Sunday, June 03, 2012

Naso (Wanderings)

On Fear and Love

Last week we discussed the concept of love: God’s love of Israel, Israel’s love of Torah, love as a guiding principle in human relations, etc. But there is another, no less important pole in Jewish thought: that of yirah, usually translated fear, but a far more complex, including the sense of awe, of reticence upon confronting the holy.

It is difficult to speak of any unified theme to this week’s parashah, which among other things contains a variety of laws which, according to tradition, were given at the time of the erection of the Sanctuary in the desert. However, two of its longer sections deal with two extremes of the potential of human personality. On the one hand, we have the sotah (Num 5:11-31)—the “trail by ordeal” of the woman suspected of adultery—i.e., one who has who has surrendered to the desire for sexual adventure (an impulse which exists in every human being and which, like the religious impulse, involves a quest for transcendence of the ordinary, but one which is normally, or normatively, kept under tight rein; the loss of these restraints, in the name of a dubious “freeing oneself of inhibitions,” is one of the problems of contemporary culture). On the other hand, we have the nazir or Nazirite (6:1-21)—an individual who assumes upon himself various restrictions (against wine, against impurity, against cutting his hair) not required by the Torah. We are not told what his motivations are, but we may assume that the Nazir was one who on some level sought a more intense religious life.

On the eve of Shavuot, Rabbi Benny Lau gave a talk at Yedidyah entitled “We Wish to See our King’: On the Desire to Experience God’s Presence and the Fear which Pulls Away.” Due to limitations of time, he barely touched upon the heart of the topic, prompting me to speculations as to some things he might have said.

Maimonides, in Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2.1, speaks of the twin mitzvot of love and fear of God, and the contradictory impulses involved therein. On the one hand, when a person contemplates the wonder, the grandeur, the mystery of God’s Creation, of the infinite universe in which we live, he is filled with a desire to know God, to draw close to Him, to love Him. But, simultaneously, he is filled with fear and trembling and humility and, when reflecting upon his own insignificance as a human being, the limits imposed both by his mortality and by the limits of his perceptions, he draws back.

This is the essential paradox of all religious life, particularly of the mystical impulse. The religious person desires communion with God; the mystic is one who seeks this with greater intensity, delving into esoteric teachings, perhaps engaging in various kinds of meditation and, ultimately, seeking some sort of knowledge and even vision of God. But, simultaneously, the fulfillment of this quest is frightening. “No man can see Me and live.” The Bible contains numerous accounts of how Moses, and others, upon being granted epiphanies of God, fall upon their faces.
The Talmud, at Hagigah 14b ff. and parallels, tells the story of “four who entered Pardes”—of four great sages (Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Rabbi Akiva) who engaged in the mystical quest, attempting to transcend their human limitations and ascend to Heaven, to gain knowledge of the Divine. One of them died (of shock on beholding the Godhead?}; one went crazy; one “uprooted the plantings”—i.e., became a heretic and left the path of Judaism; and only one, Rabbi Akiva, “entered in peace and left in peace.” This story has been taken as a warning against engaging in mystical exercises. Earlier in the same chapter we are told that one may not convey the “secrets of the Merkavah”—the heavenly chariot, i.e., the inner meaning of the vision of the chariot in Ezekiel 1, read as haftarah on Shavuot (considered the festival most suited to mystical revelations)—except to a mature student, and even then only by way of hints and “chapter headings.”

In brief, there are dangers accompanying the religious mystical enterprise. I wonder to what extent the contemporary devotees of mysticism, who flock to classes in Kabbalah and mystical teaching, are aware of this numinous, dangerous aspect, or whether they think of it as merely another kind of “high.” The old-time tradition stated that one ought not to delve into these matters until one had reached the age of forty and “filled his belly with Shas and poskim”—that is, achieved a certain degree of maturity and stability in life (which perhaps comes at a later age in modern culture than it did in a more traditional world), and achieved some degree of mastery of the exoteric part of the tradition.

The theme of danger upon approaching the Divine is alluded to in certain recent Torah readings. Note, first of all, the strange story of the sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu for offering ”strange fire,” and the account in 2 Samuel about that of Uzzah, who accidentally touched the ark of the covenant (see HY XIII: Shemini). In the final verses of Bamidbar (Num 4:17-20), we read “And they should not come to see when the holy things are swallowed up, lest they die”—as if the very sight of the holy artifacts on which the Shekhinah rests being packed up like ordinary things was somehow taboo. Finally, an enigmatic passage in Hagigah 16a says that one ought not to gaze at the rainbow, the hands of priests when they recite Priestly blessing, or a Prince of Israel—because all of these somehow reflect, however dimly or indirectly, the glory of God, and are too awesome, overwhelming for a human being to look upon them.

There is, indeed, a tension in Judaism between the mystical strands and the more down-to-earth approaches, corresponding in part to that between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism. On the one hand, there is the quest for knowledge of God, also in Jewish philosophy; thus Rambam, in Hilkhot Melakhm 12 and Teshuvah 8-9 speaks of the intellectual quest to perceive and understand God, insofar as a human being is capable of such, as the ultimate aim of humanity in messianic times. On the other hand, there is a trend which says—in a manner that represents, so to speak, the religious counterpart of Alexander Pope’s aphorism that “The proper study of Mankind is Man”—that the proper concern, the central subject of Torah, is human life, and how Jewish human beings ought to live in all aspects of their life in this world. (See, e.g., Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man, esp. pp. 45-63).

Yotzer Or and Ahavah Rabbah

Continuing our earlier discussions of prayer, I would like to relate this tension between ahavah and yirah to the first two blessings of Shema recited in the daily Morning Service—Yotzer Or and Ahavah Rabbah.

Yotzer Or thanks God for the renewal of the sun’s light every morning and, by extension, celebrates Him as God of the cosmos; as, first and foremost, God the Creator. Notwithstanding that our telescopes can penetrate to the depths of the universe and observe stars and galaxies at distance of millions of light years, the human mind cannot begin to grasp God’s infinite power and wisdom.

A central motif of Yotzer is the angelic Kedushah, the description of the angels’ proclamation of God’s holiness through the threefold doxology, “Holy Holy Holy is HWYH, Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with His Glory” (Isa 6:3). Interestingly, the very recitation of these words proclaiming God’s holiness is seen as a holy act, hedged in by various restrictions. In ancient times, as has been demonstrated by Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Bilha Nitzan, these verses were considered too holy to be recited by human beings; they were recited by the ministering angels alone. Later, when introduced into the liturgy, it was limited to special circumstances: either as a description of what the angels do (in Yotzer); as quotation of a full Biblical verse, complete with Aramaic translation (in Uva le-Zion); or in the presence of a minyan, as davar shebe-kedushah. It is never recited as praise by an individual as such.

A second intriguing feature of Yotzer is the presenc therein of alphabetical acrostic: on weekdays, the words El Barukh Gadol De’ah, etc.; on Shabbat, the liturgical poem El Adon with its alphabetically arranged verses. I believe that this reflects the notion that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet served as the instrument used by God in creating the universe (Creation as an act of Divine Speech; asarah ma’amarot). By the way, an interesting question: What is the relation of this idea to the reverse alphabet in Musaf for Shabbat, immediately following Kedushat Keter, considered by the Kabbalah as the high point of the Shabbat prayers? A gradual coming back into the world from the “coronation” of God by “the multitude of angels on high” together with “your people Israel, clustered below”? This point deserves further reflection.

Yotzer concludes with an enumeration of God’s powers in a variety of areas, not only as Creator, but that “He alone does mighty deeds, creates new things, is Master of battles, sows righteousness, causes salvation to grow, creates healing” and, finally, “renews the works of Creation, day after day” (J. Sacks translation). In brief, a portrait of God’s awe-inspiring power and might.

By contrast, the second blessing, Ahavah Rabbah, is all about God’s love and compassion, as we discussed not long ago (HY XIII: Bamidbar-Shabbat Kallah). In many ways, these two blessings parallel the two halves of Psalm 19, which opens with “the heavens declare the Glory of God” and continues with praises for “God’s perfect Torah.” Taken in tandem, these two blessings portray both the contrast and the complementary relation between Divine power and Divine love; between God as Creator and God as Giver of the Torah; between the natural order and the ethical order; between the cosmic and the human; between an attitude of awe and one of love.

Shavuot (Wanderings)

Hillel and the Proselytes

Shavuot is, among other things, a time for reflecting about conversion to Judaism. The Revelation at Sinai is perceived by the halakhah as a paradigm for the conversion of individuals to Judaism; indeed, the Sinai event is itself seen as a kind of conversion, when the Jewish people as a whole, by receiving the commandments, entered into the covenant. Similarly, one of the reasons for reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot is that Ruth was considered a proselyte, possibly the first one in Jewish history.

This line of thought reminded me of a series of stories concerning Hillel the Elder—himself a central, towering figure, arguably a kind of founding father of Rabbinic Judaism, who occupies a place in the Oral Torah analogous in certain ways to that of Moshe Rabbenu vis-à-vis the Written Torah. The three stories all follow the same pattern: a Gentile approaches Shammai requesting to be converted to Judaism, but doing so while asking a provocative question. Shammai angrily chases him away; he then goes to Hillel who, with forbearance and understanding, patiently and gently relates to their question seriously, giving them the answer hat enables them to embrace Judaism. This aggadah, which appears in b Shabbat 31a, conveys two main messages: one, the value of patience and forbearance, which were outstanding traits of Hillel; . secondly, they teach us something about Judaism itself.

Hillel was famed for his patience. Indeed, these stories appear immediately after one in which various people try to cause Hillel to loose his patience by demanding his attention at awkward times to answer what are obviously stupid questions (“klotz-kashes”)—but to no avail. Indeed, the heading of the entire page of Talmud is: “Let a person always be modest as Hillel, and not strict like Shammai.” Hillel’s love of and pursuit of peace are expressed in the following motto from Pirkei Avot 1.12, the first of several sayings quoted in his name:

Hillel and Shammai received [the tradition] from them [Shemayah and Avtalyon, the previous “pair”]. Hillel said: Be among the students of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them close to Torah.

We now turn to the first proselyte story:

Our Rabbis taught: An incident involving a certain Gentile who came before Shammai and said to him: How many torahs do you have? He answered him: Two: the written Torah and the Oral Torah. He said to him: Regarding that which is written I believe you, but regarding that which is oral I do not believe you; convert me on condition that you teach me [only] the Written Torah. He chastened him and sent him away with a rebuke. He came to Hillel and said: convert me. The first day he [Hillel] said to him [i.e., showed him the Hebrew letters]: Alef, Bet, Gimel, Dalet. The next day he told him the opposite. He [the convert] said to him: But yesterday did you not say to me thus [the opposite]? He said to him: Was it not me upon whom you relied? So should you also rely on the oral words [of the Torah].

The issue at hand here is one of the foundations of Judaism: the centrality of the Oral Law—not coincidentally a point of great contention in those days between the Sages, or Pharisees, and their opponents, the Sadducees, who asserted that the Torah must be interpreted literally, without the oral traditions that often seem to go far afield from the apparent meaning of Scripture. Hillel’s response to the Gentile was a simple one: he showed him that even so basic a thing as reading is impossible without an “oral tradition,” without a teacher to show one how to read the letters in the first place.

In Rabbinic Judaism, the oral and written tradition are interdependent; there can be no text without interpretation, without living teachers and a living tradition of how to understand it. But beyond the specifically Jewish context, the idea of interpretation is a basic one for all human culture. All culture, all thought, ultimately builds upon what proceeds it; the most radically new and “original” ideas are so within the context of a complex weave of what people have taken to calling “inter-textuality.” Interpretation of the past, the living word, drawing connections between past and present, are all essential components of creativity, facilitating innovation and flexibility. (What does the ever greater ubiquity of computers, of on-line, non-frontal learning, do to our culture? People may acquire information, but will they gain wisdom or understanding without a living teacher? I suspect all this has far-reaching implications, far beyond what we would like to think.) The truth of the matter is that even those who claim to be literalists—Sadducees, Karaites, perhaps the Samaritans, Christian fundamentalists—in fact create their own oral tradition, their own way if understanding the sacred written text, whether they admit to it or not.

The second story is doubtless familiar to most people:

Again, an incident involving a certain Gentile who came to Shammai. He said to him: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. He chased him away with the builder’s rod in his hand. He came before Hillel, and he converted him. He said to him; “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”

At first blush, this man’s question seems equally unreasonable: the Written Torah alone is a massive document, not to mention the extensive oral tradition. How can one possibly teach it “while standing on one foot”? Shammai, justly infuriated at this man’s seeming contempt for a discipline to which he had devoted his entire life, chased him away. Hillel understood that what he sought was not the details, not the specifics, but “the essence of Judaism”—an easily digestible, short “sound bite” that could be understood by a person who evidently did not have the patience to apply himself to deep and serious thinking and study. Not an ideal situation, surely, but Hillel took up the gauntlet and gave him a concise and profound answer. (Interestingly, during the modern period it was not uncommon for theologians and philosophers to attempt to reduce Judaism to an “essence”; “ethical monotheism” was one popular formulation. In the very early twentieth century, in response to Adolf Harnack’s The Essence of Christianity, Leo Baeck wrote The Essence of Judaism. This pursuit was not alien to Hazal either; see the sugya at b. Makkot 24a, in which the 613 mitzvot are progressively “reduced” to 11, 6, 3, 2, and finally 1 basic principle; see HY II: Balak [=Haftarot].)

Hillel’s answer is a variation of what is taught to Western school children as “the Golden Rule” or, in more philosophical terms, the maxim of reciprocity: that is, the recognition that other human beings are essentially like oneself, with the same basic needs, aspirations, fears, etc., and to treat them accordingly. In fact, the three-word maxim in Lev 19:18, ואהבת לרעך כמוך, “love your fellow-human as yourself” already implies the notion of reciprocity—to see the other as a similar to oneself.

Interestingly, this idea appears in Christian scripture, in the words of Jesus given in in Matthew 7:12 and, with minor changes, Luke 6:31: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” Or, more simply, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto yourself.” Wikipedia’s entry on “the Golden Rule” notes that a similar maxim appears in virtually every known religious tradition, as well as in ancient Greek thought and elsewhere. One might argue that Kant’s categorical imperative—that one make the maxim of one’s actions such that it could be made universal—is similar in spirit, if not in wording, to this idea. Wikipedia elaborates:

This concept describes a “reciprocal” or “two-way” relationship between one's self and others that involves both sides equally and in a mutual fashion. This concept can be explained from the perspective of psychology, philosophy, sociology, religion, etc.: Psychologically it involves a person empathizing with others; philosophically it involves a person perceiving their neighbor as also an “I” or “self”; sociologically, this principle is applicable between individuals, between groups, and between individuals and groups.

But there are two important differences between Jesus’ saying and that of Hillel. First, Hillel’s maxim is phrased in the negative, rather than the positive: “that which is hateful to you do not do to others.” As noted by George Barnard Shaw, there is a flaw in the positive formulation: “Do not do unto others as you expect they should do unto you: their tastes may not be the same.” This does not apply to the negative formulation: avoid causing pain, loss, insult, etc., to others, just as you would wish them to avoid regarding yourself. Expecting them to anticipate and fulfill your needs is exaggerated and unrealistic.

Second, the two little words at the end of Hillel’s maxim: zil gemor—“Go and learn.” A maxim, an “essence,” is very good as a starting point, but Judaism—as any serious life teaching—requires study, which in turn elicits serious thinking about life, about ethics, and the innumerable issues encountered in life.

One last point: one can see other people as similar to oneself, but draw a diametrically opposed conclusion: that if others want and need the same things as myself, and life is seen as a “zero-sum” game, then others are my rivals and competitors, and I must treat them with suspicion, hostility, and even hatred. At times, it seems that this idea is the de facto maxim of unfettered, “cannibalistic” capitalism. The basic attitude of love of others, rather than hatred, is ultimately an axiom, a given, an emotional-spiritual attitude towards life, and not something that can be deduced through logic alone.

The third and final story is a bit different from the first two; there is something naïve, almost child-like, about its hero:

Again, an incident involving a Gentile who passed behind the Study House and heard the voice of the scribe saying: “And these are the garments that they shall make: breast plate and ephod….” (Exod 28:4). He asked: For whom are these for? [He was told:] The high priest. That Gentile said to himself: I will go and convert so that I may be made the high priest. He came before Shammai and told him: Convert me so that I may become the high priest. He chased him away with the builder’s rod that was in his hand. He came to Hillel, and he converted him. He said to him: Does one appoint a king unless he knows the ceremonies of court? Go and learn the ceremonies of the court. He went and read. When he came to the verse, “And the stranger who draws close shall die” (Num 1:51). He asked: To whom does this scripture refer? He was told: Even to David king of Israel. That proselyte draw an inference regarding himself: If one of the Israelites, who are called sons of the Omnipresent, and out of the love that He loved them he called them: “my first born son Israel” (Exod 4:22), it is written “the stranger who draws close shall die,” a convert, who came with his staff and his knapsack, all the more so? He came before Shammai, and said to him: Am I at all fit to be high priest? Is it not written in the Torah, “the stranger who draws close shall die”?! He came before Hillel and said: O modest Hillel, may blessings rest on your head, that you brought me beneath the wings of the Shekhinah?

Of the three, he was the most innocent and child-like. The first two asked questions that seemed provocative, deliberately challenging. Hillel nevertheless answered them patiently and persuasively. This one exhibited a naïve fascination with the splendor of the priestly robes, and wanted to wear them. Hillel did not dissuade him, but left him to learn by himself, knowing that he would eventually come to understand his error—as he indeed did. But by this time he was enamored with Judaism, was committed to it for its own sake. “Let him learn Torah, even if not for its own sake: the light therein will bring him to the good path.” This story illustrates a basic confidence in human beings, and in their ability, through the study of Torah, to come to a mature understanding thereof.

Incidentally, it is worthy of note that Hillel converted each of the three before even entering into serious dialogue about the questions each one raised. Tannaitic halakhah does not know the long, drawn out process of instruction and testing that has become de rigeuer in modern Judaism, of all schools—but that discussion is for another occasion.

To summarize: these three stories illustrate the importance of Oral Torah and interpretation as essential to the living Torah; the interpersonal ethics of respecting the other as like oneself; and the importance pf study, and how the process of study in itself gradually brings a person to a deeper, truer understanding.

Our aggadah concludes with words of praise for the patient, modest Hillel:

After some time, the three of them chanced to be together at the same place. They said: the strictness of Shammai would have taken us out of the world; the modesty of Hillel brought us beneath the wings of the Shekhinah.

Bamidbar - Shabbat Kallah (Wanderings)

On the Love of Torah

One of the clichés of Christian polemics is that Christianity is a religion of love while Judaism is a religion of Law. Some Jews accept this characterization and respond: Adrabah! We accept the “accusation,” but we believe that Law, as a primary principle, is superior to Love. Whereas Love is a subjective emotion, potentially vague, inconsistent, unclear, and at times blind to reality, Law is based upon principles of justice, truth, fairness, and objectivity; it is the idea of Law, and the obligations it imposes upon each person, which enables us to treat every person with true respect and dignity.

But is this cliché at all true? I would argue that Judaism, being rooted as it is in both the mind and the heart, constitutes a mixture of Law and Love. Thus, we are commanded to love our fellow man as ourselves—including, or should I see especially, the stranger in our midst (a fact that too many Israelis, including certain Knesset members and even ministers, tend to forget). But beyond that, reflecting on these ideas on the Eve of Shavuot, one could say that the Jew sees the Torah itself as an object of love. Thus, we have Psalm 119, the great “eight-fold” psalm, which is an extended love song to the Torah: “How I have loved your Torah, it is my discourse all day long!“; ”Wicked men have surrounded me, pressed upon me very much, but I have not departed from your Torah”; “I will take pleasure in Your commandments, which I love”; and so on

Then there is the 19th psalm, whose first half celebrates God’s presence in Creation—“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the works of His hand the firmament”—while its second half enumerates the praises of God’s Torah—“the Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul… its statutes faithful, making the fool wise; its ordinances are upright, gladdening the heart; its commandments are clear, making one’s eyes shine,” and ends by declaring that they are more precious than gold and sweeter than honey.

But we need look no further than the designation given to this Shabbat preceding Shavuot—Shabbat Kallah, the Sabbath of the Bride—to see the love in which the Torah was held. In this phrase, the Torah – much like the Shabbat in R. Shlomo Alkabetz’s hymn Lekha Dodi—is envisioned as a bride, beloved and anxiously awaited by her betrothed.

But not only is the Torah beloved of Israel. The Torah is also seen as the instrument of God’s love for Israel. The second blessing recited prior to Shema in the daily morning service is Ahavah Rabbah. “Great love have you loved us, O Lord our God; with great and excessive compassion have You been compassionate to us… For the sake of our fathers have compassion on us and teach us…. Merciful father, place it in our hearts to understand, to be enlightened, to hear, to teach and to learn, to observe and to fulfill, all the words of your Torah with love….” In brief, God expresses His love through giving the Torah.

But why and in what sense is the Torah an instrument of Divine love? I would suggest two answers to this question:
Judaism, as I understand it, does not see man as inherently evil—this, in contradistinction to the theology of classical Pauline Christianity, rooted in the doctrine of Original Sin. But neither does it see man as innately good, as Jean Jacques Rousseau held to be the case in the original, uncorrupted “state of nature,” or in what seems to be the underlying assumption of a certain kind of humanistic liberalism widespread in our own day, in which personal autonomy and freedom is elevated to the first principle of ethics. Human beings as such are morally neutral; every infant is born with the potential for the greatest good or the darkest evil, depending upon the education he receives and the choices he/she makes during the course of life.

This being the case, the human being is in need of guidance and direction, needs to be taught the good, godly way. And this is the role of Torah. Hence, the giving of the Torah is to be understood as an act of love, of kindness, of mercy and compassion that the Almighty shows to humankind, in order to deliver us from the chaotic whirlpool of impulses and desires which may easily lead one in diverse and often random ways. The ultimate goal is not Olam Haba, nor to become an otherworldly Tzaddik, but simply to be a Mensch.

Secondly, the Torah is an act of love in that it helps humankind, and specifically the Jew, to know God. There are those rare individuals—mystics, prophets, men of extraordinary spiritual powers and intuition—who may perhaps (and I emphasize the word “perhaps”) apprehend the Divine by exercising their own inner powers. But this is not the high road of Judaism. Long long ago, shortly after the destruction of the First Temple, the age of prophecy ended and the age of the Sages, the rabbis and teachers, men of learning and tradition, began. Why? What did this change signify?
God is infinite, transcendent, far beyond human understanding and comprehension. The human being is finite, earthbound, mortal, torn between his biological nature and his spiritual and intellectual yearnings. The Torah somehow serves as a bridge between the finite and the infinite, the human and the Divine—an idea particularly emphasized in Hasidism, for example, in R. Nahum of Chernobyl’s Me’or Einayim. It is a realistic path, based, not upon supernatural or esoteric ideas or disciplines, but a Torah of life—a Torah that addresses the real life situation and problems of real human beings. This being so, its being given to man—however one understands the concept of Revelation or what happened at Sinai—was a great act of love and kindness on the part of God.

Behukotai (Wanderings)

Behar (Wanderings)

Emor (Wanderings)

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim (Wanderings)