Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Korah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for May 25 2006, June 2007, 2008, 2009, and June 12 2010 (bottom)

Korah’s Rebellion

A general thought: all the stories about murmurings and rebellions in the desert—the quail, the spies, Korah—take place in a space and time that is, in a sense, “nowhere”: in the wilderness, a place beyond civilization and all of its artifacts and well-established social norms. Here, things are reduced to their essence: there are just the people, Moses, God, and the sky, rock and sand. There is a starkness to the desert , but also a purity and a strange kind of beauty felt nowhere else (I experienced this personally on those occasions when I spent my reserve duty in an outpost deep in the desert, with only a handful of other men).

What is the story of Korah about? At first blush (at least as traditionally seen through the lens of tradition, of midrash and aggadah), Korah is a power-hungry demagogue who uses fallacious, “populist” arguments to challenge Moses and, by extension, the Torah itself. But there is a problem: on the face of it, in a literal reading of the text, Korah may be seen as a positive figure, the champion of popular democracy: “For all the people are holy, and God is in their midst; why then do you lord it over the congregation of God” (Num 16:3). Indeed, a cogent argument: if human beings are made in the image of God, than all people are equally holy and, in a sense, all are deserving to be priests. And in fact, there are tendencies like this in world religion: this was in particular the great motivation behind Protestantism: to challenge the elaborate and often arbitrary hierarchy of the Catholic Church; to assert that all men can and should read Scripture and interpret it directly. In some of the more radical Reformation churches there were no priests or clergy of any sort; this is the social meaning of such things as speaking in tongues among the Pentecostals, or of “Thou”-ing and of everyone being allowed to stand up and speak at Quaker meetings. This was also, ultimately, the great idea behind America: the breaking down of the rigid class system practiced in England and elsewhere in Europe; the creation of a new, open society—as open as the vast spaces of the endless prairie and deep forests and high mountains (I know this sounds like a Fourth of July sermon: I think of the contrast to our own tiny country in the Middle East, enmeshed in an endless, bitter struggle over a few thousand square kilometers): that every man’s vote counts, and every man’s voice may be heard. And this radical democracy is perhaps now entering into a new level with the Internet, where anyone can say almost anything in a potentially global forum. But to return to Korah: Moses was the Divinely-appointed leader, a prophet who spoke in the name of God. Korah challenges him, asking, on the simplest, most vulgar level: “Say’s who?” The answer, on the level of peshat, is equally problematical: Moses invokes God’s power, performing supernatural miracles to buttress his legitimacy: Aaron’s incense is accepted, rather than that of the others; the unrepentant Korah and his followers are swallowed up by the earth; Aaron’s staff flowers with almond blossoms. But there is no answer on the level of polemic, no appeal to reason or to man’s innate moral sense.

There are several possible answers to this dilemma. First, that midrash supplies the answers missing in the text itself: Korah is portrayed there as scheming and duplicitous, offering arguments that, upon closer examination, prove to be fallacious and self-serving, motivated, not by genuine concern for the people and the alleged injustices perpetrated by Moses’ Torah, but by the desire to gain power for himself.

Second: a close reading of the text itself shows Korah as a demagogue. Moses’ answer to Korah in vv. 8–10 cuts through the façade of the idealistic leader concerned with the welfare of his people to get to the heart of the matter: “Is it a small thing that God has separated you from the congregation of Israel to bring you close to him so as to serve in the Sanctuary… that you also demand the priesthood?” In other words: behind his high-sounding words about democracy and equality are concealed petty, ego-centered ambitions and jealousy: he thinks that he rather that his cousin Aaron should have been appointed high priest—and that is where it starts and ends.

But there is a third possible answer, perhaps the simplest of all. By his reliance on Divine intervention Moses was saying something very important: if one simply and sincerely believes, or rather knows, that God is present with one, that is the most convincing argument or proof of all. If Moses was truly the humble man we are told he was, for example, in the section read two weeks ago—alongside the description of his extraordinary level of prophecy (Num 12: 6-8), we are told that he was “humbler than any other man on the face of the earth” (v. 3)—then he would not argue his own case, but rely upon God’s greatness to manifest itself, seeing himself as no more than a servant and “emissary” of God. The signs he wrought, his evident personal charisma, and even the shining of his face, were all proofs for the truth of his mission.

Let us return from this perspective to the issue of universal democracy and equality. We live in a cynical age: we find it difficult to believe in leaders who are truly selfless. There have been too many examples of prominent men—political leaders, religious figures, intellectual heroes, business leaders, not to mention “celebrities” from the worlds of sports and entertainment and media—who have been shown to have clay feet, and to do what they do for personal benefit: for money, for sexual favors, for fame and ego gratification. Hence it is difficult for many of us to believe in anyone being truly selfless: the model of the Tzaddik gamur, the wholly righteous person as presented e.g. in the opening chapters of Sefer ha-Tanya: a person who has not only subdued his “Evil Urge, but “burned it away” so that it does not exist at all (“my heart is empty within me”), the one who has achieved total bittul atzmi, self-abnegation, seems an unachievable, hypothetical dream. But even granting that, I have been privileged to know at least a few people who have been genuinely God-fearing, deeply erudite and learned, but also genuinely humble—albeit, being human, not perfectly so.

Apart from his own presumed hypocrisy, the problem with Korah’s supposed ideal of a radically egalitarian society, without any leaders or structure of rulership, is that anarchy does not work. Society needs leaders, and some people are more suited to this task than others. All we can hope for are that those who become leaders will be blessed, in addition to superior talents and intelligence, with a reasonable degree of honesty, integrity, and genuine dedication to the common welfare.

SHELAH LEKHA: Postscript

A few brief observations about Shelah lekha:

Numbers 13:33 is interesting: “There we saw the nefilim, children of the giants, from then Nefilim.” Strikingly, the Spies saw the Canaanites in a mythical context, as descendants of the Nefilim, the “sons of gods” described in Genesis 6: 2 and 4 as abducting whatever human women appealed to their fancy. These verses are connected with the legends of “fallen angels” found in the Apocrypha, in Midrash, and in Christian tradition. The point is that, upon seeing the local inhabitants as more powerful than themselves and thus frightening, they “upped the ante” by describing them in mythical terms.

My wife suggested a naturalistic explanation for this: perhaps the legend of the Nefilim have been based upon an exaggerated image of the peoples of East Africa (the Masai warrior nation of Kenya and the like) who are the fastest and tallest race in earth?

Secondly: this year I noticed more clearly than ever how many parallels there are between the incident of the Spies and that of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32–34. Certainly, these two incidents are considered the archetypal sins of the Jewish people in biblical history. First, there are the obvious parallels: the verses of Divine forgiveness and compassion in Numbers 14:17–20 parallel the Thirteen Qualities of Mercy in Exod 34:6–10; indeed, thy are presented as a truncated quotation. But also, here God threatens, in a way that he does not do in any other of the murmurings, to destroy the nation and make Moses and his descendants a chosen people instead: 14:11-12, is a close parallel to Exod 32:10. (Israeli Bible scholar Yair Zakovitch has written extensively about the phenomenon of “mirroring” in various biblical stories.) Finally, we find here many verses of forgiveness that are used liturgically on the Days of Awe, much like those from Ki Tisa: i.e, Num 14:19-20; 15:26.

Third, a somewhat irreverent, semi-humorous observation about the Haftarah. We read there (Joshua 2) about Rahav ha-Zonah, Rahab the Harlot, who provided hospitality to the spies and hid them from the king of Jericho. Has anyone noticed that her name, Rahav, means “broad” —a somewhat rude slang word for a woman, emphasizing what are politely called a woman’s secondary sexual characteristics— i.e., precisely those points that would be accentuated by a “lady of the night.”

More on San Francisco and Circumcision

In discussing the proposed ban on circumcision in that city last week, I said that the motivation was not anti-Semitic, but a new, super-liberal, individualistic ideology. But I was too sanguine: someone drew my attention to a comic book on the web related to this issue, “Foreskin Man,” which uses anti-Semitic stereotypes worthy of Streicher’s Der Stűrmer (readers may google it if they like). But who knows? I can imagine Jews in the US capable of producing such cartoons, and finding them humorous.

Secondly: as I mentioned, one of the arguments of the “Antis” is that circumcision reduces sexual pleasure. I ridiculed this, stating that every circumcised man I know would agree that sex is a highly plenty pleasurable activity even in our “mutilated” state. But in the name of intellectual honesty and accuracy, I must add that Rambam says the identical thing: in the chapters on ta’amei hamitzvot in Guide for the Perplexed, he writes that one of the reasons for circumcision is to reduce sexual pleasure and thereby (supposedly) reduce temptations to sins of arayot and “violent concupiscience.” But, unlike the SF advocates for its abolition, he uses this as an argument in favor of the practice; as a thinker whose ideal human type was the philosopher, who lives entirely in the realm of mind and spirit, Maimonides sought to reduce involvement in corporeality to an absolute minimum (see Guide III.49).

Interestingly, a prominent scholar of American Jewry wrote me that: a) he thinks the chance of the law passing is slim; b) that it is almost certainly unconstitutional; c) one good thing that may come out of it is that Jews and Muslims will make common cause around this issue.

The Antis argue that the proposed law is nevertheless constitutional because “babies have no religion.” Indeed, in our sources (Mishnah Kiddushin 1.7 and the Bavli there at 29a), brut milah is described as mitzvat ha-ben al ha-av—that is, “commandments pertaining to the son incumbent upon the father”—in this case, to introduce him into the Abrahamic covenant. The underlying assumption is that there is such a thing as organic, natural religious communities, and that it is normal, accepted, and expected that parents will initiate and raise their children in their own faith community. The argument of the “Antis” is based on a very different understanding of the nature of religion, rooted in their radically individualistic view of society: society is composed only of individuals, without such a thing as community, and that religion is a purely private matter of personal, inner choice—a definition that may fit some, but by no means all, schools within Christianity, but certainly not Judaism.

,P>Again, the opposition to circumcision may be inspired in part by the analogy to female circumcision, described by the same word, practiced in many Arab and African countries, and the justifiable horror felt at that practice. The latter is a real mutilation, a kind of “castration,” if one may use that term, which prevents a woman from experiencing sexual pleasure. One should reiterate what ought to be self-evident—that circumcision is at least as safe as any other medical procedure, that the vast majority of mohalim are highly skilled people, take necessary hygienic and safety precautions, and that, if anything, it carries many health benefits. Naturally, like any such procedure it isn’t foolproof, and on occasion one hears of tragic incidents—but than, no human activity is foolproof. This might be an argument for licensing and supervision—which by the way, exists in Israel, I don’t know about the US—but not for its abolition,

Shelah Lekha (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for May 15 2006, June 2007 (bottom), and June 2008, 2009, and 2010 (bottom).

“We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself”

While the Generation of the Desert never heard this bon mot of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, their experience clearly exemplified it. This week’s parashah exemplifies two diametrically opposed responses to fear. Moses sends twelve men—one from each tribe—to “spy out” the land of Canaan and bring back a report as to what it’s like. They report that it is a fruitful and verdant land, flowing with water, filled with all good things—milk and honey, and grape clusters so abundant that they require two men to carry them—but that it has strongly fortified cities inhabited by powerful people, “and we were like grasshoppers in their eyes, and so were we in our own eyes” (Num 13:33).

This report elicits two reactions: On the one hand: depression, anger, despair. “Why did you take us out of Egypt to die in this desert? We’ll never be able to conquer this land!” The people, immobilized by fear, sit in their tents and wept, and even contemplated returning to Egypt. Fear can paralyze people, and make them wallow in self–pity.

But there is another reaction, perhaps equally dangerous: fear can drive people to take rash, impetuous, foolhardy action. “To do or die—and damn the consequences.” One group within the people, referred to as the ma’apilim, said “Let us go up and conquer the mountain” (14:40-44) and, in an ill-considered attempt to storm the country by force, were pushed back, many of them killed, driving them into an even deeper funk. The ultimate result of these two types of fear and their loss of trust led to the punishment, that they were condemned to wander for forty years in the wilderness until a new generation emerged, until all those who had been slaves in Egypt would die, and a new generation, born in the clean air of the desert, would come of age and enter the Land.

The “Generation of the Desert”—Dor ha-Midbar—has often been invoked as a metaphor for Israeli life. According to the paradigm, the founding generation of Zionist settlement, born in the Galut, in the European Exile, who in their childhood and youth were raised with the sense of fear and submissiveness of the Exilic Jew, would begin the process of national rebirth, but the task of building a truly free nation, of forming the “New Jew,” would be the task of a new generation, born into freedom, unafraid of the Gentiles, strong and proud and masculine, would create the new, non-Galut mentality.

Tom Segev, in his book 1967, about the Six-Day War and how it shaped Israel in years to come, discusses the distinction between the “Jews”—the older, European-born generation who sat in the government, men like Levi Eshkol and Pinhas Sapir and Abba Even, who tended to be cautious and were constantly askinmg what the wyrld would say—and the “Tzabarim”—the native-born generation who ran the Army, men like Yitzhak Rabin and Yigael Allon and Moshe Dayan—who tended to be brash and more certain of their own ability to determine things.

But from where I sit today, in 2011, things don’t look so simple. The Jewish people suffers from deep traumas—most notably from the Holocaust, but also from two thousand years of persecution. Once you scratch the surface of Israel’s political culture, you find deep-seated fears playing a role alongside rational, pragmatic, realistic strategic thinking—even on the part of those purported to be clear-eyed strategic geniuses. Rather than integrating military might and the threat of force, as a last resort, with intelligent, proactive diplomacy and with building alliances in a difficult region and a difficult world, Israel seems to be withdrawing more and more into a fortress mentality. If “the Generation of the Desert” were at times guilty of excessive caution, the “Generation of the State” and their successors often seem more like the Ma’apilim—impetuous, filled with bravado, so-called diplomats insulting ambassadors from friendly nations so as to drive them into the arms of our enemies—and all this in the name of so-called “Jewish pride,” or excused with the mantra that “Anyway the world is against us”— as if that somehow vindicates our position. (Again, all this with the usual reservations that the Arabs are not easy adversaries, and have their own deeply rooted cultural neuroses and dogmas that are profound obstacles to peace)

The Circumcision Bruhaha in San Francisco

One of the proposals to appear on the ballot in the forthcoming municipal elections in San Francisco concerns the banning of all circumcision prior to the age of 18. Off the cuff, it seems to me that such a law, if passed, would be blatantly unconstitutional, as it prohibits a well-established religious practice. Of course, on the practical level, I imagine that young families wishing to make a brit milah for their newborn sons could do so easily enough by going across the bay, north to Marin county, or down the peninsula outside the city limits (much as Jews living in those European countries which ban shehitah import their meat across the border)-- but in principle the idea that such a measure could even be entertained anywhere in the United States, founded as a bastion of religious liberty, is very disturbing.

But while the effect of such a law would be anti-Judaic, it is not clear that it is motivated by anti-Semitism in any traditional sense. San Francisco is well-known for its so-called super-liberal culture. But in point of fact, this measure is anything but liberal. Essentially, it is imposing the values of a particular group on the entire population: in this case, the underlying value is the radical autonomy of the individual, including his supposed right not to have his body altered without his mature consent, including what has hitherto been considered parental prerogative. In addition, the anti-circumcisionists claim that the practice prevents a man from enjoying the maximal sexual pleasure of which he would otherwise be capable (funny: I’ve engaged in sexual relations most of my adult life, and I never noticed that I wasn’t enjoying it); the philosophical implication being that sexual pleasure is a right of the highest order. On the other hand, this measure would deny the right of another group (our own) to initiate its children in religious community, including a symbolic sealing in the flesh of belonging to that covenantal community. In short: they believe with almost totalitarian fanaticism in their particular set of values, and seem blind to the possibility that others may adhere to a world-view worthy of respect, if not agreement. Need I add that, in terms of our theme, we see here in starkest terms the hyper-individualism of current American “liberalism” vs. the traditional concept of community and the symbolic continuity among the generations, as dramatically symbolized in brit-milah.

Beha'alotkha (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for May 10 2006, June 2008, June 2009, and May 2010.

“Give Us Meat!”

As I observe almost every year around this time, in this section of Sefer Bamidbar the children of Israel, and human beings generally, are shown in their worst light. After the “high” of the Revelation at Sinai (whose commemorative holiday, Shavuot, always falls shortly before the reading of these sections), the people begin to murmur, complain, and even openly rebel against Moses and his leadership. These chapters are among the most significant ones in the Torah for the study of relations between the individual and the community: on the one hand, for the behavior of masses of men, providing case studies of how each individual often loses his own sense of judgment and even of ethics when caught up in a kind of mass hysteria; on the other hand, for the light shed on the behavior of individual leaders charged with leading the people—Moshe Rabbenu and his partners: Aaron, Joshua, the elders, et al.

The causes for the murmurings and complaints gradually grow over these three parshiyot, from trivial to weighty. Here, in Numbers 11, the complaint is one of simple boredom with the food. To paraphrase: We’re sick and tired of eating nothing but manna, day after day. They did not confront real hunger, or any other form of real need; their basic needs were all miraculously provided: nourishment, through the manna that fell every day (except Shabbat, for which special provision was made through the descent of a double portion on Friday); their clothing and shoes never wore out but were miraculously preserved in good condition; God protected them from serpents, scorpions, wild animals, marauders, and other dangers of desert life. The manna itself, according to one midrash, assumed a variety of flavors (and perhaps textures): it was even more versatile than tofu or textured soybean protein! And yet, perhaps because the people had nothing to do—they did no labor, they stayed mostly in one place, traveling only on occasion (42 encampments over a 40–year interval, the majority of these during the first and last year)—they had ample time to mull over the smallest details of their existence which weren’t to their liking. And what is more basic than food? In a verse pregnant with irony, they complain: we remember all the spicy and tasty foods we ate in Egypt “free” (Num 11:5)—forgetting the hardships and indignities and suffering and exhaustion of their servitude.

But there was more to it than that. This chapter vividly describes their primitive, almost primordial desire for meat, specifically. “The riffraff among them desired a desire” (התאוו תאוה; v. 4). There is a sheer physicality involved in the act of eating flesh which does not exist in the same way with other kinds of food (Ironically, quail is one of the leanest, smallest birds, perhaps one-quarter the size of the average chicken). Elsewhere, too, the Bible clearly expresses this perception of flesh as an object of ta’avah. In Deut 12:20-28, in describing the special arrangements to be made for slaughtering meat in non-cultic setting once the people are settled throughout the Land and it is too far to travel to the altar in Temple whenever they want to eat meat, the wording used is “for your soul desires/lusts to eat meat (כי תאוה נפשך לאכול בשר).” While there are many kinds of food that may be “mouth-watering” and which people greatly desire to eat—perhaps fresh-baked bread, or chocolate, or juicy summer fruits, or corn on the cob dripping with butter—there is a kind of lust for meat that is somehow different from this, more basic, even, if I may put it thus, closer to the savage and instinctive within mankind—arguably, second in intensity only to sexual desire. (In my yeshiva days, I remember some boys who would periodically travel to the nearest city just to eat “steak.”) As the other side of the coin, there is a perception, a stereotype of non-meat eaters as somehow more ethereal, more spiritual, almost ascetic, than others, having rejected what seems to many a fundamental need.

I do not want to engage too much in a diatribe on behalf of vegetarianism, particularly as I am myself a carnivore, but it is interesting, also, that the blessings recited over food in Jewish imply a very definite structure: animal products—meat, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, etc.—are simply Shehakol: “that everything was created at His word.” By contrast, there is great differentiation among foods derived from vegetation, suggesting that the ideal diet is centered around grain, fruits, and vegetables—very different from the (until recently) traditional American flesh-centered diet. If they wanted to, Hazal could have formulated a special blessing for eating flesh, perhaps based upon Gen 9:2-3, “who has given us all living things to eat.” That they did not do so says something.

Might there also be a gender differentiation here: in ancient times, men were the hunters and trappers, while women were the gardeners, tillers of the earth and keepers pf the fire, the first cooks and bakers. Note the male ritual around roasting meat at a barbeque. I found myself thinking about all this recently while seeing an ad on TV around Yom ha-Atzmaut (the meat-eater’s holiday par excellence!): the meat packer’s association was pushing the idea of buying meat using the most primitive Hebrew imaginable: “Adom adom basar basar tari tari (roughly translated as: “Very red, very meaty, very fresh”), followed by the statement, “To be Israeli means to love eating meat!” (!)

A niece of mine, an anthropologist whose expertise is Chinese culture, once explained to me the meaning of sexual abstinence in Buddhist and Hindu monasticism. Unlike Christianity, in which this is related to a sense of innate sin connected with sexuality, and in which a certain moral superiority is attached to virginity and chastity, in Far Eastern cultures the avoidance of carnality is a prerequisite for the more refined consciousness required for spirituality and meditation. And, most important: sexual chastity and avoidance of eating meat go hand-in-hand, as expressions of intense engagement in carnality (as suggested by the root meaning of the word: carnos=flesh)

A few words about leadership in this parashah. At one point, when besieged by the people’s complaints, Moses addresses God with words whose purport is: “What do you want from me! Am I this people’s nursemaid!“ (Num 11:11-12). In this passage, I see Moses as a rarefied spiritual or intellectual type who prefers to be elsewhere, prefers contemplating Gods sublime infinity, rather than deal with the petty, almost infantile demands of the mob.

This dovetails with what we discussed in our study for Shavuot: the gap between Moses, the teacher and leader, who is the unique individual on an unparalleled level of spirituality, who alone apprehended in full the true nature of the One God, and the vague, cloudy experience of the masses of the people. The distinction made by Rambam is germane: between “intellectives” (‘aql)—i.e., philosophical truths, such as those concerning the nature of God—and conventional and moral truths (numussiyya), needed for the common weal and the smooth functioning of human society. In Maimonides’ scheme of things, the former are clearly far superior and more sublime, while the latter at times seem little more than a “necessary evil.”

Needless to say, there are other viewpoints within Judaism, in which the pursuit of the just and righteous society, as an expression or imitation of God’s compassion and lovingkindness (“the second tablets”) is far more important, and takes precedence over individual experience, however sublime and elevated.

Shavuot (Individual & Community)

Two Conceptions of Sinai

For more teachings on Shavuot, see the archive to this blog for May 2006, May 2007, June 2008, June 2009, and May 2010.

Shavuot: the festival of Revelation, Ma’amad Har Sinai—that great day when the entire Jewish people stood “as one man, with one heart,” at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. This event is the central moment, the formative paradigm of Judaism. Midrashim and other accounts describing Sinai in terms of the entire people undergoing this transcendent experience are so numerous, so widespread, that one cannot even begin to cite them—and they are so familiar that there is need to do so. To quote just a few representative sources: “’And the people camped opposite the mountain’— with one heart and one mind” (Rashi on Exod 129:2); “And all the people answered together, ‘We shall do and we shall hear’” (Exod 19:8).

Moreover, Ma’amad Har Sinai was not only experienced by the entire people, but is seen as the paradigmatic, constitutive moment in the covenant of the entire people with God. Thus, one of the aggadot about Sinai focuses specifically upon Moses as representative of human beings in all their weakness. It is told that, when Moses ascended on high to receive the Torah, the angels challenged him with the words, “What business has one born of woman among us?” He answered that, precisely because human beings are mortal, and have bodily needs and human passions and emotions, they need the Torah, which is specifically directed towards the human condition (b. Shabbat 88b-89a; see HY VIII: Shavuot [=Rashi], for text, translation, and discussion).

R. Yehudah Halevi, in his Sefer ha-Kuzari—perhaps the classic work of Jewish apologetics of all time, in which he presents arguments and polemics for the truth of “a despised religion”—invokes the Sinai experience as proof of the truth of Torah. He argues that no other event in human history was authenticated by 600,000 eye witnesses (see, esp., Kuzari I.89-95).

There is an idea in Jewish mysticism (first articulated by the 11th–12th century Spanish philosopher Abraham bar Hiyya in his Megalleh Amukot) that the 600,000 Jews who left Egypt and stood at Sinai correspond to the 600,000 letters of the Torah, so that the soul of each Jew is somehow uniquely connected in its root to a particular letter in the Torah (this theory is only partly confuted by the fact that there are in fact only about 315,000 letters in the Torah).

The Talmud (b. Pesahim 68b), in discussing whether festive days ought to be devoted to study of Torah or to the pleasures of eating and drinking (concluding, rather sagely, that the best course is to divide it “half for God and for yourselves”), notes that “All agree that Shavuot, the day that Torah was given to Israel” must be a time of bodily rejoicing—paradoxically, perhaps, davka because of its spiritual nature.

Finally, to quote a contemporary theologian, Michael Fishbane:

Jewish theology begins at Sinai. This is its axial moment—the occasion when, according to scripture, the people of Israel are called to accept God’s world-historical dominion and live within the framework of godliness. … For Jewish theology, there is no passage to spiritual responsibility that does not in some way cross the wilderness of Sinai and stand before the mountain of instruction. Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 46

And yet, when we turn to the Rambam—generally considered the greatest single figure of medieval Jewry, equally renowned for his great halakhic code and for his philosophic work, The Guide for the Perplexed, regarded as the definitive statement of the Judaic–Aristotelian synthesis—we find a very different picture. In his account, the people, rather than experiencing the Revelation in its full power, are depicted receiving a rather vague, clouded sense of the Divine presence, the central role being played by Moses. In three separate places, in each of the major works of his ouevre—in Guide II.33; in Mishneh Torah, Yesodei ha-Torah 7.6—8.2; and in his Introduction to Perek Helek (=Mishnah Commentary, Sanhedrin 10), 7th principle—Maimonides presents his understanding of what happened at Sinai, and of the role played therein by Moshe Rabbenu. I already discussed this in the first year of this series in an essay entitled “’And All the People Stood Against the Mountain’ vs. ‘The Prophecy of Moses our Teacher’” (HY I: Shavuot). Here I will recapitulate the central ideas, and discuss some of their implications.

The core of Maimonides’ approach is rooted in his general emphasis on the intellect as the gate to the Divine. He contends that Moses alone experienced the full force of the Divine revelation, clearly hearing the Ten Commandments; the rest of the people only heard “the voice” or “sound” (kol) of the first two commandments, and even that not as clearly articulated words. They only received a vague, indistinct sense of something overwhelming, uncanny, punctuated by awesome sounds and sights. In support of the view that the people did not have the spiritual fortitude to hear the Divine voice for more than a few moments, he quotes the verse in which they tell Moses: “You speak with God and we will listen, and let not God speak with us lest we die” (Exod 20:16). Indeed, the aggadah reinforces the idea that they only heard the first two commandments, inferring that 611 of the 613 commandments were conveyed through the intermediacy of Moses and not heard directly from God (Makkot 23b-24a).

Elsewhere, too, Rambam consistently refers to nevuato shel Moshe Rabbenu, “the prophecy of Moses our Teacher” as the source of the Torah; in various places, he enumerates those areas in which there was a qualitative difference between the prophecy of Moses and that of all the other prophets. Indeed, the reason why an epiphany before the entire people was necessary at all was to testify to the truth of Moses’ prophecy and, by extension, to the binding authority of the Torah: “Behold I come to you in the thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and that they may also believe in you forever” (Exod 19:9).

Maimonides was led to this view by his specific philosophical approach, which identifies the highest religious experience, that of prophecy, with a cognitive apprehension of the Active Intellect—and hence of necessity confined to a small elite, and even that, only after long and rigorous training.

This idea is articulated by Rambam in several other places in his work, and not only with regard to Moses. Thus, Abraham, as the paradigmatic founder of the faith, is depicted as discovering the truth of monotheism after a long process of deep thought and questioning (Hil. Avodat Kokhavim 1.3; see HY V: Lekh lekha). In similar light, he describes the candidate for prophecy as combining great wisdom, sterling moral qualities, an iron will and control of his impulses. If “such a person enters into Pardes and contemplates these profound and remote matters… withdrawing from the society of the majority of men,” it may happen that “the Holy Spirit will rest upon him” (Yesodei ha-Torah 7.1; see HY V: Vayigash & Shemot [=Rambam]). Similar motifs appear in his discussion of the individual who loves God without any ulterior motif (Hil. Teshuvah, Ch. 10). Thus, a process of profound thinking—i.e., philosophizing—is depicted as the source of religious truth.

I noted in the past that Maimonides was a mystic, albeit not a Kabbalist. But he was a mystic of a very special kind: one who strived for Amor dei intellectualis, that love of God that can only be reached through the intellect, after a long process of thorough–going clarification and rigorous scrutiny of ones theological concepts, so as to attain a clear understanding what one is talking about, to avoid believing that a figment or projection of ones imagination so God. Hence, we have his strict discussion of the meaning of unity, his insistence upon careful definition of terms, his negative doctrine of attributes—all these in order to avoid any similarity between God and beings in the “sub-lunar sphere.” Thus, anything that smacks of personality, emotion, etc. is anathema to him. (As against this, see in recent years the learned discussion of the diametrically opposed view in the Bible, and especially the important book by Yohanan Muffs, The Personhood of God.) Hence, it ought to be stressed at this point that Rambam’s insistence that knowledge of God must be intellectually and philosophically grounded is not mere elitism, in the negative sense, but an integral part of his world-view.

Having said all this: how are we to deal with Maimonides’ approach to revelation and, by extension, to religious experiences generally? What are we to do with human differences: in intellect, in mental capacity, and in temperament? If Moses alone experienced the great epiphany at Sinai, where does this leave for ordinary mortals, and what is left of Ma’mad Har Sinai being experienced by all of Israel? And what about mysticism? Can one reach God through an emotional or intuitive path? William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, seems to think so (although he of courser writes as a phenomenologist and a psychologist clarifying and classifying human experience, rather than as a theologian venturing to evaluate the ontological reality of what these people have experienced).

My own tendency is to view “knowledge of God” in broader terms, as not only intellectual or philosophical, but as including elements that are more emotional or intuitive in nature? I have in mind here Hasidism and Mitnaggedism as two different approaches within Judaism, as reflecting different temperaments—the one elitist, the other more democratic. At times, profound religious insights may be gained and taught by very simple people. I think, for example, of an approach almost diametrically opposed to that of Rambam—namely, that of R. Nahman of Braslav. In his story “The Wise man and the Simpleton” (Ma’aseh be-Hakham va Tam), the point is that a certain utter simplicity and naivety is not only called for, but even preferable, in the religious life.

Perhaps one might argue something as follows: God is so transcendent to all humans, that differences in intellect and rational understanding pale before His transcendence and utter unknowability. This is a lesson that some of us over-educated and overly cosmopolitan urban Jews need to heed. Indeed, at times, a person on the near-genius level, filled with erudition, may make a conscious choice for the life of emotion and of a kind of adhering to a few basic, simple truths. Such is my reading, for example, of the late Rav Shlomo Carlebach. On the other hand, there may be great minds in this world who are morally bankrupt and who, alongside their insightful and at times significant contributions to their own specific fields, may be utterly cynical and debased in their personal lives, using their superior mental powers and quickness of mind to exploit and manipulate others for their own selfish ends.

Perhaps we can resolve the conflict between the two ways by saying that the experience of God and of His Presence touches upon human faculties that go beyond both the emotional and the intellectual: the “spiritual,” what Halevi calls “the Divine matter” (inyan ha-elohi), which may be experienced in diverse ways. There are passages where Rambam himself seems to allude to such experiences.

One might suggest the following synthesis: Whether or not the people of Israel clearly heard the words Anokhi and lo yihyeh lekha (“I am the Lord…” and “you shall not have…”) does not really matter: the overwhelming experience of the numinous, of the divine presence, in and of itself, was the “Anokhi” experience; the source of the strongest, surest and most certain knowledge that “I am the Lord your God.” Likewise, the concomitant fear of God, verging on sheer terror and panic in the face of His overwhelming Presence, was, existentially, the source of “you shall have no other gods before me”: they felt the quintessential fear of Him that is the root of all the negative commandments, and first and foremost the prohibition of idolatry.

I would like to quote in this context an idea propounded by the Christian theologian Jacques Maritain. In one of his books, Maritain explains that the philosophical proofs of God’s existence—he speaks particularly of the epistemological and the argument from design—are not only for philosophers, but have their counterpart on another level for ordinary people. The same arguments established by philosophers with rigorous, closely reasoned, step-by-step argumentation, correspond to basic truths that may be intuitively grasped by ordinary people. The philosopher may demonstrate logically why every existing thing must have a prior cause, working back logically until he reaches the First Cause; the simple man looks up at the starry sky, or at the brooding beauty of a deep forest or of a stark desert landscape, and bursts into praise of the Creator: “How great are your works, O Lord!” The philosopher presents the epistemological argument: the fact that we can conceive of God at all proves at He must exist; the simple man feels faith in his heart, directly. And so on. The same holds true for Sinai. The people tangibly felt the Presence and Glory of God, giving birth to a kind of intuitive, inferential faith, which led to Anokhi, the acceptance of His sovereignty—and from there to the acceptance of all the mitzvot they were taught by Moses their teacher. With these words, I will conclude, and wish all a renewed sense of the awe and grandeur of that mysterious day at Sinai long ago. Hag Sameah!

Naso - Shabbat Kallah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for May 5 2006, May 2007, June 2008 (scroll down), June 2009, and May 2010.

On Nazirites and Wanton Women

This week’s parashah is one of the longest, richest, and most varied in the Torah. I will touch here briefly upon two or three of the subjects which are most fully presented there. First, the law of the Nazirite (Numbers 6:1-21): on the face of it, this law is highly enigmatic. The Torah does not explain why a person might wish to become a Nazirite, or what purpose might be served by these particular rules, but simply jumps right into the laws governing this state—he is to refrain from drinking wine, or anything that comes from the grape; he is to avoid ritual contamination through contact with the dead; and, most strikingly, the visible symbol of his vow, he is to grow his hair long—and the procedure to be followed when it ends. But upon examining the etymology of the term nazir, or the Hebrew root nz”r from which it is derived, we find that it means to dedicate or consecrate oneself. Thus, the opening verse: איש כי יפליא לנדור נדר נזיר להזיר לה', means, quite simply, “When a person makes an extraordinary vow as a Nazirite, to consecrate himself to the Lord.” This same root appears, for example, in the word naizer, used to refer to the holy oil with which the High Priest is anointed in Lev 21:12 (the word also has the connotation of a crown, the symbol of a person beginning dedicated to a particular state). Thus, the Nazirite is an individual who seeks a more intense kind of religious life: who wishes to dedicate himself wholly to God. He is moved by an inner impulse towards a life of purity and holiness, over and above the norms required of everyone in the covenantal community. The restrictions he takes upon himself render him distinct from others, from the mainstream of society. In terms of our theme: the nazir as an individual does not live outside of the community, but is in some ways differentiated from it while living within it (albeit during the First Temple period there was a sect of Nazirites, known as the Rekhabites, who seem to have established their own separatist communities).

Although we do not have Nazirites today—the specific rules governing them seem so distant from our cultural milieu as to be virtually incomprehensible—the psychological-spiritual phenomenon as such is not unfamiliar. We live in an age of religious revival, and it is not uncommon to encounter individuals—most often younger people—who strive for a more intense religious life, to make the meticulous fulfillment of halakhah and the service of God the center of their lives. In Roman Catholicism, in Buddhism and in Hinduism, this impulse has traditionally been channeled into monasticism. In Judaism, these clear-cut rubrics do not exist—among other reasons, because we frown on celibacy and the abandoning of family life. What I have in mind is at times related to what has become known as the “ba’al teshuvah: movement, in the sense that it involves adopting greater religious observance than one’s environment, but it goes beyond that. It is marked by a singular intensity and enthusiasm, at times in ways that may seem strange and bizarre; a times it may involve joining pietist communities of various sorts—Hasidic circles, yeshivot, etc,—while for others it may involve an idiosyncratic, personal pietism within their regular life situation.

The feeling given by this parashah, and by the aggadot about the Nazir, is that they are viewed with a certain ambivalence: on the one hand, their single-minded devotion is praiseworthy; on the other hand, there is the counsel of Kohelet, “Do not be overly righteous… why should you be desolate?” (Eccles 7:16). The norm, one might even say the ideal, is found in life within community, not in either individual withdrawal from society, nor in ascetic communities. Interestingly, Israel Knohl and other scholars have argued that the earliest known monastic community, at least in the Western monotheistic tradition, from which early Christianity took a certain inspiration, was that of the Qumran Judaean Desert sect, which split away from Second Temple Judaism. Thus, Biblical Nazirites and medieval Christian monks may ultimately share more than just the Hebrew term nezirim.

The opposite extreme from this is found in the passage that immediately precedes the law of the Nazirite (Num 5:11-31): namely, licentious indulgence in carnal pleasure, the abandonment of all normative constraints on sexual behavior, and betrayal of the sanctity of the marriage bed for the embrace of an Other. This chapter describes the case of a woman suspected of adultery, the Sotah, and the “trial by ordeal “ she must undergo. I will “bracket” the very real issues presented by this chapter: namely, (1) the “double standard” implied in the woman’s adultery being considered far more grave than that of the man; and (2) that the practice of such an ordeal implies total faith, nay, certainty of Divine intervention (for which reason the Rabbis of the tannaitic age abolished this practice). For us, I would read this chapter, first and foremost, as reflecting the enormous importance attached to the marital bond, and the horror and abhorrence the Torah expresses towards the violation of its sanctity. We live in an age in which casual sex is widely accepted in many circles, and even acts of marital infidelity are regarded more as “misdemeanors” than as “crimes” or “sins”—and certainly are not regarded with the horror implied by this chapter.

These two lengthy and detailed legal passages each form the Scriptural basis for an entire tractate of the Mishnah/Talmud. They are followed by a short but very sweet passage, the Priestly Blessing: three short, poetic verses with which the priests are to bless the people daily, blessing them with assurances of Divine abundance, protection, grace, favor, and peace. Interestingly, small amulets containing this text have been found by archaeologists, confirming its great antiquity.

Further Thoughts on the Sotah

I wrote earlier that our sexual mores are not so strict as they were in ancient times. But I must correct myself: male jealousy is just as virulent, just as violent a factor in human life, as of old. Every year, some thirty to forty women are killed in the State of Israel by their husbands, ex-husbands or lovers—and the numbers are no doubt (proportionately) analogous in the United States and in other places. In many cases, the man has no “justification” for such jealousy, as he had no formal “claim” on her fidelity—but somehow, the idea of another man enjoying intimacies with one whom they continue to think of as “their” woman can drive a certain kind of man crazy and push him over the threshold to murderous violence.

What does the law of Sotah do? Quite simply: rather reaching for his knife or dagger or, in modern times, his gun, the jealous husband must bring her to the Temple and the kohen. The elaborate ceremony, with its numerous stages, may serve to “cool him off.” In any event, the ordeal itself is intended, hopefully, to vindicate her innocence, and reestablish domestic harmony. As our Sages put it: “ Great is peace, for the Holy Name of God is erased in the water for the sake of peace!”

Shabbat Kallah

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Kallah, “The Sabbath of the Bride,” alluding to the numerous midrashim, including interpretations of Song of Songs, in which the People of Israel is seen as the bride of the Almighty, whom He wed, so to speak, at Mount Sinai. In some communities it is customary for the rabbi to deliver a major discourse on this Shabbat relating to the themes of the festival of Shavuot, the receiving of the Torah, etc. This year I will depart from my usual practice, and present a study of some of these ideas in our Shavuot issue, and not this Shabbat.

Bamidbar (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion (including Shabbat Kallah and Yom Yerushalayim), see the archive to my blog for April 28 2006, May 2007, May 8 2008, May 2009, and May 2010 (to be posted)

The Four-Square Camp

After over a month during which these pages have been mostly devoted to digressions, albeit important ones (on Zionism, socialism, Pesah, etc.), we now return to our central theme of the individual and community.

I think of the Book of Numbers, or Bamidbar, whose reading begins this week, as the book of the people of Israel—not of Moses, not of the Law, not of the pre-history of mankind and of the family saga of the fathers of the nation, but of the people per se: its wanderings through the desert, its murmurings and dissatisfactions and rebellions, and its preparations to enter and settle the Promised Land. This week’s parashah is dominated by the image of the twelve tribes of Israel: the census of its numbers, the names of its leaders, and its orderly arrangement, whether marching or encamping. The Sanctuary is located at the center; the clans of the Levites, each with its own leaders and tasks, flank it on all four sides; and, in the outer circle, are the twelve tribes, in a symmetrical, stylized, four-square formation.

What does all this mean? What does this image imply about society? I read this as an ideal vision, in which each person, each beit av (extended nuclear family, perhaps spanning three generations or more), each clan (mishpaha), and each tribe has its own fixed place. Later on, in the Book of Joshua (Chapters 13-19; cf. Chs. 21-22 for the division of the Levitic cities and the special case of Reuven, Gad and half-Manasseh), the Land itself is divided among the tribes, with the tribal portions subdivided in turn among clans, families, and “homestead” units (nahalah; the source of the term hitnahalut) of each individual.

Thus, in striking contrast to modern society—in which each individual seeks his own destiny, his own future, is often driven by ambition to be a “success” and to “rise above” his origins; a society in which anybody can become anything—the image here is of well-structured, stable society, in which each person has a place, and knows exactly where he belongs. (See also the eschatological vision in Ezekiel 48, where the Land is divided into twelve horizontal east-west strips.) It is in many ways reminiscent of what we know of medieval European society—but unlike medieval society, here there is a kind of primitive egalitarianism, in which, at least in theory, inequalities caused by fate, talent, diligence, or lack thereof, are periodically corrected by the institutions of shemitah and yovel (sabbatical and jubilee years). The desert, in which there was no great private wealth for anyone to covet in the first place, thus served as the model for the future. (This was also the inspiration for the austere, egalitarian vision of the Rekhabites; see Jeremiah 35.)

Reflections on Numbers

(No pun on the English title of the book intended in the above heading) In the last three parshiyot of Vayikra, the number seven plays a key-role: in the laws of Shabbat and festivals, in the sabbatical and jubilee years, in the counting of seven times seven days and years; and in the punishments threatened in the concluding admonition of Lev 26. In this section the key number is twelve: the twelve tribes arranged in symmetrical camps around the sacred center of the portable Sanctuary.

I have heard it said that the human mind can grasp intuitively only the first four digits; for more than that, one perceives a group of objects as the sum of several smaller groups. Be that as it may, the first four numbers have very definite meanings:

1 represents pure, simple unity: the perfection of the thing itself. Maimonides discourses extensively on the unity of God, and on the special philosophical meaning of His Oneness.

2 represents polarity or contrast: yin/yang; positive/negative; male/female; black/white. The micro-electronic coding that underlies the computers so ubiquitous in our culture, called “machine language,” is ultimately constructed on the two basic position of any electronic impulse: on/off.

3 represents dynamics, the principle of growth. Hegel’s famous triad of thesis-antithesis-synthesis is built upon threes; three is the basic number of birth and family (Mommy, Daddy and Me). A question: What intuitive idea is innate in the number three that led Christian theology to build itself around the concept of the Trinity?

4 represents stability: the four-legs of a table. Four is a kind of harmonious multiplicity: duality and polarity raised to the next level. We thus have the four winds or compass points; the four worlds of the Kabbalah (and, as Huston Smith contends, the four-tiered model of reality is found in virtually all world-views throughout history—with the glaring exception of modern, materialistic empiricism); the four levels of exegesis, in both Judaism and Christianity; the four symmetric sides of certain kinds of Hindu and Buddhist mandalas; etc.

These four are the basic building blocks of all higher numbers, including their symbolic meanings. (At various times I have elaborated here upon the notion that Rosh Hashanah is the festival of threes, while Pesah as constructed around fours.) Turning from these to the numbers mentioned earlier: seven, the sacred number of Judaism, represents the dynamism of three raised to the next level: seven is twice three, plus one to make it an odd number, and thus preserve the element of dynamism. Seven represents, if you will, the dynamism of the Divine world—the seven days of Creation, and the seven lower sefirot , which are the building blocks of creation. Twelve is the three multiplied by four: thus, twelve is the number of stability raised to a higher level, a kind of fullness and completeness: the twelve months of the year and the signs of the zodiac, and the twelve tribes, which are the basis for the Jewish people.

From Firstborn to Levites

This week’s portion (Num 3:40-51) describes how the Levites are taken “instead of” the first-born of the Israelites to serve in the Sanctuary (in auxiliary duties to those of the priesthood, the kohanim). This is done by a combination of census, in which the 22,000 Levites substitute for 22,000 firstborn on a one-to-one basis, complemented by a monetary “redemption” for the remaining firstborn ( a kind of foreshadowing of Pidyon ha-Ben, the redemption of the first-born with a silver coin that is practiced to this day).

What does all this mean? In medieval Christian Europe, it was customary for one of the sons—I think specifically the second–born—to go into the priesthood. Here, we find the substitution of an entire tribe, who are without a “portion or inheritance in the land”—i.e., real property, to serve in the Temple. I’m not sure whether this expresses a tendency towards greater or lesser hierarchy, elitism and emphasis on birth; it’s hard to say. In any event, in actuality the firstborn never served as priests or religious officiants.

What we do know is that throughout the Bible, almost from the beginning, the idea of a special role fir the first–born is repeatedly upset and challenged. Time after time, in the patriarchal age and later, those who are not first-born play a central role, superior to their elder brothers: from Jacob and Joseph, through Moses, David, and many others.

Behukotai (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to my blog for April 20 2006, and May 2007, 2008, 2009, and May 2010 (to be posted).

Sefer Vayikra: A Brief Hadran

Even though this year the two concluding parshiyot of the Book of Leviticus are read separately, they are integrally related. I recently started learning (again), with a hevruta, selected portions of Ramban’s Torah Commentary. He sees Behukotai specifically as a continuation of Behar, or perhaps, contrariwise, Behar as a prelude to the latter. He reads the admonitions and blessings of Chapter 26 as specifically relate to Behar, which is a codex of laws about what to do when entering, and living upon, the Land. Indeed, he reads Vayikra as a whole as related to the situation of preparing for entering land, and adds that, had the tribes not sinned with the affair of the Spies, they would have entered immediately, and the Torah would have concluded with Leviticus {that’s how I read him, anyway}. Just as the construction of the Sanctuary serves as a festive, solemn conclusion to Exodus, with the Divine presence dwelling therein as it dwelled on Mount Sinai, so too do these chapters serve as a kind of solemn coda to the book of what he calls the “Covenant of the Tent of Meeting.”

Two important literary features linking Behar and Behukotai: first, the use of the number seven at the end of each section of the admonition: “If thus far you do not listen to Me, but walk with me crookedly {?}, I will continue to admonish you seven times over for your sins” (Lev 26:18, 21, 23-24, 28, with variations). Seven is also a key number in the preceding chapters, in both Emor and Behar: in the Shabbat and weekly cycle; in the festivals; and in the sabbatical and jubilee year, in cycles of 7 and 7 x 7 years. Second, the verses of blessing here end with the words, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt, and broke the yoke of your bondage, and I made you to walk upright” (Lev 26:13, which seems to echo similar verses in Behar dealing with slavery and the Exodus (25:38, 42, 55).

“If You Go with Me in Qeri

A key word in the Tokheha, the solemn exhortation about future punishments which forms the center of last week’s parashah, is qeri. Repeatedly, we are told: “If you walk with Me be-qeri, then I will walk with you be-qeri, trying you seven times over for all your transgressions.”

But what does this word mean? The usual meaning is “by chance,” or “through happenstance”—that is, not treating the covenant with God and His commandments in a serious manner, but seeing them as something which one can be done casually, as the mood or whim possesses one. Or, more seriously, a view of the world as governed by random chance, as ultimately governed by chaos and meaninglessness (see Rambam, Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 1.4)—all this before modern “Chaos theory.” Or may it be something more deliberate: the RSV translation renders it as “contrariwise,” and the NJPS goes one step further, translating it, rather strangely to my mind, “with hostility.” The matter needs further thought and study. One thing is for certain: when the Tanakh uses a given term repeatedly, as a leitmotif, it is most decidedly not by chance.

More on Socialism and Capitalism: An Open Letter

Last year our issue for Behar-Behukotai was devoted to an essay in honor of my mother’s 25th yahrzeit entitled “Communism, Capitalism, and What’s In Between.” This elicited a number of reader reactions; in particular, one reader from the United States made some lengthy comments. As I never answered these in a timely manner, I have decided to reopen the discussion when this parashah came around this year, in the form of an open letter. Hence, this number will be longer than usual, and somewhat meandering, covering as it does numerous subjects related to this issue. However, I trust that readers will bear with me, as I consider the subject of great importance.

JS wrote:

What does Behar tell us about the best form of government, the best economic system? It certainly expresses what might be called a collectivist Utopian concept as does [Rav Yitzhak Breuer in his book] Nahaliel. But it has to face who we are. I remember a comment by a Hungarian professor I knew years ago, who said that if you have ten hungry people and one loaf of bread you must be a socialist (he meant a Communist), otherwise you would kill each other. But his then junior professor (who later became president of Hungary, at least for a while) said to me that socialism requires a capitalistic back to ride on. The first was a Jew, the second not.

I think experience has shown us that a free market system, including a global market, provides a better living. The Russians showed us that, as does any comparison to the “old days,” the benefits of materialism. We do live better than when I grew up. This is not an unbridled benefit, but is a benefit, that is for sure. We live better and the government doesn't oppress us the way the Communists did. We might make mistakes, but they were our choices, not ones dictated by the all-powerful, all-knowing BIG BROTHER. My experience in life has taught me that people are not always better off when the state does it. Capitalism, even the dog-eat-dog type with its corruption, can't compare to the corruption and incompetence of a modern state, even a social-democratic one, let alone a Communist state.

You end up arguing for a European social welfare state, singling out the most antisemitic Northern European countries, the Nordic states, rather than the hopeless Mediterranean Greece, Portugal, etc., that have spent themselves into poverty. Of course, before the Norwegians found offshore oil (done by the capitalist oil companies), they were very poor farmers who drank a lot. I don't go for these countries. They don't reproduce themselves and have large numbers of Muslim workers, that generates people like Le Pen in France and Haider in Austria. …

[On the other hand,] I could also tell you about my growing up dirt poor in [the Midwest] where, in the ‘30s the only Communists I knew (Arbeiter Ring people) ran a small tailor shop and became wealthy when they bought shares in a company run by [a relative]. To be sure I did meet many NY communists in college, and they were something!

In a more recent letter, he adds:

Two added thoughts. I bought hearing aids from a private hearing aid specialist. I paid her and she has given me wonderful after-sale service. This caused me to speculate: suppose we had a single payer system as do so many Western welfare states. Suppose they allowed me get a hearing aid. Would the post-sale service be as thoughtful and comprehensive at the one I received from my private audiologist?

Of course there are variables. I suspect that a thoughtful and caring state audiologist might give as good service as my private audiologist. But experience with state people has not always been so good. Much may depend on the budget and resources. She might not have the time to do what my private audiologist does for me. My audiologist values my business and she will get more customers if she treats me well and I tell my friends about her. The power of the profit motive…

Another item must be added to the mix. Under a single payer system, were I lacking funds I might not be able to afford a hearing aid or I would have to wait six months for one. Add to this the fact that I can, under certain circumstances, take a tax deduction so that my loss is paid for partly by the state. See what a tiny issue exposes!

My second point relates to a talk I heard at my school yesterday. The lecturer has written a book about victim's rights. My interest was in part piqued by my brother's loss of his only son to two savage murderers. The lecturer was very sharp but she lost me when she said the needed action required government action and money! I could see some role for the state, such as the nature of the trial and punishment, but with public entities in dire financial state where would the money come from for what she wanted? Much of the psychological help she wanted could be done by private organizations, such as the church or other nonprofits. But the State!

Dear JS,

Allow me to begin by summarizing what I understand to be your main points: 1) human nature mitigates against socialism; 2) socialism, and specifically Communism, has a bad record of communism—i.e., the “Big Brother” syndrome, described so dramatically by George Orwell in his book 1984. One might add that Orwell was bitterly disappointed with Marxism, particularly as a result of his experiences fighting alongside Marxist–Communists during the Spanish Civil War of 1937 (incidentally, many American Jewish Communists fought, and some were killed, in that war). In Homage to Catalonia he describes their overly politicized behavior and non-comradely, even divisive attitude towards their non-Communist fellows-in-arms in the anti-Franco struggle. 3) Capitalism, through competition, encourages better quality, service, and more goods for everybody.

I will begin my answer with a caveat: as I have lived in the late 20th and am now living in the 21st century, I cannot approach these questions with the same idealism my parents brought to it in their youth, some eighty years ago. The world has learned some harsh and bitter lessons from the failure of the attempt at Marxian socialism in Russia and the incredible cruelty and the horrors inflicted in its name. But this does not prove, as held by Fukuyama, the eternal and unquestioned superiority of the Western liberal free-enterprise (i.e., capitalist) system. For me, the question remains open, and the quest to improve social arrangements, including the all-important economic ones, must continue, albeit in a less dogmatic fashion than in the bad old days of the CP.

Second, my own basic value position, which I am convinced is expressed in the Torah, and particularly in Parashat Behar, is that all human beings are entitled to a decent life. Your perspective seems to be that of yourself and individuals in similar situations. Your example of the hearing aid is an illuminating one: As I understand it, you are a retired professional man, living reasonably comfortably in the US, so of course you can afford superior service on the private market. But the question that concerns me is: what about the poor, those who have not had the same opportunities you enjoy? They cannot offer hearing aids at all. But, as far as I know, in social-welfare states, such things are available to all.

My starting point is the idea, which I have heard expressed by many here in Israel, that human beings, by virtue of being human, are entitled to certain basic things: health care, education, and not being left hungry or homeless without a roof over their heads. The capitalist system provides a comfortable life for many—whether a majority or a minority depends upon your perspective—but also leads to serious suffering and injustice to others, often (usually?) through no fault of their own. But my main point goes deeper than that. You present the traditional defense of the capitalist system: namely, that it provides the opportunity for the little guy to make a good life for himself, without depending too much upon others, and without the interference of what you call the “all–knowing Big Brother.” If you will, the American dream—the self-made man, the “rugged individualist,” who makes it as a small businessman, artisan, or professional. Or, to put it in a broader intellectual perspective, the basic thesis of Adam Smith: that through individuals acting out of what he called “enlightened self-interest,” things will balance out in the end; that an “invisible hand” will help bring about a decent society. My question is whether this belief, which may have been true for the 18th century mercantile society in which Smith lived, remains valid today, or whether we have entered a new era in which the old truths are no longer valid.

I hold that the world has changed drastically: the world of the old American Dream no longer exists. I submit that capitalism today is radically different today even from what it was fifty years ago, in our own childhood or youth. The change in the size and scope and range of global corporations has so greatly changed quantitatively, as to make a qualitative difference.

A few examples: the squeezing out of the small business man. Small bookstores, grocery and produce stores, restaurants, coffee shops, inns, are gradually disappearing, and are being replaced by monolithic chains, be they supermarkets, book chains, hotels, quick food chains, etc. All this, besides limiting economic opportunities for the “little guy” (who is more likely to seek a career as a “manager”), makes for a narrower, more uniform, blander culture. It also creates a large underclass of people who end up working in what are essentially menial, dead-end jobs. Instead of the small grocery store owner, who had a certain human dignity and made a moderately decent living, today there seem to be an increasing number of workers—I think of the people working in fast food chains, check-out girls in supermarkets, etc.—who receive minimum wage, and find it very difficult to meet even basic human needs. Moreover, in the absence of a national health care plan, they cannot afford decent health care, and often don’t have a decent diet either but eat a high proportion of “junk food.” All this is vividly portrayed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, a journalistic account based on the author’s own attempts to survive for a year living as these “invisible” people do.

Or, on a higher professional level, there is globalization and the “outsourcing” of jobs to India or other places where labor is cheap, and the disappearance of jobs on the middle professional level (in computers, for example, this has happened to several people I know).

On the consumer level: The concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer huge corporations enables them to behave in abusive ways towards their customers as well. For example, the cell phone companies in Israel charge huge ”exit fees” if someone is dissatisfied with the service and wants to break his contract, which typically requires that he stay with his service provider for a year-and-a-half. This of course mitigates against the classic capitalistic philosophy of free competition, but what has seems to have happened is that in many fields, because the infrastructure is so expensive (and not shared by the rival companies, as might seem reasonable) there are only a handful of big companies, which dictate more-or-less similar conditions, to their own benefit and everyone else’s detriment. But price-gauging is the least of the ills of the cell-phone industry. I have heard of cell-phone companies secretly placing huge relay devices, emitting high levels of radiation, on roofs or inside apartments in residential buildings (for example, on Rehov Tahkemoni in Mekor Barukh) where people are raising small children. Since the technology is new, no one knows exactly the health hazards are—and the companies use their economic clout to stifle unbiased research nto the dangers of cell phones. What has happened, perhaps paradoxically, is that many of the same evils people used to attribute to the all-powerful state under communism are happening with the vast global corporations, which de-facto have too powerful a role in our present economy. What I wonder is whether this isn’t the result of a certain inherent logic of the capitalist system.

Another point: we take for granted the prominence in the middle-class employment market of such fields as management, advertising, PR, marketing, etc. But all of these, sorry to say, are fields which don’t really create anything really useful that serves genuine human needs, but serve the big corporations to market and make money, to create artificial needs (including planned obsolescence, forcing the consumer to replace items more frequently than he might otherwise wish or even afford) and, to put it bluntly, engage in large scale lying and deceit, where image and illusion substitute for reality. Watch five minutes of TV advertising, any time of day or night, anywhere, and you will see what I mean.

A related point is the universal use of sex to sell—the sexy girl draped over a car, or refrigerator, or eating a container of fruit yogurt—which is taken for granted. This has contributed to what I call the hyper-sexualization of our culture, which has brought on its wake various evils—and I’m not being prudish.

Yet another disturbing change I have observed in our culture over recent decades is the decline of the humanities and other “non-useful” professions and areas of study—such as history, philosophy and literature—in the universities. Of course, these departments still exist (although in many places even that is by no means assured), and there are a certain number of bright young people who have chosen to devote their lives to these fields, but their number and importance in our general cultural life seems to be drastically declining. By the way, something similar seems to be happening to Judaic studies in the universities here in Israel, leaving the interpretation of Judaism for future generations more and more to the yeshivot and the Ultra-Orthodox, with what I find to be a narrow, a-historical and even primitive interpretation. It would appear that here, too, the profit motive is predominant, and those fields which are less likely to generate wealth, even if they offer great intellectual and spiritual challenges and satisfaction, are less popular.

By nature—dictated as they are by economic motivation—corporations tend not to be socially responsible unless forced to be—and when challenged, can afford expensive lawyers to fend off lawsuits. (Another key factor: the legal system no longer functions as an instrument of justice – one of the central ideals of Judaism – but has become an arena of largely cynical power conflicts.) A case in point is the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, with its massive environmental damage, which may take decades to recover—for which BP has paid only a small fraction. Or, on a larger and more dramatic scale: the behavior of the Republican Party (reminiscent of a fundamentalist religion denying evolution or heliocentric universe!), in stifling serious public discussion of world-wide climate change taboo, certainly within their party and certain media. Again, because the consequences of effective action runs against their economic philosophy of unfettered growth and freedom of enterprise, they foster deep intellectual dishonesty.

Another consequence of increasingly aggressive capitalism is the privatization of education. Historically, public education has served to provide an opportunity for poor but bright kids to rise in society. How many American Jews, especially of the second generation, became what they were thanks to free public education? With current trends, with partial privatization of education—that is, with the government proving only the minimum to public schools—that may not happen in the future. Kids in Tel Aviv and Ramat Hasharon and Herliyah will enjoy good schools, while those in Netivot and Yeroham and Mizeh Ramon will perpetuate poverty and ignorance and unemployment for another generation.

As for your comment about the social–democratic states of Northern Europe: their present alleged anti-Semitism (or anti-Israel sentiment) is irrelevant to the validity of their economic system (unless you claim there is some sort of cause and effect between the two, which I don’t see). By the way, Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries had a relatively good record in the Holocaust; their present anti-Israel position is largely in response to the influx of Muslim immigrants, combined with the general atmosphere in much of Europe. As for our question, the crucial issue is this: a welfare state requires a major revamping in the tax structure. People must be prepared to accept a much higher rate of taxation, which they do because they know that in return they receive health care, free education for all (including universities), paid vacations, retirement benefits, etc. This requires a certain tradition, and can’t be changed overnight.

At this point, I must make a major caveat, returning to what we said at the beginning about human nature: that, whatever system one has, one needs to deal with the inevitable shortcomings inherent in human nature. Capitalism appeals to greed and, as mentioned, claims that, by allowing things to work on the basis of self-interest, they will work out in the end. Allow me to mention, as counter examples, the name Bernard Madoff and the experience of recent years in the US. Communism, or Socialism, appeals to idealism, to feelings of human solidarity and mutual responsibility, but leaves the door open for the exercise of raw desire for power and, in its initial stages, revenge of the poor against the rich. Thus, the Leninist theory of a “vanguard party” invited abuse by types like Stalin.

People today in the West, because of the so-called “death of the Left,” often reject the very existence of “class conflict” as a factor in society. Of course it is. On the other side, rigid, orthodox Communists saw everything as economics, ignoring religion, nationalism, group identity, ethnicity, etc., as significant factors in human community. This may be one reason why the so-called Left supports the Arab-Palestinian side in knee-jerk fashion: namely, because they see them (by and large correctly) as the lower economic class—but ignore everything else around the conflict, such as the aspects I discussed two weeks ago.

The bottom line is, as I said at the beginning, that there is no foolproof system. Nevertheless, I believe a serious discussion of socialist values is long overdue—specifically in Israel, which is at a turning point, or has been already for several decades. From a largely egalitarian society, with the kibbutz movement, the political domination of the nominally socialist Mapai (Labor Party), and the prominent position of the Histadrut Labor Federation (which has admittedly lost its way), it has moved towards rampant privatization and a highly centralized form of capitalism. (It is perhaps germane to mention here, close to my mother’s yahrzeit, that this was one of the things that attracted my parents to Zionism in the 1950s, following their deep disappointment in the Soviet Union and the “Sun of the Nations.”) I’d like to see this trend, which creates deep fissures in the public, stopped. If we believe that Israel is still the great project of the Jewish people in our day, we should foster it becoming, as a Jewish country, one in which there is greater justice, equality and social solidarity, rather than an ever more fragmented and divergent society, split into rival trends and sectors, as it has become over the past few decades. I see this as the central task of Zionism in the 21st century—alongside doing everything possible to achieve peace with the Arabs.

Behar (Individual & Community)


Emor - Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Individual & Community)