Monday, November 30, 2009

Vayetze (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives of this blog, for December 2005, November 2006, November 2007, and December 2008.

“And He Came Upon That Place”

The bulk of this week’s parashah is set in the ruddy, fertile soil of Aram Naharaim, “Lavan-land,” far away from the Land of Israel; in it, we read inter alia of the birth of all but one of the twelve sons of Yaakov. But it opens in a transitional place between the Land and Outside of the Land, with Yaakov’s famous dream-vision of God’s angels ascending and descending a ladder and God addressing him with words of blessing. (In this, it resembles the parashah that precedes it, and several of those that follow, in that it opens with a vision or a dream.)

A famous aggadah concerning this scene gives a surprising version of what happened. It is brought in a chapter of the Talmud in which many of the key aggadot of Hazal are concentrated, known as Perek Helek. Sanhedrin 95b:

Our Rabbis taught: There were three before whom the land “jumped” [i.e. the distance they needed to traverse was foreshortened]… Jacob our Father, as is written, “And Jacob went out of Beer-sheva and went to Haran” (Gen 26:10) and it is written, “And he came upon the place” (ibid., 11). When he got to Haran he said: Perhaps I have passed some place where my fathers prayed and I did not pray there? He wished to return. No sooner had he thought to return, than the land “jumped” before him. Immediately: “He came upon the place.”

Yaakov had gone all the way to Haran, the land of his ancestors, where he had been sent by his parents, both to flee from the wrath of Esau and to find a wife. Suddenly, he felt a sense of regret that he may have failed to pray at a site where his ancestors had prayed, and decided to return to such places before beginning his new life in Haran.

Why was it so important for him to worship in a place here his fathers had worshipped? More generally, what is the significance of “place”? Towards the end of this chapter, after receiving his vision, Yaakov says, “Indeed, there is God in this place, and I did not know… How awesome this place is; this is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (vv. 16-17)

We are accustomed to thinking of holiness as something created by the encounter between man and God, or as the result of human intention to dedicate a particular place or thing to the service of God. This is true, Rav Soloveitchik used to insist, of the Temple, of a synagogue or Study House, a Torah scroll, tefillin, mezuzah, a sacrificial animal, or even the sacred times of the Jewish calendar (with the dramatic exception of the Shabbat!)—of everything holy. Yet here the picture presented is of a numinous quality inherent in the place itself; as if to say, there are certain spots in the world where God is present; they are innately holy. This is accentuated by the nature of Yaakov’s vision: the image of angels ascending and descending is suggestive of the idea that, just as this is seen as the boundary between the Land of Israel and outside the Land (see Rashi on v. 12), so too is it a point of liminality, joining heaven and earth.

Perhaps our aggadah’s emphasis on filial piety (“to pray in a place where my ancestors prayed”) somehow combines both aspects of the meaning of place. It may be that Avraham originally prayed there and tarried there because he felt the numinosity, the innate holiness of the place; now, on this important journey, where Yaakov departs from the land of his birth and sets out all alone into the unknown, on a way fraught with danger, insecurity, and uncertainty, he wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps, to establish his own connection with God in those places that have been sanctified by his father’s or grandfather’s action. It is also interesting that, for this midrash, the most important thing about a journey is not the scenery seen or the people met, but the places where one has prayed.

The concept of kefitzat haderekh (“foreshortening of the road”) refers to miraculous, Divine assistance enabling one to cover large distances very quickly. Many millennia later, this idea features prominently in many Hasidic stories, particularly those involving the Baal Shem Tov, who harnessed his horses and in a single night traveled to wherever Jews needed his intervention.

Jacob’s Stone

The next verse shows Yaakov preparing for sleep, placing the stones in the area under his head as a sort of pillow. Hullin 91b describes this as follows:

It is written, “And he took from the stones of the place” (Gen 26:11). And [further on] it is written “and he took the stone” (v. 18; i.e., “stone,” in the singular). Rav Yitzhak said: This teaches that all those stones gathered to one place, and each one said: “Let this righteous man rest his head upon me”—and all of them were swallowed up into one.

This aggadah elaborates upon a linguistic inconsistency—i.e., that the stones are initially referred to in the plural and than in the singular—which it resolves through the image of the little stones being combined into one large stone, which later serves as a matzevah, a marker of a sacred place. We have an almost animistic approach, perfectly acceptable in mythical or symbolic thinking, in which inanimate objects and places are alive with feelings, respond to holiness, etc. (Compare Martin Buber’s description of an I-Thou relation with a mica stone in Daniel, pp. 140-141)

What is the point of this story? It might be read as a symbol of Yakaov’s central life task, which begins with this parasha: to be the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. Unlike Abraham and Yitzhak, each of whom had one child who carried on the covenant and another who was in some sense cast aside, here all twelve sons together constitute the covenantal community, the basis of the twelve tribes. The Rabbis say that “Yaakov’s bed was whole”—i.e., that all the children he procreated together made up the nation of Israel. The twelve that united into one may be seen as suggested by this image of the many stones becoming one. (“E pluribus unum” long before the United States was even conceived!)

IN MEMORIAM: A Year Without Mickey

This Shabbat, 11th Kislev, marks the first Yahrzeit of Rabbi Michael Rosen, “Mickey,” the founder and guiding spirit of Yakar. During the year that has passed since his death, I find myself missing him far more than I expected. (Of course, during his lifetime none of us ever thought about his possible death, anymore than one does of any other vital, active person in his middle years. He was taken away very much in the midst of life).

I will not repeat here the things I wrote in the eulogy last year (see the archives below, December 2008, Vayishlah), which those who wish to may reread, but will try to focus upon one or two of his quintessential qualities. Trying to pinpoint what made him such a rare, even unique figure (particularly in the Orthodox camp), I would say that he was a “God-intoxicated man.” If we look at the Jewish world today in terms of the triad of God-Israel-Torah, we find that most rabbis and Jewish leaders/teachers stress either Israel or Torah. There are those, especially in the Orthodox camp, who stress halakhah—the meticulous observance of the details of the laws—and the study of Torah as the most essential thing (indeed, there is theological basis for conceiving the Torah itself as a kind of mediating entity between the infinite God and finite, mortal, earthbound Man). Alternatively, there are those whose real focus is on Jewish peoplehood—be it in the US and other Diasporas, with the emphasis on survival and “continuity,” on stemming the tide of assimilation and intermarriage, or here in Israel, where the emphasis is more on the struggle for the souls of “Am Yisrael,” or for the integrity of Eretz Yisrael.

Mickey’s focus was on the religious experience per se. He spoke openly about the quest for intimacy with God. The spirit of Psalm 139, “Where do I find you, and where do I not find You?” was writ large (quite literally!) on the walls of his study house. Prayer was not something taken for granted, a halakhic routine. Whenever he approached the reader’s stand (and he did so frequently: almost every Friday night, Nishmat on Shabbat morning, the major prayers of the Days of Awe and many of the major festivals, and on many other occasions), one sensed that this was something he did with all his heart, that he wished to make the prayer as meaningful and authentic as possible, for both himself and his community. He also spoke of the quiet moments in the empty synagogue early Shabbat morning, before it became filled with people, when he felt a presence, a sense of anticipation, of almost palpable holiness.

Another special time at Yakar was the Third Meal on Shabbat, when a handful of people gathered in a small room and sang slow, meditative Hasidic niggunim. Here, too, he attempted to create a mood, an atmosphere of receiving the Divine Presence, of sensing the ra’ava de-ra’avin, the special ”time of grace” associated with this twilight hour, with the approaching departure of Shabbat and the desire to linger with it, to savor its holiness as long as possible.

He sought penimiut ha-torah—the inner core of Torah—but not as this was understood in conventional Hasidism. He identified with the school of Psyshscha, which rejected both Kabbalah and the personality cult of rebbes.

A second key to Mickey’s personality was his curiosity. There was something almost child-like in his interest in just about everything. He wanted to understand, and he always asked interesting and unexpected questions, He was not like many rabbis, who only pose a question when they already have a clever or innovative answer (hiddush) or it serves an “educational” or missionary aim (“kiruv”). He asked questions and shared them with others, even without having an answer. This was a very refreshing quality, and it sheds light on a central aspect of Yakar: the total openness to presenting a variety of ideas and opinions. He was not “pluralistic,” in the sense that he had very definite opinions and commitments, but he was open-minded and enjoyed the free exchange of ideas and views.

Finally, a third comment, which must be made, difficult as it may be: there were times, during his lifetime, when I found him a rather difficult person. It took me a long time—indeed, not, finally, until after his death—to realize that these problems were vastly overshadowed by his virtues. Over the years, I came to realize that, whatever the reason for his quirks and occasional awkwardness in relations, he did not have a mean bone in his body; he never set out to deliberately slight or hurt anybody. If, on occasion, I may have privately expressed my frustration with him to friends over what were, in the end, petty matters, may my writing these words publicly be as a form of teshuvah and a seeking of mehilah. Perhaps his occasional shortness and impatience with people also derived (and here I speculate) from his keen awareness of his own mortality looming before him (though his death as such was unexpected, he lived with serious medical problems most of his adult life), his own limited powers, and the desire to accomplish as much as possible within the limited time he knew he had.

May his memory, and his personal example, be a source of blessing to us all.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Toldot (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005, 2006, 2007, and December 2008.

“Two Nations are in Your Womb”

This week’s parasha begins with an oracle concerning the birth of the children with whom Rivkah is pregnant. While there are other prenatal oracles or prophecies in the Bible concerning the upbringing and ultimate destiny of children to be born—most notably, preceding the births of Samson and of Samuel, in Judges 13 and in 1 Samuel 1, respectively, nowhere else is there one as dramatic as this: (a) because it concerns the destiny of a pair of twins; (b) that it relates, not only to their own personal or individual destiny, but that of the nations that will stem from them, continuing into the indefinite future; (c) In the other two cases, the expectant mothers—Manoah’s unnamed wife and Hannah—hear the prophecy/blessing from an angel, or from Eli the priest (and, in Hannah’s case, she herself makes a vow). Here, troubled by the constant tumult and evident strife within her womb, Rivkah goes “to seek the Lord,” and is told: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be separated from your innards; and nation will overcome [or: contend with] nation, and the older [literally, “greater”] will serve the younger” (Gen 25:23). The birth itself seems like a struggle between the two infants to see which one will emerge into the air of the world first: the second infant is holding on to the heel of the firstborn, as if to overtake him (compare the other pair of twins in Genesis: the birth of Peretz and Zerah in Gen 38:27-30).

The two babies are, of course, Jacob and Esau, who serve as archetypes for the future nations of Israel and Edom. But the latter, more than a specific nation, becomes an ever-changing archetype of the non-Jewish world as a whole: originally referring to the Idumeans, it came to stand for Rome, Byzantium, Christianity, or Europe generally—and there are no doubt contemporary darshanim who would read Esau as Western secular culture. (The other great antithesis and occasional nemesis to the Jewish people, the Arab-Islamic nation, is of course mythically identified with Ishmael, Yitzhak’s rival half-brother).

We shall examine two aggadot that relate to this verse. First, b. Megillah 6a:

Caesarea and Jerusalem: If someone tells you that both are destroyed, do not believe him; that both are settled, do not believe him. [If he says} Caesarea is destroyed and Jerusalem settled, Jerusalem destroyed and Caesarea settled, believe him. “I will fill it from its ruins” [Ezek 26:2]—if this one is filled, that one is destroyed; if that one is filled, this one is destroyed. Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said, [we infer it] from here: “and one nation shall overcome / vie with the other” [Gen 25:23].

Caesarea, today a wealthy Israeli bedroom community on the Mediterranean shore, was in tannaitic times the symbol of the presence of Roman civilization in Palestine: a prosperous, half-pagan city that embodied the values and way-of-life of the great empire. Renamed and built up as a major metropolis by Herod, who renamed it in honor of the great Roman emperor, it was filled with pagan temples, bathhouses, wide roads, imposing public buildings, a large amphitheater, and boasted a deep sea harbor that made it a center of international commerce. From the viewpoint of Hazal, it was the most important of kerakhei hayam, the “great cities of the sea,” that symbolized the antithesis to Jewish culture—devoted exclusively to human pleasures (including high-class prostitution; see Avodah Zarah 17a; HY X: Haazinu-Shuvah), as opposed to the life of holiness symbolized by Jerusalem.

Our aggadah poses a very simple thesis: Caesarea and Jerusalem or, more generally, Jewish and Gentile culture, are in constant struggle with one another; when one is in ascendancy, the other is in decline, and vice versa. This struggle, which began in Rivkah’s womb, is a never-ending one, to which there is never a conclusive solution, but only temporary victories for one side or the other.

A corollary of this, in traditional Jewish historiography, is that Jews are destined to be “a people apart,” who can never be truly assimilated or accepted in the world. Champions of this view point to the love affair of 19th century German Jewry with German humanistic culture, and their hopes for integration and synthesis therein—hopes that were conclusively dashed by the rise of Nazism with its terrible consequences. Some would argue that the present situation, in which Israel is treated as a semi-pariah nation by many Leftists and western intellectuals, held to higher standards than other nations, whose far more serious violations of human rights are ignored, puts the lie to the hope that Zionism and Israeli sovereignty would bring about the “normalization” of Jewish relations with the world and its acceptance within the family of nations “like all the other nations.” Jewish apartness is, in this view, not something to be explained in terms of sociology or Real-Politik, but something innate in the nature of the universe: a metaphysical, even cosmic fact, dating back to time immemorial.

Is this indeed the case? Are Jewish relations with the world indeed a zero-sum game? Can we never take our rightful place within the human family? Are hopes, e.g., for a new era in Jewish-Christian relations a chimera? Friends of mine who work in Jewish-Christian dialogue seem to think not: they say that there are signs of change, even in the once-intransigent Catholic Church (and my own experience in this area also seems to confirm this). Or has Jewish-Christian rivalry merely been supplanted by Jewish-Muslim conflict, with its far more murderous potential? This is perhaps the most important question for our time, of not for all times.

The second aggadah on this verse gives a more sanguine view of Jewish-Gentile relations, with hopes for friendship on a basis of equality. Avodah Zarah 11a:

“Two nations are in your womb” [Gen 25:23]. Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Do not read “nations” (גויים) but “proud ones (גאים; the Masoretic tradition prescribes that this word be written in the Torah scroll as גיים, presumably the source for this gloss). This refers to Antoninus and Rabbi [i.e., Judah Hanasi], from whose tables there were never lacking radish, gourd nor horseradish, neither in the sunny season nor in the rainy season.

Presumably, these vegetables were seasonal delicacies, whom only the extremely wealthy could afford year round. A modern equivalent might be someone who ate fresh strawberries, apricots and peaches in winter, or a multi-millionaire gourmet whose private chef flies to distant parts of the world to get special rare ingredients to satisfy his whims.

There are several stories in the Talmud about conversations and meetings between Antoninus and Rabbi Yehudah. His identity is not entirely clear: there are several Roman emperors known by that name, but Marcus Aurelius Antoninus seems a likely candidate. He was both an outstanding Roman man of letters with an inquisitive turn of mind whose conversation would be of interest to Rabbi, and emperor. He lived from 121-180 CE, and reigned from 160-180: dates which overlap those of Rabbi Yehudah, who was born in 135.

In any event, the point is that, among both the Roman leadership and the Jews, there were wealthy people who could afford whatever luxuries they wanted. But beyond that fact, what is the point of this story? That wealth and luxury were to be found among both the Romans and the Jewish people—Rabbi Judah, the editor of the Mishnah, was also “the Prince” and considered, at least by the Jews, as the height of its own aristocracy. The fact that, notwithstanding the political subjugation of Judaea to Rome throughout this period, there were pockets of wealth, and these somehow served as a source of pride.

Yalkut Yehudah finds it difficult to believe that the Talmud is concerned with such externals, and suggests an ethical interpretation: that both these men, despite their great wealth, were decent, righteous men, whose prime concerns were ethical and spiritual ones. Perhaps their friendship and mutual respect may serve us as a more positive model for relations between Jewry and the world at large.

Hayyei Sarah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008.

“Marriages Are Made in Heaven”

In this week’s portion we turn from the elevated deeds of Abraham, the pioneer of Jewish faith, to the seemingly mundane world of “life-cycle events”: birth, marriage and death. We find here the first detailed account of a funeral and arrangements for burial of the dead (Gen 23); the first quest for a wife (via an emissary, Abraham’s servant Eliezer; Gen 24); and, albeit only in passing, the birth of Abraham’s offspring from his second wife, Keturah, and those of Ishmael (25:1-18). We shall focus here on an aggadic saying that elaborates upon the crucial moment when Betuel and Lavan, Rivkah’s father and brother, agree to the proposal of marriage to Yitzhak conveyed by the servant Eliezer. Mo’ed Katan 18b:

Rav said in the name of R. Reuven ben Itztraboli: From the Torah and from the Prophets and from the Writings [we learn] that a man’s wife comes from God. From the Torah, as is written, “The thing has come from the Lord” [Gen 24:50]. From the Prophets, as is said, ”and his father and mother did not know that this was from the Lord” [Judges 14:4]. From the Writings, as is written, “House and wealth are inherited from one’s ancestors, but a sagacious wife is from the Lord” [Proverbs 19:14].

Before discussing the basic idea implied here, a note on the structure of this saying. This is one of a relatively small number of Rabbinic sayings in which the Sages note that a certain idea appears in all three parts of the Scripture, the implication being that this adds to the validity of the idea thus articulated, suggesting as it does its all-encompassing nature. (Many people may be familiar with the saying from Megillah 31a, recited in Vayiten lekha prayer on Saturday night, that “Wherever you find God’s greatness, there you find His humility”).

Second, the choice of texts here is interesting. The verse from our parashah, regarding the marriage of the middle pair of parents (and note: Isaac was the only one of the three patriarchs who was thoroughly monogamous, taking neither an additional wife nor a concubine) seems straightforward enough and requires no special comment. By contrast, the text from Judges is very strange, possibly the worst marriage in the entire Bible: Samson’s parents object to the Philistine woman from Timnah whom he desires to wed “because she is right in my eyes.” Like so many Jewish parents after them, they object “Are there no girls from among our own people?!” that you need to look elsewhere for a wife. The text adds that they this match was from God in the sense that He “sought a pretext against the Philistines”—that already during the wedding celebrations the bride uses her feminine wiles to cajole Samson into revealing to her the secret of a riddle he has asked, which she promptly conveys to her Philistine cohorts so they can win a bet— and thereby sparking a chain of events leading to the slaying thirty Philistines and him leaving her to marry one of “her own kind” (Samson was notorious for his bad judgment in all his connections with women, being led, as my Hasidic friends used to say, by his “sub-gartelian regions”). The third verse, a wisdom proverb, is again straightforward: that, unlike inherited property, a sagacious wife, no less important for living the good life, is a gift from God.

The basic idea here, that God arranges marriages, is opposed to the modern idea of romantic love, as it is to the conception of marriage as a purely private event between the two people involved. It mitigates no less against the traditional idea of shiddukhim, of marriage arranged by the parties’ respective parents (perhaps with the help of professional matchmakers) based upon practical considerations of economics, family pedigree, etc. It also cannot but elicit scepticism in the modern milieu, in which divorce is rife: if all these matches are from God, why do so many end up in divorce?

(One should note here the obvious: that, notwithstanding the idea that marriages are in some sense Divinely made, Judaism, while frowning upon divorce, clearly permits it—because the Torah knows and accepts human nature, and accepts the failings and foibles of human nature—and does not insist on Edenic perfection.)

As I understand it, the root idea underlying this notion is that the attraction of a given man towards a given woman, and vice versa, is in some deep sense inexplicable. In this, it resembles the modern ideal of romantic love, but goes beyond it to see a connection between the souls. God works, by bringing about these unions—which in one striking midrash is described as His main concern since the Creation of the universe!—to further other, long-term, even cosmic goals, of which the man and woman may be utterly unaware: first, to “bring down souls” into the world, creating these specific children by the union of this man and this woman. Another aspect is that of tikkun hamiddot: marriage hones and refines the character of each partner, by mating them someone whose nature forces them to develop hitherto undeveloped facets of their character. For that reason marriage is never easy (e.g., our first proof-text, the marriage of Yitzhak and Rivkah); from this perspective, divorce is the result of the inability one or another partner to rise to the challenge presented.

But more than that: the account of the creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 is read, in a central midrash, as implying, not male superiority or priority, but that the first human being was a hermaphrodite, embodying the qualities of both sexes; the taking of the woman from the rib in verses 21-22 describes is the bifurcation of this primal man/woman, who ever thereafter seeks his/her missing half. And perhaps the fact that Adam must be cast into a deep sleep (tardemah) hints at the role played by the unconscious in love and marriage—if you will, the Jungian notions of the anima and the animus….

Sarah’s Burial

Here in Israel, West Bank settlers and their supporters like to make Parshat Hayyei Sarah into “Shabbat Hevron”—a reading focused exclusively on our claims to Eretz Yisrael, through the fact that Avraham bought the plot of land in Hevron fair and square. Hence, it is important to me to suggest alternative readings for this chapter.

Two salient points: The chapter on Sarah’s death and burial begins with Avraham coming “to lament for Sarah and to weep her” (לספוד לשרה ולבכתה)—and only thereafter setting about to bury her, preceded by the lengthy and rather verbose description of the process of purchasing a suitable burial plot. This is contrary to the familiar contemporary halakhic procedure, in which the first, immediate concern upon any death is to bury the dead, and only thereafter to turn to expressions of mourning and lamenting during the week of shivah. Two answers: first, that the events here preceded the giving of Torah, with its prescribed mourning forms. Second, that weeping and lamenting are the normal human response to the loss of a beloved one; practical thoughts about burial, and the business dealings that may need to precede it, only follow once one has somewhat regained one’s composure.

Incidentally, the verb ספוד refers to the wailing and lamenting (נהי, קינה) that are the main feature of funerals and mourning in Biblical descriptions—and in many traditional Jewish circles, whether Middle Eastern or Eastern European, to this day. The decorum and dignified silence of Western funerals is a feature of Northern and Western European, especially Protestant, culture, and its American offshoot—and arguably neither particularly healthy emotionally nor natural. The noun hesped (“eulogy”), derived from the above Hebrew verb, comes from the causitive form (הפעיל) of that verb, and at root means: speech whose purpose is to elicit wailing and lamentation. Or, as the Talmud says, “The reward of a [good] eulogy is weeping.” (On the other hand, eloquent eulogies were an important genre in classical culture; some of the most important speeches in Greco-Roman literature were eulogies, serving as it does as an opportunity for refection on the meaning of life, the “summing up .”)

The bulk of Chapter 23 is devoted to a description of Avraham’s bargaining, first with his Hittite neighbors generally, than with Efron ben Zohar, for the purchase of the “Makhpelah” field for Sarah (and, in time, for his entire family). All this is couched in flowery, elaborate language, filled with demonstrations of magnanimity: “You are a prince of God among us; bury your dead in the best of our graves “ (by implication, for free). But Avraham is insistent on buying it fair and square; notwithstanding that burial is a matter if human dignity, to which even the poorest are entitled, he wishes to leave no doubt as to the legality of the transaction. Interestingly, even though the procedures for buying and selling are not listed by Rambam as a mitzvah—Hilkhot Mekhirah is one of the few sections of the Yad in which he says “these laws do not contain any positive mitzvah”; the procedures for acquiring ownership, of real property and of mobilia, are an integrally part of the Torah. And, as our Rabbis noted, behind the language of generosity and largesse—“What are four hundred shekels between me and you?”—the affair is conducted in a hard-nosed, business-like manner.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vayera (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Abraham: “To Do Justice and Righteousness”

As I commented last week, the sequence of Avraham chapters, that spreads over the two parshiyot of Lekh Lekha and Vayera, contains, alongside seemingly more mundane incidents, a series of turning points or guidelines for his developing relationship with God and his role as the harbinger of a new approach to human life in this world, in light of knowledge of the One God. The Akedah, the test of the Binding of Isaac, which serves as the culmination and high point of this process, builds upon comes before.

Avraham’s conversation with God regarding Sodom very important; here Avraham stands in the breach, so to speak, trying to persuade God to relent of his plan to destroy five entire cities. (This is reminiscent of, or more accurately a foreshadowing, of Moses’ pleading on behalf of the people Israel in the incident of the Golden Calf. But here, significantly, Avraham does so in a purely selfless manner, on behalf of an abstract conception of justice [“shall the Judge of all the land not do justice?!], because he has no direct interest in these people.)

In one of the opening verses to this section, God spells out exactly why he is approaching Avraham on this occasion, and describes what He sees as Avraham’s mission and way of being in the world:

“For I have know him, that he might command his sons and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice…” (Gen 18:17)

This verse closely parallels other Biblical verses that present a kind of summum bonnum; e.g. Jeremiah 9:23, where the goal of “knowing God” is summarized as involving three qualities: השכל וידוע אותי, כי אני ה' עושה חסד משפט וצדקה בארץ (“knowing… that I am the Lord, who does goodness, justice and righteousness in the land”—the verse which Maimonides chooses to conclude his monumental philosophic work, the Guide for the Perplexed); or Micah’s summing up (6:8) of the three central things a man must do: עשות משפט, ואהבת חסד, והצנע לכת עם אלהיך — “to practice justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with your God: and walking humbly with God.”

The Sages, in their aggadic comments on these words in the Talmud, attempt to understand the words tzedakah u-mishpat, here translated “righteousness and justice:

“His sons and his household after him… to do righteousness and justice.” His sons for justice; his household for righteousness. Women are not commanded concerning laws.—b. Sanhedrin 57b

The word “house” (beito) is here equated with females, just as in the prelude to the Sinai revelation (Exod 19:3), the phrase “sons of Israel” and “house of Jacob” are similarly interpreted as referring to men and to women. “A man’s wife is his house.” Women are traditionally seen as the pillar of the private, familial realm, whereas men are more identified with the public realm of, inter alia, officiating in courts of law.

We live in an age in which such sayings are not received well; gender distinctions of this type are seen as somehow offensive. I will not enter into the discussion as to whether this still holds and whether this are possible options for altering the halakhic assumption that women cannot serve as witnesses or judges, nor the broader issue as to whether the social changes that have brought the changes in how we think about these issues harbinger good or ill for the future of human culture. Suffice it that fur centuries, nay, millennia, these were accepted social conventions, and HAzal must be understood within the terms of that world.

Another linguistic nuance: tzedekah, which derives from the root tzedek—meaning, “justice,” “the right”—is here in fact counterpoised to mishpat, justice. Where mishpat alludes to formal justice, tzedakah is identified by Hazal with charity, alms-giving—in brief, acts of generosity, caring, sympathy for the other and his needs that go beyond the strictly legal realm of right, of what a person is formally deserving or entitled to, into something closer to the traditional feminine role of nurturing.

This contrast is even more explicit in a comment by Rashi slightly earlier in the same sugya:

“Righteousness and justice”—that is, compromise and law.—Rashi at Sanhedrin 56b, s.v. dinei kenasot

There are two ways of resolving disputes between contending parties: the one is a formal hearing before a judge or court, based upon the strict letter of the law, in which the judge determines, on the basis of the information before him, the testimonies he has heard, and the stipulations of Jewish law itself, how the case at hand is to be decided. “Let the law penetrate the mountain.” Even if a poor man must pay money he doesn’t have, the ruling of the judge is seen as reflecting the voice of the Torah.

Then there is a second course: that of peshara, “compromise.” The judge may suggest to the parties that he act, not as a judge, going by the book, but as a mediator (or even as an arbitrator, imposing a settlement), helping the contending parties to find a middle way, a compromise in which both sides go away satisfied. In our own times, this approach has been increasingly advocated, for example, in divorce disputes. Rather than the two parting spouses investing their financial and emotional resources in getting the largest possible settlement out of the other side, hiring the cleverest and sharpest lawyers to “take the other to the cleaners” (and perhaps besmirch and shame them publicly in the process), a mediator will assist the two sides to respect one another’s needs and dignity even as they go their separate ways, helping to create as peaceful an atmosphere as possible for the sake of the children, etc.

Would it be “sexist” to suggest that the path of mediation, as against that of the letter of the law, is in some sense a more feminine, hesed-full approach. The man, at least in traditional stereotypes, is more often seen as advocating abstract principles of equity and justice; the woman may be more concerned with the interpersonal, with reconciliation and decent, harmonious relations between people, even if bought at the price of one side or another foregoing some of their rights? Ideally, these two approaches, whether or not embodied in the two sexes, are not opposed, but complement one another. There is need for the rigor of the law, as a standard by which to judge; and there is need for the softer, more “feminine” virtues of compromise, of making peace between people, of “forgiving” one another. “Kindness and truth met; justice and peace kissed” (Ps 85:11; see also what I wrote about Din and Rahamim, HY X: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur).

We conclude with another, rather different interpretation that, among others, quotes this same verse:

There are three signs in this nation: they are compassionate, bashful, and perform acts of kindness. Compassionate—as is written, “And he shall give you mercy and multiply you” (Deut 13:18). Bashful—as is written, “that His fear may be upon your face” (Exod 20:17). Performing acts of kindness—as is written, “that he might command his sons and his house after him” (Gen 18:17). Whoever has these three signs is deserving to cleave to this nation. — Yevamot 79a

Here we don'thave the dialectic between truth and peace, between abstract principles of equity and human sympathy; all three of these qualities, seen as “signs” that somehow express the essence of the Jewish people, are among the “softer,” more “feminine” virtues. Due to lack of time, I cannot elaborate upon the biblical prooftexts invoked, some of which seem rather cryptic. I will conclude by noting the concluding sentence, which seems to suggest that the ultimate criterion for Jewishness (are they speaking here of prerequisites for conversion? for political alliances in ancient times?) is not biological, nor halakhic, nor even based upon acceptance of basic principles of faith. Rather, it is based upon the humane qualities of compassion, kindness ,and “bashfulness”—a certain humility and lack of brazenness. What our ancestors would have called basic “menshlichkeit.” And, as Hillel might have said, “The rest is commentary; go and learn.”

SUPPLEMENT: Reflections on Shlomo

Two weeks ago—Tuesday, 16 Heshvan—marked fifteen years since the death of Shlomo Carlebach. As long-time readers of Hitzei Yehonatan know, every year at this time I try yet again to understand and to shed new light on this often enigmatic, and paradoxical, but also inspiring figure, who has touched so many lives.

1. Shlomo and the Rav. Perhaps ironically, on the night of Shlomo’s yahrzeit I participated in a class taught by my friend Steve Copeland on the subject of “religion without illusion,” in which our text for the evening was Rav Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith. It is difficult to imagine two Jewish teachers and thinkers more different from one another than Shlomo and the Rav—the one highly cerebral, introverted, even shy, highly sober and serious in demeanor, the heir to a great Lithuanian, Mitnaggedic tradition; the other effervescent, constantly surrounded by people, radiating joy and happiness (at least to a superficial eye; if one looked more deeply, there was an underlying sadness and loneliness in Shlomo, a quality that came out especially in his hauntingly beautiful, soulful singing voice), deeply emotional in his teaching, and (by choice, not by birth) steeped in Polish Hasidism.

In the above-mentioned essay the Rav speaks, among other things, of the irresolvable tensions, paradoxes and anomalies that beset human existence. We also discussed a lengthy footnote in Halakhic Man in which the Rav speaks in scathingly critical terms of those who see the purpose of religion as “peace of mind” (a popular idea in the early post-war years; the phrase was the title of a best-selling 1946 book by Rabbi Joshua L. Liebman; a similar mood was also expressed in Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking from the same period), seeing religion as constantly challenging man, filling his life with disquiet, challenging him to improve himself and the world.

Shlomo, by contrast, painted a vision of a perfect world of peace, harmony, and love, in which miracles and Divine intervention are almost routine occurrences: the world of the “Great Shabbos,” of people davening and singing and celebrating Shabbat as if there were no limits. I remember, as a young man, coming home from an evening of Shlomo’s teaching, story-telling and singing at Boston University Hillel, feeling as if I were riding upon ananei kavod, the clouds of Divine Glory. The next morning I would wake up and say to myself: what, in essence, did he say? I found in him something of a Jewish Pied Piper of Hamlin, who enchanted all, old and young, with his charisma and his beatific vision.

Shlomo carefully avoided the harsher, stricter aspects of the halakhah, the gezerot and takkanot of Hazal; nor did he speak much about the idea of responsibility, a motif underlying the halakhah—an idea whose absence was one of the major failings of the Hippie culture in which he found a home of sorts. Neither did he speak of the battle with and reality of the Yetzer Hara—the human propensity towards wrong-doing, to surrender to the temptations of self-centered, basic instinctual drives, and to rationalize whatever behavior the self desires. (On a week when the Israeli public, on two consecutive days, awoke to read banner headlines about Jewish criminals—first of a right-wing terrorist who hated and killed, or tried to kill, just about everybody: Arabs, leftists, homos, and Christian missionaries; then, of a Russian waiter who stabbed to death a family of six in cold blood, including two small children, in revenge for being fired from his job—I found it difficult to be overly sanguine about human nature. Such events make one keenly aware of the power of the chaotic, irrational side of the human being.)

Shlomo basically spoke to the heart, not to the mind. He evidently felt that emphasizing the Messianic vision, the picture of the ideal world we wish to build, and the positive points in every person, was the high road to holiness. He was concerned, not with teaching the absolute truth of Torah, with the rigorous details of halakhah, but with healing souls, by doing whatever he could to sow love and compassion, to compensate for the vast amounts of hatred and violence in our world.

In the end, “these and these are the words of the living God.” The Rav’s path was for an elite of sorts, a path based upon both intellectual acumen and personal discipline, that not everybody can achieve. Shlomo’s way was one deliberately crafted to speak to all Jews—nay, to all human beings—to reach out and try to return the lost sheep of the Jewish people, wherever they might be (he and Zalman Schachter were in at the very beginning of the Jewish outreach movement, as the very first Lubavitch emissaries to college campuses way back in 1949 or 1950). To paraphrase the Talmud in Berakhot 35b: “Many tried the way of Rav Soloveitchik, and not all succeeded; many tried the way of Shlomo, and did succeed.”

2. Prayer. The theme of the this year’s memorial evening at Yakar was prayer: Shlomo’s relation to prayer, the emergence of Nusah Carlebach, etc. Shlomo taught prayer as something infinite, without limits, an act which demanded and engaged all the powers of a person’s heart, mind and soul. Unlike prayer in many modern synagogues, which may be “knocked off” quickly, he would tell stories of Rebbes of old, who would pray for hours—and whose preparation for prayer, waiting for an ‘et ratzon, a propitious time, for the proper state of mind, to begin praying, might also take hours, well past the “official” time or prayer. But then, he told, prayer, more than anything else, might break through the often-locked gates of Heaven. And indeed, prayer among his followers might well last for many intense hours.

For our generation, Shlomo has provided a path into prayer, more than anything else, through his soulful melodies. Nusah Carlebach, a certain group of Shlomo’s melodies organized into a fixed liturgy, particularly for Kabbalat Shabbat, has “conquered” shuls throughout the world. But it seems to me that Shlomo eschewed any and all “gimmicks” to make prayer “easier” or more popular, whether the guitar service of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the creative prayer and original readings favored by many in Reform, the use of Kabbalistic kavvanot by rank novices, or singing in unison—including “Nusah Carlebach.” For him, the bottom line remained “praying with the bench and the floor”—meaning: the person simply sitting down to worship God, with an open soul and an open heart.

Shlomo was an original, unique spirit, but he was also a living repository, a conduit of Hasidic tradition. He taught, not only his own hiddushim, his innovative interpretations based on an often free reading of the holy books of R. Nahman of Bratslav, R. Mordechai Izbitz, R. Zaddok Hakohen, and others—but also attempted to convey the tradition of Hasidism in as whole a fashion as possible. He had encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of Hasidic tradition (all this in addition to his great knowledge of Talmud and poskim, the bread and butter of Jewish learning, acquired in his long years in yeshivah before beginning his career as an “entertainer”): the teachings of the numerous rebbeim, as recorded in their printed works; the stories and oral lore; the music of the various courts; the minhagim, the customs and practices of each group; and the complex history, the convoluted ins and outs of the various dynasties and chains of family and discipleship. Thus, when he talked about prayer, he tried to convey the role tefillah played in the lives of the Rebbes and their communities.

Moreover, Shlomo understood that this tradition could not be conveyed to American-born youth in the old-worldly garb of the Yiddish language, the long coats and black hats and all the rest, but that it needed to be translated into a language that could reach the hearts and minds of those who had grown up in a very different world. At this, he was a genius.

In his own life, Shlomo had close connections with two very different schools of Hasidism. The one, the Habad school which originated in White Russia, emphasized the intellectual study of the complex system of Habad Hasidic thought, and deep meditation—and, during the past half-century or so, mixed with a missionary, messianic fervor. The other was the more expansive, emotional Polish-Galician school, with its more visible outward fervor and rich ceremonial around the Rebbe’s court. When he and his twin brother, Elyah Hayyim, first became interested in Hasidism, during their teenage years in New York City, they started at Lubavitch, and later sought out the other Rebbes who came to America during the immediate post-war years—Bobov, and to a lesser extent Vizhnitz, Ger, Modzitz, and others.

These two types of Hasidism taught radically different types of prayer. Habad stressed meditative prayer: the ideal was tefillah be-arikhut—lengthy, contemplative, mystical prayer. At times individuals who were adept at this might daven Shaharit well into the afternoon. Particular emphasis was placed on Shema: a true Habad hassid might spend half-an-hour reciting the first verse of Shema! The focus of all this was on God awareness, “Gottlichkeit”—meditation that took one out of the mundane world to an emphasis on the Godhead, to experiencing His infinity, the ubiquity of the Divine presence, and the illusory nature of the visible world. A Habad Hassid might pray with great inner intensity, but without revealing any external signs of ecstasy. Thus, the late Rebbe prayed relatively quickly, without moving, but radiating a sense of great inner power.

The other, Polish-Galician school, would emphasize praying for simple human needs. Shlomo was particularly fond of Bratslav, which taught the way of Hitbodedut, of talking with God in the vernacular, in one’s own words, about one’s concrete need and troubles: worries about health or livelihood, one’s children and family—whatever. Such prayer was much more emotional and expressive—at times ecstatic, at times wracked by human pain, filled with shouting, weeping, and “carrying on.” Shlomo, through his background, drank deeply of both worlds. But ultimately, as I’ve written previously, he chose the path of the heart over that of the mind—and, as one part of this choice, he chose the path of Polish Hasidism; and, even more so, a teaching focused on human beings, how they live their lives, their relationships and how they interact. And this may be seen in his hasidim, and also in how they regard prayer.

3. Was Shlomo a Rebbe? An interesting question. On the one hand, he was clearly not a Rebbe in terms of the traditional Hasidic model: he did not have a court or hold a tisch (ceremonial Shabbat table), accept kvitlakh (written requests for prayer, intercession, or for a personal interview), notr did he hold himself aloof and distant from his hasidim. In Hasidic theology, too, the Rebbe ias conceived as a tzinnor (“conduit”) or behinat tzaddik, an embodiment of the Kabbalistic Sefirah of yesod, bringing down the Divine shefa (“plentitude”) in some literal sense.

Shlomo was clearly none of that. He was totally informal; he insisted that people call him simply “Shlomo,” without any titles and not by his surname. One often felt that he felt most at home with the hippies; he did not see himself as a missionary who sought to teach them the truth of Torah—though he did that too. There was no real sense of distance; he was simply one of them, a kind of big brother, who happened to be a little older (by 20-odd years!) and more learned Jewishly than they—but essentially these were his people, his friends. He had broken with/been rejected by the Orthodox Torah world in which he had grown up, and was made to feel like a black sheep—a fact which, as I glimpsed on a few occasion, continued to pain him throughout his life.

On the other hand, he was a teacher—and a highly gifted one. He was revered and loved by his disciples as the one who brought them to Judaism, in a way that no one else could have done. An interesting aside: this was not only true of hippies. I remember an encounter late one night on the Midrehov in Jerusalem with a young man who was obviously part of the Lithuanian yeshivah world. We started to talk, and he said that it seemed that I was “one of Shlomo’s people” (the highest possible compliment!). Then he added, “Since Shlomo died the whole world is dark—העולם חשוך.” What he meant, as I understand it, is that the yeshivah world to which he belonged taught him laws and texts, but did not give him the emotional or spiritual sustenance that he desperately needed.

Shlomo’s task was to heal souls. Paradoxically, because he was far from being perfect, and certainly was not a model of Rabbinic piety as generally understood, he was able to identify with the suffering—emotional, spiritual, and concrete—of others. This, perhaps more than any other thing, was his greatness.