Join us as we learn to listen to the Hebrew Bible… not just read it. Following the advise of Haim Nachman Bialik and using tools provided by Everett Fox we listen to the names and name games played by the Biblical author as we unravel the characters of Noah, Isaac and Jacob.
“Reading the Bible in translation is like kissing your new bride through a veil.” famously quipped Haim Nachman Bialik.
I would love to see this quote as Bialik as published or documented verbatim and in the original Hebrew. I’m suspicious that what I find attributed to Bialik as it may just be a translation or paraphrase:
תרגום דומה לנשיקה מבעד לצעיף
I’m sure that reading Bialik in translation is a similarly less-than sensual experience. Did he say bride or girl, did he mean just a kiss or was he suggesting something more intimate and finally was it a veil or the proverbial sheet? In any case, I do agree with Bialik that learning Torah can be like sex and in this regard it should not be practiced safely with an interfering translation… it should be done … in the original Hebrew.
While we’re on the subject of kosher sex, let’s consider one of the best examples of lost-in-translation in the Bible.
Genesis 26 sets the stage wherein Isaac fibs about his wife and tells Abimelech that Rebecca is his sister.
8 And it came to pass, when he had been there a long time, that Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out at a window, and saw, and, behold, Isaac was sporting with Rebekah his wife.
The Hebrew word that the text uses for “sporting” is metzahek which comes from the same Hebrew root as does Isaac’s name: listen: “Yitzhak metzahek”. It is clear that the biblical writer, along with Isaac, was having some fun here. This is the only place[i] in the Bible that metzahek is used to imply sexual activity…. Unless, of course, we now re-read the texts associated with the original association of Yitzhak’s name with the laughter of Sarah and Abraham ….. and realize that his parents laughed at the thought of procreating a child…. (see Gen 17:17, 18:12,13 and 15 and 21:6). So maybe Yitzchak’s “sporting” makes us realize that there was always sexual innuendo in the glee, gaiety, and amazement with a-touch-of-self-mockery that his parents, he and maybe we feel at the joy of sex. Hey.. It’s not me… it’s the Hebrew talking.
The modern day scholar who focuses most closely on the original Hebrew sounds of the biblical text is Everett Fox, who has written a translation of the Torah following on the heels of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Fox takes the Bible, if not as an oral document, certainly as an aural one. Fox believes that using echoes, allusions, and powerful inner structures of sound, the text of the Bible is often able to convey ideas in a manner that vocabulary alone cannot do. Fox argues that virtually every major (usually male) character in Genesis has his name explained by a play on words many time hinting at an eventual fate or character trait.
Let’s listen to the story of Jacob in Genesis 25:26
26 And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob. And Isaac was threescore years old when she bore them.
The association of Jacob – Yaakov with a heel is strange. Jacob is not the only mythical hero with a famous heel, but in Achilles case, he was the owner of the heel. Jacob’s relationship with his brother’s heel is vicarious. If the biblical author, let alone his parents, want to be flattering, they do a lousy job. Jacob is to be known, at best, as a “hanger on”. Fox’s translation: “Heel-Holder”
Even if we choose to think of Jacob as a bootstrapper, we can’t forget that he pulls himself up by a bootstrap attached to his brothers heal. And let’s not forget that Esau’s heal, like Achilles, is his most vulnerable body part. Metaphorically, the heel[ii] is the exposed rear of an army (see Joshua 8:13 and Genesis 49:19). When God curses the snake for tempting Eve, it is on the snake’s metaphorical heel that man shall forever stamp (Genesis 3:15). Attacking an enemy’s heel is an insult to both the attacker and the victim.
Our unflattering association is echoed by Esau himself latter in the story. After Jacob steals the birthright, Esau taunts (Genesis 27:36):
And he said: ‘Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.’ And he said: ‘Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?’
Jeremiah is pulling no punches, he uses “ekov Yaakov” the “heel of Jacob” as a synonym for acting subtly.
What kind of parents would the biblical author have Isaac and Rebecca be? Who gives a child such a name?
Clearly, Jacob is in need of a name change… and in fact, this is what happens after he wrestles with the Angel at the River Jabbok (literally: wrestling river).
There is nothing flattering that one can say about Yaakov’s name. His name can only portend a change. A change from a swindler, a scrapper, a kniver… someone who by choice or circumstance is forced to steal his blessings and eke out a living and a life. Yaakov is the outsider, the Ghetto Jew, but his name portends another name, where he crosses the river into his homeland and can stand on his own feet and pull himself up from his own bootstraps … attached to his own heel. This is what hopefully lies ahead for him in his future name and this is what presumably is up for grabs in the blessing that he steals.
So far in the text, you don’t have to listen to the Hebrew words of the text, you can look the words up in a dictionary or Biblical Lexicon… but when it comes to the patrimony and blessing that Jacob coveted… you have to listen: (Genesis 26: 3-5)
3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee; for unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore unto Abraham thy father;
4 and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these lands; and by thy seed shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves;
5because that Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.’
The word translated as “because” is our old friend “ekev”[iv]. Used in this fairly rare sense, it has the sense of “as a consequence, a gain, a reward, end”. It is that which results from a long, tedious, painful, tortuous and circuitous journey. A pilgrimage full of blisters and maybe a touch of plantar fasciitis. Esau, might have been, like Achilles, the golden boy and favorite son and Yaakov, the parasite, but Yaakov struggled with what little he had. Esau may have been well heeled, but Yaakov had the fortitude and faith in a God of history to grab steadfastly for a better future[v]. He deserved the blessing… it had his name on it.
Listening to the lyricism of the words in the original Hebrew and opening our ears to the playful and suggestive way the writer weaves one word; ekev into the narrative, we can do what Fox[vi] suggests we do; move explanation and commentary from the footnotes, back to the body of the text and in so doing.. we can finally… kiss the bride.
[v] It is no surprise that this last sense of Ekev, came to represent the promise of the future and messianic times. The bad times and trial preceding the coming of the messiah were referred to as the “footsteps [heel steps] of the messiah” Sotah 49a-b
R. ELIEZER THE GREAT SAYS: FROM THE DAY THE TEMPLE WAS DESTROYED, …. THERE WAS NONE TO ASK, NONE TO INQUIRE. UPON WHOM IS IT FOR US TO RELY? UPON OUR FATHER WHO IS IN HEAVEN. IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE MESSIAH עקבות המשיח INSOLENCE WILL INCREASE AND HONOUR DWINDLE; … THE GOVERNMENT WILL TURN TO HERESY AND THERE WILL BE NONE [TO OFFER THEM] REPROOF; THE MEETING-PLACE [OF SCHOLARS] WILL BE USED FOR IMMORALITY; …. THE WISDOM OF THE LEARNED6 WILL DEGENERATE, FEARERS OF SIN WILL BE DESPISED, AND THE TRUTH WILL BE LACKING; YOUTHS WILL PUT OLD MEN TO SHAME, THE OLD WILL STAND UP IN THE PRESENCE OF THE YOUNG, A SON WILL REVILE HIS FATHER, A DAUGHTER WILL RISE AGAINST HER MOTHER, A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW, AND A MAN’S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD; THE FACE OF THE GENERATION WILL BE LIKE THE FACE OF A DOG, A SON WILL NOT FEEL ASHAMED BEFORE HIS FATHER. SO UPON WHOM IS IT FOR US TO RELY? UPON OUR FATHER WHO IS IN HEAVEN.
[vi] Although I must admit that Fox does not pick up on the ekev of the blessing, possibly because it does not appear directly in the blessing, but in the patrimony preceding and in the narrative. I would argue that it is nonetheless intentionally placed in the literary piece.
The first time I heard of Machon Hadar was when the book Empowered Judaism by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer came out in 2010. The book was based on an obvious question…. Obvious to anyone with a strong Jewish background in authentic Jewish practice and schooled to study Jewish texts in the original Hebrew and Aramaic. Obvious to such a literate Jew (or someone who aspires to same) who also subscribes to gender equality, is wise to the fact that non-Jews are not only the children of God but also capable of channeling the deepest spiritual truths, and believes that a rejection of the scientific knowledge garnered from the intellect that God has bestowed on humanity is a rejection of God Herself. The question is not profound it is pedestrian:
Why is it that when I walk into an Orthodox house of worship, that even though I must put aside MY Judaism with many of my beliefs and standards, I feel as though I am exposed to an authentic rendition of Jewish practice and learning. Why is it when I walk into my local Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist congregation whose ideologies more closely reflects my own, I am for the most part…. left without a charge?
The answers Kaufner provides are mostly programmatic and the book is well worth reading for anyone whose institutional Judaism is, by default, mostly nostalgic and who finds comfort in his or her local Chabad or visiting the Yeshiva or shul of their youth for a quick but hardly sustaining fix.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer
In a nutshell, Kaufner and his cohorts argue that the non-orthodox variations of Judaism have been backed into a catch-all, processed Judaism-Lite where they become the de facto address for less than literate remnants of the Tribe. These non-Orthodox varieties were created by educated and progressive scholars and thought-leaders but were forced to dumb-down their content, context and delivery to reach the lowest common denominator. If your local Conservative Synagogue were an opera house it would perform Aida in English, calling out page numbers and offering prompts as to when audience members should applaud, be seated and remain quiet.
Independent minyanim were organically created prayer groups, sans Rabbinic and other adult supervision, which started in American college and graduate schools. They were launched by the best and brightest graduates of Hebrew Day Schools including Solomon Schechter schools. These young adults found each other and created spaces and times to pray and study while they pursued their higher educations. Many of the leaders were children of Conservative Rabbis or Judaic and Ancient Near Eastern studies academics. The three founders of Machon Hadar all met at Harvard (no one’s perfect). Kaufner, the son of a Conservative Rabbi, Ethan Tucker the son of renowned Conservative Rabbi Gordon Tucker (and Hadassah Lieberman), and Shai Held, the son of Moshe Held, a world renowned scholar in Ugaritic and Akkadian that I studied under at Columbia, back in the day. These guys do not look over their shoulder for approval and acceptance as many Conservative Rabbis do. They have a refreshing sense of entitlement necessary, I would venture, to reclaim Judaism on their own terms.[i]
Rabbis Ethan Tucker and Shai Held
It took me six years to answer an ad for an Executive Week-long Yeshiva at Machon Hadar which rents space a whopping 3 blocks from my NY apartment….. kinda like the girl next door…
Family members and friends routinely go on yoga retreats or to a spa, I thought, why shouldn’t I go back to yeshiva…
What appealed to me was that there was a placement exam for those claiming to be Talmudists. This might be the real deal, I thought. I received a call with an e-mail containing a link to a Talmudic text from Rabbi Miriam-Simma Walfish, Yeshivat Hadar Faculty. I was given no context for the text and stumbled my way through, making sure that my mistakes sounded like learned mistranslations.[ii] Rabbi Miriam was very understanding and granted me advanced placement…. This was going to be fun!
For the next week I spent every morning in a study hall that looked identical to the one of my youth, and was populated by the brightest, cheerful, mostly Ivy League college students. These young scholars had interrupted their higher degrees in Physics, English Lit, Sociology, Pre-Law and Pre-Med to rigorously study Jewish texts as Hadar Fellows for the summer. There were about 100 of them and 40 of us (older) “Executives”.
We started every morning with the morning service, donning Talit and Tefilin and using a nusach guaranteed not to offend anyone’s religious and egalitarian sensibilities.[iii] Dare I mention that we were men and women? This new generation of Fellows were as natural and comfortable with co-educating and cross-davening as fish in water. For me, it was as if the end of days had arrived (did I just say that?)
After breakfast we broke up into groups based on our proficiency. I was paired with two lawyers who had been attending the week-long summer yeshiva for a few years. We were given original Aramaic Talmudic texts to prepare. I felt the rust of bitul Torah and the deficit of a lack of formal schooling in Aramaic diction (not part of the curriculum at the traditional Yeshivot I had attended). We spent the mornings of the entire week analyzing the Talmud’s understanding of damages to be paid for secondary and arguably, unrelated pain and/or incapacitation caused by someone who inflicted a wound on another. Most of the Talmudic discussion was based on the interpretation of two either emphatic or spurious words in the Biblical text.
if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be healed, surely healed. (Exodus 21:19)
Very technical, very challenging and very engrossing. After our hour of preparation, we were skillfully lead through the texts by our Rebbe, Rabbi Aviva Richman.
Her ability to slice and dice, decipher and explicate the conflicting texts was better than any Talmud shiur I have been privileged to attend…. seriously. Interestingly and uncharacteristically, I enjoyed her direction more with regard to the legal texts and less when she introduced more spiritual or theological elements to the discussion. With a smile, she tagged me as the class cynic and I was happy to oblige.
Rabbi Aviva Richman
In the afternoon sessions, we broke away from the Fellows and joined together, combining all levels of proficiency for break-out sessions led by the scholars of Hadar and some invited guests. These were not scholars giving well-rehearsed stump speeches, taught many times before but rather active learners sharing with us subjects they were themselves struggling with and discovering. Shai Held spent an hour comparing and contrasting the secular philosopher Martin Buber with the controversial halachic behaviorist Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Listen here. Ethan Tucker shared with us his discovery of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasnera, known as the Dor Revi’i, who was a great grandson of the anti-enlightenment and anti-Zionist haredi scion; the Hatam Sofer. The Dor Revi’I was not only one of the first haredi Zionists but, more to the point, embraced the evolved moral/asthetic sensibilities of the Enlightenment over the accepted ethical standards of the Torah world. See here. Jason Rubenstein shared with us representative comical aggadic texts regarding the afterlife and discussed why the Rabbis took so flippantly a subject which was the stock and trade if not the ultimate payout of other competing religions such as Christianity. One of the most interesting sessions was on medical ethics and lead by guest scholars Nancy Dubler, a world renowned expert in medical ethics and her student/colleague R. Edward Reichman who (amongst other insights) shared the story of the martyrdom of Haninah ben Teradion as Talmudic case law supporting the difference between withholding (permitted according to halakha) and withdrawing (not permitted) life-sustaining treatment. [iv]
We ended every day with dinner including further discussion of the day’s learning and getting to know our fellow travelers. A week of these day-long sessions was reminiscent of the swimming in the sea of Torah of my youth. Machon Hadar’s leadership is convinced that this type of multi-day holistic deep-dive or immersive experience will be key for generating the kind of intensity required to navigate today’s world Jewishly.
Bar-B-Q dinner at Hadar
My fellow executive travelers were of every flavor and level of learning and each added to the experience and to my enthusiasm for the potential of the Machon Hadar model. There was a reform Rabbi from Florida and the wife of an American diplomat who has advised every administration in Middle Eastern affairs for the last 30 years. Both of my study partners were lawyers, and one was actually pursuing a graduate degree at JTS. There was even a Professor of Old Testament, born Jewish but raised and practicing as a Christian… who I have continued to correspond with and who deserves special mention. Dr. J. Richard Middleton caught my attention on day one. Those of you who know me, know of my aversion to Jewish Messianism, at least now that we have returned to Zion. I had not planned on sporting my LoBa kippah at the Machon since I didn’t expect to find any Na Nach’s or Chabadniks wearing their religion on their heads either. You can imagine my surprise when I first spotted Richard wearing a “long live the King Messiah” Chabad yarmulke… only to learn that he was truly a Messianic Jew! Born biologically Jewish but raised in Jamaica as a Christian and now an Old Testament Scholar Richard is currently working on the theology of lament as expressed in Abraham and Job (see here). Richard had corresponded with Shai Held who had suggested he join our group for the week. Richard wrote up his impressions on his blog. When Richard told one of his Jewish relatives that he was going to Yeshiva she gave him the kippah. The perfect expression of form and function, media and message. The Rebbe must be smiling in his Ohel.
Needless to say, I brought my LoBa Kippah to class and Richard and I struck our pose. Wouldn’t that all kippot could get along so well..
I’m looking forward to learning more at Machon Hadar…. let me know if you want to join me….
[i] Machon Hadar represents a best-case example of what Scott Shay in his book Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry argues has been the historic and de facto role of Conservative Judaism and should rather be it’s mission; to serve as fertile soil and a Petri dish for creativity and break-away mini-movements such as Reconstructionism, Havura Judaism and Hard. See chapter X, Reimagining the Conservative movement.
[ii] If you’re interested, here’s the text I was shown:
חולין ומשמשיהן פטורין מן הסכה. אוכלין ושותין עראי חוץ לסכה
[iv] from “Open then thy mouth, that the fire may enter and the sooner put an end to thy sufferings,” advised his pupils. But Haninah replied, “It is best that He who hath given the soul should also take it away: no man may hasten his death.” (withdrawing) Thereupon the executioner removed the wool and fanned the flame, thus accelerating the end, and then himself plunged into the flames and tey both went to heaven (Avodah Zarah 17b) … see: R. Zalan Nehemia Goldberg. In the fall of 1978, R. Goldberg published his opinion in Moriah one of Israel’s leading halachic journals where he maintains that, under specific guidelines, removing a ventilator from a patient who is a terefa would not constitute homicide. The obligation to “heal” or “save” this patient’s life would not apply since the efforts would be futile, and, of critical importance, “we have no obligation to save one’s life where he prefers death to life.” R. Goldberg cites two sources to support his contention that we have no obligation to save this patient’s life against his wishes. R. Hanna ben Teradyon, the great martyr (Avoda Zara 18a), was wrapped in a Torah scroll and put to death by fire. His executioner placed tufts of wool soaked in water on his chest in order to prolong his suffering. Ultimately, R. Hanina permitted his executioner to raise the flame and remove the wool in order to hasten his death. Since R. Hana acquiesced to the hastening of his death, R. Goldberg infers that there is no obligation to prolong a life of suffering in the face of impending death. See here p 52
This past week I was assaulted twice by attacks on Jewish Utopianism. I am not blameless. I choose to expose myself to briefings and podcasts that run the gamut of Jewish and political thought, but I was nonetheless taken aback by a similar message from disparate sources all on the same day.
Daniel Gordis, during an AIPAC briefing and latter in a Jerusalem Post Op-Ed [i] argued that the problem with Europe, the EU, The Left, our college youth and/or Conservative and Reform Rabbinic students (pick any or all of the above) is that they have missed or forgotten the core message of Judaism, Zionism and the State of Israel. Gordis is actually coming out with a book in August; The Promise of Israel (I have not read but see pre-publication review here). According to Gordis, these misguided leftists believe in a utopian universalism best optimized by John Lennon in his anthem “Imagine”.
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
I have also heard Michael Oren make this argument and Lennon reference. The water at the Shalem Center might be a tad bitter. [ii]
Gordis sets up a false dilemma by arguing that the opposite of Universalism is Nationalism. He and those making the argument are either ignorant or disingenuous in suggesting that Judaism and Zionism, at their core are Nationalistic to the exclusion of Universalistic.
In a wonderful example of reduction ad absurdum, Gordis argues that any movement, political or cultural uprising which rejects any form of universalism (such as the EU, the UN, NATO etc.) is a de facto vote for Israel. Ergo…. the vote for Brexit and the popularity of Trump …. is good for the Jews.
An understandable reaction to Gordis’s remarks would be to sit our college kids down, pull our Rabbinic students out of class and explain (with pained sensitivity) that their problem is that they are too idealistic. Given the holocaust and continued enmity faced by our people, not to mention, a careful re-reading of Judaism and Zionism, Gordis would have us instruct our youth to spend more time defending the nation-state and less time imagining.
After listening to Gordis I drove home only to listen to the next podcast in my que from the Tikvah Fund: Norman Podhoretz on Jerusalem and Jewish Particularity . Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary Magazine discusses what he calls the “scandal” of Jewish particularity. Podhoretz argues that the Western Liberal world is scandalized by the Jewish idea of particularism. One would be excused if one left this interview believing that the Jews introduced the world to excessive paternalism, tribal pride and nationalism.
Hasn’t Podhoretz seen My Favorite Greek Wedding I and II? The truth as Gordis and Podhotetz well know and as is easily demonstrated by the exploits of the Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Muslim, Nazi and Soviet empires… nationalism was alive and well before and without the Jews. To the contrary…. with their eschatology and non-cyclical concept of history the Jews may have actually introduced Utopianism and Universalism to the world (for better or worse…. mostly worse).
That the Hebrew Bible talks about a nation state, boundaries, military conquest and defense is hardly exceptional…. That it talks about a day when man will learn war no more, where boundaries and languages will disappear and all mankind will worship one God in peace… that was a novel idea. And yes… where in addition to a physical Jerusalem there was and will be an ideal Jerusalem and an idealized temple (see Ezekiel 40 – 44 especially 43:11) and where the commandments of the Lord will be written not on tablets but on the heart of all man… That all predated Christianity and came from the Hebrew Bible and that was the scandal of Judaism . [iii]
I am not a big fan of eschatology and messianism but I am not guilty of the intellectual dishonesty required to proclaim that these utopian and universalistic ideas did not originate and grow in Judaism.
As to Zionism, for anyone to argue, as does Gordis, that for the majority of the secular Zionists (and the overwhelming majority of Zionist thinkers were secular if not downright anti-religious) the Jewish State was not some version of a utopia… is crazy. [iv]
Gordis and anyone who argues for Jewish particularism over Jewish universalism are misreading the real innovation of Judaism and setting up a false binary and a straw dummy.
The opposite of universalism is not nationalism. Nationalism is only the flip side of the coin… the opposite of both of these isms is realism, rationalism, compromise, nuance, common sense, critical thinking and in all other ways an appreciation of the crooked timber of humanity. The opposite of Universalism is liberalism.
This middle way had no better spokesman than Isaiah Berlin who argued in the “steadfast defense of liberal values against their rivals both on the Left and on the Right.” Illiberals like Podhoretz critique Berlin’s Liberalism for authenticating relativism [v] and who am I to defend Berlin, but I do believe that if Nationalism can be critiqued for being tribal and Universalism can be critiqued for being naïve then Liberalism should have a place at the table. If we are to see a brighter future and connect with our youth (and the youth within us) then surely more focus and critical thinking need be brought to bear on Liberalism… with all its potential detours and warts.
I would prefer to engage our college age youth and young rabbinic students with respect for their idealism and to challenge them to subject their universalistic aspirations to the rubber of reality. To follow Berlin in recognizing nationalism “with the insight that belonging, and the sense of self-expression that membership bestows, are basic human needs” and as Jews we/they more than anyone should appreciate these needs by our own people and by others. [vi]
There is a ten-year-old institute in Israel The Jewish Statesmanship Center which is systematically revising Jewish and Zionist thought in line with the Nationalism and particularism reflected in Gordis and Podhoretz… and successfully educating a new generation of leaders. Those of us who have a more nuanced understanding of Jewish and Zionist thought need to support those who wish to establish a similar institute to educate and spread the best of liberal thought where universalism and nationalism, chauvinism and multiculturalism, heaven and earth שָּׁמַיִם עַל-הָאָרֶץ are given equal weight and permitted, nay encouraged to dialectically advanced as the Jewish State prospers. (stay tuned).
One of the lectures that institute might offer could be on the utopian vision in Judaism and Zionism of a world without religion too… The lecturer might review the majority of Zionist thinkers who thought that religion was an archaic tool, the outgrowth of an unnatural life of a people deprived of country and language to be tossed once we have our state. She might guide us through Talmudic texts that claim in the end-of-days there will be no mitzot (religion).
The commandments will be abolished in the future world (Babylonian Talmud Niddah 61b)
מצוות בטלות לעתיד לבוא – במסכת נדה דף ס”א ע”ב
We might even learn that the reason a pig is called a Hazir is because in the utopia of the future it will again be permitted (hozer) to the Jewish people….
“למה נקרא שמו חזיר שעתיד הקב”ה להחזירו לישראל” [vii]
Ahh … but I digress…
All I know is that on Shabbat I sing of Shabbat being a little taste of Imagine…
Like the World to Come, the restful day of Shabbat (Mah Yedidut, Shabbat Zemirot)
מֵעֵין עוֹלָם הַבָּא, יוֹם שַׁבָּת מְנוּחָה,
And let myself indulge momentarily in an Imagine day that never ends…
May it be Your will that we merit a day when it is always a restful Shabbat – (Birkat Hamazon, Shabbat)
הרחמן הוא ינחילנו יום שכולו שבת ומנוחה – ברכת המזון של שבת
And that I would feel very comfortable singing Imagine at my Shalosh Suedot…
Getting back to my week in podcasts…. Fortunately, the next podcast in my que was from Machon Hadar on a prayer that even Daniel Gordis says every Shabbat and at the apex of his celebration of our particular national deliverance from Egypt during the seder. [viii]
Nishmat Kol Chai, The breath of every living thing …. A prayer that while leaning universal, nonetheless seamlessly integrates the particularism of the Jewish people into a utopian and universal vision of the future….
The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name, Lord our God, the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our King. From this world to the World to Come, You are God, and other than You we have no king, redeemer, or savior. He who liberates, rescues and sustains, answers and is merciful in every time of distress and anguish, we have no king, helper or supporter but You!
God of the first and the last, God of all creatures, Master of all Generations, Who is extolled through a multitude of praises, Who guides His world with kindness and His creatures with mercy. Hashem is truth; He neither slumbers nor sleeps. He Who rouses the sleepers and awakens the slumberers. Who raises the dead and heals the sick, causes the blind to see and straightens the bent. Who makes the mute speak and reveals what is hidden. To You alone we give thanks!
Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue as full of joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips as full of praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds — we still could not thank You sufficiently, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, and to bless Your Name for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us. At first You redeemed us from Egypt, Hashem our God, and liberated us from the house of bondage. In famine You nourished us, and in plenty you sustained us. From sword you saved us; from plague you let us escape; and from severe and enduring diseases you spared us. Until now Your mercy has helped us, and Your kindness has not forsaken us. Do not abandon us, Lord our God, forever. Therefore the organs that you set within us and the spirit and soul that you breathed into our nostrils, and the tongue that you placed in our mouth – all of them shall thank and bless and praise and glorify, exalt and revere, be devoted, sanctify and declare the sovereignty of Your Name, our King. For every mouth shall offer thanks to You; every tongue shall vow allegiance to You; every knee shall bend to You; every erect spine shall prostrate itself before You; all hearts shall fear You; and all innermost feelings and thoughts shall sing praises to Your name, as it is written: “All my bones shall say, Hashem who is like You? You save the poor man from one who is stronger than he, the poor and destitute from the one who would rob him.”
The outcry of the poor You hear, the screams of the destitute You listen to, and You save. And it is written: “Sing joyfully, O righteous, before Hashem; for the upright praise is fitting.”
By the mouth of the upright You shall be exalted;
By the lips of the righteous shall You be blessed;
By the tongue of the devout shall You be sanctified;
And amid the holy shall You be lauded.
And in the assemblies of the myriads of Your people, the House of Israel, it is the duty of all creatures, before you O Hashem, our God and God of our forefathers to thank, laud, praise, glorify, exalt, adore, render triumphant, bless, raise high, and sing praises – even beyond all expressions of the songs and praises of David, the son of Jesse, Your servant, Your anointed.
And thus may Your name be praised forever- our King, the God, the Great and holy King – in heaven and on earth. Because for you it is fitting – O Hashem our God and God of our forefathers – song and praise, lauding and hymns, power and dominion, triumph, greatness and strength, praise and splendor, holiness and sovereignty, blessings and thanksgivings to Your Great and Holy Name; from this world to the World to Come You are God. Blessed are You Lord, God, King exalted through praises, God of thanksgivings, Master of Wonders, Creator of all souls, Master of all deeds, Who chooses the musical songs of praise – King, Unique One, God, Life-Giver of the world [universe הָעוֹלָמִים ed].
[ii] especially when drunk by 60-something expat American immigrants to Israel… for more on this see Alan Argush’s fine analysis here.
[iii] And it shall come to pass in the end of days, that the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2: 2-4
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; forasmuch as they broke My covenant, although I was a lord over them, saith the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the LORD, I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people; and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying: ‘Know the LORD’; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more. (Jerimiah 31: 30-33)
[iv] Gordis, in a verbal response to my point that most of the Zionist thinkers were socialists was that he had said universalists and not socialists which is mute… all of these political movements called for a disruption in the existing capitalist and political structures in order to herald in a new age based on communal ownership and governance. According to Gordis the only universalist Zionists were Buber, Einstein and the early Ahad HaAm (??)
The problem with proofs is that they convince only the believer. The upside, is that proofs can provide an innovative out-of-the-box way of thinking. I will get to Yehuda Halevi’s proof for the authenticity of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai…. But first my favorite example of an unconvincing proof which gave birth to innovative, nay, paradigm-shifting thought.
Agreed that God is a being of which nothing is greater. So …. since to exist is profoundly greater than not to exist…. [Think 1 million imaginary dollars as compared to 1 million real dollars] … It follows that … God must exist.
Not convinced? Want to construct a similar argument for unicorns or based on a crazy person’s imagination? It’s all in St. Anselm’s mind, you say? Well, according to the history of ideas, there’s a direct link between St. Anselm’s proof and the birth of the modern Cartesian philosophy of René Descartes who famously opined “I think therefore I am” …. All we can know is that we know….. Which gave birth to Phenomenology and Existentialism where all we can intelligently talk about is not any “real” world, but only experiences and phenomena as we perceive them, and on a higher level, patterns, perceived conflicts within the structure of our own thought. Ontological thinking gave birth to Emanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative and to logical positivism where the only thing that is necessarily true, moral or intelligible is what our minds can conjure up themselves as not dependent on experience or can articulate in a language the mind can produce.
St. Anselm – Not bad for a Medieval Saint!
So, here is Yehudah Halevi’s (1075 – 1141) paradigm shifting proof (also referred to as The Kuzari Principle[i]):
The proof that the Torah was given at Sinai and that Judaism is superior to all other Abrahamic faiths is that you can’t bullshit 1.5 million people. [ii]
That’s it. If 600,000 men plus an equal number of women plus some precocious kids don’t disagree with a text which says they heard thunder and saw lightning from the Mt. and received the Torah, then it must be true. If the Torah, which these million-plus parents are willing to pass down to the next generation, contains prohibitions which make life difficult and opinions which are not popular, all the more reason not to question the veracity of the event that occurred at Sinai and the authenticity of the text in question. [iii]
Halevi is convinced and his literary or actual King of the Khazars is convinced as well. The public nature of the event at Sinai witnessed by a multitude is contrasted to the establishment myths concerning Jesus and Mohamed which were experienced, witnessed and documented by a select few.
Similar to Saint Anselm’s proof this proof is problematic and wouldn’t convert any non-believer. We live in a world where conspiracy theories arise simultaneously with historic events, even if witnessed by billions of humans…. Think of the moon landing, or better yet, 911. Humanity witnessed these events together, but there are millions of us who claim the events never happened, happened differently than meets the eye or that they were entirely fabricated.
Parents don’t pass on to children difficult or destructive character traits, beliefs or practices you say? Try that on any abuser, child of an abuser or anyone caught up in the cycle of generation’s old ethnic conflict perpetuated by hate and bias feeding on hate and bias.
So what’s the Paradigm shift hidden in Halevi’s argument? It is nothing less than a radical new understanding of “tradition” מסורה
If from Anselm we intuit that the individual and his interior mental perceptions are all that we can really know, from Halevy we are lead to conclude that as a social entity, a community, as a people, maybe even as a species, all we really know is our narrative of history, our story, our Tradition (מסורה). As social animals all we really know is what has been passed down to us and which we pass on to our children…. not that it is true mind you… but that it is ours. “we transmit therefore we are”. The activist corollary is that while we cannot create change by changing the “facts” we can own and create change by changing our interaction to those “facts” and to our history. Ultimately, receiving the Torah (קבלת התורה) means taking ownership of what, how and to whom our narrative is transferred. By truly accepting the that which was given at Sinai we become בעל מסורה Masters of Tradition.
The most forceful modern-day thinker to articulate this conception of Jewish faith as reaction and action triggered by communal experience is Emil Fackenheim who wrote God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections 1970. Fackenheim is most famously known for his 614th commandment which exhorts us to continue Jewish life and deny Hitler a posthumous victory. But what lies behind this one-liner is a complex and multidimensional philosophy of God as or in History מסורה
For Descartes and Kant, the surest belief is not what we experience or perceive but that we experience. If for the phenomenologists and existentialists the only certain process that we can discern is the dialectical processes of the mind as filtered through the categories of our mind. For Fackenheim the faith that constitutes and energizes us as social beings is not based on any historical event per se, but rather on the reaction to that event in the past, present and future and the action caused by that reaction.[iv]
Fackenhiem bases his thesis on a Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 15:2 “this is my God, and I will glorify Him” זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ
In a well—known Midrash it is asserted that what Ezekiel once saw in heaven was far less than what all of Israel once saw on earth. Ezekiel, and indeed all the other prophets, did not see God but only visions and similes of God; they were like men who perceive a king of flesh and blood surrounded by servants of flesh and blood, and who are forced to ask, “which one is the king?” In the sharpest possible contrast, the Israelites at the Red Sea had no need to ask which one was the King: “As soon as they saw Him, they recognized Him, and they all opened their mouths and said, “This is my God, and I will glorify Him’ “
Fackenheim coins a term he calls a root experience which he attributes to Martin Buber. For the Jewish people, root experiences include the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the holocaust.
What is decisive with respect to the inner history of Mankind . . . is that the children of Israel understood this as an act of their God, as a “miracle”; which does not mean that they interpreted it as a miracle, but that they experienced it as such, that as such they perceived ” it.. . .
The concept of miracle which is permissible from the historical approach can be defined at its starting point as an abiding astonishment. The . . . religious person . . . abides in that wonder; no knowledge, no cognition, can weaken his astonishment. Any causal explanation only deepens the wonder for him. The great turning-points in religious history are based on the fact that again and ever again an individual and a group attached to him wonder and keep on wondering; at a natural phenomenon, at an historical event, or at both together; always at something which intervenes fatefully in the life of this individual and this group. They sense and experience it as a wonder. This, to be sure, is only the starting—point of the historical concept of wonder, but it cannot be explained away. Miracle is not something “supernatural” or “super historical,” but an incident, an event which can be fully included in the objective, scientific nexus of nature and history; the vital meaning of which, however, for the person to whom it occurs, destroys the security of the whole nexus of knowledge for him, and explodes the fixity of the fields of experience named “Nature” and “History.” . . . [Highlighting here and throughout by ed]
The divine Presence thus far considered is a saving Presence. Salvation is not here, however, what it might be in a different religious context. It occurs within history, not in an Eternity beyond it, nor for a soul divorced from it, nor as an apocalyptic or Messianic event which consummates history. … At the same time, the divine presence requires the self and its freedom in the very moment of its presence. There is no abiding astonishment unless we exist who can be astonished; moreover, the divine Presence – saving as well as commanding – remains incomplete unless human astonishment terminates in action.
Like Halevi (who surprisingly along with Saadia Gaon is never cited) Fackenheim requires the public nature of a root experience. He writes:
At the Red Sea, however, the whole people saw, the lowly maidservants included, and what occurred before their eyes was not an opening of heaven but a transformation of earth – an historical event affecting decisively all future generations. … Moreover, as regards private, authoritative experiences, no Jewish believer could ever stake much on these. Ezekiel’s vision may have been an experience of this kind. What happened at the Red Sea and Sinai, in contrast, were public events, accessible even to the maidservants to the extent they were accessible to all. (pp 10 and 42)
Where Fankenheim goes beyond The Kuzari Principle is with regard to authentication and validation. Fackenheim and Buber imply an open invitation for nondoctrinaire and heterodox reactions to the root experience. For Fackenheim the root experience implies a challenge to participate and includes a risk of commitment. Fackenheim compares the multiplicity of reactions to the root event to the multiplicity of reasons a hypothetical Jew might participate in a Passover Seder:
… whereas as a historian he may and must suspend judgment, he cannot do likewise as a man and Jew, if only because every Passover Seder constitutes a challenge to participation. How can he participate? No longer in a religious immediacy which has never thought of stepping outside the Midrashic framework. Not at all in a stance of critical reflection which stands outside only and merely looks on. Nothing is possible except an immediacy after reflection which is and remains self-exposed to the possibility of a total dissipation of every divine Presence, and yet confronts this possibility with a forever reenacted risk of commitment.
Fackenheim’s essay is primarily focused on the Holocaust and the possibility or impossibility of God in history after that root event… hopefully my extensive quotations of his poetic and profound writing will entice you to read the original. But the final element that Fackenheim introduces to Halevy’s “proof” paradigm is the fragmentary nature of any root experience, least of which being the experience at Sinai.
For Halevy the proof of Sinai is in the fact that everyone at Sinai not only shared an experience, but that they shared the same experience. For Fackenheim the greatest threat to the root experience is reflective philosophical thought which would have us believe that the experience is uniform; general, unchanging and abstractable from history. (p16). In contrast God’s presence in History requires Midrashic thinking which reflects upon root experiences but (i) is not confined to their immediate reenactment, (ii) becomes aware of the contradictions in these experiences, (iii) refuse to destroy the immediacy of these experiences even as it stands outside and reflects upon them, (iv) is conscious of the contradictions and fragmentary nature of these experiences and (iv) these experiences can only be expressed in story, parable and metaphor. For Fackenheim we must retell the old Midrash – or create a new. (pp 20-21).
A contemporary scholar at Machon Hadar; Rabbi Jason Rubenstein has recorded a wonderful 3-part lecture on Revelation with the third and final part titled: Between “Mosaic Authorship” and “mosaic composition”: Hearing Conflict in Revelation and Revelation in Conflict (see here). What Rubenstein argues, quite compellingly is that while in prior generations, the concept of truth and value was inherently connected to the concept of uniformity, consistency and harmony. With the emergence of science and the internet of ideas, our concept of truth and value is rather associated with dissonance, multiplicity and a cacophony of ideas, images and sounds. When describing what could be described as Yehudah Halevi’s concept of 1 million plus people all hearing the same message a Sinai, one of Rubentstein’s students exclaimed… if it were so “it would become flat, it would become dull ”
The truth is that pre Internet-of-ideas, this same confluence of passionately argued and differing opinions and visions was always present in the Midrash and Talmud and I would argue…. also at Sinai.
When all is said and done, our reading of Halevi through the lens of Fackenheim produces a radical new conception of what happened at Sinai (Mesorah) and for that matter our concept of God… which it turns out is God in, through, and by, human history.
“ ‘Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, and I am God’ (Isa. 43:12). וְאַתֶּם עֵדַי נְאֻם-ה’, וַאֲנִי-א-ֵל That is, when ye are My witnesses, I am God, and when ye are not My witnesses, I am, as it were, not God?“ (p23)
The concept of God in and as history is ultimately that we need to live a life… as individuals but more so as a society… where we are and become the Proof itself. What lies implicit in the giving of the Torah is an imperative on the part of the recipient to receive and transfer. Implicit in the giving of the commandments is the underlying command to become the proof of the giving and transmission itself. … to prove it….
The Doctor: Is not our Book full of the stories of Moses and the Children of Israel? No one can deny what He did to Pharaoh, how He divided the sea, saved those who enjoyed His favour, but drowned those who had aroused His wrath. Then came the manna and the quails during forty years, His speaking to Moses on the mount, making the sun stand still for Joshua, and assisting him against the mighty. [Add to this] what happened previously, viz. the Flood, the destruction of the people of Lot; is this not so well known that no suspicion of deceit and imagination is possible?
Al Khazari: Indeed, I see myself compelled to ask the Jews, because they are the relic of the Children of Israel. For I see that they constitute in themselves the evidence for the divine law on earth.
The Rabbi replied: I believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt with signs and miracles; who fed them in the desert and gave them the land, after having made them traverse the sea and the Jordan in a miraculous way; who sent Moses with His law, and subsequently thousands of prophets, who confirmed His law by promises to the observant. and threats to the disobedient. Our belief is comprised in the Torah — a very large domain.
The Rabbi: Surely the beginning of my speech was just the proof, and so evident that it requires no other argument.
The Rabbi: In this way I answered thy first question. In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him:’The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,’ viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. He did not say: ‘The God of heaven and earth,’ nor ‘my Creator and thine sent me.’ In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel: ‘I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,’ but He did not say: ‘I am the Creator of the world and your Creator. Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these, things. first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.
The chronology was established through the medium of those sainted persons who were only single individuals, and not a crowd, until Jacob begat the Twelve Tribes, who were ail under this divine influence. Thus the divine element reached a multitude of persons who carried the records further. The chronology of those who lived before these has been handed down to us by Moses.
Al Khazari: An arrangement of this kind removes any suspicion of untruth or common plot. Not ten people could discuss such a thing without disagreeing, and disclosing their secret understanding; nor could they refute anyone who tried to establish the truth of a matter like this. How is it possible where such a mass of people is concerned? Finally, the period involved is not large enough to admit untruth and fiction.
Al Khazari: Let us now return to our subject, and explain to me how your belief grew, how it spread and became general, how opinions became united after having differed, and how long it took for the faith to lay its foundation, and to be built up into a strong and complete structure. The first element of religion appeared, no doubt, among single individuals, who supported one another in upholding the faith which it pleased God should be promulgated. Their number increases continually, they grow more powerful, or a king arises and assists them, also compels his subjects to adopt the same creed.
The Rabbi: In this way only rational religions, of human origin, can arise. When a man succeeds and attains an exalted position, it is said that he is supported by God, who inspired him, etc. A religion of divine origin arises suddenly. It is bidden to arise, and it is there, like the creation of the world.
…. they came to the desert, which was not sown, he sent them food which, with the exception of Sabbath, was crested daily for them, and they ate it for forty years.
Al Khazari: This also is irrefutable, viz. a thing which occurred to six hundred thousand people for forty years. Six days in the week the Manna came down, but on the Sabbath it stopped. This makes the observance of the Sabbath obligatory, since divine ordination is visible in it.
The Rabbi: I do not maintain that this is exactly how these things occurred; the problem is no doubt too deep for me to fathom. But the result was that everyone who was present at the time became convinced that the matter proceeded from God direct. It is to be compared to the first act of creation. The belief in the law connected with those scenes is as firmly established in the mind as the belief in the creation of the world, and that He created it in the same manner in which He–as is known–created the two tablets, the manna, and other things. Thus disappear from the soul of the believer the doubts of philosophers and materialists.
… The prerogative of Isaac descended on Jacob, whilst Esau was sent from the land which belonged to Jacob. The sons of the latter were all worthy of the divine influence, as well as of the country distinguished by the divine spirit. This is the first instance of the divine influence descending on a number of people, whereas it had previously only been vouchsafed to isolated individuals.
[iii] See: Saadia Gaon: The Book of Beliefs and Opinions Introduction, part VI pp 29-30. Both Yehuda Halevi and Saadia Gaon cite the Manna as a proof to the existence and requirement of observing the Shabbat… and as the best example of a miracle, viewed by many, occurring multiple times and over time whose acceptance by subsequent generations is proof to its veracity.
When, furthermore, He says: And ye are My witnesses (Isa. 44:8), [Fear ye not, neither be afraid; have I not announced unto thee of old, and declared it? And ye are My witnesses. – הֲלֹא מֵאָז הִשְׁמַעְתִּיךָ וְהִגַּדְתִּי, וְאַתֶּם עֵדָי ] He alludes to the marvelous signs and the manifest proofs witnessed by the [Jewish] people. These [were revealed] in many forms, such as the visitation of the ten plagues and the cleaving of the [Red] Sea and the assemblage at Sinai. Personally, however, I consider the case of the miracle of the manna as the most amazing of all miracles, because a phenomenon of an enduring nature excites greater wonderment than one of a passing character. Aye it is hard for the mind to conceive of a scheme whereby a people numbering something like two million souls could be nourished for forty years with nothing else than food produced for them in the air by the Creator. For had there been any possibility of thinking up a scheme for achieving something of this nature, the philosophers of old would have been the first to resort to it. They would have maintained their disciples therewith, taught them wisdom, and enabled them to dispense with working for a livelihood or asking for help.
Now it is not likely that the forbears of the children of Israel should have been in agreement upon this matter if they had considered it a lie. Such [proof] suffices, then, as the requisite of every authentic tradition. Besides, if they had told their children: “We lived in the wilderness for forty years eating naught except manna,” and there had been no basis for that in fact, their children would have answered them: “Now you are telling us a lie. Thou,
so and so, is not this thy field, and thou, so and so, is not this thy garden from which you have always derived your sustenance?” This is, then, something that the children would not have accepted by any manner of means.
According to Morgan, the early Fackenheim’s conception of the manner in which human agency is transformed into a religious response to revelation is reminiscent of the neo-Kantian conception of “self-fashioning.” It is within human consciousness that the contents of Jewish history, literature, folklore, and custom are elevated to the level of absolutely binding commandments. This transformation of the products of human inventiveness into the contents of revelation is also similar to what we might find in other mid-twentieth century hermeneutical theologians, especially Paul Tillich. But there is also a Barthian (or Rosenzweigian) element entailed in it, namely, when the condition of the possibility of any human response to revelation is seen as implicit in revelation itself. Without the “event” of revelation, no answer to revelation would be possible. Revelation remains initiated by God (though possibly eclipsed by the acute absence of God in the face of human suffering), which may be another way of saying that we are conditioned and embedded beings rather than absolute selves.