Friday, August 12, 2011

Vaethanan (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for July 5 2006, July 2007, August 2008, and August 2009.

Unity of the Individual, Unity of Society, Unity of the Cosmos

In one of his lectures in honor of his father ‘s Yahrzeit (Shiurim le-zekher Abba Mari z”l, Vol. I, pp., 32-52, esp. 32-37), Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik discusses the concept of accepting the yoke of Heaven through Keri’at Shema—the twice-daily recitation of Shema. His starting point is the sugya in Berakhot 13a-b, in which there is a dispute among R. Eliezer, R. Akiva and R. Meir, regarding the question: Until what verse is one required to recite Shema with kavanah, with inner awareness/concentration? The sugya gives three answers: during the first verse alone—”Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deut 6:4); through the second verse: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (v. 5); or up to and including the third verse, “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart” (v. 6). Rambam, at Hilkhot Keri’at Shema 1.2, synthesizes them into one answer: “One recites Shema early [upon rising], for it contains God’s unity, His love [i.e., our love of Him], and His study [i.e., our obligation to study His word], which is the great principle upon which all depends.”

The Rav goes on to explain that these three verses allude to three dimensions of religious commitment: the first refers to the basic articles of faith—God’s existence, our knowledge/faith/acceptance of this fact, and the rejection of idolatry (i.e. since God is one, unique, there is no other). The second verse refers to the human response to these cosmic, metaphysical axioms, through love of God—“with all your heart, soul and strength/being.” The third, curiously, refers to acceptance of the Torah as the vehicle through which we come to love and accept God’s kingdom (”these things which I command you this day”).

What are the underlying ideas of each of these three verses, and of the various tannaitic approaches as to what is central and what is, if not extraneous, somewhat less important? I would like to suggest that Ker’iat Shema, among other things, means that unity is the central organizing principle of Judaism, and that these three verses correspond to three different realms or dimensions of that unity.

The first verse is, at least on the face of it, the simplest and most basic: the Being and Unity of God: the statement that “the Lord” (HWYH) is our God, and that He is one. However, there are many possible interpretations of God’s unity. There is the simple definition implied in the Bible and by Hazal, in which God’s unity simply means His exclusivity: that idolatry is in fact mere fetishism, that the other gods do not really exist, but their worship is prohibited only so that people will not express incorrect ideas about the cosmos. (Some historical scholars of Bible might add: in certain passages one finds a concept of henotheism—that HWYH is the mightiest god, and all other powers that exist in the world are subjugated to Him.) Then there is the philosophical definition, propounded by Maimonides: that God is an eternal, unchanging perfection; that as such He is without any internal divisions, and hence is not only incorporeal, but without any emotions, actions, etc. ; anything that confutes this view is purely metaphorical, to translate the God-idea into human terms. Finally, there is the Kabbalistic–Hasidic conception, in which God is dynamic, with a complex inner life, involving various forces or sefirot that bridge the gap between the realm of the finite world and the infinite—but within this diversity, He is one.

But whatever position is taken (and these are of course simplifications), the important idea is the unity of the cosmos: that beyond the appearance of multiplicity, of numerous phenomenon, there is an underlying principle that unites them all. This leaves us with another question: Must a Jew believe in a personal God, or is the notion of Divine personality itself a figure of speech used to make the idea of God, which is utterly mysterious and beyond, in some small way comprehensible to us? And: does God have a will? And if He is not a person as we understand that concept, what does this mean?

The second verse leaves aside these theological questions; those who insist that it, too, is an integral part of Shema imply thereby that what is important is how we live as human beings, and not what axioms we accept about the area of God’s being, which is anyway ultimately unknowable.

The Love of God: I would suggest that what this really means, at least in the traditional Rabbinic reading, is the integration of the human personality around the love of God. A well-known mishnah, at Berakhot 9.5, interprets each of the three phrases in this verse. “With all your heart” means: “with both your urges: with both your good and evil urges.” The Evil Urge is not evil in any nasty, demonic sense, but simply refers to the instinctual life, what Freud called the Id: especially sexuality, but also other vital appetites, and the simple urge for survival, for self-preservation, which can at times lead to aggression and even violence against others—in short, things which are not in themselves evil, but which are typically areas in which things can get out of hand. This must be integrated with the “Good Urge”—the ethical impulse, love for others without any ulterior motivation, generosity and selflessness, as well as the impulse towards spirituality, the urge for transcendence and, if you will, the quest for meaning, and even the impulse for all kinds of cultural and intellectual creativity.

“With all your soul.” The traditional interpretation is: total commitment, up to and including sacrificing one’s very life, if need be. Just a few days ago we observed Tisha b’Av, in which the motif of Jewish martyrdom looms large (in the piyut, Arzei ha-Levanon). This is so, not only because we have had a history n which Jews were forced at many junctures to make the choice between apostasy or death, many faithful Jews submitting to martyrdom, but because in principle the idea of Kiddush Hashem symbolizes total commitment—a commitment that in principle totally transcends individual life. (Some Rebbes and Kabbalists called upon people to mentally imagine undergoing Kiddush Hashem every day during their prayers, either at this verse or in Tahanun.)

“With all your might [or: wealth / vitality / in all life situations].” Here the mishnah introduces a homiletical reading of מאדך as בכל מידה ומידה שהוא מודד לך —“In every aspect that He measures out for you”—which is clearly not peshat. The basic point here is that, just as one must remember God in all life situations—getting up, going to bed at night, walking on the road, sitting at home—so must one acknowledge and accept His presence and authorship of all life situations.

This is far from a simple matter. I know of people who gave up being religious when things went bad in life—not only after the Holocaust, but in response to more mundane misfortune: when a marriage turned sour and they found themselves alone in mid-life, death of a love one, illness or physical disability or financial reverses. The idea of Tzidduk Hadin, of accepting God even when life dishes out hard knocks, is not at all simple, but is essential to faith in a God who is not merely a cosmic Santa Claus.

The third verse: “And these things which I command you this day shall be upon your heart” is understood as referring to the study of Torah and, more than that, a constant existential connection to Torah. An idea repeated constantly in certain early Hasidic books, such as Me’or Einayim, is the unfathomable gap between the finite human being and the infinite, transcendent, unreachable God, and the function of the Torah as a kind of intermediary or bridge between the two. The Torah serves as the central image in Judaism—not only as a specific book, not only as Law, but as Wisdom, as a kind of underlying fabric of the universe, even as a kind of apotheosis of God Himself. The verses that follow this one in the first paragraph of Shema—that one must teach Torah to one’s children, speak of it constantly, attach it to one’s body through the tefillin, write a section of it in the mezuzah on the portal to one’s home—are all expansions of this basic message. Moreover, the second paragraph of Shema, which Hazal refer to as “accepting the yoke of mitzvot,” is a yet fuller elaboration of this basic message.

How do these ideas apply to our scheme of individual and community?

The first verse speaks of God as He is in Himself, in His glory and splendor and transcendent unity, and as such is beyond the human. The second verse speaks of personal integration, of how the individual relates to God in a unified way—the individual being the seat of human consciousness, the basic unit through which life in all its multiplicity is experienced.

The third verse speaks of Torah. The Torah of course addresses the individual, and its study—whether done by oneself, with a partner, or in a larger group—is ultimately an individual experience, the intellect residing within the mind of each individual. But it is also the covenantal document of Klal Yisrael, of the totality of Israel, and as Divine Wisdom it is universal, even cosmic in significance. One could even say: identification with other Jews as Jews takes place through the community of Torah, through what the Rav called the Masorah community.

Indeed, one of the great problems of Jewish modernity is either ignorance of Torah, or rejection of Torah—i.e., secularism. The story of modern Jewry can be read, at least in part, as the history of the attempts to discover or create substitutes for Torah, through culture, nationalism, language, collective memory, etc.—and with only limited degrees of success. Thus, one can read this verse primarily on the collective level as: unity of community, the connection of Jews with one another through the instrumentality of Torah. Or, to conclude in the words of the Shabbat afternoon prayer: Atah ehad ve-shemkha ehad umi ke-Amkha Ysrael goy ehad ba-aretz.

Some Tisha b’Av Afterthoughts

After my piece on Shabbat Hazon and an attempt at an existential reading of the meaning of the Temple, I received the following email from long-time reader Yaakov Sack:

I really liked the notion of homo sacrifices, but what is not being said is the communal rejection of the Temple led by the Rabbis (this being an absolute condition of acceptance of haluka derabanan), while at the same time hypocritically mouthing words about “rebuilding the Temple” or its “falling from Heaven complete.” Such an acceptance of contrary states so close to the heart of our faith points to a serious malfunction in reality management—a fiddler on the roof, so to speak—which is hardly affected at all by this state you mention as being so important.

My response: Thanks for your very interesting reading. But did the community really reject the Temple? Don’t forget that it was destroyed by the Romans, in the course of a long and painful war. Maybe haluka derabanan, as you put it, was simply making the best of the new reality. Then, after a time a Judaism without the Temple, but centered around halakhah and Torah study, became so highly developed that there was no way back...

To which he answered in turn:

Couldn't Yohanan ben Zakkai have asked for the Temple instead of Yavneh? It's impossible to ignore the centuries of conflict between Temple-based religion and Rabbinical trends. Wasn't the Temple’s end the triumph of another way and the true end of a civil war waged for centuries. And what about the attempt of the Emperor, Julian the Apostate (363 CE) to rebuild the Temple that was thwarted by the rabbis? But we’re not discussing history, but a kind of blind spot in us that prevents looking at what we feel inside—[namely,] repulsion at the Temple.

And my own response: About what you say here: the gemara (Gittin 56b) seems to imply that Rabban Yohanan chose Yavneh because he wasn't sure Vespasian would grant him Jerusalem at all. The gemara says he choose הצלה פורתא, a small deliverance, rather than risk losing everything.

Was this choice motivated by deeper attitudes and mindset? Perhaps. But note: there is a passage in the Talmud which says that when Rabban Yohanan was dying he wept. His disciples asked him: Why do you weep? Can it be that a great man like you, a true tzaddik and sage and leader (פטיש חזק עמוד ימיני) fears the Divine judgment? He answered: Two paths were open before me, one leading to Gehinnom and the other to Gan Eden, and I do not know which is which, and whether or not I chose the right one. Rav Soloveitchik, when learning this sugya, said that Rabban Yohanan was wondering whether he had in fact made the right choice at that juncture.

But as Yakov says, this is not the real issue, but rather that of “exploring our real feelings in the face of what we're legislated to feel… It’s the feeling that the power of faith is letting slip by what everyone knows is a lie.” People don’t like to talk about these things, but this is true: in the religious community there are conventionally pious things one is supposed to say, I thought of this Tuesday morning when someone said to me, “Next year we won’t observe Tisha b’Av” or when a prominent rabbi, at the beginning of a Webcast of an all-day series of shiurim, began by saying that he hopes that this will be the last such shiur ever (because by next Tisha b’Av the Temple will be rebuilt; incidentally, it is by no means clear that Tisha b’Av was not observed during the period of the Second Temple.) Or the fact that most Kinot are printed in cheap paper-back editions, as a way of emphasizing that they are not, so to speak, intended for permanent use—even though the same books are used year after year.

I look around at the people in my synagogue, or people I know generally, and wonder how many of them are really yearning for the Temple in the depths of their soul, and how much of it is a kind of unconscious or semi-conscious pious play-acting. By and large, people are pretty much satisfied with their religious lives—or if not, the dissatisfaction isn’t because of the absence of the Temple, but other factors, To mention something completely different, but reflecting the same mentality: During my father-in-law’s final illness, I told someone at a certain social gathering, “My wife isn’t here tonight because her father is dying and she’s on her way to the US.” The response was, “You mustn’t say such a thing.” Does religious faith really mean that we are supposed to believe that God can and will miraculously heal a dying person at the last minute, and to deny our basic sense of reality? People, after all, are mortal!

There are various ways of dealing with this: In my earlier essay I mentioned Rambam and his seeming ambivalence about the Temple, as expressed in the sharp contradiction between what he says in the Guide and his detailed presentation of its laws in the Yad. (See my discussion of this in HY V: Vayikra [=Rambam: Vayikra]). Richard Rubenstein, in his book After Auschwitz, writes, as a Reform rabbi, a very interesting essay about why reciting Seder ha-Avodah on Yom Kippur is important. In a psychoanalytical approach, he states that he doesn’t want to see an actual revival of Temple but that, psychologically, religion is not only about ethical exhortation and perfectionism, but also about the community experiencing a kind of collective admission of failure and catharsis—and this is somehow done through recalling the ritual performed at the Temple. Or, perhaps more simply, one can relate to the Temple worship with a certain kind of nostalgia, without literally wanting to see it reconstituted—at least not with the animal sacrifices. (Perhaps as a kind of Super–Great Synagogue? Surely there’s nothing wrong with the idea of a central site for a particularly elevated form of collective worship—a kind of Jewish Mecca.)

Another implicit problem: for those who accept the modernist idea of historical development of religion and religious institutions, one can see the Temple and animal sacrifices as something we’ve left behind, perhaps even with a certain nostalgia. But one who sees the Torah, in the sense of the peshat of the Five Books, as literally the basic, unchanging guide to God’s eternally revealed will, will have a harder time with this idea.


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