Friday, August 19, 2011

Ekev (Individual & Community)

On Prayer, Public and Private

This week’s parashah contains the brief phrase upon which the mitzvah of prayer is based: “to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart (ולעבדו בכל לבבכם) and with all your soul” (Deut 11: 13). Rashi, quoting the ancient tannaitic midrash Sifrei, focuses upon three words: “to love him with all your heart.” It is worth taking note of his exact language:

“And to serve Him with all your heart” (Deut 11:13). Service of the heart—this is prayer. For [we know that] prayer is called service from the verse, “Your God before whom you serve constantly…” (Daniel 6:17). And is their service n Babylon? Rather, because he was used to praying, as is said, “and he had windows open there [facing Jerusalem]” (ibid 6:11). And so too David says, “Let my prayer be accepted before You like incense” (Ps 141:2).

Rashi, and the midrash upon which his comment is based, appear to have sensed a certain contradiction in the combination of the two concepts, “service” and “heart.” “Service” or “work,” avodah, generally refers either to physical labor, or to the subjugation or submission of one person (or nation) to another—and this, in the concrete, material realm. Thus, when one nation pays tribute to a powerful conqueror it is said to serve the latter (see, e.g., Gen 14:4); likewise the word for slave or servant, ‘eved, comes from the same root; the animal sacrifices offered in the ancient Temple are referred to in Rabbinic literature as ‘avodah, albeit this phrase appears but infrequently in this sense in the Bible. Hence, the idea of prayer—the verbal expression of adoration and worship of God, which is seen primarily as an expression of the heart, of the individual human being’s emotions and spirit—being called avodah shebelev seems strange, even discordant. Hence Rashi feels the need to bring, not one, but two (really three) separate proof texts—first to show that prayer may legitimately be referred to as “service” (the verse from Daniel), and then that there is a clear and direct parallel equation made between prayer and the Temple cult (Psalms).

Nevertheless, referring to prayer, not merely as avodah, but as avodah shebelav, suggests that the essence of prayer is within man’s innerness—in the heart, the seat of a person’s intentions, emotions, thoughts, and soul. It follows that prayer requires a certain inner, psychological–spiritual preparation. Thus, the entire first section of Shaharit, the daily Morning Prayer—the longest and most elaborate of the three daily prayers—known as Pesukei de-Zimra, is seen by many as essentially a way of preparing the heart for the Prayer as such which follows thereafter. Indeed there is a vast literature concerning how one ought to prepare for prayer, and how one ought to behave during the act of prayer, how one ought to guide one’s inner life and thoughts and feelings. It is far more than merely reading the words of the Siddur, and even less so—as often seems to happen—an attempt to recite the maximum number of words in the minimum amount of time.

But if this is the case, then another, opposite question arises: What is the point of public prayer altogether? If the essence of prayer is service of the heart and soul—which almost by definition pertain to each individual—then it ought not to need a public dimension. Each person may best perform this mitzvah by him/herself, at their own pace, in the privacy of their own home.

And yet, it is a well-known fact, almost a truism, that the halakhah places great emphasis upon public prayer, and the importance of participation therein—although it stops short at actually defining it as an obligation incumbent upon each individual. (Although if every place where Jews dwell there should be a synagogue, and a daily minyan, then that would seem to imply a certain duty or obligation on at least those ten men to show up in shul!) But even if it is not incumbent upon the individual to pray with a minyan, it is highly praised by the Rabbis. Thus, Abba Binyamin states that “A person’s prayers are only heard constantly in the synagogue [with the public].” (Berakhot 6b). Or, to the contrary, Rabin bar Rav Adda in the name of R. Yitshak, who said that if one who goes to the synagogue every day, and one day doesn’t come, God asks after him (ibid.). Or Resh Lakish, who states that : “One who has a synagogue in his town and does not go there to pray is called a bad neighbor” (ibid., 8a). On the other hand, we do read of Rav Ami and Rav Asi who, even there were thirteen synagogues in their city [Tiberias], only prayed “between the pillars where they studied” (8a).

But perhaps most striking is the statement that the Shekhinah only resides where ten people from Israel are gathered together (ibid., 6b). This is the underlying reason for the rule of davar shebe-kedushah—that is, that there is a whole gamut of things which may only be recited in the presence of a minyan, beginning with Kedushah (the declaration of God’s Holiness in imitation of the angels (“Holy, Holy, Holy…”), including Kaddish and Barkhu, and ending with the public reading of the Torah and the recitation of the Priestly Blessing.

I once discussed here (HY IX: Hayyei Sarah [=Mitzvot]) a passage in the Talmud, Berakhot 26b, concerning the source or root of prayer: is it based upon the model of the patriarchs, or upon the sacrifices offered in the Temple? I wrote at that time that these two views, of R Yossi b. Hanina and R., Yehoshua b. Levi, respectively, clearly correspond to two different aspects of prayer: individual and public. (Why the Sages chose the particular verses and words they did to prove the patriarch’s connection to thrice-daily prayer is itself an interesting question, deserving deeper discussion some other time.) That is, public worship in the synagogue is a kind of reenactment, on some spiritual level, of the service in the Temple performed on behalf of Knesset Yisrael.

Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik once drew a distinction between “prayer in public”—where each individual prays by him/herself, but coordinated with the public; and “prayer of the public,” symbolized by the Hazarat ha-Shatz, in which the reader recites the entire Amidah aloud on behalf of the public. It seems to me that the latter is a kind of parallel or replication of the Tamid shel Shahar—the daily sacrifice offered morning and evening in the Temple, through which all Israel together worship God.

But one might still well ask the question: if the essence of prayer is service of the heart, and the entire realm of both thought and emotion are almost by definition located within the individual, how can one meaningfully speak of the “heart” of the public, of a collectivity of individuals? There is a suggestive Rashi on this matter in the chapter of Matan Torah. At Exodus 19:2, he comments: "'יחן שם ישראל נגד ההר' – כאיש אחד בלב אחד"—“’And Israel camps [the verb is in the singular] there opposite the mountain’—as one man, with one heart.” That is, in some almost mystical sense the entire nation were spiritually united, “with one heart.” There can be a phenomenon of a large group feeling an emotional bond, binding them into one (this may operate for good or for evil—but that is another matter).

What, then, is collective prayer? There are two major aspects to prayer: on the one hand, bakashat tzerakhim, beseeching God for one’s concrete needs in practical life—such things as health, economic security, family, peace in one’s social and political environment, etc.; on the other hand, there can be prayer in the sense of pure avodah, worship of God without any ulterior motive, a demonstration of one’s devotion to God—all of which is implied in the phrase עמידשה בפני ה', “standing before God” (see HY X: Ekev [=Zohar]). If one were to place private and public prayer on a continuum between these two poles, private prayer would be closer to petitionary prayer and public worship would be closer to the idea of pure worship. Here, too, public prayer seems to be modeled upon the korban tamid—the daily sacrifice, which was specifically an olah, a burnt-offering symbolizing simple, complete devotion to God.

But in addition, there may be extraordinary situations in which the collectivity engages in prayer for some common need or concern—of bakashat tzerakhim for the public. This is in fact the model for Ta’anit Tzibbur, public fast days, in which the entire community, in response to some crisis—the classical Rabbinic model is that of drought and the implied threat of famine, but the crisis may be one of it may warfare, epidemic disease, disastrous floods, or even the welfare of a leader or some other individual whose fate touches the entire community. Some readers may remember, in October 1994, when soldier Nahshon Waksman, hy”d, was kidnapped by Arab terrorists and held captive for several days against the release of certain prisoners. There was a mass prayer meeting at the Western Wall one night of that week, when 10,000 or more people came to pray for him; even more impressive, that Friday night Jews throughout Israel were asked to gather in their synagogue after the Shabbat meal to recite Tehillim on his behalf. (In the end, unfortunately, he was murdered.)

Interestingly, Rambam notes that it is a special prerogative of the community’s prayer that they are answered at all times: whenever a community turns to God in this way, it is comparable to the Ten Days of Repentance when God is somehow accessible in a special sense to every individual who does teshuvah (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2.8).

I would like to conclude, very briefly, by noting that this issue goes beyond the specific issue of prayer to the entire area of individual and community. There has been an enormous shift in Western society over the past half century from an excessive emphasis on the group, usually the nation–state, to the other extreme, in which almost all aspects of culture and life—from the large structures of economic life through the ways we think about sexuality and the family unit, and everything in between—are seen almost exclusively through the prism of the individual. This may be felt in the way we think about spiritual life as well: whether in an over–emphasis on individual, subjective experience, or an individualistic, at times almost anarchic approach to halakhah found in many quarters, without a true understanding of the spiritual riches and power to be found in a healthy, deeply interconnected community.

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for July 12 2006, August 2007 (scroll down), August 2008, and August 2009.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Vaethanan (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog for July 5 2006, July 2007, August 2008, and August 2009.

Unity of the Individual, Unity of Society, Unity of the Cosmos

In one of his lectures in honor of his father ‘s Yahrzeit (Shiurim le-zekher Abba Mari z”l, Vol. I, pp., 32-52, esp. 32-37), Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik discusses the concept of accepting the yoke of Heaven through Keri’at Shema—the twice-daily recitation of Shema. His starting point is the sugya in Berakhot 13a-b, in which there is a dispute among R. Eliezer, R. Akiva and R. Meir, regarding the question: Until what verse is one required to recite Shema with kavanah, with inner awareness/concentration? The sugya gives three answers: during the first verse alone—”Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deut 6:4); through the second verse: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (v. 5); or up to and including the third verse, “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart” (v. 6). Rambam, at Hilkhot Keri’at Shema 1.2, synthesizes them into one answer: “One recites Shema early [upon rising], for it contains God’s unity, His love [i.e., our love of Him], and His study [i.e., our obligation to study His word], which is the great principle upon which all depends.”

The Rav goes on to explain that these three verses allude to three dimensions of religious commitment: the first refers to the basic articles of faith—God’s existence, our knowledge/faith/acceptance of this fact, and the rejection of idolatry (i.e. since God is one, unique, there is no other). The second verse refers to the human response to these cosmic, metaphysical axioms, through love of God—“with all your heart, soul and strength/being.” The third, curiously, refers to acceptance of the Torah as the vehicle through which we come to love and accept God’s kingdom (”these things which I command you this day”).

What are the underlying ideas of each of these three verses, and of the various tannaitic approaches as to what is central and what is, if not extraneous, somewhat less important? I would like to suggest that Ker’iat Shema, among other things, means that unity is the central organizing principle of Judaism, and that these three verses correspond to three different realms or dimensions of that unity.

The first verse is, at least on the face of it, the simplest and most basic: the Being and Unity of God: the statement that “the Lord” (HWYH) is our God, and that He is one. However, there are many possible interpretations of God’s unity. There is the simple definition implied in the Bible and by Hazal, in which God’s unity simply means His exclusivity: that idolatry is in fact mere fetishism, that the other gods do not really exist, but their worship is prohibited only so that people will not express incorrect ideas about the cosmos. (Some historical scholars of Bible might add: in certain passages one finds a concept of henotheism—that HWYH is the mightiest god, and all other powers that exist in the world are subjugated to Him.) Then there is the philosophical definition, propounded by Maimonides: that God is an eternal, unchanging perfection; that as such He is without any internal divisions, and hence is not only incorporeal, but without any emotions, actions, etc. ; anything that confutes this view is purely metaphorical, to translate the God-idea into human terms. Finally, there is the Kabbalistic–Hasidic conception, in which God is dynamic, with a complex inner life, involving various forces or sefirot that bridge the gap between the realm of the finite world and the infinite—but within this diversity, He is one.

But whatever position is taken (and these are of course simplifications), the important idea is the unity of the cosmos: that beyond the appearance of multiplicity, of numerous phenomenon, there is an underlying principle that unites them all. This leaves us with another question: Must a Jew believe in a personal God, or is the notion of Divine personality itself a figure of speech used to make the idea of God, which is utterly mysterious and beyond, in some small way comprehensible to us? And: does God have a will? And if He is not a person as we understand that concept, what does this mean?

The second verse leaves aside these theological questions; those who insist that it, too, is an integral part of Shema imply thereby that what is important is how we live as human beings, and not what axioms we accept about the area of God’s being, which is anyway ultimately unknowable.

The Love of God: I would suggest that what this really means, at least in the traditional Rabbinic reading, is the integration of the human personality around the love of God. A well-known mishnah, at Berakhot 9.5, interprets each of the three phrases in this verse. “With all your heart” means: “with both your urges: with both your good and evil urges.” The Evil Urge is not evil in any nasty, demonic sense, but simply refers to the instinctual life, what Freud called the Id: especially sexuality, but also other vital appetites, and the simple urge for survival, for self-preservation, which can at times lead to aggression and even violence against others—in short, things which are not in themselves evil, but which are typically areas in which things can get out of hand. This must be integrated with the “Good Urge”—the ethical impulse, love for others without any ulterior motivation, generosity and selflessness, as well as the impulse towards spirituality, the urge for transcendence and, if you will, the quest for meaning, and even the impulse for all kinds of cultural and intellectual creativity.

“With all your soul.” The traditional interpretation is: total commitment, up to and including sacrificing one’s very life, if need be. Just a few days ago we observed Tisha b’Av, in which the motif of Jewish martyrdom looms large (in the piyut, Arzei ha-Levanon). This is so, not only because we have had a history n which Jews were forced at many junctures to make the choice between apostasy or death, many faithful Jews submitting to martyrdom, but because in principle the idea of Kiddush Hashem symbolizes total commitment—a commitment that in principle totally transcends individual life. (Some Rebbes and Kabbalists called upon people to mentally imagine undergoing Kiddush Hashem every day during their prayers, either at this verse or in Tahanun.)

“With all your might [or: wealth / vitality / in all life situations].” Here the mishnah introduces a homiletical reading of מאדך as בכל מידה ומידה שהוא מודד לך —“In every aspect that He measures out for you”—which is clearly not peshat. The basic point here is that, just as one must remember God in all life situations—getting up, going to bed at night, walking on the road, sitting at home—so must one acknowledge and accept His presence and authorship of all life situations.

This is far from a simple matter. I know of people who gave up being religious when things went bad in life—not only after the Holocaust, but in response to more mundane misfortune: when a marriage turned sour and they found themselves alone in mid-life, death of a love one, illness or physical disability or financial reverses. The idea of Tzidduk Hadin, of accepting God even when life dishes out hard knocks, is not at all simple, but is essential to faith in a God who is not merely a cosmic Santa Claus.

The third verse: “And these things which I command you this day shall be upon your heart” is understood as referring to the study of Torah and, more than that, a constant existential connection to Torah. An idea repeated constantly in certain early Hasidic books, such as Me’or Einayim, is the unfathomable gap between the finite human being and the infinite, transcendent, unreachable God, and the function of the Torah as a kind of intermediary or bridge between the two. The Torah serves as the central image in Judaism—not only as a specific book, not only as Law, but as Wisdom, as a kind of underlying fabric of the universe, even as a kind of apotheosis of God Himself. The verses that follow this one in the first paragraph of Shema—that one must teach Torah to one’s children, speak of it constantly, attach it to one’s body through the tefillin, write a section of it in the mezuzah on the portal to one’s home—are all expansions of this basic message. Moreover, the second paragraph of Shema, which Hazal refer to as “accepting the yoke of mitzvot,” is a yet fuller elaboration of this basic message.

How do these ideas apply to our scheme of individual and community?

The first verse speaks of God as He is in Himself, in His glory and splendor and transcendent unity, and as such is beyond the human. The second verse speaks of personal integration, of how the individual relates to God in a unified way—the individual being the seat of human consciousness, the basic unit through which life in all its multiplicity is experienced.

The third verse speaks of Torah. The Torah of course addresses the individual, and its study—whether done by oneself, with a partner, or in a larger group—is ultimately an individual experience, the intellect residing within the mind of each individual. But it is also the covenantal document of Klal Yisrael, of the totality of Israel, and as Divine Wisdom it is universal, even cosmic in significance. One could even say: identification with other Jews as Jews takes place through the community of Torah, through what the Rav called the Masorah community.

Indeed, one of the great problems of Jewish modernity is either ignorance of Torah, or rejection of Torah—i.e., secularism. The story of modern Jewry can be read, at least in part, as the history of the attempts to discover or create substitutes for Torah, through culture, nationalism, language, collective memory, etc.—and with only limited degrees of success. Thus, one can read this verse primarily on the collective level as: unity of community, the connection of Jews with one another through the instrumentality of Torah. Or, to conclude in the words of the Shabbat afternoon prayer: Atah ehad ve-shemkha ehad umi ke-Amkha Ysrael goy ehad ba-aretz.

Some Tisha b’Av Afterthoughts

After my piece on Shabbat Hazon and an attempt at an existential reading of the meaning of the Temple, I received the following email from long-time reader Yaakov Sack:

I really liked the notion of homo sacrifices, but what is not being said is the communal rejection of the Temple led by the Rabbis (this being an absolute condition of acceptance of haluka derabanan), while at the same time hypocritically mouthing words about “rebuilding the Temple” or its “falling from Heaven complete.” Such an acceptance of contrary states so close to the heart of our faith points to a serious malfunction in reality management—a fiddler on the roof, so to speak—which is hardly affected at all by this state you mention as being so important.

My response: Thanks for your very interesting reading. But did the community really reject the Temple? Don’t forget that it was destroyed by the Romans, in the course of a long and painful war. Maybe haluka derabanan, as you put it, was simply making the best of the new reality. Then, after a time a Judaism without the Temple, but centered around halakhah and Torah study, became so highly developed that there was no way back...

To which he answered in turn:

Couldn't Yohanan ben Zakkai have asked for the Temple instead of Yavneh? It's impossible to ignore the centuries of conflict between Temple-based religion and Rabbinical trends. Wasn't the Temple’s end the triumph of another way and the true end of a civil war waged for centuries. And what about the attempt of the Emperor, Julian the Apostate (363 CE) to rebuild the Temple that was thwarted by the rabbis? But we’re not discussing history, but a kind of blind spot in us that prevents looking at what we feel inside—[namely,] repulsion at the Temple.

And my own response: About what you say here: the gemara (Gittin 56b) seems to imply that Rabban Yohanan chose Yavneh because he wasn't sure Vespasian would grant him Jerusalem at all. The gemara says he choose הצלה פורתא, a small deliverance, rather than risk losing everything.

Was this choice motivated by deeper attitudes and mindset? Perhaps. But note: there is a passage in the Talmud which says that when Rabban Yohanan was dying he wept. His disciples asked him: Why do you weep? Can it be that a great man like you, a true tzaddik and sage and leader (פטיש חזק עמוד ימיני) fears the Divine judgment? He answered: Two paths were open before me, one leading to Gehinnom and the other to Gan Eden, and I do not know which is which, and whether or not I chose the right one. Rav Soloveitchik, when learning this sugya, said that Rabban Yohanan was wondering whether he had in fact made the right choice at that juncture.

But as Yakov says, this is not the real issue, but rather that of “exploring our real feelings in the face of what we're legislated to feel… It’s the feeling that the power of faith is letting slip by what everyone knows is a lie.” People don’t like to talk about these things, but this is true: in the religious community there are conventionally pious things one is supposed to say, I thought of this Tuesday morning when someone said to me, “Next year we won’t observe Tisha b’Av” or when a prominent rabbi, at the beginning of a Webcast of an all-day series of shiurim, began by saying that he hopes that this will be the last such shiur ever (because by next Tisha b’Av the Temple will be rebuilt; incidentally, it is by no means clear that Tisha b’Av was not observed during the period of the Second Temple.) Or the fact that most Kinot are printed in cheap paper-back editions, as a way of emphasizing that they are not, so to speak, intended for permanent use—even though the same books are used year after year.

I look around at the people in my synagogue, or people I know generally, and wonder how many of them are really yearning for the Temple in the depths of their soul, and how much of it is a kind of unconscious or semi-conscious pious play-acting. By and large, people are pretty much satisfied with their religious lives—or if not, the dissatisfaction isn’t because of the absence of the Temple, but other factors, To mention something completely different, but reflecting the same mentality: During my father-in-law’s final illness, I told someone at a certain social gathering, “My wife isn’t here tonight because her father is dying and she’s on her way to the US.” The response was, “You mustn’t say such a thing.” Does religious faith really mean that we are supposed to believe that God can and will miraculously heal a dying person at the last minute, and to deny our basic sense of reality? People, after all, are mortal!

There are various ways of dealing with this: In my earlier essay I mentioned Rambam and his seeming ambivalence about the Temple, as expressed in the sharp contradiction between what he says in the Guide and his detailed presentation of its laws in the Yad. (See my discussion of this in HY V: Vayikra [=Rambam: Vayikra]). Richard Rubenstein, in his book After Auschwitz, writes, as a Reform rabbi, a very interesting essay about why reciting Seder ha-Avodah on Yom Kippur is important. In a psychoanalytical approach, he states that he doesn’t want to see an actual revival of Temple but that, psychologically, religion is not only about ethical exhortation and perfectionism, but also about the community experiencing a kind of collective admission of failure and catharsis—and this is somehow done through recalling the ritual performed at the Temple. Or, perhaps more simply, one can relate to the Temple worship with a certain kind of nostalgia, without literally wanting to see it reconstituted—at least not with the animal sacrifices. (Perhaps as a kind of Super–Great Synagogue? Surely there’s nothing wrong with the idea of a central site for a particularly elevated form of collective worship—a kind of Jewish Mecca.)

Another implicit problem: for those who accept the modernist idea of historical development of religion and religious institutions, one can see the Temple and animal sacrifices as something we’ve left behind, perhaps even with a certain nostalgia. But one who sees the Torah, in the sense of the peshat of the Five Books, as literally the basic, unchanging guide to God’s eternally revealed will, will have a harder time with this idea.

Tisha b'Av (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on Tisha b’Av, see the archives to this blog for July 2006, July 2007, July 10 2008, July 2009 and July 2010.

This past Shabbat I went to Yedidyah—which during my first two years in Talpiyot had been my regular shul, but which I left last summer when I found the distance too hard on my suffering knees and legs—for the first time in nearly a year. It was most fortuitous, for when there I heard a wonderful, passionate sermon for Shabbat Hazon delivered by Gershom Gorenberg, journalist and socially engaged person. His theme was the verse from the haftarah: “Hear the word of the Lord, chieftains of Sedom; hearken to the Torah of our God, people of Amorah” (Isa 1:10). Why, he asked, were the people of Israel compared to those of Sedom? What did Sedom symbolize? What was their salient characteristic?

His answer was a simple one (unlike the Western Christian tradition which associates Sodom with homosexuality, hence the word “sodomy”): the sin of Sedom was indifference to the other; not necessarily cruelty, viciousness, gratuitous violence, but simple indifference and apathy. Pirkei Avot writes: “He who says: What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours, is an ‘intermediate quality,’ and there are those who say: This is the quality of Sodom (midat sedom)” (Avot 5.10). In short, the ethics of Sedom was remarkably similar to that of “neo-liberalism”—that is, of unfettered capitalism, in which state and society abdicate responsibility for the well-being of society, and of its weakest members, as much as possible. Each man is left on his own; the ethics of what is romantically referred to as the “rugged individualism” of the American frontier.

How does this relate to my discussion, in my most recent piece for Shabbat Hazon, of the almost metaphysical meaning of the Temple? Some might say that there is a sharp conflict between the area of ritual and the ethics: either/or. But, alternatively, it is possible to see them as complementing one another. There really is an existential human need for worship, for sacrifice, and even for atonement—but the road to these things goes through social ethics and justice. Our haftarah and similar prophetic texts relate, not to the expression of grief and longing and nostalgia once the Temple was destroyed, but to the question: why was the Temple destroyed? And the answer to this is clear: in punishment for social injustice, indifference to one’s fellow, and groundless hatred that marked Israelite/Judaean society at the time of the Destructions. It is significant that, when the prophet Zechariah was asked (7:1-3) by those who had just returned from Babylonia whether or not they should continue to observe Tisha b’Av (“the fast of the fifth month”), he did not give them a straight answer, but delivered a lengthy prophecy–sermon–rebuke (7:4-8:17) on the subject of social justice, of caring for the orphan and widow, of kindness and compassion, of not allowing the strong to rob the poor (whether with a pistol or a fountain-pen, in the words of the American folk-song)—and only then addresses their question with somewhat cryptic words of blessing: “the fast of the fourth, and the fifth, and the seventh, and the tenth month, shall be days of joy and gladness to the house of Israel,” ending with a final implied admonition: “but [most of all?], love truth and peace” (8:18-19). Or, in terms of my discussion on Shabbat: the need of human beings to feel closeness to the Divine, to break through the barriers between heaven and earth, and to transcend the barriers created by their own weakness and sin and failures (kaparah as existential need) can only be fulfilled when they first behave decently towards others—thereby, as it were, pleasing God, the loving Father of all humankind.

* * * * *

All this is closely related to the events occurring in Israel in recent weeks, on which I shall elaborate, especially for the benefit of readers abroad who may not be au courant. For the first time in many years—certainly for the first time since I came on aliyah, thirty-seven years ago—issues of civil society, of economic justice and of national priorities—are at the forefront of the nation’s agenda, rather than issues of “the territories,” the Palestinians, and “security.” Seemingly out of nowhere, there is a mass awakening of the “ordinary” middle-class Israeli—tens and hundreds of thousands of people have taken to marching and demonstrating on the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other cities and even middle-sized towns, week after week, expressing a sense of profound dissatisfaction and even distrust with the government.

It all began with the issue of housing: the grossly inflated prices of both purchase and rental of even modest-sized apartments in the big cities, and the feeling of many young people—hard-working people, many of them professionals, most of them university graduates—who camped out in tents in the middle of Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv, that they would never be able to afford a place to live: that is, that society and its leaders had let them down.

But it quickly spread to other areas: the system of medical care—the fine hospitals in which Israel takes such pride—is breaking down. There are not enough hospital beds; interns are paid scandalously low wages (NIS 22 per hour!) while working many and long night shifts every month in addition to a 40-hour-week, leaving them barely any time for family life. There has been privatization of education, so that many high schools have a two-tier system, in which parents with more money can place their children in special classes run private associations that provide a better education. Meanwhile the teachers are hired on a year-to-year contractual basis, without tenure and without social benefits; and, perhaps more important, the schools no longer function as a means of social advancement for bright kids from poor families, as they will get a second-rate education.

More generally, there is an overall sense of unfairness, of injustice, that the “salt of the earth”—those who work and contribute most to society—doctors, teachers, young soldiers—enjoy the least benefits, that too much of the nation’s budget goes to special interest groups of all sorts. That too much wealth and power is concentrated among a handful of “tycoons”—of wealthy individuals and families who enjoy tax incentives and easy-term loans from the government, on the theory that their wealth will “filter down” to the rest of the population. That there is too great a tax burden on the middle class, with too many “regressive” taxes—e.g., 16% VAT on most goods and services—and not enough “progressive” taxes on the wealthy. That too much money has been spent on West Bank settlements, in cultivating cheap land and housing there and not elsewhere, in building bypass roads and infrastructures (NB: I deliberately bracket here the political, moral and even international-relations aspects of this question, and refer only to the economics). That vast quantities of money are spent subsiding full-time Torah study by Haredim—an activity which is hardly in the “national consensus” as a cultural priority—who are also exempt from military service, in response to what can only be called political blackmail. That the military is a “sacred cow,” automatically given priority in matters of budget (Note: While this is seemingly called for in a country like Israel which has had to fight so many wars and suffers serious security threats, much of that budget goes to retirement benefits for career officers from the age of 45, when they can start new and lucrative careers in business, politics, or management—not to mention simple waste and inefficiency.)

The government’s response thus far has been to set up a committee, to talk about fiscal responsibility, budgetary limitations, costs, etc. But the real issue is not this or that minor change or adjustment, but the crying need for a serious rethinking of national priorities, which will require cutting the unfair perks to special interest groups to pay for more equitable social and other services for all. If this involves struggle with those groups which have hitherto enjoyed special privileges (as it will)—so be it. In simple terms: it’s time for the government to be taken back by the people.

All this is something very new to Israel. For more than forty years, politics in Israel have revolved around the issue of the West Bank, and the parties which have various positions on this issue. This new movement is not political in the traditional sense of partisan politics and the struggle for power among them, but in the root sense of concern for the structure and priorities of society. We can only hope that they are successful, in some small measure, in opening a more vital and vibrant discussion on al levels of society, and beginning a much-needed process of change.

Devarim-Hazon (Individual & Community)

Tisha b’Av: “Shall I Weep as I Have Done?”

This Shabbat is the saddest Shabbat of the Jewish year—indeed, virtually the only Shabbat when a certain degree of melancholy is permitted. Known as Shabbat Hazon, “vision”—the first word of the haftarah of rebuke from Isaiah 1 read this Shabbat—it is devoted to the theme of the Destruction of the Temple, commemorated on the fast of Tisha b’Av, to be observed on Tuesday of this coming week. But perhaps the title hazon may also be read, homiletically, as an allusion to the vision of rebuilding, of consolation, and of restoration which has enabled Jews throughout the millennia to somehow survive through harsh and difficult times.

In our days, more than in the past, there are many people who ask the question asked by the delegation of elders to the prophet Zechariah: “Shall we weep and fast during the fifth month, as we have done these many years?” (Zech 7:3). Or, in simple language: is mourning and weeping for the Temple still relevant? This question is asked by different people on at least two levels. On the Zionist level: now that we have a State of Israel, that our age has witnessed the miracle of national renascence and the restoration of political sovereignty, the settlement of our ancient homeland and the creation of a flourishing society, culture and economy, the renewal of the Hebrew language, the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a modern city—all this notwithstanding the problems and difficulties facing Israel, including the sense of social and economic injustice underlying the widespread demonstrations of the past three weeks—what point is there to bewailing our putative Galut? On another, modernist–religious level: in a world where religious worship is overwhelmingly performed through verbal prayer, where whatever modest revival of religion and “spirituality” that has occurred in recent years is focused on the individual and his inwardness, how can people identify with the loss of a centralized Temple, focused upon slaughtering animals, sprinkling their blood, and burning their flesh on the altar? Indeed, those troubled by this question may cite Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, III.33; cf. 45-46, where he speaks of the Temple and the numerous commandments concerning sacrifices as a kind of interim or transitional stage, using the language of that type of ritual familiar to the Israelites when they left Egypt, but leading towards a more “advanced” experience of verbal prayer. In much the same way, indeed, he hints that humankind may eventually move past verbal prayer to pure mental contemplation of the greatness and transcendence of God.

In years past, I have emphasized the role of Tisha b’Av as a kind of national day of mourning for a; those things that have befallen the Jewish people throughout its history, beginning with the Destruction of the First and Second Temple and its aftermath of exile, enslavement, and the Hadrianic persecution of Jewish practice and Torah study, through the murderous anti-Jewish rampages of the Crusaders, the Inquisition and Expulsion in Spain and Portugal, the pogroms in the Ukraine, Poland and Russia, and culminating in the demonic horrors of the Holocaust within the memory of some people living today.

But this year, I prefer to address the question of the Temple per se, which I shall formulate around the terms to which I have repeatedly returned this year: How does Tisha b’Av address the individual, and how so the community? Or: in what sense does the individual miss and yearn for the Temple, and in what sense does the community?

The connection of the Temple to community is obvious. The most basic of all sacrifices offered therein, first mentioned at the conclusion of the chapters in Exodus 25-29 describing its construction, is the Korban Tamid—the fixed daily offering, offered morning and evening—which was offered on behalf of the people as whole, as the living embodiment of the House of Israel’s constant worship of the Divine. The great festivals celebrated in the Temple—Passover, with its paschal offerings eaten by family units to mark the beginnings of the people; and Yom Kippur, with its atonement ritual performed by the High Priest on behalf of the entire people—are all focused, in one way or another, upon themes in the collective life of the people. Likewise, on the last day of the festival of Sukkot the people would march around the altar, adorning it with willow branches, and crying out: “Beauty unto you, O altar; beauty unto you, O altar”—as if the altar itself somehow shared in the praises due to God. When we learned this passage with the Rav in Boston, he explained it in terms of the special of love and even adoration that Jews of olden times felt for the altar, as the physical locus of the miracle of kaparah—atonement. (more on this below)

But the Psalms are also filled with expressions of the longing of individuals for the Temple and the powerful sense of Divine Presence felt there. Thus, for example, Psalm 42 expresses the longing of an individual living in the distant northern province of the Jordan headwaters and the Hermon for God’s presence, and his wish to visit the “house of God” and for the “sound of joyous song and celebrant throng” which mark his experience there. So, too, in Psalm 63, while in “a dry and weary land,” his soul thirsts and his flesh long for God, and “to see You in the holy place.” Similar sentiments may be seen in Pss 27, 87, 135, and many others.

These feelings are expressed yet again in the series of shorter psalms bearing the heading “a song of degrees” or “song of steps” (Pss 120-134), which may have been originally written to be recited during the festal pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Following such familiar hymns celebrating the Holy City as Pss 122 and 126, they build up to Ps 132, King David’s song of longing to build the Temple, which only his son would live to accomplish; the fellowship of “brethren sitting together” in Ps 133; reaching a crescendo with the brief but eloquent song of praise and blessing of those “standing in the house of God at night” in Ps 134. In all these psalms, the experience of individual longing for and joy in the Temple is combined with the public or collective experience felt there.

What does, or did, the Temple mean to each individual per se? A strange midrash, cited by Rambam in Hilkhot Bet ha-Behirah 2.2, states that the altar was built at the exact spot where Abraham bound Yitzhak on the altar—a familiar idea—but goes on to add that this was the same place where Noah offered sacrifice after the Flood, where Cain and Abel built the altar for their spontaneous offerings (with its tragic ending), and, most significantly, the spot from which Adam himself was created, and where he offered a sacrifice upon his creation—“to teach one, that from the place of his creation, there came his atonement” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer; Gen. Rab. 14.8). Rav Soloveitchik connected this idea with a notion, that no doubt sounds strange to modern ears, that sacrifice, and specifically the process of atonement that comes about through certain kinds of sacrifice, is an existential need of Man; he speaks of homo sacrificius Thus, the Temple was important, not only as the locus for collective worship, but as the place where each and every individual could undergo the process of catharsis and purgation brought about through sacrifice to the Almighty, to somehow bridge the gap between finite man and the infinite, transcendent, wholly Other God.

This last point demands elaboration. What does it mean for man to need sacrifice, and to need atonement, as a basic, existential need. And how does this relate to the strange mixture of elation, holiness and joy experienced on Yom Kippur—not at all a day of guilt and self-castigation, but of renewal and forgiveness? When we speak of existential needs, we usually think either of basic physical needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, and sex, or of basic emotional needs—whether the need for love, for security, or the fulfillment of ego needs such as recognition, dignity, respect from others, or of meaning in life, a significant life-project, etc. Even such sublime areas as the aesthetic or the intellectual ultimately refer back to a sense of pleasure, however refined.

But more than that: Many of us, under the influence of modern psychology, have accepted the notion that guilt per se is somehow a bad thing, that all neuroses originate in unnecessary feelings of guilt; that the healthy individual is marked by a high degree of “self-acceptance,” and that the task of therapy is to help bring this about. In this sense, teshuvah, what some would call religious conversion, including the notions of commandment and transgression, involves a profound inner revolution, a change in mind-set involving the rejection of some of the most basic axioms of our society.

What then is meant by kaparah? It is one of the conventions of modern Jewish apologetics to say that, unlike Christianity, we do not believe in Original Sin. To be sure, on one level this is true—man is not irredeemably evil, tainted with sin and corruption. But on another level, Judaism struggles deeply with the issue of sin, and there are even certain moments in our sacred history—the eating of the fruit of the Tree by Adam an Eve, the story of the Golden Calf, the sin of the Spies—which are seen as archetypal for our experience through the generations. Sin—meaning: failure, misdirection in life, missing the mark, wrongdoing, and even acts of real evil, of overt deep selfishness and meanness and cruelty towards the Other—are all but inevitable in life. Life is in some sense a realm in which one constantly errs. The human being experiences frustration, not only over things lacking in the material realm, or unrealized desires (“No man dies with half his desire in his hand”), but even more so because of his or her own shortcomings, stupidity, or slavery to impulse. The gap between the ideal by which one would like to live (particularly if the person has a modicum of spiritual sensitivity) and the actuality of our lives.

It is at this point that the notion of kaparah comes in, whereby one somehow feels a level of intimacy with God that would not, could not, exist otherwise. And this experience of atonement, of becoming purged and cleansed of one’s spiritual impurity, is somehow linked to Mikdash, and to the rituals performed there. It is for that, ultimately, that the individual mourns on Tisha b’Av. In the words of a piyyut recited on Musaf of Yom Kippur: “All these when the Temple stood on its site; does not our soul grieve even to hear about it!”

I would like to conclude with a few comments about the Zionist adoption of Temple Mount as sela kiyumenu, “the rock of our existence”—as a national symbol, as a place, sovereignty over which is somehow essential to the Zionist enterprise of Jewish national renaissance. On this point, I fear that I will sound almost like a member of Neturei Karta: that this is a secularization, an adoption for political-sociological purposes, of something that in truth exists on an entirely different plane. Such groups as Ne’emanei Har Ha-Bayit (“Loyalists of the Temple Mount”), which sees the right to ascend the Temple Mount as an essential expression of national pride, hopelessly misunderstand what the Temple and its holiness are all about. The Shekhinah is not an Israeli citizen, nor an Israeli patriot. (Mind you, I think it would be unwise of Israel to cede total sovereignty of the mountain to the Palestinians—but this for realpolitik, psychological–political reasons relating to the nature of negotiations and our future relaions—not because of any inherent, substantive national reasons. Meanwhile, davka refraining from ascending the mountain, close as it may be, is a powerful sign that, on some existential level, we are still in Galut.)