Shiur: The Funny Thing About Mitsvot – Adar Bet 2019

The Funny Thing About Mitsvot: Humanity, Divinity, and Irony

I. Take life lightly!

2. Rav Menachem Froman, They Make Hasidim Laugh, §27-28

27. Take life lightly! Clap your hands, run, dance! […] Stop being a Jew like me, who recites the Shema and takes the Mishneh Berurah and Shulan Arukh so seriously. Because truth be told, it’s also written that the Shema has to be recited with an intentional heart. And what exactly is an intentional heart? Lightness; it’s when your heart carries you through your Shema!

Let’s stop being like those who bear the cross of the Torah with such gravity! Let’s stop being like those who can’t take the Torah lightly. That’s what leads to heresy. That’s why the majority of the Jewish people no longer keeps the Torah. What is it I need? To dance the Torah, to jump the Torah! What’s missing is Purim. That’s what’s holding back my service of God.

Years ago, I suggested to my wife that we change our last name from Froman to Purim. Instead of saying, “Rabbi Froman will today meet with Arafat, representatives from Hamas, etc.”, they’d say it was Rabbi Purim! It would sound completely different! Then no one would take what I do too seriously…

28. […] In classical Judaism, all of the commandments commemorate the exodus from Egypt, but now we have reached a new era, an era of laughter and freedom. Until now, all the commandments were very serious. Passover is about pathos. The Torah has lots of pathos, it’s very serious. Now, we have a new era, a new Torah, the Torah of the land of Israel, the Torah of the Messiah. All the commandments commemorate the laughter of Purim, not the pathos of Passover.

To be or not to be is a serious, weighty question. However, Shakespeare wrote in the very same play that the whole world is a stage, that everything is a game. Do you hear me asking the most important question there is in life, whether or not to be? This question is just a joke, it’s a game… it’s just a game…

There is something that takes priority over the question of whether or not to be. It even takes priority over saving a life, which is so important that it overrides Shabbat. What is this thing that takes priority over saving a life? Being before God. Before God. Being before God in this world and the world to come, being before God and knowing that everything we have done in our lives is a joke. Life, death, it’s all a joke before God.

II. Do the Mitsvot, But with a Wink

2. Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, “Living with Nothingness,” 103 n.35
Translated by Elie Leshem, with minor changes.

This spirit of lightness is expressed through the injection of faith with a humorous dimension. As Rabbi Nahman wrote, the power of humor lies in its capacity to illuminate the limitations of our world in relation to the divine infinitude.

 

3. Rav Shagar, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan, on Lekutei Moharan I:6

Rebbe Naḥman claims that the very concepts in which we live, concepts of sin and reward and punishment, in a certain sense corporealize God. They lack spirituality in comparison to the infinite, necessitating a “World to Come” teshuvah to make up for the lower, earthly, teshuvah. Rebbe Naḥman essentially demands that we do teshuvah for the forms of religiosity in which we perform the commandment of teshuvah, which he claims is plagued by corporealization of God. A person must act, but he must not turn this action into an ideology, a something, an object. He knows that his teshuvah necessarily fails, and this recognition elevates his repentance.

This means that every significant decision, like the mental (nafshit) act of repentance, must come from an inner silence. This lets a person drawn on his inner life, which cannot be put into words. Despite this, when the spiritual (ruḥanit) act emerges in the world it loses its innerness, requiring “repentance” to turn it into a true spiritual act. What does this mean? Imagine a person who decides to repent. He is forbidden from thinking that this decision expresses the absolute divine truth. If he thinks this, he has corporealized the divine. He must make the decision, but by nature of being an act in the world, it belongs to the category of “kingly honor” (kevod melakhim). It is by definition corporeal, so he must simultaneously repent for his repentance. He thus elevates and spiritualizes the repentance, returning it to its lofty source.

Rebbe Naḥman’s approach recalls how Soren Kierkegaard described the concept of irony. The spiritual character is different, but there is a degree of similarity between the idea of repenting for your repentance and Kierkegaard’s image of the ironic individual, who speaks seriously, but with a wink. This wink does not mean that he is lying, but expresses a dual perspective on reality. He sees with both his eyes at once: one perspective recognizes the seriousness of holiness, while the second, aware of the seriousness of holiness, feels uncomfortable with the inflexibility hidden in this seriousness; spirituality is not a “thing,” it is free and light by definition. This second perspective, the gaze, frees a person from his first perspective on holiness, thereby initiating it anew. The role of irony is to spiritualize human comprehensions of reality. The ironic individual wants to maintain his world while nullifying it (bitulo). He is the believer who takes his life seriously, but understands that sometimes you need a sideways wink in order to look at life seriously.

4. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 27-28

The religious act is inherently flawed by virtue of being an earthly act. Any religious statement must be nullified as it is being said, simply in order to make it sayable.

In order to give teshuvah the elevation it deserves, we have to do teshuvah while simultaneously doing teshuvah for that act of teshuvah itself. The act of teshuvah is in and of itself a sin in relation to the divine infinitude. It is therefore forbidden to get caught up in the motivation for the teshuvah, seeing it as an absolute motivation. It’s earthliness makes it necessary to do teshuvah for the teshuvah.

This is how Rebbe Naḥman elevates the teshuvah itself to the supernal teshuvah, the teshuvah of the world to come, which not our real world, but the teshuvah of the ideal world that does not yet exist. The doubled gaze enables a person to do teshuvah even if this teshuvah is earthly and insufficient.

 

5. Rav Shagar, Tsel Ha’Emunah, 57-58

The test of religiosity is not keeping the mitsvot, nor even suspending them or not keeping them, but how you relate to their suspension. A person can trust (bitaḥon) in the mitsvot and cast his lot upon them, but he must ask himself what happens when God rejects his performance of the mitsvot. Is the mitsvah itself the goal? What about when it doesn’t receive its light from the will of God? […] God’s laughter reveals the unusual combination of the person who trusts (bitahon) and the God who knocks his trust out from under him. […] This is a comical event, which reveals the total nothingness, the joke, of the person who thinks its so serious and important when he does a mitsvah. It’s as if God “pranked” the person; someone with a sense of humor will laugh along and even enjoy it, but someone who doesn’t will see it as a painful rejection. This necessary humor comes from recognizing the precariousness of human existence, the nothingness of humanity in contrast with the divine infinitude. […] Performing the act as a mitsvah is what makes it divine and absolute, for the mitsvah is what reveals God speaking to a person. […] Doing them any other way, no matter how lofty and important the motivations, remains within the human confines of “reasoned decision,” without connecting to the divine. […] The Jewish person celebrates doing mitsvot because that is where he finds God addressing him.

 

III. Freeing God from the Mitsvot

6. Yishai Mevorach, Teologiah Shel Heser, 102

It’s as if God is bound in the bonds of a person’s religious language and religious way of life. A person’s faith language carries with it a meaning that limits the words of faith – words like “God,” “divinity,” “holiness,” “commandment” – to the narrow sense of their religious form of life. The rabbis expressed this “framing” in homilies (midrashim) that depict God observing the commandments.[1] This congruence between religious life and God’s life creates an intimacy in the relationship of the believer and his god. Additionally, it testifies to the narrowness of the god’s world, constricted within the believer’s way of life.

Only a “secular believer,” sensitive to the enigmatic nature of his language, can encounter the infinite force of the divine, while he is forced to constantly turn his gaze up and down, backward and forward, because the word he speaks lacks any meaning or sense when he says “God.”[2] This understanding opens up a path to secular faith, to faith that encounters religious language and feels how it is full of force exactly by virtue of its lack of meaning.

[1] “Rabbi Avin bar Rav Adda said that Rabbi Yitzḥak said: From where is it derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wears phylacteries? As it is stated: “The Lord has sworn by His right hand, and by the arm of His strength” (Isaiah 62:8). Since it is customary to swear upon holy objects, it is understood that His right hand and the arm of His strength are the holy objects upon which God swore.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6a, Koren translation and commentary)

[2] “One may not expound the laws of forbidden sexual relations before three people, nor the account of Creation before two, nor the Divine Chariot before one, unless he is wise and understanding from his own knowledge. Anyone who looks into four things is worthy of not having come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after. And anyone who has no consideration for the honor of his Maker would be better off if he had not come into the world.” (Mishnah Hagigah 2:2)

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Nomadic Mitsvot: Brennan Breed’s Reception Theory and Materialist Reasons for the Commandments

Introduction: By Way of Conclusion

Over the past year or so, I’ve written a series of posts dealing with what I called “materialist” approaches to the reasons for the mitsvot, meaning an approach to the commandments that privileges the embodied acts over the theoretical reasons. I started with looking at how the relationship between software and hardware might shape a different way of thinking about the mitsvot. I then explored how slightly different materialist approaches show up in the writings of three modern Jewish thinkers, two recent, one contemporary: Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Shagar, and Rabbi David Silverstein. By way of conclusion, I thought would talk a little about how I got started thinking about this issue.

Several years ago, I listened to a podcast interview with Brennan Breed about his then-new book, “Nomadic Texts: A Theory of Biblical Reception History.” In the interview, he explained a few of the different aspects of his broad new theory of biblical reception history, the full breadth of which I only understood when I read the book itself earlier this year. Biblical reception history is an an area of academic research that studies not the Bible itself, but how the Bible has been received by various groups over time. While I can’t do justice to the entire book here, in what follows I want to lay out the two main points from his argument that inspired my idea of “materialist” approaches to the commandments.

(This section is going to briefly lay out the relevant section of Breed’s argument. For anyone not interested, feel free to skip to the next section, which should make sense even without this background.)

Let’s Get Technical: Beyond Audience and Intent

As Breed discusses, two of the most popular ways of defining the “meaning” of a text are based on authorial intent and the original audience. The former approach asserts that the text means what an author intended it to mean. Thus, what we really do when we read is extrapolate the author’s intent from the words that she wrote. The author expresses herself in text, and we work backwards from there. The latter approach asserts that the text means what it was understood to mean by its original audience. What we really do when we read, therefore, is determine what the original audience understood from reading the same text. We try and get outside our own context and perspective and adopt the context and perspective of the original audience.

These two approaches can certainly lead to similar, or even identical, understandings of a given text, but they can also lead to different understandings if, for example, an author is misunderstood by her readers. One example of this might be J. R. R. Tolkien, who claimed that his The Lord of the Rings was not a Christian allegory, despite many readers understanding it as exactly that. Of course, there is a huge variety of approaches beyond just these two, as well as approaches that combine them. It can also be hard to separate them to begin with, as presumably the author took her audience and its context into account when writing the text. When it comes to texts we take to be divinely authored, questions of author and audience become more complex.

Breed attacks both of these approaches, based on a fundamental re-evaluation of what texts are supposed to do, why we even write things to begin with. As Breed compellingly argues, the point of writing something is to enable it to move from the author’s original context to another context. Writing creates permanence whereas spoken words disappear as soon as they are said. Oral conversation happens face-to-face, and it allows the author to express her intent to a specific audience, with a shared context to avoid confusion about the meaning of her words. If she writes a text, however, it will be read by an audience outside her immediate context, who may interpret it radically differently from her intent. Moreover, it could be read by an entirely different audience than the author had in mind; letters can be intercepted in a way that in-person conversation simply cannot. As Breed says,

Written signs are not only repeatable; they are also durable. That is, a written text remains long after its context of production has passed away. Durability has long been noted as a productive feature of writing: writers write things down precisely so that readers can read them outside the situational context of writing. […] In other words, writing is useful precisely because it does not lose its readability when it is transported elsewhere and read at another time, even when it is radically separated from its context of production. (103)

As a result of this, “all texts continue to find new contexts regardless of writerly, readerly, and scholarly attempts to pin them down” (104). This idea challenges the both the authorial intent model and the original audience model for determining a text’s meaning. If the author’s text is going to be read by people outside her immediate context, and potentially by people she couldn’t imagine in contexts she couldn’t imagine, then her intent is going to get garbled along the way, to say the least. Meanwhile, the permanence of a text means that it will almost certainly be read by more than just the one original audience. Both the authorial intent and original audience models may therefore be much less significant than many people think.

In place of these approaches, Breed puts forth his own, novel approach to thinking about the meaning of a text (based significantly on the works of French theorist Gilles Deleuze).

Following Gilles Deleuze’s lead, I propose that biblical texts are not objects but are instead objectiles, object-projectiles, that must be studied as something for which movement and variation is a necessary quality and thus for whom any static identity is an always contingent predicate. (116-117)

Texts, Breed claims, tear through history like bullets. And, like bullets, it matters a lot less why they were set loose than what happens after that point. The shooter’s intent matters a lot less than the actual effect of the shooting. Similarly, an author’s intent matters a lot less than how her text affects the world. J. K. Rowling likely could never have imagined what Harry Potter would mean when she first dreamed it up. Reducing its meaning to her intent would mean missing out on everything that followed.

The picture that Breed develops is one in which “drift is an essential characteristic of text itself” (109, emphasis in the original). Texts are inherently opaque, carrying no meaning of their own. The unique nature of each opaque object will inspire unique meanings and responses in each new context it enters. Thus, “instead of asking what the correct context is in which to read a text, one might ask in what ways a particular context reshapes the reading of the text” (130). We can’t know what the text means inherently, but we can know what it means in each different context. “When we look at how a text produces meaning in various settings it tells us more, not less, about the nature of that text” (131). We can look at all the different meanings a text has in all the different contexts it enters, and see what patterns emerge. This will enable us to map the capacities inherent in the text, the potential meanings it inherently bears. The two ideas that we have seen, the rejection of the author’s intent and the rejection of an original audience, thus combine to make the text what Breed calls “nomadic.”

Nomadic Mitsvot

I haven’t laid out Breed’s argument in full, and I don’t really even want to argue for the small part that I have laid out. What interests me is the value this discussion might have for Judaism. I think that taking these two ideas, the rejection of the author’s intent and the rejection of an original audience, and introducing them into the discourse around taamei hamitsvot, reasons for the commandments, can help solve a critical problem for contemporary Jews.

One of the blights of our era is our historical awareness. We don’t just have a long and colorful history, we are also painfully aware of every step of it. This has many benefits, but it also forces us to confront the contingency of each moment in history; nothing is absolute, because everything is a result of historical conditioning. We can no longer say “Judaism says” with full confidence, because we know that Judaism has said many different things at many different moments in its history. When it comes to the discussion of reasons for the commandments, we are too aware of all the different reasons that have been put forward for any given commandment. Even if we are willing to write off broad swaths of the reasons put forward (for example, anything that does or doesn’t include Kabbalistic ideas), we could never narrow the field to the point where we have exactly the same amount of reasons as we do commandments. Even in just the Torah itself, many commandments have multiple reasons (perhaps most famously, Shabbat has different reasons in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, not to mention in the rest of its biblical appearances). Moreover, the simple fact that so many important figures from the tradition disagreed over the reason for each commandment makes it hard to really confidently affirm any one opinion over any other.

If we affirm Breed’s two principles that I laid out above, if we see the mitsvot as “nomadic,” then I think we can avoid this problem. This is essentially what I have tried to show with my posts on Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Shagar, and Rabbi David Silverstein. In The Halakhic Mind, Rav Soloveitchik argues that the reason for a commandment should not be identified with some idea that came before it, for which it was commanded, but with the subjective experience it inspires in one who performs it. Of course, he seems to suggest that there is one correct subjective effect each command will inspire, so he lacks the second element of my model. For that, I turned to Rav Shagar, whose derashot on Hanukkah both frame the commandments as opaque, meaningless objects and suggest that the reason for any mitsvot should be understood in terms of the meaning of performing the commandment, rather than the reason for the commandment itself. The act of performing is the locus of meaning, rather than the mitsvah itself, and it will necessarily differ from person to person and from historical context to historical context. This could combine with Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to let us talk about the mitsvot as “nomadic,” in Breed’s language. All that is left to do is map out the different possibilities each mitsvah bears within it, as manifested on its journey through history. A bold step in that direction is taken by Rabbi David Silverstein in his Jewish Law as a Journey which discusses the reasons for many commandments by exploring what those commandments have meant throughout history. He never broaches the question of what God’s reason for any given mitsvah might be, instead simply focusing on what different Jewish texts have said about it throughout history. The next step would be highlighting the broad patters in order to map the nomadic paths of various mitsvot, the specific meanings that have repeatedly generated throughout their histories. I can only hope someone will take this project up in the future.

As a Hammer Smashes Rock: Rethinking Divine Intent

Before I bring this concluding post to an end, I should broach more directly a topic I have so far discussed only briefly, in the post on Jewish Law as a Journey: how this approach squares with divine intent. It’s a lot harder to talk about “the death of the author,” about disregarding authorial intent, when that author is God. However, I would argue that this actually presents an opportunity for rethinking divine intent, specifically, for thinking about how divine authorial intent might differ from human authorial intent.

The problem with human authorial intent as I laid it out above is that the author can never predict in advance where their text will go and what it will mean there. She cannot know what her text will mean or to whom it will mean it. Limiting the meaning of the text to her intent is therefore very narrowly restrictive and obscures the reality of the text rather than clarifying it.

Whether or not you accept that argument in the context of a human author, it seems problematic to simply copy-and-paste it into the context of a divine author. The challenge to authorial intent is essentially based on the limits of human knowledge; the human author can never know all the different contexts and meanings of her work. However, with a divine author, there is at least the possibility of omniscience, of the idea that God knows everything, even the future. This is obviously one of the great theological debates, one I don’t intend to resolve here, but the possibility is at the very least available. We could thus claim that the divine authorial intent is not one specific meaning of the Torah text, but each and every meaning that it will pick up throughout its history.

Notably, this seems to be the idea behind one traditional reading of Jeremiah 23:29, “Behold my word is like fire, saith the Lord, like a hammer that shatters rock.” This verse (which has its own history of different meanings and contexts), is taken by many to mean that the divine word, as realized in the scriptural texts of the Jewish canon, can and does bear a multiplicity of meanings (See, for example, Rashi’s comment on Exodus 6:9). The image of the divine word as a hammer shattering a rock is really a phenomenal one for our purposes. The Torah is an opaque “objectile” launched into history, smashing into human contexts, meanings breaking off in every direction. The same way the author composes a text and sets it adrift among her readers, God fixed certain rituals and acts as commandments and loosed them on Jewish history, to generate a whole host of meanings. As Rav Shagar puts it in one essay, the divine wisdom sheds and takes up different forms throughout the course of history (Halikhot Olam, 187). Notably, this would essentially give us a reconceptualization of the Oral Torah as the meanings generated by the Written Torah on its path through history, all intended by the original divine author.

If you’re uncomfortable with that strong sense of divine foreknowledge, but still don’t want to give up on divine authorial intent, we could perhaps appeal to a more general intent. Instead of saying that God intended every meaning that the Torah would generate, we can simply say that God wanted the Jewish people to do their best to understand the Torah, even given that they would understand the Torah differently in different historical contexts. This would give us something like the idea behind the famous “Oven of Akhnai” story from Bavli Bava Metsia 59b, which argues that “the Torah is not in heaven,” and therefore the majority interpretation of the Jewish sages supersedes even the divine understanding of the Torah’s meaning. The meaning of the Torah is thus what the Jewish people thinks it is, rather than what God intended it to be. However, as the conclusion to the story makes clear, God desires this to be the case. God intended that the Torah be understood differently over time, even without intending those specific different understandings.

Conclusion

As I hope I have shown, in this post and in the whole series, thinking about the mitsvot as material objects that generate their meanings both can be and already is a fruitful part of taamei hamitsvot discourse. Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Shagar did it, and Rabbi David Silverstein is doing it now. Given the theological issues it helps us untangle, I hope it can become a bigger part of this discourse in the future. Minimally, I hope this series will help people recognize it when they see it, as it is already a part of our sacred texts and traditions.

Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”: A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey”:
A Materialist Approach to the Commandments

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Rabbi David Silverstein’s “Jewish Law as a Journey” is a masterful contemporary rendition of the traditional genre of taamei hamitsvot literature, books that give reasons for the commandments. Each chapter is dedicated to a different commandment or halakhah, stretching from saying modeh ani upon waking to saying shema before bedtime, and even touching on interpersonal mitsvot, loving God, and more in between. It also sports a helpful introduction that gives the reader background on taamei hamitsvot throughout Jewish history.

The introduction focuses on the question of whether or not Jews should speculate about the reasons for the commandments. The topic has been hotly debated throughout Jewish history. On the one hand, God’s commands are presumably rooted in the infinite divine wisdom. They should therefore “represent the physical actualization of a divine set of values and ideal” (p. xxiv), rather than simply being commands that a person must obey. On the other hand, emphasizing the reason for a command can come at the expense of obedience to the command itself. If keeping kosher is about eating healthy (the opinion of the Sefer HaHinukh, quoted in chapter 19), then shouldn’t eating healthy take precedence over keeping kosher? If the two were to contradict, shouldn’t we side with healthy eating over its handmaiden, kashrut?

Silverstein indicates that despite the critical importance of the “spiritual messages” of the mitsvot, we cannot give the reasons for the commandments priority over the commandments themselves. In addition to preserving obedience to the commandments, this has the added value of keeping a person humble. Just because I do not know the value of a commandment, that does not mean there is no value. Trying to understand the commandments is therefore an important, if not always achievable, goal.

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A Materialist Model of the Commandments

Silverstein’s approach to the commandments is what I have elsewhere called a “materialist” model of the commandments. Though he says the commandments are intended to convey spiritual messages, he ultimately gives priority to the physical acts of the commandments, their material presence in the world and history, over the ideas attached to them. This manifests in the call for obedience in the face of incomprehensible mitsvot. If you have to obey the commandments regardless of the reason, then clearly the actions take priority over the ideas.

The materialist model also shows up in the number of reasons Silverstein gives for each commandment. Classically, books of taamei hamitsvot give one reason for each commandment. They attempt to determine what goal God wanted to achieve by commanding each action, what specific idea or value God wanted to convey. In contrast, “Jewish Law as a Journey” doesn’t talk about what the purpose of each commandment is, or what God’s intent was in commanding it. Instead, Silverstein goes through the historical journey of each mitsvah, looking at what it has meant in different texts throughout history. He starts with Tanakh and the rabbis, for laws that go back that far, and continues all the way to rabbis so contemporary that their ideas are referenced from webpages rather than books. In a materialist model, the reasons for the commandments are not what God meant by them, but what they have meant to Jews throughout history.

One of the advantages of a materialist model of the commandments is the way it lets us look back at the history of reasons for the commandments. With a model like this, we do not need to say that everyone who disagreed with our understanding of a commandment was wrong, nor do we have to pretend that no one ever disagreed. We can recognize the full diversity of the Jewish tradition when it comes to taamei hamitsvot. Silverstein can therefore quote a variety of interpretation by thinkers who may have been consciously disagreeing with each other, as he explores the various things a commandment means. It does raise the question of what God’s intent actually was for each commandment, but this can be solved in a variety of ways, such as suggesting that God wanted each Jew to understand each mitsvah in a way that made sense to her in her historical situation, or that God omnipotently foresaw all the meanings that Jews would attribute to the commandments.

“Jewish Law as a Journey” therefore provides the reader with short collections of ideas that have been attached to each commandment, helpfully summarized in the book’s conclusion in the form of short meditations. However, it also asks the reader an implicit question: If these ideas are what the commandment has meant throughout its historical journey, then what does it mean today?