Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts: Fleischacker and Maimonides

Texts Transform Readers Transform Texts:

Fleischacker and Maimonides

 

I have recently been thinking a lot about a passage from Samuel Fleischacker’s excellent short work, The Good and the Good Book, which develops an argument for taking traditional texts to be good guides for living. In the first chapter he discusses a story of a wise man who tells a miser where he can find treasure. In going to that place, the miser finds people living in squalor, is moved to dedicate his money to improving their lives. This experience transforms him, and he realizes that the transformation was the promised “treasure.” He later returns the wise man, protesting about the misleading advice, and the wise man points out he originally would not have been motivated by the idea of such a “treasure.” Analyzing this story, Fleischaker notes:

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And finally, following an authority makes best sense if one is carrying out an extended course of action and can periodically reinterpret what the authority says as one goes along. If the point is precisely to transform oneself, radically to change one’s character or orientation in life, then that is likely to take a while, and to lead one to have a new, deeper understanding of what one’s authority says after the change than one did before. This last point is the reason why authorities may employ obscure or indirect ways of saying things: what they want to convey cannot be properly understood by their listeners until those listeners have been transformed. And in the course of transformation, the authority’s utterances may well shift from a literal to a metaphorical register, or acquire new literal meanings that we did not expect them to have when we first heard them.[1]

Any statement or text that tries to change a person, moving them from personality A to personality B, risks the possibility that only one of the two personalities will be able to comprehend it, not both. Alternatively, it has to be capable of meaning two different things to each personality.

This is basically the problem Maimonides is struggling with throughout the Guide for the Perplexed. The Torah and its laws are meant to improve the people, as individuals and as a society (I:2, III:28). That means that it has to make sense to them both before and after it has improved them. This is all the more urgent a problem as the Torah is meant to improve the people’s cognitive understanding and beliefs as well (ibid.). The Torah has to make sense to people who think God wants sacrifices, but also to people who know that God doesn’t want sacrifices, or possibly even prayer; instead people should ideally just meditate (III:32).

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Maimonides solves this on a legal level by allowing the legitimate authorities strong powers both in interpreting the Torah’s laws and in creating legal enactments (Hilkhot Mamrim; intro to MT). On the level of the Torah text and how we interpret it, this is a project that occupies much of the Guide. The words of the Torah, he says, can have more than one meaning (intro to Guide). He therefore must go through and explain to the reader which meaning is the proper one, in all places trying to move away from corporealizing and “primitive” understandings of God.

While the Torah can more obviously be meaningful for someone who shares those understandings, people who have already moved away from those understandings may have a harder time (ibid.). Moreover, encouraging such a person to take up those understandings would actually be harmful (III:34). Therefore the Torah cannot mean the same thing for them that it meant for people who had those understandings.

In a real sense, this problem underlies all interpretation, and gives rise to the need for an Oral Torah. If the Torah is to speak to different people in different historical realities, it must be subject to significant interpretation. What Maimonides work points out is that this problem is internal to the Torah and its goals. If the Israelites had never been exiled, if international politics essentially froze during the First Israelite Commonwealth, the Torah would still eventually require reinterpretation. As society and individuals conformed more to the Torah’s laws, they would become more like the ideal society and individuals. They would then read the Torah and see that it must mean something different than what it had meant to them previously.

[1] Samuel Fleischacker, The Good and the Good Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 23.

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The Practice and Possibility of Prayer: Rabbi Dov Singer’s “Tikon Tefilati”

In an article entitled “Towards an Understanding of Halakhah,” later incorporated into his book on prayer, Man’s Quest for God, R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel sets up a dichotomy between prayer and philosophy.[1]

The duty to worship stood as a thought of ineffable meaning; doubt, the voice of disbelief, was ready to challenge it. But where should the engagement take place? In an act of reflection the duty to worship is a mere thought, timid, frail, a mere shadow of reality, while the voice of disbelief is a power, well-armed with the weight of inertia and the preference for abstention. In such an engagement prayer would be fought in abstentia, and the issue would be decided without actually joining the battle. It was fair, therefore, to give the weaker rival a chance: to pray first, to fight later.

I realized that just as you cannot study philosophy through praying, you cannot study prayer through philosophizing.[2]

Prayer, as Heschel argues extensively throughout the book, is not a primarily cognitive or reflective activity. The reflective stance of philosophy, he argues, actually obstructs prayer rather than aiding it. There is no degree of philosophizing, even about prayer, that will lead a person to prayer. You have to just start praying, and let that show you why you should pray.

Perhaps ironically, Heschel’s words are set within a broader work reflecting on the meaning and nature of prayer. Man’s Quest for God simultaneously tries to give the reader a broader understanding of prayer, and tells them to stop trying to understand prayer and just pray. To some degree, this calls into question the value not just of Heschel’s book on prayer, but of any book on prayer. Books would seem to be an inherently reflective medium, so how can a book be anything other than an obstacle to prayer?

Enter Rabbi Dov Singer’s Tikon Tefilati: Matkonei Tefilah (Maggid Books, Jerusalem, 2014. English title, May My Prayer Be Pleasing: Recipes for Prayer).

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Singer begins the book with a short introduction where he lays out the same problem that Heschel describes. Thinking about prayer, he says, is an obstacle to actually praying. Moreover, he adds, prayer is more essential to humanity than thinking is. Homo Sapiens (“thinking person”) would be better described as Homo Mitpalelos (“praying person”). We pray by our very natures, so all we need to do is get out of our own way and pray. Why, then, did he write a book on prayer? For the same reason that people write cookbooks. Cookbooks don’t explain to people why they should cook, or how cooking functions. They give practical instructions on how to cook for people who already want to cook, and so too with Tikon Tefilati and prayer.

Notably, the twin themes of non-reflective prayer and prayer as part of human nature can be found in two Singer’s three teachers that he mentions in his introduction, Rabbis Shagar, Froman, and Steinzaltz. While I am not familiar with the works of Rav Steinzaltz, Rav Shagar compares praying to the ability to enter into a story while reading it, rather than standing outside the story and reflecting upon it.[3] Rav Froman boldly suggests that all of religion, God included, may be humanity’s attempt to “explain that basic, instinctive, human thing called ‘prayer.’”[4] These two themes come together in Singer’s brief introduction, which then explains that, because of these two themes, the rest of the book will be very different.

After that short introduction, the form of the book changes drastically. Each section starts with powerful snippets on prayer from traditional Jewish texts (from the Mishnah to Rambam to Rebbe Naḥman) and from contemporary Israeli poetry. Then it briefly depicts forms of prayer, such as supplication, praise, dialogic encounter, or connecting with nature, and provides practical instructions, “recipes,” for practicing these forms. Some of the “recipes” are meant for individuals, some for pairs, and some for groups. The common thread is that they show the reader how to pray, without trying to explain why to pray or what that even means.

And that, perhaps, is the weakness of the book, and why Heschel’s encouragement of non-reflective prayer is somewhat ironically located in a very reflective book. Tikon Tefilati can tell you how to pray, but it can’t tell you why to pray, or what prayer is. While it serves as an excellent guide for someone who is already praying, it cannot explain to someone who does not pray why they should start. For someone who finds prayer impossible, practical advice on how to pray is useless at best. The book thus carves out a niche audience for itself – those who want to pray, but do not know how – much as as a cookbook serves only those who want to cook, but don’t know what to make.

I would end by noting that the book succeeds in being emotionally impactful on all levels. The quoted texts are powerful, and the graphic design is striking on each and every page. It will be pleasing to those who would pray.

[1] The original article was published in Conservative Judaism and Jewish Law, ed. Seymour Siegel, (New York, 1977).

[2] R. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God (Santa Fe: Aurora Press, 1998), 99-100. Emphasis in original.

[3] Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan (Alon Shevut: Mekhon Kitvei Harav Shagar, 2012), vol. 1, 77-8. An English translation of this text will appear in Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Essential Essays of Rav Shagar (Jerusalem: Urim Press, forthcoming), trans. Levi Morrow, ed. Alan Brill.

Dr. Smadar Cherlow has an excellent treatment of this source in the second chapter of her book on Postmodern Judaism in contemporary Israel. See Smadar Cherlow, Mi Haziz Et Hayahadut Sheli (Tel Aviv: Resling Books, 2016), 71-88.

[4] Rav Menaḥem Froman, Hasidim Tsoḥakim Mizeh (Jerusalem: Tsur Ot, 2016), §179, p. 160.

Rabbi Josh Gerstein’s “A People, A Country, A Heritage”

While I normally try to give my book reviews pithy titles that sum up the main themes of the book in a single phrase, Rabbi Josh Gerstein’s “A People, A Country, A Heritage” is a little too broad for that. The book contains two short pieces on each of the weekly Torah portions from the biblical books of Bereshit and Shemot, each containing a relatively unique set of idea. So in lieu of attempting to sum up the book’s themes, I want to briefly discuss its format, which I think will give a better idea of the book overall.

a-people-a-country

As I mentioned above, the book follows the traditional structure of the weekly Torah portion, containing two self-contained essays on each week’s portion. For the most part, the essays start by proposing a textual difficulty and a possible resolution, and then using that as a springboard to a larger philosophical discussion. For example, the first essay on Parashat Tetzaveh begins by asking why the description of the structure on the Mishkan mentions the daily Tamid offerings, which would be more at home in Vayikra or Bemidbar. While the essays often solve the textual difficulty by quoting a medieval biblical commentator, this essay goes straight to a text by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who says that the daily offering was in intrinsic to the purpose of the Mishkan, so it made sense for the Torah to mention it in a discussion of the structure itself. The textual difficulty thus resolved, Gerstein moves into a discussion of the place of repeated, daily, might I say even monotonous, ritual within Judaism, bringing more quotes from the Rav Aharon Lichtenstein text.

While perhaps most of the essays take this form, many take the form of self-contained explorations of a given topic. They always have some sort of connection to Torah portion, but they are essentially independent. For example, Parashat Terumah discusses the donations given for the construction of the Mishkan, and “A People, A Country, A Heritage” features a corresponding essay focusing on different medieval and modern authorities’ opinions regarding a Jew’s responsibility for building the 3rd Temple, and ending with practical steps, such as education, that are viable according to all opinions.

This essay is in keeping with the one major theme throughout the book, appearing in the lion’s share of the essays: the land of Israel. As evident from the book’s title, Gerstein is interested in discussing the relationship of the land with the Jewish people and their heritage. While the book is not attempting to argue for any given position, it takes the important role of the land within Judaism as a given. However, it does not focus on the contemporary state or the Zionist movement, but on the land itself. While the land comes up in obvious locations, such as in an essay on Avraham buying the Cave of Makhpelah for Parashat Hayye Sarah, it also appears in more surprising essays, such as an essay for Parashat Terumah discussing the symbolic meaning of the Mishkan’s structure and vessels.

The essays in the book are on the shorter side, making them convenient for reading on a busy Shabbat, though I sometimes wished they went a little more in-depth. That said, they provided me a window into some contemporary thinkers, such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, whose works I have not had the chance to study myself, and for that I am grateful.

Shiur: Adar 2018 – Today, All Beginnings Start from Purim

Sources:

Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a, Koren Translation

The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: The Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai.

(שמות יט, יז) ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר א”ר אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקב”ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם א”ר אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא אמר רבא אעפ”כ הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש דכתיב (אסתר ט, כז) קימו וקבלו היהודים קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר.

Rebbe Nahman, Lekutei Moharan II:74, Sefaria Translation

After Purim we read the portion called Parah, as a preparation for Pesach. For we read Parah in order to be careful with regards to purification from the impurity of a corpse, in order to be pure for Pesach. And in the beginning, it has the aspect of Pur (“lot”), and Purim is also named after the Pur. Afterwards, it is read as Parah, since Purim is certainly on the way to Pesach.

This is like the verse, (Song of Songs 5:13) “His lips are lilies, dripping with myrrh.” Lips are like Pesach, which is [a homonym of] Peh Sach, a speaking mouth; Shoshana, meaning lilies, is Esther (according to the Zohar, and they have equivalent numerical values); “Dripping with myrrh” refers to Mordechai, who is [hinted at in the translation of the verse (Exodus 30:23) Mor Dror, from the language of freedom, like the freedom of Pesach. Therefore, the letters of Purim are hinted at in [the issues of] Pesach, in the verse (Exodus 23:15), “Seven days shall you eat matzah, as I have commanded, in its time in the month of Aviv, in which you left Egypt, and you shall not encounter Me empty-handed.” The initial letters [of the last five words] spell Purim. For Purim is on the way to Pesach, so that they could be careful with regards to chametz. [Here Rabbi Nachman stopped in the middle of the issue, and did not reveal more.]

For in the beginning, all the beginnings began at Pesach, and therefore the mitzvot are all in memory of the exodus from Egypt. But now… [And he didn’t finish.]

אַחַר פּוּרִים קוֹרִין פָּרָשַׁת פָּרָה, שֶׁהִיא הֲכָנָה לְפֶסַח כִּי פָּרָשַׁת פָּרָה קוֹרִין, כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּהְיוּ נִזְהָרִין לִטָּהֵר מִטֻּמְאַת מֵת כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּהְיוּ טְהוֹרִין לַעֲשׂוֹת הַפֶּסַח. ובתחילה הוא בחינת פּוּר, כִּי פּוּרִים עַל שֵׁם הַפֻּר (אֶסְתֵּר ט וְעַיֵּן בְּכַוָּנוֹת הָאַרִיזַ”ל בְּסוֹד הִפִּיל פּוּר וּבְסוֹד פָּרָה אַדֻמָּה), וְאַחַר כָּך נַעֲשֶׂה פָּרָ”ה כִּי גַּם פּוּרִים הוּא בְּוַדַּאי הִלּוּך וְדֶרֶך לְפֶסַח.

וזהו בחינת (שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים ה) “שִׂפְתוֹתָיו שׁוֹשַׁנִּים נטְפוֹת מוֹר עבֵר”. שִׂפְתוֹתָיו זֶה בְּחִינַת הפֶּסַח – פֶּה סָח (כַּמּוּבָא). שׁוֹשַׁנָּה הִיא אֶסְתֵּר, (כַּמּוּבָא בַּזּהַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ וּבְכִתְבֵי הָאֲרִיזַ”ל) [שׁוֹשַׁנָּה גִּימַטְרִיָּא אֶסְתֵּר] נטְפוֹת מוֹר עבֵר זֶה בְּחִינַת מָרְדֳּכַי – מָר דְּרוֹר (חֻלִּין קלט:), לְשׁוֹן חֵרוּת, בְּחִינַת חֵרוּת שֶׁל פֶּסַח. וְעַל כֵּן צֵרוּף שֶׁל פּוּרִים מְרֻמָּז בְּפֶסַח, בַּפָּסוּק (שְׁמוֹת כ”ג): “שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תּאכַל מַצּוֹת כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִך לְמוֹעֵד חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, כִּי בוֹ יָצָאתָ מִמִּצְרָיִם וְלא יֵרָאוּ פָנַי רֵיקָם” מִמִּצְרָיִם וְלא יֵרָאוּ פָנַי רֵיקָם – רָאשֵׁי תֵבוֹת פּוּרִים, כִּי פּוּרִים הוּא דֶּרֶך לְפֶסַח, שֶׁיִּהְיוּ יְכוֹלִים לִהְיוֹת נִזְהָרִין מֵחָמֵץ. [וּפָסַק בְּאֶמְצַע הָעִנְיָן וְלא גִּלָּה יוֹתֵר]

כִּי בַּתְּחִלָּה הָיוּ כָּל הַהַתְחָלוֹת מִפֶּסַח וְעַל כֵּן כָּל הַמִּצְווֹת הֵם זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. ועכשו… [וְלא סִיֵּם]

Rav Menahem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh, pp. 33-34

Rebbe Nahman often stops in the middle of a topic. However, in one place, he actually stops right in the middle of a sentence. “For in the beginning, all the beginnings began at Pesach, and therefore the mitzvot are all in memory of the exodus from Egypt. But now” (Lekutei Moharan II:74). His intent was that, in classical Judaism, all of the commandments memorialize the exodus from Egypt, but now we have reached a new era, an era of laughter and freedom (ḥofesh). Until now, all the commandments were very serious. Pesaḥ is about pathos. The Torah has lots of pathos, its 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 memorialize the laughter of Purim, not the pathos of Pesaḥ.

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 live? 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 live. 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.

(see parallel passage in #82, p. 74)

יש כמה מקומות שר׳ נחמן הפסיק משהו באמצע. אבל במקום אחד הוא הפסיק ממש באמצע המשפט: ״כי בתחלה הלך כל ההתחלות מפסח, ועל כך כל המצוות הם זכר ליציאת מצרים. ועכשו” (לקוטי מוהר”ן תנינא ע”ד). הכוונה כאן היא שביהדות הקלאסית כל המצוות הן זכר ליציאת מצרים, ועכשיו הגיע עידן חדש – עידן הצחוק והחופש. עד עכשיו כל המצוות היו עניין רציני. פסח זה פאתוס. התורה היא פאתטית, מלאת רצינות. ועכשיו יש לנו עידן חדש, תורה חדשה, תורת ארץ ישראל, תורתו של משיח. כל המצוות הן זכר לצחוק של פורים ולא לפאתוס של פסח.

להיות או לא להיות זו שאלה רצינית וכבדת משקל, אך באותו מחזה שייקספיר כותב גם שכל העולם במה, הכול משחק. אתם שומעים אותי אומר שהשאלה הכי חשובה בחיים היא לחיות או לא לחיות? כל השאלה הזאת היא צחוק, היא משחק… היא משחק…

יש דבר שהוא מעל השאלה אם לחיות או לא לחיות, ואפילו מעל פיקוח נפש שדוחה שבת. מהו הדבר שמעל פיקוח נפש? לפני ה׳, לפני ה׳, להיות לפני ה׳ בעולם הזה ובעולם הבא, להיות לפני ה׳ ולדעת שכל מה שעשינו עד עכשיו זה צחוק. בחיים, במוות, זה צחוק לפני ה׳.

Rav Shagar, Zeman Shel Herut, p, 68

To understand this piece from Rebbe Naḥman, we have to distinguish between ḥofesh and ḥerut. Rebbe Naḥman teaches us that ḥofesh is an introductory step which creates the ḥerut of Pesaḥ, “Mor Dror, from the language of freedom (ḥerut), like the freedom (ḥerut) of Pesach.” Purim and Pesaḥ parallel ḥofesh and ḥerut. Purim, when we celebrate the lottery (pur) and man’s anarchic freedom (ḥofesh), is when we freely choose the freedom (ḥerut) of Pesaḥ, of personal essence and identity. This is an experience of Jewishness as a self-enclosed world, which finds its justification in itself. It is the experience of divine chosenness. For Rav Kook, the anarchic, “Purim-style” freedom (hofesh) lets us elevate our nature, our Pesach-style freedom (ḥerut). Rebbe Nahman here says otherwise. He says that anarchic freedom (ḥofesh) enables us to create ḥerut-freedom. We can create our very nature! This path of creation does not depend on the facts; it creates them. Freedom, as Sartre understood it, therefore exists even within holiness.

We are therefore faced with two paths. There is the path of “be who you are,” but there is also a more radical path: The ability to create your freedom (ḥerut), your “I.” Perhaps this was Rebbe Naḥman meant by the cryptic line that appears at the end of the teaching: “For in the beginning, all the beginnings began at Pesach, and therefore the mitsvot are all in memory of the exodus from Egypt. But now…” Today, all the beginnings start from Purim.

ראשית, יש להבדיל בין החירות והחופש. ר׳ נחמן מלמדנו כי החופש הוא ההקדמה, כינון החירות של פסח ״מר דרור לשון חרות בחינת חרות של פסח״. פורים ופסח מקבילים כאן לחופש ולחירות. פורים, שהוא חג הפור והחופש האנרכי שבידי האדם, הוא הבחירה החופשית בחירות הפסח של העצמיות והזהות. זהו בעצם ציר של הקיום הישראלי כמעגל עולם, שמוצא את טעמו בעצמו – ה״אתה בחרתנו״. אצל הראי”ה ראינו כי החופש האנרכי, ה״פורימי״, מאפשר לרומם את החירות של הטבע, חירות הפסח: אך מדבריו של ר’ נחמן עולה גם כי החופש האנרכי הנו היכולת לכונן את החירות – ניתן לכונן את הטבע עצמו! זהו מסלול של יצירה שאיננה נשענת על העובדות, אלא מכוננת אותן. בכך מופנם אל תוך הקדושה גם החופש הסארטרי.

אם כן, ישנה הדרך של ׳להיות מה שאתה׳; וישנה דרך רדיקלית יותר: היכולת ליצור מחדש את החירות שלך, את ה״אני״ שלך. ואולי זו כוונתו של ר’ נחמן במשפט הסתום המופיע בסוף תורה זו: ״כי בתחילה היו כל ההתחלות מפסח, ועל כן כל המצוות הם זכר ליציאת מצרים. ועכשיו…״. היום ההתחלות הן מפורים.

Covenant and Creativity: Zvi Grumet’s ‘Genesis’

Over four hundred pages long, Genesis: From Creation to Covenant, Rabbi Zvi Grumet’s new book on Sefer Bereshit, is an intimidating book. But as I made my way through those four hundred pages, I found each one to be engaging, accessible, and brimming with meaningful interpretations of the Torah.

The book is aptly named – Grumet consistently emphasizes the personal creativity and values that God expects from his covenantal partners, from Adam to Yosef. In a broader sense, Grumet’s interpretations are incredibly creative, and are clearly guided by a deep sense of covenant and values.

A good example of Grumet’s creativity makes itself known right at the beginning of the book, when he discusses the creation of the world in six days in the first chapter of Bereshit. It’s commonplace for people talking about this chapter to point out that the “days” cannot be days in the way we think of them, because we measure days by the rotation of the earth relative to the sun, something that would have been impossible to do before the fourth “day” of creation. What is less commonplace is people attempting to explain what the Torah actually means by the words  “day” and “night,” if they can’t be meant literally. Grumet takes up this challenge with gusto. Thinking deeply about the text, he argues that a “day” designates a productive period, a time when God is creating, while “night” designates an unproductive period. This has the added advantage of sharpening the contrast between the first six “days,” defined by their productivity, and the seventh day, Shabbat, when God refrains from productive labor even during the “day time.” God completes the world on the seventh day by introducing the idea of unproductive time, time when you could create, but don’t.

Grumet provides thoughtful and innovative treatments of chapters 2-11 of Bereshit, but the majority of the book is dedicated to chapters 12-50, which focus on the lives of the Avot. Right away, Grumet breaks new ground, with a novel argument about why God chose Avraham. Famously, God speaks to Avraham (then Avram) without warning at the beginning of Bereshit 12; the text gives no explanation for why God chose Avraham as opposed to anyone else. The Maharal suggests that this arbitrary divine grace is the whole point of the story, while Bereshit Rabbah says that Avraham discovered God on his own. Grumet jumps to a later passage, arguing that it can and should be read as the answer to why God chose Avraham (Bereshit 18:17-19):

Now the Lord had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.”

Avraham is a person who will educate his children, and their children after them, “to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right.” He knows that the family unit is the best structure for inculcating values and teaching people how to live a covenantal life. This focus on family defines Avraham’s narratives, from his desperate need for a son, to his fighting a war to save his nephew, to his ensuring that his son marries a suitable bride. God chose Avraham, Grumet argues, because of how Avraham values family.

Grumet’s most interesting suggestion, in my opinion, is his understanding of why God criticized Sarah’s laughter, but not Avraham’s. In Bereshit 17, God tells Avraham that Yishmael will not inherit the covenant from Avraham; Sarah, not Hagar, is the covenantal wife, and his heir will be born through her. Caught off guard by the idea of a couple so advanced in age having a child, Avraham laughs at God’s statement, though he does not question it, and God lets this pass without incident. Just a chapter later, Sarah laughs similarly when hearing that she will bear a child, and God interrogates Avraham, asking why Sarah laughed. While traditional commentators have given many explanations for these different reactions, Grumet gives the first answer that I have felt really fits the text. He points out that if they are laughing out of shock and surprise, then it is fine for Avraham to laugh because God is announcing a seemingly impossible piece of information for the first time. When Sarah laughs, however, God is making this announcement for the second time and Sarah should not be surprised. Unless, of course, Avraham didn’t tell Sarah this bit of life-changing news. This is why God interrogates Avraham about Sarah’s laughter, rather than turning to Sarah directly. God is asking Avraham, “Why didn’t you tell her that she is going to bear a son, the heir to the covenant?!” For all his appreciation of family, Avraham doesn’t understand that God has a vested interest not just in his children but also in his spouse—that Sarah has a part in God’s covenant just like Avraham. Getting this message through to Avraham is a process stretching from Bereshit 17 through Bereshit 21, when Avraham sends Hagar and Yishmael away for good.

The idea that Avraham has to learn this idea over the course of several smaller stories is part of a larger approach in From Creation to Covenant. Grumet argues that each of the Avot had some flaw or challenge that they learn to overcome throughout their stories. Avraham grows to appreciate the full scope of the covenantal family, but also learns that sometimes family is not the most important part of the covenant (hence Akedat Yitzchak). Yitzchak learns both to be independent from his father and, paradoxically, that he is not meant to innovate anything significant beyond what his father left him. Yaakov has to learn to confront people honestly, rather than deceiving and evading them. Yehudah needs to learn about family and responsibility while Yosef struggles with arrogance and attributing his successes to God.

The enthusiasm with which Grumet explores the flaws and development of the Avot is a double-edged sword. It makes the Avot much more relatable to the reader—these rich characters struggle with the same things that we do. It also highlights the specific covenantal values that God works to inculcate in each figure, making it clear exactly what the reader should take away with them. However, depicting the Avot as flawed characters may be a step too far for some readers. Grumet is careful to point out where he has support from traditional commentators, but he definitely goes beyond them in some cases. Each reader will have to decide for himself if humanizing the Avot profanes them, or allows us to really see the holiness of God’s covenantal, educational, process.

Taken as a whole, Genesis: From Creation to Covenant is a brilliant and accessible work. Its reader will gain a cohesive understanding of Sefer Bereshit, from “In the beginning” to Yosef’s parting words. Weaving such a comprehensive tapestry clearly required immense dedication and creativity (at times perhaps risking a bit too much of the latter), and Grumet is to be commended for this impressive work.

Smashing the Aravot to Bits as a Reenactment of Jewish History

Sukkot is, to modern eyes, perhaps the strangest Jewish holiday, and its seventh day is by far the strangest. For the whole week of Sukkot, Orthodox Jews take a four-part floral arrangement and shake it in all directions. On the seventh day, known as “Hoshanah Rabbah,” they take one of the four parts, willow branches, and smash a bundle of them into the ground repeatedly. The original reason behind the ritual is unknown, but it’s energetic alienness demands explanation. While attempts to divine it’s reason abound, none can ever definitively claim to be the original reason. In what follows, I want to do something different, similar to what John Caputo has called a “short-circuit” (See the first few chapters of “The Weakness of God”) – I want to wire together this ritual with several texts that never had each other in mind, because they resonate deeply with each other, and because this short-circuit produces something true and worth saying. By the end of this process, I hope to have arrived not at the meaning of the ritual, but a meaning the ritual may bear today.

Jumping right in, there is a famous rabbinic text comparing the four species of flora use on Sukkot to four different types of Jews, based on their possessing or lacking A. Torah and B. good deeds (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12, which I have previously written about here). The last of the four that the text discusses is the willow: “‘And brook willows’ – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds.” The willow branches, as opposed to the other plants, represent Jews who have nothing specifically Jewish about them. They are characterized neither by Jewish cognitive content, Torah, nor by Jewish actions. In short, they are Jewish in name only.

Being Jewish in name only is a topic that Rav Tsadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin explores in Tsidkat Hatsadik #54 (English translation to come when the time allows):

עיקר היהדות – בקריאת שם ישראל. כמו שנאמר זה יאמר לה’ אני וגו’ ובשם ישראל יכנה. שלא יהיה לו רק מעלה זו שמכונה בשם ישראל די. ומצינו בריש פרק כלל גדול (שבת סח:) גר שנתגייר בין האומות ומביא חטאת על החלב והדם והשבת ועבודה זרה, עיין שם דלא ידע כלל שזה אסורה ואפילו על עבודה זרה ושבת. ונמצא שלא ידע כלל מכל התורה, ובמה הוא גר להתחייב חטאת, רק בקריאת שם ישראל די.

In this first paragraph, Rav Tsadok discusses the Babylonian Talmud’s statement (Shabbat 68b) that a convert who converted among non-Jews has to bring a sacrifice when they join the Jewish community, to atone for sins they may have committed unknowingly. The convert has no knowledge of even Shabbat or idolatry so in what sense have they converted, ask Rav Tsadok. His answer: they are called by the name “Israel” – they are Jewish in name, if only that. This, in fact, is the essence of conversion, for “the essence of Judaism is being called by the name ‘Israel.”

What does it mean to be Jewish in name, and even only in name, that it is so much more significant than having Jewish thoughts or actions? What is the advantage of the willow branches over the other Sukkot plants?

When you have Jewish thoughts or actions, then you have specific Jewish parts of who you are. You do Jewish acts and you think Jewish thoughts, and you may participate in non-Jewish thoughts and actions alongside these. When you are Jewish in name, then all of your thoughts and actions are Jewish by definition, regardless of their content. To be Jewish in name is to be all-pervasively Jewish; every part of you is Jewish simply by definition. It is this Jewish name that characterizes willow branch-Jews, as opposed to all others.

 

What does all of this mean for the Hoshanah Rabbah ritual, wherein the willow branches are smashed against the ground, coming apart with every blow? I would like to explain that in light of a passage from Frank Rosenzweig’s “The Star of Redemption.” In context of a discussion of Jewish chosenness, Rosenzweig states:

Judaism, and it alone in all the world, maintains itself by subtraction, by contraction, by the forma­tion of ever new remnants. This happens quite extensively in the face of the constant external secession. But it is equally true also within Judaism itself. It constantly divests itself of un-Jewish elements in order to produce out of itself ever new remnants of archetypal Jewish elements. Outwardly it constantly assimilates only to be able again and again to set itself apart on the inside. (trans. William Hallo, p. 404)

Whereas other nations and religions maintain themselves by expanding, Rosenzweig says, Judaism maintains itself by contracting. Like other groups, Judaism constantly develops new forms, absorbs new ideas, and generally finds new ways to grow. Unlike other groups, however, Judaism quickly sheds all of these new manifestations, in a constant process of elimination, ever condensing toward a core Jewishness, a Jewishness that has no content, that is Jewish in name only. This core, which Rosenzweig identifies with the prophetic “remnant of Israel” (שארית ישראל), is what persisted throughout Jewish history, as all kinds of specific types of Judaism have  disappeared or broken away. That isn’t to say that Rosenzweig identifies the remnant of Israel with traditional Rabbinic Judaism. Rather, he identifies it with Jews who are Jewish in name, whose whole existence is bound up in being Jewish, so that everything they do and say is Jewish, by definition.

Smashing the willow branches against the ground reenacts Rosenzweig’s vision of Jewish history. The willow branches, representing the in-name-only Jews, the Jews who are Jewish whether or not they know Torah or do mitsvot, are smashed against the ground of history. They slowly come apart, losing bits of leaf with every strike, but the core of the branch remains. So too the core of Judaism, the Jews whose Judaism has defined them inherently, regardless of their thoughts or deeds, has survived the travails of history. When we smash the willow branches into the ground, we may remind ourselves of the necessity of this in-name-only Jewishness. The ritual could challenge us, calling us to be “called by the name ‘Israel.’”

 

[as with many of my recent posts, much of my thinking and interpreting here is owed to influence from Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]

Audio Class Recording: Rav Shagar on Teshuvah and the Disengagement

This is the audio of a class I gave, on 14/09/17, on excerpts from Rav Shagar’s essay “תשובה והתנתקות” in the lead-up to the High Holidays. Just a warning to any listeners, it was a very discussion-based class, so it stretched circuitously for most of two hours (~01:40:00, I think). The audio is in m4a format. (It’s also on YouTube).

This is the source sheet upon which the class was based. I translated the selections myself, without any proper proofreader, so they are not perfect.

This is the original Hebrew essay from which the English excerpts were translated.

If you have any questions, comments, or feedback they are always appreciated.