Friday, September 26, 2008

Nitzavim (Mitzvot)

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

The Turning

Parashat Nitzavim is always the final one of the year and, whether fortuitously or by design, the major mitzvah presented therein is teshuvah, the idea of return to God. Reading the Chapter on Turning (Parshat ha-Teshuvah; Deuteronomy 30) closely, one notices several interesting things. The root שוב, “to turn/return,” repeats itself many times, in different ways: as reflecting upon something—literally, “turning it over” in your mind; as the act of teshuvah, turning or returning to God; as God turning, i.e., changing His mind, and having mercy on us; of His returning us to our land, after the punishment of Galut has been completed; and so on.

The first of these usages is interesting. The opening verse says “After all these things [i.e., those foreseen in the great Rebuke of Deut 28] befall you, the blessing and the curse… and you turn it over in your heart [while you are among] the nations where God has expelled you. Then you shall return to the Lord your God.” This is reminiscent of the verse in Deut 4:39, where we are told to “know this day and reflect in your heart that the Lord is God, in heaven above an in earth below, there is no other.” Here, there is an interesting three-part process: “all these things”—i.e., Exile and the concomitant suffering—befall you; these events cause you to reflect; and only then, it seems, will you return to God. That is, there is a connection between bad things happening and teshuvah: ordinarily, people don’t change, don’t abandon their habitual life pattern, don’t become more serious about ethical and religious principles, unless they undergo some sort of shock or trauma, whether as individuals or as a community, that shakes them out of their complacency. It may be a collective event, like exile or pogrom or war, or a personal crisis such as illness, financial troubles, death of a near one, or even—as in the dramatic repentance of the notorious profligate Eleazar ben Dordai, in Avodah Zarah 17a—being told (by one of his paramours!) that “You know, you will never be accepted back in teshuvah.”

The second half of this chapter articulates the utter simplicity of teshuvah. “It is not in the heavens, it is not across the sea, but very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart” (vv. 11-14). There is nothing abstruse or esoteric about it; it is a simple choice between life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse. The “turning” to God is not anything difficult to comprehend or know—it is a simple switch within oneself, as to how to live one’s life.

And in truth, if we’re honest with ourselves, teshuvah is usually a very simple thing: each person has to search out his own heart. We all know what our failings are in life, what we most need to do to change within ourselves. The problem is not one of knowledge, but of will, of laziness, of giving up certain immediate pleasures. If a person somehow examines himself without any peniyot, somehow disregarding his own ulterior motives and interests, in as objective a way as possible, he/she will usually see clearly—indeed, with painful clarity—where one has failed, or fallen short in living one’s life as one ought.

These ideas are at times rejected by modern people, because all the talk of repentance, atonement, confession, cognition of sin, seems too much focused on guilt. But in truth, teshuvah may be read as hithadshut, self-renewal or as “turning,” and not as self-castigation for every past “crime or misdemeanor.” The focus is on the future, not the past: to abandon the faulty path of the past, not to dwell on it, and to accept new ways for the future.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ki Tavo (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at September 2006. Our apologies that the promised supplement on marriage law is not yet ready.

“And you shall take the first fruits of your land…”

A few weeks ago (HY IX: Ekev) we talked about the motif of gratitude, of acknowledging that all that we have is a gift from God, as an essential part of the religious attitude to life—an attitude expressed in the various blessings we make throughout the day, and throughout life, and quintessentially through Birkat ha-Mazon, the Grace After Meals.

This idea is raised to a higher level in a series of commandments in which we give the first portion of each thing to God: the first born of flock and herd; the first proper harvest of fruit from a newly planted tree; the first shearing of sheep; the first portion of field crops and threshing floor; and, in this week’s parashah, the first fruits of each season, which were ceremoniously brought up to the Temple. Even the first born of human beings is in theory holy to God, and must be redeemed; before the sanctification of the tribe of Levi, the first born were indeed set apart for priestly lives (is a remnant of this idea perhaps found in the sanctification from the womb of Shimshon and of Shmuel?). The essential idea is, in a sense, like that underlying the blessings we say: that everything is the universe belongs to God, and that we symbolically acknowledge this by offering the first part to Him in reality, as a kind of sacred tax.

There is a deceptively simple saying of Hazal that may tie these two ideas together: “One verse says, ‘The earth and all therein belongs to the Lord’ [Ps 24:1], and another says, ‘The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He has given to human beings’ [Ps 115]. How so? Here before he has recited a blessing; there after a blessing.” Perhaps one might say: both blessing and the gift of “firsts” are a kind of “payment,” a way of acknowledging God’s ultimate “ownership” of the whole world.

But there is also a second aspect to the first fruits ritual. The farmer is told to take the first fruits of the new season (significantly, and symbolically, the first fruits are only of the seven species of fruit for which Eretz Yisrael is especially noted, as listed in Deut 8:8), to place them in a basket, and bring them up to the Temple, where they are given to the priest. But the one bringing the bikkurim, the first fruit, then recites a text called the “Confession over First Fruits” (Viduy Bikkurim), which isn’t really a confession at all, but a succinct recapitulation of the history of the Israelite people: “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt… and they treated us badly and afflicted us, and placed upon us harsh servitude… and God took us out of there with a strong arm… and brought us to this place… So now, I have brought the first fruits of the land to You, O Lord.” (Interestingly, this same text forms the basis for the central section of the Passover Haggadah)

What lies behind this recitation? The basic idea is to show how a seemingly simple thing, like harvesting and enjoying the fruits growing on one’s own property, which most people take for granted, is in fact the end point of a long history. We wrote earlier this summer about the meaning of history in Jewish consciousness. This is another example: the Torah seems to use almost every available opportunity to impress upon people, not only such basic religious messages as the reality of God, the need to love and fear Him and to cultivate a sense of gratitude towards Him for our very lives, but also a sense of history. Specific, concrete events in our lives as individuals, our being here today, in this place and this situation, is in fact part of a long historical continuum, which has its own logic and meaning. We enjoy these grapes and figs and the bread baked from this wheat, only because God has took our forefathers out of Egypt, and brought them to this good and abundant land.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ki Tetzei (Mitzvot)

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

In loving memory of my father, Avigdor ben ha-Rav Simhah Eliyahu & Sheina Git’tl (William Chipman) who departed this world 24 years ago, on 10 Elul 5744. And in honor of my dear wife, Randy, upon the occasion of our tenth anniversary. May we have many more good, happy and productive years together.

The Holiness of Marriage

This week’s parasha deals with a mélange of mitzvot, probably the largest collection found in any single parasha, covering a wide variety of subjects—74 in all. If there is a single organizing theme, it is that of marriage, family and sexuality and, more generally, private life. Many of the mitzvot here relate in one way or another to this subject, including such basic mitzvot as marriage, divorce, levirate marriage, the ban on sacred prostitution and homosexuality, etc.

The concepts of both marriage and divorce are derived from the same verse, Deuteronomy 24:1, where they are mentioned almost in passing, in relation to the rule against a man remarrying his ex-wife who had remarried and was subsequently either divorced or widowed. The verse begins with the words “When a man takes a wife…” and continues “if he does not like her… then he writes her a sefer keritut (lit., “writ of cutting off”; i.e., a get) and places it in her hands and sends her away….” Thus, this verse conveys, in a nutshell, the halakhic essence of the institutions of marriage—kiddushin—and its termination—gerushin.

Both of these are based upon an act performed by the man—and there lies the rub. The fact that both marriage and, especially, divorce, are under the exclusive aegis of the husband has caused no end of trouble in the event of marital breakdown. This factor can, and often does, leave the woman at the mercy of a vindictive or avaricious husband, on the one hand, and of an often impotent or indifferent Rabbinic Court, on the other—the well-known problem of the so-called agunah. I have devoted a special supplement to this subject in honor of my father’s Yahrzeit, including discussion of various suggestions that have been made in recent years for correcting this problem, or even restructuring Jewish marriage altogether; the shiur will be sent out/posted, with God’s help, very early next week, and will also include a brief discussion of another sexuality-related issue that has aroused much controversy in recent years—the status of homosexuals and homosexuality.

But so as not to leave this wedding anniversary issue on a note of the bleak side of marriage, I will quote a brief insight from Sefer ha-Hinukh—a 13th century compendium of the laws and rationales of each of the 613 mitzvot. The Hinukh defines the act of kiddushin as follows: “The Torah commanded us to perform an act with the woman indicative of their union, prior to him lying with her, so that he not go to her as one goes to a harlot, without any other prior act between them… and that she take to heart that she is connected permanently to that man, and not behave promiscuously… so that their sitting down and rising up be in peace and harmony forever…” In short, Hinukh sees the idea of a wedding ceremony—a publicly acknowledged, formal act uniting the couple—as conveying dignity and gravity to their union, as distinct from casual sexual relations, thereby conveying , as implied by the word kiddushin, sanctity upon their relations. Interestingly—a point to which I will return in my longer essay—this understanding of the basic rationale for this mitzvah is not dependent upon the specific form of kiddushin.


One of my readers took umbrage at a passing comment I made last week as to the “often exaggerated hopes the masses may place in a charismatic leader as being somehow able to resolve all the problems of the country (is this at least part of the Obama phenomenon?).” His point is well taken. The comment was inserted rather hastily, as a last-minute thought and, as an expatriate American, perhaps without the awareness of the passions and sensitivities this presidential campaign arouses in many.

Truth is, I had originally thought of drawing an analogy between Israel and the US viz. Obama and Tzipi Livni. The latter is seen by some as the “great white hope” of Israeli politics precisely because she is a woman, because she’s 10-15 years younger than the current crop of politicians, and because she seems to conveys at least the image of honesty and principle and the possibility of “change,” in a body politic that is at least as disillusioned in its leadership as many Americans are with Bush (though perhaps not polarized in quite the same way). In point of fact, her world view is hardly radical, but seems basically moderate Likud (she is from the “fighting family”: her parents were in Etzel).

But my real point, which perhaps I didn’t articulate all that well, was that the excitement a politician generates is as much a reflection of the crowd’s desire to believe in a leader as it is about whom he or she is in fact; in other words, the impulse “we want a king” is as much alive today as it was in the days of Samuel and Saul (see Elias Canetti’s Crowds). At times the person the crowd loves may in fact be decent, intelligent, capable, etc.—as I believe Obama to be, and as Shaul evidently was—but the crowd’s admiration generally has little to do with the facts.

I might add that Obama’s candidacy has excited attention as symbolizing, not only a new America, but a new world—one in which the white races no longer assume themselves to be superior and destined for rule, but in which the white man will take his place as one among many strains (or “stains,” per Philip Roth) within the panoply of humanity. As Jews, who though (predominantly) white, have often been regarded as belonging to a pariah ethnic group, this development can only be applauded. As for whether McCain or Obama is “good for Israel” and even what is meant by “good for Israel”—one can talk till the cows come home and never reach a conclusion.


The halakhic concepts of both marriage and divorce are derived from the same verse in Parasha Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 24:1, where they are mentioned almost in passing. The verse begins with the words “When a man takes a wife…” and continues “if he does not like her… then he writes her a sefer keritut (lit., “writ of cutting off”; i.e., a get) and places it in her hands and sends her away….” This verse thus conveys, with graet brevity, the halakhic essence of the institutions of marriage—kiddushin—and its termination—gerushin.

Both of these acts are performed by the man, the woman, even if her consent is required, being a passive recipient—and there lies the rub. In the event of marital breakdown, the man has tremendous power over the woman to either grant or withhold a divorce. This has been given rise to what is popularly known as ‘iggun or the problem of the ‘agunah, (lit., “the anchored woman”: technically speaking, the term refers to a woman whose husband’s whereabouts are unknown). This situation can, and does, give rise to the potential for real abuse. An avaricious or vindictive husband may cynically exploit this situation to blackmail the woman for money in exchange for his agreement to a get, or extract far-reaching concessions in matters of child support or equitable division of common property, overruling prior court decisions.

I know personally of three women who have suffered greatly, over a period of many years, because of halakhic power their estranged husbands held over them. One such woman, a good friend of my ex-wife, was only able to remarry, and to so while still in her child-bearing years, because her father was sufficiently wealthy to meet the husband’s “ransom” demands. The other two, to the best of my knowledge, are still agunot. Notwithstanding the purple prose in Orthodox apologetic literature celebrating the beauty of Jewish marriage, this problem serves as a stain on the institution. I find it difficult to think of a system that not only provides an opening for such abuse, but is virtually an “opening that calls out to the thief,” as holy. Perhaps in ages past, when Jewish communities were more cohesive and the Rabbinic Courts enjoyed real political and moral authority things were different. In today’s world, it is clearly a hillul hashem—a desecration of the Holy Name.

A second consequence of the male–initiated and male–terminated nature of marriage is that of agunot in the classical sense: i.e., women whose husbands have disappeared, and may even be suspected or presumed to be dead, but whose whereabouts are in fact unknown; no one knows for sure what has become of him. This happened not infrequently in the medieval world, where many Jews engaged in trade and traveled long distances, by sea or land, and there were only ineffective means of communication. But there may also be agunot in the modern world, as a result of war or terrorism or other mishap: among survivors of the Holocaust, when couples were often separated; following the sinking of the Israeli submarine Dakar, and following the Twin Towers attack, when numerous bodies were never recovered, rabbis worked hard to free these men’s widows to remarry. Nevertheless, there are situations where women remain agunot: Tami Arad, wife of Ron Arad, the best known Israeli MIA, has been an agunah for a quarter of a century, not knowing whether her husband is alive or dead.

Moreover, in the event where the woman did not have any children with her husband (such as Karnit Goldwasser, whose husband’s body was just returned after two years of uncertainty), and there is a brother, she is required, in lieu of levirate marriage, to undergo the procedure of halitzah. Many women find this ceremony humiliating, although ironically its original intent was to humiliate the brother-in-law who refused to perform his duty. More important, this institution again provides an opportunity for blackmail and extortion—and has been exploited to those ends.

But over and beyond the specific evils of a system which gives unjust power to unscrupulous men, and the crying need for technical solutions to the agunah problem, there is another issue involved here, one of principle. Put quite simply: the unilateral nature of halakhic marriage and divorce rankles against our own conception of marriage. The woman seems to be treated as a passive object, to be “acquired” or “sent away” (not unlike the slaves, livestock, real estate, and mobilia discussed in the subsequent mishnayot in Mishnah Kiddushin Ch. 1) at the fiat of her husband. Modern couples are more likely to think of marriage as a partnership of equals, freely entered into by both partners, and to be dissolved either by mutual agreement, or upon the fulfillment of certain pre-agreed conditions. The woman is not chattel of either her father or her husband.

Have we, then, reached a point of crisis in Jewish marriage? I have been mulling over this question for the past few weeks, in the wake of several conversations with my friend Harry Fox about a paper he wrote on this subject—appropriately enough, in partnership with his wife (see below). Is it possible to rethink the halakhic parameters of marriage? Is it at all possible or permissible to alter them? And, if so, how could such a thing be done?

1. How Does Halakah Change?

This issue relates to a much larger question: how does halakhah change? The objection is often raised, even in more modern Orthodox circles, that the Torah is eternal, unchangeable or, as in the title of the popular anthology by Dayan Grunfeld, “timeless Torah.”

Yet in truth the Torah is flexible. When a given law becomes untenable, as the result of changes in social reality; when it becomes totally out of tune with the reality in which people live, a solution is inevitably found, which typically involves keeping the law itself “on the books” while effectively turning it into a dead letter, and inventing a new halakhic institution to take its place. Indeed, certain halakhot were treated that way by the Sages ab initio: thus, the law of ben sorer umoreh, “the rebellious son,” was explained as something which “never was and never existed,” whose sole raison d’etre was “expound it and receive reward.” The best-known example is one that will go into effect in a very few days: shemitat kesaafim. Torah law stipulates that all debts are automatically cancelled every seven years, at the end of the sabbatical year. As economic life became more complex, this law became untenable—nobody wanted to lend money to those in need, out of fear of their debts being cancelled. Thus, Hillel introduced the prozbol, essentially a legal fiction in which debts were formally turned over to the Beit Din, a corporate body to which the law did not apply, as a way of bypassing this law and enabling the economy to function.

There are numerous other examples. In the final chapter of Mishnah Sotah we read that the eglah arufah and mei sotah where abolished once murderers and adulterers, respectively, became common. Other examples include: the sale of hametz, to alleviate the need to physically destroy valuable stores of hametz every year before Pesah; heter mekhirah, the nominal sale of all of Eretz Yisrael to a non-Jew as a (controversial) solution to the requirement of ceasing all agricultural labor one year out of seven; heter iska, permitting commercial and financial institutions to loan money on interest; various modern technological solutions to Shabbat prohibitions; etc., etc.

Today, many people in the observant community are reluctant to introduce new and radical solutions to even the most pressing halakhic problems, out of fear of being labeled “Reformers.” Historically, Orthodoxy’s reaction to modernity was to adopt a fortress mentality, bolstering up the letter of the law. (In my opinion, this is based on an incorrect reading of the causes for the failure of Reform and Conservative Judaism—but that is another discussion, that will take us too far afield.) But a believe that the time has come for Orthodoxy to emerge into a new phase; the Orthodox community has successfully moved into the modern world, and its image today is largely of educated, successful professional and business people. Hence, the bastion mentality s no longer appropriate. Rather than the rigid notion of an “eternal, unchangeable Torah,” it seems to me that a truer model of the working of halakhah is one of constant tension between the fixed mitzvot of the Written Torah and an Oral Torah, in the broadest sense, that will serve as an instrument sensitive to social reality and to changes in society and human environment.

I should add that the areas of marriage and sexuality are ones in which halakhists are particularly conservative and reluctant to entertain change, due to the serious nature of sexual transgressions. An error in halakhic judgment regarding marital status may have very grave consequences, viz. mamzerut, issurei karet, etc. Traditionally, this is one of the reasons why poskim have been reluctant to even entertain the idea of various proposals for change or “reform” in this area. Clearly, any proposed solution must be examined carefully from all sides—but that does not mean that they should be dismissed out of hand, and not adopted by the community in the end.

2. Value Questions: Partnership vs. Chattel

But before turning to the practical questions of how to do this, a few comments about some of the principled issue involved. As I see it, these factors make change all the more urgent. Family life and marriage are in trouble, generally, in the Western world; I have written about this problem in the past, and hope to do so at greater length in the future. The changing sexual norms and expectations that have become common within the lifetime of my generation, based upon a highly individualistic approach to life, present a great challenge to Judaism, with its concept of relations between men and women being based upon sanctity, dignity and mutual respect; with the family conceived as the kernel, the elemental building block of the larger community—a concept absolutely central to any kind of Jewish life. I have become convinced that the solution to the problem of Jewish marriage law as presently constituted lies, not in fanatical conservatism and rigid adherence to a literalist reading of the law, but in making Jewish marriage an attractive option, in which modern men and women can feel safe and secure. (Let me add that, as the father of three unmarried daughters, I feel this problem particularly keenly.)

At a conference of unmarried Orthodox young people in Jerusalem, not a few people said that they don’t plan to marry—i.e., with huppah and kiddushin—because of the unwanted power it gives the husband in event of marital breakdown. Even if they do in time establish stable, loving, potentially life-long relationships, many are seriously considering what used to be quaintly referred to as “living in sin,” in protest against the Rabbinic establishment’s failure to solve the agunah problem.

But the problem is not only a practical one. People today think of marriage in terms of relationship freely entered into by both partners as equals, based upon the full personhood of both man and woman. From this perspective, the concept of kinyan, however much it may be dressed up in spiritualistic reinterpretation, is objectionable. I would like to draw an analogy to Rambam’s approach to korbanot, animal sacrifices, as set forward in Guide III.32 (I am of course aware of the contradictions between the Rambam’s position here and in the Yad; see HY V [Rambam]: Vayikra). Maimonides describes sacrifices as being commanded to the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt because this was customary manner of serving God in the ancient world. Between the lines, he seems to imply that the Torah’s intent was to ultimately wean Jews away from sacrifice towards verbal prayer, and eventually maybe even towards silent mediation. Is it too far–fetched to suggest something analogous about the issue at hand? The Torah was given at a time when women were universally viewed in a manner very much like chattel, because that was the way in the ancient world; the Torah’s main concern was to insure sexual modesty and the stability of the family, by creating a formal, publicly recognized structure for marital relations. But, arguably, human thought regarding these matters has evolved to a higher consciousness. Hence the time has come to rethink Jewish marriage, relegating traditional kiddushin to desuetude, and substituting for it a new structure, based on equality and mutuality, and defined in terms of binding Rabbinic or communal edicts. If ever there was a situation of עת לעשות לה' הפרו תורתיך (“it is a time to act for the sake of the Lord; they have violated your Torah”—Ps 119:126; read by the Rabbis as “even to violate your Torah”!), surely this is it!

Moreover, a basis may be found for these conceptions in classical Jewish sources. I have written in the past as to how the motif of the creation of the first human being as an androgynous points towards both the equality and the mutual interdependence of the two sexes (see Genesis Rabbah 8.1 and parallels; for my translation and discussion see HY VIII [Rashi]: Shabbat Hol ha-Moed Pesah). Similar ideas, relating specifically to marriage, may be found in an impressive group of medieval Torah commentators, including Ramban, Sforno, Radak, Hizkuni, Rashbam, and many others. For them, the ideal of monogamy and partnership are inferred from Adam and Eve. This entire group interpret the verse והיו לבשר אחד(“and they shall be as one flesh”—Gen 2:24) in terms of spiritual union and partnership.

Thus Ramban: “Because of this Scripture says that the female of Adam was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, and he cleaved to her, and she was in his bosom like his own flesh. And he desired that she be with him always, as was the case with Adam, so is it placed in his nature in his offspring, that the males cling to their wives, leaving father and mother and seeing their wives as if they are with them as one flesh…”

Sforno is more succinct: “A man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife. It is fitting that a man undertake to marry a woman suitable for him, and to whom it is fitting that he cleave. He shall also need to leave his parents, for there cannot be true attachment between those who are unalike. But only among those who are similar, for then they are directed to one opinion mind. And they shall be one flesh. He intends in all his activities to acquire that perfection intended in the creation of man, as if both of them were only one.”

In brief, the idea of monogamy and a strong emotional, psychological and spiritual bond at the basis of the union between man and woman runs like a crimson thread through all major commentators (with the exception of Rashi, who takes this verse in a different direction; see HY VIII: Bereshit). Notwithstanding the formal permission for bigamy or polygamy, and even its concrete practice in the cases of the patriarch Jacob and kings David and Solomon, the Edenic ideal clearly seems that of one man and one woman.

Interestingly, there is a trend today, specifically among some strictly Orthodox women, to invoke ancient Kabbalistic traditions describing the messianic age as one in which the imbalances between man and woman will be rectified. See on this, for example, Sarah Yehudit Schneider’s Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine.

It seems to me that on this point there is something to be learned from certain contemporary trends among non-Jewish religious thinkers. Thus, that section of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church dealing with holy matrimony begins by stating: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring…. (II,7: §1601). And: “The initial community of life and love which constitutes the Married state… is written in the very nature of man and woman…. “ (§1603).

A few paragraphs later, the Catechism discusses the problematic aspect of relations between the sexes, suggesting that “domination” [i.e., male supremacy and power imbalance between the sexes] is a major source of discord: “Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy and conflicts… the original communion between man and woman… that mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust…” (§1606-07). (I would of course demur from the heading “marriage under the regime of sin.”)

Needless to say, As a Jew I read these words, not as religious teachings, but as words of wisdom, written by thoughtful human beings (in this case, largely by Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI) confronting the eternal issues of human nature and the riddle of our existence. In particular, for purposes of the present discussion, I find a beautiful eloquence in the initial formulation, “a partnership of the whole of life.”

3. Practical Solutions

The issue of agunot is one that has plagued the halakhic world, particularly since the Emancipation and the option of civil marriage in the Western Diasporas made it possible for Jews to remarry without gittin. It is told that Prof. Saul Lieberman of JTS and Rav Soloveitchik held unofficial conversations about possible joint solutions to the problems of Jewish marriage and divorce in the US during the 1950s, but nothing came of them. Prof. Lieberman did, however, did introduce a clause into the Conservative ketubah, in which the husband agrees in advance to appear before a Rabbinic court as an adjunct condition of civil divorce.

One of the solutions battered around was that of tenai beget—a prenuptial agreement, in which the husband consented in advance to provide his wife with a divorce upon the fulfillment of certain conditions, such as separation for a certain given period of time. Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz discussed the halakhic ramifications of this idea (one already mentioned in the Talmud, in Shabbat 51a) in his book Tenai benisuin uva-get. A similar idea has been promulgated by the rabbis of Tzohar as a solution for the Israeli public; a version of such a pre-nuptial agreement is distributed as a supplement to a book on marriage by Rav Eliashiv Knohl.

A recent book (in Hebrew) by Monique Susskind Goldberg, Za’akat Dalot, provides what is perhaps the most comprehensive survey of the whole subject to date, and inter alia presents a number of new ideas.

Turning to more radical proposals, in which the very nature of the halakhic relationship between the couple is restructured or reconstructed, one must begin with Zvi Zohar’s article about pilagshut in Akdamot 13. The context of his argument is really that of premarital sex, which has become increasingly common even within certain religious circles, but could be equally well applied to an alternative type of Jewish marriage. In brief, he asserts that there is no prohibition against sexual relations without huppah and kiddushin, provided only that the relationship is not licentious—i.e., that there is some sort of consensual, agreed monogamous relationship between the couple, whether for a longer or shorter term—and that the woman observes the laws of niddah and mikveh. This position is based upon a distinguished group of rishinim—Ramban, Rabad, Rashba—as well as, most famously in the age of the Polish aharonim, R. Yaakov Emden; it is, however, opposed by Rambam, who at very least sees such actions as violation of a mitzvah aseh. (see my own tripartite discussion of this issue in HY V (Rambam]: Vayeshev, Mishpatim, Vayakhel).

While this solution as such lacks the dignity and seriousness of marriage—indeed, the very term pilagesh (“concubine”) has rather sleezy connotations—it seems to me that he lays down some important groundwork: the institution of pilagesh may serve as the bottom storey for the edifice of an alternative, different halakhic structure of marriage; a second, parallel track for establishing man-woman relations.

Dr. Rachel Adler, in the final chapter of her book Engendering Judaism, proposes an alternative model for establishing marital partnership, based upon Talmudic models of business partnership. The two partners each place an article of personal significance in a bag, which they then lift up together, in a kind of joint kinyan sudar, declaring that they are beginning a new phase in life in which they are sharing their property and their lives. This model, like the others to be mentioned below, specifies that the marriage established is not based upon kinyan or traditional kiddushin, with its above-mentioned drawbacks, but rather upon egalitarian principles.

A scholarly couple from the University of Toronto, Professors Harry Fox and Tirzah Meacham (le-Beit Yoreh), recently published, in the Fourth Kolekh Volume, an article entitled “Kedusha be-Kiddushin” (the title is best translated as “Restoring the Holiness to Marriage”; i.e., restoring true holiness to the institution of kiddushin), in which they present their idea of a new kind of Shetar nisuim. This document, which they used at their own wedding some 35 years ago, establishes marriage on the basis of signing and giving one another a document (one of the three options mentioned in the opening mishnah of Kiddushin), but differs from kinyan shetar in that this shtar spells out the basic terms of the marriage, including its differences from standard kiddushin. First and foremost, kiddushin is not conceived as an act of “acquisition”; there is full equality of partners; divorce may be initiated by either partner, or upon fulfillment of certain pre-determined conditions (e.g. separation or the absence of one partner for a fixed period of time); the obligation of yibbum is specifically excluded by this pre-nuptial agreement; adultery is equally prohibited to husband and wife, and is defined as a “deal breaker” from either party.

Rabbi David Greenstein, head of the non-denominational Academy for Jewish Religion in New York City, proposes yet another model, outlined in an as-yet unpublished paper entitled “Equality and Sanctity: Rethinking Jewish Marriage in Theory and in Ceremony.” His mode of egalitarian kiddushin is based upon each partner declaring that they are giving self to the other as a spouse. Masekhet Kiddushin (6a) specifically proscribes such languages: e.g., in which the man says “I am your husband” or “I am your intended” (הריני בעלך, הריני ארוסך, הריני מקודש לך), or the woman says הריני מתקדשת לך, rather than their being phrased as an act of kinyan, in which the man acquires the woman. Greenstein suggests the formula הריני מתקדש/ת לך בטבעת זו כדת משה וישראל–“I herewith sanctify myself to you by this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel”; i.e., very similar to the traditional formula, but in the passive rather than the active voice. I found that this model particularly appealed to me, both because of a certain elegant simplicity of the statement, and because it expresses in lucid terms the modern conception of marriage, in which each partner voluntarily gives themselves to the other, offering to share their life: a relationship based on mutual giving rather than acquisition. In practice, I could see this model being used in tandem with the Fox-Meacham shetar, reformulated either as pre-nuptial tennaim or, even better, as a communal takkanah.

I see all three of these options as possibilities for the restructuring of Jewish marriage. But beyond that, what is needed to begin making real halakhic change is some sort of takkanah declaring that this is the way; that this is an alternative track for sanctifying marriage; that couples married in this way will be considered married in a new way, rabbinically. Ideally, this would be done by a Rabbinic takkanah, or edict. But, given the conservative bent of contemporary rabbis (I recently presented these ideas at a friend’s Shabbat table and he said: “Yes, it’s good, and the poskim have the power and the wisdom to solve these problems”—but the problem is that the poskim, even the sympathetic, “liberal” ones like Rav Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, don’t seem to have the daring or gumption to actually propose anything even a tenth that radical), another path must be found. I would propose the model of takkanat hakehillot: that is, an edict taken upon itself by some cohesive group, which sees itself as a community, from within the heart of the Orthodox community. Unfortunately, these things are judged as much ad hominem as they are on the basis of their substance. Neither Adler, nor Fox, nor Meacham, nor Greenstein, are perceived today as “insiders” within the Orthodox world (which, I might add, in no way diminishes my personal friendship with the latter three). Hence, such a takkanah must originate within an organization or congregation that is part of the “loyal opposition” within that world that sees itself as the guardian of the halakhah.

Several important questions require answers. One is a clear definition of the nature of the halut of this type of kiddushin. One possibility would be to understand it as a new category, a kind of kiddushin derabanan, but unlike what is usually understood by that term, not merely a lesser copy of Torah kiddushin, but one defined with different conditions, as mentioned above, viz. the parameters of kinyan, mutuality, etc. But perhaps one first needs to answer a prior question: can there be a ”Rabbinic kiddushin” which isn’t unilateral, or is the very concept an oxymoron? No doubt many conservative halakhists will automatically respond thus. The real test is whether that response is a seriously considered halakhic one, or essentially sociological— “it’s never been before, so how can we do it now?” Alternatively, perhaps one speak of nissuin without kiddushin—that is, recreating what Rambam calls the “pre-Sinaitic” mode of marriage, or that of Noachide marriage, but used by Jews (which is, in all significant respects, the basis of the pilagshut model suggested by Zohar)?

A second important question is: what will be the nature of adultery under this kind of marriage? I am not seeking a harsh, punitive approach to adultery as an end in itself, but any halakhic structure, or for that matter any legal rule, is defined in terms of consequences and sanctions. Ordinarily, adultery is defined in terms of sexual relations with a Jewish woman who is mekudeshet under traditional Torah law. Here, adultery will have a different status—offhand, the traditional categories of ni’uf and issur eshet ish won’t apply, because the Torah is a closed system of proscriptions and sanctions (or will it, if nissuin without kiddushin is possible?)—but it must be seen in grave and serious terms. One idea with which I have been toying is the following: that as part of the marriage ceremony the couple take an oath of fidelity (interestingly, one of the striking differences between Jewish and Christian marriage is the absence of exchange of oaths in the former; perhaps the time has come to introduce it), making adultery a sin of violating an oath. (I specifically mention oaths, because the sin of violating oaths is one of the few transgressions that, though not subject to karet, is classified as a “serious sins” viz. Yom Kippur.)

The road is still long; numerous details and difficult questions of principle still need to be worked out before a new conception of Jewish marriage becomes widely accepted within the halakhically loyal community. But the need for radical change cries out; I believe this to be one of the major challenges confronting the halakhah, if it is to continue to speak to modernly educated people.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Shoftim (Mitzvot)

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

“Set upon yourselves a king”

This parasha deals primarily with the theme of society and its institutions: courts, police, priests, prophets, monarchy, military and the laws of war. The institution of the king seems obvious: society needs a ruler, a central authority who is ultimately responsible for decisions relating to the society as whole. But a close reading of this chapter reveals more than a little ambivalence about the monarchy: is the appointment of a king an obligation or mitzvah, or merely a permissible option? Rambam, at the beginning of Hilkhot Melakhim, states that this was one of the three mitzvot Israel were commanded to perform upon entering the Land (the other two being to eradicate the memory of Amalek, and to build the Temple).

But there seems to be a certain ambivalence about the entire matter. The wording of the section concerning the king (Deut 17:14-20) begins “When you come to the land… and inherit it and dwell therein, and say: ‘I will place upon me a king, like all the nations around me,’ you shall surely place upon yourself a king whom the Lord your God chooses…” The rest of the chapter places various restrictions upon the king: that he shall be from among your brethren, and not a foreigner (this created a difficulty regarding Herod); that he not acquire too many horses, nor a harem of many wives—i.e., that he not abuse his power to acquire wealth or live a sumptuous life-style; and that he be aware that he is subject to the law of the Torah—that he have a copy of the Torah with him, reading it regularly, “so that he may learn to be God-fearing.”

All this is paralleled by the historical account of the beginnings of the Israelite monarchy: a careful reading of the story of the anointment of Saul in 1 Samuel deepens the ambiguity. In Chapter 8 the elders come to Samuel saying: “you are old and your sons are not following in your path; give us a king like all the other nations.” He prays to God, who responds: “It is not you for whom they have contempt, but Me!“ (8:7). Yet surprisingly, God does not say not to appoint a king, but instead (we can imagine the Holy One letting out a deep sigh of resignation), says, in effect: Do as they say. At this point Shmuel alerts the elders to some of the possible drawbacks of a king, the famous mishpat ha-melekh, but in the end he gives them what they want.

The question is, of course: why does God react thus? It is perhaps instructive here to read some of Martin Buber’s writings about the religio-political vision of the Bible, such as The Kingdom of God. He claims that the original Hebrew political ideal was that expressed under Samuel and perhaps under the “judges” who preceded him: an anarchistic system of government, imbued with a sense of the direct rule of God, mediated through charismatic leaders who appear periodically to lead the people in some specific challenge, usually military, and who then return to carrying for their fields and orchards and vineyards like everyone else.

The ambiguity becomes deeper when one turns to the Chapter 9, which describes the actual appointment of Saul (which, besides everything else, is “a good yarn”). This long, circuitous story begins with a young man from the tribe of Benjamin named Shaul seen wandering through the hill country (in districts identified by such archaic place names as Shalisha, Sha’alim, Yemini, and Tzuf) looking for his father’s lost donkeys. He hears about a man of God, a roeh (“seer”) or itinerant charismatic prophet, who might be able to help him, and prepares to give him “rebbe gelt”—a quarter shekel of silver. On the way he encounters some young maidens who offer him a rather long-winded and flirtatious description of where to find the man and what he will be doing. Meanwhile, God has told Samuel that the man who will visit him the next day is to be appointed as the leader of Israel. Shaul arrives at the place where Shmuel is about to offer a sacrifice; he is invited to participate in the meal, which continues all day, is invited to sit next to the holy man, is given the choicest piece of meat, and Samuel shows him great warmth, honor and friendship, and even praised with the words “For whom is all Israel yearning, if not for you and your father’s house?” (9:20). The next day, in the morning, they go up to the roof and, in a private, almost clandestine ceremony, he is anointed with oil and told “God has anointed you leader over His inheritance!” (10:1), and told a series of signs that are realized. At one point he encounters a band of ecstatic prophets (בני נביאים) and God’s spirit “swoops down upon him” (much as it did with Samson in Judges 13-16).

But then, in the actual coronation scene (where Saul briefly disappears—out of sudden shyness or “stage fright”?), Shmuel reiterates his negative evaluation of the institution of the monarchy and the people’s desire for a king, saying, in effect: “You want a king? Here he is, you can have him!!” There is much more to be written about these chapters; I have explored the fascinating issue of Saul’s relations with Samuel, and later on with David, on several occasions in the past (see HY II [Haftarot]: Tetzaveh; and the material I have just posted on my blog under the heading “Thoughts on Saul: A Circumcision Sermon”).

I will offer a tentative explanation of this seeming contradiction. Perhaps there is a distinction between the institution of monarchy, and the often exaggerated hopes the masses may place in a charismatic leader as being somehow able to resolve all the problems of the country (is this at least part of the Obama phenomenon?), and the other ills of one-man rule, which may often degenerate into tyranny; and the specific individual chosen to fulfill that role. Clearly, Shaul was an impressive figure, whose humble origins and at least initial personal modesty endeared him all the more to seer and God alike (until he began to make certain serious, even fatal mistakes).

The basic idea that emerges from this tension is a simple one: monarchy (or, in modern terms, some form of central leadership) is a necessary evil, far superior to the dangers inherent in anarchy and in allowing society to be governed by the law of the jungle, in which the strong oppress the weak relentlessly (see Avot 3.2: “Pray for the welfare of the government; for were it not for its fear, each man would swallow his fellow alive”). In any event, it is a basic need of human beings in society. Here, as in many other areas (see, e.g., next week’s parasha on the issue of divorce), we say that the Torah is not a code for some ideal, Edenic existence, but is rooted in actual human nature, and the compromises necessary for men to live normal lives.


Chapter One

We now enter into the fourth and final cycle of reading Perek for this summer. I will focus upon one highly significant mishnah near the beginning of the first chapter:

3. Antigonos of Socho received [the tradition] from Shimon the Righteous. He said: Be not like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward, but be like servants who serve the master not in order to receive a reward. And may the fear of Heaven be upon you.

We find here, expressed in simple, pithy language, what many have described as a central theme in Judaism: the ideal of serving of God without ay ulterior motivation. Don’t be like those who perform the mitzvot out of self-interest, in the expectation of reward (whether in this world or the next), but like those who serve the Master because they love Him, and His service is itself precious to them. This idea is given, perhapsof its most sublime expression in the final chapter of Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuvah (and of Sefer ha-Mada’ as a whole): service of God through love alone—“Do the truth because it is the truth,” with their confidence that whatever reward one is deserving of will come of its own accord. (see HY V [=Rambam]: Yom Kippur)

Interestingly, this issue is one on which we find dramatically opposed viewpoints in this short tractate. Thus, in the opening mishnayot of both the second and the third chapters, we find the opposite approach expressed: admonishing people to behave properly, by reminding them to bear in mind that “there is an all-seeing eye, an all-hearing ear, and a book in which all your deeds are recorded” (2.1) or, in even more extreme terms, reminding man of the transient and even grossly physical nature of his bodily existence, invoking the day of his death and that he will have to answer for his actions (see above, Behar).

How are we to interpret these differing sayings? Possibly, some would say, as different levels of service: selfless love as the ultimate ideal, with the carrot and stick of Divine recompense as an interim educational tactic used to motivate less-developed souls (thus Rambam, in many places). Other Musar writers invoke the ideas of “love” and “fear” as twin motifs, both equally important in the service of God, which complement one another (in much the same way as the first two paragraphs of Shema, Shema & Vehaya im shamo’a, which represent respectively the ideas of love and fear, are both essential). Or are they based on different evaluations of human beings in general and what may be expected from them?

Rabbi Benny Lau, in his recently published book The Sages (based upon his own popular lecture series on Pirkei Avot) portrays the relation between the two in more confrontational terms, as representing two rival, even conflicting ways of looking at one of the basic issues of religion. He describes Antigonos’ approach as a radical innovation, vis-a-vis the mainstream view of Hazal which, following the literal sense of Tanakh, sees reward and punishment as an essential component of any Judaic world-view. Indeed, the Rabbis blame Antigonos’ doctrine, at least by implication or indirectly, as the source of the heresy of the Zaddokites and Boethusians, who rejected the Oral Law. Their argument was that: if there is no reward and punishment (which Antigonos does not say; but his words could be taken as removing reward and punishment as significant motivations in religious life), then why bother to observe the commandments in careful, punctilious fashion? Lay counterpoises Antigonos to R. Hanina ben Dosa who, in 3.11, emphasizes fear as the basic axiom of religious life.

I would like to make two comments about our contemporary situation viz. the issue of “fear vs. love.” On a certain important love, the fear of punishment, or of not receiving any reward for one’s actions, is essentially ego-centered. At times, it seems to be that, in very different form, this is part of the underlying attraction of today’s revival of “spirituality”? Much of what passes for that is in fact self-help, guidelines to people how to feel better with themselves? Or take a popular way of “selling” Kabbalah: that it will make you wealthier, more powerful, more attractive to the opposite sex, etc. Antigonos’ view, by contrast, is based on Torah lishmah—which I would translate as: orientation towards universals, God as transcendent, outside our petty, transient human concerns, etc. (which is also an idea in much Hasidic though, where it is called bittul atzmi).

This view also meets the needs of the modern zeitgeist in another way. Many people today find it difficult to believe in benevolent Providence, or any direct form of recompense. This is so, first, because science has made us too aware of the operation of natural causality in the world. But ion addition, and especially, for us Jews the Holocaust has upset such traditional beliefs beyond repair. In the past I used to think that this was a fallacious argument; philosophically, the issue of theodicy is the same whether one is speaking of one suffering individual (the problem of Job) or of six million. But somehow, through the fact of the Holocaust, quantity has somehow created a different quality. The Jewish people has known mass expulsions, pogroms and wholesale murders before, but never before was there a systematic attempt to decimate entire Jewish communities, indeed, whole regions of Jews. The number of victims was numbered, not in scores or even hundreds of individuals, but in hundreds and even thousands of towns and villages.

Hence, Antigonus makes more sense for our day. A kind of unrequited love of God; mitzvot as demonstration of one’s commitment to God despite everything and anything that may happen in real life. Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to speak in such terms: of religious life totally divorced from any hope or fear of Divine recompense ir involvement in human life. An older gentleman of my acquaintance—a German Jew who left Germany a few months after Kristallnacht, and who in Israel was a devoted participant in Leibowitz’s weekly shiurim—said that such a teaching was the only one which enabled him to lead a religious Jewish life after the Holocaust. While those of us born after Holocaust, who were fortunate enough to experience its horrors on our own flesh, may not have the biting edge of an Elie Weisel (or of a Rav Amital), who says he prays despite God’s abandoning us, nevertheless, the naïve belief that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world” has a hollow sound. Our only path can be that of “nevertheless…” —of the path of Torah and mitzvot because it is right.

Thoughts on Shaul

A Circumcison Sermon: Saul as Everyman

For the brit of Sha’ul Yaakov Chipman, ben Ariel Dan and Leigh – born in Cambridge England, Shabbat Hol Hamoed Sukkot 5765, 1 October, 2004.

When I first heard that Ariel and Leigh had chosen the name Saul, or Shaul, my instinctive reaction was that this name was a heavy burden to place on the tiny shoulders of this tender new-born, the rakh hanimol. Saul is quite possibly the most darkly tragic figure of the Bible. A kind of Shakespearean figure, or a tragic hero from a Greek tragedy, whose unhappy end somehow seem the inevitable result of faults that were present in his character from the very beginning.

But on second thought, perhaps such a name is befitting a 21st century child. We live in an anti-heroic age; indeed, at times we seem even excessively quick and zealous to perceive the failings of our leaders. Hence a figure like Shaul, whose life reflects the ambiguities and complexities of human life—a man who, on the one hand, was the founding father of his nation’s monarchy, but, on the other, was marked by striking failings—is perhaps a suitable name for a child who, in due time, will himself have to face the ambiguities and complexities of an unknown and rapidly changing, even volatile, world.

While a family celebration is hardly the occasion for a full-scale literary or psychological analysis of the biblical cycle of Saul narratives, which extend over most of the thirty-one chapters of the First Book of Samuel, I would nevertheless wish to share with you some of the reflections prompted by this choice of name, concluding, as a good preacher, with some moral lessons to be derived for ourselves and especially for the subject of this celebration, the latest addition to the Chipman clan.

Who, then, was Saul? In his email announcing Saul’s birth, and explaining the choice of name, Ariel stated that:

Although he is often maligned in Jewish tradition, he is mostly an impressive figure, described as being head and shoulders above the crowd (physically and personally), who did much for the consolidation of the nascent kingdom. His main shortcoming seems to have been a lack of attention to the details of ritual required by his mentor, the prophet Samuel, which ultimately proved his downfall.

This view is very much in keeping with a certain secular Israeli, political interpretation of Saul’s career—one that was particularly popular in the early years of the State, whose atmosphere was much influenced by the rediscovery, by the first generation of Israeli leaders and military men, of the art of warfare and the values of the military. Saul was clearly a great general, a wise tactician, a strong, courageous man who cut a physically imposing figure—and, of course, the first real king, who consolidated and united the nation of Israel in ways it had not been before. I recently heard from Assyriologist Israel Ef’al a verbal summary of an unpublished lecture he delivered on the 10th anniversary of Moshe Dayan’s death, entitled “Moshe Dayan’s Bible.” It is well known that Ben-Gurion was a great devotee of the Bible, who saw the Tanakh in its entirety as playing a central role in the nascent Israeli culture, as well as offering a significant cultural alternative to the Talmud-centered culture of the Diaspora. But for Dayan, as well as for such seminal figures as Saul Tchernichowsky and Nathan Alterman, the significant part of the Bible really ended with the death of Saul; that is, what most interested them was the activity of Joshua, the judges, and Saul in establishing a Jewish/Israelite state in the Land of Israel, in whose footsteps the followed. (although Tchernichowsky, who was himself named Saul, was also fascinated by the tragic aspect of this figure, and wrote a very moving and profound poem about “Shaul at Ein-dor.”) In any event, the problem with Saul, as I see it, was not his inattentiveness to ritual matters, for which he was soundly dressed down and ultimately rejected by his mentor Samuel, but goes much deeper, to certain central motifs in his psychological makeup.

Before turning to that subject, I must make brief mention of another interpretation of the Saul stories, which sees them as a kind of polemical weapon in the struggle for leadership between the tribes of Benjamin and Judah during various points in the history of the kingdom. There are those who read these stories’ as they do those of Joseph and his brothers, in terms of the later inter-tribal rivalry. (Thus, for example, Yairah Amit, in her book, Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narratives).

But I would prefer to read the text on its own terms. I am not one given to rigidly fundamentalist readings of the Bible, but in light of the near impossibility of recreating the actual historical figure of Saul, I think one must relate to the account of his life with at least as much seriousness as one does to any other character in a literary text, such as Hamlet or Ivan Karamazov, and try to make some sense of him in terms of what is told in the text. And in those terms, there is no doubt that he is a complex, deeply tragic figure. And, along those general lines, perhaps we can take Saul as a kind of emblematic character, his life embodied some of both the potentials and the pitfalls of human life—with the hope and prayer that little Saul will, with proper guidance from his wise parents, and with si’ata dishmaya, with Divine help, take the right turns at those points where his biblical namesake took the turns leading downwards.

The subject is both extensive and complex, embracing Saul’s relationships with his mentor Samuel, or Shmuel; with his own son Jonathan; and with his heir David. In the interests of brevity, I will try to focus on three central stages in his life:

1. Youth. We first encounter Saul as a shepherd youth, much like Moses or David. He first encounters Samuel while wandering over the highland of Benjamin-country while looking for some lost donkeys. Samuel, who senses Saul’s potential for greatness, and had been forewarned by God that Saul would be looking for him, clandestinely anoints him as leader of Israel. He then foretells three important encounters: first, at Tzeltzah he will meet some people who will tell him that his father’s donkeys have been found; then, at Elon Tavor, a second group on their way to the Temple at Beth-el, who will spontaneously offer him two loaves of bread; finally, at Givat Elohim he will encounter a band of ecstatic prophets, in whose ecstatic activities he will briefly share.

Reading this as a Bildungsroman, I see here three fundamental stages in the development of a young adult: first, separation from total involvement in his family and its concerns, an essential part of the forming of an independent identity; or, that he can leave hamorim, material concerns, to be handled by others. Second, spontaneous gestures of recognition by others, who see him as a significant figure deserving of a gift, as a sign of honor. Third, mystical ecstasy, a glimpse of a spiritual world, of a totally different mode of life. But all these were almost “beginner’s luck”: signs that required further deepening. The b’nei henevi’im were, after all, only novices in prophetic praxis, in mystical technique, and not full-fledge prophets. Saul’s meeting with them was a “high” without any contents or ethical message. Saul’s tendency towards mystical ecstasy revealed here is unusual, unparalleled by any other leader of his type, and is even presented as somewhat bizarre (“Is Saul also among the prophets?”). I find myself wondering whether the moodiness and tendency to depression he displays at a later stage in his life may not be the reverse side of this ability to be too easily caught up in emotional extremes.

Another strange thing about this early stage is Saul’s hesitancy about the kingship. He was initially anointed as king in a clandestine fashion. Later on, when a public ceremony of coronation at the tribal gathering does take place, he runs away, hiding among the vessels. (This is, by the way, the origin of the Hebrew idiom for shyness, nehba el hakelim).

Every person has a certain capacity for greatness. Students of the brain note that the creative potential of almost every human being is far greater than what we realize, and most of us utilize only a small portion of our brain capacity. (Certainly, with the combined genetic heritage of the Chipmans and Barons, little Shaul should have the potential to accomplish all sorts of great things in his life.) In any event, at a certain point Saul suddenly seems to lack faith in himself: he is overcome by a mysterious shyness, which is really a fear of becoming our optimal selves. As has been said, sometimes fear of success can be as potent and debilitating as fear of failure.

2. Maturity. During the initial years of his kingship, Saul showed his mettle both as national leader and as military commander. There were several significant military victories, revealing Saul’s talent as a military strategist; he also consolidated the kingdom by repelling external enemies, doing so, for the first time, not merely in an ad hoc manner, as did the Judges, but through a permanent state structure. He embodied a certain model of forceful masculinity, of physical strength, impressive stature, and bravery in battle. When necessary, he could also be cruel in getting people into line, as in the threats he used to persuade all the tribes to join in the offensive against Nahash king of Ammon.

But the very toughness that made him so successful in battle also had a rigid, cruel side. In the battle of Mikhmas he abjured all the combatants to fast till the evening, upon pain of death; his son Jonathan, who had not heard about this oath, stuck his staff into a honeycomb and tasted some of the honey, “and his eyes became bright.” (14:29). Notwithstanding the clearly unintentional nature of this violation, Saul would have killed his own son for this violation, were it not for the public outcry at the prospect. Clearly, he was unable to overlook faults, to forgive others.

In any event, as the Mussar (and Buddhist) saying has it: the real test of a man is how he returns from the “small war” to the “great war“—that is, learning to master the chaotic, destructive elements in his own personality. In this lay Saul‘s downfall: he was utterly unable to maintain his emotional and spiritual equilibrium when things went wrong. True, fate played him some nasty tricks. His beloved mentor, Samuel, was antagonistic towards him almost from the beginning, hinting to the people that he did not approve of the entire idea of having a monarch. This must have been a harsh blow. Moreover, Shmuel‘s unsparing anger and criticism over small, mostly ritual matters (e.g., Saul not waiting for Samuel to return before offering a certain pre-battle sacrifices; sparing some of the spoils of Amalek; etc.), must have seemed harsh, as Ariel mentioned. But this is a major subject in its own right.

An important turning point came when David won unexpected popularity: the shepherd lad, who had hitherto calmed Saul with his music, suddenly returns from the battle with Goliath, as a hero. The maidens dance through the streets with tambourines, singing, “Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his tens of thousands.” Finally, this selfsame David wins the trust and friendship of his own son, Jonathan, who sides with him against his own father! It is no wonder that Saul became morbid, bitter, withdrawn into himself, and obsessed with seeking revenge against his enemies.

Two crucial verses are emblematic of this turn in his life. Immediately after David’s hero’s reception, we are told that Saul began to hate David from that day forward (18:9). The very next day, when David returns to play the harp as usual in Saul’s house, “an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he prophesied within the house.” While thus “prophesying” (a word that, interestingly, is used in this context to refer to both positive or negative states, in which a person relinquishes conscious control of his actions), Saul grabbed a spear in an attempt to kill David. It was only David’s quicker reactions and footwork that saved him.

Was this moodiness, this susceptibility to moroseness and suspicion, the “evil spirit” from God, somehow the flip side of the earlier, ecstatic side of personality? In modern terminology, did he suffer from a kind of manic-depressive syndrome? The use of the same Hebrew verb, tzalah, to indicate the onset of the spirit, suggests that this is the case.

Interestingly, Saul continued to maintain David as part of his court—evidently, in order to keep an eye on him and to find a way of eliminating him. He even offered him marriage to his daughter—first to Merav, who in the end married someone else; and then to Michal, who was herself in love with him. Since we are celebrating a brit, we might mention here in passing the unique bride price Saul asked of David: the foreskins of one-hundred Philistines. Those were, one might say, rough and ready days.

From this point on, things rapidly decline. Saul conducts a formal banquet to celebrate the new moon, and is irked that David is absent (after a second attempt on his life by Saul), and senses that something is afoot, also with his son Jonathan. In the following chapters, Saul pursues David all over the map of Israel. David even flees to the land of the Philistines, where he feigns insanity to protect himself. One night, while Saul is sleeping with his men in a cave in Ein-Gedi, David surreptitiously cuts off a corner of the latter’s cloak, which he sends to Saul—as if to say: I had an opportunity to kill you, but did not lay my hands upon you. The scene ends with a tearful reconciliation (until the next time Saul is overcome with fear and hatred for David).

3. The End. A word about the final scene in Saul’s life. On the eve of a decisive important battle with the Philistines at Gilboa, Saul failed to receive any answer from the legitimate sources of oracular knowledge—dreams, prophets, or the Urim and Tummim. Plagued with anxiety and fear, he consults a necromancer at Ein-dor, a witch who brings up the spirits of the dead, to ask Samuel whether or not he will win or lose this battle. Ironically, as king he himself had banned all such magical and supernatural practices; hence this woman is operating clandestinely—and Saul too visits her in disguise. He asks her to call up the spirit of Samuel the prophet. Samuel has no good news to bring: he sees Israel soundly routed, and Saul and Jonathan lying dead on the battlefield— as, indeed, happens the very next day,

The interesting question is: what led Saul to such a blatant violation of his own ostensible principles? It leads one to wonder whether his banning of witches and magic was based on any deep identification with the monotheistic values that contravene any kind of tampering with the spirit world, or was merely a kind of conventional piety—he had been taught that this is what one ought to do, but broke in a moment of crisis, when he needed to speak with the one person he really loved and trusted—Samuel. But the latter, in addition to being annoyed at being disturbed and brought back from the world of the dead, seems not to have changed his negative opinion of Saul.

In the end, Saul was united with Jonathan in death, while David went on to eulogize both.

What of all this can we adopt as a life lesson for little Saul? What aspects of his illustrious but tragic namesake ought he to adopt? As I said at the beginning, banal as it may sound, simply to take to heart the lessons of Saul as everyman. To emulate the good things, especially the qualities of leadership, of power, of decisiveness, that Saul exhibited in the earlier stages of his life. And to avoid the pitfalls, of King Saul’s inability to cope with difficulty or failures in life. Sooner or later everyone encounters criticism for certain things they have done: this is particularly painful when it comes from parents or teachers or life mentors, but one must deal with it. Sooner or later, everyone must deal with a younger generation who seek their place in the sun, and even begin to surpass their elders in certain things (I know, this sounds like a rather far-fetched thing to say at a brit, at the very beginning of a life, but it is part of the totality of life). A person must know how to love others as himself, particularly those who are closest to him, and to rejoice in the success of those he has raised and trained rather than to see them as rivals.