Friday, September 27, 2013

Bereshit (Modernity)


Having written Hitzei Yehonatan almost every week for fourteen years—two full “sabbatical” cycles—I found myself pondering what hitherto new and untouched topic I might address during this coming year. I felt the need for a slightly less demanding topic, one which will allow me more time to engage in other, long overdue writing projects not pegged to the weekly Torah cycle. I initially considered taking the opportunity to fill in certain lacuna left in previous years: perhaps returning to some of the Psalms which I did not cover when I wrote about Tehillim in Year VI (2004-05), and/or commenting upon Pirkei Avot, which I have touched somewhat sporadically in the past, or even dividing the year between those two topics. But then I received an email from one of my most avid readers, who suggested that I devote this year to a review of the best of Hitzei, reprinting old essays for the benefit of those readers (the majority) who have not been in since the beginning, or who do not remember what I have written in the past. But how would I choose? And, were I to find two or three essays particularly worthy, how would I avoid making it too lengthy and unwieldy? Moreover, is not the creative act, the finding of new perspectives, the idea that אין בית מדרש בלא חידוש —that there is no Jewish study house without some element of innovation—a basic part of what I am attempting to do here? And is not my blog, with its archives, designed for people who want to read my “oldies but goodies”—albeit it could admittedly stand an improvement in its system of cross-referencing, as well as links to my best blogs without sending out the full text?

Then, during Hol Hamoed Sukkot, I had a sudden inspiration—to write about the relation between Torah and modernity. The Torah is a very ancient book—whether revealed in one fell swoop at Sinai, ca. 1350 BCE, as in the traditional belief, or developed over time, till its closing and canonization a millennium or so later. By contrast, we are all “Jews of modernity” (to quote the title of a book by Milton Himmelfarb). No matter how pious, meticulous in our observance, and even retrogressive we may seem to ourselves and others in our thinking, we are deeply affected by modernity. Not only are we immeasurably different from our biblical and Rabbinic forebearers, but even from the shtetl dwellers of a mere hundred years ago, some of whose names we may know. To give a concrete example: though I “returned” to religious practice in my teen years, and my paternal grandfather, Rabbi Simhah Eliyahu Cypkewicz, was in some ways a model for emulation as a Talmudic scholar, and we even—very briefly, for less than a year and a half—lived in the same time, his mental world was vastly different from my own and, beyond the language barrier (he spoke Yiddish, his English was rudimentary, his Hebrew for purely scholarly and religious purposes), it seems doubtful that we would have understood one another’s mental worlds.

I will mention a few salient characteristics of modernity, which we have so internalized that we are no longer consciously aware of them. For many, perhaps most of us, “being Jewish” is a free, deliberate choice, not something imposed by having been born into a kehillah, an all-embracing Jewish society. Even those born into traditional, observant families, while they may be subject to certain societal and family pressures to live a certain way, ultimately have the option to “escape” into the open, pluralistic society (although those born into a more strictly Haredi milieu may face considerable obstacles along the way). Therein lies all the difference from the past: a Jew who wished to abandon his Jewishness in the Middle Ages had no viable alternative but to convert to Christianity. (That Spinoza was able to be neither one nor the other—with great difficulty—was only possible because he lived on the threshold of modernity.)

Then there is the modern idea of progress: the assumption that modern technology and science are constantly making human life better—more convenient, easier, more comfortable and prosperous—and that humankind is on a constant forward trajectory towards an ever-better life; and that, on the other hand, that which came before, earlier, is somehow primitive and retrogressive, inferior, to be rejected by any thinking, educated, “progressive” person. This is expressed in the phrase, commonly used as if it were in itself a valid argument, “This is the 21st century,”

I would like to challenge or question at least some of these assumptions. It is common for those who fancy themselves modern Jews to criticize the old-fashioned aspects of the Torah, of the halakhah, or of tradition generally, as archaic and irrelevant. I will attempt here, not only to read the Torah in the light of modernity (or post-modernity—a term which I don’t much like and which I tend to see as a meaningless catch-phrase: if the term “modern” refers by definition to that which is present, current, up-to-date, how can something be “post–modern”?), but also to attempt to understand the assumptions and mores of modern society in light of the Torah, to use the Torah as a point of reference, a system of ideas and values, against which to compare and measure various aspects of modernity. Of course, in a certain way every rabbi, every preacher, every commentator, reads the Torah in light of his own time—albeit often in clumsy, obvious, and artificial ways. The difference in this project is that I will at least attempt to do so in a more self-conscious, focused way.

One more point. Zalman Schachter-Shelomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and a key figure in what is sometimes called New Age Jewish spirituality, has spoken and written of the need for a “paradigm shift” in Judaism. He claims that the modern age—the open, pluralistic society; the decline of all-embracing Jewish community (kehillah) as a self-evident life-framework; the ubiquity of critical thinking instilled by science and technology; and the changes in mentality that all these engender—necessitates a revolution in thinking about Judaism. This change or “shift” is comparable to that which ensued following the Destruction of the Second Temple, and the consequent shift from a Judaism centered upon the Temple and its sacrifices to one centered upon the Beit Midrash and the study of Torah (both Written and Oral); from priestly leadership to that of the Sages; and from impressive, mass public rituals to a more personal-oriented piety. While I don’t agree with Schachter’s proposed solutions, I think that his basic diagnosis of the problem and his call for a “paradigm shift”—or, more precisely, his implication that a paradigm shift is inevitable—is largely correct. These ideas shall thus constitute part of the background for our discussion.

I am by no means certain that this project is doable, but let us begin and see where it takes us.

Some Preliminary Thoughts about Bereshit

Bereshit is perhaps the deepest, most complex, richest parashah in the entire Torah. Unfortunately, it is also often that to whose study the least time is devoted, at least within the Torah-reading cycle, due to the fact that—except during those years when Simhat Torah falls on Shabbat (or Sunday, in the Golah), only one-third of the time—there is not a full week to study it as one ordinarily does, but only a few days or, as is the case this year (in Israel), where Simhat Torah fell on a Thursday, but one short Friday.

Bereshit deals with two central topics, each one of which is deep and profound, deserving of extensive study in its own right: the one, the Creation of the universe, the grand cosmic drama of the creation in six days (itself a text often attacked by modernists as incompatible with modern thinking). As those who read my comments on Ramban’s opening salvo on Genesis 1:1 will note, the very fact of Creation, the very idea of creation, indeed, the very fact of Being per se, that there is anything whatsoever in this universe, let alone an orderly vast universe following orderly physical laws, with stars and planetary bodies going about in regular orbits, and our own planet earth, with its multitude of life forms, and the marks of intelligent life, is cause for radical amazement. The second topic, is, of course, the human condition as such. The stories in these opening chapters may be read as an extended etiology of the existential situation of human beings: being with sexuality, but including the need to labor for one’s daily bread, physical suffering, women’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth, mortality, the human propensity to violence as expressed in the first murder, the sense of being in exile from a Golden Age (Paradise), the arrogant machoism of men such as Lemech—all these are present in the few pages of this parashah.

Regarding the issue of modernity: almost every aspect of the human condition, as expressed here, could serve as a subject for lengthy discussion as to how the Torah would look at the values of the modern world, and vice versa. But I will suffice with one example that struck me in reading this parashah: as a prelude to His creation of Woman from the body of Adam, God says לא טוב היות האדם לבדו—“It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). It seems to me that this is no longer true: many people today prefer aloneness to living in tandem with another. I refer not only to the decline in the institution of marriage, but to basic attitudes about the individual and society. One is reminded of the famous phrase attributed to “Golden Age” movie actress Greta Garbo, “I want to be alone” The idea that life is lived in society, and within the framework of a nuclear family, is no longer taken for granted, but seen as something that the person chooses. The past half century has seen the growing acceptance of non-obligatory, often transient frameworks for sexuality, thereby increasing the option for the individual to remain alone. The number of people living by themselves—specifically in the middle-class, urbanized West—has grown enormously, and has come to include many young and not-so-young adults who prefer not living with others due to the compromises and limitations on self expression and self-realization this involves.

The concept of individuality is a core conception of modernity. Interestingly, in my attempts to research this subject in connection with the issue of “individual vis-à-vis community” (see HY, Year XIII), I found surprisingly little literature devoted to this question, causing me to wonder whether the centrality of this concept is so self-evident that scholars found it redundant to even study it.
One last question: some contemporary authors about Torah tend to interpret the figures in the Torah—Avraham, Moshe, etc.—primarily in terms of their individual biographies. Is this a correct perspective? It is a question worth asking.

The One and the Two: God, Man and Woman

In what follows, I am making an exception, already in this first issue, to my resolve not to republish old essays, but rather refer to the archives on my blog. I do so because I find what follows particularly germane to the issue discussed above. Some years ago, I began writing a series of studies on the Judaic understanding of sexuality which, by the nature of things, focused on Parashat Bereshit, particularly in the form of discussion of several of Rashi’s comments on various verses in Genesis 2.

For we moderns, a puritanical view, leaning towards celibacy, such as that implied by Rambam’s remarks in Hilkhot De’ot, is problematic in two different ways. First, we are far more aware than were our medieval forebears of the personhood of woman, of woman as a spiritual-intellectual as well as a biological being. We tend to see marriage as an institution whereby the two sexes complement one another, achieving wholeness. (See Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings on this subject, e.g. in his book Family Redeemed). Second, living in the post-Freudian age, we see sexual pleasure as a vital part of the complete life, and celibacy (i.e., self-imposed sexual frustration), not as a path to holiness, but as more likely an obstacle to mental health. To put matters bluntly, as a culture we like sex, and are not embarrassed to admit it.

But on another level, sexuality is an area in which our culture is deeply troubled, confused and conflicted—whether aware of it or not—and, as I have written in the past, headed on a potentially dangerous path in terms of social cohesion: If the smallest cell of society, the family, is in trouble, this must inevitably reflect back on society as a whole.

What I present below is a theoretical essay, a kind of introduction to my exegeses of Rashi (see HY VIII: Bereshit, Hol Ha-Mo’ed Pesah) in which I attempt to present a certain new model for thinking about sexuality within a traditional Jewish framework.

God is one. Man and woman are two.

God is one, but the universe He created is multiple, divided into different, at times even conflicting, objects. All multiplicity, conceptually, philosophically, begins with two. Even atoms, the smallest building blocks of the universe, are composed of positive and negative particles. In Genesis, creation is described as beginning with the division into two: light and darkness, heaven and earth, water and dry land, sun and moon—therein laying the basis for havdalah, separation, as the necessary counterpoint to kedushah, sanctification… and ending with the duality of man and woman. Halakhic thinking begins largely with dualities or separations—pure and impure, holy and mundane, Shabbat and weekday, milk and meat, etc. Thus, too, the traditions of the Far East adopted the yin-yang as a basic symbol for universe.
Indeed, sexuality is the very paradigm for duality. Even in the linguistic sense, sexuality relates to two-ness. The English word “sex” is derived from the Latin sexus, which in turn is derived from the root secare, meaning “to split / to divide in two”— the same root from which we derive such familiar words as “section,” “second,” etc.

The problem of unity and multiplicity is an essential one in religious thought (as noted by Martin Buber, among others). Unlike the pristine unity of the Divine in which God dwells in the hidden recesses of the Infinite, the dynamic, ever-changing aspect of life is related to twoness, to duality. The duality embodied in sexuality is that instrument by which God fills His world with life, the mechanism through which He acts in the world. Far from being antagonistic to the principle of unity, it embodies the vital force of the One within a multifaceted universe. Beyond the level of the simplest organisms, all life—mammals, birds, fish, even vegetation and many species of insects—reproduces itself through sex. This is so of necessity: all life, all change, all growth, comes about through the interaction of two beings. This assumes concrete form in the creation of life through sexual union and in the very laws of genetics that govern sexual reproduction; every child is a kind of synthesis of its two parents: not a clone, but a new being, reflecting something of the being of each one, while also being something new. Thus, just as every breath taken by a living creature may be seen as God breathing life into His world, so too is every act of coupling, whether of human or beast, an act in which God, so to speak, replenishes and revitalizes the life of His universe.

But human sexuality involves further antinomies and polarities. It is this fact that lies at the root of medieval philosophers being wont to speak of the two sexes in terms of spirit, or form, and matter. Translated into modern concepts, we might speak of: consciousness and biological impulse or, in more philosophical terms, determinism and freedom. Sexuality embraces the most intensely personal elements of life, the longing for emotional, spiritual, intellectual completion through union with another; at the same time, the act of union may be, and often is, limited to its purely physical, instinctual aspect; it may be and often is a brute, violent, even non-consensual act, powered by what we call pure lust—that is, drive or instinct.

There is thus much duality and ambiguity in sexuality in the moral sense as well. One need hardly belabor the point that sex involves the potential for good or for evil; it is one of those areas in which the ordinary person is confronted with moral choices. Christian moralists often speak of love and lust as opposed poles, tantamount to good and evil. Hazal, the Jewish Sages of yore, spoke of Yetzer Hara, of “the Evil Urge,” predominantly, or paradigmatically, in sexual terms—as the desire for sex with forbidden partners. So, too, the examples of “compete teshuvah,” whether the archetypal case invoked by Rambam in Teshuvah 2.1 (as per b. Yoma 86b) or that of the profligate Eleazar ben Dordai in Avodah Zarah 17a, involve sexual transgression.

This duality is also expressed in the very polarity of self and other entailed in sexuality. In the sexual act, one derives pleasure from an act committed with an Other, while simultaneously giving pleasure to the other. What is the balance of self-pleasuring and other-pleasuring? There is giving and taking; generosity and selfishness; love and deceit; pretense of love and authentic, whole-hearted caring commitment; perception of the other as an object, used for one’s own pleasure, or as a subject, a locus of consciousness in his/her own right; of deception, of self and of other, and honest confusion: all of the subtle, mercurial ebb and flow and changes of human emotion. (So long as Western culture continues to hold the sexual norms it currently has—and I don’t expect radical changes in this area in my lifetime—namely, of wide acceptance of sex outside of marriage, so that the ordinary person will have experience with several partners in the natural course of things, often rather casually, these moral problems will be accentuated and the concern of the many.) Of course, the moral ambiguities involved in sexuality echo the moral choices involved in human existence generally; or, put differently, the duality of human nature itself.

There are also dualities in love itself: in the ebb and flow of desire and satisfaction, of coming together and separating, indeed, in the polarity existing even in the most intimate relationship between bonding and autonomy, between the two basic human needs for individuation and coupling, the need for the other and for space for oneself. (As many have noted, this is reflected in the halakhah in the laws of niddah, in the constitutive laws of marital law, with their insistence that there is “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” [Eccles 3:5].)

Simhat Torah (Ramban)


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sukkot (Ramban)

Ramban on the Four Species

The taking of the Arba’ah Minim—the four species of plants: palm fronds, etrog (a kind of citrus fruit), myrtle and willow branches—on Sukkot and their waving during the course of the prayers, is one of the more enigmatic Jewish rituals. Unlike the Passover Seder or the lighting of Hanukkah candles, it has no clear commemorative purpose, nor, like blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, does it have an immediate emotional impact that can be seen as “awakening sleepers.” Thus, it has been the subject of numerous and varied attempts at explanation and interpretation in the midrashic and later literature. Ramban, in his commentary on the Torah verse commanding this mitzvah, suggests several new and unexpected directions for its understanding:

Lev 23:40: “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree, palm fronds, branches of a thick tree, and water willows.” … Regarding the reason for this mitzvah, they [the Sages] said by way of aggadah, that these species come to appease [God] regarding the water. And by the way of truth [Kabbalah]: “the fruit of a beautiful tree” (pri ‘etz hadar) is the fruit regarding which there is the greatest desire, and it was in it that Adam sinned. As is said, “And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and attractive to the eyes, and the tree was pleasant to make wise, and she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen 3:6). And the sin was involving it alone, and we appease Him with the other species.

This is a surprising and even extraordinary interpretation: the taking of the four species, rather than being an act of celebration, symbolizing perhaps the unity of the Jewish people (see, e.g. Lev. Rab. 30.12, where it symbolizes different kinds of Jews with varying virtues), or even the unity of forces within the Divine or letters of the Divine Name (as in ibid., 30.9, cited below, or in various Kabbalistic interpretations), it is seen as an act of atonement for the primal sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Moreover, rather than viewing all four species as being of equal weight, complementing one another and each making up for the shortcomings of the other by their being joined together in a single bundle, the etrog is seen as of central importance, having itself been (in one opinion in Gen. Rab. 15.7, alongside wheat, grapes, and figs) the forbidden fruit of which Adam and Eve ate, with dire consequences.

The etrog is also special in that it is not physically bound or tied together with the others in a single bundle (eged), but is held somewhat apart, at once separate, distinct, but also part of the unity. This idea gradually emerges in the sections which follow, which develop the Sefirotic symbolism of all four kinds:

And the palm fronds are the head of the central line [i.e., of the Kabbalistic schema, uniting “right” and “left”; it is usually identified with Yesod], double [being composed of paired leaves running its entire length] and high over all of them. And the branch of a thick tree [i.e., the hadassim, or myrtle branches] alludes to the three sefirot which are in one line [Hesed, Gevurah, Tiferet], as is said, “From the hand of the mighty one of Jacob” [Gen 49:24; Jacob=Tiferet, which harmonizes these three qualities, and is also the culmination of the three patriarchs and as such the classic progenitor of the Jewish people]. And the willows of the water (Aravot) are like the matter of which it is said, “Lift up a song to He who rides upon the clouds [aravot]” (Ps 68:5). For they are mixed [yit’arvu—a further pun on aravot] of the attributes of Judgment and that of Mercy [an allusion to Nezah and Hod, the two lower sefirot which, like Hesed and Din, balance the right and left side]. And from this you may understand and know that the etrog is not with them in the bundle, but its presence is essential to them [m’akev; in the halakhic sense, its absence disqualifies them]. For it corresponds to Atzeret [the eighth day], which is a festival in its own right and is the completion of the first. And they are all one in potential, albeit not in actuality. And I have already explained this reason.

Here the uniqueness of the etrog is hinted in its correspondence to the Eighth Day, which both is and is not part of the Sukkot festival and which, like all “eights” in Judaism, points towards that which transcends nature. The number seven suggests the seven days of Creation, or the seven lower sefirot or middot; eight takes us beyond this. Yet etrog also corresponds to Malkhut, the seventh sefirah; it is the seventh item in the bundle (after two willows, three myrtles, and one palm frond; i.e., six). In an earlier comment to which he alludes here, on v 36, Ramban sees the eighth day as relating to Shabbat and Knesset Yisrael, both of which are symbols of seven/Malkhut.

I am reminded of a strange passage in what is ordinarily a strictly halakhic work, Beit Yosef (Orah Hayyim 451, s.v. ketav) describing a guest, an Ashkenazic Kabbalist, who once visited for Sukkot, some time in the 15th century, the community in which R. Menahem Recanati was rabbi. In a dream, Recanati saw this man writing a Torah scroll; each time he wrote the Divine Name, separating the final letter heh from the first three. In the morning, he noticed this visitor shaking the “bundle” of the lulav while holding the etrog stock still—and he understood his dream. Was there some sort of Kabbalistic view that one ought to separate the etrog from the others? And was this a heretical position, one that somehow upsets the Divine unity (kotzetz ba-neti’ot or mafrid ha-binyan? Or does Ramban’s description somehow relate to this?

And the reason for the entire passage, “you shall celebrate the feast of [the Great] God for seven days” {v. 41, with changes} of the acts of creation, and attached to them the eight day of assembly, as in the matter which is said, “To the Leader, on the eighth [day?]” (Ps 6:1). And during those seven days you shall take therein the fruit of the beautiful tree, and the lulav in the bundle; and therefore the etrog is placed first. But on the eighth day it is not needed, for it [the day] is itself beautiful. And this is the meaning of “You shall celebrate them as a festival to the Lord [seven days in the year]” (v. 41)—that you shall celebrate seven days together with the year, with [the matter of] going around and circular procession. From the language of “And the circle of the heaven” (Job 22:14); “And you shall draw it with a compass” (Isa 44:13); and “a multitude rejoicing” [hogeg – celebrating: from the root hgg, to make a circle; Ps 42:5).

This is suggestive, but there is much that is dense and enigmatic. I do not fully understand this passage, but have translated as best as I can. One central point is the relation between the verb hgg, meaning to celebrate, and to dance or go about in a circle, perhaps alluding to the circular processions of Sukkot—in the ancient Temple, and also in the synagogue (did this already exist in Ramban’s time, or was it only introduced by Lurianic Kabbalah?). And, once again, the eighth day, like the etrog, is both attached to the seven while also somehow separate.
He now turns to another midrash, which takes us in a different direction. Here, all four species allude equally to the Holy One blessed be He (see my discussion of this in HY III: Sukkot [=Midrash]).

And our Rabbis already alluded to this secret, saying in Leviticus Rabbah (30.9): “’The fruit of a goodly tree’—this is the Holy One blessed be He, of whom it is said, “Glory and splendor [hadar] are before Him” (Ps 96:6). ‘Palm fronds;—this is Holy One blessed be He, as is said, ‘the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree’ (Ps 93:13). ‘Branches of a thick [or: leafy] tree’—This is the Holy One blessed be He, as is said, ‘and he was standing among the myrtles in the glen’ (Zech 1:8). And ‘willows of the brook’—this is the Holy One blessed be He, as is said, ‘Lift up a song to He who dwells in the clouds [aravot] (Ps 68:5).

Finally, he cites a series of passages from Sefer ha-Bahir, a proto-Kabbalistic book of unknown origin, but which clearly predates all of the earliest known figures of Spanish Kabbalah, which Ramban often quotes:

And in the midrash of Rabbi Nehunyah ben ha-Kanah (Sefer ha-Bahir, §§172-178, with variants): What is the fruit of a beautiful tree? As they translate in the Targum: the fruit of the tree of etrog and lulav. And what is hadar? That is the beauty of all. And this is the beauty of Song of Songs, as is written, “Who is this that gazes forth like the dawn [fair as the moon, bright as the sun]” (Cant 6:10). And why is it called hadar? Do not read hadar (splendor) but hadar (separate). This is the etrog, which is separate from the bunch of the lulav, but the mitzvah of lulav is not fulfilled but through it, and it is bound with all; for it is with each one, and it is with all of them together.

Without saying so explicitly, but based on this and on other passages cited earlier (e.g., the reference to etrog being the object of “greatest desire”), it would seem that etrog represents the feminine—which is both an object of desire, and keeps herself somewhat separate from men. Some say that its very shape is suggestive of the womb, or perhaps of the yoni. In a Bahir passage which Ramban does not quote here, this is stated more explicitly: “This is like a king who planted nine male palm trees in his orchard. He said: If they are all of one sex, they cannot sustain themselves (i.e. reproduce)! [NB: date palms exist in both male and female] What did he do? He planted an etrog among them, and it was one of those nine which he thought to make a male; but the etrog is female…” (§172)

And what is lulav? It corresponds to the spine. And the “branches of a leafy tree,” whose leaves cover the majority of it, like a man whose arms protect his head. “Branch” to the left and “leafy” to the right, and “tree” in the middle {the order of the Hebrew phrase being ענף עץ עבות: lit. branch – tree – leafy]. And why is it called etz (tree)? For it is the root of the ilan [the sapling?]. And what is “willows of the brook”? The name of the place where they are fixed, whose name is nahal (brook), as is written “all the brooks [or: rivers] go down to the sea” (Eccles 1:7). And what is the sea? That is the etrog [again, the centrality of the etrog, as the place to which all others flow: very much a characteristic of Malkhut, or the feminine]. And from whence do you know that each aspect of these seven is called “brook”? As is said, “and from Matanah to Nahaliel” (Num 21:19): do not read nahaliel, but nahal el (the brook of God).

He concludes with a straightforward halakhic comment: that this structure, of three myrtle branches, two willows, and one each of the etrog and lulav, is based on a specific opinion in the Talmud (which was accepted as halakhah); there was also a rejected view that it was one-one-one-one. Perhaps this was worthy of mention because the total of seven items is significant in terms of the Sefirotic schema.

And this midrash is based upon the view [of Rabbi Ishmael, in b. Sukkah 34b] that there are three myrtle branches, two willows, one lulav and one etrog. And such is the halakhah according to the Geonim and all of the Rishonim.

One final observation: while Ramban was an extremely incisive thinker with razor-sharp critiques of views he considered wrong, when it came to matters of ta’amei ha-mitzvot or Kabbalah he felt no need for consistency in his presentation. (He lived centuries before such systematizers of Kabbalah as R. Joseph Gikatilla or the school of the Ari). Thus, as he does here, he presents a variety of different views and approaches which do not necessarily coalesce into a single, unified whole—albeit his central insight, that the etrog, symbolizing what came to be called Malkhut, lies at the very center of the four species, emerges clearly.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Yom Kippur (Ramban)

Thoughts about Teshuvah

1. Before beginning to discuss teshuvah, one needs to correct a certain wide-spread misunderstanding. The term teshuvah is mistakenly identified, particularly in contemporary Israeli discourse, with the adoption of religious observance or Orthodoxy. This is a double error: it leads to ignoring the ethical or inter-personal dimension of teshuvah, which may often be of paramount importance, whether by a “secular” or a “religious” person; and it encourages two reactions among those who are already “religious”: either complacency, thinking that “I’m already OK”; or, acting on the assumption that teshuvah has to do primarily with religious observance, seeking out new fine points of religious piety about which to be punctilious.

The essence of teshuvah, as we have pointed out here innumerable times in the past, and as may be seen in any of the classic teshuvah texts, is about recognizing one’s wrongful actions in the past, regretting those actions and articulating this regret in words (Vidui: Confession of sins before God); and resolving to change one’s future behavior. All this applies to all areas of life, and perhaps particularly to the inter-personal area (where a precondition of teshuvah before God is making amends with one’s fellow whom one has wronged).

More than that, teshuvah entails an attempt to correct the flaws in one’s character. Rambam, at Hilkhot Teshuvah 7.3, writes:

A person ought not to think that teshuvah only relates to transgressions which involve a concrete act… Rather, a person also needs to repent of anger and enmity and jealousy and ridicule and the pursuit of wealth and of honor, and gluttony, and of similar things…

(To which list, one might add laziness, fondness for gossip, and many other negative traits). It seems to me that, beyond the details and the mapping out of specifics, the fundamental idea or prerequisite of teshuvah is self-awareness. I think that most people, on some level, know themselves and their character and their own faults and weaknesses. But in everyday life we have a hundred and one reasons to ignore this self-knowledge, which is often very painful -- psychologists would say, for the sake of all sorts of benefits, real or imagined, which these faults bring us—and we continue to act on these faults. Teshuvah, then, is the process of self-examination, of bringing to the surface those things that we know in our heart of hearts, and acting on that knowledge in a constructive way.

I recently read an article by Eva Illouz, cultural sociologist and an outstanding Israeli intellectual (Musaf Ha-Aretz, Sept 4, 2013) who, in the course of writing on the subject of “Why People Fall out of Love,” discuses the concept of bad faith, mauvaise foi. This concept, which originated among the French existentialists of the mid-20th century, refers to a person who has a false sense of self, of his/her own needs, and who on some level lives with himself in a dishonest manner. The process of teshuvah, as I see it, is closely related to the rejection of this kind of dishonesty and false consciousness, which are the very basis of the sense of self. Teshuvah is thus connected with authenticity (on condition that this is consistent with proper values).

Hence, except on a very superficial level, the notion that there are people who are mahzirim be-teshuvah—expert in bringing others to do teshuvah—is false. Teshuvah, at least on this more serious level, can only be done by the person him/herself. It involves breaking through false consciousness and defenses to discover those truths about oneself which have been hidden in the soul, and beginning the process of repair and reconstruction of the self.

2. A teaching of Resh Lakish concerning the subject of teshuvah appears in two versions in Yoma 86b. In the one, he says: “Great is teshuvah, for because of it deliberate transgressions are transformed into errors, as is said ‘Return, O Israel, because you have stumbled in your transgression’ (Hosea 14:2).” The textual basis of this saying is the contradiction between the verb, “you have stumbled,” which implies an error, an inadvertent act or even one committed through mishap, and the term ‘avon, “transgression,” is widely understood as implying deliberate sin; this “quip” somehow removes the seeming apparent contradiction.

The second version of his saying states “Great is teshuvah, for by its means deliberate sins are transformed into virtues,” A proof text is then brought from Ezekiel 33:19, read as if to say that the evil man who repents of his evil will live by virtue of those very sins! The passage then ends with the remark that there is no contradiction between the two readings of Resh Lakish’s dictum: the former deals with one who does teshuvah “out of yirah”—out of fear of God (whether this understood as fear of Divine punishment, or awe at His overwhelming majesty and grandeur; but see below): while the latter refers to one who does so “out of ahavah”—motivated purely by love of God.

What are the ideas implied here? A transgression, however viewed, is a deliberate act. Typically, a person transgresses because of some benefit or pleasure he expects to derive therefrom: eating forbidden foods, engaging in forbidden sexual relations, gaining wealth through dishonest means or by downright theft, all enhance one’s immediate pleasure in life. But once a person repents, he begins to see things differently. His world–view becomes one in which goodness and decency, informed by Torah and mitzvot, are paramount; his earlier acts, based upon a short-term, self-centered and hedonistic approach to life, seems based upon a mistake, a childish view of life which led him to perform these acts. The deliberation involved in committing the sin seems in retrospect to have been based upon a limited purview of life, one which he feels he has outgrown. The root cause of the sin seems simply mistaken—he seems himself as a shogeg.

The second version of Resh Lakish’s saying takes matters further. The person realizes that his transgression taught him something about himself, about life, about the nature of what we might call worldly temptations, so that he now chooses the path of goodness and uprightness with a sense of real choice. He knows what the other life path is like; he knows both the temptations and satisfactions of living for gourmet meals or erotic adventures—temptations which our society portrays vividly in the media—and has rejected them, insofar as they are inconsistent with his new-found understanding of life. Both the transgressions, and the self-knowledge and perspective on the world they have given him, have become a kind of source of strength for him to adhere to the good, the pure and the holy.

I once had a rather strange and brief conversation with one of the serious Jewish thinkers of our day, a man who had struggled his entire life with issues of belief and theology as well as with the ethical problematics of certain areas of halakhah itself. We were talking about a certain person: a great talmid-hakham renowned for his piety, his sterling ethical character, and for the wholeness and almost childlike naiveté of his faith. He commented, “Yes, he may be an ideal person—but I can tell you for certain that he has never undergone a “dark night of the soul.’” In other words, the person who has lived his whole life in purity can only go so far in achieving real depth of religious consciousness (thus, at least, according to my interlocutor), because he does not truly understand, on the gut level, what it means to choose one path or the other. (Indeed, various Hasidic texts speak of the ba’al teshuvah and the tzaddik as archetypes, symbolized by Judah and Joseph; Maimonides, in Chapter Six of the Eight Chapters, designates them as the one who is naturally righteous and the one who subdues his Urge.)

On the other hand, let me conclude with an old Yiddish story. The Vilna Gaon was once confronted by a Jew who challenged him: “You know, it’s no big deal for you to live a pure and holy life living as you do, sequestered all day long in your study and rarely going out into the real world. Now if you were to go out into the market-place and still be ‘The Gaon,’ that would be a real kunts (trick).” The Gaon’s reply was succinct: “Ikh bin nisht a kunts-makher!”—“I am not a trickster”—i.e., doing tricks is not the point of life.

3. The Baal Shem Tov spoke of the tension between the fear and love of God, noting that “Even though the masters of Kabbalah have told us that all matters of Torah and prayer must be done be-dehilu u-rehimu, with love and fear, on Rosh Hashanah the order is reversed: first fear, and then love.”

It occurred to me that this conception of the Days of Awe is reflected in the structure of the Selihot recited during this period. The Selihot themselves—penitential poems interspersed with recitations of the Thirteen Qualities of Divine Mercy—are introduced by a medley of biblical verse. These begin with a confession of spiritual and ethical bankruptcy (“You, O Lord, are righteous, and we are filled with shame. What can we say, what can we speak, what can we justify? We must search our ways and return to You”), followed by verses about walking in God’s house with silent reverence and bowing down to Him—a gesture of submission and abject humility before His towering, awesome presence—and concluding with a series of verses describing God’s might and majesty as manifested in the awe-inspiring phenomena of nature.

I find this reminiscent of Rambam, Yesodei ha-Torah 2.2, where he describes a certain dialectic involved in the love and fear of God:

When a person contemplates His great works and creations and sees through them His wisdom, which has no comparison and no end, immediately he loves and praises and extols and desires with a great desire to know the Great Name. As David said “my soul thirsts for the living God” (Ps 42:3}. But even as he contemplates these very things, he immediately shrinks backwards and is filled with fear, knowing that he is a slight, small, dim creature, of limited consciousness before the One of Perfect Knowledge. As David said, “When I see Your heavens, the works of Your fingers—What is man that you should know him…” (Ps 8:4).

POSTSCRIPT: Essay on Orthodoxy (Ki Tavo)

A number of readers responded to my recent essay on Orthodoxy as if I was somehow challenging or even rejecting the traditional belief in Torah mi-Sinai / Torah min ha-Shamayim. Indeed, I have addressed this issue in the past (see HY IX Shavuot [=Mitzvot]; HY X: Bamidbar-Kallah [=Zohar]), where I present an approach to this subject that is not literalist or fundamentalist, but deeply reverent to the mystery of Sinai—but in any event that is not the issue here. Indeed, my central point was that Orthodoxy as we know it today is not really about belief at all, and perhaps not even about observance, but is a sociological construct; what bothers me about contemporary Orthodoxy is the extremism, what in shorthand I might even call the craziness of many of the ideas and practices advocated today in the name of Orthodoxy. I have developed this critique at greater length elsewhere. Essentially, I would call for a return to straightforward, simple observance of Torah and mitzvot as such, without excessive strictness and without authoritarianism. The problem, even though I believe deeply in the value of community, is that much of the community to which I have chosen to belong throughout my adult life has “gone off the deep end.”

A comment about mehitzah. Some readers seemed to think that I am opposed to the very idea of a mehitzah in the synagogue. This is not true; indeed, I believe that it adds a certain element of tzeni’ut, of modesty, to the prayer situation, removing a certain sexual tensions which might otherwise exist. What I do find problematic is making it into the be-all-and-end-all, the criterion of “Orthodoxy” and “non-Orthodoxy,” and the peculiar notion that the absence of a mehitzah somehow makes a synagogue un-kosher, I don’t believe the case has been made halakhically; as Alan Yuter says in his famous paper, it’s really a matter of communal policy and (often arbitrary) pronunciamentos by Rabbinic leaders. If there are readers who think I’m missing something essential, please explain why, and reference your sources; I am open to comments and feedback.

On the Avodat Kohen Gadol

Many people find it difficult to find much meaning in the detailed descriptions of korbanot—the animal sacrifices offered in the Temple in ancient times—including the Avodat Yom ha-Kippurim, the elaborate and complex atonement ceremony performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. They may find it abstruse, primitive, and generally difficult to relate to. Over the past six months, I have been teaching a class in Talmud every other morning (alternating with my neighbor Moshe Kranc) dealing with Masekhet Yoma, seven of whose eight chapters deal with precisely this subject. I must state that, for myself, I find the material fascinating, and wish to share some of that fascination.

The most striking thing about the Seder ha-Avodah, the Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple, is the extremes encompassed therein. Ordinarily, the Temple service was focused upon the altar—the mizbaeh ha-hitzon or mizbah ha-olah, the “External” or “Burnt Offering Altar”—upon which were offered the daily offerings (Tamid) morning and evening, the additional Shabbat and festival offerings, the private offerings brought by pilgrims in celebration of the festivals, as well as a variety of other offerings brought by individuals for various special situations. Priests entered the Sanctuary proper only in order to light the seven-branched Menorah, to offer incense and, once a week, to place the shewbread on the special table designated for this purpose.

But on Yom Kippur things were different. On this day, on the one hand, the high priest entered the innermost shrine, the Holy of Holies, to “atone for the holy place” through performing certain rituals. On the other hand, the sa’ir la-Azazel—the goat sent into the wilderness, which was not strictly speaking a sacrifice at all—was sent far into the wilderness of the Judaean Desert, after the High Priest had confessed the sins of the entire people of Israel upon him, symbolically transferring them to his head. There, after a journey of several hours, he was pushed over a cliff where, we are told, “it did not fall halfway down the mountain before it was broken into separate limbs” (m. Yoma 6.6). Thus, the central rituals of Yom Kippur involved the innermost, most sacred place, and the opposite extreme—that which was totally outside of the holy precincts of the Temple, indeed, outside of human habitation altogether—the barren wilderness, mythically conceived as a place of satyrs and demons (see Lev 17:7; Isa 13:21)

Moreover, these two goats are integrally linked with one another. The Mishnah specifies that they be as similar to one another as possible, “in height, in value, in appearance, and that they be taken as one” (m. Yoma 6.1). Furthermore, the choice as to which one was to serve which function was determined by lot. It was forbidden for the priest to decide which would be which; the two goats were placed before the high priest in Temple courtyard, who cast lots over them, “one lot for the Lord and one lot for Azazel” (Lev 16:8). (Some Hasidic commentators note how this creates a kind of reverse mirroring to Purim, when the wicked Haman cast lots to determine when he would massacre the Jewish people; they also note that this holiest of all days can be called yom ke-purim—“a day like Purim”). Rav Soloveitchik, in speaking about this once, said that the destiny of a person is often the result of chance, of happenstance (notwithstanding our having free will, behirah hofshit, that can overcome any obstacle). As an example, he spoke of the religious destiny of the first generation of American Jews, some of whom gave up Jewish observance because they saw no option but to work on Shabbat, while others became the pillars of the of Orthodox community.

What are we to make of these polarities in a single day, and what do these two goats symbolize? Symbolically, I see them as expressing the dichotomies in the human personality. The human being‘s crowning glory, we are told, is his intellect, his soul, through which he can hope to transcend himself, to strive and yearn for knowledge of God, culminating in prophecy and unio mystica, to achieve the highest spiritual consciousness imaginable. These hopes are symbolized by the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies, that place where, we are told, the Divine Presence dwells between the wings of the cherubim. There he performs Avodat penim, that part of Yom Kippur focused upon purifying the holy place, “which dwells among them in the midst of their impurity” (Lev 16:16), sprinkling (first separately and then mingling the two together) the blood of the bull brought as an offering by the high priest and the sin-offering-goat of the people. This ritual, quite possibly the high point of the entire day, symbolizes the desire that, as human beings who are inevitably impure, we somehow achieve purify and purify the holy place in which divine and human meet (albeit only at rare intervals).

On the other hand, the sa’ir la-azazel or sa’ir ha-mishtaleah, the goat sent away into the wilderness (or, in colloquial English: the “scapegoat”) represents the variety of human life which as often as not is filled with corruption, arising, inter alia, form our bodily nature, from our desires and animal-like appetites. This element is, so to speak, one which we wish to send, not only outside of the holy place, but far away from human habitation. We wish we could throw it over the cliff and see it smashed to smithereens. This is not the real us, we say symbolically. Our sins are something we wish to cast outwards and smash, to disown such negative deeds.

There is of course much more. I had originally planned this year to write about the avodat penim in some depth; perhaps another time. Instead, I will merely suggest here a few questions: What is the function and significance of the ketoret, the incense offered in the Holy of Holies when the priest first enters (a procedure which was a source of bitter controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees)? And what are we to make of the parallel to several of the communal sin-offerings described in Leviticus Chapter 4, which likewise involve bringing the blood of the sacrifice inside the Sanctuary, rather than sprinkling the base of the altar as is the usual procedure? What is symbolized by the close relation between the par kohen gadol and sa’ir ha-am, which in the end are mixed? And, most important, what is meant by the entire concept of atoning for the holy place? We ordinarily think of atonement as pertaining to human beings who have committed sins. What does it mean to speak of “atoning for the holy place”? An interesting verse near the end of the chapter, summarizing the Yom Kippur atonement ritual, is divided into two halves (syntactically divided by an etnahta) which express this tension or duality in the Yom Kippur ritual: “And he shall atone for the Holy Sanctuary, and for the Tent of Meeting, and for the altar he shall atone; and for the priests and for all the people of the congregation he shall atone” (Lev 16:33).

More on Bad Faith or Divided Consciousness

I wrote eralier about the problem of “bad faith”—that is, a person not knowing his own self—as one source of wrongdoing in life. Closely related to this is the accusation of hypocrisy or inconsistency when an outwardly religious person does not live up to his declared or implied values. Thus, for example, when a highly charismatic rabbi was recently found guilty by a court of misusing his spiritual authority to sexually molest some young men who were disciples of his, or when a Haredi politician was found playing fast and loose with public funds or accepting bribes, a typical reaction was “He’s a hypocrite” or “He’s not really religious.” But, without speaking into this specific case, matters are usually not so simple. A better explanation would be to ascribe such glaring contradictions in behavior to what might be called the double or divided consciousness of human beings. Our tradition tells us (I simplify somewhat) that our entire lives are an ongoing inner struggle between the forces of good and evil within our selves. The very first sentence of Tefillah Zakkah, a prayer recited by some at the onset of Yom Kippur, states that “You created within us two impulses, the good impulse and the wicked impulse, that we might have free will and chose the good.” Only rarely is this “battle” decisively resolved one way or another. Our wish to live a pure, virtuous, spiritual and ethical life conflicts with our powerful impulse for self-preservation and instinctual gratification, which do not always square with them.

Perhaps we may connect this to another idea. On Yom Kippur night, as has been is my custom for several years, I taught a class for those willing to stay in the synagogue after the end of the Evening Prayer (a practice I first saw in yeshiva, which hearkens back to the sages and elder priests who studied Torah with the high priest on Yom Kippur night). This year I spoke about the piyyutim—that genre of medieval liturgical poetry which dominates the High Holy day liturgy—and, as an example, we studied Az beterem nimtehu, from the Selihot for Tzom Gedaliah. This piyyiut is an elaboration of the midrashic idea (b. Yoma 76a; Pesahim 54a; etc.) that seven things were created even before the creation of the world itself: the Torah, teshuvah, God’s Throne of Glory, The Garden of Eden, Gehinnom, the Name of the Messiah, and the Temple. Needless to say, most of these are not really “things” in any concrete physical sense, but rather ideas, concepts; key principles that are necessary components of the Jewish moral universe. Among them, teshuvah, the very possibility that man can repair the evil he has done and change and repair his own personality, is a central one. It is by no means self-evident; to the contrary, one might well argue that humankind is dominated by blind fate ad destiny, that character is fixed, immutable, and brings in its wake various disasters (the Greek myth of Oedipus is but one of the striking exemplification of this idea in Western culture; compare also many of Shakespeare’s plays; and not the mechanistic and deterministic model of human behavior advocated by many contemporary biologists). Judaism dares to suggest otherwise: that teshuvah, meaning change, reconstruction of the self, is possible. Without it, human freedom and any meaningful ethics is meaningless.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Rosh Hashanah (Ramban)

Ramban’s Sermon for Rosh Hashanah

In addition to his Torah commentary, Ramban wrote a number of sermons, four of which appear in Chavel’s edition of Kitvei ha-Ramban (English: Ramban (Nachmanides) Writings & Discourses); for Hanukkah, for a wedding, Derashat Torat Hashem Temimah (a sermon celebrating the Torah in general, most probably given shortly after the Barcelona Disputation of 1263), and a sermon for Rosh Hashanah (Vol. I: 211-252). Chavel speaks of this in glowing terms, referring to it as the finest and most fully-developed of all Ramban’s sermons. It was delivered in Acre, some time after he moved to the Land of Israel, on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, either in the final year of his life (i.e., prior to Rosh Hashanah 5030=Autumn 1269) or one year earlier, in 5029 (=1268).

The sermon begins with a word-by-word explication of the verses in Lev 23:23-25 commanding this holiday, beginning with the perennial puzzle as to why, if it is “the Beginning of the Year,” it is described as occurring in the seventh month. Ramban explains that the counting of months and that of years differ from one another; in particular, the counting of months from Nissan was only introduced after the Exodus from Egypt, as a means of commemorating that event. Until that time (as in the account of Noah and the Flood) the months followed the rhythm of the seasons of the year, beginning in the fall, counting from the Creation of the world in Tishrei, as per R. Eliezer in b. Rosh Hashanah 27a.

He then goes on to explain the term Shabbaton, “day of cessation,” explaining the concept of festival days and cessation from labor and other forms of mundane activity therein (see on this HY XIV: Emor). Here, as he does elsewhere, he uses material from his Torah Commentary, which had already been formulated at that time but not yet written in assumed its final form. He then continues:

Now we shall explicate the phrase zikhron teru’ah, “a remembrance of horn blowing.” Rashi wrote in his commentary on the Humash: “Zikhron teru’ah—this refers to verses of remembrance (zikhronot) and verses of shofar-blowing (shofarot), to remember for them the Binding of Isaac, in whose stead there was offered a ram.” But if that was the case, [the Torah] should also have brought the verses of Malkhuyot (Divine kingship) from the midrash, for it is inconceivable that Scripture should mention verses of remembrance and of shofarot and not mention verses of kingship. And the Rabbis already expounded all of them from the verse “and they shall be for you as a remembrance before your God” (Numbers 10:10) … [here Ramban quotes the midrash, and explains how Rashi interprets it]

And all this [i.e. that which Rashi said] is incorrect, for all of these things are simply asmakhta be’alma [a midrashic associative mentioning of the biblical verse], for the reading of the verses (in the three special blessings added to Musaf on Rosh Hashanah] is not a Torah obligation at all, but is based upon the words of the Scribes, as it states explicitly in the Talmud (b. Rosh Hashanah 34b): “[In the event that one must choose between the two] one goes to a place were they blow the shofar rather than to a place where they recite the blessings. This would seem obvious: the one is a Torah obligation, the other is a Rabbinic obligation. But we needed to state this it explicitly: even if the one place [where they say the blessings] it is certain, in the other it is doubtful.” But the Rabbi [i.e., Rashi] is not so meticulous in his commentary on the Humash, and he quotes the asmakhta’ot as he found them in the Sifra and Sifrei and Mekhilta [i.e. without discrimination].

Here he turns to an excursus, discussing the verse concerning the blowing of shofar on Yom Kippur of the jubilee year, how it is alluded to the Torah, as well as the question as to whether or not both soundings of the shofar—both of Rosh Hashanah and of Yom Kippur—override Shabbat, which he claims they originally did in the time of the Temple. He then returns to his original subject, the term zikaron:

But the meaning of the phrase “a remembrance of horn-blowing” (zikhron teru’ah) is the same as “You shall have a day of horn-blowing” (yom teru’ah; Num 29:1). Thus, Scripture says that this day shall be for us a day of cessation [from activity; shabaton], and that it shall be a remembrance of horn-blowing, meaning that we shall blow [the horn] on it and we shall be remembered before God, as in the matter mentioned above, “and you shall blow upon horns on your burnt-offerings, and it shall be for a remembrance for you before your God” (Num 10:10).

He thus interprets the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as a theurgic act—that is, a means of influencing God, causing the people Israel to be remembered before Him in a favorable way. As we have mentioned here several times in the past, there are two divergent, even diametrically-opposed ways of interpreting the mitzvah of shofar: the theurgic one mentioned here, associated with Akedat Yitzhak and the shofar’s connection to the ram offered in his stead (see also, for example, the blessing describing God as ”He who hears the sound of the horn-blowing of His people Israel with compassion”); and an exhortatory or moralistic one, in which the shofar serves as a call to teshuvah, awakening those who hear it to renewed religious consciousness and attention to heir actions in this world (thus, e.g., Rambam in Hil. Teshuvah, Ch. 3).

And it is not stated explicitly in the Torah whether this blowing is done with a shofar or with [bronze] trumpets (hatzotzrot); nor is the reason for this mitzvah there explained, why horn-blowing; nor why one needs to be remembered before God on this day more so than on other days of the year; nor why we are commanded that it should be a holy convocation, as I mentioned above.

But because Scripture called it a day of remembrance, and because it is in the same month as the Day of Atonement, at the beginning of the month, this hints that it is a day of judgment before the Holy One blessed be He, for He shall judge the nations on Rosh Hashanah and remember His creatures, and He shall sit on the throne of the righteous judge (per Ps 9:5). And thereafter, during the Ten Days [of Repentance] He shall forgive the transgressions of His servants and atone for those who repent. For the word zikaron (remembrance) is used by the Scripture regarding judgment of those who are subject to being judged. [At this point Ramban brings a long series of texts illustrating the use of the verb זכר in connection with remembering, regarding both the sins of wrongdoers and the merits that stand in favor of the righteous; see Ezek 18:22; ibid., 24; Ps 25:7; Ezek 21:29; ibid., 28; Neh 5:19; 13:14].

Now the Torah gave us this matter by way of allusion, and it was known in Israel from the prophets and the holy fathers, going back to Moses our Teacher, and it is still in our hands as a tradition and as something well-known in the Talmud; and one who has merited to be a Kabbalist engaged in the secrets of the Torah may see this matter stated more explicitly in Scripture, and the language of the Torah is more explicit therein.

Interestingly, he bases not only the Kabbalistic interpretation, but even the simple, straightforward understanding of this holiday on an oral tradition, rather than on the Biblical text per se, which is rather opaque

For it is the teru’ah is which stood for our fathers and for ourselves, as it says, “Happy is the people who know the blowing of the horn” (Psalm 89:7). Now, what is the meaning of this verse? For there are many people who know how to blow trumpets and horn, and woe to them and woe to their portion. And there are many others who do not know how to blow it at all, and happy are they and happy is their portion!. [In short, this verse cannot be interpreted literally, as referring to the skill of blowing the shofar, but must have a deeper, symbolic, even esoteric meaning]. Rather, teru’ah alludes to the Attribute of Judgment (din). Therefore it says, “They shall blow a trumpet blast upon setting off on their travels” (Num 10:6), and regarding this it says “Rise up O Lord and scatter your enemies, and may those that hate You flee before You” (ibid., v. 35). And one also sees that the walls of Jericho fell because of the blowing of horns, as it says, “Until the day that I tell you to blow and to sound the trumpets” (Joshua 6:10), and thereafter, “and all the people blew a great blast and the wall fell” (ibid., v. 20). And because this was the beginning of the conquest of the land, the Holy One blessed be He wished that the Attribute of Judgment be stretched out against them, and there was a ban against it.

And Onkelos alluded to this in translating the verse “’And the blowing of the king is among them’ (Numbers 23:21)—and the Shekhinah [or: indwelling] of their king is among them.” And because teru’ah alludes to the Attribute of Judgment, it says “Happy are the people who know the teru’ah,” for it brings them close to da’at (knowledge), for knowledge (yedi’ah) is used in reference to cleaving or attachment, as in the verse “And the man knew his wife” (Gen 4:1); or “a virgin and no man had known her” (ibid., 24:16).

Having established that teru’ah is equivalent to the attribute of Judgment, he then interprets the word “know” to refer, not to intellectual knowledge, but to attachment to this attribute, much as the word yada’ is used in various biblical passages to refer to sexual knowledge. It is not clear what “cleaving” to the Attribute of Judgment might mean—but see below on the tension between this attribute and that of Mercy.

And it says “it shall be a day of horn-blowing for you,” for the day will be for us. And there was no need to mention the shofar, for the shofar is alluded to by the word yom (“day”) [for both of them allude to the Attribute of Hesed, Kindness or Mercy], and the teru’ah is within it. And this verse implies that this is a day of Judgment intermixed with Mercy. And this is what is meant by the verse, “Happy are the people who know how to blow the horn… for You are the glory of their strength” (ki tiferet uzamo atah; Ps 89:18); for Tiferet (glory) refers to the Attribute of Compassion, and Oz (strength) is the Attribute of Judgment. And these things are among the secrets of the Torah, of which it is not fit to speak in public, nor even to all the individuals. [So why does Ramban write it down in this sermon? Or does he mean that one should not speak of their esoteric meaning, beyond what he does here, saying ‘This alludes to that, and that to this’ and so forth?]

And the Ten Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur allude to the ten sefirot of Belimah [“hanging upon nothingness”; a term from Sefer Yetzirah]. for on the Day of Atonement He rises up on them, and the Lord of Hosts is raised up in judgment and the Holy God is sanctified with righteousness (Isa 5:16), as is known in Kabbalah

In brief, both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur involve a mixture of Din and Rahamim, just as the blowing of shofar represents both, as noted in his interpretation of the words shofar and teru’ah. Rosh Hashanah is seen as Din be-rahamim, and Yom Kippur as Rahamim be-Din. (It so happens that I wrote about this many years ago, for my yeshiva student newspaper, shortly after I came to Israel—the first time in my life I dared to write in Hebrew for publication). It is important to note that the true menaing of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is counter-intuitive. Rosh Hashanah is popularly understood as a joyous festival; indeed, many modern Jews who, even those not particularly observant, celebrate the day with an enormous festive meal, gathering with their extended families at the Yontiff table (I remember as a child observing how the married children of my neighbors used to return to their parents’ homes two nights a year: on the first night of Rosh Hashanah and that of the Passover Seder). Yom Kippur, by contrast, is a day of solemnity: it is course a day of fasting (albeit the meals before and particularly after the fast may also have a strongly festive air); the entire day is spent in the synagogue, with the Viddui, the double-acrostic Confession of sin, repeated over and over again.
Yet theologically, conceptually, it is the exact opposite: Rosh Hashanah is in fact a day of judgment, of total existential insecurity. Erev Rosh Hashanah, in particular, is marked by lengthy Selihot and an atmosphere of trembling and anxiety. Habad Hasidism speaks of the “vitality” of the new year being held in suspension until the Jews blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah morning. Only then, to quote a famous midrash, does God, so to speak, rise from His Throne of Judgment and move to that of Mercy.

Yom Kippur, by contrast, is a day of Divine mercy: kaparah, atonement in the sense of gratuitous forgiveness, “covering up” our transgressions. The elaborate ritual performed by the high Priest in the Temple of old was seen as a means of eliciting this quality in the Divine. God, as it were, realizes the weakness of human beings, their inevitable failure to meet the high bar set by in the Torah, and hence must excuse them. This is the essential message of God’s revelation to Moses in the cleft of the rock (on Yom Kippur!), following the sin of the Golden Calf, in which He discloses to him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (see my study of this in HY I: Ki Tisa [=Torah]).

The same tension between Stern Judgment and Compassionate Loving-Kindness appears in the concept of teshuvah, of repentance for one’s sins. Certainly, one must engage in teshuvah, to search one’s soul, to examine one’s deeds over the past year—but not to the extent that one is paralyzed by guilt. Just as God is ultimately merciful, so too must a person be merciful to others and to him/herself, and not to be too harsh in one’s judgment, but allow oneself to live. Hasidism constantly stressed this: its emphasis on joy is not simply “happy-clappy”—singing and dancing and jumping up and down, mindlessly ignoring the pain and problems of the world—but based upon a deep awareness of this precarious psychological balance. The seriously religious person, one who strives to serve God and seeks perfection in the spiritual, ethical, and intellectual life, may end up living in despair and self-doubt and depression if he judges himself too harshly. There is thus need for a happy medium, combining intelligent self-criticism with a healthy acceptance of self.

Or: one may view this in terms of a tension between prophetic, moralistic religion, which demands constant self-perfection; and priestly religion, which in a sense is softer, mire maternal, accepting man as he is in his faults, and offering forgiveness and an opportunity to live another year. (This idea is articulated by Richard Rubenstein in a seminal essay on the Yom Kippur liturgy in his book After Auschwitz. He also mentions there two Christian archetypes: the stern Northern European Protestant and the life-embracing Mediterranean Catholic; one might say, as in the old joke about the Jews Northern Ireland during the height of the conflict there, that there really are “Catholic Jews” and “Protestant Jews,”)

Ramban concludes this section with some comments on the parallel between the astrological sign of Libra (September-October) and the festivals of Tishrei:

And there is also a sign of this in the heavens, for this month is under the sign of the scales, which is the ascendant sign for this month, to say that there is within it balance and scales of judgment to the Lord (Prov 16:11). Just as the lamb (Aries) is [the sign of the month of] Nissan, indicating the matter of Passover, which the Egyptians worshipped and which they thought was the sign of their land, whose ascendance was good to them—but the Holy One blessed be He humiliated it and commanded Israel to slaughter it. And this is, “[I took you out of the] smelting pot of iron, from Egypt” (Deut 4:20), and as was said by R. Abraham [Ibn Ezra].

We have said that it is a day of judgment, and this is the meaning of “a day of horn-blowing” and “remembrance of horn-blowing”; and it is explicitly stated in the words of our Rabbis, as we have learned (b. Rosh Hashanah 16a): “On the New Year all the inhabitants of the world pass before Him like sheep,” and they said (ibid.) “Three books are open on Rosh Hashanah: One of the righteous, [one of the wicket, and one of those in between]”—and many other similar things in their words.

The sermon continues with a detailed halakhic discussion of the entire subject of the shofar: the material of which it is made; the pros and cons involved in using the horns of various kinds of animal; the different shofar notes, when and how sounded; the special blessings added to the Musaf service; etc. Here we once again see the Ramban, not only as a master of homiletics or as a proto-Kabbalist, but as a halakhist, with complete mastery of the sources, which he analyzes with great care and erudition. He concludes the sermon with words of exhortation and inspiration to do teshuvah.

Three Rosh Hashanah Conundrums

It not being Passover, it would not be proper to ask four questions—but we can ask three (which, I have claimed, is the key number for Rosh Hashanah).

1. First, what seems to me an obvious question, but one which I have never seen addressed: Tanakh, the Hebrew name of the Bible, is an acronym for the words Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim, in that order. Why then do the verses invoked in the three special blessings added to Musaf not follow that order, but instead begin with Torah, continue with the Holy Writings (mostly selections from the Psalms), and conclude with the prophetic books?

2. Among these three special blessing, Malkhuyot, unlike Zikhronot or Shaifarot, but is combined with the blessing for the “sanctity of the day” (kedushat hayom), giving us the rather awkward concluding phrase, מלך על כל הארץ, מקדש ישראל ייום הזכרון. Indeed, there is a dispute in the Mishnah as to which blessing of the Amidah Malkhuyot ought to be integrated, but both sides agree that it is not recited by itself, but in tandem with one or another blessing. Why? What would have been wrong had there been 10 blessings in Musaf rather than 9?

3. Finally, a riddle posed to me by a friend, perhaps half in jest: It is customary to sound a total of one hundred shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah (somehow corresponding to the 100 weeping sounds made by Sisera’s mother alluded to in Judges 5:28). In another, unrelated Talmudic passage, we are told that the difference between one who “serves God” and one who does not is that the latter repeats his assigned chapter 100 times, while the latter does so 101 times. Why the difference between the two? Why not blow shofar 101 times?

* * * * *

Let me conclude with a personal blessing to all our readers for a year of health, of love and friendship; of satisfying and enriching work and study and creativity; of material blessing; and, most of all, a year of peace. May our leaders have the wisdom to guide Israel and the world through this perilous epoch, without destroying, with incredible lightness, that which ahs been built with hard work and devotion.





Ki Tavo

Ki Teitsei