Friday, April 08, 2011

Metzora (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at March 28 2006, and April 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

Metzora—Motzi Shem Ra

This week’s parashah continues last week’s theme of tzara’at, of a certain kind of skin affliction: beginning with the procedure for ritual purification from tzara’at, continuing with the occurrence of a tzara’at–like infection within the walls of houses (mildew?), and concluding with various discharges—both normal and pathological—from the sexual organs.

I would like to elaborate on what may be the central point of both these parshiyot, one upon which I only touched last week, perhaps because I was working “down to the line”—sending it out literally on the cusp of sundown Friday. Namely: that the Sages interpreted tzara’at, not merely as a physiological syndrome, but as a sign of moral failing; specifically, as a punishment for tale-bearing, gossip, and slander of others. (Hence the above title, based on b. Arkhin 16b, in which the word Metzora is read as a notaricon for the phrase motzi shem ra‘—“one who spreads a bad name.” Why, of all the possible transgressions, did they choose this one in particular to be punished by total social isolation? Moreover, this is so even though it is not among the “cardinal sins” for which one is subject to karet, “being cut off from one’s people,” or even the death penalty. Indeed, perhaps this is so precisely because there is something intangible about such behavior. Unlike such acts as adultery, laboring on the Shabbat, or eating on Yom Kippur, three sins for which one is culpable of karet, which involve clear-cut and well-defined acts, it is difficult to state with clarity just when a person has committed lashon ha-ra. Indeed, the most damning forms of gossip and tale-bearing are often performed through innuendo or sarcasm, rather than by direct statement.

After writing last week’s page, I came across an important Talmudic aggadah related to this subject, also from b. Arkhin 16b:

R. Shmuel b. Nadav asked of R. Hanina, and some say R. Shmuel b. Nadav was the son-in-law of R. Hanina and he asked of R. Hanina, and some say he asked of R. Yehoshua b. Levi: What is different about the metzora, that the Torah said concerning him, “He shall sit alone, outside of the camp shall be his place of dwelling” (Lev 13:46)? He separated between husband and wife, between a man and his neighbor; therefore, the Torah said, “He shall sit alone.”

There is something uniquely anti-social about the behavior of the gossip, the tale-bearer. At times, it seems as if his activity is motivated by sheer cussedness, by the desire to stir up dissension, to create enmity and friction between people and to see others in the worst possible light—and to cause others to see them thus as well. Last week I read the thoughts on the parasha by Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, who discusses Shakespeare’s play Othello, as a dramatization of the harm done by sowing slander and suspicion among people. All of the principles either kill one another or commit suicide because of a vicious rumor started by Iago, motivated by jealousy.

I was reminded of an experience of my own: I was once told certain negative things about a certain person—or, more precisely, as is typical of such things, certain things that person had done, legitimate in themselves, were portrayed to me in a highly negative light. As I trusted the person who told me this, I decided not to contact the object of these stories, a casual friend, while visiting the United States, as I would have otherwise done. Some years later, I discussed these matters with another person who knew the situation equally well, and he give a totally different spin to the story. I resolved that, next time I would be in the US, I would phone the injured, or rather ignored party, to renew our acquaintance. But several years passed, and the opportunity did not arise so quickly. But human life is finite, and one winter’s day, I received a phone call that the man had died, and that his funeral would be that very evening. All that was left for me to do was, following Rambam’s counsel in Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.11, after b. Yoma 86a, to ask forgiveness in the presence of his dead body before the minyan gathered for the funeral—but that was of course woefully inadequate compared to the missed opportunity to restore relations with him while he was still alive.

“The Second Bird Set Free to Fly Over the Face of the Field”

The purification ceremony following recovery from tzara’at involves a rather strange ritual, in which the metzora takes two living birds: one of them is slaughtered, and its blood sprinkled upon him by a band of hyssop, cedar wood, crimson thread, and the living bird. The latter bird, after being used in this fashion, is set loose to fly free “over the face of the field” (14:4-7). This ritual is reminiscent of the Yom Kippur ritual, which likewise involves two animals, two goats—one of which is slaughtered as a sin-offering, the other being led into the wilderness. But there the similarity stops: the sa’ir ha-mishtaleah, which bears the sins of the entire house of Israel, after being led deep into the desert, is pushed over a cliff.

What des the ritual of these two birds signify? Rabbenu Bahye b. Asher indeed draws a parallel to the Yom Kippur, in which the open field is somehow seen as the realm of inchoate, demonic forces to which the sinner has somehow attached himself and which he somehow needs to appease. But my own intuitive sense is different. I would interpret it, by way of derush, as a ritual enactment of the process of teshuvah for the sin of gossip: the sprinkling with blood is a kind of expatiation for the blood shed, actually or symbolically, as a result of the talebearer’s meddling, whereas flying free over the field symbolizes a new beginning, a new, freer view on life. The talebearer had been preoccupied with the narrow limits of the small circle of people among whom he had gone about telling tales; to rebuild himself, he needs to turn to something broader, larger than himself, fresh and life–giving…

Menstruation and Isolation

Finally, a comment on the concluding portion of our sedrah, which among other things deals with the niddah, the menstruant woman. Is the menstruant subject to the same sort of restrictions and social isolation as the metzora, if to a lesser degree? In the past, there were those Jewish communities in which menstruant women were strongly isolated. Such was the case, for example, among Ethiopian Jews—who of course did not have the normative Rabbinic tradition. But in medieval Ashkenazic sources we likewise encounter some highly restrictive practices, such as the custom that a woman ought not to attend synagogue during her menstruation (the possibility of a special dispensation or the High Holy days is discussed in this context) or, according to some views, even to pray at home, or to touch a holy book, or to recite blessings! It was likewise said that a man should not follow in the steps of a niddah.

However, as been shown conclusively by Daniel Sperber (see Women aand Communal Prayer, pp.162-177) and other scholars, all these practices, are based upon a text called Beraita de-Maskhet Niddah, which was in fact a sectarian (perhaps Karaite) work, and in no sense normative halakhah, but which for many centuries was mistakenly accepted by some of the greatest poskim as authoritative. In today’s practice, the laws of niddah are limited to the realm between husband and wife, involving strict avoidance of any contact that might lead to intimacies between them—but is confined to the strictly private realm, and does not affect the woman’s participation in life in community. (In many Orthodox circles, great care is taken not to give any indication to others whether or not the woman is niddah, to avoid embarrassment. Hence, any display of public affection is avoided at all times, niddah separation becoming, so to speak, the public default option. Whether this is rooted in prudishness about sexuality, or queasiness about making the woman’s menstruation evident, is an open question.)

* * * * *

As Purim is already well–past and Pesah is almost upon us, I would like to “clear my table” of a variety of miscellaneous thoughts and insights written over the past month or two which I have been unable to share with readers thus far. Hence, I hope and plan to send out a number of supplements or “postscripts” in the next few days—the first one possibly even later this afternoon. Next week, I hope to present a somewhat longer halakhic–aggadic essay in honor of Shabbat Hagadol.

Tazria--Hahodesh (Individual & Community)

“Outside of the Camp Shall be his Dwelling Place”

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, is the first of two sections dealing with various kinds of ritual impurity or contamination—in itself a rather abstruse subject rather distant from our own contemporary lives. The focus of this particular chapter seems even more arcane: namely, tzara’at, a form of skin infection or disease, commonly translated as leprosy, which afflicts people now and then. Leviticus 13, the central chapter of this week’s parashah, goes into great detail about the various kinds of symptoms a person may find on his skin, which he is then required to bring to the priest, who examines him, and either sends him home or sequesters him for seven days, at the end of which he is again examined to determine whether or not the symptom has spread or not. At that point he decides whether or not he is to be declared as either pure or impure, and at the end he is required to undergo certain purification rituals.

What seems most interesting to me from the viewpoint of our subject this year is that, at the very end of the chapter, there are two verses stating that the person subject to tzara’at is to be totally isolated from society: “The person who is tzaru’a, in whom there is the affliction, his garments shall be rent and his head shall be disheveled, and he shall cover up his mustache, and he shall cry out ‘Impure! Impure!’ All the days that the affliction is within him he shall be impure, he shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall be his residence” (Lev 13:45–46). (Interestingly, the instructions applied to the tzaru’a are almost an exact inversion of those things which the priest is proscribed from doing even when in mourning, as we discussed last week regarding the deaths of Nadav and Avihu: Lev 10:6-7).

What is the point of this isolation? The simplest, common-sense explanation is that it was a pragmatic measure, a form of prophylactic action to prevent contagion. Evidently this disease, whatever it was, was highly contagious, so that if the afflicted person were to remain within the camp he would be likely to spread it to others. But what is strange is that the isolation of the tzaru’a was stricter than that of any other impure person and of any other kind of disease. (Note Num 5:1-4: כל צרוע וכל זב וכל טמא לנפש — “You shall send outside of the camp every leprous person, and everyone with a flow, and everyone impure by contact with the dead,” which is read by the Sages as arranged in descending order of distancing from the camp) In particular, it is more severe than the isolation of the zav, the person with a “flow” from his or her sexual organs as described in next week’s portion, which presumably refers to gonorrhea or some such sexually–transmitted disease. Hence, the Rabbis interpreted leprosy as a kind of divine punishment for moral transgression—specifically, evil speech, tale-bearing, gossip, etc. This is the main thrust of almost old Rabbinic aggadah dealing with this subject. It is suggested by the fact that Miriam, when she spoke ill of her brother Moses concerning the Kushite woman he had taken in marriage—or perhaps when he separated from her—was punished directly by God with leprosy; the Bible then describes how Moses prayed, briefly but eloquently, on her behalf (Num 12:1-16; but why was Miriam alone punished, and not Aaron?). That there is a definite connection between the two is further borne out by the proximity of the verse warning one to be careful about the laws of tzara’at and the commandment to remember what God did to Miriam, which are adjacent to one another in Deuteronomy (24:8-9), in one of the first examples of what some scholars call intra-biblical interpretation.

Social isolation is one of the harshest punishments which can be meted out to a person. Man is by nature a social being, with a multitude of family and communal connections. In addition to the isolation prescribed for the metzora, Judaism developed a number of sanctions of social isolation, nidduy and herem, the ban or excommunication, by which a person who had transgressed certain cardinal norms of the community was isolated from others, whether on a temporary or more permanent basis. In some cases, this was used as a form of pressure to cause the person to change his ways—or perhaps as a way of dramatizing the severity of malicious gossip, which to many seems an almost innocent pastime. For example, it has been suggested today in certain religious communities that a husband who refuses to give his wife a divorce writ or get, once the Rabbinic court has ruled that he should do so and must do so, should be subjected to such isolation is a form of pressure. (The idea of social isolation or exclusion also exists in some Christian groups today, such as the Mormons and the Amish, at times even breaking up families, separating husbands from wives and parents from children, etc. Is such a sanction inhumanly cruel? And may it at times also be used as a tool for enforcing a narrow type of social conformity, or even to keep its members ignorant of the life of main-stream society? All these are questions raised by the issue of social isolation —and perhaps, some would say, shows the negative side of excessively strong community generally) “Life is with people,” to quote the title of the book about Eastern European Jewish life which was popular some decades ago, and a person who is not allowed to have ordinary free interaction with his fellows is almost “as if dead.” Even if it does not involve imprisonment or monetary penalties, not to mention corporal punishment, such isolation is perhaps one of the strongest forms of punishment known to society. Interestingly, Jewish law regarding mourning for one’s parents or other close relatives is in some ways analogous to the isolation imposed upon the metzora or upon the one subject to the ban—although in the case of mourning it of course has a completely different meaning. As if to say: the death of a loved one, the disruption of the most basic and intimate social cell, that of the nuclear family, is such a great upheaval that the lives of all those who are part of this family are ipso facto somehow outside of the mainstream of the larger community; during the period of shivah they are preoccupied with their own family and with their own loss. They need to reorient themselves to the new situation, in which a key person is gone forever. Thus, only after the seven days of mourning do they gradually return to the community circle, and even then there are a number of symbolic expressions of them being apart. A man does not sit in his regular seat in synagogue during the twelve months of mourning for his parent (or, at very least, during the sheloshim, the first thirty days following the death). One goes to work, because one needs to make a living, but one does not go to celebrations and joyous events, because one remains somewhat apart from society.

Shemini -- Parah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for March 21 2006, April 2007, March 2008, April 2009, and March 10 2010.

Thoughts on Jewish Leadership

I wish to devote this issue to a discussion of communal leadership, turning to a possible lesson from the parshat hashavua a bit later. Some weeks ago I learned of a difficult situation in a large Conservative synagogue in a prosperous American suburb, which had lost its rabbi under somewhat problematic circumstances, and they were searching for a way to continue. For about a year after the senior rabbi’s departure, the community had been led by the assistant rabbi, a man in his early 40’s. From the information I received, this rabbi was an unassuming but highly competent and talented person, with excellent skills: he taught well, led the prayers well, his sermons were passionate, interesting and illuminating, he was an excellent pastor who knew both how to draw people together and how to help them in times of personal crisis, and had previously helped the community to weather several painful upheavals in their communal life in as smooth a manner as possible.

But now the congregation was looking for a permanent senior rabbi, and is divided between two factions: on the one hand, those who wanted the assistant rabbi to continue, and even to assume the position of senior rabbi. Another faction, which included many of the major donors who were heavily represented on the synagogue board, wanted someone more “distinguished”—someone who would cut a more prominent public image, someone with fund-raising ability, charm, and “charisma,” who might, among other things, attract more members (and revenue) to the synagogue. One person was even heard to say that they should look for a “rock star” rabbi.

I had heard of the “super-rabbi” phenomenon. I have noticed Newsweek’s annual list of the “50 most prominent rabbis in the US,” and my instinctive reaction was that there was something twisted about the concept. Is “prominent” always better? Does a synagogue need a superstar as rabbi, or a teacher–scholar leader, who can inspire the adults to live richer Jewish lives and can help give the younger generation meaningful reasons for staying Jewish? Does one of the “50 most prominent” care more about the sick, the confused, the unhappy, those in need of a kind word or a bit of personal guidance rooted in our tradition? It seems to me that this “super-star” phenomenon represents the penetration of alien values, of the culture of celebrity, into the rabbinate, which ought to be governed by totally different criteria.

Those of us living in the Katamon-Talpiyot communities of Jerusalem have had our own experience with celebrity rabbis. I think of a young man of great charm and charisma, who at one point filled halls with crowds who came to hear him speak about the parshat ha-shavu’a—and in course of time was revealed to be a total charlatan, as well as an incorrigible womanizer, who abused his position to conduct multiple sexual affairs while building a new community meant to embody the best of Jewish and contemporary spiritual values, and who ultimately left the country in disgrace. More recently an Israeli rabbi of great charisma and influence was also revealed to be engaging in improper relations with his students and followers. Needless to say, not all “super-stars” engage in improper sexual activities, but there is a tendency for those with highly-inflated egos to feel that they are not subject to the norms that govern ordinary mortals, in both the sexual and other areas.

The twin problems—of “super-rabbis” and of coarse moneyed elements lacking in any real sense of Jewish values exerting excessive influence in Jewish communities—is not a new one. My grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi in the Bronx during the early decades of the 20th century, and himself reputedly a charismatic and popular preacher, was quoted as privately referring to the Trustees of his synagogue as “trust-thieves.” Going back even further: I recently translated a book, by historian Yaron Harel, about struggles concerning the position of Chief Rabbi (Hakham Bashi) in major communities of the Ottoman empire, such as Damascus, Baghdad and Aleppo. Time and again, one reads of gevirim using their influence to place in office rabbis whom they favored for one reason or another, while pious and honest rabbis who were more concerned with helping the poor and needy elements in the community had to struggle to keep their positions.

It seems to me clear beyond question that Judaism has always taught modesty and humility as cardinal qualities, even—or shall we say especially?—in leaders. One may start with Moses: והאיש משה ענו מאד (“and the man Moses was very humble”). The Talmud says that authentic Jews may be recognized by three qualities: בישנים, רחמנים, וגומלי חסדים —that they are shy (i.e., humble, self-effacing), compassionate, and performing acts of kindness to others. Rambam states that the judges in any Rabbinic court the needed to have the following seven qualities: “wisdom, modesty, fear of God, hatred of money, love of truth, to be beloved by the people, and good reputation (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2.7). A decent person does not seek honor: “One who pursues honor, honor eludes him; one who runs away from honor, honor pursues him.”

As it is only a few days after Purim, I will mention an idea from the Megillah. Haman’s most striking trait, even more than his irrational hated of the Jews, was his obsession with his own honor: he was a classical egomaniac, with an insatiable need for honor and recognition. Thus, when he was called to the king and asked, ”What should be done to a man whom the king wishes to honor,” his immediate assumption was that the king wished to honor himself (Est 6:6). There is delicious irony in the scene that follows, in which he is asked to lead his arch-enemy, Mordecai, through the streets of the city on a royal steed. Indeed, it was Mordecai’s refusal to bow and prostrate himself before him that initially triggered his anti-Semitic rage and lead to his murderous plan (3:5-6). By contrast, there is no indication that Mordechai was anything other than a modest, humble person.

The models of Rabbinic leadership in the Orthodox world, certainly in recent history, are marked by personal modesty. The Hafetz Hayyim never held any official position, but was a small man who earned his living traveling about Eastern Europe selling his books—yet he was universally beloved and respected as the gadol hador. A cousin of mine who is close to that world once commented that Rav Moshe Feinstein, who during the latter half of the twentieth century was considered the leading halakhic authority in North America, became so after the death of Rav Aharon Kutler because were attracted to him precisely by the sense of Torah authenticity they felt in his modest and unassuming demeanor. Similar stories—about the modesty of their dwelling and their unassuming personal bearing—are told about Rav Kook, about the Hazon Ish, about Rav Shakh, Rav Elyashev, and many others. More than flashy charisma, a rabbi was chosen because he embodied the values that the community cherished; he represented a kind of ideal, more learned and more pious, alter ego.

I would add here that one of the salient traits of my own teacher, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, is his singular modesty. This is expressed even in small, simple things: once, when he called me on the phone, he introduced himself simply by name—“this is Aharon Lichtenstein”—without any titles. At the funeral of Prof. Yitzhak Twersky, I was rather surprised not to see him in the crowd, but when they brought in the body I understood: he was a simple pallbearer. Once, when I was a student at his yeshiva, I accidentally dropped a pen on the floor during his class; the Rav promptly left his seat to pick it up for me.

I would now wish to turn to our parashah. Almost all of Sefer Vayikra consists of the presentation of laws; indeed, it can be read as one lengthy legal codex. Ramban refers to it as Brit Ohel Mo’ed, because it opens with God calling to Moses from the (newly erected) Tent of Meeting; thereafter, there is no further need for “calling,” so that each new section begins with the familiar formula (probably the most frequently repeated verse in the entire Torah) וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר, “And HE spoke to Moses, saying…” In the entire book, there are only two places in which we read narratives relating to actual events that happened: the first, in this parashah, tells of the dedication of the Tabernacle from a different perspective from that already seen in Exodus 40, including the tragic events surrounding the death of two of Aaron’s sons and their aftermath; second, a brief account of an incident in which a certain man cursed God’s name, and was judged and punished (Lev 24:10-12, 14, 23)—and even that, more than anything else, seems intended to teach us the law applicable in such a case.

The central and certainly the most dramatic event of the parashah is the death of Nadav and Avihu, who offered “strange fire” before the Lord in the festive day of dedication of the Tabernacle (Lev 10:1-5; I have discussed this many times in the past, and will not reiterate here). After this happens, Moses instructs the remaining priests—Aharon and his surviving sons Eleazar and Itamar—not to show any external sign of mourning. “Do not dishevel your heads [i.e., hair] and do not rend your garments … and do not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die” (vv. 6-7). Rather, they are to continue the ritual of Divine service, and allow their brethren, “the whole house of Israel,” to mourn and bewail this tragic event.

I find these verses quite extraordinary. What does it say about their attitude towards themselves and the public? And what did conversation between Moses and Aaron reveal? He seems to be saying: once you assume the mantle of the priesthood, you have no personal life, no individual persona, no family and, by implication, no ego at all! The anointing oil of God is upon you, and you cannot even allow yourself the personal ”luxury” of mourning your own son. You belong to the Temple and to your God, exclusively! (and cf. Lev 21:10-15)

But there is a certain limitation even to this self-abnegation. After the instruction to the priests not to drink wine while serving in the Temple, Moses sees that Aharon and his sons have not eaten the ram of the burnt-offering, as they should have, but burned it instead. Moses expected them to continue with the normal priestly routine, even though this was doubtless the worst day of their life on the personal level. Aaron answers: “… After such things happened to me, were I to eat the hatat would it be good in the eyes of God?” (v. 19)—and Moses accepted his answer.

Purim (Individual & Community)

Why Is Drinking a Mitzvah?

At the risk of engaging in a serious discussion on Purim itself, I would add a few thoughts about the mitzvah, putative or otherwise, of drinking on Purim “until one knows not between ‘Blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘ Cursed is Haman.’” I have discussed this subject in previous years (see especially HY XI: Tetzaveh–Purim [= Aggadah; blogged Feb 2010]; and my essay on “Purim and Madri Gras” in HY VI: Tzav-Purim [=Psalms; blogged Mar 13 2006]), but there is always room for new ideas. And, since I don’t observe Purim on the 14th of Adar, I am not really culpable of the cardinal sin of serious discourse on a day devoted to serious frivolity.

Rambam states that a person must strive for the golden mean in all things, and try to develop his character between extremes in any directions. The only exceptions to this are anger and arrogance (i.e., haughtiness, egotism) which are to be avoided by going to the opposite extreme—no doubt because the midrashim see these attributes as tantamount to idolatry.

Now, what is the opposite of drunkenness? Surely: a serious, solemn demeanor, in which one takes oneself with utmost seriousness, coupled with tight discipline and the feeling that “I am in control.” This is a particular danger in Judaism, as a system of rules, of strict morality, in which the ideal is to exploit every possible moment fir the service of God in one or another manner. This, it is not uncommon to find within the halakhic community individuals whose personalities are wound up like a tightly coiled spring, for whom tight control over both speech and actions is a sine qua non.

Once a year, the halakhah commands us to drink, to let go of our rigid self–discipline, as if to say “It’s OK to let go.” Underlying this is also a profound theological message: that we are not really in control, either of ourselves and our own inner, submerged impulses, and all the more so of what occurs in the world around us. This is one of the deepest lessons of Purim and of the Megillah. The world depicted in the Book of Esther is one of anarchy, in which “the center doesn’t hold,” a world ruled by chance, by a collection of random events which seemingly make no sense, and only in retrospect prove to have been serendipitous. God’ name appears nowhere in the Megillah; albeit in one place Mordecai alludes to a higher power when he tells Esther: “If you are silent at a time like this, relief deliverance shall come to the Jews from another place” (Est 4:14). However, the word ha-melekh, “the king,” appears numerous times in the Megillah (indeed, some scrolls are written in such a way that this word appears at the top of every column); even though its literal sense is to refer to the Persian emperor, our Sages tell us that every such usage also alludes to the hidden presence of God’s hand. (Indeed, the very name “Esther” is also seen as alluding to this world of hiddenness—b. Hullin 139b).

All of the above may be seen as general religious and psychological truths, valid at all times, but they seem especially germane this week. Japan, one of leading economies of the world, a powerhouse of productivity in technology and other areas, sometimes referred to as the “post-war miracle,” this week suffered a series of devastating blows: an earthquake and Tsunami that killed tens of thousands (including the missing), destroyed whole towns and small cities, leaving countless families homeless and, perhaps worst of all, damaged a series of nuclear reactors, raising the specter of an atomic meltdown and uncontrolled radiation harm. These events are yet another proof of the contingent nature if even the best and most careful of human plans in face of the titans of nature; there is no such thing as something that is “fail–proof” in human life.

We can only conclude by expressing our own shock and sadness at these tragic events, admiring the strength and nobility displayed by the Japanese people in dealing with adversary, and wishing them a speedy and recovery insofar as possible. (And perhaps it is appropriate to mention here that the Japanese, although military allies of the Nazi regime during the Second World War, in no wise shared their anti-Semitic agenda, and treated whatever Jews passed their way with kindness and decency.)

Tzav--Zakhor (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, and on Purim, see the archives to this blog for March 2006 and 2006_02-15_archive.html, and March 2007 (scroll to end), March 2008, March 2009 (end, on Purim), and Feb 20 2010.

Amalek Today

Though Purim is arguably the most light-hearted and even riotous holiday of the Jewish year, it is preceded by two somber days: the Fast of Esther and Shabbat Zakhor, a day devoted to the theme of “remembering Amalek,” when it is a special halakhic requirement to hear the public reading of the passage calling on us to remember his actions (Deut 25:17-19; cf. Exod 17:8-16). Amalek was a nation of marauders who, shortly after the Exodus of Israel from Egypt, attacked the stragglers among them, “those who were trailing at the tail end, and were weak and weary.” Haman, the arch-villain of the Purim story, was of the seed of this same nation. Thus, the entire period from this Shabbat through the festive day of Purim revolves around Amalek: Shabbat is devoted to sober reflection upon him and his deeds, while Purim is the joyous celebration of our delivery from Haman/Amalek’s murderous designs and his ignominious defeat.

But who or what is Amalek, and how are we to understand the relevance of “remembering” him today?

On the simplest, straightforward level, Amalek was a particular nation that has long since ceased to exist; the Sages already observed that “Sennacherib came and mixed all the nations.” But Amalek may also be seen as an archetype or embodiment of all the enemies of the Jewish people throughout history. Sefer ha-Hinukh seems to suggest something like that when he writes: “Among the roots of this mitzvah are that we should take to heart that whoever vexes Israel is hated by God… and that, in proportion with his evil and guile, so shall be his downfall…” (Mitzvah §557).

In these troubled days there is a particular temptation, especially here in Israel, to see the Arabs as the personification of Amalek. Particularly in wake of the events of last Shabbat, when five members of a single family in the settlement of Itamar —father, mother, and three of their six children, including a small infant—were brutally murdered, anti-Arab passion may easily reach a fever pitch. Some rabbis will no doubt assert, as they have in the past, that the Arab peoples as a whole are the embodiment of Amalek, and are deserving of collective punishment for this vicious crime. Purim, in particular, has afforded for some an occasion for expressions of simple hatred of Gentiles, or particular groups that are anti-Semitic or thought of as such. It seems no accident that the 1994 massacre of Arab worshippers in the Cave of Machpelah by Baruch Goldstein took place on Purim; he no imagined himself reenacting the vengeance taken by the Jews of Persia against their enemies. Historian Elliott Horowitz, in his book Reckless Rites, which I reviewed in these pages some years ago (HY VIII: Tetzavah-Purim [=Rashi]), discusses the darker side of this festival at some length.

The application of Amalek to real historical enemies—e.g., the Arabs or Palestinians—is dangerous for several reasons: first, because it can be used to justify gratuitous violence and other unjust acts, justified by sweeping generalizations about a diverse group of people; because it obscures a host of other issues in our conflict with the Arab inhabitants of this land, thereby obviating our seeing the problem in a more nuanced and subtle manner that might enable us to reach ahe modus vivendi with the Palestinian people that Israel so desperately needs; and, finally, and not least, because it distorts and falsifies the intention of the Torah itself.

What, then, might be an alternative reading of Amalek, what about him or them ought we to “remember,” and what ought we to celebrate on the festival of Purim? The Zohar in Parshat Beshalah, II:64b-67a, discusses Amalek at some length, but focuses on the sins of the Jewish people which made them vulnerable to his attack, and less on defining who or what Amalek was. (I thank Avraham Leader for taking time to learn some of this interesting and theologically rich material with me; unfortunately, I found it of little use in answering my specific question.) The impression gained from the Zoharic discussion is that Amalek is a kind of embodiment of negative, even toxic, cosmic forces: the side of “Harsh Judgment,” similar to Satan, the Evil Urge, or the Angel of Death: forces which wage battle against the Almighty. In similar vein, much of the classic aggadah on Amalek focuses on the spiritual nature of the “weakness” of the stragglers whom he attacked (see the passages quoted from Sifrei in Ginsburg’s Yalkut Yehudah ad loc.).

Martin Buber, in his book On Good and Evil, draws a distinction between two kinds of evil. There is evil which stems from confusion, from the person becoming caught up in the maelstrom of multiple possibilities presented by life, failing to choose any direction which will unify and thus give meaning and positive purpose to his life. The lack of focus and direction in life, following one’s variegated impulses in the pursuit of short-term or immediate gratification—all these are doubtless the root of much of the wrong-doing and suffering in this world (cf. Levinas’ concept of “The Temptation of Temptation” in his Nine Talmudic Readings).

But there is another kind of evil: that of the person who has made a conscious choice of the path of evil as against good, who has closed his heart to the other, to basic feelings of human empathy, who is moved by sheer cussedness and bitterness. As several midrashim note, the salient feature of Amalek was that he did not know the meaning of mercy or compassion for his fellow human being, and attacked the weak and helpless, the old and the stragglers.

But more than that: Amalek is human evil pushed to the extreme: unmotivated, gratuitous, murderous hatred. Or, as Buber puts it, in analyzing the ancient Iranian myth of the king Yima, his sin is hubris, the lie against the nature of his being itself: “The primal lie… which ascribes the conquest of the powers of nature to its own superpower. It is no verbal lie confronting a verbal truth; it is an existential lie against being…. He sees himself as self-creator, through himself immortal and immortalizing… he thus commits.. ‘the inner untruth against God and himself” (Good and Evil, p. 110). We hear echoes here of Pharaoh’s “The Nile is mine, and I have made it”; or, even more so, this may be read as an elaboration of the succinct words of the Torah about Amalek: ולא ירא אלהים, “And he did not fear God.”

When I first started this essay, I thought of Amalek as embodying the propensity towards aggression and hostility inherent within human nature, but pushed to an extreme. When this tendency comes to dominate an individual, or more so an entire nation or culture, it can be fatally dangerous. I thought particularly of what the Greeks (and Freud) called Thanatos—the death instinct, the antithesis of Eros, of that which embraces life, which can love others, which seeks to maximize joy and pleasure. At root, it is a fascination with death, even a perverse longing for one’s one death—but it also lies at the root of the desire to cause harm or even death to others. It is particularly prevalent among males and, in our day, with the increasing sophistication and power of weaponry, its destructive power is overwhelming and potentially catastrophic.

But the aggressive instinct, while dangerous, was developed by human beings, or implanted within them by their Creator, as it was within other species, out of necessity, as a means of survival, as a defense against the very real threats encountered in life. The problem is that it can get out of hand, and that, with modern technology, may escalate into horrific acts.

The Amalek principle is something else again: more like what Buber described as a choice of evil as an end in itself, as a life path, scoffing at all decency, at all humane values. I am reluctant to identify it with any specific individual or group, but it is a kind of black hatred of just about everything human and good and decent. And it is real: perhaps a little bit of it is present in every person, and it is certainly alive in the world. One recognizes it when one sees it. (Several people wrote me this week that the murder of small infants, even the slitting of their throats, is not unknown in certain conflicts within the Arab world; that is, what happened to poor little Hadas Fogel was not sui generis, or even confined to Jew-hatred [small comfort that!], but part of a culture of death.) Thus, the mitzvah to remember what Amalek of old did (and Agag, and Haman, and Titus and Torquemada and Chmelnicki, and Hitler; and to this list I would add not only anti-Semites, but enemies against humanity generally) is still of importance. And Purim, while a celebration of a single victory over the Amalek principle, was a victory that was not final, that never is final, but was only one stage in an ever-lasting struggle.

Thoughts About Mishloah Manot

Turning now to Purim itself, and to its practical mitzvot: what ought one to do about mishloah manot? As Purim approaches, many an Orthodox housewife throws up her hands in despair at the religious and social duty of sending out Mishloah Manot—little gifts of cakes and other food stuffs—to friends and neighbors on Purim day. While the halakhah specifies that one is only required to send two manot, two “portions,” to one person, the tendency is “the more the merrier.” And the more socially-connected an individual or family is, the longer the list of “obligations” or people to whom one is expected to send mishloah manot. When my children were small, and we were perhaps more in the focus of a particular synagogue community, my wife would spend days in advance baking—hamantaschen, chocolate-rum balls, little cakes; the morning was spent driving around delivering mishloah manot to a dozen or more people in different neighborhoods; and, when the day ended, our kitchen was filled with baked goods and sweets which usually lasted until Pesah (my wife exercised an iron hand, doling these out to the children only on Shabbat).

In principle, mishloah manot expresses an important religious idea (and one related to our theme for this year): an expression of communal solidarity and love of ones fellow Jew. Thus, by the time each person sits down to his Purim feast in the afternoon, his menu, as that in the homes to whom he has sent his gifts, is composed of portions or courses of food from many different friends and neighbors. But somewhere along the way, it has become for many a baking competition among the housewives, a logistic burden, and a sugar-fest.

Some synagogues, thinking that there must be a better way, have organized a mishloah manot project, in which each member contributes a certain sum to a common pool, which goes mostly to Tzedakah—both “gifts to the poor” on the day of Purim itself, to worthy causes in general, and perhaps also in anticipation of Pesah—and each member of the community receives one symbolic box of mishloah manot. In other places, cards are delivered stating that “the money earmarked for your mishloah manot has been given to such-and-such a charity.” (Both of these ideas are much in keeping with the Rambam’s statement that one ought to spend more money on gifts to the poor than on mishloah manot and on one’s own Purim feast combined: Hilkhot Megillah 2.17).

Without denigrating these efforts, I would like to add another suggestion: that one send gifts consisting of small portions of real food, rather than cakes, sweets, or other nashery: a small salad or cooked vegetarian dish, suitable for a first course or side dish: cooked rice and lentils, ratatouille, vegetarian mock liver, braised peppers, to mention just a few items I have sent to friends in past years. I advocate this for two reasons. First, in my reading of the classical sources, the original idea of mishloah manot was precisely that: to send a “portion” or course of food to one’s neighbors. (Incidentally, it would seem that in ancient times it was customary to send “portions” of food, not only on Purim, but on other holidays as well; see Mishnah Beitzah 1.9.) Need I add that nowhere in the Shulhan Arukh is there the slightest hint that these must be sweet, dessert-type portions, three-cornered or otherwise.

Second: one of the serious problems of Western culture, that has greatly accelerated in recent decades, is obesity and obesity-related diseases; the increase is particularly dramatic among children and teen-agers. One of the major culprits, most experts agree, is a diet top-heavy in “junk foods” and fast food—saturated fats, cholesterol, and carbohydrates filled with empty calories—i.e., refined flour, refined sugar, and trans-fats—precisely the things found in most mishloah manot packages. Rather than associating celebration and the spirit of fellowship with sharing such potential poisons, would it not be better to share sound, nourishing food—such as salads and vegetable dishes—or natural snacks, such as fresh fruits and nuts?

I cannot conclude without expressing our sadness at the natural disasters that have befallen the Japanese people, and our concern and worry at its ongoing nuclear crisis.

Vayikra (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to the blog at March 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Two Foci of Holiness

This week’s parashah begins the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. While still concerned with matters of the Temple and sacrifices, the focus here turns from the structure of the Tabernacle/Temple as such to the sacrificial offerings made on the altar. This week’s reading, specifically, is a kind of introduction to the sacrificial order, describing the various kinds of offerings made on the altar: olah (burnt offering), minhah (grain offering), shelamim (whole offerings) and the various kinds of hatat (sin-offering). (For a typology of these as a kind of vocabulary of religious emotion, see HY I: Vayikra)

In fact, the portable Mishkan in the desert, and the fixed Temple which followed it, had two focii: the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy of Holies, which was, so to speak, the earthly home or resting place for the Divine Presence; and the altar, which was situated, in the language of numerous passages in these chapters, “at the entrance to / opposite the Tent of Meeting” (petah / nokhah ohel mo’ed). What is the significance of these two foci, each one of which, in its own right, is a “sacred center”?

The Ark, and the innermost chamber in which it was housed, embodies or symbolizes God’s Presence. It is, so to speak, His secret place, entered by human beings only once a year, on the holy day of Yom Kippur, by the holiest individual in the people of Israel, the High Priest—and even then with great fear and trembling, awe and trepidation, after intense and lengthy preparation. I use the words “embodies or symbolizes God’s Presence” advisedly: can one truly speak of any place on this earth as a dwelling place for the infinite, transcendent God? As Solomon put it in his dedicatory prayer of the Temple: “The heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain You; how, then, this house which I have built” (1 Kgs 8:27). There is something paradoxical, absurd, perhaps even arrogant and hutzpah-dik, in imagining that we finite, mortal, humble creatures of flesh and blood can possibly build a home for God. Hence, this holiest place of all, described as the center of ten concentric regions of ever-greater sanctity—dark, inaccessible, containing both the whole and the broken tablets from that unique day of revelation when the human and the Divine touched one another, crowned by the mysterious figures of the cherubim (some say: a pair of human lovers in embrace; as if to say: the union of man and woman is in some mysterious way a key to the secret of Divine Indwelling on earth)—is itself a symbol of the inscrutable mystery of the Divine. It is, if you will, an earthly counterpart to the hidden recesses of the Ein Sof in which God as He is in Himself is ensconced (אל מסתתר בשפריר חביון); in Kabbalistic language, the hidden place beyond all the Sefirot, that which precedes the very first emanation, in which God dwells as pure Will, or pure Wisdom.

The altar is something else again. It is the focal point of human worship; a place where the impulse to serve God, through giving of that which is precious to one, is realized. The blood of the sacrificial offerings is sprinkled against its base; on its top, fires burn on which the flesh of the sacrifices is consumed, its smoke ascending heavenward as “a sweet savor to the Lord.” The altar thus symbolizes religious enthusiasm and passion, devekut, the desire for closeness to God—and it, too, is a sacred center. The altar is the focal point for the festal procession of Sukkot; for seven days it is adorned with tall willow branches, to cries of “Beauty to you, O altar; For you and for God, O altar.” It is, according to the midrash, the axis mundi, the holy center from which the Creation began, and from which Adam was created. In an uncharacteristic digression in the midst of an halakhic passage, Maimonides states that the location of the altar was “exceedingly precise,” then goes on to say that at that same site all the pre-Sinaitic figures offered sacrifices : Abraham at the Akedah; Noah when he disembarked from the ark after the Flood; Cain and Abel, in their day; and Adam himself just after he was created. “We find, that the place of his atonement was the place of his creation” (Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 2.1-2; on all this, see HY XI: Hoshana Rabbah [Aggadah] and HY V: Yom Yerushalayim [=Rambam]).

Interestingly, the architecture of the traditional synagogue revolves around two foci: the Ark, containing the Torah scrolls, in a fixed, often elaborately decorated cupboard on the eastern wall; and the Bimah, or Reader’s Desk, from which the Torah is read. In more traditional synagogues, this is often placed on a raised platform, to which those honored with an aliyah literally ascend on three or four steps, and located in the center of the synagogue. (During the nineteenth century, one of the subjects of controversy between Orthodoxy and early Reform concerned the latter’s moving of the Bimah to a raised dais in the front of the synagogue, together with the Ark and the rabbi’s pulpit.) In some very old-fashioned synagogues, in Europe and in Tzfat, there are four pillars at the four corners of the Bimah, supporting the dome of the synagogue, perhaps symbolizing that the Torah is the “pillar of the world.” The tension between these two foci parallels that in the Temple: between the closed place where the holiest object is kept, covered by a veil (also referred to as parokhet, like the veil in the Temple), and the focal point of human religious activity, in the center of the structure—which like the altar is the focus of festal circumambulations on Sukkot (and Simhat Torah).

But unlike the Temple, in which the Divine presence was itself seen as dwelling in the Holy of Holies, the Ark in the synagogue contains the scrolls of the Torah—reflecting, no doubt, the concept of the Torah, both as a book and as a metaphysical entity, serving as a kind of bridge or intermediary between man and God. (And indeed, the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy Temple contained the tablets of the covenant: the text of the Ten Commandments inscribed by the Divine hand and given to Moses—the earliest physical embodiment of Torah!)

Interestingly, it is the reading (and, by extension, teaching) of Torah that is done from the Bimah, rather than prayer, which is often seen as the latter-day counterpoint to the fixed animal sacrifices. In some modern synagogues, the Shaliah Tzibbur or Prayer Leader stands on the Bimah, but in more traditional synagogue architecture he stands before a smaller stand, known as the amud, in front of and often slightly to the right of the Aron Kodesh. A “just so” conjecture—perhaps the amud ha-tefillah, as a third focal point of the synagogue, corresponds to the mizbah ha-ketoret, the incense altar. After all, as I noted a few weeks ago (HY XII: Tetzaveh), prayer is compared to incense!

I will conclude with a few words about our subject for this year, the tension or balance between the community and the individual, as it pertains to the altar. On the one hand, the altar is the site of the tamid, the fixed twice-daily offering made in the name of and on behalf of the entire community, purchased from the communal funds accumulated from the half-shekel given equally by all Israelites each year. (Indeed, this is the first function of the altar, when it is first introduced in Exod 29:38 ff.: “this is what you shall make upon the altar….” In addition, various additional sacrifices, musafim, were offered on behalf of the public to commemorate the Shabbat and festival days—each special day and its appropriate musaf. Certain other public sacrifices were made on other special occasions as well.

On the other hand, the altar was the site of a wide variety of private offerings: ranging from the offering made by a woman after childbirth; that of a Nazirite who had competed the term of his vow; sin-offerings, brought by an individual plagued with guilt about one or another transgression; the special festival offerings, olat re’iyah, hagiggah and shalmei simhah, brought by pilgrims on the three great festivals; todah, an offering of gratitude to express joy and thankfulness to God for the good things that happened in one’s life. Then, too, a person might choose to bring an offering for no special reason, or to fulfill an oath he had made (neder or nedavah). All these, interestingly, were framed by the two daily fixed offerings, morning and evening, with which the daily schedule at the Temple opened and with which it concluded (with the interesting exception of the Pascahl offering, which we shall discuss in some detail in Aharei–Shabbat Hagadol). Thus, just as the Temple was the focal point for the prayers of each individual, in all times of trouble and need, as eloquently expressed in Solomon’s prayer, so too was there room for each person to bring his offerings to mark the events, happy and sad, in his or her own private life.