Friday, March 19, 2010

Vayakhel - Hahodesh (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at March 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. See also the new postscript to Purim, in the "Purim" teachings below.

Passover and Compassion for the Downtrodden

This Shabbat, being the Shabbat proximate to Rosh Hodesh Nissan, we read Parshat Hahodesh, in spiritual and intellectual preparation for Pesah. I wish to share with readers a short essay on Parshat Hahodesh by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginzburg, a rabbi who lived in Denver Colorado during the early part of the twentieth century, from his book, Yalkut Yehudah (Vol. II: pp. 18-19).

He begins by asking a well-known question: Why do the Ten Commandments begin with the words ”I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt” rather than with a proclamation that “I am God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.” He follows this with another, cognate question: why, when the Torah presents the Ten Commandments a second time in Deuteronomy, does it give as the reason for Shabbat observance, “and you shall remember that you were slavers in the land of Egypt…” (Deut 5:15) rather than the Creation (“for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is therein…”) as it does in the first version in Exodus 20—the most striking single difference between the two versions of the Decalogue. Moreover, given that the latter version is considered by many exegetes as the more definitive one, this difference begs for interpretation.

His answer is both simple and surprising: were the Torah and our religious allegiance based upon the principle of Creation alone, this would imply a certain acceptance of nature as is. Yet the “state of nature” is marked by a constant struggle for survival, in which those who are stronger dominate those who are weak, without mercy or compassion, subjugating them to their will, or even snuffing out their lives at a whim. This is true in human society as it is in the animal kingdom: “Man is a wolf to man” (Homo homini lupus: Hobbes, quoting Platus) or, as they said in the playgrounds of my childhood, “Might makes right” (in Hebrew: כל דאלים גבר) or “the Law of the Jungle.” (This type of biological determinism is enjoying a comeback today, possibly encouraged by the ever more ruthless and competitive global economy, as a kind of crude rationale for the injustices and inequalities of the market economy; it is also used as a justification for such phenomena as that of wealthy and successful middle-aged men divorcing their wives of many decades for younger and allegedly sexier “trophy wives.”)

In any event, Ginzburg sees the Exodus as introducing another principle into human society: that of compassion for all, of consideration for the weaker elements in society, the notion that God not only creates the natural universe, but imposes justice and ethical principles upon all of humankind. It is He who vindicates the downtrodden, protects the orphan and widow: “God seeks [i.e, protects] he who is pursued” (Eccles 3:15). In this context, the Exodus is the ethical act par excellence.

Also implicit here is the idea that every human being is entitled to certain basic rights, simply by virtue of his/her humanity, the Shabbat being a major expression of this. In hierarchical societies, such as that of ancient Egypt, only the wealthy, ruling class, enjoyed leisure, while the slaves, whom they ruled with an iron hand, were forced to labor seven days a week to provide them with their comforts. But Jewish ethics is not thus: a day of rest is the prerogative, not only of the wealthy, but of all.

At this point Yalkut Yehudah introduces another, rather surprising idea. He notes that the tribe of Levi were not slaves in Egypt, but served as kind of overseers, or even as priests for the religion of the Hebrews. Ginzburg suggests that Pharaoh did so because he knew that religion, properly controlled, serves a certain function of social control, assuring the interests of the rulers in pacifying the slaves or lower classes (albeit Moses and Aaron of course did not function in this way, but served in a far more radical manner).

I found this comment extremely interesting, and surprising, coming as it does from an Orthodox rabbi. The idea of religion being used to further the class interests of the ruling class is, of course, a basic concept in Marxism, as expressed in Marx’s famous dictum that “religion is the opiate of the people [or: the masses]”; even before Marxism became a political movement, it was eloquently articulated in Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” speech. Ginzburg was doubtless familiar with these notions; while I do not know the precise details of his biography, he still lived in Russia for a certain period after the Bolshevik Revolution, and immigrated to the US during the 1920’s. As a rabbi, he of course could not accept this point-of-view unqualifiedly, but clearly seemed to agree that, at least under certain circumstances, religion—whether Christian religion, whose symbiotic relation with despotic, tyrannical rulers during the Middle Ages and later (s.v. Pope Pius XII) is notorious; Islam, with its doctrine of Jihad; Hinduism, with its harsh caste system; Shinto, with its links to Japanese imperialism; and even Judaism, under certain circumstances—can itself be used in a negative, cynical way, to suppress peoples’ natural desire for freedom and equality. Elsewhere in his writings, his ambivalent attitude towards socialism comes to the fore: on the one hand, he criticizes the suppression of Judaism in the Soviet Union, and the beginnings of state violence and terror which he witnessed; on the other hand, he expresses a certain understanding of and sympathy for the underlying values implicit in socialism—of the equality of all men, of (at least on paper) concern for and compassion for the poor and downtrodden, and the attempt to create a new order in which human ethical values and the right and desire of all people for a decent life would be respected.

* * * * *

But Rav Ginzburg was not unique in articulating such ideas. There was a small but significant group of Orthodox rabbis, during the early decades of the twentieth century, who expressed ideas that would today be considered “Left” or even radical— whether relating to socio-economic issues, or issues of the use of force, along the continuum between pacifism and militarism. One name that comes readily to mind is that of Samuel David Tamarett, a rabbi who lived in Russia during that same period and who expressed a radically pacifist position (American Reform rabbi Everett Gendler has done much to revive his memory, translating some of his writings into English, etc.). Several of the leading figures of the Mizrachi movement, such as Rav Reines, Rav Amiel, and even Rav Kook père, expressed such ideas. An Israeli scholar, Eli Holtzer, was written a study of attitudes towards war and peace in religious Zionism; his Hebrew book, in which he discusses many of the above thinkers, is entitled Herev Pifiyot bi-yadam (“A Two-Edged Sword In Their Hands”), and is available through the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Another interesting figure from those years was R. Yeshayahu Shapira, known as the “Admor-Halutz” (brother of the Piazhetzner Rebbe, who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto, author of Esh Kodesh and other important and inspiring writings), who by day worked side-by-side with other religious halutzim draining the swamps and paving roads in the Galilee, while learning Torah and singing Hasidic songs with them far into the night. Another important figure was Rav Hayyim Hirschensohn, author of the multi-volume series of studies Malki Bakodesh, that attempted to lay the theoretical groundwork for the creation of a modern, democratic Jewish state nevertheless rooted in halakhah (scholar David Zohar was written on him extensively in recent years). If I may, I would also include in this group my own grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Gallant, whose collected sermons, including the five volumes of Mashal u-Melitzah, Zikhronot Avraham, and others, reflect not only concern for Jewish education and communal survival in America, but also profound social concerns.

Today, such concerns seem limited to a small minority. The tendency in the secular world—to assume that “religion” is equated with “Right Wing”—is unfortunately based on a certain reality. The dominant trends today in the Orthodox world seem to be: nationalism, interpreted as support for the West Bank settlers movement; Haredism—e.g., the ideology of full-time Torah learning as the highest goal, coupled with frumkeit—i.e., punctilious observance and approach to halakhah. Talk of ethics or, Heaven forbid, “social action” label as one as belonging to the “Reformers”—or worse. Even in the non-Orthodox world, the emphasis seems to be largely on Jewish survival, support of Israel, an individualistic-oriented spirituality, and personal growth. Thus, the type of broad social concern found in Rav Ginzburg, Tamarett, or Hirschensohn, seem a rare vision—and it’s more the shame for it.

There are of course understandable reasons for these changes in attitude: beginning with the disappointment in the Socialist “experiment” in the USSR; to the hope and promise at one point or a more humane and compassionate capitalism (which the recent financial crisis has, I think, proven to be a chimera); and through the knee-jerk anti-Israel position of the so-called “Left” in Europe and the US. We are living, to be sure, in difficult times, but the underlying values taught by the image of “God who took them out of Egypt” remain as they always were.


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