To boldly go where too few have gone before
It wasn’t a normal day of study at Pardes today. There were two special sessions of speakers. One asked that it not be shared on social media. The other speaker said no such thing. In fact, he implied the opposite.
Alick Isaacs grew up in Scotland. One day as he was taking a short cut through the ‘sketchy’ part of town he was attacked by 3 skin heads who left him bloody. He decided three things at the age of 14: 1. He would earn himself a black belt. 2. He would make aliyah when he became an adult. 3. He would join the IDF.
At the age of 19 he found himself in the IDF as promised in the midst of the 1st Intifadah in the late 1980s. In the midst of an assignment he unintentionally hit a young Palestinian in the face with a truncheon and, in a split second, realized the face he saw was the same one he saw in the mirror 5 years before.
In 1988 he was part of a movement to get a peace-pursuing religious party into the Kenesset, Meimad, a dovish Jewish religious party. Although at first they didn’t cross the threshold to gain a seat in the Kenesset, over the next couple of decades they occasionally managed 1 seat.
In trying to understand the lack of success, Alick came up with the following formulation of the fundamental gap between the left wing Peace camp and the right wing ideological settlement movement.
The left wing was interested in Peace. The right wing was interested in Shalom. They seem to be simple translations of one another but, in his analysis, they are fundamentally different concepts as understood by the two sides of the political spectrum.
Peace, in Alick’s analysis implies Pax or a Pact, an agreement negotiated based on common ground between two parties. There is an exploration of common benefit, compromise, prioritizing interests, an attempt to get the best deal for oneself in a practical way. By definition, Peace is a secular pursuit as it involves breaking things up.
When Solomon tells the two women claiming the living baby is theirs, we all understand that Solomon’s suggestion to divide the child is not possible. But when the Talmud discusses two people holding two sides of a garment, most would agree that it can be divided.
The difference between the Peace camp and the Shalom camp is primarily whether the land is a baby or a garment.
Shalom is derived at least in part from the word Shalem which means whole. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav and Rav Kook both, in their own ways, emphasize the spiritual idea of opposites that combine to create a whole, contradictory ideas existing in paradox with one another. The unity of these opposites are part of the spiritual notion that God is a unity of seemingly irreconcilable opposites.
Isaacs put together an organization that initially brought together 7 radical right wing settlement leaders and 7 left-of-center ideologues. He wanted people who were leaders who could maintain their identity as part of the process. He brought them together and asked them to answer three questions: 1. What does peace mean to you? 2. What has your life experience taught you about peace. 3. What do you think can be done to bridge the gap. This group got together for a year every three weeks for four hours in addition to one 4 day retreat.
Among the conversations his organization provided a facilitator who did psycho drama and other exercises with the group. It turned out to be a unique environment for people who would never see each other otherwise to talk and hear one another’s stories.
In one exercise, the rabbi of the yeshiva of a kidnapped child chose to be with the group even though they would have understood his staying with his community. In a powerful psychodrama exercise, he played Joseph at the bottom of the pit, helpless to do anything for the child whose fate was not yet known. At the end, he understood why Moses couldn’t enter the land. That he could no longer speak to stones. The facilitator asked him to talk to the pit. Asked him who the pit was.
He cried. He said the pit was Hamas and he asked the organization to make it possible for him to talk to a representative of Hamas.
At this point his organization works with around 30-40 such leaders each year and is looking to expand.
Here’s a book he wrote I have not yet read but I’m guessing I will:
Songs of the Soul
I had a hard choice to make in this last week at Pardes. The middle course of the day had three awesome choices and I had hard time committing: Rabbinic Authority, stories of Miracles and how Rabbis associate with them and the Song of the Soul of Rav Kook, the first Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine.
I chose the latter. It seemed to have a specific application to prayer which, after all, is one of the things I do for a living. Although much of my sabbatical has been about many kinds of inspiration -- textual, experiential, artistic, cultural, and international -- it seemed that a specific course on prayer might make sense. It’s the only part of the course that tipped the balance because, if I could clone myself, I’d take all three.
So, to get the politics out of the way first, many of Rav Kook’s philosophy has been taken (I won’t say hijacked but there are those who would) by the far right in Israel to claim eternal sovereignty over all of Judea and Samaria. The course is explicitly not about that and I think one could argue -- about someone who died in 1935 before the state was declared -- it would be hard to prove precisely what position Rav Kook would have about today’s political positions in Israel.
In any case, the class is not about right or left wing positions in current Israeli politics but about Rav Kook’s approach to prayer.
Briefly, a little history. Rav Kook was the son of a father deeply ensconced in the highly intellectual Litvak tradition and a mother from the Chabad chassidic tradition. Other great minds have come from such combinations of traditions including Shlomo Carlebach and Abraham Joshua Heschel.
It seems that Rav Kuk was an Ilui, a genius and a precocious child genius at that. He had a rabbinic position at age 18. He was also well read in Enlightenment literature including general European culture: Nietsche and Ficht among others. He spoke many languages and philosophically came to the idea of Zionism long before it was popular.
He moved to Jaffa in 1904 and was highly supportive of the Chalutzim who had abandoned any religious connection to Judaism but poured themselves into Jewish destiny. Rav Kook was able to appreciate their gifts and overlook what he might have considered to be their deficits.
He was stuck in England for World War I but came back to Palestine in 1920 to become the first Head Rabbi of the British Mandate.
One can get a sense of his writing both before and after his ‘aliyah’: Before it tends towards the discursive, describing his feelings and philosophy, whereas after it tends to be evocative, intending to evoke the feelings he had in others. Prose versus Poetry with a prophetic taste.
Our teacher, Michael Feuer decided to start class by a disambiguation exercise, creating an idea map for the Hebrew word: Tefilah, generally translated as Prayer.
“The more significant a word, the less likely we mean the same thing when we use that word.” Think of the difference between Dog and God, for instance.
So, the map included such ideas as: Communicating (with God), intentional encounter (with God), fixed services, self judgment, yearning, surrender, community, returning, reflection, sacrifice, building relationships (I-Thou), praise, thanks, supplication.
As we began the discussion of our first text, Mike suggested that we be aware that Rav Kook might consider Prayer as both a Way of Being as well as a Practice (and perhaps the latter in service of the former). In other words, Is the way I pray part of the natural continuity of the manner in which I interact with others or is there a discontinuity there?
Hebrew is a language which is Word-Poor but Context-Rich which is one of the reasons translations are so hard (as they are from any language to another for a host of reasons).
Here’s the first text we tried to tackle in Song of the Soul: The constant prayer of the neshama strives continually to move from hidden to revealed, to spread over all the forces of life, of all the spirit, of all the soul and all the powers of the embodied life; she years as well to reveal her essence and the influence of her actions on the whole environment, on all the world and life; and toward this end we require the accounting of the world, which comes through Torah and wisdom. Consequently, the whole practice of the Torah and all its wisdom is the constant revelation of the hidden prayer of the neshama. “The breath of all life” (nishmat kol chai) shall bless Your name, oh Lord our God….
There are a couple of assumptions that are derived from this paragraph:
1. Prayer (Tfillah) is an objective reality which years to be released from us, which is self-suppressed.
2. The intent of Torah and Wisdom is to create revelation of that Tefillah, to make it manifest in the world.
Here is some of the background of Rav Kuk’s theology/philosophy that supports these assertions. Our soul is made of 5 levels of experience:
1. Nefesh, Vital connection to physical world.
2. Ruach, spirit, connection to our emotional being.
3. Neshamah, intellect.
IRON CURTAIN (not the one referred to by Churchill)
4. Chayah, Life force pouring in from above.
5. Y’chidah, point of contact with the place where that force leaves its vessel.
In the upper 2 there is an element of losing individuality.
All relationships, including that we have with God, are founded on separation. According to the midrash on the creation of the Human Creature, we were created Male/Female back to back but it was bad for ‘us’ to be ‘alone’ so we were sawed in half so we could face one another.
In order to be able to have an I-Thou relationship with God, we need to learn to have I-Thou relationships with one another. Having I-It relationships with people can lead to choosing to understand God in ‘It’ kinds of ways. The more we do that, the more likely we are to slip into forms of idolatry.
We broke down Baruch Ata Adonai for a bit at the end of class. Baruch is generally translated as ‘blessed’ or ‘praised’ and is first used in the Torah on Day 5 as the fish are created. When we bend our ‘knee’ (berech) we make ourselves smaller. Although the current meaning of the word ‘Breichah’ is swimming pool, in Rabbinic Hebrew it indicates the pools of water that gather in natural vessels from spring water. Havracha is a form of replanting a vine in such a way that it is stuck back into the earth to grow more roots and grow anew.
The bottom line of the class is that prayer isn’t so much something we do as something we are. The tools of liturgy and choreography are merely a way of tuning our souls to the wavelength of the universe so we can manifest the souls we are meant to be.
Stolen Sukkah: Who Does That?
Our gemara continues with a difficult passage concerning the theft of a sukkah. But what does it mean to steal a sukkah? To pick it up and put it somewhere else? To steal the materials with which to build it? To forcibly kick out the rightful owners and dwell there oneself? To build it on someone else’s property or public property?
More importantly, WHO DOES THAT?
First of all, the Gemara tells us that the rabbis disagree with Rabbi Eliezer about two issues: A stolen Sukkah and the case of one who builds his sukkah on public property. In both cases, the Rabbis say it’s not a great idea but ultimately, ex post facto, one can fulfill one’s obligation of dwelling in the sukkah under both circumstances. Rabbi Eliezer prohibits both.
Rabbi Nachman comes to explain the answer to my first question: the rabbis and Rabbi Eliezer are disagreeing about the case of someone who forcibly removes the rightful owner and dwells in the sukkah himself. Rabbi Nachman goes on to say that for one who steals wood to make the sukkah or to cover it with Schach (branches and such) that he does owe the rightful owner the cost of the materials but can still fulfill his obligation in a sukkah so made and that both the rabbis and Rabbi Eliezer would agree about that.
The reason given for Rabbi Eliezer’s position doesn’t seem to be the moral one we would prefer to have him espouse but his idea that, similar to the Lulav, one must truly own ones own sukkah and can’t fulfill ones obligation in a borrowed sukkah even, much less a stolen one. The rabbis seem to rely on a different verse in the Torah which suggests that if it were possible to build a sukkah for all Jews to eat in together that that would be ideal so a ‘borrowed’ sukkah (or a sukkah into which one has been invited for a meal) is not only acceptable but very appropriate for fulfilling the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah.
Because of this, the Rabbis argue that since one can fulfill their obligation in a friend’s sukkah and there’s no such thing as a stolen land (in the sense that no one ever gives up hope of getting it back), that even a ‘stolen’ sukkah is minimally usable for dwelling.
Then the Gemara brings a story to illustrate Rav Nachman’s point: A grandmother approaches Rabbi Nachman and says, “The Exilarch and all the rabbis in his entourage are dwelling in a stolen sukkah!” As she screamed at him, he ignored her. She screamed at him, “My father had 318 servants” (most commentators assume she means her ‘father’ Abraham the Patriarch) and Rav Nachman ignored her. “She’s a screamer,” he said to his students, “and all she has coming to her is the value of the wood in the Sukkah.”
The story is terribly uncomfortable to read — at least we assume they didn’t forcibly expel her from a sukkah she built herself but even if all they did was go into her landholding to gather wood for the building and covering of the sukkah, one would have hoped that Rabbi Nachman would have been a little kinder to an old woman and more critical of the power structure.
There is an overriding assumption, not mentioned in the Gemara we’ve studied yet, that there is a requirement for Teshuvah and restitution plus 1/5th of the value in such a case. The only point of the gemara is to say that even though such behavior is not appropriate, it can be used, ex post facto, to fulfill the obligation of sukkah.
If you haven’t seen the movie Ushpizin, it’s worth it. It doesn’t deal with this situation exactly but does hit upon a sukkah that is built of materials that are unintentionally stolen and a sukkah that is hijacked from it’s rightful owners.
The Destruction of The Temple: The Aftermath
In his final talk of four this past week, Dr. Gafni outlined the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem as well as the difficulty of being a religious historian teaching his religious colleagues about events from 2000 years ago, some of which we can’t be sure about, which sources are reliable and why some that we’ve depended on cannot be.
The rabbis, he explained, not only were not historians but never intended to be. They say themselves that their intent is to teach the meaning of events, not necessarily the events themselves. Ein L’meidim [Historia] Mei-HaAggadot -- One does not learn [history] from the stories told in rabbinic parlance, but rather one is to learn moral lessons from such stories, stories about who we are and become as a people as a result of those events that inspired the stories.
We often have to depend on Josephus for our information not because he’s reliable but because he’s one of the few historical sources we have. As one scholar shared with Dr. Gafni, “I wouldn’t buy a used chariot from Josephus” and another said, “He’s not just a liar but he doesn’t even know how to lie!” but without him, we’re at a serious disadvantage.
One of the greatest issues the rabbis had to confront was HOW this could happen (as Jeremiah is understood to have begun Lamentations with Eicha/How. How was the Temple destroyed? How could God let His Own House be destroyed? In case there’s any confusion, the Romans understood the destruction as a clear theological victory of their gods over ours.
More importantly was the chaos immediately following the destruction. The 9th of Av is less than 2 months before Rosh Hashanah and almost precisely (this year precisely) 2 months before Yom Kippur. How (Eicha) will we be able to observe these holidays so dependent upon the Temple service?
Josephus reports that 97,000 prisoners were taken during the revolt, whereas 1,100,000 died. The problem with numbers is that ancient Greek didn’t have a word for million. The largest number they imagined being useful was 10,000 (myriad). Also, Josephus had an interest in inflating the numbers for the sake of his Roman hosts to inflate their egos. Much later, early 20th century scholars at the Hebrew University under the British Mandate had a different reason to perhaps over-estimate the number of Jews in the land during the 2nd Temple period. The Brits were trying to limit Jewish immigration with the argument that the land couldn’t absorb millions of people. The minimalists assumed that before the revolt there may have been 3-400,000 Jews in the land. The maximalists estimated around 2 million. Perhaps we’ll never know.
All that said, there were likely far more Jews in the old city of Jerusalem (at that time it was just ‘Jerusalem’) for a couple of reasons. According to Tacitus, the Roman siege began at Passover, so many pilgrims were already in Jerusalem for the holiday. Further, the Romans began their conquest surrounding Jerusalem -- in the Galilee, the Golan, the South, Trans-Jordan. Thus, those who had escaped those defeats streamed towards Jerusalem. So whatever the number in the city, it was likely significantly overcrowded. The actual number seems less important.
The Christian historian Eusebius makes the point that just as Jesus was crucified by the Jews (according to his understanding, of course) it made theological sense that the Roman punishment would begin on Passover as well.
As far as fighters, to the best of our knowledge, the Jewish forces were around 23,000 against a Roman garrison of 60,000 legionnaires with far better arms.
According to Josephus there was a disagreement among the generals of Titus as to whether to destroy the Temple or leave it standing as a glorious testimony to Roman power and a lesson to other provincial upstarts. Titus says, let it stand but a wayward soldier throws a torch and it burns to the ground. According to a Christian historian, the story goes the other way -- Titus orders the Temple to burn down. Once it was burned to the ground, Titus decided to burn the rest of the city except to leave the three towers which still stand today near the Jaffa Gate for the stationing of the 10th garrison. Later the 6th garrison was stationed in Megiddo as Judea became a Roman province rather than an outlier to be disciplined from Syria.
One of the immediate results of the war was that Jews throughout the world were required to continue paying two denarii (instead of shekels) to support the annual tribute for Jupiter Capitolinus, the Roman god who was victorious over the God of the Temple they destroyed. There are receipts from Egypt of Jews paying the “Jewish Tax” of 8 drachmai and 2 obols for this purpose.
The emotional reaction to the destruction had its analogies to Psalm 137 and Lamentations but, since this was post-Biblical, there are fewer examples. A Syrian poet who calls himself Baruch (named after Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch Ben Nuriah describes life as not being worth living, wondering why wine or fruit need be produced if the Temple will not be a recipient, advocating that women no longer get pregnant or marry. The famous Tosefta of Rabbi Joshua confronting a group of ascetics who refused to eat meat or drink wine because they could no longer be brought to the Temple supports this emotional reaction. Rabbi Joshua tells them that if they are to follow this line of thinking to its logical conclusion they should eat no fruit, bread or drink water since all had a role in the Temple. Rather they should live their lives and find a way to leave a small amount undone to remember the loss.
There are many documentations of Jews making a pilgrimage to the site of the ruin, hearing voices, having nightmares, and mourning. The consolation of rabbis like Rabbi Bohanan ben Zakkai that sacrifices can be replaced by acts of loving kindness, prayer and Torah study were radical suggestions at the time.
Laws to remember the Temple took a few forms, sometimes a direct application of the acts at the Temple outside it (the shaking of Lulav/Etrogs and blowing of Shofar), sometimes avoiding certain actions (bringing an Omer of grain), sometimes substituting (prayer for sacrifice).
Dr. Gafni said he’d love to have been able to interview Yochanan ben Zakkai to ask him whether the realized what he had done, that instead of crafting a temporary system until the Temple would be rebuilt, that he helped to create an entire infrastructure of Judaism that would last millennia. He assumed the answer would be, “You’re the historian; you decide!”
Apparently, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, Rabbi Judah the Exalted who redacted the Mishnah over 100 years after Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was so convinced that he had achieved a peaceful situation with his Roman overlords, he thought that if the 9th of Av had to be put off for a day (as it will be this year) that perhaps we can avoid the fast as the situation prophesied by Zechariah had been reached.
In the tractate of Berachot 32b, Rabbi Elazar says something that can be translated two ways. It depends on what the word Nifs’kah means. Either it means ‘cut off’ or ‘come to end.’ Here are the two possible readings:
“From the time the Temple was destroyed, an iron wall has cut Israel off from its Father in Heaven.”
“From the time the Temple was destroyed, the iron wall that was between Israel and its Father in Heaven has ended.”
So was the end of the Temple sacrificial system a good thing for our communication with God or a bad thing?
From the sources, Dr. Gafni suggests that the idea that Prayer was a mere consolation for the loss of the Sacrificial system became, ultimately a source of enhancement of our relationship with God. Various sources suggest that “Prayer is dearer to God than all the good deeds and sacrifices” and “...whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah is as though he were offering...it means that whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah does not need a burnt offering, a meal-offering, a sin-offering, or a guilt offering.”
Prayers are a repository of what we have asked for over generations. Our liturgy reflects Jewish history; most traditional Jews still pray for the wellbeing of an institution that hasn’t existed for 1000 years, the Exilarch in Y’kum Purkan.
My question is, what will remain from our generations in 1000 years that we’ll still be remembering or brain-morphing or whatever adaptation Judaism will accept to maintain relevant?
Will Zechariah’s prophecy finally be relevant? Will 9th of Av not only not be mourned but will it be a feast?
I hope sooner.
Use Your Words. Carefully.
So it was our last day of this particular Tanach class and our instructor, Howard Markose asked, during the last 45 minutes for feedback so he could be a better teacher. He had just led us through a discussion of how Moses might have been a better leader if he could have taught the people to channel their selfish needs in more appropriate ways.
I asked whether he’d mind if I tried to practice some of that myself by asking that we spend our last 45 minutes together studying and allow for the process of the yeshiva in garnering feedback to give him the guidance he needed.
My wish was granted.
We studied the rebellion of Korach and Moses’ response and evaluated it as best we could. My view was that in the Korach rebellion Moses seems to have internalized some of the necessary communication skills that were lacking in some of the earlier episodes. Korach challenges Moses and the response is to challenge the rebel to a show down in which God will prove His will. After asserting his confidence in God’s support he tries to talk Korach out of his rebellion, unsuccessfully. Then, when God threatens to kill all the people yet again, Moses quickly asks, not unlike Abraham many years before, Will the God of Justice not do justice? Will the sin of one man (well, really 253 or so but who’s counting?) lead to the deaths of the entire people?
My evaluation is that every good leader who has to deal with existential issues needs to be reasonably cool headed and do the best he can to defuse the situation and minimize the damage. In this episode, I think Moses does that.
Our final text, Chapter 12 of Numbers in which Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses’ Kushite woman was my reward for demanding our last 45 minutes for Torah study rather than hashing out the pros and cons of our instructor’s pedagogy.
It seems to me that no one has ever effectively figured out why Miriam is complaining to Aaron about Moses’ Kushite wife. Are they racist? Is the woman Tzipporah or another woman? Are they concerned that Moses is not spending ENOUGH time with his wife? That he’s neglecting her? All these have been proposed in one way or the other.
The best idea I think that came out of the class is that she is a foreigner and Aaron and Miriam are concerned about their own status and standing as she’s added to the power configuration. This is why they BOTH complain that, well, aren’t they prophets too? Doesn’t God talk to them too?
It’s my contention that Moses does not know this is going on. God hears and the narrator points out that Moses is the most humble of all men.
So all of a sudden, God calls all three of them to the Tent of the Meeting. I imagine Miriam and Aaron are thinking to themselves, See, we told you so! While they’re in the tent, God’s presence appears outside and He calls the two of them, not Moses — he presumably stays in the tent.
God tells them they have the powers of a normal prophet, one who sees visions and has dreams of communication. Moses is different, God’s own trusted servant like no other with whom the divine communicates ‘face to face’. Many think this is merely an anthropomorphic way to say that God has a closer relationship to Moses than to any other prophet.
Miriam suffers for the ‘rebellion’ in a way that Aaron does not (although he seems more emotionally moved by her sickness than she is). I wonder whether God lets Aaron off the hook because his sickness would prevent him from his sacrificial duties before a replacement was in place. Moses prays to God for her healing and God says after 7 days she will be healed.
In reviewing the two weeks of Tanach about Israelite Complaining and God and Moses’ responses, I have come to the following conclusions:
1. It’s ironic that Moses is chosen to lead the people out against his will. Because he’s a minimal father figure and was never a slave like the people he’s leading, he has a hard time communicating with them and relating to them. The irony is that if he had been a slave and spent a lot of time with his kids, he may not have been able to do the job.
2. The first generation seems to always believe that it’s Moses performing all the miracles and not God. Moses tells them over and over again but actually trusting an invisible God is very difficult for them. Ironically, the first time in the texts we studied that the first generation finally ‘gets’ it is after the spies incident when they threaten to appoint a leader to take them back to Egypt.
3. Finally, even in the next generation, at almost the same location with the same setup as the water from the rock in the first generation, you would think that Moses would have been able to apply his skills better by then. But unfortunately, the children seem to have fallen into the same lack of trust in God’s power as their parents, claiming Moses was responsible for bringing them to an impasse without water, and clearly Moses, whatever skills he’s acquired in his experience with the first generation, is not the leader to take the younger children of Israel into the land.