, “yeshivish” hour of 7:30 a.m. I usually sat at the table next to the bookshelves, at which there also sat a clean-shaven, neatly dressed middle-aged man with a rather grave, elongated face. I noticed that he always brought reading matter in his tallit bag which he looked at during various lulls in the service—academic reprints, Hebrew journals such as Tarbitz or Zion, etc. I thought to myself: “This man is a pious, serious Jew, obviously connected in some way with the scholarly, academic community. Surely he must have thought about the issues raised by that apikorus Weinfeld and no doubt found a satisfactory answer enabling him to maintain his Orthodox faith.” One Shabbat after the service I struck up a conversation with this man, and learned that he was indeed a professor at the Hebrew University. At the end of the conversation we exchanged our names, and he told me that his name was… Moshe Weinfeld!

Moshe Weinfeld passed away just over a month ago, aged 83. Needless to say, I tell this story, not to criticize him, but to illustrate that he somehow found it possible (I never discussed the matter with him) to belong to both worlds—and, over the years I became aware that there are more than a few critical Bible scholars who are practicing, observant Jews. Moshe Greenberg, Jacob Milgrom (who has been called “the dean of Leviticus scholars”) and, in my own age-group, Israel Knohl, are among those names that come readily to mind.

A second anecdote relates to a friend of mine of Hasidic background who was saying Kaddish for his father at the local shteibel. Once, during the course of a visit to my home, he told me, rather to my surprise, that he did not accept the literal belief in Torah min ha-Shamayim. I asked him whether it didn’t bother the people at the shteibel that their prayer leader held such beliefs. He answered: “No, but sometimes they’re bothered when I wear sandals without socks.”


More recently, I have begun to find the beginning of an answer in what might be called a “sideways move”—an approach in which the truth claims of the tradition and of its specific texts become secondary, and the issue is rather that of God’s presence experienced through Torah. To these solutions I devote the second half of this essay.

I have several answers: one, which might be called the midrashic answer (reinterpretation of nature of Torah); second, what I will the Hasidic answer – a shift from text-centered religion to a God-centered approach {from truth statements to religious statements; from halakhah to avodah); and a critique of modernity, of empiricism, of limits of reason. I will treat these one at a time.

1. The Midrashic Move: It Was All Revealed at Sinai

An interesting midrash interprets the word “all” in the introductory verse to Matan Torah as implying that the revelation at Sinai was all-inclusive, embracing not only the specific commandments revealed at that occasion, nor even the text of the Five Books alone, but everything that would come to be known under the broad rubric of “Torah,” including things that might not be specifically articulated until millennia later. In Exodus Rabbah 28.6 we read:

“And God spoke all these words, saying” [Exod 20:1]. R. Yitzhak said: That which the prophets shall prophesy in the future in each generation they already received at Mount Sinai, as Moses said to Israel: “For he who is standing with us here today before the Lord our God, and he who is not here with us today…” [Deut 29:14]. It is not written “standing with us today,” but “with us today”—this refers to the souls who are to be created, who have no concrete existence, of whom one cannot say “standing.” For even though they were not present at that hour, each one received that which would be his… [the midrash then proceeds to give examples from the prophets Malachi and Isaiah].

And not only did all the prophets receive their prophecy from Sinai, but even the Sages who appear in each generation, each one received his at Mount Sinai. For it also says: “these things the Lord spoke to your entire congregation… a great voice that did not cease” [Deut 8:19]. R. Yohanan said: One voice was divided into seven voices, and they were divided into seventy languages….

This midrash conveys the idea that the Torah entails far more than the Five Books of the Mosaic revelation per se, but has indefinitely expanding boundaries. This approach is widespread in Rabbinic thought, and lends itself to two diametrically opposed lines of interpretation. One, which might be called the “fundamentalist” reading, says that there is an expanded “canon,” which includes not only the Torah, but the other books of Scripture, the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash, and even the “Hidden Torah”—i.e., Sefer ha-Zohar and other esoteric books that were conveyed by way of mouth among a select few over the millennia—and “whatever a venerable sage shall innovate in the future.” But, in the final analysis, it is a canon: once given, it is essentially immovable, unchangeable. There is just that much more material which we must treat with awe and reverence, and that many more things we are obligated to do, on the basis of one or another source.

But there is a second way of reading this idea: what might be called an open-ended, expansive reading of Torah. If what the prophets and the ancient Sages received was part of Torah, than so too are the hiddushim of later generations, down to our own day. In this purview, the Torah becomes a kind of joint creation of God and man. The broader and more inclusive the definition of Torah, as an almost cosmic entity, the more possible it becomes, to my mind, to accept an intermingling of the Human and the Divine. This view is found, not only in modernist reform movements, but also in much of Hasidic thought; I find it implied in many of the teachings of the Sefat Emet and his treatment of the relationship between Written and Oral Torah, and the crucial role played in this process by hiddushei Torah.

2. The Hasidic Move: “All is God”

We have become accustomed, after more than a century of Orthodox apologetics and polemics against the emergence of anti-halakhic, reformist movements in Judaism, to see halakhah as the crux of “authentic Judaism” and Sinai as the lynch-pin, the formative experience and, from the juridic viewpoint, the central axiomatic basis for the system of Torah and mitzvot.

But it is possible to start elsewhere—and I speak here, not of heterodox, modernist streams in Judaism, but of thoroughly committed, God fearing, “old-time” Jews. At a talk on the difference between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism, Arthur Green spoke of two different defining “mottos” of Hasidism. The one (cited from a letter between two Habad Hasidim), was “Alts ist Gott”—“Everything is God.” The second, found in the school of Kotzk: “m’darft arbeit far sicht”—“One must constantly work on one’s self.” That is: the central goal of Torah and of Jewish religion is, on the one hand, to develop God-consciousness, awareness of the all-penetrating, tangible Presence of the One. But, hand in hand with that, a person must work on him/herself, seeking to perfect his own personality, as a human being created in the image of God. This requires self-discipline, character work, the merciless quest for truth (as in Kotsk and Psyshyscha). Habad speaks of the commandments of ahavah and yirah, the love and fear of God, as necessarily requiring a certain awe, cognitive knowledge—which can only be attained, in turn, through study and intellectual activity and contemplation. The essential point in all this is a shift of emphasis, from a text-centered or Scripture-centered religion to one that is God-centered and rooted in God-consciousness—after which all else falls into place.

3. The Post-Modern Move: Preliminaries to Faith

The question then becomes: how does a person trained in rational, Western thought, and who is not prepared to make the sacrifice of critical thought which at times seems to be required by dogmatic and seemingly anti-historical acceptance of certain tenets of Jewish religion, find his or her way to a meaningful, coherent faith? In one sentence: the answer must lie in a critique of the limits of reason. Not an escape from reason, but a judicious, carefully crafted critique of Western rationalism and empiricism which takes one to that which is beyond: to that which, to use shorthand, is called faith.

This involves two basic steps: the first one involves transcending the empirical, rational consciousness. For some of us, this may begin with an emotional rejection of the religion of progress, of reason as capable of doing all. Many of us grew up in mid-twentieth-century Jewish families which literally worshiped the mind, the brain, as the highest faculty of man. To go beyond that, it is important to realize that the rational consciousness chooses the questions it considers relevant. The modern atheist cannot know God because he defines the universe, and the cognitive process, in such a way that God-talk is meaningless; an atheist relative of mine once said that he is only interested in those questions to which it is possible to find an empirical answer. With such an axiological framework, it is clear that one will never find God! But the fault is not with God or with the universe, but with his own cognitive structure. This point is sometimes very hard to see, because modernity has constructed such a sophisticated, all-encompassing structure. (I realized this point particularly clearly when reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion; the author is able to make short shrift of religion because he rejects certain obviously ludicrous or objectionable religious phenomenon, which he then identifies with religion as such; see my critique of his position in HY IX: Vaethanan: “The New Atheism” [August 2008])

Huston O. Smith, in a little-known but important book entitled The Forgotten Truth, develops this argument. The essential thesis of his book is that empiricism, the picture of the universe in which physical reality is seen as the only reality, is in fact limited. It is a kind of self-confirming way of looking at the world which seems highly convincing and cogent, because it only looks at certain kinds of data. And yet, he notes that virtually all human cultures, with the exception of European culture from about the 17th century, have had a very different world view. Behind the varied religious and esoteric traditions, each with their own language and imagery, he finds a strikingly similar world-view: of a four-tiered model of the universe, which he describes as consisting, respectively, of the physical, the mental/conscious, the spiritual, and the transcendent realms (whether these are expressed in images of a personal God or of a more amorphous, all-encompassing, non-personal Being).

The second major point is that all this requires a certain switch in consciousness—the “paradigm” or “archetype switch.” Once one transcends the limits of rationality and admits the possibility of something higher, one may begin the next step: that of cultivating religious consciousness. Beyond the emotional revulsion at the pretensions of the twentieth century, what is needed is an awareness of the existence of another dimension to the world, a new openness to the wisdom of the old traditions, what Foucault calls “second naivete.”

Some years ago, the editor of a somewhat quixotic local commercial paper sought “convincing reasons” for being a religious Jew. In the essay I wrote in response to his quest, I wrote, among other things:

The name of the game is not absolute certainty, because religious axioms by their very nature are ultimately not subject to rational, demonstrable proof. … [because] statements about Him refer to an order of reality that stands outside of the physical, material world, and hence outside the sphere of demonstrable reality with which the axioms and proofs of our world of thought are concerned.

… Within the context of Jewish tradition, even the arch-rationalist Maimonides did not in the final analysis see the existence of God as absolutely demonstrable. Thus, his famous statement at the very beginning of the Mishneh Torah, in which he asserts that the first commandment of the Torah is to “know that there is a First Cause,” in fact refers to a type of knowledge which is not demonstrable through iron-clad philosophical argumentation, but that is apprehended through a gradual process of perceiving God’s presence in the wonders of the Creation and contemplating the sciences of physics and metaphysics over a life-time (see the end of Ch. 4 there). Indeed, this knowledge is not really knowledge in the usual sense, but something closer to “belief” or “faith” -- i.e., the acceptance, as a willed cognitive act on the part of man, of the existence of God as a fundamental axiom…

R. Yehudah Halevi, in the Kuzari, speaks of a “religious faculty” (inyan eloki) present in the soul of Adam, passed down in one particular line to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and from there to the entire Jewish people. In other words, religious knowledge is ultimately a function of a particular faculty of the human personality other than the intellect. Again, iron-clad, rational proofs are rather besides the point, because religion speaks, not to the human mind, but to some other faculty -- if you like, to that which is conventionally called the soul. …

You are no doubt familiar with the common argument of Jewish religious “missionaries”—“do mitzvot first, and then ask questions,” the underlying premise being “doing is believing.” … The cynical, psychologically sophisticated modernist will dismiss this argument as an exercise in self-persuasion by behavior modification. However, the religious Jew will assert that, by performing mitzvot, an individual gradually enables the religious faculty within his personality or soul to grow and flourish; that, in fact, many of the difficulties which so many express are rooted in the fact that the anti-religious and anti-spiritual bias of contemporary culture lead to the atrophy of this faculty.

In brief: religious knowledge belongs to a different order, qualitatively speaking, than mundane, secular knowledge. It is impossible to move from a secular, materialistic set of axioms to a religious world-view, accepting the existence of some sort of spiritual dimension in life, without some kind of “leap of faith”—that is, a mental act of radically scrapping one’s existing mind-set and working axioms about the world, at least provisionally, and opening oneself to the possibility of an entirely different way of looking at the world and at one’s own self. …



But the above is only sufficient to bring one to a kind of general, universal religious God -consciousness. What about the specific truth claims of the Jewish tradition—the notions of Torah, of revelation, of halakhah, etc.? It is at this point that I part company with my dear friends and teachers in the various branches of the new Jewish spirituality, in Jewish renewal, in a Judaism which is ultimately not Shulhan Arukh Judaism, in a non-halakhic spirituality which ultimately celebrates human autonomy above the commanding voice of the tradition.

Here, I will touch upon two key concepts. First, a certain openness to the reality of Torah min-hashamayim is required, however broadly conceived. As I see it, the possibility of Revelation stems from God’s hesed, from His loving-kindness; He could not have left humans to meander and fumble around life without some kind of guidance as to how to live properly. The midrashim on Torah in turn expand this, making it so all-inclusive that the concrete historical event at Sinai retreats to the realm of symbol, of paradigm, of archetype. Torah is the map at which God looked, the blueprint with which He created the world; in Hasidut, it is itself the book in which everything that happens, everyone who lives, every event in the world, is written. One who knows how to read it properly “can see from one end of the world to the other”; it precedes creation and will continue forever; it contains all that any hakham will ever say.

Second, the concept of heteronomy is important. The need for heteronomy follows from our philosophical anthropology, from our conception of the nature of man which we have elaborated elsewhere. The central idea here is, quite simply, that the Torah is imposed upon man—and therein, precisely, lies its importance. Emmanuel Levinas, in an essay entitled “The Temptation of Temptation,” speaks of the need to experience everything, to maintain infinite possibilities, as the disease of modern man. The true “temptation” is not for any specific thing—be it sex, power, wealth, etc.—but the need to have them as a possibility, their availability as an option.

The temptation of temptation may well describe the condition of Western man. In the first place it describes his moral attitudes. He is for an open life, eager to try everything, to experience everything, “in a hurry to live, impatient to feel.” … He must be rich and a spendthrift and multiple before being essential and one.” Nine Talmudic Readings (p. 32)

It is precisely the heteronomous nature of the Torah that serves as the basis for its moral force. If one could freely, autonomously choose to do the mitzvot, it would merely be one more human choice. From this perspective, teshuvah, the great turning to Torah, is the path back to simple moral health. And this, more than anything else, is the essence of Shavuot and our celebration of this day.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Yom Yerushalayim - Bamidbar (Zohar)

For teachings on Parashat Bamidbar, see the archives to this blog at May 2006.
Yom Yerushalayim concludes the cycle of national holidays that began with Holocaust Remembrance Day, continues through Soldier’s Memorial Day and Israel Independence Day, and concludes with Jerusalem Liberation Day (indeed, some people keep flags flying from their balconies from before Yom Ha-Atzmaut until after Yom Yerushalayim). This issue will be devoted mostly to postscripts related to Yom ha-Atzmaut; however, so as not to overlook our holy city, the Temple of the King, we begin with one short thought about Jerusalem itself.

Altar or Holy of Holies?

Some years ago (see HY V: Yom Yerushalayim) I quoted Rambam, Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 2.2, who cites and elaborates upon an interesting midrashic theme (taken from Gen. Rab. 14.8 and j. Nazir Ch. 7) stating that the site of the Temple, and specifically that of the altar, was not only the site of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, but also that place where Noah offered sacrifices following the Flood, where Cain and Abel offered their respective sacrifices, and where Adam himself, the first human being, offered sacrifice in gratitude for his creation. On reflection, the following question presented itself: why specifically the altar? The Temple had two foci: the altar, where sacrificial offerings were made; and the Holy of Holies, the mysterious inner sanctum which was closed to all, the earthly dwelling place of the Divine Presence, which the High Priest alone was allowed to enter, and then only once a year. Which of the two was more central?

The rather surprising answer seems to be that, even though God Himself so-to-speak resides in the Devir, the altar is more important. It is the axis mundi, the central axis upon which the world itself was constructed. Maimonides explains this as intended to teach that “from the place where he was created, there comes his atonement.” This strange statement teaches two fundamental ideas: first, that religious worship is a fundamental human need: one might add, among those characteristics that distinguish man from the beast. Secondly, that the essence of worship is the need for kaparah, for atonement. That is, notwithstanding all the liberal apologetics asserting that Judaism is free of the notion of original sin that has so plagued Christianity, we nevertheless perceive man as being in existential need of divine grace, compassion and even forgiveness. The human by his/her very nature is inextricably caught on the horns of a dilemma, between consciousness and biological existence. Somehow, the human being’s consciousness makes it hard for him to accept his own biological being—and that in itself creates the need for atonement and reconciliation with God. It is this, more than all the national associations (“the eternal capital of Israel”) and flag waving, that makes for the uniqueness and the sanctity of Jerusalem.


1. New Al Hanissim

On Yom ha-Atzmaut we brought a new suggested version of Al ha-Nissim to be recited on that holiday, by Avi Shmidman and Ben-Tzion Spitz. I bring the text again (this time without nikkud), followed by my own rough translation and some comments:

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.
For the miracles and for the deliverance and for the mighty deeds and for the redemption and for the wars that You have done for us in those days, at this time: In days of ingathering the remnant of Israel from the lands of darkness and the shadow of death to their pleasant inheritance, the pioneers of the nation rose up, lifted a banner and composed a scroll, declaring the right of the people to stand in its own right as a Jewish commonwealth in the land of its birth. They danced in the streets with drums and in circles—women and children, old men and youths, with voices uplifted in joy and song. At that same time evil men attacked them, to remove from the land any name and remnant, to cast into the sea all those who kept faith with it. But You [O God] hastened to save Your people, You strengthened the hands of its defenders, and smashed the weapons of their enemies. You lifted them up in splendor and established a glorious state, the beginning of the longings of all our generations, a fortress and protection for all those of Your people who returned.

A number of readers wrote in with various comments. Some praised the originality of the nusah—that it avoids the “recycling” of hackneyed phrases from the Al ha-Nissim for Hanukkah and other familiar prayers, unlike many other versions. But others criticized it for focusing too narrowly on the events of May 14 1948: the story really begins with the emergence of the Zionist movement and the “Zionist” aliyot, two and even three generations earlier. The Declaration of Independence (the document referred to here as “a scroll”) was the culmination of a lengthy process of settlement and developing an economy, self-defense organizations, a flourishing Hebrew culture, and even institutions of self-government for the state-in-becoming. All this raises interesting theological questions as to how one celebrates the combination of the human and the Divine—that is, the emergence of a new idea or movement in human culture that somehow seems touched with the Divine spark. But more on that below.

A second issue raised by several readers related to the implied link between the Holocaust and the Creation of the State—again, a motif found in many of the suggested Al ha-Nsisim texts—albeit in this case the reference to the “lands of darkness and the shadow of death” may be read as the European Galut in general. This became increasingly intolerable from the mid-1800’s on, with the Canton system, the pogroms in Ukraine in the 1880’s (Se’arot ba-Negev), the Kishinev pogrom, and of course the anti-Semitism manifested in the Dreyfus Affair that led to Theodor Herzl’s impassioned return to Jewish national awareness and to inventing political Zionism.

Another reader, Suzy Levin, sent in yet another new version, by Edena K Berkowitz and Rivka Haut, that appeared in Sha’arei Simcha, which she described as a “feminist oriented” birkhon recently published by Ktav:

על הנסים ועל הפרקן .... בימי הקמת מדינת ישראל, קמו עלינו אובים רבים ועצומים ממנו. ואתה ברחמיך הרבים עמדת לימין צבא הגנה לישראל, ומסרת גבורים ביד חלשים, רבים ביד מעטים, ורשעים ביד צדיקים. ובזרועך הנטויה עזרת לבחורי ישראל להרחיב את גבולות מושבותינו ולהעלות את אחינו ממחנות ההסגר. ועל הכל אנחנו מודים לך, ה' אלקינו, בכפיפת ראש. וביום זה, יום חגינו ושמחתינו, אנחנו פורשים את כפינו לפניך ומתחננים על אחינו הפזורים, ואומרים: אנא, אבינו, רועינו, קבצם במהרה לנוה קדשך והשכן אותם בו בשלום ושלוה, בהשקט ובטחה. בנה נא את עיר קדשך ירושלים בירת ישראל, ובה תכונן את בית מקדשך כימי שלמה. וכאשר זיכתנו לראות את ראשית גאולתינו ופדות נפשינו, כן תחיינו ותחזנה עיננו בגאולת ישראל השלימה, וחדש ימינו כקדם. אמן.
For the miracles … In the days of the establishment of the State of Israel , many and powerful enemies rose up against us. And with Your great mercy, You stood to the right of the Israel Defense Army, and You delivered mighty ones into the hands of the weak, many into the hands of the few, evildoers into the hands of the righteous. And with Your outstretched arm you helped the young men of Israel to extend the borders of their settlement and to bring up our brethren from the camps of confinement. For all these we thank You, O Lord our God, with bowed head. And on this day, our day of festivity and joy, we spread our hands before You and beseech You on behalf of our scattered brethren, saying: Please, our Father, our Shepherd, gather them quickly to Your holy dwelling place, and settle them there in peace and tranquility, in calm and security. Build Your holy city, Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and establish Your Temple there as in the days of Solomon. And as You have enabled us see the beginning of our redemption and the freedom of our souls, so too give us life and enable our eyes to see the full redemption of Israel and renew our days as of old. Amen.

2. On the Zionist Return to History

For “official” Religious Zionism, the State of Israel is often identified as reshit tzemihat ge’ulatenu, “the first flowering of our Redemption”—that is, as a prelude to the coming of the Messiah. Where do we stand vis-à-vis such redemptionist, messianic theology? (see my comments on HY X: Seventh Day of Pesah). Suffice it to say that, to quote one of the early Hasidic masters, the world doesn’t “smell” like a redeemed world, and we ought to suffice with more modest, this-worldly interpretations of the Zionist enterprise.

More than that: another oft-emphasized aspect of religious Zionism is the idea of returning to the sanctity of place—the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the burial place of the patriarchs in Hebron and other holy sites—in addition to or as even more important than the sanctity of time, which has traditionally been at the focus of Judaism (all this is of course particularly strongly felt on a day like Yom Yerushalayim). Interestingly, on Parshat Terumah, that portion most concerned about the Temple and its meaning, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, chose to write about the transcendence of place—that God cannot be contained in any one place, and the synagogue as a kind of moveable sanctuary (cf. what I wrote on HY III: Vayetze=Vayetze [Midrash]).

To be a non-messianic Zionist means to enter upon a complex dialectic, in which one must in large measure accept secularism —not in the sense of negating God or religion, but in that of involvement in the seculum, the mundane, the temporal, the worldly, the entire realm of human initiative and activity as that in which, paradoxically, the religious person may seek to realize his values of holiness, of the human being as created in the image of God. It means talking about God acting through human beings, not through the supernatural miracles. (One might, perhaps, view Zionism through the prism of a book such as Harvey Cox’s Secular City.)

3. TAZRIA-METZORA and Independence Day

A postscript to a sermon given at Yedidya on the Shabbat before Yom ha-Atzmaut

It is been said that it is fortunate that Israel Independence Day falls when it does, as this frees rabbis from needing to address this singularly difficult Torah reading, with its laws about leprosy and bodily discharges and other unseemly matters. I would nevertheless like, on the level of pure derush, to relate the two subjects.

At the beginning of Parshat Tazria we read: “When a woman gives seed and bears a male child, then she shall be impure for seven days…” (Lev 12:2). “When a woman gives seed”: according to the Zionist historiography, or stereotype, the Jewish people in Exile were like a woman—physically weak, pale, effeminate, passive, acted upon by others rather than masters of their own fate. “And she gives birth to a male.” Zionism saw itself as creating a new Jewish type, “the New Jew”—masculine, strong, assertive, taking initiative, not only economically but also, or even particularly, in the physical and military realm. The creation of the Hebrew warrior, of the IDF, which was to become the finest army in the Middle East, was seen as a source of particular pride. But here I would continue: “She shall be impure for seven days…” and after that another 33 days of “blood of purity”—forty in all, which I read as corresponding to the 40 years since the crucial and ambivalent events of 1967. This emphasis on masculinity, in an almost macho sense, has been a mixed blessing, a source of “impurity,” of a certain unhealthy strain in the Israeli national character, expressed, not only in our problematic relation to the Palestinian people whom historical fate has placed under our rule, but in the culture generally. The time has come for Israel to move past the hyper-masculine type of the “new Jew” and to find a new, healthier, more harmonious balance between the masculine and the feminine elements in our national character.

4. Four Sons: On the Rasha’s Alienation, Universalism and Particularism

My youngest daughter raised a question during the course of the Passover Seder, which in turn opened a whole series of further important issues (also pertinent to Yom ha-Atzmaut), and also elicited echoes of my own youth. She asked why, on Seder night, we speak only of the slavery of the Israelites long ago, when slavery is a concrete reality in the world today: in parts of Asia and Africa, in the modern equivalent of sweat shops where people are paid sub-living wages and are, in effect, trapped forever (“enslaved”) in brutal, back-breaking labor. Here in Israel (and in the United States), there is trafficking in women: women are smuggled into the country under false premises, beaten, raped, forced to work in prostitution, deprived of their passports, and kept physically locked-up.

The basic issue at hand is that of the universal vs. the particular: Why do our holidays, our liturgy, seem to be concerned only with Jewish suffering, the Jewish past, Jewish needs? Oughtn’t the belief in the unity and singularity of God, and its corollary in the unity and oneness of humankind (we are all descendants of Adam!) lead us to be concerned with all human problems, wherever they may occur? And, if so, is not the person whom the Haggadah seems to brush off as the “wicked son” asking a truly important question: ”What is this service to you?” may in the modern context be paraphrased as “Why these specific concerns and not others?” Certainly, at least some of the “wicked sons” of our day have become alienated from Judaism by what they see as the “parochial” nature of Jewish concerns.

Her question brought back memories of my own youth. When I was in my early 20s, Ramparts Magazine devoted the better part of its February 1969 issue to the Freedom Seder—a revised version of the Haggadah written by Arthur Waskow, at the time a young, maverick social thinker, which took as its mottos “Liberation Now; Next Year in a World of Freedom” and “Against the Pharaohs of our Generation.” In addition to the traditional references to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, this Haggadah spoke of civil rights, the war in Vietnam, starvation in Africa, and even the Palestinians deprived of their land in the then-recent Six Day War. The Freedom Seder (later republished in book form) created considerable controversy and hullabaloo in the Jewish community, with tempers and rhetoric flaring on both sides of the fence: Is this retelling of the Exodus story valid? Can it be called a Seder at all?

In fact, the Freedom Seder was an expression of the zeitgeist. At the time, many young Jews were seeking various forms of expression to integrate their Jewish and their more universal ethical and political commitments. In 1968, I myself led an impromptu Seder on the Seventh Night of Passover, just a few days after Martin Luther King’s assassination, in the home of a radical student friend who had just returned from King’s funeral, at which similar sentiments expressed. About the same time, a group of young British and other Jews who had met through WUJS (including Joel Harris, Mordechai Beck, and the late Gerald Cromer) published The Fourth World Haggadah, rooted in a radical interpretation of Jewish peoplehood.

My own answer to this question is on two levels. On the one hand, I would agree with my daughter’s concern: that it is legitimate to teach Judaism in a way that emphasizes the universal implications of its message, that is concerned with human suffering as such, as part of the lesson learned from our own origins in a slave people (“you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt…”). To this, I would also add that Judaism has a certain philosophical anthropology, a certain reading of the halakhah as addressing the human condition as such. (My own tendency, in much that I have written here over the years, has been to stress what might be called inductive thinking—the seven Noachide mitzvah, the importance of innate human conscience and ethical sense and intuition—alongside hukim, the heteronomous aspect of the mitzvah imperative, which to my mind have been overemphasized by Orthodoxy over the past century.)

But there is also a validity to specific national cultures and traditions. I say this, first, because I love the Torah and the Jewish people and its culture, so to speak, a priori; I am so deeply rooted in them that I cannot imagine life without this commitment. But I would also argue on rational grounds, to those who don’t share this a priori feeling, that the idea of the nation—any nation—with its history and culture and language and sense of rootedness in a specific territory, is central to human community, is a central building block of human fellowship. I would state that the distance between the individual and all of humankind is simply too great for a person to make all of humanity his central community. It is too big, too abstract, for any human being to relate to in an organic way; the cosmopolitan, who is a citizen of all places, who loves humankind in the aggregate, really belongs to none of them, and is ultimately thrust back upon himself, upon his own individual existence.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Behar-Behukotai (Zohar)

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

“A Sabbath to the Lord”

This week’s passage bears an interesting parallel to that brought last week, from Emor, in which a correspondence was drawn between a woman’s counting seven clean days and the forty-nine days of Counting the Omer. Here the unit is not days, but years: the seven-year cycle of the sabbatical year and that of seven times seven years, culminating in the fiftieth, jubilee year. Zohar III: 108a:

“And the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord” (Lev 25:2). “A Sabbath to the Lord”—literally [i.e., shemitah is associated with the four-letter Ineffable Divine Name, and thus with the highest sefirot]. Rabbi Eleazar opened again: “When you buy a Hebrew slave, six years he shall work” (Exod 21:2). For every Israelite who is circumcised and has the holy sign upon him rests on the sabbatical year, for it is his, for it is shemitah to rest therein. And thus it is called “the Sabbath of the land,” for certainly there is freedom therein, rest therein. For just as the Sabbath is rest for all, so too is the shemitah rest for all—rest for the spirit and for the body.

In Zohar the number fifty represents Binah, the aspect of freedom, of transcendence, of that which is beyond duality (thus also Shavuot, on the fiftieth day). Moreover, the Aramaic word for jubilee, יובלא, is suggestive of that number, as its numerological value is 49, or 50, counting the word itself (kollel).

There is an association between circumcision, and by implication shemirat haberit, with shemitah. In Zohar, “guarding the covenant” means not forming a sexual alliance with a non-Jewish woman—a practice far from unknown among the upper classes of Spanish Jewry during the 13th century. By preserving ones sexual purity, one is able to be close to Malkhut/Shekhinah, which also corresponds to the seventh year.

Come and see: [the letter] Heh brings rest to above and below. For that reason there is an upper heh and a lower heh; rest for those above and rest for those below. The upper heh is seven times seven years; the lower heh is seven years alone. That one is shemitah and this one is jubilee. But when one looks at the words they are all one. For that reason it is “a Sabbath for the land.” —for that rest of the land one is [also] required to rest.

Here the Zohar refers to the mystical meanings of the letters of the four-letter Divine name, Yod- Heh - Vav – Heh; the two appearances of the letter Heh, here called “upper Heh” and “lower Heh,” are seen as corresponding to the seven years of shemitah and the 7 x 7 years of Jubilee.

But more than that: the Divine name is seen as composed of male and female letters: the first and third letters, the yod and vav, are masculine, symbolizing Hokhmah & the six sefirot of the central axis, respectively; or, the brain and the phallus. Graphically, Yod is a point, symbolizing the quintessence, the condensed kernel from which all things emerge (or, some would say, the hyper-condensed source of energy prior to the “Big Bang”); Vav is the extension of the point in a downwards direction, a conduit of flow from above to below.

The two hehs represent the female principle: Binah and Malkhut. The letter Heh, in its graphic form as a three sides of an enclosure, represents the womb, home, receptivity. But it also represents expansion: in heh the point of yod is expanded in two dimensions, in both length and breadth. Binah suggests receptivity on the intellectual level: the expansion, development, application of the kernel of insight represented by Hokhmah. Malkhut / Shekhinah represents that space in the concrete world where all the abundance of the upper world ultimately flows, becoming the source or “reservoir” of all blessing. Malkhut is also Knesset Yisrael: the reality of the Jewish people as well as a kind of collective soul of Israel. These two letters, as Binah and Malkhut, also represent woman in her two aspects, as mother and as bride, the ultimate goal being the integration of the two hehs.

These four letters, in their two pairs of male and female, thus represent the zivvugim, the uniting of the male and female principles in the cosmic worlds: the “upper zivvug” of the supernal Abba and Imma, or Hokhmah and Binah; and the “lower zivvug” of Tiferet (the central sefirah of the central axis of six, which represents them in their totality) with Malkhut.

In that resting of the land the slave must also rest. Hence it says, “On the seventh year he shall be liberated, for free” (Exod, ibid.). “For free.” What is meant by “for free”? That he not pay anything to his master?! Rather, there is a secret here, which we learn thus. It is written, “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free” (Num 11:5). “Free”—i.e., without reciting a blessing [cf. Rashi ad loc: ‘free from the mitzvot’; and the basic idea is the same]. For in Egypt the yoke of Him Above was not upon them.

Come and See: slaves are exempt from the yoke of the supernal kingdom, and hence are exempt from the commandments. What is “the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven”? It is like an ox, upon whom a yoke is placed at the beginning, so that he may bring benefit to the world; but if he does not accept the yoke than one cannot work with him. So too a person is first required to accept the yoke, and thereafter serve [God] in every way that is required. But if he does not initially accept the yoke he cannot serve. This is what is written “Serve the Lord with fear” (Ps 2:11). What is meant by “with fear”? As is said, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” (Ps 111:10)—that is the kingdom of Heaven, and for that reason the yoke of the kingdom precedes all else.

What is the proof of this? In laying tefillin, one begins with that of the hand, as with this one ascends to the other [levels of] holiness. But if that is not found with him, the higher holiness does not rest upon him. For that reason “With this (בזאת–interpreted in Zohar as a symbol for Shekhinah) Aaron shall go into the holy place” (Lev 16:3). And that yoke cannot rest upon one who has other compulsions. And for that reason slaves are exempt from the yoke of Heaven.

Once again, we find here “straight” Jewish theology dovetailing with the Zohar, which gives its own unique twist. At the end of this parashah and the beginning of the next, it is stressed that God took Israel out of Egypt to be his servants (“For the children of Israel are my servants, whom I took out of the Land of Egypt… from being their servants, and I broke the bars of your yoke…”—Lev 25:5; 26:13). That is, there are two basic alternatives in life: either to serve God, or to serve some other master—whether that other be idols, other human beings or, in a more modern context, various ideologies, psychological needs, etc. Yeshayahu Leibowitz developed this idea in a radical way: pushed to its logical conclusion, it is opposed to the idea that such a thing as pure individual autonomy exists at all. For a Jew to say “I accept the mitzvot,” with emphasis on the “I,” is already a mistaken view.

Between Judaism and Calvinism

In loving memory of my mother, Fannie Chipman—Feige Gittl bat ha-Rav Avraham Naftali and Yitta—, who left this world on 24 Iyyar 5745 (15 May 1985)—a tireless fighter for and teacher of social justice. Note: a Hebrew version of this article appears this week in Shabbat Shalom.

For as long as I can remember, I have thought of Parshat Behar as the source par excellence for the biblical concepts of social justice and mutual responsibility. This chapter presents a series of sections, from Lev 25:2 on, each one of which begins with the words “when your brother waxes poor…” (ki yamukh ahikha), followed by a description of one or another personal misfortune—a person is forced to borrow money on interest; he sells his home in a walled city; he sells a field belonging to his ancestral inheritance; he sells himself into slavery (i.e., as an indentured servant) to another Jew; and, finally, the ultimate indignity, he sells himself to “a resident alien… or the offshoot of an alien’s family” (v. 47)—a non-Jew—as a slave. In each of these cases, the Torah commands those belonging to his milieu—his immediate relatives, the more distant family circle, and ultimately anyone who knows of his misfortune— to come to his help, taking those steps necessary (detailed in the various sections of this chapter) to save him from poverty, and thereby restore him to his erstwhile dignified position within the community.

Offhand, this text would seem to prove beyond a doubt that—if one may use an admittedly anachronistic term when speaking of the distant biblical past, with its less complex social organization—the spirit of Judaism is closer to what we may know today as “socialism,” with its ideas of the innate economic equality of all human beings and the responsibility of the community for the welfare of the individual, than it is to “capitalism,” with its acceptance of the inevitability of harsh economic struggle between human beings and the belief that laisser faire, allowing the free operation of invisible market forces, will ultimately maximum human happiness (sometimes quantified as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”).

But there are also find texts within Judaism suggesting a diametrically opposed reading of this biblical passage. In a lengthy Talmudic aggadah based on this passage, the series of cases described here are read as the descent of a single unfortunate soul into progressively deeper levels of poverty, interpreted as his just desserts for his own wicked deeds. In the Bavli, Kiddushin 20a, we read (I bring here only the gist of the sugya, skipping the biblical proof texts, taken mostly from our chapter, and various marginal digressions):

Our Rabbis taught: Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Hanina said: Come and see how harsh is [the punishment for] even the slightest [transgression of] shevi’it. A person does business with fruits of the seventh year, at the end he sells his moveable property; as is said “In the seventh year each person will return to his homestead,” and immediately thereafter, “And if you sell something to your fellow or buy from your fellow”—referring to that which is traded from hand to hand....

If he did not feel [the element of Providence in this], in the end he sells his field. This does not come upon him until he sells his home… This does not come upon him until he sells his daughter… This does not come upon him until he borrows at interest… This does not come upon him until he sells himself… And not to “yourself” [i.e., to a fellow Jew], but to an alien; and not to a righteous alien, but to a resident alien … this is idolatry.

They taught in the school of Rabbi Ishmael: Since he went and became a priest of idolatry, one might think, “We shall push a stone after the one who is falling.” Scripture says: “after he is sold he shall have redemption; one of his brethren shall redeem him.”

The tone here, if not precisely vindictive, certainly suggests that this person has brought his economic difficulty upon himself: his poverty, the need to sell more and more of his assets and to take increasingly drastic measures to deal with his debts—all these are Divine punishment for his sins. Where then are the love and concern for the poor man that we seemed to see expressed in the peshat of the biblical text?

Our midrash is particularly concerned by the gravity of trade in the fruits of shevi’it, the sabbatical year, or even with avak shevi’it, more marginal violation of these laws. Why is this sin, specifically, singled out? The sabbatical year entails two important religious lessons: the first, trust in God, the belief that He provides food to every creature, even without human effort. On the seventh year one is able to live off the abundance of the earth, the sefihim, the blessing of those crops that grow by themselves (see Lev 25:19-22). This is also the idea of that midrash which compares those who observe shevi’it properly with the angels: “‘Bless God all his angels, mighty of power, who perform His word, who hearken to do His word’—this refers to those who observe shevi’it” (Midrash Shohar Tov at Ps 103:21). Secondly, the notion that “the world is God’s and all that is therein” (Ps 24:1) is symbolically acted out during the shemitah year. One year in every seven we relinquish ownership of our land and allow its fruits to be gathered equally, by all people; all are invited to come and eat, just as the beasts of the field come and freely graze (see v. 7).

Hence, a person who tries to get around these laws and to treat the produce of the seventh year as his private property, to be used for trade and profit, is seen as denying God’s benevolence, ownership and mastery over the world. One might even say: his punishment comes about because he treats the earth as an object for exploitation, to be treated in an instrumental way, without any restriction or limitation. If you wish, he takes the approach of capitalism to its ultimate limits.

We now turn to the question posed in the title of our article. Protestant Christianity, particularly that school associated with the name of John Calvin (1509-1564), has often been associated with the rise of capitalism. By emphasizing thrift, diligence, and hard work as key ethical and spiritual virtues, Protestantism helped create a new class marked by wealth and prosperity, traits that were in turn seen as signs of Divine blessing and favor. This idea also dove-tailed into certain Calvinist theological notions that certain individuals were pre-destined for salvation, of which wealth was seen as a sign—but that goes beyond our concern here.

Interestingly, two early twentieth century German sociologists wrote important books in which they argued the role played by religion in the creation of modern capitalism, focused respectively on Protestantism and on Judaism. I refer to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Werner Sombart’s The Jews and Modern Capitalism. Are Judaism and Protestantism indeed so similar in their social ethos? Jews, like Protestants, tend to be sober, hard-working, and have a strong emphasis on the intellect—factors making for success in their chosen endeavors; Jews as a group have clearly enjoyed considerable economic and professional success in the democratic West.

Ought our passage to be read, then, in quasi-Calvinist fashion, in which the loss of wealth is seen as a sign of Divine disfavor? I found an interesting answer to this question in the book Yalkut Yehudah by Yehudah Leib Ginzburg, a little–known rabbi who lived in Denver, Colorado during the first half of the twentieth century, who culled those sayings of the Sages on the Humash which have special bearing on issues of social justice and ethics, to which he adds his own comments (another volume, Mussar ha-Mishnah, approaches the Mishnah in similar fashion). Writing on our passage, he comments:

In general, one should know that what our Sages said in Berakhot 5b, “If a person sees that suffering comes upon him, he should search out his deeds”—for he must certainly assume that this happened to him because of his sins—the implication is that he alone must think thus. But if others see that sufferings befall a certain person, it is forbidden for them to assume that that person is definitely a transgressor. Likewise, when they see that poverty besets someone, they may not say that this came about because of the sins he has done. As it says in Bava Metzi’a 58b: “If sufferings came upon him… they should not speak to him as Job’s companions did to him…”... While it is a good quality for a person to examine his deeds, if he sets about to examine the deeds of others, this is a bad quality. Here too, if a person becomes poor, he must assume that it is because he did business with produce of shevi’it, but others are forbidden from thinking so.

There is thus a clear distinction drawn between how an individual besieged by economic or other troubles ought to look at himself, and how others should relate to him. The suffering individual must search out his actions, to see if there is some sin he may have committed from which he must turn and repent. This idea is deeply anchored in the Jewish faith that the world is not hefker, that it is not controlled by random forces; there is Divine providence, there is a principle of balance, of midah keneged midah at work in the world. God does not act in a cruel or arbitrary manner; there is a reason for everything that happens to us.

But all this relates only to the individual’s personal spiritual accounting, within himself. Others, who see his misfortune, may not even entertain the thought that he “deserved it” or judge him in any way. Their task is to practice kindness, generosity and righteousness, to extend him whatever help and comfort, both material and spiritual, that they are able to give him, and to leave the soul-searching to the one affected. This is the point made in the closing comment to our sugya cited from the school of Rabbi Ishmael: “You might think that we say, ‘Let’s push a stone after the one who is already falling’? Scripture says, ‘After he has been sold, he must be redeemed; one of his brethren shall redeem him’ (v. 48).”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Emor (Zohar)

Sefirat ha-Omer

The counting of the Omer—of the 50 days between Pesah and Shavuot, between physical freedom and revelation and covenant—whose mid-point was reached this week, is derived from this week’s parashah, where it is described along with all the festivals of the year. The Kabbalistic aspects of this mitzvah are perhaps more widely known than those of any other: almost everyone who counts the Omer is familiar with the meditation referring to the various combinations of the seven basic sefirot for each of the seven times seven days. Hence, the Zohar’s own discussion of this mitzvah seemed as obvious choice for this week. Zohar III:97a-b:

Rabbi Abba and Rabbi Hiyya were walking in the road. Rabbi Hiyya said: It is written “And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Shabbat, from the day of bringing the Omer…” (Lev 23:15). Would does this teach? He said to him: the Companions have established it thus. Come and see: When Israel was in Egypt, they were in the domain of the Other [Side], and they were separated, like a woman who sits during the days of her impurity. After they were circumcised their portion ascended to that holy portion called brit, “covenant.” Once they were singled out, their impurity ceased from them, like a woman whose blood of impurity ceases from her. After it ceases from her, what is written? “And she shall count for herself seven days” (Lev 15:28). Here too, once they had ascended to the holy portion, their impurity ceased from them, and the blessed Holy One said: from this point on is their counting of purification.

“And you shall count for yourselves.” “For yourselves”—specifically; just as we say “and she shall count for herself seven days”: “to her”—for herself. Here too, “for you”—for yourselves. Why? So that one may be purified in the supernal holy waters. And thereafter one is connected with the King and to receive the Torah.

It says there, “she shall count for herself seven days,” and here it says “seven weeks.” Why “seven weeks”? So as to be purified by the waters of that river that flows and comes out and is called living waters, and the seven weeks come out of that river. And for that reason “seven weeks”—specifically, so that he might merit thereby, like that pure woman who is united with her husband on that night.

We find here a complete parallel between the seven days of purification counted by the niddah, the menstruant woman, until she is reunited with her husband, and the seven weeks of Omer, purification of Israel Egypt, culminating “connecting with king and receiving Torah.” As we have already noted, the union of man and woman is used repeatedly as a central symbol in the Zohar, both for processes within the Godhead (the zivvug, the “mating” of Hokhmah & Binah, also called Abba & Imma, or of Tiferet & Malkhut), and for the relation between God and Israel. The latter, in which Israel is always the female, also appears in the Bible and Midrash, but here the erotic component is more explicit.

It has been suggested that the absence of a personification of the feminine in monotheistic religion is a serious lack, as a result of which God is seen either in harsh, demanding, authoritarian terms or, later, in the philosophical schools, as a cold, distant, abstract figure. The presence of the female figure of Sophia, the female personification of Divine wisdom in the Gnosticism of late Antiquity, or the Shekhinah in Midrash and Kabbalah, seemed needed to create a kind of psychological balance in the religious world—the anima mundi, the World Soul, who achieves redemption by a motherly type of love and by arousing desire. Yet—thus say the opponents of such imagery—such imagery opens the door to the riotous, if not orgiastic imagery of paganism, and the multitude of godlings of polytheism, which is precisely what the prophets so bitterly fought in ancient paganism. But others, such as the late Prof. Yosef Ben-Shlomo, speak of Kabbalah as reintroducing these mythic elements into Judaism because the pagan world was by then so distant as to be “safe.”

Note here also the water imagery, the seven weeks that “flow out of that river.” This serves to strengthen the parallel to the purification of the woman in thee waters of the mikveh, but is a common Zoharic symbol in its own right: both Binah, the sefirah close to the Divine source, and Malkhut, the “well of blessing” (see the next teaching below) are depicted in terms of water—a natural image for the abundant “flow” of blessing. To cite just two examples from the numerous earlier precedents of this: “And I shall sprinkle upon you pure waters and you shall be purified: (Ezekiel 36:25); and Rabbi Akiva’s double-entendre on Jer 17:13, in which God is the purifying “mikveh of Israel” (Mishnah Yoma 8.9).

It is written thus: “And when the dew descended upon the camp at night” (Num 11:9). It is written ”upon the camp”; it is not written “when the dew descended at night,” but rather “upon the camp.” Because it descended from that point upon those days that are called “camp,” and are connected with the Holy King. And when does that dew descend? When Israel approached Mount Sinai, then that dew descended in wholeness, and they were purified and their impurity ceased from them, and they were connected to the King and to the Congregation of Israel, and they received Torah, and it lasted. And that time is certainly “all the brooks go to down to the sea” (Eccles 1:7), to become clean and purified, and they are all connected [or: sanctified] and connected therein to the Holy King.

Come and see: All those people who do not complete this counting of “seven complete weeks,” so as to merit to purity, are not called pure, and are not included among those who are pure, and are not worthy to have a share in Torah. And one who comes in purity to that day and did not lose that reckoning, when he comes to that night, he is required to involve himself with Torah and to be connected therewith and to guard supreme purity on that night and to be pure…

—This section, like those of the past few weeks not otherwise attributed, were translated by myself. I wish to thank Reb Avraham Leader for his generous and invaluable assistance, both in helping me to understand the peshat for purposes of interpretation, and in interpretation of the deeper meanings, without which this would not have been possible.

Here, the water imagery is changed from the “stream” to the ”dew” which falls upon the camp, providing the final element of purification before receiving Torah. Note the idea that those who do not count the Omer, or fail to complete its counting, do not benefit from the inner purification that results from its counting. Here, Sefirat ha-Omer, which in Rabbinic literature is not a particularly important mitzvah (perhaps three or four lines are devoted to it the entire Talmud, at Menahot 66a) becomes one of crucial spiritual importance, a vital prerequisite for the [repeated] receiving the Torah that occurs on Shavuot.

This passage goes on to talk about the night of Shavuot and the special merit of Torah study on that night. With God’s help, we shall present that section in our teaching for Shavuot.

It should be mentioned here that Lag ba-Omer falls on Monday night and Tuesday of this week—a festive day associated in the popular imagination with Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai and the Zohar, when hundreds of thousands of people flock to the site of the great tanna’s grave in the Gailean villager of Meron. But, in point of fact, Lag ba-Omer as such is mentioned nowhere in the Zohar; it has been suggested that its identification as the date of R. Shimon’s death is based on a confusion between the phrases “the day of his joy” and “the day on which he died” (יום שמחתו and יום שמת בו) in a later source. If so, then it is rather the day of a great epiphany on which secrets of the Torah were revealed to him; some, such as Yehudah Liebes, have suggest that this in fact alludes, not to Lag ba-Omer, but to Shavuot. But there is also a tradition that the two are the same: the day on which Rabbi Shimon died was one on which he revealed great and profound secrets to the Companions at the gathering known as the Idra, because it occurred on a threshing-floor (Idra in Aramaic); these secrets are recorded in two special sections of the Zohar known as the Idrot: the Idra Rabba, or “Great Idra,” and the Idra Zutra, or “Small Idra.” The Idra Rabba in fact appears in the Zohar in Parashat Naso, the Shabbat that generally follows immediately upon Shavuot, while the Idra Zutra is in Ha’azinu, close to Yom Kippur. Hence, we shall discuss these and bring some passages in their proper place.

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Zohar)

AHAREI MOT: “A Well… and Three Flocks of Sheep”

At times the connection between the portion of the week and the Zohar homilies subsumed under it is tenuous, or non-existent. The Zohar (in this respect like much of the Talmud, and many portions of the Midrash), is organized through a process of free-flowing association. It may begin by interpreting verses from the parashah (in this case: the Atonement ritual in the Temple), but this suggests a related verse from Proverbs, which reminds someone on King Solomon, which prompts a series of homilies by different members of the Companions, which in turn leads somewhere else. Be that as it may, I found the following passage particularly beautiful and rich in meaning. Zohar III: 62a:

Rabbi Eleazar began, and said: “And he [i.e., Jacob] saw, and behold there was a well in the field… And all the flocks gathered there…” (Gen 29:2). These verses need to be examined, for they contain secrets of wisdom that I learned from father [i.e., R. Shimon], and this as their teaching:

“And he saw, and there was a well in the field.” What was that well? This was the same one of which it is written, “The well that was dug by the princes, delved by the nobles of the people…” (Num 21:18). “And behold, there were there three flocks of sheep crouching over it” (Gen., ibid.). These are [the three sefirot] Nezah, Hod and Yesod, which crouch over it and sustain it, and from them are filled the blessings of that well. “For from that well the flocks shall drink.” From that well are sustained the upper and lower [worlds], and they are all blessed as one.

“And there was a great stone on the mouth of the well.” This is Harsh Judgment that exist through the Other Side, which [prevents] drinking from it. “And there gathered there all the flocks” (Gen 29:3). These are the six crowns of the king [i.e., the six central sefirot] all of which gathered there, and they bring down blessing from the head of the king and empty it therein. And when they all join together as one to empty into it, it is written “and they rolled the stone off the mouth of the well.” They move the Harsh Judgment and move it way from it. “And they watered the flock.” They empty blessing from that well to above and below.

Thereafter, “they returned the stone to the mouth of the well to its place.” That Judgment is restored to its place, because it too is needed to bring fragrance throughout the world and to correct the world. And then the blessed Holy One empties blessing on it from the source of that stream, and from it all the people of that generation are blessed.

Blessed is your portion in the world, in this world and in the next. Of you is it said “and all your children shall be learned of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your sons” (Isa 54:13).

The well, and water in general, is a central symbol in the Kabbalah. The well here is that at which Jacob met his destined wife, Rachel—but before that meeting, the Torah tells the story of the shepherds gathered there to water the flocks. But this well is clearly a mythical well, which the Zohar equates with the well (the Well of Miriam?) alluded to in the mysterious Well Song in Numbers 21. Ultimately, this well is Malkhut (=Shekhinah), the reservoir into which the Divine flow, starting from the highest spheres, flows down (most immediately from the three “closest” sefirot of Nezah, Hod and Yesod), from whence it serves in turn as a source of blessing to the whole world. These three lower, “crouching” sefirot, are equated with translating the Divine flow of word of intellect and emotion into action. As for the “six crowns of the king”: these allude to the six central sefirot which mediate the flow of Divine energy from above to below (including Gevurot), which are a kind of central column or pillar that support the world.

What is the stone that must be rolled off the well? It is a symbol of Harsh Judgment, the negative, harsh side of the sefirotic realm—but not to be confused with the demonic realm of the Sitra Ahara, those negative forces which run contrary to the Divine. No: this is the principle of limit, of at times closing the flow, of regulation necessary for the spiritual economy of world. Blessing cannot be uncovered all the time: there is need for limits. For that reason, after the “flocks” are “watered,” the stone ,must be rolled back over the well—and this too brings fragrance to the world and is necessary for its tikkun.

The idea that din kasheh is also needed to “make fragrant” the well, suggests that there can be a danger in an excess of flow and love and Hesed; the basic principle is one of a delicate balance. Sometimes, when I have an overdose of talking with negative, bitter people, filled with caustic criticism of others, I long to speak with a sweet, loving person who sees the good in others and has a generally positive and joyous outlook on life (like my friend Michael Miller, mentioned above, whose death we mourn this week). But sometimes that too becomes saccharine, and I long for a bit of irony and sarcasm and even cynicism which seems to express a kind of objective, realistic grasp of the obvious evils of the world and the glaring shortcomings of just about all the people in it. (I admit: I’m no tzaddik; I like a bit of acerbic gossip, even though there’s no halakhic or moral justification for it.)

POSTSCRIPT: Tazria: On 14 and 66 Days

My original intention in writing on Tazria-Metzora was to relate to what is perhaps the most vexing conundrum of this parasha: why does a new mother have to purify herself for twice as long a time period—14 days and 66 days, rather than 7 and 33—following the birth of a baby girl as opposed to that of a boy? The classical commentaries give a variety of answers, as do various modern thinkers and researchers, but none of the answers are really satisfactory. After I sent out Hitzei Yehonatan for that parashah, Avraham Leader drew my attention to the following very brief passage in which the Zohar gives its answer to this question. Zohar III: 44a:

“And if she bears a female” (Lev 12:5). As we have established, the Left Side is more dominant [in the female], and overwhelms the Right Side. For that reason, for every one day of separation for the [birth of a] male, there are two for the female, so as to [provide time to] connect the spirit to the body, for the Left does not settle itself as easily as the Right, and it is found in greater strength.

I have not the time to discuss this passage at any length; surely, most readers will wonder why the female, whom we intuitively associate with nurturing and motherhood and generous love—certainly more so than the combative and competitive male—is identified with the Left Side, which as we have seen above is more constrictive and limiting and less flowing. The one answer I heard once that a, as a mother, the woman’s love is focused on particulars, while the man is somehow more focused on universals, which ultimately bring him closer to a cosmic, all-embracing love. ואידך זיל גמור—this issue requires much more thought and reflection.