Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rosh Hashanah (Zohar)

For more teachings on Rosh Hashana and this season, see the archives to my blog at September 2006.
After three months of incessant and intense struggle to live, filled with alternating hope and despair, prayer, and intensive medical examination, analysis and treatment, and with the help of very many people, our grandson Erez returned his pure soul to its Maker last Sunday evening. His death has deeply shaken us, together with the rest of the family, and most especially the bereaved parents, Ika and Leeza. May this New Year mark an end to all suffering and curses and misfortune, and the beginning of a New Year of blessing—for all of us, for Beit Yisrael, and for the world in general.

Short Thoughts for Rosh Hashana

1. Why does Rosh Hashana fall in the autumn and not the spring? There is a well-known Rabbinic dispute as to whether the world was created in the month of Nissan or Tishrei. What is this dispute really about? Offhand, springtime would seem to be more fitting. Spring is a time of newness: first buds and blossoms, and all of nature awakening. Artist David Moss, in an ornate Passover Haggadah he created some years ago, has a full page near the beginning showing seeds: spring is a time of emergence of new life from its most basic beginnings. Whatever growth there was until then had been dormant, underground, hidden, like a woman’s pregnancy—or like the Israelites in Egypt, who were slaves, as yet unshaped, without their own culture or sense of self.

Tishrei, by contrast, comes at the end of an entire spring and summer of growth, of warmth, of fruitfulness, of the fulness of life, culminating in the ingathering of fruit. In the cycle of human life: if spring is birth, and Shavuot is maturity, autumn is the approaching end of life. It is the turning point; “the summing up” (to quote the title of Somerset Maugham’s autobiography).

And perhaps that is precisely the point. The renewal of Tishrei is not that of total freshness, of new creation, but the newness that comes after fulness, after experience. The two poles represent hiddush vs. hithadshut: absolute newness vs. renewal—if you like, they are William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Tishrei is a time for discovering inner powers of rebirth, of change, of new direction, built upon the experience of life already lived. Tishrei is the renewal of teshuvah—of turning, of repentance, of the difficult inner work of confronting that which has become stale, even rotten, within oneself, and preparing a new path; it is the acceptance of Torah, not with the youthful enthusiasm of Sinai, but of what I once called the “Covenant of the Cleft of the Rock”—after the sin of the Calf, after the people had discovered their capacity for indifference, for forgetting the covenant, for sin. An adult is no longer a tabula rosa, but he/she may still make a new beginning (what some have called “second innocence” or “second naivete”), but it is a dialectical process, based upon self-knowledge, including knowledge of failure and stumbling and of the obstacles on the way.

2. Shabbat and Rosh Hashana. Once again, this year the first day of Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, so we will not blow the shofar on that day. There are two reasons for this omission. One is technical: gezerah de-Rava—the ordinance of the amora Rava that one not perform mitzvot involving a physical object on Shabbat, lest one carry it through the public domain. But there is another view, invoked in the Jerusalem Talmud, that infers this law from the verses yom teru’ah and zikhron teru’ah—that there is a day of Horn-blowing and a day for “remembering” the horn blowing. This latter is associated with Shabbat, when we do not actually sound the shofar blast, but recite the prayers and blessings and biblical verses of the three additional blessings added to Musaf on Rosh Hashana.

There are two kinds of prayer: shirah & tze’akah—“song” and “crying-out.” The former is prayer as melody, as celebration, as music, filled with joy and harmony; the latter is the cry of a soul in pain and distress, in torment, calling for urgent help and relief. The blessings of Musaf, even if written in prose, are a form of shirah—a glorious poem of exaltation, acknowledging God as King, as He who remembers, as Creator and Lawgiver and ultimate Redeemer; it is a well-ordered, systematic presentation of the basic ideas of Jewish faith, illustrated by Biblical texts whose selection is itself a sort of artistry. By contrast, the raw, primitive sounds of the shofar may be likened to a person crying out or weeping in pain, alternatively moaning and sobbing; a pre-verbal, elemental sound.

Interestingly, there is a close parallel between the two: the blowing of the shofar basically consists of thirty notes: three sets of 3 sets of 3 or 4 notes. Similarly, the blessings of Musaf contain a total of thirty biblical verses, distributed among three blessings, each one of which has three verses from each of the three sections of the Tanakh, plus a concluding verse from the Torah, making a total of 3 x (3 x 3 + 1) = 30.

On Shabbat, we engage in shirah alone; somehow, beyond the technical halakhic reason, there is a fundamental incompatibility between the sprit of Shabbat—a spirit of peace and harmony, of inner calm and restfulness of the soul—and that represented by the painful crying out of the Shofar. We thus stand before God, declaring Him king, in a poetic song of love—but without the urgency of the shofar blasts to punctuate and reinforce it.

But, in truth, the shofar itself is more complex. In Psalm 150, the shofar is the very first musical instrument mentioned as used to praise God, immediately after the two introductory verses that speak of praising God in His holy place, for His greatness and strength. In reading the blessing of shofarot, one gets a sense of the full panoply of associations and meanings of the shofar—from Mount Sinai, through the instruments used in the Temple service, down to the shofar heralding Messiah. (For further discussion of this, see HY I: Rosh Hashanah)

3. Yaknahaz. On the Second Night of Rosh Hashana this year, Saturday night, we recite an unusual form of Kiddush—a total of five blessings, weaving together Havdalah and Kiddush, distinguishing between Shabbat and festival day, between the different kinds or degrees of holy time. This form of Kiddush is known as Yaknahaz, an acronym derived from the names of its five blessings: יין קידוש, נר, הבדלה, זמן (שהחיינו) — wine, Kiddush, candle (of havdalah), Havdalah, and “time” (Sheheheyanu).

In many medieval Passover haggadot, this text is illustrated by a picture of a hare hunt—an image based upon an elaborate pun: the German word Jagenhaz means “hare hunt.” But there may be a symbolic meaning as well, the poor rabbit being chased by mounted hunters and ferocious foxes serving as an allegory for the Jews, a people perpetually persecuted and pursued (see on this The Schechter Haggadah: Art, History and Commentary [2009], edited by David Golinkin). Some have compared this to the figure of B’rer Rabbit, who symbolized the black slaves of the ante bellum South outwitting their heavy and slow-witted masters.

What is the connection between Motza’ei Shabbat and these feelings? Traditionally, the end of Shabbat is associated with Elijah the prophet and the hopes for imminent redemption. On Shabbat, the Jew enjoys a small taste of eternity, a period of time somehow isolated from the often harsh reality of the outside world; after Havdalah, as he returns to earth, so to speak, and to the reality of mundane life, longings for redemption within history emerge.

Two Sides to Rosh Hashana: Harsh Judgment and Softened Judgment

The central theme in Zohar III: 231a-b (Pinhas) is hamtakat ha-dinim, the “sweetening (i.e., mediation) of judgment.” Rosh Hashana is seen as dominated by harsh judgment, by Din or Gevurah, symbolized by the stern, unrelenting figure of Yitzhak. If a person, if the Jewish people, if the world, were to be judged by Din alone; were God to judge us with an absolutely objective yardstick, the world could not stand; nobody would be found deserving of life. Hence, there are various ways of mitigating this harshness. One is through the two days of Rosh Hashana per se (NB: this is the only holiday for which there is a second day even in the Land of Israel): in the Zohar, the two days represent, respectively, Din Kasheh & Din Rafeh, harsh judgment and softened judgment. A second means is through the two different forms of the teru’ah sound of the shofar: the harsh, warbling sound of the teru’ah, like a battle cry, or like yelala, uncontrolled sobbing; and the moaning, groaning sound of the shevarim.

A third way —and I find this most fascinating—is through the sinner confessing his sin directly to God. Once he has done so, he is no longer subject to the Heavenly Court, a Sanhedrin-like tribunal, but is judged by God Himself. It is as if to say: there are powers of harshness and of judgment that are abroad in the world, that God Himself cannot entirely rein in. But once one throws oneself upon Gods mercies, by confessing one’s sin, this somehow mitigates the harshness of Judgment:

Rabbi Judah said: Let our master say some fine words about Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Shimon opened and said: “Behold, it was the day.” Wherever it is written, “and it was” (va-yehi) this signifies trouble; “Behold, in the days of…” (va-yehi beyemei; e.g. as in Ruth 1:1) clearly signifies trouble. “And behold, it was the day”—a day on which there is trouble: this is Rosh Hashanah, a day on which there is harsh judgment over the entire world. “And behold, on that day, and Elisha went to Shunem” (2 Kgs 4:5)—that was the day of Rosh Hashanah. And wherever it says “And behold, it was the day” that refers to Rosh Hashanah.

The Zohar’s discussion begins with a well-known Rabbinic homily about the word vayehi signifying trouble, difficulty, some untoward sequence of events. This introduction establishes the central motif of the entire passage: namely, that Rosh Hashana, even though it is a day of Divine-initiated judgment, is a time of harsh judgment, one that requires “sweetening” or “softening”—i.e., mitigation—for the world to bear it.

“Now behold that day, and the sons of God came…” (Job 1:6; 2:1). That was the day of Rosh Hashanah, which is always two days. What is the reason? So that Isaac may incorporate both judgment and mercy, [it must be] two days and not one, for were it to be one, by itself, the world would be destroyed. And for that reason it is written twice, ”Now behold that day… now behold that day” (ibid.).

“Now the sons of God came” (ibid.). This refers to the Great Court, the sons of God, the sons of the king who draw close to Him; these are the seventy who constantly surround Him, and who pass judgment over the world. “To stand before the Lord.” And do they indeed stand before the Lord? Rather, at the hour that they pass judgment, for judgment precedes all else. He who does not honor the name of the Holy One blessed be He, and who does not honor the Torah and those that serve Him; or here too, whoever does not heed the honor of the Holy Name, that it not be profaned in the world, and is not sensitive to the honor of the Holy One blessed be He, and does not give honor to that Name.

“And Satan also came among them” (ibid.)—“also” includes his female consort [i.e. Lilith]; here too, “to stand upon the Lord”—that she too felt the honor of God, and the holy one.

The world and all the individuals within it cannot stand the scrutiny of Harsh Judgment—Middat ha-Din. I understand this as meaning: absolute, uncompromising, severe moral standards; the objective scrutiny of each and every action, word and thought. It would seem (and here I am speaking from my own intuition) that the Zohar accepts and recognizes the essential weakness of the human being, the complexity of his life, his feelings, his motivations, and sees some degree of leniency as a sine qua non of any sort of human existence. In truth, the Zohar is caught here on the horns of a dilemma, which is inherent in the very nature of normative Judaism generally: Judgment—meaning: rules, standards, laws, halakhah, normative expectations and demands of human beings—is essential for any society, and al the more so for a religious system that has as its very heart the ideal, at least, or goal of human holiness. Yet alongside that, it knows that this ideal is unrealizable; that allowance must be made for simple human weakness. Hence, “harsh: judgment” must be paired off with “weakened judgment”—a term that is never precisely defined, but implies judgment with some degree of built-in lenience. This drama, this tension between harsh moral and normative demands and mother-like compassion, between judgment and forgiveness, is at the heart of the Ten Days of Awe.

Rosh Hashana is the only festival day of the Torah that is observed for two days even in the Land of Israel. The reason for this is is a technical, halakhic one, related to the fact that it falls on the New Moon, making it impossible to know in advance which of the two prospective dates will be “sanctified.” The Zohar, instead, gives a Kabbalistic reason for this: that the two days allow for the “doubling over” of harsh judgment and softened judgment.

Also interesting in this passage is the notion that it is the supernal court that renders judgment, not God himself (although presumably they do so as God’s agents, not as an autonomous, additional heavenly force)—a difficult theological concept, of the sort that opened Kabbalah to charges of being defective in its monotheism—but we cannot discuss this here. The important point made here is that they are harsher than God Himself and, as we shall see below, one who turns himself over to God’s direct judgment by voluntarily confessing his sins enjoys the advantage of benefiting from Divine mercy.

Concerning [this point] the ancient “pillars of the world” disagree. One said, Job was among the pious of the nations of the world. And one said he was one of the pious ones of Israel, and he was stricken to atone for entire world. One day it happened that Rav Hamnuna met Elijah. He [Elijah] said to him: Certainly, we have taught that there is a righteous man to whom there befalls evil, and an evil man who enjoys goodness (based on b. Berakhot 7a). He [Rav Hamnuna] replied: a righteous man, who has but few sins, is given his punishment in this world, and thus he is called “a righteous whom there befalls evil.” But whoever has many sins and few merits is given his reward in this world—that is the “evildoer who enjoys goodness.

He [Elijah] replied: The judgments of the Master of the World are very deep. Rather, [it is thus]: when the blessed Holy One wishes to atone for the sins of the world, he strikes their forearm [i.e., that of the righteous] and heals all. This may be compared to a physician who strikes [amputates?] the forearm to heal all the organs of the body, as is written, “and he was wounded because of our transgressions” (Isa 53:5), as is said.

Here we encounter the concept of vicarious suffering and atonement: the “forearm,” the righteous man who suffers on behalf of the collectivity, and who atones on their behalf through his suffering (a concept already known in the Talmudic aggadah on the theme of yissurim, suffering, in the opening pages of Berakhot). The similarity to Christian doctrine is striking; even the proof text used here, from the chapter of the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah 53, is the same as used by Christians in support of their doctrines. Here, of course, the “suffering servant” is either the Jewish people, or more likely the tzaddikim among them (foreshadowing the central role to be played later by the Tzaddik in Hasidic thought). In the spirit of Israel Jacob Yuval, Yehudah Liebes, and other scholars, I would suggest that there is a covert dialogue/polemic going on here with Christianity (certainly a familiar presence on 13th century Castile), emphasizing that it is the archetypal Jewish tzaddik, rather than Jesus, who in fact accomplishes the true vicarious atonement for others.

On the day of Rosh Hashanah, there are seventy thrones [i.e., heavenly princes] who stand up to pass judgment over the world. How many armed warriors there are up above! Some turn to the right for merit, and some to the left, to remember the accountability of the world, the guilt of each and every one. Therefore a person needs to present his sins [before God], each one as they are. For if one explicates his sins, his judgment is given over to the blessed Holy King alone—and if one is judged by the blessed Holy One, it is good for him. For that reason David asked, “Judge me, O God” (Ps 43:1)—You and no other. Likewise Solomon said, “to do the judgment of His servant” (1 Kgs 8:59)—He and no other; and then all courts stay away from him. Therefore one must spread out the sins of each and every organ and of everything he did in detail. Concerning this it says: “I will make my sin known to You” {Ps 32:8), and thereafter, “and you have lifted the guilt of my transgression, Selah” (ibid.)…

What is the reason that one who presents his sins, the Court avoids him? Because the person has presented himself, he is not judged by them, and the prosecutor is longer allowed to teach his guilt. For the person’s fault comes first, and allows no room for others to speak against him. Then the blessed Holy One forgives him, as is said, “He who admits and abandons [sin] is shown mercy” (Prov 28:13)

This passage stresses the power of God’s direct forgiveness, and that by confessing one “removes” ones case from the concern of the heavenly tribunal (a personification of the powers of Din kasheh?). This is reminiscent of the allocution made by a criminal who has struck a plea bargain with the prosecution: in exchange for saving the State the bother and risk of a jury trial, he is given a mitigated sentence—but he must confess, fully and truthfully, everything that he has done.

On the day of Rosh Hashanah, the heavenly Court sets out a throne for the King to judge the entire world, and Israel ascend before him first in judgment, so they may enjoy His great mercy before His great anger. We have taught: “and the judgment of His people Israel, each an every day” (1 Kgs 8:59). What is meant by “each and every day” [literally: day in its day]? These are the two days of Rosh Hashanah. Why? There are two days, corresponding to the two courts that are joined together: the supernal judgment, which is harsh; and the lower judgment, which is lenient. And both of them are found.

For that reason, the Babylonians do not know the secret of the moaning and the weeping [i.e., the two kinds of shofar blasts sounded on Rosh Hashana: terua’h and shevarim, corresponding to weeping/yelala and moaning/groaning/yebava], and do not know that both of them are necessary. The weeping is harsh judgment, while the three broken notes are mitigated judgment, groaning that is weak. They do not know, and therefore they do both of them [see b. Rosh Hashana 34a]; but we know and do both of them—and all fulfill their obligation in the true way.

After reiterating the notion that the two days of Rosh Hashana correspond to the two aspects of “harsh” and “mitigated” judgment, the Zohar applies the same duality to the two kinds of sounds made by the shofar: teru’ah and shevarim. But here there is another interesting facet: we have here a direct confrontation, so to speak, between Talmudic legalism and Kabbalah. The Talmud, in Rosh Hashana 34a, states that we blow both types of blast because we are uncertain to which of the two the Torah’s term teru’ah refers. The Zohar provides a Kabbalistic explanation for the two, as described above, and berides the “foolishness” of the Babylonians for attributing it merely to a technical lack of knowledge. The Zohar thus emphasizes the superiority of their own esoteric knowledge, that of the “secrets of Torah,” as against the more formal, legalistic, “external” knowledge of the Talmudist. This is a rift that runs throughout Jewish intellectual history, on which we may elaborate another time.

This section concludes with a passage that reiterates the above themes—both that of Din Kasheh and Din Rafeh, and the importance of esoteric knowledge, especially of the secret of the shofar:

He began and said: “Blow the shofar on the new moon ; on the day of covering for our festival day” (Ps 81:4). “Blow the shofar on the new moon.” What is meant by “on the new moon”? This is the lenient court, which is called “new.” “On the day of covering”—this is harsh judgment, the Fear of Isaac. Judgment that is always concealed, not judgment in its revealed state. "For it is statute”—that is lenient judgment. “Law”—that is (harsh) judgment [admixed] with mercy; and the two of them are as one, and for that reason there are two days, and the two of them are in the secret of oneness.

“Happy is the people who know the horn-blowing” (Ps 89:16). It does not say, “who hear” or “who sound the shofar sound,” but rather “who know the shofar sound.” Like the wise men who live in the air of the Holy Land, they know the shofar sound: i.e., the secret of the shofar sound, as is written, “you shall smite them (tero’em) with a bar of iron” (Ps 2:9). What people is there like the people of Israel, who know the sublime secrets of their Master, to go up before him and to be connected with him. And all those who know the secret of the shofar sound will draw near to bask in the light of the face of the blessed Holy One, the primal light that the blessed Holy One hid for the righteous [since Creation]. And for this reason is one needs to know it. (In translating and interpreting this passage, I made use of Tishby’s Mishnat Hazohar, II: 550-554.)

There is much more to be said, but I must end here. I will conclude with wishes for a Good, Blessed year to all of my readers; to all my friends whom I have been able to contact personally, please see this as addressed to you personally. תכלה שנה וקללותיה, תחל שנה וברכותיה.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Nitzavim - Vayelekh (Zohar)

I again ask my readers to continue praying for the recovery of my grandson, Erez ben Liza Sheina.

After three lengthy essays unrelated either to the Zohar or to the weekly parashah (my own “teshuvah,” in the sense of completing unfinished business), I return this week to inyanei deyoma, to the cycle of the year, with some brief thoughts for the last Shabbat of the year, in anticipation of Rosh Hashana. During the festive days themselves, we shall return to our study of relevant Zohar selections.

For more teachings on this week's parshiyot, see the archives to my blog, at September 2009.

Thoughts on Teshuvah: On Trust and Mistrust

I would like to return to the Book of Job, which I alluded to briefly on Tisha b’Av. Some years ago, I wrote rather flippantly that in the introduction to the book—the opening two chapters that provide the setting for the poetic dialogue between Job and his three comforters—God and Satan sound almost like two buddies making a wager in a bar. (And, incidentally, this situation, unbeknownst to either Job or the three friends, empties all the deep philosophical discussion of theodicy in the next 40-odd chapters of their meaning, at least regarding the situation at hand. If it’s all no more than a wager of sorts between God and Satan, than God’s justice or injustice in subjecting Job to such excruciating suffering is irrelevant).

But reading these two chapters more closely, I found a deeper meaning to this “wager.” As will be recalled, Job is introduced as a person who is “innocent (or “whole”), upright, fears God, and abhors evil” (תם וישר וירא אלהים וסר מרע); he also enjoys “the good life”—a large family, and abundant livestock (the measure of wealth in those days). On a certain occasion, God boasts to Satan—who is not the antithesis or active enemy of God that he is in Christian mythology, but a kind of Chief Prosecutor of the Heavenly Court, “the Adversary,” ultimately subservient to God—about Job’s sterling virtues. Satan responds by saying something like: Ah, it’s all very well for him to be pious and good when everything is going well, but how will he react if he is deprived of his wealth and family and even of his home? God agrees to put Job to the test, giving Satan the authority to whatever he wishes with him. So, in two stages, Job’s world is reduced to rubble: first he loses his children and his property; then, after Satan shrewdly observes that people who can withstand the most horrific losses external to their person may be broken if one touches their body, Job is deprived of his health, suffers boils and skin afflictions that keep him in constant pain, and is shown sitting on a dung-heap.

In the end, God is vindicated: Job is perplexed by what is happening to him, which goes against conventional ideas about the way the world is supposed to be; he wants to understand why God is doing this to him, he even curses the day he was born—but he never gives up his faith in God nor, on the other hand, his conviction of his own innocence. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked shall I return; The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; may the name of the Lord be blessed” (1:21); and later on, when his wife suggests that he curse God so as to hasten his death and release him from his suffering, he replies “Shall we accept the good from God’s hands, and not the evil?” (2:10). Still later, in what some consider the high point of the book, there is his classic affirmation of faith: לו יקטלני לו איחל (“Even though He slay me, I will trust in Him…”; 13:15). All he wants is some sort of response from God—which he ultimately receives, when God answers him from the whirlwind (Chs. 38-41), in words that are themselves rather enigmatic.

What is the crux of the debate between God and Satan? Essentially: God believes in people, and in their power to adhere to the good. Job is not presented at the outset as an extraordinary human being, as a rare exemplar of virtue—even if in the course of the book he does rise to heights of nobility and even heroism—but simply as a decent, ethical, God-fearing person: as a kind of Everyman. If God calls Satan’s attention to him, it is not as an exception to the usual course of human life, but as one who shows the potential for goodness of human beings generally.

Satan is the perpetual cynic. He is the one who believes that every person has his price (as in the film Indecent Proposal); that every man or woman can be brought to violate his most deeply cherished principle if the price is high enough, or to break if the suffering is intense enough. In brief, every person acts only in his or her own self-interest; that, not withstanding Rambam’s lyrical portrait of the highest level of love of God, in which one “does the truth because it is true—and the reward comes by itself” (Teshuvah 10.2), people—all people—ultimately act out of selfishness; the only difference is that some people’s self-interest is “enlightened” and subtle, and others is coarse and gross.

I see this choice as a central one which—beyond the specifics of atoning for one or another sin, or being more attentive to one or another mitzvah—is perhaps the underlying challenge of the Days of Awe. On some deep level, I would even contend that cynicism and the religious life are incompatible. Of course, cynicism, about both the individual human being and about society in general is very tempting; there are many, many things in life that seem to affirm the purview of the cynic. Indeed, simply to survive in this world one requires a certain amount of scepticism and caution; one must consider the possibility that the other person with whom one is doing business is in fact a liar; that is why there are such things in the world as contracts, deposits, securities, bonds, etc. (Just recently, a pious rabbi from B’nai Berak for whom I had translated a sacred text gave me a protracted run-a-round about payment for work I had done; moreover, this was not my only life experience in which alleged piety and honesty in business have not coincided).

But scepticism and caution, unlike thoroughgoing cynicism, do not preclude belief in human potential for goodness. R. Nahman of Bretslav, in one of his best known stories, celebrates the type of the “holy fool.” I’m not sure one needs to be a “holy fool” who refuses to see dangers even in front of one’s nose. But it surely means, minimally, giving the benefit of the doubt to others, not assuming the worst about others, and certainly not plotting and scheming to “get back at others before they get back at you.” Significantly, the first quality mentioned about Job, both at the very beginning of the book and when God addresses Satan in verse 8, is tam—which may be translated as “innocent” (or even, pejoratively, as “naïve”) or as “whole / complete / without blemish.” As I see it, the teshuvah required of us specifically today, in a highly sophisticated, complex society filled with conflicts and competing interests, and with a culture rife with reductionist interpretations of all that is good in human life—religion, art, literature, ideas, ethics—to economic, psychological, or biological causality, is to accept the yoke of God, but also to believe in the essential goodness of one’s fellow man, as deeply buried inside him as it may be, and of course in one’s self, and in one’s own potential to change, to recapture the quality of tam ve-yashar.

One final point about the ethical message of Job. Two weeks ago, in the course of our discussion of homosexuality (HY X: Ki Teitse), we write about the Noachide Code and the concept of natural law in Judaism. In Chapter 31, the very last chapter of Job’s dialogue with his three comforters, Job vindicates his own behavior, setting forth the code of decent ethical behavior to which he has adhered. Remembering, again, that Job is portrayed as a non-Jew, living in the middle of Nowhere (“the land of Uz” may or may not be a real place on the Arabian peninsula; it really doesn’t matter), and clearly not subject to mitzvot, this chapter may be read as a basic ethical code, a kind of informal alternative or parallel to the Noachide code. What are some of the ethical norms he mentions here? Sexual modesty—not looking at women lasciviously or stalking another man’s wife; decency and honesty: avoiding falsehood, caring for manservants and maidservants, for orphans and widows, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, not rejoicing in the fall of enemies. This chapter, it would seem, sheds clear light on the nature of the person who is “innocent and upright."

Ki Tavo (Zohar - Essay)

25th Yahrzeit Shiur

Individual, Community and the Dis-Ease of Our Era--The Jews and Modernity: A Reconsideration

In loving memory of my father, Avigdor (William) Chipman, b. HaRav Simhah Eliyahu., who departed this world twenty-five years ago, on 10 Elul 5744 (September 6 1984). May his memory be a source of blessing.

The following essay is an expansion of a proposal submitted for the Charles R. Bronfman Visiting Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation, of the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University. The idea of the competition was to stimulate people from all parts of the Jewish world to submit ideas for a significant book which would “change the way Jews think abut themselves and their Judaism.” My own proposal was among the twenty semi-finalists, and was posted in the competition’s web site; its writing encouraged me formulate certain central themes in my thinking, which I hope to ultimately develop in the form of a full-length book.

Nay Saying

Traditionally, Jews have seen themselves as “nay-sayers.” A well-known midrash speaks of Avraham ha-Ivri, “Abraham the Hebrew,” as “standing on one side and the entire world on the other side.” That is, Abraham’s core message was iconoclastic, challenging the most basic assumptions of the culture of his time.

On the other hand, Jews have been a highly adaptable group, which has often enthusiastically embraced new ideas. Nowhere has this been more the case then with the challenges posed by modernity. From the beginnings of the Age of Emancipation in Western Europe and the Hebrew Enlightenment in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, and more intensely from the turn of the twentieth century, many Jews embraced the values of reason, science, and democracy, coupled with the possibilities offered by liberal society for integration as individuals and the seemingly unlimited opportunities for success presented by a society based largely upon merit. The mass immigration to the United States and other free societies during the early 1900’s was seen by many as a dream come true: America was seen as the land of unlimited opportunity, and many Jewish immigrants to America and their offspring embraced its promise with great enthusiasm—and quite a few enjoyed unprecedented economic and professional success. The United States became the model for a new kind of Jewish existence: a free Diaspora, in which Jews felt thoroughly accepted, within a free, democratic, liberal society. The notion of Jewish existence outside the Land of Israel as Galut, “Exile,” was replaced by that of “Diaspora”—of a Jewish community or collective which did not suffer the limitations and dangers which had, to greater or lesser extent, characterized Jewish existence virtually everywhere else in the people’s long history. And if, during the earlier years of the twentieth century, there was still considerable anti-Semitism—the use of the numerus clausus at prestigious colleges and universities, the closing of certain elite clubs to Jews, as well as more overt manifestations, such as those of Father Coughlin and of the aviator Charles Lindbergh, which occasionally even crossed over to violence, by the latter half of that century most American Jews felt fully at home in America. (My late parents’ stories about anti-Semitism, covert and overt, sounded to me as if taken from another world; I personally experienced no more than half-a-dozen very minor anti-Semitic incidents over the course of twenty-eight years living in the United States.) In many respects, American became an alternative model for modern Jewish existence to that propounded by Zionism: a free, modern presence as an accepted, prosperous, highly educated minority, without political sovereignty, but as an influential part of the body politic. Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, mentioned in the call for the Bronfman competition, may be read in retrospect as a paradigmatic manifesto for this new kind of Jewish existence in the modern world.

But—and this is the crux of my thesis—the time has come for Jews to become nay-sayers to certain key conceptions of modernity. Over the course of time, modernism has been revealed as a two-edged sword. First of all, from the specifically Jewish perspective: while offering infinite possibilities to the individual Jew, it presented great challenges to the ongoing existence of a rich and full Jewish community life. This was so, whether as a result of explicitly assimilationist demands, such as those made by Napoleon to the rump “Sanhedrin” he convened in France; more subtly, in societal pressures to adapt Judaism to the models acceptable in Christian society (as in Y. L. Gordon’s slogan, היה יהודי באהליך ואדם בצאתיך, “Be a Jew in your tent and a man in your going about”); or even, as in the United States during recent generations, through sociological processes conducive to assimilation, inter-marriage, and widespread Jewish ignorance and apathy. (We will turn to the revival of a more intense Jewish identity, including a large, well-educated, prosperous, and even triumphalist Orthodoxy, in due course.) Thus, American Jewry today finds itself in a situation in which many of its best minds are largely occupied with maintaining communal survival and continuity.

But beyond the specific problems of Jewry in the modern world, modernity presents serious dilemmas to humankind as a whole, which at this juncture in history confronts enormous and unprecedented challenges. I have described these challenges elsewhere (HY IX: Noah (Supplement) = Noah [Mitzvot]), where I proposed a midrash on the opening chapters of Genesis, in which I described three inherent faults or shortcomings in the human condition, which at the present historical juncture have reached crisis proportions: ecology and environment, including the much-discussed threat of global warming (in biblical terms: the exaggeration of וכבשוה, “you shall have domain over the land,” coupled with the hubris and unlimited desire for God-like knowledge and dominion implied in the eating of the Tree of Knowledge and in the Tower of Babel); the possibility of cataclysmic war, including the ongoing danger of nuclear holocaust that threatens to destroy or at least set back civilization as we know it (the origins of violence of man against his brother in the story of Kain and Abel); and the increasingly problematic nature of human community and sexual life, beginning with the family, which has historically served as the microcosm or smallest building block of society (biblically: the expulsion from Eden and the replacement of the idyllic harmony between man and woman by power relations and the bitter-sweet aspect of family relations signified by the curse of Adam and Eve).

The existential threats to the very survival of humanity posed by the first two challenges—modern warfare and ecological imbalance—are so obvious, and have been so widely discussed and generally accepted by decent people worldwide (if not necessarily in effectual ways), that they hardly require elaboration. In the present essay, I wish to discuss the third area, which is perhaps that most keenly felt by the ordinary person in his/her everyday life—the radical changes in the nature and meaning of community, family and sexuality over the past half century or so (i.e., during the course of the adult life of this author), and the resultant alienation of the individual. I believe that the core or essence of these changes may be summarized in terms of an almost exclusive emphasis on the individual, and the gradual decline and death of organic community in contemporary society and culture.

Manifestations of Individualism

There are many manifestations of this in our culture.

Work: At one time, work was seen as a practical means of earning a living in order to provide the goods necessary to have a comfortable family life, which included adequate leisure time to enjoy the goods one has with ones family. Today, for many, work has become the be-all and end-all, the only measure of “success” in life; one who does not live up to this concept is thought of as a “loser”—a particularly harsh, even cruel slang expression that has become au courant over the past twenty or so years, reflecting this perception. Many professions, such as law, finance, and business, demand workdays of twelve and even fourteen hours per day. Those working in these prestigious lines may earn well, but hardly have time to “live.” Thus, already twenty or more years ago, I heard young Orthodox men saying it was difficult to get married, because the upwardly mobile young religious women in the Upper West Side of Manhattan were too busy to date or to devote quality time to developing a relationship. (For those not already committed to observing Shabbat, the idea of ceasing all work for one entire day every a week seems outlandish, almost impossible. Last summer I talked about Shabbat to a group of non-Jewish hotel professionals visiting a branch hotel at the Dead Sea, who commented that, in the age of Email and Skype and lap-top computers one takes everywhere, one is expected to be available “24/7,” and to participate in on-line meetings of various sorts, and at all times and places.) All this goes with a highly individualistic conception of work and the economy, as in Margaret Thatcher’s saying that, “There is no society, only individuals.”

During the course of thinking about this problem, I began to take an interest in the “Communalist” movement in the United States. In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam speaks of the loss of “social capital” in America—that voluntary leisure time associations, whether for “good deeds” or simply for social fellowship, such as playing sports together (of which bowling leagues are a prime example—hence the title) have declined drastically in America in recent decades.

Therapeutic Ethos. Another book on this theme, Habits of the Heart, presents a thorough-going critique of present-day culture from the perspective of the dominant ethos of society. The authors speak of the roots of American culture in two strands—the Biblical (Protestant religious) strand and the Republican strand—of an earlier age in America which, while extolling the individual, were rich in both ethical and communal values. He speaks of these as being replaced by a Therapeutic Ethic, rooted in psychiatry. This approach places the emphasis on the individual and his needs, feelings, wishes, and subjectivity. An important by-product of this ethos is that there are no objective moral standards; if the individual is the center, and his own values are self-confirming, there is no principled epistemological basis for an objective set of ethical standards. Instead, all issues tend to be evaluated in terms of how they will affect the patient. A typical example: the decision to divorce will be considered, not in terms of family, the possible harm to children, etc., as violating some objective standard, but more in terms of the person feeling badly about them. (A similar critique could be written about Israel, substituting the Zionist-pioneering ethos of the pre-state and the years of the State for the role of the Republican ethos in America; while Judaism (read: Biblical ethos) is still very much a part of the ethos for many people, it is itself controversial, one of the major fault lines of society: religion/traditional vs. secular/cosmopolitan).

Post-Modernity. All this is closely related with what has come to be called the Post-Modern sensibility. A central axiom of post-modernity is the rejection of the belief in an empirical truth that has characterized the scientific, and rationalist thinking in general, of modernity. In its place there is a relativity of all judgment; the axiom that there is no objective truth (certainly not in humanistic disciplines such as history), but only “narratives” and the subjectivity of the observer. Moreover, just as there are no objective moral standards, there are no objective standards for aesthetic judgments. Indeed, this entire movement began with the rejection of the classical liberal arts canon in literature curricula in the United States (“dead white males”) in favor of a pluralistic, multi-cultural approach—in itself a refreshing move in many ways—but it quickly got out of hand as the twin horsemen of post-modernism and political correctness became a new orthodoxy.

The New Spirituality. I would argue that even the much vaunted revival of spirituality in today’s cultural climate—a fact which a religionist such as myself should, offhand, only welcome—bears a disturbing taint of unrestrained individualism. Certainly, much of the “New Age” spirituality is first cousin to the ubiquitous “self help” and “pop-psychology” literature. Its aim seems less to guide people in their quest for knowledge of God and/or ethical-character perfection (the twin goals of Habad and Pshyscha: see my two-part essay at HY IX: Shavuot and HY X: Shabbat Kallah), and more about helping individuals to deal with the emotional, psychological and even physiological quandaries engendered by the stresses of modern (or is it “post-modern”) life: how to find love, happiness, self-acceptance, calm, etc. All these are positive goals in themselves, and one can certainly sympathize with the distress that created the need for them, but where in all this is The Master of the Universe, the Infinite Creator? And where is the objective, eternal source of Law?

An example of this in the Jewish world is to be found in the thought of Zalman Schachter-Shelomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and a figure who, even at an advanced age, is at the cutting edge of new thinking in the Jewish religious world (a sketch about him is planned for the near future). In his book Paradigm Switch, he presents a capsule historiography of Jewish religion based upon the three dimensions of the Kabbalistic world-map, first found in Sefer Yetzirah—olam, shanah, nefesh (“world–year–soul”–i.e., space, time, and personality). After the Destruction of the Second Temple, the paradigm switched from worship focused upon a holy place—i.e., the Temple in Jerusalem—to holy time and the central role played in the emerging halakhah of the Sages by Shabbat and other festival days the Jewish calendar. Similarly, Zalman asserts, today the focus of holiness has turned to the enlightened consciousness of the individual.

The new communications technologies have also greatly accelerated the alienation, atomization and isolation of individuals, that was already a salient feature of the “classical” period of modernity (note the numerous books on alienation and the dilemmas of the individual in mass society already in mid-twentieth century). Today, the internet creates the opportunity for “virtual,” world-wide communities of people sharing common interests—but these are “communities” without authentic, face-to-face encounter among people, and as such leave the deeper human needs for community fellowship unfulfilled.

Individual Rights. Another disturbing trend is the tendency for discussions of moral and ethical issues to focus largely on issues of individual rights, including many of the conventions of “political correctness”—again, a tendency which mitigates against communal feeling. An example: a debate was held some years ago in Israel’s Knesset about adopting a “Good Samaritan” Law, one which would obligate someone who comes upon a situation of threat to life (e.g., an automobile crash, someone drowning) to offer help, albeit not to risk his own life. Strangely, it was the liberal MKs who raised objections: not only to the name of the law (the Biblical verse “you shall not stand over your brother’s blood”) but to the very concept of society imposing an ethical obligation of any sort on the individuals. I was shocked to find that a figure such as Yossi Beilin, whom I had views as a kind of icon of humanistic values, or Dedi Zucker, objected to this law. Without noticing it, the meaning of being “Left” has undergone a 180-degree turn-about over the past generation: from concrete issues of economic class conflict and the attempt to create a more egalitarian society, to one in which politics of identity, and groups which had hitherto not been seen as having shared common interests, have emerged as “classes.”

Family and Sexuality. I have written extensively in these pages about the dramatic changes in attitudes towards sexuality and gender in contemporary society. These changes include: the ubiquity of divorce in advanced Western countries; the widespread acceptance of homosexuality as a natural alternative life-style; the almost universal occurrence of what used to be called premarital sex among students and young adults and, increasingly, even among teenagers (all this, outside of pockets of strongly committed religionists); and the feminist revolution. It is not my aim here to criticize any of these phenomena as such: from a certain point of view, they represent a hitherto unprecedented expansion and extension of human freedom and choice, a dramatic opening up of new life options to the individual. (Indeed, I would be a hypocrite were I not to confess that at certain points in my life I have made use of several of these options.) But two salient points must be remembered: that these changes are all rooted in an ideology based upon an individualistic approach to sexuality, one that starts from the individual and his needs rather than, say, the Biblical-Rabbinic idea that marriage is the natural state of man (“It is not good for man to be alone”). Second, and far more important: the effect of these changes, quite possibly unintentionally, is to minimize the centrality, if not the very necessity, of the traditional family.

This issue dovetails in certain ways with the globalization or “neo-liberalism” of the economy—that is, the development of a highly competitive economy that makes ever increasing demands on the individual in the workplace, leaving less leisure time for family life to members of both genders. Feminism, while a positive thing in itself, has in recent years developed in a direction that places exaggerated importance on the workplace; professional and economic standing have become the central yardsticks for measuring a person’s worth. A major strand in feminism is concerned with women’s becoming accepted in the higher echelons of the corporate ladder—the issue of the “glass ceiling.” All this requires a major restructuring the family, in which men and women take equal roles in child-raising and other tasks: but too often the underlying message conveyed is that family is of secondary importance to material possessions and “success.” (Or, on the other social extreme, at times one feels that an important strand in feminism involves making a virtue of necessity—viz. the increasing number of ”single-parent” families—i.e., divorced working mothers—who need to somehow cope. At times, the feminist discourse sounds like the “battle of the sexes” or “The Boys vs. The Girls,” as in grade school. One hears horror stories about the shortcomings of modern males, their inability to commit to relationships, the exploitative attitude towards sexuality (which is fostered by the new sexual mores and availability of casual sex with educated, respectable, middle-class women, and the norms disseminated by the media), etc. But, having observed all this gradually developing throughout my own adult life, it seems to me that the true problem is systemic, not the fault of one sex or the other—and goes way beyond issues of sexual or family mores, to the certain near-axioms and attitudes of society.

The overall result of this is that children receive much less intensive, loving input from their parents. A year and a half ago (HY IX: Metzora), I quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, who contrasted the types of problems encountered by teachers in the schools today, as contrasted with fifty years ago. There has been a shocking increase in violence, and other forms of behaviors (drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, suicide, etc.) that indicate a serious crisis in the modern family and its failure to raise healthy children with positive values. He blames this on the decline of family life and the new sexual mores that foster it.

Contrast to Early Modernity

At this point, I can imagine many readers raising the objection: have you forgotten the emphasis upon collective thinking among the various ideological movements that dominated the earlier twentieth century—nationalism, Soviet Communism, fascism and Nazism, and in a different way also Zionism—that placed almost exclusive emphasis upon the group, subjugating the individual to it in often cruel ways? Surely, today’s individualism is a healthy and understandable reaction to these movements? Likewise, post-modernism has come about through disappointments in a world created by the rule of rationality. It was this that fostered the emphasis in contemporary culture on the emotions and the post-modern belief that there are no absolute truths, and the consequent legitimacy of all values.

Turning to our own country: in Israel, again understandably – writers, poets, and thinkers, and ordinary people, of recent decades, reject the collectivist strain in Zionism. Or, perhaps more precisely, this is one of the deep fissures in society: the “Right”— West Bank settlers, Haredim, Sephardic traditionalist, Dati’im, and a smattering of “old-time Zionists,” speak the language of collectivism. But more and more the Westernized, secularly educated part of society thinks in terms of the individual and his own fulfillment. The ethos of self-sacrifice is largely dead (see the attitude to soldiers, the huge outpour of sentimentality around the Gilad Shalit business, etc.). This is also expressed in greater mobility. In Israel, emigration (what used to be called yerida, which is today seen as a politically incorrect and offensive term), leaving the country, is widely accepted. There is a kind of “post-Zionism” based, not only upon a critique of Israel’s policies viz. the Palestinians—which is a major question in its own right that I cannot go into here—but also upon a kind of individualism, in which the individual does not feel an automatic obligation to society.

But, in truth, the contrast between the earlier period of collective ideologies and today’s individualism is less real than one might think at first glance. In fact, sociologists and social thinkers and psychologists began talking about “alienation” already in the early 20th century and even the late 19th. Arguably, mass totalitarian movements such as Fascism and Communism utilized feelings of anomie and alienation created by modern industrialized, urban culture and provided masses of people the feeling of meaning and identity by being swept up in something larger than themselves—but did not build genuine community, which supports families and individuals in an organic, integral way.

My response to all this is the following: 1) We must understand that history moves very quickly, and that “weather changes” can happen within much less than a lifetime. The dangers of totalitarianism, of collective, mass thinking that occupied such a central place for many of us in our youth, has been replaced by its polar opposite: rampant, excessive individualism; 2) This new trend brings with it its own dangers, which I have tried to outline above—dangers no less destructive of humane, ethical values; 3) The solution is not in returning to the old styles of collectivism but in creating a new synthesis and a new way of looking at things, in the same way as the failure of Communism does not mean the “End of History” as some brilliant but foolish people like Fukayama seemed to think, but is only one more stage in the ongoing story of humankind. State socialism and the laissez-faire capitalism of giant, global corporations have both failed to create a decent world. I am not an economist (nor do I particularly trust those who are, who tend to be trained from graduate school on to be the mouthpieces of a very specific ideology), but common sense would suggest that finding some, new, middle path is the desired answer.

The conclusion I draw, both for the Jewish community and for the broader human community, is that the focus on individualism has gone to a dangerous extreme, and the time has come for a serious reevaluation of these issues; to return to a conscious identification of community as a central and indispensable concept and value; to undertake a serious critique of the concept of individualism in modern society, including a search for ways to consciously reject those aspects which mitigate against sound human values; and an attempt to create a new, more balanced approach to some of these issues.

I am well aware that all this may sound rather quixotic. On one level, the destruction of community as understood in the past is the result of anonymous, unconscious, world–historical forces. On the other, conscious level, it involves calling upon the Jewish community to declare war against the conventional truths and values of the society in which it lives: specifically, of the liberal intellectual-academic society of the big cities in which it is made its home. But if, as I believe (and as I obviously cannot argue in a brief prospectus of this nature), these issues are crucial for the future of humankind and an ethical moral culture, these matters are of the greatest importance.

I hope that it is clear by this point that I am not an advocate of “Neo-Conservatism,” the restoration of patriarchy and male chauvinism, persecution of gays, etc. The issue is rather to find a new path, a middle road, between the extremes that seem to be represented in discussion of these issues and, in the words of the call of the competition, to propose an alternative way “for Jews to think about themselves and their community.”

* * * * *

This essay is incomplete. I have presented many ideas in highly abbreviated, even telegraphic form and, in writing in a non-academic format, have indulged in the luxury of not documenting my assertions. I have articulated my critique of what I see as the dangerously individualistic orientation of current culture, but the second half of this essay remains to be written. This will consist of three chapter headings: 1) a conceptual analysis of both individualism and communitarianism and what they mean; 2) a typology of community, gleaned from Jewish sources; 3) the most difficult and challenging part, one in which I will admit that I am weakest—a programmatic solution to bringing about the necessary changes. If God gives me strength and health, and a little bit of the leisure needed to read and think further about these issues, I hope to write Part II of this essay sometime this autumn or early winter—and, after that, perhaps expand it into book form.

As for my father, to whose memory this essay is dedicated: though by nature a very quiet and withdrawn man, he was deeply dedicated to the improvement of society, and was active in the movements of an earlier age. May this essay be a fitting tribute to him and his life concerns.

Ki Tetzei (Zohar - Essay)

The One and the Two: God, Man and Woman -- Supplement

Shall Man Cleave to Man? Four Comments on Homosexuality and Judaism

Although I have addressed the issue of homosexuality and Judaism during the earlier years of Hitzei Yehonatan (HY I: Kedoshim [=Torah]; and HY IV: Ki Tetzei [=Hasidism]), I have wanted to discuss the subject in greater depth for some time. The November 2006 decision of the Conservative movement, through its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, allowing the ordination of homosexuals as rabbis and the conducting of homosexual “commitment” (i.e., quasi-wedding) ceremonies—subject to the decision of the individual seminaries and the local rabbis, respectively—raised a storm of controversy in the Jewish world. I had originally intended to write a close and careful halakhic analysis of the various opinions ratified by the CJLS; however, given the time that has passed since these decisions were announced, it now seems rather besides the point. What seems to me to require discussion is not so much the narrowly-focused halakhic issues, but several theological and meta-halakhic issues which, strangely, I found to be lacking in all those papers, both pro and con, posted on this subject.

The issue reemerged this past year with the renewed discussion in the United States about the legality and advisability of same-sex marriages, and the passing of legislation allowing it in some six states, with others vigorously debating the issue; and, more recently, the reopening of the issue of ordination of gay priests in the Episcopalian/Anglican Church, with a somewhat complex compromise to preserve the unity of that church. But perhaps most poignantly for those of us living in Israel (albeit less keenly felt outside the country): one month ago, on Motza’ei Shabbat Nahamu, a masked armed figure walked into a homo-lesbo youth club in a basement in Tel Aviv and opened fire on those gathered there, killing two young people and seriously injuring another half dozen or so. The general reaction was one of shock and a sense of dread that inter-group hatred—specifically the hatred of gays—has become a plague of our society. To date the shooter has not been apprehended, and hence his motives remain unknown, but the general assumption is that he was motivated by hatred, and possibly by a religiously-motivated anti-gay ideology.

1. A Kind of Introduction: Love vs. Law

As a starting point, let me state that, whatever one’s halakhic and ethical approach to homosexual acts per se, the approach to the individual homosexual must be one of love, compassion, understanding and full human acceptance. Clearly, they are not resha’im (evil-doers or miscreants) in any usual sense; whatever the findings of geneticists and brain researchers may be (and I have suggested elsewhere that these are not as unequivocal as commonly thought), there is overwhelming evidence that the homosexual feels him or herself “thrown” into this situation; that their sexual leaning is not a conscious or deliberate choice, but an orientation, the form that erotic desire takes within their own souls, something at the very root of their being. Hence, the homosexual must be seen, first of all, as a human being who finds him/herself in a difficult existential situation.

And indeed, several of the “pro-gay” or “liberal” responsa in the Conservative discussion (e.g., those of Eliot Dorff, of Simcha Roth, and of Gordon Tucker) began with anecdotal material about young people who wished to live as good Jews, but who found that the existence of halakhic prohibitions which they could not help but violate brought them into unbearable inner conflicts. I might add that I am familiar, within my own circle, with the story of a deeply learned Jew, a true homo religios, who has experienced deep anguish and inner struggle over the conflict between his own deeply-rooted emotional and sexual needs, and his desire to live within the halakhic system with some sort of integrity.

On a certain level, perhaps inadvertently, the debate over this issue seems to reproduce the classical rift between Judaism and Christianity, often summed up as concerned with the issue of “love vs. law”: that is, the conflict between human compassion and understanding of the unique situation of each individual, his feelings, needs, perception of the universe, etc., as opposed to the objective, empirical imperatives of the Divine command. In our case, the liberals within the Jewish camp supposedly come out on the side of “love,” and the traditionalists on the side of “law.”

But I believe that this dichotomy is a false one. Love of the Other and criticizing certain of his actions are not mutually exclusive. One may accept the gay person as a fellow human being, as a fellow Jew, and as a friend whom one has learned to trust and admire and even love, while differing over specific issues. (Indeed, if one cannot argue with one’s friends, if everyone thought the same way, life would be very boring—as Rabbi Yohanan learned following the death of Resh Lekish, his best friend and hevruta who was constantly challenging him and arguing with him.)

I am reminded of a story my mother used to tell. She grew up in an Orthodox Rabbinical home in the Bronx, but during her mid- or late-teens in the 1920’s began, like many of her contemporaries, to break with much of the tradition and to ride on the subway on Shabbat. When leaving the house on such occasions, her mother would say to her, with a combination of irony and love: Setz nisht bist finster. As if to say: I know very well that you’re riding on Shabbat, but at least “don’t sit down ‘til dark.”

There is one more important point to be made. To the average heterosexual, homosexuality seems bizarre, alien, something totally strange. Speaking from my own experience, I can easily understand the adulterer: I know the buzz of desire felt upon seeing an attractive woman, during that moment before either the conscience or the intellect intervenes to say “Forbidden!” But, on that same visceral level, I cannot understand the erotic attraction some men feel towards other men—and I assume that most of my fellow-“straights” feel much the same way. This, I suspect, is at the root of the repulsion, even disgust, many people feel towards homosexuality. But precisely because of this strangeness, it behooves one to exercise a degree of humility and suspension of judgment, and even attempt a certain act of imagination and empathy for the other. Once one has entered into friendship with even one homosexual person, even if the issue as such is never discussed openly, everything looks different. One says to oneself: so-and-so is “gay”; he is bright, interesting, insightful, responsible in the various tasks he performs in society—in short, he is a perfectly normal, positive human being in every area of life but this. At this point, a certain act of imagination is called for, in which one begins to empathize with the homosexual’s dilemma as a real human dilemma—and all the more so, because one knows that one does not and cannot understand the inner world of his erotic imagination. In religious terms, I would see this as a special application vis-à-vis the homosexual of the mitzvah ואהבת לרעך כמוך (“love your fellow as yourself”; which, interestingly, appears within the rubric of the same double parashah as “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman”).

None of which means that we must necessarily change or adjust the halakhah to suit our compassion for such individuals, but that a note of compassion must somehow inform our way of looking at them, and at the “gay issue.”

2. Seven Noachide Mitzvot

Throughout the course of the Conservative discussion, Leviticus 18:22 (and its parallel in 20:13) is cited as the Scriptural source for the prohibition; some people have suggested novel, innovative and, to my eyes, far-fetched reinterpretations of this verse to simply “make the problem disappear.” I ought to add, this being Shabbat Ki Tetsei, that the phrase in Deut 23:18, לא יהיה קדש מבני ישראל, “there shall be no male prostitute (kadesh) among the sons of Israel,” is interpreted by some to refer to one who is available for homosexual activity. But a central point, totally overlooked by both sides of this debate, is that the prohibition against homosexual acts is not simply another prohibition of the Torah, but is part of the rubric of sheva mitzvot b’nai Noah, the Seven Noachide Commandments, the “Natural Law” incumbent upon all human beings as such.

Before discussing the specific application of this concept to the issue at hand, I would like to indulge in a brief excursus on the issue of the Noachide Commandments generally, an idea which strongly informs my own thinking. As Rambam hints in Hilkhot Melakhim 8.11 (according to Rav Kapah’s textual reading; cf. my essay at HY V: Noah=Noah [Rambam] and Eugene Korn’s study in Modern Judaism 14 [1994], 265-287), these commandments are rooted in innate ideas of right and wrong implanted within the human conscience, that may be discovered by rational moral reasoning. Hence, these laws transcend the usual realm of halakhah, in the sense of heteronomous law, obedience to which is based exclusively upon humble acceptance of the Divine fiat, a kind of sacrifice of one’s own will and intellect. In this approach, the desire to do good is seen as innate in the human soul, albeit frequently clouded over by the tumult of inchoate desires and impressions and emotions (what Buber called “the vortex” or “whirlpool”). In this view, the moral and religious life is not primarily about obedience (what might be called the Akedah model, which Yeshayahu Leibowitz articulated in particularly sharp terms), but is rather concerned with a continuous refining of the human character, which at its root is a spark of the Divine, albeit one that needs to be brought into alignment with its Divine source. The distinction between these approaches is very important: in the one, which seems to be predominant in contemporary Orthdox thinking, humanism and religiosity are seen as diametrically opposed, almost at war with one another; in the other, religious humanism is not an oxymoron, but a goal to be sought, the summum bonum.

Now, if one accepts the notion that, among other aspects, sexuality has a certain biological telos, one that combines reproduction, emotional bonding, and mutual pleasuring in one act—than homosexuality clearly falls outside of that framework. Similarly, the concept of sexuality as the uniting of opposites, as I have developed in the series of essays to which the present piece is a kind of appendix (under the heading “The One and the Two: God, Man and Woman: HY X: Bereshit [=Zohar]; HY VIII: Bereshit, Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah [=Rashi]), whether based upon the myth of the androgynous first human, the conception of the one and the many, or on Kabbalistic concepts of human sexuality echoing Divine zivvugim, must also exclude homosexuality.

The Noachide spirit viz. sexuality is perhaps most succinctly expressed in Rabbinic literature in a succinct midrashic interpretation of Genesis 2:24, a beraita quoted in the name of Rabbi Akiva at b. Sanhedrin 58a:

They taught: “therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother” (Gen 2:24)… Rabbi Akiva said: “His father”—this refers to [illicit intercourse with] his father’s wife; “his mother’—his mother, literally. “And he shall cleave”—and not to another male; “to his wife —and not to his neighbor’s wife. “And they shall be one flesh:—one with whom he can become one flesh, to exclude [relations with] animals and beasts, with whom one does not become one flesh.

Within the overall rubric of the seven Noachide commandments, derived midrashically from a word-by-word exegesis of Gen 2:16, the Sages added a specific midrash though which they derived each of the specific prohibitions of illicit sexuality—the major classes of incest, adultery, and the rest. The salient point here, as I see it, is that this is not only derived from exegesis of the verse, but that there is also a kind of common-sense or “Natural Law” rationale for each one, for which the verse serves only as an asmakhta. Thus, Rabbi Akiva tells us, the cleaving of man to man is not commensurate with that of man to woman—whether because there is not mutual pleasuring, as Rashi suggests, or for some other reason.

Of course, the advocates of a liberal attitude towards homosexuality will argue that a modern, broader, more inclusive humanism must include erotic love between two people of the same sex as a legitimate part of the variety of human experience, which we moderns are privileged to understand more fully than our precursors. This is an important, perhaps the central, argument in the pro-gay camp’s intellectual arsenal. A proper refutation of this argument would require a close analysis of this approach, demonstrating that it is based upon an entire series of characteristically modernist (or even “post-modern”) assumptions regarding the meaning of love, family, Eros, the individual and society, and many other subjects that ultimately lead to blind alleys. At the risk of sounding as if I’m avoiding the crux of the issue, I have neither the time nor space to develop these here; if God gives me strength, I hope to do so in the future.

3. Free Will and Determinism

We now turn to the second major issue posed by homosexuality: that of determinism and human freedom. If, in the previous discussion, we related to the normative, ethical realm, here we find ourselves dealing with certain factual claims that are central to the discussion: namely, that if sexual orientation is part of the given or “thrown” nature of the individual—or is at least subjectively experienced as such—then it is unfair and unjust to penalize such an individual by forbidding him from engaging in the one act that might give him, not only physical pleasure, but also a sense of loving and being loved, within the bond of an emotionally intimate relationship.

An introductory aside: what we can say with some certainty that this is clearly the subjective feeling of many, probably most, homosexuals. The jury still seems to be out as to whether or not this is genetically or biologically determined, “hard wired” into the person. My own reading of one of the pioneering research experiments conducted in the early 1990’s, quoted by many gay rights advocates, viz. the human hypothalamus, which allegedly proved that homosexuality is genetically predetermined, says no such thing. The brain researchers Swaab et al, while noting a certain correlation between enlargement of one section of the hypothalamus an d homosexuality, add that their findings are inconclusive and certainly cannot be explained by any thesis related to determination of sexual orientation.

I see no problem, within the boundaries of the halakhah, in stating that the garden variety homosexual is shogeg karov le-ones—that is, that the unintentional nature of the act, the total lack of intention to violate the Torah per se, combined with its driven nature (in the same sense that heterosexuals feel sexual desire and feel themselves driven, sooner or later, to seek coitus—the difference being that, at least within marriage, the act is permitted) is tantamount to a kind of (inner) coercion.

One might deal with this problem, on the personal level, by means of a concept developed by the late Rav Eliyahu Dessler in Mikhtav me-Eliyahu. He states there that each individual has a certain “realm of behirah”—that area in which he or she may meaningfully exercise free will. He compares the choices confronting one who was raised in a pious religious family, sent to yeshiva, and who may choose to study the minimum hours, or to dedicate himself whole-heartedly to Torah study; with one raised in a criminal environment, whose ethical choice may be, say, in the course of a robbery to kill a random witness of the crime or to spare his life. In each case, God judges a person according to how he uses his free will within the particular range of actions realistically available to him.

But our real quandary here is not halakhic, but philosophical. Maimonides, in Hilkhot Teshuvah 5.3, describes free will as one of the fundaments of the entire Torah. Any number of dicta from the classical thought of Hazal can be adduced in support the same idea. Indeed, the entire concept of Torah, with positive and negative commandments, would be almost absurd without free will. If one’s fulfillment or violation of the mitzvot is predetermined, then the whole “game,” so to speak, seems pointless. What, then, does it mean to say that the Torah contains a mitzvah which, given the normal sexual drive of the human being, a certain group of people cannot help but violating? (I am assuming as axiomatic that some kind of sexual outlet is a basic, valid human need, and that life-long celibacy is not a viable counsel for the ordinary person.)

Indeed, we open here a Pandora’s box. Those who argue biological determinism claim that the entire realm of human freedom is far more limited than hitherto thought, and that we are largely creatures of our biological conditioning and “hard-wiring,” i.e., genetic disposition, much like the lower beasts. At this point, the believing Jew confronts an almost unbearable paradox. Theologically, such a position must be rejected, as contrary to one of the fundaments of Judaism, without which the whole package comes unraveled; indeed, not only Torah and mitzvot, but any meaningful system of human ethics, of human responsibility for our actions, from which derives any concept of law, all fall apart. Yet such a response, at least in terms of the view expressed by many scientists expert in understanding the workings of the human brain, seems to fly in the face of reality. Moreover: if one accepts the gay rights argument that sexual “orientation” or “preference” is indeed predetermined, where does one draw the line? What forms of human behavior are not in some sense predetermined? And in that case, as said earlier, how does one make sense of ethics, of religion—indeed, of any conceptual structure of thought or norms which as cultured human beings we wish to superimpose upon the raw, physical reality of our lives?

The conflict might be interpreted as a modern version, coming from a totally unexpected direction, of the age-old conflict between faith and reason, or science: on the one side, the doctrine of free will which, as necessary as it may be to any decent, dignified concept of human life, is ultimately accepted as an axiom; and, on the other, the claims of science, or more specifically what, for want of a better name, one might call biologism. Or perhaps, in this case, between civilization and brute nature. (As I have hinted on various occasions: the old struggle between religion and humanism is passé, is no longer relevant; in our present reality, the true cultural conflict is between religion and humanism, on the one side, against the new barbarism, on the other—and I cannot elaborate.)

I can only summarize, in response to this challenge, by affirming my own faith that, as science advances, a more sophisticated, nuanced, complex view of human behavior will emerge—one which sees the mechanistic view of the mind as only one level, and the least significant at that. Indeed, I understand that much of current thinking is coming around full circle to such a view on this issue. In this context, of course, homosexuality is but one of dozens or hundreds of behaviors that has been variously described as genetically determined or free—and anywhere in between.

4. Havdalot (Clearcut Distinctions) vs. Unisex

Western culture is presently in the midst of a weather change, at least among certain major and influential segments of society, regarding the whole meaning of gender. Traditionally, Judaism emphasizes havdalot: clear distinctions between different categories of things—Shabbat and weekday, night and day, holy and mundane, tamei and tahor, milk and meat, etc. The drawing of distinctions, and at times fine and subtle distinctions between seemingly similar halakhic constructions, lies at the very heart of Talmudic thought (the famous tzvei dinim of Brisker dialectics). In this context, the distinction between male and female looms large as perhaps the most basic distinction of all; as that which the Holy One blessed be He uses as the prime instrument for filling His world with sentient life.

Today, a certain blurring of gender distinctions has become the bon ton in intellectual circles. There is much talk about gender and sex being two distinct categories; thus, a person may have male genitals but feel inside that he is “really” a woman. Not only homosexual behavior, but trans-gender identity, has come out of the closet, and become accepted at least to an extent in much of public discourse. There is a sense that sex and gender are not clear-cut, polarized, binary positions, but locations on a continuum. There can be, e.g., a man who is strongly heterosexual, but “feminine” in some of their cultural and emotional tastes and interests, emotional inclinations, etc., and there may a homosexual who is a “Hail fellow well met” male and look like a beer-drinking football player, but be gay. This is coupled with the view, almost axiomatic in certain quarters, that, like other “private” matters in a free, democratic society, sexual orientation and even gender itself are a matter of individual choice.

Again, we know that in certain “primitive” or pre-modern societies there are three sexes: male, female, and hermaphrodite, the latter serving as a bridge between the two sexes, perceived as holy, with special gifts and powers, as in the figure of Theresias in Greek mythology, or the figure of the hermaphrodite priest or witch doctor in certain African tribes. But historically, all this was part of the package of paganism that Judaism rejected.

To put all this in more abstract, philosophical language, the core issue might be seen as one of essentialism vs. existentialism. Is there such a thing as an “essence” of masculinity or femininity, or are there only individuals, with their highly variegated personal experience of their own gender identity, derived from the facticity of their own existence? Post-modern thinking tends to accept the latter approach, to be very concrete in its orientation, and to eschew any “essentialist” definition. Traditional Judaism, by contrast, is “essentialist”; it sees the mitzvot and the halakhah as archetypal, paradigmatic entities against which to measure and interpret concrete reality.

The crux of the issue was well articulated in an opinion piece in an Israeli newspaper by a pro-gay advocate, Orna Kazin, published the week after the Tel Aviv shooting. She describes the roots of homophobia (a term used to denote not only repulsion from or hatred of homosexuality, but anyone who believes that homosexuality is in some sense an improper form of behavior or a deviation; what I have recently heard referred to as “heterosexism”): “It all derives from the primeval suspicion that homosexuality is [based on] devotion to sexual pleasure that does not lead to the proliferation of the human species. Evidently, something of this anachronistic dread remains common even today, in the age of contraception, sperm donations, and a variety of arrangements for ‘new parenting’” (Ha-Aretz, 7 August 2009, “Hashavua,” p. 5). Precisely! The movement for full acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate, alternative life-style is, perhaps symbolically, at the forefront of the new, post-modern set of attitudes towards family, gender and sexuality; and indeed, speaking for myself, opposition to it is rooted in the sense that the “new parenting” and the “new families” are not all they’re cracked up to be. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s quip that “Democracy is absolutely the worst form of government except for all the alternatives”: the traditional, bourgeois, heterosexual nuclear family is a horrific institution, guilty of instilling millions of innocent children with dreadful neuroses; but for all that it has the virtue of being superior to all the alternatives.

Rather than being an avant-garde, I would prefer the model of homosexuals as being like the canaries in the coal mine. Western society is plagued today by a general dis-ease concerning almost all matters relating to sexuality, gender, family, etc.—from the epidemic of divorce in Western society; through the casual attitude towards sexual relations before and outside of marriage; to the shake-up in the roles of the sexes which, notwithstanding its many positive aspects, has also left many casualties of various sorts in its wake; and including the emergence of homosexuality as a socially legitimate behavior. The image of homosexuals as canaries means that they are individuals who are by-and-large more sensitive than most to certain kinds of social tides, and their new prevalence somehow reflects the problematic nature of our society’s attitudes.

5. Halakhic Aspects

Finally, turning to the halakhic aspect: I had, as mentioned above, originally planned to write a thorough-going critique of the various papers presented to the CJLS, but as completion of this essay was repeatedly postponed I realized it was no longer timely. Nevertheless, I would like to critique one or two central points. The liberal position within the Conservative debate on homosexuality is based upon an interesting and rather delicate distinction. The Torah clearly prohibits homosexual intercourse, “to lie with a male as with a woman”—that is, penetrative (i.e., anal) intercourse; hence, contrary to a widely–held popular impression, even the more permissive view accepted by the CJLS could not and did not permit such acts. However, other homoerotic acts—intimate caressing, oral sex, and other such acts designed to bring one’s partner to orgasm—do not fall under the rubric of intercourse, but under that of kirvah. Now, given that the human need for ongoing loving relations is a fundamental human need, and given that homosexuals can only form such connections with others of the same sex, to deny them the right to marry a partner of their choice (and, by extension, to engage in ongoing erotic intimacies) is an affront to the notion of human dignity.

Here, citing an argument developed at length by Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber in a totally different context —i.e., that of women being allowed to read or recite blessings over the Torah —in which he states that human dignity outranks whatever putative prohibition may be involved in kavod ha-tzibbur—“honor of the congregation,” mentioned in Megillah 23a as the reason for prohibiting women from reading—Dorff et al argue that the imperative of human dignity outranks the prohibition against homoerotic intimacies, which is also “merely” Rabbinic. Hence, the liberal opinion allows for same-sex commitment ceremonies, albeit the rabbi is meant to inform the couple whose union is being thus solemnized that the Torah, and the Conservative movement, do not approve of anal sex between males. A shein’m dank!

I must preface what follows by saying that I have the greatest respect for Elliot Dorff, his deep commitment to Judaism and his great erudition; many years go, when he and his family spent a sabbatical year in our neighborhood in Jerusalem, we even enjoyed a brief friendship. However, in this case he and his colleagues have “pulled a rabbit out of a hat,” as I shall explain.

First of all, their argument, after mentioning the position of the Rambam in passing, goes on to ignore the view of this central pillar of halakhah: namely, that kirvah—erotic acts that fall short of intercourse—is forbidden by the Torah, albeit as a lav and not an issur karet. By this move, they are able to treat the entire question as if it were simply a matter of weighing one derabanan against another. Second, and equally important: even according to those who state that issurei kirvah are Rabbinic—i.e., Ramban and his camp—the strictures against physical intimacy between arayot are not “merely” “another” Rabbinic ordinance, but a real seyag: a restriction imposed by the Rabbis based upon the real fear that people might otherwise easily cross the line into Torah transgression. It seems to me that any person who has had a bit of experience of life knows very well that sexual intimacy is a slippery slope and that, in the height of passion, it is next to impossible to say “thus far and no further”—notwithstanding the 1950’s US culture of “technical virgins.” This point hardly requires elaboration, and to overrule a seyag of that type on the grounds of kavod ha-beriyot seems to me to be stretching matters unreasonably. I might add that I am likewise surprised that Joel Roth, the author of the restrictive opinion, found it necessary to disprove this point by invoking various technical arguments rather than on a straightforward understanding of the nature of this seyag. Moreover, it is worthy of note that the Ramban himself, in quoting Rambam (in his own translation from the Arabic, which differs from that given by Ibn Tibbon on the same clause) uses the words שנמנענו מהתעדן באחת מכל העריות (“that we are precluded from taking pleasure from any of the arayot”; Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot, lo ta’aseh §353, Hasagat ha-Ramban). In other words, the prohibition of kiruv is not merely a seyag to prevent illicit intercourse, but is based on the conception that these other, less ultimate acts, are themselves seen as improper, for the simple reason that they involve deriving erotic pleasure from the body of a forbidden party. Ramban’s demurral as to this prohibition’s Torah status derives from his reading of the Talmudic exegesis of this rule from its source verse, and does not imply that he sees it as any less serious or grave.

Incidentally, this whole discussion, both of Dorff et al and of other ancillary opinions, such as that of Simhah Roth, seems to betray a profound confusion about the various levels of physical closeness between arayot and the differences between them: i.e., between those prohibitions referred to as harhakot, such as simple touching, or the kiss as an act of greeting, which are arguably Rabbinic by all views; and those known as kirvah, e.g., erotically charged acts, which are unequivocally forbidden. This distinction is very clear in all the halakhic sources; one merely needs to read the Encyclopeadia Talmudica entry on giluy arayot to see that these two areas are presented under separate chapter headings.

* * * * *

In conclusion, while one must certainly accept individual homosexuals as respected and valued members of the Jewish community, one must oppose any attempt to legitimize the phenomenon as such. The entire issue has far-reaching ramifications for the nature of the family, and of our culture generally, which deserve serious and calm discussion in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Many of these issues are rather too easily glossed over in the current atmosphere of political correctness—which, I would note in passing, while adopted by much of the so-called intelligentsia in the Western world, is in fact a highly anti-intellectual approach, shutting off as it does the very legitimacy of open discourse regarding broad areas of human experience.

As for the specific issues considered by the Conservative movement: if one were to ask my opinion (which nobody has, given that I am not a Conservative Jew, and certainly not a member of its intellectual elite), I would cast a “split ballot.” Homosexuals may be ordained as rabbis—simply because, on the basis of those individuals I have been privileged to know, I can see that they have as much to give to the Jewish people, intellectually, spiritually, pragmatically, etc., as their “straight” brethren. Perhaps on that day when the Rabbinate is completely freed of all those individuals who have any stains on their character—such as envy, hatred, unseemly appetites, the pursuit of honor, etc.—and consists entirely of those who are on the level of angels, then the “gays” too must be defrocked—but not before then.

On the other hand, I strongly oppose same-sex “commitment ceremonies.” Much as they may serve a felt human need, they are improper, simply because they give countenance to halakhically illicit behavior, mental somersaults about kavod haberiot notwithstanding.

Shoftim (Zohar - Essay))

Reflections on War and on Peace

Once again, in the absence of a suitable Zohar passage, I present another subject altogether. The following is an expansion of a Devar Torah written for the newsletter of Rabbis for Human Rights. A spoken version was broadcast on Radio Kol Hashalom.

In this week’s portion, the Torah relates to several aspects of the practice of warfare. Interestingly, the first section dealing with this subject (Deuteronomy 20:1-9), the law of the kohen mashuah milhama, relates to the needs and interests of the potential soldiers in civilian life. The priest addressing the troops before going into battle begins with words of encouragement, telling them not to fear the enemy, to know that God is with them and, as Rambam puts it, that they are fighting “for the unity of the Divine Name.” But immediately thereafter, the same priest addresses mundane human needs: the man who has built a new house and not yet dedicated it; the one who has planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruits; who has betrothed a woman and not yet “taken her”—all these are allowed to go home and not participate in combat, “lest they be killed in war, and another man dedicate it/eat it/take her.” Moreover, the Torah expresses understanding for the person who is “fearful and tender hearted,” who is excused from combat—if only because he is liable to infect the other soldiers with his fears.

Notwithstanding the caveats of this section—that, according to the halakhic explication these verses only apply to milhemet reshut—an optional war—and not to one of self-defense, milhemet mitzvah—to which “all go out, even a bridegroom from his canopy”—the underlying sensibility here is one in which civilian life—building, planting, marriage—takes precedence over military activity. In other words, war is a means, not an end in itself; a necessary evil, in certain situations, given the belligerent nature of the human being. In this, the Biblical and later Jewish approach differs profoundly from that of many nationalist movements in which war is the ultimate expression of national glory and people even find meaning for their lives in deeds of bravery and self-sacrifice on the battlefield.

The following section, verses 10–18, likewise expresses a certain degree of human sensitivity to the enemy: when you draw close to a city to wage war against it, you must first call upon it for peace, and only when the enemy does not agree to the terms of peace—which admittedly, in the verses that follow, involve unconditional surrender and paying tribute to the conqueror—is war permitted. The option of peace, it would seem, is vastly preferable.

The question that came to my mind upon reading these passages was: how is one to interpret them in the contemporary situation? Is there room for reinterpretation of the halakhah, in light of the vastly changed meaning of war in the modern context? Just as our Sages instituted various takkanot that turned such halakhic institutions as the release of debts during the shemitah year into dead letters, surely there must be room for reinterpretation here as well.

The modern Zionist movement, and the creation of the State of Israel, returned the Jewish people to a situation in which questions relating to war and armies became relevant, after lying dormant for millennia, existing at most as theoretical concepts in the Talmudic literature. Indeed, one of the central motifs in the concept of the “New Jew” that moved the founding fathers of Zionism, was the idea of self-defense. The new Jew, living in his own land, would be able to stand up proud and strong to assure his own physical survival; unlike the ghetto Jew of the Exile, he was not dependent upon the mercy or good favors of anyone else. The traditional Diaspora Jew abhorred bloodshed (see Maurice Samuel’s The Gentleman and the Jew for an important discussion of this); the New Jew was not afraid to enter the fray of battle. Indeed, the traumas of Jewish existence in the Diaspora were an important motivation in shaping the concept of how the new Jewish society would look.

Over the years, a number of books have been written about issues of war and peace and how a Jewish state ought to conduct itself in military matters. The late Chief Rabbi of the IDF and then of the State of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, wrote a definitive, three-volume halakhic compendium on this topic, Meshiv Milhamah. Others wrote shorter guides intended to instruct young religious soldiers how to conduct themselves in their Army service, such as Dinei Milhama ve-Tzava. These books relate to issues of Shabbat and prayer, to the daily round of the religious individual, as well as to questions of justification for war and the various relevant halakhic categories, such as compulsory war as against optional war—but I don’t know whether they relate to the painful existential question of the quantum change in the meaning of warfare in an age of weapons of mass destruction.

Already Thomas Jefferson viewed war as “the greatest scourge of mankind.” In the past, war may have involved battles between “ferried ranks assembled” of uniformed soldiers; today, warfare inevitably involves the bombing of civilians, the gratuitous murder of women, children and elderly, the destruction of entire neighborhoods. There is an unbearable disparity between the enormous effort invested in building a city, in cultivating human talents and training the talents of individuals, and the unbearable lightness and ease with which all that may be destroyed by a single bomb. Israel, as a country which, over the past five years, during the incumbency of a single government, has waged two wars, both involving extensive bombing of civilians, surely needs to consider these questions.

But more than that: in an age of nuclear warfare, there is the very real danger that an originally local war may touch off a worldwide conflagration which, if not signaling the end of human civilization as we know it, would certainly plunge humankind into a new dark age. Whole cities, entire populations, can be snuffed out, literally in an instant. Surely, such horrors cannot be reconciled with a religious worldview in which the human being as such is seen as created in the image of God. How can one even consider such a thing, no matter the justification?

Those who preach pacifism, whether in part or in whole, are often accused of naïveté and lack of realism—and especially so among Jews and those who care about the survival of the State of Israel. Somehow, the traumas suffered by the Jewish people in the past are seen as justification for a certain kind of belligerency, summed up in such simplistic slogans as “Never Again,” justifying military solutions to any and all problems. But who is in fact living in fantasy and who is the realist? Who is sane and who is insane?

About a month ago, the weekend supplement of the Israeli newspaper Ha-Aretz ran an interview with Dr. Uzi Arad, head of the National Security Council and senior national security adviser to Israel's prime minister, in which he spoke about his approach and his background (Musaf ha-Aretz, 10-7-09, pp. 24 ff.). Arad reminisced about the years he spent as a young man studying in the United States, working side-by-side at the Hudson Institute with men who dared to imagine the unimaginable, who, in shaping American nuclear policy, engaged in cold-blooded strategic thinking about how to wage and win a nuclear war. He spoke in particularly glowing terms of Dr. Hermann Kahn, whom he saw as a kind of personal mentor. It was Kahn who coined the term “mega-deaths,” and talked in a calm, objective, “rational” manner about how one might manage things so that only 30 million people would be killed rather than 60 million. I found it blood-chilling to read about these people, to contemplate the detachment from human life and from all the values we hold dear, that enable one to think in such terms. He went on to mention another phrase used by Kahn, “wargasm,” referring to the almost sexual excitement elicited by the thought of missiles being fired from their silos and beginning their trajectory towards the Soviet Union. So, I repeat: who is living in fantasy and who is the realist? Who is sane and who is insane? (In this context, I wish to recommend the novel of my brother, Abram Chipman, Involuntary Commitments, Xlibris: 2000, which addresses precisely this issue.)

For years, Israel has been guided by an ideology known as Bitzuism, best translated perhaps as “hard-nosed pragmatism”—admiration for people who think in down-to-earth, immediate, realistic terms, and expressing a certain contempt fior lofty ideals and philosophies. It is exemplified by the leadership of retired generals and military man—men like Arik Sharon and Ehud Barak, as well as others, who spent the first half of their adult lives in the Israeli army, thinking about practical strategic questions, and later went on to become leaders of the government. Israeli culture as a whole often seems too much infected by this type of thinking and its mentality. The time his come, first and foremost from religious people, and from all those who care about humanistic values and the sanctity of human life, to start a new way, to somehow bring about a cultural revolution here in Israel. (Incidentally, contrary to the current stereotype, Tom Segev, in his book 1967, mentions that the religious party leaders of that time—Joseph Burg, Zorah Warhaftig, Rabbi Y. L. Maimon—were davka among the “doves” and were far more reluctant to go to war and annex territories than the secular tzabarim, mostly military men, such as Dayan, Allon, Rabin—as well as Shimon Peres—who were far more hawkish. The unholy union of religion and nationalism, so familiar to us today, was not always the case.)

Enough to leadership of generals and strategists and experts in “hasbarah”—meaning, those who manage to find clever excuses for why nothing can ever change and dress it up in mellifluent phrases! We need men and women imbued with the belief that Jewish culture cannot truly flourish in except in an atmosphere of peace—and that peace is not built through constant preparation for war, or through thinking in terms such as those of Kahn or Arad, but through tirelessly seeking reconciliation with the other side, through small changes in which we treat our Arab neighbors in decent and non-discriminatory ways, to somehow begin to transcend the trauma and the hatred on both sides.

I would like to touch upon a concrete political issue. Since the early 1960’s, Israel has had a policy of “atomic amimut”—of vagueness or ambiguity regarding the existence of an Israeli atomic bomb. This, notwithstanding that every schoolchild knows that we have the Bomb, and everyone even knows its address—the nuclear research facility just outside Dimona known as KaMaG, Israel’s government officially denies possessing nuclear weapons or capability. This policy effectively hampers any open, public discussion of nuclear policy. It has also led to such absurdities as, not only the conviction and lengthy imprisonment of Mordecai Vanunu for disclosing this fact to the world, but the ongoing imposing of Draconian restrictions on his personal freedom even now, after he has competed his 18-year prison sentence and “paid his debt to society.” In my own humble opinion, the man is if anything a hero rather than a criminal. (While as a religious Jew I am troubled by the conversion of any Jew to Christianity, as a democrat I cannot but respect his right to choose his own faith.)

At this juncture, this policy is truly harmful. President Obama has put forward a vision of a nuclear–free world, and has even called for an international conference to begin to control nuclear proliferation and to begin the long, hard road to disarmament. Israel’s policy of amimut prevents it from participating in such discussion, since to do so would require ending the masquerade that “we don’t have the Bomb.” Surely, this is irresponsible behavior for a nation which wishes to be a partner in the international community. In plain language: it is as if we are permitted to lie to the world—this is a plain-speaking translation of nuclear “vagueness”—because we are poor nebakh Jews who have suffered the Holocaust and are surrounded by dangerous enemies. By so doing, we are only making the world a worse place in which to live, and not a better one. We take pride in the Bible, and in the Isaiah Wall at the United Nations building containing the famous verses from that prophet invoking a world without war. But our actions belie that heritage; surely, Isaiah would turn over in his grave were he to know how the nation that bears the name Israel is behaving.

A Rabbinic aggadah, repeated in three different sources (Jerusalem Talmud, Hagiggah 1.7 [76c]; Eikha Rabbati Ch. 2; Midrash Shoher Tov 127) seems germane to this issue:

Rabbi Yehudah Nesia’h sent Rabbi Hiyya, Rabbi Asi [or: Yossi] and Rabbi Ami to pass through the cities of the Land of Israel to fix therein scribes and teachers of mishnah. They came to a certain town, and found there neither scribes nor teachers of Mishnah, They said to them: “Bring us the guardians of the city [neturei karta].” They brought them the sentries who guarded the city. They said: “These are not the guardians of the city, but the destroyers of the city [mahreivei karta]!” Who then are the guardians of the city? Scribes and teachers of mishnah. Of this it is said: “If the Lord does not protect a city, its guards are vigilant in vain” [Ps 127:1].

Traditionally, this story has been invoked in support of a hyper-traditional, anti-Zionist position, by those groups who see full-time Torah study as, perhaps in an almost quasi-magical fashion, assuring the welfare of the Jewish people. Indeed, the name Neturei Karta, “Guardians of the City,” has been adopted from this passage by that group generally considered the most extreme of all Old Yishuv Haredi sects.

But perhaps this aggadah may be read a bit differently. It is first of all a critique of reliance on arms and on fences. It seems to me that the experience of the last decades has shown that building ever higher fences and ever more terrifying “defensive” weapons only makes the world a more dangerous place. Walls and fences only serve as challenges for those who wish to do violence and to outwit what they see as the oppressor: I refer here both to the Israeli experience and to that of the United States during the Cold War. Moreover, a balance of terror only works so long as both sides possess a minimum degree of sanity. I recall, as a 16-year-old youth during the Cuban missile crisis, walking down the street where I grew up, and contemplating what seemed at the time the very real possibility of my own death within the next day or two. To this day, I do not know whether I, and all the other Americans living at that time, owe our lives to the sense of restraint, responsibility and common-sense of Nikita Krushchev, or to the masculine bravado and brinksmanship of John F Kennedy.

True peace, a life of security and tranquility, must be based on the peaceable, civilian virtues—which for us Jews is symbolized by Torah study (“scribes and masters of Mishnah”). But it also means building peace and friendship through mutual respect and humanity. This must start with such obvious things as removing or reducing to the absolute minimum such things like checkpoints and separate roads and bureaucratic run-arounds and discriminatory procedures for going from one place to another, which complicate the lives of the Palestinians and breed ever greater hatred and suspicion. The only way, for the long term—if we want our grandchildren and their grand-children to be able to live in this land in a decent way—is to build bridges of human respect, of caring and understanding.