Wednesday, December 7, 2011

To Engage in Torah

V’hevey mitabek b’afar ragleihem, Sit at the dust of their [the sages’] feet,” we are told in Pirkei Avot. Avot d’Rabbi Natan takes this quite literally: “Don’t sit before him; not on a bed, or on a chair, or on a bench. Rather, sit before him on the ground.” I find the humility a student shows for his/her teacher in this type of dynamic appealing in many ways. It’s full of kavod to the utmost degree. However, compare this with the relationship between Rabbi Yoshiya and Rabbi Matya ben Charash that we learned about in the very first perek. In this instance, despite the fact that the text clearly labels R. Matya as the student and R. Yoshiya as the teacher, they are described as “yoshvim v’oskin b’divrei Torah, sitting and engaging in the words of Torah.” This story contains the Learned and the Learner, the Transmitter and the Receiver, but it also implies a sense of equality. At one point, R. Matya even calls his teacher out for what he thinks is inappropriate behavior. R. Matya prefaces his critique with the phrase “v’af al pee she’atah rabi v’ani talmidecha, even though you are my teacher and I am your student [I am still going to criticize you]!” This is a very different relationship than sitting in the dust, eagerly waiting to be taught.

Today, I completed my last class in a course I have been taking at the University of Pittsburgh. The class was a lecture with 450 students. The professor was always prepared and quite competent. I learned a lot throughout the semester, but I was also continually frustrated by the fact that the class was so large that I couldn’t ask a question. V’hevey mitabek b’afar ragleihem, (although, in this case, referring to an accomplished neuroscience professor instead of Torah scholars) turned out to be less fulfilling than I had thought it would be. I recently read a piece from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, an educational philosophy book by Paulo Freire. In the book, Freire rejects what he refers to as the “banking method” of education, in which students are seen as vessels into which knowledge is poured. He proposes rather a “problem-solving” model of education, in which learners are seen as partners in the process of knowledge-seeking. This reading, and also my class, has gotten me thinking a lot about what actually constitutes education. Is v’heyey mitabek b’afar ragleihem the banking method, and Matya/Yoshiya is the problem-posing method? I am inclined to say no, that there is perhaps a time and a place for both talking to and talking with. I think our modern sensibilities first direct us towards rejecting sitting at the dust of their feet, but, in thinking more about it, having a Teacher like this doesn’t mean that one is excused from serious thought and struggle but that there is a person who can articulate goals and vision with more authority and push us to take that next step. (Question: Can a straight lecture ever count as “problem-posing?” Can a lecture with 450 people ever move beyond “banking?” Can sitting in the dust ever count as active, engaged learning?)

The next piece is one of my favorite lines that we have learned so far. “V’chol davar she’yetzei mi’piv kableihu alecha b’eimah b’yirah birtet u’ve’zeya, kederech she’kiblu avoteinu me’har Sinai b’eima b’yirah birtet u’ve’zeya, And every word that comes out of his [your teahcer’s] mouth, receive it with awe and fear and trembling, in the same way that our fathers received it from Mount Sinai, with awe and fear and trembling.” This is really an incredible statement: Not only is learning from a teacher that same as learning directly from Sinai, but Sinai itself actually reoccurs every time we learn. (v’al niseacha she’b’chol yom imanu!) This line is implying more than that we are renewing Torah learning. It is saying that revelation itself, with the joy and awesomeness that it brings, is within our grasp. Always. This idea brings to mind the story in Shir HaShirim Rabbah about Shimon Ben Azzai. When Ben Azzai learned Torah, we are told, esh melahaete svivotav, the fire flashed around him, v’hayu ha’dvarim smeichim k’netinatan m’sinai, and the words were as sweet as when they were given at Sinai.

The last part of this week’s learning related the famous story of Akiva, at the advanced age of forty, going off to study Torah. I would like to end by mentioning two phrases in this story that we found particularly intriguing. When Rabbi Akiva witnesses the water wearing away the stones of a well, the text tells us that he immediately “dan kal v’chomer b’atzmo”. That is, Akiva said to himself that if something soft (water) could mold something hard (rocks), how much more so could something hard (Torah) mold something soft (his heart). To relate this kind of reasoning back to oneself is incredibly perceptive. If we are to live our lives as a commentary on Torah, then we should apply hermeneutics to ourselves, right? Later, when Akiva goes off to learn Torah, he joins a class of the very youngest children who are learning the alef-bet. After learning every letter, he went and sat “beino l’vein atzmo, between him and himself.” What a great way to describe real learning. He contemplates the meaning of every letter of the alef-bet, and, as he sits between him and himself, he hears the various voice of the tradition arguing and discussing and contemplating. Perhaps problem-posing education can be an experience of immanence, as well.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Rabban Yochanan and Self-Delusion

In the second part of the fourth chapter, we have a collection of stories about Vespasian and the Roman armies, from the beginning of the siege until they finally captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. As a illustration of the importance of gemilut hasadim, gifts of loving-kindness, Avot d’Rabbi Natan brings a well-known story in which, after Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking with Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabbi Yehoshua said, “Alas, that this place where Israel atoned for its sins has been destroyed!” Rabban Yochanan replied, “My son, don’t worry—we have another form of atonement that is just as good. And what is it? Gifts of loving-kindness,” using the prooftext “chesed hafazti ve’lo zavach,” “I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifices.”

In the next story, we learn that, before the destruction of Jerusalem, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was an advocate for submission to the Romans. He urged the people to follow Vespasian’s suggestion that they surrender rather than waiting for him to destroy the city, and, when Vespasian offered him a favor, he asked only that he be allowed to set up a house of study in the nearby town of Yavneh.

From the combination of those two stories, we might have thought about Rabban Yochanan as a very modern Jew who does not need the Temple cult to feel confident that he will be able to atone for his sins. Of the three pillars of the world, he privileged the two that we are most comfortable with—study  and loving-kindness—over sacrifices. We might even expect him to be glad that the temple had been destroyed because it would force people to focus on the important parts of Judaism.

Rabban Yochanan may have actually felt those things, but not as simply as that. In the next story, we learn his reaction when the Temple was destroyed. He sat and trembled, and, when he heard that the Temple had been burnt, he tore his clothes as a mourner does. His students also tore their clothes, and they wept and cried and gave eulogies. They told the story of the High Priests who were in the Temple when it was destroyed, who took their keys and threw them up to God, saying “Master of the Universe! Take back these keys that you gave to us, since we are not trustworthy guardians to do the will of the King and eat from His table. Now take back these keys!” and jumped into the flames.

Rabban Yochanan’s complex reaction could illustrate a few different ideas. One is that, sometimes, the best option is not good. This reminds me of what a speaker we heard this summer in Israel said about the Israeli settlements: he said that he believes they eventually will need to be destroyed and given back, but we should acknowledge that that is not a good situation. On the day the settlements are destroyed, he said, he plans to mourn, but also help the settlers move out of their homes.

Another option is that he really does wish that we could keep the Temple, but acknowledges that it is not what is happening now. With this reading, he really agrees with Rabbi Yehoshua in the first story that the destruction of Jerusalem is a tragedy, but since he knows that God did it on purpose, he can be sure that God now desires loving-kindness and not sacrifices. If he had wanted sacrifices, he would not have let the temple be destroyed. And in the second story, it is not that he wants the people to surrender, but only that he knows that the Romans will inevitably capture Jerusalem. He is like Jeremiah walking around with his iron yoke—he doesn’t want Jerusalem to be captured; he’s just advocating realism. If it’s going to happen, let’s be as mentally prepared as possible.  This reading seems to explain the story about the priests slightly better: he includes them in his eulogy as an example of people who, knowing they have failed, acknowledge their failure and give up. 

With either reading, for Rabban Yochanan, one of the worst things is self-delusion. Which of these two bad options is worse? If we have chosen something, are we pretending that it is better than it is to satisfy ourselves?  What have we successfully have done? What is still possible? What cannot be done? Often, there are answers to those questions that are easier to face than the true ones. Rabban Yochanan demands that, even in the worst situations, we force ourselves to answer those questions truthfully.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Not by smoke and not by fire...

The fourth perek begins with the famous statement by Shimon HaTzadik: “On the three things the world stands—on Torah, on worship/sacrifice, and on acts of loving kindness.” The first area explored is the pillar of Torah. To prove that the world does indeed depend on Torah, the text quotes a passage from Hoshea: “Chesed chafatzti v’lo zavach, v’da’at Elohim me’olot, I desire kindness over sacrifices and knowledge of God over offerings.”

Although Torah exceeds them both, an olah, we are told, is better than a zevach because an olah is completely burned up for God, while part of a zevach is burnt and part is eaten by the Kohanim. Although an olah is preferable because it is exclusively for God, God apparently doesn’t desire burnt offerings. The difference between a zevach and an olah brings up a very basic question: Should we derive a benefit from the mitzvot we do, or should they be done for God’s sake alone? Despite the text’s apparent preferences for olot, the idea of a zevach is much more appealing to me, as it is a ritual act that creates a partnership between God and people. There is something that feels very noble about an olah, about setting something on fire and giving it entirely to God. But there is also something impersonal about it, something that makes it feel like a completely one-sided relationship. The zevach represents creating a relationship with God that takes into account both the self and the community.

Written after the destruction of the Temple, the adamant assertion the rabbis of Avot d’Rabbi Natan repeatedly make concerning the importance of Torah study over sacrifices feels like an attempt at consolation. For them, as for us, comparing zevachim, olot, and Torah study is essentially a moot point, as only one of these is actually an option. The most interesting and most compelling point, in my opinion, made about this subject reads, “V’talmud Torah chavivah lifnei ha’makom me’olot, lefi sh’im adam lamed Torah, yodea da’ato shel makom, And God finds learning Torah sweeter than offerings because if a man learns Torah, he knows the will of God.” Perhaps it is precisely the partnership/relationship of learning that makes the study of Torah greater than both types of sacrifices. When learning this, I was reminded of the words Rav Adin Steinsaltz shared with us this summer: “[When studying Torah,] I am searching for the truth. It is a connection of my mind with His mind and my attempt to understand…Learning is a kind of communication. The learning is a togetherness not done by any external act. We are building together.”

It’s interesting to note that, according to this text, the only requirement for knowing God’s opinion or will is learning Torah. Perhaps this is to say that the will of Hashem is Talmud Torah, not just the actions associated with halachah, and that any halachic decision that is arrived at through serious and honest Talmud Torah is one that aligns with God’s desire.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

You Get What You Give?

Hi everyone! This post will also not have a summary of everything, since it’s covering an entire chapter. If you want to know about a story where Rabbi Akiva is really nice and reasonable to a woman, some interesting things about burial customs, or what kinds of teachers one should study with (and you should, because they’re all great!) you should read the rest of this perek.

The third perek of Avot d’Rabbi Natan includes many didactic sayings and stories that tell us to behave well because otherwise, bad things will happen to us in a way that is very neatly correlated with what we did wrong. For example, Rabbi Akiva says that if you take tzedakah when you did not needed, you will live to be dependent on the charity of others; and if you hope for your brother’s death so that you can marry his wife, he will outlive you.

Next, there is a series of explanations of a verse from Kohelet: “Baboker zerah et zarecha vela’erev al tanah yadecha”—“In the morning, sow your seeds, and in the evening, do not rest your hands.” The rabbis interpret this to mean that we should build redundancy into important systems to make sure that we accomplish what needs to get done. In the first, and most literal, reading, Rabbi Dostai says in the name of Rabbi Yannai that if you have sowed during the first rain, you should sow again in the second rain, in case there is hail and the first planting dies. Then, Rabbi Yishmael says in the name of Rabbi Yose that, even if you have studied in your youth, you should still study in old age, because you do not know which will take hold.

Those teachings culminate in a very odd anecdote about ghosts that is very long, so I will tell only part of it, even though all of it is really cool. A man had a fight with his wife and went to sleep in the graveyard. While he is there, he hears two spirits talking to one another about what they have heard from “beyond the veil.” One of them says that there will be a hail storm, and anything planted at the time of the first rain will die. The man goes home and plants at the second rain, so his crops survive, and everyone else’s die.

After that, there are two more didactic stories. There was once a pious man who was accustomed to give tzedakah. Once, he was on a boat, and the boat sank. He went to the bottom of the sea, but the waves said to one another, “Let us bring this man up from the sea because he has given tzedakah all his life.” The next story is very similar: Benjamin the Righteous once gave a starving widow some of his own money because there was no communal money to give her. When he got sick, the angels said to God “Didn’t you say that anyone who saves a single life is as if he saved an entire world? This man saved not only the widow but also her seven children, and here he is dying in bed.” God immediately gave him twenty-two more years to live.

These stories all display a retributive idea of justice—the punishment should literally fit the crime. I’ve been reading a lot about retribution lately as part of my independent study. There’s a quality about retributive justice that feels very fair to people: it feels complete for an offender to be punished in proportion to how bad his crime was. Retributive punishment also usually works as a good deterrent: if everyone knows that every time anyone commits a particular crime, a known, predictable bad thing will happen, they will know not to commit crimes. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault points out a few criteria without which the deterrent system will not work. The one that is the biggest issue for the system Avot d’Rabbi Natan describes is “the rule of perfect certainty”: “the link from [crime] to [punishment] must be… unbreakable” so that there is no chance of committing a crime and not being punished for it.

Obviously, that is not the situation in our world. In each of these stories, people who behave according to the principles of good behavior get direct rewards. It makes sense that if you plant early and often, it’s more likely that some of your crops will survive, but we all know that, sometimes, charitable people die young with no supernatural help from the waves, and people who take from the community without giving back go on to lead happy lives before dying of old age.

Leaving aside from the theologically troubling proposition that only good things happen to good people in this world, I don’t understand why the Rabbis would say that. The stories are set up didactically, but as fables, that sort of thing could work only until people push it. If you had a group of people who were behaving well because otherwise, proportional bad things would automatically happen to them, they would probably stop as soon as they saw a bad thing happen to someone who was following the rules. I try to work with the assumption that Chazal were not stupid, so what were they thinking here? Could they be making these statements to show up how unfair the world is? Maybe their intended audience was not very intellectually sophisticated and they thought this might work? Those don’t seem very persuasive to me, so I’d welcome any other ideas from our learned readers. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Kant Buy Me Freedom

Hello everyone,

I would like to apologize for the length of time between these posts. Unfortunately, college applications have had to take priority over blogging the past couple of weeks. (Although every time I sit down to do schoolwork instead of blog about Avot d’Rabbi Natan, I think of Rabbi Matya ben Charash’s admonition in the first perek: “Ein tov la’azov et divrei Elohim Chayim v’lishtof b’derech eretz; It isn’t good to leave the words of the Living God and engage in worldly matters!”) But, I have to remind myself, im ein kemach ein Torah, without flour (read: college applications), there is no Torah. Although I guess the obvious response to that would be im ein Torah ein kemach

Because Avital and I saw one another in person in between this post and the last one, a lot of learning has happened, and I will, regrettably, not be able to provide an adequate summary of all of it. Instead, I am going to focus on a couple of interesting pieces we have learned over the last couple of weeks.

“At that time Moshe went up to receive the Ten Commandments, that were written and put down at the time of Creation, as it is written (Shemot 32): “’V’ha’luchot ma’aseh Elohim hemah, v’ha’michtav michtav Elohim hu charut al ha’luchot’—al tikrei ‘charut’, eila ‘cheirut’, she’kol mi she’osek ba’Torah harei hu ben-chorin le’atzmo. And the Tablets are the work of God, and the writing is the writing of God that is engraved on the Tablets—do not read “engraved” (charut), rather read “freedom” (cheirut) because whoever engages in Torah is a free person.” I was immediately struck by this phrase. If I were to list all of my favorite things about Torah study (and there are many!), “freedom” would not be one of the words to first come to mind. In fact, my belief in the compatibility of freedom and Torah learning is sometimes a bit tenuous. At times, it feels like living my life within the context of Torah and Halachah gives me a sort of freedom to better be who I am. But, at other times, it feels like Torah study is meant to lead to a Halachic lifestyle that inhibits my freedom more than anything else. As we discussed this, Avital offered an incredibly insightful comment connecting the idea of “whoever engages in Torah is a free person” with Kantian philosophy. Kant describes freedom as the ability to think and understand for oneself. Avital recently wrote me an email as we continued to discuss the idea and explained: “Kant's definition of enlightenment is the ability to use reason for oneself instead of relying on other people's reasoning and taking what they say as a given. He says that a ruler should try to increase enlightenment, so the one thing he can't prohibit is public, academic use of reason. It's good if rulers mandate behavior because then everything will be orderly, but they shouldn't ever stop people from arguing. He describes his favorite monarchs as saying ‘Argue as much as you want, about whatever you want, but obey!’ Isn't that really Jewish? There are no belief requirements, and you're encouraged to question and argue as much as possible, but you have to follow the rules. God is an enlightened monarch!” I have often felt that “struggling with the issues” is a slightly dishonest way to describe contemplation of one’s Jewish life because, if one has committed to living a life guided by Halachah, we already know the general answers at which we are going to arrive before the struggling. (Of course, Halachah is not a machine that gives a single answer, and thought and time must go into making a true halachic decision. However, if I “struggle” with observance of Shabbat, I don’t intend to actually stop observing Shabbat. I wrestle with how to make my practice meaningful, but I have my end goal of shmirat Shabbat in mind through the struggling.) Kant’s description of freedom and questioning makes me feel like my way of struggling isn’t that dishonest after all. Perhaps, the text is telling us, there is a freedom greater than freedom of action.

Another interesting story immediately follows the Freedom/Torah discussion. The ministering angels, relates the text, strongly disapproved of Hashem giving the Ten Commandments to Moshe. Hashem ignores them and gives the tablets to Moshe anyways. When Moshe descends the Mount Sinai and sees the people worshipping the Golden Calf, he exclaims: “Heyach ani noten lahem et ha’luchot, mazkikani otan limtzot chamurot umchayvani otan mita la’shamayim. She’ken katuv ba’hen ‘lo yihiye lecha elohim acherim al panai. How can I give them these Tablets? I would be obligating them to major commandments and, thus, condemning them to death, as it says on them, “You shall have no other gods before Me”. This midrash explains that Moshe breaks the Tablets out of his concern for the Jewish people. If he had given the laws to them, they surely would have died, as they were already breaking one of the most important mitzvot! “Don’t give people more than they can handle,” seems to be the message here. Or, perhaps more accurately, “Don’t put someone in a situation in which there is no chance of a positive outcome.”

The last piece I would like to focus on is a short section in the text that describes the seyag (fence) the Prophets put around their words. The majority of the passage goes through different metaphors for God used throughout the Tanach and then adds the caveat that there is a difference between earthly and heavenly versions of that description. For example, it quotes a pasuk from Amos in which Hashem is described as a lion. But, Avot d’Rabbi Natan warns us, “lo ke’aryeh she’lemata, ela ke’arye she’le’maalah, not like an earthly lion but rather like a heavenly lion.” Metaphors, then, are a seyag around God. God is this awesome power that is really beyond human description, and so we use metaphors (a lion, a warrior, etc.) to begin to understand, so that we may attempt to approach. Rabbi Judah Goldin agrees, explaining that the Prophets’s seyag is that “they employed some metaphor in the description of God who, strictly speaking, is beyond description and comparison.” The section ends with a line that I think quite appropriately explains the use of metaphor: “Eila mareen et ha’ayin ma she’yechola lirot, u’mashmi’een et ha’ozen ma she’yechola lishmoah, But the eye is shown what it can see and the ear is permitted to hear what it can hear.”

One last thought… I am signing up for classes next semester at the university, and I am considering taking a Bible as Literature class. I, of course, do not intend to start viewing Torah as just another piece of literature, but the class sounds interesting, is with a really great professor, and is something that I have never studied before. BUT we learned this week towards the end of the second perek: “Don’t go out among the apikorsim (heretics, those who have left the tradition), and do not enter into their presence because you might stumble. You might say, ‘I am confident in myself, and even if I go out among them, I will not stumble. I will hear what they have to say and then return.” Avot d’Rabbi Natan responds to these people by quoting a pasuk from Proverbs: “Kol ba’eyah lo yeshuvun v’lo yashigu archot chayim, All that go unto her do not return and neither do they attain long life.” Does Chazal have an unnecessarily negative view of human nature? Is it ridiculous to claim that I may lose my entire identity just by listening to another point of view? Or is there some truth to this? Another line from Proverbs quoted here explains that: “Until an arrow strikes through his liver, like a bird hastens to the snare, he didn’t know that it was at the cost of his life.” I don’t want to be that bird! Any thoughts? Please feel free to voice opinions in the comments!

Shabbat shalom to all!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sexism and the Sages

This week, we began the second chapter of Avot d'Rabbi Natan, with still more discussion of "fences" around words, in this case, the fence the Torah made around its own words. The example given is that, in the purity laws, the Torah says that a man should not "come close" to a woman while she menstruating, because if it had forbidden only sexual contact, we might think that hugging, kissing, chatting or sharing beds fully clothed are permitted. As an aside, we also learn that women should not wash their faces or put on makeup while they are in niddah, because the Sages are pleased with those women who neglect themselves during menstruation. One possible reason for that is that, while sexual contact is forbidden, they don't want the women to make themselves attractive.

Continuing on the menstruation theme, we have an extremely disturbing story: Once, there was a man who studied Torah and Mishnah and assisted many great Torah scholars. He died tragically young. His wife took his tefillin into the Houses of Study and Worship and screamed and cried, asking the scholars how it could be that her husband died so early, since the Torah promises long life to its students. No one could answer her.

So far, this is an really interesting story.  It's very similar to the well-known story of Elisha ben Abuyah, who saw a young boy die while performing two of the mitzvot that promise long life to those who obey them, and was driven to abandon Jewish tradition, but I found it interesting to have it told this time through a woman, especially since she's apparently learned enough to use a prooftext to back up her criticism of Torah. In addition, all the scholars seem to agree that there is no good answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people-- all they can do is be silent in the face of tragedy. It seemed like it might be one of the stories that make me feel good about the way Judaism relates to both women and doubt.

Those of you who know the story are probably wincing at my naivete right now, because, unfortunately, the story continues. The woman met Elijah the prophet, who asked her why she was crying. When  she told him, he asked "When you were menstruating, what did he do?"

She replied, "Sir, God forbid; he didn't touch me even with his little finger. Rather, he said to me 'Do not touch me at all, so that we can avoid all doubt of breaking the prohibition."

Elijah asked, "And in the last days (meaning the seven days after she had stopped menstruating, when there is a Rabbinic extension of the menstruation rules, in case she is not actually done), what did he do?"

"Sir, I ate with him, and drank with him and slept in the bed with him with my clothes on, and we touched but didn't mean anything by it."

He said "Blessed is God who killed him, for it says in the Torah 'Do not approach a woman while she is impure with menstruation.'"

(If possible, it only gets worse from there. We also learn that men may not be alone with women, even their close relatives in an inn, or even walk around in the marketplace with their own wives for fear of public opinion, and then some general statements about avoiding small transgressions, because they may lead to bigger ones, and then finally, a slight concession-- a man may choose whether to cohabit with his wife while she in menstruating: no one but God can judge him for his decision.)

Stories like this make it very difficult for me to see myself as an intellectual inheritor of Jewish tradition. I really do think I am, most of the time. I study with teachers who studied with teachers in an intellectual lineage that goes back to the sources we're studying, and I think that's an amazing and beautiful thing. I like to think that everyone in that line would have thought so too, but sections like this remind me that that really is not true. Chazal, our Sages of blessed memory, were misogynists. Not worse than anyone else of their time, maybe even better, but they wouldn't have liked me very much, and that bothers me because I really love them.

A lot of the time, it helps to think about them historically; to say "Wow, look what people thought in the 9th Century. That's so interesting." Or to think of them as crochety older relatives whom we love and listen to, but don't really take seriously. But neither of those does justice to the rabbis as real founders of a tradition that I live in and engage with. I don't feel any obligation to let other Medieval sources influence my life or have my social values dictated to me by my great-aunts, but I do want to live in the system created by Chazal. It feels to me more like acknowledging that America was founded on slavery and massacre, and working to fix the parts of the system that still enforce that, rather than throwing out the whole idea of America and starting over more equitably. Like America, Jewish tradition has enough really excellent values and ideas that it is worth facing the unpleasant parts of its unpleasant beginnings.

Monday, October 3, 2011

As if He had destroyed the world...

We had to end last week in the middle of a section, so I will pick right back up. As Avital wrote, last week’s learning concluded with the sad fact that, as a result of the expulsion from Gan Eden, we lost special magical/helper scorpions. A verse from Tehillim is then quoted: “V’adam bikar bal yalin nimshal ka’behemot nidmu, Man doesn’t last even a day in honor, he is like a best that perished”. The classic “point followed by proof text” formula is reversed here, as the pasuk is first quoted and then examples are given to back it up. The text goes on to emphasize that on the same day Adam’s form and limbs and innards were created, his soul was given to him, he stood on his own two feet, he named the animals, he was joined with Chava, he entered into Gan Eden, God commanded him what to eat/what not to eat, he sinned, and he was banished from the Garden. All in a day’s work. Adam, as recounted in Tehillim, did not last for even a day in honor. (The first thing that came to mind when we learned this part was the line from The Crucible by Arthur Miller in which Reverend Hale states: ‘Man, remember, until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven.’ I have tried to banish that image from my mind, though, because it is definitely not how I want to think about either God or Adam.)

We are then told that ten punishments were given to both Adam and Chava, although we are never given the full list of these ten. Basically, it explains that Adam will have to work the land to provide food, and Chava will have to endure various types of pain (there is a lot of detail about this) in bearing children. The word used for punishment “gzeirah” is reminiscent of the High Holiday liturgy we read this past week: “U’teshuva u’tfillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha’gzeirah, And repentance, prayer, and tzedakah lessen the severity of the decree”. Maybe if Adam and Chava had known these three we wouldn’t still be under the gzeirot given to them…

My favorite part of the text comes next: “At evening time, Adam HaRishon saw that darkness was coming onto the western part of the world. ‘Woe is me, because I have sinned the Holy One Blessed Be He is darkening the whole world!’ And he didn’t know that this was the way of the world. At dawn, when he saw the world lighting up from the East, he was gladdened with a great happiness.” He then builds an alter and sacrifices to God. “At this time, three groups of ministering angels came down, and in their hands were violins and harps and all the instruments of song. They sang a song with him: ‘Mizmor shir l’yom HaShabbat tov l’hodot l’Hashem, A song for Shabbat, it is good to praise God’”. (This is the traditional psalm of the day for Shabbat.) I was particularly struck by the fact that, in this story, Adam thinks that Hashem is ending the world because he has sinned. He believes in a God that punishes directly and harshly. But he doesn’t yet know that the darkness is a part of how the world works, not the work of a malicious God conspiring against him. It makes sense that in the daily Maariv prayers, we praise God as “ha’maariv aravim, the One who evenings the evening”, as a sort of reminder of Adam’s fear of a God who “machshich alai et ha’olam, darkens the world to me”. Adam’s joy upon waking up to a world of light is very real and gives a nice context to the line in Shacharit “ha’meir l’aretz u’l’dvarim aleyah b’rachamim uv’tuvo mechadesh b’chol yom tamid maaseh breisheet, In compassion, He gives light to the Earth and its inhabitants, and in His goodness continually renews every day the work of creation”. After Adam’s personal journey of sorts through the long night, the angels coming down to praise God with him is a lovely image of Heaven and Earth working together.

The text sees the fact that the Psalm for Shabbat has just been related as a perfect opportunity to go through the psalms for each day of the week and explain the connection between that day’s psalm and what happened on that day in creation. The perek closes with the statement that if God hadn’t punished the serpent, Adam, and Chava, it would have been as if He had destroyed the whole world. That is something interesting to ponder as we contemplate justice and mercy during these Days of Repentance. Feel free to comment with thoughts!

This is the first perek that we have finished, right in time for Rosh HaShanah, so we were quite excited.

Gmar chatima tova!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fence-making is the only thing that stopped you from having a magic domesticated snake

We picked up right where we left off in Avot d’Rabbi Natan, in the middle of a discussion of making a “fence” around one’s words to avoid accidental wrongdoing. It turns out that we’re not done with Adam and Eve, but first, we have a digression about the Emperor Titus. The Adam and Eve part from last week ended with a story in which the Tree of Knowledge prays not to be touched by the evil snake by reciting a verse from Psalms: “Do not let the foot of pride overtake me, or the hand of the wicked shake me.” Another interpretation of that verse is that it refers to Titus, who, according to Avot d’Rabbi Natan, used to bang on the altar and challenge God to wage war against him, so he is the “prideful foot” and the wicked one who shakes the Temple.

After that, we’re back to Adam and Eve. First, it repeats the snake’s conversation with Chava, in which he points out to her that touching the tree is safe and asks her to extrapolate that everything Adam said is a lie. This time, we have the added detail that she thought to herself “Everything my teacher said was a lie” and that she originally always called Adam “my teacher.” It’s also very possible that rabbi means “my master.” Either way, there’s a pretty unpleasant power dynamic, since Adam does not know much at this point either, but if it’s “teacher” there are still other nice things to say about the story. If it means “teacher,” it highlights the special obligation of teachers to tell the truth: because students trust their teachers so completely, it is much worse for a teacher to lie than for someone else to lie. In a class where I do not trust the teacher, I can’t trust any of the information she says, or even his fairness, and I definitely would not want to reveal anything of myself to that kind of teacher, so even one small breach of trust can ruin an entire class.

Next, there’s a list of the ten curses Chava received as punishment, and then, exactly the statement we had been hoping for! “From here we learn—even though a person needs to make a fence around his words, he shouldn’t make the fence greater than the main point, for if he does, it will not be able to stand. Rabbi Yose says: A ten hand-breadth fence that stands up is better than a hundred-cubit one that falls down.” Maya’s post last week explained why we love this so much, so I’ll just add that I think the difference between these two statements of the same principle is interesting. The anonymous opinion asks for proportionality—the fence should be smaller than the main point, so a larger point calls for a larger fence—while Rabbi Yose’s opinion is more pragmatic: how big the fence should be relates to how big you can make it before it will fall down. I prefer the anonymous one—Rabbi Yose’s implies that we should want the biggest possible fence, and I think there are many situations where that is not true. I would rather give bigger fences to things that require them and smaller fences when there is more room for leniency.

After that, there are some odd details about the snake. It originally wanted to kill Adam and marry Chava so that he could rule the world, walk upright, and eat good food. The negation of each of those corresponds to a part of his punishment. Then, Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia laments that such a good servant as the snake went out of the world, because if the snake had not been cursed, everyone in Israel could have had two snakes in her house, and they would bring us precious stones, and nothing could injure them. You could even use them instead of a camel or other beast of burden for farm work. I don’t know what this is about. It doesn’t seem consistent with the pre-expulsion snake, who was humanoid, not inclined to be anyone’s servant, and had no connection with gems. It also seems a little absurd to lament that, of all things, about the expulsion from Eden. Isn’t it worse that humans are banished from paradise and cursed to endure pain and hard labor? Comment if you have any interesting ideas!

We stopped in the middle of the next section, so I’ll leave it for Maya, but get excited for some analogies with scorpions next week. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On Patience, Haste, and Fences

Our second Avot D’Rabbi Natan chevruta session started off with a bang, as we quickly delved into a very long discussion in the text about the first of three pieces of advice given by the Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah (the members of the Great Assembly): “hevu metunim ba’din, Be cautious in judgment”. There is a short description of why one should be hesitant when judging, and then there is a short aside that relates some history about the books of Proverbs, Shir HaShirim, and Kohelet. Apparently, these books were not copied down until long after they were written. They wanted to wait for the text to grow old before copying it down so that they could appropriately bring Shlomo’s wisdom to light. (It is interesting to note a nice play on words here: The word atik means both “copy” and “old”.)

The text then goes on to explain that the same cautiousness one applies to judgment should also be applied to one's speech. “This teaches that a man should be careful with his words and shouldn’t be hasty with them, for whoever is hasty with his words, his words are forgotten.” A story is then related of a time in the book of Bamidbar when Moshe Rabbeinu was too hasty with his words and became angry and was unable to follow God’s command. “If this happened to Moshe Rabbeinu, the wisest of the wise, the greatest of the great, the father of the prophets, when he became too hasty with his words and forgot his words, then how much more for us!” Rabbi Natan explains.

Ben-Azzai then seems to try and bridge the first and third pieces of advice given by the Anshei Kenesset HaGedolah. He says: “Be careful of putting obstacles in front of your words; make a fence around them”. (This third precept of the Great Assembly is “v’asu seyag la’Torah, make a fence around the Torah”.) Apparently, God, Adam, the Torah, Moshe, Job, and prophets, writers, and the wise ones all made fences around their words. It seems that the text tries to back up (at least part of) this statement by essentially saying that God made a fence around His words by predicting the future with appropriate caveats in a pretty specific example cited. (The purpose of the caveats being so that we won’t think God is wrong.)

A long story about Adam and Chava ensues that attempts to show how important it was that Adam made a fence around his words. However, I find several things very problematic with the story provided. The story begins with God telling Adam not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam adds a seyag around his words when repeating these instructions to Chava. He tells her that it is forbidden to eat from the tree and it also forbidden to touch the tree. (Adam is so shomer negiyah he doesn’t even touch trees!) The evil serpent comes along to Chava later and insists that it is okay to touch the tree, demonstrating by rubbing his arms and legs all over it. (Yes, the nachash had limbs. Don’t ask.) Chava, seeing that the serpent has touched the tree and lived, does the same and is also fine. The snake then says to her: “Just like you touched it and didn’t die, so too if you eat from it, you will not die”. Chava thinks to herself that, thus far, everything Adam has said has been a lie. She has no reason to trust that she shouldn’t eat the fruit after it turned out that touching was okay, so she eats it.

I find this example quite problematic. Is the root cause of this notorious story of “Eve eating the forbidden fruit” all a product of Adam making a fence around Hashem’s word? I don’t see how this is evidence that supports our fence-building practices. Jews have historically been quite fond of fences. They are the reason that “not boiling a kid in its mothers milk” has turned into having separate sponges and that “not kindling a flame on Shabbat” has turned into not turning on and off lights on Shabbat. But what if, as this story seems to subliminally imply, these fences are actually taking us farther away from the intent of Hashem’s intent? What if we lose sight of the real mitzvah behind miles and miles of fences? Do we become “Worshippers of the Fence”? And what if, as in this story, we actually break a mitzvah because of a seyag that is added?

This reminded me of a poem we looked at this summer, Bimkom Shir Ahavah by Yehudah Amichai. I apologize for not being able to provide the Hebrew text here.

Instead of a Love Poem

To Chana

From “thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mothre’s milk,”

they made the many laws of Kashrut,

but the kid is forgotten and the milk is forgotten and

the mother is forgotten

In this way from “I love you”

we made all our life together.

But I’ve not forgotten you

as you were then.

That’s it for now. Until next week!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Moshe recieved the Torah at Sinai and it ruined his friendships

This week was the beginning of Maya’s and my Avot d’Rabbi Natan chevruta. Avot D’Rabbi Natan is a commentary on Pirkei Avot, so it begins with the first mishna of Avot—“משה קיבל תורה מסיני” -- “Moses received the Torah at Sinai.” It starts with a discussion of the choreography of Moshe’s interactions with God at Sinai—what happened before and after the giving of the Ten Commandments? What did the Divine Cloud do, exactly? And why did Moshe have to stay on the mountain for six days without being spoken to? All good questions with inconclusive answers. 

After that, there is a rabbinic anecdote about Rabbi Yoshia and Rabbi Matia the son of Charash who were sitting and learning Torah, when Rabbi Yoshia began talking about everyday matters— דרך ארץ—instead. Rabbi Matia the son of Charash, who was Rabbi Yoshia’s student, said “My teacher, why are you leaving the words of the Living God for everyday matters?! Even though you are my teacher and I am your student, it is not good to leave the words of the Living God for everyday matters.”  And an anonymous “they” replies, “The whole time that they were sitting and engaging in words of Torah, they were like people who are jealous of one another; when they stopped, they were like people who have loved each other since their youth.”

I don’t entirely know what to make of that story. For one thing, this is a book of Torah, so I would have expected its authors to be pro-Torah. And even more than that, I expect Jews to be pro-study. I’m used to that daily life needs to take precedence over Torah sometimes, and that’s absolutely a Jewish concept, but this story sounds as if Torah is inherently bad, not just less urgent. If we could be like people who have loved each other since our youth, why would we ever decide to be jealous? The best answer I’ve come up with is that maybe learning alone can’t make a real relationship; it’s too hard to really get to know people by talking about purely academic topics. It’s much easier to build relationships by talking about real life and things that are important to us. Still, there should be a good way for study and important real-life topics to not be mutually exclusive.

After that, there’s some more discussion of Moshe’s role in the revelation at Sinai and a little about the priestly tradition that has endured for generations. It looks like the writers of Avot d’Rabbi Natan may have had a different version of the Mishnah than we have, because the chain of transmission includes judges receiving the Torah from the Elders, and Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi receiving it from the Prophets, which is odd, because I thought they were prophets. We ended our study session with the Torah getting to Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, the Great Assembly, and we’ll be back next week with more Banot d’Rabbi Natan.