Friday, December 23, 2005


From Darkness into Light

Once again it is Hanukkah. First, a brief peshat I heard, or read, from Phil Chernofsky of the Torah Tidbits: Hanukkah candles are lit during the darkest season of the year, in the depths of winter; beginning on the 25th of the lunar month, as the moon light is nearly completely disappearing; and, of course, at the beginning of the night. One is entering into darkness on three separate, but intertwined levels. Within this deep darkness, we light a small candle to symbolize the reversal or overcoming of this process, through the act of creating ner mitzvah vetorah or, “the illumination of the commandment and the light of the Torah.”

But viewed in a more thoughtful or critical light, there is a certain problem with the standard message of Hanukkah. Are we really prepared to accept uncritically the message, most often articulated, of a categorical rejection of Hellenism? After all, most of us are not about to jettison our Western cultural baggage. We seek “synthesis”—“Torah with….” (fill in the dotted line: derekh Eretz, avodah, mada, or whatever). Many of us may speak of a “love affair” with America or with Europe. The rhetoric of total rejection of the West, heard in Haredi circles and to a certain extent among that portion of the second generation of Religious Zionism who have turned to ultra-nationalism, is too repugnantly obscurantist for many of us. What then do we do with Hanukkah?

Let’s start with the following: the Yevanim (“Greeks”) of Hanukkah were the bearers of a bastardized, degenerate version of Greek culture. A Hellenism for the Levant. They spoke Koine Greek, which was decidedly not the language of Homer and Plato and Sophocles. More significantly, they represented a cultural imperialism, forcing their practices upon the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, imposing draconic anti-religious laws, and prohibiting the practice of some of the most basic institutions of Jewish religious life—Shabbat, Milah (circumcision), and Kiddush hahodesh (the sanctifying of the New Month by the Court).

Whatever Hellenism was, whatever we may wish to appropriate of its culture for ourselves, we must adopt for ourselves, through our own choice, based upon our own values, and integrated into our own scale of values. The slogan must be yaft elohim leYefet vayishkon be-ohalei Shem. “May God enlarge Japheth (forebearer of the Hellenic peoples; also a term alluding to beauty), and let him dwell in the tent of Shem” (Gen 9:27). (I know I’m starting to sound too much like S. R. Hirsch). Somehow, the cultural contents must be filtered through Jewish lenses and standards—and that makes all the difference. This is a point well worth remembering in the age of the Politically Correct.

Why Hanukkah?

What is the essence of Hanukkah? Why did this holiday catch on so? In modern times, Hanukkah has received renewed importance for possibly extraneous reasons: on the one hand, the Zionist national renascence saw in it a forerunner of its own Jewish struggle for independence; on the other hand, some American Jews find in this winter-time holiday of lights and family gift-giving a sort of counterpart or compensation for the lack of Christmas. But even disregarding these reinterpretations, it has always had great importance. Within the context of Megilat Ta’anit—the Second Temple scroll listing numerous semi-holidays on which it was forbidden to fast and/or mourn—Hanukkah is almost the only one that is still extant. Why?

The conventional explanations usually revolve around the ongoing debate between “religious” and “nationalistic” interpretations. Is the miracle of the cruse of oil the real crux of the holiday, or is it the entire process of the revolt against the Hellenistic overlords (as suggested by the text of the Al Hanissim prayer, for example)? My own insight, which occurred to me suddenly during this past Hanukkah, is that perhaps it is neither; perhaps it is a kind of birthday or launching point for what came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism. It celebrates the emergence of the mind-set and spiritual world of what came to be known as Hazal. Hanukkah was a paradigmatic event, or process, establishing the hegemony and power of those who were the forebears of the Sages; albeit, due to the ideological need to maintain the fiction of being merely a continuation of the faith and halakhah of the Tanakh, could not openly declare itself as such.

Several facts, although admittedly not outright proofs, which lend support to this conjecture, which I offer more as an intuitive insight than as a sharply defined thesis:

1. The Hasidim, the group of pietists to which Yohanan the High Priest and his sons belonged, are seen by many as precursors of the Pharisees (thus Louis Finkelstein in his book on the Pharisees, and many others). One of the earliest “proto-Hazalic” halakhic legislations is the Gezerot Hashmonaim, the “Edicts of the Hasmoneans” (mentioned in b. Avodah Zarah 18a), which set up rules for distancing Jews from non-Jews.

2. The “Men of the Great Assembly,” cited as a sort of prototype of the Sanhedrin, is clearly a semi-legendary body. Maimonides (in his Introduction to the Mishnah, Seder Zeraim) lumps together figures from disparate periods, who could not possibly have been contemporaries in the same body. Perhaps these are a kind of mythical projection of the Hasmonean forebears of Hazal?

3. The mentality of rabbim beyad me’atim, the deliverance of “the many into the hands of the few”—the struggle for political/religious/cultural survival of the Jews as being that of a beleaguered minority. Not a tiny sectarian minority like the Qumran sect, to be sure, but no longer a simple, normal, autonomous nation living on its own land. There is here a strong sense of being a kind of saving remnant.

4. The use of Psalms. The recitation of Hallel is in some way connected specifically to Hanukkah. The Rambam makes Hanukkah paradigmatic of “days on which Hallel is recited”—more so than the major festivals. There is a certain tone to the spirit of the Book of Psalms that is uniquely appropriate to Hanukkah. Indeed, many Bible critics date much of its composition to this period, and see them being written against its background.

5. The Sefat Emet (5637, s.v. Hanukkah hu nes aharon) makes an interesting statement: that the light of Hanukkah, the miracle of Hanukkah, is strong enough to provide illumination down to our own day. Ner Hashem, Mitzvat Nishmat Adam -- symbol of mitzvot. What is this “small candle that keeps on burning, providing illumination throughout the ages,” if not a symbol for the Oral Tradition, in the broadest sense?

A Culinary Footnote About Hanukkah

An interesting paradox: Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday on which there is no formal requirement of eating—unlike Shabbat, Yomtov, or even its sister Rabbinic holiday of Purim, which is defined as mishteh ve-yom tov, a day of feasting and celebration. In principle, it is a purely spiritual occasion, commemorating spiritual and religious survival, the defeat of the first religiously-oriented persecution known by the Jewish people. Until then, Jews had known military defeat, and even the wholesale deportation of populations into exile, in 701 BCE and in 586 BCE, at the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians—but this was a normal thing that happened to many defeated peoples in the ancient world.

This idea is reflected in the halakhic structure of the holiday: the central mitzvah, that of lighting candles, is a commemorative act, rich in spiritual symbolism. This is complemented by the mitzvot for the daytime of Hanukkah, hallel ve-hoda’ah, praising God and acknowledging his acts of kindness, fulfilled, respectively, by reciting the Hallel and by the insertion of Al Hanissim in the Hanukkah Amidah. The obligation to give praise to God is also expressed in the early universal custom of singing the poem Maoz Tzur upon lighting Hanukkah candles, a piyyut that portrays Gods’ involvement throughout the broad sweep of Jewish history.

But there is a paradox: Jews spend much of their time on Hanukkah sitting down at groaning boards, fressing. What contemporary Jew can imagine Hanukkah without latkes, sufganiot (hole-less jelly doughnuts), and other varieties of fried foods (all allegedly reminiscent of the cruse of oil of the Hanukkah miracle)? Or, according to other sources, one is to eat dairy products, cheese and the like, in memory of the cheese that Judith, heroine of the apocryphal book of that name, fed the enemy general Holiphernes (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 670.2, and Ram”a there). If one takes seriously the “Zemer Naeh,” the special table hymn for Shabbat Hanukkah by Abraham Ibn Ezra, which my ex-wife sang with great gusto every year, one is even obligated to “sell, lease, or rent out” ones real property so as provide the wine, fine flour, doves, ducks, fatted geese, and other delicacies required for the proper celebration of this Shabbat. Did Ibn Ezra, who was a learned man and certainly knew the halakhic requirements, seriously think that Hanukkah imposes such a strong claim to Jew’s pockets—or did he write it “stam,” as an amusing wine and banquet song, with deliberate hyperbole?

Days of Hallel and Thanksgiving

Some years ago I sent readers of Hitzei Yehonatan a Yahrzeit Shiur in memory of my father, concerning the subject of Pesukei de-Zimra. The central issue there was the theologico-halakhic dynamic surrounding the fact that, after this collection of introductory psalms is described by the Talmud as a kind of Hallel “recited everyday,” it is noted that there is an element of blasphemy or cheapening involved in reciting Hallel on an everyday basis (Shabbat 118b). We concluded that Pesukei de-Zimra might best be described as the Hallel of “the day of small things,” the celebration of God’s presence in the everyday fact of Being itself.

In any event, by process of elimination, one is confronted with the question: what is the nature of the “regular” Hallel, familiar to us from the major holidays, and what is it that makes it singularly appropriate for recitation on these special days, and then only? Since the days of Hanukkah are considered one of the times par excellence for reciting the Hallel—Rambam in fact places the laws governing the recitation of Hallel within “The Laws of Hanukkah,” devoting the bulk of one of its two chapters to this subject.

On the face of it, the “regular” Hallel—Psalms 113-118, recited in full by all on the major festivals and Hanukkah (see Arkhin 10a-b; on Rosh Hodesh and the latter days of Pesah Hallel is read with certain deletions; Yom ha-Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim are the subject of intense ideological polemic)—is a celebration of God’s miraculous incursions into our world, of His performance of outstanding acts of deliverance or revelation: in brief, of those occasions when He manifests Himself within the world in supernatural ways, breaking through the veil of natural causality which ordinarily conceals His presence from the workaday experience of humankind. This seems to be the sense of the statement in Pesahim 117a, “The early prophets instituted that on every occasion and after every trouble that befalls Israel, when they are redeemed from it they recite Hallel.”

When and how is Hallel recited? Even though the obligation of reciting (“completing”) the Hallel is incumbent even on the individual praying in his home, there are many hints in the halakha that the ideal is that it be said publicly: in the synagogue, its recitation is marked by antiphonic responses and repetitions; in fact, the Talmud describes the manner of saying Hallel into a kind of object lesson of the various kinds of responsive readings possible (Sukkah 38b; see Tosafot s.v. hilkhita gevirta). The high priest Aaron at the Red Sea is even described by Rambam as a kind of symbol of a worshipper leading the Jews in response to the Hallel (see Rambam, Hanukkah 3.12). Similarly, some communities introduced the reading of the Hallel in synagogue on the first night of Passover, in addition to its recitation at home as part of the Seder, simply so that it might be read publicly on that occasion.

What is said? If the aim of Hallel is to celebrate Jewry’s delivery from trouble and to “tell the great deeds of the Lord,” why not read those psalms which do exactly that? Psalms 78, 89, 105, and 106 easily come to mind as expositions of God’s miraculous deeds in Israel’s history. Yet the Hallel as we know it contains only one psalm, 114, which describes God’s acts in history—the Exodus, the splitting of the Sea and of the River Jordan, and the mountains quaking and dancing at the time of the Revelation. The other psalms seem to cover a gamut of themes: Psalm 113 begins with a call to universal praise of God and paints a portrait of the scope of His acts, including in the lives of humble individuals; 115 is a polemic with idolatry—their gods are dumb, motionless, cannot save, while the Lord is an endless fount of blessing, and we will praise Him forevermore; Psalm 116 is an individual hymn of thanksgiving, in which the speaker describes how God heard his prayer and saved him in his time of great (but unidentified) trouble. This psalm (which is thematically reminiscent of Jonah’s prayer in the whale) culminates in the making a vow and bringing offerings of thanksgiving to the courtyards of the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. Psalm 117, only two lines long, the shortest chapter in the Bible, calls upon all nations to praise God. Finally, Psalm 118 begins with an outpouring of joy and thanksgiving to God—“Give thanks to God for He is good…”—and also continues as a personal hymn, in which the speaker recalls how he called out to God for help and salvation from enemies who surrounded him, and God defeated them. The concluding section is an outpouring of joy, spoken as if within the precincts of the Temple.

What is the common denominator among all these psalms? The central theme seems to be that of shirah, expression of gratitude to God through song and praise, phrased mostly in the first person. There is no need to recount all the events of God’s involvement in Israel’s history, because it is assumed that these are already well known. Some of the psalms tell a personal story; one tells of God’s great acts in the formative period of the nations, at the Sea and at Sinai, but phrased as song and praise rather than as narrative; while some, as noted, are expressions of public praise, unrelated to any specific occasion.

Hence, I would conclude that Hallel is essentially an act of avodah, of Divine worship, occasioned by a particularly intense sense of God’s presence in the world—occasioned, either by the memory of moments when God‘s hand was felt in history in a concrete, immanent way; or else, through the powerful sense of Presence felt in the Temple on the pilgrimage festivals. Thus, the same Talmudic passage on Pesahim 117a continues: “Is it conceivable that Israel slaughtered their paschal lambs [on Passover eve] or [marched around the altar] holding their lulavs [on Sukkot] and did not say Hallel?” And the passage continues, “[The word] ‘Halleluyah’ is the highest form of praise, because it combines [the verb of] praise and God’s name in one word.”

In what way does this differ from the Hallel of Pesukei de-Zimra? There too, especially in Psalms 148 and 150, we have calls to praise God; there, indeed, each of the six chapters begins and ends with the word “Halleluyah.” The difference lies in that in Pesukei de-Zimra the invocations are not direct or personal as they are in the psalms of Hallel; I do not know of any hazanim (except perhaps in Ezrat Nashim) who seriously expect the stars, the sea monsters, the trees, and the birds to literally join them in worship. Thus, Pesukei de-Zimra is a more muted, low key, non-ecstatic expression of praise: to the God who is hidden in the recesses of infinity, not to “He who stands behind our wall, looking through the lattices.”

I would like to conclude with an interesting conjecture: We know that the three daily prayers are described as having been instituted keneged temidim, as corresponding to the daily sacrificial offerings (Berakhot 26b). These were of course olot, or whole burnt-offerings. It seems to me that perhaps other verbal acts of worship may also be seen as being the counterpart of other sacrifices. Possibly, the Viduy (Confession) on Yom Kippur, which is the verbal expression of teshuvah, in some way corresponds to the sin-offerings of that day while, regarding our subject, Hallel, as a public act of joyous thanksgiving , corresponds to the shalmei simhah, the festive “peace-offerings” offered on festivals.

On Incense and Light

The Heikhal—the Inner Sanctum of the Temple—contained, in addition to the Holy of Holies were only the High Priest was allowed to enter on Yom Kippur, three ritual objects: the Table with showbread in the north; the incense altar in the center, upon which the ketoret, a mixture of fragrant spices, was offered morning and evening; and the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum, in the south, whose lights were kindled every evening.

Of the latter two, which formed a part of the daily sacrificial order, the incense enjoys foremost place in our daily prayer liturgy: the Talmudic passage enumerating its components is recited every morning in the rubric of Korbanot; the same text is repeated at the end of the Morning Service (daily in Israel; on Shabbat alone elsewhere), introduced by the concluding words of Ein Keloheinu: “You are He, the God before whom our fathers offered incense”; and some see the ketoret and its texts as particularly pregnant with mystical secrets. A verse from Psalm 141:2, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee; the lifting up of my hands as an evening service,” is used by some to introduce the Afternoon Prayer.

And yet during Hanukkah the focus is upon the Menorah, the lights. Why?

There is something sensual, almost intoxicating, about spices and incense. Perfume is part of a woman’s seductive “arsenal,” as noted in Proverbs 7:17 (as if a prooftext were needed!). “Negative energy” is associated with the ketoret in the incident of Nadav and Avihu, as it is in Korah’s challenge to the leadership of Aaron. The ketoret is thus a kind of adaptation of something sensual, potentially dangerous, to the realm of the sacred, where it is uplifted. The offerings made to God are analogous to a banquet placed before a king; just as a state feast would include the finest bread, meat, wine, and fragrant incense, so too the components of the Temple ritual. Incense is also suggestive of the love described in Shir ha-Shirim, suggestive of the love between God and Israel, which pleasures alike the body, in all its senses, and the soul. Indeed, Song of Songs includes a description of the “garden of spices” where the lovers go, cataloguing its fragrant barks and branches.

Light is something pure and unsullied. Light symbolizes wisdom, the “enlightened” clarity of the mind, the cognitive, illuminative aspect which enables one to know God, not only to feel ecstasy and longing and desire for Him. Or, some say, the candle symbolizes the yearning of the soul to soar upward, the constant, steadfast, quiet passion of the one who loves God all the days of his life. “For the commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is light.”

Hanukkah expresses a new beginning: the Temple had been sullied, contaminated by pagan use, by an approach which celebrated the human body and its pleasures as the be–all and end-all of existence. (And, it should be noted, the Hellenism of the Diodachi was a bastardized version of what we think of as the classical humanism of Hellenic civilization—rather like the relationship between the American mass culture spread around the globe by TV, and the great age of European humanism.) After this, there was a need to return to something clean, neat, clear—not to vague, subjective, undefined longings, to feelings which invite being swept up and activated without asking too many questions. Fragrant scent cuts through the critical armor and tools of the mind and the intellect, to cut straight through to the emotions, and can be misleading. Only where the ground has been prepared, where there is, perhaps, a certain purity of emunah, is it, so to speak, safe to give free rein to these chaotic feelings. Similarly, in terms of the erotic, the fullest intimacy of man and woman can only follow after knowledge on other, less intimate levels, and with the purity of kiddushin.

“Mixed Blessings”

I recently read in the paper about the emergence of a new genre of greeting cards, for Christmas and Hanukkah as a single syncretistic season. Someone even invented a name, ”Chrismukkah,” to express this idea, and two companies, “Chrismukkah” and “Mixed Blessings,” specialize in marketing such items. The cards, rather wisely, avoid any theological or religious statements, and are in a rather light, humorous vein. There is a Christmas tree with dreidels and a Jewish star on top; a Santa with peyote and a yarmulke; a children’s book, “Blintzes for Blitzen,” etc.

The blurb on their website describes Chrismukkah as “a hybrid holiday, a gumbo of favorite traditions from both Hanukkah and Christmas. [It] is celebrated by intermarried couples, interfaith families… people with partial Jewish heritage... or anyone else who feels like it. Chrismukkah is a festive celebration of diversity—a fresh way to describe how millions of us already experience our Merry Mishmash of a holiday.” It goes on to cite statistics on intermarriage in America, including the fact that, of those Jews who have “tied the knot” within the past five years, nearly half married non-Jewish spouses. It concludes that “One of’s goals is to encourage awareness of Jewish identity (!) and embracing of Jewish holiday traditions within interfaith families and among half-Jews.”

This trend is a reflection, to my mind, of the shallowness and superficiality of religion in America today (at least in “blue” circles; not intended as criticism—if I lived in the US I would be “blue” myself). Religion, at least for the “Chrismukkah” celebrants, is more a matter of ethnicity and group identity than it is of serious belief or value constructs (much on the level of the “bark mitzvah” celebrations for Jewish-owned dogs). The proof of this is in the very existence of groups of people who call themselves “half-Jews.” This term may make perfect sense ethnically, but not spiritually or halakhically. A person can have a “merry mishmash” of an identity, but can hardly believe simultaneously in Torah and mitzvot, and in the Incarnation and the mysteries of Christology, not to mention live by those beliefs. Not surprisingly, the whole thing emphasizes the marginal aspects of both holidays—the tree and Santa and reindeer on the Christian side, and the latkes and dreidel (although also the candles, which are gufei Torah) on the Jewish side. As if there were something anomalous about Jews enjoying fruit-cake. Rabbis have been repeating for years the obvious fact that Hanukkah is a far less weighty presence on the Jewish calendar than such holidays as Yom Kippur, Pesah, or even the less-widely-observed Shavuot. But, as I learned recently from my work with Israel Yuval, an Israeli historian who has examined the “hidden dialogue” between Judaism and Christianity in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, Christmas is not the central holiday of the Christian year either. The fact of Jesus’ birth, along with the annunciation, the virgin birth, the adoration of the kings, are of course important—but they are ultimately secondary to the Passion. In the Middle Ages Easter, celebrating as it did the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, was the central Christian holiday, marked by vigils and fasting throughout the preceding week. Christmas came to the fore in 19th century England, whose merchants apparently invented the custom of gift-giving for obvious commercial reasons.

Interestingly, many young Jews in the contemporary wave of spiritual quest seem to find Buddhism and/or Sufism more compatible with their Jewishness than they do Christianity. Why? Perhaps because these religions deal with the universal God idea, or the vagaries of the human condition, whereas Christianity seems to involve acceptance of a very specific mythic structure, of Incarnation, salvation, Christology, etc. —not to mention the historical burden of Christian anti-Semitism. In addition, many points of contact have been noted between Hasidic and Buddhist thought—but that is a whole other story.

All of this is not to criticize “half-Jews” as people ("some of my best friends..."), but to bemoan the situation that has brought the Jewish people in America to this pass. (Actually, while spared the syncretistic monstrosity of “Chrismukkah,” Hanukkah has become highly commercialized in Israel as well—the lead editorial on the first day of the holiday in Ha-Aretz was sarcastically entitled “The Festival of the Malls”) And this is no doubt as good a way as any of coping with their identity dilemma.

On second thought, Chrismukkah may actually be the perfect celebration of the real religion of the US – marketing!

Postscript: What is Hanukkah? It’s a holiday when committed, pious Jews sit around griping about how terrible it is that other Jews are so assimilated and syncretistic, and sing Lutheran hymns for eight nights.

Hanukkah (Hasidism)

Nahman of Breslav on Hanukkah

In turning from Habad to Bratslav, we find ourselves encountering an almost diametrically opposed religious mentality. Habad, as we discussed last week, emphasizes intellectual knowledge of the cosmic God, without much relation to the individual’s needs and emotions. It cultivates a type of deep meditation on profound truths that take a person far away from his own concrete situation; its ideology, at least in principle, strives for negation of the self, promulgating the idea that earthly life doesn’t matter much and is ultimately unreal (inviting comparison to Buddhism and other Eastern religions). Classically, the rebbe was a teacher and guide in Avodat Hashem (“Divine service”), not one whom one turned for advice and blessing concerning matters of banei, hayyei, umezonei—children, health and livelihood, i.e., the three areas of every person’s existential concern.

In Bratslav, by contrast, everything seems to start from the situation of the individual. There is little theology, but much psychology and discussion of how a person is to deal with his life problems. His message emphasizes the existential angst of man, his basic insecurity and neediness—something which R. Nahman seems to have experienced more strongly than his others in his own life (see, e.g., Arthur Green’s biography, Tormented Master, in which he suggests that R. Nahman tended to suffer bouts of depression and guilt)—and appeals directly to the emotions.

The Bratslav practice that is perhaps paradigmatic of this approach is hitbodedut—direct, vernacular, personal prayer to God. Every day, or at least once a week, on Thursday night in preparation for the Shabbat, each hasid is supposed to go to an isolated place—a forest, an open field, a deserted beach or mountain top, or even an empty room—to speak to God “as he would to a friend” about whatever is troubling him, in his own language, feeling free to shout, to groan, or to weep, all without inhibition. (This practice also reflects a feeling that statutory prayer had become too ritualized).

R. Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1809) was a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov; he left no heir to continue his position of Rebbe, albeit he had his ”Boswell” in the person of R. Nathan of Nemerov, who recorded many of his teachings and is in practice responsible for much of the extant written material in R. Nahman’s name. Hence, Bratslaver Hasidim are at times referred to as “Toiter (i.e., dead) Hasidim,” because they follow a long dead leader. Indeed, there is a certain latent messianism in some of R. Nahman’s teaching, such as his statement that “my fire will burn till the coming of the redeemer,” but he does not seem to have viewed himself as Messiah in any literal sense. In the absence of a living rebbe, Bratslaver Hasidim are thus those who follow the teachings and study the writings of R. Nahman, including certain specific practices he introduced, such as the hitbodedut mentioned above, a dance of fellowship at the end of prayer and learning sessions, the recitation of a group of ten psalms known as Tikkun ha-Kellali, and visiting the grave of R. Nahman in the Ukrainian city of Uman—until recently, an enterprise involving no little danger. They also feel a certain “connection” (hitkashrut) to their long-gone teacher.

In recent years Bratslav has enjoyed a certain revival, enjoying especial popularity among many ba’alei teshuvah, who are no doubt attracted by the freedom he gives to uninhibited emotional expression. In some such circles, one can find wild, ecstatic, almost crazy dancing and singing. Some Hasidim also popularized the conversion of his name into a mantra, so that posters, graffiti and bumper stickers containing the legend “N-Nah-Nahma-Nahman me-Uman” appear ubiquitously around Israel.

Another well-known aspect of R. Nahman’s Torah is his story telling. During the last years of his life, he used stories as an alternative vehicle for conveying his teaching. These are collected on a group of thirteen stories known as Sippurei Ma’asiyot, filled with fantastic imagery, at times compared to Kafka, but all of which ultimately bear a religious message. There is a man who sets out to get a portrait of a “truthful and upright” king who turns out to rule over a kingdom of lies; a princess who becomes lost; a prince who goes into exile; a prince and a pauper who exchange places; a heart and a well that long for one another; seven holy beggars who tell stories at the wedding celebration of a pair of orphan children; and more.

R. Nahman’s more formal sermons are gathered in the volume entitled Likkutei Muharan, which is divided into two sections: the first, published during his lifetime; the second, posthumous part, known as Likkutei Muharan Tinyana (“the Second”). Unlike most books of Hasidic homilies, the teachings are not arranged by Torah lections, and only occasionally take the Torah portion as their point of departure; they are identified simply by number, and occasionally by title.

Hanukkah was one of the three times during the course of the year when the Hasidim would gather at Bratslav, the other two being Shavuot and, especially, Rosh Hashana. These festive assemblies quite naturally served as the occasion for some of R. Nahman’s lengthier and more important sermons. The following Torah, Likkutei Muharan, §8, was delivered on Hanukkah 5563—exactly two hundred years ago:

“I saw a menorah of pure gold, with a bowl on top of it” [Zechariah 4:2, which is the haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah]

I) See how precious are the groans (called krekhts) of the Jewish person, for it is the fulness of the lacks. For by means of breath, which is the spirit of life, the world was created, as is written, “and with the breath of His mouth [He made] all their host” [Ps 33:6]. And the renewal of the world will also be by means of breath, as is written, “You send forth Your breath [or: Spirit], and they are created; You renew the face of the earth” [Ps 104:30]. And it is also the vitality of a person, for the life of a person is in his breath, as is written, “and he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” [Gen 2:7]; and it is written, “all which had the breath of life in their nostrils” [Gen 6:17]. And as the wise men wrote, if breath is absent, than life is lacking.

We find, that the main vitality of all things comes from the aspect of breath. And when there is a lack in some thing, the main lack is in the aspect of life of that thing, which is the aspect of the living spirit of that thing, for the breath/spirit is that which sustains that thing.

And the groan is the extension of breath, and that is the aspect of “long suffering” [erekh apayim]—that is, that he extends His [his] spirit. Therefore, when a person moans due to a certain lack and draws out his breath, he extends the breath of life to that lack. For the essence of the lack is the removal of the spirit of life. Therefore, by means of the groan, he completes that which is lacking.

Who but Reb Nahman would write about the krekhts as a religious gesture? Who but he would make the saying of ”oy” into a holy, world significant act? (Philip Roth, seeing the “oy” as a quintessential Jewish gesture, once quipped that he’d like to say “the oy put back into Goy, and the id back into Yid.”) One can see this passage as almost emblematic of Bratslav: the verbal expression of human pain, of lack and frustration, as an important religious moment.

On another level, this is typical R. Nahman in its seeing symbolic, archetypal meaning within every thing, even the most seemingly mundane gesture, which he then links to central cosmic and religious ideas (the Divine breath animating Adam, and the breath sustaining the life of every living creature) through a series of word associations and biblical verses. We continue:

II) But from whence does one receive the spirit of life? One should know, that the main spirit of life is received from the Tzaddik and Rav of the generation. For the main spirit of life is in the Torah, as is written, “and the spirit of God hovered over the water” [Gen 1:2], which is the Torah. And the Tzaddikim are attached to the Torah; therefore, the main spirit of life is with them. And when one is attached to the Tzaddik [righteous man] and rabbi of the generation, then, when one groans and draws out his breath, he draws [in] the spirit of life from the Tzaddik of the generation who is attached to the Torah, where there is the spirit. And this is why the righteous is called “a man in whom there is spirit“ [Num 27:18]: one who understands the spirit of each and every one (as Rashi explains there), for the Tzaddik draws down and completes the living spirit of each one, as said above.

A central point in Rav Nahman’s teaching generally is the idea of the tzaddik, and the need for the individual to attach himself to “the tzaddik of the generation,” as a kind of conduit for Divine life and blessing. There is probably no concept in Hasidism that is as problematic for modern people as the idea of the tzaddik, and the demand that one, in one way or another, subjugate oneself to the spiritual guidance and authority of another human being. After all, the idea that another person is somehow “closer” to God, uniquely capable and suited to instruct one in his religious life, is downright undemocratic! What follows is part of my own attempt to answer this question; not necessarily an apologia advocating the idea of a rebbe (after all, in my own life I never fully adopted the yoke of a rebbe in the Hasidic sense, but sought out an alternative model of teacher—those teachers who left the individual greater latitude and autonomy, and ultimately taught one to think independently within Torah), but to at least understand the rationale and inner coherence of the idea, rather than to see those who adopt it as simply seeking an “escape from freedom.”

My answer is begins with the recognition that people differ vastly in their innate qualities, and even more so in what they accomplish in life. The Tzaddik is one who has worked on himself to achieve holiness and purity, spiritual insight and closeness to God, as well as cultivating the intuition and insight into people that enable him to be a spiritual guide. Connection to a Tzaddik helps one to attain “Torah,” “the living spirit,” “fear of God” (as in his “Yemei Hanukkah,” II:2), etc., in several ways. First, on a natural level, he may inspire one in one’s own avodat hashem. Prayer with someone who is on a high spiritual level generates a certain energy that uplifts others. At times, in such situations, one can feel a certain electricity in the air, just by watching and feeling the intensity that radiates from such a person, the mere memory of which may help to lift up ones own prayers and mitzvot for some time hence.

Beyond that, Hasidim believe that the Tzaddik is in a certain mystical, metaphysical sense, literally a conduit for yirat shamayim, etc. This idea is implied in the above passage by the emphasis that there is one “Tzaddik hador,” a single individual in each generation who is the vehicle for channeling Divine grace to all Israel. Obviously, such influence is not dependent upon regular, or even any personal contact. To some, this may seem “Christian,” smacking of intermediaries between God and man but, without going into sources, it has more than ample precedent in Jewish tradition as well. Third, and related to that, is the idea that the Tzaddik has certain theurgic powers—the ability to intervene and influence Divine action, using extraordinary powers (and here, we are on the border of magic; see the subtitle of Idel’s book, “Ecstasy and Magic,” in which he contends that these two elements were inextricably mixed in early Hasidism). Here, too, there is precedent; see, for example, the series of aggadot in the first chapter of Ta’anit about such holy men as Honi the Circle Drawer and Rabbi Akiva, who would merely say the words “Morid hageshem” and the rain would fall.

Together with that, they are obvious dangers in the cult of the Tzaddik. There is always the danger of people who are not on this sublime level claiming the title, or being adulated by the ignorant masses—whether cynical charlatans, or simply mediocre but good-hearted people who have inherited the mantle of rebbeship. From my perspective, it is important to emphasize the humanity, mortality and fallibility of the tzaddik, and the free-will and moral choice that is ultimately the responsibility of each individual.

What I have translated above is only the first section and half of this teaching, which continues over many pages, through a long series of associative chains of ideas, verses, Rabbinic aphorisms, and key words. Along the way, he offers a symbolic interpretation of the adventures of Rabba bar bar Hanna, a group of fantastic aggadic “tall tales” from the Talmud, Bava Batra, Chapter 1, which Rav Nahman makes the subject of his own homilies in the first fifteen chapters of Likkutei Muharan. Ultimately, he ties everything up, relating it all to the title verse, and through it to Hanukkah, as well as to many other matters along the way. Hanukkah Sameah to all.

Hanukkah (Rambam)

Eight Days of Joy and Praises

Maimonides devotes the third of the fourteen books, Sefer Zemanim, to special times: Sabbaths, festival days, and other fixed commemorative occasions. The structure of the book follows a logical progression: beginning with the various categories of holiness in time in general: Shabbat, Yom Kippur and festival days (Hilkhot Shabbat, Eruvin, Shevitat Asor, Yom Tov); laws of the special mitzvot characteristic of the major holidays: Hametz u-Matzah on Passover, and Shofar Sukkah ve-Lulav for the festivals of Tishrei; continuing with other special dates: the annual collection of money for the temple (Shekalim), the structure of the calendar itself (Kiddush ha-Hodesh), and fast days (Ta’aniyot); and concluding with the two Rabbinic holidays of Purim and Hanukkah (Hilkhot Megillah ve-Hanukkah). Interestingly, rather then jumping straight in, so to speak, with a discussion of the central mitzvah observed on Hanukkah, the lighting of lamps, Rambam begins with a historical overview of the reason for the holiday. Hilkhot Hanukkah 3.1:

1. During the Second Temple, when the Grecian kings issued edicts against Israel and abolished their law and did not allow them to engage in Torah and mitzvot, and tried to take their money and their daughters, and they entered the Sanctuary and made breeches therein and contaminated the pure things. And Israel were greatly oppressed because of this, until the God of their Fathers took pity upon them and delivered them from their hand and saved them. And the Hasmonean high priests overcame them and killed them, and saved Israel from their hand, and crowned a king from among the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than two hundred years until the destruction of the Second Temple.

2. And when Israel overcame their enemies and destroyed them, it was on the 25th day of Kislev, and they entered into the sanctuary and did not find any pure oil in the Temple save for one vial, and there was only enough to light for one day alone. But they lit the candles of the menorah with it for eight days, until they pressed olives and took pure oil.

3. And for this reason the Sages of that generation decreed that these eight days, beginning on the 25th of Kislev, should be days of joy and reciting praises (Hallel), and one lights lamps therein in the evening on the gates of the houses on each of these eight nights, to show and to display the miracle. And these days are called Hanukkah….

Unlike the popular image of Hanukkah, which stresses the miracle of the oil lamp, Rambam here emphasizes the struggle with the alien, Greek culture, which forcibly prevented the Jews from following their own religious precepts and culture, violated the modesty of their daughters, etc. Both the Temple itself, and the miracle of the oil, are shown here as secondary to the broader framework of Torah and mitzvot. Characteristically, it is the theological framework—the ability to study and observe Torah —that is utmost in Rambam’s mind.

It is interesting to contrast this with the Talmudic passage on the same subject, at Shabbat 21b:

What is Hanukkah? As our rabbis taught: On the 25th of Kislev [begin] the eight days of Hanukkah, on which one may not say eulogies or fast therein. When the Greeks entered the sanctuary they contaminated all the oils that were in the Sanctuary, and when the kingdom of the Hasmonean house overcame and defeated them, they looked, and found only one vial of oil that was left with the seal of the high priest, and there was only enough to light one day. A miracle was done and they lit from it for seven days eight days. The following year they fixed these and made them festive days, with Hallel and thanksgiving.

The opening here is reminiscent of Megillat Ta’anit, a short book containing a list of minor holidays observed in Second Temple period, whose salient feature was the absence of overtly sad activities. The entry for each day begins with an Aramaic statement (“on such-and-such a day one does not fast a/o eulogize), followed by a scholion, a Hebrew explanation of the origin and meaning of each day. The above Talmudic passage is in this format, and in fact contains snippets from the scholion for Hanukkah, with many deletions and somewhat reworded. (I had hoped to present and discuss that source as well, but exigencies of time prevented me from doing so; perhaps I will return to it at a later date).

Here, the emphasis is almost wholly on the miracle of the oil. As in the Rambam, the discussion of Hanukkah begins with a recounting of the historical background—itself a rather interesting move, very different from almost any other holiday—but here, it starts specifically with the aspect related to the Temple, the violation of its sanctity, and specifically the miracle of the oil. Why? One could say: since the outstanding symbol of the holiday, differentiating it from all others, is the oil lamps (or candles) lit every night, these need to be explained—but that is almost begging the question. What was so important about the menorah that made it so central as a symbol of the restoration of Jewish autonomy and religious freedom—compared with, say, offering the daily offering, or the incense offered on the inner altar?

As small children, many of us were taught that the central feature of the Jewish synagogue is the lamp kept burning over the Aron Kodesh, the “eternal light” (Indeed, there was even a weekly radio program of that name on WQXR). (But, incidentally, my own experience has been that this is far from true; there are many synagogues, including quite a few very strictly Orthodox ones, which do not in fact have such an artifact. Nor am I sure what the standing of this custom is from a halakhic purview.) In any event, light is symbol of wisdom. “He who wishes to be wise, should turn south”—a saying alluding to the fact that the menorah in the ancient Temple was located on the southern side of the Sanctuary, opposite the shewbread table on the north, representing wealth and material needs.

The struggle with the Greeks was essentially over the nature of wisdom. The Greek culture was a highly sophisticated one, with traditions of philosophy, of science, of historical writing, with a highly developed literature of epic, drama and satire, etc. In truth, though, one must state that the form in which it reached Eretz Yisrael during the second century BCE was a rather bastardized version: “Hellenism,” with its debased, Koine dialect of Greek, rather than the “Hellenic” culture of the homeland. It was a kind of offshoot culture for the colonies, which imitated that of the predominant world power without grasping its inner essence; rather like the ubiquity of MacDonald’s, Baywatch, Coca Cola, and jeans in various far-flung parts of the world, without any real sense of the higher, more serious, worth-while elements of American culture. In any event, the essence of the struggle was over the nature of wisdom.

At an address delivered recently at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev honoring newly awarded doctorates, Prof. Yaakov Blidstein spoke of three understandings of wisdom and the reason for its pursuit. In one view, that of Francis Bacon, wisdom is power—over nature, over the universe, perhaps over other people as well. For Aristotle, the love of wisdom is an inborn human trait, a fundamental drive. In Judaism, specifically in the Maimunidean view, the acquisition of wisdom and knowledge is a form of Avodat Hashem, leading to the knowledge of God. He concluded by referring to Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, whose leitmotif is that “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” He added that the fox is always jealous of the hedgehog, but not vice versa, because there is a constant desire for integrated, unitive wisdom (at the end of his life, Albert Einstein sought to create a unified field theory). The essence of Jewish wisdom is unity: seeing the roots of all things in the One.

Hanukkah and Domestic Harmony

The concluding section of Rambam’s “Laws of Hanukkah” is interesting in a rather different way. On the one hand, he notes the great importance and “preciousness” of Hanukkah; on the other, he brings some laws which place the lighting of Hanukkah candles within a certain relative context, comparing it with other mitzvot. Which mitzvah is more important? The situation posed is one difficult for most of us to even imagine: a situation of such dire poverty that one does not have enough money for Hanukkah candles and Shabbat candles, or for candles and wine for Kiddush on Friday night, but must choose among them. Hilkhot Hanukkah, Ch. 4:

12. The commandment of the Hanukkah light is very precious, and a person must be very careful about it, so as to make the miracle known and to augment the praise and thanksgiving to God for the miracles He did for us. Even if he has nothing to eat except from charity, he must borrow or sell his garment to obtain oil and wicks for the light.

13. If he had only one perutah (i.e., the smallest unit of currency), and he needs to perform both Kiddush and the lighting of Hanukkah lamps, he must give preference to buying oil to light the Hanukkah candle, prior to wine for Kiddush. Since both are Rabbinic ordinances, it is preferable to give precedence to the Hanukkah candle, which involves remembrance of the miracle.

14. If he needed to light the lamp for his home [i.e., Shabbat candles] and Hanukkah candles, or the lamp for his home and Kiddush for Shabbat, lighting the lamp for his home takes precedence, because of domestic peace—for even the Divine Name is erased to make peace between a man and his wife. Great is peace, for the entire Torah was given to increase peace in the world, as is said, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” Prov 3:17].

Two criteria come into play here: on the one hand, when comparing two Rabbinic mitzvot (both of which are also commemorative: the Shabbat, and especially its Kiddush, commemorate Creation; Hanukkah commemorates the miracle of God’s redemptive intervention in history), preference is given to that mitzvah that relates more to an overt miracle. On the other hand, when both of these are compared to the Shabbat lamp, or candles—which are lit, not only as a symbol of Shabbat, as they are for most modern Jews, but to provide actual illumination for the family table on Friday night (do not forget that this was long before the advent of electricity)—the element of “shalom bayit” comes into play. If the house is dark, and people need either to eat their meal hurriedly to exploit the waning rays of daylight, or to sit in the darkness and stumble around, the Shabbat can hardly be a day of joy—and quarrels are likely to break out. “You shlemeil,” the wife may nag her husband, “You can’t even earn enough to buy a few drops of oil for the Shabbat lamp. What good are you?” To avoid such a situation, greatest priority is given to oil for the Shabbat lamp. (The reference to the Name being erased to make peace between a man and his wife refers to the ritual of the bitter waters, a trial by ordeal to determine whether a woman had committed adultery [Num 5:11-31]. Hopefully, she will be proven to have been virtuous, thereby assuaging the husband’s suspicions and restoring harmony between the two.)

This passage concludes, not only Hilkhot Hanukkah, but the Book of Times as a whole. It is interesting that Rambam concludes every section of the Yad with a festive peroration, bringing out some moral, theological or spiritual point. Indeed, he deliberately organized his material in such a way as to place suitable material at the very end. For example, this passage, based upon a rather marginal point within the Talmudic sugya of Hanukkah, is here brought at the very end in order to emphasize the point about domestic peace. The Talmudic discussion (Shabbat 23b) saves the more difficult dilemma at the end: “It’s obvious that domestic peace is more important, but how is one to decide between the fixity of Shabbat kiddush and the publicizing of the miracle of Hanukkah?” Here, shalom bayit takes the place of honor.

There is another aspect as well. According to the late Prof. Yaakov Levinger of Tel Aviv University, whom I had the pleasure of knowing personally, the perorations at the end of each book serve a double purpose: to bring the book to a close with a moral message, and to serve as a transition to the next book, by providing a thematic tie-in to the next book. Hence, the reference to domestic harmony is a perfect introduction to the entire discussion of marriage and family life that forms the subject of Sefer Nashim. Even cursory examination of the perorations of the other books will show this to be the case throughout: the discussion of the love of God at the end of Teshuvah paves the way for Sefer Ahavah, the book of mitzvot that express ongoing love of God; the conclusion of Shemitah ve-Yovel, discussing the special role of the Levites as paradigmatic of all those who “thrust off the yoke of mundane cares” serves as transition from the Book of Seeds (agricultural law) to Sefer Avodah, the book of the Temple service performed by priests and Levites. And so on.

* * * * *

I find a certain irony in the fact that the dominant musical mode of this holiday, which symbolizes rejection of Hellenism, is so “goyish.” The nearly-universal melody for Maoz Tzur is based on a Lutheran hymn, while for change of pace, there is Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus or some rather puerile children’s songs about latkes and dreidels—as if the holiday were only for children. I once heard that some Hasidic rebbes were accustomed to introducing a new melody for Maoz Tzur every year, or even every one of the eight nights, but I have not heard any of these. Perhaps this is best understood as a “lifting up” of the sparks of holiness in the mundane, in Hasidic fashion.

Hanukkah (Psalms)

Psalm 30: A Psalm, a song for the Dedication of the House. For David

Psalm 30 is associated with Hanukkah for the obvious reason of its heading: A Psalm, a song for the Dedication of the House. For David.” Yet, at least at first glance, there seems to be no obvious connection between its contents and this commemorative occasion. Nor is the connection between David and the dedication of the House (Temple) at all clear. After all, it was Solomon who built and dedicated the Temple—and who in fact uttered a lengthy prayer, or rather series of praises and prayer, on that occasion (see I Kings 8:12-61). The Bible also contains prayers related to the rebuilding of the Temple in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Several years ago I discussed Psalm 30 in these pages in a different context; namely, as the psalm which serves as a kind of introduction or entrée to Pesukei de-Zimra, in an attempt to figure out another puzzle: what a psalm of prayer and petition is doing at that particular point in the liturgy, immediately prior to a series of songs of praise and lauding and extolling of God.

I wrote then, among other things, that this psalm is interesting for its portrayal of a certain psychological transition undergone by its author. It begins by describing a certain crisis in his life: he was deathly ill, he cried out to God, and was “lifted up from Sheol.” He then recalls how he used to feel, before the crisis: he enjoyed an exaggerated sense of trust and security, ”I said in my contentment, I shall never be moved” (v. 7). But suddenly, troubles came along and swept him away; he realizes that God has hidden His face from him, and he discovers the need for prayer, and that he has no alternative but to turn to God in his time of distress. He thus moves from a stage of exaggerated self-confidence, in which he had ignored man’s ultimate dependence upon God; through a period of hester panim, of distress, of fear, of knowing his own helplessness, related to distance from God; and finally, to the knowledge, by contrast, of God’s redeeming help. The psalm ends in dance and song, when the author is convinced that true joy is to be found in God.

I suggested that this psalm may be read as an introduction, not only to Pesukei de-Zimra, but to the entire process of prayer. It serves as a reminder that, prior to the stage of service of love, expressed in ecstatic psalms of praise to God, each one of us begins from a stage of anxiety, angst, of discovering man’s essential dependence, need and creatureliness.

Moreover, it seemed to me that the contrast here between self-confidence and serendipity, and dependence on God and gratefulness for His salvation, speaks in a unique way to contemporary culture. The modern milieu seems to have lost the tragic sense of life. People today talk about “having it all”—of enjoying material wealth, professional success, health, good “personal relationships”—and somehow feel cheated when things don’t quite work out they way think they have a right to expect. Not infrequently, one encounters people who seem to have been spared serious troubles through much of their life—whether because they were born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouth, or whether, through a combination of innate talent and intelligence, charm, good looks, and old-fashioned hard work and discipline, have enjoyed success in school and in their profession, coming to feel that the world is their oyster. When such people suddenly encounter a situation they cannot control or master, they find themselves at a total loss as to where to turn.

One is reminded by this of Rashi’s remark at the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev (Gen 37:2), quoting Genesis Rabbah 84.3. Yaakov, old and tired from the travail of his life—the conflicts with his violent brother Esau, with his scheming and dishonest father-in-law Lavan, the problems of navigating a polygamous household, and the incident in Shechem with Dinah at which his hot-headed sons slaughter the whole town to avenge their sister’s “honor.” After all this, he simply wanted to rest and to enjoy his “retirement” in peace and quiet of retirement—when suddenly the trouble between Joseph and the other brothers landed upon him. For this ordinary human wish, he is told (by God or by Satan, according to variant readings) that “Isn’t it enough for you that [reward] which is prepared for the righteous in the next world, that you also seek contentment in this life?” The Midrash applies to his situation the words of Job 3:26: “I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest: but trouble comes."

Every time I read this passage, I am puzzled by it anew. Is the demand imposed upon us by the Torah so radical? Does Judaism really consider the ordinary, innocent human wish for a bit of peace and quiet as somehow wrong? The message conveyed here is not the rejection of luxuries or physical comforts per se, the old kibbutz ideal of “sufficing with but little,” not to mention more intense asceticism. We are not expected to wear a hairshirt, so to speak. Rather, it is that being religious, having faith in God, means being able to accept a life of radical insecurity, even to accept it with love. Too much planning, too much acting as if we were in charge of our own lives and can really fix things with certainty, somehow or other implies a lessening of the “throwing of your yoke” upon God. To be alive means to know that one is, so to speak, constantly standing on a narrow bridge, and that at any moment the unexpected may befall us—“and the important thing,” as the old Mussar niggun says, “is not to fear at all,” because we have a ground trust in God.

This discussion returns us to two of the “types of Jewish piety” in Scholem’s paper, mentioned here last week (the third type, the talmid hakham, the scholar, is not pertinent here). The one, the Tzaddik (I stress: the word is used here in the pre-Hasidic sense), is the “normative Jew.” He accepts the bourgeois ideal, and wants the same basic things that most people want in life: to provide for his family’s needs, to have a pleasant home to live in and to fill it with nice things, to give his children a “good start” in life, and to have enough left over to assure a comfortable and secure old age—but the underlying framework is that of Jewish tradition: of kashrut, and of the daily, weekly, and annual round of prayer, holy days, and celebration. By contrast, the Hasid, the “radical Jew,” sees the focus of his life as Avodat hashem, however this may be defined in terms of the combination of the three pillars of scholarly, devotional and charitable/inter-personal endeavors (Torah, avodah, gemilut hasadim). Material needs and security are important to him (her) only in an instrumental way, as providing the infrastructure, so to speak, the “ground camp,” for these all-important and all-consuming life activities. He accepts the basic insecurity of all human life as a given, so that whatever catastrophe may overtake him—medical, financial, marital, or even political upheaval—he accepts it with equanimity, having long since understood that such things are a natural, expected part of life. Whether or not this demand is extreme, fanatical, at all possible, I leave to the reader’s judgment.

Interestingly: virtually every other major religion, with the possible exception of Islam, has a ”monastic track” for those individuals who wish to devote themselves entirely to the religious life. Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism all have options for leaving the world, including family life, and devoting oneself to a life of poverty, self-abnegation, and pietism. In Hinduism, interestingly, this is seen as a natural progression, a stage of life that follows that of the householder; after having fulfilled one’s duties to family, one becomes a monk in old age. In Judaism, marriage and family are seen as the proper framework for holiness (based, inter alia, on a realistic assessment of the role of sexuality, channeling rather than denying this powerful force). Hence, even the Hasid, as defined above, lives within a family. Nevertheless, in terms of the inner psychology or mentality—i.e., the focus of life being wholly on God and avodah—it is not that dissimilar from monasticism.

It would be interesting, in this light, to examine various groups during the history of Judaism that sought to create communities based upon the desire for a more intense, uncompromising type of spiritual life: beginning with the Judaean Desert sects that created the Dead Sea Scrolls (albeit it is not clear whether they married at all, or were in fact celibate monastics); through the Haverim of Second Temple and post-Destruction times, who undertook a series of halakhic norms that distinguished their fellows from the masses of the people; down to such medieval communities or orders as the mystical circle of the Raya Mehemna described by Baer, Ashkenazic Hasidism, the circle of the Ari in Safed, and certain Polish Hasidic groups, whether the original circle of the Besht and his disciples, or such groups as Psyshcha or Kotzk, which made great demands of their members. These models have fired the imagination of Jews in our own day who have sought to revive a new kind of Jewish spiritual life. Hillel Zeitlin wrote a manifesto calling for such a group in pre-war Warsaw; in more secular terms, the early kibbutzim and kvutzot expected a spiritual commitment of its members, and at least some of the thinkers associated with them were as much interested in the creation of a new type of fellowship as they were in the pragmatic task of settling the land (see, e.g, A. D. Gordon, Buber, etc.). A similar idea inspired some of the movements for Jewish renewal in America in more recent times: the earliest havurot, Zalman Schachter’s B’nei/P’nei Ohr, even Shlomo Carlebach’s “holy beggars.”

What has all this to do with Hanukkah? As Amos Hakham notes, the various “personal” psalms only rarely specify the precise nature of the trouble and needs because of which the author is beseeching God. This fact makes them far more universal, and suitable for use by any person in distress, who can think of his particular problem while praying them. Moreover, even a psalm phrased in the first-person singular can in fact be used or understood as being uttered by or about the Jewish people as a whole. Thus, Psalm 30 can be read, among other things, as referring to the distress of the Jewish people during the period of Seleucid suppression of Jewish observance that triggered the Hasmonean rebellion—a theme thoroughly appropriate to Hanukkah. True, there is no reference in this psalm to the element of human initiative that was so central to the Hanukkah story (and which, by the way, lends itself to a secular, nationalist interpretation), but one might argue that this is seen by the author as self-evident and understood. The important thing was that, in tandem with the human effort, the Hasmoneans saw themselves as dependent upon God, and as renewing the ritual in His Temple with His help, so to speak.

To this, it seems to me, one may add two things: First, that the phrase, “sing unto the Lord his pious ones” (v. 5) is appropriate to Hanukkah, because the term hasidim was specifically used to refer to the Hasmonean as against the Hellenizers. Second, and more important: Hanukkah is, so to speak, the last holiday of the biblical period and the first of Rabbinic Judaism. The entire complex of attitudes described above: of faith and trust in God; of devotion to His service; of waging a war, not for material interests, but to protect and restore such religious values as Shabbat, circumcision, the autonomy of the Jewish calendar, and the purity of the Temple service—are in concert with the attitude of devotion to God, understanding and acceptance of the radical insecurity of human life, and the role of avodah in the life of the individual that this implies.

Hallel: Psalm 114

In addition to Psalm 30, Hanukkah is marked by the recital of Hallel—the group of six psalms of thanksgiving, Chapters 113 to 118, recited on all festive occasions. Indeed, according to Rambam, Hanukkah is in a certain sense that occasion that most exemplifies its recitation. In addition to lighting candles in the evening, the recitation of Hallel and the thanking of God for the miracles in the context of Al ha-Nissim are the central mitzvot of Hanukkah.

The first psalm of the Hallel, Psalm 113, is a gem. In beautiful, concise imagery, it expresses the two essential aspects of God: His universal rule or sovereignty, and His loving Providence. It opens with an invocation to “all the servants of the Lord” to praise Him “from now and forever more… from the rising of the sun till its setting” (vv. 1-3). Nothing can be compared to the grandeur and majesty of God, who is “uplifted above all nations… dwells on high” (vv. 4-5). But in the very next word, His involvement in human life, His benevolent caring for the poor and downtrodden, is expressed in the image, “He goes down low to look at heaven and earth” (v. 6). Maimonides, in Guide for the Perplexed, speaks of imagery of ascent and height as expressing God’s majesty, His transcendent, ineffable Being as He is; while His descent signifies those actions in the world through which He is known to man. Or, more simply, His transcendence and immanence, the two basic attitudes or positions of God vis-a-vis the world. “He raises the poor man up from the dust, the indigent from the ash heap” (v. 7). He turns about the life situation of all those that are in need (and the contrary as well: He also brings down the haughty and arrogant, as pointed out in Hannah’s prayer in 1 Sam 2:6-8).

The final verse is often misunderstood:

מושיבי עקרת הבית, אם הבנים שמחנה: הללויה.

It is often mistakenly thought that the two phrases are parallel: “he restores the mistress of the house, he rejoices the mother of sons.” In modern Hebrew the phrase akeret habayit is conventionally used to refer to the housewife or “mistress of the house”; but in fact, akeret habayit is the woman who is barren, uprooted, homeless, and is transformed into “a happy mother of sons.” Semeihah here is not a causative verb (to say that God rejoices the mother of sons, the reading would be mesameah), but an adjective: she becomes a happy mother of sons.

I would like to suggest that this psalm contains in itself the quintessential message of Hallel. Hence, according to Beit Shammai (in m. Pesahim 10.6), it suffices to recite this one psalm alone on Passover night in that part of Hallel that is recited / connected with the Haggadah proper.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Vayeshev (Torah)

“And Jacob dwelt”

Here the scene changes, and the curtain falls on Yaakov’s active life. He lives another forty-odd years, but the focus moves to his sons, the drama of their interactions, their hates and loves, etc. I’m not sure just how Yaakov’s old age fits into my projected scheme of a bildungsroman. He becomes an éminence grise, a wizened old man blessing Pharaoh, but in many ways living vicariously through and dependent on his children, and suffering through their conflicts and troubles. He is a sentimental, loving father, who must yield the reins to Judah, and then to Joseph. He is very much like King David, too blinded by his sentimental love for his child to ever really see them for who they are or to raise them with the proper mixture of sternness and love.

Before leaving Yaakov, a brief comment on one of the opening Rashi’s. Rashi on Gen 37:2 states “‘And Jacob dwelled…’ Yaakov wished to sit in tranquility, and the trouble of Joseph and his brothers was thrust upon him.” A friend of my parents, a secular socialist who in his childhood in White Russia studied in a traditional heder and maintained a soft spot in his heart for “old-fashioned” Jewish culture, taught me this Rashi when I was quite young. (As Toldot Ya’akov Yosef constantly teaches us, each part of the Torah speaks to each person and to each time period.) Though no longer religious, my parents’ friend identified himself with the figure of Yaakov as portrayed in this Rashi: he found the peace and quiet of his retirement years spoiled by problems and worries involving his two daughters: the one, “too attractive for her own good,” a sexy New York Jewish intellectual, flitted from man to man and refused to “settle down”; the other, an old-maidish librarian, “ugly as virtue,” in one of my brother’s memorable phrase, whose one real marriage prospect suddenly died on the eve of their wedding.

But leaving aside this possibly amusing anecdote, the second half of Rashi makes the truly significant point: “The righteous wish to sit in tranquility in this life; the Holy One blessed be He says, ‘That which I have prepared for them in the World to Come isn’t enough? They want to sit in tranquility in this world too?!’” The point made here is a profoundly pessimistic one: that the ordinary human desire for a bit of peace and quiet at the end of the day, or at the end of a long life filled with trials and tribulations, is somehow wrong; that conflict and troubles in life are inevitable, the very stuff of life, and the desire to avoid them is not only unrealistic, but vaguely sinful or at least improper. The view is that this life is meant to be an arena of troubles and confrontations and difficulties, and only thus do we somehow constantly prove our mettle, spiritually speaking.

Images of Yosef: The Mystery of Personality

The next four Torah portions center around the figure of Yosef, or Joseph. What manner of person is he? What are we to make of the mystery of his personality? There are many different images through which one may see Yosef. He is a dreamer, but of a very different type from Yitzhak, whom we described earlier as a contemplative mystic, quietly content with his own company. There is in him something of the narcissist, fawning on his own self, filled with dreams of greatness, of superiority over brothers. Then there are issues of masculinity and gender which, to be candid, is problematic in various ways for nearly all of the patriarchs; in any event, one that does not fit into the tough, aggressive male model of contemporary (and ancient e.g. Greek) mythology (which midrash identifies with the thoroughly negative model of Esau). American Jewish literature is preoccupied with this problem: the Jew as nebbish, as not quite masculine, as in Philip Roth and Woody Allen, who develop this theme in counterpoint to complaints about the domineering qualities of Jewish woman ( the stereotype of the JAP). There are those who see the roots of this in the shteitl—the stereotype of the passive talmid hakham vs. the baaleboste who runs the store, earns a living, and runs the practical side of life. Daniel Boyarin has recently studied this issue, posing Jewish models of male heterosexuality as alternatives to Western models. Yosef in some way fits this paradigm. Even the story of his heroic resistance of the lewd advances of Potiphar’s may be seen in ambivalent terms, as betraying a certain inherent weakness.

Then there is Yosef as the successful son: the one upon whom his parents rely in their old age. This may be seen through the lens of the Jewish experience of immigration: the archetype of the Jew who “makes it” in a strange, new land; once again, a familiar figure in American Jewish experience. The flip side of this is the problem of assimilation, the ambivalence of Yosef’s identity: the use of double names, in both Hebrew and in the non-Jewish vernacular (Yosef and Zafnath-paneah); his goyish appearance—he was no doubt clean shaven, dressed in Egyptian clothing; his speaking the foreign language; his marriage to the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Yet, at least in the Midrashic image, he is ultimately loyal to his tradition and to the covenant, Yosef ha-Tzaddik.

Which breaks us to the mythic image of Yosef: Yosef ha-Tzaddik, Joseph the righteous; symbol of sexual purity. Rav Soloveitchik once connected the figure of Yosef to that of the tzaddik be-tiv’o of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters”: one who is by nature without overwhelming lusts or passions, and hence blessed with a certain natural goodness and purity. Such a one is also, Kabbalistically speaking, “Tzinnor ha-Shefa,” the channel of abundance, of the cosmic flow of blessing. Thomas Mann, in Joseph and His Brothers, entitles one section “Joseph the Provider,” describing Yosef, in more mundane terms, as an FDR type, providing for the entire population by centralized, wise planning in time of famine. Yet this too is problematic: under Yosef’s management, the population was turned from one of peasants living upon their own land into sharecroppers, than indentured servant. But more on this later.

Joseph the Zaddik?

I will elaborate here upon only one of these images: Joseph as the archetypal spoiled brat. Narcissistic, spurred on by the obvious preference of his parents (in this case the father, since he was an orphan, but more often, in real life, the mother), convinced beyond doubt that the world revolves around him. (“Behold, The sun and the moon bow down to me.”). All he needs to do, his indulgent parents constantly tell him, is to simply be his naturally brilliant and talented self, and the word will bow at his feet. He is so sure of his own centrality that he makes no visible effort to be a normal child, to play with others as equals. No: “and Joseph brought the bad report [of his brothers] to his father.” He fawns on parental approval, and on that (and adult approval generally) alone. Not for him the rough-housing of playing with other boys, of the camaraderie and testing which lead to male bonding. He is always alone, dreaming, with a strange, inward, self-preoccupied smile on his lips. His father foolishly encourages this by appointing him a kind of supervisor over his brothers, sending him all the way from Hebron to Shechem by himself (even in modern times a good two hour’s drive or more: how long must it have taken in ancient times? And from there to Dothan, even further north?) In how many Diaspora Jewish families has this scenario been played out? And is it any wonder that his brothers hated the obnoxious brat?

His charmed life seems to end when his brothers catch up to him and he is sold into slavery in Egypt—but not for long. He is highly successful as household manager for Potiphar, who soon entrusts all details of the management of his household to him. One day the mistress of the house tries to seduce him, and he righteously flees from her voracious advances. Is he a saintly man, resisting the sinful temptations of the flesh, when no one will ever know, and at an age when he must be at the height of his own sexual desire and vigor, or is he a prig? Is one being overly cynical in finding something slightly ridiculous in the figure of a 28-year-old virgin “fleeing/escaping outside” (the Hebrew phrase vayonas hahutzah is repeated no less than four times; what is this repetition telling us?) Obviously, I am not suggesting that it would have been more admirable had he committed adultery with her, but were these the only alternatives? Somehow, I cannot but wonder whether, if Joseph somehow been more centered in his own masculinity—like Judah?—he would not have found himself in this ludicrous situation.

It is interesting that two tales of sexual scandal are paired back to back against one another in Genesis 38 and 39 -- Joseph’s near seduction by Potiphar’s wife, and Tamar’s pregnancy, craftily engineered by her posing as a harlot. It is also interesting that the text seems to take the fact of Judah’s visit to a whore in a matter-of-fact way. He has gone to “be comforted” after the loss of his wife by visiting his friend Hirah in Adullam. Is this part of the pattern of male camaraderie, rather like working class males going drinking at a bar followed by a visit to a whore-house? In any event, he finds the woman sitting at the crossroads, discusses the details of her payment, leaves a pledge, and that is that. It seems accepted that, as a vigorous widower, he will want a woman now and again, and paying for her services is a perfectly natural thing.

Not so Tamar. When her indiscretion is discovered, she is taken out to be burned to death. (Interestingly, the traditional commentators are hard put to define precisely her sin. Apparently, were she fully unencumbered, there would be no sin. It is only because she is either, a) a shomeret yabam, still awaiting the brother-in-law to consummate a levirate marriage, or b) the daughter-in-law of a prominent chief, who is tantamount to being a priest, that makes her act culpable or shameful.) In any event, once she produces the pledge, making it evident that Judah was her customer and the childrens’ father, all is free and forgiven. She was adopting a guise to achieve a higher end—perpetuating Judah’s line, and ultimately, to quote Genesis Rabbah, bringing down the “light of King Messiah” destined to be descended from this union.

To return to Joseph: he is again thrown into the “pit” and meets Pharaoh’s two servants, the baker and the cup-bearer, who tell him his dreams. He modestly says, “God will answer dreams,” but immediately adds “tell me, please.” Is he authentically pious, or is he still convinced that he is second only to the Almighty in knowledge of hidden things?

Perhaps these later chapters—Miketz / Vayigash—are to be read, not so much as a tales of the brothers’ repentance, but of Joseph’s character at last maturing, and him showing some signs of authentic modesty, of reaching out for true brotherhood and camaraderie with his long-lost siblings, of exhibiting a degree of true graciousness, forgiveness, and self-effacement. That, as much as Judah’s “I shall be surety for the lad” are the real drama of these chapters.

Postscript to Vayeshev: A Note on Inward Piety

I would like to return to the figure of Tamar from another perspective. I see Tamar as a heroine of what might be called the hidden fear of God. The Midrash, which in this case simply amplifies the peshat, says that she was prepared to die rather than to disclose the identity of the man who had “dishonored” her. She was prepared to be considered a shameless slut who slept with an anonymous passerby—and die for it—rather than to reveal her true motivation—i.e., to have a child with the family of Judah, to preserve the seed of her late husband—when that would involve embarrassing another person. Only when Judah was spontaneously willing to admit his involvement was her life saved.

This motif of hidden God-fearingness plays a role in one of the introductory prayers in the daily Morning Service. Almost immediately after Birkat Hashahar (the blessings recited upon waking, recited by some at home), there is a passage that begins, in most versions, with the words: “A person should always be God-fearing both in secret and in public (be-seter uva-galuy), and acknowledge the truth, and rise early and say…” This section, which serves as an introduction to the abbreviated version of Shema, is usually interpreted to mean that one should be pious and religious, not only in public, so that people might think highly of one, but even in private. That is, that one’s religiosity ought to be motivated by inner conviction, by the sense that God is omnipresent, and not merely performed as a social convention, as matter of external conformity to communal norms and expectations.

But there are several other readings of this text. Nusah Sefarad (i.e., of the Oriental Jewish community, such as found in Siddur Tefillat Yesharim [Baghdad]), rather than baseter uva-galuy (“in private and in public”), reads beseter ke-bagaluy (“in private as in public”). That is, it emphasizes the importance of being God-fearing in private, specifically. There are also several versions—and these include several texts that are considered to be particularly accurate—that simply read be-seter (“in private”) That is, one’s fear of God should be a purely private matter, without any reference to the public dimension. These versions include that of Habad, Tehillat ha-Shem, redacted by R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady; Baer’s Siddur Avodat Yisrael, known as the Rodelheim Siddur—generally considered the paradigmatic ”Yekke,” Western European Ashkenazic Siddur; and R. Shlomo Tal’s Siddur Rinat Yisrael, popular in Israel.

Seligman (Yitzhak) Baer, whose 19th century Siddur includes abundant notes and commentary, prints this first line in a small type, suggesting that it is not really intended to be said, but is meant as a kind of instruction, that over the course of time was erroneously included as part of the canonical text. This view is supported by the fact that this sentence ends with the words vayashkem vayomar: (“he should rise early and say:”)—that is, this describes what a person’s inward, personal attitude ought to be, how he should think and behave, followed by a certain brief prayer addressed to the Master of the Universe. And indeed, he even cites Tanna de-Bei Eliyahu, Ch. 21, to that effect.

Certain streams in Hasidism stressed the value of hiding pious acts, so as not to make it a subject of pride, that one might show off to others. Some went so far as to go out of their way to act the fool, to behave in an externally ordinary way, while secretly worshipping God with great intensity. The contemporary tendency towards humra, towards ever-stricter interpretations and standards of behavior, is the antithesis of this.

Interestingly, Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov (at Lev 23:14), in a rare halakhic passage, discusses the Baal Shem’s attitude towards the law of hadash, of applying the biblical injunction against eating new grain before Passover outside of the Land of Israel. He quotes the B”H at Tur, Yoreh De’ah 487, who states that even one who is strict in his own home, should eat together with other talmidei hakhamim, so as not to seem haughty. In short, piety that goes beyond the accepted norm is to be hidden, a matter of love and fear of the individual towards the Hidden God (El mistater), and not only not to be flaunted, but actively concealed.

R. Shlomo Carlebach once told a rather bizarre Hasidic story that exemplifies this point. A Litvak—a Lithuanian Jew, of the breed known for their scepticism about Hasidic piety—once spent a few weeks at a summer watering spot somewhere in Galicia, that was also frequented by the Jarislov Rebbe, a Hasidic Tzaddik renowned for the intensity of his prayer. Yet the first he was there, our Litvak observed the Rebbe spending most of Shaharit chatting, kibitzing and joking with the other worshippers, so much so that he seemed to interfere with their own devotions. He mulled over this strange behavior for the entire week. The following Friday night, the Litvak attended the Rebbe’s tisch, and after it was over, well after midnight, went for a long, solitary, late-night walk. As he returned, about 2:30 or 3 am, he heard a sound from the Beit Midrash, and saw the Rebbe pacing back and forth, enwrapped in his tallit, reciting the hymns of Pesukei de-Zimra in a soft but infinitely sweet and poignant, soulful voice. Then he understood: during the short northern summer nights, one could commence davening very early; thus, the Rebbe recited Shaharit on Shabbat in the wee hours of the morning, throwing himself into prayer with great intensity, at an hour when he thought nobody would see him. Then, during public prayer many hours later, he played the clown, so as to conceal his real holiness.

But in fact, this raises a host of other issues. What is true humility, and how is one to obtain it? The renowned ethical handbook, Mesillat Yesharim, contains a lengthy discussion of humility, near the end of Peratei Middat ha-Nekiut (Chapter 11; in Makhon Ofek 1994 ed., pp. 126-128 or 255-257), in which the author enumerates the elaborate ruses by which a person may feign humility to satisfy his desire for self-importance. He may even fool himself. “See,” he will say to himself, “I am so much superior to these others, than I don’t need to make a show of my piety.” Or, “One day people will sit up and take notice of how humble and holy I really am.” Or he may vehemently protest when people praise him, so as to make sure that people know how modest he is. Thus, there may be “arrogant humility,” just as there are “intelligent fools” (“High-IQ idiots,” my late mother called them), “corrupt saints,” and legions of practitioners of “prurient chastity.” In the end, perhaps the only sure counsel is that a person know himself, and speak truth to himself within his heart.

Vayeshev (Rambam)

Pre-Marital Sex, Rambam and the Zeitgeist

Parshat Vayeshev reads like a catalogue of human vices and evil behavior: it is filled with familial hatred and jealousy, violence, treachery, lust and sexual misbehavior. Two illustrations of the latter relate to our topic, that of sexual relations outside of the marital bond. In one, the incident of Judah and Tamar, Tamar represents herself as a prostitute so as to become pregnant through a member of her deceased husband’s family; in the second, we see Joseph’s temptation by Potiphar’s wife and his flight from her illicit embrace. This Shabbat is also the first day of Hanukkah, which symbolizes the conflict of Judaism with Hellenism—a conflict in which the attitude towards the body and sexuality is one of the issues at stake. Hence, it is a suitable occasion to examine the nature of marriage and the related issue of the halakhic standing of pre-marital sexual relations—an area in which the mores of general society have undergone dramatic change within the lifetime of many of us.

A statement made by Maimonides at the very beginning of Hilkhot Ishut, “The Laws of Personal [i.e., Marital] Status,” is of central importance for the halakhic discussion of our topic. This treatise is one of the longer ones in the Mishneh Torah, presenting as it does one of the major subjects of Jewish law: the legal structure of marriage, which is the central pillar of family law. The actual legal presentation of the subject is prefaced by two chapters defining the terms to be used; these are in turn preceded by the following introduction:

1. Prior to the giving of the Torah, a man would meet a woman in the marketplace; if he and she wished to be married, he would take her into his home and have intercourse with her in private, and she would become his wife. Once the Torah was given, Israel were commanded that if a man wishes to marry a woman, he must first ‘acquire’ her in the presence of witnesses, and thereafter she becomes his wife; as is said, “When a man takes a wife, and goes into her “ [Deut 24:1].

2. And this act of acquiring a wife is a positive injunction of the Torah. And a woman is acquired in one of the following three ways...

The Rambam here goes on to briefly enumerate the three ways in which a woman may be “acquired”—that is, the stage of marriage known as kiddushin, in which the woman is publicly designated as being set apart for a particular man. These three ways are later elaborated in greater detail, along with the other laws of kiddushin, from Ch. 3 on.

4. Prior to the giving of the Torah, a man would meet a woman in the marketplace, and if he and she wished to do so, he would pay her fee and have intercourse with her by the side of the road, and go on his way. And this is what is known as a kedeshah (harlot). Once the Torah was given, harlotry was forbidden, as is said, “There shall not be a harlot from among the daughters of Israel” [Deut 23:17]. Therefore, whoever has relations with a woman for purposes of harlotry, without kiddushin, is subject to corporal punishment by Torah law, because he had intercourse with a harlot.

What is striking in this halakhah is Rambam’s attempt to reconstruct the early ways of humanity, how things were done in ancient, primeval times, before the giving of the Torah—albeit his interest is not merely antiquarian. This passage is somewhat reminiscent of the first chapter of Hilkhot Avodah Zarah (see HY V: Lekh Lekha), in which he describes the origins of paganism in terms of a certain error made by mankind in hoary antiquity. Here, pre-Torah practice represents a kind of unformed, shapeless, unpolished stage of human society—a layer of pre-civilization, a coarse, primitive stage which preceded the humanizing, civilizing, structuring, teaching influence of the Torah. The sense gained from his tone here is that the Torah represents not only an external, heteronomic law (hukkah), but somehow embodies civilization itself.

The picture painted here is symmetrically balanced: in pre-Torah times, there were two kinds of connection between man and woman, each of which begins with a meeting “in the marketplace”: if they wish to be married, they go and do so “between themselves”; if they want sex for immediate gratification (or, from the woman’s viewpoint, for money), they may do so. Sex is portrayed here as a natural urge, as simple as drinking water, without what some would call “moralistic judgments” being attached to it. After Torah, the former was structured, formalized, and kiddushin, as a preliminary stage of “sanctifying” or “acquiring” the woman, was added to the elemental act of marriage as a man simply taking a wife into his home; the other option, of free or unstructured sex, was by contrast prohibited.

The significant point here that strikes me upon reading this passage is that before the Torah, sexual arrangements, whether for marriage or transient sex, were a private matter. After the Torah, structure, law, and communal norms were introduced—marriage needed to be preceded by a public act of kinyan, or publicly betrothing the woman. At the risk of gross anachronism, one could say that the basic concept in the pre-Torah stage is an ethic of sex as “the private concern of two consulting adults.” Interestingly, a medieval historian of my acquaintance recently commented to me that, over the course of history, we find a process, first of socialization, and later of sacralization, of sex and marriage, in both Judaism and in Christianity. This culminated in the transformation of marriage into a sacrament solemnized by the clergy in medieval Christian Europe and, among Jews, the institution of the rabbi as mesader kiddushin as a sine qua non of Jewish marriage at about the same time, even if not codified in the halakhah. With the secularization of both individual life and society in the modern era, we find the reverse process: the desacralization and desocialization of marriage, culminating with the situation familiar to us today, in which nearly half the couples in Europe live together without formal marriage; with the widespread acceptance in the Western world of “premarital sex”; and, in general, with a situation in some ways very similar to that described by Rambam as the pre-Torah dispensation.

Interestingly, the pre-Torah scheme described above also corresponds to the scheme of Noahide law. The Noahide code prohibits to the “righteous Gentile” only the most serious sexual offenses of the Torah—adultery, incest between matrilineal relatives, homosexuality, and bestiality. Harlotry is, by its omission, presumably permitted. Marriage is a private arrangement: Hilkhot Melakhim 9.8 defines marriage, for purposes of the Noahide sanctions against adultery, in terms identical with the pre-Torah arrangement described here. Rambam adds there that Noahide marriage may be dissolved by one or both parties simply deciding that they no longer wish to be married, “without a written document” (is this phrase a covert gibe at the practice of the Muslims among whom Rambam lived?)—i.e., packing their bags and moving out. In brief, the arrangements described here are reminiscent of those common in contemporary society, even if not generally viewed by their participants as necessarily constituting “common-law” marriage.

Thus, in these few lines Rambam unintentionally captures the essence of contemporary sexual mores—the conception of sexual life as a private domain, subject to the autonomous, personal decision of the individuals involved, as opposed to the more traditional view, namely, a religious-communal-public approach that sees human sexuality as properly subject to a certain reverence, restrictions, societal involvement, etc. Perhaps it ought to be noted already at this point that, whatever possible heter (permission) for premarital relations may be found in the interstices of the halakhic system under certain circumstances, its value underpinnings will be very different from those of secular culture.

Another interesting point may be inferred from the location of these laws, always a point of significance in the Rambam. Rambam discusses family and sexual life in two separate places in the Yad: the one, Sefer Nashim, “The Book of Women,” in which he presents the various aspects of family law, parallel to Seder Nashim in the Mishnah: marriage, divorce, and such unique halakhic institutions as levirate marriage, penalties for one who seduces a virgin, and the long defunct practice of trial by ordeal for an adulterous woman. The other place, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah, “Laws of Forbidden Intercourse” (one of the treatises that comprise Sefer Kedushah, “The Book of Holiness,” alongside the laws of kashrut), details the prohibited forms of sexual connections, from the obvious proscriptions of incest, adultery, etc., through the detailed and complex laws of menstruation, and down to the special laws governing marriages forbidden to kohanim and various miscellaneous prohibitions. There is but one exception to this clear-cut division: the prohibition against kedeshah appearing in our above-cited passage, §4, the only prohibited sexual act found specifically in Sefer Nashim.

Why is this so? Because, unlike the manifold prohibitions in Issurei Biah, this rule relates neither to the identity, biological or marital status or history of the partner, but rather to the social and interpersonal context within which sexual relations occur. The Torah presupposes marriage (or, in some views, some other clearly-defined relationship between the man and woman: see below) as the proper framework for sexual life. The reverse side of this is that relations occurring in a totally free context, simply because the parties feel like it, are prohibited, as a concept fitting only to the pre-Torah world. For the Jew, the free and easy approach of hefkerut, promiscuity, contradicts the Torah ideal of civilization, which lies at the essence of its approach to sexuality. Sexuality is perhaps that area in which the average person most poignantly and strongly experiences the intersection and conflicts between instinct and consciousness, between body and spirit, between nature and culture—in brief, those things which most exemplify the paradoxes and contradictions of our humanity. And it is precisely for that reason that, on the most essential level, Torah comes to bring order to that which is most potentially chaotic, and to teach the supremacy of consciousness, law, value and choice over nature and instinct.

Before turning to the next section of this essay (to be posted at a later date), in which I present an halakhic analysis of the issue presented here by the Rambam, a few comments are in order on the tie-in to our parsha. In Genesis 38, where we are told that Judah saw a woman whom he thought was a harlot and went to her, the incident is described in a matter-of-fact manner, implying that Judah’s behavior was acceptable. This corresponds to Rambam’s description of pre-Torahitic mores. On the other hand, if the woman was from a “respectable” family and not one who was a member of the special class (of semi-outcasts, then as now) who were known as whores, she was subject to the strictest censure.

Two different words are used in the Hebrew to describe Tamar in her persona as prostitute: in verse 15 she is called a zonah, while in verses 21-22, when Judah returns to the place to look for her, so as to pay her fee and recover his pledge, she is called a kedeshah. The word zonah is clearly the common word for a harlot; the term kedeshah, which is the same one as used in Deuteronomy 23:17, suggests sacred or ritual prostitution (from the same root as kadosh, “sacred”), such as is known from pagan temples of the ancient Near East. But it is difficult to see any reason for the change here (for example, the suggestion of Gunther Plaut, in his The Torah: A Modern Commentary, that Judah used the latter term “to give the relationship a somewhat more acceptable status” is unconvincing); the two words seem to be used here almost interchangeably, as synonyms—kedeshah is understood here in a secular sense. One may surmise that whatever difference may have existed between the two terms had long been forgotten (like tart, whore, strumpet, harlot, floozy, etc., in English). Interestingly, the halakhic tradition clearly distinguishes between the two, on another basis: zonah refers to a category of women prohibited to the kohanim, members of the priestly families, in Lev 21:7; while kedeshah refers to the broader, more universal law that is the subject of our passage, referring to any unattached woman who engages in promiscuous or casual sex. (Both are used in some contexts to refer to a woman who sells her favors, but neither is always used thus. The verbal form liznot means to stray, to fornicate, or to be unfaithful, referring especially to marital infidelity, as in the graphic description in Proverbs 7:5-23 and elsewhere; on the other hand, some Rabbinic midrashim claim that Rahab, the zonah from Jericho of Joshua 2, or the "harlot" visited by Samson in Judges 16:1-4, were not in fact “ladies of the night.”)

On the other hand, in the very next chapter the wrongness of adultery is seen as a self-evident part of natural law. Joseph answers his would-be seductress, “How can I do this great evil, and sin against God” (Gen 39:9). The Divine name Elohim, used here, is always associated with natural law, suggestive of that which is part of the structure of the universe; God as Creator, more than as a unique covenantal partner.

(The two remaining sections of this essay—Chapter 2, containing on halakhic analysis of the sources, and Chapter 3, discussing the issue in its larger social context—will follow later.)