Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Pesah (Aggadah)

Pesah: The Feast of Community

Pesah is the constitutive holiday of the Jewish nation. More than anything else, it is a celebration of the community’s founding and a kind of renewal of its covenant with God, as well as being a sign of each individual’s connection to all other Jews. In the same way as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are focused on the individual and his/her process of teshuvah—of ethical and religious stock-taking and an attempt to amend wrongs; and just as, in the life cycle, brit milah, the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision, marks the individual (male’s) entering into the covenant shortly after birth—so does Pesah celebrate the collective and its birth.

These days, in wake both of Hasidic and other commentaries and of the general zeitgeist, there are many who emphasize Passover as a time for ridding oneself of the hametz in one’s own life, for coming out of one’s own personal Egypt, and so forth. While these ideas are important, inspiring and meaningful to many—indeed, they too have roots in the tradition going back as far as the Sages, who use the term “the leaven in the dough” (שאור שבעיסה) in reference to the Evil Impulse as the spoiling element within the dynamic of the individual personality—I think it is important, on the primary level of peshat (simple, literal meaning), to remember the basic communal message of Passover.

In the past, I have written about my growing concerns over the excessive emphasis on the individual in contemporary culture, which to my mind often comes at the expense of social cohesion and mutual responsibility.(See on this, especially, the esssay for my father’s 25th Yahrzeit, at Ki Tavo (Zohar), at the archives for August 2009). I see this in such varied phenomena as the notions of “political correctness” and the politics of identity, in the ethos of radical non-judgmentalism that is part of “post-modernity,” in the New Age revival of spirituality, in certain aspects of our ethos of marriage, sexuality and family, in the economic philosophy of advanced capitalism, and in many other areas. The call of the hour is for the renewal of vital, life-giving communities—while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of the exaggerated collectivism of the totalitarian cultures of the mid-twentieth century. I hope in the future to write at greater length about the Jewish approach to community, which I see as built upon a uniquely harmonious balance between individual and community. For the present, I shall conclude by mentioning a few areas in which Pesah exemplifies various aspects of community:

Hesed. At the very beginning of the Seder, we declare “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Pesah is paradigmatic for the idea of hakhnasat orhim, of hospitality and sharing our table with others. Indeed, it is a rare Seder at which there are no guests.

Torah Study. The Haggadah is, among other things, an outline for an evening of Torah study. But note: it exemplifies what Rambam sees as the first meaning of Torah study—of passing on the tradition Torah to one’s children and grandchildren. There is also an obligation for very person to study Torah for him/herself—“you shall reflect upon it day and night”—but that is not the study of Seder night.

Historical Memory. The central motif of the Seder is historical memory—that we belong to a group, a nation, with a long and complex shared past, rich with both redemptive and triumphant moments, and with pain and tragedy (מתחילים בגנות ומסיימים בשבח). The remembrance of this history, with all its twists and turns; the consciousness that the meaningful time transcends far more than the existential life-span of the individual; is part and parcel of the Torah we pass on to the next generations.

Table Fellowship. The key mitzvot of this night—eating matzah and marror (and the flesh of the Pesah—may we merit to it soon)—take place within the context of a common meal, in the simple act of fellowship of breaking bread together. Thus, these mitzvot go far beyond the realm of individual obligation. In ancient times the havurah, the group of people who joined together in buying and slaughtering a paschal lamb, was the basic unit for the night of Pesah. It is interesting sociologically that today, with rampant assimilation, Seder night is one occasion on which almost all those who at all think of themselves as Jewish participate in this ritual. It seems related to a primal idea of “standing up and being counted” as part of the Jewish people, a kind of renewal and affirmation of identity—analogous, in a certain way, to coming to synagogue on Yom Kippur. (And note: this is one more indication that in Jewish life the home is of equal importance to the house of worship, if not more so.}

Religious Worship. Finally, the Jewish people are a community of faith, of worship. After asking the questions, after telling the story, after eating the meal with all its special foods, we lift up our voices in psalms and hymns of praise and thanksgiving. “The song shall be to you as the night when a festival begins” (Isa 30:29). And such songs are best sung, not alone, but in a collectivity.

* * * * *

I conclude with wishes to all for a joyous and meaningful Pesah. To all those friends whom I have been unable to speak with or write individually, please regard this as my personal greeting for חג שמח וכשר.

Shabbat Hagadol: The Four Cups

It is well known that one of the central features of the Passover Seder is the drinking of four cups of wine. But where does this practice come from? What purpose does it serve? What ideas does it express? In preparing to write this study, I asked two of my scholarly friends what they consider to be the real origin of the four cups. One, a Professor of Talmud who had studied for many years in advanced yeshivot before entering academia, answered that it was “peshita” that it follows the halakhic structure of the Seder. The second, a Professor of History with an orientation towards ritual as a covert symbolic language, unhesitatingly answered that it was “obvious” that its root meaning was related to the “four malkhuyot”—the four foreign kingdoms that had subjugated Israel and which serve as a grand archetypal schema of Jewish history found in many midrashim. More on both these views, and other options, below.

So to begin at the beginning: The first mishnah in Chapter 10 of Pesahim, that describes the laws of the Seder, begins by saying that every person is required to drink four cups of wine. This is a unique requirement of the Seder: that not only the leader, but every Jew—including women, and “even a pauper who is fed from the tamhui” (i.e., the communal charity box)—must be provided with four full cups of wine. The subsequent discussion explains that these are “in the name of freedom”—similar to the reclining posture in which the Seder is conducted, modeled on a Roman banquet.

Re my friend’s answer that the number four is intrinsic to the halakhic structure of the Seder: indeed, the Seder is organized around four mitzvot, each one of which concludes with a blessing and is recited over a cup of wine: Kiddush (as on every other Shabbat and festival day); Maggid—i.e., the lengthy recital of the main bulk of the Haggadah, the discourse around the Exodus, concluding with two chapters of Hallel and the blessing of Redemption, ברכת הגאולה ; Birkat Hamazon, the Blessing after the Meal (again, the “cup of blessing,” if not a common feature of everyday meals, is certainly part of festive and solemn meals—wedding feasts, circumcisions, and even Shabbat and Yom Tov meals where there is a zimmun or a minyan); and Hallel, the songs of praise sung at the end of the Seder. One of the rules that encourages the use of wine is that אין שירה אלא על היין—“Song is not sung except over wine.” Thus, the four cups follow as a natural function of the arrangements of the Seder.

Perhaps the most familiar explanation for the four cups is that they correspond to the “four languages of redemption” (ד' לשונות של גאולה)—four phrases used in Exodus 6:2ff., where Moses announces to the incredulous and rather sceptical Israelite slaves that the time for their redemption is nigh; Rashi explains it thus in his comment on the gemara at Pesahim 99b. We shall elaborate upon this later. But there is another explanation of the four cups, found in the Jerusalem Talmud and in the Midrash Rabbah, in which no less than five different answers are offered to the question, “From whence do we know that there are four cups”? I shall cite here the text of the Yerushalmi, at j. Pesahim 10.1 (68b-69a). The parallel in Genesis Rabbah 88.4 (Parashat Vayeshev) is substantially the same, with only minor differences in the names of the Sages cited and the order:

From whence are there four cups? 1) Rabbi Yohanan in the name of R. Benayah: Corresponding to four “redemptions.” “Therefore say to the children of Israel, I am the Lord. I shall take you out… I shall take you to me as a people,” etc. (Exod 6:6-7)—“I shall take out, I shall save, I shall redeem, I shall take you.”

I shall quote the full Biblical passage, Exodus 6:6-8:

Therefore say to the children of Israel, I am the Lord. And I shall take you out from underneath the burdensome yoke of Egypt, and I shall deliver you from their labor. And I will redeem you with an outstretched hand and with great judgments. And I shall take you to Me to be My people, and I shall be your God; and you shall know that I, the Lord your God, have taken you out from beneath the yoke of Egypt. And I shall bring you to the land, which I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as an inheritance, I am the Lord.

Of all five interpretations brought here, this is the one that pertains most directly to the Exodus, the central theme and subject of the Seder. God here announces that He is about to fulfill the promise which He made to the patriarchs, and that this will involve four distinct levels of redemption: deliverance from the harsh, oppressive nature of the Egyptian slavery; freedom from slavery altogether; physically leaving of Egypt (crossing the Sea); and entering into a covenantal relation with God (Sinai). But there are two additional verbs that also appear in this passage: “you shall know that I am God” (which, it could be argued, relates to the Israelites, not to God) and “I shall bring you into the land.” We will return to this latter phrase at the end of this study, in our discussion of the fifth cup.

2) Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: Corresponding to the four cups of Pharaoh: “And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand… and I squeezed [the grapes] into Pharaoh’s cup, and I placed the cup on Pharaoh’s palm… and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand” (Gen 40:11, 13).

This section refers to Pharaoh’s cup-bearer, whose dream Joseph interpreted in prison. At first glance, it seems to have no connection to Pesah and the redemptive story of the Exodus—a couple of prisoners talk about their dreams, and possible implications for their respective destinies. But we must remember that the Joseph narrative is seen, both by the Bible itself and by the midrashic tradition, as a story of Providence: by means of the near-murderous fraternal conflicts in a rather dysfunctional family, the children of Israel are caused to come down to Egypt, from whence they are ultimately redeemed. This incident in prison, in which Joseph’s dream-solving ability is first revealed, precipitating his ascent to greatness, plays a crucial role in this process.

3) Rabbi Levi said: Corresponding to four kingdoms.

The next three answers take us beyond the story of the Exodus per se, relating instead to the entire broad sweep of Jewish history. The “four kingdoms” is a central topos in Jewish historiography, serving as short hand for the Jewish people’s long and bitter history of exile and subjugation to foreign rule. The four kingdoms are Babylonia, Persia, Greece (i.e., the Seleucid-Hellenistic rule) and Edom/Rome (which, by extension, serves as shorthand for the Christian Church, whose center was in Rome, and in turn for European civilization generally), each of which in turn ruled over the Jewish people. This motif serves as the basic pattern in any number of midrashim, as well as of , e.g., the Maoz Tzur hymn sung on Hanukkah. The implication that the four kingdoms may allude davka to the four cups is that this is indicative of the faith that, just as God redeemed us from Egypt, so too will He redeem us from these four kingdoms—more on which below.

4) And our Rabbis said: Corresponding to four cups of catastrophe that the Holy One blessed be He shall give the nations of the world to drink in the future: “For thus said the Lord God of Israel to me: Take this cup of wine of fury [and give it to drink to all the nations] (Jer 25:15); “A golden cup of Babylon in the hand of the Lord [from which all the land is drunk]” (Jer 51:7); “for there is a cup in the hand of the Lord [harsh wine … from whose dregs all the wicked of the earth shall drink]” (Ps 75:9); “He shall rain down upon the wicked coals, fire and brimstone, parching winds shall be the lot of their cup” (Ps 11:6). Rabbi Abin said: Like a vial of poterion [a kind of spiked wine] taken after a bath.

This continues the previous answer, but in a vindictive manner, citing a group of biblical verses in which the cup of wine, ordinarily a symbol of joy, ease and contentment, symbolizes Divine anger and fury against the nations: poisoned, bitter wine, “grapes of wrath,” that will serve as their just retribution.

5) And against these the Holy One blessed be He shall give Israel to drink four cups of comfort: “The Lord is my portion and my cup” (Ps 16:5); “You have anointed my head with oil, my cup runs over” (Ps 23:5); and “cup of salvations I shall lift up” (Ps 116:13) alludes to two [i.e., “salvations” is in the plural].

This last answer continues the same theme, but in a positive vein, viz. cups of consolation that Israel will enjoy in the future. The last three answers—which, following the hint of my historian friend, all relate derive to the motif of “four kingdoms”—all point in one way or another towards the future messianic redemption. Indeed, some say that the progress of the Seder is from the Haggadah proper, or Maggid, at the beginning, which relates specifically to the Exodus, to the Afikomen, the latter part of the Hallel after the meal (which many see as pointing towards the future redemption), Nishmat Kol Hay, with its vision of the universal worship of God, and the rebuilding of the Temple (in the hymn Adir Hu, and elsewhere).

Even something as seemingly “silly” and light-hearted as Had Gadya, an innocuous children’s song, which has parallels and possibly originated in European folk culture, may really be seen as a hymn of the ultimate vindication of God’s reign in the world after a series of acts of violence. Most of the song depicts a state of nature (including inanimate forces) ruled by anarchy and chaos, as in mundane history: the cat kills a kid, the dog bites the cat, he is beaten by the stick, which is consumed by fire, that is extinguished by water, which is lapped up the cow, who is slaughtered by the shohet, who himself dies. But in the end, “There comes the Holy One blessed be He, who will kill the Angel of Death….”

There is a basic problem, an existential tension, if you will, built into the Passover Seder. Notwithstanding the wondrous Redemption from Egypt long ago, for most of Jewish history we have not really been a free people, but a people in exile, dependent on the good offices of others, guests in other peoples’ countries. This is particularly strongly felt on Passover, for two reason: one, that we talk about freedom and coming into our own land; second, in the ideal halakhic situation, the Seder is meant to center around the Korban Pesah, the Paschal sacrifice, as the focal point of the meal. This is absent, and its absence is keenly felt. (It is interesting that the other most-widely observed festival of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, betrays a similar tension: It, too, is deeply connected to the ritual conducted in the Temple—the two goats, the confession and purification of the high priest, etc,—and indeed Seder Avodah stands at the center of Musaf for that day. But it has a totally different modality—not celebration and feasting, but fasting, confession, and atonement.) Thus, longings for the future redemption occupy a central place in the Seder, in numerous ways.

The question that then arises is: what does Passover mean in a sovereign, autonomous Jewish state? Should, by rights, the entire motif of longing for the future redemption be neutralized, and the holiday celebrated in a simple, whole-hearted manner as a “normal,” free people living in its own land, celebrating its ancient roots? The Israeli “civil religion” in fact draws a direct line from Pesah through Holocaust Day, Soldier’s Memorial Day, and Israel Independence Day, all within less than three weeks. (On a possible Rabbinic-halakhic response, see below.) Returning to our original question: there is a third way of interpreting the four cups, apart from the functional-halakhic approach (i.e., that the mitzvot performed dictate the shape of the Seder) and the symbolic readings mentioned above: namely, four as a typological number. The number four appears several times in the Seder: there are four questions, four sons. By contrast, as I have shown in the past, three is the key number of Rosh Hashana, both in the laws of shofar and in the blessings of Musaf with its biblical verses; three, as I understand it, symbolizes dynamic growth. The number four, by contrast, connotes solidity, stability (the four sides of a table), wholeness, completeness, the union of opposites: it is two, the number of multiplicity, raised to the next power….

The Fifth Cup

When I was a child, I was taught that the Cup of Elijah, placed in the center of the table during the latter part of the Seder, is a kind of remnant of a fifth cup; that there were opinions in the Talmud that there ought to be such. The discussion ends in teku, indecision, and with the conventional formula, that the fifth cup is left “until Elijah comes”—that is, Elijah, the herald or precursor of Messiah, will resolve all unresolved halakhic disputes. Hence, the fifth cup also bears some messianic significance.

In fact, there are two aspects to this matter: the purely halakhic, and the exegetical–eschatological significance of the fifth cup. The matter begins with a dispute in Tractate Pesahim as to precisely what ought to be recited over the fourth cup. The Mishnah states that one “completes the Hallel”—i.e., reads Psalms 115-118, having begun the Hallel with Pss 113-114 before the meal; whereas R. Tarfon interjects that one must say both Hallel and Hallel Hagadol—the “Great Hallel,” i.e., Psalm 136, with its repeated refrain, “for his lovingkindness is forever.”

But Hallel Hamitzri and Hallel Hagadol are really two distinct entities, two different mitzvot, and by rights they ought to conclude with two different blessings—the one with Yehallelukha, and the other with Birkat shir or Nishmat—and two cups of wine. Hence, some Geonim and rishonim suggest that the option exists to drink a fifth cup of wine. Indeed, Rambam, in Hilkhot Hametz u-Matzah 8.10, mentions, in utter simplicity, that if one wants to have a fifth up, one may do so, and one recites Hallel Hagadol over it.

The Tur, at Orah Hayyim 481, mentions the approach of the Rif and the Rambam, as well as various other authorities who suggest this, as well as those who oppose it for various reasons. It goes on to mention various ways of combining the two Hallels and the two blessings, including the solution most widely accepted today, found in most Haggadot: namely, to recite both of them over the fourth cup, with the two blessings——Yehallukha, from the Hallel recited in synagogue, and Nishmat, concluding with Yishtabakh—are conflated into one blessing; alternatively, Yehallehukha is recited without the hatimah, the concluding mention of God’s name. (Interestingly, some postpone the blessing over the fourth cup until after the piyyutim at the end, drinking it only after Adir Hu).

But there is another dimension to this. In the original biblical passage quoted above, referred to as “four languages of blessing,” there is really a fifth “language od redemption”: “I shall bring them into the Land…” During the long period of Galut, one reason given for not drinking a fifth cup was that “we have not come into the Land.” But in an age of Return to Zion, resettlement of the Land of Israel, and Jewish sovereignty, some rabbis—most notably the late Rabbis Menahem Kasher and Shlomo Goren and, in our own day Rav Shlomo Riskin (yibadel lehayyim arukim), advocate the renewal of this practice. Indeed, Rav Kasher wrote in this vein extensively, both in his Haggadah Sheleimah, as well as in his shorter Haggadat Pesah Eretzyisraelit.

To this, I might add, as I once heard from Rabbi Riskin, that all five of the reasons for the four cups given in the above Yerushalmi passage, in fact contain allusions to the possibility of a fifth cup, all of which allude to fulfillment and completion. We have already mentioned the “fifth language” of redemption, viz. coming into Eretz Yisrael; in the story of Pharaoh’s cup bearer, there is a fifth reference to the word “cup”—after Joseph interpreted his dream, it was indeed realize and, in Gen 40:21, we are told that he in fact “placed the cup on Pharaoh’s hand”; the four kingdoms are followed by the messianic kingdom; and similar verses may surely be adduced for the last two as well.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Vayikra (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to the blog, below, for March 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Calling and Speaking

This week, as I hope to include a lengthy supplement regarding an issue that has recently drawn much public attention, I will present a short aggadic saying with some brief reflections. At b. Yoma 4b we read:

“And He called to Moses, and [He] spoke to him..” {Lev 1:1). It was taught: Why did He precede calling to speech? The Torah taught us proper behavior (derekh eretz), that a person should not say anything to his neighbor until he has called him.

This pithy saying teaches a seemingly simple idea, albeit one with far reaching implications. We speak with other people perhaps hundreds of times a day, most often for purely functional purposes. What does it mean to call a person? It is a preliminary to speech: I tell you that I am addressing you, that I wish to speak with you, even if it is to ask directions in the street or to ask the price of an item in a shop. Nevertheless, before saying whatever I need to say, it ought to be preceded by a call: “Yitzhak,” “Mr. Cohen,” or “Good morning,” “Sir/Ms,” “Hello,” or even “Excuse me” or “May I ask you something.” Its purpose is, first of all, to call the other person’s attention to the fact that I wish to speak with him, and not to suddenly begin speaking to him/her without any warning.

Implicit in this, to my mind, is the idea of human dignity: that each person is a world unto himself, a being created in then image of God; by addressing a person before beginning to speak with him/her (if possible, by name, the name being the signifier of the person’s identity and his unique world), we acknowledge this dignity Indeed, one of the commentators notes that, in several places, God addresses people by calling to them twice: “Avraham, Avraham” (Gen 22:1); “Ya’akov Ya’akov” (Gen 46:2); “Moshe Moshe” (Exod 3:4); “Shmuel, Shmuel” (1 Sam 3:10).

A second possible implication is the Buberian idea of dialogue: that speech between people (or with any being) has significance beyond the actual contents of the conversation; that speech itself begins with the act of calling, of speaking the other’s name, of what Buber calls “speaking the basic word ‘Thou’ or ‘It.’” The act of calling is a recognition of the other as an Other, as a potential “Thou.” Interestingly, also, is that Art Green entitled one of his first books exploring his, and our generation’s, theological quest, Seek My Face, Speak My Name—as if to say, the elemental act of speaking the other’s name is of profound significance.

A third point is the notion of imitatio dei, the “imitation of God”: that is, that as simple a rule of human behavior as that one addresses others before speaking to them is inferred from God’s own behavior—viz., that before speaking to Moses, even in the Tent of Meeting, a place specially designated for such communication, He first called to him.

How does all this square with the contemporary milieu, in which much of our discourse with others is conducted through increasingly anonymous media in which we do not see the other (telephone) or even hear his/her voice (email, SMS, twitters , etc.). What challenges to traditional notions of Derekh Eretz, of behavior guided by respect for the essential dignity of the human being, are posed by these new technologies? Is human dignity becoming an archaic, old-fashioned notion for which there is no room in our fast-paced, multi-tasking, post-modern age?

Finally: the great importance of this principle may be suggested by the fact that one of the five books of the Torah, the one we begin to read this Shabbat, takes its name from this phrase: Viyikra—“and He called.”

In this connection, this week I saw an interesting midrash on Song of Songs that makes much of the fact that Vayikra is the central book of the Torah. Commenting on a verse in Shir ha-Shirim celebrating the beloved’s belly as being like “a heap of wheat,” the midrash notes that the belly is in the center of the body, “just as Torat kohanim (“The Teaching of the Priests,” the old Rabbinic name for Leviticus) is located in the middle, with two books before it and two after it” (Songs Rabbah 7:3, §3; my thanks to Tamar Kadari, through whose work I became aware of this passage). And indeed, from an halakhic perspective, this book is the central and richest one in the entire Torah. Through the mitzvit, one might say, we hear God’s voice calling to us.

Vayakhel - Hahodesh (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at March 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. See also the new postscript to Purim, in the "Purim" teachings below.

Passover and Compassion for the Downtrodden

This Shabbat, being the Shabbat proximate to Rosh Hodesh Nissan, we read Parshat Hahodesh, in spiritual and intellectual preparation for Pesah. I wish to share with readers a short essay on Parshat Hahodesh by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginzburg, a rabbi who lived in Denver Colorado during the early part of the twentieth century, from his book, Yalkut Yehudah (Vol. II: pp. 18-19).

He begins by asking a well-known question: Why do the Ten Commandments begin with the words ”I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt” rather than with a proclamation that “I am God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.” He follows this with another, cognate question: why, when the Torah presents the Ten Commandments a second time in Deuteronomy, does it give as the reason for Shabbat observance, “and you shall remember that you were slavers in the land of Egypt…” (Deut 5:15) rather than the Creation (“for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is therein…”) as it does in the first version in Exodus 20—the most striking single difference between the two versions of the Decalogue. Moreover, given that the latter version is considered by many exegetes as the more definitive one, this difference begs for interpretation.

His answer is both simple and surprising: were the Torah and our religious allegiance based upon the principle of Creation alone, this would imply a certain acceptance of nature as is. Yet the “state of nature” is marked by a constant struggle for survival, in which those who are stronger dominate those who are weak, without mercy or compassion, subjugating them to their will, or even snuffing out their lives at a whim. This is true in human society as it is in the animal kingdom: “Man is a wolf to man” (Homo homini lupus: Hobbes, quoting Platus) or, as they said in the playgrounds of my childhood, “Might makes right” (in Hebrew: כל דאלים גבר) or “the Law of the Jungle.” (This type of biological determinism is enjoying a comeback today, possibly encouraged by the ever more ruthless and competitive global economy, as a kind of crude rationale for the injustices and inequalities of the market economy; it is also used as a justification for such phenomena as that of wealthy and successful middle-aged men divorcing their wives of many decades for younger and allegedly sexier “trophy wives.”)

In any event, Ginzburg sees the Exodus as introducing another principle into human society: that of compassion for all, of consideration for the weaker elements in society, the notion that God not only creates the natural universe, but imposes justice and ethical principles upon all of humankind. It is He who vindicates the downtrodden, protects the orphan and widow: “God seeks [i.e, protects] he who is pursued” (Eccles 3:15). In this context, the Exodus is the ethical act par excellence.

Also implicit here is the idea that every human being is entitled to certain basic rights, simply by virtue of his/her humanity, the Shabbat being a major expression of this. In hierarchical societies, such as that of ancient Egypt, only the wealthy, ruling class, enjoyed leisure, while the slaves, whom they ruled with an iron hand, were forced to labor seven days a week to provide them with their comforts. But Jewish ethics is not thus: a day of rest is the prerogative, not only of the wealthy, but of all.

At this point Yalkut Yehudah introduces another, rather surprising idea. He notes that the tribe of Levi were not slaves in Egypt, but served as kind of overseers, or even as priests for the religion of the Hebrews. Ginzburg suggests that Pharaoh did so because he knew that religion, properly controlled, serves a certain function of social control, assuring the interests of the rulers in pacifying the slaves or lower classes (albeit Moses and Aaron of course did not function in this way, but served in a far more radical manner).

I found this comment extremely interesting, and surprising, coming as it does from an Orthodox rabbi. The idea of religion being used to further the class interests of the ruling class is, of course, a basic concept in Marxism, as expressed in Marx’s famous dictum that “religion is the opiate of the people [or: the masses]”; even before Marxism became a political movement, it was eloquently articulated in Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” speech. Ginzburg was doubtless familiar with these notions; while I do not know the precise details of his biography, he still lived in Russia for a certain period after the Bolshevik Revolution, and immigrated to the US during the 1920’s. As a rabbi, he of course could not accept this point-of-view unqualifiedly, but clearly seemed to agree that, at least under certain circumstances, religion—whether Christian religion, whose symbiotic relation with despotic, tyrannical rulers during the Middle Ages and later (s.v. Pope Pius XII) is notorious; Islam, with its doctrine of Jihad; Hinduism, with its harsh caste system; Shinto, with its links to Japanese imperialism; and even Judaism, under certain circumstances—can itself be used in a negative, cynical way, to suppress peoples’ natural desire for freedom and equality. Elsewhere in his writings, his ambivalent attitude towards socialism comes to the fore: on the one hand, he criticizes the suppression of Judaism in the Soviet Union, and the beginnings of state violence and terror which he witnessed; on the other hand, he expresses a certain understanding of and sympathy for the underlying values implicit in socialism—of the equality of all men, of (at least on paper) concern for and compassion for the poor and downtrodden, and the attempt to create a new order in which human ethical values and the right and desire of all people for a decent life would be respected.

* * * * *

But Rav Ginzburg was not unique in articulating such ideas. There was a small but significant group of Orthodox rabbis, during the early decades of the twentieth century, who expressed ideas that would today be considered “Left” or even radical— whether relating to socio-economic issues, or issues of the use of force, along the continuum between pacifism and militarism. One name that comes readily to mind is that of Samuel David Tamarett, a rabbi who lived in Russia during that same period and who expressed a radically pacifist position (American Reform rabbi Everett Gendler has done much to revive his memory, translating some of his writings into English, etc.). Several of the leading figures of the Mizrachi movement, such as Rav Reines, Rav Amiel, and even Rav Kook père, expressed such ideas. An Israeli scholar, Eli Holtzer, was written a study of attitudes towards war and peace in religious Zionism; his Hebrew book, in which he discusses many of the above thinkers, is entitled Herev Pifiyot bi-yadam (“A Two-Edged Sword In Their Hands”), and is available through the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Another interesting figure from those years was R. Yeshayahu Shapira, known as the “Admor-Halutz” (brother of the Piazhetzner Rebbe, who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto, author of Esh Kodesh and other important and inspiring writings), who by day worked side-by-side with other religious halutzim draining the swamps and paving roads in the Galilee, while learning Torah and singing Hasidic songs with them far into the night. Another important figure was Rav Hayyim Hirschensohn, author of the multi-volume series of studies Malki Bakodesh, that attempted to lay the theoretical groundwork for the creation of a modern, democratic Jewish state nevertheless rooted in halakhah (scholar David Zohar was written on him extensively in recent years). If I may, I would also include in this group my own grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Gallant, whose collected sermons, including the five volumes of Mashal u-Melitzah, Zikhronot Avraham, and others, reflect not only concern for Jewish education and communal survival in America, but also profound social concerns.

Today, such concerns seem limited to a small minority. The tendency in the secular world—to assume that “religion” is equated with “Right Wing”—is unfortunately based on a certain reality. The dominant trends today in the Orthodox world seem to be: nationalism, interpreted as support for the West Bank settlers movement; Haredism—e.g., the ideology of full-time Torah learning as the highest goal, coupled with frumkeit—i.e., punctilious observance and approach to halakhah. Talk of ethics or, Heaven forbid, “social action” label as one as belonging to the “Reformers”—or worse. Even in the non-Orthodox world, the emphasis seems to be largely on Jewish survival, support of Israel, an individualistic-oriented spirituality, and personal growth. Thus, the type of broad social concern found in Rav Ginzburg, Tamarett, or Hirschensohn, seem a rare vision—and it’s more the shame for it.

There are of course understandable reasons for these changes in attitude: beginning with the disappointment in the Socialist “experiment” in the USSR; to the hope and promise at one point or a more humane and compassionate capitalism (which the recent financial crisis has, I think, proven to be a chimera); and through the knee-jerk anti-Israel position of the so-called “Left” in Europe and the US. We are living, to be sure, in difficult times, but the underlying values taught by the image of “God who took them out of Egypt” remain as they always were.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Ki Tisa (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to my blog, at 2006_02_20_archive.html/, and at March 2007, February 2008 and March 2009.

God’s Ways in the World

Following the great rupture caused by the sin of the Golden Calf and Moses’ efforts to attain Divine forgiveness and reconciliation with Israel—the central theme of this parasha—there ensues a conversation between Moses and God betraying his own desire for profound, if not intimate, knowledge of God. He asks two central questions, phrased in two very brief phrases: “make known to me Your ways” and “show me Your glory” (Exod 33:13 and 18): that is, the mystery of theodicy, of God’s just Providence or, rather, the seeming injustice of what actually happens in the world; and the secrets of metaphysics—knowledge of God’s essence, the nature of His very being. A major aggadic sugya devoted to these Biblical passages appears in b. Berakhot 7a:

Rabbi Johanan said in the name of Rabbi Yossi: Moses asked three things of the blessed Holy One and they were given to him. He asked that the Shekhinah rest upon Israel, and it was given to him, as is said, “Is it not in your going with us” (Exod 33:16). He wished that the Shekhinah not rest upon the pagan nations, and it was given to him, as is said, “that I and Your people be distinct [from all other people upon the face of the earth]” (ibid.). And he wished that the ways of the blessed Holy One be made known to him, and it was given to him, as is said, “Make known to me, please, Your ways” (Exod 33:13).

Our sugya begins by describing knowledge of God’s way of conducting the world as a kind of gift given Moses, presumably because of his unique closeness to God. The question, as formulated, is the classic question of theodicy in all its severity: Why are there righteous people who suffer, while many wicked men are at peace in this world and seem to enjoy “the good life”? This is, in essence, the question of the Book of Job, or that question known in our own generation as Holocaust theology (albeit it may be argued that the sheer numbers, cruelty and arbitrariness of that event and, especially, its contradiction with the idea of the covenant with Israel, raised it to a new level).

He said to him: Master of the Universe, why is there a righteous man with whom it goes well, and there is a righteous man whom there befalls evil; a wicked man with whom it goes well, and a wicked man whom there befalls evil. He said to him: Moses, a righteous man with whom it goes well is a righteous man who is the son of a righteous man; a righteous man whom there befalls evil is a righteous man son of a wicked man; a wicked man with whom it goes well is a wicked man son of a righteous man; a wicked man whom there befalls evil is a wicked man son of a wicked man.

The answers given by our Talmudic passage are schematic, and not entirely satisfactory (and I cannot even begin to present a serious theological discussion of the issues here). In brief, there are four answers given: First, pedigree: incongruities with one’s own actions are to be understood as reflecting the righteousness or wickedness of one’s parents. Unreasonable as this answer may seem at first blush, as well as contradicting the basic Judaic belief in individual accountability (as noted in the verse quoted in the next stage of the sugya), there is a certain logic here: a person is the product of his home and of his parental training, and may be expected to revert to his early training sooner or later in life. Hence God takes this into account.

One [i.e., an anonymous amora] said: “A righteous man with whom it goes well is a righteous man son of a righteous man; a righteous man whom there befalls evil is a righteous man son of a wicked man.” But is it so? For it is written, “He remembers the transgression of the fathers to the sons” (Exod 34:7), and it says, “the sons shall not die for [the sins of] the fathers” (Deut 24:16)—and the verses contradict one another! But we have taught: there is no difficulty. In the one case it is where they hold fast to the deeds of their fathers; in the other case it is where they do not hold fast to the deeds of the fathers.

Rather, thus did He say to him: A righteous man with whom it goes well is a completely righteous man; a righteous man whom there befalls evil is one who is not completely righteous. A wicked man with whom it goes well is one who is not totally wicked; a wicked man whom there befalls evil is one who is thoroughly wicked.

The next two answers are equally unsatisfying, from the opposite direction: if one’s deeds are not thoroughly good or bad, the recompense may not correspond with what would seem to be the overall balance. The existence of shades of grey (and do these not exist in every real human being?) provide an “out” for inconsistency with the seeming rule of thumb that the good are rewarded and evildoers punished. The third answer suggests a kind of synthesis: the verdict is affected by one’s righteous action, provided one in fact adheres to one’s parent’s ways.

And this contradicts the words of Rabbi Meir, for Rabbi Meir said: Two things he was given, and one [i.e., knowledge of God’s ways, the secret of theodicy], he was not given. As is said, “And I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious” (Exod 33:19) even though he is not fit /deserving; “And I shall have compassion upon whom I shall have compassion,” even though he is not fit/deserving.

The final answer, that of Rabbi Meir, takes us in a new and important direction: God did not give Moses the answer he sought; we cannot understand theodicy. Gods ways are a mystery: at times, God seems to favor someone for no apparent reason. Or perhaps there is a logic to it, a rhyme and reason, but it is not the logic of the courtroom, not that of objective judgment, of ethical principles consistently applied, but the logic of the heart. As A. J. Heschel put it in The Prophets and elsewhere: God is a God of pathos, moved by love of His people Israel and, at times, by love of (or antipathy to) particular individuals. The logic is covenantal logic rather than purely ethical logic. And, as such, we are really left at our starting point: human beings cannot hope to understand God’s ways.

“No Man Can See Me and Live”

We now turn to Moses’ second request: his desire for what is sometimes seen as the deepest wish of the mystic: the desire to apprehend the Godhead, to see His Face, to know Him as He truly is, and not merely to infer His being from the reflections of His actions in this lowly world. To pull aside the veil and behold the Shekhinah: “Show me, please, your Glory.”

“And He said, you cannot see My face” (Exod 33:20). They taught in the name of Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah: Thus said the blessed Holy One to Moses: “When I wished, you did not wish; now that you wish, I do not wish.”

There are three different views expressed in this part of the sugya. The first portrays a kind of hide-and-seek between man (or Moses) and God. “When I wanted you did not; now that you want, I no longer do.” The initial encounter between Moses and God at the burning bush at Horeb, when he was still a shepherd, is seen as an occasion when God was prepared to reveal Himself to Moses—but Moses was too shy, frightened, overwhelmed by the prospect of the Divine epiphany. “He hid his face, for he feared to look.” (Exod 3:6). The hide-and-seek aspect of this encounter is reminiscent (for good reason!) of the elusive nature of the relation between the lovers in Song of Songs, who are constantly missing one another, looking for the other only to find that he/she has gone. “I arose to open to my beloved… and my fingers dripped with myrrh upon the bolt-handle. I opened for my beloved, but he had slipped away and gone… I sought him, but did not find him” (Song 5:4-6).

But this contradicts the words of R. Shmuel b. Nahmani in the name of R. Jonathan, as R. Shmuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: In reward for three things he merited three things. In reward for, “and Moses hid his face” (Exod 3:6) he merited to the shining of his face [after descending the mountain; see Exod 34:30, 33-35]. In merit of “for he was afraid” (ibid.) he merited to “and they were afraid to approach him” (Exod 34:30). And in reward for “to look” (Exod 3, ibid.) he merited to “and the image of the Lord he saw” (Num 12:8).

The second view interprets the same verses mentioned earlier, in which Moses’ initially hid his face, as the basis for the unique gifts of grace he received later—including the shining of his face, and his receiving a vision of “the image of God” (the verse cited in Numbers 12 refers to this after the fact, but does not elaborate at all as to the nature of that vision).

“And I shall remove My hand, and you shall see My back” (Exod 33:22). Rabbi Hanna son of Bizna said in the name of Rabbi Shimon the Pious: This teaches us that the blessed Holy One showed Moses the knot of His tefillin.

The last view, that of R. Hanna b. Bizna, is a kind of compromise: Moses saw, but only “the knot of His tefillin”—literally, the knot placed in the nape of the neck which holds the tefillin of the forehead in place. In the symbolic language of Hazal, the phrase denotes a partial perception; a fleeting glimpse of the Godhead or, in Kabbalsitic language, ahoraim de-kedushah, “the rear part of holiness.” Whatever this may mean in exact terms, the overall message is clear: even Moses, who perceived far more of God than any other human being, was ultimately subject to the same restriction as any mortal, and could only apprehend God’s true nature in a fragmentary manner.