Monday, January 17, 2011

Beshalah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2006_01_10_archive/html, as well as January 2008, February 2009, and January 2010.

Song of the Soul and Song of the Community

This Shabbat the story of the Exodus reaches its culmination in the Splitting of the Red (or Reed) Sea and the great Song sung by the children of Israel upon seeing their enemies drown and no longer able to oppress them. This song is generally regarded as the paradigm for religious song and poetry in Judaism. It is the first occasion on which the community sings out to God, in praise and thanksgiving, in wonder and in awe.

There are many types of song and of prayer in Judaism—songs and prayers of the individual soul, alone in its yearnings and, on occasion, its travails; songs of praise of Knesset Yisrael, marking moments of great joy and exaltation in its history—of which this Song of the Sea is surely the model; and cries of help, calling out for deliverance in times of shared distress.

The Book of Psalms is itself divided into these two types: the vast majority of the psalms in the first three books of the Psalter, Pss 1-89, are individual prayers in times of trouble; the second part of the Psalter—i.e., Books IV and V (Pss 90-150)—are by and large hymns of rejoicing and thanksgiving, and are mostly couched in the plural. Indeed, these form the core of the liturgy for such occasions as the Hallel recited on festive days, the daily Pesukei de-Zimra, and Kabbalat Shabbat.

There are also expressions of joy and gratitude on the part of the individual: thus, in the days of the Temple an individual might bring a thanksgiving offering, korban todah, when saved from a perilous plight; today, he recites Birkat ha-Gomel before a minyan; and he may make a se’udat hoda’ah, a meal of thanksgiving sharing his joy and relief with his friends and fellows. David’s hymn to God upon being “delivered ing him from all his enemies round about” (2 Samuel 22=Psalm 18), and Hannah’s song of gratitude upon knowing that she would be blessed with a child (1 Samuel 2:1-10), are but a few examples of personal hymns of thanksgiving in the people.

On the other hand, there is also the institution of Ta’anit Tzibbur—of public fast days in times of collective trouble—drought, pestilence, warfare or pogrom—devoted to prayer, fasting, and repentance by the community or the nation as a whole. This day culminates in a public prayer service held in the town square, prayer of a special type known as tze’akah—crying out to God in anguish and pain. Interestingly, we are told that the whole complex of ta’anit tzibbur at a time of collective trouble creates a spiritual reality, a receptivity on the part of God, that for the individual exists only during the Ten Days of Repentance.

The Hallel itself reflects the tension between the individual and collective mode: although formally defined as an obligation of each individual, it is ideally recited by the community as a whole, marking great moments in its history—moments of deliverance, moments in which the footsteps of the Divine were tangibly felt. “On eighteen days of the year one reads the Hallel (קורין את ההלל),” the verb “reads” being couched in the plural. In ancient days, its recitation was modeled after the Song of the Sea, recited antiphonally: the leader says each verse, and the congregation responds. “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song…”— the midrash portrays Moses as reciting each verse, and the people repeating after him. A passage in Tractate Sukkah, at 38b, mentions various different customs: reciting it in unison; antiphonally, responding to each verse with the word Halleluyah; repeating each verse; etc. The manner in which we recite the Hallel today is designed to present at least brief examples of each of these approaches (see both Rashi and Tosafot ad loc., s.v. hilkheta gevirta).

In the synagogue generally there is a certain tension between individual and communal expression. The old tradition of hazanut often focused upon the virtuoso performance of an individual—the cantor. On the other hand, today, in more and more synagogues, particularly those with a more youthful crowd (though I am now a hoary-haired grandfather, my own predilection also runs in that direction), there is a revival of communal singing, and many flock to prayer leaders who know how to open the gates of song for all. This was one of the many contributions to Jewish life of R. Shlomo Carlebach, which his followers and those inspired by him try to emulate. But not only Shlomo: the type of synagogue created in Israel by the religious halutzim was also marked by a new kind of melody—more joyous and uplifting, without the melancholy of the Galut or the overly ornate flourishes of the old-style hazan. Such was already the style in the synagogues of Hakibbutz Hadati, in the yeshivot hesder and in B’nai Akiva, and in many ordinary neighborhood synagogues.

It should be noted that the function of the leader (Hazan, Shaliah Tzibbur, Ba’al Tefillah—each word ahs a slightly different connotation), virtuoso as he may be, is not to engage in his own personal prayer, but to lead the public and to say the prayers on behalf of the public; historically, this function was almost a technical one, hearkening back to a world in which not everyone owned a Siddur. The Shatz, who knew the text or could improvise, recites them for everybody. (We must remember that, from a historical perspective, the ubiquity and universal availability of books began practically “yesterday”: Gutenberg introduced moveable type less than six centuries ago, in 1452; the first Hebrew book was slightly later—in Italy during the 1470’s, according to scholar Mordechai Glatzer. Thus, the seminal ages of Jewish creativity—of the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Geonim, the rishonim, were all an age of manuscripts, by nature available only to the very few.)

As for public prayer itself: what is it, exactly? Is it merely a gathering in which all the individuals gather to recite their prayers on their own behalf, the Hazan serving a function only for those who are inarticulate and cannot worship for themselves? Or is it something more—namely, an act of worship by the community as a unit, analogous to the daily sacrifices in the Temple after which some say it is modeled?

I shall conclude with a beautiful passage from Rav Kook, “the Four-Part Song,” dealing with the different levels and kinds of song, and their ultimate unity:

There is one who sings the song of his soul, discovering in his soul everything—utter spiritual fulfillment.

There is one who sings the song of his people. Emerging from the private circle of his soul—not expansive enough, not yet tranquil—he strives for fierce heights, clinging to the entire community of Israel in tender love. Together with her, he sings her song, feels her anguish, delights in her hopes….

Then there is one whose soul expands until it extends beyond the border of Israel, singing the song of humanity…

Then there is one who expands even further until he unites with all of existence, with all creatures, with all worlds, singing a song unto them all.

And there is one who ascends with all these songs in unison —the song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, the song of the cosmos—resounding together, blending in harmony, circulating the sap of life, the sound of holy joy. —Rav Avraham Yitzhak Ha-Kohen Kook, Orot ha-Kodesh (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1985), Vol II: 444-445; English translation from The Essential Kabbalah, Daniel Matt (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 154


A Response to Daniel Landes’ Review of Art Green‘s Radical Judaism

There has recently been some controversy surrounding Art Green’s new book, Radical Judaism, in which he presents his theology in a systematic way, and a highly critical review thereof, by Daniel Landes of Pardes Institute, published in the newly founded journal, The Jewish Review of Books. The following is my own letter to the editor concerning that review, followed by some additional comments that did not appear in the original letter. For Landes’ review, see; for other responses to the review, see

Daniel Landes “The Secret Master” (JRB #3, Autumn 2010) is a surprisingly harsh review of one of the more interesting books on Jewish theology to have come along in recent years, Arthur Green’s Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition (New Haven–London: Yale University Press, 2010). In this review, Landes accuses Green of propunding a concept of God bearing “little or no real relationship to the God of Israel.” He dwells at considerable length on his assertion that the real roots of Green’s theology are to be found in Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstuctionism, and adds that it is doomed to failure because “it is boring. … There is no actual God with whom one can have a relationship. The God of the Bible and the Rabbis [and of Hasidism, as he notes elsewhere] asks, entreats, and demands, and is saddened when His people fall short….” Green’s God, by contrast, being an abstraction, is one with whom it is impossible to have any relationship.

There is a great deal that could be said about this review, but I will focus on three central points:

Without doubt, the most radical idea in Green’s book is the identification of God with the totality of Being itself, what he calls “mystical panentheism,” with particular emphasis on the ongoing force of evolution of the universe, leading to ever new and more advanced forms. Such a God is a-personal, and as such a far cry from the God of the Bible, or for that matter from the familiar, intimate God of the Sages, and even more so of the Hasidic masters, for whom God is depicted as a personality, passionately engaged with humankind in general, and with the people of Israel in particular. The God of tradition is a God who intervenes in history to redeem His people, who reveals Himself and His Law, and whose seeming indifference during times of trials and exile is a cause for wonder and dismay, and theological pondering.

But the issue of personhood was in fact one of the central issues with which medieval Jewish thought concerned itself. With the emergence of a certain type of Greek-influenced, abstract, systematic thinking, the issue of Divine personhood became a central concern of Jewish theology. Maimonides’ entire oeuvre may be read as an attempt to reconcile an abstract notion of God, who is a perfect unity, an unmoved mover, a First Cause who is without body, without passion, without action—in brief, a Neo-Aristotelian God—with the Jewish sources. His life project, which was only partly fulfilled—mostly in Book I of the Guide and in the Introduction to Perek Helek—was to write a commentary on both Torah and Rabbinic aggadah reinterpreting the very concrete, personal language of those texts in philosophically acceptable, coherent terms, constantly stressing that all of God’s actions and passions are metaphors, not actual descriptions of what God is—and often finding himself engaging in intellectual somersaults to do so. For him, the Rabbinic aphorism, “The Torah spoke in the language of human beings,” became a central guiding principle.

In like fashion, the very different approach of Zohar and Kabbalah present a God whom one is hard put to describe in personalistic terms. While the Zohar itself is a meandering, unsystematic work—a “mystical midrash”—the various books of 14th and 15th century Spanish Kabbalah that follow, such as Gikatilla’s Sh’aarei Orah, extrapolate from the plethora of symbols and images of the Zohar a rather abstract, utterly transcendent, a-personal God, beyond the capacity of human understanding, not all that different from that of Maimonides. The central point is that personhood is less an inherent attribute of God, and more a linguistic or conceptual tool to convey some hint of the mystery of God within the limits of human comprehension.

I would submit that Green stands solidly within this tradition, with the inevitable changes in style to be expected from one steeped in the modern rather than the medieval universe of discourse. Hence his lengthy chapter devoted to a “Jewish history of God,” is not merely window-dressing for a neo-paganism, but a valid attempt to “demonstrate the indigenous roots” of his approach.

Secondly, Landes devotes considerable space to the thesis that Green’s “hidden master” is Mordecai Kaplan. Admittedly, there are some interesting parallels that could be drawn between some of Green’s formulations and those of Kaplan—as Landes in fact does. But theology, I believe, is more an art than it is an exact science, and the music may be more important than the words. Green is not only a scholar of Kabbalah and Hasidism, but a mystic, a person who has tried to translate the insights of these rather esoteric schools and, if we are to take him at his word, his own insights gained from certain highly personal experiences, into language comprehensible to his reader. In that sense, he is worlds apart from Kaplan: to Green, it is precisely the mystery and the sense of wonder that is important (in this he is very much like Heschel!), and less the conceptual formulation. Hence the use of symbolic and even mythic language is needed to convey insights that cannot be adequately conveyed in ordinary discursive language. Kaplan, by contrast, was a thorough-going rationalist, a product of American philosophical empiricism and pragmatism and of the sociological interpretation of the function of religion à la John Dewey and Emile Durkheim; his Reconstructionism was an attempt to reinvent Judaism in a modality that would suit the scientific and rationalistic mood of the first half of the twentieth century. Green came to maturity after the mid-century mark, in a rather different age, at a time when many young people were reacting to a rationalism that had ended up in Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and were busy rediscovering the non-rational component of the human heritage.

If one is seeking hidden roots, or more correctly unintended parallels, to Green’s evolutionary interest, I would suggest looking to Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit scholar and philosopher whose theology emphasized the unfolding of the cosmos (“Noosphere,” in his lexicon) in ever greater complexity as a manifestation of the Divine telos.

But beyond that, it seems to me that there is something improper in claiming to know better than the person himself who his “real” master is. Green has repeatedly declared that he felt the greatest affinity—emotionally and spiritually—towards Heschel; he certainly found little inspiration or common language with the Talmudists who were the dominant force at the Seminary in his day. Perhaps we need to define what it means to be a ”disciple” of a given person. A disciple studies with his master for a number of years, absorbs his teaching, may even serve him in a personal manner—but ultimately the student matures and becomes a teacher in his own right (see b. Sanhedrin 5a for the concept of talmid she-higi’a le-hora’ah)—certainly after his master’s death, when there is no other option (Heschel died when Green was in his early 30’s)—and may begin to develop his own path, his own way of doing things, and his own system of thought. Green is not a carbon copy of Heschel, but he shares a certain mood and sensibility (again, with adjustments for the radical difference in background between pre-WWII Europe and post-war America), and attempts to translate the core of his teacher’s message, as he sees it, for his own milieu and to his own community of fellows and students. Intellectual history is filled with examples of disciples who differ from their master, such as Freud and Jung (only in the present case without the acrimony of that pair).

Kaplan, by contrast, was never an important figure in Green’s thinking. Green studied at JTS in the 1960s, at a time when Kaplan had already left the Seminary faculty. Living in New York, he no doubt heard him speak publicly and read his books, but Kaplan did not shape his thinking; Green has never written anything significant about Kaplan’s thought but has, as Landes correctly observes, devoted a great deal of time and effort to his “three Warsaw mystics”: he has published a volume of selected translations from the Sefat Emet, with his own commentary; a similar volume on Hillel Zeitlin is forthcoming; and Heschel looms large in his writing and teaching. As for Green’s involvement in the Reconstuctionist Rabbinical Seminary: this began as an accident of propinquity (he was teaching at UPenn in Philadelphia), and Green always differed with what he refers to as the “Orthodox Reconstructionists” or Kaplanians on the faculty (all this happened, by the way, well after Kaplan’s death.)

Finally, a few words about halakhah. The author of this letter, like Landes, is a practicing Orthodox Jew; as such, I also take exception to Green’s approach to halakhah. Indeed, in this important respect his Judaism is not the same as my Judaism. I am troubled by what seems, in many circles, to be the elevation of individual autonomy to a central principle, almost an unquestioned axiom. In the case of Green, this is moderated by his recognition, somewhat late in life, of “the need for submission to God as a part of religious devotion” (Seek My Face, Speak My Name, p. 133). But the total absence of any obligatory guiding principles, a kind of religious anarchy, seems built into the very structure of Jewish Renewal, and is indeed troubling.

The question is: What is one to do with all this? Green represents a certain not uncommon type of modern Jew: one who loves the tradition, who lives his life with the rhythm of celebration of Shabbat and festivals, but who cannot accept the halakhah in a systematic way. From my own friendship with Green over a period of more than forty years,[*] I can safely say that, were he able to accept the halakhic system in a manner consistent with what he sees as his own intellectual integrity, he would do so—but he cannot. While he is of course far more erudite and articulate than them, in this respect he is representative of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of intelligent and educated Jewish laymen. The story of modern Jewish thought is not only the story of those who stand four-square within the tradition, but as much—and maybe even more so—of those who must piece together “sacred fragments” (à la Neil Gillman).

More than once Landes hints that this path is not one that contributes to Jewish survival. But it is precisely at this point that, donning the cap davka of the Orthodox rabbi, I wish to ask what I see as perhaps the most crucial question of communal policy for traditional Jews such as Landes and myself, people who pride ourselves in belonging to the more liberal, open-minded school within Orthodoxy: What kind of future do we envision? Is the future to be one of pluralism, in which there is room for a variety of opinions and even of praxis within the Jewish people? Or does the future belong to Orthodox triumphalism—a movement that seems to be gaining momentum in the Jewish world today—and the eventual division of the Jewish people into two peoples, the pietists gradually excluding the eirev rav of those who are not fully committed to halakhah? There are strident voices calling for the latter; increasingly, the tone of “official” religion in the State of Israel is determined by the Haredi leaders who are the uncrowned Rabbinic authorities to whose rulings the Chief Rabbis submit. I would like to believe that the Jewish world in which my granddaughters will live will have room for Green and his ilk.

Some Afterthoughts

1. In thinking about Landes’ critique of Green, I was reminded of a small incident that occurred eight or ten years ago, when Green gave a talk at Yakar about his own approach to Jewish spirituality; to the dilemma of the modern man who seeks a spiritual path and life, but is not prepared to jettison everything he has learned in the secular world; and about why Hasidic texts are nevertheless important to him in this quest. One of the members of the audience, a tall man in late middle age wearing a cloth hat and an Abe Lincoln style beard, whom I knew slightly as an Orthodox Jew steeped in the thought of Rav Soloveitchik, seemed puzzled. After the lecture he raised his hand and asked a question, which went something like this: If the speaker doesn’t believe in the literal revelation of the Torah and the obligation to fulfill the mitzvot, then does he believe in God, and in what sense? And why does he bother with all this Jewish religious stuff anyway—Shabbat, prayer, studying Torah texts, etc.? Art answered, with utter simplicity, in a tone verging on naivete: leit atar panuy mineh, “There is no place empty of Him.” At that moment I felt that an answer had been given, not from the position of the scholar or from that of standard Rabbinic apologetics, but from a place of utterly simple religious faith.

If there is fault to be found in Green’s writing this book, it lies in this: that, in allowing “Jewish panentheism to come out of the closet, as it were,” he has ignored the traditional advice of the mystics (and of m. Haggigah 2.1) not to discuss such matters openly, for the reason that they are bound to be misunderstood by the masses of readers or listeners. This is one meaning of the adage, leit mahshavah tefisa beih kelal, “No [human] thought can apprehend Him at all!” Mystical teaching, the mystical mind-set, is so different from the normative religious mind-set, and from that of contemporary “main-stream” Orthodoxy, in which God is conceived as King, who is Creator and Lawgiver and Judge and Redeemer; so alien, that it may be mistaken by many for a kind of atheism! This, I think, is the root of Landes’ error, and it may be that Green has opened himself to such misunderstanding by writing this book in the way that he did! (But then, as a modern man, he wears the two hats of professor-scholar-theologian, and of mystic—so he almost had to)

2. Landes makes one remark that bordered on the offensive, as well as being factually incorrect. In discussing Green’s approach to halakhah generally, and a passage in which he discuses adultery and sexual norms in particular, Landes suggests that what he wrote here was “an effort to counter the problem of sexual mischief that has arisen from time to time in the spiritual precincts of Renewal or Neo-Hasidic Judaism with which Green is well acquainted.” In formulating matters thusly, he is clearly implying that sexual misbehavior is a phenomenon found particularly in Jewish Renewal or “Neo-Hasidic Judaism.” Yet anyone with eyes to see who has followed events of recent years knows that such problems have reared their heads in Orthodox circles, in both Israel and the United States, and no doubt elsewhere, on at least half a dozen well-publicized occasions.

Specifically, I would note that the most scandalous and well-publicized sexual scandal involving Jewish New Age circles involved a man who began his career as an Orthodox rabbi. After being forced to leave a well-heeled Orthodox pulpit in Florida upon being caught in an improper relationship with a female congregant, he moved on to serve as rabbi of a West Bank settlement in Israel; only thereafter, around the turn of the millennium, did he turn to New Age Judaism; he has now reinvented himself yet again as a non-denominational New Age teacher. (A real pluralist!)

But the more important point is that sexuality is an essential part of the human condition, and as such is often problematic; whatever approach one adopts, whether puritanism, hedonism, or anywhere between these two extremes, it is bound to cause trouble for some people. One would do well to recall the comment of Rambam, that “There is no community [of Jews], at any time, in which there were not some people who were licentious in matters of arayot and forbidden intercourse. And they also said, ‘The majority [are guilty] of theft (!), the minority of arayot, and all are guilty of “dust” of evil speech.” (Issurei Biah 22.19).

3. As mentioned, in the area of halakhah, I part company with Green in significant way. I suggested that the core issue here is that of individual autonomy vs. heteronomy. I plan to return to this issue soon; meanwhile, see my two-part essay at HY XI: Bamidbar & Shavuot (=Archives– May 2010 [Aggadah]).

For my personal tribute to Green on the occasion of his 68th birthday, see HY X: Vayakhel-Pekudei (Supplemwnt) =

Friday, January 07, 2011

Bo (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2006_01_05_archive/html as well as January 2007, 2008, February 2009, and January 2010.

“The Voice of my Beloved is knocking”

In this week’s parashah, the story of the Exodus reaches its climax in Moses’ challenge to Pharaoh, in the tenth and final plague—the death of the first born, and in the actual departure from Egypt. Thus, we read here of the birth of the people. Prior to the Exodus per se, the people—each family unit in its own home—celebrates the ritual of the Pesah, the Paschal sacrifice—a ritual which, however it may have been observed in its original context, serves as the template for the future Passover Seder which, as we know from Rashi at the very beginning of the Torah, is the very first “real” mitzvah for which the Torah was given, as least as a legal codex.

The centrality of the Korban Pesah is demonstrated by another halakhic fact. We know that there are many mitzvot—thirty-six in all—which carry the particularly severe sanction of karet, of “excision” or being “cut off” from one’s people (the exact significance of this term is rather ambiguous and has been subject to many interpretations—but this is not our concern here), but the vast majority of these are negative commandments: e.g., many of the prohibited forms of sexual union carry the sanction of karet, as do profanation of the Temple and its sacrifices, and such central rituals as doing labor on the Shabbat, eating hametz on Passover, or violating the fast of Yom Kippur. But only two of those mitzvot which carry the sanction of karet are positive mitzvot (interestingly for our theme—here too, one pertains to the individual and one to the community): circumcision—the bodily mark of the covenant on the individual’s flesh, an act of initiation into the Jewish people usually performed shortly after birth; and Korban Pesah—participation in the paschal offering, as an annual commemoration of the birth of the community. Thus, this ceremony serves as a basic act of communal identification and collective memory. Put in sociological terms, one might say that celebration and ritual are among the key elements constitutive of community.

What is the essence of the Pesah? A group of people—an extended family, or a group of friends, perhaps several inter-linked family units—band together to buy a lamb or goat with moneys collected among themselves; they take it to the Temple on the 14th day of Nissan and slaughter it during the course of the afternoon; in the evening it is roasted and they eat it as a group, with unleavened bared and bitter herbs, in as sacred meal. Special laws govern its preparation and consumption; in addition, the meal itself is marked by the singing of songs of praise to God (“the song shall be to you as on the night when the festival is sanctified”—Isa 30:29), known as Hallel; and (most probably this element was added somewhat later) telling the story of the enslavement and liberation of our ancestors in Egypt—in brief, the rudiments of what we know today as the Passover Seder.

It is interesting that this ritual of commemoration takes the form of eating—of performing one of the most ordinary of human acts. Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik once spoke on the concept of the meal in relation to Pesah, contrasting the meaning of the meal or feast in Judaism and in Western culture. In the Euro-American culture, the emphasis, certainly in a festive meal, is on two central points: the aesthetic (the setting of the table, the food itself, with its gourmet preparation, unusual recipes and ingredients, etc.) and etiquette. In Judaism, the two points most emphasized are: the law and discipline involved in the act of eating (e.g., the laws of kashrut, the numerous special laws governing Korban Pesah, the hand washing & blessings before and after) and the words of Torah said at the meal. “Any meal at which three sat and did not exchange words of Torah, is as if they ate from the sacrifices made to the dead” (Avot 3.4)—and at no meal is this more the case than the night of the Seder, which is structured around the recitation of an aggadic text which invites elaboration, commentary, questions, and innovative and free-associative additions by all the participants. In the later part of the Seder, one moves from talk of Torah to singing psalms and hymns of praise to God.

What does all this mean? Community is constituted, on the most elemental level, by the simple act of eating, of breaking bread together—which in turn moves to celebration, to standing in relation to God (“this is the table which is before God”— [Ezek 41:22}; or, as the Kabbalists like to say, the Passover table is itself shulhan gavoah, in some mystical sense a partaking of the Almighty’s table), and from there to remembering, to teaching, to learning, to deepening our understanding of the basic lessons of our history.

Another thought about eating as a communal, covenantal act. Modern culture is marked by secularization. This is the strongest characteristic of modernity generally, but it particularly marked are the secularization (and privatization) of such basic bodily experiences as food and sex. The “sexual revolution” of the ‘60s transformed sex from a sacrament, celebrated in marriage sanctified within the community, to a private act of pleasure for the two people directly involved (or better, perhaps, of the two individuals pleasuring themselves and one another—note the subtle but significant difference). As for food: it would seem that the family evening meal, in which all sit down together at the table every day, has become more and more unusual in Western culture. Its place is taken by quick food, whether at a quick-food “restaurant” of the MacDonald’s variety, or food taken quickly and separately at home by each member of the family upon returning from their manifold activities, popped into the microwave to be rewarmed.

And, as these things become more isolated and private acts, they seem to return to their basically biological, even animal aspect. Civilization might be defined as the conscious transformation and transmutation of the merely biological into the human, the cultured. And, if I may put I thus, it seems to me that we are seeing before our eyes the erosion of civilization in important senses. Civilization is not just “high culture”—the academy, the library, the theater and the concert hall—but is, primarily, the civilizing and humanizing of everyday, at core biological acts. And part of civilization is these acts taking place in communal contexts: in the case of sex, the act itself is by nature a private one, but one that occurs in a communally sanctioned setting; in the case of food, the idea of whenever possible breaking bread with one’s fellows, of the meal taking place in a larger and or smaller group setting, whether family or, on special occasions, of expanded community.

One final idea about the Paschal sacrifice, and by extension about Passover as we celebrate it: even if consumed in small family groups, the group is somehow seen as a microcosm of Knesset Yisrael. “All Israel are befitting to eat a single Korban Pesah,” just as “All Israel are befitting to sit in one Sukkah.“ The division into haburot, into discrete groups, is a necessity that follows from the physical limitations of a single lamb or goat, that only contains so much flesh, of which each participant must eat a certain minimum amount—but in principle, on a certain metaphysical level, all Israel partake together of the Pesah.

VAERA: Postscript. The First Three Plagues

It is well known that the ten plagues are divided into three groups of three, with the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn, sui generis (I believe that Rashbam was the first to observe this). In the first of each group Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh at the Nile, in the second they go to him at his home (“go To Pharaoh—bo el Par’oh; the title verse of this week’s parashah, is repeated from the 2nd and 5th plague as well), and in the third of each group they simply perform the act that precipitates the plague without any prior warning.

But the groups involve different realms of life—water, livestock, plant life—and are of increasing severity. The first group of three, in particular, has a number of interesting and unique features: first, that Pharaoh’s magicians attempt to duplicate Moses and Aaron’s act, with some success; second, that these plagues affect equally the Israelites and the Egyptians, whereas from the second group on God makes a distinction between the two groups; and, third—and this I find most interesting—they are all performed by Aaron, using Moses’ staff. This same staff, we will remember, was the only artifact Moses was asked to take with him from Midian (along with his family and his donkey; Exod 4:20). Why then is Moses’ unique instrument associated here with Aaron?

Perhaps—and this is my own speculation—Aaron is perceived as a kind of magician, and the staff (originally, an ordinary shepherd’s staff) as a kind of magic wand, raised heavenwards to perform the various miracles (it would be interesting to analyze more closely the use of this staff throughout the Torah). Only after establishing their credentials as “colleagues” or counterparts of the hartumim do the two of them move on to the next step: demonstrating the uniqueness of the God of the Hebrews, who does not “do magic,” but acts without the prompting of any theurgic acts. The One God transcends the type of “mysticism” (improperly called thus) which involves human manipulation of the cosmos in the hope of gaining some sort of advantage. Yochanan Muffs, in his book The Personhood of God and elsewhere, makes the interesting point that the Biblical God is not an abstract, “unmoved mover” like the god of the philosophers but, on the contrary, has a powerful, passionate personality, deeply involved in the lives of human beings. His uniqueness lies elsewhere: that He transcends the world of nature and arbitrary fate—unlike the gods of Greece or of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; His will is all-supreme.

A word about theurgy: that is, the belief that one can manipulate events by various acts which supposedly “force God’s hand.” This mentality is one that is very hard to shake off. It lies at the heart of paganism, both ancient and modern, but it appears in folk religion in all times and of all faiths. It reemerged in Judaism in practical Kabbalah and in Hasidim, with the wonder-working abilities of the “Zaddik” often more important to his followers than his spiritual message or his personal model of piety. It exists today in the red “Kabbalah strings” sold on the internet for a handsome price; in mass pilgrimages to saints’ graves in Morocco, Poland, Ukraine and Isreal; in amulets, holy water, paraphernalia, and blessings dispensed by “holy” rabbis and Kabbalists—again, for large sums often given by those who can least afford it. Israeli television has a mid-day program called “Time for Mysticism,” which features a Tarot card reader, astrologer, ”channeler” and numerologist, all of whom claim the ability to “see” the future and dispense personal advice through their particular expertise. I understand that even New Age Judaism, in the seminars run by Eilat Hayyim, includes a course in “Jewish Shamanism.” It would seem that they have rejected Orthodoxy and halakhah on “post-modern” grounds, but have come full circle to paganism!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Vaera (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for January 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Promises of Redemption

As there are a number of things I’d like to add about last week’s parashah, I will comment on this week’s parashah only briefly (in any event, the two parshiyot are closely interconnected).

More than half of Vaera is devoted to the first seven of the Ten Plagues—a series of events devoted, on the one hand, to showing God’s might and His rulership over the world, specifically to Pharaoh; and, on the other, to bringing out the stubbornness and intransigence of Pharaoh, who progressively “hardened his heart” (and, in the later plagues, was helped along in this process by God), in order to increase his culpability.

The opening verses are perhaps the most interesting and richest—theologically, philosophically, and also, to my mind, in terms of our theme. God, in his Holy Name of YHWH, announces to Moses that He will redeem the people from Egypt, describing their approaching liberation in a series of four or five “languages”—verbs—of redemption: “I shall take you out (והוצאתי) from beneath the enslavement of Egypt; I shall save you (והצלתי) from their servitude; I shall redeem you (וגאלתי) with an outstretched arm… I shall take you (ולקחתי) to me as a people… I shall bring you (והבאתי) to the land I have promised to your forefathers” (Exod 6:6-8). Whether this passage constitutes four or five “languages” is an issue of some halakhic importance in light of its role as a model for the four (or five) cups of wine to be drunk at the Passover Seder; for a detailed discussion of this issue, and of the various aggadot on the subject, see HY XI: Tzav–Hagadol=Tzav [Aggadah).

It seems to me—and I hope that I am not constructing here an overly artificial framework—that these four or five phrases may serve as models for the stages entailed in building community. It is true, as I suggested last week, that the fact of oppression and subjugation can itself build a certain type of group consciousness among the oppressed, but that is only a beginning, a potential catalyst for action. Real community requires several things: first of all, freedom, both of the group and of the individuals therein, from outside constraint and coercion. We are told that in Egypt this took the extreme form, not only of forced labor, but of oppressive and capricious conditions (סכבלות מצרים, “the sufferings of Egypt”—e.g., denying them basic building materials and expecting them to meet quotas nevertheless); hence, liberation from this involved two distinct stages: delivery from the harshest elements of oppression, and being freed from slavery altogether. Second, territorial freedom, which also involves two stages: no longer being located in the same place as one’s erstwhile oppressors (“I shall redeem you,” conventionally identified with crossing the Sea of Reeds—i.e., no longer being under the Pharaonic jurisdiction); and having a place of one’s own: “And I shall bring you to the Land.” (This territorial freedom may also have its personal counterpart on the individual level, e.g., having “a room of one’s own.”) Finally, community must be informed by a certain set of values, a vision, a covenantal relationship with the Transcendent, a striving that guides the community as a beacon while involved in the often petty business of the here-and-now: “And I shall take you to Me as a people, and I shall be your God.”

POSTSCRIPT: Shemot as Moses’ Biography

As I noted last week, Parshat Shemot runs along two parallel tracks: the story of the oppression and enslavement of the Hebrew people in Egypt, and the early life of Moses: a kind of mini-biography of Moshe Rabbenu up until the time that his life became fully entwined with that of the people.

I have been interested for some time in the issues posed by biography: How does one begin to understand an individual’s life—that of another person, or for that matter one’s own? There are perhaps two basic questions: What was this person’s life about: what was his essential contribution to society and to culture? And, second, how did he/she become who he/she was?

Some readers may remember my attempt to plumb these questions regarding Shlomo Carlebach (see HY VIII: Lekh Lekha–Supplement). It seems to me that in the lives of most people, particularly those whose lives are in some sense memorable, there is a decisive moment, a particular event or decision, that may be seen as a turning point, that in retrospect is seen as having determined or at least focused the direction of that life (or that upon which the author chooses to focus as such—the writing of biography, like that of history generally, being a matter of interpretation). Thus, students of literature will remember that, in the Confessions of St Augustine, often regarded as the very first autobiography in history, he presents his religious conversion as the crucial turning point in his life.

All this by way of posing the question: What was the decisive moment in Moses’ early life? Offhand, the obvious answer would be: the encounter with God at the Burning Bush (Exodus 3-4:17), where he received the call from God to redeem the Jewish people—a story parallel, albeit different in circumstances, to other “calls to prophecy” in the Bible, such as those to Samuel (the “Seer”), Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others. After fleeing from Egypt, he was essentially living an ordinary life in Midian, shepherding his father-in-law’s flocks, raising a family, etc., when suddenly he saw an extraordinary sight—a bush that “burned but was not consumed” (the symbolism of this sight is a subject for another time)—and then received a message from the angel of God from within the flame. The rest, as they say, is history. But if we look more closely, we will find that there was a series of significant events prior to that which shaped Moses’ consciousness (whether or not these fit the rubric of inner preparation for prophecy, conscious or not, described by Maimonides in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 7.1 ff.).

In Chapter 2, following the details of Moses’ birth and his adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter, we read: “And Moses grew and went out to his people…” This phrase is strange, as we are told but one verse earlier: “And the child grew and was brought to Pharaoh’s house”—2:10. Why is “and [Moses] grew” repeated here? The former clearly refers to physical growth—that the child no longer needed a wet nurse; here, the text alludes to moral, emotional, psychological maturity (I thank my friend Steve Copeland for this insight). In two or three terse verses, we are told, first, that he came upon an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave and, outraged by this maltreatment of a fellow Jew/human being, he struck the man dead; the next day, he saw a quarrel between two Hebrews and interfered, asking “the wicked one” (the stronger one? the aggressor in the brawl?) “Why do you beat your brother”—and is answered sarcastically. As a result of the latter’s answer, he realizes that Pharaoh is out to have him killed as a trouble-maker, and he flees to Midian. There, too, the first thing he does is to save a group of young women (one of whom later becomes his wife) from a / gang of shepherds who are chasing them away from the well and perhaps worse. In all these incidents, Moses displays a fledgling sense of justice, of responsibility, of caring about others, of being unable to see one man exploiting and oppressing his fellow man and to stand idly by.

If Moses took these action, there must have been some inner readiness for them; they reflected some existing facet of his character. We may imagine that they were the fruit of a gradual process of maturation, of observing life and of how the world works, of thinking, of developing a moral code—possibly without even being consciously aware of doing so. For, in fact, there are no sudden changes in life: so-called dramatic changes, when examined more closely, turn out to be the result of a lengthy process of thinking, of reflection, of half-formulated thoughts and feelings which coalesce into action at an appropriate moment. (Speaking personally, I may add that such was surely the case of certain important and seemingly dramatic decisions in my own life.)

Returning to the Burning Bush: throughout his encounter with God at the Burning Bush, Moshe repeatedly raises objections: about God and His Name, about the readiness of the people, about what He will tell Pharaoh, and finally—and one suspects this may well have been the heart of the issue—about himself and his own supposed inability to lead the people: “I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (4:10-14). At this point, God is infuriated—realizing, perhaps, that all of Moses’ objections to this point have been no more than excuses for his own fears and cowardice. Following this, he finally does set out to return to Egypt—taking with him his wife, his children, his donkey, and his staff, on which we will say more later. (At this point there is a weird incident in which God seeks to kill Moses at a place where they stop for the night, and he is only saved by his wife Zipporah circumcising their small child: 4:24-26. What has this to do with what goes before? And why is circumcision so important precisely now?)

Upon arriving in Egypt he goes with Aaron to speak to Pharaoh, with the demand that he send the people “to celebrate a festival to the Lord in the wilderness” (5:1). The latter “tightens the screws,” taking away the straw they needed to make bricks, and insisting that they continue to meet the same quota. The people complain, and Moses tells God that “Since you have come to your servants, things have only gotten worse and you have not saved your people!” (5:23). God responds to this in the opening verse of our parashah: “I am YHWH; I appeared to [the patriarchs] with My name of Almighty, but by My Name of YHWH (i.e., He who Is—e.g., some say, the Root or Essence of Being itself) I was not known to them” (6:3). The Bible critics read this verse as an indication of the multiplicity of strands or documents that went into the Bible—J, E, P—since the name YHWH clearly does appear in Genesis in connection with each of the Patriarchs; philosophically and mystically-inclined traditional commentators delve into the meaning of the various Divine names, and speak of a unique manifestation of the Holy name of YHWH at this point. The midrash (Exod. Rab. 6.4; alluded to in Rashi at 6:2) has a very different reading, seeing this as a rebuke to Moses: “’I appeared to the patriarchs as Almighty, and was not known to them by my Great Name’—yet they did not lose faith in Me, but trusted in Me, and did not complain notwithstanding the numerous difficulties and disappointments they encountered in their life—unlike you, to whom there has been revealed the true meaning of my Holy Name, in its realized sense—and yet you still complain all the time!” (my paraphrase).

More Thoughts on Racism: Individual and Community

My essay two weeks ago, “The State of our State’s Religion,” elicited a large number of reader responses, both positive and negative. One reader, an old friend, justified the call of the rabbis not to sell or rent to Arabs, based upon the argument that, if there is not an actual state of war between the Jewish and Arab peoples, there has certainly been an ongoing and still-continuing conflict and hostility between the two groups since long before the creation of the State in ’48, focused upon the question: “Whose land is this?” He added that there are certain Arabs attempting to buy up as much land as they can with money from oil-rich Arab countries; that, moreover, the PA has openly discriminatory laws on this subject, imposing the death penalty on any Arab who sells land to Jews. One could also note the idea within Islam that any land that has once been ruled by Muslim authorities is considered Dir al-Islam or even Waqf (i.e., holy land, belonging to Islam), and allowing infidels to rule it constitutes sacrilege. This is admittedly an important part factor in the conflict, little known in the West, and may well lie behind the refusal of the Palestinian Authority to officially recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, in response to Netanyahu’s request to do so (albeit the timing of Netanyahu’s request, as a condition of resuming negotiations, suggests that it was just another avoidance tactic on his part).

But, valid as these points may be in themselves, they miss one essential point which, incidentally, directly relates to our theme for this year. If I were asked to define racism, I would describe it, on the most basic level, as the confusion between the individual and the community. That is, in its quintessential form racism is the attribution to the individual of the traits, real or imagined, of the group (read: nation, race, ethnic group, religion, tribe, etc). True, the organized Arab or Muslim community—the Mosque (if we may speak thus: in Islam, unlike Christianity, there is no official hierarchy or central religious authority), and the various political moments that speak in its name, are openly and actively hostile to Zionism. But Arabs/Muslims are also individuals and, as individuals (or nuclear families) they by-and-large want the same thing as everyone else: a decent home, rewarding and remunerative work, food on the table, a place for their children to grow up in reasonable fashion, etc. To refuse to sell or even rent a house or apartment to an individual Arab, because he is or may be acting in the name of some sinister group called Islam, is attributing to the individual the traits of the group. And, I might add, all this is frighteningly similar to the way certain anti-Semites spoke about Jews in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. (Since writing the above-mentioned essay, there have been demonstrations in south Tel Aviv and in Bat-Yam against foreign workers from Africa and Sudanese refugees from Darfur. As these latter groups are not in any situation of conflict with us, what I wrote above applies to them as well, only more so.)

One more point, from my personal experience. As some readers may remember, this past summer I was ill for several weeks, and even spent a week in the hospital (see “Thoughts on Illness”: HY XI: Ki Teitsei). I subsequently received ongoing medical treatment through Kupat Holim, including appointments with various specialists, blood tests, etc. Throughout this period, the doctors and nurses involved in my care included both Jews and Arabs (one of the latter even bore the highly Islamic name of Dr. el-Haj!). It occurred to me that, were I to take seriously the “ongoing warfare” theory of my friend, I would not have allowed Arabs to penetrate my veins with a needle or an IV device. Just think what they could have done if they took literally the war cry of “Itbah al-Yahud”! Yet, needless to say, these medical personnel behaved in professional manner, exactly like their Jewish counterparts.

If Arabs can be trustworthy enough to care for our sick, why can they not be trusted to rent or even buy a home in which to live with their families? If the principled position of these rabbis is that these people are not to be allowed any place to live in Eretz Yisrael, what are those working in the medical system supposed to do: Fly? It is a fact of life that members of two peoples live on this piece of land, and we ignore this fact to our own detriment.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Shemot (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah see the archives to this blog, below, at 2005_12_25_archive.html, as well as for January 2007, 2009 and 2010.

Individual and Community

With this weeks’ parashah, and the beginning of the book of Shemot /Exodus, we turn from the story of the family of Abraham and Jacob to the history of the nation taking shape from their descendants, “the people of Israel.” Interestingly, in terms of our theme, this parashah runs along two parallel tracks, that converge at the end: we are told of the life of the people, as an impersonal, anonymous, undefined mass, and the beginnings of its enslavement in Egypt; and of the early biography of one individual—the hero, the redeemer, the future prophet, lawgiver and leader—Moses. This latter story culminates in the encounter with God, that turns him decisively onto the path of leading the people whom he had left many years earlier when he fled from Pharaoh’s threat to kill him.

Israel’s beginnings as a people, as shown here, are ignominious. They are portrayed as an anonymous, inchoate mass. Last week we mentioned that one of the first verses in this parashah after the list of names echoes the final verse of Vayigash. But there is an important difference. In Genesis 47:27 we read: “And Israel dwelt in the land of Goshen… and they were fruitful and multiplied greatly” (ויפרו וירבו מאד). In Exodus 1:7 we read: “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed, and multiplied, and were very greatly strengthened, and the land was filled with them” (פרו וישרצו וירבו ויעצמו במאד מאד). While we are told so explicitly, the latter verse clearly seems to be written from the Egyptian viewpoint, and it conveys the feeling that the Israelites were perceived both as very threatening, and as being animal-like, or even insect-like: they “swarmed” over “the entire land.” Their salient trait was their great fertility, causing their vast numbers, the unspoken fear (common to all kinds of racism since time immemorial) is their fruitfulness (=animal-like sexuality) and that they might soon outnumber the natives.

Aviva Zornberg, in her book on Genesis, notes the counterpoint in the Creation story between the various lower species, which “swarm” in the water and on the land, living undifferentiated species life of sheer proliferation, like an ant-hill or beehive, and human beings, who stand erect, sign of their singularity and individuation. Here, on the eve of their subjugation, after the death of the talented administrator who had saved the country in the time of the great famine, what strikes the Egyptians about the Israelites is their sheer numbers. It is at this time that the double solution—of killing the man-children, and subjugating the adults and the females—occurs to them. Forced labor, so as to break their morale and thereby prevent them from functioning as a ”fifth column.” (Interestingly, at the end of the parashah, when Moses returns to Egypt with the message of liberation, he meets as much opposition from the Israelites as he does from Pharaoh, albeit of a different kind.)

In Chapter 2 the scene shifts to the biography of Moses: his birth, his being saved by his parents’ placing him in a water-proof little ark, his adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter, and his coming into maturity and consciousness of his people’s lot through daring acts. This is followed by his exile to Midian, with the story of how—like Yaakov, and like Yitzhak through the surrogacy of his father’s servant—he meets his future wife at a well, performing an act of courage and sensitivity to oppressed womankind.

At this point, just before the decisive encounter with God at the burning bush, the Torah interjects three short verses that take us back to the masses of Israelites suffering in Egypt, Exodus 2:23-25. “And in those many days, and the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned because of their labors; and they called out, and their cry ascended to God from their labor.” Rav Soloveitchik once noted that this verse does not speak of the Israelites as actually praying; rather, they groaned and cried out in pain, and that was enough; God hears, and is sensitive to, human suffering. “And God heard their cry, and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And God saw [them], and God knew.” This last phrase “And God knew” (וידע אלהים) is particularly poignant: God does not need detailed prayer to know man’s travail; he simply knows the human condition, in general and at any particular time and place. (These few verses use four different words to indicate their cries and sufferings: ויאנחו...ויזעקו... שועתם...נאקתם. I don’t know how to define the precise nuance of each one.)

A few thoughts about different kinds of community: At first glance, it is difficult to see downtrodden masses of people, people described here as “swarming,” as a positive community in any sense of the word. It is precisely such dumb, inarticulate, earth-bound groups, who cannot lift their eyes beyond the everyday reality, that seem to form the most striking contrast to the ideal of the strongly individuated person, whether Kierkegaard’s “Single One,” Nietzsche’s “Super Man,” or the spiritual seeker of Hermann Hesse in all his various guises—in short, the individual who deeply feels and thinks and ponders, a kind of archetypal hero of modern culture thought. But God here responds precisely to simple, inarticulate suffering that does not even know how to pray—and it inspire in Him covenantal thought.

One might say that there are two types of community, There is the community of values: community defined by acts of kindness and mutual help, by study of and immersion in a common cultural heritage, by prayer and ritual—such, surely, is the normative definition of Jewish community as we have known it throughout much of history (Torah, avodah=tefillah, and gemillut hasadim), But there is also the community of the oppressed, of the downtrodden and suffering, the wretched multitude, the “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus"). Such experiences—whether of Jews, Negroes, serfs, industrial laborers, or whomever—are powerful shapers of community.

To be continued.

HANUKKAH: Postscript—On Fire and Water

I would like to share some reflections in wake of the juxtaposition of Hanukkah, the extended drought in Israel (briefly interrupted by two days of intense rainstorms), and the great fire on the Carmel. We spoke at the time of fire as a force with tremendous potential for destruction, and water as a blessing. Certainly, the absence of rainfall for such a lengthy period was uncanny; there was a feeling that the whole country—the soil, the crops that need water to grow, and the people themselves—was longing for water. It seems likely that the drought, the extreme dryness of the trees and the other vegetation, exacerbated the conflagration and contributed to its rapid spread.

But on second thought, fire and water, so often thought of as polar opposites—they are two of the four elements of the Platonic and other ancient world views—each carry the potential for both destruction and blessing. Water is a basic source of life; without water, no vegetation can grow; without water to drink, all animal and human life would perish. Water is seen in the Kabbalah and in older Jewish symbolism as a source of blessing; it is associated with Binah (intuitive understanding), with wisdom, with Torah (“All who are thirsty come and drink”), and with Hesed. In the Psalms, the mystic longing for God’s presence compares himself to a hart longing for water in the arid desert (Pss 42, 63). But water was also the element of the primordial chaos which covered the earth before Creation; in Psalm 29, which we recite in Kabbalat Shabbat, God is portrayed as creating the world by holding back the flood waters that threaten to inundate it; the Flood in the time of Noah was a manifestation of the destructive power of water, which sweeps up everything in its path (indeed, it can dissolve just about everything). In recent years, our world has had its share of such disasters of floods, tidal waves, Tzunamis, and hurricanes, as well as fire. One is reminded here of the words of the old black spiritual, “No more water, the fire next time”—an apocalyptic vision that hearkens back, both to the New Testament Book of Revelation and to the midrash, suggesting a far more destructive and painful apocalypse than that of the Noachide flood!

Fire can also destroy just about everything, as we have seen in recent days. As such, it is a potent symbol of Divine anger, which is portrayed as a “consuming fire”; fire in Kabbalah is equated with Gevurah. But it also symbolizes domesticity: properly controlled, fire is an essential tool of civilization; fire symbolizes “hearth and home”—two of the essential functions of a home is a place where one “comes in out of the cold” to seek warmth (both literal and metaphorical), and where food is prepared on a cooking stove; for us Jews, the light of the Shabbat candles is a central symbol of domestic peace and harmony, the sanctity of Shabbat, and by extension of the Jewish home generally. Interestingly, too, fire symbolizes passion: the erotic love between man and woman (“Many waters cannot extinguish love… Its flames are flames of fire, of the flame of God” —Song of Songs 8:6-7), and the passion of the intense lover of God, whose soul burns with love and longing (Tanya uses fire as a metaphor for intense, all-consuming prayer; Elie Weisel’s book on Hasidism is aptly entitled Souls on Fire). If, without water, life itself is impossible, without fire, one might say, civilization, the grace of domesticity, is impossible.

Vayehi (Individual & Community)

“All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve in number”

Here, for the first name in many weeks, we have a parashah without overt familial conflict—albeit here too the undercurrents of conflict, the deep fault lines within the family of Yaakov, are clear enough.

As I noted when I first started writing these papers (see HY I: Vayehi = Vayehi [Torah]), quoting a teaching of Rav Soloveitchik, this parashah is a kind of pause in the forward thrust, both dramatic and historical, of the “story-line” of the Torah. The action and information needed to bring us to the opening page of Exodus—the circumstances leading to the servitude in Egypt, which was in turn a prelude to the deliverance and Exodus therefrom—are all found by the end of Vayigash. Indeed, Gen 47:27, the final verse in that portion, is closely echoed in Exod 1:7. This parashah is primarily about Jacob: his blessings, first to Joseph and his sons, then to all twelve sons/tribes; his setting his house in order in anticipation of departing this world; his death and burial, with the long, almost stately procession to the kind of Canaan, which serves as an occasion for displaying (if only pro forma) unity in paying tribute to the aged patriarch; and the brief aftermath, in which there is a certain attempt at reconciliation between Yosef and his brothers.

The salient entity here is “the twelve tribes of Israel.” The people of Israel are conceived of in the Bible as a kind of federation—what biblical scholars like to call an amphictony—of twelve tribes, each composed of descendants of their eponymous ancestor. In some ways it is not altogether unlike the United States, albeit on a more modest scale, both in terms of population and geographical spread.

What does this form of organization suggest in terms of the idea of community, and the individual’s belonging to it? We have here two levels of collective identity: the nation, with its central institutions—the king, the High Court (Sanhedrin), the Temple, and the army which was mustered together from all able-bodied men when necessary; and the tribe, which was smaller, more compact geographically, each one of which shared various common traditions which distinguished it from the others: one consisted of hill-dwellers, who cultivated olive trees on the rocky soil of the Galilee; another, located by the coast, were sea-going merchants, with a more cosmopolitan perspective; while a third might live by the desert, and a fourth near the rapidly flowing waters of the River Jordan. Somehow, I imagine, the tribe provides an orientation, a sense of belonging to something larger than the extended family or clan, but still small enough, intimate enough, to identify with in a more intimate way than the semi-abstraction of “the people of Israel” as a whole. May one draw an analogy, in our own day, to the role of the nation-state as an intermediary level of cultural identity, as opposed to those who say that they identify only with “humankind” as a whole?

A Closed Portion

Vayehi is unique in that, of all the sections of the Torah read week-by-week, it is setumah, “closed”—that is, there is no space of any sort: parashah petuhah or parashah setumah: that is, either the beginning of a new line or a blank space of half-a-dozen or so letters—separating it from the end of the previous parashah (or, more properly, sedrah).

The Sages puzzled over this anomaly. Rashi, at the very beginning of Vayehi, brings two possible explanations. One, that with Yaakov’s imminent demise they somehow felt the onset of the Egyptian enslavement and “their eyes and hearts were closed because of the trouble.” That is, being a slave is not only a physical or economic or legal state in which one’s freedom is curtailed and one is forced to labor for another, but also a psychological state, which somehow ”closes the heart,” narrows a person’s capacity to feel, to imagine, to think, to see beyond his own immediate, concrete situation—and thus it affects not only the body but, with very rare exceptions, the spirit as well.

Second: that Yaakov wished to prophecy about the future, but “prophecy was closed off to him.” This latter idea is reiterated by Rashi on 49:2: that Yaakov wanted to “reveal the End”—i.e., the ultimate unfolding of the future of his children and their descendants, up to and including the Endo of Days—but “he was turned / distracted towards another matter.”

Here, Yaakov is portrayed as a visionary, who wishes to disclose to his sons all he is capable of seeing—but God did not allow him to do so. This description reflects an innate tension in Judaism regarding messianic, eschatological vision: May one reveal the End? Is one allowed to talk about such things? Are there secrets—whether secrets of the historical future, secrets of individual destiny (e.g, is there an Afterlife? What happens to us after death?), or secrets of the cosmos and the nature of the Godhead—which one may not discuss openly? There are, of course, divergent views on these questions—in some cases, one might almost say, diametrically opposed—but there seems to be a widely accepted “mainstream” position that such things are, on the one hand, fascinating, enticing (may this another meaning of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden?)—but also dangerous, and in some sense taboo. This is the source of a certain ambivalence in Judaism about Kabbalah—the popular idea that one may not study certain esoteric texts until one is forty, or at least until one is mature and well-versed in the “meat and potatoes” of halakhah, of the laws guiding human beings in the concrete reality of their lives here-and-now, on this earth.

Two more interpretations of Vayehi as a “closed parashah,” these my own: One is that suggested at the very beginning of this paper in the name of Rav Soloveitchik: that it is, so to speak, a “bracketed” parashah, a pause or hiatus in the story of what befell the family of Yaakov-Yisrael and its descendants, a closed unit focused upon Jacob’s departure from life.

Second, it is setumah in the sense that it is arcane, difficult to understand, filled with, if not secrets, then certainly with things that are enigmatic, difficult to understand. This is the case in Yaakov’s blessing to the twelve sons; and, even more so, of Chapter 48, where Yaakov blesses Joseph’s sons separately. Why, if Judah is ultimately destined to be the leader of the entire people, are Yosef and his offspring treated as if they are the first born? Why does Yaakov switch his hands when blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, rather pointedly telling the children’s own father Joseph that he is deliberately renaming the second child as firstborn? And what is the meaning of the enigmatic final verse of this chapter: “For I have given you one porton (shekhem= portion / shoulder / the town of Shechem?) over your brethren, which I took from the Amorite with my sword and with my bow?“ No time to examine this now; perhaps another year.

SUPPLEMENT: The State of Our State’s Religion

As promised last week, I present some thoughts on current events. Many troubling things have happened recently, the common denominator seeming to be that every time a religious figure opens his mouth, he says something so foolish or misguided that one feelss embarrassed to be a religious Jew in this day and age.

To begin with: three or four weeks ago there was a controversy concerning Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, a member of Knesset from Shas, the Sephardic Haredi party. Rav Amsalem, to the pleasant surprise of many, including myself, publicly criticized the Kollel system, so central to the Haredi world. He said what is obvious to many: that the expectation, around which all of ultra-Orthodox society is structured, that virtually all men will study Torah indefinitely, full-time, while being supported by a combination of public funds, wealthy donors, and the wife working, is wrong and unhealthy. He cited Rambam, who declared that “Whoever says to himself, ‘I will study Torah and not work and will be supported by charity’ profanes the Name… extinguishes the light of religion” (Talmud Torah 3.10). Amsalem added that the Shas people, by adopting this model, are imitating a Lithuanian–Ashkenazic model of “Haredism,” and that they ought to return to the authentic, historic Sephardic model in which people worked for a living and studied Torah early in the morning and/or in the evening. Needless to say, this author heartily agrees with everything he said—but for the Sephardic Haredi party, it was tantamount to heresy. They excoriated him, insisted that he return his Knesset seat, and even put him in herem. Rabbi Avraham Yosef (the son of…), rabbi of Holon, went to the extent of holding Rav Amsalem personally responsible for the extended drought from which Israel has been suffering!

There are several things that I find disturbing about this incident. First, the very fact that the Haredi world is blind to the deleterious effects of their system; that the combination of shnorring public funds and mass exemption from Army service (both of which got a further boost from the government in recent days) is a major factor leading to hatred of religion, closing the minds and hearts of many Israelis to even considering Judaism as anything other than a primitive, benighted set of beliefs. Secondly, the fact that the religious world today, especially the more “pious” elements, seems incapable of engaging in civilized polite ideological debate, is deeply disturbing. (I know, such a statement must sound totally naïve). Pirkei Avot speaks of the concept of “controversy for the sake of Heaven”—one of the characteristics of which is that it is motivated by the pursuit of truth, not the desire for victory over the other, and hence is conducted with respect towards the opposing party, accepting the good intentions and integrity of those who think differently from oneself. The classic example of this is the schools of Shammai and Hillel; the Mishnah at Yevamot 1.4 relates that, even though the two schools disagreed over several cardinal issues with far-reaching consequences, including the crucial area of marital law, they nevertheless treated one another with brotherliness and respect and did not refrain from intermarriage between the two groups. Such things are all but unheard of today, each faction having its own path and its own gadol hador, whose word is beyond questioning.

The third disturbing point is the ease with which certain rabbis claim to know the metaphysical reason for whatever bad things happen. Thus, while the catastrophic fire on the Carmel ridge was still raging, Rav Ovadiah Yosef declared that the conflagration was Divine punishment for desecration of the Shabbat by those affected. (Never mind that, even if we fully accept this mindset, his facts are incorrect: the area affected by the fire being divided roughly equally among religious Jews, Druze, and secularists.) The important point is, of course, the arrogance and audacity of these rabbis in claiming to know the detailed workings of Divine Providence. Are they prophets? Have they ascended to Heaven and peaked behind the curtain? Traditionally, all we can say is that God’s ways are righteous and based upon love and justice; catastrophes are thus seen as times for teshuvah and soul-searching—hence the institution of public fast days and prayers in times of trouble. But beyond that, even the prophets only speak in the most general terms in saying that the people’s sinfulness brings punishment in its wake.

Beyond that, theodicy—why “bad things happen to good people”—remains one of the most perplexing and problematic areas of faith. In any event, such faith does not eliminate the role of ordinary causality in life’s events. Rambam notes in the Guide of the Perplexed (see, e.g., III.16-20) that many of the things that happen in the world are the result of simple causality. Thus, as happened some years ago, when a car full of Haredi men from B’nai Berak were killed in a crash on their way home from a prominent rabbi’s funeral, thereby orphaning a large number of children, it was probably because the driver took a foolish and dangerous risk in passing on a narrow one-lane road with poor visibility. Or, as happened on the Carmel, a teenage boy dumped the ashes from a nargila onto a pile of rubbish without checking that they were extinguished, some brush caught fire, igniting a nearby tree, and from there, before anyone knew what was happening, it jumped from tree to tree until the whole forest was on fire.

To turn to another matter: two weeks ago, a group of rabbis—including many rabbis of cities and towns, whose salary is paid by government funds—issued an opinion stating that it is forbidden to rent or sell homes in the Land of Israel to non-Jews, specifically to Arabs. The halakhic argument was that it is forbidden to give Gentiles a “resting place”—i.e., a residence—in Eretz Yisrael. It seems to me that this is one of those dead letters in the halakhah that is best benignly ignored—an approach for which there is abundant halakhic support, if only on the basis of darkei shalom (i.e., “its ways are ways of peace”). It seems clear that the real motivation was anti-Arab racism, pure and simple. One heard two arguments frequently repeated: the first, that “it isn’t safe for Jewish girls to walk on certain streets at night” (as if there were no Jewish boys who are louts and make catcalls and obscene remarks to young women!) These types of sexual fears are common to racism world wide. Substitute “Negroes” for “Arabs” in the Jim Crow South, or for that matter “Jews” in Nazi Germany, who reputedly threatened the purity of Aryan maidenhood—and you have an exact parallel! (All that is missing is the claim that Arabs have bigger penises!)

The second argument is that “The Arabs are trying to take over the country, to remove Jews from the Land of Israel, by buying us out, house by house, block by block.” There’s something disingenuous about this argument, which sounds suspiciously like projecting onto the Arabs what many Jews would like to do. In fact, if anyone, it is davka Jews whom we see displacing Arabs, n some cases literally kicking people out of the homes where they’ve lived for decades, on the basis of documents going back to the days of the Ottoman Empire (but the property rights implied in such documents are never implemented inm the opposite direction). Thus in Silwan and Sheikh Jarah and perhaps other places.

The problem is that the Israeli planning authorities have not provided for the “natural growth” of the Arab population; hardly any new Arab towns or cities have been planned since ’48; moreover, it’s extremely difficult for Arabs to get building permits to add on to their own homes, even in their own villages and towns. In any events, those Arabs who have made test cases about buying homes in places like Natzrat Illit are by-and-large young, middle-class professionals who, like other middle-class people, want slightly more upscale, comfortable homes, which are mostly to be found in the Jewish sector—or, in the case of rentals, Arab students who seek housing near their campus. Or do these good rabbis want the universities to be Aräberrein? Is total separation between the two populations the ideal? Gevalt, Yidd’n! Run!

But there is a very important, principled question here. Over the years, Israel has become a pluralistic, even cosmopolitan state, with sizeable minorities of Arabs and other groups. Is the ideal of Zionism an ethnically pure Jewish state, or a “normal” society that absorbs diverse groups who, ultimately, learn to live in harmony with one another? Could it be that one of the factors leading to the intensity of hatred between Arab and Jew is precisely the fact that the two groups hardly know one another as people? Experience seems to show that where there is estrangement and ignorance of the Other, there grow racial and ethnic stereotypes—and from there the road is short to demonization of the Other, hatred and inter-group violence.

The alternative, as I said, is a society of total apartheid. Do we really thank that it can possibly work—or that it can only lead to more resentment, irredentism, radical nationalism and Islamism, terror, , etc.—and their counterparts on the Jewish side. So long as there is an Arab minority in Israel—and expulsion is a non-starter for a host of reasons, pragmatic, geopolitical, and moral—we have no choice but to learn to live with this minority group in as human and decent a manner as possible.

Finally, my own conclusion from all this: first, that notwithstanding all the problems, the State of Israel has been a wonderful thing for the Jewish people—if for no other reason than it has provided a homeland, a refuge, for Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe, from the Arab world, from Soviet Russia, from Ethiopia, etc. etc. But it has been a disaster for the Jewish religion, because of the opportunity it has provided for Judaism to enjoy political standing and political power, and the taking over of “official” Judaism by the most reactionary, conservative elements within it. The first chief rabbis of Eretz-Yisrael—Rav Kook, who was an extraordinary visionary, as well as the first few after the founding of the State, who were real Zionists and had a broad perspective as to what modernity is all about, men like Rav Herzog, Rav Uziel, Rav Unterman, and Rav Goren, who was a strong-minded, independent halakhic thinker, not to mention being a real genius—were men who provided real leadership to the entire people. But since then, matters have gone steadily downhill, until today the chief rabbis are in effect puppets, serving as mouthpieces for the gedolim of Haredi Jewry. Rav Elyashiv and Rav Ovadiah Yosef are de facto those setting the spiritual tone for the entire country—and indirectly affecting much that happens within world Jewry. The time has come for the de-establishment of religion or, to use the language of neo-liberalism (even though it’s anathema to me as a lifelong socialist), the “privatization of religion.” Unfortunately, despite many voices calling publicly for such changes, I don’t see it happening anytime in the foreseeable future, due to the political system, which gives smaller parties disproportionate bargaining power in creating coalitions.