Thursday, July 27, 2006

Tisha b'Av

The Rav’s Tisha b’Av

More than with any other day during the course of the year, the figure of my teacher, Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l, is associated in my mind with Tisha b’Av. Not because he was a mournful or melancholy character (although he was decidedly not given to Hasidic flights of song and dance or ecstatic prayer), but because of the unique nature of the reading of Kinot on Tisha b’Av in his presence. Essentially, Tisha b’Av was the occasion for an all-day Torah lesson, from 8 in the morning until late in the afternoon. People from all over Boston and beyond crowded into the synagogue of the Maimonides School to hear him. Following Shaharit and Torah reading, he would deliver a discourse on halakhic and philosophic aspects of the laws of the day. In his inimitable way, he would weave together halakhic motifs and underlying religious and philosophical conceptions, demonstrating how the seemingly minor details of the halakhah express profound ideas.

The Rav conceived of Kinot as essentially a form of Oral Torah, elaborating, explaining, and complementing the Biblical lessons for the day, found in the Torah reading, the haftarah, and the scroll of Aikhah (Lamentations). The Kinot themselves, dirges written by Byzantine and Medieval Hebrew poets, such as those of Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kallir, are an artful interweaving of midrashic motifs and biblical verses. While reading the Kinot, the Rav would stop between each one, or at times after each stanza, to explain, elaborate, narrate, philosophize, polemicize, etc. The Rav seemed to have a particular affinity for the piyyut literature, which many Jews find impenetrably dense and difficult. Someone once asked the Rav what book he read on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during lulls in the davening, expecting him to name some Mussar (ethical) treatise or perhaps some work of Maimonides. The Rav replied, “the Mahzor,” explaining how these Medieval poems were vehicles of Oral Torah.

A few gleanings from those occasions. In an halakhic analysis delivered one year, the Rav explained how Tisha b’Av is a unique combination of ta’anit tzibbur (public fast day) and avelut (a day of mourning). The basic rules of the fast day: its parameters from dusk to nightfall, the prohibitions of eating, drinking, washing, wearing shoes, etc, are all characteristic of the more stringent public fast days—whether of Yom Kippur, its biblical archetype, or the seven latter fast days for drought years mentioned in Mishnah Ta’anit. On the other hand, it is a day of intense mourning. The Rav explained avelut—whether for personal bereavement over loss of a member of ones intimate family, or the collective mourning of Tisha b’Av—as a sense of alienation, of distance from God, even of confronting dark, nihilistic thoughts. Tisha b’Av is in essence not a day of prayer: one recites the mandatory daily prayers because they are required, but unlike other fast days it is not a day of prayerfulness, reflecting a living, vital sense of contact with God. On that day, we do not feel God’s presence or His attentive listening; the mottos of the other fast days or of the Ten Days of Repentance, “Seek the Lord when he is to be found” or “Who is like our God, in all our crying out to Him?” do not apply here. Hence, on Tisha b’Av there are no Selihot (penitential prayers), no recitation of the 13 attributes of mercy, no Avinu Malkinu, etc. Instead, the byword is satam tefilati—“Even when I call and cry for help, my prayer is shut out” (Lam 3:8)—which the Rav interpreted as a halakhic concept. (Consistent with this view, he did not even allow the recitation of a Mi sheberakh laholeh, the special prayer for the sick, on Tisha b’Av)

From here, he turned to the concept of theodicy. He saw Tisha b’Av as the one day of the year when one is allowed to ask even the most daring questions of God: “lehatiah devarim klapei ma’alah.” According to the Rav, this is derived from the Book of Eikhah, read on that day. The very title of the book, “eikhah,” is not only a statement but a question: “How?” Interestingly, this word serves as a leitmotif, repeated twice (or thrice) in the liturgy for Shabbat Hazon, the sabbath preceding Tisha b’Av, as a kind of foreshadowing of the day itself. In the Torah reading Moses asks “How can I bear alone your trouble and burden and strife?” (Deut 1:12); and in the haftarah: “How is the faithful city become as a harlot” (Isa 1:21)—in both cases, the verse being read in the elegiac melody of Lamentations. Many of the kinot are also built upon the word eikhah or other key words from the book, which they utilize as a precedent, as a kind of basis for asking penetrating, searing questions. This may be observed, for example, in the kinot “Ai -Koh Omer” & “Atah amarta haiteiv aitiv imakh.”

Radical Theology of Tisha b’Av

Thus far the Rav. Extrapolating from this in a somewhat more radical direction, I would describe Tisha b’Av as a day marked by dialectic tensions. On the one hand, in its aspect of ta’anit tzibbur, of public fast day, it is marked by the motif of Teshuvah, of returning to God, and by implication also of Tzidduk hadin, of accepting the rightness of God’s harsh judgment. This is akin to the traditional approach that “because of our sins we were exiled from our land”— that all the terrible things that happened to the Jewish people (including those attached to Tisha b’Av by extension ) are ultimately our own fault. On the other hand, in its aspect of avelut, of mourning, it may be interpreted as a day when we look into the void, confronting the emptiness, the apparent senselessness and meaninglessness of the tragic events of life. One is allowed to ask “why?”—to openly declare that there are things that don’t make sense; that the world, that various occurrences in life, that many of the events in Jewish history, do not square with what the Good Book says. As Judaism runs the full gamut of human emotions and of human experiences, so too even this nihilistic, doubting, “irreligious” mood has its place in the annual cycle.

From this perspective, the third chapter of the Book of Lamentations makes new sense. The other four chapters are elegiac descriptions of the fallen glory of Zion, describing in stately cadence how the young men and virgins who walked about in finery, and the prophets and Nazirites and priests who lived lives of holiness and dignity, were reduced to rags and worse. Chapter 3, by contrast, is a Job-like soliloquy of a single individual. It runs the gamut of emotion, from feeling pursued by God—“He is a bear, a lion, lying in ambush for me in secret” (3:10); “he has set me as the mark to his arrow” (v. 12), etc.—to a sudden change in mood, in which the narrator is filled with confidence, trusting in the very God who had seemed an enemy: “The loving-kindness of the Lord is never done, his mercies are endless; they are new every morning… the Lord is good to those who wait upon him” (vv. 22-27), etc. This is in turn followed by a call for self-examination and teshuvah, turning to God, lifting up ones heart in wholehearted confession and repentance (vv. 40-42). But then again, “You have wrapped yourself in a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through” (v. 44). The same good, merciful God is now portrayed in a state of hester panim, of hiding Himself from man. In brief, this chapter is a kind of spiritual diary of a religious man, stricken by overwhelming suffering, whose heart is filled with questions and doubts, wondering whether there really is a God out there who listens and cares and responds to his troubles, or whether He behaves in capricious, cruel, even monstrous ways.

An interesting reflection on a newly relevant side-aspect of this issue of theodicy: whether one piously accepts God’s judgment or shakes ones fist at heaven and cries out “Why?”, these questions are of vital importance for Jews. For Jews, unlike Buddhists, the option of radical quietism is not a live option, because the world, and life, are not illusory, but are very real. Perhaps it is in the confrontation with these types of questions, most of all, that the ways of Judaism and the mystical, quietistic religions of the Far East part.

Since writing these words, there has been a great tumult over Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s remarks that the victims of the Holocaust were reincarnation of sinners of past generations, who thereby atoned their outstanding sins. The vehement secularist reaction, while understandable, seems to miss the point of Rav Yosef’s remarks. Rav Ovadiah was trying to come up with some sort of explanation for the most difficult, vexing problem for Jewish religious thought and, at least in theory, his position cannot be ruled out as a possible option. My objection to it is on two other grounds: First, “Sages, be careful with your words.” A discussion of such an esoteric, not to say sensitive, issue was totally inappropriate for a public lecture to a mass audience, particularly one broadcast live far beyond the confines of his Beit Midrash. “Hanei kavshei derahmana lamah li?” The traditional attitude is one of extreme hesitance and circumspection about discussing the details of God’s conduct of the world, what happens to each individual after death, etc. If he must, let him write an article in a Rabbinic journal. Second, his statement that these matters are “fundaments of the faith” and that anyone who denies them is a heretic is simply incorrect and wrongheaded. Rav Yosef Albo says that we must believe, in a general way, in Divine justice and in recompense for our actions. But whether these things are done in this world, in an afterlife through Heaven and Hell, or through reincarnation in the form of fish, snakes, cats, Polish Jewish children, or Chief Rabbis—who dare say? The Rambam’s remarks in the final chapter of the Mishneh Torah vis-a-vis eschatology: “One should not engage overly much in speculations on these matters, as they lead neither to love of God nor to fear of God… but one must only believe in them in a general way, and we shall not know how they will happen until they happen” may be applied equally well to these matters.

Shlomo Carlebach also used to talk about the Holocaust and reincarnation/ transmigration of souls, but in a very different vein. He claimed that the children of the generation born after the Holocaust, many of whom became student radicals, hippies, flower children, and “Holy Beggars,” were reincarnations of the victims of the Holocaust; after the horrors they experienced, they were filled with idealism and a burning desire for a better, purer, different sort of world. He of course exaggerated in the opposite direction, but what a difference!…

From Michael Kagan’s Book of Kavvanot

Michael Kagan sent me an extensive selection of his writings on Tisha b’Av, taken from his work in progress (?), Book of Kavvanot . I reproduce here the opening paragraph. Those interested in reading the entire text may contact me.

The month of Av is one of the few months that has a Hebrew name. (All the others are ancient Babylonian gods.) And what does “Av” mean? It means father. This is the month of the Father. It is complimentary to Shavuot in Sivan which is the Mother festival. Av occurs during the hottest month when the sun scorches the earth. The Father is symbolized by the sun. In the dream of Joseph in which the eleven stars, sun and moon bow down to him, the stars are his brothers, the moon his mother and the sun his father. Tisha B'Av is the time when the Father's anger burns the fiercest, when it destroys His own sanctuary, scatters His children, lays waste to the earth. How do we reconcile ourselves to our father's anger, to our anger as fathers, and to the anger of our Father, in heaven? Can we make space to allow healing?

Thoughts of Rebuke and Consolation

Rav Soloveitchik often described the fast day of Tisha b’Av as composed of equal measures of mourning and repentance. Rambam states, regarding all the commemorative fast days, that we fast thereon “in memory of the bad things that happened due to the evil deeds of our forefathers, which are like our own evil deeds today” (Hil. Ta’aniyot 5.1). The implication, carrying this line of thought to its logical conclusion, is a frightening one: that our own actions, individually and especially collectively, may lead to national disaster. Indeed, the haftarot read during the three weeks preceding Tisha b’Av are filled with elements of rebuke and admonitions to the Jewish people: “You are a people heavy with iniquity”; “You are become like Sedom and Gemorrah”; “the ox knows its master, but My people does not know Me.”

I often wonder whether, if Isaiah or Jeremiah were to walk among us today, they would not cry out in rage and despair at the sins of the people. The State of Israel, the Third Jewish Commonwealth, hailed as the “first fruit of the flowering of our Redemption,” which began with so much hope and freshness and spirit of renewal and creativity, seems to have declined into corruption, complacency, and injustice.

The indictment is long. I do not refer here to the sins against the Palestinian people, both real and imagined, which so many of those who are not necessarily friends of Israel are so quick to criticize (although I have written about these things as well in the past; there are certain things, such as the blockades of the villages, which prevent people from receiving medical care, from visiting members of their own families, from tending their olive groves and grapevines, or otherwise running ordinary lives, that are inexcusable). I refer here more to sins of Jew against Jew. To the callousness of our government towards the weakest elements in our population: the punitive attitude toward the unemployed, including single mothers, when there is precious little work to be had; the draconian cuts in the social budget, in health and education, while new bypass roads and settlements continue to be built in the West Bank, and tax breaks to the wealthy continue, under the pretext of “stimulating economic growth.” Israel, which forty or fifty years ago was one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, marked by great social solidarity, today has one of the greatest gaps between rich and poor. Is the United States really such a wonderful model of social harmony that it needs to be emulated in this respect as well? And then there is the hypocrisy of certain political leaders, who rose to the top by appealing to the fears and nationalist sentiments of many of those in the poorer neighborhoods and regions of the country, who are now the engineers of an economic policy that harms these very sectors in harsh ways.

I will mention two more things, which to my mind reflect this mood of callousness and insensitivity. On Yom ha-Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day, 2003), an Armenian woman, a nurse at Hadassah Hospital who works with victims of terrorist attacks at the intensive care unit, was among those honored to light a torch at the central ceremony. She asked to include in her little speech a phrase alluding to the fact that she was the descendant of survivors of the Armenian Holocaust—the decimation of the Armenian people at the hands of the Turks during the First World War, a national trauma comparable in many ways to our own Holocaust. The Armenians are a small but significant part of the Israeli ethnic fabric, many of whom live in a historic quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Her right to express the truth of her family’s history of suffering was denied, due to fear of a diplomatic incident with Turkey (the Turks, unlike the Germans, have never owned up to their role in genocide). With all due respect to the need for Israeli-Turkish friendship, how can we call upon others to respect the Holocaust we’ve suffered when we cannot respect the suffering of others? Jews are highly sensitive (and rightly so) to those who would deny the horrors of our recent history; how can we practice Holocaust denial with regard to others, out of cynical political considerations?

Another issue: during my recent visit to New York, I happened to be the guest of Barbara Ribakov, head of an international organization devoted to helping Ethiopian Jewry. I learned from her that there are still tens of thousands of Falashmura, Ethiopian Jews of mixed background (but who have been declared Jewish by a series of chief rabbis), who are still in Addis Ababa, where they confront a famine far worse than that of the early 1980s; just last week twelve of them, mostly children, died of starvation. The logical solution would be mass aliyah to Israel, but this is being opposed by the new, “liberal” administration of the Interior Ministry by Shinui’s Avraham Poraz, who in the name of anti-clericalism and not burdening his middle-class constituency with poor, diseased, bedraggled, third world Jews, refuses them entry. But if Israel cannot literally save the lives of Jews in distress, cannot perform an act that is both Jewish and humanitarian, what larger Zionist role does it still serve?

But against all that: while the prophets rebuked Israel, there is also another kind of moment in Jewish thinking about history: the love of Israel. One does not rebuke too harshly, nor does one speak in excessively negative terms about the Jewish people, so as not to arouse anger, forces of kitrug, of prosecution and condemnation—whether from the Almighty, or from the other nations of the world. There is a sense of compassion which says that, whatever awful things Israel may have done, one cannot condemn it unequivocally, without some ray of empathy. “Forbear! How can Israel stand, for he is small.” Even the harshest admonition must end with a note of hope and comfort, just as the bleakness of Tisha b’Av morning turns to the hope of the Afternoon Prayer, with its leitmotif is Nahem (“Comfort…”) and from there to the Sabbath of Consolation (Nahamu).

Between 17th of Tammuz and 9th of Av

The two fast days of mid-summer, that constitute the two poles of the three weeks of mourning, are seen in the Midrashic tradition as corresponding to two central moments in the sacred history of the Torah: the sin of the Golden Calf, and that of the Spies. Moses, in response to seeing the people orgiastically cavorting before the Golden Calf, smashed the first set of tablets on the 17th of Tammuz; the weeping of the people “on that night” (Num 14:1), following the grim report of the Spies, is said to have happened on the 9th of Av. These two events, each in their own way, are seen as the great archetypes for the sins of the Jewish people in all generations—and of the process of Divine forgiveness (see HY I: Ki Tisa; Shelah Lekha).

The interplay between these two events, with all their theological, psychological, and other ramifications, present a rich mine for thought and speculation. I will confine myself here to one question, and one tentative answer. Since, as everyone knows, Tisha b’Av is a far more serious, deeply mournful day than the 17th of Tammuz, we must assume that the sin of the Golden Calf, notwithstanding first appearances (for what could be worse than idolatry?), was less grave than that of the Spies. How so?

My own rather speculative answer is that the making of the Golden Calf was motivated by a spiritual impulse gone wrong. The people experienced a deep lack in wake of Moses’ prolonged absence, and felt the need to do something, to fill their longing for some transcendent guidance. In the case of the Spies, the people sank into black despair; whatever spiritual impulses they had were totally extinguished, or at least driven deep inside themselves; they gave up on all hope, on all aspiration for anything more in their lives than dragging on and on in the gray, earth-bound concerns of a purely physical existence. Thus, the midrashic tradition, in pinpointing the incident of the Spies as the root of Tisha b’Av, the “holiday” of exile, saw this as the more weighty sin.

Afterthoughts on Tisha b’Av

In previous years I have strongly emphasized the aspect of hester panim on Tisha b’Av—of the “hiding of God’s face,” the aspect of theodicy, of being permitted to ask daring questions, challenging God’s actions in the various disasters He visited upon the Jewish People, in the two Destructions and in the Shoah. Rav Soloveitchik often spoke of Tisha b’Av as a day when God is somehow distant, closed off, unavailable to listen to prayer, even explaining certain practices (not reciting Avinu Malkinu or Selihot, not donning tefillin) as symbolizing this idea (see HY I: Tisha b’Av).

But this year, I somehow found myself with more of an understanding of the traditional explanation, mipnei hataeinu, “because of our sins.” Or perhaps better, seeing Tisha b’Av as existing in tension between the two— mipnei hataeinu & hester panim; unadulterated morning and weeping and refusal to accept any facile justification of God’s ways, on the one hand, and fasting and prayer leading to soul-searching, contrition and repentance, on the other—that is, the traditional image of public fast days as found in Rambam, Ta’aniyot 1.1-4, 17; 5.1 and elsewhere. Or, to translate into real conceptual terms: God’s seeming arbitrariness, absence and indifference to human suffering, counterpoised to the reality of human evil, which eventually brings upon itself severe punishment, at times sweeping away the good and innocent along with the evil and corrupt.

Quite appropriately, on the eve of Tisha b’Av I received in the mail a pamphlet sent out by Yeshivat Har Etzion, my Torah “alma mater,” containing a synthetic presentation of Rav Yehudah Amital’s response to the Holocaust—the event which shaped his entire life perspective—gleaned from his talks and writings by one of his students (Moshe Maya, Olam banuy ve-harev u-banuy). One of the striking statements he made there is that, after the Shoah, it is no longer possible to worship God through ”recognition of His goodness,“ as Rabbenu Bahye suggests in the opening section of Hovot ha-Levavot. Rather, one can only serve Him with a Job-like faith, based upon the fact of an existing relation to Him no matter what; one says, ”Though He slay me, I yet hope for Him” (Job 13:15), and “I flee from You—to You.”

Rav Amital tells there of a conversation with Abba Kovner—a secular Jew, one of the leaders of the Kovna Ghetto revolt, who survived to become an important figure in Israeli literary and cultural life. Kovner asked him, “How can you believe in God after the Shoah?” To which Amital replied: “How can you believe in Man? Your belief has been equally shattered, indeed, perhaps even more so; after all, one is supposed to be able to understand man, whereas God by His very nature is inscrutable.”

To return to my original line of thought: I can imagine the prophet Jeremiah feeling that the Destruction was indeed deserved. The people had abandoned God, had abjured all love or even decency toward their fellow man, had created a society filled with corruption and violence and unrestrained egotism and endless cheating and chicanery. How could such a society survive? And yet, after the fact, he sat on the ground weeping. Such a posture can go hand in hand with acknowledging God’s justice in destroying them. The people were evil, but he nevertheless loved this place, this society, the familiar faces. And now, all that he had ever known—his home, the familiar street, the market place, the Beit Midrash, and of course, its crowning glory, the Temple where pious throngs had flocked to worship and to celebrate—were gone. Of course, he knew full well that it was filled with corruption, but even the evildoers were among the familiar faces; perhaps they were even part of the same society, whose sons and daughters courted and married among one another. For that is how real life is: the evil doers don’t walk around with a badge of shame; more often than not they are upstanding citizens, perhaps even national leaders, who follow all the social norms and rules, but are corrupt in their souls and in their behavior.

Moreover, my understanding of mipnei hateinu is a rather naturalistic one. It is not the somewhat childish image of the Almighty adding up mitzvot and transgressions in a big Divine ledger until one day, when one too many persons drives a car on Shabbat, eats a Macdonald’s hamburger or, according to the pietists, skips minyan in the morning or says Amen without kavvanah, the Divine wrath comes hurtling down. No, I see things in much more natural terms: God has constructed the social world with certain built-in moral laws, just as He has created the natural world with the laws of physics and chemistry and genetics and so forth. It cannot abide too much corruption and oppression and dishonesty, too much apathy to the suffering of others, Once the level of ethical sin goes too high, the society is bound too collapse. It may take a long time, but the consequences of evil will surely come—again, through natural cause and effect: lack of social cohesion, selfishness leading to divisiveness among different groups, making it easy prey for other, morally stronger, perhaps simpler and less sophisticated, but more united enemies. And on that day all the rhetoric in the world of ”national unity” will not help. May the living take this to heart.

* * * * *

In response to what I wrote (at the end of my piece on Psalm 137), about radical theology and the evil within man itself being a “face” of that Divine image in which man is created, David Greenstein wrote:

Regarding your concluding theological comment—the end of the Guide struggles with this to some degree. He asks, if we accept that God can be wrathful and punitive, why we should not, in the spirit of imitatio dei, emulate that aspect of God in whose image we are created? So he answers that that is the point of the revelation of the thirteen attributes of [Divine] mercy—that this is the only aspect of God we can or should see ourselves connected to. This allows us to read the Torah’s depiction of that revelation in this way: God does not allow us to see His Face, as it were, but only His back. This back is equivalent to His Merciful qualities. Thus, quite literally, the revelation of God as Merciful is coupled with the refusal by God to let us understand how God can also incorporate evil, as it were, and is literally (no less than the allowance—or even promotion—of suffering in this world) an act of hester panim [“hiding / concealment of God’s face”].

To which I responded:

I basically agree with you. But, as Rav Soloveitchik always used to say, Tisha b’Av is the one day of the year when we’re allowed to ask outrageous theological questions, outside of the usual frameworks, coming from our painful, very real awareness that at times the world seems utterly empty of the Merciful One. But, as R. Nahman says in the “Torah of the Void” (hallal hapanuy; i.e., Likkutei Muharan §64; see HY IV: Bo), if you contemplate questions that come from that place for too long, you can go crazy! On another level, isn't it interesting that the verses from which Rambam derives his homiletic at the end of Guide III.54 are the very same ones (Jer 9:22-23) that we read davka at the end of the haftarah for Tisha b’Av morning?

* * * * *

One last thought about Psalm 137: the introduction of the oath, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem,” sounds as though it reflects the real situation of Babylonian Jewry. There were many who did not want to go back to the Land, but were very happy where they were. This verse may thus be the first self-conscious ”Zionist” sermons, indirectly lambasting the assimilationists, who within one generation had become comfortable in Exile and even achieved a moderate degree of wealth and success in their new home. They were surely the harbingers of a long line of Diaspora Jews who seem to have an innate talent for “landing on their feet” in new places.

But we mustn’t forget that even those who did return had, in large numbers, married non-Jewish wives. See Ezra Chapters 9-10, which includes a long list of names (10:18-44) of men who, ironically, enjoy the eternal privilege of their names being preserved in Holy Scriptures, to date two and a half millennia after their death, merely because they married “shikses.”

Tisha b'Av (Haftarot)

“The harvest is past, the summer is over, and we are not saved”

As we mentioned earlier (Balak, re 17th Tamuz), Tisha b’Av morning has both its own unique Torah reading, and a special haftarah. The Torah reading, taken from Deut 4:25-40, anticipates a day when “you shall become old in the land” and the nation of Israel will do evil in God’s eyes—and when that occurs, as surely as day follows night, the punishment shall come. As the Rav eloquently explained in one of his Tisha b’Av teaching marathons, this section was selected because it contains a capsule summary of the central themes of this day—retribution, covenant, and the dynamics of Jewish history. It is also surely no accident that it is taken from the regular Torah portion for this week, Vaethanan. There is nevertheless a certain difficulty with this, as there is with the Torah reading for Minhah and for Shaharit of the other fast days (taken from the account of God’s forgiving the people after the sin of the Golden Calf): namely, why are these passages read, rather than the Torah portions dictated by Mishnah Megillah 3.7, the “blessings and curses” (presumably, this refers to Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28)? I have no answer at hand for this interesting question; I throw out the gauntlet to those curious for further research and thought.

The haftarah for Tisha b’Av is Jeremiah 8:13-9:23—a passage truly deserving of the epithet “jeremiad”—and begins with the words “I shall surely gather them in [i.e., make an end of them], saith the Lord.” Here, even more so than in the haftarah for Shabbat Hazon, which is also read in the melancholy chant of Lamentations, we find a description of the catastrophe as it happens.

We find the people sitting, waiting for disaster to strike. “There are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree... we have drunken gall” (vv. 13-14). The neighing of the enemy’s horses can already be heard. There is a mood of finality, of an entire era drawing to a close. “The harvest is past, the summer is over, and we are not saved… Would that I were made of tears, so I could weep day and night for the tragedy of my people” (vv. 20, 23).

But here, too, the dirge for the destruction of the people is mixed with rebuke (vv. 1-8): after all, this catastrophe could not have happened without some cause! We are thus told that they are all adulterers, treacherous men, liars. But perhaps worst of all, there is no solidarity or loyalty, no sense of community among the people: “Every brother is a scoundrel; every friend gossips behind the others back.” There is no truth, no honesty. “They speak peace but lay an ambush in their heart” (v. 7). Again, from 9:9 on, we again have the elegiac mode: “I will take up my weeping in the mountains, and my keening in the desert pastures…. Even the beasts of the field and the birds of the air have fled and are gone… Jerusalem and the cities of Judah will be transformed into a rubble heap, a dwelling of jackals.” And a bit later, a truly chilling verse “Call to the keening women and weep… for death has come up by or windows” (vv. 16 ff.).

And in the middle, a rhetorical question (v. 11): Does no one understand why this is happening? Because they have abandoned the Torah and followed their own arbitrary hearts and will. Finally, two concluding verses, 9:22-23, with an implicit call to follow the correct path: Let one not praise oneself for wisdom, courage, or wealth, but only for “understanding and knowing Me”—meaning, knowledge of God’s ways: doing loving-kindness, justice and righteousness.

Interestingly, these very same verses are appended to the end of the haftarah for Tzav, one of the other well-known passages that is stridently critical of preoccupation with ritual and sacrifices. (For a full discussion of the entire issue of the prophetic attitude to korbanot, see HY II: Tzav.) At the very hand of his Guide for the Perplexed (III.54), Maimonides interprets this verse, noting that the ultimate good desired of human beings is not “understanding Me”—i.e., cognitive and intellectual apprehension of metaphysics, which he so extols in many places—but “knowledge of His attributes”—that is, imitating and assimilating His ethical attributes in ones own everyday life.

Tisha b'Av (Liturgy)

“…The Ruined and Desolate City…”

Following the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, many people began to feel the need to alter various aspects of this mournful season in Judaism. One of the focii of this movement was the Nahem prayer recited on Tisha B’Av afternoon, the only addition to the Amidah specific to this day. The traditional text speaks of “the city that is in mourning and in ruins, despised and desolate... without her children... like an abandoned woman... ruined by legions, inherited by Gentiles...” etc.—statements that today ring patently untrue. Already during the first year of Hitzei Yehonatan, we attached several attempts to create new versions of this blessing, more accurately reflecting the present political and, so-to-speak, theological reality. In light of several additional versions which have come to my attention, as well as the large number of new readers, I am appending an updated collection of these alternative versions, with English translation. (Unfortunately, due to lack of time, I am unable to offer any commentary or discussion at present.) I am most grateful to Dr. Yael Levine-Katz for her prompt and invaluable help in providing me with several of the texts given below, as well as other information. For a fuller survey of this subject, readers are referred to her article (in Hebrew), “On the Text of the Prayer Nahem,” Tehumin 21 (2001), pp. 71-90.

But first, for purposes of comparison and reference, I shall present the traditional version, as found in most traditional prayer books. May He who dwells in Zion speedily reveal His Shekhinah in the eyes of all that live, and remove tears and mourning from all faces.

נחם ה' אלקינו את אבלי ציון ואת אבלי ירושלים ואת העיר האבלה החרבה, הבזויה והשוממה, האבלה מבלי בניה, החריבה ממעונותיה, הבזויה מכבודה, והשוממה מאין יושב. והיא יושבת וראשה חפוי כאשה עקרה שלא ילדה. ויבלעוה לגיונות, וירשוה עובדי זרים ויטילו את עמך י'ראל לחרב, ויהרגו בזדון חסידי עליון. על כן ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה, לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעי מעי על חלליהם, כי אתה ה' באש הצתה, ובאש אתה עתיד לבנותה. כאמור: ואני אהיה לה, נאם ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.
Comfort, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that is mourning, ruined, despised and desolate: mourning without her sons, ruined without her dwellings, despised, [being bereft of] her glory, and desolate without her inhabitants; and she sits with her head covered, like a barren woman who has not given birth. And she is despoiled by legions, and idolators inherit her, and they place your people Israel to the sword, and brazenly kill supreme saints. Therefore Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem lets forth its voice: My heart, my heart [aches] for their slain, My innards, my innards [ache] for their slain. For you, O Lord, have ignited here with fire and You shall in the future rebuild her with fire, As is said: “And I shall be to her, saith the Lord, as a wall of fire around, and I shall be for glory within her” [Zech 2:9]. Blessed art You, O Lord, who comforts Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.

"New Texts Composed after the Unification of Jerusalem in 1967

1. Version composed by Prof. Ephraim E. Urbach and his son Abraham, drawing upon the Jerusalem Talmud, the Siddurim of Rav Amram Gaon and Rav Saadiah Gaon, the Yemenite and Italian rites, and Maimonides:

רחם ה' אלקינו ברחמיך הרבים ובחסדיך הנאמנים עלינו ועל עמך ישראל ועל ירושלים עירך, הנבנית מחורבנה, המקוממת מהריסותיה, ומיושבת משוממותיה; על חסידי עליון שנהרגו בזדון ועל עמך ישראל שהוטל לחרב, ועל בניו אשר מסרו נפשם ושפכו דמם עליה. ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה, לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעי מעי על חלליהם, והעיר אשר פדית מידי עריצים ולגיונות. ולישראל עמך נתת נחלה ולזרע ישורון ירושה הורשת. פרוש עליה סכת שלומך כנהר שלום, לקים מה שנאמר: ואני אהיה לה, נאם ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.
Have mercy, O Lord our God, With your great compassion and your faithful lovingkindness, On us and on Your people Israel and on Jerusalem Your city, Rebuilt from its ruins, risen from its rubble, and resettled from its desolation. On the supreme saints who were brazenly killed, and on Your people Israel who were placed to the sword, and on its sons who gave their lives and spilled their blood for her. Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem lets forth its voice. My heart, my heart aches for their slain, My innards, my innards ache for their slain. And for the city which You have redeemed from the hands of arrogant ones and legions, which you have given to Your people Israel as a possession, and to the seed of Jeshurun as an inheritance Spread over it the sukkah of your peace, like a river of peace, to fulfill what is said: “And I shall be to her, says the Lord, As a wall of fire around, and I shall be for glory within her” [Zech 2:9]. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who comforts Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.

2. Version composed by ITF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren in 1967, published in an announcement by the Chief Rabbi of Israel in 1980, under the heading “that is to be said… as suiting the situation of the holy city Jerusalem today”; based upon the Jerusalem Talmud, Rav Amram Gaon, and Maimonides:

נחם ה' אלקינו את אבלי ציון ואת אבלי ירושלים ואת העיר האבלה החרבה ההרוסה ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה, לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעי מעי על הרוגיהם, ולישראל עמך נתת נחלה ולזרע ישורון ירושה הורשת. נערה ה' אלקינו מעפרה והקיצה מארץ דוויה. נטה אליה כנהר שלום וכנחל שוטף כבוד גויים. כי אתה ה' באש הצתה ובאש אתה עתיד לבנותה. כאמור: ואני אהיה לה, נאם ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.
Comfort, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that is mourning, ruined, and destroyed: Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem lets forth its voice. My heart, my heart aches for their slain, My innards, my innards ache for their killed. And to your people Israel You have given it as a possession, and to the seed of Jeshurun as an inheritance. Shake it, O Lord God, from its dust, and awaken it from its sorrow, Spread upon it the honor of nations like a river of peace and a running stream, For you, O Lord, have ignited here with fire and You shall in the future rebuild her with fire, As is said: “And I shall be to her, says the Lord, As a wall of fire around, and I shall be for glory within her” [Zech 2:9]. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who comforts Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.

3. Version composed by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld z”l, published in the Authorized Kinot for the Ninth of Av of the United Synagogue of Great Britain (Jerusalem, 1970), with the sanction of the Chief Rabbi Emeritus, Sir Israel Brodie z”l:

נחם ה' אלקינו את אבלי ציון ואת אבלי ירושלים ואת העיר הקדושה המבכה על עמך ישראל אשר הוטל לחרב, ועל חסידי עליון שנהרגו בזדון, ועל גבורי ישראל שמסרו נפשם על קדושת השם. ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה, לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעי מעי על הרוגיהם, אבינו שבשמים, נקום את נקמת עירך אשר נתת לנו לנחלה, וקבץ את שארית ישראל מכל הארצות אשר הדחת אותם שם, וישבו בה, וחרם לא יהיה עוד, כאמור: פרזות תשב ירושלים מרב אדם ובהמה בתוכה. ואני אהיה לה, נאם ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.
Comfort, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the holy city that is weeping for Your people Israel who were placed to the sword, and for the supreme saints who were brazenly killed. and for the mighty ones of Israel, who gave their lives for the Sanctification of the Name. Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem lets forth its voice. My heart, my heart aches for their slain, My innards, my innards ache for their slain. O Father in Heaven, avenge Your city that You have given us as an inheritance, And gather the remnants of Israel from all the lands where You have dispersed them, That they may dwell there, and shall no longer be as if under the ban. As is said: “Jerusalem shall be inhabited as an open city, for the many people and animals therein. And I shall be to her, says the Lord, As a wall of fire around, and I shall be for glory within her” [Zech 2:8-9]. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who comforts Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.

4. Text composed by Yosef Ben-Brit, an inhabitant of Moshav Hibbat-Zion. This text is interesting as the only one, to the best of my knowledge, composed by an ordinary Jew, who was neither a prominent scholar nor rabbi. Ben-Brit, a Holocaust survivor who fought in Israel’s War of Liberation and other wars, up to and including 1967, felt upon witnessing the new situation of Jerusalem that he could no longer honestly recite certain phrases in the traditional version of Nahem. His text was presented in an article entitled “Tefillat Nahem: A Heartfelt Expression or out of Routine?” [Hebrew], Amudim 36/10 [510] (Tammuz 5748 [July 1988]), 408-411, addressed in the form of a question to the rabbis. He received positive responses from the late Rabbis Shaul Yisraeli and Shlomo Min ha-Har, ztz”l, as well as—may they enjoy long lives—from Rabbis Abraham Shapira, She’ar-Yashuv Hacohen, and David Shelush. Rabbi Yehudah Zoldan took some exception to his approach. The most striking features of his text were the reference to the continued desolation of the Temple Mount as opposed to that of the city as a whole, and the addition of a series of more joyful verses, mostly from Psalm 147:

נחם ה' אלוקינו את אבלי ציון וירושלים, ואת הר הבית האבל מאין מקדש ומאין תפילה יהודית עליו. לכן ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה. לבי לבי על חלליה, מעי מעי על הרוגיה. נטה אליה כנהר שלום וכנחל שוטף כבוד גויים. כי אתה ה' באש הצתה ובאש אתה עתיד לבנותה, כאמור: ואני אהיה לה, נאום ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. הללויה כי טוב זמרה לאלקינו, כי נעים נאוה תהילה. בונה ירושלים ה', נדחי ישראל יקבץ. הרופא לשבורי לב ומחבש לעצבותם. שבחי ירושלים את ה', הללי אלוקיך ציון. כי חזק בריחי שעריך ברך בניך בקרבך ה' הושיעה המלך יעננו ביום קראנו ברוך אתה ה', מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים
Comfort, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount that is in mourning without a Temple and without Jewish prayer upon it. Therefore Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem lets forth its voice: My heart, my heart aches for their slain, My innards, my innards ache for their slain. Spread upon it the honor of nations like a river of peace and a flowing stream, For you, O Lord, have ignited her with fire and You shall in the future rebuild her with fire, As is said: “And I shall be to her, says the Lord, as a wall of fire around, and I shall be for glory within her” [Zech 2:9]. Hallelujah! For it is good to sing praise to our God; For He is gracious, and a song of praise is seemly; The Lord builds up Jerusalem, He gathers the outcast of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted, And binds up their wounds. Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion! For He strengthens the bars of your gates, He blesses your sons within you [Ps 147:1-3, 12-13]. The Lord shall save us, The King who answers us when we call [Ps 20:9]. Blessed art You, O Lord, who comforts Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.

5. Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, the late Sephardic Rabbi of Tel-Aviv, addressed the issue of Nahem in his series of responsa, Aseh lekha Rav: vol. I (Tel Aviv, 1976), §14, pp. 46-48; vol. II (1978), §§36-39, pp. 139-147 ; vol. VII (1988), §35, p. 358; and in an article in Ha-Tzofeh, Tisha b’Av 5753 (27 July 1993), p. 4. Essentially, he left the traditional text largely as is, but changed two references to Jerusalem as being in mourning from present to past tense. For that reason, I have not supplied a separate translation:

נחם ה' אלקינו את אבלי ציון ואת אבלי ירושלים ואת העיר שהיתה האבלה, החרבה, הבזויה והשוממה, האבלה מבלי בניה, החריבה ממעונותיה, הבזויה מכבודה, והשוממה מאין יושב. והיא ישבה וראשה חפוי כאשה עקרה שלא ילדה. ויבלעוה לגיונות, וירשוה עובדי זרים ויטילו את עמך י'ראל לחרב, ויהרגו בזדון חסידי עליון. על כן ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה, לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעי מעי על חלליהם, כי אתה ה' באש הצתה, ובאש אתה עתיד לבנותה. כאמור: ואני אהיה לה, נאם ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.

6. Siddur Sim Shalom—the American Conservative Movement:

נחם ה' אלקינו את אבלי ציון ואת אבלי ירושלים ואת העיר שחרבה היתה, ואבלה מבלי בניה, על עמך ישראל שהוטלה לחרב, ועל בניה אשר מסרו נפשם עליה. ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה, לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעי מעי על חלליהם, רחם ה' אלקינו ברחמיך הרבים עלינו ועל ירושלים עירך, הנבנית מחרבנה ומושבת משוממותה. יהי רצון מלפניך, משמח ציון בבניה, שישמחו את ירושלים כל אוהביה, וישישו אתה כל המתאבלים עליה. ישמעו בערי יהודה ובחוצות ירושלים קול ששון וקול שמחה, קול חתן וקול כלה, תן שלום לעירך אשר פדית והגן עליה, כאמור: ואני אהיה לה, נאם ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.
Comfort, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that was in ruins, and in mourning, bereft of her sons, and Your people Israel who had been put to the sword, and her sons who gave their lives for her. Therefore Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem lets forth its voice: My heart, my heart aches for their slain, My innards, my innards ache for their slain. Have compassion, O Lord God, with Your great mercy, On us and on Jerusalem Your city, Which has been rebuilt from its ruins and resettled from its desolation. May it be Your will, You who causes Zion to rejoice in her sons, That all who love Jerusalem may rejoice with her, And all those that mourn with her shall be glad with her [after Isa 66:10]. And may there be heard in the cities of Judah and in the courtyards of Jerusalem, The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, The voice of bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, Grant peace to your city which you have redeemed, and protect her, As is said: “And I shall be to her, says the Lord, as a wall of fire around, and I shall be for glory within her” [Zech 2:9]. Blessed art You, O Lord, who comforts Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.

Tisha b'Av (Rambam)

Fasting and Mourning

From Hilkot Ta'anit 5.6 Rambam turns to the laws of Tisha b’Av and the period of mourning that immediately precedes it. Tisha b’Av is more rigorous fast than the others: it lasts a full twenty-four hours (unlike the others that are from dawn to nightfall); it includes restrictions other than eating, like Yom Kippur—the so-called five “afflictions”: no washing, no wearing shoes, no sexual relations, etc.; and there are special rules governing the pre-fast meal (no meat or wine, only one cooked dish), unless it falls on Shabbat. Rambam then continues:

9. Such is the measure of all the people, who are unable to stand too much. But the pious men of old, such was their way: on the Eve of Tisha b’Av they would bring to the person, [who is eating] by himself, dry bread and salt, and he would soak it in water, sitting between the oven and the stove [i.e., in a corner of the kitchen], and he drinks with it a beaker of water, with anxiety and desolation and weeping, like one whose dead lies before him. Thus is it fitting for Sages to do, or close to it. And I, in my life never ate any cooked dish on the eve of Tisha b’Av, even one of lentils, unless it was on Shabbat.

11. Sages do not give one another words of greeting on Tisha b’Av, but they sit sorrowfully and sighing, like mourners. And if an ignorant person greets them, they answer him quietly and with a weighty demeanor…. And some of the Sages were accustomed not to don tefillin on the head on this day.

Rav Soloveitchik often commented that the essence of Tisha b’Av is one of mourning—a quality diametrically opposed to teshuvah. Whereas the latter is concerned with drawing closer to God, repairing the sense of rupture with God caused by our own misdeeds, the former represents, so to speak, a psychologically earlier stage, in which all that is felt is the pain of loss, and the sense of rift and separation from the Almighty (see HY I: Tisha b’Av). Certainly, these passages give us a vivid, dramatic picture of the mournful quality of the day, with people eating their meal in a corner of the house in an undignified manner, perhaps sitting on the floor, weeping, sighing, moaning, and barely speaking to one another.

However, there are at least two surprising features here that deserve comment. First, that the spiritual mood of the day, the intensely emotional character of the mourning, the sense of anxiety and desolation, is focused not on the fast itself, but on the final meal preceding it. Second, the two-tiered system in these halakhot. In §§6-8 we are told the normative requirements of the halakhah, what ordinary people are supposed to do: i.e., fasting, the five inuyim, not to eat meat or drink wine, only one cooked dish, etc. But from §§9-11 we are given another, different, stronger and more intense set of norms, one giving fuller expression to the emotive experience of mourning, intended specifically for the Sages. This is unusual, and begs for interpretation.

First, regarding the seudat mafseket, the final meal eaten on Erev Tisha b’Av: perhaps this is the focus for the emotional aspect because how one eats, specifically, is most expressive of mourning. There is a certain parallel to the seudat havra’ah of those mourning the dead—that is, the first meal eaten upon returning from the cemetery. Since Tisha b’Av itself is a fast day, there is so to speak no option remaining but to make the meal eaten before it starts into one of mourning.

In addition, I find an interesting parallel between the meal of Erev Tisha b’Av and the Confession recited before Yom Kippur starts, which is even referred to in the sources as Vidui Erev Yom Kippur (see Yoma 87b, quoting Tosefta Yoma 4.13; albeit Rambam in Teshuvah 2.7 does not use this term, a question deserving of discussion). In both cases, one might say that the central motif of the day already begins on its eve, and is carried over to the entire day; hence, we are meant to understand from Rambam’s description of the pre-fast meal how one ought to act and feel throughout the day itself.

As for the other question: Why does Rambam focus here specifically upon the Sages, as those charged with living and acting out Tisha b’Av to the fullest? Perhaps because the type of mourning mentioned here is a purely inner experience, what the Rav used to call kiyyum shebelav, a mitzvah “fulfilled within ones’ heart.” Unlike ordinary mourning for the dead, Tisha b’Av is aveilut yeshanah, an “old mourning”—one based entirely upon a process of remembering, of imagination, of identification with the Jewish historical past. Since there is no direct, personal experience to call upon, it requires great inner reflective powers; hence, the Sages, who live on a more spiritual plane and are in the habit of cultivating greater in-depth insight, may experience it more fully. Or perhaps hakham is used here in the sense in which it is used in Hilkhot Deot—namely, as the ideal type, as the one who behaves as a Jew should. Or, as I suggested in a mini-talk I gave unexpectedly in New York: perhaps, in order to experience Tisha b’Av properly, one needs to invoke one’s own “inner hakham,” one’s “inner Sage,” to expand one’s own horizons of space and time.

Tisha b'Av (Psalms)

Psalm 137: “By the Rivers of Babylon…”

After the graphic descriptions of mayhem and violence, of destruction of both precious sanctuary and human lives, found in Psalms 74 and 79, which we discussed in the last two weeks, we turn, on Shabbat Hazon, to Psalm 137, Al Naharot Bavel—“By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept.” This is the classic psalm of Tisha b’Av, and of mourning for the Temple generally in Judaism. Some people recite this psalm prior to Birkat Hamazon on weekdays, parallel to the festive song of the Return to Zion sung on Shabbat and festival days; thus, the perpetual tension between Exile and Redemption is so-to-speak built into the mealtime liturgy. It also enjoys a prominent place at the beginning of Tikkun Hatzot, the midnight lamentation for Zion recited by the pious. Analogous to the model of responses to individual death, discussed a few weeks ago, one might say that, vis-à-vis those other psalms, there is a turn here from anger and protest to a quieter mode, one of sadness and mourning. Thus, we have here, if not acceptance, at least a certain mood of reconciliation and resignation to the reality of what has happened.

The location of this psalm within the Psalter is interesting. It is located in the Fifth Book, which consists largely of festive psalms, praising and exalting God’s great deeds and might, in tones that may well have been used in the Temple worship (but see the excursus below): specifically, it follows immediately upon the fifteen Shirei ha-Maalot, “Songs of Ascent,” a group of short psalms which seem to have been intended as pilgrimage psalms; and Pss 135-136, the festive pair described by the Talmud as “the Great Hallel” (see on these HY VI: Emor, Metzora-Pesah, respectively). Moreover, Psalms 134 and 135, which precede this closely, both end with words of blessing of/by the Lord from Zion.) As if to say: we have read / sung / prayed these psalms of praise to God in the sacred precincts of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where they filled us with a sense of elevated, spiritual joy and wholeness. But all that is no more. Now we are sitting in Babylonia, and all we can do is weep.

In this light, it is hardly surprising that the first part of the psalm should focus upon the act of singing: “On the willow trees there, we hung up our harps… How can we sing the songs of the Lord upon a strange land?!” (vv. 2, 4). As if to say: these instruments were once used to express our joy and thanks to God, our sheer exuberance in living in this world that God created, our sense of wholeness in having a beautiful land which was our home, with a sanctuary in its center where we could worship Him. But now we cannot do so. Jerusalem and the Temple were the locus of the Shekhinah, God’s Indwelling or Presence. The act of song, certainly of sacred music, is not unrelated to place, but was somehow intimately linked to Zion: to the sense of at-home-ness, of harmony with the world, symbolized by the Land and the Temple. (It is interesting that some secular or semi-secular Zionists see the Temple Mount as a national site, and not only as a religious one; thus, the “Temple Faithful” Movement started from a nationalist ideology.) “How can we sing… upon a strange land!” Hence, we hang our harps on the trees, as useless objects.

Song = Joy, is an elementary, self-evident equation, in most if not all human cultures. Music—and its bodily counterpart, the dance—is a part of celebration most everywhere, especially at weddings. The negative counterpart, at least in Judaism, is that refraining from enjoying music is a basic custom during periods of mourning. (Exactly how strictly and extensively this applies: viz. listening to radio or recorded music during the 12 months of mourning for a parent; whether going to the concert hall, which has a different type of atmosphere, as opposed to music as part of a festive celebration, is permitted; the case of professional musicians; etc.—are practical halakhic issues, which are not our concern here; we are interested in here with underlying concepts and associations.)

The captors taunt them by asking them to “sing us the songs of Zion.” Song is something that swells up spontaneously from a sense of joy within the heart, of a person or of a community, or as part of the rituals of a culture. Being forced to sing the same songs that one has sung in contexts of joy and love, by enemies, by people who hold power over one, is an act of cruelty, of dominance. It is a particularly sadistic form of mockery, of psychological torture, precisely because of its subtlety. Interestingly, the scene portrayed here in ancient Babylonia was one that was tragically repeated at various junctures in Jewish history: in medieval Europe, Jews were forced to sing the Friday night table song, “Mah Yafit u-mah na’amt” to entertain drunken pogromists—hence the phrase, “a Mah Yafit Jew,” for one lacking in self-respect. Similarly, the Nazis forced Jewish musicians to play in makeshift bands at the infamous selections when Jews were removed from the trains at Auschwitz and sent to either death or to slave labor.

The word tolalenu in verse 3, translated “our tormenters,” is interesting. It seems to come from the root hll, an ambivalent root which can mean either “to praise” or “to mock,” depending upon the context. Due to this ambiguity, Rav Soloveitchik had the unusual custom of omitting the word vayithalal in the Kaddish, as it could be constructed as “to mock / blaspheme [God]” rather than to praise Him.

The second part of the psalm, vv. 5-6, is a solemn oath never to forget Jerusalem. The power of this oath is reinforced by it being linked, not to the usual self-imposed monetary penalty (usually, to bring an animal sacrifice to the Temple), but by cursing crucial organs of one’s body—one’s hand, or one’s mouth—if one dare to forget.

The third part of the psalm , vv. 7-9, is a curse, a prayer for vengeance and Divine retribution against the enemies who brought about all these disasters—in this respect similar to the two psalms previously studied (see, e.g., Pss 74:10-11, 18-19, 21-22; 79:6-7, 12). Note that the curse is invoked against both Edom and Babylon. Amos Hakham has suggested that this are neither synonyms of one another; nor, in terms of the original context of the psalm, can this be read as an allusion to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman Empire, which is poetically known as Edom—even though on a midrashic level, such a post facto and anachronistic reading is perfectly legitimate. Rather, he suggests, the psalmist is cursing both the perpetuators of the destruction of Zion, Babylon, and the “neutral” bystanders, the neighboring nation of Edom, who stood by and did nothing, and even egged them on (“… who said, ‘Raze it! Overturn it! Expose its very foundations!”; v. 7)—and are thus equally culpable.

The final verse is very hard to read, in the harshness and cruelty expressed therein. The author extends his curse to the infant children of the enemy, wishing them the most violent imaginable death —“Blessed is he who will seize your infants and smash them against the rock!” Hakham suggests that the abrupt end of the psalm at this point is because our author is shocked at himself. One might have expected it to have been rounded out by a prayer for restoration or with general words of praise to God, such as found in 74:23 or 79:13. But no: he is so shocked at the power of his own feelings, at the vehemence of his own hatred and venom; at the bloodthirsty cruelty which he himself, in a calmer moment, would have found repulsive, so he finds no words with which to even continue.

Excursus: Our old friend Michael Goulder (see above, HY VI: Beha’alotkha), in the fourth volume of his series of Studies in the Psalter, entitled The Psalms of the Retyrn: (Book V, Psalms 107-150) (JSOTS 258; Sheffield, 1998), notes the symmetrical structure of Book Five: the Songs of Ascent (Pss 120-134) in the middle, with two parallel groups before and after (he bends his data a bit so as to include Pss 105-106 within this rubric, as do many other Bible scholars), as follows: psalms recounting Israel’s history, beginning with the word Hodu or Hallu (Pss 105-106; 135-136); the return from exile (Pss 107, 137, interpreting our psalm as depicting the Exile in retrospect); psalms and prayers of David (Pss 108-110; 138-145); alphabetic psalms (Pss 111-112; 145); and two Hallel groupings, containing the key phrase “Hallelujah” (Pss 113-118; 146-150). Note that the “super-giant” Psalm 119, in praise of Torah, is treated as sui generis and outside of this rubric. An intriguing approach, with a certain plausibility.

* * * * *

A concluding theological comment: The Rav often spoke of Tisha b’Av as a day when it is permitted to ask the hard questions about God’s ways: “Why?” Now, if we say that man is made in God’s image, then the violence, the acts of cruelty, that immediately precipitated the great disasters of Jewish history are not merely expressions of human evil. If they were, then it might be possible, in our discussions of Providence or theodicy, to, if not “dismiss” them, at least see them mitigated as a by-product of free will: after all, the logic of human freedom means that man can choose evil. Even “radical evil”—like that of the Nazis, or the distorted “religious” ideology of Jihadism which so concerns the world today, which murders innocents in the name of a religious ideal—is a by-product of free will. If man were denied the freedom to do evil, his good deeds, his acts of kindness, would also not be freely chosen, and hence could not be meaningful, morally or religiously.

But I’d like to suggest an additional insight. If man is created betzelem elohim, in the “Divine image,” than the human propensity for evil is itself but the negative side of God’s own face! But how can we accept that God has such an aspect?! This, I would suggest, is the deeper dilemma that we confront on Tisha b’Av.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Devarim (Torah)

Getting a Handle on the Parshah

And so we begin the last of the five Books. At first glance, the Book of Deuteronomy seems more straightforward and in a sense simpler than the other books; yet there are in fact many baffling aspects to it. Sefer Devarim is essentially different from the other books: it is neither narrative, like Genesis, the first 24 chapters of Exodus, and much of Numbers; nor systematic presentation of a series of laws in different areas, one after another, like Leviticus. Essentially, it is a prime example of the art of rhetoric: Moses’ final address to the people before his death.

Like many of my contemporaries, I grew up with the Hertz Humash, which divides the major part of this book into three sections, three great farewell speeches of Moshe Rabbenu: a historical review (1-4:40); exhortation to the observance of the covenant and its mitzvot, with the deriving of didactic lessons from the people’s history (5-11); and a codex of laws, containing both a capsule summary of those laws already given, and a considerable number and variety of new laws (12-26). The last eight chapters of the book contain various covenantal ceremonies and admonitions, the Song of Moses, and final words and deeds up to and concluding in Moses’ death. Today, I would question this facile classification, at least as a hard and fast division into three separate speeches. There is more of a sense of one thing flowing naturally from another: the history in the opening chapters and intermittently later is not presented as an end in itself, but as historiography, the writing of history with an implied interpretation, geared towards a specific purpose; the laws, in turn, follow naturally as the focus of the general exhortation that precedes it.

In any event, the question which most interests me (as in Numbers, but in a different way) is: Why is this book presented as it is? What are the salient themes? What is the logic of the internal order? In Vaethanan and Ekev, our task will be to try to get some handle on its sonorous, poetic rhetoric. But in Parashat Devarim itself, there is another basic question: following the introductory verses (which are themselves very interesting, giving a series of strange and previously unknown place names as the alleged locale for this farewell address; Rashi’s interpretation of this as shorthand for the locale of their sins is classic), the historical review begins with events immediately following the encampment at Horeb: “and God said to you… ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain” (1:6). If this is a historical review intended to serve a didactic purpose, why does it so conspicuously skip the two central events in the history of that generation—the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai? Instead, it plunges straight into a detailed recounting of the events in the desert emphasizing, on the negative side, the incident of the spies and, on the positive side of the balance sheet, the battle with Sihon and Og. It also goes into great detail about all sorts of folklore and ethnographic matters: the description of Og’s enormous iron bed, and where it can be seen (3:11); the respective names given to Mount Hermon by the Sidonites and Amorites (3:9); which nations lived in the land of the Ammonites before them, and who called them Rephaim and who called them Zamzumim (2:20); etc., etc. Only much later, in Chapter 4, and at greater length in the more didactic Chapters 5-11, does the Torah return to the central events of the Exodus and Sinai and, lehavdil, the great “fault-line” of the Sin of the Golden Calf.

The only answer that makes sense to me (and I haven’t seen this issue discussed anywhere) is that Moses began with what was closest at hand to his audience—the desert experience. We must remember that he was speaking to a new generation: its oldest members were still children or at most teenagers at the time of these great events; the majority of the adults had not yet even been born, and knew these cardinal events only as legends they had heard from their parents and elders. Thus, Moses must start with explaining how they came to be in the desert in the first place, why they are wandering, and specifically the sin of the Spies, which condemned their parents to wander in the desert for forty years. The “vindicating acts of the Lord” (tzidkot ha-Shem), visible in the victories over Sihon and Og, were closer at hand, somehow more easily comprehended, than the mysterious, supernatural events at Sinai, which to them was half legend. Only after this down to earth, almost mundane introduction, was Moses able to turn to the larger issues of meaning.

Some Reflections on Language

Some thoughts on the title of the book, Devarim, “words.” The Sefat Emet (Matot, 5651, s.v. Amru Haza’l) discusses the difference between Moses and the other prophets in terms of the terms used to introduce their words. Whereas the later prophets use the phrase “Koh amar Ha-Shem” (“thus says the Lord”), Moses says “Zeh hadavar asher tzivah…” (“this is the word which the Lord has commanded”). The author mentioned says that this corresponds to the difference between Creation and Revelation; on a deeper level, “saying” is an external expression of will, whereas “word” or “speech” alludes to a more inward level, to the very essence of a thing.

This comment elicits reflections about contemporary conceptions of language. Much of 20th century philosophy is concerned with issues of semiotics, the meaning of language and speech; the so-called “post-modernism,” which has become very fashionable among intellectuals over the past decade, is largely concerned with the elusive nature of meaning, which is at the very heart of language. If I understand correctly what they are saying, the dominant conception is that language is almost infinitely malleable, flowing, subjective, constantly open to interpretation. Words are seen as conventions, symbols, whose meaning is determined not only by the author or speaker, but by each reader or listener in his own subjective hearing, reacting and “intertextual” associations with to it.

This is a far cry from the traditional Judaic understanding, in which the word is the carrier, if not the very embodiment, of the Divine Will. The word itself carries power and, as Sefat Emet puts it, is the very inner essence of the thing. This is also the reason, halakhically, for the stringent rules surrounding the utterance the divine name in vain, as well as of the power attached to words in the laws of Nedarim and Shevuot—vows and oaths. Is the lightness with which modern linguistic philosophy takes words as such merely a byproduct of secularization, or does it bode ill for the maintenance of a modicum of seriousness and dignity in our culture?

Devarim - Shabbat Hazon (Haftarot)

The Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha b’Av is known as Shabbat Hazon, “the Sabbath of Vision,” for the opening words of its haftarah, Isaiah 1:1-27. This haftarah, customarily read in the elegiac, melancholy melody of Lamentations, begins in a manner somewhat similar to Jeremiah 2: God’s bitterness at His children’s abandonment of Him—“I have raised children, and they have rebelled against me,” and the foolishness they betray in doing so—”even the ox knows its master and the ass its trough, but my people know Me not” (vv. 2-3).

But this haftarah has two other striking features. One: it is filled with images of sickness and desolation (vv. 5-9): “the entire head is sick, the whole heart faint… There is nothing sound, from head to foot… it is filled with bruises and sores and open wounds… Your land lies desolate… consumed by strangers.” It is as if the punishment that God will visit upon them for their sin is already in the process of being carried out, is depicted in vivid, present tense: “The daughter of Zion is left like a booth in the vineyard, like a hut in a vegetable patch.”

Second, this chapter uses harsher language of moral criticism: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen, O people of Gomorrah” (Compare the opening of Jer 2:1, where for all their sins they are still addressed as “house of Israel”). His strongest words are saved for condemnation of pious hypocrisy. He rejects their preoccupation with sacrifices or, more precisely, the relevance or validity of bringing sacrifices coupled with unrighteousness. “Who asked you to trample My courtyards… I cannot abide iniquity and solemn assembly… I hate your new moons and sabbaths… when you stretch forth your hands I shall hide my eyes” (vv. 12-15).

What he critiques here is the kind of thinking that sees the essence of religion in pomp and ceremony, in solemn ritual gatherings and external gestures of piety. Yet at the same time “your hands are filled with blood”; the people and their leaders neglect the most elementary principles of justice, of ordinary human decency and concern for ones fellowman, oppress the orphan and widow.

The tendency to become preoccupied with rituals and formalities is a persistent problem in human psychology at all times and all cultures—in religion or, for that matter, in any great ideal. It is perhaps a particular problem in Judaism because of the highly detailed nature of the halakhah: but in other systems, which may seemingly give greater emphasis to larger principles, the lofty ideals may waft off on the hot air of preacher’s rhetoric without every becoming anchored in concrete realty! For that reason, in almost all times and places, prophets are lonely and frustrated people, wrestling their entire lives with the stubbornness of the human heart—of others and their own.

In our own country, there are prominent rabbis whose compassion seems most touched when it comes to “religious” criminals, using their influence to further pleas of clemency those who have killed Arabs in cold blood. They are passionate advocates for such “penitents” as Ami Popper, the young man who massacred half-a-dozen Arabs who were sitting by a roadside waiting to go to work, became “religious,” began wearing a long caftan and grew a beard and payot—but never expressed any regret for his actions. And he finds support, as I said, among Rabbinic leaders & religious MK’s. What would Isaiah say about this?

But unlike Jeremiah, who in Chapter 2 essentially describes the unfaithful state of the people, in this chapter of Isaiah there is always the possibility of repentance, of change. Thus vv. 18-20: Let us reason together: if your sins are like scarlet or crimson, they can yet be as white as snow or clean linen, if only you wish it and choose to do so—but otherwise the sword will destroy you.

At this point there appears the key sentence: “How has the faithful city become like a harlot” (v. 21). She who was formerly filled with justice, a model of faithfulness and upright behavior, is now murderous and dishonest; the silver has become dross, the fine wine diluted. Hence, the true purpose of the forthcoming disaster is, not destruction for the sake of destruction, but to ”smelt” you like fine metal (vv. 26-27). Then “Zion will be redeemed with justice, and those who repent with righteousness.”

Unlike the case in Jeremiah, this passage was not uttered close to destruction; not in a historical situation where the threat of destruction was visible on the political horizon, but a prophecy for future, anchored in the firm belief in the operation of Divine justice in the world. Or perhaps, if the message was uttered after the Assyrian invasion of 721 BCE, in wake of the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel, the implied message was: What happened to them may happen to Judah as well.

Shabbat Hazon: The Sabbath of Vision

The haftarah for the Shabbat preceding Tisha b’Av is the well known opening chapter of Isaiah, beginning with the words Hazon Yesahayahu—“the vision of Isaiah son of Amoz.” I wish to leave aside the contents of this chapter—a powerful admonition against the faithlessness of the Jewish people and exhortation to repentance, and hence a suitable reading for the Shabbat preceding the anniversary of a series of destructions and catastrophes—and focus on the meaning of the opening word, Hazon—“vision.”

There is a certain ongoing tension in Judaism between seeing and hearing. Avivah Zornberg notes in her book on Exodus that, already in the account of the Sinai Revelation, the Torah swings back and forth between the two verbs, “to see” and “to hear.”

Twice, God mentions that which the people have seen: “You have seen what I did in Egypt…. that I spoke with you from the heavens” (Exod 19:4; 20:19), but immediately thereafter says “If you will hearken to My voice” (19:5), or “that the people may listen when I speak with them” (v. 9). There is even a “… mysterious reference to ‘seeing the Voices’ (20:15). And yet, forty years later, Moses will tell his people… ‘The sound of words you hear, but no image do you see—nothing but a voice’ (Deut 4:12). “

Further on, she comments how, on the one hand, the epiphany at Sinai leaves the people with “self-consciousness of an unmediated, personal relation with God” but, on the other hand:

[T]he Revelation contained no visual representation of God. The fire, intense darkness, and other visual experiences are not denied.… [But] the true form of their perception: you heard, you did not see. … in traditional readings, the most direct and transparent moment of Revelation is shot through, made iridescent, by interpretation. This raises questions about the meanings of seeing and hearing, about the relative status of mystical experience and of the world-making activity of the mind..

Her sub-chapter heading summarizes the polarity neatly: “Seeing and Hearing: Mystical Experience and Verbal Interpretation.” Vision is closely related to mystical experience; the mystic seeks a concrete vision of the Godhead, which sooner or later runs up against the stern rule, “No man shall see me and live.” By contrast, speech, the word, is more amenable to conveying, not only single images, but complex sequences of ideas and concepts, and thereby shaping behavior, or even creating an entire world-view. It is, somehow, a more sober kind of sense (see my discussion of the prohibition of imagery and its integral relation to idolatry, in HY I: Yitro).

The phenomenon of prophecy, which is somehow the highest level of religious experience, of closeness to God, is nevertheless related to vision, to sight. In the earliest days of the people, the very first prophet, Samuel, is described as haro’eh, the “seer” or “visionary” (1 Sam 9:9). Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah see elaborate visions, which they describe; Jeremiah and Amos, along with others, couch several of their prophecies in visual terms. But tradition relates that Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi, at the dawn of the Second Temple, were the last prophets; after them, there will be no more prophecy until the time of the Final Redemption. Why was such an important religious institution as prophecy in fact abolished in Israel?

There seems to be a certain distaste, even mistrust, of charismatic or ecstatic forms of experience. Prophecy, as abundantly illustrated by many of the things described in Nevi’im, involved certain psychologically abnormal and even bizarre kinds of behavior, a departure from the normal round of human activity. At times, there seems to be a kind of instinctive repugnance or repulsion from such things; a certain sobriety, a kind of humanism or, better, human-focused attitude within the Judaic religious world-view. It is as if they didn’t know what to do with these “crazy” people who took seriously the wish to know God, not only in a metaphorical sense, or through the reflection of His actions within the world, but in a direct, unmediated sense. This is perhaps coupled with an element of fear—a reluctance to draw too close to the mysterium tremendum, to the confrontation with God.

In Rabbinic teaching we encounter the phrase Hakham adif mi-navi—“The sage is preferable [or: superior] to the prophet.” That is, the learned sage, one who teaches Torah as a way of life based upon a combination of received tradition and his own powers of wisdom and reasoning, is preferable as a religious leader to a prophet, to one who sees himself as a direct conduit from God. Here, again, Zornberg’s formulation about “world-making activity of the mind” is most apt. All this, again, relates to the whole tension between the charismatic, ecstatic, mystical aspects vs. the sober, rational element in Judaism.

Interestingly, Moses himself embodies both aspects: he is Avi ha-Nevi’im, “the Father of the Prophets” (especially in Maimonides, who repeatedly describes the Torah as “nevuato shel Moshe Rabbenu, “the prophecy of Moses our Teacher”; cf. HY I: Shavuot) and Moshe Rabbenu—“Moses our Teacher”: that is, Moses as the first rabbi, the judge, legislator, transmitter and interpreter of the tradition.

David Hartman has described the replacement of prophecy by human authority and human reason as the essential difference between Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism. From then on, the relationship of Jews to God is mediated through the vast literature of Oral Torah, and the process of understanding, interpretation, and debate that characterize the Talmud. There is a sense in which the Torah is very imminent, within human hands. Emblematic here is the famous story of the “oven of Akhnai” (Bava Metzia 59b), in which the rabbis reject a series of supernatural miracles invoked by Rabbi Eliezer to prove his point, stating categorically: “It is not in heaven.”

A second problem with prophecy, in the post-revelation reality of the post-biblical age, may be the feeling that it opens the door to religious anarchy. After all, how is one to know whether a prophet is “real” or not? Whether he carries the authentic word of God, or is speaking from his own imagination. The Torah itself already worries about this problem, presenting various laws concerning the false prophet and the true prophet (Deut 13:2-6; 18:15-22). Likewise, in some of the historical books we find accounts of the conflicts between authentic prophets and “lying prophets”—usually, those who preach complacency and cater to royal misdeeds (see. e.g., the confrontation between Ahab’s four hundred prophets and Michaiah ben Yimlah in 1 Kings 22). Interestingly, one of the criticisms brought against Jesus by the Rabbis, as reported in the NT, is that he spoke “in his own name”—that is, he assumed the prerogative of prophecy, even though it had long since passed from the world.

“Neither the kings of the earth nor the inhabitants of the world could believe that a foe or enemy would enter into the gates of Jerusalem” (Lamentations 4:12) There is much more to be said on this subject, which is both deep and broad, but the approaching onset of the fast forces me to stop. At this point, the reader is doubtless asking: what has all this to do with Tisha b’Av?

Another aspect of the question, “Why was prophecy abolished?” involves a certain paradox. Notwithstanding the above arguments about charisma vs. sober, rational authority and “the world-making activity of the mind”: if the primary function of prophecy is to chastise the people, to make them see clearly the error of their ways, to bring them to a clear, unequivocal knowledge of God’s will in a given situation, why deny the people this much-needed and powerful goad to repentance? The traditional answer is that prophecy is dependent upon a high spiritual level, upon the Divine Presence dwelling in Israel. Yet is it not precisely in times of lowness, of distance from the Creator, of doubt and uncertainty, that prophecy is most needed?

In a time of ongoing crisis and fear, such as the one we have been experiencing these two years, it seems that we desperately need a prophet to call the people to awaken and to show them the path on which they must go, to turn them away from the way that will lead to catastrophe and destruction. At times it seems that our streets are filled with false prophets who, like those of olden times, say “the altar of the Lord, the altar of the Lord.” Or I am reminded, perhaps strangely, of William B. Yeats words in “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Yet perhaps on balance it is best that there are no true prophets. If there were, their fate would no doubt be like that of Jeremiah when he was thrust into the pit, or of Zechariah ben Yehoiada, whose blood, we are told, still cries out to be avenged (see Gittin 57a). It would be impossible to distinguish true from false, with all the competing claims; perhaps, then, it is best that those blessed with clear sight assume the role of “the admonisher in the gate,” of one who speaks words of rebuke on the basis of the inherent truth in their words, rooted in the teaching of the Torah, and human reason, ethical conscience and common sense. He who has ears will hear.

Devarim (Midrash)

Translation: An Exclusive or Inclusive Torah?

This past week’s Torah portion, the first one in the final book of the Torah, Devarim, which gives Moses’ valedictory address, opens with a subject close to my own professional concerns: translation. The halakhah which opens this midrash—a format used in a great many of the midrashim in this book—deals with whether or not the Torah may be translated into other languages. Deuteronomy Rabbah 1.1:

“These are the words…” [Deut 1:1]. Halakhah: Is a Jewish person allowed to write a Torah scroll in any language? Thus taught our Sages: There is no difference between scrolls, [on the one hand,] and tefillin and mezuzot, save that scrolls may be written in any language. Rabban Gamaliel said: Even regarding scrolls they only permitted them to be written in Greek.

What is the rationale of Rabban Gamaliel, who says that one is permitted to write a Torah scroll [only] in Greek? Thus taught our Rabbis: It is written, “May God enlarge [or: concur beauty upon] Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem” [Gen 9:27]. That the words of Shem be said in the language of Japheth. Hence they are permitted to be written in the Greek language.

Japheth (or Yefet) is seen as the progenitor of the Hellenic peoples. The genealogical table of the seventy nations descended from the three sons of Noah (Genesis 10), serves as a kind of archetypal anthropology of the entire ancient world: the descendants of Japheth, the Mediterranean island peoples; the Hamites—Egypt and Africa, Mesopotamia, and Canaan, the indigenous inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael; and the Semites—the nations north of Canaan, such as Assyria, as well as the nomadic tribes of the Arabian peninsula.

The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek during the third century BCE, the “Septuagint” (so called for the seventy sages charged with its translation), evoked all of the ambivalence of the Rabbis about relations with other cultures. On the one hand, the apocryphal Letter of Aristeas portrays this project in extremely favorable terms, showing it as being greeted with great enthusiasm by the Jewish community of Alexandria. On the other hand, several other, more ”orthodox” Jewish sources, paint it in more somber tones. Megillat Ta’anit lists the 8th day of Tevet among the fast days because “on that day the Torah was written in Greek by Ptolemy the king, and darkness entered the word for three days.” A similar idea is expressed in the seliha poem recited on the fast day of the 10th of Tevet, “Azkerah Matzok.” Perhaps more to the point, Masekhet Sofrim 1.7-8 (=Masekhet Sefer Torah 1.8-9) states: “that day was as hard for Israel as the day they made the golden calf… because it was impossible to translate it adequately.” These sources, as well as the Talmud in Megillah 9a-b, list thirteen different places where the sages drafted by Ptolemy for this task found it necessary to deliberately alter the sense of the original Hebrew in their translation, so as to avoid theological or other difficulties in certain passages that might be embarrassing in the eyes of “outsiders.”

Having worked in this field for over twenty years, I can testify that translation is never a simple matter, certainly as soon as leaves the realm of strictly utilitarian or functional texts and turns to the areas of belles-lettres and the arts, philosophy and thought. Every language embodies the cultural milieu and “mentalité” of those who speak the language, which are largely lost in the process of transmission to other linguistic vessels. “Traditore tradutore,” as the Italians say: “to translate is to betray.” All the more so when one is dealing with the Torah, a sacred text embodying Devar HaShem, the word of God, as well as a legal source for everyday living, whose misconstruction can lead to error or sin.

What was at issue here? Was the translation intended for acculturated Diaspora Jews, in which case the criticism might also be: Why don’t they learn Hebrew? Should teachers of Torah coddle such Jews? Or, expectations of mass learning of Hebrew being unrealistic, is there no alternative to translation so as to reach Diaspora Jews where they are? A familiar problem: Diaspora Hebraists seem today like a small, dying breed; ironically, we live in an age when, notwithstanding the existence of a sovereign Hebrew-speaking Jewish state, fewer Jews in Diaspora know Hebrew than did 100 or even 50 years ago. Even in the strictly Orthodox communities abroad, more and more people seem to be studying Torah in English, as demonstrated by the success of Art Scroll and the like. Likewise, the lingua franca for gatherings of “Klal Yisrael” concern, even in Jerusalem, is more often than not English.

Or was the issue at stake that of the universality of Torah vs. particularism? After all, the translation was ordered by Ptolemy, a non-Jewish royal bibliophile. Is the Torah’s message meant to be shared with the world, made accessible to others, as a potential source of universal ethical and spiritual enlightenment, or is it to be kept as an intimate, exclusive, covenantal text? And why Greek? Did Rabban Gamaliel feel that there was somehow a special affinity between Judaism and Greek culture? Did he see them as somehow more civilized and refined, lacking in the brutish, violent characteristics of Hamitic and Semitic cultures? Did the fact that they cultivated art, poetry, drama, science, philosophy—in short, that they had an advanced literary culture concerned with world-embracing, subtle questions—somehow compensate for the pagan aspects of Hellenic culture, their worship of the body and various other forms of decadence? Was Rabban Gamaliel, as it were, a disciple (albeit 1800 years before the latter was born) of Matthew Arnold, who in his noted essay on “Hebraism and Hellenism” wrote: “The final aim of both Hellenism and Hebraism… is no doubt the same: man’s perfection or salvation… [But] they pursue this aim by very different courses. The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are; with Hebraism, is conduct and obedience… The Greek quarrel with the body and its desires is that they hinder right thinking; the Hebrew… that they hinder right acting… Spontaneity of conscience [as against] strictness of conscience…”

We shall leave these issues unresolved. The second half of the midrash turns to other matters:

The Holy One blessed be He said: See how precious is the language of the Torah, for it heals the tongue. From whence? From what is written, “A healing tongue [or: ‘that which heals the tongue’] is a tree of life” [Prov 15:4]. And the “tree of life” is none other than the Torah, as is said: “It is a tree of life to those that hold fast to it” [Prov 3:18]. And the language of the Torah unbinds the tongue.

And you should know that in the future the Holy One blessed be He shall raise up from the Garden of Eden praiseworthy trees. And what is their praise? That they heal the tongue, as is said, “And on the banks of the stream there shall grow on this side and that [all sorts of food-bearing trees]“ [Ezek 47:12]. And from whence do we know that it brings healing to the tongue, as is said, “and its fruit shall be for food and its leaves for healing” [ibid].

R. Yohanan and R. Joshua b. Levi [interpreted this]. One said: For terapyon [i.e., therapeia=healing]. And one said: Whoever is mute and chews from it, his tongue is healed. And he [should] immediately polish it with words of Torah, as is written, “on this side and that.” And the phrase “on this side and that” (mizeh umizeh) refers to none other than Torah, as is said: “on this side and on that they were written” [Exod 32:15].

R. Levi said: Why should we infer it from another place [i.e., that words of Torah heal the tongue]? Let us learn it from its own place. For Moses, until he merited Torah, it was written of him: “I am not a man of words” [Exod 4:10]. But once he merited to receive the Torah, his tongue was healed and he began to speak words, from that which we read here: ”These are the words that Moses spoke” [Deut 1:1].

This part of the midrash is concerned with words of Torah in a more general sense, taking off from the title verse of the book, that speaks of “the words.” The Torah is depicted as having special healing power for the mute and silent or for those, like Moses, who were “tongue tied”—i.e., spoke awkwardly and with great difficulty. The scene from Ezekiel, forming part of his eschatological vision, is a particularly beautiful image. It describes a scene in which water bubbles up from the floor of the Temple, from beneath the altar, flowing down through the Judaean Desert to become a mighty stream, too deep for a person to cross, and bringing life—vegetation, fruit trees, and healing leaves—to the parched desert. The later part of the passage develops an elaborate word-play on the phrase “from this side and that” so as to establish a relationship between the healing trees of Ezekiel and the two tablets of the covenant taken down from the Mountain by Moses.

The central idea here is of the Torah as a source of healing. Is there a hint here of reliance upon spiritual means, faith and trust in God, as opposed to medicine and the knowledge garnished from human experience, as the source of healing? (Traditionally, Jews never adopted the attitude of Christian Scientists, of active opposition to medicine as contrary to “faith.”) Or is the idea more simply the consciousness that all healing has its ultimate source in God, and by extension in His Torah, as the symbol of His presence in the world?

“The Death of the Righteous is Likened to the Burning of our Temple”: Rabbi Nahman Bulman (2002)

A little over a week ago an outstanding Torah teacher and fine human being left this world. On Shabbat morning, Parshat Matot-Masei, Rabbi Nahman Bulman passed away in his sleep at the age of 77. Our revered teacher, Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l, often noted that the mitzvah of hesped, of eulogizing, is not to utter pious platitudes and empty superlatives about the person, but to attempt to capture something of the spirit, the unique personality, of the deceased. It is in that spirit that I approach the task. It is not an easy one: How can one sum up a life, attempt to describe what one knew as a living, vibrant, sometimes humorous, sometimes serious personality? May my readers forgive me if I seem at times irreverent.

But first, a few basic facts. Rav Bulman grew up in New York City, in a family with strong traditions of Gerer Hasidism. He studied at Yeshiva University, where he received semikha from Rav Soloveitchik, and subsequently served as a pulpit rabbi in Newport News, Virginia and Far Rockaway, New York. In 1975, very much in the middle of his life, he uprooted himself from the United States to realize his life-long dream of aliyah, settling in Israel at a point when he still had many active years before him. For several years he taught at Yeshivat Ohr Sameyah in Jerusalem; around 1980 he moved to the northern town of Migdal ha-Emek where, together with a group of his students and disciples, he attempted to realize as fully as possible his own vision of Judaism as lived in community. A decade later he returned to Jerusalem and to Ohr Sameyah, this time to serve as mashgiah, spiritual director to the students, most of whom were neophytes to traditional Judaism. During the last years of his life, he headed a small Beit Midrash in the Kamenitz neighborhood of Neve Yaakov. He is survived by his wife and five children, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I first met Rabbi Bulman over 30 years ago, when a mutual friend arranged for me to spend a Shabbat at his home. My initial impression was of a rather unprepossessing figure, a plump little man with a stubbly beard. But as soon as he began to talk I realized that this was an extraordinary person, who defied usual categories and stereotypes. I found in him a sense of absolute candor and sincerity, a sharp sense of humor, a great idealism for realizing the goals of the Torah in this world, coupled with a keen, critical eye for the pretenses and posturing that go on in life, both within and without the Torah world.

That first Friday night, and the following night (I believe it was the first night of Selihot, probably in 1969), he stayed up with me way past midnight talking—and then inviting me, somewhere around 1:30 AM to raid his wife’s cholent pot (“it’s a special mitzvah,” he told me with a twinkle in his eye).

What were the qualities that most struck me? A refreshing sense of candor and honesty. He was utterly without the cant, the unctuous piety, the simplistic rhetoric so often encountered in the frum world—especially in this era of Orthodox triumphalism. I remember him coming home from shul that first Friday night and telling his wife, with some irony, “Shainde, I was asked a frum question tonight,” and preceding to tell about a pious young man who was, it seemed, looking for an excuse not to drink the wine of his non-Sabbath-observing brother.

He had a sharp critical eye, which at times crossed the line to cynicism, and on occasion, even to a certain disappointment and bitterness, which stemmed from his intense desire to realize his ideals in the world. Decades past the age of “idealistic” youth, he retained the wish to create something truly whole and good—and, people being what they are, he was inevitably disappointed.

But together with that, he had a keen sense of humor—albeit a humor that always had a serious edge. To use a theological term, it might be described as leitzanuta de-avodah zarah: “mocking of idolatry”—that is, deflating the pretense, the falsehood, the cant, which are our contemporary forms of idolatry—of the self, of ideologies, of “modernity,” of money. He had a knack for the phrase that conveyed a penetrating insight, a different perspective, in a few well-chosen words. He often referred to himself with a certain self-irony with the words “I’m a primitive Jew”—meaning, he prided himself in his supposed lack of sophistication and cosmopolitanism, those very qualities for which secular critics lambasted Orthodoxy. Another time, speaking of the naivete of those rabbis who saw Israel’s situation in simplistic terms, as if the final Redemption were imminent, he said: “He’s a fool… That one’s a fool…” And then, turning to someone who was an acknowledged genius and encyclopedic mind, concluded, ”He’s an intelligent fool!”

Other, more obvious qualities, go without saying: his deep piety and meticulous observance of mitzvot; his love of Torah and his extensive knowledge of it—not only of the “bread and potatoes” of Hazal and midrash and the canonic rishonim, but also some of the lesser-travelled paths of Jewish thought. He was deeply interested in Jewish history, particularly that of the modern period, and had a particularly deep knowledge of the inner history of Orthodoxy and its various streams and ideologies over the past two hundred years or so. I loved listening to his deep and original analyses of this period. Altogether, he was a fascinating teacher; there was something unconventional in his cast of mind, that revealed any subject he touched upon in a new and different light.

During the years in America, when he operated within the framework of modern Orthodoxy (he was a Young Israel rabbi), he seemed torn between that world and his Hasidic roots, and the renascent “yeshivish” Orthodoxy. After his aliyah, he began to turn to a more openly Haredi life style, wearing a long coat on Shabbat and identifying with the world of the Agudah and Haredi institutions. But this was no simple “return to frumkeit” of the type which seems so ubiquitous these days, among both the newly pious and those with roots in the world that was destroyed. His Hasidism was not the Hasidism of courts, of adulation of rebbes, of serried ranks of Hasidim with their emphasis on conformity of dress and of minhagim (custom). His was a Hasidism of substance, very much in the tradition of Ger, which seemed to hearken back to its earlier roots in Kotzk and Pshyshcha: of solid learning of Talmud and Shulhan Arukh, and of a religious service based upon rigorous honesty and “working on oneself”—“tzu arbeit far zich.”

Finally, he was marked by a deep generosity and interest in others. Even when overwhelmed by his duties at yeshiva, he still found time to see those who needed to see him. I remember how, during a certain personal crisis of my own, he gave generously of his time and agreed to talk with me that very day, even though he had great demands on his time, and was plagued by ill health (a life-long problem). I was greatly impressed on that occasion by his human wisdom and kindness, and the soundness of his advice. Similarly, his home was always open to me and to others who needed a place to stay for Shabbat. Tehei zikhro barukh.