Saturday, November 26, 2011

Toldot (Wanderings)

A Tale of Two Brothers

Before turning to this week’s parashah, I would like to reiterate a point that has guided much of what I have written here over the years: namely, that the Jewish tradition frequently puts a very definite slant on the meaning and interpretation of a particular Biblical text, so much so that we automatically see it through that perspective, and often tend to overlook the peshat, in the sense of the straightforward meaning. A case in point is the story of Jacob and Esau, which lies at the center of this week’s reading. We are so accustomed to thinking of Esau as esav ha-rasha, as the nemesis of the Jewish people throughout history since time immemorial, that a special effort is needed to see what the biblical text itself is actually saying. (Of course, one can also read it through the midrashic lens, as I have done on those years when my writing has been devoted to midrash, aggadah, Rashi, Hasidism, etc. It is nevertheless important to be aware that one is doing so, and from time to time to attempt to read the parashah with fresh eyes, without preconceptions.)

A second point about the Bible’s method of writing: literary critic Erich Auerbach, in his masterwork Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, begins by noting a basic difference between the Greek epic and the Bible. Whereas, e.g., Homer in the Odyssey depicts the scene of Odysseus’ homecoming in great detail, with digressions, elaborate flashbacks, etc., the Bible is often succinct to the point of terseness, conveying worlds of meaning in a few brief sentences. (Albeit not always: Hazal noted with some puzzlement the verbosity of the text in last week’s parashah, in which the story of the servant’s mission to find a wife for Yitzhak is repeated several times, and in considerable detail.) The opening section of this week’s parashah, Genesis 25:19-34, is a classic example of this: in a few broad strokes we are told of the conception, pregnancy and birth of the two brothers, their respective characters, their parents’ respective preferences between them, and the scene of the selling of the birthright.

We begin with the two brothers struggling in the womb and their mother seeking an oracle of the Lord. She is not told that one is morally superior to the other; rather, “Two peoples are in your womb, and two nations shall be separated from your innards, and one nation shall struggle against the other”—i.e., they are both [seemingly] equal. But it concludes with a prophecy about their future: “the greater [i.e., the elder] shall serve the younger” (v. 23). Thus, from the very outset there is a certain hint of destiny, of the idea that Yaakov is the rightful heir to his father (presumably, including the covenant with God and the inheritance of the Land); hence, his underhanded attempts to obtain, first the birthright, then the unique and singular paternal blessing, may be seen as carrying some justification.

Or is all this window dressing, and ought we to focus upon this story in terms of sibling rivalry, pure and simple—a story as old as humanity itself. There is a deep paradox here: we speak of “brotherhood” as a metaphor for human solidarity, friendship and cooperation, a model for peaceful coexistence between different nations and religions—and yet, as often as not, real brothers, born of the same flesh and raised in the same home, are at odds with one another. They fight for paternal love and attention: a situation often exacerbated when the parents, despite the best intentions, do not love all their children equally well, but favor one over another. Worse still, when each parent has their own favorite, the rivalry between the children may be deflected back to the marital relation. In royal households, or other families in which there is some hereditary privilege, this may end in bloody struggles over the succession (note the conflicts in the family of King David, or contemporary quarrels in Hasidic courts; I might note here that the late Bostoner Rebbe, ztz”l, did well to assure that his “Rebbesha” patrimony was divided among all three of his sons upon his death. There may have been more erudite scholars than he, but he was a very wise man.)

To return to Genesis 25: Esau was an outdoors type, a hunter, a person of crude, roughhewn masculinity—he was even born hairy; whereas Yaakov was delicate, cerebral, one who liked to sit at home in his mother’s tent. In a later age, these two types seemed to coalesce perfectly with, or even to serve as paradigms for “Goyish” and “Jewish” models of masculinity (see Daniel Boyarin’s Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, in which he asserts that Judaism, specifically in the notion of the talmid hakham, the Talmudic scholar, created an alternative model for male heterosexuality to the Greco-Roman Adonis figure; cf. Maurice Samuel’s The Gentleman and the Jew, in which the rejection of sports and the hunt is seen as a defining moment in Jewish self-understanding). Interestingly, one of the central cultural motifs of Zionism was the creation of the “new Jew”—i.e., a model of masculinity closer to that of the other nations: hence the emphasis on sports and physical fitness (the Maccabee Association), on agriculture, and of course on readiness to use arms in self-defense (Hashomer)—all of which also required a rejection of the religious piety of the “Galut Jew.” In more recent times, a new type of Israeli religious Jew has created a certain synthesis of the two, at times aggressively so. But one might conclude that even more recently, in a certain historical irony, as computer software has outstripped citrus fruit and even military goods as Israel’s major export industry, the computer nerd has become a new hero of sorts.

The term tam, used here to describe Yaakov, did not yet have the sense of simplicity or even naivete and simple–mindedness which it later acquired—e.g., in the third son of the Passover Haggadah. R. Nahman of Bratslav turns this stereotype on its head in his story Al Hakham va-Tam, which celebrates the man of simple, naïve faith. Here the word has the original meaning of completeness, fulness, integrity, soundness, purity, as well as a certain innocence and simplicity. But Bible scholar George Savran has suggested that Ish tam may be intended here ironically, in light of what follows.

After a few minor incidents, we turn to the second major part of this week’s parashah, Chapter 27, in which Yaakov, at the prompting and under the guidance of his mother Rivkah, receives the blessing intended for Esau. We have written in the past that Yitzhak may well have been suspicious all along, repeatedly asking “Are you really my son Esau?” The sense of this passage is that he had somehow chosen to play along with the masquerade, possibly realizing, as he began to confront his own death (see Gen 27:2,4; but he in fact did not die until more than twenty years later, after Yaakov’s return to the Land: see below, Gen 35:27-29) that Yaakov would be a more fitting heir to his covenantal inheritance. (The question as to why each parent loved whom he/she did is an interesting one. One traditional answer is “opposites attract”: just as in marriage we are drawn to someone whom we unconsciously feel may complement or compensate for our own shortcomings, so too in preferences towards children: Yitzhak knew he was indecisive, even somewhat effeminate, and was drawn to the uncomplicated, rough masculinity of Esau; Rivkah, who had grown up with a “toughy” like Lavan, appreciated Yaakov’s delicacy.)

Two more points. One is the role of Rivkah, and the psychology of a son who was loved overly well by his mother. Beyond the ethical issues, this can be unhealthy emotionally, leading to a passive personality. Indeed, Yaakov’s entire subsequent life history may be read as an attempt to overcome this.

A second point relates to the role of food in this whole drama. Why are food and eating so important here? Yitzhak tells Esau: “Go, bring me some hunt so that I may bless you before I die.” Three times the Torah uses here words implying causation—בעבור and למען— “so that I may bless you” (27:4, 19, 25), implying a direct cause and effect relation between the bringing and eating of food to Yitzhak, and his blessing the son who does so. We know, both in Judaism and other cultures, of the centrality of eating, of the table as a focus of fellowship, whether in the family or in the larger community. Moreover, feeding others is perhaps the paradigmatic act of Hesed, of kindness, of giving, of generosity. Joseph’s rule as leader and even savior in Egypt is tied to his role as provider, as ha-mashbir. Similarly, the term used in medieval Jewry for the communal leaders, parnasei ha-tzibbur, is derived from the root פרנס, which originally meant to feed or provide—hence parnasah is “livelihood.” (This thought is prompted by the death last week of a neighbor named Yosef Parnes—may his memory be a blessing.)

It is interesting that blessing generally, in Judaism, is related to food. Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals, is the paradigmatic blessing from which all other blessings, both before partaking of food and on innumerable other occasions, is inferred. Rambam notes that it is the only blessing de-oraita, of Torah status. Is thanking someone who has fed one—a civilized convention—in essence equivalent to saying “bless you”? Are blessing and thanks conceptually equivalent? This is an appropriate question for the weekend of “thanks–giving.”

Finally, to return to the central ethical question posed by the parashah: perhaps Yaakov and Rivkah’s behavior is best understood, not as simple deceit, but as a certain choice, a way of dealing with a real dilemma, a situation fraught with ambiguity: on the one hand, the very real sense of destiny, that in some sense Yaakov is the rightful heir of Avraham and Yitzhak’s spiritual heritage; on the other, the sense that Esau, simply as a human being, was deserving of consideration and fair treatment.

Hayyei Sarah (Wanderings)

“And Yitzhak went out to the field”

One of the verses in this week’s parashah that has always intrigued me is ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה לפנות ערב וגו': “And Yitzhak went out to converse/meditate/stroll in the field towards evening…” (Genesis 24:63). The traditional Rabbinic interpretation, cited by Rashi and others (Sforno, R. Saadya Gaon, R. Hananel), is that Yitzhak went into the field to pray at that time; hence, he is seen, in a Talmudic passage I have discussed several times in the past in the context of communal vs. individual prayers, as establishing the Minhah (Afternoon) Prayer, just as Avraham “established” Shaharit and Yaakov Ma’ariv (see b. Berakhot 27b, in the name of R Yossi bar Hanina). The passage in question interprets the verb לשוח, from the root שיח , as meaning “to pray” on the basis of its usage in the heading to Psalm 102: “The prayer of a poor man when he is faint [or: enwrapped, as in a prayer shawl] and pours out his discourse before he Lord (ולפני ה' ישפך שיחו).

Another group of commentators (most prominently Radak, Rashbam, and Ibn Ezra), often referred to as peshtanim for their emphasis on a straightforward, philological understanding of the biblical text and a rejection of the often fanciful associations found in midrash, say that he simply went out to walk in the field (BDB sees this as a variant of the root שוט), to meet an acquaintance in this particular place, or to inspect what was happening with the shrubs and trees (Radak, interestingly, reads לשוח as a verb derived from the noun שיח, “shrub”).

A third view, which I saw many years ago in a parashah sheet from Bar-Ilan University, suggests that לשוח derived from an Arabic root meaning to open oneself up, to meditate without any predetermined contents. In any event, whether praying, meditating, or aimlessly walking about by himself, Yitzhak appears here as a solitary figure, given to what the Romantics called ”communing with nature” (or perhaps, to avoid the pantheistic implications of that phrase, “communing in nature”).

All this elicits questions about the personality of Yitzhak. We see him here as a solitary, somewhat dreamy figure, rather than as a “mover and shaker” like his father. It has often been noted that a certain kind of passivity is a dominant strain in his personality: he plays a passive role in the Akedah, where he is saved at the last possible moment by angelic intervention; he does not actively court his wife nor, unlike Yaakov and Moshe, does he impress her with his masculine strength, courage and gallantry. Rather, she is brought to him by his father’s servant and, in an almost Freudian verse a few lines down, we are told that with his wife he was “comforted after his mother[’s death]” (ibid., v. 67). Yet again, in the final scene shown of his life, he appears as a feeble, blind old man easily deceived (or was he really? did he perhaps consciously and deliberately “play along” with the ruse?) by his powerful wife and stay-at-home son. All these facts suggest a passive, even feminine hue to his personality.

A third point is that, according to Kabbalah, Yitzhak is the archetype for the sefirah of Gevurah—of stern judgment, of a certain strictness, constriction and even harshness, just as Abraham is identified with Hesed—overflowing love and kindness and constant reaching out to others; of love of life; of seeing God’s presence in every blade of grass. This is stated explicitly in at least one biblical sequence: when Yaakov parts from his father-in-law Lavan, he twice invokes “the God of my father Abraham and the Fear of my father Isaac (פחד [אביו] יצחק)…” (Gen 31:42, 53). What, if any, is the relationship among solitude, passivity and fear? To answer this question, he must first understand the concept of “fear of God.” There is a tendency among many people today to emphasize love alone. Certainly, the new Jewish spirituality speaks of love, of warmth, of striving for joy and even ecstasy in prayer, and also of self-acceptance, as a sine qua non for religion for today’s world. This is perhaps especially so in Orthodoxy, where many have experienced the old-type Orthodoxy—the proverbial heder melamed who hit his pupils over the knuckles with a ruler whenever they made a mistake—who alienated a whole generation of Jews from observance. A gentler, more benign and benevolent approach certainly seems called for.

Yet Judaism speaks of ahavah and yirah, of the love and fear of God, as two sides of the same coin, as two attributes both of which are necessary, as complementing one another. I am reminded here of William James’ concept, in his masterly study The Varieties of Religious Experience, of “world-affirming” and “world–denying” religiosity.

What then is meant by fear? One definition is yirat ha-onesh: fear of Divine punishment, be it in this life or the next, for failure to perform the mitzvot or for active transgression, in the sense of performing a forbidden act. This is the “fear of God” taught by the fire-and-brimstone preachers of yore.

A second, more sublime level, is yirat ha-romemut, in which fear is understood in terms of awe, the sense of being overwhelmed by God’s majesty and transcendence, more reminiscent of Rudoph Ottos’ mysterium tremendum and the sense of God as being Wholly Other. This is the אימה ויראה רתת וזיע which the people experienced at Sinai; it is this which caused prophets to fall on their faces upon seeing the Divine Glory.

But there is also a third, more down-to-earth level: yirat het, “the fear of sin.” There are those who define it in terms of fearing the alienation from God that one might bring upon oneself through one’s own sinful acts. But I would suggest something much simpler. Fear of sin really means: fear of one’s own Yetzer Hara, of one’s own Evil Urge or Evil Inclination. The one who fears is aware of the complexity of human personality, of the multiplicity and ambivalence of every human being’s inner life; the propensity to sin, to mislead oneself. This is, perhaps, the source of Yitzhak’s solitude: I can imagine him spending long hours reflecting on his own actions, weighing them carefully, analyzing his motivations—in short, a kind of Nevarhadok Mussar-nik. This may also explain his passivity: excessive fear of sin may lead to indecision, even to paralysis of the will, because one worries too much about making the wrong decision. I am reminded of a certain person named Bava ben Buti who, according to the Mishnah at Keritut 6.3, brought an asham taluy—the sacrifice of atonement for a possible sin every day of his life: “perhaps I did something wrong.” Thus, rather than simply going out into the world with a happy, positive attitude, ready to embrace the world and to do what needs to be done, Yitzhak (and all those that share this temperament) was plagued by fear that, somewhere along the way, he might commit a misstep and fall into transgression.

But there is nevertheless reason to fear one’s own potential to sin. There are relatively gross and obvious forms of the Evil Inclination, which a person who has worked on himself may feel he ahs overcome in some fashion—such things as lust, gluttony, love of money and material wealth, anger, sloth—in short, the seven deadly sins of the Christians. But there are other, subtler temptations: the desire for honor and recognition from others; or, among some of those who may consider themselves Tzaddikim, the inverted form of pride involved in pretending to others—or even to oneself—that one is modest and humble. Many people delude themselves that their own motivations are good and true and holy, when they too are really motivated by other, concealed motivations.

I would like to conclude with an example from this week’s parashah, which I heard from Mickey Rosen, z”l, who said it in the name of R. Simha Bunem of Psyshcha’s Kol Simhah: In two separate places the servant says “Perhaps the maiden won’t go with me” (Gen 24:5; 39). What then? Rashi, upon the second appearance of this phrase, notes that the servant had an agenda of his own: in his heart, he secretly hoped that his mission would fail, so that Abraham would then choose his own daughter as Yitzhak’s spouse. But R. Simhah Bunem notes a subtle difference in vocalization between the two verses: in the former it is vocalized with a shuruk, and spelled אולי; in the latter, with a melapum or kubutz, and is spelled אלי—a word that may also be read as “to me”: i.e., the shiddukh will then come to me. But it was only once he realized that this was no longer a real option, and it was clear to him that Rivkah was in fact the destined one, that Eliezer realized that he had been carrying this unconscious wish that his own daughter become Avraham’s daughter-in-law.

Returning to Yitzhaks’ “meditation” in the field: perhaps the subject of his meditation was, first and foremost, a kind of constant soul-searching (heshbon nefesh). Indeed, there are those who advocate that a person review his actions every night before going to sleep, while reciting the bedtime Shema. There are those for whom a constant fear of wrongdoing, a pervasive sense of guilt, of the need to improve their behavior, or perhaps their very existential being, is the central motif of their religious life. In James’ terminology: these are world rejecting type, who see life as full of pitfalls – unlike Abraham, enthusiastic, loving ecstatic who is too full of joy and love, too busy doing mitzvot, to worry about pitfalls. “Judaism” as such has room for both. It does not, and perhaps cannot decide definitively in favor of one or the other, for the simple reason that these are temperaments which exist in every group of people. In the end, both are valid, simply because both types of personality exist.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Vayera (Wanderings)

Dedicated by Mark Feffer, in loving memory of his parents, Harry and Clara Feffer (Hayyim Zvi ben Mordechai Hakohen ve-Esther) and Hayah bat Chaim ve-Dreiezel

The Binding of Isaac and the Beatles

The chapter of Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, is no doubt the most problematic one in the entire Torah, raising thorny problems, theological, ethical and covenantal. How are we to understand the notion of a God who tests the faith of “Abraham His lover” by demanding that the latter sacrifice his own son, born after decades of barrenness, and who was meant to continue the covenant that his seed would be a “great nation,” “as numerous as the stars” and as “the sand by the sea,” and who would in due time “inherit the land of Canaan”? There is an unbearable contradiction between what we are taught about God elsewhere, as the very source of all that is good and just and righteous, and what He demands here—what the Danish theologian Kierkegaard called the “theological suspension of the ethical.” And even if, as we readers know in advance from our familiarity with the story, God intended all along to halt this cruel and barbaric human sacrifice at the crucial moment, what does it say about Abraham’s faith? Was he truly a “knight of faith,” or a fool who equated faith with blind obedience to the cruelest, unethical and self-contradictory commandment?

Rivers of ink have been spilled in attempting to understand this problem, and I would not suggest that I have any new solutions to this knotty dilemma that has taxed the best minds over the centuries. On another level: the Akedah is seen in our tradition as the model for Kiddush Hashem—for the willingness of Jews to die in order to sanctify God’s Name. Particularly at those junctures in which Jewish faith was placed to the test—during the First Crusades and at other periods of Muslim or Christian religious fanaticism and persecution, when Jews were confronted with the awful choice of either foregoing their faith or being put to death, Abraham at Mount Moriah was seen as a model of heroism for Jews who were called upon to emulate his single-minded devotion. Here in Israel, some speak of the Akedah—often ironically—in secular terms, as a model for parents who send their children to fight, never knowing whether they too may end up as “sacrifices” for the homeland.

Many years ago, John Lennon of the Beatles wrote a song called “Imagine”

Imagine there’s no heaven / Its easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky / Imagine all the people / Living for today / Oh-oh. Imagine there’s no countries… Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too/ Imagine all the people / Living life in peace…

This song may have been the closest thing to an ideological manifesto of the Beatles and the 1960’s youth culture for whom they served as spokesmen of a sort—if you will, a kind of anthem for the “hippie nation.” What they (or should I say we—I include my younger self in this movement) saw in the adult world was mostly racism, economic exploitation, war and bloodshed motivated by national or religious differences. Wouldn’t the world be a wonderful place if all these artificial differences between people were to miraculously disappear? If all the people were to live “for today.” Then the world would live in peace. As the song concludes:

You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one / I hope some day you’ll join us /And the world shall live as one.

One line in this song—“nothing to kill or die for”—seems diametrically opposed to the ethos implied by the Akedah, raising a crucial question: Is there anything worth dying for? Is life—meaning, in the end, the individual’s life—dear at all cost? Are there any absolute principles, ideas so central and cardinal, that one must die rather than violate them? Are there any actions so reprehensible, that one must avoid doing them even at the cost of one’s own life?

I think of the generation that preceded those of us who grew up in the ‘60s—the generation that fought against Hitler and the Nazis in World War II, which at times refers to itself as “the Great Generation” because of the qualities of heroism and self-sacrifice called for by that struggle. To the Beatles generation, the concept of the existence of forces so evil that one must do battle against them, was unknown—doubtless because of the dubious justification for the War in Vietnam, which dominated that era. The credo was that people are basically the same, that everyone want the same things from life, and that it’s only the leaders who, for their own diabolical, power-driven reasons, set one group against another.

The Jewish tradition has its own, rather definitive answers, to the question, “Is there anything worth dying for?” The Talmud in Sanhedrin lists three mitzvot for which “one should be killed rather than violate them” (יהרג ולא יעבר): namely, bloodshed, sexual license (i.e., incest, adultery, and the like), and idolatry. Interestingly, two of these three are social–ethical mitzvot, in the sense that they relate to the Other: i.e., taking another person’s life and violating another person’s sexual integrity. But the last of the three is at once the most cardinal and, doubtless, the most problematic in terms of the ethos underlying Imagine: denying, even for temporary expediency, even to external appearances, one’s loyalty to the God of Israel. This is, in a sense, the crux of the lesson of Akedat Yitzhak, and it is that which, in the end, distinguishes the ethos of the Akedah from that of the ‘60s.


Shlomo’s “Afterlife” - The Carlebach Minyanim

In memory of Rav Shlomo ben Ha-Rav Naftali Carlebach, who departed this world on 16 Heshvan 5755, 22 October 1994.

Needless to say that no one can say for certain what happens to the human soul after death, but what one can say of our teacher, Shlomo Carlebach, is that he enjoys a certain life after his death in the sense that he is more honored, appreciated, and better known in his death than during his lifetime. One important area in which this has happened is that of “synagogue music” (to use a formal, even solemn term Shlomo would have never used): since Shlomo’s death in October 1994, “Carlebach minyanim” have sprouted up like mushrooms throughout the Jewish world. In these groups, the community davens Kabbalat Shabbat using what has become known as the “Carlebach nusah”—a certain set of melodies written by Shlomo which are regularly used for various parts of this service. In some places there is a “Shlomo Shabbat” once a month, usually on Shabbat Mevarkhim, in others Shlomo’s nusah is used every week; in some places it is only used on Friday night, in others on Shabbat morning as well; at times people get up and dance to L’kha Dodi and other parts of the service, in others they are more restrained. In any event, the comment of David Hartman, that Shlomo Carlebach saved Jewish prayer from boredom, is very apropos: in all those places that have adopted “Nusah Shlomo,” participation in the service has gained a new lease on life. It thus seems in place to say a few words about Shlomo and prayer. I will begin, as Shlomo would, with a story:

The story is told of the Rebbe of Jaroslaw (pronounced “Yaroslav”), who spent several weeks each summer at a certain vacation spot in the Carpathian mountains favored by Jews. One summer a certain mitnaggid—an opponent of or sceptic about the Hasidim—went there as well. Somehow, a Hasidic friend persuaded him to daven with the Yaroslaver Rebbe on Shabbat morning, but he found the Rebbe’s behavior very strange: he arrived late in the shul and, rather than davening, walked about, chatted with people, laughed, joked, kibbitized, , and in general acted like anything but the holy man, famed for his piety and intense devotion to the “labor” of prayer, which he was reputed to be. Our mitnaggid went away more puzzled and sceptical then he came, and chastised his friend for sending him to what he called a moshav letzim—a congregation of irreverent jokers. After much arguing the hasid persuaded his friend to give the Rebbe another chance and to go to his tisch, his Shabbat table, the following week. Thus, the next Friday night found our mitnaggid at the Rebbe’s tisch as he had dutifully promised; but, while there some nice singing and special Hasidic melodies to the zemirot, a generally warm atmosphere, and the Rebbe said some words of Torah, he found nothing particularly special or memorable about the occasion. The tisch finished well after midnight—one must remember that many places in Eastern Europe are far further north than even the most northernmost points in the continental United States, so that in midsummer Shabbat did not begin until close to 10 o’clock—and our hero, who was alert and wakeful after an evening of energetic Hasidic singing, decided to go for a walk. His walk lasted well over an hour, so that by the time he returned the faint red glow of pre-dawn light was visible on the eastern horizon. As he passed the Beit Midrash where the Yaroslovar had held his tisch, he heard a soft, melancholy voice chanting in Hebrew. Through the window, he saw a figure wrapped in a tallit, pacing back and forth, chanting the beginning of the Shabbat Morning prayers in a voice filled with pathos and sincere devotion—the Yaroslaver Rebbe. Then our mitnaggid understood …

Unlike Shlomo, I will add a few words of commentary to this story, which to my mind illustrates three important things about Hasidism—and perhaps also about Shlomo. First, that the Rebbe in this story was not an ascetic recluse who p[ursued the course of the solitary mystic, but a khevreman—a “people person” who loved other people and enjoyed their company; for him, even ordinary conversation with others was one of the pleasures of Shabbat, and possibly also something with an inner kernel of holiness (an idea found in Hasidic writings). Secondly, this Rebbe, like various other Hasidic rebbes, deliberately concealed the intensity of his inner spiritual life by “playing the fool”—at times acting like a simple, ordinary, even superficial person (as did Shlomo, at times). Third, and most important: the central importance of prayer as a cornerstone of religious service—so much so that, unlike the norm in non-Hasidic Judaism, many Rebbes preferred to daven in solitude rather than with a minyan. There is a constant tension in Hasidism between public, communal prayer and the intense, inner prayer of the soul, which may require its own space. Thus, for example, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav spoke of the merits of praying at time alone, in the field. In Lubavitch, specifically, where Shlomo spent many years of his youth, there was great emphasis placed on slow, meditative prayr—tefillah be-arikhut—and more than a few hasidim would go to synagogue simply to participate in the responses of Kaddish, Kedushah and Barkhu and to hear the reading of the Torah—but would then go to recite the prayers by themselves, at their own pace. Thus, the image of the Yaraslover Rebbe performing his devotions in the wee hours of the morning, and later going to the synagogue more or less pro forma, is part of a long-standing tradition.

(I would like to mention here that a central Hasidic text on prayer has recently been translated into English, with notes and commentary by Menachem Kallus—a member of our circle here in Jerusalem. I refer to Amud ha-Tefillah, an extensive collection of the Baal Shem Tov’s traditions on prayer, and a major part of Sefer ha-Ba’al Shem Tov. The English book, entitled Pillar of Prayer: Guidance in Contemplative Prayer, Sacred Study, and the Spiritual Life from the Baal Shem Tov and His Circle (Fons Vitae Spiritual Affinities Series) is available through

What has all this to do with the Shlomo minyanim? The Carlebach minyanim imbue public prayer with a sense of joy and enthusiasm, of camaraderie and fellowship, at times even of ecstasy—not to mention the simple release of sheer animal energy and vitality. But all this is only one half of prayer—and quite possibly the less important half. There is no doubt that, as we quoted Hartman earlier, Jewish prayer in many places is marked by boredom. This boredom is manifested in the practice found, in too many synagogues, of rushing through the words of prayer as quickly as possible in order to “get it over with”—even on Shabbat. At times, in certain “Shlomo minyanim,” I get the feeling that people are rushing through the words—even those of such central and vital parts as Keri’at Shema and Amidah—in order to get to the next song. Ultimately, the solution to the problem of boredom lies, not in music, but in people learning how to daven—meaning, how to “get into” the depths of the words themselves. In the words of an old Hasidic vort (bon mot): God’s words to Noah, “Get you into the ark” are read, in a double-entendre, as “Go into the word” (teivah means both “ark” and “word”). Leaning to pray means learning how to concentrate, to focus, how to meditate. This is something that is always difficult, but far more so in contemporary culture, in which we are constantly inundated by “data” and noise of all sorts, every hour of the day and night—cell phones, SMS’s, transistor radios, ipods, the huge volumes of written material we receive daily in newspapers, emails, websites, etc. There is no simple or quick solution to the problem: the road to true prayer is a long and arduous one, requiring hard work and dedication and concentration over a period of time. Sometimes I think that certain elements of Eastern religion—the quieting of the soul through silent meditation—are useful to this end. Indeed, our own Sages said many centuries ago that a person should sit quietly for a certain period of time before beginning to pray. Or, to quote the title of “Jewish Buddhist” Sylvia Boorstein’s book: Don’t Just Do Something: Sit There.

Shlomo loved music, and he loved telling stories, but he used both, not only because he loved them and was good at them, but because both are universal languages, understood by all, and as such a useful tool for reaching out to others. But he was also a Hasid—among other things, a Habad Hasid—steeped in the tradition of devekut, of prayer as the ascent of the soul, and I believe that in an important part of his soul he strove to emulate Tzaddikim like the Yaraslover Rebbe who prayed at length and with great concentration. Indeed, it is told that in his youthful years as a “Tamim”—a student at the Lubavitcher’s Yeshivat Tomkhei Temimim—he was not only a matmid, a deeply devoted Talmud student, but also an oved—one who prayed at length, after hours of preparation though learning Hasidus and through meditation.

Two other aspects of Shlomo’s “life after death” are: (a) the dissemination of his music, both through a plethora of tapes and CDs of his music, as well as the emergence of a number of excellent musicians who specialize in playing and singing his songs; and (b) the publication of books, both in English and Hebrew, of his teachings. There is now a Carlebach Haggadah, as well as volumes of Shlomo’s teachings on Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Purim, etc. There is also a major project underway by the Shlomo Carlebach Foundation to preserve his legacy through systematic recording and cataloging of all of his teachings, including, if I am not mistaken, an attempt to reconstruct his teachings on the entire Humash—plus various other books and memoirs by his followers, and various attempts to write his biography.

In this context I would like to make special mention of a new book published this past year: an autobiographical account of the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco by one of the leaders of the House, including interesting vignettes of renewed encounters, thirty years later, with many of the people who were involved then, and the diverse direction their lives have taken. The book is Aryae Coopersmith’s Holy Beggar: A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem (El Granada, California: One World Lights, 2011). It is available through the publisher, www.oneworllights,com, or via

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Lekh Lekha (Wanderings)

“Abraham My Lover”

In Isaiah 41:8, one of the relatively few verses outside of the Torah which mentions Abraham, the children of Israel are referred to as זרע אברהם אוהבי—“the seed of Abraham My lover.” While Moses is known as the greatest of the prophets and the archetypal teacher of Torah, the unique quality ascribed to Abraham is that of Avraham ohavi—the archetype of the human being who loved God.

We often tend to think of Judaism as a system of law, a code of duties and obligation, and of obedience: fulfilling the mitzvot and “accepting the yoke of Heaven” is the highest or central religious virtue. And indeed, Christian polemics make much of the contrast between Judaism as a religion of Law and Christianity as one of Love. Normative behavior thus seems to be the most characteristic stance of Judaism, the emotions being somehow thought of as “extras”—as something over and above the normative requirements, for unusually pious individuals.

Yet if we turn to the pre-Torah roots of our faith, we find that, in the days of Abraham, there was no Torah, in the sense of a set of binding laws and imperatives. Abraham is portrayed in the midrash as a man who discovered the truth of the one God, and who was motivated by an intimate personal relation with that God, by a sense of love and devotion to Him.

What do we mean by love? Within the human realm, it connotes a desire to be close to the beloved, to be with him/her, to perform acts of kindness, of caring; it implies thinking of them even when one is not with them; the desire to make the other person happy, to bring a smile to their face. The deepest reward of love is simply—love returned, reciprocated, knowing that one occupies a special place in the heart of the beloved, that one is treasured. Even physical expressions of love, pleasurable as they may be, are ultimately just that—expressions or signs of love, but not the thing itself.

NOTE: Perhaps one of the lessons taught by what is called taharat ha-mishpaha—the body of halakhot periodically prohibiting sexual love between husband and wife during their earlier years—is to remind them that love and physical intimacy are two very different things. As we all know, there can also be physical intimacy without its emotional counterpart; perhaps one of the greatest pitfalls of a sexually permissive society is that tends to foster and encourage such emotionally empty acts, thereby reducing what should be the natural connection between physical intimacy and emotional closeness. I might briefly mention here the book by an early disciple of Freud, Theodor Reik, Psychology of Sex Relations, in which he challenges the Freudian idea that romantic love is no more than a sublimation of the sexual impulse—an idea which has caused much mischief to our culture. Reik suggests a very different model for understanding the love between man and woman. But all this is taking us rather far afield from today’s subject.

But beyond that, love between man and woman, powerful and central as it may be to our lives, is only one form of love; there is also love between parents and children, love between friends, between siblings, between teachers and disciples, etc.—all of which may in turn serve as models for the love of God.

Carrying the analogy into the Divine-human relationship: the ideal love of God is one without any expectation or interest in reward, but rather love for-its-own-sake:

A person should not say: I will perform the commandments of the Torah and engage in its wisdom so as to receive all the blessings written therein, or to merit the life of the World to Come… Rather, one who serves out of love engages in Torah and mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom, not because of any thing in the world… but he does the truth because it is truth, and in the end the good will come about as a result…. Such was the level of the Patriarch Abraham, whom the Holy One blessed be He called “His beloved,” because he served [God] out of love alone….

What is the nature of the desired love? That one love God with a great and excessive and very intense love, until his soul is bound up in the love of God, and he muses about it constantly, like one who is beset with love-sickness, so that his mind is never free of the love of that woman: he daydreams about her constantly, when he is sitting down, when he is walking about, or while he is eating and drinking…. And the entire Song of Songs is a parable for this matter. — Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah, 10.1-3 (for a full translation and discussion, see HY V: Yom Kippur = Rambam: Yom Kippur = HY blog, September 2006, scroll down).

There is a delicate balance that needs to be struck between love and law. On the one hand, we are living at a time of ever-greater piety within the Orthodox world, expressed in all kinds of strictures (humrot) and a certain kind of self-cloistering, with an emphasis on obedience and often sterile external performance—ever stricter kashrut, ever stricter Shabbat observance, ever stricter standards for conversion to Judaism and even for marriage within the Jewish fold—and all this, too often, without the inner sense of the mitzvot as an Abrahamic path of love, which gives it its warmth and joy and vitality.

On the other hand, there are certain modern Jewish thinkers who reinterpret Judaism purely in terms of religious experience and emotion. There is an anti- or a-nomianism in some circles. Thus, for example, Martin Buber, who in principle rejected the idea of any external, objective, fixed norms (it is said that he never stepped foot within a synagogue as a matter of principle); he opposed the institutionalization of religion, which he saw as displacing the living spirit. Buber, one might say, made an extreme choice in favor of the prophetic rather than either the priestly or the Rabbinic path. For him, everything was a function of intention, of relating to the Other as a Thou, of the immediacy of the concrete situation; hence his rather idiosyncratic interpretation of Hasidism, which in some ways glides over the central role of mitzvot in Hasidism. Strangely enough, this approach is also to be found today in certain branches of the renewed interest in Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah: there are those who teach Kabbalah in isolation from its root in the mitzvot. Needless to say, this is clearly alien to the spirit of the Zohar which is a mystical midrash on the Torah, specifically; and is filled with mystical interpretations of the mitzvot and the halakhah.

Perhaps one might put things this: Judaism is impossible without halakhah, both because such is its essential nature, and because love in general seeks expression in acts. For the Jew, the mitzvah is the natural avenue of expression of his love for God. Indeed, some midrashim, as well as Hasidic commentators, ask the question: How did Abraham and the other patriarchs show their love and attachment to God without the mitzvot? Some say: their secular acts were filled with love of God, with the intention to uplift the world. Others say that they somehow fulfilled the entire Torah even before it was given (Art Green has an interesting book about this subject, Devotion and Commandment).

But in any event we live in a world in which there are mitzvot, and the love of God expressed through mitzvot. The bottom line, as I see it is: rather than conceiving of mitzvot as the contents of Judaism, the mitzvot and the halakhah are the path. The content is the reality of God, the love and fear of God, the wish and desire to serve God expressed therein; the mitzvot are the vehicle. The ideal is to reach a place in which there is no conflict between external coercion, the obligation imposed from without (i.e., “Greater is he who is commanded and does, than one who is not commanded and does”) and inner motivation, the sense of joy, of love, of fulfillment as a person through the Jewish religious path.

In conclusion, I would add that there is a second half to the emotional side of the Jewish path: fear, what is called yirat shamayim. But that is a subject for another time. We must wait another two weeks, until our readings bring us to the patriarch Yitzhak, who epitomizes yirah.

Rav Zaddok – The Torah of Beginnings

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was much impressed upon rereading the opening pages of a slim volume of Hasidic teachings called Tzidkat ha-Tzaddik, by R. Zaddok ha-Kohen of Lublin, one of the more interesting figures of late 19th century Hasidism. A prolific author (albeit, because he had no children to see to publishing his writings after his death, “only” 25 or so titles of his survived and are extant, whereas he reportedly wrote over 100 books). A Talmudic genius or ilui who followed a rigorous, ascetic path, he “converted” to Hasidism at a certain point in his life, following an encounter with R. Mordechai of Ishbitz (author of Mei ha-Shiloah) under dramatic circumstances. He may be seen as part of that thread within Polish Hasidism that began with Psyshcha and Kotzk and continued through Mordechai Ishbitzer, Yitzhak Meir of Ger and Sefat Emet, who was his contemporary. His works are often difficult to follow, as he seems to assume that his readers are familiar, not only with both Talmuds, but with all of the classical Midrashim and Zohar, which he often quotes without citing his sources.

Much of what he writes may be read as a kind of spiritualistic interpretation of the “meat and potatoes” of Rabbinic Judaism. He does not engage in the sort of word–play in which the literal meaning is turned on its head, as is found on nearly every page of early Hasidic writers such as the Maggid of Mezhirech, R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk, Degel Mahaneh Efraim, Me’or Einayim, & Toldot Yaakov Yosef. Instead, he reads/interprets familiar Rabbinic adages in a beguilingly simple manner, shedding radically new light upon them.

For example: he begins the book by saying that “When ones first enters into avodat haehm, one should do so with haste”—i.e., with intense energy and constant application – by way of analogy to the Exodus of Egypt, which was performed בחפזון, “with haste,” so as to cut himself off from his previous habits and patterns of life. Thereafter, he adds, one may proceed at a more comfortable pace. I find the concept of “entering into God’s service” interesting, in line of what I discuss above: the clear message is that the religious life is more than merely doing the mitzvot, performing one’s obligation, but something more, evidently driven by love, passion, and by a deeply personal, existential decision. In any event, the most important thing is to make a good beginning.

The second teaching on this page quotes the verse “blessings to the head of the righteous” (Prov 10:6). Punning on the first word, he asks the question: why is Berakhot the first tractate in the entire Mishnah, and Talmud? (It is seemingly anomalous, because it has nothing to do with Zera’im, “Seeds,” the first order; indeed, it doesn’t fit into any of the six categories of the Mishnah.). His answer: because the essential thing is religious life is consciousness: “Know the God of your fathers and serve Him.” The idea of blessing is to recite a few words expressing consciousness of God’s presence in whatever it is that one is doing: eating and drinking; enjoying fragrant smells; the routine daily acts of getting up in the morning, opening one’s eyes, getting dressed, stretching one’s limbs; special sights or sounds (the sea; the rainbow; thunder; beautiful vistas); any special occasion, such as seeing a friend one hasn’t seen for a long time; performing a mitzvah; etc. And behind all these is the awareness of God.

I skip to Section 4: the first mitzvah that a lad performs upon becoming bar mitzvah—that is, at nightfall of his 13th birthday—is to recite the Evening Shema: accepting Divine sovereignty. But there is an added idea: one does so specifically at night, because the Shema of day and night symbolize not only periods of time, but mental states. One must accept God’s kingship in the archetypal states of day and night, which represent activity and repose. In day, when does so at the beginning of one’s daily activity, perhaps to sanctify the mundane. In repose there are other challenges: not to act properly, but that the realm of dreams, of the imagination, of the subconscious, also be somehow related to God. And indeed, the Shema of night comes first: “because one first accepts God’s kingship in a state of darkness and ignorance and lack of action—and only afterwards when all is clear and bright…”

For more teachings on thia parashah, see the archives to this blog at Oct 10 2005, Oct 20 2006, October 2007, November 2008, October 2009 and 2010.