Friday, August 24, 2012

Shoftim (Wanderings)

“Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue”

This parashah, devoted to a variety of social institutions, begins with those of law and justice—courts and magistrates. It occurred to me that the words צדק צדק תרדף —“You shall surely pursue justice”—with which the first section concludes, is a bit odd. It is as if to say: Justice is elusive, it needs to be actively pursued to assure its existence. There are always forces opposing it, people who stand to benefit by injustice and oppression, robbing the weak and helpless, as in the old folk song, “Some rob you with a pistol, some with a fountain pen.” This idea is further suggested by the verses that immediately precede it, which so to speak list all the obstacles or barriers to justice: “Do not pervert justice; do not favor ‘faces’ (i.e., important people); do not take bribes, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and distorts the words of the righteous” (Deut 16:19).

No person is safe from self-interest, the temptation of easy gain at the expense of the other. Even the wise man, who knows full well when he is doing wrong or “bending” the rules to his own or his friend’s unfair advantage; even the righteous man may fall prey to temptation—as if to say, no man is “righteous” as a fixed quality of his being as a person. Justice, truth, righteousness, integrity, are all the results of a daily struggle to do good and not to be influenced or tempted to depart from the straight and narrow. There may be people who are called tzadikkim, but they have the same inner struggles as everyone else, and at times they fail (albeit hopefully less frequently), just like the next person.

That is why the person who truly practices justice—particularly the judge, who is supposed to be the guardian of justice for society, using his authority to protect the weak and helpless from those who would oppress them and deprive them of what is rightfully theirs—is called a partner of the Almighty. Thus, when Rabbi Akiva sat as judge he would say to the litigants, ”You are not standing before Akiva ben Yosef, but before He who spoke and the world came into being.”

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Parshat Shoftim was chosen to open the Torah readings of Elul, “the month of forgiveness and compassion,” the month devoted to teshuvah. One of the areas in which most people, both individuals and communities, in most places and times, need to examine themselves, is that of justice. Indeed, we are told that one of the three questions asked of a person after he dies and his soul is called before the Heavenly tribunal is נשאת ונתת באמונה—“Did you behave honestly in your business dealings?” Our tradition poses high demands in this area. It is unfortunate that the term teshuvah (repentance, turning towards God) has been hijacked by the pietists and identified in the public imagination with becoming religiously observant. As Rambam says in Chapter 7 of Hilkhot Teshuvah, it is much more than that: first and foremost, it involves rectifying one’s character faults and one’s ethical behavior.

Some weeks ago (HY XIII: Mattot-Masei) I discussed the first six blessings of the middle section of the weekday Amidah; at the time, I promised readers that I would return to discuss the second group of six, something I still hope to do. In the meanwhile, I would like to mention one important point, germane to this discussion. The main theme of these six latter blessings is the redemption of Israel; the first stage mentioned, after the ingathering of exiles, is the restoration of true justice. This includes the restoration of the Sanhedrin as an institution, but more than that, the Sanhedrin and the other courts are seen as embodying a pure, holy, upright, God-inspired system of justice. Until that happens, we cannot go on to the restoration of the Davidic monarchy, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the indwelling of Shekhinah. There are those in Israel who sometimes talk as if Messianic fulfillment were just around the corner—but they are “jumping the gun.” Israeli society, beginning with its leadership, has a long way to go to become a society that manifests justice, righteousness and caring loving-kindness to all—and it is that which must be our highest priority.


EKEV: “Make a Wooden Ark”

Two weeks ago, in our discussion of the retelling of various historical events in Sefer Devarim, we mentioned the manner in which the story of the Golden Calf is related there. Perhaps the most striking point, which I somehow failed to mention : in its retelling in Parshat Ekev, Moses’ entire dialogue with God, in which he asks to “make known to me Your ways” and “show me Your glory” is omitted, as is the Duvine response, in which God places him in the cleft of the rock, covers him with His hand, shows him His “back” but not His “face”; and reveals to him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy—all these details, pregnant with profound if mysterious and ambiguous theological significance, are absent.

Instead (?), God instructs Moses to make an ark of wood, and to place therein the two stone tablets on which He will write, a second time, the Ten Commandments. All this seems very different from the commandment in Exodus 25 to make an ark of wood inlaid and overlaid with gold in the larger context of building a tabernacle. The only coherent explanation I can think of is that the ark is a reminder to the people of the sin of the calf and of their culpability and, most of all, of God’s forgiveness, symbolized by the giving of the second tablets. This may also explain why the revelation of the thirteen attributes of mercy are omitted; the ark of the covenant is a kind of sign of the same act of Divie forgiveness, albeit in a far more muted sense. (On this entire subject see my essay at HY I: Ki Tisa= [Torah]).

RE’EH: On Leviticus and Deuteronomy

Last week I conducted a comparison of the laws in Re’eh with their counterparts in the earlier humashim. I noted that the laws in Deuteronomy, generally, whether those dealing specifically with religious institutions, such as the Temple, tithes, festivals, etc., or those dealing with other aspects of societal life, seem far more socially oriented, This tendency continues in this week’s parashah, Shoftim, and in the one thereafter.

A thought that occurred to me during the course of the Torah reading last Shabbat: since time immemorial, it would seem, there have been two basic approaches to religion, within Judaism and in the human community generally. The one sees religion as a distinct realm of life, “holy” and “sanctified” in the sense of being separate and isolated insofar as possible from the mundane realm; a place to which, as it were, man may escape from the chaos and tensions of “real” life to find solace for his tormented soul. (Is that why so many religions insist on segregation of the sexes in the realm of the holy?) The holy is perceived as a realm complete unto itself, almost hermetically sealed-off from the rest of life by a series of rules and rituals, inter alia symbolized by the physical walls of the Temple or synagogue (kedushat mehitzot; or those of the church, mosque, monastery, place of “retreat,” etc.) This approach is epitomized by the attempt to apprehend what Rudolph Otto has called Der Ganz Anders—God as the “Wholly Other,” the mysterium tremendum.

The other approach is one which sees religion as integrated within and guiding life, as attempting to sanctify life by teaching human beings how to live with themselves and with one another as beings created betzelem elohim, in the Divine image; through the study and practice of Torah as embodying ethical values and ideals; through the halakhah, which is seen first and foremost, as an instrument for teaching decent and upright behavior, thereby sanctifying everyday life. Or, if you prefer, one might speak of these as the “priestly” and “prophetic” approaches.

The point is that neither of these is “right” or “wrong”; each one reflects a part of the desired path to be followed by the religious human being. (In much the same way, God is described as both “transcendent” and “immanent,” neither one exhausting the mystery of His Being—a point particularly strongly articulated in Hasidic thought). Thus, one might argue that, by presenting us with both these codes of law, the Torah ends up, in its totality, giving us a rounded, more complete picture of how things should be than if we were to have had only one or the other.

Another point: there is an enigma in the section concerning kosher and unkosher birds in the kashrut code of Chapter 14, verses 11-20. This section begins with the verse כל צפור טהורה תאכלו (“You may eat every pure [species of] bird”), and ends with the almost identical phrase, כל עוף טהור תאכלו (“you may eat every pure winged creature”). In ordinary Hebrew usage, the words tzippor and ‘of are virtually synonymous, being used almost interchangeably to refer to birds. Indeed, the Even-Shoshan Dictionary defines ‘of as referring to vertebrates which have a beak, feathers, and wings—in other words, a bird; the word tzippor refers to the smaller members of this group. But it occurred to me, half in whimsy, that with some stretching this could be read as alluding to locusts and other winged insects which the Torah permits in Lev 9. Ibn Ezra supports this interpretation.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Re'eh (Wanderings)

“This Repetition of the Torah”

With this week’s Torah portion, we begin that part of Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) devoted to a systematic legal code. As I stated last week with regard to the narrative-historical-sermonic part of this book, here too a close reading with an eye to comparison with the earlier books of the Torah can be very instructive and enlightening, shedding light on the significance of this seeming repetition of what appears earlier.

And indeed, nearly all of the subjects treated in this parashah (Deut 12-16) are repetitions of subjects found earlier in the Torah: the Sanctuary or Temple; kashrut; tithes; the sabbatical year; festivals. But upon closer examination we find that, in every case, these laws are told in a different way than in the earlier books, with different emphases, and are brought here primarily—so it would seem—davka for the innovations therein.

To begin: the legal section of our parashah (the actual reading begins with a half-dozen verses that round off the more general, sermonic themes of the first three Torah portions) begins with the subject of religious worship, the service of the Almighty at a special site set apart for that purpose—a subject which dominates the latter half of Exodus (Chs. 25-31; 35–40), the first half of Leviticus (Chs. 1–16, 21-22), and scattered sections of Numbers, describing the building of the Sanctuary (forerunner of the Temple in Jerusalem), the types of sacrifices to be offered there, the laws of purity and avoidance of the numerous sources of bodily impurity, which are a sine qua non of the performance of its service, and various laws concerning the priesthood. In the corresponding chapter here, there are virtually no details of the korbanot, the specifics of the how, what, when and where of the offerings. Instead, there is a rather sweeping statement, “There you shall bring your burnt-offerings and your whole-offerings, your tithes and gift-offerings, your vows and free-will offerings and the first born of kine and flock… And you shall eat them there before the Lord your God” (12:4–5). The main idea is the centralization of worship in one place: “that place which the Lord your God shall choose from among your tribes to make His Name dwell there” (a phrase repeated a dozen or more times in the course of the parashah); all this, in stark contrast to the indigenous pagans who worship their gods “on every high mountain and hill and under every leafy tree” (ibid., v. 2).

Thus, a related subject, the flip-side of worshipping the one God, is the rejection of idolatrous worship. Whereas in the earlier books of the Torah this prohibition is stated firmly but briefly, without much elaboration, here it is a subject of central concern. Particularly important here are the social dangers of mingling with the indigenous pagan population and the need to avoid various forms of pagan proselytizing.

A third subject which looms large in our parashah is that of kashrut: those forms of flesh—mammals, fish and fowl—permitted and forbidden for consumption. At first glance, Chapter 14 is not dissimilar from Leviticus 11, even down to the specific listing, by name, of the various species of prohibited birds. But there are differences: here, it is not rooted in quite the same way in the laws of tum’ah (even though the word is mentioned here, in passing), in that it does not discuss how contact with certain carcasses may contaminate foodstuffs, vessels, etc; where possible, it is slightly more concise; there is no mention of those few species of insect—grasshoppers and locusts—which it is permitted to eat (a practice which has long since fallen into desuetude among most Jews); and, perhaps most important, it concludes with several laws of a more general nature: the prohibition against eating carcasses of animals which died by themselves and, by implications, the law of shehitah; the ban against blood; and what we know as the prohibition against cooking or eating meat and milk together, which appears in two places in Exodus in a rather strange context. The overall impressions is that we have here something like an orderly code of kashrut, of what the Israelite person may and may not eat, as a part of everyday life without being related to the sphere of the pure and the holy.

Tithes: in Numbers 18:21–32 we find the laws of tithes for Levites. Here, too, a tithe is separated from all produce, but it is consumed by Israelites when they go to the Temple on pilgrimage—what is referred to by Hazal as the “second tithe”; moreover, there is a three-year cycle, in which every third year the tithe goes to the poor instead. In other words, in addition to (or some might say, instead of) tithes and gifts to the religious functionaries (priests and Levites), the tithe serves a more general purpose for the population as a whole: to enhance the sacred celebration on pilgrimage feasts, and to help the poor and indigent (including, in passing, the Levite, who is without a homestead).

Sabbatical year: In Leviticus 25 the sabbatical year is described as “a Sabbath for the land”: no agricultural labor is done; the land lies fallow except for what grows by itself; and, instead of private ownership of its produce, all are free to help themselves to its natural yield—among other things, a social regulation that, for one year, levels off the economic differences in society. In Deut 15:1-11, this idea is complemented by the remission of all debts—a lofty ideal, giving those who have fallen into debt an opportunity to start afresh. Precisely because this idea is such a radical one, and those with money are understandably reluctant to loan it to others out of fear that it will be cancelled in the remission year, the Torah emphasizes the moral imperative of doing so, saying, roughly: Don’t bear an “evil thought” in your head that you won’t loan money to those in need because of your own selfish considerations, but do it nevertheless (vv. 9-10). This noble and generous-spirited legislation clearly reveals the primitive socialist spirit of the Torah. But halakhah and moral admonitions were of no help, and in the end, when the Sages saw that this law it was unworkable, it was legislated out of existence through the legal fiction of the prusbul. In this way the halakhah was forced to take account of the meaner realities of human nature, as otherwise no one would lend out money to anyone else (also, society and the economy became more complicated, and loans began to be made for investment and speculation, diminishing the moral character of the remission, intended to ease the burden of those that suffered real need).

Festivals: Unlike Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28-29, which detail the sacrificial offerings brought on each of the festivals (including Sabbath and Rosh Hodesh, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), here the festivals are primarily occasions for pilgrimage of “every male” to “the place which the Lord shall choose.” The only offering specifically mentioned is the Paschal offering, which is central to the observance of Pesah; otherwise, each family unit brings of whatever God has blessed them, from both livestock and field produce, to and “rejoice before the Lord your God.” The festivals, as we may infer also from the Psalms, were occasions for the whole people to be together, to be part of the “joyous multitude,” impressing upon each person not only the almost-tangible presence of God in the holy center, but also the sense of belonging to this people.

It is clear from this brief survey that the Mishneh Torah is not a simple repetition of what comes in the earlier books, but that in almost every case familiar institutions are mentioned with the addition of some new and significant element.

How are we to understand all this? One solution offered by modern scholarship is that of biblical criticism—that the Book of Deuteronomy was written by a different hand, in a different time, reflecting a different religious approach than the other books. An interesting question is whether one can be a pious, observant Jew without believing in the unity and Mosaic authorship of the Torah, but acknowledging some sort of historical development. I have addressed this issue elsewhere. (see HY X: Bamidbar –Shavuot [=Zohar]).

But there is another way of reading these texts, somewhat in the spirit of the late Rabbi Mordecai Breuer: namely, that the use of different textual layers is a kind of organic means of dealing with the multi-faceted and complex issues of human life addressed by the Torah. In this view, Devarim serves as an organic, natural complement to the earlier laws, adding new laws suitable to the new situation of a people living in its own land, as against the more sacramentally-oriented cult of the tribes living in the desert, close to the holy place. There is thus a shift of emphasis: In Leviticus, the realm of the holy is a kind of sphere unto itself, with a daily routine of sacred service somehow detached from the everyday life of society. Here, the holy place is much more a kind of focal point of society—the center to which people ascend periodically on pilgrimages, and more generally, for a gamut of offerings related to personal events.

This point is felt even more strongly in the following two parshiyot, which deal, respectively, with the institutions of society as whole (the king, the high court, the military, the prophet, etc.), and the multitude of situations encountered in family and inter-personal life. Thus, many of the laws in Shoftim and Ki Teitsei are totally new, not mentioned at all in the first four books. But that is for another time.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Ekev (Wanderings)

Sefer Devarim: Retelling the Story

Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy), whose third parashah we read this Shabbat, differs from other books of the Torah in that it serves as a kind of recapitulation or re-presentation of the essential contents of the first four books. Structured as Moses’ farewell talks to the people, it is known in classical Rabbinic sources as Mishneh Torah, “the Second Torah or “repetition of the Torah”; interestingly, its name in Western languages, Deuteronomy, means much the same, being composed of the Greek deutero (“two” or “second”) and nomos (“law” or “word”). The great Hasidic teacher Sefat Emet, in an interesting image (Par. Devarim 5659, s.v. mishneh torah) says that Sefer Devarim bears the same relation to the rest of the Torah as the tefillin shel yad do to the tefillin shel rosh: whereas the tefillin shel rosh has four separate compartments, each with a single scroll (corresponding, as it were, to the other four humashim), tefillin shel yad has one long scroll containing the same four sections written one after another.

The first three or so parshiyot of this book contain exhortations to the people to keep the Torah and its commandments, to love and fear God, illustrated through various historical events that befell them on the way. The next three—Re’eh, Shoftim and Ki Teitsei—constitute a codex of laws, combining repetition of laws already found in the earlier books with new laws particularly pertinent to their new situation of dwelling as an autonomous people and society on its own land (more on that next week). The final parshiyot—five in number, but mostly very short—contain miscellaneous instructions, a ceremony of blessing and curses, a solemn admonition as to the dire consequences of disobedience to God’s commandments, Moses’ hortatorical “Song,” his final blessings to the twelve tribes, and an account of his death.

Given that so much of the material here is a recounting of events described earlier, it seems to me that a basic question one must ask oneself while reading thes4e chapters is: how is the story told here? How much of it is simple repetition, and in what ways, subtle or obvious, does the account here—the “twice-told tale,” to borrow a phrase from aggadah scholar Joshua Levinson—differ from that found in earlier books, and why? This question may be asked about the historical incidents related here and, in a somewhat different way, about the laws in Chapter 12 on. A few examples:

This week’s parasha contains the oft-quoted phrase לא על הלחם לבדו יחיה האדם, usually translated (e.g., in the King James Version), as “man does not live by bread alone.” This verse is most often understood as implying that man has spiritual needs—cultural, intellectual, emotional, intellectual and religious—and is not satisfied with simply having his belly filled. But the meaning of the verse in its original context here is very different. It is imbedded in a description of how God took the people Israel out of Egypt, guided them and sustained them in the desert, protected them from snakes and wild animals, miraculously preserved their clothing and shoes from falling apart. Here the Torah says, “He subjected you to hardship and to hunger, and feed you the manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers, so as to make known to you that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that comes from the mouth of God man may live” (Deut 8:3). The message here is very different from the popular understanding mentioned above, and is in fact much narrower: God fed you in the desert with manna to teach you your dependence upon God, and that God can bring about things outside of the ordinary order of nature, feeding you, not with bread, but with a strange sort of stuff that appeared every morning out of nowhere, thereby displaying His power, His greatness, and His loving concern.

But that is not all. Turning back to the original account of the manna in Exodus 16, we find a rather different picture. To begin with, of course, the subject of the manna is introduced and described there at great length. The time is a few days after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and the matzot which the people baked in Egypt and took with them as their main food supply have presumably been finished; the manna is a special, miraculous form of food which God causes to appear in the field early in the morning, covered by dew, to feed the people. In this chapter the Torah mentions two religious lessons or rationales related to it, specifically (apart from the general idea that there is nothing to eat in the desert, including the wheat from which one ordinarily makes bread). First, “that I may test them, [to see] if they will walk in my Torah or not” (Exod 16:4). It was at this point, at a place called Marah, that the people were commanded to observe the Shabbat (this is only stated explicitly in a midrash at Sanhedrin 56b, but one based on a clear logical inference), and not gather the manna on the Shabbat day; in order to assure that they would have enough to eat on Shabbat as well, a double portion of manna fell on Fridays. This was, if you will, a kind of harbinger of the idea of Friday as a day of preparation for Shabbat. Some people nevertheless went out into the field on Shabbat to look for manna, angering the Lord, who asks rhetorically “How long will you refuse to observe My commandments and teachings?!” (16:28). Secondly, the manna was a means of assuring the people “that you may know that the Lord has taken you out of the land of Egypt” (16:6 ff.); significantly, the language used here is similar to that used about the plagues in Egypt. Thus, the allusion to the meaning in our verse is not only far briefer—a half-sentence reminder of something described in considerable detail in the original telling—but also infers a rather different religious lesson than that given there.

Another example: the incident of the Golden Calf. Here, the retelling of the story in our parashah is more elaborate, spanning more than thirty verses (Deut 9:8–10:10), as is only fitting for what was seen as the traumatic event of the post-Exodus period, the watershed in which the people were exposed in all their faults and insecurities. The sin of the Calf put an end to the illusion that the people might simply accept the Torah, worship the one true God, build the Tabernacle, and live a happy and pious life forever after. Indeed, the Midrash even sees the Sin of the Calf as a kind of reenactment, on the collective level, of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden, with analogous consequences for the unfolding of sacred history.

But here too, while the story is retold at some length, it is nevertheless far more concise than in Exodus 32–34, and omits numerous incidents that are ultimately tangential to the basic moral. Aaron’s role is nearly non-existent, alluded to in but a few words (9:20); the graphic account of the making of the calf, the people’s worship thereof involving an orgiastic festival, Joshua’s exchange with Moses about the shouts heard from the camp, the role of the Levites—all these colorful elements are absent. There is basically nothing but God, Moses, and the people. The account is introduced by the phrase, “You are a stiff-necked people; Remember, do not forget, how you have infuriated the Lord from the day that you went out if Egypt… and at Horeb you infuriated Him…” (Deut 9:6-8); and later, “… You have been rebellious against the Lord since the day that I knew you….” (9:24). The essential point is that throughout the desert period the people showed a propensity to throw off God’s yoke, and time and again were only saved by God’s compassion overcoming His fury (a subject noted in the Daf Yomi for this past week, where God, so to speak, prays to Himself that His mercy may overcome his rage, and is blessed in a similarly vein by R. Yishmael b. Elisha; see Berakhot 7a). All this requires no little intervention by Moshe, whose “falling before the Lord” in prayer and supplication for forty days and nights is noted in three separate verses (9:18; 9:25; 10:10).

This message of the people’s general rebelliousness and disobedience may explain an anomaly I found in this account: that the retelling of the Calf story is interrupted several times by seemingly extraneous material—at 9:22–24 (which also mentions Tav’erah, Masah and Kivrot ha-Ta’avah, and the Spy incident) and again at 10:6–9—and then resumed. If the main purpose is to us e the rebellion ”at Horeb” as one example of repeated behavior, then the digression, or at least the former one, are part of the story (although I am hard put to understand what 10:6-9 is doing here.)

A second anomaly, a detail not mentioned at all in Exodus 32–34, is the making by Moses of an ark of wood in which to place the two stone tablets which he made, containing the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 25:10-16, the ark is made as part of the larger project of building the Tabernacle; while it is made of wood, it is overlaid and inlaid with gold; and it is made by Bezalel. This point requires further study.

One could add cite further examples: most notably, that of the incident of the Spies, which was a crisis comparable in gravity to the Sin of the Calf (compare Deut 1:22-40 with Numbers 13–14). But due to lack of space I will not conduct that comparison here, but leave it to the inquisitive reader to figure out for him/herself. I trust that the examples I have brought will suffice to illustrate the dramatic ways in which their retelling in Deuteronomy sheds new light on familiar stories.

PS to Vaethanan: More On Torah Study, Haredim ,etc.

1. Haredim. Last week I strongly criticized the public policy of the Haredi leadership. It is important nevertheless to know that their exclusive, even fanatical focus on building up full-time Torah study has its roots in a certain perception of Jewish history, and was not originally motivated by the desire for power, money or political influence. The Haredim—certainly such figures as the Brisker Rav, the Hazon Ish, and Rav Aharon Kutler, all now ztz”l—were motivated by the trauma of Holocaust. Prior to the Shoah, for several centuries, Eastern Europe had served as a center of Torah learning possibly unprecedented in Jewish history, being the home and center of influence of an impressive array of geonei Torah (although numerically fewer than the nearly 100,000 bakhurim learning today). Some escaped, but many of the greatest talmidei hakhamim and their students were killed; in any event the centers were destroyed, and those that survived had to recreate Torah institutions in new places, starting from scratch. Thus, the idea of rebuilding what had been lost became a single-minded obsession.

Regarding the survival of Torah life during the Holocaust: it is worth mentioning in particular the remarkable story of Yeshivat Mir, whose students were given visas by the Japanese vice-consul to Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, a true righteous Gentile. which escaped en masse through Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad, crossed from Vladivostok to Japan, and from there crossed back to the mainland where they settled for the duration of the war, establishing a yeshiva in Shanghai; later many of the “Shanghai Mirrers” were among the major Torah teachers and leaders during the latter half of twentieth century. I was privileged to know and even work alongside some of these men, and they were truly remarkable individuals.

2. About kevi’at itim la-torah, having fixed time for Torah study: Daf Yomi is but one of many options. There are those who criticize the Daf Yomi because the pace is too fast and does not allow for study in depth. There are many people who study Talmud every day (or several times a week, or regularly on Shabbat afternoon), covering however much or little as they may do in the time set aside for this, on their own or in small study groups in their synagogue, pursuing digressions and questions that arise during the course of study. Or one may study Mishnah, or halakhah, or Tanakh, or the weekly Torah portion (whose study, or reading through, is an obligation of sorts), or some text in Jewish thought. There are many who focus on Jewish mysticism—Zohar, Kabbalah, or Hasidut—although I would express some reservations about making it one’s exclusive diet, notwithstanding my own love of and interest in these areas. The main thing is that one study Torah every day.
I would also add that, given the wide variety of people in the Jewish religious community, in terms of level, textual ability and language, one may also study Torah in English (or in any other language with which one is comfortable); albeit, I believe that one who wishes to take his/her Judaism seriously should make efforts to learn Hebrew, at least to read texts in the original.

3. Women and Torah Study. A sharp-eyed reader from Switzerland noted that I glossed over a problematic aspect of this subject: namely, that the texts I quoted, such as Rambam, speak of women as being exempt, or even prohibited, from studying Torah; that the obligation to study devolves specifically on men, and that of teaching on fathers vis-à-vis their sons. I would respond by saying, first, that the halakhah was formulated in a strongly gender-differentiated society. The world in which we live is one in which women are involved in virtually all professions and realms of cultural endeavor, and have their share of attainments. This includes women’s involvement in Torah study, which has blossomed in recent decades, and there are a number of outstanding women scholars (one of whom, Devora Steinmetz, made the Siyyum ha-Shas I mentioned a few issues ago). Certainly, I believe there is a halakhic solution that allows for such change: women may take mitzvot upon themselves—Torah study, thrice-daily prayer, tefillin, etc. Much has been written on this subject, and this is not the place to elaborate upon it.

NOTE Interested readers are referred, inter alia, to my study on women as rabbis, Kuntres Semikhat Nashim, in HY II: Beha’alotkha [Haftarot] and the published version in To Be a Jewish Woman, II [Kolekh Conference Volume], where I bring further bibliography.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Vaethanan (Wanderings)

On Learning Torah

I wish to devote this issue to a discussion of the role of Torah study in Jewish life. This discussion is particularly germane at this time due to the confluence of several factors:

To begin with, this week’s parashah includes the first paragraph of Shema, which includes the verses: “And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart; and you shall repeat /teach them to your children [diligently], speaking of them when you sit in your home and go in the road; and when you lie down and when you get up” (Deut 6:6-7).

Second: today (this Friday, Erev Shabbat, 15 Menahem Av 5772) marks the beginning of a new seven-and-a-half year cycle of study of the Daf Yomi, the Daily Page of Talmud, the thirteenth in number since this practice was introduced by Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin in 1923. Although not in any sense an obligatory mitzvah per se, this discipline of daily Talmud study, done in tandem with tens of thousands of Jews throughout the world, has become increasingly popular in many diverse circles. Each cycle it seems to attract more and more participants (see above, HY XIII: Pinhas).

Third: about two weeks ago, one of the outstanding Torah figures in the Haredi world, considered by many the gadol hador or posek hador, the embodiment of the traditional ideal of the talmid hakham Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashev, died at age 102.

Finally: on a more controversial note: the role of Torah study and specifically the exemption of yeshiva bakhurim from service in the Israeli Army, has been a subject of great public controversy in Israel over recent months, with no clear agreed solution in sight.

To return to the above-mentioned biblical verses: while these verses are understood in the narrow sense of the twice-daily recitation of Shema, they also, or even primarily, allude to Torah study. Rav Soloveitchik, in a discussion of Keriat Shema that was the subject of a public lecture on the occasion of his father’s yahrzeit (Shiurim le-zekher Avi Mar z”l, I: 37ff.), spoke of the opening verses of Shema as reflecting three different aspects of accepting God’s kingship: 1) accepting His kingship and His unity (HASHEM Elohenu HASHEM Ehad: Deut 6:4); 2) love of God (ve-ahavta: 6:5); 3) accepting His rule through Torah and its study (6:6-7). The first two are essentially inner attitudes of the soul—what are variously called hovot ha-levavot, “obligations of the heart” (as in R. Bahya ibn Paquda’s book of that title) or mitzvot temidiot, “constant mitzvot”—that is, underlying attitudes which, because they are not dependent upon any action, may and should be a constant feature of a person’s consciousness. By contrast, study of Torah involves a concrete, specific act or activity. The fact that a practical mitzvah, albeit an intellectual one, is identified as one of the ways of accepting God’s kingship—more so, say, than prayer or sacrifice, which are referred to as “service”—lends it a cardinal position within the structure of the mitzvot generally. As Rambam puts it in Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh #5: “serve him in His Temple, serve him through His Torah.”


I once heard Rabbi Shlomo Riskin speak of Rambam’s Hilkhot Talmud Torah as giving three separate introductions or definitions of the commandment of Torah study:
First, that of teaching Torah. He begins, in 1:1-2, by stating that the parents, particularly the father, are obligated to teach their children Torah; thereafter to teach their grandchildren (which is seen as an especially powerful experience, almost Sinaitic in nature), and, more generally, for everyone capable of doing so to teach Torah “to all the students.” This definition is significant in that it is not at all concerned with an individual studying Torah for him/herself, but rather with transmitting knowledge and awareness of Torah to the next generation. In the forefront here is the concept of kehillat ha-mesorah, of Jewry as a community whose central source of vitality is based upon the tradition passed down from generation to generation, each person having personal responsibility to do his part in this process.

Secondly: studying Torah in a fixed and regular way every day. “Every person in Israel is required to study Torah—be he rich or poor, of sound body or wracked with pain and illness, old or young… he must fix a time to study Torah every day and every night” (1.8). A well-known midrash asserts that, upon his death, a person is asked three questions by the Heavenly Court: “Did you fix times for Torah? Did you engage honestly in your business dealings? Did you await redemption?” Torah study is seen as a central pillar of the well-lived life, alongside interpersonal ethics and messianic hope. This is the path of kevi’at itim la-Torah (which, incidentally, lies at the root of the Daf Yomi approach).

The third “beginning” speaks of one who wishes “to perform this mitzvah as is proper, and to be crowned with the crown of Torah” (3.6 ff.). Such a person must be prepared to submit to a very demanding discipline: to live an almost ascetic life, without comforts or luxuries; to dedicate himself to Torah intently, with long hours; to be a truly modest, humble person who eschews honor and power; and withal, not to live off charity, but to support himself in modest fashion by engaging in some form of remunerative activity a few hours a day.

(For a fuller presentation of many of the key passages in Hilkhot Talmud Torah, Chs 1 & 3, including texts, translation, and discussion, see HY V: Bamidbar, Shavuot [=Rambam]).


A few comments about the Haredi position:

The ideal described in Chapter 3 of Rambam is clearly not intended for the masses or for the majority the people in any community, but only for a small elite: for those who feel within themselves a deep inner desire to devote their life to Torah—for its own sake, and not for any side benefits that may accrue as a result, such as honor, social standing, financial support, or to avoid (evade?) the risks involved in military service in a country which has known warfare at least once every decade since its inception.

There seems something disingenuous about the Haredi claim that they are saving the Jewish people, and the argument that they “sustain the entire world” through their studies. One occasionally hears the idea that, if no words of Torah were to be studied somewhere in the world, even for one minute, even in the middle of night, the world would collapse into primordial chaos (tohu vavohu). I don’t know if this idea appears in any early source, in the Talmudic aggadah or classical midrash, or whether it is a later invention, but in either case it is clearly hyperbole and not a normative halakhah on which one can base behavior and public policy (not to mention its roots in magical or theurgic thinking). Moreover, it goes against the simple ethical insight that the lives of all people are equally valuable, and the corollary that all should be equally subject to necessary risks, implied in the rhetorical question, “Is your blood redder than that of your fellow?!”

Historically, the idea of the hevrat lomdah, in which everyone capable of doing so ought to learn Torah full time as long is possible, is an innovation. There are any number of Rabbinic sayings about the importance of Torah being combined with derekh eretz, in he sense of involvement in the world. The present Haredi ideal is an invention of the last half century or so, first developed by Rav Aharon Kutler in America and by the Brisker Rav (R. Velvel Soloveichik) and the Hazon Ish (R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz) in the land of Israel. This new Lithuanian ideas—ascetic, somewhat reclusive, pietistic—was very different from the old Litvishe type, which loved the intellectual give-and-take and creativity and constant quest for new insights and hiddushim in Torah, but which essentially lived among the “regular” Jewish people. A paper by historian Immanuel Etkes which I once translated discusses the nature of Torah learning in 19th century Europe. Outstanding scholars might be supported by their father-in-law (ess’n kest) for one to five years; if a person was an extraordinary scholar, he might receive a salaried communal post, as rabbi or judge, which enabled him to devote many hours of the day to study—but it also demanded certain duties and responsibilities, and in any event involved a small number of people, not tens of thousands of young adults who assert that “Torah is their profession.” The majority of those who studied in advanced yeshivas eventually “settled down,” married, raised families, worked for a living, and went to the Beit Midrash for an hour or two in the early morning and/or evening.

But most of all, the present situation creates a great Hillul Hashem—a situation which gives Torah and religion a bad name. Judaism is perceived by many people as something exploited to the unfair benefit of one sector of society, who contribute neither to the economy nor to the defense of the country, and expect large funds for its institutions as its due. All the more so at a time of budgetary cutbacks in such vital areas as health, education (the Israeli public school system is in deep trouble: where will the next generation of “Jewish geniuses” come from if this one is given an inferior education?), and social welfare. Moreover, one often gets the sense that the Haredi public, or at last their leadership, don’t really have a concept of citizenship, of being part of the Israeli body politic. There are those who avoid paying taxes, those who work in the “black economy” while supposedly studying Torah, who display open contempt for the authority of the police and the courts—but at the same time have sense of entitlement, that this arrangement is theirs by holy right, and not the result of political machinations funded by tax monies collected from hard-working secular or worldly-religious citizens. Some, at least the more extreme elements, see the State of Israel in much the same way as their ancestors viewed Gentile governments in the Diaspora or Europe.

Finally, the Haredi approach, as the most conservative interpretation of halakhah, has enormous influence over the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinic courts, and in such affect policy in things like marriage, divorce, conversion, etc. For me, this is perhaps most painful part: that Judaism is represented to much of the secular public, who don’t know any better, by an extremist caricature of itself.

Tisha b'Av (Wanderings)


Devarim (Wanderings)


Matot-Masei (Wanderings)