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.]

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Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 – Identity vs. Actions

There is an oft-quoted midrash that most people are familiar with about how the four species, one of Sukkot’s most notable mitsvot, correspond to four different types of people found in the nation of Israel. This midrash is often quoted to talk about the value of diversity or how ever Jew has a place within Judaism, ideas that are important, to be sure, but ones that I think miss the power of how the midrash follows up the typology of Israelite-flora correspondences. Below is the text of the midrash and an English translation,[1] after which I will examine some of the neglected lines, without pretending to exhaust the meaning of this midrash.

דבר אחר: פרי עץ הדר, אלו ישראל. מה אתרוג זה, יש בו טעם ויש בו ריח. כך ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם, שיש בהם תורה, ויש בהם מעשים טובים. כפות תמרים, אלו ישראל. מה התמרה הזו, יש בו טעם ואין בו ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם תורה ואין בהם מעשים טובים. וענף עץ עבות, אלו ישראל. מה הדס, יש בו ריח ואין בו טעם.כך ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם מעשים טובים ואין בהם תורה. וערבי נחל, אלו ישראל. מה ערבה זו, אין בה טעם ואין בה ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם שאין בהם לא תורה ולא מעשים טובים. ומה הקב”ה עושה להם? לאבדן אי אפשר, אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא יוקשרו כולם אגודה אחת, והן מכפרין אלו על אלו, ואם עשיתם כך אותה שעה אני מתעלה, הדא הוא דכתיב (עמוס ט): הבונה בשמים מעלותיו. ואימתי הוא מתעלה? כשהן עשויין אגודה אחת, שנאמר (שם): ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה. לפיכך משה מזהיר לישראל: ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון:

Another explanation: “The fruit of a beautiful tree” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this citron (etrog), which has taste and has smell, so too Israel has among them people that have Torah and have good deeds. “The branches of a date palm” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this date, which has taste and has no smell, so too Israel has among them those that have Torah but do not have good deeds. “And a branch of a braided tree (a myrtle)” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this myrtle, which has smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them those that have good deeds but do not have Torah. “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. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.” And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.” Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The majority of the text of the midrash is taken up by laying out the correspondences one after the other. After the midrash gets to the last correspondence, however, it does not simply move on.

“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. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.”

Faced with a category of Jews who do not have any meritorious actions, ritual or ethical, to their name, the midrash asks what God should do with such people. It raises the possibility that they should be destroyed by way of rejecting the possibility, in favor of proposing that national unity can enable “these” to “atone for those.”

The first point of note here is that the midrash is asking what should be done with such people. The question implies that the whole description of the various types of Jews isn’t just an exercise in description, or in midrashic creativity. There is a sense that some sort of Divine judgment[2] is at work, and this group of Jews have no merit that should enable them to survive. Presumably this is working off the way Sukkot comes hot on the heels of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, traditionally understood as a time of Divine judgment and forgiveness.

What’s interesting is that it is inconceivable that God would destroy this section of the Jewish people. Given that fact, God has to then justify their survival, which he does by way prescribing national unity. This national unity does more than simply justify their survival, however; it actually atones for these Jews.[3]

This is an important turn in the midrash. Just a few lines before, these Jews had not a single merit on their side, to the point where their survival of Divine judgment had to be justified by God himself. Now they have been atoned for.[4] They are now worthy to survive in and of themselves.

This leads to a different conception of Divine judgment than what the midrash started out with. The initial standard of evaluation used by the midrash was based on people’s actions, ritual and ethical, and to receive a positive evaluation was to have performed positive ritual or ethical actions. Now, however,  the midrash is suggesting that identity is an important factor in Divine evaluation. A Jew can be deemed meritorious not by virtue of actions they have performed, but by virtue of being part of the Jewish people.

“Being part of the Jewish people” is something of an ambiguous idea. It might just mean identifying as a Jew, without any external actions attached to that. Or it might mean that you have to express this identity in some way, likely in your relationship to your Jews. However, given that the midrash says they Jews don’t have any ethical or ritual actions to their merit, it seems likely that this national unity is just a function of internal identity. We thus emerge from the typological correspondences of the midrash with a standard of evaluation where, in order to survive Divine Judgment, you have to either have performed certain actions, or simply possess the identify as a part of the Jewish nation.

This unity of national identity is articulated not just as an ideal state by which to survive judgment, but as an instruction from God to the Jews to unite in order to make sure even the most marginalized survive judgment. To paraphrase, the Jews who have acted righteously are essentially told, “You want to save the rest of the Jews? Help them feel Jewish.” Importantly, they are not told to help the other Jews perform more mitsvot or to do more good in the world. That would potentially be a solution, moving the Jews of the fourth category, the “willow Jews,” into the previous floral categories But God, according to the midrash, does not take that route; God does not turn to what we typically think of as “kiruv.” It seems to be less important to God, at least for the purposes of the present Divine judgment, that the Jews perform ritual and ethical actions than that they identify as Jewish. The next line of the midrash takes it beyond just the practical needs of the present judgment, however.

And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.”

The unity of the Jews leads to the elevation of God. The identifying of all of the Jews as Jewish, more even than their performance of mitsvot, leads to the elevation of God. This unity is not just a practical move in order to help the Jews survive judgment; it is a goal unto itself. It might be argued that it is the survival of the Jews in judgment that elevates God, but the midrash preempts that argument by using a verse from Amos to explicitly link God’s elevation to Israel’s unity. It is thus the very fact of the Jews’ collective existence and identity that elevates God.

This may serve as an explanation for why God cannot destroy the meritless among the Jewish people. The midrash posits an inherent connection between the elevation of God (whatever that means) and the national body of the Jewish people. So destroying Jews, even just a small part of the larger collective, goes against God’s elevation.

This also leads to a sharp conclusion: It is more important that the Jews exist as a collective group with a shared identity than that Jews should perform specific actions. While this might seem strange to some, it is well grounded in an important idea from Tanakh. This is the idea that God sometimes saves the Israelite nation for the sake of God’s name.[5] God is connected to the bodily existence of the Jewish nation (a relationship of elevation, according to our midrash) so it’s destruction is something God has an active interest in avoiding. Thus even when the Israelites are sinning, to the point where they would merit destruction, God may still avert this destruction for the sake of God’s Name. This midrash can thus be seen as extending this idea to a new and exciting conclusion: it is not just the national collective that God is interested in saving for the sake of God’s name, but also individual Jews, meritorious or not.

 

Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The midrash then funnels all of this theological momentum into the mitsvah of of the four species. The mitsvah is a reminder of the importance of Jewish identity. Regardless of the importance of what actions we do or not perform, the essential point is that we identify as part of the Jewish nation.

 

[1] Hebrew text and translation from http://www.sefaria.org/Vayikra_Rabbah.30.12?lang=bi&with=Amos&lang2=en.

[2] Judgment in this article should be understood as shorthand for judgment of the Jews specifically.

[3] Due the the midrash’s use of inherently vague pronouns, it is possible to understand the midrash is suggesting that each type of Jew atones for some lack in all the others, and perhaps even that God has to justify not destroying all of different types of Jews. I find such a reading unlikely and forced, however, but rejecting that specific reading goes beyond the scope of this article.

[4] Notably, “atonement” usually has to do with removal of actual sin rather than a lack of merit. The midrash seems to assume that people who lack merit are inherently sinful, or are for sure also sinning, or something to that effect. Examining this understanding of merit and human nature would be an intriguing topic for a different composition.

[5] I have written about this theme in this essay.

Berakhot 32b – The Subversion of Tefillah

Berakhot 32b – The Subversion of Tefillah

Before you is a gemara from Masekhet Berakhot that I can only describe as subversive. Beneath the main quotation of the whole text is my breakdown and analysis thereof.

 

אמר רבי חנין אמר רבי חנינא: כל המאריך בתפלתו אין תפלתו חוזרת ריקם. מנא לן – ממשה רבינו שנאמר: “ואתפלל אל ה’,” וכתיב בתריה “וישמע ה’ אלי גם בפעם ההיא.”

איני? והא אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: כל המאריך בתפלתו ומעיין בה – סוף בא לידי כאב לב, שנאמר: “תוחלת ממשכה מחלה לב,” מאי תקנתיה – יעסוק בתורה, שנאמר “ועץ חיים תאוה באה,” ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר “עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה!”

לא קשיא, הא – דמאריך ומעיין בה, הא – דמאריך ולא מעיין בה.

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: אם ראה אדם שהתפלל ולא נענה יחזור ויתפלל שנאמר “קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’.”

Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, “And I prayed unto the Lord,” and it is written afterwards, “And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also.”

But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: “If one prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick?’ What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, ‘But desire fulfilled is a tree of life;’ and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!”

There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfilment of his prayer.

Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.” (Translation from halakhah.com)

 

This gemara presents 4 differing approaches to the question of the effectiveness of prayer, with most of them being quite subversive. I’m still not quite sure what to do with this gemara myself, so for now I would just like to lay out the gemara as I understand it.

 

אמר רבי חנין אמר רבי חנינא: כל המאריך בתפלתו אין תפלתו חוזרת ריקם. מנא לן – ממשה רבינו שנאמר: “ואתפלל אל ה’,” וכתיב בתריה “וישמע ה’ אלי גם בפעם ההיא.”

Hanin said in the name of R. Hanina: If one prays long his prayer does not pass unheeded. Whence do we know this? From Moses our Master; for it says, “And I prayed unto the Lord,” and it is written afterwards, “And the Lord hearkened unto me that time also.”

 

Opinion #1, that of Rabbi Hanin and Rabbi Hanina is what I think of as the classical approach to tefillah. Prayer works. If you pray for something you will get a response. If you pray for something and there is no noticeable, presumably positive, response, it is because you are not praying properly. If you want your prayer to succeed, then you have to pray harder. Pray longer. Prayer works, so if it’s not working for you than the problem must be with you/ The flipside is that this means the problem is likely within your power to fix.

 

איני? והא אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: כל המאריך בתפלתו ומעיין בה – סוף בא לידי כאב לב, שנאמר: “תוחלת ממשכה מחלה לב,” מאי תקנתיה – יעסוק בתורה, שנאמר “ועץ חיים תאוה באה,” ואין עץ חיים אלא תורה, שנאמר “עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה!”

But is that so? Has not R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: “If one prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, in the end he will have vexation of heart, as it says, ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick?’ What is his remedy? Let him study the Torah, as it says, ‘But desire fulfilled is a tree of life;’ and the tree of life is nought but the Torah, as it says, ‘She is a tree of life to them that lay hold on her!”

 

Rabbi Hiyya the son of Abba presents Opinion #2, a radically opposite to Opinion #1. Expecting your prayer to work is just going to frustrate you. Tefillah doesn’t “work” in the classical sense. However tefillah is thought to work, it is not a guarantee. It does not itself effect any process in some sort of mechanical way. If you think it does, then prayer will inevitably be a frustrating experience for you. His solution for this frustration is to study Torah, presumably either because A) it is a process the results of which are obvious, thus alleviating the frustration of waiting unendingly for the results of prayer, or, conversely, because B) Torah study is a practice with no expected results, and the change of mindset from result-focused to process-focused relieves the frustration.

 

לא קשיא, הא – דמאריך ומעיין בה, הא – דמאריך ולא מעיין בה.

There is no contradiction: one statement speaks of a man who prays long and looks for the fulfilment of his prayer, the other of one who prays long without looking for the fulfilment of his prayer.

 

The gemara is alive to the fundamental contradiction between the two opinions. The two opinions present opposite results (tefillah works/frustrates) for almost exactly the same process (one who prays long, כל המאריך בתפילתו). The gemara resolves this by focusing on the one difference between the two descriptions of tefillah: “looking for fulfillment,” “המעיין בה.” The gemara thus resolves the contradiction by saying that the two results (works/frustrates) apply to two distinctly different processes.

This provides us with Opinion #3. Tefillah works, but only when you have given up on any thought that it works. If you pray thinking that your tefillah works, that your prayer sets in motion a process leading to the results you desire, then it is seemingly guaranteed that your prayer will not work. If you think tefillah works, then it only frustrates. On a theological level this has its own logic to it. Process A leads to Result A; while Process B leads to Result B. On an existential level, Opinion #3 is asking you to pray without expecting any results from it.

EDIT: It’s important to note, in terms of understanding the Gemara, that at this point one should probably assume Opinions 1 & 2 never existed. They arise in the course of the discussion with a superficial contradiction, but a careful reading by the anonymous voice of the Talmud points out the obvious resolution, leading us to realize that Opinions 1 & 2, then, are really just different facets of one opinion, Opinion #3. My thanks to David Nagarpowers for pushing me to clarify this point.

 

אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: אם ראה אדם שהתפלל ולא נענה יחזור ויתפלל שנאמר “קוה אל ה’ חזק ויאמץ לבך וקוה אל ה’.”

Hama son of R. Hanina said: If a man sees that he prays and is not answered, he should pray again, as it says, “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the Lord.”

 

This last piece of the gemara might seem to be technically separate from the previous pieces. It falls outside the immediate argument, but is also about prayer and thus might have been recorded together. However, I think the connection goes deeper than that. Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina (see the author of Opinion #1) gives us Opinion #4, which is somewhere in between Opinions #1 & #3, while rejecting Opinion #2. Rabbi Hama says that tefillah does not work in a strict sense. There is no one-to-one connection between prayer and result. Thus when one prays one should not expect their prayer to work, but nor should they simply expect their desires to be frustrated. Instead, they should hope. Rav Hama invokes a verse which equates praying with “קוה,” which can be translated as “wait” or “hope.” The verse refers to קוה, then to taking courage, then to קוה again. So too Rav Hama says that a person should pray, then they should not be frustrated if their tefillah is not answered, and then they should pray again.

Opinion #4 says tefilla can work even if you think it works, but also says that it may or may not work no matter what you think. But it’s that “may” that makes it distinct from Opinion #2, indeed from all the previous opinions. All those opinions insisted on an absolute approach to tefillah. It either works, or it doesn’t, or either one depending on the specific conditions of the prayer. Opinion #4 doesn’t leave you with a strong sense of certainty, which can be troubling. But it leaves the options open, and leaves you the ability to hope.

 

This gemara presents 4 opinions about tefillah, with one being the classical approach that “Tefillah works” (#1), while the other three range from simply complicating how tefilla works (#3) to rejecting the idea entirely (#2), suggesting, that rather than working, Tefillah frustrates. Even the more moderate final approaches that the gemara concludes with (#3 & #4) are a strong step away from the classical model that the gemara starts with, and thus this gemara can only be seen as subversive. I’m not sure yet what to make of this gemara, how to fit it into a broader picture of prayer, Hazal, Judaism, etc. I am, however, fascinated by it, and I would love to hear if anyone has any different ways of interpreting it.

Rabbinic Readings – Yael Ziegler’s Ruth

Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy” is the fourth of Maggid Books’ new Tanakh series, Maggid Studies in Tanakh. Written by Dr. Yael Ziegler, Ruth explores the biblical book of Rut, also known as Megillat Rut, from what the author terms a “literary-theological” perspective. The book focuses primarily on three things: (1) the ways in which Megillat Rut responds to and attempts to rectify Sefer Shoftim; (2) the purpose of Megillat Rut, particularly as it relates to interpersonal ethics, kindness, and the establishment of the monarchy; (3) the way rabbinic literature expand on and respond to the biblical text of Megillat Rut. Throughout these explorations, Ruth is both unabashedly traditional and fervently academic, probably the most academic of Maggid’s Tanakh series thus far.

ziegler-ruth_final_2d_1_1Megillat Rut opens with the time-frame within which the book occurs. “And it was in the days of the judging of the judges” (Rut 1:1)[1]. Ziegler discusses the exact meaning of this extensively. She brings in a variety of midrashic opinions that attempt to narrow down exactly when in the several hundred years encompassed by the book of Shoftim the narrative of Megillat Rut is supposed to have occurred, analyzing these rabbinic texts to determine not just what textual cues they are based on but also what thematic elements they are drawing out of the biblical text. This thematic analysis combines with an extensive discussion of the book of Shoftim itself, in an attempt to determine what message about society Sefer Shoftim is trying to convey overall. Concluding that Shoftim depicts a society that is rife with alienation and anarchy,   where people are regarded as objects rather than subjects, Ziegler argues that Rut depicts the solution to, or reparation of, this society by depicting a narrative that moves from alienation to recognition, culminating in the creation of the Davidic line and, implicitly, the monarchy.

The entire purpose of Megillat Rut is to explain the lineage of the monarchy, to the provide the family tree of king David, at least according to one midrash Ziegler quotes. Another suggests that the purpose of the book is to teach about proper behavior, not in the realm of halakhah of but in the realm of interpersonal ethics. Rut, according to this midrash, should be read with an eye to acts of Ḥesed, lovingkindness, and the rewards received for those actions. Ziegler accepts both of these midrashim, arguing that Megillat Rut depicts a form of self-abnegating kindness that, while it might be too extreme for the average person in their daily lives, is absolutely necessary for a proper monarch. It is through acts of such extreme giving and openness to the Other, Ziegler argues, that Rut takes the characters, and the reader, from the leaderless period of the judges to the rising of the monarchy.

Ruth constantly quotes and references midrashim from across the entire span of rabbinic literature. Ziegler analyzes midrashim with an eye to two things, midrashic sensitivity to the biblical text and themes that the midrash is either drawing out of or introducing into the biblical text. The themes highlighted by a midrash can be used to illuminate a character or scene left somewhat sparse by the biblical text. Rabbinic texts also often identify anonymous or mysterious characters with more well-known figures, and analyzing their reasons for doing so can provide deep insights into the nuances of the biblical text. However, the plentitude of midrashim quoted in the book can also create a sense of separation from the biblical text. The reader of Ruth may occasionally feel that, while they know the relevant rabbinic literature quite well, they are somewhat unclear on, and disconnected from, the biblical text. This weakness could itself be a strength, however. The midrashic survey that constitutes much of Ziegler’s book could be an excellent introduction to midrashim more generally, guiding the reader through learning how to read and analyze midrashim.

Ruth is also in dialogue with contemporary academic commentaries on Rut. References to agreements and disagreements with scholarship show up throughout the text and footnotes of Ruth. Despite this, Ruth is not an academic text. In the introduction, subtitled “Methodology of Tanakh Study,” Ziegler explicitly steps out of academic discourse, stating a preference for reading Rut with an eye to contemporary theological relevance[2]. The introduction also gives the reader a broader historical context for Ruth, and for the “literary-theological” method employed therein, exploring the rise of literary criticism, its development within the Bible scholarship, and its adoption within traditional Jewish study of Tanakh. For this introduction alone, Ruth is a must for the Modern Orthodox reader of Tanakh, giving precious background for the tools and teachers that enrich our studying of the biblical text.

The academic engagement of the book goes beyond references and background, fundamentally shaping Ziegler’s methodology and discussion of the biblical text. Attention is paid to the literary effects of word choices and syntax. Parallels from across the entirety of Tanakh are brought to bear in interpreting the meaning of various passages. There are several excursuses on a variety of larger topics in the study of Tanakh, including type-scenes, oaths, and more. All of this is melded with a more traditional rabbinic approach, often showing how midrashim and rabbinic commentators were doing the same, or similar, things to what modern academic scholars to today.

Yael Ziegler’s Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy is an excellent study of the text of Megillat Rut, plumbing its linguistic depths, its purposes and goals, and its extensive rabbinic interpretation, all of which is conveyed in contemporary language, with clear intention that the moral and theological lessons gleaned should be applied by the reader in their own lives. It is also a great introduction to the basics of an academic, literary-critical, method of studying Tanakh. And most of all, Ruth demonstrates how the tradition and the modern, the rabbinic and the academic, can work so wonderfully together.

 

[1] Translation copied from the text used by Ziegler in “Ruth.”

[2] The irony of a methodological introduction that professes the larger book, and thus itself, not to be academic is hard to miss.

Midrash Purim 5776 – My Soul Acts Madly For The Lord

מדרש פורים תשע״ו – בא׳ תתהולל נפשי

 

לְדָוִד בְּשַׁנּוֹתוֹ אֶת טַעְמוֹ לִפְנֵי אֲבִימֶלֶךְ וַיְגָרְשֵׁהוּ וַיֵּלַךְ. אין מידת הקב״ה כמידת מלך בשר ודם. מלך בו״ד מגרש את המשנה טעמו ומתהולל ולא מביא אותו לביתו, כמו שכתוב, ״וַיְשַׁנּוֹ אֶת-טַעְמוֹ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּתְהֹלֵל״ (שמואל א כא:יד), וכתוב, ״לָמָּה תָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֵלָי? הֲזֶה יָבוֹא אֶל-בֵּיתִי?״ (שם טו-טז). לא כן הקב״ה, כמו שכתוב, ״טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי-טוֹב יְ׳הוָה״ (תהילים לד:ט), וכתוב, ״תָּמִיד תְּהִלָּתוֹ בְּפִי בַּי׳הוָה תִּתְהַלֵּל נַפְשִׁי״ (שם ב-ג), אל תקרי תתהלל אלא תתהולל, כי גם בהוללות מתהללים את א׳. ובטעם יין ושכר חוסים בו, כמו שכתוב, ״אשרי הגבר יחסו בו״ (שם ט). וכתוב, ״פֹּדֶה יְ׳הוָה נֶפֶשׁ עֲבָדָיו וְלֹא יֶאְשְׁמוּ כָּל-הַחֹסִים בּוֹ״ (שם כג), כי אין עון ואין אשמה לחוסים בו ולמאמינים בו באמת, ועיין בירמיהו לא. וכתוב, ״שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-יְ׳הוָה כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-יְ׳הוָה וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ״ (שם כז:ד). זה המתהולל, כמו שכתוב, ״טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי-טוֹב יְ׳הוָה,״ וכתוב, ״לוּלֵא הֶאֱמַנְתִּי לִרְאוֹת בְּטוּב-יְ׳הוָה״ (שם יג). רק מי שתהילתו היא הוללות והוללותו היא תהילה, רק הוא מאמין באמת ורק הוא יכול לבוא בבית א׳.

Of David, when he acted madly before Avimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away. א׳’s personality is not like of a human king. A human king expels a mindless person and does now welcome them into his home, as it is written, “ So he changed his behavior before them; he acted madly” (Shmuel Alef 21:14), and it is written, “why then have you brought him to me? Shall this fellow come into my house?” (ibid. 15-16). Not so is א׳, as it is written, “Taste and see that God is good” (Tehillim 34:9), and it is written, “His praise shall continually be in my mouth.  My soul praises for the Lord” (ibid. 2-3), but do not read “praises” (תתהלל), rather “acts madly” (תתהולל), for also through madness we praise א׳. And in the taste of wine and alcohol we take refuge in Him, as it is written, “Fortunate is the man who takes refuge in Him” (ibid. 9). And it is written, “The Lord redeems the soul of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned” (ibid 23), for there is no sin and no guilt for those who trust in Him and truly believe in Him, and see Yirmiyahu 31. And it is written, “I dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his hall” (ibid. 27:3). This is the one who acts madly, as it is written, “Taste and see that God is good,” and it is written, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord” (ibid. 13). Only he for whom praise is madness and madness is praise, only he truly believes, and only he can be welcomed into the House of א׳.

Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality

Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality

 

The Law of the Nazir, as it appears in the sixth chapter of Sefer Bamidbar, presents an interesting dilemma. The law is introduced in verse 2, “When a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the Lord as a Nazir,” and then goes straight into the various details of the law without ever mentioning what might motivate a person to make such a vow. It is even unclear if this is a vow that everyone ought to make at some point in their life, or if it’s just meant for extreme individuals.

Ibn Ezra takes a clear stance regarding these questions in his comment on Bamidbar 6:2.

Yafli – He will separate, or will do wondrous (PL”A) things, for most of the world follows after their physical desires. Neder Nazir – a vow to be a “nazir“, which is a title. And this is from the same root[1] as “Vayinazru” (Vayikra 22:2), “they shall separate themselves”, meaning that he will distance himself from physical desires. He does this for the service of God, for wine destroys conscientiousness and the service of God.

Ibn Ezra is suggesting that while it is not mandatory for everyone to take the vow of a nazir, it is certainly the ideal, as the alternative is to give up on being a conscientious servant of God. Moreover, the nazir may head to one extreme, but this is only because everyone else is heading to the other. The nazir is motivated to serve God in the only way really possible. Given the choice between a life of constantly chasing after lust and desire or a life of godly asceticism, presumably everyone should choose the latter.

Rashi, however, brings a midrash with a very different approach. “Ki Yafli – he will separate. Why was the passage of the Nazir juxtaposed with the passage of the Sotah, the suspected wife? To teach you the anyone who sees the punishment of the Sotah should separate himself from wine, for wine brings a person to adultery.” According to the midrash, only a specific person under a specific set of circumstances should take the vow of the nazir. Specifically, someone who has seen the ultimate consequences of physical indulgence, someone so struck by their experience that they feel the only option is to stay away from all physical pleasure. Everyone else, however, should continue with life as normal, which presumably involves a normal amount of physical pleasure.

William James, in his “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, discusses the religious phenomenon of asceticism, which he relates to what he calls “the sick soul.”

For in its spiritual meaning asceticism stands for nothing less than for the essence of the twice-born philosophy. It symbolizes, lamely enough no doubt, but sincerely, the belief that there is an element of real wrongness in this world, which is neither to be ignored nor evaded, but which must be squarely met and overcome by an appeal to the soul’s heroic resources, and neutralized and cleansed away by suffering.

This is an approach to the world that sees it as inherently broken and evil. The sick soul’s only response is to flee from the world, to stand up against evil. The ascetic is thus a heroic figure, fighting for good by abstaining from that which is inherently evil.

As against this view, the ultra-optimistic form of the once-born philosophy thinks we may treat evil by the method of ignoring. Let a man who, by fortunate health and circumstances, escapes the suffering of any great amount of evil in his own person, also close his eyes to it as it exists in the wider universe outside his private experience, and he will be quit of it altogether, and can sail through life happily on a healthy-minded basis.

This approach sees the world as inherently good, despite the fact that there is some evil in it, and thus a person need only avoid the evil, rather than fight against it.

The nazir of the midrash is James’ ascetic. He has seen that there is evil in the world, that indulgence reigns and that it leads to great suffering, and his only response is to push the world away as forcefully as he can. He struggles on, his life a heroic fight against the flaws of the world he lives in. Everyone else, however, remains blissfully unaware that such a struggle might be necessary, and they can live their lives according to the rest of the laws of the Torah.

What makes the nazir of the midrash different from James’ is what they see as evil, what has led them to separate from worldly experiences. James’ “sick soul” has discovered that there is evil in the world due to its very nature as a physical realm. The nazir of the midrash has seen the moral consequences of physical indulgence. He has seen that over-indulgence has led to the destruction of the bond between individuals, to the humiliation of a person subjected to a ritualistic examination. All of these could be avoided if a person is willing to forgo their physical nature, to assume a more spiritual life. The ascetic flees the world into the welcoming arms of suffering; the nazir steps away from the world and toward its inhabitants, toward a more moral life. While the vow of the nazir is almost unheard of in our day and age, the drive of the nazir should not be. While we won’t decide to abstain from wine and cutting our hair, the passage of the nazir should give us pause to consider our excesses, and the way these excesses affect not only ourselves and our relationship with ‘א, but also the people around us.

[1] Note that this not the only possible etymology. Nazir could also come from the word “nezer”, meaning “crown.” That would explain the odd phrasing of Bamidbar 2:7 and explain the connection between 2:8 and Shemot 28:37 & 39:30. Based on this connection, it might be correct to consider the Nazir as a kohen gadol whose focus is on morality (see the end of this essay)  as opposed to the kohen gadol whose focus is on ritual.

In Defense of Peshat – Unpacking an Important Ramban

In Defense of Peshat – Unpacking an Important Ramban

 

There is often a great deal of opposition to the more peshat-oriented approach to understanding the text of the Torah taken by many modern readers of Tanakh. However, there are many mainstream, Orthodox, sources, especially from the Rishonim, that support such an approach. Many such critiques tend to come along with astonishment that such a reader might disagree with Rashi, and so a comment of Ramban on Bereishit 8:4 deserves particular attention. In a few short lines he critiques many fundamental issues with much of the opposition to the peshat approach, as a brief dissection and analysis will show.

 

The Text:

 

כתב רש”י מכאן אתה למד שהיתה משוקעת במים י”א אמה כפי החשבון הכתוב בפירושיו והוא כן בבראשית רבה (לג ז) אבל כיון שרש”י מדקדק במקומות אחרי מדרשי ההגדות וטורח לבאר פשטי המקרא הרשה אותנו לעשות כן כי שבעים פנים לתורה ומדרשים רבים חלוקים בדברי החכמים

 

Rashi wrote that from here it is learned that the Ark sank 11 amot into the water, according to the calculations that are written in his commentary and in Bereishit Rabbah. However, since Rashi is in some places critical [in his reading] of narrative midrashim, and exerts himself to clarify the plain sense of the text, he permitted us to do so, for there are seventy facets to the Torah, and there are many contradictory midrashim in the words of the Sages.[1]

 

The Breakdown:

 

Rashi wrote that from here it is learned that the Ark sank 11 amot into the water, according to the calculations that are written in his commentary and in Bereishit Rabbah (33:7).

 

That is the beginning of a long comment discussing the dating and chronicling of the flood, wherein Ramban takes a strong stance against the view of Rashi and Bereishit Rabbah (33:7). Before he does so, however, he gives four reasons why it is permitted for him to argue with Rashi and the midrash from Bereishit Rabbah. It is notable that while many of Ramban’s comments on the Torah take the form of arguments with Rashi, there are also many that argue with Ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra spends much of his commentary arguing with midrashim, and thus Ramban’s sense of needing permission to argue with Rashi/midrashim is not a matter of lacking precedent in doing so. He must have faced active opposition to doing so even in his own day, and it would be to this opposition that the following comments were directed.

 

However, since Rashi is in some places critical of narrative midrashim,

 

This addresses a mistake of incredible importance in the popular understanding of Rashi. People tend to assume that “Rashi” and “Midrash” are synonymous terms. This is incorrect. While Rashi often used midrashim in his attempt to find peshat, he certainly did not always do so. A perfect example of this is his comment to Bereishit 12:5:

 

אשר עשו בחרן: שהכניסן תחת כנפי השכינה, אברהם מגייר את האנשים, ושרה מגיירת הנשים, ומעלה עליהם הכתוב כאלו עשאום. ופשוטו של מקרא עבדים ושפחות שקנו להם, כמו (שם לא א) עשה את כל הכבוד הזה, (במדבר כד יח) וישראל עושה חיל, לשון קונה וכונס

 

that they had acquired in Haran:whom he had brought under the wings of the Shechinah. Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women, and Scripture ascribes to them as if they had made them (Gen. Rabbah 39:14). The simple meaning of the verse is: the slaves and maidservants that they had acquired for themselves, as in [the verse] (below 31:1): “He acquired (עָשָׂה) all this wealth” [an expression of acquisition]; (Num. 24:18): “and Israel acquires,” an expression of acquiring and gathering.

 

The pasuk, speaking about Avraham and Sarah’s journey from Haran, mentions the “nefesh asher asu”. Everyone knows the midrash that Rashi quotes, that this refers to the people they converted. However, Rashi follows the midrash by saying that the plain reading of the text is that it means slaves. One could debate what Rashi thinks about the historical reality of the departure from Haran, whether it is like peshat or like the midrash. What is clear is that Rashi felt this midrash was not the proper understanding of the text, and that he had no problem saying so.

 

and exerts himself to clarify the plain sense of the text,

 

This brings up an interesting point. Rashi himself describes the goal of his commentary as a “peshat” understanding of the text, famously in his comments to Bereishit 3:8, “יש מדרשי אגדה רבים… ואני לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא,” “There are many Aggadic midrashim… but I have come only [to teach] the simple meaning of the Scripture,” and 3:24, “ומדרש אגדה יש, ואני איני בא אלא לפשוטו,” “There are Aggadic midrashim, but I have come only to interpret its simple meaning”. Based on this many have stated that when Rashi brings a midrash it is in fact peshat, and anyone who really looked into it would see this. The problem with that statement is that the quote from Bereishit 3:8 is truncated. The statement continues with a really important clause, “ולאגדה המישבת דברי המקרא דבר דבור על אופניו,” “and such Aggadah that settles [the issues in] the words of the verses, each word in its proper way”. The problem with this phrase is that it could be an expansion of the previous clause, or a new statement.  If it is an expansion, then Rashi is saying that he brings midrashim that fit well with the text as part of his search for a peshat understanding, meaning he thinks the midrash is peshat. If it’s a new statement, then Rashi is saying that in addition to his goal of finding a peshat understanding of the text, he also has a goal of bringing midrashim that fit with the text, for whatever purpose. The exact nature and purpose of Rashi’s commentary therefore remains unclear.

What is clear is that Rashi is interested, to whatever degree, in finding the peshat reading of the Torah, and that when Rashi brings a midrash, it is a midrash that Rashi believes will resolve problems in the text itself. Therefore midrashim are not self-justifying. A midrash must adequately address the textual issues in order to be of relevance to understanding the text, like Ramban obviously thought it did by Bereishit 8:4, or Rashi by Bereishit 12:5. In such cases a more text-based approach is needed.

 

he permitted us to do so,

 

This is an important point. Ramban is stating that because Rashi did it, we can do it too. Neither Rashi nor Ramban thought of themselves as being part of an elite class of people qualified to analyze the biblical text. They likely saw themselves as part of a long chain of readers of the Torah, all of whom have read the biblical text with a critical eye, and then tried to solve the issues they found with various techniques, text-based and otherwise.

 

for there are seventy facets to the Torah,

 

This old Rabbinic idiom is meant to convey that a text can have meaning on many levels or to many people, without any single one being the “correct” meaning. Thus Ramban can have his understanding of the text and Rashi can have his,and each would say that the other is wrong, but that doesn’t make anybody a heretic or necessarily more correct.

 

and there are many contradictory midrashim in the words of the Sages.

 

Many argue that midrashim cannot be challenged on the grounds that the Sages were recording the words of traditions that had been passed down to them from Har Sinai, or that they had received through Ruach HaKodesh. The problem with either of these approaches is that it ignores the facts as they are. Any quick look at midrashim will reveal that they are not of one voice or opinion in most matters. This creates an issue with the supposedly divine origin of midrashim, as then either the tradition would have to be mistaken, significantly reducing its value anyway, or multiple views were all received through Ruach HaKodesh, in which case they are probably not meant to convey the literal understanding of the Torah.

A secondary issue this introduces is that midrashim cannot simply be transposed to the biblical text.[2] Midrashim were never meant to be a fleshed-out commentary on the text of the Torah. Thus there’s no uniform density of midrashic comments on the Torah. There are many pesukim with no midrashim on them at all, and many with a huge number of related midrashim. Anyone attempting to create an understanding of the Torah text based on midrashim would not only find large gaps in their commentary, but they would also be forced to pick between differing midrashim or midrashic opinions when commenting on a pasuk. A perfect example of this is Rashi’s comment on Shemot 13:19, on the phrase, “וחמשים”:

וחמשים: אין חמושים אלא מזויינים. לפי שהסיבן במדבר גרם להם שעלו חמושים, שאלו הסיבן דרך יישוב לא היו מחומשים להם כל מה שצריכין, אלא כאדם שעובר ממקום למקום ובדעתו לקנות שם מה שיצטרך, אבל כשהוא פורש למדבר צריך לזמן לו כל הצורך, ומקרא זה לא נכתב כי אם לשבר את האוזן, שלא תתמה במלחמת עמלק ובמלחמות סיחון ועוג ומדין, מהיכן היו להם כלי זיין שהכום ישראל בחרב. וכן הוא אומר (יהושע א יד) ואתם תעברו חמושים. וכן תרגם אונקלוס מזרזין, כמו (בראשית יד יד) וירק את חניכיו וזריז. דבר אחר חמושים אחד מחמשה יצאו, וארבעה חלקים מתו בשלשת ימי אפילה:

 

armed: חִמֻשִׁים [in this context] can only mean “armed.” Since He led them around in the desert [circuitously], He caused them to go up armed, for if He had led them around through civilization, they would not have [had to] provide for themselves with everything that they needed, but only [part,] like a person who travels from place to place and intends to purchase there whatever he will need. But if he travels a long distance into a desert, he must prepare all his necessities for himself. This verse was written only to clarify the matter, so you should not wonder where they got weapons in the war with Amalek and in the wars with Sihon and Og and Midian, for the Israelites smote them with the point of the sword. And similarly [Scripture] says: “and you shall cross over armed (חִמֻשִׁים)” (Josh. 1:14). And so too Onkelos rendered מְזָרְזִין just as he rendered: “and he armed (וְזָרֵיז) his trained men” (Gen. 14:14). Another interpretation: חִמֻשִׁים means “divided by five,” [meaning] that one out of five (חִמִֹשָה) [Israelites] went out, and four fifths [lit., parts of the people] died during the three days of darkness.

 

The first things that’s worth noting is that Rashi actually brings the peshat explanation, along with multiple justifications of it, before he brings the midrashic approach. More important, however, is the way in which he quotes the midrash. The midrash (Tanhuma Beshalah 1), working off the similarity between the Hebrew words for “five” and “armed”, suggests that Shemot 13:18 is really saying that only one out of every five members of Bnei Yisrael left Egypt. Or rather, that is the midrash as portrayed in Rashi’s comment. The problem with this is that an examination of the midrash in question reveals that this is not all it says.

 

וחמושים עלו בני ישראל אחד מחמישה. ויש אומרים: אחד מחמישים. ויש אומרים: אחד מחמש מאות. רבי נהוראי אומר: העבודה, לא אחד מחמשת אלפים. ואימתי מתו בימי האפלה, שהיו קוברין ישראל מתיהן, ומצרים יושבין בחשך, ישראל הודו ושבחו על שלא ראו שונאיהם ושמחו בפורענותן:

 

And Bnei Yisrael went up “חמושים”, [this means only] one out of five [left Egypt]. Some say one out of fifty. And some say one out of five hundred. Rabbi Nehorai says: By the [Temple] Service! Not [even] one in five thousand [went out]. And when did they [who did not go out] die? In the days of darkness, so that Yisrael buried their dead while the Egyptians sat in darkness, and Yisrael praised and gave thanks that their persecutors did not see and rejoice in their suffering.

 

Rashi quotes the first, and least extreme, of the four opinions in the midrash. He had to select the one that made the most sense to him. Any time anyone quotes a midrash they are not giving “the opinion of the midrash”, but their own opinion, selected from the plethora of midrashic opinions available. Thus when Rashi quotes a midrash it is no more or less his opinion than when he simply gives his own non-midrashic opinion.

It’s worth noting that in this comment, the Ramban in no way attempts to say that midrashim are illegitimate in their understandings of the Torah. Instead, he takes midrashim, and Rashi’s commentary as it is popularly thought of, and puts them on the same level as the text-based approach. The Ramban does quote midrashim in his commentary, when he finds them compelling, much as he doesn’t always argue with the midrashim that Rashi quotes, when he finds them compelling. Many midrashim are actually based on very close readings of the text. All that separates such midrashim from”peshat” is what methods of interpretation are used once the text has been read. Thus for everyone from Rashi to Ramban to modern Bible critics, midrashic opinions are totally valid, but only as long a they’re compelling, and not necessarily more than more text-based opinions.

 

[1] Translation of Ramban is from the author, as is the translation of the midrash. Translations of Rashi are from http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/63255/jewish/The-Bible-with-Rashi.htm, with occasional modifications from the author for accuracy or clarity.

[2] The ideas of this paragraph are heavily based on severeal essays on “Omnisignificance” by R’ Yaakov Elman.