Shiur: Masters of Disguise – Adar Alef 2019

Masters of Disguise

1. Rav Shagar, Zeman Shel Ḥerut, 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 […] 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.

 

2. Adam Seligman, “Ritual, the Self, and Sincerity,” Social Research 76, no. 4 (2009)

To invoke ritual then is not to eschew change. It is, however, to value the past, to give credence to tradition, to accept that we, each and every one of us, are not the beginning and end of existence. It is to articulate a vision of autonomy that does not stand in negation of the past but, one where, as in the Jewish practice, “the ways of our fathers’ are in our hands.” Ritual in fact continues to provide an ongoing arena of creativity and tradition, acceptance and obligation. Ritual practice becomes the arena where the dynamic of that third space, the potential space within which cultural creativity takes place, is worked out. Here an analogy with the world of art is I think very appropriate. For artistic production certainly flows along similar lines and while the world of post-romantic artistic production in Western Europe is one where the aesthetic experience is almost equated with individual expressionism; there have been millennia of human aesthetic production that developed exactly along the lines I outline here. In fact, even the production of icons—that most formalistic and circumscribed of genres—has been shown to exhibit personal and idiosyncratic traits of each iconographer. In that context we can perhaps speak of the individual artist existing within the tradition. It may even be appropriate to talk of the individual artistic creation existing only through a tradition. (1093)

II. Torah like You Mean It

3. Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 28a

It was taught: On that day they dismissed the guard at the door and permission was granted to the students to enter. For Rabban Gamliel had proclaimed: Any student whose inside is not like his outside may not enter the study hall. On that day several benches were added. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Abba Yosef ben Dostai and the Rabbis disputed this. One said: Four hundred benches were added. And one said: Seven hundred benches were added.

 

4. Adam Seligman, “Ritual, the Self, and Sincerity,” Social Research 76, no. 4 (2009)

The sincere mode of behavior seeks to replace the “mere convention” of ritual with a genuine and thoughtful state of internal conviction. Rather than becoming what we do in action through ritual, we do according to what we have become through self-examination. This form of thought emphasizes tropes of “authenticity” and each individual thus takes on an enormous responsibility. (1079)

 

5. Rav Shagar, Chance and Providence, “The Mystery of Disguise,” 84-88

Translated by Naftali Moses

The first person we meet in the Bible to wear a disguise is Yaakov; Yaakov assumes the guise of Esav, his brother, his enemy. “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav.” Yaakov’s hands are wrapped in goat skin-the same goat that will be cast to Azazel on Yom Kippur. He also wears the garb of Esav, his outer appearance, in order to win the blessings of his father. […]

“For game was in his mouth”-Esav’s power lies in his mouth. Esav also inherits Yaakov’s voice. He wraps himself in his voice, the sound of the Torah. Esav lacks the truth of Yaakov. All of his actions are false. All are done merely for the sake of appearance-but he dares to be Yaakov. This is the religiosity of this world: religiosity founded on lies. […]

So Yaakov impersonates Esav who impersonates Yaakov. Back and forth. Religious truth in this world appears firmly secular. The large measure of self-negation that true religiosity demands from its adherents seems to arouse stern judgment’s opposition. The righteous must then clothe himself in the garb of false external religiosity so that he may appear as a tzadik in this world. Not only in order to gain from the material world must he lie, but even in order to retain his persona of spirituality. If he would be true to himself, he would not be thought of as righteous, nor would he be able to act in the world as such. He gives up that most dear to him-his own inner self-in order to be understood by others.

The wicked attempt to imitate his garb, making a mockery of righteousness itself. Dressed the part, the wicked man does not feel the absurdity of his situation. Judging all by external appearances, he truly believes that he is one of the righteous. The trickery of Esav is not simple. It is not conscious subterfuge, but runs much deeper than that. lt is utter self-deception. He sees this world as true; he identifies reality with mere appearances. From his point of view, the attempts to find favor in his father’s eyes are honest. They even bear fruit. The side of strict judgment, the source of this world, is satisfied with his efforts. Only the true tzadik is capable of seeing through the facade of the wicked. But cannot expose him lest he himself be seen as one of the wicked as well.

 

6. Adam Seligman, “Ritual, the Self, and Sincerity,” Social Research 76, no. 4 (2009)

Ritual concentrates on the performative nature of the act rather than on its denotative meaning. In fact, pure ritual puts questions of belief or truth aside in favor of the shared world that its action creates and requires. The very external, performative aspects of ritual—especially its repetition and recollection of places and times not given to purely rational or instrumental computation—give it a unique lability. Thus does ritual encompasses the ambiguity of life in a unique manner. It allows one to “play” with such ambiguity in a manner precluded by an undue concern with the authenticity of one’s actions and beliefs. Ritual unshackles the mind from a need to believe in a dogma of our choosing, as long as we act properly. (1076-77)

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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.