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].)


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