Friday, December 26, 2014


“Joseph the Provider”

In this week’s parashah, Joseph at long last reveals himself to his brothers and thereby begins the long-delayed process of reconciliation. During this same period of time, he attains the height of his activity as vizier to Pharaoh, conceiving a plan whereby the Egyptian people can survive the seven years of famine which had been revealed to him in his dreams. Yosef appears here, not only as an interpreter of dreams, but as a master economic planner.

His plan, at heart, is a simple one: during the seven years of plenty, the Egyptian monarchy, under Yosef’s guidance, gathered the surplus of food in huge silos and warehouses. Thereafter, during the years of want, this produce was sold to the people so that they could eat—first in exchange for money, then in exchange for their cattle and flocks, thereafter for their land, and finally, in exchange for their very bodes. Thus, everything and everyone in the entire country would ultimately belong to Pharaoh. In this way the people were able to endure the hardships of famine, but at what a price: “and the land belonged to Pharaoh” (Gen 47:20). A capitalist dream!

Having been raised with principles closer to those of socialism than to those of capitalism, I always found something extremely disquieting and distasteful in this whole story. After all, the land and its produce originally belonged to the peasants, to the little people who cultivated the land with their hard work, harnessing the blessings of the overflowing Nile to grow food. During the good years, they sold their surplus produce at reasonable, but probably not particularly high, prices. Then, as things got bad, they were forced to sell everything they owned—beginning with their flocks and land, and ending with themselves—at terms dictated from above. The central government, guided by Joseph, took advantage of their need, thanks to one simple, fortuitous fact—that they knew in advance that there would be years of famine. Thus, when the famine struck, they were able to sell the surplus produce of the good years back to the “little people” who had themselves grown it, at exorbitant prices.

Joseph could have made the news of the famine known to everyone, and told the people to put aside some of their excess produce against the bad years which were coming. But he did not; he kept the secret between himself and Pharaoh and their immediate circle, thereby benefiting from this “inside information.”

There are those who have compared Joseph’s role in this situation to that of FDR—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American president who guided the United States through the worst economic crisis in its history, the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Roosevelt set up the Social Security system, the works administration which provided jobs (and the dignity that goes with working and from earning one’s own living rather than living off the dole), and a series of other social measures that helped the ordinary people who were hit hard by the Depression. For Americans of my parents’ generation—even those far Left of him politically—Roosevelt was a revered and beloved father figure, larger than life, who saved the common man by introducing the concept of “hands-on” governmental involvement to help protect the ordinary person, insofar as possible, from such economic catastrophes. Many of the measures he introduced are with us to this day.

Some critics have suggested that Joseph may be compared to FDR. Indeed, Thomas Mann, in the final section of his monumental four-part novel retelling the saga of the patriarchs, Joseph and His Brothers, hints at such a parallel. But is it so?

Every year when I read this parashah I am deeply troubled by Joseph’s behavior. Rather than comparing him to FDR, one might compare him to the “Court Jew” of the Middle Ages and of early modern times, who advised the powerful how best to manage situations to their own advantage—and were generously rewarded for these efforts. How then are we to understand Yosef?

Without Joseph’s vision, without his interpretation of Pharaoh’s prophetic dream— which the Torah tells us was a direct message from the Divine—the Egyptian people would have died of starvation. He saved them. But at what price?! And could it have been in a different, more egalitarian, “democratic” fashion?

Hanukkah (Parshanut)

Mai Hanukkah? What is Its Message for us?

From a traditional perspective, grounded in and informed by traditional texts, Hanukkah is not really a holiday at all: it is not a yom tov in any halakhic sense. In the classical halakhic sources, it occupies a distinctly minor role—not as a yomtov per se, but as a day on which one is obligated to perform certain mitzvot—uniquely, lighting candles in the evening, preferably in a prominent, visible place; and reciting “Hallel and Hoda’ah”—i.e., reciting the Hallel each day, and adding the Al hanissm paragraph, containing words of praise of God related to the occasion, to the Amidah and Birkat ha-Mazon. Under this rubric one might add the widespread custom of singing the hymn Maoz Tzur, which presents a panoramic picture of salvific events throughout Jewish history.

Put quite simply, Hanukkah is the least demanding of all Jewish “holidays.” The ritual of lighting candles in the evening is far less demanding in terms of both time and money than the mitzvot of Pesah, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, or even Purim. In fact, nowhere in traditional sources is Hanukkah referred to as a festival, a hag or yomtov; the traditional greeting among Orthodox Jews for these days is A gutt’n Hanukkah, “a good Hanukkah.” Nevertheless, today it is universally referred to as a holiday: here in Israel, people greet one another with the words Hanukkah Sameah and it is referred to as Hag ha-Hanukkah. Moreover, notwithstanding the gastronomic popularity of latkes or other Hanukkah delicacies, Hanukkah is the only special day in the Jewish calendar for which there is no obligation to celebrate by eating a festive meal.

Nevertheless, statistics show that Hanukkah is the most popular, widely observed holiday among American Jews. The questions is: Why? Many would argue that it is so for the wrong reasons. A major part of its popularity is its proximity in time to Christmas (this year, for example, the last day falls on Christmas Eve). The idea, which developed during the years following the Second World War, was that American Jewish children felt “cheated” because they didn’t have a major, child-centered holiday in mid-winter, and that they could feel compensated by Hanukkah. Some Jews have tried to “outdo” the Christian holiday by turning Hanukkah into a kind of of “Jewish Christmas,” giving their children gifts each of the eight nights, rather than only once as is customary on Christmas. In recent years, some people, in a spirit of ecumenism, have coined the term “Chrismukkah” to denote this holiday season, as a kind of mélange of the two (an elegant solution for intermarried families).

In any event, for many Hanukkah has become a time for family gatherings; for eating traditional Hanukkah foods, such as potato latkes and sufganiot, the jelly doughnuts which signal the occasion in Israel. And, as mentioned, there are gifts, and games (dreidl, and in some circles card games and other forms of gambling—traditions that go back to Eastern Europe), and in general it is seen largely as a holiday for children. Indeed, two Jerusalem educators of my acquaintance, colleagues / cohorts, Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre, have compiled a big, thick book, A Different Light (New York—Jerusalem: Devorah Publishing & Hartman Institute, 2000), intended to harness the popularity of the holiday as an educational opportunity to make it more meaningful to American Jews.

It is also treated as major holiday in Israel, for different reasons. Schools are closed for most of the eight days, and there is much to-do on the media and of course by advertisers, but the emphasis is on the military victory, the Maccabees being seen as a kind of forebears of IDF—the “Tough Jew” who fights for his survival and for Jewsh sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael—again, a very different message than that of the religious tradition.

Earlier this week I read an op-ed piece in an issue of this week’s ha-Aretz protesting the celebration and teaching of Hanukkah in all lsraeli schools, even the most secular, as “celebrating the victory of a fanatic religious ideology over the acceptance of Greek universal cultures“—which, to his lights, “we”—i.e., liberal secular Israelis, ought to accept. What follows is, among other things, an attempt to respond to that objection.

So we return to the question of the Talmud: Mai Hanukkah? What, in fact, is Hanukkah all about? Beyond the proximity to Christmas which has led to its popularity among certain kinds of American Jews, it seems to me that we may start with its central symbol: the lighting of candles. Candles, or light generally, may be seen as emblematic of a core Jewish idea. Light serves almost universally as a symbol for Wisdom, for the intellect, for clarity of understanding, for clear-eyed perception of the meaning of human life and the role of humankind in the world. And, for the Jew, this is inextricably tied to Torah, to a certain religious mission and God-centered understanding of the meaning of life. And, indeed, the central event of Hanukkah—the Maccabean revolt—was essentially a religious struggle, an act of resistance to the cultural and political hegemony of Hellenism, to the pressures placed on the Jews in Eretz Yisrael at that time (2nd century BCE) to assimilate or acculturate to the dominant Hellenistic culture, with its pagan adulation of the emperor and its worship of the body.

Perhaps, one might say, this can be the quintessential message of Hanukkah for American (and other Westernized) Jews. Even the most hyper-assimilated American Jew, who does little more than light Hanukkah candles, is demonstrating a certain minimal fealty to his ancestral tradition, and a certain desire, however tenuous, to enable it to survive. Hanukkah symbolizes a kind of stubborn Jewish resistance to an all-embracing Western culture. At one time, perhaps even as recently as my own early-post-War childhood, the issue might have been one of resisting Christian hegemony; today, the problem is dealing with the overwhelming hegemony of a secular, hedonistic, materialistic culture, which focuses on the individual and the satisfaction of his own pleasures (with the help of an omnipresent consumer culture) as the greatest good. It is in many ways a cheap and tawdry, anti-humanistic culture: today, for every earnest, morally upstanding, and thoughtful secular humanist (and there are such, whom I admire), there are a score of cheap hucksters.

Vayeshev-Miketz (Parshanut)

Who Was Joseph?

The parashah for these Shabbatot—from Vayeshev to the end of Sefer Bereshit (the Book of Genesis)—have always seemed to me in some ways to resemble a short novel, dealing as they do (in addition to the religious message, foreshadowing future Jewish history, etc.) with the vagaries of human personality, with all the passions, wiles, and dilemmas of the protagonists, including some less pleasant and even ugly manifestations. Vayeshev begins with the tale of hatred, resentment, jealousy and violence involved in the story of Joseph and his brothers; goes on to the story of Judah and Tamar, in which the latter, motivated by an overwhelming wish for children, pretends to be a harlot so as to tempt Judah into a casual sexual dalliance by which he will impregnate her; continues with the intense lust of Potiphar’s wife for the handsome stranger living in her house which, once thwarted, turns to hatred and a desire for vengeance (not entirely untypical of women frustrated in such a way); and concludes with Joseph in prison, where his talents as a dream interpreter, which will later stand him in very good stead, first come to the fore.

It is interesting that in all these stories Joseph appears as a scapegoat of sorts. But he is not only an innocent victim. His character is a complex one. The term Yosef ha-Tzaddik, “Joseph the Righteous,” used in the Rabbinic tradition, is one that many modern people may well find problematic. We often see him acting in ways far more arrogant than the other patriarchs. There is something annoying, vaguely narcissistic and self-righteous, about his behavior. One can at least partially sympathize with his enemies and those who hated him. The brothers must have seen him as acting superior, a “daddy’s boy” (“And Joseph brought their bad report to their father”—Gen 37:2), and one can identify with their feeling thus. He is reminiscent of a schoolboy who is always telling the teacher about the misbehavior of his classmates—the “tattle-tale,” more a term of approbation than of admiration.

Even the story of Potiphar’s wife is problematic. How would any of us react if an alluring, powerfully sexual woman were to proposition us—particularly if this were to happen when we were young and inexperienced, with the powerful sexuality of early adulthood? Would we so easily refuse? Yosef’s behavior seems too “good” to be true. The tradition describes him as a Tzaddik, and even sees this incident as a kind of template for holy behavior—but is he such, or might we, with our modern sophistication about sexual matters, see him as an insufferable prig? Had he gone with her it would clearly have been a sin, not to mention a violation of the trust placed in him by his employer—but was his abstinence a reflection of mature moral conviction, or reflection of an adolescent fear of sexuality?

It is illuminating to compare all this to Judah’s style of leadership. The latter’s position of guidance was based upon a clear understanding of life, and knowing how to be a “khevreman”—a friendly participant in the group, “first among equals,” rather than a smug, superior outsider who seems to know everything better than others. Indeed, it is Judah who is ultimately the leader, and the forebear of the Israelite monarchy. This first appears in his insistence to his siblings that they not kill Joseph, and comes to the fore more clearly in this week’s reading, Miketz.

These chapters also deal with dreams, centered around the figure of Joseph. They opens with Joseph’s own dreams of power and domination—first that of the sheaves bowing down to him, taken as a symbol of the ten brothers (Benjamin was too small to be included among them and, as Joseph’s only full brother—i.e., a child of the same mother—was never a rival or enemy); thereafter, in the dream of the stars and the sun and the moon, he is even seen as dominant over his parents as well. A modern reader might well see these dreams as reflecting a kind of megalomania. At the end of Vayeshev, Joseph is imprisoned alongside the baker and the cup bearer, for whom he plays the role of dream interpreter. They ultimately recommend his talents to Pharaoh, whose disturbing dreams are revealed to be of portentous national significance.

What are dreams, anyway? Are they a form of revelation of cosmic secrets, or an expression of the unconscious? Either way, they have been seen by mankind, in ancient times as well as modern, as significant messages, outside of the regular order of “real” knowledge, bringing us awareness of things that would otherwise be unknown. In a religious worldview, in which there is Divine revelation, they are not on the same level as “God spoke all these things,” but are seen as meaningful and deserving of careful consideration. They belong to another, mysterious—well, “dream-like”—realm, containing strange, surreal truths that need to be unraveled and interpreted.

As we turn to Miketz, the reading for the present Shabbat, other aspects of Joseph’s character come to the fore. Here we see him in a position of leadership in Egypt, the most powerful empire of the day. After deciphering Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph was elevated to the position of vizier, second only to Pharaaoh, overseeing a program of national relief in face of a calamitous famine—a circumstance which ultimately leads to the reuniting of his family. We are reminded—and we shall see this more clearly in Parashat Vayigash, in his economic policy—as the forebear of all those brilliant Jews, like Benjamin Disraeli, who played crucial roles of economic leadership and policy making in Western regimes in recent centuries.

Here we see another aspect of Joseph’s character, which has been an endless subject for discussion among commentators and stam Jews reading these chapters: the game of “Hide and Seek” or concealed identity that he plays with his brothers, who have perhaps long given him up for dead. The perennial question here is: Why did Joseph conceal his identity from his brothers? Why didn’t he say, “I am your long-lost brother Joseph” as soon as they arrived to buy grain in Egypt? And how could he torture tem, and his own father, with the demand that they bring Benjamin down to confront whom they perceived as a powerful and dangerous stranger?

We can well imagine the ambivalence he felt: on the one hand, hostility and even hatred for the way they treated him as a youth; and, on the other hand, love and closeness tom these men, who were after all his only true family. He had lived for years as an Egyptian, and eve had an Egyptian wife, Osnat bat Poti-fera, but one gets the feeling that those ties were not as deep as those to his elderly father and to his brother Benjamin, and even his highly ambivalent feelings towards his older brothers who had cruelly mistreated him. Thus, he concealed or least did not overtly display his Hebrew origins to the Egyptians (again, like the classic “Court Jew” of modern times), meanwhile marrying and raising his own family—but his deepest ties were surely to his father, and perhaps this younger brother Benjamin. This ambivalence, a mixture of love and suspiciousness, is hinted at explicitly by the biblical text when, one two occasions during the meetings with his brothers, “his mercies are aroused” and he turns aside and weeps (42:24; 43:30-31). We thus have a tension between deliberate, controlled, calculated action and his own spontaneous, inner emotions. This conflict reaches its climax in next week’s parashah, at 45:1 ff.

We mentioned earlier Judah and his sterling qualities as leader. It seems that his innate nobility again comes to the fore in this chapter, in the manner in which he acts as spokesman for the brothers, considering and weighing the effect of all these things on his father, and in his concern for the young Benjamin. This, too, reaches its climax and denouement at the beginning of next week’s Parashat Vayigash; It would seem that the fathers of the tradition showed a keen sense for the dramatic when they decided to cut off this week’s parashah where they did, leaving the listeners in the synagogue to wait a week to hear the dramatic confrontation between Joseph and Judah for the start of next week’s parashah.

Vayishlah (Parshanut)


Vayetze (Parshanut)


Toldot (Parshanut)


HAyyei Saah (Parshanut)


Vayera (Parshanut)


Lekh Lekha (Parshanut)


Noah (Parshanut)


Bereshit (Parshanut)


Hagei Tishrei (Modernity)


Sefer Devarim (Modernity)


Sefer Bamidbar (Modernity


Sefer Vayikra (Modernity)


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Kedoshim (Modernity)

Does Modernity Believe in Holiness?

When I was a teen-ager and first began studying Humash using the Soncino Humash, that excellent work of Anglo-Jewish mid-century apologetics, it emphasized, quite correctly, the high moral values of Leviticus 19, the heart of Kedoshim, stressing, as I recall, the meeting points between it and Western values.

But today, half a century and much of a lifetime later, I find myself wondering. Are the values of Kedoshim and those of Western secular, liberal society the same? Or does Parashat Kedoshim in fact illustrate in most blatant form the point at which I’ve been hinting all this year—namely, the contrast, the deep difference, between the biblical world-view and that of modernity? It boils down to the following question: Does modernity believe in the capacity of human being to achieve what we call kedushah (“holiness”) or even, in secular terms, a decent, ethical life?

In recent years I have been hearing more and more voices—specifically among educated, intellectually sophisticated people—stating that the human being is a biological animal: a highly sophisticated and intelligent animal, capable of all kinds of complex activities far beyond the capacity of even the most advanced primates, but an animal nevertheless. As such, he is conditioned by his instincts, his society, his drives, the “hard-wiring” of his brain and his nervous system—in brief, much like the beasts, he is bereft of any innate, inborn tendency to transcend his own needs, desires, and impulses.

Thus, for example, when a middle-aged man leaves the wife of his youth—who is now similarly middle-aged—for a “sexy young thing,” this may be seen as regrettable, but is in some sense understandable and expected: he is merely acting upon his own instinct to reproduce his genes as much as possible, and the nubile young woman is at this point clearly a better reproducer than his aging wife.

Of course, the Torah and Judaism are well aware of the role of instincts and impulses and what might be called the lower, more earthly desires—but when they lead a person to unethical behavior, he is expected to resist them. Life is conceived as an ongoing struggle between good and bad impulses, between the quest for holiness, for an elevated, moral life, on the one hand, and the impulse towards personal pleasure and gratification, the “path of least resistance”—what we call the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Impulse—on the other. And these values, in a world in which there is a God, are not merely moralistic phrases, but are seen as real, as binding imperatives.

As against that, what I have called the modern view, in which man is essentially a biological being, sees survival—of the individual, of the species, of the particular genes underlying the sexual and reproductive impulse—as the basic motivating factor. This being so, not only religious values, but also moral values—such things as altruism, generosity, caring for those less fortunate, responsibility for the community, etc.—are seen as either nonexistent, or as requiring special explanation to make sense. Let me make myself clear: I do not claim that modernity is without ethical concerns, but that at a certain level they are not an integral part of the underlying axioms of what I have called the biological view of man.

Turning now to the internal religious context: what exactly do we mean by “you shall be holy”? Is holiness simply the sum total of observance of the mitzvot (a position articulated in contemporary times, most notably, by the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz), or is it something beyond that? This, I think, lies at the heart of the controversy between Rashi and, in a slightly different way, Ibn Ezra, Sforno and others, and Ramban. Rashi reads “you shall be holy” in terms of refraining from that which is forbidden, particularly the forbidden sexual liaisons mentioned in the preceding chapter of the Torah (היו פרושים מן האיסור ומן העריות), whereas Ramban insists that it most go beyond that. The Torah, he says, would not give the command, “You shall be holy,” merely in order to repeat what it has already said; hence, it must allude to something else. His motto here is קדש עצמך במותר לך—“Sanctify yourself in that which is permitted you.” That is to say, overindulgence in such physical pleasures as food and sex, even where they are permitted as such—e.g. eating kosher food in a gluttonous way, or constant indulgence in sex with one’s own wife or wives—is seen as unholy behavior. Holiness might be defined as an orientation towards spiritual values as the center of ones life, while fulfilling one’s physical needs in moderation; rather, one seeks opportunities to engage in mitzvot and good deeds of loving-kindness and caring towards others, as well as studying Torah and the pursuit of wisdom. If Ramban were alive today, he might be critical, not only of indulgence in the gross physical pleasures he mentions, but also of the excessive pursuit of entertainment and other leisure activities which serve no constructive purpose.

While studying this passage with a friend, he noted that his wife regularly receives a glossy-paper Orthodox family magazine, whose pages are filled with articles extolling the religious virtues of piety, of strict observance, and of modesty in fewmale dress, but at the same time it was filled with advertisements for expensive luxury goods—glatt kosher restaurants, cruises to the Caribbean and elsewhere, expensive ritual objects and so on. Is this the holiness we are commanded to pursue? In other words, piety combined with an opulent, upper-middle-class economic standard, somehow seems a contradiction in terms.

Correction and Addition

In our most recent issue, “Last Days of Pesah,” sent out recently, I referred to the 2nd day of Hol ha-Moed as Rav Soloveitchik’s twentieth yahrzeit. An alert reader noted that the Rav in fact died in 1993, making this his 21st yahrzeit rather than his 20th. My thanks for the correction.

A brief postscript to my piece on Shir ha-Shirim: I concluded my essay by referring to the ambiguities of love between man and woman. But if we read Shir ha-Shirim, inter alia, as a parable of the human-Divine relationship, the same may be said thereof. God is “Close to all who call upon Him in truth,” but at times He is felt to be very, very distant. This coming week we observe Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. What better example is there of Deus Absconditus than God’s behavior, or rather seeming absence, during the Holocaust. In similar fashion, man may at times be filled with religious passion, the desire for devekut, for mystical union with God, or at least for some degree of real kavanah, of theocentric focus, in prayer—but, unless he is an extraordinary theocentric mystic, there will surely be many a moment in life when he is occupied with “his own business,” and his thoughts and actions are very far indeed from God…

Last Days of Pesah (Modernity)

Thoughts on Shir ha-Shirim

Some thoughts on Shir ha-Shirim, “the Song of Songs,” which was read this past Shabbat, Hol ha-Moed Pesah. Several questions arise: First of all, what is the meaning of the title? We are so used to the phrase “Song of Songs” (or, perhaps better, “Poem of Poems”—the Hebrew shir does not necessarily imply a work set to melody) that it no longer resonates or raises any puzzlement in our minds. Is it a song that embodies all other songs? And if so, how can such a thing be? Or, as Rashi says quoting the Sages: “The most sublime of all songs.” The extraordinary qualities of Shir ha-Shirim are further suggested by Rabbi Akiva’s famous remark: “The entire world is not worthy of the day on which Shir ha-Shirim was given to Israel” (m. Yadayim 3.5).

Note the implication here that this book was not written by a human being, even one inspired by the Holy Spirit, but that it was “given” to Israel—i.e., revealed from Heaven. This suggests that Shir ha-Shirim is to be read in a religious context, strengthening the traditional view that is to be read, not as a song of love between a human man and woman, but between God and man or, specifically, between God and Israel. Thus the overwhelming majority of Rabbinic dicta about this book.
But many modern people, even pious Jews, find this doctrine difficult, rather puritanical in spirit. Perhaps the book ought to be read both on the religious plane, as a metaphor for Divine-human love, as well as on the peshat level, as filled with erotic longing and passion. Moreover, the love between man and woman may itself be seen as something spiritual and self-transcending, and thus deserving of celebration in a sacred, canonical text. In this view, we may read the title “song of songs” as reflecting the fact that love between man and woman is a perennial subject of song and poetry in almost all cultures.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, recently made an interesting observation: that all three of the megillot read on the pilgrimage festivals deal with the theme of love: Shir ha-Shirim deals with erotic love, with love as passion, (mostly of young people, like the Dod and Ra’yah of the book); Ruth speaks of love, both between man and woman and in other contexts (e.g. Naomi and Ruth) as loyalty, as “loving-kindness,” as steadfast commitment, as family; while Kohelet deals with “love grown old and wise”—that is, love as a central part of that existential joy which sustains us throughout life, of happiness based upon being and sharing rather than having; love which is no longer subject to the romantic illusions of youthful, romantic love which idealizes the other, but knows how to forgive and accept the inevitable faults and shortcomings of every human being.

One of the Rabbinic midrashim makes the remark of Shir ha-Shirim that: “Elsewhere God praises Israel and Israel praise Him; but here each praise the other.” That is, this book is marked by full mutuality; the voices of both the Dod and the Ra’yah are heard. Often, in love poetry in the Western world (at least until recently), it is the man who speaks while the woman is the passive recipient of his love, desire and praises. Shir ha-Shirim is perhaps the earliest example in world literature in which this is not the case: in which the lover’s voices are heard equally, reciprocally.
A second question is this: Is Shir ha-Shirim a narrative, an unfolding love story with a plot and development, or simply a medley of disconnected short love poems? When I was a student, I read Robert Gordis’s book, The Song of Songs: A Study, Modern Translation, and Commentary (1954), in which the author argues persuasively that it is a collection of love poems unrelated to one another, perhaps twenty-five or thirty in all.

More recently, this past month, my wife and I heard a series of lectures on Shir ha-Shirim by Dr Yael Ziegler, a Jerusalem Torah teacher, who claimed that the book in fact expresses a narrative, and that one can trace therein the development of the relationship between the Dod and the Ra’yah from what she described as the rather immature, adolescent yearnings for immediate intimacy of Chapter 1 to the mature (and consummated) relationship in Chapters 7 and 8.

Which view is correct? To attempt to answer this question, I would like to examine certain patterns and repetitions in Shir ha-Shirim that shape the contours of this book. A striking feature of the book is the near-verbatim repetition of a particular verse three or four times:

השבעתי אתכם בנות ירושלים בצבאות או באילות השדה אם תעירו ואם תעוררו את האהבה עד שתחפץ

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it please.

Before examining the context of this verse/s, a brief comment, which may be no more than a wild speculation: ordinarily in Judaism one isn’t allowed to swear, to take an oath, in the name of any one but God; there is even a verse in the Torah to that effect (see Deut 6:13; 10:20; but compare such folk hyperbole as “I swear on my grandmother’s grave”). Yet here there appears what is seemingly an oath taken in the name of the beasts of the field.

I would suggest that this verse contains a deliberate ambiguity. The reference to animals—indeed, to the most graceful, beautiful animals found in the wild in Eretz Yisrael —is in keeping with the rustic, natural setting of Shir ha-Shirim, of the couple who “go to sleep in the villages and awaken to the vineyards.” But the words בצבאות או באילות השדה are ambiguous: they can be interpreted in the natural sense, reading tzeva’ot as a plural form of tzvi (“deer”), but may also be read as “Hosts,” as in the phrase ה' צבאות (“the Lord of Hosts”), regarded in the halakhah as one of the holy names of God. Similarly aylot is, in its simple sense, the plural of ayalah (“hind” or “doe”), but also—admittedly by stretching things somewhat—may be seen as connected to eyaluti, ”my protector” or “my God,” as in Psalm 22:20, אילותי לעזרתי חושה. Thus, at one and the same time we have a natural image taken from the fauna of Eretz Yisrael, and one with religious resonance. (After I spoke about this idea at a shiur in my synagogue, my friend Shlomo Zucker noted that Yair Zakovitch, one of the prominent academic Bible scholars in Israel, presents this interpretation in his own little-known commentary on Shir ha-Shirim.)

As for the context: This verse appears in 2:7, in 3;5, in a somewhat truncated and rather different form in 5:5, and again in 8:4. The question that concerns me is whether this repetition may in some sense have been intended as a marker, a pointer or dividing line, indicating different sections of the book. In 2:7 it follows upon a series of verses in which the lovers express their mutual admiration of one another, ending with a scene of embrace: “His left hand is beneath my head, and his right hand embraces me” (2:6). In 3:5 it comes straight after the passage beginning “On my bed at night” (3:1-4), to which we shall return. In 5:8 it appears in the middle of a similar passage, beginning “I am asleep but my heart is awake” (5:2) in which the beloved adjures the daughters of Jerusalem, “If you find my beloved, what shall you tell him? That I am love sick” (5:8). In 8:4, it again appears after verses of consummation, again following the verse, “His left hand is beneath my head, and his right hand embraces me” (this verse seems to be the most explicit image of their love’s consummation; the book, after all, was not written in the late 20th or 21st century).

It seems to me that the two “bed scenes” are at the heart of the book’s meaning. In both of these passages, the Ra’yah is lying in her bed, thinking longingly of her beloved. In the first, briefer passage, she gets up, wanders about the town, asks the watchmen if they’ve seen her beloved—until she finds him and holds fast to him. In the second passage, the lover comes to her cottage, knocks on the door and, in a series of terms of endearment—“my sister, my companion, my dove, my pure one” (5:2)—asks her to let him in. Her response sounds like that of on who is still half asleep: “I have taken off my garment, how can I put it on; I have washed my feet, how can I soil them again” (5:3). But after a moment she yearns for him in an almost explicitly sexual way (מעי המו עליו, “My innards longed for him”)—but by the time she gets up to open the door, he has gone, he has fled (ודודי חמק עבר), and she only feels his presence, his fragrance, on the door handle. As in the earlier passage, she goes out, wandering the city streets at night to look for him, and is encountered by the watchmen, who beat her and shame her.

These two parallel express the ambiguity and ambivalence of love: the lovers yearn for one another, but are constantly missing one another. Their love is consistently frustrated, unfulfilled; for every scene of joyful union (and there are such), there are others in which they pass by one another. There is something dream-like in these descriptions. Love fluctuates between consummation (as hinted in 7:13 and, according to Ariel and Chana Bloch, explicitly in 6:12) and frustration. Love is fleeting, constantly encountering obstacles. This is due in part to objective factors, but equally so to the ambivalence of one or another of the lovers. Each yearns for the other, but al`so flees or withdraws at a crucial moment. This is perhaps expressed in the final verse of the book, “Flee, my beloved, and be like a deer on the mountains of spices” (8:14).

The ambivalence and ambiguity of love is a theme found in many cultures. I think of the well-known French song about love by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755–1794; music by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini [1741–1816]; English version as sung by Joan Baez):

Plaisir d'amour ne dure qu'un moment.
chagrin d'amour dure toute la vie.

The joys of love are but a moment long
The pain of love endures the whole life long.

On the other hand, one could invoke the ballad by Pete Seeger, “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”—“I got me a gal and kissed her and then: O Lord, I kissed her again!”—ending with them living happily ever after into old age, with numerous children and grandchildren. (If one can believe his biography, Seeger’s marriage to Toshi-Aline Õta was such: they remained married just short of 70 years, when she predeceased him by six months. She is described as providing the support that made his life and work possible, as well as being an active partner in various musical and other enterprises.)

On the one side, Shir ha-shirim expresses love as Gan Eden, as the closest to paradise we human may reach in this world. On the other hand, parts of it reflect the lives of Adam and Eve after they ate from the forbidden fruit: the man blamed the woman; the woman blamed the serpent; she is cursed in that the man rules over her, she longs for him but cannot express it openly. Albeit the Ra’yah, in contrast to Eve, expresses her desire for the Dod quite openly. (Is modern feminism restoring the primordial equality that prevailed through the last verse of Genesis 2, before the curses introduced the rivalry of the sexes? The subject is endless.)

Rav Soloveitchik: Twenty-One Years

Last Thursday, 17th Nissan, the second or first day of Hol ha-Moed, marked twenty-one years since the passing of Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik, unquestionably one of the Torah giants of our age, as teacher and philosopher. I was privileged to study with the Rav for several years in the Boston Hevrah Shas, as well as to speak with him at length several times; I revere him as perhaps my most important teacher.

I have written about the Rav many times in the past, almost every year on his Yahrzeit, several times at considerable length. I had hoped this time to relate to certain harsh criticisms of the Rav’s thought which I have encountered from certain quarters, but due to limitations of time (Pesah!) was unable to do so. I hope to address this issue, as well as some larger questions of the nature of Rabbinic authority, the degree to which rabbis are permitted to innovate halakhically, and more, in the near future—perhaps in my Shavuot issue.

Until then, I will have to suffice with reiterating my deep personal debt to him, and adding: May his memory be a blessing for all of us.

Aharei Mot - Shabbat Hagadol (Modernity)


Metzora (Modernity)


Tazria (Modernity)


Shemini (Modernity)


Purim (Modernity)


Tzav (Modernity)


Friday, March 07, 2014

Vayikra (Modernity)

Why Sacrifices?

If there is one parashah which seems to run into head-on conflict with modern values, it is Vayikra, which opens the book of that same name, which deals mostly with priestly service, animal sacrifices, ritual purity, etc. This week’s title parashah presents the main types of sacrifices and their salient characteristic. Offhand, it seems difficult to imagine any modern person, unless he consciously adopts an antiquarian ideology, identifying with the notion of slaughtering animals as an act of worship of God.

In this light, I would like to address two interrelated questions: 1) What does this reveal about the modern mentality, and its salient features? 2) Is it nevertheless possible to bridge the gap between modernity and antiquity so as to understand (and perhaps reinterpret?) Parashat Vayikra in a manner that will make sense to our archetypical “modern man”?

A commonly heard objection to animal sacrifices is that it is cruel, barbaric, bloody, and generally not befitting the dignity and solemnity we associate with “sacred service.” Why should animals pay the price of human beings’ real or imagined feelings of guilt and the need to atone for their sins?

I shall bracket for the moment my many vegetarian friends and their cohorts, who can raise this objection with a clear conscience. But how can the carnivorous majority, who patronize butchers and eat animal flesh—flesh that has been killed in as cruel and bloody a fashion as the korbanot in the ancient Temple—object? Because we do not see the slaughter or hear the animals’ cries of pain— “out of sight, out of mind”? (I might add here that the Israeli public was recently treated to a graphic demonstration of the suffering of animals in the meat industry, in a TV program showing the agony of chickens at the Zoglobek meat-packing factory on their way to shehitah. Needless to say, Zoglobek is , one may be quite sure, are not unique in this respect.)

But, one might counter, the slaughter of meat for food is at least intended to serve a concrete human need, whereas this is for a “ritual” purpose. Here we come to what I suspect is the crux of the matter: the covert or implicit assumption that religious acts are somehow less ”real,” less “necessary,” than those acts performed for utilitarian, human benefit. It is this issue / argument that we must address.

How does the tradition understand animal sacrifices? What is their purpose? In many places in the Torah—Numbers 28:2 comes most readily to mind—the term קרבני לחמי לאישי, “the bread of my sacrifice upon My fires,” often followed by לריח ניחח, “as a sweet savour,” is used to describe the korbanot consumed upon the fires of the altar. It is as if to say that one is somehow “feeding” God by bringing these animal sacrifices (which were, indeed, coupled with wine and grain, together constituting a complete meal)—an anthropomorphic, “primitive” conception of God if ever there was one! But in fact such an approach is already rejected in the Tanakh itself. Thus, the Psalmist states that it is absurd to even imagine that God would ask such a thing, “For Mine are all the beasts of the forests, animals on a thousand mountains. … If I am hungry why should I tell you, for mine is the earth and its fulness” (Ps 50:10, 12). Other psalms, and such prophets as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah and others bring a similar message.

Rather, the true worship desired by God consists of a broken heart, honoring ones’ vows, justice, righteousness and compassion towards the poor and fortunate.
How then, is the entire system of sacrificial offerings understand by the classical commentators? Ramban, at Leviticus 1:9 (quoting the Talmud), says that when a person brings sacrifice, it ought to be seen as a surrogate for the person himself. אדם כי יקריב מכם(“when a person brings from yourselves…”). The sinner had performed an animal-like act, and by rights ought to have offered his own life in repentance; this being unfeasible, one sacrifices an animal (who is also, not insignificantly, especially in an agrarian, pre-commercial society, a valuable piece of property) to show that one is offering to God “the animal within oneself” (cf. Sefer ha-Hinukh at Terumah, §95).

Needless to add, there are numerous other interpretations of the meaning of the korbanot, too many to survey here. What I would like to present here is a line of thought which I developed here some years ago (see HY I: Vayikra [=Vayikra (Torah)]), in which the differing forms of sacrifice prescribed here— olah, shelamim and hatat—are explained as corresponding to three basic religious moods or emotions within man.

Thus, hatat, the sin-offering (whose variants are described here in Chapters 4–5) relates to feelings of guilt, of the inadequacies, shortcomings, and wrong-doings that inevitably blemish human life, and the concomitant wish to somehow make restitution, to gain forgiveness from a God who is at once loving but nonetheless truthful and thus objective-in-judgment. The archetype of this is of course Yom Kippur, whose ritual centered around various exculpating sacrifices.

Shelamim, the “peace-offering” (Chapter 3), expresses joy in fellowship—not only human fellowship, but a fellowship in which God Himself is, so to speak, invited to partake at our table. The model for this is the Passover meal, during which in Temple times the paschal lamb was partaken of in family and clan groups, with song and hymn and rejoicing.

Finally, the olah, “burnt-offering,” consumed entirely on the altar, signifies self-transcendence, the basic desire to go beyond the mundane, humdrum world of the everyday, to somehow reach out and touch the mysterious realm of the holy, of the ultimately incomprehensible and unknowable Divine, Otto’s “Wholly Other.” This is symbolized by the most frequent offering, the fixed daily offering, the tamid, offered morning and evening on behalf of Collective Israel.

To return to our original problem: our hypothetical modern man who cannot connect to the ritualized, symbolic world of korbanot. Indeed, this is the heart of the problem. Indeed, the mitzvot as a whole might be described as a series of symbolic actions. Perhaps the difference between us and our forebears lies in the fact that we don’t take such symbolic acts with quite the same seriousness as they did.

Many, if not most, mefarshei hamitzvot stress the simple psychological fact that, for the majority of people, thought, mind, intent, inner feeling are not enough, but one needs concrete actions. “The heart is drawn after the actions.” Hence we need symbolic actions. The sacrifices, like the mitzvot generally, through repeated actions, implant salutary attitudes, beliefs and character traits in the individual. As Hillel said, the rest is elaboration: zil gmor—There is much to be learned.

For more teachings on this parashah from previous years, see the archives to this blog.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Shemot (Modernity)

“Remember that You Were Slaves in Egypt”

This week’s parashah begins the story of the bondage of our ancestors in Egypt, and the redemption therefrom. The Exodus occupies a central role in Jewish thought and theology; in many places, the Torah reiterates the commandment, “You shall remember that the Lord your God took you up out of Egypt,” or its variant, “you shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt.”

A number of reasons are given for these two closely related commandments. The former, which is invoked as the reason for such things as Shabbat, the Passover celebration, tzitzit, and others, is explained by many rishonim and commentators as teaching the most basic theological principles: that God created the world and acts therein according to His will; hence we must appreciate and acknowledge God’s greatness, our dependence on Him and our gratitude. We must know that without His redemptive involvement “we and our children and our grandchildren would still be slaves in the land of Egypt” (to quote the Passover Haggadah). But alongside that there is an ethical explanation, mentioned in connection with such mitzvot as Sabbath observance, both of ourselves and of our household servants and even our animals (Deut 5:15); granting a freed slave a generous parting endowment (15:15); the festival of Shavuot (16:12); leaving olives and grapes that fall during the process of harvesting for the widow and orphan (24:19-21), and more. In brief, we must identify with the poor and helpless and misfortunate and downtrodden, remembering that we ourselves were in a like situation in the closer or more distant past, and to empathize with those in a like situation today.

This latter aspect is particularly important in a time like our own, in which many if not most Jews enjoy a reasonably comfortable and economically-secure life style. In the United States, the Jews are by and large a successful middle-class group, even disproportionately so, with numerous of its members in the professions and business, and many Jews having significant accomplishments in science, media, government, culture, academic research, and other intellectual endeavors (it is said that 20% of Nobel Prize winners over history have been Jews). Israel, not withstanding ongoing threats to its security and the Palestinian problem, has created a successful economy, is a world leader in hi-tech and in medical technology, and much of its population enjoys a reasonably comfortable middle-class life style.

Yet we often forget our past, and turn or back on those less fortunate than ourselves. Specifically, I want to mention two highly disturbing things happening in Israel in recent months:

1. Bedouin Settlements—Praver’s Law: Israel’s Knesset recently passed a law intended to “solve” the problem of the Bedouin population in the south. The Bedouins, traditionally a nomadic, rural people, have traditionally lived in small villages; even though they are no longer shepherds as their main occupation, almost every family owns one or several goats or sheep. The new law, which was adopted without consulting with the Bedouin themselves, will displace tens of thousands of people from their homes, forcing them into a modern urban way of life which is alien to them, while their own lands will be used to build Jewish settlements. The justification for this is that their ownership of their property has not been proven legally. But, as a traditional culture, they have not been overly meticulous about written documents; nevertheless, in most cases these lands have been passed down within the same clans, for generations if not centuries. There is hardly need to elaborate upon this miscarriage of justice, even if formally lawful.

2. “Infiltrators.” In recent years, tens of thousands of refugees from Northeast Africa—Darfur, Sudan, Eritrea, and other places—have come to Israel, seeking a safe refuge. In many cases, the very lives of these people were threatened in their homelands, because of their being on the wrong side in religious, ethnic, or political conflicts. The Israeli government has by and large refusal to recognize them as refugees seeking asylum – which it seems clear that they are—and instead refers to them as miztanenim—illegal immigrants, or infiltrators” (often, because the government itself has not allowed them to undergo the procedures needed in order to be recognized as refugees—a kind of “Catch 22”). In any event, under recent policy, the government has decided that all those entering Israel illegally will be sent to “waiting centers,” which they will be allowed to leave during the day but where they will be unable to work and must report back every evening—in brief, a sanitized name for a kind of prison.

Have we, the people who celebrate the Seder every year, become comfortable, quasi-European middle class people who look askance on others who are poor and homeless, especially if they have a dusky skin color? As aliens, viewed only as potential nuisances, as somehow not as human as ourselves, not deserving of consideration? Are we behaving any differently than those countries who turned back desperate Jewish refugees from Europe during WW2?

True, there is a problem in south Tel Aviv. The Africans have concentrated in neighborhoods populated mostly by poor and/or elderly Jews, where they are seen as a disruptive, disturbing element (indeed, as many of them are unemployed or prevented from working; young, male, many unmarried, there is no doubt truth to these accusations). But surely some other, more humane solution may be found other than sending them to what is in effect a prison, without their having committed any crime, without a trial or appeal or any attempt to establish them as productive citizens. Perhaps thy can gradually begin to replace the myriads of foreign workers brought into Israel every year from Far Eastern Asia and other places to do those jobs, often menial and low-paying jobs, which native Israelis don’t want to do. “Remember that you were servants in the land of Egypt” is, first of all, a call to exercise our human imagination and to begin to see ourselves in the place of these people; the rest will follow.

“And It Happened on the Way”

In the middle of this week’s parashah, we find have one of the strangest passages in the entire Torah. Following Moses’ dramatic encounter with God at the burning bush, where he is given his charge to return to Egypt to redeem the people, while he is going there with his family, we read the following:

And it happened on the way, at the inn / sleeping place / resting place, God met him and sought to kill him. And Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son, and touched his legs, and said: “For you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” And he [the angel?] left off him; then she said “A bridegroom of blood for circumcision.” (Exodus 4:24-26)

Why, when Moses was specifically setting out to fulfill / carry out the mission imposed upon him by God, did God seek to kill him? On the face of it, God appears here as an arbitrary, almost demonic figure, who kills people without rhyme or reason. And even if, as seems to be implied by Zipporah’s response of circumcising her son, this had t do with circumcision, why was this suddenly a matter of death penalty: why did God seek to kill him? (and who was the “him” referred to in v. 24: Moses or his infant son?) And what is the meaning of her strange words about him being a hatan damim, a “bridegroom of blood” (and again, does this refer to Moses or to the infant? And was the blood the blood of circumcision, or the blood that would have been spilled otherwise?) And what is meant by the gesture of touching his feet? And, finally, what is the relation of this passage to its surrounding context? These three verses seem to have little relation to what precedes them or follows them; the narrative could have progressed equally well, or even better, without them: Moses would have concluded his dialogue with God in 4:23, and went towards Egypt, meeting Aaron in the wilderness (4:27 ff.).

I cannot analyze this passage, with the multitude of opinions of both traditional commentators and Bible critics, at this time. Perhaps on another occasion. But I will make one comment. We moderns like to think of God as “nice”: consciously or unconsciously, we like to see the Torah as confirming / ratifying our own values, and we are troubled when religion, Torah, halakhah, etc don’t jive with our own values (which we tend to think of as “ultimate” moral values). This passage is particularly troubling in that respect: God seems here inscrutable, “primitive,” even cruel, for reasons that are not given and that we cannot fathom. More tan anything, this passage is reminiscent of the sudden death of Aaron’s two sons (Lev 10:1-7) and that of Uzza when he tried to steady the ark of the covenant which threatened to fall ((2 Sam 6:3-8). (see HYII: Shemini [=Haftarot]). God’s outstanding quality in these passage is not his His kindness, His love, or His concern for ethics, justice and righteousness, but rather His numinous quality—powerful, mysterious, dangerous, “wholly Other”—that is, utterly outside the realm of the human, and the humanistic.

Apropos the notion of God as "nice," as affirming the best and deepest human ethical insights: I have lived long enough to see several significant changes in what is considered ethical and moral—particularly, in the areas of gender and sexuality, and of what has come ti be known as “politically correct.” I find myself asking the question: before everybody discovered that these new ethical imperatives, were they wrong morally, but everyone was in ignorance? Was the way my parents thought in their middle years (ca. 1940 or 1950?) immoral? Or is everything relative?

POSTSCRIPT: VAYEHI: Ephraim and Manasseh

A few thoughts on last week’s parashah, following a quiet, snow-bound Shabbat at home: One of the enigmatic aspects of Vayehi is the scene (Gen 48) in which Yaakov calls Yosef to him before his death; Yosef brings his two sons (children? lads? young men?), Ephraim and Manasseh, upon whom Ya’akov bestows a special blessing, declaring that each of them shall enjoy a status equivalent to that of the other tribes, notwithstanding their being one generation younger than them. What is this about?

On the simplest level, Yaakov is here giving Yosef, through his children, the “double portion” due to the first-born. In their case, this inheritance was expressed primarily in the division of the Land of Israel: the land was divided into twelve portions among the tribes (there is some dispute among the commentators whether these were equal or not), of which Ephraim and Manasseh each received a portion. (Levi, as the priestly, sacerdotal tribe received no inheritance, so this double inheritance restored the total number from eleven to twelve). According to Radak, this was reinforced by two other factors: Jacob’s intense love for Rachel, which persisted long after her death: she was the one he always considered his ”real” wife (see Gen 44:27: “you know that my wife bore me two children”—as if only she were his wife); hence, after her premature death, Yaakov’s love was transferred, so to speak, to Yosef and Binyamin, his two beloved sons. Thus, once he was reunited with Yosef it was only natural for him to give the rights of bekhorah (primogeniture) to Joseph. Moreover, Radak adds, Joseph was the one that took care of him (and of al the brothers) in Egypt, by virtue of his influential position within the Egyptian royal court. (One is reminded of a situation that occurs now and again in certain contemporary families, in which one child is the one who, de facto, takes care of the elderly parents, more so than the others.) (Another question: why does Yaakov pointedly prefer Ephraim to Manasseh, pointedly switching his hands at the time of blessing, placing his right hand over Ephraim, contrary to the birth order — a scene portrayed in a famous painting by Rembrandt.)

A note on primogeniture: The conflict between Joseph and Judah for primacy is an ongoing theme in these later chapters of the Book of Genesis. I have noted, in wake of Rav Soloveitchik, how the conformation between the two in Gen 44:18 ff. may be read as a covert struggle between the two for leadership of the brothers and hence of the Jewish people. While here Joseph is given material abundance and a double portion, in the blessings of all twelve sons in Chapter 49, Yaakov blesses Judah with leadership of the brothers. Thus, one might say that, in wake of the unstable—although not mean, vicious, or violent—character of Reuven, Jacob’s biological firstborn, the bekhorah was divided among the brothers in three ways: Yosef received the property associated with it, being given a double portion in the Land of Israel; Judah received kingship; and Levi the priesthood.

On a historical level, this may be read as prefiguring (or, as Bible critics might say: projecting backwards into the period of the patriarchs) the actual situation of a split nation. The tension between the tribes of Judah and Joseph led, after Solomon’s death, to the split into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Israel, led largely by figures from the tribe of Ephraim; and the southern kingdom of Judah, which eventually became the royal Davidic house. But perhaps these tensions were present beneath the surface even earlier, in the time of the Judges.

For more teachings on this parashah from previous years, visit the archives to this blog.

Vayehi (Modernity)


Vayigash (Modernity)


Miketz (Modernity)


Vayeshev (Modernity)


Vayishlah (Modernity)


Vayetze (Modernity)

Friday, November 01, 2013

Toldot (Modernity)

The Birthright

At first glance, the assumption underlying this week’s parashah is very different from that of the modern mentality (if there is such a thing): namely, the concept of birthright or primogeniture, that the first-born child is rightfully entitled to a special status within the family, and perhaps beyond. Thus, Esau’s “sale” of his birthright for a “mess of pottage,” and later on Yaakov’s “stealing” or deceitfully receiving the paternal blessing intended for his brother, the central events in this reading, are fraught with ambiguity. Were they in fact acts of deceit, of taking advantage of the weakness of others (Esau’s ravenous hunger; Isaac’s blindness)? Or did they in fact set matters right and as they ought to have been from the beginning?

One could well argue that this chapter, and several others both before and after it, in fact make the opposite point: they challenge the very idea of primogeniture. The fact that Yaakov is ultimately seen as the favored son, the bearer of the Divine covenant, to the evident approval of the biblical author, mitigates against this idea. Indeed, the two parallel incidents that make up the heart if this parashah may be read as polemics in support of an approach closer to the modern view, namely, a combination of the notions that: a) no preference should be shown to any son; all children are equal, or ought to be in their parent’s eyes (including the very modern idea that daughters should be seen as equal in value to sons, a notion by no means universally accepted even today, even in the West); b) what might be called the merit system: given the inevitable inequalities bestowed by nature, favor is properly due to that one who proves himself—smarter, stronger, more agile, more pious (in a religious world)—to possess those qualities which we would like to see in the “first-born.”

There is no lack of examples in the Bible for challenges to the notion of primogeniture, going all the way back, perhaps, to the very first pair of children who were born rather than being created: Abel, whose sacrifice was preferred by God to that of the first-born Kain, and was then tragically murdered by the latter. The idea is manifested dramatically by the role of leadership taken by Joseph, who was younger than all of the children of Leah and of the concubines, who emerged as the hero who saved them all from starvation; Moses, the father of prophets and teacher of all Israel, was his parent’s third child; whereas David, the archetypal king and progenitor of the almost-mythical messianic royal line, was the youngest of seven. Indeed, his father, after Samuel’s probing question, says rather dismissively: “O, there’s also the little one who’s looking after the sheep” (1 Sam 16:11). (Paradoxically, after God tells Shmuel “Do not look to his appearance and his height… for man looks with the eyes, while God sees the heart” [v. 7], David himself is described as “ruddy [or red-haired], with beautiful eyes and handsome appearance” [v. 12]. Saul himself was “a shoulder’s height taller than all the people [1 Sam 9:2; 10:23].)

Hence, one could justifiably argue that the Bible itself fosters a revolution of sorts. As against the traditional, hierarchical system, in which a person’s position is fixed by his position within his family, the Bible tells story after story in which individual merit and the individual’s personal qualities overrule fixed rank. On the very simplest level, this is an expression of the Biblical concern with ethics, with goodness and righteousness, as the qualities most desirable and most to be cultivated within society. (Albeit on the legal level the Torah does maintain the principle of the first-born’s rights of inheritance, as in Deut 21:15-17)

Freeing Terrorists?

A very brief comment about a recent event, which hopefully won’t overly upset certain readers. During the wee hours if Wednesday morning (November 29), the Israeli government released 26 Palestinian prisoners who had been held for terrorist acts—murder, mostly random, of innocent Israeli citizens—as an act of “building good–faith” in the context of the attempt to restart real peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Virtually all of these prisoners had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and had served twenty or more years, their acts having been committed in the 1980’s or early 1990’s; i.e., they are all at least 40 years old; hence, it is at least plausible that at this point they are more interested in returning to ordinary private life, raising families, etc., then returning to terror.

This act set off a hue and cry in Israel, with vocal protests, mostly from the Right Wing, as well as from the families of their victims. It was claimed that Israel was performing an immoral act, dishonoring the blood of those who had been murdered by these people, etc.

A few brief comments about this. First, many convicted murderers are released, typically after serving a decade or more of prison time, even when they were in theory sentenced to life imprisonment without reprieve. Many of these murders were every bit as horrendous, cruel, vicious, etc., as the acts of these terrorists. Does the fact that the Palestinian terrorists acted out of nationalistic, “political” motivations automatically make their acts worse than, say, that of a husband who stabs his wife in cold blood, acting out of purely personal, individual hatred or jealousy? And if so, why? The latter acts often involve components of sadism, and cause great and extended suffering and pain to their victims—so why the distinction? And yet, as noted, “private” murderers are often released; indeed, it is often taken as an unwritten law that “life” really means twenty years imprisonment, and no more. Not to mention the cases of those Jews who have murdered Arabs, who may also be innocent civilians—perhaps manual laborers sitting by the side of the road awaiting their day’s work—who have enjoyed “compassionate” treatment at the hands of the authorities, or special interest by the rabbis.

Second, we must remember that Israel was imply fulfilling promises it had made, to America and to the PA, within the context of trying to change the atmosphere between the two peoples, and beginning to create a sense of reconciliation and forgiveness of past crimes, however horrendous.

About ten years ago I was privileged to be present at Yakar one Saturday evening when Bishop Desmond Tutu came to speak about the South African experience. During the period of apartheid and the struggle of the black people to rid the country of apartheid, there was much violence and bloodshed, what might be described as “terrorism,” on both sides. After this ended, and the blacks received full citizenship rights, they established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sponsored hearings on human rights violations committed during the period of apartheid, at which both sides spoke, and perpetrators could request amnesty and forgiveness. The central idea was that the country could not move forward towards a new era of racial brotherhood and mutual acceptance without somehow attempting to heal the scars left by the period of struggle and antagonism. Bishop Tutu suggested this as a model for the Israeli situation but, sad to say, such a notion sounds utopian in the Israeli context. And yet, sooner or later (and why not sooner?), some kind of mutual acceptance, recognition of the humanity of the other and, yes, eschewing exclusivist religious claims on both sides, will be necessary if our grandchildren are to live as adults in a better, more peaceful society that that which exists today.

For more teachings on this parashah from previous years, see the archives of this blog and search under the appropriate heading.

Hayyei Sarah (Modernity)


Vayera (Modernity)


Lekh Lekha (Modernity)


Noah (Modernity)


Friday, September 27, 2013

Bereshit (Modernity)


Having written Hitzei Yehonatan almost every week for fourteen years—two full “sabbatical” cycles—I found myself pondering what hitherto new and untouched topic I might address during this coming year. I felt the need for a slightly less demanding topic, one which will allow me more time to engage in other, long overdue writing projects not pegged to the weekly Torah cycle. I initially considered taking the opportunity to fill in certain lacuna left in previous years: perhaps returning to some of the Psalms which I did not cover when I wrote about Tehillim in Year VI (2004-05), and/or commenting upon Pirkei Avot, which I have touched somewhat sporadically in the past, or even dividing the year between those two topics. But then I received an email from one of my most avid readers, who suggested that I devote this year to a review of the best of Hitzei, reprinting old essays for the benefit of those readers (the majority) who have not been in since the beginning, or who do not remember what I have written in the past. But how would I choose? And, were I to find two or three essays particularly worthy, how would I avoid making it too lengthy and unwieldy? Moreover, is not the creative act, the finding of new perspectives, the idea that אין בית מדרש בלא חידוש —that there is no Jewish study house without some element of innovation—a basic part of what I am attempting to do here? And is not my blog, with its archives, designed for people who want to read my “oldies but goodies”—albeit it could admittedly stand an improvement in its system of cross-referencing, as well as links to my best blogs without sending out the full text?

Then, during Hol Hamoed Sukkot, I had a sudden inspiration—to write about the relation between Torah and modernity. The Torah is a very ancient book—whether revealed in one fell swoop at Sinai, ca. 1350 BCE, as in the traditional belief, or developed over time, till its closing and canonization a millennium or so later. By contrast, we are all “Jews of modernity” (to quote the title of a book by Milton Himmelfarb). No matter how pious, meticulous in our observance, and even retrogressive we may seem to ourselves and others in our thinking, we are deeply affected by modernity. Not only are we immeasurably different from our biblical and Rabbinic forebearers, but even from the shtetl dwellers of a mere hundred years ago, some of whose names we may know. To give a concrete example: though I “returned” to religious practice in my teen years, and my paternal grandfather, Rabbi Simhah Eliyahu Cypkewicz, was in some ways a model for emulation as a Talmudic scholar, and we even—very briefly, for less than a year and a half—lived in the same time, his mental world was vastly different from my own and, beyond the language barrier (he spoke Yiddish, his English was rudimentary, his Hebrew for purely scholarly and religious purposes), it seems doubtful that we would have understood one another’s mental worlds.

I will mention a few salient characteristics of modernity, which we have so internalized that we are no longer consciously aware of them. For many, perhaps most of us, “being Jewish” is a free, deliberate choice, not something imposed by having been born into a kehillah, an all-embracing Jewish society. Even those born into traditional, observant families, while they may be subject to certain societal and family pressures to live a certain way, ultimately have the option to “escape” into the open, pluralistic society (although those born into a more strictly Haredi milieu may face considerable obstacles along the way). Therein lies all the difference from the past: a Jew who wished to abandon his Jewishness in the Middle Ages had no viable alternative but to convert to Christianity. (That Spinoza was able to be neither one nor the other—with great difficulty—was only possible because he lived on the threshold of modernity.)

Then there is the modern idea of progress: the assumption that modern technology and science are constantly making human life better—more convenient, easier, more comfortable and prosperous—and that humankind is on a constant forward trajectory towards an ever-better life; and that, on the other hand, that which came before, earlier, is somehow primitive and retrogressive, inferior, to be rejected by any thinking, educated, “progressive” person. This is expressed in the phrase, commonly used as if it were in itself a valid argument, “This is the 21st century,”

I would like to challenge or question at least some of these assumptions. It is common for those who fancy themselves modern Jews to criticize the old-fashioned aspects of the Torah, of the halakhah, or of tradition generally, as archaic and irrelevant. I will attempt here, not only to read the Torah in the light of modernity (or post-modernity—a term which I don’t much like and which I tend to see as a meaningless catch-phrase: if the term “modern” refers by definition to that which is present, current, up-to-date, how can something be “post–modern”?), but also to attempt to understand the assumptions and mores of modern society in light of the Torah, to use the Torah as a point of reference, a system of ideas and values, against which to compare and measure various aspects of modernity. Of course, in a certain way every rabbi, every preacher, every commentator, reads the Torah in light of his own time—albeit often in clumsy, obvious, and artificial ways. The difference in this project is that I will at least attempt to do so in a more self-conscious, focused way.

One more point. Zalman Schachter-Shelomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and a key figure in what is sometimes called New Age Jewish spirituality, has spoken and written of the need for a “paradigm shift” in Judaism. He claims that the modern age—the open, pluralistic society; the decline of all-embracing Jewish community (kehillah) as a self-evident life-framework; the ubiquity of critical thinking instilled by science and technology; and the changes in mentality that all these engender—necessitates a revolution in thinking about Judaism. This change or “shift” is comparable to that which ensued following the Destruction of the Second Temple, and the consequent shift from a Judaism centered upon the Temple and its sacrifices to one centered upon the Beit Midrash and the study of Torah (both Written and Oral); from priestly leadership to that of the Sages; and from impressive, mass public rituals to a more personal-oriented piety. While I don’t agree with Schachter’s proposed solutions, I think that his basic diagnosis of the problem and his call for a “paradigm shift”—or, more precisely, his implication that a paradigm shift is inevitable—is largely correct. These ideas shall thus constitute part of the background for our discussion.

I am by no means certain that this project is doable, but let us begin and see where it takes us.

Some Preliminary Thoughts about Bereshit

Bereshit is perhaps the deepest, most complex, richest parashah in the entire Torah. Unfortunately, it is also often that to whose study the least time is devoted, at least within the Torah-reading cycle, due to the fact that—except during those years when Simhat Torah falls on Shabbat (or Sunday, in the Golah), only one-third of the time—there is not a full week to study it as one ordinarily does, but only a few days or, as is the case this year (in Israel), where Simhat Torah fell on a Thursday, but one short Friday.

Bereshit deals with two central topics, each one of which is deep and profound, deserving of extensive study in its own right: the one, the Creation of the universe, the grand cosmic drama of the creation in six days (itself a text often attacked by modernists as incompatible with modern thinking). As those who read my comments on Ramban’s opening salvo on Genesis 1:1 will note, the very fact of Creation, the very idea of creation, indeed, the very fact of Being per se, that there is anything whatsoever in this universe, let alone an orderly vast universe following orderly physical laws, with stars and planetary bodies going about in regular orbits, and our own planet earth, with its multitude of life forms, and the marks of intelligent life, is cause for radical amazement. The second topic, is, of course, the human condition as such. The stories in these opening chapters may be read as an extended etiology of the existential situation of human beings: being with sexuality, but including the need to labor for one’s daily bread, physical suffering, women’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth, mortality, the human propensity to violence as expressed in the first murder, the sense of being in exile from a Golden Age (Paradise), the arrogant machoism of men such as Lemech—all these are present in the few pages of this parashah.

Regarding the issue of modernity: almost every aspect of the human condition, as expressed here, could serve as a subject for lengthy discussion as to how the Torah would look at the values of the modern world, and vice versa. But I will suffice with one example that struck me in reading this parashah: as a prelude to His creation of Woman from the body of Adam, God says לא טוב היות האדם לבדו—“It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). It seems to me that this is no longer true: many people today prefer aloneness to living in tandem with another. I refer not only to the decline in the institution of marriage, but to basic attitudes about the individual and society. One is reminded of the famous phrase attributed to “Golden Age” movie actress Greta Garbo, “I want to be alone” The idea that life is lived in society, and within the framework of a nuclear family, is no longer taken for granted, but seen as something that the person chooses. The past half century has seen the growing acceptance of non-obligatory, often transient frameworks for sexuality, thereby increasing the option for the individual to remain alone. The number of people living by themselves—specifically in the middle-class, urbanized West—has grown enormously, and has come to include many young and not-so-young adults who prefer not living with others due to the compromises and limitations on self expression and self-realization this involves.

The concept of individuality is a core conception of modernity. Interestingly, in my attempts to research this subject in connection with the issue of “individual vis-à-vis community” (see HY, Year XIII), I found surprisingly little literature devoted to this question, causing me to wonder whether the centrality of this concept is so self-evident that scholars found it redundant to even study it.
One last question: some contemporary authors about Torah tend to interpret the figures in the Torah—Avraham, Moshe, etc.—primarily in terms of their individual biographies. Is this a correct perspective? It is a question worth asking.

The One and the Two: God, Man and Woman

In what follows, I am making an exception, already in this first issue, to my resolve not to republish old essays, but rather refer to the archives on my blog. I do so because I find what follows particularly germane to the issue discussed above. Some years ago, I began writing a series of studies on the Judaic understanding of sexuality which, by the nature of things, focused on Parashat Bereshit, particularly in the form of discussion of several of Rashi’s comments on various verses in Genesis 2.

For we moderns, a puritanical view, leaning towards celibacy, such as that implied by Rambam’s remarks in Hilkhot De’ot, is problematic in two different ways. First, we are far more aware than were our medieval forebears of the personhood of woman, of woman as a spiritual-intellectual as well as a biological being. We tend to see marriage as an institution whereby the two sexes complement one another, achieving wholeness. (See Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings on this subject, e.g. in his book Family Redeemed). Second, living in the post-Freudian age, we see sexual pleasure as a vital part of the complete life, and celibacy (i.e., self-imposed sexual frustration), not as a path to holiness, but as more likely an obstacle to mental health. To put matters bluntly, as a culture we like sex, and are not embarrassed to admit it.

But on another level, sexuality is an area in which our culture is deeply troubled, confused and conflicted—whether aware of it or not—and, as I have written in the past, headed on a potentially dangerous path in terms of social cohesion: If the smallest cell of society, the family, is in trouble, this must inevitably reflect back on society as a whole.

What I present below is a theoretical essay, a kind of introduction to my exegeses of Rashi (see HY VIII: Bereshit, Hol Ha-Mo’ed Pesah) in which I attempt to present a certain new model for thinking about sexuality within a traditional Jewish framework.

God is one. Man and woman are two.

God is one, but the universe He created is multiple, divided into different, at times even conflicting, objects. All multiplicity, conceptually, philosophically, begins with two. Even atoms, the smallest building blocks of the universe, are composed of positive and negative particles. In Genesis, creation is described as beginning with the division into two: light and darkness, heaven and earth, water and dry land, sun and moon—therein laying the basis for havdalah, separation, as the necessary counterpoint to kedushah, sanctification… and ending with the duality of man and woman. Halakhic thinking begins largely with dualities or separations—pure and impure, holy and mundane, Shabbat and weekday, milk and meat, etc. Thus, too, the traditions of the Far East adopted the yin-yang as a basic symbol for universe.
Indeed, sexuality is the very paradigm for duality. Even in the linguistic sense, sexuality relates to two-ness. The English word “sex” is derived from the Latin sexus, which in turn is derived from the root secare, meaning “to split / to divide in two”— the same root from which we derive such familiar words as “section,” “second,” etc.

The problem of unity and multiplicity is an essential one in religious thought (as noted by Martin Buber, among others). Unlike the pristine unity of the Divine in which God dwells in the hidden recesses of the Infinite, the dynamic, ever-changing aspect of life is related to twoness, to duality. The duality embodied in sexuality is that instrument by which God fills His world with life, the mechanism through which He acts in the world. Far from being antagonistic to the principle of unity, it embodies the vital force of the One within a multifaceted universe. Beyond the level of the simplest organisms, all life—mammals, birds, fish, even vegetation and many species of insects—reproduces itself through sex. This is so of necessity: all life, all change, all growth, comes about through the interaction of two beings. This assumes concrete form in the creation of life through sexual union and in the very laws of genetics that govern sexual reproduction; every child is a kind of synthesis of its two parents: not a clone, but a new being, reflecting something of the being of each one, while also being something new. Thus, just as every breath taken by a living creature may be seen as God breathing life into His world, so too is every act of coupling, whether of human or beast, an act in which God, so to speak, replenishes and revitalizes the life of His universe.

But human sexuality involves further antinomies and polarities. It is this fact that lies at the root of medieval philosophers being wont to speak of the two sexes in terms of spirit, or form, and matter. Translated into modern concepts, we might speak of: consciousness and biological impulse or, in more philosophical terms, determinism and freedom. Sexuality embraces the most intensely personal elements of life, the longing for emotional, spiritual, intellectual completion through union with another; at the same time, the act of union may be, and often is, limited to its purely physical, instinctual aspect; it may be and often is a brute, violent, even non-consensual act, powered by what we call pure lust—that is, drive or instinct.

There is thus much duality and ambiguity in sexuality in the moral sense as well. One need hardly belabor the point that sex involves the potential for good or for evil; it is one of those areas in which the ordinary person is confronted with moral choices. Christian moralists often speak of love and lust as opposed poles, tantamount to good and evil. Hazal, the Jewish Sages of yore, spoke of Yetzer Hara, of “the Evil Urge,” predominantly, or paradigmatically, in sexual terms—as the desire for sex with forbidden partners. So, too, the examples of “compete teshuvah,” whether the archetypal case invoked by Rambam in Teshuvah 2.1 (as per b. Yoma 86b) or that of the profligate Eleazar ben Dordai in Avodah Zarah 17a, involve sexual transgression.

This duality is also expressed in the very polarity of self and other entailed in sexuality. In the sexual act, one derives pleasure from an act committed with an Other, while simultaneously giving pleasure to the other. What is the balance of self-pleasuring and other-pleasuring? There is giving and taking; generosity and selfishness; love and deceit; pretense of love and authentic, whole-hearted caring commitment; perception of the other as an object, used for one’s own pleasure, or as a subject, a locus of consciousness in his/her own right; of deception, of self and of other, and honest confusion: all of the subtle, mercurial ebb and flow and changes of human emotion. (So long as Western culture continues to hold the sexual norms it currently has—and I don’t expect radical changes in this area in my lifetime—namely, of wide acceptance of sex outside of marriage, so that the ordinary person will have experience with several partners in the natural course of things, often rather casually, these moral problems will be accentuated and the concern of the many.) Of course, the moral ambiguities involved in sexuality echo the moral choices involved in human existence generally; or, put differently, the duality of human nature itself.

There are also dualities in love itself: in the ebb and flow of desire and satisfaction, of coming together and separating, indeed, in the polarity existing even in the most intimate relationship between bonding and autonomy, between the two basic human needs for individuation and coupling, the need for the other and for space for oneself. (As many have noted, this is reflected in the halakhah in the laws of niddah, in the constitutive laws of marital law, with their insistence that there is “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” [Eccles 3:5].)

Simhat Torah (Ramban)


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sukkot (Ramban)

Ramban on the Four Species

The taking of the Arba’ah Minim—the four species of plants: palm fronds, etrog (a kind of citrus fruit), myrtle and willow branches—on Sukkot and their waving during the course of the prayers, is one of the more enigmatic Jewish rituals. Unlike the Passover Seder or the lighting of Hanukkah candles, it has no clear commemorative purpose, nor, like blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, does it have an immediate emotional impact that can be seen as “awakening sleepers.” Thus, it has been the subject of numerous and varied attempts at explanation and interpretation in the midrashic and later literature. Ramban, in his commentary on the Torah verse commanding this mitzvah, suggests several new and unexpected directions for its understanding:

Lev 23:40: “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree, palm fronds, branches of a thick tree, and water willows.” … Regarding the reason for this mitzvah, they [the Sages] said by way of aggadah, that these species come to appease [God] regarding the water. And by the way of truth [Kabbalah]: “the fruit of a beautiful tree” (pri ‘etz hadar) is the fruit regarding which there is the greatest desire, and it was in it that Adam sinned. As is said, “And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and attractive to the eyes, and the tree was pleasant to make wise, and she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen 3:6). And the sin was involving it alone, and we appease Him with the other species.

This is a surprising and even extraordinary interpretation: the taking of the four species, rather than being an act of celebration, symbolizing perhaps the unity of the Jewish people (see, e.g. Lev. Rab. 30.12, where it symbolizes different kinds of Jews with varying virtues), or even the unity of forces within the Divine or letters of the Divine Name (as in ibid., 30.9, cited below, or in various Kabbalistic interpretations), it is seen as an act of atonement for the primal sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Moreover, rather than viewing all four species as being of equal weight, complementing one another and each making up for the shortcomings of the other by their being joined together in a single bundle, the etrog is seen as of central importance, having itself been (in one opinion in Gen. Rab. 15.7, alongside wheat, grapes, and figs) the forbidden fruit of which Adam and Eve ate, with dire consequences.

The etrog is also special in that it is not physically bound or tied together with the others in a single bundle (eged), but is held somewhat apart, at once separate, distinct, but also part of the unity. This idea gradually emerges in the sections which follow, which develop the Sefirotic symbolism of all four kinds:

And the palm fronds are the head of the central line [i.e., of the Kabbalistic schema, uniting “right” and “left”; it is usually identified with Yesod], double [being composed of paired leaves running its entire length] and high over all of them. And the branch of a thick tree [i.e., the hadassim, or myrtle branches] alludes to the three sefirot which are in one line [Hesed, Gevurah, Tiferet], as is said, “From the hand of the mighty one of Jacob” [Gen 49:24; Jacob=Tiferet, which harmonizes these three qualities, and is also the culmination of the three patriarchs and as such the classic progenitor of the Jewish people]. And the willows of the water (Aravot) are like the matter of which it is said, “Lift up a song to He who rides upon the clouds [aravot]” (Ps 68:5). For they are mixed [yit’arvu—a further pun on aravot] of the attributes of Judgment and that of Mercy [an allusion to Nezah and Hod, the two lower sefirot which, like Hesed and Din, balance the right and left side]. And from this you may understand and know that the etrog is not with them in the bundle, but its presence is essential to them [m’akev; in the halakhic sense, its absence disqualifies them]. For it corresponds to Atzeret [the eighth day], which is a festival in its own right and is the completion of the first. And they are all one in potential, albeit not in actuality. And I have already explained this reason.

Here the uniqueness of the etrog is hinted in its correspondence to the Eighth Day, which both is and is not part of the Sukkot festival and which, like all “eights” in Judaism, points towards that which transcends nature. The number seven suggests the seven days of Creation, or the seven lower sefirot or middot; eight takes us beyond this. Yet etrog also corresponds to Malkhut, the seventh sefirah; it is the seventh item in the bundle (after two willows, three myrtles, and one palm frond; i.e., six). In an earlier comment to which he alludes here, on v 36, Ramban sees the eighth day as relating to Shabbat and Knesset Yisrael, both of which are symbols of seven/Malkhut.

I am reminded of a strange passage in what is ordinarily a strictly halakhic work, Beit Yosef (Orah Hayyim 451, s.v. ketav) describing a guest, an Ashkenazic Kabbalist, who once visited for Sukkot, some time in the 15th century, the community in which R. Menahem Recanati was rabbi. In a dream, Recanati saw this man writing a Torah scroll; each time he wrote the Divine Name, separating the final letter heh from the first three. In the morning, he noticed this visitor shaking the “bundle” of the lulav while holding the etrog stock still—and he understood his dream. Was there some sort of Kabbalistic view that one ought to separate the etrog from the others? And was this a heretical position, one that somehow upsets the Divine unity (kotzetz ba-neti’ot or mafrid ha-binyan? Or does Ramban’s description somehow relate to this?

And the reason for the entire passage, “you shall celebrate the feast of [the Great] God for seven days” {v. 41, with changes} of the acts of creation, and attached to them the eight day of assembly, as in the matter which is said, “To the Leader, on the eighth [day?]” (Ps 6:1). And during those seven days you shall take therein the fruit of the beautiful tree, and the lulav in the bundle; and therefore the etrog is placed first. But on the eighth day it is not needed, for it [the day] is itself beautiful. And this is the meaning of “You shall celebrate them as a festival to the Lord [seven days in the year]” (v. 41)—that you shall celebrate seven days together with the year, with [the matter of] going around and circular procession. From the language of “And the circle of the heaven” (Job 22:14); “And you shall draw it with a compass” (Isa 44:13); and “a multitude rejoicing” [hogeg – celebrating: from the root hgg, to make a circle; Ps 42:5).

This is suggestive, but there is much that is dense and enigmatic. I do not fully understand this passage, but have translated as best as I can. One central point is the relation between the verb hgg, meaning to celebrate, and to dance or go about in a circle, perhaps alluding to the circular processions of Sukkot—in the ancient Temple, and also in the synagogue (did this already exist in Ramban’s time, or was it only introduced by Lurianic Kabbalah?). And, once again, the eighth day, like the etrog, is both attached to the seven while also somehow separate.
He now turns to another midrash, which takes us in a different direction. Here, all four species allude equally to the Holy One blessed be He (see my discussion of this in HY III: Sukkot [=Midrash]).

And our Rabbis already alluded to this secret, saying in Leviticus Rabbah (30.9): “’The fruit of a goodly tree’—this is the Holy One blessed be He, of whom it is said, “Glory and splendor [hadar] are before Him” (Ps 96:6). ‘Palm fronds;—this is Holy One blessed be He, as is said, ‘the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree’ (Ps 93:13). ‘Branches of a thick [or: leafy] tree’—This is the Holy One blessed be He, as is said, ‘and he was standing among the myrtles in the glen’ (Zech 1:8). And ‘willows of the brook’—this is the Holy One blessed be He, as is said, ‘Lift up a song to He who dwells in the clouds [aravot] (Ps 68:5).

Finally, he cites a series of passages from Sefer ha-Bahir, a proto-Kabbalistic book of unknown origin, but which clearly predates all of the earliest known figures of Spanish Kabbalah, which Ramban often quotes:

And in the midrash of Rabbi Nehunyah ben ha-Kanah (Sefer ha-Bahir, §§172-178, with variants): What is the fruit of a beautiful tree? As they translate in the Targum: the fruit of the tree of etrog and lulav. And what is hadar? That is the beauty of all. And this is the beauty of Song of Songs, as is written, “Who is this that gazes forth like the dawn [fair as the moon, bright as the sun]” (Cant 6:10). And why is it called hadar? Do not read hadar (splendor) but hadar (separate). This is the etrog, which is separate from the bunch of the lulav, but the mitzvah of lulav is not fulfilled but through it, and it is bound with all; for it is with each one, and it is with all of them together.

Without saying so explicitly, but based on this and on other passages cited earlier (e.g., the reference to etrog being the object of “greatest desire”), it would seem that etrog represents the feminine—which is both an object of desire, and keeps herself somewhat separate from men. Some say that its very shape is suggestive of the womb, or perhaps of the yoni. In a Bahir passage which Ramban does not quote here, this is stated more explicitly: “This is like a king who planted nine male palm trees in his orchard. He said: If they are all of one sex, they cannot sustain themselves (i.e. reproduce)! [NB: date palms exist in both male and female] What did he do? He planted an etrog among them, and it was one of those nine which he thought to make a male; but the etrog is female…” (§172)

And what is lulav? It corresponds to the spine. And the “branches of a leafy tree,” whose leaves cover the majority of it, like a man whose arms protect his head. “Branch” to the left and “leafy” to the right, and “tree” in the middle {the order of the Hebrew phrase being ענף עץ עבות: lit. branch – tree – leafy]. And why is it called etz (tree)? For it is the root of the ilan [the sapling?]. And what is “willows of the brook”? The name of the place where they are fixed, whose name is nahal (brook), as is written “all the brooks [or: rivers] go down to the sea” (Eccles 1:7). And what is the sea? That is the etrog [again, the centrality of the etrog, as the place to which all others flow: very much a characteristic of Malkhut, or the feminine]. And from whence do you know that each aspect of these seven is called “brook”? As is said, “and from Matanah to Nahaliel” (Num 21:19): do not read nahaliel, but nahal el (the brook of God).

He concludes with a straightforward halakhic comment: that this structure, of three myrtle branches, two willows, and one each of the etrog and lulav, is based on a specific opinion in the Talmud (which was accepted as halakhah); there was also a rejected view that it was one-one-one-one. Perhaps this was worthy of mention because the total of seven items is significant in terms of the Sefirotic schema.

And this midrash is based upon the view [of Rabbi Ishmael, in b. Sukkah 34b] that there are three myrtle branches, two willows, one lulav and one etrog. And such is the halakhah according to the Geonim and all of the Rishonim.

One final observation: while Ramban was an extremely incisive thinker with razor-sharp critiques of views he considered wrong, when it came to matters of ta’amei ha-mitzvot or Kabbalah he felt no need for consistency in his presentation. (He lived centuries before such systematizers of Kabbalah as R. Joseph Gikatilla or the school of the Ari). Thus, as he does here, he presents a variety of different views and approaches which do not necessarily coalesce into a single, unified whole—albeit his central insight, that the etrog, symbolizing what came to be called Malkhut, lies at the very center of the four species, emerges clearly.