Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shavuot (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Shavuot, see the archives to this blog at May 2006, May 2007, June 2008, and May 2009.


In the first part of this essay, we presented the famous aggadah according to which God held the mountain over the Jewish people at the time of Revelation, and said: If you do not accept the Torah, here you will buried.”—in other words, that the Torah was imposed upon the people Israel by coercion, rather than accepted by their own free will. In this part of the essay, we shall turn to an halakhic idea, appearing in four separate places in the Talmud, which expresses a rather similar idea; thereafter we will explore the philosophical ad pother implications of their ideas for the individual’s relation to Judaism. We shall begin with its formulation by way of an interesting story in b. Bava Kamma 87a:

Another tanna taught: R Judah said: a blind person is not entitled to compensation for “shame.” Likewise, R Judah exempted him from all the mitzvot stated in the Torah. …

We shall “bracket” the substance and reasons underlying the halakhic opinion that a blind person is exempt from performing mitzvot, which offhand seems a rather difficult concept, and simply take it as one of the givens underlying our story, which involves Rav Yosef, an amora well-known for his blindness.

Rav Yosef said: Initially, I would say: whoever will say that the halakhah follows R. Judah, who says that a blind person is exempt from the mitzvot, I will make a feast for the Rabbis [in his honor]. For what reason? Because [it follows from this] that I am not commanded, yet I do mitzvot. Now that I have heard that which was said by R Hanina: Greater is one who is commanded and does, than one who is not commanded and does so, if one were to say to me that the halakhah is not like R. Judah, I would make a feast for the Rabbis in his honor. For what reason? If I am commanded, I have greater reward.

What did Rav Yosef initially think about his status vis-à-vis mitzvot, and how did R Hanina’s teaching change his thinking? The initial statement—“Even though I am not commanded, I observe the mitzvot”—implies that he performed mitzvot out of inner choice: say, out of a sense of religious feeling, a desire to draw closer to God, a quest to fill his life with the holiness and light that are somehow innately present within the mitzvot. All of these qualities came from within himself, from his own personal choice—and this, he felt, only augmented his virtue. Surely, unlike the person who performs mitzvot because he is required to do so, and in a certain sense has no choice, he was acting out of his own free will. Surely that was better, superior in every sense—morally, psychologically, in terms of spiritual attainment!

R. Hanina’s dictum is rooted in an entirely different set of assumptions and values: that the person who acts out of a sense of duty, of obligation, is preferable. How so? What does this teach us about the nature of Torah and, by extension, of the nature of the human being and the nature of God vis-à-is His world? Before turning to these questions, a brief survey of the three other places in the Talmud where this dictum appears. In Kiddushin 31a, it appears in the context of the famous story of a righteous Gentile from Ashkelon, Dama ben Netina, who was a veritable paradigm of the mitzvah of honoring his parents. Most famously, he refused the opportunity to make an enormous profit by selling the priests one of the precious stones needed for the breastplate, because to do so would require disturbing his father’s sleep. The story continues with R. Hanina exclaiming: “If one who is not commanded but does so thus, all the more so one who is commanded and does!” It then concludes by duplicating the above story about Rav Yosef.

In two other places, Bava Kamma 35a and Avodah Zarah 3b, the Talmud invokes this principle in a more general way to relate to the voluntary performance of mitzvot by non-Jews, which is seen as praiseworthy. Maimonides, in the course of his discussion of the Noachide commandments, likewise raises the issue of Gentile observance of the commandments, including the specifically “Jewish” commandments—i.e., over and above the seven basic, universal mitzvot. He concludes that, with the exception of Shabbat observance, which is a special covenantal sign between God and Israel, and the study of Torah, Gentiles may perform all the commandments, bring sacrifices to the Temple, and so on. (cf. Hilkhot Melakhim 10.9-10).

R Hanina’s principle is perhaps most familiar today in connection with what is known as “Orthodox feminism.” The question raised is to what extent women may take upon themselves mitzvot customarily performed only by men, such as tzitzit, tefillin, praying three times a day, etc., and how this may affect their status viz., e.g., serve as a prayer leader (shaliah tzibbur). Some say that, as she “is not commanded but does,” a woman cannot lead prayers for others; others say that her assuming these obligations changes her status to one who “is commanded and does.” Much ink has been spilled on this issue in recent years, and a proper discussion would take us beyond the parameters of this present essay.

To return to our main issue: how are we to interpret Rav Hanina’s rule? It is possible, of course, to read it in pragmatic terms, as does Tosafot in two of the above-mentioned passages:

"Greater is one who is commanded and does." It would appear that the reason for this is that one who is commanded and does is preferable, because he is more worried and anxious lest he transgress, than one who is not commanded, who has bread in his basket [i.e., his/her spiritual balance is so-to-speak complete even without the mitzvot], so that if he wishes he may leave set it aside.

"Greater is one who is commanded and does." Because he is constantly concerned to negate [i.e., overcome] his Impulse and to fulfill his Creator’s commandments. In other words, one who is commanded knows that he must perform the mitzvah no matter what. He does not have the option, should he become bored or otherwise disenchanted with observing the Torah, of abandoning the whole business.

A rather homely, pithy example occurred to me. As is well-known, a certain portion of the Orthodox Jewish population consists of heavy smokers—or, as one might call them, nicotine addicts (whether or not, as some hold, this is, or ought to be, prohibited by halakhah). However, as the halakhah strictly prohibits lighting a match or the combustion caused by inhalation on the cigarette, almost to a man (or woman) these people refrain from smoking on Shabbat. Many of them, if asked, will say that they don’t even feel the need to smoke on Shabbat; since, from the time they began smoking, they knew that it was forbidden on Shabbat, they have accustomed themselves to doing without. However, the moment Shabbat ends, they immediately feel the intense need for the first cigarette; some people even keep a pack of cigarettes and matches available somewhere in the synagogue, so that as soon as Ma’ariv is over, even before starting home, they can have their smoke, I would claim that this ability to not even feel the absence of smoking on Shabbat—but only on Shabbat itself—exemplifies the power of knowing that “one is commanded,” as applied to a familiar, real-life situation.

But this principle may be viewed differently, as expressing much more fundamental issues and perceptions within Judaism. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of the school of “Neo-Orthodoxy” in mid-19th century Germany and the first major Rabbinic figure to articulate a philosophy of Torah in relation to modern secular culture (Torah and Derekh Eretz), already spoke of the centrality of the concept of “heteronomy”—that is, the otherness (hetero) or external nature of the law (nomos). In his Nineteen Letters, he polemicizes with Kantian ethics, which sought to ground both morality and the perception of reality generally in innate categories of the human mind, arguing that, through a proper process of reasoning, guided by philosophical training, one must inevitably arrive at the truth. Hirsch—and in his wake much of modern Orthodoxy—saw the essence of the Jewish religious attitude as demanding that one acknowledge the heteronomy of the Torah and the halakhah—that is, that the Torah is commanded us by God, and is not something created through own religious feeling and sensibility, be it as individuals or as a historical community, and no matter how refined and subtle these feelings may be.

On this point, traditional Judaism runs head on against a central plank of contemporary sensibility. Modern man, perhaps more than anything else, believes in the moral autonomy of the individual. This is also part of the American ethos. Many would identify the essence of democracy with this notion: not only the idea of “one man one vote,” but that “the best government is that which governs least”—in other words, that government ought to interfere as little as possible in the private lives of its citizens. For example, in the area of sexual ethics the liberal notion that acts performed “between two consenting adults” are ipso facto legitimate, and not the business of society at large.

Indeed, I would argue that the notion of autonomy is central to the two major, competing movements of modernity: both romanticism and Enlightenment rationalism, in different ways, are based upon the exaltation of the individual and his feelings. The romantics, from Jean Jacques Rousseau on down, believed that the free, individual human spirit, left to its own devices, is naturally good; that all the evils of civilization have their root in coercion, in societal compulsion exercised upon the individual, etc. Contrary to this romantic position, classicism, which inter alai involves the celebration of human reason, and the mind rather than the emotions as the source of truth, also celebrates the individual mind, as mentioned in the earlier example of Kant. (From this, there also follows the cult of the genius: whether Einstein, Freud, Darwin or Marx or latter day geniuses, who are believed in the popular mind to understand the world perfectly and completely.)

An anecdote that illustrates this idea: A friend of mine, a very serious non-Orthodox thinker, tells that in his teen-age years he went through a period of intense, in his words even neurotically obsessive, piety. Deep inside, he was troubled by the way he was living; it simply did not feel right or authentic. On his eighteenth birthday, he recalls, he went to a local eatery and ate a treif hamburger. “And that,” he concludes, “marked the real beginning of my journey.”

To an Orthodox Jew, this story seems absurd, a contradiction in terms, but from the viewpoint of autonomous search for religious meaning, it makes perfect sense: it was at the point that he stopped obeying externally imposed rules and began to question, to think, to decide for himself which of those things he had learned he could accept, that he began his personal odyssey to working out his own world-view. (In a strange way, I find this story reminiscent, lehavdil, of the aggadic image of Avraham Avinu, who needed to figure out his faith for himself.) Such a path is, I suspect, not uncommon among contemporary Jews.

Recently, it seems to me, this emphasis on personal autonomy has become a major theme even within contemporary Jewish religious circles. Thus, at a Shavuot study evening some years ago, one speaker after another presented the idea of Kabbalat ha-Torah in terms of each individual accepting Torah in his/her unique way, discovering his/her unique path. On other occasions, as well, it has become clear that many people think of the halakhah as something which the individual consciously accepts upon himself at a certain point in life. While this may be the subjective experience of many of those who were not raised in observant frameworks, conceptually it is a far cry from the traditional view, that we are all מושבע ועומד, that we are all ipso facto obligated by the oath our ancestors made at Sinai.

Let us return for a moment to our sugya, about which I wish to suggest a slightly different reading, or nuance: Why did R Yosef originally think that “one who is not commanded and does” is preferable, and why did he change his mind? I would explain this in terms of two basic principles or, better, emotional movements involved in the service of God, which are thought of as, so to speak, the “motors” moving a person to performance of the mitzvot—ahavah and yirah, the love and fear of God.

Initially—thus I read it—Rav Yosef though that love was more important. To him, it seemed obvious that acts performed gratuitously, without being commanded, are clear expressions of love, of the desire to cleave to the Creator. But after he heard R. Hanina, he realized that things are more complicated: that the fear of God, whether understood as simple fear of punishment sanctions, or as standing in awe of God’s majesty, is prior to love. One must first know, not only one’s inner emotion of love, of longing for God, or perhaps even desire for unio mystica, but the simple awareness of God’s reality, His otherness (what Rudolph Otto calls the “Wholly Other) . Man must understand that God exists as the Other who is over against oneself; nay, that his reality is in fact greater and “realer” than ones’ own existence, limited as it is to a brief mortal spin upon this earth. Hence, the objective sense of being commanded is, both psychologically, ontologically, and epistemologically, prior to one’s inner feelings of devotion and piety, however intense these may be.

At this point a brief remark is in order as to where all this fits into the Jewish conception of the nature of man, of God, and of Torah. Unlike Christianity, which is burdened with the doctrine of Original Sin, we do not believe that human beings are inherently or innately evil. Man can do good, and he/she can achieve goodness; nay, can even achieve great heights of ethical perfection. But unlike both the romantics and the anthropocentric secular humanists, we do not believe that man is innately good or innately capable of knowing the truth. Human personality is deeply divided, the seat of a constant struggle between the Good Urge and the Evil Urge. Hence, human judgments, no matter how intelligent the one making them, may be fallible—not so much because of the limitations of the human mind (although that too), but because we are beings composed of both mind and heart; rational mind and inchoate emotions —and we can never be wholly certain which of the two is dictating our judgment. Even Albert Einstein; even Steven Hawking; nay, even Richard Dawkins himself [ (: ]—are subject to error.

Hence, we Jews believe, we were given the Torah as a kind of intermediary between ourselves and God, and as an instrument for guiding us in the proper path, as an aid in overcoming our negative inclinations. בראת יצר הרע, בראת תורה תבלין לה—“You created the Evil Urge, You created the Torah as a cure thereto” (b. Bava Batra 16a). It is for this reason that the concept of the Torah as heteronomous is so important.

Having said all that, does this mean that we are condemned to live our religious life in a mechanical way, without any personal input or expression? What of the natural human impulse towards spontaneity, or the sense of acting out of overflowing love towards Our Creator?

First of all, the Torah was clearly aware of the great diversity of human beings. Whether one reads the Bible, the aggadot concerning the Sages, the biographies of Hasidic masters, or any other portraits of great Jews, one is struck by the panoply of personalities, by the great diversity and individuality of the characters in our tradition. Moreover, we find in the tradition of Hazal such concepts as lifnim mishiart hadin (“beyond the letter of the law”) or the ideal of the hasid, which Scholem interprets as the “supererogatory Jew,” the religious enthusiast, the individual who goes far beyond the mere requirements of the law. There is thus ample room for personal expression or for choosing a particular path.

Thus, I would suggest understanding the kind of performance discussed in the sugya of Rav Yosef as a kind of ground level, the minimal attitude towards fulfillment of the Torah incumbent upon every Jew. The Torah, it must be remembered, is a law intended for an entire nation, consisting of a variety of people with varying levels of intelligence, moral insensitivity, and religious passion. Only a small number of these will be the hasid of whom our Sages speak; to put it in contemporary language: the halakhah is full aware that there are those who will make the study of Torah or the devotional life the center of their lives—and others who will be interested in science, or sports, or business, or movie-making. For these latter, in particular, the Torah is concerned with defining the parameters, both practical and spiritual, of minimal, even perfunctory, mitzvah performance.

But beyond that, as I have hopefully made clear in this essay, there is a certain irreducible conflict between that approach which sees human autonomy as the highest good, and that which sees acceptance of and submission to the Divine will, whoever understood, as the essence of “accepting the Torah.” This gap, ultimately, cannot be bridged; at some level, a person must make a choice between the mainstream values of the 21st century in which we live, and those of traditional Judaism. It is this, I think, that is meant by emunah (loosely translated as “faith’”), or even by what is sometimes referred to as “second naivete”—a kind of post-modern rejection of scepticism and arid rationalism that critiques traditional faith from without, that moves beyond the belief in an almost Promethean sense of human omniscience towards an openness towards faith, a kind of turn towards humility and surrender to the Almighty. This will involve an acceptance of the fact that there are certain things beyond human understanding; that theology and what we believe ultimately cannot be based upon reason alone (notwithstanding the attempts of various modern Jewish thinkers to do so).

When I started to write this essay, I was completely unaware that this Shavuot marks a very special anniversary: the 250th yahrzeit of Rabbenu Yisrael ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov, that mysterious and towering figure who founded Hasidism. But in fact, the subject I have chosen for this Shavuot essay seems uniquely appropriate to this occasion: one might say that, after all is said and done, the bottom line of the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching, like the final line of the discussion at the end of Makkot which seeks to find the basic principle or principles underlying the 613 mitzvot, is one and the same: Habakkuk’s motto, צדיק באמונתו יחיה—“the righteous shall live through his faith.” That, it seems to me, is the ultimate message implicit in the soul-posture of one who performs the mitzvot simply because he is commanded.


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