it’s not in heaven

parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech

Whether Deuteronomy was written by Moses or many years later [1], this fifth book of the Pentateuch “introduces into the Bible for the first time the concept of canon – a bounded accepted body of authoritative literature. [2] See for instance Deuteronomy 4:2   and Deuteronomy 13:1

Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it

 לֹא תֹסִפוּ, עַל-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, וְלֹא תִגְרְעוּ

All this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.

 אֵת כָּל-הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם–אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ, לַעֲשׂוֹת:  לֹא-תֹסֵף עָלָיו, וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּנּוּ

So when in Deuteronomy 30:12 we read:

It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’

 לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא:  לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה

We should not be surprised to find this interpreted as still another proclamation of closure:

Moses said to them, “Do not say, ‘Another Moses will arise and bring us another Torah from heaven,’ for I say to you, ‘It is not in heaven’ – no part of it remained in heaven.  (Devarim Rabah 8:6)

If you’re familiar with this blog, you can guess that “closure” is not on my top-ten list. To the contrary, I embrace the contradictions and dueling dialectic inherent in our religion where faith is complimented by rejection and purity is informed by impurity (see especially neither/nor and [3] )

I believe that the Rabbis shared my disdain for closure and they voice their embrace of a living, growing, struggling and dynamic Torah in one of the most wonderful Aggadic stories in the Talmud.

The story is referred to as the oven of Achnai (תנורו של עכנאי  and is found in Baba Metzia 59b

The details of the oven are not important.  Let’s just say that Rabbi Eliezer argued that the oven was not a utensil which needed purification before use and the Rabbis disagreed. It’s at this point that the fireworks of the preeminent Talmudic argument begin.

It is taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Sages did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: “If the Halakhah (religious law) is in accordance with me, let this carob tree prove it!” Sure enough the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits, and some say 400 cubits, from its place. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they retorted.

And again he said to them “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the channel of water prove it!” Sure enough, the channel of water flowed backward. “No proof can be brought from a channel of water,” they rejoined.

Again he urged, “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the house of study prove it!” Sure enough, the walls tilted as if to fall. But R. Joshua, rebuked the walls, saying, “When disciples of the wise are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what right have you to interfere?” Hence in deference to R. Joshua they did not fall and in deference to R. Eliezer they did not resume their upright position; they are still standing aslant.

Again R. Eliezer then said to the Sages, “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven.” Sure enough, a divine voice cried out, “Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, with whom the Halakhah always agrees?”

But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’  What did he mean by this? — Said R. Yermiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.

Nathan met [the prophet] Elijah and asked him, “What did the Holy One do at that moment?” Elijah: “He laughed [with joy], saying, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.'” [4]

The story actually continues and includes a tragic ending for Rabbi Eliezer [5] , but for our purposes, we stop here. It is an amazing story and not surprisingly many students of the Aggadic stories in the Talmud count it as a favorite… I’ve heard that it was even made into a dramatic play.

The story needs no commentary, but I should add that I first heard this story from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin who gave an alternative translation for God’s punch line: ‘My children have defeated Me”.  ניצחוני בני the word ניצח  means to win, but it’s root, נצח  means eternity.  According to Riskin, an alternative reading is “My children have immortalized Me, My children have immortalized Me”.

Daniel Boyarin in his essay  Old Wine in New Bottles: Intertextuality and Midrash, sees in this story (and Midrash in general) an example of “recreating a new moment of “Oral Torah,” which is, at the same time, always a new and present text as well as a reading of the Written Torah. In literary terms, there is a tension between the meaning of the quoted text in its “original” context and in its present context. What is so striking (and strange) about midrash is its claim that the new context is implied by the old one, that the new meanings (Oral Torah) revealed by recontexting of pieces of the authoritative text, are a legitimate interpretation of the Written Torah itself and indeed given with the very revelation thereof…”

So much for traditional midrash.  According to Boyarin, this story goes one step further

“The point which has been missed is that R. Yehoshua’s “It is not in heaven” is an out of context citation. (ed. see above and the full text of Deuteronomy 30: 12 and what follows)  R. Yehoshua is arguing with God from God’s own Text. You have given up Your right as Author and even as Divine Voice to interpret Your Torah when You said, “It is not in heaven.” But R. Yehoshua’s act is not only constative, describing or making a claim about interpretation, it is also performative, instituting and creating by its doing, the Oral Torah. For “it is not in heaven” is itself not in heaven. R. Yehoshua breaks it out of context and re-cites it in his own…

Without fanfare, R. Yehoshua uncovers radical new meaning in this verse, simply by reinscribing it in a new context. “It is not in heaven” does not mean only that the Torah is not beyond human reach but that it is beyond Divine reach, as it were. And God laughing with pleasure admits that R. Yehoshua, the faithful disciple, has indeed discovered a meaning which was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, even though He Himself was not aware of it until now. “My children have defeated Me”; they have striven with Me and won. God laughed and, in that laugh, midrash was born.”

Boyarin points out that the unnecessary commentary on “it is not in heaven” based on the second text of “following the majority” is a late addition. R. Yermiah, its author, lived centuries later than the tannaitic protagonists of the story itself.

“Yermiah’s approach is tamer than the “original” meaning of R. Yehoshua’s statement, precisely because it does not involve the wresting of the Torah from Heaven in its very utterance, as his does. R. Yermiah talks about the absolute right of the interpreter to interpret; R. Yehoshua demonstrates how radical that right is. …. God’s assent to this radical act, His laugh of pleasure, establishes its legitimacy and thereby figures the regenerating and preserving function of the intertext.

Midrash is interpretation because it shows how meaning is created in the (nearly) infinite dialogical relations of text to text within the Torah and of the readers’ discourse to that of the Other.”

Both Boyarin and Riskin see in God’s response His pleasure in both the “disruptive” and “reconstructive” features of midrash.  Ultimately this double movement of disruption and regeneration is precisely the raison d’etre and life-force in Jewish learning and future… and if God disagrees… it’s too bad, because the Torah is no longer in heaven..

—————

[1] Deuteronomy – Devarim also known as Mishne Torah – the second or repetition of the Torah was, in the opinion of most Biblical scholars begun in the pre-exilic sixth century BC and finally edited in Exile by Ezra

[2] see The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy by Everett Fox p 842

[3]  “One of the most characteristic features of midrash is the way in which, as a reading practice, it violates the context of the texts being interpreted and cited. This is often cited as evidence for either the naiveté or hermeneutic bad faith -of the rabbis;’ Old Wine in New Bottles: Intertextuality and Midrash, Daniel Boyarin p542

[4]  H.N. Bialik and Y.H. Ravnitzky, eds., Sefer Ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends), translated by William G. Braude, Schocken Books, NY, 1992). page 223 Hebrew below:

אמר להם (רבי אליעזר): “אם הלכה כמותי חרוב זה יוכיח”. נעקר חרוב ממקומו מאה אמה… אמרו לו: “אין מביאין ראיה מן החרוב”. חזר ואמר להם: “אם הלכה כמותי אמת המים יוכיחו”. חזרו אמת המים לאחוריהם. אמרו לו: “אין מביאין ראיה מאמת המים”. חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי כותלי בית המדרש יוכיחו. הטו כותלי בית המדרש ליפול. גער בהם רבי יהושע אמר להם: “אם תלמידי חכמים מנצחים זה את זה בהלכה, אתם מה טיבכם?!” לא נפלו מפני כבודו של רבי יהושע ולא זקפו מפני כבודו של רבי אליעזר ועדיין מטים ועומדין. חזר ואמר להם: “אם הלכה כמותי – מן השמים יוכיחו”. יצאתה בת קול ואמרה: “מה לכם אצל רבי אליעזר שהלכה כמותו בכל מקום”. עמד רבי יהושע על רגליו ואמר: “לא בשמים היא”. [ציטוט מתוך דברים ל', י-יד: "...כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם -- לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ, וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא: ... כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד: בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ."]. מאי לא בשמים היא ? [מה הפירוש: לא בשמים היא?] אמר רבי ירמיה: שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני, אין אנו משגיחין בבת קול, שכבר כתבת בהר סיני בתורה: “אחרי רבים להטות” [ציטוט מתוך שמות כ"ג, א-ג  בהמשך מספרת הגמרא שאליהו הנביא נשאל מה אמר הקב"ה באותו זמן. סיפר אליהו כי האל "חייך ואמר ניצחוני בני, ניצחוני בני"]

 

[5] read in the original Baba Metzia 59b or read for example The Talmud Revisited: Tragedy and “The Oven of Aknai” By Janet Madden

 

 

 

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still crazy after all these years

Ki Tavo

Call me crazy, but I love it when I spot the first time a word is used in print, especially when it’s a Hebrew word in the Bible.  And I go Crazy-Eddie crazy when it’s a seminal word whose meaning and associations are closely associated with our people.

So what’s the word of the day? It’s Meshugah and it first appears in Deuteronomy 28.

In the original version of the Sermon on the Mount, Moses has half the tribes stand on one mountain; Gerizim, and the other half stand on an opposite mountain; Ebal, and details all the blessings the chosen people will receive if they obey the commandments. So far so good and so ends the similitude to the other Sermon on the Mount.  It’s in detailing all the curses that will befall the Jewish people for disobedience that Meshuga, the quintessential word for Jewish idiosynchronicity, even exceptionalism, gets it’s first mention.

But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee…. (28: 15)

The LORD will smite thee with madness, and with blindness, and with astonishment of heart. (28: 28) [see Strongs H7697]

 יַכְּכָה ה’, בְּשִׁגָּעוֹן וּבְעִוָּרוֹן; וּבְתִמְהוֹן, לֵבָב

The fruit of thy land, and all thy labours, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed away:
so that thou shalt be mad for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see. (28: 33-4) [see Strongs H7696]

 וְהָיִיתָ, מְשֻׁגָּע, מִמַּרְאֵה עֵינֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה

In it’s first instance, being meshugah is not a good thing.  It’s a curse and relates to the primal response one has when viewing something so abhorrent and hurtful that one loses one’s mind.

The word always retained this meaning as in Zachariah

And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will make Jerusalem a stone of burden for all the peoples; all that burden themselves with it shall be sore wounded; and all the nations of the earth shall be gathered together against it.
In that day, saith the LORD, I will smite every horse with bewilderment, and his rider with madness; and I will open Mine eyes upon the house of Judah, and will smite every horse of the peoples with blindness.  (Zechariah 12 3-4)

 בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא נְאֻם-יְהוָה, אַכֶּה כָל-סוּס בַּתִּמָּהוֹן, וְרֹכְבוֹ, בַּשִּׁגָּעוֹן

But madness also was used in conjunction with creative genius and vision.

First as a false prophet as in:

for every man that is mad, and maketh himself a prophet, that thou shouldest put him in the stocks and in the collar. (Jeremiah 29: 26)

 לְכָל-אִישׁ מְשֻׁגָּע וּמִתְנַבֵּא; וְנָתַתָּה אֹתוֹ אֶל-הַמַּהְפֶּכֶת, וְאֶל-הַצִּינֹק

And next as a prophet of truth to a false people – the man of spirit to a people without spirit:

The prophet is a fool, the man of the spirit is mad! For the multitude of thine iniquity, the enmity is great. (Hosea 9: 7)

 אֱוִיל הַנָּבִיא, מְשֻׁגָּע אִישׁ הָרוּחַ–עַל רֹב עֲו‍ֹנְךָ, וְרַבָּה מַשְׂטֵמָה

Ultimately, when the world becomes crazy, it is the crazy who speak the truth.

As it says in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 12b): Rabbi Johanan said: Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.

But it is madness as a strategy that seems to have really resonated with our leaders and our people.. starting with David.

David is running away from King Saul and went to Achish the king of Gath. David’s reputation precedes him and the servants of Achish  question: “Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying: Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?”  David takes these words to heart and is fearful and plays the madman.

And he changed his demeanour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard.
Then said Achish unto his servants: ‘Lo, when ye see a man that is mad, wherefore do ye bring him to me?
Do I lack madmen, that ye have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?’ (1 Samuel 21: 11-16)

 חֲסַר מְשֻׁגָּעִים, אָנִי, כִּי-הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-זֶה, לְהִשְׁתַּגֵּעַ עָלָי; הֲזֶה, יָבוֹא אֶל-בֵּיתִי

And thus was born the Meshugenah Defense.

The word Meshugah is more well known as a Yiddish word than as a Hebrew word, because it was in exile and using the language of exile that we Jews really perfected craziness as a defense mechanism. Was it not meshugah to think that we could survive without a land or borders.  Was it not crazy to believe that one day we would be back in Jerusalem.  Jewish humor, at it’s core is a survival mechanism, and at its best, it reveals and helps us cope with the absurd.  Only a madman can believe in mankind after the atrocities of the Holocaust…

Thomas Friedman, cannot be accused of being an apologist for the State of Israel or the current Netanyahu government, but even he understands that in a world gone crazy, you are forced to act crazy.  In a recent column he characterized the recent Israel strategy in in Gaza:

No one here will explicitly say so, but one need only study this war to understand that Israel considers it central to its deterrence strategy that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah will “outcrazy us.” I don’t believe Israel was targeting Gaza civilians — I believe it tried to avoid them  — but, at the end of the day, it was not deterred by the prospect of substantial collateral civilian casualties. Hamas used Gaza’s civilians as war-crimes bait. And Israel did whatever was necessary to prove to Hamas, “You will not outcrazy us out of this region.” It was all ugly. This is not Scandinavia. (Thomas Freidman, Dear Guests; Revelations in the Gaza War).

What’s the lesson to all of this mushugas?  I suppose we need to always remember that one day’s curse is another day’s blessing.  We need to nurture and cultivate the life of our language and explore our cultural tics. And for the survival of the Jewish People and the good of the world, we Jews need to stay still crazy after all of these years.

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judaism as a language

Ki Teitzei

It should come as no surprise that a significant number of jews do not observe, or even strive to observe all the commandments. The truth is, that this lack of homogeneous observance is not new.  There was probably never a period when the body of card carrying jews kept all the commandments.  And I’m not talking about minor commandments like putting on tephilin or wearing fringes.  I’m talking about the big ones, like the Sabbath and the Passover.

We know that when the book of Deuteronomy was “found” in the middle of the reign of King Josiah (ruled 640 – 608 BCE) the Passover was no longer observed.  2 Kings Chapter 23: 21-22

And the king commanded all the people, saying: ‘Keep the passover unto the LORD your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant.’
For there was not kept such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah;

We know that the Prophets castigated the Jews for not observing the Sabbath and the fact that in the early Rabbinic period the Rabbis would promise that that the Messiah will come if every Jew properly observes two consecutive Sabbaths.  [1] It would seem that strict Sabbath observance was a challenge not unique to the post Enlightment.

So there was always a significant portion of the Jewish people whose observance of the commandments was less than perfect.  What is more intriguing is the notion that it may never have been the intent or objective that the laws all be observed… all the time.

If one reads the Hebrew Bible it is full of crimes punishable by death, but the Talmud basically neuters the death penalty by suggesting that: “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one. R. Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Or even once in 70 years.” Mishneh Makkot 1:10

There are those who believe that the 49 year cycle Jubilee where loans were forgiven and property returned to its original owner… was purely utopian and never put into practice.  Could it be that not all of the laws and rituals in the Torah were actually meant to be kept or if kept… kept without exception.

Which brings us to the law of the rebellious son:

If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them;
then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
and they shall say unto the elders of his city: ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he doth not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.’

And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die; so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.  (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

כִּי-יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ, בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה–אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ; וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם

 וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ, אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ; וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, וְאֶל-שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ

 וְאָמְרוּ אֶל-זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ, בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה–אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקֹלֵנוּ; זוֹלֵל, וְסֹבֵא

וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל-אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים, וָמֵת, וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע, מִקִּרְבֶּךָ; וְכָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ

Says the Talmud: “There never has been a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’, and never will be. Why then was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward.” Tosef. Sanh. 11:6 Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 71a).

Here we have an outright example of one of the so numbered 613 commandments which is a fiction and whose purpose is to create a learning moment.

It seems to me that the above examples, and many more that I could mention, give us a license to take off the legalistic glasses of Halacha and look at the statutes and rituals of the Torah in a different way.

The way that appeals most to me is that we look at the corpus of Jewish law and ritual more as a language than as an instruction manual.

As we say in the Sabbath morning prayers in the piut Ezrat Avotecha:

אשרי איש שישמע למצותיך

Happy is the person who can listen to your commandments.

It may not be the only way we wish to look at the corpus of Jewish Law, but certainly it is a lense worth looking through from time to time.  Judaism as a language.  For some it is a mother tongue, for others a second language.  For some it is their primary form of communication, for others, not so much.  It is a language that expresses certain emotions and ethical standards in a unique and powerful way. Some words lose their meaning, go out of fashion or become socially incorrect. Some words take on new meaning or have different meanings when used in different contexts or situations.  Some words are reinvented or take on a meaning diametrically different than their origin.  Judaism as a language is no less serious of an endeavor or subject of study or commitment, but besides its many other benefits, it does not have the same artificial line of demarcation between those who observe and those who don’t. The tent that holds those who listen and speak the language of the commandments is large.

When I was studying philosophy, back in the day, the philosophy of language was a primary area of interest.   Philosophers such as Noam Chomsky argued that the structure o language was built into our DNA.  Not everyone agrees with Chomsky’s linguistic philosophy and fewer still with his political views, but this son of Hebrew teachers understood that a language reflects the DNA of the speaker.  In that regard, Judaism as a language becomes an act of discovery of who we are and who we can be.

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[1] R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai: If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths according to the laws thereof, they would be redeemed immediately, for it is said, Thus saith the Lord of the eunuch that keep my Sabbaths,( Isa. LVI, 4.)  which is followed by, even them will I bring to my holy mountain, etc.(verse 7)  (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 118b)

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you are not my boss

parshat shoftim

When the month of Elul arrives, the Jewish High Holidays are soon to follow, but what is so Jewish about these High Holidays (ימים נוראים lit. Days of Awe)?  Unlike the three pilgrimage holidays (שָׁלשׁ רְגָלִים ), Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur don’t celebrate the Exodus from Egypt or the giving of the Torah to the Jewish People.  Their only commonality shared by all Jewish holidays is that they are an adaptation of earlier Pagan holidays. Unlike Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot which were originally agricultural and harvest holidays, Rosh Hashanah is a deeply political holiday and it’s adaptation was not so much a transition as it was a radical paradigm shift.

As we shall see, the most important holiday celebrated in both Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia was the annual New Year rebirth, judgment and coronation of the King as god. So the best introduction to Judaism’s rendition of this king-making celebration is to understand Judaism’s love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with kingship.

When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein; and shalt say: ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me';
thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose; one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee; thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee, who is not thy brother.
Only he shall not multiply horses to himself, nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses; forasmuch as the LORD hath said unto you: ‘Ye shall henceforth return no more that way.’
Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away; neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.
And it shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levites.
And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them;
that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left; to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he and his children, in the midst of Israel. Deuteronomy 17: 14-20)

 כִּי-תָבֹא אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ; וְאָמַרְתָּ, אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ, כְּכָל-הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי
שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ:  מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ, תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ–לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-אָחִיךָ הוּא
רַק, לֹא-יַרְבֶּה-לּוֹ סוּסִים, וְלֹא-יָשִׁיב אֶת-הָעָם מִצְרַיְמָה, לְמַעַן הַרְבּוֹת סוּס; וַ ה’, אָמַר לָכֶם, לֹא תֹסִפוּן לָשׁוּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה, עוֹד
וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה-לּוֹ נָשִׁים, וְלֹא יָסוּר לְבָבוֹ; וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב, לֹא יַרְבֶּה-לּוֹ מְאֹד
וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ, עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ–וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת-מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, עַל-סֵפֶר, מִלִּפְנֵי, הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם
וְהָיְתָה עִמּוֹ, וְקָרָא בוֹ כָּל-יְמֵי חַיָּיו–לְמַעַן יִלְמַד, לְיִרְאָה אֶת- ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, לִשְׁמֹר אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה, לַעֲשֹׂתָם
לְבִלְתִּי רוּם-לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו, וּלְבִלְתִּי סוּר מִן-הַמִּצְוָה יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול–לְמַעַן יַאֲרִיךְ יָמִים עַל-מַמְלַכְתּוֹ הוּא וּבָנָיו, בְּקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל

The institution of the monarchy was the ultimate divine concession to the shortcomings and shortsightedness of the chosen people.  This same sentiment is presented in the Book of Samuel (Samuel I 8: 4-22)

Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah.
And they said unto him: ‘Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways; now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.’
But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said: ‘Give us a king to judge us.’ And Samuel prayed unto the LORD.
And the LORD said unto Samuel: ‘Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee; for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them.
According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, in that they have forsaken Me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.
Now therefore hearken unto their voice; howbeit thou shalt earnestly forewarn them, and shalt declare unto them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.’
And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king.
And he said: ‘This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them unto him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots.
And he will appoint them unto him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots.
And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. …..
And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king whom ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not answer you in that day.’
But the people refused to hearken unto the voice of Samuel; and they said: ‘Nay; but there shall be a king over us;

We should keep in mind that the appointment of a human King and the appointment of a human Messiah are one and the same.. both are a major concession to the lack of vision and faith by God’s flock.  Both a King and the Messiah are the anointed of God [1]

The monarchy was accepted, with legal restrictions and much of the prophetic tradition represents a check and balance on the monarchy [2]

Getting back the New Year’s Coronation Festival in the Ancient Near East, the Classical study was written by Henri Frankfort and called Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature and is available for download here.

Frankfort details how in Mesopotamia the festival of the new year lasted twelve days; it was a time of purification, of renewal of the vegetation. It was also a time of dramatic reenactments, the most important of which were the rites of the Sacred Marriage, and the recitation of the Sumerian creation epic, Enuma elish. It was at this time that the destinies of both gods and mankind were fixed, and the king began his reign on new year’s day.  (see)

One fascinating aspect of the Akitu involved a kind of ritual humiliation endured by the Babylonian king. This peculiar tradition saw the king brought before a statue of the god Marduk, stripped of his royal regalia and forced to swear that he had led the city with honor. A high priest would then slap the monarch and drag him by his ears in the hope of making him cry. If royal tears were shed, it was seen as a sign that Marduk was satisfied and had symbolically extended the king’s rule. Some historians have since argued that these political elements suggest the Akitu was used by the monarchy as a tool for reaffirming the king’s divine power over his people. (see)

Likewise in Ancient Egypt there was the Sed Festival held in the Fall hat celebrated the continued rule of a pharaoh. The ancient festival might, perhaps, have been instituted to replace a ritual of murdering a pharaoh who was unable to continue to rule effectively because of age or condition. … They primarily were held to rejuvenate the pharaoh’s strength and stamina while still sitting on the throne, celebrating the continued success of the pharaoh.   The Sed-festival developed into a royal jubilee intended to reinforce the pharaoh’s divine powers and religious leadership.

Writes Frankfort: “

The Egyptian calendar started with the first day of the first month of the Season of Inundation (1 Thoth), a day originally coinciding with the beginning of the rise of the Nile.  But four months later there was another new beginning: the inundation ended the Nile returned to its bed, and the new crops were sown.  The first day of the first month of the “Season of Coming Forth” (1 Tybi) was consequently celebrated as a rite de passage appropriate to a new beginning, although it was not the Calendrical New Year’s Day.  This “New Year’s Day” in autumn was presided over by a snake-demon called Nehebkau, a name which can be translated as “Bestower of Dignitaries” or as “Uniter of the Ka’s” (of Horus and Osiris), and we have , in both cases, an illusion to the definitive assumption of power by the new king.  … it was fitting that a king should be crowned to re-establish harmony between nature and society which had been shattered by the death of the previous ruler.  Hence it is said of Tuthmosis I, when he indicates the date for the coronation of Hatshepsut: “He knew that a coronation on New Year’s Day was good as the beginning of peaceful years.” (pp 103-4). [3]

This understanding of the context of the New Year’s Festival in the Ancient Near East, radically changes our understanding to the Jewish New Year holiday, Rosh Hashanah.  What Rosh Hashanah becomes is a radical statement of independence of all human rule.

On Rosh Hashanah we declare God King as a direct and vocal rejection of the widespread and widely known (at the time) traditions of making a human of blood and flesh… into a divine king.

Although God as king always enters into our prayers (e.g. Blessed are You King of the Universe…), it is on Rosh HaShanah that we have the focal point on Malchiot – Kingship, culminating at the end of the Neilah service where we end the service with the threefold repetition of “Praised is His name, whose glorious kingdom for ever and ever,” that recalls the threefold declaration: “The Lord is king (present), the Lord was king (past), and the Lord will be king (future).”

Ultimately, it is in our New Year’s Festival that we reject our people’s request for a human king (and a human anointed one) as we reject the rule of any human being and we declare God is King.  For a humanist… it doesn’t get any better, because the emphasis is not that God is King… but that no human can rule us.  We say to all tyrants and others attempting to form our opinions and curtail our actions and imagination… you are not my boss.

——————-

[1]

To-morrow about this time I will send thee a man out of the land of Benjamin, and thou shalt anoint him to be prince over My people Israel, and he shall save My people out of the hand of the Philistines; for I have looked upon My people, because their cry is come unto Me.’ (Samuel I 9: 16)

 כָּעֵת מָחָר אֶשְׁלַח אֵלֶיךָ אִישׁ מֵאֶרֶץ בִּנְיָמִן, וּמְשַׁחְתּוֹ לְנָגִיד עַל-עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְהוֹשִׁיעַ אֶת-עַמִּי, מִיַּד פְּלִשְׁתִּים:  כִּי רָאִיתִי אֶת-עַמִּי, כִּי בָּאָה צַעֲקָתוֹ אֵלָי

And the spirit of the LORD will come mightily upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man. Samuel I 10:6

וְצָלְחָה עָלֶיךָ רוּחַ ה’, וְהִתְנַבִּיתָ עִמָּם; וְנֶהְפַּכְתָּ, לְאִישׁ אַחֵר

[2]

As Frankfort, Wilson, and Jakobsen write in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay of Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (p348)  “A jealous concern for their traditional prerogatives was kept alive among the people by various agitators, notably the prophets.  Nathan’s rebuke of David, as Elijah’s of Ahab, was a direct denial of the assumptions of divine right and a bold affirmation of the principle that the king was amenable to the same standards of right, the same pervasive natural law as his humblest subject.  Here, too, it is apparent, was the principle basic to the entire attitude of the prophets and other progressive thinkers toward the monarchy: the king ruled, not by divine right, but under divinely imposed responsibility”

[3]

For further reading regarding Nisan and Tishrei as Kinmaking New Year’s festivals including actual Mesopotamian liturgy that has striking parallels to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy see Kingship and the Gods chapter 22 The New Year’s Festival pp 313-) here

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Filed under Bible, Chosen People, divine birth, divine right, Religion, Torah, Uncategorized

sustainable kashrut

parshat re’eh

Recently Italian archeologists dug 50 meters down and discovered small pieces of copper. After studying these pieces for a long time, Italy announced that the ancient Romans had a nation-wide telephone system. The Greek government was not that easily impressed. They ordered their own archeologists to dig even deeper. 100 meters down they found small pieces of glass and they soon announced that the ancient Greeks already had a nation-wide fiber network. Israeli scientists, not to be outdone dug 200 meters down & found absolutely nothing. They happily concluded that the ancient Israelites had a cellular network.

I was reminded of this joke when reviewing the source of kosher meat in Deuteronomy 12:20-21:

When the LORD thy God shall enlarge thy border, as He hath promised thee, and thou shalt say: ‘I will eat flesh’, because thy soul desireth to eat flesh; thou mayest eat flesh, after all the desire of thy soul.
If the place which the LORD thy God shall choose to put His name there be too far from thee, then thou shalt kill of thy herd and of thy flock, which the LORD hath given thee, as I have commanded thee, and thou shalt eat within thy gates, after all the desire of thy soul.

 כִּי-יַרְחִיב ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֶת-גְּבֻלְךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר-לָךְ, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר, כִּי-תְאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ לֶאֱכֹל בָּשָׂר–בְּכָל-אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ, תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר

 כִּי-יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם, וְזָבַחְתָּ מִבְּקָרְךָ וּמִצֹּאנְךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן ה’ לְךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ–וְאָכַלְתָּ, בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּכֹל, אַוַּת נַפְשֶׁךָ

Comments Rashi:

you may slaughter… as I have commanded you: We learn [from here] that there is a commandment regarding slaughtering, how one must slaughter. [Since this commandment is not written in the Torah we deduce that] these are the laws of ritual slaughtering given orally to Moses on [Mount] Sinai. — [Sifrei ; Chullin. 28a [1] ]

וזבחת וגו’ כאשר צויתך למדנו שיש צווי בזביחה היאך ישחוט, והן הלכות שחיטה שנאמרו למשה בסיני

This is how The Stone Artscroll Chumash translates Rashi:

As I have commanded you. “Since we find no explicit teaching in the Torah regarding kosher slaughter, this verse alludes to the existence of the Oral Law that was communicated to Moses at Sinai.  Obviously, therefore, God must have taught Moses at Sinai laws that are not in the Written Torah (Rashi)”

I will explore in a future blog the concept of a “Law given to Moses at Sinai”, but for now I marvel at the honesty of our texts and commentators.  It is clear that all the laws of ritual slaughter are nowhere mentioned in the Torah or in Biblical law.  Saying that the details were given to Moses is an elegant way of saying that the details were left to us, the people to figure out.  Most probably, the traditional practices used by the people and in the Temple were codified into law for consumer meat. At the time, they were undoubtedly cutting edge…..

The Sifrei that Rashi quotes goes further. The category of meat broached here in Deuteronomy (circa 8 – 6th century BC) is meat, not eaten in the temple for the purposes of sacrifice, but  ordinary meat for consumption  בָשָׂר תְאַוֶּה    (literally: “Meat of desire”).

As Dayan Dr, I Grunfeld writes in The Jewish Dietary Laws (pp52-53)

“Through permission was given man to take animal life for human food it was only done by a process of very gradual education and adapation.  According to Rabbi Ishmael (and most authorities agree with him cf. Babylonian Talmud Hullin 16b, 17 [2]) the killing of oxen, sheep or goats for ordinary meat consumption – Basar Ta’avah – was forbidden during the whole period of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, unless they had been consecrated as peace offerings – Shelamim…”

Dayan Grunfeld - concession

(see Hulin 84a and Samson Raphael Hirsch Deut. 12:20)

What IS written in the Torah and what does come out clearly in the texts is an ambivalence if not distaste to the consumption of meat and the slaughter of animals.

The Talmud remarks: “The Torah here teaches a rule of conduct that a person should not eat meat unless he has a special appetite for it” (Hullin 84a [3])

One of the seven commandments traditionally given to Noah and therefore for all of mankind is the prohibition of eating a limb torn off of a living animal (Ever Min HaChai אֵבָר מִן הֶחָי) as it is written (Genesis 9; 3-4)

Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all.
Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.

כָּל-רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא-חַי, לָכֶם ה’ לְאָכְלָה:  כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כֹּל

אַךְ-בָּשָׂר, בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ

Says Rashi:

shall be yours to eat: (Sanhedrin 59b) For I did not permit the first man [Adam] to eat meat, but only vegetation but for you (mankind after Noah), just as the green vegetation which I permitted for the first man, I have given you everything.

לכם יהיה לאכלה  שלא הרשיתי לאדם הראשון לאכול בשר אלא ירק עשב, ולכם כירק עשב שהפקרתי לאדם הראשון, נתתי לכם את כל

flesh with its soul: He prohibited them [to eat] a limb [cut off from] a living creature; i.e., as long as its soul is in it, you shall not eat the flesh. — [from Sanh. ad loc.] [i.e., if the limb is cut from the animal while it is alive, it is forbidden to be eaten even after the animal expires.]

בשר בנפשו  אסר להם אבר מן החי, כלומר כל זמן שנפשו בו לא תאכלו הבשר

It was only after Noah, allegedly saved all the animals in the Ark, that man was given the right to slaughter the animals that he saved…

What’s our take away from the clear biblical bias towards vegetarianism, aversion for animal slaughter and prohibition against unnecessary suffering of animals (Tza’ar Ba’alei Hayim).  What is our take away from the fact that the Torah leaves the details up to us?

My take away is that what is extraordinary about Jewish Law is that it not only exhibits a profound concern for animal suffering, but creates a link between that concern and the permission to eat animals.  The laws of Kashrut are, to my knowledge, the first legislation that links ethics with consumption.  If it’s not kosher, you can’t consume it.

This past week Nestlé announced animal welfare standards that will affect 7,300 of its suppliers around the globe, and their suppliers… [5] which is unprecedented accept for the fact that Jewish law has been sanctioning such certification and labeling for over two thousand years.

Does this mean that we should be satisfied with the current state of Kashrut or rest on our laurels?  Hardly… what I would love would be to have Rabbis (and here is a grand opportunity for non-orthodox Rabbis) to have the courage to review more humane methods of slaughter than those of traditional shechita.. such as stunning the animal.  We should accept any technology that minimizes the suffering of animals… (initially in conjunction with the traditional method of shechita, but eventually, whether it includes a traditional knife or not…).. this is in accordance with the spirit of “as I have commanded thee”  ַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ   this open ended admonition, that we supply the details.

Other areas where Kashrut has an opportunity to live up to it’s first-mover advantage is in the area of fair labor laws and sustainable farming and herding practices.

Following the raiding by Federal Agents of the Agriprocessors kosher food plant, the Conservative Movement’s Hekhsher Tzedek Commission Announced the Creation of Magen Tzedek and Orthodoxy suggested a Yashrut standard… I’m not sure what has become of either of these initiatives.  It seems to me that the biggest barrier to increasing the social component of Kashrut is cost… Kosher meat is already prohibitively priced. This does not have to be the case.  Grow and Behold Foods brings delicious OU Glatt Kosher pastured meats raised on small family farms. They adhere to the strictest standards of kashrut, animal welfare, worker treatment, and sustainable agriculture.

There’s something special about a Kosher Home.  Those of us who grew up in one and continue this tradition know how it, along with Friday night Shabbat dinners profoundly impacts our life, family and the continuation of the best in Jewish tradition.  We need to continue to explore ways to reinvent the kosher paradigm to permit it to continue to serve our people and the world at large.  Kashrut might well be an invisible cellular network that connects us with our past and with a growing commitment by our youth to social responsibility and sustainable living.

———————

[1]

Rabbi says. The verse: And thou shalt slaughter . . . as I have commanded thee, teaches us that Moses was instructed concerning the gullet and the windpipe; concerning the greater part of one of these organs [that must be cut] in the case of a bird, and the greater part of each in the case of cattle.

[2]

AT ALL TIMES ONE MAY SLAUGHTER. Who is the Tanna who holds this view? Rabbah replied: It is R. Ishmael. For it has been taught: [It is written] When the Lord thy God shall enlarge thy border, as He hath promised thee, and thou shalt say: ‘I will eat flesh’ . . . (Deut. 12, 20) This verse, says R. Ishmael, is stated specially in order to permit the Israelites to eat flesh at will.( Lit., ‘of desire’. I.e., on entering the Holy Land the Israelites would be permitted to slaughter animals at will and eat the flesh without having recourse to sacrifices.) For in the beginning they were forbidden to eat flesh at will, (When the Israelites were in the wilderness they were not permitted to slaughter and eat flesh at will. The animal had first to be offered up as a sacrifice, v. Lev. XVII, 3 and 4.) but on entering the land of Israel they were permitted. But, now they are exiled, it might be said that they should revert to the former restriction; the Mishnah therefore teaches us: AT ALL TIMES ONE MAY SLAUGHTER. Babylonian Talmud Hullin 16b

[3]

Our Rabbis taught: When the Lord thy God shall enlarge thy border, as He hath promised thee, and thou shalt say: I will eat flesh. The Torah here teaches a rule of conduct, that a person should not eat meat unless he has a special appetite for it. I might think that this means that a person should buy [meat] in the market and eat it, the text therefore states: Then thou shalt kill of thy herd and of thy flock. I might then think that this means that he should kill all his herd and eat and all his flock and eat, the text therefore states: ‘Of thy herd’, and not all thy herd; ‘of thy flock’ and not all thy flock. Hence R. Eleazar b. ‘Azariah said: A man who has a maneh may buy for his stew a litra of vegetables; if he has ten maneh he may buy for his stew a litra of fish; if he has fifty maneh he may buy for his stew a litra of meat; if he has a hundred maneh he may have a pot set on for him every day. And [how often for] the others? From Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve.

Of a more contemporary nature… according to the findings of a Weizmann Institute of Science research team headed by Prof. Ron Milo — in collaboration with Israeli ex-pat Prof. Gidon Eshel from Bard College in New York — beef is measurably the most environmentally draining livestock on the market. ( see )

[4]

Maimonides. Guide for the Perpexed III, 26

Thus killing animals for the purpose of obtaining good food is certainly useful, as we intend to show (below, ch. xlviii.); that, however, the killing should not be performed by neḥirah (poleaxing – hitting the animal), but by sheḥitah (cutting the neck), and by dividing the œsophagus and the windpipe in a certain place; these regulations and the like are nothing but tests for man’s obedience. In this sense you will understand the example quoted by our Sages [that there is no difference] between killing the animal by cutting its neck in front and cutting it in the back. I give this instance only because it has been mentioned by our Sages; but in reality [there is some reason for these regulations]. For as it has become necessary to eat the flesh of animals, it was intended by the above regulations to ensure an easy death and to effect it by suitable means; whilst decapitation requires a sword or a similar instrument, the sheḥitah can be performed with any instrument; and in order to ensure an easy death our Sages insisted that the knife should be well sharpened.

[5]

“In the digital world, everyone has a smartphone and they want to know where things come from and share that information,” said Kevin Petrie, chief procurement officer for Nestlé in North America. “Is it good for me? Is the quality good? Has it been responsibly sourced?” The new policy, he said, was another step in Nestlé’s efforts to address risks in its supply chains like child labor and palm oil, the production of which is damaging to forests. Consumers today know far more about how components in their food are made — and they are far more willing to share that knowledge to stir up a fuss on social media, he said.

Before Social Media, Judaism had a complete oversight of the supply chain from farm to table… (ed)

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practicing judaism and ethics

parshat ekev

In a recent op-ed in the NY Times, Israel’s Fair-Weather Fans, Shmuel Rosner  references an Israeli  song “Ein Li Eretz Acheret”  “I have no other country,”.   Writes Rosner:

“I was reminded of the song in recent days as I read a string of articles by smart, savvy, knowledgeable, non-Israeli Jews, who say that the brutal war in Gaza has made them question their Zionism.

What unites these writers, of course, is that all of them do have another country. And that’s why, when push comes to shove, the Israeli government doesn’t — and shouldn’t — listen to them.”

It’s a powerful op-ed and it should be read in full.  This is not the first time a social commentator has identified the profound difference in perspective that living in or out of the land of Israel can have on one’s Judaism or opinion of the Jews.

In popular culture, the term Am Ha-Aretz” is used to refer to an ignorant Jew.  Since this derogatory label translates as “People of the Land” it makes sense that this pejorative actually refers to Jews who had a special connection to the land of Israel.  Writes Aharon Oppenheimer in his classic: The Am Ha-Aretz: A Study in the Social History of the Jewish People in the Hellenistic-Roman Period, 1997 (note to page83):

AmHaaretz

The Jews in Babylonia, led by Ezra and Nechemia had changed the face of Judaism.  When the first temple was standing, washing and purification before eating food was relegated to the priests and Levites and to eating temple sanctified food.  The returning Babylonian Jews had extended this requirement to every Jew and for all foodstuff.  Similarly tithing was continued by the Babylonian Jews, even though the priests, who benefited from such tithing, no longer had a Temple to work in.  The Jews who had remained in Israel, known as the Amei Ha-aretz had not gotten this memo and probably thought that the Babylonian Jews were living in denial… there was no longer any reason to ritually wash nor tithe.

The point is not which of these groups was in the right.. the point is that Jews in Israel see things in a unique perspective which can, and maybe should unnerve outsiders.

This is not the last time that Jews living outside of the land of Israel looked down upon the religious practice of indigenous Israelis.  How many Jews (both religious and non-religious) come to Israel expecting Israelis to be more observant and are disappointed that they are not.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbis were equally critical of Jews and Judaism outside of the land of Israel.

The second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11 13-21)  is a repetition of the first (Deuteronomy 6: 5-9) in terms of providing that Jews teach their children the Torah and put on Tefillin and mezuzot. The difference is that the second paragraph admonishes the Jews to: “Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and ye turn aside… and ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you.” (Deuteronomy 11: 16-17)

Rashi, commenting on Deuteronomy 11: 18 is bothered by why the commandment to put on tefillin is repeated in this second commandment and quotes the Sifrei.

Therefore shall ye lay up these My words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. (Deuteronomy 11:18)

וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת-דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה, עַל-לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל-נַפְשְׁכֶם; וּקְשַׁרְתֶּם אֹתָם לְאוֹת עַל-יֶדְכֶם, וְהָיוּ לְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם

And you shall set these words of Mine: Even after you have been exiled, make yourselves distinctive with My commandments: Put on tefillin and make mezuzoth , so that these will not be new to you when you return. Similarly, it is said, “Set up markers for yourself” (Jer. 31:20). – [Sifrei]

ושמתם את דברי אף לאחר שתגלו היו מצויינים במצות, הניחו תפילין, עשו מזוזות כדי שלא יהיו לכם חדשים כשתחזרו. וכן הוא אומר (ירמיה לא, כ) הציבי לך ציונים   [2]2

This is a remarkable text, because what it is saying is that Judaism outside of the Land of Israel is just a rehearsal… just for practice.  Israel is not the main stage, it is the only stage. I have written about this text, including the opinions of the classical commentaries and the double meaning of “Zion” ציונ  in another post: the hiker’s guide to zionism

But here’s my question.  If you practice something for 2,000 years doesn’t it get a little stale?  Practice may make perfect, but too much practice leads at best to  an empty shell of robotic activity and at worst אם an overacted and overgrown perversion.

Salt can preserve meat and fowl and refrigeration can preserve perishables, but ultimately the salt must be washed away and frozen food must be thawed.  The great Zionist thinkers all observed in one way or another that, the return to Zion would not only provide a refuge for a persecuted people, but just as importantly would provide for the rejuvenation of a people that had lived an anemic existence for 2,000 years.

By way of example, A. D. Gordon the great labor Zionist wrote:

The Jewish people has been completely cut off from nature and imprisoned within city walls for two thousand years. We have been accustomed to every form of life, except a life of labor- of labor done at our behalf and for its own sake. It will require the greatest effort of will for such a people to become normal again. We lack the principal ingredient for national life. We lack the habit of labor… for it is labor which binds a people to its soil and to its national culture, which in its turn is an outgrowth of the people’s toil and the people’s labor. … We, the Jews, were the first in history to say: “For all the nations shall go each in the name of its God” and “Nations shall not lift up sword against nation” – and then we proceed to cease being a nation ourselves. (see)

Similarly, Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew writes:

“True literature can emerge only in a social environment speaking the language in which that literature is being written.  Haskala literature in Russia is artificial, alienated from the sources of true artistic creativity – life itself. (see The Making of Modern Zionism, Shlomo Avineri p 85)

For each Zionist thinker, there was another vision for what the new Jew would be and for what 2,000 years of life without a land, language, army or economy had done to the Jewish People.

But 2,000 years of Jewish life produced more than just an oversized religion.  Two thousand years of a sterile existence in exile also produced an overgrown moral and ethical sense, divorced from the responsibilities of land, government, politics and defense. If the Jews greatest gift to Western thought was our fine-tuned morality and social activism, it may also be our most questionable gift.  Certainly our gift of morality divorced from political life is one that has come back to bite.

If one is willing to question a Jewish Religion that developed in such an artificial and sterile existence, certainly one needs to question the other intellectual  legacies of  the Jewish People brewed in the same petri dish of exile.

This is the question that Jewish thinkers and Western thinkers who have been so influenced by the best of Jewish thought ought ask.

As for Israelis, it’s a little more simple… they have nowhere else to go.

———————–

[1] for more recent scholarship on this subject see Daniel Boyarin , Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity p. 251 note 122

AmHaaretz boylerin

[2] Here is the complete text of the Sifrei Deuteronomy 43…

sifrei Ekev

Another thing “and ye perish quickly from off the good land.. and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand”  Even though I exile you from the land to exile, you are still commanded in the commandments so that when you return they will not be like new.  Analogous to a king of flesh and blood that is angry with his wife and casts her to the house of her father.  Says he, you should adorn yourself with your jewelry so that when you return they should not be like new. So said the Holy One to Israel:

Set thee up waymarks, make thee guide-posts; set thy heart toward the high-way, even the way by which thou wentest; return, O virgin of Israel, return to these thy cities.
ow long wilt thou turn away coyly, O thou backsliding daughter? For the LORD hath created a new thing in the earth: a woman shall court a man.
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: yet again shall they use this speech in the land of Judah and in the cities thereof, when I shall turn their captivity: ‘The LORD bless thee, O habitation of righteousness, O mountain of holiness. (Jeremiah 31:20)

“waymarks” these are the commandments that Israel was commanded, “guide-posts” this is the destruction of the Temple. And also as it says “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy” (Psalms  137:5).

“even the way by which thou wentest”  (Jeremiah 31:20)  Says The Holy One to Israel “See in these ways you walked and have repented, immediately you will return to your cities as it is said: “Return O virgins of Israel, return to your cities.”

 

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neither/nor

parshat vetchanan

Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4)

  שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, ה’ אֶחָד

Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Korcha along with his peers understood the Shema (Hear O Israel) as an acclamation of faith and acceptance of God’s Kingship that pre-empts and supercedes all of Jewish practice.

 “Accept the yoke of Heaven first, then accept the yoke of the commandments. – Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 13a

קבל עליו עול מלכות שמים תחלה ואח”כ

יקבל עליו עול מצוות

 

I was  introduced to the world of Musar by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (and see); one of the last greats of this 19th Century School of ethical thought and practice.

He recounted a story told of Rav Yerucham the spiritual head of the Meir Yeshiva in Poland.  Rav Yerucham had approached a student and asked if he had ever said the Shema?  The pupil was taken aback and replied:, “Yes, of course, Rabbi.”

Said Rav Yerucham, “Tell me, while you were saying the Shema did you feel a hint of rebellion against God?”

“Chas v’shalom,” (God Forbid) replied the pupil, “Of course not.”

“So you accepted the yoke of God’s Kingdom of Heaven (עול מלכות שמים)… on your feet, and anywhere they take you, on your hands and all your activities, on your eyes and anything you see, on your heart and emotions, your mind and your thoughts, imagination and curiosity… You accepted the yoke of heaven on all 248 limbs (traditional number of limbs in human body and number of words in the daily Shema declaration) …. and you never protested or stiffened in rejection?

“Then you have never said Shema ” replied the Rabbi [1]

I was struck by this interpretation of the Shema when I first heard it as I am now.

Did the Rabbi mean that unless one has felt the tingle of rebellion, at least once, one has never accepted the faith? Is this a one-off episode of a crisis of faith, or is this an ongoing dialectic?  As one’s faith and understanding of the true meaning of the “Yoke of Heaven” grow, must one’s sense of rejection and rebellion grow in-kind? Is the flip side of acceptance; rejection and vis a versa?

How ironic that it is precisely in a declaration focused on “ONE”  אֶחָד  that we focus on this tension between faith and rejection.

Once a musarnik, always a musarnik…  I have thought on this question for years as I have similarly asked myself.. what about this question so appeals to me.  I realize that what appeals to me about faith and observance in Judaism is exactly this duality within the unity.

The Rabbis have a way of changing a letter or word and standing a verse or a law on its head.  We had an example of that in the previous post where the Sifre changes a verse describing the Children of Israel’s time at Mt. Sinai that is normally interpreted as a description of bounty: ‘You have dwelt long enough at this mountain’. (Deuteronomy 1:6) רַב לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת בָּהָר הַזֶּה to a description of malaise: “It was bad for you to have dwelt at this mountain” רע הוא לכם ישיבתם בהר הזה

The giving of the Torah was good… but it was also bad… and, seeming to say…  if you don’t get this, then you have never received the Torah.

Another of my teachers who introduced me to the world of Hasidism and mysticism was Rabbi Moshe Wolfson.  Sitting in the woods at Camp Torah Vodaas summer camp in the Catskills he cited the text in Pirkei Avot:

Rabbi Yaakov would say: One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, “How beautiful is this tree!”, “How beautiful is this ploughed field!”—the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life. (Ethics of the Fathers 3:7)

המהלך בדרך ושונה ומפסיק ממשנתו ואומר מה נאה אילן זה, מה נאה ניר זה – מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו מתחיב בנפשו

Asked Rabbi Wolfson “ How could admiring God’s works of nature be considered a crime worthy of death?” To which he answered… Anyone who is studying God’s Torah and considers it an interruption to study and admire God’s works of nature… for such a man the Torah considers it as though he had lost his soul… for the real Torah Scholar.. admiring nature is a continuation of Torah study….

Torah texts can isolate you from the truths and beauty of the world around us.. when they do, then you are no longer studying the Torah.

One Purim I was standing in the Yeshiva next to another Ba’al Teshuva (sometimes abbreviated to BT, a term that refers to a Jew who turns to embrace Orthodox Judaism). We both had had a few drinks.  I had always been proud of the fact that I was in the Yeshiva by-choice, not birth.  This guy turns to me and quotes the Talmud (Berachot 34a and Maimonides Hilchot Teshuva 7:4)

“In the place where Ba’alei Teshuvah stand, even the completely righteous are not able to stand”

Berachot 34b four amot

“Do you know why a tzadik can’t stand in the same place as a repentant?” Asked my friend.  “Because the spiritual level attained by a repentant is too holy” I replied with a smile.

No, said my buddy… according to the Kotzker Rebbe, A tzadik can’t stand next to a Ba’al Teshuva, because it stinks too much!

A little harsh.. but the lesson is clear… Being self-righteous is as much of a temptation for the pure as for the purified.. if you feel self-righteous you’re probably not.

The “ONE” at the end of my Shema is complex and is as much a challenge to any unified theory of God or the universe as it is an answer.  I think the same holds true for most Jews.  This profession of faith mixed with a question of faith is the core of my Judaism and, I believe the basis for Jewish humor.

I just saw a wonderful production of Fiddler on the Roof and Teviya’s constant questioning of God, while talking to God and his “you’re right too” response to the criticism that both sides of an argument can’t be right… is the crux of the play’s charm and the survival of his people.

Professor Sidney Morgenbesser, my college adviser and philosophy professor, was in great pain before he died.  He asked a student “Why is God making me suffer so? Is it because I do not believe in him?”

The tough-love aspect of the responses of Wolbe, Wolfson and the Kotzker are desperately needed in a world that seems to love platitudes in it’s religion, secularism and politics.

I read a powerful article this week criticizing superficial celebrities who use anti-Israel catch-phrases to give themselves painless (and brainless) righteous indignation.  The author cites a disposition that German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “Cheap Grace,”.  I had not heard of Bonhoeffer before, but he seems to follow in the footsteps of a great Christian thinker; Søren Kierkegaard, who I studied in my youth and admired greatly. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was so impressed by Kierkegaard that he wrote a book comparing Kierkegaard to the Kotzker named A Passion for Truth.

Kierkegaard did not believe in cheap grace, cheap truths or cheap faith.  He wrote a whole book on the attempted sacrifice of Jacob entitled Fear and Trembling in which he shows; in gruesome detail how wrong it was for God to ask and for Abraham and Jacob to acquiesce to such an immoral and irrational request.  Only after a total rejection of the Akeda can one accept it in a leap of faith…   I’m not sure that I can make this particular leap, but I do agree with Keirkegarrd that faith is not cheap.

Side Note: Kierkegaard never got married but he did write a large two-volume work on the pros and cons of marriage called Either/Or … it would seem that love and marriage are not cheap either…

Kierkegaard is considered the father of Existential Philosophy and the inventor of the never-ending dialectic where an idea such as acceptance is informed by an idea such as rejection, which leads to a higher idea of acceptance which is informed by a still higher idea of rejection and so on…

The problem with the cheap grace shown by celebrities affecting righteous indignation for suffering civilians without investing in learning the context of the conflict is that it does an injustice to the suffering on both sides and to the unknowing celebrity-watcher who want cheap facts.  The worst casualty of this cheap grace is that it makes those of us who wish to learn the context to naturally try to minimize the suffering cheapened by the celebrities and the too easy to process photojournalism.  We dare not.

Getting back to the iconic declaration of faith of the Jewish People.. the Shema; it is clearly a declaration of unity that includes a duality.  If unity was all it was looking for, it would have said “God is One” or “Hear O Israel, God is One”.

Rashi catches the duality and writes: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one: The Lord, who is now our God and not the God of the other nations-He will be [declared] in the future “the one God,”

 ה’ שהוא אלהינו עתה ולא אלהי האומות, הוא עתיד להיות ה’ אחד

Rashi sees a dialectical journey in human history and eschatology, I see in the Shema, our religion and peoplehood a challenge to travel a dialectical crevasse where neither faith, unity, nor love or peace are cheap.

—————

In a search on the internet, I found this story twice, both times told about Rabbi Wolbe himself and a student (as opposed to a story R. Woble told of his Rebbe R. Yerucham) and both, mitigating the power of the story with a limitation of Did you ever say the Shema with kavanah [intent] … but that’s not the way I remember it.  See and see.

 

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