Friday, September 27, 2013

Where is Moses in the Torah?

Yesterday (today in the Diaspora), we read the final portion in the Torah, Vezot Haberakha; tomorrow, we read the first, Bereishit. This leaves us precious little time to study the opening chapters of Genesis, one of the many challenges of juxtaposing the beginning and the end.
Thanks a lot, Krona.
However, it also allows us to see what the first and last portions of the Torah have in common: a thesis about the perfection of the human lifespan. Consider the sixth-to-last verse of each portion:
And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. (Deut. 34:7)
And LORD said: My spirit shall not remain in man forever, because he too is flesh, and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years. (Gen. 6:3)
This connection helps explain a particularly bizarre passage in the Talmud (Hullin 139b):
The Papunians asked Rav Mattena... Where is Moses in the Torah? "Because he too (be-shaggam) is flesh."
Of course, Moses is mentioned by name no less than 649 times in the Torah. What could the Papunians be asking? It is true, as Rashi notes, that gematria is at play here, which gives a numerical value to each word, so that be-shaggam and Moses' name are each equivalent to 345, but there seems to be something much deeper as well, linking the 120 years of this verse and the 120 years of Moses.

Now, Rashi himself does not use this interpretation in his biblical commentary; he interprets the 120 years not as a decree related to individual human beings, but to the human race as a whole: the great diluvian clock has now begun ticking, and mankind has only a century plus twenty percent before it will be swept away. Other commentators, from ibn Ezra to Da'at Miqra (Y. Kil), have followed this path, arguing that the 120 years of the Flood are akin to the 40 days of warning for Nineveh in the Book of Jonah, despite a) the absence of any public exhortation; b) the orders of magnitude between forty days and over fourteen thousand days; and c) the fact that God does not decide to bring a Flood until the next paragraph. However, the Malbim and others do follow the course suggested by Rav Mattena.
Indeed, this decree, which precedes that of the Flood, ultimately has more impact for the audience. It comes immediately after a long list of long lives; the youngest recorded death is that of Lamech, Noah's father, at 777 (Enoch does not die but is "taken by God"), while the oldest is Methuselah at 969.
This guy lied to Captain Kirk. Everyone knows Methuselah died in the Flood.
It would only be natural for the reader to balk at these inconceivable numbers. The Torah explains that in fact it is God's decree, as we emerge from the mists of prehistory, that man will not live "forever," but rather that the maximum for humans is to reach their thirteenth decade. Indeed, some scientists believe that this is biologically true as well.

It is striking that the end of the Torah and the beginning of the Torah pose complementary problems for the contemporary reader. The dilemma at the end of the Torah is that of authorship: who wrote the last eight verses, which take place (up to a month) after Moses' death? That dispute is already recorded in the Talmud (Bava Batra 15a), but some push it back to the beginning of Chapter 34, since Moses never comes down after he ascends Mt. Nebo; others push it back to Chapter 31, wherein Moses hands over the completed Torah scroll, or even further.

The quandary at the beginning of the Torah, on the other hand, is that of literalism. It is essentially impossible to take Chapter 1 literally (this may be reflected in the multiplicity of views as to what day of Creation Rosh Hashana corresponds to), as it includes elements such as three days and three nights before the heavenly bodies shine. What about Chapter 2, which is a different narrative of Creation? Or Chapter 3 and its talking serpent? Does history begin after the expulsion from Eden, after the Flood, after the fall of the Tower of Babel? In light of this issue, it is extremely significant that a decree from the Torah's first portion is only realized in its last.

Our engagement with the Torah changes and develops as we change and develop. That's why we always have to start anew with each new year. That is why Bereishit must always follow Vezot Haberakha.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Top 10 Ushpizin FAQs

It is now the midpoint of Sukkot, so on day four of the Feast of Tabernacles, let's deal with all those pesky queries about the ghostly guests, the Ushpizin!

1) Q: Ushpiz? What sort of word is that?
A: It's Aramaic, borrowed from the Latin hospes, meaning host or guest (we'll be using the latter term), which has given us the term "hospitality."

2) Q: Why do my Israeli friends call an ambulance when I say I want to be an ushpiz for a Sabbath meal?
A: Ah, well just as "hospital" evolved from this root in French and English, the modern Hebrew term for hospitalization, ishpuz, followed a similar route (although hospital is still beit holim, house of the sick).

3) Q: So what's so special about guests on Sukkot?
A: That brings us to the Zohar, the classic work of Jewish mysticism first published in the 13th century, which states (Lev. 103b):
Rabbi Abba said: Abraham and the five righteous and King David share their dwelling together with him. Of this it is written: “In sukkot you shall dwell seven days” (Lev. 23:42)... It is written, “In sukkot you shall dwell seven days” and then “they shall dwell in sukkot”—first, “you shall dwell,” and then “they shall dwell.” The former refers to the Guests; the latter to the people of the world.
Thus taught Rav Hamnuna the Elder. When he would go up to the sukka, he would rejoice and stand outside the doorway of his sukka and say: "Let us invite our guests; let us set out the bread. And he would stand on his feet and bless, saying: "'In sukkot you shall dwell seven days' -- be seated, supernal guests, be seated. Be seated, faithful guests, be seated."
4) Q: Wait, who are the "five other righteous"?
A: It never says, but Isaac and Jacob are mentioned later in the passage, pronouncing curses on those who invite them but not the poor.
Rabbi Abba said: All his days Abraham would stand at the crossroads to invite guests and to set bread before them. Now that he is invited, together with all the other righteous and with King David, and [the needy] are not given their portion, Abraham stands up from the table and calls out: “Go away from the tents of these wicked people” (Num. 16:26). And they all go away after him. Isaac says, “The belly of the wicked suffers want” (Prov. 13:25). Jacob says “The morsels you have eaten you shall vomit up” (Prov. 23:8). And all the other righteous say: “For all the tables are filled with vomit and excrement, with no space left” (Isa. 28:8).
5) Q: Yum. But wait, "the other righteous" could be anyone! Why then are the feminists criticized for coming up with usphizot?
A: Because it's USHPIZAN. Where did you people learn Aramaic grammar, anyway?

6) Q: Then how did we get Joseph, Moses and Aaron as the other three?
A: Oh, that's a different Zohar (Addenda III, 301b-302a):
In parallel to these seven supernal days, the Holy One, Blessed be He, created in the world seven worthies of truth to establish them and enlighten them, each and every one on his respective day, and He planted each one in the appropriate generation. These are the fathers of the world: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David.
7) Q: But isn't that about the days of Creation, i.e. the days of the week?
A: Yup.

8) Q: So, today is Sunday, the fourth day of Sukkot but the first day of the week. Is it Joseph's day or Abraham's?
A: Well, each of these has a unique Kabbalistic superpower, and Joseph's ranks him after Moses and Aaron, even though he lived earlier. So maybe it's Moses' day, as Sephardic and Hasidic Jews maintain. An Ushphizin Fighting Championship would settle this once and for all.

9) Q: But everyone agrees that it's seven total, right?
A: No. Before Rabbi Abba is quoted, the first opinion leaves out David, so it's only "Abraham and five other righteous." On the other hand, some (like R. Zadok of Lublin, Peri Tzadik, Deut., Sukkot 38) add an eighth for the extra day in the Diaspora: King Solomon. Surprisingly, the same Frankfurt Jews who do not say prayers that have their source in the Zohar nevertheless embrace the idea of eight Ushpizin.

10) Q: Still, it's just words, right?
A: Depends whom you ask. One version opens with, "I beseech thee, X," which is hardly the tone of R. Hamnuna's invitation. Indeed, some authorities (R. Hayim Palachi, Kaf Ha-hayim 639:8) demand action: lighting candles in the name of the respective night's Ushpiz and putting an embroidered chair out for them. (To share?) I'm sure the odd pauper out will appreciate knowing that a seat is being saved instead for those who won't eat.

Q: Huh.
A: That's why I leave it all out. Math is easy; Kabbala is hard.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Gay-mar tov

Thanks, gay mafia. Just when I thought I was out… you pull me back in.

I managed to get through a whole post about the Yom Kippur afternoon reading of the arayot (Lev. 18) without mentioning good ol’ verse 22, which starts off the final aliya of the Day of Atonement. You know the one, along with the parallel verse two chapters later (20:13):
You shall not bed a male (zakhar) the beddings of a woman (mishkevei isha): it is an abomination.
And if a man beds a male the beddings of a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
I thought that I had dealt with this topic thoroughly in my first post for Times of Israel. But on Thursday, Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau (cousin of the new chief rabbi) made news by invoking Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s decades-old halakhic argument about the sexual orientation of gays being defined as oness, compulsion, employing the Talmudic principle “the Merciful does not hold liable those who are compelled” (Nedarim 27a, Bava Kamma 28a, Avoda Zara 54a). I won’t get into the analysis, since Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber already did a fantastically thorough job of that a year ago.

Instead, I would like to get back to the biblical analysis. Although, ironically, it is used in Mishnaic Hebrew to refer to sex between males, the term “mishkav zakhar” is not the biblical term for intercourse between men; it is the term for classic male-to-female genitalia sex, specifically the kind that puts an end to virginity. Consider Judges 21:12:
And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead four hundred virgin maidens, who had not known a man by bedding a male (mishkav zakhar), and they brought them to the camp in Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.
The term appears repeatedly in Numbers 31 as well. But what exactly is it supposed to mean here in Leviticus? The term here is mishkav zakhar mishkevei isha, a perplexing nomenclature. An ish (man) is bedding not another ish, but a zakhar–and not just bedding him, but bedding him “the beddings of isha.” Of course, isha means both woman and wife.

Some have suggested that it prohibits two men from having sex in a woman’s bed, which is profoundly bizarre, seeming to trade homophobia for misogyny. Others argue that it refers to a ménage à trois, which is intriguing but a bit hard to swallow: the verse mentions “both of them.” Still others argue that it refers to a social construct in which such relationships would involve pedophilia or rape, but if so, the fact that the Torah condemns both parties is horrific (and contradictory).

But what if, like standard-issue mishkav zakhar, mishkav zakhar mishkevei isha refers to a situation of permanent physical change? What if the ish is whole, but the zakhar only has his zakhrut (manhood) left, because he has been altered in the mishkevei isha manner? In the Ancient Near East, males were often castrated for the purpose of being sex slaves. Perhaps this is what the verse refers to. The Torah takes a dim view of castration, so it would be consistent with other verses. Were that the case, the great biblical proof-text used to bludgeon gays would fall. I’ve certainly heard no better explanation of mishkevei isha.

Now, this approach is certainly unconventional, but it is not wholly unprecedented to view mishkevei isha as defining not the what of this sexual union, but the who. The Talmud (Yevamot 83b) cites Bar Hamduri's exegesis:
"You shall not bed a male the beddings of a woman" -- what male is it that is capable of two manners of bedding? Obviously the hermaphrodite.
Undoubtedly, a hermaphrodite and a eunuch are different cases, but they share something of an intersex status, creating a hybrid of mishkav zakhar and mishkevei isha. This certainly opens the door to further analysis of this much-debated line.
 Would reinterpreting the verse change the halakhic equation? Maybe not, but it’s a lot easier to embrace paths such as that of Rabbis Doctors Lamm, Farber and Lau if the verse lends itself to other readings.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Too sexy for Yom Kippur

Sixteen forbidden sexual relationships (arayot) are hardly what one would expect at the climax of Judaism's holiest day, but that's what we read from the Torah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur: Leviticus 18, the final chapter of the portion of Acharei Mot.
Now, the first chapter of Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16, describes the special service of Yom Kippur, including the scapegoat, so we can understand why the Talmud (Megilla 31a) tells us to read that on the morning of the Day of Atonement, but why conclude with a laundry list of forbidden sex (with a dollop of Moloch)?
No, not that one.
No, not that one.
The medieval commentators offer a number of explanations. Maimonides (Laws of Prayer 13:11) explains that "anyone who has violated one of these sins will remember, become embarrassed, and repent;" similarly, Rashi (ad loc.) writes that "the arayot are a common sin, because a person lusts after them and his passion compels him." The idea seems to be that it takes all of Yom Kippur to work up the courage and determination to repent for these sins.
However, Tosafot ha-Rosh point to a different source, an intriguing passage in the Talmudic tractate which deals with Yom Kippur, Yoma (19b):
Some of the worthiest of Jerusalem did not go to sleep all the night in order that the high priest might hear the reverberating noise, so that sleep should not overcome him suddenly. It has been taught: Abba Saul said: Also in the country they used to do so in memory of the Temple, but they used to commit sin. Abaye, or, as some say, R. Nahman b. Isaac, interpreted that to refer to Nehardea. For Elijah said to Rab Judah, the brother of R. Sila the Pious: Did you ask me why the Messiah has not come? Now today is the Day of Atonement, and yet how many virgins have been deflowered in Nehardea!
Day of Atonement, Sabbath of Sabbaths, Fast of the Tenth and... Deflowering Day? Now, we mentioned the special service of Yom Kippur, which had to be performed by the Kohen Gadol (usually translated "high priest," although "great minister" is a better rendering). Not only did he spend the whole day of Yom Kippur running around (of course, while fasting), he was not allowed to sleep the night before (Yoma 1:6-7). Jerusalem's nightlife assisted in this endeavor, and this was a custom which spread far and wide after the Second Temple's destruction. However, as Abba Saul testifies (one generation later), the holy origins of this custom were soon forgotten, especially by the young people who had never seen the Temple. Yom Kippur in Nehardea, then the capital of Diaspora Jewry in Babylonia, started looking like a Vegas bachelor party.
Perhaps this explains the custom described in the end of Taanit by Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, two generations after the Destruction, that on Tu beAv and Yom Kippur "the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments... and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose…" We discussed the origins of Tu beAv earlier this summer, but why would Yom Kippur be an appropriate time to do this? Considering the Nehardean alternative, we can understand why this might be a more positive way to channel the sexual energies of the youth. For our issue, we can understand why it is at this time that we read the passage of the arayot.
Regardless of which explanation we choose, what is clear is that this reading represents Judaism's mandate to confront the realities of human existence. We don't endorse celibacy; we don't condemn divorce; we don't refer to those born out of wedlock as bastards. Sex is a part of human life, a powerful force for good and evil, and even on the day when we most try to emulate the angels (Pirkei de-R. Eliezer 45), we recognize that we are inescapably human.
That is why it so disturbed me today to learn that state religious (dati) schools in Israel are planning to essentially eliminate human reproduction from the curriculum. (You can see the full story here.)
Let's look at one of the shockingly prurient illustrations which the religious authorities are trying to eliminate (please send any children out of the room):
Gracious me, I feel the vapors coming on. It's almost as bad as that clip with the Emergency Coaching Hologram.
Is this really the path we want to head down? Remember, these are the supposedly moderate and modern religious schools. Will eliminating these subjects make male-female contact more unlikely? In America, the states which employ abstinence-only educational methods tend to have the highest rates of teen pregnancies. True, Halakha has strict standards for contact between the sexes, but that did not help the virgins of Nehardea.
More importantly, what of the "good" kids? Do we want them heading into marriage with an understanding of sex gleaned from the Internet and pop culture, rather than hard science? Even from a Torah-education point of view, a basic understanding of reproductive biology is necessary for understanding huge swaths of Talmudic literature.
If we can read about the arayot on Yom Kippur in our synagogues, surely we need not fear reading about the beauty, majesty and holiness of human reproduction in our schools. Is this truly the subject we want to leave to independent study?

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Happy 5940!

As the first Sabbath of the new Jewish year has just concluded, I'd like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy, good and sweet 5940!
Oh, wait, your calendar probably says 5774. Let me explain.
Ancient Hebrews counted years the way their Near Eastern neighbors did, by the year of the ruling monarch, the kings of Judea, Israel, Babylonia or Persia, as the case might be. However, as the age of kingdoms gave way to the age of empires, Jews worldwide, especially in the far-flung Diaspora, needed a universal system. They turned to minyan shtarot; this does not refer to the minimum number of documents you must have in a synagogue, but rather a dating system, Anno Graecorum, year 1 of which was 311 BCE.
However, as the age of empires gave way to the age of faiths, worldwide Jewry was increasingly split between the realms of two younger monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, each of which used its own faith-based dating system. Minyan shtarot was largely irrelevant (though in some lands, including Yemen, it persisted until recently), so a new chronology was needed. What better, then, than counting from the beginning, i.e., "In the beginning," Genesis 1:1?
Now, it was easy to tally the years since the Greek era, as that count had been maintained uninterrupted for a millennium and a half. However, the period before that was somewhat murky, so they turned to Seder Olam Rabba by R. Jose b. Halafta. This 2nd-century Mishnaic sage used biblical text and oral traditions to create a consistent historical record.
The problem, of course, is that neither the Bible nor the Talmud are history books, especially when they converge, as in the Persia Era. R. Jose takes literally the rabbinic statement cited in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 3a): "Cyrus is Darius is Artaxerxes," conflating numerous kings of Persia and cutting the multiple centuries of Persian rule down to a handful of decades. (But don't take the historians' word for it: Rabbi Zerahiah of Lunel, the 12th-century sage known as the Baal HaMaor, also concludes that this rabbinic statement is not to be taken literally.) That's why Seder Olam gives the equivalent of 420 BCE  as the date of the destruction of the First Temple, rather than the historical date of 586 BCE. That's a difference of 166 years, and if we add them back in, this year would be 5940.
But Rosh Hashana is still the anniversary of Creation, right? Well, bear in mind that:
  1. The only time the term rosh ha-shana is used in Scripture is to refer, apparently, to Yom Kippur (Ezekiel 40:1).
  2. The question of whether the world was created in the spring or autumn is a matter of dispute between Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer, and the Talmud endorses the view of the former as a matter of fact (Rosh Hashana 12a).
  3. Even following Rabbi Eliezer's opinion, there are different views as to which day of Creation Rosh Hashana was: the first (ibid. 11a), the sixth (Lev. Rabba 29a) or the seventh (Pesikta Rabbati 46).
So where does that leave us? After all, our liturgy talks about Rosh Hashana (to be more precise, Yom HaZikaron) as the day of creation, and we date halakhic documents--those of marriage, divorce, etc.--by the Seder Olam count. Are we wrong to do so?
Well, let us be precise. Our documents read: "On day X of month Y of year Z to the creation of the world, according to the count which we reckon here..." How significant is this? Consider the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh (HM 43:2, EH 127:10):
If the scribe omitted "to the creation of the world," it is kosher.
The Levush, R. Mordecai Yoffe (EH 127:11), explains:
Even if he left out the thousands and hundreds and wrote only the small numbers, e.g. "Year 59 according to the count which we reckon here," and even if he did not write "to the creation of the world" either, it is kosher.
In other words, 5774 is not sacrosanct because of how much time has elapsed since "the creation of the world;" it is holy because it is our reckoning, the universal count which ties all of Jewry together. Indeed, this is true of Rosh Hashana itself: it is not holy because of what was created on that date, but because we sanctify it and celebrate it as the commemoration of divine sovereignty, recognizing God as sole Creator and King.
Indeed, this is how the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashana 1:3) describes the role of the human court (bet din) in the calendar:
If the bet din says, "Today is Rosh Hashana," the Holy One, Blessed be He, says to the angels: "Set up the stand, summon the prosecutors, summon the defenders -- for my children have declared that today is Rosh Hashana." If the court decides to declare a leap month and make Rosh Hashana the next day,  the Holy One, Blessed be He says to the angels: "Remove the stand, remove the prosecutors, remove  the  defenders, for my children have decided to put it off till tomorrow." What is the reason? "For it is a rule for Israel, a judgment of the God of Jacob" (Psalms 81:5) -- If Israel does not rule, the God of Jacob does not judge.