Friday, May 28, 2010

Beha'alotkha (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at 2006_05_20, as well as June 2008 and June 2009.

“And they desired a desire”

This week’s parashah is the first in a series of three which describe various murmurings and rebellions of the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert—beginning with the desire, in response to their boredom with manna, to eat meat; through their fears, in wake of the report of the spies, that they would be unable to conquer the Land; and ending in the open rebellion against Moses’ authority led by Korah. As I’ve suggested in previous years, these incidents may be read as paradigms for more general human weaknesses and failings.

The story begins with a somewhat unusual phrase: “And the mixed multitude among them desired a desire” or, if you will, “appetited an appetite” (hitavu ta’avah). The grammatical construction is unusual (paralleled only in Ps 106:14 and Prov 21:26): the verb referring to the act of desiring is the same as that from which the noun, ta’avah, meaning “desire,” “appetite,” “craving” or even “lust,” is constructed. Yalkut Yehudah quotes here an interesting comment, without citing the precise source. He simply says that it is taken “from the books” (meha-sefarim), which is probably an elegant way of saying that he read it once, but does not remember where. In any event, the comment reads as follows:

“They desired a desire” (Num 11:4). They desired to have the appetite to eat meat, as by the eating of the manna they had ceased to have any appetite.

This brief saying, no doubt prompted by the peculiar linguistic usage mentioned above, says something about the nature of appetite, and about the nature of eating mat. Human appetite may exist on two, or even three, levels: there is direct, natural appetite, bodily needs felt as an immediate need of the body—thirst, hunger, and the need for sexual release. Close to this is desire as a direct response to sensory stimuli: e.g., the sight or smell attractive foods; the encounter with an attractive (or, even better, beloved) woman or man, as the case may be. But then there is that appetite which originates in the imagination: one remembers something which has given one pleasure in the past and ruminates on it, thereby arousing the desire to repeat that pleasure; or one fantasizes about a pleasure which one has never experienced, but has heard about from others or otherwise knows about. For example, an adolescent virgin will fantasize about that mysterious thing called sex, a subject of curiosity for just about everyone in that stage of life; or an observant Jew might wonder what pork or shellfish tastes like, and fantasize about it until feeling the desire to taste the forbidden flesh.

This latter type of desire is one unique to humankind: the beast, even the highly developed primate, only knows immediate, tangibly felt appetites, or a direct response to things they hear or see or smell (albeit this may also include conditioned responses, like Pavlov’s dogs responding to a bell, or my cat expecting a treat of cottage cheese whenever I open the refrigerator in the morning). While the desire of the imagination may be one of the sources of the almost infinite variety of human life and culture, it is also a major source of frustration and malcontent in human life—inevitably, pleasures imagined outstrip our capacity to fulfill them (“No person dies with half of his appetite in hand”).

Now, there is one further step: a person may not only imagine a given pleasure, he may consciously bring himself to desire something, he may lead his mind along the path of desiring, of imagining a given pleasure, and allow himself to be consumed by this fantasy. It is this capacity that leads to the existence of such things as pornography—at this point in history a multi-billion dollar industry, quite probably the most numerous type of website on the internet—whose entire purpose is to arouse, to stimulate sexual desire; the consumer of pornography deliberately seeks words or images that will arouse his/her sexual excitement, but that do not in themselves offer fulfillment or satisfaction. Indeed, precisely as our text says, he “desires a desire.”

This capacity to imagine pleasures in isolation from immediate need or desire also lies at the root of addiction. Many of the substances to which people become addicted—tobacco, the vast variety of drugs (which may be extremely concentrated forms of elements that exist in nature, such as the poppy seeds from which heroin is derived), alcohol (albeit this is a more ambiguous example, as it also serves as a convivial drink, and may also taste good)—serve no natural, innate need, but are artificial pleasures, which serve the sole purpose of fulfilling an appetite or craving which certain people have learned to desire, providing a sense of excitement, of vitality, a rush of adrenalin, the thrill of anticipation, or an illusion of well-being and happiness—disconnected from any real need (all this, of course, before the physical dependence and addiction set in).

Emmanuel Levinas, in his Nine Talmudic Readings (pp. 32-34), has an essay entitled “The Temptation of Temptation,” in which he deals with this phenomenon. Here he discusses the psychology of appetite, or “temptation,” in a manner that goes far beyond Hazal’s understanding of it, seeing the phenomenon as emblematic of central themes in Western culture and the psychology of Western man. He has significant things to say about this subject, which are well worth reading:

The temptation of temptation may well describe the condition of Western man. In the first place it describes his moral attitudes. He is for an open life, eager to try everything, to experience everything, “in a hurry to live. Impatient to feel.” In this respect, we Jews all try to be Westerners… Ulysses’ life, despite its misfortunes, seems to us marvelous, and that of Don Juan enviable, despite its tragic end. One must be rich and a spendthrift and multiple before being essential and one… Oh, above all, we cannot close ourselves off to any possibility. We cannot let life pass us by!… There would be no glory in triumphing in innocence, a concept defined purely negatively as a lack, associated with naivete and childhood, marking it as a provisional state.…

Christianity too is tempted by temptation, and in this it is profoundly Western. It proclaims a dramatic life and a struggle with the tempter, but also an affinity with this intimate enemy. … Christianity tempts us by the temptation, even if overcome, which fill the days and nights even of its saints. We are often repelled by the “flat calm” which reigns in the Judaism regulated by the Law and ritual.…

The temptation of temptation is not the attractive pull exerted by this or that pleasure,…. but the ambiguity of a situation in which pleasure is still possible but in respect to which the Ego keeps its liberty, has not yet given up its security, has kept its distance…. [It} is thus the temptation of knowledge.

Significantly, these remarks appear in a discussion of the aggadah concerning the Sinai Revelation (a subject which I discussed in my own recent essay at HY XI: Shabbat Kallah–Shavuot), in relation to the dichotomy of autonomy and heteronomy. From his perspective, teshuvah and acceptance of Torah are, quite simply, the path to moral and spiritual health.

The second subject upon which this comment about appetite touches has to do with the nature of eating meat. Our text seems to imply that the desire for meat is an appetite that in some sense needs to be cultivated, stimulated; during the period when the Israelites ate manna, they so-to-speak lost their appetite for and even interest in eating meat. Hence, they needed to reawaken a long-forgotten appetite—a process which our author implies is somehow artificial and unnatural. Are we to understand that he advocated a vegetarian ethos of sort?—that man is by nature happy to eat grains, bread and vegetables? Clearly, human beings are not carnivores in the straightforward, simple way that the big felines, predatory birds, and other beasts of prey are. Rather, eating meat is in some sense an acquired appetite, and as such problematic.

Interestingly, the Torah uses the word ta’avah and related verbal forms specifically about the eating of meat—far more so than about sex (the one exception I found is Ps 45:12, the royal wedding psalm, ויתאו המלך יפיך; albeit in Rabbinic Hebrew and even more so in medieval Musar literature תאוה is used as a euphemism for sexual desire). Thus in Deut 12:20 (cf. v. 22): “When the Lord expands your boundaries … and you say, ‘I shall eat meat,’ because your soul desires to eat meat (כי תאוה נפשך לאכול בשר), with all the appetite of your soul (בכל אות נפשך), you may eat meat…”

It is also interesting that, in the religions of the Far East, sexual activity and eating meat are associated as the two activities that a spiritual seeker, one becoming a or mendicant monk (usually, unlike Christianity monasticism, in later life, after having lived a family life and raising children as a householder) must eschew—not because of any innate sinfulness associated with them, but because, as gross corporeal pleasures they “weigh down” a person, literally and figuratively.

Pirkei Avot: "These Things Take a Person Out of the World"

I had hoped to return this week to our secondary topic of Pirkei Avot, which I neglected the past few weeks due to major thematic essays. I noticed, in connection with the discussion of “appetite” or “desire,” three passages in Avot which mention things that “remove a person from the world”—including ta’avah. Due to the lateness of the hour and the approaching onset of Shabbat I cannot comment on them ere, nor compare them with one another, nor even explain the term “remove them from the world.” Instead, I shall suffice for now with presenting the texts and their translation for readers’ study and reflection over Shabbat, and hopefully return to them soon (the numbers in brackets indicate alternative traditions of numbering the mishnayot):

2.14 [11]. Rabbi Joshua said: the evil eye, and the Evil Urge, and hatred of people, take a person out of the world.

3.13. Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus said: Sleep in the morning, and wine at noontime, and discourse of children, and sitting in the synagogues [or: assemblies] of the ignorant—remove a person from the world.

4.27 [21]. Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kapar said: Jealousy [and hatred] and desire and [the pursuit of] honor remove a person from the world.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Naso (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parshah, see the archives to this blog, at May 10 2006, as well as May 2007, June 2008, and June 2009.

Two Kinds of Balance

As I have written at great length on several subjects these past few weeks, and this Shabbat comes close on the heals of Shavuot, I will only share a brief thought on one Talmudic passage. Sotah 2a asks:

Rabbi [i.e. Judah ha-Nasi] said: Why is the chapter of the Nazirite adjacent to that of the Sotah [i.e., suspected adulteress]? To tell you, that whoever saw the Sotah in her disgrace would keep himself away from wine.

This week’s Torah portion, is a kind of potpourri of a wide variety of diverse halakhic subjects. The Talmud asks here why two of the subjects which are presented in expansive detail—the law of the wife suspected of adultery and the test to which she is subjected (Num 5:11-31), and that of the Nazirite, who takes an oath not to drink wine nor to cut his hair (Num 6:1-21)—are adjacent to one another. (Incidentally, the two subjects are also next to one another in the order of the Mishnah, and thus in the Talmud, in the tractates of Nazir and Sotah.) The answer given is a simple one: a person who saw the shameful test imposed upon the sotah—the woman whose husband was moved to jealousy and suspicion of infidelity due to her dalliance with another man, and was required to drink a cup of “bitter waters,” mixed with dust from beneath the altar and the ink dissolved from a specially written scroll containing frightening imprecations—was moved to reflect on the gravity of sexual licentiousness. One of the presumed catalysts of such behavior—then as now—was a mood of frivolity brought about by drinking alcohol. The observer is described as being moved to the opposite extreme—namely, adopting a vow of total abstention from wine for a significant period of time—a minimum of thirty days.

What interests me here is the psychological mechanism implicit in this image. Confrontation with an extreme of sensual indulgence (which is perhaps hard for us to imagine: in contemporary society, extra-marital affairs do not arouse the same sense of shock which they did in an earlier and stricter world. Indeed, already in the Mishnah we are told that “once the number of adulterers increased, the bitter waters were abolished”) triggers a reaction in the opposite direction: the move towards asceticism, abjuring even legitimate physical pleasures.

Maimonides, in the Eight Chapters, in Hilkhot De’ot, and elsewhere, speaks of the “golden mean”—that the ideal path of behavior in all things is the middle path, neither self-denying nor self-indulgent, but a life of moderation in all things, guided by a clarity and self-control. Thus, one must be neither a spendthrift nor a miser; neither a workaholic nor a layabout; neither filled with anger nor passive and indifferent to events around oneself; etc. But, he continues, if a person finds within himself a tendency to go to one or another extreme, and needs to correct himself, he should not directly seek the moderate mean, but must consciously exaggerate, leaning towards the opposite extreme from his natural inclination, until he weans himself away from his old habits—and only then ought he return to the balanced middle path.

It seems to me that the situation portrayed in this brief aggadic comment is based upon this second approach: upon seeing the sotah, and having impressed upon his consciousness in a forceful way the fact that sinking into a life of voluptuous sensual indulgence is a very real option, the sensitive observer is likely to feel that, to avoid this, one must go to the opposite extreme: abstention even from innocent pleasures (even one glass of wine) lest one end up like the sotah or her paramour.

It has been suggested that this is one of the explanations of the religious extremism that we find today, both in the world generally and in certain sectors of the Jewish world, in particular—and specifically regarding sexual matters. On the one hand, our culture is filled with explicit sexuality: novels, TV, movies, and of course the internet, portray explicitly sexual scenes in a manner unheard of in our parents’ generation. This seems to go with a widespread acceptance of more permissive mores: the Anna Kareninas and Madame Bovaries of today’s fiction and film are more likely to find lasting love with their extra-marital loves than to meet dreadful ends that, presumably, serve as a warning to others. On the other hand, within the Orthodox community, there are ever-increasing humrot (halakhic stringencies) in every area, but particularly that of separation between men and women. Haredim are demanding buses with separate seating of men and women; in certain Jerusalem neighborhoods, the Rabbis have dictated that men and women use sidewalks on opposite sides of the street (!); in many modern Orthodox circles, separate setting at weddings or at least the wheeling out of a mehitzah during the dancing, has become de rigueur—again, practices unheard of thirty or forty years ago except in Hasidic circles; many young rabbis are insisting that women not sing in public at events such as high school graduations, Army swearing-in ceremonies, etc. By contrast, when I recently attended a performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan light operetta, most of the audience seemed to consist of people of the “old school” of Orthodoxy (i.e., wearing kippot, but mostly over 50), who are willing to listen to a good coloratura soloist without worrying overly about kol beishah ervah (“a woman’s voice is lewdity”).

It seems to me that this new strictness is motivated, whether consciously or not, by a reaction against the excesses of sexual frankness of the general society; by the belief that, if we build high enough barricades, we will somehow be able to protect ourselves and our children from the negative influences of “the outside.” The problem is that these extreme approaches have gradually become the new norm, rather than a temporary, curative measure—and, in matters of sexual separation, it is usually women who pay the price, in the denial of their personhood and humanity. The alternative, as I see it, is to return to the older norm of what Yehezkel Cohen once called “a mixed but modest society.” In such a society, people will be guided more by inner control and balance, by a greater awareness of their own inner life and their threshold of stimulation, and by life-long habits of moderation and balance.

Shavuot (Aggadah)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bamidbar - Shabbat Kallah (Aggadah)


Avot - Chapter 6 (Aggadah)


Behar-Behukotai (Aggadah)


Avot - Chapter 5 (Aggadah)

Introduction: Archetypal Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mishnah 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emor (Aggadah)


Avot - Chapter 4 (Aggadah)

Mishnah 1

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every man…. Who is brave? He who conquers his own urges. … Who is wealthy? He who rejoices in his portion….. Who is honored? He who honors others.

This chapter consists primarily of sayings of the tannaim from the generation of Yavneh and the Hadrianic persecution that followed, including both those who died a martyr’s death during that period, and those who survived and helped to establish the new, alternative center of Torah in the Galilee thereafter.

In this mishnah, I have omitted the proof texts, preferring to concentrate on the message of the mishnah per se. This mishnah might be compared to a Zen koan: that is, a brief epigram (or, in this case, four short epigrams on one theme) whose purpose is to upset preconceived, conventional notions—in this case, as to what it means to be an outstanding person. The wealthy man is not the millionaire, but the one who knows how to accept life, whether he has much or little. The wise man is not the erudite expert, but the person who knows the limits of his own knowledge, and that, even though he may be expert in a given field, he has much to learn from other people. (This is perhaps the distinction between knowledge or, as we would say, information, and real wisdom.) The hero is not only one who can withstand external threats, but who is master over his own inner desires, which may be chaotic or egotistical. (Whenever I read this I think of Natan Sharansky, surely a paradigm of modern Jewish heroism, who after bravely withstanding the crushing force of the Soviet regime, confronted the totally different test of involvement in the quagmire of Israeli political life. I think he acquitted himself not badly.) There is a saying—I’ve heard it used in Jewish Musar sources, and that it originates in Islamic sources—that soldiers returning from the front are told “You have won the small battle; now you must face the great battle!” That just about sums it up.

Mishnah 23: Some Practical Human Advice

Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar said: Do not attempt to pacify your fellow at the time of his anger; and do not comfort him when his dead is lying before him; and do not ask him at the time of his vow; and do not attempt to see him in the hour of his shame.

This mishnah gives several pieces of practical human advice, which boil down to one central idea: that human beings, even the best of them, are not always rational beings, and that there are times of intense emotion when appeals to reason, to common sense or to enlightened self-interest, will not and cannot be heard. As the best speakers, comedians and actors say: “It’s all a matter of timing.” So: don’t speak to a person, even a good friend, in the wrong way at the wrong time—or perhaps one should say, not even in the right way, with words of sense and caution and wisdom, at a time that is inappropriate.

There are certain streams within Judaism that advocate a kind of religious perfectionism, that expect a person to be master at all times, not only of his behavior, and not only of his speech, but also of his emotions. Thus, in his essay Halakhic Man, Rav Soloveitchik celebrates certain models of heroic, almost inhuman, halakhic self-discipline. (One could argue that the tenth commandment, “Do not covet your neighbor’s house/wife/livestock…” assumes that a person is capable of such self-mastery that he will not even covet another person’s possession or situation in his heart. Other mefarshim, to my mind wisely, interpret this commandment as restricted to covetous action.) In any event, the present mishnah assumes the opposite: that people are subject to moods, are deeply affected by circumstances, and that certain events are so traumatic and powerful that they cannot even speak of them rationally during a certain initial period.

As Rambam and others counsel us, a person ought to avoid anger. But given the fact that the vast majority of people do feel anger towards their fellows at one time or another, often intensely so, it is not prudent or useful to attempt to calm someone in such cases. In like manner, comforting the bereaved is a great mitzvah, but there is a time and place for it: in the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one (perhaps even if long expected), a person needs to grieve, to weep, even to shout and cry out and shake his fist at heaven if he is so inclined; the time for comforting only comes later. Vows, too, may be made for foolish reasons, and may create difficulties in life and be hard to sustain. But when a person does make a vow (and in the milieu of traditional Jewish society it was perhaps more commonplace than among Westernized people), it is doubtless in response to some deeply felt emotion or need. Perhaps one feels anger at a particular individual (“I swear that he shall never again darken my doorstep so long as I live!”); of gratitude to God (as in Jephtah’s famously foolish oath; see Judges 11:30-40); or by religious zeal and the desire to achieve greater holiness (the Nazirite vow; vows not to eat meat or various other forms of asceticism). In any event, at the moment of the vow, all appeals to reason are in vain. Finally, when a person has done something awful and his reputation is in shambles, and he is too ashamed to show his face in public, even his best friend should avoid forcing himself on him.

But all these things, it seems to me, are general directives. If a person is truly an intimate friend, and knows that even in these extreme circumstances his presence will be not only accepted, but also desired, then he should rely on his human judgment. It seems to me that this matter is analogous to the rule that one should not remind a righteous proselyte of his non-Jewish origins; like taunting a ba’al teshuvah about his past sins, this falls under the rubric of ona’at devraim, causing a person suffering by one’s cruel or thoughtless words (Bava Metzia’a 59b ff.). But if one has a close friendship with a convert (and I have been privileged to have or to have had several such during the course of my life), and that person openly talks about his/her background, and the whole tenor of the conversation is friendly and personal, it seems clear that such talk is permitted. The whole idea of the issur is not to hurt another person’s feelings, to sensitize us to other people; not merely as an arbitrary rule to be followed blindly regardless of context. In inter-human relations, the basic idea is common sense and wisdom—what is sometimes called “the fifth section of Shulhan Arukh.”