Monday, June 28, 2010

Balak (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at 2006_06_15, and at July 2008 and July 2009.

Thoughts on the Parasha

This week’s portion differs from almost every other section of the Torah. Balak is a kind of self-enclosed unit; even its graphic appearance within the Torah displays this: until the last six or seven verses, which deal with a different matter, there is not a single “open” or “closed” parashah break throughout; it appears in the Torah scroll as four unbroken columns of text (there are only two or three other such unbroken parshiyot in the whole Torah). More important, its subject matter is unique: the reaction of a neighboring nation to Israel’s drawing near the Land of Canaan; their hiring a soothsayer–cum–prophet, Bilaam, to curse the nation and prevent its successful settlement in the Land; and Bilaam’s subordination by God, so-to-speak, to bless Israel rather than curse them.

I have often wondered—I must say, against the overwhelming consensus of the Rabbinic tradition, which paints Bilaam in dark colors indeed, and even against the Bible’s own “internal exegesis,” which is uniformly negative (see Num 31:8, 16; Deut 23:5, 6; Josh 13:22; 24:9, 10; Micah 6:5; Neh 13:2)—whether Bilaam in fact underwent an authentic, inner conversion to belief in the one God and His chosen nation, and an awareness of the limitations of his own hitherto much-vaunted magical powers, or was simply used, against his will, as a mouthpiece by God? This is an important question, which I’ve discussed here before (see HY I: Balak = [Torah]; July 2006), but the answer ultimately makes no difference to the meaning of this chapter in its context. The overwhelming message of our chapter is simply this: that Israel are a unique people, separate from all other nations and blessed by God, whose nature and place in the scheme of things cannot be changed by magical manipulations, and who are destined to outlive all their enemies. The dramatic impact of this message is reinforced by its presentation, not by Moses in one of his farewell feats of rhetoric (although he says such things many times), not by one of the prophets, not by a psalmist, but by a Gentile diviner in his own internal discourse. We, as Jews, reading this in our Torah, so-to-speak eves-drop on this conversation, making its truth all the more effective.

But if we are speaking of strikingly different and unusual moods found in various sections of the Torah, the latter half of last week’s parashah (Hukat) is virtually sui generis. Specifically, Numbers 21 somehow reads very differently from any other chapter of Torah that I know. There is something very basic, primitive, almost raw about it: talks of battles and victory over other nations; snippets of short poems, taken from long-forgotten annals or collections such as “the Book of the Wars of the Lord”; a strange song addressed to a well, which provided the people’s needs for water for an entire generation; a brazen serpent made by Moses, as an antidote to an attack of serpents that attacked the people (surely itself a quasi-magical act!). This chapter also includes what, in the Bible’s historiography, was a paradigmatic event: the defeat of Og and Sihon which, in Psalms 135 and 136, ranks almost with the Exodus as a manifestation of God’s great redemptive power (cf. Jos 12:4; 13:12, 31; 13:30; Neh 9:22; 1 Kgs 4:19; Jos 2:10; 9:10). Indeed, it was chapters such as these that were celebrated by certain secular Israelis who tried to use parts of the Bible as a guidebook for the recreation of Israel in the image of a normal, masculine, nation, unafraid to fight (what has been called “Moshe Dayan’s Bible”).

I find it interesting that Hukat–Balak are occasionally paired off as a double Torah reading (albeit only outside of the Land of Israel, where the Diaspora sometimes loses a week’s reading when the second day of a holiday—2nd Day of Shavuot or 8th Day of Pesah—falls on Shabbat; Hukat-Balak are then doubled up to catch up with the Torah schedule in Israel). It seems to me that, as with many of the double parshiyot, there is a certain inner relationship between the two. The latter is a kind of response to the former: the Israelites displayed themselves as fierce and threatening fighters, so Balak sought a remedy by hiring the most powerful wonder worker in the region to nullify their power.

Disciples of Abraham and Disciples of Bilaam

Turning to our theme for this year, aggadah, I shall kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, by presenting a teaching from Pirkei Avot (albeit not from this week’s chapter), that deals with a comparison of the Patriarch Avraham and Bilaam, the anti-hero of this week’s parashah. Avot 5.19 [17]:

Whosoever has [a certain] three traits is among the disciples of Abraham our Father; and three other traits, is among the disciples of Bilaam the evil one. A generous eye, a humble spirit, and lowly soul—he is of the disciples of Abraham our Father. An evil eye, a haughty spirit, and an expansive soul—he is among the disciples of the evil Bilaam.

What is the difference between the disciples of Abraham and the disciples of Bilaam the evil one? The disciples of Abraham our Father eat the fruits [of their deeds] in this world, and inherit the World to Come, as is said, “to inherit fulness to those that love me, and I shall fill their storehouses” (Prov 8:21). The disciples of Bilaam the evil one inherit Gehinnom (purgatory) and descend to the Pit of Oblivion, as is said, “And you, O God, shall bring them down to the pit of oblivion, men of violence and deceit, they shall not live out half their years—but as for me , I trust in You” (Ps 55:24).

This teaching in Pirkei Avot draws a comparison between Avraham, the father of the Jewish people, and Bilaam, who is viewed as the greatest prophet of the Gentile nations, broadening the screen from the realm of specific actions or even attitudes towards the people of Israel, or even faith in and obedience to God, to include basic ethical traits. The decent man, “disciple of Abraham,” is marked by generosity towards others, humility, and moderation in his material demands.

At first glance, one might think that the term nefesh shefelah, “a lowly spirit,” implies depression or an aura of sadness surrounding a person. However, from the contrast with nefesh rehavah, which is explained as referring to one who attaches great importance to creature comforts and material pleasure, we many infer that it simply means moderation in ones demands and expectations of life.

The Baal Shem Tov, as quoted by the Sefat Emet, asks an interesting question: what des it mean to speak of Bilaam, or of any person with evil traits, as having “disciples.” What is there to learn from him? It would seem that it is only goodness and ethical traits that need to be learned, to be acquired, as in some sense they go against the grain, the natural inclinations of human beings, who are naturally, “instinctively” inclined towards selfishness, graspingness, and such negative emotions as jealousy, anger, and envy of others (observe children in any kindergarten!); socialization is a conscious process. Indeed, the Baal Shem Tov gives a round-about, “hasidish” answer, bypassing the literal meaning of the passage. And indeed, the “disciples” of Bilaam are such only in a metaphorical sense. Evil requires no schooling.

Some say that this comparison of Avraham and Bilaam was prompted by the fact that the two are shown portrayed in parallel situations—getting up early to saddle their donkeys, and to set off on a journey, accompanied by two servants. Moreover, there was something unusual in this simple act, as both of them were prominent figures, who presumably had servants and retinues to perform the mundane act of saddling their mounts. Thus, we read at Sanhedrin 105b:

They taught in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar: Love negates the routine [of greatness]. [We learn this] from Abraham, of whom it is written “And Abraham rose early the morning [and saddled his donkey]” (Gen 22:3). Hatred nullifies the routine of greatness, as we learn from Bilaam, as is said “And Bilaam rose in the morning and saddled his she-ass” (Num 22:21).

Like the passage from Avot, this saying is brought, not only to teach about Avraham and BiIaam, but to make a more general ethical lesson: that powerful emotion in either direction cause people to depart from the normal routine and, in particular, to forego the gestures or behaviors of dignity which their social position society ordinarily require. The one motivated by great love—whether of another person or, as in Abraham’s case, of God—will act spontaneously, even impetuously, and disregard all social and other conventions or expectations., Likewise, one moved by great hatred, who wishes to destroy or humiliate his enemy, will act in like fashion.

Hukat (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, for June 2006 and 2007, and July 2008 and 2009.

“You are Called Man…”

This week’s parashah contains what is, on the face of it, one of the harshest statements in the aggadah regarding non-Jews. At Yevamot 60b-61a, we read:

Our Rabbis taught: Thus did R. Shimon b. Yohai say: Graves of pagans do not cause impurity in a tent, as is said, “You are my flock, the flock that I shepherd, you are man” (Ezek 34:31)—you are called man, but the pagans are not called “man.”

At first glance, to the modern reader, this saying seems a blatant example of what might be called Jewish racism: that only we, the children of Israel, are called human, whereas members of other nations are not even considered so in the full sense of the term! This view seems of a piece with such approaches as that of R. Judah Halevi, who asserts that prophecy is only possible among Jews, the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; or the teaching of Habad Hasidism that Jews possess a “Divine soul,” a spark of the transcendent, that is somehow different to that of Gentiles. How then are we to understand this passage?

There are several possible answers. First of all, it may be read in light of the bitter experiences of the Jewish people throughout its long history, in many different situations—in Antiquity, in the Middle Ages, and even in the modern period—in which Jews were treated in cruel and inhuman manner by their neighbors; were dependent upon the good graces of Gentile rulers (including, in the tannaitic context, the local officials of the Roman empire) who might turn against them without warning; were subject to random acts of violence, religious persecution, arbitrary seizure of property, expulsion and murder. It was, to put it mildly, difficult to feel ones common humanity in such a situation. Moreover, Jewish teaching never advocated ”turning the other cheek” so that, if Jews were powerless to respond in kind physically, they could at least find some comfort in mocking their pagan neighbors.

Moreover, there have been some Jewish thinkers and jurists who have argued that the more ferocious statements about goyim do not apply to today’s Gentiles. Thus, for example, R. Menahem ha-Meiri (14th century France; compiler of the compendium, Beit ha-Behirah, which summarizes the discussions of the Talmud and the major comments of rishonim through his day) explains such dicta, which are found throughout the Talmud, by saying something like the following: these statements relate to the pagans who lived “then,” but not the Gentiles among whom we live today, who are educated in the “paths of decency and ethics.”

A second way of relating to this is to note that there are various different opinions within Judaism, with a constant tension within the tradition between particularism and universalism. Thus, for example, one might invoke the following statement in Bava Kamma 38a:

It was taught: Rabbi Meir said: From whence do we know that even a Gentile who engages in Torah is likened to the High Priest? Scripture says, “[These are the things] which a man should do, and live through them” (Lev 18:5). It does not say, “priests, Levites and Israelites,” but “man”—from which you learn, that even a Gentile, if he engages in Torah, is tantamount to the high priest.

This statement hardly requires elaboration.

A third tack—and one which may actually be closest to the peshat, the straightforward sense of the text, at least ion our case, is to read the above passage as a strictly technical halakhic statement, referring to the status of non Jews vis-à-vis specific laws of the Torah. To wit: that the “human being” whose body—from birth, through menstruation, sexual intercourse, various other bodily discharges, normal and abnormal, and through death—is subject to impurity and may engender it, refers only to Jews. This is so because the halakhah, with certain exceptions, addresses itself in full force to Jews alone. Indeed, this is the force of the Torah Temimah’s comment on this passage; and note also the continuation of our sugya, a few lines further down in Yevamot 61a:

Rabbina said: It is indeed the case that Scripture excludes him [the body of the dead Gentile] from impurity in a tent, as is written “When a man dies in a tent” (Num 19:14). But from whence is it excluded from being subject to impurity through contact or carrying?

And it continues from there into a technical discussion of the “contagion” of ritual impurity.

I would like to conclude with a comment on the current application of these ideas. In wake of recent events, there is a sense of increasing hostility towards and even delegitimation of the State of Israel on the part of our erstwhile friends. Some have suggested that Jews ought to turn inwards and abandon our long-standing alliances and involvement in the positive aspects of Western culture, and adopt the attitude that ”The whole world is against us,” seeing anti-Semites atop every high hill and under every green tree. Such an approach is as much a distortion of the truth as the overly sanguine view that nothing has changed and that w are living in a new age of love and peace among nations. During the modern era, the Jewish people have discovered that there are many decent, highly moral, wise, and good decent people in the non-Jewish world—surely as much so as there are among Jewry—and it would be false both to our own best interest and to the truth itself for us to abandon that knowledge in face of the present storm.

“When a Man Dies in the Tent…”

Two homiletic uses of our verse stress, from different perspectives, the utter devotion a person ought to show towards Torah. Both appear in Shabbat 83b:

Rabbi Yonatan said: A person should never refrain from going to the Study House and from words of Torah, even in the hour of his death. As is said, “This is the Torah: when a man dies in a tent…” Even at the moment of death, he should engage in Torah.

One implied assumption of this saying is that, unlike other disciplines and areas of knowledge, which a person may study for some practical purpose—and hence would be of no use to him when he knows he is dying and cannot possibly implement them—the study of Torah is an end in itself; an act which is of innate value, even one no longer has any practical interest in anything in the world! Hence, among other things, the concept of life-long adult study among Jews as a sanctified act—a concept quite possibly unique to Jewish culture.

Indeed, the hagiographies of great rabbis often report that they engaged in Torah even in their dying moments. Thus, the aggadah shows King David studying Torah constantly every Shabbat, to avert the Angel of Death; the Zohar describes the great mystical revelation of the Idra that R. Shimon bar Yohai shared with his disciples on the last say of his life; the death-bed scene of the Baal Shem Tov, of others, are all marked by Torah study and teaching. If I may relate a family story: it is told that my own sainted grandfather, Rabbi Simhah Eliyahu Chipkewicz, suffered his fatal attack while sitting at his shtender (reading stand) learning Talmud (as he did most of his waking hours)—thus , at least, we are told in the compendium of mid-century Rabbinic biographies, Toldot Anshei Shem (New York, 1950), p. 107.

The second saying, which continues on the same page in the gemara (with parallel at Berakhot 43b) sees “death” in more metaphorical terms:

Resh Lakish said: Words of Torah are not sustained except by one who kills himself over them, as is said, “This is the Torah: when a man dies in a tent.” The “tent” here is, of course, read as a metaphor for the Beit Midrash, where one expends all of ones energies, as if “dying.”


1. My wife Randy came up with an interesting insight this past Shabbat, regarding the placing of the law of the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah) specifically in this parashah. In general, the organization of the book of Bamidbar/Numbers seems the least coherent of all five Humashim, with narratives and laws juxtaposed in what often appears to be rather hodge-podge fashion. In any event, I have always been puzzled as to is why the laws of ritual impurity relating to contact with dead bodies and the special ritual of slaughtering a red heifer, burning it to ashes, and sprinkling its ashes mixed with water over the impure individual (all involving in turn further complex rules) stand by themselves, here in Numbers 19. After all, all the other rules of impurity issuing from the human body—childbirth, ejaculation, menstruation, abnormal discharges from the sexual organs, and the affliction commonly [mis]translated as leprosy—all appear together in Tazria–Metzora (Leviticus 12-15); moreover, these appear immediately following the listing of pure and impure mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and insects in Lev 11. Thus, all the biblical sources for the Mishnaic “Order of Purities”—Seder Toharot—are conveniently grouped in one place, with the glaring exception of the greatest source of impurity of all—the dead human body. Why?

Randy observed that, immediately following this chapter, there appears the incident in which Moses strikes the rock to bring forth water rather than speaking to it as he was instructed; this is in turn followed immediately by the death of two of the three leaders of the desert period—Miriam and Aaron—and by the announcement to Moses that he would not enter the Land but would die at the end of the fortieth year of wandering (which may not have been far off); in due course, a few chapters later, Moshe asks God to appoint a successor to himself, and the charge to Joshua is duly described. Hence, Randy suggested, the description of the actual deaths of the most prominent people in the community is preceded by laws as to how to deal with death in the physical sense.

Alternatively, one might argue that, whereas the various discharges in Leviticus apply first and foremost the person who is thus rendered impure, the impurity of death is different: it affects others, but not the dead person, whose physical remains become a permanent source of impurity. Oddly, the ritual of cleaning the dead body (known as “laying out” in American Christian culture) and dressing it for burial is referred to as taharah—“purification.” Moreover, in certain circles—perhaps when dealing with the body of an especially pious individual or a great rabbi, or in certain very traditional communities (the old-time Yerushalmis?)—the corpse is actually immersed in a special mikveh reserved for this purpose—one of the most innately paradoxical acts one can imagine. (I have a rather macabre story about this, which I won’t recount here.)

2. Regarding the main subject of my essay this past Shabbat (“You are called Man, but the pagans are not called man…”), I would add that the idea of Jews enjoying some sort of unique status within the human community is part of the broader issue of Jewish “election” or the notion of the “chosen people,” which is too vast a subject to discuss here. I will simply make one brief point: that election implies greater responsibility, being held by God to more exacting standards. “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I hold you accountable for all your transgressions” (Amos 3:2).

On the other hand, longtime reader Mark Kirschbaum wrote me as follows:

There is another explanation, and that is linked to a typical ant-Semitic approach whereby the Jewish tradition even in antiquity must always answer even to contemporary progress, i.e. in women's issues, or universality—and that is the reality that most cultures have these kind of self important views. Spain had “purity of blood” categories until modern times, the US mandates that presidents be US born, etc. It is only delegitimizing that the Jewish tradition celebrates its own if you apply very recent standards of universalism.

While I would agree that there is a certain “holier-than-thou” attitude that may be present among those who make such a critique, for me there was a very different subtext: namely, I am disturbed about certain things happening in Israeli society right now. There is a kind of Jewish McCarthyism: exclusionary laws, suggestions of loyalty tests for citizenship, attacks on internal critics of Israel, attempts to hamstring human rights groups (viz. the recent demonization of Naomi Hazan), vulgar attacks on the Supreme Court, serious attempts to remove certain Arab MK’s from the Knesset, and the view that all and any criticism of Israel’s actions, certainly from without, are motivated by “anti-Semitism.” In this context, it is doubly important to reaffirm the universal values of our tradition.

On another level: I received an email from another reader who found this essay somewhat confusing on technical grounds, in that he couldn’t find the source verse connecting this dictum to the parashah. The truth is that I presented things in confusing fashion: I found the Rabbinic comment from Yevamot 90b quoted in both Torah Temimah and Yalkut Yehudah on verse 14: “when a man dies in a tent,” but the verse itself only appears far down in the Talmudic source; in between I digressed to quote the more “liberal” dictum from Bava Kamma before returning to the first source. Moreover, as I just discovered, in the English translation of the first part of the Yevamot passage I inadvertently omitted the key sentence: “you are called Man, but the pagan nations are not called Man,” which should have appeared right after the quote from Ezekiel. My apologies for the confusion.

Finally, writing about this passage required that I read Ezekiel 34, a fascinating prophecy about the “shepherds of Israel” that uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherding throughout. I did not fully understand the final verse, from which our prooftext, “you are man,” is brought. Perhaps it’s the prophet’s way of reminding his readers that all this is a metaphor, and he is really taking about people, not sheep.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Korah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, at 2006_05_25, as well as June 2007, 2008, and 2009.

We mentioned two weeks ago that the entire middle section of Sefer Bamidbar may be read as a catalogue of human weaknesses. Beha’alotkha, with the story of the people’s craving for flesh and the sending of the quail, represents the basest physical appetites. The parashah continues, in the story of Aaron and Miriam’s complaints against Moses, with a tale of sibling jealousy. Shelah lekha deals with raw fear: fear of the unknown, fear of violent conflict and the encounter with the (allegedly) stronger, fear of annihilation and death, and the panic and inability to act that ensue in their wake.

In Korah, we turn to a more sophisticated level of human interaction: that based upon ideological conflict over public leadership, which often serves as a screen for ambition and personal benefit. Almost every human group at one time or another has split over “principled” issues. This is particularly true of political groups, particularly revolutionary groups (the arguments over fine points of Marxist doctrine among socialist and communist splinter groups in the US in the 1930’s were notorious), as well as of religious groups: churches and synagogue organizations seem to be constantly splitting over issues of belief and ritual. But this is true of other groups as well—even those with such innocuous aims as Overeaters Anonymous or immigrant groups.

Who was Korah? Rav Soloveitchik describes his enterprise, in an essay published in one of the first collections of his public lectures, as “The First Rebellion against Torah Authority.” Korah used various demagogic tricks, invoking sublime values, to besmirch Moshe and Aaron in an attempt to wrest leadership from their hands.

However, as I explained in a short essay published here two years ago, there is also an alternative, underground Hasidic tradition that paints Korah in more positive, sympathetic light: the Hozeh of Lublin referred to him as “dem zeide Koirakh”—Grandfather Korah. Why?

The central issue raised by Korah—and again, whether this was a demagogic tactic or reflected authentic concern for the people makes all the difference—is his call for a kind of primitive democracy, in which all are equal, all have equal access to the Holy Spirit (an issue prefigured, in somewhat different fashion, in Beha’lotkha, when Eldad and Medad “prophesied in the camp”—Num 11:26-29): “For all the people are holy, and the Lord is in their midst; why then do you lord it over the congregation of the Lord” (16:3). To this, according to a series of midrashim, there is added his call for a simpler, more rational halakhic praxis (the midrash shows Korah him mocking the tzitzit and the mezuzah, in which a few blue threads or a single small scroll on the threshold exempt an entire garment or an entire house) and for a kind of rudimentary social justice (the story of the widow who is overwhelmed by Moses’ and Aaron’s demands for tithes and other religious taxes every step of the way).

The Izhbitzer suggests that Korah’s mistake was in anticipating the immediate implementation of a state of radical equality that can only truly be realized in messianic days. He cites the image at the end of Ta’anit, in which the righteous dance together in a circle (symbol of non-hierarchic brotherhood of all), pointing with their figures towards the Redeemer God: “this is the God for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation”! But such equality can only be realized at the End of Days. (But why only then? Why can we not create our Utopia in the Here and Now? That is the question asked by all revolutionaries and social reformers.)

On another level, Korah’s challenge brings to mind a fundamental debate about the understanding of what religion is all about—a debate alluded to by Art Green in the title of his book, Devotion and Commandment, one which is enjoying a new lease on life in today’s cultural climate, with the “New Age” revival of “spirituality.” To summarize (in its contemporary formulation, not that of Korah): is the source of religious inspiration and knowledge of the Divine a revealed body of teaching—i.e., the Torah—and the authority of its recognized interpreters? Or is it the inner consciousness of God, which may reside within each individual? Is the goal obedience to the reign of Torah, or is it a kind of universal elevated spiritual consciousness—that “the earth be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, like water flowing down to the sea”? Korah clearly chose the latter: “for all the congregation are holy.” Indeed, one commentator notes that the all-blue talitot worn by Korah’s followers were a symbol of universal holiness: just as the Ark of the Covenant was wrapped in a blue cloth when carried from place to place in the wilderness, so too is every Jew a potential Sefer Torah (an idea reflected in the halakhah that one rends ones garments upon seeing a person die, or that one stand one a Talmid-Hakham enters the room).

This past Shabbat we had a Shabbat meal that seemed to embody this dichotomy: one of our guests was a traditional halakhic Jew, a graduate of a noted yeshiva who now teaches Talmud at the university, and sees the teaching of Hazal as the defining moment within Judaism; the other, a “New Age” Jew who has created his own personal synthesis of a variety of spiritual teachings—Sufi, Hasidic, Buddhist, Yoga—tied together by the criterion of inner consciousness rather than by any objective, external halakhah. We had a good time talking—but can one square the circle? Can one embrace both halakhah and an idiosyncratic, personally defined spirituality? This issue was the subtext of my Shavuot paper about heteronomy and commandment.

Historically, this issue has presented itself in traditional Judaism, albeit in a somewhat different way. Hasidism, with its quest for devekut, “attachment” to God, or the Sefat Emet’s “connection to the root”; Kabbalah, with its focus on learning and transmitting the esoteric “secrets of Torah”; even Maimonides, the rational halakhist par excellence, who sees the summum bonum in “knowledge of God” accomplished through contemplation and rigorous philosophizing; or, for that matter, much of the aggadic teaching of the Sages—all ultimately relate to the quest for the spiritual life, for inner knowledge of the Presence. The difference between them and our modern seekers is, of course, that they accepted the halakhic path and its discipline as the “bottom line” from which any Jewish God-quest must start.

A Non-Eulogy

But the issue of authority and individual autonomy expresses itself in other ways as well. This week Rav Mordecai Eliyahu, former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel (1983-93), and subsequently the Rabbinic leader and spiritual guide of the National Religious Party (formerly Mizrachi), the political embodiment of Religious Zionism, passed away at age 81 after a lengthy illness.

What follows is not a eulogy in the usual sense, but more a series of reflections catalyzed by his death. I must admit that I feel no particular impulse to eulogize him, as I have in these pages with a variety of personalities, simply because I had very little contact with him (I heard him speak perhaps three or four times in all) and know rather little about him. He was of course a towering talmid hakham, a charismatic personality, a liberal posek in certain areas, and a person with a certain down-to-earth, “folksy” touch which made him accessible to the ordinary person. Twice I visited houses of mourning in Ramat Eshkol where he had come to eulogize ordinary people.

I think of him primarily in relation to two interrelated processes within Religious Zionism which, while he did not catalyze them, are somehow symbolized by the period of his Rabbinic leadership. The first of these was the turn of Religious Zionism to identification with ultra-nationalism and right-wing political views—in effect, excluding all those who did not share these views from the movement, or possibly even implying that they were not accepting Da’at Torah. I do not wish to address the substance of these issues here—the pros and cons of returning territories, attempting to make a peace agreement with the Palestinians, etc., but only the “external” aspect of the issue. In its early years, Religious Zionism was, on the simplest level, a movement of all those religious Jews who saw themselves as Zionists—people who kept Shabbat, wore tefillin and davened daily, but also participated fully in the Zionist endeavor: in the Army, in civil service, in professions, in small and large businesses, and in the everyday life of the new Jewish society being created here. Ideologically, they dissented from the anti-Zionist line of the Haredim, that Zionism was a movement that defied Heaven, violated the “three oaths,” etc., and cultivated the notion that the redemption of Israel would came slowly, gradually, and not in dramatic, supernatural events. But this was more a kind of ideological justification, to use current jargon a “narrative,” more of a pious hope for the indefinite future than an active messianic program. This was the view of S. H. Landau (Shahal), of Yeshayahu Shapira (the Admor Halutz), of Chief Rabbis Unterman and Herzog; of MKs Rabbi Yehudah Leib Maimon, Joseph Burg, Zorah Warhaftig; and of men of the Kibbutz HaDati such as Simhah Friedman, Dov Rappel, Moshe Unna—all ztz”l—and Yoske Ahituv (may he have a long life!).

In another context (that of the Conservative movement), Neil Gillman once wrote that ideological vagueness is of great value in that it enables people with divergent views to work together for common goals; the moment one defines beliefs and ideology too sharply, one excludes a large sector of any movement. This is what happened to Religious Zionism: it had been defined more by a certain life style and general attitudes than by sharply-defined ideological views; once this changed (mostly in wake of the ’67 war and the question of what to do with the territories conquered then and the need to take sides), those who were not militant nationalists or who did not support the settler movement were squeezed out. The NRP was reduced to a sectarian political party, in which Zeev Orlev and Shaul Yahalom were the “moderates.”

Secondly, Rav Eliyahu was the first rabbi to be officially adopted as the Rabbinic leader of the movement. The assumption was that, like the Haredi movements with their Councils of Torah Greats or of Torah Sages, Religious Zionism also needed a Rabbinic authority, who would guide them in accordance with Da’at Torah (a notion of dubious halakhic validity or authenticity) in responding to new legislation, conducting themselves in coalition negotiations, etc.

This development is more than a little ironic, because Religious Zionism began in a certain rebellion against Rabbinic establishment of its days—the famous concept of Mered ha-Kadosh, “Holy Rebellion.” Most leading Rabbanim in Eastern Europe did not approve of Zionism; it was only a small minority who saw in it a solution to the ever worsening situation of the Jews in Europe, long before Hitler’s rise to power. In connection with this, many thinkers in Religious Zionism drew a distinction between halakhic issues in the narrow sense—which required Rabbinic ruling—and broad issues of world-view, communal strategy, and the like. Moreover, there were always many within the movement who valued freedom of thought and individual opinion; as the movement turned rightward and toward a more authoritarian posture, these people continued to adhere to their independent positions, but without an organizational framework, or in smaller, dissident groups like Meimad, Ne’emanei Torah va-Avodah and Netivot Shalom.

I must qualify the above. While Rav Mordecai Eliyahu was the first rabbi of the NRP per se, Religious Zionism has always championed the idea of a Chief Rabbinate, as a kind of manifestation of mamlakhtiyut—as an appropriate expression of Ben-Gurion’s concept of statehood and the concomitant creation of centralized institutions. But this institution has also, in my opinion, outlived its usefulness. At one point the office was occupied by great men, men of vision and halakhic daring such as Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Rav Uziel, Rav Herzog, even Rav Goren—but it has long since ceased to be a source of inspiration or of vision; it is no longer the natural home for the most eloquent, wisest, inspired spokesman of traditional Judaism. Instead, it has become a clumsy bureaucracy, whose leaders are, as often as not, chosen in the basis of their success in political wheeling and dealing. It maintains a stranglehold over the areas of personal status—marriage, divorce and conversion—in which it has enforced an inflexible halakhic policy. Far from “making Torah great and glorious,” it has contributed in no small measure to the alienation and antipathy felt by many Israelis towards Judaism of any sort. If there must, let there be a state kashrut supervision bureau and a state marriage registry, manned by officials with proper training in these areas and guided by objective criteria, but without the hollow pretence to spiritual leadership.

KORAH: Postscript

On the week of Parshat Korah, I was scheduled to give a Devar Torah at one of the local synagogues; originally, I planned to say much the same things that I sent out to the readership of HY, but while walking to shul I developed some more ideas, which I now share with you:

One of the most striking features of Parshat Korah, perhaps more than any other in the entire Torah, is that it is based upon miracles and direct Divine intervention. Moses calls upon the rebels to fill their braziers with incense, and he whose offering is accepted, “he is the holy one”—and fire comes forth consuming the 250 men. Korah and his band are swallowed up by the earth, descending live to Sheol, God “creating a new thing.” Finally, when the people remain angry with Moses and Aaron because “you have killed the people of the Lord,” they are told to set out twelve staffs to represent the twelve tribes, and overnight the staff of the Aaronide Levites blossoms with almond blossoms, proving their election.

Korah, by contrast, presents a series of arguments: the seemingly democratic claim that “All the congregation are holy” and “Why do you lord it over the people of God.” The midrash shows him presenting further arguments against various laws of the Torah: the absurdity of one blue thread making a garment “kosher,” whereas an entire robe of pure blue is not; the sad tale of the widow lady impoverished by Moses’ edicts; etc. Whether all this is truly cogent or demagoguery is ultimately a matter of judgment.

What struck me about this is a parallel to the famous story of “the Stove of Akhnai,” told in b. Bava Metzia 59b: the Sages, led by R Joshua, debate a fine point of the laws of purity and impurity with R. Eliezer. Both sides invoke dozens of cogent arguments—but in the end, R Joshua’s position, supported by the majority, takes the day. At this point R. Eliezer invokes a series of supernatural signs to prove that God Himself supports his view: the carob tree is uprooted and moves one hundred ells, the stream runs backwards, the walls of the Study House begin to topple, and finally a Heavenly voice declares “the halakhah follows R Eliezer in every place.” Yet despite all this, R. Yehoshua remains adamant that one doesn’t heed any Heavenly signs: “It is not in Heaven!”—that is, once the Torah was given to men, and ultimate authority had been bestowed upon the High Court of the Sages (by a verse of the Torah itself!), it was as though God Himself had so-to-speak withdrawn from the Torah-halakhic process and had no right to interfere. “My sons have defeated Me!” he told Elijah, with the smile of an indulgent Father–God.

The striking thing about this is that, in our story, Moses so to speak corresponds to R. Eliezer, who in the end invokes miracles and is overruled, whereas Korah corresponds to R. Joshua, who wins by the use of rational arguments, not miracles, and speaks in the name of the majority. What are we to make of this?

One conclusion, of course, is that the rules had changed, so to speak, between the time of the Bible and that of the Sages. The Biblical age was indeed an age of signs and miracles, of direct Divine involvement in the affairs of men on an almost everyday basis. In the Talmudic era, the Torah was given over irrevocably into the hands of man. Prophecy had ended with the three prophets of the Return (Zechariah, Haggai and Malachi) who were really vestiges of the First Temple period; with the Destruction of the Second Temple, the sacrifices and whatever signs they involved (“Forty years before the Destruction of the Temple the crimson thread of the Yom Kippur goat of atonement ceased to turn white, etc.”—Yoma 39b) had ceased. The age of the immediate, tangible Divine Presence had ended forever. Judaism was now a matter of human wisdom and understanding of the sacred text, and its creative interpretation, for better or worse. (This idea was first suggested to me by Prof. David Gallenkin, in a conversation in wake of that same talk.)

Note: For a lucid, poetic characterization of the spirit of these two ages, see Simon Rawidowicz, “Israel’s Two Beginnings: On the First and Second Houses in Israel (Chapters From an Unfinished Introduction to a Philosophy of Jewish History),” in his Studies in Jewish Thought (Philadelphia: JPS, 1974), 81-209. And cf. my two-part essay on his thought at HY X: Vayehi-Shemot [=Zohar]. David Halivni Weiss, in his Broken Tablets, describes the tension between two paradigmatic moments in Jewish history: the fullness of Divine Presence at Sinai, and its total, radical absence in Auschwitz, with the exegesis-centered world of Hazal somewhere in between.

It occurred to me that one might interpret the emergence of Kabbalah, with its thirst for hidden, secret wisdom, and even more so Beshtian Hasidism with its wonder-working rabbis, as well as various other pneumatic movements in Judaism, as last-ditch attempts to revive the direct, unmediated presence of the holy spirit among men—something very much like prophecy under another guise. Perhaps that is why these movements aroused so much passion and controversy on both sides. On the one hand, they represented a deep, profound human need for the living spirit; on the other hand, there is a certain mood of religious sobriety deep within the Rabbinic tradition of Jewish learning that justifiably fears the explosive potential within that same tendency. Indeed, recently a friend of mine, a kind of Jewish New-Age seeker, spoke of the Stove of Akhnai story with great sadness, as signifying the failure of the Sages to leave any opening for direct contact with the Divine.

The second conclusion is far more radical, and is in the spirit of the Hozeh’s declaration that Korah was indeed “the holy grandfather”: that is, that the parallel between the two stories holds completely, forcing us to view the ministry of Moses in a certain ironic light—that perhaps, after all, he did not fully understand the people, and somehow failed to understand the greatness and depth of the issue joined with Korah…. Who knows? Perhaps down there, in the bowels of the earth where they were swallowed alive, Korah and his band are still stirring up far-reaching, radical ideas whose day has not yet come.

Avot: “These Things Take a Person Out of the World”

On Shabbat Beha’alotkha I presented here, without elaboration, three passages from Pirkei Avot which mention negative traits or practices that “remove a person from the world” (מוציאין את האדם מן העולם). The phrase itself is an unusual one, and is somewhat ambiguous: some commentators suggest that it means that the person will literally die, while others suggest that it means something like “his life will come to nothing.” It somehow seems doubtful that it means that these things are literally punishable by death: for that we have the phrase מתחייב בנפשו, “he is culpable of his soul,” which also appears in two or three places in Avot. Rather, it seems to be suggesting that there is an innate causality such that, if you behave this way, your life will lose its meaning or its value; you will, in the end, have wasted your unique opportunity to live in this world. You will not have been a positive, vital participant in the life of this world; and you may not even get much emotional, spiritual, psychological, or possibly even carnal enjoyment or pleasure out of life.

Let us start with the last and most succinct of the three, in the chapter read this week, Avot 4.27 [21]:

Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kapar said: Jealousy [and hatred] and desire and [the pursuit of] honor remove a person from the world.

Two of the three phrases mentioned here (or three of the four, if one includes the phrase “and hatred”) deal with ones attitude towards others. Jealousy is always of others: the other guy has something I want; even if I have everything I need, the fact that he (seemingly) has more or better fills me with jealousy, so that I cannot enjoy what I have. Hatred, by its very nature, is similarly focused on the other; and the pursuit of honor as a goal in itself is also other-focused, albeit in this case on the quest for positive recognition from others. (Interestingly, some sixty years ago the American sociologist David Riesman, in his book The Lonely Crowd, spoke of “other-directedness” as one of the salient characteristics of our age.) A person whose entire life is guided by others in the negative sense —what do they have that I don’t? When will they recognize my greatness? When will they give me the honor I deserve?—is not living his own life, but is living vicariously through the opinions and accomplishments of others. Of course, there may also be a positive sense in which one is guided by others: namely, in seeing the needs of others, and in attempting to perform acts of loving-kindness and generosity for the benefit of the other—but that is something entirely different!

Finally, the last phrase, “appetite” (which I discussed at length in my teaching on Beha’alotkha the other week), originates within the self. As far as they go, physical appetites are not a bad thing; if we’re honest, all of his enjoy it when our appetites are satisfied; it is when these become cravings, obsessions, when they take over our life, that they “take a person out of the world” in the sense that they reduce life to the pursuit of satisfaction of physical needs and pleasures. Traditionally, Judaism has seen the meaning of life in “doing”—in performing mitzvot, in acts of hesed to others, in seeking closeness to God—and in the fulfillment of that “appetite” which is most praiseworthy: the appetite to learn, to know and understand more and more Torah, at ever deeper levels.

We now turn to 2.14 [11], which bears many parallels to the last mishnah:

Rabbi Joshua said: The evil eye, and the Evil Urge, and hatred of people, take a person out of the world.

The essential insight here is similar to that of 4.27: “the evil eye,” stripped of its quasi-magical connotations, means, quite simply: looking askance at the success or material possessions of others, even if this is in no way detracts from oneself—in other words, senseless jealousy (and is jealousy ever really rational?). The “Evil Urge” belongs to the same semantic field as “appetite” in the previously cited mishnah: the will/urge/appetite for physical pleasures, particularly sexual desire. “Hatred of people [of others}” in turn parallels the phrase “hatred” mentioned as an optional reading in some textual versions of 4.27.

The root of jealousy, as it seems to me, is the idea that life is a zero-sum game: Whatever the other person gets must of necessity come at the expense of others—possibly myself. There is a fallacy here: many economists, who talk of an ever-growing economy, claim that the earth has an almost unlimited capacity to provide for the needs of its population. While this is not entirely true—indeed, the environmental consciousness that has become a part of our political culture in recent decades reminds us that the earth is a closed biosphere, with certain ultimate limits; and that, moreover, the concept of an ever-growing economy often means the production of unnecessary goods and the creation through psychological manipulation of trivial needs, as well as planned obsolescence, creating products that are less durable than they should be—this issue is beyond the scope of our discussion. On the micro level on which everyday human relations occur, the “zero-sum” approach to goods is nevertheless irrelevant. Whatever the consequence on the macro, I believe that jealousy, in the simple one-to-one sense of “evil eye”—looking with adversity upon the other guy’s success—is based on a psychological fallacy.

Finally, 3.13:

3.13. Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus said: Sleep in the morning, and wine at noontime, and the discourse of children, and sitting in the synagogues [or: assemblies] of the ignorant—remove a person from the world.

This mishnah is quite different: its concern is not with bad character traits, nor on focusing in a negative way on the other but, quite simply, behaviors which fritter away time, which don’t take life seriously: sleeping late, while morning is the quintessential time for activity and productive work; drinking wine in midday (I remember my parents commenting, with some concern, that when a friend of theirs who was an alcoholic—although very entertaining when he was tipsy; he was a marvelous raconteur—retired from teaching, he was likely to begin drinking in the morning rather than waiting till he came home from work in mid-afternoon), as opposed to, in the modern context, the person who has one cocktail in the evening after work or, in a working class setting, a pint of beer with his mates at the local pub on his way home. As for the prattle of children—again, what proud parent or grandparent doesn’t enjoy listening to his small children?—yet if this is a steady diet, a substitute for adult conversation, there is something wrong.

The bottom line of this mishnah, then, is that life is a serious business, and should not be wasted either by “killing time “ or engaging in inappropriate social associations.

Note: Incidentally, I believe that the admonition not to sleep on the day of Rosh Hashanah refers to sleeping late in the morning, when one ought to rise close to dawn to begin the holy service of that day—traditionally, davening on the Days of Awe began earlier than on a regular Shabbat or festival day—rather than to sleeping in the afternoon. A careful reading of Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 583.2 Ram”a, including its position, will bear this out; and see especially the comment of Be’er Heitev §7 ad loc, quoting the Ari z”l.

Shelah Lekha (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog, at 2006_05_20_archive.html/, as well as June 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Kaleb and the Spies

The affair of the spies sent by Moses and the bad report they brought of the Land and the dangers and uncertainties involved in conquering it is at the center of this week’s parashah. Thus, the Talmud devotes well over two folio pages to aggadah concerning the incident, the motivations of the people, and even the significance of their names. I will quote here only one small section, from Sotah 34b:

“And they went up through the Negev and [he] came to Hebron (Num 13:22). It should have read, “and they came” [i.e., in the plural rather than the singular form]. Rabba said: This teaches that Kaleb separated himself from the counsel of the Spies and went off and prostrated himself on the graves of the patriarchs. He said to them: Fathers, seek mercy on my behalf, that I may be saved from the counsel of the spies. {Regarding] Joshua, Moses had already asked mercy on his behalf, as is said “And Moses called Hosea son of Nun Yehoshu’a” (ibid., v. 16)— [meaning] “God save you” (Yah yoshi’akha) from the counsel of the spies. And concerning this it is written: “But by servant Kaleb, because he had a different spirit with him [he was brought into the land…]” {Num 14:24).

There is something singularly touching about this midrash. The Torah relates that, of the twelve spies who were sent—one from each tribe—ten brought back a discouraging, defeatist report; Joshua and Kaleb alone told the people that it would be possible to come into the land. Joshua, who was already then Moses’ second-in-command, was to become his successor; together with him, Kaleb was the only one, not only among the spies, but of the entire generation of those who were adults at the time of the Exodus, who were allowed to to survive the forty years of wandering and enter into the Land.

Our aggadah picks up on a small turn of language—the use of the word vayavo, “and he came,” rather than vayavo’u, “and they came”—to infer that the part of the mission involving Hebron involved only one person: Kaleb. Our aggadah shows Kaleb aware of the danger of being caught up with the other spies in denouncing Moses and the whole project of attempting to conquer and settle the land of Canaan/Israel, notwithstanding the divine promises. In order to overcome this, he decides to visit Hebron, the site of the graves of the patriarchs, and to ask their intercession on his behalf to resist this temptation.

There are two interesting and problematic points here. First, the idea of seeking assistance from the souls of the dead is strange, and seems to go against the prohibition against necromancy. Why cannot a person pray to God directly?! And yet, we know that, then as now, the graves of the righteous are considered places where prayer is somehow more efficacious; indeed, pilgrimages to the burial places of tzadikkim, whether in Israel, in North Africa, or in Eastern Europe, attract thousands and even tens of thousands of the faithful. The official explanation offered to justify this practice is that one is not praying to the dead, but asking their good offices as intercessors in Heaven, by virtue of their righteous deeds, on behalf of the petitioner. On the other hand, there are those more rationalist teachers who frown on the practice (e.g., Rav Soloveitchik writes against this in Halakhic Man). Nevertheless, even the most rationalist rabbis visit the graves of their own immediate family on yahrzeits and such occasions. In any event, this aggadah suggests that such a practice was already known in antiquity.

The second point about this story which I find quote touching is that Kaleb is portrayed here as asking divine help in resisting the counsel of the spies. Generally speaking, prayer involves request for Divine help against some external obstacle or threat: illness; famine, drought, and the concomitant threat of poverty; war; personal enemies who attack one and besmirch one’s name, etc. All these are repeated motifs in the prayer-psalms that dominate the first three-fifths of the Book of Psalms.

Here, Kaleb asks something else: that God help him to overcome his own impulse or temptation to join in the destructive plan of the meraglim. Clearly, our midrash is keenly aware of the dangers of social pressure: that the average person tends to conform to the opinion of those surrounding him; that it is far easier to agree with the consensus rather than to articulate an honest but unpopular view and to make one’s own truthful voice heard in face of the likelihood or even certainty of criticism. Kaleb, unlike Joshua, was not made of the stuff of a real leader, but he knew the truth, and he knew that he was confronting a test in which his own powers of stubborn resistance would be tested—and he did not want to be found wanting. On second thought, perhaps his journey to the Cave of Makhpelah in Hevron had an additional significance: he knew that the patriarchs, each in his own way, were stubborn men, who resisted the easy path and stood up against others when that was demanded (Avraham ha-Ivri—“he was on one side and the entire world on the other side”). Perhaps Kaleb sought inspiration from them for the test he would confront by visiting the site of their earthly remains, and thereby somehow coming as close as possible to their presence.