Friday, February 25, 2011

Vayakhel (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2006_02_24_archive.html, as well as March 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

The Sanctuary as a Group Enterprise

This week’s parashah parallels Parshat Terumah, indeed, in many passages it is an almost verbatim repetition, with minor changes in the tense of the verbs and the persons addressed. But whereas the earlier parashah describes the overall scheme of the Sanctuary, as dictated to Moses by God, here Moses instructs the people to collect the various materials needed for the Mishkan, and then charges the artisans—Bezalel, Ohaliav, and “every man wise of heart”—to shape these materials into the various artifacts needed for the Sanctuary. (See below for a discussion of the difference in order between these two parshiyot pairs)

Following these commands, the Torah describes how the people responded enthusiastically, bringing the various materials needed for the Mishkan generously, unstintingly, and joyfully. So much so, that Bezalel and the others charged with executing the plan quickly realized that they had all they needed and more, and “a voice was passed through the camp that no man or woman should bring any more material for the labor of the Sanctuary” (Exod 36:6).

What we see here is perhaps the first communal religious construction project in history: the building of a place to serve as a permanent home for the indwelling of the Divine Glory among the people. If, in last week’s reading, we saw the potential for negative behavior on the part of a community (although some might say that the incident of the Calf happened precisely because they were not a community, but an undisciplined, wild mob, a rabble, a crowd), here we see the positive flip side of that same potentiality. And we find here the notion that the Shekhinah can dwell in the world in a fixed way, not in the hearts of individuals, however pure and sublime their thoughts and consciousness may be, but only in a congregation. Interestingly, this attitude is diametrically opposed to a widespread attitude in Western culture, powerfully resurgent in the present Zeitgeist, that was best expressed by Alfred North Whitehead in saying that “Religion is what the individual does with his solitariness.”

I would like to elaborate upon certain themes to which I hinted very briefly in my essay earlier this year on Lekh lekha: namely, that the three pillars on which, according to Avot 1.2, the world stands—Torah, avodah, and gemillut hasadim—are all ideally or best fulfilled in community. I shall treat each one of them in turn.

First: avodah, Divine service—originally referring to the sacrificial order in the ancient Temple, today used of prayer—avodah shebe-lev, “service of the heart.” I have written in the past on the nature of public prayer, particularly emphasizing that daily public prayer is a kind of reenactment or parallel to the Tamid, the fixed daily offering made in the Temple. This may be the reason why the synagogue is called Mikdash Me’at, a “small” or “minor Temple.”

But there’s more to it than that. While in the Amidah, each person whispers his prayer silently, prayer itself is ideally engaged in with a community, with a minyan of ten Jews. (Even one who, for one reason or another, worships in private, should join himself to the community—by synchronizing the time of his prayer with that of the community, and by mentally identifying himself with the praying community and its needs.) It is clear that, in many respects, the minyan is greater than the sum of its parts. It represents a microcosm of Knesset Israel, of the Jewish people as a whole, past present and future, and serves as a reminder to the individual of the centrality of community: that prayer is not only an existential experience of the individual, focused on his/her inner consciousness; through communal prayer, the individual is organically related to the community within which he/she was born, and in whose history, joys and sorrows and hopes for the future he shares.

Rereading Rav Soloveitchik’s landmark essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” the meaning of community becomes clearer. He begins with a typology of human existence, with two ideal types present within each person: “Adam the First,” or “Majestic Man,” who is involved in the instrumental, practical aspect of life, conquering the physical world and controlling the economic and political realm of human society; and “Adam the Second” or “existential man,” who suffers existential loneliness and anguish and is concerned with the quest for meaning. The Rav sees the solution to this anguish, at least in good measure, in community—and through the human community of faith and tradition, in a covenantal relation with the Eternal. He stresses that this relationship (unlike what one hears these days from many New Age Jewish spiritual teachers) is not one of the individual alone, but passes through what he calls “the Masorah community”—and perhaps the quintessential experience of that community is prayer. Prayer is not only petitioning God for one’s own needs or those of one’s immediate family—health, livelihood, continuity—but is prayer on behalf of ones’ an ever-widening circle of ones fellows. But the essence of prayer, per Rambam, is “standing before God,” a kind of conscious acting out, if you will, of standing in relation with the Almighty (a kind of counterpart to prophecy, in which God communicated with man). In the context of an entire community, or at least the microcosm thereof in the minyan, this act of standing before God, is immeasurably heightened, as the community is not limited by the existential limits of an individual human life defined by its own birth and death, but carries within it the past, present and future of Knesset Yisrael in its entirety.

It is interesting to contrast this view with that of secular existentialists, such as Sartre and Camus, who see the only possible redemption from the alienation and meaninglessness of life in action freely chosen by the individual. The classic example they give is heroic political action, such as that of the anti-Nazi Resistance during World War II, in which they were privileged to participate. While one cannot but admire them for this, on the philosophical level it leaves many unanswered questions. First: that the circumstances of the Resistance were so extraordinary that it is difficult to adapt them as a model for ordinary, humdrum everyday life. Second: that the Resistance movement was itself a community, indeed, one marked by intense mutual support and esprit de corps, by shared ideals and values, heightened by the constant dangers and need for total loyalty—and that this was surely one of the sources of the profound satisfaction people felt in acting within its context.

One more thing: the concept of Ta’anit Tzibbur (the public fast day) is essentially a halakhic template describing how a community ought to respond to calamity. This includes fasting; teshuvah, entailing both soul-searching by each individual and a kind of public stock-taking by the leaders of the community; the public reading of appropriate passages of the Torah and the prophets; words of admonition by the communal leaders; and the blowing of trumpets. But most of all, it means לזעוק ולהריע: to cry out to God in distress, a special mode of prayer unique to the community. Again, as per the Rav: the public fast day, which may be proclaimed by the Beit Din whenever it deems it appropriate to do so, creates a degree of closeness to God available to the individual only during the Ten Days of Repentance, when “the king is in the field.” In this respect, too, the public and the individual are subject to very different rules.

Turning to the area of Torah: while an individual may study Torah in his home or in the quiet of a library, the traditional notion of Torah study is closely connected with the idea of the Beit Midrash—the public Study House, which historically was an indispensable part of every Jewish community. Anybody who has ever been in a traditional yeshiva or Beit Midrash knows that the level of noise there is diametrically opposed to that of a study hall or library in Western culture. Study is generally done in hevruta—pairs or groups of people studying together, together attempting to work out the meaning and implications of the text, debating or arguing over its interpretation. This feature is so central that the Sages speak of scholars “waging the war of Torah.” Again: on the theological level, too, the study of Torah, the transmission of Torah to the next generations, is conceived as a communal, and not only an individual, enterprise.

Third: gemillut hasadim, acts of human kindness and caring for others. Once again, every individual can and should engage in acts of kindness, of generosity, of caring for others without any thought of reward or reciprocation, whenever possible—and opportunities to do so surround us in life, at any and every moment. But one of the hallmarks of the traditional Jewish community, both past and present, is the existence of havurot, of groups of people dedicated to one or another aspect of hesed, and to assure that these needs are met. These range from free loan societies—of both money and specific items needed by people on occasion; societies to help indigent brides to marry; visiting and giving succor to the ill; burying the dead; offering food and lodging to visitors in a community; etc. I have been privileged to belong to communities in which the practice of hesed was a central value, and can only say that, against the background of an increasingly competitive, narcissistic, and money-oriented society, the selfless activities routinely practiced there were impressive indeed.

Postscript: A digression about the order of things in these chapters: there are certain differences in the order of things between Terumah-Tetzaveh, on the one hand, and Vayakhel-Pekudei, on the other. One striking difference: whereas in Tetzaveh the altar of the incense is listed almost as an afterthought, as we discussed at length two weeks ago, in Vayakhel the artisans are instructed as to its fashioning together with the other artifacts of the Sanctuary. Moreover: whereas in Terumah the instructions begin with the Aron, the ark of the covenant, the focus of the highest sanctity and the so-to-speak dwelling place for the Divine Glory, which was in some sense the purpose of the entire project, in Vayakhel the making of the ark and the other items placed in the inner sanctuary—the Menorah, the table for the shewbread, and the golden incense altar—are only described after the framework of wood and draperies in which they were to be housed. Thus, these holy implements were not left without a proper home for even a brief period.

It seems to me that these changes may all be understood in light of the dictum—originally Aristotelian, but one which assumed special meaning in Jewish culture— סוף מעשה במחשבה תחלה (“Last in execution, first in thought”): Tthat is, that any plan begins with a certain conception of its ultimate purpose, but in practice its realization requires numerous preliminary steps, so that the most important step may be the very last to be performed in action. The chapters of Terumah–Tetzaveh represent the overall vision, beginning with the most important and holiest item, the ark of the covenant, “so that I may dwell among them: the chapters of Vayakhel–Pekudei, describe the execution of that scheme in concrete terms.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ki Tisa (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2006_02_20_archive.html, as well as March 2007 (scroll down), February 2008, March 2009, and March 2010.

In loving memory of my mother, Fannie Gallant Chipman, on her one-hundredth birthday.

The Golden Calf and Mob Behavior

Some readers may have gained the impression that everything I have written this year has been intended exclusively to deride the importance of the individual and to celebrate the value of the community. If so, I would like to correct that notion: my central thesis is that there is a constant tension in human life between community and individual, and that the desired end is to find the correct balance, the elusive Archimedean point, between the two. If I have unduly emphasized the value of community, it is only because at this moment in history Western culture has moved too far in the direction of individualism, elevating it to the level of a regnant ideology. (I hope in the near future to write an essay on “individualism and individuality,” to clarify and critique what I see as the philosophical core of the contemporary emphasis on the individual) I believe that one of the areas in which the genius of Judaism as an approach to the human condition manifests itself is in its ability to draw a proper balance between these two. My aim this year has been to bring out some of these ideas, which are implicit in every page of the Torah. This week’s reading, with its focus on the episode of the Golden Calf, invites a discussion of the potential dangers of the group or, if you wish, the mob.

The story of the Golden Calf is a simple one: the people, newly freed from slavery, were impatient when Moses “tarried” on the mountain. Left, for the first time in many months, without their awe-inspiring, powerful and charismatic leader, they panicked. Turning to Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was so to speak, his second-in-command, they asked him: “Come, make us a god who will go before us, for we do not know what has become of this man Moses!” (Exod 32:1). Aaron, faced with a frightened, tumultuous mob, asks them to bring him their golden ornaments, which he shapes into the form of a calf; he tells them to build an altar before it; and finally declares, “tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord!” The people, after bringing offerings and after eating and drinking, “rise up to play”—a phrase suggestive of an orgiastic dance, perhaps like the pagan rituals they knew from neighboring peoples, in which religiosity and sensuality were easily combined. Moses, once he descends from the mountain, is infuriated at the sight and, throwing the tablets of the Law from his hands, smashes them. The Levites, the one group who had remained faithful, go among the people slaying those who has worshipped the calf. Thereafter, there begins a slow, painful process of beseeching God for forgiveness and patching together some kind of reconciliation. (On all this, see my essay from the very first year of Hitzei Yehonatan: HY I: Ki Tisa = Torah).

The question most usually asked about this story is: How could the people, who had stood at Sinai, so readily slip back into what seems like a primitive, idolatrous mentality? My answer is simple: while the experience at Sinai was an overwhelmingly powerful one— the people had been charged by Moses with a sense of mission, of a purpose and direction for their new-found national existence, of a covenant with the Almighty—the impression it left proved, in the end, to be superficial, shallow. The people remained; the individuals had not internalized a deep inner sense of the holy, of the fear and awe of God. What really made them “tick” was their relationship to Moses—their leader, their prophet, their teacher, the one who channeled the word of God to them. Moses was a unique figure, a person with a profound inner awareness, whose own spiritual consciousness was light years beyond anything they could begin to fathom. To them, he was a frightening, awe-inspiring mystery, no less so than God Himself; the feelings of awe, of the holy and numinous, of the all-powerful, demanding but loving and nurturing God of whom he spoke was, in their own minds, doubtless mixed with his own image. Hence, when he was not there for them—the midrash says he was only six hours late!—they were bewildered and confused as to where to turn. Satan showed them a vision of Moses’ dead body floating in the heavens—one which they were all too ready to believe.

What we see here, then, is a classic example of a mob, a crowd, who have formed a symbiosis with the leader—not with his teaching, not with his values, not with what was important to him, but with his personality, with his physical presence. Thus, when he seemed to be gone, they immediately sought a substitute—if not another leader, than a symbol, a fetish. The Calf, more than being a substitute for God—of whom they really understood nothing—was a substitute for Moses, in whom the human and the holy were inextricably mixed.

But what about Aaron? Why did he cooperate with their sudden craze? Was he a demagogue? A charlatan? Or when he said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who took you out of the land of Egypt,” was he speaking sarcastically? Or perhaps—and this seems most likely to me—was the leadership task that had suddenly been thrust upon him too much for him—a task for which he had had no real preparation—so that he “improvised” as he went along. For, when all is said and done, Aaron had neither the spiritual depth nor the talent for leadership as did his younger brother Moses. Until then he had been Moses’ “mouth” (Exod 4:16) or navi (literally: “prophet,” but in the sense of spokesman—7:1); he was soon to be invested with the task of priesthood. But, as Ahad Haam wrote famously, there is a profound difference between prophet and priest; indeed, the two represent diametrically opposed modes of being. The tasks of the latter, which are essentially ritual ones, may be learned; they do not require an infusion of the spirit. The former involves God utilizing capabilities that are already inherent in the person, possibly even from birth (see, e.g., Jeremiah 1:5) or early childhood (1 Samuel 3:1-10); the prophet is a conduit for God’s words, but to be so he must have a deep spiritual vision and understanding of his own.

To return to the people: God is shown here using a strange phrase to describe their faithlessness, one which, to my mind, does not stand up under scrutiny. We find here, for the first time in the Torah, the phrase עם קשה עורף—a “stiff-necked” or stubborn people (Exod 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9). But their real problem was, as I read it, the exact opposite. A stubborn person is one who adheres to certain ideas or behaviors no matter what; he is the enemy of all change, he adheres to outmoded ideas, he is impervious to either reason or moral appeal. Here, the people were anything but stubborn: they were unstable, inconsistent, fickle, changing their loyalty with every passing mood. Frightened and insecure, they abandoned their old attachment to Moses in search of some new object, however insubstantial, in which to place their trust. Two phrases particularly reflect this: in 32:25, Moses saw that the people were פרעה—“out of control,” wild, unstable, undisciplined—that is, entirely subject to momentary moods and emotions. Similarly, in the conversation between Moses and Joshua as they descend from the mountain and hear distant sounds of shouting, Joshua thinks that these are sounds of war. But Moses answers: “It is neither the sound of triumph, nor the sounds of defeat, but [merely hollow / empty] voices that I hear” (32:17-18)—that is, the shouts of hysterical revelry. Their sin was ultimately the result of flightiness, instability, a loss of faith in the future, an unwillingness to tolerate uncertainty for even a few hours: if you will, what psychologist-philosopher Erich Fromm called the “escape from freedom.”

And indeed, this is the essence of the mentality of idolatry, or of its minor sibling, superstition: a quest for something concrete, tangible, to hold onto—because the belief in an abstract, transcendent God, who demands first of all and foremost ethical behavior, is too hard. This is characteristic of what might be called the “mob mentality”: large groups tend to seek simple solutions to difficult problems. They are particularly susceptible to demagogues, to simple solutions to complex problems. This may be expressed in the religious context in fundamentalism, in superstitions, in fetishistic attachment to “magical” objects (we see this even in nominally monotheistic religions, such as Judaism: where on the folk level people attribute supernatural powers to amulets, to visits to the graves of holy men, to the holy men themselves, or to such things as red strings supposedly from Rachel’s Tomb. (I recently read that one group of Hasidim make a custom of “pursuing” their rebbe during his nocturnal visits to the graves of tzaddikim in the Galilee, driving along curvy narrow back roads at hair-raising speeds, ignoring traffic lights, stop signs and speed limits, and generally endangering the lives of themselves and others—all to raise their adrenalin in a holy purpose.) Or, on the more political plane, mob behavior may be expressed in lynchings, in militarism, in fascism, in xenophobia and hatred of “the other”—and the things are well known.

* * * * *

Due to lack of time, I shall postpone my discussion of the dramatic and tumultuous events in Egypt and throughout our region, important as they are, for another time.

Tetzaveh (Individual & Community)


Friday, February 04, 2011

Terumah (Individual and Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2006_02_05_archive.html,February 2007 (Adar), 2009_02_05_archive.html, and February 2010.

A Dwelling Place for the Shekhinah

Most of this issue, which is longer than usual, is devoted to a paper of mine, related to this week’s parashah, published in a recent volume honoring Art Green’s seventieth birthday. But I will begin with a short discussion related to our parashah and our theme.

This week’s parashah introduces the theme of the Sanctuary built in the wilderness, which served as the archetype for the Temple built later in Jerusalem. Already in the opening section there are two important verses explicating the purpose of this enterprise: “And they shall make Me a holy-place, and I shall dwell among them” (Exod 25:8). God revealed Himself to the entire people of Israel briefly at the Revelation on Mount Sinai. He so-to-speak dwelt on Mount Sinai for a somewhat lengthier period of forty days, during which he spoke with Moses. The sanctuary, in its simplest sense, is a way of perpetuating this divine indwelling or presence on earth, among human beings, in an ongoing way.

The phenomenologist of religion might say that this is the beginning of, the essence of, the institutionalization of religion: taking the great moment when the Divine and the human break through to one another—call it revelation, call it the prophetic or mystical human experiencing of the Divine, call it elevated changed consciousness—and embodying it in a fixed place, time, or ritual form of behavior. This is the origin of the tension between the priest and the prophet—prophet, both in the sense of ethical teacher and exhorter, and in the sense of one who has been touched by the Ineffable. (This issue is addressed, inter alia, by Art Green at the beginning of his book, Devotion and Commandment.)

The significant point for our ongoing discussion of community and individual is the case of the pronoun “I will dwell among them” (ושכנתי בתוכם)—i.e., that the Sanctuary enables God to dwell among the people of Israel, among the collectivity entity of Israel. It is not a place for individual mediation and solitude—although perhaps it can serve as that as well—nor, on the level of peshat, does our verse speak of an indwelling in the heart or soul of each individual (though there are Hasidic homilies galore which say just that), but rather the place were the Presence is experienced by and through the collectivity, where perhaps the individual may be uplifted by the joint worship of the “festive throng” (Ps 42:5).

A second key verse, that follows but a few verses later, reinforce this message and adds to it. After enumerating all the varied kinds of stuff to be collected from the people, the Torah provides detailed instructions for the making of each artifact within the Sanctuary, beginning with the Holy Ark. After giving its dimensions, how its wooden structure is to be inlaid and overlaid with gold, the cherubim to be placed atop of its cover, and the staves to be permanently attached to it, symbolizing its readiness to be moved from place to place (and go into battle with the people), we read “And you shall place within the ark the testimony that I will give you” (v. 16). The “testimony” referred to is the two tablets of stone which God gave Moses at Sinai—the tangible, physical testimony to the covenant between God and Israel. Thus, the Sanctuary is not only a place in which God’s Presence may dwell, but a visible witness to what happened at Sinai. As such, it is the focal point of the Temple (or, more precisely, one of two foci, the other being the sacrificial altar). On the symbolic level, the ark with the Torah scrolls, which serves as the focal point in every synagogue, is the counterpart to the Ark of the Covenant, just as the Bimah—the platform or lectern from which the Torah is read, corresponds to the Altar. More on this some other time.

“Once Adar Enters, Joy Increases”

This morning, a friend of mine sent me a page of mystical Torah teachings with the heading, “Once Adar enters joy increases.” —or, “one increases joy” (that is, it is not simply a descriptive statement, but a positive obligation, a requirement incumbent upon each person, a kiyum in the gavra, as they say in the yeshivot. Half in jest, I replied to my friend that there is some question whether during a leap year, such as this, in which thee are two months of Adar, one is required to be joyous during both months. But is that not a humra—a pious stringency, a multiplying of religious obligations, which is generally rooted in that religious mentality that is forever worried, forever anxious that perhaps one is not fulfilling God’s will properly—in this case, worried as to which one is the “real” Adar? And is not such a dour approach the very antithesis of the philosophy of Adar? Especially, since the joy of Adar is focused on Purim, and the joy of Purim is focused on the Feast, and that of the Feast is focused on the obligation to drink so much that one can no longer distinguish between Haman and Mordecai—in that case, perhaps one must drink so much that one is dizzy from Rosh Hodesh Adar I on, and can no longer distinguish between humra and kula, between fear and love, between a somber Litvak and a euphorious Hasid—even, between meat and milk, between man and woman, between day and night, between Jews and Goyim… Or perhaps the extra month was added davka in the month of Purim, to give us one more pair of distinctions —what, to transcend? To get hung up about? I don’t know, this is all getting too confusing. Maybe I should take another drink. Perhaps it will help clear my head….

ESSAY: R. Nahum of Chernobyl and Second Innocence

The following is an expanded version of a paper published in Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections, eds. L. Fine, E. Fishbanr, O. Rose. (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights, 2011), pp. 59-63, a Festschrift published in honor of Arthur Green’s seventieth birthday. While Art’s birthday is not for a few weeks (March 21 on the secular calendar; 20 Adar on the Hebrew calendar), and the official presentation of the book will be held at Hebrew College in Boston early in early March, I present it at this time, because it expounds upon a Hasidic teaching for Parashat Terumah; moreover, this Shabbat is Rosh Hodesh Adar Rishon, and this teaching also relates to the two different months of Adar.

Religious growth—the often tortuous and zig-zag path leading to God-consciousness and to awareness of one’s own task in life—is a central concern of Hasidic thought. These issues are highlighted in the following passage from R. Nahum of Chernobyl’s Me’or ‘Einayim. R. Nahum Twersky (1730-1797), a disciple of both the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezhirech, was one of the most incisive of the early Hasidic masters, as well as the forebear of ten or more dynasties—and, particularly germane to this volume, he was one of Art Green’s favorite teachers: one of Art’s earliest collections of translated Hasidic texts was taken from this work:

Our Sages taught: “There is no difference between the First Adar and the Second Adar except for the Reading of the Megillah and Gifts for the Poor” [b. Megillah 6b]. For in man’s physical being there is the matter of First Gestation and Second Gestation, First Maturity and Second Maturity. The First Gestation occurs in his mother’s womb, for there too Godliness is with him; as our Rabbis said: “There is a candle lit over his head, and he sees from one end of the world to the other … and he is taught the entire Torah” [b. Niddah 30b]. But once he emerges into the air of the world, even though he reads [Scripture] and studies [Mishnah], he is still considered a minor until he is thirteen years and one day, when he is called an adult in every respect…. for he does not attain complete knowledge [i.e., religious consciousness] until he is thirteen years and a day. For even though there are minor children who are very astute and have extraordinary knowledge of Torah, in any event this is not considered [true] knowledge until he has attained the years of maturity—and this is called First Maturity [i.e., stage of growth]. … for the essence of knowledge is to know the Creator, may He be praised, and to be able to unite the blessed Holy One and His Shekhinah…

But even though a person attains his [formal] majority in the thirteenth year, this is not true maturity, for he subsequently falls away from this knowledge, for “seven times the righteous man falls and gets up” [Prov 24:16]—but thereafter he returns to his former knowledge. And this is called Second Maturity. But this Second Maturity is never truly complete, for he always falls down and then returns to this second knowledge.

But in the Future that is to Come [i.e., the Eschaton], Second Maturity will be complete, for “the earth will be filled with knowledge of the Lord [like water running down to the sea]” [Isa 11:9]. As our Rabbis said: “The World to Come is not like this world. In this world I [i.e. My Name] am written with YH and I am pronounced with AD [i.e., the name Adonay used in our prayers and Torah reading]; but in the Future to Come, I shall be written with YH and pronounced with YH” [b. Pesahim 50a]. For in this world we do not have full knowledge, as of the Second Majority; even though there are righteous men in every generation by whose means the Creator, may He be praised, imbues His Shekhinah among us through the knowledge that they have—even their knowledge is incomplete, to understand and to know God clearly. For they do not attain the essence of His unique Name, but only in the sense of His being the Lord—that He is great and masterful, the essence and root of all worlds, powerful and sovereign over all. But we are unable to understand the true meaning of His unique Name; the mind cannot apprehend it at all. But in the Future to Come, “they shall see eye to eye when God returns to Zion” [Isa 52:8]. …

Now this First Gestation and Maturity is called the First Adar, and this second Gestation and Maturity is called the Second Adar—that is, the First “Aleph Dar” and the Second “Aleph Dar” [reading the name of the month as: Aleph—i.e., God, the Aleph of the universe; dar, dwells—i.e., the Divine dwelling within man]. For wherever he goes, God is with him, even in the time of his First Minority and Smallness; and concerning this our Rabbis said: “A candle is lit over his head… and he is taught the entire Torah.” All the more so once he has emerged into the world and learns the letters of the Torah, and thereafter whenever he learns and understands the Torah, even in the days of his second smallness when he has fallen from knowledge…

Me’or ‘Einayim (Jerusalem, 1968), Parshat Terumah, p. 116 f

Religious growth—the winding and often unpredictable path leading to God-consciousness and to awareness of one’s own task in life—is a central concern of Hasidic thought. The Rabbi of Chernobyl presents here an interesting model of religious growth. From a strictly halakhic viewpoint, the child is considered an adult at the age of 13, obligated to perform mitzvot and an autonomous legal personality; from that point on, his formal obligation remains the same throughout his life. But Hasidism is concerned less with formal legal categories, and more with religious experience and consciousness: da’at (In passing, I would note that Art Green taught that da’at should be translated, at least in Hasidic contexts, as “consciousness” rather than “knowledge”); hence, formal obligation in mitzvot, religious behavior, is only the beginning. R. Nahum presents a map in which all of adult life is seen as “Second Gestation,” a time of constant ascent and descent: the person attains a certain level of religious consciousness, but then falls from this level; from there he attempts to ascend again, gradually integrating the knowledge and insights he has attained to reach an ever higher level. This unending process is often referred to in Hasidic and Kabbalistic texts as ratzo vashov, “running back and forth” (Ezek 1:14). Yet, hopefully, religious life is not merely an oscillation between highs and lows, but also a process of gradual growth, a slow upward spiral, in which each stage in the process leads to a new insight, a new stage. The ultimate goal, called “Second Majority,” is never fully reached in this world, but is an ultimate, eschatological goal—a target that may be envisioned, but only attained in the days of Messiah.

In the second half of this passage, R. Nahum elaborates upon this future, messianic religious consciousness of mankind. His central metaphor is the Rabbinic saying that, whereas today God’s name is spoken differently than the manner in which it is written—that is, the holy name of YHWH is never pronounced, but in the synagogue we use the name Adonay—in the future it will be spoken as it is written. The euphemism Adonay used today in worship addresses God as Lord and Master—that is, our religious consciousness is based upon seeing Him as a King or Father figure, the supreme authority who commands and judges, who metes out life and death; thus, I would add as a gloss, obedience is the paradigmatic religious virtue, as implied by the very semantics of the word mitzvot, commanded actions.

In messianic consciousness, by contrast, the model is based upon the name YHWH. The Chernobyler describes the meaning of this Holy, Unique Name, as being beyond human comprehension; if I may speculate, I would suggest that this name alludes to the notion of God as Being: the name YHWH is derived from the root HWH, “being,” the implication being that God is everywhere; that God is Himself the sum total of Being. Perhaps, then, the messianic insight to which he hardly dares allude is the mystical consciousness of God as Being: one that is attained by only a very few righteous men, possessing sublime consciousness, and even then only imperfectly—but which, in the future, will be the legacy of all.

The question was asked: What is it about this consciousness that the Chernobyler finds too dangerous to say explicitly? Judaism, as a path deeply rooted in and expressed in law, is filled with distinctions: Sabbath and weekday, meat and milk, man and woman, permitted and forbidden. If one fully embraces the radical unity of all Being, then these distinctions themselves become relative: the same God who made Israel also made the Gentile nations, He who made the pure also made the impure, and He who created the Torah with its numerous commandments also, in the final analysis, created the delight inherent in acts of sin! The prophet Isaiah dared to say that God “makes peace and creates evil” (45:7), but the Sages, in adapting this phrase for the Siddur, softened it to “creates everything.”

Such an approach can easily slide into antinomianism; moreover, we must remember that R. Nahum lived barely a hundred years after the Sabbatian movement, and fifty years after the openly antinomian Frankist movement, so that the great upheavals these created in Jewish life were very much with him. Hence, to maintain a traditional understanding of Torah as law and discipline, as an ethical approach to life, while accepting an all-embracing monism in which even the differences between good and evil become blurred, requires a very special type of consciousness, possible to only a very few.

Therefore, for R. Nahum and his Hasidic colleagues, halakhah (as indicated by the root meaning of the word, halakh, “to go”) is seen as the guide along the winding path in life of the God seeker. If Judaism, like the ladder in Jacob’s dream, is grounded in the earth but reaches up to the heavens, halakhah serves both to ground our worldly existence and to help us ascend to the heavens. Halakhah aids people to refine themselves and to participate in the creation and sustenance of sacred community. It is in this context that one seeks to expand his consciousness (da’at), recognizing God not only as Adonai, but also as YHWH. This ongoing, spiraling journey to “Second Maturity” is our life’s work; it is an undertaking whose complete fulfillment necessarily remains beyond our grasp, but that offers us glimpses of the mystery, beauty, and complexity of Being.

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For me, this map of religious growth elicits some personal reflections about our religious situation in the modern (or “post-modern”) world. The Me’or Einayim’s concepts of “Second Gestation” and “Second Maturity” suggest a religious situation of perpetual flux and growth, constantly reaching out to deeper truths, deeper apprehension. This calls to mind the approach known in contemporary philosophy as “second innocence” or “second naivete.”

But first, by way of introduction, a few words about the nature of our religious situation as I see it. It seems clear to me that the single greatest problem confronted by religion—all religions—in the modern era is that of the intellectual challenges to religious doctrines posed by a variety of modern disciplines: beginning with Darwin and the evolutionary theory which challenges the traditional picture of God the Creator; through the Marxist critique, in which religion itself is seen as a product of socioeconomic forces, a device by which the ruling class, with the help of church and clergy, maintains its hegemony over the masses of people; to Freud and other psychoanalytic schools, which reduce religion to the projection onto the universe of infantile needs and childhood dramas and conflicts; and, most recently, a kind of biological reductionism which sees the very notion of human freedom as an illusion, our actions, thoughts and emotions being “hard-wired” by the physical nature of our brains. But for us Jews, as heirs to a text-centered faith, perhaps the most significant challenge comes from the historical critique of the development of religion. The latter throws into question traditional notions of revelation, of Torah from Sinai, proposing in its stead a documentary hypothesis whereby both Torah and Rabbinic literature are seen as having developed over a period of many centuries, in response to various social, economic, political and cultural factors. All these factors may easily lead the thinking person to reject traditional religion as a childish fantasy without basis in reality—and the problem is so familiar as to hardly need elaboration.

There are various possible responses to these challenges. One, often taken by Orthodox or fundamentalist approaches, is to polemicize with these ideas and to attempt to disprove them. But this is a Sisyphean challenge, which requires disproving, not only one or two ideas, but refuting the mind-set of an entire modernist culture. Worse, the answers offered are often marred by an element of sophistry and intellectually dishonesty, if not open anti-intellectualism, which many find more than distasteful. A second alternative, that of mental compartmentalization or a kind of “leap of faith,” ultimately involves a kind of suppression or denial of the serious questions posed by modern thought. A third alternative is a kind of simplistic post-modernism, in which all approaches are equally legitimate—an attitude foreshadowed by the ‘60s slogan of “do your own thing.” All three of these approaches involve, in one way or another, a sacrifice of intellectual integrity.

The terms “Second Innocence” or “Second Naivete” signify an approach that bypasses issues of the literal truth, origins, and sitz-im-leben of a given text (the term is also used in literary criticism, but our concern here is with its use in specifically religious settings) in favor of a direct, mature encounter with the experience and reality towards which it points. One reviewer, referring to the thought of Karl Barth and Paul Ricouer, often considered the originators of this term, stated that they “shared the common conviction that theological interpretation of the Bible ought to lead us beyond a critical preoccupation with the text to a fresh encounter with the divine reality to which the text bears witness” Incidentally, this term was also articulated in the modern Jewish context, possibly even before Barth and Ricouer, by the late German–Israeli educator and philosopher, Ernst Simon, in his essay entitled Az Eitam (“Then I Shall be Innocent”).

In any event, the approach of “second naivete” is based on a three-stage understanding of religious life, somewhat reminiscent to that of the Chernobyler. The first stage is that of the child, or anyone encountering a Biblical or other text for the first time, in which the text is read in a naïve, innocent manner, accepting it at face value. In the second stage, one begins to read in a critical manner, viewing the text, so to speak, from outside, in the manner of the objective, critical scholar. At this stage, one may analyze the technique used by the author, question the veracity of the truth statements therein, read it in light of historical factors and influences and “inter-textuality,” etc. At this stage, one no longer relates to the text as sacred or as a source of instruction and guidance in life; or, in the case of a literary text, one no longer appreciates or enjoys it on the aesthetic level, because one is so much engaged in the process of critical analysis. By contrast, in the third stage, that of Second Innocence or Second Naivete, one returns to the text itself with a renewed sense of innocence or directness. One’s understanding is of course informed by the insights one has gained through the process of critical analysis, but one somehow recaptures the wonder, the naïve emotional response felt upon first experiencing the text—albeit on a more sophisticated level—enabling one to again ask the question, “What is this text saying to me?” Thus, the e word once again becomes a portal to the sacred.

But while these ideas have been largely identified with modern thinkers, they exist in the classical Jewish tradition. We find a startlingly similar three-part typology in the Introduction to Perek Helek (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin, Chapter 10), where Maimonides presents his philosophy of reading aggadah. He speaks of three kinds of readers: the first reads the aggadah in a literal way and accepts it at face value—including all kinds of “tall tales” and absurdities that stretch credulity far beyond what reason would seem to allow. Even today there are many people who consider themselves required to believe these things in the literal sense. The second type of reader agrees that aggadah is to be read in a literal fashion, but draws the diametrically opposed conclusion: namely, that it is all so much foolishness. They thereby, so to speak, throw out the baby with the bathwater, seeing aggadah as no more than a collection of fairy stories and tall tales which no intelligent person can believe. There are those who extend this approach to religion in general, seeing it as a collection of myths that need to be junked in this way. The third kind of reader, whose approach is that advocated by Maimonides, goes beyond the literal reading, seeing aggadah as couched in metaphorical or symbolic language, pointing in a suggestive manner towards deeper truths. The challenge is to read these traditional texts in this more subtle and sophisticated manner, so to speak, seeing its messages as couched in the language of seemingly simple tales.

As an aside: it seems to me that the essential error of the school of “New Atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, who have written strident critiques of religion, thereby implying that the only reasonable belief for a modern, educated person is an enlightened atheism and secularism, is that their mind-set is that of Maimonides’ second group. Their approach, at least from what I have read of this school’s writings, is based upon a one-dimensional picture of religion, which identifies the narrowest, most literal approach with religion in general, ignoring the numerous exegetical options for a more nuanced and sophisticated religious approach.

A common misunderstanding identifies “Second Naivete” with a kind of pretending, of acting “as if” the truths of First Naivete were literally true, while knowing that this isn’t really so. Some people quote in this context Franz Rosenzweig’s famous quip that, all year long the story of Balaam’s talking donkey is a myth—but on the Shabbat when it is read in synagogue, it somehow represents a kind of truth. But this is not the case. I would identify it more with a certain return of mythic consciousness, in which myth (or, if you prefers, archetypal or paradigmatic thinking) is seen as a positive phenomenon: a form of language, not literally true, but used to convey in-depth truths that cannot be articulated in discursive, factual language—in a certain sense, akin to poetry. Myth is understood in this context, not as something primitive, but as a special kind of language, as a means of conveying ideas in a manner other than logical or syllogistic. Because of the nature of the truths thereby conveyed, religious language must be suggestive, allusive, evocative, intuitive, what I have sometimes described as “turning a corner in one’s mind”—all those things that scientific language, with its emphasis on measurement, facticity, rigorous testing of postulates and standards of proof, is not. For us Jews, this also implies moving the focus from text-centered religion—i.e., one whose validity stands and falls on the truth claims of the Tanakh, etc.—to a God-centered religion. Surprisingly, such an approach need not lead to rejection of the halakhah, even in its most traditional sense. Halakhah, as the outstanding manifestation of Torah shebe’al peh—the Oral Torah—may be read as the human input to the Divine-human dialogue that makes up the totality of Torah; hence, its validity is not dependent even ab initio upon its Divinely-revealed nature, but rather upon its acceptance as a legal code by the community of the faithful—but that is a subject for another essay…

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I wish to conclude this essay with a few personal words about Art Green, to whom this volume is dedicated. It was he who introduced me to Nahum of Chernobyl and the Me’or ‘Einayim, one of his early favorites. I remember, on many a Shabbat morning, going to Art’s big, rambling house in Somerville, Mass., before davening at the Havurat Shalom, to study Hasidut with him and a few others. The text chosen for study would often be something from Me’or Einayim. Art explained that he was particularly fond of this book for its “non-dualistic mysticism”—i.e., that its thinking was free of the split between worldliness and spirituality that mars so much of religious life.

It was also from Art that I first learned the notion of second innocence (even if he never used the term as such). He constantly emphasized the importance of a type of religious experience that was not dependent upon “truth statements,” but upon a direct apprehension of the world as it is, albeit from a different perspective. For these two reasons, in particular, I hope that this essay will be a fitting tribute to Art. In addition, I also wish to express my gratitude for our friendship of many years, for his personal help and support in various aspects of life, and for the many things that I have learned from him.

Mishpatim (Individual & Community)


Yitro (Individual & Community)