Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Terumah (Hasidism)

This Torah selection signifies a complete turnabout in terms of character and subject matter. Almost everything in the Torah until this point can be appreciated or at least understood by a secular humanist: Genesis, with its seemingly artless tales of the beginnings of all things and, mostly, its grand family saga extended through a series of generations (even if at times drawn in colors larger than life); the first twenty chapters of Exodus, with the account of a nation in becoming and its liberation from slavery; and the down-to-earth law code of Mishpatim, with its practical rules for almost any conceivable situation of human conflict. Only the Six Days of Creation and the epiphany at Sinai (the Ten Words and the Ten Commandments) are unabashedly theocentric.

With this week’s portion, Terumah, there is a complete weather change. With the laws of construction of the Temple, we find ourselves in an entirely different world, that of religious symbolism. The focus here is on the symbolic gesture, nay, on an elaborate physical structure with all its embellishments, devoted to the symbolic acting out of man’s homage to an invisible, utterly unknowable Deity—and it will continue thus for almost as many pages as the Torah has gone thus far. For the modern, humanistic mind-set, there is surely something bizarre and alien about these chapters. No wonder that, except for professional Bible scholars, secular readers of the Bible à la Ben-Gurion, or for that matter post-Enlightenment religionists, such as classical Reform, seeking either national or universal human messages, give these chapters only the most cursory of readings.

But for the traditional Jew, each and every parsha, as every day on the sacred calendar, is at least potentially the most important one in the entire Torah. A friend of mine who spent many years studying with Reb Shlomo Carlebach recently commented that he approached every Shabbat as the most important one of the year, containing the most profound messages that we needed to learn. In this, he was very much in tune with the Hasidic mentality; the Toldot Ya’akov Yosef constantly asks the question: “How is this verse true for every person, at every time?” To know the relevance, the connection to our lives of this parsha, nearly two millennia since the destruction of the Temple, we need to turn to Hasidic teachings. I bring R. Nahum of Chernobol’s Me’or Einayim on this week’s reading:

“And they shall take Me an offering” [Exod 25:2]. Rashi: “Me, for My Name.” And offhand this is surprising, for do not all the mitzvot need to be done for God’s Name? Why then is this matter specified particularly regarding the Building of the Temple?

Now it is known that the matter of the dwelling of the Divine Presence in the lower realms is that the Holy One blessed be He contracted His Shekhinah for the sake of the lower realms, and that the Presence only dwells upon Israel, as our Rabbis said: “Moses wished that the Shekhinah should rest upon Israel and not upon the nations of the world” [Berakhot 7a]. And it is known that even in our exile the Lord our God has not abandoned us, but He makes His Presence to rest within the righteous men of each generation. As our Rabbis said, “They were exiled to Babylon, the Shekhinah was with them; to Elam [i.e., Persia], the Shekhinah went with them [Megillah 29a]. But the main indwelling of the Shekhinah will occur, God willing, with the coming of our Messiah, speedily in our days.

For the main indwelling of the Shekhinah involves the final letter He”h of the Divine Name HVYH, blessed be He. And one needs to unite it with the Holy One blessed be He, who causes His Shekhinah to rest in the lower realms—and this is the matter of the letter Va”v of the Name HVYH. And this is what is known as the unification of the Holy One blessed be He and His Shekhinah. But in our exile there is no complete unification, but only a little bit, by the righteous who are in every generation. But in the future there will be a complete unification of the Va”v with the He”h, a unification of the Holy One blessed be He in a perfect unity.

And this is what is meant by: “And they shall take Me—for My Name—an offering [terumah]—“lift up the he”h” [terom heh]. That is, they shall lift up the he”h together with the va”v; and this is by means of the labor of the Sanctuary, which is the matter of the indwelling of the Shekhinah, as is said, “and they shall make Me a holy place, and I shall dwell among them” (Lev 25:8].

The idea of “for My name” is read here, not metaphorically—i.e., in the sense of “for My sake”—but literally, for the Name. The Kabbalah often dwells upon the mystical idea of the unification of the letters of the Divine Name, particularly the letters vav and heh. Each of these four letters represents a different aspect of the Divine, different Sefirot or groupings of Sefirot. In extremely capsule form: Yo”d is the Source, the Infinite, the point from which all devolves (Hokhmah); the first He”h is the expansion or extension of Divine energy in which the act of Creation itself originates (Binah); Va”v is the channel or conduit through which this abundance or flow of Divine power is drawn into the universe via the lower sefirot, culminating in Yesod; this also corresponds to the masculine principle, in an almost graphic, phallic sense (the letter va”v, the lulav). The final He”h represents the feminine vessel of receptivity, dwelling in the world itself (Malkhut).

This Divine unity is somehow broken, damaged, even shattered. Malkhut or Shekhinah is separated from its source, is in exile. She is the bereft female figure who goes into exile with Israel; she is Rachel weeping for her children, or the mysterious figure met by Jeremiah in the dirge for Tisha b’Av. We thus have the metaphor of sexuality, of the separation of male and female forces, woven within the very structure of the cosmos, as a symbol for incompleteness in the world, while their ultimate union as a symbol for the longed-for ultimate Tikkun and redemption. This reunification of the va”v and he”h, of Yesod & Malkhut, of “the Holy One blessed be He and the Shekhinah” is thus the central task of the mystic, with his yihudim, his meditations on unifying the Divine. (A similar idea is hinted at in the Shema, in the interplay between Shema and Barukh shem kevod malkhuto.)

The Temple, as the symbol of the indwelling of the Shekhinah in the world, becomes the symbol for the wholeness and non-alienation of the universe as a whole. When the Shekhinah goes into exile with Israel she is seen as separate from her husband; as against that, the building of the Sanctuary or of the Temple is a means of unifying or uplifting the Divine Name. As our author says, “the main indwelling of the Shekhinah will occur, God willing, with the coming of our Messiah.” The very presence of the Temple is thus somehow a source of mystical power. (Hence the intense power of the Temple Mount; this, along with the fact that others also claim it as a scared site, makes it such an explosive subject. No wonder that, as some political scientists suggests, this more than anything else was the cause of the Camp David failure in 2000.)

Moreover, the separation of Malkhut from the other sefirot is variously described in Kabbalistic literature as the ultimate sin, referred to as “uprooting the plants” (kitzutz ba’netiot), and as the basic flaw in the cosmos that requires correcting. (See, for example, Recanati’s dream in which a mysterious visitor wrote the Divine Name without the final letter he”h: HY III: Sukkot). To be sure, this type of thinking is anathema to classical Maimonideans, for whom God is closer to the unmoved mover of Aristotelianism, who by definition cannot be imperfect—but that is a whole other world.

But what do these words and symbols mean? A generation ago Protestant theologian Rudolph Bultmann used the word “demythologization” to describe the central task of modern theologians: namely, the translating of central ideas expressed in archaic and often unintelligible symbols into modern conceptual language. Notwithstanding the profound differences between the symbolic worlds and language of Christianity and Judaism, something similar needs to be done in the case of Kabbalah.

(Incidentally, I use the word myth here in a positive sense: as a series of vivid symbols or archetypes used to convey an abstract idea. Prof. Yosef Ben-Shlomo once pointed out that biblical Judaism made war with mythology, which was rife with paganism, sexual debauchery, human sacrifices, etc.; by the time Kabbalah came around, that world was distant and long forgotten, making it “safe” to create a mythical language within the very heart of Jewish monotheism—i.e., Kabbalah.)

What, then, would “unification of the va”v and the final he”h in the Divine Name” mean, translated into non-symbolic language? Two suggestions: first, a psychological interpretation, as an act of unifying the two opposing and even conflicting elements within the human being, who is him/herself a microcosm of the divine world. These male and female principles may be variously described as the two poles of hishtadlut, effort, and bittul, self-negation; initiative and passivity; “doing” and “being.” The male, thrusting impulse, sees itself as constantly needing to act, to accomplish, to do; its maxim is that whatever happens in life only takes place as the result of conscious, directive action. Against that is the “feminine,” receptive, open, dependent, child-like stance; the sense of fundamental trust in the world, of letting things be. In a way, these are also the two Adams of the Rav’s famous essay “Lonely Man of Faith”—Majestic Man who strives to conquer and control the world, and the man of faith, existential man, who keenly feels his own existential limits and sense of creatureliness. The Rav often spoke of this child-like element as central to the religious personality: it is the moment when man ceases to act, to try to change the world; the meditative, prayerful moment, when he knows that he is but a transient moment on the sea of eternity. Its opposite, no less central to Judaism, is the prophetic moment, which knows the urgency of moral action, of action to change the world, of tikkun olam.

Our current world situation seems dominated by men who, literally or figuratively, have an excess of testosterone, of aggressivity—Bush, Sharon, Sadaam. I greatly fear that the unleashing of “masculine” violence may yet destroy the delicate fabric of our very existence on this planet. Or we have women, for whom the apotheosis of “feminism” is not being a counter-balance to an uncontrolled male culture, but rather making it in the corporate world, crashing through the “glass ceiling and becoming, perhaps, the CEO of a major bank who is able to fire 900 breadwinners with the same ruthlessness as a man (even if she smiles girlishly and talks vaguely about “moving on into the future”).

Perhaps this is the source of the attractiveness to so many in our generation of Eastern religion—namely, its expressing the insight that the human being is not omnipotent, all-knowing, all-capable, and that Dukkha—“attachment” to things of this world—is itself the source of all pain and suffering, dissatisfaction, alienation, loneliness, and fear. In a certain sense, the Eastern path takes the world ”lightly,” almost an illusion. This is not entirely unlike some Hasidic teachings, in which the perception of the world from our viewpoint, and from God’s viewpoint, are totally different. Yet that way, too, has its clear dangers, without a sound counter-balance of this-worldly ethics and responsibility. In brief, we need to avoid the twin pitfalls of too much hishtadlut, of unleashed masculine energy, as well as that of feminine receptivity run berserk.

A second possible reading is that the vav and heh allude to the gap between the Divine and the world. YHV without the final letter expresses a God who is wholly transcendent; in which the realm of the holy, the sublime, the transcendent, is seen as “Wholly Other,” as totally removed from the dirty, grimy, sweaty reality of human life. The sin of “cutting the plants” is in this view not denying God’s existence per se, but denying His relevance, his involvement with the world. Tikkun means to unite this world, which is called Malkhut because of its potential to be the site of Divine kingship, with its Source (see also Sefat Emet, who constantly talks of man connecting to his root).

And this is, in fact, the purpose of the Temple, even on the level of biblical peshat. What happened at Sinai, even more than the revelation of Law, was that for one brief, mysterious moment Heaven and Earth kissed; Moses ascended the mountain and God descended, and the two met; the infinite gap between Man and God was somehow bridged. The construction of the Sanctuary was meant to somehow perpetuate that state; compare the wording of Exod 24:15-18 with 40:34.

This teaching in Me’or Einayim continues by relating our subject to the month of Adar—the favorite month of the year for Hasidic homilists—which always begins with Shabbat Terumah. (See Kedushat Levi, Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, and other books, in which the homilies for Purim far outnumber those for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Pesah rolled together.)

And this is, “Once Adar enters, we increase our joy” [Ta’anit 29a]. And this is surprising, for the principle miracle [of Purim] occurred on the 14th and 15th of the month [an especially germane question in an intercalated year such as this, when Purim doesn’t even fall in the First Adar]. Why then does one begin rejoicing from the beginning of the month? But the names of the months came up from Babylonia, and there is a reason for the names of all the months, why this one is called Nisan and that one is called Iyyar, and so on. And the reason the month of Adar is called thus is because this month alludes to the phrase Ale”ph dar: that Aleph—that is, the Aleph or Prince of the world, as is written, “You are the prince of my youth” [Jer 3:4]—that just as the letter aleph is the first of all the letters, so is God the first of all things that exist. And this is the meaning of A” dar: that “Aleph” [i.e., God] dwells in the lower realms, that he causes His Shekhinah to be present in the lower realms.

He goes on to explain why the subject of God’s indwelling is particularly apt to Adar. (Interestingly, the New Testament uses a very similar homiletic device, translated into Greek, when it has Jesus stating in Rev 1:8, “I am the alpha and the omega.” Might they have borrowed from Hazal, I wonder?)

Now that wicked one [Haman] cast lots from day to day and from month to month, so as to destroy our people, the children of Israel, in the month of Adar, because on the seventh of Adar, Moses our Teacher died. But he did not know that on the seventh of Adar Moses was also born, as explained by our rabbis [Megillah 13b]. And it is explained in the Holy Zohar, that the expansion of Moses is in each and every generation, to sixty myriad generations, and this is the matter of Da’at [Knowledge /awareness]: that each person in Israel has, so as to apprehend the Torah, and all this is by virtue of the aspect of Moses, who was the Da’at of all Israel…. [he goes on to elaborate the idea of Moses’ relation to all Israel, etc.]

There is much more to be said. The continuation of this derasha, for those who have access to this book, is well worth reading, containing profound insights about different kinds of religious consciousness, and their development and progression both in the individual’s life biography and in history. Unfortunately, since it’s already way after Shabbat and I am trying to return to something resembling a schedule, I cannot translate and comment on a whole new, lengthy section. Perhaps some day in the future.

Terumah (Rambam)

The “Chosen House”

This week’s parsha begins a new section in the Book of Exodus, devoted to the second major theme of this book: the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the forerunner of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is a subject to which Maimonides devotes extensive space in his Mishneh Torah; three of the fourteen books—Sefer Avodah, Sefer Korbanot, & Sefer Toharah (The Book of [Divine] Service; The Book of Sacrifices; The Book of Purity)—are devoted either directly to the laws governing the construction and Divine service in the Temple, or to the laws of ritual purity that are a prerequisite for its proper functioning. This entire group of books is a hallmark of Rambam’s code; the other major halakhic codes, such as Hilkhot ha-Rif, Tur, & Shulhan Arukh, all omit these laws, confining themselves to those laws that are more immediately applicable to Jewish life in the Diaspora.

Interestingly, Rambam prefers the term Beit ha-Behirah (“the Chosen House”) over the more usual Beit ha-Mikdash (“Temple”). The term itself comes from the Book of Deuteronomy: “the place which I shall chose that My Name shall dwell there,” but it’s not clear precisely what idea Rambam is conveying by his own preference for this usage. Perhaps the idea of Divine choice of this site as fir His own dwelling, as opposed to the more nebulous idea of holiness implied by the word Mikdash (from the root kodesh, “holy”).

Rambam’s decision to expound this subject at such length and detail stemmed from two factors: one, which we discussed a few weeks ago (HY V: Bo), a powerful messianic longing for the restoration of all the institutions of Jewish life “as of old”; second, a commitment to teaching and disseminating knowledge of “all of the Torah in its entirety” (kol hatorah kulah). As a result, if one may put it thus, he became a kind of hero and guide for those schools who were particularly devoted to the goal of Torah lishemah, the study of “Torah for-its-own sake.” In a paradoxical way, for some, the more removed from immediate practical application a given subject area was, the more valuable and precious its study became.

This approach was particularly stressed in the yeshiva of Volozhin, whose slogan was “from Berakhot to Uktzin” (i.e., to study the entire Talmud from beginning to end): in the school of Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin, founder of the Daf Yomi study cycle, in which one page of Talmud is studied daily, completing the entire cycle in seven years; and in that of Rabbi Chaim of Brisk. The latter was particularly devoted to the study of Rambam, and to Seder Kodashim, and devoted many of his novella to incisive conceptual analysis of the seemingly abstruse laws of sacrifice and of the laws governing the priests.

In this vast corpus, it is difficult to isolate one particular chapter or law to epitomize Rambam’s approach to Temple ritual (we shall discuss at a later date the seeming contradiction between his obvious love and fervor for the Temple worship as expressed here, and what he says in the Guide about the origin of sacrifices, where he sounds almost like an anthropologist). However, applying Yaakov Levinger’s rule about the significance of the concluding halakhah in each book as a link or transition to the next, it might be interesting to read the final section immediately preceding the beginning of Sefer ha-Avodah—to wit, the end of the laws concerning the Sabbatical and jubilee years. Hilkhot Shemitah ve-Yovel 13.12-13:

12. And why did the tribe of Levi not receive a portion in the inheritance of the Land of Israel and in its despoiling alongside their brethren? Because it was set aside to worship God and to serve Him and to teach His upright paths and righteous laws to the many, as is said, “He shall teach your laws to Jacob, your teachings to Israel” [Deut 33:10]. Therefore they were separated from the ways of the world: they do not conduct war like the rest of Israel, nor do they inherit or receive [material things] on their own account. Rather, they are the army of God, as is said, “May God bless his ranks” [ibid., v. 11]. And He, blessed be He, gives them, as is said, “I am your portion and your inheritance” [Num 18:20].

13. And not only the tribe of Levi, but every person from among the inhabitants of the world whose spirit has moved him and who understood of his own accord to separate himself and to stand before God, to serve and worship Him, to know the Lord, and he walks with integrity, as God made him, and casts off his neck the yoke of the numerous devices that people seek [after Eccles. 7:29]—He is sanctified like the Holy of Holies, and God will be his portion and inheritance for ever and ever, and he will receive in this world that which is sufficient to him, as received by the priests and Levites. For David said, “The Lord is my portion and my cup, you support my lot” (Psalm 16:5).

This passage appears to be a central one in Maimonides’ description of what he conceives as the ideal spiritual human being. What does he say, and what does he not? It is clear that the ideal person is one who is wholeheartedly devoted to worshipping God (this is the link to the Temple service and the priests, who epitomize this ideal) and to seeking knowledge of Him. The flip side of this is that he separates himself from worldly concerns, and trusts in God to help provide his material needs.

Does this mean that he does not work for a living? There are those who quote this passage to justify the “kollel” system, in which yeshiva students, including young married men, live off a combination of stipends, public charity, other family members (the proverbial working wife and wealthy father-in-law) and, in Israel, government funds obtained through the exercise of political pressure. But there are two strong arguments against such a line of interpretation. First, that Rambam was extremely outspoken and harsh, in at least two places (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3.10; Perush ha-Mishnayot, Avot 4.7), in his criticism of those who make the study of Torah a source of income. Second, one of the key phrases in the above passage is an obvious paraphrase of a verse in Kohelet, 7:29: “God made man straight [yashar: i.e., honest, upright], and they sought many devices [hishbonot rabbim; lit., calculations].” Clearly, this phrase is not directed against those who “take off” a certain part of their day from Torah study and Divine service to make an honest living, but against a kind of crooked and devious mentality, even if not technically dishonest, that is preoccupied with money and business, wheeling and dealing, and that is constantly concerned with business and its profits and losses. We can well imagine Rambam, who lived in a society populated largely by merchants and moneylenders, both in Egypt and Spain, deeply involved with money and with the worldly pleasures and comforts it can afford, issuing here a call for detachment from and renunciation of all that—a kind of asceticism, willing to be satisfied with little in the material realm, as best befitting the spiritual ideal he wished to inculcate.

Terumah (Psalms)

“I ask but one thing of the Lord: to see the pleasantness of the Lord, and to visit His sanctuary”

With Parshat Terumah, the Torah takes a sharp turn: leaving the narrative of the events that befall the people of Israel in Egypt and after leaving it, the next five portions (Exod 25-40) are primarily occupied with a detailed description of the instructions for the construction of the Sanctuary in the desert, forerunner of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Many people find these chapters difficult to read or relate to: they are filled with technical details, lists of materials and measurements of the various artifacts, the curtains and coverings and wooden partitions that encompassed it and surrounded it, the priestly garments, and later on, in the first half of Leviticus, the details of the various kinds of sacrifices. But when we turn to the Psalms, we encounter a very different picture, in which the experience of being at the Temple is filled with spiritual meaning. There are perhaps several dozen psalms in which the Temple, “the house of the Lord,” is mentioned at greater or lesser length. In these, the Temple serves as a focus for the psalmist’s deepest spiritual yearnings, of his wish for closeness and intimacy with God, for a sense of Presence, of protection, of taking shelter in the wings of the Shekhinah.

There are many psalms that convey the spiritual feelings evoked by the Temple. In some it is the central theme, while in others it is mentioned in passing. Some psalms articulate a yearning for God that is almost mystical. Interestingly, these almost always refer to presence in the house of God as a kind of high point, as the very embodiment of the mystical desire for devekut, cleaving to God (thus, for example, in Pss 27, 42, 63, 65, to name but a few). Two whole groups of psalms relate to the Temple and its service in their entirety: the psalms of the Hallel (113-118), which were chanted during the festive paschal meal held by family groups in Jerusalem, and which were also almost certainly used during the during the festival of Sukkot, perhaps in the processions around the altar (within the Hallel, Pss 116 and 118 specifically evoke the Temple atmosphere); and the fifteen psalms beginning with the title Shir ha-Ma’alot (“a pilgrim song” or “a song of ascent”), which seem to have been written for the pilgrims ascending to Zion for the three great festivals each year. Many of these express feelings of closeness, trust, and confidence in God; among them 122, 126, 132 and 134 particularly relate to the Temple. We shall return to some of these in greater detail, whether during the coming weeks or later in the year.

One could say that the psalmist’s world is composed of two diametrically opposed realms: that of the “outside” world, in which he is subject to “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and that of the Temple, in which all is peace and harmony. In psalm after psalm, at least those of the petitional type, the author portrays himself as surrounded by enemies who mock him, who plot against him and lay traps and try physically to destroy him, while he turns to God in his distress, and finds comfort in His saving power. In many such psalms, this experience of God’s presence is related to the Temple, where he can feel His face, be among “the celebrating throng,” bring an offering in gratitude for God’s kind acts, or simply to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”

One such psalm is Psalm 26, that is suggested for Parshat Terumah. This psalm is divided into three parts: Verses 1-5 portray the basic situation of the speaker vis-a-vis his enemies: “Vindicate me, O God, for I have walked in innocence.” He asks God to test him, so as to prove his innocence, using the words tzarfah kilyotay velibi—“scourge my innards and my heart”—a strong word, using the image of smelting, of the purification accomplished through a refiner’s fire. He likewise declares that he has not associated with lying men or with the community of evil doers. Verses 6-8 refer to the Temple: “I will wash my hands in innocence, and circle God’s altar.” He will tell the people assembled there of the miracles God has done for him, and concludes with a statement of simple love for God’s habitation and the “place of His glory.” Verses 9-11 are a denouement, in which the author again asks that he not be identified with evil men, sinners, or men of violence, but reiterates—repeating the theme of the initial verse—that he walks in innocence, and that his feet stand on a (morally) straight place. The conclusion: he will bless God with the choruses of those assembled there.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mishpatim (Torah)

Laws and Ordinances

Following the dramatic account of the epiphany at Sinai, the Torah almost immediately gets down to “brass tacks,” presenting this brief, highly concentrated code of what would today be called civil law, with a smattering of criminal and family law thrown in for good measure. In these chapters (Exodus 21-23), the Torah as a book of law begins in earnest—even more so then in the ceremonial law of Passover presented in Bo (Chaps. 12 and 13). Three thick volumes of the Talmud—the three “gates”: Baba Kamma, Baba Metzia and Baba Batra, which, together with Yevamot and Ketubot and one or two other tractates, stand at the heart of the traditional yeshiva curriculum—draw their source material from these three chapters.

For many people in the “Jewish counter culture” of the late ‘60’s and ‘70s’—in some ways the precursors of today’s “New Age” sensibility—this section always presented severe difficulties. Their perennial question was: How can the Torah descend from the sublime height of religious experience, of the collective experiencing of God’s Being by the entire people, to the nitty-gritty of the ox that gored a cow or the man who dug a pit in a public place. (It is interesting that the focus here is on Sinai as a kind of mystical epiphany, rather than on the specific contents of any of the commandments—but that’s another issue).

On the other hand, the Rabbinic tradition pondered over the relationship between the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Torah from an almost diametrically opposed perspective—one which took the essentially legalistic nature of the Torah as axiomatic. On the one hand, the Ten Commandments were seen as a major focus: these were, after all, the words that God spoke to the entire people at Sinai. According to some views, all of the 613 commandments were seen as being ultimately derived from the Ten; some medieval Hebrew poets composed azharot, liturgical poems for the festival of Shavuot, built around this idea. Originally, the Ten Commandments formed part of the daily liturgy, together with the Shema, recited by the priests in the Chamber of Hewn Stone before offering the morning sacrifice (Mishnah Tamid 5.1). On the other hand, there was also a certain ambivalence regarding them. Once Christianity emerged, and began to polemicize that the Ten Commandments alone constituted the contents of the divine revelation, the Rabbis abolished their recitation in the daily liturgy (Berakhot 12a). Some, such as Maimonides, went so far as to vociferously denounce the popular custom of standing during the reading of the Ten Commandments in the synagogue, lest that passage be given a more central status than other in the Torah. If one wishes to reenact Ma’amad Har Sinai, one stands for either all the readings, or none.

The midrashim written on Parshat Mishpatim may be read in this light. Rashi, in his opening comment on this weeks parshah, quotes the midrash that the chapters of laws opens with the words “ve-aleh” (“and these”), so as to stress their continuity with the Sinaitic revelation: “Just as the former are from Sinai, so too are these from Sinai.” As perhaps symbolic expression of this, the High Court for the entire Jewish people, the Sanhedrin ha-Gedolah, sat within the Temple precincts, in a special chamber just off the courtyards where the sacrificial offerings were slaughtered. By this, perhaps, it was intended to indicate that the juridical-legal-ethical dimension and the ritual-cultic dimension were to form one indivisible whole, neither one being complete without the other.

Another interesting introductory comment of Rashi (like the above, on 21:1) refers to the need to teach the laws to the entire people in a manner whereby they will be understood clearly. “The Holy One said to Moses: do not think that you may repeat each chapter to them two or three times until they know it by heart, like one memorizing a mishnah, and that you need not trouble to help them to understand the reasons for the thing and its meaning. Hence it says ‘which you shall place before them’: like a prepared table, ready for every person to eat therefrom.” (Mekhilta, Nezikin, Ch. 1)

This passage clearly affirms the democratic nature of knowledge in Judaism; unlike Christianity, in which until the Reformation the lay person did not even not even have direct access to the Bible, Judaism always stressed the broadest feasible universal education: that every Jew should know the laws, each according to his ability. In the old-time communities of Europe (and in serious Orthodox communities throughout the Jewish world today) the Beit Midrash (House of Study) was the focal point of the community. Of course, some individuals had both greater mental ability and more time available to study the Torah, and thereby entered the spiritual elite by virtue of their learning; but the situation of a small cadre of aloof priests, who deliberately kept the masses in ignorance, was never characteristic of Judaism.

As for the contents of these chapters, which form, as said, the kernel of Jewish civil law: it is impossible to summarize, its importance lying in its specifics (the Rabbis, even more in these chapters than elsewhere, derived volumes of meaning from every word, and even from every one-letter preposition; note the sheer length of Rashi’s commentary here). Nevertheless, in a general way one can say that these laws are based upon several of the fundamental principles which human society is struggling to realize to this very day: personal responsibility for ones actions, including indirect damage caused through ones possessions (e.g. in the laws of the four avot nezikin, the four major categories of damages: 21:28-22:5); mutual help, even to ones enemy (23:4-5); coupled with a certain reasonableness, i. e, limitation on the culpability of the individual in cases where certain things happened “beyond his control“ (e.g., 21:28; 22:9-12); equality before the law (23:2-3, 6-8), etc. Even the famous (notorious?) phrase, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (21:24-25), without going into the details of the Rabbinic interpretation, reflects a basic notion of a rough sort of equity.

Rabbi Abraham Gallant

This Monday (Feb 27 2006), the 29th of Shevat, marks the 70th anniversary of the passing of my maternal grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Naphtali Gallant. I am writing about him here for two reasons. First, in retrospect, he was for me an almost mythical figure in my childhood: in my subconscious, he must have served as a kind of model or as a source of Jewish inspiration. Secondly, during the past year, I have had reason to think about and read about his life. Last spring, by means of the internet and emails, we reconnected to certain relatives who were involved in researching our extended family’s history. Through them, I learned more, not only about the figure of my grandfather, but also of his own teacher and brother-in-law, Rabbi Yonah Mordecai Zlotnick of Plotsk, and even uncovered some of the latter’s writings and a description of life in his shteitl at the turn of the last century. At just about the same time, my good friend, Prof. Michael Kramer, told me of research in which he and his colleague, Menahem Blondheim, are engaged concerning the Orthodox sermon in early 20th-century America (on which more below).

In contrast with my other grandfather, the retiring lamdan Rabbi Ciepkiewicz, whom I mentioned two weeks ago, Rabbi Gallant was an active, outgoing figure. As rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham in the Bronx, he was known as an outstanding preacher, whose sermons attracted hundreds of people every Shabbat morning. Many of these sermons, or at least their quintessential contents, were gathered in the nine volumes of his writings published during his lifetime and immediately thereafter, between 1924 and 1936.

He was also deeply involved in community affairs, both within the rabbinic world and in general Jewish concerns, particularly in the nascent Zionist movement. Unfortunately, I know rather little about the specifics of his organizational involvements and affiliations. Was he a member of Mizrachi, the Religious Zionist movement, like his friend and relative-by-marriage Rabbi Yehudah Leib Zlotnick-Avida, whom he knew from his student days in Zakroczym and Plotsk in Poland? Or was he more involved in broader, pan-communal frameworks?

His career in the pulpit spanned the first generation of acclimatization to America of the massive Eastern European Jewish immigration to America. During that period, the sermon began to occupy a new, more central role in synagogue life; rather than preaching only a few times a year, and on a highly learned level, as was the custom of rabbis in the older European communities, the American rabbi was expected to preach every week, and his sermons were generally on a far simpler level than those of his European counterpart, in keeping with the lower level of Jewish knowledge of his flock. The sermon was less an exercise in Talmudic and halakhic erudition, and more a means of providing his congregants with guidance and strengthening against the inroads of adjustment to America—a problem which, of course, the rabbi faced within his own family much like all the other immigrants of his generation. (The above analysis draws upon a recent study on the American Orthodox sermon by Israeli scholar Menahem Blondheim, in which my grandfather receives significant mention. A more extensive project, in conjunction with Michael Kramer, is currently under way.)

Reading many of the sermons, both in the five-volume set of sermons on the weekly Torah portion, Mashal u-Melitza, as well as in his other volumes (Davar be’Ito, Hezyonot Avraham, Hemedrash veha-Mishnah, & Moadim le-Simha), one is struck by the recurrence of certain themes: the erosion of Jewish life in America, particularly on the part of the younger generation, and the need to invest time and energy in Jewish education; the call to Zionism, and the hope for the settlement of the Land of Israel and for support of the Zionist cause by all Jews; the value of tradition, in its unadulterated form, and the need to strengthen it in this alien and difficult land. The sermons, as they appear in the book, are filled with humor; Gallant knew well how to add a light touch to his essentially serious concerns, so that almost every full-length sermon contains one or more folk stories brought to illustrate the point at hand. He also drew with some regularity (unlike most other darshanim of that period) on the hasidic parables and teachings which he imbibed from his beloved grandfather, Rabbi Eliyahu Yosef Gallant of Rhadzanowa. This grandfather, who raised him after the death of both his parents in early childhood, had himself been a disciple of the legendary Rav Simhah Bunem of Psyschscha in his youth. The technique of the Hasidic pshet’l, the clever “word” which turns the verse in its head, is reflected in two places in the following passage.

A good example of his sermons which, although it appears in Parshat Bo, includes a play upon a verse in this week’s portion, is the following (my translation):

“We shall go out with your youth and with our elders” [Exod 10:9]. Today, as in Egypt, the in-between generation, between youth and old age, is as if it does not exist, involved in building a world not its own… We have only ”youth and elders.” When you go to a synagogue, whom do you meet there? The grandson, and the old man—those who are on the far side of the drawing-room of life, and those who are still in the entrance hall. You will not encounter there those whom King David praises with the words [Psalm 128]: “Happy is every one that fears the Lord, that walks in His ways. When you eat the fruit of your hands, happy shall you be and it will be well with you… Your sons are like olive trees planted around your table.”… These same grandsons or youths need to say the prayer, “Return us, our father, to your Torah” in a completely different sense: “Bring back to us our fathers”—that is, may God put his spirit in their fathers to return to the Torah...

… And like the interpretation of the conjoining of the words “you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” [Exod 23:19] to the first half of that same verse, “The first fruit of your land shall you bring to the house of the Lord your God” is a hint of the obligation imposed upon the fathers when bringing his first fruits, that is, his offspring at the time of their maturation, to “the house of the Lord your God.” But we need to remember also the end of the verse, “Do not cook a kid in its mothers milk.” That is, one should not think that the tender youth (and, as the Torah speaks the language of the people, we may read this verse using the vernacular of this country, understanding the word “kid” in the sense of a youth) can become properly “cooked” [i.e., mature ] “in its mothers milk”! The Torah, as it is known, is compared to milk…. the verse mentions “his mothers milk” in the sense that… it can nourish the infant, make him well and heal him. But under no circumstance can the suckling grow up and develop as a human being with such food—and the same holds true for spiritual sustenance.

The fathers must not think that they fulfill their obligation to their son by bringing them to the house of God when they begin to grow, teaching them one or two sections of the Torah—and that by this they are already developed. “Do not cook the kid with mother’s milk!” With such thin, milky fare as this he cannot become matured!… (Mashal u-Melitza, Vol. II, pp. 47-48)

Mishpatim-Shekalim (Haftarah)

Mishpatim: the Release of Slaves

The regular haftarah for Mishpatim is taken from Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33: 25-26, a chapter dealing with the liberation of slaves, a subject that is the concern of the very first law that appears in this Torah portion. King Zedekiah made a covenant with the people whereby they would “call liberation” to all, sending free all of the Hebrew man and woman-slaves (i.e., “indentured servants,” who had sold themselves or been sold into servitude to pay off their debts). This does not seem to be the regular seventh-year release of servants, mentioned in the Torah (Exod 21:2-6; for a full picture of the Torah laws pertaining to slavery, see also there, vv. 7-11; Lev 25:39-55; Deut 15:12-18); rather, it was a special release, perhaps similar to that periodically proclaimed by the kings of neighboring countries, such as the andurarum announced by Mesopotamian kings upon ascending the throne. In any event, shortly thereafter the people went back on this release, and the slave-owners retook their freed slaves. The prophet decries this act, reminding the people of the law in the Torah, and warning them that, if they do not “set free” their servants, God will, with poetic justice, “set free” the sword, pestilence, and famine (v. 17).

What is interesting about this passage is that the peoples’ act is described using two of the strongest terms in the biblical lexicon: “desecration of my name” (v. 16) and “violation of the covenant” (v. 13, 15). Both of these terms are reserved for cardinal, central aspects of the Torah; their use here suggests that the liberation of servants is not just “another” civil law, but a central concern of the Torah. True, the Torah allows for servitude, under certain carefully delimited and well-defined circumstances, but the servant was granted so many privileges that the Talmud was moved to declare that “he who acquires a slave, acquires himself a master.” Nevertheless, as soon as their term is up, they must be allowed to return to their own lives as free people human beings. This law draws upon central concepts of the Torah: human dignity, stemming from man being created in the Divine image.

As if to reinforce the covenantal message in this context, the haftarah concludes by jumping backwards to two verses from the previous chapter: “If not my covenant of night and day, if I have not established the laws of heaven and earth….” (33:25-26).

It is a pity that, in a world that prides itself on its “progress” relative to the supposedly “benighted,” pre-scientific cultures of the ancient world, slavery is sill very much a reality: not only in the so-called “Third World” or underdeveloped nations, but even in the very heart of the western cultural orb. Right here, in the State of Israel in the year 2001, slavery is a reality: there are many foreign workers, brought into the country illegally, whose passports and other identification are confiscated by their employers, and kept in the most atrocious living conditions while forced to work for a pittance. Far more scandalous is the “white slave” trade, in which young women and girls are lured into the country under false pretexts, kept under duress, beaten, raped, often physically locked up day and night, and forced to work as prostitutes. Israel admittedly has many other pressing problems, but thus far the public outcry has been minimal, limited to a few small circles; the police are at best apathetic, and when they do act seem more likely to further punish, humiliate, and eventually deport these girls, rather than to hinder their “owner’s” activities in any significant way. (Those interested in contributing or otherwise supporting attempts to organize effective action against this shameful situation may contact me for details.)

Shekalim: “And let them take the money for the repair of the House”

But instead of the regular haftarah, this Shabbat one reads that for Parshat Shekalim, on which there is read as maftir the passage from Exodus 30:11-16 from which the Sages derive the obligation incumbent upon every Jew to bring an annual payment to the Temple treasury, the “half-shekel,” so as to participate in the costs of the public worship. The haftarah, taken from 2 Kings 12:1-17 (the Sephardim begin from 11:17-20), does not describe the collection of the half-shekel, but a closely related matter: the need to properly organize the collection of funds for the upkeep of the Temple, and the introduction of the first pushke (collection box) in Jewish history.

King Jehoash had issued instructions that any miscellaneous money brought to the Temple—whether from “valuations” (see Lev 27) or voluntary donations—should be used by the priests for repair and general upkeep of the Temple structure. After several years, he realized that this informal arrangement, in which each priest supposedly took money from “his acquaintances” for this purpose, was not working: the priests had totally neglected the upkeep of the Temple. When, even despite his imprecations, they failed to turn over the money for this purpose, Jehoiada the priest placed a large chest next to the altar and bored a hole in its lid, so that any money brought to the Temple would automatically be set aside for this purpose. When enough money had accumulated, the king’s secretary and the high priest took the money and gave it to the workmen—carpenters, masons, stonecutters—and spent it on materials needed to repair and maintain the Temple; this money was specifically not to be used for fancy new vessels of silver and gold—basins, snuffers, bowls, etc. Beyond the interesting information concerning the realia of the financial arrangements in Temple times, this chapter presents a revealing picture of the perennial problem of how to assure that public funds—in this case, sacred funds entrusted to the priests—are properly spent. Between the lines, we are made to understand that the priests were sidetracking the money for less worthy or urgent purposes, making it necessary to introduce this new arrangement. Whether the money went into their own pockets, or was spent on extravagant, ostentatious items for the Temple ritual, they seem to have been guilty of the all-too-human temptation of misusing money placed in their trust, particularly as this seemed to involve a gray area far short of outright theft. In any event, the people who were in charge of the distribution were respected as genuinely scrupulous, “and they did not ask an accounting of the men into whose hand the money was given, who paid it out to the workmen, for they dealt honestly” (v. 16).

Mishpatim (Midrash)

“These are the Laws”

Unlike the parshiyot read thus far, at this point we turn to the more strictly legal sections of the Torah. (I do not include under this rubric Exodus 12, “Hahodesh hazeh lakhem,” usually considered the “first law” of the Torah, because that appears within the context of a narrative description of events, and grows out of it.) Interestingly, the midrash offers here allegorical or other homiletic interpretations of these legal sections, going beyond the narrowly juridical concerns of the peshat to more general issues, or to symbolic and/or spiritual readings. Years ago, during the early years of the “Jewish counter culture,” which were the first gleamings of what might be called today’s neo-mystical Judaism, this section was seen as a great “comedown” from the heights of the mystical epiphany of Sinai; as if the Israelites woke up the next morning and found an irritable, petty-minded old man grumbling at them: “don’t forget to do this rule and that rule…”

Yet, if the midrash seeks allegorical meaning in these chapters, it sees the laws as a necessary complement to the sweeping grandeur of the Ten Commandments (“The Torah was given in the morning, and the laws in the evening“: Exod Rab. 30.11). Then, too, one must remember that there are other, halakhic midrashim devoted to the detailed exposition of the laws per se, leaving the aggadists free to elaborate more fanciful, sweeping midrashim. Perhaps these latter were intended more for the ordinary folk who came to synagogue on Shabbat than for the scholars and their disciples, who engaged in the arduous intellectual task of working out the practical applications of the law in detail in the Beit Midrash.

A (belated) word about the structure of the midrashim in Exodus Rabbah. The first fourteen chapters of Shemot Rabbah take the form of a consecutive, verse-by-verse series of midrash on the text of Exodus 1-9; most scholars consider this a more ancient layer of the midrash, more or less contemporaneous with Bereshit Rabbah,. From the beginning of Parshat Bo (Exodus Rabbah 15-52), each chapter of this midrash contains a group of midrashim focused on the opening verse of the Torah reading alone, based on the divisions of the ancient Palestinean triennial cycle. Thus, for example, in this week’s section we find three chapters: Ch. 30, on Eileh ha-Mishpatim (“These are the laws”; Exod 21:21); Ch. 31, on Im kesef talveh et ami (“If you loan money to your countryman”; Ex 22:24); and Ch. 32, on Henei anokhi sholeah malakh (“behold, I send an angel”; Exod 23:20). There are some scholars, such as Jacob Mann (The Bible as Read and Preached in the Ancient Synagogue) who think that these midrashim, with their petihtot, provide useful clues as to the readings customary in those days, including forgotten haftarot. In any event, it is generally held that this section was compiled, or even written in part, at a later date—Geonic, or even early Medieval—than many of the others in the Midrash Rabbah collection.

Torah as Mother and as Daughter

We shall now turn to one of the midrashim on the opening verse of our parasha. The chapter is read here symbolically, as alluding to the relationship between God and Israel, through an allegorical reading of several of the specific laws in the first section—that of the Hebrew man-servant, maid-servant, etc. Exodus Rabbah 30.5:

Come and see how praiseworthy this section is. How many parshiyot [specific sub-sections] there are in it, and with how many proscriptions did the Holy One blessed be He command Israel in this chapter: “When you buy a Hebrew servant…” [Exod 21:2]; “When a man sells his daughter as a maidservant…” [ibid. v. 7]; “One who smites his father…” [ibid., v. 15].

And what have they to do with one another? The Holy One blessed be He said to Israel: I purchased you in Egypt by means of the ten plagues that I showed, as is said, “Wonderful are Your acts; my soul knows right well” [Ps 139:14]. Just as you were commanded not to make your brother work [as a servant] more than six years, for I created the universe in six days, therefore I gave you six years during which you are allowed to work with a Hebrew servant.

The connection between the six days of Creation and the six years of labor of an indentured servant is rather obscure. The connection, beyond the number six itself, seems to be the act of engaging in productive labor.

“And when a man sells his daughter as a maidservant”—I had one daughter, and I sold her to you; and you do not take her out, but keep her imprisoned in a box: “she shall not go out as do the man-servants” [Exod 21:7]. Treat her with respect, for you took her captive from Me, as is said, “You have ascended on high, you have taken captives” [Ps 68:19]. And David praises: “Praise be the Lord, for it is good to sing to our God, for it is pleasant” [Ps 147:1].

Here, the Torah is described as God’s own daughter, whom He has sold to Israel. This motif is a well-known one, which may explain why the midrash does not even trouble to explicitly state the equation, “daughter = Torah”; compare the midrash on next week’s portion, where God is a king who has given his daughter, the Torah, to Israel in marriage (Exod. Rab. 33.1). The custom of storing the Torah scroll in a box, the Aron Kodesh, is seen here at once as an act of imprisonment and as a sign of respect for its “feminine” modesty. This is intriguing, and reminiscent of the aggadot stating that Jacob’s daughter Dinah was kept in a box after the Shechem incident so that she would not be seen by prying, lascivious eyes. In the second half of this passage, the Torah is described as having been taken captive! (see the aggadot in which Moses ascends on high and takes the Torah almost by force, to the displeasure and jealousy of the angels; b. Shabbat 89a)

R. Shmuel said: The Holy One blessed be He warned them, using an inference “from minor to major” (kal va-homer). For there are many proscriptions here, such as “He who smites his father and mother [shall surely die].” Said the Holy One blessed be He: Ham the father of Canaan did not smite [his father], but merely looked [i.e., at his nakedness; a reference to the story of Noah, who became uncovered in his drunkenness: Gen 9:20-27], and now he and his children are slaves for ever; One who curses and smites his parents, all the more so! And who were these? This refers to the ten tribes, who did not wish to take upon themselves the yoke of the Holy One blessed be He, and Sennacherib came and exiled them. This may be compared to a king who had ten sons, and they rebelled against him and nullified ten of his edicts. He said to them: Just as you nullified mine, so shall I send the fly and he will take recompense against you. So did the ten tribes rebel against the Holy One blessed be He and negate the Torah, of which it is said, “They spoke falsely of the Lord, saying ‘It is not so [or: Not He!]’” [Jer 5:12]. So He brought against them the Fly, as is said, “the Lord will whistle for the fly” {Isa 7:18]—That is Sennacherib.

Thus, if Israel nullify the mitzvot it is as if they cursed their father and mother. Their father is none other than the Holy One blessed be He, as is said: “And now, O Lord, You are our father” [Isa 64:7]. And their mother is the Torah, as is said: “And do not abandon the Torah/teaching of your mother” [Prov 1:8]. And they were raised at Sinai, as is said “By the way of wisdom I have taught you” [Prov 4:11].

Here the sense of familial intimacy is continued: alongside God the Father, we have the Torah as mother. (Is this a precursor of the female figure of the Shekhinah which was later to play such a central role in Kabbalah? Arthur Green has recently published a pair of studies, in Hebrew and English, concerning the relationship between the figure of the Shekhinah in Spanish Kabbalah and that of Mary in medieval Christianity—i.e., just about the same time period. Can it be that both these figures reflect a certain universal human insight, depicting a certain aspect of God as nourishing, feminine, motherly, inviting a child-like dependence on our part? In any event, such an image of Torah is far removed from its depiction as no more than a codex of law, and shows the emotive, intimate sense that Jews feel regarding the Torah as a nourishing source of life—an idea that repeats itself over and over again in the Midrash and elsewhere, in numerous different forms and nuances. In this connection, I am reminded of an extraordinary statement once made by Rav Soloveitchik during the course of a shiur, translating this image into concrete, human terms: “There is a privilege given to those who learn Torah, not experienced by other people: they are able to be in communion with their mother even after she has died.”

I cannot say that I commune with my mother posthumously through my Torah learning, but I certainly do so with her own late father. This week [in 2006] marks the 70th Yahrzeit of my maternal grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Naftali Gallant (Galante), rabbi of a large congregation in the Bronx, early Zionist activist, and outstanding preacher in New York Jewry of the 1920’s and ‘30’s, who departed this life on 29 Shevat 5696. Even though he died over a decade before my birth, I often feel, when studying one or another of the nine volumes of derush which he left as his literary legacy, that “his lips speak to me from the grave,” and I have thereby come to know him better than any of the other grandchildren.

A Dialogue Among Romans

Now and again one encounters in the Talmud and Midrash conversations between the Sages and various non-Jewish personalities—Roman rulers, matron ladies, and ordinary folk—that reveal the attitude of the Jewish intelligentsia to the social and intellectual world “outside.” The following conversation between Aquilas (later known as Onqelos, author of the authoritative Aramaic Targum on the Torah) and the emperor Hadrian in fact focuses on the unique connection of the Torah to the Jews alone. Exodus Rabbah 30.12:

Another thing: “These are the laws.” It is written there: “He tells His words to Jacob, [His ordinances and laws to Israel, and He has not done thus to any other nation]” [Ps 147:19].

Aquilas once said to the emperor Adrianus [Hadrian]: I wish to convert and to become an Israelite. He said to him: You wish to join that nation?! How I have shamed them, how many of them I have killed! Do you wish to link yourself to the lowliest nation in the world!? What have you seen in them that makes you wish to convert?

He said to him: The smallest one among them knows how the Holy One blessed be He created the world, what He created on the first day and what He created on the second day, how long it is since the world was created, and upon what the world stands; and their Torah is true.

The powerful man of the world can only see the mean and subjugated political situation of the Jews. His nephew Aquilas, by contrast, was presumably an intellectual, a man of spiritual curiosity, who appreciated the philosophical and cosmological knowledge to be found among them. Does this reflect a more general valuation of Judaism among the ancients, at least among “thinking Gentiles,” as possessing certain esoteric secrets? Clearly, the Biblical teaching of Creation was something special. It would be interesting to know how widely the Bible was known in the non-Jewish, Greco-Roman world. Perhaps only after Christianity became a Gentile religion? In any event, it is interesting that Aquilas wished to learn Torah, first of all, because of the unique knowledge it contains. It is instructive to compare this to the motivations of the three gerim in Shabbat 31a who came to Shammai and then to Hillel.

He [Hadrian] replied: Go and learn Torah, but do not have yourself circumcised. He replied to him: even the wisest man in your kingdom, and an elder who is one hundred years old, cannot study Torah unless he is circumcised. As it is written: “He told his words to Jacob, His ordinances and laws to Israel, and He has not done thus to any other nation” [Ps 147:19]? And to whom? To the children of Israel.

The conclusion of this passage raises another issue: the exclusionary motif in Torah, the almost axiomatic sense that it is not for non-Jews, but that “a Gentile who studied Torah is culpable of the death penalty” (b. Sanhedrin 59a; Rambam, Melakhim 10.9). There is actually a double problematic involved here: that of proselytism, the suspicion of proselytes and the tendency to discourage conversion to Judaism; and the intellectual-spiritual engagement of non-Jews in Jewish teaching without any intention of conversion, roughly corresponding to what is known today as “inter-faith dialogue.” The free presentation and discussion of religious ideas with others seems on the whole to be alien to the world of Hazal. Contrary to the nineteenth century motif of liberal Judaism, in which Israel had the task of being a “light to the nations,” throughout most of its history Judaism has been largely ingrown, keeping to itself and treasuring its Torah as being for itself alone. Any hopes of spreading its knowledge of God to other peoples is largely reserved for the eschatological future. “Then”—and only then—“will the Lord be One and His name One,” and shall “the world be filled with knowledge of the Lord, like waters flowing to the sea.”

Constraints of time prevent me from dealing with this important issue at length. Clearly, we live in an age in which there has been a sea-change in the relation of Jews to the non-Jewish world, and in which even so seemingly conservative figure as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe could launch a campaign to actively teach the universal moral principles of Judaism—the Noachide Code—to non-Jews. A discussion of how far these limits may and should be pushed must be left for another occasion.

Generosity in Loans and Imitatio Dei

Exodus Rabbah 31.1, taking off from the law applying to creditors, draws a comparison between God’s waiving the culpability of sinners, the desired attitude on the part of a creditor.

“If you loan money to my people” [Exod 22:24]. It says there, “Goodly is the man that is generous and lends, he conducts his affairs with justice” [Ps 112:5].

There is no person who is not in debt to God, but He is generous and compassionate and forgives the earlier things, as is said, “Do not remember against us our early transgressions” [Ps 79:8]. This may be compared to one who borrowed money from the dynastos [money-lender] and the latter forgot about it. Some time later he came and stood before him, and said to him: I know that I am in debt to you. The latter replied to him: Why have you mentioned that old debt? I have already erased it from my heart.

So is the Master of the World: the creatures sin before Him, and He looks and they do not repent, and he forgives them, one sin after another. And when they repent, they come and mention the debt they originally had. And He says to them, “Do not mention the former things” [Isa 43:18].

From whence do you know that if a person turns and repents, even if he has performed numerous transgressions, they are turned into virtues? As is written, “When the evildoer repents of his evil and does justice and righteousness, he shall live by it“ [Ezek 33:19]. None of the transgression he did shall be remembered against him. Therefore He warns regarding the poor man: “do not be to him as a creditor” [Exod 22:24]. Do not make him stand naked, “For when he cries out to Me, I shall hear him” [ibid., v. 26]. And so too David says, “They cry out, and the Lord hears” [Ps 34:18].

What stands out here are two things: the comparison of sin to monetary debt, and the consequent call for compassion, in imitation of God’s qualities. Although the law here only says that one should “not act like a creditor,” returning the garment taken as pledge when needed at night, and not standing on ones formal rights overly much, between the lines the complete forgiving of debts is implied here as a possibility. This is in sharp contrast to the old Protestant ethic of “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”—abstemious, eschewing a sense of mutual responsibility and caring between people, with each man to himself. Unfortunately, such attitudes have come increasingly to the fore in the harsh capitalistic economic environment prevalent in recent decades world-wide.

Mishpatim (Psalms)

Psalm 72: The Righteous King

In tandem with this week’s parsha, which introduces many of the concepts and basic rules of Jewish civil law, it is suggested to recite Psalm 72, which opens: “Of Solomon: O God, give Your justice to the king, and Your righteousness to the son of the king…” The midrashic tradition sees this as a charge and blessing given by King David, perhaps in his final days, to his son and heir Solomon.

The psalm interweaves two basic themes: a) vv. 5-11: a blessing to the king, that he may enjoy power and dominion over a vast empire and be held in awe and reverence by many other nations (“from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth… the kings of Tarshish and the islands… Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts”; vv. 8, 10), and, speaking with obvious hyperbole, that his reign may last “as long as there is a moon” (v. 5); b) vv. 2-4, 12-17: a charge and statement of his ethical duty to care for the poor and unfortunate and to implement a regime of social justice and prosperity throughout the land (“He will deliver the needy when he cries out… redeem their soul from oppression and violence; their blood shall be precious in his sight”; vv. 12, 14), in part through the extraordinary fruitfulness and abundance with which God will bless nature in his behalf (“There shall be abundant grain in the land; it shall wave on the tops of the mountains, and its fruits shall be like Lebanon; they shall blossom forth [even] from the cities”: v. 16). The last three verses (vv. 18-20) consist of more general blessings to God, forming a festive conclusion to the second book of Psalms, with the enigmatic note that “Completed are the prayers of David son of Jesse” (see our discussion in HY VI: Beshalah).

While much of the psalm, particularly the reference to an extensive empire and the allusion to Sheba, well fits the reign of Solomon, some commentators have suggested that this psalm may allude to a messianic figure, for whom the super-natural abundance of nature and the continuation of whose reign into an endless future are more suitable.

As for the imperative of concern for the poor: some go so far as to read v. 15, “And he will give him the gold of Sheba” as meaning that the king will distribute the gold he received as a gift from the ruler of Sheba (v. 10) among the poor, rather than hoarding it in the royal treasury. A truly exemplary people’s monarch! (The alternative interpretation is that this refers to gold that God will have given to him.)

A brief note about the semantic field of the words tzedakah and mishpat. These are usually translated, respectively, as the abstract noun “righteousness,” and as “judgment,” in the sense of the legal function of a judge. But these words often bear an additional connotation in the Bible, particularly in the poetic books, such as the Later Prophets and the Psalms: namely, that of “vindication”—e.g., when God wages war against evildoers or the enemies of Israel he “does tzedakah”; and what we would call today “proactive” social justice—that is, not only does he rule between litigants who come to court to resolve a dispute, but he actively corrects social ills, rectifying the oppression and exploitation of the weak and defenseless. (See Moshe Weinfeld’s important book on this topic, which discusses these concepts in an overall ancient Near Eastern context: Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, Jerusalem: Magnes, 1995).

Interestingly, Rav Soloveitchik, in his seminal essay Halakhic Man, quotes his grandfather, Rav Hayyim of Brisk, defining the function of the rabbi as follows: “to redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor” (p. 91).

Indeed, in addition to featuring the word mishpat in its title, our parsha contains a number of important laws emphasizing the need to perform justice to the poor. See, for example, the injunctions against oppressing the stranger, the widow or the orphan in Exod 22: 20-26, because God is especially close to these unfortunates, hearing their cries (note the three-fold use of emphatic, doubled verbs in v. 22:

אם ענה תענה אותו כי אם צעק יצעק אלי שמע אשמע צעקתו
and the assurance that the Divine wrath is ignited specifically by such injustice. Likewise, the injunction to a creditor not to act cruelly to those who have borrowed money, nor to exploit his superior position by holding on to his pledge and thereby denying the debtor a necessary item, e.g., a garment needed to keep warm at night, is based in God’s words “I will hear, for I am compassionate.” The law protecting a seduced virgin from abandonment by her seducer (22:15-16), or that limiting the servitude of female maidservants, as opposed to the conditions for manservants (21:7-11), also seem designed to protect the most vulnerable members of society. Many other examples could be added.

Turning to the larger issues raised by this psalm: the basic problem with all positions of authority—be it monarchy, autocracy (such as those with which several of the countries in our region are ”blessed,” with life-long “presidents”) or even, I dare say, constitutional democracies—is that rule over others almost inevitably brings in its wake the desire for even more power, along with corruption, exploitation of position for personal benefits, etc. All of this has been a part of human nature since time immemorial. It may be experienced in microcosm in the workplace, in families, in voluntary organizations, even in synagogues. The desire to be a “big fish” even in the tiniest of ponds or, as Pirkei Avot puts it, a “head of foxes” rather than a “tail among lions,” is irresistible for some. And it is as of sacred power and authority as it is of the secular: all religions, including Judaism, seem to attract to their clergy—in addition to sincere, decent, spiritual individuals—a certain number of people for whom the quest for the holy and the desire to share the Truth with the faithful is no more than a thin mask over the lure of the opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Even the cloak of asceticism, even modesty and self-effacement, can serve as guise for a kind of inverted arrogance. Our psalm, with its emphasis on the king as “father of the orphans” and the one responsible for defending the poor, the needy, the oppressed and downtrodden, suggests an ideal of simplicity and modesty on the part of the leader. His great power and dominion is not for himself, but is a tool for doing good, whose fruits are shared among the whole nation.

There was a time, not so long ago, when national leaders manifested this ideal of simplicity in practice. David Ben-Gurion, Menahem Begin, and others, lived with great material simplicity. This modesty, particularly at a time of scarcity and even rationing, was certainly an integral part of their moral authority: the wealth, not to mention shady financial manipulations, of today’s leaders, offers a sad contrast to that.

Today things are very different. The world seems to be ruled by millionaires, by huge conglomerates. There is a strange belief abroad that the fall of communism in the USSR somehow vindicates the most outrageous excesses of the “free economy” (which is become more and more cannabalistic, with large corporations buying out and strangling smaller operators). How can such leaders, or those beholden to them, be compassionate to the weakest members of society?

To return to our psalm: as I see it, this psalm may be read within the context of a certain tension in ancient Israel between two conceptions of government. The one was the concept of the monarchy as the ideal form of rule for the Jewish people, as described in the Torah. (Deut 17:14-20). The royal house is a blessing, the Davidic house is blessed and chosen by God, in much the same way as Israel as a whole is God’s chosen people, and Zion/Jerusalem His chosen city. The Davidic crown, along with the Temple, are thus seen as the living expression of God’s presence within Israel.

But there is also another ideal: the anti-monarchic, almost anarchistic ideal of the book of Judges and of the figure of Samuel, that “God shall be your king.” There was to be no fixed, permanent leader, still less a hereditary dynasty of kings, such as existed and exist among many nations (and not infrequently elevates unfit scions of great families to position where they do untold harm). Samuel, in his famous speech about the ”way of the king” (1 Sam 8:11-18), warns of the ceaseless material and human demands the king will make upon the people. This ideal celebrates ad hoc, charismatic leaders of the type of Gideon—who also knew when to step down and return to the obscurity of his ancestral home. Martin Buber has written about this extensively in several books (The Kingship of God, The Prophetic Faith, Moses, and the Hebrew essays on the Bible collected in Darko shel Miqra).

Perhaps our psalm may be read as a kind of synthesis of these two ideals: a Davidic king, but one so deeply impressed with the ethical ideal of ensuring “righteousness and justice,” i.e., to vindicate and watch over the poor and unfortunate, that he will not fall into the trap of self-satisfaction and greed. There is another dialectic involved in this issue. Between the two extremes of anarchy and tyranny, there is an approach within Hazal that government is a kind of necessary evil, because “without its fear, each man would swallow up his neighbor.” That is, the ideal of anarchy may seem tempting and charming, conjuring up images of a new England town meeting or a kibbutz general meeting. But in reality the alternative is likely to be, not benevolent anarchy, but chaos and the rule of the strong over the weak— theft, rapine, and murder in broad daylight. “Each man is a wolf to his fellows.” (As demonstrated by present-day Iraq. Bush—and, Republican readers, pardon my bluntness, but I can call him nothing else—the fool, and his court jesters thought that peace and tranquility and democracy would reign in the Land of the Two Rivers, ancient symbol of fertility and plenty, if only Saddam were eliminated. Ha!) Hence, the ”mainstream” of Jewish political thought, if one can speak of such a thing, decided against Shmuel and Gideon and reached the sober, pessimistic conclusion that a strong, well-managed government is preferable to the holy anarchy and radical dialogic freedom of a Buber (As noted, the etymological meaning of “utopia” is “no place”).

Perhaps this point has some bearing on the vociferous debate being waged at present [Winter 2005] in Israel over the subject of civil disobedience. Unlike many voices being heard today, I believe that civil disobedience in and of itself is morally and philosophically justified; the assertion that democracy implies that the state is the ultimate source of morality is untenable, and if pushed to its logical conclusion is very close to a kind of fascist mode of thought; ultimately, the individual is morally responsible for his actions, and must act in accordance with his conscience (whether this is governed by abstract moral principles or the theocentric imperative of the halakhah). Perhaps I am swayed by memories of the glorious days of my youth, when the Anti-War movement in America—perhaps the greatest movement of civil disobedience during the latter half of the twentieth century—brought the greatest power in the world to its knees.

However—and this is the crux of the matter—the moral claim of civil disobedience is not what is at issue here. “Returning” the mandate for decision–making to the individual, or to an extra–parliamentary source of authority (such as the rabbanim of the settlers movement) must be weighed against the dangers posed by anarchy. And, in a small, beleaguered country like Israel, which has already suffered too many traumas, the risks involved far outweigh the benefits of untrammeled freedom of conscience.

Closing Note: At times, I wonder whether the time has not come to add a special prayer to Birkat ha-Mishpat, the eleventh blessing of the weekday Amidah. We pray there for the restoration of our judges “as of old,” and for God alone to rule over us “with love and compassion, with righteousness and justice.” What the State of Israel lacks today, as a pre-or non-messianic Jewish state, perhaps more than anything else, is ethical leaders —including religious leaders whose love for Torah extends, not only to the realm of ritual matters, not only to institutions of Torah study, and not only to the clumps of soil of Eretz Yisrael, but to the suffering of the poor, unfortunate, simple people who populate this land. Someone, with greater poetic inspiration and Hebrew style than myself, should write a yehi ratzon, to be added to the above mentioned blessing, in which we call upon God that our leaders be filled with a burning desire for justice, with a passion for righting wrongs. To paraphrase a very old maxim: Hallevai, Would that their fear of God, and their love of the common people, were to equal their fear of the party centrum and apparatchiks and their deep, abiding love for their seats and their perks.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Mishpatim (Hasidism)

In the early days of the Havurat Shalom, almost every year someone would point out how this Torah selection was a kind of let down after the “high” of Yitro. One week we read of the unique human-divine encounter of Mount Sinai, of how the people heard the voice of God or, as the text actually says, “seeing the voices”—a turn of phrase on which both the Zohar and Rabbinic Midrash pick up, saying that there was such intensity of concentrated energy (to use contemporary language), that the people’s senses crossed with one another, and they “saw” that which they ordinarily only heard. The next week, we read a codex of mundane civil laws: what to do with your endentured servant; how much compensation to pay if someone’s cow, or crop, or tools, are damaged or lost; the responsibilities are of different kinds of shomrim, people entrusted with guarding other’s property; an anxious father’s guide on what his rights are if his young daughter is seduced or raped; etc.

This line of thought always bothered me. The various halakhot are in fact seen as the very stuff and substance of God’s Torah. The vast bulk of the traditional yeshiva curriculum is not sublime theological insights, but Baba Metzia and Baba Batra and Gittin and Ketuvot and the rest—the detailed working out, nay, hammering out in the debate in the Beit Midrash, and in the case book of Rabbinic courts, of the laws that make human society tick, on the every day level. The day after the dazzling brilliance of the sights of Sinai, one awakens to the grey reality of the everyday, of “the day of small things”—but such is the essence of Torah.

I found both a strange appropriateness and irony that Parshat Mishpatim should fall just after the Israeli elections [of 2002], when these words were first written. By way of analogy, anybody who was foolish enough to think that Israel would wake up on the morning after elections to see a bright new dawn breaking, was surely disabused of that illusion on Wednesday morning. A sense akin to despair, that Israeli democracy had exhausted itself in a tumult of noise and fury, signifying nothing, and the mountain gave birth to a mouse; that in the midst of the country’s worst crisis in its history, the public seemed blasé, apathetic, fatalistic, lacking in the belief that anything can change. After all the coalition haggling, and our leaders’ pious remarks about how “the people wants unity” and lambasting those who are so rigid as to actually wish to honor adherence to “principle” and “ideology” (but isn’t the essence of parliamentary democracy the clash between opposing camps and visions of how the body polity should be run?), all we can look forward to is “Blood sweat and tears.” And (pardon the editorializing), Sharon sure as hell ain’t Churchill. As my brother commented, if we didn’t plan to live the rest of our lives here, and would like to see our children raising our (as yet unborn) grandchildren here, Israel’s political life, especially around election time, could make a brilliant comédie noire. Or, as David Hartman said recently in another context, there are some things which are so serious, if not terrifying, that the only way to react is to make fun of them.

A “Menschlikher” Holiness

After this long and round-about introduction, what does Hasidism tell us about this must “mitnaggedic” of Torah lessons? I decided to break with my practice thus far of bringing thinkers from the early age of Hasidism—the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid, their disciples and near contemporaries (R. Nahman, R. Nahum of Chernobol, R. Shneur Zalman, et al)—and jump almost a hundred years to the Sefat Emet, Reb Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, who quotes here a lovely Torah in the name of the Rabbi of Kotzk.

But before beginning, a historical comment. The Sefat Emet was one of a group of late nineteenth-century teachers whose names are frequently encountered in what might be called “Neo-Hasidic” circles—among other reasons, perhaps, because they were special favorites of Reb Shlomo Carlebach ztz”l, who did so much to spread Yiddishkeit and Hasidism to people who would otherwise never have been exposed to it. The other two are: R. Mordecai of Ishbitz, author of Mei Shiloah, disciple of the Kotzker and cohort of Hiddushei ha-Ri”m, R. Yitzhak Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe and grandfather of the Sefat Emet; and R. Zaddok ha-Cohen of Lublin, author of the five-volume Peri Zaddik and numerous other smaller volumes, the best known of which is entitled Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, who “converted” to Hasidism under the influence of the Izhbitzer. All three ultimately go back to the school of Psyshyscha.

And what was Psyshyscha? Art Green describes it as a kind of “puritanical reform movement” within Hasidism, a kind of reaction to the courtliness and institutionalization of the role of the Tzaddik, following R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk. Whereas the Baal Shem Tov might best be described as epitomizing the qualities of Hesed & Kedusha, “lovingkindness” and holiness, that of Psyshyscha may best be summed up as emet: the pursuit of truth; rigorous, unflinching, even painful, brutal honesty. Without pretense or pomp and circumstance. Psyshyscha, and Kotzk in its wake, taught that holiness and purity can suffer from its own kind of delusion, about both self and others. One who denies himself the ordinary pleasures of this world—fine food and drink, fine raiment (when and if he can earn it), women—in favor of long hours of prayer and study, can also, on a very subtle level, be absorbed in himself and in aggrandizing his own ego. This is, if you will, a very “Litvish” kind of Hasidism—down to earth, opposed to exaggerated flights of mystical rapture. Its goal was simple honesty with self.

To summarize the chain of master and disciple that led up to this point: R. Yaakov Yitzhak, the Hozeh of Lublin (d. 1815), was a disciple of the Maggid, of R. Elimelekh, and of R. Shmelke of Nickolsburg. His own best know disciple was “Der Yid Hakadosh” (“the Holy Jew”), also Yaakov Yitzhak of Psyshyscha, d. 1814, who was in turn the teacher of R. Simha Bunem (d. 1827), who made his this small town into a center which attracted a certain very special and particular kind of young man. R. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk was in turn a disciple of both the Hozeh and the Holy Jew; a stern, demanding figure, given to both Zen-like aphorisms and outburst of anger, he belonged to the next generation, dying in 1859. Ger and Izhbitz , as mentioned, were in turn offshoots of Kotzk.

The Sefat Emet, who lived at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, was the third rebbe in his dynasty. The five-volume set of teachings by which he is known, contains torahs identified by the year in which they were spoken, over more than thirty years of leadership (5632-5663 = 1871-1903). He often starts with midrashim, reworking the same text over and over again during the course of the years, each time discovering a new facet, like a precious diamond. (One might describe his torahs as being very much in the spirit of “Turn it around and turn it around, for all is there” [Avot 5.26]). All of which is a long, round-about introduction to the Sefat Emet: Mishpatim, 5632, s.v. beshem:

In the name of the holy rabbi of Kotzk, z”l, on the verse “and you shall be holy people unto Me” [Exod 22:30]. That there should be guarding of holiness in the acts and designs of men. That is, that God, may He be blessed, suffers from no lack of supernal angels, Seraphim and Holy Creatures. But He desires the holiness of human beings; therefore, he drew sparks of holiness down into this world, in measure and limit.

This teaching of the Kotzker is often quoted in much briefer, aphoristic form: that this verse is intended to teach “menshlikhe heiligkeit”—that is, in colloquial terms, that your holiness conform first and foremost to ordinary human decency, implying: rejection of pietistic pretense and cant, excessive flights of mystical excess or asceticism.

Therefore, “Meat in the fields [that is torn] you shall not eat” [ibid.]. And Hazal expounded this, that it implies a general rule [prohibiting] any thing that has gone outside of its boundaries [e.g. an animal earmarked for the holiest category of sacrifices that was taken outside of the Temple precincts; see Zevahim 82b; Hullin 68a, 73b]. The interpretation is as above: that in everything there is a spreading forth of holiness in measure, and we need to guard its corporeality, that it not go beyond the limits of holiness.

The interpretation of “you shall be to Me” is also a promise that the children of Israel will ultimately be holy unto the Lord. Therefore, we need to watch ourselves now so as to be prepared to be placed upon the head of the King, as in the midrashic parable, whatever precious stones and pearls you are able to fix, do so, for in the end it will be upon the head of the King, as mentioned above. [And according to this, “and you shall be holy people” is a known secret, according to the Kabbalah of the earliest ones.]

I do not know whether these two paragraphs are from the Kotzker or, what seems more likely, Sefat Emet’s own elaboration and development of the motifs used here. It is interesting that Torah Temimah explains tereifah, not only as an animal attacked by a wild animal, but as anything that has changed from its natural order (thus tereifah, meat with internal defects or injuries that made it moribund; a foundering ship at sea, a scrambled egg, a box that has been shaken up, etc.). See ad loc, §230.

Mishpatim (Rambam)

“Before Them”: the Sanhedrin

Notwithstanding that the commandment to set up a system of courts of law only appears explicitly in Parshat Shoftim (Deut 16:18-20; cf. 17:8-13), it is seen by Hazal and Rashi as already implicit in other passages in the Torah. Thus, the opening verse of this week’s portion, “These are the laws which you shall place before them” (Exod 21:1) is seen as implying an addressee—a body of leaders/ judges/ teachers—who are instructed to “place” the laws before the people:

Why is the portion of the laws placed next to that concerning the altar? To teach you that you should place the Sanhedrin adjacent to the Temple. “That you should place before them.” …You might think that it is sufficient to repeat each chapter or law two or three times until it is fluent in their mouths, and that you need not trouble yourself to make sure that they understand the reason for the things. Therefore it says, “that you should place before them”—like a table that is set and ready for one to eat from it. “Before them.” [i.e., Before the judges] and not before the laymen (based on Gittin 88).

Rashi says things in a similar vein in the opening of Devarim, reading Deut 1:18, for example, as alluding to ten procedural rules governing the running of courts. We may infer from all this the central role played by the system of courts and judges. There is a special aspect to these laws: whereas most of the mitzvot are concerned with specific actions—i.e., direct commands as to what one should or should not do—here we are concerned with an overarching framework. In addition to a set of rules and laws, society requires certain institutions to oversee social order, to enforce the laws, to adjudicate disputes, and to punish malefactors. This need arises, in part, because no matter how detailed a law code, there are always questions that arise, ambiguities in which there is need to decide which of several possible rules applies. Moreover, due to the inevitable complexity of a law concerned with all aspects of human life, not every person is able to know it, but only those who have both highly developed intellect, and the time to devote their lives to its mastery. But more than that: there is an inherent need for someone—a person or group of persons—to somehow represent or embody the law, a body to whom the ordinary person can turn when there is need to settle disputes, or to clarify for the person’s own peace of mind what is the proper, ethical, lawful thing to do in a given situation. These people must be fair-minded, objective, disinterested; a kind of spiritual-legal elite, who are morally and ethically above the crowd.

We see from all this that Judaism does not believe in anarchy, in Rousseau’s “noble savage,” in the idea, popular at various junctures in the modern age (it was one of the central motifs, not only in 18th century France, and in pre-revolutionary Russia, but in the Hippie counter-culture of the 1960’s, which had its own utopian vision), that man left to his own devices is inherently good, and that it is only societal pressure that makes him bad.

Indeed, this idea is so central in Judaism, that “dinim,” i.e., the setting up of a judicial system, is seen as a lynchpin of the Noachide code. This rudimentary system of laws for the non-Jewish world consists of six proscriptions, together constituting the basis of a universal morality, plus a seventh mitzvah: to set up courts to enforce and adjudicate the other six (Hil. Melakhim 9.14).

This entire subject is, if one may put it thus, the obverse side of Maimonides’ personality. We have written at some length in recent weeks about Rambam’s theological and philosophical interests, of his celebration of an Abraham-like passionate love of God, of his positing a direct relationship of man to God as the height of his spiritual word, of his description of prophecy being preceded by a kind of mystical–ecstatic experience. But there is another, no less important side to his thought and his own public role, one logically prior to these lofty ends: namely, his concern for the welfare and order of society.

The final book of the fourteen deals with social order. Sefer Shoftim, “The Book of Judges” (not to be confused with the biblical book of the same name), centers around the two central social institutions of ancient Israel, the great courts and the monarchy—the former enjoying pride of place at the opening of this book. Quite close to the beginning of this treatise—which details not only the rules governing the Sanhedrin, but that of all the courts, local, regional, and that for all Israel—Rambam describes the high standards demanded of the judges. Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2.1:

One does not appoint to the Sanhedrin, be it the great one [i.e., of 71] or the smaller ones [i.e., tribal courts of 23], anyone but wise and discerning people, uutstanding in wisdom of the Torah, possessing extensive knowledge. And they must be somewhat learned in other wisdoms, such as healing, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, and the ways of the necromancy and magic and practitioners of witchcraft and other pagan vanities and the like. So that they will know to judge them..

We see here that Maimonides has a broad cultural vision, one which clearly acknowledged the importance of non-Jewish sources of wisdom as well (see our discussion a few weeks ago, in Bo, about astronomy, for one example). He took a definite stance supporting a concept of universal knowledge, based upon human reason rather than revelation—this, as opposed to a sequestered, anti-secular approach, found in some other Jewish thinkers, and unfortunately loudly trumpeted today by some sectors of the self-proclaimed “Torah world.” Admittedly, in Rambam too this knowledge entails a functional reason, as stated in the second half of the sentence: things that he considered nonsense and beneath contempt, such as various forms of magic and superstition, still need to be known by for their juridical functioning.

Alongside intellectual depth and breadth, he demanded certain personal qualities of the judges as well. Thus, in §7:

The court of three…. Each one of them must have these seven qualities: wisdom, humility, fear of God, hatred [i.e., indifference to] money, love of Torah, love of the people for them, and a good reputation….

Why does he use the rather awkward phrase, “love of the people for them,” rather than the simpler “love of people” (ahavat ha-beriyot)? A person may feel in his heart that he is filled with love for others, but deep down be in fact a misanthrope. The true test is whether others are drawn to him. The Hafetz Hayyim (Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Kohen), one of the greatest sages of Eastern Europe during the first decades of twentieth century, was not only a great talmid-hakham, the author of many important books both in halakhah and Jewish ethics, but a model of piety and, most of all, a beloved folk figure. People who met him once in their lives still talked about it half a century later.

Another important point in Rambam’s understanding of the Sanhedrin is his insistence that the commandment of setting up courts, not only the great Sanhedrin but also the small Sanhedrin, and even the local courts of three, is only applicable in Eretz Yisrael (1.2). This is so, because semikhah, the Rabbinic ordination that empowers the judges to function fully according to the role given them by the Torah, and which represents an unbroken chain of tradition, of authority passed on from one sage to another going back to Moses, can only be granted in the Land of Israel. Without it, such functions as sanctifying new months and leap years, imposing the fixed monetary penalties prescribed by the Torah (kenasot), not to mention the death penalty for capital crimes and the power to issue fixed edicts for the entire Jewish people, become dead letters. Thus, what we know today as the office of Rabbi, with its implied authority, the whole institution of “ordination,” is a novellum, an invention introduced in medieval Ashkenaz to assure some kind of communal order, and halakhically inferior to the “true,” ancient semikhah. (See Arukh ha-Shulhan, Yoreh Deah 242.§§28-31; and cf. my study, Kuntres Semikhat Nashim, in HY II; Beha’alotkha)

All this is well-known. But Rambam seems to play down the role of contemporary Rabbinic and Torah authority more than most; thus, in his decision of Torah authority in Hilkhot Mamrim, he does not even mention the possibility that rabbis in the post-Sanhedrin era have the authority to issue takkanot and gezerot, ad hoc edicts for the welfare of Jewry. (Compare on this point, for example, Sefer ha-Hinukh, §492, who specifically states that the commandment to listen to the Great Court applies, in latter days, to the rulings of the gadol hador, the “great sage” in each generation. We shall return to these sources in greater depth, with God’s help, in HY V: Shoftim.) Moreover, he almost totally ignores the whole system of Jewish self-government in the Diaspora—Rabbinic courts, parnasei kehillot, international Jewish leadership, both lay and rabbinic, etc. (although he does make passing reference to the Exilarch in Babylonia (Reish Galuta) as a kind of heir of the ancient monarchy; see Sanhedrin 4.12-14).

An interesting question, whose proper discussion would take us too far afield, is whether these positions in any way reflect Maimonides’ own personal biography. He was critical of much that passed for leadership in his day, and was involved in no small degree of conflict, both with the Exilarchate and the Gaonate, and with the Rosh ha-Yehudim, the official Head of the Jewish community in Egypt. As an outstanding intellect who knew his own worth, Maimonides did not easily bear fools, especially those who had achieved their position through accident of money and family ties.

On the other hand, as we have seen, Maimonides greatly idealizes the Sanhedrin—as he did all the ancient institutions—and greatly longed for the reinstitution of the ways “as of old.” He was in fact involved in an attempt to revive semikhah. Thus, in Sanhedrin 4.11, he writes:

It seems to me that if all the Sages in the Land of Israel were to agree to appoint judges and to ordain them these would be ordained [i.e., with the authentic semikhah], and they would have the right to judge laws of kenasot [i.e., those fixed monetary penalties stipulated by the Torah] and they might ordain others… but the matter requires decision.

In his day the matter never got off the ground, but it periodically resurfaced in Jewish history: most notably in the days of R. Jacob Berab in 16th century Eretz Yisrael, and in modern times upon the creation of the State of Israel (see J. L Maimon’s book on the subject, Hiddush ha-Sanhedrin bizeman hazeh).

I would like to conclude with one more short passage. I mentioned previously (HY V: Miketz-Hanukkah II) an insight of the late Prof. Yaakov Levinger. It is well known that each of the fourteen books of the Yad ends with a festive peroration, in which Rambam goes beyond the specific halakhic subject with which he is dealing, to comment on broader moral and spiritual issues. Levinger observed that these perorations also serve as a link to the subject matter of the next book. In some cases the connection is obvious; in other cases, it requires no little examination and reflection to find the link. I would like to examine the passage that immediately precedes Hilkhot Sanhedrin: namely, the end of the “Laws of Inheritance,” with which Sefer Mishpatim, “The Book of Torts,” ends. Hilkhot Nahalot 11.12:

Even though the guardian does not need to render accounts, as we have explained, he needs to render accounts with himself, and to be most scrupulous [in handling the money of orphans]. And he must beware of the father of these orphans, who rides upon the clouds, as is said, “Lift up a song to He who rides upon the clouds [Yah is his name, and exukt before Him]. The father of orphans [and protector of widows, God in his holy habitation”; Ps 68:5-6].

The point made here is a simple one: for the truly pious, God–fearing person, it does not matter whether his books are subject to an external audit in order for him to be scrupulous about not misusing funds that have been entrusted to his care, because he knows that there is One who is higher than any CPA, or even than Income Tax: namely, He who is the Father of orphans and widows.

It seems to me that the connection of this passage with the laws of the courts and judges is that their function, too, is ultimately to serve as the father of orphans and protector of widows. Rav Soloveitchik makes this very point in an important passage in his seminal essay, Halakhic Man:

Halakhic man cannot be cowed by anyone. He knows no fear of flesh and blood. For is he not a creator of worlds, a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation? And precisely because he is free from fear of flesh and blood, he neither betrays his own mission nor profanes his holy task. He takes up his stand in the midst of the concrete world, his feet planted firmly on the ground of reality, and he looks about and sees, listens and hears, and publicly protests against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan. The rich are deemed as naught in his view. He is the father of orphans, the judge of widows.

My uncle, R. Meir Berlin [Bar-Ilan], told me that once R. Hayyim of Brisk was asked what the function of a rabbi is. R. Hayyim replied: “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.” Neither ritual decisions nor political leadership constitute[s] the main task of halakhic man…. The actualization of the ideals of justice and righteousness is the pillar of fire which halakhic man follows…. (Halakhic Man, p. 91)