Sunday, November 06, 2011

Lekh Lekha (Wanderings)

“Abraham My Lover”

In Isaiah 41:8, one of the relatively few verses outside of the Torah which mentions Abraham, the children of Israel are referred to as זרע אברהם אוהבי—“the seed of Abraham My lover.” While Moses is known as the greatest of the prophets and the archetypal teacher of Torah, the unique quality ascribed to Abraham is that of Avraham ohavi—the archetype of the human being who loved God.

We often tend to think of Judaism as a system of law, a code of duties and obligation, and of obedience: fulfilling the mitzvot and “accepting the yoke of Heaven” is the highest or central religious virtue. And indeed, Christian polemics make much of the contrast between Judaism as a religion of Law and Christianity as one of Love. Normative behavior thus seems to be the most characteristic stance of Judaism, the emotions being somehow thought of as “extras”—as something over and above the normative requirements, for unusually pious individuals.

Yet if we turn to the pre-Torah roots of our faith, we find that, in the days of Abraham, there was no Torah, in the sense of a set of binding laws and imperatives. Abraham is portrayed in the midrash as a man who discovered the truth of the one God, and who was motivated by an intimate personal relation with that God, by a sense of love and devotion to Him.

What do we mean by love? Within the human realm, it connotes a desire to be close to the beloved, to be with him/her, to perform acts of kindness, of caring; it implies thinking of them even when one is not with them; the desire to make the other person happy, to bring a smile to their face. The deepest reward of love is simply—love returned, reciprocated, knowing that one occupies a special place in the heart of the beloved, that one is treasured. Even physical expressions of love, pleasurable as they may be, are ultimately just that—expressions or signs of love, but not the thing itself.

NOTE: Perhaps one of the lessons taught by what is called taharat ha-mishpaha—the body of halakhot periodically prohibiting sexual love between husband and wife during their earlier years—is to remind them that love and physical intimacy are two very different things. As we all know, there can also be physical intimacy without its emotional counterpart; perhaps one of the greatest pitfalls of a sexually permissive society is that tends to foster and encourage such emotionally empty acts, thereby reducing what should be the natural connection between physical intimacy and emotional closeness. I might briefly mention here the book by an early disciple of Freud, Theodor Reik, Psychology of Sex Relations, in which he challenges the Freudian idea that romantic love is no more than a sublimation of the sexual impulse—an idea which has caused much mischief to our culture. Reik suggests a very different model for understanding the love between man and woman. But all this is taking us rather far afield from today’s subject.

But beyond that, love between man and woman, powerful and central as it may be to our lives, is only one form of love; there is also love between parents and children, love between friends, between siblings, between teachers and disciples, etc.—all of which may in turn serve as models for the love of God.

Carrying the analogy into the Divine-human relationship: the ideal love of God is one without any expectation or interest in reward, but rather love for-its-own-sake:

A person should not say: I will perform the commandments of the Torah and engage in its wisdom so as to receive all the blessings written therein, or to merit the life of the World to Come… Rather, one who serves out of love engages in Torah and mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom, not because of any thing in the world… but he does the truth because it is truth, and in the end the good will come about as a result…. Such was the level of the Patriarch Abraham, whom the Holy One blessed be He called “His beloved,” because he served [God] out of love alone….

What is the nature of the desired love? That one love God with a great and excessive and very intense love, until his soul is bound up in the love of God, and he muses about it constantly, like one who is beset with love-sickness, so that his mind is never free of the love of that woman: he daydreams about her constantly, when he is sitting down, when he is walking about, or while he is eating and drinking…. And the entire Song of Songs is a parable for this matter. — Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah, 10.1-3 (for a full translation and discussion, see HY V: Yom Kippur = Rambam: Yom Kippur = HY blog, September 2006, scroll down).

There is a delicate balance that needs to be struck between love and law. On the one hand, we are living at a time of ever-greater piety within the Orthodox world, expressed in all kinds of strictures (humrot) and a certain kind of self-cloistering, with an emphasis on obedience and often sterile external performance—ever stricter kashrut, ever stricter Shabbat observance, ever stricter standards for conversion to Judaism and even for marriage within the Jewish fold—and all this, too often, without the inner sense of the mitzvot as an Abrahamic path of love, which gives it its warmth and joy and vitality.

On the other hand, there are certain modern Jewish thinkers who reinterpret Judaism purely in terms of religious experience and emotion. There is an anti- or a-nomianism in some circles. Thus, for example, Martin Buber, who in principle rejected the idea of any external, objective, fixed norms (it is said that he never stepped foot within a synagogue as a matter of principle); he opposed the institutionalization of religion, which he saw as displacing the living spirit. Buber, one might say, made an extreme choice in favor of the prophetic rather than either the priestly or the Rabbinic path. For him, everything was a function of intention, of relating to the Other as a Thou, of the immediacy of the concrete situation; hence his rather idiosyncratic interpretation of Hasidism, which in some ways glides over the central role of mitzvot in Hasidism. Strangely enough, this approach is also to be found today in certain branches of the renewed interest in Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah: there are those who teach Kabbalah in isolation from its root in the mitzvot. Needless to say, this is clearly alien to the spirit of the Zohar which is a mystical midrash on the Torah, specifically; and is filled with mystical interpretations of the mitzvot and the halakhah.

Perhaps one might put things this: Judaism is impossible without halakhah, both because such is its essential nature, and because love in general seeks expression in acts. For the Jew, the mitzvah is the natural avenue of expression of his love for God. Indeed, some midrashim, as well as Hasidic commentators, ask the question: How did Abraham and the other patriarchs show their love and attachment to God without the mitzvot? Some say: their secular acts were filled with love of God, with the intention to uplift the world. Others say that they somehow fulfilled the entire Torah even before it was given (Art Green has an interesting book about this subject, Devotion and Commandment).

But in any event we live in a world in which there are mitzvot, and the love of God expressed through mitzvot. The bottom line, as I see it is: rather than conceiving of mitzvot as the contents of Judaism, the mitzvot and the halakhah are the path. The content is the reality of God, the love and fear of God, the wish and desire to serve God expressed therein; the mitzvot are the vehicle. The ideal is to reach a place in which there is no conflict between external coercion, the obligation imposed from without (i.e., “Greater is he who is commanded and does, than one who is not commanded and does”) and inner motivation, the sense of joy, of love, of fulfillment as a person through the Jewish religious path.

In conclusion, I would add that there is a second half to the emotional side of the Jewish path: fear, what is called yirat shamayim. But that is a subject for another time. We must wait another two weeks, until our readings bring us to the patriarch Yitzhak, who epitomizes yirah.

Rav Zaddok – The Torah of Beginnings

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was much impressed upon rereading the opening pages of a slim volume of Hasidic teachings called Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, by R. Zaddok ha-Kohen of Lublin, one of the more interesting figures of late 19th century Hasidism. A prolific author (albeit, because he had no children to see to publishing his writings after his death, “only” 25 or so titles of his survived and are extant, whereas he reportedly wrote over 100 books). A Talmudic genius or ilui who followed a rigorous, ascetic path, he “converted” to Hasidism at a certain point in his life, following an encounter with R. Mordechai of Ishbitz (author of Mei ha-Shiloah) under dramatic circumstances. He may be seen as part of that thread within Polish Hasidism that began with Psyshcha and Kotzk and continued through Mordechai Ishbitzer, Yitzhak Meir of Ger and Sefat Emet, who was his contemporary. His works are often difficult to follow, as he seems to assume that his readers are familiar, not only with both Talmuds, but with all of the classical Midrashim and Zohar, which he often quotes without citing his sources.

Much of what he writes may be read as a kind of spiritualistic interpretation of the “meat and potatoes” of Rabbinic Judaism. He does not engage in the sort of word–play in which the literal meaning is turned on its head, as is found on nearly every page of early Hasidic writers such as the Maggid of Mezhirech, R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk, Degel Mahaneh Efraim, Me’or Einayim, & Toldot Yaakov Yosef. Instead, he reads/interprets familiar Rabbinic adages in a beguilingly simple manner, shedding radically new light upon them.

For example: he begins the book by saying that “When ones first enters into avodat haehm, one should do so with haste”—i.e., with intense energy and constant application – by way of analogy to the Exodus of Egypt, which was performed בחפזון, “with haste,” so as to cut himself off from his previous habits and patterns of life. Thereafter, he adds, one may proceed at a more comfortable pace. I find the concept of “entering into God’s service” interesting, in line of what I discuss above: the clear message is that the religious life is more than merely doing the mitzvot, performing one’s obligation, but something more, evidently driven by love, passion, and by a deeply personal, existential decision. In any event, the most important thing is to make a good beginning.

The second teaching on this page quotes the verse “blessings to the head of the righteous” (Prov 10:6). Punning on the first word, he asks the question: why is Berakhot the first tractate in the entire Mishnah, and Talmud? (It is seemingly anomalous, because it has nothing to do with Zera’im, “Seeds,” the first order; indeed, it doesn’t fit into any of the six categories of the Mishnah.). His answer: because the essential thing is religious life is consciousness: “Know the God of your fathers and serve Him.” The idea of blessing is to recite a few words expressing consciousness of God’s presence in whatever it is that one is doing: eating and drinking; enjoying fragrant smells; the routine daily acts of getting up in the morning, opening one’s eyes, getting dressed, stretching one’s limbs; special sights or sounds (the sea; the rainbow; thunder; beautiful vistas); any special occasion, such as seeing a friend one hasn’t seen for a long time; performing a mitzvah; etc. And behind all these is the awareness of God.

I skip to Section 4: the first mitzvah that a lad performs upon becoming bar mitzvah—that is, at nightfall of his 13th birthday—is to recite the Evening Shema: accepting Divine sovereignty. But there is an added idea: one does so specifically at night, because the Shema of day and night symbolize not only periods of time, but mental states. One must accept God’s kingship in the archetypal states of day and night, which represent activity and repose. In day, when does so at the beginning of one’s daily activity, perhaps to sanctify the mundane. In repose there are other challenges: not to act properly, but that the realm of dreams, of the imagination, of the subconscious, also be somehow related to God. And indeed, the Shema of night comes first: “because one first accepts God’s kingship in a state of darkness and ignorance and lack of action—and only afterwards when all is clear and bright…”

For more teachings on thia parashah, see the archives to this blog at Oct 10 2005, Oct 20 2006, October 2007, November 2008, October 2009 and 2010.


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