Thursday, November 30, 2006

Vayetze (Rashi)

For further teachings on this parsha, please see Archives for December 2005.

Between Rashi and Peshat

Earlier this week I received an email from a new reader, Pinhas Kahn, relating to some questions of the methodology of how we study Rashi:

… You seem not to be fully aware of the nature of midrashic interpretation (symbolism, allegory, etc.). Rashi’s statement re Yaakov’s grabbing Esau’s ankle is not to be understood as physical reality. And Rashi’s continual attack (unfairly) of Esau is again midrashic, this time understanding Esau as representing Jew-hating Christians. Rashi lived through the First Crusade, the shock of which had a profound effect upon the Ashkenazic Jewish community, and on Rashi as well. An interesting academic question would be whether Rashi felt that his interpretation was of the actual intent and meaning of the text, with the text speaking prophetically, or whether he was simply speaking to his generation in their hour of need….

Let me begin by stating that I am well aware of the nature of midrashic interpretation; indeed, I devoted an entire year (Volume III of HY) to discussing various midrashim, attempting to understand their implied message and, as I always do, studying each text in its own terms. It seems to me that almost the first thing that strikes any reader of either the Talmud or the Midrash is the vast gap between them and what seems to be the literal or common-sense meaning of the biblical text. Rashi is, of course, very much an heir to the Oral Torah tradition or what is called by scholars Rabbinic Judaism, and his commentary, whatever else it may be, is a kind of distillation of that tradition, on the levels of both halakhah and aggadah. Thus, in the narrative passages of the Torah he draws heavily on Midrash Rabbah and other classical aggadic midrashim, while in the legal sections he quotes extensively from the relevant Talmudic halakhic passages.

The question is, what is one to make of all this? One approach is to reject the Oral tradition as a more-or-less fabrication or even falsification of the real meaning of the text; a second, opposite approach is to assert, perhaps in a dogmatic way, that notwithstanding appearances, the Oral tradition is the true, authentic interpretation of the written text. I believe that a third approach is possible: that the Oral Torah is indeed largely a new, human creation, but that it is nevertheless valid. The Torah itself, through what I once called the “escalator clause” in Deut 17:10-11, empowers the Sages to interpret with broad latitude and to create new Torah according to their own deepest understanding; that there is, in fact, a kind of partnership between Man and God, in which man creates large sections of the Oral Torah—again, both in halakhah and aggadah (I find this idea to be a central theme in the Sefat Emet).

Regarding two specific points raised by Pinhas. First, it is the Torah text, not Rashi, which speaks of Yaakov grabbing Esau’s ankle; in any event, I thought I made it clear that what seemed to be important in Rashi’s anatomically improbable description of the two drops of seed becoming the two babies and exiting in the reverse order from that in which thy entered, was his attempt to find as many justifications as possible for Yaakov’s claim to the birthright (I shall return to that issue next week). As for the second, “academic,” historical question: I suspect that Rashi and other medieval thinkers did not have a sophisticated sense of history, or of the distinction between the original intent and the midrashic level to which it gave birth.

But on another plane, the medieval exegetes do in fact refer to Pardes—four levels of commentary: peshat, remez, sod, derash; that is, literal, homiletical, allegorical, and mystical-symbolic—suggesting that they were far from oblivious of their departure from the literal sense of the text, although not viewing this in the critical way modern people might. (Incidentally, medieval Christians used a similar concept of “four-square interpretation” of the Bible, in their own way, at about the same point in time.)

Perhaps our self-consciousness makes it more difficult for us to believe in a multi-leveled Torah in the same way as our ancestors did. Gershom Scholem, founder of modern Kabbalah studies, and in his personal belief a self-declared religious anarchist, writes of the creative freedom that is, in seemingly paradoxical fashion, facilitated by this naive, literal belief in the divinity of the Torah. In one of his more personal essays, Scholem writes:

What is the basic assumption upon which all traditional Jewish mysticism in Kabbalah and Hasidism is based? …. That each and every word and letter, and not merely something general and amorphous lacking in specific meaning, is an aspect of the revelation of the Divine Presence; and it is this specific revelation of holiness that is meant by Torah from heaven. It is only for this reason that they were able to find infinite illuminating lights in every word and letter, in the sense of seventy faces to the Torah—of the infinite interpretation and endless understandings of each sentence.… Once a person has accepted… this quality of faith… he enjoys an extraordinary measure of freedom, to which the history of the Kabbalah gives abundant testimony. He… is able to uncover level upon level, layer upon layer, in the understanding that the gates of exegesis are never closed—and not necessarily because the talents of the person himself are unlimited. …

The awesome faith in the power hidden within the divine word… served as the basis for the mystical decision based upon the exegesis of this word. This… allows wide latitude for religious individualism, without leaving the fixed framework of the Torah… but for many of us that very thing was a tremendous, if not an absolute, obstacle. (Gershom Scholem, “Reflections on the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time,” in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time & Other Essays [Philadelphia–Jerusalem: JPS, 1997], 13-15.)

Jerusalem or Beth-El?

I have devoted considerable space to this issue, because the passage I wish to discuss this week is one of the most blatantly “aggadic” texts in Rashi, presenting what to many may seem fantastic solutions to the difficulty. The problem confronted by Rashi, to which he offers several different solutions, is this: How could the central epiphany in Jacob’s life described here, his encounter with the Divine Presence in such an intense and awesome way, have occurred in a place other than Jerusalem, the place destined to be the site of the future Temple? The Torah speaks here of Bethel as “the house of God,” when our tradition clearly speak of Jerusalem as the holiest place, and as that place in the world where God, so to speak, makes His home.

Gen 29:17: “And he was frightened, and said: How awesome this place is! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Rashi: “This is none other than the house of God.” Rabbi Eleazar said in the name of Rabbi Yossi ben Zimra: The ladder stood in Beer-sheva and the middle of its incline was opposite the Temple. For Beer-sheva is in the south of the [tribal territory of] Judah, and Jerusalem is in its north, at the border between Judah and Benjamin. And Beth-El was in the north of the inheritance of Benjamin, at the border between Benjamin and the tribes of Joseph. We find that its legs were in Beer-sheva, and its head in [i.e., above] Beth-El, and the middle of its incline opposite Jerusalem.

For the Holy One blessed be He said to Himself: Shall this righteous man come to My resting place, and be allowed to depart without sleeping there?

The solution proposed here is an ingenious one. Jacob indeed experienced this vision while sleeping in Beth-El, a small town some 20 km. NNE of Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, mentioned as one of the places where Abraham built an altar and sojourned for a certain period of time (Gen 12:8). From that place, he saw the top of the ladder—a symbol, like that of a mountain, of that which unites heaven and earth—directly above his head; the foot of the ladder was in Beer-sheva, the place from which he had departed; while its mid-point was over Jerusalem, serving as a pointer to that holy site. Rashi is thus trying to reconcile the actual location of the vision, the holy site which he evidently considered Beth-El to be—a place where there were numinous powers, a place that clearly had a certain potential for Presence that enabled him to have that dream—with those qualities associated with Jerusalem alone. The incline of the ladder, which connected it in a very natural way to several locations, somehow visibly united these two diverse aspects. But we continue:

They also said: Jacob called Jerusalem Beth-El, yet this was Luz and not Jerusalem. And from whence did they learn this? I say that Mount Moriah was uprooted and came here, and this is the “jumping of the earth” referred to in [the aggadah] in the tractate of [Slaughtering of] Hullin [91a]. That the Temple came to meet him, until Beth-El. And this is, “and he [suddenly] came upon the place” [above, v. 11].

Rashi is not satisfied with the first answer, which he tok from a midrash (Gen. Rab. 69.7). He wants to see Jacob relating to Jerusalem as the most important place (perhaps anachronistically), yet the site of his vision is clearly Luz and no Jerusalem. He thus offers a second answer, taken from another aggadah, this one in the Talmud: namely, that Jerusalem miraculously came to Beth-El, the earth “jumping” (or, “folding itself”) to greet Yaakov. (The last sentence in the previous section probably belongs more properly to this section.)

And should you ask: when Jacob passed the [site of] the Temple, why was he not caused to linger there [i.e., by God]? [If] he did not set his heart to pray in those places where his ancestors had prayed, should he be delayed by Heaven? Rather, he went as far as Haran, as we say in Chapter Gid Hanasheh [Hullin 91b] and as the verse proves. “And he went to Haran” [v. 10]. When he got to Haran he said: Is it possible that I passed a place here my forefathers prayed, and I did not pray there? He set his mind to return, and got as far as Beth El, and the land jumped forward towards him.

There is yet another difficulty here: Why didn’t Jacob stop at Jerusalem while en route? Surely, it is located more or less directly on the road from Beer-sheva to Beth-El and from there to Haran? Jacob seems to have undergone a certain subterranean change of mind: originally, it wasn’t important to him to visit all the sacred places where his ancestors had prayed—we don’t know why. And then he changed his mind, came all the way back to Beth-El (where Abraham had built an altar when he first entered the Land: Gen 12:8) and, as he approached Jerusalem, i.e., at Beth-El, was “met” by Jerusalem.

What is this all about? Why was it so important to pray where his ancestors had prayed? Perhaps it is connected to the well-known concept of ancestral virtue. Or perhaps his ancestors, by the act of praying there, somehow sanctified Beth-El and other places. Carrying it one step further: we are accustomed to thinking that there was some inherent numinous quality in the various places which were later sanctified; this may help to explain why different religions often revere the same sacred places (often struggling over them as well). But here, it would seem that it is the human act of worship that makes a place sacred. This is a very Jewish, halakhic approach: we know that various objects, such as a Torah scroll, tefillin, etc., are made sacred by the human act of writing, coupled with the intention to make it into a holy vessel; the same held true in olden times for animal sacrifices, tithes and priestly gifts, and even of the boundaries of the Temple and the Holy City of Jerusalem.

But the whole question of Beth-El vs. Jerusalem also raises another issue: the centralization of holiness (and of worship) in one sacred center, i.e., Jerusalem, vs. a multitude of sacred places, or the potential presence of the Divine everywhere! Some years ago I discussed (HY III: Vayetze = blog archives: Vayetze [Midrash]) the paradox involved in the very notion of a holy place: that, given that God is transcendent and infinite, He cannot really dwell anywhere, but must “contract” Himself in order to fit into the Temple, so in what sense is any particular place essentially holier than any other?

To return to our story here: Why did Jacob skip over these holy places, and then turn around and come back to them? One answer: he was fleeing from Esau (or, according to some, from his nephew Eliphaz ha-Temani) and hardly had the calm or presence of mind to stop and to pray.

(Beth-El [referred to here] is not that which is adjacent to Ai, but rather to Jerusalem. And because it was the city of God is was called Beth-El [lit., the house of God]. And this is Mount Moriah where Abraham prayed, and this is the field where Isaac prayed. And it says in the Talmud [Pesahim 88a], “Let us go up…” [Isa 2:3: the verse continues “to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob”]. Not like Abraham, who called it a mountain, and not like Isaac, who called it a field, but like Jacob, who called it the house of God. Thus far in an exact [or: old] Rashi.)

This last section is referred to as an “old” or “exact” Rashi: that is, a section not considered authentic by contemporary scholars, one that does not appear in the oldest and most accurate manuscripts (MS Leipzig 1; nor in the Berliner edition or in Torat Hayyim). It consists of marginal additions by Rashi’s students and their students in turn, that were included in the earliest printed editions, and copied from there in successive editions, down to the standard Mikraot Gedolot. At times, despite the claim to be “exact,” the text is garbled and unclear. But this particular “Rashi” is actually something very simple: it is copied from Rashi’s Talmud Commentary on the above-mentioned passage in Hullin.

The idea here is quite straightforward, representing yet a third interpretation of our verse: namely, that Yaakov’s vision did not in fact occur at Beth-El at all, but took place in Jerusalem itself—to which Yaakov referred by the poetic name of Beth-El, “House of God.”

I am reminded of a small incident that happened during my basic training in the IDF, many years ago. We were stationed near Beth-El, but on a certain occasion our group was brought to Shechem as reserve troops. After a few hours, when it was clear that our services were not likely to be needed, we were given an impromptu tour of the area, including Mount Gerizim. There we encountered an old Samaritan who was busy setting things up for the Passover Sacrifice they were to observe a few weeks later, who explained to us something of their beliefs and of who they were. When he asked where we were from we said, “We’re from Beth-El” (referring to our training camp, BH”D Arba), to which he replied “No! This is Beth El!”—referring to Mount Gerizim. That is, for the Samaritans, whose main polemic with mainstream Judaism revolved around the proper location of the Sanctuary, “Beth-El” could only be their own holy place—Mount Gerizim.

As for the Talmudic passage cited here: it is quoted to show that all three patriarchs, though they used different terms, were all referring to the same place: Jerusalem. But some years ago I suggested another reading of this passage: as a paradigm for different types of religious experience: transcendence (Abraham-mountain), immanence (Yitzhak-field), and feeling-at-home-with-God (Yaakov-house). See HY I: Vayetze = Archives Vayetze (Torah)

A Theological Postscript

Towards the end of the parsha, in the final encounter between Yaakov and Lavan, Yaakov refers to God by the unusual term, פחד יצחק, “the Fear of Yitzhak” (Gen 31:42)—i.e., He whom Yitzhak feared. Still later, when Lavan invokes an oath to seal the uneasy peace (or perhaps disengagement) between them, he concludes by saying “May the God of Avraham and the God of Nahor judge between us, the God of their fathers.” Yaakov, rather pointedly, swears his assent in the name of פחד אביו יצחק, “the Fear of his father Yitzhak” (v. 53).

Rashi explains this succinctly: “’God of Abraham’—Holy. ‘God of Nahor’—profane. ‘God of their fathers’—profane.” That is: “God of Nahor” is not among the names of the true God, but that of a pagan deity, and as such profane; by extension, “God of their fathers,” a kind of syncretistic combination of the two, is also profane.

I would like to suggest, only partly in jest, that Lavan’s phrasing may be seen as the first example in history of what Henry Kissinger, more than three and a half millennia later, called “constructive ambiguity”—that is, the use of vague language to smooth over fundamental disagreements between people, which can be understood by each side as he likes. Other examples include: the “Higher Power” of the Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step groups, a vague reference to the Deity used to unite people of different religious traditions who share a concrete interest in conquering their common addiction; and the phrase, in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, “with reliance upon the Rock of Israel,” which may be understood by religionists as God, and by secularists as some vague national or historical spirit.

Against this approach, Jacob speaks of “the Fear of Isaac”—that is, in face of Lavan’s mushy, sentimental attempt to say that the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor are really the same, he is insistent upon clarity and clear distinctions in theological matters. As if to say: you can believe whatever you want, but I have definite views from which I cannot be shaken. I think this is an important point in Jewish faith generally. There is a definite rejection here of a kind of all-embracing ecumenism, that says “all religions teach the same thing” or “are equally valid,” or that would call for compromise on matters of principle. (Rabbi Soloveitchik’s essay “Confrontation” is still a classic Jewish statement of this issue, as are, lehavdil, the things written by the present pope when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, in which he displays great sensitivity to the enormous delicacy of inter-religious dialogue.)

Friday, November 24, 2006

Toldot (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see the archives for November 2006.

Did Jacob Cheat Esau?

This week’s portion may be seen as beginning a new major section of the Book of Genesis, one which will continue through the end of the book: that which centers around the life of the patriarch Yaakov and his family. Perhaps significantly, Torat Hayyim, the new Israeli edition of the Torah with commentaries (a kind of updated Mikraot Gedolot) published by Mossad Harav Kook, begins Volume 2 of Bereshit with this parasha. As if to say: until now we were dealing with beginnings: the Creation, the fundaments of what it means to be a human being, the Flood, and the life of Abraham—the unique paradigmatic man whose life was wholly devoted to God; from here on in, we begin the story of the family of Israel, that will become a people, which is much more a story of human life as we know it, with all its passions, its loves and hates and conflicts and family problems.

In any event, unlike Avraham—who faces tremendous challenges, from leaving his homeland, through being circumcised at the age of 100, through the Akedah, but who seems (with one or two possible exceptions) a wholly sterling, righteous character—Yaakov is in many ways, at least on the straightforward, literal sense of Scripture, a rather problematic figure. And nowhere is this more striking than in this initial section, where we encounter two very problematic incidents: his buying of his brother’s birthright, taking advantage of his momentary (?) weakness; and the scene where, following his mother’s masterminding, he fools his father into giving him his deathbed blessing. We shall focus upon a number of comments of Rashi on central verses involving these two incidents:

25:31. “Sell me today your birthright.” Rashi: Because the Divine service is performed by the firstborn, Jacob said: It is not fitting that this evildoer should bring offerings to the Holy One blessed be He.

Rashi appears here, as he often does, as the spokesman for the mainstream of Jewish Rabbinic tradition (see Gen. Rab. 63.3) which makes two major assumptions here. First, that Esav is a rasha, an evil person, or at very least a coarse person, living entirely in the here and now, in the gross material world of undisciplined, immediate satisfaction of appetites. That this is true regarding food is evident from the impatient, exaggerated way he speaks about his hunger (“for [otherwise] I will die”–v. 32) and the use of the verb הלעיטיני נא (“stuff me”—v. 30), usually used of force-feeding fowl or other animals, to describe his manner of eating. And, according to one midrash (Gen. Rab. 63.2), it was also true regarding sex—he was a “hunter,” not only of game, but also of girls.

Second, and perhaps more important: the privilege of being the first-born in this case relates, not to property or to other worldly matters, but to spiritual matters: to avodah, to the priestly function of leading and performing the sacred service in the Temple (or in general, as suggested by the Kuzari, continuing the special connection of the seed of Abraham with “the Divine matter”). We continue:

32. “Behold, I am going to die; why then do I need the birthright?” Rashi: Esau asked: What is the nature of this service? He [Yaakov] replied: It involves various sanctions and punishments and death penalties, as in that which we have been taught [in a beraita quoted in b. Sanhedrin 22b]: “These are those that involve the death penalty: [Those who served] when drunk with wine or with disheveled heads.” He said: I am going to die because of it. If so, why should I wish to have it?

Here, “I am going to die” is transformed from a hyperbolic description of his own feeling of famish after a day in the fields to his reaction to the Divine service itself. The central motif here is the element of discipline: the Jew knows that there are laws governing the religious law that must be observed strictly and meticulously (certainly regarding the Temple service, but also in the realm of Shabbat, family life, kashrut, etc.) and which carry strict penalties—but that so long as he follows the halakhah, he needn’t fear. The non-Jewish world (of whom Esau is both progenitor and paradigmatic figure), by contrast, is seen as characterized by fearfulness of entering into discipline. There is even a discussion in Talmud as to why one cannot convert a Gentile unwillingly, even though one can cause someone benefit without someone’s agreement, because he will also see Judaism as in some way detrimental to his idea of the “good life”: “The Gentile prefers his hefkerut—i.e., his free, libertine life-style” (Ketubot 11a). Albeit, a small child can still be converted by his adoptive parents in tandem with the Bet Din.

Paul felt this strongly—“with the Law came death”—as he somehow came to emphasize the punitive element in Judaism. He didn’t understand the joy of living under the discipline of the law, with its clear sharply defined boundaries and limits. For him, the more punishment, the more the fear—“Oy, I’m going to get it!” (Radical Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein, an erstwhile ba’al teshuvah, describes his flirtation with Orthodox practice in similar terms in his book My Brother Paul).

Having seen these two comments, we can understand another puzzling passage in Rashi on this chapter, which I will not quote but briefly summarize: following the description of the two fetuses struggling in the womb, verse 26 depicts Yaakov grabbing Esau’s heel during the moment of birth. Rashi comments that Yaakov wanted to be born first, because he was rightfully the firstborn: he was in fact conceived first, but because the woman’s reproductive organ is like a narrow tube, that which goes in first comes in last. We shall ignore the faulty description of female reproductive anatomy, and the question as to why Rashi doesn’t seem to know the basic facts of anatomy that were already familiar to the authors of Mishnah Niddah and to Galen (the father of Roman medicine). The real point here, again, is that Yaakov was merely trying to get that which was rightfully his—certainly in the spiritual sense, in terms of his character, but also in the simple biological sense.

“Are you Esau my son or not?”

The theme of Jacob’s justification in “stealing” or cheating Esau out of both birthright and blessing is continued in the comments on the famous scene in which Yaakov impersonates his brother, who has gone out into the field to hunt some game for his father. Rashi takes great pains to show that neither Yaakov nor his mother Rivkah did anything really dishonest or wrong in this incident. First, a little-noticed comment about Rivkah:

27:9. “Go to the flock and take me from there two good young goats…” Rashi: “take me.” They are mine and are not stolen, for Isaac wrote in my ketubah that I am entitled to two goats every day.

Rashi here observes that the goats, which she will cook and give Yaakov to presented before Yitzhak as if they were game caught by Esau, rightfully belong to her and that she is not misappropriating her husband’s property in order to deceive him. She is the legal owner, and thus has the right to do with them what she wishes. Modern readers will surely find this a bit strange, for surely the issue is not one of ownership of the goats, but the dishonest ruse in which they play a central role.

A bit later we have the scene in which Yaakov goes in to his father, and is asked, “Who are you, my son?” Yitzhak already seems to feel that something isn’t quite right; two verses later he asks how he has come so quickly; he realizes that not enough time has elapsed for Esau to go to the field, catch something, return, and prepare the food. Note his answer:

12. “I am Esau, your firstborn.” Rashi: “I am” the one who is bringing it to you; “Esau is your firstborn.”

And some verses later, when he is about to eat, he again asks, “Are you really my son Esau?”

24. Rashi: He did not say “I am Esau,” but he said “It is I.”

In both these verses, Rashi takes what a common-sense reading would see as an outright lie, and saves Yaakov from the stigma of lying by a rather artificial rearrangement of the syntax of the sentence. Pardon me if anyone finds this sacrilegious, but I find this reminiscent of the sort of white lies, or technical non-lies, told by school-children to protect themselves from the wrath of parents or teachers, while being able to say that they haven’t actually lied.

But I would now like to turn to another problem, not directly related to Rashi: reading this whole chapter, it seems clear that Yitzhak knew, whether in a vague, semi-conscious way or more clearly, that it was really Yaakov standing before him. He asks repeatedly “Are you my son Esau,” he notes that he’s returned too quickly, and even remarks “the voce is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (v. 22)— yet he nevertheless blesses him. Interestingly, once he begins actually giving the blessing he no longer refers to Esau at all but refers to him (with deliberate ambiguity?) simply as “my son” (בני) in three consecutive verses (vv. 25, 26, 27). In other words, Yitzhak was aware that he was being tricked and, at least on some level of his mind, accepted it. The question is: Why?

I would suggest that, during the course of this scene, he came to realize that he had made a grave mistake in judgment in favoring Esau all these years. What was it within the personality of Yitzhak that made him love Esau? There is the old saw that “opposites attract.” He felt a kind of longing for that which he never had—the free, simple, unfettered, “natural” life. To translate it into concepts of early modern civilization: he was filled with romantic fantasies of the “noble savage.” Perhaps, too, after the Akedah, notwithstanding his willing participation, he saw something dark, frightening, even demonic in the stern faith of his father, and saw something fresh and vital in the earthy life-style of Esau.

But all this was good for everyday life. The blessing scene was a moment of truth (although not a real deathbed blessing; notwithstanding what he says in 27:2 & 4, Yitzhak lived on for more that two decades, dying only after Yaakov’s return to the land; see Gen 35:29). When he began to contemplate his own death, he began to ask questions about ultimate meanings, about the heritage he was leaving, and which of his sons was most worthy of continuing his task in life, of passing on the heritage of what he most deeply believed in. For Yitzhak was also the son of Abraham, one who spent long hours wandering in the fields in a kind of mystical trance, detached from everyday, practical tasks. Suddenly, when Yaakov was already before him, seeking the blessing, he saw things clearly.

After the blessing, just after Yaakov takes leave of his father, the real Esau returns from the field carrying his game and expecting his blessing. The Torah says that, when Yitzhak suddenly realized what had happened, “Yitzhak felt a very great terror” (ויחרד יצחק חרדה גדולה עד מאד; v. 33). I would suggest that this great terror or dread was not because he had given his blessing to the wrong son, but because he had almost given blessing to this coarse oaf, whom Yitzhak saw for the first time as he really was—that the “noble savage” was still… a savage.

This reading—that Yitzhak underwent a profound conversion in his attitude towards his two sons—is confirmed by one last Rashi I will cite here:

33. “He shall also be blessed.” Rashi: That one may not say that had Yaakov not deceived his father he would not have received the blessings. Therefore he consciously agreed to bless him.

This phrase could have been read as a kind of fatalistic statement by Yitzhak, simply agreeing to the fact of blessing: “he will be blessed and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.” That is, that the blessings are efficacious by themselves, that words have a certain power beyond the intentions of those that utter them. But no: Yitzhak is shown here by Rashi (in the wake of Gen Rab 67.2) as agreeing that Yaakov is in fact the one truly deserving of blessing.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Kislev (Months, Torah)

On Archery, Dysfunctional Families, and Hanukkah

We have now begun Kislev—that month which, together with Tevet, encompasses the shortest days of the year, including that of the winter solstice. One of the winter months or “rainy season” of the Jewish year—a period of dormancy, of cold, of silent growth, during which the earth rests, storing up its strength and absorbing life-giving rain for the renewed growth of springtime and summer. And yet, in reality, the natural world seems to have gone crazy: in Israel we have enjoyed two straight weeks of summer time, with one warm, balmy day with blue skies following another, people wandering around in shirtsleeves, with temperatures in the mid-to-high 20s C (=80s F). But these balmy days are barely ten hours long, and I pinch myself every day when it gets dark and it’s Minhah time by 4:30. Meanwhile, in Europe and America there have been fierce, nearly unprecedented snow storms and cold spells, grounding planes and even closing the interstates. (written 2005)

I open with a discussion of weather—usually thought of as the most banal and transient of subjects—because of a suspicion that the chickens are coming home to roost: that is, that the ecological hubris of advanced technological civilization is beginning to produce accelerated climate changes, which may yet lead to ever greater disaster. Showing the proper respect for Mother Earth is a subject of deep religious import, not to mention a matter of life-and-death—if not for ourselves, than surely for our children and grandchildren.

In what follows, I wish to tie together three seemingly disparate aspects of the month of Kislev: the holiday of Hanukkah that comes at its end, the saga of the Jacob family which dominates the Torah readings for this month, and the zodiacal sign of Sagittarius, the Archer.

In modern times, Hanukkah has been subject to two divergent interpretations. For the secular form of Zionism, Hanukkah, as that Jewish holiday which on one level is connected to military victory, symbolizes Jews’ ability to defend themselves, to use tools of war, to gain determination of their own destiny and their own way-of-life and cultural milieu against the incursions of foreign conquerors. These ideas were a central plank in the image of the “new Jew,” seen as capable of living in the concrete, physical world of the body as well as in the realms of mind and spirit. The Shomrim, who guarded the early settlements of the Galilee and Jezreel riding on horseback and carrying rifles—the modern equivalent of Sagittarius’s bow and arrow—and the men of today’s IDF, saw themselves as the natural heirs of the Maccabees who, in Zionist historiography, were seen as much as warrior and soldiers as they were pietists and men of God.

On the other hand, those who view Hanukkah in terms of a more traditional religious interpretation see it as a triumph of Jewish spiritual resistance to the incursions of foreign culture—be it the bastardized Greek culture of the Seleucid warlords, the Christianity of medieval and pre-modern Europe, the rationalism and anthropocentrism of Greece, Rome, and Western Enlightenment, or, for that matter, the secularized Jewish culture of modern Israel, or the bizarre syncretism of Hanukkah and Christmas often found in contemporary America—all of which are seen as anathema. Interestingly, there is one codeword that symbolizes all these things: Edom, the historical nemesis of the Jewish people and its faith, the twin brother to Jacob/Israel who reappears throughout history in the guise of Rome, Christendom and the Church, or Europe generally. And, significantly, the conflict between Edom/Esau (whose tools are also bow and arrow-quiver; see Gen 24:3) and Jacob lies at the heart of two of the parshiyot read this month: Toldot and Vayishlah.

These issues of Jewish identity, and the question of whether there is any possible formulation of Jewish identity that can bridge the differences between these wildly divergent groups, is as lively and unresolved as ever. If God gives me strength, and time, I will blei neder share my thoughts on this subject in my long-planned Rawidowicz essay, entitled “A Latter Day Babylon and Jerusalem,” towards the end of Hanukkah.

But on another level, a common theme that weaves it way throughout the Torah portions of Kislev is the Jewish family: more specifically, the story of the paradigmatic family of Isaac, Jacob and the twelve brothers. At the risk of sounding blasphemous about these figures, who are treated with reverence and awe by the Midrash and aggadic tradition, I will ask the simple and obvious question: why does the Torah choose to emphasize what would be described in modern parlance as a thoroughly dysfunctional family? These chapters are filled with every possible form of negativity and destructivity: sibling rivalry and jealousy between brothers, at times reaching a murderous pitch; discordant marriages, with wives scheming against their husbands; a dominant mother plotting with her (at least initially) immature and molly-coddled son to deceive their husband and father; rivalry among women for the affection and attentions of the same man; sexual lust and intrigue.

One traditional, pious answer is that all this was part of the Divine plan, and every detail in the stories of Genesis was intended as a means of bringing about its fulfillment. Thus, Jacob’s trickery was a means of assuring that the covenant would continue with his offspring rather than that of the wicked Esau; Joseph’s arrogant behavior towards his brothers was a means of fulfilling the promise implicit in his dreams; and so on. Even when the figures involved were themselves oblivious to the transcendent meaning of their actions—as when Joseph’s brothers attacked him and threw them into the pit, or when the widower Judah comforted himself with a casual sexual encounter with a supposed woman of easy virtue—God was busy weaving His redemptive plan behind the scenes, so to speak. Indeed, while it possible to read these stories as a family saga, or as a Bildungsroman describing the growth and maturation, first of Jacob and then of Joseph, one must not forget that an equally important role is played by the visions, dreams, and direct conversations with God which introduce a prophetic dimension. Indeed, it might be interesting to analyze these chapters in terms of the back-and-forth interplay between the purely human and divine dimension.

But they can also be read differently. Another commonly given explanation for the bad behavior of so many of the actors in Sefer Bereshit is that the Torah is a thoroughly honest, down to earth book, not at all interested in showing plaster saints. It clearly knows the difference between man and God, and wishes to illustrate the real problems of human life without concealment, as faced by figures of flesh-and-blood such as one might meet in real life, with the same lusts and ambitions and loves and hatreds and desires for power and hope for immortality through their children as people today…

Or, to put in more abstract terms: the central motif in Judaism, which distinguishes it, at least in its pristine, ideal form, from other religious systems, is how to live within the duality of spirit and body, of earthly and heavenly existence. For a Christian or Buddhist, the ultimate ideal is the ascetic, contemplative life of the monk. On one level, such a path is extremely difficult, demanding as it does iron discipline, self-denial, constant resistance of “temptations of the flesh” and renunciation of the body and its demands. But on another level it is easy, in the sense that it involves a singleness of path, a single-mindedness: the knowledge that the focus of life is knowledge of God and mystical unity with Him or, in the non-theistic path of Buddhism, transcendence of and detachment from all transient, worldly things.

In Judaism, by contrast, the idea is to be at once “above” and “below” (a formulation of the Baal Shem Tov). There is sublime God–consciousness, mystical ascent, even a certain ascetic moment in Judaism; but there is also, equally strongly, a desire to sanctify this world and make it holy—this world being the proper locus for justice, righteousness, and loving-kindness to others. One makes the Divine Presence dwell in this world, “below ten ells,” through what is called “service through corporeality” in Hasidism or, more simply, through halakhah—the path of walking in a holy way in the multifold areas of ordinary human life, in society and in the family. And the avatars of this path are not monks or hermits, dwelling on lonely mountain peaks or in cave-like cells carved into the desert rock, but men like ourselves, who live in the world, constantly battling with the complex problems of human relationships, in the family and without—in short, men like the Fathers. Our paradigms for spirituality are thus real men: men of true greatness, of nobility and power of spirit and ability to focus on the transcendent, but who nevertheless also have failings and faults that are nearly as glaring as their greatness.

Perhaps the central problem dealt with by Martin Buber in his life work was the issue of unity and duality, or multiplicity. The central move in his life—what he described as “the great transformation”—was that from a contemplative/ecstatic, “vertically oriented” mysticism, to a dialogical consciousness, rooted in the world, focused on dialogue with one’s neighbor as the highest manifestation of religious consciousness. (Israeli scholar Israel Koren, in his book The Secret of the Earth, has recently offered an alternative reading of Buber’s life trajectory, suggesting that a deeply mystical consciousness informs even his later work, and sketching the underlining unity in these differing stages.) Buber’s rejection of traditional Judaism and of halakhah would seem to stem from his perception thereof (mistaken, in my view) as somehow restricting man’s openness to the world, as belonging to that vertically-oriented spirituality that he rejected. It would be interesting in this light to read a this-worldly centered interpretation of halakhic Judaism, such as that offered by Rav Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man, as an alternative approach to these problems.

An important part of the Jewish call to live both “above and below” entails the acceptance of paradox—not only on the intellectual level, but in one’s whole being: to accept the shortcomings and foibles of even the most elevated and noble human being; to live with unresolved paradoxes. I recently dealt with several chapters of a new book by aggadah scholar Joshua Levinson, The Twice Told Tale, which examines the dialectical relation between Rabbinic midrash and the biblical text which serves as their alleged source. He speaks there of the back-and-forth type of reading that this necessitates, and that, in the final analysis, the reader is not left with any simple, one-dimensional truths, but rather with a constant dialectic, approaching the “Truth” but never quite reaching it. (Unlike the Art Scroll style of reading, which would make a catechism out of Song of Songs Rabbah —where the woman has no breasts, but only “Moses and Aaron”!). The truth only emerges bit by bit, through the dialectical process of learning Torah, which almost always exists on multiple levels. (Interestingly, one of the constantly repeated themes of the Sefat Emet is the constant tension between Oral Torah and Written Torah, serving as constant paradigms for two types of religious experience.)

Perhaps that is also why, in Judaism, marriage and affirmation of sexuality is not merely an option, a concession to the weakness of the flesh, as it is in Pauline Christianity, meant for lower, less spiritual folks, but itself the ideal. After all, what greater symbol is there of the duality or multiplicity of this world then the duality of the sexes; and beyond that, and more broadly, the ambiguities and antinomies of the sexual life—of raw desire and tender love, of biological drive and conscious human choice, of lifelong fidelity and of momentary urges, “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing”—all these are part of the plan of the Torah to educate the human being to somehow unite the one and the many in a higher union.

And to return to where we started: Sagittarius may also be seen as a sexual symbol. Hazal speak of a man who is sexually potent, virile, as “shooting like an arrow”—and vice versa; the quiver/pouch/sheath in which the arrows are kept may be seen as a yonic or vaginal symbol. Or, more broadly: the bow and arrow together form a pair, indispensable to one another. The arrow derives its power and speed, not from itself, but from the tautly drawn bow, all potential energy. Like its opposite number on the calendrical wheel, Sivan/Gemini, “the twins,” Kislev/Sagittarius is one of the few zodiacal signs based upon a pair, a duality that creates a oneness.

HAYYEI SARAH: A Sermon on Marriage

“And Yitzhak took her to the tent of his mother Sarah; and he took her, and she was his wife, and he loved her; and Yitzhak was comforted after his mother Sarah” (Gen 24:67).

As sophisticated post-Freudian moderns, almost our first impulse on reading these verses is to say: “Aha! Yitzhak had a rampant Oedipal complex! He saw his wife as a substitute for his mother!” Indeed, Rashi makes the rather astonishing comment on this verse: “and she was Sarah his mother” (thus most traditional editions; interestingly, Mossad Harav Kook’s Torat Hayyim, whose text is based on careful, scholarly manuscript work, omits the crucial words, והרי היא שרה אמו. Ramban also quotes Onkelos as translating this phrase thus, but again, strangely, it is absent in the printed versions of Onkelos). Less radically, Rashi continues “and she was like Sarah his mother,” and goes on to quote the midrash we shall elaborate presently. There was thus a certain identity, or at least similarity, between the young bride and the dead mother.

In part, this interpretation seems to have been prompted by a certain syntactical awkwardness in the opening words of this verse, which might literally be parsed “And Yitzhak took her to the tent, Sarah his mother” without the expected possessive case, viz. “to the tent of Sarah his mother” (האהלה, אהל שרה אמו). Hence, the midrash quoted by Rashi immediately thereafter (Genesis Rabbah 60.16), elaborates the nature of the identity between these two women. Certain things which took place so long as Sarah was alive—a candle burned from one Shabbat eve to the next; there was blessing in the dough; a cloud [seen as a sign of the Divine presence] hovered over the entrance the tent; the entrances to the tent were opened wide, to receive guests coming from all directions—ceased upon Sarah’s death, to resume once Rebekkah married Yitzhak and established herself as the mistress of the house.

What exactly is our midrash saying? Just one century ago a Viennese Jew, Sigmund Freud, wrote a series of studies changing forever the way Western men and women think about the mind, the emotions, the impact of sexuality on all of these, and the hitherto sacred realm of the intimate web of feelings within the nuclear family. His claim, in a word, is that sexual feelings lie just beneath the surface in every family, that every male child is subconsciously jealous of his father’s sexual intimacy with his mother, and that these complexes carry themselves over into adult life and relationships in various and sundry ways. He saw the ancient Greeks as being aware of these feelings, as expressed in archetypal form in the myth of Oedipus.

Our text—verse, Rashi, and Midrash—is well aware of the equation or identity between the two central women in a man’s life, his wife and his mother, but it sees the comparison, not in terms of the sexual or erotic, of disguised incestuous longings and repressed patricidal fantasies, but rather in terms of a certain spiritual conception of the feminine. The open doors to the tent express hospitality, Hesed, concern for others, openness to strangers; the blessing in the dough symbolizes the material side of warm, comfortable domesticity; the candle burning from one Shabbat eve to the next represents, perhaps, the light of Torah and wisdom; while the cloud symbolizes the Divine Indwelling, present wherever man and woman reside together in peace and harmony.

For Yitzhak, Sarah embodied the principle of femininity. After she died, Abraham and Yitzhak lived like two old bachelors, stumbling around the house, bumping into each other. Their home was without the sense of grace, of Hesed, of a certain kind of spaciousness, of aesthetics, of intuitive wisdom, of that indefinable “feminine touch” that she had provided. It was, if you like, a house in the functional sense, but not really a home. Then when Rivkah entered the scene, things returned as they had been.

Some years ago I polemicized in these pages with Mordecai Gafni, who argued for the resurgence of Eros, of the erotic alongside the ethical, the “pagan” with the prophetic. I continue to view what he wrote then as problematical. But it must be added that he took pains to note that the “erotic” is not only, or even primarily, the sexual in any narrow or specific sense, but rather the whole realm of affirmation of life energy: Eros in contradistinction to Thanatos, life versus death. In this sense, one might argue that the mother is indeed the first erotic “object” of the small child: the source of life and sustenance, a fount of love and nurturing, the very embodiment of what anthropologists and students of myth call “the Eternal Feminine” or “the Great Mother”—ultimately, perhaps, not so different from what Kabbalah and even earlier midrash refers to as Shekhinah or Imma=Binah. Where Freud would have mother, like wife, as a (secret) object of sexual desire, our midrash has the reverse: wife, not only as sexual partner, but as embodiment of the eternal feminine.

Or perhaps we can read this in a slightly different way: one may see Yitzhak as an extreme introvert, a mystic, who spent long hours wandering in the field, meditating, communing with God in utter solitude. He counted on the women in his life—first his mother, and later his wife (whom he never had to court, but who was found and brought to him by a faithful household retainer)—to deal with “the real world.”

This line of thought calls to mind a shivah call I once made to a man whose wife had died of cancer during her middle years, at the height of realizing her manifold talents and abilities. The halakhah, as is known, prescribes that one not speak to a mourner until he/she addresses those who have come to comfort; should he prefer to sit in total silence, even for seven days and nights, as did Job, one must respect the person’s wishes—albeit in practice, the mourner almost always speaks to his visitors within a few moments. But on this occasion the bereaved husband sat on the floor, withdrawn into himself, and did not speak to a soul. After fifteen minutes of sitting in silence I got up, said what one is supposed to say, and left. Some time later I discussed this incident with a mutual acquaintance, who commented that this man, brilliant as he was academically, was almost totally inarticulate and at a loss to deal with life on an everyday human level. His late wife, in addition to being, like himself, highly intelligent and educated, had been graced with human skills—she was warm and vivacious, knew how to connect with others easily, as well as having a practical bent and being a good homemaker. In brief, she had served as his emissary, his contact with the world of people, the one through whom he communicated with the world. Hence, when she died he was utterly destroyed and distraught.

TOLDOT / VAYISHLAH / HANUKKAH: Jacob and Esau: The Eternal Struggle

The conflict between Jacob and Esau, which in Midrash and later Jewish thought is paradigmatic for the difficult relationship of the Jewish people with the Gentile world—really the central fact in our long and strange history—begins with one simple fact: that each of the parents had a favorite child. So much so, that each is referred to in turn, in two successive verses, as “his/her son,” pointedly in the singular: “Esau his son” and “Jacob her son” (Gen 27:5, 6). It all begins way back in childhood, as soon as the character traits of each begins to emerge: “Isaac loved Esau, for he had a taste for game, and Rebecca loved Jacob.” The one is “a hunter, a man of the field” and the other “a simple/quiet man, one who dwells in tents”—but neither one seems inherently superior to the other. In terms of the simple sense of the text, there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for the former to be condemned as Esav harasha, “the wicked Esau.” “A man of the fields” is a more traditionally masculine role. One senses that the parents were playing out certain unnamed conflicts, a certain subterranean, veiled, maybe even unconscious hostility between one another, through their children. At times, even without divorce, there can be deep currents of rivalry and competition between a couple that upset and destroy the natural harmony and cooperation within the home. As a result, each child really had only one parent with whom he bonded in a deep way. Jacob was naïve, young, inexperienced in way of the world, and thus easily manipulated and used as a pawn by Rivkah.

And significantly, it was this split that began within the home, in the unnamed tensions between man and wife, that led to the deep split between Esau and Jacob. Ultimately, at least in the midrashic reading, this was to make the chasm between Hellenistic or Greco-Roman culture and Judaism inevitable. As if to say: the two cultural paths, so different from one another, are ultimately related. The break between the two cultures, the two paths—what Matthew Arnold, in his essay “Hebraism and Hellenism,” characterizes as “spontaneity of consciousness” vs. “strictness of conscience,” ”right thinking” vs. “right acting”—is ultimately a family dispute. The depth of the conflict derives precisely from the fact that they are so closely related.

Can we imagine another scenario, one in which these cultural options somehow complement one another, live in harmony? Or, on another level: might Gafni’s seemingly outrageous proposal of a synthesis of paganism and prophetism, of ethics and eros, not have a grain of truth in it? Or perhaps the problem is not in harmonizing the values per se, but in the fact that their potential unification is messianic, unrealizable in the world as we know it? Greek culture, after all, was not a culture of violence, of licentiousness and self-indulgence as ends. There was a certain vision of beauty, of harmony, of aesthetics (the “classical” proportions of the Greeks), of what Arnold calls “sweetness and light,” that was seen as opposed to the moral earnestness, the uncompromising passion for justice, ethics, and holiness, that were the guiding principles of Judaism.

Perhaps we need to think in terms of healing the age-old rift. Perhaps, davka as a new barbarism from the East threatens to engulf humankind in a new age of fanaticism and bloodshed, the task of our generation is to envision a synthesis, to engage in tikkun of the rift between Esau and Jacob, that will somehow spread the light to all mankind. Truth be told, the history of modern, post-Enlightenment Jewry, even among the Orthodox, or at least among those who have in any way been engaged in modern culture, has been one of synthesis with the best and finest and most noble elements of world culture, not of its rejection. (This was also the vision of classical Reform, that spoke of a Jewish mission to be a light unto the nations—but there it was deracinated, there was too much reneging on Jewish uniqueness, on the specifics of Jewish religious experience, of halakhah, of Shabbat, of the unique ambience and universe of meaning created by the Hebrew language—in brief, of all that gave power, intensity and vitality to the Jewish path. In all this, Reform sinned in being too self-effacing, apologetic.)

All these are thoughts to contemplate for Hanukkah. Must we forever pride ourselves on being “a people that dwells apart”? If our God is Master of all the Universes, is it not strange to view 99.7% of our fellow humans—His creatures—as “goyim” in the pejorative sense? Perhaps we need to make our central task the realization of the vision embodied in Rashi’s commentary on the first verse of Shema—that HASHEM, who is presently our God, will become One, that is, will be accepted as the God of All. (For a fuller discussion of these issues, see Vayishlah (Midrash) in the archives for December 2005)

VAYESHEV: On Genesis and the Dilemmas of Human Sexuality

Parshat Vayeshev, perhaps more than any other section of the Torah, depicts in vivid color several of the nastier aspects of human interaction: the wild, uncontrollable aspects of human sexuality; the potential for hatred and jealousy within the family; the treachery of betrayal and ingratitude. The figure of Potiphar’s wife, who attacks Joseph almost like a wild animal (Hazal call her “the bear”), causing him to flee the house leaving a torn piece of his clothing in her hand, illustrates the wilder aspect of woman’s sexual desire; Tamar’s desire for a child, and the lengths to which she is willing to go to become pregnant, illustrates another aspect of female sexuality, the powerful mothering instinct; so does the fierce competition between the two sisters, Leah and Rachel, to bear children to Jacob (see the reflections on this posted on my blog, under Vayetze (Torah)). On the other hand, Judah’s casual attitude towards sex, when offered to him at a crossroads far from home, is somehow typically male, instantly recognizable to us despite the distance of nearly 4000 years.

Likewise the Esau-Jacob dichotomy, which we touched upon in Vayishlah, applies not only to relations between Jews and the nations, but also to the dichotomy between body and spirit and, by extension, to that of male and female. Taken, first, on the practical level: Jacob and Esau differ profoundly in their attitudes towards women, much as they did in other aspects of their character. Yaakov was a romantic, who loved only one woman his entire life. His polygamous household was forced on him, first by Lavan’s deceit, then by his wives’ insistence on bearing children through their surrogates; but even into old age he loved his Rachel, after her death transferring this preferential love to her sons above all others, blind to its consequences for the family.

By contrast, according to the Midrash Esau was a skirt chaser, one who saw women as conquests—part of the “prey” he sought in the field, “the hunt.” But he was sensitive to criticism on this score. In a poignant passage, the Torah relates that, when his parents disapproved of the Canaanite girls he married, he sought a wife from his own extended family, marrying his first cousin—Mahalath or Basmath, daughter of Ishmael (Gen 28:6-9; cf. 36:3; there is no little confusion about the names of his wives). Both Yitzhak and Rivkah, and the Torah’s narrative voice, are silent about this marriage. This silence speaks volumes. The poor man just can’t get it right; or, as my parents would say, a sheinem dank (roughly translated: “Thanks for nothing!”). Incidentally, an interesting significance of this is that the two mythic enemies of the Jewish people—Christianity and Islam—are united by this marriage.

Returning to the body-soul dichotomy: in generations past, the image of Jacob as “dweller in tents,” as a “mama’s boy” devoted to things of the mind, was a kind of paradigm for the yeshiva bokhur—the stereotypically pale, physically awkward ghetto Jew who devoted all his time to books and study. The counter-image of Esau as “a hunter… a man of the field” expressed the association between the outdoors, bloodshed, the Gentile world, and all that was non-Jewish, if not actively anti-Semitic. The history of modern Judaism may be read as a kind of rejection of these stereotypes, and the creation of a new kind of Jew—primarily in Israel, but also in the Diaspora, with the emergence of a new type of Diaspora Jew who is wholly at home within his environment, healthy, strong, well-groomed, and unafraid (at least superficially so). And yet, the old stereotypes persist. In American Jewish literature, one finds such writers as Philip Roth, for whom Jewishness is associated with emasculation, if not actual castration; or, in cinema, Woody Allen, whose New York Jewish intellectual is the paradigmatic shleimel and luft mensch, constantly thinking, analyzing, talking. On the other extreme, Israel has created the Hebrew soldier, a type which, carried to absurd extremes, can be as ludicrous a stereotype as the other. One thinks of former General Raphael Eitan (Raful), who died last year in the month of Kislev in an almost mythic, Promethean manner, carried off to sea during a storm by a mighty wave. Soldier, man of the soil, generally thought of as inarticulate, slow of speech, halting; enormously masculine, in a classic way; and, one must add, simplistically right wing and racist in his politics. Has not the development of the “New Jew” also led to a distortion in our personality as a nation?

QUOTATION OF THE MONTH: “I converted (to Christianity) out of conviction: the conviction that it is better to be professor in St Petersburg than a melamed (Heder teacher / instructor) in Snipachock” —Prof. Daniel Chwolson, 19th century Russian-Jewish authority on Karaism.

Distasteful as I find apostasy, plaudits are due to Chwolson for his intellectual honesty, in openly confessing his own cynicism and self-serving motivations—unlike many contemporary parties. Sheyirbu kemoto be-Yisrael.

Hayyei Sarah (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see Archives, below, for November 2005.

“And God blessed Isaac…”

This week’s parasha lies at an interesting crossroads between life and death, between grief and joy, between mourning and marriage. It begins with Sarah’s death and Abraham mourning her, it moves on to Isaac’s marriage followed by Abraham’s second (third?) marriage, and concludes with Abraham’s own death and his burial bringing his children together. In between we find Isaac finding comfort in his wife for his mother’s death (interestingly, Isaac is shown as bereaved for his mother, but not present at the funeral or at the whole scene of Abraham buying her burial plot).

This time I wish to discuss, neither one of the opening verses of the portion nor one dealing with an obviously major issue, as I have done the past few weeks, but rather with a seemingly obscure, almost tangential verse. Toward the end of the parasha we learn of Abraham’s death, and of how his two sons Isaac and Ishmael are reunited on the occasion of his burial. The section is then concluded with the following verse:

25:11: “And after the death of Abraham God blessed Isaac his son, and Isaac dwelt at Be’er la-Hai Ro’i.” Rashi: “And He blessed.” He comforted him with the condolences of mourners [Sotah 14b]. Another thing: Even though the Holy One blessed be He had given the blessings over to Abraham, he was afraid to bless Isaac, because he saw Esau coming out of him. He said: Let the Master of Blessing come and bless he whom He sees fit in His eyes. And the Holy One came and blessed him.

Starting with the second, longer comment, we find that Rashi here picks up on an interesting detail: whereas Isaac and Jacob each bless their sons before they die—indeed, these scenes of death-bed blessing, each one in their own way, are among the most dramatic and poignant of the whole Book of Genesis—nowhere is Abraham shown blessing his son Isaac. Why? Rashi’s second answer is that Abraham made a deliberate choice not to bless Isaac, because he had some sort of prophetic or preternatural vision that he would have a son Esau who would be problematic, to say the least, and did not wish to bless him, even indirectly (foreshadowing the famous scene with Isaac’s deathbed blessing of his two sons, on which more in its place). Hence, he so to speak left the blessing to God.

This question is exacerbated by another detail, mentioned earlier: at Gen 12: 2, Rashi comments that the words “you shall be a blessing” (והיה ברכה) indicate that Abraham will have the power and responsibility of dispensing blessings in the world, a task delegated him by God Himself. Hence, it is even more surprising that Abraham does not bless his own son.

Rashi is consistent with his system: he knows that Abraham is supposed to dispense blessings, but that in this case he did not do so; hence, there must be a reason for it. I find this particularly interesting in terms of the popular image of Rashi. It is interesting to compare Rashi and Rambam, arguably the two greatest teachers of medieval Judaism. The two seem so different: Rambam is systematic, logical, a system builder who takes his readers step by step, explaining each definition and deduction, whether in his philosophical or halakhic works. Rashi by contrast seems much more “folksy”: a comment here, a midrash there, a linguistic observation somewhere else (but only rarely using the formal terminology of the great Spanish grammarians), drawing attention to the Aramaic Targum in a fourth place, and so on. But after you read him for a while, one begins to see that he has his own system, his own internal logic and axioms and assumptions. This is doubly evident in his Talmud commentary which, because it is so often studied as the first explanation of this central legal text, is itself seen as “Rashi’s shitah”—but it is clearly the case even in Humash.

Let us now turn to his first comment: that God’s blessing was really a form of comforting the mourners. This is reminiscent of the classic Rabbinic comment that God’s behavior served as a model for various acts of lovingkindness, from clothing Adam and Eve at the very beginning of the Torah, to seeing personally to Moses’ burial at its very end. The question here then becomes: in what sense is comforting the mourners a form of “blessing”?

We shall precede this by another question: what is mourning about? Does it belong, to quote an oft-articulated idea of Rav Soloveitchik, to that class of mitzvot in which the external act is a kind of shell bearing an inner, spiritual core, similar to prayer, the recitation of Shema, or rejoicing on festivals? Or is it simply a formal, normative act? There are those, such as the Kabbalists, who say that certain ceremonies are for the benefit of the soul in the other world, while there are others who offer a kind of moralistic interpretation: when death strikes a family or community or a particular social circle “all that circle should feel dread” (as if they are next in the line of fire).

I suspect that it is neither: the essence of mourning is not a religious message that needs to be learned, but a very simple, immediate human response. Grief and pain at the loss of a beloved person, perhaps even the one person in the world who made life worth living. And, to be perhaps brutally honest, it is often as much for oneself—for one’s own loss—as it is of empathy for the one who has left this world. The mourner thinks to him/herself: how will I continue my own life without this person? The death of a near one is a crisis in terms of the emotional economy of one’s life—and at times, perhaps also practically, even financially. In this light, the act of nihum aveilim, of comforting and consoling the mourners, is not so much a matter of any words that one may say, but simply of being with the bereaved person in their loss, in the sense of solidarity, of caring, expressed simply be being there, even in silence—in the message that, in some small way, human love is still out there, albeit in different form.

I see some of this in another Rashi, which I’ve noted in previous years, but on which I want to note one particular point:

24:67: “And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rebekka and she became his wife, and he loved here, and Isaac was comforted after his mother.” Rashi: “After his mother.” So long as a man’s mother is alive he is close to her; once she dies, he takes comfort in his wife.

We have noted in previous years the Oedipal side of this verse, and Rashi’s comment: that the bond of son to mother is so powerful—call it emotional, call it erotic, call it dependence, call it sublimated sexuality—that it serves as the model for all future relationships with women, including that with his own wife. Rashi says that, but adding an interesting turn: that Yitzhak was comforted in Rivkah for Sarah’s death. The role of the wife in a man’s emotional economy, so to speak, comes about particularly strongly after his mother’s death. (Note all the jokes about Jewish mothers and mothers-in-law, and at times their barely concealed hostility to the women their son’s married. And note: the idyllic closeness between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in the Book of Ruth only occurred after the son/husband was dead and out of the way as an object of rivalry.) Today, marriage tends to be seen in terms of sexual or emotional connection, “meeting my needs” (ich!) or ”relationships”—all the coy words that sophisticated modern people use to conceal their essential self-centeredness.

Here, the wife seems to take over the mother’s role as nurturer. The interesting thing is that the trigger for marriage, the need comes about, neither through romantic love nor through the sense of responsibility to the next generation, that “it’s time to find someone with whom to start a family.” Rather, it as a substitute for the mother’s love. The poles of life and death, joy and sadness, grief and marriage, are tied together in an almost Gordian knot. We have here a melancholy, almost lachrymose approach, to the love between man and woman.

I wish to return to the subject of death from another angle, one that also hearkens back to the Akedah, where Abraham, and later Yitzhak together with him, are described as facing the dreadful act with a sense of “joy and willingness.” Regarding the readiness to die with almost a sense of joy: recently, an old friend of mine, Ruth Saposnick, died of cancer after a long struggle, with many ups and downs. We had been participants in the Young Judaea Year Course in Israel when we were teenagers, spent three months together on kibbutz and, forty years later, after email became ubiquitous, the group reestablished contact, locating every last member, held a reunion here in Israel, and thereafter continued to write one another regularly.

Ruth was ill for a long time, and many of us followed her struggle with the disease from afar through the periodic group emails sent out by various people. Already at the reunion, I was struck by a certain sense of inner peace radiated by Ruth, of calm, of what might be called life-wisdom, rare at any age and in any condition. Towards the end, when the doctors had given up hope and she was already in a terminal hospice, I heard from a mutual friend that she was joyous, almost ecstatic in mood.

I wanted to write her, but found it hard to know exactly what to say to a person who is dying—particularly since we hadn’t been particularly close, apart from one lengthy and rather moving conversation at the reunion. Should I write her a message of spiritual preparation for this greatest of all life transitions, of how to “cross the river,” à la Ma’avar Yabbok or Tibetan Book of the Dead? She wasn’t that kind of believer, and it would just sound silly. And, truth be told, I felt that at this point she didn’t really need any of our blabberings: if anything, she was probably far wiser, deeper, than any of us.

All of which prompted the following reflection: that most people (myself included) are afraid of death, but more important, on a certain level we don’t really believe in our own death. How can we? We experience life through our consciousness—our sense perceptions, our thoughts, and the inner dialogue we constantly conduct with ourselves. Death means the cessation of all that: either completely (for the non–believer, or should I say: for the non-believer in the survival of the soul), or the soul being transmuted to another plane, totally inconceivable to us in this earthly sphere. Either way, our present consciousness is not there. We won’t be lying on a slab in a morgue or wherever thinking and observing what’s going on. How can such a thing even be imagined?

Yet Ruthie, and people like her—typically, those who have suffered long, drawn-out disease and had a long time to prepare and think about it—have somehow become reconciled with death in their own lifetime, and have somehow learned to accept their own mortality. That they—we—are not the center (something, again, that we all say, but by and large don’t really believe). Whether the person defines him/herself as religious or not, what they know is essentially a deeply religious insight: that man is transient, while God is eternal, transcendent. Life after death is not the real issue, but God’s eternity and being around before and after us. That, I think, is the meaning of Ruthie’s joy. May her memory, and the experience of having known her, be a blessing for all of us.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Vayera (Rashi)

For further teachings on this week's parsha, see the archives for November 2005. For more on Shlomo Carlebach see the archives for October 2004.

“And The Two of Them Went Together”

The centrality in Jewish thought and theology of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, requires no introduction. Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz was fond of saying that the difference between the Akedah and the Crucifixion was emblematic of the difference between Judaism and Christianity: in the one, God sacrifices Himself for Mankind; in the other, man is asked to sacrifice that which is dearest and most precious to him in the pure, disinterested, not to say paradoxical and possibly absurd, service of God.

His sister, the noted Bible and parshanut scholar Nehama Leibowitz, analyzed the literary style of the Akedah account in one of her Studies, noting that it is written in a semi-chiastic, symmetrical format. That is, just about every significant linguistic phrase in the first half of the narrative (Gen 22:1-6a) is repeated or mirrored in the second half (9-19): the call to Abraham; the use of the phrase “your son, [your beloved], your only one”; the ma’akhelet, a rare word for knife; the pile of wood; the reference to the place as the one “that I shall show you” and afterwards as “where God was made seen”; etc. For our purposes, what is most significant here is that it points towards verses 7-8 as the dramatic center of the story, framed by the repetition in 6b and 8b of the phrase “and the two of them walked together” (וילכו שניהם יחדיו). We shall consider here Rashi’s comments on these verses.

22:6. “And the two of them walked together.” Rashi: Abraham who knew that he was going to slaughter his son, went with joy and willingness, like Yitzhak, who did not feel [i.e., know] the thing.

The first time this phrase is used, it indicates solidarity of father and son, notwithstanding the total difference in their knowledge or expectation of what was to take place. Given that Yitzhak had no particular reason to suspect that he was about to be offered on the altar and (as far as Abraham knew) meet his death, the significant point is with regard to Abraham: that, notwithstanding the grisly task that awaited him, and with it the imminent destruction of all hopes for continuity of his life’s work through his beloved heir, he “went with joy and willingness”—as if he were still innocent of what was to ensue. (We will comment further on what it means to rejoice despite the imminent death of oneself or a loved one below, and in next week’s paper).

Immediately thereafter, all this changes: the literary intuition of Rashi, following the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 56.4, is that the repetition of the phrase “and the two of them walked together” must indicate that this was not self-evident; that there was some change in the relation between them between verse 6b and 8b, which could only have been cased by Isaac’s sudden enlightenment as to the real purpose of this journey. At this point, the conversation between Abraham and Isaac in 7-8a, which on the surface could be read as almost trivial, or even as a parental white lie, is seen as conveying the terrible truth:

8. “[God] will make seen the sheep.” He will choose Himself the sheep. And if there is no sheep, “as a burnt offering, my son.” Even though Isaac understood that he’s going to be slaughtered, “and the two of them walked together”—with equal heart.

Between the first and the second “and they walked together” Isaac asks a crucial question: If we are going to offer a sacrifice, where is the sacrificial animal? Abraham’s answer, “God will make seen the sheep, my son” is broken down by Rashi into two syntactic units, as if two separate answers: ”maybe God will show us a sheep; an if not, you, my son, are the burnt offering.” In this way, Abraham is seen as breaking the news to his son that he is the one intended for sacrifice. And yet, Rashi concludes, the two continue to walk together as one. The shocking news is accepted by Isaac calmly: whatever extraordinary spiritual and psychological qualities enabled Abraham to perform this strange act, calmly and obediently and faithfully—what Kierkegaard calls being a “knight of faith”—are equally present in the son (however old or young he may have been at the time; the most popular midrash on the subject make him to be a 37-year-old adult). Our midrash here conveys this idea most elegantly through the repetition, in connection with both verses, of the identical words: ” this one to bind, that one to be bound; this one to slaughter, that one to be slaughtered” (זה לעקוד וזה ליעקד, זה לשחוט וזה להשחט).

A historical comment: Rashi lived at the time of the First Crusades, during which the venerable Jewish communities of the Rhine Valley (perhaps 200 miles east of Rashi’s home in Troyes) suffered terrible pogroms, forced conversion, and slaughter. Hence, Jews during that period identified particularly strongly with the Akedah as a paradigm; a martyr’s death “for the sake of the Holy Name” was a central religious value. And, unlike Abraham, there was no angel to stay the hand holding the sword at the last moment, but there were many who literally died for their faith. Shalom Spiegel, in his book The Last Trial, has written movingly and learnedly of this parallel, presenting various texts from midrashim, chronicles, and piyyutim in which the comparing to the Akedah is made explicit. More recently, historian Israel Yuval, in his book Two Nations in Your Womb (recently published in English translation), has discussed the bizarre-seeming phenomenon of parents themselves killing their own children to prevent them falling prey to the Crusaders, who might raise them in the alien faith—and at times these acts of ritual murder were performed in a manner closely patterned after the animal sacrifices in the Temple.

In general, the Akedah has played a strong role in Jewish imagination. It is invoked at times as a motif in Israeli life as well—there are those who depict the young soldiers who fall in battle as victims of a latter-day Akedah (the adult society’s inability to make peace?); while others draw a parallel between Rabin’s assassination and the Akedah: and indeed, not only was his name Yitzhak, but he was murdered on the Motzei Shabbat preceding Parshat Vayera, i.e., that week during which the Akedah is read.

“For now I know that you are truly God-Fearing”

12: “For now I know that you are God-fearing.” Rashi: “Now I know…” From now on I have an answer to the Satan and the nations of the world, who wonder what my debt is to you. I have an opening, now that they see “that you are God-fearing.”

On this verse, Rashi presents his interpretation of the actual reason for the Akedah, one quite different from its standard explanation as a test of Abraham: whether of his single-minded devotion to God, or of what Kierkegaard calls the “theological suspension of the ethical”—that is, his willingness to suspend not only his fatherly feelings but also his ethical sensibilities of what is right or wrong. Rashi doesn’t go into all that: the Akedah was not to test Abraham, but to prove to the non-Jewish nations Abraham’s incomparable devotion and thus religious superiority, which by extension accrues to the people Israel and explains why God favors them. Again, what we have here is best explained in the context of Jewish-Christian polemic: Judaism and the Jewish people, the seed of Abraham, being vindicated by the Akedah!

Ethics and Theology

A letter from a reader about the philosophical issue raised by the Akedah prompted me to formulate the matters once again, even though I’ve dealt with it in previous years. Mark Feffer asked me:

“God said to Abraham, ‘kill me a son.’ Abraham said, ‘God, you must be putting me on.’” Did Bob Dylan think/know that in actuality Abraham refused to kill Isaac and God said, “Shhh, Just play along!”? How could Abraham agree? This is no God of Ethics that Abraham knew, to paraphrase the Satan as Abraham journeyed to Moriah (yera’eh?).

This is the classic problem: the conflict between ethics and the theocentric love of God that transcends all reason. The argument goes something like this: if God is the ultimate source of all things, whatever God says must by definition be ethical. Who are you [i.e., puny human being] to think that you understand ethics better than He who gave the ethical law in the first place? This is the origin of the whole idea in Habad that the mitzvot are le-ma’alah mi-ta’am vada’at, i.e., transcend all [human] reason or understanding. Hence the celebration of the hukim, those mitzvot which we cannot understand, such as parah adumah, as the archetype for all religious action. This is a strong motif, especially in contemporary Orthodoxy.

And indeed, ethical philosophy based on human reason alone is a thorny complex subject. Kant tried to develop his categorical imperative by which we say: do not commit any action whose maxim—i.e., underlying principle—could not be made universal. Bit there are many holes that can and have been poked in this and similar attempts to ground ethics purely on reason.

On the other hand, there is a whole school that says that God cannot be unethical, and that there is such a thing as conscience, natural law, etc., that is inherent in man’s mind/heart/soul. I tend towards that view (see the stuff I’ve written about the Noachide Code in past years). And indeed, one can say that the Akedah story ends up with Abraham being told NOT to do it, so ethics is also given its day. Or is it? After all, God tested Abraham to see if he was ready to do the Akedah—that is, God was interested in his state of mind, not his actions—and presumably he got good marks, judging from the blessing given him by the angel thereafter, because he was prepared to do the Akedah with all his heart, unquestioningly.

But I just had a crazy idea for an alternative, post-modern midrash: maybe God’s test of Abraham was punkt farkert, exactly opposite: He wanted Abraham to refuse, to prove the power of his moral autonomy and his sense of natural morality, and he failed the test. As a result, God realized that human beings had to be treated as not-fully-mature moral beings; that they were unable to act with real moral courage or inner power, but needed to be led or “babied” somewhat (in this view, the ideal is more like that of Nietzsche, or Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor). But then one needs to explain away the blessings he receives thereafter: perhaps they were all material blessings, as in the end even Abraham is unable to appreciate the more subtle, rarified ethical heights.

As I said, just a crazy speculation.

Readers’ Response: On Noah, Violence, etc.

Reader David Greenstein wrote:

Two points touching on your words of Torah. First, about Lekh Lekha: about humans giving blessings, I think of the enigmatic last mishnah in Berakhot, where the response to the religious challenges posed by heretics (“once the minim, schismatics, became spoiled) was the insistence that individuals (outside the priestly confines of the Temple) exchange greetings by blessing one another with the Divine Name (“God be with you… May God bless you”—taken from Ruth 2:4). It is possible to respond to times of restricted religious faithfulness by circling the wagons, or one may take the opposite tack and spread blessings liberally (see the Tosefta here). This was, as you observe, the Abrahamic way of Reb Shlomo z”l.

Re violence: Here are some thoughts I shared last week with some friends. After the flood had abated Noah sent out the raven who is unsuccessful in scouting the terrain. Then he sends the dove who also, initially, does not find dry land. But the Torah includes a remarkable verse, saying “he put out his hand and he took her and he brought her into the ark” (Gen 8:9). So much detail! Why tell us that he stretched out his hand? Why not simply report that the dove, unlike the raven, returned to the ark this time? It seems that the dove might not have made it without Noah's help. And Noah may not have stretched out his arm if he had not first seen the failure of the raven. This simple act speaks of an emotional attachment, a real caring that Noah feels toward this poor creature, with whom Noah had entered into a mutual relationship of need and trust.

But this verse stands in stark and disturbing contrast to two other events and actions: the attention to small details in the act of “stretching out one’s hand and taking” is chillingly repeated at the Akedah (“and Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son”; 22:10), where the purpose is lethal rather than embracing, though the emotional weight is perhaps even greater. But closer to this story there is another tragic echo, for immediately after Noah leaves the ark, where he has lived in intimate relation with the dove and all the animals and birds, he again takes them—and slaughters them on the altar as a sacrifice. The ark, into which Noah hastened to bring the dove, was a respite and shelter from this habit of killing. But it was only a temporary one. Perhaps Noah intuited this as he stretched out his hand.

Lekh Lekha (Supplement) - On Shlomo Carlebach

Rebbe and Minstrel

A posthumous Mazal Tov to Shlomo, and—sheyibadlu lehayyim arukim— to Neilah, to Neshama and to her husband, on the birth of their first grandchild and child, respectively: Rafael Lev Shlomo, born Erev Shabbat Noah. May he be a worthy heir to his illustrious name.

For some years, I have been fascinated by the life of Shlomo Carlebach. Though there have been quite a few books about his life, these are mostly hagiographical collections of anecdotes (Although some basic information may be gleaned from Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum’s biographical introduction to her book, Holy Brother! [Jason Aronson, 1997], xxiii-xxxv). There is need for a serious, full-length biography, but that is a dream for the future. On this present occasion of his twelfth Yahrzeit, I have chosen to present a brief discussion of what I see as central themes in his life, suggesting a certain interpretation based upon what I know, as well as posing certain unresolved questions that a full-length biography ought to include. Let he who may take up that gauntlet.

In reconstructing the life story of a great man—or of any person, for that matter—we must begin by asking two central questions: what was his unique life-work? And, how did he become who he became? What was the process he underwent in discovering whatever he discovered, and what were the crucial life decisions or turning points that shaped who he became? It is only after answering these questions that one turns to the other aspect: the detailed recounting of a life-story, with dates, names and places, ideas, writings, institutions, and events.

Why are so many people fascinated with Shlomo? What was it about this man that was so powerful, and that in certain ways moved people more after his death than during his lifetime? To begin at the conclusion: were I to be asked to define the central contribution of Shlomo Carlebach to Jewish life today, I would say that it was in his restoring the centrality of neshama, of “soul,” of emotion—religious and human—to Judaism (significantly, he chose the name “Neshama” for his oldest child, who has just herself become a parent). He spearheaded a certain reawakening of the emotional, inner element in Judaism, of the centrality of love, and of its translation into a language easily understood by people living today, with minimal or no Jewish background. Correspondingly, I see the central process he underwent in his own life, the decisive choices or turning-points, as relating to the choice of the emotion over the intellect, of the heart or the soul over the mind.

Everyone talks about “spirituality” today, but forty or fifty years ago, when Shlomo started on his unique path, it was barely talked about in the Jewish world. True, there was the old spirituality—of the Musar yeshivot, or of the old-time Polish and Galacian Hasidim, who were slowly regrouping and rebuilding themselves after the horrors of the Shoah, and had created modest enclaves in US and in Israel—but these were small and isolated groups. The mainstream within Orthodoxy placed the stress upon observance, on Torah learning, or presented various kinds of intellectual apologia for Judaism. The non-Orthodox in turn talked about ethical monotheism, about peoplehood, about sancta or folkways or historical memory, about survival and the dangers of intermarriage and assimilation, or about the nascent State of Israel and Holocaust; a few perhaps talked about philosophy or theology, but in a very abstract, intellectual way. No one, it seems, talked about the simple, most basic things: about God, about the yearnings of the soul for God, about the holiness of Shabbat (with the exception, perhaps, of Heschel, but he, again, spoke on a far more intellectual plane).

Shlomo had a genius for reducing things to their essence, for speaking with a simplicity that could speak to and kindle the excitement of a young person starting with no Jewish knowledge. It often seemed to me that he recreated the original mood of Hasidism; that he and his followers somehow created a milieu that was the closest thing to the feel of the original circle of the Baal Shem Tov, translated into contemporary idiom. (Some years ago, Jackie Levi wrote a series of vignettes of various Jerusalem synagogues for a local newspaper, Kol ha-Ir. In one column, he described Kabbalat Shabbat at Beit Simhah, Shlomo’s follower’s Beit Midrash in the Nahalaot neighborhood. He described how Hasidic youngsters, with their long coats and pancake hats and payot, stood outside with their noses pressed up against the windows of the shul, entranced by the uninhibited display of religious ecstasy by these strange-looking, colorfully-dressed, long-haired Americans, as if something they had only heard of in had suddenly come alive before their eyes—Hasidic prayer as it must have been then, rather than the routine thing it has become.)

What is the significance of such an innovation, and why did it emerge at this particular juncture in history? To explain, I must digress a bit. Bahya ibn Paquda, in the introduction to his Hovot ha-Levavot, speaks of the inner obligations of Jewish religiosity, the “duties of the heart,” which he sees as conceptually and even halakhically prior to the practical mitzvot, which he calls “the duties of the limbs.” He describes two ways by which one may attain knowledge of God: through tradition, and through reason. The former is received from one’s parents and family, from one’s teachers or even, in olden days, from one’s community and one’s environment. The latter refers to philosophical knowledge, to demonstration of the existence of God and the nature of His unity, and involves a long and arduous process of study and thinking.

It seems to me that both of these paths have become problematic in our day. The roots of a certain rejection of the intellect lie in the horrors of the Second World War, of the Holocaust and of Hiroshima, and in the truths about the Soviet Union that began to emerge in mid-century—the gulags and purges and the drab society created by “scientific socialism.” All these began to bring the long romance of Western culture with rationalism to an end. Mankind began to mistrust the mind. Reason was no longer king. And, in the religious arena, mediaeval proofs of God had long since been refuted; thus, in an age of atheism, the only path to religious belief seemed an existential “leap of faith.”

Moreover, for many if not most Jews tradition no longer seemed self-evident. The majority of American Jews grew up in homes without a living tradition, without a sense of belonging to shalshelet ha-mesorah, to a chain of tradition in which one was trained from earliest childhood to continue the same religious practice as one’s parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

Thus, one needed to turn to a third source of knowledge or religious experience: emotion. “From my flesh I see God.” Obviously, I am not suggesting that those who went to a Shlomo concert or teach-in had a mystical experience, but that in some sense he succeeded in touching people’s emotions in a way that had at least the potential to awaken their religious sensibility, what Habad calls the Divine portion that resides within the soul of every person, of at least opening them to Shabbat, to prayer, to mitzvot.

Part of Shlomo’s choice of the heart over the mind is expressed in the surprising fact that he never wrote anything of note. Thinkers, intellectuals, religious leaders, those engaged in one way or another in the life of the mind, at some point or another record their thoughts, their ideas, their philosophy of life, in a book. Yet everything that we have in written form of Shlomo’s teaching (and there is quite a bit, and the library of his writings is constantly growing) is based on his disciple’s reconstructions of his oral teachings, whether recorded from memory or from tapes. Some were made in his lifetime (such as the Holy Beggar’s Gazette, published at the House of Love and Prayer during the mid to late 1970s) and others, in more polished, permanent form, mostly after his death. The conclusion I reach is that he was not really interested in what is generally called “the life of the mind,” but in the life of the heart and the life of the soul. In this, he joins a venerable tradition in Judaism of charismatic teachers, such as the Baal Shem Tov and the Ari Ha-Kadosh, whose teachings are known almost exclusively from words recorded by their disciples (not to mention examples in other religions, such as Jesus, the Buddha, etc.).

Of course, the emphasis today on the spirit, on religious life rooted in the emotions, is far wider than Shlomo or Shlomo’s hasidim. Examples indicative of this trend include: the popular revival of Bratslav Hasidism, with its dancing and intense personal prayer; the emergence of a certain style of intense, at times even overheated, prayer in some hesder yeshivot or West Bank settlements; the great popularity of “spiritual teachers” who teach Hasidism and Kabbalah; the emergence of classes focused upon personal and psychological issues drawing upon insights of traditional Jewish teaching—a type of shiur that simply did not exist forty or even twenty years ago.

But Shlomo Carlebach seems to have intuitively understood this need, this thirst of Jews for a type of teaching that speaks directly to the individual soul, forty or even fifty years ago. This is one of the typical signs of greatness: that, in retrospect, what a great person did seems obvious. Greatness lies in a person being ahead of their time: once a pioneer shows the way, it is relatively easy for others to follow in his footsteps. It is precisely the element of vision, of prescience, of seeing certain possibilities, certain potentials, that no one else sees, that is part of the measure of greatness. For example: after Shlomo Carlebach did so, it became obvious that one can sit down with a guitar in front of a group of estranged, ignorant Jews, sing some songs, tell some Hasidic stories, and to feel that it is not utterly bizarre, that there is at least a chance that one may touch someone in the audience. But until Shlomo did it, no one thought of it.

How did he become whom he became? I would identify two crucial turning points in his life, both of which expressed this fundamental tendency of his soul. The first was what I’d call his conversion to Hasidism; the second, his break with institutionalized Orthodoxy generally, specifically with Lubavitch, where he had found a spiritual home for well over a decade. First, his conversion to Hasidism, for which we shall need some background: Shlomo grew up in a traditional “Yekkish” (German Jewish) Rabbinic family. His father, Rabbi Naphtali Hartwig Carlebach, was the youngest of the twelve children of the Lübecker Rav, Rabbi Salomon Carlebach (for whom Shlomo was named): an outstanding exemplar of the classic tradition of the Orthodox synagogue in Western Europe. This tradition drew a sharp line between the maintenance of strict halakhic norms in communal religious life—in the synagogue, schools, kashrut, eruv, mikveh, circumcision, marriage and divorce, burial and the like—and a worldly tolerance regarding the private life of individuals, to which the rabbi might judiciously turn a blind eye, accepting people as they were, without prejudicing their role as members in good standing of the Jewish community. This approach was diametrically opposed to the separatist, elitist, austritzgemeinde approach of Samson Raphael Hirsch and his ”Neo-Orthodoxy,” in which the selective embrace of certain aspects of Western culture—literature, philosophy, music, theater—was combined with a clear separation between the “Torah true” Orthodox and those more lukewarm in their observance. This latter seems to have become the dominant model for most of Orthodoxy today, both Haredi and Centrist-modernist, in both Israel and in the major Diasporas. I believe that the former—that of his grandfather—served Shlomo as a kind of model.

Alongside the formality and strictness, some might even say coldness, of the German Jewish culture, the Carlebach home was one that stressed hesed and generosity, the door being open to all. Shlomo was born in 1925 in Vienna, which at that time was a kind of crossroads for Jews of many different kinds and from many different places, including many Jews from Eastern Europe, from Poland, Galicia, Hungary, who had migrated to the West in hope of parnasah. In Vienna, and in the home of his father, Shlomo must have met many Hasidic Jews, and visited Hasidic synagogues and courts. Already at that time Shlomo’s outstanding mind had attracted the attention of his parents and other adults; he had already studied the entire Talmud by a young age, and generally considered an illui, a prodigy in learning. Following his bar mitzvah, he went to the Lithuanian town of Telz, where he studied for one year at the famous Ponevezh Yeshiva.

In 1939 the family moved to America, where his father became the rabbi of a large synagogue on the West Side of Manhattan. Shlomo studied at Yeshivat Torah ve-Daat under the tutelage of Rav Shlomo Heiman and, at age 17, was invited to study at the prestigious great yeshiva in Lakewood New Jersey, the outstanding Lithuanian style yeshivot in the US. The late Prof. Zev Lev stated that there were only two students in Lakewood at the time who understood Rav Aharon Kutler’s shiur kelalli—himself and Shlomo. But Lakewood was at that time (and probably even more so in our time) strongly marked by the puritanical, ascetic strain within Lithuanian Torah culture. There was a very strict approach to halakhah, and to life generally, Torah learning being considered the only worthwhile endeavor in life: there was a “world-rejecting” dichotomy between the world of Torah and everything else (an idea that has become a dominant theme in Haredi ideology today—but that’s another story). This, in contrast with the traditional Lithuanian ethos of love of learning, deriving great intellectual pleasure from the constant challenge of Torah study, engaging in constant creativity and new insight, while accepting the outside world, and seeing the task of the Rav as one of teaching the Torah in a humane, moderate, tolerant way.

In any event, there was something, both in the “Yekkishe” world of his parents and in the ascetic, intense world of Lakewood, that failed to satisfy Shlomo’s soul. He and his twin brother, Elya Hayyim, set out in a search of other teachers, teachers of holiness, of the joyous love of God, that could feed their souls. They began to visit the various Hasidic courts that existed in the US at the time. Elya Hayyim found his spiritual home in Bobov, eventually becoming one of the closest associates of the Bobover Rebbe and editor of the Encyclopedia of Hasidism published under his aegis, while Shlomo spent many years connected with Lubavitch.

Around 1950, Shlomo began going to campuses together with Zalman Schachter, at that time a young student at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva. The two of them were the first shelihim (emissaries) of the rebbe, who engaged in outreach to the broader, non-observant Jewish world. Interestingly, the two of them could be seen as leaders of the two wings of what might be called the Jewish “counter-culture” or non-establishment movement for religious renewal: Shlomo as the central figure in the Orthodox or quasi-Orthodox wing, while Zalman, who eventually founded the Jewish Renewal movement, as the leading figure in the more free-floating, syncretistic spiritual movement (more on him another time). This juncture in history is deserving of further examination: to what extent was the campus outreach initiated at the behest of either the late Rebbe or of his predecessor, R. Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, and to what extent was it that of Shlomo and/or Zalman—and how did things develop over the course of time? In general, what role was played in the beginnings of the ba’al teshuvah movement by each of these figures?

The second, more decisive turning point, was Shlomo’s break with the Rebbe and with Lubavitch, and his turning towards his own independent path, outside of mainstream Orthodoxy. I do not know many specific details, but during the course of the 1950’s we begin to find Shlomo playing the guitar, composing sings, and singing publicly—first at weddings within the “yeshivish” crowd, then at public concerts held in synagogues, Jewish community centers, as well as in halls and nightclubs. An important breakthrough in his public career was a concert at the Village Gate, in Greenwich Village, NYC, about 1959. His talent and spirit, the soulful depth of his songs, began to attract attention.

But they also led to criticism within the strictly Orthodox milieu, in which he had his roots. Young men and women mingled freely at his concerts. He was also known for greeting all comers to his concerts, both male and female, with a warm hug—a clear violation of the halakhah against touching girls and women, and fact that gained him notoriety and eventually made him persona non gratis in the yeshiva and Hasidic worlds. In 1959, a rabbi even sent Rav Moshe Feinstein a halakhic query, wondering whether one oughtn’t to forbid the singing of Shlomo’s songs at frum weddings—a suggestion soundly rejected by Rav Moshe (see Iggerot Moshe, Even ha-Ezer, I. §96), who noted that Shlomo was far from being a pagan, but someone who believed in God and Torah but was “a sinner regarding one specific matter, out of impulse.”

According to one account, about this time the Lubavitcher Rebbe called him to task for all this, insisting on separation of the sexes as a cardinal principle of Hasidic outreach. Shlomo replied that, were he to be insistent on this point, he would lose 90% of the potential to reach people. The Rebbe allegedly expressed a certain understanding of his argument, but added “that is not my way,” gave him a certain blessing, and they parted their ways. (Albeit, Shlomo remained deeply attached to the Rebbe and pained by the break; once, around 1967, I attended a 19th Kislev Farbregen at 770 Eastern Parkway and noticed Shlomo, late at night, slipping into the vast hall and staying way at the back. Interestingly, the two of them died within a few months of one another.)

His break with the Orthodox world, in which he had grown up and in which he had innumerable friends, could not have been easy for him. I always felt that it left a deep rent in his soul; at times, there seemed to be a profound loneliness deep in his core. He spoke about that world with a strange combination of bitterness and yearning: bitterness at the manner in which they had misunderstood him and so completely rejected him and his way; and yet yearning, nevertheless, for the sense of holiness he had known there, and for the teachers and rebbes he had so loved. One small example: I once took him, before a Shabbat at Brandeis, to the mikveh at the Bostoner Rebbe’s home. Afterwards I suggested that we go up and say hello to the rebbe, whom he probably had not seen for many years. His answer was something like, “The Rebbe’s a very sweet man, but we don’t have time.” It seemed to me that the thought of confronting one of his acquaintances from those days and that world was uncomfortable to him.

From this point on, we find Shlomo engaging in what might be described as his life work, a story that has been told many times: a one-man program to reach as many Jews throughout the world as possible, using songs, stories, as well as more text-oriented forms of teaching; traveling throughout the United States and the world, to Israel, Europe, Latin America and even to the Soviet Union. During this period, though he certainly continued to grow and create, his basic persona and way of being in the world was essentially that known to many people throughout the next thirty-five years.

Having discussed what appear to be the central turning points in his life, we now turn to what might be called auxiliary questions and subjects, whose history also needs to be written.

First of all, the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco. This was a unique institution, a strange, improbable hybrid of hippie commune and Beit midrash/synagogue, which welcomed all, Jew and non-Jew, to participate in their communal life, whose high point was the weekly ecstatic Shabbatot. Over time, a core group of people emerged who had made a certain commitment to a kind of Jewish life: when Shlomo was there, he learned with them, plus with whomever else was ready to listen. The atmosphere was generally rather chaotic, if not anarchic, but filled with love and tolerance, as was de rigeur at that time and place. He developed, for example, a unique style of conducting Shabbat services in a way that could touch the hearts of all those present without any prior knowledge of Judaism or Hebrew, yet satisfied the minimum Halakhic requirements: basically, lots of singing, Hasidic stories, talking, and fast but intense davening and reading of the Torah. How did the House of Love and Prayer start? How did he first reach people within the hippie world? And, the question that probably can never be answered: what was it within him that enabled him to see that these alienated kids would be open to the message of Torah and of Judaism?

At one point, Shlomo had a dream of setting up a yeshiva of a new type, training his hevra to become leaders—rabbis, intensely committed to a traditional Jewish religious life, but with openness and tolerance and without focusing on those extraneous issues on which Orthodox leadership typically gets stuck and drives a wedge between people. Quite a number of his disciples have in fact became rabbi-teachers, and each in their own way has learned to reach out in Shlomo style (I refrain from listing names, to avoid offending by inadvertent omission).

At a later stage, his dream of community shifted to the Land of Israel. There was a brief attempt in the late ‘60s to establish a community in the town of Migdal on the shores of the Kinneret; later (ca. 1975?), a group of his followers, were offered the opportunity to settle at a Poalei Agudah moshav in the central lowlands which had been abandoned by its original settlers. Thus was born Meor Modi’in, which is today home to some fifty families, and perhaps the closest thing to a center of Shlomo’s hevra in Israel, where he himself made his home when in Israel.

Another subject of central importance is Shlomo’s music. Indeed, many people see Shlomo’s legacy primarily as a composer and singer although, as I stated earlier, and as is implicit in everything I’ve written about him both here and elsewhere: it is clear to me that Shlomo saw himself first and foremost as a teacher of Torah, and music as an instrument, a means of touching the heart, rather then as an end in itself. In any event, his was an inborn, intuitive musical genius. With little, if any, formal musical training, without even knowing how to read musical notation properly, he was an inexhaustible wellspring of tunes and songs—melodies that were easily learned by others, but that had real emotional and spiritual depth. What he created may best be described as authentic Hasidic niggunim for the late 20th century.

How is one to describe his music, and where does it fit in terms of the history of Jewish music? This is really a question for a musicologist to define, but it seems to me that he somehow created a new, unique genre. What were the musical models or styles that existed before him? There was traditional hazanut, there were Hasidic niggunim (of which he had a vast knowledge), and there was the new style of music created in Israel, including both folk music and a the new style of synagogue music created on the religious kibbutzim and in the religious Zionist world, which was somehow more joyous, less minor-keyed, than the often lugubrious music created in Eastern Europe. And, of course, there was the whole world of American popular and folk music, which doubtless influenced him. His genius lay in his ability to create a type of music that at once belonged to this new, more optimistic and joyful world, yet at the same time had a deep, soulful, “Hasidic” tone.

His manner of performance was interesting. His concerts were not stiff, formal occasions with distance between the performer and the audience; when he entered he always stopped to greet people and give them a hug before going on stage. Often, a song would begin slow and soulfully, and then he would gradually speed up the pace, start jumping up and down in place, encouraging people to get up and dance with him, on the stage or in the aisles, until the whole place was quite literally jumping.

Shlomo’s voice had unique qualities. It was not a “great voice” in the operatic sense, but there was something in it that conveyed deep emotion, “soul,” and that was somehow uniquely suited to conveying his religious message. There was a sense of a certain melancholy, even tragic undertone, in even the most joyful and rhythmic songs.

Then there is the area of his personal life. Shlomo remained a bachelor for many years, and only married in December 1972, when he was nearly 48. With his wife Neilah he had two daughters, Neshama and Nedara. After a number of years they divorced, but to all accounts this was due more to his life style—Shlomo’s constant traveling, always coming and going, placed great strains on ordinary family life—rather than on any emotional break. They reportedly continued to love one another (He once quipped, “What’s a get between two people who love each other?”), and towards the end thee was talk of them getting together again. Certainly, at this point Neilah, who sees herself more as widow than divorcée, speaks of him in glowing terms, and is busy writing a memoir about him.

Finally, there is the phenomenon that might be called his “life after death.” Since Shlomo’s death in October 1994, there has been a striking surge of interest in his music, in his teaching, and in his path. Numerous “Shlomo minyanim,” synagogues which use his melodies for Kabbalat Shabbat and the other prayers, and something of his informal, open style, have sprung up all over the Jewish world. Numerous books have been published of his teaching; there is a plethora of new CDs of his songs, including both remakes of old recordings in his voice, and of others singing his songs; every year there is a memorial concert of his songs, which fills to capacity the largest hall in Jerusalem; a TV film and Broadway musical based upon his life are currently in the works; etc. Some of it is kitsch, but much of it bears the hallmark of authenticity. People who never met him somehow see him as their teacher; for example, the other night at the memorial at Yakar perhaps a third of those present were young people who only knew him by hearsay. All of these ultimately reflect the power of his message—a message, at once utterly simple yet profoundly deep, of how to serve God, in this “post-modern” age, through love and joy.