Pinchas: A five-act play about Jewish legacy

Dedicated for SHABBAT PINCHAS 2779 to my father-in-law, Philip Oliver Richardson, Z”L”

At first glance, Pinchas, like so many other weekly portions of the Torah, looks like a set of disparate pieces, thrown together with no particular logic. Some are boilerplate, others cinematically compelling. G-d rewards a zealot for a terrible act of violence and launches a war, but instead of taking us to the battle scene (the next week picks it up in Matot-Massei), a long, repetitive census interrupts the action. Five daughters provoke a revision in law and Moses dramatically transfers his power to Joshua, but a boring account of sacrifices deflate the end.

On closer inspection, though, Pinchas is a wonderfully coherent five-act play. Its hero isn’t a person but an idea, a revolutionary new concept of how a nation will transfer its legacy from one generation to another. In fact, at the risk of mixing metaphors, once we untangle (and then put back together) the threads, layers, cross-references, and perspectives on Israel’s legacy,  a complex shimmering 3D tapestry – a hologram[1] in which every part resonates with every other and every jot signifies the whole – comes into view.

The events of Pinchas take place as Israel is poised to enter the Promised Land.  It advances the theme, begun in Genesis, of a Divine Darwinian experiment to produce a holy species of human being through careful selection and breeding of transcendent traits. The Hebrews pass on their monotheism from generation to generation by choosing children with some unnamed trait that strengthens their receptivity to it (monotheism). Sarah over Hagar, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Rachel over Leah, Joseph over his older brothers, Ephraim over Menashah, the Hebrews again and again select ineffable merit over biological primogeniture. They skirt danger to protect it. They zealously avoid hybridization or commingling with pagans.

If Pinchas (and indeed the whole Torah, one might argue) is a hologram, we could start anywhere to see a representation of the whole theme of this revolution in transmission of legacy. But for simplicity, let’s take these five acts in order.

ACT I: DIVINE REWARD AND PUNISHMENT

In this opening act, G-d rewards the zealot Pinchas, grandson of Aaron and son of Elazar, for executing a Jewish man and Midianite woman in flagrante delicto.  G-d grants him a very personal peace covenant (“brit shalom”) and elevates him and all his heirs to the priesthood. Then we are told the names of the criminal couple, Zimri and Cosbi, and their identities as chieftan of Shimon and princess of Midianite. G-d  tells Moses to attack and defeat the Midianites because Cozbi tricked the Israelites to worship Ba’al Peor.

The portion splits this opening scene from its natural connection to the end of last week’s (Balak), when Pinchas spears an Israelite man and Midianite woman through their private parts while they copulate in front of the Israelites. Pinchas’ termination of the couple with extreme prejudice puts an end to a plague that kills 24,000 Israelites, presumably also for their immorality and idolatry. Strangely, though, the text only now identifies Pinchas’ lineage, and identifies the couple. Wouldn’t it have been more natural to identify the three main actors, especially Zimri and Cosbi, before Pinchas kills them back there in Balak? Why does the Bible put the cart before the horse?

At the literal level, it contrasts the reward to a righteous actor in the context of his lineage to the punishment of evil actors in the context of theirs. But as we will see, the Torah is announcing a theme as grandly as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, one that will repeat throughout the week’s reading: Identity and Reward! Lineage and Legacy!

By killing Zimri, Pinchas has zealously protected the honor – and more importantly the genetic and spiritual purity – of the Jews. Zimri is of the tribe of Shimon, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, his direct descendent. Ironically, Shimon (back in Genesis) led his brothers in a similarly zealous and bloody attack to wipe out an entire town to avenge the rape of their sister by Prince Shechem, also a pagan.[2] Shechem is also the name of the pagan city, as if to signify the confluence between an individual rape and the collective cultural attempt to violate Israel. Shechem plotted to destroy the Hebrews by transforming their prince’s rape of Dinah into a legitimate marriage and in parallel, absorbing all the Hebrews (and their flocks), settling, intermarrying and assimilating them. We know how that works out.

Now Zimri consorts with a pagan and is also punished by a Jewish zealot. And Cosbi is not any ordinary harlot. A princess, she is leading a deliberate campaign by Midian and Moab to seduce, assimilate, and therefore dissolve the Children of Israel by luring them through sex into a particularly abominable form of idolatry that involves opening all their body orifices.[3] After all, why would a privileged royal family choose their own princess to play the whore and seduce an enemy prince, if not as an act of war? In Midian, Cosbi must have been viewed as a war hero who like Mata Hari is courageously engaged in sedition or “sexpionage.” And Zimri isn’t just having a furtive affair. He is flaunting his dissolution in a corrupting public spectacle of intercourse at all levels, including idolatry, with Midian.

For his extreme act on behalf of G-d, Pinchas gets a most personal and remarkable peace pact from Him and better, a priesthood for all his heirs. Though he is a Levite by birth, he had been denied it on technical reasons.[4] Getting the priesthood now by dint of his own actions requires the Supreme Judge to overturn the laws of strictly patrilineal priestly lineage. And Zimri and Cosbi have already gotten their punishment, but we now see how their violent, um, climax fits the enormity of their crime. Further the immediate declaration of war that follows, though not its depiction, makes sense.

When Israel follows G-d ’s demand to attack Midian, they are not just seeking revenge, nor are they just flexing their new-found muscle as a successful warrior nation, practicing for the conquest of Zion. Rather, they are waging war, on a grander scale than Shimon’s, to eliminate a genetic threat to the Israel’s purity and integrity and thus the Jews’ entire evolutionary project. Nor are they waging an unprovoked war of imperial aggression. It is a pre-emptive strike against a deliberate campaign of cultural sedition, an existential threat of assimilation to idolatry, orchestrated by their enemies, Midian and Moab. Thus G-d tells the Jews to both “bind” them [צָר֖וֹר] and “defeat” them [וְהִכִּיתֶ֖ם]. (Num 25:17)[5]

ACT II: APPORTIONING THE PROMISED LAND BY LEGACY AND LOTTERY

Moses and Eleazar take a census of the tribes so they can divvy up the Promised Land once they occupy it. In an extended passage, the Torah details the count and genealogy of each of the tribes and explains how the land will be divided proportionately by tribe (except the Levites) but by lot for individual families.

On the surface, the census is a rational way to apportion the Land of Israel to the tribes, but it does not disrupt the status quo of inheritances. But the census also implicitly tells a story about their fates in the forty years of wandering. First, the good news. Although they faced many trials and temptations, Moses has delivered them more or less intact after forty years. All the tribes report for duty as they are about to enter the Promised Land. Further, they have successfully preserved their genetic legacy from their ancestors in Genesis. The tribes have a ‘heh’ [ ה] appended to the front and a ‘yud’ [ י] to the end of their names. Rashi tells us this is G-d ’s name, a stamp or hecksher on their genetic purity which they maintained even through their years of slavery in Egypt (a “biblical DNA test.”[6])

Yet the census also paints a darker picture. The Israelites have not flourished. Almost the exact same number exit the wilderness as entered. Some tribes have shrunk and others have flourished. Some were led astray by their leaders (most notably the Shimonites because of the plague that has just struck). Some families disappeared through various misadventures: other plagues decimated them, snakes bit them to death, or the earth swallowed them. Some lost heart. Even at this last moment before success, some Benjamites returned to Egypt. 

In other words, those who lacked merit perished. G-d ’s Finger has still stirred the pot of selection and reward of the generations, even before they take the census. As we shall see, even in this actuarial exercise He is still tampering, though in a furtive way. Individual families within the tribes get their allocations of land through a lottery. Its full significance of which emerges in the next act.

ACT III: WOMENS’ RIGHTS TO THE LEGACY OF LAND

The five daughters of Zelophechad, a man who has died for a sin he committed in the desert without sons, petition Moses. If they – Noa, Mahlah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah – are denied their inheritance just because they’re women and the only descendants left, then their real estate will pass out of the tribe and go to another through marriage? Moses consults with G-d , since there is no precedent, neither among the Jews nor anywhere else in the history of the world, for women getting land inheritance. They win their case. G-d  amends or clarifies the laws of inheritance to extend to all daughters in the same circumstance, thus staging a quiet, but incredible feminist revolution.

This scene is the center and fulcrum of Pinchas. Why? Because the daughters’ petition, like any dramatic court case, brings two opposing positive values into collision. On the one side, there is the status quo inheritance followed everywhere else in the world, strictly a dumb biological matter: only male heirs get the goodies. On the other side, there is the merit of the daughters’ and their argument. First, they base their plea not on selfish reasons but for the greater good. If there are no male heirs, and women aren’t permitted to inherit the land, then it will pass from the tribe through marriage. Think of the gerrymandering if, for instance, a county in California was suddenly a legal part of Mississippi. The daughters’ case is also sort of based on the merit of their father, who did some bad things but wasn’t so sinful that he lost his share in Israel by participating in the Korach rebellion.[7])

And finally, as the sages note, women have a special love for the Land of Israel, whereas men lead rebellions and continually whine to go back to Egypt, and so women merit an inheritance, too.

To note the cosmically disruptive nature of the event, the Torah marks the final ‘nun’ of the Hebrew word for their petition. It appears heavier, larger, and elongated, reaching forcefully above and below the line:

משפטן

Perhaps the sign recognizes the special love of women – in Hebrew, nashim with a nun – for the land. [8]

Merit and not biology determines the daughters’ inheritance. Their revolution recapitulates Pinchas’ elevation to the priesthood. On the one hand, he should obviously have had it by dint of his genealogy – he is Aaron’s grandson and Eleazar’s son! – and is denied only because of a technicality. He finally gets it on the merit of his heroic prosecution of G-d ’s will. Your actions in your lifetime can balance the scorecard of blind law and transform it into true justice.

The daughters’ drama also sheds light on a peculiar part of Act II: land is parceled out to individual families within the tribes via a lottery (the throwing of a lot, the ‘goral’). But as Rashi points out, the Torah says al pi hagoral (Num 26:56), literally “on the mouth of the lot,” usually interpreted “by the voice/authority of the lot.” The throwing of the lot channels G-d ’s authority. Its “voice” is the Divine one. In other words, it would be too complex and contentious for humans to apportion the precious and permanent Holy Land among brothers or cousins. Divine will can be executed without hard feelings if it is disguised as dumb luck .

Finally, this third Act, like a well-wrought Shakespearean drama pivots – crosses the border – from genetic inheritance to meritocratic reward, framing the drama of succession that follows.

ACT IV: LEADERSHIP AND LEGACY

G-d tells Moses to ascend Abarim, near Jericho, to see the Promised Land he will not enter because he’s being punished for the incident with the rock. Instead he will die, albeit peacefully, “gathered to his kin as Aaron was.” Moses (selflessly) asks G-d to appoint a successor. G-d tells Moses to take Joshua and scripts several steps Moses has to take to pass leadership to him.

Moses has just brought the petition of the five daughters to G-d. They got a positive hearing. Wouldn’t it be natural for him now, of all times, facing his own death sentence and punishment, to plead his own case, to ask for a break on his own fate? You could argue that after forty years of embattled and painful leadership he deserves to be forgiven, to see the fulfillment of his mission. Others might say that G-d is provoking Moses to ask by taunting him with the view of a reward denied him, or perhaps testing him one last time. At least, you would think, it shouldn’t hurt to ask.

But instead of trying to ensure his own future, or even the future of his heirs, Moses selflessly asks G-d to ensure the future of his flock. His humility fills the moment with pathos and majesty.

In return, G-d grants Moses’ wish and scripts a six-step transfer of leadership.

  • Choose Joshua, a “spirited/inspired man”
  • Lean your hand on him (smicha – ordination)
  • Stand him in front of Eleazar and the community
  • Commission [charge/ordain/command] him
  • Give your authority (“glory” [הוד]) to him so all the Children of Israel will listen to him
  • And Joshua will stand before Eleazar to consult the Urim. By this “instruction they will go out and by this instruction they shall come in.”

Moses follows G-d ’s instructions precisely (except he lays both hands on Joshua). The public performance introduces yet another civilizing innovation into the world: the peaceful transfer of power from one ruler with more or less absolute – or at least ultimate – authority to another based on personal merit rather than pedigree or power. Joshua is preferred over Moses’ sons.  He hasn’t seized power by coup or conquest. Eleazar sanctifies his anointment by consulting the Urim, the jeweled device the high priests wears to tune to the channel of G-d ’s will.

And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the LORD; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation. (Num 28:21)

The language of this one verse reveals the complexity and depth of the succession drama. First, it neatly ties together the whole act, pointedly repeating the language of Moses’ earlier plea to provide a leader…

…who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the LORD be not as sheep which have no shepherd (Num 27:17)

Second, it connects Joshua’s leadership to the Divine mission: Moses has already transmitted his hod – authority or majesty – to Joshua by laying hands on him. (Its intimacy reminds me of the Vulcan mind meld in the Star Trek series[9]). But it ensures that all the people see that this investiture is not merely human: it comes through Eleazar the priest picking up the phone to get G-d’s assent.

Third, it resonates with Act I and brings its theme forward. Remember, Act I first seemed artificially severed from the sequence in Balak, but it separates G-d ’s investiture of priesthood in Pinchas from the bloody narrative. Now we see its full meaning. Although by heredity Pinchas should already have been a kohen (but missed out on a shaky technicality), he still requires a personal exemption, an anointment, by G-d. Moses, too, anoints Joshua, but the human transfer of power in front of the whole nation, however intimate and majestic, still requires Heaven’s imprimatur. What Pinchas earns through zealotry and violence, Joshua earns by peaceful excellence.

Finally, Act IV frames Act V, providing a smooth segue to the detailing of sacrifices to be brought to the priests. More importantly, it reveals the essence of Israel in the new world it is about to enter under Joshua’s command, a dream of Zion. Israel’s national center and source of power, integrity, and meaning is not in its military or political identity, and not in its mere physical occupation of a Promised Land apportioned to the tribes. Rather it lies in the holy confederated activities that connect all the people to G-d by the priests in the Temple in its spiritual capital, Jerusalem. Holy federalism trumps and invests meaning in divisive state (tribal) claims to the land.

ACT V: THE KOHENS’ LEGACY

This final act details the daily offerings and those for Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot, and Shemini Atzeret.

This parsha is read more frequently than any other in Torah. It is brought out for every occasion it describes except the daily offering. It wouldn’t be dignified if it was just an afterthought at the tail end of a disparate collection of events. Instead, this play has begun with a dramatization of the merit and investiture of a single priest and ends with the merit of all priests, tying together a poetic composition about a new, Jewish idea of legacy. After all, what could be a more essential and poignant lesson to drive home to the tribes as they are about to born into a nation?

A census apportions the Promised Land to the tribes fairly, though they haven’t even entered it.  It’s another utopian promise to the Children of Israel about their future national identity. The Levites get no land. Instead, they are counted differently and their inheritance is the most precious of all: they get the Temple and its sacrifices. They enable the common man to take part in the holy. They are interlocutors between the physical and the metaphysical. The first, often-overlooked part of the sacrificial instructions, the daily offerings, emphasizes this. How can every Israelite bring a daily offering, especially given the vast extent of the land which has just been divvied up to the tribes? They can’t. Instead, the priests perform this transaction for everyone. They are avatars for all Israelites individually to earn their portion – their cheilik – in the World(s) to Come.

In this manner, the final act, far from being an obligatory coda about sacrifices in the Temple, brings the coherence and power of the whole Pinchas play to a magnificent finale. If every part of a hologram represents the whole, all parts are equal. But this may make Pinchas more equal than others. It defines, in fact, the entire character of Israel as it sits on the border of the land it has not yet occupied and its national destiny.

The constitution – the essence – of the nation-to-be is transactional, political and metaphysical all at once. It is personal and universal, bloody real requiring war and violent zealotry, and yet ineffable. Like all good deals, all parties benefit. People of the tribes get land, even orphan daughters. The priests get the most precious allocation as well as a portion of everyone’s wealth. Every citizen gets a line to G-d. Israel is thus transformed into a communal, if not communistic, theological democracy of shared inheritances, legacies, and successions. Pinchas shows these are transferred the old worldly way of the rest of the nations, by genetic heritage, when it is good to do so. But it is also transferred by merit, a new innovation in the history of civilizations, when it is good to do so. And in all matters, legacies are allocated by Divine decree. Either G-d ’s voice tells Moses directly, or the voice of the lot or the voice of the Urim tell us, or His Finger stirs the pot of history as it did in the forty years trek to this point, as the census told us.

And the Ultimate Party to this deal, what does He get out of it? He gets to savor the sweet smell ( רֵיחַ נִיחֹחִי ) of the sacrifices from his chosen people. Its incense gives Him pleasure, nachas, for sublime reasons beyond our comprehension.

David Porush

“Simchateo,” California 5779

 

(Thanks as always to my extended chavrusa for inspiring me and challenging my farfetched connections as well as catching and amending my many errors in logic, fact, reference, and interpretation.)


 ENDNOTES

[1] Holograms work by recording interference patterns. If you drop a pebble into a pond, it creates a wave that ripples out eventually to every point in the pond. If you drop thousands of pebbles, those waves will all run into (interfere with) each other: some will become higher waves, some will get smaller. If you took a snapshot of this pattern of “interference” at any small subsection of the pond, you would be able to see the effects of every pebble that had been dropped into the pond, essentially getting a miniature picture of the entire rippling pond.

A hologram works the same way. If you shine a laser light through a smaller piece of a hologram, you get the entire image in miniature.

[2] Rabbeinu Bachya explains the importance of Zimri’s lineage as “prince of a father’s house of the Shimonites.” “He was one of five such princes of the tribe of Shimon (Ibn Ezra). Concerning him Solomon said in Kohelet 10:8: ‘he who breaks down a wall will be bitten by a snake.’ The ancestral father, Shimon, had killed the people of Shechem for treating his sister like a whore (Genesis 34,31) and now one of his descendants had himself become guilty of tearing down the wall of chaste sexual mores established and defended by his forebear (Tanchuma Pinchas 2).

[3] Worship of Baal-Peor, according to Talmud, which involved defecating in front of an idol. This was the same practice Bilam engaged in when he worshipping Baal on Mount Peor and thus the Talmud explains is a continuation of his goal to annihilate the Jews, this time by hatching the plan of sedition with the princes of Moab and Midian. Sanhedrin 64a.

[4] Which begs the question: Why does Pinchas need this confirmation if he is already the grandson and son of priests? Rashi explains: Although the kehunah [priesthood] had already been given to Aaron’s descendants, it had been given only to Aaron and his sons who were anointed with him [that is, at the time of the giving of the Torah] and to their children whom they would beget after their anointment. Pinchas, who was born before that and had never been anointed, had not been included in the kehunah until now. And so, we learn in [Talmud Tractate] Zevachim [101b], “Phinehas was not made a kohen until he killed Zimri.”

[5] See Rashi and Chizkuni who point to the inifinitive form of the verb “to bind.” They say it indicates an ongoing war against Midian’s corrupting influences (and by implication, remaining on guard against any kind of seduction and assimilation to a hostile culture). Or Ha-Chaim is expansive on this verse. Among many other ideas he finds in it, he explains the Israelites must both defeat and “harass” (or contain) them on an ongoing basis to guard against “the ongoing machinations of the Midianites to entrap the Israelites into worshiping Baal Pe-or and in indulging in acts such as had been performed by Kosbi. The Israelites had to hate the cause of the sin not merely the sin itself. The reason the Torah singled out Kosbi was because she represented the additional allure of aristocracy plus the fact that she had engaged in her seduction publicly.” (Or HaChaim to Numbers 25:17)

[6] See Rabbi Gordon’s podcat, Pinchas II https://player.fm/series/daily-chumash-with-rashi-video-2105793/rabbi-gordon-pinchas-2nd-portion

[7] Rashi explains: Their father Zelophechad was the man who was slain for gathering wood on Shabbat but his act came from misguided zeal. He was allegedly trying to show not to light fires on Shabbat. https://player.fm/series/daily-chumash-with-rashi-video-2105793/rabbi-gordon-pinchas-3rd-portion

[8] Some hold that because the Hebrew letter nun stands for 50 this elongated nun is referencing the Kabbalah, which says there are fifty gates of wisdom (binah). Moses attained 49 but couldn’t penetrate to the 50th and so refers the case to G-d  and thus the extra reach and significance of the elongated, bold nun. See Targum Yonathan, Meam Loez

[9] Stars Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) and William Shatner (Captain Kirk), and creator Gene Roddenberry of the legendary 1960s TV show and subsequent mythology were all Jewish. Leonard Nimoy allegedly also introduced the split-fingered sign of the kohen into the show.

Democracy or Theocracy? Korach’s Fourth of July Rebellion

(On July 4, 1992, Shabbat Korach and the Fourth fell on the same day. I delivered this as a drash in a Conservative shul in upstate New York (Agudat Achim in Niskayuna) before I knew a lick of Rashi or Talmud, so please forgive its incredible ignorance and naivete. Please note this has been edited from the original notes.)
Moses is not the leader of a democracy, as this week’s parsha shows. How does a good Jewish citizen of America choose between allegiance to democracy or to the harsh autocratic theocracy the Torah seems to demand?
Kippah + American Flag
(From Jewish Boston, photo by selimaksan/iStock)

Through a wonderful coincidence, this weeks’ parsha and the Fourth of July fall on the same day. Korach tells the story of a Levite, a leader among the Hebrews wandering the desert, who arises and leads a democratic-style revolution against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

It is apparent that Korach is really disturbed that he has been cut out of priestly leadership, when by birthright, he should have been next in line, and brothers Aaron and Moses have kept it all to themselves. However, Korach didn’t read his Book of Genesis, for if there is one theme about the law of inheritance among our people, it is that the firstborn’s birthright (primogeniture) counts for very little. Abraham passes over firstborn Ishmael to name Isaac his heir. Isaac is tricked by Jacob into passing over the elder twin, Esau. Reuven is usurped by Joseph. Jacob literally switches his hands again when he blesses his grandsons Menashe and Ephraim. Over and over again the Torah tells us that it not your order of birth, the law of the land, but an invisible quality of merit that raises our leaders to their position.

Korach’s real motives may be selfish and motivated from a sense of birthright and a lust for power, but on the face of it his arguments against Moses’ rulership are ones that no democratic, right-minded citizen of America can resist, especially on the Fourth of July. In fact, Moses’ government was an absolute, totalitarian dictatorship supported by a nepotistic class system and backed by claims of divine authority. The very best we could say about Moses’ government over the Israelites’ material and civic lives is that there were some democratic instincts: the court system  – 10s, 100s, 1000s, –  established a partly representative government. But in the end, it was Moses’ word which was the ultimate and inarguable word of law, a rule by Divine Right. To the multitude, Moses was indistinguishable from any other pharaoh who claimed transcendent authority to arrogate power for him and his family.

Korach’s arguments are so persuasive even back then when there was no successful model for rebellion in all of history, except maybe Moses’ slave revolt against Pharaoh, that he convinces 250 other leaders to rise up against Moses. And after he loses his case in dramatic fashion – the earth instantly opens to swallow him and all his followers – all the other Israelites still complain to Moses that he is tyrannical and cruel. The only thing that should have mattered was their newfound freedom and the holy mission that was the deal for it, but they had proven over and over again that they were more concerned with their material comfort and safety than thundering miracles in the desert. They want cucumbers and garlic and fish instead of divine manna. They are afraid to enter the Promised Land. They are a rabble of newly-liberated slaves who can’t liberate their own minds from their bodily needs.

Given the choice of sides here, it’s confusing to us American Jews. Historically, democratization has always helped us. Throughout the world, we usually found our position improved whenever the concept of equality for all citizens under the law is established. The French Revolution overthrew a monarchy of the Sun King. It ushered in the age of Napolean, where Jews were granted first-class citizenship, at least de jure if not de facto. And in America, we seem to have found an enduring homeland under the banner of religious freedom and separation of church and state.

One could even argue Korach was a prophetic genius, since this is the first time in history we ever hear any document record arguments for universal equality under law – “You take too much power since all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then do you lift yourself above the rest?” –  a concept which Western culture wouldn’t re-discover for another three thousand years, until the Enlightenment and writers like John Locke in the eighteenth century.

Isn’t every Jew divine?  Who are you, Moses to rule us with this dictatorship of divinity?” Furthermore, unlike the spies and the rabble who want garlic and fish instead of the manna, Korach strikes a high note by acknowledging holiness and appealing to the divine mission of the Israelites. What gives you a corner on the market of holiness? Didn’t God say we are all a holy people?” Have we been freed from slavery from one pharaoh just to serve another?

Adding to the confusion of us American Jews is our bedrock ideal of the separation of church and state. In every country where Jews have lived during the diaspora, we were a minority — and eventually a reviled — religious people. Sooner or later, the fact that ours is not the official religion of the state catches up with us. When ruled by others, the usual results are our tragic history: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Spain, France, Italy, England, Russia, Germany, every Moslem state … . It is not until Western civilization evolves to recognize the equality of every individual under the law, independent of religion, that this cycle of state-sponsored persecution and discrimination is broken.[1] In other words, it is not until the separation of church and state becomes an ideal of nationhood that Jews find refuge. Yet, in Moses’ system, Aaron and Moses are the sole, nepotistic proprietors of the Holy of Holies, and Moses’ word is the final law. Moses’ government in the desert is an autocratic theocracy. Punishment for violations are almost always death on a mass scale, as Korach and the death of the spies and the incident of the Manna Revolt, when God kills hundreds of thousands of Israelites, proved. We would call it genocide.

I don’t have a good answer to the challenge posed by Korach. While Korach himself is dishonest, he raises issues that cannot be ignored.  I do, however, have the glimmer of a way out of this dilemma.

The first suggestion is for the problem posed to our secular selves. For us, totalitarian theocracies are repugnant. We have seen plenty of evidence throughout history that they universally operate to oppress and murder their citizens, most recently in Iran under the Ayatollah. On this Fourth of July, we should be grateful for living in the U.S., which enshrines three ideals into its constitution: equality under the law, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.

The second solution, though, is for the part of our selves that showed up here to shul on Shabbat, the part that aspires to be ruled by the laws of God. The key to this solution is privacy.  If every person is autonomous and equal under the law, then each of us has the right to a different set of beliefs as long as it doesn’t motivate us to behave outside the secular law. The state has set limits on itself: there are some places into which it cannot pry. It cannot look into a person’s heart, force confession to the secrets there, put those on trial, and demand conversion to this or that belief and compel the behaviors that follow from them, thank God. It cannot spy into someone’s home, or heads, or hearts…. nor if they are guided by it, their souls. The Rule of Man stops at the limits of body and soul. At that slippery border, this parsha tells us today, the Rule of God reigns. Internalize the Rule of Law, the Rule of God, and aspire to give it absolute authority. In the internal empire of our spirit, where most of us are wandering in a wilderness, we should aspire to be governed by the Totalitarian. The Israelites in the desert have struggled, and failed apocalyptically so far, to learn this awesome and difficult ideal. As the spies and the rabble and now Korach and his followers prove, they can’t quite do it. The protagonists all die. The rest are now doomed to wander for another thirty-nine years,

I dare say, most of us rehearse the Korach-Moses drama in our lives as we try to negotiate the demands of a secular life with our soul’s yearning and aspiration.


ENDNOTES:

[1] The tension is still there, though, isn’t it? This week we read about the surprise Supreme Court decision which upheld and reinforced the separation of church and state. The case stemmed from an incident in Rhode Island at the graduation ceremony attended by a young Jewish girl in 1987. A Baptist minister asked the assembly to rise and thank the name of Jesus for their graduation. The Supreme Court found this activity offensive, as would anyone else who has suffered religious discrimination. [NOTE: A reference to Lee v. Weisman, 1992]:

 

It can turn on a dime

My father used to say to us, “It can turn on a dime.” He saw American hospitality to the Jews as a thin veneer, like Germany’s. It could be stripped away at any moment to reveal the anti-Semitism he was sure lurked beneath the surface. He was convinced any nation that suffered us to be their guests long enough would sooner or later turn on us, even this land where religious freedom was enshrined.*  And you couldn’t bet against his paranoia. He had history on his side, 100-1.

I guess I inherited some of his dark vision and even afflicted my children with it. I still tell them half-jokingly, “Keep your passports active.”

Destruction of Secomd Temple
“Destruction of the Temple” by Francesco Hayez, 1867.

Dad served as Gen. MacArthur’s mapmaker on the voyage of the USS Missouri to accept Japan’s surrender in 1945.  In 1947, he led his army buddies in Brooklyn to gather guns to smuggle to Israel for the Haganah in their fight for independence from the Brits.

My grandfather would tell the story (over and over) of how he and my grandmother, Pop and Bubby,  huddled awake all night guarding the hundreds of M1 rifles and handguns Dad had deposited in their small apartment. They waited for a knock on the door that meant they were busted, or men had come to carry the illicit armory out to the Brooklyn shipyards.

Pop was born in Jerusalem in 1899. His great-grandfather trekked with his two sons and wife, and a donkey, from Poland to Jerusalem in the early 1800s. In other words, Zionism ran like a hot current through my Dad’s blood.

Did he have dual loyalties, to America and Israel? Without a doubt.

Was he less patriotic than any other American soldier who served in WWII? Absolutely not.

Was he wrong about his fear about America and the Jews? For sure.

Or at least, he has been wrong so far.

Now the tide of the zeitgeist (I use the word for its, um, bitter flavor) may be turning, and he tragically may have been prophetic after all. In the past few months, something has changed in America.

Yes, most of us are alarmed about the new tolerance for – even encouragement of – flagrant anti-Semitism – in the “normal” media and even in Congress. Yes, we know what is happening on campuses and in Europe. Yes, the majority of Jews embrace secular atheism and express contempt for any religious belief, a generation before they may disappear as Jews altogether.

But there is a much greater danger. I am hearing Jews express hatred for other Jews like never before. There has always been simmering resentment and finger-pointing among us. Ask Moses about his stiff-necked rebels in Sinai. But now I hear Jews speak about other Jews as if they’d be glad to see them destroyed, or at least silenced. Even Jews who are otherwise glad to be Jewish reserve their worst animus for their landsmen.

I heard one affiliated and proud Jew call a whole other sect of Jews “vermin.” I heard another Jew repeating gleefully and spitefully the news that some Orthodox Jews are not inoculating their children, even accusing (falsely) someone I know well, a respected educator, simply because they are Orthodox. Agreed, not inoculating your children is a sign of suffocating insularity and ignorance, not least ignorance of Jewish law which demands you protect the health of your children and the community. It’s a stupid and deplorable sin.

But the accuser’s energy staggered me. I literally took a step back. His bias was no better than any other anti-Semite’s – or indeed any other hater’s. He painted all Orthodox Jews with his broad brush of bias, because of the actions of a few – albeit dangerous – members of the group. It was clear he felt he had proven the failure of all Orthodox Judaism to live up to civil standards. The contagion – the malicious influenza – of his prejudice is much worse than the measles.

The other day, a couple I love told me that when they announced their child was getting married to an ultra-Orthodox Jew, two rabbis of other brands of Judaism separately said, “Mazel tov – or should I offer condolences?” Three years ago, when I gave my pitch for Jewish unity to him, a rabbi said, “Agreed. If only the Orthodox would …” For sure, it’s a two-way street, and he had plenty of reason to be sore at rulings by Orthodoxy about the practices of other Jews, but who’s going to stop lobbing bombs over the fence first?

A long-time friend will no longer speak to me because I support Israel and I support America’s support for Israel. He thinks (wrongly) that by definition I must be rooting against his team in partisan politics.

“No one will fight for a community that is divided among itself.”  So writes Adam Garfinkle in  “The Collapse: Is this the end of American Jewry’s Golden Age?”  Although I don’t agree with all that he says, he is sounding an alarm. We’ve been here before. We Jews gotta clean our own house as we gird for this coming battle against anti-Semitism. Ben Hecht, arguably the most prolific, successful, and influential Hollywood scriptwriter, mounted a national campaign to convince FDR and the State Department to rescue Jews being exterminated by Hitler. He was turned away, partly because many prominent Jews and leaders of Jewish organizations were afraid that “Judaizing the war effort” would unleash anti-Semitism at home. We see how disunity in the face of the storm worked out.

The sages tell us that when Jews express widespread hatred for each other, transcendent danger looms. They said the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE because Jews talked evilly about other Jews.  At this moment, there are too few Jews in the world – maybe 14.5 million, or less than one-fifth of one percent of the world population –  for us to fight with and hate on each other. On Passover, we recall that in every generation, “they” rise up against us to try to destroy us. I pray we don’t become “they” to each other. I pray we don’t participate as accomplices in this prophesy by ploughing the field for the evil harvest intended by our real enemies.

Instead, let’s embrace – or at least stop talking trash about – all of our siblings and cousins and other more distant, even alien, Jewish comrades, however they dress or undress, whatever they believe or don’t believe. Our enemies surely don’t make such fine distinctions among us. In the spirit of klal Yisroel, let’s beat them to the punch and remember that we are a single people.

 

San Mateo, CA – Pesach 5779

We Are All Esther: Prophecy in Exile

The Talmud re-reads Esther and the Purim story to teach Jews in exile how to deal with false prophets.
Continue reading “We Are All Esther: Prophecy in Exile”

The Four-Room House: Another bit of evidence for the entry of Jews to Israel in 1200 BCE and the historical accuracy of the Bible

In honor of my grandfather, Shlomo Zalman Porush, Z”L, whose yahrzeit is today. May his memory be for a blessing.

According to the Torah, the Jews exit Egypt in 1313 BCE. Moses brings down the Ten Commandments and writes the Book of the Covenant (the Torah itself) at Sinai seven weeks later. They wander the desert for forty more years, and then under the leadership of Joshua begin a campaign to take control of the Promised Land in 1273 BCE. By around 1060 BCE they have succeeded enough to elect a king, Saul, who is followed by David (1040-970 BCE) and then Solomon (1000-931 BCE).

Archeologists have debated for a couple of centuries whether these legendary figures actually existed and these events occurred, and if they did, how closely they hew to the traditional Jewish timeline. Yet, we keep discovering more and more convincing archeological evidence that the Torah is stunningly accurate both in the particulars of its account and  the fit between its timeline and history.

Four room home Ancient Israel
Four-room home from  from Izbet Sartah in the Judahite hill country of Israel, ca. 1100 BCE. Image from Yigal Levin, “Ancient Israel Through a Social Scientific Lens” [2]
One of the most recent of these discoveries is a singular bit of architecture, the four-room house. A distinctive home floor plan, it appears suddenly throughout Israel at precisely the same time as the Hebrews enter the Promised Land (according to the Torah, 1273-1050 BCE) and quickly spreads throughout the territories occupied by the twelve tribes of Israel (including the parts of Transjordan they occupied).[1]

It’s a simple but elegant design: an extended family’s home, separated into four major spaces. The sudden emergence and rapid spread of the layout was like the popularity of Sears modular homes in the early twentieth century or, even more, the Levittowns throughout suburban post-war America, beginning with William Levitt’s ingenious innovation on Long Island in 1947.

Sears four-room house
Sears four-room home (plus bathroom), ca 1910.

This curiously modern-seeming bit of ancient architecture appears nowhere else at the time. It springs into existence suddenly upon the settlement of Israel by the Jews. throughout the land. And no similar home layouts exist in any of the surrounding civilizations, remaining unique to the Jews for at least a couple of centuries. The repetition of the same layout is so prevalent, the craze begs for an explanation beyond mere fad or imitation of the Joneses (or Goldbergs).

The Levittowns, we know, were driven by the convergence of several factors all at once: returning GIs were eager to claim a share of the American dream; they were of the age to start families (giving rise to the Baby Boom); the GI Bill provided them with instant financing for new homes at a fraction of their costs; the automobile enabled these new families to live well beyond city centers where jobs and expensive homes were; and William Levitt applied assembly-line and modular construction principles to rapid homebuilding.

Levittown four-room house
Simple 1947 & 1949 Levittown four-room layouts

Similarly, the establishment of a kingdom exclusively for the Jews in Israel enabled them to erect towns and cities atop the ones they destroyed or in new settlements with this totally new design of the home. More importantly, though, the four-room home expressed a cultural shift, a new vision of how people should live together in family units. This new social and cultural order was encoded in their new, and transcendent contract with God, the Torah that they carried into Israel after their forty year wanderings through the desert. The family unit is central to the new idea of the cosmos encoded in the Torah, and the four-room home enabled the Jews to devote the care and attention to domestic arrangements it  mandated.

Particularly, the simple architecture – or as Avraham Faust elegantly calls it in a recent article, its “space syntax” – solved a spiritual problem. Faust shows how this new home set aside one of the four spaces for family members who were temporarily in a state of ritual impurity, such as women who are menstruating or men who suffer nocturnal emissions. Anthropology shows us that most traditional cultures have strong ideas of separating clean from unclean and ritual ideas of pure and impure. Yet all the other ones we know about universally sequester the impure in separate quarters. They’re removed from the family and quarantined, as Faust notes, “in separate houses, huts, tents, or even caves or rock shelters.”[4] usually in a “no-man’s land” outside the main settlement or encampment.

While this might have been a welcome vacation or break from family duties, and anthropologists report that there same-sex bonding and community news-sharing, imagine what this arrangement did to the average family, as mother or father or sister or brother had to stay away for what could be several days. We can also imagine what mischief or temptations it invited. The whole scheme courts trouble, or at very least, the loosening of familial bonds and integrity.

The genius of the four-room house was that it resolved the struggle between two temporarily conflicting sacred commitments: to purity and family unity. The architecture enabled Jews to sequester in place: to quarantine the impure, separate holy from temporarily unholy, yet still preserve their other sacred duty to family cohesion. Further, the “spatial syntax” speaks of another subtle message, hidden in the stones: you may be impure, but you’re still loved, still a part of us, still a person, still integral to our well-being. Your temporary state has neither de-personed you nor made you abnormal nor severed family ties. You are not in a state of living death, only in a passing phase of temporary constraint. I imagine the enforced separation at home even invited a form of mindfulness about your relationships.

It is not uncommon for a conquering nation to put its stamp on new territory by building its own distinctive architecture and monuments on the rubble of the vanquished. The sudden appearance of the four-room architecture shows that the Jews did it when they transformed Canaan to Israel circa 1200 BCE. But this convergence of architecture, archeology, sociology, history, and metaphysics carries a much more breathtaking story. By giving us material proof of how the Jews suddenly entered the Land of Israel and transformed its living spaces, it confirms that the Torah is much more than a nation’s mythology, or even a stunningly accurate history. The four-room home embodied a new concept of family as metaphysical, where holiness, intimacy, mercy, fidelity, and love are all entwined. It transformed the new Israelite home into an abode for body and soul.


ENDNOTES

Thanks to Dr. Elliot Lepler, Marcos Frid, Liki Abrams, Dr. Gary Goldstein, and Gary Leight for their crucial suggestions and requests for clarification.

  1. See Herschel Shanks, “The Four-Room House: Ancient Israel’s Major Architectural Achievement,” Biblical Archeology Review July/August 2017.  See also Shlomo Bunimovitz and Avraham Faust, “Ideology in Stone: Understanding the Four-Room House,” Biblical Archeology Review July/August 2002.
  2. Yigal Levin, “Ancient Israel Through a Social-Scientific Lens,” Biblical Archeology Review Sept/Oct 2014.
  3. Avraham Faust, “Purity and Impurity in Iron Age Israel,” Biblical Archeology Review March/April 2019, p. 36. See also the accompanying sidebar by Shanks, p. 40.
  4. Faust, p. 38.

 

“The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series about the mule, the hybrid problem in science, and ways in which Darwinism and the Jewish Bible illuminate each other. You can find the other parts here:

“Evolutionary theory coincides with the lofty doctrines of Kabbalah more than any other philosophical doctrine.” – R. Avraham I. Kook (1921)1
“[We may bring proof] from natural scientists for it is permissible to learn from them, for God’s spirit speaks through them. ” – R. Israel Lifschitz (1842)2
” [Man cannot] search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.” – Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning, (1605) quoted as an epigraph to Darwin’s Origin of the Species
““The modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.”3

Torah and Darwin share a mule problem.

Darwin admired mules in general and his own mule in particular, but as hybrids between horses and donkeys, like all other animal hybrids, they’re sterile. The apparently universal sterility of hybrids posed a fundamental challenge to his theory of how new species arise. Darwin stated the problem succinctly:

“How can we account for species, when crossed, being sterile and producing sterile offspring, whereas, when varieties are crossed, their fertility is unimpaired?4

If only two individual varieties of the same species can reproduce but two individuals from different species never can, then how does a new species ever arise? Combined with the other great paradox – that no “transitional” species had ever been observed – Darwin saw nearly-fatal gaps in his theory that even today continue to present insoluble paradoxes for evolutionary biology.5

Surprisingly, the Jewish Bible also struggles with the mule in remarkably similar ways. Though only one mention is made of mules in the Five Books of Moses, that single instance challenges its sense of cosmic order. The mere existence of the mule violates categories of order and acquires surprisingly powerful – and negative – transcendental significance. The Torah abhors mixing species and has several injunctions against it, including some that carry the death penalty. The very fact of the existence of the mule is so transgressive that later commentators in the Talmud tell the story that just at sundown before the very first Shabbat, in the very last moments of Creation, God considers showing Adam the idea of mule breeding along with other scientific secrets, but decides not to. The implication of the sages is that it is too abhorrent.

For both Darwinian science and traditional Jewish theology, the mule stands on the border between two versions of cosmic order. If God created all the different species and constrained them to be fertile only within their type (for good metaphysical reasons of His own), then the mule is a violation of this order. If, on the other hand, species emerge and proliferate over time on their own, interbreeding and evolving in order to create new ones without divine intervention, then how come hybrids like the mule are always infertile?6  Though the proliferation of species from earlier forms is obvious, evolutionary biology seems to stop at a wall erected by some force beyond what its current paradigm can explain.

As Darwin and Torah wrestle with their mule problem, they have some profound things to say to each other. After all, Torah and science share the same world and both are good faith attempts to explain it, and though they serve different premises about how that world exists and why. it should not be surprising that they have mutually illuminating things to say to each other.7

In what follows, I am not refuting or questioning evolution or its general picture of the evolution and proliferation of species. But I do focus on frailties and important unanswered questions about how, precisely, speciation occurs that leave the door open to considering an alternative model, one I address in Part 3 of this series of blogs.

Continue reading ““The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.”

The literary genius of Torah is cloaked in a single word

“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146
joseph_and_potiphars_wife_1
׳Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife’ by Guido Reni (1631)

Immortal literary works by mortals reveal a density of play with themes, images, words, sounds, hidden meanings and interconnections that leave us in awe of their genius even as they strike to our hearts and arouse our passions. But the Torah involves all this and more. It recruits individual letters in its significance, and even letters as numbers (gematria), to create skeins of arithmetic-semantic puns, while hinting at mysteries and depths beyond our ken. It is so complex, even a skeptic would call it divinely inspired.

Most people when they read the Bible see that its epic stories don’t fit modern standards of artistic coherence. Great dramas are interrupted by anticlimactic lists of genealogies. Completely disparate segments are roped together or interrupt each other without apparent rhyme or reason. In the middle of a gripping biography of a major figure, we get distracted by jarring digressions and non-sequiturs. All this feeds more intense scrutiny by textual and linguistic scholars, especially over the last century or so, who note changes in tone, inconsistencies in lexicon, even names for God. They have theorized that the Five Books of Moses is a concatenation of texts redacted – put together – by several editors over centuries. These authors had other axes to grind, such as laying claim to Israel as the Promised Land or affirming the political power of the priests in the Temple. Collectively, this challenge to the belief that Moses wrote the Torah as a transcription of God’s revelation to him is called the Documentary Hypothesis.

On the other hand, as centuries of explication uncloak the Torah’s hidden meanings, thematic, even transcendent, integrity come into view. It has yielded its secrets slowly. Themes continue to emerge over centuries of interpretation with an intensity and and subtlety that cannot be simply explained away as the projections of eager scholars over-scrutinizing and over-interpreting a text like Shakespeare’s plays. Subtleties ripple backward and forward across the whole text of the Bible and tie the whole text together. They are cloaked so well, so deeply buried, and it has taken so many centuries to unearth them, that it is hard to believe they were placed there by human authors seeking to score political or rhetorical points. Even today, the Torah, especially in its original Hebrew, continues to reveal a poetry, a literary depth, and an integrity or coherence that almost demands we acknowledge a single intelligence at work keeping  all parts in mind from beginning to end. At the same time, the cross-references and layers of meaning seems so complex and layered, that it seems to speak of a talent beyond what seems possible from a mortal mind, however inspired.

Eight hundred years after Moses putatively wrote it, the Torah was divided into fifty-four weekly parshiot (segments, singular = parsha, not to be confused with numbered chapters used in all Bibles today) during the Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE). Keepers of the faith worried the Jews were losing touch with the story of their peoplehood and nation, and so instituted weekly public readings. But we can thank them, because the chapters often focus the reader’s attention on themes that we otherwise might miss. One of these deeply buried bits of linguistic archeology lies buried in the chapter Vayyeshev – “And He Settled” (Genesis 37:1-40:23).

Joseph’s story

Vayyeshev tells the biography of Joseph from the time he lived with his eleven brothers, the sons of Jacob (later named Israel). It’s a kind of familiar picaresque tale or bildungsroman, like Tom Jones, about a boy of hidden noble birth who is orphaned into the world, claws his way out of adverse circumstances, and rises to heroic adulthood.

Jealous of the fact that he is Jacob’s favorite (he gets a multi-colored coat), and worse, a “dreamer,” they throw Joseph in a pit, consider murdering him, and instead sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. He is carried to Egypt and sold again. His new owner, Potiphar, recognizes Joseph is blessed in everything he does and elevates him to his CEO. Unfortunately, Joseph catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She grabs at his coat and begs him for sex. He refuses. As revenge, she gets him thrown in jail, claiming he tried to rape her. He gets out by interpreting the dreams of his cellmates, Pharaoh’s butler and baker, in prophetic manner.

This neat story has all the makings of a beautifully coherent literary gem. We can see the movie version spun out on a big screen. However, there’s a problem: the tale is interrupted for no apparent reason by a lurid digression about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. [1]

Judah and Tamar

Judah has three sons. The eldest marries Tamar but dies. The second, Onan, fulfills his legal obligation to marry his brother’s widow, but because he knows any children will not be counted as his, he “spills his seed,” for which God also kills him. The third son, Shelah, is too young for marriage. Judah tells Tamar to stay in the household only until Shelah grows up and then she must leave. Judah is worried that if Tamar marries Shelah, his last son will also die.

But Tamar seeks to right this wrong, being deprived of a levirate marriage that will save her honor and status. She disguises herself as a whore, snares Judah on a trip, and gets pregnant. She confronts him with a signet and a staff he gave her as collateral for her services. He admits his responsibility and praises Tamar for seeking justice.

This is also a nice story, but what’s it doing here? It could make a cool movie, too, maybe shorter than Joseph’s, but a neat romcom. It even has a happy ending.

Veyyeshev’s literary coherence

On closer inspection, the literary eye is caught by a remarkable oddity. The Torah is notoriously frugal with its description and gives few extraneous details. Because there’s so little other color, when props are brought on stage, they get our attention. In fact they unavoidably seem like metaphors or symbols of … something else.

The single prop that stands out in the first part of Joseph’s story is his coat. It is the object of his brothers’ envy and symbolizes everything they think is wrong with Joseph.  (And yes, as if to prove the metonymic point, it even becomes the title of a Broadway musical, and then movie, “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”) After they’re rid of Joseph, they dip his torn coat in goat’s blood and present it to their father, Jacob, to prove that Joseph has been eaten by wild beasts. Jacob responds by tearing his own garment (which becomes the sign of wordless Jewish bereavement forever after). [2]

The props that stand out in the detour to Tamar and Judah are also wardrobe items. Judah’s signet and staff are accessories that might be found in any good Canaanite clothing department, but then there’s Tamar’s disguise. The Torah takes the time to tell us Tamar “takes off her widow’s clothing” in order to don a prostitute’s costume and veil. She puts her widow’s garb back on to testify against Judah.

Beged, the macguffin

The Torah returns to the second part of Joseph’s story. Again, the prop for the story – what screenwriters call a MacGuffin,” an object used to advance the plot (like the titular black statue in the 1941 movie, “The Maltese Falcon”)  –  is an article of clothing. Potiphar’s wife lusts after Joseph so much she “grasps at Joseph’s coat.” He flees so quickly, he leaves it in her grasp. Again, like any good plot device, the coat returns as she stages it for Potiphar, arranging it by her bedside, proof of her claims Joseph tried to rape her.  We can’t help but notice the episode mirrors Tamar’s ruse in the preceding story. But where Tamar has justice on her side. Potiphar’s wife’s trick is a treacherous lie. Yet it also works. Joseph lands in jail. And somewhere in there we have a allegory of justice perverted. Hold that thought. We will return to it later.

As we unpack its imagery, Vayyeshev starts looking like a vaudeville trunk: open it, stand it on its side, and you get a whole wardrobe of costumes.

One of the Hebrew words for clothing is beged [בגד – B-G-D]. It rings like a bell through the chapter. Jacob tears his beged (Gen 37:31-32). Tamar takes off her widow’s beged (Gen 38:14) to play the whore and then puts it on again to testify against Judah. Potiphar’s wife tears Joseph’s beged off him in lust as he flees, then arrays it next to her bed when she plays the injured party to prove Joseph’s guilt. In all, Beged recurs six times just in this part of the chapter (Gen 39:12-18), and twelve times throughout Vayyeshev. As words go, it’s a real lexical macguffin.

Sure enough, lurking inside it lies the key to a transcendent understanding of the Torah’s intention: beged means both ‘clothing’ and ‘treachery’ (as in ‘cloaked motives’, ‘deceit’). As the word rings through these verses, it explains why the interruption about Judah and Tamar, far from being a mere digression from the story of Joseph, may actually explain it.

Once we see it, the theme of treachery ripples out to embrace and tie together larger swaths of the chapter. Joseph’s brothers commit an act of terrible treachery when they first consider murdering Joseph, then sell their brother into slavery. They then heartlessly deceive their father into thinking his favorite son is dead.

Judah cheats Tamar by shielding Shelah from marrying her. She repays him by deceiving him.

Potiphar’s wife is doubly treacherous, too. She first begs Joseph to commit adultery and then lands him in jail on false charges.

In each incident, the occurrence of the word beged signifies both an article of clothing and its metaphorical twin, deceit. In fact, the word beged is self-referential: it exemplifies the capacity of a word to veil, cloak, disguise, or hide another meaning. It’s a pun, squared. [3]

Once we tug at this thread, we unravel entanglements with other double meanings that weave the text together:

So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. (Genesis 38:14)

What article of clothing implies disguise and deceit? A veil. What does “the entrance to Enaim” mean? Literally, ‘the opening of the eyes’. [4] There’s a poem about appearances here.

Eyes open, we now see treacheries involving garments billow out to implicate other events, not just in this portion, but in the rest of Genesis. As a result of her tryst with Judah, Tamar gives birth to twins. She uses another article, a red string, to mark the twin that emerges first. It seems obvious she is trying to avert a repetition of the drama of contested twinship that lurks in their legacy from Jacob. But fate is stronger. Just as she ties the string to avoid getting entangled in God’s apparent script, the first twin is pulled back and the second twin emerges first, tangling things again. The Torah, to paraphrase Mark Twain about history, doesn’t quite repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

A tangled web of deception, disguise, and punning disguised in a word

The thread of beged brings the play between clothing, disguise, and treachery to center stage. It unlocks the deepest genealogy of the patriarchal family, and makes us look at a destiny that goes to the most complex moral paradoxes in the origin stories of the Hebrews. The treachery of brothers begins with the snake in the Garden of Eden. Cain slays Abel and denies it. Treachery runs through Noah’s family after the flood (his sons uncover his nakedness). It echoes in Abraham and Lot, and becomes the fulcrum of God’s history as He chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Laban tricks Jacob into laboring for him for twenty years so he can finally wed his true love, Rachel. Joseph’s brothers commit a terrible deception to wipe out the whole city of Shechem after its prince abducts and rapes their sister, Dina.

But the word first occurs in the Torah in the earlier drama between Jacob and Esau. This event originates the calculus of deception that seems to be working itself out like an algebraic proof through the generations after these twins.

Jacob is able to fool Isaac into cheating Esau of his blessing because Rebekah, their mother, has dressed Jacob for the part. She cooks Esau’s best recipes for venison for Jacob to bring his father and then disguises Jacob in Esau’s finest clothes: begado (Gen 27:15). To prove the deceit worked, when the real Esau comes too late to Isaac to get his blessing, the blind old man is inspired in that blessing by the smell of Esau’s clothing (begadiv). The Sages are alert to the duality of the word. “Read this not as ‘clothes’ but as ‘betrayers’.”[5]

In the end, though Jacob and Esau reconcile in an elaborate display of peacemaking, they are irreconcilable. They embrace, but must live far apart. This mutual exile leads to the first word of this chapter, Vayeishev: ‘and he settled’: The flavor of the original Hebrew implies that Joseph dwells in the land where his father had to live as a foreigner because he was avoiding Esau and all his descendants, the Edomites. whose elaborate tribal genealogy is recounted in the verses just before this chapter begins.

The evolution of beged and Design in the Torah

The cycles of deceit and family drama among Abraham’s seed don’t end until Moses takes the stage. It’s as if only receiving the Torah can heal the pathological family structure of the Hebrews. Whispering this transformation in its own small way, beged’s meaning change as it moves from Genesis to Exodus. When beged appears dozens of times throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, it is only to signify the holy garments of Aaron and his priestly descendants, or garments that need to be washed to be holy or purified, or regal clothing signifying elevation, or garments with fringes on their corners (tzitzit) that Jews are commanded to wear in order to control lust (Recall Judah. Now recall Joseph’s restraint with Potiphar’s wife) and remind them of Torah. (Numbers 15:38). The word mysteriously simplifies by losing its alternative, cloaked meaning.

Beged’s other sense as ‘treachery ‘only occurs once more, soon after the events of Joseph, before it disappears forever.

“If she please not her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed: to sell her to a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully with her.” (Exodus 21:8)

We are subtly being reminded of Vayyeshev. A man cheats a woman under his control out of what’s owed her by marital rights, as Judah did Tamar. The verse also singles out a pretty odd example of the many ways a husband might cheat a wife out of her due, by selling her to a foreign nation, which happens to be exactly what Joseph’s brothers did to him.

The word beged then does something even stranger: when we reach Deuteronomy, it seems to disappear entirely from the Five Books of Moses, with only one remarkable exception:

“You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s raiment as pledge (collateral).” (Deuternonomy 24:17)

The word calls out here, without prefix, suffix, or declension. It appears in its simple noun form without adornment. Beged. It has already shed its alternative meaning of ‘disguised motives’ or ‘treachery’. Now, though, it is transmuted, elevated to a symbol of justice. The Torah warns judges: apply justice evenhandedly, to the stranger and the orphan. Show mercy: don’t take collateral from the widow. “The widow’s raiment” calls back loudly and clearly to the story of that other widow from four books ago, Tamar

This one recurrence of the word, by its singularity, seems to trumpet a moral evolution through the other four Books of Moses. We have left the first family treacheries behind us way back there in the Book of Genesis. We have been instructed elaborately on the mechanics of holiness and purification, especially involving clothes, in three books that follow. And now, through a solitary instance in the final book, we understand the ultimate obligation is to activate those aspirations by connecting the divine to humanity through justice.

What author had the wit to devise this complex and subtle web of signification woven across so many chapters? How did that author layer so many puns, echoes, cross-references, intertextual reflections, and doubled meanings on one word? Or hide so many clues so deeply that they may never have had any hope of being discovered without a concordance and a computer? When every fragment of a whole seems to contain all the information of that whole, we call it a hologram. How did that author show such great artistry, to grow and alter the meaning of the word itself, to lose its furtive duality, to evolve its significance in parallel with the much broader arc of the Children of Israel as they evolve from idolatrous Hebrew nomads to a holy nation? Who devised this hologram? Why does one word seem to multiply across Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but then seem to be forgotten in Deuteronomy except for one, exquisitely resonant occasion that ripples back and colors all its predecessors?

Are these all signs of inconsistency, proving the Torah was stitched together by many authors across centuries? Or is it proof of such incredible subtlety, integrity, and transcendent coherence in the Torah that only a single Author could possibly have held it in His mind?


ENDNOTES

[1] Rashi, among many other commentators, flags this intrusion, “Why is this section placed here thus interrupting the section dealing with the history of Joseph?” (Genesis Rabbah, 85:2).

[2] The sages *almost* make the connection that Joseph’s torn clothing makes between parts 1 and 2 of the Joseph story: “A savage beast devoured him. This is a reference to Potiphar’s wife, who would attempt to seduce him.” Midrash Rabbah 84:19.

[3] The technical word for this is “paronomasia.”

[4] Rashi on Torah.

[5] Midrash Rabbah Bereishit,


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I am grateful, again, to my neighbors Michael Morazadeh, Jonathan Choslovsky, and Ron Kardos, members of my informal chavrusa, who challenged me to take a hard look at the Documentary Hypothesis (that the Torah was written by many authors across several centuries instead of by God and Moses). This blog and several before and after were inspired by their challenge. I am also grateful to Rabbi Yale Spalter of Chabad Northern Peninsula for noting what some of the sages had to say about these matters.

The direct inspiration for this treatment of beged came during a celebration of the 19th of Kislev at Chabad of Palo Alto (where I was also accompanied by R. Spalter and Messrs. M, C, & K.). Rabbi Menacham Landa of the Novato Chabad was darshening about Joseph’s incident with Potiphar’s wife and it occurred to me that Joseph seemed to have a habit of losing his clothing in dramatic circumstances. Rabbi Levin of Chabad Palo Alto said, almost off the cuff, that the word beged had a weighty meaning worth looking into.


AUTHOR’S NOTE

It is hard to believe a set of authors across the centuries BCE posited by the various Documentary Hypotheses could have anticipated a tool like Strong’s Concordance of the Bible, or the potent combination of the computer, Internet and hypertext. These open the entire text of the Torah and all its commentaries to inspection, cross-reference and explication, especially via the genius of Sefaria.org.  And only this level of inspection enables us to completely appreciate the depth and number of layers of meaning in, and coherence of. the Torah. Why would human authors have embedded and hidden these intertextual gems if they had no conception of how those connections might have been unearthed and appreciated, if at all? This is my way of saying I’m grateful to these tools and their authors.

It will take another prolix blog to explain why I am biased against the Documentary Hypothesis from the get-go and then expose the many holes in it. I will only say here it offends my literary sensibilities to suggest that disparate human authors, writing in a committee separated by centuries, cultural contexts, and goals could achieve such artistic complexity and coherence in a text. It also insults whatever rationality I have left, inculcated by decades of scholarship and an MIT education. The number of symbols, meanings, metaphors and cross-references that exist in the text of the Torah is so exponential, it suggests an intellect vaster than anything humanly comprehensible was at work composing it. The whole DH affair seems a desultory, cynical and arrogant attempt to sacrifice the inspired poetry of the original Hebrew on the altar of what passes for scholarship and so called philological science. Not to mention, suck the spiritual life out of it.

I also think rejecting Divine Authorship of the Bible dooms Jews – or any culture or civilization – to drift and inevitable extinction. It’s a bad business model for any religion to suggest that moral behavior comes solely from human judgements and imperatives. It leads ultimately to moral relativism and chaos. We humans, unmoored from any allegiance to an Authority beyond our ken, inevitably fall to bickering over the meaning and application of terms like justice.

Kavanaugh, Trump 2024, and the Messiah – or – How to be a prophet in your spare time

“Therefore thou shalt speak all these words unto them; but they will not hearken to thee: thou shalt also call unto them; but they will not answer thee.” – Jeremiah 7:27
“Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” – Isaiah 6:9-10

I was the first person on Earth to predict the Trump presidency and explain why he was going to win in my blogs of March, June and July of 2016.) My friends are still in awe at my 127.3% accuracy prophesying current events, up 12.6% in the last fiscal quarter. In fact, just this morning (October 8, 2018 at 9.07 am), I collected the downpayment on my Tesla ($20.25) from the bets my classmates made with me last Wednesday. (Oct 3 at 10.34 am) Even though Senators Flake, Collins and Murkowski looked like they were going to vote against his nomination to the Supreme Court and the FBI was in the middle of its investigation, I still confidently assured them Judge Kavanaugh absolutely would be confirmed. I could have gotten really good odds at the time, but that would have been taking candy from a baby and anyway, I’m forbidden to benefit from my gift. No Tesla. It’s part of the deal I made with the same Divine force that granted me my power.

In a moment, I’m going to tell you what else is going to happen. In fact, I’m going to lay out a complete prophesy describing the future of the Trump imperial reign and its impact on centuries to come. But first let me tell you how I knew the outcome of the Kavanaugh Kerfluffle. Prophets and magicians shouldn’t reveal their secret methods, but I don’t mind because you’re not going to believe me anyway. At best, you’re going to dismiss me as a formerly smart person who went whacko, or a religious nutball, or a paranoiac, or as my sore loser buddies did this morning, just someone who keeps getting lucky.

How to be a prophet in your spare time

Here’s how to be a prophet, too:  Ignore the empirical, factual, rational analysis that afflicts educated, civilized, modern people. Instead, commune with the forces that really move history as revealed in the kabbalah. It’s that simple, folks. You can do it at home. But be warned: having prophetic vision is painful. You will lose friends and family. I always thought the curse on prophets was they were nuts. But it’s really their lack of market share. Cassandra knew calamity would happen, but no one was listening. It was a real Greek tragedy.  No one listened to Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the Jews lost their kingdom for their heedlessness. No wonder Jonah fled.

Far from being insane, the prophet is the only one isn’t crazy. Everyone else is driven mad by current events. Like today’s Trumpomania. The din of public apoplexy is deafening. Everyone is too outraged by the crimes of the other team and crazed with indignation by the insults to their team to hear the horse hooves approaching. Only today, I heard the following allegations on the news:

The Democrats Are Waging War on Men With Dirty Tricks!

The Republicans Rigged the System to Put a Rapist on the Supreme Court!

Feinstein Made It Up!

Trump Called the Victim of Sexual Abuse a Liar!

But this very fog and frenzy of distrust and division is what helps enable the prophesy to come true by drowning it out. The frothing surf and crashing waves of today’s headlines whisper nothing about the ocean’s deep currents miles off shore. Trust me, folks. A tsunami is coming.

Kavanaugh Was Confirmed Because of the Messiah

The easiest way to do this is to work backwards, step by step.  Start with the end of the story, my writing teacher A.R. “Pete” Gurney told me in college.

Here’s the end of the story:

  1. The Messiah is coming. He’ll be here in exactly 221 years, in 2339 as predicted in Kabbalistic mysticism.[1] It will be a Tuesday. Or, it could be much much sooner, if we deserve it. Like in 2025.

See, I just saved many of you a lot of time, because you can get off the bus right here and call the paddy wagon. But for the rest of you, treat it as the a priori of a logical proof (after all, most people don’t mention their a prioris like, The universe can be explained by logic, or More money is better. They just assume you share it). So you can just ignore it and follow my steps backwards until we reach current events. Stick with me here:

2. When he comes, the Jews will be completely free of subjugation to other kingdoms or nations, or even the threats of subjugation, oppression, and war. Other than that, there won’t be an immediate change in reality, the laws of nature are not going to be disturbed, people will still be going about their normal business. No Rapture, no resurrection of the dead, no paradise on Earth.[2] In other words, it’s going to be a political, not cosmic, bifurcation in reality.

3. That means all the exiles will be gathered with the rest of the Jews in Israel.

4. In order for that to happen, Israel has to be a safe and secure homeland for the Jews.

5. For it to become a suitable homeland, the current geopolitical order of reality will have to be disrupted so completely that two things that were formerly unimaginable two years ago but are now clearly possible will have to happen simultaneously:

  • Somehow, Israel will become the attractive, safe and secure option for all Jews. Right now it is the most reviled nation on earth, beleaguered by a billion neighbors sworn to destroy it. Even some Israelis flee it. Many Jews around the world believe what they are told by the media and see it as a scary, politically compromised war zone.
  • Somehow, America will become an uncongenial, inhospitable, hostile, violent, impossible place for Jews. Currently the U.S., land of religious freedom and almost limitless opportunity, is the most attractive and cushy homeland for Jews. Almost as many Jews live here as in Israel – about six million – out of a worldwide total of 14.5 million.  Yet somehow, Israel will have to become the ONLY option for them all.

If you heed my prophesy, you will try to be on the first, not the last, train out.

But enough Jewish mysticism. Let’s get down to current events.

TRUMP 2024

6.  Someone is going to have to be powerful and pathological and corrupt and divisive enough to make #5 happen. Trump fills the bill. He has successfully accomplished two previously unthinkable things, both of which are at complete political and logical odds with each other: In just two years, he has made Israel more congenial and the U.S. less congenial for Jews. [3]

  • He has effectively rendered Israel’s worst enemies – the Iranians, the Palestinians, and the UN – toothless. He moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem as promised in prophesy.
  • He has unleashed forces of chaos, hatred, and bigotry in the U.S.. I’m talking about not only the old racial and ethnic hatreds, and the Left vs. Right, Dems vs. Reps, rich vs. poor, but he’s summoned from the depth of his own sexual pathology and appetite the most fundamental human division: he’s unleashed a war between the sexes. He’s gotten men and women hating, vigorously and loudly, on each other. The American press is filled with their acrimony. Just this morning, I heard crazy vitriol from otherwise placid, loving, educated, sophisticated people, folks who are dear to me: A woman yelled that Trump, Kavanaugh and the Republican Party showed that all men were intrinsically rapists. A man yelled that the Democratic Party’s fake indictment of Kavanaugh and Christine Ford’s psycho testimony provoked by Dianne Feinstein prove that all women are conspiring to screw and castrate[4] all men in public life, making it impossible to be a real man. [Their words, not mine.]

7. Despite what my sophisticated friends in the Republican bubble hear and think, these forces will eventually, as they have in every other nation everywhere in the world throughout history, unleash animus on the Jews. As I said in my blog of Sept, 2016, “Don’t think Trump’s Jewish grandchildren will protect you.” One of the clearest proofs that my people are caught up in a prophesy they can’t see is that otherwise sensible Jews who know history quite well and who would otherwise be quick to say, “It can happen here, too” suddenly seem hypnotized by current events and don’t believe it is going to happen here.

History isn’t something that happens elsewhere and elsewhen. We all are in history together, right now, brothers and sisters.

8. Despite what my sophisticated friends in the liberal bubble hear and believe, Trump is not going to be removed from office. Mueller may or may not indict him, and his former allies may reveal tax fraud and worse. It won’t be enough. Even if he is impeached by a Democratic-controlled Senate and Congress, IT WILL TAKE 67 SENATORS TO REMOVE HIM FROM OFFICE. So get real, folks. Hope is not a strategy.

9. He will win the 2020 election. (That’s an easy one.) The Democratic party will jerk to the left and tear itself apart in a frenzy to prove who is the more righteously radical.

10. But Trump’s dominion will have to persist long enough to pave the way for the Messiah by fulfilling Prophesies 6 & 7 above. To do this, he’s going to have to hold the reins of geopolitical power and disruption for more than the six years allowed him by the Constitution’s 22nd Amendment. I know he’s accomplished so much in such short a time and perhaps we shouldn’t sell him short, but even he needs longer. Trump will become an Emperor or President for Life or Trumposaurus Rex or whatever he declares himself.

So here is a bonus prophesy, a freebie on me: TRUMP 2024+. Trump will not only win the 2020 election easily (forget about the silliness you hear from CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post. They’re gonna get the next election as wrong as they got the last one).

11A. To declare himself Trumposaurus for Life without unleashing a violent civil war huge enough to threaten his power, he’s going to have to make it seem that he is being elevated to Emperor in as normally a democratic a process as possible. Two-thirds of the House and Senate will vote to repeal the 22nd Amendment or more likely, two-thirds of state legislatures. They only need 51% in 34 states.  Have you looked at a heat map of the U.S. state legislatures lately?  Imagine what it might look like after they’re whipped up by a war. There may be blood on the streets in the big cities, but not too much. Remember, Hitler was democratically elected. Democracies persistently vote themselves into tyrannies. It is the natural order of governments, as Plato explained 2400 years ago in the The Republic.[5]

-or-

11B. If you don’t like #11A, try this alternative: In order to declare himself Trump for Life, he will foment a huge crisis, even by Trumpian standards, something like a war with China or Iran or Canada or Cuba. Enough Americans will line up behind him with patriotic gore, as they always do, once they see our space lasers hitting a Chinese autocrat’s Mercedes, or penetrate to the nuclear facility deep under the mountain in Qom, or sizzle an ice fisherman’s catch right off the hook on a frozen lake in Saskatchewan or light a Havana cigar from the moon. Then maybe he can declare some twist on the Emergency War Powers Acts of 2001, which will need to be ratified by the Supreme Court.

13. In any case, if he’s impeached for high crimes or pussy grabbing or kleptocracy sometime between now and 2024, to ensure that he won’t be automatically removed from office for being a convicted felon, he needs a majority on the Supreme Court who will rule that a sitting President can’t be indicted. And it will also be good to have that majority in reserve for 2024 in case a Constitutional battle arises.

14. Thus, Kavanaugh was inevitable. If the Messiah is going to come on time, Kavanaugh had to be confirmed and take his seat on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States.

When you’re a prophet, this is easy to see.

As I said before, the Divine deal doesn’t allow me to reap any reward other than being so damn right all the time. So I’m donating my $20.05 to charity. But I advise you to keep your passport active and buy property in the Promised Land while it’s cheap.

– David Porush, Berlin, 1929



[1] The year 6000 according to the Jewish Calendar.

[2] Sanhedrin 98 and Maimonides commentary on Sanhedrin

[3] This is very painful to me. Half my Jewish friends are convinced Trump is good for the Jews. The other half hate him for being an enemy of human rights and know, therefore, he will be bad for the Jews. They’re both wrong because they each blame the other team for being deplorable ideologues and liars, and they can’t hold these two contrary thoughts in their heads at the same time.

[4] Never mind the oxymoron.  That would be hard to do, at least in the order he listed.

[5] My fellow prophet Plato also gives a description of the tyrant so au courant that it could have been ripped from today’s Washington Post:

“And he, the protector of whom we spoke, is to be seen, not ‘larding the plain’ with his bulk, but himself the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of State with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute. … At first, in the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets; –he to be called a tyrant, who is making promises in public and also in private! liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to every one! …

“But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader. … And if any of them are suspected by him of having notions of freedom, and of resistance to his authority, he will have a good pretext for destroying them by placing them at the mercy of the enemy; and for all these reasons the tyrant must be always getting up a war…

“[T]he tyrant will [also] maintain that fair and numerous and various and ever-changing army of his. If there are sacred treasures in the city, he will confiscate and spend them; … And when these fail? … then he and his boon companions, whether male or female, will be maintained out of his father’s [a metaphor for the national] estate.“        – Plato, The Republic (386 BCE)

 

Hell for Jews? The Case of the Epikoros

How do Jews get to hell?

The short answer is they don’t, because Jews don’t really have a hell, at least not in the sense of the fiery, eternal torture chambers Dante elaborately portrays in The Inferno (1321). Instead, they have a very Jewish idea of eternal punishment: call it a hell for the disputatious.

Gustave Dore 6th ring Dante Inferno
Gustave Dore, 6th Circle, Dante’s Inferno (Paris: Hachette, 1861) from Open Culture

In Canto X, Dante and Virgil, his tour guide, find the sixth ring of hell is filled with open graves, perpetually burning the still conscious bodies in them. Dante asks why the graves are open, and Virgil says,

 “They’ll all be shuttered up
when they return here from Jehosaphat
together with the flesh they left above.

Within this region is the cemetery
of Epicurus and his followers,
all those who say the soul dies with the body.

Later, Dante interviews one of the corpses in hell, and the zombie says,

“…  our awareness
will die completely at the moment when
the portal of the future has been shut.” [Digital Dante]

In other words, they will not be resurrected with the rest of the dead when the time comes (Jehosaphat is a euphemism for the Catholic messiah, who shares his initial). Their immortal souls, their “awareness,” will die when the they are summoned for final judgement. Epicurean souls won’t be reunited with their bodies with the Resurrection of the Dead. They die forever.

Dante seems to be deriving his ideas from a very specific discussion among Jews from a thousand years earlier. In the Talmud, rabbis discuss how heretical Jews can lose their souls forever, and they single out the “epikoros” for particular doom.  Though he didn’t know Hebrew or Aramaic and didn’t read the Talmud, Dante really knew his Catholic theology, which took a good deal from the Jews, and Dante is channeling it here. But where Dante takes the epicurean connection literally – Epicurus is one of the souls he sees – the Jews have a very different notion of hell, one revealed by their funny refusal to acknowledge Epicurus.  [1]

The three eternally fatal heresies

Jews, as in other religions, will be resurrected to go to the World to Come, but if they do one of three things, they’re dead meat [2]

#1 Deny that the Resurrection of the Dead is promised in the Bible [Torah]

#2 Deny that the Bible’s Author is Divine

#3: Be an “epikoros”

When we first encountered this list, my classmate Dr. Jack Brandes noted that it doesn’t make much sense. Why does denial that “resurrection of the dead is to be found in the Torah” take precedence over the denial that the whole Torah is Divine? Surely denial of the whole is more fundamental than any single proposition and should come first.

And we can add to Jack’s query, what the heck is an epikoros anyway? Why does it have its own word, one that hardly occurs anywhere else in Talmud and is named after a Greek pleasure-seeker? Why is he so singularly bad? After all, we’ve just come from pages of the Talmud that discuss rebellious sages and false prophets, and they seem much more worthy of eternal punishment than a common garden-variety sensualist or atheist, yet they are only condemned to mortal death. The epikoros, by contrast, faces eternal death. Where’s the equity here? “Lo fair!” as my son’s classmates used to shout in kindergarten in Israel, “No fair!”

Worse, when the rabbis finally get around to describing the epikoros nine pages of Talmud later,[3] they seem to have saved up their greatest outrage for him in a self-serving festival of indignation. What does the epikoros do that’s so bad? Why, he has the temerity to make fun of those same rabbis and Torah scholars. He mocks them for being useless or self-serving, or questions the absurdity of their rulings or disparages them for making senseless rules that make life harder just to keep themselves busy (“They forbade us the raven but let us eat dove”). He insults them in front of others. The over-sensitivity of the sages to even the merest slight leaves plenty of room for cynicism. It looks like they’ve constructed a great, self-serving Catch-22: if you make fun of us and our authority, like for instance for defining an epikoros as someone who mocks or questions us, then you are one, and you are going to die an eternal death.

Yet, by contrast, the section (Cheilik – “Portion” –  in Sanhedrin) has some of the most elegant and monumental displays of exegesis and story-telling in the Talmud. The rabbis’ eloquence is warranted because here they aren’t just adjudicating civil or capital penalties in this world, they are describing awesome cosmic events like the resurrection of the dead, when the Messiah comes, and the ultimate fate of your immortal soul.

So maybe when they come to the matter of the epikoros we should look at their condemnation as more than just an extended fit of self-serving peevishness.

Indeed, if we delve this strange word more closely, it tells a deeper story, one that reveals a startling unity to these seemingly mismatched list of three big sins. It uncovers a hidden sophistication carrying so much theological power that our cynical view of the rabbis as a bunch of racketeers protecting their turf is replaced with admiration for these learned mortals who have undertaken the dauntless task of trying to read the Divine Mind.

How to lose your portion in the world to come

Sometimes transliterated apikoros, apikorsis, apicorsis, epikores, or even ‘apikoyris’ with a Yiddish inflection, the word epikoros sticks out in the lexicon of the Talmud. It isn’t Hebrew and it doesn’t have an obvious precedent in Aramaic but seems obviously to come from the Greek philosopher Epikouros or as we know him, Epicurus.

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) taught that death was the end of both the body and the soul. He insisted that only the material world is real and he denied the existence of God or Heaven as logically absurd. After all, what kind of supreme being would introduce so much pain and misery into the world? For what purpose? Anyway, who has ever brought back a shred of proof of an afterlife where the soul receives reward or punishment?  All we get is this one go-round in the material world, so we better make the best of it. The proper role of philosophy is not to guide humans into good behavior that will ennoble their spirits and please the gods for some reward in the afterlife, but to teach them how to fulfill the ultimate goal of life: seek pleasure and avoid pain, especially the physical and psychic suffering that attends death.[3] In short, Epicurus was the very archetype of the heretic.

But if it is obvious their idea of a heretic refers to him or his followers, the rabbis are confoundingly silent about it. True, maybe their silence is because of their general reluctance to acknowledge Greek sources. They even warn against teaching Greek (see Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math). Greek philosophy was especially dangerous since its intellectualism and soaring embrace of knowledge of the universe was naturally appealing to the Jewish mind, just as science and philosophy are today, and Epicureanism certainly seduced many Jews over the centuries.) So perhaps the rabbis were simply following their policy of not acknowledging Greek thought.

Yet, they not only avoid any mention of the connection, they pun around it, as if to efface its source. They use an Aramaic word with similar spelling – apkayrousa – to define an irreverent Torah student (Sanhedrin 100a). Later commentators seem to contort themselves to follow this lead to a completely different and much less plausible etymology. Rashi, (1040-1105) expands the Talmud’s version by saying it alludes to “epkorousa,” [אפקרותא – disrespect]. Meir Abulafia (1170-1244, known as the Ramah), and Maimonides (1138-1204, known as Rambam) both agree the word derives from hefker, abandoned property that’s up for grabs. (Their agreement is even more remarkable because Ramah called Rambam a heretic for denying the Resurrection of the Dead.) In turn, Rambam explains his derivation of the word most completely. “The word epikores is Aramaic,” he insists. “Its meaning is one who abandons (mafkir) and denigrates the sages or a specific Torah scholar or denigrates his teacher.”[7] We can see where he’s coming from. Both words share three root letters: P-K-R, פקר. Mafkir comes from hefker. By connecting it with disrespect for a teacher, it gives a new and profound sense of walking away from your half of a transcendent teacher-student relationship, Indeed, in his next sentence, Maimonides gives more examples of heresy, and then just a few sentences later he announces his Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of the most influential codifications of Jewish belief ever written.

Is it possible they ALL were unaware of the popular Greek philosopher of pleasure? No.

Epicurus is counted as one of the greatest of the Greek philosophers, rivaling Plato. Plutarch and Cicero wrote about him in the 1st century CE. In the 3rd century CE, contemporary with the rabbis holding forth in the Talmud, he’s treated in a bestselling work, The Lives and Opinions of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, and he was well-known throughout the Medieval period (witness Catholic theology and Dante).  Maimonides was well aware of Greek philosophy in general as a follower of Aristotle, and mentions Epicurus several times in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190).

For a thousand years these heavy hitters are insisting on a hidden meaning of the word, purposefully ignoring the obvious, to get at something else. What gives? What are they after?

Breaking the circuit

The surprising answer lies, I believe, in going back to the original Greek name. The main part of epikoros is the Greek χορός – chorus or koros – a circle of singers, probably part of an ancient ritual. In classical Greek theatre, it evolved into the group of players who stand together, sometimes in a ring, and dance across the stage back and forth singing verses of point and counterpoint to the theme of the play or actions of the main players. Koros in turn is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European[8] root gher, meaning “trap” or “catch,” a core concept signifying the containment around something. It is easy to see how it also evolves into the Greek cognate of chorus, χόρτος – khórtos, meaning “enclosure”[9] like an animal pen or corral. To evoke this shared primitive origin of the concept, have you ever sung a well-rehearsed song with others in a tight circle? You were probably moved beyond mere geometry to experience a spirit of solidarity, intimacy.

The other part of the name is more familiar, the prefix epi– , meaning “on top of,” commonly used for words that survive intact from ancient Greek like epiphany (a shining or appearance from above, a manifestation or revelation of heavenly presence), or in science for technical terms like epidermis (the top layer of skin) or epicenter (the point above the enter of an earthquake). But the prefix can also carry a sense of contrast, opposition, something after, above, atop, or even against – in short, different from – the root. An epi-gone is an inferior successor, like Fredo the weak brother in The Godfather, or like the imitators of the great artist Caravaggio to whom the term was applied.[10] 

Epikoros might well have chosen the name for himself: a radical who broke out of – superceded – the circle of Platonic belief. (The little we may know of him makes him sound like a compulsive self-aggrandizing rebel, rejecting his teacher Democritus and other predecessors, including Plato and Pythagoras, to claim he was self-taught).

In his treatment of the word, David Curwin, author of the brilliant Hebrew etymology website Balashon, notes

… hevker is related to bakar בקר – “cattle,”, and was so called because cattle would graze in abandoned or ownerless land, … this goes back to a general association between cattle and property [11]

Imagine cattle herded into a pen. One breaks out and gets lost, to wander ownerlessly. There’s our Jewish epikoros: someone who opposes or breaks out of the closed circle to embrace a terrible fate. Like, Maimonides’ mafkir, the epikoros acts willfully, intentionally.

Epikoros cuts the circuit between heaven and earth. What you do on Earth has no consequences, because there’s nothing else, so seek pleasure. He is the archetype of the radical denier, that wise guy who has to say that one other, defiant thing, the pathologically compulsive skeptic whose goal is to break the circle of belief in anything that he can’t grasp with his appetites or senses. But his behavior, the rabbis are warning him, has led him to abandon his soul.

I believe the rabbis are not disingenuous here but are knowingly digging deeper to get at this more ancient, resonant aura around the word epikoros. But how does that explain their fixation on their own pride and sensitivities? And though they are excellent linguists to be sure, how would they have gotten access to etymology pieced together only recently by centuries of painstaking archeology and philology?

One explanation is a mystical one that goes to the root of their belief in their own authority: they are transmitting knowledge preserved in the Oral Torah that Moses also received on Sinai, antedating Epikoros by 1000 years. When they invoke “epikoros” as derived from hefker, they do so with the confidence preserved by an oral tradition that is much deeper and older than mere superficial cultural allusions.  If their word play is more than a cynical effort to protect their monopoly on Torah authority, then it’s a test of our status, too: either we are heretics, or we believe this tenet on which rabbinic Judaism rests.

The road to Jewish Heaven is paved by scholars

At first glance, the epikoros’ offense seems the least dire of the three Big Ones and the one mostly driven by the very earthly concerns of defensive rabbis.

But when viewed through this deeper meaning, the list of three offenders defines three versions of the same form of heresy: they all break the circuit of authority from God through Moses into the Oral and Written Torah and from thence into the Mishnah and to Gemarah (the discussions of the rabbis of mishnah) that comprise the Talmud.

Who is the epikoros?  His transgression is the most personal, immediate, and pedestrian of the three Big Ones, but in some ways that makes his sin the most dreadful of them all. He diminishes, even in apparently slight ways – he slights – the authority and respect due the sages and teachers who interpret and transmit the Torah. Why is this worthy of the ultimate penalty? Because their authority is absolutely equivalent to the Torah’s Divine authority. In fact, the two are indistinguishable. Offense Number One is to deny that the Torah tells us that the dead will be resurrected after the messiah comes, even though it doesn’t, at least in any literal way. Then how do we know?  We’ll show you! And immediately the rabbis put on virtuoso performances of exegetical brilliance proving the case. The sages’ job, and the project of the Talmud, is to unfold the hidden meanings in the text of the Torah. Though they are human and imperfect, as the varying interpretations show, they are acting in good faith, they’re pros at what they do, and their conclusions have the force of Divine law.

By rejecting the superficial meaning of epikoros to invoke the deeper more ancient one, they are actually enacting the lesson: the apparent surface meaning of the Torah doesn’t say anything about resurrection of the dead, but our elaborations show it does incontrovertibly. Epikoros sounds like it refers to one thing, but it really means another. Watch this …

If you deny our reading, as arcane and incredible as it first seems, it is as serious as denying the Torah comes from God. And just as you must build a fence around the Torah, you must also protect not only the dignity, authority and majesty of our rabbinic project of unfolding its hidden meanings, but also our personal dignity, authority, and majesty, even if it makes us look like a mafia and even if we are only human. In short, the sages’ bravura performance in Cheilek, this famous awesome chapter in Sanhedrin, achieves transcendent coherence. It’s a meta-text that both renders a proof and performs the meaning of that proof.

The proper translation of Olam HaBah is not the static “World to Come” but the dynamic “World that is Coming”: Heaven is unfolding, approaching, in process, and we’re always on the way to It. The Talmud and our earthly interpretation of Torah is its accomplice and mirror, also always in process, always unfolding, revealing the hidden vectors of an Olam HaBah that’s approaching us. The two are coming to greet each other on the road. Mock the authority on which the belief rests, become too disputatious, and you’ve become an epikoros. Renounce ownership of your place in it, and your very soul will be destined to roam Ownerlessly, orphaned in a desolate, unnamable space with no hope for redemption. For Jews, that’s really hell.

David Porush

San Mateo, CA 2018


ENDNOTES

 

[1] My purpose here is not to highlight the differences between Jewish and Christian concepts of hell, a subject that’s been explored extensively and well by others. See J. Harold Ellens’ Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife [2013]; Alan Bernstein’s Hell and Its Rivals [2017].

[2]  Sanhedrin 10B; 90A et seq. Sanhedrin 99b-100a

[3] See the entry on Epicurus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/

[7] Rambam on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. (https://www.sefaria.org/Rambam_on_Mishnah_Sanhedrin.10.1?lang=en )

[8] The forebear of most European and Near Eastern language from the Early Bronze Age, about 4000 BCE

[9] [https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CF%87%CE%BF%CF%81%CF%8C%CF%82#Ancient_Greek  ]

[10] See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/caravaggios-imitators-pale-beside-the-painters-irresistable-geni/

See https://www.etymonline.com/word/epi- and https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%E1%BC%90%CF%80%CE%AF#Ancient_Greek

[11] “According to Tur-Sinai’s note in Ben Yehuda’s dictionary,…” David Curwin, “Epikoros,” in Balashon  https://www.balashon.com/search?q=epikoros

Torah as Song

“Now therefore write down for yourselves this song [shirah], and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness … for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed”  Deutoronomy 31:19-21

“Sing every day, sing every day,” – Rabbi Akiva quoted in Sanhedrin (99a)

The first letters of the Torah when rearranged say שיר תאו  [‘shir ta’ev’] “A song of desire.” – Attributed to R. Isaac Luria

 

When great poems get canonized in anthologies for college courses, they usually come thick with stuff that is supposed to help the student: short introductions, footnotes, annotations, guides, accent marks. They disambiguate inscrutable lines, point out cross-references and themes within the poem, and note the allusions to other texts and events that make the poem otherwise impenetrable. But the very density of these aids may have the opposite effect on the poor student. It also says, There’s even more of this out there. You gotta be a pro to really get it. Maybe that’s why most people can go very merrily through their whole lives without reading another poem after graduating high school.

The Torah is also like this. The newbie coming on the scene of the Jewish interpretive tradition stares down 73 volumes of the Schottenstein Talmud and millions of pages of other commentaries. Where do you begin? How can any human scale the mountain of interpretation?

But what if we approach the Torah, that densest of texts, like music? What if we treat it not first and foremost as a history of the birth of a nation or as a collection of dos and don’ts, or not even an elaborate assemblage of narratives, myths, and laws in prose, but rather as one very long song? And what if it even tells us so itself, I’m a song. Write me down and sing me through all your generations? Our assignment, to achieve enlightenment, becomes easier, less discouraging, and even joyful.

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 5.25.13 PMTorah sings its own birth

The Torah is the first and greatest document written in the new technology of the phonetic alphabet. It is only natural that a new disruptive communications tech, exulting in its new-found powers of expression, would narrate its own birth story (“Mr. Watson. Come here. I want to see you”), show off what it can do, and surround its revolution with transcendent awe.

So one of the recurring themes of the Torah is the power and centrality of writing in the birth story of the Jews. God writes the first tablets that Moses brings down from Mount Sinai with His Own finger. Moses writes the second version, taking dictation from God. Every king is commanded to write two Torah scrolls, one for himself and one for his people. We each have to write the words and keep them as frontlets between our eyes and next to our hearts, and write them on the doorposts of our homes, perhaps imitating the first act of literacy by a general population, the smear of a secret sign in blood on the doors of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt so the Angel of Death would read it and pass over.

And finally all Jews are commanded to “write down for yourselves this song [shirah] and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness” (Deut 31:19-21). This commandment comes as part of Moses’ farewell address and might be taken to refer to the Moses’ final song of victory and admonition he will soon sing. But it seems more likely, and becomes so much more powerful, if the Torah is here referring to itself as a whole. This is, after all, the very last of the Torah’s commandments. Doesn’t it make sense that the Torah’s author is ensuring that His words “shall not be forgotten”? Wouldn’t the Torah want itself to stay an eternal best seller and remain always number one on the hit parade by commanding everyone to write it themselves and then commit it to memory by singing it?

If we take this “song” to refer to the Torah itself, it is also encapsulates the entire monumental revolution that the Torah has staged: an illiterate, oral culture of Hebrew slaves becomes a nation forged by writing almost overnight, and that act of writing is the transcription of a song.

Exodus tells us God’s original pronouncement is one long utterance from atop the mountain, like one long shofar blast. But it’s too mind-boggling to be comprehended by the newly-liberated slaves, so they beg Moses to write it down for them.

A scholarly approach to the Torah’s media revolution

As I have noted elsewhere, even from a scholarly perspective, it is not farfetched at all that the Torah is the story of the moment the Children of Israel convert from an oral to literate culture and marks the birth of its own means of transmission, the first alphabet. Exodus is now a story we can relate to today in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Moses is staging a media revolution! He brings a new, disruptive tech, the phonetic alphabet, that is so powerfully new that it seems divinely inspired.  He then he delivers it exclusively to a huge population of slaves. The alphabet is so simple to learn, needing only 22 signs to master, that a newly literate population is armed with a new power almost overnight. It poses a viral, plaguey, counter-cultural threat to Pharaoh’s hegemony which is founded on a hierarchical, hieroglyphic-based communications, one that has become ossified and enslaved to an obsolete, 1000-symbol writing system controlled by a narrow class of scribe-priests.

Moses stages a war of writing apps in Pharaoh’s court, a demo of the alphabet’s superiority, besting the hieroglyphic scribes, who throw up their hands to declare, “This must be the Finger of [a superior kind of] God!” He then leverages the threat of this dynamic weapon, this new communications technology, to liberate the slaves.  Pharaoh realizes, against his own will, that he cannot resist this upwelling tide, and for the first and just about the only time in history, an absolute ruler lets a huge slave population go, even at the risk of imperiling his empire. Imagine putting the iPhone in the hands of every slave in the Old South, but denying it to their masters. America might have been spared the Civil War.

The phonetic alphabet, like a smart phone, also grants to the Hebrews new powers of imagination and communication. They conjure a new kind of abstract God, completely the opposite of the many, image-dependent, literal idols of the cumbersome, pictographic Egyptian culture. It gives the Hebrews access to feel as if they can read the will of that God directly, as He expressed it Himself in the Torah, in their native tongue, written in the new medium.

That archeologists trace the most likely birth of the alphabet to slave scrawls in the South Sinai (at Serabit el-Khadem) during the 14th century BCE, about the same time of Moses in the Hebrew chronology of the world (1312 BCE) makes this story compelling and vital.

It is also not farfetched to think that the Torah was one long song of 23,000 verses that was meant to be committed to memory. One of the great breakthroughs in understanding Homer’s epic poetry is that it also marked the moment the Greeks became literate in the 8th century BCE. Harvard professor Milman Parry studied the balladeers of the illiterate cultures of Serbo-Croatia of the 1930s. Able to recite thousands of lines from memory, these singers told epic tales of heroes and wars. They mixed the distant past with current memory and family genealogies like those in the Torah. They reciting the shared cultural histories of the tribes and towns they entertained and connected it to their audience personally.

Parry showed that the structure of these epic songs – their repetition of musical themes, melodies, consistent line lengths and accented syllables, rhyming patterns, stock phrases, and larger thematic patterns — all worked together as mnemonics, enabling the stupendous feats of memory by these illiterate troubadours. His student, Albert Lord, then elaborated Parry’s insight in a 1960 book, The Singer of Tales, showing that the structure of Homer’s epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, more than 15,600 and 12,000 lines long respectively, deployed the same interwoven devices of song. The conclusion was clear: the singer of the ancient Greek epics was oral and probably illiterate, and the epics were transcribed by someone in the newly-literate Hellenic tribes.

No wonder the last commandment of the Torah is that every Jew should recapitulate this awesome moment for themselves by writing a personal copy of the song, and then “put [it] in their mouths…for it shall not be forgotten.” Write the song down, then perform its music. In some ways, this is as fundamental to being a Jew as the acknowledgement that God is One and re-enacting the Passover story.

Torah as Art

Reading the Torah as a song also transforms our interpretive approach to it. We know from the beginning that the multiple interpretations of the text aren’t competing for which is truest, but that many or all can be true at once and supplement or complement or even gainsay and negate each other. Like a great poem in the college anthology, that only enhances the awe we have of it. The fruit multiplies and the tree is stronger for it. This isn’t just a manual, or code of laws, or history, or a cryptogram. It’s art.

This explains why the Oral tradition, which gives authority to our millenia-long rabbinic and interpretive traditions, is as important as the written Torah. Reading the Torah as a song embraces our millions of words of scribbled commentaries and much else that liberates us. Scholars read the text and parse every jot and word to discover its original singular intended meaning, playing a millennia-long game of telepathy with its Author. They are trying to read God’s mind. A noble endeavor that keeps Jewish law and tradition alive and ever-growing.

But now we are freed to also embrace a much more accessible and personal job description: the Torah, like a great poem, was also an aboriginal musical performance that we all should try to resurrect and perform.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes many of these points in The Torah as God’s Song,[1] building on Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin’s[2] insight into the Torah as poetic:

Descriptive prose carries its meaning on the surface. The Torah, like poetry, does not. … The whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal . . . remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background.[3]

Rabbi Sack also quotes R. Yechiel Michal Epstein (1829-1908) from his Arukh ha-Shulchan.[1]

The rabbinic literature is full of arguments, about which the sages said: “These and those are the words of the living God.” This is one of the reasons the Torah is called “a song” – because a song becomes more beautiful when scored for many voices interwoven in complex harmonies.

There is room now for the instruction manual version of the Torah, the Shulchan Aruch [4] and its description of how to follow the 613 mitzvot. There is also room for all the many volumes of the Talmud and all its commentaries and footnotes, not to mention the thousands of books, essays, blogs, sermons written since. There is room for this and also that, for Talmudic legislation and its stories – are they mere illustrative anecdotes? Parables? Metaphors? Flights of fancy? Casual comments and throwaway lines? All of the above?

And there is plenty of room – in fact there is a demand for – elucidations of hidden, syncretic, hieratic knowledge like Kabbalah.

Finally, the difference between the performance of a song and its written score is the latter’s silence. This gap opens a vast space not only for all interpretation but for silence, for biting our tongues and for lifting our fingers from the keyboard to withhold saying what we think lurks in the text. There is room for the silence of humility or discretion or doubt. There is room for the silence that comes from the inability to say anything at all in the face of this infinite task.

The Lost Music

Moses was the only human who could hear God’s first original awesome utterance of the Torah and still have the wit to retain and transcribe it. All the other Israelites, assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, quaked with fear and begged Moses to transform God’s voice into the new medium, like vinyl to MP3, or illuminated codex to printed book. Today, so much of this song has been lost before we even begin to approach the text: the original cadence, rhyme, melody, voice, sound of the original singing. Even if the Torah trope (melody) and the vocalizations given us by the Masoretes are aboriginal from Sinai, we missed that long blast from high.

None of us can be Moses. We are all sentenced to yearn for, but never attain, perfect comprehension. That we can only capture snatches of the original tune demands respect for silence, even as we noisily and merrily try to recreate that sound from Sinai by singing the Torah (trope) and wordless Chassidic melodies (niggunim).

Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual it breaks into song, as if the words themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of finite meanings. … Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.[5]

Yet if we do treat the Torah as a song or poem, we can’t perform the original with fidelity. Sadly, musical notation wasn’t included in the revelation on Sinai along with the alphabet, and we weren’t there to hear it. In its stead, though, comes a pleasure of the text, as French critic Roland Barthes[6] phrased it, if we approach the Torah with our ear tuned to its music and poetry.

This pleasure transcends the many joys of scholarship: it opens something prayerful in the primitive Hebrew of the Scriptures that we lose when we erect rational understanding – clarity – as the goal of all interpretation. If the Torah is the Supreme Poem or Song, every syllable has a secret melody.

 

David Porush, San Mateo

Erev Yom Kippur 5779

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Torah as G-d’s Song,” https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2308716/jewish/The-Torah-as-G-ds-Song.htm

[2] The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), Preface to Ha’emek Davar, Parag 3

[3] Rabbi Sacks, op. cit.

[4] The Set Table. Codification of the laws of the Torah – halacha – written by Joseph Caro in 1563

[5] Rabbi Sacks, op. cit.

[6] Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte (Editions du Seuil, 1973.