Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Matot - Masei (Archives)

“Together, all the Tribes of Israel”

This week’s Torah reading, in which the last two portions of the Book of Bamidbar are combined, is the longest reading in the entire liturgical cycle (only once in three or four years, and only in the Land of Israel, are these two portions in fact read separately). The title of the former, Matot, is taken from its opening words, but much of what is related in both these sections indeed relates to the ”tribe-ness “ of the people. The people of Israel, during its early stages, certainly during First Temple times, was in fact a confederation of tribes. It could be described, in a certain sense, as similar to the original idea of the United States: i.e., a republic of semi-independent smaller units, with a constant interplay and delicate balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces. Many of the conflicts described in the historical books of the Bible—Judges, Samuel and Kings—focus upon the differences among the tribes, and particularly the ongoing conflict between Judah and Joseph (i.e., Ephraim), as the two strongest tribes, vying for leadership.

On the other hand, notwithstanding the inherent tensions in this setup, the Torah clearly sees in this the ideal model for the Jewish people (see the image of the twelve tribes organized around the Tent of Meeting in Chs. 1-3 of Numbers, and Ezekiel’s schematic vision of the reconstructed Jewish state in 47:13 - 48:35), and is part and parcel of the vision of the Messianic redemption: in addition to the rebuilding of the Temple and the reinstitution of the Davidic monarchy, this vision includes the ingathering of the exiles, of which the return of the “ten lost tribes” is an integral part. (This seems to have been the intention of the authors of the Musaf prayer for Rosh Hashanah in including Jeremiah 31:19 among the verses of Zikhronot: “Is not Ephraim my beloved son, my delight-child, for whenever I speak of him… my innards yearn for him; I shall surely have mercy on him, says the Lord.”

These two Torah sections essentially continue the motif already mentioned in Pinhas, of practical, down-to-earth preparations of the people for entering into the Land. In fact, three of the subjects found here may be described as threads alluded to briefly in Pinhas, and developed here more fully: the war against the Midianites (25:16-18; here in Ch. 31); the daughters of Zelophehad (27:1-11; 36); and the inheritance and division of the Land (26:52-56; 33:50-56; 34:16-29).

A brief rundown of the main subjects treated in its seven chapters:

Ch. 30: the status of women vis a vis oaths and vows: the father’s/husband’s right to nullify their vows “on the day that they hear.”

Ch. 31: the War with Midian: an unusually long and detailed chapter, including the commandment to kill all the males and the mature women; technical details of the purgation of vessels taken as booty (which serves as a model for the laws of kashering kitchen utensils); and the distribution of spoils to the soldiers and peoples, and the giving by them to the Temple of two pro mil and two percent, respectively.

Ch. 32: The incident of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who preferred to stay in Transjordan, where there was better grazing country for their flocks. This chapter typifies the idea of “tribal-ness” mentioned above, on which more below.

Ch. 33: The Travels. Here the second portion, Mas’ei, begins, giving a summary of the travels of the Israelites and a list of all the stations on the way, with a few sporadic comments. It concludes with the commandment to destroy the high places and altars of the pagans upon entering the Land.

Ch. 34: Instructions pertaining to the settlement of the Land: the detailed boundaries of Eretz Yisrael; the division of the land, and the appointment of delegates from each tribe to represent them and to oversee the subdivision among the clans. Again, the tribal motif, together with the subdivision into clans, and into households or extended families, is central.

Ch. 35: The assignment of cities to the Levites, with their surrounding lots—a total of 48, four from each tribe. Among these, several were set aside as cities of refuge, for cases of unintentional manslaughter.

Ch. 36: The daughters of Zelophehad: Part II. After the right of the daughters’ inheritance is established, at least in those cases where there are no sons, their tribesmen complain that they fear loss of their tribal inheritance should the women marry outside of the tribe. These conflicting interests are resolved by imposing a special rule that in such a case the daughters may only marry within the tribe. Again, the issue of tribal rights vs. the application of the principle of equity to the sexes.

Even More on Bil’am

Several readers commented that I was too easy on Bil’am, and should have taken more seriously the view of Hazal (Sanhedrin 106a and elsewhere) that, following the failure of his mission on behalf of Balak, he sought other ways to harm Israel: namely, by tempting them into orgies with the Midianite girls.

And indeed, upon closer reading, I realized that this midrashic motif is not made up out of whole cloth, but in fact has a solid basis in this parshah, which explicitly states that the Midianite women were “[a stumbling block] to the Israelites in the matter of Bil’am, to commit a trespass against the Lord” (31:16). Elsewhere in the Bible, as well, Bil’am is mentioned negatively; e.g., in Deut 23:5-6, where, in the context of the ban on intermarriage with Moab and Ammon, it says “And how he hired against you Bil’am son of Be’or to curse you… and the Lord your God did not wish to hearken to Bil’am, for [He] loved you”; and elsewhere.

How then do I read the Bil’am story? I still believe that he underwent a certain conversion, or transformation in his thinking. I see Bil’am at the beginning of the story as a type similar to Don Juan, the Yaqui (Mexican Indian) magician described in the series of books by anthropologist Carlos Casteneda, who had a seemingly authentic ability to manipulate and tap the powers immanent in the universe. The Torah, it would seem, accepts the existence of such powers (contrary to the modern, rationalistic milieu, that insists that all such phenomena can be explained away), but insists upon their underlying ground in the oneness of God, who reigns supreme over them. In any event, during the course of the events described, Bil’am was overpowered by God’s will, and came to see that he, as a human being, was not sovereign over these powers, and was not free to manipulate them—and God—as he willed. He was humbled by God.

But he still refused to accept the idea that Israel was the beloved of God, and sought other ways to harm them. He reasoned to himself, as the midrash says, that ”Their God hates licentiousness.” (This is in itself an interesting comment: i.e., the God of Israel is a puritan vis-a-vis sexual matters, evidently unlike the pagan gods, who are “swingers “—as illustrated by the myths about Baal and Ishtar and Anat and the rest. The conception is an interesting one, deserving of further analysis). Hence, it was possible to trip up Israel by tempting them into sexual sins, taking advantage of the objective moral weakness of at least part of the people, in the hope that this would cause God to turn against them; and so it was, until Pinhas came along.

(Speaking about Pinhas: to avoid any possible misunderstanding, in light of today’s spiritual climate: the description of Pinhas as zealot was by way of thumb-nail phenomenology, to try to understand what zealotry is all about. It goes without saying that I am extremely critical of and disturbed by the increasing prevalence of various kinds of zealotry and fanaticism in today’s world. [Just the other day the paper reported that three so-called hozrim beteshuvah (“penitents”) were indicted for torching the Conservative synagogue in Ramot a few weeks ago.] The attitude too often is: if you’re not a fanatic, filled with hate or at least a sense of smug superiority toward those who are less strict than yourself, you must be “less religious” than others, rather than the person who radiates love and kindness being the ideal. If that is the lesson people learn from the Torah’s permission for zealotry in certain cases, woe to us.)

To return to Chapter 31: there is much here that is very difficult to accept from a modernist view. Following the conclusion of the war with Midianites, and the slaughter of every male, Moses was cross with the people that they had not killed all the mature women, those “who had known men.” Since it was the sexual temptation of these women that had been the stumbling block to the Israelites in the first place, he saw the very fact of leaving them alive as a kind of moral threat to the people. Thus he ordered woman who had known a man (or, according to the midrash quoted by Rashi, all those who were old enough for intercourse) to be killed. In brief, the womenfolk of Midian were stigmatized as “temptresses.” Today, there are many who would describe this is a classical male-oriented approach—to see women, especially those who for one reason or another are thought of as loose, or presenting themselves immodestly, as “tempting” men. In brief, this seems to reflect the idea of seeing woman per se as the embodiment of sexuality, rather than seeing sexuality, and the possibility of uncontrolled, unruly sexuality, as essentially originating within the person, man or woman, and encouraging people to learn to exercise control from within.

I believe that this is the underlying issue in the debate between the late 20th century approach to sexuality (sexual harassment laws; the Oberlin dating code; etc.) and the traditional halakhic approach. The modern code is based entirely upon the assumotion of the efficacy of “inner control”; the operating premise of the halakhah, by contrast, is that “inner control” must be combined with a multitude of objective, action-oriented rules, distancing man and woman from unwanted and illicit temptation. The question confronting the traditional Jew is the following: Is it in fact clear that the modern view is objectively, psychologically sound? Can human sexuality be tamed from within, simply by internalizing values of “respect” and not seeing others as “objects”? (Camille Paglia has some scathing and sarcastic things to say about this whole way of thinking.) Needless to say, it is a long distance from that to killing all the Midianite women. In any event, the whole issue is surely deserving of objective, non-prejudiced review.

“And they had many cattle”

Chapter 32 tells the story of the tribes of Reuben and Gad (later joined by the half-tribe of Manasseh), who did not wish to settle in Eretz Yisrael proper, but asked Moses for permission to settle in the plateau land of Bashan and Gilead, newly conquered from the two Amorite kings Og and Sihon. They barely manage to say one sentence, and are meant by a vehement harangue on the part of Moses. This begins with the comment that they are trying to avoid the dangers of warfare: “Shall your brethren go to war and you stay here?!” (v. 6; a verse that could well be the slogan for one of the most painful splits in contemporary Israeli society, davka in the name of the Torah). He continues to say that they are discouraging, disheartening their brethren, much like the spies did in their day, causing the entire people to wander in the desert for forty years. Moses concludes by calling them “a culture [or multitude?] of sinning people” (v. 14), and expresses his fear that they will “spoil” the entire people. No, no, they respond, we’ll build pens for our livestock and homes for our women and children, and we’ll come with you to fight until the task is completed. At this point Moses softens somewhat, but only enough to lay down the rules and conditions under which he will agree to this deal (the detailed way in which these conditions are stipulated is used by Hazal to infer the rules governing the making of conditional contracts generally).

What was it about this proposal that prompted such a ferocious outburst on Moses’ part? The Reubenites and Gadites seem to have been willing enough to cooperate with them. Why the rhetoric of calling them “sinful people,” the protracted recounting of the story of the Spies, and all the rest? No doubt, the period of the rebellions was still very much on Moses’ mind, even after 38 years. Having experienced so much trouble with the former slaves, he had hoped that the new generation that had grown up in the desert would be different. As soon as he heard them say “do not take us across the Jordan,” it lit a red light: the same old story all over again. Or, as the midrash points out (Num. Rab. 22:7, 9), they were egocentric, selfish, more interested in their property than in anything else (even, as Rashi shrewdly observes, than their own children, comparing the order of “pens” and “cities” in vv. 16 and 24). Most important, he feared an outbreak of defeatism among the rest of the people. “Why can they stay behind, and pick where they want to live, while we have to go into this land to fight, and after all that have our territory chosen by lot?”

But perhaps there was something else as well. Moses must have been very sensitive to the hints of separatism, for the first signs of unravelling of the solidarity of the people, in the desire of this tribe to look out for themselves before sharing in the responsibilities of the Israelite nation as a whole. (A similar idea appears in the Song of Deborah, where those tribes that sat out the battle when called to join come in for scathing ridicule; see Jdg 5:15-17). The tribal makeup of the people involved a delicate balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces. The wish of the Reubenites and the Gadites to stake out their claim in this remote mountainous region was surely disturbing. Even though contiguous to the Land of Israel, they were not seen as an integral part of the Land, defined then as now as the territory lying between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. As one of the midrashim mentioned earlier says, “They liked their money, and dwelt outside of the land.” They made their decisions on the basis of property, rather on that of other values, such as communal solidarity, identification with the national goal of settling the Land, etc.

An interesting story about the relationship between the Gadites and Reubenites to the rest of the people appears in Joshua 22. Fourteen years later or so, after the reasonably successful conquest of the Land, the menfolk of the two-and-a-half tribes are given leave by Joshua to return to their homes in Transjordan. On their way, at the fords of the Jordan River, they stop to build an enormous altar. The other tribes, upon getting wind of this, see in this an act of rebellion against the Lord God of Israel and His altar in Shiloh, and are all ready to send troops against them and give them what for. But first, a delegation is sent to investigate the matter, which is told, “O no, we’re not intending to leave the worship of the God of Israel. This altar isn’t for offering cultic sacrifices separately, but on the contrary, it’s a sign and a reminder of our belonging to the collectivity of Israel even though we live so far away….” It ‘s interesting that these tribes seemed to have a knack for constantly being misunderstood by the other tribes. One wonders if there isn’t far more here than meets the eye. Who knows? Perhaps the Sages of the midrash still had some sort of hazy, ancient historical memory of a separatist movement of these tribes.

Cities of Refuge

Numbers 35:9-34 makes provision for the setting up of six “cities of refuge” among the Levitic cities, for those who unwittingly commit manslaughter. The essential idea here seems to be: one, recognition of the diminished culpability of one who kills another person by accident; two, the prevention of further bloodshed by family vendettas by setting up sanctuaries from which would-be avengers are barred. This can be viewed as an attempt to neutralize the “Wild West” aspects of a decentralized, rough and ready society. Once again, Michael Kagan shared with us some interesting Torahs:

Why should the manslayer be condemned to take refuge from the avenger in such a city until the death of the High Priest [v. 28]? [R. Obadiah] Sforno gives a great answer. Every action that leads to an unintentional result involves to some degree a measure of negligence: the wood cutter should have checked his axe to make sure that the head was securely in place and that no one was too close. He had no intention of hurting anyone, but if he had been more meticulous, then the tragic accident might have perhaps been averted. To what degree was he negligent? Is it possible to completely control any particular situation? Only God knows to what degree the wood cutter (or you and I) was negligent. This unknown or built-in degree of randomness is reflected in the punishment (mida k’neged mida): since the life span of the Kohen Gadol is also (from our perspective) a random event. Thus, the unknown amount of negligence is punished by an unknown amount of time in the City of Refuge. Only the Perfect Judge will be able to match those two factors and bring justice into the world.

17th of Tammuz (Archives)

“The fast of the fourth and the fast of the fifth month…. Shall be for joy and gladness”

Shavuot is barely behind us, and already we are at the last Shabbat before the “three weeks” of mourning for the Temple, culminating in the fast of Tisha b’Av. An old Jewish folk saying describes the melancholy mood of the summer months in Jewish life: “Seven weeks counting; three weeks weeping; four weeks blowing [the shofar] -- and the whole summer is gone.”

From time to time, there have been those who have questioned whether all of this mourning practices are still necessary, given that today we have a sovereign State of Israel, what some might even call “the Third House.” Some years ago I wrote an article about this question for the Jerusalem Post, for which I interviewed Professor Moshe David Herr, historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who was among the active members of a group known as ha-Tenu’ah le’Yahadut shel Torah (“The Movement for Torah Judaism”). This group, headed by the late Professor Ephraim E. Urbach, was created shortly before 1967 by a small group of religious intellectuals, its purpose being to examine the entire gamut of issues raised by the meeting between traditional Judaism and modernity and the existence of the Jewish state.

Following the Six Day War they also considered the above question. Their argument was in essence a simple one: Our generation has witnessed the rebirth of a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the ingathering of Jews from all parts of the earth, and the rebuilding of a modern city of Jerusalem (albeit not the Temple), inhabited by nearly half a million Jews, that might well be described as the crowning glory of the Jewish people. Has not the time come to abolish or at least modify some of these practices, which reflect the mood of a people living in dismal exile, yearning from afar for its homeland and holy city “where foxes walk,” rather than of a sovereign, proud nation living in its own land?

Prof. Herr described the atmosphere of the days following the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 as follows: “After the war there was a tremendous feeling of euphoria. On that first Tisha B’av, the atmosphere at the Kotel was more like that of a festival than of a day of mourning. On the 17th of Tammuz, barely six weeks after the victory in the war, some of us gathered at a private home for the weekday morning service, without reciting the various additions for fast days, and without Tahanun (the petitionary prayers recited every weekday, except when there is some degree of festivity). Afterwards cake and wine was served, and we drank Le-hayyim. During that first year, prominent rabbis from abroad, such as Dr. Shmuel Rene Sirat, later Chief Rabbi of France, also made festive meals on that day.

“Another troubling issue was that of Tisha B’av, and the three-week mourning period preceding it. Everyone agreed that Tisha B’av should continue to be observed as a fast—because of the Temple, which remained to be rebuilt, as well as because of the many troubles throughout Jewish history that were associated with this date, and particularly because of the terrible destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it seemed to us that the mourning period need not be so strict as it had become over the centuries, especially in the custom of Ashkenazic Jewry.

“We recommended returning to the norms in the Mishna and Talmud, which are basically those observed today by Sephardic Jewry: no mourning at all between the 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh Av; no excessive rejoicing—weddings, etc.—from Rosh Hodesh on; and limiting restrictions on eating meat and drinking wine, on bathing and washing clothes, cutting hair and shaving, to the week of Tisha B’Av itself.” The position taken by Urbach and Herr’s group has both historical and halakhic precedence. The book of Zechariah relates that, after the return to Zion in 536 B.C.E., some people approached the prophet with the query, “Shall I weep in the fifth month, as I have done these many years?” (7:3). The prophet prefaced his answer with an ethical exhortation concerning the spiritual goal of fasting —to pursue truth and justice, kindness and mercy to ones fellow, etc. —and concluded with the hopeful words, “The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts to the house of Judah” (Zech. 8:19).

The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b) puzzles over these words: why are these fast days referred to in one place as “fasts” and in another as “days of joy”? The answer given is, that in times of peace (i.e., when Jews are not under the hands of the Gentile nations—thus Rashi), these shall indeed be days of joy; in times of persecution, they shall be fast days; when the situation is neither one way or the other, “if they wish, they shall fast; if they wish, they need not fast.” In fact, after the destruction of the Second Temple it became virtually universal Jewish practice to fast on all four “minor” fast days, Jews with good reason perceiving their situation as being far closer to “persecution” than to “peace.”

Herr added that even before 1967 there were those who felt that the restoration of Jewish sovereignty was sufficient justification to abolish all fasts with the exception of Tisha b’Av and , of course, Yom Kippur—recounting a rather amusing story in which Rabbi Mordechai Breuer happened to visit Herr at the latter’s parental home on one of these fast days, sometime in the mid-‘50s, when people were eating a modest meal for health reasons, and burst out, “Where is the wine? Where is the meat?” This last point is of particular significance at a time when the Prime Minister of Israel is negotiating some possible partial, symbolic Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Why, then, was it that hardly a trace of these proposed changes took root within the religious world? Even those synagogues in Israel which proclaim themselves to be “religious Zionist” continue to use the old text of Nahem; many religious people (even Sephardim!) refrain from shaving for the full three weeks; and, whatever individuals may do in the privacy of their homes, the public norm is to regard all of the fast days as sacrosanct. Even the religious kibbutz movement (Hakibbutz Hadati), which has been known for its fresh and pioneering thinking on many religious issues, accepts the old tradition on this point.

Prof. Herr thought that all this is simply unthinking conservatism, symptomatic of rigidity and fossilization in religious thinking. Rabbi Zalman Koren, advisor to the Chief Rabbinate on matters of Jerusalem, suggested that the proposed changes (which were never accepted by more than a small number of people) grew out of a mood of euphoria that followed the ‘67 War; as the years passed, and the initial hopes held out by the unification of Jerusalem failed to be realized, the religious public returned to the feeling of living in an unredeemed, pre-messianic reality, including the observance of all the time honored customs of the three weeks. Then there are those who argue that: “We are not really independent, because every Israeli prime minister, right or left, has to keep one eye on Washington to see how it will react to his moves….” There are also cogent halakhic arguments against abolishing the “minor” fast days, notwithstanding Rashi’s comment about “Jewish autonomy.” Rav Aharon Lichtenstein of Yeshivat Har Etzion noted that there are other authorities, such as Maimonides, who implies, and Rabbenu Hannanel, who states explicitly, that all of the fast days for the destruction of the Temple will remain in force until the rebuilding of the Temple.

“Seek the Lord where He is to be found”

This Sunday is the Seventeenth of Tammuz, one of the statutory fast days of the Jewish calendar; like all other fast days, the Torah is read at both the Morning and Afternoon Services (the section about the Divine forgiveness following the sin of the Golden Calf and the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy: Exod 32:11-14 and 34: 1-10; see on this HY I; Ki Tisa), as well as there being a haftarah read at Minhah, Isaiah 55:6-56:8, beginning with the above words. In fact, the fast days are unique in being the only days, apart from Shabbat and full festival days, on which there is a haftarah; they are also the only days, apart from Shabbat and Yom Kippur (which is anyway sui generis), at which the Torah is read at Minhah. (On Tisha B’av, there is also a haftarah at Shaharit, as well as a different Torah reading; we shall discuss these, God willing, at the proper time).

What is it about fast days that, more so than Hanukkah, Purim, Rosh Hodesh or even Hol Hamoed, calls for a special prophetic reading? Conceptually, the underlying idea of all fast days is teshuvah, repentance. The classical fast days, such as those discussed in Tractate Ta’anit, were declared in the event of various national disasters: drought, famine, war, pestilence, etc. The idea was not only to refrain from eating, but for the entire community to engage in an intense, concentrated effort of turning back towards God. Maimonides, in the opening paragraphs of his “Laws of Fast Days,” articulates the underlying theological principles: the belief in divine justice, of retribution for sin, the conviction that bad things do not happen merely by chance, but are indicative of divine displeasure, resulting from some deep-rooted evil in the community. Similarly, the statutory fast days, such as the 17th of Tammuz and the others commemorating various phases of the destruction of Jerusalem, are intended to “remember our forefathers’ evil deeds, which are like our own” (ibid., 5.1)—that is, they are not mere antiquarianism, but are intended to link together past and present.

The elements of the fast day, again according to Maimonides (Ta’aniyot 1.17) are three: 1) moral exhortation and collective soul searching, in which the community leaders call in known miscreants and ruffians in an attempt to call them to account and mend their ways; 2) extensive readings from the Torah, such as the blessings and curses, intended to bring home to the people the consequences of their wrong doing; 3) prayer—special public gatherings, in which the people beseech God’s mercy. In certain cases, this involves an elaborate liturgy, in which six additional blessings are appended to the regular Amidah. This element is probably the source of today’s custom of reciting Selihot on fast days; indeed, Maimonides sees this as the essential element of the fast day as a Torahitic institution (Ta’aniyot 1.1), the fast itself being only of Rabbinic provenance (1.4). In this context, the introduction of an additional Torah reading in the afternoon, replete with a prophetic reading of an exhortative character, makes much sense—particularly as the central prayer of the fast day, in the “street of the city,” was also held in the afternoon, when the people had already been fasting most of the day.

All this is by way of rather lengthy introduction to the text from Isaiah 55 on. The opening words evokes the central theme of the fast days: God’s closeness and readiness to hear prayer (notwithstanding that in R.H. 17a and Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva 2.7 this verse is used specifically of the Ten Days of Penitence in contradistinction with the fast days, when God hears public convocations “whenever he call unto Him”), coupled with the exhortation to the evil-doer to abandon his evil ways and even thoughts. The balance of the haftarah actually does not engage in chastising the people for their wrongdoing, but invokes certain theological concepts. The ineffability of God’s thoughts (“as high from you as the heaven is above the earth”); the sureness with which God’s word bears fruit (“like the rain moistening the earth”); God’s love for all, even those who think they are abandoned and remote from His purview (“the children of strangers... the eunuchs who observe my commandments”), ending with words of comfort and blessing (“For you shall go out in joy… I will lead them to my holy mountain and rejoice them in my house of prayer...”).

Pinhas (Archives)

“Those who are zealous may smite him”

The title incident of Parshat Pinhas is split between the end of last week’s portion (Num 25:1-9) and the beginning of this week’s (vv. 10-15). It paints a vignette: the Israelites encamp at Shittim, in the territory of the Moabites, and some of the people begin to whore with their daughters and, as what seems a natural sequel, to participate in their pagan sacrifices. One man in particular, the son of one of the Israelite tribal leaders, has sex publicly with a Midianite princess—evidently a kind of ritualized, sacred prostitution, connected with the worship of their god Pe’or. The people, including Moses, observe this scandalous and shocking behavior, but don’t quite know what to do. Only Phinehas, grandson of Aharon the high priest, “rises from among the public” (v. 7), takes a spear, and kills them both—thereby appeasing the divine wrath against Israel. In the sequel, in this week’s parshah, God announces that, because Pinhas was “zealous for his God,” he will be awarded “the covenant of peace” and granted “an eternal priesthood.” Traditional Rabbinic exegesis offers a rather strange explanation for this incident. Moshe and the others had forgotten the special rule applicable in such cases: “habo’el aramit kanaim pog’in bo” (“one who has intercourse with a non-Jew, those who are zealous may smite him”). Were that same zealot to wait and ask the Rabbis what to do, he would be informed that he may not touch him. Only his spontaneous, immediate reaction of zeal, of hot, sacred passion, enjoys this special protected status.

What is going on here? It is almost as if the Rabbis invented here a special legal category to cover those cases that fall outside of the normal purview of the halakhah. Other sexual offenses—adultery, incest, etc—have definite, clearcut legal sanctions: death penalty, corporal punishment, etc. The real problem here is: how is one to deal with situations for where there is no existing rule, no pre-set response? The zealot exercises a kind of “moral creativity”—he responds deeply, morally, passionately, to a situation which he sees as untenable and as endangering the moral integrity of the public as a whole.

But allowing those filled with the spirit to follow their own inner voice presents a real danger, leading ultimately to anarchy, to chaos. How is one to know whether the inner voice is truly speaking in the name of God, or whether it is, so to speak, that of Satan—particularly when one is dealing with acts of ultimate violence such as these? Such decisions are always fraught with ambiguity. Perhaps Hazal’s statement that Pinhas was acting on the basis of a “forgotten” halakha is their way of expressing this moral dilemma. The Rabbis were acutely troubled by the idea of relegating such decisions to the individual and his own initiative, however moral and “right” his intuitions may be. So they interpreted it as an “extra-halakhic halakhah”—in itself a paradox.

There are times when the emotional and moral intensity of the zealot, and his willingness to go outside of the law, is necessary. It is perhaps difficult for us to relate to this in the case of Pinhas, because the response here is one of violence, of bloodshed, and that relating to a situation of sexual licentiousness, concerning which are own sensibilities as modern people are often blunted. But zeal and “extra-legal” behavior may also take the opposite form. Many readers will remember the moral dilemmas confronting young Americans during the Vietnam war: the flourishing during those years of a passionately felt moral objection to the war, of civil disobedience and draft resistance, and the invocation of obedience to a higher moral authority than that of the state. (Ironically, this same issue has reemerged in Israel in recent years, again in the opposite direction: viz. the rulings of the rabbis of Gush Emunim to soldiers to resist orders to evacuate settlers in the event of a peace settlement. Not surprisingly, the liberal advocates of human rights close ranks in a chorus of support for the principle of the ultimate, immutable authority of the [democratically elected] state, against religious conscience following a higher authority. No one seems to see the irony of this position.) It is interesting to follow the career of Pinhas. He lives on and on, well into the end of the period of the Judges. He appears in the episode of the concubine at Gibeah as a timeless old priest, advising the tribes by means of the oracle of the Urim and Tummim to go to war against the Benjaminites (Judges 20:28; interestingly, again involving zealotry relating to a sexual scandal, albeit here a violent gang rape culminating in its victim’s death). Unlike Eleazar or Joshua, his contemporaries, his death or burial are never recorded, no doubt providing the basis for the legend that Pinhas lived on in the person of the prophet Elijah. The latter mysterious, timeless figure was “very zealous for the Lord,” and participated in such scenes as the confrontation with Baal on Mount Carmel and the return to the caves of Sinai where he hears the “still small voice.” He lives on and on, making an appearance at every Passover Seder and at every Brit; or, in countless Hasidic tales, as the mysterious beggar, who comes from nowhere and disappears without a trace; or, ultimately, as the harbinger of Messiah…

A Watershed Chapter?

The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, explains the overall thematics of this portion, with its seemingly diverse and unconnected subjects, as introducing “a new form of behavior for the generation of those who were to enter the Land” (Pinhas, 5640, s.v. semikhut parshiyot; but for an interesting counterpoint to this, see 5663, s.v. hemshekh haparshiyot). This was, in brief, a fundamental change in the pattern of the Israelite’s relationship to God. In a nutshell, whereas until this point the life of the Israelites in the desert was under miraculous, transcendent Providence, it now turned to a more down-to-earth, reality bound path, based more upon human initiative. The previous generation was sustained through miracles, all of their physical needs being provided directly by Heaven: they ate manna, drank water from a miraculous well, their shoes and clothing did not wear down, etc. Moreover, they heard the Divine voice and their leader, Moses, received directives from God face to face.

This week’s parashah gives several signs of the transition: the appointment of Joshua as the successor to Moses; the second census of the people, marking the end of the 38 years (which, as we mentioned in the introduction to Bamidbar, is the second major watershed in the Book of Numbers); and the rules concerning the fixed animal sacrifices, establishing a regular, ritualized worship—temidim kedsidram umusafim kehilkhatam. (This possibly relates to another issue: the entire problematic in religion of fixity vs. emotion. Was this a transition from the spontaneous, charismatic prophetic leader to that of the priest, as in Ahad Haam’s essay on “Prophet and Priest”?)

Two incidents in the chapter are particularly characteristic. We have already noted how Pinhas’s act was marked by human moral initiative. But no less interesting is the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who approached Moses to ask what would happen to their father’s inheritance, seeing as how he had died leaving only five daughters and no sons. A mundane concern—but one of great importance, insofar as it concerns the working of justice, the application of principles of equity and fairness in immediate, practical situations.

There seems to be an interesting dialectic here: the generation of the desert were in some sense closer to God, seeing with their own eyes the constant miracles He performed for them; but their existence was also more child-like, bereft of the responsibility and choices that typify adult life. Some Hasidic teachers, and Midrashic motifs, see the desert period as an almost Edenic existence (or, for that matter, Jeremiah 2:2: “I remember for you the devotion of your youth, your bridal love, following Me in the wilderness, in an unsown land,” which coincidentally was read as this Shabbat’s haftarah for entirely different reasons). In any event, the entrance into Eretz Yisrael, which is tantamount to “real life,” demands leaving the womb.

One can connect this with a larger tension within spiritual life, if not in life generally: that of quietism vs. activism. Is the truly authentic religious posture that of sitting quietly, waiting upon God, doing what one has to do, but with a certain inner sense of dependence, of being a mere vessel or channel of God acting through one? Or is it that of the active person, always striving to do more, judging himself against the yardstick of his ideal, constantly seeking to fill his life with more positive contents: more Torah, more kavanah (inner devotion), more creativity, more deeds of kindness towards others? Christian mystics may have a more highly developed language for this sort of thing—via activa and via passiva, Martha and Mary, etc.—but it is certainly a central theme in Jewish thought, in Hasidism and elsewhere.

On another level, Judaism speaks of this problem in terms of the debate between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Berakhot 35b). The former insisted that one must live a normal life, engaging in worldly activities: “and you shall gather your grain.” The latter protests that, “if a person sows at the time of sowing, plows at the time of plowing and reaps at the time of reaping,” when will he have any time left to devote himself to Torah? Rather, when Jews fulfill the will of the Almighty, “their work is done for them by others.” In brief, work and other worldly activities are a necessary evil, to be avoided if at all possible. This is a perennial debate: Are spirituality and worldliness in fundamental conflict with one another, or can they be reconciled? Or, in William James memorable phrase, is ones religion “world-affirming” vs. “world denying”? This is, of course the crux of the conflict today between Haredi Ultra-Orthodoxy, which fosters a cloistered, life-long study-centered pietism, and other schools in religious Jewry, and first and foremost religious Zionism.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Balak (Archives)

“Who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen down and with eyes uncovered”

This week’s Torah selection, Parshat Balak, adds yet another, unique perspective on the people of Israel to those already presented in the Book of Numbers: that of the outsider. Almost the entire parshah (Numbers 22-24), with the exception of the final nine verses, is a self-contained unit devoted to the story of Bil’am (conventionally spelled Balaam in English), the Midianite soothsayer approached by Balak, king of Moab, to curse Israel. Instead, he ended up submitting to the will of God and blessing them in the most glowing, exuberant terms.

The poetics of the story are interesting: it begins with a delegation from Balak approaching Bil’am, who enjoyed a reputation as the outstanding sorcerer of his day, to curse Israel. Balak had heard about the Exodus from Egypt and was apprehensive at the prospect of such a large and invincible nation dwelling adjacent to his own country. That night Bil’am was visited by God, who instructs him not to curse the people, “for they are blessed” (22:12). Balak counters by sending a second, larger and more prominent delegation, and this time—but only after consulting with God—Bil’am agrees to go with them, albeit making it clear that he will only speak “that which God tells me” (v. 18; and reinforced by God’s comment in v. 20).

While I was writing this, my wife Randy commented that she felt certain echoes of the story of the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac) in this chapter. Apart from the fact that both are the 22nd chapter of their respective books (both of whose titles begin with the Hebrew letter Bet), it occurred to me that this idea has much to recommend it. Can this chapter be read as a parody or ironic inversion of the Akedah story? Abraham sets off early in the morning, riding on his donkey and accompanied by two assistants, upon a journey of several days to perform God’s will without questioning it. Here, Bil’am sets off on a donkey (albeit female rather than male), also with two servants, to perform an act which is opposed to Gods’ will, but to which the Almighty has given his grudging consent with certain conditions attached. Both journeys last several days: Abraham‘s was from south to north within Eretz Yisrael, while Bil’am’s, if I am not mistaken, was from north to south in the steppes of Transjordan. An outstretched weapon and an angel play important roles in each: in the Akedah the angel stays Abraham’s hand from slaying his son with the knife, while the angel holds an outstretched sword to warn or stop Bil’am. Both culminate on mountains or high hills: Mount Moriah; and the three high vantage points to which Balak takes Bil’am. Finally, there may be a parallel between the angel’s parting blessing to Abraham that his seed shall be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand of the seashore (Gen 22:17) and Bil’am’s blessings, which mention both these items (Num 23:10; 24:17).

But the truly significant point is the relationship between the central theme of the two stories: Abraham is, in Kierkegaard’s words, a “knight of faith” who unquestionably, even in the face of absurdity and paradox, obeys God’s will; while Bil’am starts out as a defiant, prideful person, who gradually comes to learn that he cannot do other than to submit to the will of the Most High.

Along the way there occurs the famous incident of the talking donkey. As in many biblical stories, things happen in threes: three times the donkey sees the angel with drawn sword, while Bil’am fails to see him: the first time he departs the high road for a side path through a vineyard; the second time he leaves that, pressing Bil’am against a stone wall; and the third time he stops dead in his tracks and lies down. At this point, after a vicious beating at Bil’am’s hands, he suddenly begins to talk and asks Bil’am what he has done to deserve this. People make a great fuss over the talking animal—Rambam and Saadya Gaon explain it away as a dream, while the Mishnah in Avot says that the ass’s mouth was created prior to the very first Shabbat of the world. But this seems to miss the real point of this incident. Bil’am himself is shown as taking the she-ass’s speech in his stride, as if they’d been chatting with one another for years over nargila and Turkish coffee, and answers him in an everyday tone, and to the point.

At this stage, “God opens Bil’ams eyes” and he, too, sees the angel with outstretched sword. Now he understands that the donkey was not being disobedient or rebellious, but reacting prudently to this frightening apparition. The point is, of course, that this “dumb” animal perceived the presence of this divine messenger, while Bil’am did not. The ass, like most animals, was constantly aware of the surrounding world, sensing rather than seeing the uncanny presence of this spiritual being. Bil’am, by contrast, was so wrapped up in his ego and pride as an internationally-renowned sorcerer and soothsayer that he was unable to sense the presence of the non-tangible. The precise purpose of the angel’s mission is not clear. In the end, he does not instruct Bil’am to turn back and not go with Balak’s people, but simply reiterates what he was already told in verse 20: that he must only speak those words that God puts in his mouth (vv. 34-35).

The number three figures prominently again in the next phase of the story: Balak, after greeting Bil’am personally upon his arrival in the royal city of Moab, goes with him to three separate places: Bamoth-ba’al, Zophim at the top of Pisgah, and the top of Pe’or. Each time they offer numerous propitiatory offerings (to Balak’s pagan god? to the God of Israel, whom Bil’am mentions by name? It doesn’t say), and each time Bil’am “takes up his discourse” and utters words of praise and blessing to Israel, which upon each turn become stronger and more unqualifiedly positive (see 23: 7-10; 18-24; 24:3-9); these are, by the way, among the finest, most beautiful examples of Hebrew poetry. By the end, when Balak tries to stop him (saying, in essence, “Nu, if you can’t curse them, at least you shouldn’t bless them” - 23:25), he answers “I can only do that which God commands me.” The final time, he completely abandons his magical techniques and omens that he had used previously, and “turns his face to the desert,” seeing himself purely as a recipient of Divine powers. At this point he describes himself as “Bil’am son of Be’or, the man whose eyes have been opened / who hears the words of God, the voice of the Almighty, falling down, but with eyes uncovered” (vv. 3-4). After his final prophecy, in which he extols Israel to the skies, he gives a parting “present” to Balak: a prophecy of what will happen to the various nations of the region (Moab, Edom, Amalek, the Kenite, Asshur, Eber) in the latter days—the long and short of it being, that all but Israel will eventually come to a bad end.

I see this narrative as revolving around two basic ideas: one, Bil’am’s gradual enlightenment, and his conversion from one who believes in magic, in human power to manipulate the cosmos by the supposed harnassing of hidden, magical forces, to a true prophet, who recognizes the sovereignty of the true God. Two: Israel’s central role in history, as the beloved of God and the axis around which history revolves.

I am puzzled by much of the midrashic and other traditional commentary on this parshah, which is very anti-Bil’am, and which seems to go against the simple intent of the text. By end of the account, Bil’am comes to understand the truth of his own accord, abandoning his earlier belief in his own ability to force his will upon history. That the Book of Joshua (13:22) later mentions in passing the fact that he died a violent death seems to me to neither add nor detract from this basic fact. His role is to be a Gentile witness to the covenant with Israel. My own feeling is that this line of interpretation on the part of the midrash is part of a general anti-Gentile tendency, rooted in bitter experience of the Jewish people, which was reluctant to admit a conversion (not in the halakhic sense, but of heart) of this non-Jewish magician/prophet.

“They are a People Who Dwell Apart”

Both the Bil’am story and its proximity to the beginning of the mourning period for the destruction of the Temple bring to mind the issue of Jewish chosenness and separatism. Bil’am himself is known for coining the famous slogan of Jewish apartness (which was the title of a well-known book by Yaakov Herzog), Am levadad yishkon (23:9)—“A people who dwell apart.”

For many of us who grew up in the generally liberal, tolerant atmosphere of the post-World War United States, and who did not see “goyim” either as hate-driven, frightening monsters, nor as ignorant, primitive, uneducated peasants, there is a certain dissonance in the constant hammering upon the theme that “It is natural for us to live apart”; “you can never trust the Gentiles”; “halakhah: Esav sonei et Ya’akov” (“it is a law [of nature] that Esau hates Jacob”), etc. In the world in which I grew up, there was widespread acceptance of certain principles of human rights and decency, dignity, etc.—and these have, in anything, taken root more broadly and deeply over the past thirty years. I found much to learn from and appreciate in non-Jewish culture: be it on the aesthetic level—arts, music, literature, poetry, much of which spoke to me on a deep emotional level; on the intellectual level—sciences, both natural and social; and even on the value level—philosophy, the political concepts of democracy and the universal rights of man, etc. (Of course, many aspects of European and Western humanism since the Enlightenment, and particularly during the twentieth century, have been decisively shaped by Jews, mostly those of the assimilated or acculturated ilk. Their “outsider” status and feelings of alienation—often, both from their own roots and from the majority culture—gave them a unique critical vantage point on the societies in which they lived; hence the disproportionate Jewish involvement in such fields as sociology, psychology, literary criticism, etc.—but that’s another story.)

On the other hand, during the course of my adult life, I have seen a growing tendency towards a more parochial and ghettoized approach within the Orthodox community. At least on the basis of my own subjective impressions, it seems to me that the American-born yeshiva men whom I encounter today are, on the whole, less conversant with general culture, speak a less literate, educated English than their parent’s generation, and are generally less interested in “synthesis” of the two cultures. This is true even of the Yeshiva University crowd, let alone those of the more “right wing” yeshivot. That world no longer seems to be producing Rabbinic leaders of the stature and cultural breadth of an Emanuel Rackman, Norman Lamm, Shubert Spiro (to 120), or of a David Shapiro, Norman Frimer, or, of course, the Rav, z”l. Symptomatic of this new breed is the curriculum of an Orthodox Mens College and Beit Midrash recently established in one of the garden suburbs of New York City. Secular studies are seen in purely instrumental, parnasah terms, college subjects being limited to practical, marketable skills: business, management, accountancy, pre-dentistry, a bit of counseling. The sciences, not to mention history or the humanities, are unheard of. Needless to say, the attitudes fostered in that milieu toward Western culture and the non-Jewish world tends to be xenophobic and suspicious (the American-born rosh yeshiva speaks of “Yidd’n”), seeing non-Jews at best in utilitarian terms—as in the unholy, bizarre political alignment between millenarian Evangelicals and Gush Emunim settlers.

But the other side of the coin is equally, nay, more dangerous to Jewish survival as such—namely, the total embrace of general culture, to the point of uncritical acculturation, assimilation and intermarriage. So much has been written on this subject that it hardly needs elaboration. Let me only add that in recent years I have had the opportunity to come to know that the situation is nevertheless far more complex and multi-faceted than I had thought, with an infinity of shades and nuances. Not all intermarriages are ipso facto destructive Jewishly. I have come to know inter-married families in which the non-Jewish spouses are supportive and sympathetic to the effort to raise Jewish children. It is nevertheless clear that this is a constant uphill struggle, typically occurring among Jews who are largely Jewishly ignorant, making the task that much harder. I have also learned to appreciate or at least to understand the efforts of non-Orthodox rabbis in communities throughout the United States—in the Midwest, the Southwest, California, or wherever—to attempt to convey whatever knowledge of Judaism they can, operating within the given context of highly mixed, assimilated communities. This is the reality of Jewish life today, outside of the warm, cozy “frum” cocoon. The same holds true for the various “New Age” rabbis and spiritual teachers—of the Jewish Renewal movement, etc.—who have tapped into a certain public and its profound thirst for a certain type of personal spirituality, and learned to speak to it Jewishly. There are of course, profound halakhic problems in all these groups, and many points on which I would disagree, but they can only be admired for taking up the cudgels of preserving Jewishness, in however attenuated and strange-seeming ways.

The path I would advocate on this issue is a middle way: one that avoids both the Scylla of xenophobia and parochialism, and the Charybdis of assimilation. I have no detailed programmatic answers, but only a sense of the general principles to be followed. What I would say, with regard to the problem of intermarriage and assimilation in an open society such as the US, is the following: Given that, for a large part of the community, free social mixing is inevitable, the only solution is to take a less stringent approach to conversion, and to find ways of including as large a number of people in the community, in halakhic ways, as possible. The solution must be along the lines of community-wide, cross-denominational conversion boards, such as that introduced by Rabbi Stanley Wagner in Denver, and later shot down by Orthodox zealotry. Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi have explained the validity of this approach in a comprehensive halakhic study, in which they present both a new and different analysis of the classic halakhic sources, and a compendium of responsa on the subject by many of the leading aharonim of the past century and a half. These men, who made the needs of the entire Jewish people their top priority, applied creative and innovative halakhic conceptualizations in their rulings on these difficult and delicate subjects.

Those of us in Israel have our own collection of problems vis-a-vis Jewish-Gentile relations. Without getting into politics, a few thoughts. There is a pressing need for a change in heart and attitude toward the non-Jewish, and specifically Arab, world. We need to realize that we are no longer the oppressed victims, but a powerful, economically and technologically superior, majority. We must stop seeing any political objection to Israeli policies (on the part of Europe, etc.) as anti-Semitism. We need to see the Palestinians as fellow human-beings, children of Adam and Eve, created in the image of God. Our goal must be not merely non-violent co-existence, assisted by high barbed-wire fences and a crisscross of separate roads, but real reconciliation and human understanding, along the model attempted in South Africa (notwithstanding the problems there).

More on Bil’am and the Akedah

Randy’s suggested parallel between the Akedah and the Bil’am story received favorable comment from several readers. One further point, which is perhaps the most central: Both accounts repeatedly used the verb r’ah, “to see.” Abraham sees the mountain from afar; he tells Isaac that God will “show” (yireh lo) him the livestock to be offered up; he sees the ram among the bushes; and, in the end, calls the place Hashem yera’eh (“The Lord will see”). As for the Bil’am account: the entire section begins with Balak “seeing” what God did for Israel. The she-ass sees the angel, but Bil’am does not, until God “rolls open” his eyes (22:31), and he too sees. Balak takes him to a series of vantage points, from which he “sees the people” or “sees the edge of the people, but not all of them.” All three of Bil’am’s blessings mention the word ra’ah and/or its synonyms: hibit, hazah, etc. Finally, in the third and final section, when the Spirit of God rests upon Bil’am after he “sees Israel dwelling by tribes” (24:2), he introduces himself as “the man who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen down and with eyes opened.” The central motif of the entire chapter is seeing, and the inner perception and in-sight—i.e, interpretation—for which physical sight is a metaphor.

Reader Michael Kagan had some interesting insights to share:

The comparison between the Akedah and Bil’am goes even further. Rashi already points out that Bil’am rose early to saddle his own ass cynically emulating Abraham…. After a period of time he “lifts up his eyes” and sees the mountain that God has chosen. This lifting of the eyes is spiritual seeing. The servant boys can’t see what he sees, nor can the donkey. So (again Rashi) they who cannot see must stay at a distance—the servants are no better than the donkey in this regard. Bila’m too sets out with his servants. However, satirically, the eyes of the ass are opened and it sees what neither Bil’am nor the servants are capable of witnessing. An ass is made of Bil’am.
While I too am very sensitive to traditional anti-other elements in Judaism and have always felt uncomfortable with the hatred poured onto the head of Bil’am by the commentators, I have recently looked at the story differently. Does Bil’am praise Israel through his own prophetic vision or does he remain, like the ass, a mere tool of God? In other words, is he an empty vessel mouthing God's words in spite of himself, or an active transmitter wholeheartedly identifying with the amazing visions that fill him, literally bursting forth from his mouth? One way of checking the difference between the two states is what happens after the trip ends. When the body and soul align with the Divine, the prophetic state results in a permanent change in the human psyche. The being is filled with sublime Love for all of creation. There is no room for hate, jealousy, or materialism; there is humility and awe. However, when God chooses to use you despite yourself, your ego, then when you come out you are in many ways broken—your ego has been smashed, you understand that everything that you thought was important was just your own vanity, there is embarrassment and disorientation as the ego tries to repair itself, everything is different but not necessarily for the good.
So which one happened to Bil’am? The willing servant or the witless ass? If indeed it was Bil’am that later recommended sexual promiscuity as the means of “cursing” Israel, then I would vouch for the witless ass interpretation. If Bil’am showed signs of Tshuva, conversion, fighting Balak or anything else, then maybe the willing servant model would fit. With this question in mind it is now possible to go back and examine the hints given in the story as to Bil’am's mindset.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Hukkat (Archives)

"…To atone for the sin of the calf”

The Torah portion entitled Hukat is divided into two sections of totally differing nature. The opening chapter (Num 19) is the famous chapter of the Red Heifer: a legal section, describing the procedure to be used for ritual purification of contamination by contact with the dead. An untouched heifer with pure red hair was slaughtered outside of the Temple precincts (at the crest of the Mount of Olives, according to tradition), burnt together with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet, the ashes dissolved in water, and the water sprinkled upon those who had been rendered impure. Beyond the seemingly “hocus pocus” aspect of this ritual (see the next section and the midrash in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Parah, as well as the discussion in Urbach’s Hazal, pp. 83-84 and 329-330), it is noted for involving an innate paradox: the very heifer which was intended for purification rendered all those who engaged in the various stages of its preparation ritually impure (albeit for only one day).

Rashi, in his commentary here, following a regular verse-by-verse elucidation of the laws of the heifer based upon standard Rabbinic sources, cites an entire allegorical homily from the Yesod by Rabbi Moshe ha-Darshan of Narbonne, one of the early leaders of French Jewry and a noted midrashic compiler, whom Rashi revered as an important teacher and source of the tradition. The gist of this section is that the ritual of the heifer was intended to atone for the sin of the Golden calf. What does this mean? Why the need for atonement? The question is rightly asked: if tumah is not a sin, but a technical, halakhic state, mitigating against an individual entering the Temple, etc., what has a ritual intended to affect purity have to do with “atonement,” and specifically for the sin of the Golden Calf? Why does this ritual and no other effect purification? (Phil Chernofsky posed this question recently in his popular “Torah Tidbits.” This law, by the way, is why halakhically observant Jews do not go up to the Temple Mount, or at most, according to some views, only to certain peripheral parts of it; because in the absence of the ashes of the Red Heifer all Jews are considered ritually impure)

And if so, already, why shouldn’t it relate to the sin of Adam and Eve? After all, death is part of the human condition, going back to the first human being. Moreover, Adam and Eve were specifically told by God, apropos of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, “on the day you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17; cf. 3:3). True, it is a commonplace of liberal Jewish apologia that, unlike the Christian Churches, we do not interpret this episode as describing some cosmic, “original” sin. Nevertheless, there are various midrashic notions, such as that of zohamat hanahash, “the pollution of the serpent,” that would suggest that Adam’s sin changed things in a fundamental way. Why, then, is the contamination resulting from death connected with atonement for the Golden Calf?

All this can perhaps be dismissed as so much fanciful creation of the midrashic imagination, a “just-so” story prompted by the similarity of the calf and the heifer in color and species. But if Rashi took the trouble to quote it at length, and to make the unusual move of giving a second verse-by-verse run-through of the entire section (something he otherwise does only in vv. 32-40 of the Song of Moses, Ha’azinu, in Deut 32), this would certainly suggest that he at least thought there was more to it… What, and why?

In general, the Golden Calf is seen as the primal sin in Jewish tradition; a kind of cosmic rift within the Bible (even in the purely literary sense, as I have commented earlier). It is axiomatic among the Rabbis that the sin of the Golden Calf is one that requires constant atonement by Israel, collectively. It, more than Adam’s sin, is seen midrashically as the “original sin” in Judaism (certainly, as I have mentioned, it serves as the locus for the central act of forgiveness and divine mercy). Why? In essence, the sin of the calf was not so much about idolatry, as it was about the need for some concrete, corporeal, intermediary symbol or reminder of the Divine presence. The stern, austere demands of iconoclastic monotheism were simply too much for the people, in the same way as the various conflicts between Moses and the people in the recent chapters of Bamidbar are ultimately about the one, central fact that a certain type of sustained toughness and maintenance of vision in the face of difficulties was just too much for the people. The kernel of all this is rootedness in the flesh, not as something sinful in itself, but as that which, when not animated by the spirit, by the sense of some transcendent purpose, quickly reverts to pettiness, to fearfulness, to squabbling, etc. And what is death, if not the departure of the animating spirit, of that which makes us alive and vital and creative and capable of soaring to spiritual heights, leaving an inert mass of dead flesh? (The Rav, in his “Eulogy for the Talner Rebbe,” speaks of death as the “hideous darkness… grisly and monstrous,” making a mockery of all human aspirations). Hence, the confrontation with death, with the dissolution of life, with the resultant questioning of all that makes us human, prompts a reevaluation of the old question of the balance between body and spirit—and the act of purification, of catharsis and working through of this seering confrontation, also confronts us with the age-old sin of the Golden Calf.

“I have chiseled out a law, I have issued a fiat, and one is not to question it..”

Hukat occupies a central place in much of Orthodox polemics and homiletics as the source for accepting the law categorically, absolutely, even when it flies in the face of human reason. It is almost seen, at times, as a Jewish version of credo qua absurdum est: “I believe because it is absurd.” This is even implied in the title: Hukat, “the ordinances of the Torah.” The laws of the Torah are conventionally divided into two groups: hukim and mishpatim, “ordinances” and “laws”: the latter are those that square with human reason, similar to legislation that we might find in civil society or basic humanistic moral principles. The former, the hukim, transcend human reason, are “above the intellect,” cannot be understood. In addition, of course, the chapter of the Red Heifer seems particularly remote from logical ways of thinking, making no sense in terms of our ordinary experience; moreover, the internal paradox within its laws (“contaminating the pure and purifying the contaminated”) lends it a further component of paradox and illogic.

Rashi, quoting the midrash, refers to the hukim as “those things about which Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying ‘Why do you need these commandments.’” He goes on to quote God’s proclamation: “I have chiseled out a law, I have issued an edict, and you are not allowed to ponder after it [i.e., to question it]” (based on Yoma 67b. A close reading of the various midrashim in this vein, and the subtle differences among them, including an analysis of precisely which mitzvot are called ”hukim,” would make an interesting study, but is beyond the ken of this framework).

This is often read as a call to serve God purely as an arbitrary legislator, and to see the Torah as ultimately His arbitrary, divine fiat. But things are in fact more complex than that. The Rambam treats this subject in the three separate halakhot that serve as the peroration for three books of his Mishneh Torah (Meilah 8.8; Temurah 4.13; Mikva’ot 11.12). His answer is subtly nuanced and complex. On the one hand, a person may not make his acceptance of the Law dependent upon his ability to understand the reason for the particular mitzvah or the mitzvot in general, or its fitting into his conceptions of reason. In this respect, they are indeed “the edicts of the king,” which are to be accepted as a binding, heteronomous imperative. On the other hand, a person should always seek out the meaning of the mitzvot, trying to understand them insofar as his intellect is capable of doing so. (Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether Maimonides’ interpretation of gemara in Talmud Torah 1.12, as reflecting upon the inner structure and meaning of the law, including Ma’aseh Merkavah and Ma’aseh Bereshit, the secrets of the Divine Chariot and the Acts of Creation, does not include within its rubric reflection upon ta’amei hamitzvot as well—but that is a whole other issue.).

The issue of ta’amei hamitzvot is also a central one in the commandment of shiluah heken, the sending away of the mother bird (Deut 22:6-7). Here, we deal with the opposite pole, so to speak: the Midrash relates the story of a young man who climbed a tree, at his father’s request, to chase away a mother bird, and in the course of doing so fell and died. How can it be, said Elisha ben Abuyah, that he should die while performing two commandments of which it is said “that your days may be long”? The midrash concludes that one should not put God to the test in such a way; for similar reason, one does not say in prayer, “Your mercies extend to the bird’s nest,” because one is thereby “making God’s edicts into mercy,” i.e., reducing the mitzvot to human, almost sentimental terms (see Mishnah Berakhot 5.3; b. Kiddushin 39b).

I’d like to connect this discussion, once again, to the last two weeks’ discussion about the role of the intellect, post-modernity, etc. Essentially, my position is in many way very old-fashioned; I don’t care much for the present Zeitgeist, and find myself liking it less and less as time goes on. One of my aims in Hitzei Yehonatan is to try to develop an intelligent mode of discourse about the various challenges to Jewish faith presented by modernity, and in the course of doing so to elucidate and formulate more clearly to myself as well my own positions on various issues. I find a grave lack of such intelligent discussion in the self-described ”frum,” “Torah world,” which tends to be marked by a cloying, pietistic, ingrown style of rhetoric and thought.

“As it is written in the Book of the Wars of the Lord”

Between Chapter 19 and Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers, we have a “fast forward” of 38 years. More important, in these two brief chapters we find yet another perspective in the composite portrait of the people of Israel. Having read a formal, schematic portrait in Chs. 1-8 of an amphictony of tribes arranged ever so symetrically around the Ark of the Lord; and a catalogue of human vices, failings and shortcomings in the “murmurings” chapters (Chs. 11-17), we now turn to a portrait of Israel as a warrior people, advancing confidently, vigorously, circuiting the land of Canaan to find an appropriate point from which to begin their entry into and taking possession of the land. On the way, they encounter various peoples, such as Edom and Moab, who do not have the decency to even allow them to a pass through and sell them a bit of water and food; ultimately, they encounter Og king of Bashan and Sihon king of the Amorites who actively engage them in battle, and are roundly defeated. En route, there are a series of interesting vignettes, and snatches of ancient, warlike poetry, taken from the “Book of the Wars of the Lord,” or from the ”saying of the ballad singers”: quotations and bits of song from ancient, long forgotten books. The entire section has a unique, archaic atmosphere, filled with echoes of ancient warfare among desert tribes.

A few vignettes. After the murmurings, it is Moses’ turn to be punished. First of all, the incident of the well, which ceased to yield its waters after Miriam’s death, and the order to Moses to speak to the rock that it might yield its waters. Moses impetuously smites the rock with his staff, an act for which he is punished by being told that he will not be permitted to enter the land but must die in exile, “because you did not sanctify me among the Israelites” (20:12). A bitter pill, and one that has elicited much and lengthy commentary—but this subject is for another time (those interested in delving into this further are referred to Nehama Leibowitz’s chapter on this problem in her Studies in Bamidbar and/or the commentaries of Ramban, Sforno, Hizkoni, and Ibn Ezra on these verses).

An interesting sidelight to this passage. Rashi, on verse 20:1 (quoting Moed Katan 25, comments that, unlike the case with Aaron and Moses, it does not state that Miraim died “at the mouth of the Lord,’ i.e, by the divine kiss, even though she did so, “out of respect toward the One on High.” I find this very strange, assuming as it does the reality of the anthropomorphic image of God; as if God were a man , for whom it would be improper to kiss a strange woman, rather than Him transcending gender, and certainly sexual desire. Moreover, even if we do accept this imagery, surely God would be seen as a father, seeing Miriam as one of his daughters.

The incident of the brass serpent (21:6-9). There is something very raw and almost “primitive” here. The people begin to die of a plague, as punishment for a renewed round of murmuring against God. Here, unlike the earlier cases the people immediately repent (“we have sinned”; v. 7); and Moses molds a brass serpent, which he holds aloft so that people may see it and be healed. Interestingly, this selfsame serpent was kept for centuries, and turns up again in 2 Kings 18:4 in the court of Hoshea son of Elah, until whose days it was revered as locus of magical powers or even a demi-god.

The war with Og and Sihon is actually an important motif in biblical history, seen as emblematic of God’s redemptive acts on behalf of Israel. It is invoked in the historical summary in Deuteronomy, in the Book of Joshua, in Psalms 135 and 136, and elsewhere. A humorous side light; a “tall story,” if you will, about Og king of Bashan. Og is described elsewhere as having been a veritable giant; Deuteronomy 3:11 takes the trouble to describe the dimensions of his enormous iron bedstead. In the early days of the State of Israel, when there were few tall people to be seen, anyone more than six feet tall was likely to followed through the streets by gangs of urchins calling out “Og king of Bashan.”

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Ki Tisa (Archives)

The Epiphany in the Cleft of the Rock

In the introduction to his volume on the Book of Numbers in the New JPS Torah Commentary, Jacob Milgrom (citing the work of Newing) refers to the structure of the Hextateuch—the Five Books of the Torah plus the Book of Joshua—as a “grand introversion.” This pattern may perhaps best be described as an expanded “chiasm,” or ABB’A’ pattern—a form which appears frequently in the Bible, in which two elements are crossed in inverse order. Milgrom points out a series of pairs of incidents or subjects, throughout the length of the Hextateuch, arranged symmetrically around a central point, like an ascending pyramid, described schematically as ABCDEFGXG’F’E’D’C’B’A’. This structure creates a sense of balance, suggesting a certain schema moving, first “from slavery,” and then “to freedom,” and focusing attention on the central point in the schema.

Thus, this ouevre begins with the promise of the land to Abraham in Genesis 12, and concludes with the fulfillment of that promise in Joshua 13-24; circumcision appears in Gen 17, and recurs in Joshua 5; the sea is split in Exodus 14-15 , and the Jordan River is split in Joshua 3; there are descriptions of wanderings in the wilderness coupled with incidents involving water, manna, and quail in Exodus 15:22-17, and the same, in reverse order, in the Book of Numbers; the sacred architecture of the sanctuary is planned and described in Exodus 25-31, and is constructed in Chs. 35-40. As we approach the center of this entire structure, we discover that the central drama of the breaking of the covenant and its renewal is framed on either side by laws concerning the Shabbat (Exod. 31:12-17 and 35:1-3); finally, at the very center (according to this schema), we find the epiphany to Moses in Exodus 33 and 34:1-10.

For our purposes, we shall bracket or ignore possible objections to this theory: first, the assumption that the Hextateuch is the defining unit of the collection, rather than the Pentateuch, as in traditional Jewish teaching; second, the possible “fudge factor” involved in deliberately excluding or ignoring two major sections or “wedges,” on the grounds that they are either late or irrelevant—namely, the pre-history of mankind before Abraham in Genesis 1-11, and the entire book of Deuteronomy which, with its lengthy rhetorical rationale and recapitulation of the law by Moses, is defined as a “renewal of the covenant.” What we find most striking about this scheme is that it focuses upon the theophany to Moses in the cleft of the rock, rather than upon the revelation at Sinai, as the heart or focus of the entire first section of the Bible.

What could such a reading mean? I have always been fascinated by Parshat Ki Tisa: not only because of the sin of the Golden Calf which lies in its center, but equally by the aura of mystery surrounding the scene in the cleft of the rock. Exactly what happens here, and what is its significance? I will present two rather different reflections.

On one level, the dialogue between Moses and God recorded in Exodus 33 may be read as a discussion of the limits of human religious knowledge. The people, barely three months out of Egypt and less than six weeks after experiencing the direct revelation of God’s presence, commit the unspeakable sin of making a Golden Calf -- on the face of it, a reversion to paganism and idolatry (on which more later). Moses intercedes on their behalf, praying (and, according to the midrash, arguing, cajoling, beseeching, bargaining) to God to forgive them. At first God agrees to, essentially, give the people one more chance, but stipulates that He Himself will not go with them, because they are stubborn (the phrase am keshei ‘oref, “a stiff-necked people,” is repeated here three or four times within the space a few verses), and might destroy them in His anger at their first false move. Instead, He will send “ a messenger” (33:2) to take them into the land He has promised them. Moses accordingly relocates the Tent of Meeting, in which he meets God face to face, outside of the camp.

But that is not enough. Moses insists that God accompany the people with His own presence: “make known to me your ways” (33:13): that is, if I have “known you by name,” show your involvement with the people in your covenantal name of HVYH by accompanying them “personally.” (We must add here that we do not know what “being accompanied by God’s presence” means; I can only read this text as speaking in metaphor, alluding perhaps to esoteric secrets of Gods’ nature. What is clear from the context is that it was a matter of the deepest importance to both the people and to Moses.) Here, God once again relents and says “my face will go with you, and I will lighten your burden” (v. 14).

Moses now modifies the terms of his request, going one step further: “show me your glory” (33:18). Not merely “knowledge,” but “seeing”; not only “your ways,” but also “your glory.” God accedes to this request only in part. First He states: “I will let all my goodness pass before you, and will call upon the name of the Lord before you, and I shall be gracious to whom I am gracious, and merciful to whom I am merciful,” but then immediately adds, lest Moses think that there is to be a full epiphany of the Divine glory, that “you may not see my face, for no man may see me and live” (vv. 19-20). But then, in a kind of compromise, He adds: “When my glory passes by, I shall place you in the cleft of the rock (a sheltered hiding place among the rocky crags of the desert; compare Samson’s dwelling place in the “cleft” of Etam in Judges 15:8)—and you shall see my back, but my face you shall not see.“ Moses is not granted the mystic vision of the secret of God’s “face” or the “glory” of God as He is “in Himself.” He is only allowed a kind of peek, of a strictly limited type. The Talmud states, rather arcanely, that Moses was only allowed to see “the knot of God’s tefillin.”

What Moses is granted is a moralistic sort of epiphany: certain theological knowledge concerning the nature of God’s behavior, and especially his quality of forgiveness, writ large in the “thirteen qualities of mercy” that are presented in the next chapter (34:6-7). (These form a leit-motif in all Jewish penitential prayer, being recited repeatedly on fast days, throughout the Selihot season, and on Yom Kippur.) It seems that what one is meant to draw from this a spiritually austere, “Litvak,” anti-mystical message: the proper concern of the religious human being is not knowledge of God Himself, but of his ways—his ethical qualities, his capacity for forgiveness and mercy and compassion. This, because the first rule of religious ethics is imitatio dio, “imitation of God.” Our interest in the nature of God is not aimed at mystical, esoteric knowledge, but at ethics: we desire knowledge of God so as to imitate his ethical way in our own lives, here on this earth. A noble, humanistic sort of message.

But wait. Are the “knot of the tefillin,” the “rear side of holiness” (ahoraim dekedusha), a matter for ethics alone (to be translated in the sense of “God’s reflection in the human world”)? Or is there something more? The mystical vision is limited, not because man’s proper place is with the ethical, but because God is so ineffable, transcendent, frightening, that this is all that man can perceive—in any event, without dying or going insane (compare “the four who entered Pardes” in Hagiggah Ch. 2). The vision of Ezekiel seeing the Divine chariot, the “Merkavah”—the spinning wheels upon which were the faces of a man, a lion, a bull, and an eagle… and above it, the figure of a man disappearing in the mist and the clouds—comes to mind.

There is also another way of reading this story; but in order to do so, we need to return to the story of the Golden Calf itself, and the dialogue between Moses and God that ensues.

The Sin of the Golden Calf

Het ha-Egel, the sin of the Golden Calf, has a powerful resonance in Jewish thought, be it in Midrash, in traditional exegesis, or in the Musar and Derush (ethical-homiletical) literature. One might even say that it occupies a place in Jewish mythology roughly corresponding to that of Original Sin in Christian doctrine. The difference is, of course, that the sin of the Calf is not an individual one, but The Sin, with capital letters, of the Jewish people as a whole, betraying the Sinai covenant only weeks after it is made. The figure that constantly recurs in this context is that of the unfaithful wife: the smashing of the tablets is, in one widespread reading, the tearing up of the marriage document —either in anger, or in a quick-witted move by Moses to diminish the people’s culpability.

Yet, interestingly, in much of the discussion of the sin of the Golden Calf among midrashic authors and medieval exegetes, there is a strong tendency to say that the sin was not “real” idolatry, but something else of lesser severity: perhaps a misunderstanding or misapprehension on the part of the people, either of the situation or of what the Torah required of them. Perhaps we can understand it in the following way: When God gave the Torah to the people through Moses, he expected them to keep it with loyalty and devotion and love and enthusiasm, as dedicated servants, former slaves who knew they owed everything to their Divine liberator. Perhaps he even expected the type of commitment we described last week in our discussion of prayer and avodah: the highest, most sublime level of religious awareness and consciousness.

But what God didn’t bargain for is that people are… well, people. Their “true” concerns are: getting up in the morning and knowing that they have something to eat, both for themselves and for their women and children; shelter, to keep warm in the freezing cold of the desert night, and to hide from the blazing heat of the midday sun; security, from wild beasts and snakes and other people; to occasionally lie with a woman and otherwise have a good time—perhaps to get up and dance and sing, or to sit around the campfire telling stories… So it was with them, and so it is, for all our vaunted modernity and technology and “21st century,” with us today.

Into all this came Moses with his God and his revelation. The people saw the thunder and lightning and experienced something overwhelming—but exactly what that something was they might be hard put to explain, exactly. They were, in fact, so overwhelmed that each time they heard God’s voice they “jumped backwards” twelve mil—twelve kilometers. And after the first two commandments they said, “you speak with Him, for otherwise we will die—and afterwards you can tell us what he said” (based on 20:16). The true, full revelation was essentially to Moses, who quickly assumed the role of intercessor (thus Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed II.33, albeit far more elegantly expressed). And, to the people, the identity of God and of Moses were all muddled together in a vague sense of awe and reverence and holiness—of the presence of the numinous—which translated itself into what was considered sacred.

Is it not always thus with holy men, with prophets, with those blessed with mantic powers? Pay a visit to the grave of the Baba Sali in Netivot, or to Meron on Lag ba-Omer, or to any other holy grave, or think about the ubiquitous photographs of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe or other tzaddikim—and reflect how easily pious, Orthodox Jews cross the boundary from reverence, to outright adulation and near-worship of a mortal human being. Popular religious sentiment can be fickle, but deeply emotional. Moses was the beloved leader, who had given them the courage to break away from the bonds of Egypt in the first place; to defy their slave-masters by tying up the lambs next to their doors for four days, then instructing them to slaughter them and sprinkle the blood on the doors and not to be afraid; to pack all their belongings, with the kneaded matza cakes on their shoulders, and to simply walk away from Egypt. And he too was the central figure on that great and awesome day in the desert when they heard God’s voice, and it was he who sat there to interpret it for them. So when, as the Torah tells us, “Moses tarried to return”: he didn’t come back when they expected him—perhaps, one midrash says, by only a few hours, and no doubt due to a faulty calculation on their part—they started to worry. “For this man Moses, we don’t know what is become of him” (32:1, 23).

This being the case, they needed someone or something else to… not so much to teach them or to guide them, but to symbolize the presence of what they had come to think of as the Divine. It is clear from the text that the mood in the camp was one of total confusion. Note Aaron’s words: “I took the gold and threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (32:24). No one seems to have shaped it; it wasn’t the result of any premeditated plan; it just happened. To change our terms of reference, we can imagine something like that happening at an orgiastic party where everybody was stoned—on drugs, on drink, on the rhythm of the music, from the motion and dancing and the sense of breaking away from everyday routine. “These are neither shouts of victory, nor cries of defeat, but sounds of ‘answering’ [or: singing]” (v. 18)—that is, a hubbub of totally undisciplined voices.

Aaron’s role here is interesting. His position is open to interpretation: one can see him as an unscrupulous compromiser without any real, rock-bottom religious principles, prepared to “sway with the wind,” adjusting himself to the people’s whims and to the zeitgeist; or as a very shrewd leader, who knows that sometimes a leader has to be sensitive to the mood of the people, and how ready or unready they are to accept the more harsh and difficult demands of the Torah, and with only half an eye turned toward the Talmud and poskim (a Shlomo Carlebach type?). But there is a fault in such people. He is described as ohev shalom verodef shalom — “loving peace and pursuing peace.” The danger is that in seeking peace one may cast certain principles aside, so much wanting to see the good in ones fellow that one becomes incapable of seeing serious, even fatal shortcomings and knowing when to say “Stop!” It seems significant that his grandson Pinhas (Phinehas) becomes the symbol of the opposite extreme, that of the zealot (as we shall see and elaborate when we get to the portion bearing his name).

Into this fray, Moses brings a simple message to God. “Give them another chance; forgive them. That’s just how people are—fickle, easily disappointed, easily prone to following their basest emotions in a crisis, especially if there is no strong leader around.” It is interesting that the conventional image of Moses in Western [i.e., Christian] art is of an angry, stern, unbending leader, who hurls the tablets to the ground in a fit of fury and rage. By contrast, the Midrash paints Moses as a tender, loving, fatherly figure, who stops at nothing to convince God to repent. The Midrash devotes two lengthy chapters (Exodus Rabbah 43-44) to the arguments put forward by Moses in this attempt at persuasion.

Which returns us, nearly, to our original question. What kind of lesson of compassion does God give Moses when he “reveals” the thirteen attributes of mercy? Moses already knew full well the supreme value of compassion, of mercy, forgiveness, etc. Perhaps, indeed, the chapter needs to be read differently. God is simply proclaiming to Moses “for the record”—for future generations, and for the present—the fact that He relents of His fierce anger, and that Moses was right all along. To understand this, we need to return to the very beginning; to the story of the Flood and the verses that frame it in Genesis 6:5 and 8:21. Originally, God saw mankind as utterly perverse, degenerate and generally no good: “all the impulses of the thoughts of his heart are only evil all the day.” But after the Flood, and after Noah offered the sacrifices, God somehow relented. Something tender inside Him, as-it-were, was moved: He saw people as frail, weak, almost child-like: “for the impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Therefore, he concludes, it is not fitting to wipe him out; rather, He must find another way for dealing with the weakness and flaws in humankind’s character. In our chapter, too, God starts out filled with anger. Having made a covenant with his chosen people, with the descendants of his beloved followers, the three patriarchs, each one of whom was a truly remarkable moral and spiritual figure, it seemed only right that their great-great-grandchildren be held to the same high standard. Yet things didn’t work out that way. Somehow, through the dialogue with Moses, God came to see things differently. I believe it was Buber who once said that all knowledge is dialogic: that a person can only learn, can only break out of his own ingrained patterns of thinking and reacting, through a situation of dialogue, of speaking to and interacting with the other. The radical message here is that even God, so to speak, only learns dialogically. Through dealing with the sin of the Golden Calf, and with the dialogue with Moses that ensued, He realized that He needed to change the rules of his interactions with the Jewish people (and presumably, by extension, with mankind generally).

There is, of course, a major, profound problem here for those who believe in a Maimonidean, Aristotelian God, unchanged and unchangeable, the embodiment of eternal perfection, etc. But it is clear that the biblical and/or midrashic God is quite different, clearly possessing a personality and the ability to change and, if one can dare to say such a thing, to grow. But all that is another discussion. In conclusion: the Torah relates two revelations, two kinds of theophany: that of Shavuot, and that of Yom Kippur. (There is a strong Rabbinic tradition that the scene in the cleft of the rock took place on Yom Kippur: the first 40 days from Shavuot ended with the smashing of the tablets on the 17th of Tammuz; the next 40 days, of Moses’ beseeching forgiveness, ended on Rosh Hodesh Ellul; a third group of 40 days, during which he received the Torah a second time, ends on Yom Kippur). The revelation of Shavuot is one of sternness, of apodictic, unconditional commands, given with the name Elohim, leaving no room for human failure. The revelation of Yom Kippur is one of love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, rooted in the sacred name HVYH: that there is room in the world for both man and God to change and repent of their former ways. The location of Exodus 33 in Milgrom’s “grand introversion” suggests that the latter revelation is the greater one.

“No man can see Me and live”

We have discussed above, at length, the overall significance of the chapter of the Golden Calf, and the covenant of Divine compassion which ensued (what I described as the “Yom Kippur faith” as opposed to the “Shavuot faith”; or “Sinai” vs. “the covenant in the cleft of the rock”). I now wish to focus more upon the specifics of Moses’ conversation with God at the end of Chapter 33 of Exodus which is, as I see it, the central mystical text in all of the Five Books of the Torah. The conversation consists of two, clearly distinct sections. In the first part, 33:12-16, (which really continues the ongoing conversation being from 32:30), Moses speaks as the leader of the Israelite people, as their defense attorney, calling on God not to punish them or abandon them. Indeed, there are numerous midrashim, spread over three chapters of Exodus Rabbah (42-44) and elsewhere, attempting to reconstruct the arguments presented by him.

At the end of Chapter 33, Moses presents God with two requests. The first, “make known to me your ways” (v. 13), is really a natural continuation of his role of defender of the people. What it means is, “explain to me the way You operate in the World” what Maimonides calls “God’s attributes of action.” But behind this is Moses’ deeper concern: “Prove to me that You really act toward this people in a loving, compassion way.”

After receiving a satisfactory answer to this last question (v. 17), he turns to a personal request, expressing his own most intimate spiritual longing: “Show me Your glory” (v. 18). Here, Moses articulates the deepest wish of the religious adept, the ultimate striving of the mystic: to see the Divine face; to have a direct experience of God’s essence. The answer comes in three distinct parts, delineated from one another by the opening word vayomer, “and He said.”

Verse 19 is seemingly a continuation of the earlier line: “I will pass all my goodness before you… and I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious, and show mercy to whom I shall show mercy.” Here, kavod seems to be taken as tantamount to God’s ethical or relational qualities in reference to Israel (albeit Maimonides, in a difficult passage in Guide I.54, says that “all my goodness” means that He showed Moses all of goodness to be found in Creation).

Verse 20 is seemingly a rejection of his request: “You cannot see My face, for no man can see My face and live.” Virtually every spiritual tradition contains severe warnings about the dangers of mystic revelation. This is not only a matter of making it forbidden fruit, of establishment types guarding the set forms and institutions of religion against the anarchistic impulse likely to be released by free-flowing mystical experience. Rather, there really is something awesome, terrifying, threatening the very integrity of the human personality, in the situation of direct confrontation with the Godhead. There are certain experiences that may endanger, not only a person’s sanity, but his very life. From the “four who entered Pardes” of Tractate Hagiggah, to the hippies who “blew their minds” with psychedelic drugs in the ‘60’s and on, there are records of such things actually happening. Again, in the language of some Medieval Kabbalists such encounters are described as being so enticing, so attractive, that the person’s soul “forgets to return to his body,” resulting in “death by the kiss.”

But then vv. 21-23 represents a partial reversal. Moses is told nevertheless that: “There is a certain place with me… And when my glory passes by I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand… and you shall see my rear.” The Sages interpret “my rear” as “the knot of the tefillin” (Berakhot 7a). What can this possibly mean? The Rabbis depicted God, too, as wearing tefillin. Whether on man or on God, the tefillin, specifically those worn on the head, represent a certain effusion of glory, a symbolic representation of the highest layer of the personality (which, in human beings, is also the point of connection with the Divine). In the Kabbalah, this is connected with the highest sephirah, that of Keter, the Divine “Crown.” The “knot “ of the tefillin, which nestles in the back of a person’s neck, represents that which is more tangential, which partakes only indirectly in the glory of the “face.”

The message here is that a human being—even one on the highest possible level of spiritual consciousness and even prophecy, as was Moses—can only perceive a slight, tangential edge of the Divine fulness. There are aspects of the Divine which are revealed, and there are many more which are hidden, which are beyond comprehension, or even apprehension, by a mortal being.

The Rabbis, in the above-mentioned aggadah, debate whether Moses’ last wish was in fact granted or not. Their answer, one might say, as usual, is ambiguous. Some say yes; others say not. A rather curious, related midrash, states that when Moses first encountered God at the burning bush He was prepared to reveal to him all of His secrets, but Moses was too frightened, too overwhelmed; now that Moses, having achieved a certain spiritual maturity, was ready and willing, God was not. As if to say, there are certain things in which there are no “second chances” (Exodus Rabbah 45.5).

Later, in the aftermath of this revelation, we are told that Moses’ face shone, so much so that the ordinary people could not gaze at his face (34:29-30, 33-35). This shining evidently represents the high level of mystical insight and Divine effulgence that nevertheless “rubbed off” on him, even from this very incomplete and marginal vision of the “rear part of the Divine.”

It is nevertheless interesting that we do not have here any unio mystica. Here (and, I think, throughout the Bible) the highest level of spiritual apprehension is “seeing God’s face.” Whatever may have been the position of later Jewish mysticism on the possibility of mystical union with God (and in recent years there has been lively discussion among scholars on this point, between the position of the late Gershom Scholem and that of many of the present generation of scholars, first and foremost Moshe Idel), it seems clear that this is not an aspect of biblical mysticism.