Friday, August 29, 2008

Re'eh (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at August 2006.

We mark with sadness the passing of Abie Nathan, hero of the Israeli Peace movement, a “quixotic” individual who inspired others and made a difference.

“… To the place where I shall cause My name to dwell”

In Parshat Re’eh, as in the two parshiyot that follow it, we are again in a section rich in mitzvot—the recapitulation of the legal contents of the Torah, which is in many ways the heart of Sefer Devarim (at least, if not more so, than the rhetorical-historical contents of the first three parshiyot). The mitzvot in Re’eh focus entirely, in one way or another, on the service of God, radiating from twin but opposite foci: the Temple and the centralization of worship, and the prohibition, nay, all-out war against pagan worship. Thus, following the declaration that one is to serve God (i.e., through animal sacrifices) only in “the place where I shall cause My name to dwell” (an interesting circumlocution for Jerusalem), we have: the permission to slaughter meat freely for “secular” purposes, coupled with the prohibition of blood; a series of laws relating to pagan worship and idolatry—the warning against the false prophet, against the “missionary” for paganism from among one’s own people (masit umadiah), and the law that one must destroy a city that has gone over completely to paganism (‘ir ha-nidahat); the laws of permitted and prohibited species of mammals, fish, and fowl, evidently a spin-off from the discussion of animal slaughter in a ritual context; laws relating to priests and Levites and their portions, as well as the related laws of the three-year cycle of tithing and, by extension, the sabbatical year (shemitah); and, finally, the three annual pilgrimage festivals.

The central theme, thus, is centralization of worship vs. idolatry. Returning to the initial verses of Chapter 12, where the halakhic section begins, we find the imperative to shatter and smash and destroy all the places where the nations worship their gods, “on every mountain and hill top and beneath every leafy tree.” In short: the war of the Israelite god with paganism is against nature worship: the celebration of that which is visible and concrete; the purely immanent; natural cyclicity and no more. “That which is, is good.” (And from here, I would suggest, it is one short step to the cult and near-worship of sexuality—the most natural and easily available symbol of fertility, blessing, growth, even fecundity and lushness; note the opening and closing verses of Leviticus 18, parshat arayot, which frame the actual list of prohibited incestuous connections with the warning “Do not do the deeds of those nations… whom I am spitting out before you… lest you contaminate the land.” And is our own age that different? “Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose.”)

From this dramatic contrast with paganism, we may understand the need for a single, centralized place of worship a bit differently. If God is universal, why does one need a Temple? Is He not everywhere? How, as Solomon asked, can this house built by a human being, magnificent and sumptuous as it may be, contain Him, who fills the heavens and the earth—and beyond? (1 Kings 8:27; and see my discussion in HY III [=Midrash]: Vayetze, Vayishlah, and esp. Terumah, for some instructive midrashim on this subject). Perhaps the idea of God being worshipped, at least in the public-ceremonial framework of animal sacrifices, in one central place, serves to emphasize His transcendence, His ineffability. Just as He has no image, so too He cannot be identified with the numinous places in nature. Worship “under every tree and on every high place” somehow makes God too immanent, too familiar, too much identified with life as it is, and with human beings as they are, perhaps giving us an exaggerated idea of our own immanent holiness.

I find this to be a problem in the much-touted “spiritual” revival of contemporary culture. It tends to be too immanent, and as such too much self-oriented. At times, spirituality is treated as one more consumer item. A few nights ago I saw on television an expert on “contemporary spirituality,” a young woman with the improbable name Dr. Mariana Ruah-Midbar, proposing a “salad-bar” model of spiritual practice. A little Judaism—Shabbat, traditional prayer, some Hasidic teaching, no doubt some Carlebach niggunim; a little Christianity—the Sermon on the Mount; some Zen Buddhist koans as a side order; perhaps a bit of shamanism and witchcraft for added spice. All this seemed to miss the point: the submission of the individual to something beyond himself, awe-inspiring, transcendent; and, by extension, the sense of finite limits to the conscience—and ego—of the individual. Some of this feeling, and more, must have been felt by the pilgrims who went up to Jerusalem three times a year, among the festive throng from all corners of Israel, to receive the Presence of the Lord God.


Responses to “New Atheism” Essay

My essay two weeks ago about the “New Atheism” elicited several interesting responses. Yehuda Gellman, Professor of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University, wrote:

Do you really think that religions do not compete with science on cosmology and history? Visit almost any Orthodox neighborhood or every Muslim neighborhood in the world, or the evangelicals in the USA. Look at the myriad of websites dedicated to debunking evolution and scientific archeology. I would guess that more religious people in the world use their religion to compete with science than do not. As far as tolerance, there are clear elements of intolerance in Western religions. Judaism believes in throwing people into pits, and believes that most other religions are idol worship, to be destroyed if we only could do it. Christianity has a horrible history of intolerance, and Moslems will let you stay alive as long as you accept second-class status. Hindus and Moslems have been killing each other for a long time in the Indian subcontinent. Open thinking? Catholic censorship and Orthodox Jewish creeds and curses tell me otherwise. And of course you have the great Muslim mind-death.

What you are talking about is religion that might exist in pockets here and there, but is drowned out by the shrillness of antiquated beliefs about the world, of intolerance, and of closed-mindedness. I think Dawkins is right about at least an impressive part of religion, even though wrong to make this the whole of religion. But the conclusion is not the delusion of atheism, but a going forward in religion in the spirit of Smith’s book that you mention. In that respect, Dawkins is doing a service for a “perennial religion” approach to world religions.

Marc Kirschbaum, veteran HY reader and interlocutor, a cancer researcher now living in the greater LA area, writes:

A crucial element is missing. It is true that in authentic Jewish tradition there is hermeneutics, a more fluid response to science, etc. However, “religion” has been sociologically redefined by Protestant terms in the US, and thus rejection of evolution, of science, of modern medicine, etc., in a passive-aggressive type of rejectionist mode, has suddenly become the new default “religious” position. In Israel an added factor has been the novel Da’as Torah conception in which, paradoxically, the Litvak community decides upon a central figure who decides what is or is not to be thought, believed, etc (going way beyond the Hasidic tzaddik...). Remember that in the Protestant tradition of back-to-the-text, the apparent words of the text are sacred as they are, beyond interpretation, so that the appeal to hermeneutics and interpretation is exactly what they are opposing.

To which I responded:

My main point about pluralism within religion is NOT that I deny the existence of intolerance in lots of religions, and perhaps even more on the level of folkways, among religious people, but that the opposite also exists. Dawkins has a chapter in which he claims that “there’s no such thing as moderate religion”—by which he seems to mean that even the liberal churches expect the faithful to accept certain irrational propositions on faith. This is simply not true—certainly not in the non-Orthodox schools within Judaism, or even in the “liberal” school within Orthodoxy, within which I move.

But this is a problem in both Gellman’s and Kirschbaum’s responses. There's a tendency to think that the fundamentalist fire-eaters are somehow more authentic representatives of “religion” than the more moderate types. There is an element of truth in that: a) they tend to be more vocal and visible publicly (as you say, myriads of websites), but also b) that they are often more passionately committed to their faith than the more moderate. Indeed, whenever I hear Jewish demographers like Della Pergola cite the statistic that Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish religious group in America, I feel that this is largely irrelevant, because the Orthodox are so much more committed and live their Yiddishkeit in a vital, everyday way. Much the same may be said for the “main-stream,” liberal Protestant churches, and even more so for their European counterparts, in contradistinction with the Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Southern Baptist, etc. Indeed, there are some people who find it hard to accept the present Archbishop of Canterbury as an authentic Christian because he’s so liberal and PC.

What you say towards the end, that what’s needed is a “going forward in religion in the spirit of Smith's book,” is a partial answer. If something like that eventually comes out of the “New Age,” notwithstanding its weirdness and advocacy of magic and shamanism, as well as commercialism and charlatanry and at times honky-tonk feel—that is, a real raising of human consciousness, as people like Ken Wilber seem to say—it will perhaps prove to have been for the good. (For those who feel that the term “New Age” has a connotation of things that are flighty, flakey, not intellectually respectable or serious, and prefer another term, like “perennial religion”—so be it. I suspect we’re talking about pretty much the same thing.)

I would add that I’m also frightened of the growing power of fundamentalists; at times, I feel that our Haredi and Hardal brethren have created a new religion lacking in much of the humanity and compassion and down-to-earth understanding of ordinary life that seemed to mark the best of the old-time rabbanim and poskim. If Israel ever becomes a theocracy, as Feiglin and even more seriously learned people like Itamar Warhaftig would like to see it, I might seriously consider leaving the country. It ain’t gonna be no malkhut shamayim. A friend of mine, itinerant Kabbalah scholar Morris Faierstein, once remarked: “When I was growing up, it was rare to find a hasid who didn't have a sense of humor; today, it's rare to find one under the age of 50 who does.”

Right now, I'm reading a book by an Iranian professor of literature, a woman named Azar Nafisi, entitled Reading Lolita in Tehran which, in the course of describing a semi-underground seminar in English literature she held in her home, gives a vivid description of what it was like to live under the Islamic Revolution. Very frightening.

But all this is ultimately besides the point. In principle, I’m interested in religion, and God, sub specie aeternitas—as Dawkins also claims to do. Meaning: we all know about the numerous abuses of religion, the endless doctrinal conflicts—whether expressed in physical violence or in verbal antagonism, the brainwashing of the young, etc. The question is whether the God idea per se, the phenomenon of religion, of the human quest for ultimate meaning, for the transcendent—if you like, for Otto’s “Wholly Other”—is invalid, false, and dangerous per se, as Dawkins seems to say. I find him guilty of numerous sweeping generalizations, some of which are incorrect or heavily slanted, which come from his choosing the religious phenomena he wants to talk about, rather than studying religion as an aspect of human culture, in all its complexity, with an open mind. This places him, notwithstanding his academic credentials, only a few steps above Madelyn Murray and The Realist (a 1950’s satire magazine, which included numerous pseudo-sophisticated anti-religious jibes). Admittedly, all this leaves people like us, who in sociological terms belong to the Orthodox world, living a constant juggling game.

I continued further:

To repeat: one must reiterate the basic distinction between sociological manifestations of religion, especially in our present world situation, however mischievous and wrong-headed they often seem to be, and the principled issue, of the validity or not of the God idea, religion, etc. The New Atheists, while touching on contemporary problems, at least claim to be discussing issues on the level of principle; hence we must do the same.

This touches, among other things, on a very basic question regarding world–views and philosophies generally: Do ideas follow socio-economic, geo-political and other aspects of reality, or vice versa? Marxists and many others say that religions and ideologies and the like are reflections of the real economic interests and other societal factors that move people. Others, so-called “idealists,” see history molded by great ideas. All this sounds abstract and theoretical, so to put it in concrete, schematic terms very close to our own interests: Is the core cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the socio-economic oppression of the Palestinian Arabs—unemployment, long waits and humiliations at IDF blockades, the present embargo on Gaza, etc—or Islamic fanaticism and intolerance, the notion that it is forbidden for Muslims to ever cede sovereignty over “waqf” soil to “heretics,” etc. (whether this intolerance is structurally inherent in Islam, or an historical “accident” of the modern period)? Obviously, there is a little bit of both at play; nevertheless, one can see that these two theoretical positions lead to diametrically opposed positions, both in terms of “Who’s to blame” and in terms of hopes and strategies for future resolution of the conflict. Are Hamas, Hizballah, et al simply reacting to Israeli oppression and limitations, their religious language being no more than a tactic for whipping up the crowds into a frenzy, or vice versa?

Second, the tendency towards violent conversion or imposition of one’s faith on others seems to be a problem specifically in text-based monotheistic religions. It’s called fundamentalism. Does one find the same thing among, e.g., Buddhists, except when their own religious freedom is suppressed? (Moshe Halbertal once wrote a paper on the paradoxical fact that pagan religions tend to be far more tolerant and inclusive than monotheism, and in that sense somehow preferable.) If one has a sacred text, certainly one that is ostensibly “shared” by different religions, as the OT is by Jews and Christians, one ends up with arguments ad nauseum as to what constitutes the true revelation of God, and the meaning of various contested passages. This is a fruitless sort of discussion, that never can be resolved; Christians and Jews can throw verses and interpretations back and forth at one another endlessly. The alternative, an idea I hope to develop further elsewhere (in the long overdue Part II of my Shavuot “Sinai” essay), is a God-consciousness centered religion. I hold that the conflict between Mitnaggedim and Hasidim is really about halakhah vs. avodah (i.e., Divine service) as the focus of religious life. Thus, the latter option isn’t heterodox, but can be perfectly “Orthodox” position. I thus end up defining my own [position, in what sounds like an oxymoron but really isn’t, as that of an Orthodox but non-fundamentalist Jew).

EKEV: The Second Set of Tablets

For some years I have been receiving and reading a very interesting parasha sheet (in Hebrew), edited and assembled by Asher Yuval, known as Mehalkei Mayim. This consists of a selection of midrashic and other, mostly classical-Rabbinic, texts related to some theme in the parashah, along with his notes and comments on each. The URL is Last week his sheet was devoted to the difference between the second set of tablets and the first.

Among the texts he cited was Ibn Ezra’s commentary, quoting R. Saadya Gaon (with which Ibn Ezra demurs), who enumerates differences between the two sets of tablets. This contains several interesting and provocative ideas. First, that the second set of tablets is to be identified with the second version of the Ten Commandments, brought in Deuteronomy 5:6 ff.

Related to this, he mentions an almost mystical idea: he notes that the second version of the Dibrot contains the phrase, in the Fourth Commandment, למען ייטב לך, “that it may be well with you.” Thanks to this addition, this latter version includes all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (or 27, if one includes the final form of the letters. Stan Tenen, who has done work on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet as a universal language system, stresses that the final letters are to be considered as separate entities. The number of letters in this count, 27, yields a mathematically and geometrically significant number: 3 to the 3rd power). In any event, the idea is that the Ten Commandments are in some way the quintessence of the Torah as whole, and thus contains all those letters with which the cosmos was created. (The same holds true of Keri’at Shema, which likewise contains all 27 letters of the alphabet.)

The second tablets combine both human and divine action: i.e., Moses chiseled out the stone tablets upon which God than wrote the second set of commandments —whereas the first tablets were wholly Divine.

The second tablets had an ark made for them, in which they were then placed (Yuval notes the contrast on this point between Exod 34:1 and Deut 10:1-2).

Most important of all: there is a midrash in Exodus Rabbah 46.1, based on a verse in Job 11:6 (“that He would tell you the secrets of wisdom!”), stating that the second tablets include halakhot, aggadot, and midrashim! In other words, the second tablets somehow represent the dual nature of the Torah, which consists of both Written Torah and Oral Torah.

What does this mean theologically? I think the key idea here is that, after the Sin of the Calf, God came to understand that anger, fury and destruction don’t work. If He wished to have a relationship with the human beings that He created, and for them to live their lives with knowledge and awareness of Him, this had to be done in a different way. First of all, there was need for forgiveness: acknowledgement and acceptance of human weakness (parallel to the new order established after Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden, and after Noah’s return to earthly life after the Flood). In a paradoxical way, God realized that a limited, “flat” Torah of categorical, “epidictic” laws alone won’t work. The covenant at Sinai, of Shavuot, had been based mostly on yirah, on fear and unqualified acceptance of Divine authority. The covenant made in the Cleft of the Rock, on Yom Kippur, was based on something else. (See my discussion of this whole subject at HY I [Torah]: Ki Tisa).

The methodology of Oral Torah, of midrashim, of constant study and back-and-forth discussion and arguing and quest for understanding, is broader, and somehow allows more room for human creativity, for involvement in and even co-creation of Torah. The idea is one of cultivation of human wisdom, of conscience, of inner commitment, of self-restraint, of a sense of love and fear together. This was a more immanent, approachable Torah, one that must be studied in depth to be understood. Perhaps God, in his profound wisdom, understood the need to “immunize” men against hubris and against their desire for absolute mastery over their world. (See on this them Erich Fromm’s You Shall be as Gods and David Hartman’s A Living Covenant).

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ekev (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this week’s parasha, see the archives to my blog, at August 2008.

“When You Eat and are Satisfied, You Shall Bless the Lord your God for the good Land”

Two major devotional mitzvot are inferred from this week’s parasha. The one, prayer, known as “service of the heart,” is inferred from the phrase “to love God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul” (Deut 11:13). But we have written so much about prayer over the years, and so often, that it seems superfluous to repeat ourselves here at this point. (Interested readers are referred to the archives of this blog, especially under the sections Hayyei Sarah [where I read Yitzhak as a paradigm of prayerful man], Tetzaveh [the chapter on the incense altar, which bears a mystical relation to prayer], and here in Ekev.)

The second mitzvah is Birkat Hamazon, Grace After Meals or bentsch’n: the obligation to thank God for providing us with food, on the occasion of completing a meal. This mitzvah, which appears early on in this sedrah (8:10) in the context of a number of things for which we must be grateful to God, is seen as the archetype of all blessings. It is the only blessing whose formal status is undisputedly de-oraita, a Torah obligation; it forms the central subject and basis of Rambam’s Hilkhot Berakhot.

The basic idea conveyed is that of gratitude: that we ought not to take the things we enjoy in life, from our basic need for nutrition on down, for granted; that we know and acknowledge that there is a God who not only created the universe “once upon a time,” but who maintains it and enables us to enjoy its bounty in an ongoing way. The attitude implied is diametrically opposed to that of “entitlement.” A human being must appreciate the miracle that we are here at all, that our life-needs are we (generally speaking) provided for us by the universe.

Although Birkat Hamazon is a “commanded” mitzvah, it also flows from the innate logic of religious life: the duty to thank and praise God for providing our needs is based on an elementary ethical principle. Just as it is self-evident that we should thank a person who has given us a gift, to acknowledge his generosity and magnanimity, so too is it with God. The Midrash says that this was the first mitzvah by whose means the Patriarch Abraham cultivated the religious awareness of strangers whom he encountered: his tent was open in all directions, so that he could engage in hospitality to all that needed it; after quenching their thirst and feeding them, perhaps offering them a place to rest, he asked them to thank God for the food they had been given. That was all the payment that he asked. This was a kind of basic instruction in religious life.

An acquaintance of mine from long ago, Pinhas Klein, who taught many neophytes to Judaism, once said that he disagreed with those who tried to initiate outsiders into observance through tefillin (as does Habad) or Shabbat or kashrut. The first and most basic mitzvah, he said, was that of blessing, which touches on the most basic level of the meaning of religious consciousness: blessings over food; blessings over other things which we enjoy, such as fragrant spices and herbs; blessings for seeing and hearing special things; blessings for the everyday, and blessings for the occasional or rare event; blessings for the good, and blessing for the bad; blessings for performing mitzvot, which provide the opportunity, so-to-speak, for religious experience, and blessings over things in the mundane, non-sacred realm of our activity. There is a Rabbinic dictum that one ought to recite one hundred blessings every day. Why one hundred? Ten is the base of our decimal number system, and as such represents multiplicity. 100 is 102—ten multiplied by itself, raised to the next higher level of magnitude. As such, one hundred signifies the sheer multiplicity of realms upon realms for which we need to be grateful to God.

To return to bentsch’n per se: the three essential blessings of Birkat Hamazon, those defined as being on the “Torah” level, represent three basic levels of Jewish religious consciousness. The first blessing, hazan et hokol, represents the universal level: God feeds all mankind, and indeed all of Creation, “from eagle’s nests to lice eggs”; the experience of satiation after partaking of food is a universal one. The second blessing, Birkat Ha-Aretz, relates to Jewish particularity: brit, Torah and aretz; the Abrahamic Covenant, the Torah, and the Land of Israel (the last of these also being, at least ideally, the source of food). The third blessing, Birkat Yerushalayim, reflects the Jewish situation in the real world: exile and loss, and yearning for the salient features of the lost Golden Age before we went into exile, and specifically its place-oriented sense of holiness: Zion, Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Davidic dynasty. As Heinemann observed, a prayrer/blessing for Jerusalem appears in many series of blessings: besides Grace After Meals, in the nuptial blessings, in those read after the haftarah, and in the daily Amidah.


Chapter Five: Love and Disputes—Positive and Negative

NB: For a teaching from Chapter Four, "Some Practical Human Advice," see below, Vaethanan.

Unlike the first four chapters of this tractate, Chapter Five does not present a series of teachings of tannaim of various generations, but arranges a series of teachings related to numbers: ten, seven, and four; without giving the names of their authors at all. Towards the end of the chapter, from §20 on, there are several mishnayot which are not specifically number based, but simply say what they have to say—although the first two of these are in fact based on a binary pair of contrasts:

Any love that is dependent upon a thing, once the thing is nullified, the love is nullified. But that which is not dependent upon a thing, is not nullified forever. Which was a love dependent upon a thing? The love of Amnon and Tamar. And that which is not dependent upon a thing? The love of David and Jonathan.

The classic and perhaps most common example of love motivated by a “thing” is sexual lust. Amnon was a prince, the son of King David, who desired his half-sister {!} Tamar, and was persuaded to seduce her by a friend in whom he confided; as soon as he’d had his way with her and satisfied his lust, his “love” immediately turned into hatred (2 Samuel 13:1-22; esp. v. 15). There may of course be other ulterior motives for love—or, more correctly, for feigning love: the desire for wealth (the “Sugar Daddy” syndrome of May and December marriages, or “You’ll find there are many who’ll wed for a penny”), power, career advancement, or some other advantage—but sexual lust certainly rates high on the list.

There is also a certain ambiguity in the terminology itself that tends to confuse matters: the Hebrew ahavah, like the English word “love,” may be used for both sexual desire or fascination, and for the deep emotional attraction or connection we ordinarily refer to by that word. Some might ask whether simple sexual desire, such as that manifested by Amnon, ought to be called love at all. Certain schools in Christianity, with its anti-sexual bias, like to draw a diametric contrast between love and lust, or eros and charitas (i.e., selfless giving to the other).

In any event, our mishnah contrasts this kind of love is with the deep fellowship and friendship between two men, David and Jonathan. (It is interesting that both examples are from the same family!) Jonathan in fact sacrificed his own chances for the throne, alienating his own father, for the sake of his friend. As if to say: selfless, disinterested friendship is deeper, more genuine, more lasting and authentically deserving of the term “love,” than sexual attraction. An obvious question implicit here is: why can’t there be both? Isn’t that what most of us hope for and even expect in marriage: a combination of deep friendship and emotional bond, lifelong commitment, offsrping, as well as shared pleasure and sexual satisfaction? Why does it seem to be posed in terms of either/or? Why couldn’t the mishnah have cited the love between our nation’s founding couple, Abraham and Sarah?

In our day, there are some “homophiles” (to coin a phrase) who try to see the love of David and Jonathan in homoerotic or homosexual terms. Some years ago, MK Yael Dayan created a mild controversy when she said as much from the floor of the Knesset, reinforcing our mishnah with a powerful phrase from David’s Elegy upon the death in battle of Saul and Jonathan: צר לי עליך אחי יהונתן, נעמת לי מאד, נפלאת אהבתך לי מאהבת נשים (“I am distraught over you, my brother Jonathan; you have been very pleasant to me; your love was more wondrous to me than that of women“; 2 Sam 1:26). But it does not seem self-evident to me that this verse celebrates a homoerotic ideal. It can equally support a male-friendship reading, not least because David is portrayed as being strongly attracted to many women (including Jonathan’s sister Michal), and that our mishnah’s reading is based on the premise that there’s was not a love not based upon any “thing.”

21. Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven shall endure; and that which is not for the sake of Heaven shall not endure. What is [an example of] a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Hillel and Shammai. And that which was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korah and all his congregation.

On the face of it, this mishnah seems quite straightforward and self-evident. But how does one identify whether the dispute is or is not for the sake of Heaven? One would have to be able to see inside the heart of the parties involved! This year, on Parshat Korah, I heard a talk by someone who cited R. Yehonatan Eibuschutz, in Ye’arot Devash, as to how one identifies a dispute that is, in fact, for the sake of Heaven. His answer was simple: if the people involved continue to be friends and to love one another notwithstanding the dispute between them, then it is clear that their dispute is motivated by the desire for truth and naught else.

Unfortunately, this is quite rare. The human propensity for disputes and polemics is very great; once a disagreement has begun, people tend to invest their own egos in “their side” and are reluctant to even hear the other camp. Moreover, the human tendency for fragmentation and division is universal: even in movements established for common goals (e.g., even something so mundane and pragmatic as losing weight!), there are factions and fractions and groupings. The ideological disputes in the kibbutzim during 1950s, which divided friends and families, is the most famous local example. I recall a bitter conflict within the Anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960’s between those who opposed the war on pacifist or humanistic reasons, and neo-Marxist ideologues who wanted a “worker-student alliance.” This conflict ultimately blew apart the Boston Draft Resistance Group in which I was active. The debate within Conservative Judaism over the issue of homosexuality is another example: as an outsider with friends adhering to both views, it seems to me that there has been too much acrimony and personal ill-feeling between the two sides. Haval!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Vaethanan (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this week’s parasha, see the archives to my blog, at August 2006. Due to the length of the special essay beloe, we will post our comments on Pirkei Avot separately, hopefully early next week.

“You Shall Repeat them to your children and speak of them…”

This week’s parasha contains several of the most fundamental mitzvot, known variously as mitzvot temidiyot (i.e., “constant mitzvoth”—those which, as they involve thought and attitude rather than concrete action, may and ought to be performed constantly, if only as ideas held in the background of our thoughts) or hovot halevavot (“duties of the heart”). These include: the belief in God, conveyed in the first verse of the Ten Commandments; to unify Him—i.e., to know and reflect upon His unity; to love Him; to contemplate the fact of his existence (inferred from the verse found early on in this portion, “Uou shall know today and reflect in your hearts that the Lord is God, in heaven above and in earth below; there is none other”—4:39). I shall discuss these mitzvot, or more generally, the idea of and belief in God, in a special essay below, from a somewhat different angle.

Our parashah also contains the mitzvah of Keri’at Shema. While the Shema is a cardinal element of Jewish faith, indeed, the closest thing to a credo that we have, it is also a practical mitzvah, as expressed in the twice-daily recitation of a specific text: the three paragraphs known as Shema, Vehaya im shamo’a, and Vayomer or Parshat Tzitzit (Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num 15:37-41). The actual performance consists of reciting these texts, ideally with their liturgical setting of blessings before and after: when getting up in the morning, before beginning our daily round (and in all events by the end of the third hour after sunrise); and in the evening, after nightfall, before going to sleep.

The connection of the recital of Shema to the diurnal cycle of night and day seems related to its central idea: the oneness of God. The rhythm of our own lives is governed by the dramatic daily dichotomy between night and day, darkness and light, activity and rest: the world of deliberate activity and clear-headed consciousness, discipline, control, and reason; and nighttime, with its surrender to sleep, and to the sometimes phantasmagoric world of dreams and imagination, of inchoate fears and demons and bizarre messages from the unconscious. The message of Shema, recited in both these circumstances, is that God’s unity serves as the backdrop and underlying unified ground of all contrasts, polarities and antinomies.

This idea is also expressed in the literary structure of the first paragraph of Shema: following the declaration of God’s kingship and his unity, verse 5 articulates the imperative to love God in all dimensions of our existence as humans: emotional (“all your heart”), existential (“all your soul/life-being”), and practical (“all your strength/muchness”—meaning, with all your property, and in all situations). This is followed, in verse 7, by a series of contrasting pairs, in each one of which we must speak of God’s unity: not only “when you lie down and rise up” in terms of time, but also “when you sit at home and walk on the way”—i.e., in the privacy of one’s family life and in the public realm; when in a state of activity and in that of relaxation (this, contra Y. L. Gordon’s advice to “be a Jew at home and a man when you go about”). The duality in the injunction in v. 8 to “bind them as a sign upon your hand and… between your eyes”—besides alluding to the concrete mitzvah of tefillin, rooted in a literal, tactile reading of the verse—may also mean to internalize these words in all the different functions of your being, represented by the different organs such as arm, heart, eyes, and head.

Hazal speak of the recitation of Shema in terms of an important epistle (diotgama) that one has received from the king, which one reads aloud and rehearses repeatedly. In this respect, it may be seen as a continuation of the theme of memory discussed last week. Zakhor means to remember, but also to mention, to articulate verbally. (Thus, “remember the Sabbath day” is taken by Hazal as the source for the mitzvah of Kiddush, the verbal declaration of the Shabbat’s sanctity and meanings recited over wine near the beginning of Shabbat.) Speech, repeating something aloud, is a means of remembering, of hammering it into consciousness. Judaism, as a verbal culture, strongly emphasizes the importance of remembering, through repetition. For centuries, the Oral Torah was precisely that: a vast collection of mishnayot and beraitot, formulations of legal traditions repeated orally by the disciples. We are told that, during the time of the Hadrianic persecutions, Rabbi Akiva set up a system in which groups of disciples were assigned to memorize blocs or “orders” of mishnayot, so that they could function as living libraries, repositories of the tradition, to assure the preservation of Torah.

At various points in Jewish history, this idea was emulated by various sages and rabbis who wrote capsule credos, “summings up” of what they considered most important in life, which they asked their sons and disciples to read at regular intervals. We thus have Nahmanides’ Iggeret ha-Ramban, the Gaon of Vilna’s Iggeret ha-Gera, the Zeit’l Katan of R. Elimelekh of Lyzhensk, and no doubt many others.

The New Atheism and Us

As in this parashah we read two of the fundaments of our faith—the Ten Commandments, beginning with Anokhi, “I am the Lord,” and the Shema, “the Lord is One”—it seems an opportune time to discuss a new movement, or better, a newly resurgent old movement, which presents an intellectual challenge to all people of religious faith—the so-called “New Atheism.”

Over the past decade or more—some say, particularly since the Twin Tower debacle of 2001—there has been a series of new books radically criticizing the idea of religious faith per se. The best known of these is Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, but there are others as well: Sam Harris, The End of Faith; Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Dawkins’ book was recently translated into Hebrew, and reviewed extensively in the Israeli press. Dawkins’ critique focuses on three central points: (a) the inadequacy of religious explanations of the world, vis-à-vis those of science; (b) the violence fostered by religion; (c) the dogmatic, anti-intellectual nature of religion. We shall consider these in order.

(a) Religion does not provide satisfactory answers to the big questions of cosmogony, the origin of life, the ascent of man, etc. As against that, science, especially Darwinian biology, does provide the key to answering these questions. This criticism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose or function of religion. Religion, at least since medieval times, does not claim to present a comprehensive explanation of the world, to rival science in the detailed mapping of the physical universe. (Indeed, already in medieval times, many Jewish thinkers recognized the legitimacy of the science of their day, at least as a “handmaiden” to the “queen” of sciences and wisdoms, philosophy or theology.

Contemporary religionists are similar unfazed by the argument that God’s existence cannot be proven. At least since the decline of Neo-Aristotelianism and its ilk, most serious theologians would fully agree with this point. Indeed, the fact that one cannot answer the question “Who created God?” is precisely the point. Religion begins, inter alia, from the sense of mystery that there is Being at all. One can equally well ask “Who created the Big Bang, or the hyper-concentrated, super-hot mass from which its emerged?” At a certain point, science runs up against a point where it cannot go beyond the initial causality. Whether the Big Bang, or the latest cosmogonic theory, “M (membrane)-theory” or “string theory,” all these ultimately do no more than pushes back the point of the unknowable, of the “First Cause,” by a few levels.

Religion (all this, needless to say, in the most general terms) is rooted in what A. J. Heschel called “radical amazement”—the emotion of wonder, of almost child-like incredulity, at the fact that this great big world exists at all, with all its beauty, its variety—and, yes, its terrors and sheer otherness and strangeness. What mystics call the unknowability, the ineffability of God, that which is “beyond apprehension,” me-ever la-ta’am va-da’at.

There is a little book by Huston Smith entitled The Forgotten Truth in which the author—professor of religion at MIT and a Western Sufi practitioner—speaks of Western culture being in thrall to empiricist thinking. There are certain kinds of questions asked by empirical science, which it can answer well (albeit always provisionally: this too, one seems to forgets, is part of the scientific method). The problem is that certain scientists make empirical thinking into a self-confirming system, that excludes categories as “unbreal” or “irrelevant” by definition. Needless to say, the kinds of reality dimensions to be discussed by religion are, by definition, outside of its ken; hence it presents a certain view of reality—one of causality, of material ,physical reality—as the only reality. Smith notes, interestingly, certain similarities among the views of the universe found in almost all cultures prior to Western post-Renaissance culture—what he calls the four-tiered map of the universe, in which there are spiritual dimensions over and above the material one.

I have deliberately “bracketed” the issues of science and religion per se: e.g., can we speak of “Intelligent Design” or a “guiding hand” underlying the development of life on the earth? Some Darwinians, including Dawkins, tend to reject these ideas out of hand – but perhaps this in itself is a kind of dogmatism. I am not certain that Darwinian evolutionary theory has a satisfactory answer to the questions as to how life as we know it evolved. For example: granted that primates evolved into human beings, how does Darwinian theory explain the “jump,” not from one species to another, but the emergence of new phalanxes or orders? Did the egg “evolve” into the womb, or are mammals a new form of life, that developed parallel to fish, insects and birds—from what? For that matter, how did life itself begin? Why, in that first micro-second after the Big Bang, did not positive and negative particles cancel each other out, but instead become hot gasses that eventually cooled into solid matter? Why are carbon and hydrogen atoms so prevalent in our universe, making them conveniently available as the building blocks of organic life? All these, surely, are arguments that should at least allow for the possibility of God-affirming views of the material cosmos.

(b) Religion engenders violence. This is the real contemporary context to the resurgence of a militant movement of atheism at this time: viz. in reaction to the events of “9-11.” Al-Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers brought to the fore the existence of a militant, highly aggressive stream within Islam, prepared to use terrorist violence against civilians, taking thousands of innocent lives—ultimately, so they say, to impose their beliefs upon others, much as the “Prophet” did thirteen centuries ago. But to transform this into the generalization that “religion breeds violence,” as do Dawkins and company, ignores three or four important facts.

First, it ignores the specific context of the present situation: namely, that the danger of religious terrorism, which is indeed one of the biggest danger to our world, originates in radical Islam or “Islamicism” or militant Wahibism. It would appear that PC thinking requires that one be tolerant of all religions and accord equal value to them all—in itself, a praiseworthy, progressive idea. But as a result, one cannot criticize any specific religion, even a specific movement at a specific time, because one might offend. So instead, Dawkins takes the opportunity to be critical all religion. To my mind, this is an example of how PC makes people stupid, by hampering open, intelligent discourse about the reality confronting us.

Secondly, it ignores the ubiquity of violence, and the sad fact that aggression, divisiveness, is part of human nature: of all human groups, religious or otherwise. This is a deeply troubling aspect of our human nature, one that, in light of the destructive power of modern weaponry, may well endanger the future of humankind on this planet. As someone recently said, “Mankind must evolve or die.” But that is a subject for a separate discussion, on which I hope to write soon.

But more than that, this statement betrays either woeful ignorance of 20th century history or, more likely, deliberately ignoring it or not “connecting the dots.” The great blood baths of the 20th century were precipitated by Nazism and Communism, neither of which were religions in the usual sense of the word (although Zaehner, in his Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths, includes both Marxism and Jungianism as “a new Buddha and a new Tao”; and one could argue that Nazism was a resurgence of pagan Teutonic religion). From a Leftist perspective, one might add the mayhem and bloodshed engendered by American imperialism and that of its client states (Vietnam, Cambodia, suppression of revolutions of social change in Allende’s Chile, Argentina, etc.), but these were certainly not based on any religious motivation, but old-fashioned secular economic interest—this, notwithstanding George W. Bush’s crusader-like rhetoric.

Third, Western monotheistic religions have by-and-large learned tolerance, and are marked by genuine attempts to accept the other. Some of the leading Western religious thinkers (including Joseph Ratzinger, the present pope) have made real efforts to create a theoretical basis religious pluralism, to somehow find a basis for accepting multiple truths, or perhaps better, multiple paths to the one Truth or the truth of the One. In any event, these religions have learned to confine their disputes to the verbal realm of polite and occasionally not-so-polite discourse. There are, it is true, certain exceptions: abortion clinic bombers in US; Haredi stone throwers in Judaism; some might say, West Bank settlers in violent confrontations with Arabs (although these latter are more territorial than religious disputes)—but all these are more the exception than the norm.

In passing, it occurred to me that a second, more covert sub-text to the “religion breeds violence” argument lies in the often acerbic political and cultural conflicts in the United States between conservatives and liberals, recently tagged as “Red” and “Blue,” which largely overlaps that between fundamentalist religionists, on the one hand, and liberal religionists and secularists, on the other. Without going into this topic, let me suggest very briefly that there may be good reason for the resentment of “Middle America” against the liberal intellectual elites of the two coasts, and that our liberal thinkers might do well to broaden their empathy and understanding for “the Other,” not only in remote parts of the world, but in their own backyard.

Incidentally, if we are concerned about fundamentalism and bloodshed, there is far more reason for concern about fundamentalist reading of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which was clearly written by human beings, as interpreted by the American Rifle Association, than there is from the direction of religion.

Fourth and finally, re religion and violence: Religion also contains the idea that God is Love, and that love of one’s neighbor is a central ethical imperative. While in popular Western stereotypes the phrase sounds Christian, it is central to Judaism: the practical part of Shema, mentioned above, begins with “you shall love the Lord your God…”; Kabbalah is filled with statements about hesed overcoming din, or “sweetening” harsh judgments; the love and fear of God are two equally cardinal mitzvot; the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are central; etc. (In one of my earliest essays, which is still one of my favorite and I think best, I discuss Sinai and the Cleft of the Rock, and refer to what I call Shavuot faith and Yom Kippur faith; see HY I [Torah]: Ki Tisa.)

In brief: there is a specific problem with contemporary Islam; we can only hope and pray that the forces of reason, peace and love within Islam—and there are such—will engage and win the struggle for the minds and hearts of millions of faithful all over the world, and bring about a change (“Ijtihad rather than Jihad!”) before they destroy much of civilization as we know it. (It is ironic that Islam, which is in a sense the most pluralistic of the great Western religions, recognizing the prophecies of Moses and Jesus—and there are certain Sufi thinkers who accord full legitimacy to Judaism and Christianity—has turned in the direction of dark, hatred-filled fanaticism.) In any event, to blame “religion” for the violence in our world, is incorrect and ignorant.

(c) Religion is doctrinaire, inflexible, and opposed to free thought. Like other things Dawkins says, this is a half-truth. Every religion does entail certain core beliefs, dogmas or doctrines, which the faithful are expected to believe—things like the existence of God, a few basic axioms about His nature; in Judaism: belief in the Torah and the mitzvot, at least in a general way; in Christianity, certain ideas about the person of Jesus, the Trinity, the Incarnation and Passion; etc. But beyond that, the religious communities I know, and those I have read about, both in the present and the past, are marked by a wide gamut of attitudes towards such issues of faith vs. reason, authority vs. individual autonomy, etc., making it difficult to make any generalizations of this sort.

I feel that Dawkins, and the others have set up a straw man—a particularly ugly, unpalatable stereotype of religion—which they then identify with “religion” as such, making it relatively simple to demolish. My own impression is that he is rather ignorant of the vastness and complexity of religion. Religion is a vast field of study —inter alai, in the academic sense—with a lengthy history, or rather histories, embracing hundreds and thousands of schools, thinkers, books, indeed, entire literatures, institutions, practices, liturgies, etc. Surely, one who considers himself a humanist, an educated, enlightened Western man, ought to devote some serious study to religion before writing about it—as he would about any other subject. Would a serious scholar write about literature, art, music, philosophy, political thought, or any other aspect of human endeavor without engaging in in-depth learning of his subject? The sense of the breadth and complexity of religion is sorely lacking in Dawkins’ presentation; in its place are a few shallow generalities on wish he bases his “critique.”

Among other things, he completely disregards the role of hermeneutics: of interpretation and reinterpretation of sacred texts as the way in which religions change and deal with problematic aspect of their own traditions. He seems to prefer the image of religion as literalism, as slavish following of Scripture. Yet in reality, for example, the supposed bloodthirsty nature of the “Old Testament God” is almost entirely irrelevant to the traditional Jew, steeped in Midrash, Hazal, through whose lenses such passages look entirely different. Take, for example, the case of the ben sorer umoreh, the “rebellious son” subject to death, or for that matter the death penalty in general, which are surrounded with so many halakhic requirements as to become virtual dead letter.

The same holds true for many other aspects of religions. For example: the role of the intellect vs. that of the emotions. In Judaism one has the classic line of division or demarcation between Hasidism and Mitnaggedism—the one with its emphasis on prayer and on charismatic holy men-leaders, almost father figures to their flock; the latter with its emphasis on study, knowledge, erudition, and the ability to draw sharp legal distinctions between seemingly similar cases. Or there is the dichotomy of human types, between the more cerebral, “cold,” inner-driven, highly disciplined types vs. the more emotional, devotional, pietistic types. Or that of mysticism vs. more sober, normative religious approaches. Or again, the issue of religious creativity, of human input into religious cannon by means of interpretation (in Judaism this is called Oral Torah or hiddushei Torah) vs. centralized, traditional authority). l , ; _ irha f Pra; tirha) , or perhaps a broad understanding of Oral Torah as the field in which man adds to the Torah through exegesis. Or the variety of views in various religions and religious schools on the burning issues of the day, such as the role of women, in prayer and as religious leaders; attitudes towards homosexuality; issues of sexual behavior, abortion, etc., that so excite controversy in the US; not to mention global issues of war and peace, poverty, ecology, etc., etc.

(d) I would like to add a fourth point: that modern secular culture is somehow shallow; whether because of the rejection of religion, or for other reasons, it seems to leave not enough room for the innate dignity of man, as created in the image of God, or the “natural depth in man,” which as I see as including the quest for ultimate meaning. Can it be that, once one sees man as a purely biological creature, who like the beasts is born, matures, copulates, and dies, one somehow removes the basis for profound meaning from human life? At one time, in the exuberance of 17th or 18th century enlightenment and humanism, it was thought that the end of religion would be a liberating experience for humanity. But more recent experience suggests otherwise. Aviezer Ravitzky once summarized this succinctly: “In the 19th century enlightened thinkers used to say, ‘God is dead! Hallelujah!’ Today, they say, ‘God is dead! Oy, gevalt!’”

I raise this point because one of the reviewers of Dawkins’ work (I think it was Haggai Dagan’s review in Ha-Aretz: Sefarim some time this past June) sees one of the factors motivating the new atheists as the sense of a decline in Western secular culture, a movement away from reason and rational thinking, for which they blame the (alleged) resurgence of religion and the rise of tawdry mysticisms and “New Age” quick fixes.

Yet there are other factors at work. First, economic: capitalism world-wide has evolved into ever more massive, powerful structures that seem to impose the market model on everything. Increasingly, everything one does, more and more aspects of our lives, seem to be dominated by questions of monetary value. Cultural creativity seems more subject to the rules of the market-place than it was fifty years ago: “does it sell” is the first questions one is asked, and intelligent, subtle works of art and music and literature face harsher market conditions. One hears of university departments of humanities, philosophy, even history, languages, etc. dying a slow death. This is not the result of religion, but rather of the domination of managerial or economic thinking. Schools think in terms of lucrative courses; students are more conscious of the need to acquire training for a high-paying career. As a result, more and more students are being graduated who, by the standards of a generation or two ago, are barbarians. Similarly, the proliferation of hi–tech has contributed to a culture of superficiality, of non-complex, easily absorbed messages, in which “information” has replaced “knowledge” or “wisdom.” These, and not some vague bogey-man of “religion,” are the true dangers threatening a world in which a culture of fully human men and women, reflecting in their lives the Divine image, can flourish.


Chapter Four: Some Practical Human Advice

4.23. Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar said: Do not attempt to pacify your fellow at the time of his anger; and do not comfort him when his dead is lying before him; and do not ask him at the time of his vow; and do not attempt to see him in the hour of his shame.

This mishnah gives several pieces of practical human advice, which boil down to one central idea: that human beings, even the best of them, are not always rational beings, and that there are times of intense emotion when appeals to reason, to common sense or to enlightened self-interest, will not and cannot be heard. As the best speakers, comedians and actors say: “It’s all a matter of timing.” So: don’t speak to a person, even a good friend, in the wrong way at the wrong time—or perhaps one should say, not even in the right way, with words of sense and caution and wisdom, at a time that is inappropriate.

There are certain streams within Judaism that advocate a kind of religious perfectionism, that expect a person to be master at all times, not only of his behavior, and not only of his speech, but also of his emotions. Thus, in his essay Halakhic Man, Rav Soloveitchik celebrates certain models of heroic, almost inhuman, halakhic self-discipline. (One could argue that the tenth commandment, “Do not covet your neighbor’s house/wife/livestock…” assumes that a person is capable of such self-mastery that he will not even covet another person’s possession or situation in his heart. Other mefarshim, to my mind wisely, interpret this commandment as restricted to covetous action.) In any event, the present mishnah assumes the opposite: that people are subject to moods, are deeply affected by circumstances, and that certain events are so traumatic and powerful that they cannot even speak of them rationally during a certain initial period.

As Rambam and others counsel us, a person ought to avoid anger. But given the fact that the vast majority of people do feel anger towards their fellows at one time or another, often intensely so, it is not prudent or useful to attempt to calm someone in such cases. In like manner, comforting the bereaved is a great mitzvah, but there is a time and place for it: in the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one (perhaps even if long expected), a person needs to grieve, to weep, even to shout and cry out and shake his fist at heaven if he is so inclined; the time for comforting only comes later. Vows, too, may be made for foolish reasons, and may create difficulties in life and be hard to sustain. But when a person does make a vow (and in the milieu of traditional Jewish society it was perhaps more commonplace than among Westernized people), it is doubtless in response to some deeply felt emotion or need. Perhaps one feels anger at a particular individual (“I swear that he shall never again darken my doorstep so long as I live!”); of gratitude to God (as in Jephtah’s famously foolish oath; see Judges 11:30-40); or by religious zeal and the desire to achieve greater holiness (the Nazirite vow; vows not to eat meat or various other forms of asceticism). In any event, at the moment of the vow, all appeals to reason are in vain. Finally, when a person has done something awful and his reputation is in shambles, and he is too ashamed to show his face in public, even his best friend should avoid forcing himself on him.

But all these things, it seems to me, are general directives. If a person is truly an intimate friend, and knows that even in these extreme circumstances his presence will be not only accepted, but also desired, then he should rely on his human judgment. It seems to me that this matter is analogous to the rule that one should not remind a righteous proselyte of his non-Jewish origins; like taunting a ba’al teshuvah about his past sins, this falls under the rubric of ona’at devraim, causing a person suffering by one’s cruel or thoughtless words (Bava Metzia’a 59b ff.). But if one has a close friendship with a convert (and I have been privileged to have or to have had several such during the course of my life), and that person openly talks about his/her background, and the whole tenor of the conversation is friendly and personal, it seems clear that such talk is permitted. The whole idea of the issur is not to hurt another person’s feelings, to sensitize us to other people; not merely as an arbitrary rule to be followed blindly regardless of context. In inter-human relations, the basic idea is common sense and wisdom—what is sometimes called “the fifth section of Shulhan Arukh.”

Friday, August 08, 2008

Devarim - Tisha b'Av (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parashah, and on Tisha b'Av, see the archives to this blog at July 2006.

Readers are asked to pray for the health of Dinah Tzipporah bat Rahel (Deena Garber), a revered Jerusalem Torah teacher.

Zakhor! Remember!

Some years ago Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, of Columbia University, wrote a little book entitled Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. His basis thesis there is that memory is a central defining element of Jewish group identity. The emphasis on memory, in his view, is a unique feature of Jewish historical consciousness, one which defines community no less so than do faith, mitzvot or, on the other hand (as certain secular Zionists would have it) land or language.

Such memory is different from simple chronicling or reconstruction of events from the past. It is selective; it involves a process of interpretation, but of a different kind than that practiced by academic historians, in which the past is filtered in certain very specific ways. In ancient times, in Bible and Midrash, and even in medieval Jewry, this was guided by a theocentric narrative. In the modern age, historical memory has been re-appropriated by Jewry in a very different manner, suitable to a secular world in which there is no longer consensus on a given religious or theological world-view; indeed, one might even say that, for some Jews, historical memory has come to serve as a substitute for religious faith or practice.

Thus far for an extremely capsule summary of Yerushalmi’s book (which is well worth reading). To return to the Torah: while there are no mitzvot as such in this week’s parashah, it is very much historically oriented. Sefer Devarim, the final book of the Torah, which begins with this week’s portion, consists of Moses’ farewell address and admonition to the people. The whole first section of Deuteronomy—Chapters 1-11, corresponding to the first three parshiyot—is centered around the retelling and interpretation of history. In very broad terms, Parashat Devarim is a factual retelling of the events of the forty years between the encampment at Mount Sinai and the point they had reached in the fortieth year, on the steppes of Moab facing the gateway to the Land of Israel. Vaethanan and Ekev in turn are Moses’ valedictory sermon and interpretation of the lessons to be learned from such incidents as the Calf and the Spies.

More generally, Sefer Devarim contains many admonitions to remember: Zakhor!! Medieval Kabbalists introduced a ritual of daily recitation of six verses calling on the Jew to remember; five of these six zekhirot are taken from this book: “Remember, do not forget how you behaved in the desert” (9:7); “Guard yourself carefully, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw… on the day that you stood at Horeb… and tell them to your children and your grandchildren” (4:9,10) And, in Moses’ great Song near the very end of the Torah: “Remember the days of old, contemplate the years of the generations; Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will say it to you” (32:7).

But of all the times of the year, Tisha b’Av more than any other seems to me to embody the imperative to remember. The final chapter of Eikha opens with the words, “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace” (Lamentations 5:1). These in turn form the leit-motif for any number of kinot (elegies) recited on this day. Indeed, the theme of memory serves as an essential part of the halakhic construction of the day. Rav Soloveitchik used to note in his Tisha b’Av shiurim that the recitation of Kinot—which he defined as “engaging in Oral Torah on the theme of the Hurban, the Destruction”—along with the other kinds of study permitted on this day (Eikha, midrashim, Job, “the sad things in Jeremiah”) serves a necessary halakhic function. In contradistinction to personal mourning for the death of a relative, which is felt in a direct, immediate way, mourning on Tisha b‘Av is aveiliut yeshanah, mourning over events long-past. Hence, the sense of grief and mourning needs to be awakened by the act of study and remembering.

What is the nature of this memory?

First, to remember our own sins: מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצינו, “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” All these tragic events were caused by our own faithlessness to the covenant, whether grave sins like bloodshed, pagan worship and sexual lewdness, or social sins, like “groundless hatred.” Rambam, in his reading of the commemorative fast days, is more specific: these fasts are meant to remind us of “our ancestor’s [wrongful] deeds, which are like our own deeds” (Hilkhot Ta’aniyot 5).

Second, to remember what our Gentile enemies did to us, and to appeal to God for mercy and salvation. In more secular terms, this means remembering the widespread scourge of anti-Semitism; that our history has made us different. There is something problematical about this approach: it evokes the desire for vengeance, for self-pity, the sense of victimhood. Salo Baron once referred to this approach rather scornfully as the “lachrymose school of Jewish historiography.” At times, it can also lead to distorted apprehensions of our position in the world; it has arguably led to serious mistakes in Israel’s conduct of its foreign policy. And yet, this idea is an important component of Jewish self-awareness: the world is, or at least can be, a dangerous place for Jews (an idea elevated by some into a metaphysical axiom); a healthy measure of wariness and even suspicion is important for sheer survival. Certainly, notwithstanding the much vaunted Arab hospitality towards strangers on the individual level, Muslim culture is far from welcoming or tolerant towards other national or religious collectivities, certainly in what they perceive as “their” region.

Third, to remember what God did. As the Rav often said; Tisha b’Av is a time when one is allowed to ask hard questions about theodicy, to challenge the justice of God’s actions, to shake a fist at Heaven. “Eikha!” “Why?”

In a world of globalization, where cultures blend with one another, where former boundaries between nations and cultures are blurred and obscured, where there is constant mobility and mingling among groups, including intermarriage—at least within the orbit of Western culture (which in this city can end very abruptly)—the need to strengthen Jewish memory is a vital imperative.

The idea that all Jews have an obligation to remember their people’s past was one fostered, among others, by Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement. Is this a religious mitzvah or a national imperative? I’m not sure it matters, so long as there is historical memory. About thirty years ago I took a group of students from the WUJS Program to meet Kaplan. He was a very old man, 95 years old, living in Jerusalem, but he spoke in lucid and powerful tones. He spoke of the idea every Jewish family, even if they don’t go to synagogue on Shabbat, should make it a practice, every Shabbat afternoon, to read a chapter of Jewish history and discussing it as a family.

Interestingly, in the recent Bronfman competition sponsored by Brandeis University, asking thinkers to propose ideas for “an important Jewish book,” the winning project was that of Yehuda Kurtzer, centered on the theme of Jewish memory, how to revive it and revitalize in our day.

Perhaps this is also the explanation for a certain kind of nostalgia that is rife today. Except for a handful of very elderly people, there is no longer anyone alive who has real memories of, for example, the Eastern European shtetl. There is thus a certain longing for the past, seen through romantic lenses, for what is seen as a more “authentic” model of Judaism. More than a few children of thoroughly Westernized Jewries have even attempted to revive and reconstruct through their own lives what was lost—or at least what they imagine it to have been (at times in absurd ways, what I might call a certain style of “Hasidic chic”).

Where does Tisha b’Av fit in to this scheme? Many people, especially here in Israel, think of it as being “only for the dati’im,” and of no general relevance to Jews at large. It is seen as concerned exclusively with the Temple; who then can relate to animal sacrifices today? (This is a dramatic contrast to the early years of the Zionist movement, when as prominent a Labor Zionist leader as Berl Katzenelson decried those who went on a hike on Tisha b’Av, saying that it ought to be respected by all as the Jewish national day of mourning.) But I see the day as much more, against a far broader canvas, in which the Temple is only as symbol, a paradigm, embodying the entire (melancholy) range of Jewish memory.


Chapter Three — The Dangers of Wisdom

Following a series of mishnayot focusing on the importance of public study of Torah, in groups of varying sizes (discussed in HY IX: Korah), there are two brief sayings about the importance of wisdom being integrated with other values:

11. Rabbi Hanina den Dosa said: He whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom shall be lasting. But he whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom is not lasting.

12. He used to say: He whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, his wisdom is lasting. But he whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, his wisdom is not lasting.

Both these mishnayot, by the pious tanna Hanina ben Dosa, focus on the same issue: the proper place of wisdom vis-à-vis other values. In both cases here, wisdom must be preceded by something else: “fear of sin”—that is, a certain basic ethical attitude; and “deeds”—concrete action, good deeds, in the world. It would seem that R. Hanina had a deeply-rooted fear of what might happen to an individual if “wisdom” were to become the predominant, guiding feature in his personality.

What is the source of this concern? We know that Judaism as a culture has always placed a great premium upon the intellect: the talmid hakham, the person of \deep and extensive knowledge of Torah, must first and foremost excel in intellectual attainment. In modern Jewish culture, admiration for the intellect—the secular critical intellectual, the man of ideas, the scientist—is nearly ubiquitous. But necessary as this may be, R. Hanina —and, I would add, many other sages—saw the danger of intellect unchecked by other qualities. Intellect in itself is value free; it seeks to know, to accumulate ever more knowledge, to understand, to analyze, to compare and categorize and create new theories, or at least “hiddushim.” By itself, it need not necessarily lead to right, good, ethical behavior, to kindness or generosity or caring for the other, not to mention the kind of dedication that is willing to sacrifice itself if need be.

There were those, like Maimonides, who thought that intellect in itself, if properly applied, if rooted in proper training and systematic application of the correct axioms, would lead to right belief, behavior and character. His warning against delving into certain kinds of profound wisdom—whether the religious doctrines and thought of the non-Jewish world, as in Avodat Kokhavim 2.3, or the secrets of the Divine Chariot and of Creation—are based upon the fear that the person who is unprepared may fall into error. But, in principle, he believes, rather naively, that if a truly wise man properly understands the right course he must follow, he will do so.

In another sense, Wisdom may be viewed as a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the Torah itself is identified with Wisdom: see the opening chapters of Proverbs, for example. In Kabbalah, Hokhmah, “Wisdom,” is the highest sefirah of all, an instrument for infusing the infinite Divine light into the universe. On the other hand, in Greek culture wisdom (Sophia, Logos, Gnosis) is also the highest good. There, it seems to be independent of all theological or ethical restraints, but is the highest end in itself. Perhaps the wisdom which R. Hanina b. Dosa wished to be placed behind the fear of God is of this latter kind.

SUPPLEMENT: “Shall I Weep in the Fifth Month?”

Following the creation of the State of Israel, and even more so after the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, voices began to be heard in the religious world asking whether the various practices of mourning related to Tisha b’Av and the period preceding it should continue to be observed as has been done by Jewish communities since time immemorial, as if nothing of significance had changed in the situation of the Jewish people.

In the mid-1960’s, the late Professor Ephraim E. Urbach founded a small movement of religious intellectuals, Ha-Tenu’ah le-Yahadut shel Torah (“The Movement for Torah Judaism”), whose slogan was “The holy will be renewed, and the new made holy.” This group was devoted to examining the entire gamut of issues raised by the confrontation between traditional Judaism and modernity, particularly those precipitated by the return to Zion and the creation of the Jewish state, and to investigating new approaches to those issues, to be rooted in halakhic precedent but attentive to the modern spirit. After the 1967 War, this group turned its attention to some of the issues related to the mourning practices, focusing on three areas: (a) the continued observance of minor fast days, such as the 17th of Tammuz and 10th of Tevet; (b) the various customs of mourning observed during the Three Weeks (“Bein ha-Metzarim) and the first Nine Days of Av; (c) the liturgy of Tisha b’Av itself—specifically, revision of the Nahem prayer recited at Minhah on that day.

Moshe David Herr, Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University, who was among the leaders of that group, described the atmosphere of those days: “There was a tremendous feeling of euphoria after the war. On that first Tisha B’av, the atmosphere at the Kotel was more like a festival day than of a day of mourning.” He continued to describe how, on the 17th of Tammuz of that year, barely six weeks after the victory in the war, a number of members of the movement gathered at a private home for the weekday morning service—without Selihot and the other additions for fast days; afterwards cake and wine were served, and they all drank Le-hayyim.

Regarding the various mourning practices: there was a general consensus that Tisha B’av should continue to be observed as a fast—because of the Temple, which remained to be rebuilt; because of the many troubles throughout Jewish history associated with this date; and because of the horrendous destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it seemed to most that the mourning period need not be so strict as it had become over the centuries, particularly among Ashkenazic Jewry, and a return was suggested to the norms found in the Mishnah and Talmud, which are essentially those observed by Sephardic Jewry: namely, no mourning whatever between the 17th of Tammuz and Rosh Hodesh Av; restrictions on excessive rejoicing —weddings, etc.—only from Rosh Hodesh Av; and limiting the restrictions on eating meat and drinking wine, bathing and washing clothes, and cutting hair and shaving, to the week of Tisha B’Av itself.

The Nahem prayer recited on Tisha B’Av afternoon seemed particularly anomalous. The traditional text speaks of “the city in mourning and in ruins, despised and desolate... without her children... like an abandoned woman... ruined by legions, inherited by Gentiles...” etc. This text was clearly not an accurate representation of contemporary reality. Prof. Urbach, together with his late son Abraham, compiled a new version of the Nahem text, drawing upon sources from the Jerusalem Talmud, from the Siddurim of R. Amram Gaon and R. Saadya Gaon, from Maimonides and from the Italian and Yemenite rites, and from the existing text. In this version, rather than depicting the city as being in mourning and ruin in actuality, reference is made to the rebuilt Jerusalem as we know it, alongside bewailing the pain and mourning of past generations and the blood that was spilled. The prayer concludes with thanks to the Almighty for the inheritance of the land, and a prayer for peace. In this version, one prays:

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

Other noted sages, such as Rabbi Shlomo Goren, at the time Chief Rabbi of the IDF; Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, late Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv; and Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld of Great Britain (all of blessed memory), also formulated revised versions of the Nahem text.

There is historical precedence for such rethinking. The book of Zechariah relates that, after the return to Zion in 536 BCE, certain people approached the prophet with the query, “Shall I weep in the fifth month, as I have done these many years?” (7:3). The prophet prefaced his answer with an exhortation concerning the ethical aim of fasting—to pursue truth and justice, kindness and mercy to ones fellow, etc.—and concludes with the hopeful words, “The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be seasons of joy and gladness and cheerful feasts to the house of Judah” (Zech. 8:19).

The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b) puzzles over these words: why are these fast days referred to in one place as “fasts” and elsewhere as “days of joy”? The answer given is that, in times of peace (that is, when Jews are not under the hands of the Gentile nations—thus Rashi), these shall indeed be days of joy; during times of persecution, they shall be fast days; if the situation is somewhere in between, “if they wish, they shall fast; if they wish, they need not fast.” True, historically it was accepted Jewish practice to fast on all four “minor” fast days, and it is codified thus in the great law codes, Rambam’s Yad, Tur, and Shulhan Arukh; and with good reason, for Jews perceived their situation as far closer to “persecution” than to “peace.” But following the return to Zion and the creation of an independent Jewish state, and particularly after the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, many people began to feel that this ancient practice was anomalous, a matter of religious rote. Why, then, have these proposed changes not taken root within the religious world? Prof. Herr sees this as unthinking conservatism, symptomatic of rigidity and fossilization in religious thinking (mitzvat anashim melumadah).

This issue raises basic questions pertaining, not only to Tisha b’Av and the season proximate to it, but also regarding our attitude towards history and its relevance to religious life. Do we see our liturgy and our religious observances as relating to our actual situation in the real world, or as timeless, eternal, “Platonic” archetypes? There is respectable precedent for the latter position among some of the leading Jewish thinkers of the modern age. Thus, Franz Rosenzweig spoke of the Jewish people as living its life in a kind of niche of eternity, outside the vagaries of temporal history. The intellectual historian David Myers has identified an entire school of thinkers espousing an approach that “defies” history: among them Hermann Cohen, Yitzhak Breuer, and Leo Strauss. But is such an approach cogent and acceptable to us?

On the opposite extreme, there is a widespread approach in our day to see the present era as “the beginning of redemption,” anticipating the rebuilding the Temple, the restoration of sacrifices, the Sanhedrin and the Davidic monarchy—not to mention the exclusive sovereignty of the Jewish people over the “Greater Land of Israel.” But are galut and geulah in fact to be seen as a bipolar reality? Either complete redemption, or a secular Jewish state without any religious significance whatsoever? Then there are those who see Zionism—perhaps in reaction to the excesses of present-day organized religious Zionism—in purely secular, political, practical terms. (Such, for example, was the position of the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz: “we’re fed up of being dependent upon the mercies of the goyim!”)

But it seems to me that there is yet another possibility, located somewhere between the poles of denying history altogether and realized pre-messianism: one that sees the unfolding of history in gradual, naturalistic terms, yet as nevertheless representing the stage upon which the Divine manifests itself in our lives. The return of the people of Israel to history is an opportunity to shape our national life in light of the values of justice and righteousness of the Torah, while taking responsibility for our destiny and the quality of the society we create. Neither exile nor supra-historical eschatological redemption: rather something new, a new kind of age, not anticipated in the past, within the earthly history of the people of Israel.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Masei (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog, at July 2006.

Cities of Refuge

This parashah, the third among those set on the eve of our forefathers entering the Land of Israel, is devoted almost exclusively to various aspects of settling the Land—that is, following a recapitulation of the various stations of the people’s journey in the desert, from which it derives its title, “travels.” Thus, there is a general command to take possession of the land; the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, outlined in detail, starting clockwise from the south-eastern corner near the Dead Sea; a list of the princes charged with supervising the division of the Land among the different tribes; the establishment of Levitical cities in each tribal territory; the law of the cities of refuge; and a rider to the “daughters of Zelophehad” rule granting daughters land-inheritance where there are no sons: namely, that they must marry within their own tribe.

While none of these mitzvot as such applies to future generations, the law of the cities of refuge (Num 35:9-34; compare its reiteration in Deut 19:1-10, and the listing of the cities in Deut 4:41-43 and Joshua 20), set up as a place for unintentional murderers to flee, involves several significant principles. There are two different rationales given for this somewhat peculiar institution:

On the one hand, it serves to protect the accidental killer from avengers, from members of his victim’s family who see themselves as performing the duty of goel ha-dam, lit., “redeemer of the blood.” This notion is rooted in the idea that blood that has been spilled, even without malice forethought, cries out for revenge—a notion tied in perhaps with concepts of family honor and duty. It is an almost cosmic law, perhaps connected with the Noachide verse that “he who spills the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be spilled,” or that spilled blood somehow contaminates the land. In any event, the Torah seems to accept the avenger as almost a natural force; there is a certain acceptance of the human impulse for vengeance, destructive and unruly as it may be, as a part of human nature which cannot be curbed by either education or legislation, and which even carries a certain primitive kind of justice. Instead, the Torah is concerned with providing a safe haven for the unintentional manslaughterer. This is in stark contrast to our own society, in which any avenger would be subject to the same sanctions as any other murderer, and people are taught to regard such vigilantism as a bad thing.

In general, while trying to instill people with a certain degree of inner control over their more chaotic impulses, a strong conscience or “super-ego,” the Torah also legislates mechanisms to protect potential victims of such impulses, which in the final analysis it sees as part of human nature. This outlook is also reflected in the halakhic rules controlling the potential for chaos in unfettered sexual instincts. Rather than relying on inner restraints, on an internalized social code, to insure that men and women will behave properly in mixed social settings, there are strong rules against physical contact and yihud, so as to avoid situations in which temptation might arise or be acted upon.

But there is a second aspect to the city of refuge as well, a more theoretical one: namely, the tension between intentionality and action. Is such a person to be considered a murderer at all? On the one hand, he has caused another person to die: his action, which resulted in bloodshed, is perhaps the worst sin a person can commit: cutting short the life of another person, who is a unique embodiment of the Divine image. On the other hand, it was unintentional, an accident; his motivation and his heart were pure. It is the sort if thing “that could happen to anyone.” There’s no point trying to teach him to be gentle and non-violent, because he is so already. Nevertheless, on some level the act he committed was a grave sin; his confinement to the city of refuge is thus an act of atonement—a point suggested by the fact that he must remain there “until the death of the high priest”—the central, symbolically exculpatory figure for the entire nation.

The underlying view implied in the institution of ir miklat is also found in the concept of shegagah, the sin-offering brought to atone for certain kinds of unintentional sin. The idea implied here is that things are not “either-or”: on one level, acts are significant in themselves, even if their result was totally unintended—particularly if its fatal consequences might have prevented by greater caution (e.g., in the case given, making certain that the axe-head was securely fastened to the handle); on the other hand, without intentionality a person clearly cannot be said to “own” a given act; hence, the Torah greatly diminishes the significances of acts done by mistake.

In general, Judaism tends to be a religion of deed, not thought. A person can meditate all day long about God, enter into a state of ecstasy contemplating His infinity and ineffability, but if he doesn’t stand up and recite Prayer, read the Shema, don tefillin, and so forth, he hasn’t discharged his duty of engaging in service of God. As Habad and other Hasidic thinkers put it: given that we are creatures with souls embodied in a garment of flesh, marked by the unique capacity for speech, our Divine service must be an amalgam of thought, speech, and deed. In purely halakhic terms, too, the act takes ontological priority over its rationales (ta’amei hamitzvot) and is independent of it. Or, to bring an example from the realm of human relations: a man may be lovesick over a certain woman, standing in the street gazing at her window for hours, but if he doesn’t perform acts of love and caring towards her, she cannot know that she loves him. All this is very different from today’s post-modern Zeitgeist, that seems to emphasize “consciousness” above all else, seemingly unaware of the pitfalls involved.

Yet on another level what makes us human is our consciousness, our intentionality, not our acts considered merely in themselves. (See Avivah Zornberg’s discussion of the dilemma of the human condition, “swarming” vs. “standing,” in the opening chapter of her Genesis, The Beginning of Desire.) Perhaps we can conclude by saying that, while both are important, ma’aseh is of prior concern; while, regarding negative acts, absence of intent cannot but be a major mitigating factor.


Chapter Two

We will begin with a saying from the earlier part of the chapter, which contains several sayings of Hillel the Elder:

2. 5. He [Hillel] used to say: A coarse person cannot be sin-fearing, nor an ignorant man pious. The shy person cannot learn, nor the imperious one teach. Nor do all those who engage in much trade become wise; and where there is no man, strive to be a man.

This brief saying contains several important insights about human nature. First, a certain connection is drawn between refinement and intellect, and ethical and spiritual virtue: namely, that true piety or fear of God cannot exist in the absence of general menschlichkeit and a certain minimal cultural standard. I don’t think this is intellectual snobbery; rather, the idea that one needs a certain minimal store of knowledge and intelligence, the ability to evaluate the subtleties and complexities of situations one may encounter in life, to be a truly religious man. This is in contrast to the medieval Christian idea of the “holy fool” (also celebrated in Hasidism, as in R. Nahman of Bratslav’s tale of The Wise Man and the Simpleton).

The first two terms in this mishnah reflect a certain order: the bor, the coarse person, cannot even be “fearful of sin,” the lowest level of piety; while the am ha-aretz is defined as unlettered, but not outright boorish: he, it is implied, may fear sin, even be punctilious about avoiding transgression on a certain minimal level, but he cannot be truly pious, which require something more.

The next two phrases also complement one another: the shy student will be embarrassed to ask questions or admit that he doesn’t understand something and requires needs further explanation, and therefore will fail to learn properly; the overbearing, strict teacher will frighten even the normal student from asking questions or admitting his own ignorance, through fear of mockery and acerbic tongue-lashing. (Interestingly, some of the greatest Torah teachers, of both ancient and recent times, were known for their ferocity in the classroom; if they nevertheless raised generations of students, I believe it was despite, not because of, this quality.)

The fifth phrase, “not all those that engage much in trade become wise,” can be read in two ways. On the one hand, that people often associate wealth and worldly success with wisdom; the mishnah cautions us that this isn’t so, that the self-made millionaire can still be stupid in every area of life but making money. And, to the contrary: there may be the proverbial geniuses starving in garrets. Alternatively, one might think that those who engage in trade, and thus travel a lot and get to meet different peoples and see different countries, will gain wisdom from this; our mishnah comments, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Finally, the sixth clause, “In a place where there is no man, strive to be a man,” seems to me to caution against excessive self-effacement. A person may think: I’m not good enough to lead communal prayer/give a Devar Torah in public/head a committee (etc.) One must understand that no one is born a professor, a prime minister, a rosh yeshivah, or even a pope (lehavdil). Everyone is “just a person” who gradually learns to do whatever they do, largely through doing it. (I am reminded of a friend of mine who, at a certain point in middle age, found himself buying a home in a comfortable suburban neighborhood suitable to those of his professional status lived, and remarking with astonishment that “In the ‘60s, this is where our friends’ parents lived!” This same person, when named to an endowed chair at his university, commented with some wonder that ‘This was the chair that my mentor A used to fill!”) It was this same message that Rabbi Nathan Kamanetsky tried to convey in writing his father’s biography, The Making of a Gadol. The ultra-Orthodox world was too much enthralled in the mystique of the “gadol” to accept this message with grace.

We turn from here to the five disciples of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, and their various summa bonum. The following are the words of the disciple described as the most brilliant and creative of all, the “constantly flowing spring,” R. Eleazar ben Arakh:

2. 14. Rabbi Eleazar son of Arakh said: You should be diligent in learning Torah, and know what to answer an apikorus [heretic], and know before whom you labor; [and know] that your employer may be relied upon to reward you for your labors.

The final phrase is a kind of coda. The three basic “mottos” all relate to the central value of learning Torah, and what one must learn from it. First, that one must, quite simply, be diligent, apply oneself. Second, one must know how to answer a “heretic.” This requires a certain openness, rather different talents than those required of a sage who addresses the committed and convinced. One must be aware of the existence of people who think differently, who have wildly divergent views from those of the tradition, and respect them enough to at least engage their reasoning seriously, if only to then know how to persuade them by reasoning and argumentation. Third, one must know “before whom you labor.” Kehati reads sees this as a general imperative to “know God”: a kind of Maimonidean amor dei intellectualus, the love of God that comes about via cognition. Or perhaps this is related to the final phrase: know before whom you labor {i.e. God} because he may be relied upon in the end to reward you for your efforts, tedious, burdensome, and heavy as they may seem at times.