Friday, July 29, 2011

Mas'ei (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for June 20 2006, July 2007, July 5 2008, July 2009 and 2010.

“What A Trip!”

The opening section of this week’s parashah, from which it takes its title, speaks about journeys, or “trips”—recounting the places where the children of Israel encamped during their journey from Egypt to the land of Israel, forty-two stations or masa’ot in all. Although the literal sense of the Torah here is concerned with the collective experience of the entire people, many later commentators—Hasidic and otherwise— read these masa’ot as alluding to the individual and his life journey: from its very beginning, at birth, in breaking out of the “narrowness” (metzarim=Mitzrayim) of the womb and birth canal, through a variety of stages, both good and bad, until one reaches “the Land of Eternal Life”—i.e., death and that which lies beyond.

Interestingly, Rashi on the opening verse of our portion (Num 33:1), cites a Midrash that relates specifically to the metaphor of personal experience: “This may be compared to a king whose son was ill, and he took him to a distant place to be healed. On their return journey, the father began to enumerate all the places they had passed: here we slept, here it was cold, there you had a headache” (Tanhuma, Mas’ei §3; Numbers Rabbah 23.3).

But whether one is speaking of an individual or a community, the metaphor of life as a series of stations on a journey is a cogent one. Life is seen here in dynamic, not static terms: as a constant process of growth and change. There is a temptation among some to see Judaism in a static way: as a fixed pattern of life, with a daily, weekly, and annual cycle of rituals repeated endlessly. Once one has become a shomer mitzvot—thus gores this argument—one feels that one has reached the goal. (Such thinking is at times encouraged by the sharp differentiation felt in the observant community between those who are “within” and those on the “outside”—“our people” and “Others.”) But in fact the external pattern of observance, the halakhah, couched in objective terms, is merely the beginning, the outline, the external framework for real spiritual, moral and personal growth.

It seems to me that one of the reasons for the popularity of Hasidism, of Hasidic thought and the study of Hasidic books in our generation, is that it articulates this insight. Hasidism speaks of religious life as a constant process of ratzo va-shov—literally, “running and returning,” but really: ebb and flow, ups and downs, moments of profound spiritual insight and even ecstasy, when everything coalesces and one feels close to the Divine source; and other times of dullness, when one is stuck in the mundane, ordinary world, doing no more than going through the motions of Torah and mitzvot.

This, then, is the chapter of masa’ot, of the stations of life. At times one feels surrounded by supportive friends and community: one is in Keheilata, or even Makhelot, where one is part of a choir of harmonious voices singing a beautiful song. Or one may belong to a court focused on the figure of a charismatic leader, like a Hasidic Rebbe: Hatzerot. At other times one is dead within, and all those passions and desires which gave life its color and excitement—whether sexual love, friendship, creative work, or even the simple appetite for food—are meaningless: one has come to Kivrot ha-Ta’avah, the burial place of appetite; or worse than that, one may find oneself in a place of sheer existential terror, Haradah. Then again, at other times life may be filled with sweetness—Mitkah; but at others one is in the dregs, in the dung at the very bottom of the pit—Tahat. And finally, perhaps close to the end of ones journey, all one knows is that one has undertaken an arduous climb to the top of the hill, and one is on the verge of the transition into the unknown: Harei ha-Avarim.

Does it all make sense? At times life seems a series of senseless, random events: success and failure, happiness and sadness, joy and tragedy, seem to come out of nowhere and have no coherent pattern or sense. The existentialist would say that the meaning of life is that which one chooses to give it. The religious person may add that, even if one cannot perceive the rhyme or reason for what has happened, it somehow makes sense in the eyes of God. And the Jew will add: “These are the journeys of the children of Israel”—one’s own life is part of the age-old history of the Jewish people, in its long, labyrinth path from Egypt, through Sinai, to ultimate Redemption. If nothing else, those of us who have borne and raised Jewish children, or taught others even one word of Torah, are links in the chain.

What are the “trips” or “stages” in the nation’s way towards becoming a nation? Here, too, the life of a nation is an endless series of steps and changes. In recent weeks I have, in my professional life, translated some material written during the decades before the creation of the State of Israel. I was impressed by the power of this vision, and the certainty that all would be different after Statehood—and of course, it was a very great event indeed. But living here, and looking backwards from a distance of more than sixty years, one sees that statehood was only the beginning, and that there were ups and downs, new kinds of problems, both within and without, and that even here “we have not yet come to the peace and the inheritance.” National life, too, is an endless series of stations, of “campgrounds”—but never a final resolution.

Some other, larger questions: What is the value of reminiscing about what happened in the past? The fact that the Torah recounts all these stations, and that the Midrash reaffirms it, suggests that it is of some value. Or is the scene described by Rashi simply an expression of the human impulse to remember, to reminisce? When I was a child my mother, z”l, used to tell me how when her own parents and their age-cohorts would get together and talk, sooner or later someone would ask Gedengst?—“Do you remember [such–and–such and so-and-so]?—and they would begin reminiscing about people they knew in Der Heim, in the “Old Country.”

But the value of memory goes beyond that. Memory is a crucial component of identity—be it personal identity, familial identity, or national identity. A group is bound together by common memories, by the stories that it tells itself about its common past. Particularly in the modern age, when religious faith and religious praxis have weakened as a unifying thread of Jewish identity, and when any simple conception of Jewish peoplehood and Zionism based upon common language and soil have turned out to be more problematical and even divisive than thought, common historical memory may yet prove to be the common denominator of Jewish identity. (A young scholar, Yehuda Kurzer, was awarded the prestigious Bronfman Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation to write on the theme of rebuilding Jewish memory).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Matot (Individual & Community)

.For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for June 20 2006, July 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

“All that comes out of your mouth you shall fulfill”

This week’s parashah incorporates a number of diverse subjects, including the entry into the Land and its future inheritance by the tribes (e.g., the issue of the tribes of Gad and Reuven). The very first section, however, deals with vows and oaths. The opening verse (after the title) contains the general principle “When a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to prohibit something upon himself, all that he says he shall do” (Num 30:3). The bulk of this section deals with the exceptions to this rule—namely, that if a woman makes an oath while under the aegis of either her father or her husband, he has the right to abrogate her vow, provided he does so “on the day that he hears it.” Why this should be so, what it says about the relations between man and woman, etc., is a subject unto itself, which we have dealt with in the past. (Another troubling question I noticed this week relates to the apparent repetition of vv. 7–9 in vv. 11–14—but that too is a separate discussion.) I will mention briefly a provision that mitigates somewhat what many would call the sexism of this passage: the Rabbis infer from a certain turn of phrase here that the right of abrogation only applies to those vows by a woman which somehow impinge upon her husband’s or father’s interest—e.g., by requiring him to spend extra money or go to special trouble to, say, provide her with food or raiment as a direct result of her vow.

I wish to relate here to another, broader question: What are vows all about? What is the significance of the rule that one must fulfill one’s vow? Wikipedia describes an oath as “a statement of fact or promise made by calling upon something or someone that the oath maker considers sacred, usually God, as a witness to the binding nature of the promise or the truth of the statement. To swear is to take an oath, to make a solemn vow… The essence of a divine oath is an invocation of divine agency to be a guarantor of the oath taker's own honesty and integrity in the matter under question. By implication, this invokes divine displeasure if the oath taker fails in their sworn duties. It therefore implies greater care than usual in the act of the performance of one's duty, such as in testimony to the facts of the matter in a court of law.” For our purposes, a vow or oath is an articulation, an embodiment in words, of an autonomous decision made by a person, to which there is added a certain religious dimension.

I would add an important difference between the two in terms of halakhah: whereas an oath (shevu’ah) involves the invoking of God’s name, a vow, or neder, is a solemn promise, but one whose sanction is built-in, so to speak: one takes upon oneself a certain penalty—usually the obligation to bring a sacrifice or other gift to the Temple if he fails to fulfill his word (konam…).

I have written elsewhere (e.g., last year before Shavuot: see HY XII: Bamidbar and Shavuot) about the heteronomous nature of the Torah: “Greater is one who is commanded and does [i.e., the mitzvah] than one who is not commanded and does.” In this view, the Torah is essentially seen as a set of external laws imposed upon the human being from without, by the supreme authority of the Creator. What role is played, in this context, by man’s autonomous will, by decisions undertaken voluntarily? Vows and oaths are essentially the embodiment of a particular person’s autonomous will. As such, they are in one sense inferior to the universal, categorical obligations of the Torah, in an ethos focused upon submission to the will of God; on the other hand, the Torah values such decisions, at least to the extent of obligating the individual to fulfill his vows or oaths once he has undertaken them. A person must honor his own word, must take whatever he has committed himself to do, seriously; this is an important moral principle, relating to the inner integrity of the person within himself. (Interestingly, Sefer ha-Hinukh, in his treatment of this mitzvah, §§406-407, defines it as “not to alter which he have committed ourselves to do within our souls, even without an oath.”)

Thus, I may decide not to eat meat, or not to drink wine, or perhaps not to speak with a particular person who has insulted me or angered me; or I may decide to perform some positive act: to make a pilgrimage to such-and-such a place; to engage in a particular form of Torah study every day—perhaps a chapter of Tanakh or of Mishnah, a page of Talmud, a section of Shulhan Arukh (or to undertake a clearly defined project of secular studies); or to give a specific sum to a certain charity—a common ploy in fund-raising, where people are called upon to make “pledges,” as in the Yizkor appeals in many synagogues. Once I embody these decisions in a neder, I am obligated to fulfill it like any other mitzvah of the Torah. There is even a discussion in the Talmud as to whether there is a specific time limit within which a person must fulfill his vow, e.g., to bring an offering to the Temple, after which he violates the commandment in this chapter. It should be mentioned that there can also be a fixed “package” of prohibitions which a person may vow to observe; such is the nature of the Nazirite vow, about which the Sages expressed no small ambivalence, as they did regarding vows generally.

Interestingly, a person cannot take a vow “to study Torah” or “to give tzedakah,” or to daven or to keep Shabbat, because these things are mitzvot, acts which one is already obligated to do—“sworn to do so from Mount Sinai.” A vow must relate to something which one was not heretofore obligated to do. This last point is significant, as with the proliferation of Jews who are sometimes called ba’alei teshuvah—that is, those who have decided to adopt a more Jewishly pious or observant way of life for themselves—such decisions are often seen as a kind of vow—and it is not so.

There is a certain ambivalence about vows in the Jewish tradition. The halakhah respects them, insists on them being taken seriously—but it also expresses reservations. Thus, Kohelet says: “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it… that which you have vowed you shall pay. But it is better not to vow, than to vow and not to pay” (Eccles 5:3-4). There is also a mechanism for releasing a person from vows—one goes to a sage, who sits as a court with two other people, who asks the one vowing if he has taken into consideration all the possible ramifications of his vow; inevitably, he has not (for no human being can foresee all that life may bring), and this functions as a petah, a valid halakhic “opening” to nullify the vow. If you would have thought of thus-and-such a scenario, you would never have viewed in the first place! Moreover: we begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, a public, communal nullification of all future vows; in many congregations a general nullification of vows is recited before Rosh Hashana. As if to say: specifically before the days of solemnity, when we pass in judgment before the Divine throne, it is better that a person be unencumbered by vows.

Perhaps this is the reason why Judaism does not have marriage vows. In Christianity, marriage is constituted through an exchange of vows, promising mutual help, caring and fidelity, the priest or minister functioning only as a kind of witness and guarantor to this solemn oath. In Judaism, marriage is seen rather differently (as a kinyan, in which the man takes the woman under his aegis, a view that many find problematic; see on this my essay, “Jewish Marriage—Time to Restructure?” in HY IX: Ki Teitze–Supplement = Ki Teitzei (Mitzvot). In any event, perhaps the absence of marriage vows relates to a general reluctance to take vows or oaths.

For the same reason, religious Jews do not use the term “I swear” before giving testimony in court or upon assuming public office, but simply “declare” their commitment to tell the truth, or to fulfill their duties faithfully. (Interestingly, in the IDF swearing-in ceremony at the end of basic training, the new recruits swear loyalty to the State, to the Army, and to the chain of command with the words ani nishba’ [“I swear”]—but religious soldiers are allowed to say instead ani matzhir [“I affirm”].)

To return to our central issue: the tension around vows seems to involve two basic issues: First, the tension between the emphasis in vows upon the individual’s will, the sense of his creating his own set of norms, a kind of private code, as against the objective standard of the Torah, the heritage of all Israel, a common societal teaching. This is especially so, as vows can often be trivial or capricious, even motivated by negative emotions: e.g., I hate this guy so I’ll take a vow that I won’t talk to him for a month! Second, in the case of oaths, there is the issue of invoking God’s Name: should one be unable for one reason or another to fulfill one’s vow or oath (which, I reiterate, is essentially a superfluous act to begin with), then God’s Name will be desecrated and will have been used in vain.

A further, more textually- and halakhically-focused discussion of Torat ha-Melekh will follow soon.

Pinhas (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for June 15 2006, July 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

Some Thoughts on Zealotry

This week’s parashah takes its title from Aaron’s grandson, Pinhas, whose act of zealotry and its surprising, if not paradoxical, reward—“My covenant of peace” and “an eternal priesthood” {Num 25:12-13)—form the opening section of this reading. Although I have discussed the meaning of zealotry—both of Pinhas’ specific act, and in general— a number of times in previous years, it seems to me that theme for this year may shed some special light on the subject, and vice versa.

Zealotry—fanaticism, extremism, ideological passion so intense as to lead at times to violent acts—has a bad name in our day and, in many cases, rightfully so. But allow me to be the Devil’s advocate, in an attempt to understand before condemning: the zealot is, first of all, an extreme individualist, one who refuses to accept conventional norms and conventional judgments of situations he encounters, who does not easily conform to bourgeois norms of “polite” attitudes and behavior. He sees life—or thinks he sees, and there at times is the rub—with great clarity, in stark contrasts of black and white rather than in shades of grey. Thus, he may find, as Pinhas did, a dire threat to the moral foundations of society, and be moved to action, in a situation to which everyone else responds with passivity. In the case described here, he saw the combination of sexual debauchery and pagan worship, left unchecked, as threatening to undermine the hard-won fruits of the Exodus from Egypt—all this, while Moses and Aaron stood aside in helplessness and paralysis of the will. The zealot is guided by his own conscience; he may think of himself as a “minority of one” (à la I. F. Stone); he sees the error of conventionally-accepted truths and, at the risk of being considered odd, eccentric, or worse—being burned at the stake for his opinions—he teaches his own truth. One could argue that such heroes of Renaissance science as Copernicus and Galileo were zealots in the pursuit of truth. Moses, when he smote the Egyptian and then had to flee for his life, was a zealot. The Patriarch Abraham, the first iconoclast, was also a zealot, as was Elijah, who is celebrated in this week’s seldom-read haftarah.

The zealot is thus, first and foremost, an individual who has the inner power to somehow neutralize the influence of conventional thinking, to ignore the little voice inside each one of us which asks, “What will the neighbors think?” He knows that there is right and wrong, that one must struggle for the right and “Damn the consequences!” (Gershom Scholem, in a short essay entitled “Three Types of Jewish Piety,” describes an extreme type who is not necessarily “political” or activist in the usual sense: the hasid, as “an exceptional type of man… the radical Jew who, in trying to follow the spiritual call, goes to extremes.” )

In a sense, one of the fundamental mitzvot of the Torah—Kiddush Hashem, “to sanctify the Holy Name”—is nothing other but a call, under certain circumstances, to fanaticism. After all, who but a fanatic willingly lays down his own life for an abstract principle, to refrain from performing an act (bowing down to an idol, kissing the Cross) which, inside oneself, one knows to be meaningless and that one’s compliance is forced by sheer power. And yet, the Jew is called upon to die for Kiddush Hashem when need be, and our martyrs are celebrated among the greatest heroes of our faith.

The problem, of course, is that zealotry may be seriously misguided—and even when not, may obscure the subtleties of c0ompelx moral judgments. Or, for that matter, zealotry may be just plain crazy. There are those people who hear voices telling them to do strange bizarre things. I once met one: in the midst of a meeting with Shlomo Carlebach after a concert, in his hotel room in the wee hours of the morning, a very beautiful, very pregnant young woman suddenly burst into the room, followed by a young man. Shouting, confusion, tears: only after Shlomo calmed them down somewhat and they left the room did he explain the situation: the young man, whose name happened to be Abraham, was convinced that, like his Biblical namesake, he had been commanded by God to sacrifice his firstborn son—that is, to violently abort the unborn infant in his wife’s womb. He was, of course, literally crazy: he had escaped from a mental institution and in due time the proverbial “men in the white coats” came to take him back. Nevertheless: who can prove that that which made Abraham a “knight of faith” made him plain cuckoo?

What is “the King’s Torah”?

A number of readers have asked me to comment about the recent hullabaloo in Israel concerning the book Torat ha-Melekh. First, a few basic facts, for those unfamiliar with the story: about a year ago two rabbis from the West Bank settlement Yizhar, Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, published a book entitled Torat ha-Melekh, in which they discuss, on the basis of various Talmudic, midrashic and later halakhic sources, the question: Under what circumstances may one kill a non-Jew? More particularly: may one kill an innocent civilians, non-combatants, in time of war, and under what circumstances? What about women and children? The book (which I must confess I have not personally read, or even seen) evidently cites a broad range of situations in which such behavior are permissible. (The sub-text of the discussion is of course the behavior of the Israeli army during the December 2008 Gaza campaign known as “Operation Oferet Yetzukah” and its aftermath in which accusations were leveled against Israel of having violated international law and basic principles of morality, the report of the Goldstone Commission, etc.; and, perhaps more important, an attempt to justify sporadic violence between West Bank settlers and local Arabs, including violence against Arabs trying to harvest their olive orchards, torching of mosques, etc..) Calls were issued to investigate the book to determine whether its authors had violated the laws against racist incitement to violence. A few weeks ago two prominent rabbis, Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef (son of Rav Obadiah Yosef and known posek in his own right), who gave haskamot (a kind of “imprimatur”) to the book, were briefly detained by the police for questioning. In a controversy that generated more heat than light, the “Left” accused, not only its authors, but the two rabbis, of “racism”; the other side, in turn, held a demonstration against the High Court, using such slogans as “The Torah is above the Law.”

As I see it, the central issue is: Does Jewish law draw a distinction between the value of the life of a Jew and that of a non-Jew? And, if so, what does this mean, and what practical implications are to be drawn from this, if any? I will discuss these issues, including texts and translations, in the second half of this article.

First, some general, introductory remarks: Is there only one, cut-and-dry halakhah on these (and other) questions? As I understand it, the halakhah is—and always has been— a dynamic, dialectical system. Among other things, there has always been a tension between codification, pesak, giving one single answer to any given question, and a more open-ended, dialectical approach (this was one of the reasons why Rambam’s great code, the Mishneh Torah, was criticized when he first wrote it). More generally, one of the issues that emerges in this and similar controversies is the conflict between a literalist, fundamentalist approach to halakhah, and one which takes into account historical development and change—but more on that another time.

Thus, for example, R. Menahem Hameiri, the great halakhic anthologist of 14th century France, author of the encyclopedic Beit ha-Behirah on the Talmud, whenever interpreting a passage portraying Gentiles or idolaters in negative terms, took pain to emphasize that this only applies to the Gentiles who lived in those days, but that the non-Jews of his own day, who accept civilized norms of ethics and behavior, are to be treated differently; moreover, even if not so, darkei shalom, the maintenance of peaceable relations with the outside world requires this. And, I would add: if thus regarding Medieval Christians, who believed e.g. in the Trinity, all the more so the Muslims, whom everyone would agree are pure monotheists (whatever other deeply–rooted differences, partly religiously-inspired, we may have with them).

The main point: as many religious Zionist thinkers have observed, perhaps the most important halakhic challenge faced by the Jewish people today is that all those areas deriving from the reality of a sovereign Jewish state—legislation, the nature of the courts, economic planning on a state level, international relations and diplomacy and how that impacts on decisions made, army, warfare—are only minimally -developed in the traditional halakhic sources. There are many areas of halakhah which have been actively observed by Jews throughout generations, such that the halakhic literature of the rishonim and aharonim are filled with substantial discussion, textual analysis, responsa relating to various practical questions which may serve as precedents—but these relate primarily to the areas of personal observance (issur va-heter), family life, civil law (contract law, damages, partnerships, etc.), or questions relating to the synagogue and the round of the week and the year. By contrast, those areas related to the life of society as a whole (which would include the questions treated by Torat ha-Melekh) are not highly developed, for the simple reason that, already in the earliest formative period of the Rabbinic tradition, Jews did not have political sovereignty. Hillel and Shammai lived during the reign of Herod, when Judaea was de facto a satellite or protectorate of Rome—and the situation only get worse after his death. Thus, discussions about courts administering the death penalty or engaging in warfare were largely theoretical, made without real responsibility for their consequences.

Maimonides — motivated partly by messianic considerations, partly by a deep-seated belief in the integrity of the Torah as an entirety, including those laws not operative in his historical age — was the only major authority to include these subjects in his great halakhic work, Yad ha-Hazakah or Mishneh Torah. Thus, he includes detailed laws of the Temple, of purity and impurity, of agricultural laws applicable only in the Land, and, most germane to our subject, “Laws of the Sanhedrin,” and “Laws of Kings and Their Wars” (Hilkhot Melakhim u-mikhamoteihem).

Some religious Zionist thinkers have addressed these issues, explicitly stating that the creation of a Jewish state would require a major intellectual revolution in halakhah. Thus, Rav Chaim Hirschensohn, who lived in the United States during the first half of twentieth century, wrote a multi-volume halakhic treatise entitled Malki ba-Kodesh, in which he addresses a wife gamut of issues that would be raised by the creation of a Jewish state. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, both as Chief Rabbi of the IDF and of the State, addressed many issues, particularly those relating to Army and warfare in a Jewish state. Rav Yehudah Gershuni also wrote on some of the larger “meta-issues” relating to state and halakhah. Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a thinker who was not himself a halakhist, wrote passionately of this need—and no doubt there are many others who could be mentioned. But in recent decades many of those writing about these issues have tended to be highly ideological and rather narrow in their purview.

Finally, before turning to the substance of the issue itself, a brief comment about Rav Lior’s arrest: there was something a bit odd about investigating him simply because of giving a haskamah to the book; such letters of commendation do not necessarily imply that the rabbi writing it approves of its contents, or has even perused them thoroughly, but simply that he knows its author to be an observant and a learned Jew. But on another level, what is happening now is too little too late. At the time of Rabin’s assassination, nearly sixteen years ago, there was some much talk about various rabbis having encouraged the assassin, Yigal Amir, and providing him with halakhic–ideological justification for his act—one of the most traumatic and divisive events in the history of the State— by stating that Rabin was a rodef, one who endangered the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Rav Lior’s name featured prominently among those rabbis whom Amir consulted—but nothing was ever done about it. There was too much pressure from religious circles who regarded rabbis as somehow above interrogation by the police, even if their (at time, highly influential) actions may well have been tantamount to “incitement “ to criminal acts. In my opinion, even if a person who is clothed in garments of Torah fosters rebellion against the duly elected leaders of the sovereign state of the Jewish people, he must be treated as such, despite his rabbinic office. In the same way as the President has been tried and convicted for rape, and a host of ministers and Knesset members have been tried and sat in prison for various white collar offenses, so too a rabbi is not above the law. In that respect, perhaps his arrest, if only for a brief interrogation, was good thing.


Balak (Individual & Community)

“A People That Dwells Apart”: Thoughts About Inclusion and Exclusion

This week’s portion, uniquely, portrays the Israelite/Jewish people from outside, through the eyes of Bil’am, the Midianite seer hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the menacing newcomers to the region; instead, he ends up blessing them. The very first phrase in the first of his three blessings emphasizes Israel’s apartness: “I see them from the top of mountain crags, and from hills I behold them; they are a people who dwell alone, and are not reckoned among the nations” (Num 23:9). The later blessings likewise describe the distinctiveness of Israel, culminating in the blessing, after Bil’am completely abandons his magical techniques, when he sees Israel “dwelling by its tribes” (24:2) and, in a Divinely inspired vision, says: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (24:5). And indeed, the apartness of the Jewish people in relation to other nations is a frequent leitmotif in the midrash, one both borne out by historical experience and reinforced by Jewish self-perception. It is a truism to note that the Jewish people has had a very painful history, leading to suspicion of the Other, at times verging on paranoia (but, as the old joke has it, “Even a paranoiac can have real enemies”).

Somewhat over a month ago, following Parshat Bamidbar, my friend Rabbi David Greenstein, addressed me with a comment cum question about Rashi on Lev 24:10. That verse, as will be remembered, describes the nokev hashem—the person who, in the heat of argument with his fellow, blasphemed God’s name; Moses, after inquiring of God what to do, sentences him to the death penalty. Interestingly, this man is described as the son of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman, Shlomit bat Divri. (A well-known passage in Midrash Tanhuma says that his Egyptian taskmaster–father raped his mother while her husband was working in the field by pretending to be the latter; later, when the cuckolded man realized what had happened, he was beat harshly by the Egyptian and Moses, who saw what was happening, smote him and killed him, as related in Exod 2:11-12.) Rashi on our verse quotes a midrash (Torat Kohanim 14.1; Tanhuma 23) that cites, among other reasons for him cursing God’s name, that he was denied a place to encamp among the tribes because he did not have a Jewish father, the camps being assigned on the patrilineal principle—איש על דגלו באותות לבית אבותם (“each man by his banner and sign by their fathers’ houses”: Num 2:2).

In light of all this, David asked a simple question: Where ought he to have gone? Or was he simply excluded from inheriting among the people (also in the later division of the Land)?

… If he should not have camped with Dan [his matrilineal tribe], where exactly should he properly have camped? It seems he needed to be, literally, mi-hutz la-mahaneh, “outside of the camp.” We have reference to this domain regarding lepers and other issues of ritual impurity, but I have never seen any discussion of exactly how “outside-of-the-camp” related—geographically or otherwise—to the camp itself. (The blasphemer story is particularly sad given that Dan is supposed to be the me'assef le-kol ha-mahanot, “he who gathered up all the camps”—which, I want to assume, would also include picking up any stragglers who had to be outside the camp for reasons of purity).

A follow-up on this question - the midrash would have it that the blasphemer could not encamp in the tribal area. Yet, once Israel enters the Promised Land and the tribal lands are allotted, there is no prohibition against a stranger (ger toshav) living in those allotted areas. Why the apparent difference here? …

We are inclined to see the mahaneh as an idealized paradigm of our community. But it seems that the paradigm does not cover all possible members of the community… . This question has been staring me (us) in the face for millennia, but we have been blind to it. Furthermore, I myself, who only came to ask the question a couple of years ago, realize that I was only awakened to the issue because it involved the son of a Jewish mother, perhaps because this was someone who, by today’s standards, would be considered by most to be a full Jew. But the question has existed with regard to others as well (the leper, etc.) ... Yet I was blind to the question until recently. Partly this can be attributed to the hypnotic attraction exerted by the “perfect image” of the Israelite community, as delineated by the Torah. (This “perfect image” is also the message of Bilaam’s Mah tovu ohalekha Ya`aqov...") Such an image tends to put blinders on our eyes so that we do not even look mi-hutz la-mahaneh.

It seems to me that how one responds to this newly heard/seen challenge of the “other” is a major moral challenge for us today. The Orthodox community has expressed a narrow range of responses that all try to preserve the “perfect image” as much as possible, even at the risk of defiling that very image (see, e.g., the ban on conversion among Syrian Jews [and in Brazil, etc.-YC]). The non-Orthodox world is all over the place on this issue. Once some concession has been made to any new claims for inclusion, no one (myself included) has been able to establish solid footing for their position vis-a-vis the rest.

I know of no answer to this question, on the textual level, in any of the obvious places—the major Bible commentators and midrashic collections. But far more important is what David says in his final paragraph—i.e., reading this case as a metaphor for the issue of exclusion or inclusion today, how we deal with the “Other” in contemporary Jewish life. To what extent are we willing to include the “Other” in our community? (Emanuel Levinas makes the attitude to the Other the linchpin of his philosophy of Judaism.) How high or low, how flexible or rigid, are the boundaries of community, and what ought they to be?

The issue takes different forms in Israel and in the Diaspora. In today’s Diasporas, certainly in those places where Jews enjoy the benefits of a free, open, democratic, and liberal society, there is widespread assimilation and intermarriage, which many strategists of Jewish public policy see as a grave threat to Jewish survival, “killing us with love,” so to speak. One response, that of strict Orthodoxy, is to build high albeit invisible walls around the community, to raise children to view the broader society in an instrumental manner, as a place where one can earn a living, but to live one’s “real” life—family, cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life—within the Jewish community. There is room for “outsiders” or “newcomers”— ba’alei teshuvah and gerei tzedek—but only insofar as they fully accept the rules of strict mitzvah observance, so that they or their children eventually become insiders. This solution has met with no small success, demographically and in attracting a certain number of serious religious seekers.

But as soon as one turns away from strict Orthodoxy (and even within more liberal sectors of Orthodoxy) there are no simple answers. How ought one relate to the non-Jewish world? The mainstream of American Jewry, including the Rabbinic leadership of the non-Orthodox movements (even those who, e.g., do not personally perform intermarriages), has reached a certain modus vivendi with intermarriage, based on the down-to-earth sense that it is a concrete reality one must accept, that one cannot tilt at windmills forever, and must make the best of it. And indeed, there are intermarried families in which the Jewish element is predominant and the non-Jewish partner supports his/her spouse in giving the children a Jewish upbringing (I have seen this among people I know personally, and find it to be genuine, not just lip service). One possible attitude of committed Jews might be acceptance on the human level, while preserving a theoretical, ideological opposition to intermarriage as a phenomenon. (Incidentally, I find myself adopting a similar attitude towards homosexuality: as I have written here, I accept the halakhic proscription against homosexual acts, while accepting individual homosexuals as friends, enjoying their company, appreciating their positive human traits, inviting them to my home for Shabbat, etc. Is this a contradiction? Perhaps. But if so, such contradiction is part of being human.)

A few nights ago, I had an interesting conversation with an old friend whom I met at a wedding. He suggested that Judaism in America is in a position similar to that it held during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE in the Greco-Roman world, when the pagan gods were “dying” and there was intense cultural and spiritual ferment, with many people looking for meaning in life. Judaism served as one option—hence, there was a certain movement towards either conversion to Judaism or at least the adoption of its belief in the One God by those known as yirei Ha-Shem. Nascent Christianity and some of the Gnostic mystery religions were other options in this cultural “stew.”

Our world today is equally confused and confusing, if not more so. On the one hand: atheism, secularism, “post-modernism” with its almost free-for-all approach to ethical and behavioral norms, signal the breakdown of the old norms of Western culture. On the other hand, the growth of “New Age” eclectic spirituality, the interest in Far Eastern religions, the revival of emotionally intense form of Christianity—Evangelism, Pentecostalism, even Roman Catholicism—suggest a spiritual hunger, in which Judaism may prove attractive to some. As my friend put it: “If Judaism ‘markets’ itself correctly, it may serve as a real option for many people.”

In Israel, these problems assume a different form. As a Jewish state, with an established Rabbinate, the issue of conversion to Judaism and the monopoly of a very conservative Chief Rabbinate is a painful and divisive one. On the other hand, in many ways it is a very open, cosmopolitan society, perhaps like that envisioned by Herzl in his Altneuland. In the major cities of Israel, one can see people from all over the world, and the issue of then limits of how accepting we are to be towards, e.g., foreign workers or refugees from beleaguered neighboring countries is a controversial one. Alongside the liberal pull, there are strong inward–turning impulses, reinforced by the ongoing sense of threat from the Arab world and the unresolved Palestinian issue, as well as by the often unfair condemnation of Israel by the “liberal” world.

But the issue of “inclusion vs. exclusion” is not only a Jewish problem, but one of the issues in human community generally. It is almost a law of community that, if one includes some, one must if necessity exclude others. Those with the greatness of soul to accept all fellow humans are few and far between. There is a tendency within small, tight-knit communities, both in small towns and ingrown religious communities, to develop certain negative attitudes towards “the Other.” This is also true of intentional communities, which in accepting certain individuals as members reject others. Thus, alongside the positive values of community—its function as a system of mutual help and support among its members, the sense of responsibility it inculcates, the overcoming of alienation, working together towards a common goal and shared values, its taking the individual outside of preoccupation with his own self—there are very real dangers involved as well. There is a tendency towards gossip, pressures for conformity, for people to become overly obsessed with the smallest quirks of others, at times a quashing of all expression of individuality. Here in Israel, for example, many of those who left kibbutzim over the years complained of the lack of privacy, the sense of intrusion of the collective into the smallest, most petty details of individual life. In ideological movements, community may express itself in the form of “group-think,” of collective thinking, and of censuring or marginalizing those that think differently—again, this may be true of revolutionary Marxists, dogmatic feminists, hyper-nationalist Zionists, ultra–Orthodox Jews, and many other kinds of group.

Perhaps I ought to conclude with a personal experience. In my early 20s, I applied for membership in a certain new, intentional community which was doing exciting things Jewishly. I was subjected to a series of lengthy interviews with members of the entrance committees, in which I was asked a series of rather bizarre questions about how I would respond in certain hypothetical situations. As I think about it even now, more than forty years later, I remember keenly the feelings of anxiety, anguish and pain elicited by the whole procedure.

I’m not sure what lesson to draw from all this, except to say that my immediate feeling is more towards inclusion and acceptance of the “Other,” rather than rigid ideological positions which reject others. My hope is that, if children are raised from an early age with an acceptance of the diversity and difference of our human species, they will end up as more generous and loving adults.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Hukat (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for June 2006, June 2007, 2008, June 5 2009, and June 2010.

A Brief History of Moses’ Staff

In this parashah we jump over a 38-year period, towards the concluding year of the period of wandering in the desert, to the wars with the kings of Transjordan, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, fragments of ancient poetry, etc. Among the incidents related here is the well-known story of how Moses was denied his greatest wish—to enter the Land of Israel together with the people whom he had led for more than forty years—due to a seemingly minor infraction of God’s command. Asked to take water out of a certain stone for the thirsty people by speaking to it, he instead hit it with his staff. Why was he punished so severely for this act?

In order to understand this incident, I suggest undertaking a brief survey of the history of the central “actor” in this story: Moses’ staff. What was it, where did it come from, what was it used for, and what did it signify?

We first encounter the staff in the famous scene of the bush that was “burning but not consumed” (Exod 3:2). In wake of this extraordinary sight, Moses encounters God for the first time, speaks with Him, is told God’s name Ehyeh asher Ehyeh (“I am that I am” or “I shall be that which I shall be”), and is charged with his life mission—to take the people of Israel out of Egypt and to lead them to the promised land. At a certain point in the dialogue, after a number of other problems and objections, Moses asks God, “And if they will not believe me and not listen to my voice” (4:1)—what then? God’s answer is roundabout and indirect:

And the Lord said to him: What is that in your hand? And he said: A staff. And He said: Throw it down on the ground. And he threw it to the ground, and it became a snake, and Moses shied away from it. And God said to Moses: Put out your hand and grab its tail; and he put out his hand and took hold of it, and it became a staff in his hand (Exod 4:2–3).

Following this scene, Moses begins the journey back to Egypt, taking his family with him: “And Moses took his wife and his sons and put them on the donkey, to return to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the staff of God in his hand” (ibid., v. 20). An interesting detail: the verse informs us that, in addition to the members of his family and the donkey (a necessary means of transportation), Moses took with him his staff, referred to here as “the staff of God” (mateh ha-Elohim). Until this point, Moses’ staff had been an ordinary shepherd’s staff used to herd the flock, which no doubt doubled as a walking stick of the type much used by inhabitants of the wilderness in walking over rocky and mountainous terrain. Suddenly it becomes the “staff of God”—an object of Divine significance, intended to help Moses and Aaron perform wonders and miracles and thereby prove to Pharaoh that they were truly sent by the Lord, God of Israel.

And indeed, further on Aaron used the staff in the course of an argument between Moses and the magicians of Egypt:

Say to Aaron: Take your staff, and thrust it down before Pharaoh, it shall become a serpent. And Moses and Aaron… did as the Lord commanded, and Aaron thrust his staff before Pharaoh, and it became a serpent. (Exod 7: 8–10)

Pharaoh’s court magicians succeeded in performing the same act with their secret arts (7:11–13), but the staff/serpent of Aaron swallowed their staffs/serpents—a sign anticipating of the eventual victory of Moses and the Israelites over Egypt and its gods. Note that from this point onwards the miracles involving the staff were performed specifically by Aaron and not by Moses; it becomes “Aaron’s staff.”

Immediately thereafter, there begins a series of ten plagues. These are divided into three sets of three plagues each, each one of which follows a similar pattern; only the tenth plague, the death of the first-born, is unique, outside of the three-times–three framework. In the first set of three plagues, the staff plays a central role:


Go to Pharaoh in the morning… by the shore of the Nile. And take the staff which was turned into a snake, and say to him: The Lord God of the Hebrews has sent me, saying: Let my people go! … By this you shall know that I am the Lord: Behold, I shall smite with the staff that is in my hand upon the water which is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood… And the Lord said to Moses: Say to Aaron: Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over its rivers and canals and lakes, and over every gathering of water, and it shall be blood…. (Exod 7: 15–17, 19–20)


Speak to Aaron, stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers and canals and lakes, and bring up frogs over the land of Egypt. And Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frog came up and covered the land of Egypt. (8:1–2)


And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to Aaron: Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, and there shall be gnats throughout the land of Egypt. And they did so… and the dust of the earth became gnats in all the land of Egypt. (8:12–13)

From the fourth plague on, there are a number of significant changes: (1) The plagues only affect those places where the Egyptians live, but not the Israelites (“And on that day I shall separate the land of Goshen… and I shall make a division between My people and your people”—8: 18–19); (2) The court magicians are no longer able, with their arcane arts, to duplicate the plagues which God brings upon the Egyptians (this process already began with the third plague); indeed, they barely attempt to do so. (3) The Torah emphasizes that the purpose of the plagues is to make God’s greatness and exclusive sovereignty known both to the Egyptians and to the Israelites, (“that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the land”—8: 18; “so that you may know that there is none like Me throughout the land... that you may tell My name throughout the land”—9:14–15; “you shall know that I am the Lord”—10:2; and similar verses). (4) Regarding our subject: after the third plague, the use of the staff ceases.

The unavoidable conclusion, in my opinion, is that the staff was seen as a quasi-magical tool whose purpose was to prove the ability of Moses and Aaron to hold their own—and more—against the Egyptian magicians. Once this goal had been achieved, the use of the staff becomes superfluous. The more important and authentic message of the Torah is that of the dominion of the One God over the entire world, who at His will makes miracles and wonders on behalf of His people, without any need for magical practices—as if He is subject to manipulation by secret arts known only to the few. This may also explain why the staff, which was originally Moses’, became the staff of Aaron: because the (highly limited) use of such implements is a priestly function, and as such appropriate to Aaron, and is alien to the prophetic realm of Moses.

There is one exception to this rule, one in which the staff is used specifically by Moses. At the time of the splitting of the Reed Sea, Moses lifts up his hand while holding the staff, in order to split the waters: so to speak, a last and final victory over the Egyptians and their magic:

Lift up your staff, and stretch your hand over the sea and split it, and the children of Israel shall pass through the sea on the dry land… (Exod 14:16, 26–27)

Interestingly, he does not use the staff to return the waters over the Egyptians, but merely stretches his hands over the waters (vv. 26-27).

With this background, we now turn to this week’s reading. Throughout the murmurings of the people in the wilderness—the incident of the quail, that of the Spies, the rebellion of Korah—no mention is made of the staff. Here it appears for the last time. God again commands Moses to use the staff, but only in order to gather the people together. Instead, Moses expresses doubt in his own ability—and in that of God—to take water out of the rock and, rather than speaking to the rock, hits it with his staff. I bring the text in full:

And the entire congregation of Israel came to the wilderness of Zin, in the first month, and the people dwelt in Kadesh. And Miriam died there and she was buried there, and there was no water for the congregation, and they gathered against Moses. And the people quarreled with Moses, and said: Would that we would have died when our brethren died before the Lord. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness to die here, we and our cattle. And why have you taken us up out Egypt to bring us to this bad place: a place without seed, neither figs nor vines nor pomegranates, and there is no water to drink. And Moses and Aaron turned away from the people to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and fell upon their faces, and the Glory of the Lord appeared to them.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff and gather the people, you and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give its waters. And you shall take water out of the rock, and water the people and their cattle. And Moses took the staff before the Lord as he was commanded, and Moses and Aaron gathered the people together opposite the rock. And he said to them: Listen, you rebellious ones, shall we take water for you out of this rock. And Moses lifted up his hand, and struck the rock twice with his staff, and much water came out, and he gave to the congregation to drink, and to their cattle.

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron: Because you have not trusted in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land which I have given them. These are the waters of Merivah (“Dispute”) where the children of Israel disputed with the Lord, and He was sanctified therein. (Numbers 20:1–12)

I would suggest here that Moses’ sin was not simply “lack of faith,” as stated by many traditional commentators, but that he used an implement which belonged to the world of magic—a tool which had been used in Egypt in order to speak to the magicians “in their own language,” a language close to that of the world of paganism and idolatry. Here, in the wilderness, it was neither appropriate nor needed. He should have “sanctified Me”—that is, project a message of faith in the God who rules over the entire world as He wills, without need of magical implements or gimmicks.

Interestingly, in this Torah portion we also encounter another implement which many understood as a magical tool: the serpent of bronze made by Moses in order to cure the people who had been bitten by real snakes (Num 21: 4–9). Hazal already noticed the problematic nature of this story, and took care to clarify: “And does the [bronze] serpent give death or bring to life? Rather, when Israel looked upwards and submitted their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed; and if not, they [their wounds] putrefied” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3.8). But in the end, more than half a millennium later, towards the end of the age of the Israelite monarchy, the same bronze serpent became an object of worship in the folk religion, close to paganism. It was called Nehushtan and was even offered incense until King Hezekiah, the great religious reformer, came along and broke it into pieces (2 Kings 18:4).

Concluding Note: The above exposition was not written specifically for this series of Hitzei Yehonatan but, as noted above, for Shabbat Shalom. One may nevertheless well ask the question: how does all this relate to issues of individual and community? Very briefly: Magic, such as that practiced by the hartumei mitzrayim, is closely related to paganism in promulgating the idea that God, or the cosmos, can be manipulated by use of the right words, gestures, materials, etc. But it also serves as an esoteric rather than an exoteric teaching: it is based on secrets belonging to a small, select elite, impenetrable to others, thereby creating a mystique around their bearers serving as a pretext for special power and privileges. There have been and are such tendencies in Judaism—perhaps the ancient priesthood, and certainly practical Kabbalah, which is very much alive today—but the criteria for leadership in classical Rabbinic Judaism—learning and piety—are exoteric and, in principle, democratic and open to all. “Be careful of the children of the poor, for from them shall come forth Torah.”