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!