May 31, 2017

Shavuout: smooches and suspended mountains

Studying the Book of Ruth on Shavuous, as I do every year, I look for something interesting and new. Today, I happened to have sitting on my desk the Midrash Rabbah for Ecclesiastes and Ruth—I have it for my interminable study of the former, but what the heck.

Here’s one: in Ruth 1:14, we read “and Orpah kissed her mother in law”. What do the Sages of Blessed Memory have to say about that?

All kissing is folly, except on three occasions, the kiss of high office, the kiss of meeting after separation, and the kiss of parting. Of high office, as it is written, Then Samuel took the vial of oil, and poured it on his head, and kissed him (1 Sam 10:1). Of meeting, as it is written, And he met him in the mountain of Gd and kissed him (Ex 4:27); of parting, as it is written, And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law. R. Tankhuma added: Also the kiss of kinship, as it is said, And Jacob kissed Rachel (Gen 29, 11). Why? Because she was his relation.

So that’s it: three reasonable occasions for smooching, maybe four. Thought y’all would want to know.

In other inspiring ruminations about Shavuot, I found an essay on Consent and Coercion at Sinai (pdf) by Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter to be fascinating and evocative. The Sages of Blessed Memory, in that case, are discussing the text of the Giving of the Law at Sinai, particularly the phrase in Exodus 19:17 that the KJV gives as they stood at the nether part of the mount. They stand beetakhteet, under the mountain, and Rav Avdimi riffs off this word to paint an image of the people of Israel literally standing under Mount Sinai: “This teaches us that The Holy One, Blessed be He, suspended the mountain over them as a vat and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, good. But if not, there will be your burial place.’”

This is an amazing image, the Divine Hand holding a mountain over the heads of the People as they decide. On the other hand, and for all the issues that the Sages of Blessed Memory occasionally have with consent, this is pretty much textbook duress, innit? This kinda ruins the entire story of the People saying in one voice we will do and we will hear! Well, yeah, because the alternative was being crushed by a bloody big mountain, then. And when we add to that the injunction that every generation must think of itself as the Sinai generation, well, frankly I would rather not think of a mountain being held over my head to crush me if I choose poorly.

Rabbi Schacter attempts to rescue the image in a couple of ways, not entirely successfully in my opinion. I would be inclined to abstract the image—suggest that the Divine Hand always holds off the crushing weight of Creation, that without the agreement to covenant with the Divine, we are choosing to have the weight of the world directly on us—that the peril is everpresent for all people, and that it is, perhaps, the joy of our choosing to be in covenant with the Divine that gives strength to the Divine to continue the eternal task of Creation without crushing us beneath its weight. Something like that.

But really, this is the danger of the kind of Scripture study I like to do: take the plain meaning of the words, and then break the words down for connotations, search for arresting images and evocations and reflections of other texts, and then build the text back up out of those. It’s terrifically fun (well, for me) and it is also terrifically distracting from the actual plain meaning of the Scripture. When we read that the people were under the mountain it is clear that we were at the foot of Mount Sinai, where the entire context of the text places us. Probably a worthwhile reminder as I continue with Ecclesiastes.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 30, 2017

Ecclesiastes 3:5

I need to find a way to do these every week, not every other week.

3:1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
3:2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3:3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
3:4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
3:5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
3:6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
3:7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
3:8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Today’s pairs are 3:5: A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.


ayt l’hashleekh avaneem/v’ayt k’nos avaneem/ayt lakhavoak/v’ayt lirkhoak maykhabayk


  1. shlkh, cast; ’vn, stone. The verb is used for literal throwing and for casting out metaphorically. Joseph is cast into a pit; Moses casts down his rod and later the stone tablets of the law; the Psalmist casts his shoe over Edom; Jeremiah describes the great wailing out of Zion for they have forsaken the land and the dwellings have cast them out; Ezekiel instructed us to cast away every man the abominations of his eyes, but we did not. Stones are, well, stones, sometimes precious, sometimes worked, most often just stones. The phrase literally means throwing rocks. In idiom or metaphor, well, we’ll get to that, right?
  2. kns, collect; ’vn, stone (again). Collect or gather, mostly used for people (Esthers asks Mordecai to gather together the Jews for a fast; the Psalmist has the Lord gathering the outcasts of Israel) but also for objects. It’s not the common word for either, though. It’s not clear to me if this phrase literally means collecting stones or stacking them—some translators like to call it heaping up. Not much difference, although a different image.
  3. khvk, embrace. Another fairly uncommon word in Scripture. Oddly, this is the only place it appears without a direct object (grammatically speaking) though it’s an unusual construction anyway.
  4. rkhk, far; khvk, embrace. Literally to go far from embracing. To put away, like to put away a wife or to push off one’s bad habits or transgressions. Perhaps in this case avoid has something of the connotation? I think it’s not just not embracing, it’s actively removing from the place of embracing.

I am having difficulty working up a segue into my big discovery of this verse: the idiomatic meaning of cast away stones. From the Midrash Rabba:

A time to cast away stones: at the time when your wife is ritually clean; And a time to gather stones together; at the time when your wife is ritually unclean. A time to embrace: if you see a band of righteous men standing anywhere, do you stand, embrace, kiss and show them affection; and a time to refrain from embracing: if you see a band of wicked men, keep far away from them and those like them.

The Sages of Blessed Memory clearly understood cast away stones as sex, which, wow would I not have guessed that. I may have been casting away stones incorrectly. I mean, is that technically a euphemism or a dysphemism? Yeesh. Casting away stones. I’m not even… I mean, I suppose the… stones… no, that’s just wrong.


A time to cast away stones and a time to gather them; a time to embrace and a time to avoid embracing. I’m stuck on the choice to use objects in some of the verses and not others. In verse 3, it’s just break down and build up, but here it’s cast away and gather stones. What does it bring to the verse to have an object or not have it? Is there a time for avoiding all embraces whatsoever, or are there particular embraces at particular times that one must avoid (or that one cannot help but avoid, as it is not their time)? The Hebrew particularly brings out the difference in structure, I think, in a way that the English doesn’t so much, just because the previous two verses have a perfectly balanced eight words and this one has eleven and feels much less balanced. With the trope (or cantillation) it would be even more obvious, as verses 3 and 4 have exactly the same trope; verses 2 and 5 are similar to each other in trope but not identical, and are substantially different from 3 and 4. The broken rhythm may help keep the verse from becoming rumpty-tumpty as it is chanted. I wonder.

In fact, it occurs to me that there’s a sort of structural metaphor here that can call back to the (very different) poetry of the first chapter: the notion that the world consists of simultaneous change and consistency, that there is simultaneously nothing new under the sun and constant variation in everything. One generation passeth away and another cometh: but the earth abideth for ever, you know? One verse gives way to the next, one pair to the next with the verse, and they are both the same and different.

Or that may be a stretch. We have three more pairs of pairs left—this is the middle one, the pivot, if that’s worth noting, between the stones business and the embraces—and there remains the chance of a different pattern emerging. I hope.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 12, 2017

Ecclesiastes 3:4

This is going very slowly, isn’t it? Harrumph. Still, I am getting enough out of it for myself to make it worth slogging through.

3:1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
3:2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3:3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
3:4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
3:5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
3:6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
3:7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
3:8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Today’s pair of pairs is 3:4, A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.


ayt livkot/v’ayt lish’khok/ayt s’fod/v’ayt r’kod


  1. bkh, to weep. Weeping tears, the word is connected to drops of water falling, according to Genesius. There’s a lot of weeping in Scripture, if you think about it. The concordance pointed me to Jeremiah 9:1, Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! Weeping is often but not always mourning the dead; when Moses complains about the whining of the Israelites in the wilderness, when he compares himself to a wetnurse, he describes them as weeping, like, four times in ten verses.
  2. shkhk, to laugh. This isn’t tzkhk, from which Isaac gets his name, although it seems close; Genesius says it’s a later form. Also, it seems to be used a lot for derisive laughter (Judges 16, Job 30 and 39, Proverbs 1, etc) in addition to merriment.
  3. sfd, to mourn. Specifically to beat the breast and wail, as opposed to bkh, which is about actual tears. In fact, they are used in a phrase together a couple of times: to weep and to mourn.
  4. rkd, to dance. There seems to be perhaps a connotation of pounding the ground with the feet, the sort of stompy dancing that makes noise; that would be a nice image to pair with the breast-beating above. It’s not the twirly-spinny sort of dancing, which I think is makhol.

I’ll add that the second pair don’t have the initial lamed that indicates to (or for); this is the first pair not to have that. What does it mean? Is there something about those words for mourning and dancing that don’t take the preposition? Or is there some meaning to Time mourn, and time dance? It isn’t the rhythm, because (a) it’s the same for all the other verses, and (2) it wouldn’t actually change the rhythm to say ayt lis’foad/v’ayt lir’koad; it would just shmush the unvoweled consonants closer together. I don’t understand it at all.

OK, just for fun, then, I’m going to do an old-fashioned drash on the missing lameds. OK? Ready?

The first half of our verse has lameds; the second half does not. What can we learn from this? We ask: what is a lamed? The lamed, of course, is a remarkable letter. It is the only letter that ascends above the line: ל. It is the crown of all letters, the highest of them all. It is made by combining two letters: the kaf כ, which sits even with the other letters, crowned by a vav ו that sticks up like a tower. The number associated with kaf in the Hebrew numeral system is 20, and the vav is 6, so combined they make 26. What else is 26? The yud-hey-vav-hey, the Divine Name, is 26. Also, attend: The lamed stands between the kaf and the mem in the alphabet, that is, between the keesay ha-kavod and the malkhut, between the throne and the kingdom of the Divine. The lamed, then, stands for the Divine itself, the creator of the universe. So to remove the lamed from the word is to remove the Divine.

Now, in the first half of the verse, we read: a time for tears, and a time for laughter. These have the lamed, that is the Divine. They describe true emotional and physical reactions; tears and laughter. The second half of the verse describes breast-beating and foot-stomping; those are, to quote Hamlet, things that a man might show without feeling them, the trappings and suits of woe or of triumph. Those are written without the lamed, that is, the Divine. Thus we learn that it is the Divine within us that comes out in laughter and in tears; thus we learn that when we show what we do not feel, we remove ourselves from the Divine. Thus we learn that is the ability to cry and to laugh is Divine in us, that lifts us above the rest of Creation as the lamed is lifted above the rest of the letters.

That’s not bad, other than being completely made up. I mean, the numerology isn’t wrong, it’s just silly—I mean aside from it being numerology in the first place, it’s preposterous: lamed is 30, not 26, and the lamed isn’t a vav on top of a proper kaf. I mean, it kinda is, but you have to squint. And the notion that breast-beating is intrinsically more false than tears is specious as well. Still, it sounded good while it was running, didn’t it?

Other than that, I like this pair of pairs. I like the opposition of weeping and laughing, with their connotations of mourning/respect and mockery/disrespect. I like the opposition of breast-beating and foot-stomping. I like the ambiguity of subject and object (should I read it that there is a time that I will be mourned and a time I will be scorned, or that there is a time for me to weep and a time for me to laugh?) that the spare, almost skeletal language allows. I like all those long o sounds.

And this verse, to me, more than the last one, feels like it is part of the same book as 1:7. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things change; all things remain. It’s that astonishing image of the world as containing a kind of infinite balance of variety and continuity, of the Divine as having the vision to see everything that seems to us (under the sun) to be constantly changing as actually, from the Divine perspective, constantly returning (t’shuvah).

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 30, 2017

Ecclesiastes 3:3

I think perhaps I should post the entire poem each time I look at one of the verses so that we can look at each time within the context of the 28. So:

3:1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
3:2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3:3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
3:4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
3:5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
3:6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
3:7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
3:8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

This time I’m looking at 3:3: A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.


ayt laharoag/v’ayt lir’po/ayt lif’ro/v’ayt liv’noat


  1. hrg, to kill. Or to slay. Used for war and battle, but also for individual premeditated murder (Cain and Abel, f’r’ex,or for Esau’s intent to Jacob, etc) but not in the Ten Commandments, where rtzkh is used.
  2. rf’, to heal. Evidently from the action of sewing a wound—the connotation here is, I think, healing from wound rather than recovery from sickness. On the other hand, we have taken the word to mean healing more generally, as in the phrase refuah shlemah, complete healing, such as we pray for in the mi shebeirech.
  3. prtz, to break. This is one of those words with multiple meanings; in addition to various forms of break (break up, break down, break through), the KJV translates it as increase and also compel. Pretty clearly here it’s break, and it’s used for breaking down walls and fortifications and such.
  4. bnh, to build. Mostly used with cities, altars and houses, as well as families, that is, households.

Those four are all pretty straightforward. They are also simple solid words, by the way, what we in English might think of as good old Anglo-Saxon words, not flowery poetic metaphor. From what I can tell. Kohelet is here aiming for the poetry of simplicity. Very different in feel from the first chapter’s careful and tricksy wordplay.

Thinking about this verse and the last one, does it seem odd that these verbs are shorn of their objects? I mean, how different would this read if he had written a time to break down walls and a time to build up walls? Does it lose some of its metaphoric power? I’m not sure it does. True that in our present vernacular a time to kill men and a time to heal men’s wounds provokes a response about masculinity and whatnot, but that’s a translation problem; Kohelet’s original audience would have understood it to be universal. This comes to mind particularly because there is an object at the end of 3:2 (to pluck up that which is planted) that I think could have been shorn off to maintain parallelism without losing intelligibility. Only four of the twenty-eight pieces have more than one word following time (in the Hebrew). Is that a failure to keep strictly to eight-word verses? Or could we have done with a few more words? Or is there something else going on?

As for the content, this connects, in my mind, to war and peace—surely that is the time for killing and breaking down walls. On the other hand, the time for healing wounds and building up walls is also wartime, not so much peacetime, when one hopes there is less need for either triage or security. Well, well. Nor do any of these really strike me as kheifetz, things desired, either by Kohelet or the Divine Creator. I wonder… what if the poem ended here, with only two verses and four pairs? Times for being born, for dying, for planting, for uprooting; for killing, for healing, for breaking down, for building up. All of those are about creation and destruction right? Ends and beginnings. The next few are not that: weep and laugh, get and lose, rend and mend, speak and keep silence… these are middles. The order is odd, then, that verse two isn’t the last verse, making a first-and-last pair of firsts-and-lasts. I wonder if there is anything to be found in the choice not to do that.

No answers to anything, yet. Still just chewing on the words.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 24, 2017

Ecclesiastes 3:2

I have not yet given up on Ecclesiastes. We’re on 3:2, the beginning of the time poem. The poem is seven verses long, each verse having two contrasting pairs, making 28 times altogether, which may be meaningful (the moon and menses) or may not (fours and sevens are pretty common). I haven’t a clue. I do think that in things of this kind it’s a good idea to keep in mind that the verse divisions may not have been the ones Kohelet originally intended—it is more natural to think of them as fourteen pairs than as seven pairs of pairs. On the other hand, the verse divisions, even if added later, are part of the Scripture, so I don’t feel comfortable ignoring them entirely. They don’t appear at first glance to be paired in puns, or in sound similarities at all. It’s not an acrostic, or one of those tricky things where the last two letters of the word are the first two of the word in the next row. In fact, reading it fairly closely in Hebrew for the first time, I found it a little disappointing in terms of the sound of it. The rhythms and so forth. Just for sheer poetic wit, I was far more impressed with the poem in chapter one.

Well, anyway. Here’s the opening pair of pairs:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;


ayt laledet/v’ayt lamoot/ayt lata’at/v’ayt la’akoor natoo’a

The words:

  1. yld, to give birth. Most often this shows up in a form translated in our KJV as ’begat’. My Ginsberg translation has a footnote saying that this is literally giving birth, but in the text goes with the passive voice. The Targum,which is not reliable as a translation and has its own agenda, but is very old and reveals how (some) people thought of the text two thousand years ago, has There is a special time to beget sons and daughters. So if you want to think of this as a time to have babies, rather than a time to be born, you certainly can.
  2. mvt, to die. This verb is used for both dying and killing, but seems to be here in the former voice. Still, the Targum has and a special time for killing disobedient and perverse children, to kill them with stons according to the decree of the judges, so (a) the case is not absolutely clear, (2) do good by your parents, and (iii) ew, the Targum. Also, the verb is used for both violent and natural death; the Midrash says the pair distinguish peacetime from wartime.
  3. nt’, to plant. You know, to plant. In the ground. Also used metaphorically, just like we do—you can plant a flag, or the Divine can plant a people. The metaphor of the Divine planting the people Israel is a favorite of Jeremiah.
  4. ’kr, to uproot. This word is also used for cutting the hamstrings of livestock, as is done in war; in fact, this is the only place in Scripture that this word is used to mean literally uprooting a plant. Which we know it is, because the word nt’ is used as the object of the verb, so, as the KJV, to uproot what was planted.

So. I mean, yes, clearly we have to pairs of opposites: birth and death, planting and uprooting. And there’s a nice metaphor here, with the beginning and ending of lives. On the other hand, we are specifically talking about time here, and the thing about birth and death is that they are resistant to scheduling. Probably proverbially. If you say that there is a time to plant, well, that’s something that you probably do think about in advance, plan ahead, choose the best time. Hire yard hands. Lay in your tools and supplies. And uprooting—surely weeding and winnowing and whatnot is something you absolutely do schedule in advance?

In the Midrash, the Rabbis take the statement that there is a time for being born and a time for dying as a statement about the Divine control over our lives and deaths—From the hour a person is born it is decreed for him how many years he is to live. If he is worthy, he completes his years, but if he is unworthy they are reduced in number for him; as it is written: the fear of the Lord prolongeth days, but the years of the wicked shall be shortened. There is disagreement about the details, but there seems to be agreement that we read this that just as we may plan to plant at such-and-such a time, or weed at such-and-such a time, so the Divine plants and pulls up according to a Divine plan, unknown to us. If birth and death seem very different from planting and uprooting when it comes to time, that is because we are looking under the sun. The view is different from over it. Plausible! Although what use is that point of view to us?

And again: these are specific examples of ait l’khol kheifetz, there is a time for all desires. Are these things that people want, or that Kohelet wants? People don’t so much desire to be born, and desiring death is unusual. I suppose people like both planting and uprooting, and I’ve enjoyed both of those activities, but I don’t know that I’d call them desires. My own experience is that even when it’s absolutely necessary to pull out half of the shoots so that the remaining ones will flourish, it’s kinda heartbreaking. We desire life, and we desire, oh, fresh peas, but the birth and death and planting and weeding part are not the parts we really desire. Frankly, I would much rather think that the Divine feels that way about our own deaths than calling them kheifetz.

So. Where are we? Under the sun, but still lost and confused. I am, anyway. I’m not sure that’s a wrong place to be at this point. I don’t require poems to have more answers than questions, certainly in the first line. In fact, I feel on the whole pretty positive about having more questions, and more specific questions, than I expected to from the first verse.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 18, 2017

The Eighth Day

As may Gentle Readers are aware, Your Humble Blogger grew up a Conservative Jew, comfortably within a 70s not-particularly-progressive congregation. Well, I say comfortably, which isn’t exactly true; my family was pushing the congregation on egalitarian/feminist ritual practices, and we were never quite as Zionist as the rest of the gang, but I accepted that our role was to be towards that end of a Conservative congregation. I joke that the definition of a Conservative Jew is a Jew that doesn’t keep kosher, but thinks it is very important that the Rabbi keeps kosher, and that’s more or less how I grew up. The traditions were very important, but I didn’t expect to actually keep any of them myself.

When I started attending services regularly as a grown-up, it was at an independent (unaffiliated) synagogue that used a modified Reconstructionist siddur. I really liked the siddur, and I was interested in the Reconstructionist movement, which I had never come in contact with before, but I didn’t think of myself as a Reconstructionist Jew. I thought of myself as a Conservative Jew who went to an unaffiliated shul and liked the Reconstructionist siddur. At the same time, I was beginning to become aware that I would probably not ever join a Conservative synagogue again. My Best Reader is not Jewish, and I would certainly not join a synagogue that would not welcome her as a full member, any more than I would join a synagogue that would not allow us to worship together. The Conservative Movement has a sluggish and recalcitrant attitude on LGBT issues as well, in my opinion, and that was worse in the time I am talking about, fifteen years ago or so.

Then when we moved to our current town, I joined the congregation I call Temple Beth Bolshoi (not its actual name, of course) after looking around at the seven (!) synagogues in the area and finding the one I could imagine my Perfect Non-Reader being bat-mitzvah in. It’s a URJ shul, big enough and old enough to be fairly prominent in URJ politics, it seems. I still thought of myself as a Conservative Jew, probably, or perhaps as an unaffiliated Jew with a Conservative background. And then, over five years or so, and particularly as I saw a lot of the good things that URJ was doing as an organization, I started calling myself a Reform Jew. Admittedly, a Reform Jew who still preferred the Conservative tunes for the prayers, but a Reform Jew.

Now, I am comfortable being a Reform Jew right now, in part because the Reform Movement has changed so much in the last generation or two. We wear yarmulkes at services (mostly, although nobody seems to look askance if we don’t) and we don’t call our Rabbi Reverend and we don’t actually object to that Rabbi keeping kosher, if he doesn’t flaunt it. We pray in Hebrew! The Rabbi who gratuitously sniped at the Orthodox shul down the road has retired. I am, for the most part, happy to call myself a Reform Jew, and have been for, oh, five years or so. Except for the tunes.

And, it turns out, except for the eighth day of Passover. I understand that there is no good scriptural or legal reason to hold off on pizza until after eight days have passed, instead of seven (this essay by Ben Dreyfus pretty much covers it) but it still seems like cheating, somehow. And the wrong kind of cheating, too—I am happy to tell my children that the sundown on the last day of Passover is always considered, Rabbinically speaking, to occur at the moment that the pizza delivery guy arrives. But cheating on sundown on the eighth day is cheating I am perfectly happy with; after halakhically-correct sundown on the seventh day is not.

I wonder, today, on what for me is the last day of Passover, what my children will do, when they have households of their own. The true rabbinic instruction in these matters is to follow the minhag (custom) of your family, or at least of the family you married into, and not to change it without reason. Will they find reason to change it? Of course, I have no idea what customs they will choose to follow—will they keep Passover at all? Will they celebrate with a seder on the first night and then ignore either seven or eight days following? Will they keep kosher in the house all year? Will they think of themselves as Jews at all, or choose some other religious identity? I hope I am raising them to think that they have the power and right to choose that identity for themselves… but I admit that I hope that I am raising them with enough fondness for my customs and the customs of our household that they will not want to ditch them altogether.

It is a complicated world, that it surely is, and without our traditions, we would notice that we are all fiddlers on rooftops. Of course, some of our traditions have always involved pushing other people off the roof’s edge, and we shouldn’t keep those, but there’s something somehow appealing to me about this nonsensical just-in-case eighth day, a thousand years and more past there being any question of starting the holiday on the wrong date.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 6, 2017

Ecclesiastes 3:1

So. Ecclesiastes 3:1:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

There are seven words in the Hebrew, and I think I have questions about every one of them.

Here they are: lakol z’man v’ait l’khol kheifetz tachat ha-shamayim. Are you ready?

It begins with kol z’man. kol (or sometimes khol) is all or every (we’ve seen it before, we’ll see it again, as Kohelet is fond of general pronouncements) and z’man is time, and specifically an appointed time. Passover (which is coming up in a few days as I write this) is z’man kheirutaynu, the time of our freedom. Sukkot (when we read this megillah) is z’man simkhataynu, the time of our rejoicing. That’s presumably why it got translated as season here, although it is not connected to the seasons of the year or anything. And it’s not z’manim, the appointed times (check out, by the way,, which will calculate the times for various observances, such as when is the earliest or latest times to say the morning prayers and have it count as morning; z’manim in current Hebrew connotes time of day more than of year) but only one z’man, one appointed time. I’ll also add that Genesius calls z’man “a word of a later age used instead of the more ancient ait.” Yeah, we’re getting to that more ancient word later. But for now, the poetic translation isn’t bad, really; it might more literally be to everything, an appointed time.

So that’s two words down.

Next three: v’ait l’khol kheifetz, and time for every purpose. The word for time (pronounced like eight (8), bye-the-bye) comes from a root for forever (∞), which I kinda like: any particular time being a specific instance of eternity. Now, I don’t think that was a deliberate connotation that Kohelet was aiming for, but it’s great anyway. Still, yes, time. I wrote, a couple of Purims ago, about the phrase to know the times. What do we mean if we say that something has a time? Most commentary seems to say that there is a correct time for each thing, thus implying that there are other, incorrect times for those things. But in that case, why is Kohelet using eit and not z’man? Why not say that things have the time for them? Other commentary takes up the idea that there each thing has only its time, and that nothing lasts forever, which is certainly Kohelet-ish, but then, why not say that? Or we could interpret that there is enough time for everything. I don’t know, certainly not yet.

And then kheifetz, purposes. Purposes? No. Desires, maybe. Everywhere outside Ecclesiastes, khefetz always indicates something positive, something wanted. The phrase khol kheifetz is translated as all my desire in 2Sa 23:5, kol kheftzl’kha as all thy desire in 1Ki 5:8, khol kheftzo as all his desire in 1Ki 9:11, and khol kheftzee as all my desire in Isaiah 44:28 and 46:10. I don’t know why the Authorized Version uses purpose here. It’s clearly wrong. So if we say instead: and time for all (my?) desire, we get a very different sense.

I don’t want to forget to note my appreciation for the reversal that flips lakol z’man and ait l’khol kheifetz. I do wonder if how it would sound if you emphasized the two words for time, that is, the difference between them: lakol z’man, for everything an appointed time, and ait l’khol kheifetz, time for all desires. How different are the two kinds of time? How different are the two halves of that saying? Is it really just repetition for emphasis (and we know Kohelet will repeat himself for emphasis) or is there a point we are missing, about the things for which there is z’man and the desires for which there is (also?) ait?

And we’re not done! We have two more words: tachat ha-shamayim, under the heavens (the sky, literally). Note that this is not tachat ha-shemesh, under the sun. Or is it? Some commentaries have claimed that this is just a scribal error, the first three letters being the same, and correct (if that’s what it is) the yud-mem of the heavens to the shin of the sky. But then, none of the commentaries that I am aware of draw the inference that I do from the phrase in the first place. They all assume that Kohelet uses the phrase under the sun as a poetic way of saying everything. I don’t think so; I think he specifically uses it to ask us to think of what is not under the sun, that is, what is Divine, eternal, beyond. The technique of contrast, using rhetorical questions (what profit is there?) to evoke answers rather than provide them, relies on the readers being careful with the words. So I want to be careful here: the sky is not the sun, perhaps.

And then… if we do read tachat ha-shamayim. to mean simply everything, what is it doing in the sentence at all? We have kol twice already, every thing and every desire. Does the third and final (if poetic) everything apply to the things or just to the desires? Is there a z’man for everything, but an ait only for desires under the sun?

I don’t have any answers at this point. I don’t think I’m particularly meant to; this is the first line of a poem, and as such should give us no answers. What it ought to do is tell us how to read the poem. We’ll see if I’ve managed that when I get to the next bit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 4, 2017

Ecclesiastes: 3: 1-8 (Turn! Turn! Turn!)

We have reached the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (at least, I wrote about the last verse of the second chapter, a couple of weeks ago) and it begins like this:

To every [thing there is] a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up [that which is] planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

There. Now it’s stuck in your head, too. Unless you weren’t around in the 1970s, I suppose.

If you weren’t around, you may have difficulty understanding how popular this song was. Long the best of Pete Seeger’s tunes, it sounded from the first as if it had always been around. And by the time I remember, it had been around for ten years or so.

It seemed to be beyond genre. Nina Simone sang it. Johnny Cash sang it. Marlene Dietrich sang it. Choirs sang it. It was everywhere. It still is.

I don’t really know why. I mean, catchy tune, yes, and whatnot, but I wonder what anyone thought it meant. Some of the versions sound sad, as if the singer is wistfully describing the impermanence of everything. Some sound upbeat, as if the singer is optimistically predicting that this, too, shall pass.

Some are almost triumphant, as if the singer is proclaiming the permanence of a world that is, on the whole, good, despite any temporary drawbacks. It’s clearly a song a lot of people like to sing, but I don’t really know why. I mean, other than it being a good song, of course. There’s a quote from Roger McGuinn saying that it had “a good message, [and] a good melody.” The melody is surely lovely, and their intro is one of the greats, but what exactly is the good message?

I remember liking the song a lot, as a kid, but I have to say I don’t remember what I thought it was about. I’m curious what y’all think of it. Tori Amos seems to think it’s a sad, sweet song. Bruce Springsteen thinks it’s a rocker. Phil Lesh and Bill Frisell think it’s a hoot. Wilson Phillips think it’s kinda funky, with some soul. This all-star country line-up seem to think it’s about the things that last: land, I guess, and family, and country music all-stars.

Your Humble Blogger will be poring over the words, over the next stretch of time, with the usual interminable tedium that you have come to expect here. It’s possible that I will come to some sort of conclusion about what they mean to me; it’s unlikely that will be what they meant to all those wonderful vocalists. But going in to the process, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 18, 2017

Ecclesiastes 2:26

Ecclesiastes 2:26:

For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Well. I can’t make this work.

I can’t make it work with my unconventional reading of the first two chapters, and I can’t make it work with the surface reading, either. Kohelet was just saying that everyone loses in the end—in v. 14, he specifically said that one event happeneth to them all. Now he is talking about the difference between the sinner and the man who is good in the sight of the Divine. Surely this is vanity and vexation of spirit.

So. Let’s start with H.L. Ginsburg, who translates the first part (kee l’adam she-tov l’fanayv natan khakhmah v’da’at v’simkhah) as to the man, namely, who pleases Him He has given the wisdom and shrewdness to enjoy himself. That’s a bit of a stretch, honestly: it’s pretty clearly wisdom and knowledge and enjoyment, but we could certainly interpret the Divine Gift as a bundle of wisdom‘n’knowledge‘n’joy, inseparable each from each, such that it is wisdom to have knowledge and joy, and a joy to have wisdom and knowledge, and true knowledge is the worth of wisdom and joy. It’s a single gift, then, and is contrasted with that given to the sinner.

For the sinner, I’ll go to Robert Gordis, who is often interestingly stubborn in his gloss: he points out that the word we use for sin (khayt) is more accurately translated as shortcoming, the word (as I believe I have talked about during one or another year’s Days of Awe) deriving from the word used when an arrow misses the target. In this case, he argues, what is intended is the statement that the khotay misses the mark so fully as to spend his time gathering and amassing, rather than in wisdom, knowledge and joy. “The pious moralist declares that the sinner suffers; Koheleth, that he who suffers is a sinner. Conventional wisdom declares that the sinner is a fool; Koheleth that the fool is a sinner.” That’s awfully tempting, isn’t it? In the rest of the chapter, Kohelet rants about the inevitability of death, and that inheritance goes astray, and here he says that the khotay who amasses wealth does not please the sight of the Divine. All good. And how do you please the sight of the Divine? By appreciating the gift of wisdom‘n’knowledge‘n’joy and not doing all of that upgeheaping.

Only it is very clear in the text that what is gathered by the sinner is given to the one who is pleasing to the Divine. And, um, that’s really not what Kohelet was on about earlier. And seriously, I have a very hard time reading this text, either today’s verse or the chapter as a whole, as saying that you should enjoy wisdom and knowledge so that the sinner will give you all his stuff. I mean. To me, that sounds like vanity and vexation of spirit.

I’d even be inclined at the moment to read this whole verse as a kind of sarcasm: the Divine gives to the pleasing folk this amazing gift of wisdom‘n’knowledge‘n’joy, and to the schmuck he gives the desire for moneygrubbing without surcease or satisfaction, and—what? You want the schmuck’s stuff, too? Now that is wind-chasing.

And maybe that’s what the verse is saying, to cap off the whole chapter: the whole concern about what happens to your stuff when you are gone is the essence of futility, a particularly fruitless kind of ghost-wooing, when you are yourself the ghost you are trying to woo.

Or, more likely from looking at the actual historical text, somebody who found the whole body of the work outrageously blasphemous stuck in a verse about how everything is all right, really, and Kohelet never touched this particular verse at all. But that seems like cheating, somehow.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 10, 2017

Purim again. Sigh.

I write about Purim pretty much every year, don’t I? As if it were a major holiday. I suppose it is, in a way. Anyway, here we are again, or will be soon. Tomorrow night and Sunday. And Monday, for those who observe the extra day. Purim: that great festival of drunkenness, cross-dressing and the commemoration of horrific violence and murder (and of course the reprieve of our people from being the victims, rather than the perpetrators, thereof).

This year, I’m looking at Esther 3:8-9, where Haman first goes to the king with his plan to kill all the Jews of Persia:

And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.


So, when I look at dialogue, particularly, in Scripture, I try to figure out why the part that is in the text is included, and what was left out. Or, rather, while I will sometimes try to figure out what was left out, mostly I question why certain things were included and nothing else, when one might have expected more. Of course, the Scripture never gives the impression that the entire dialogue is recorded. Much is elided. This is true throughout, not just in dialogue, and when the odd specific detail (a name, an occupation, a motivation) turns up it is often memorable and powerful. In this text, it’s interesting what Haman is using to manipulate the King, and what the Scripture does not say.

And, well, the Scripture includes Haman offering a ridiculous bribe—am I wrong in thinking that a talent of silver is 26kg and thus around $15K in today’s prices? And that ten thousand talents is a hundred and fifty million dollars? I have no sense of how much wealth a talent of silver really represented in the treasury of Persia around 400BCE (or whenever). But I would guess that aseret alafim kikar keshef was meant to be understood as a gazillion dollars rather than as some calculable amount of money. And in addition to the ridiculous bribe, there is the accusation that it is not for the king’s profit to suffer the Jews to have their own laws. Is it about money, then? I think we are, indeed, presented with a Scripture that says that Haman chose money as the lever with which to move the king. Not fear, but profit.

OK, the use of the word profit to translate showveh is not absolutely perfect; one could as easily say that it is not in the King’s interest or not fitting or meet or even just appropriate. So we can question whether the King James translators may have had some idea of Jewishness (or Orientalism, for that matter) in mind as they were deciding on that word, whether consciously or not.

Still, it’s quite a different thing from Exodus 1:10, when the Pharaoh says:

Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.

Nothing of that here.

It’s interesting (well, to me) that in the latter case, it is the monarch speaking to the people, and using fear, while in the Purim case it is the advisor speaking privately to the monarch and using greed. Is the Scripture trying to tell us something?

Remember that when Ahasueros is moved to action, it isn’t out of any sense of justice or fairness or mercy. It’s because Haman has threatened his woman. And the Scripture takes care to ensure that we know Ahasueros feels that he properly owns the women of his household.

I have written about what a great character Ahasueros is, and about what a terrible ruler he is, and I think that’s a big, big part of the Book of Esther. He is easily manipulated, and (as I have said before) in his court, with no guiding hand, the vicious and greedy were bound to crowd out the mere lickspittles and toadies. I hadn’t looked, really, at how that manipulation takes place. Worth thinking about, I think, as we think about what the Book presents to us as a picture of how to live as a minority in a land of misrule.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 15, 2017

Ecclesiastes: 2:24-25

We’re on verses 2:24-25:

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?

The actual text does not say that there is nothing better for a man; it says that there is nothing good for a man. This is difficult. The KJV and most modern translations have just added the notion, essentially giving there is no good for a man [except] eating and drinking etc. Rashi instead makes it a question: Is there no good for a man, eating and drinking etc? And then answering that, yes, it’s good, being from the hand of the Divine. I dunno. I don’t like adding things, but it’s pretty clear there’s something wrong with the text. Still, it seems just as likely for Kohelet to say that there is no good in eating and drinking and satisfaction in labour, as it is for him to say there is no good other than that stuff.

As long as I’m going through the text, yes, labour here is amal, again. This is the first mention of nephesh, the spirit or soul, in Ecclesiastes, and it doesn’t appear to be referring to the soul at all. The verse also has the second use of Elohim in the book—I think it’s worth pointing out how little the text seems to have to do with the Divine. The earlier use in 1:13 also refers to the Divine giving something to humans, but in that case it is inyan ra, sore travail. In this case, what comes from the Divine hand is gam-zo, all of that aforementioned stuff, eating and drinking and satisfaction in labor. Is this a contrast, or is this stuff part of the travail?

The rhetorical question in verse 25 deserves more attention than my commentaries give it, I think. kee mee yokhal u-mee yakhoosh khootz meemenee? For (sometimes because, sometimes if) who eats (devours/consumes) and who hurries (hastens/is eager/excited/feels strongly) more than (outside/outdoors/in the street/outward) me? It seems to me that the eats there has a destructive connotation—that’s probably overstating things, as it’s the ordinary and common word for eating, but it isn’t breaking bread, and it isn’t tasting. As for hastening, previous to the Psalms, it is used only in the sense of hurrying. The Psalmist uses it half-a-dozen times in encouraging the Divine to hasten to help him; I think that the sense of, well, temporal urgency, as it were, is suffused with a larger sense of anxiety—Make haste to help me, Lord doesn’t, to me, mean help me immediately but more rouse yourself to help me. Genesius claims that “in the Mishnah it is not infrequently used in speaking of the sensations of joy or sorrow”, tho’ I have no idea how accurate that is. I’ll also draw attention to the near-homophones khoosh and khootz, which are bracketed by the the mee syllable of who, both following the khal syllable of yokhal with another mee before that; it’s not a tongue-twister, but it is a significantly odd-sounding sentence. kee mee yokhal u-mee yakhoosh khootz meemenee?

The commentary I have seen largely ignores this verse or describes it simply as part of Kohelet’s strategy of speaking as Solomon. I have throughout felt that Kohelet uses rhetorical questions in a far more complicated way. Who can consume, who can feel more than I can? Given that we have just described food and drink and satisfaction as being a gift from the Hand of the Divine, I think there’s an obvious answer. But what does it mean? If there is no good for a man, but that he eat and drink and derive some sort of satisfaction in the work he must do—what does it mean that the Divine is better even at those things? Or are we interpreting the outside of khootz entirely incorrectly?

Perhaps the sentence is a call back to the concern of the whole chapter, which is that Kohelet frets over who will inherit his worldly goods: who is eating and experiencing my stuff that isn’t me? This makes more sense to me than the traditional translation, certainly. And I wonder if it’s possible that this is part of the rhetorical strategy: he first says that all that stuff is a gift from the Divine Hand, then says who is using them, if not him—the answer, then, is that they are a gift back from us to the Divine. By this interpretation, all that we do in material terms is not purely for our enjoyment under the sun. Thus, fretting about who will or will not dispose of them after our inevitable deaths is entirely wrongheaded. This would be entirely in keeping with my interpretation of the first chapter. Essentially, the message of both chapters is: You’re not that important. Get over yourself. The Divine is so much more. With, I think, an undercurrent of advice that there is a way for you as a mortal to do things that are important and have value, and that is to work not for yourself (or for the heirs of your body) but for the Divine.

Is it an interpretive stretch? Yes, it probably is, but it seems to me that the traditional interpretation of the verses is also a stretch. I suppose you would have to read eat as consume, purely a metaphorical eating, but that’s not impossible. Well, and if I suppose I can come back to it later, if I have any better ideas.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 29, 2017

Ecclesiastes 2:22-23

I’m going to try to tackle these next two verses together, because verse 22 and 23 seem to belong together, and also because I harbor a faint hope that I will someday finish chapter two:

For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? For all his days [are] sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.

Let’s see… the labor here is amal, unsurprisingly, in both instances. I really don’t like what hath man, which to me connotes possession; the Hebrew kee me-hoveh l’adam seems to me more like what happens to a man or what is there for a man. I’m not sure if I’m entirely clear on the distinction—Kohelet was talking about inheritances, within the persona of the King (or a King, anyway), and so the KJV is naturally here talking about what a man has, in the sense of owns, or what he keeps. I don’t think that connotation is there in the original. I think it more connotes potential, asking what is out there for a man to potentially possess or experience. Possibly there’s an issue with Hebrew tenses, which are utterly beyond me, but perhaps I sense this not as referring to the past (what a man already hath) but to the future (what could a man have)? At any rate, my habit, if you have been following along, is to treat these sorts of rhetorical questions as having answers that the reader is supposed to provide. So, what hath man of all his amal?

Perhaps I’ll come up with something, but I just got distracted by the fact that vexation here is ra’yown instead of r’ut; he’s nounified the word in the masculine rather than the feminine form. Why? I earlier interpreted the phrase vexation of spirit as ghost-wooing, just for the image of it, despite the inaccuracy. This is ra’yown leebo, vexation of the heart. Is it here referring to romantic yearning? I’m not altogether convinced, but then I’m really not convinced by vexation of the heart, either.

In the second verse, the KJV has screwed the parallelism of the Hebrew, which goes more like for all days are sorrows, travail and provocation; all nights without rest for the heart; all this is futility. That’s not really right—the first all is koll which really is all, but the second and third are gam which is all but Kohelet uses it a lot as an intensifier, so perhaps it’s for all days are sorrows, travail and provocation; even the nights have no rest for the heart; even this is futility. But the translator has put the night after the no-rest-heart bit instead of before, where it belongs.

I’m going to go through some more words, too, because there’s some very distracting stuff here. The KJV’s sorrows are makovim, which is probably better connoted by mental pains—that is, the word means pain but seems to be mostly used to describe mental or emotional pain. The word travail is one of those used only by Kohelet in this book and not found elsewhere in Scripture, and it seems to mean something like work, or, you know, labor. But it’s not amal! And where amal has a negative connotation of backbreaking, the root of in’yan is even worse, along the lines of affliction. But work-related affliction, right? And I’ve already swapped out grief for provocation; ca’as is more anger than sadness. Oddly, any of those three could be translated vexation if you wanted to without losing much accuracy.

But it’s shakhav, which the KJV translates as rest, that caught my attention. It’s not rest; it’s lie down. And while it does mean have a nice lie-down in some contexts, in Scripture it’s much more likely to be Cursed be he that lieth with his father’s wife. I mean, it clearly refers to lying down, but not necessarily rest. I don’t think, well, I don’t think I think that Kohelet is referring to sex here. I’m just saying I don’t see how the connotation can be avoided, when that’s the word commonly used for sex. Also, the phrase lo shakhav leebo, which the KJV translates as his heart taketh not rest, is in parallel to the phrase I was talking about up there in verse 22, ra’yown leebo. So let’s at least say that Kohelet is using a metaphor of sexual/romantic pursuit and (lack of) consummation to contrast with the labors of the day.

So, where are we? What is for us, that our days are spent grubbing and griping, and at night our pursuits of the heart are (Kohelet says) unfulfilled? Where are we, under the sun?

I continue to think that Kohelet is provoking us to respond that there is something that isn’t under the sun, that isn’t amal (or yet in’yan) and isn’t sex, either. That there is something for us humans that is up in the heavens, and not futile at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 27, 2017

Not confirming but unconfirmed

Just a quick (I hope) update on yesterday’s confirmation note because I do want to spend the day with Kohelet if I can…

Charlie Pierce responded to Jon Bernstein’s note, and then Jon Bernstein tweeted a thread in response. Also worth noting is Matt Yglesias’ reminder that most Republican Senators voted in favor of most of Barack Obama’s Cabinet, with even the most contentious at the time getting nine R votes. None of them indicate a belief that there is a secret deal of any kind; they all pretty much take Sen. Warren’s explanation at face value. Which, as I said, I don’t.

Where Mssrs Pierce and Bernstein disagree, it seems to me, is that Mr. Bernstein considers policy guarantees to be at least somewhat valuable, based on the evidence that politicians largely do put effort into fulfilling specific promises, once they make them. Whether Mr. Pierce believes this about ordinary politicians or not is not clear to me (Mr. Pierce is a valuable writer and provocateur but not really a reliable analyst, in my opinion) but he clearly (“please to be stopping pulling my leg”) does not think that the notion applies to Secretary-Designate Carson. And that seems to me reasonable! He’s not aiming for a higher office, such that his ambitions would be hurt by breaking faith, and he’s not a career politician or civil servant, so steeped in cultural norms that breaking them would be a taboo. And the whole thrust of Mr. Trump’s drain-the-swamp campaign has been contempt for DC’s ISRVs; there’s no reason for an outsider like Ben Carson to believe that earlier Secretaries really did try to fulfill such commitments.

So what we’re left with here is some sort of prioritization of things that it is very difficult to put a valuation on. I mean, actually stopping a nominee is clearly valuable, but sadly, as it turns out, Our Only President’s Party has chosen to support him and his Cabinet nominees. We are, then, choosing between (a) a symbolic vote, or (2) an unreliable promise. Which is of greater value?

I am tempted to return to Kohelet and say that this is indeed r’ut ruach, wrestling the wind. We can’t know. But neither of those things are without value—I believe in the value of symbolic actions, of voting no, of standing athwart. But it’s hard to assess exactly how valuable those actions are. I also believe (with empirical evidence) that office-holders do act on specific promises. If nothing else, the career civil servants that staff the Department can use written promises to their advantage. Or the failure to fulfil those promises could be used rhetorically later on, as much as the no vote could. I have no idea how to assess and prioritize any of that stuff. It has to be done anyway.

I mean, that’s part of what’s going on with Kohelet in the first place, isn’t it? We have to do the r’ut ruach, despite the obvious fact that we, as mortal people, are unequipped to grapple with the unknowable. And yet, that’s what we have to do. That’s what we want our leaders to do (Senator Warren, not Our Only President, standing in for King Solomon in this analogy) and that’s what we do all the time. Humans, making snap judgments prioritizing unknowable outcomes in an infinitely complex world. Preposterous! And Constantly True!

There’s a kind of emotional whiplash in our politics right now, with inspirational pussy hats and preposterous executive orders, rogue park ranger tweets and horrifying legislative plans. If it seems like there’s an imbalance there, well, there is, but it’s a power imbalance, not an emotional one. When thousands of people take to the streets in Philadelphia to resist, it may be wrestling with the wind, but it sure as hell makes me cry. It’s exhilarating and terrifying and exhausting, and I certainly need some strength coming from somewhere to get through it all. I find that, sometimes anyway, in this notion that we are all Created with this near-miraculous ability to get through it all. To make those snap judgments—not always correctly, mind you—and keep grappling. Tolerabimus. My reading of Kohelet allows for there to be something that is not under the sun and therefore not futile, something that is in some sense worth doing all of this for. Your reading may be different; Senator Warren’s may be different. But we have to do it anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 17, 2017

Ecclesiastes: 2:21

It has been a while since I blogged about Ecclesiastes, hasn’t it? Well, and if I’m going to do the whole book, I suppose I’d better push on with verse 21:

For there is a man whose labour [is] in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it [for] his portion. This also [is] vanity and a great evil.

Let’s see. Kohelet is explaining the previous verse, saying that his despair was because there is a man whose amal (and remember I am tracking which kind of labour is amal and which is asah, in a possibly misguided notion that amal denotes alienated labour and asah unalienated labour, or at least that there is a difference between them) comes from wisdom (chachmah), knowledge (da’at) and equity (kishrown), and that it will be given as an inheritance to a man who did not labour (amal, again). All this is futile and a great evil, ra’ah rabah.

I’ll start with our new word: kishrown, which the KJV translates as equity but Strong’s calls success and the RSV calls skill. And yeah, this is one of those words that only Kohelet uses in all of Scripture—in this case, both kishrown and the root verb kashayr, although the verb does appear once in Esther. If the Book of Esther even counts. Anyway, I’m not sure what to do with it here, although we could legitimately just say that it is obviously some Good Thing that goes along with chachmah and da’at, which are pretty well settled. I could just say that equity seems odd and that it perhaps runs along the lines of rightness or correctness, even perhaps accuracy, given its pairing with da’at. On the other hand, Kohelet does use what must have been fairly modern language at the time denoting what I think of as modern(ish) notions of money. That is, I think the metaphors are that of a money-based economy, much as we would think of them, rather than an agrarian or agricultural society, and that the choice of metaphors is significant to the tone of the entire thing. So perhaps the KJV is just throwing in an extra banking word when, as I say, it isn’t clear and perhaps doesn’t much matter what exact sort of Good Thing we’re talking about in this verse.

I also want to point out, just in the poetry of it, that gam-zeh hevel (all this is futile) is repeated from verse 19. In that one I suggested that this referred back to the labour; I don’t know if there is a specific this for this to refer to here.

I have difficulty with this, in terms of its simple meaning—inheritance is a great evil? I mean, there are economic problems associated with it, but ra’ah rabah? That seems excessive. Nor can I easily find a better meaning through the use of contrasts, as I have done with other verses: if this labour (in wisdom, knowledge and rightness) being left to a man who has not laboured constitutes a great evil, then what does not constitute a great evil? What labour apportioned to what man?

Focusing on amal as alienated labor, or labor under the sun, what does it mean in the case where such labor is in wisdom, knowledge and rightness? Perhaps, to stretch our frame further, I think, than truly appropriate, we could say that earthly (or profit-seeking) wisdom in the sense of knowledge and accuracy is futile, as it will be transmitted to those followers who don’t put in the effort to maintain it. It is only when the followers correct and update such wisdom over the years that it retains khakhma uv’da-at, knowledge and accuracy. That for it not to be maintained is a loss and a futility and a great evil?

Meh, I don’t buy it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 20, 2016

Ecclesiastes: 2:19-20

We continue.

Ecclesiastes 2:19: And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity.

This is in reference to the man who shall be after me who will inherit the labor (whether alienated or not) of this world. Who knows?

I want to take a moment and just glory in the bizarre and complicated reflexiveness of the wording—b’kol amalee she-amal’tee v’shekhakham’tee, the whole of the labour of my labour and my wisdom. I just love that. Wisdom, of course, is a callback to the earlier part of the sentence as well as to the, well, the whole topic at hand. The language here is both dense and repetitious, almost incantatory in sound. Liturgical. I like it, is what I’m saying.

As for the content… I continue to think that Kohelet uses rhetorical questions to imply answers. And it’s more than that: who knows is what Mordechai says to Esther in 4:14, who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this? The answer of course is that the Divine knows. The Divine knows whether the one who follows you is wise or foolish. You don’t. You know what you do—your wisdom is under the sun. The Divine Wisdom is not under the sun, or not only under the sun, and encompasses both the heavens and the future.

Digression, I guess: in addition to the Esther mi yodea reference, which comes up a lot for me because as it happens it was a favorite topic of the Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Beth Bolshoi, for most Ashkenazim the big reference for mi yodea is a Passover song called Echod Mi Yodea: “Who knows one?” For those who don’t know it, it’s a counting song, with each verse beginning with a number as Who knows seven?/I know seven!/Seven are the days of the week and then counting down until one. One is the Divine, of course: echod eloheinu, eloheinu eloheinu eloheinu, she-bashamaim uva’aretz. One is our Lord (our Lord, our Lord, our Lord), in the heavens and the earth. While in this song it is the singer, not the Divine, who is the answer to the non-rhetorical who knows, I do like that the chorus of the song appears to call back to Kohelet’s under the sun construction, reminding us that eloheinu is not takhat ha-shemesh. I would also kinda like to be able to draw some inference from the use of know as a euphemism for sex, but that seems difficult to apply here. End Digression.

Kohelet, having made it clear that the work of this world can be used wisely or foolishly by our followers, concludes the sentence: gam-zeh hevel this is entirely futile. Or, perhaps, all this is futile. Is it just me that hears zeh (this) in this context as having the work under the sun as its antecedent? That is: Kohelet claims to have laboured the labour (and wisened up the wisdom) under the sun, for the benefit of his heir, and who knows if that heir will be wise or foolish, and all of this is futile.

The next verse:

Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun.

Speaking, again, to his heart as a kind of separate self, Kohelet turns (s’vov) to despair to his heart, of kol he-amal she-amal’tee (by the way, here it is not my labour that I laboured but just the labour that I laboured) under the sun.

If we read for contrast (as I have been) then we are brought back to ask again: if what is under the sun is futile, then what is not futile? What labour, and what wisdom, is not under the sun? That which is for eloheinu, she-bashamaim uva’aretz, of course. For the Divine, who knows who is to follow, fools or wise folk.

I’ll just add, tho’ it detracts from my point, that the traditional interpretation, which considers Kohelet to be Solomon the Wise, makes this verse specifically about Reheboam. Solomon builds a kingdom, and his children squander it. I have to say I find that unsatisfying as an interpretation, as (a) Solomon was a terrible king who didn’t so much build the kingdom as inherit it through the disastrous follies of his siblings, and (2) if Solomon doesn’t know whether Reheboam will be a successful king then Solomon is not as wise as he is proverbially cracked up to be. I can certainly accept that Kohelet is referencing Solomon, in the sense of bringing to mind that David was followed by Solomon, and Solomon by Reheboam, and so don’t you expect to do any better with your worldly heirs.

Actually, I’m not sure, musing on it, that one couldn’t do a good deal with that—we don’t hear much about David teaching Solomon piety, even of his ecstatic kind, and we certainly don’t hear much about Solomon teaching Reheboam to work for things that are not under the sun. Contrast this line of succession Ely’s teaching of Samuel (and, I suppose, Samuel’s of Saul and then David) and perhaps we can say that the one who knows whether his follower will be wise or foolish is the one who teaches the follower not to seek after the futile things under the sun, but to focus on the Divine, who is both on earth and in the heavens.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 14, 2016

Polonius Production Diary: Jephthah!

A thing that came up last night as we were working II,ii: Does Polonius know the Jephthah story? Here are the lines in question, which are in Hamlet’s mad scene:

HAMLET:      O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
POLONIUS     What a treasure had he, my lord?
HAMLET     Why, One fair daughter, and no more, The which he lovèd passing well.
POLONIUS     [aside] Still on my daughter.
HAMLET     Am I not i’ th’ right, old Jephthah?
POLONIUS     If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.
HAMLET     Nay, that follows not.
POLONIUS     What follows then, my lord?
HAMLET     Why, As by lot, God wot and then, you know, It came to pass, as most like it was—the first row of the pious chanson will show you more, for look where my abridgment comes.

Hamlet is specifically referring to a song:

I have read that many years ago,
When Jephthah, judge of Israel,
Had one fair daughter and no more,
Whom he loved passing well;
As by lot, God wot,
It came to pass, most like it was,
Great wars there should be,
And who should be the chief but he, but he.

And more generally referring to Judges 11.

It seems to me that Polonius doesn’t know the song—he doesn’t know what follows, in the sense of the next line of the song. That makes sense to me, and is fine: it is proper for old age to not know popular lyrics. But would Polonius know the Scripture? Today, I would call it an obscure story, as obscure as, oh, the rape of Dinah—not as obscure as Ehud the Lefty and Fat King Eglon, but not as well-known as Judith or Sampson. I certainly would not casually throw in a reference to Jephthah’s daughter in conversation without explanation. But that was a different time, and Polonius is (or was) a sharp sort of a man, if pretty strongly anti-clerical. It’s hard for me to accept that he wouldn’t know the Jephthah story.

And yet, he doesn’t react to being called Jephthah anywhere near strongly enough. I mean, when Hamlet calls him Jephtah, he doesn’t immediately flip out. He doesn’t make his aside recognizing that it’s another reference to his daughter until Hamlet uses the word daughter, and even then he accepts the name and seems to accept identifying Ophelia with Jephthah’s daughter. All of that makes sense if Hamlet has completely baffled Polonius by the reference, but not so much if Polonius is even dimly aware of the outlines of the Jephthah story.

I’m going to have to figure out how to play the scene at some point, so I’ll have to make a decision. Our Director has advised me to try it each way and see what feels right (she’s that sort of director, about which more anon) which is all well and good, but maybe some of y’all can help, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 2, 2016

Ecclesiastes: 2:17-18

Ecclesiastes 2:17-18:

Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me.

So, these are two verses that mostly say the same thing, right? In mostly the same words, right? But not completely the same words. So let's look at those words.

Verse 17 starts v'shanaytee et-ha-hayim, I hate the life. Verse 18 starts v'shanaytee anee et-col-amalee, I hate me all my work. The first difference is that while in the first verse Kohelet hates life because of the labor, in the second he hates the labor directly; let's come back to that one. The second difference is that the second verse emphasizes Kohelet himself with three, rather than one, identifiers. In 17 he hates the life, not my life, and in 18 he hates my labor, with an extra 'me' thrown in for emphasis (Hebrew uses repetition for emphasis all the time). In 17 we do later get what the KJV translates as grievous unto me, which is actually earlier in the sentence in Hebrew. The order is [And I hated the life] [because] [grievous unto me] [the work worked] [under the sun] [because] [everything] [futility and grasping wind]. In 18 it's [And I hated] [me] [all my labor] [that I labored] [under the sun] [we deposit] [to man] [what becomes] [after me]. That's five mes in the second verse and only two in the first—but more important, I think there's a tone in the second verse, that Kohelet hates his own labor because of its relation to him (and the inevitable end of that relationship). In the first verse, Kohelet hates the world, not just his own world or his part of it, but the objective world outside himself which is objectively all futility and grasping at winds.

Now back to the first big difference, which shows up in those first few words but is emphasized later, is that—guess what—come on, guess—yes, verse 17 is about asah and verse 18 is about amal. Ha-ma'aseh shena'asah in verse 17, the work worked. Kol amalee she-ani amal in verse 18, all my labor that I labored. I had differentiated those (for my purposes) such that amal is (in some sense) alienated labor and asah is (in some sense) unalienated labor—but for kohelet and for me there is a religious aspect to the distinction. Amal is the work you do for this world; asah is the work you do for the Divine. Or at least that is what I am playing with, anyway. So, if we take that reading, we now have two verses that are contrasting things, right?

17: And I hated the life, because I found bad the [alienated] work worked in this world (that is, under the sun); everything is futility and grasping the wind.

18: And I [even] hated the [unalienated] labour I laboured over in this world, which is laid down for whatever man follows me.

It's probably correct that follows is temporal here rather than referring to a follower of his teaching, although I think the connotation should stay. Kohelet doesn't just mean the next generation, but someone following in his footsteps, taking over his tasks.

OK, so what do we have here? I think there's something to my notions of contrast worth the interpretive wrestling. Alienated labor, the labor made for this world, is futile; the labor for the Divine in this world is not futile, but Kohelet still hates it. What else is there? The obvious answer is nothing, but I don't think that's correct. I think there is implied contrast with some sort of labor that is not under the sun. I could even argue that there's an implied contrast that if Kohelet hates the life, perhaps there is something else—in eighties slang, of course, it would make perfect sense to say you hate the life of evil work, because it is empty chasing after shadows and spirits, and it would be understood that you meant to get out of the life and settle down. I do like that echo, but I think we don't absolutely require it to say that what Kohelet hates is the life he had been talking about, the life of whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them (2:10-11, where I got my idea about amal and asah). The life under the sun.

What work is not under the sun? What is the life that reaches up to the heavens? That, if we can find it, is the life and the work that we won't hate, that won't be screwed up by our followers or found to be grappling with ghosts. That is the work of the Divine—and maybe it isn't available for us mortal men, and that's the point, to keep in mind the humility of all our aspirations compared with the Divine Creation. Or perhaps there work for us humans that is not entirely under the sun at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 19, 2016

Ecclesiastes 2:16

Last week we told our hearts that there was no profit in dying wise; what is not havel is… well, that we have left as an exercise for the reader. This week, another verse, Ecclesiastes 2:16:

For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.

I want to talk a little bit about time, in this verse, and in Scripture and in our lives. When the KJV says that there will be no remembrance for ever, the Hebrew is l'olam. Now, that's fine: l'olam does mean forever. But it also means the world (or even the universe). How does that work? Well, this is complicated, because language is complicated. But bear with me, because I think it's lovely: olam comes from a verb alam which means to hide or conceal. In this sense olam is hidden time; eternity, time out of mind, forever. I like the idea of eternity as hidden time, myself, but you can also think of it as the vanishing point, if you like, what we can't see.

Time is, in Scripture, not entirely linear. I wouldn't personally go so far as to describe it as a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff, but certainly it isn't reliable that one thing causes the next, rather than vice-versa. And there is a thing that Amy-Jill Levine used to call eschatological time, a kind of eternity that happens outside time altogether, in which prophecies and visions occur. Perhaps the sun stands still, perhaps the mountains are laid low—space is also affected, I have to say. You can take it as a rhetorical device or as metaphysical speculation. Or as miracle, remembering however that experiencing linear time is pretty miraculous, too. At any rate, when you come across two events in Scripture, one after the other, do not necessarily assume that they have been placed there because B happened right after A. The connection may be thematic, or even logical, rather than causal or chronological.

Now, I believe that what happened with the word olam is that it became associated with two phrases: ha-olam ha'zeh and ha-olam ha'ba. Zeh is this (or here) and ba is coming (or there). This forever and that forever; the time we experience and the time to come, this world and the next. When the language really starts changing, in the Roman period, during a time of enormous changes and dangers, a time that a lot of leaders felt was the endtime, I suspect that there was a lot of talk about ha'olam ha'ba, the next world, and that its opposite was shortened to ha'olam, this world. And thus ha'olam became the world.

Is this linguistically plausible? I have no idea. Lots of things that are less plausible are still true, after all. Whether that's how it worked or no, it is the case that at the time of Ecclesiastes, olam did not yet have the meaning world, but meant forever.


The one really great thing about Scripture existing in eschatological time, for Your Humble Blogger, is that it was written for me, and my understanding, in my world. Which means that if it feels to me that there is a connotation of this world in l'olam, then I can decide that it was meant to connote that, even if the time doesn't work out properly, because time is a hidden thing.

The hidden nature of time is what the whole verse is about, isn't it? l'olam is forever, b'shek'var, already, ha-yameem ha-ba'im, the days to come. Zik'ron, remembrance, nish'kakh, forgetting—it surely is memory that reveals time to us or hides it. If you read for the evocation, not the p'shat, here, it is powerful stuff: for no remembrance | the wise man | against the fool | forever | already | days to come | all | forgetting. The past and the future seem to be mixed up here, as we are already forgotten in the future, or will be.

To me this is not simply about how our lives, my life and yours, will someday be forgotten, but about we (and all people) also have forgotten other people, who also have no memory of still others. We can't hold it all. We can't even remember the past, much less the future. That is, we cannot, humans that we are, the wise and the fool who die like each other. The Divine that does not die, though… are we not all held in the memory of the Divine, not to be forgotten? It is people who, with their limited understanding and capacity, cannot remember all the wise folk and fools in the days to come. That forgetting is an inability to remember that is peculiar to this world, l'olam, this ball of time. The Divine exists both in this world and in l'olam ha-ba, the coming forever, the other kind of time, in which there is no forgetting and no remembering, no time to come or days gone by. And it is from that viewpoint that there is indeed a different between the wise and the fool—they are both mortal, which is the fundamental sameness, but the difference between them, forgotten by mortals by virtue of being mortals, is known to the Divine.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 10, 2016

Ecclesiastes: 2:15

I don’t in a general way look to Kohelet for comfort. I do have to say, though, that there is a kind of bleak optimism in the view that our struggles are the struggles of mortal men, but that the Divine Creator is not subject to our smallness and impotence. Eccl 2:15:

Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.

I haven’t, I think, talked about how Kohelet uses heart, and I don’t know that I have anything useful to say. It’s probably worth keeping in mind that Kohelet doesn’t think of heart as the seat of romance so much as the seat of, well, selfhood. As in the heart of the matter. Kohelet sees some sort of distance between his self (ani) and his heart (libi) such that when he really want to emphasize something his self says it to his heart. V’amarti ani b’libi he says to his heart in the first sentence, and then V’dibarti v’libi in the second, losing his self but keeping his heart. I suppose we can keep an eye on which self is which, as we carry on.

Hm. I wonder… in the first sentence he says to his heart k’meekrey ha-k’seel gam-ani yeekranee what happens to the fool gam-ani happens. If we go back to the previous verse, where he said shameekrey echad yikarah et-coolam (what happens to one happens to all) we see that he has replaced echad with k’seel and et-coolam with gam ani. We go from general to specific, replacing a generic person with a fool and all with me. Maybe the gam is just an intensifier, maybe it is there just to provide that extra syllable to match the last verse. But maybe it’s in some sense saying “everybody… and also me”. I think most of us engage in some “everybody… and also me” thinking, now and then. But it is perhaps: all of me, my heart and myself? Consider that in the last verse it is Kohelet’s ani that knows what he tells his libi in this verse.

Anyway, moving on: if what happens to a fool happens to me, v’l’ma khakhm’tee ani az yotayr. What/my wisdom/me/profit. Yes, profit, this is a version of that yitrown we have been hearing. You could read this as what is left over of my wisdom, or what profit do I have of my wisdom. Very different senses, I think—I think it’s lovely to ask: if I die and a fool dies, what happens to my wisdom? Surely all we know comes from what is left of the wisdom of the dead, the surplus beyond folly that they invested—not in themselves but in their relicts. In us.

But, kohelet continues to his heart, shegam-zeh havel, it is all vanity/emptiness/vapor/futility. So perhaps he does not believe (as we will get to) that such an investment yields returns. But my main discovery (so far) is the value of interpreting negatively phrased rhetorical questions as implying contrasting positive answers. So when I read a question saying what good is wisdom to me, I hear that there is something contrasted with me that wisdom is good for. When I read that all of this is havel, I ask: What, then, is not havel? Begin by assuming that there is a profit of wisdom that is not futile, and that the answer is contrasted to the self as we have been discussing it. Specifically, that wisdom does not profit the self because the self must die. Where, then, is the profit of wisdom? In what does not die. The Divine wisdom is different from our wisdom, because our wisdom (surplus of our folly) dies with us, while the Divine wisdom is undying.

Can we then ask ourselves: how can we invest the surplus of wise-me over all-fools, so that it is not futile but returns to the Divine?

In the wake of the election, Ursula Vernon asks:

She is asking specifically about the lost access to healthcare for her fellow artists as we have voted to rescind the promise of the ACA. But it seems to me, as I hear this verse, that it is what Kohelet is asking about wisdom: what are we even for if not to save as much wisdom as we can? The answer for Kohelet, for wisdom, again as I read this verse today, is that we are creating this surplus of wisdom for the Divine. That it is futile to try to keep it for yourself, or even to think of it as for human use. Wisdom not mere breath when it is added to the Divine Creation… which of course it always is. What is futility and emptiness and breath is trying to own wisdom, to profit from it and keep the surplus. What is not havel, as always, is the work you do for the Divine.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 4, 2016

Ecclesiastes: 2:14

We're on Ecclesiastes 2:14. We have just observed that wisdom/profit/folly as light/profit/dark, in the context of turning from achievements of labor to achievements of the mind:

The wise man's eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all.

Looking at the words, I want to say that I love the phrase ha-k'sil ba-khoshekh holaykh, the fool walks in darkness. I love the sound of it, the repetition of the ls and khs. It seems to me that the ba prefix almost connotates direction-towards, that is, the fool comes walking into darkness. None of my translations agree with that, though. Hm. Now it occurs to me to wonder if the bet in the first half of the saying connotes movement towards the head rather than placement in the head: hekhacham aynayn b'roeshow, the eyes of wisdom come to the head. Again, no-one at all says this, and I'm not really arguing that this is p'shat meaning, just a sort of poetic connotation. I like it, though: The eyes of wisdom come to the head. To the head of things, to the head of the wise person, to matters of importance. The word rosh isn't used in Scripture to mean the seat of thinking, by the way. It's the literal head, or the top of something (a hill, a building, a scepter), or a leader (the head of a tribe or a military band or a household). It's also used to indicate the first chronologically or the first in importance. My instinct might be to interpret the eyes of wisdom come to the head as being thinking about thinking, but that's not it, or at least wasn't it to Kohelet. Rashi interprets the verse as saying the wise man doesn't act until he knows the outcome of an action, which doesn't work for me. I might be inclined to say that the eyes of wisdom can see the top of the mountain, while the fool comes walking into darkness.

In the second half of the verse Kohelet uses ani when he doesn't need to (as he does in verse 12) to emphasize that it is his own knowledge—I mentioned in the previous note that most of my translations took verse 13 as a reference to a saying, assumed to be known to the readers, and about half of those take the first half of this verse as the same, putting it in quotes, and then pivoting on ani that the part before is an old saying, but the part after is Kohelet's own observation. Could be.

And what does he know himself? That shameekreh echad yikarah et-coolam, one's hap happens to all. The KJV here (one event happeneth to all) obscures that the noun and the verb are the same krh root, which is too bad, and both it and the other translations obscure the parallelism of one and all. I think the balance and rhythm of 13, the first half of 14, and the second half of 14 are really important to what's going on here. One the one hand, on the other hand. Wisdom is better than folly, light is better than darkness; wisdom has the eyes on the prize, foolishness wanders in darkness; but I know what happens to one, happens to everyone. The two hands match, in the end.

And again, to me, there is an echo: we know that fools and the wise have the same fate, but there is a Divine which does not share that fate. All people die. The Divine and the Divine creation endures. All rivers run to the sea, yet the sea is not full.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 31, 2016

Ecclesiastes: 2:13

I’m only going to look at the one verse this week, and I hope it’ll be a short note:

Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness.

Gentle Readers who haven’t gone back may not remember that Kohelet’s word for profit is yitrown, which does not appear in other books of Scripture. I mention it here because excelleth in our verse is that word for profit, or surplus, or leftover. In this case, the simple meaning is that wisdom is bigger than folly, more than it. I’m not sure that’s the right meaning.

In the last pair of verses, we talked about how ayn yitrown, there was no profit in the works and the labour. Now we are saying that there is yitrown, that yitrown la-chochma min-ha-sichlot, profit wisdom to folly, ki yitrown ha-or min-ha-chosech profit light to darkness. My instinct is to infer that wisdom is the surplus of folly, that is, folly is part of wisdom but not enough to run a sort of wisdom profit. Or, perhaps, that folly is wisdom running a deficit, and wisdom is folly surplus. No? It’s an intriguing notion.

And yet, you can’t follow that with light being a sort of surplus of darkness, can you? The comparison doesn’t hold up. Of course, it doesn’t hold up at all, even if you translate yitrown as meaning straightforward better, which, as I say, seems like an odd word for it anyway. I suppose light is better than darkness if you are looking for something, just as wisdom is better than folly when you are looking for something, but…is there something subtle going on with a can’t-know-wisdom-without-folly kind of thing? Does light profit from darkness the way wisdom profits from folly? I don’t know.

Most of my translations indicate that this is a quotation, that is, that Kohelet is referring to a saying he expects his readers to be already familiar with. If that’s true, and I don’t immediately accept it, then perhaps Kohelet’s use of yitrown throughout the text is derived from this saying. I have just come across an argument (“‘Profit’ in Ecclesiastes” by W. E. Staples, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 4(2). pp. 87-96) that Kohelet uses yitrown and tov as exact synonyms, that is, that you can replace any use of one with the other in the book without changing the meaning. If that’s the case, then I really wonder about the use of yitrown—if he means good, why not just use the far more common word for it? What work does the choice to use yitrown do, or what work is it intended to do but not actually do? One way to answer that is to imagine Kohelet starting with a familiar quote that uses yitrown to begin working his way in to the whole question of wisdom and folly. In that case, surely it is all the more startling for the text to begin with the notion that there is no yitrown at all!

I don’t have any conclusions here for this verse, I’m afraid. I will say that so far, only a handful of verses in, I’m already coming to the realization that this text is a very dense sort of poetry that constantly speaks back and forth between verses. I have already had a couple of instances where I have changed my opinion about the connotations of an earlier verse because of the way a later verse called back to it. Which gives me hope, when I come across one of these word choices I can’t settle my problems with, that I will come back to it with a new light later in the book.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 21, 2016

Ecclesiastes: 2:11-12

We’re on 2:12, but I’m going to go back a verse, not just because it has been so long we’ve forgotten where we were, but because I had originally, as many commentators do, put 2:12 with 2:13-14, but I’m inclined right now to pair it with 2:11:

Ecclesiastes 2:11-12: Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun. And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done.

Do those two verses look parallel? Here’s a thing: the initial turn of v.12 is not shuvah but fanah, which is the same verb at the beginning of v. 11. Both sentences start u’fanitee anee with the KJV translating it first as Then I looked and then as And I turned. Most of the English translations I have looked at seem to include that spurious difference between the two verses; I blame the Vulgate. The Septuagint appears to start the verses identically. And anyway I don’t like turn here at all. It isn’t s’vov (spin) or shuv (return) as in 1:6, and using turn for panah sets up a resonance with those words that isn’t in the Hebrew.

And then there’s the whole cometh after the king business, which I find very unsatisfactory. Some of my translations hearken back to 1:9-11 (nothing new under the sun) and take this as something like the next King will do what the last King did or even (this is the JPS) what will the man be like who will succeed the one who is ruling over what was built up long ago. These appear to be opposite notions, but say much the same thing: the narrator has built up wealth and power, but the new King will be [the same|different] as the last King, and so all that wealth and power make no difference. So the translation as opposites is kind of a problem, but in some sense, that’s part of what the verse and the book (so far) are about. You could even take into account both of these, and read it as the next guy to come along may be the same or may be different; it makes no difference.

Some (Victor Reichert and Robert Gordis, particularly) of my translations, however, take this as what can a (simple) man do that a King has not already done? That is: I, Solomon the King, amassed wealth and power and it was all wind-chasing and ghost-wooing. And if that’s true for a King, how much more true for anyone who comes after the King. Heirarchical after, rather than temporal after. This seems persuasive to me, as it carries on from what was before, only in that case I don’t really understand why the sentence is structured with that bit second and the first bit first. It doesn’t work, really, even if you correctly translate to have verse twelve start with the same words as verse eleven.

Or does it? If the parallelism is [I looked at][works/labor][all is vanity] and then [I looked at][wisdom/madness/folly][man cometh after the king]. Hm. In that case, we have an opposition, yes? between all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do in v.11 and wisdom, and madness, and folly in v.12. The contrast between some physical stuff and some mental stuff. And then the contrast between all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun in v.11 and what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done. It seems to me, then, that what the man can do is not vanity. What the man ha-adam can do after the king ha-melech is what c’var asahu, already done. Now I’ll bring forward from 2:11 our somewhat Marxist notion of asah as unalienated labor, and also bring forward from our discussion of 1:10 the notion of c’var being metaphorically upstream, and instead of what hath already been done (or what was built up long ago) we have what lasts is not amal but asah.

So. A new thing, not exactly a translation or a commentary but a reflection, perhaps, of the verses:

I focused on the work that is done for this world, and on the work that is done for the self, and everything is ghost-wooing and wind-chasing; nothing lasts. And I focused on the things of the mind—the man who follows after the divine is heading upstream.

The King here, of course, is the Divine King, and the man is Adam, mankind. I interpret this as continuing the focus on humane humility and the implications of Divine Power—that is, whenever kohelet talks about how man cannot do or say or understand a thing, I hear an inference that there is a Divine that can. And that it is the Man who is after the King, not the man who is after wealth and power or even the man who is after his own vision, that has the truly unalienated work that lies upstream.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 17, 2016

Ecclesiastes: picking up

Last night marked the beginning of Sukkot. Four years ago, on the holiday, I began the study of Ecclesiastes (or kohelet) which slowed as my blogging slowed over that winter, and eventually came to a complete stop. I have re-read the posts that I wrote before the study petered out, and I think (in my vanity) that it is worth picking it up again.

Sukkot are booths, temporary structures we set up to dwell in for a week, to remind us not to take life so serious, as it ain’t no how permanent (in the words of Reb Porky Pine). Your Humble Blogger didn’t build one this year, having taken the day that could have been devoted to it and gone to Rhinebeck. Well, and having taken the other day that could have been devoted to it and not bothering, to be quite honest. Anyway, the point of the thing is that you eat your meals for a week in a structure that wasn’t there last week and won’t be there next week—and which is at the same time a structure that has been there for a thousand years and will be there for another thousand. Just not there there.

I think the temporary/eternal nature of the Sukkah matches pretty well with the opening of Ecclesiastes: One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sense that all we can do is temporarily improve things a little, for a time. Put up a sort of a roof, a couple of walls. It’s a beautiful thing, what we can do, even if it won’t last.

In that spirit, I’m going to pick up the study of Ecclesiastes where I left off, in the second chapter. Here are the earlier notes:

I hope to have a new note up within a week, and proceed at the pace of one note a week until we get through the thing. I will say, if you enjoy out Scripture Study, commenting is the best way to keep me enthusiastic about it. And if not, then not—it’s all chasing the wind, anyway, innit?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 24, 2016

The King! Bless his heart.

Haint iz Purim, morgen iz ois! Or, in English: Purim today; tomorrow it’ll be over.

Reading the megillah again this year, I am struck by how great the character of Ahasuerus is. I think I have said before that my interpretation of the whole introductory Vashti story is that it exists to show what a fool the king is, and really, the man’s an imbecile. But what a great character! He’s a lush, of course, and a glutton, and and a lecher, and his passion for luxury is outrageous. The nobles and princes who were invited to the party in chapter one must have been giving each other little looks: this new king is going to be a problem. And then the Vashti bit, where he takes the advice of the guy who happens to be standing next to him—who, bye-the-bye, drops out of the story and is never heard from again, and there’s probably a story there about Haman getting rid of him, which would probably be awesome.

Anyway, everything about Ahaserus is amazing. He can’t sleep, so he has a guy read to him from the history of his own reign, which is, I should point out, something like four years long at the time. And he doesn’t remember it! It’s all new to him! Then he has Mordechai put on his own horse, wearing the royal robes and the crown, with his top advisor (to whom Ahasueros had previously given his ring and made everybody bow to) leading him saying Thus shall it be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour, if the king remembereth, thou knowest, after a while, which, mayhap, not so much.

Does anyone else get the impression that about a month after the story ends, Ahasueros is all Where’s Haman? What happened to that Haman guy, I never see him anymore. And his servants probably say something like Uh, he’s… out of town… in the provinces… and he’ll probably be back in six months or so, yeah. And Ahasueros is like Awesome, I wonder what he’ll bring me!

There’s an article by Jay Michaelson in Forvertz making the Ahasueros-Trump connection which is actually quite well-taken, although of course Trump doesn’t drink. The rest of the article is not significantly better than one would expect of that publication, but in fact, Ahasueros is a warning of what a terrible ruler can do. And his blithe acceptance of the death of tens of thousands of his subjects, aliens living peaceably among the rest, is a sobering thought, even if the happy ending is the death of tens of thousands of different people, so that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 9, 2015

Knowing the Times

So. I’m reading Esther, as I do on Purim, and I get caught up on the verse 1:13: Then the king said to the wise men, which knew the times…. This is in the Vashti story—y’all remember my Vashti rant? I have decided that the best thing about Purim, other than the cross-dressing and the gifts of food, is the way we have redeemed and overthrown the Vashti story. Anyway, when Vashti refuses to come and display her beauty at the court, the King’s anger burns within him, and then he turns to his wise men. Who know the times.

That thing about knowing the times (yodayah ha-eeteem, to know the times, nothing obscure or difficult about the literal meaning there) had never struck me before, and I was surprised to discover, once I started looking into it, that it’s a Big Deal in the Christian Endtimes community these days. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as Esther is a Big Deal for them, too. And they talk about the Men of Issachar from 1 Chronicles 12:32 who “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do”, conceiving of themselves as some combination of the Men of Issachar and the Wise Men of Ahasueros, people who are possessed of Knowledge and Understanding of the times. I am not making up The Issachar Economic Model, I promise I’m not. For them, knowing the times means knowing that the endtimes are coming. Well, and I suppose that’s fine for them. But for the rest of us? What does it mean for us to know the times?

Well, of course the Wise Men of Shushan may just know the times in the sense that we say that someone knows what time it is, meaning they know what’s what, they’re hip to the jive, they’ve got their eyes open, they are men of the world, there are no flies on them. The traditional commentators give two other explanations for the phrase: for some, times is a Schenectady for laws, because laws are so often about what times one is allowed to or obliged to do certain things (or forbidden or permitted to do them). For others, the phrase describes astrologers, who through study of the heavens were able to discern favorable and unfavorable times for the King to act. This latter is viewed in a positive light, by the way—for the Sages of Blessed Memory, or for their later counterparts, astrology was acute observation and analysis, not irreligious claptrap.

In fact the commentators generally view these advisors to King Ahasuerus in a positive light, and they consider the advice to be good advice. I kept having dissonance reading these commentaries, because of course it’s terrible advice, and the Wise Men are horrible. The king appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure, particularly that they should never spoil a party by saying no. This is specifically the half-year party culminating in a week-long drunken orgy that Vashti has decided to harsh. This is not a functioning court. This is not a functioning monarchy. These are not Wise Men.

In fact, this time around, I am convinced that much of the point of the Vashti story in the text is to show how Ahasuerus was ripe for being manipulated by a bad advisor. To show what a fool he was, sure, and how rich as well, but the point really is that he is an awful king, and that his advisors are at best sycophants and more likely wicked—at any rate, over time, the harmless yes-men will be crowded out by the ambitious and evil. And sure enough, at the beginning of Chapter Three, the King has filled that power vacuum with Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and we’re all in trouble.

So what does it mean that the Wise Men know the times? Even given that we are not talking about anyone with actual wisdom, even given that these are scarcely role models for our own attempts at wisdom, surely at least their knowledge of the times is a good thing, yes? But what does it mean to know the times?

Well, here’s a thing that my Perfect Reader came up with that I quite like: when we know the times, we know that times change. We know that there was a time when people thought that Vashti was a bad woman. We know that there was a time when people thought that the wife had to be subservient to the husband, and that a woman making her own choices would be bad for all men everywhere. Those were the times that the so-called Wise Men of Shushan knew. They are not these times. These are times when we can celebrate Vashti.

If you know the times, you can interpret the Scripture new, for yourself. If you know the times, you can take what’s valuable from the commentary, and leave the rest to its own time. If you know the times, you can appreciate that different people at different times will have different interpretations—and that you yourself can have different interpretations over your life. You can overthrow and redeem the Vashti story.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 2, 2014

Isaiah, but I don't say-a much.

Did I miss a day somewhere?

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

I may miss a day here, too. I don’t have anything. I mean, yes, relieving the oppressed is definitely a good thing; I’m for that. I just don’t have any way to tie that in to any of the stuff I have been on about for a week.

Actually, a minor note does occur to me: I started by talking about how, on Yom Kippur, we ask for mercy, not because in proportion to our merit, but in proportion to the Divine nature. And when we are told to relieve the oppressed, we aren’t told to first ascertain which among the oppressed deserve relief.

…and that’s all I got, today.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 1, 2014

Literally Isaiah, but not literally

More than halfway through the Days of Awe, now:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

So, there are four methods of Scriptural interpretation: p’shat, remez, d’rash and sod. They are referred to by their initials: pardes, Paradise. Kinda nice, although kinda not as well, given what happened to the Four who went there. Anyway, of the four, the p’shat or simple meaning, is the meaning of the text, taken as literally and specifically as possible. remez is an explanation that finds clues within various sources to reference each other. d’rash uses a variety of methods including storytelling and symbolism to draw a general lesson, not always directly connected to or derivable from the text. sod is the secret meaning of the text, not discernable at all without the keys provided by inspiration.

I generally eschew sod, because for all my belief in the Divine, in the Divine Creation, and in Scripture, I can’t swallow that particular kind of revelation. I have no wish to turn my interpreting over to some Rebbe, just because the Divine spoke to Rebbe personally. I suppose my concordance-clicky-Bibliomancy is remez, of sorts. But mostly, what I do is d’rash: seeking out a lesson for myself from the text that is not the plain meaning of it. I try not to reject p’shat, except I suppose where I do reject it, but I don’t feel confined to it.

I bring that up, because the word d’rash means seek, and our text here is dirshu mishpat: seek justice. The plain meaning, the p’shat is that we should, you know, seek justice. And any interpretation that rejects that meaning clearly rejects the verse: that is how p’shat works. But there can be additional interpretations, d’rash interpretations, too. And it seems to me that the verse is saying to me: d’rash justice. Don’t just look for justice in the obvious and stop. Use storytelling, symbolism, allegory. Be creative; use whatever tools are in the mind the Divine gave you. Go beyond the obvious. Don’t stop.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 30, 2014

Teach and learn, turn and turn

We begin the second verse (Isaiah 17) as we enter the home stretch of the Days of Awe.

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

As I always bring up, the verb for learn and for teach are the same, as well they should be. I think a lesson, here, is that Isaiah doesn’t say do the right thing, but learn to do the right thing. When he is speaking to a generation in Israel whose hands are red with blood, it’s a powerful indictment that they don’t even know how to do the right thing. But when we, as the tradition suggests, read this verse every year what does it tell us? The first time, yes, we can be chastised and admit that we must learn to do the right thing. But the second year; what does it mean to us the second year? And the third? And the tenth?

Are we to believe that we forget righteousness, year to year, so thoroughly that we do not only need to remember but to learn all over again? Maybe that’s true. It would be hard to defend humanity, year to year, that we just need a little reminder. Or perhaps this is another injunction to turn it and turn it; for all we have learned in the past, we can always learn more about righteousness. Humility seems to suggest that is true as well.

Another possibility: read it in cycles, as learn one year and teach the next. We can’t help but do both simultaneously, though; the only way to really learn something is to teach it, and surely no-one can be said to truly have learned righteousness without passing it to others. Teach and learn, learn and teach; every year we both repeat what we know and learn new aspects of it. Turn it and turn it. Turn yourself and turn yourself. There is no end to it; everything is in it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 29, 2014

Isaiah, Awe and rest

Today is the fourth day of our text; we’re not quite halfway through the Awe.

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

It’s not a big thing, but I noticed, this year, that cease is chadal. Not that there’s a problem with the translation, because there isn’t: chadal means, clearly, to stop doing something. But there are connected words that seem to be hinting more towards resting from doing something. And it occurred to me to think about that idea of resting from doing evil.

I think of doing good as being a lot of work, because it is, in fact, a lot of work. And I think of doing evil as being less work, not so much because it’s impossible to do bad works industriously but because the sin I myself am least able to vanquish is laziness. When I think of my shortcomings, I mostly think of things I failed to do, rather than things I did. And, frankly, when I discover someone I know going to great lengths to be petty or make their enemies miserable, I have difficulty getting my head around it. Among people I don’t know, it’s even scarier, of course; the atrocities of the Islamic State, for instance, seem like such a colossal use of energy for so little benefit to themselves. Even though we confess as a community, though, I can’t help my own bias, and think of our shortcomings in terms of my own life.

Still. The idea of resting from wickedness is appealing to me. A reward, I suppose, for giving up our bad habits.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 28, 2014

Turn, turn, turn

The Third Day of Awe has us concentrating on putting away the evil of our doings from before the eyes of the Divine:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

Not so much putting them away as leaving them or turning from them, although I do like (as I said last time) the metaphor of putting away the last year’s evil, tidying up for the new year. I’m struck, at the moment, though, by the image of turning away from the evil of our doings. In Deuteronomy 11:16 we are warned not to turn aside and serve other gods. Too late, of course—in Exodus 32:8 the people have turned aside and made a Golden Calf.

It’s interesting (to YHB, anyway) that most of the uses of the phrase seem to be about turning (or not turning) away from the Correct Path, that is, the path of the Divine. It is used sometimes as it is here, to discuss turning away from Bad Things (Genesis 35:2 Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments) (Josh 7:13 There is an accursed thing in the midst of thee, O Israel: thou canst not stand before thine enemies, until ye take away the accursed thing from among you.) but mostly it is the path of righteousness from which one either turns to the right or the left or, you know, doesn’t.

I’m going to go back to Job, though. Job’s great speech in Chapter 28 concludes with the verse: Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding. If turning away from evil is understanding, is that what Isaiah asks of us? Or, alternately, is understanding required, in some way, for us to turn away from the evil of our doing? Is it fundamental that we understand the ways we have done wrong?

I’m still, though, focused on the image of us as turned toward the evil of our doings, with our backs to the Divine presence. The Divine—through Isaiah—asks us to turn. Turn away from the evil we did, turn toward the path of righteousness. Turning is one of the great metaphors of the Days of Awe. T’shuvah. Turning and returning.

The thing about turning is that is seems like it shouldn’t take much work. You don’t need to go anywhere to turn. Just face the other way. It seems the easiest of all possible actions. Going somewhere, that takes work. But turning? You can do that in a swivel chair. Only, somehow, I think the metaphor is correct, that turning is the hardest work.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 27, 2014

Isaiah, Eliphaz and Bildad

So, the second Day of Awe is almost over.

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

I said, yesterday, that I liked to think of the injunction to wash as being part of returning to the community, such as the requirement to wash after ritual impurity. A year ago, I made the distinction between washing away past sins, and making one’s self clean for the future. Today… well, I’m not sure.

I did what I do, when I’m not sure about a verse, and go clicky-clicky through the concordance, which is why I like the Blue Letter Bible site so much. It’s a kind of Bibliomancy for me, really. Anyway, the word in question (zakah) is used only eight times in the Scripture. And of those other seven, five are used in a negative sense. In Psalms 119:9, the Psalmist asks Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? and answers by taking heed thereto according to thy word. There are people who do so, the Psalmist declares, and they are Blessed, and he hopes to become one of them. He has some difficulty, but he still clearly believes that it is possible.

That’s not the opinion of Job’s friend Eliphaz, who (in Job 15:14) asks rhetorically What is man, that he should be clean? Or the opinion of Job’s other friend Bildad, who (in Job 25:4) asks rhetorically How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman? Sure, those characters exist to be wrong, but they are echoed by the writer of Proverbs, who (in Proverbs 20:9 asks Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin? And again with the rhetorical question is Micah (6:11) asking Shall I count them pure with the wicked balances, and with the bag of deceitful weights?

Are all seven of the other instances rhetorical questions? No, they are not. We have two left, both from the Psalms. And, like Micah, they don’t speak generally about the possibility of cleansing, but about whether certain people have been cleansed. The Psalmist, however, is as usual talking about himself. In 73:13, he says Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. Meaning not that he had failed to cleanse his heart, as far as I can tell, but that doing so gave him no immediate satisfaction, as the wicked were still flourishing. And in 51:4, he says, in his woe, Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. I do not understand, now, why the word for cleansed is used to describe the Divine Judge in this case, but I haven’t studied the Psalms. At any rate, I think it’s clear that those are the only two cases where successful cleansing takes place described with this word.

What does this tell us? Well, one reading would be that when Isaiah tells us to make ourselves clean he doesn’t expect us to succeed at that. Does that help? Why would he say it—why would he turn a word used primarily to talk about how people fail at a thing, and use it for the only time in Scripture as an imperative? If we both, Isaiah and I, know that I am not going to actually make myself clean with all my washing, why tell me to do it at all?

I’m going to say that for me, this year, the answer is: because Divine mercy is not dependent on our deserving it. We can’t, honestly, ever get to the point where we deserve to be inscribed in the Book of Life because we are so meritorious. Not because of people are so terrible, but because the reward is so great. Life! Life! How could anyone do enough to deserve that? How could we get wash ourselves clean enough to be clean enough for that?

But that doesn’t mean that we should, like Eliphaz and Bildad, just shrug and say how can humans be clean? and give up. I think—this year—that Isaiah is saying don’t be like them, but keep trying. There’s a verse from the Avot that I keep going back to, in the context of social justice. Rabbi Tarfon says The work is not upon thee to finish, nor art thou free to desist from it, and I have always found that very moving. In this case, I think, Isaiah is saying: you aren’t going to be clean, but you aren’t free to desist from cleaning.

In some ways, I think that’s a great attitude to take up in the Days of Awe. Look, in two weeks, I’m not going to be a different person. I will still struggle with my laziness and pride; I will still have bad habits and foolishness. I shouldn’t fool myself that this year, as my prayers rise to the gates of Heaven, as the Divine seals the Book, I will be finished with my work of t’shuvah or t’zedakah or t’filah. Or that I will ever be finished with them. Isaiah is not holding out that false hope. But neither is he letting me off the hook. It’s impossible; so what? The reward is not contingent on my success, only on my accepting the task.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 26, 2014

Returning to Isaiah and the Days of Awe

A few years ago, I did the traditional thing (well, and traditional except for the blogging, I suppose) of going through the nine injunctions of Isaiah 16-17 over the nine days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So, following the words of R. Yochanan ben Bagbag that we should Turn it and turn it over again, for everything is in it, and contemplate it, and wax grey and old over it, and stir not from it, for thou canst have no better rule than this, we will do it all again, and see if we come to any different conclusions.

First, the text:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

One of the things that I have been focusing on during the end of Elul as we were heading in to the days of Awe, was how powerfully the liturgy drove home that we are not asking for such mercy as we deserve, but such mercy as the Divine, being merciful by nature, is willing to grant. We focus on our shortcomings, not our achievements. We do talk about the possibility of improvement, sure, and there is a logical sense in which if we were denied the inscription into the book of Life, we would not be able to improve… but really, the liturgy is about how we hope the Divine, not for our sake but for the sake of the Divine Name, will grant us the mercy we have not earned.

Does this fit it to that idea or not? How do we understand the Isaiah’s (or the Divine’s by means of Isaiah) injunction to wash yourselves, and how does that related to our merit? I would enjoy Gentle Readers’ thoughts on the subject.

I started by looking at the other instances of an injunction to wash yourself. It is in Leviticus, of course; there are a bunch of things (such as handling a corpse) that cause ritual impurity, and the person in such a state must wash himself (often specifically in water) before rejoining the community. Thus the mikvah. Now, it’s important to remember that ritual impurity does not imply moral squalor in Temple terms, although it’s also important to remember that ritual impurity is in fact sometimes used to imply moral squalor, so there’s that. While Isaiah’s context (yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood) seems to indicate moral squalor, I’m not altogether sure that washing in this context necessarily indicates moral splendor. Again, I’d be curious to know your thoughts.

A second context for washing is in hospitality; the good host washes the visitor’s feet, or causes them to be washed. In this context, the injunction to wash yourselves can be viewed within the metaphor of approaching the Heavenly Gates, which are (as we all know) open during the Days of Awe. As we enter the foyer of the Divine, as it were, we are told to wash ourselves, as a guest would do. Or not, because we are not offered a servant to wash us, but told to wash ourselves; perhaps this underscores the humility of our place.

There’s another place that we are told about washing, though, that comes to mind, and that’s also connected with the Day of Judgment. After the ceremony of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16, both Aaron (who kills the goat chosen for the sin offering) and the “fit man” who takes the scape goat laden with the sins of the people out into the wilderness are commanded to wash themselves after they are done, as is a third fellow who burns the flesh of the offerings. And after the washing, we read:

(Lev 16:29-30) And [this] shall be a statute for ever unto you: [that] in the seventh month, on the tenth [day] of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, [whether it be] one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you: For on that day shall [the priest] make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, [that] ye may be clean from all your sins before the LORD.

It’s the same commandment for the priest, and for the man who carries the carcasses out to the pit for burning, and for the man who takes the scapegoat. And for us: Wash you. That you may be clean from all your sins before the Divine.

There isn’t any particular merit in being fit to lead the scapegoat away. Other than being willing to do it, I suppose. It’s an interesting choice to be, not the scapegoat myself, but a sort of usher to the scapegoat. To take the sin-laden goat out of the community, but to come back to it. To do this frankly stupid thing that may just make us all feel better, and to return afterward, having done it. Knowing, presumably, that the sin-laden goat didn’t take anything away, didn’t really carry the sins of the community, didn’t magic away people’s problems. But also knowing, presumably, that something did happen, that people did feel different afterward. And then to wash, and come back to the community.

I guess that’s my idea for this year, for this first day of Awe: washing is what we do to prepare to return to the community. And that, too, is what Yom Kippur is for.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 24, 2014


It's Rosh Hashanah. What better time for Your Humble Blogger to rededicate himself to this Tohu Bohu?

Not that I am promising daily updates. I'm just going to try, again, to get back into the habit of occasional notes, both serious and frivolous, on various topics.

And since it's Rosh Hashanah, I'll look at one of our great Rosh Hashanah prayers, Avinu Malkeinu.

Digression, that isn't really a digression: This is not the note I set out to write. I set out to write a note highlighting the beauty of the final verse, as it is sung and prayed. I got onto a different track, and the following is where it led me. End Digression.

The Avinu Malkeinu is named, obviously enough, for the two words that begin each of the thirty- or forty-odd lines of the supplicatory prayer. They are traditionally translated “Our Father, Our King”, or in modern translations something like “Our Parent, Our Sovereign”. My current synagogue alternates, I think, between “Our Father, Our King” and “Our Mother, Our Queen”. At any rate, they are translated as nouns with the third-person plural possessive suffix. And that's clear: av is father, so avinu is ‘our father'; melech is king, so malkeinu is ‘our king'. Clear enough.

It's a laundry-list prayer of petition, asking for prosperity and happiness and freedom and glory, asking to not have pestilence and plague and war and famine, as well as talking about the Divine mercy and dwelling on our ancestors who have died for the sanctification of the Name. And at the end is the part we all sing together. Track 19 on this site will give a sense of the sound of it, I hope. It's a beautiful prayer:

Avinu Malkeinu. Chaneinu Va'aneinu. Avinu malkeinu, Chaneinu va'aneinu, ki eyn banu ma'asim. Avinu Malkeinu. Chaneinu Va'aneinu. Avinu malkeinu, Chaneinu va'aneinu, ci eyn banu ma'asim. Asay imanu, tzedakah v'chesed. Asay imanu tzedakah v'chesed v'hoshieinu. Avinu Malkeinu.

I wound up focused on the first four words, the ones that get repeated so often: Avinu Malkeinu. Chaneinu Va'aneinu. In all the translations I have seen, the second two words are translated as verbs in the imperative, with first-person plural objects. So chanan is to show favor, so chaneinu is ‘favor us'; anah is to answer, so aneinu is ‘answer us'. The translation I grew up with begins the verse Our Father, our King, be Thou gracious unto us and answer us.

So, my thought, that got me started away from where I had been headed on this note, was to wonder, given the way the words work, whether it was possible that instead of two nouns and two verbs, we had potentially four nouns. Something like Our parent, our monarch, our grace, our answer. I find that nicely poetic. And it changes the rhythm of the translation a bit. I'll give the full verse in the translation of my youth: Our Father, our King, be Thou gracious unto us and answer us, for lo, we are unworthy; deal Thou with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us. The break there (and in the melody) is after the lack of merit. The first half of the verse is Divine, pity us, though we are unworthy and the second is Have charity and save us. But if you change the third and fourth to nouns, then it’s more like Our Father, our King, our Grace, our Answer, though we are unworthy, deal Thou with us in charity and loving-kindness and save us. It changes the center of the sentence, shifting the focus to deal (or do, if you prefer, do to us charity and kindness) (or maybe make, making charity as if one were making supper) instead of having a first focus on answer and a secondary focus on save. Or that's how I read the change, if we make all four nouns. Not to mention the lovely idea of the Divine being, rather than providing, our grace. Being our answer.

But then I thought: what if all four are verbs? Instead of Our Father, our King, be Thou gracious unto us and answer us, something on the lines of father us, rule us, favor us, answer us. By a verb of father, it could mean engender, sure, or something more like raise or bring up. And that's a whole different sense of the verse. Instead of declaring the Divine relationship (via Isaian metaphor, of course) and then beginning the petition, we would be started with a petition from the very beginning. And then we're back to the focus of the rhythm coming down on the unworthiness (depending on the rest of the word choices).

You know how sometimes—well, most of the time—people sing “Gd Bless America” as if it were boasting of the Divine blessing? It's not written that way. It's a supplication, asking humbly enough for the Divine to stand beside and guide us, and to bless us (vaddevah dat means). But it doesn't sound like one, at least most Sundays. Not that Avinu Malkeinu doesn't sound like a supplication. That part is inescapable. But it feels different, to me, if instead of reading those words as a declaration, we read them as a request.

Now, for one thing, I don't have the grammar to make any serious argument that you can read Avinu Malkeinu as verbs. At best, it's a speculative interpretation, a sort of riff on the text. But it's tempting.

And yet.

During these days of awe, when everything hangs in the balance, when the Book of Life is open and unwritten… the one thing that is never called into question is the relationship between the Divine and the People. We may be written in the Book of Life, or we may not—the Divine is still our Father and our King. We may receive the Divine Mercy, or the judgment may be stern—the Divine is still our Mother and our Queen. We may in the new year live or die, be sick or well, poor or rich, alone or surrounded, and we give ourselves up to that. But we will be the child and the subject of the Divine. There is never even a hint that the Divine may withdraw the paternal or sovereign relation from us. It is unconditional.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 3, 2014

Shavuot again!

So. It’s Shavuot, which has become one of my favorite holidays recently, partially because of the cheesecake, of course, but also because of the Book of Ruth, a great interfaith family story.

So, anyway, I’m thinking about Ruth today, and it occurs to me to pose y’all a counterfactual. If you don’t remember the story, it starts with Naomi and her husband and sons (the husband is Elimelech, the sons Mahlion and Chilion) move to Moab. There was a famine in Bethlehem, you see. Anyway, Elimelech dies, the sons marry—Ruth 1:4 And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one [was] Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelled there about ten years. And then Mahlion and Chilion die, too. Moab not very healthy for Bethlehemites, evidently.

At this point, Naomi hears the news that the famine in Bethlehem is over and decides to return. Orpah and Ruth pack up to go back with her, but Naomi dissuades them; eventually, Ruth does go with her but Orpah returns to her people. And then the rest of the plot happens, with Ruth and Naomi and Boaz and all.

So. Here’s my question: what happens if Orpah sticks with them? I mean, here’s a fascinating moment—not only does the Jewish mother of this clan not say kaddish over her intermarried sons, but she gets along so well with her non-Jewish daughters-in-law that they want to make a three-person family unit together. Naomi can’t see it: she’s all Turn again, my daughters, go [your way]; for I am too old to have an husband. If I should say, I have hope, [if] I should have an husband also to night, and should also bear sons; Would ye tarry for them till they were grown? would ye stay for them from having husbands? Naomi, bless her, can’t get past the idea that they need a paterfamilias, husbands, children, all the old-fashioned stuff that frankly has left them penniless and widowed.

And I want to be clear: things work out very well for Ruth and Naomi. The patriarchy is good to them, in the person of Boaz. The story confirms all that family-equals-marriage stuff, even as it has what came (later, I’m pretty sure) to be a radically positive view of intermarriage. But could it have worked the other way? The household of widows, Ruth and Naomi and Orpah, living harmoniously—or is the system too stacked against them?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 22, 2014

Ecclesiastes: 2:4-9

Your Humble Blogger returneth again according to his circuits, only not so quickly as one might hope.

Ecc 2:4-9 KJV I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all [kind of] fruits: I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees: I got [me] servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me: I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, [as] musical instruments, and that of all sorts. So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me.

Before we get into the sense of it, I want to point out that the word orchards up there is properly paradises, a loan word, evidently, referencing here the plantations surrounding the palaces of the Persian kings. Which are post-Solomon. This is where all the analysts point at the word and say that it’s impossible for this to have been written by Solomon, who would not have known the word, and that’s an excellent point. Although they do not generally go on to ask, why use that word in that place, if Solomon would not have known it? Of all the places in this text, this is the one where the writer is talking in a Solomonic voice, as it were—all of these details of wealth aggregation have specific referents in Kings, as if the writer were familiar with that text and was choosing the details from it. Which, probably. Yes?

Only, then why not use that language as well? Why specifically use a Persian term here? Is it just an anachronism, a mistake? And if so, why there? Was the point specifically to reference the Persian kings, rather than some other monarch? I must say, having just read Esther, this bit reminds me rather forcibly of Ahasueros, rather than Solomon—or at least in addition to Solomon.

And then, another thing—when I see the Hebrew(ish) word paradise, I immediately think of the Four who Entered Paradise, a disturbing story that may well be about learning leading to destruction. Here we read it as an earthly orchard, not a place of madness and death, right? Or… well, when he says he built himself gannot v’fardasim, gardens and orchards, he is talking about gardens and orchards, but is he also talking about The Garden and That Paradise? Or at least planting (as it were) those troubling stories in the mind of the reader, to be troubled by?

OK, a second set of questions about a phrase: at the end of verse 8, there’s one of them hapax legomenon fellows. Or rather, it appears twice, but twice in that verse and nowhere else in Scripture. The word is shidah and the verse reads shidah v’shidot, or we might say shidah and shidahs, idiomatically shidahs and plenty of ’em. It’s after the singers (male and female) and the delights of the sons of Adam, the KJV translates it as musical instruments, and that of all sorts for no particular reason. The RSV translates them as concubines, following Strong (who follows Ibn Ezra); Rashi calls them chariots; the Septuagint calls them cup-bearers. Most modern translators and analysts go the women route, although coming up with different etymologies, my favorite of which is of course obscene.

R. Hiyya b. Nehemiah says that it’s a reference to judges, but then he takes the whole set of verses as referring not to the material wealth of Solomon but the wealth of learning—the houses are houses of learning, the vineyards are tiers of disciples, the trees are books of Talmud, and so on and so forth, and the shidah v’shidot are male and female judges, which (a) makes no grammatical sense, and (2) implies that female judges were not just outliers, which is interesting in itself. But my favorite one is from the Midrash right before R. Hiyya b. Nehemiah’s explanation, which says that the entire bit about wealth and comfort is to be taken literally, with some explication: the delights (or luxuries) of the sons of Adam are of course public baths and lavatories, and the shidah v’shidot of course numerous female demons, to heat the water.

… and I think I’ll leave that right there, and with luck write a different note about the meaning of the sentences rather than the words.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 1, 2014

Ecclesiastes: 2:1-3

It turns out there’s a second chapter to this thing. Here we go:

[Ecc 2:1-3 KJV] I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also [is] vanity. I said of laughter, [It is] mad: and of mirth, What doeth it? I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what [was] that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.

This is one of those places where the translation is not trustworthy, but nobody seems to agree on exactly what would be a trustworthy translation. Here’s the New English Bible:

I said to myself, ‘Come, I will plunge into pleasures and enjoy myself’; but this too was emptiness. Of laughter I said, ‘It is madness!’ And of pleasure, ‘What is the good of that!’ So I sought to stimulate myself with wine, in the hope of finding out what was good for men to do under heaven throughout the brief span of their lives. But my mind was guided by wisdom, not blinded by folly.

Morris Jastrow says (persuasively) that the writer uses ‘expressive slang’—what I’m curious about is whether the voice when talking to himself is different, perhaps slangier, than the voice when talking to us. We’re heading into a bit where I would expect the speaker to be doing King Solomon voice, that is, to be using more magniloquent language to underscore the comparison. My Hebrew isn’t good enough to figure that out, and of course the KJV wants to use magniloquent language all the time, and the NEB is trying to eschew magniloquence whilst maintaining reverence, so they are not interested in picking up those resonances. Ah, well.

I don’t feel like going further into the troubles of wording at the moment—there are some things that are clear. He begins with his conclusion in this section as he does in the book as a whole, a rhetorical technique that seems more appropriate to bad academic papers than Scripture or poetry, I suppose, but effective anyway. He is careful to say that his epicureanism is a philosophical quest (v’libi nohayg bachochmah, yet acquainting my heart with wisdom) rather than mere indulgence. He emphasizes the temporal or earthly nature of his quest, both with the under heaven contrast and his insistence that all our days are numbered days; I also think the what doeth it from verse two is intended to be read as earthly and temporal. He asks what pleasure does, rather than what it is; he wants to know what people should do, not what they are.

I also found the phrase l’chah-na provocative. That’s the Go to, now of the KJV. Victor Reichert draws the reference to Isaiah 1:18: Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD …, as what he terms a call to action. Only for Kohelet it’s kind of a call to inaction, isn’t it? I mean, if it’s a deliberate reference to Isaiah (and a deliberate echo of the lech-lecha to Abraham as well, perhaps?) then it seems to me an ironic one. He’s talking to himself, anyway—how does addressing yourself with heavy irony fit in with the theme of humility? Heavy irony as a rhetorical tool does not seem out of place in Kohelet’s toolbox.

On an entirely different note, the Sages of Blessed Memory in the Midrash Rabbah are committed to the idea that the writer is in fact King Solomon, and are further committed to the (to my mind crazy) idea that King Solomon was a Good King and admirable and great and not to be despised. The text to me clearly indicates otherwise. Wise, yes, but also clearly a Bad King, and more important Bad-for-the-Jews. Anyway, this takes some interpretation. R. Phinehas insists that the pleasure Solomon seeks is the pleasure of studying Torah, of course, but why then is it vanity? R. Hezekiah said (in the name of Simon b. Zahdi) that all the Torah which you learn in this world is ‘vanity’ in comparison with Torah in the World to Come; because in this world a man learns Torah and forgets it, but with reference to the World to Come what is written there? I will put My law in their inward parts. So that solves that problem.

I am making fun of the Sages of Blessed Memory, of course, but doesn’t their discussion have an echo of (my interpretation) of the opening poem of this book? The greatest pleasure is in Torah, yes, but remain humble even in Torah study, for you will learn and forget, learn and forget, learn and forget—in contrast with the Divine, whose Grasp is as great as the Reach. I can bring that echo back into the verse to ask—if pleasure and good times are vanity—a puff of air and a handful of emptiness—for humans who live out our numbered days under Heaven, what is it for the One whose days are not numbered, and whose days are not underneath Heaven? Can we imagine a Divine Laughter that is not mad, and a Divine Mirth that does, in fact, accomplish things?

Is that the essence of Creation?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 8, 2013

Ecclesiastes: 1:16-18

It has been a while, hasn’t it? No, I haven’t given up on Ecclesiastes. Not yet, anyway. I’m just… slow.

Let’s try and finish out the first chapter. This is the KJV translation, as I have been starting with here in this Tohu Bohu of mine. We’ll see where we get to from there.

[Ecc 1:16-18 KJV] I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all [they] that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom [is] much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

I had been talking about the idea that kohelet may not be trying to emphasize futility so much as humility; pointing at the omnipotence of the Divine by talking about the impotence of Man. I’d like to get back to that, but first look at a few translation issues.

He talked (dibarti) to himself (ani) in his heart (im libi)—this refers back to v. 13 when kohelet gave his heart to seek and search out wisdom—he has, I think, sent out his heart as a spy, and is receiving its intel report. The verb root in 13 is lvn just as in Numbers 13, when the spies are sent into the Land to report back. Is this a deliberate reference? Who knows? Is it potentially a powerful and thus useful metaphor? Sure is!

So his heart has returned, higdalti v’hosafti, embiggened and enlargened with wisdom, and his heart ra’ah harbayh had increased its vision of hachmah vada’at, wisdom and knowledge. Keep an eye on that knowledge da’at. Because it is the gift of his heart la’da’at hachmah v’da’at holaylot v’sichlut. That first da’at is a verb, clearly, but Robert Gordis claims that the second one is a noun: he translates it not that kohelet knew wisdom and also knew madness-and-folly but that I learned that wisdom and knowledge are madness and folly. I found his argument persuasive, although of course I don’t have the grammar to really know anything. Still, it seems to match the way kohelet talks, doesn’t it? And that repetition-with-a-shift is more kohelet to me than simple repetition.

But then we follow this immediately with yada’ti she-gam zeh hu ra’yown ruach. This is, by the way, ra’yown ruach and not r’ut ruach for some reason; I don’t know why the change in form of what (Strong’s tells me) is the same root. Wind-chasing or spirit-grappling or ghost-wooing… anyway, yada’ti I knew that all this was ra’yown ruach. More knowledge! If the writer is saying that he knows that knowledge is foolishness, then isn’t that knowledge itself folly? The knowledge of knowledge is knowledge, isn’t it, and if it’s all madness, then isn’t it all madness?

If we follow Mr. Gordis, then, we are in a blind trap of knowledge, eating our tails (or our hearts)—and frankly, I find this compelling as a metaphysical matter of human humility: can we know our own knowledge? Is the attempt at knowledge not in itself a kind of ghost-wooing?

As he quotes (I agree with pretty much all the commentators that the last verse of the chapter is kohelet quoting a contemporary proverb), in much wisdom is much frustration, and by embiggening knowledge (da’at again) we embiggen troubles as well. But there’s a similar proverb about children: little children, little troubles; big children, big troubles. The job of the parent is not to keep the children and the troubles small, but to embiggen the whole world of the child—safely, as much as possible, sure, and to certainly not to deliberately increase troubles, but still, to usher a child into any new stage of life whether that’s preschool or dating or college or marriage or homeownership or parenting itself is to expose that child to more and greater dangers, frustrations and sorrows. I know that, and my kid is only in middle school.

I think, then, that we can read this whole passage about knowledge as partaking of the child’s part in the relationship. Implying, then, a metaphorical Divine parent to complete the image. I don’t think it’s the direct reading, but I also don’t think it’s too much of a stretch. What I do think is here and easily missed is this sense of knowledge-seeking as wind-chasing and ghost-wooing, not as any sort of bad thing but as a kind of Romantic idea (or do I mean ideal) of reach exceeding grasp. And I do think that the continued emphasis on our grasps not reaching so far is in implied contrast to the Divine Grasp, which is the only thing equal to the Divine Reach, that is, to the entire Divine Creation.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 2, 2013

Ecclesiastes: 1:12-15

It’s been a while. Let’s see if I can do a bunch of verses at one go:

[Ecc 1:12-15 KJV]I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all [things] that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all [is] vanity and vexation of spirit. [That which is] crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.

There’s an interesting question of whether the kohelet narrator persona is claiming to be Solomon, claiming to be a different king, claiming to be rightful king in the sense of being a descendant of Solomon, or has some other rhetorical goal. It’s a trifle confusing to me. We don’t need a single answer! Not one that cancels out the others, at any rate. Clearly, though, kohelet is rhetorically at the pinnacle of mankind, such that if something is futile for kohelet, who is was king over Israel in Jerusalem, it’s futile for any human. It’s not a lack in the speaker as an individual, but part of the ontological status of humanity.

What else to look at… the vexation of spirit phrase, r’ut ruach, is a lovely one. While I adore the KJV full phrase vanity and vexation of spirit, I think translating r’ut as vexation is a stretch. The other translations have things like striving and chasing and grasping and so forth—and recall that ruach is both spirit/soul and wind. The wind in verse six is ruach, but the ruach in verse 14 is spirit. Or wind again, if you like the idea of grasping wind, combining with our tower of nothingness image earlier. Or, if you like, both—the idea of spirit’s insubstantiality and that grappling with it is like grappling with the wind. A matter of futility, either way.

Futility is also, it would seem, the theme of making straight the crooked places. Although … here we again have the lo yukchal wording that YHB talked about in verse 8, so perhaps we can carry on that theme of humility, rather than futility: it is not man, not even a king, who can make the crooked places straight, but the Divine. As presumably grasping the wind is not futile for the Divine the way it is for man. Looked at it from that angle—it is not that everything is futile, that everything is impermanence and emptiness and vapor, but that everything that seems empty is a vessel for the Divine. Everything that we cannot do is a reminder of the greatness of the Divine Creation. Everything that is missing cannot be numbered. But what if everything that is missing can indeed be numbered, but not by us? What if the Divine can number even those things that don’t exist? And, indeed, who are we, what is Man that we should number the things that aren’t there?

Here’s another image, and this one is a total stretch, not meant to be a proper translation but a hint of a connotation, a shadow of an image: r’ut is connected (in Esther 1:19 and some others) to romantic desire or feminine desirability. When we talk of pursuing or grasping or striving for, think about perhaps chasing after as one chases a skirt. Wooing, even. All the works that are done under the sun are as vapor, as if we were wooing a spirit. An unconsummatable desire, the seduction of the bodiless soul. Kissing a ghost. Futility! But if all of life for people is as if we were trying to kiss ghosts, it’s because that’s not our job to do. That’s what the Divine is for.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 21, 2013

Ecclesiastes 1:10-11

It has been a while, hasn’t it? Let’s look at two verses this time:

[Ecc 1:10-11 KJV] Is there [any] thing whereof it may be said, See, this [is] new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. [There is] no remembrance of former [things]; neither shall there be [any] remembrance of [things] that are to come with [those] that shall come after.

This of course goes back to verse 9, that there is nothing new under the sun. As argument, it isn’t very convincing—if I say there’s nothing new, and you say of course there is, there are new things all the time!, and my response is that those so-called new things are actually just forgotten old things, well, that’s just not very convincing. Even if it’s plausible that some novelties are just coming around again—were there pre-Columbian Rainbow Looms? Were there Ancient Egyptian hula-hoops?—surely there are enough actual new things we experience or read about every day that someone who claims that, oh, touchscreen computer tablets or pink fundraising ribbons or fracking are actually of old time which was before us would need some sort of actual evidence of some kind, wouldn’t they?

If you abstract it out, of course, fracking is a new technology but destructive resource abstraction is scarcely new. Rainbow Looms are new but weaving is not. The Big Picture, remember? On the other hand, if you abstract things out enough that everything has been done before, you may lose so much detail that nothing actually is anything: tablet computers are new, but— communication is not? Images are not? The sense of touch?

Well, that’s not helping. Let’s look at the words. One interesting thing is that the words he is using for already is one of those words that shows up in this book and not elsewhere in the Scriptures. That, by the way, is one of the things that makes it so unlikely that Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs were written by Solomon; the language of each is distinct from the language of the rest of scripture, but they are very different from each other. Anyway, the word is unclear but seems perhaps to be connected to something like upstream, which is kind of a cool way of thinking about already, isn’t it? Although not a metaphor that (I think) suits the other image of the world as being essentially unchanging and of the illusory nature of novelty. Still, perhaps time is yet another river that flows into the sea.

By the way, the Sages of Blessed Memory, back in Roman Times, take great care to interpret this section, not as meaning that nothing is new but as meaning that nothing important is new, that is, that there is no new reading of Torah. Thus they say that kohelet’s dialogue in verse 9 is describing a scoffer talking about the Mishnah and the Oral Law.

It is written, And the LORD delivered unto me the two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the LORD spake with you. R. Joshua b. Levi said: [The text has not] ‘on them’ but ’and on them’, [not ‘all’ but ‘according to all’, [not] ‘words’ but ‘the words’, [not] ‘the commandment’ but ‘all the commandments’. This is to teach you that Scripture, Mishnah, halachoth, oral laws not included in the Mishnah, homiletical expositions, and the decisions to be hereafter given by eminent scholars already existed and were communicated as a law to Moses from Sinai. Whence do we know this? From what is written, Is there a thing whereof it is said: See, this is new? [Were a scholar to maintain this], behold his colleague can prove to him It hath been already.

This is the translation from Avraham Cohen in the Soncino Press edition of 1939. The point being, of course, that the Oral Law has the same authority as the tanach, because it was part of the Divine Revalation at Sinai, even if it was not revealed until recently. And of course this interpretation requires simultaneously a level of abstraction and a certain narrowness of vision—I think the text goes to great pains to indicate that we are talking about everything in the world, not just the Law. And, of course, Avraham Cohen was himself creating something new, an English translation. As in fact am I creating something new, I hope, here on this Tohu Bohu.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 10, 2013

Ecclesiastes 1:9

This really is, I think, the end of the introductory poem and the transition to the next bit.

[Ecc 1:9 KJV] The thing that hath been, it [is that] which shall be; and that which is done [is] that which shall be done: and [there is] no new [thing] under the sun.

The rhythm and the repetition is like (tho’ not exactly like) that in all the verses 1:4-1:9. Or 1:2-1:9, with 1:3 being inferior—Robert Gordis makes the case for there being (essentially) two stanzas, the first from 1:2-1:6 consisting of four pairs of stichs (where stich means something like a distinct piece of a line, I think) followed by a triple, and the second from 1:7-1:9 also consisting of three pairs followed by a triple. Oh, hell, something like this:

1:2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher,     /     vanity of vanities; all [is] vanity.
1:3 What profit hath a man of all his labour     /     which he taketh under the sun?
1:4 [One] generation passeth away, and [another] generation cometh:      /     but the earth abideth for ever.
1:5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down,     /     and hasteth to his place where he arose.
1:6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north;     /     it whirleth about continually,
                              and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

1:7 All the rivers run into the sea;      /     yet the sea [is] not full;
      unto the place from whence the rivers come,      /     thither they return again.
1:8 All things [are] full of labour;      /     man cannot utter [it]:
      the eye is not satisfied with seeing,      /     nor the ear filled with hearing.
1:9 The thing that hath been, it [is that] which shall be;      /     and that which is done [is] that which shall be done:
                              and [there is] no new [thing] under the sun.

Only he’s thinking about the rhythms in Hebrew, not English, and certainly not the KJV. The translation obscures the repetition as well as the rhythm in places, so if I were to map out the repetitions within and across the stichs, there, it would be quite a complicated and instructive map. I suspect there is such a map somewhere, but I haven’t seen it. Ah, well. The repetition in the first two bits of this line is again more prominent in the Hebrew: ma shehayah hu sheyih’yeh/uma-shena’asah hu sheyay’aseh. Hard to say, for me at least, but very repetitive.

By the way, for those who are interested in knowing just how terrible my transliteration is, there are a bunch of sites to hear the Hebrew as it should sound. I’d recommend the Mechon-Mamre or the AOAL, which I believe both have the same recordings (Abraham Shmuelof). There is also a YouTube Video where you can hear it chanted while following the bouncing yad. I kinda like that one, although of course the sound is very different with the leyning. There’s a separate question of why the traditional method does not emphasize the literary figures, but YHB is really, really, really extra-unqualified to discuss that one.

And the meaning? Well, the meaning seems pretty straightforward to me: the world is cyclical, the sun goes around and around, the waters run from the river to the sea and then (by our modern understanding) are evaporated and fall as rain to run from the river to the sea again. It’s all been done before, and just as important, it will all happen again; the earth abideth forever. But what does that mean? What’s the point of saying it? Why is it a message from the Divine to us that there is nothing new under the sun?

Well, I’m going to assert that my idea from last week—more or less that it’s Not About You—is consistent here: fundamentally, what is and what will be are not in your power, not in your ken, not in your eyes and ears and words, and you are not responsible for making it new. It’s not on you to make the rivers and the wind and the sun change their courses. It’s not about you. You aren’t going to make something new under the sun.

Looking at the poem as a whole, keeping in mind that I think there’s deliberate and poetical ambiguity and multiplication of meanings, I think this Not-About-Youness holds. That is, if we interpret the rhetorical question in 1:3 not only asking how much profit is there in a man’s labour but who are you to profit from your labor? That is, not only what good is it? but is it rightfully mine? Are we not to imagine ourselves capitalists, investing to reap a surplus, but to imagine ourselves laborers for a Divine employer, who has provided the capital (in the form of the winds and rivers and so on), and who am I to claim the surplus as mine—when nothing I can do will add to the colossal scale of the Divine investment?

Which is not to say, of course, that you can’t do anything. You can add to the world’s kindness or to its misery. You can shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die, or you can feed the hungry. You can, in the aggregate, bomb Syria or, you know, not bomb Syria. There are still choices, and there are still consequences of choices. I would hate to think of this message from the Divine as counseling the sort of humility that thinks I am nothing! I am nothing! I’m so humble that it doesn’t matter what I do!.

But at the same time…you know, we can slash CO2 or not slash CO2, and the rivers will still run to the sea. We can drown ten million people and create a billion refugees and poison the atmosphere and the rivers will still run to the sea. Really, they will! We can dam the Yangtze, and the river will still flow to the sea, eventually. It will! Whether we are here to see it or not. For everything that’s new under the sun—every new baby born, every new shiny gadget, every new building or playground or tank, every new speck of carbon in the atmosphere, every new kiss, every new song, every new hurt—everything is new all the time, isn’t it? We can see the newness, we can’t help seeing all the new things all the time. Which is why it’s worth koholet reminding us to look at the bigger picture which (as Peter O’Toole will tell you) is very very big. And when you look at the bigger picture, the picture under the sun, it looks like all that new stuff is just wind, which whirleth about continually and returneth again according to its circuits: the rivers still run to the sea. And the sea is never full. Thank the Divine.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 6, 2013

Ecclesiastes: 1:8

We’re almost to the end of the introductory poem, here.

[Ecc 1:8 KJV] All things [are] full of labour; man cannot utter [it]: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

The first bit is difficult to understand: col ha-divarim yagayim, all the words are exhausting. I’m pretty sure the KJV is just wrong. I strongly dislike obscuring the repetition at the end of the half-verse (lo-yukhal eesh l’dabayr); this whole stretch of poetry is about repetition (as I was saying last time) and so is this. So perhaps the difficulty in understanding is due to Kohelet choosing to prioritize the repetition over clarity. That’s worth paying attention to. Still, it’s an awkward pivot—the images of the sun, the wind, the rivers, all rushing around and returning to their starting point, and now we pivot to… words? Is it that words are constantly changing (that is, the we are constantly attempting to find new ways to describe what we observe) and that the words themselves return to the speaker (thus his inability to speak them)? That’s a bit of a stretch, innit? Still, it goes with what comes before and after.

Now I’m going to over-reach myself. Ready? The first time (I think) that this inability to speak (lo + yakhol + daver) comes into Scripture is in KJV Gen 24:50 when Abraham’s servant Eliezer comes to Betheul with Rebecca and tells him the story of the well and the vow and so on and so forth, and Betheul and Laban say “The thing proceedeth from the LORD: we cannot speak unto thee bad or good.” I think it’s clear that they are not literally unable to speak the words, nor even that they can’t tell whether it’s good or bad, but that it isn’t up to them to decide—they will acquiesce to the design of the Divine. Is it possible, then, that what Kohelet is getting at with lo-yukhal eesh l’dabayr is not that it is impossible to describe the weariness of the words (whatever that first daver refers to) but that he saying that it isn’t for Man to say it? Something more like—Complain about how exhausting all of that stuff in 1:4-6 is, but it’s not your call. While, of course, retaining the connotation of the literal unutterability.

Now, I want to be clear: nothing in any of the commentary I have read justifies any of this. Various people have various difficulties with the language, but nobody makes the Betheul connection or talks about not-being-able-to-speak-it intimating the speaker’s place in the world. It’s quite likely, given that total absence, that it’s a reading that the language simply does not support. Certainly other instances of lo + yakhol denote literal inability (f’r’ex, the blindness of Isaac or Eli) or a legal ban (f’r’ex, well, lots of Leviticus). When it’s about speaking, though… in addition to Bethuel, I have found three other places where people are described as being unable to speak, using those words. In Gen 37:4, Joseph’s brothers couldn’t speak to him peaceably; this is clearly not literal inability, but also is clearly not about it being their place to speak, so it’s a strike against my interpretation. In 2Sa 3:11 Ishbosheth can’t answer Abner a word, a totally different structure but has lo + yakhol + [answer any more to Abner] daver. That’s because he is afraid of Abner—I don’t know if we should imagine him struck dumb with fear, or if we’re to think that he chose not to speak, or if he thought at that point something like who am I to speak to Abner? The latter is plausible, though, as Abner has just been throwing his weight around.

The last example I found is very different and very interesting. In Num 22:38, Balaam actually says to Balak, yakhol + yakhol + daver Have I now any power to say anything? This one is not in the negative, that is, it doesn’t have the no word anywhere, and it has the doubled-for-emphasis able, so it’s not a close parallel to either our Ecclesiastes verse or the Bethuel and Eliezer verse. But the meaning is like the Bethuel one: Balaam is saying that it is not he who should speak, but that he will speak the words that the Divine puts in his mouth. This is after the talking donkey business, and is the set-up for the lengthy bit where Balaam, having been asked to curse the Israelites is instead compelled by the Divine to bless them. I interpret this as very similar to the Bethuel meaning: not how can I speak but who am I to speak?

Does that work with the second half of that verse? Something closer to saying that all that stuff (earth, sun, wind, water) isn’t there to satisfy your eyes or fill your ears; it’s there because of the Divine, or even it’s there just because it’s there, and the path of wisdom is to accept it, just as Betheul accepted Rebecca’s destiny or Balaam accepted the words of the Divine blessing the Israelites. Literally, it’s that your eyes can’t be satisfied with seeing, but really it’s that your eyes’ seeing is irrelevant to the process.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 3, 2013

Ecclesiastes: 1:4-7

OK, I’m going to try this again:

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? [One] generation passeth away, and [another] generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea [is] not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. [Ecc 1:3-7 KJV]

The KJV poetry is lovely, here, but it’s lovely in a very, very different way than the Hebrew is lovely. I’ll try to transliterate: verse 4 is something like dor holaykh v’dor ba/vha-aretz l’olam omadet. The next one goes v’zarakh hashemesh u-va hashemesh/v’el m’komo sho’ayf zorayah hu shahm. It’s an interesting structure of repetition—the first half of 4 goes noun-verb-noun-verb, where the first half of 5 goes verb-noun-verb-noun, in both parts changing the verb but repeating the noun. Verse 6: holaykh el-darom v’sovayv el-tzafon sovayv/sovayv holaykh ha-ruach v’al-s’vivotav shav ha-ruach. In this one we’ve got the repetition of the verb, not the noun, and here it continues into the second half, repeating in two forms (and then with the similar-sounding word shav added as well). Verse seven: kol ha-n’khalim hol’khim el-ha-yam v’ha-yam aynenu/malay el-m’kom shehankhalim holchim sham haym shavim lalachet. This time the first half goes modifier-noun-verb-object-noun-modifier, with the second noun a repetition of the first object. What I’m getting at is that it is both heavily structured, in the sense that most of the words in the original are tied down to their place in the structure of repetition, but that what is being repeated shifts from verse to verse, so instead of coming off very rumpty-tumpty june/spoon/moon, it comes off almost disconcertingly uneven within the structure. I suppose it’s like that Anglo-Saxon poetry in that way, although I don’t know enough about it to be sure.

Oh, and there’s a presumably deliberate rhyme-like-thing with the rivers ha-n’khalim and the verb to go holaykh, in its plural form here holkhim. Can you hear that? They are both repeated in the second half of the verse as well. Also, holaykh is the verb for the generations going as well as the wind going on its spinning, so there’s repetition across the verses as well. Also, I really like that he takes the sun from the end of verse 2, puts the earth at the end of verse 3 and then brings the sun back at the beginning of verse 4—in verse 2, I think he’s using the under the sun as one kind of reference, not really referring to the sun at all, but it leads into this extended metaphor about the physical world, including the sun, the earth, the winds and the sea. Just really lovely.

As for the content? Well, it’s pretty accurate: an extended image of constant change along with constant, well, constancy. Everything is constantly laboring, not just the people but the sun and the land and the water and the very air itself, only to return to what it was before. An endless cycle of—what? Impotence? Futility? Would it be better, somehow, if the sea were to fill up and overflow? Would it be better if the sun rose and went and then stayed gone? Should the wind have a final resting place?

No, I don’t think I take from these images a sense of futility, but a sense of stability. The earth abideth for ever. There will always be rivers emptying into the sea; there will always be winds, swirling and turning. It’s a thought more comforting than bleak, to me, if only because I can’t screw things up so badly that the sun will stop rising in the morning.

One more thing I’ll observe: the wind spins sovayv like a top or a dreidel, a s’vivon. It spins and it spins, spinning right out of the end of the first half of the verse and into the second, and then it shav, it re-turns. That’s a huge word, shuv or shuvah, turning and returning. We have talked about it with Jeremiah and with Jereboam, with Jacob ben Kurshai and with Elizer ben Jacob, and even with Maurice Sendak. Even the wind does t’shuvah. Even the rivers that empty into the sea—as impossible as it is to send the river in reverse , even the rivers do t’shuvah.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 1, 2013

Ecclesiastes 1:3

Five more verses.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? [One] generation passeth away, and [another] generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea [is] not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. [Ecc 1:3-7 KJV]

Starting with that first verse, we have two more favorites of our writer: profit (yitron) and under the sun (tachat shemesh). They are both words (ok, a word and a phrase) that appear nowhere else in Scripture, but Kehelet refers to profit ten times and uses the sununder phrase twenty-seven times. On the other hand, these aren’t obscure things that make it difficult to know what he means: yitron is from the ytr root and clearly means surplus, excess, what is left over, what is saved. As for tachat shemesh, back in Genesis 1:7 we see under the firmament and in Genesis 6:17 we see under heaven. So that’s all right. It’s unusual writing but not obscure. It's interesting that he chooses the sun, and that nobody else does, but it's not obscure.

The rhetorical question phrasing (ma yitron) is also familiar (ma tovu, mi camocha, ma nishtana even ma dodech midod from the Song of Songs) although… now that I’m thinking about it, there is ambiguity there as well. Rhetorical questions in general are ambiguous, of course, but this formulation is used both extremely positively and extremely negatively. I am inclined to interpret the poetic craft of this piece as using the tension of opposites, you know, and this is seems to fall into that category. In ma tovu (Numbers 23:5) the implied answer to how goodly is very very goodly. In Gen 23:15 KJV (My lord, hearken unto me: the land [is worth] four hundred shekels of silver; what [is] that betwixt me and thee? bury therefore thy dead) the implied answer to what is that is very very little. In Num 16:11 KJV (For which cause [both] thou and all thy company [are] gathered together against the LORD: and what [is] Aaron, that ye murmur against him?) the implied answer to Aaron, what is he is very very great. I think. I’m actually not sure about that one. In Num 23:23 KJV (Surely [there is] no enchantment against Jacob, neither [is there] any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath Gd wrought!) the implied answer to What hath Gd wrought! is rather a lot, really.

On the other hand, in Gen 25:32 KJV (And Esau said, Behold, I [am] at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?) the answer to what profit (not yitron here but more literally what is this birthright to me) is very very little. In Gen 37:26 KJV (And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit [is it] if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?), the answer to what profit (not yitron here but betsa, filthy lucre) is very very little. So my idea—that absent that havayl havalim introduction, this would be an ambiguous rhetorical gambit is… not well taken. Sorry, me.

Oh, my goodness. All that up there and I’m only through verse three? Maybe the best thing would be to come back with the rest tomorrow.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 30, 2013

Ecclesiastes, before we go further

Before we go on to the next few verses, I should probably attempt to put the thing into some sort of context. Unlike the Avot, which is a compendium of different sayings from different people, and which therefore doesn’t need to hang together as a single unit—there is certainly a benefit to being aware of Avot as a whole, the surrounding verses, some structural themes, uswusf, as you are closely reading a single verse (or a single phrase), but you can go phrase by phrase as we did and build that up without knowing what’s to come. In Ecclesiastes, I think we need to have at least some sense of what’s going on in order to get anywhere at all.

So. Ecclesiastes. What the hell?

In general, the writer is talking about Life and this world. What’s the point, he asks. He writes poetically about the transitory and unfulfilling nature of the rewards of the world. He seeks solace, one way and another, and mostly doesn’t find it. He advises the readers about the world and its ways, and suggests methods to avoid or ameliorate misery. He draws our attention to some aspects of the world as he finds it. He muses on death and impermanence. He muses some more on death and impermanence. And finally, he muses on death and impermanence.

That’s pretty much it.

Where’s the Divine in all this? Well, it’s interesting—the book begins The words of Kohelet, and not, for example, The word of the LORD that came unto Hosea or The word of the LORD that came to Joel or The word of the LORD that came to Micah or The word of the LORD which came unto Zephaniah or even In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, in the first day of the month, came the word of the LORD by Haggai the prophet unto Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest. It’s not the only book to leave out the LORD in its first verse (The words of Jeremiah, f’r’ex), but in this case it seems to stand as a notice that this is not prophecy. These are the words of Kohelet, not of the Divine.

Which is not to say that Kohelet is an atheist, or unconcerned with the Divine. It’s that this book is not claiming (within itself) Divine inspiration, but is rather inspired by empirical observation of the world. In fact, Kohelet appears to have the (modern?) view that we reach the Divine through empirical observation of the world, rather than observing the world through the lenses of the Divine. Or perhaps I am overreaching. We can discuss that as we go—in fact, where’s the Divine in all this is one of the things I will want to be looking at and talking about with y’all as we go through the text.

Other questions: Is the Kohelet perspective—semi-rationalist, empirical, analytical—acceptable within Scripture? Or are we just attributing that kind of perspective to Kohelet because we find it sympathetic to our own? When is Kohelet saying what he means, and when is he saying the opposite of what he means, and how can we tell? When is Kohelet in line with other bits of Scripture and when is he not, and what do we do with it when he isn’t?

I think that’s plenty to go on with—unless, Gentle Reader, you have your own.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 27, 2013

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

Shall we begin?

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all [is] vanity.[Ecc 1:1-2 KJV]

You know, I was hoping to get through three verses in this first note, but I don’t think that’s going to happen, do you?

We’ve already talked about kohelet the word that comes out in the KJV as the Preacher, and I don’t know that we need to go on any more about it at this stage. I will note that it’s not the kohelet here but just kohelet, which makes it seem more like a name. Oh, and I didn’t mention that kohelet has a feminine form, though it is used as a masculine noun—if it is a name, it’s in some sense like having a male character named Ricarda or Michaela—it’s not grammatically crazy or anything, but I think there’s a tension going on there, almost an opposition. If it’s a name.

In the second half of the verse—if we accept that this was written much later than Solomon’s time (and we can talk about that, but I’m quite convinced), then either the writer is using a literary conceit and writing as if he were Solomon or he is using the son of form to indicate descent from the Davidic line, which of course can be a Big Deal. The phrasing king in Jerusalem doesn’t necessarily imply king of Israel or even King of Judah; it could mean something like rightful king by descent, even if not actually ruling. Or the first verse was added later by an editor who wanted to attribute the writings to the famously wise king. Anyway: the first verse is an identification that completely fails to identify. Is there a point to that? Are we beginning to hold contradictions in mind?

The text proper begins with the second verse, and Kohelet’s favorite word: hevel, which the KJV calls vanity. More language trouble! It doesn’t have anything to do with being vain in the sense of being prideful; it’s more to do with the idea of attempting something in vain, uselessly. The KJV is going directly from the Latin vanitas vanitatum, which may be relying on the Septuagint, where it comes across as folly, more or less. Or perhaps vanitas has more of the connotation of emptiness which is in the original Hebrew. It’s connected to the word for breath. R.B.Y. Scott, in fact, translates the thing thusly:

Breath of a breath! (says Qoheleth). The slightest breath! All is a breath!

Which is kinda poetic and shit, innit, but doesn’t so much mean anything. Rami Shapiro goes elsewhere in two different translations, first choosing “Emptiness! Emptiness upon emptiness!” and in a later version “Emptying upon emptying!” H.L. Ginsberg dispenses with the metaphor entirely: “Utter futility! —said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile!” Translation is hard.

I’ll attempt to transliterate—I may do that a fair amount in this book, as I think the sound is important: havayl havalim amar kohelet havayl havalim hacol havayl. It has a very heavy sound, doesn’t it? Yes, there are all those aitches, but all that vayl-vul-vayl-vul-vayl comes off to me as very heavy-sounding. So if we are supposed to think of breath and emptiness and vapor and incorporeality, then the sound is working against the sense, in my opinion, rather than with it. And I think if we are intended to think of emptiness and breath, the repetition works against any sense of lightness or airiness: piling breath upon breath upon breath, making an oppressive blanket of that emptiness or nothingness. And how can everything—ha-col, the all—be nothingness?

I should also observe that what with the language being all sparse and ambiguous and so on, it seems perfectly plausible to read these two lines as something closer to The words of Koholet, son of King David in Jerusalem, are breaths only—he speaks but it’s all breath and breath and breath! I’m not proposing that as a serious translation, but as a sort of warning. I’m not expecting, when we’re done, to have anything more than breath (vapor, emptiness, futility, vanity). On the other hand, the other words for breath and breathing are connected to ruach and nephesh, spirit and soul—are we to take hevel as being opposite to them, or like them? Or both?

YHB is a both/and kinda guy, you know. Solomonic folly, feminine masculinity, towers of emptiness, all of everything is of nothing. We’re gonna need big categories here.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 26, 2013

Ecclesiastes: it begins

So. Ecclesiastes. What the hell?

I’ve been reading the thing in preparation, and I have to say: this is a strange, scary, bad book. This may not be fun. On the other hand, it is perhaps more important to do the work to dig into a strange, scary bad book than it is to read, say, Ruth. Not that Ruth doesn’t have its own problems. But this is… different. The Anchor version’s introduction begins with R.B.Y. Scott saying Ecclesiastes is the strangest book in the Bible. The Cambridge Bible Commentary edition starts with a section called The Problem of the Book. My favorite line is from Edward Plumptre, who starts his book by saying not only that every interpreter of this book thinks that all previous interpreters have been wrong but by saying that this aspect of the book has become almost a proverb. He wrote this in 1880. And then he wrote that I can honestly say that I have worked through the arguments by which the writers have supported them [conclusions about Ecclesiastes] and have not found them satisfy the laws of evidence or the conditions of historical probability. In other words, all previous interpreters really have been wrong. Likely this was true, and likely it is still true. I am certainly not going to change that.

I do not have the Key to the book; I am not looking for the Key. What am I looking for? Well, and I never really know until I find it, and often not then, but I suppose what I am looking for is how I, as a reader and believer living in my world, can reach through the text to the Divine—if I believe that the text is Scripture, it is by its essence a Divine message, not just to the people of its time but to me right now. That’s my definition of Scripture, and why I consider Scripture to be miraculous stuff, different ontologically from non-Scripture. I am looking for that message primarily for myself, but also for people who are in some sense like me—living in my culture at my time, speaking my language, sharing much of my perception of the universe.

That does require looking at the context it was written in, looking at the meaning of the text, what it might have meant to the writer at the time, what it might have meant to its first readers. It isn’t constrained to those meanings, but it is informed by them. I can conclude that the meaning for me is not what it was for the ancient People of Israel, but my method involves attempting at least to ascertain what that meaning was. If only to reject it and keep looking. So I’m going to be looking, as best I can, into the language and the poetry as well as the meaning and the context. I’m going to be looking for metaphors and balances (tho’ triples are evidently rare in our text, which as Gentle Readers will be aware is a sadness for Your Humble Blogger). I’m going to be looking for resonances elsewhere in Scripture. I’m going to be looking at different translations, if only to find out what the text meant to the translators. I’m going to be looking at some of the rabbinic commentary, to the extent that I can easily track it down. And I’m hoping I will be looking at your suggestions and interpretations, too, Gentle Readers. Don’t make me do this by myself.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 25, 2013

Rain, the weather's fine

A really interesting idea from Rabbi Avie Schreiber, in an essay called The Missing Holiday - A Novel look at Shemini Atzeret.

Let’s start with Sukkot—I guess I haven’t really talked about the holiday much here on this Tohu Bohu. It’s an excellent holiday, and I suspect under-celebrated among American Jews and nearly unknown among American non-Jews. Tho’ I’m just guessing there. Gentle Readers, do you know about Sukkot? Do you observe it? Does it mean anything to you at all?

Just in case, here are the basics: The holiday is the Festival of Booths, commemorating the time we spent in the wilderness, between the Exodus from Egypt and the entrance into Canaan. To remember that time, we are commanded (in Leviticus 23) to construct and live for eight days in Sukkot, or booths, or sheds, or whatever. There are a lot of rules about what constitutes a kosher sukkah (the singular form of the word), but in general it must be temporary and it must be at least somewhat open to the sky and the outside. And there are rules for what it means to live in them—I think it is unusual for American Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist Jews to sleep in the sukkah, but we like to eat meals in there whenever the weather permits.

The weather! Now I’m getting close to the point. You didn’t believe that I had a point, did you?

So. You are supposed to live in the sukkah for a week, but you are also supposed to know enough to come in out of the rain. You aren’t supposed to just let the rain wash away your dinner. The Sages of blessed memory have a term, in fact, for the person who stubbornly stays in the sukkah eating even when it’s raining: they call such a person an idiot. Rain on Sukkot! Such a sadness. Rabbi Schreiber says “We depend on a lack of rain in order to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot properly.” Rain on Sukkot! Or even snow—The holiday’s early this year, but next year it doesn’t end until mid-October, and a snow flurry or two would not be unheard of. Some of the Rabbis have taught that rain on Sukkot is a Divine punishment for some sort of transgression of the community. There’s a story about a servant and a master and a pitcher of water thrown in the face… anyway, rain on Sukkot: bad.

The eighth and final day of Sukkot, though, is a holiday in its own right, the eighth assembly or Shmini Atzeret, the most prominent feature of which is the prayer for rain. It’s also the moment when we switch, in the mention of weather in the daily prayer, from the summer in which we thank the Divine morid hatal, who gives life-giving dew, to the winter in which we thank the Divine mashiv ha-ruach u-morid ha-gashem who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall. Rain on Sukkot: bad! …but praying for rain on the last day of Sukkot: excellent!

Digression: The Great and Holy Sages of Blessed Memory say that while our individual fates are written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur, the fate of the world’s water is written on the first night of Sukkot and sealed on Shmini Atzeret. Droughts? Tempests? Thirst? Empty canals? Full reservoirs? Rising Damp? Floods? Tsunamis? During Sukkot it is written, and on Shmini Atzeret it is sealed. If you want to inspire yourself to really fervent prayer, imagine the years when the fate of the world’s water is a bad one. End Digression.

So what is the difference between Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret? Well, Rabbi Schreiber points out the obvious: Shmini Atzeret is the end of Sukkot. On the day of Shmini Atzeret, we move out of the sukkah and into our houses. So, of course, rain is not such a big deal—we hope. The Rabbis talk about the issue of Sukkot and people with holes in the roof as well, but let’s attempt not to get too distracted here. In the general run of things, this is the day we leave the temporary dwellings that are open to the elements and enter our secure, dry, permanent homes. So if it rains on Shmini Atzeret, we don’t miss out on a lot of time in the sukkah, and we appreciate our permanent homes so much the more.

But wait… there’s the practical meaning and then there’s the metaphorical meaning, right? And while practically we live during Sukkot in lean-tos in the backyard, metaphorically we are living in the wilderness between the Narrow Place and the Promised Land, between slavery and autonomy. When we leave our temporary dwelling to enter our permanent one, we are metaphorically reenacting when the People of Israel left the wilderness and entered the land that would be our nation. We are even more metaphorically reenacting leaving our temporary and probationary status as spiritual seekers, and beginning a time of (spiritual) stability and practicality: the holidays are over, it’s time to start living right every day.

Or, to extend Rabbi Schreiber’s outlook, just as the settlement of the Holy Land necessitated a change in point of view to that of stewards of the land, Shmini Atzeret is time to stop looking at rain short term, as a personal inconvenience, and start looking at rain long-term. And by rain, we of course mean Torah.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 18, 2013

Sukkot, Study, something

It happened like this: somebody said on Facebook that there wasn’t anything new in the universe, and somebody said that it had been said before, and I said it was from Ecclesiastes. And it turns out that Ecclesiastes (a) is something that I have a great deal of difficulty typing, such that it often comes out Ecclesiasters; and (2) is one of the Five Scrolls that are liturgically assigned to five holidays, and is in fact assigned to Sukkot, the holiday that is pretty much starting Right Now.

And I was thinking that I had read Ecclesiastes once or twice, and been assigned to study it in college, but hadn’t ever really studied it. And as I had been waiting for inspiration to strike regarding what sort of Scripture Study to do here on this Tohu Bohu of mine, well, that seemed like inspiration enough. So I’m going to be going through Ecclesiastes more or less like I did Pirke Avot or the Song of Songs (except I never finished Song of Songs) or the Haftarahs. I suspect I won’t go verse-by-verse, as much of the poetry appears to work in stanzas of sorts, but then once I get actually get into the text I may get carried away. As I do.

In fact, I’m already worrying at the first question of what to call the book. In Hebrew it’s called קֹהֶ֣לֶת, kohelet, a word that is only used in this book and only to identify the first-person-speaker. It appears to be derived from the root khl, to congregate or assemble, so the kohelet could well be the person who causes a congregation to assemble, such as a preacher might do, so the KJV called him The Preacher. On the other hand, the root doesn’t involve talking at all, speechifying, addressing the crowd, or, you know, preaching, so I feel that is a little misleading. In English we call the book by the transliteration of the Septuagint Greek Ἐκκλησιαστοῦ, which they used as a translation of kohelet, because, er, something to do with congregations? I have no Greek at all. It’s kind of a troublesome name for the book—it’s not an English word at all, and if it connotes anything to us, it’s a vague connection to the Church all the same as ecclesiastical courts.

Some recent translations have just used the transliteration of the Hebrew for the name (or title or name-like thing) of the writer—oh, and it’s more complicated because that first-person writer is associated with Solomon. Historically, that’s nonsense, but in the tradition, this one and Song of Songs and the Proverbs are all Solomon’s work. So the name/title/appellation kohelet (in 1:1 it’s kohelet ben David is taken to refer to the person Solomon. It’s always tricky to decide whether to translate names, isn’t it? I think the usual way these days is to use Ecclesiastes for the book and kohelet for the person. I guess that’s what I’ll do, then, but I reserve the right to change my mind partway through.

All of which is to say: Happy Sukkot, Gentle Readers all, and if you have interest in joining me for the study of Ecclesiasters, time to get out the book. With any luck, I’ll be starting soon.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 16, 2013

An Image for Tisha B'Av

As I was reading Lamentations (today is Tisha B’Av, which I wrote about extensively three years ago and again two years ago), I happened on a different translation by David Mevorach Seidenberg, who describes himself as a neo-Hasid—he espouses a sort of Chasidic-flavoured egalitarian eco-Judaism? Anyway, his stuff sounds interesting and his Tisha B’Av stuff is at

Anyway, here’s the KJV for Lamentations 1:8 and 1:9:

Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she is removed: all that honoured her despise her, because they have seen her nakedness: yea, she sigheth, and turneth backward. Her filthiness [is] in her skirts; she remembereth not her last end; therefore she came down wonderfully: she had no comforter. O LORD, behold my affliction: for the enemy hath magnified [himself].

And here’s Rabbi Seidenberg’s translation:

Sinning she sinned, Jerusalem. For this an outcast / nidah she became. All who honor her despise her, for they saw her nakedness. Also her, she is moaning, turned around backward. Her blood / tum’ah in her skirts, she didn’t remember her end after, she descended wondrously. There is no comforter for her. YHVH, see my poverty, my humiliation, for an enemy became great.

Here’s my attempt at transliterating the Hebrew:

Chayt Chat’ah Y’rooshaliyim
al kayn l’needah hayatah
col-michab’deyah hizeelooah
kee ra’oo ervatah
gam-hee ne’enchah
vatashav achor

tumatah b’shuleyha
lo zachra echaritah
v’tayred p’la’im
ayn m’nuchaym lah
r’ayh adonai et an’yee
kee higdil oyayv

It’s an arresting image of Jerusalem as a menstruating woman, humiliated Carrie-like and stained with blood. Although, of course, menstruation is not really a thing to be ashamed of—messy and unpleasant and painful, I’m told (not having experienced it myself) but not an indicator of any sort of wrongdoing. Or for that matter of being done wrong to—chayt chat’ah could be here evoking both the sinned against and the sinner, but neither is actually implicated in niddah. Well, and that’s one of the things about niddah that I think we’ve brought up before, that while it’s translated as unclean or impure, it actually means temporarily unqualified for certain ritual duties and there is no moral censure associated with it—reference Tobit’s burial of the dead, a virtuous act which nonetheless makes him temporarily unclean and leads to his blindness. On the other hand, think about Tobit’s blindness as a sort of punishment for his impure virtue. When you declare someone or something temporarily unqualified for certain ritual duties it leads more or less inevitably to a sort of exclusion or ostracization. Think about lepers. Think, for that matter, about Carrie.

Or, of course, we can take the blood as evidence not of natural cyclical menstruation but of forcible deflowering—is the Jerusalem of Rabbi Seidenberg’s translation a rape victim? And if she is, how does that image combine with our reading of chayt chat’ah? How do we feel about Jerusalem as a victim being further punished? How does that comport with our understanding of the entire story of Destruction, Expulsion and Redemption?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 5, 2013

Jeremiah 31:18

One of the reference librarians at the establishment that employs YHB was recently asked about a possible English translation of Jeremiah 31:18. I looked it up, and it’s a very interesting and tricky verse. Let’s start with the KJV:

I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself [thus]; Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed [to the yoke]: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou [art] the LORD my God.

From the Hermeneia series, I believe this lovely poetic translation is by William L. Holliday:

(A sound) I have heard,
  Ephraim rocking with grief:
“You punished me, and I took the punishment”
  like a calf untrained.
Bring me back, and let me come back,
  for you are Yahweh my God.

The JPS:

I can hear Ephraim lamenting:
You have chastised me, and I am chastised
Like a calf that has not been broken.
Receive me back, let me return,
For You, O Lord, are my God

That’s enough to go on with, right?

And perhaps some context: Jeremiah (or Yirmiyahu) is talking about the destruction of the Temple, the end of the Kingdom of Israel, and the beginning of the Babylonian Exile. The entire book is a book of desolation and loss. The Divine speaks to Jeremiah to pass along to the bereft People of Israel an explanation, at least, for their loss: they had sinned. Whether you believe that the prophecies written in the book were declaimed before the events (and predicted them) or after (and explained them), they were clearly for those of us who live after the events, and must live with a world in which they make sense.

Within the fifty-odd chapters of Jeremiah, just over halfway through, there is what has been called Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation, 30:1-31:40, which says that Israel will be restored, the humbled will be honored, etcetera etcetera etcetera. Not only will the southern kingdom (Judah) be restored, but the northern kingdom, which had been conquered a hundred and fifty years before, will be brought together with them, restoring the Ten Tribes. There’s an image of Rachel weeping for her children (the Sages say that she was buried along the roadside so that the Israelites would pass by under her protection on the way to the rivers of Babylon), and the Divine says to her Your children shall return to their country. And then we move from a weeping Rachel to the lamenting Ephraim, and our verse.

Shamo’a shamati
Ephraim mitnodayd
yisartani va’ivasair
k’aygel lo lumad
hashivaynu v’ashuvah
ci atah adonai elohai

The first thing here are the pairs, keeping in mind that in Hebrew duplication indicates emphasis: Shamo’a shamati from sh’ma, to hear; hashivaynu v’ashuvah, from shuv, to turn; the more hidden one yisartani va’ivasair both from the root ysr, meaning… well, meaning to chastise or castigate, either by the whip or by the word. To correct, to reprove, to teach. In 1Ki 12:11, my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions. On the other hand, Pro 29:19, A servant will not be corrected by words: for though he understand he will not answer. At any rate, those three pairs are there for emphasis, for double emphasis as it were, and in any translation we need to keep it in mind. KJV uses surely heard to keep the emphasis without the un-English double; Mr. Holliday adds the noun sound to flesh it out, while the JPS simply elides it. The Vulgate, bye-the-bye, begins audiens audivi, presumably from the Septuagint ἀκοὴν ἤκουσα; I gots no Latin or Greek, so I’m no good, there. Probably worth keeping in mind, though, that the Greek was possibly redacted earlier than the version of the Hebrew we’re looking at now; our Jeremiah-text has passed through many hands.

Anyway. There are these three pairs, lovely pairs, in the first, third and fifth lines of the poem. I’m treating it like a poem, by the way, because it so clearly is one. Then we have the other lines, backing them up. The Divine heard (or heard heard) Ephraim mitnodayd, Ephraim is the personification of the northern kingdom, not unlike Uncle Sam or the Russian Bear. And he is doing something with the root nud, to be moved or agitated, either physically or mentally. I don’t know anything more than that—Mr. Holliday is poetic and drawing back to the image of Rachel weeping by the side of the road, and I think it’s lovely—but is he translating too much into the text? I think part of the beauty of the passage is its strange mutability, the way that it remains open to a variety of moods and emphases, and I am reluctant to cut any of them off by making others too concrete. On the other hand, some choice must eventually be made.

The fourth line: k’aygel lo lumad, like an calf without teaching. The root lmd means both to teach and to learn (the same root as Talmud), but is connected with beating just as ysr is; Rashi makes the connection to malmad, the ox goad in Judges 3:31: Shamgar the son of Anath, which slew of the Philistines six hundred men with an ox goad. So, an untrained calf or an unbeaten calf, a calf that had not previously known the rod.

The last bit is a formula, here using my rather than our to keep the idea of the personification (singular) representing the scattered northerners (plural). Nothing really interesting there, as once a translator has decided on how to translate the formula for the rest of the text, it gets plugged in here with the singular version.

So. Where are we?

The divine hears (or rather hears hears) Ephraim, rocking and/or lamenting. And Ephraim says that he has been chastised chastised, or rather than he has been both actively and passively chastised, lashed like a calf that had never felt the rod, and was turned turned, or both actively and passively turned. Now, shuv has, to my ears, the connotation of repentance, of restoration, of return. And of course the entire thing is a metaphor of return—the southern kingdom from the Babylonian Exile and the Lost Tribes from their earlier dispersal—so emphasizing restoration makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, I think that runs the risk of losing—I think all three of the above translations do lose—the power of the image of breaking an ox to the plow. Ephraim is a calf still young, and the Divine is subjecting him to the whip and the rod, and Ephraim is at the end of the field at the edge of the weeds and is turning, turning—turning away from blundering into the untamed wilderness and turning back (under duress) to plow another furrow so that the farm can grow. I like that image, the lumbering dumb animal, and how difficult it is to turn.

So what do you think, Gentle Readers? How would you translate all that?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 26, 2013

Pinning the Tail

Your Humble Blogger didn’t watch the Oscars. I didn’t have a bet on it, and there wasn’t anybody I was particularly rooting for or against, and my Best Reader and I are working our way through the Tenth Doctor episodes. Plus, I’m old. I am not the demographic they are looking for.

This was particularly driven home to me when I heard about the “We Saw Your Boobs” song. Evidently—y’all can correct me on this—as part of a segment that was more-or-less terrible things that Seth MacFarlane ought not do as host of the Oscars (which of course gives him an out) Mr. MacFarlane sang a ditty about all the Oscar-nominated actresses who have appeared topless in movies. It was, in fact, a terrible thing to do, and Mr. McFarlane did it. If you want to read commentary, Amy Davidson’s Seth MacFarlane and the Oscars’ Hostile, Ugly, Sexist Night is a good one, as are Allison Wright’s These Things Are Not Okay and Margaret Lyons’ Why Seth MacFarlane’s Misogyny Matters.

Anyway, I didn’t see the thing. So why am I writing about it? After all, it’s not like I’m going to add anything useful to the commentary that’s out there. Well, except that none of the commentary I have seen mentions that the tune for the song was the we figured it out portion of “Seven and a Half Cents” which (as Mr. MacFarlane knows) is from The Pajama Game, a show in which workplace harassment plays no small part. Worth pointing out, I think. But other than that, why would I write about it?

The answer, Gentle Reader, is that I am not writing about it. I’m writing about Queen Vashti.

The Oscars began on Purim local time, you know. And I was at a purimspiel the night before, hearing the annual travesty of the book of Esther when something occurred to me about Vashti. Purim morning, reading the internet, I learned a midrash about Vashti that I hadn’t known before. And I was kinda sorta thinking about writing those two things up, and I had decided that I wouldn’t bother. And then Seth MacFarlane sang about Scarlett Johansson’s boobs, and… well, I feel I should write about Vashti.

Hm. I don’t know whether non-Jews know about Vashti at all. I know the Esther story comes up a lot in some Fundamentalist circles, but I assume that there’s a good deal of editing involved… anyway, the story starts with King Ahasuerus (gesundheit) at a feast, his heart being merry with wine, asking his chamberlains

(1:11) To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to shew the people and the princes her beauty: for she [was] fair to look on. (1:12) But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment by [his] chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.

He seeks advice from the kings and princes:

(1:16 )And Memucan answered before the king and the princes, Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the people that [are] in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. (1:17)For [this] deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported, The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. (1:18) [Likewise] shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king's princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen. Thus [shall there arise] too much contempt and wrath. (1:19) If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she. (1:20) And when the king's decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his empire, (for it is great,) all the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small. (1:21) And the saying pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan: (1:22) For he sent letters into all the king's provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that [it] should be published according to the language of every people.

So. Vashti is commanded to show her beauty. She refuses and is banished, which leaves a vacancy for Esther to step into, and then the story begins. Vashti disappears from the story and is never heard from again. That’s all we actually know about her from the Scripture.

Of course, that’s not enough, so the everybody elaborates over the ages. First of all, it’s made clear that Vashti was commanded to appear wearing the royal crown and nothing else. In fact—and plausibly enough for Persia at the time—the Queen was being required to dance naked for the King’s royal guests, and possibly more than that. This indicates the licentiousness of the court, of course, although why we need sexual licentiousness to indicate the degeneracy of a court that has wine in golden goblets for 187 days of feasting is an interesting question in itself. Still and all, that’s the command, and it is understood, then, to be demeaning and disrespectful. Yes?

But that’s not enough. Because the Sages of blessed memory don’t like Vashti, and want (unsurprisingly, when you think about it) to set up Esther and her virtue in contrast to Vashti and her (nontextual) vice. But if Vashti is, as the Sages say, a whore, then why did she not come to service the King’s guests? And this is where the thing I had never learned comes into play: because of her tail.

Her tail?

Yes, her tail. Rabbi Josh Waxman of Parshablog writes in How did Vashti grow a tail? about the evidently well-known commentary in Megillah 12B

“Vashti the queen refused”—let us see [why]. She was a whore! For Master said: both of them (Vashti and Achashverosh) intended to sin. If so, for what reason did she not come? Rabbi Rossi bar Chanina said: This teaches that she developed an outbreak of leprosy. In a brayta they teach that (the angel) Gavriel came and fashioned for her a tail.

This tail serves two purposes: first, it brings into the story Divine action that is otherwise quite conspicuously absent throughout. But also, it humiliates Vashti, taking away her sexual power, which is the only power she is allowed by the Sages of blessed memory. That power is viewed wholly negatively, of course, so she receives all the blame of being a whore, and the humiliation of being a freakish failure at it. Frankly, there are times when I’m not very fond of the Sages of blessed memory.

But here’s the point: I just learned about Vashti’s tail this week. I wasn’t taught that as a kid. I was taught that Vashti was proud and haughty, but not that she was a whore with a tail. And my kids? My kids are being taught that Vashti is a role model. A secondary heroine of the story. The purimspiel every year at Temple Beth Bolshoi gives her a whole song to express how her self-respect demands that she leave the King and his contemptible demands. My kids are being taught that the proper response to Show us your boobs is not shame but self-respect, along with contempt for the jerks who demand it. I was struck, during that purimspiel, but how much our reactions to Vashti change along with the world. How much Vashti changes. How much I have changed.

Now, I still have to admit: I like boobies. I am extremely susceptible thereto. As Mr. MacFarlane brings out, even in serious movies a flash of boobies will focus my degenerate mind on the flesh rather than the substance. I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones the other night and found it unpleasant mostly because it successfully caught me in its nasty voyeuristic boobie games. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it was bad filmmaking, or that the actresses are worthy of contempt. Given the cultural context, exposure as vulnerability can be tremendously effective.

Furthermore, in situations where the flashing of boobies is entirely voluntary and fun, I’m all for it. I don’t think changing our views to disallow Vashti the flaunting of her boobies (or her shoulders) is a solution at all. The point is that it’s Vashti’s choice. She should never feel compelled to strip at her husband’s command, even when her husband is the king. She should strip when she wants to strip, and gain whatever benefits accrue to herself, whether that is the acclaim of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or the Super Bowl halftime show or just a fun night at home with the sweetie.

And—remember Memucan the Prince of Persia? His point was that we tend to pattern ourselves after the rich and famous. And we do. When the host of the Oscars makes dismissive boobie jokes about actresses, that's a pattern for us to match. When Ahasuerus demands that his wife show her beauty to his buddies, that's a pattern for us to match. We shouldn't do it as much as we do, but we do. And (as the estimable E.J. Graff writes in Social Climate Change) to raise our children (and ourselves) healthily, we need to swim in unpoisoned cultural water, and that ain't easy.

It means, among other things, giving Vashti her own song in the purimspiel. It means, among other things, saying that Seth MacFarlane is, like the Sages of blessed memory, trying to pin tails on women that do not have them. It means, among other things, telling actors—men and women—that they can reveal themselves and their bodies in their work as they choose, with our respect.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 10, 2012

Experiencing the Divine through Prayer IV

I’m almost done, I think. I started with the idea that we seek to experience the Divine in prayer (among other reasons we come to services, of course) and went to the notion that when we do experience the Divine in prayer, we do it through metaphor. And that those metaphors by which we experience the Divine in prayer are dominant metaphors in the culture. Those metaphors change, and the liturgy changes, and the changes reflect each other, which (we hope) keeps the possibility of experiencing the Divine alive, while those experiences themselves change. And then I identified a metaphor that I think is new, and powerful, and newly powerful: the world is a web, where everything is connected to everything. The next step, then, is creating room in the liturgy for people to experience the Divine in prayer through the metaphor of connectedness.

Now, though, there’s this: while I think the attempt to create room in the liturgy for people to experience the Divine in prayer through the dominant metaphors of the time is fascinating, necessary and vitally important, I also fear it is foolish and dangerously wrongheaded. Here’s the thing—the Sages of Blessed and Holy Memory did not decide on a metaphor and then shape the liturgy to it. Even the Reform Movement did not decide on a metaphor and then shape the liturgy to it. They tried things, and did what worked, and then afterward, from hindsight, we can see that it works through metaphor, and what the metaphor is. The dominant metaphors of the age aren’t chosen by intellectual argument; they are felt. They are believed, without being known. The correct way, it seems to me, is to blunder into them, to try things that seem, somehow, to be right, and then find out that they aren’t right, and then try other things, and put them together in ways that seem to be helpful, and keep things that appeal and lose things that don’t, and most of all to argue about it a lot.

So maybe we should just try all the stupid stuff. Making a synogogue-specific social network, or a network of such networks. Replacing the siddur with a tablet and an app that encourages interaction during the service itself. Tweeting all the prayers in translations of 140 characters or fewer. Having screens for FaceTime interaction between a synagogue in Connecticut and a synagogue in Prague and a synagogue in Tel Aviv and a synagogue in Des Moines. Actually, I think literalizing the metaphor is a dead end, unlikely to heighten the actual experience. But I haven’t tried, have I? I still think instrumental music during service is crazy. We aren’t going to get to a good liturgy without making mistakes. I think it’s worth making mistakes. But it’s not easy.

Particularly since we don’t want to lose anything. Right? So what I’m looking for, I guess, are a hundred stupid ideas to try without changing anything whatsoever, which should lead to a service that might lead to people who think that the world is a web experiencing the Divine through prayer. Who’s got one?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Experiencing the Divine through Prayer III

So, where we are. I was talking about how (a) liturgical choices are driven, in part, by the desire to experience the Divine through prayer, and (2) those liturgical choices work through metaphor. The prayer service in some way makes the metaphor experiential—I’m not using the proper terms, here, the phenomenological terms that I’m sure exist for individual experiences in group settings that heighten (but do not literalize) a metaphor.


Rabbi Hoffman was speaking to a Reform Jewish congregation, one that has deep roots to the old movement, and was asserting that the old metaphors simply do not work anymore. Our liturgy is moving away from the old Union Prayerbook, because our movement is moving away from the old metaphors. In part, that’s demographic—he pointed out that the congregation has hardly anybody left that identifies themselves as of German heritage. We’re a pack of Eastern Europeans, now, remnants of the shtetl and of twentieth century immigration, and the nineteenth-century German-Jewish ways of experiencing the world are—not alien to us, exactly, but not exactly familiar, either. And anyway, it’s the twenty-first century—he pointed out that we have already abandoned a lot of the metaphor-heighteners. Our Rabbi chats with us before the service begins, calls us by first name and generally pals around. He said he didn’t believe that the Great Rabbi who was here for half of the twentieth century would do that, and the older congregants laughed… we are living in a more informal time, he said, and a more intimate time, and that is how we are seeking to experience the Divine through prayer.

I do think the metaphors have changed, and that we do not, at this point, look to experience a Divine Creator who is up in Heaven. We dig for meaning, now. We look down and in, not up and out. So there is certainly something to the idea that a successful adaptation of the ritual will have to work through those new metaphors, not the old ones.

But what occurred to me, as I was sitting there listening, was that the dominant metaphor at the moment is that the world is a web. That everything is connected to everything. A network, if you like, rather than a web. Or The Web—I think it’s not wrong to say that the dominant metaphor for our generation in the US is the hypertext transfer protocol. But we it seems to me that we are walking around with the idea that everything is connected to everything. That we can’t walk around without that idea. That it’s inescapable. And, as the saying goes, if you can’t get out of it, get into it.

How? How do we experience the Divine in the connections between things? Well, I’m looking for ideas. There are some things we have already begun. We are calling people up to participate, handing bits of service to one another, connecting among ourselves. We have study sessions, either before the service or after, or plumb smack in the middle of it. The Rabbi, perhaps, sits in a pew with the rest of the congregants rather than up on the bimah. A few weeks ago, we called everybody up to the bimah to say the blessing together and witness the reading—everybody was the cohen and the cohen was everybody. And, of course, there’s singing together. There’s not a lot that emphasizes the connections between people more than singing together. Perhaps we should get used to polyphony or something, to highlight the between-ness.

What else? Well, and that’s going the be the next note. For this one, some questions for you, Gentle Readers all: do you find the web metaphor describes the universe? Do you think you could experience the Divine through prayer in the connections between things? Do you want to propose another metaphor? Is there stuff that your shul or church or prayer group is doing that speaks to this metaphor, or to some other?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Experiencing the Divine through Prayer II

So. I’m still on about Larry Hoffman. Or, rather, I’m on about some ideas of mine that are inspired by a talk he gave. Well, stolen from, mostly. But presumably stolen from with errors, so that makes them mine!

At the end of the the last note I was positing that liturgical choice are informed by a desire to experience the Divine through prayer. And on the one hand, that seems obvious, right? And on the other hand, it’s impossibly vague. What do we mean by Divine? What do we mean by prayer? What do we mean by experience? And on the other hand, the vagueness it’s totally unhelpful: how would we even begin to go about make choices about the liturgy to make those experiences (vaddevah dey are) happen?

So. One thing that Rabbi Hoffman talked about was the different choices we had made in different times and places. He talked a little about the people who would fast for days and pray for hours, and the way the Orthodox texts are endlessly repetitive, and the way the Reform synagogues were built like cathedrals. And he talked about the stories we tell ourselves about the world.

There was a time when the metaphor we understood for the world was a fight between light and darkness—the Divine rode across the sky in a fiery chariot every day. It was a metaphor, Rabbi Hoffman hastened to point out—it’s a metaphor. The Divine is light and warmth, protecting us against cold and dark. And in our prayer services, we set fire to things. We looked at the fire, and felt it, and we ate the cooked food, and presumably at least some of the time some of the people experienced the Divine in the fire.

There was a time when the metaphor we understood for the world was a divide between the soul and the body—the eternal angelic part of us, intrinsically good, seeking to escape from the mortal animal, intrinsically evil. And in our prayer services, we fasted and chanted and meditated, and presumably at least some of the time some of the people experienced the Divine by (feeling as if they were) escaping their bodies.

There was a time when the metaphor we understood for the world was a Great Chain of Nature—the Divine stands at the top of infinitely divided ranks and terraces, and everything has an exact place somewhere on that ladder. The natural order of things is to look up to all the rungs above and down on those rungs below. And in our prayer services, we entered gigantic sanctuaries designed to give us a sense of our own smallness and the immenseness of the Divine; we looked up at a distant clergyman in a elaborate robe, halfway up to Heaven. And presumably at least some of the time at least some of the people experienced the Divine in reverence and awe.

The idea, here, of course, is that a culture’s driving metaphors of course are how we experience the Divine. How else could we experience the Divine other than through metaphor? That doesn’t mean it isn’t real, or that it isn’t really an experience of the Divine.

Nor does it mean that we can’t experience the Divine in the other ways. It’s not like those metaphors ever really drop out of our symbolic vocabulary. We can experience the Divine in fire (as we light candles, or gather around a bonfire) or in awe (either in Nature or in artificial grandeur) or in ecstasy (as we sing and dance, or fast, or whatever) despite the fact that we don’t, really, here in the West in the early Twenty-First, think of the world like that.

So. Before we move on the next note, I’d like to know what you think of this stuff. Despite the utterly unhistorical way I’ve presented it, does it make sense to you? Does it make sense in terms of your own religious experience, or your own knowledge of religious history? Have you experienced the Divine through prayer? Or, just as importantly I suppose, have you sought the Divine through a prayer service and not found the experience? Have you sat (or stood or knelt) in a prayer service and thought—this is not the right metaphor!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Experiencing the Divine through Prayer I

Your Humble Blogger was lucky enough to hear Larry Hoffman give a talk this weekend. He is a remarkable speaker—if you get a chance, go and listen. Just to say: a few minutes in, I was thinking that I wasn’t going to like it much at all, that it was going to be a great speaker giving a dopey, easy talk. Fifteen minutes in, I admitted to myself that it had more content than I thought it would. Half an hour in, I thought it was terrific, provocative and insightful. By the end, I was wishing that all my friends (and Gentle Readers) were there with me and that we could all spend the day kicking it around. It was wonderful.

It was also, as it happens, the middle lecture of a planned series of three—he also gave a sort of bonus fourth talk as a homily at shacharit, which was pleasant enough if a trifle long—and I missed both the first and last lecture. Which means, of course, that the one I sat in on was the boring middle one… I have some sense of what was in the first one, but none of what he was leading up to in the final talk. I will have to ask my Rabbi.

Anyway, what follows here is my own thoughts that were inspired and informed by Rabbi Hoffman’s talk. The errors are probably all my own; Rabbi Hoffman’s scholarship is renowned, so while it’s possible he said some not-quite-truths for effect, it’s more likely that I misunderstood at the time or am now misremembering. Because of that, I’m not going to attribute his stuff to him, getting it wrong and all. Suffice to say: if you assume that all historical errors are mine, and all insights are his, you’ll be in a good place.

All right. So. I’m going to start with the idea of experiencing the Divine through prayer. One of the motivations for going to prayer services is the hope of experiencing the Divine. I know, it isn’t the only motivation, nor is it a simple matter to figure out one’s motivations for things, but I think it’s fair to say that one of the motivations for many people is that hope of experiencing the Divine through prayer. Vaddevah you mean by Divine, Vaddevah you mean by prayer. And so the liturgy—the choice of texts, the choice of sounds (melody, chant, monotone, conversation), the choice of locations, the choice of actors (cantor, priest, choir, congregants, etc), the choice of languages—all are informed in part by this desire to experience the Divine.

Now, that’s enough to begin with, and I’m going to split the next bits off into separate notes, so that I can (I hope) get some comments on this part. Does this idea of experiencing the Divine make sense? Is that part of why you attend prayer services (if you do, of course, attend prayer services)? Have you ever had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Hoffman, or read his books?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 14, 2012

Kicking out the Jambs

So. I’m in synagogue on Saturday—I should mention that I have started full-time Monday-through-Friday type employment, for the first time since Hector was a pup, which relieves me of working on Shabbos. Which, in turn, means I can attend services on Saturday morning like a civilized person, instead of sitting at a desk embedding klezmer links into my Tohu Bohu like a wild animal in the wilderness.

So, I’m in synagogue, and we are reading the ve’ahavta, and Cantor has us read aloud the English translation in our new(ish) siddurs. Now, the prayer is one of the best-known in the liturgy, being one of the few that nobody really ever skips. It’s Deuteronomy 6:4-9. The last verse, 6:9, is rendered in the KJV as And thou shalt write them [these words] upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates; the Vulgate as scribesque ea in limine et ostiis domus tuae. This is the literal meaning: uchtavtam, to write, second-person plural imperative; al-mizuzot, on the posts, as in the post of an archway or doorway; beitecha, houses, second-person plural possessive; u’vish’arecha, gates, second-person plural possessive. You should write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. That’s what we have at the Zemerl website, and that’s what Debbie Friedman uses.

In our Mishkan T’Filah, however, there is a different translation. Throughout the translations in the siddur, they have replaced old figures of speech with new ones (when they use close translations at all), and here they say: Do not leave them at the doorway of your house, or outside your gate. From thou shalt to thou shalt not; it’s a big change, isn’t it?

See, what happened was this: It’s a figure of speech in Deut 6:9, that we should consciously keep the commandments, thinking about them all the time, as if they were written on the doorway we pass through every day. It’s like saying to tattoo it on your brain, right? But we took that figure of speech and we literalized it. We actually, literally, put the words on the doorposts. In the mezuzah, the pretty little thing that we put on the doorway. If you were to ask a Jew, most Jews I think, what is this put-it-on-the-doorposts verse about, we would say that it’s about the mezuzah. It’s something most of us have lived with all our lives—I have no idea, now that I think about it, what percentage of Jews in America have a mezuzah on their door, but I would guess a lot. It’s a common housewarming gift, among other things, and of course it’s something parents give to kids when they move into their first apartment. And, perhaps most important, it’s easy—you affix the mezuzah to the side of the doorway, and there it is. You don’t have to give up anything, or work at anything. If your mother or your rabbi comes to visit, it’s nice to see, and my guess is that most non-Jews don’t even notice it’s there. For that matter, the people in the house probably don’t notice it’s there most of the time. When we actually, literally affix the words to the door we walk through every day, we should, logically, remind ourselves of the words’ actual meaning. The Divine commandment uchtavtam al-mizuzot beitecha isn’t to put an actual mezuzah on your actual doorpost; the literalization of the text is only a tool, and only useful as a tool if it works. Which, not so much always.

So the new translation reverses it: we know you have a mezuzah, it says. That’s not good enough. Do not leave them at the doorpost, it says. Bring them inside. It’s good advice. But is it a good translation?

When I learned the original text, which I did very young, nobody told me that it was a string of figures of speech, poetic exaggerations. I mean, if I had thought about it, I would have said that the Divine did not want us to actually put the words in our hearts; that’s clearly a figure of speech. And since the English in 6:7 is teach them diligently to your children, I’m sure nobody ever told me that the verb was not the usual verb for teaching but the verb for whetting. Like a sword or an arrow. The New International Version, by the way, has Impress them on your children, which is pretty good—beat them into your children wouldn’t be far wrong, either. It’s a figure of speech, you see. It goes on to say you should talk of them sitting in your house and walking on the street; it never occurred to me that this was a phrase meaning, more or less, whatever you do, inside outside upside down. That verse concludes when you lie down and when you rise up—again, we literalized this with rituals for those moments, but clearly this doesn’t mean just those two times of day but in the A-to-Z fashion bookending the entire day. Then the text says tie them onto your hand, and put them between your eyes; we literalized those with t’fillin, and again, these are clearly figures of speech reiterating that they should be always part of our lives, included in every part of our lives. And then, on the doorways and gates we pass, put them there, too. It’s a lovely rant, not unlike the things I try for myself, now and then, emphasizing the importance by piling on off image after image, the exaggerations growing greater and sillier and more memorable.

It seems to me that what the new translation is doing by unliteralizing the figures is making us look at the text again, just as it is making us look at the mezuzah again by saying do not leave it. It is insufficient to just hang a mezuzah and leave it there; it is insufficient to just translate the text and leave it there. The actions have become frozen (or petrified, or embalmed, although that last may be a bit much), the figures of speech in the text have become petrified. The translator is trying to revivify it all. And that’s awesome.

The problem, though, is that it only works in tension with that original text. If you don’t know about the original text, if you don’t know that it was this verse from which we derived the commandment about the mezuzah, it doesn’t perform that revivification at all. And then, well, then I’m not sure it isn’t just a bad translation. Which would be too bad, really.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 4, 2012

Daf Yomi? Daf yo-you, maybe, but not yo-me

Your Humble Blogger is a Reform Jew. At least, I have finally started calling myself Reform, after some years of membership in a congregation that is URJ. I grew up Conservative, and still am more comfortable with the Conservative tunes and the Conservative service—but I like the Reconstructionist prayerbook. The Reform synagogue is my home, though, and if we leave this one for some reason, I expect my next shul will be Reform, too. It took me a while to identify myself as Reform, mostly I think because of the tunes.

I have never considered myself Orthodox, and have no interest whatever in becoming one of them. Their Judaism isn’t mine—the Chasids, the haredi, the Modern Orthodox and all the gang on the frum fringe are more Other to me than the Episcopalians at my Best Reader’s church. At least when we go to St. Whatsit’s, they let us sit together. Not so much at Temple Beth Beardie down the road. Not to mention what they think about the Youngest Member.

So, what I’m saying. I’m a Reform Jew, I identify with the epikorsim, the ham-sandwich gang, the intermarriers. Don’t get me wrong—I’m a believer, not that it matters, but I’m also what my grandfather would have called modern.

I bring this up because one problem I have with the Reform movement is that not only have we eschewed the crazy medieval superstitions (like tallis and t’fillin, like payess and tzitzes, like keeping the women behind a fucking curtain for cry-yi) but we have, for the most part, lost the Talmud. We read Torah. We study Torah, some. We read the Prophets and the Writings, if we have time. We discuss the Law in the context of our time. We read stories of our great Rabbis of earlier times. But we don’t study Talmud.

Of course, why should we? Why should a lobstereater bother to delve into the details of what to do with a cooking pot of doubtful provenance in order to make sure that one can legally eat the food cooked in it? Why should we take sides in an argument about what kinds of objects one can carry outside the house in an emergency that falls on the Shabbat? We don’t consider ourselves bound by those rules, so why learn them?

On the other hand, the yeshivish folk don’t consider themselves bound by the rules of Temple times, and they learn those rules—they, too, are part of the Talmud. Well, but you could say that the liturgically traditional-minded are more likely to want to learn the old rules, even if they are no longer being followed, while the liturgically positive-historical will want to concentrate on those old rules that are still being followed. Fine. But the point, really, is that the Talmud is our cultural heritage in addition to our legal heritage. We did not divide our Scripture into Law and History; they are intertwined, they are in fact identical—learning the Law means learning the History of the Law and therefore the History of the People, and learning the History of the People means learning the History of the Law, and thus the law itself. This is not a peculiar truth to Judaism, but we reflect that truth in the books.

All of which is to say that I feel like I should do some Talmud study, but I don’t feel as if I have a Reform community in which to do it. This was brought to a head by the Siyum HaShas this week. This was a celebration of the end (and beginning, of course) of the nearly seven-and-a-half-year cycle of studying the Talmud a page a day (or daf yomi, the term by which the practice is known). One of the gatherings—not the only one—was at the Giants stadium in New Jersey.

Daf Yomi Siyum

Ninety thousand people.

And I think, in that photo, that the women’s section is up at the top right.

I don’t want to study Talmud with those guys. But man, wouldn’t it be something to have a football stadium worth of people to study with?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 27, 2012

Why must Elimelech die?

One of my complaints about interpretations of Scripture in the early Rabbinic period has been that they seek to solve the problem in theodicy in problematic texts by inventing midrash about how the people who were punished were really, really wicked. So Esau and his wives cause Isaac’s blindness with the smoke of their heathen sacrifices, so that we know Esau deserved to be a victim of the birthright fraud. Stuff like that, and often very ugly. The actual text of Ruth (I am reading Ruth because it is Shavuot tomorrow) is utterly devoid of such things, so the Sages make them up. The ugliest of them is the stuff they say about Orphah, the daughter-in-law of Naomi who returns to her family as Naomi tells her to rather than insisting on accompanying Naomi and Ruth back to Bethlehem. In my view, the slander of Orpah runs against the point of the story, which is that Ruth and Boaz both go beyond the requirements of the law, acting out of kindness more than obligation.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Book of Ruth, here’s the plot in a nutshell: a widow (Naomi) returns to her home in Bethlehem with her widowed daughter-in-law (Ruth); Naomi sets Ruth up with a widowed relative (Boaz) who falls for Ruth and marries her. That’s pretty much it. The thing that starts off the chain of events is a famine in the Land, during which Naomi’s husband moves with his wife and sons to the more prosperous Moab metropolitan area. Then, there’s a plague. Did you notice a bunch of widows and widowers? Not really a good time for the actuaries. Anyway, Elimelech (Naomi’s husband) and his sons all die in the plague, leaving three widows without means of support.

So, if you are the Sages, the question is why did Elimelech die? What was his guilt that occasioned his early death? Because, you know, what’s the point of a story if you can’t slander the dead?

To be fair, or at least fairer than I usually am, it’s pretty clear from the context that the midrashes are stories told about stories. That is, they are taking the opportunity of the story-telling to reiterate a moral point. The listeners presumably are aware of how this works and are able to distinguish between the story and the story about the story. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the Sages or their audience necessarily believed that the Divine dealt out rewards and punishments in quite that linear a manner. It’s a more sophisticated (in a sense) version of what I do now and then with my kids, breaking in to the story to make a point or ask a question. That doesn’t excuse the misogyny or the viciousness of some of the stories, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

What was Elimelech’s sin? The only thing we know about him is that he left the Land and went to Moab. So. His sin was in leaving the Land and going to Moab. But… there was a famine! Surely in times of famine, it is no sin to take your family to where there is food! I mean, Israel brings his family to Egypt for just that reason, and he doesn’t die young. Of course, he isn’t young when that happens, but still. There’s a precedent.

So the sages say that the famine in the Land was actually rather mild. There are some differences of opinion as to the details, an inflation in food prices of anywhere from 2.5% up to 100%. The Sages also discuss how bad a famine needs to be in order to justify moving out of the Land. They do agree that (a) despite food becoming expensive, there was no actual scarcity, and (2) Elimelech was rich and could have paid the higher prices.

So with Elimelech! He was one of the notables of his place and one of the leaders of his generation. But when the famine came, he said, ‘Now all Israel will come knocking at my door [for help,] each one with his basket.’ He therefore arose and fled from them. This is the meaning of the verse.

That’s from Ruth Rabbah, a translation by Dr. L. Rabinowitz, chapter 1. In other words, his sin was selfishness, and a particular kind of selfishness. There is an implication that Elimelech had in good times assured his neighbors that he would be able to feed the hungry, but when hard times came, he reneged on that promise. Or that he was willing to feed the hungry so long as there weren’t very many of them, and so long as he had plenty left over, but that when there was a risk of his charity eating into his luxury, he pulled up his stakes and went. The Sages paint Elimelech as a rich and prominent man who, when push comes to shove, was more attached to his money than to his neighbors.

Is that the Elimelech of the Scripture? Is it the “real” Elimelech? That’s not the right question. Or at least, that’s what I think what I’m getting from Ruth Rabbah this Shavuot. The question is whether it’s a good lesson. Whether, while I’m thinking about Ruth, it’s helpful to think about the Elimelech of the Midrashin addition to the Elimelech of the Scriptures. Whether this other story helps me or not. When the Sages talk about Orpah, it just makes me cross. When the Sages talk about Elimelech, I can learn something—not just about Elimelech, but about Boaz. Not just about Eduardo Severin but about myself.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 21, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-six

And now… the last and final verse of the Pirke Avot! Drum roll, please:

Ben Hai Hai said, According to the labour is the reward.

Do you remember last week that I said there was a story about Ben Bag Bag’s name? Here it is: Rabbi Yochanan was the child of a father who was ben ger, the son of non-Jews and a mother who was bat ger, the daughter of non-Jews. It is unusual for a married couple to convert, or for two converts to marry, so this Yochanan was notable for a Rabbi who was the son of two converts. Thus he had a nickname: ben Bag Bag, the son of bg-bg, ben-ger and bat-gar. But the bg abbreviation for ben-ger has another connection, as well. It’s— numerology time!

Y’all know about Hebrew numerology? It’s pretty simple, on the face of it: the letters have number values (like the Roman Numerals, but superior in every way), and words have the value of the sum of the letters, and words that have the same value are connected in some way, and words that add up to other words are connected, and so on and so forth. In practice, it can be insanely complicated, and it makes no sense whatsoever as attempts to understand the universe, but you can make certain kinds of alphanumeric puns with it, which is kinda cool. OK, cool is probably not the correct descriptor.

The first nine letters have the values one to nine: aleph is one, bet is two, gimel is three, dalet is four, hay is five, and so forth. The next nine are ten, twenty, thirty and so on, and then the remaining letters are 100, 200, 300 and so on. Pretty simple, yes? So bg or bet gimel is two plus three, or five. And five is hay. Now, what is significant about the letter hay in connection with those who convert to Judaism? Anyone? Anyone? No? OK, who were the first to convert to Judaism, who can tell me that? Abraham, yes, and his wife Sarah. Only… come on, let’s see hands, now. Yes, that’s right, before the conversion, their names were not Abraham and Sarah but Abram and Sara; the Divine renamed them by adding a hay to their names. He, in point fact, gave them five, giving them a hay which is numerically the same as giving them bg. Thus ben Bag Bag is also ben Hay Hay, or ben Five Five, or Ben Abraham and Sarah.

What lesson do we learn from this?

We learn that Jews can be real jerks toward the children of non-Jews, and even to the children of converts. Very clever nickname, there, Hillel.

Yochanan gets the last word, though, and although he doesn’t actually say Genetic Judaism is for shit, I think the implication is pretty clear.

April 14, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-five

We are nearing the end of the tractate, or perhaps after the end, depending on what you think about the redaction process. The last two verses are probably by the same person, although he is described by two different names. I think I’ll save that story until next week, though.

Ben Bag Bag said, Turn it (the Torah) and turn it over again, for everything is in it, and contemplate it, and wax grey and old over it, and stir not from it, for thou canst have no better rule than this.

The Talmud records a conversation between this sage and Hillel that I find interesting, and I will attempt to retell it in my own words. They are discussing the proverb that He who is crooked cannot be made straight; and our sage says to Hillel that his use of terms is slippery. First he talks about the righteous and the wicked, and what is due to them, and in another context he talks about those who serve the Divine and those that don’t serve. Surely, he says, those that serve the Divine are righteous? And surely those that don’t are wicked! Surely the wicked do not serve the Divine, and the righteous do serve the Lord. They are the same categories! So surely the same terms apply to them.

Hillel says no, that’s not the way he is using the terms at all. Among the righteous, he says, among the perfectly righteous, there are still those who serve the Divine and those that don’t. You can’t compare the person who has studies the text he has learned one hundred times to the person who has studied it one hundred and one times.

Our sage is astonished: because of one more time studying you call him a man who doesn’t serve the Divine? Hillel is unperturbed. He says to our sage: go park your car at a meter. You can leave your car there for sixty minutes for seventy-five cents. If you leave your care for sixty-one minutes, it costs twenty dollars. OK, he didn’t actually say that, he said if you go to the mule-drivers, you will find that a journey of ten leagues costs one zuz, but a journey of eleven leagues costs two zuzim. The point is the same: it’s the extra mile that counts.

The thing is that it may not be the hundredth time that counts. It may be the forty-third, or the two-hundred-and-twelfth. It may be your next time through the text, or perhaps the next time through the text will be apparently fruitless, and it may yet be the time after. Turn it, and turn it; everything is in it. I believe this, and in some ways I believe that this is the definition of Scripture. Or at least a reasonable working definition. The epiphany you seek, and the epiphany you have not been seeking, and the one beyond that—they are all in the text. The years I have spent on Pirke Avot have only intensified that feeling. You are never finished with it; you are never at the bottom of it; you are never complete without it. Grow old with it, stir not from it. Everything is in it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 7, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-four

The ages of man:

He used to say: “One five years old should study Scripture; ten years—Mishna; thirteen years—should practise the commandments; fifteen years old—should study Gemara; eighteen years old—the bridal; at twenty—pursuits; at thirty—strength; at forty—discernment; at fifty—counsel; at sixty—age; at seventy—hoariness; at eighty—power; at ninety—decrepitude; at one hundred—it is as though he were dead and gone and had ceased from the world."

This is the translation of Michael L. Rodkinson, which I like for its concision, which imitates the Hebrew. The Hebrew actually is closer to a son five years—Scripture, which is interesting because of the odd resonance with a son who is ninety or a hundred years old. I think the choice of son rather than man emphasizes that this text is to be taught to children, rather than to be withheld for the rumination of the aged. While it is useful to me, in between discernment and counsel, to meditate on the extent to which I have reached the potential of my age and am preparing for the next step, this verse is (in my opinion) for the young person who is just beginning. But I am likely influenced there by my having read the Passover Haggadah with my children last night, which highlighted the many ways in which the Haggadah talks about (directly or indirectly) the teaching of children and the parenting it wants to model or encourage.

The Youngest Member is now five years old; it is time for him to start to study Scripture. Well, and he has heard some Bible Stories all along, of course, but the time has come to include him in the discussion of them, and to begin to show him how we look at the text, the relationship between the text and the story it tells. He is not, of course, ready for rigorous textual analysis, but he is ready to know that there is a story about the story, and that sometimes we can ask questions about that story as well.

My Perfect Non-Reader is now ten; she is ready for the study of the Mishnah. No, really, she is. She isn’t going to actually begin studying the Mishnah, because frankly I don’t think it’s important enough to take the time away from the study of science, math, literature, social studies, music, art and sport. But she could, if we made that decision, begin to read it, and begin to understand the ways in which we derive rules for our own lives in the present day from rules made long ago in another culture. It wouldn’t be sophisticated learning, at ten, but neither is her understanding of the volume of cylinders and spheres sophisticated learning about geometry, and she has started on that.

And then, of course, there’s the bar-mitzvah or bat-mitzvah at thirteen, by which according to this set-up, the child will have been studying the rules for three years, and can begin to be held responsible for transgressions of them. People talk about the b’nai mitvah as if we consider the child of thirteen to be a legal adult in every sense. That’s a misconception. But it’s also a misconception to think, as we American Jews in the Reform and Conservative traditions often do, that the ritual is simply a milestone of growing up. The idea, as our semi-anonymous Sage states, is that there are years of learning before we hold the person responsible for practice. This is where the training wheels come off. And it’s important, in this arc, that the training wheels come off while the child is still in a household where there’s a lot of cushioning, where mistakes of practice and of character can be of limited consequence.

Because things happen in a hurry, with the young adult starting a household at 18 (now it’s in a dorm, usually, here in the US) and needing to figure out pretty quickly (by age 20, perhaps) what kind of life to pursue. Then, it slows down. Ten years to grow strong in your pursuits, another ten to learn discernment another ten before your counsel is worth listening to. And then the decline. Why tell a sixty-year old man that the decline is before him? Why tell a son of forty-three that he ought to have become discerning by now? We know, we know. But that moment, at five years old, when the world is before you, that moment that the young character is now ripe for the Scriptures, that’s when it is worth telling the little one: do this now, because there is so much more to do.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

The Two Seders, among others

Something that has emerged from some of Josh Waxman’s recent notes on the Haggadah over at the Parshablog (there is a compilation of his Haggadah posts now) has been an image of two competing seders. The first and most famous is that in the cave at B’nai Barak, which is discussed at some detail in the haggadah, and is discussed with much levity at some merry seders of my experience. Mr. Waxman asks why Rabbi Akiva and his buddies are at B’nai Barak at all? It’s Akiva’s home base, yes, but why wouldn’t they have gone to Yavneh? Or Lod? There is another seder in Lod, it turns out, which Rabban Gamliel attended. There is a contrast hinted at in the tosefta between the study in Lod concentrating on the laws of Passover, and the study in B’nai Barak concentrating on the story of Passover. Mr. Waxman also suggests a contrast between Bar Kochba supporters in B’nai Barak and those who have not endorsed the rebellion in Lod. These choices naturally lead to different choices in carrying out the commandments of the seder.

I bring this up, not only to encourage those who are interested to read Mr. Waxman’s notes, which are provocative and educational, but to point out that when we decide what to talk about during the seder, all our choices are political. It is political to put an orange on the plate, or not to. To pass the fifth cup, or not to. To fill Miriam’s cup with water, or not to. To open the door and pour out the wrath of the Divine on the nations is political. To sing that we were slaves of pharaoh in Egypt, and that we are now free—that is political. To choose Akiva’s way, study the story, and rebel against injustice—that is political. To choose Gamaliel’s way, study the law, and conserve the traditions that are of value—that is political.

Gentle Reader Michael wrote about The Bells of Freedom, reminding us that it’s better, after all, to do our inevitably political seder thoughtfully, with understanding of the world we actually inhabit as well as the world we rhetorically inhabit. This year we are slaves; next year may we be free.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 31, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-three

As we wind down the fifth Chapter of Pirke Avot, we come back to the quotes from named sages. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about Judah ben Tema, but here is his quote, in the Joseph Hertz translation:

Judah, the son of Tema, said, Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleet as a hart, and strong as a lion, to do the will of thy Father who is in heaven. He used to say, the bold-faced are for Gehinnom, the shame-faced for the Garden of Eden. (He said further) May it be thy will, O Lord our Gd and Gd of our fathers, that the Temple be speedily rebuilt in our days, and grant our portion in thy Torah.

This certainly gives the impression of being the end of the tractate, but editing will happen, and there are three more verses. Actually, it looks to me as if editing happened in the verse itself, and the bit about faces is interpolated. The father-in-Heaven part (avicha shebashamayim) seems to be a good ending, with the prayer following as a kind of ending epigraph (hypograph?); the bit about faces could have been added to make a triple, although then the next verse appears to also be in his name, which could have made a triple in itself. But we’re getting ahead of the week, and there’s plenty to chew on this week.

The commentary on the first part of the verse, the animal part, goes into detail about when it is better to show the leopard’s boldness and when to show the hart’s fleetness—Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin talks about the necessity to be fleet, to go from place to place to hear the Sages and learn from them, rather than staying in one place. To me, though, the interesting thing is that in the rhythm of the sentence, there is a long build-up with the animals, extolling their virtues and by implications the virtues of those who imitate them, but then the turn: it is not praiseworthy simply to possess those attributes, but only to use them for the will of the Divine. Is speed good? Speed is good if it is it haste to do what is right; speed has no value in itself. Is strength good? Strength is good if it is used for justice; strength has no value in itself. I love the way the verse flips to emphasize that point.

On the other hand, I deprecate the use of the avicha shebashamayim without the balancing aretz; in the Scripture, the Divine is usually referred to as in Heaven and on Earth, rather than just in Heaven. Solomon is an exception, there, but, you know, Solomon. Not really a role model. The avicha shebashamayim talk evidently becomes very popular in the rabbinic period (y’all may be familiar with one teacher who used the phrase to head up the Lord’s Prayer), but I am a big believer in lo bashamayim hi, It [is] not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? And (to me) the animal talk underlines the necessity of doing the will of the Divine in this world, which is where the Divine resides, in and through the Creation.

I was going to talk about the rest of the verse, but I am short on time, and that’s the part that really interests me anyway, this time around.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 24, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-two: Abraham and Bala'am

This next verse is a long one, I’m afraid, and a short note.

A good eye, and a lowly soul, and a humble spirit (belong to) the disciple of Abraham: an evil eye, and a swelling soul, and a haughty spirit, to the disciple of Bile’am. And what difference is between the disciples of Abraham and the disciples of Bile’am? The disciples of Bile’am, go down to Gehinnom, for it is said, But thou, O God, shalt bring them down into the pit of destruction, but the disciples of Abraham inherit the Garden of ’Eden, for it is said, That I may cause those that love me to inherit SUBSTANCE; and I will fill their treasures.

Do y’all remember Bala’am (called Bale’am here by Charles Taylor for some reason) who was, I surmise, a very popular superhero wonder-worker in contemporary stories? No? Talking donkey? Yes, that one. R. Travers Herford surmises that for the Sages, Bala’am was a code name for Jesus, and all the stories about the wonder-worker who leads people astray, who hates the people Israel but is confounded in his attacks on it, and who is made mock of, and generally bested in every way, well those were stories about what we used to call JCSD in our undergraduate days, the ways Jews defined themselves against the emerging Jesusites (and vice versa). I am skeptical of this; I think that Jews in the first couple of centuries of the common era were probably much more worried about non-Jewish Romans than about the spread of Jesus-ism and eventually Christianity. Still, I think it’s worth pointing out that there were at this time various wonder-workers in the land, some of whom were fomenting rebellion against the Romans, and some of whom were fomenting rebellion against the Herod, and some of whom were fomenting rebellion against whatever you got. The distinction the Sages are making between the followers of Abraham (and the Old Ways) and the followers of any wonder-worker (and his New Ways) was bound to be political whether the wonder-worker has messianic claims to the Throne of David or not.

Having said that, the sages responded to the various political division, at least in this text, by recommending a good eye (meaning, presumably, the opposite of the evil eye, an eye that wishes good on what it sees), and a lowly soul, and a humble spirit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 17, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-one

Today’s verse is what R. Travers Herford calls the doctrine of imputed righteousness, although I am using the translation of Joseph Hertz, which seems a trifle clearer in the first part.

Whosoever causes many to be righteous, through him no sin shall be brought about; but he who causes many to sin, shall not have the means to repent. Moses was righteous and made many righteous; the righteousness of many was laid upon him, as it is said, he executed the justice of the Lord, and his judgments with Israel. Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, sinned and caused many to sin; the sin of the many was laid upon him, as it is said, For the sins of Jeroboam which he sinned, and wherewith he made Israel to sin.

The translation is tricky because there is odd grammar and figures; it’s something like all virtue-makers to many, no sin through the hand; all sin-makers to many, no opportunity for the hands to be brought to repentance. And there’s a sort of pun in there, with words that sound similar, and so on and so forth. But the saying is, I think, clear, in that the Sages claim that the influence of a person on others is connected to the righteousness of the influencer.

Mr. Herford, as I said, calls it the doctrine of imputed righteousness, which asks whether the righteousness or sinfulness of the leader’s followers can be imputed, as it were, to the leader. If Jereboam causes many people to sin, but were to repent and inherit the world to come while his followers languish in Sheol (as it is put in the avot of Rabbi Nathan), how would that be fair? No, says this doctrine, for your own sins you can make t’shuvah, but for the sins you lead others into, how can you repent?

For those of us who are not particularly focused on the Other World, though, it raises the question: so what? And what about fairness? Wouldn’t it be better if the misleader had repentance available to him? And, in the actual world we know, aren’t there former gang leaders who work for t’shuvah? Robert S. McNamara, wasn’t he an example of the person who leads others into sin, but attempts, at least, to repent? Is some conception of reward and punishment after the endtime supposed to prevent that? Not to mention the many, many examples of those who exhort others to righteousness while failing in minor and major ways to fulfill their own expectations of themselves. How are we to take the idea that Moses (as in the proof text) does not have sin come to his hand with the various texts of Moses’ anger? Doesn’t the incident of Moses striking the rock disprove the whole idea?

On the other hand, the general point is a good one: if your influence is meanness, exclusion and bigotry, it’s not a defense to say that some of your best friends are the people that your followers hate. If your influence is greed, poverty and hunger, then your individual openhandedness is not going to make up for it. And futher, you mustn’t let your individual shortcomings deter you from using what influence you have to the good: it isn’t hypocrisy to have aspirations that you struggle to meet yourself, so long as you are compassionate with everyone else who struggles with you.

I don’t think of it as a doctrine of imputed righteousness so much as a doctrine of shared responsibility: you are responsible for yourself as well as your followers, and you are responsible for your leaders. As they are responsible for themselves, and also for their followers and teachers, and as your followers are responsible for you and their other leaders, and for their followers, and for themselves. It’s a big net, and we’re all in it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 10, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty

Last week we were talking about love that endures and love that does not. We have talked before about what endures. This week we will look at controversies that endure:

Every controversy which is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure; but one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure in the end. A controversy for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And one which was not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his company.

This verse admits of different interpretations. First of all, it’s using the term controversy (in the Judah Goldin translation above, but it’s the same word in all the translations I have) to cover a wide range from discussion to rebellion. And it’s seem to be a Good Thing for a controversy to endure, which leads to different interpretations as well. The Meiri suggests that in the case of Hillel and Shammai, because the controversies were for the sake of Heaven, we continue to read the arguments on the losing side, and so the controversy endures, despite the law being settled. Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham, on the other hand, points out that where Korah was killed immediately, Hillel and Shammai and their disciples were not; it was the disputants who endured. Another interpretation is that a controversy in for the sake of Heaven will come to a conclusion, and that the question will be settled, thus enduring, while a controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven will not be settled, as the disputants are not open to persuasion, but will continue to be controversial and unsettled.

R. Travers Herford says that the eventual favoring of one side of the controversy over the other is incidental, the main result being that the truth is served. On the other hand, is the truth not served when Korah is killed? Is the outcome not incidental in that case? Another interpretation is that the controversies in question are challenges to legal authority: those that challenge said authority for the sake of Heaven will succeed in making enduring reform, but those (such as Korah) who challenge authority merely to increase their own petty power will fail to make reforms at all. How is the authority to tell? How is the rebel to tell?

I dislike the openness of interpretation, here, which allows me to shape my inference of the text to my understanding of the meaning, rather than the other way around. This dovetails in the verse with the likelihood of self-delusion, or at least self-misunderstanding; all I need to do is convince myself that I am disputing for the sake of Heaven, and I am fine. Rick Santorum, I’m sure, is convinced that he is disputing for the sake of Heaven, as in his own way is Dan Savage.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 3, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse nineteen

We have finished with the fours (and the sevens and the tens before them), and are in to the last few verses of Chapter Five. Here’s the Judah Goldin translation:

If love depends on some selfish end, when the end fails, love fails; but if it does not depend on a selfish end, it will never fail. An example of love which depended on a selfish end? That was the love of Amnon for Tamar. An example of love which did not depend on a selfish end? That was the love of David and Jonathan.

For those that don’t know the story and would rather not click through, Amnon rapes his sister Tamar and then throws her out into the street. It’s brought up here, presumably, because of the description that beforehand, Amnon is completely obsessed with his desire, and afterwards, he hates his victim and is filled with disgust. Amnon is murdered by Absalom in revenge, and civil war erupts after that. It’s a rather extreme case, I would say. I’m not sure that it’s really helpful to say to somebody don’t be like Amnon; good advice, sure, but few people think they need it.

I do, however, think that the general advice is excellent. Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin likens it to the love of a woman for her beauty; if the woman gets sick and loses her beauty (think smallpox scars), the love dies. Or, he says, to friendship with a rich man with an end to sharing in his wealth; if he loses his riches, the love is lost as well. Money, you’ve got lots of friends, they come prowling around your door. but when it’s gone and spending ends, they don’t come around here no more.

Of course, there again, the man who is aware that his friendship is entirely mercenary (or that his relationship is entirely prurient) is probably not going to slap his forehead upon hearing this advice and shout I see it now—when my selfish end fails, so too will my love! No, I expect that most people delude themselves into thinking their love does not depend on a selfish end, or else are sufficiently cynical to be glad that their love will end if there is no more to be got from it. I suppose it’s a useful warning to the person with beauty or wealth, that not all the love you experience is unselfish; again, such people probably know it from experience while quite young.

What’s more interesting, actually, is the insistence that (a) the love between Jonathan and David was entirely unselfish, and that (2) that love never failed. The relationship was, I have to say, fraught—David has ambitions within the royal house, and he has more or less been promised a royal daughter to wed, and Saul believes him to have ambitions toward the crown itself. And the result of David using his beauty and charm on the royal household is that he becomes King himself. Or he gets the crown because he combines successful military adventuring with wisdom in administration, gaining massive popular support, sure. I think the Sages here are insisting on the innocence and unselfishness of the relationship precisely because there are suspicious circumstances. Not to mention the question of Jonathan’s potential desire for David, one of the few people in the Scripture who is described as physically beautiful. There’s often a certain defensiveness when talking about David and Jonathan, as probably there should be.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 25, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse eighteen

The last of the fours, in the translation of R. Travers Herford, who seems to be having some copy-editing trouble with his punctuation:

Four characters who sit before the Wise. A sponge, a funnel, a strainer and a sieve. A sponge because it sucks up everything; a funnel, because it receives at one end and lets out at the other; a strainer because it lets out the wine and keeps back the dregs, a sieve because it lets out the coarse meal and keeps the fine flour.

Reverend Herford complains in his comments that no sieve was ever devised which would let the course meal through and keep the fine flour, but of course what is meant is that the sieve collects the course to be thrown away, while what is let through is kept for use. The actually interesting part about the sieve metaphor is that the sieve is clearly superior to the sponge.

The funnel-student, who immediately forgets everything, is familiar enough and obviously bad. The sponge student, who remembers everything, is perhaps less familiar, but obviously good nonetheless. We can pass lightly over those two. The other two, though, the strainer and the sieve… if we think of these as college students, generally, it’s easy to imagine the student who remembers only that the podium didn’t work, or that the student in front of him had a zit, or that the teacher can’t pronounce his Rs. This is the strainer, the one who focuses on the negative, and remembers only the worthless and mean. The sieve, then, is the reverse, the one who remembers the content of the lecture but not the distractions and irrelevancies.

The kitchen metaphor doesn’t work. All it does is point out that the student is doing the same thing: filtering one thing out from the other. What you really want is a filter that holds the good stuff and lets out the bad. Cheesecloth? That holds in the curds and lets out the, er, runny stuff? Is that what whey is? Wouldn’t the Wise have had cheesecloth? There’s a joke in there about the beatitudes, but I think it’s best of one of you make it.


The thing I find interesting is that the ideal student is not the sponge but the cheesecloth. The ability to retain all the knowledge is not valued as highly as the ability to discern what is worth keeping. While this makes sense in a college context, I’m surprised to find it in those who sit before the Wise. Surely when you sit before the Wise, there isn’t a lot of chaff (or dross, or slag, or whatever is caught in the metaphorical filter). The Meiri says that the lees is the legends and anecdotes and playful interpretation, and I certainly understand that—the fellow who remembers Honi the Circle Drawer but not Gamaliel is keeping the dregs and pouring out the wine. But surely the ideal student would not actually forget the miracle stories and such. That isn’t the path of wisdom, surely.

No, I prefer to think that the bitter dregs that the superior category filters out of his memory is the unpleasant work that goes into study, the discipline, the difficulty of getting up in the morning in time for class, the quarrels with the other students, and most of all, the disappointments and failures that mark the path to ultimate success. The ability to put those memories aside—probably not to forget them altogether, but the ability to not keep chewing on them—is the difference between the sponge and the sieve (or whatever) that makes the sponge only second-best.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 18, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse seventeen

There are four types among those that frequent the study-house: there is one who attends but does not put to practice—he receives the reward for attendance. There is one who puts to practice but does not attend—he receives the reward for practice. There is one who attends and puts to practice—the saint. Neither attends nor puts to practice—the wicked.

Judah Goldin’s translation, which pretty much agrees with the others I have, as there isn’t much question about any of these words. I suppose we could translate s’char as payment rather than reward, or wages or something like that, but it would be a bit of a stretch, and I’m not sure that it changes the meaning of the verse very much. Except, I suppose, to de-emphasize the Divine’s active participation in the whole business, and make it more tautological. If you go, you get paid for going; if you do, you get paid for doing. Obvious, really.

The thing that pops out at me is that of the four types that frequent the study-house, two of them do not actually frequent the study house. Who, then, are we talking about? Who is in the group that frequents but does not attend? Do we mean attend as in pay attention—in which case the Sage is saying that mere physical attendance does not earn a reward if you do not actively attend? This seems, well, perhaps not obvious, exactly, but clear enough that it doesn’t seem to merit a whole verse. Or is this verse applying to some larger group who are supposed to frequent the study-house, whether they actually do or not? The Meiri says that those who practice but do not attend are those who study Torah at home, by themselves. They learn enough to put into practice, he says, and thus earn their reward, but they do not learn as much as they would if they studied with a teacher.

I also wonder—if you take away sainthood and wickedness, and simply talk about this as those enrolled in a class, have you lost any of the meaning? These are familiar types, the ones who skip class (or sit in class FBing) or skip their preparation at home, the ones who skip as much as they possibly can, and the ones who are diligent. The A student, the B- students, the F: their rewards are their grades, and they get what they earn. But in school, of course, there are people who are in one category in math and another in history, people who are diligent with their studio arts classes but skate along in their English classes, people who are diligent in their Junior year and slack of in their Senior year. Or are diligent in February and March, but not in April and May. Are these categories useful? Are they really types?

I think I see this verse, then, as saying that we, as students, should act as if there were four types of students, even if that is not an accurate depiction of the world—act as if we were setting our habits in stone—act as if the reward for attendance and for practice were combined to be greater than the sum, and the penalties worse, and never accept a part measure. But then, how do we take the verse as teachers? Or as parents?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 11, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse sixteen

We’re still on these fours:

As to almsgiving there are four dispositions: he who desires to give, but that others should not give, his eye is evil toward what appertains to others; he who desires that others should give, but will not give himself, his eye evil against what is his own; he who gives and wishes others to give, is a saint; he who will not give and does not wish others to give, is a wicked man.

I’m not altogether happy with desire here (this is Joseph Hertz; Judah Goldin and R. Travers Herford use wish throughout) (Rabbi Hertz uses desire a the beginning and wish at the end, as you see, but in the original Hebrew the word is only used once and implied in the rest of the sentence, rather than there being two different words in Hebrew as you might have inferred from there being two different words in English) (where was I?) (Oh, yeah) I’m not altogether happy with either desire or wish; the Hebrew word is ratzah, which is kinda sorta to be pleased with or to be satisfied by or maybe to accept. In other words, it’s not just an idle preference, but a standard.

I think the best way is to turn it around, and think of the conditions that would not satisfy our fellow. There’s a particular need for charity—the local food pantry is getting bare. The obvious first category is the asshole, who says that he isn’t giving and he doesn’t care if anybody else gives; the poor can starve, for all he cares, because he’s got his. The obvious next category is the fellow who says that he really hopes that somebody will give, and if somebody else gives and nobody gets turned away to starve, then he’s happy not go into his pocket. The sages say this guy has an evil eye toward his own stuff, that is, the way he looks after his own stuff is negative, a shortcoming, with bad consequences.

But what about the guy who sees there’s a need, loads up the car with groceries, and drops them off at the pantry. Done! He’s the saint, right? No, the sages say, he’s not the saint; he has sufficed himself with his own charity, but by ignoring the neighbors, he is also seeing (or in this case not seeing) with the evil eye. The saint is the one with a communitarian view, where a person is not only responsible for his own actions but for the actions of others. He does give, of course, out of his own, but that is not enough. He also asks his neighbors to get involved.

Does this make the saint a busybody? Yes. Of course; saints are always busybodies, and thank goodness not everybody is a saint. On the other hand, we don’t want to live in a world without any saints; we have in abundance the actually wicked as well as those (like myself) who are satisfied if the need is met, whoever meets it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 4, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse fifteen

Another division of four, in the translation of R. Travers Herford:

Four characters of disciples. Quick to learn and quick to lose, his gain is cancelled by his loss. Slow to learn and slow to lose, his loss is cancelled by his gain. Quick to learn and slow to lose, this is a good portion. Slow to learn and quick to lose, this is an evil portion.

Other than the distinction from the previous verse that explicitly states that these characters are not choices but portions dealt out to people, and that knowledge is better than anger, there doesn’t seem to be much to say about this.

Well, except that there is an implication, I think, that the disciple has only one character, and that is a permanent matter. People are mostly quicker to learn when they are young, and quicker to lose when they are old. I was terribly distressed when I discovered that memorizing was much harder now than it was in my youth. I also think that I am quicker to lose than I was, but it’s hard to be sure.

In the Avot of Rabbi Nathan, there’s a different version, which focuses on studying, rather than learning.

There are four types of disciples:
One wishes that he might study and that others might study too—the liberal.
[One wishes] that he might study but not others—the grudging.
[One wishes] that others should study and not he—the commonplace type.
Some say: that’s the Sodom type.
[One wishes] that neither he nor others should study—that’s the thoroughly wicked.

This is easy stuff, isn’t it? There are four types of cooks: those that cook for themselves but and others… There are four types of singers: those that have pitch but do not have rhythm… there are four types of library patrons: those that take out a lot of books but return them on time… there are four types of candidates: those that do not win primaries but not win general elections, those are the appointees…

As I see it, there are four types of these typologies: those that have meaning but are not witty, their gain is consumed by their loss. Those that are witty but have no meaning, their loss is consumed by their gain. Those that have meaning and are witty, they shall be included in the sayings of the wise. Those that have no meaning and are not witty, they shall be converted to images and posted to Facebook.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 28, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse fourteen

There are four kinds of tempers: he whom it is easy to provoke and easy to pacify, his loss disappears in his gain; he whom it is hard to provoke and hard to pacify, his gain disappears in his loss; he whom it is hard to provoke and easy to pacify is a saint; he whom it is easy to provoke and hard to pacify is a wicked man.

This is the translation of Joseph Hertz, which I like because of the verb disappears; R. Travers Herford and Judah Goldin both use cancelled, which also gets the idea but is, I think, less evocative.

The commentary on this verse tends to focus on two points. First, to what extent these kinds of tempers are choices, rather than innate characteristics—and then a discussion of striving against one’s perhaps too-choleric nature. The second point is that even the saint does get angry sometimes, that there are occasions where anger is the appropriate response. Not the first response, not the second, but even one who is hard to provoke can be provoked, and ought to be provoked. For both of those points, we look at Moses.

I no longer have any sense of what people who haven’t been studying this stuff for years think about the bible characters. Moses, of course, is particularly tricky, as the baby in the reeds becomes the young man who kills the wicked slavedriver, the stammering shepherd of the burning bush, the miracle worker, the reluctant leader, the overburdened judge, the law-giver, the favored of the Divine, the eternal exile. And, of course, the horns. These days, though, the main thing I think of when I think about Moses is the anger management issues. My favorite Moses story is actually parsha Beha’alotecha, when (among other things) Moses says to the Divine hargeni na harog, just kill me now please. Or to approximate the emphasis-by-repetition: kill me with great killings.

Anyway, that’s how I think of Moses: cranky as all hell. But not holding a grudge, either—the stories in Exodus, particularly, seem to start all over again from scratch every time. But the character is there. Quick to anger, quick to pacify, is what I would call him. Which is not to say he isn’t a chasid, within the meaning of the above verse, I suppose. After all, it’s possible that Moses was, by temperament, even quicker to anger than he might be. And what angers him? The slave-driver, of course. Cruelty. Betrayal. Injustice. And constant whining. These, I submit are things that the verse tells us can justifiably provoke a saint to anger, however reluctantly.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 14, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse thirteen

The next verse was one of my favorites as a kid, mostly I think because of the Saul Raskin illustration in my mother’s copy. I don’t think I ever actually understood the verse, and I’m not sure I do now. On the other hand, I didn’t understand that I didn’t understand it, and now perhaps I do:

There are four characters among men: he who says, What is mine is mine and what is thine is thine, his is a neutral character (some say, this is a character like that of Sodom); he who says, What is mine is thine and what is thine is mine, is a boor; he who says, What is mine is thine and what is thine is thine is a saint; he who says, What is thine is mine and what is mine is mine, is a wicked man.

The translation is from Joseph Hertz; the attempt with the thine language is, I think, to convey some of the idea of the Hebrew, which uses the possessive shel with appropriate complications for the person possessing, so that one person says shelee shelee v’shelchah shelach , another shelee shelach v’shelchah shelee, the third shelee shelach v’shelchah shelach and the last shelchah shelee v’shelee shelee. But that’s neither here nor there for the meaning of the verse.

It seems obvious, and the last part, dealing with person who covets everyone’s possessions and the one who gives them all away, is pretty clear, actually. But the first two— start with the second one: who actually thinks that my stuff is your stuff and your stuff is my stuff? And that person, the boor is the man of the earth, the am ha’aretz, the common everyday ignorant man. Does that make any sense at all? And while I understand that the mine is mine and yours is yours is not ideal, how can some say that it is the attitude of Sodom?

As far as that first type of man, I think that what may be happening is a debate between the sages who felt that selfishness was typical, and those who felt that were it not encouraged, selfishness would be the province of the unusually wicked. It is the atmosphere of Sodom that makes people selfish, or at least makes people sufficiently proud of their selfishness that they say that they regard their stuff as theirs alone. It should be added that Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham considered that we were talking here only about one’s attitude toward one’s possessions after one has donated to charity. Of course, one expects that the average person will contribute the expected amount to charity; the question is whether the person then says the rest is mine or still views it all as in trust for the Divine.

But the second type is more troublesome. I did not understand it until I read the commentary of ibn Aknin who says that the verse is not meant to denigrate the am ha’aretz. Instead, it is meant to speak of him is a bit higher than the first type, the neutral type, because he does understand that he and his neighbor are meant to help each other, that possessions are meant to be used for the benefit of all. And yet, this person is still, according to ibn Aknin, focused too much on possessions, and noticing what belongs to who, and is prone to envy and jealousy. I think this is an excellent insight—as a bit of a communitarian myself, I think that it would be good if everybody thought that what is mine is thine and what is thine is mine, not in the sense of confusing who actually owns what, but acknowledging that sometimes your need is more important than my ownership.

There’s a distinction there between the obligation to charity, to share your possessions with the less fortunate, and a right to (f’r’ex) not starve to death, which entails a right to somebody else’s possessions. I think that the second type, the type that recognizes that his right to his own stuff is not absolute, even if he still wants to hang on to as much of it as he can within that moral framework, is that man of the earth that we are talking about here, and it’s that person that we can legitimately aspire to be, as we are not all saints.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 7, 2012

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verses eleven and twelve

We’ve had quite a long break, which I did not actually intend. I did not expect to have much of a chance to write notes on Christmas Day in the morning, nor yet on New Year’s Day, but I did have a vague sort of plan to write out a note in advance so that it would post itself on the Saturday. But I did not. Mostly because I am lazy, but partly because of the troublesome text (here in Judah Goldin’s translation):

Seven kinds of calamity come upon the world for seven classes of transgression: if some tithe and some do not, famine as a result of drought comes—some go hungry and [only] some have enough to eat; if [all] determine not to tithe, a famine as a result of tumult and of drought comes; and if [they resolved] not to set aside the dough-offering, an all-consuming famine comes.

Pestilence comes upon the world for crimes punishable by death according to the Torah which have not been turned over to the court, and for neglect of the law regarding the earth’s fruits in the sabbatical year. The sword comes upon the world for the delay of justice, for the perversion of justice, and because of those that teach the Torah not in accordance with the halakha. Evil beasts come upon the world for the taking of false oaths and for profaning the name. Exile comes upon the world for idolatrous worship, for unchastity, for bloodshed, and for neglect of the year of release of the land.

As I missed two weeks, and as the verses seem to go together, I will add the next verse here as well:

At four periods pestilence is on the increase: in the fourth year, in the seventh, at the departure of the seventh, and annually at the departure of the feast—

“In the fourth,” for neglecting the poor man’s tithe in the third; “in the seventh,” for neglecting the poor man’s tithe in the sixth year; “at the departure of the seventh year,” for neglecting the commandment to release the fruits of the earth during the seventh year; “annually at the departure of the feast,” for robbing the poor of their gifts.

Actually, this is the pivot between the sevens (verses ten and eleven) and the fours (verses twelve through eighteen), but the idea of crime and punishment draws the two verses together. And this is problematic for me, because of course I do not believe that the Divine causes famine or pestilence or drought because of misbehavior of the Jews. One can make the claim that natural disasters occur in some general sense due to people’s inadequate stewardship and preparation; Amartya Sen has persuasively argued that famine (by which we mean mass starvation) has political roots in inequality, rather than being a purely natural disaster. It’s possible that epidemics, also, spread because of poor governance rather than being entirely separate from human behavior. And of course the climate change we are beginning to experience is influenced by human activity, and whether our experience of it is truly calamitous will be largely decided by human activity. Given that, it is possible to describe these things as punishments for misbehavior. A better word would be consequences, but negative consequences are sometimes called punishments, even without someone doing the punishing. In cases like this, though, I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about the negative consequences as punishments, simply because I don’t think it helps people either avoid or ameliorate the consequences in question.

Still, even if I were to accept the word punishment for the negative consequences that follow on community misbehavior, it is in point of fact insane to believe that famine comes because people don’t burn a lump of dough whenever they bake bread. That’s superstition, not ethics, and falls in with the use of the mezuzah as an amulet against evil spirits (which the Sages also believed was the case) and spitting between your fingers to ward off the Evil Eye (which probably originates later). And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the people who wrote this text were Like Us; they believed in magic and omens and specific acts of Divine retribution and reward for specific sins and good deeds. And while I suppose some Gentle Readers may believe in that stuff, I don’t. So what’s in the verse for me?

Particularly since I also don’t believe, as Menachem ben Solomon ha-Meiri did in the thirteenth century, that there is value in responding to a calamity by humbly examining your own behavior, seeking to interpret it as a punishment so as to goad yourself to a better life in the future. That is, as I interpret his commentary, that whether or not the calamity really is a specific punishment for a specific sin, it is salutary to believe that it is. I understand this idea—certainly it is better to look for one’s own sin in such a case than the far more common course of blaming somebody else’s sin—but I don’t accept it.

Look, if there is a crop failure, or a drought, or an epidemic, or flood or a hurricane or a tsumani, if there is a war or a revolution or nuclear fallout, the thing to do is to figure out what actually caused it, the actual sequence of events, because we can learn from that and change our behavior in ways that are actually useful. If letting the land lie farrow one year out of seven, then we should in fact be doing it, not because of the Levitical prohibition but because of the science. The correct response is not to cast blame on ourselves or on other people, but to get to work. Much as I hate to reject any of the verses—I do it, but I don’t like it—we won’t avert disaster with sackcloth and ashes like the people of Nineveh. We’ll do it with action, in the lab and in the governments and (one hopes) on the streets, because that way works, and the other way does not.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 10, 2011

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse ten

It seems odd that there were only nine verses of tens, but there it is: the tenth verse (which I am presenting in the Joseph Hertz translation below) begins a list of sevens:

There are seven marks of an uncultured, and seven of a wise man. The wise man does not speak before him who is greater than he in wisdom; and does not break in upon the speech of his fellow; he is not hasty to answer; he questions according to the subject matter, and answers to the point; he speaks upon the first thing first, and the last last; regarding that which he has not understood he says, I do not understand it; and he acknowledges the truth. The reverse of all this is to be found in an uncultured man.

These seven marks are ways in which you can distinguish if your fellow is wise or not—you may amuse yourself in your next committee meeting or family picnic by assessing who is wise and who is not. For some reason questioning according to the subject matter seems to pop out at me, as I’m afraid my conversation tends to the amusing anecdote related to the subject matter, which is not the mark of a wise man at all. I do often address the first thing first and the last last, though, which was a mark of the APDA debater, but not so much the willingness to either admit that we don’t understand things or to acknowledge when the truth lies with the other side.

However, if I feel I don’t make the cut to be included in the wise, there is hope, as I discovered when attempting the Hebrew. The verse begins shiv’ah d’varim b’golem v’shiv’ah b’chacham. The wise man is a chacham, which is pretty much just the term for a wise man—a talmid chacham is a man learned in Torah, who merits the respect of the community, and who also accepts certain added obligations to uphold that respect (f’r’ex, it is forbidden for a talmid chacham to walk around with a stain on his clothing). So that’s pretty clear. But the person being distinguished from the chacham is a golem.

You know, a golem.

The Golem from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

Well, not necessarily like that, but a golem. But do they mean a golem? No. The word actually means something unfinished—it’s a hapax in the tanach, where it appears to mean something very close to fetus. In the Talmud, it refers to anything unfinished or incomplete, including a person who has not yet had a child, or a student not yet learned. When Solomon ibn Gabirol or Judah Löw b. Bezaleel made a servant out of clay, they called it golem, for it was only partially in the shape of a man, not fully animate. Here is it intended to contrast with the chacham who has already gained wisdom. The implication is that the not-wise man, the one who interrupts and blathers and denies the truth and in is all ways the reverse of a wise man is not a fool, but an embryo wise man, undeveloped at the moment but containing the potential to achieve all seven of the outward designations that follow the learning and wisdom gained within.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 26, 2011

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse eight: accountability and purpose

This week’s verse is an … interesting verse about ten miracles (more or less miraculous) that transpired in the days of the Temple.

Ten wonders were done for our fathers in the Sanctuary. No women miscarried through the smell of the sacred flesh. The sacred flesh never stank. No fly was seen in the slaughter house; and no uncleanness befell the High Priest on the Day of Atonement; and no rain quenched the fire of the wood-pile, and no wind overcame the column of smoke and no defect was found in the sheaf and the two loaves and the shew bread; the people stood close together but had room to bow themselves. No serpent or scorpion did harm in Jerusalem. And no one said to his associate the place is too narrow for me that I should lodge in Jerusalem.

This is R. Travers Herford’s translation, but there doesn’t seem to be any significant disagreement among my translations about the meaning of any of the ten. Mr. Herford referred to other sources, by the way, that have different lists of ten wonders in Temple times, but this is the list that made it into the Mishnah and the liturgy.

The great thing about this verse, you know, from the point of view of rhetoric, is that it manages to do two nearly opposite things at the same time. First, of course, it pays homage to the Temple Times, when things were wonderful and miraculous and the rotten meat didn’t stink and cause miscarriages. Second, it clearly evokes in the reader a relief that we are not in Temple Times ourselves, where it’s only through Divine intervention that we don’t all pass out from the stink, but are unable to fall down because of the crush of bodies. This is one of those themes of rabbinic Judaism, one of the great achievements of rabbinic Judaism I would say: we can venerate our history while not wanting to return to it.

There are poor misguided souls who want to see the Temple rebuilt, who are breeding the red heifer and whatnot, who dream of destroying the Dome of the Rock to clear room for the construction, and so on and so forth. These people are schmucks. The heavenly Jerusalem, yes. Rotten meat and crowds and flies and smoke and wind and rain and scorpions and snakes, not so much. Of course, these schmucks count on the Divine miracles to resume the moment they dedicate the Third Temple, because these schmucks in the backs of their minds think that they should be able to call up miracles from a menu to suit their desires, that the Divine should do their bidding because they are doing the Right Thing, after all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 19, 2011

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse seven

We are continuing through the fifth chapter of the Avot, and the history of the universe in tens, from the translation of R. Travers Herford:

With ten trials did our fathers try the Holy One, blessed by He, in the wilderness, as it is said: —And they tempted me these ten times, and hearkened not to my voice.

What’s interesting here (which is not the proof list of ten trials, which I won’t bother with) is the reciprocity with verse four in which the Divine tries Abraham with ten trials. Mr. Herford distinguishes between the divine discipline with which Abraham was tested and the human insolence with which the Divine was tested. I’m not convinced. I mean, yes, the situations are not truly reciprocal, and some of the times we tested the Divine Patience was by our incessant whining. I don’t think that any of Abraham’s trials were putting up with the whining of the Divine. On the other hand, a trial of patience is a trial of patience, and the Sages placed the verse here for a reason. I think we should look at the trials as part of the ongoing relationship—yes, we are human and the Divine is infinite, but there is something akin to a human relationship going on. We test each other, we love each other, we hurt each other, we help each other, we stay with the relationship past reason and derive joy beyond hope. It’s a love story, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 16, 2011

Four Hundred Years, and the work is still beginning

I criticize the Anglican Primate pretty often and in pretty harsh terms (particularly considering I’m not a Christian), but I actually like the old man, when it comes down to it. Likely it’s the Peter Principle in action: he isn’t terribly competent at being the head of the Anglican Communion, but he’s a marvelous preacher, writer and thinker. I was very impressed by his Sermon at the Thanksgiving Service to mark the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the 1611 Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible.

Gentle Readers are aware by now that Your Humble Blogger likes him some KJV. I am always a little self-conscious about my fondness for the KJV, because it is not a terribly accurate translation. It’s lovely and magnificent, but find myself frequently comparing different translations and picking at what Hebrew I understand and to grope beyond it. Crazy Archbishop Rowan, bless the man, picks that up as a strength:

What is a good translation? Not one that just allows me to say, when I pick it up, ‘Now I understand’. Of course, if I’m faced with a text in a strange language, I need to be able simply to read it; but a good translation will be an invitation to read again, and to probe, and reflect, and imagine with the text. Rather than letting me say, ‘Now I understand’, it prompts the response, ‘Now the work begins.’

…I was going to make that the beginning of this note, but I don’t think I actually have anything to add to it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 12, 2011

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verses five and six

We are still in the tens in chapter five of the Avot; here’s the translation of Judah Goldin:

Ten miracles were wrought for our ancestors in Egypt and ten at the sea. Ten plagues the Holy One, blessed by He, visited on the Egyptians in Egypt, and ten at the sea.

I’m taking verses five and six together here, as opinion seems to be that six is just a rephrasing of five for emphasis. That is, the ten miracles for our ancestors in Egypt were the miraculous immunity from the ten plagues visited on the Egyptians. On the other hand, there are two different stories about the miracles at the sea: for the Israelites, who were reluctant to cross, Moses has to mite the sea ten times:

When our fathers stood by the sea, Moses said to them: "Arise and pass through it!" and they rejoined: "We will not pass, till we see the sea become chips, chips." Whereupon Moses struck the sea with his staff, and it was converted into chips, as it is written [Habakkuk, iii. 14]: "Thou didst strike through with his own spears the chiefs of his villages." Again Moses said to them: "Arise and pass through it," and they rejoined: "We will not pass till the sea becomes a valley." Moses struck the sea again, and it became a valley, as it is written [Ps. lviii. 13]: "He divided the sea, and caused them to pass through"; also [Is. lxiii. 14]: "As a beast goeth down into the valley." Moses again urged them to pass through the sea, and they answered: "We will not, till it becomes separated into parts"; as it is written [Ps. cxxxvi. 13]: "To him who divided the Red Sea into parts." …

And so on and so forth until there are ten of them. As for the Egyptians, they are killed ten times…

These are the TEN plagues at the Sea, TEN kinds of death described by TEN different verbs in the fifteenth chapter of Exodus: hath he thrown (15:2); hath he cast (15:4); deeps cover them (15:5); they went down into the depths (15:5) …

And so on and so forth until there are ten of them.

Digression: Many of y’all are thinking that the Egyptians suffered forty or perhaps fifty plagues at the Red Sea, or perhaps two hundred and fifty, according to the sages at B’nai Barak. This is what happens when you stay up too late. Really, the first thing we should learn from the Talmud is that there are differences of interpretation, and that we can’t let ourselves be tied to one particular interpretation. Anyway, even if the ten were multiplied fourfold, or fivefold, or fivefold and fivefold again, there were ten to be multiplied, and this is a verse about tens. End Digression

So. The world is created through Ten Utterances, then there are Ten Generations before the Flood, then Ten Generations until Abraham, then Ten Trials of Abraham, and now Ten Plagues (and miracles, and ten more of each). And there will be more tens coming up, but this is a good moment, I think, to stop and ask why tens? Which is in some ways unanswerable—in R. Travers Herford’s commentary, his only note on this verse calls it “a pair of Scripture series merely stated and calling for no comment. The compiler, having started on a series of groups of ten, includes in it an observed fact of Scripture. No lesson is drawn from the fact. No lesson? Is it possible that there is a verse of Avot with no lesson?

Here’s the lesson I am drawing at the moment:

Do you know how when you learn about the Fibonacci series, it turns up everywhere? And for a while, all you can think about is how utterly cool it is?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 5, 2011

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse four

Amongst the problems of Winter Storm Alfred here has been the loss of Your Humble Blogger’s ability to focus on anything except the likelihood of getting back on the grid. I am working today, warm and comfy and electron-ridden, but the house is still cold and dark, and I have resorted to checking the Twitter feed—Twitter!—in an attempt to find out, minute by minute, that there is power in my neighborhood, on my block, or maybe someday in my house. And while we are relatively lucky, having warm places in town to go during the day with free showers and wireless, and when we finally gave up on our house we had somewhere warm to go to sleep. And furthermore we have money in the bank (and under our credit card maximums) to buy hot meals and treats for our children, who have never suffered power outage like this. We also speak the English Language, so what news we can access, we can understand (CL&P jargon notwithstanding), and we both have training at searching the internet and distinguishing official news from scuttlebutt. And, of course, the house is not only fundamentally sound but doesn’t have a scratch on it (so far as we know); we could have spent the week without power having a tree through the roof. So, you know, things could be worse. But still, the inconvenience and expense and discomfort of a week without power—coupled, I must say, with the narrowing experience of living in a community where the primary topic of conversation is the power outage, and the secondary and tertiary topics are outage-related as well—has made it difficult for YHB to buckle down as I ought and present this weeks verse from the Avot:

With ten trials Abraham our father was tried, and he bore them all, to make known how great was the love of Abraham our father.

Real subtle, there.

For those following at home, it’s not obvious what the exact ten trials were, and there are differences of opinion on this. The Avot of Rabbi Nathan list Genesis 12:1ff, when he was ordered to move out from his father’s household (the parsha for this week being lech-l’cha, this seems appropriate); 12:10, when he is forced to move again by a famine; 21:10, the expulsion of Ishmael; 22:1f, the binding of Isaac, 12:11ff, in connection with Sarah, and 21:10 in connection with Hagar; in 14:13ff, in connection with the war; in 15:1ff, in connection with the covenant; 17:24, with circumcision, and as alluded to in 11:28, when he was thrown in a fiery furnace by Nimrod.

Oddly enough, Father Abraham lived his entire life without electricity, and that fact doesn’t make the list at all. Hm.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 29, 2011

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verses two and three

We’re getting into Chapter Five and the number-sayings. I’m putting the second and third verses together, for reasons that will be obvious:

There were ten generations from Adam to Noah, to make known the patience of Gd, seeing that all those generations continued provoking him, until he brought upon them the waters of the Flood.

There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham, to make known the patience of Gd, seeing that all those generations continued provoking him, until Abraham our father came, and received the reward they should all have earned.

Remember we started the chapter with ten? More tens here, which are only successful in the context of having started a list of tens. I mean, for the purpose of proving the long-suffering nature of the Divine, we are just using ten to mean many; the Divine nature would be no more or less patient with nine or eleven generations separating the prominent figures of early Genesis. I suppose the fact that there are ten is a bit of a mnemonic, in the sense that you would at least know that you had forgotten Kenan (Genesis 5 gives Adam, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, and Noah), or Serug (Genesis 11 gives Shem, Arpachsad, Salah, Eber, Peleg, Reu, Serug, Nahor, Terah and Abram), but it’s not going to help you remember them if you are stuck.

By the way, since it’s parsha Noah this week, I’ll take a sidenote—actually, it’s a digression, isn’t it?

Digression: Why does it take a whole week after the animals are on the ark to start raining? In Genesis 7:10, it says And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth. The Rabbis have several responses to this: one is rather lovely: that the flood could not take place until Noah was absolutely the last righteous man on the planet, and the animal/ark business was timed so that it was complete on the day that Methusaleh died. However, the actual flood was delayed so that the Divine could sit shivah for seven days. Another one that I like is that when the ark was completed, the Divine decided to try once more to convince the population to give up its wickedness, so for seven days the sun rose in the west and set in the east, along with myriad other wonders—even, according to the Avot of Rabbi Nathan, preparing a table of a meal such as the righteous will merit in the world to come! And yet, the people did not even notice, but went right along doing what they were doing in their wickedness, and at the end of seven days, the flood came. End Digression.

So, the question that comes to mind with this pairing is that after ten generations of wickedness, the Divine punishes the world with a flood, saving only Noah. But after ten more generations of wickedness, the Divine does not punish the world at all, but instead rewards Abraham. What’s the difference? The first and most obvious is that the second ten generations are after the Divine promise at the end of the Noah story, so a Deluge is unavailable to the Divine at that time. Another, interestingly enough, is that while the ten generations from Adam to Noah provoked the Divine, there were righteous men among them, such as Enoch. In the ten generations after, there was (according to the Sages, not one righteous person until Abram. Not one.

I like to think that during those ten generations of long-suffering and patience, the Divine figured out that the Deluge simply didn’t work. Not only was there no tremendous increase in righteousness, there was actually even less righteousness in the ten generations after the flood than there was in the ten generations before the flood. Is that part of the Noah story? Its utter failure, viewed on its own term? Because it should be. I mean, it’s implied, I think, even at the end of Noah’s story itself, what with the drunken fornication and all, but going down the generations to say that destruction simply did not scare people into good behavior.

So the Divine tries something else. Maybe, now that I think about it, this is the through-line from our first verse, the Ten Utterances: the Divine uses Ten Utterances to create the universe, but it doesn’t quite work (the Fall, you know). After Ten Generations, he uses a Deluge to improve things, but it doesn’t quite work. After another Ten Generations, he uses a Covenant to improve things, and…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 23, 2011

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse one: accountability and purpose

We’re starting Chapter Five of Pirke Avot; this is the Chabad translation:

The world was created with ten utterances. What does this come to teach us? Certainly, it could have been created with a single utterance. However, this is in order to make the wicked accountable for destroying a world that was created with ten utterances, and to reward the righteous for sustaining a world that was created with ten utterances.

Here we see the Sages response: the Ten Utterances magnify the Creation in order to magnify the payment due for sin and the payment due for righteousness. How does this tenfold Utterance magnify the payment?

I found a commentary somewhere that said: imagine the simplest possible world. A world without the diversity of kosher and treyf animals, without the diversity of crops, of landscapes, of people, of rich and poor, healthy and sick. The opportunities for sin are diminished enormously; so are the opportunities for kindness. For every Utterance, new opportunities arise. Arise exponentially. With a ten-Utterance world, there are billions of ways to fall short of potential, billions of ways to exceed it.

Still. Why is that good? Why not a simple world?

Another commentary: The question is not why did the Divine actually use the Ten Utterances to create the world—we don’t presume to question. The question is why we are told that the Divine used Ten Utterances. Genesis could have been shorter, could have condensed the Creation into a single verse: in six days, the Divine created the world and everything in it, and the seventh day was a day of rest. Done. Instead, we are not only given each day separately, but (f’r’ex) on the third day, there are two Utterances, creating dry land and then making plants to grow on it. Why are we told this much detail?

The Sages answer that the detail is to impress on us the importance of the universe, and of our place in it; that when we fall short, we do damage not to some inconsequential thing but to a wonderful Creation, a Creation of six days and ten utterances and thirty-one verses. This heightens, they say, the worthiness of the worthy and the unworthiness of the unworthy (or, rather, the second one first, disconcertingly). I’m not convinced of that; the complexity of the world might well lead a person to thinking that he could get away with wickedness or be righteous un-noticed and unrewarded. I suppose it matters if the reader takes away the idea that the multiplicity of utterances denotes importance or complexity.

Presumably, then, the purpose of this verse is to make sure that we take away the idea of magnification by multiple utterances.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 22, 2011

Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse one

Well, and we left off a liturgical year ago, we had reached the end of the fourth chapter of Pirke Avot. We had begun our study, lo these many proverbials ago, with a bunch of triples: we pick up with a bunch of tens. The first of the ten is appropriate for this first week of the year, in which we read the first parshah of the first book of the Scriptures, describing the creation of the world. Chapter Five of the Avot goes back to the beginning of the world as well:

The world was created with ten utterances. What does this come to teach us? Certainly, it could have been created with a single utterance. However, this is in order to make the wicked accountable for destroying a world that was created with ten utterances, and to reward the righteous for sustaining a world that was created with ten utterances.

The ten sayings are, of course, the sayings in Genesis 1, most famously let there be light (Genesis 1:3), which is prefaced by vayomer elohim, the Lord said. The verb is omar, to say; the ten utterances are amarim, the plural noun form of the verb. That verb, though, appears nine times, not ten times, in Genesis 1. In order to make ten, as listed above, we have to assume that in 1:1 the Heavens and the Earth are created by Divine Utterance, as are the stars and the fish and so on in later verses. This seems a reasonable assumption, although now we have to wonder why we are not told that this was an utterance.

Or, rather, let’s begin with another question, even more basic than the Sages are asking above: why was the world created with any utterances at all? We are not told, first thing, that there was an utterance to create the Heavens and the Earth to begin with. Yes, the Psalmist says that it was by the word of the Lord that the heavens were made (Psalms 33:6), but that was bid’var adonai, not ba’amar, potentially at the Divine commandment, that is to say, at the will, rather than the utterance of the Divine. And if, as we read above, the world could have been created with a single word, surely it could have been created without any word at all!

I think, and this is me here and not the commentaries, that we are told that the world was created with words in order to underline, for us, the importance of words, of the speech act. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but the world was created with words. And still is. Not only the Divine words, but human words create the world we live in. And not only by shaping the universe we perceive (which is very important) but by shaping the universe that actually exists whether we perceive it or not. The cities and towns we live in were created by words, the jobs we do, the bonds between us as people, as nations, as cultures. Not by words alone, but not without words, either. And the wrong words still make the world, they just make the world wrongly.

Now, having said that, there is clearly a difference between the way that we create the world every day and the way in which the Divine created the world at the Beginning, and still creates it every day. Which brings me back around to the First Utterance, which is not an utterance, or is only ambiguously an utterance. My feeling is that 1:1 is different from 1:3 and the rest of them, that there is some fundamental difference between saying that the Divine created the moon and that the Divine created the Heavens and the Earth. And that I am willing to believe that the rest of the Divine Utterances are appropriately analogous to our utterances in the same way that the Divine Arm or the Face of the Divine are—useful tools for human understanding—but that the First Utterance was not. That is we know that Divine Utterance was actually not made by expelling Divine Breath through Divine Vocal Folds and shaping it with a Divine Tongue and Divine Lips, making Divine Plosives and Divine Close-Mid Front Rounded Vowels; we express the idea of the Divine Utterance in a way that makes sense to humans, because we are humans, and that’s a good thing. But it seems to me that where the rest of the Divine Utterances are understandable through the somewhat distant metaphor of human speech, the First Utterance, made before the universe even existed, can’t even be understood metaphorically but stands outside our understanding entirely. Thus the lack of explicit metaphor in the text: we presumably join the story after let there be a Heaven and an Earth occurred in whatever inexplicable and ineffable way that did occur.

Which, then, brings me to another response to the question: why ten utterances? Why not one? Because, by the cosmology I have come to above, there was the First and then the others that occurred within the Heavens and the Earth created by that First. Why not two, then? Because the nine that follow are smaller, more complex, more detailed than the First, and are subsidiary to it, to emphasize that difference between the Implied First and the Explicit Nine, and by extension, the rest of the ongoing Creation. This emphasizes our responsibility for the continuing Creation through speech while also underlining that we are not Creators but creators, that we create the world but did not Create the world, that our works are derivative works of the Great Work and should be entered into in the spirit of support rather than pride. This response only makes sense if we see the ten utterances above as One and Nine, of course, which I think is there in the text. The Sages have another answer, which we’ll get to in a separate note, as I think this one has gone on long enough.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 8, 2011

Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Nine: Plead for the Widow

Well, and if I’ve done this write, it is posting on Yom Kippur, the last of the Days of Awe, and before I begin the last bit of Isaiah 1:16-17, let me quote myself from last year at this time:

I do hope that Gentle Readers will forgive me for the things that I have done and left undone that have hurt y’all in any way, and I regret doing (or not doing) those things, whatever they are. But of course not knowing what they are means that I can’t really resolve not to do them again.

I’ll add that if I am doing something hurtful, or leaving something undone that is hurtful not to do, then please let me know so that I can make such a resolve—and then please let me know again when I fail at that resolve so I can try again. I do try; I keep trying.

OK, Isaiah:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

I want to do that thing I do where I attribute connotation to the etymology of words, which is highly suspect in terms of meaning but may still influence the way they are read. Or not; I have no reason to thing that Strong’s is any more accurate than any of the folkloring word origin stuff in our English dictionaries. Anyway, just as with yesterday’s fatherless, and like the English word, the Hebrew word for widow does not contain the missing thing. Strong’s links the word to the idea of silence; the person who is silent is a widow, because there isn’t anybody left to talk to. Even if this is crap etymology, it makes for a lovely poetry in this verse. We plead for the silent. Particularly if you imagine a world sufficiently patriarchal that the widow has no standing to sue for herself, or to speak in court, or even to be taught her legal rights. For her, widowhood is enforced silence, and we are commanded to be—not her voice, but a voice for her, such as her husband was required to be.

Speaking of connotations, both this one and the last one strongly smell of the legal system, but I think that may best be taken as a metaphor. Or if not a metaphor as a sort of schenectady, in which we take our lesson from that sphere and apply it to the greater world. I mean, clearly Isaiah didn’t just mean that we should plead for the widow in legal proceedings, but kick her to the curb in business and social matters. It’s an interesting figure of speech, though, because I think we would not ordinarily be inclined to say that we should act in all our lives as if we were involved in litigation. Perhaps we ought to—hold ourselves to a standard of fairness, of evidence before judgment, of openness, of opportunities of appeal, of dispassion and deliberation. On the other hand, it’s not as if we hold our court system up to such a standard, so how useful is the metaphor?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 7, 2011

Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Eight: Judge the Fatherless

We are nearing the end; at sundown tomorrow the gates of mercy close and the Book of Life is sealed. But there is yet time for Isaiah 1:16-17:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

The verb there is pretty clearly judge, but is (interestingly) used as the opposite of either kill (Psalms 94:6) or rob (Isaiah 10:2). But the choice is still judge—if Isaiah had wanted to say have mercy on or help or provide for, he could have, but he said judge. And on the object, it’s interesting that the word yatom is derived from a root word for loneliness, rather than taking its root from a word for a parent. The KJV translates it as fatherless, of course, which seems to be more correct than orphan, except that the English word contains the missing thing and the Hebrew word does not. It’s a poetic problem. See Lamentations 5:3: y’tomim hayinu, ain av, where the KJV switches to orphan to avoid saying we are fatherless without a father, which frankly, I think is great, but there you are. Also, the Divine is a father to the fatherless (Psalms 68:5), which is lovely, but again uses the English -less construction, which is not present in the Hebrew poetry.

Anyway, what I have been musing on today, in thinking about orphans/fatherless, is that we don’t come across so many of those in the US these days. Oh, there are some, and I don’t know the stats but I would guess that they are concentrated in parts of the US I don’t come across that often. Still, in comparison with Isaiah’s time or the nineteenth century, the condition of orphan-ness is rare. This is, of course, a Good Thing, but it does mean that people like YHB, comfortable middle-aged middle-class people that is, don’t have a visceral reaction to the orphan that I believe Isaiah is counting on. In particular, the repetition of this sentiment seems to imply that of course the fatherless are ill-judged. I’ve been seeing the Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote a lot recently that says “people who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.”; it’s pretty obviously true and equally obviously important for judges and justices to remember. What Isaiah is implying, though, is that we are all judges in life, and if we aren’t dealing the death penalty, we are making lots of judgments—in hiring, in smooching, in tutoring, in electing, in feeding, in providing shelter, in including, in excluding, in all the ways we interact with people—and if we are not constantly reminded or reminding ourselves, we are very likely to fall into the trap of perverting our judgments on the ill-represented, the orphans.

None of this, of course, is to reduce our responsibility for actual orphans, as are here (usually out of our sight, as I say) and around the world (not a few of whom were orphaned by the direct action of US policies). We must still judge them, and (as I think is also implied) judge ourselves by our treatment of them. But there are lots of people who are functionally orphans without our system, because they have no-one to represent them in the way Isaiah assumes fathers stand for their children.

Politically, what I’m thinking of is the treatment of the children of undocumented immigrants, whether those children are citizens by birthright or not. But as individuals, I’m thinking of the job applicant who clearly has no work experience or even the advice about workplace norms to prepare for the interview. I’m thinking about the kids in my kid’s school who eat up the school’s time and resources to do the things that my kids get at home. Whether these people have fathers or not, it’s very easy for me to judge them harshly and unfairly in part because they don’t have good representation.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 6, 2011

Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Seven: Relieve the Oppressed

So, we’re nearly done with the Days of Awe and with Isaiah 1:16-17:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

OK, so translation is an issue here, because what the KJV translates as relieve the oppressed is rendered correct oppression by the RSV and as Reprove the ruthless in the NASV. The word is a hapax wossname, that is, it’s a form of the verb that more or less means oppress, and it’s not absolutely clear from the way the word is formed whether it refers to the person doing or the person being done to. And the verb is more or less to set right, so one could apply it either way, really. So you make your choice.

Isaiah is, either way, addressing what we call social justice. He considered his society oppressive, what with the hands full of blood and all. You can make the judgment yourself (if you have sought judgment, I suppose) whether our hands are full of blood. I would observe, though, that in a big society like ours, there will be people oppressed. You don’t need to condemn the whole society as an oppressive one in an absolute sense or in comparison with another society to acknowledge that the machinery of society will come down harder on some people than others, and on some it will come down and crush them. Of course, in a society that isn’t terribly oppressive, those crushed people will be fewer and farther between, harder to see and harder to relieve. This makes Isaiah’s challenge particularly cutting for those who consider their society to be, on the whole, just.

It’s interesting to me to think about the other version, as Isaiah asking us to set straight the oppressor. One wonders if the 99% protests, the ones occupying Wall Street (I should make some mention of the rhetoric there at some point) are working to set straight those they view as oppressors, if they see themselves as living the Isaiah verse. Or would, if it were put to them. I do think that there is something Isaiah-ish going on there.

Or perhaps it’s just that I think there should be something Isaiah-ish going on there, and that I should be part of it, instead of writing blog notes.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 5, 2011

Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Six: Seek Judgment

Your Humble Blogger is late to the Seventh Day of Awe, but better late than proverbial:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

Most of the recent translations have Isaiah telling the People Israel to seek justice rather than judgment. I am not in a position to say that the modern translators are incorrect—modern translations tend to be much more accurate than the King James, if without that majestic rhythm. It’s a big difference, though. Having studied to do well, do we now seek judgment, that is, do we seek to have the ability to judge, or do we seek justice, that is, the just ordering of affairs. My Hebrew isn’t going to help us, here.

Surely my path through the verse leads us to judgment. As we prepare ourselves for right action, we clean and tidy our world, cease the wrong-doing and study the right. Now, perhaps, we are ready to have good judgment. When faced with a new situation (as we are faced with new situations every day, every waking hour), to judge those new situations rightly so that we know how to act rightly. All of the preparation leads up to this: judgment. And how do we know a woman with good judgment? If she has put away the-evil-of-her-doings, ceased doing the evil, and studied the good. If a woman has not done those things, we must doubt her judgment. If I have not done those things, I must doubt my own judgment. If I have, if I have studied the good and cleaned myself of the evil, then I can go on to the work of the last triple.

On the other hand, if the pivot of the verses was yesterday’s verse (and the traditional break in verses does seem to imply this) then the judgment I am talking about is included in the study of the right. Then we are to ask ourselves: how can a man seek justice? First, he should put away the-evil-of-his-doings (etc), and then study the good; without doing those things, then his pursuit of justice will be doomed. It would be like YHB hunting game: I would scare it away even as I pursue it (likening, here, the-evil-of-my-doings to the thrashing through the jungle of a nearsighted city boy) and then even should I stumble across it, I would not recognize it. But the preparation of the previous verse has now brought us to the point where we now can seek justice, and of course now we must.

I am stuck between them. I am wondering if my emphasis on the preparation for Doing Right has reached the point of procrastination, an endless putting-off of the hard work of t’shuvah because there is more contemplation, more meditation, more study to be done.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 4, 2011

Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Five: Learn to do well

And on the Sixth Day of Awe, we start the second verse:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

The word lamad (in this case limdu, the imperative plural) means both to learn and to teach, the two not being entirely separable ideas. Sometimes the word is translated study, as in the famous verse from the next chapter of Isaiah v’lo yil’m’du od milchama, and they shall study war no more. The second word, haytayv, can mean well or rightly. Because grammar sticklers (such as YHB) do the explodey-head thing with good and well, it’s probably better to translate this as Study to do rightly, although of course then you lose the magnificent KJV rhythms.

Digression: You could, of course, use learn to do right, but for some of us the whole grammar-scold explodey-head thing is actually not as distracting as the whole Jessica Rabbit thing. Not to mention the Jay Ward thing. I’m just saying, while do right could be an accurate translation, the connotations are not altogether what we are looking for. End Digressions.

I do think it’s interesting that Isaiah (who is passing along the message from the Divine) doesn’t tell us to do rightly but to study to do rightly. This is in keeping what I was on about yesterday, that it takes some preparation to cease to do evil. It makes sense, then, that it would take some study to do rightly. Yoda may insist that there is no try, only do, but both as a motivational technique and as a model of the universe, this is incorrect. There is a lot more than do.

For one thing, while sometimes the correct action is obvious, often enough it is not, and requires study. Your Humble Blogger wrote a note called What do I do now? in—oh, goodness gracious, in 2003—that posited that a study of philosophy assists us in the pattern-matching necessary to decide right action. I still think that’s true; putting in some positive thought about the nature of knowledge and of the universe prepares us to categorize situations and act on them. From the point of view of observant Judaism, of course, it is not thought about the nature of knowledge and the universe, but study of the Law and the Sages that prepares us. Perhaps it is meditation that prepares you, by centering you or by opening your perception. Or if you think politically (and YHB, of course, admires political thinking) it is not possible to have right policy action without study, nor when you have decided on right policy is it possible to implement that policy without study. And we’ll see in the rest of the verse that Isaiah does encompass public policy in the sphere of right action.

Doing rightly requires work and thought. Isaiah is emphasizing this: it’s not instinct, it’s not purely empathy and lovingkindness, it’s not inspiration. Those things are great, those things are necessary, but they are not sufficient. We must learn to act rightly, and keep learning. And these Days of Awe are an excellent time for that study.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 3, 2011

Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Four: Cease

It’s the Fifth Day of Awe, and the fourth bit of the text:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

The thing that stands out for me when focusing on the cease to do evil phrase is the readiness factor: first, before you can even begin, you have to wash, then you have to go back and wash again because you need to be clean, then you have to put away the evil, and then you are ready, perhaps, to cease doing evil. Or maybe that’s not intuitive—maybe the intuitive way is that the first thing you do is stop the evil actions. Sort of a stop-digging thing. Although I lean to the other side, I think once you get into the habit of evil, it’s very, very hard to stop. It’s much easier to start doing good than to stop doing evil, which of course is why people do good while they continue their evil ways. Which is just as well, really; if we had to fully stop with the evildoing before beginning the good, we would never get anything done.

You know, there are lots of places where the pull quote from these two verses is simply cease to do evil, learn to do well. It’s always dangerous to truncate a verse of Scripture, but in this case I think its particularly pernicious. Surely what we can see from this verse is that it’s not a simple matter of ceasing to do evil. There isn’t a switch marked evil that we just put into the wrong position. It’s not just opening up the preferences dialogue and changing the setting from evil to good. It takes a lot of preparation to cease to do evil.

That’s an insight I got from taking this a phrase a day this year, so if there isn’t anything else, I’d have to call it a success.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 2, 2011

Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Three: Put Away

It’s the Fourth Day of Awe, and we are at the end of the first triple in Isaiah 1:16-17:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

This is an odd one, I think, as instead of maintaining the parallel, Isaiah chooses to add onto it immensely. Not put away evil, not put away the evil of your doings, but put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes. It’s particularly strange in Hebrew, as insofar as I can tell (my grammar is essentially nonexistent) instead of using the usual noun form for the word evil, Isaiah has taken the verb form and then backformed a noun from it. Then he takes the a verb for acting/doing to make a noun form for the noun-of-evil-doing to link to, making a noun phrase out of two verbs (one of which is a verbing of a noun). It seems like an odd phrase. On the other hand, Jeremiah uses it in 4:4, 21:12, 23:2, 25:5 and 44:22, (and I think 26:3 with a variant spelling), and other variants are used a few other places. So perhaps it’s a Jeremiah thing that Isaiah is picking up here (yes, generations earlier, we are talking about Scripture here) in order to reference the doomsaying that is connoted with Jeremiah. Hm. Still, even if it is a stock phrase the-evil-of-your-doings, there’s presumably some point here in saying that we are not just to remove it, but to remove it from before the eyes of the Divine.

Which are, presumably, everywhere. The Divine being omniscient. Perhaps that’s the point—in order to put away the-evil-of-your-doings from before the eyes of the Divine, you have to put them pretty far away indeed. Put them completely out of the world, in fact. Just a roundabout way of saying don’t do the-evils-of-your-doings at all, with a reminder of the power of the Divine. Awfully roundabout, though, and not really fitting the rhythm of the first words of the verse, although the New International Version has Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Which gives a kind of urgency and point to the verse, except that (a) it comes off very scoldy, and (2) it’s not actually the end of the verse, and makes the next bit sound very clunky. Ah, well.

I do wonder, now that I think about it, whether the put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes bit smacks of concealing evidence, of cleaning the crime scene, or more positively of tidying up the house before the parents come home. The wrongdoer surrounded by the detritus of sin, having washed himself and made himself clean, now putting himself to the task of sweeping up the cigarette butts and mopping up the beer spills, emptying the overfull wastebaskets of our failures. You can’t stand there in the middle of the heap of the-evil-of-your-doings and really start doing right.

Which brings us back to the notion that the apologies we hear during these Days of Awe are not enough, that they must come with recompense as well as the commitment to improve. The way to put away the-evil-of-your-doings is to make them right, to do something active and affirmative to redress the wrong. It’s very difficult, though, when much of the-evil-of-your-doings is hurt feelings, distrust and sadness. If you have stolen a thing, you might be able to return the thing or pay for it, but if you have stolen somebody’s cheerful mood (by grumping at them or heaping work on them or making their life a misery), it’s harder to put that away from the eyes of the Divine. We do what we can, though.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 1, 2011

Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day Two: Make you Clean

Here on the Third Day of Awe, we are contemplating the second of nine injunctions from Isaiah 1:16-17:

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.

So. Why wash you, make you clean? Why is this two things? Well, and based on the evidence of my children, it is evidently completely possible to wash one’s hands before dinner and yet arrive at the table with dirty hands. It is, in fact, possible to arrive at the table with hands still wet from the sink that are, nonetheless, unacceptable to the parents, and you must go back and use soap this time, and warm water. I’m serious. I can wait. Go on. You know, I managed to wash my hands just fine, and I didn’t splash water all over the wall, either.

Well, and actually in this opening bit, the Hebrew (rachatzu, chizaku, hasiru; wash you, cleanse you, put you away [your evil doings]) is I think intended to imply in the cleaning something closer to purification. It isn’t the word for ritual purification (which I think would be something like hitaharu, but I’m terrible at the grammar), so perhaps I’m on the wrong track here, but I think the cleansing that is being ordered smacks of the preparation of the sacrifice. Not to connote the killing part, but to connote the preparation for sanctity.

At any rate, it is clear to me that the washing is with an eye on the past, to rid yourself of the year that is ending, and the making clean is with an eye on the future, to prepare yourself for the year upcoming. And now that I think of it, it seems crucial: a day to say, if I want to achieve my goals for the year, I should prepare myself like this. If I want to, for instance, be less lazy about housework (as I ought to be a good deal less lazy about housework), it’s important, yes, to wash myself of that sin of laziness as best I can, but also to clean myself for the new task of industriousness. To both eradicate bad habits and inculcate good ones. The Rabbis say that a sin leads to another sin, and a good deed leads to another good deed, which again is one of those things that is as much empirical observation as moral suasion. Clear a mental space for the new tasks. Or an emotional space, should your tasks require it. Or, for that matter, a physical space: in YHB’s own house, my laziness in tidying the study table contributes to putting off the bills and other paperwork, as it becomes a double task: first clear the space, then answer the mail.

Which is not a bad metaphor for the Days of Awe, come to think of it, with our unpaid bills from the last year piled up (with, to be sure, the junk mail and the catalogues), and before we can really begin to address them, we have to clear off the table from the detritus of the year (the scribbled telephone messages that never got delivered, the game pieces found on the floor after the game was hastily shoved into its box, the newsletter of which half was very nearly read, the busted plastic that someone was going to glue back together into a toy, the—wait, is that a library book?) before we can begin again.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 30, 2011

Isaiah and the Days of Awe, Day One: Wash you

So, what we’re doing here is going through Isaiah 1:16-17

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

during the Days of Awe, nine injunctions for nine days (not counting yesterday, which was Rosh Hashanah and something else). By the way, for those who have forgotten or haven’t been around during Scripture chat on this Tohu Bohu, I’m using the KJV because I like to, and will use other translations as I find them useful or interesting. For instance, the KJV Wash you becomes the RSV Wash yourselves which makes explicit the plural form of the Hebrew verb. On the other hand, when Isaiah is quoting the Divine as saying wash, is he saying it to the Hebrews as a people or as persons? Let’s go back a bit in Isaiah:

Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; [it is] iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear [them]. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you…

So we wash because our hands are full of blood, specifically because the Divine will not hear our prayers whilst our hands are full of blood. Metaphorical blood, by the way. Metaphorical washing.

Digression: Well, and metaphorical washing unless you’re a full-immersion Baptist. Although I’m not sure that sprinkling is technically metaphorical washing, but it’s a physical sign of invisible grace; the invisible grace is doing the metaphorical washing. There is evidently some argument about whether the Hebrew (rachatzu) means bathing/immersion or just a sponge bath, which difference of definition probably has resulted in many murders. I hope we can agree here that whatever baptismal or tashlich practice you engage in as a physical symbol, it is the metaphorical washing that is important. Unless, you know, your hands are actually full of blood. In which case, please actually wash them before typing a comment. End Digression.

You know, back in that digression, I mentioned tashlich; I think that’s something to keep in mind, here. Just as tashlich asks us to throw our sins into the river to be carried away with the running water, Isaiah asks us to wash ourselves, to take all the things that make even our solemn meetings stink to Heaven and wash them. And in order to do that, we have to know what we are washing ourselves from. This seems to be a backward-facing injuction, on the first day of it, not just to generally wash ourselves but to specifically wash ourselves of our sins. To identify, in other words, which bits of our metaphorical selves need metaphorical washing.

This is where that plural part comes in: I think that Isaiah is saying wash you to the community, not to the individuals within it—as it is the community whose solemn meetings stink so badly. Now, of course, a community of people who need washing will need washing as a community, but it’s also true that there are stains on the community that may not be stains on the individuals within it. We walk that balance during the days of awe. We confess our individual sins—lies, disrespect, violence—but we do so as a community. Here, I think, is something else: setting ourselves individually to wash our community sins.

What are those community sins? Lies, disrespect, violence. Much the same as the individual sins, only the lies we tell ourselves as a community are harder to resist, the disrespect of the community is far more deadly, and the violence of the community even more damaging to itself. Our besetting sin, here in my congregation, is probably complacence, although greed is likely a contributor. And lies, of course, the things we tell ourselves about ourselves and about outsiders. To wash ourselves of those things means we have to make ourselves aware of them, to see them, to scrub them, to scrape them off of us, to ready ourselves for a new year without them, as best we can.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 28, 2011

May you be inscribed for a good year

So, another New Year. The thing about being a Jewish-American baseball fan employed in academia is that I get a New Year every two or three months; this year the baseball season ended on the last day of 5771. So that’s all right.

To be somewhat more serious, Rosh Hashanah is only sort-of the beginning of the year, as it is the first day of the seventh month. But it doesn’t matter whether it is the beginning of the circle or just another point along the arc—Rosh Hashanah is when your next year is Written in the Book of Life. On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. That gives us ten days to replace the remorselessly just with merciful love. What do we do with these ten days?

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

That’s nine, actually, but it’s assumed that on Rosh Hashanah itself (which started here a few hours ago) we are in shul, listening to the shofar, and that it takes us that full day just to be woken up to begin. And nine days to do the Isaiah thing.

Let’s try, then, to take this nine days—I know most of y’all Gentle Readers aren’t Jewish, and I know that some Jewish GRs aren’t heavily into the the Days of Awe, but Isaiah’s prophecy is for everybody, and you don’t have to believe in a Book of Life to discuss with us what Isaiah might mean, might have meant. My take on Scripture, as you know by now, is that the miracle of it, what differentiates Scripture from any sort of good poetry or story, is that the Divine speaks to us through it, both individually and in communion, historically, in our time and in eternity. It is up to us, individually and in community, to find out what we find in it for ourselves and our times.

So let’s do. Take that quote, please, and chew on it for a day, and we’ll all gather around the table on Friday to start in with the washing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 9, 2011

A Tisha B'Av story

So, Tisha B’Av isn’t quite over, and I wanted to pass along this story about the Destruction that Gentle Readers might not be familiar with. I had heard the story before, but coming across it this year, it seemed to pop out at me. It’s from Gittin 56a, and comes at the time of Vespasian’s siege of Jerusalem. I’ll retell it in my own language and pace, though—this is the real story from the Talmud, not my drash, but I am not sticking to the language. Fair warning.

Anyway, Jerusalem groans under Roman oppression, the way you do, and was riven by factions, hating the other even more than the Romans, if possible. The bit that the Pythons got right. If anything, they understated it—they left out, for instance, the tendency for one group to inform against another to the hated overlords. That’s always good. So the religious separatists, the ethnic nationalists, and the tax protestors fought amongst themselves as well as against the Romans.

The Romans, being a patient and persistent empire, lay down the fortifications for a siege of Jerusalem, which is the sort of thing they are good at. After a few military losses in the outlying areas they send in their best general (fellow name a’ Vespasian, becomes important later) and something like sixty thousand soldiers. Vespasian is happy to keep the big city under siege while laying waste to the surrounding countryside; he’s got nothing but time. Well, he does have to leave the siege after a couple of years to go to Rome, because his armies had proclaimed him Emperor—factionalism was not a Jewish thing particularly. But he isn’t needed at the siege; the city is shut tight for three years.

The wise and wealthy of the city, however, had not been caught napping—they had put together enough to feed the populace for twenty years. They had grain and oil and salt and wine and wood, and they were sitting pretty. Well, not pretty, as such, but while the Roman armies lived in their camps, susceptible (at least somewhat) to raids and snipers, the Jews lived behind the wall of their city, secure. For three years. And remember, this being the first century (CE), they’ve had four different Emperors in that time, and there’s trouble in Egypt, there’s trouble in Gaul, there’s trouble in Germany, there’s trouble everywhere. And if they hold out for long enough, the Romans could decide they need those soldiers somewhere more profitable than Judea. Or, of course, the Messiah could come. So the wise and the wealthy counsel patience.

But the wise and the wealthy aren’t in charge any more. We’re not sure who was in charge—the Talmud calls them baryonei; Josephus calls them Sicarii, if he’s talking about the same people, and many translations call them Zealots. One translation just calls them ruffians, which is a great word, and the one I’m going to use—but the ruffians are in charge, here. It’s the ruffians who man the walls of the city, and not only keep the Romans out but the Jews in. It’s the ruffians who are killing people suspected of collaboration and betrayal and flinging the bodies over the walls. The head of the ruffians is a man called Abba Sikra, but even he has little control over them, privately telling his wife’s uncle, Yochanan ben Zachai, that if he tries to rein in their excesses, they will kill him.

And the ruffians aren’t patient. They really, really hate the Romans. A lot. And they really, really, really hate collaborators. They see any hint of a whisper of a treaty or a compromise or a truce as betrayal and treason. The only possible position for the righteous is to attack, now, now, with all the strength that can be mustered from pure hearts.

So they set fire to the warehouses.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 30, 2011

Shabbos not so much Frivolity: Psalm 137

It still being Between The Gates, I thought I would bring up some lamentations. Y’all are probably familiar with the English round “By the Waters of Babylon” popularized in the Don McLean version. It’s the first line of Psalm 137, which is a lament for lost Jerusalem. It has a lot of different settings in Hebrew, of course, such as this gorgeous one by

Salomone Rossi, and this traditional chant from the Bobover Chasidim. Franz Liszt did a setting, Heinrich Schutz did a setting, Nicolas Vallet did a lovely setting. And then there’s Godspell.

And then there’s this setting, Meydad Tasa’s Pop Psalm.

How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?

Damn well, that’s how we shall sing it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 21, 2011

Three Weeks Between the Gates

So. I did not write a note about Tzom Tammuz (or Sheva Asar Tammuz, the fast of the Seventeeth of Tammuz, which was this year on the 19th of July in the solar calendar), in large part because I don’t actually observe it. However, having added a Jewish Observances overlay to my online calendar, this year I was at least reminded of it.

The observance is the beginning of the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, which is a fast day and a day of mourning for the destruction of the temple. I wrote about Tisha B’Av last year, in the context of the Ground Zero Mosque controversy (which seems quaint now, hard to believe it was only a year ago) and I don’t really have anything new to say about it. Yes, it’s worth commemorating the military defeat and the Expulsion, but I don’t mourn the Temple.

I somehow started thinking about the Three Weeks, though, which are referred to as the weeks Between The Gates, or the weeks In the Narrow Places. mem tzadi rash, the same root as mitzrayim, or Egypt, as well as presumably the root for tzuris, trouble. But the metaphor is of a narrowing in, and I wound up getting the image in my head of a rodeo chute. Y’all know about rodeo chutes, yes? You have at least seen clips of the bucking bronco? The bull is brought from a wider place and confined (literally between the gates) before being let loose into the ring. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the actual Hebrew phrase, but that’s the image that stuck with me.

Now, how to interpret the image: are we during this time confined until our post Tisha B’Av release? Release into what? Are we the bull or the cowboy? Can we carry the Divine for eight seconds?

June 8, 2011

Ruth and Ruthlessness

Today is Shavuos, when we commemorate the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Sinai events, and also the First Fruits of summer. Wonderfully enough, we had a few ripe strawberries yesterday, so we got the First Fruits right on time. We’re still waiting for the First Vegetables (although the First Greens have been eaten, lettuce and spinach, and now that I think about it we pulled the First Radish, tho’ we haven’t eaten it yet).

The traditional reading for Shavuos is the Book of Ruth. I read it last night with my Perfect Non-Reader and my parents; it’s short and full of incident, although it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, really, in a lot of ways. I don’t mean the story in terms of what happens, which is very clear, but in terms of why people want to tell the story, why it is included in Scripture, what lessons we should draw from it—I think it’s a little perplexing.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Naomi and her husband Elimelech, along with their sons, move to Moab to find work (there’s a famine back home). The husband and sons die; Naomi returns home to Bethlehem, destitute, accompanied by her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Ruth engages in manual labor to support Naomi; Naomi arranges for her to be seen by one of Naomi’s wealthy relations, who falls in love with the young widow and marries her, taking care beforehand to observe the legal formalities. That’s it.

There are a couple of points that I want to make. The first is that in a holiday that commemorates the legal framework of our religion, this story is very clearly about the ways that the people are more important than the law. Not that the law is deprecated or ignored, but that both Ruth and Boaz (Ruth’s eventual husband) go further than their legal obligations, and are rewarded for it. Ruth is not obligated to go with Naomi, and in fact Orpah (Naomi’s other daughter-in-law) goes back to her parents with Naomi’s goodwill and is not vilified because of that.

In fact, when the Rabbis choose to vilify Orpah to make a contrast with Ruth, they add on new destructive and bestial behavior—this is typical of midrash, I’m afraid. Orpah, after kissing Naomi goodbye, is said to have that very night engaged in fornication with one hundred men and a dog; she is also said (based, presumably, on these allegations of promiscuity) to have given birth to Goliath and to the four giant’s-sons in 2 Samuel 21:15-22. On the other hand, these powerful children owe their might to Orpah’s kindness to Naomi; her good as well as her wickedness were rewarded. On the other other hand, you can search the actual text for Orpah’s wickedness from now to the End Times, and not come up with anything that is actually there.

Oprah doesn’t do anything wrong, but Ruth does something right, that is, she goes further than her obligations. Boaz more specifically goes further than his obligations: he lets Ruth (and others) glean, but then he tells his workers to (a) keep an eye on her and make sure she’s OK, (2) let her drink from their water, and (iii) leave extra barley behind to make it easier for her to glean. You have the obligations—the Ten Commandments I heard read out at synagogue today, and the rest of the Law—and then there’s doing the right thing, which is something more. In what could be, and often has been characterized as a legalistic religion, a cold scheme of laws and rituals, Ruth and Shavuos emphasize the humanity that runs through it.

Here’s my question, though: before Boaz will marry Ruth, he goes to an unnamed kinsman, who is by the Law obligated to accept Ruth in leverite marriage. He refuses, even when Boaz sweetens the deal (or attempts to trick the guy by first offering the sweet part and then the leverite part) but instead submits to halitza, although the halitza is done sort of backwards and by proxy—there is no spitting, and it is Boaz who takes the sandal, not Ruth. Anyway, this kinsman refuses Ruth. Why? We are not told—or, rather, we are told that he can’t accept it “lest I mar mine own inheritance”. That makes a good excuse, but a terrible reason, if you see the difference. Yes, any children of this guy’s marriage to Ruth would inherit Ruth’s first husband’s estate… sorry, this is complicated.

Say that Ruth’s husband Mahlon left an estate (which appears not to be true, but Boaz does tell this kinsman guy there is land) and this kinsman (who I will call Kinsman, for clarity) does marry Ruth. Kinsman does not inherit Mahlon’s estate as a dowry; he controls the estate (probably), but may not sell it or claim ownership of it. If Kinsman and Ruth have a son, that eldest son is named Mahlon and he inherits the estate (again, Kinsman will probably still control the estate as a guardian for a few years). But none of that should mar Kinsman’s own inheritance, should it? Young Mahlon, Jr. does not stand to inherit Kinsman’s estate, or even a part of it, as he is considered by the Law to be Mahlon’s son (for inheritance purposes). So Kinsman, Jr., should there be one, is still OK to inherit Kinsman’s land. Nor should Kinsman himself lose out—there is surely no mechanism for Kinsman’s father to cut him out of an inheritance for following the law of Leverite marriage. Surely, in fact, Kinsman stands to benefit, as he is more closely tying himself to the wealthy Boaz—perhaps not in regards to inheritance, but certainly Boaz could be counted on to put a few good things his way.

Now, it’s possible, tho’ the story doesn’t to my eye hold up to this interpretation, that Boaz got to Kinsman beforehand and bought him off, and that the reported dialogue is purely playacting to fulfill the technical requirement of the Law. Or it’s possible that Kinsman is just a jerk, and isn’t going to exert himself to care for a young widow despite the obligation placed on him by the Law. That’s the implication I see most prominently. But why does our Scripture show such a scofflaw without any consequences? Is declining leverite marriage so common (yes, it is in modern times, and even in Medieval times in the West where polygamy is not traditional)? That seems very strange to me.

So here’s my take on it: Kinsman rejects Ruth, using the inheritance dodge, because she is a Moabitess. Even though she is a Jew (whether she undergoes a conversion ceremony or no), and even though the Law clearly states that we need to welcome strangers in our midst, much less Jews, there is and was a tremendous reluctance to accept outsiders into our community, to shirk our responsibilities to them. She is other, and Kinsman doesn’t want her. But Boaz doesn’t care—he describes her as coming under the wings of the Lord, sheltered with the rest of the Tribe, using a metaphor of inclusion, not exclusion. That’s another lesson of Ruth at the moment of Shavuos: we are all, each of us, over time, at Sinai, and that is true of those who think they have ancestors who were there as well as the Moabites among us.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 22, 2011

Next Year

Well, and Passover is over and the special dishes have been packed into the attic for another year. It’s my favorite holiday, and I enjoyed it this year, but as with every year by the time it’s over, I’m glad.

At the end of the seder, the ritual dinner that opens the holiday, we say (and sing) “Next Year in Jerusalem!” It’s always a bit of a problem for me, and I assume it is a bit of a problem for most American Jews of my generation. Even for the Zionists (which is most of us, tho’ not YHB) there’s the simple fact that we have chosen not to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem this year, and that we will again have the opportunity next year and will not take it. Jerusalem is in our hands, and there isn’t anything particular holding us back—the price of a plane ticket, sure, but is that enough to stop us? Is that what’s holding back the completion of the seder?

I tend to interpret what’s actually going on in the ritual is that we are speaking (as we so often do during the seder in the character of a member of the Exodus generation. Earlier in the night we say ha lachma anya, which reads in English: Now we are here, next year may we be in the Land of Israel. Now we are slaves, next year may we be free. We aren’t actually slaves now, and we aren’t going toward Israel. Not us, not our generation. So we aren’t actually promising ourselves a trip to the Holy Land in twelve months. Not us, not our generation, but who?

Or, as I generally talk about Jerusalem as not being the earthly geography but the spiritual Presence that shares a name with the city where our center of government was. Next year in that Presence. But aren’t we in that Presence now? In what way are we hoping or promising to be in that spiritual Jerusalem next year?

I should make clear the distinction between my idea of a spiritual Jerusalem and the Christian idea of a Heavenly Jerusalem which more or less corresponds to the Rabbinic idea of the World to Come. Well, corresponds enough for a blog. For me, though, I am neither talking about a reward after death or in the endtime but something like what happens in Midrash during the story of Jacob’s Ladder, which allows the altar he makes out of the rock pillow to be on the site of the Temple by an act of miraculous translocation; the Divine wanted the event to happen in Jerusalem, so it did, despite his not having lain down in Jerusalem nor woken up there. This is the Divine’s Holy City, the one that is not tied to the Land but to the People.

I’m not sure why, but for some reason this year, as I was packing up the passover dishes, I had Jerusalem going through my head. Now, it’s hard for us Americans to really think about the poem or the song without laughing, as we mostly came across it through Monty Python references or other silliness without any sort of positive context, but give it a try:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

William Blake is starting from a story about Jesus actually visiting England, but the point he is making is that whether or not those feet actually walked in Glastonbury, whether the actual geographic location is there, surely the Divine Countenance is here—and if we are not in Jerusalem because of that, then it is not our job to sit by the river Bavel and weep, but to build Jerusalem here where we are. You don’t have to believe the myth to find that moving; you don’t even have to believe in the Lamb. You just have to believe that Jerusalem does not have to be in Jerusalem, but can be anywhere.

With that idea in mind, and that responsibility that entails, let me say: Next Year in Jerusalem!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 5, 2011

Shabbos Frivolity: Cherubim

So. This week’s parsha is teruma, which is pretty much about the detailed specs for the tabernacle. As it happens, my Perfect Non-Reader and her Hebrew School gang were leading the service last night, so YHB was there. Alas, attendance at services is uncommon these days, what with my working on Saturday morning, so it was a bit of a disappointment to make one of my few visits during this stretch of the liturgical year, the most boring stretch there is. People complain about the begats? Try Exodus 25. Make this thing out of that kind of wood, and put rings on it for the posts, and then make posts, and put the posts in the rings, and put gold on all the wood, and then make another thing out of wood, and put rings on that for posts, and then make posts, and then put the posts in the rings, and then put gold on all the wood. Whee!

Anyway, one of the dictates for decoration is that there be lots of cherubim. On the mercy seat, on the ark, on the curtains, two cherubim. To the point that later, in the writings, the Divine is described as the One that dwells between the cherubim. And I’m thinking, that’s not really an image to strike fear into the hearts of the enemies of the People Israel, is it? The one between the cherubs? His mighty throne sits on the cherubs?

Of course, our cherubs aren’t cherubim at all, but actually putti, little baby-faced toddler dudes with wings, signifying innocence rather than might. In the text, the cherubim are fierce—well, probably fierce, anyway. The first instance of a c’roov is the guardian of Eden, with some sort of flaming rotating sword to keep the banished humans out. Fierce enough. Ezekiel describes them as, well, Ezekiel has some issues. I don’t think we all need to accept that what Ezekiel says he saw is some sort of exact reporting. Ezekiel is in William Blake territory, and they can hang around together like that. Monsters. The cherubim, I mean. Monsters pulling the Chariot of Fire. Not very cherubic. Can you imagine the Chariot of Fire being pulled by putti? Not an impressive image, I’m afraid.

So, there are cherubim in the text, and there are cherubs in our language, and the two have very little in common except wings, and our cherubs usually only have two of those. What do we do with this? One excellent answer is to sneer at all the people who don’t know the difference between a cherub and a putto, declaring that everybody else is just wrong, wrong, wrong. It is, actually, an excellent answer—accurate research eventually convinced people that the singular in English should be cherub and not cherubin, after all, despite it having been wrong in ecclesiastical Latin, swallowed into Middle English and persisting up until Tyndale’s time. So if we maintain our standards for four or five hundred years, we may be able to bring back the language to our own purposes.

Or, alternately, we can think of parsha teruma as insisting on putti as symbols of the Divine majesty. It gives a person a whole new sense of the majestic, innit?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 1, 2010

A Chanukah Miracle

Your Humble Blogger happened across a Chanukah midrash that I have not seen before, and I wanted to share it with y'all as Chanukah is about to begin. It comes to me from Yocheved Krimsky, the Rebbitzen of Young Israel in Stamford, CT, who transmits it from a line of Hasidic teachings. Just goes to show—tho' I dislike the Hasids and their ilk, they have good midrash.

Anyway, the question is: why do we celebrate Chanukah for eight days?

If you know anything about Chanukah at all, you answer that the eight days of Chanukah refer to the miracle of the oil lamp: when the Temple was rededicated, there was only enough oil to fuel the Eternal Light for one day, and it takes eight days to purify the olive oil and make it ready for the lamp. But lo! the lamp remained lit for eight days! Long enough for new oil to be prepared. And the Eternal Light stayed bright until, you know, the whole Temple was knocked down. But that's a different story.

No, the point is that the oil that was enough for one day lasted for eight days, and that is why Chanukah, too, lasts for eight days. Everybody knows that.

But the rabbis point out: there was enough oil for one day, and it lasted for eight. Surely the miracle lasted for seven days—you would expect the lamp to stay lit for one day, after all, and there was nothing unusual until that day was over. So why do we not celebrate Chanukah for seven days, the seven days that were an unexpected gift of light?

There are, of course, many different answers to that question. But the one that Ms. Krimsky prefers is that it is a miracle, really, that one day's oil will light a lamp for one day. The first day is a gift of the Divine as much as the other seven. It is true that the first day's gift—that a wick in olive oil will provide light—is an everyday sort of gift, ordinary and commonplace, while the gift of the other seven days is remarkable and rare. But that's why we need the extra day of Chanukah, to celebrate the gift that we otherwise forget.

But of course, there's more. Ms. Krimsky quotes the Old Man of Kelm (not to be confused with a Wise Man of Chelm) saying there is no difference between “natural oil” and “miracle oil”. That is, the One Who declared that oil burn for eight days is the One Who declares that oil burn for the ‘usual’ amount of time, as we were saying. But it seems to me that it is an astonishing thing to say that there is no difference. How could there be no difference between natural oil and miracle oil? But then, think about it: did the flame burn a different color when the miracle began? Did the oil start to smell like cinnamon and nutmeg? Did a chorus of heavenly angels suddenly cry out on one, high, glad, long, sighing note?


I have never tried to imagine it before, that next day, not really. Presumably, having made the gutsy decision to light the oil that was there, they checked the next day. After twenty hours or so, maybe they peered in to the lamp, or even picked it up to heft its weight, and see how it was doing. Or perhaps not, quite likely they left it alone, not wanting to be immediate cause of the light going out. Keeping their distance from it, knowing it was almost done. A few more hours, and the light is still going. What do they think? Probably that it was a big jar, a little more full than they thought. Another few hours. Do they start to wonder, because of course the lamp never had gone out (except when it was dashed to the ground when the Greeks desecrated the Temple), whether they had perhaps estimated incorrectly how long that last bit at the bottom of the lamp would run out. And another hour. No change. And another. And another.

When did the miracle start? Was there one moment when it was a normal lamp burning normal oil, and then the next moment when it was a Chanukah Miracle? Did they miss that moment, the Hasmoneans, that change from the everyday miracle of combustion to the rare and remarkable miracle of Chanukah? When the flame was maintained by the present Will of the Divine, not by the ordinary laws of nature (which of course are also the Will of the Divine)?

I'm sure they missed it. I'm sure I miss it, every time it happens. You have to miss it. It's meant to be missed. Even if you are clever enough to walk between the raindrops without getting wet, are you clever enough to look at the raindrops and say “That raindrop is due to the cycle of evaporation and condensation, and that raindrop was created by the present Will of the Divine”?

So, as I light the candles tonight, I will think: perhaps this is when the Chanukah miracle happened. And as I light three candles tomorrow night, I will think: perhaps this is when the Chanukah miracle happened. Or now. Or maybe now.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 27, 2010

Shabbos Frivolity: Hchahnnukkahh Music

It would, I feel, be remiss of Your Humble Blogger not to take this pre-hanukkah Shabbos to link to Matisyahu’s new Chanukkah song, Miracle. Just because I can’t keep plugging the Klezmatics all the time. Although, you know, there’s a nice hour-long Klezmatics show from 2007 in the NPR archive, with lots of stuff from Happy Joyous Hanukkah, one of the albums they did with Woody Guthrie lyrics. But by now Gentle Readers presumably know if they like the Klezmatics and can do the searches themselves.

Let me state, for the record, that Channuka has a very low quality of holiday music generally. There are three or four major songs: I Have a Little Dreidel, which is as bad as Jingle Bells; Oy Hanukah, which is only really bearable if you do it in Yiddish and very very fast; and Ma Otzur, which is OK, if a bit dirge-like. Maybe Sivivon: sov, sov, sov. Compared to Rosh Hashanah or Pesach, it stinks.

Of course, the holiday itself stinks compared to Rosh Hashanah or Pesach, so there’s that. But I can’t help comparing the songs, nor of course comparing the songs to the Christmas songs, which admittedly include hundreds of lousy songs but also dozens of great ones. So then there’s that. And of course having an eight-day holiday with only a few crappy songs is a problem.

I mean, there are more songs. It isn’t just Matisyahu that wants to write new songs for Hanukka. Alas, most of the new-ish songs are comic songs—Adam Sandler’s famous song joins Tom Lehrer’s Hanukkah in Santa Monica—and are not quite appropriate for singing whilst sitting around the table wagering about which candle will last the longest.

Nor, I have to admit, do I expect Miracle to be a classic, crooned by the cantor over sufganiyot and cigars. Ah, well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 20, 2010

Shabbos Frivolity: A Talking Animal Story

So. A talking animal story.

There are only two in the Scripture, you know, and this is the second one, the one where Balaam is mocked by his own ass. Balaam is a bizarre and troubling figure, so there are lots of stories about him that are added to the ones in Numbers 22-24, because frankly the ones in Numbers 22-24 don’t really make much sense. Which is OK, because the ones made up to explain why the earlier ones don’t make any sense? They don’t make much sense, either.

The king of the Moabites sends for Balaam, the son of Beor, to curse the Israelites, because at this point the Israelites are threatening to wipe out the Moabites like they wiped out the Amorites and the whoeverites. He wots, the Moabite king does, that whomsoever Balaam blesses is blessed, and whomsoever Balaam curses is well and truly cursed, and if these troublesome Israelites were well and truly cursed, then maybe Moab will repel them and there would be a little something in it for Balaam. Anyway, Balaam, being a prophet and all, tells the Moabite messenger that he need to checkswith the Divine, and the Divine specifically forbids it. Don’t go with them, don’t curse the Israelites. So. The messengers put the rewards back in their pockets and go back to the Moabites, and the king is not very happy. As you might guess. He sends the messengers back to Balaam with even more promises and rewards, and Balaam says no. He cannot go beyond the word of the Divine for all the silver and gold in Moab. Read my lips, he says. Not gonna happen.

But on the other hand, why not check with the Divine one more time? So he does, and this time, the Divine tells him to go with the messengers and to say what the Divine tells him to say. So, up he gets, and tell the men that he is ready to go with them to the Moabite king. And that makes the Divine angry. Gets right up the Divine nose, it does. Which you may think is odd, because there’s the Divine in Numbers 22:20 saying rise up and go with them, and there’s the Divine in Numbers 22:22 with his anger all kindled in his nose because Balaam rose and went. So some of you are thinking that the Divine is really a big jerk, when you think about it. And you are not wrong, not in this story.

Because the Divine decides to humiliate Balaam in front of the messengers. So he sends an Angel of the Lord with a sword in his hand to appear in the road immediately in front of Balaam, and here’s the kicker—he makes the Angel invisible to everybody and everything except Balaam’s donkey. Right? Here’s this maginificent prophet and curse-master, and he can’t see the Angel of the lord, but his donkey can. That looks good.

Anyway, the donkey, not being stupid, keeps trying to dodge out of the way of the otherwise invisible Angel, and Balaam doesn’t know what the hell’s going on only his donkey keeps plunging off the road into bramble bushes or squeezing up against the wall (and squeezing Balaam’s wall-side leg pretty painfully in the process). Finally, Balaam and his retinue are in such a narrow street that the Angel blocks the entire way. The donkey does what donkeys do best: she refuses to move.

By now, Balaam is beating the crap out of the donkey with a stick. And the donkey says—

You remember this is a talking animal story, right?

The donkey says What did I do to you? How come you’re beating on me?

And Balaam says Because you mocked me, you ass! and further says If I had a sword in my hand instead of a stick, you’d be dead by now.

And the donkey says Don’t you know me by now? Do I do shit like that?

And Balaam says No.

And then the Divine makes the angel visible to Balaam, and the angel says that the Divine is mad at Balaam for going with the Moabite King’s men. So Balaam says Gosh, I didn’t know, I’ll turn around and go home. But the Angel tells him to keep going, but warns him only to say what the Divine tells him to say.

Which, you know, he does: instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them, saying How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel. Actually, there are some nice comic bits in that part, too, with the Moabite King and Balaam building seven altars and sacrificing seven rams, and then doing the blessing-instead-of-cursing business, and the King says Why did you do that? and Balaam says I have to say what the Divine puts in my mouth and the King says Come over here where the Divine can’t hear you. And they build another seven altars and sacrifice another seven rams, and Balaam prophesies again, and brings the word of the Divine, which says Did I stutter? And the King says come over here where the Divine can’t hear you. And they build another seven altars and sacrifice another seven rams, and this time the Divine is all I can do this all day, you know. And Balaam says the Ma tovu, and prophesies about the doom of the Amalekites and the Kenites and the whateverites. That’s pretty much it.

Now, does this story make any sense? At all? Clearly the Divine is chatty with Balaam, which is a bit unusual since Balaam isn’t of the Tribe, but still, given that—what’s up with the whole ass-and-angel business?

The only sense it makes to me is to posit that there are a bunch of stories about Balaam and how powerful he is, and how when he curses people they stay cursed, and how when he kisses, she stays kissed. And everybody knows these stories. Balaam is a great big powerful super-wizard, and all the stories the people Israel tell about pillars of fire and sea-parting and plague-inflicting and covenanting are competing with Balaam stories. Possibly Balaam stories about plague-inflicting and sea-parting and so on. So we take a brief detour from our regularly scheduled story to have a sweeps-week cameo appearance by Balaam, who not only endorses the Israelites and their conception of the Divine, but is made in the process to look like Mr. Noodle’s brother, Mr. Noodle. I mean, he loses an argument with his ass because he can’t see an Angel with a sword. Dorothy wants to ask someone else.

Just a guess, here. And the problem with the guess is that we do not, in fact, have any Balaam stories; if there were a bunch of them, they have fallen into the mists of history and are no more. And one would think that if the Balaam stories were so widespread and popular, we would have some of them left. So it’s not even a very good guess. But it makes the story work a little better, and it gives the Divine some motivation in fucking around with Balaam which otherwise seems totally unnecessary.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 2, 2010

Shabbos Frivolity: Mark Warshawsky

Simchas Torah is over, but I can’t help beginning what may turn out to be a year of yiddishkeit frivolity with this video:

That’s the Klezmatics recording, of course, and “Simkhes-Toyre Time” is one of my favorite of theirs, and one of my favorite Simchas Torah songs. And, you know, a song in Yiddish with Portuguese subtitles. If you like, there is an odd video with the Max Klezmer Band with bits of them playing this tune in Benin, if your multi-culti buttons are still unpushed.

The songwriter is Mark Warshavsky, who has been described as the Yiddish Woody Guthrie. Well, by me, anyway. The story is that Sholem Aleichem (with whom he toured) couldn’t tell which songs Mr. Warshavsky had written and taught him and which ones his mother used to sing to him in his cradle. This is, presumably, a compliment, rather than a despairing note about a failing memory. But his songs do have that odd characteristic of seeming to have evolved naturally rather than having been deliberately written. This is particularly true of “Oyfn Pripetshik”, (By the Fireplace), which is actually called “The Aleph-Bet”, but since there are a million other songs called “The Aleph-Bet”, it’s better to call this one by its first words. This song, actually, is often called by its first words (Kinder mir hobn simkhes toyre) to distinguish it from the other Simchas Torah songs.

Because I am very lucky, I was able to go upstairs at my place of employment and pick up a book of his lyrics. Because I don’t read Yiddish, I am unable to tell if Sholem Aleichem tells that story I mentioned above in his introduction to the collection. I am, however, able to make out that the lyrics are on pages 37-39. I can tell that the next song is called “Der Vinter”, which seems to be about the oncoming winter. Hey! Multilingualism!

And just for frivolity’s sake, here’s an odd thing I came across and feel I should link to: a scene from Dummy featuring Milla Jovovich as a punk diva wannabe hired to sing klez at a wedding, and belting out a version of Mr. Warshawsky’s Di Mizinke Oysgegebn. Have we covered the whole world yet?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 25, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse twenty-nine

Well, and here we are, around again. It’s Sukkot, again; we are at the end of our liturgical year, again; we are heading into b’raishit (in the beginning) again.

I have spent two liturgical years talking about Pirke Avot; today we are looking at the last verse of Chapter Four. There is a Chapter Five to do, and even a Chapter Six (although the sixth chapter is not actually part of the original text), but Your Humble Blogger is planning to take a break from the avot for a year or two. I may yet get back to Chapter Five, but then, I may not. I have noticed, and some Gentle Readers have noticed, that I am just slogging through these verses now. I’m not bringing any real energy or enthusiasm to them; I’m not tearing into them with joy. Better, then, not to do them at all—or at least, not to do them for a while.

I haven’t entirely decided what I will do for next year. I will want to do something for our weekly religious note, some sort of text examination, probably. So this isn’t a farewell to the series, so much as it is a seasonal change, like this time of year, another moment on the spiral, a year ending and a year beginning, the trees turning colors, the summer clothes packed away and the sweaters shaken out and brushed off, the sunscreen not much use any more for a while, but the possibility of apple-picking and hot cider. That time of year.

So this is not the Last Verse, either of the avot or necessarily of our time with the avot, but it is the last verse for a while, and a good long one, too. I’m going to use Judah Goldin’s translation, and I’m not going to add to it at all, just to type it in and let it sit there ending the chapter. It’s a very Yom Kippur sort of verse, and although Yom Kippur was last week, and those gates are closed, it was the verse I was thinking about at the time.

He used to say: The ones who were born are to die, and the ones who have died are to be brought to life again, and the ones who are brought to life are to be summoned to judgment—so that one may know, and make known, and have the knowledge that he is Gd, he is the designer, he is the creator, he is the discerner, he is the judge, he the witness, he the plaintiff, and he will summon to judgment: blessed be he, in whose presence is neither iniquity, nor forgetfulness, nor respect of persons, nor taking of bribes—for everything is his. Know that that everything is according to the reckoning.

And let not thine impulse give thee reassurances that the netherworld will prove a refuge to thee—for against thy will art thou formed, against thy will art thou born, against thy will dost thou live, against thy will die, and against thy will shalt thou give account and reckoning before the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be he.

I think that’s a good place to leave off. For now, for this text.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 11, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse twenty-eight

Rabbi Eliezer Ha-Kappar says: Envy, lust and hankering for glory put a man out of the world.

That’s Judah Goldin’s translation of today’s verse, and I chose it because I like the world hankering so much in this context. The Hebrew actually just says glory as far as I can tell, but the triple pretty clearly demands an attitude rather than an aspect.

Although, I must say, since Rabbi Eliezer Ha-Kapper doesn’t specify which man is taken out of the world, there might be some reason to go the other way. That is, envy might take out of the world the envious person, or might take out the envied person. Neither is a good position. It depends, I suppose, on how literally you want to interpret the taking-out. Feeling envy may put a man from his rightful attitude, taking him from the world he should be in and placing him in a nightmare world of endless onedownsmanship, but then feeling envy might put a man from the world because the envious man puts a shiv in his ribs. That’ll take you out of the world, it will.

As for lust, if we are willing to interpret this as the negative aspect of lust, lust separated from love or affection or even empathy, then while it is a feeling that certainly takes the person who feels it out of the world of comfort, virtue and serenity, it sometimes takes the object of the lust out of their world in a white van, and that object doesn’t always so much come back.

Digression, I suppose, although it isn’t really digressing from the text: Your Humble Blogger is uncomfortable with the purely negative interpretation of lust that turns up in homilies and sage sayings so frequently. I happen to enjoy sexual desire, I think lust can be a pretty terrific thing, and I don’t think that it usually takes me out of the world, nor does it take the objects of my desire out of the world. On the contrary, I think that lust can root a person plumb smack in the world, for a lot of good things. Furthermore (and I want to emphasize this), I think that lust that is not brought to fruition, desire that is not met, an appreciative glance at a pretty body or a teasing flirtation over years of friendship, the frustration of a married couple with kids unable to make enough time or save enough energy, or the solitary consumption of erotica and pornography—I think all those can be wonderful things that bring a person into the world, in the good sense. And I think that a lot of people hear this sort of verse as denying the positive aspects of lust, rather than singling out the negative ones—and even if it is just singling out the negative ones, that in itself tends to put more emphasis on those, as if they were the most frequent and most intense aspects. This, it seems to me, tends to decrease people’s ability to enjoy those aspects, thus putting them out of the world.

On the other hand (still within this Digression, if it is one) the negative aspects of lust, the ones that are not connected to affection and empathy, much less love, are occasionally discussed as if they had nothing to do with sexual desire at all. Rape, for instance, is of course about much more than sex, but I have heard people say it isn’t about sex at all, which seems to me to be, well, wrong. I think it’s important to emphasize the difference between positive and negative experiences of lust, but I also think it’s wrong to deny that there’s a connection between them. Much as I might want to deny it, there is such a connection. Which, to me, makes it all the more important to celebrate the positive kind—people experiencing desire of any kind need to know that there is a positive kind, and that the positive kind is better. Does this seem obvious? I hope it does, but I’m not looking forward to explaining it all to my children. End Digression.

As for glory, it is true that the desire for glory takes a person out of the world, but it is also, alas, true that the achievement of glory, wanted or not, takes a person out of the world. The path to glory is often over the bodies of other people, whether those other people also wanted glory or whether they were just in the wrong place. Or in the wrong army.

Taken as a lecture to individuals, Rabbi Eliezer Ha-Kapper is clearly saying avoid envy, avoid lust, avoid glory. And that’s fine; I think that’s a great reminder. But I think that we can take it as a criticism of a culture. There is a lot in our culture that supports and celebrates envy; there is a lot in our culture that supports and celebrates lust detached from affection; there is a lot in our culture that supports and celebrates glory. That all comes at a cost. You, as one person, can take Rabbi Eliezer’s advice and avoid those feelings in yourself (although the Sage doesn’t provide a technique for doing so while living in such a culture), but that does not make you secure and safe in your world. You can be taken out of the world by envy, by lust or by glory even while following this verse for yourself. Being good is never enough.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 4, 2010

Pirke Avot, chapter four, verse twenty-seven

The next verse is an immediate response to the previous one, where Jose ha-Babli compared learning from a young teacher to drinking wine out of the press. I’ll use Judah Goldin’s translation:

Rabbi says: Do not look at the jug but at its contents—there are new jugs filled with old wine, and old ones in which there is not even new wine!

This is Judah the Prince, by the way, as it always is when they just call somebody Rabbi without a name. And he does seem to be saying that Jose ha-Babli is just wrong. Which is fair; the combined learning seems to be that (a) you should arrange for your children to learn while they are still young, (2) it is better, in general, to arrange for them to learn from somebody with experience, rather than from a brash young teacher with New Ideas, but that (iii) do not assume that an old teacher is wise, or that a young teacher is ill-trained, but look into each individual teacher’s qualifications.

All good. Nothing wrong with that learning.

It does all remind me, though, of how public education (which is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful thing, and which is, on balance, possibly the Best Thing) does set up a system where the choice of teacher for our children is handled, well, professionally, with tests and accreditation and hiring practices and so on to assure, as best we can, that our teachers are good wine in uncracked bottles. My Perfect Non-Reader started fourth grade this week, and while there is a certain amount of choice built into the system (we could have swapped schools, or moved out of town, or taken her to a private school, or homeschooled) for most of us, it’s Hobson’s Choice, with Hobson being overseen by a Superintendent who is appointed by a School Board who are elected by us townsfolk all together, supported by a University system, backed by the state and federal governments. We waited to hear who her teacher would be, and while we had a preference, perhaps, we knew that there aren’t very many really lousy teachers at our school, or in fact in any of the schools.

Even for Hebrew School, which is much less professional a thing, we have a limited range of choices: we choose our congregation, and we participate (to varying degrees) in choosing a Rabbi, a President, and a head of the education program, and perhaps we volunteer ourselves or we push our spouses or friends to volunteer, but on the whole, we sign our kids up and take what they get, in the knowledge that Somebody Else is handling it. The Rabbis of our verses lived in a very different world, where placing your children with someone was giving them a master to follow, possibly in a different town, and your own day-to-day life would be very separated from their lives, after that choice. More like sending your kid to college, only at ten years old. Or how the old English Aristocracy would chose tutors and governesses, I suppose.

Well, anyway. The emphasis throughout Avot on choosing a teacher is from a different world than ours, which isn’t terribly surprising, I suppose. And, of course, there are good things and bad things about that—while I do on occasion read these things and thing that I really should taste the wine in the jug before, um, metaphorically dunking my kids in it, the professionalism of teaching has not only broadened the range of kids who get educated but narrowed the range of incompetence and brutality of the teachers. I wouldn’t want to live in the Rabbi’s world, myself; I can’t help thinking that I would send my kids to the wrong teacher, or be sent to the wrong one myself, and then what?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Pirke Avot, chapter four, verse twenty-six

Having missed last week, I have broken this series of connected verses up more than they ought to be. Two weeks ago, Elisha b. Abuyeh talked about learning as a child versus learning as an adult; this week, we have a response about teaching from Jose ha-Babli, in Herbert Denby’s translation:

R. Jose b. Judah of Kefar ha-Babli said: He that learns from the young, to what is he like? To one that eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from his winepress. And he that learns from the aged, to what is he like? To one that eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine.

Here we learn a distinction: it’s better (to use the straightforward interpretation of Elisha b. Abuyeh’s verse) to learn when you are young, but better to learn from somebody who is old. That’s simple, ain’t it? And so it is.

So, here’s just a nice little thing about the verses. When Elisha ben Abuyeh is talking about learning, he says ha-lomaid yeled, the one who learns as a boy. The root is lamad, the three letters lamed, mem, daled. Clear? Similarly, when Jose ha-Babli is talking about learning from, he says ha-lomaid min ha katanim, the one who learns from the little ones.

The root word is used, however, to mean teach as often as learn, as in Deu 11:19: And ye shall teach them [v’limad’tem] your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. It’s as if the non-standard English use of learn to mean teach (That’ll learn him!) is the standard, although with Hebrew there are differences in the vowels and prefixes and suffixes, none of which I understand at all. The thing is that in use, it was clear which meaning was in use at any time, but it seems to me that the root word is close to the surface, that is, the words sound so similar, being so similar, that there would be an awareness that they are the same word, really.

Or not, I suppose; certainly I am skeptical in English of arguments that words really mean what they are connected to by their root words, rather than the surface meanings that people use all the time. And the rabbis tended to use words carefully, or rather, the records contain carefully constructed sentences, whether that was how they talked at the time or how they were edited later.

But I wanted to add another thing about that root word, lamad, which is that not only is the word for student, talmid, derived from it, but so too is name of the Object of Study, the Talmud.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 21, 2010

Pirke Avote chapter four, verse twenty-five

This week we have a saying from Elisha ben Abuyeh. We have met him before, in a historical novel called As a Driven Leaf and on a trip to Paradise in Avot 4:1 a few months ago. I’ll quote my version of the story for those that missed it the first time.

There were four who entered Paradise. Ben Azzai was one, Ben Zoma the second, another was the third, and the fourth was Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Akiba said to the others, he said, When ye arrive at the stones of pure marble, don’t cry out ‘water, water!’ says he, for he that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight, that is, the presence of the Divine.

Ben Azzai took one look and died.

Ben Zoma took one look and went mad.

The other one became a heretic (which is why we don’t mention his name in the story, not to speak ill, although for a hint, his first initial is E and the second letter is lisha Ben Abuyah).

Rabbi Akiba departed unhurt.

That’s the whole of the story, which is written in the tractate Hagigah, page 14b. It is clearly a strange and unsatisfactory story.

So, before we even get to the verse, we have to ask: why are we including the saying of the heretical Other? Sure, he was a great and pius scholar in his youth before he entered Paradise, but surely his example is one to be avoided and shunned. Or, at least, taken as a warning. Now, let’s see what he says, in Irving M. Bunim’s translation:

Elisha b. Avuyah said: If one learns as a child, to what is it like?—like ink written on fresh paper. If one learns as an old man, to what it is like?—like ink written on erased paper.

On the face of it, this is just saying that it is easier to learn when you are young, and that when you are old, you have much to unlearn (or erase) before you can learn anything. It’s a warning not to put off your studies, and not to put off your children’s studies. This is good advice, of course.

On the other hand, Elisha ben Abuyeh himself was a great scholar as a youth, knowledge written on him like blank paper, and when he was an old man, he had erased it all. Is that what he is talking about? Was this a saying of his youth, when he was guessing at the difficulty of learning in your old age? That isn’t much of a wise saying, then. Or was it a saying of his heretical age, when he had learned and unlearned and learned and unlearned until his wisdom was full of holes?

I also wonder about this: was the audience of the time, the Rabbis of Late Antiquity, let’s say, who put this book together, all so familiar with writing on fresh and erased paper? Back in Chapter One, I wondered about the transmission of Wisdom via the Book rather than the Telling, the insistence within its pages of its authority. So perhaps this really is something that has powerful connotations for his audience. I’m certainly not an expert on the history of The Book. But I wonder… if, as I suspect from the little I know, fresh paper was not a readily available resource in the provinces of the Empire circa 100 CE, the distinction between new paper and old may have been one of value. New paper was expensive and difficult to obtain. Old paper was cheap(er) and easier to get hold of. You would never write a first draft on new paper—Roman edicts, I am told, were still written on wax first and then transferred to vellum.

Perhaps, then, we could interpret the sentiment like this: when teaching children, teach them the traditions as they were transmitted; that is not the place for experiments or advances. But when the old go to learn, rather than being bound by the tried and true, a certain amount of experimentation and searching is appropriate.

That, in fact, when the old go to learn, it is like a first draft: sloppy, new and… well, heretical, yes?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 14, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse twenty-four

This week we have an unusual verse, in that Samuel ha-catan quotes Proverbs 24:17-18 verbatim, so I am using the King James Version rather than any of my usual translations:

Samuel the Small said: Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the LORD see [it], and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.

Here is a story about Samuel ha-catan: Rabban Gamliel needed seven sages to convene a Bet Din to declare a Leap Year. When he arrived in the meeting house, there were not seven but eight sages! Rabban Gamliel asked who had invited himself in excess of requirements, and Samuel rose, excusing himself for attending, but explaining that he was present only as a student, to learn the appropriate procedures. The Rabbis explain that this was a prevarication, actually, as Samuel wanted to make sure that no other present would be embarrassed and asked to leave. It is Samuel’s humility that got him his name, this story explains, although of course more likely it was just to distinguish him from some older Samuel with a similar patronymic. At any rate: humility, and not only refraining from schadenfreude but working to avoid letting your rivals stumble or fall.

On the other hand, another story about Samuel ha-catan: when the Amidah, the central prayer of the liturgy, came to be set down in its final form, Samuel ha-catan was in the committee who made the decisions. These decisions were, for the most part, defining the eighteen benedictions and placing them in order. One of the names for the prayer is the sh’monah esrei, the eighteen. There are actually, in the traditional liturgy, nineteen benedictions: the eighteen and another, negative benediction, the benediction against the heretics. This calls for the enemies of the Jews to be “cut off”, struck down and humbled: Blessed are you, Master of the Universe, who breaks enemies and humbles sinners. This blessing (called the birkat ha-minim) was written by Samuel ha-catan himself. Note, by the way, that the language is the same as our verse: enemies are oy’vim, so there’s no distinction there (although there is some distinction between stumbling, falling, breaking and cutting down, of course).

So, while Samuel ha-catan is known for quoting Proverbs about not enjoying the downfall of enemies, he is also known for writing and codifying the liturgy praising the Divine for the downfall of enemies. What do we learn from this? The sages tell us that only Samuel ha-catan could be trusted to write this blessing, as we could be sure he was not writing from anger or desire for revenge. Just as we spill wine from our cups at the seder to acknowledge that our celebration holds within it mourning over the deaths of the Pharaoh’s army—necessary but still losses, we recite the birkat ha-minim with the reminder from its author that we are (Proverbially) enjoined against glee at its fulfillment.

If we do recite it. The Reform prayerbook at Congregation Beth Bolshoi leaves it out, as do (I think) the Reconstructionist prayerbooks. I don’t remember if it is in the Conservative siddur these days; I should take a look. Anyway, there is precedent for leaving it out, which is, yes, a third story about Samuel ha-catan: a year or so after the Amidah had been finalized, Samuel ha-catan was called on to lead the prayers. He did so beautifully, it is reported, with one exception: he could not remember the birkat ha-minim. Think about why the Rabbis tell that story.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 7, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse twenty-three

Tell me, Gentle Readers, what is the secret to all great ethical behavior? Timing. This is Judah Goldin’s translation:

Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar says: Do not appease thy fellow in his hour of anger; do not comfort him while the dead is still laid out before him; do not question him in the hour of his vow; and do not strive to see him in his hour of misfortune.


The commentary are all pretty much in agreement that Rabbi Simeon is pointing out the (perhaps obvious) fact that it isn’t just what you do but when and how. I think there’s another point to it, which is that none of the four actions are of any tangible help. Perhaps what is implied is that these moments of crisis require more than speech. If your friend is angry with you, you need to do something to resolve the problem. Not just appease his anger—if you view his anger as the problem, then you aren’t looking to solve whatever is making him angry. When your friend is bereaved, the issue isn’t that he is sad but that he needs help with the day-to-day tasks that need doing even on days when you don’t want to get out of bed. In the hour of a vow (and vow-making is almost always a Bad Thing by the Sages), questioning your friend is, again, taking the vow-making as the problem rather than the root, which needs to be addressed with action. And in the hour of your friend’s misfortune, you can always be of material help to him without putting him to the trouble of a visit.

Not to be totally down on talking. I do a lot of talking myself. And I do think that talking, a lot of the time, is helpful when people are in a bad way. But I also think that people, well, that Your Humble Blogger is likely to start, first, with the talking, and only later think that it would have been nice to have, oh, done the dishes for them, or looked after the kids, or otherwise engaged in the kind of help that would be helpful.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 31, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse twenty-two

So. Rabbi Jacob ben Kurshai had been telling us that this room was the vestibule for the World to Come. Does he have anything more to tell us about this world and the world to come? Yes, yes he does. Here is R. Travers Herford’s translation.

He used to say: Better is one hour of repentance and good works in this world than all the life of the world to come; and better is one hour of calmness of spirit in the world to come than all the life of this world.

This is worth breaking up into pieces. The first part, that it is good (yafah, which is sometimes used to mean fair, as in attractive) to spend a small amount of time (sha’ar achat, hour one, which Jacob Neusner translates as “a single moment”) in repentence (t’shuvah) and good deeds (ma’asim tovim) in this world olam hazeh). Then a mem, which is held to be the “mem of comparison” (as Mr. Herford puts it), but which could be the mem of causation). All the life of the the world to come, col cheiay olam habah.

Why is this? If the world to come is the dining hall and this world only the vestibule, how can we compare a part of this smaller world with all of the greater?

Because, the Rabbis say, that in the world to come, there is no repentance. No good deeds. No marrying and giving in marriage, no eating and drinking, no charity, no accomplishments or frustrations, no action of any kind. As the sage says:

Therefore, one hour—one minute—of repentance and good deeds is greater than all the life of the world to come, for in the world to come there is no repentance and good deeds, and what else are we made for?

Irving M. Bunim, in his commentary on this verse, tells the story of the Vilna Gaon, who was elderly and dying after a lifetime of piety, study, teaching and good deeds. The Gaon, on his deathbed, surrounded by his students, wept. His students sought to comfort him, telling him that he would soon be rewarded in Heaven; he but left this world for the World to Come. The old man took in his fingers the fringes of his tallis catan, saying to them: I wore this every day. I paid almost no money for it. A scrap of cloth, the strings tied into tzitzis to make the four corners. But every day I wore it, I fulfilled a commandment of the Divine. Now, I have fulfilled that commandment for the last time: in the World to Come, we don’t sleep, rise, dress for the day. We don’t fulfill the mitzvot. I have no more opportunities, even for such a simple mitzvah as this.

In one hour in this world, in one minute, we have opportunities that we will never have in the World to Come, just as I have the opportunity to straighten my clothes in the vestibule; you can only enter the dining hall once, and there is no second chance for a first impression. But then, if repentance and good deeds (only available in this world) are so great, how can the sages say that the pious will receive their reward in the world to come? What sort of reward is it when he can’t eat or drink, love or dance or even do good deeds?

It is the reward of karat ruach, peace of spirit, which (R. Jacob tells us in the second half of the verse) is better than all the life of this world. Nirvana, if you want to think about it like that. The end to troubles is also the end to aspirations. All part of the package.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 24, 2010

Pirke Avot, chapter four, verse twenty-one

Today’s verse is another one that is, on the face of it, not only straightforward but wrong. Here’s Herbert Danby:

R. Jacob said: This world is like a vestibule before the world to come; prepare thyself in the vestibule that thou mayest enter into the banqueting hall.

Straightforward. The world to come is the real world; this is only the preparation for it.

So the metaphor is from buildings, and particularly from roman buildings: the banqueting hall is a t’rak’leen, the triclinium; the vestibule is a prozdor, the prothuron. My understanding is that the prothuron and the vestibulum were not exactly the same thing, but that the Roman vestibulum more or less took the place of the Greek prothuron, and from an eschatological point of view, I suppose it doesn’t make much difference whether we are just inside the outer doors or in a hallway through the wall. Plus, I should say, ancient architecture? Not my field.

But it turns out that while the Rabbis do use this metaphor to talk about the world to come, with admission to the outer and inner courts and the contempt for those rubes who mistake the waiting room for the throne room, what they really use this house metaphor to discuss is women’s bodies.

Not because they were a bunch of dirty old men, you understand. No, there are a bunch of very important and detailed questions about women and their reproductive systems that require the Rabbis to discuss in some detail the outer and inner chambers thereof. It’s not the only metaphor they use, but it is the primary metaphor, and they differ (according to a small amount of research) from the Greek and Roman physicians in how closely the stick to that metaphor and how far they are willing to extend it.

Of course, there is a more fundamental and all-encompassing idea tying the idea of wife to house; there is a quote in the Talmud (Shabbat 118a) about Rabbi Jose claiming to only ever call his wife bayit, his house. This is in the context of his sexual purity, after he claims to have only had sex with her five times (he had five sons). On the other hand, I came across a claim that a woman’s bayit was slang for what used to be called Down There. And of course the great Yiddish word baleboosteh, which indicates an almost fearful respect for a woman of great competence, dominant personality and force of will comes from the Hebrew for the master of the house, ba’al ha-bayit.

More seriously, there really is a fundamental (and of course patriarchal, restrictive and fortunately outdated) association of woman and house in the Jewish Tradition. This plays out in positive and negative ways, with the woman responsible for shalom ha-bayit, the peace in the house, and the man enjoined to submit for the sake of shalom ha-bayit. While women are not obligated to fulfill the mitzvot that would take them outside the house; they are responsible for the mitzvot that are within the house, which are the most important ones, particularly the preparation for the Shabbat.

The preparation for the Shabbat is also likened to the preparation for the world to come; as we cannot cook or do work on the Shabbat, preparation in advance is absolutely necessary if we are to celebrate with the three meals, or for that matter just dressing to go out to services. Just as Rabbi Jacob says that we must do the adequate preparation here, in the vestibule, so that we may enter the banqueting hall of the world to come, we must do the adequate preparation on Friday, so that our Shabbat will be a banquet and not a fast.

And, of course, one of the mitzvoth of Shabbat is for married couples to have sex. I leave further analysis of the metaphor of preparation and penetration to Gentle Readers as an exercise.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 17, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse twenty

This week’s note will be even more incoherent than usual, I’m afraid. Your Humble Blogger has more questions than answers, of course, but this time the questions don’t even fit together on connected subjects. Ah, well. Let’s start with the words, in R. Travers Herford’s translation:

R. Mattithiah ben Harash said: Be first in greeting every man; and be a tail to lions and not a head to foxes.

OK, first the words. Because the way one greets someone in Hebrew is with the word peace, being first in hello-ing is being first in peace-ing. This has a happy connotation, but it doesn’t (so far as I can tell) mean anything more than greeting, as one cannot use peace as a transitive verb (and peace the other guy before the bastard peaces you). The lions, aryot, are clearly lions (lions having been native not only to North Africa but to Judea and the whole Mediterranean coast all the way up past Turkey to the Balkans) (and did you know that in the Twelfth Century, there were walrus as far south as Spain?), and I only bring up the Hebrew word because the way that A is for Apple, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, is for aryeh in children’s abecedaries. Foxes are shu’alim, and appear to include both burrowing foxes and jackals in the term. There is some murkiness about the derivation of the word (of course), but it appears to be related to the digging, and therefore is possibly not altogether unrelated to she’ol, or the pit. Although, of course, it’s an utter fallacy to claim much meaning in the distant relationships of word origins.

Still, if we are willing to play along with that, we have a contrast not just between the lion and the fox, but between the aleph, or the beginning, and Sheol, or the end. Better to be the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end? That interpretation does connect to the first leg of the triple, which otherwise does appear to be connected to the other two. The emphasis would be on timing—be first in Peace, if you can, but better to be second in the beginning (that is, to respond in kind to continue the Peace) than to be first in the ending (that is, to break off Peace—or for that matter, simply to break off civilities and the connection that conversation brings).

Sadly, though, that interpretation does require ignoring the plain meaning of the words. R. Mattithiah pretty clearly is warning against being the head of foxes, yes metaphorically in the sense that foxes symbolize (to him) low cunning, deceit and slyness. And he praises being a tail to lions, where lions in Scripture tend to be associated with valor and trustworthiness, although they are also sent as Divine punishment, so there’s that. But the most obvious reading is of course that it is better to be a lesser part of a good enterprise than the head of a bad one, and not to let pride tempt you to bad enterprises simply so you do not suffer the indignity of being the tail—and there, I suppose, is the connection to the first bit, with pride being presumably the reason one would wait to be addressed rather than being the first to greet.

Although, of course, one might also wait to be addressed out of diffidence, rather than pride. The Machsor Vitry (I think, I can’t track down the quote) points out that the lion holds his tail high, while the fox holds his head low. It is better to be part of a group that supports you than head of a group that undermines you. The Rambam points out that it is better to be a student than a teacher, to associate with those who know more than you rather than less, as simply being around people you respect helps you to your better self. In this case, it is not pride that might keep you from being the tail to lions, but rather a sense that you are not even worthy of tagging along with your betters. Rabbi Mattithias says that you should follow the lion, even if you are not worthy of being its mane, its claws or teeth or powerful legs, but only its tail.

Here’s the thing, though. How often in life have you had the opportunity to choose between being a tail to lions or a head to foxes? I mean, looking at the newspaper ads, I’m not seeing a lot of Lions seek tail, must be willing to wave proudly, three years experience as tail or in related fields, lions are an equal opportunity employer. Irving M. Bunin says that any time you join an organization, you should ask yourself first whether it is an organization of lions or jackals, and only then whether you will be a head or a tail—but are you seriously going to join the organization of jackals? I mean, if you are thinking about joining the Associated Brotherhood of Carcass and Dead thing Eaters, you probably are considering the organization to be a group of fine upstanding lions, trustworthy and valorous, or else you wouldn’t be filling out that form, right? Frankly, as practical advice, the whole lion/fox thing doesn’t seem to be all that useful.

And here’s another thing: Mattithiah ben Harash went to Rome after the expulsion, and although he does seem to have been in contact with the other sages of his time, he doesn’t seem to have participated fully in the discussions that become the Oral Law. That is, very few of his rulings are written down and attributed to him, and there are no disciples of his recorded. Is this verse a defense of his choice, that being a tail to the Imperial Lions of Rome was better than being a head to the clever foxes at Yavneh? Or is he expressing regret, that it would have been better to have stayed and been a tail to the Judean lions, rather than heading his own, lesser yeshiva in Rome?

And yet—he is one of the sages who in the famous story break down at the border of Israel and weep, saying that living in the Holy Land is equal to all the weight of all the commandments in the Torah. And he appears to have been buried in the Galilee. Did he return from Rome? The only good story about him (the weeping-at-the-border story is not really about Mattithiah ben Harash, as he just happens to be one of the group) is about him blinding himself to escape from temptation when the Devil appeared in the guise of a beautiful woman. Is this related to the preference for tail over head?

OK, sorry about that last. But really, in the whole question, I am reminded of the bit in Catch-22 where Nately is talking to the old man in the whorehouse, and insists that it is better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees.

“But I’m afraid you have it backward. It is better to live on one’s feet than die on one’s knees. That is the way the saying goes.”

“Are you sure?” Nately asked with sober confusion. “It seems to make more sense my way.”

“No, it makes more sense my way. Ask your friends.”

Nately turned to ask his friends and discovered they were gone.

Nately, of course, dies in his plane, but then the old man is killed by the MPs. And it turns out that being a head of lions is better than being a foxtail, and more useful, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 10, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse nineteen

This verse appears to be carrying on from the last bit of the last verse, which quotes Proverbs 3:5, the advice to “lean not unto thine own understanding”. At least, when I say it appears to be doing that, the traditional interpretation is that the verse is about understanding, although there are other ways to read it.

It has been a while since I have passed along a bunch of translations, so:

R. Travers Herford: R. Jannai said: There is not in our hands either the security of the wicked or the chastisements of the righteous.

Jacob Neusner: R. Yannai says, “We do not have in hand [an explanation] either for the prosperity of the wicked or for the suffering of the righteous.”

Irving Bunin: R. Yannai said: It is not within our ability [to understand or explain] the tranquil well-being of the wicked or the afflictions of the righteous.

Judah Goldin: Rabbi Yannai says: Within our reach is neither the tranquility of the wicked nor even the suffering of the righteous.

Herbert Danby: R. Yannai said: It is not in our power to explain the well-being of the wicked or the sorrows of the righteous.

Michael Rodkinson: R. Janai said: “Neither the security of the wicked nor the afflictions of the righteous are within the grasp of our understanding.”

The word in question is b’yadeinu, in our hands. There isn’t, in our hands, not the tranquility (or success or some such) of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous. If you read this as picking up from the last verse, then it makes sense to figure the missing verb has to do with understanding, and that the point of the verse is that the whole issue of theodicy is beyond our human grasp, and that we shouldn’t worry about it.

The Machsor Vitry, in fact, states that this is the received interpretation, but suggests an alternate one: we don’t experience the tranquility that the wicked do, nor do we suffer as the righteous do. That is, unlike the wicked, who give no thought to what is right, we struggle with our shortcomings. And unlike the righteous, who are tested with suffering, our sufferings come as just punishments for our misdeeds. We inhabit the middle ground, subject to the evil inclination but also to the good one, veering between the extremes as our discipline holds. So, according to this view, the advice of R. Janai is to never consider yourself wicked, and thus complaisant about your end, but do consider yourself imperfect rather than wholly righteous, and take what miseries enter into your life as being your deserts. Desserts. What you deserve.

There is another interpretation, of course—it is not in our hands to grant (or to deny) tranquility to the wicked, any more than it is to give suffering to the righteous. My place is not to judge whether the tranquil man is truly wicked, to be responsible for shattering his tranquility. Nor is it good to say that a fellow suffers because he is wicked—perhaps his sufferings are the sufferings of the righteous. The poor are neither all humble wisdom oppressed by The Man nor all lazy parasites on the hardworking successful; the rich are not all wicked tranquility, either. If you think you have a handle on all of that, you are wrong—Rabbi Jannai quite rightly reminds us that is it beyond our grasp.

Another interpretation (suggested by Mr. Herford) is that R. Jannai was talking about the nation of Israel with is first person plural; the people of Israel is not fated to have the tranquil lives of the nations; the Pax Romana is not for us. And yet, our national suffering is not the suffering of the righteous; we suffer because of our failings, not our piety.

As Gentle Readers will guess, I prefer that there be multiple interpretations, and that not only do we need to work to choose one, but that choosing one does not invalidate the others. The question is which interpretation communicates to you at this moment, building on the tradition but not confined to it. And I am wondering about the plurality of it—our hands (plural) are empty of the tranquility of the wicked (plural) and the suffering of the righteous (plural). Who are we; which hands are ours? All Jews? All people? Our community? Is it all of our hands or each of our hands? Are we each trying separately to grasp, but in vain? Is Jannai talking about empty hands as the human condition, or is he talking to his generation—is it just that at the moment we have let slip through our fingers the solace of wickedness without replacing it with the attitude toward suffering that comes from tzaddik, from righteousness, justice and charity? It it, perhaps, a warning to the community not to wash our hands of the righteous sufferer or the wicked prosperous? Is it out of our hands because of Divinely ordained nature, or is it out of our hands because we have failed the Divine opportunity?

At the moment, of course, at probably at any moment, we slew between excoriating the prosperous wicked and shoring up her success; we sympathize with the righteous sufferer and pile on his head more woe. While the ultimate accounting for good and evil, of reward and punishment is certainly beyond our grasp, it is also true that we put our hands to help or harm, and that our hands are not altogether empty. We can afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, and we can afflict the afflicted and comfort the comfortable. And yet, for so much of the world, we each let our opportunities go, and we each look at our hands, so small and inadequate to the task, and think that there isn’t anything in them at all, nothing in them at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 3, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse seventeen

Your Humble Blogger has access once again to a variety of resources, but they are only making matters worse. Here’s the Judah Goldin translation of today’s verse:

Rabbi Nehorai says: Betake thyself to a place of Torah and say not that it will come after thee, that thy companions will set it up for thee to master; And lean not upon thine own understanding.

The first problem is that there is no Rabbi Nehorai. We have it on good authority that R. Nehorai is actually R. Nehemiah, and that it is one of those misheard name things that sometimes happens. We also have it on good authority that R. Nehorai is actually R. Meir, who was in fact named Nehorai, but was called Meir, both of them meaning light, more or less. And we have it on good authority that R. Nehorai is actually R. Elazar ben Arach.

The last of those is the best story, I think. You may remember Elazar ben Arach from verse 2:19 last summer, but I made a reference to his story as one of Yochanan ben Zacchai’s disciples before that. He isn’t the Eliezar, whose wonderful story I told at that time, but the Elazar ben Arach who I mentioned thusly:

It turns out that Elazar ben Arach, the ever-flowing spring, dried up, or the water ran foul; instead of going to Javneh with Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai, he chose to go to Emmaus, where is wife’s family was from, and there he was cut off from the sages, where he forgot all his Torah. He turns up in the Talmud only here and as a warning not to separate yourself from the community (one f’r’ex for that fairly frequent warning), and only a handful of other places. Yet at the time, before the Destruction, he was famous.

There’s more to the story. Well, there are a bunch of versions of the story, and one of them connects him with this verse. It seems that when Elazar ben Arach went to Emmaus with his wife and her family rather than to Yavneh with the rest of the gang, he thought that he could study and increase his knowledge by himself. This proved extremely difficult. Then he thought that scholars might leave Yavneh and visit him in Emmaus, now and then, without his having to make the trip. Alas, this didn’t happen. When, as an old man, he finally gave in and went to Yavneh, not only did his colleagues find that his knowledge had failed to increase, not only did his colleagues find that he had forgotten much that he once knew, but evidently he had suffered a stroke of some kind (I am guessing), because even the task of reading the text was beyond him.

The story doesn’t end there, thank goodness, with Rabbi Elazar, the overflowing spring, staring baffled angry and uncomprehending at the scroll, because at the moment the assembled sages saw his plight, they were moved to pray for mercy, and he was miraculously cured. His memory came back to him all at once, as if a door was opened into a room that had long been dark. Thus he was called Nehorai, the light; the verses attributed to “Rabbi Nehorai” are actually those said by Rabbi Elazar after he had lost and regained his memory.

Well, and that story is obviously made up to illustrate today’s verse: go to Yavneh, rather than Emmaus, or face the fate of Elazar ben Achar—except of course that you may not be deemed worthy of a miracle.

Your Humble Blogger was talking with an alumna of Bryn Mawr some years ago, about libraries and learning, and she said that a Mawrtyr always felt that there was nothing she couldn’t learn, given access to a good enough library. I retorted that a Swarthmorean always felt that there was nothing he or she could not learn, given access to a good enough library and other Swatfolk. I have told this story before on this Tohu Bohu but not for more than a year, and if I’m not going to tell my stories more than once, I am going to have to pack up shop altogether. I mean. After a few thousand posts, there’s bound to be some repetition.

But the point of telling the story at this time is that I do think this is what Nehorai is getting at, and more than that: there is a certain attitude that comes from often persuading and being persuaded by people you respect that is actually a spiritual attitude, one of humility and community together.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 27, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse sixteen

So. Your Humble Blogger is on the road, so I don’t have access to my books and things, and besides am (a) not altogether healthy, and (2) spending time with family and friends. So this week’s Pirke Avot verse is getting short shrift. In fact, I’m typing it in from memory, so I may have some of the wording wrong. I was reading it from the Judah Goldin translation, but errors here are mine, not his.

Rabbi Simeon says: There are three crowns, the crown of priesthood, the crown of royalty, and the crown of Torah. But the crown of a good name goes with them all.

Or possibly ’surmounts’ them all, or perhaps ’supports’ them all. If I had all my translations with me, I could give you the variations, because I think the different English translations quite likely come from differences of interpretation of the verse.

One of the commentators (I think it was in the Machsor Vitry, but again, making it up, here) makes the point that the crown of priesthood is available only to the descendants of Aaron, and no amount of wealth or good works or piety can gain it for someone who is not a cohen by birth. And the crown of royalty belongs to the descendants of David, and again, you must be born to it or you cannot hope to gain it. But the crown of Torah is available to all.

This made me think of the crown in relation to claims on it—perhaps it’s all the Shakespeare this Spring, but there is a big difference between claiming the crown of royalty and ruling as monarch. Similarly (or it seems similar at the moment), one may claim the crown of Priesthood, but that’s a very different thing from actually getting to cut up dead things and put them on the altar at the Temple. Each of those claims must be recognized before they mean much of anything, and they have to be recognized by the right people. Is that what Rabbi Simeon is getting at with the Good Name Crown? The crown of Torah, then, while of course it is available to all, is only a crown if it is recognized by…the sages? The Bet Din or the Assembly or the Sanhedrin? Or the teacher? Or the student? I’m not sure.

There is another commentary that makes the (restrospectively obvious) connection between the three crowns and the three pillars of torah, avodah, and g’milut hasadim in a different Simeon’s verse back in Chapter One. The crown of Torah is connected to the pillar of Torah, of course, and the crown of priesthood is connected to the pillar of avodah or worship/temple service, presumably. Which leaves the crown of royalty to be connected to the pillar of g’milut hasadim, deeds of loving-kindness. Which is not what I immediately think of when I think of royalty. But if I take that connection and tie in the idea of exclusivity, we open up the crowns quite a bit. The crown of Torah, of course, is available to everybody, as was pointed out below, but while nobody can be a priest but a born cohen, in these post-Temple days, anyone can engage in avodah. That word itself having changed over time from the temple services to the siddur liturgy seems to imply the opening up of the priesthood; this tells us we are on the right path, yes? And in these days when there is no King, is our path to the crown of royalty the path of g’milut hasadim? By being noble, or kingly, not in the sense of arrogance or privilege, but in the sense of taking responsibility for others, of providing for them, you can earn yourself that crown after all.

And now the fourth crown comes in, with the distinction between the claim and the crown; while Rabbi Zadok, not so long ago, warns against making knowledge of the Torah a crown for self-exaltation. All of these crowns are good things when sought for the sake of the Divine or when sought for the sake of others, or even when sought for their own sake. But when you seek these crowns in order to lord it over other people, they are not good things at all. So, the ambiguous relationship between that fourth crown, the crown of a good name, and the other three. Is this crown above them all, in the sense that someone who has a good name is not alienating people by pride and arrogance? Or is the crown beneath them all, in the sense that the desire for a good name in the negative sense, the desire to be set above other people, to be deferred to, to be crowned over them, negates the three crowns themselves?

I think I prefer to leave the ambiguity there. I would like to see Rabbi Simon as having mixed feelings about the whole crown business to begin with. Seeking crowns can be a good thing and a bad thing together, and is never an unmixed good. Remember that Bar Koziba was claiming the crown of royalty.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 19, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse fifteen

Today’s verse is a short one, only seven words in Hebrew (not counting the attribution), but a trifle longer in English, because, you know, different languages. Here’s Michael L. Rodkinson’s translation:

R. Jehudah said: “Be careful in thy study, for error in study counts for an intentional sin.”

In the legal code, if (for instance) someone is accused of causing another’s death, let’s say by pushing them off a roof, we are required to ask if it was intentional or accidental. Did the accused know how high the roof is? Did the accused know that people who plunge from the roof often die? Could the accused see where the edge of the roof was? The punishments are different; it is held that a fellow who kills somebody without understanding the consequences should be punished more lightly than a deliberate murderer. And so on for lesser crimes—the legal categories are shogeg, the accidental sinner, and mezid, the deliberate sinner. Rabbi Judah is saying that shigegat Talmud, the inadvertent error in Talmud, is not to be held as lighter or less serious than an intentional sin.

Once again, I think this has to be taken for exhortative value, rather than as a legal benchmark or observation. We should be so careful in study that we fear errors as we would fear sin (back to sin-fearing again, but I’ll try not to get distracted). That is, I should fear my own errors as I would fear sin. When it comes to someone else’s error, treating that as if it were a deliberate sin seems just crazy to me.

And yet— when talmud is used as a verb, there, it can mean either study or teaching. Or both, of course, as we have lots of sayings about how students teach the teacher and teachers learn from students. The distinction between teaching and studying is not a bright line. But it is fair to interpret this verse as applying most strongly to teachers, in effect saying that as a teacher, my inadvertent error in teaching will lead to my students inadvertent errors in practice, and that those will be attributed to me as if I had deliberately taught them the wrong practice. Again, that seems a bit crazy, but not as an exhortation on the importance of careful preparation for teaching.

And Irving Bunim suggests that an inadvertent error in teaching can lead the student not just to misinformation but to disillusion. So a bad Talmud teacher, through poor preparation or sloppy discussion or ignorance, can lead a student to reject the Talmud altogether and into deliberate sin. So the Talmud teacher is exhorted to be careful, as your inadvertent error in Talmud can lead others to deliberate sin.

Still, I couldn’t really adjust myself to this verse until I read a commentary in the Avot of Rabbi Nathan, an unattributed observation which turns the things around (as so many of the best commentaries do). The unnamed sage asks which is greater, punishment or reward? Of course, reward. Then, if it is the case that in Talmud study an error is counted as a sin, can it not be true that an inadvertent mitzvah be counted as if it were a deliberate good deed?

There are thoughtless kindnesses as well as thoughtless sins; when we make our habits good habits, they can come without intention. When we are learning or teaching (and when are we not learning or teaching), our errors are magnified, but so are our strengths. When I learn from a teacher who is in the habit of unthinking politeness, of interpreting with a great spirit rather than a mean one, who is not deliberately modeling reverence and respect for the Divine, the Scripture and the Creation but who is providing that model anyway, just because that is the way she lives, then my deliberate actions in imitation of her or to earn her praise are to her credit as if she had set out to teach them. And when I study, my caution against error is balanced against my deliberate and disciplined practice that becomes unconscious and habitual, and which is nevertheless taken to my credit.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 12, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse fourteen

Last week’s sage, Johanan Ha-Sandelar, was the friend and traveling companion of this week’s sage, Eleazar b. Shammua. They were the last disciples of Rabbi Akiva, and are credited with bringing forward into the tradition his decisions and thinking. They did not go to Yavneh after the Destruction and expulsion, but set up in Galilee, where legend says that Eleazar’s students crowded into tiny rooms, so crowded that when Judah the Nasi came to study (when he was the Nasi’s son, not the Nasi yet himself), they would not let him squeeze in to make it more crowded. Yet he stayed, and returned even after he had become the leader of the Sanhedrin, to learn from his old teacher some more. Here is the translation of Herbert Danby:

R. Eleazar b. Shammua said: Let the honour of thy disciple be as dear to thee as thine own and as the honor of thy companion, and the honour of thy companion as the fear of thy teacher, and the fear of thy teacher as the fear of Heaven.

Before I go into the language of it, I want to mention two notable moments that bookend his career as a rabbi. He had been a disciple of Rabbi Akiva, as I said, but Akiva had been imprisoned by the Romans and ordaining new Rabbis was prohibited in the wake of the Bar-Koziba rebellion. But then, how would the rabbinate survive? It is said that twenty-four thousand pupils of Rabbi Akiva had died between Passover and Shavuot, and the world was desolate and the Torah was forgotten. Rabbi Jehuda ben Baba, a man of great piety, declared that he would ordain the last of Rabbi Akiva’s pupils, in defiance of the ban. He took them out of town (so that the residents of the town would not killed in retribution) and had completed the ordination ceremony when the Roman soldiers came. The young rabbis escaped, but Jehuda ben Baba was slain. Eleazar ben Shammua, together with his companions, began their life as rabbis surrounded by death.

And ended it, too. Eleazar ben Shammua is one of the Ten Martyrs, who are supposed to be considered as if they had all died on the same day. This is not historically viable, of course, since Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Jehuda ben Baba are also among the Ten Martyrs, but we don’t necessarily have to take the poem literally. If we take it as evocation or as theme, though, we still have Eleazar ben Shammua dying in the midst of the deaths of the sages. I can’t help, then, looking at this verse as being fundamentally connected with death and the, well, the abbreviation of life. The mortality of mortality. All that.

And now to the language, because it’s a bit murky, to me (unsurprisingly). The first part is the ch’vod talmid’cha the honor of your student. Chavod can mean honor, or respect, or in the Scripture, glory. Fame, reputation, dignity, something like that. The reputation of your student is your own reputation, and that is pretty clear—the admonition is to remember it, which is always more difficult. This is more than just treat others as you would be treated, this is specific to the relationship of the teacher and the student, where there is (necessarily) a hierarchal distinction, a superiority of knowledge and experience and rank, but not necessarily of respect or honor. Eleazar carried with him the honor and reputation of his teachers, and knew that his students would carry his and his teachers after he had died, and treated them appropriately. It is said that Eleazar ben Shammua lived to be a hundred and three, and was never late to class once. You know?

But in the next part, there’s a turn, the ch’vod chaver’cha, the honor (or whatever) of your friend, should be as c’morah rabach, the fear of your teacher. There is a pun, here, at least in modern Hebrew: morah is the word for a teacher, and although (I believe) they are homonyms and have different roots (although I would be interested to know if they are connected—it seems as if the morah that means fear or awe is connected to the yir’ah that may be connected to guidance or instruction via the fellow who beats the animals for going off the path, but (a) I may be misinterpreting what I’m reading, and (2) what I’m reading may be wrong, as a lot of word origins are) one of the things about my own belief in Scripture is that I can accept that the wordplay is intentional even if Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua didn’t use those words in that way. Because the words are there for me, and I can draw those connections.

Still, ignoring the pun, there’s a change from the honor of your friend to the fear of your teacher, and presumably the word change is intended to draw our attention to some significant change in meaning. The last bit continues with morah rabach being like morah shamayim, the fear of heaven, or rather, the Fear of Heaven. Right?

Now, almost two years ago, back when I was on chapter one, verse three, I wrote about the Fear of Heaven, comparing it to a fear of heights, not a rational fear of Divine retribution but an intuitive near-panic outside ordinary understanding. I said

I think this fear, when it is felt, is what takes us out of those metaphors of the Divine, not only servant-master but parent-child, defendant-judge, subject-king, and even sheep-shepherd, and into a dim understanding of the vast gulf that separates us from the Divine, a glimmer of the smallness of individuality in the vastness of Creation.

Digression: I had entirely forgotten saying that. I remembered, dimly, that I had said something about the Fear of Heaven, and couldn’t remember what, so I did a search and found this, which I do not remember writing. It’s clearly YHB’s writing; it’s not that I don’t think they are my words. And I haven’t come to disagree with it or anything; it’s not that I don’t think they are my thoughts. But I didn’t remember having those thoughts. Maybe I’ve been doing this too long. End Digression.

There was an excellent discussion in the comments, and I came around to a literal interpretation of fear of Heaven rather than fear of the Divine: Let the fear of Heaven be upon you because you could get struck by lightning tomorrow, whether you do good or not, so even if you do get what seems like material reward, don’t count on it lasting or take it as some affirmation of your service. Which, I think, is leading me back to where I started.

If I am to let the honor/reputation/dignity of my fellow be to me as the fear/awe/reverence of my teacher, it is not just an emphasis on the importance, but the kind of panicky clutch of the child faced with the mortality of the parent. Rabbi Akiva was killed, Rabbi Jehuda ben Baba was killed, and that is terrifying—and yet, it is part of the order of things for the student to outlive the teacher. But the fellow-students of Eleazar ben Shammua were killed under the Romans, thousands upon thousands between Passover and Shavuot, and that is terrifying and against the order of things. Our fellows, the people our age, are not immortal just because their parents and teachers are still around. Hold their honor dear, fear them and fear for them, because they, like your teachers, can be taken from you before you are ready.

And you won’t be ready. Let our fear of and for our teachers be like the Fear of Heaven, that they could be struck down at any moment, by disease, disaster, dishonor. Anything. Value them, value them enough, value them now, value them all, value them desperately, value them tremblingly, because…

Is this, then, the sense in which the Ten Martyrs were killed on the same day? Perhaps we are not supposed to learn a historical lesson from this story of history, but an emotional lesson. Eleazar ben Shammua was killed on the day that his teacher Akiba was killed, and on the day that his mentor Jehuda was killed, and on the day he was killed, and on the day Judah the Nasi died, as well. And on all those days between Passover and Shavuot. And perhaps having learned this verse was the secret to his long life, as much as anything.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 5, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse thirteen

Another tricky one this week. Here is Judah Goldin’s translation:

Rabbi Johanan Ha-Sandelar says: Every assembly which is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure; but one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure in the end.

The reason this is tricky is that pretty much every significant concept in the verse is ill-defined and vague. What, exactly, constitutes an assembly? What does it mean for an assembly to be for the sake of Heaven? What is Heaven? What does it mean for an assembly to endure? To endure in the end?

This is where I come down on that: Nothing endures in the end. After the Roman Senate endured for a thousand years, it probably looked good to adapt and endure for another thousand. But it didn’t. The Zhou dynasty probably looked good after five hundred years, but that didn’t endure, either. The Egyptian New Kingdom looked back on time uncountable and forward to time even more uncountable; Ozymandius, King of Kings, lies in lone and level sands. Will there be someday a wilderness where London once stood? For how much?

So. Start with that: Nothing will in the end endure. Can we say, then, that there is no assembly that is for the sake of Heaven? We don’t want to reach that conclusion, do we? And yet—what assembly can we name with confidence that exists for the sake of Heaven? As an assembly, mind you. And as we aren’t counting a mere millennium or two on the one side, I don’t think we can count anything less than full and unanimous purity of purpose on the other. Were the sages assembled for the sake of Heaven? All of them? Was there no pride, no worldly purpose? Because the sages warn a lot about the perils of seeking money or fame or respect through scholarship, and I expect that was through experience. No, the stories of bickering and one-upsmanship in the house of the sages are too numerous and frankly too interesting to ignore in order to claim that the assembly maintained its purpose for the sake of Heaven continuously and in consensus.

So. When Rabbi Johanan Ha-Sandelar says that all assemblies which are not for the sake of Heaven do not endure in the end, what has he told us? There are no such assemblies and nothing endures. When he says that all assemblies which are for the sake of Heaven do endure, what has he told us? Not to give up hope.

When you enter into any project with anyone—a business, a marriage, a charitable foundation, a political party, a timeshare, a blog, a college course, a theatrical production, a cruise, a massively multi-player on-line role-playing game, a condominium, a date, a mural, a sex act, a city budget, a board game, a three-county killing spree, a reality show, a shul, a trial, a race, a madrigal, a hug, a nation—you can do it (or in the end choose not to do it) for the sake of Heaven, so that the project will endure. It won’t, of course, not in the end, and you can’t guarantee that the assembly will maintain its purpose, but there is a great deal in the choosing, not the chosen. If you enter into it for the sake of Heaven, if you seek out others to assemble with for the sake of Heaven, if you seek out projects for the sake of Heaven, then, even when they don’t really endure, they have achieved a great deal. Even if it’s just meeting for lunch.

Of course, the real difficulty (note: all the other difficulties are also real) is in knowing what it means for something to be for the sake of Heaven. But here, again, the value is in trying to know, rather than in knowing, yes?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 29, 2010

Pirke Avot, chapter four, verse twelve

This week we are looking at a fairly innocuous verse, so that’s a break. Here’s the translation by Herbert Danby:

R. Elizer b Jacob says: He that performs one precept gets for himself one advocate; but he that commits one transgression gets for himself one accuser. Repentance and good works are as a shield against retribution.

So, the question that comes immediately to YHB’s mind is what the advocate and the accuser do. I mean, there is a traditional representation that at the End of Days, when we are Judged, the Divine brings you before the Throne with an Angelic Prosecutor and an Angelic Defendant (and, presumably, an Angelic Stenographer and an Angelic Bailiff, and maybe other Angelic Officers of the Court—Oyes! Oyes! Oyes!), and presumably this verse is meant to bring to mind that final judgment, with an eye toward building up a good team of counsel on your side.

On the other hand, if the Divine is omniscient, if there is (as we are told) an Eye that sees, and Ear that hears, and all your actions in a book, then what purpose do the Prosecutor and Defendant serve? This is not a judge, this is a Judge, and all the evidence is presented to him the moment it happens. A mitzvah does not need an advocate to plead before the Divine if the Divine knows all about it already. No, I would rather think of the advocates and the accusers as being of this world, not the next.

There is a discussion of repentance in the Talmud that talks about these accusers and advocates as being angelic, but of this world: the pious man studies surrounded by invisible bodyguards, that sort of thing. They talk about the specifics of the angelic advocates and accusers as being affected by the spirit in which the person commits the act. A mitzvah performed slowly produces an advocate who moves slowly; a transgression performed with abandon produces an accuser with a loud voice. And so on. They point out that it is possible to have a whole crew of half-assed advocates defeated by a couple of kick-ass accusers, and thus we should make sure to do our good deeds with our whole attention and will, lest we produce deaf, halt, and blind advocates.

On the other hand, the sages go on to say, repentance (we are moving to the last bit of the verse now) not only makes the accusers no longer accuse, but turns them into advocates. The ba’al t’shuvah, the one who returns to the fold, is surrounded by hulking great muscular loud advocates, the transformed accusers of his sinful life. The meek man who has never sinned, but has put little effort into anything, may have a comparatively weak bench of counsel. The point, of course, not being to sin as much as possible before repenting, but ideally to have hulking great muscular loud advocates directly by doing a mitzvah in a manner that will produce them.

Now, see, YHB has gotten all distracted by the angels again. I could go on with this stuff all day, you know. Imagine the idea of the psychomachia applied to this verse, indicating that the more transgressions you do, more devils sit on your shoulder, while your good deeds produce a chorus of angels. But I didn’t want to talk about this verse as being in the realm of the supernatural anyway, invisible gremlins and guardian angels. I wanted to talk about accusations and advocates in this world.

While it is proverbial that no good deed goes unpunished, in fact a reputation for mitvot does advocate for a person. If you hear a rumor that somebody has done something bad, the good things they have done weigh in on your likelihood of believing it. No, there isn’t, empirically, a one-to-one relationship between actions and reputation, but we do carry with us, all our lives, the residue of our past actions, our advocates and accusers. My laziness and lateness, my kindness and cheerfulness, my study and my silences and my silliness, they all show up again. And if they aren’t in my actual reputation—if the employer or patron or acquaintance doesn’t actually know my history in detail—they are in my sense of my reputation, my worries about what people might know, which is more important than what they actually do know.

The Sages say that we should imagine that our past deeds, good and ill, are always at a moment of perfect balance on the Scales of Judgment, and that our next action will tip the scale to one side or the other. At that moment, performing one precept or committing one transgression carries with it the fate of the world. We always have that choice presented to us: life and death, blessing and curse. This is a powerful image, yes, and perhaps we ought to live like that, but I can’t. It’s too big, too much, too strenuous. Like the dieter who imagines that any variation from the daily regimen is a catastrophic failure, and so figures that once started on the ice cream, he may as well finish the quart. But this image of accumulated accusers and advocates may be more like it.

In fact, while not every mistake you make will be caught out and form the heavy foundation for a vile reputation, any mistake you make may be caught out, and you can’t tell which one. And while not every good deed you do will be lauded and loved, any good deed may precede you into a job interview or blind date, and you can’t tell which one. You are surrounded by your accusers and advocates, and you can’t see them—not because they are invisible angels with flaming swords, but because they are in the minds of the people around you, and the people you used to know, and their friends and acquaintances, and theirs, and theirs, to a distance where you can’t make out the details.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 22, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse eleven

How about some nice nineteenth-century English for a change? Here’s Michael L. Rodkinson, actually from 1918, but still with that old-fashioned idea of making the text magnificent, and spelling that is good enough for his grandfather.

R. Jonathan said: “Whosoever fulfils the Law in poverty will at length fulfil it in wealth, and whosoever neglects the Law in wealth will at length neglect it in poverty.”

So, I have talked before—right?—about how this sort of thing is just empirically false. There are people who study and observe in poverty who never obtain material wealth, and there are plenty of wealthy scoffers who will die with plenty of toys. And the other way, of course, too. Plenty of wealthy scoffers will, indeed, lose their money, and plenty of wealthy pious men will lose their money, and sudden riches can come to the pious and the dishonest alike. Economic mobility and stability do not accurately correlate with piety and impiety, not in any combination or direction.

Of course, you can claim that R. Jonathan is not talking about material wealth, but rather spiritual wealth—if you are spiritually impoverished and yet work to fulfill the Law, you will receive spiritual gain from it. This is a nice retort to the Christian criticism of Judaism as a law-based unspiritual discipline: the Law is a necessary (but not sufficient) groundwork for spiritual uplift. At least for Jews. And for the second half, well, this is the retort to those who say they are spiritual, but not religious; people who ignore the underlying discipline of the Law when they feel spiritual will not have it to guide them in their moments of spiritual poverty (and we all do have them).

Alas, if you want to interpret the verse that way, you have to ignore its plain meaning, and impose a meaning that is not only clearly counter to the intent of the Sage, but is a muddled sort of a mess to look into with any rigor. How do you know who is spiritually wealthy? Can anyone claim spiritual wealth, and if my claim is countered by some Rabbi who says that their spiritual wealth is but shallow posturing, how can you decide who is right? In fact, does the concept of spiritual wealth and poverty have any meaning, other than the vaguest and most subjective sense of enlightenment?

Your Humble Blogger would much rather disagree with a specific and concrete interpretation of R. Jonathan’s verse than adopt a view that is so vague that it is unhelpful. I think that R. Jonathan really is saying what he is saying: all people who fulfill the Torah in poverty will fulfill it in wealth, and people who fail the Torah in wealth will fail it in poverty. And I think that he’s wrong. Just observably wrong, as if he had said that Mars goes around the Earth, or that you can tell if someone is intelligent by his hat size.

And, in addition, I think it’s probably not true that all people who are pious in poverty respond to riches by sticking to their piety. I don’t really know anyone personally who has gone from pious poverty to wealth of any kind, but certainly the literary landscape is strewn with those who fulfill the dictates of piety in poverty, but when thrust into wealth, fame and Society succumb to Temptation. And the opposite narrative, the wealthy sinner who is ruined and then finds spiritual wealth (there we are again) in religious observance, well, R. Jonathan is saying that doesn’t happen, that all who ignore the Torah in their days of wealth will continue to neglect it in poverty. And I suspect that is also observably false, but perhaps more importantly, I think that it is false as a teaching.

What do you do with these? I think I’ve written before about verses that are empirically false but are nonetheless good verses—sometimes it’s a good idea to act as if something were true, even knowing it isn’t. I don’t think this is one of those cases, though. I mean, yes, if you just take it as instruction to fulfil rather than ignore the Torah whatever your material circumstances, then it’s good advice, but then there’s no reason for this verse to exist, as there are plenty of others with that advice. Nor, honestly, do I think it’s good advice to act as if everyone who ignores the Torah in wealth will someday do so in poverty. Isn’t better to act as if a change of heart can come to anyone, even yourself? Furthermore, most people don’t think of themselves as either impoverished or wealthy, but reserve those terms for other people, which makes it weaker advice.

No, I don’t know what to do with this verse. I do find it worth mentioning, however, that the various sages and commentators are in agreement that neither extreme poverty nor extreme wealth lend themselves to fulfillment of the Torah. Poverty, of course, and the toil and exhaustion that comes from living hand to mouth, leaves little time and energy for study or for ritual. And the wealthy, in addition to the many opportunities for temptation, must spend time and energy maintaining their wealth. The responsibilities of great wealth and many dependents are not compatible with the contemplative life (say the Rabbis), and of course it is difficult to participate in judgment when you have conflicts of interest in many areas, as the wealthy are bound to do. Now, they warn that the Divine will not accept poverty or wealth as an excuse, and give examples of piety among the rich and the poor, but it is clear that the comfortable middle class is the aspiration of the Sages: enough, and enough to share, but not a burden to manage. A living.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 20, 2010

Naomi and Ruth, and non-genetic transmission of the line

Your Humble Blogger had meant to post a note about Shavuot, but it didn’t seem to happen. Ah, well. Shavuot is the celebration of the gift of Torah at Mount Sinai, as well as of the first summer harvest, and one of the traditional observances is to study the Book of Ruth.

Going through the book again, this time I was not so much struck by the stuff I have been associating with it for some time (particularly the treatment of the ger, the non-Jew in the community of Jews, as well as some odd and interesting things about economics and women), but by its placement in the series of stories about substitute children. Or, more accurately I suppose, the non-genetic transmission of the Blessing, the leadership of the covenant community. I have talked about this before: Eli passes the leadership not to his sons but to Samuel, Samuel to Saul, Saul to David. In Genesis, there is a sequence of younger children: Jacob, Joseph, and Ephraim. But those are (at least in the text) children of the body, while the later sequence is explicitly about the leadership passing over the children of the body and to someone else.

Naomi and Ruth, of course, are not Judges or leaders. But Ruth and Boaz are great-grandparents of King David (also a younger son, but never mind). I suspect that at some point there was trouble because King David had a Moabite great-grandmother, and the Ruth-and-Naomi story (which I assume was already around and not connected to David) was tied in to the Judah-to-Jesse line to make it right. I don’t have any evidence of that, of course, but that’s my instinct. I imagine that this was, oh, during the Return, when Ezra was on about exogamy—the Scripture is of course full of positive examples of intermarriage, but they became one of the great taboos of Judaism, alas. Ah, well. Some other year I will go into the idea of Ruth as convert or Ruth as foreigner; this year the thing that caught my eye is Ruth in the place of Samuel, not Hannah.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 8, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verses nine and ten

In Judah Goldin’s translation, this time, and we are moving from Rabbi Yosi to the next generation.

Rabbi Ishmael his son says: He who refrains from judgment rids himself of enmity, robbery, and false swearing. But he who is presumptuous in rendering decision is a fool, wicked, and arrogant.

This seems to be addressed to people in a formal judgeship, probably as a member of a bet din. He goes on in the next verse:

He used to say: Do not act the judge’s part by thyself alone, for none may act the judge’s part by himself alone—save One. And say not “Adopt my view”—for they may say it, but not thou.

In the tradition we are talking about here, there is no independent and professional judiciary. There is a roster, more or less, of people held to be competent to give judgment. When there is a case in law to be decided, a bet din of three (or more) judges must be put together (in certain cases involving goods or money, a panel is not required. Rabbi Ishmael appears to be saying that even in those cases, do not accept the task of judging without a panel) in order to hear that case. In practice, as I understand it, in any place where there were many people on that roster, there would in fact be a regular rotation and the bet din would meet on Mondays and Thursdays or whatever, and whoever wanted to bring a case would do it then.

The audience for these verses, then, are people who have enough of a reputation to be considered eligible. Scholars, essentially. And the verses seem to be saying to avoid service in this manner as much as possible: avoid it altogether, or if you must do it, be on a panel, and even then, don’t try to make your judgement the one that is agreed on, but let the other two overrule you, if they do not happen to share your view.

This is, on the face of it, a nice lesson in humility. And I have always liked it on that basis. But this time through, looking for something to say about the verses on this Tohu Bohu, I started to wonder about responsibility. Because, of course, under this system, anyone who needs a judge is going to get someone who has not taken Rabbi Ishmael ben Yosi’s advice to heart. Or, perhaps, will get one of those and two of the other kind. And if you are getting judges who are ignoring Rabbi Ishmael’s sound advice, perhaps they aren’t very good judges…

When I was younger, childless, unmarried, somewhat irresponsible, somewhat of a jerk, I took a kind of pride in the idea that I avoided making the kinds of claims or commitments that would irk me to fulfill. I was not a role model. I was not a club president in high school, and although I was a club co-president in college, I made a point during the farcical election of declaring that I would be irresponsible and mostly absent during my tenure. I temped for quite a long time after college, partly because I was good at it and it suited me, but largely because I didn’t want to commit to working any particular place for any great length of time.

I was never really wildly, grievously irresponsible, I don’t think, but my point is actually that I took care for many years not to take much responsibility to be irresponsible with. I never, you know, babysat for anyone. I played no team sports. I did act in shows in high school and college, and I remember thinking to myself at the time that accepting a part was an unusually large commitment for me, and that I had better follow through on it.

My point is not that I was commitment-phobic; I did, in fact, attempt to turn most of my romantic attachments of those years into permanent commitments. The point is that I took the possibility of letting people down as a reason not to stand up with them, or for them. The number of times I said that I never claimed to be this or that positive thing during those years would be, well, probably a largish number, particularly if you included other ways of phrasing the same idea.

I have a very different take on it now. Yes, I do use that kind of talk, now and then, and I can’t say that I am exactly eager to take on new responsibilities every day of the week. But I no longer take pride in that, nor in the sort of contrarian defiance that never promised to be good. I see it in myself as a weakness, as a kind of arrogance.

See, there’s a kind of arrogance that says that I am damn good at something, and that other people should get the hell out of your way and let you do it. And there’s a kind of arrogance that says that you don’t care if you are good at something or not, that other people should get the hell out of your way and let you avoid it.

So while it is true that ridding yourself of the responsibility to judge (using the instance in question) is avoiding the exposure to enmity, robbery and false swearing that are likely if not inevitable results of that position, it does not follow that ridding yourself of that responsibility is the right thing to do. Or the right thing for you to do. Or the right thing for you to do today.

Perhaps Rabbi Ishmael took that for granted; that he was saying to people who had taken up that mantle that they should keep in mind all that it entailed. That he was not encouraging people to shirk, but that he had nothing to say to the shirkers and was addressing himself to those who were willing to judge. And those, very likely could use the lesson in humility that is the simple and straightforward reading here—not to scare them off, but to teach them caution. Perhaps that is the connotation of the sequence: first the agreement to judge, then the warning against arrogance in decision-making (which surely only applies to those who were not previously scared off), then the warning against solitary judging (again, surely only applicable to those who are still at the judging thing), and finally the lesson in appropriate argumentation and persuasion amongst the sitting judges. That progression maybe has my concern in mind.

And yet, I worry about it. I have seen commentary that uses these verses to admonish the reader into blind acceptance of traditional authority. To giving up your own discretion to always follow Rashi, or follow your tzaddik, or follow your local traditions. And I do see that reliance on your own judgment is terribly dangerous, I see that. But ultimately that judgment is what you’ve got, and it was a Gift of the Divine, and refusing to use it may be as much of an arrogance as the other.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 1, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse eight

Here’s this weeks verse in a translation by Irving M. Bunim:

R. Yose said: Whoever honors the Torah will himself be honored by people; but whoever dishonors the Torah with himself be dishonored by people.

So. Is this true? What does it mean if it is true? Should we honor the Torah in order to be honored by our peers, and if so, isn’t that making a crown for self-exaltation? Can we argue backward that whoever is honored by people must therefore be honoring the Torah, whether we observe that directly or not?

No. This is clearly not a verse that describes the world accurately, on the face of it. Lots of people dishonor the Torah and are honored by people, at least for a time. And if we don’t accept for a time, then can we not accept that I may sometimes act in a way that honors the Torah and sometimes in a way that dishonors it? Should I take that an act I may have done when I was twenty, or fourteen, or forty which is a shanda fur de goyim, and has led to my public dishonor, cannot be overwhelmed by further acts and years of honoring the Torah? Even more so, what if I have so far gotten away with having dishonored the Torah in my youth, and not suffered the public dishonor of my peers? Am I due for a fall? If so, is there any point in trying to reform?

Clearly, all of these questions must come from reading the verse wrong. Let’s start all over again, shall we?

Rabbi Yose ben Chalafta was one of the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, but the list of people he is said to have studied with includes Rabbi Judah ben Baba, Rabban Gamliel II (the grandson of Rabban Gamliel), Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Jochanan ben Nuri, and of course, his father, Rabbi Chalafta. He was brought up into scholarship. His teachings tend to emphasis agreement over disagreement, and the reconciling of contradiction over simply ruling for one side over the other. The impression that I get is of a somewhat conflict-averse guy who was intimately familiar with the divisions between scholars.

He lived through the Destruction and expulsion; he lived through his own home town being destroyed and rebuilt. Again, I’m just making stuff up here, but I would guess that his own history led him to think that scholarly arguments were a waste of time and energy, a squandering of a very fragile existence. But where that might have led a man to a kind of nihilism that eschewed things of this world, instead Rabbi Yose seems to have grown to value people, and to value the respect for people, the thing that makes people treat each other with dignity. To find that a respect for each other is a respect for the Divine, either the Divine within each other (as we are made in the Image) or simply for each other as creations of the Creator.

Now, what did he say? Whoever honors the Torah will himself be honored by people; but whoever dishonors the Torah with himself be dishonored by people. Only that isn’t quite right, or at least it doesn’t have the right connotations. We read that col ham’chabeyr et ha-Torah, all [people] [who] do honor to the Torah, gufo m’chubeyr al ha-briyot. That is, instead of saying that all [people] will do honor to him, we say— something not quite parallel to that. First of all, we flip the thing so that it is in what I think is the passive voice: instead of people doing honor to him, he is honored by people. And when I say he, Rabbi Yose does not use the pronoun, he uses gufo, which is a person specifically in the sense of a person’s body, a corporeal person. That person is done honor by ha-briyot, which is a way of saying everybody that derives from what you might call the born. The briyot are man born of woman, if you will, although it is evidently sometimes extended to animals as well, all creatures that have ever been born. When he says of the scholar (or other person who honors the Torah) that gufo m’chubeyr al ha-briyot, he is, yes, saying that people will honor that scholar, but in a way that emphasis the corporeality of the honorer and the honoree. It is not the spirit of the pious person that we honor, but the person him (or her) self. It is not our spirits that honor him (or her), but our persons, our selves.

Where I’m going with this. There is a tendency, among religious folk of various stripes, to divide the mind and the body. I don’t hold with that at all, and most (but not all) of Jewish tradition is with me on that one. I am not someone separate from my body; I am who I am, in part, because of the experiences I have had in and with my body. If I were unusually tall (to take one example), I would have had different experiences all my life, standing in lines, walking into rooms, dancing, buying clothes, whatever. Those experiences feed in to who you are in the same way as the books you read or the games you played. The self is part of the body and the body is part of the self; to describe a soul that is exempt from all that the body experiences is to describe something not human, not fully partaking in the Creation.

To take a point from Irving Bunin, when a scholar enters a room and we rise in respect (if we are, with Mr. Bunin, in that tradition that does so), do we stand before his wisdom? No. We stand before his body. Before his person. Indistinguishable. This means that if we want to honor a person who has done honor to the Torah, to fulfill the verse, we need to honor her as a person. A full person. And people, you know, are notoriously inconsistent.

Now we are getting to some answers to my earlier questions, yes? Is the verse true? It is not true as an observation, it is true as an obligation. Should we honor the Torah in order to be honored by our peers? Well, it isn’t great to do that, but it is very human. What if we have done some honor and some dishonor? That, too, is what people are like. Both the people (bodies) who are the object of the honor and the people (born) who are the ones who do the honor to them. When Rabbi Yose flips the verse around, we can read that we are all, all of us who have been born, all of us with bodies, both capable of honoring the Torah, capable of deserving honor from each other, capable of giving honor to each other, capable of treating each other as people, vulnerable, susceptible, mortal. As when the rebellion was put down, not only was the Temple destroyed but (of course) people were killed in the thousands, sages and young idiots, fighters and followers and innocent bystanders. Born and bodied and fully human, containing the possibility for honoring and being honored, containing the possibility of fulfilling the Torah or dishonoring it: and then, dead.

That is what I hear behind Rabbi Yose’s language. The harrowing of his own hell, the destruction of his home, and then, then, the life on the other side, and the importance of respecting it, while it is alive.

It is not in heaven, it is not beyond the sea, it is in your mouth, in your heart—in your body, in fact. Both the honoring and the deserving.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 24, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse seven

Last week, Rabbi Ishmael son of Rabbi Yose inquired as to the motivations for learning. Here Rabbi Zadok is also on about the motivation for acquiring knowledge in the Torah, although with a different slant.

Rabbi Zadok says: Do not make them a crown for self-exaltation nor a spade to dig with. So too Hillel used to say: “And he that puts the crown to his own use shall perish.” Thus thou dost learn: He that puts the words of the Torah to personal profit removes his life from the world.

Rabbi Zadok appears to have been the originator of the saying about the rain falling on both the just and the unjust fellow. Later sages have focused on the detrimental aspects of the rain, adducing that the just man got more sodden, as the unjust man more than likely made off with his umbrella. Rabbi Zadok, however, was addressing a mostly agrarian economy in the desert, or at least an urban community closely tied in to the harvest. The rain that causes the trees of the just to fructify also falls on the fields of the unjust, and the unjust doesn’t want to use his unjustly got umbrella to prevent it. The sun rises every morning, says Rabbi Zadok, as a gift from the Divine, not only a gift to the wise, the pious and the learned, but to the heathens and idolators. Therefore be humble; the Divine gifts you have do not redound to your credit but to the Divine’s.

Here he seems to be focused on a particular issue: teachers and scholars who charge for their services, making of the Torah a spade to dig with, a tool of their trade. This is a controversial issue over hundreds of years: The Rambam speaks very strictly about the inappropriateness of a Rabbi begging people for money; the Rashbatz dismisses the idea that teachers and scholars should be uncompensated for their efforts. The tradition gradually coalesces around the latter view, and now of course in America it is not shameful to be a professional Rabbi, taking a salary and extra for bar mitzvah lessons and the occasional honorarium for a speech. I’m not saying that the bimah is the path to riches. But people expect to pay for their children’s Hebrew school and (indirectly, through shul membership) for rabbinic leadership at services and rabbinic advice in the world.

I think Rabbi Zadok would be appalled. I also think Rabbi Zadok is wrong.

There is some question, of course, as to whether anybody really does use the Torah as a spade, taking it as a job rather than a calling. I don’t know. I have always had the sense, with the Rabbis I have known personally, that they have felt passionate about the Torah for its own sake—and that they also, most of them, have felt just fine about negotiating well-deserved compensation for their work. I think that’s largely true about secular teachers. And librarians. And sysadmins, many of them. And firemen, I’m sure, and probably chefs as well. The difference, of course, is that one of the tools of the Rabbi is Scripture, and Scripture is fundamentally different from everything else. That’s my view, and Rabbi Zadok’s as well, from what I can see. He would rather have fewer Rabbis, purer Rabbis, poorer Rabbis. Better Rabbis? Or perhaps he really thinks that if you take away the spade, the same people will choose the better path to the same goal, rather than a path to somewhere else. And, frankly, while I think there are a lot of people who just dig with whatever spade they can, I don’t think that applies to very many people in secular jobs that involve a lot of learning and teaching. People in those paths (or even people who think of themselves in those paths) likely see themselves as neither using their knowledge as a spade nor buffing it into a crown, even if that’s how they look to others.

My point, here, is not that Rabbi Zadok is giving bad advice. It’s good advice. Don’t turn the Torah into a spade for digging or a crown for lording it over people. On the other hand, take that advice to yourself; don’t criticize other people for violating it. Don’t begrudge them their pay, or their moments of fame or public respect, either. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and one of the lessons to be learned from that is that you can’t tell which is which by who is wet and who is holding an umbrella.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 17, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse six

We have been learning from the Avot for—what—a year and a half, now. And why?

R. Ishmael, his son, said, He who learns in order to teach, Heaven will grant him the opportunity both to learn and to teach; but he who learns in order to practice, Heaven will grant him the opportunity to learn and to teach, to observe and to practice.

This is a fairly mild and straightforward note, right? I mean, yes, the purpose of learning the Law is to practice it, and people like YHB who type Scripture study on a computer while engaging in paid employment on the Shabbat are, in the words of the sages, doing it wrong.

It would be a much nicer note, I think, if it said that anyone who learns in order to teach would be led to practice inevitably by the power of learning itself. Not more accurate, but nicer.

I am, by virtue of our just having passed the Passover, reminded of the story of the Four Children which is in our haggadah. Do y’all know it? There are four children: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one that cannot ask. The story gives us examples of the behavior of these children, and examples of appropriate paternal responses to them. It’s generally understood that the wise son wins; there is merit in his inquisitiveness. The wicked or rebellious son, who excludes himself from the story, is viewed as a lost cause: if he were with us in Egypt (the haggadah says) he would not have been saved. The simple son is treated gently, and the infant (or so usually we interpret the one who does not know to ask) is introduced to the story only distantly.

The wise son, though. Let’s see if I can find the quote.

What does the wise son say? “What are the testimonials, statutes and laws Hashem our G-d commanded you?” You should tell him about the laws of Pesach, that one may eat no dessert after eating the Pesach offering.

We see that the response to the wise son is in practice, not just in learning and teaching. But is that what the wise son expects? Is he learning in order to practice? The commentaries on the haggadah say yes: the wise son is specifically asking in order that he may fully participate in the seder without violating a commandment. The wise son is not learning in order to teach, but learning in order to practice. And the father in the story, who is also learning in order to practice, must teach as well, not only because the practice of the seder is teaching by practice and demonstration, but because your rotten kids will ask obnoxious questions, or worse, will screw the whole thing up by having the afikomen first and then another bite of Passover Dust Cake. So, and example of learning with intent to practice leading to learning, teaching, observing and practicing.

On the other hand, um. Well, I’m sure that there is another hand because there is always another hand. What would be the point of a verse without another hand? But I can’t think of one right now, so you will have to supply your own.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 10, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse five: shame and reputation

R. Johanan b. Baroka said: he that profanes the name of Heaven in secret shall be requited openly: in profaning the Name it is all one whether it be done unwittingly or wantonly.

Profanation of the Name (by the way, this is the translation of Herbert Danby, D.D.) is the act of bringing the Name into disrepute, not taking it in vain. One strand of commentary focuses on the extra responsibility that a man of great learning and scholarship has to avoid profanation of the Name. Should such a man speak rudely to a shopkeeper (say the sages, more or less), people would say that’s what comes of so much Torah study, is it? and so the Name of the Divine would be profaned.

This brings up the question of how the Name can be profaned in secret at all? The answer usually is that secret things have a way of becoming public, and certainly the public punishment seems to imply that the profanation has become public, by the punishment itself, if not before. But surely not everything that is done in private becomes public. I mean, to take an example, let’s say I were to eat a forkful of pulled pork and rice right now. It is not kosher, not at all, but let’s just suggest I were to have a nice big bite right now. OK? Wait for a minute to read the rest while I heat it up in the microwave, actually.

Mmmm, Babe.

All right, now I’m going to go back and delete the last three paragraphs—heck, I’ll delete the whole document and begin a new one. So you won’t know, Gentle Reader, that I engaged in such a defiant violation of the dietary restrictions. Nobody is near my desk right now, and if somebody had come by at just that moment, she wouldn’t be able to tell that I had eaten something at all, my desk being set back a ways from the circulation counter, and if she did spot the fork to the mouth, she would not know that I was Jewish, likely enough, and would not know that it was a pork product I had just eaten and not some of that special beef brisket I had sent to me from my friend in Yefe Nof.

Note to GRs: I do not, so far as I know, have a friend in Yefe Nof, which is evidently a suburb of Haifa. I was just looking for a place with a funny name. My buddy in Bat Shlomo. My acquaintance in Ashqelon. My pal in Peta Tikvah. You know. Actually, this is leftover pulled pork from dinner a couple of nights ago, and was itself leftover from before Passover when my Best Reader slow-cooked three and a half pigs and froze the remaining tastiness. Now that Passover is over, out comes the oiker bits, and some newly made and especially tasty sweet barbecue sauce. She got the recipe from a friend of hers in Yefe Nof.

The point is that it is perfectly plausible that I could do something that would be a profanation of the Name if it were found out, and that never would be found out. But then, in what sense would it be a profanation of the Name? The whole point of the profanation of the Name is that it is about the reputation of the Divine (an excellent concept, and one worth going into at more length, I suppose—in our Scripture, the Divine seems very concerned about the Divine reputation, but is that because of the reputation itself, or because of the some effect that reputation has on us?), and so to speak of profaning the Name in secret doesn’t actually make sense.

In fact, this brings up the whole issue of shame and reputation, and the centrality of a Good Name in much of the teachings and Scripture. And when you have an ethics that trades overmuch on the idea of a Good Name, either your own name personally or the name of The Jews, or even the Good Name of the Divine, you do eventually run into difficulty with the idea that not every shortcoming nor yet every achievement is public or publicized, or even necessarily publicizable. And yet.

This is why I find R. Johanan b. Baroka to be giving a threat that is mostly empty, particularly because it is very easy to believe that this shortcoming, this forkful of pork and rice, this nosepicking, this infidelity, this laziness, this theft will be the one that goes un-noticed, because of course there are always a few. This is very different from the earlier and (to YHB) more powerful verse quoting Judah the Prince about the all-seeing eye and all-seeing ear and the record of all thine actions; the idea may be the same (not a sparrow falls without the Divine attention) but the emphasis R. Johanan puts on shame and reputation is very different from the emphasis Judah puts on the dangers of trusting your own judgment.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 1, 2010

The Passover Seder, reconsidered

I suspect many of you have been to a seder, possibly this past week. For those that have not, the seder is a ritual meal for the holiday of Passover that traditionally involves the eating of certain symbolic foods and saying prayers over them, and the reading of some portion of a text. The text is fairly standard—or, rather, well, it’s more complicated than that, and deserves its own paragraph.

Most seders (as I understand it, not doing a survey or anything) use a haggadah, a sort of special prayerbook; there are many, many, many different versions of the haggadah, but most of the text in the haggadah is standard from version to version. There are some differences, but there is a core that is traditional. In addition to the slight differences from book to book, there are much larger differences in terms of what any particular group does or does not actually read. Most will read at least some of it, many will read highlights, perhaps bits of it in English and bits in Hebrew, or perhaps Hebrew followed by English (I am talking, here, about American Jews, of course, although the same will apply to the vernacular elsewhere), some will add songs or stories in various languages, some will neglect to do any part of the ritual after the eating is over. Some people take pride in how long the seder lasts, some in how quickly it is over. People are different one to another.

Anyway, the core of the seder, I would say, includes the following things: some blessings over the ritual food, which includes the statement that we are commanded to eat matzah and bitter herbs and so on; the mah nishtanah, perhaps translated best as what a difference!, in which the youngest attendee points out four differences between Passover and the rest of the year; an explanation that these differences are connected to the Exodus story; a recitation of the Ten Plagues; an explanation of three elements of the ritual meal: the shankbone, the matzah and the bitter herbs; the grace after meals (I think most seders include at least a small portion of this, but not the entire thing); welcoming Elijah the Prophet. Moses does not appear in the traditional text; the Exodus story is alluded to, but not, properly speaking, retold.

Many of the bits included in the hagaddah but often skipped are tales of the early sages, some of our friends from avot: Eleazar ben Azariah, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Akiva. There is, in particular, a tale of five rabbis having an all-night seder in a cave at Benebarak under the Roman occupation. I bring that up because it will become important later, I think. There are also lots and lots of songs and poems (including the many Psalms that make up the Hillel service, which most of us skip)

So. Are you with me so far? Those who attend seder regularly, please correct and clarify. Those who do not, please ask questions. Because the next bit is some musing on the seder, performative aspects thereof, and it will be easier for you to chime in if you feel like you know what the hell I’m even talking about.

OK, right. I’ve been reading Josh Waxman’s stuff over at the parshablog, most of which I’m afraid goes right over my head, what with my not understanding Hebrew, but oddly enough I have been finding lots of provocative ideas in the parts I do understand. Which is the case for his note on some thoughts on ha lachma anya. The reference is to the part in the seder, early on, where we uncover the previously covered matzah and say something quite like this is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Rabbi Waxman is looking at some variants in the text which may imply that, at least in some versions, it would be closer to say this is like the bread of affliction…. He describes some possibilities of how this fits in to the question of re-enactment.

Which brings up another line I’ll need to quote: we are told that In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had gone out of Egypt. We often describe the seder as a reenactment in that sense: there are several points in the text where we say that we were slaves in addition to saying that our ancestors were slaves. We take up the rhetorical pose of continuity, in order to emphasize our gratitude for the miracles of the Exodus.

On the other hand (are y’all still with me? Because I’m getting to my point here, I promise), all of that stuff is in the text that we recite. That is, we don’t just say that we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, we say that we should say that we were slaves. We recite the injunction to look upon ourselves as if we had been delivered from slavery; we recite an example (in the Four Sons) of those who violate that injunction. If we are reenacting the Exodus, it is a very Brechtian kind of drama, in which we effectively hold up placards saying that we are reenacting the Exodus, whilst reclining in our seats.

So. What is going on here? When we say This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate, or when we say This is like the bread of affliction… are we saying that this matzah exists in Scriptural time, that is, outside of chronological time, and is the subject of a kind of intertemporal transubstantiation, as we are ourselves taken back to the Exodus? Or are we saying, as we do with other ritual symbols on the table, that the matzah is a tool for us to remember? Because if it is the latter, as I think it is for us now (for various definition of usness), it is a mistake to think of ourselves as reenacting the Exodus.

But what are we doing? Are we simply engaging in a ritual-assistant mnemonic practice, where we keep the information about the Exodus in our active-use memory by way of these sayings and symbols? Are we cramming? Because I don’t think that’s it, either.

I think we are reenacting, but we are not reenacting the Exodus story. I think we are reenacting the seder at Benebarak. The rituals and text are made to imagine the ancient retelling of the Exodus, not the (even more ancient) Exodus itself. What we are saying, when we are saying the text, is not this is the bread of affliction, nor even this is like the bread of affliction, but rather Akiva called this the bread of affliction. As you read through the text, again and again we take on our roles, behaving as the sages did in the days of the Roman oppression. Or at least as they are recorded as doing, you know. We model for our children the proper behavior of Jews, and the proper behavior of Jews is not so much to be delivered from slavery but to remember that we were delivered from slavery. We are telling of the departure from Egypt, and we are telling it as they told it in Benebarak. In obvious and subtle ways, we enforce the important truth: that we are Rabbinic Jews, the inheritors of Judah the Prince.

I have said, here and elsewhere, that it seems to me that the Story of Judaism can be expressed in a sentence: We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. I have discussed how I became dissatisfied with that answer, but I had not really come up with a better one. And perhaps the better one is that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon once spent the first night of Passover in a cave at Benebarak, telling the story of the Exodus, until their students came to them and told them it was time for the morning Sh’ma.

The name of Moses does not appear in the Haggadah, but Rabbi Akiva’s name is prominent. That is something that bears thinking about, as our children ask why this night we do what we do how we do it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 27, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse four: m'od m'od

This is a short verse, anyway:

R. Levitas of Yavne said: Be very, very humble in spirit, for the anticipation of man is the worm.

That is the translation of Irving M. Bunim, whose work Ethics from Sinai I am very much enjoying. Mr. Bunim points out that when, in the verse, we are advised to be very, very humble, rather than using the Hebrew trick of repeating the word humble for emphasis (which might be translated as be humble with great humility or some such, although actually it’s just a different way of expressing emphasis, the way in English one might say be fucking humble, where the adverb is an otherwise meaningless intensifier), R. Levitas uses the separate Hebrew intensifier m’od, and in fact uses it twice: m’od m’od hevay sh’fal ruach. Why is this significant?

The word m’od is spelled mem, aleph, dalet. Who is mem? Moses, of course. And aleph is Abraham, and dalet, of course, David. A reminder, then, that if Moses, Abraham and David were humble before the Lord, surely you, too, should remember to be humble. But then, why m’od m’od? What else is mem, aleph, dalet? Well, m’od is an anagram for aleph, dalet, mem, or Adam, or more generally, man. So we can expand the verse by connotation, All men should be very, very humble as Moses, Abraham and David were humble, for the etcetera etcetera.

But what is this humility of spirit that all men are supposed to have, emulating Moses, Abraham and David? Is it merely the opposite of pride? How do we go about being humble, being very, very humble?

I had always read the verse as an exhortation for me to remember my own mortality: What is there for me to be proud of, when I will be buried, worm-eaten, and forgotten? This is simultaneously true and difficult to comtemplate: unless I have somebody standing a step behind me whispering “remember, thou art mortal”. Mr. Bunim points out, however, that it is not just the person attempting humility that is destined for the worm, but everybody else. What is the point in being one-up on somebody who is worm-bound? Where’s the pride in that?

This is a different conception of humility and of pride, and worth looking in to, I think. The first is focused on the mental state behind the action: keep in mind that your value is not so great as to justify acting like a prick. I struggle with this all the time, and have managed, on the whole, to control my rather serious arrogance—not that I have conquered it and am done, but that I recognize it as a problem and am often able to moderate for the moment. The second, which I have never really thought about before today is focused on pride primarily as interaction between the potentially-proud person and another, and only secondarily on the mental state. That is, pride is (in this view) fundamentally about placing yourself above another person, through word or deed, in order to show your superiority. Pride, then, requires another person to one-up. The mental state of the individual proud person is not at the heart of the definition; the relationship between the two people is.

To take my usual example of pride: cutting somebody off on the road. This stems, it seems to YHB, from the kind of pride or arrogance that says that wherever I am going, it is more important that I get there soon and that I not waste time on the road being behind somebody, and that while somebody else is going to be just a tad slowed by my actions, and that everybody else around me will be just a tad endangered by my actions, none of that is really very important, because it’s all about me. In the first formulation, the problem is that I am self-centered and arrogant, that I am not interested in what difficulties I cause for other people. In the second, the problem is that I have put myself in front of the other car, to show that driver that I can’t be cut off myself.

Now, this example seems to make my first formulation a better fit for the problems of pride, because, really, most of the time you really are not thinking about the other cars as containing actual humans, just as a kind of obstacle course. And this is just the problem, of course, by this formulation: by ignoring the humanity of other people, you enter into a mental state that puts yourself first.

On the other hand, the really egregious cases are when someone is trying to get back in the lane after passing in the shoulder during a construction-related slowdown, and I’m thinking Oh, yeah? Like hell I’m letting you in, you SOB. The most likely to cause accident, and the most likely to make me angry (and anger leads to all sorts of sins) are the ones where I am aware that there is a human fucker driving the car, and want the miserable bastard to pay. And in the second formulation of the idea, it reminds me that the fucker is headed for the worm, anyway, so let it go. Your revenge is that the driver of the other car is mortal, and so are you, so leave some room and keep driving.

The first happens more frequently, the second is more severe. Both ways of thinking about it are helpful, I think. But the second has a gentler undertone to it, particularly when combined with the m’od m’od idea up above. If you take a moment, when you feel the need to one-up somebody, particularly somebody who is really annoying, when you feel the need to put somebody in their place, think for a moment of Moses and Abraham and David, all dead, think of Adam and all his seed, food for worms, and think of the bastard you are about to pin to a card, and think, you know? Who needs it. We’re made for better stuff than that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 13, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse three: davar

Let’s see. This is one of those verses that has a swing to it in the original that it is difficult to capture in English, so why don’t I try to transliterate the verse and perhaps embed a sound file, if I can figure out a good way to do it.

Hu hayah omer: al-t’hi vaz l’chal-adam, v’al t’hi mafleeg l’chal davar; sheh’ain lo sha’ah, v’ain l’cha davar lo makom.

21 words (depending on what one considers a word) Jacob Neusner translates it with 35 words:

He would say, “Do not despise anybody and do not treat anything as unlikely. For you have no one who does not have his time, and you have nothing which does not have its place.”

As an ethical precept, it’s pretty straightforward and unarguable, and in fact the commentary tends to leave it pretty much alone, other than giving some examples of sages either giving or not giving the due respect to a person who appears to be wicked or worthless, realizing or not realizing that that person, too, will have his hour. And some disagreement about whether the injunction is against dismissing unlikely things out of hand, with an implication that it is all right to dismiss impossibilities once you have put some careful study into their likelihood, or whether one should never dismiss a thing at all even after it is shown to be nonsense.

There is also a somewhat more mystically oriented tradition that says that the purpose of the verse is to celebrate, not necessarily the person who has his time and the thing which has its place, but time and space themselves, which are the Creations of the Divine without which nothing could, you know, be. Therefore even if a person has no value in himself, showing himself by his own actions to be unworthy of respect, yet those wicked actions take place, by their nature, in time, the gift of the Divine, and are a window into it. And any thing, whether it be a thing of value or a thing of putrescence, is a thing by virtue of taking up space in the Divine Creation, and being a part of it, and is a window into it.

There’s another point I’ll bring up, for which I am indebted to Irving M. Bunim, that the word here for thing is davar, which also means word or communication. The Ten Commandments are the ten d’varim; a davar is the Word (or logos) for a thing, as opposed to the Name for a thing. There’s a fellow on the internet who claims that thing is always a mistranslation, and that there is always a connotation of communication involved with davar. See, for instance, Genesis 11:1, where before the Tower of Babel the whole world was of one language (safah) and one speech (davar), or in the RSV they had few words. As opposed to things, which presumably existed in the same profusion as afterwards.

Digression: Your Humble Blogger was going to attempt not to reference the David Ives one-act play Babel’s in Arms, which contains the immortal line Mankind is in its youth, and hath not a word for every fucker, but I am giving up and putting into a Digression. I saw a production of this brilliant little gem at the theater where we are putting on R3, and hadn’t connected the author with the reviews I have been reading of Venus in Fur. The Babel play is really tailored for me, though: bible humor, slapstick, excessive profanity. What could be better than that? End Digression.

Well, if it is not every thing that has a place but every word that has a place, and must not be rejected therefore, well, that makes things a bit different. Do not reject people, and do not reject their words; people will have their times, and words will have their—what? Their makom, which is very definitely place. But what would it mean for every word to have a place. The word makom is related to kum, to stand up (the word has liturgical significance, for when we are upstanding in the service), so every word will have a place to stand, to rise up. Or, if you will, every word has standing, in the legal sense.

But what is it we are not to do with people and words? We are not to mafleeg, to reject them or dismiss them or carp at them, depending on the translation. Mr. Bunim claims the word is connected via its root to the word for shatter or split apart. Do not split yourself apart from people and their words? For each person has an hour and each word has standing for you to judge?

The point, for me, in all of this, in expanding the possibilities of the text and its connotations, is that (a) this is yet another example of how this kind of Hebrew magnificently compacts these kinds of repetitive aphorisms in a way that English does not, and (2) while the usual translation and idea are straightforward, the application of them is not, and the expansion of connotations, I think, is productive in wondering what, exactly we should do about those people, things, texts, elements that seem to be worthless or a waste of time. It is, of course, not only easy but justifiable to avoid the avoidable and curse the unavoidable.

There’s a story about Abraham and a stranger. Y’all know that Abraham was the epitome of hospitality, that not only would he happily feed any stranger that came to his house, he would go out and seek wayfarers at the crossroads in hopes of being able to provide hospitality for them. Well, it seems that one day he brings home a rotten old man who eats all his cabbage and acts like a savage, swears and blasphemes and generally is a grade-A asshole. So when the old fart has eaten his fill and has been offered water and all, Abraham pretty brusquely gives him the old heave-ho and gets rid of him. And the Divine says to Abraham, saying nu, why in such a hurry? Not even a blessing or a go-in-peace? And Abraham says Lord, I thought I was gonna plotz. I couldn’t put up with that momser in my house for another minute. Says the Divine You couldn’t put up with him for another minute? I have put up with that bastard for seventy years, and you couldn’t put up with him for another minute?

Well, you see? Whatever else that old man was, he was in time and space—and time and space are the Divine Creation. The Divine not only puts up with us all, thank the Divine, but gives us each the gift of Time and Space, which fundamentally cannot be wasted, only misused.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


March 6, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse two: s'char

Ben Azzai said, Run to do even a slight precept, and flee from transgression; for one good deed draws another good deed in its train, and one sin, another sin; for the reward of a good deed is a good deed, and the wages of sin is sin.

I am using Joseph Hertz’s translation, because it so pointedly uses wages instead of reward. If you ask people what are the wages of sin? (or for that matter what is the wages of sin?) the chances are very good that the response will be the wages of sin is death (or are death). I don’t know what the response would be to what is the wages of a good deed?, but I suspect it would not be another good deed. But it should be.

I think that s’char mitzvah, mitzvah; s’char aveira, aveira is not only an excellent first principle to teach and live by, it’s a seriously accurate description of the universe (the one I perceive). Certainly more so than many other ethical precepts. I know that when Saul of Tarsus said that For the wages of sin [is] death; but the gift of God [is] eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, he wasn’t talking about the death of the body but death of the spirit —but then, see, we’ve stopped describing any universe I recognize. I’m not saying it’s ineffective as inspiration, but when we are talking about how the world turns, Simeon ben Azzai seems to me to be simply telling the truth.

Do a mitzvah, do another, do another, and they start to come easy. Allow yourself to fall short once, fine, nobody is perfect. But the second time is easier, and the third easier yet, and then transgressions follow each other in a train until it seems impossible to stop them. Of course, transgressions of diet are the obvious ones to think about, but peculation, particularly stealing from the workplace strikes me as an even more powerful example. The first time you take a five out of the drawer, or walk out with something in your pockets, you may think you will pass out from the fear and shame. But you get away with it, because most of the time people do get away with it, and so you do it again, and again, and again, until somehow you think of it your right, inviolable, to walk out with a CD or an extra hour’s pay, and any enforcement is an outrage.

The first time you give a dollar as a handout, almost anything could happen. If you do it, though, and then you do it again, and then again, pretty soon you could have a habit, a dollar a day to help the homeless, and you will do it almost without thinking. Not entirely, but without misgivings or trepidation, and even without resentment. A bad habit is harder than a diamond to break; a good habit is more valuable than a diamond to keep.

Which is why we adopted the precept, which ben Azzai refers to as running to do a mitzvah, that any mitzvah should be done as early in the day as possible. Some are time-sensitive, of course, but still, if there is a range of time, it is better to do it at the beginning of that range, as if s’char mitzvah mitzvah you have time for the next one. Whether this applies to, er, marital relations is unclear; ben Azzai, for all his piety, did not run to follow that particular precept and remained unmarried and childless until the Romans killed him after the Bar Koziba catastrophe. Goes to show, doesn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 27, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter four, verse 1

We are at the beginning of Chapter Four, and one of the great sayings, here in the Chabad translation:

Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated: “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.”
Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. As is stated, “Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.”
Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated: “If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you”; “fortunate are you" in this world, “and good is to you” in the World to Come.
Who is honorable? One who honors his fellows. As is stated: “For to those who honor me, I accord honor; those who scorn me shall be demeaned.”

It’s a marvelous saying, and uses the reversal technique (which we have seen before) particularly well (although the proof texts are a little weak, frankly).

Unfortunately, Ben Zoma was insane.

It seems as if I may not have told the story of the Four Who Entered Paradise. Have I? Well, if I have already told it, settle down, I’ll tell it again. It’s worth telling again. It’s the inspiration (I think) for the novel As a Driven Leaf, and could just about be an inspiration for a play, if I could come up with a setting that worked for me. Anyway.

There were four who entered Paradise. Ben Azzai was one, Ben Zoma the second, another was the third, and the fourth was Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Akiba said to the others, he said, When ye arrive at the stones of pure marble, don’t cry out ‘water, water!’ says he, for he that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight, that is, the presence of the Divine.

Ben Azzai took one look and died.

Ben Zoma took one look and went mad.

The other one became a heretic (which is why we don’t mention his name in the story, not to speak ill, although for a hint, his first initial is E and the second letter is lisha Ben Abuyah).

Rabbi Akiba departed unhurt.

That’s the whole of the story, which is written in the tractate Hagigah, page 14b. It is clearly a strange and unsatisfactory story.

Why were the four of them going to Paradise? What is meant by paradise? Are they actually going someplace, or is the journey a metaphor for deep learning? Did the three get in to Paradise or just look in from the border, as it were. How did Rabbi Akiba know there would be marble that looks like water? What differentiated the four, as they were all known for both piety and learning before this incident? What was the nature of Ben Zoma’s madness? How did this terrible experience affect Rabbi Akiba, who was unhurt in some sense, but must have lived with the memory of it?

Most of all, why did the Divine allow the entire thing to happen? What is there to learn from the story? If the lesson is to stay the hell out of Paradise, what is Paradise for? If the lesson is Rabbi Akiba was extraordinary, then what are we to make of the teachings of the rest of the Four?

Wisdom is learning; Strength is restraint, wealth is sufficiency, and honor is in the honoring. These are terrific lessons. I love these verses, and in particular, I love the way that they allow anyone to be wise, anyone to be strong, to be rich, to be honorable, because those things are not gifts or circumstances but choices.

And yet, Gentle Reader, if you were to make the choice to find wisdom in learning, to find strength in restraint, if you were to find richness in what you have and honor in the way you treat your fellow man, if you were to do all of that, like Ben Zoma did, and then you were to enter Paradise…

Is it not enough?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 25, 2010

Fast, faster, fasted

Today is the Fast of Esther, in preparation for Purim. Y’all know the Purim story, yes? Well, in Esther 4:16, she says

Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which [is] not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.

We do not, of course, fast for three days and nights. In fact, most of us don’t fast at all—Your Humble Blogger certainly never has. I have mentioned here, probably most years, that Purim makes me uneasy, altogether. It’s possible that observing the Fast of Esther would help with that, somehow, although honestly I can’t see how.

Still, this is the first time in years that I have thought about the fast of Esther on the day of it, largely thanks to an attempt of mine to find blogs that write about Scripture from a similar standpoint to mine. This attempt has been largely unsuccessful, although I did discover some interesting things about the Purim traditions… anyway, to go along with the drinking and cross-dressing and triangular cookies, there’s a fast day. Which is probably pretty much over for all of you now. Ah, well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 20, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 23

A. R. Eleazar Hisma says, “The laws of bird offerings and the beginning of a woman’s menstrual period—they are indeed the essentials of the Torah.
B. “Calculations of the equinoxes and reckoning of the numerical value of letters are the savories of wisdom.

This is Jacob Neusner’s translation. Actually, this is an incredibly difficult verse to translate, without actually being a difficult verse to understand. Let me see if I can muddy things a bit.

First of all, there are at least three or four different explanations for Rabbi Eleazar being called Hisma. I’m not going to go into them, as I don’t think they are relevant to this verse, but I will tell one quick story about him, or at least a story that mentions him. When Rabban Gamliel was talking to Rabbi Yehoshua, he expressed wonder that Yehoshua had to travel in trade, since he was so knowledgeable. He replied to Rabban Gamliel, “Don’t worry about me, you have two disciples back home who can calculate the number of drops in the ocean, and they have neither food nor clothes.” One of those two was Rabbi Eleazar Hisma. There is no footnote explaining how one would know if that estimate were correct, but the point is that Eleazar Hisma is known for his skills at natural philosophy, and of course his poverty. So this verse isn’t coming from a scholar of Torah who spurned secular pursuits, rather from a polyglot, albeit one who eventually made a living as a religious official, rather than in secular work. OK, now the two things that are important are kineen and p’tuchay niddah. The words are the titles of sections of the Law. The word kineen means a bird’s nest, evidently, and the nest we are talking about in this case is an offering in the Temple. The laws concerning offerings are extremely complicated, and I know nothing about them (thank the Divine), but I understand that one of the situations in which a bird offering is appropriate (in case you are wondering, there are different circumstances for the offering of birds, goats, oxen, wheat, fruit, etc, etc, and different combinations thereof, with differences for thank-offerings, sin-offerings, free-offerings, offerings associated with holidays, etc, etc) is when a woman has survived childbirth. And we have seen niddah before, as it is the law concerning ritual purity and menstruation, more complicated than it sounds (and perhaps less misogynist than it sounds, although that depends on time and place and the hedge around the Torah).

These are a metonymy, presumably, but for what? Are kineen and niddah representing the complications of the Law? Or are the representing the laws concerning reproduction? Or the laws concerning women? Or, by virtue of their being the last sections of their tractates, do they represent completion?

As for the less important, the word is revolutions, meant as heavenly revolutions and so the equinoxes. This is sometimes translated as astronomy, generally, as nowadays the equinoxes are well-trained and come when people expect them. At the time, presumably, the prediction of the equinox, or of midsummer and midwinter days, would have been a matter of some difficulty, particularly for those using a lunar calendar. Or would it? Anyway, we are talking about the study of the stars, in some manner or other. And then gematria, which is a sort of numerology, could also be a Hebrew transliteration of geometry. Or it could mean the study of numbers more generally, either in connection with their mystical meanings and associations or in matters such as, oh, estimating the number of drops in the ocean, or the number of cuts in a knife.

Finally, there is some dispute over what the relation is between these less important matters and wisdom: they are the pripriyot of wisdom, which could be the dainties or side-dishes to wisdom’s entree, or they could be the circumference or outer edge or fringe of wisdom’s center. Or they could be the support or confirmation of wisdom, which would imply that the study of secular matters should not be neglected as they tend to support the Law, rather than detract from it. This word (along with, perhaps, his surname) seems to be a sort of hobson-jobson, a borrowing of Greek into Hebrew that changes the pronunciation to the point that it is difficult to go back to the original language. Which is not a problem for words that become commonly used (as somebody attempting to figure out what pundits are wouldn’t need to try to find his answer in Sanskrit. But when we don’t have a lot of other examples of the time, it gets tricky.

Ah, well. Despite all the confusion, the concept is actually pretty clear: Rabbi Eleazar Hisma is saying that the Law takes precedence over secular studies, while making it clear that secular studies are a good thing, too. While I generally agree with him, I think it’s worth noting during that agreement the difficulty of understanding this verse yields itself somewhat to the benefits of secular studies of philology. Isn’t the circumference as important a part of the circle as the center? Isn’t the side-dish the thing that brings out the quality of the entree?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 13, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 22

We are still talking about Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah, from last week. And his saying is not a new idea, but a new expression of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s saying in verse twelve. Only… well, let’s look at the text, first.

He used to say: He whose wisdom is more abundant than his works, to what is he like? To a tree whose branches are abundant but whose roots are few; and the wind comes and uproots it and overturns it, as it is written, He shall be like a tamarisk in the desert and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness. But he whose works are more abundant than his wisdom, to what is he like? To a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many; so that even if all the winds in the world come and blow against it, it cannot be stirred from its place, as it is written, He shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out his roots by the river, and shall not fear when heat cometh, and his leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.

So, on the surface, yes, he’s just illustrating the bit about wisdom and deeds. But really, I don’t think he’s having a conversation here with Chanina ben Dosa, but with Jeremiah. When you look at the proof texts in their context, and then look at Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah’s text, something very different emerges.

Let’s take the first one, the one who is all wisdom and no proverbial; From Jeremiah, he is like the ar’ar ba-aravah, the naked desert. Probably the naked plant, the tree without leaves. Our translator, Herbert Danby D.D., is either making his own translation of the Jeremiah or he is working from an untrustworthy one; a tamarisk is eshel, and this is clearly not that. The tamarisk is known for being shady and moist; Jeremiah is talking about something closer to this, I think. But that is not, clearly not, what Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah is talking about, with abundant branches and few roots. The Rabbi is, in fact, talking about a tamarisk. Thus, I imagine, Dr. Danby’s confusion.

So we’ve got the tree backwards; but what else? Well, for Eliezar ben Azariah, as we have seen, the fellow who is like that tree is like that tree because his wisdom is more abundant than his works. But in Jeremiah, who is like that tree? The fellow who trusteth in man, and makes flesh his arm is like that tree.

And the other man?

The other man is like ha-aytz shatul mayim, the tree planted by the water. Because he trusteth in the Lord. That is the man who Eliezar ben Azariah describes as having more roots than branches, and having more works than wisdom.

I think Rabbi Eliezar ben Azariah has the whole thing upside-down. But—and here’s the fun part—I think he has it upside-down on purpose. Stick with me.

[YHB rolls out a large chalkboard with the Jeremiah verses on the left and the Avot verse on the right, and starts circling words and drawing lines between them]

The man who trusts in man but not in the Lord, who is he? How can you identify him? Not by his roots, which you can’t see. Not by the trust, which you can’t see. Not by his wisdom, which you can’t see. How can you identify the man who trusts in the Lord? By that trust? By his roots? By his wisdom?

The man who trusts in the Lord can be identified, not by the trust he places in the Divine, but by the active work, the tangible deeds, his relations with men and with the things around him. The man who fails to trust in the Divine cannot be identified by searching the Divine, but by searching the creation of the Divine, and seeing the absence of works.

In other words, the person who acts as if he is concerned about people, who works for the benefit of people, who doesn’t abandon people or exploit them or hurt them—if you are looking at it right-side-up, you think that that is the person who trusts in people. But if you are looking at it upside-down (that is, the correct way), you see that the person who spends time working for people, to alleviate their problems and bring them joy, that is the person who trusts in the Divine, the person whose invisible roots are even stronger than the visible branches.

But the other person, the one who acts as if the Divine Creation was made only for him, the one who does not have works to her credit, the one who builds up wisdom for its own sake and to show off and to lord it over the rest—that person does not trust the Divine but only in man; that is a person with weak branches and weaker roots, a person who will blow over in a storm, who won’t see good things in other people, or even, at last, in the self.

We tend to walk around right-side-up, because it’s easier that way. We look around at things right-side-up. The right-side-up simile is that visible deeds are like branches, and invisible wisdom like the roots that feed them. It’s good to have an upside-down simile, at least now and then, to say that the wisdom is the crown of the tree and the deeds are the roots that anchor it; to reflect that the things you can see are the things that count; to put your crown in the dirt and wave your roots in the air; to trust in the Divine by working for the Creation; to have a naked tamarisk and a leafy Joshua tree; to take things the wrong way around to get to the right answer at last.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 6, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 21

This week we turn to Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who is Ezra’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson; he is known as an aristocrat whose vast wealth was exceeded only by his immense generosity, and whose immense generosity was exceeded only by his great knowledge.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says: Where there is no Torah, there’s no right conduct, where there is no right conduct, there’s no Torah; where there is no wisdom, there’s no piety, where there is no piety, there’s no wisdom; where there is no perception, there’s no knowledge, where there’s no knowledge, there’s no perception; where there is no bread, there’s no torah, were there is no Torah, there’s no bread.

Four pairs. I hate pairs. Triples are good, pairs are bad. Hmph.

First pair is Torah and right conduct, or derech eretz, and the idea of the connection between them is not new. We talked about that in connection with Rabban Gamliel). Nothing really new here, except the negative phrasing. Where Rabban Gamliel suggests that that the pairing is fitting and is focused on the presence of both, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah is focused on the absence of both. I’ll get back to that.

Second pair is wisdom and piety, or hachmah and yir’ah. The latter is sometimes called fear or perhaps better reverence. Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin draws the connection between study of “the heavens and the earth and what is between them”, that is, secular study, and the fear of sin, as “when one perceives the genuine greatness of these things, he begins to understand ” the Divine Creator from the Creation.

Third pair is perception and knowledge. The difference between them is described by different commentators in different ways. The Machsor Vitry says that knowledge is what learned from another, whilst perception is your own ideas. The Meiri, on the other hand, says that knowledge is innate, whilst perception is learned. I have no idea, and probably have neither. Can we come back to this one?

Four and final pair is Torah and bread. Which is where we started, right? Only this time it’s bread, specifically, rather than derech eretz, which can mean either your occupation in the world or good conduct. If this is bread, and thus metaphorically breadwinning, then the other is conduct, yes? Or there is a double meaning, to make the whole verse circle around on itself.

So in the three verses that are reasonably clear, we have on the one hand secular aspects of life (conduct, wisdom and bread) and on the other religious (Torah, piety and, er, Torah). Does this help us differentiate perception and knowledge? Surely, here, one is meant to indicate something close to faith, the knowledge that the Divine exists and that Scripture is Scripture. A basic belief that is not based on evidence and is unshakeable. The other is the ability to judge evidence, to analyze, to perceive when the world is not how you think it is. The sage is here telling us that they are not opposed but complementary, both existing by virtue of the other’s existence. We start with an axiom or a bias. We also start with a world that exists independently of any axiom.

In other words, my belief in the Creator is not dependent on the Creation. But then neither is my belief in the Creation dependent on a belief in the Creator. I don’t think that’s what is meant by the if not x then not y formulation. I think it’s closer to this: if you reject [Torah, reverence, knowledge/axiomatic belief, Torah] in favor of [ethics, wisdom, perception, materialism], you are making a fundamental error. If, however, you are making the opposite choice, rejecting the pragmatic to embrace the spiritual, you are also making a fundamental error. Not in which one you are choosing. The error is choosing.

A world without bread would not be the world. A world without Torah would not be the world. If there is no Torah, there is no bread; if there is no bread, there is no Torah—not because you are too hungry to study or too sinful to be rewarded with food, but because without either of those things there is nothing.

I think that’s why Eleazar ben Azariah is repeating this idea in such a profoundly negative formulation. We cannot take the world a la carte. Rejection—of either side—is nihilism, the great shout of NO that keeps away both the Divine and the mundane, and yourself, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 30, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 20

This is a long one, so I’m going to use Jacob Neusner’s fancy break-it-down style of translation:

A. He would say, “(1) All is handed over as a pledge,
B.“(2)And a net is cast over all the living.
C.“(3)The store is open, (4) the shopkeeper gives credit, (5) the account book is open, and (6) the hand is writing.
D.“(1)Whoever wants to borrow may come and borrow.
E.“(2)The charity collectors go around every day and collect from man whether he knows it or not.
F.“(3)And they have grounds for what they do.
G.“(4)And the judgment is a true judgment.
H.“(5)And everything is prepared for the meal.”

What do we learn from Rabbi Akiva today? That it’s OK to mix metaphors, that’s what we learn.

The main metaphor is that the world is like a store. Ha-Meiri says that this is because of the infinite variety of its goods—“some are bitter, some are sweet; some are hot, some are cold; some are moist, some are dry; some are hard, some are soft; and the choice is left to the purchaser to buy what he wishes, either the bitter or the sweet.” The shop is open, and not only is credit available, but it is available to everyone. On the other hand, the bill does come due, and there is no escaping the collectors.

And everything is prepared for the meal. Or the feast or the banquet, depending. What is this meal? How does that follow from the shopkeeper metaphor?

In the Machsor Vitry, they extend the metaphor: a shopkeeper, with so much on the AR ledger, may keep a sparse table for every day, as he spends his money on the goods and does not get all the income. What happens, though, when the money comes due? He plans a feast. Is the Divine planning a feast, for that moment when we all pay our debt to Creation? Is there a celebration at hand— and we are holding it up by being deadbeats? It’s a thought.

Other commentators have a different interpretation. Rabbi Meshullam bar Kalonymos says that the feast is death. Why is death a feast? Because, like when the dinner bell rings and everybody goes in to the feast, each to sit at an appointed place, at the head of the table or near the foot, so too when our time comes we much depart from the world, to sit at an appointed place in the hereafter. That doesn’t work for me, but the idea seems to be accepted that the feast refers either to death or to the judgment after death. Men are destined for reward in the world to come, says Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin, unless they are driven away from the feast because they have not settled their account with the Divine in this world. Or, perhaps, the word feast is used as a kind of Schenectady for both reward and punishment, with Rabbi Akiva naturally reluctant to even name the possibility of unrighteousness.

Or, perhaps, as the Meiri says, this feast simply refers to the inevitable outcome of the shopping we have done at the store—if you have purchased meat and greens, you have meat and greens for your feast. If you have purchased nothing, you have nothing. Looking from that angle, everything is prepared for the meal seems to warn that whatever your actions have been, they have been a preparation for your meal, your deserts, if you will. It’s a warning that you may not get further preparation time, but have to eat what you already have in your pantry. You never know when it’s too late to go to the store for more.

Which brings us back, thematically, to the warning in the Machsor Vitry. The problem, my problem, is that I don’t like this eschatological End-is-Nigh stuff. And as much as I think it is helpful to keep the metaphor of the world as a shop, the Divine Creator as a provider of infinite splendor that does not demand payment up front but does keep strict accounts, as much as I do think that metaphor can be helpful in appreciating both the rich variety of life and the sometimes disconcerting gap between (perceived) benefits and burdens, I’ll just stretch it a trifle more to fit my own worldview with a very questionable translation of that last bit:

E.“(2)The collectors go around every day and collect from man whether he knows it or not.
F.“(3)And they have grounds for what they do.
G.“(4)And the judgment is a true judgment.
H.“(5)And look—free samples!”

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 23, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 19

We are still on the sayings of Rabbi Akiva, who used to say (in the translation of Judah Goldin):

Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted; in mercy is the world judged; and everything is granted according to the preponderance of works.

I love this verse.

To me, this verse is what makes it possible for me to be a believer in the Divine. This is a statement about the Divine mystery, the fundamental irreconcilability of the Divine as we accept it and the world as we learn it. The step is to accept this.

If I were the Divine, I could not make free will and foreknowledge compatible. Oh, there are some rhetorical tricks to get around the more obvious logical problems, but if you follow those out with the ruthlessness of logic, you still run into conclusions that are unacceptable, or that are seriously incompatible with worship. But the great and holy Rabbi Akiva is saying, what if you don’t follow them out? What if you accept that there is a logic that applies in the world, and that the Divine is not bound by that logic? If an essential attribute of the Divine is that the Divine is more than human, more than humanity, more than the world we can test and examine, more even than the world we can imagine, then much of the rest of it falls away, and we can judge ourselves and our worship by our own worthiness, not by the worthiness of the Divine.

All is determined and free will is given. It is a contradiction to us, but the Divine is not bound by rules or laws of any kind; the Divine is not a clockmaker or an attorney, the Divine is ineffable, and exists outside the universe, before it and above it and beyond it.

Now that is the part of the verse that is most often quoted, and is used (by YHB, fairly frequently) as an example of the difference between the Rabbis and the Church Fathers, between Judaism as it has come down to us and the other religions. It’s not that we reject logic. Our legal system is rigorously logic-based. It’s that we do not expect the Divine to be subject to it. And it’s not that we reject philosophical inquiry, either, although the nature of that inquiry tends to be more limited and more focused on the workings of the world and its dwellers. We begin those inquiries, when they reach the Divine, with the understanding that we will not be able to ultimately reduce the Divine to a formula.

More important, though, it seems to me at the moment, is the second half of the verse, the one that says that we are judged with mercy and by the preponderance of works. We know that the Divine is merciful—it’s right there in the Scripture. It’s one of the attributes (it’s the first of them, actually, in the liturgical List of Thirteen Attributes, and also several of the others), so we cannot doubt it. But then, if I were a Judge, I would find mercy in conflict with Justice; if punishment is the inevitable result of transgression, and the preponderance of acts determines the granting or withholding of reward, where is mercy? And if mercy is the first principle, then doesn’t it, logically, undermine judgment?

Yes, if it were human judgment. Or even natural judgment, that is, the working out of cause and effect, in which mercy plays no part and can play no part. But the Divine mercy, and the Divine judgment, are not like ours, nor are they bound by the laws of time and nature.

But—and here’s where we get to the really important part, the existence of Divine mercy, above logic and beyond the boundary, does not in any way invalidate the preponderance of works. The Divine foreknowledge does not invalidate free choice, and the results of that free choice remain our own works, our own world, our own legacy to ourselves. The Divine mercy is not a mercy that lets us off the hook, any more than the Divine foreknowledge is a foreknowledge that lets us off our free will. It is the prerogative of the Divine to be merciful; it is not the prerogative of humanity, or individual people, or for that matter the prerogative of animals and matter and the logic and laws of nature to presume on that mercy. We can accept the ineffability of Divine foreknowledge and logic only if we also accept our free will and our responsibility for our works. They are not separate matters. They are the same thing, in the same verse, in the same world.

That’s why I can accept that (for instance) the world was created in seven days, or that in the endtime we will be resurrected in the body, while simultaneously believing in, say, physics and biology. To the extent that bodily resurrection is true (and we are given that it is, just as we are given the Divine mercy), it is true beyond our understanding. We can’t accept it as invalidating physics and biology, not and be true to Rabbi Akiva. We can’t even accept it alongside physics and biology. To believe in bodily resurrection and be true to this verse, you have to be prepared to set aside your belief in bodily resurrection as part of the Divine prerogative and put your own mind to physics and biology and to the preponderance of your own works—not give it up, not at all, but give it up to the Divine as part of the Divine’s business, while taking care of your own.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 16, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 18

This is a long and complicated verse, so I’m going to cut and paste the Chabad translation, to spare myself the typing:

He would also say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of G-d]; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to him that he was created in the image, as it is says, You are children of the L-rd your G-d. Beloved are Israel, for they were given a precious article; it is a sign of even greater love that it has been made known to them that they were given a precious article, as it is stated: I have given you a good purchase; My Torah, do not forsake it.

The three parts here are each making the point that the knowledge of a thing is greater than the thing itself without the knowledge. Which is a true thing, of course, but in some sense a simple and true thing: how could the thing be greater than the thing plus the knowledge? He cannot be saying that the knowledge on its own is greater than the thing on its own, because the knowledge cannot exist without the thing being known—or—

Let’s play around with that for a few minutes. What if the valuable thing really is the knowledge, not the thing known? That is, let’s examine: what if we know that we are created in the image of the Divine, but we are not, in fact, made in the Divine image? Before we go on, let me add that my intention is to play around with it as a hypothetical, rather than determining in any sense whether humans are or are not made in the Divine image, whatever that would mean, physically or spiritually or whatever. Akiba takes it as a basic fact that humans were made in the image of the Divine, because they had been told it, and so it was true. That’s fine. But what would it mean that we are told it, if it is not in any sense true? Is the telling then a proof of Divine love?

YHB immediately goes to the idea of the Divine-Human relationship being like the Parent-Child relationship. When we tell our children that they are pretty, strong, brave or clever—is the telling a proof of our love even if they do not have those qualities? Is the proof of parental love that we see those qualities in our children even when they are hidden to other eyes? (I am of course reminded here of Coach and his daughter, played by the great Allyce Beasley, from about two minutes or so into this clip) Or is this another example of parents telling comforting lies to their children, well-intentioned but ultimately harmful? Or is this the thing where children find in themselves the thing they are told to find, whether it is bravery or beauty, or incompetence or uselessness?

And, of course, the Divine is not just telling children but telling adults that we are made in the image. I don’t like to rely too much on the Divine as Parent, because it infantilizes us as adults, as if we will never be ready to come into our own inheritance as humans. So if the Divine is just saying it, if we believe mistakenly that we are in the image, is this a contributor to our arrogance and recklessness? Or to our humaneness, our mercy and love for each other—and for ourselves, if it comes to that?

Whether we are made in the Image, we are made (somehow) able to believe that we are made in the Image. That is an astonishing thing about humans—we look at the universe and think that the Divine Creator must be in some way like us, and that we must be in some way like the Divine. We may or may not actually be made in the Divine Image, but we have the ability to conceptualize that we are, and perhaps being Created that way is the proof of extraordinary Divine Love that Akiba is getting at here.

For the others, well, I think that Chosen-ness has not been an unmitigated blessing for the people Israel, and I’m not sure that it wouldn’t have been better to have been Chosen without such a fuss being made about it. Still, in the words of the verse, the special love that Israel is shown is not being children of the Divine (which of course everybody and everything is a Created of the Creator), but in being told that we were children of the Divine. Not an unmitigated blessing, as I say, but there it is. Perhaps the evolution of Judaism is such that (as with human understanding of the Divine Image) we have become capable of understanding what it means to be children of the Divine—or what it could mean, anyway.

As for the special gift of our Tribe, well, it could be said that our special gift is not the Torah, which is available to everyone after all, and which (by certain stories) was offered to everyone, but our love for the Torah, our enduring habit of keeping it precious to us, in different ways for different generations, our secure knowledge that it remains ours, remains our Scripture, remains our gift, whatever its apparent flaws and irrelevancies.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 9, 2010

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 17

Well, and we have got to Rabbi Akiba at last. For those who aren’t up on their great and holy sages, I will say that there are three sages that are the most prominent, the chief examples, legendary figures, and inner-circle Hall-of-Famers among them. Those are Hillel, of course, and Akiba and Judah the Prince. Just to mention: in Gershom Bader’s Encyclopedia of Talmudic Sages, there are 23 pages devoted to Rabbi Akiba, compared to 7 for Chanina ben Dosa or five for Rabbi Tarfon. I don’t know if non-Jews have heard of Rabbi Akiva, but I would say that most Jews who go to any kind of Hebrew School in America probably know the name and some of the sayings or stories (and don’t know Chanina ben Dosa or Rabbi Tarfon).

Rabbi Akiba says:
Merriment and frivolity accustom one to unchastity.
Tradition is a hedge about the Torah
Tithes are a hedge about riches
vows are a hedge about abstinence
a hedge about wisdom—silence

Again with the hedges (or fences, or whatever the translator decides). I want to quote R. Travers Herford here who says that the idea of the hedge “is open to abuse and misconstruction, and has found these in abundance; but in itself it is worthy of the profoundly earnest men who made it their rule of life.” I tend to focus on the abuse and misconstruction, because there is so much of it about. In fact, I am skeptical of the worthiness of the principle altogether. On the other hand, Rabbi Akiba was smarter, more pious and more learned than YHB (I think we can all accept that), and some deference is due. So let’s look at this verse with some deference, yes?

First of all, I’m not altogether against unchastity, but leaving that aside for the moment, I think it’s true that merriment and frivolity accustom one to it, or that (to switch from R. Travers Herford’s translation to that of Rabbi Hertz) they lead one on to unchastity. It’s fairly easy (in for instance, a room alone with someone to whom one is attracted but with whom unchastity would be a Bad Thing) to say that I’m just having a good time here, and we’re just friends, and nothing is going to happen—and it’s even easier for something to happen. This does not mean that merriment and frivolity are bad in themselves, or that one shouldn’t engage in them, just that it’s good to be aware of things. And, of course, even if nothing does, quite, happen, there’s a certain emotional cost involved, and therefore a certain ethical cost as well. Again, I don’t want to endorse the idea that because merriment and frivolity can lead to unchastity, or can break down one’s practical opposition to it, that you should avoid them altogether or even avoid them in Certain Situation. I’m just saying that Rabbi Akiba is right that you don’t get them without risk and for free.

Then there’s tradition being a hedge around the Torah, which is, I would think both obvious and profound. There’s a story—I don’t think it’s Rabbi Akiba, I think it’s Hillel, but I can’t remember where I found it—of a scoffer who goes to a sage and says Why should I learn from you, and all of your traditions? I can learn directly from the Scripture itself! The Rabbi, in response, draws an A (well, an aleph, but the story is the same) and asks the scoffer what it is. That’s an A, says the scoffer. The Rabbi nods and draws a B. That’s a B is the response. Again, the Rabbi draws and the scoffer responds That’s a C, I know the letters, I know the whole alphabet, A-B-C, yes, what’s your point? The Rabbi looks at him and asks how do you know these things, if it is not from the tradition?

In fact, aside from the alphabet, there are lots of things in the Scripture that are obscure or capable of a multitude of interpretations, and tradition protects the Scripture by guiding us to an understanding, so we don’t reject the thing altogether. On the other hand, tradition often guides us to the wrong interpretation—I would say an interpretation with which I disagree, which is usually what I mean by wrong, but also in many cases an interpretation which simply is wrong. The book of Wisdom was not written by King Solomon, that’s just not true. Tradition attributes to the Romans, the Egyptians and the local Canaanites habits and norms that they did not have. Tradition can be wrong. And even when it is not wrong as such, tradition can solidify interpretations that would be better served by flexibility; can engrave in the stories cultural biases that we now want to rid ourselves of, which may be worse.

A Gentle Reader recently wrote about the idea that Divine Right of Kings was widely prevalent (in one form or another) for very large chunks of human history in lots of the world, much not having to do with each other but overlapping in a sense that the ruler of the government partook in some sense of the Divine, to the extent that ruler, government and Divine are concepts that albeit ill-defined are recognizable and themselves have substantial overlap. She suggest that “probably 90% or more of the human population agrees that’s a bad idea”, which I think is overstating it, but certainly the idea of popular sovereignty has really remarkably overtaken that concept, and without claiming (and I don’t think she intends to claim) that it is going down without a pretty damned good fight, it does seem at the moment to be going down. I bring this up because that kind of major cultural shift—the concept of government, the idea of human rights and the dignity of the individual, the conceptualization of childhood, the relationships of humans to animals, etc, etc, etc, all really do vary over the centuries and continents. Tradition, by its nature, changes only very, very slowly, and when you want to change the mindset (without necessarily changing the Law), tradition is a hedge in your way.

Now, as for tithes being a hedge about riches, I have never had much experience with either. But the interesting thing for me that the parallelism of the verse makes it clear that (a) riches are a good thing, in and of themselves, and (2) tithes somehow protect that good thing, which would otherwise be in danger. I’m not sure how this works—except as a talismanic kind of thing, which is how it is often interpreted in (yes) the tradition. Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham and Simeon ben Zumah Duran both suggest that he who tithes or gives charity from his riches will, as this verse relates, increase rather than decrease them. Casting your bread upon the face of the water, you know, reassuring the ROI folk that it isn’t wasted. On the other hand, this is one of those cases where it is simply false—at least in any individual sense. Your contributions do not inevitably lead to riches; self-interest is not a good way to get people to tithe.

I will say, in a broader context, that the prosperity of a culture is (I maintain) largely dependent on its stability, which is (again, I maintain) largely dependent on the voluntary contribution of the wealthy toward its institutions and its people, that is, tithing. Tithing in the mass is a hedge around prosperity in the mass. While I don’t believe that an individual who refuses to contribute to anything larger than his family or his own business will necessarily be made poorer because of it, I do think that a society-wide negligence increases the chances of massive economic and political upheavals (not to mention plague, pestilence and war, which are profit drivers for some people, but high-risk for people who already hold riches). So there’s that.

Vows are a hedge around abstinence. Well, and we’re presumably talking about abstinence of various kinds, not just sexual abstinence. I have to say in my experience, trying to cut down on potato chips or other kinds of badformes, that vows and promises are not much of a hedge. And I think that’s all I have to say about that.

And wisdom? And silence? The Rabbis do praise silence, both actual silence and verbal reticence—Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham claims that this verse teaches us silence on the part of a student in the presence of his teacher or anyone greater in wisdom, but he can’t really be talking about silence, just about not blurting out answers, interrupting or holding forth without listening. My inclination is to say that silence is an effective hedge around a reputation for wisdom, but that wisdom is as likely gained as lost in active participation in discussion. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

As for the verse as a whole… I don’t know that I have any observations. I will add that I’m thinking that I should, in the new year, to try to keep these avot notes confined to one note for a verse, rather than breaking them up. The purpose of posting them in three or four parts was to facilitate discussion, which (as y’all have probably noticed) isn’t so much happening, so the actual outcome is just aggregator clutter. It may make for long notes, but we have enough pixels for that, don’t we?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 5, 2010

A straight apikoros, so, you know, no dog in that kettle.

My Gracious Host points us to a page that Shmuel (sometime Gentle Reader here) put together some great links on a panel on Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World that was held at Yeshiva University. Y’all know I have little patience with the whole idea of the Modern Orthodox—I feel that much of halacha is as destructive as much of the Temple ritual, and am glad I can be Jewish without participating in either. I should probably write much more about this in general, at some point, but for the moment, I’ll just acknowledge that I do not feel myself constrained by the law against seed-spilling or the law against anal sex. Or the one against shellfish. Mmm, shellfish.

Anyway, I read a transcript posted by a student at YU, and I found it fascinating, moving and provocative. And I wound up reading more posts by that student, who is clearly conflicted about the issue (not about the halacha, which is fairly clear in the middle notwithstanding a good deal of disagreement about how wide the hedge around it should be), and then read a bunch of comments, which was of course a terrible, terrible mistake.

It occurs to me that if I am going to talk about this at all, I should talk just a bit about the Law as it applies here, and not just make an off-hand parenthetical comment. I am not an expert in this, and I want to emphasize that I am not particularly observant as a matter of practice nor as a matter of theory do I follow the sages or the modern Rabbis and their applications. I am very much outside the fold. That will be important to keep in mind. Still, I know a bit about the Law and the traditions, and if any of y’all know more, it would be helpful for me to have any correction or clarification, and if y’all know less, then keep reading.

Here’s the core: Leviticus 18:22 says something like You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. The most liberal interpretation of this within mainstream Jewish Orthodox thought is an absolute prohibition on male-male penile-anal penetration to ejaculation. That is like eating scallops wrapped in bacon. It may be wonderful, but it is a violation of the Law, and there is no way around that. The question is what else is a violation. This is in part an interpretation of the verse itself, and in part an interpretation of the hedge around the Law (which we have discussed before here). So, taking for instance the act of one male pleasuring another by anal penetration with a dildo or vibrator: is this sufficiently different from the proscribed act to be allowed? Probably not. With a tongue? Hm. What about fellatio? Or a hand job? My understanding is that almost all mainstream traditional rabbis consider all those acts to be forbidden, either directly by the verse or by the implication of the verse.

Now, when we are talking about the hedge, there are a couple of things that come into play. First, there’s a categorization of laws (both prohibitions and obligations) into things that make sense and things that are arbitrary. That is, the obligation to honor your father and mother makes sense, and therefore we are obliged not only to honor our biological father and mother, but an adoptive father and mother, and a stepfather or stepmother, or even by extension a teacher, mentor or elder. The prohibition against shellfish, however, is arbitrary, so although we must not eat crab meat, we can eat surimi (assuming it has been prepared properly). We may not be able to taste the difference (how would we, lacking the experience), but there is a difference, and we have avoided the infraction. So when deciding where the hedge is, that’s an important factor: is the prohibition against anal sex a sensible one or an arbitrary one? Unsurprisingly, opinions differ.

The other major factor in determining how big a hedge should be is temptation: if (going back to our topic for a moment) a gay couple are getting tremendous pleasure from their hands, mouths, cocks, asses and vibrators in all the variations they can think of except penile-anal penetration, will they be tempted to violate the prohibition, in a moment of frenzied passion? If so, it is generally considered admirable to avoid that situation (although of course there are stories of rabbis deliberately sleeping in the same bed as beautiful young women and conquering their yetzer ra, and although some commentary does criticize that behavior, the rabbis in question are not considered to have violated the Law and the majority strain of the tradition approves of them, as witness the inclusion of the stories). If the temptation is considered to be great and widespread, the hedge is not considered to be a matter of individual judgement, rather the rabbi can state where the hedge should be. If it’s a matter of leading others off the path, that is, where a person can without infringing the Law themselves lead others into a situation where they will infringe the law, either unknowingly or through overwhelming temptation, there is no question: it is forbidden, even if under other circumstances it might be allowed.

Furthermore (should I have skipped all this?) there is the matter of tradition: if there is a tradition prohibiting a particular thing as part of a hedge around the existing Law, the inheritors of that tradition are bound by it, unless positively released by an authority. The most common example of this is the difference in Passover observance between Ashkenazic Jews and Sephardim: the Sephardim eat rice (among other kitniyot) and the Ashkenazim do not. However, a Jew of an Ashkenazic family cannot simply declare herself a Sephard for the duration of Passover. She is bound by the minhag, the tradition.

Digression: I really shouldn’t add anything else to this note, but I don’t think I’ve ever made the point in this Tohu Bohu that in the case of a Sephard marrying an Ashkenaz, the new household should adopt the minhag of the woman, not the man. This is in part because the woman is assumed to be in charge of the house and particularly the kitchen, so it makes sense to use the traditional recipes that she would know rather than making her learn her mother-in-law’s recipes. It’s also for the same reason that our bloodlines are maternal: we know who the mother is. End Digression.

So where were we? Oh, yes. Orthodox Judaism generally has found that the prohibition against gay sex is sensible, and that tradition has made a very big hedge, and that anyway all that sex stuff is icky, and the hedge against straight sex (which is a mitzvah, after all) is about a mile high and six miles deep, so there. For a man to have a boyfriend, to hold hands and snuggle in the evening, to exchange loving words and looks, is all banned. Forget teabagging, they ban waltzing. Not a surprise, but it’s worth keeping in mind that they could make different decisions about the law. They are bound to keep the prohibitions in the Torah itself, yes, but they have some latitude to make the very broad interpretation of that prohibition much, much, much narrower without giving up that prohibition (the way that I feel free to do).

Good Gumby, this is a long note, and I haven’t got to the point of it, yet. Are y’all still with me? Because I did have a point, this time, and I’m getting to it soon. Well, soonish. Y’all know I tend to do the breaking-down-into-categories thing to think about topics, so that’s what came most clearly to mind, because some of the discussion I saw was so utterly confused about some things I find very distinct. So it seems to me that the Modern Orthodox community must decide how to treat:

A) Gay and lesbian people who grew up in the fold, and have decided as adults to leave the tradition, in part (at least) because it does not allow them to marry their loves and have sex with them. This might be fairly easy, as it is a kind of mutual expulsion, although of course that expulsion is heartbreaking for divided families and friends, and can lead people away from the path of righteousness altogether.

2) Gay and lesbian adults who are, like the panelists appear to be (to me, at any rate), passionate about staying in the fold and concerned with acting according to the Law, but who are certain of their orientation. This is very difficult. Very, very difficult. I tend to think that this panel and the discussion leading to it and from it will help people come up with some ways of thinking about it that are helpful. I do understand that many Rabbis will have a lot of trouble accepting that these people are good observant Jews that are perfectly naturally attracted to members of the same sex. The law may make it difficult on these people, but that isn’t their fault, and they should be treated with care and joy. As a side note, if anybody happens on this that could use the info, or could usefully pass it along, The Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva Day School Alumni Association seems to be a good source of information and links for people in this category.

γ) Young adults who are trying to figure out their sexual identity, preferences and orientation, being guided by the community and the Law. This seems less difficult to me, but it does require a kind of forthrightness about the existence of sexual passions of various kinds, which seems (from what I understand) to be present in the Law and the rabbinic discussion of the Law, but most often missing from conversations with actual children. At any rate, these young people should be able to know where the Law is clear and where it is not, what their obligations are and are not. Most important, they should all know that same-sex attraction is a natural thing, much like shrimp or roast pork, and that while a Jew may be prohibited from acting on it (or at least in acting on it in particular ways, depending on which authorities you follow), there is nothing disgusting about it.

iv) Kids who are ‘different’ and fail to act in exact accordance with gender expectations. The panelists tell stories that would be shocking if they weren’t so terribly, terribly common. I would have thought there would be a consensus of commentators and scholars that these kids have violated no aspect of the Law, and the behavior of the schools, camps, shuls, and families to them is a violation of the kind specifically stated (again and again, in Pirke Avot, by sages who agree on little else) to be outrages against the Divine and the Law, inconsistent with righteousness.

That’s what struck me most—these panelists were describing their histories with specific focus on the harm that they took before they identified themselves as gay frum Jews. Many of the responses (almost all the ones I happened to see) reacted to the question of how to treat gay frum Jews. Well, fine, that’s an issue. But it’s turning away from the harm that was done to those people, and that turning away is another harm, and is absolutely and unquestionably a violation of the ethics that we’ve been reading here at this Tohu Bohu.

Now, I took some grief, myself, as a child, for being different. I have been called effeminate (I have been called a great big poncy ponce, in fact, but not recently), and when I was a kid, I was hurt by the scorn of others on that topic as well as on others. But I wasn’t told, at the age of ten, that I was evil. The idea that anybody could react to this

the next day my parents were called in to Rabbi Monk’s office. And he takes off a book from the shelf by a rabbi who happens to be my father’s great-uncle and he says ‘there’s no natural desire for homosexuality. It must be that it’s only rebellion against God and it only happens after you’ve explored every other taivah’ and then he looked at me. I was TEN. Only ten! And it made sense to everyone in the room. Except me. And I was kicked out of camp.

by criticizing the man who tells the story is an outrage against Judaism’s ethical principles. Remember, the ten-year-old boy who is accused not just of an abomination but of every abomination has not been taking it up the ass. He has not even been holding hands. He said, when asked, that he liked boys. This is not a violation of halacha. And accusing him like that is.

And it is a violation whether the ostracized kid grows up to be frum and gay, or (like me) a straight man who likes showtunes and fancy clothes. You have no way of knowing which is which.

And, of course, it is a violation of ethics even if the kid grows up to eat scallops and bacon, take it up the ass, and charge interest on loans. No excuses. You don’t treat people that way.

Which is why it is so great for the panelists to come to Yeshiva University and say they were treated that way, and for YU, however reluctantly, to invite them.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 19, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 16

Rabbi Ishmael says: be suppliant to a superior, submissive under compulsory service, and receive every man happily.

Rabbi Ishmael (ben Elisha) is the grandson of the High Priest, also named Ishmael; he is sometimes confused with his grandfather, and is sometimes himself referred to as a High Priest, although (the Temple having been destroyed) he never served in that capacity. He may possibly have been considered the High Priest in waiting, that is, should the Temple be rebuilt in his lifetime, he would have been chosen. Or, just as likely I feel, people just get confused over names.

Anyway, his relationship with power and authority are… interesting. He is supposed to have been imprisoned by the Romans as a child, and was about to be sold to a brothel when Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah purchased him from captivity and restored him to learning. His lifespan (roughly contemporary with Rabbi Akiba) is under a Roman rule that went from harsh and oppressive in his youth rapidly downhill. He was an eminent and respected authority, but never held high office; he traveled back and forth to the great gatherings of scholars, rather than residing as a teacher. He must always have had in his mind the idea that, had the Romans not pulled down the Temple, he would have been wearing the jeweled breastplate and golden whatnots. And had the people not revolted against authority, would the Temple have still been standing?

In the second leg of the triple, there’s a word, tishoret, that is obscure, and that leads to two or three very different interpretations of the verse. Judah Goldin (who I’ve used above) sides with the Machsor Vitry; Herbert Danby sides with the Rambam, translating it “kindly to the young”. I have no idea, of course. On the one hand, if Rabbi Ishmael is thinking about power and hierarchies, it makes sense that the reference is to a royal official who enforces the law. On the other hand, it’s possible that he is not thinking about politics but about personal interaction and affection; having been treated roughly as a child himself, he may have wanted to emphasize the extra importance of being kind.

In fact, if one wants to view this apolitically, it is about being receptive: open to those above you and below you, as well as to absolute strangers. This is humility of sorts, putting others above yourself. These three, then, are a progression: of course you should work hard for someone who is in a position of power over you, but even for a youth, you should be helpful and not arrogant—and not only a child, but for every man, without condition.

I don’t know, though. I am inclined to the political reading, which advises against rebellion in favor of hard work. For the political superior, flexibility is required. For the outsider who is in power over you, he advises (in the translation of R. Travers Herford) patience. And for every man, a joyful greeting.

Is not the implication there that every man you meet may be (a) your superior, in the sense of learning and wisdom, in the sense of respect and community authority, in the sense of age and experience; or (2) an oppressor, a force of compulsion, a actor not from ethical authority but from power? If this is the case—and it is the case—how do you greet a stranger? With suspicion, with caution, with guards up and defenses down? No, Rabbi Ishmael is saying (it seems to me) that being aware of the potentials and possibilities, one must still greet every man with joy.

Of course, we already know, from Shammai, that we should receive every man with a cheerful expression of face, which is not so far from receiving the fellow with actual cheer. So are we learning anything new here? We are, of course: the sages are recognizing that there are reasons why a person would not have a cheerful expression of face, or happiness at heart, to meet a new person.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 13, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse fifteen: the aftermath

Well, and I’m still trying to think about the verse:

R. Elazar of Modim said, he who profanes things sacred, and despises the festivals, and puts his fellow-man to shame in public, and makes void the covenant of Abraham our father, and makes the Torah bear a meaning other than what is right, such a one, even though knowledge of the Torah be his, has no share in the world to come.

As I have said, I think this is a deliberate reference to the Chanukah story, and an attempt to connect the Roman situation to the Chanukah story, and an attempt to connect our current situation, whatever it is, to all of that.

I am, on the whole, an Assimilationist. Or, rather, I am in favor of the Jewish tradition of incorporating local traditions into our own traditions, flavoring them as seems good, interacting with the local non-Jewish population, adapting, living, growing, changing. I like having other Jews around, but I also like having non-Jews around.

I don’t want to be forced into an us-or-them situation. I don’t want to be part of an insulated enclave that manages to keep the festivals and the sacred things and the Torah all safe from outside influences. But I don’t want to make void the covenant, either. I know that the Maccabees were reacting to an hostile occupation; they are not a good model for how to live in a free and wonderfully heterogenous and hybrid country. Neither is the rabbinic reaction to the Romans, although a marvelous thing and a miracle in itself, more than a starting point for our own choices.

Every year at this time, I grumble (at least in my own head) about the contradictions of American Hanukkah. The commemoration of the fight against assimilation become the epitome of assimilation itself. More than that, the way that our celebration of Hanukkah becomes a half-assed secular Christmas—as if we are simultaneously telling our children that it’s all right that they are missing Christmas while implying that of course they are missing out on the real winter holiday. Or, worse, giving eight presents as a bribe to keep them Jewish—you see? Hanukkah is eight times better than Christmas, because you get eight presents! As if Christmas was nothing more than gift-giving, and as if the religious observances were spreadsheets. A new way of despising the festivals.

I get very cranky about it. If you hadn’t noticed.

Less so, I must say, since my own household has been observing both holidays, having both Jews and Christians in the house, and doing (I think) a pretty good job of it, so far. We muddle through. Eleazar wouldn’t like it, but there you are.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 12, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 15: the details

So. Eleazar of Modin and me, Hellenizers and Romanizers, Bar Kochba and the Maccabees, and the question of assimilation. This note is for going through the categories, with an eye on all of that.

R. Elazar of Modim said, he who profanes things sacred, and despises the festivals, and puts his fellow-man to shame in public, and makes void the covenant of Abraham our father, and makes the Torah bear a meaning other than what is right, such a one, even though knowledge of the Torah be his, has no share in the world to come.

Once you start thinking about Hanukkah, the profanation of the sacred is about the use of the Temple for pagan rituals. It’s also fairly simply the use of ritual objects for everyday uses (drinking wine from your Kiddush cup on Thursday, or using your t’fillin to strap your books together), or just irreverence generally. The sage is arguing for a clear distinction between profane and sacred, a kind of insulation from the World. Since Jews under Hellenic or Roman or American rule will have all of the instruments of government and power be almost by definition profane, that insistence seems to me a retreat from interaction, rather than a healthy mindfulness.

As for despising the festivals, one of the things about growing up a Jew in America (unless you are in a real enclave, in which case you are only somewhat growing up in America) is the experience of missing school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur or the first day of Passover. Or, potentially, any of the other days in which work is prohibited. Not to mention soccer, which practices on Saturday mornings—my Rabbi once told me that soccer is a graver danger to American Judaism than intermarriage. Not to mention that I am at work right now.

R. Travers Herford claims that the bit about shaming in public is an interpolation, and it certainly seems a bit off-topic for the list. But the sages felt very strongly about it. In this context, though, the question: who is the public? Fellow Jews? Fellow westernized Jews? Non-Jews? Surely it isn’t shameful to be outed as a Jew (either actually outed or to have attention drawn to it by conversation, mention of the holidays, conspicuous dietary accommodation, etc), but it can be a bit awkward. And there’s the shanda fur de goyim, the person who embarrasses all Jews by association. I think that this idea of public shame is connected, in a complicated web, with the whole question of assimilation and individuation.

As for making void the covenant, that is another reference to the Hellenizers, and refers literally to disguising the circumcision of the penis so that the Jew will not be visibly different in the bath or the gym. It has been used metaphorically to describe other visual differences (the payess, the yarmulke, or even the black hats and caftans). It is supposed to stand for the faith covenant, I suppose, of which the physical signs are only physicals signs, after all, but then it is difficult to judge anything but the physical signs, isn’t it?

As for making the Torah say what it doesn’t—here I will yield to Menahem ben Solomon ha-Meiri, who gave as an example the prohibition against the meat we get from pigs. He says that while it is possible to suggest that the prohibition is a metaphor for swinish behavior, it is not allowed to argue that it is purely a metaphor. That is, one who says that eating pork is forbidden and it is a metaphor for swinish behavior is all right. One who says that eating pork is forbidden because it is a metaphor is on dangerous ground, as kashrut is one of those laws which applies independent of any intent or context. But one who says that eating of pork is permitted, and that the prohibition really means something else, that one has no share in the world to come.

I provide Meiri’s gloss here precisely because it so clearly describes my own attitude toward kashrut. Not that it is a metaphor for behavior, but that it is all about endogamy and exogamy. Peculiar and difficult to understand dietary restrictions (of which the pork taboo is the easiest example) prevent members of the Tribe from eating meals with outsiders. At the time, and now, eating meals with people is one of the ways in which bonds are formed between people and between families. If you can’t sit down to a meal with your non-Jewish neighbor, you are much less likely to contract a marriage between your children, and your children are much less likely to elope even if you don’t contract such a marriage.

As an assimilated American Jew—a believing Jew, a passionate Jew, a Jew much in love with my own Jewishness, but not an observant Jew, not a traditional Jew, not a Maccabee by any means—I eat pork for dinner most Friday nights, with my Christian wife, who shares the blessings of the shabbos table with me and our lovely Jewish children. I reject the application of the laws of kashrut as thoroughly as I reject the application of the laws of the rededicated Temple. Well, perhaps not as thoroughly, as, you know, ew, animal sacrifice. But the point is that in both cases I take the laws immediate and obvious application as not pertaining to me, except as metaphor. In other words, as having a meaning other than what is (in halakhic terms) right.

And yet, I do not give up hope for the world to come. On the other hand, I am giving up hope for an adequate conclusion to this note, so I will let y’all (if you wish) talk about these details, and start again with a new page.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 15: Chappy Chanukkah

Today is the first day of Hanukkah. Gentle Readers may remember my ambivalence about the holiday—I am forced to admit that in the experience of American Jews, it is a major holiday, but I would prefer to deny that particular minhag and adhere to the older tradition that treats it as a minor holiday. Plus, I have many problems with the story itself, and with the various versions of it as it is taught and told. On the other hand, fried foods and gambling. So. Today is the first day of Hanukkah, and we are looking at the saying of R. Eliezar of Modim. In the translation of Rabbi Hertz:

R. Elazar of Modim said, he who profanes things sacred, and despises the festivals, and puts his fellow-man to shame in public, and makes void the covenant of Abraham our father, and makes the Torah bear a meaning other than what is right, such a one, even though knowledge of the Torah be his, has no share in the world to come.

There could be some issues with the translation. This is one of the ones where the Hebrew seems to bear a particularly heavy weight of connotation, and the translator must do what he can. I don’t think I want to look at word choice, today; I want to talk about Hanukkah.

Why Hanukkah? Well, that’s part of the weight of connotation. Rabbi Eleazar is from Modim. Who comes from Modim? The Maccabees come from Modim.

OK, do y’all know the Hanukkah story? Mattathias (or Matisyahu, and can I point out how interesting it is that we use the Greek version of his name?) was a very devout and strict Temple priest who, when the Temple was profaned and Temple rites were forbidden under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, returned to the Modi’in valley (or Modim, or Modaim, or whatever). Even there, however, the Greeks insisted on the locals participating in the pagan rites. He refused, and when another Jew acceded, Mattathias slew the man at the altar in the middle of the sacrifice, and shouted something quite like All who are with the Lord, follow me!.

He was followed into the wilderness by his sons, including the famous Judah “The Hammer”, or Judah Maccabee. He was also followed by a growing army of Jews who were called Maccabees after their military leader. There was an insurgency, violence, terror, miracles, guerrilla warfare in the towns, forced conversions, wholesale slaughter, and finally—one might say miraculously, particularly if you believe that bit about the white stallion—the liberation of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple. Hanukkah is the observance of the rededication of the Temple, which (notionally) occurred on 25 Kislev, and thus the remembrance of the revolt against the Hellenizers and the Hellenized.

Now. That was all three hundred years or so before the Eliezar of this verse. But by identifying him by his hometown (rather than by his father or some attribute such as righteousness or wisdom), the verse calls to mind the Maccabees and the revolt. And, by bringing to mind that revolt, that celebrated and observed revolt, it brings to mind the contemporary revolt of Bar Kochba, who had Eliezar killed (presumably after he said that stuff) and the contemporary questions of interaction with the Western powers and Western ideas.

So, keeping that in mind, who is the one that Eliezar of Modin says has no place in the world to come? It is the Hellenizer/Romanizer; the one who says that it is all right to eat trayf, who works on the holidays because the goyim are working on the holidays, the one who says that the Torah is compatible with the modern world.

In other words, me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 5, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 14: meeting houses of the ignorant

R. Dosa b. Harkinas said: Morning sleep and midday wine and children’s talk and sitting in the meeting houses of the ignorant people put a man out of the world.

One of the things that makes this set of four things a thematic whole, rather than simply four disparate things, is this sense that they are good things in the wrong way. Sleep at night, not in the morning; drink wine in the evening, not at midday; converse with adults, not children; and sit in the meeting houses of the wise, not the ignorant. While the phrase is couched in its negative aspect, it isn’t telling people not to sleep, drink, talk or congregate. It implies that we should be doing all those things, but doing them right. What the self-help books would call doing them mindfully.

On the other hand, it is an odd collection of things. And why four? Why not three? I don’t get a sense from the Hebrew that there were originally three and the fourth was added later, which sometimes happens with these. And if four, why not five? I mean, why not add something like dressing like a fop or hunting for pleasure or cooking with peppers? I want these to be triples, because I like triples, and also in this case because if you take out the one about my kids, I can agree with it. But that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on.

I should say that it’s possible that R. Dosa b. Harkinas really does mean the synagogues of the am ha’aretz. It would make some sense in the context. In fact, that could be the whole point of the thing, making it really a triple: morning sleep, midday wine and children’s talk are like a Reform Shul, they put a person out of the world. Except that of course it’s not a reform shul, which has its own well-thought out traditions, and knowledgeable rabbis and lay leaders, but a shul of ignorant people, who muddle along without leadership or knowledge. Four hours ago, I rejected that interpretation, but now I’m coming around to it.

On the other hand, maybe the sage is actually warning against a K’nesset of amoretzes, a Parliament of Fools. Not likely, but possible.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 14: children's talk

R. Dosa b. Harkinas said: Morning sleep and midday wine and children’s talk and sitting in the meeting houses of the ignorant people put a man out of the world.

OK, here’s where the whole thing comes to the ground. How does children’s talk put a man out of the world? I should point out (probably should have pointed out before) that it is conspicuously this world out of which a man is put out of, not the world-to-come. Which is to say, these are not sins as such, not that there are sins as such in the modern sense within the tannaic conception, but that they reduce the connections between a man and his surroundings, his neighbors and family, the physical world, his work and his food and his life. And that is a Bad Thing. The Rambam’s comment is that these things prevent a man from developing a good character, and that in the end, he perishes from the earth; the threat of early demise is not, I think, meant literally, but metaphorically.

At any rate, however you take it, what’s the matter with children’s talk? And it is children, yeladim, and conversation, sychat; there’s no funkiness in the Hebrew to play around with. Are the children, like the wine and the sleep, Good Things but at the wrong time? In the Avot of Rabbi Nathan, this is explicated as an injuction to go and study in the library/shul, and not expect to get any work done at home when the kids are around. As advice, that’s good. As Scripture, not so much. And if it’s an injunction that children should be Seen and not Heard, then I can just reject it altogether, right?

Only, I hate doing that. So I search for something useful to take away. And what comes to mind, after a bit of searching, is to look for ways in which children’s talk could be a symptom of a deeper problem, all the same sleep and wine. And I suppose there’s this: if you, as a grown-up, prefer to spend your time with children, rather than with adults, perhaps you are doing it as a withdrawal. It could be symptomatic of either alienation from the grupp society, or of a dysfunctional desire to be in a position of unquestionable authority in your interactions. Or, possibly, pederasty, but I don’t go along with the mindset that anybody who likes spending time with kids should be viewed as a potential molester. I don’t think the verse has to be about that to be a warning, anyway.

Or am I stretching too far, here, to make useful sense of a verse? I am willing in theory to discard the views of the sages, who had views of childhood (and women, and (some of ’em) sex) that I do discard. But in practice, when it comes to typing a note about a verse, I’m looking for ways to keep it, not ways to kick it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 14: midday wine

R. Dosa b. Harkinas said: Morning sleep and midday wine and children’s talk and sitting in the meeting houses of the ignorant people put a man out of the world.

Important to note, here, that wine is a Good Thing almost throughout the history of the Jews. Wine-drinking is required by custom or statute for almost every holiday, including the Sabbath. It took a while, in fact, for Orthodox Rabbis to accept that alcoholics should be allowed to forego ritual wine-drinking as a matter of health, although of course lots of Jews have done without for whatever reasons. Of course drunkenness, or at least excessive, frequent drunkenness is a Bad Thing, but the Rabbis are not teetotalers, nor do they expect anyone else to be.

It is midday wine that R. Dosa says puts a man out of the world. This is a clear match to the first leg (of four, which is odd and I should think about) where sleep (a good thing) done at shacharit time (a good time) is bad, or at least puts a man out of the world. Here wine is a good thing, just not at midday. And I’m inclined to think that the first leg is a symptom of a particular kind of trouble (depression), and the second leg is also a symptom of a particular kind of trouble, alcoholism. It is (to R. Dosa) when you have wine in the middle of the day, rather than in the evening, that you are using it to put yourself out of the world.

The commentary on the verse is (from my quick perusal) focused on the idea that if you drink at midday, you become incapable of using the afternoon hours for either productive work or study. They connect the two legs as the frittering away of daylight hours, and that is certainly the straightforward and correct interpretation. But I think that viewing them in the light of symptoms of deeper problems is a more powerful, and in fact a scarier way of looking at the verse. More useful, past the first reading.

YHB is not a heavy drinker. A glass of wine with dinner, sometimes two. Maybe once a week I will have a third. Of course, my midday is different from R. Dosa ben Harkinas; when the sun goes down in the great green field, I just turn on the electric light and keep working. Or at least, as much working as I ever do. The hours between 2100 and 2300 are the most potentially productive for Torah study or writing, and the ones that my wine-with-dinner habit would most likely affect. But then, I’m not actually doing Torah study during those hours, I’m watching bad BBC corset series. Which is puts me out of the world in a different way, but is not (I hope) a symptom of some deeper problem.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 14: morning sleep

R. Dosa b. Harkinas said: Morning sleep and midday wine and children’s talk and sitting in the meeting houses of the ignorant people put a man out of the world.

That’s Herbert Danby’s translation, and it seems to pretty much nail it, for the English. There is a connotation that seems to be in the Hebrew, although of course I may be misreading it through my own ignorance, that the morning sleep is sleeping through shacharit, that is, through the morning service. And the meeting houses are the b’tay k’nessyot, where a bayt k’nesset is a synagogue, although (a) some manuscripts omit the b’tay, making it the meetings of the am ha-aretzes, and (2) it doesn’t seem from this as if R. Dosa means it in the sense of synagogue but in the sense of meeting house. But the point is that I think there may have been, in the original, an emphasis in the bringing together of disparate terms, or in the use of a positive thing (shacharit, bet k’nesset) in a negative context.

Anyway, to the content. Let’s take them in order.

Morning sleep is a good thing. Oh, how I love to sleep in. Mmmm, mm. Do you know the best part of sleeping in? Is when you actually do wake up at the usual time, and then realize you don’t have to get up at all, and you roll over and you fall back asleep. That’s the best. I mean, if you can fall back asleep. I’m good at that.

That said, I get what the Rabbi is on about here. The ingesleeping thing is about putting yourself out of the world, and although I do like to do that now and then (well, honestly, as often as I can), there is also putting yourself into the world, which takes precedence. And sleep in the mornings can be habit-forming.

And also, bye-the-bye, a sign of what we would now call clinical depression. Taken as a description, rather than a proscription, I think R. Dosa b. Harkinas is quite right. R. Travers Herford is down on this verse, saying it “is true so far as it goes, but it does not go very far. At least it leaves a good deal unsaid, which a wider and wiser charity would wish to say.” I disagree. That is, I think that it’s a wider saying than Mr. Herford gives it credit for, a wider and a warmer warning.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 21, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verses eleven through thirteen: the text

We are talking about Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, the miracle worker and mystic. He has three verses in Pirke Avot, and here they are in the Joseph Hertz translation:

R. Chanina, the son of Dosa, said, He in whom the fear of sin comes before wisdom, his wisdom shall endure; but he in whom wisdom comes before the fear of sin, his wisdom shall not endure.

He used to say, He whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom shall endure, but he whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom will not endure.

He used to say, He in whom the spirit of his fellow-creatures takes delight, in him the Spirit of the All-present takes delight, and he in whom the spirit of his fellow-creatures takes not delight, in him the Spirit of the All-present takes not delight.

This is an odd triple, isn’t it? I mean, literarily. It doesn’t balance. The third doesn’t seem to quite go with the first two. The first two are about precedence—let’s take it for granted (he says) that wisdom is a Good Thing, but is it the Best Good Thing? Or, rather, while we pursue it as a Good Thing, should we pursue it single-mindedly? Of course, no. Good deeds and fear of sin take precedence, because they lead to wisdom and maintain it.

I should digress here a moment to acknowledge that it is not obvious that wisdom cannot endure without fear of sin or without good deeds, nor is it obvious the ways in which those things help wisdom endure. I think it is true, and the commentary has several convincing examples and analogies, but it isn’t obvious. And some of the commentary claims that it is obvious, but they do so by means of a tautology, such that the lack of good deeds is a sign of declining wisdom in itself. That doesn’t work. Wisdom, if the verse is to mean anything, must exist as something separate from good deeds. You can’t just say that anything good is wise and anything evil is folly—or rather, you can, but then you have lost the perfectly good words wisdom and folly, having made them synonyms for good and evil. No, wisdom is something else, having to do with study and learning and experience and sagacity and whatnot, and the argument that the lack of deeds diminishes wisdom over time does mean something.

The third verse is not about wisdom at all, though. Unless it is about wisdom by virtue of placing it with the other two, which is legitimate. But look at it: two are comparing wisdom (an assumed Good Thing) with another Good Thing, talking about people who are assumed to have both, but in different proportions. The last takes the assumed Good Thing (the Divine Delightability) and compares it with a thing of more questionable value (human delightability, albeit a sort of human spiritual delightability), and says that the two are found together or not at all.

That is, when we look at wisdom and good deeds, the text isn’t just saying that you should have both, which is obvious, and it isn’t saying you should have them in equal measure, it’s saying you should have more good deeds, or risk losing what wisdom you have. In the third verse, it is simply saying you should delight both your fellow man and your Creator, or risk doing neither. There’s no question of precedence involved.

Perhaps (now that I’ve written all that) this is because there is no question of precedence, but a more serious question of the nature of the thing itself. The precedence of human and Divine delightability is obvious. But unlike good deeds or fear of sin, there is no prima facie reason to think that him in whom the spirit of his fellow creatures take delight is beloved of the Divine. The other way, in fact. Or at least as plausibly, the prophet being without honor in his own proverbial. But what Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa seems to me to be saying is that (a) the does exist a thing that we can describe as spiritual delightability, human and Divine; (II) although we cannot tell for certain whether the Divine spirit actually delights in a particular person, we can probably tell whether a person is humanly delightable; and (3) the presence or absence of the observable, human, trait implies the presence or absence of the Divine trait. By what mechanism?

Can we say that the answer to this, problematic cap to the triple must be in the previous legs? The way that good deeds and fear of sin imply (or buttress) wisdom? How is this similar?

Jochanan ben Zakkai referred to wisdom and sinfearing as a craftsman’s knowledge and his tools. The fear of sin (or tool) is not well controlled without wisdom (or craft); wisdom is not productive without the fear of sin. Is it possible that the ability to delight other people is a tool? Similarly, Simeon ben Eleazar referred to wisdom and deeds as a horse and a bit. The horse is not well controlled (dangerous, even) without the bit, the bit is useless without the horse. Is it possible that the ability to delight other people is a bit? Is the issue one of controlling the spirit?

If so, we can take the person who does not worry about delighting the spirit of other people as uncontrolled. And then, as one loses (or never achieves) the control that comes from pleasing other people, what comes next is the arrogance to put yourself at the center of the universe. You may intend to put the Divine at the center, but if you lack our metaphorical bit or chisel, you will find that you have taken the center yourself. That pride, arrogance, an uncompromising temper, selfishness, bitterness and contempt have taken over your spirit, making it a thing in which the Divine can no longer delight.

If that is the teaching, it is a powerful warning. That would make the first two verses set-ups, the kind of Socratic trap where you agree to premises without really intending to, and then finding yourself at conclusions you didn’t expect. The spiritual unhealthiness of spiritual unpleasantness, the importance of people in the Divine conception, even the dependence of the Divine on human decisions about what pleases them spiritually. It’s easier, somehow, to accept that Hell is other people, than to accept that other people are a bit in your spiritual teeth. Isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Pirke Avot chapter three, verses eleven through thirteen: Chanina ben Dosa

Today, if I manage it, I will do all three of the sayings of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa in Chapter Three. Chanina was a wonder-worker and mystic, a disciple of Jochanan ben Zakkai. He was Galilean, of course. There seems to be something in his position as geographical outsider; he doesn’t get involved in the Temple politics, the revolt, the Siege of Jerusalem or the destruction of the Temple, nor does he after the destruction join the community at Yavneh. He remains a poor stoneworker in Arav.

Before I get to the saying, let me relate a couple of stories about him, courtesy of Gershom Bader’s Encyclopedia of Talmudic Sages and book of Rabbi Nathan. My favorite is about tithing. It seems that Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was obsessive about tithing. I mean, obsessive. This is attributed to a meal where the food in front of him suddenly disappeared—poof! like that. He went to his wife to ask if the tithe had been taken from the meal. His wife explained that their larder had been utterly empty, and that a neighbor had kindly provided; she assumed that the neighbor had tithed before sharing. Rabbi Chanina determined that one should not make that assumption, but should tithe from every meal, whether the food is grown in your field, purchased at the market, given as a gift, or received as charity. Having made the pronouncement, his meal miraculously re-appeared on the table, and he took the required tenth from it.

That’s not the story, though. That’s just to set up the story. The story is about his donkey. It seems that once thieves stole Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s donkey. When they got it back to their stable, they put hay in front of it, but the donkey would not eat. They offered tasty tidbits, they offered carrots and lettuce and sugar, but the donkey would not eat. Finally, they decided to return the donkey to the sage, who told them that the donkey also insisted on the tithe being taken before he would eat.

Isn’t that a great story? I need to go into the Avot of Rabbi Nathan and find out if the thieves repented them their sin and studied with the pious stonemason, or whether that just found a less scrupulous ass to steal.

Some of the other stories are less crazy, mostly healing stories and so on. One aspect of those is that he doesn’t heal by laying on of hands; a messenger is sent, sometimes at substantial distance, with a request for healing prayer, and is told (after the praying, of course) that the sick person is now healed, or would soon recover. The other interesting aspect is that the message sometimes comes from other pious and learned sages; he heals the Rabban Gamliel’s son and Jochanan ben Zakkai’s son, as well as the daughter of the pious well-digger.

And then, you know, there’s the scorpion who bites him and dies, and the queen of evil spirits who is terrified of him, and lighting the Sabbath lamp with vinegar. But they aren’t as good as the fastidious donkey. I do like the wood-stretching miracle, obviously a response to a similar one about the son of a carpenter, a generation or so before…when Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa stretches the beams so that the poor woman’s house will have a roof, he stretches them so far that they stick out a cubit on either side of the walls. This is all to the glory of the Divine, who of course could have made the beams fit properly, but then who would have known about the miracle?

All right, one last story, and this one isn’t about Chanina ben Dosa at all, but about his wife. You all remember the Chanina was a poor man? Well. Even a poor man’s wife must attempt to keep up appearances. Comes a Friday, all the neighbors are baking bread for the Sabbath, every chimney is smoking away like anything, what does Chanina’s wife do? She heats up the oven and puts in some straw to make a smoke, so that nobody will know that the great sage is without bread on the Sabbath. Now, comes in a neighbor, meddling and nosy, looking for trouble. Chanina’s wife (I wish the text gave names to these women, it is utterly unforgivable on grounds of respect and humanity, but it also makes it very hard to tell the stories) hears the knock, panics and runs upstairs. The neighbor pokes her nose into the kitchen, sniffs at the smoke and opens the oven. And sees… of course, she sees two beautiful, magnificent, immense loaves of challah. Not only are they perfectly formed, but they are just at the moment of being perfectly baked. The neighbor cries out, she says Come quickly! The loaves are ready, and if you don’t come quickly they will burn! At which moment Chanina’s wife comes down the stairs holding the thing, the thing like a flat shovel, you know, that you use for taking bread out of an oven. That thing. I can’t blame the sages for my not knowing what it’s called, I suppose, and it would really make the story run more smoothly if I did. Anyway, she comes downstairs holding that thing, saying Of course! Why else was I upstairs but to get the thing, you know, the implement, this thing, for taking the bread out, whatever it’s called.

I love that story, even if I tell it badly, but I also love the commentary on the story, because of course there is commentary. One rabbi asks how we know the neighbor is so bad? Are we being unfair to her? Perhaps she just came by to wish gut shabbos and smelled smoke? The answer is no, we were correct to say she was a bad woman, for if she were a good woman, why is she not bringing bread of her own to share? Had she come with food, we could say she is misunderstood, but she comes empty-handed, so we know she is up to no good. And what about Chanina’s wife? If she is so pious and so worthy of a miracle, why is it that she lies to her neighbor? She does not lie, is the answer, because her faith is such that she knows that Heaven will provide, so she does in fact go to get the implement. But surely, that raises another question, which is why that implement would plausibly have been kept upstairs anyway? To which the reply is, why not? They certainly weren’t using it to take bread out of the oven, since they had no bread to take out! In fact, it is suggested that the appearance of the bread was only secondary to the miraculous appearance of the implement itself, the one that has a name I don’t know, and which the household did not even own until that day.

The appearance of a needed implement is not unprecedented; there is another story about the miraculous appearance and disappearance of a golden table leg at her request, but I think this note has gone on long enough. In fact, it has gone on so long that YHB is going to put the actual text into a new note.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 14, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse ten

We are on about studying, still. This is the Chabad translation, and I’ll quibble after:

Rabbi Dusta’i the son of Rabbi Yannai would say in the name of Rabbi Meir: Anyone who forgets even a single word of this learning, the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life. As is stated, "Just be careful, and verily guard your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen". One might think that this applies also to one who [has forgotten because] his studies proved too difficult for him; but the verse goes on to tell us "and lest they be removed from your heart, throughout the days of your life." Hence, one does not forfeit his life unless he deliberately removes them from his heart.

The quibble is about the forfeited his life bit—it’s a bit of sagespeak that we’ve been coming across, and while people translate it differently (mortal guilt, guilt against self, guilt against soul) the connotation is that not only is it a Bad Thing, but it is the mental equivalent of a physical act that is a capital crime. As bad as murder. Only, you know, not actually as bad as murder, but rhetorically as bad as murder—we don’t enforce capital punishment, or any punishment in this world, for these soul-based acts. There is no body of law for them. But this whole ethical discussion takes place within a body of work that is primarily discussing the body of law for physical transgressions, and this idiom is comparing them, while keeping them separate. Am I making any sense? I’m just trying to get across that Rabbi Dusty is not saying that from a legal standpoint we should consider forgetting to be a form of suicide, he is saying that there exist transgressions of the soul as well as transgressions of the body, and that this is a very serious transgression of the soul.

What is? You might, with the backtracking, wonder who is capable of deliberately forgetting the Torah? That’s not how memory works, is it? In the backtracking, isn’t Rabbi Dusty letting everybody off the hook?

I don’t think so. The stated exception is for people who people who can’t learn in the first place, not for people who learn and forget. That is, if you learn a verse on Monday, and then on Tuesday it’s gone, that’s not a mortal transgression. If you learn a verse on Monday and can’t remember it on Tuesday, learn it on Tuesday and forget it on Wednesday, study it on Wednesday and can’t recall it on Thursday, that’s clearly a very sad thing, but not a matter of guilt. It was never really in the heart, so it wasn’t removed from the heart.

The warning is for people who study it on Monday, remember it on Tuesday, and figure well, that’s it, then, I don’t need to study it anymore. Then, when he ultimately forgets, it is as if he had forfeited his life.

A couple of comments from the tradition are important here. Rabbi Asher is quoted as saying that the heart of study is reviewing. When you find something you don’t understand, and you study it in order to understand it, that is for the sake of understanding. But when you study it a second time, that is studying for its own sake, and that is the heart of study. There is no pride in it, no self in it. I don’t altogether accept that, as I think that there’s always (particularly with Scripture) the opportunity to improve my understanding and my self; review is not just review. On the other hand, I haven’t attempted to memorize the text entirely, which would perhaps entail a different kind of review. On the other other hand, I know from running lines that memorization review can lead to new connections and new ideas. So.

The other thing I want to pass along is Rabbi Jonah’s emphasis that the guilt is in not accepting that forgetfulness is common among human beings. The guilt is in the pride that says I won’t forget, when people do forget. And then, when you give a decision that such-and-such a dispute is covered under such-and-such a precedent, that such-and-such a thing is permitted or forbidden, that such-and-such an obligation may be fulfilled in such-and-such a way, the decision is wrong, and not only does the scholar transgress, but he causes others to transgress as well.

I often describe myself has having a “trick memory”. It’s not photographic, it’s not perfect by any means, but in dealing with words (as opposed to pictures or numbers), it’s a lot better than most people’s. Both faster and more accurate. This is a gift that runs in my family; I set it to learning song lyrics and Jeopardy! facts, while my brothers and my father learned batting averages and ERAs. It’s not what it was in my youth, I’m afraid; I now have to actually work at memorizing lines, and, yes, review them to keep them in my head. And I have lost most of the plays I have ever been in. I couldn’t do To be or not to be… or recite This is the Place (which I took to tournaments in my high-school years) or even do the long monologue from Pyggie without putting in some work refreshing my memory.

And, of course, all of that is just entertainment. I should say just, as I’m a big believer in entertainment, but the point if that I put as much mental effort into Scripture as I do into things for my own amusement, I would still need to put a lot more in before I passed this test. Which, I suppose, is one reason why for so many years I did very little at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 7, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 9

This week we have a problematic verse, so let’s jump right in. The translation is Herbert Danby’s:

Rabbi Jacob said: If a man was walking by the way and studying and he ceased his study and said, ‘How fine is this tree!’ or ‘How fine is this ploughed field!’ the Scripture reckons it to him as though he was guilty against his own soul.

This is Rabbi Jacob who appears to have been the grandson of Elisha ben Abuya (the famous apostate who is the central character in As a Driven Leaf), and who appears to have been one of the early teachers of Judah the Prince. Taken literally, it is…well, R. Travers Herford points out that “no text is alleged” in as a proof, “… and it is hard to imagine what text would support such a thesis”. Joseph Hertz agrees that “no text is, or could well be, quoted in support of the statement”.

And, in fact, there are specific blessings for seeing beautiful trees, or for seeing any beauty of nature. There is plenty of Scriptural support for the idea that you are supposed to notice the trees and the fields. So why does Rabbi Jacob say that this is a mortal matter? One way of thinking is to attribute certain superstitions to him and his community: he is talking about someone who is traveling alone, and as such is vulnerable to attack by malign supernatural forces (particularly at crossroads). If someone needs to make such a trip, the best defense is to engage in Torah study on the way (as it is written, When thou goest, it shall lead thee;). In such a case, if a person were to be on defense, as it were, and then succumb to distraction and admire the view, the consequences could well be fatal.

Or, you know, that could be rubbish. Better off with a lamp, says I. And I am not convinced that the ooky-spooky interpretation is founded in any actual superstitions of the time—I don’t know much about the superstitions of the period, but this smells to me like a Medieval thing grafted onto the verse. I would want independent evidence that such a superstition and such a ward were common before that interpretation made sense.

Rabbi Hertz does refer to an argument of somebody named J.H. Kara, who says that the verse is not to be taken literally, but as a metaphor. The person who leaves off Torah study to devote himself to the study of Nature, or more specifically, the person who chooses to seek the Divine through the study of Nature, rather than through the study of Scripture, is the one who is guilty against his own soul. Now, as with the demon-ridden interpretation, this seems to require some sense this idea has some currency in R. Jacob’s community. But in first or second century Rome, the idea of seeking the Divine through natural philosophy, through Aristotle rather than Psalms, that seems like a legitimate fear for the Rabbis.

And, of course, it also is a useful interpretation for me, now, which the warding-off-demons, not so much. On the other hand, there’s good reason to be skeptical of this, too—why not seek the Divine through the Creation of the Divine? Why not admire the trees and the fields? No, the key to this verse has to be in ceased to study, that the man in question not only says good things about the Creation, but fails to go back to the Scriptures.

Seeking the Divine through the Creation is fine, then, as long as it doesn’t involve putting down the Scripture. What is at issue is the arrogance of thinking that the Scripture has no lessons that can’t be found in the trees and the fields, that the stars and the microbes are enough, in themselves, without the tradition and the text.

Or, at least, that’s how I read it. Because my gut reaction is still that Rabbi Jacob was a nut, and that this is one of those sayings that is just wrong. And where’s the lesson in that?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 31, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse eight

This is another one that I don’t think bears tremendous weight, although the spirit is nice, of course. This is R. Travers Herford’s translation:

R. Eleazar of Bartotha says: Give to Him of what is His, for thou and thine are His; for thus in the case of David Scripture says For of Thee cometh all, and of Thine own have we given Thee.

There are stories of this Eleazar and his overwhelming devotion to charity, the theme of which is usually how little he kept for himself. There are anecdotes about the fund-raisers would see Rabbi Eleazar of Bartotha coming in the street and hide, not wanting him to empty his pockets to them and leave his wife and children with nothing. He found them, though.

One great story has the sage holding back but a single zuz to purchase grain for his family. This grain he carried home and set in his storeroom before hurrying back to the house of study. His wife, wanting to bake, went to look in the storeroom but had difficulty opening the door, because…the Divine had multiplied the grain until the room was overflowing. It’s a good thing it didn’t explode, but that isn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is that when the miracle was reported to Rabbi Eleazar of Bartotha, he rushed home from the house of study to gather up the miraculous grain—and donate it to the poor.

The rabbis, by the way, tend to view this kind of charity a bit warily; they aren’t against it, exactly, but neither do they think it would be a good idea if everybody engaged in it. A reasonable generosity is called for, taking care of your family first and then others. Hospitality, yes, excellent. But don’t get crazy.

One of the things I do like very much about this formulation, though, is that it presents charity (it is possible to interpret the verse as not having anything to do with charity, but that is the obvious interpretation) as being a matter for a person and the Divine, not for a person and another person. That is, the verse is not concerned with the rights of the recipients of the charity, nor of their moral worth. The question isn’t whether the poor deserve charity, or have a right to it, or will make good use of it. The question is whether you, with whatever wealth you falsely believe that you own, are willing to turn it over to the Divine, who is the true owner of everything.

Of course, that can certainly lead to trouble, what with it being difficult to make out a cheque directly to the Divine. It is always tricky to think that you (or YHB, or anyone else) knows what the Divine wants to do with all of those possessions. People make donations to televangelists because they believe that their money belongs to the Divine and that the Reverend So-and-So is the appropriate steward thereof. And sometimes, I should point out, the Reverend So-and-So is an appropriate steward thereof, but disappointingly often, not. And then, people believe that their Political Action Committee is the appropriate steward thereof. Or that they, themselves, and perhaps the boat builders are the appropriate stewards thereof. This verse is short on applicability.

But I do think that it’s helpful to get away from the I Me Mine mentality. Just as a political point of reference, much of the debate about taxes is spoiled by an insistence that certain money is mine. In fact, when I make my working agreement with my employer, that agreement says that the Employer will pay X amount to the Government and Y amount to me (and perhaps Z amount to various other things such as pensions, insurers, or uniform shops), and that I will pay W amount to the Government (and perhaps V amount to various other things). That W amount is not mine in any really meaningful sense of the word, any more than the X amount or the Z amount. Most of that W amount doesn’t even make a temporary appearance in bank account numbers, such as would constitute some kind of ‘ownership’. And yet, it is mine emotionally, and of course depending on other arrangements with the Government, other employers and whatnot, it could in theory ultimately be mine in practice, at least ultimately until I spent in on something. What I’m saying is that whether income or payroll taxes are appropriately high or low is overwhelmed by the sense that the Gummint is taking something of mine. Keeping in mind that everything that is mine is actually a gift of the Divine might help ease off the emotional response and allow for some more analytical thought.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that a person would want tax cuts any less fervently—the idea that the Gummint is taking something of the Divine’s to do Bad Things could be pretty emotional too—but it might help a little, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse seven

I think I’m going to whip through a bunch of verses today, because they are repeating previous ones:

Rabbi Halafta of Kefar Hananiah says: When ten sit studying the Torah, the Shekina resides in their midst, as it is said, Gd standeth in the congregation of Gd. How do we know that the same is true of five? For it is said, This band of His He hath established on the earth. How do we know that the same is true of three? For it is said, In the mist of the judges He judgeth. How do we know that the same is true of two? For it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another; and the Lord hearkened, and heard. How do we know that the same is true of one? For it is said, In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come unto thee and bless thee.

This is, of course, just a different version of Chanina ben Teradion’s saying a few verses back, with different proof texts and starting with ten rather than three. Although starting with ten makes it a bit more dramatic, there isn’t a surprise here: of course if the Divine Presence sits with three who sit and study Torah, the same is true for five and ten. Starting with a bigger number is just delaying the big payoff, which is with a single person.

The difference is in the proof texts, which are frankly a little weaker here; most modern translations of Amos don’t think that agudahis referring to a band of people at all. What is nice is the implication about the written word, as the Malachi verse continues with a reference to a sefer zikron, book of remembrance being written before the eyes of the Gd-fearers, and the Exodus quote is about all the places asher az’kir, where the remembrance is, and where az’kir is the same zkr root as zikron. And is not the Pirke Avot a sefer zikron? So I like that. Other than that, though, this is just a repetition. Good to have, but not worth a whole week, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 24, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse six

We’re on the sixth verse of the third chapter of Avot, depending on how you count. Here’s the translation of Judah Goldin:

Rabbi Nehunya ben ha-Kana says: He who takes upon himself the yoke of Torah will be relieved of the yoke of government and the yoke of mundane matters, but he who removes from himself the yoke of the Torah will have imposed upon him the yoke of the government and the yoke of mundane matters.

This seems straightforward, and straightforwardly wrong. The yoke of government and of derech eretz, the paths of this world, are not lifted from Torah scholars, nor are they necessarily imposed on ignoramuses or the non-observant. If, as Maimonedes says, the imposts and extortions of the ruler are the yoke of government, and the necessity of providing for temporal needs is the yoke of derech eretz, then why was Maimonedes himself compelled to be court physician? Because he had insufficiently submitted to the yoke of Torah? Hard to believe. Nor is it hard to find idle rich who have thrown off the yoke of torah and submitted to no other yoke (but the eventual yoke of Death, of course, which comes to scholars, too).

In the Avot of Rabbi Nathan, though, Hanania the Prefect of priests is quoted as saying that we are not talking about a yoke in the sense of being compelled to action, but the yoke of thought. Or more accurately, the yoke of habits of thought. The person who takes on the discipline of Torah study develops habits of thought that prevent the other, less productive habits. “He who does not take to heart the words of the Torah is given to many preoccupations—preoccupations with hunger, foolish preoccupations, unchaste preoccupations, preoccupations with the evil impulse, preoccupations with an evil wife, idle preoccupations, preoccupations with the yoke of flesh and blood.”

To elaborate. I don’t think it is helpful to say to somebody who is suffering from a passionate crush, for instance, or who is unhealthily refreshing their political-junkie webpages, or who is jonesing for the corn chips that they cannot have, study Torah instead. The helpful thing, it seems to me, is for a person to develop the habit of Torah study without reference to any of that. And then, when that corn-chip jones hits you, you have something to fall back on.

Of course, that assumes that Torah study is (as it was for Nehunya ben Ha-Kana) a rigorous and well-defined discipline, not (as YHB does it) a matter of meandering around a text on your own, following your own thoughts. The only other place in the Mishnah that Nehunya ben Ha-Kana is quoted is in Berakhot, where it is mentioned that he would say a blessing on entering and on leaving the study room (or whatever one would properly call the place where colleagues meet to study together). He was asked what the prayer was, and he said that on the way in, he hoped that nothing bad would happen to anyone because of his rulings or teachings, and going out, he gave thanks that he could spend his day there. This is expanded in the Talmud (Ber. 28b):

I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou hast set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash and Thou hast not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners, for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labour and they labour, but I labour and receive a reward and they labour and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.

What I think this points to, taken with the quote from avot, is that by accepting the yoke of the Torah, he has taken on a particular discipline and a particular lifestyle, to be contrasted with a lifestyle of the sinners, the scorners and the idle. When the concerns of the public good or of simply making a living come up, as they do for everybody, the person who has accepted the yoke of the Torah is able to accept those concerns without feeling them as a yoke; he addresses those that need addressing, ignores those that can be ignored, and returns to his studies. The street-corner idlers turn valid concerns about the government or the world into preoccupations and into occasions for frivolous talk and sinful action (or neglect); it is then that the world becomes a yoke.

That’s how I interpret this verse, anyway. Although, now that I have interpreted it that way, I think it’s overly optimistic. Great rabbis can fall prey to passions, political or sexual or avaricious. The habit of rigorous study is a Good Thing, surely, and it feels like a yoke when you adopt it, and it does protect you from quite a lot of temptation and error, but—

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 17, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse five

It’s a beautiful autumn day, thank the Divine, clear and crisp and cool. Just right for…a translatiopalooza! Let’s begin with Michael L. Rodkinson:

R. Hanina b. ’Hakhinai used to say: "He who awakens by night, and he who is walking alone on the road and turns aside his heart to idleness, it is his own fault if he incurs trouble for himself."

And there’s Judah Goldin:

Rabbi Hananiah ben Hakinai says: If one wakes in the night, or walks by himself on the highway, and turns his heart to idle matters, he is mortally guilty.

and Joseph H. Hertz:

R. Chanina, the son of Chachinai, said, He who keeps awake at night, and goes on his way alone, and turns his heart to idle thoughts, such a one sins against himself.

…and R. Travers Herford:

R. Ḥanina ben Ḥachinai said: He who wakes in the night, and he who walks alone by the way, and he who makes his heart empty for idle thoughts, lo he is guilty against himself.

And Herbert Danby:

R. Hananiah b. Hakinai said: He that wakes in the night or that walks alone by the way and turns his heart to vanity, is guilty against his own soul.

And Charles Taylor:

Chananyiah ben Chakinai said, He who awakes by night, and he who is walking alone by the way, and turns aside his heart to idleness, is “guilty of death.”

And Jacob Neusner:

R. Hananiah b. Hakninai says, “(1) He who gets up at night, and (2) he who walks around by himself, and (3) he who turns his desire to emptiness—lo, this person is liable for his life.”

From the Chabad site:

Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina’i would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life.

And from the Sharei Shechem site:

Rabbi Chaninah ben Chachinai said: He who stays awake at night and goes on his way alone and turns his heart to idle thoughts is liable for his life.

If you can’t tell, the reason I went nuts on these is that the original Hebrew is both unclear and evidently corrupt in an important point. Essentially, there are three actions described: waking in the night, walking alone, and idleness of the heart. It isn’t clear whether Hananiah is talking about one person who does all three, or three different kinds of people, or whether the first two are occasions for the third. Most of the medieval sources seem to have been working with a text that is a OR b OR c, but some using that text still interpret it (a OR b) AND c, and some have a text that is different by one letter and is thus quite clearly (a OR b) AND c, and some seem to have a AND b AND c. Some commentary points out how particularly sinful it is to be mentally idle at night, as during the day one is presumably compelled to be industrious with the body, and the night is thus the opportunity for study. Presumably this applies as well to stretches of solitary walking. I have some of my best thinking time whilst walking alone, certainly, although most of it is devoted to matters of idleness and vanity rather than Scripture.

Mr. Herford calls it “absurd” to condemn somebody for waking at night, or for walking alone, or even for walking alone at night; he insists that there are two types of people described, not three. And yet, I can easily imagine condemnation for someone who chooses to stay up nights; early to bed and early to rise makes a man proverbial, you know. Night wakefulness can lead to all manner of bad things, even if it’s due to insomnia. The deliberate choice to stay up at night would seem, particularly at the time, to be deeply suspicious, and (depending on the sage’s attitude) might well have occasioned the warning that the night-waker is violating his soul, and takes on responsibility for any sinfulness that follows. Similarly, the choice to walk alone, rather than in company—I prefer to walk alone, myself, but then, I live in an area that is frequented by neither footpads nor harlots. This could well be a warning similar to the Catholic statement that those who allow themselves to feel lust are liable on that account for the sin of adultery, whether the added matter of the actual sin is occasioned or not.

I should probably add, since I’ve segued so nicely, that waking in the night and having sex with a spouse is not a matter of idleness or vanity, according to tradition. Which is one of the reasons why the Rabbis are (with few exceptions) so adamant about the importance of marriage, and of living with the spouse and sharing a bed. When one wakes at night, it might be too much to expect contemplation of the Scripture (although good if it happens), but a little conjugal relations is a mitzvah and with luck will get them both back to sleep afterward. I suppose the same could be said for walking in the field, although only between May and September.

I find all of this interesting in itself, without reference to my own life, but when it comes to application, I have some difficulty. I am an insomniac, myself, and have much experience of waking in the night and having idle thoughts. Or delaying bedtime (and its expected sleeplessness) by playing Civ or reading erotica or soaking in the tub. And, as I have mentioned, I do enjoy a solitary stroll, and spend much of that time, when I get it, listening to music and thinking idle thoughts. So, in that sense, I do feel properly rebuked. I could use that time for contemplation of the Divine or study of the Torah. On the other hand, it’s not really ideal time for serious thinking, as I generally am tired (at night) or distracted (on the road).

Digression: I had for some reason never applied the walking verse to driving. In Hebrew it is clearly the walker, but if it applies to him who walks alone, should it not apply to him who drives alone? Although of course if R. Hananiah wanted to apply it to someone who rides a horse or a mule, or to someone who drives a cart, he could have done so. Still, if we make it travels alone, rather than walking, it is not just the solitude but the waste of resources that places the soul in jeopardy. End Digression.

Or I could feel myself rebuked simply for being wakeful at night. And it is true that I haven’t done everything I could to fight the insomnia. Because I’m too tired to bother. No, seriously, I know that people really do have success at falling asleep, trying one thing and another, and I have tried only a few things, which have worked only moderately well. And I’m not a bad case, really—most nights I lie awake only half-an-hour or an hour, and some nights less. The real problem are the nights that I fall asleep and then am woken up by something at one o’clock, as then I am likely to be up for an hour or more. On the plus side, I can sleep in perfectly well. My Best Reader can fall asleep in the evening as easy as anything, but rises at dawn or earlier, sometime much earlier, with no possibility of renewed snoozing. I can be woken at five and be back asleep in moments.

Well. The point is that it is likely enough that Hananiah is rebuking me not just for the idle thoughts but for being too lazy to fight my insomnia, giving myself an opening for the idle thoughts in the first place. And it may be that it is easier to fight the insomnia than to fight the idle thoughts. Hm.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 10, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse four

Last week, we saw that Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion begins with two sitting together and concludes with one. The verse that follows appears to be going backwards.

R. Simeon said:—Three who have eaten at one table and have not said over it words of Torah are as if they had eaten of the sacrifices of the dead, as it is said For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness without Gd. But three who have eaten at one table and have said over it words of Torah are as if they had eaten from the table of Gd, as it is said: And he said to me This is the table which is before the Lord.

Now, this is the Rashbi, Reb Simeon bar Yochbai, who was an extremely pious, rather cranky wonder-worker and sage. There are many, many stories about him. Many, many, many. The Zohar is traditionally attributed to him, so all of the Kabbalah stories are the grandchildren of stories about the Rashbi. But even about Simeon himself, there are no end of stories. And his sayings are legion. Why this one? Why not the one about it being forbidden for a man to fill his mouth with laughter in this world? Or perhaps the bit about how croup is caused by neglect of study? Although not on the part of the croup sufferer necessarily.

Or in the tractate Sukkah, appropriate to this week, he is quoted by Hezekiah as saying I see the greatest men in the world are very few. If they are a thousand, I and my son are included; if they are a hundred, I and my son are included, and if they are only two, they are I and my son.

And those quotes are certainly saved and available for perusal and whatnot. But here in Pirke Avot, we get that three people should talk about the Divine when they eat.

When they eat. That’s what’s going on here, I think. Because I think (I think) that this verse is all about the table, the shulchan, which we now have on authority can be made the shulchan shel-makom, the table with a Presence, by saying words of Torah over it. And what is the Shulchan shel-makom? It is the shulchan asher liphnay adonai, the Table before the Lord, which in the first half of the Ezekiel verse is the mizbeach, the Altar. And in the first half of the Rashbi verse, it is the mizb’chay matim, the altar of the pagans.

There are two lessons here, both very important. First is this: The Altar in Jerusalem is gone; now we must take the kitchen table as an Altar to the Divine. The Machsor Vitry (compiled by Rashi’s students) makes this point: that in Temple times, we could atone for our sins with sacrifice at the Temple. Now, we achieve atonement at the table, by giving food and drink to the poor. The lesson about charity is very important, but it is Schenectady for the entirety of Torah (as well it might be) and our relationship to the Divine. Rashbi is telling us that we are not Temple Jews (thank the Divine), but that doesn’t mean we are to become synagogue Jews. We are to be kitchen-table Jews.

Digression: Speaking of charity and food, I know some Gentle Readers will be making charitable donations towards the end of the calendar year. There are always many, many things that money can help with, and you need to make your own decisions, and that’s all good. But y’all should know, and probably already know, that food pantries and direct food assistance are hurting, and hurting badly. Temple Beth Bolshoi does a food drive on Yom Kippur every year, and we have been filling two trailer-trucks in recent years. Not this year; our membership is hurting. And that meant less food for the pantries in Greater Hartford, which were already hurting, as I say. They are squeezing turnip juice from rocks, at this point. So if you are considering where to send money this year, please at least call over to local food pantries and see if they are hurting as badly as ours are. And think about diverting some of that money to the (very worthy) political, environmental, social, and educational stuff that is also hurting very badly. Not easy choices to make, eh? But remember the immortal words of the Fiddler on the Roof schnorrer, who said So you had a bad week, why should I suffer? End Digression.

There is a political metaphor of the kitchen table that my Party used to tremendous effect (I think) in the recent elections, and which I would like to see them continue to bang away at. There is something very powerful about the dinner table, whether it is in the kitchen or a dining room or a breakfast nook. And I think it’s fair to say that what you do (and with whom) at the dinner table says as much about what kind of person you are as what you do anywhere else.

And what, then, is the difference between a kitchen table that is a replacement for the Destroyed Temple and a kitchen table that is an Altar to profanity? Between the mizbeach l’adonai and the mizbechay matim? Or even a mizbeach mi bal’aday mizbeach adonai elohenu, an altar beside the altar of the Divine? Words. Just words. But not just any words. Words of the path of the Torah. Not the ritual blessings, although of course the blessings are words of the path of the Torah, but the precepts and regulations, restrictions and obligations.

Suitably revised for the world we live in, of course, says YHB, before he goes off to have pasta carbonara for lunch.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 3, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse three

We were speaking of politics and Pirke Avot, and Rabbi Hananiah’s admonishing to pray for the Empire. This next verse is political, too, although not so obviously. Before I type in the text (and it’s longish), a little about the speaker.

Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion was a teacher who was chided by Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma (his former study partner) for endangering his life by continuing to teach under the Roman interdict. His friend was on his sickbed, and he was dismayed that Rabbi Chanina would put all his knowledge and tradition at risk. He spotted that the teacher had a forbidden book in his pocket at that moment, and predicted that he would be caught with it in his possession, and put to death. Rabbi Chanina said that the Divine would have mercy, and Rabbi Yosi responded that it was up to people to take care of themselves, not to rely on the mercy of Heaven.

Rabbi Yosi died of that illness a short time later, and his funeral was attended not only by Jews but by prominent Roman officials, who (according to the story) found Rabbi Yosi a congenial collaborator. Whilst returning from the funeral, the Roman officials came across Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, teaching disciples from the forbidden Torah scroll. He was taken, condemned to death, and martyred by burning wrapped in the scroll itself; there are stories about that martyrdom that are less gruesome than one would expect. But the saying in Avot touches on this martyrdom only indirectly.

R. Hananiah b. Teradion said: If two sit together and no words of the Law [are spoken] between them, there is the seat of the scornful, as it is written, Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But if two sit together and words of the Law [are spoken] between them, the Divine Presence rests between them, as it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another, and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. Scripture here speaks of ‘two’; whence [do we learn] that if even one sits and occupies himself in the Law, the Holy One, blessed is he, appoints him a reward? Because it is written, Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he hath laid it upon him.

So. What’s going on here? This is Herbert Danby’s translation, by the way, and the square brackets are his, not mine, and as usual are a method of indicating in English that the Hebrew idiom allows the verb to be understood, and one hopes, understood correctly. None of my translations show really substantial differences; this seems to be fairly straightforward in its language.

We begin with two sitting together, and the admonition that such opportunities not be wasted. This is fairly common. The proof texts are appropriate and reasonable. The transmission of the tradition from one to another, the disputative tradition, are not possible if the Divine Presence does not sit between two people who exchange words of Torah.

Digression: this Divine Presence is the Shechinah. This is the presence that dwelt in the mishkan (a related word) and in the Temple. The Divine is everywhere, but the Shechinah dwelt in the Temple (dwelt to indicate temporary residence rather than permanence; we sing about the dwelling-places of Israel, mishk’enotecha yisroel, which are more than sukkot, booths, but not permanent homes). After the Destruction, the Shechinah was, if you will, cut loose, to dwell here and there amongst the people in Exile. Now, shechinah is a feminine word (that is, the noun takes feminine forms, plurals, etc, as Hebrew is a gendered language), so the Shechinah took on feminine attributes and became (in some parts of the tradition) a sort of Mrs. JHWH, in a mystical marriage where the male and female aspects of creation are both divided and together. For most of us who aren’t into that whole mystical kabbala business, this really only manifests itself in the Shabbat Queen or Shabbat Bride, who is said to visit every household where the Sabbath is kept, both to partake in and intensify the joy. The l’cha dodi is an invitation to this Presence, sung early in the Friday night service and a very popular hymn (with thirty different tunes). End Digression.

As I said, it is not remarkable that the Divine Presence should sit between two pious men that speak of Torah. Even under Roman persecution, Rabbi Chanina sat to speak of Torah, at great risk, and ultimately was martyred for it. After the martyrdoms, and the Destruction of the Second Temple, as the Rabbis sat to discuss their options, one of the concerns was the status of the written books of the Oral Law. Was it acceptable to write them? Was it acceptable to study alone? When the Law was entirely oral, it was not possible to study alone; it is of course possible to be alone and pious, but solitary study was actively discouraged. The sages that put together the Avot, and the Mishnah, were radicals, engaged in something new and dangerous: the transmission of tradition by the written word. Who died and left them in charge?

Rabbi Chanina did. This verse, to my eyes, is a justification for solitary study, from a sage who was martyred for possessing a book of the Law, and martyred while enfolded in the scroll of the Law. While much of Avot contains as subtext (or explicit text) the transmitted authority of the Sages, that is, the authority of the book itself and the Mishnah that contains it, this verse suggests the conceptual authority of learning your Torah from the book.

In addition to having a teacher of course, as we see explicitly stated several times. But still.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 26, 2009

For the Sake of Zion, vaddevah dat means

So my Perfect Non-Reader, now being a big third-grade kid, has progressed to the next level of Hebrew School. They are finally teaching her the aleph-bet with some seriousness, and they are teaching her the liturgical structure of the service, and they are brainwashing her with Zionism.

They gave her, in that first week of classes, a very odd thing: it’s a page out of For the Sake of Zion: Pride and Strength Through Knowledge, by Tuvia Book. This is a work specifically and explicitly devoted to indoctrinating passion for Zion. And it’s aimed at high-school students and college kids. From the press release:

Once Jewish students leave the protective bubble of school, home or intimate social group and enter the “real world” of a mixed college campus, sometimes hostile to Jews and Zionism, they often find themselves uncomfortable, on the defensive and unable to speak about Israel in partbecause they lack the passion for Zion.

In order to respond effectively with a sense of self-respect and to be proactive, students need a sense of commitment and pride, as well as knowledge and tools.

The sheet they gave the kids is a list of statements, and a space to respond whether the reader agrees or disagrees (on an A-E scale, oddly enough). I’m going to type in the whole thing, because—well, because I find it interesting and a trifle disturbing.

  • The Jews are a nation like the French or the Germans.
  • The Jews are a religious group like Muslims or Christians.
  • All Jews should live in Israel.
  • Jewish life in the Diaspora is vital to the continuation of the Jewish people.
  • Jewish life in the Diaspora can never be fully safe or satisfying.
  • Self-determination is the basic right of all peoples.
  • The Jewish claim for national independence is based on Divine promise as recorded in the Torah.
  • The Jewish people have an absolute and singular right to the Land of Israel as their national homeland.
  • The Land of Israel is the national homeland of both the Jewish and the Palestinian Arab people.
  • The State of Israel should be a model of Western liberal democracy.
  • The Torah is the national constitution of the Jewish people and should be the national constitution of the State of Israel.
  • The State of Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people.
  • The State of Israel belongs to the citizens of the State.
  • Israel is primarily a refuge for Jews fleeing oppression and a response to anti-Semitism.
  • Israel is primarily a creative expression of the Jewish people’s will to be an independent community.
  • All citizens of the State of Israel, regardless of religion or national-cultural identity, should share the same rights and privileges.
  • Zionism demands personal fulfillment through Aliyah.
  • Any support of Israel is Zionism.
  • Zionism does not end with Aliyah, but continues through personal work to create a better society in Israel.
  • A person living in Israel has to serve in the IDF to be considered a Zionist.

Well, now. As a conversation-kicker for grupps, or perhaps even more so for college kids, there’s a lot there. I could probably write a note about each of those twenty items (or more accurately, I could begin the project and then peter out after eight or so, despite having plenty to say about the rest). If we all (Gentle Readers and myself) just did the A-E response that the worksheet calls for would generate a wide range of responses. Giving it to a bunch of eight-year-old kids— My Perfect Non-Reader has an immense vocabulary, and I think is able to more or less understand the sentences and what they mean. Or, I should say, what they mean on the simplest level; I don’t claim to fully understand what Self-determination is the basic right of all peoples means, or what national independence means, or personal fulfillment or Western liberal democracy, for that matter. These are not well-defined terms. That doesn’t mean that they have no meaning, or that they can’t be used to communicate effectively, just that there is a limit to the extent that I am willing to say that I understand them. But that limit is very different from the limit experienced by an eight-year-old, who may or may not know what, for instance, the word refuge means. My Perfect Non-Reader does know that word, and its relation to refugee, because her parents are that way.

So I think her trouble is the greater one, close to the one that I have with the list. On the other hand, I have had lots of these conversations before. I have some experience with the tricky parts. It’s fairly easy for me to say it’s more complicated than that to pretty much anybody. I’m thinking not so much for an eight-year-old in class.

And then there’s this: I am an anti-Zionist myself, in the sense that I think Zionism was an error, although I have no solution to offer myself. Certainly I don’t think that immediate abolition of the State of Israel is a good solution, but given a range of solutions, I would rather work toward a future without a Jewish State, if that could be done without making things worse for lots of individual people. It’s hard to see how that would happen. So in terms of practical policy preferences, I am probably in line with, oh, J Street, despite their “support [for] Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland”. I desire security for Jews, both in the Holy Land and elsewhere, but I do not in principle support the State’s desire for security as the Jewish homeland. But then here I’m reminded of the book-dialogue between Michael Lerner and Cornel West, when they are talking about Zionism, and it turns out that neither of them believe in the nation-state as such, so of course the whole concept of Zionism is suspect. I, too, have trouble with the idea of the nation-state, and that puts me in the corner with the guys with the funny haircuts who make trouble, but has almost nothing to do with anything practical.

But practically speaking, I am a Diaspora Jew. I identify myself as a Diaspora Jew, and I practice Diaspora Judaism. When we discuss Jewish matters (which happens fairly often around the house, as you can guess), I respond as a Diaspora Jew. And as an American. And that rubs off. My Perfect Non-Reader filled out this page as a Diaspora Jew, and as an anti-Zionist, to boot. I suspect that she was one of the few people to strongly disagree with the absolute and singular right stuff and give a shrug of a C to The State of Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people. Not that I would fill the paper out exactly the way she did, but on the whole, she wrote a paper as YHB’s daughter.

And that worries me. Not, in this instance, because I am worried about my own indoctrination, pace Akabya b. Mahaleel. But because I think it will be difficult and unpleasant for her to hold such unpopular views. Because she will be torn between loyalty to her Old Dad, who she loves (thank the Divine, although I embarrass her so) and respect for her teacher and the respect of her classmates. This is not like growing up a Yankee fan’s son in Boston. This is like that kid whose dad sued to have the Pledge of Allegiance returned to its original secular text.

I grew up in a New York Liberal Jewish household in a Southwestern town. My dad remains an old Trotskyite, at heart. When the Soviet Union fell apart, I was in college, and at that point I heard echoed in my community his response that this was the best possible news for advancing socialism. But when I was in high school and we read Animal Farm, I caused a major ruckus by making a similar point about Marx and Stalin. And that was high school. When I was Brynnen’s age, more or less, Jimmy Carter was running for President, and I was aware that our household was an Democratic island in a sea of Republicans. I heard dozens of Jimmy Carter jokes from my classmates. Not that I cared, particularly, about politics at the time. And I associated the political thing with the religious thing; we were supposed to be outsiders, after all.

Now I live in a town with seven synagogues. The local A&P put out a huge display of round challah right by the entrance last week, together with raisins, apricots, figs and those sticky nut-honey things that the Sephardim eat. And on the right day, too. The schools are closed on Monday for the Yom, not particularly out of sensitivity but out of logistical necessity, with so many students and teachers out. Being a Jew is not being an outsider in this town, and I am reminded almost every week of how different that is from my own childhood.

And yet, it seems, I am bringing my daughter into an outsider status of her own. I am, how do you say, conflicted about this. I am proud of her and worried about her. I feel guilty for having put her in this position, and I feel good about having protected her against the indoctrination I disagree with. I am frustrated by the whole weight of history that has made it seem almost reasonable for my shul to indoctrinate the kids in their school in Zionism, even while I think it’s a wrong-headed idea. And I want, in the words of the press release for that book, for my Perfect Non-Reader to respond effectively with a sense of self-respect and to be proactive, drawing on a sense of commitment and pride, as well as knowledge and tools. Only, I think I want her to do it in 5777, not this year.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse two

Rabbi Hananiah, prefect of the priests, says: Do thou pray for the welfare of the Empire, because were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.


That’s Judah Goldin’s translation, by the way, of the second verse of chapter three of Pirke Avot, if you are just joining in at this Tohu Bohu. The only major disagreement amongst my translators is on the welfare question, as the word is more closely related to peace. Which could make a difference in connotation, and I’ll try to look into that, but I don’t think the raw political point is much different.

And it is raw. Rabbi Hananiah is a leader during the last years of the Second Temple and the first years following. That is, during the First Jewish-Roman war. It’s not altogether unlike a Sunni religious leader in, say, Afghanistan saying that his followers should pray for the welfare of the American Empire, because etcetera etcetera. It’s one perfectly valid political position, but make no mistake about it being a political position, and as much about his fellow mullahs as about the Americans. It is said that R. Hananiah later changed sides and joined the Zealots, but that isn’t here or there for this statement, except to underline that it is this verse, from this moment in his political and institutional life (he is a sort of vice-Priest, standing by to take over if the High Priest cannot fulfill his duties), that is put into the Avot.

I think that inclusion must be meant to say something about the importance of political disagreement and dissent. I mean, on the face of it, R. Hananias seems to be almost in step with the neo-cons of our own day. But by the time the redactors put the Mishnah together a hundred years later, R. Hananias is understood to be speaking in a minority within the Jerusalem community. Although, of course, the Jafneh community is protected by Rome, and Judah the Prince himself is on good terms with the Emperor. But that relationship is protecting the Jews from widespread persecution; the Mishnah and this chapter are committed to paper because of the fear that the Romans will utterly wipe out the tradition.

So there’s tension.

So, as I say, I think the thing I take from this advice is not so much to follow the advice itself, but to value the political discussion and dissension. And, I suppose, to value the religious obligation to participate in politics and government. Not to mix the synagogue and the state, not to have the state support the synagogue or the synagogue support the state, but that individuals are obliged to participate, and that Jews are obliged to participate both as individuals (with their own judgments and decisions) and as Jews (with the community tradition and Law). That’s a heavy burden. And we don’t all do it well all the time. I have my complaints about Rabbi Hananiah and his verse, but I have to give him credit for taking sides.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 20, 2009

Notes for an blog post

A few notes about the Rosh Hashanah service, and not enough time or energy to arrange them in an essay, or to make a theme and figure out which ones fit the theme and which get discarded—

When people recently were asking why are Jews liberals, my answer, as it always is, focused on the Seder. One reasonable working definition of Jewishness is that Jews are people who every year in the Spring tell ourselves the story of having been slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand, and an outstretched arm. And while that does not necessarily make us liberals, I think the repetition is a big influence in that direction, at least within the American spectrum of right/left. But when, at the service, we were singing Avinu Malkenu, and I thought, hmmm. The song Avinu Malkenu, which is one of the Big Songs for Rosh Hashanah, and is the conclusion of a part of service unique to Rosh Hashanah, translates roughly like this: Our Father, our King, have mercy on us in your answer, although we are without merit ourselves. Treat us with charity and kindness, to save us. So influencing the idea of merit for Jews is the statement, repeated every year at a moment of heightened ritual meaning, that we have none. On the other hand, I have this tendency to romanticize the importance of the meaning of words within the ritual. After all, one of the advantages of praying in a dead language is that you don’t have to think about what you are saying.

Speaking of the Avinu Malkenu, traditionally we do not say it when Rosh Hashanah falls on a Saturday. But I guess we do say it in the Reform shul. This is a minor matter (mostly because the Reform machzor has a version that is substantially shorter than the Conservative one), but the major thing about Rosh Hashanah falling on Shabbat is that traditionally the shofar is not blown on the Shabbat. So I went through the disappointment of realizing that I wouldn’t hear the shofar, and then discovered that they did blow the Shofar on Shabbat at my (Reform) Shul. And was somehow also disappointed by that. Of course, for Conservatives, it mostly means deciding to go to services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah so you can hear the shofar; we eschew that whole second-day business for the most part.

Another thing I like about the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: zachrenu l’chaim, melech chafetz bachaim, v’chat’venu b’sefer ha-chaim l’ma’an’chu, elohim chaim. Remember us to life, king of life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, Lord of life. I don’t have anything particularly profound to say about it, I just like the line. Life. You know.

Back to this idea of how repeated rituals have an influence on people’s character, and how that might have some effect on the political leanings of those people (many of them, you know, in terms of statistics and trends, not conclusively), I was struck by the way we put a crown on our law book. An actual crown, a great big silver crown, with bells on. There’s something there about our understanding of regality and legality, of the place of people and laws, of the structure of society, of what is worthy of reverence, that is all wound up in that bit where we put a crown on our law book. And then kiss it. OK, we’re a little strange.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 19, 2009

Pay heed to the sound of the shofarrrrrrrrrrr!

What day is it? It’s International Daven like a Pirate Day, of course! The day when Pirates everywhere hope to be inscribed in the Log of Life for a good year, a year of peace and a year of mercy, and a bucket of rum. The First of the Ten Days of Arrrrrrrrr, during which we look back on our last piratical year and the ways in which we fell short of the mizzenmast: running before the wind to do evil; sinning with words, with actions, and with eighteen-pounders; avarice, blasphemy, cowardice and double-dealing; sinning by omission, commission, and nailing that man’s foot to the deck that one time.

And we will be observing tashlich, where we sink the boats of the British Navy into running water, letting our sins float downstream with the rest of the flotsam.

For those of ye who will be observing today, a good year to you, and the Mercy of Heaven be upon ye—not the HMS Mercy of Heaven, which is a fine ship, lads, but no match for the Blue Peter. Er, yes, not a great name for a pirate ship, but…avast ye! The next man who snickers will be leyning Jonah in the belly of the great whale itself!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 12, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter three, verse one

Let’s start the third chapter of Pirke Avot with yet another translation, this one by Herbert Danby, D.D. Residentiary Canon of St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem, back in 1933.

Akabya b. Mahaleel said: Consider three things and thou wilt not fall into the hands of transgression. Know whence thou art come and whither thou art going and before whom thou are about to give account and reckoning. ‘Whence thou art come’—from a putrid drop; ‘and whither thou art going’—to the place of dust, worm and maggot; ‘and before whom thou art about to give account and reckoning’—before the King of kings of kings, the Holy One, blessed is he.

Well, that’s cheerful.

Can we talk about about Akabya b. Mahaleel? We learn about him in the Talmudic tractate on witnesses and testifying. When Shammai died, Akabya b. Mahaleel was offered his position (Av Bet Din, the head of the court of judges) on condition that he retract some positions that he held on fairly obscure issues. He refused. He said he would rather to hear people call him a fool than to hear people say he sold his principles for high office. He was then excommunicated, although it isn’t exactly clear why; the story is obscure in a bunch of places, and what is most clearly recorded is the protest of R. Jehudah some time afterward that it was somebody else entirely who was excommunicated, and that the record is wrong.

Anyway, there’s a story about Akabya b. Mahaleel as he lay dying. His children all come to him, and he says nu, who’s minding the store? No, wait, that’s a different story. His son comes to him, and he says to the son, about those rules that I held against the majority—you should accept the majority viewpoint. I took my judgment from many people speaking on both sides, but you have heard everybody on one side, and then just me on the other. And if you have to judge between a one-person minority and the majority, you should choose the majority. If you were to side with me, it would only be because I am your father; that is no way to make legal decisions.

And then, after he died, the Bet Din threw rocks at his coffin. (Unless it wasn’t him, of course.)

I want to note that in the Rabbi Nathan collection, the quote is substantially different, saying that we come from darkness and go to darkness. The version here in avot is more physical, less existential. We come from a putrid drop, we go to dust and worms and maggots. And if you keep this in mind—what? You will not fall into transgression. Why not?

After all, if you come from putrescence (and not everyone would agree with the characterization of semen as putrid; the description of semen in the rabbinic literature could itself be the topic of fruitful discussion, pardon the pun) and go to maggots, why wouldn’t you transgress? Wouldn’t keeping that in mind be an encouragement to transgress, rather than an encouragement to piety?

Or is the point that in between the putrescence and the maggots, there is something that is not disgusting?

In the commentary, R. Simeon b. Elazar asks if it wouldn’t be nice if, you know, people pissed perfume instead of piss? I mean. But as proud and haughty as we are, even with the foulness coming out of our body every now and then, if we didn’t have that, we would be utterly beyond everything.

On the other hand, I think this bracketing of your life in putrescence and maggots could highlight just how wonderful your physical body is. I mean, if at some point you are cranky about your bad knee or your sore back, remember that you came from a drop and will be eaten by maggots, but for a few magnificent years, you are something else.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 29, 2009

Maurice Sendak is my spiritual leader, too

Last year at this time, Benjamin Rosenbaum wrote that Maurice Sendak is my spiritual leader. Well, not YHB's. His. Well, mine too, as I'll get to in a minute. Mr. Rosenbaum took as his text Pierre: A Cautionary Tale, and explained the concept of teshuvah, turning back to the Divine, which happens to Pierre in the belly of the beast. Since then, though, I have been thinking about a different book, and a different aspect of Yom Kippur and teshuvah.

There is a metaphor, much used in the tradition and occasionally discussed here in this Tohu Bohu, of everybody having two parts to their nature—the nefesh elokit, or the Divine spirit, and the nefesh behamit, or animal spirit. Your Humble Blogger does have problems with this (not least because of the implication that the actual beasts are utterly without Divine nature), but it can be a useful metaphor, so long as we remember that it is a metaphor, rather than a literal description of the universe.

And what better way to remind us of the metaphor than a picture book?

Do you have a copy of Where the Wild Things Are? Get hold of it. Look at it closely, because there's a lot of detail here. If you don't have one in your house, you can go to your local public library, or to your local bookstore. They will have it. And I'd like to get us all on the same page before somebody makes some sort of dreadful movie from it. OK?

So. Where does it start? It starts when Max puts on a wolf suit. When Max leaves his better nature and adopts an animal nature. Instead of self-control and kindness, Max covers himself with rage, instant gratification and impulse. It's all good fun, of course, but I wouldn't tell that to the dog he is chasing with a fork. His Mother enrages him further, when She fails to encourage him in his behavior. She calls him wild thing, which I'm going to go ahead and translate as nefesh behamit; he is doing what his animal nature tells him, rather than tempering that instinct with the Divine. How does he react? As a nefesh behamit. He says, “I'll eat you up!” This is the nature of the nefesh behamit. It devours what stands in its way. It does not think; it eats. It does not communicate; it threatens.

Of course, it threatens beyond its means. Max can't eat his Mother all up. And, in fact, by wanting to eat everything, instead he gets nothing. The Mother does not respond well to threats.

Ah, but Max does not take off his wolf suit, and he is not chastened. Well, if he is a nefesh behamit, then he is happy (says he to himself, says he) being apart from the Presence. He will make himself a new world, without any Presence at all. He will devote himself to being a wild thing.

And he goes to the place where the wild things are.

I don't know if you have ever gone to the place where the wild things are. Most people, I think, or at least many people I have known, have decided somewhere along the line that it's all about the animal nature. That there isn't any better nature, or that if there is, it isn't really them. Have decided to live in their wolf suits, and make mischief with the rest of the wild things. And the thing about wild things, is that they do have terrible roars, and terrible teeth, and terrible eyes, terrible claws, and yet they are quite easily tamed, if they think you are wilder then them. And if you are the wildest thing of all, then you get to be king of all the wild things, and they will dance with you, and carry you on their shoulders, and swing with you.

But they don't know when to stop.

How could they? How could a nefesh behamit know when to stop? Stopping is not in the animal nature. Self restraint is what they rejected when they put on their wolf suits.

Max discovers, after three double pages of glorious rumpus, that it is time to stop. I don't think at that point he knows why. He knows he is missing something. When the rumpus ends, he doesn't yet know that it is his Mother. But (and this is interesting) he sends the rest of the wild things off to bed without their suppers, trying (unconsciously, I think) to mimic his Mother. And that is the pivotal moment.

Max, the king of all wild things, is suddenly lonely, and wants … what? Not more rumpus, wilder things, more instant gratification. No. He wants to be where Someone loves him best of all. And then the smells of home come to him. At the right moment, when he is receptive, it is comfort and love and familiarity, habit even, that bring him to teshuvah, to return.

The rest of the wild things react just as wild things do react: they want to eat him up, to devour him. True, they call that love, and there is certainly passion in it. But it's nefesh behamit love, if it is love, and it's still eating someone up. And Max, in his teshuvah can simply say no, and step into his private boat, and sail back.

Return, or teshuvah, is what we will be looking to do this month as we head into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And as I try to say good-bye to my own wild things, and sail back in my own private boat, I will keep in mind the end of the book. I know a lot of people interpret the end of the book as a surrender, that they would like to see Max stay as king of all wild things. Not me. I want to push back the hood of my metaphorical wolf suit (although, beautifully, Max is still half inside it, even at the very end, as we all are), and come into the night of my very own room, and find my supper waiting for me.

That's the real miracle of Max's story. After all the rumpus, after rejecting his nefesh elokit and giving in to his appetites, even after being sent to bed without any supper, there is always teshuvah. His supper was waiting for him.

And it was still hot.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 22, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter two, verses twenty and twenty-one

Your Humble Blogger has always particularly liked Rabbi Tarfon's sayings. I think that the last saying in this chapter was the first line from the avot that I quoted in this Tohu Bohu, albeit in another context. Anyway, here's R. Travers Herford's translation of verses twenty and twenty-one:

R. Tarphon said—The day is short and the work is great, and the labourers are sluggish, and the wages are high and the householder is urgent.

He used to say—The work is not upon thee to finish, nor art thou free to desist from it. If thou has learned much Torah they give thee much wages; and faithful is the master of thy work who will pay thee the wages of thy toil. And know that the giving of the reward to the righteous is in the time to come.

This continues the metaphor from R. Elazar ben Arach. The first verse is just a description, but of course in a work like this one, it's not just that R. Tarfon thinks that the world is like that, but that he thinks that there is a benefit to you if you adopt that view of the world. That is, if you think of yourself as an employee for the Divine, in a job that is frankly lousy a lot of the time and certainly difficult and dangerous but well-compensated, then you will be more likely to behave ethically than if you think of yourself as, f'r'ex, a child of a loving and Divine Parent. I'm inclined to agree, but then, my idea of the Divine is largely formed by this book, so why wouldn't I?

The bit that I quote—I'll be coming back to the whole metaphor, I promise— is the beginning of the last verse: the job is too big for one person, you won't finish it, but doesn't excuse you from doing all you can. I was arguing welfare policy at one point with a Conservative who brought out with a sense of triumph the argument that welfare payments would not eliminate poverty. Of course not, said I, nothing will ever eliminate poverty (until the end time, I might have said), but that doesn't mean we have the right to stop paying them. I think he was baffled. I didn't reach him, at that point, and it was pretty much the end of any of our conversations (for a variety of reasons, his Conservatism and my Liberalism not least of them) so I never will at this point. But in the spirit of the staircase, I want to attempt to clarify: if eradicating poverty is beyond us, we still have to reduce it and to alleviate it and to measure it and to own it.

Conservatives often think that Liberals believe in the perfectibility of human nature. This is not true; no liberals I have read or talked with think that humans will become perfect (by their own understanding of perfection, much less a Conservative's understanding) in any span of time that can be held in the mind. What Liberals believe in, for the most part, is that human society can be improved—not perfected, not completed, not finished. Not ever finished. But always improved. We can alleviate more misery, provide more opportunities for greatness to more of the population, promote the general welfare better and more generally, provide a little better protection to those who need it and diminish a bit the next generation's need for it. We can, Liberals believe, avoid a few mistakes that our parents made and bring forward a generation able to avoid a few mistakes we made. And another after that, we hope, and another after that. Have more happiness in more places.

We won't finish the job. We won't ever be finished washing dishes, either, or doing laundry; as long as we wear clothes and eat from plates, those jobs won't be finished. But if you neglect them, things get worse.

The work is great, and I am often sluggish. And often enough I feel like quitting altogether. But fortunately this metaphor of employment is not a complete metaphor, and we are both employees and family, both sheep and subjects. We can't quit. But we can't be fired, either. We are freelancers of the Divine Creation, whether we filled out the paperwork or not, and we will be rewarded for what work we do, whether we stand up to it first thing in the morning or slack off until we've finished reading the Internet.

And the reward? Well, the reward is in the world to come, Rabbi Tarfon tells us, and as much as I generally dislike too heavy an emphasis on the eschaton in my religious whatnot, the good thing about the world to come is that it is, like Orphan Annie's tomorrow, always coming.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 15, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter two, verse nineteen

We are nearing the end of Chapter Two at last. This is the last of the section about the five disciples of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. Hm. The five disciples… wouldn’t that make a great musical? No? OK, onward, beginning with Joseph Hertz:

R. Elazar said, Be eager to learn Torah; know what answer to give the unbeliever; know also before whom thou toilest, and who thy Employer is, who will pay thee the reward of thy labor.

Jacob Neusner has constant instead of eager; R. Travers Herford has alert; Judah Goldin has diligent (as does the Chabad website); and Michael L. Rodkinson has zealous. I’m afraid I have no idea. It seems as though there’s a lot of guessing. I think Rabbi Hertz is probably the loser here, as eagerness has little connotation of persistence that is common among the others, but then, they might well be reading that in from their own biases. Very difficult.

And what is more difficult about it, what makes it difficult for me to shrug it off and move on from it, is that it seems to be a separate leg of the triple. Unless we bail on the whole idea of the verse matching form and being a triple, which I am reluctant to do. If we break the thing into two parts, instead of three, we can suggest that we need to be [eager/constant/alert/diligent/zealous] in study so that we can respond to the unbeliever. And that is clearly part of it. But if we split it into three, as is our custom and the tradition, we need each part to make sense on its own as well as informing the other two parts. On its own, the admonition to be [eager/constant/alert/diligent/zealous] in study does spark any real interest in me, I’m afraid.

And speaking of translational difficulties, the unbeliever in the second bit is the Epicuros or Epicurean; the Hebrew is a transliteration of the Greek. Or it is a coincidence, but that seems a bit much. Anyway, I do like Rabbi Hertz on this one, as there is some problem with associating the Rabbinic epicuros with the actual Epicureans. Much like talking about skeptics and Skeptics, really. The word came into Hebrew and Rabbinic discussion to mean people who did not believe that the traditions of the tribe were compulsory; it also encompasses people who don’t believe in the Divine miracle of Scripture, or people who don’t believe in a Divine Creator at all, or people who hold beliefs about the Scripture and tradition that differ from the person using the word. Everyone who is more traditionally observant than me is frum; everyone who is less traditionally observant than me is an epicuros.

The distinguishing mark of the epicuros, though, as it is used here, is engagement with the tradition, rather than departure from it. As such, the term is used for non-Jews who argue about the tradition as well. R. Elazar insists on the need to answer the apikorsim (plural, switching now to a transliteration) rather than cutting them off from the discussion. I think that’s tremendously important for the Jewish tradition, particularly now in the modern Diaspora, when we’re all apikorsim to somebody.

Digression: the really frum consider us apikorsim to be the most dangerous group around, much more so than the goyim, worse than the Islamo-fascist Menace, scarier than the Neo-Nazis. I feel bad for them. A little. I wish I could consider them to be the biggest danger to Judaism, but honestly? I would have to stretch it. The argument would presumably go frumkeit to Shas Party to settlers to continuing occupation and oppression to discrediting of Zionism to Anti-Semitism. But then, there are plenty of apikorsim who support the settlers and that particular brand of Zionism, and plenty of Anti-Semites without discrediting Zionism anyway. So, you know? When I pass y’all on Saturday morning, driving to work while you walk to shul, and I shake my fist at you, that’s not because you are dangerous to me and my tradition, that’s because you make women sit behind a fucking curtain. End Digression.

So the first two parts are about, more or less, the relationship of the believing Jew to the Scripture, and the relationship of the believing Jew to the non-believer. And then there’s the relationship of the believing Jew to the Divine, which, it turns out, is like the employer-employee relationship.

Can I say that even as a metaphor, that seems really radical? I am used to the Parent/Child metaphor, which is of course natural, and the King/Subject metaphor, which has its problems but is, again, obvious if those are terms you are used to thinking in, and there’s the potter/clay metaphor, which I like a lot, and there’s the shepherd/flock one, which I don’t. But employer/employee? And yet there’s a lot of that language in the tradition. Which tends to back up Douglas Rushkoff’s idea of Judaism as being radically centered around worker’s rights, with the core stories of Exodus and the Creation/Sabbath as being about working conditions. I tend to view that skeptically, myself, but more because I think it’s incomplete than because I think it’s wrong.

But. I have to wonder, coming to the end of the triple here, what the relationship of the apikoros to the Divine is supposed to be. Is the apikoros an Employee? Is the apikoros considered to be unemployed, fired, on probation? Maimonides said that the apikorsim have no share in the world to come. That seems to imply a fundamental breach of contract, that the unbeliever is, in essence, no longer working for the Divine at all. I can’t see that. I think there’s got to be a good deal of freelancing going on, is what I think.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 8, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter two, verse eighteen: wickedness

Using Jacob Neusner’s translation, because his is on top of the pile:

R. Simeon says, “(1) Be meticulous in the recitation of the shema and the Prayer.
And (2) when you pray, don’t treat your praying as a matter of routine.
But let it be a [plea for] mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, blessed be he.
As it is said, For he is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and full of mercy, and repents of the evil (Joel 2:13).
(3) And never be evil in your own eyes.

There are two ways of looking at this verse. Well, more than two, I’m sure, but two that spring to mind and are included in the commentary.

The first is that if you think that an action is wrong, you should avoid it, even if the society permits it. Or, more or less along those lines, don’t give in to temptation and do things that you will later be ashamed of. That line of interpretation takes R. Simeon ben Nathaniel to mean that each person has a sense of right and wrong that is (for his audience, that is, people learned in Torah) largely correct, and that the trouble is following that sense. This is Rashi’s interpretation. It takes wickedness to pertain to specific acts.

Another is that R. Simeon is talking about a sort of ontological status, where one can consider one’s self good or wicked, almost without reference to any specific act. This is the Rambam’s interpretation. When a man has a mean opinion of himself (says he in the Judah Goldin translation), then any meanness he is guilty of does not seem outrageous to him. While, YHB adds, almost any behavior that smacks of virtue or great-heartedness seems as impossible as flying to the moon. Your sense of right and wrong is framed by your sense of yourself, rather than being objective.

And I’ve come across a third already, one endorsed by R. Travers Herford. He says that R. Simeon likely was using in your own eyes to mean in private; the warning then is not to believe that acts of wickedness performed without witnesses are therefore without consequences. This may tie in more closely with the previous two legs of the triple about prayer; no-one is likely to know if you are meticulous in your prayer, of if you are merely mouthing it rather than giving it your full attention, but that does not mean that the actions do not degrade you and your prayer and prevent the benefits from taking place.

This is also a conception of wicked that connects with actions, rather than status. On the whole, I like that conception, but since the phrasing is negative rather than positive, the middle interpretation is consistent with rejecting the whole idea of goodness or badness as accruing to people rather than actions. And that, I suppose, means that the interpretations are to some extent consistent: one commits wicked acts in private because one thinks of one’s self as wicked in some sense, and violates one’s own sense of right and wrong in doing so. But by rejecting that conception entirely, a person will rely on the internal sense of right and wrong, and act accordingly whether there are witnesses or no.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Pirke Avot chapter two, verse eighteen: routine

Using Jacob Neusner’s translation, because his is on top of the pile:

R. Simeon says, “(1) Be meticulous in the recitation of the shema and the Prayer.
And (2) when you pray, don’t treat your praying as a matter of routine.
But let it be a [plea for] mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, blessed be he.
As it is said, For he is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and full of mercy, and repents of the evil (Joel 2:13).
(3) And never be evil in your own eyes.

So to combine them: be meticulous, but not routine. I think this gets into the whole thing about liturgy.

And when I say liturgy, I’m not using the word in any accurate sense, I’m just talking about the formal ritualization of prayer. The prayer service. The repetition of formulae, the organization of the group so that they can sing or chant or read together.

Digression: You know when the service includes group reading in English? In Conservative and Reform synagogues there is a fair amount of this, and in the Episcopalian service it seems to come up as well. And I am really, really bad at it. I mean, conspicuously. There’s a rhythm to it, you see, that tells you where to place the emphases in certain lines, and I tend to put the emphasis on the wrong words. I’m really good at reading aloud (if I say so m’self) but really bad at reading in unison. In English. In Hebrew, well, most of the time there’s a tune, and although I do sometimes find myself slower or faster than the chazzan, it’s not so bad. End Digression.

Here’s the thing: I like the prayer service. I don’t, on the whole, pray in my own words. Sometimes, if I’m particularly stressed, I might address the Divine, but often in states of stress, I find comfort in the verses. I feel no real desire to sing a new song unto the Divine; I like the songs we have.

Does that make it a matter of routine? Honestly, sometimes it does. When I was going to service every week (which I do miss), I tasked myself with simply using the prayer service as an excuse to sing songs from my childhood along with other people who know the words and tune—sort of like a weekly campfire sing for those who grew up with campfire songs. And there is something to that, honestly. But there is (I decided) a good deal more to it than that, for me; that I am using the songs to connect (I don’t like that vague new-agey term) with my tradition and my conception of the Divine. And yet it is easy to just sing along, rather than put any thought into it.

This is also true of the prayer rituals at home. On Friday nights, we light the candles and say the blessing: Blessing are you, Lord, our Gd, Master of the Universe, who sanctifies us with his commandments, and commands us to light candles for the Sabbath. We say the blessing over the wine and the bread as well, if we have them. At night, when we tuck in the little ones, we say the sh’ma (meticulously) (well, the grupps are meticulous, the Youngest Member doesn’t get all the consonants right) and we bless the children. This is a form of the Shabbat blessing, although we use it every night: May Gd make you like [Ephraim and Menasseh/Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah]; may the Lord bless and protect you. Most often, this is a matter of routine (which is part of the point of bedtime ritual anyway), but now and then I find myself really hoping for the blessing and protection of the Divine for these little ones, whether they are like their biblical forebears or not.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Pirke Avot chapter two, verse eighteen: Tefilah

Using Jacob Neusner’s translation, because his is on top of the pile:

R. Simeon says, “(1) Be meticulous in the recitation of the shema and the Prayer.
And (2) when you pray, don’t treat your praying as a matter of routine.
But let it be a [plea for] mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, blessed be he.
As it is said, For he is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and full of mercy, and repents of the evil (Joel 2:13).
(3) And never be evil in your own eyes.

This is, I think, the first reference to liturgical prayer we’ve come across. By capitalizing Prayer, Mr. Neusner interprets R. Simeon ben Nathaniel to be referring to a specific prayer, sometimes called T’filah (Prayer), sometimes called the Sh’mona Esray (Eighteen, referring to the eighteen blessings contained in it), and most often in contemporary Judaism called the Amidah (Standing, because the congregation stands whilst reading it). The Shabbat Amidah is usually said silently by the congregation, and then repeated by the cantor or rabbi; the repetition can include the entire prayer or only large chunks of it. Sometimes the cantor will chant with the congregation for parts of it. I’ve been in places where the cantor begins the Amidah with the congregation, and then the congregation finishes it silently, and then the cantor finishes it aloud. In my (Reform) synagogue, it is begun together and then finished silently without cantorial repetition, at least on Shabbat Shacharit (I have only attended Friday night services a couple of times, and don’t really remember how they handled it for those). Also, the Reform siddur’s Amidah is (of course) substantially shorter than the Conservative one (and I assume the Orthodox one is longer still).

Now, for y’all Gentle Readers who don’t attend synagogue, I’m going to attempt to describe the Amidah in a Conservative Synagogue. It’s probably going to be difficult; I’m curious if it is totally alien to those of y’all who are in different churching traditions… Anyway, to understand it, you have to go back a couple of generations. Before the state of Israel and modern Hebrew, Jews in America were taught Hebrew specifically for the purpose of davening, of reciting the liturgy. And they were taught with stopwatches. Speed was critical. Comprehension, not. The difference between a learned Jew and an am ha-aretz was how fast they could daven.

As a result, the time allotted for the congregation to silently read the Amidah was very very short. Nor would it be likely that one would complain that it was too short; the admission that one couldn’t finish the reading in time was tantamount to admitting ignorance. So the congregation learned to, well, be less than meticulous in its silent recitation.

I have never managed to read the entire Amidah in Hebrew in the time allotted by a large or even medium-sized congregation. Or even a minyan, I think. I believe I have had the experience of finishing in a very small group, where people were taking the opportunity for silent meditation, and had near-Quakerly tolerance for it. Many congregations encourage silent meditation rather than (or in addition to) reading the text of the Prayer, but then, silent meditation also doesn’t last long enough for me to read the Hebrew all the way through.

In part, this is because I never managed to memorize the Prayer all the way through. On the other hand, I never managed to memorize it because I never really managed to read it all the way through. If I prayed by myself, daily or even weekly, which I would like to do if I had the discipline and the time, I probably would eventually memorize it, pick up speed, and then (perhaps) be able to finish the whole thing in such a short time, although the weekday version is different from the Shabbat one, so there it is.

What I’m saying, the advice here is good advice, peculiarly suited to my own situation (and that, I think, of a lot of us early-21st Century Jews), all assuming that you believe in liturgy. Which I suppose is the next note.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 1, 2009

Pirke Avot chapter two, verse seventeen: intention

Yose the Priest, part the third:

Rabbi Yose says: Let thy fellow’s property be as dear to thee as thine own. Make thyself fit for the study of torah, for it will not be thine by inheritance. Let all thine actions be for the sake of heaven.

It is said that Hillel used to reply to any question of the where are you going sort with the response I am going to fulfill one of the commandments. The questioner would then have to ask which one, and be told that Hillel was going to get something to eat or to have a bath or to the market to buy food, or whatever. And then, of course, the questioner asks is this a commandment and Hillel tells him about the commandments concerning that aspect of life, thus of course fulfilling another commandment on the way.

It is difficult to live your life entirely for the sake of heaven. You wake up, is it in order to praise the Divine and all Creation? You work for a living, is it in order to allow you to continue fulfilling the commandments? You have a nice meal, is it to give you strength to do good in the world? You listen to excellent music, is it to inspire you to participate in the Creation? Or, you know, do you just do what you do?

I think this advice is particularly on the lines of what we call mindfulness, these days. An attempt to be consciously aware of what you are doing. Will your understanding of why you are doing what you are doing—why you stay in your job or look for a new one, why you wash the dishes or leave them until morning, why you socialize with friends or read quietly—that understanding will change, from the time you are doing it to a memory of it, and change again and again, most likely. So I think the point is not to be certain, at all times, that what you are doing is for the best of reasons. The point is to form a habit of thinking about what you are doing, rather than just doing it. And then, I would think, the temptation to act for the sake of heaven would be pretty strong, right? Which is a good thing. It’s harder to deliberately do something you know is wrong. Not that you won’t regret things later, but I would think the more you can get into the habit of asking yourself for the sake of what? the better.

Not that I have any such habit myself, but I will try. Or at least I will attempt to try. Right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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