Sunday, April 25, 2010

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, at 2006_04_15, and at May 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Avot - Chapter Three

Mishnah 17

Chapter Three of Pirkei Avot contains a series of teachings of Rabbi Akiva—a figure regarded by many as the greatest of all tannaim. We begin with Mishnah 17:

17. Rabbi Akiva said: Laughter and levity accustom a person to lewdness. Tradition is a fence to Torah; tithes are a fence to wealth; vows are a fence to asceticism; a fence to wisdom is silence.

The first statement in this mishnah is very difficult for modern people to accept, expressing as it does what seems an exaggerated fear of even innocent light-heartedness and humor, which it associates with the gravest sexual transgressions. Why should levity and laughter, which we tend to think of as good things as themselves within limits, as perhaps providing release from the tensions and worries of everyday life, lead to lewdness and licentious behavior? Indeed, many of us would associate excessive solemnity and seriousness with coldness and an oppressively grave approach to life, that may at times be somewhat artificial; people without a sense of humor, we tend to think, may completely fail to understand the subtlety of life. Even the greatest sages, both past and present, have been known on occasion to introduce a serous discourse with a joking remark. Humor is valuable, within limits.

The only way I can read this mishnah to make any sense is to say that a person who laughs at everything may turn to mockery and scorn, which in turn lead to rejection of all values, a cynicism which may ultimately be used to justify throwing off all restraints and following one’s basest instincts. Judaism, by contrast, believes that life is fundamentally serious, and that humor is a spice which one may occasionally to make things more interesting, but not, so to speak, the main course.

In addition, in more concrete terms, one may imagine a raucous party, with much laughter and jokes and, as the evening progresses, the jokes have more and more explicitly sexual overtones. I recall men who are practiced Lotharios saying that the first step in seducing a woman is making her laugh. Perhaps it was this—and all the more so in ancient society, where social mixing of men and women was perhaps less common than in our own environment—that led Rabbi Akiva to say what he did.

The second part of our mishnah lists a series of four seyagim—“limits” or “fences”— that protect the integrity of the value mentioned in the phrase or, to the contrary, that prevent their negative effects.

First, and most important: tradition is seen as protecting the Torah, much as a fence protects a field. This may refer both to the oral tradition of halakhah, and to the Masoretic tradition of the Torah text itself. The masoret, in the broad sense of the oral traditions as to how the Torah is to be observed, including seyagim in the sense of Rabbinic ordinances that prevent a person from violating Torah law itself, protect the integrity of the Torah. Similarly, the textual tradition, including the vocalization of each word in the Torah and the cantillation signs (te’amim) that define the syntax of each sentence, is an important tool in insuring the uniformity and correctness of the actual text, that it is the same Torah as that which we originally received.

“Tithes are a fence to wealth.” Perhaps paradoxically, the Sages believed that, by giving to others, one increased one’s wealth. In a play on words, they said ‘aser kedai shetit’asher—“Give tithes, that you might be wealthy.” As if to say: by separating tithes from one’s bounty, placing a limit upon the unrestricted accumulation of wealth and property, sharing a certain portion of one’s gain for the poor, for the sacred service, or for the communal weal generally, one so-to-speak demonstrated that one was worthy of wealth.

“Vows are a fence to asceticism.” If a person has a certain ascetic, world-rejecting tendency, and feels that refraining from certain pleasures is a path for attaining greater holiness, well and good—but this tendency may not be vague and open-ended. It must be defined in concrete, definite terms, in terms of both quantity and time-frame—and thereby with limits placed upon it. This dictum teaches an important lesson: that even self-abnegation can be excessive, and must be performed in moderation, with limits and boundaries.

Alternatively, the knowledge that one has taken a clear vow to refrain from a given thing will help one to remain steadfast in ones’ aim, and not yield to temptation.

“A fence to wisdom is silence.” This is similar to the aphorism of Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel, found somewhat earlier in this tractate: “All my days I grew up among the wise, and I have found nothing as good for the body as silence” (Avot 1.17). Silence as a “fence / hedge for wisdom” implies, first of all, that one thinks before opening one’s mouth, that one doesn’t say the first thing that pops into one’s head, but first listens to others and thinks. (One is reminded here of the saying of Abraham Lincoln, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt”). But beyond that: silence is conducive to deep thinking / thought. Our own culture, in which there so constant noise, both in the literal, auditory sense, and in the metaphorical sense of the huge volume of written and visual material that bombards our eyes and senses—of television, radio, Ipods, emails, cell phones, text messages, etc.—is hardly conducive to real wisdom, but to the easily digested, short message, which is of necessity superficial.

Avot, Chapter 3 (Aggadah)

A few words about the arrangement of the chapters of Pirkei Avot: the first chapter, after presenting the basis for the chain of tradition from Moses through the Men of the Great Assembly, takes us down through the zugot, the “pairs,” to Hillel and Shammai; the second chapter introduce the great transitional figure of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and his major disciples; the third chapter fills in some lacuna in the history of the tannaim with sayings from a variety of figures from the era of Yavneh, the second and third generation of tannaim, and introducing the central figures of the two great schools of exegesis, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael (§§16-17). The fourth chapter, which we read next week, takes us north to Galilee, to the Study House in Usha, after the trauma of the Hadrianic persecutions of ca. 135 CE had put an end to the Torah centers in the southern-central part of the Land of Israel. The fifth chapter is based upon a totally different principle of organization—sayings related to numbers, such as ten, seven and four—with only a smattering of sayings whose authors are named at all; while the sixth chapter is extra-canonical.

Our chapter includes a sequence of mishnayot (§§3-4, 6) on the importance of study of Torah at human gatherings of various sizes, whether at the table or in general, and the negative nature of gatherings where Torah is absent. This grouping is followed, or perhaps completed, by two brief sayings (§§9-10) about the sin of allowing oneself to be distracted from one’s Torah or even to forget it. I bring here the most comprehensive of that group:

Mishnah 1

And a brief taste of Chapter Three, this week’s chapter. I don’t have a clear sense of the organizing principle underlying the specific choice of sages quoted here, so I will go straight into the first mishnah without further ado:

1. Akavia ben Mehalallel said: Look at three things and you shall not come to sin. Know from whence you come, to where you are going, and before whom you will need to give an accounting. From whence did you come? From a putrid drop [of semen]. To where are you going? To a place of earth and worms. And before whom will you need to give an accounting? Before the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.

Whenever I read this mishnah, I see in my mind’s eye the Jew from the Hevra Kaddisha of Kehillat Jerusalem, who chants this mishnah in a lugubrious voice at the end of every funeral,. Interestingly, the opening mishnah of Chapter 2 is concerned with the selfsame question: “Rabbi [i.e., Judah the Prince] said: Look at three things, and you shall not come to sin. Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds recorded in a book.”

What is the difference between these two formulations? The mishnah in Chapter 3 is what might be called “powerful medicine,” administered when all else fails, pulling man into line morally and spiritually by reminding him of his mortality and attempting to arouse disgust and contempt for life itself, with all its pleasures and pains and loves and hatreds. We all owe our existence to the almost random event of a particular act of love or lust which, possibly without any deliberate intention, led to our conception. (King David is portrayed by the midrash as being drive half-mad by this fact; see Lev Rab. 14.5, elaborating on Ps 51:7; and see HY III: Tazria-Metzora= Tazria-Metzora [Midrash]). And, at the other end of life, we will all end up with our body moldering in the grave.

Yet these thoughts, taken by themselves, might well lead one to despair, or to its seeming flip side—hedonism; living for the present moment; cynicism about any absolute truth or values. Without “the fear of God”—which I interpret to mean, not only fear in the literal sense, or even awe of the Divine majesty, but the basic sense of norms and ethics rooted in the presence in the universe of a Creator—there is no firm basis for morality. Of course, there are many good men who call themselves atheists and agnostics, just as there are many pious and outwardly “religious” scoundrels, and many wise men have worked hard and written thick tomes to provide a secular basis fur moral philosophy—but the end result remains shaky and tenuous.

The mishnah in Chapter 2 arrives at the same conclusion, but without invoking the stark and gruesome images of our physical mortality. As the Rav puts it in Halakhic Man, the two mishnayot might be compared to the healthy-minded, confident approach of “halakhic man,” as against the preoccupation with death and sin and pietistic stock-taking that are the stock in trade of certain Musar schools. He concludes with the caustic observation that strong medicine is needed only for the sick, not the healthy.

Mishnah 7

Rabbi Halafta ben Dosa of Kfar Hananya said: Wherever ten people sit and engage in Torah the Shekhinah is present among them, as is said “God stands in the Divine assembly” (Ps 82:1). And from whence that even among five? As is said, “and His band is established upon the earth” (Amos 9:6). And from whence even three? As is said, “among the judges He sits” (Ps, ibid.). And from whence even two? As is said, “Then those that fear God spoke [each one to his fellow], and the Lord heard and listened, and He paid heed” (Mal 3:16). And from whence even one? As is said, “in every place that My name shall be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you” (Exod 20:24).

I would like to read this mishnah as a kind of mini-sociology of community, an enumeration of different kinds of human groupings. I will consider these in reverse order than our mishnah, from smallest to largest:

One: Even an individual who engages in the study of Torah is doing something that somehow pleases God and attracts the Divine Presence. That which a person does by him/herself is significant—certainly intellectually (study is in a certain sense always a solitary activity, involving as it does the understanding of the subject matter within the individual brain!), but also spiritually, culturally, and psychologically.

Two: Two human beings engaged in some common action already constitute a “fellowship,” the nucleus of a “community.” In the traditional yeshiva setup, a hevruta, a pair of study partners, constitutes the basic unit of study during most of the day. The testimony of two people is required to verify and witness many things. Man and woman together as a couple are the basis for the nuclear family. Rav Soloveitchik, in his famous essay The Lonely Man of Faith, written as a midrash on Genesis 1 and 2, sees Adam and Eve, the first couple, as already constituting a rudimentary form of human community.

Three: Three already form a group with a certain internal dynamic, the possibility of more complex interaction—not only of back-and-forth discourse and perhaps argumentation, but of majority and minority opinions. Hence Jewish law states that the smallest court of law is the tribunal, three being the smallest number capable of issuing a decisive decision without the dangers of an individual deciding the fate of his fellows by himself.

Why does our mishnah skip the number four? After all, there are four sons in the Haggadah, four different levels of interpretation of Torah (literal, allegorical, symbolic, and esoteric); and a whole series of examples of fours right here in Avot 5.13-19.

Five: Five is called an agudah, a band. The number is called thus, perhaps, because it corresponds to the fingers of the hand. (The thumb, the finger needed together with the others in order required to grasp things, is referred to in modern Hebrew as agudal.) Five, while not a community, is already a substantial group, capable of gathering together for action.

Ten: Ten is a microcosm of Klal Yisrael. It is, as is well known, the minyan, the minimum number required for public prayer because, as our mishnah says, when ten are gathered together the Shekhinah is present. But it can also be a community in the negative sense as well, as in the ten spies in Shelah lekha who brought back a negative report.

Mishnah 11-12

Following a series of mishnayot focusing on the importance of public study of Torah, in groups of varying sizes (discussed in HY IX: Korah), there are two brief sayings about the importance of wisdom being integrated with other values:

11. Rabbi Hanina den Dosa said: He whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom shall be lasting. But he whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom is not lasting.

12. He used to say: He whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, his wisdom is lasting. But he whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, his wisdom is not lasting.

Both these mishnayot, by the pious tanna Hanina ben Dosa, focus on the same issue: the proper place of wisdom vis-à-vis other values. In both cases here, wisdom must be preceded by something else: “fear of sin”—that is, a certain basic ethical attitude; and “deeds”—concrete action, good deeds, in the world. It would seem that R. Hanina had a deeply-rooted fear of what might happen to an individual if “wisdom” were to become the predominant, guiding feature in his personality. What is the source of this concern? We know that Judaism as a culture has always placed a great premium upon the intellect: the talmid hakham, the person of \deep and extensive knowledge of Torah, must first and foremost excel in intellectual attainment. In modern Jewish culture, admiration for the intellect—the secular critical intellectual, the man of ideas, the scientist—is nearly ubiquitous. But necessary as this may be, R. Hanina —and, I would add, many other sages—saw the danger of intellect unchecked by other qualities. Intellect in itself is value free; it seeks to know, to accumulate ever more knowledge, to understand, to analyze, to compare and categorize and create new theories, or at least “hiddushim.” By itself, it need not necessarily lead to right, good, ethical behavior, to kindness or generosity or caring for the other, not to mention the kind of dedication that is willing to sacrifice itself if need be.

There were those, like Maimonides, who thought that intellect in itself, if properly applied, if rooted in proper training and systematic application of the correct axioms, would lead to right belief, behavior and character. His warning against delving into certain kinds of profound wisdom—whether the religious doctrines and thought of the non-Jewish world, as in Avodat Kokhavim 2.3, or the secrets of the Divine Chariot and of Creation—are based upon the fear that the person who is unprepared may fall into error. But, in principle, he believes, rather naively, that if a truly wise man properly understands the right course he must follow, he will do so.

In another sense, Wisdom may be viewed as a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the Torah itself is identified with Wisdom: see the opening chapters of Proverbs, for example. In Kabbalah, Hokhmah, “Wisdom,” is the highest sefirah of all, an instrument for infusing the infinite Divine light into the universe. On the other hand, in Greek culture wisdom (Sophia, Logos, Gnosis) is also the highest good. There, it seems to be independent of all theological or ethical restraints, but is the highest end in itself. Perhaps the wisdom which R. Hanina b. Dosa wished to be placed behind the fear of God is of this latter kind.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Yom ha-Atzmaut, including texts of the proposed Al ha-Nissim prayer for this holiday, see the archives to thsi blog for April 2006, May 2007 and 2008, and April 2009.

On Zionism and Post-Zionism

Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) this year is taking place against a rather bleak mood. The latest bribery scandal involving highly placed officials and the construction of a particularly ugly project that mars the Jerusalem sky-line; the stalemate in negotiations with the Palestinians, and the sense among many that the government lacks a clear direction or long-term strategy; the ongoing crisis with America and the Obama administration; the growing delegitimation of Israel as such in much of Europe and Britain and among certain intellectual circles; the Iranian nuclear threat—all these add up to a generally melancholy if not downright pessimistic mood as the country enters its 63rd year.

r the past decade or so various individuals and groups have emerged that define themselves as “post-Zionists.” Indeed, a few months ago my synagogue, a liberal-Orthodox one, held a discussion on the topic: “Opening dialogue Between Zionists and Post-Zionists in Our Community.” This raised for me the question, particularly apt on Yom ha-Atzmaut, as to what it means to be a Zionist, anyway, and whether, on the personal level, I am still a Zionist?

In past, opposition to Zionism tended to be one of two types: there were the Ultra-Orthodox, Naturei Karta and Satmar and the like, who opposed the State because it is not a Torah state, because it is in fact based on a secular ideology, and that in any event, as the Messiah has not yet come, the Zionist enterprise openly defies the “oath” taken by the Jewish people, according to Ketubot 111a, to not hasten or force the End, or to “go up [to the Land of Israel] as a wall”—i.e., en masse. On the other hand, there were the classical Reformers, who defined Judaism in purely religious terms—albeit their religion was defined, not in terms of halakhah or strict adherence to Rabbinic teachings, but in respectable bourgeois terms, modeled after Protestantism, amenable to acculturation within liberal Western society, which left no room for a distinct national identity

Today’s “post-Zionism” starts with the perception of the State of Israel as having betrayed Jewish humanistic values, as having become an apartheid, racist state which denies basic human rights to its Palestinian minority. As an alternative focus for Jewish identity, they propose, as far as I understand it, a Diaspora-centered ethical universalism, which may or may not entail elements of religious faith, halakhah, etc. Thus, one of the thinkers of this group, Daniel Boyarin, seems to revel in the idea of the Jew as an alienated, cosmopolitan human being, as a kind of avatar of modern rootlessness; as a post-nationalist who, through his Jewish wandering and detachment, harbingers the gradual decline of national particularism in post-modern culture (as witnessed by, e.g., the present milieu of the new Europe). This Jew is passive, feminine, cerebral, scholarly; Boyarin’s rejection of Zionism seems to go hand-in-hand with a rejection of Zionism’s attempt to create a “new Jew,” who would be physically strong, masculine, even machoistic, skilled in military arts if not actually militaristic, athletic, rooted in the soil—in short, everything that was the antithesis of Rabbinic, and especially Eastern European shtetl culture. (Woody Allen as a cultural archetype?). This affirmation of Jewish rootlessness and alienation seems to bear a certain affinity to the thought of George Steiner, the literary critic and philosopher, who celebrates the modern Diaspora Jew as the quintessential modern man and outsider, seeing Jewish prominence in such fields as psychoanalysis, sociology, literary criticism, etc., based on viewing society and the individual from without, as positive expression of this.

The problem is that the post-Zionist critique, particularly as regards Israel’s handling of the Arab question, contains enough truth to be plausible. As a young man, I saw in Israel the embodiment of my ideals—of humanism, of a kind of Buberian utopian socialism, of Jewish religion and of a healthy, non-alienated Jewish identity all wrapped into one. Today, when the reality of Israel is disappointing on several of these counts, I ask myself whether I still believe in Zionism, and I don’t entirely know how to answer.

My dilemma is this: I love Israel and have, by the decision to make aliyah, made it the focus of my life, but I feel that Israel has gone in a very bad direction. A single crucial decision, made about 40 years ago—to settle the West Bank and the other territories conquered in the Six Day War, and thereby to turn a temporary situation, which ought to have served as the basis for peace negotiations, into the ongoing occupation of a population of 2 or 3 million people without political rights—has become Israel’s Achilles’ heel, which has slowly poisoned everything Israel does, as well as souring its relations with the “enlightened” Western world. Even the more mundane forms of corruption—i.e., the bribery and graft and misuse of power which exist everywhere, but which seem to have become more widespread, or at least visible, in recent years—are somehow related, through an invisible moral calculus that I do not claim to understand, to be related to this “original sin.” As a result, all of Israel’s wonderful achievements—the hi-tech and advanced medical inventiveness, the Nobel Prize winners, the idea of serving as a “light to the nations”—become spoiled.

In what sense am I nevertheless a Zionist?

There are two basic axioms of Zionism, that bear repeating: first, the belief that the Jews are not primarily a religious group in the Western sense, but a nation or a people. Historically, Judaism has been based on a welding together of nation and Torah; on the notion of Klal Yisrael as an extended family-like group, with a unique covenant with God; conversion defined in quasi-biological terms, as being reborn as a member of the clan. But more than that: in the modern age, as many Jews have for better or worse rejected religious faith and practice, there has emerged such a thing, historically, culturally, and sociologically, as secular Judaism. (Indeed, a multi-volume encyclopedia of secular Judaism, edited by Yair Tzaban and Yirmiyahu Yovel, was recently published.) Clearly, then, Jewishness can be defined through cultural, linguistic terms, as much as by religion. Incidentally, re Boyarin’s earlier-mentioned thesis, Zionism revitalized the more natural, non-alienated, less exclusively cerebral side of Jewry. It strived to create an integration of body and spirit (see on this, from a religious perspective, Rav Kook)—even at times it went to other extreme and seemed to emphasize the body alone, or the value of the mind (the “Jewish genius”) redefined in utilitarian or economic terms.

The second basic axiom of Zionism is that the Diaspora is in some sense unnatural, not a desirable situation, ab initio. Even if, particularly in the modern age, it has produced universal geniuses—Freud, Marx, Einstein, etc.—it is not really workable as a home for a people. Even in a comfortable Diaspora such as the United States, in which Jews have been hugely successful in the professions and the economy and have become widely accepted as part of the mainstream; where many feel that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past or at most a marginal phenomenon; even so, the Diaspora is not a natural state for developing a truly healthy Jewish existence.

This is so because the Diaspora poses two basic alternatives. The one: rampant assimilation, intermarriage, and an uphill struggle to maintain Jewish identity and literacy on an increasingly rudimentary, simplified level. Even if Jewish creativity seems to be flourishing in new and exciting ways in certain circles, this is a negligible few, an exception that proves the rule.

The second alternative is that of a resurgent, buttressed orthodoxy, rebuilding ghetto walls in the open society. Demographically, at this point, uncompromising Orthodoxy seems to be the great white (or should I say black?) hope of survival for Diaspora Jewry. Unlike their more acculturated brethren, they show remarkable survival pattern. Not only do they marry predominantly with other Jews, but by and large only with other Orthodox Jews—and, in turn, are blessed with a high birth rate, thereby guaranteeing Jewish continuity into the next generation. But all this is at the price of a parochial outlook, of a narrowing of the scope and meaning of Judaism in ways which I, for one, find distasteful and unattractive.

The third axiom of Zionism—that Zionism is the definitive solution to the “Jewish problem,” that the Jewish state provides a “save haven” against anti-Semitism—is no longer true. In point of fact, the physical dangers to Jewish life are arguably greater in Israel than elsewhere; moreover, contemporary anti-Semitism, whether on the part of forces in Western society, and certainly among Muslims, has undergone a transformation to anti-Zionism.

So what is to be done? Those of us who care about the future of Israel, as a democratic, Jewish society, must continue to make our voices heard, to criticize what needs to be criticized—but as a “loyal opposition,” not as disaffected “post-Zionists.” Thus, despite the present clouds and misgivings, we should celebrate this day with as much joy as we can muster, as marking the modern rebirth of our nation, as the reemergence of the Jewish people into the history of nations. Hag Sameah!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Tazria-Metzora (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at March 30 2006 and April 2008. Teaching on Pirkei Avot will follow separately meanwhile, I have posted my past teachings on Chapter 2 on my blog-site.

Man: Crown of Creation or Lowest of All Creatures?

The subject matter of this week’s parasha—ritual impurity ensuing from various bodily discharges—is arguably the most difficult and arcane in the entire Torah; certainly, it is one which many modern people find extremely difficult to connect with. Fortuitously, the opening midrash on this week’s parasha, taking its lead from the laws of human childbirth with which the parasha opens, deals in a general way with the larger questions of human life and the paradoxes and contradictions of human existence. The midrash as a whole revolves around a verse in Psalm 139:4, אחור וקדם צרתני (“behind and before You have created me [or: besieged me]”). Leviticus Rabbah 14.1:

R Yohanan said: If man merits, he inherits two worlds: this world and the World to Come. As is written, “Behind and before you have created me.” If not, he must return an accounting, as is said “You placed Your palm over me” (ibid.). And as it is written, “Distance your palm from me” (Job 13:21).

Our midrash begins with the most obvious antinomy in human life: the moral one. Unlike the beasts, who are moved by instinct, man is ceaselessly confronted with choices between good and evil, and must render an accounting of himself before his Maker: if he is good, he inherits a goodly reward; if not, he is held responsible.

I shall skip the section dealing with the mysteries of sexuality, which I’ve treated elsewhere, and turn to the next section:

R. Berachiah and R. Helbo in the name of R. Shmeul ba Nahman said: When the Holy One blessed be He created Adam, He created him extending from one end of the world to the other, and he filled the entire world. From whence do we know [that he extended] from east to west? As is said, “Behind and before you created me.” [“behind” and “before” allude, in my opinion, to the place of setting and rising of the sun, which are “behind” or “before”—i.e., west and east]. From whence north and south? As is said, “from one end of the heavens to the other” (Deut 4:32). And from whence that he filled the entire space of the world? As is said, “and you placed upon me Your palm” [The “palm” of God’s hand corresponds to the vault of heaven, which is seen as dome-shaped; thus, Adam filled the entire space beneath the sky. Note the similarity between the Hebrew word for dome, kipah (also used fir the dome-shaped head-covering traditionally worn by men), and that for palm, kaf].

Leaving aside the interesting and ingenious proof-texts, which I have attempted to elucidate within my notes, what is the basic idea of this saying? The first Adam was physically enormous, filling the entire world. It seems to me that this is intended to suggest two things. First, Adam’s size alludes to humankind’s physical dominance of the world: our collective ability to subdue nature, to tame vegetation through agriculture and clearing forests, to tame or confine wild animals, to construct cities that dominate the landscape, etc. Second: man’s putative physical size suggests the centrality of human beings in the world, in the teleological sense—the idea that the universe was in some sense created on behalf of man—and even, if you will, his spiritual greatness, which was somehow diminished over time.

But wait! There is still much ambiguity as to the centrality of man:

If man merited, one says to him: you preceded all the works of Creation; but if not, one says to him: A flea preceded you, a slug preceded you. R Ishmael b. R. Tanhum said: “last” to all deeds, “first” to all punishments.

Again, man’s standing in the universe is contingent on his moral, ethical and spiritual behavior. If he behaves well, he precedes all Creation—that is, even though created last, he was first in the Divine mind, in the preexisting plan of Creation. If not, he is reminded that he was created even after the smallest and most insignificant insect. This ambiguity is expressed in the phrase סוף מעשה במחשבה תחלה (“last in act, first in thought”), familiar to us from the rather different context of the Shabbat prayers. The creation of humankind may have been the ultimate goal of creation, but the fact that it was created at the end, or is listed at the end of the Psalmist’s “catalogue” of the praises of God by all His creatures, or even that laws relating to his birth follow those laws relating to animals, all point to a potentially inferior status:

R Yohanan said: Even his praise comes at the end, as is said, “wild beasts and all animals, creeping things and winged birds” (Ps 148:10), and only thereafter “kings of the earth and all nations” (ibid., 11).

R Simlai said: Just as man’s creation came about after that of animal, beast and bird, so does the teaching related to him come after that relating to animal, beast and bird. This it is written there [at the end of the laws of kashrut in Lev 11] ”This is the teaching of the animal” (Lev 11:46), and only thereafter “when a woman bears seed” (Lev 12:1).

At this point, I wish to turn to some more general issues that have been of concern to me. Our midrash speaks of the ambiguities of human life: of man’s greatness, and his position at the very end of Creation. If you will, the tension between what is known , in two divergent schools of the Mussar movement, as gadlut ha-adam—human greatness, the enormous potential of the human being for creativity and masterliness, in the ethical, intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic realms (represented by the Slobodka school), and katnut ha-adam—man’s smallness and insignificance, his great distance from God, his mortality and “creatureliness,” his propensity for evil, for greediness and selfishness, for spite and cruelty (i.e., the Navardahok school). Man is capable of using his great power and potentialities for destructive ends, whether willingly or not—i.e., acts of both individual and collective cruelty and destruction.

In this connection, I would like to raise a more general issue: are humanism and religion contradictory, or ought they and can they complement one another, given that their ultimate aims are not contradictory? Conventional wisdom of course sees a basic antagonism between the two: humanism sees “man as the measure of all things” while religion, certainly Judaism, is theocentric, seeing the service of God, obedience to the Divine will, attachment to the Divine root (to use Ger-Hasidic terminology) as the ultimate good.

Yet if one examines the challenges confronting humankind today—whether the still real threat of nuclear war and widespread destruction, which has not passed with the end of the Cold War but grown far worse as rogue states and terrorist groups gain access to weapons of mass destruction; the threats to our natural environment and the growing ecological imbalance of Mother Earth; or the social anomie and disintegration with the gradual decline of the family and other forms of social cohesion—humanism and religion are on the same side of the watershed. The greatest cultural threat today is the decline in the very notion of human dignity—again, be it understood in humanistic terms or as having its roots in “Man created in the Divine image.” This is expressed in such tendencies as biologism which, philosophically, reduces all human thought, creativity, feeling, etc., to automatic, mechanical reflexes of the nervous system; through the enormous cheapening of human culture being brought about by modern technology, which is rapidly leading to a dumbing down of public discourse, with the need to simplify and present short, quickly absorbed messages, leaving but little room for complexity and subtlety of thought; and ending with the cheapening of sexuality and the assaults on the dignity of the human being that go with it. Hence, the call of the hour is for a new alliance of serious humanists, who follow the millennia-old heritage of human culture, and men of faith.

Avot, Chapter 2 (Aggadah)

The first part of this chapter jumps all over the place, chronologically: it begins with a saying attributed to “Rabbi” (i.e., Judah the Prince) and to his son, Rabban Gamaliel III, then jumps back to a series of sayings attributed to Hillel the Elder, perhaps two centuries or more earlier. But the bulk of the chapter, from §9 on, is concerned with Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the figure who masterminded the survival of Judaism after the Destruction of the Second Temple, and his disciples, including: a listing of their names and their qualities (§§10-11); a comparison among them, in two different versions (§12); the answers of each one to the questions, “What is the good path a man ought to pursue / follow?” and “What is the evil path a person ought to avoid?”( §§13-14); and, finally, three short characteristic sayings of each one (§§15-19).

Mishnah 5

We will begin with a saying from the earlier part of the chapter, which contains several sayings of Hillel the Elder:

He [Hillel] used to say: A coarse person cannot be sin-fearing, nor an ignorant man pious. The shy person cannot learn, nor the imperious one teach. Nor do all those who engage in much trade become wise; and where there is no man, strive to be a man.

This brief saying contains several important insights about human nature. First, a certain connection is drawn between refinement and intellect, and ethical and spiritual virtue: namely, that true piety or fear of God cannot exist in the absence of general menschlichkeit and a certain minimal cultural standard. I don’t think this is intellectual snobbery; rather, the idea that one needs a certain minimal store of knowledge and intelligence, the ability to evaluate the subtleties and complexities of situations one may encounter in life, to be a truly religious man. This is in contrast to the medieval Christian idea of the “holy fool” (also celebrated in Hasidism, as in R. Nahman of Bratslav’s tale of The Wise Man and the Simpleton).

The first two terms in this mishnah reflect a certain order: the bor, the coarse person, cannot even be “fearful of sin,” the lowest level of piety; while the am ha-aretz is defined as unlettered, but not outright boorish: he, it is implied, may fear sin, even be punctilious about avoiding transgression on a certain minimal level, but he cannot be truly pious, which require something more.

The next two phrases also complement one another: the shy student will be embarrassed to ask questions or admit that he doesn’t understand something and requires needs further explanation, and therefore will fail to learn properly; the overbearing, strict teacher will frighten even the normal student from asking questions or admitting his own ignorance, through fear of mockery and acerbic tongue-lashing. (Interestingly, some of the greatest Torah teachers, of both ancient and recent times, were known for their ferocity in the classroom; if they nevertheless raised generations of students, I believe it was despite, not because of, this quality.)

The fifth phrase, “not all those that engage much in trade become wise,” can be read in two ways. On the one hand, that people often associate wealth and worldly success with wisdom; the mishnah cautions us that this isn’t so, that the self-made millionaire can still be stupid in every area of life but making money. And, to the contrary: there may be the proverbial geniuses starving in garrets. Alternatively, one might think that those who engage in trade, and thus travel a lot and get to meet different peoples and see different countries, will gain wisdom from this; our mishnah comments, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Finally, the sixth clause, “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man,” seems to me to caution against excessive self-effacement. A person may think: I’m not good enough to lead communal prayer/give a Devar Torah in public/head a committee (etc.) One must understand that no one is born a professor, a prime minister, a rosh yeshivah, or even a pope (lehavdil). Everyone is “just a person” who gradually learns to do whatever they do, largely through doing it. (I am reminded of a friend of mine who, at a certain point in middle age, found himself buying a home in a comfortable suburban neighborhood suitable to those of his professional status lived, and remarking with astonishment that “In the ‘60s, this is where our friends’ parents lived!” This same person, when named to an endowed chair at his university, commented with some wonder that ‘This was the chair that my mentor A used to fill!”)It was this same message that Rabbi Nathan Kamanetsky tried to convey in writing his father’s biography, The Making of a Gadol. The ultra-Orthodox world was too much enthralled in the mystique of the “gadol” to accept this message with grace.

Mishnah 9 - 11

9. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai received [the Torah] from Hillel and from Shammai. He used to say: If you have learned much Torah, do not credit it to your own good, for it was for this that you were created.

10. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai had five disciples. …

11. He would enumerate their praises: Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is a like a well- caulked cistern that does not lose a drop; Yehoshua ben Hannania: Happy is she who bore him! Yossi ha-Kohen is pious; Shimon ben Netanel fears sin. Eleazar ben Arakh is like an ever-flowing spring.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai’s general motto was: Don’t be arrogant about the Torah you’ve acquired over the years (even though in ancient Jewish society, as in contemporary Haredi society, the talmid hakham, the Torah sage, was the most highly respected type of figure), for such is your natural goal in life; it is for this purpose that God created you. This may be one of the first times that this ideal is stated in quite such clear and unequivocal terms: learning Torah is the summum bonum, the highest good.

The praises of the various disciples are interesting, in that they are not all of a piece. Not all of them relate to scholarly traits: rather, two are of an intellectual nature; two pertain to the individual’s moral or spiritual character; and one is a general statement that is difficult to apply to any specific trait. We shall start with this last one: “Happy is she who bore him” or, in colloquial American, “He would make his mother proud!” Those of us who grew up in twentieth century America, with jokes about Jewish mothers and their pride in their children (“my son the doctor”), as well as with Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and the stereotype of the domineering Jewish mother, may find this faintly amusing, or perhaps naïve. What mother doesn’t think her son is God’s gift to humanity? Just this week, the Israeli police arrested a 15-yaer-old youth in the case of a brutal and senseless murder, and the news reported that his mother stated “But he’s a good boy!”

But joking aside, what we can say is that Rabbi Yehoshua was in some sense an all-around ideal figure, one who made all those who knew him admire him. I imagine him as a warm, loving, generous figure, who uplifted the spirits of those near him by his mere presence, filling their lives with joy and love, even without any unique teaching or moral traits that one could point to. I visualize someone like the Bostoner Rebbe, who even in advanced old age and with serious health problems always seems to have a smile on his lips and to exude love and inner strength.

Rabbi Yossi ha-Kohen and Shimon ben Netanel, hasid and yerei het, are a pair. ”Fear,” particularly “fear of sin,” implies meticulous attention to mitzvot and even anxiety lest one err in some aspect of one’s halakhic performance, with special punctiliousness about negative commandments. Hasid, even in a pre-Beshtian context, connotes religious enthusiasm, a constant flow of action and joyous emotion, one who prays and performs the mitzvot with fervor and intensity, who goes above and beyond what is formally required of him, and who does them as an expression of love and not merely duty.

Finally, there are the two very different intellectual traits of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and of Eleazar ben Arakh. The one is characterized by tremendous knowledge and, the necessary precondition thereof, a powerful and retentive memory. Particularly in an era before the Oral Torah was recorded in writing (but even thereafter, and even after Gutenberg), the man who knew a lot was an essential link in preserving the Jewish tradition, which contains a myriad of diverse details. Such a person was known as Sinai, a walking Torah scroll. The other type is renowned for his intellectual creativity, his sharpness of analysis, for constantly thinking about and in Torah and coming up with new ideas and interpretations, bubbling over like a mountain spring. He is also called oker harim, the “uprooter of mountains,” the man of incisive critical acumen, who causes others to rethink their most fundamental assumptions. Interestingly, the following mishnah records two divergent answers to the question as to which of the two is more important.

Mishnah 14

We return to the five disciples of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, and their various summa bonum. The following are the words of the disciple described as the most brilliant and creative of all, the “constantly flowing spring,” R. Eleazar ben Arakh:

Rabbi Eleazar son of Arakh said: You should be diligent in learning Torah, and know what to answer an apikorus [heretic], and know before whom you labor; [and know] that your employer may be relied upon to reward you for your labors.

The final phrase is a kind of coda. The three basic “mottos” all relate to the central value of learning Torah, and what one must learn from it. First, that one must, quite simply, be diligent, apply oneself. Second, one must know how to answer a “heretic.” This requires a certain openness, rather different talents than those required of a sage who addresses the committed and convinced. One must be aware of the existence of people who think differently, who have wildly divergent views from those of the tradition, and respect them enough to at least engage their reasoning seriously, if only to then know how to persuade them by reasoning and argumentation. Third, one must know “before whom you labor.” Kehati reads sees this as a general imperative to “know God”: a kind of Maimonidean amor dei intellectualus, the love of God that comes about via cognition. Or perhaps this is related to the final phrase: know before whom you labor {i.e. God} because he may be relied upon in the end to reward you for your efforts, tedious, burdensome, and heavy as they may seem at times.

Mishnah 18

I now turn to a passage from one of the five disciples—Shimon ben Natanel, the pious—who, perhaps characteristically, focuses upon prayer. We will hopefully get to at least some of the others next time around:

Rabbi Shimon said: Take care about reading Shema and reciting Prayer; and when you pray, do not make your prayer a fixed thing, but rather [asking for] mercy and beseeching the Omnipresent, as is said, “for He is merciful and compassionate…” (Joel 2:13); and be not evil in your own eyes.

This past week I happened to study the parallel to this passage in Berakhot 29b, where the gemara discusses precisely what is meant by not making prayer “a fixed thing.” One view is that one should not relate to prayer as a burden, an obligation to be discharged. There is a certain paradox here, because the very fact that it is defined as a mitzvah, an obligatory religious duty, with certain parameters and minimum requirements, makes it a duty to be discharged. Indeed, this tension is inherent in the very nature of the halakhah as a legal system that is simultaneously a religious teaching. The halakhah itself wants people to perform prayer as “service of the heart,” as an inward act, at the same time that it is nevertheless obligatory, fixed. Somehow, despite its formal, statutory character, it must be treated as something beyond mere duty, as a thrice-daily living encounter with one’s Creator. Anyone who has ever tried to follow this discipline knows how difficult it is.

A second view states that one must innovate something in each prayer, that it not be mere rote recitation of a fixed text. Finally, what I find the most interesting approach is that one must should endeavor to pray be-dimdumei hamah, “by the faint light of the sun”— that is, at dawn and at dusk. This last view is seemingly even more restrictive and formalistic (think of the Hasidim who insisted on breaking free from the fetters of “clock Judaism,” and were notorious for davening outrageously late). But in fact, the idea here is that both sunrise and sunset represent quasi-mystical times of grace, uniquely suitable to prayer and to arousing Divine mercy. The concluding phrase in this mishnah, “Be not evil in your own eyes,” is a warning against the dangers of self castigation. A certain modicum of self-awareness and self-criticism is a necessary component of any serious, ethical life. But it is a far cry from that to a feeling of chronic guilt, a sense of almost existential sinfulness and inadequacy, such as is found in certain streams of the Mussar movement (not to mention classical Christianity).

It is interesting (and again, this was written 1600 years before the movement we know as Hasidism) that it is specifically the hasid, Rabbi Shimon, who emphasizes the dangers of negative thought. The emphasis of Beshtian Hasidism on joy is not simply a matter of singing and dancing and jumping about, as it is sometimes taken today, but a conscious antidote to the dangers of excessive self-criticism and negativity (see Rivka Schatz’s book Hasidism as Mysticism, which has an entire chapter on this subject).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Avot, Chapter 1 (Aggadah)


I am beginning, somewhat belatedly, a new series: comments and insights on the Mishnaic tractate of Avot, better known as Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers,” which is customarily read during the summer months, and especially between Pesah and Shavuot. In Ashkenazic practice it is read following Minhah of Shabbat; among some Sephardim, it is read at the end of Musaf. One chapter is read each week; a sixth chapter, known as Beraita Kinyan Torah, which is not strictly speaking part of the Mishnaic tractate, is read on the sixth week, so as to complete the cycle of six non-festival weeks between Pesah and Shavuot, as well as to serve as a kind of introduction to Shavuot, the festival of Giving (or, some would say, Receiving) the Torah. The cycle is repeated a second time between Shavuot and the 17th of Tammuz; a third time between 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh Elul; and yet a fourth time, albeit truncated and doubling over the final chapters, during the month of Elul. Our presentation will be keyed to this cycle: each week we will discuss a few mishnayot from the reading for that week, proceeding chapter by chapter, and returning where we left off in subsequent cycles. Hopefully, by the end of the summer we will have covered a good part of this well-loved little book.

An introductory comment: the tractate as a whole serves two distinct purposes. The first, more familiar and obvious to most, is to present a series of epigrams about life, morality, Torah, how a person ought to behave—brief but profound sayings that the various Sages were in the habit of repeating, perhaps as a kind of “summing up” of their life philosophy: hence its popular English title, “Ethics of the Fathers.” The second and more central aim of the tractate is to authenticate the Oral Torah by enumerating the links in the chain of tradition, thereby showing its ultimate roots in Sinai. This is especially clear in the opening mishnah, but may be seen in the organization of the tractate as a whole, which presents quite a complete listing of the generations of the Sages, with brief epigrams cited in the name of each one. Thus, following the introductory mishnah, the first chapter is organized around the zugot, the pairs of senior sages, nasi and av bet din, from the Great Assembly that existed in the earliest days of the Return to Zion, down to Hillel and Shammai. The second chapter centers upon Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and his five disciples, the key figures in establishing the Torah center in Yavneh following the Destruction of the Second Temple. And so forth.

Mishnah 1

Moses received the Torah at Sinai, and gave it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the prophets, and the prophets gave it to the Men of the Great Assembly.

They said three things: Be moderate [or: deliberate] in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah.

The underlying concept of this tractate, as mentioned earlier, is shalshelet hadorot—the chain of the tradition through the generations. Rav Soloveitchik often repeated the idea that Judaism, more so than it is a religion of revelation, is a religion of a “Masorah community,” of received tradition, of faith in our predecessors, who have passed down the tradition as they received it. Reportedly, when the Rav gave semikhah to his students, he would say, “You are now charged with passing on the tradition of Torah as you have received it.” In such a community, being able to say “I do such-and-such in this way because I saw my father / my teacher doing it thus” is one of the more powerful arguments that may be evoked; more so, even, than saying “It is written thus in such-and-such a book.” In much the same way, we are expected to pass it on; hence, the essential act of Talmud Torah (e.g. in Rambam, Talmud Torah 1.1-2), more so than for a person to himself study at fixed times, is for each father to teach his children.

And tradition, most essentially, means Torah sheba’al peh, the Oral Torah, which is intimately bound with the process of human transmission, of teaching, of the relationship of direct contact between rebbe and talmid, mentor and disciple. Note: this involves, not only the actual contents of what is taught, but the very being of the teacher, a certain way of being in the world, a model to be emulated, that is somehow also transmitted through this process.

One of the reasons for emphasizing the authenticity of the tradition is that the Sages were well aware of the gap between the written Torah and the traditions of Oral Torah; they realized that the laws found in the Oral Torah often seemed like a tour de force, presenting concepts and practices whose connection with the scriptural text often seemed tenuous at best (“the laws of Shabbat are like mountains hanging from a hair; the laws of releasing oaths are as if suspended in mid-air”—Mishnah Hagiggah 1.8). Hence, the exegetical reasoning that fill many pages of the Talmud, combined with the faith in the chain of tradition, were crucial to support its validity. We now turn to the second half of this mishnah, the saying quoted in the name of the Men of the Great Assembly (itself a rather ambiguous group, whose historicity has been questioned by some). Note that all three clauses of this saying are addressed, not to everyman, but specifically to the Sages, to those who function in capacities of Torah leadership among the people—in brief, the members of the Sanhedrin. (This pattern may be seen in many other saying in Avot, which is a mélange of internal discourse among the leadership, and epigrams of more general purport.) The first phrase (“be deliberate in judgment”) refers to the process of judgment itself; “raising up many disciples” relates to teaching, the quintessential activity of the ”chain of tradition” described earlier; while “making a fence for the Torah” alludes to the legislative function of the Rabbis, to protecting the integrity of the Torah and its observance by various precautionary measures (e.g., muktzeh and Rabbinically prohibited labors as a kind of “fence” around Shabbat laws; separate sets of dishes and other kitchen utensils as a fence around kashrut; the avoidance of close physical contact or intimate situations between the sexes as a “fence” against sexual license; etc.). All this is based upon a keen sense of the psychology of temptation.

Mishnah 2

Shimon the Righteous was among the remnants of the Great Assembly. He said: The world stands upon three things: the Torah, on the Divine service, ad on the practice of acts of kindness.

Here, too, we have a list of three central ideas: a list of those things that are most essential to the existence of the world, namely, three central areas of Divine service (based on the notion that the universe itself was created for the sake of man’s, or more specifically Israel’s, service of God). These three might also be described as three dimensions of human spiritual-cultural activity: the intellectual; the spiritual-theological-devotional; and the ethical-inter-personal.

Note that none of these can exist without the other two. Thus this mishnah, in addition to identifying these fundaments as such, is also about the importance of harmony or balance. The image of the world standing on these things is a concrete physical one: a three-legged stool, the minimum number needed for any kind of stability. Or, one might say that these three represent not only polarities, but also built-in checks and balances (as in the three branches of government in the US system). Each of the two balances a certain potential for excess that exists in the third; each one by itself counterbalances the drawbacks of the other two.

I am reminded of a Hasidic saying—what they call a sharfer vort, “a sharp word”— I heard once from Rav Adin Steinsaltz. In the original Yiddish: “M’darf zein klug, und frum, und gutt. Klug alayn ist a ganiff; frum alyn ist a galakh; gutt alayn ist a noyef!” This translates, roughly, to: “A person needs to be clever, and pious, and good. One who is clever alone can be a thief! One who is pious alone is tantamount to a [Christian] priest; one who is good alone [i.e., kind-hearted, with a tendency towards sentimentality] can be an adulterer!” In essence, this saying is about the same three fundaments: Klug is Torah; frum is Divine service, worship, taken by itself; and gutt alone is deeds of kindness.

Of course, we have always had personalities or movements in Judaism that primarily emphasize one or another of these three: there is the talmid hakham, the scholar, devoted exclusively to study of Torah, who is a walking repository of knowledge and erudition; there is the ba’al avodah, the pietist who has cultivated the soul attitude characteristic of prayer as the central paradigm for his religious life (the conventional wisdom is that the debate between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism was essentially as to which of these two models I most central); and then there is the ba’al hesed, the man (or woman) devoted to deeds of human kindness and caring, who is always visiting the sick, arranging help for the indigent, inviting the lonely, attending every funeral, shivah, brit and wedding, etc. etc. (Gershom Scholem has a little essay entitled “Three Types of Jewish Piety” in which he elaborates upon three different, but related models).

Mishnah 3

Antigonos of Socho received [the tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He said: Be not like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward, but be like servants who serve the master not in order to receive a reward. And may the fear of Heaven be upon you.

We find here, expressed in simple, pithy language, what many have described as a central theme in Judaism: the ideal of serving of God without ay ulterior motivation. Don’t be like those who perform the mitzvot out of self-interest, in the expectation of reward (whether in this world or the next), but like those who serve the Master because they love Him, and His service is itself precious to them. This idea is given, perhapsof its most sublime expression in the final chapter of Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah (and of Sefer ha-Mada’ as a whole): service of God through love alone—“Do the truth because it is the truth,” with their confidence that whatever reward one is deserving of will come of its own accord. (see HY V [=Rambam]: Yom Kippur)

Interestingly, this issue is one on which we find dramatically opposed viewpoints in this short tractate. Thus, in the opening mishnayot of both the second and the third chapters, we find the opposite approach expressed: admonishing people to behave properly, by reminding them to bear in mind that “there is an all-seeing eye, an all-hearing ear, and a book in which all your deeds are recorded” (2.1) or, in even more extreme terms, reminding man of the transient and even grossly physical nature of his bodily existence, invoking the day of his death and that he will have to answer for his actions (see above, Behar).

How are we to interpret these differing sayings? Possibly, some would say, as different levels of service: selfless love as the ultimate ideal, with the carrot and stick of Divine recompense as an interim educational tactic used to motivate less-developed souls (thus Rambam, in many places). Other Musar writers invoke the ideas of “love” and “fear” as twin motifs, both equally important in the service of God, which complement one another (in much the same way as the first two paragraphs of Shema, Shema and Vehaya im shamo’a, which represent respectively the ideas of love and fear, are both essential). Or are they based on different evaluations of human beings in general and what may be expected from them?

Rabbi Benny Lau, in his recently published book The Sages (based upon his own popular lecture series on Pirkei Avot) portrays the relation between the two in more confrontational terms, as representing two rival, even conflicting ways of looking at one of the basic issues of religion. He describes Antigonos’ approach as a radical innovation, vis-a-vis the mainstream view of Hazal which, following the literal sense of Tanakh, sees reward and punishment as an essential component of any Judaic world-view. Indeed, the Rabbis blame Antigonos’ doctrine, at least by implication or indirectly, as the source of the heresy of the Zaddokites and Boethusians, who rejected the Oral Law. Their argument was that: if there is no reward and punishment (which Antigonos does not say; but his words could be taken as removing reward and punishment as significant motivations in religious life), then why bother to observe the commandments in careful, punctilious fashion? Lay counterpoises Antigonos to R. Hanina ben Dosa who, in 3.11, emphasizes fear as the basic axiom of religious life.

I would like to make two comments about our contemporary situation viz. the issue of “fear vs. love.” On a certain important love, the fear of punishment, or of not receiving any reward for one’s actions, is essentially ego-centered. At times, it seems to be that, in very different form, this is part of the underlying attraction of today’s revival of “spirituality”? Much of what passes for that is in fact self-help, guidelines to people how to feel better with themselves? Or take a popular way of “selling” Kabbalah: that it will make you wealthier, more powerful, more attractive to the opposite sex, etc. Antigonos’ view, by contrast, is based on Torah lishmah—which I would translate as: orientation towards universals, God as transcendent, outside our petty, transient human concerns, etc. (which is also an idea in much Hasidic though, where it is called bittul atzmi).

This view also meets the needs of the modern zeitgeist in another way. Many people today find it difficult to believe in benevolent Providence, or any direct form of recompense. This is so, first, because science has made us too aware of the operation of natural causality in the world. But ion addition, and especially, for us Jews the Holocaust has upset such traditional beliefs beyond repair. In the past I used to think that this was a fallacious argument; philosophically, the issue of theodicy is the same whether one is speaking of one suffering individual (the problem of Job) or of six million. But somehow, through the fact of the Holocaust, quantity has somehow created a different quality. The Jewish people has known mass expulsions, pogroms and wholesale murders before, but never before was there a systematic attempt to decimate entire Jewish communities, indeed, whole regions of Jews. The number of victims was numbered, not in scores or even hundreds of individuals, but in hundreds and even thousands of towns and villages.

Hence, Antigonus makes more sense for our day. A kind of unrequited love of God; mitzvot as demonstration of one’s commitment to God despite everything and anything that may happen in real life. Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to speak in such terms: of religious life totally divorced from any hope or fear of Divine recompense ir involvement in human life. An older gentleman of my acquaintance—a German Jew who left Germany a few months after Krystallnacht, and who in Israel was a devoted participant in Leibowitz’s weekly shiurim—said that such a teaching was the only one which enabled him to lead a religious Jewish life after the Holocaust. While those of us born after Holocaust, who were fortunate enough to experience its horrors on our own flesh, may not have the biting edge of an Elie Weisel (or of a Rav Amital), who says he prays despite God’s abandoning us, nevertheless, the naïve belief that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” has a hollow sound. Our only path can be that of “nevertheless…” —of the path of Torah and mitzvot because it is right.

Mishnah 4

Yossi ben Yoezer of Tzereda and Yossi ben Yohanan of Jerusalem received from them. Yossi ben Yoezer of Tzereda said: may your home be a meeting place of the sages; and you should sit at the dust of their feet, and drink their words with thirst.

This mishnah presents a striking contrast to 1.1, which speaks of the importance of exercising care and deliberation in judgment, raising many students, and making fences around Torah. Clearly, the former is part of the internal discourse among the sages, concerning their responsibility, as teachers and leaders, towards the people as a whole; here, and in the next mishnah, we have advice directed to the ordinary person, the ordinary “householder.” He cannot engage in Torah study on the same level as the sages, but he can provide them with the material setting for them to engage in teaching, and he may himself listen to them (“sit in the dust at their feet”) and absorb what he can, in a passive, receptive mode (“drink their words with thirst”).

It is also interesting to contrast this mishnah to 2.15, warning a person against a ferocious side to the sages: “Warm yourself before the fire of the sages, but take care of their sparks, that you not be burned; for their biting is like that of a fox, and their sting is like that of a scorpion, and their hissing is like that of a snake, and all their words are like coals of fire.”

Mishnah 5

Yossi ben Yohanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open, and let the poor be as members of your household, and do not engage overly much in conversation with women. This is said even regarding his own wife; all the more so regarding his neighbor’s wife. From this, the Sages said: Whoever overindulges in conversation with women causes himself harm, neglects words of Torah, and his end is to inherit Gehinnom.

The first half of this mishnah is again addressed to the householder: he should engage in hospitality to the stranger (the famed Abrahamic virtue!), and in particular make the poor, who are likely to feel downtrodden and miserable and lack the comforts of a home of their own, take succor in being in a comfortable home. (The phrase ben-bayit, literally, “son of the house,” is used of a person who is a regular guest in a particular home; it is a uniquely Hebraic expression, expressing this ethic.) Taken together, these two mishnayot provide a warm, positive image of the Jewish home, as the center from which the Jewish householder is able to engage in acts of kindness and helpfulness to others, as well as contribute towards Torah discourse by providing a venue for such. (The assumption seems to be that the sage himself is either itinerant, without a home of his own, or else his home is not large enough or “presentable” enough to serve as a dignified center. In our own south Jerusalem community, there are a number of wealthy people with large homes who regularly open their homes to serve as a venue for Torah lectures.)

But then comes the final, clause in this mishnah: to avoid excessive conversation with women. I cannot help but contrast this with a remark I once read by Salman Rushdie: he said that, in India, the conversation among women is infinitely more interesting than that of men: the men are always talking about business, the stock market, real estate; whereas women in India, perhaps like their sisters in the West, are in the midst of a period of dynamic change, breaking through into involvement in the great world, and are filled with interesting observations about society, culture, human behavior, etc.

Were the rabbis simply afflicted with misogyny? Or does this reflect an exaggerated fear of female sexuality—the idea that every encounter between the sexes inevitably carries sexual overtones. Needless to say, this is no entire untrue; the question is whether strict social separation is not “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” We moderns prefer to deal with the problem by internal controls; some Haredim would doubtless suggest that we are less than successful. Or is it rather a matter of women not studying Torah, and therefore not having anything of value to say? Again, in our generation there are increasing numbers of women who too study and are even learned in Torah, suggesting that they have much to contribute to the overall discourse—and it is good that this is so.

But I must conclude by defending our Sages, and not leaving them simply as woman-hating primitives. First, that in their time the role and situation of the two sexes was so different that excessive mingling did present certain dangers. Second, even in our own day, notwithstanding “unisex” and egalitarianism and liberation and the like, there is such a thing as conversation among each gender by themselves, which is certainly of a very different tenor, and in many ways far more comfortable and easy, than that of mixed groups—which is, of course, not to exclude the validity of the latter. And these matters deserve much more extensive discussion than I can give them now.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Shemini (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to thsi blog at, as well as April 2007, March 2008, and April 2009.

Why Did the Sons of Aaron Die?

This week’s parashah contains one of the strangest stories of the Torah: the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, when they offered “strange fire” in the Sanctuary. Moreover, this tragic event happened on what was to have been one of the happiest days in the history of Israel—the erection and dedication of the Sanctuary.

In a sense, no explanation of their death is necessary beyond that provided by the Torah itself, at Lev 10:1: “Eeach of them took his brazier, and placed thereon fire, and put upon it incense, and offered before the Lord a strange fire, which they had not been commanded to do.” But the aggadah seeks a deeper, more fundamental reason for this bizarre and frightening death: “and fire came forth before the Lord and consumed them,” and the equally enigmatic comment made by Moses immediately thereafter: “This is what the Lord said: by those who are close to me I shall be sanctified, and before all the people I shall be honored” (בקרובי אקדש ועל-פני כל-העם אכבד). Thus, the Talmud at b. Eruvin 63a offers one explanation:

Rabbi Eliezer said: The sons of Aaron did not die until they taught [or: ruled] halakhah in the presence of Moses their teacher. What did they expound? “And the sons of Aaron the priest shall place fire upon the altar” (Lev 1:7). They said: Even though fire descends from heaven [i.e., as described prior to this, in Lev 9:24, where the initiatory burnt offerings were consumed by fire from Heaven: “And all the people saw, and shouted with joy, and fell on their faces”], one is required to bring fire from an ordinary person.

At stake here is the principle of authority, of the natural deference of disciples to their mentors and masters. Hazal assume the existence of a strictly hierarchical social order (which to this day exists in traditional religious society to a far greater degree than in secular Western society)—one which applies even in the Study House. Even after one has become a learned man in one’s own right, one must know one’s place; specifically, while there may be free discussion and even argumentation over the matters being studied, in the end a certain respect and deference must be shown to established Torah authorities. Indeed, this was the original idea behind the medieval Ashkenazic semikhah (i.e., that process of rabbinic ordination that developed after the fall into disuse of the old chain of “laying on of hands”)—that one who had reached a certain level of intellectual mastery of the tradition received permission from his master to serve as a halakhic authority in his own locale. Nadav and Avihu, by contrast, are portrayed here as rash young men, who brazenly criticize Moses for his alleged halakhic error in not placing fire on the altar.

Rabbi Eliezer had a certain disciple who ruled halakhah in his presence. Rabbi Eliezer said to his wife, Imma Shalom: I would be surprised if he lives out the year —and he did not live another year. She said to him: Are you a prophet? He replied to her: I am not a prophet, nor am I a son of a prophet, but I have received a tradition: Whoever rules halakhah before his master is culpable of death.

This is followed immediately in the gemara by the story of Rabbi Eliezer’s own student, as a living example of this principle. The tone in which it is told is not vindictive in any personal sense, but matter-of fact: as if to say, it as a law of nature/ of Divine retribution that this is how things are in the world—one who is so arrogant as to teach Torah in the presence of his teacher (in the narrow sense of deciding an halakhic question, what we call paskening) is punished from heaven, and swiftly.

A second explanation is that they were drunk when making this offering. At the end of a lengthy discourse on the dangers of alcohol in Leviticus Rabbah 12.5, we read:

Rabbi Ishmael taught: The two sons of Aaron died because they entered drunk with wine into the Tent of Meeting.

This act was one that was explicitly forbidden by the Torah a few verses later, perhaps because it exhibits an attitude of disrespect and frivolity towards the sacred service; a further implication is that their intoxication caused them to do things which (presumably) they would not have done otherwise. In any event, this explanation is based on a classical textual move: semikhut parshiyot, the adjacency of the rule that a priest may not drink wine while serving in the Sanctuary (Lev 10:8-11) to the incident of Nadav and Avihu. A corollary of this is that the kohanim may not recite the priestly blessing in synagogue if they have so much as tasted wine (viz. the custom not to recite this blessing at Musaf of Simhat Torah). Similarly, rabbis may not rule on halakhic matters after they have drunk wine—a rule inferred from the reference to the teaching function of the ancient priests in this same passage.

To sweeten the bitter pill, our midrash concludes on a more upbeat note:

The Holy One blessed be he said: As in this world wine serves as a stumbling block, in the future I shall make it into joy, as is written, “And it shall come to pass, that in that day the mountains shall drip with sweet wine” (Joel 4:18).

A third passage deal with the difficult verse mentioned earlier, in which the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are associated with the sanctification of God’s name. The context is a discussion of a verse preliminary to the Giving of the Torah, in which a boundary is set around Mount Sinai that even the priests are barred from crossing. The question addressed here is, to whom does this refer: the first-born, who until that time had served as priests, or the sons of Aaron, specifically Nadav and Avihu, who from that day on assumed priestly duties? b. Zevahim 115b:

It was a tannaitic dispute, as they taught: “and even the priests who draw close to the Lord shall be sanctified” (Exod 19:22). R Joshua b Korhah said: This refers to the separation of the first-born. Rabbi [i.e., Judah the Prince] said: This refers to the separation of Nadav and Avihu. [The verse] is consistent with the one who says that it refers to the separation of Nadav and Avihu, as is written, “This is what the Lord said, saying: By those who are close to me I shall be sanctified” (Lev 10:3), but if one says that this alludes to the separation of the first born, where is it [i.e., the setting aside of Nadav and Avihu] alluded to? As is written, “And I shall make myself known there to the sons of Israel, and it shall be sanctified with my glory” (Exod 29:43). Do not read “With my honor” (bikhevodi) but “by those whom I honor” (bemekhubaday). The Holy One blessed be He said this to Moses, but he did not understand it until the sons of Aaron died. Once the sons of Aaron died, he said to him: Aaron my brother, your sons died in order to sanctify the name of the Holy One blessed be He. Once Aaron realized that his sons were familiar with the Omnipresent, he was silent and received reward for it, as is said “and Aaron was silent” (Lev 10:3).

This is a very difficult concept. Does it imply that the sons of Aaron did not sin at all, but their death was somehow a gratuitious act of Kiddush Hashem? If so, in what sense is this so? Ordinarily, the sanctification of the Name refers to heroic acts, demonstrations of loyalty to God’s unity, refusal to transgress even under threat of death as a sign of ultimate devotion to Torah. How does this apply here? There is something arbitrary, frightening and puzzling in the image of God implied here. The lesson of the Akedah, the Binding of Yitzhak, was that human sacrifice is not desirable. Is this passage reintroducing that same idea through the back door? Does He desire the death of His holy ones, perhaps not in the sense of deliberate slaughter, but as a mysterious, mystical kind of Kiddush Hashem?

Alternatively, the Torah Temimah suggests that this passage complements the earlier ones, which speak of the two as having committed various sins: God is sanctified specifically by a more exacting, demanding standard being applied to the righteous, the “honored ones” or “sanctified ones,” who are punished harshly, even to the point of death, for a relatively minor sin. This teaches that the service of God, that closeness to Him, is no light matter, to be performed in a slipshod or haphazard manner, but demands great reverence and care. Thus, our sugya, after a digression, concludes:

… And this is what R. Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Yohanan: What is meant by the verse, “Awesome is God from Your sacred place” (Ps 68:36)? Do not read “from Your sacred place” but “by those who are sanctified by You.” When the Holy One blessed He passes judgment over His sanctified ones, He is feared, and exalted, and praised.

Latter Days of Pesah (Aggadah)

Three Songs

The Song of the Sea. The latter days of Pesah may be seen under the sign of song—to be precise, of three songs. I will begin at the end, which is also the simplest and most straightforward: the Seventh and final Day of Pesah commemorates the Splitting of the Sea, and the joyful song this Israelites sang once they had crossed, seen God’s mighty hand, and knew that they were truly free of Egypt. This song , “the Song of the Sea,“ or Shirat ha-Yam is a song of gratitude to God for this great act of deliver; hence, it serves as the archetype for many other songs of praise. Thus, the Rabbis inferred many of the laws of the Hallel, recited on festive days, from it. Hasidic thought sees this as the first and greatest of all songs: a song of faith or, rather, of experiential knowledge, that God had delivered them: “Who is like unto you, O Lord, among the divinities; Who is like unto you, glorious in holiness, awesome in praise, performing wonders!” (Exod 15:11). The song goes on to describe the frightened and overwhelmed reaction of the neighboring peoples, and concludes with a vision of the future: “You shall bring them and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance… the Temple, Lord, Your hands have established” followed by a paean of praise to the Almighty in the simplest words possible: “The Lord will reign as king for ever and ever” (vv. 17-18).

The Song of Songs. The second song associated with Pesah is Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs. This scroll is read on the Shabbat within Pesah—depending on how the calendar falls on a given year, it may be read on the First Day, the Seventh Day, or on the “intermediate Shabbat,” as it is this year (some people also read it late at night, after the end of the Passover Seder). Shir ha-Shirim is a song of love and longing between two lovers, which may be interpreted in a simple, straightforward manner or as an allegory of the love between God and Israel. Alongside lyric descriptions of the physical beauty of each by the other, it is filled with longing and yearning, accounts of missed trysts and nocturnal wanderings through the city seeking her lover. While there are moments of meeting, of fulfillment (“the king brought me into his chambers”) and even one or two verses which may be read as hints of consummation, the dominant mood is one of yearning, of pangs of longing (“for I am lovesick”) for the other in his/her absence. Perhaps it is in this sense, as much as any other, that it may be seen as a metaphor for the history of the Jewish people.

A profound saying of Rabbi Akiva states that the Song of Songs is “the holiest of holies” (m. Yadaim 3.5). It may be read allegorically, thereby sidestepping the problematic of bringing the erotic into the synagogue, but I believe that this saying implies something else: the awareness that the love of man and woman, in the simple, literal sense, is potentially the holiest thing in our lives. There is Divine power in the erotic; indeed, it is perhaps the greatest force in the world—but alongside the potential for holiness, for tasting the Divine, it can also be a slippery slope, in which man sinks into carnality and lust for their own sake, in the lowest way.

Thus, there were many who preferred to read the book exclusively as allegory, shying away from the overtly erotic peshat, whether out of modesty or prudery, or from a feeling that these travails of romantic love were most aptly read as the drama of finite man and infinite God reaching out towards one another. Indeed, there are sayings of Hazal to that effect. But I must confess to being too thorough-going a modern person to accept this easily. As I see it, the allegorical, symbolic reading takes it power precisely from the level of peshat: that human love is the potentially deepest experience of intimacy any of us may know, so that the song of its songs may best be understood both in its own right, and as pointing towards something beyond.

The Rav’s Song of Torah. Finally, over the past sixteen years one of the days of Pesah has acquired another meaning, for myself and for many others, as a day on which to celebrate and reflect upon the life of our revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik. The Rav left this mortal coil on 17th Nissan, 5754 (1994), on that day known as either the Second Day of Hol ha-Mo’ed (in Israel) or the First Day. There are those who may find it strange for me to refer to the Rav’s life as a ”song.” He was, in many respects, a classical “Litvak,” for whom the sharp, penetrating, rational intellectual analysis of Torah—of Talmud and halakhah and everything else he studied—was the sine qua non of existence. He saw Torah in hard, objective terms, as a demanding intellectual discipline; he often compared the world of halakhah to that of science, with its observation, collection and analysis of data. Yet alongside this, his was a deeply poetic, almost feminine soul. He saw the act of Torah study, not only as an intellectual act, but as the very pinnacle of religious experience—even more so than prayer. Thus, he spoke of the fixed times set for studying Torah as a “rendezvous with the Shekhinah.” For him, the melody of the Jew was equated with the song of Torah. To quote the Psalmist, “Your laws were songs to me” (Ps 119:54).

A Thought on Song and Music. In recent years, there has been a veritable explosion of song and music in the synagogue; particularly of group singing, following the pattern of “Nusah Carlebach.” Everywhere, it seems, Jews wish to relive the enthusiasm and ecstasy felt in the concerts and public appearances of Reb Shomo. But music can involve two different aspects: it may be sung and listened to for human pleasure, for the enjoyment of melody, rhythm, harmony, and so forth—i.e., aesthetic or emotional pleasure; or it may be directed towards an Other. The songs of Pesah are not just sung for oneself, but are always addressed to someone. The Song of the Sea, like songs of praise generally, is addressed to God. The verses of Song of Songs, as the song of a pair of lovers (whomever they may be), are addressed to one another. Even the Song of Torah—what I have called the Song of the Rav—sung by the individual in the course of his learning, is not only for himself, but entails opening himself to words of Torah, to being addressed by the Jewish tradition, to hearing its hidden music. Three songs; three aspects of the redemption of Pesah. May our lives be evermore filled with song.