Rav Tsadok and Why Jewish Continuity Discourse Re-enacts the Sin of the Spies

In recent years, and probably longer, there has been an ongoing discussion in the Jewish community about “continuity,” about which sects of Judaism will or will not produce people who are Jewish according to Jewish law (however you define that) and who actually care about living a Jewish life (once again, however you define that). A few years ago, Pew Forum released a poll showing that the only Jewish denominations gaining in size are the Orthodox ones, and they get bigger even faster the farther they are to the right. More recently, a study found that significant numbers of Religious Zionists in Israel leave religion behind as they move into adulthood. Both of these data points have given rise to panicked rethinking, on the one hand, and joyous triumphalism on the other. In this post, I want to go back over Rav Tsadok’s ideas from Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4 (If you haven’t read the last post with my annotated translation, I recommend doing so), and apply them to this Jewish continuity discourse, with the goal of pointing us in a different direction altogether.

 

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Exhibit A. Source: http://www.aish.com/jw/s/48910307.html

 

Rav Tsadok starts his exegetical and creative work with the sin of the spies from Numbers 13-14. The spies came back from exploring the land of Canaan and said that it would be impossible to conquer because of the current residents, and what is more, even if they managed to conquer the land they would not last there, as it is a land that consumes its inhabitants. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, protest that God can bring the people into the land if they so choose, a claim that Rav Tsadok radically extends.

The spies saw the outer layer (levush), the skin of the snake, while Joshua and Caleb saw the inner truth that the land is good. The skin of the snake causes people to fail, regarding which the verse says, “If God desires us” (Numbers 14:8), meaning that if God wants to bring us to the land he will do so, even given that he knows about the skin of the snake.

The claim, according to Rav Tsadok, is not only that God can help them conquer the land if God so chooses, but that the functional practicality of conquering and living in the land is entirely irrelevant. God is aware of the practical issues and gave the command anyway. What should be of immediate concern to the people is what God wants them to do.

In terms of Jewish continuity discourse, I think we need to be asking ourselves: is continuity part of what God wants us to do, or is it a practical issue? I suspect it is the latter. Continuity is not a principle that should guide the direction of Jewish life, it is something you deal with as you go. But we cannot decide how to be Jewish, what it means to be Jewish, based on what that means for our kids. We have to ask ourselves, how does God want me to be Jewish right now? Continuity discourse keeps us focused on the practical issues without getting down to that question of principle, in a way that I think is really inexcusable. Continuity is certainly important, but it can’t tell us what we are supposed to be doing now.

 

 

Rav Tsadok next moves on to discussing a talmudic narrative where the prophet Isaiah rebukes King Hezekiah for refusing to have children simply because he foresaw that his son would be evil. Isaiah pushes back against this logic, arguing that Hezekiah should not be concerned about future results more than he is about the divine command.

It was said regarding this, “Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He?” And this even though he had seen through the holy spirit that his sons would not be good, as it says in Berakhot (10a).

The future outcome of fulfilling the commandments are the “secrets” of God, argues Rav Tsadok, even when a person has divinely inspired knowledge of said outcome. The use of the term “secret” therefore seems to mean “something you are not supposed to be thinking about or factoring into your decision making process” rather than “thing you cannot know.” Thus, even when Hezekiah knows the outcome of fulfilling the divine command, he should act as if from behind a veil of ignorance and perform the command as if he did not know what would come of it.

Continuity discourse wants us to act based on our understanding of what will happen in the future, our understanding of the secrets of God. The most obvious problem is that, unlike King Hezekiah, we have no way of actually knowing what the future holds. Even if assimilation and birth rates have recently trended one way in our denominations, this trend may shift. God only knows what might happen in the future, so it’s not something we can, or should, factor into our decisions.

Perhaps more importantly, continuity discourse thinks about the future in a way that ignores our role in it. In the continuation of the talmudic narrative, Hezekiah agrees to have children (in fulfillment of the divine command), but refuses to accept that his son will be wicked. Despite the prophet insisting that this cannot be changed, Hezekiah insistently tries to ensure that his son will be righteous. This brings us back to the split between principle and practical issues. After Hezekiah has committed to acting based on principle, doing what he knows he is supposed to do, he then tackles the practical issue on its own, doing whatever he can to change the outcome he has foreseen. Continuity is a practical issue, and as such can and should be tackled head on, but only after we have decided on what the proper, principled, path is to take. We should decide what denomination, if any, we ought to associate with, and then afterward we should  dedicate ourselves to ensuring Jewish continuity.

 

 

The next step in Rav Tsadok’s thought-process suggests that what we see as practical issues may really be an important part of the process. He references a parable from the Zohar about a doe who cannot give birth until a snake bites it, violently opening its birth canal.

In reference to this, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥai said (Zohar, Beshalaḥ, 2:52b), “There is one doe there… do not ask and do not test God–so it is precisely!”

The implication of the story is that violence and suffering may actually be part of the divine plan. Rabbi Shimon’s concludes from this that you cannot question God; once suffering and violence can be legitimate parts of the divine plan, then they stop being reasons to question or challenge God. Practical issues like continuity may be part of the divine plan, and thus certainly should not be a decisive factor in choosing how to live. This is the point at which divine providence is so expansive and undefined that human decision-making becomes impossible, so I’m mostly going to ignore this point. However, the basic idea of humility before the potential vicissitudes of the divine plan is worth keeping in mind.

 

 

The final step of Rav Tsadok’s train of thought involves radical interpretations of a hasidic tradition about the biblical book of Esther and a famed talmudic narrative. The hasidic tradition suggests takes Vashti’s refusal to come before Aḥashverosh naked as indicative of the impossibility of an unmediated (“naked”) experience of God in this world, something Rav Tsadok extends even to the idealized world to come.

Outer layers and the skin of the snake exist even in the life of the world to come [as I heard regarding the verse (Esther 1:17) “bring Vashti” naked, but she did not come, for in this world there is always clothing (levush)] and there is room there [in the world to come -LM] to make mistakes.

Nothing is perfect, nothing goes according to plan. Problems arise even in the world to come. Hence an experience of the world to come, like that of the talmudic figure Aḥer, is perforce affected by the presence of negative elements.

As they said, Aḥer tasted from the trip through the orchard (Ḥagigah 14b), a taste like that of the world to come, and he strayed.

Even the world to come, the theoretical ideal of human reality and its relationship to the divine, is not perfect. Extrapolating theology from this ideal reality can therefore lead to mistakes and even heresy.

While at this point Rav Tsadok has wandered rather far afield, I think this final step is still very important for our discussion of continuity. The basic idea that Rav Tsadok is exploring here is that nothing is perfect; try as hard as you might, there will always be problems. It is therefore a waste of time to try and decide on a way of life that won’t have any problems. You have to just decide based on principle and then do your best to alleviate the problems that inevitably arise. If a certain form of Jewish life leads to less Jewish babies or less religious adults, that does not bear on whether or not that is the right way to live Jewishly. Even if you could find a way of life with no continuity problems, there would inevitably be other problems. Ensuring that people are Jewish or religious does not mean that they will be Jewish or religious in the way that you would hope. Or there could be one of any number of other problems. Continuity is an important issue, but it is one (and not the only one) that needs to be tackled after we decide on the right way to be Jewish, rather than being a part of that decision.

 

There’s obviously a lot in this piece from Rav Tsadok that is challenging theologically, particularly the section on the Zohar. However, I think the basic idea that shows up throughout is compelling, and very important for contemporary Jewish discourse about denominations. Continuity is important, but it’s a practical issue, not a principle. The question of how to be Jewish has to be answered by looking for what is right, what God wants from us, etc., not by pointing to practical issues like continuity. This will still allow for hearty inter-denominational debate, but at least the discussion will center around actual points of debate. Moreover, when we ask ourselves why we live Judaism the way that we do, the answer will be because be actually believe in it.

I do expect some pushback on this. Some of this may need some nuancing; perhaps the distinction I drew between principle and practical is not as sharp as I made it out to be, or perhaps there is some other issue I haven’t imagined yet.

 

 

[This post was based on and inspired by lectures by Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar’s 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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Parashat Terumah 5774 – Mount Sinai and the Miskhan: On the Actualization of Beliefs

וְאֶל הָאָרֹן תִּתֵּן אֶת הָעֵדֻת אֲשֶׁר אֶתֵּן אֵלֶיךָ

Parashat Terumah is the first of five parashot, forming the last section of Sefer Shemot, which discuss the building of the Mishkan and the episode of the Golden Calf. These parashot are the setting of a famous argument[1] between Rashi and Ramban regarding the timing of the Golden calf versus the command to build the Mishkan. Rashi, embracing the principle that the Torah prioritizes themes over chronology in terms of structure[2], says that the parashot of Terumah and Teztaveh belong after the episode of the Golden Calf, while Ramban consistently avoids use of this principle[3] and so says that the parashot are in their correct chronological order. This debate affects the placement of the command to build the mishkan, placing it either before or after the Golden Calf. Rashi says that it comes afterwards, as Rashi sees the Mishkan as an atonement for the Golden Calf, while Ramban says that it comes before. However, their debate does not change purpose of the Mishkan. Determining the purpose of the Mishkan requires explaining why this series of parashot, start to finish, occurs here. If the command to build the Mishkan occurred after the Golden Calf, then why was it moved to its current location, just after the Revelation at Sinai? And if it occurred in its current location, then why was the command given here, just after the Revelation at Sinai?

Ramban says that the purpose of the Mishkan is to be the site of continuous revelation. It is a portable Mount Sinai. This is obvious not only from the verse, “And there I will meet with thee, and I will speak with thee from above the ark-cover, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel”[4] (Shemot 25:22), but also from the various parallels between the Mishkan and Mount Sinai. ‘א descends on both of them in a cloud (Shemot 24:15-18 and 40:34-38). Each is divided into three sections; for the Mishkan it is the Hatzer, the Kodesh, and the Hodesh HaKedoshim; for Mount Sinai it was the foot of the mountain, the mountain itself, and the summit. Finally, the luchot are given on Mount Sinai, and from then on they rest in the Mishkan. Thus Ramban is undoubtedly correct, and while Rashi does not explain why he thinks the command to build the Mishkan was placed there, it is reasonable to assume that he would agree with Ramban on that point[5]. However, the idea that the Mishkan will serve as the site of continuous revelation is only mentioned after the creation of the Aron and the Kaporet, the specific location from which ‘א would then speak to Moshe, and so seems to be a function of the Aron/Kaporet rather than the Mishkan. Moreover, this all seems both a little complex and unnecessary for the purposes of revelation. Not only would all the prophets after they enter the land get prophecy outside the Mishkan/Mikdash, Moshe himself has already done so many times. While Revelation occurs in the Mishkan, it is not a function of the Mishkan, nor is it dependent on it. What, then, is the purpose of the Mishkan?

The answer to this question is actually rather obvious, but it hardly clear. In the very beginning of the commands and instructions regarding building the Mishkan ‘א says, “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Shemot 25:8). Thus it would seem the purpose of the Mishkan is in order to enable ‘א to dwell amongst Bnei Yisrael. But how does it do that? ‘א is everywhere, so what good does building a tent do? The answer lies in the details of the Mishkan, all of which enable the fulfillment of its purpose.

The primary thing that Judaism says about ‘א, one of the few things agreed upon by all branches of Judaism, is that ‘א is one.The Mishkan expresses that in many ways, starting with the beautifully unitary structure of the Mishkan, especially the exact cube shape of the Kodesh HaKedoshim. More importantly, the text itself goes out of its way to emphasize this. “That the tabernacle may be one whole”(Shemot 26:6). “And couple the tent together, that it may be one”(Shemot 26:11). These and numerous other verses attest to the fact that the Mishkan was meant to embody the idea of ‘א’s oneness.

Another strong theme in the Mishkan is that of a graduated approach to Kedushah. In addition to the three-tiered breakdown of the area of the Mishkan into the Hatzer, the Kodesh, and the Kodesh HaKedoshim, the material structure of the Mishkan itself creates this delineation. The only metal used outside the Kodesh is copper, which is also used for the sockets for the entrance to the Kodesh, and for the clasps of the upper cloth covering the Kodesh. The sockets for the walls of the Kodesh and the entrance to the Kodesh HaKedoshim are silver. The clasps for the lower cloth covering the Kodesh are gold, along with all of the vessels in Kodesh. However, only the Aron HaEdut, in the Kodesh HaKedoshim, is covered in gold both inside and out. Thus the three zones are clearly delineated. This delineation emphasizes another very important idea about ‘א: His Kingship. A king by definition cannot just be approached by any person at any time. Specific people can approach the King, but even them only at specific times. Only the Kohen Gadol could enter the Kodesh HaKedoshim, and then only on Yom Kippur. This recognition of the absolute majesty of ‘א is an incredibly important idea. In the early centuries of the Common Era this idea made Jewish Merkabah mysticism unique among the various mystical trends in the world, emphasizing not the wondrous spiritual worlds one could explore, but rather the difficult and elaborate process of approaching the King of All Kings[6]. This idea is central to the relationship of Man to ‘א, and it is built into the very physical structure of the Mishkan.

In opposition to these gradations is the relation of Bnei Yisrael to the Mishkan. It would be easy to read this gradation as a function of elitism on the part of the priests, reserving the close encounter with ‘א for themselves. However, the Mishkan in its function and its origin rejects this idea. When gathering the materials from which the Mishkan will be made, ‘א asks “of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering” (Shemot 25:2). The Mishkan is a product of the nation as a whole. In terms of function, not only is the Mishkan the place where all of Bnei Yisrael come to serve ‘א, even when Moshe would hear ‘א’s voice from the Kodesh HaKodeshim, one of the more exclusive occurrences in the Mishkan, the Torah specifically states that this was it would be for the sake of all Israel (Shemot 25:22). Not only does this mean that the graduated structure of the Mishkan was a matter of respect rather than elitism, it also demonstrates the importance of equality and connectivity in the Nation of Israel.

The entire Mishkan is built around the Aron. The concentric quadrilaterals get smaller and smaller, with the Aron being the final, inner-most, rectangle. This central position in any other temple would be occupied by the god of that temple, by the deity of the local people. In the Mishkan this position place is filled not by ‘א, but by His Word, and more specifically, by his Law. While ‘א’s voice would come to the Kaporet for Moshe to hear it, the main purpose of the Aron HaEdut was to hold the Luchot HaEdut, and thus these remained constantly at the heart of the Mishkan. When Moshe first writes out a complete Torah-scroll in Sefer Devarim it is put in the Aron (Devarim 31:26). The centrality of the Law here cannot be over emphasized. While the degree to which Judaism cares about the beliefs of individual Jews has been debated constantly throughout the centuries, the very fact that such a debate was possible tells you about how central the Law is. Only when the law take center stage can the necessity of beliefs be questioned. Few, however, have been the voices in the Jewish Tradition that argued for a total lack of inherent beliefs in Judaism, with perhaps the most famous being Moses Mendelssohn. The reason that the centrality of the Law never eradicated the Torah’s inherent beliefs is that the Law functions on a large scale the same way as all the minutia of the Mishkan. The same way the very fixings of the Mishkan all express greater ideas and beliefs, so too all of the details of the Law. ‘א’s Law is about living ideas in everyday life.

Judaism doesn’t care about beliefs in the abstract. If the Torah wanted simply to convey certain ideas, it could have written them down in a book and done away with the rules and the narratives. But a book of ideas cannot tell you about what it means to live in context of ‘א. Only the stories of those who lived in relation to him can do that. Only ‘א’s Law enables you to live ‘א and His values into your life. And perhaps this, more than anything, explains the reason the command for the Mishkan was given right after the Revelation at Sinai. At Sinai, Bnei Yisrael experienced this supremely powerful event. They experienced something that wasn’t just once-in-a-lifetime, it was once-in-history. The question that has to be asked after such an event is how do you keep it relevant? How do you turn that peak experience into a living reality every day of your life? You have to have a framework of actions that are based off of and express that experience. The Mishkan not only serves that purpose in terms of expressing individual ideas, it also expresses that most basic idea that underwrites all of Judaism from that moment on: ‘א dwells in the life of Man.

[1] For more on this debate, see R’ Menachem Leibtag’s thorough shiur on it here.

[2] In Hebrew: אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה

[3] He is unable to avoid it entirely, as Bamidbar 1 and Bamidbar 9 occur in the second and first months of the second year in the desert respectively. Rather he simply minimizes it as much as possible.

[4] Translations from mechon-mamre.org

[5] Menachem Leibtag, ibid.

[6] Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Ch. 1