Monday, January 29, 2007

The Herd Mentality

The astonishing capacity of Judaism to welcome disagreement, tolerate and even validate a range of views (albeit within the system) on almost every issue is, in my opinion, one of its greatest strengths. Yet it is, perhaps, the most sophisticated aspect of real Torah thought; the Talmud (Chagigah 3b) acknowledges that it takes tremendous wisdom and effort to think this way, yet it is vital to learn to do so.

It is fascinating to note then when an outstanding attribute is native to the Jewish people, even outsiders can recognise it. A year ago, I read a fascinating book called ‘The trouble with Islam today’, by the controversial author Irshad Manji, which contains a number of really thought-provoking observations. In a chapter provocatively called ‘Seventy virgins?’ she considers the subject of herd mentality:

What I knew was that believers in the historically ‘reformed’ religions don’t operate on a herd mentality nearly as much as Muslims do. Christian leaders are aware of the intellectual diversity within their ranks. While each can deny the validity of other interpretations – and many do – none can deny that a plethora of interpretations exists. As for Jews, they’re way ahead of the crowd. Jews actually publicise disagreements by surrounding their scriptures with commentaries and incorporating debates into Talmud itself. By contrast, most Muslims treat the Quran as a document to imitate rather than interpret, suffocating our capacity to think for ourselves.

Now, Manji is hardly an expert on Judaism, but her comments really set me thinking about the parameters of tolerance and disagreement within Jewish thought. That more than one view in halachah (Jewish law) can be tolerated within the system is apparent from the proverbial ‘elu v’elu’ (a statement acknowledging that more than one view can be the ‘words of the living God’) but the imperative to accord respect to other views is less well known. In summarising three years of disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai (the schools of Hillel and Shammai), the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) comments:

As both (the views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai) are the ‘words of the living God’, why did Beit Hillel merit that the halachah (Jewish law) be fixed according to their view? They were gentle and tolerant and they taught their own views and those of Beit Shammai and even expressed the views of Beit Shammai before their own view.

In his introduction to BeReishit (Genesis) the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, pre-eminent 19th century European sage) suggests that lack of tolerance for Torah viewpoints other than one’s own is the very cause of destruction. Writing about the religious leadership of the Second Temple era, he observes:

They were righteous, pious and toiled in Torah, but they were not diplomatic. Because of the hatred in their hearts for one another, they suspected anyone who conducted his religious life not in accordance with their view of being a Sadducee or a heretic. As a result, they came to horrible bloodshed and every known evil, until the Temple was destroyed. This vindicated what happened to them (the destruction of the Temple). Since God is upright he does not tolerate such ‘righteous’ people unless they are also diplomatic, not crooked, even if they act for the sake of heaven, for this causes the destruction of creation and the ruin of society.

I realised why I was thinking about Irshad Manji this week: her observations were dredged from the depths of my mind by my sadness at the monochromatic nature of much of the contemporary Jewish world. Her comments depict the Judaism I know and love, the one I see in the Talmud and classic Jewish sources, the one taught me by my own rabbis and role-models, the one I try to practice and teach my children and students. They don’t, however, describe the Jewish world I see around me, one in which authoritarian pronouncements have become common, strongly-worded decrees seem to limit thought and practice, and variant opinions and their exponents are trashed, not discussed. We have reached the stage at which there is only one ‘acceptable’ view on most topics, the opinions of previously-well-respected Jewish thinkers are no longer considered party line; we have our own censored publications to ensure that no-one finds out about them anyway. Suggesting that this impacts only on a small part of Israeli society is to bury our heads in the sands of a global Jewish reality.

Hardly a week goes by without another decree: a few weeks ago it was the banning of higher-education courses for Israeli women, last week, the emphasis on policing ‘kosher’ clothes shops in religious districts. Is Manji right? Are we really ‘way ahead of the crowd’? Only just, I fear.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Friday, January 19, 2007

A Test Of Resolve (VaEra 5767)

Speak to the Children of Israel saying, 'On the tenth of this month, they shall take for themselves a lamb for each household, a lamb per home.’ (Shemot / Exodus 12:3)

This is, of course, the introduction to the commandment to bring the Paschal Lamb - the Korban Pesach. God told the Jewish people to take a lamb per family and to care for it for several days. After this, it would be slaughtered, its blood smeared on the doorposts of the house, and its meat eaten in celebration of the first ever Seder.

The detail that the lamb had to be taken on the tenth of Nissan, four days prior to its slaughter was unique to the Pesach observed in Egypt. (There is an entire chapter of the Talmud that addresses the differences between the Pesach in Egypt and all the celebrations that followed in later years). As Rashi comments:

For the Egypt-Pesach, take it on the tenth, although for the future, this will not apply.

To understand this, we must appreciate the nature of the demand that God made upon them. The lamb was the god of the Egyptians, their oppressors for centuries. God, as an expression of His control over and annihilation of Egypt, was about to demonstrate the powerlessness of the Egyptian god. Every Jew, previously a slave, would take an Egyptian god and slaughter it before his powerless ex-master.

But this was not to be performed in secret, but as publicly as possible. The Jews had to demonstrate their trust in God to care for them in the face of adversity. They needed to show that they were ready to do God's bidding and risk their very lives in the faces of the oppressors by misusing their gods. Every Egyptian would know what his slave was about to do, but was powerless to act.

We see this further demonstrated in another rule regarding the Korban Pesach. The Torah requires that it be roasted whole and not cooked in any other way. The Abarbanel (a Spanish 15th century commentator) comments that roast meat gives off the strongest odour - it spreads all around the neighbourhood. Just try to have a barbecue without the whole street knowing! The Jews had to be prepared to spread the word that they were cooking the Egyptian god. If they had the gumption to go through with this, then they were indeed ready for exodus. It was expected that these experiences would inculcate the strength of character to enable the Jewish people to withstand the difficult journey that lay ahead, with all the challenges to their faith it would entail.

At a deeper level, it seems that the purpose of the challenge of taking the lamb was not simply for them to take revenge on their oppressors and their beliefs. The lamb symbolised the fatalism of the Egyptians; they believed in a world devoid of free choice, with everything predetermined and beyond their control. The introduction of the one God into their lives involved the elimination of the symbol of their core belief – the lamb. Tying it up and controlling it in the face of those who believed its message, then smearing its blood on the doorpost and eating its carcass was a potent way to help the Jews through any Egyptian beliefs that they may have adopted.

Then, at midnight, on the 15th of the month symbolised by the lamb (Aries), when the sign was at its peak, God could strike Egypt and the Jews would properly understand where their allegiances would lie.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ramban's Introduction To Shemot (Shemot 5767)

The introduction of Nachmanides to the book of Shemot is very often quoted. Here it is (from Chavel’s translation) in full:

In the Book of Genesis, which is the book of Creation, the Torah completed the account of how the world was brought forth from nothingness and how everything was created, as well as an account of all the events which befell the patriarchs, who are a sort of creation to their seed. All the events that happened to them were symbolic occurrences, indicating and foretelling all that was destined to come upon their seed. After having completed the account of creation, the Torah begins another book concerning the subject that had been alluded to in those symbolic events [recorded in the Book of Genesis].

The Book of Veileh Shemoth was set apart for the story of the first exile, which had been clearly decreed, and the redemption therefrom. This is why He reverted and began [this second book of the Torah] with the names of those persons who went down to Egypt, and mentioned their total number, although this had already been written. It is because their descent thereto constituted the beginning of the exile which began from that moment on.

Now the exile was not completed until the day they returned to their place and were restored to the status of their fathers. When they left Egypt, even though they came forth from the house of bondage, they were still considered exiles because they were in a land that is not theirs, entangled in the desert." When they came to Mount Sinai and made the Tabernacle, and the Holy One, blessed be He, caused His Divine Presence to dwell again amongst them, they returned to the status of their fathers when the 'sod eloka' (counsel of God) was upon their tents and "they were those who constituted the Chariot of the Holy One." Then they were considered redeemed. It was for this reason that this second book of the Torah is concluded with the consummation of the building of the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Eternal filling it always.

This fascinating piece is based on a well-known principle, which the Ramban invokes frequently throughout his Torah commentary – ‘ma’asey avot siman l’vanim’. This means that the events that occurred in the lives of the ancestors were harbingers of the national experiences of the Jewish people that would follow later in history.

The Ramban here understands that Shemot is a rerun of BeReishit, albeit at a national level. The small events in the lives of the ancestors would be played out in the lives of the nation. Since the goal of BeReishit was to describe how the family of Avraham found God and created a private forum in which it was possible for human beings to relate to Him, Shemot must fulfil the same goal, albeit at a macrocosmic level.

As well as foretelling what would happen to the expanded family of Avraham, the Ramban tells us that BeReishit provides us with a framework from which one may begin to understand Shemot. The final moments of the book of Shemot are highly significant here – the moment when the Divine cloud rested upon the Mishkan, filling it with eternal glory. Until this time, the lofty achievements of the ancestors remain unfulfilled in their descendants. Now, at last, the mission of BeReishit was completed nationally through Shemot. The reference to the ‘chariot’ is worth a final discussion. The ancestors introduced God-awareness to a pagan world. As such, they were the conveyors or ‘chariots’ of God. The image of a chariot is often used to describe the process of something being conveyed through an alien environment. Thus the ancestors were ‘chariots’, revealing God in a hostile world. The opening of the Mishkan, the climax of Shemot, celebrated the very same concept at the heart of the Jewish nation.