The blessings and curses that come with choseness…
An exploration of the meaning and development of The Chosen People in Genesis and in Rabbinic and Christian texts and traditions.
Listen to the madlik podcast:
The blessings and curses that come with choseness…
An exploration of the meaning and development of The Chosen People in Genesis and in Rabbinic and Christian texts and traditions.
Listen to the madlik podcast:
and here to listen to it on SoundCloud.
or go to the iTunes store and subscribe to the madlik podcast here.
a cathedral in time – a tabernacle in space
Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the spaceminded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, qualityless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.
Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement. According to the ancient rabbis, it is not the observance of the Day of Atonement, but the Day itself, the “essence of the Day,” which, with man’s repentance, atones for the sins of man.
Note: Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 1:3
The essence of Yom Kippur brings attonement for thos who repent as it says: “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the LORD. Leviticus 16:30
Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time. Most of its observances–the Sabbath, the New Moon, the festivals, the Sabbatical and the Jubilee year–depend on a certain hour of the day or season of the year. It is, for example, the evening, morning, or afternoon that brings with it the call to prayer. The main themes of faith lie in the realm of time. We remember the day of the exodus from Egypt, the day when Israel stood at Sinai; and our Messianic hope is the expectation of a day, of the end of days.
Moed – Holiday
Ohel Moed – Ten of Meeting
In the Bible, words are employed with exquisite care, particularly those which, like pillars of fire, lead the way in the far flung system of the biblical world of meaning. One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word kadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar? It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word kadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.
This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place–a holy mountain or a holy spring–whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first. When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time. When at Sinai the word of God was about to be voiced, a call for holiness in man was proclaimed: “Thou shalt be unto me a holy people.” It was only after the people had succumbed to the temptation of worshipping a thing, a golden calf, that the erection of a Tabernacle, of holiness in space, was commanded.
The sanctity of time came first, the sanctity of man came second, and the sanctity of space last. Time was hallowed by God; space, the Tabernacle, was consecrated by Moses. While the festivals celebrate events that happened in time, the date of the month assigned for each festival in the calendar is determined by the life in nature. Passover and the Feast of Booths [Sukkot], for example, coincide with the full moon, and the date of all festivals is a day in the month, and the month is a reflection of what goes on periodically in the realm of nature, since the Jewish month begins with the new moon, with the reappearance of the lunar crescent in the evening sky. In contrast, the Sabbath is entirely independent of the month and unrelated to the moon. Its date is not determined by any event in nature, such as the new moon, but by the act of creation. Thus the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
The Sabbath (FSG Classics) Paperback – July 28, 2005 by Abraham Joshua Heschel
After the destruction of the Second Temple there … was no High Priest, no sacrifice, no divine fire, no Levites singing praises or crowds thronging the precincts of Jerusalem and filling the Temple Mount. Above all there was no Yom Kippur ritual through which the people could find forgiveness.
It was then that a transformation took place that must constitute one of the great creative responses to tragedy in history. Tradition has cast Rabbi Akiva in the role of the savior of hope. The Mishna in Yoma, the tractate dedicated to Yom Kippur, tells us in effect that Rabbi Akiva could see a new possibility of atonement even in the absence of a High Priest and a Temple. God Himself would purify His people without the need for an intermediary. Even ordinary Jews could, as it were, come face to face with the Shekhina, the Divine Presence. They needed no one else to apologize for them. The drama that once took place in the Temple could now take place in the human heart. Yom Kippur was saved. It is not too much to say that Jewish faith was saved.
Every synagogue became a fragment of the Temple. Every prayer became a sacrifice. Every Jew became a kind of priest, offering God not an animal but instead the gathered shards of a broken heart. For if God was the God of everywhere, He could be encountered anywhere. And if there were places from which He seemed distant, then time could substitute for place. “Seek God where He is’ to be found, call on Him’ where He is close” (Is. 55:6) -— this, said the sages, refers to the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur (Yevamot 105a). Holy days became the surrogate for holy spaces. Yom Kippur became the Jerusalem of time, the holy city of the Jewish soul.
Koren Sacks Yom Kippur Mahzor (Hebrew and English) Hardcover – August 15, 2012 by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pp xv-xvi
During Sukkot, we add a prayer: “May the All Merciful establish (raise) for us the fallen Sukkah of David”
The notion of the “fallen Sukkah” come from the prophet Amos (9:11)
In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof, and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old;
From the first day of Elul until the last day of Sukkot we read Psalm 27 every day.
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the LORD, and to visit early in His temple. or He concealeth me in His pavilion (lit. Sukkah) in the day of evil;
He hideth me in the covert of His tent; He lifteth me up upon a rock.
Achat Sha’alti mei’eit Adonai otah avakeish (2x)
Shivti b’veit Adonai kol y’mei chayai
Lachazot b’no’am, b’no’am Adonai ul’vakeir b’heichalo (2x)
This melody, written by Israel Katz. See The Chazzan’s Tisch here and Velveteen Rabbi here for an Hebrew/English version and some background into Israel Katz the composer. Here’s the track I play on the podcast 1:10 seconds in and available on iTunes here
Cho Rachman (Rebuilt) composed and sung by Shlomo Carlebach on his 4th LP, In The Palace Of The King (Vanguard, 1965) and available on Amazon here.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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:
And after I stumbled through this… then
[iii] See Guidelines and Information about Davening at Mechon Hadar which we received before the week at the yeshiva: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B9fRO_dfXpziZWk2NzB0YUpnUjlqM2ZXNWItczBSc0hYMU4w/view
[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
A yeshiva bachur is a young man who studies in a traditional Talmudic academy; a Yeshiva. It is said that you can take the bachur out of the yeshiva but you can’t take the yeshiva out of the bachur. I define myself and my relationship with Judaism in many ways. I’m post-orthodox, traditional but not halachic, evolved and evolving, but one thing I will always be; is a yeshiva bachur. Guilty as charged.
If there is one concept or disposition that I cannot shake it is Bitul Torah. Literally the nullification of Torah, but more precisely the prohibition against wasting potential Torah study time. According to no less of a source than halachipedia: “It is imperative upon a person to use his free time for Torah study. If one wastes one’s free time on useless means, one is in violation of Bitul Torah.” The very concept of time is redefined in the Yeshiva world (and it is a world unto itself) where there are texts to be studied and concepts to be argued from morning to night and every second is literally… fleeting. The Talmud has a powerful expression to emphasis the point.
“If you leave Me for one day, I will leave you for two days.” [i]
This is an early allusion to the economic concept of opportunity cost. There is always Torah to learn and it does not wait for you, it keeps moving. You cannot return to where you left off, it has already left and gone. If you miss a day of learning you have lost both the day you could have had and the day you had. This heightened sense of time, especially as relates to study, is for me the essence of the yeshiva and that sense has never left me.
Said Professor Saul Lieberman; when his learning was interrupted by someone asking for his time “money I have, time I don’t”. A contribution he could make, an appearance, not so much.
In the yeshiva, learning has less to do with the knowledge gained than with the act itself. A learned scholar who does not constantly add to his knowledge is of less worth that a less intellectually endowed student who sits and learns… day and night. When shown a very learned businessman, Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, the head of the yeshiva of my youth was unimpressed and quipped “If you know how to steal but don’t steal, does that make you a ganif (thief)? … If you know how to learn but don’t, does that make you a lamdin (learner)?” … not exactly.
The second most impactful characteristic of the bachur yeshiva is purity verging on naiveté. A popular song, actually a chant, sung over and over again in a trance-like hora is from the Shabbat liturgy:
Purify our heart to serve You in truth
Ironically this song was also taken by the Israeli secular pioneers (halutzim) to celebrate their pure and undivided and untarnished focus on the labor (avodah) necessary to build a new land.
The pioneers translated this purity into the simple life of the kibbutz which eschewed makeup, jewelry and bourgeois accouterments. For the yeshiva bachur it was the simple life of the monk, lehvdil.
Such is the way of Torah: Bread with salt you shall eat, water in small measure you shall drink, and upon the ground you shall sleep; live a life of deprivation and toil in Torah. If so you do, “fortunate are you, and good is to you” (Psalms 128:2): fortunate are you in this world, and it is good to you in the World To Come.[iii]
Which brings me to my return to the yeshiva, part one.
I was near Beer Yaakov on a recent visit to Israel so I decided to return… return to the yeshiva of my youth.
As a nineteen year old, I went to Yeshiva Beer Yaakov at the advice of my cousin Aviezer Wolfson, a businessman, scholar and composer. Aviezer had studied at the yeshiva and my grandfather, Charles Wolfson and his brothers had financed the buildings and sefer Torahs at the Yeshiva. The main attraction was the Mashgiach Ruchni (spiritual guide), Harav Shlomo Wolbe who was considered when he passed away, the last of the great Mussarniks. Rav Wolbe was a card carrying Haredi who was raised in a secular home and graduated from the university of Berlin in 1933. He ended up (it’s a long story) at the Meir Yeshiva as a student of Rav Yerucham Levovitz a student of the Alter of Kelm a disciple of Rav Yisroel Salanter the founder of the Mussar Movement. Learning under Rav Wolbe, especially in small, by invitation only, vaadim, was a unique privilege and opportunity to be directly connected through him to Rav Yisrael Salanter, this founder of a lesser known but unique movement that coincided with the emergence of Hasidism and the haskalah. Rav Wolbe took one student every year to study Chumash with Rashi every morning. In my second year at the yeshiva, I was that student.
Here are previously unpublished photos of Rav Wolbe at my Sheva Barachot with Professor Saul Lieberman (who was mesader kiddushin at my wedding).
It took me a while to find the Yeshiva. In my day, it was isolated amongst orange groves and it’s students emerged from their isolation only once in every six shabbats to return to the civilized world. Now it is pluck in the middle of the urban sprawl of a bustling city of Beer Yaakov, necessitating a privacy curtain (those Halutzim had built well…).
Even with all the privacy, I could already tell from the signage that the Yeshiva had fallen…. on hard times. I couldn’t get over the fact that my isolated yeshiva was now in the middle of a city. There used to be orange groves there now it was a major thoroughfare.
Once I made my way past the privacy curtains I saw the students gathered around a printed notice on the door to the study hall. I made my way in and read with disbelief that the yeshiva had been without electricity since the beginning of the month and the administration was pleased to announce that they had finally negotiaated a payment plan with the electric company.
According to matzav.com (The Jewish world at your fingertips)
Here’s the notice posted the day of my visit on May 23rd:
The notice thanks the students for their savlanut (patience and endurance) and thanks God for helping to craft a deal with the power authority. That said, there are strict regulations, punishable with fines for misusing electricity for private air conditioning in the dorms.
Here’s a picture of the aforementioned generator, which in my day was used every Shabbat so that the yeshiva was not powered by electricity produced by Jews on the Sabbath.
The yeshiva baring my Uncles name was in disrepair.
But inside, I was just in time for the afternoon service. When I pray now, I am usually one of the last to finish… but here at my roots, I was amongst the first. At Beer Yaakov, on a simple everyday afternoon mincha service no prayer is finished before its time… prayers are savored like a fine wine, not gobbled like fast-food. I guess that stayed with me.
My visit to Beer Yaakov that day was spontaneous and I was not dressed in the uniform white shirt and black pants. I had no jacket and only my LoBa Kippah, which I turned inside out (ונהפכו). I felt very comfortable and no one either approached me to say Shalom Alechem nor did they stare at me…. I was just another guy coming in, probably to say kaddish. I started walking around the “campus” and a student approached. “I studied here” I said… under “Rav Wolbe” I added. Now there was interest. Now I was a link. Students gathered as I described how it was and asked to see and describe the dining room and dorm as I remembered them. “Where is Rav Wolbe’s house” I asked. To my shock, the home were we gathered late at night for a vaad was now condemned.
It was sad, but maybe fitting. The master had passed and so had an era. The student who showed me around had the purity and simplicity that I had remembered and the food in the dining room was as sparse as I remember it…. and the Torah was being studied with only bread and water and apparently no electricity. For me and the students, Rav Wolbe’s wisdom still echoes in the hall. It was time for me to go.
There is much written in the agadata (non legal texts of the Talmud) about a grove (pardes) and a destroyed edifice (chorvah). On my return to the Yeshiva of my youth I found a pardes that is no more and a chorvah that contains much of my core. I left the Yeshiva that day. Needless to say, the yeshiva remains in me.
[i] Sifrei on Deut. 11:22, Yerushalmi Ber. 9:5, Midrash Shmuel 1 as quoted in Rashi Deuteronomy 11:13 Similar is [the meaning of]“And it will be, if you forget” (אִם שָׁכֹחַ תִּשְׁכַּח) (Deut. 8:19): If you have begun to forget [the Torah you have learned], eventually you will forget all of it, for so it is written in the Megillah 1: “If you leave Me for one day, I will leave you for two days.”