Friday, October 08, 2010

Bereshit (Individual & Community)

A postscript on the character of Cain will appear next week. For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at October 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Theme for the Year: Introduction

I deliberated a good deal before deciding the theme for this year. On the one hand, there are still many genres of Torah literature which we have not yet addressed at all in these pages: most notably, the entire area of classical medieval Bible exegesis, parshanut ha-miqra—i.e., such figures as Ramban (Nahmanides), Ibn Ezra, Sforno, Hizkuni, Rabbenu Bahye, Abravanel, and many others. At times, it seems to me that the great popularity in recent years of Kabbalah and Hasidism, deep and beautiful as their teachings may be, has obscured the “meat and potatoes” of peshat—that is, the straightforward meaning of the text itself. This genre is particularly intellectually challenging as it often involves a good deal of polemics back and forth. Thus, for example, Ramban often begins his comment on a given verse by citing Rashi’s view in order to refute it; further along, he may cite Ibn Ezra, Rambam, and others, with whom he often disagrees. But for that very reason I decided, at least for this year, not to write about this subject, simply because the preparation involved in such a subject would require more time than I have available at this point. Perhaps next year.

A second possibility to which I gave serious consideration was to return to some subject which I treated in a previous year, and to fill in important lacuna. In particular, there are a number of important Psalms which I did not discuss during the year I devoted to Tehillim. Pirke Avot, which, during the season when it is read, I have sometimes treated as an addition to my main topic, also came to mind. Or perhaps I might return to Rashi: we devoted one year to discussing one Rashi on the parashah each week, but there are of course dozens such in each parashah worthy of in-depth discussion. Or Hasidism, or Midrash… the list is endless.

A number of readers have asked when I will gather what I have written in the past and publish it book form. Indeed, as time has gone by and I have seen a substantial body of work take shape, week by week, the desire to put the best of Hitzei Yehonatan in a more permanent, well-ordered and accessible form, has grown; this would include, in addition to certain of the annual themes, my major essays and studies, sketches of people, my comments on the prayer liturgy, and the annual cycle of festivals. I felt that this year should be The Year when I devote considerable effort to this project.

Now and again I have written of my feeling that the issue of the relationship between the individual and the community is one of the most important issues in contemporary culture. Beyond the great global issues of threats to the earth’s environment and the danger of cataclysmic nuclear warfare, the breakdown of community and of the traditional family and the emergence of rampant individualism is perhaps the major problem facing developed societies. A few years ago, in response to the call of the Hornstein program at Brandeis University for proposals for “an important Jewish book,” the winner to receive a generous appointment for two years to engage in research and writing, I asked myself: if I were given the time and money needed to write one book, what would be my message? The idea was born within me to write a book about the individual and the community, to consist of a critique of contemporary society from this perspective, as well as an attempt to systematically describe Jewish thought on this issue.

Though I did not win the competition, the plan continued to grow within me. Thus, thinking about this coming year’s theme, I decided to devote the coming year’s studies in Hitzei Yehonatan to the question of the individual and community, and to ask: How would one read each week’s parashah from the perspective of the issue of community and individual? In other words, rather than writing, as I have in the past, about a particular genre—Rambam, Midrash, Haftarot, Hasidism, Zohar, etc.—this year will be focused upon this particular issue.

I would also like to mention a precedent for such an issue-oriented parashah sheet. About 25 years ago, when feminism was just beginning to penetrate the Orthodox religious world within Israel, an outstanding Israeli woman scholar, Hannah Safrai z”l (who died tragically young) wrote a weekly parashah sheet on women in the Torah, published under the aegis of Neemanei Torah va-Avodah. Every week, even when women or woman-oriented halakhah did not specifically appear in the week’s reading, she managed to say something interesting and meaningful on the issue. There are doubtless other examples as well.

And so, we begin our journey in the realm of individual and community.

Adam & Eve – The First, Most Basic Community

Bereshit—the book as a whole, and the parashah of that name with which the Torah commences, is the story of beginnings. And as such, it presents us with archetypes of the most basic human experiences. Rav Soloveitchik, in his great essay Lonely Man of Faith, reads the opening chapters of Genesis as sketching a paradigm of two human types, “Majestic Man” and “Covenantal Man,” both of whom are present in the personality of each human being. Interestingly, he writes about the first couple, Adam and Eve, not in terms of human sexuality or the nature of marriage, but as emblematic of the nature of human community per se. Community, it would seem, starts with any number of people, even two.

Thus the couple, and thereafter the nuclear family, are the beginning of community and of society. While the word “love” bears many meanings and dimensions, most people associate it, first and foremost, with romantic or sexual love, with the love of man and woman. It is within the realm of sexual love, and within the family, that we first learn what it means to love others. True, the sexual-erotic element is unique to the male-woman bond, being the source of both its great, at times intoxicating power, as well as a source of many troubles. Nevertheless, we can extrapolate from the erotic, sexual bond to other kinds of love, and to other forms of friendship, fellowship, and community.

The nature of this bond, with all its duality and ambivalence, both for good and for ill, is encapsulated in two key verses in this week’s parashah. The first of these is Genesis 2:24: על כן יעזב איש את אביו ואת אמו, ודבק באשתו והיו לבשר אחד—“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” It is clear that this verse must be read as a paradigm of the future man-woman bond, if for no other reason than that the phrase “a man shall leave his father and mother” cannot apply to Adam, who had neither father nor mother but, according to the midrashic account, was born fully mature and with his woman “helpmate” created for him shortly after his own creation. The word “therefore” refers back to the previous verse: upon seeing and becoming aware for the first time of the woman who is to be his mate, he responds with a sense of deep recognition: “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh”—meaning, idiomatically, “This one is mine!”

The second half of the verse may be read in a number of ways. A good number of Christian exegetes read “and they shall be one flesh” in the most graphic, concrete sense: in the act of sexual union man and woman are connected bodily, are literally “one flesh,” at least for those few moments. Rashi, interestingly, says that they will become permanently united (possibly reading the future tense of the verb והיו as “they shall be”), become “one flesh” in the genetic sense, through their offspring.

But the largest group of commentators, led by Ramban, but also including Sforno, Ibn Ezra, Radak, and others, note that both sexual union and genetic continuity are found among the animals as well as among humans. That which is uniquely human about the man-woman bond is continuity, is the existence of a long-term, psychological bond between them; that the male does not merely conjoin with the female and go his merry way (although that of course happens among humans too; perhaps more often today, in our era of sexual “freedom,” than it did in the pre-modern past), but remains with her to form a couple, a family. “She is in his bosom like his own flesh, and he wishes her to be with him always, as it was with Adam, for it is implanted in the nature of his offspring that males cleave to their wives… seeing them as if they are with them as one flesh.”

In brief, this verse connotes mutuality, fellowship, sharing, cooperation, responsibility, caring for and about one another’s wellbeing: the feeling that one forms a unity with the other, that henceforth one does not live for oneself alone, that marriage is not only about “fulfilling my needs,” but that one becomes “us.” But there is also a darker side to the bond of man and woman. After the archetypal sin of eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the serpent, the woman, and the man are each meted their punishment by God. The woman is told (3:16): ולאשה אמר: הרבה ארבה עצבונך והרונך, בעצב תלדי בנים; ואל אישך תשוקתך, והוא ימשל בך—“And to the woman He said: I shall greatly increase your pain in pregnancy, with pain shall you bear children; your desire shall be for your man, but he shall rule over you.”

The first half of this verse, about the physical strain and pain and travail of pregnancy and childbirth, is not germane to our present discussion. The second half describes the discordant presence of two conflicting elements in man-woman relations: on the one hand, the woman feels yearning and desire towards her husband, both sexually and emotionally; on the other hand, he is the dominant one. That is, the relationship is no longer one of equality, with the Edenic innocence of children sporting together and sharing everything, but involves power, domination, a battle of wills. Today, with the tremendous strides made by feminism over the past several decades, marriage is perhaps more balanced and the position of women more equal, but the element of jockeying for position, of competition and struggle over power, is still too often a tangible reality for many, if not most couples. But, Ramban goes on to ask, if the man at times treats his wife more like chattel than he does as a beloved friend, why doesn’t the woman run away and find some better life situation, as a maid-servant might do in that situation? Here the element of desire comes into play: the woman desires the man’s affections, both physically and emotionally, and is dependent upon him, because it is not her nature to initiate such closeness and intimacy. She is thus caught in an inner kind of contradiction. (Interestingly, Ramban, nearly eight centuries ago, describes in a few pithy words what is today called the battered wife syndrome)

If one removes from the equation the specifically sexual–erotic element that is unique to marriage (and which is admittedly a highly important element), the picture shown here nevertheless aptly describes many other kinds of human relationship and communities. In the first verse one finds description of a kind of bonding, of varying intensity and degree of commitment, that can describe many kinds of connection—beginning with the family itself, and relations of parents and children; through the extended family or “clan”: study fellowship (hevruta); business partnerships; religious community; and, ultimately, the town or city and the nation as a whole. At its best, the traditional Jewish community, the old-time shteitel, was a community of mutual responsibility, with its numerous hevrot or mutual-aid societies. (Indeed, the regnant philosophy, according to the title of Herzog & Zborowski’s book about the shteitl that was popular some years back, was ”Life is With People”).

The latter verse may also be applied outside of the sexual bond, as well. There are various kinds of relationship in which a person may stay out of need: a child is dependent upon its parent; a business partnership may be essential to earning a livelihood; larger communities may fulfill important human needs for identity, for belonging, for security, or for other needs, both tangible and intangible. There, too, the human impulse to power and dominance over others, whether couched in subtle or unsubtle ways, may rear its ugly head. Many of the hippie communes of the 1960s, founded on the wish to create something purer, more honest and straightforward than middle-class society, typically floundered and fell apart when one or another charismatic leader began to dominate the group and abuse his power and respect.

* * * * *

There are other aspects of community and individual in this week’s parashah with which we cannot deal with here, but to which we can only refer in passing without discussion: 1) Cain and Abel: the first act of murder—fraternal solidarity gone sour? 2) Lemech and his wives: pure bravado and machismo (especially in light of the midrash that he had one wife for childbearing and one wife for sex; the latter kept her lithe and foxy figure; like the “trophy wives” of certain contemporary tycoons; 3) Aviva Zornberg, in her book on Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, writes about horizontality and verticality: the swarming of the lower species contrasted with the upright posture of human beings, signifying their individuality.


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