Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bo (Wanderings)

Moses and Aaron

“Whoever says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world” In that spirit, I wish to present here some ideas from an outstanding sermon I heard last Shabbat at my local synagogue, Beit Boyer, from Rabbi Michael Melchior, our rabbi, leader of the Meimad movement, and former Knesset Member and Minister who, as a public figure, knows something about leadership, the topic discussed. I bring it below with some comments and elaborations of my own.

He began by asking about an anomaly in Parshat Vaera: immediately following the “four languages of redemption” and God’s command to Moses to go to Pharaoh to ask him to free the Israelites (thereby precipitating his refusal, and the ten plagues), there is a brief genealogical section (Exod 6:14-28), which interrupts the flow of the account of events, after which the Torah picks up where it has left off. (It shows that it is doing so by repeating almost verbatim in vv. 29-30 what is stated in vv. 10-12) The question is: What is the purpose of this passage, which is not a compete list of the offspring of all twelve sons of Jacob, but begins with Reuven and Shimon and then, after listing the clans of Levi and the parentage of Moses and Aaron, ends.

Rav Melchior suggested that the main purpose of this passage is to introduce, not Moses (although it does give the names of his parents, Amram and Yocheved, who in 2:1 are merely identified as “a Levite man” and “a daughter of Levi”), but Aaron. True, Aaron is briefly mentioned in Chs. 4 and 5 as going to meet Moses In the wilderness, as accompanying him to Pharaoh, and as talking to the Israelites with him. Here we are told in detail of his parentage, of his marriage to Elisheva bat Aminadav—who, unlike, Moses’ Midianate wife, was from within the Israelite nation; indeed, from one of the families of Judah—as well as the names of his children.

What is the point? Rav Melchior suggested that Moses and Aaron represent two very different, but complementary kinds of leadership. Moses was a prophet, a man of God, a visionary, one who, according to our tradition, enjoyed the highest degree of closeness to God possible for a human being. He frequently serves as an intermediary between God and the people; indeed, at times it is unclear whether he is more the people’s spokesman to God or God’s spokesman to the people; or, to phrase it differently, whether he is more “at home” among his fellow human beings or in the heavenly realm, almost like one of the angels.

As a result of Moses’ sublime spiritual level, he could not easily relate to ordinary people. He simply was not interested in the same things that they were. Incidentally, I occurred to me that this may explain a seeming contradiction in his character: namely, that he simultaneously extremely humble, yet subject to intense bursts of anger. Anger is often the result of an exaggerated ego, of a sense of self-importance, but in Moses’ case it would seem to stem from the exact opposite: intense devotion to an ideal, so much so that he was unable to comprehend how others could be more concerned with worldly things and less passionately committed than himself.

Aaron, by contrast, was a man of the people. He moved among them easily, he understood their soul, their troubles, and empathized with them, (At times too much so; witness his role in making the Golden Calf). Nor is he burdened by the ambiguities of Moses’ identity, who was seen by Yitro’s daughters as an “Egyptian man” (Exod 2:19), having grown up in the royal palace; unlike Moses, he marries within the tribe. He is described in Pirkei Avot as “loving peace and pursuing peace.” He is a reconciler—even, at times, according to a well-known midrash, telling white lies to bridge the gaps between people. Hence he was able to serve as a kind of intermediary between Moses and the people, as Moses’ “mouth” or “prophet” (see Exod 4:14-17; 7:1).

These complementary (or perhaps opposed?) roles may also be seen in Aaron’s function as priest, as against Moshe’s prophetic–teaching–rebuking role. The priesthood is, in a certain sense, more down-to earth, ministering to the peoples’ needs—for atonement and forgiveness, for reconciliation with God notwithstanding their all-too-human failures, for a ritual that expresses Divine acceptance and ignoring of their faults. There is also a kind of “fellowship” with God and with one another, symbolized by the shelamim, the wholeness-offerings.

In this week’s parashah, we read what is conventionally described as the first mitzvah n the Torah, Kiddush ha-Hodesh, the declaration and sanctifying of the new moon by means of observation, and the laws of Passover that come in its wake, Interestingly, this law is given to Moses and Aaron together: “this month shall be for you’all [plural]…” (Exod 12:1-2). It would be interesting to trace those places in which God addresses Moses alone, and those in which He addresses Moses and Aaron together, to try to discern some underlying pattern. (See my essay on a related point—the staff: is it Moses’ or Aaron’s? See HY XII: Hukat).

Thus, in Moses and Aaron, one might say, we find two complementary types of leadership: the one a visionary, who demands of the people that they excel themselves, that they overcome their natural limits, in pursuit of the ideal, holy society; the other a man of the people, a peacemaker, a solemn, ceremonial figure who softens the harshness and moralizing and uncompromising demands of the visionary. One without the other would be no good. If there were Aaron alone, you would have mediocrity; with Moses alone, life would be unbearable, with his unrelenting tension and demands. Thus, one might say, in all societies one needs these two types; no single individual can be the perfect, be-all leader.

Interestingly, in the Kabbalah Moses and Aaron are associated with the complementary pair of Sefirot, Netzah and Hod (in much the same way as the three patriarchs correspond to the triad of Hesed, Gevurah, and Tiferet). This pair is ess familiar to many people than are the other Sefirot. Art Green, in his Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow (pp. 52-54), describes Netzah and Hod as emerging out of Tiferet, “Splendor,” the seemingly conclusive synthesis and harmony of Hesed and Gevurah, which in fact generates a new polarity. Netzah, translated as “Triumph” or “Victory,” “celebrates… the belief that we can be triumphant over all enemies of perfection… that, having subdued anger and allowing love to flow in ways that nurture and do not destroy, wholeness itself seems within our grasp.” Paradoxically, the sense of inner balance and completeness of Tiferet can lead to a kind of triumphalism. Hod, by contrast, is “Beauty,” ”Gratitude,” or even “Admission” “Hod is the admission that we cannot do it all… that we must accept ourselves as we are, be grateful for life as it has been given… Netzah strives for transformation; it is the impatient force … that believes that we can accomplish anything… Hod is the other side of wisdom, the self that bows before the mystery of what is, that submits to reality and rejoices in doing so.” The relation between these two forces and the figures of Moses and Aaron, as described above, seems clear.

Interestingly, this motif is expressed in Western culture as well. The twentieth century composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) wrote an oratorio (later opera) entitled Moses and Aaron (Moses und Aron), in which he portrays the two brothers as holding very different outlooks. In essence, the conflict between the two is seen in terms of that between the idea and the image. Moses speaks of the “inability to grasp the boundless in an image.” In a central scene, Aaron defends his creation of the Golden Calf, accusing Moses: “When you make yourself solitary, you are thought dead. The people have long waited upon the word of your mouth from which rule and law spring, so I had to give it an image to look upon.” Moses, in response, insists that the people “must grasp the idea, it lives only for that.” Finally in the closing words of Act Two, Moses underlines yet again the realization of the idea: “Unrepresentable God. Unspeakable, many-meaning idea. Do you permit this interpretation? Dare Aaron, my mouth, make this image. Thus have I made myself an image—false, as an image can only be. Thus am I beaten.”

Schoenberg himself was a very interesting figure. Both as a composer, as a teacher, and as a theoretician, he was a major figure in modern music, breaking out of the traditional scales, first to atonality, then to a twelve-tone scale. Like many European Jews in his time and place, as a young man he converted to Christianity (what Heinrich Heine before him called the “entrance ticket to European culture”). But Schoenberg formally returned to Judaism in 1933—precisely, it would seem, in reaction to the growing anti-Semitism of the time; in the face, so to speak, of Hitler—an unusual step, for which he deserves much credit. Fortuitously, he was in France at the time of Hitler’s ascent to power, and he fled to the US, where he spent the rest of his life. In addition to Moses and Aaron, during this later period he composed his Kol Nidrei and other works on Jewish themes.

Vaera (Wanderings)

What’s in a Name?

When I first became interested in Judaism during my teenage years, I used to study the parshat hashavua, like many of my generation, using the Soncino Pentateuch, with the commentary and notes of UK Chief Rabbi J. H. Hertz. I remember in particular the lengthy additional notes in which he elaborated on various issues and was wont to polemicize with modernist challenges to traditional Jewish faith and, specifically, a lengthy note “Does Exodus vi,3 Support the Higher Critical Theory?”

The issue is the title verse of this week’s parashah, “And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai—‘All-Powerful God’—but with My name YHWH I was not made known to them” (Exod 6:3). The difficulty is, of course, that the name YHWH appears innumerable times in the book of Genesis in the context of God’s appearances to and conversations with the patriarchs. How then can our verse say that He was not made known to them by this name? The Bible critics conclude that this verse must belong to a different “document,” a different literary strand of the Bible, so to speak, in which this name does not in fact appear previously.

I will not enter into the thick of this old dispute (in any event I have addressed this issue at length elsewhere). The truth is that, for me, at this point, the issue of the historicity of one or another document is rather less interesting than understanding the text itself in depth and, in this case, the meaning and significance of the Divine Name.

The name YHWH also serves as a central point of attention earlier in Shemot, in the “Burning Bush“ chapter read last week. There, following various other questions, Moses asks God: Once I tell them that the God of their fathers has sent me, and they ask me “What is His name?,” what shall I tell them? (Exod 3:13). Here God answers, rather mysteriously, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh (“I am that I am” or “I shall be as I shall be“), and continues, “Ehyeh has sent me to you.” He then adds that he should tell them: “YHWH the God of your fathers… has appeared to me,” concluding with the unique phrase, “this is My name for ever, and this is my remembrance from generation to generation” (v. 15). What seems most significant, both here and in our parashah, is that the name YHWH is used in conjunction with God manifesting Himself as Redeemer. In Exodus 3 the verses about the name are preceded by God stating that He has seen the suffering of His people and come to deliver them from Egypt—and hence charges Moses with the mission of going to Pharaoh as a kind of human mouthpiece in His behalf (3:7-10). In 6:5 this motif is repeated alongside the explicit statement, “And I have remembered My covenant,” followed by the promises, “I am YHWH, and I shall take you out… and redeem you… and deliver you… and take you as My people” (vv. 6-7). Hence, Rashi and other spokesmen of the Midrashic tradition interpret the two related names of Ehyeh and YHWH as “faithful to fulfill His promises.”

What then is meant by this name and its emphatic use in these passages, as if the name itself conveys important tidings? The name Elohim (or El) is the generic name for God, used even to refer to pagan gods; when used in connection with the true God, it refers largely to His abstract, universal aspects—e.g., the laws of nature or universal ethical principles, of the kind that may be derived through reason (e.g., in connection with the Creation or the Noachide Code). By contrast, the name YHWH is, so to speak, God’s “specific,” “personal” name. As emphatically implied in these chapters, it is used to refer to God’s redemptive involvement in history, to his honoring the covenant He made with the patriarchs to their children. In short, through the name YHWH God is conceived as a personality. This notion flies in the face of much that we are accustomed to thinking on the basis of both medieval and modern Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah, viz. God as unmoved mover or as pure intellect. But, as convincingly demonstrated by such scholars as Yohanan Muffs in The Personhood of God and A. J. Heschel in The Prophets, the God of the Bible is a God of passion, of love for His chosen ones, such that even His ethical traits of justice and righteousness are in some sense personal.

Yet, strangely, the name YHWH is derived from the root HVH, “to be.” As if to say: God’s most salient trait is Hs Being, which is qualitatively different from the being of any other person or thing in the universe; or even: God Himself is Being. He is the ground of the very existence of the universe; He embraces and is immanent in all, while at the same time transcending all. How is one to relate these two very different aspects? I do not know whether the following answer is derash or peshat, but it seems to me that the idea implicit here is that God is at once unknowable, transcendent, utterly different from the gods of the pagan pantheons, while at the same time acts within history as Redeemer and Covenanter and Lawgiver to Israel. Perhaps one might say that His personal involvement is, so to speak, only a small part of His being; that history and the covenant with Israel are the arenas through which we may come to know Him, but that His essence, that which He is in Himself, is far beyond our understanding. Hence, YHWH, a mysterious name pointing towards Being; a name composed exclusively of vowel sounds, is if floating in air. The Talmud tells us that, until the future redemption, “Not as I am written am I spoken.” Is it any wonder, then, that the name YHWH is seen as ineffable, a mystery, as too holy to even pronounce under ordinary circumstances?

Shemot (Wanderings) - Supplement

Kol Be-Isha Ervah—“A Woamn's Voice is Lewdness”

First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear…. —Homer, Odyssey, Book XII

The Problem

There has been a considerable bruhaha in Israel recently over the issue of women singing in public. In a widely-discussed incident, a group of religious soldiers, many of them officer trainees who were graduates of Yeshivot Hesder, demonstratively walked out of an event at which an Army troupe, including young women soldiers, sang—thereby, among other things, raising the issue of the authority of the Army vs. that of religious law. Other issues relating to the role of women in society —such as the issue of separation of women from men on bus lines running in predominantly Haredi neighborhoods; the cropping of women’s faces from street posters in Jerusalem; and even the segregation of women and men in separate sidewalks or streets in Meah Shearim during the recent Sukkot holidays— have attracted much attention (and often more heat than light). All these have created a feeling of generally increased militancy and extremism in the approach of some religious groups to feminine “modesty” and its enforcement in the public realm, with a corresponding secularist reaction.

In this essay, I would to explore some of the ramifications of these issues—focusing specifically on the issue of women singing, in its halakhic, sociological and methodological-philosophical (or “meta-halakhic”) aspects.

A Weather Change in Orthodoxy

I would like to start with a sociological point. Although these issues have been presented in the media largely in terms of “religious-secular” conflict, my own perspective sees them as equally indicative of internal tensions and conflicts within the Orthodox or religiously-observant world. A small anecdote to illustrate this point: about two years ago I attended a performance of Pirates of Penzance (a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, which includes an impressive bit of coloratura singing by the female romantic lead) staged by the Jerusalem English Speaking Theater group in Jerusalem. Interestingly, much of both the audience and the cast was Orthodox; one of the leading male roles, that of the Pirate Chief, was played by an Orthodox professor of philosophy and ex-yeshiva bokhur whom I came to know during the year we spent studying together at the same yeshiva, many years ago. During the intermission I ran into an old friend, a YU musmakh (i.e., ordained Orthodox rabbi), and asked him how he coped with the halakhic issues raised by attending such events, and whether he had ever heard Rav Soloveitchik address the subject. He shrugged his shoulders, as if to say that it was a non-problem, certainly in the context of an artistic-cultural event of this sort. I subsequently heard reports that the Rav indeed held a liberal view of the matter, and himself occasionally attended the opera with his wife.

On the other hand, there are circles for whom this issue has become a kind of litmus test of “real” Orthodoxy, and who have tried to make it into a cardinal issue of public policy. Thus, in wake of the current controversy, Rabbi EIyakim Levanon, rabbi of the settlement of Elon Moreh and a respected religious authority within the West Bank settler community, stated that a religious soldier ought rather to stand before a firing squad rather than listen to a woman singing![1] More recently, I heard that a group of rabbis have circulated a call to young men to avoid being drafted in to the Army so as not to listen to women singing! More generally, within those circles which used to be known as Mizrachi, or “Religious Zionist,” which historically sought a synthesis Torah with general culture under the slogan Torah im Derekh Eretz or Torah va-Avodah (“Torah with Worldliness” or “Torah and Labor”), there are many who have begun to take a much stricter view of this and related questions. Thus, there are religious elementary schools at which fathers are not allowed to attend class productions in which their own daughters participate, because they might thereby see and hear pubescent young women—i.e., their daughter’s classmates—singing or acting.

But the issue goes far deeper, and is indicative of a far-reaching transformation within Jewish Orthodoxy—what the American Orthodox journal Tradition referred to some years ago, in a special issue devoted to this subject, as the “weather change” within Orthodoxy. This phenomenon may be characterized in a variety of ways. It seems typified in the following story I have heard time and again over the years: parents who grew up in Orthodox homes, and had lived as observant Jews their entire lives, sent their sons or daughters away to yeshiva or yeshiva high school. At a certain point, the child came home and demanded that the parents change everything in the house, from kashrut, to level of Shabbat observance, to cultural areas—the newspapers & magazines they allow in the home, use of television, the books on their shelves, etc.—to conform to the new standards they had learned in yeshiva. In brief: many of the younger generation seem to have suddenly gone overboard on humrot —religious stringencies.

Or, as an acquaintance of mine put it: religious life, which previously centered around the family and the home, as the institution through which the tradition, the values, the feeling of Jewishness were transmitted, is now centered around yeshivot or Hasidic courts and the rulings and edicts of the rashei yeshivot, gedolim, or Rebbes. Or, as historian Haym Soloveitchik explains it, in slightly moiré academic language: there has been a change from learning via mimesis (i.e., imitation: that is, absorbing what one has seen in one’s home and synagogue) to learning from books and written texts. He sees this process as parallel to a characteristic of the modern world generally, in which one learns from manuals and books, as opposed to the process of apprenticeship to a mentor practiced in the pre-modern world.[2]

Or, to couch it sociological terms: Orthodox (or halakhic/traditional/observant / classical) Judaism—whatever term you prefer—has for many people changed from a “church” to a “sect.” By the “church” model, I refer to a conception of the synagogue as the center of a broad community, in principle open to a wide spectrum of people with differing levels of commitment, and which assumes as a matter of course that people live their lives in the wider world. By contrast, a “sect” is oriented towards a small, select, elite group, characterized by intense commitment and the imposition of maximal demands upon its members; it is often led by charismatic and authoritarian leaders, who expect implicit obedience to their fiat and edicts. One might also mention here William James’ distinction between what might be called world-affirming religion and world-denying religion: whereas the former basically accepts the world and lives within it, the latter sees the world as filled with tum’ah, with impurity and mortal dangers to one’s soul, and consequently erects high protective walls between the realm of the sacred and that of the profane.[3]

Before turning to the halakhic issues per se, one important comment. It is often thought that, from a religious perspective, “stricter is always better”: that is, the more meticulous approach to observance is indicative of greater piety, of more intense religious devotion. Yet this is not always so. There is an important halakhic principle known as koah de-hetera adif—“the power of permissiveness is preferable.” That is, the ability of a rabbi to rule leniently on a given issue—provided, always, that he finds valid legitimate halakhic grounds for his decision—is in fact preferable and indicative of superior erudition. This is so for two reasons. First, that the task of the rabbi, historically, is to lead and guide an entire community, including individuals of diverse and varying degrees of “religiosity”—not just a small sect of individuals who have voluntarily taken upon themselves a rigorous way of life. Life being what it is, there are always exigencies that call for leniency, if at all possible. (A trivial but characteristic example: someone needs to take medicine on Yom Kippur to maintain his health; a serious, responsible rabbi will find a way whereby he can do so without violating the fast, rather than simply saying “No.”) Secondly, the “power of leniency” often requires greater knowledge, deeper understanding of the halakhah, than the “power of severity”: when in doubt, the stricter, negative answer is always the “default option,” the path of least resistance in terms of Torah knowledge. To give a lenient answer, within the parameters of halakhic authenticity, requires far greater understanding. Thus, a ferocious, militant approach like that of Rav Levanon— “It is better to stand before a firing squad than to listen to a woman singing”—may sound passionate and uncompromising, but it is doubtful whether it is good halakhah, as we shall see presently. I find it troubling that such an approach seems to be finding more and more adherents lately; indeed, one prominent rabbi who should have known better recently made the statement that those who invoke considerations of humane values, “ways of peace” and the like, are somehow inferior scholars or even inauthentic religiously.

The Halakhic Issue

Turning now to the halakhic issue of women singing per se: the basic source relating to our issue appears in Bavli Berakhot 24a:

א"ר יצחק: טפח באשה ערוה. למאי? אילימא לאסתכולי בה. והא אמר רב ששת: למה מנה הכתוב תכשיטין שבחוץ עם תכשיטין שבפנים? לומר לך, כל המסתכל באצבע קטנה של אשה כאילו מסתכל במקום התורף. אלא באשתו ולקריאת שמע. אמר רב חסדא: שוק באשה ערוה, שנאמר "גלי שוק עברי נהרות" (ישעיהו מז, ב) וכתיב "תגל ערותך וגם תראה חרפתך" (ישעיהו מז, ג). אמר שמואל: קול באשה ערוה, שנאמר "כי קולך ערב ומראך נאוה" (שיר השירים ב, יד). אמר רב ששת: שער באשה ערוה, שנאמר "שערך כעדר העזים" (שיר השירים ד, א).

R Yitzhak said: a handbreadth in a woman is ervah. Regarding what? Say: that it is forbidden to look at it. But has not Rav Sheshet already said: Why did Scripture enumerate the ornaments worn outside together with those ornaments that are worn within? [viz. those ornaments a woman is allowed to wear on Shabbat in the public domain]. To teach you that one who looks at the little finger of a woman as if he has looked at the place of her indecency. Rather, this [the measure of a handbreadth] refers to his own wife, and for purposes of reading Shema {i.e, that no part of her body may be exposed when he reads Shema].

Rabbi Hisda said: a woman’s calf is ervah, as is said… [he here quotes Isaiah 47:2-3 as prooftext].

Shmuel said: A woman’s voice is ervah, as is said “Your voice is pleasant and your appearance is comely” (Cant 2:14).

Rav Sheshet said: Hair in a woman is ervah, as is said…. [Cant 4:1 is quoted as prooftext].

Matters are presented even more sharply in b. Sotah 48a:

אמר רב יוסף: זמרי גברי ועני נשי, פריצותא. זמרי נשי ועני גברי, כאש בנעורת.
Rav Yosef said: If men sing and women answer, this is immodesty. If women sing and men answer, it is like fire in flax.

On the face of it, it would seem from this that listening to a woman’s voice is categorically prohibited. But several questions present themselves regarding the former passage (the latter, while more severe, is more aggadic than halakhic): 1) What is meant by ervah? 2) To what halakhic areas do these laws apply? 3) How are these laws to be applied today, and what mitigating circumstances might modify their application in contemporary society?

Ervah, in the narrow sense of the word, means “nakedness,” i.e., the genitalia of both sexes; by extension, it is applied to those parts of the body which are customarily covered (in most societies? And, does its definition vary according to the differing norms of times and place?) In the original context, it does not necessarily refer to that which is erotic or arouses sexual feelings, but more to that which is “unseemly.” Thus, the law banning ervah is brought in tandem with the rule that one may not recite Shema in the presence of excrement or other foul-smelling, unseemly things. If you will, there is a certain aesthetic of prayer, a certain squeamishness or reticence that one not recite God’s Name in the presence of certain things which are excessively earthy, which remind us of our purely bodily nature, in the grossest sense, whether related to sexuality or the expulsion of waster matter.

But, through the series of amoraic additions brought here, the definition is extended to include other parts of women’s bodies that are seen as sexually provocative or stimulating. Our sugya brings four categorical statements adding to the definition of ervah: that a woman’s calf (i.e., lower leg) is ervah; that her (singing) voice is ervah; that her hair is ervah (interestingly, this rule is usually interpreted as referring only to the hair of a married woman); and, finally, that the woman’s entire body is eroticized, is viewed as ervah (tefah be-ishah ervah). Many poskim go on to say that these limitations apply not only to prayer, to the recitation of Shema and Tefillah and other holy words, but also to life in general: that is, that men ought to avoid any potentially sexually tempting situations. The concept of ervah is thus extended here from the unseemly and the grossly physical, to the erotic.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to present a complete analysis of this subject in the rishonim and aharonim. For the interested reader I have included an appendix with a selection of some of the most salient texts in Hebrew; in addition, I refer the readers to two excellent articles, one in Hebrew and one in English, summarizing the halakhic argumentation.

Beyond that, I shall note here a few points mitigating towards leniency. First of all, already in the middle of the twentieth century Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg of Berlin and Montreux, allowed mixed singing of Shabbat zemirot, particularly in the setting of religious youth movements and the like (see his Seridei Esh, vol. I, §76, p. 214 ff.). It would appear that he considered the problem of kol ishah to exist, if at all, only in the context of a solo female voice, recognizable as belonging to a distinct individual; wherever several voices sing simultaneously it no longer applied—thereby, it would seem, eliminating in one fell swoop the problem of the Army troupes. One of the major commentaries on the page of the Shulhan Arukh, Beit Shmuel, at Even ha-Ezer 21, reads the word ervah as referring, not to the voice but to a person: i.e., the voice of an ervah, of a woman biblically prohibited, such as a married woman or a close blood relation, is prohibited. While this view is not accepted by all, it would also limit the restriction so as not to apply to an unmarried woman (e.g., such as a hayelet).

In modern times, many authorities have held that the prohibition would only apply to a live performance, and not to a recording or broadcast (or webcast) media. Others add that the prohibition only applies where one is personally acquainted with the one singing, such that hearing her voice might conceivably have a seductive effect.

But the most far-reaching leniency relates to the answer to the question as to what kind of voice or song is prohibited in the first place. A concept found in more recent halakhic literature (I have been unable to find the earliest written source) is that of shirat ‘agavim—songs of passion or sensuality, that by their nature are erotically suggestive and even seductive. (see the introductory motto from the Odyssey, which indicates that the ancient Greeks were well aware of the potentially seductive and even irresistible quality of a woman’s voice). This would not necessarily even include every love song, but only those which emphasize the sexuality of the singer in a provocative way, through use of music, voice, words and body language. Thus, while many operas and musicals have romantic themes and include arias or songs in which the heroine declares her love for the hero, more often than not this is done in a stylized way such that it would be far-fetched to consider it as shirat agavim.

On the other hand, it is worth mentioning that women can also react to a man’s singing as shirat agavim—as deeply sexually arousing. Witness the “bobby-soxers” of the 1950’s swooning at Elvis Presley’s singing, and similar phenomena involving the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc.—not to mention the phenomenon of “groupies.”

A number of other sources suggest that the rules governing ervah are not necessarily meant to be applied in a simplistic, literal manner, but take into account the person’s subjective state of mind. Thus, in Issurei Biah 21.2 Rambam states that a man is not allowed to gaze at a woman to enjoy her beauty, but qualifies this in §3 to say that one is allowed to look at a particular woman whom one is contemplating marrying to see if one finds her attractive. But he then adds that one may not do so in a lewd or lustful manner (derekh zenut; in colloquial English: “undressing her with your eyes”). The question that arises is: how does one objectively distinguish between the two kinds of looking? The answer, it seems to me, is that it is impossible to do so in objective terms: one is forced to the conclusion that the man doing the looking must know his own subjective thoughts and intentions.

In the very next paragraph Rambam notes that a man may look at his wife when she is menstruating despite the fact that she is forbidden to him sexually at that time, because “as she will be permitted to him after a few days, this is not a stumbling block.” Again, the halakhah here is clearly cogniscent of the subjective dimension of temptation and arousal, and of a man’s ability to exercise a modicum of self-restraint over his thoughts and actions. (Indeed, elsewhere the Talmud states that a woman should not walk about in her home with slovenly appearance merely because she is menstruating and marital sex is not on the immediate agenda; to the contrary, she should dress attractively, and even makeup and jewelry if that is her usual practice, so as not to look disgusting to her husband.)

Finally, I wish to cite a very interesting passage from Arukh ha-Shulhan—an important and interesting halakhic compendium written by R. Barukh Halevi Epstein in the early 20th century—in which he discusses the issue of women’s hair covering in the modern Jewish setting. His approach there might well be applied to other issues, such as that of kol ishah. He begins by decrying the fact that many married women walk about with uncovered hair, as a breach of traditional tzeniut. But then, after expressing his moralistic–pietistic outrage, he does an abrupt, almost 180o turn: since the practice is common, he says, no one experiences “[erotic] thoughts” upon seeing a woman’s uncovered hair and, in effect, it is no longer ervah. (Orah Hayyim 75.7; Hebrew text below, in Appendix). In other words, social norms and customs are all-important regarding these matters.

Psychological And Meta-Halakhic Factors

Underlying these halakhic arguments, I would suggest that there has been a fundamental change in the modern world in the relations between men and women in society which requires a rethinking of the manner in which halakhot in these areas are to be interpreted and applied. It is this change which lies at the very crux of the matter.

Sexuality is a perennial problem. Men and women are attracted to one another by their very nature, and this attraction, often referred to by the tradition as Yetzer Hara (“the Evil Urge“) can, when not properly reined in and channeled, lead to problems and the commission of serious transgressions—and which, in turn, can carry far-reaching consequences for the family and for society in general. Historically, the tradition dealt with this problem by setting up “fences” and restrictions to limit contact between men and women, based upon the implicit assumption of social norms whereby the two sexes spent much of their lives in separate realms and in parallel, single-gender social networks. So long as these arrangements and norms were self-evident and widely accepted, and presumably provided avenues for personal fulfillment for members of both sexes within their highly differentiated and predetermined roles, things seem to have worked reasonably well. (But I would recall here Rambam’s comment Issurei Bi’ah 22.18-19 ff. that the laws of arayot, of sexual propriety, are the most difficult ones to observe in the entire Torah, and that there has never been a community in history in which this has not constituted a real problem for some individuals.)

In any event, things have changed in the modern world, for better or worse. Men and women increasingly live within the same social and vocational world. They receive similar educations, they work together in the same occupations, and they interact as equals in the worlds of business, the professions, academia, civil service, etc. Whether or not this is a good thing may be open to debate; it is an unquestionable fact of life, with the possible exception of those who build sequestered, ultra-Orthodox communities in which the old ways still predominant (and I question whether this is really the case even there).

Hence, the implementation of traditional harhakot (laws of separation or distancing) imposes limitations and constrictions that modern women find intolerable. Moreover, the traditional approach is seen by many as one which, by emphasizing the temptation represented by woman as a sexual object, objectifies her and thereby dehumanizes her. These issues thereby bring to the fore a conflict between two values: on the one hand, that of tzeniut and the taking of maximum precautions to avoid sexual misbehavior; on the other, kevod ha-adam, “human dignity”— facilitating women’s expression of their full humanity, in the broadest cultural, intellectual and spiritual way possible. (Daniel Sperber has developed this concept regarding the specific area of women reading and receiving aliyot to the Torah.)

This is well illustrated by the question of Kol Ishah. Let me mention here that two weeks ago Yaffa Yarkoni, one of the outstanding singers of the War of Independence, died at age 87. Her death prompted reflections that, without such women as Shoshana Damari, Yaffa Yarkoni, and Naomi Shemer, Israeli culture, and specifically its music, would be far poorer. Acquaintance with their voices and work would seem to be a basic part of familiarity with Israeli culture in general, just as such figures as Marion Anderson and Joan Sutherland are an integral part of Western musical culture in our day—and to these names one could add many others, both dead and living. More generally, when speaking of the pleasure experienced upon hearing a woman singing, most people would think of that pleasure in aesthetic and cultural, rather than in sexual terms.

This new socio-cultural situation requires a different way of dealing with the problem of sexuality and sexual temptations—a “third scripture that mediates between the two.” The solution lies in what those of us in the Ne’emanei Torah va-Avodah movement sometimes referred to as a “mixed but modest society.” The old way of separation through barriers is no longer feasible. The alternative option is what I would call inner control: that a person, or specifically the man (although part of the new world is a greater awareness of woman’s sexuality, her sexual imagination and desires, and even her ability to initiate a relationship—but that is another subject, that takes us too far afield), learns to remove sexual overtones or undertones from situations of everyday interaction with women. I might add that this is perhaps paradoxically facilitated by the fact that, in our day, what might be called the threshold of the erotic is much higher than it was in the past. Again, for better or worse, our culture is so saturated with sexual images and talk of sexuality—e.g., the most explicit sexual scenes are only a click away for anyone with a computer—that many of those things that, in a gone age, might have been considered erotic—e.g., the sight of a woman’s calf uncovered by stockings, or the proverbial “well-turned ankle”—goes unnoticed today.

In fact, Judaism has always acknowledged the role of what I refer to here as subjective controls. Thus, in Ketubot 17a, it is told that Rav Aha used to dance at weddings with the bride seated on his shoulders, explaining that it was not arousing because he saw her as no more than “a stick of wood.” Or there was Rav Gidal, who used to sit at the gate of the bath-house to instruct the women; when questioned about the supposed immodesty of such a practice, he said “They look to me like white geese” (Berakhot 20a). True, such laxity was traditionally only tolerated on the part of great tzaddikim—but perhaps our world is in some ways different.

In any event, the opposite extreme has its own dangers. A small anecdote to illustrate the point made earlier about the objectification of women. A friend of my wife spoke enthusiastically about a certain musar sefer (Hebrew ethical tract) containing spiritual exercises which she found spoke to her very deeply. From discussion of the book, we turned to a discussion of its author: when she mentioned that he, in fact, lived right in her neighborhood, I asked whether she had ever met him. Surely, if she liked the book so much, she would enjoy meeting the author and clarifying some of his ideas personally? She answered that she never did so, because she knew that, as a strictly pious Jew of the old school, he would not look her in the face while speaking with her but would turn his gaze aside—and this, she said, made her feel extremely uncomfortable, so that she avoided such meetings. (I should add that this woman dresses very modestly and is generally what would be called “very frum.”)

Another point: It seems clear to me that many of those invoking the “indecency” or ervah involved in women’s singing (or in seeing their hair, or elbows, or unstockinged calves) know that in actuality these are not really sexually arousing. Rather, because these things are prohibited by the halakhic tradition, from the Talmud through the Shulhan Arukh and beyond, one is obligated to regard them as such, and act accordingly in terms of one’s behavior—even to the extent implied by Rabbi Levanon’s rhetoric. The issue is thus not one of modesty vs. sexual licentiousness, but rather of literal adherence to the written halakhah vs. what might be called a more situational, cultural-contextually-determined approach. And for the latter, I would argue, there is much historical precedent.

I shall conclude with a story that has been variously told about a pair of Hasidism or a pair of Buddhist monks. Two pious men were walking through a forest. At a certain point they came to a river, where they encountered a beautiful young women, festively dressed, who told them that she was going to a friends’ wedding and needed to cross the river without soiling her fine clothing. One of the two men, without hesitating, hoisted her upon his shoulders, carried her across, and put her down on the other side. She thanked him for his help, and they went their separate ways. The two men continued walking through the forest together and, after some time, the other man turned to his companion: “I don’t understand how you could do it!” “Do what?” “Why, touch a woman’s body in such an intimate way—picking her up, placing her legs around your head, and carrying her!” The other answered: “I put her down hours ago. You’re still carrying her around in your head!”


[1]Rav Levanon’s statement, if not intended as hyperbole, is presumably based on the argument this issue is one of cardinal religious importance, falling under the rubric of יהרג ולא יעבר . The presumption would be that this category includes not only actual acts of giluy arayot, improper sexual acts, but also אבזרייהו דעריות—that is, those acts which are adjunct to sexual prohibitions, and as such are also subject to the law of “die rather than violate them.” (I saw this idea developed, for example, in a pamphlet by the late Rav Unterman on the above concept.)

But if kol be-ishah ervah is not an integral part of the laws of arayot, but simply a Rabbinic seyag, and at that not even adopted by the Sages as a formal takkanah, this argument is greatly weakened. In this context, I would note the distinction between those things to be avoided as kirvah—as intimacy which gives pleasure and which might lead to actual intercourse, defined by Rambam in Issurei Bi’ah 21.1 and Sefer ha-Mitzvot, lav §353 as prohibited by Torah law—and those defined as harhakot—distancing oneself from excessive closeness, which are classified as Rabbinic.

[2]His paper is quite possibly the most important study of the changes in Orthodoxy in the post-World War II world. See Haym Soloveitchik, “Rapture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition 28:4 (Summer 1994), 64-130; reprinted in Jews in America: A Contemporary Reader, eds. R. Rosenberg and C. I. Waxman (Hanover NH: Brandeis University Press, 1999), 276-320.

[3]Saul J. Berman,”Kol ‘Isha,” The Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Memorial Volume, ed. Leo Landman, (New York: Ktav, 1980), 45-66; David Bigman, “’Iyyun mehudash be’kol be-isha ervah,’” Kolekh, at www.kolekh.org.il/show.asp?id=28988/. In addition, I would mention a paper by Tamar Ross, “The Feminist Contribution to Halakhic Discourse: Kol Be-Isha Erva as a Test Case,” Emor 1 (2010), 37 ff., dealing primarily with methodological and other issues pertaining to the contribution of women and feminist consciousness to halakhic discourse.

Appendix: Hebrew Sources

בבלי, ברכות כ"ד ע"א

א"ר יצחק: טפח באשה ערוה. למאי? אילימא לאסתכולי בה. והא אמר רב ששת: למה מנה הכתוב תכשיטין שבחוץ עם תכשיטין שבפנים? לומר לך, כל המסתכל באצבע קטנה של אשה כאילו מסתכל במקום התורף. אלא באשתו ולקריאת שמע. אמר רב חסדא: שוק באשה ערוה, שנאמר "גלי שוק עברי נהרות" (ישעיהו מז) וכתיב "תגל ערותך וגם תראה חרפתך" (ישעיהו מז). אמר שמואל: קול באשה ערוה, שנאמר "כי קולך ערב ומראך נאוה" (שיר השירים ב). אמר רב ששת: שער באשה ערוה, שנאמר "שערך כעדר העזים" (שיר השירים ד). בבלי, סוטה מח, א אמר רב יוסף: זמרי גברי ועני נשי, פריצותא. זמרי נשי ועני גברי, כאש בנעורת.

רמב"ם, הלכות קריאת שמע, פרק ג

טז כשם שאסור לקרות כנגד צואה ומימי רגליים, עד שירחיק, כך אסור לקרות כנגד הערווה, עד שיחזיר פניו. אפילו גוי או קטן, לא יקרא כנגד ערוותן. ואפילו הייתה מחיצה של זכוכית מפסקת, הואיל והוא רואה את הערווה, אסור לקרות, עד שיחזיר פניו. וכל גוף האישה ערווה; לפיכך לא יסתכל בגוף האישה כשהוא קורא: ואפילו אשתו--אם היה מגולה טפח מגופה, לא יקרא כנגדה.

רמב"ם, הלכות איסורי ביאה, פרק כ"א

א כל הבא על ערווה מן העריות דרך איברים, או שחיבק ונישק דרך תאווה ונהנה בקירוב בשר--הרי זה לוקה מן התורה, שנאמר "לבלתי עשות מחוקות התועבות" (ויקרא יח,ל), ונאמר "לא תקרבו לגלות ערווה" (שם, ו). כלומר לא תקרבו לדברים המביאין לידי גילוי ערווה. והעושה דבר מחוקות אלו, הרי הוא חשוד על העריות.

ב ואסור לאדם לקרוץ בידיו וברגליו או לרמוז בעיניו, לאחת מן העריות; וכן לשחק עימה, או להקל ראש. ואפילו להריח בשמים שעליה, או להביט ביופייה--אסור; ומכין המתכוון לדבר זה, מכת מרדות. והמסתכל אפילו באצבע קטנה של אישה, ונתכוון ליהנות--כמי שנסתכל במקום התורף; אפילו לשמוע קול הערווה, או לראות שיערה--אסור.

ג וכל הדברים האלו, אסורין בחייבי לאוין. ומותר להסתכל בפני הפנויה ולבודקה, בין בתולה בין בעולה--כדי שיראה אם היא נאה בעיניו, יישאנה; ואין בזה צד איסור: ולא עוד, אלא ראוי לעשות כן. אבל לא יסתכל דרך זנות, הרי הוא אומר "ברית כרתי לעיניי, ומה אתבונן על בתולה" (איוב לא,א).

ד ומותר לאדם להביט באשתו כשהיא נידה, ואף על פי שהיא ערווה, ואף על פי שיש לו הנאת לב בראייתה: הואיל והיא מותרת לו לאחר זמן, אינו בא בזה לדבר מכשול. אבל לא ישחק ולא יקל ראש עימה, שמא ירגיל לעבירה.

ערוך השלחן, אורח חיים, סי' ע"ה

ז. ועתה בואו ונצווח על פרצות דורינו בעונותינו הרבים, שזה שנים רבות שנפרצו בנות ישראל בעון זה והולכות בגילוי הראש, וכל מה שצעקו על זה הוא לא לעזר ולא להועיל. ועתה פשתה המספחת שהנשואות הולכות בשערותן כמו הבתולות. אוי לנו שעלתה בימינו כך! מיהו, על כל פנים, לדינא נראה שמותר לנו להתפלל ולברך כנגד ראשיהן המגולות כיון שעתה רובן הולכות כך והוה כמקומות המגולים בגופה, וכמו שכתב המרדכי בשם הראבי"ה בסוף פרק ג' וזה לשונו: כל הדברים שהזכרנו לערוה דווקא בדבר שאין רגילות להגלות, אבל בתולה הרגילה בגילוי שיער לא חיישינן דליכא הרהור. עד כאן לשונו. וכיון שאצלנו גם הנשואות כן, ממילא דליכא הרהור (והרי"ף והרמב"ם השמיטו לגמרי דין שיער וקול משום דסברי להון דלאו לקריאת שמע איתמר. עב"י [עיין בית יוסף?]

Shemot (Wanderings)

Setting the Stage

Most of this issue is devoted to a special essay, entitled “Kol be-Isha Ervah —‘A Woman’s Voice is Lewdness.’” I will, however, preface it with a few remarks about the beginning of the Book of Shemot (Exodus).

Perhaps I’m belaboring the obvious, but it occurred to me recently that our Torah is both “Our Holy Torah”—an integral, inseparable unity, each of whose parts complements the other —and Hamisha Humshei Torah, “The Five Fifths of the Torah”—five separate books, each one of which is an entity in its own right, with its own central theme or themes, its own style and character, its own literary structure, and its own beginning and end. Thus Bereshit (Genesis), the Book of Beginnings, starts with the very origins of the universe, continues with the beginnings of humankind through a series of archetypal stories that seek to typify the nature of this strange creature called Man (a kind of philosophical anthropology through the medium of myth or legend), and whose major bulk, from Chapter 12 through 50, is devoted to the sage of the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, ending with this modest-sized clan or tribe living peacefully in Egypt.

The opening chapters of Shemot may be read as setting the stage for the central theme of enslavement and redemption, much as Genesis 1 and 2 set the stage for the story of humankind, and Abraham’s family within it. “These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt….” And: this is how the Egyptians came to turn against them and enslave them, including a plan to murder all the male infants; this is how the midwives outwitted them; this is the early life of the great leader, and how he became whom he became. And, after the whole story of the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, the book concludes, at length and in great detail, with the fulfillment of the religious goal of all these things—the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness as a dwelling place for the Divine presence. The final verses of Shemot, with the cloud symbolizing or embodying the Divine presence, represent a kind of climax, a sense of closure and completeness in and of itself. (Might there be two very different “goals” to the Torah: the Divine Presence coming to rest in the midst of the people, and the settling of the people in the land of Israel/Canaan, to which so much attention is given, especially at the end of Numbers and throughout Deuteronomy? We shall return to this question later.)

I will, with the Almighty’s help, return to this question of the beginnings and ends of each of the other Humashim and their internal unity when the time comes. Meanwhile, a few comments on some central themes of these opening, “stage setting” chapters.

The Book of Bereshit concludes with Yosef’s culminating conversation with his brethren and, in the final verse, “And Yosef died aged one hundred ten years; and he was embalmed, and placed in a coffin in Egypt.” (Gen 50:26). At the beginning of Shemot, straight after the list of names, we read, “And Joseph died and all his brethren and all that generation” (1:6) and thereafter, “A new king arose in Egypt, who knew not Joseph” (v. 8). Yosef was a kind of Archimedian point in Jacob’s family, a focal point, a center.

I see him as the first in a long series of Jews who served as advisor, as counselor to kings and to the mighty of the earth. A person who comes seemingly out of nowhere, gifted with tremendous talents, who advises and guides policy, whether economic or diplomatic and geo-political. He himself does not occupy the center of the stage, but works more-or-less behind the scenes—but his wisdom is instrumental in the success of the regime and of the country. “And all that he did, God made successful in his hands.” One may think of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin D’Isreali, Bernard Baruch, Walter Ratthenau—and, long before them, Shmuel Hanaggid and Don Isaac Abravanel (who, in addition, to being an important Biblical commentator, was financial advisor to the kings of Portugal and Spain: Ferdinand almost begged him to convert pro forma so that he could remain in the country after the Expulsion of 1492). (A somewhat cynical aside: Perhaps our problem in Israel is that we don’t have any covert Jewish advisors, but our leaders are themselves Jews, who are overly impressed with their own cleverness; a rank newcomer starts his own party, rather than working his way up from within—assuring a needless divisiveness within his own sector.)

The second theme here is the beginning of anti-Semitism. Once the unique Jewish advisor is gone, people begin to fear the Israelites—their talents and successes, and their sheer numbers. Their natural fertility is described as “swarming,” comparable to rodents or vermin. The fearful Pharaoh decides to murder all infant boys, who are only saved by the natural morality and decency (“fear of God”—1:17) of the midwives. I was impressed here by the striking similarity to Nazism: as far as I know, prior to Hitler there was never a comprehensive racist action in which an anti-Semitic leader attempted to kill every Jewish child, whether of one or both sexes—yet we have it here.

The third major theme in “setting the stage” is, parallel to the story of the oppression, and beginning from within it, the early life and shaping of the future redeemer: his birth, his being saved from death, his adoption by Pharaoh‘s daughter, his awakening sense of justice which led to bold, even rash acts, which in turn lead to his lengthy exile in Midian. There he married Zipporah, there he may have learned certain kinds of wisdom from Yitro—we don’t know—and there he spent long hours wandering the hills and mountains with his sheep: thinking, reflecting, achieving a certain stage of readiness and maturity. All these reach their culmination in what I see as the real beginning of the book, in terms of its theological–redemptive message: Chapter 3, in which Moses encounters God at the Burning Bush.

For more teachings on this parashah see the archives to this blog for 2005_12_25, as well as January 2007, 2009 2010, and 2011 (scroll down).

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Vayehi (Wanderings)

“Do Not Bury Me in Egypt!”

This time, I would like to explore and try to understand one detail of this week’s parashah: the meaning of burial and the place of burial. I noticed a striking fact: Parashat Vayehi is framed, at its beginning and its end, by two closely parallel, otherwise unique incidents. In Genesis 47:29-31, Yaakov calls to his son Yosef and makes him swear an oath that he will not bury him in Egypt, but will remove his body and bury him with his parents and his kin, in the land of Canaan. At the very end of the parashah, which is devoted almost entirely to various events surrounding that death—Yaakov’s calling especially to the sons of Yosef, the blessings of the twelve sons, his death, embalming, and the funeral procession in which he is indeed taken up to the cave of Makhpelah in Hevron—after the family returns to Egypt and several years pass, the time comes for Yosef to die (interestingly, he thereby predeceases all of his brothers, despite being nearly the youngest). At this point (50:24-25), Yosef prophecies that God will remember them (Elohim pakod yifkod etkhem) and will take them up out of this land and take them to the land which He has sworn to give to their fathers. He makes them take an oath that, when that happens (and here he repeats the formula pakod yifkod etkhem), they will take his bones with them—as they indeed do (see Exod 13:19; Josh 24:32). Incidentally, this very phrase serves as one of the signs confirming Moses’ authenticity: God tells him, at the burning bush, to use these words to announce his redemptive mission—Exod 3:16 (cf. 4:31; 13:19).

What does all this tell us? What does it mean? It is interesting that Yaakov does not specifically command his children to bring his bones to the Promised Land, as Yosef does; on the other hand, the reinterment of Yosef, specifically, is somehow seen as a visible sign of the deliverance from Egypt. It is also interesting that nowhere else in all the 24 books of Tanakh do we have anyone adjuring others to bury him in a specific place and not bury him at another.

Two ideas occurred to me in this context. The first is, of course, the importance of place, in the sense that the place of burial indicates the place to which the person attaches ultimate significance in his life. Burial is a symbolic act of singular importance in human life, marking as it does its conclusion. The body was the vessel for the person’s life, for his soul, so that even when life departs it is not treated in a purely functional manner, as an object, but in some sense continues to embody, if one may put it thus, the meaning of that life—first and foremost through its location, through where and with whom it is buried.

Yaakov clearly felt himself a sojourner, an exile in Egypt. But even Yosef, who spent his entire adult life in Egypt, made it clear, through this simple request not to be buried in the land of Egypt as soon as he could be removed, that he too saw himself as no more than a sojourner, an exile in that land: his real roots were in the land of his forefathers. It is common, in our own day, for Jews who lived abroad to ask to be buried in the land of Israel—and their families, typically, respect that wish. It is easy to make fun of this posthumous Zionism of those who lived their entire lives in the comforts of Diaspora, but the sentiment it expresses is real: that this is their true home, that had life developed differently they would have gladly lived here as well. On another level, the rëinterment of Theodor Herzl in Israel, shortly after the establishment of the State, was an important symbolic statement for the Zionist movement, that this founding figure had been reunited with the land he did so much to rebuild.

A second observation prompted by the parashah has to do with father-son relationships. The Bible as a whole, does not tell us much of human relations. Genesis is of course rich in human stories, in vivid portraits of individuals and families and their interrelationships, but it is unique in this respect. The remaining four books of the Torah are a mixture of law, exhortation, and a record of the three-corner relationship among the people of Israel, God, and Moses—something else again. The other two sections of Tanakh—Nevii’m and Ketuvim—are filled with prophecy, history, poetry, and “wisdom,” but there are only a handful of books which, among other things, tell the stories of people and their lives as such: Judges, 1-2 Samuel, to a lesser extent, 1-2 Kings, Ruth, Esther, and possibly Jonah—and that’s about it.

I once read an essay about American literature—probably by Lionel Trilling, I’m no longer sure—in which the author speaks of the greatest theme of literature generally, and 19th and early-20th century American literature in particular (especially the Bildungsroman) —as being that of fathers and sons and the difficulties of their relationship—the young man’s struggle for identity or separation from the paternal home, the process of “self-discovery,” and the eventual coming full turn to a more mature acceptance of the father. (Thus, for example, the final scene of the movie East of Eden, in which the James Dean character takes care of his dying father with true devoted; albeit that film was made 50 years ago; I wonder if that ending would go over today).

By contrast, the central theme in much of modern writing as well as movies, TV shows, etc., is romantic love—the relationship of man and woman relations. Even though children are born of the love of man and woman, that is only rarely the theme of such literature. Rather, the focus is on the relationship itself as an end, a kind of eternal present without continuity, without any sense of building something larger—love and sexuality as a source of pleasure and fulfillment in themselves.

would call these two types “vertical” and “horizontal,” respectively. In the human narratives in the Bible, the focus is overwhelmingly on the vertical, inter-generational drama. We have there mostly men’s interactions with one another as fathers and sons, or as brothers; or women as mother & daughter, as sisters, as mother-in-law and daughter-in-law (Ruth), or as a mother nurturing young child. There is no real developed portrait of the romantic love relationship. Even Song of Songs is a lyrical portrayal of love, not a narrative of a real relationship between fleshed-out characters. It seems to me that our generation has much to learn from this approach.

Miketz-Vayigash (Wanderings)

A Study in Character

As last week (belatedly) I wrote about Hanukkah alone, this time I shall discuss together the two parshiyot of Miketz and Vayigash, which in any event constitute a single continuous sequence. Indeed, Miketz is the original “cliff-hanger,” ending on a note of total suspense, leaving the reader/listener wondering “How will Judah and his brothers get out of this one?”

The story is a familiar one. The central issue in this narrative, as I see it, is that of character: that of Joseph, and that of his brothers. Why does Joseph treat his brothers as he does: as soon as they come down to Egypt to buy provisions for their families in Canaan, Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him (42:7-8): after all, they had no expectations of seeing him, least of all in the guise of a high Egyptian official, with all that implies in terms of dress, language, style of beard and hair, trappings of office, whereas they were much as he lad left them—somewhat older, but otherwise much the same in appearance, manner of dress, speech, etc. Joseph was hardly the frightened teenager they had last seen thrown at the bottom of a pit, twenty or more years earlier. In any event, he immediately decide to behave as a stranger, concealing his true identity, putting them through a series of trials and travails. Why the masquerade?

There are several possible answers to this, which fall under two basic headings. The one, of course, is that of vengeance. They had treated him with unspeakable cruelty, mocking him, stripping him of his precious garment, no doubt beating him, throwing him into a pit without food or water, some of them openly speaking of killing him, and later (here the text is a bit murky and even self contradictory) selling him as a slave to a caravan of Midianites, or perhaps Ishmaelites. Thus he began on a course in which he lost everything and everyone that was precious and familiar to him, and forced to survive on his wits—which, fortunately for him, were good. It would have been perfectly natural for him to hate them and to attempt to “pay them back in the same coin” once the tables were turned and he had the power and they were at his mercy. In particular he must have detested Simon and sought to wreak revenge on him; Shimon, whom, according to both the Midrash and even the biblical text itself, following a simple process of elimination (Reuven tried to save him; Judah spoke up and sent “why spill his blood, why not sell him?”; the sons of the concubines and the younger sons of Leah had a lower status; while Shimon and Lev were already known as hot-heads from their behavior in the incident of Dinah and Shechem), was the ringleader of the violence performed upon him. But even in his case, he seems to have released Shimon from imprisonment as soon as the brothers were out of sight.

But did he hate them? A few weeks ago an Israeli television program about the parshat hashavua featured a young man from Djerba named Rafram Hadad who some years ago was imprisoned in Libya for no apparent reason; he described the arbitrary, Kafkaesque nature of his sudden arrest, and described his feeling, like that of Yosef, that “I have done nothing that they placed me in this hole!” In other words, he simply didn’t understand why what had happened did, and suggested that, like him, Yosef was clueless as to why his brothers hated him; in his naïve narcissism, he sincerely thought that everybody loved him, and that they even perceived him and accepted him as their [future?] leader, and did not bear any grudge for his dreams/visions/fantasies of greatness. In this view, Yosef’s estrangement from his brothers, playing the harsh, suspicious official, was naught but a test of their character, to find out who they were and whom they had become.

Joseph’s ambivalence comes out strongly in the scene in Parshat Miketz: “When he saw his brothers he recognized them, but he estranged himself from them and spoke harshly” (42:8). But once he hears them talking among themselves, saying “We are guilty to our brother, that we saw the distress of his soul, pleading to us, but we did not hearken” (42:21), Joseph quickly turns aside and weeps. A second time, in the banquet hall scene during the brother’s second trip to Egypt, he is overwhelmed by emotion upon seeing Benjamin and, after a cursory blessing, quickly turning to a side room to weep—and then washing his face and composing himself, so as to conceal the depth of his emotion (43:29-31). The image gained is of someone who is at heart a deeply emotional, perhaps even sentimental person, who has decided to maintain a tough, impassive exterior—but finds it hard to do so, and thus periodically breaks down and reemerges to hide his feelings.

In the dialogue between Joseph and Judah with which Parashah Vayigash begins, all that comes to an end. Yehudah, still ignorant of Joseph’s identity, presents e series of passionate arguments, relating to the “Egyptian official” the intimate history of his family in the hopes that he will elicit some feeling of humanity, of compassion, in the stone-faced man. Most of all, he expresses his concern for his old father: If the old man, whose “wife” (i.e., Rachel, the only true love of his life) bore him two children, one of whom is lost, then if you take the youngest as well, you will kill him. A person would have to be very hard indeed to hear these words and not be moved.

Joseph’s original plan was to force the ten brothers to return to their home in Canaan a second time, without Binyamin, thereby forcing Yaakov to come down to Egypt with them without yet knowing that “the man” is in fact his long-lost son Joseph. In that way, Joseph’s second dream would be carried out: “the sun and moon and eleven stars”—clearly symbolizing his eleven brothers (including Benjamin!), his father, and Leah, the surviving matriarch of the family, his own mother being dead—would all bow down to him.

A digression about dreams: Parashah Miketz is the last in a series of parshiyot in which dreams or dream-like sequences all play a central role: from Rivkah’s surrealistic sense of her two fetuses struggling in her womb, a kind of omen requiring her to consult an oracle; vis Jacob’s ladder vision at Beth-El and his mysterious encounter at Yabbok; to Joseph’s own dreams of greatness; to those of the baker, the cup-bearer, and to those of Pharaoh himself, through which he comes into his own and rises to prominence as a dream interpreter and more. What is the nature of dreams? They belong to the subjective, suggestive, inner part of our life: to the nocturnal world of feeling, of intuition, of subconscious wishes and desires. They are filled with thoughts and impression that the light of day more often than not wants to quickly forget. Yet the Tanakh clearly suggests that they are important and worth reckoning with; if not full-scale prophecies, then they are surely something very akin to it (“a sixtieth part of prophecy”).

At this point, Yosef’s basic softness, his vulnerability, his humanity, his family feeling, come to the fore. “And Joseph could not hold back” (Gen 46:1), and he reveals himself to his brothers. Was this a sign of weakness, or of strength? I leave the question open.

But perhaps even more than the issue of character per se, the basic theme of this parashah is teshuvah. The word has been much corrupted by its use as a synonym for conversion to religious Orthodoxy. I use it here in its classic sense—as contrition, repentance, turning away from any and all wrongdoing and, especially, the entire process of personal change (i.e. in a positive direction). In this sense, teshuvah is extraordinarily difficult (see on this Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 7.3). I have mentioned in the past a profound idea I heard once from Rav Yehudah Amital ztz”l: that the great works of Western culture—Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, etc.—are promulgated on the premise that people don’t essentially change; that character (at times synonymous with fate) is essentially fixed, and that all of human life is the playing out of the flaws and faults that ultimately lead to the tragic end.

Both Yosef and the brothers must do teshuvah. How so? Yosef needs to turn away from the narcissism and self-centeredness of his youth. Through a combination of simple maturation and experiences of suffering (an interesting and important question: What does trauma do to people? Arbitrary imprisonment and unjust treatment? Radical change in life situation? Poverty? Fall from grace? Many become bitter and selfish; only a few, it would seem, are enobled.) In any event, Yosef clearly came to know the world during his years away from Jacob’s loving home, and had ample opportunity to see people at their ugliest—the brothers distorted by hatred; the journey with the caravan, of which we are told nothing; Potiphar’s wife, enflamed by lust, and then driven by spite; the ungrateful wine butler—but in the end he came out as a decent person, perhaps almost too good to be true.

After revealing his identity, even before Joseph and his brothers sit and talk, he displays real generosity of spirit. There is no hint of resentment or hostility towards the brothers. Almost the first thing he says: Do not be cross or angry [at yourselves] that you sold me to Egypt, for God sent me to keep people alive” (45:5). He devotes himself to settling both his father and his brothers as comfortably as possible in this strange country, constantly acting as their intermediary. This is again shown at the very end of the “Joseph cycle”: towards the end of Veyehi, after Jacob has died, is buried, and the family returns to Egypt, the brothers say: Now that father is gone Yosef will hate us and his true colors will come out (50:15). Instead, he is nothing but kindness and forgiveness. (If I may mention my own life experience: there have been certain very difficult relationships in my life but, after a certain time has passed, I found that I was able, not to forgive, but to forget the intense negative emotions of that time—that is, I can recall certain of the events and feelings in my memory, but the negative emotional charge is totally gone—and I am able to accept that person in his/her present situation and humanity.)

Perhaps the underlying idea is that, perhaps as one grows older, one becomes more aware of human mortality, of our vulnerability, and one is able to forgive, to perceive what one once perceived as abominable behavior as simple human weakness, the expression of flaws of the kind common to all flesh and blood. (By the way, this is also the idea underlying the request for seliha ve-kaparah, asking forgiveness of others, prior to Yom Kippur.)

As for the brothers: their teshuvah consisted in turning from their hatred, spite, to genuine feeling and caring for the other—for their father and his sensitivities, for their younger brother. Interestingly, in his speech Yehudah quotes father saying “My wife bore me two children” without any hint of resentment or acrimony—notwithstanding the implication that he, like the other children of Leah were somehow second-class children. Indeed, in a widespread Hasidic schema, where as Yosef is discussed as a Tzaddik by nature, Yehudah is the epitome of the Baal Teshuvah—both in overcoming his anger and tendency to violence, but also in the scene with Tamar, where he transcends conventional patriarchal attitudes towards sexuality.

Hanukkah (Wanderings)

Is Hanukkah a Festival?

The other day I went to the local post office to pay a bill and send some letters. After I finished my business, the clerk, in keeping with the spirit of the recently privatized Israel postal service, tried to sell me something. “What are these?” I asked her. “Greeting cards.” “But Rosh Hashana was three months ago!” I answered. “Ah, these are for Hanukkah.” I told her that, as I see it, Hanukkah is not a holiday on which Jews customarily send greetings to all and sundry, and that this seemed to me a Gentile custom. “Oh no, these are for Hanukkah!”

This little incident set me thinking about the status of Hanukkah today, the great, possibly exaggerated importance it enjoys in many circles, and its “proper” status in Jewish thought and halakhah. Perhaps I suffer from the overly strict halakhic education I received from my teacher, Rav Soloveitchik—strict in the intellectual, not necessarily in that of humrot in praxis; he always focused on the importance of clear and exact categories and definitions—hence his love of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. In any event, it suddenly occurred to me that the greetings commonly used here in Israel—Hanakkah sameah; Hag Hanukkah sameah, or even Hag Urim sameah—have always grated on my ears. Is Hanukkah in fact a hag, a festival in the religious sense? (Old time Hasidic Jews greet one another with the words, A Likhtig’n Hanukkah—”a light-filled Hanukkah”—and the sources often speak of yemei Hanukkah, “the days of Hanukkah.”) Is there any component of joy in the traditional understanding of these eight days? IOs there, for example, a religious obligation to eat a festive meal on Hanukkah? And what about the phrase Hag Urim or “Festival of Lights”? Is it an indigenous Jewish expression, or is it a modern invention of some sort—and if so, by whom?

At this point, I can imagine some readers shrugging their shoulders and applying to Hanukkah something like the old Yiddish saying: “Purim ist nisht a yontiff, unt Kholera ist nisht a krank”—that is, “Purim is not a festival day, and cholera isn’t a disease.” As if to say: don’t be such a pedant: Hanukkah is what it is and it has a life of its own in the Jewish folk understanding. It is an important part of what Mordecai Kaplan called the sancta of the Jewish people. If Jews treat it as a major holiday, then that’s what it is. But bear with me: there is a serious point to all these questions—namely, has Hanukkah become a rather bombastic group of days? And if so, why?

To begin with the mitzvah of joy or the absence thereof on Hanukkah: in the classical Talmudic source for Hanukkah, b. Shabbat 21b, in response to the question, “What is Hanukkah?,” the text briefly recounts the miracle of the cruse of oil, concluding, “And [these eight days]… were fixed as goodly days [yamim tovim], with praise and thanksgiving—Hallel ve-hoda’ah—and lighting candles.” Hallel refers to the recitation of the complete Hallel during the Morning Service on each day of Hanukkah; hoda’ah to thanking God for the specific events commemorated by these days by means of the adding the section beginning with the words Al ha-Nissim, which relates the salient points of the Hanukkah story in capsule form, in the Amidah prayer and Grace after Meals throughout the eight days. There is no mention here of “joy,” a characteristic of the three pilgrimage festival of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot; there is no mention of a festive meal, which is a sine qua non of festivity in Jewish tradition (but see Orah Hayyim 670.2, in the gloss of the Rem”a, that it is “a bit of a mitzvah” to do so); no Kiddush; nor is there any mention of a prohibition of labor. On the other hand, Rambam, who in his Code devotes two halakhot to a summary of the rationale for the days, describes the eight days of Hanukkah as “days of praise and joy (Hallel ve-simhah) and lighting therein candles” (Hilkhot Hanukkah 3.3).

What kind of joy is he speaking about? Hanukkah is the last remaining remnant of a whole category of minor festive days commemorating various events that occurred during Second Temple times, listed and described in an ancient tannaitic text known as Megillat Ta’anit. The common denominator of these days is “joy” in the negative sense—that is, the prohibition of certain manifestations of sadness, such as fasting and/or eulogizing the dead. It is thus a very moderate, low-key kind of joy.

As for the term “Festival of Lights”: at first glance, it seemed to me that this was one of those term (like “Seasons Greetings”) invented in the United States during a period when many American Jews sought to smooth over the differences between their own traditions and those of the majority culture—what has sometimes been termed “the December Dilemma”—and to give their own holiday a more “universal,“ acceptable ring. Perhaps the “lights” mentioned can be seen as alluding both to the Hanukkah candles and to the “Christmas lights” used to decorate the Christmas tree and Christian homes during the Yuletide season). The noted historian of American Jewry, Jonathan Sarna, in response to my query, wrote that “My sense is that ‘Festival of Lights’ goes back to the time when Jews eschewed Hebrew names for their holidays and tried to find English language equivalents for everything (for a time, Pesach was Jewish Easter), in a bid to make Judaism more intelligible to their neighbors. If you refer to [the Jewish News archives at] http://archive.jta.org and search for ‘Festival of Lights,’ you will see that the term was used as early as the 1920s.” Following his suggestion, using this fine resource whose very existence I had not known until now, I found an item from August 23 1927 describing a newly-published booklet by the Reform movement’s Union of Hebrew Congregations containing 13 sermons for the various holidays, including one for what is referred to as “the Festival of Lights.”

But then he added, quoting his colleague Dianne Ashton, that the term was already used by Josephus in Antiquities, Book XII. However, the fact that the term is not found anywhere in classical Rabbinic literature nor, to the best of my knowledge, in medieval Jewish sources, would suggest that its contemporary usage is a direct revival of an ancient but long forgotten term, motivated by the assimilatory or universalistic tendencies mentioned earlier.

My wife reminded me of yet another aspect of Hanukkah: that both Hanukkah and Christmas occur in the dead of winter, at a time when days are short and the sun is rather low in the sky. Thus, some historians of religion have suggested that both holidays bear some connection to an earlier pagan midwinter festival marking the turning point of the year, a kind of celebration of death and rebirth. (Israel Yuval has spoken about this, in an as-yet unpublished paper; see below.)

Yet another theory is suggested by one Al Wolters in an article reprinted in N. Zion and B. Spectre’s A Different Light (pp. 247-248): astronomers have calculated that Halley’s comet made one of its once-every-74-year appearances in the sky during the autumn and winter of 164 BCE—i.e., at the time of the Hanukkah story. Moreover, at that time (unlike 1985) it passed particularly close to the earth and was thus unusually bright. This brilliant light, visible in the daytime sky, was seen as a portent of the great events that ensued; hence the name, “Festival of Lights.” (On all this and more, see HY IX: Hanukkah [=Aggadah]; or see my blog archives at 2009_11_18).

To return to our central point: there’s nothing wrong per se in greeting one’s friends and neighbors with the words Hanukkah Sameah or in eating latkes and/or sufganiot (after all, Jews like to eat!); the important point is how we think about it. Hanukkah, traditionally, celebrates the survival of Judaism, and of the Jewish people, in the face of tremendous opposition—the survival of a small, beleaguered group, through quiet, steadfast loyalty to its Torah and its way-of-life, like a tiny flame emanating from a small wick with a bit of oil. The problem is that in our day we no longer know how to celebrate in low key. Everything about Hanukkah has become, for different reasons, exaggerated, over-emphasized, even bombastic. The reasons are various: in America, as mentioned, the proximity to Christmas, and the desire to “compensate” Jewish children for not having Christmas, has led many to make Hanukkah into a kind of Jewish counterpart to Christmas, with a focus on gift-giving. In recent years, someone even coined the term “Chrismukkah”—a hybrid of the two, tailor-made for the intermarried. In Israel, the Hasmonean rebellion against the Seleucid overlords has been interpreted as the first war of Jewish national independence, foreshadowing the Zionist renascence and the State of Israel’s military victories; the Maccabees are seen as a heroic alternative to the “nebbishy” image of the Galut Jew, and the “Lights” include torches as well as candles. Even Habad has gotten into the act, with huge menorahs and lighting ceremonies in public places. And in all these places, there are commercial interests, pushing the message of “Buy! Buy! Buy!” The original sense of Hanukkah, as I see it, is that of the small light burning through the darkness of winter, the darkness of Galut; it is precisely the smallness of the flame, so to speak, that is suggestive of its greatness. But, then, how can a subtle, inner quality like Wisdom compete with ever-expanding capitalist economies?

For more teachings on Hanukkah, see the archives to this blog at 2005_12_01, and at December 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.