Saturday, January 24, 2009

Vaera (Zohar)

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

The Plagues: Left Side and Right Side

This week’s parashah begins with the Divine epiphany in which God announces to Moses the forthcoming redemption; the bulk of the reading is devoted to the first seven of the Ten Plagues, which demonstrate God’s power and might to Pharaoh. In the Zohar passage we present here, Rabbi Hiyya expounds the verse introducing the first plague—but this is preceded by another brief passage in which there is a dialogue between himself and a child or young person, identified as “Rabbi Zuta” or “the small Rabbi Yossi.” Zohar II: 29a-b:

Rabbi Hiyya rose one night to study Torah, and with him was Rabbi Zuta [or: Rabbi Yossi the small], who was still a child. Rabbi Hiyya opened, saying: “Go eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already taken pleasure in your deeds” (Eccles 9:7). What prompted Solomon to utter this verse? Rather, all of Solomon’s words were spoken in wisdom. As for his saying, “Go eat your bread with joy”— when a person walks in the ways of the blessed Holy One, He draws him near and grants him tranquility and rest. Come and see: he eats and drinks bread and wine with a joyful heart because the blessed Holy One is pleased with his deeds. That child said to him: You said that Solomon’s words were spoken in wisdom; yet where is the wisdom here? He replied: My son, cook your dish and you will discover this verse. He said: I haven’t cooked yet, but I know! He asked him: How do you know? He replied: I heard a voice from my father, who uttered this verse. Solomon is alerting a person to crown assembly of Israel “with joy,” which is the right side—bread crowned with joy. Then, to be crowned with wine, which is the left, so that total joy will appear in complete faith, right and left. When She is between both of them, all blessing dwell in the word. All this when the blessed Holy One is pleased with the deeds of human beings, as is written: “for God has already taken pleasure in your deeds.” Rabbi Hiyya came and kissed him. He said: By your life, my son! I left this word for your sake. Now I know that the blessed Holy One and desires to crown you with Torah.

There are several scenes in the Zohar in which small children participate in the study of Torah (see, e.g., HY X: Lekh lekha). These are almost always marked by great warmth and tenderness—as are, indeed, many of the scenes in which the companions engage in studying this mystical teaching. The central ”action” of the Zohar is the often peripatetic discussion and exegesis of Torah in light of this hidden teaching, set against the backdrop of various places in the Galilee.

Note Rabbi Hiyya’s comment that the child is not yet mature enough to understand the wisdom in Solomon’s words: “My son, cook your dish and you will discover this verse.” The idea is that these teachings require a certain maturity, beyond mere intellectual understanding (see our discussion below). Here, unexpectedly, he replies that even though he “hasn’t cooked yet,” he still knows.

As for the contents of the verse, expounded Kabbalistically: “bread crowned with joy” and “wine” symbolize the complementary qualities of Hesed and Gevurah, identified as right and left. Wine is associated with Gevurah because of its red color, similar to that of blood, while perhaps bread is seen as Hesed because it is the “staff of life.” Implicit here is the idea that even a physical act, such as eating and drinking with joy, can be a holy act, and a fitting expression of Solomon’s wisdom. (This idea later became a central theme of the Hasidic movement, with its notion of avodah be-gashmiut, “service through corporeality.”) The “Assembly of Israel” that is thus crowned is the quality of Malkhut=Shekhinah, which is located between these two poles—and thus a source of blessing.

Rabbi Hiyya then begins a new teaching, relating to the plagues as such:

Rabbi Hiyya opened again, saying: “Say to Aaron: take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt” (Exod 7:19). Why Aaron and not Moses? Because the blessed Holy One said: Waters exist in Aaron’s place, and left must draw waters from there. Aaron, who comes from that side, will stimulate them, and when left gathers them, they will turn into blood. Come and see: Lowest of all rungs was struck first.

Rabbi Shimon said: From the lowest the blessed Holy One begins, and His hand struck with every single finger. When he reached the highest of all rungs, He played His part, passing through the land and killing all. Thus he killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, since that is the firstborn rung of all. Come and see: Pharaoh’s dominion was by water, as is written, “the great sea serpent sprawling amidst his streams” (Ezek 29:3). Therefore his river was turned into blood. Afterwards, frogs wielding eerie voices, croaking within their intestines—emerging from the Nile, climbing onto dry land, raising shrieks in every direction, until they fell dead in their houses. Muse of all: All those ten signs performed by the blessed Holy One all issued from the mighty hand. That hand was raised over all rings of their dominion in order to muddle their minds, so they did not know what to do. Come and see: As soon as any of their rungs emerged to accomplish something visible to all, they were unable to do anything. When? When the mighty hand loomed over them.

—translation from Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 114-116

Why is Aaron, specifically, the one to stretch his staff over the waters? Water, which corresponds to Hesed, to qualities of love and expansiveness, is related to Aaron (“who loved peace and pursued peace”)—but, in the context of the first plague, it turns into blood, an element from the negative side of sternness and judgment.

The more general idea is that the plagues are delivered to the Egyptians, an evil nation, in a kind of mirror image of the world of Divine “rungs” or sefirot. “The lowest of all rungs was struck first… From the lowest the blessed Holy One begins, and His hand struck with every single finger.” The ten plagues correspond to the ten fingers of the Divine hand (an echo of the notion of the Divine body, found in such early Kabbalistic works as Shiur Komah), which are the “ten rungs” arranged from lowest to highest—i.e., Zoharic terminology for the ten sefirot. In Hasidic writings, and perhaps earlier, we find explicit statements in which the ten plagues serve as a negative counterpoint to ten sefirot, which further parallel the structure of the universe: i.e., the Ten Words with which the world was created, and the Ten Commandments given at Sinai, which are a kind of précis of the entire Torah.

The realm of evil: in some later Kabbalistic works, the idea that the world of evil is a mirror image or counterpart to the world of holiness is worked out in some detail. Thus, the 49 days from Pesah to Shavuot, of counting the Omer (7 x 7) are devoted to a tikkun, a “correction” or birrur (“cleaning out”?) of all the various permutations and combination of the seven lower sefirot, in which one cleanses an purifies oneself of the 49 sefirot of the shadow world. Habad, following Lurianic teaching, speaks of kelipat nogah and kelipat tum’ah (“shells of brightness” and “shells of impurity””). All this is found in the Zohar, but in far more cryptic and allusive form.

Pharaoh’s punishment began with the water because that realm is his “dominion”—but unlike Aaron, he was not connected to water in a manner that brought out its Hesed-full, life-giving qualities, but related to it through his own ego and desire for domination, the arrogant feeling that “I am the Nile and I made it”—that he ruled the water and was thus tantamount to a god who governed this all-important source of life for the Egyptians. In the second plague, the frogs, who emerge from the water, utter weird noises in an almost supernatural or demonic manner, thereby belying Pharaoh’s claim to rule. Water, which he thought to be his dominion, thus became the root of his punishment.

Zaddok of Lublin on Pardes

I recently came across a passage in the writings of R. Zaddok ha-Kohen of Lublin—one of the most original, daring, and prolific Hasidic thinkers—which has bearing both upon our discussion in Parshat Vayigash about the nature of the soul, and upon Rabbi Hiyya’s discussion with the child. In this passage R. Zaddok elaborates upon the four levels of Torah, known as Pardes (peshat, remez, derash, sod), in which he defines the essential difference between sod, “secrets of Torah,” and the other three levels. The first three he defines as: the performance of Torah in practice (peshat); the intention within the person’s heart (remez); and the wisdom contained therein (derush)—corresponding roughly to limbs, heart and mind. But then he continues:

But after he attains these three things—the tools of practical life, and a heart that desires and the eye that sees the wisdom of the thing—then he merits to the [level of] sod, secret…. namely, the rationale (ta’am) for the mitzvah, as in the verse “Taste and see that God is good” (Ps 34:9) which is called secret, for it is impossible to explain to ones fellow the taste that he feels in his palate. As is said, “Two people eat from the same bowl, but each one tastes according to his deeds” (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan §37). … For the taste is different to each one. And this is what is called sod—namely, that which it is impossible to relate to others at all. For if it is possible to relate it, then after he tells it is also known also to the other. How then is it a secret? And it says, “God’s secret (sod) with those that fear Him” (Ps 25:14); and “with the upright is His secret” (Prov 3:32). It therefore follows, that [secret] is something that is revealed only to those who merit [to understand it], and it is impossible to reveal it at all. And this is the “taste” that each person experiences according to his share… —Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, §177

Thus, sod is not like subject matter that can be learned and understood by simply applying oneself to the mastery of the theoretical, conceptual material on the intellectual level. Rather, it is essentially a stage or level of insight, a way of seeing and perceiving the world, the soul, and God, that results from a combination of study with meditation, ethical behavior, and a change in mindset – in brief, a kind of “turning a corner” in one’s whole being.

Postscripts: Shemot

A few thoughts about Parshat Shemot, that also relate to this week’s parashah. It has been noted that God’s name is not mentioned at all in the first two chapters of Exodus, except in passing (in 1:17, where the midwives’ ethical behavior, in not killing the male babies, is explained by the fact that “they feared God, and did not do as Pharaoh commanded”). As if to say: these chapters depict a natural human situation, without God, in which there is, on the one hand, oppression, subjugation, cruelty, exploitation of man by man; and, on the other, a sequence of fortuitous events in the early biography of Moses allowing the future leader to grow up in relative comfort, in a situation that permitted him to grow morally and intellectually. These eventually led to his break with Pharaoh’s house. We are shown a series of three vignettes that dramatically illustrate his moral sensitivity: the striking dead of the Egyptian who struck a Hebrew slave; his intervening in the fight between two Hebrew slaves—but through verbal rebuke, not violence; and his saving Yitro’s seven daughters from the depredations of the shepherds (Exod 2:11-19).

The third chapter, by contrast, describes God’s epiphany to Moses in the burning bush—the beginning of a new era of Divine involvement in history, marked also by a new name of God, different from that known to the Fathers: God as Ehyeh, as Being, as All-Present. This idea motif is reiterated at the very beginning of our parashah in the title verses: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I was not made known to them by My name YHWH” (6:2-3).

These new epiphanies are led up to by the verses immediately preceding the Burning Bush chapter, in a strange group of verses (2:23-25): “And in those many [long drawn out?] days… the Israelites groaned from their toil and cried out , and their cries ascended to God from their labor. And God heard their howls, and remembered his covenant… and God knew.” (Elohim: the generic name of the All-Powerful, master of the natural order.)

Many years ago, Rav Soloveitchik quoted a Zohar passage on this verse, which I have unfortunately been unable to locate. The Zohar states that the Israelites were so heavily oppressed by the circumstances of slavery that even their voices were in exile (kol begaluta). They were so downtrodden that they hung on to their Divine image and human dignity by a mere thread, making them unable to express their pain by even a cry or a groan. They were like those in the concentration camps known as Musselmänner: individuals who had reached a point of apathy such that they lacked the elementary will to live—and more often than not these were the first to die. The first step towards redemption, towards the restoration of one’s elemental humanity, was to cry out, even if this cry was not addressed to God. At that stage they regained their voices, through not yet the ability to articulate what they felt (dibbur begaluta). Only much later could they begin to speak and to articulate their voice.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Shemot (Zohar)

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

A Cryptic Sefirotic Picture

This week we shall see a totally different kind of passage—one far more typical of what people imagine when they think of “esoteric” or “hidden” teachings. This terse, enigmatic, almost delphic passage belongs to a section of the Zohar known as Tosefta (suggesting an analogy to the extra-canonical supplement to the Mishnah by that name), which serves as a kind of gloss or addition to the main text. This passage is quite literally cryptic, requiring word-by-word decoding of its dense images.

At this point I should mention, at least in passing, certain problems in Zohar studies. Old-fashioned Jews, whether they studied it or not, regarded everything between the covers of this book as Zohar ha-Kadosh—“the Holy Zohar”: the sacred text of Jewish mysticism, the authoritative repository of the secret teachings of Judaism. In his day, Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), founder of modern Kabbalah research, presented compelling proofs that the Zohar was not written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, but rather was authored in thirteenth-century Castille by R. Moses de Leon. Two chapters of his laymen’s introduction, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (still a classic in its field after nearly seventy years), are devoted to the Zohar: Lecture V, “The Book and Its Author,” addresses this specific issue, while Lecture VI is a lucid introduction to “Its Theosophic Doctrine.” (See also his later and more scholarly Origins of the Kabbalah).

The scholars who followed in Scholem’s wake have refined and elaborated this basic thesis. Several years after Scholem’s death, Yehudah Liebes presented the idea that the Zohar was not the exclusive creation of De Leon, but that there was an entire circle that contributed to its creation. Other scholars have attempted to sort out the different strands and layers of the Zohar through meticulous comparison of manuscripts and literary analysis. For many scholars, not only are those sections marked in the Zohar as separate documents, such as Ra’ya Mehemna, Midrash ha-Ne’elam, Idrot, & Sabba de-Mishpatim, not to mention Tikkunei Zohar and the works printed in Zohar Hadash, seen as coming from other author, but even certain portions of the Zohar itself are judged not to be part of the original Zohar. Hence, for example, Matt’s translation omits certain passages (such as the last eight pages of this week’s parashah) which he and other scholars judge to be extra-Zoharic.

We now return to our subject; Zohar II: 12b–13a:

MATNITIN. Pursuers of truth, those who demand the mystery of faith, those who cling to the faithful cluster, those who know the ways of the Supreme King—draw near and listen! When two ascend and emerge toward one, they receive it between two arms. Two descend to three; they are two, one between them. Two sit upon the seat from which prophets suckle. One between them, junction of all, absorbing all.

The first paragraph is a kind of festive introduction, of a kind found in many Zohar passages, alerting the reader that he is about to be presented with profound secrets. The passage itself speaks about the sefirot, and is a kind of rudimentary or highly condensed “flow-chart”—to use somewhat vulgar contemporary language—of the interaction among the seven lower sefirot, much like that found in any Kabbalistic chart of the sefirot. The “two” that ascend and emerge towards one are Hesed and Gevurah, which “receive” Tiferet, the one that harmonizes and mediates between them, with their two arms. (In depictions of the sefirotic tree in human form, as Adam Kadmon, the “Primal Adam,” these two are the arms, while Tiferet is the torso or center). These two in turn flow into the lower triad of sefirot, Nezah, Hod and Yesod, which again take the form of opposites, corresponding to the legs, which “sit on the seat from which prophets suckle”—i.e., they serve as the source of prophecy. In between and mediating between them is Yesod, represented as the phallus, which serves as the “junction of all, and absorbing all.” It is the channel through which Divine energy flows into the lower world, Malkhut or Shekhinah, as seen in the next paragraph.

That holy well stands beneath Him—Field of Holy Apples. From this well were watered the flocks that Moses tended in the wilderness. From this well were watered the flocks that Jacob selected, when they were selected for his share—all those chariots, all those winged beings. Three pillars rest upon this well; from them, this well is filled.

Malkhut is the “Holy Apple Field”—an image derived from a Talmudic midrash stating that the fragrance Yitzhak smelled on Yaakov’s garments was that of an apple orchard (Ta’anit 29b, quoted by Rashi at Gen 27:27); hence, it signifies superlative fragrance or pleasure. The image is also used by R. Yitzhak Luria is his table hymn for the Friday night meal. Alternatively, it is the “well” from which one draws vivifying water. Shekhinah is paradoxical: it is simultaneously Divine and totally within the world; a times, indeed, it seems almost as if it is itself the world (or at least such earth-defined entities as the Congregation of Israel or the Shabbat). Shekhinah is the embodiment of God in His/Her total immanence or indwelling—close, familiar, intimate. That is why the imagery is feminine, that of a loving, nourishing mother; just as there is no “distance,” psychological or physical, between a child and its mother (at least in the early years), so too is the Shekhinah “with us” in our joys and sorrows.

It is called Adonai., My Lord; of this is written “Adonai Elohim, My Lord God, You Yourself have begun…” (Deut 3:24). And similarly: “Let your face shine upon Your desolate sanctuary, for the sake of Adonai” (Dan 9:17). Adon, Lord of, all the earth, as is written: “See, ark of the covenant, Lord of all the earth” (Josh 3:11). Within it is concealed one holy spring, flowing into it constantly, filling it. This is called YHVH Tzeva’ot, Lord of Hosts. Blessed is He forever and ever.

—translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, IV: 61-63

The final part of this passage deals with different Divine names, corresponding to various sefirot or clusters of sefirot, with suitable biblical proof texts.

Post-Hanukkah Riddle: Some Answers

Three readers answered the riddle I posed last week: to wit, when else in the Jewish calendar do we have four successive days of descending kedushah, similar to what we had this year at the end of Hanukkah? One or another correct answer to this question was provided by my daughter Tanya Chipman, Perry Zamek, and Bonnie Schiff.

There are in fact two possible answers. One. when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat (as it will do this coming year), we have a sequence of: Yom Tov and Shabbat; Yom Tov alone; Tzom Gedalyah, which is a Ta’anit tzibbur; and an ordinary weekday (in this case, one of the Ten Days of Repentance, which has a certain standing of its own). A fast day, even though it has no sanctity in terms of forbidden labor, nevertheless enjoys a distinct halakhic status, both liturgically and in terms of the special laws of the fast.

Second, when a festival immediately follows upon the end of Shabbat (an occasion known as YaKNeHaZ, for the mnemonic used for the order of Kiddush); this can happen either on the First Day of Pesah [next occurrence - 2021] or on Shavuot [2012]. In that case, we have: Shabbat; Yom Tov; Second Day of Yom Tov; and either a weekday or Hol Hamoed, as the case may be. This question is tricky, being based upon the idea that the formal halakhic character of Yom Tov sheni shel Galuyot differs from that of the first day, even though both its liturgy and its actual observance is the same: the first day derives its sanctity from Torah law, while the second is rooted in Rabbinic edict (for which reason it does not apply in the Land of Israel. In fact, Perry Zamek gave an Israel-oriented answer, which I also accept, with some reservation: Shabbat, Yom Tov, Issru Hag, and weekday.

Vayehi (Supplement - Rawidowicz)

Simon Rawidowicz's Babylon and Jerusalem: Then and Now (PART I)

The following essay, in two parts, has been many years in its germination. It was originally intended as commemoration of the fiftieth Yahrzeit of its subject, Simon Rawidowicz, who died on 22 Tamuz 5717 (July 1957)— a relatively little-known figure in modern Jewish thought, whose thought deserves being more widely known—and the implications of his thought to today’s Jewish world. Many years ago I considered writing a doctoral dissertation on his thought, but it was not meant to be. This essay is a modest attempt to articulate some of those ideas that first attracted me to his thought.

A verbal presentation of the ideas in this paper was given in the summer of 2006 at Kehillat Yedidyah, to honor the centennial birthday of my father, Avigdor (William) Chipman, who was born in Lomza, Poland, on 21 Tammuz 5666 (Gregorian: July 14 1906; Julian: July 25 1906), and died on 10 Elul 5744 (September 6 1984) , as well as to mark the third anniversary of the tragic and untimely death of my friend and colleague, Jonathan (Buzzy) Levin. A shorter version of this paper also formed the basis for an informal talk-discussion at Congregation Adas Yeshurun of Rockland, Maine, June 17th 2007.

The present series of Torah portions are a particularly apt time to present it, as the readings from Miketz through Yitro bring out both the unity and the inner stresses and tensions within the people Israel. The days of Hanukkah, recently past, also represent a kind of turning point from the world of the “First House” to that of the “Second House,” central concepts in Rawidowicz’s thought that will be explained presently.

“’Hear, O Israel’ our father. Just as there is no quarrel in our heart with the Holy One blessed be He, so is there is quarrel among us.”—Genesis Rabbah (Parashat Vayehi) 98.3

“These are the names of the children of Israel…” (Exod 1:1)

“And Israel encamped there opposite the mountain”—as one man, with one heart. (Exod 19:2, and Rashi ad loc.)

I. Simon Rawidowicz's Thought: Some Major Themes

Who was Simon Rawidowicz, and why ought Jews living today to be interested in his thought? Rawidowicz (1896-1957) was a scholar, an editor, a champion of the Hebrew language, whose life path led him, like so many others of his generation, from a small town in Poland to the centers of Jewish life in the West—first to one of the urban centers of Poland, and from there to Germany, to England, and finally to the United States. In all these different places, he was deeply and passionately involved in activities involving Jewish and Hebrew culture—teaching, scholarly research, writing, editing, and the organization and administration of various publishing and periodical projects.

More than anything else, Rawidowicz was concerned with the Jewish people and the nature of Jewish existence. Hence, the motto that opens this essay may be said to epitomize his philosophy and life-work: he saw the unity of the Jewish people, wherever they are, and whatever their beliefs or observances, as a single living organic entity—albeit one whose life was marked by dialectics. Perhaps for that reason, one of the more striking aspects of his work was his involvement simultaneously in both the ideological and scholarly aspects of Jewish thought (so much so that one prominent Israeli scholar dismissed him as a “publicist”).

He belonged to that generation of Eastern European Jews who were steeped in the Jewish and Hebrew intellectual tradition, who experienced the transition from the traditional way of life of the shteitl to the open, cosmopolitan environment in which Jewry reestablished itself in the Western world, and who contributed there to the creation of a new Jewish synthesis—and who were so deeply and organically steeped in the Jewish tradition that it hardly seemed relevant to ask if they were “secularist” or “religionist.” Tanakh, Talmud, Midrash, the Siddur, the great medieval Jewish philosophers and mystics, were all part of his daily bread. I don’t know whether he donned tefillin every morning or observed the Shabbat, whether he considered himself “Orthodox,” “Conservative,” or “secularist”; for him, these questions were in a sense irrelevant. He was a Jew—period.

A few salient biographical facts. Rawidowicz was born in the Lithuanian town of Grayevo. His father, Hayyim Yitzhak, was a pious Jew, a Zionist, and a lover of the Hebrew language, who imbued him with the basic belief in the compatibility of world and Jewish culture, and taught him in both the traditional and the new way. His life path took him from Grayevo to Bialystok (1914-19); and from there to Berlin (1921-33); London (1933-39); Devonshire and Leeds (1941-48); Chicago (1948-50); and finally to Boston (1950-57). Although for years he dreamed of moving to Palestine, he was unable to find suitable work, and only sojourned here briefly in 1933.

During the course of his life he taught at Jews College and the school of African and Oriental Studies in London, at the University of Leeds, at the University of Chicago and at Brandeis; he was involved in the creation of two Hebrew publishing companies, Ayanot in Berlin and Ararat in Leeds; he served on the editorial board of three Hebrew journals, Ha-Tekufah (Bialystock), Ha-Olam (Berlin) and Metzudah (Leeds). He was a champion of the Hebrew language in the “Language War” during the early years of the revival of the Hebrew language, was among the central figures in Hovevei Sefat Ever, in Berit Ivrit Olamit, and in establishing the Keren Tarbut of the World Zionist Organization. At Brandeis he was instrumental in the creation and shaping of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department, which was destined to become one of the major programs of its type in the Western hemisphere. His scholarly interests spanned the gamut of medieval and early modern Jewish thought—Maimonides, Judah Halevi, Saadya Gaon, Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, and Nahman Krochmal. He died relatively young, barely past his sixtieth birthday, leaving many of his plans and projects unrealized. He is survived by his only one son, Benjamin, today a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis.

1. On Interpretation

The words darosh darash [Lev 10:26] mark the exact center of the Torah, counting its words. This teaches us that without darash [that is, the activity of exegesis] one has only half, that is, a part, a fragment, of the entire Torah. (R. Ephraim of Sudylkow, Degel Mahaneh Efraim, Parshat Shemini)

One of the central concepts in Rawidowicz’s cultural historiography is the nature of exegesis. In a seminal essay entitled “On Interpretation,” he describes interpretation itself an creative act. He draws a basic distinction between explicatio or commentario—that is to say, explanation of the literal meaning of the text as given, one that dares not go beyond the text—and interpretatio, through which a new entity, based upon the text, is created. Interpretation in this sense involves an input of creative imagination, such that the result is at once authentic, a continuation of the original, and something new. A classic example of this is the midrashic method which, using the biblical text as its point of departure, creates a new entity, likened to a “hammer striking a rock, bringing forth seventy sparks.” This is not at all artificial, but the manner in which cultures grow, while sustaining continuity with the past. Interpretatio is thus a profoundly creative act—indeed, the essence of all creation is in some sense interpretation.

In a sense, one could say that he anticipates certain themes in “post-modern” literary theory: the idea of inter-textuality, of cultural history being written through the constant interaction of an almost infinite variety of texts and strata in the author’s conscious and unconscious mind; that all texts are at once pure originality and pure interpretation of other texts. His approach was one that championed the utterly open-ended, free interpretation of texts, as an endless, ever-changing cultural act. Indeed, he might well have supported the axiom, often advanced today, that once an author has set his words down in writing he has no more authority to interpret or elucidate his text than anyone else. (The sub-text of this was his defense of post-biblical Jewish literature against the accusation from certain Zionist quarters of it being “derivative” and not “creative”; see below)

2. First House and Second House: Towards a History of Jewry

His central life project was the creation of a philosophy of Jewish history, which was at once an attempt to create a historical synthesis and interpretation of the major themes of Jewish existence, and an identification of the basic conflicts and motifs of Jewish life in the modern world. Rawidowicz lived in an age when it was still possible for people to believe that one could create a great synthesis of history generally, or of Jewish history in particular, that would identify the underlying themes and place them within a coherent whole. This was doubtless one of the roots of his interest in Nachman Krochmal (whose Guide for the Perplexed of Our Time he edited and republished, with copious notes), a 19th century Galician-Jewish thinker who attempted to create an overarching historiography of Jewry in the world—in a certain sense taking up the gauntlet laid down by Hegel, albeit in a very different direction.

The title of his major work, Babylon and Jerusalem, exemplifies one of the central insights in his interpretation of Jewish history, and life—namely, the dialectical or bi-polar approach to Jewish life and thought. In the major essay in that work, “Israel’s Two Beginnings: The First and Second ‘Houses,’’’ he saw the Land of Israel and the Diaspora (symbolized by Babylon, locus of the creation of the Babylonian Talmud, and by Jerusalem) as both equally essential for Jewish existence: two archetypes which he epitomizes in the concept of the two “Houses” of Jewry. These two houses are not only, or primarily, geographical or chronological, but express two different modes of existence, of being, of cultural creativity, as expressed in the great works created by each of these houses: the Bible, on the one hand; and the Rabbinic corpus, the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash, on the other. These two archetypes likewise reflect the two modes of thinking discussed in his essay “On Interpretation”: original creativity and commentary.

3. Babylon and Jerusalem: The Negation of the Negation

The typology of Babylon and Jerusalem also implied a certain critique of Zionism, and of the direction taken by the new “House” created in 1948. He saw this as a watershed, as a seminal moment in Jewish life—but one which he hoped to see develop in a different direction than that fostered by official Zionism. Thus, the final section of his book Babylon and Jerusalem—entitled Sha’ar TSh”H, “The Gate of 1948”—is devoted to essays, polemics and correspondence concerning the new situation engendered by the creation of the State of Israel. Moreover, it seems plausible that these issues and concerns also form the subtext of the more theoretical discussions in his essays “Israel’s Two Beginnings” and “On Interpretation.” Thus, one can speak in Rawidowicz of a kind of seamless unity among the different levels of his thought, in which his writings on current events, his broad historiographical schema, and his approach to philosophical-cultural problems, such as those involved in exegesis, all support and reinforce one another.

The new culture created in the Land of Israel by the earliest Zionist settlers of the late 19th and early 20th century was an innovation in Jewish history, an attempt to create a Jewish life rooted in the soil, in the land rather than in the book. Some of its founders spoke about creating “a New Jew,” bypassing millennia of Exilic history to revive a spirit, a mentality, that had existed in ancient times, when the people had last lived on their own land, but that had long been forgotten (this spirit was symbolically represented in the title of Theodor Herzl’s programmatic book, Altneuland, “The Old-New Land”): a culture speaking an old-new language, that had lay dormant for centuries; a culture that rejected the immediate past of the Galut, of the shteitl, of the ghetto, of the Yiddish language, of Rabbinic Judaism with its seemingly endless Talmudic pilpul of the mystical fantasies of the Kabbalah, in favor of the fresh, open expanses of the Jezreel Valley and the life of hard, honest work of the agricultural settler. In this early Zionist myth, the works created in the Diaspora were seen as artificial, serpentine, convoluted, almost Byzantine in their convoluted logic; drawing, it seemed, entirely upon the written word and “commentaries upon commentaries” rather than upon direct, immediate, living experience. The Zionist movement thus saw itself as leaving behind two thousand years of excessively bookish exile to return to the pristine, pure, “healthy,” “natural” roots of the Hebrew people on their own soil.

For many circles in Israel during those early years, the only truly “creative” or “original” Jewish book was the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. Ben-Gurion celebrated and studied the entire Bible, even creating a weekly Bible Study Group at the Prime Minister’s home. Others limited their interest in the Tanakh to its role as a model for the creation of the first Hebrew state in the Land. Assyriologist Israel Eph’al, in an unpublished lecture on ”Moshe Dayan’s Bible” delivered on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Dayan’s death, noted that for several major cultural and political figures—he mentioned specifically Moshe Dayan, Shaul Tchernichowsky, and Natan Alterman—that part of the Bible which they found meaningful and wished to adopt for their own use ended with the death of King Saul at the end of 1 Samuel.

This spirit is also found, in somewhat softened form, among other figures, perhaps half-a-generation younger, of the first generation of those born in the Land, many of whom have passed away in recent years: novelist S. Yizhar, whose stories are set against the hard, sun-baked rocks of the Negev, who wrote about King David’s battles and family intrigues in real, concrete term; Moshe Shamir, a novelist who wrote of the battles of the Palmah, and of the political struggles and other events of the Second Commonwealth from a realpolitik view rather than from that of Rabbinic aggadah (and who later in life turned from Mapam-nik to right wing ideologue); Naomi Shemer, poetess and song-writer, who celebrated the gentle atmosphere of the Kinneret, the verdant Jezreel valley, the mountains of Gilboa, and the ubiquitous rows of eucalyptus trees.

Rawidowicz, with his affirmation of the equal legitimacy of both ”houses” in Jewish life, strongly rejected that movement, known as shelilat ha-golah (“Negation of the Exile/Diaspora”); indeed, at times he was rather a voice crying in the wilderness. He took issue, for example, with Ahad Haam’s model of “spiritual Zionism” (which was itself largely rejected both by “Practical Zionism,” which saw the concrete work of settling the Land as all-important, and by “Political Zionism,” whose main concern was with international lobbying and diplomacy to gain a Jewish state). Ahad Ha-am saw the continuation of the Golah as valid, but only within the context of a model for Israel-Diaspora relations of center and periphery. For him, all creativity, all interpretation of Jewishness, or such things as the creation of a Jewish university, the renewal of the Hebrew language, the study of Jewish history, scholarly archives, etc., were to be centered entirely in the Land of Israel, while the Diaspora, without inspiration or real cultural vitality of its own, would draw upon those living in the Land as purveyors of their Jewish culture.

It was in this spirit, for example, that Chaim Weizmann objected to establishing a Jewish university in the Golah (e.g., such as that which eventually became Brandeis), as threatening such cultural hegemony. Rawidowicz, in an essay entitled “Only From Zion: A Chapter in the Prehistory of Brandeis University,” takes strong issue on this point. His alternative to the Ahad Haam model of center and periphery was that of two intersecting circles, continuing the age-old interplay between First House and Second House, between original creativity and interpretatio, etc.

An interesting polemic with which Rawidowicz engaged Ben-Gurion concerned the name of the new state. He argued that Israel has historically been the name of the entire Jewish people; referring to the new state simply as “Israel” is an affront to the unity of both parts of the people, implying that Jews who live in the Diaspora are somehow less part of “Israel” than are the citizens of the State—who, indeed, have come to be known as “Israelis.” He insisted (a battle that he lost) that the state be referred to as Medinat Yisrael, so as to distinguish it from the People (Knesset Yisrael or Klal Yisrael), which transcends boundaries and citizenship.

As we conclude this section of the essay, it should be emphasized in this context that Rawidowicz was far from being an Orthodox Rabbinic Jew. He did not champion a return to the “Second House” in opposition to the “biblocentrism” of Ben-Gurion et al because of the centrality of the works of that “house”—Mishnah, Talmud, halakhic Codes, Siddur, commentaries, works of religious philosophy, Kabbalah, Mussar, and Hasidism—for religious life. For him, the bottom line was national and cultural, not religious. Indeed, in one of his essays, he reduces the Jewish credo of Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”) to Shema Yisrael Ehad—“Hear Ye, Israel is One!”—a sentence which, if not downright blasphemy, is surely grating to religious ears. He was a Jew who loved Jewish culture and affirmed it in all of its multifarious forms. He belonged to a generation that took the fact of Jewish identity for granted, but that in its own way reshaped its contents for what might be described as a post-religious, or in any event post-Orthoprax, milieu. He wanted all stages of Judaism—biblical, Rabbinic, philosophical, Kabbalistic, and modern Jewish cultures, including also the new Hebrew culture created in the Land of Israel and, say, the cosmopolitan, secular, humanist culture of a certain kind of Western Jewish intellectual—to be part of the kaleidoscope of Jewish life, rather than a one-dimensional nationalism of land and language. As such, his thought is of particular relevance to contemporary Jews, not only in the Diaspora, but also in the State of Israel.

I will discuss some of these issues in the second part of this essay, devoted to a critique of contemporary Jewish life in the spirit of Rawidowicz, to be distributed next week.

A Brief Bibliography of Simon Rawidowcz's Wrtings


Bavel ve-Yerushalayim. 2 vol. London-Waltham, Mass. 1957.

Iyyunim be-Mahshevet Yisrael. 2 vol. Jerusalem, 1967.

Kitvei R. Nahman Krochmal, edited & with introductions by Rawidowicz. Berlin: Ayanot, 1924; 2nd revised edition: London-Waltham, Mass.: Ararat, 1961.

Three collections of his essays are available in English, all edited by his son Benjamin C. I. Ravid, and including his biographical introduction:

Studies in Jewish Thought. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1974.

Israel: The Ever-Dying People and Other Essays. (Rutherfird, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986)

State of Israel, Diaspora, and Jewish Continuity: Essays on the “Ever-Dying People, with a forward by Michael A. Meyer. Hanover, NH & London: Brandeis University Press – University Press of New England, 1986 (Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry Series, 26)

Essays & Studies

The following three essays, referred to above, particularly exemplify his thought:

“On Interpretation.” Studies in Jewish Thought, 45-80.

“Israel’s Two Beginnings: On the First and Second Houses in Israel” (Chapters From an Unfinished Introduction to a Philosophy of Jewish History). Studies in Jewish Thought, 81-209. Translated from the Hebrew, published in Bavel ve-Yerusahalyim.

“Israel: The Ever-Dying People.” Studies in Jewish Thought, 210-226. Originally published in Judaism 16 (1967), 423-433.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Vayehi (Zohar)

The Secret of Death

This weeks’ parasha is a kind of hiatus or interlude in the progression of the Torah’s narrative. As Rav Soloveitchik once noted, this parasha is superfluous in terms of dramatic development: the final verse of Vayigash, Gen 47:27, which relates that the Israelites lived in the land of Goshen and greatly multiplied there, is echoed by the opening first verses of Exodus. Rather, here the children of Israel turn inward upon their own family life, and upon certain powerful spiritual lessons and prophesies. The central event is the death of Jacob: what precedes it—his blessings and parting words; his death itself, followed by embalmment (!), interment and mourning; and the aftermath.

The moment of death and those immediately preceding it are seen as an occasion of revelation, of heightened spiritual perception, as the soul prepares to leave this world and is given a glimpse of the transcendent realms to which it is entering. Hazal, in their glosses on Gen 49:1, tell us that Jacob “wished to reveal the End”—i.e., the secret of the future Redemption—to his sons, but was prevented from doing so, vision being closed off to him. In similar fashion, the death of Rabbi Shimon is a central event in the Zohar. On the day of his death he was granted a powerful mystical vision, many of whose secrets he revealed to his circle in the famous gathering at a threshing floor (Aramaic: idra; hence, the section of the Zohar dealing with this is known as the Idrot—the Idra Rabbah and Idra Zutra. We shall turn to this later on in the year, in its proper place in Ha’azinu, or perhaps on Shavuot).

In general, death and mortality are among the greatest mysteries and conundrums of human life—indeed, the single central fact of our existence, that gave rise to all the deepest existential pondering throughout the history of human thought. Why are we born, given a great capacity for thought and feeling and experience and learning and doing, only to die in the end? Does not the grave, as Rav Soloveitchik put it more than once, make a mockery of all our dreams and hopes, of all our claims to human dignity and stature? In the following brief passage the Zohar poses the question directly, in all its severity. Zohar I:235a:

Rabbi Eleazar posed a question to Rabbi Shimon: Since it is revealed before the blessed Holy One that human beings will die, why does He bring spirits down into the world? Why does He need this? He replied: This question has been posed to the rabbis by so many, and they have established it. However, the blessed Holy One bestows souls who descend to this world to make His glory known, and He gathers them afterward. If so, why did they descend? Well, this mystery is as follows: He opened, saying: “Drink water from your cistern, flowing water from the midst of your well” (Prov 5:15). “Cistern”—a place not flowing on its own. When do these waters flow? When a soul is perfected in this world, when it ascends to that place to which it is linked—then [it is] complete on all sides, from below and from above. When the soul ascends, desire of female arises towards male, and then water flows from below upward, and the “cistern” becomes a “well” of bubbling water. Then joining, union, desire, rapture—for by this soul of the righteous that place is perfected, and love and passion arose above, joining as one.

—translated by Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, III.425

The Zohar, as is perhaps fitting to a theocentric book, poses this question, not in humanistic terms, but in terms of God Himself: why does He need the whole business of sentient, intelligent life in mortal form? The second paragraph gives a partial answer, but in turn opens a new question: God send souls to the world “to make His glory known.” But surely that could be done more efficiently and simply by the angels—transcendent beings (made, as Rambam puts it, of form but without matter) who praise God regularly without being embodied in flesh and undergoing the whole messy cycle of conception, birth, living on this earth for 70 or 80 years or more with all its attendant problems, and then death? Why not leave the souls in their transcendent source?

The Zohar then gives the “secret” of life and death, through a midrash on the verse in Proverbs which mentions a “cistern” and a “well”—i.e., a place of still waters and one of flowing water. Life exists, according to this, for the moment of death itself: for that moment when the perfected soul rises upwards to “that place to which it is linked”—i.e., its origins in Shekhinah, the female element in the Divine which is described in many places in Zohar as the “source of souls” (which, as an aside, seems to function here very much like the figure of the “Great Mother” in various cultures), and as a “flowing, gushing river.” This ascent arouses a desire from within the Godhead— more specifically, from the male component symbolized by Tiferet. This is depicted in erotically charged terms, but really refers to a spiritual movement. The soul’s desire for God elicits a passionate response—and it would appear that that Divine desire, and union with the Shekhinah, is the ultimate good.

Two reflections prompted by this picture: First, the idea of female yearning and male yearning, waters from below and waters from above, bring to mind what is referred to, especially later on in Hasidic terminology, as itaruta dil’eila and itaruta dil’tata—that is, “arousal from above” and “arousal from below.” These terms refer to the interplay between God’s love, and human yearning for Divine closeness and intimacy, and the role of human initiative in the religious life. At times, God may reveal Himself spontaneously, to an individual or to a whole nation; but equally or even more central is the “awakening from below”—the human initiative, of love and desire for God expressed in prayer, in songs of praise, in Torah study, in mitzvot—that evokes a Divine response. On another level, this is also the root of the theurgic moment in Kabbalah and Hasidism: of human attempts to force God’s hand, so to speak, be it to effect the deliverance of the Jewish people from some immediate crisis, or to hasten the ultimate Messianic redemption.

Second, we find here a hint of the idea that the soul is alien in this world. The yearning to return to its source or, in the language of this passage, “ascent to that place to which it is linked” implies that the soul is not really at home in the concrete, corporeal world. One is reminded of R. Nahman of Bratslav’s tale of the prince who is sent into exile among simple, coarse people, who cannot even understand the world from which he has come or why he misses it (again, all this is foreshadowed in medieval sources, and even in classical midrash). Then there is the Habad story about the tune known as Shmiel’s Niggun, composed by the leaders of some sort of rebellion who was locked up in a Czarist prison, who sings this song to express his yearning for the open sky and forests and fields of his homeland—all of which is interpreted by the Habadniks, who sing this as one of their devekut niggunim, as a metaphor for the yearning of the soul to be free of the body.

The Zohar on this parasha being both particularly rich and extensive—perhaps prompted by the theme of death and the related one of the life of the soul—I shall bring one more passage. This source relates the story of R. Yitzhak, who had a vision of his own imminent death, which was then stayed by R. Shimon bar Yohai’s intervention. For reasons of both space and time I shall simply present the text without commentary or discussion. Zohar I:217b-218a:

Rabbi Yitzhak was sitting one day at Rabbi Yehudah’s door and he was sad. Rabbi Yehudah emerged and found him by his gate, sitting in sadness. He said to him: How is this day different from others? He replied: I have come to ask you three things. One, when you speak a word of Torah and you mention some of the words that I have said, that you say them in my name, mentioning my name. Another, that you render my son, Joseph, worthy through Torah. And another, that you go to my grave all seven days and offer a prayer for me. He said to him: How do you know [that your death is imminent]? He replied: Look! My soul departs from me every night and does not enlighten me with a dream as before. Further, when I pray and reach [the words], “Who hears prayer,” I look for my tzelem [astral body?] on the wall and do not see it, so I conclude that since the tzelem has disappeared and do not see it, the herald has already gone forth and issued the proclamation, as is written “Only with a tzelem does a human walk about” (Ps 39:7)—i.e., as long as a person’s tzelem does not disappear, “a human walks about”—his spirit is sustained within him. Once a person’s tzelem passes away and cannot be seen, he passes away from this world. He [R. Yehudah] said to him: Also from here, as is written: “Our days upon the earth are a shadow” (Job 8:9). He said: All these things that you ask I will do. But I ask of you to select my place in that world next to you, just as we were in this world. Rabbi Yehudah went and said: Please, Let me stay with you through all of these days!

They went to Rabbi Shimon and found him engaged in Torah. Rabbi Shimon raised his eyes and saw Rabbi Yitzhak, and saw the angel of Death running in front of him, dancing. Rabbi Shimon rose and grasped Rabbi Yitzhak’s hand, saying: I decree: Whoever is accustomed to enter may enter. Whoever is not accustomed to enter may not. Rabbi Yitzhak and Rabbi Yehudah entered; the Angel of Death was bound outside. Rabbi Shimon gazed and saw that the time had not yet arrived, for it had been arranged for the eighth hour of the day. Rabbi Shimon seated him in front of him and engaged in Torah. He said to his son, Rabbi Eleazar: Sit by the door, and whatever you see, do not speak with it! And if it wants to enter, place it under oath not to. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Yitzhak: have you seen the image of your father today? (For we have learned: When a person is about to depart the world, his father and relatives are present with him, and he sees and recognizes them. And all those with whom he shared the same rung in that world, they all gather around him and accompany his soul to the place where she will abide.) He replied: I have not yet seen anyone. At once Rabbi Shimon rose and said: Master of the World! Rabbi Yitzhak is well known among us: he is one of the “seven eyes” here. Look, I am holding him! Give him to me! A voice issued, proclaiming: Flying sparks of his Lord enveloped in the wings of Rabbi Shimon! [Matt: a conjectural translation of this cryptic phrase] Behold, he is yours! You shall bring him with you when you enter to occupy yoru throne. Rabbi Shimon said: Certainly so! Meanwhile, Rabbi Eleazar saw that the Angel of Death had departed. He said: Nothing bound to a glowing ember [conjectural, as above] in the presence of Rabbi Shimon son of Yohai!

[Rabbi Yitzhak] asked his father [whom he saw in a dream]: Father, how much time has been granted me in that world? He replied: We are not permitted, nor is a human being informed. But at the wedding feast of Rabbi Shimon, you will arrange his table…

Matt, Zohar, Pritzker Edition, III.313-317

Let me end this discussion of death with the wish that we may all live to venerable old age, filled with sage wisdom; that there be fulfilled the prophecy “the youth [i.e., the youngest] shall die a hundred-years-old” (Isaiah 65:20); and, especially, that we no longer see young people cut down in their prime, as we have these past weeks in the battlefields of Gaza.

MIKETZ & VAYIGASH Postscripts: Thoughts on the Joseph Narratives

• First, I wonder how the story of Joseph and his brothers relates to various archetypes of older and younger brothers, in the sense that that term is used in comparative anthropology or the study of mythology: i.e., the tale of the youngest son who is teased, ridiculed and even vilified by his elder brothers, while perhaps babied and spoiled by his parents, and who, after all kinds of difficulties, makes good and saves the family. Many of us may remember from our childhood fairy tales in which three sons are sent to perform a series of difficult tasks—to “slay the dragon,” literally or figuratively; to recover a treasure guarded by dragons or ogres in an impregnable fortress, after crossing mountains and rivers; and, in the end, the youngest of the three ends up succeeding in the task, marrying the beautiful maiden, and perhaps saving his birth-family from disaster in the bargain. The Yosef saga of course has a far more serious tone, raising serious moral issues of the brother’s murderous cruelty, depicting real personal growth and change in the characters of both Yehudah and Yosef, and ending in far-reaching consequences for the historical dynasty of the people Israel. Nevertheless, the parallels to these motifs are intriguing, and invite speculation.

• In Miketz, especially, we see a sentimental side to Yosef: three times, in the course of a few chapters, we see him weeping. Twice, once during each of his brothers’ visits to his palace, he is overcome by emotion and turn asides to weep, and then washes his face to conceal the fact, so as to maintain the persona of the imperious Egyptian official: the second time (Gen 43:30) is when he sees his full-brother Binyamin after more than twenty years; the first time (42:24), perhaps more interestingly, was when he hears the brothers speaking among themselves in Hebrew (which they assume he doesn’t know), expressing real contrition for their cruelty to Yosef and seeing their present predicament as Divinely–sent retribution. The third time, in Vayigash (45:2), Yosef is no longer able to hold back and, in one of the most moving scenes in the entire Tanakh, reveals himself to his brothers.

• Father Jacob’s rebuke of the brothers when they are considering returning to Egypt a second time, and realize that they must bring Benjamin with them if they are to “see the man,” is interesting. He blames the brothers for having told “the man” too much about their family, to which they reply: we spoke to the man in all innocence when he inquired about our family; how were we to know he would ask for our brother? (43:6-7). It seems to me that there is a covert agenda here: Yaakov is really blaming them for what happened to Yosef, so many years earlier. True, he never says this explicitly, but between the lines one gains the feeling that he harbored deep resentment and suspicion against them: how could they have allowed Yosef to disappear, whether things happened in the way they described in their cover story (“a wild animal mangled him”) or whether Yaakov suspected that he wasn’t being told the whole truth. Here, suddenly, all his suspicions and bad feeling about the remaining ten sons come out in a round-about manner.

• I found myself wondering whether the scene in which none of them recognized Yosef was plausible: surely, one of them must have felt a sense of the familiar about this stranger, even if they couldn’t place him due to the vastly different context in which they found him? But then I remembered an incident in my own life. In 1998 I returned to the United States for the first time in 22 years—exactly the same number of years as Yaakov was away in Haran, and Yosef in Egypt. One Shabbat I went to the Bostoner synagogue, where I had worshipped for many years, and was approached by someone I thought was a stranger—a man somewhat younger than myself, wearing a bowler hat, a dark suit, and sporting a full, thick black beard—who said: “You’re Jonathan Chipman; I recognized you by your body language.” As soon as he told me his own name I recognized him (and, like Yosef, even asked after his old father, who was no longer alive). In retrospect, this little incident was an exact parallel to 42:5 (“Joseph knew his brothers, but they did not know him”), which Rashi explains with the comment that when he last saw them they already had hatimat zaken, their faces were already bearded, while he was still a beardless youth. My Boston acquaintance was a 16-year-old kid when I last saw him, and now he was a 40-yaer-old man dressed in balle-batish fashion, whereas I looked much the same, notwithstanding that my reddish-brown hair and beard had now turned grey and even white.

• Many Hasidic masters seek a connection between the Yosef stories and the minor festival of Hanukkah, which always falls at the time of its reading. I found several interesting parallels between the Yosef story and Purim, specifically. Pharaoh gives Joseph royal garments, a golden chain, changes his name, gives him his signet ring, and allows him to ride in a royal chariot (41:42-43)—all of which are reminiscent of the honors bestowed upon Mordecai in the second half of the Megillah.

• At the start of Vayigash (44:27), Yehudah quotes his father as saying “my wife bore me two children…” This is a pregnant psychological slip-of-the-tongue—as if to say that Leah wasn’t really his wife. I am reminded of a family legend concerning “der Alter Ziskind,” an elderly Jew named Ziskind whom my grandfather hired as a melamed to tutor my mother when she was a young girl, in an America bereft of Jewish schools. Widowed and remarried, he would refer to his second wife, in a thick “Galitzianer” accent, as mein pylygesh—that is, “my mistress.” Somehow, he didn’t see this as a “real” marriage, but as an arrangement for fulfilling certain domestic and other needs.

A Post-Hanukkah Riddle

I will conclude with a riddle. This year we had an interesting calendrical phenomenon: four consecutive days, each one of lesser sanctity than the one preceding it. December 27 was marked by the confluence of Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh and Hanukkah, requiring one to read from three separate Torah scrolls. The next day was Rosh Hodesh and Hanukkah, with its concomitant prayers (i.e., both Ya’aleh ve-Yavo and Al Hanissim); the day after that was Hanukkah alone; while Tuesday, December 30, was an ordinary weekday. My question is: are there any other possible examples in the Jewish calendar of four consecutive days of diminishing kedushah? Readers are invited to send in their answers.

Vayigash (Zohar)

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

Three Levels of the Soul

In this passage the Zohar conducts a fairly elaborate discussion of the human soul and its various distinct levels. It begins, as almost always, with an exegesis of biblical verses, in which the creation of the soul within man is placed within the larger context of the Creation as a whole. Notice the idea that the lower world, and especially the human being, mirrors the supernal world. Zohar I: 205b-206a:

Rabbi Yitzhak and Rabbi Yehudah were sitting one night and studying Torah. Rabbi Yitzhak said to Rabbi Yehudah: We have learned that when the blessed Holy One created the world, He formed the lower world on the pattern of the upper world, corresponding to one another; this is His glory above and below. Rabbi Yehudah said: Certainly so! And He created the human being above all, as is written, “I made the earth and created humankind upon it” (Isa 45:12). “I made the earth”—obviously! Why did I make the earth? Because I “created humankind upon it,” for he sustains the world, so that all will be indivisibly complete. He opened, saying, “Thus says God, the Lord, who creates the heavens and stretches them out, who spreads out the earth and what emerges from it…” (Isa 42:5). This verse has been established, but “Thus says God, the Lord”—the blessed Holy One, above, above, who “creates the heavens and stretches them out,” arraying the constantly, ceaselessly. “Who spreads out the earth and what emerges from it”—Holy Land, bundle of life. “Who gives nesahama, soul, to the people upon it”—“the earth” is the one who gives “soul.” Rabbi Yitzhak said: All is above, for from there issues soul of life to this “earth,” and “earth” grasps the soul, giving to all; for that flowing, gushing river conveys soul, conducting them into this “earth,” who grasps them, providing to all.

This introductory midrashic exposition concludes with one central point: that the “earth” (which in Zohar is a symbol for Malkhut or Shekhinah) is the source of souls—a kind of “Great Mother.” The section that follows elaborates the three levels of soul:

Come and see: When the blessed Holy One created the human being, He gathered his dust from the four directions of the world and formed his body on the site of the Temple below and emanated upon him a soul of life from the Temple above. The soul comprises three aspects and therefore has three names, corresponding to supernal mystery: nefesh, ruah, neshama. Nefesh, as has been established, is lowest of all. Ruah is sustenance, presiding over nefesh, a higher rung above her, sustaining her completely, fittingly. Neshama is highest sustaining existence of all, prevailing over all, holy rung transcending all. These three rungs are included within human beings—in those who attain devotion to their Lord. At first one possesses nefesh, a holy preparation by which a person is refined. When one begins to purify himself on this rung, he is ready to be crowned with ruah, a holy rung hovering over nefesh, by which a virtuous person is aroused. Once he is elevated by nefesh and ruah, initiated into perfection through serving his Lord, then neshama alights upon him—supernal, holy rung prevailing over all—so that he is crowned by that rung. Then he is consummate, perfected on all sides, worthy of the world that is coming; he is beloved by the blessed Holy one, as is said: “Endowing those who love me with existence” (Prov 8:21). Who are “those who love me”? Those who have a holy neshama. Rabbi Yehudah said: If so, look at what is written, “All that had the neshama of the spirit of life in its nostrils, of all that was on dry land, died” (Gen 7:22)! He replied: Certainly so! For there did not remain among them any of those who possessed a holy neshama, such as Jared, Enoch, of all those righteous ones whose merit could have saved the world from destruction, as is written: “All that had the neshama of the spirit of life in its nostrils, of all that was on dry land, died”—they had already died and departed from the world; none of them remained to protect the world at that time.

We will discuss the three soul levels and their meaning below. At this point, I would like to note a surprising aspect point of this passage. We are used to thinking of all the levels of the soul being innate in every human being from birth, or even in utero (some might say, forty days after conception, when the embryo begins to assume rudimentary human firm). This idea is found in many presentations of Kabbalah widely circulated today, whether in popular contemporary presentations, or in various streams of post- Zoharic thought, Lurianic or Hasidic. Thus, one finds in Tanya, the seminal work of Habad Hasidism, that the soul is helek eloha mema’al mamash, “the spark of the Divine, literally”—that is, immanent within the person even before birth. But this is not the doctrine of the Zohar; as presented here, the higher soul-levels of ruah and neshama are acquired by deeds, by devotion to Divine worship, as the person gradually becomes spiritually refined and perfected during the course of his/her life. Hence, in many individuals these higher “rungs” may never exist in actuality at all. The soul is thus a kind of capacity or potential that exists in all people, and is developed as the person becomes sensitized to the realm of holiness, but not a given reality. Hence the reference to Jared and Enoch in connection with the phrase cited from the Flood narrative, “all that had the soul of the spirit of life.” On the literal level, the word neshama is used there as a synonym for life energy; but the Zohar, consistent with its view, reinterprets this as referring, not to the destruction of every living being, but to the (natural , ante-deluvian) death of the handful of individuals between Adam and Noah who attained this high level. We continue:

Come and see: all are rungs, one above the other: nefesh, ruah, neshama—rung upon rung. First nefesh, lowest ruing, as we have said. Then ruah, hovering over nefesh, sustaining her. Neshama, a rung transcending all, as has been established. Nefesh—nefesh of David, poised to receive nefesh from that flowing, gushing river. Ruah— ruah pressing over it, and nefesh is sustained by ruah. This is the ruah dwelling between fire and water; from here this nefesh is nourished, Ruah endures through the sustenance of another, higher rung, called neshama, source of nefesh and ruah. From there ruah is nourished, and when ruah receives, nefesh receives, and all is one. All draw near one another: nefesh to ruah, ruah to neshama, and all is one. Come and see: “He approached him” (Gen 44:18)—world approaching world, to unite with one another, so that all becomes one. Because Judah is king and Joseph is king, they approach one another and unite.

—Translation by Daniel Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, III: 261-264

The Midrash, at Genesis Rabbah 14.9, already mentions that the soul is called by five different names: in addition to those mentioned here, there are also hayah, which may mean simply vital energy; and yehidah, “the unique one,” usually considered the very highest level (the word as such is used in Psalm 22:21). Interestingly, at least one major Talmudic passage that speaks of the judgment undergone by a person after death and the reward or punishment that ensue (b. Rosh Hashana 17b-18a) does not speak of the soul at all, but simply of the person as such.

In any event, the various soul levels mentioned in the Zohar may best be seen as representing levels of human potential, “vessels” to contain the potential of what a person is supposed to do in life. Are these given, either at birth or at various stages of life (Sabba de-Mishpatim, for example, which is considered by most scholars to belong to a separate strand of Kabbalistic thought outside of the Zohar proper, speaks of the three levels of soul entering a person, respectively, at birth, at age 13, and at age 20), being lost or “withering” away if they are not realized? Or are they acquired gradually, as a result of one’s deeds, as implied by our passage? In either event, the picture that emerges is of the human being as having spiritual potential, but not as something automatically realized.

As for the characteristics of these three soul levels: Man’s starting point is as a biological, vital being, as symbolized by nefesh, the vital soul. Nefesh is seen by the Zohar as that vital element which partakes of the spirit of the cosmos as a whole: the soul of the world, or the soul of nature. For that reason, this soul level is more open to external factors, and hence also more subject to being contaminated by ruah de-mesa’ava, the “spirit of impurity.” Ruah and neshama, by contrast, relate to a more spiritual level: to human consciousness, whether on an emotional or an intellective level; to that which makes for God-awareness.

Elsewhere in the Zohar, the different levels of the soul are depicted as corresponding to various different sefirot (although, as always in the Zohar, this is only implied by way of allusion, not stated explicitly). Thus, Nefesh corresponds to Malkhut; Ruah to Tiferet; Neshama to Binah. The three levels also correspond to different organs of the body and, by extension, to their different functions: Nefesh corresponds to the abdomen, kidneys, the lower parts of body (including the genitalia?)—i.e., the sources of the basic life functions; Ruah corresponds to the chest, heart and lungs (i.e., the source of emotive life), and also to the organ of speech (= Kol = ruah memal’la); while the Neshama is seen as being seated in the brain, corresponding to the intellective, perhaps contemplative connection to God. (Do these three also correspond to the three sub-Divine worlds of Asiyah, Yezirah and Beriah—i.e., Action, Formation and Creation—upon which, in Kabbalistic thought, the first three ascending parts of the Morning Prayer are also based?) Finally, in another Zohar passage the three souls are described as three “knots” tying life together (Zohar Terumah: II:141b-142a; for more on the functions of the soul, see Zohar Vayikra, III:24b ff.).

The various parts of the soul are also related to the ability to function in other worlds—after life, before birth, etc.—and are identified with that part of the person which survives after death. (I wish to thank Avraham Leader who assisted me with understanding this passage, and provided useful sources and insights on the entire matter.)

I would like to conclude with something I wrote many years ago in which I said certain things pertinent to this discussion. In responding to the call of the editor of a local tourism-advertising paper to provide convincing arguments as to why he ought to be religious, I intuitively hit upon a concept of the soul as the source of religious life. In my response, I first explain why rational, philosophical “proofs” of the existence of God are not to the point. I wrote there, in part:

…. Religious knowledge is ultimately a function of a particular faculty of the human personality other than the intellect. Iron-clad rational proofs [for the existence of God, Revelation of Torah, etc.] are rather besides the point, because religion speaks, not to the human mind, but to some other faculty -- if you like, to that which is conventionally called the soul….

It is often argued by Jewish religious “missionaries” that one should “do mitzvot first, and then ask questions,” a claim whose underlying premise is “doing is believing.” (Or, to quote the somewhat more eloquent framing of this idea found in its source in our classic tradition, “Let a person always engage in Torah and mitzvot even not-for-their-own-sake, for through doing them not-for-their-own-sake, he will come to do them for-their-own-sake”— Pesahim 50b and elsewhere).

The cynical, psychologically sophisticated modernist will dismiss this argument as an exercise in self-persuasion by behavior modification. But the religious Jew will assert that, by performing mitzvot, an individual gradually enables the religious faculty within his personality or soul to grow and flourish; that, in fact, many of the difficulties with belief which you, like so many others, express are rooted in the fact that the anti-religious and anti-spiritual bias of contemporary culture lead to the atrophy of this faculty.

Thus, religious knowledge belongs to a different order, qualitatively speaking, than mundane, secular knowledge. To my mind, it is impossible to move from a secular, materialistic set of axioms to a religious world-view, accepting the existence of some sort of spiritual dimension in life, without some kind of “leap of faith”—that is, a mental act of radically scrapping one’s existing mind-set and working axioms about the world, at least provisionally, and opening oneself to the possibility of an entirely different way of looking at the world and at one’s own self.


A well-known Rabbinic saying concerning Hanukah states that the Greeks (i.e. Seleucids) wanted to abolish three mitzvot in particular: Shabbat, milah and Kiddush ha-Hodesh—that is, the observance of one day of rest each week; the mark of circumcision; and the sanctification of the New Moon, by which the Jewish calendar, with all its various holidays, is determined. I once heard from Art Green that the common denominator of these three is that they reflect a common theme: human participation in holiness. Shabbat is innately holy, but by observing its holiness through refraining from labor and through declaring its holiness in the Kiddush over wine, we actively participate in the holiness created by God. Brit Milah takes this idea one step further: we make a mark upon our own (male) body, indicating that our very flesh is sanctified to the service of God (and specifically in the most problematic organ of the body). Finally, the Bet Din, by declaring new moons, creates the holiness of such holidays as Pesah and Yom Kippur, with all the stringencies of, for example, the prohibitions of eating hametz or fasting connected with them.

Thus, unlike the language used in the Shabbat Kiddush, where we simply acknowledge God as מקדש השבת, “He who sanctifies the Shabbat,” the blessing recited at Kiddush and in the Amidah for festivals involves two steps: מקדש ישראל והזמנים , מקדש ישראל ויום הכפורים, מקדש ישראל ויום הזכרון, (“He who sanctifies Israel and the seasons… Israel and the Day of Remembrance … Israel and the Day of Atonement”)—as if to say that their sanctity only comes about via Israel, who sanctify them. Indeed, a famous midrash states that the Heavenly Entourage came to God asking Him when the various festivals days were, and He answered, as if shrugging His shoulders, by saying: “I don’t know; go ask the Beit Din Hagadol of Israel!” Whether or not their astronomical observations or calculations are correct, “these are my festivals”—God himself as no festivals, so to speak, other than these.

Elaborating upon this, it seems to me that this pithy midrash says something very profound and even radical inherent in the very nature of Judaism: namely, that it isn’t based upon a servile relation to God, in which man is passive and sees himself as a naught, a cipher. Whiel there is such an element as well, it is only half of the dialectic. The other half is one on which the human being himself participates in holiness—in experiencing it and declaring it; in marking it on his body and those of his children; and, finally, through the Court that represent the collectivity, the community, in creating actual holiness in time.

I thought about this recently in terms of the concepts of the holy articulated by the influential early twentieth century Protestant theologian, Rudolph Otto, who spoke of God (in his important book Das Heigele or The Idea of the Holy) as “wholly other” and as the mysterium tremendum. To Otto, the essential characteristic of God is His awesomeness, His being totally unreachable, utterly outside the human ken, inspiring awe and fear and more than a little of the sense of the strange, the uncanny and weird. Such an emotion, it seems to me, underlies the concept of submission to God so central to Islam—indeed, that is the very meaning of the word islām. And the sense of total dependence, of innate sinfulness and the existential need for salvation, seem to be the basic religious emotions in Christianity, at least of the classical Pauline variety (albeit admittedly many modern Christian theologians have labored hard to introduce elements of human value and dignity into their religious equation). But in Judaism it seems to me that these elements have always been there, in a constant dialectic between love and awe of God, between Divine transcendence and immanence, between intimacy and familiarity (which loom especially large in Kabbalah, as we have seen in almost nearly every Zohar passage we have studied thus far this year) and distance and standing back.

To return to Hanukkah: it seems to me that there is a certain irony—both in light of this message of Hanukkah being connected to the Jewish concept of holiness, and the accompanying stubbornness and refusal to budge from our religious commitment reflected in it—that Hanukkah has itself become grist for the mill of acculturation among certain parts of American Jewry. The so-called “Chrismukah” synthesis touted by some is utterly alien to the historical message of these days, whose entire message is militant resistance to assimilation or even to acculturation when that contradicts basic Jewish values.

APPENDIX: Letter to a Seeker: “Know What to Answer”

The following essay was published pseudonymously in Your Jerusalem, a monthly local aimed at tourists and devoted largely to advertising, lists of cultural events, etc. However, its then-editor, Ralph Dobrin, a self-declared agnostic, had opened its pages to attempts to persuade him why he ought to be a religious Jew. This challenge elicited many off-beat responses, including my own, which was published in the July 1994 issue. Beyond the slightly kinky style, keeping with the general tenor of the forum in question, I regarded this as an opportunity to present something of a serious, even comprehensive statement of my own personal theology.

I must admit to being slightly bemused by the combination of ad copy for up-beat and trendy boutiques with the atmosphere of an on-going college “bull session” on the great questions of religion, truth, and the meaning of life in the letters column of Our Jerusalem. I cannot hope to compete for color with the rarified metaphysics of the good rabbi who writes of the cosmos as Divine thought made holy energy; nor with the Christian contributor who gladdens the heart of his readers with the good tidings of the ultimate downfall of the Papacy; nor with the memorable gentleman from Australia, who promises a racially pure Israel, cleaned of fornicators, thieves, adulterers, etc., to be produced from the pure seed of Yaakov’s penis (mentioning in an aside that one can have a thousand women, provided they’re all lawfully wed). Nevertheless, allow me to contribute my own bit of wisdom to Mr. Dobrin’s ongoing quest for religious enlightenment and, if I understand correctly, an irrefutable argument to sway his agnostic heart.

In one word, I believe that the basic premises of this quest are incorrectly formulated. The name of the game is not absolute certainty, because religious axioms by their very nature are ultimately not subject to rational, demonstrable proof. True, there is a vast literature of attempted proofs for the existence of God, but at bottom all these proofs depend upon a predisposition on the part of the reader to accept religious truths ab initio. This does not mean that God does not exist; rather, that statements about Him refer to an order of reality that stands outside of the physical, material world, and hence outside the sphere of demonstrable reality with which the axioms and proofs of our world of thought are concerned.

I would argue that, within the context of Jewish tradition, even the great arch-rationalist, Maimonides, did not in the final analysis see the existence of God as absolutely demonstrable. Thus, his famous statement at the very beginning of the Mishneh Torah, in which he asserts that the first commandment of the Torah is to “know that there is First Cause,” in fact refers to a type of knowledge which is not demonstrable through iron-clad philosophical argumentation, but rather one that is apprehended through a gradual process of perceiving God’s presence in the wonders of the Creation and contemplating the sciences of physics and metaphysics over a life-time (see the end of Ch. 4 there). Indeed, this knowledge is not really knowledge in the usual sense, but something closer to “belief” or “faith” -- i.e., the acceptance, as a willed cognitive act on the part of man, of the existence of God as a fundamental axiom (see S. Rawidowicz, Studies in Jewish Thought [Philadelphia, 1974], pp. 317-323, who claims that the Arabic i’tiqad, used in the cognate passage in Sefer ha-Mizvot, Positive Commandments, #1, in fact alludes to belief and not to knowledge). True, Maimonides does offer proofs for the existence of God in the Guide for the Perplexed, but these seem to be presented in a spirit of polemics, as a means of convincing the non-believer, or at least as a way of demonstrating that belief in God may be consistent with the dominant Aristotelian philosophy of his day, rather than as a necessary component of the inner religious experience of the Jew. The proof of this is that even on so central an issue as the eternity or createdness of the universe, Maimonides falls back upon the argument that, inasmuch as one has no basis for choosing one position against another on purely rational, philosophical grounds, one may choose to believe whatever position is most consistent with traditional religious dogma -- i.e., that the world is created.

Turning to another leading medieval Jewish philosopher of a less strictly rational cast, R. Yehudah Halevi, he speaks, in his Book of the Kuzari, of a “religious faculty” (inyan eloki) present in the soul of Adam, passed down in one particular line to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and from there to the entire Jewish people. In other words, religious knowledge is ultimately a function of a particular faculty of the human personality other than the intellect. Again, iron-clad, rational proofs are rather besides the point, because religion speaks, not to the human mind, but to some other faculty -- if you like, to that which is conventionally called the soul.

Needless to say, at this point the difficulties for the typical modernistic agnostic become even greater, as he is expected to accept, not only various axioms about the universe and its Creator for which he has no proof, but also the existence of faculties or functions within the human personality whose very existence is unknown to conventional modern psychology.

But in this very difficulty lies the way towards the solution. You are no doubt familiar with the common argument of Jewish religious “missionaries”—“do mitzvot first, and then ask questions,” a claim whose underlying premise is “doing is believing.” (Or, to quote the somewhat more eloquent framing of this idea found in its source in our classic tradition, “Let a person always engage in Torah and mitzvot even not-for-their-own-sake, for through doing them not-for-their-ownsake, he will come to do them for-their-own-sake”— Pesahim 50b and elsewhere). The cynical, psychologically sophisticated modernist will dismiss this argument as an exercise in self-persuasion by behavior modification. However, the religious Jew will assert that, by performing mitzvot, an individual gradually enables the religious faculty within his personality or soul to grow and flourish; that, in fact, many of the difficulties with belief which you, like so many others, express are rooted in the fact that the anti-religious and anti-spiritual bias of contemporary culture lead to the atrophy of this faculty (see on this James Kugel, To Be a Jew; Huston Smith, The Forgotten Truth; Jacob Needleman, A Sense of the Cosmos).

In brief: religious knowledge belongs to a different order, qualitatively speaking, than mundane, secular knowledge. To my mind, it is impossible to move from a secular, materialistic set of axioms to a religious world-view, accepting the existence of some sort of spiritual dimension in life, without some kind of “leap of faith”—that is, a mental act of radically scrapping one’s existing mind-set and working axioms about the world, at least provisionally, and opening oneself to the possibility of an entirely different way of looking at the world and at one’s own self.

I should add here a word about the importance of Torah and mitzvot. One of the central practical insights of Judaism is that the above process takes place, not only on the level of mind, but on that of action, through the performance of the mitzvot --again, as a means of cultivating this spiritual faculty within the personality. If you wish to undertake this quest seriously, I would counsel, as a ground minimum, that you undertake a certain minimal observance of Shabbat, the daily donning of tefillin, and the recitation of Shema morning and evening, thereby providing a certain basic practical infrastructure for seeking God’s presence. Rudimentary observance of kashrut and sexual purity would also be helpful in purifying your body and mind from the constant bombardment of hedonism one receives from the modern environment, and in neutralizing the message of “find the meaning of life in bodily pleasure” which is omnipresent in our culture.

As for the question, on the more cognitive level: “Why Torah? Why Revelation?” Given that the true religious path is not one of the intellect or the ratio, and given that not all people are able to arrive at this truth through their own by themselves (How many Abrahams or Moseses are there?), the tradition is essential to complement the intuitions of the religious faculty implanted within man. This, of course, in addition to the fact that it happens to be true and Divinely revealed.

Two more points: Another way towards reaching this kind of perception (one that has been important in my own thinking), one that is ultimately emotional and ethical rather than rational, may be found in the sense of disgust at the ethical, spiritual and, increasingly, cultural bankruptcy of Western culture. The answer to man’s deepest need is not to be found in a brave new world of computers, networking, genetic engineering, fiber-optics, and compact disks containing the entire Boeadlian Library, available through your neighborhood mall (sorry, I meant your virtual mall in cyberspace) next to the strawberry-flavored condoms. Nor, on the value level, will our salvation come from a politically correct world where all races, sexes, creeds, and sexual orientations (lovely phrase, that!) are equally free to pursue their happiness and gratification. If you find this dream a nightmarish parody of the noble hopes of seventeenth century humanism and enlightenment, then perhaps the Torah has something to say to you.

I would like to conclude with a few specific comments about the letter in your last issue from Rabbi Moshe Davis. He spoke of the embodiment of Divine lights made holy energy within our created world, mitzvot being the Divinely taught path to live properly and harmoniously. While in principle his position is not as far from my own as you might think, he needs a perush Rashi to be comprehended by the average modern, sceptical, scientifically educated man. I fear that he is guilty of the educational sin of presenting mystical concepts in their full force and original terminology without the necessary explanations or, as Maimonides calls them in another context, “introductions” or “prefatory remarks,” needed to make himself minimally coherent to the modernist reader. One must understand that such language must be understand as metaphor, as an attempt to embody in human language insights pertaining to a world which is ultimately beyond our grasp and apprehension—certainly through our mind. Even to the religious adept, to the unique person who has cultivated his “religious faculty,” these concepts are only truly useful after long and arduous training, and with siyata dishemaya, with Divine grace and help. Such language only serves to estrange and to alienate the unprepared, secularist reader, and do not serve to create a common language of discourse, as I hope I have done in the above—and pardon me if I’ve been excessively wordy in the process.

Miketz (Zohar)

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

How the Soul Grows

One of the Zohar’s central concerns is the nature of the human soul, how it comes into the body, the relationship between the upper and lower worlds represented by the presence of the soul in the body, etc. This subject, although presented in midrashic style, does not appear except in a few hints in Rabbinic midrash or aggadah. It’s presence in this particular parashah is more or less tangential, prompted by the exposition, near its end, of the verse “And the spirit of Jacob revived.” It begins with a verse from one of the “minor” prophets, describing God’s creation of heaven and earth and His forming of the human being, and goes on to ask a question on that verse based on what we have sometimes called “superliteral reading.” Zohar I: 197a-b:

“Jacob saw that there were provisions in Egypt…” (Gen 42:1). Rabbi Hiyya opened: ”Utterance of the word of the Lord concerning Israel. The declaration of the Lord, who stretches out the heavens and lays the foundation of the earth and forms the spirit of a human within him.” (Zech 12:1). … Once he said “who stretches out the heavens and lays the foundation of the earth,” what need is there to add “and forms the spirit of a human within him”? Wouldn’t we already know that He “forms the spirit of a human”? Rather, this indicates a particular rung on which all spirits and souls of the world exist. Rabbi Shimon said: This verse is difficult. If Scripture had said “And forms the spirit of a human”— and no more—that would have been fine. But why [does it add the word] be-qirbo, “within him”?

The initial section, what one might call the posing of the midrashic question and answer, begins with two questions: first, is not the creation of man’s soul or spirit incorporated within the grand sweep of creation described in the first half of this verse? The answer is that this phrase indicates that human souls originate from a special spiritual source. But if so, then why the use of the phrase beqirbo, “within him”?

This, however, is a twofold mystery. For look, from that flowing, gushing river all souls issue and soar, gathering into one site, and that rung “forms the spirit of a human be-qirbo, within itself,” specifically, like a woman conceiving from a male, forming the embryo in her womb, until all is fashioned perfectly. So, “and forms the spirit of a human within itself”—abiding within until a person is created in the world, when it is given to him.

Alternately: “and forms the sprit of a human within him”—“within him,” literally. How so? When a human being is created and the blessed Holy One endows him with a soul and he emerges into the air of the world, the spirit within him does not find enough body into which it can expand, so it remains in an ambulatory inside of him. As the person’s body expands, that spirit expands, imparting its energy; as the body grows, the spirit transmits its power within him, invigorating him. So “forms the spirit of a human within him,” literally.

Now you might ask: why ”forms”? Because that spirit needs additional power from above, supporting it, so the blessed Holy One “forms the spirit of a human within him,” providing him with assistance. Come and see: When that spirit needs assistance, in accordance with the person’s state of being and the body’s fitness, the spirit is enhanced, augmented by spirit, attaining perfection. This is “forms the spirit of a human within him.”

As I understand this passage, the Zohar here offers two different, albeit complementary answers. The “flowing gushing river” refers to the Shekhinah, the maternal element within the Divine world that is the source of souls. Like the formation of the physical body of the to-be-born person through the union of male and female, which then grows in the womb, so is the soul formed within the Shekhinah through the union of the Divine couple (Tiferet and Malkhut; cf. Zohar, Vayeshev I: 182a). Alternately, the soul is placed within the embryo from the moment of conception, but does not initially have enough “room,” so it remains in a sheltered place (translated here as “ambulatory”). It then begins to grow as the body grows, at the same time imparting to it its own spiritual energy.

Come and see: When Joseph was lost to his father, Jacob lost that supplemental spirit he possessed and Shekhinah withdrew from him. Later, what is written? “The spirit of Jacob their father revived” (Gen 45:27). Now, was he dead until this moment? Rather, that supplemental spirit had departed from him, was no longer within him, due to the sadness inside of him, and consequently his spirit lost its vitality. So, “the spirit of Jacob revived.” Here, having not yet been informed, how did he know? Simply because “Jacob saw” (ibid. 42:1)—he saw the whole country going to Egypt and bringing grain. “Jacob saw.” —English translation based upon Daniel C. Matt, The Zohar, Pritzker Edition. III: 206-207.

Central to this passage is the issue of sexuality in the Zohar—specifically, the concept of the Divine couple uniting. This involves two problems: first, the prudish may find something inappropriate, even scandalous in the projection of erotic bodily acts to the spiritual realm. Albeit to our generation, to those raised in the atmosphere of sexual frankness of the 1960s and ‘70s and later, this very point may be one which makes the Zohar and Kabbalah attractive. Much has been written in recent decades about the sexual and erotic elements in the Kabbalah—albeit here, too, at times I suspect this fascination may be based on a misinterpretation or at least misguided emphasis of the nature of the Kabbalah (much as certain late 19th century Hasidic books are interpreted by some in a libertarian light).

The second, more weighty objection is of a theological nature. Many are troubled by what seems to be, not only the polytheistic imagery of the sefirot, of the notion of a multiplicity of different persona within God, but the notion of their uniting in a sexual manner. Can there really be sexuality in the Divine realm? Thus, in a passage from the Zohar to Vayeshev which we had originally hoped to bring here in full:

Come and see what has been said: Desire of male for female generates soul; desire of female for male ascends and blends with the one above, one and the other intermingling, generating soul. So, “She is the woman”—this surely the body destined for that desire of soul issuing from the male. (Zohar I: 182b; Pritzker, III: 107)

Is this not the sort of thing that we so forcefully reject in trinitarian Christianity?

Let us try to decipher and understand what is obviously metaphorical language. (And here I must add a reservation that one must keep in mind throughout studying the Zohar: that the inner meaning of the text is always allusive, never explicit; the esoteric levels of meaning, which are the truer ones, are left to be intuited by the reader, or transmitted orally from master to disciple, but never stated outright. As we noted some time ago, the Zohar only rarely, if at all, specifically spells out the Sefirot to which its symbols allude.) The late Prof. Yosef Ben Shlomo used to speak of this as “the purified return of the mythic.” That is: Biblical Judaism waged war against the paganism of the Canaanites and others who mixed sexuality into their cults; by the time of the Kabbalah, such things were so long gone and forgotten that their resurgence in Kabbalah was somehow safe; it no longer bore the dangers of ritualized orgies and Temple prostitution which existed in pagan antiquity.

But what does all this mean? If I may say so, I think that my essay, “The One and the Two: On God, Man and Woman,” which by fortuitous coincidence was published in the opening number of this Zohar series (HY X: Bereshit), provides one important key to understanding this. How does one bridge the gap between a perfect, and thus static, unmoving God, and a dynamic, multifaceted universe? Sexuality, understood in the broadest or widest possible sense, is a large part of the answer: sexuality, as the means through which higher life firms propagate themselves, may be seen as the instrument whereby the One creates the Many. Again, I speak here of sexuality in the broadest possible sense, whether it involve copulation, as in humans and mammals and certain other species; or pollination, be it through seed released from grain or fruit, through bees carrying pollen to flowers, or through those trees, such as the date palm, which contain both male and female elements within themselves. The essential phenomenon is the same: that each living beings contain within themselves the seed of their own progeny, of their continuation into the time beyond their own death. But not only is the moment of fertilization or pollination sexual, but also the female activity of giving birth to the new manifestation of life, of nurturing and giving it sustenance it thereafter. These two aspects, constantly being acted out in our world, may be seen as the ongoing union of Tiferet and Malkhut, the masculine and feminine elements within the Godhead, who is Him- or Her-self immanent, ממלא כל עלמין, “fills all the worlds,” and multiplying life in the cosmos.

We live in an age of what has been called the “secularization of sexuality” (a phrase used, variously, by Stanley J Grenz, Mordechai Gafni, Naomi & Steven Seidman; arguably, the concept also appears, albeit in somewhat different guise, in Herbert Marcuse). Our culture is so much caught up in the moment of pleasure, on copulation and orgasm as if they were the exclusive goal—and on “sexiness” as a marketing tool—that these broader, truly awe-inspiring aspects tend to be forgotten.

If I may, I shall conclude with some wild speculation: Is there any significance to the fact that the laws of hametz, observed on the Festival of Rebirth, stipulate that the forbidden foodstuff is specifically that made from grain, i.e., that which contains the seed of future life, but which becomes hametz once allowed to sour and swell and expand? And may there have been a similar intuition underlying the Ashkenazic ban on kitniyot; of not eating, legumes, those pod-like plants that are also a form of seed? And, to indulge in even wilder speculation: can chemical reactions of elements, the most basic activity of our cosmos, of splitting and recombining into molecules through a stray electron or proton being attracted to a complementary, oppositely charged particle, be seen in some far-fetched way as homologous to the process of sexuality? Once again, the union of opposites serves as the engine by which the One creates the many—and returns them to unity in the process.

VAYISHLAH Postscript: Jacob’s Struggle With the Angel

Reading the story of Yakov’s eerie encounter with the mysterious visitor the night before his encounter with his brother Esau, I found myself reflecting on its location at the river crossing of the Jabok River. In later Jewish folklore and Kabbalistic symbolism, this name cam to be associated with the perilous and hazardous journey the soul makes after death intoto Olam Haba, the world of the Afterlife—however that may be understood. Specifically, the book entitled Ma’avar Yabok, by Judah Medinah (Mantua, 1626), which at one time enjoyed some popularity among Jews, deals with this subject.

It occurred to me that Yakov’s confrontation with the angel at this critical moment may be understood as a death and rebirth experience, as symbolized by the new name he was given on that occasion. Indeed, a new name is often associated (in various cultures) with such crucial, life-altering experiences. In Judaism, the proselyte assumes a new name, symbolic of his/her new identity as a Jew or Jewess; a person who is gravely ill is often given a new name, generally symbolic of life or healing, such as Hayyim or Raphael, indicative of the hope that that person receives a new lease on life. In both cases, the idea is that one has in some sense become a new person (indeed, autobiographies frequently focus on a conversion or other life-changing experience, as the focal point of the author’s life narrative).

But in the case of Jacob’s change of name to Israel (which some read as “the God –Wrestler,” from the verse כי שרית עם אלהים ועם אנשים ותוכל; “for you have struggled with God and with man, and have prevailed”—Gen 32:28) there is a problem: unlike Abram’s change of name to Abraham, or that of Sarai to Sarah, Yaakov continues, in the majority of cases, to be referred to by his original name in much of the remaining 28 chapters of the Book of Genesis. Moreover, in many poetic passages—in the Psalms, in the Later Prophets, and most notably in Jacob’s blessing to his children in Genesis 49—the two names are used in parallel, as poetic synonyms.

I discussed this idea with a friend, who mentioned the concept, found in Fritz Perl’s Gestalt psychology, of an “upper personality” and “lower personality,” in which two names may signify two persona within a person. Thus, Israel would symbolize the higher persona, striving for godliness, for the realization of ideals, godliness; while Jacob would signify the ordinary, work-a-day persona, the father of fractious sons who worries about their conflicts and their well-being. But is this in fact the case?

It is interesting to read closely the last four and a half sections of Bereshit, following the name change, to trace the underlying patterns in the use of the names Yaakov and Yisrael. (Albeit, interestingly, in many passages, since the focus of the story is really about the sons, he is not referred to by name at all, but using the relational noun: “my father / our father / his father”—אביו, אבינו, אבי) What I have found, in an admittedly quick and superficial survey, is that the name Yisrael is used most consistently in connection with Yosef, in particular—as if to say, the higher hopes associated with the more spiritual {?} name are somehow associated with his hopes, fears, aspirations fir his penultimate son. But I have no simple answer to the question of the whys and wherefore of this usage.

Mickey Rosen: Correction

Two small comments in wake of my eulogy for Mickey Rosen (“A Man of Prayer”; HY X: Vayishlah). Ofra Kaplan pointed out that my statement that “Mickey believed in principle in pluralism and tolerance” was incorrect. He was deeply tolerant, and interested in a vast variety of subjects and open to friendship with many kinds of people, but he did not believe in pluralism—certainly not in the sense in which this word is used today, where it is associated with a kind of post-modern, relativistic approach, in which there are no absolute truths and in which all religious beliefs and identities are equated as essentially the same. (like in the Beatles’ song “Imagine”). I agree that this not at all how Mickey thought. Indeed, this is an important point, that helps to explain certain things about him, esp. re some of his halakhic positions, which not everyone understood.

This takes me to the second point. One reader write an angry letter complaining that, in the paragraph on Mickey’s approach to religious feminism, I was insulting Shira Hadasha and those minyanim which have adopted a more egalitarian approach based on a more liberal interpretation of the halakha than hitherto accepted or propounded within Orthodoxy. If I created such an impression, I apologize; but, as I wrote to my interlocutor, nothing could have been further from my mind. This paper was celebrating Mickey’s life, and that was all.