Friday, June 22, 2007

Hukat (Rashi)

"And He was sanctified therein"

This week's parasha relates, among many varied incidents, the story of Moses' hitting the rock at Mei Merivah rather than speaking to it so as to draw water, thereby diminishing one of God's miraculous acts. For this seemingly trivial offense, more peccadillo than sin, Moses was punished by not being allowed to enter the Land of Canaan, for which he so longed. Rashi, on the final verse of this short section, comments as follows:

Numbers 20:13. "These were the waters of Merivah upon which the Israelites quarreled with the Lord, and He was sanctified thereby." Rashi: "And He was sanctified thereby." That Moses and Aharon died on their account. For when the Holy One blessed be He performs judgment upon His sanctified ones, He is feared and made holy over people, as it says "Awesome [are You], O God, from your sanctuary" (Ps 68; interpreted according to the midrashic pun, do not read "Your sanctuary" [mimikdashekha] but "your sanctified ones" [mimkudashekha]), and it also says, "by those who are close to Me I shall be sanctified" [Lev 10].

This Rashi is puzzling, at least at first blush. The argument made here is similar, if not identical, to that made in Leviticus 10 regarding the sudden death of Nadav and Avihu, in the midst of their offering a "strange fire… that they had not been commanded." The idea is that, in some paradoxical way, God is made holy when those who are closest to Him, priests and prophets and holy men who are wholly dedicated to the service of the Divine and whose lives have been almost entirely blameless, commit some trespass and are punished with great severity. Why should this be so?

Such events serve to emphasize the sense of God's Otherness, His transcendence, specifically, the fact of His ultimately being beyond the understanding of even the wisest and smartest and most profound human being. This God is not the warm, kindly, loving, familiar, almost cuddly "Eibeshter" of a certain kind of Hasidic and Yiddish folk tale. He is frightening, unpredictable, even vengeful, exacting punishment from miscreants to the full measure—and perhaps then some. Human beings try in vain to understand the justice or even logic of such events. This is precisely the root meaning of the word qadosh, which is used in this context: to be holy means to be separate, transcendent, strange, apart, all that is not of this world.

It occurs to me that this insight may help to explain two seemingly unrelated facets of this section of the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers. In the last three weekly portions (which I have been unable to discuss in these pages this year due to my travels)—Beha'alotkha, Shelah Lekha, and Korah—the Torah tells of a series of incidents in which the people of Israel murmur and rebel against God, complain about various aspects of Moses' (and by implication, of God's) leadership: the manna-food is bland and boring and they miss the spicy diet they enjoyed in Egypt; they are frightened at the prospect of having to do battle with the unknown and seemingly super-human indigenous inhabitants of the Land they are going to enter; and, in general, they mistrust Moses' leadership and are attracted to the charismatic, demagogic alternative style of leadership proposed by Korah.

A second, less obvious theme relates to broader issues of what might be called faith vs. reason. In the section on tzitzit, we are told not to follow our eyes or our hearts after which we are wont to go astray—a warning, not only against the temptations of the instinctual life, but also, at least according to Rambam in Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 2.4, of the dangers of untrammeled intellectual speculation, certainly for the majority of people who do not have finely trained and disciplined minds. Then, in Korah, as seen through the lens of midrash, there are the dangers to religious faith and adherence to mitzvot posed by sophistic, glib polemics of a certain ilk. Finally, in this week's parasha, there is the title motif of hukkim, regarding those laws of the Torah that are seemingly paradoxical and even senseless, as exemplified by the law of the red heifer. I will quote briefly the well-know Rashi on our opening verse:

Num 19:2. "This is the statute of the Torah." Rashi: Because Satan and the idolators taunt Israel, saying, What is this commandment and what reason does it have? Therefore it is written concerning it "statute" (hukkah)—it is an edict before Me and you haven't permission to question it.

I have commented on this verse on a number of occasions in the past, so I will not elaborate on it now. But an important insight I gained for the first time this year is that our verse—viz. God being sanctified through the death of His holy ones—also fits under this rubric: that is, that God's ways are ultimately inexplicable. Human reason cannot hope to fully comprehend this. It is "above rationale or reason."

In terms of the relation of this idea to the first theme: on a purely human level, the murmurings of the people are eminently understandable. We may criticize the Israelites, bewail their lack of faith, of discipline, of toughness, of the ability to look beyond the immediate situation—but each of us knows that, on a certain level, had we been there we might well have taken the side of the rebels, for the weaknesses portrayed here are all too human. The demands of a high-minded, holiness-centered orientation towards life are beyond the capacity of most human beings. (The conflict between religion and human sentiment is a perennial problem. I recently read a rather strange and powerful short novel on this theme by Par Lagerkvist, The Sibyl.)

But the real problem is how to maintain a proper balance between accepting the legitimacy of the intellect, and knowledge of its limitations. There are many schools today within Judaism which emphasize almost exclusively the concept of hukkim and unquestioning submission to God, the heteronomous nature of the Torah, the inadequacy of the human mind, and the need to rely upon the tradition and its spokesmen, the gedolim. But that way can lie an arid and at times cruel authoritarianism—not to mention distortions of the Torah message to which this may at times lead (e.g., if a woman is left an agunah—thus it will be argued—she must suffer it with resignation, accepting this as somehow being God's will as expressed in the Torah, rather than the community seeking solutions within the Torah, even to the extent of challenging the halakhic policy of current Rabbinic leadership). I believe that a certain measure of what might be called "humanism" or even "anthropocentrism" is valid, albeit balanced by a certain humility and sense of limitations. But care must be taken against the other danger as well—of making the Torah speak only of human well-being and good feeling—a motif too much prevalent in certain kinds of popular Jewish teaching and writing these days (a feeling, I might add, reinforced by my present visit to the United States). But more on that another time.

Reb Dovid Zeller ztz"l

This Shabbat marks the sheloshim of the passing from this world of Reb Dovid Zeller. Though I was neither a student of his nor a colleague or friend in any real sense, his life—and death—left their mark on me. He was my wife's first real Jewish teacher, and was among those that officiated at our wedding, wearing his signature multi-colored vest. To my mind, Dovid represented the finest example of a new type of rabbi that has emerged in recent years on the Jewish scene: what one might, for want of a better term, call a spiritual teacher.

Dovid was not a product of the classical yeshiva world in any classical sense, nor did he fulfill the role of halakhic authority or teacher of and expert in traditional texts. He himself went the route of the latter-day hozer be-teshuvah, as a spiritual seeker from an assimilated American Jewish home, albeit one greatly informed by the spiritual dimension of existence (he once described himself as having been raised as "an Orthodox Jungian and a Reform Jew" and having become "an Orthodox Jew and a reformed Jungian"). He spent a number of years in India, seriously trying the Eastern spiritual path, even to the extent of living as a sadhu—an itinerant monk-beggar. Along the way he met Shlomo Carlebach, whose path spoke to his soul—and the way was paved for him, not only to take on traditional Jewish observance, but to become a teacher of souls. His way, in the broad sense, was that of Reb Shlomo—through Hasidic tales and songs, by encouraging each person to discover and tell his own story. But these were combined with what he had learned from the new schools of psychology and psychotherapy: he had been trained in and practiced transpersonal therapy; he was deeply engaged in and taught meditation and showed others the path to the inner journey afforded through Jewish meditation and other techniques. (He once described himself as "California Hasidic"). He spread his message through both personal teaching, as well as books, tapes, CDs, through story telling, song (both his own and classical Hasidic melodies; his rendition of some old Bratslav niggunim are especially moving), and more traditional kinds of teaching.

There was something very gentle about Reb Dovid, a sense of inner quiet and peace, of great sweetness and kindness, that was often somehow lacking in Reb Shlomo's restlessness. Among all the disciples of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, perhaps the one who most embodied the quality known in Yiddish as eidelkeit, which is inadequately translated into English as "refinement," or what the Sages called nikayon ha-da'at. He taught people how to pray; he taught people how to live in harmony, with themselves, with their partners, with their families. For many years, throughout the period I knew him, he lived on the town of Efrat, where he served as rabbi of one of the neighborhood shuls, known as the "Happy Minyan"—a minyan which tried to emulate the joy and tolerance and openness of Reb Shlomo.

Last summer, just about this time, we celebrated his sixtieth birthday at a friend's home. That same month his mother died, at a ripe old age. We had all hoped for many more years of teaching and friendship. But it was not to be. This winter he was stricken by a rare respiratory disease, and on Friday, two days after Shavuot, on the Eve of Shabbat Naso, he surrendered his soul to his Maker. May his memory be a source of blessing.

Shelah Lekha - Korah (Rashi)

Korah and Charisma

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the Academy of Jewish Religion in New York City, where I have been privileged to teach during this month.

Traditionally, Korah's revolt is interpreted as a conflict revolving around issues of religious power and authority. What qualifies a person to be a leader, and who or what determines whether his leadership is to be seen as legitimate or otherwise? Rashi, in his opening comment, simply refers us to Midrash Tanhuma:

Num 16:1. "Then Korah took…" Rashi: This chapter is well expounded in the midrash of Rabbi Tanhuma.

The midrashim mentioned there, which describe the objections raised by Korah to Moses' leadership, suggest several different facets of this rebellion, and of his approach generally.

At the outset (and here I quote the plain meaning of the biblical text) he challenges Moshe and Aaron with a democratic argument: '"For all the congregation are holy and God is in their midst; why then do you lord it over the people of God" [Num 16:3]. Korah cultivated a populist, pseudo-democratic, egalitarian style. Perhaps he spoke in high-minded terms of universal love and caring; perhaps he pretended to be everyone's "friend." Indeed, one of the midrashim portrays him as the defender of the poor and downtrodden, denouncing Moses for impoverishing a helpless widow with the numerous rules of tithes and priestly gifts, so that by the time she had discharged all of her religious duties there was nothing left to live on. Yet, we are told, Korah was himself extremely wealthy and enjoyed the good things of life.

A second midrash, which develops the proximity of this parasha to that of tzitzit, depicts Korah appearing in the camp with 250 of his followers, all wearing pure blue tallitot (but without the requisite tzitzit), as if to say "If one blue thread in the tallit is sufficient, surely an all-blue tallit is even better!” What does this signify? Some suggest that this may have again been a demonstration of populism, of equality: all Israelites are "royalty," the deep blue known as tekehelet being a symbol of aristocracy.

But there may be another meaning here. The azure of the tzitzit, according to another midrash, carries deep theological associations. "The blue reminds one of the sea, the sea of the firmament, and the firmament of the Throne of Glory." The single thread of tekhelet serves as a subtle hint of this symbolism. Perhaps the 250 men addressed in all-blue tallitot were suggesting that they were already on the highest level of consciousness, as if to say, "We can jump directly to the highest spirituality, wearing the garments of holiness of the sublime. We are all mystical adepts; we don't need the slow, arduous, indirect path of Torah and mitzvoth to ascend to the Divine."

But in so doing, they forget an important insight. The Talmud contrasts the "short but long path"—i.e., "shortcuts" that ultimately go nowhere—to the "long but short path"—the long, careful, life-long journey that ultimately leads to "the mountain of the Lord." It seems to me that this lesson is applicable to some of today's popular mystical schools.

But there is something else as well. In a third midrash, Korah posited a case in which a house is filled with sacred texts, but is lacking the requisite mezuzah, with its two brief sections from the Torah, posted at its entrance. Such a house has not fulfilled its halakhic requirement—a situation which Korah ridicules as yet another example of the absurdity of Moses' Torah. Yet in truth such a house might be described as one that celebrates learning, scholarship, erudition—but a learning that is shapeless, without clear direction. The mezuzah, as it were, contextualizes the Torah; by presenting in succinct language the ikkarei ha-emunah, the essential principles of the faith, it provides a framework within which to read and understand all the myriad ideas and stories and laws of this vast literature, thereby transforming what would otherwise be mere pedantry or scholasticism, or the activity of a small intellectual elite, into a living faith act. Without guiding principles as an Archimedean point, one can get lost as one attempts to "swim" in the "sea of Talmud," in the broad sense of Jewish study.

We live in an age of great yearning for religious truth. The secular gods of the last century (as long since observed by Daniel Bell in his The End of Ideology)—socialism, liberalism, science, universal secular humanism, nationalism—are all dead. True, liberal capitalism is regnant in our world, but not as a value system, rather as a reality to which all must adjust themselves. Hence many people seek something else beyond their mundane everyday concerns in the old truths of tradition.

At times this yearning is filled by charismatic leaders. There is, however, often a grave danger in the overwrought emotionalism found in religious life based on such charisma. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity," as William Butler Yeats put it in The Second Coming. Moreover, a person who displays warmth, intensity, and passion can win over the crowds—but at times such people may prove to be unscrupulous, manipulative, and unethical, wreaking great harm in the lives of the individuals who follow him—as shown by sad experience of recent years. Indeed, I can easily imagine Korah of old as being similar in spirit to some of these latter-day "spiritual teachers." May the Korah story (and our latter-day Korah story, in which many wise men failed to see the danger before their eyes, perhaps because they could not imagine the depths of cynicism of which humans are capable) serve as a warning of the dangers of bad leadership, and the need for great care and vigilance in choosing whom to follow. (More on this below)

Shelah Lekha: "You Send Spies"

This past week's parqshah tells the story of the spies. It opens with what appears to be an explicit Divine command to send forth spies—yet Rashi expresses grave reservations:

Numbers 14:1. "Send you forth people, that they might spy out the land." Rashi: "Send you..." According to your own understanding, [but] I do not command you to do so (Sotah 34a): if you wish, send them. For Israel came to him [Moses] and said "Let us send people before us," as is said, "And all of you draw near" (Deut 1:22}, and Moses took counsel with the Shekhinah and said: I told them that it is good, as is said, "I will lift you up from the poverty / oppression of Egypt." By your life, I gave them a place to err in the matter of the spies, so that they might not inherit it.

The basic question here is twofold: first, that Rashi's implied criticism of the very act of sending the spies seems to contradict the plain meaning of the verse, in which it seems to have been commanded by God Himself (perhaps like the use of the word לך in Gen 12 and 22); and, second, what was wrong with doing so anyway? Moreover, in the recounting of this incident in Deuteronomy 1, not only did both Moses and the Almighty approve of idea, but the report they brought back was good; it seems clear that it was only the people who remained behind who were discouraged and took it in a bad way. Here, too, the turning point, on the peshat level, only comes about in 13:28 where, after the spies give a good report, they add that: "However, the people who dwell in the land are ferocious, the cities are large and well-fortified, and we saw giants there too," concluding with the evaluation that they would be unable to conquer the land, and that they saw themselves as no more than grasshoppers (31-33). Needless to say, the people were profoundly discouraged by such a report (14:1ff.).

Why, then, does Rashi blame Moshe from the outset for sending them? To begin with, he is of course quoting an aggadic motif, found in the Talmudic account of this event in Sotah 34a—but that only pushes the question back one historical level. Why then?

The answer I give myself is that Rashi, and the aggadah on which he builds, believe that, ideally, an individual, and a community, ought to have total faith in God's protection, His providence, in the idea that he would not send them to a place that was bad, dangerous, where they would be repulsed in battle or suffer deprivation once they lived there.

Indeed, Ramban asks this question at some length in his comment on this verse. After all, sending out spies is not necessarily a sign of distrust or lack of confidence. Indeed, it's a routine, normal procedure to send people to spy out the land to gather information and to give the invading troops some advance notion of the lay of the land, the location of critical cities, deployment of forces such as they are, etc. Joshua sent spies to investigate Jericho (this Shabbat's haftarah!), he engaged in various kinds of tactics in the battle of Ai, etc. – so why is it identified with discouragement?

A partial answer , at least, is that there are two types or modes of faith within Judaism—historically, and today as well. One view is to be religious means not to have total trust in God, to believe that God will always arrange things, and even to anticipate and expect miraculous outcome even from the most difficult and seemingly hopeless situations. Thus, there are some religious people who will never say "so-and-so only has a few months to live" even when clearly suffering from a terminal illness, because it's somehow seen as sacrilege to not to expect a "miraculous” cure even at the last moment; or there are the innumerable stories Shlomo Carlebach always used to tell about the proverbial "poor shlepper" who always found the Hasidic equivalent of a pot of gold through the intercession of a rebbe. If you keep a miniature book of Tehillim or Sefer Raziel ha-Malakh in your pocket will protect you from danger. I even once heard a pious woman who blessed a bride who was marrying later in life, clearly after her child-bearing days were over, that she should have children (tzadikkim ve-tzidkanniyot, no less!)—since the key of childbirth is, after all, in God's hands. In brief, a picture of God as irrupting into the natural order of life, working constant miracles. No problem is insurmountable if your faith is strong enough. An almost naïve belief in Divine Providence intervening on behalf of those He loves.

The second view is one that says that "the world follows its path." God created the laws of nature, of physics and biology, and even, to a lesser extent, those of social and psychological behavior. Ones expectations from life and from the world must be based upon sober, realistic knowledge of reality. A reasonable person, whether religious or secular, must make decisions in real-life based on the maximum possible information about reality, considerations, etc. Indeed, having too many miracles are not good, because they introduce an element of chaos into the world—and surely, that was not what God the Creator wants. He created death, He gave gives man free-will, He created the laws of nature with all its unpleasant aspects, too, like the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions resulting from the unstable surface if our planet, with its hot molten center, or ferocious wild animals who may occasionally attack human beings, etc. One must take all this into account; only when one reaches real despair because of this is it seen as negative religiously. This is the view of Rambam, who downplays hashgahah peratit, individual Providence, to limited, exceptional cases. This view was articulated in often caustic ways by Yeshayahu Leibowitz; but it was also implicit in the main thrust of Rav Soloveitchik's thought, (for example, in those sections of Halakhic Man where he counterpoises the sober, worldly-oriented approach of halakhic thinking to that of various mystical schools). But it is also eloquently articulated in an unreconstructed, seemingly "old-fashioned" Orthodox leader such as the Hazon Ish, in his little book on Emunah u-Bitahon, in which he takes pains to explain that trust in God doesn’t mean thinking that He will bring about magical, deus ex machina solutions to our difficulties in life, but that whatever does in fact happen in somehow God's will ad is ultimately for the best, reflecting as it does His Will. We remain with the question: was Rashi so simplistic and naïve in HIS view? Or is his approach at times best understood as that of the anthologist, who perhaps uncritically copies and summarizes material gathered from Hazal?