Friday, November 28, 2008

Hayyei Sarah (Zohar)

Rabbi Mickey Rosen, founder and spiritual leader of Yakar, is seriously ill. We ask all readers to pray for the speedy and compete recovery of Shmuel Meir ben Beila Bryna.

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005

The Cave of the Machpelah

There has been much talk lately about the conflict and possible violent confrontation between settlers and IDF over the rightful ownership and use of certain buildings in the city of Hevron. We present here another view of the significance of Hevron and the Cave of Machpelah, that will perhaps shed some spiritual light on what is perceived by many as a political-national-power conflict. Zohar I: 127a-129a (selections):

Rabbi Yehudah said: Abraham recognized a sign in that cave, and there his heart’s desire focused—for previously he had entered and seen Adam and Eve buried there. How did he know it was them? Because as he gazed upon his image, an opening to the Garden of Eden appeared and that same image was standing nearby. Come and see: Whoever gazes upon the image of Adam can never escape, for as a person departs this world he sees Adam and—that very moment—dies. Yet Abraham gazed upon him, seeing his image, and endured. He saw a light illuminating the cave and a lamp burning; then Abraham yearned to dwell in that site, and his hearts desire focused constantly on the cave….

Rabbi El’azar said: When Abraham entered the cave, how did it happen? He was running after that calf, as is written, “Abraham ran to the herd…” (Gen 18:7), and the calf fled to that cave, so he entered after it and saw what he saw. Further, he used to pray every day, going out to that field, which emitted subtle fragrance. He saw a light radiating from the cave, so there he prayed, and there the blessed Holy One spoke with him. Therefore he asked for it, since his desire focused constantly on that site....

The first part of this passage, describing how Abraham discovered the Cave, portrays it as a kind of threshold or gate between this world and the Garden of Eden. But this Garden is not that from which Adam and Eve were banished, but a spiritual realm, where the dead pass after departing this world; but neither, it would seem, is it an entirely heavenly realm either. The significant idea here is that the world of material corporeality and that of the spirit and the soul are not entirely separated, but that there are secret passageways, openings, between one realm and the other—at least for those of extraordinary spiritual consciousness. In the cave, Abraham encounters Adam, not as a dead body, nor as a malevolent ghost, but as a living persona—spirit, warm, welcoming, even smiling at him.

What is the significance of the idea expressed here, that each person see Adam’s image just before their own death? This is a highly pregnant image, that requires much reflection. Perhaps because Adam is the ultimate ancestor of us all, and in death we return to our archetypal forebear?

It seems to me that this passage, or one of its numerous midrashic parallels, must have served as the inspiration for an interesting short tale by S. Y. Agnon, “A Tale of a Goat” (מעשב בעז), in which a goat belonging to a Jew runs away and, after some time, returns bringing with him fruits of unearthly beauty. One day he follows the goat, who enters a cave which brings him, at the other hand, into a beautiful, fragrant countryside which turns out to be the Land of Israel. Notwithstanding that the one tale involves a goat and other a calf, the one leads from the Diaspora of Eastern Europe to Eretz Yisrael, and the other from the Land to the supernal Land of Life, the miraculous, supernatural passage way from the realm of the mundane to a fragrant, enchanted place, is much the same.

Come and see: When Abraham first entered the cave, he saw light; then dust scattered, revealing two graves. Meanwhile Adam arose in his image, saw Abraham, and smiled; so Abraham knew he was destined to be buried there. Abraham said: “Please tell me, Fortress Quaestor, are you sequestered here?” [“Fortress Quaestor” is Matt’s translation for the Zohar’s קוסטרא קטיר, evidently a Greek loan word, which refers either to a fortress or to a Roman official ] He replied: The blessed Holy One buried me here; and ever since I have been hidden in the skin of a sling—until you came into the world. From now on, because of you, there is enduring ascension for me and the world!

Look at what is written: “The field and the cave that was in arose” (ibid., 20)— rising, literally, which it never had before!” [a hyper-literal reading of the idiom ויקם השדה, usually translated as ‘the field came to belong to …”] Rabbi Abba said: “The field arose,” literally, rising and ascending in the presence of Abraham—for until then, nothing was visible there, but now what had been hidden rose and ascended, so all rightfully.”

The second part of this sugya (if one may call it thus) explores the meaning of the name, Me’arat ha-Makhpelah, and carries the motif of the connection between the mundane world and the spiritual world one step further.

Rabbi El‘azar asked Rabbi Shimon, his father: Isn’t this cave double? For look at what is written: מערת המכפלה, “the double cave” (ibid 23:9). Yet later, Scripture names it “the cave of the field of Machpelah” (ibid., 19), calling the field “double.” He replied: so it is called “the cave of Machpelah,” as is said, “so he will give me the cave of Machpelah” (ibid., v. 9); but really, by your life, the cave is not “double” nor is the field called “double.” Rather, this cave and field are named for “Machpelah: the field of Machpelah”—precisely, not the cave—because the cave lies in the field, and that field abides in something else. Come and see: the entire Land of Israel is enfolded (אתכפל) within Jerusalem, which exists both above and below. Similarly, Jerusalem above, Jerusalem below; linked above, linked below. Jerusalem above, linked in two directions: above and below; Jerusalem belo, linked in two directions: below and above. So She is double, and this field derives from that double, abiding there. Similarly it is written, “like the fragrance of a field blessed by the Lord” (Gen 27:27), above and below. So “the field of double,” literally, not “the double field.”

Further, mystery of the word: “the field of double,” literally! Who is “double”? The letter heh (ה) of the Holy Name, who is double, yet all abiding in one. For Her the verse is read secretly ה מכפלה, “double heh,” for this is the only double letter in the Holy Name. Even though it was really was a double cave, a cave within a cave, it was called “cave of the field of Machpelah” for another reason, as already explained. Abraham knew; but when speaking to the Hittites, he concealed the matter, saying: ”so he will give me the cave of Machpelah,” since it was a double cave, while Torah calls it “the cave of the field of Machpelah,” fittingly. The blessed Holy One has formed everything so that this world corresponds to the pattern above, so that one cleaves to the other, so that His glory manifests above and below. Happy is the share of the righteous, in whom the Blessed Holy One delights, in this world and in the world that is coming!

—From the translation of Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Prisker Edition, II: 219-225

The very name of the cave, “the cave of Machpelah,” is derived from the Hebrew word for folding or duplication, כפל. The cave thus symbolizes the mirroring of above and below. This mirroring seems to me to relate to a central theological difficulty, which Kabbalah addresses more thoroughly than the philosophical approaches within Judaism: namely, the tension between Divine transcendence and immanence. A simple reading of the Bible, not to mention the philosophers, portrays God as omnipotent and omniscient—the supernal Creator, Judge and Lawgiver who is majestic, remote, awe-inspiring, even aloof, what Otto called the “Wholly Other.” Yet, paradoxically, he is also omnipresent; He relates to mankind, and especially to His beloved people, in an intimate, loving way. (A younger scholar, Yitzhak Lifschitz, well captures this tension in the title of his forthcoming book about the subject, Far Away, So Close). The image of the upper and lower world mirroring one another, somehow pairing off in complementary ways, emphasizes this point further.

This duality is ubiquitous in the Zohar and in Kabbalistic thought: there are various pairs of sefirot balancing one another; sexuality serves as a central image (human sexuality involves duality on a horizontal, earthly plane—but also mirrors a heavenly doubling or coupling in the Sefirotic world); and, here, in the duality of life and death. The scene here is of a burial cave where the dead and the living meet, the smiling figure of Adam chatting away with Abraham about how he was buried in a sling, etc. Yet another aspect of this double cave is perhaps that it is “the cave of the couples”: the three patriarchs and their wives, plus Adam and Eve—four couples, perhaps alluded to in Hebron’s other name, Kiryat Arba, “the city of the four.”

Eliezer and the Shalshelet

When I first learned to read Torah as a boy, shortly after my bar mitzvah, as part of a small group of boys taught by the Sexton of our Conservative synagogue, the late Jack Feldman (may God bless his soul), a special place of fascination was reserved for the shalshelet: that rare cantillation note, consisting of three successive glissandos, that appears in only four places in the entire Torah. Being assigned to read one of those was seen by us as a special treat. One of them occurs in this parashah, at Gen 24:12. Abraham’s faithful servant, Eliezer, is sent on a mission to find a bride for Yitzhak. Upon arriving at the town of Nahor in Aram-naharim, he turns to God in prayer, “And he says…” (ויאמר; here there appears the shalshelet), and asks that the maiden whom he asks to draw some water for him, and offers to water my camels as well—“she is the one You have proven to be for my master Yitzhak!”

Rather strangely, there are two separate passages in the Talmud (Ta’anit 4a; `Hullin 95b) that seem to criticize Eliezer for making this fateful (one might even say, in retrospect: world-historical!) decision dependent upon a contingency or sign. It seems to me that perhaps the shalshelet is intended to draw our attention to this, and perhaps to suggest that there is more here than meets the eye. First, that the sign chosen was one that implies kindness, not only to humans, but even to animals, making the sign a test of character rather than a random, chance matter. Second, that the context, specifically that of the introductory verse where the shalshelet appears, is one of faith in God and reliance on Divine assistance—and this makes all the difference (see Torah Temimah ad loc., v. 14, §xvii).

In today’s cultural climate, there are those who say that interpreting seemingly chance events as being significant is a desirable spiritual practice, seeing them as “signs from the universe” (thus, for example, in The Celestine Prophecy and by other New Agers). This seems to me rather problematical. I understand that, in an age of the mechanization and hyper-rationality of many aspects of everyday life, people seek spirituality and meaning almost anywhere. But Judaism, in ancient times, rejected all forms of divination, anything that even smacked of it. Are we coming full circle today to a kind of neo-paganism?

Two concluding notes. First, is there any common factor unifying all the occurrences of the shalshelet in the Torah? The other places are: Vayera: Gen 19:16, ויתמהמה—Lot’s hesitation before leaving Sodom; Vayeshev: Gen 39:8, וימאן—Joseph’s refusal of Potiphar’s wife’s advances; and Tzav: Lev 8:23, וישחט—Moses slaughters, specifically, the eil ha-milu’im, the crucial, central offering in the installment ceremony of Aaron and his sons. It is always at the beginning of a verse; it always begins with a vav; and it draws special attention to the verse. Does anyone have any ideas beyond that?

Second: some weeks ago I mentioned, entirely in passing, the Rabbinic tradition that Rivkah was three years old when she was married to Yitzhak. Someone thought some readers might think this suggestive of pedophilia. I should hope not. My main problem with this is that it just doesn’t make sense, and is based on a way of reading that assumes that proximity of location in the text implies proximity in time—which to me seems unwarranted, and leads to absurdities, such as three-year-old being married off to a stranger in a remote land—not to mention her shlepping heavy pails of water back and forth. I find no objection, in the peshat of the biblical text itself, to Rivkah being 15, 18 or 20 at the time of Eliezer’s mission.

“Alien Thoughts”

Hayyei Sarah portrays Yitzhak “going out to commune in the field”—a verse seen by many as portraying him as a contemplative mystic, engaged in prayer. Hence, I have been in the habit of devoting this Shabbat to discussion of prayer.

A recent book popular among New Age types, Eckhart Tolle‘s The Power of Now, elaborates one central insight: that the main source of human pain and trouble is the identification of the self with the mind, with its transient emotions and ceaseless background “chatter” (my word). There is a subject–object dichotomy within the human being, in which there is an observing “I” detached from the self that lives life, and constantly commenting on it. His basic idea is that one must learn to detach the self from the mind, and to dwell within Being. This does not mean that one ceases to think, but that the mind is used to serve the process of living—to perform practical tasks, and even to acquire wisdom and knowledge of the world—but that it is not identified with the self.

Upon reading this, it occurred to me that this approach is not all that different from the concerns of the Baal Shem Tov et al about mahshavot zarot, alien thoughts during prayer. A basic problem in prayer, which particularly concerned early Hasidic thinkers (much of Amud ha-Tefillah in Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov is devoted to this subject) is distraction: one’s thoughts wander to everyday concerns and worries, or even to sensual temptations and fantasies. One is not focused upon the present, upon the act of prayer itself. The Hasidic masters attempted to teach people how to focus upon prayer (“go the tevah—go to the word”), while also comforting them that alien thoughts can themselves be a positive source of religious service, of tikkun, if one “lifts them up to their source.”

Tolles, coming from the Buddhist tradition, says something similar: a person ought to use his mind to do whatever he’s doing in the best possible way—be it studying, working, talking with friends, davening, even eating—by being wholly focused upon what one is doing at that moment, rather than identifying with the little voice in ones head that observes one’s life from without.

This also explains something else I heard, davka from Rabbi Rosen: that in Pshyskha (Przysucha) the practice was to meditate for some time prior to prayer, so as to enter into the proper state of mind—but then to recite the actual prayer quickly. I never understood this until I recently realized that, once one is focused, concentrating intently upon prayer itself and nothing else, tefillah need not be excessively drawn out (although doubtless it will still be somewhat slower than the pace in a typical synagogue)—precisely because one is focused. Indeed, the Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l did not daven particularly slowly—taking perhaps five minutes for the Minhah Amidah on an ordinary weekday, like an ordinary Jew—presumably because he was totally focused.

This also relates to a point I made in my essay on sex as spirituality and The Da Vinci Code (HY X: Bereshit - Supplement): that some people wish to define sex as a spiritual experience, because at the moment of orgasm the mind “blanks out.” By this, they mean that the subject-object distinction, which the ordinary person experiences constantly, disappears, at least during that brief moment. Even during the sex act, a piece of the mind may be observing from without and saying, “I am coupling with my partner,” or all kinds of other thoughts —but at the moment of orgasm one IS the pleasure. (But see what I wrote there as to why this is a mistaken interpretation of religious consciousness.)

Lehavdil elef havdalot: in prayer, the ideal state is one in which one is wholly identified with the act of prayer itself. This is beautifully expressed in the verse in Psalms 109:4: ואני תפלה — “and I am prayer.” But, since human beings are what they are, Baal Shem Tov and his school needed to address issue of “alien thoughts” as a commonplace problem.

A final comment: many people are troubled by the popularity of Buddhism among many Jews, and by the various attempts to create a kind of synthesis between the two, to see parallels between Buddhism and certain themes in Hasidism, etc. Notwithstanding that Buddhism is another religion, I believe that one can apply to it the maxim תוכן אכל, קליפתו זרק (“he ate his inner core / essence and discarded his shell”). Buddhism is a-theistic, in the sense that it does not address the issue of existence of a personal God one way or another. It is more a philosophy, or perhaps a psychology, whose central concern is the human condition, and how to deal with the pain and suffering that are an inevitable part of our lives. As such, it seems to me that one may treat it in the seem way as one does any philosophy which Jews, including learned, pious ones, have embraced at various times, from Kantianism and Hegelianism, existentialism, to Freudianism and Jungianism, even Marxism (not to mention the Platonism and Aristotelianism of our great medieval thinkers)—as a legitimate source of wisdom that may be superimposed upon the ground level of Jewish belief, Torah and mitzvot. The Buddha himself, Gautama Siddhartha, was simply a very wise human being (even though folk Buddhism literally turns him into an idol) who thought deeply about certain human problems and had something significant to say. As for the specific notions of “detaching mind from self” and “living in the consciousness of being,” I see nothing here that contradicts the belief in the Creator. Indeed, in Hasidism there is much talk of “negating the self” in order to achieve total sense of God-consciousness.

Hilkhot Crembo

This week I was asked an interesting halakhic question: May one / Should one recite the blessing Sheheheyanu upon eating the first Crembo of the winter season? (For those who don’t know: Crembo is a singularly sticky Israeli sweet, consisting of marshmallow-like stuff atop a thin cracker, covered by chocolate, and sold in silver-foil wrapping; because it easily melts, it is only manufactured and marketed during the winter.)

After doing a double–take at the thought that a mature adult was sufficiently enamored of Crembo to ask such a question (after all, there’s no accounting for taste), I began thinking seriously about the issue. According to the codified halakhah (OH §225), Sheheheyanu is recited upon seeing (or eating) seasonal fruits, whose periodic reappearance indicates that one has lived another year, and may again enjoy the peaches, apricots, watermelons, grapes, oranges, grapefruits, etc., that the Almighty has created for the delight of human beings. It is likewise recited over periodic mitzvot that recur at a given time during the year, as well as over life-cycle occasions, such as a brit or pidyon haben (why not a wedding?), or upon acquiring a new clothing.

The issue here is: in are the laws of Sheheheyanu limited to those cases specified in the halakhah, or is there room for the subjective, personal feelings that the individual feels upon some occasion not prescribed by the halakhah. Crembo is seasonal, not because such is part of the natural order created by God, or of the mitzvot given in His Torah, but because its manufacturers decided to make it so (for cogent reasons). Nevertheless, there are numerous halakhic sources (unfortunately, neither myself nor the learned scholar I consulted were able to provide specific citations offhand) pointing towards a subjective element in Sheheheyanu: what makes YOU happy, on having lived to again experience a given event or enjoy a given thing.

An interesting parallel: many years ago, a dentist friend of mine asked the Bostoner Rebbe whether he could renovate his clinic during the semi-mourning period of Sefirat ha-Omer. The answer was in the negative, and the reasoning was the following: ordinarily, one may renovate an office or clinic during Sefirah. But the Rebbe knew his questioner as a meticulous craftsman who took great pride in every aspect of his profession; thus, having a renewed clinic would have given him great joy, incompatible with the spirit of Sefirat ha-Omer. The conclusion suggested is that the subjective element, based on some understanding of the psychology of the one asking the question, plays a role in halakhic ruling. So, if my interlocutor is a true Crembo enthusiast, it is entirely appropriate for him to recite Sheheheyanu.

Vayera (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, below, at November 2005.

Fire and Water: The Binding of Isaac

The Akedah (the Binding of Isaac) is rightly regarded as the centerpiece of this week’s parasha; it is at once regarded as the pinnacle of Jewish faith, taken as a paradigm by future generations of Jews seeking to sanctify God’s name and demonstrate their love of Him in the most complete and intense way—and as a paradoxical, absurd story, seemingly flying in the face of basic ethical and religious principles. It has thus inspired commentary from every imaginable direction: from all major Jewish exegetes, philosophers, and midrashists, as from non-Jewish thinkers. The interpretation offered by the Zohar is unique, taking the Akedah in a totally unexpected direction. Zohar I:119b:

“It came to pass, after these things” [Gen 22:1]. Rabbi Shimon said: We have learned that the expression ויהי בימי (“It came to pass in the days of”) denotes sorrow, while the phrase ויהי (“It came to pass”)—even without “in the days of”—is tinged with sorrow.

“It came to pass after”—the lowest of all upper rungs. Who is that? Devarim (things/words); as is said, “I am not a man of devarim (words; Exod 4:10). Who came after this rung? “And Elohim tested Abraham” [Gen, ibid.] for the Evil Impulse came to accuse in the presence of the blessed Holy One.

Here we should contemplate: “Elohim tested Abraham.” The verse should read: “tested Isaac,” since Isaac was already thirty-seven years old, and his father was no longer responsible for him. If Isaac had said, “I refuse,” his father would not have been punished. So why is it written, “Elohim tested Abraham,” and not “Elohim tested Isaac”?

Thus far, our passage does not sound all that different from a traditional midrash. The idea that “vayehi” or “vayehi ahar…” signify trouble is a traditional midrashic notion. The central question posed here—Why does the verse say that God tested Abraham, rather than Isaac, since the latter was already an adult, is not unlike other midrashic questions.

As an aside, it is worth mentioning here that the Zohar is not discontinuous with the rest of Jewish tradition. Many people—including both those who hold it in extreme reverence, as the holy of holy of Jewish mysticism, and those who debunk it, such as the entire 19th century School of Wissenschaft historians and certain contemporary pan-Talmudic Rabbinic rationalists—who see it as totally apart and separate from everything else in Judaism. It seems to me that the Zohar is better understood as a “mystical midrash”—a work that is at once firmly planted in the soil of Rabbinic tradition, but which also carries a new and even radical message, an utterly new way of looking at the world and at the Godhead.

One phrase in this first part, “the lowest of all upper rungs“ (דרגא תתאה דכל דרגין עלאין), that already belongs to this new world of the Zohar. The tacit assumption here is that there is a spiritual world of Divine entities, hierarchically arranged in higher and lower “rungs” or “levels,” outside of the human or material world as we know it. Later Kabbalistic commentaries identify this with Malkhut or Shekhinah, the lowest of the ten sefirot, through the verbal connection of devarim with Devar Hashem, the Divine word (=Shekhinah).

I would add one more point: Just about everyone who knows anything at all about Kabbalah is familiar with the concept of the ten sefirot: the vessels or tools or instruments (some would say, Divine apotheoses) used by the Almighty to bridge between His Own hidden, Infinite Self (Ein Sof; Keter) and the “real,” concrete world. But it is important to note that explicit, systematic discussions of the sefirot and their complex interrelationships are found by and large in later, more systematic works of Spanish and, even more so, in the Lurianic Kabbalah of 16th century Tzfat. While these ideas are certainly present in the Zohar, they are only rarely named as such. (The most familiar “Zoharic” source to list the ten sefirot in an orderly fashion, Patah Eliyahu, recited regularly in certain Jewish liturgies, is part of the Introduction to Tikkunei Zohar, a somewhat later work not part of the Zohar proper.) The references to sefirot appear more often in glosses to the Zohar or in commentaries on the page (see HY X: Noah for one typical example of this). Daniel Matt, whose Zohar translation we have been using here, responded to my personal query on this matter by writing that: “Commentators often indulge in finding sefirotic references that are not necessarily intended by the ba’alei ha-Zohar [authors of the Zohar]. But the scribal glosses are often more innocent, not adding sefirot that aren’t intended but rather ruining the poetry of the Zohar by insisting on naming various sefirot that are subtly alluded to in the original text.”

We continue in our text:

But Abraham, specifically! For he had to be encompassed by judgment, since previously Abraham had contained no judgment at all. Now water was embraced by fire. Abraham had been incomplete until now, when he was crowned to execute judgment, arraying it in its realm. His whole life long he had been incomplete until now, when water was competed by fire, fire by water.

So “Elohim tested Abraham”—not “Isaac“—calling him to be embraced by judgment. When he did so, fire entered water, becoming complete. One was judged, one executed judgment—encompassing one another. Therefore the Evil Impulse came to accuse Abraham, who was incomplete until he executed judgment upon Isaac. For the Evil Impulse appear “after devarim,” coming to accuse.

Come and see the mystery of the word: Although we have said that “Abraham” is written, not “Isaac,” Isaac is encompassed by this verse through the mysterious wording: “Elohim tested et Abraham.” It is not written נסה לאברהם (“tested to Abraham”) but rather נסה את אברהם—“tested et Abraham,” specifically! This is Isaac, for at that time he dwelled in low power. As soon as he was bound on the altar, initiated into judgment fittingly by Abraham, he was crowned in his realm alongside Abraham—fire and water encompassing one another, ascending. Then division became apparent: water versus fire.

Who would have created a compassionate father who turned cruel? It was only so that division would manifest: water versus fire, crowned in their realms, until Jacob appeared, and everything harmonized—triad of patriarchs completed above, and below arrayed.

In this section, we find a classic Zoharic move, in which Abraham and Isaac are read as archetypes or symbols: “fire and water.” And, while this is not stated explicitly, fire and water are in turn symbols of something else again: the qualities of judgment or power (Din / Gevurah) and compassion (Rahamim / Hesed). The test of the Akedah is thus transformed from a test of individual faith, of how far even as heroic a figure as Abraham is willing to go in obedience to his God, to an intertwining and mutual “encompassing” of two opposed cosmic principles! And then, in the final phrase, in almost Hegelian fashion (but long before him), harmonized in the third member of the triad!!

This passage may also be read in psychological terms: the person who is a model of kindness and generosity and caring is an incomplete human being until he learns how to be strict and even cruel, to conquer his own natural goodness when necessary; all the more so that one of “low power,” of harsh and simplistic, all-consuming, fire-like judgment (legalism?) must be “encompassed” by the flowing water of kindness.

Memories of Shlomo

In loving memory of Rav Shlomo Carlebach, who departed this world fourteen years ago, on 16 Marheshvan 5755.

I first met Shlomo when I was 17-years-old, when he came to Camp Tel-Yehudah, the national summer camp of Young Judaea, to give a concert and stayed overnight. I;’d never met or seen anyone like him: a rabbi, with a beard and tzitzis and peyos and who even said a blessing over water—out loud, even—but played the guitar and told stories and talked to just about everyone as if they were his oldest friend.

But I didn’t really begin to see him as a soul teacher, as someone more than an odd rabbi-entertainer with a guitar, until after college, when I moved up to the Boston area. I don’t remember exactly when I first realized that he was a soul teacher: perhaps it was one winter when he came up to teach at Boston University once a month; perhaps it was the first time I spent a Shabbat with him, at Brandeis University; or perhaps it was before that. I remember one Shabbat in the summer of 1969 when I was staying in Morningside Heights and walked halfway across Manhattan to daven in his shul on 79th Street, and ended up having lunch alone with just me, Shlomo, and Mother (quite an experience!).

One time that stands out in my memory was the Shabbat he spent at Brandeis University in 1971-72. It was midwinter, and snow fell all Shabbat long, covering the campus with a thick coat of snow, adding to the sense of stillness and quiet and peace of the Shabbat. I picked up Shlomo at his hotel, and drove him to the Bostoner Rebbe’s mikveh mid-day Friday—Shlomo was always careful to bathe in the mikveh before Shabbat. In the mikveh, I watched with astonishment as Shlomo unrolled his beard; his beard, which usually looked short and carefully trimmed and pounded (like in all the photographs), turned out to be long, going almost to his waist, and was held up with bobby-pins (!). I subsequently learned that this was an old Hasidic practice, especially common in Habad, based on the Kabbalistic idea that one should never trim one’s beard, not even with a scissors.

When we arrived on campus he went to his room at the faculty club to rest before Shabbat. A small incident before davening taught an important lesson about priorities. About 5 o’clock Shlomo arrived at the campus synagogue, by which time it was completely dark. He turned to his entourage and said, “OK, khevra, let’s daven Minhah.” The gabbai of the regular student minyan (today, a distinguished professor of medieval Jewish thought) turned to him and said: “Excuse me, Rabbi Carlebach, but it’s time for Ma’ariv now!” Shlomo retorted: “Tell me, are you a clock Jew or a neshama Jew?” I must admire him for his honesty; he replied, “I’m a clock Jew.”

In the end, there were two minyanim; the differences were just too big. After Ma’ariv, Shlomo turned to the group: “We have five minutes till we have to go to the dining hall for supper. But you know, the rebbes teach us that even five minutes can be used to learn something,” and he opened up a thin Hebrew book with a black covered, which I later learned was Resisei Laylah by R. Zaddok Hakohen, and he began learning, in his own inimitable way. He may have gone on a bit more than five minutes, but the lesson was learned. In any event, that was my first introduction to R. Zaddok Hakohen, one of the most important and interesting Hasidic authors.

Shabbat morning davening was very special. Some of us began Pesukei de-Zimra before Shlomo arrived. Before davening, he learned; and the learning sooner-or-later turned into a long and elaborate Hasidic story; and the story segued into singing. Only after people were in a “high” mood did he begin davening, from Barkhu. It took me many years to understand his approach: he assumed that here, as on most college campuses, the majority of people who came didn’t really know Hebrew; moreover, many of them had been spoiled for Judaism by long hours of what they saw as meaningless chanting, which nobody had ever bothered to explain to them. He saw it as most important to teach the really basic things, about God and Shabbat and faith; to expose young people to the really deep things in tuarh, but in a language they could understand. Then, the davening itself, in Hebrew, was the basic required halakhic minimum, very intense but often ”real fast.” The same held true for the Torah reading: between each aliyah, he would tell in his own words the basic idea of the particular aliyah, always including some idea, story, lesson, moral that people could grasp.

I also learned something about Shlomo’s “hippies” and what he had managed to teach them, There was one girl I especially noticed at this weekend, a beautiful young woman who had just come “East” from San Francisco—with long black hair, a long skirt, the very embodiment of hippie purity and innocence—who was on her way to New York to study at a more conventional Orthodox seminary. Late Shabbat afternoon, after the end of the long davening and after lunch, when Shlomo had gone to rest before that evening’s concert, some of “the khevra” sat around and had a kind of impromptu shalosh seudot. This girl talked about the Luz bone—the one bone in the body that is indestructible, and from which the body is reconstructed at the time of tehiyat hametim, when the dead return to life. It’s name, Luz, is like the town of that name (AKA Beth-El), whose inhabitants lived forever, so long as they didn’t leave the town. I was astonished to hear such deep, esoteric Kabbalistic teachings from the lips of a girl like this.

Having heard so much about San Francisco, and the House of Love and Prayer—a strange combination of Hasidic Beit Midrash and synagogue and hippie communes—where people who had come to San Francisco as the Mecca of the hippie culture of those days, found a place where they learned about celebrating Shabbat and davening and so on from other “long-hairs” of their own age, in a tolerant, “do-your-own-thing” environment. I decided to go there myself and see what it was all about. This was in 1971, after the heyday of the House. In fact, during the first part of the time I was there, there was no House at all; later, I was there for the opening of a new House, on Judah Street and 10th Avenue.

Three scenes stick in my memory. One: a young, newly-wedded couple had just arrived in San Francisco following their wedding. It was already after the week of sheva brakhot: the wedding itself, as far as I remember, had been in Israel, while the last days of Sheva Brakhot were celebrated in New York with the girl’s family, who were Orthodox. But when they arrived in SF an “eighth night” of Sheva Brakhot was held—a pot luck supper, with lots of singing and Torah—in the home of one of the “adult” supporters of the House, Dr. Forman z”l (he died young). There were no formal sheva brakhot; instead, all present gave the young couple a personal blessing of their own.

Shabbat: on two consecutive weeks, Shabbat was held in an enormous loft owned by an artist follower of Shlomo, somewhere in South San Francisco. The first week Shlomo was traveling, so the group did their own Shabbat; what I most remember was that the food was vegetarian, mostly organic, and that at the blessing of Ha-Motzi each person fed someone else with a piece of the enormous challah, instead of putting it in their own mouth. This custom seemed to dramatize, more than anything else, the idea of sharing and community.

The second week, Shlomo was there, and the Shabbat atmosphere was very high. But what I remember is one small incident: on the way back, walking back to the motel where Shlomo and some of the khevra were staying, we ran into a stranger, black woman, whom Shlomo stopped to talk with. Suddenly, she offered us some of the Oreo’s cookies she had just bought (Note: in those days, Nabisco was definitely not kosher). Shlomo thanked her, broke the cookies into pieces and distributed them among the five or six people who were with him, and went on. I asked him: Why? How could you eat them? He explained that he didn’t want to insult her by refusing her gift; to carry them with us and throw them away after she was out of sight would be a real violation of Shabbat—carrying an object a certain distance in the public domain. By dividing them among us, no one person ate enough non-kosher food to violate any law of kashrut, by even the strictest construction. This answer impressed me for three reasons: his mastery of halakhah; his humanity and sensitivity to the feelings of others, even of non-Jews, as a major consideration; and his lightning-quick mind, that figured out this unconventional, but clearly correct solution to this problem, in a matter of seconds.

At one point during the time I was in San Francisco weeks Shlomo and about a dozen of the khevra visited the Integral Yoga ashram in the Mission District. We went into a room filled with young people dressed in white robes, sitting on the floor in lotus position; on the periphery, I noticed some young women nursing babies (not yet as common a sight as it was to later become). I wondered what Shlomo could possibly say to this group, who were so obviously dedicated to a totally alien system of belief and practice. But he took out his guitar, started singing Hashivenu Hashem eilekha (this was the first time I heard this melody, which is still popular today, and was probably new then), and soon everyone there was singing and clapping and even dancing to his music. Then he talked about Shabbat and what it meant, and knowing that there really is a God; they listened, not only politely, but with real interest and receptivity. When we left, they invited us to come back the following week (on a Sunday which happened to be Tisha b’Av!) for a wedding within the group. Later on, Shlomo commented to the khevra that many, if not most, of the “yogilakh and swamilakh” were Jewish. I also learned that this meeting was not unusual; Shlomo was often invited by the various religious groups, precursors of the New Age, which flourished in San Francisco; and more than once Shlomo served as a kind of mediator to make peace among rival factions or sects. And indeed, at another point that month the whole group from the house participated as the Jewish participants in the “Meeting of the Ways,” a gathering of different spiritual paths, on a mountain top in Marin County.

A few concluding words. I come from a somewhat different place then many of the Shlomo khevra, in that I was already observant and had serious connections within the Jewish and religious world before I met Shlomo. Thus, Shlomo was never my exclusive rebbe, as he was for many people; I always had several teachers, and “swam” in different worlds: the straight Orthodox world (modern and Haredi); the beginnings of the “Jewish counter-culture” in the Havurat Shalom in Boston; academic Jewish studies, through which I make my living; religious Zionism; etc. What place, then, did Shlomo play in my life?

We read at the beginning of Pirkei Avot that there are three pillars on which the world stands: Torah, Avodah, and gemilut hasadim. I had three main teachers, each one of whom taught me primarily one of these three pillars. Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l was my main teacher of Torah in the intellectual sense, from whom I learned how to study Talmud, Rambam, and other texts in a deep, analytical way. Art Green taught me avodah, “worship” or “Divine service” in the sense of God-consciousness; he taught me what prayer was all about; he was also the first one to really introduce me to Hasidic books. Shlomo was my teacher for gemilut hasadim, for “acts of kindness.” He taught me how to connect all this to people; he taught me that we live in a world filled with people, and not just with ideas and books; that we have to reach out to others, to learn how to see others, to learn how to live with the heart and not just with the mind (a big shortcoming in the way many bright American Jews are raised). Every word he said was ultimately an act of love of others, of hesed, of caring, of giving—even those things he did that some critics considered sins were ultimately rooted in the world of love. Yehi zikhro barukh; May his memory be a source of ongoing, ever-flowing blessing.

Over the years I’ve written a great deal about Shlomo; since about five years after his death, almost every year I’ve written something about him for his Yahrzeit in my parsha sheet, Hitzei Yehonatan, each time from a different angle. Those interested may check the archives of this blog: at October 2004, November 2005 , and November 2006.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lekh Lekha (Zohar)

We belatedly, and out of sequence, present teachings for the parasha before last. For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005.

On Midnight

The selections we have brought thus far have all been of an exegetical nature, taking as their starting point specific verses or sections of the weekly Torah portion. But much, perhaps even most of the Zohar, wanders much further afield, and only relates tangentially, if at all, to the weekly portion. When all is said and done, the Zohar’s prime concern is to convey a certain esoteric teaching about the nature of God, the world, etc. But there is a second major literary organizing principle that sets the scene for much of the Zohar—namely, the travels of R. Shimon bar Yohai and/or his disciples and associates as they wander about the Galilee, encountering various interesting people and places, hearing Torah, etc. Thus, we read the following in Zohar I: 92b:

Rabbi Abba was traveling from Tiberias to his father-in-law’s castle, accompanied by Rabbi Ya’akov son of Rav. They came upon Kfar Tarsha (Clod Village). As they were about to lie down, Rabbi Abba asked, ”Is there a rooster here?” The host said, “Why?” He replied: ”I want to rise at midnight.” He said, “I don’t need one, because look—I have a signal in this house: this weighted water clock [or: water wheel] in front of the bed! I fill it with water, which drips drop by drop. Precisely at midnight, all that water empties out, and this cogwheel spins and clangs—its noise is heard throughout the house. Then it’s midnight precisely! I had an old man who used to rise every midnight and engage in Torah, so he built this.” Rabbi Abba said, “Blessed is the Compassionate One who sent me here!”

Two of the circle, in the course of their travels, spent the night in a strange place, and ask the innkeeper for a rooster so as to rise at midnight—already indicating that rising at midnight was a known pious practice in which they, and no doubt others, engaged. Their host explained that he had invented an ingenious mechanical device to serve the same purpose; mention of the “old man” who used to rise at midnight suggests that this practice was not unknown to him, and that there was a certain group of people who engaged in this practice. We continue:

At midnight that cogwheel clanged. Rabbi Abba and Rabbi Ya’akov arose. They heard that man, sitting in the recesses of the house together with his two sons and saying: It is written, “Midnight I rise to praise You for Your righteous judgments” [Ps 119:62]. What prompted David to say “Midnight” rather than “at midnight”, but rather “midnight,” specifically? Thus he exclaimed to the blessed Holy One. Now, is the blessed Holy One called that? Yes, because at precisely midnight, the blessed Holy One manifests together with His retinue: that is the moment that He enters the Garden of Eden to delight with the righteous. Rabbi Abba said: Let us certainly join the Shekhinah and unite as one! They approached and sat down with him. They said: Utter the word of your mouth, for you speak well! From where did you derive this? He replied: I learned this word from my grandfather. He used to say that at the opening of the first hour of night all chastisers below arouse, roaming the world. Precisely at midnight, the blessed Holy One arouses in the Garden of Eden and chastisers below are nowhere to be found. All supernal nocturnal conduct manifests only at midnight. How do we know? From Abraham, as it is written: “The night was divided for them” (Gen 14:15). Similarly in Egypt: “Now it was in the middle of the night” (Exod 12:29). And so on in many other places in the Torah. David knew. What did he know? As the old man said: that his kingship depended on this. So he rose at that hour and chanted songs, calling the blessed Holy One “Midnight,” literally! “I rise to praise You for Your righteous judgments,” for all judgments derive from here; judgments of Malkhut (‘Kingship’) manifest from here. That hour linked with David, so he rose and chanted songs....

Here we turn to the actual teachings of midnight, which they learned at midnight. The two companions find their host sitting with his sons, in a midnight Torah study session. The ideas presented here are rather novel. First, that the word Hatzot (midnight) is itself one of God’s names (!), for He and His retinue somehow manifest themselves in a unique way at midnight. Second, that during the first part of the night “chastisers” (Heb: dinim)—lower, destructive forces of “judgment,” that may precipitate negative events—are abroad in the world. At midnight, these negative forces disappear and are powerless, and God is free to act in a merciful way. It was this that prompted David to rise at midnight and sing praises of God—an idea inferred both from the Psalm verse quoted, and from a Talmudic aggadah at Berakhot 3b (though, unlike this company, he was awoken neither by a rooster nor by a waterwheel, but by the northern wind, which plucked the strings of his harp).

He [the child they encountered in this house] said: I too have heard that night is royal judgment, entailing judgment universally, but his exclamation of “Midnight” derives from its absorbing two modes: judgment and love. Certainly, half is judgment—for during the other half, Her face radiates from the aspect of love. Therefore it is written: “Midnight,” specifically. Rabbi Abba rose, placed his hands on his head and blessed him, saying: I really thought that wisdom manifest itself only in the righteous, deserving of it. Now I see that even children in the generation of Rabbi Shimon are worthy of wisdom! Happy are you, Rabbi Shimon! Woe to the generation from whom you depart! They sat until morning, engaging in Torah …

Translation: Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, II:82-85

This section continues the theme of the special qualities attached to midnight. In Zohar and in Kabbalah, time generally carries metaphysical meaning, each time period carrying specific mystical qualities and being suited for different things. This is one reason why the various mitzvot have specific times, appropriate to them. Midnight, and the wee hours of the night that follow, is especially suited for prayer and esoteric study. Hence, there are various special practices associated with this time: e.g., Tikkun Hatzot, the special prayer service of mourning and lamentation, instituted by the Tzfat Kabbalists, bewailing the destruction and ongoing absence of the Temple and the travails of the Jewish people generally, and praying for its rebuilding, often followed by a period of Torah study until dawn; or the Selihot recited during the period preceding Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Teshuvah: again, ideally, recited between midnight and daybreak.

Here the small child (yanuka) adds a new nuance to what was stated earlier: that midnight itself is perfectly balanced between the two aspects of nighttime: judgment—the harshness and dominance of the “chastisers” found in the former half of the night; and mercy, characteristic of the its latter half, which is propitious for prayer and as a time for seeking divine mercy. Once again, the importance of balance and equipoise between two opposing principles is seems to be a major theme of the Zohar in general. Compare, in our own recent Zohar readings: in Noah, the balance between male and female, upper waters and lower waters, whose upset led to the Flood; and, in Vayera, the intertwining or mutual encompassing of fire and water, seen as symbolically enacted in the Binding of Isaac.

Night is traditionally perceived, already in the Talmud, as an ideal time for Torah study. (see Avodah Zarah 3b: “whoever studies Torah at night, a thread of lovingkindness is spread over him during the day”; and compare Rambam, Talmud Torah 3.13; Cant. Rab. 5.11). Yet another Talmudic passage (Berakhot 3a) describes the characteristic signs of the three mishmarot, or watches of the night, in the following terms: the first watch, donkeys braying; the second watch, dogs barking; and the third, “an infant suckling from its mother’s breast and a man and his wife ‘conversing’ (i.e., making love).” Here too, the earlier part of the night is portrayed in terms of neutral or negative images, while the final watch, the last four hours of night, is filled with images of nurturing and intimacy—surely, human modes corresponding to the Divine response of Hesed.

Malchizedek and the King of Sodom

A few brief thoughts on certain verses in Lekh Lekha. Chapter 14 of Genesis describes the “battle of the kings,” in which a coalition of five kings, led by Chedorlaomer of Elam, had exacted tribute from the group of four kings led by Birsha king of Sodom. The latter eventually rebelled, leading to the former group in turn waging war on them. During the course of battle, Abraham’s nephew Lot is taken captive, and Abraham and his men (318 combatants, or possibly just Eliezer?) join the pursuit, swinging the tide in favor of the Sodom coalition, and freeing it.

At this point (v. 17) the king of Sodom comes to meet Abraham; but before we are told of that meeting, we encounter a mysterious, heretofore unmentioned figure, Malchizedek (the name mans “my righteous king”), of Shalem (=Jerusalem), who brings bread and wine to Abraham and blesses him in the name of “the Almighty God,” of whom he is a priest. In other words, it would appear that this Malchizedek was already a monotheist on his own accord! After this interlude (vv. 18-20) we return to the king of Sodom, who turns to Abraham in rather preemptory fashion and, without so much as saying ‘thank you’ for saving him, let alone offering him his blessing or some symbolic gesture of peace and gratitude, says “Give me the people, and take what property you wish.“ As if to say: we know you are a soldier of fortune, a mercenary; take what you think is your due. Abraham replies: I don’t want a single thing of your’s, not so much as a thread or a shoelace!

The contrast between Malchizedek and the king of Sodom could not be more striking. The one is gracious, generous, filled with blessing and cordiality—in short, a real mensch. The other is brusque, cynical, suspicious of the other; his approach one of pure business and functionality: let’s close our accounts with another and move on.

It occurred to me that this little incident is setting the stage for the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the next parashah. Indeed, when Lot chose to settle in Sodom, we are already told, “the people of Sodom were very evil and wicked to the Lord” (Gen 13:13). Moreover, the name of both this king, Bera, and that of his companion from Gomorrah, Birsha, allude to evil and wickedness: ברע may be read as the word, “with evil,” while ברשע contains the word rasha, “wicked.”

Interestingly, the midrashim characterize the people of Sodom, not only in terms of outright evil, but as having a lack of generosity or ordinary human fellow feeling: they punished anyone who gave bread to a stranger, or practiced other kindnesses.

One of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q280) also speaks of Malchizedek and Malchiresha (“my wicked king”), the latter being a kind of negative foil to Malchizedek, who is seen as a semi-mythical, mystical hero of sorts. Perhaps Bera and Birsha may be seen in the role of Malchiresha?

Simhat Torah Postscript

This year I was honored on Simhat Torah as Hatan Bereshit at Yakar, which had been my congregation for ten years; on Shabbat Lekh Lekha, at the traditional seudah in honor of the conclusion of the Torah, at which myself and Dr. Moshe Dickman, the Hatan Torah, were guests of honor, I presented various thoughts about this festival.

The festive meal in honor of the conclusion of the Torah, and the titles of Hatan Torah and Hatan Bereshit, are among the oldest components of Simhat Torah—a holiday whose origins are, in fact, relatively recent, first taking shape as such in medieval Ashkenaz. The seven Hakafot, the festive processions with the Torah scrolls, are later, dating from the Lurianic Kabbalah of the 16th century, while the joyous, ecstatic dancing with which most of us associate this holiday, began later still.

The two hatanim, the two men honored respectively with concluding and beginning the Torah again, are so to speak the principles in this celebration; but if there are hatanim, “bridegrooms,” then there must surely also be kallot, brides. After all, we are told (for example, on the very first page of Masekhet Ketubot) that the center of joy and consideration at any wedding is the bride. Who then is the bride or brides? Obviously, the kallah is the Torah—but in what sense are there two brides?

There are two distinct aspects of Torah, celebrated in he two central moments of Simhat Torah. The reading by the Hatan Torah celebrates the completion of the Torah: the Torah is seen as something complete, whole, fixed—ready to be rolled up and covered with its mantle, as we dance with it on Simhat Torah. This aspect of Torah is completely Divine; indeed, one might call it a kind of apotheosis of God.

The aspect of Torah symbolized by the Hatan Bereshit is quite different. The very name, Bereshit, “in the beginning,” signifies, not only the book of that name (Genesis), but also the parashah of the Creation, of the Beginnings—not only of the cosmos, but of humanity, of families, and of all of the central aspects of the human condition: sexuality, aggression, hubris, the desire for knowledge, for mastery; also the opening word of the Torah (which is itself pregnant with worlds of meaning: seventy different combinations of its six letters are elucidated in Tikkunei Zohar). But most of all, it is a new beginning of our involvement with Torah, of Torah as something with which we are constantly engaged. The blessing speaks of לעסוק בדברי תורה, a never-ending process of study, which also implies: a never ending process of beginning, a never ending process of innovation, of new insights, of new levels of understanding, of hiddushei Torah—of that aspect which Sefat Emet identifies with Oral Torah. There is a tradition among some people to mark Simhat Torah by beginning some new project of Torah study, to which they will devote the following year: a new commentary on the Torah itself, a new tractate of Talmud, a new book of Jewish thought which they have never studied before.

Some years ago Professor Yochanan Silman of Bar Ilan University wrote a book about the halakhic process, which he entitled Kol gadol velo yasaf—a deliberately ambiguous or ambivalent title. The phrase, from Deut 5:19, may be translated either as “a great voice that never continued”—that is, something fixed, delimited, finite, unique in time; or it may be read as “a great voice that did not cease”—i.e., one that is constantly changing and being heard anew through the ages. For, if the Torah is infinite, like the Almighty Himself, it must also burst out of any limits we attempt to place on it.

During Simhat Torah itself, watching and participating in the dancing, I kept thinking about the phrase, an expansion of a saying in the Zohar: ישראל, אורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד הוא—that is, “Israel, Torah and the blessed Holy One are one.” To my eyes, Simhat Torah somehow embodies that idea. The Torah is at the focus—but in relation to Israel, to Jews dancing with the Torah and rejoicing in the Torah and, if one may say it thus, giving the Torah life. On the other hand, there is a sense in which the Torah is a kind of mediator—an apotheosis of God, but also a worldly thing, an actual book and a body of teaching—that enables Jews to relate to God without being overwhelmed, without fainting away from awe and wonder in the presence of the Divine.

There is an aggadah at the very end of Ta’anit describing how, in Days to Come, the righteous will dance in a circle; each one will point with his finger, saying: “this is the God whom we have awaited and who has redeemed us; let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation” (Isa 25:9). Rav Soloveitchik once read this as a description of Simhat Torah: During the seven days of Sukkot, Jews march around the synagogue holding the lulav and etrog, a precious object of mitzvah, with a Torah scroll in the center of the circle; on Simhat Torah, the Torah is with the Jews on the periphery of the circle, while the center of the circle is empty. At that moment, the Rav said, God Himself is in the center of the circle!

The idea of Simhat Torah as symbolizing a deep, almost pre-conscious Jewish connection to Torah, calls to mind the significance of this festival in the 1960’s in Moscow, during the beginnings of awakening of Jewish consciousness in Soviet Russia. Jews came to stand outside the synagogue, perhaps to sing Hebrew songs, simply to be with other Jews, specifically on that day…

But this threefold unity is also problematical. In a forthcoming essay about Simon Rawidowicz and about the dilemmas of contemporary Jewish identity, I argue that this three-fold bond has become unraveled—but I shall leave that subject until then.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Noah (Zohar)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, below at November 2005.

“For all flesh had corrupted their ways”

The aspect of the Zohar’s world–view presented in the passage commenting on the above verse is one of the most difficult for the modern reader. (This passage was suggested to me by long-time reader Rahmiel Hayyim, who this year has undertaken his own Zohar project—a translation of the daily Zohar reading from Hok le-Yisrael, with his own glosses, Berahamim Lehayyim.) The Zohar, in addition to being the central work of Jewish esoteric teaching, is a mystical midrash, a work that starts from the Biblical text. It begins here with a basic question: Why were the men of the generation of the Flood punished? What did they do that was so terrible? Zohar I. 61b-62a:

Rabbi Yitzhak was in the presence of Rabbi Shimon. He asked him: This verse, “And the earth was corrupt before God” [Gen 6:11]—given that humans sinned, but how did the earth [do so]? He replied: Since it is written, “for all flesh had corrupted their way [upon earth]” [ibid., 12], as has been said. Similarly, “The earth was defiled, and I inflicted her punishment [or: iniquity] upon her” [Lev 18:25]. It was human beings who sinned. But if you ask, “How did earth [sin]?” the answer is: Human beings constitute the essence of earth—they ruin earth, and it is ruined. The verse proves it, as is written: “God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” [Gen., ibid.].

Come and see: All sins of a human being are entirely his ruination, yet are susceptible to return [i.e., may be atoned by repentance]. But the sin of spilling seed, wasting his way [the literal translation of השחת דרכו], emitting seed upon earth, ruining both himself and the earth—of this is written: “stained is your iniquity before Me” [Jer 2:22]. Similarly, “You are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil cannot abide with you” [Ps 5:5], except through great returning. Similarly, “Er, firstborn of Judah, was evil in the eyes of the LORD; and the LORD slew him” [Gen 38:7]. This has already been explained.

Rabbi Judah asked: Why did the blessed Holy One punish the world with water, and not with fire or some other element? He [Rabbi Shimon] replied: It is a mystery! For they [the cosmic waters] wasted their ways, so that the upper waters and lower waters failed to unite fittingly [in the flood, where the upper and lower waters united joined together and destroyed the world]; so did they ruin their ways, male and female waters [by spilling seed and failing to unite with their wives]. So they were punished by water, just like they sinned.

— translation: Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, I: 355-356

A gloss within the Zohar text adds:

And what are these supernal waters? Binah. And the lower waters? Malkhut. The upper Heh and lower Heh [of the Divine name]. And when they corrupted their ways, the letters Yod and Vav, representing the masculine element [i.e., connecting the waters, but also separating them] was removed, and there remained only Heh and Heh, waters with waters [which joined and flooded the world}.

One of the biggest difficulties presented by the Zohar to the modern reader is its emphasis on sexual sin, specifically masturbation, which it sees as particularly heinous. This attitude is far removed, perhaps even diametrically opposed, to contemporary sexual ethos; many of us see such attitudes as “puritanical” and “Victorian”; we tend to see masturbation as a solitary act, an outlet for a natural physiological; need, which by definition harms no other person, and hence is hardly viewed as an ethical issue at all. (Modern ethicists by and large see what the person does by himself as having no real ethical importance at all. Is this an error?). Moreover, it is an act largely associated with the experience of the adolescent boy/man, who feels intense sexual need that he doesn’t really understand, long before he is emotionally or otherwise prepared to enter into any sort of mature sexual relationship with a girl/woman.

I should perhaps add that the classical midrashic tradition associates the “corruption of ways” of all flesh with other sins, whether more all-encompassing sexual licentiousness (of both man and beast!), idolatry, and/or theft (see Rashi on 6:12-13, after b. Sanhedrin 105a). Why then the Zohar’s emphasis on this sin?

But the halakhah, in both its Talmudic and Midrashic roots, and even more strongly under Kabbalistic influence, sees matters very differently (see Even ha-Ezer §23). Long before the Zohar, in the first chapter of Bavli Niddah and elsewhere, we find an abundance of Rabbinic aggadot condemning masturbation in the strongest terms. It is even referred to in the poskim as “one of the most serious sins in the Torah” (Torah here presumably being used in the broader sense of Jewish tradition generally, as there is no biblical verse that specifically prohibits it, notwithstanding the incident of Onan).

How then are we to make sense of this severe view? The condemnation of “wasting seed” is based on a holistic perception of the cosmos, a certain conception of harmony, in which sexuality serves as a central paradigm for the act of unification of disparities generally: the letters of the Divine Name in their correct order, as in the above-quoted gloss; the various Sefirot, particularly the combination of Binah or Tiferet with Malkhut or, elsewhere, the two intellective sefirot of Hokhmah and Binah, referred to as Abba and Imma, Father and Mother; or the primeval waters, are all seen as representing masculine and feminine. The letter vav, which corresponds to the phallus (even in its written shape), and to Yesod, the sefirah connecting the upper sefirot to Malkhut, is a central conduit between these worlds, bringing Divine blessing and abundance to the receptive Earth/ mother/ female. Male and female thus refer, not only to earthly gender, but correspond to cosmic forces; sexual union is a paradigmatic act, assuring the proper flow or functioning of Divine energy from upper to lower realms.

Hence masturbation, as an incomplete, solipsistic act (i.e., one focused on the self and its own experience), avoiding or missing the opportunity for union, is seen as a tragic error of cosmic proportions. Where contemporary thought might see the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake as a legitimate goal, if not as one of the central goals of life (eudemonism), the Zohar would see this in negative terms, subsuming individual pleasure to the larger, universal, cosmic unity. The Generation of the Flood are seen, a bit later in this same passage, as “burning with lust,” and hence being punished with the boiling waters of the Flood.

Hail to the Chief

Though many words have been written and spoken on the media since last Tuesday about the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, many by wiser and better informed people than myself, I cannot pass over this event in silence.

First, naturally, I share in the excitement and joy expressed by so many people. It is a truly remarkable even, one that most of us could not even imagine happening within our lifetime, a mere ten or twenty years ago. He seems to have instilled a new sense of hope and optimism into the American people. While one is tempted to dismiss this as a mood, an artificial atmosphere built up around the campaign, I feel that it is something more than that. One should not underestimate the importance of the psychological component in the life of a nation, as in that of the individual. The United States seemed to have been under a cloud during the past eight years, dominated by a mood of fear, of being threatened, and a dependence of its leadership on military solutions. All that, overnight, has changed.

A few major points, beyond his being the first “African-American” president:

First, that he symbolizes a new image of leadership for America, different from the stereotypic middle-aged, “old-boy” white male, oriented towards the twin worlds of business and the military as his central focii. He is young, thin, energetic. A civilian president who will of necessity focus his attention on the deep problems of US society: economic, but also cultural, educational, health, and other basic needs of its citizens. He comes as a conciliator, a healer, hoping to unite the deep cultural divisions in the country, between the “red” and “blue” states. Will he be able to unite them? Will the Republican heartland—the small towns, and the Evangelical Christians, in particular— accept him? As a black man, he is not a part of the hated, “snobbish” liberal intellectual establishment of the two coasts. Perhaps the fact that he is coming from someplace else again will help. And, if nothing else, his election will change how the 20 million or so black Americans will feel about themselves and their place in society.

Second, as a civilian president, he will turn away from overly facile use of military power as a solution to international problems. This, too, can be a danger: he has inherited an extremely dangerous world, and there is danger in placing excessive trust upon the goodwill of one’s adversaries, when dealing with hate-filled, dangerous, and arguably evil countries and leaders (I think of course primarily of Iran’s Ahmadinejad and other Islamic extremists, both in power and those who would seek power, but also of other figures around the world). Let us hope that he will not succumb to the naivete of the opposite extreme from Bush (e.g., of a Jimmy Carter), but will know how to use power in a judicious and considered manner, and only when absolutely necessary.

Third, he is cosmopolitan: He is one of the few people of whom the hyphenated PC term “African-American” is literally correct. In a vast continent-nation like the US, there is a great potential for cultural insularity. As a young man, I thought of myself as a cosmopolitan simply because I had a certain interest in Europe: I went to see “foreign” (i.e., European) films in the Thalia, I read French and German and Russian literature (in translation), and I was aware of the existence of foreign languages. Obama, who has an old grandmother living in a dirt hut in the interior of Kenya, in a town without running water, is aware of a much broader cosmopolitanism: that there is a whole world out there, filled with real people, including many poor people—in India, Africa, South America, the Pacific Rim—which will be of decisive importance during the course of the 21st century. The presence of such a man as head of the most powerful country in world is like a breath of fresh air.

Finally, two comments as a Jew and an Israeli. There were those who feared Obama’s election; in recent weeks I received dozens of emails with headings like “Why you should be afraid of Obama.” His first appointment, of an Orthodox Jew with a Hebrew name, Rahm Emanuel, as his Head of Staff, suggests that these fears were exaggerated. Let us hope that he will learn to negotiate his path in the tangled labyrinth of the Middle East in a strong but fair-minded, and that he will know the difference between twisting Israel’s arm in its own best interest (which our own leaders at times seem to have forgotten), and forcing her into unacceptable and dangerous risks.

Secondly, I frankly envy the American people for their ability to renew their nation politically. A twinge of jealousy: when will Israel have leaders who are people of true vision, who will see beyond the perks of office and the next election and “putting out fires,” who will talk to the people in a way that respects their intelligence, who will lead with a real vision of change and solving the problems of the country? What a difference between our Barak and their Barack!