Friday, July 19, 2013

Vaethanan (Ramban)

“The Lord’s Torah is Perfect”

As we mentioned last week, following the successful conclusion of his debate with the Christian polemicist Pablo Christiani, Ramban remained in Barcelona another eight days and (most probably) on Shabbat Vaethanan delivered a major sermon entitled Torat ha-Shem Temimah (see Chavel, Kitvei Ramban, I: 139–175), at which King James I of Aragon, who seems to have become somewhat of an admirer of Ramban’s (even though he thought he was wrong about Jesus) was present.

Contrary to what I wrote last week, I must postpone a full discussion of this major work for a later date, due to various other pressing obligations, and will treat it here only briefly. The title of this derashah is taken from Psalm 19—a psalm that is no doubt familiar to many readers as the first of those special psalms added to Pesukei de-Zimra on Shabbat morning. This psalm is divided into two balanced, complementary sections: one praising God for His manifestations in the Creation (“the heavens declare the glory of God…”), particularly in the sun, which sheds its light daily upon the entire world daily; while the second half praises God for His manifestation in Torah—a division reminiscent of the two blessings preceding the reading of Shema in the Morning Service (Yotzer Or and Ahavah Rabbah). Ramban, who devotes this address to the centrality of the Torah and to an exposition of the Ten Commandments—that portion of the Torah that was revealed directly to the entire people at Sinai, and whose text is repeated here, in Parashat Vaethana—explains why the latter is in some sense superior to the former:

It is written: “The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; The testimony of the Lord is trustworthy, making wised the fool” [Ps 19:8]. After saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God” [ibid, 2], he [the psalmist] turned and explicated the praise of the Torah, saying that it declares the praise of the Holy One blessed be He even more so than the heavens and the sun and the moon and the stars mentioned earlier, at the beginning of this psalm. And the meaning of this matter is that David began by stating that the heavens tell the glory of God, because the movements of the heavens are constant and eternal, and everything that is in motion requires that which sets it in motion [that is, every phenomenon must have a cause]. Thus, the heavens make known the glory of God—that is, that there is a powerful God who moves them through His power and His Divinity; hence, it speaks of El [i.e., the generic term for God, signifying power], as in “I have the power to…” [יש לאל ידי; Gen 31:29]. And the firmament is the uppermost sphere, which moves from east to west, opposite to the motion of the others, thereby declaring the works of his hands, which are the created things. And this matter is clear, and a proof that the philosophers established through speculation alone.

Ramban here presents, in a nutshell, the well-known argument for the existence of God from the orderly working of Creation. Note his pre-Copernican world-view—te earth at the center, surrounded by a series of concentric celestial spheres—which was how everybody thought in his day. But he then turns to the assertion that the Torah is an even better argument for God—a subject that forms the main subject of this lengthy homily:

But after he spoke of how the heavens and the sun tell [of God’s glory], saying “There is no speech and no words… their rays are gone out to the entire earth” [vv. 4-5] up to “and naught is hidden from its heat” [v. 7], he then said, “The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul”—that is: true, these are clear proofs of the glory of God, and all of them are the works of His hands, but the Torah of the Lord [NB: from here on the psalmist uses the God’s “proper name,” YHWH] is more perfect than that, and it restores the soul and conveys wisdom to the fool—that is, it removes all doubt from the hearts, for the Sages, and even for those who do not comprehend the laws of the heavens and of the celestial order system of the stars [the Torah does so]. And he engaged in hyperbole in the praise of the Torah in this psalm….

All this is only by way of introduction. He asserts that the Torah tells of God’s praises even more so than the cosmos, as even one who does not understand the laws of physics and the argument from creation can know of God’s greatness through the Torah—but the details of this argument are developed during the course of this sermon, to which we will return, bli neder, next week, Parshat Ekev, in greater depth.

TISHA B’AV: Afterthoughts

1. On Tisha b’Av morning I led the reading of the Kinot (in abbreviated form) at one of the local shuls, I began with a concise but basic insight: Prayer and Torah study are the central channels for the Jewish way of relating to God, The absence of both of them is the striking sign of the stark difference between this day and all other days of the prayer—it is, before all else, a day of hester panim, of God’s hiddenness, when we feel God to be distant, in accessible. We do not study, and whatever prayer we do is pro forma, the minimal nusah. Nor is it a ta’anit tzibbur, a public fast day inm the usual sense of a day devoted to teshuvah, to inward soul-searching and correction of public faults, but a day of bitter mourning, of bewailing the Destruction, the archetype of all Jewish tragedies, and also a day of daring to question God’s justice, of asking questions of theodicy.

All this applies to the evening and morning of Tisha b’Av; during the afternoon, as mentioned earlier, the mourning is somewhat muted, the themes of teshuvah and the possibility of prayer are reopened, and there are certain rays of hope, of the possibility of redemption.

But I noticed something interesting. Most of the haftarah read in the morning is devoted to a graphic description of the catastrophe and feelings of despair (“The harvest is past, the summer is gone, and we have not been saved… Death has climbed into our windows, come into our mansions”: Jer 8:20; 9:20). But it concludes with a verse of a very different valence: “Let not the wise man take pride in his wisdom, nor the hero in his strength or bravery, nor the rich man in his wealth; but let he who would be praised do so for this: in comprehending and knowing Me; for I am the Lord, doing kindness, justice, and righteousness in the land…” (Jer 9:22-23). Interestingly, these are the very words chosen by Maimonides to end his philosophic magnum opus, The Guide for the Perplexed (III.54), as if to say: the ultimate goal of human life is not cognitive, philosophical knowledge of God, (notwithstanding that he states this as the activity in which human beings will engage in the End of Days, as per Hilkhot Melakhim 12), but ethical behavior, inter-personal righteousness, the pursuit of social justice and helping others. This we come full circle to the goal of teshuvah, and to what is the ultimate correction to the sins of social injustice and needless hate (which I would translate into modern terms as lack of social cohesion) which, so Hazal tell us, precipitated the Destruction.

2. During the afternoon I listened by webcast to a shiur given by Rabbi J. J. Schachter—an impressive scholar and teacher, one of the heirs to Rav Soloveitchik’s Tisha b’Av teaching tradition, who combines the attributes of talmid-hakham and serious historian. He addressed the question as to whether or not that ought to be separate days of mourning for various tragic events—viz., today, how to commemorate the Holocaust—or whether they ought o be subsumed under the exclusive archetypal status of Tisha b’Av. There are precedents for both positions in the history of the halakhah and Jewish practice. Thus, following the Crusader ‘s massacres of the Rhineland communities in 1096, there were those who introduced local fast days. There was even discussion as to whether one might decree a fast day on Rsh Hodesh Sivan, the day that Worms was overrun, and if so, how (a compromise was reached by fasting half a day); likewise whether on might say Tahanun on the 3rd of Sivan, the day Magenze was decimated. On the other hand, the kinah, Mi Yiten Roshi Mayim, which commemorates these events, stipulates that “as we do not add days of weeping and dirges,” we do so on Tisha b’Av.

In 1171 there was a massacre of Jews in the French town of Blois, in wake of a blood libel, and 20th Sivan was instituted as a fast day. Over time, it feel into disuse, but after Chmelnicki massacres in the Ukraine in 1648-49, it was revived, and 20th Sivan was observed as a fast throughout Eastern Europe until the early twentieth century.

In modern times, there was a debate as to whether or not to institute a fast day and or day of commemoration for the Shoah; there are records of interesting exchanges between the Haredi leader, the Hazon Ish, and Israel’s Chief Rabbi Herzog, over this issue, the former opposing any such innovation, the latter invoking earlier precedents for introducing new days in wake of major catastrophes. Interestingly, in this respect Rav Soloveitchik displayed a very conservative tendency, concentrating all mourning and commemoration on Tisha b’Av. He did not even see the need for a new kinah for the Holocaust, preferring a kind of archetypal thinking: “When we mention Speyer in that kinah, we think of Vilna; when we say Worms, we think of Warsaw”—and so on (and if so, I would add, let Magenze stand for Odessa).

3. Another simple, even obvious insight that occurred to me, but which I never heard stated explicitly: that the Kinot are arranged in a very definite logical order, divided into several groups:

a. Piyyutim by R. Eleazar Hakalir about the Destruction of the Temple (mostly First?) per se. Most of these are built upon phrases from Eikhah and/or alphabetical acrostics; several raise questions of theodicy. One lengthy kinah is built around the 24 priestly mishmerot (“watches”)—rotating groups each one of which served in the Temple for one week every half-year.

b. Events surrounding and following the Destruction of the Second Temple: the Ten Martyrs (Arzei ha-Levanon); the son and daughter of R. Yishmael sold into slavery (Ve-et nevei hatati ahimah).

c. Kinot relating to the person of Jeremiah: his dialogue with the patriarchs upon visiting their graves; with the Shekhinah; mourning King Josiah (Az bahalokh Yirmiyahu).

d. Tragedies of the Middle Ages: the Crusaders destruction of the Rhineland communities (Mi yiten roshi mayim); burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1242 (Sha’ali serufah ba-esh); etc.

e. Tziyonim: R. Judah Halevi’s piyyut of yearning for Zion (Tzion halo tishali lishlom asirayikh) and a long series of others based upon it.

f. Concluding section: Avraham Rosenfeld’s kinah for the Holocaust; Eli Tzion ve-araeha, whose melody that serves as a musical leit-motif for this period of mourning; and the concluding prayer, “Have mercy on Zion” (terahem Tzion).

Beyond the excellent line-by-line commentaries on the Kinot by Daniel Goldschmidt and, recently, in Englsih , of Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings, a simple outline of the kinot, with a one-or-two line summary of the author, background and contents of each one is a desideratum. Bli neder, if Messiah doesn’t come by next year.


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