Thursday, May 27, 2010

Avot - Chapter 5 (Aggadah)

Introduction: Archetypal Numbers

Unlike the four preceding chapters, this chapter, the final one in the canonic mishnaic tractate, is not arranged according to the sayings of any particular group of tannaim, but is organized around sayings based upon number: ten (§§1-7), seven (§§9-12), four (§§13-19), and miscellaneous sayings.

Ten is a number having to do with Creation: the first three mishnayot relate to the Creation and the primeval history of humankind (which the Kabbalistic tradition connects to the ten sefirot): the ten “words” with which the world was created (§1); the generations from Adam to Noah, and from Noah to Abraham (§§2-3: i.e., the issue of the increasing evil in the world and how it was to be dealt with). We find here a a schematic juxtaposition of the Flood and the Generation of Babel, on the one hand; and of Noah and Abraham, on the other. There is also a list of “ten things created on the Eve of Shabbat” (§8)—i.e., the twilight hour, a time of ambiguity lying, so to speak, on the cusp between the natural and the supernatural.

What is the underlying idea of this mishnah? As I see it, the things listed therein—the tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments; the mouth of Balaam’s ass, with which she miraculously spoke; the hole in the earth that opened up to swallow Korah and company; the “ram of Abraham,” which served as a fortuitous substitute for Yitzhak when Avraham was told not to carry out the Akedah; the tablets on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments; etc.—are all items which have a certain quality of the miraculous. By being created as part of the Creation, rather than being introduced by God as a tour de force when needed, the Sages are telling us that these objects are also somehow part of the order of nature. But by being created at the moment of twilight, at a time that was in between Shabbat and weekday, between Creation and post-Creation, between the natural and the supernatural—we understand that these things enjoy a uniquely ambiguous and ambivalent status. The more I reflect upon it, the more I see this as mishnah, despite its seemingly naïve, mythic language, as expressing a highly sophisticated theological position. A full millennium before the Rambam, the Sages were concerned with maintaining the integrity of a universe governed by fixed natural laws, while at the same time allowing room for God to perform miraculous deeds, allowing the incursion of the supernatural into the natural when need be. But the tools needed for the miraculous are themselves part of the preconceived Divine plan, a part of Creation created during this special, fleeting, twilight moment.

Mishnayot §§4 & 6 list ten “trials,” but using the same word in two diametrically opposed meanings: §4 speaks of the trials with which God tested Abraham, through which he faithfully demonstrated his devotion to and trust in God; while §6 numbers the trials with which our ancestors “tried” God—that is, the demonstrations of collective character weakness, rebellious or non-believing behavior, by which they “tried” His patience and forgiveness (these “trials” are, by the way, a central motif in the book of Bamidbar, which we begin to read this Shabbat). Finally, §§5 and 7 deal with miracles: the miracles God performed during the course of the Exodus, in Egypt and by the Sea; and the less dramatic or obvious miracles that allowed the ongoing functioning of the ritual at the Temple in Jerusalem over hundreds of years.

Two more brief associations with the number ten. In our decimal system (which mathematicians will tell us is arbitrary, only one of many possible systems), ten is the first number written with two digits, and thus suggests true multiplicity, the beginning of a multitude. This, and not only the prooftexts cited by the Sages, may be the real reason why ten was established as the crucial number of people needed for public worship: ten is a true plurality, a true community. (And compare the opening mishnayot of Chapter 4, which discuss the significance imparted to Torah study by groups of ten, five, three, two and one.)

As mentioned, thsi chapter is organized around a series of sayings based upon numbers: mostly, ten, seven, four. We shall skip number seven for now, and focus on four. Four, perhaps more than any other number, represents symmetry and balance: it is two, the first even number, raised to the next highest power. In religious symbolism, we have the mandala of ancient India; the four gospels and the “four-square” hermeneutics of medieval Christianity; and the four levels of interpretation (PaRDe”S) in Judaism—not to mention the four cups, the four sons, etc.

In this chapter, fours (§§13-19) are used mostly as a way of presenting alternatives to a situation in which there are two variables, each one of which entails two possible options: e.g., a person may be either stingy or generous, and this may be the case with regard to himself or to others; he may learn easily or with difficulty, and may retain his knowledge well or poorly; he may anger easily, or only after great provocation, and may be appeased in like fashion. In all these cases, the number of permutations and combinations of all options are four in number; these may be represented schematically as AA, AB, BA, BB. Each mishnah here has a different subject (generosity, anger, study, charity, and “those who go to the Study House”), the mishnah presents each option, and then renders judgment on each one in one or two words. We shall discuss here only the first one in the series:

Mishnah 14

5.14. There are four characters among people: One who says, ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ is a mediocre character, and some say, this was the quality of Sodom. One who says, ‘mine is yours and yours is mine’ is an ignorant person [lit., am ha-aretz]. ‘Mine is yours and yours is yours’ is pious. ‘Yours is mine and mine is mine’ is evil.

The last two options are the easiest to understand: one who is generous to a fault, who sees the need of the other person and shares his own wealth with him without rendering accounts, who gives the other the proverbial “shirt off his back,” is the pious soul, the exemplary religious person. He sees his own belongings as not really belonging, but as something temporarily ion his domain, as a kind of pledge from God with which to do mitzvot. But, one must hasten to add, the hasid is not the normative Jew. As Gershom Scholem put it in his essay “Three Types of Jewish Piety”: “The radical Jew who, in trying to follow the spiritual call, goes to extremes… the enthusiast, who isn’t deterred by bourgeois considerations… Whatever he doss, he does in a spirit of spontaneous exuberance and of supererogation; that is, far beyond the requirements of duty” (On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time and Other Essays, 184-185).

Similarly, one who says “it’s all mine” is clearly an evil type, who does not even respond to the cries of his fellow human being, but wants everything, or as much as possible—all the wealth, all the pleasure, all the goods, all the women—for himself. He is the supreme egotist.

The second case in our mishnah, the one who says “what is yours is mine and what is mine is yours” is considered a fool. He is the person who is not only unaccustomed to think seriously about abstract principles, but does not even consider the long-range consequences of practical measures. If he were to have his way, if the very concept of private property were to be broken down, the end result would be anarchy and chaos. While Hazal of course did not know and could not have imagined the state socialist movements of the twentieth century, the goal of true socialism, of complete sharing of wealth in an equal way among all members of society, is one which to date has never been realized in human society (unless in some primitive society in hoary antiquity). Unlike the idealism of certain latter-day ideological anarchists, the end result has been shown as more likely to be violence and the domination of the strong over the weak.

Finally, the initial case brought in this mishnah: one who says “mine is mine and yours in yours.” On the face of it, this is the norm, the actual situation in real life: each person owns whatever he owns, whatever he has accumulated through his labor over the course of a lifetime, or what his parents have inherited to him. Each person tends his own garden, worries about himself and those closest to him. Yet this is at best a “mediocre quality” or even “the quality of Sodom”—of the corrupt city of those who were “very evil and sinful before God.” The Jewish ideal is thus found somewhere between the bourgeois attitude of self-satisfaction combined with indifference and apathy towards the other, and complete anarchy and the breakdown of all property law. The ideal is a sense of fellowship with one’s fellow human, of responsibility radiating outward from one’s family to the community and to the world as a whole.

Mishnah 20-21: Love and Disputes—Positive and Negative

Unlike the first four chapters of this tractate, Chapter Five does not present a series of teachings of tannaim of various generations, but arranges a series of teachings related to numbers: ten, seven, and four; without giving the names of their authors at all. Towards the end of the chapter, from §20 on, there are several mishnayot which are not specifically number based, but simply say what they have to say—although the first two of these are in fact based on a binary pair of contrasts:

Any love that is dependent upon a thing, once the thing is nullified, the love is nullified. But that which is not dependent upon a thing, is not nullified forever. Which was a love dependent upon a thing? The love of Amnon and Tamar. And that which is not dependent upon a thing? The love of David and Jonathan.

The classic and perhaps most common example of love motivated by a “thing” is sexual lust. Amnon was a prince, the son of King David, who desired his half-sister {!} Tamar, and was persuaded to seduce her by a friend in whom he confided; as soon as he’d had his way with her and satisfied his lust, his “love” immediately turned into hatred (2 Samuel 13:1-22; esp. v. 15). There may of course be other ulterior motives for love—or, more correctly, for feigning love: the desire for wealth (the “Sugar Daddy” syndrome of May and December marriages, or “You’ll find there are many who’ll wed for a penny”), power, career advancement, or some other advantage—but sexual lust certainly rates high on the list.

There is also a certain ambiguity in the terminology itself that tends to confuse matters: the Hebrew ahavah, like the English word “love,” may be used for both sexual desire or fascination, and for the deep emotional attraction or connection we ordinarily refer to by that word. Some might ask whether simple sexual desire, such as that manifested by Amnon, ought to be called love at all. Certain schools in Christianity, with its anti-sexual bias, like to draw a diametric contrast between love and lust, or eros and charitas (i.e., selfless giving to the other).

In any event, our mishnah contrasts this kind of love is with the deep fellowship and friendship between two men, David and Jonathan. (It is interesting that both examples are from the same family!) Jonathan in fact sacrificed his own chances for the throne, alienating his own father, for the sake of his friend. As if to say: selfless, disinterested friendship is deeper, more genuine, more lasting and authentically deserving of the term “love,” than sexual attraction. An obvious question implicit here is: why can’t there be both? Isn’t that what most of us hope for and even expect in marriage: a combination of deep friendship and emotional bond, lifelong commitment, offsrping, as well as shared pleasure and sexual satisfaction? Why does it seem to be posed in terms of either/or? Why couldn’t the mishnah have cited the love between our nation’s founding couple, Abraham and Sarah?

In our day, there are some “homophiles” (to coin a phrase) who try to see the love of David and Jonathan in homoerotic or homosexual terms. Some years ago, MK Yael Dayan created a mild controversy when she said as much from the floor of the Knesset, reinforcing our mishnah with a powerful phrase from David’s Elegy upon the death in battle of Saul and Jonathan: צר לי עליך אחי יהונתן, נעמת לי מאד, נפלאת אהבתך לי מאהבת נשים (“I am distraught over you, my brother Jonathan; you have been very pleasant to me; your love was more wondrous to me than that of women“; 2 Sam 1:26). But it does not seem self-evident to me that this verse celebrates a homoerotic ideal. It can equally support a male-friendship reading, not least because David is portrayed as being strongly attracted to many women (including Jonathan’s sister Michal), and that our mishnah’s reading is based on the premise that there’s was not a love not based upon any “thing.”

21. Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven shall endure; and that which is not for the sake of Heaven shall not endure. What is [an example of] a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Hillel and Shammai. And that which was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korah and all his congregation.

On the face of it, this mishnah seems quite straightforward and self-evident. But how does one identify whether the dispute is or is not for the sake of Heaven? One would have to be able to see inside the heart of the parties involved! This year, on Parshat Korah, I heard a talk by someone who cited R. Yehonatan Eibuschutz, in Ye’arot Devash, as to how one identifies a dispute that is, in fact, for the sake of Heaven. His answer was simple: if the people involved continue to be friends and to love one another notwithstanding the dispute between them, then it is clear that their dispute is motivated by the desire for truth and naught else. Unfortunately, this is very rare. The human propensity for disputes and polemics is very great; once a disagreement has begun, people tend to invest their own egos in “their side” and are reluctant to even hear the other camp. Moreover, the human tendency for fragmentation and division is universal: even in movements established for common goals (e.g., even something so mundane and pragmatic as losing weight!), there are factions and fractions and groupings. The ideological disputes in the kibbutzim during 1950s, which divided friends and families, is the most famous local example. I recall a bitter conflict within the Anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960’s between those who opposed the war on pacifist or humanistic reasons, and neo-Marxist ideologues who wanted a “worker-student alliance.” This conflict ultimately blew apart the Boston Draft Resistance Group in which I was active. The debate within Conservative Judaism over the issue of homosexuality is another example: as an outsider with friends adhering to both views, it seems to me that there has been too much acrimony and personal ill-feeling between the two sides. Haval!


Post a Comment

<< Home