Friday, February 24, 2023

Portable: The Story Of Jewish Survival


The Erection of the Tabernacle and the Sacred Vessels, as in Exodus 40:17–19;

from the 1728 Figures de la Bible

The phrase is memorable because it is apt: “portable homeland.” In a somewhat rambling essay entitled “Confessions,” Heinrich Heine describes how the Jews…preserved the Bible from the great conflagration of the sacred temple, and all through the middle ages carried it about with them like a portable homeland… Heine observes that the Torah became a refuge for the Jews during exile. They found comfort inside a virtual reality, an otherworldly homeland floating in a sea of words.


Portable is the story of Parshat Terumah. The Mishkan, the first sanctuary of the Jewish people, was meant to be disassembled, transported, and reassembled at each stop during their 40-year journey in the desert. After the Jews settled in the land of Israel, a permanent Temple was built in Jerusalem, which became the spiritual and national center of the Jews. But after the Temple was destroyed, the Jews faced a profound challenge: How would they be able to maintain their religious identity without the Temple? Our Parsha hints at the solution; every sanctuary, even the Temple, can be portable, just like the very first sanctuary in the desert.


The midrashic phrase “this verse demands to be read poetically” describes an unusual verse in this week’s Torah reading. We are told how the Ark of the Covenant (which will carry the Luchot, the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments), is to be constructed. Just like several other furnishings in the Mishkan, the Ark is meant to have poles that slide into the sides, to enable it to be carried from place to place. But then there is a puzzling commandment, which pertains only to the Ark: “The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark: they shall not be removed from it.” (Exodus 25:15). This is strange. Why leave the poles in permanently? And why is this rule only for the Ark?


Several commentaries explain this strange command by focusing on how remote and holy the Ark was; it was kept in the Holy of Holies, a room visited only once a year, and only by the High Priest. Bekhor Shor suggests the following. One would remove the poles from the other furnishings to create more space for people to walk by inside the sanctuary. But for the Ark, which was in the Holy of Holies, that was unnecessary; nobody ever walked near it. Ralbag offers a different explanation. He says the poles weren’t allowed to be removed in order to prevent the possibility that someone might hold the Ark while removing the poles; that touch would be disrespectful to the Ark.


Other commentaries read this prohibition as symbolic. The Luchot inside the Ark represent the Torah; and the Meshech Chochmah explains that the poles symbolize the financial supporters of Yeshivot, who “hold up” these Torah institutions. The lesson is that the dedication of philanthropists is inseparable from the Torah studied at these Yeshivot; they are two parts of one whole.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers an explanation that is reminiscent of Heine’s remark. He also focuses on the Ark as a symbol of the Torah, and says: The command that the poles must never be removed from the Ark establishes from the outset, and for all time to come, the truth that this Torah and its mission are not confined to the soil on which the sanctuary and the Temple once stood. Like the Ark, the Torah must be ever-ready, at a moment's notice, for any journey. Even in exile, the portable homeland is always with us, ensuring the continuation of the Jewish people.


This lesson became critical after the destruction of the Temple when rabbinic leadership focused on repairing the spiritual breach. Some despaired; others recognized that Judaism had to carry on. When Rabbi Joshua exclaimed that with the destruction of the Temple, there was no longer any way to find atonement for one’s sins, his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai said to him: “My son, don’t be upset. There is another atonement that is just as good: acts of kindness.” (Avot deRabbi Natan 5.) The synagogue became a “miniature sanctuary,” and prayer became a replacement for sacrifice; the Hebrew names for the furnishings of the synagogue are even borrowed from the Temple: Aron, Shulchan, Parochet, Ner Tamid. And the home too became a domestic Temple. The Talmud (Berakhot 55a) remarks: “When the Temple was standing, the altar (and sacrifices) atoned for a person, but now that the Temple is destroyed, a person’s table brings atonement for them (by being a place where one invites the poor and needy).” The home and synagogue became the new centers of Jewish worship.


After the destruction, the rabbis found a way to rebuild a broken people. Replacements were found for what had been lost; Jewish life would still thrive even after exile and destruction. The locus of Judaism moved from Israel to the Diaspora, and from the Temple to the synagogue and home. Rabbinic Judaism was a brilliant reinvention, a way to enable the soul of the Torah to live on even after upheaval and displacement.


At the same time, the rabbis made certain to retain the connection to the Temple and the Land of Israel. Tisha B’Av mourns the destruction and is filled with prayers for a return to the land. The Chanukah candles commemorate the Menorah in the Temple, and the holiday itself celebrates the rededication of the Temple. On Pesach and Yom Kippur, holidays in which the Temple service once played a central role, we end by declaring “next year in Jerusalem.”


The Torah served as both a replacement for, and a reminder of, what had been lost and destroyed. Immersed in the Torah, the Jews could retain their religious identity in the Diaspora; imbued with hope of returning home, they could endure the bitterness of exile. This unique combination is the recipe for a portable homeland; and with it, Jews could survive far into the west, even while their hearts remained in the east.


Roger Kamenetz, in his book The Jew in the Lotus, describes meetings that the Dalai Lama held with American Jewish leaders after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Worried that Tibetan culture will disappear in exile, he turned to these Jewish leaders and asked: “Tell me your secret…the secret of Jewish survival.” He understood that the Jews had managed to survive two millennia of wandering; as Kamenetz puts it, “In the Dalai Lamas’s eyes, and in the eyes of many Tibetans, the Jews are survival experts.”


The answer to his question can be found in one phrase: portable homeland. Wherever Jews went, they carried the Torah with them. They lived in a virtual reality filled with learning and spirituality, hopes and dreams.


Diaspora should have been the end of the Jewish people; instead, it was their finest hour, an era characterized by a heroic display of tenacity and determination. All this was possible because of their portable homeland.

Friday, February 17, 2023

There Must Be Justice in the World


"An eye for an eye." Critics cite this Biblical punishment to indict Judaism for being an unforgiving, legalistic religion. This verse has become theological shorthand for a rules-obsessed religious outlook that is heartless and harsh. In many instances, this critique morphs into anti-Semitism; when Shakespeare’s Shylock craves a pound of flesh, he echoes centuries of anti-Jewish polemics about “an eye for an eye.” And to this day, critics of Israel invoke “an eye for an eye” to describe Israeli actions, a trope inextricably intertwined with antisemitic slanders of the past. 


The roots of this allegation are found in the New Testament, in the Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus teaches his disciples that they should reject “an eye for an eye”: You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. …. Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you… In this passage, the New Testament roundly rejects an eye for an eye; but at the same time, it shackles Judaism to this barbaric practice. 


But that is not what Judaism teaches. Jewish interpreters are adamant in declaring that “an eye for an eye” is not meant to be understood literally. The Talmud offers half a dozen arguments to prove that the text must mean monetary compensation; Benno Jacob argues, that by definition, the Hebrew word "tachat" in this verse can only mean an actual repayment. On a practical level, it would seem impossible to implement the punishment of “an eye for an eye” in a fair manner; removing an eye, (certainly, in ancient times,) would result in a disproportionate injury, and could even end up killing the accused.  


One could stop the discussion here by saying that in practical terms, “an eye for an eye” is essentially fiction. But there are lessons to be learned from the literal interpretation of the text as well. How one understands “an eye for an eye” relates to a much larger question: what is justice? 


For many Christian readers, the Sermon on the Mount teaches that one must pursue the exact opposite path from “an eye for an eye.” Pope Francis, in a 2013 sermon, explains that this is a rejection of human conceptions of justice: 


“If we live according to the law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, we will never escape from the spiral of evil. The evil one is clever, and deludes us into thinking that with our human justice we can save ourselves and save the world! In reality, only the justice of God can save us!” 


To do good to them that hate you is the very path to redemption; and that requires an emphasis on transforming criminals.  


Without question, any discussion of crime and punishment must consider the importance of rehabilitation. As the Talmud (Berakhot 10a) puts it, Judaism also hopes to uproot sins and improve sinners. To this end, reformers endeavored to turn prisons into penitentiaries, places where criminals would repent from their crimes. Educational and work opportunities were provided to prisoners to help them rebuild their lives, and over the years, some excellent programs have found significant success. Love does make a difference, and encourages people to change. But when taken to an extreme, the path of love fails; replacing the local police force with a cadre of social workers will only lead to more crime. Love can never replace justice. 


For this reason, “an eye for an eye” deserves a second look. 


There are many rabbinic thinkers, including Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed, that find lessons in the literal meaning of “an eye for an eye.” Rabbi Moise Tedeschi, in his Hoil Moshe, explains that “an eye for an eye” was meant to be understood literally during Israel's early history. The former slaves struggled to build a civil society, and it was a time of chaos; harsh punishment was necessary to instill a sense of law and order. It is only later, at a time of greater stability, that “an eye for an eye” could be interpreted as a monetary payment. In other words, “an eye for an eye” was a type of martial law, and only intended for a short period of history. 


This interpretation highlights the importance of deterrence. Crimes must be punished as a warning to others; without severe punishments, society will dissolve into anarchy. At times, extreme measures are necessary for the greater good, even if they are as brutal as “an eye for an eye.” 


But the most significant lesson of “an eye for an eye” is that punishment is part of the pursuit of justice; and in the case of a bloody assault, retribution is required. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno writes that “an eye for an eye” is what ought to be the judgment against the offender, if we were to apply the principle of the punishment fitting the crime in all its severity. There is a profound injustice in allowing someone who assaulted his neighbor to pay his way out of the crime. Emanuel Levinas points out, this justice based on peace and kindness… leaves the way open for the rich! They can easily pay for the broken teeth, the gouged-out eyes, and the fractured limbs left around them. The world remains a comfortable place for the strong,... Yes, eye for eye. Neither all eternity, nor all the money in the world, can heal the outrage done to man. It is a disfigurement or wound that bleeds for all time…  


“An eye for an eye” is, in the end, a theoretical proposal. Ultimately, all physical punishments were abandoned and considered cruel; they were replaced with incarceration, which matches the severity of corporal punishment without inflicting any physical pain. But the lesson of “an eye for an eye” still remains; justice demands that evildoers be punished, and a society that indulges criminals is itself criminal. When writing about how it is critical for a sovereign to pursue “the equalization of punishment with the crime,” Immanuel Kant explains: 


..(Punishment) ought to be done in order that every one may realize the desert of his deeds, and that blood guiltiness may not remain upon the people; for otherwise they might all be regarded as participators in the murder…. 


It is easy to diminish justice; it is the gruff, off-putting, hard-edged counterpart of love. But love doesn’t conquer all; you need to have order and civility first in order for love to flourish. And that is impossible without justice. 


Lenn Evan Goodman begins his book On Justice with the following anecdote. As a child in Los Angeles, he had a Hebrew school teacher, Dr. Lubliner, who, when he rolled up his sleeves on hot days, exposed a pale blue tattooed number on his forearm. Dr. Lubliner was a man of great dignity and learning. He had much to teach, but almost never spoke about the Holocaust.  But one time, in a tangentially connected discussion, Dr. Lubliner interjected: "I believe there's justice in the world…there must be justice." 


Goodman adds that another time he arrived at Hebrew school early, and saw Dr. Lubliner silently saying the Mincha prayer. At that moment Goodman thought to himself: "if a man like that can believe in God, so can I." 


Love may be transcendent, but that is not enough on its own. To believe in God is to believe in the possibility of ending the rule of evil, and that “all wickedness will vanish like smoke.”  


There must be justice in the world too. 

Friday, February 03, 2023

Happily Ever After?


The Songs of Joy, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902)

Ehud Manor’s "Bashanah Habaah" continues to rank as one of the greatest Israeli songs of all time. It was released in 1970, and at the time, singers around the world, including Andy Williams and Herb Alpert, recorded covers of it. To this day, it evokes memories of Israel’s early days, an anthem of the little country that could.


The lyrics seem very upbeat, and the song exudes optimism:


Next year we'll sit on the porch

And count migrating birds

Children on vacation will play tag

Between the house and the fields


You will see, you will see

How good it will be

In the next year, in the next year


This is a beautiful song of “happily ever after;” except that it wasn’t intended that way.


Manor wrote the song in memory of his younger brother Yehuda, who had died in 1968, in the War of Attrition. In the song, Manor returns to the scene of his childhood home in Binyamina, where the entire family would sit on the porch, appreciating the beauty of the moment. It is a song of longing and loss, the brokenhearted reflections of a grieving brother.


Nurit Hirsch, who composed the music, initially wrote a very maudlin score to match Manor’s intentions; but she found it so unappealing, she nearly threw the composition away. Ultimately, Bashanah Habaah was saved when a friend suggested that she change the tempo and rhythm. But underneath the joyous facade is a dark inner lining, a recognition that for Manor, the next year will never be as good as the last one.


Parshat Beshalach is about how elusive serenity can be. At the very start, we are told that God did not take the Jews on the direct route to Israel because the former slaves were too cowardly to face battle. This foreshadows what will occur; after achieving freedom, the courage of the Jews will fail time and again, they will complain time and again, and ultimately wander for forty years and die in the desert. They will be detoured, over and over again.


Yet before all of this completely unravels, there is a moment of absolute joy. The Jews miraculously cross through the Red Sea, and then watch the Egyptian army get destroyed. They are now truly free, and in response sing Az Yashir, the Song of the Sea. This is the first Jewish song, a song of great joy, which is now recited every morning in the prayer services. The song concludes with several verses about the land of Israel; sadly, the people who sing this song never make it there.


The placement of this song, right in the middle of a Torah reading filled with angst, teaches us a powerful lesson on how to search for happiness without expecting “happily ever after.” One must still find a way to sing in an imperfect world.


The initial words of the song Az Yashir baffle the commentaries; it is phrased in the future tense, as if to say “then Moses and the children of Israel will sing this song.” Most commentaries explain it is meant as a future-in-the-past tense, looking at the future from a point in the past. But the Talmud reads it very differently. It explains: “From where do we know that resurrection of the dead can be derived from the Torah? As it is stated: “Then Moses and the children of Israel will sing this song to the Lord” (Exodus 15:1). It is not stated: sang, rather, ‘they will sing’ (indicating that Moses will come back to life and sing the song in the future.)


The Talmud is saying that Moses will return and sing Az Yashir at the end of days. The purpose of this interpretation is to substantiate a theological principle, the resurrection of the dead. But at the very same time, it also teaches the profound truth: fairy tales are not part of this world. The true song of redemption must wait for the distant future; until then, fragility and anxiety will remain a part of our lives.


The Messianic tones of the text extend a bit deeper. Rabbi Baruch Epstein in his commentary Torah Temimah connects the word Az in this song to another time the word Az is used, in Psalm 126. This Psalm describes the redemption, and says, “Then (Az) our mouths shall be filled with laughter, and our tongues with songs of joy.”


The Talmud (Berakhot 31a) explains that this passage in Psalms teaches us “one is forbidden to fill his mouth with mirth in this world.” (i.e., as long as the Jews are in exile.) In an unredeemed world, there is always something to worry about; mirth is only possible after the redemption. Indeed, the Talmud further recounts that one Rabbi was asked to lead the crowd in song at a wedding. He decided to write a new lyric for the occasion, one that says: “Woe unto us, for we shall die, woe unto us, for we shall die.” Not exactly what most couples want to hear on their wedding night!


Another rabbi saw the crowd rejoicing loudly at his son’s wedding, and broke an expensive glass to darken the mood. This ultimately becomes the basis for our custom of breaking a glass under the chuppah; we don’t want to allow ourselves to be intoxicated by joy in an imperfect world. Wholehearted celebration is both impossible and improper in a world of ever-present crisis.


Then how does one carry this burden of fragility?


The 13th-century Italian Kabbalist, Menahem Recanati, offers a very different interpretation of the Talmud, in his commentary on the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:2.) He agrees one breaks a glass under the chuppah because the world is imperfect; and the couple, like everyone else, will face bad luck in their marriage. But the purpose of breaking the glass is to symbolically push the bad luck out of the way; and that is why the crowd responds mazal tov, or “good luck,” to wish the couple only good fortune for the future.


Recanati completely reorients the purpose of the broken glass. Instead of pushing aside joy to introduce worry, the breaking of a glass comes to push aside worry and search for joy.


Undoubtedly, there are those who need to interrupt their celebrations to remember how broken this world is; but for many others, one’s profound sense of finitude makes such joy impossible. They need to learn how to rejoice even when there is no happily ever after, and at least for one night, embrace the possibility of mazal tov for the future.


Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the author of the Sefat Emet, offers a fascinating insight into how the song of Az Yashir and its connection to redemption. He explains that the song of goodness begins in a broken world; but as we continue to sing, we bring redemption one step closer. And this is precisely what Recanati is teaching; let us marry in joy, let us sing in joy, and continue to push back on bad luck. Doing this can change the world.


Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion, shares how a comment in Rashi (Genesis 6:6) gave him great comfort during the Yom Kippur War:

When I read these comments of Rashi, I cannot help but recall the wedding of my eldest daughter, which took place in the yeshiva immediately after the Yom Kippur War. After all the pain resulting from that war – both the pain of the nation and the pain of our yeshiva, which lost eight students – I found it very difficult to listen to the band, and I almost did not join in the dancing. But then I was approached by Justice Zvi Tal, whose son's wedding I had performed on Rosh Chodesh Elul, right before the war. His son went out to battle and never returned. Justice Tal mentioned to me these words of Rashi – "In a time of joy – there shall be joy, and in a time of grief – there shall be grief.

Justice Tal’s words, coming from a bereft father, are heroic. He insists that even in a world of tragedy, there must be celebrations, one must continue to sing.


The lesson of Az Yashir is that we may not get to sing this song forever, but we must sing it anyway. Joy is always fleeting, but even so, true joy is also transcendent. It raises us above the ordinary and gives us a taste of the end of days. And if we start the song now, it will continue to echo, louder and louder, into the future.