Friday, April 27, 2007

Impurity And Kohanim (Emor 5767)

It is well-known that even today, when we do not have a Temple, the rules governing ‘tumat Kohanim’ – the impurity of Kohanim still apply. We learn from the start of this week’s parashah that a Kohen may not come into contact with the dead, except when caring for the remains of a close relative. He may not come in close proximity to a grave, enter a building where a corpse, or part thereof, lies or even pass under a tree which also overhangs a cemetery. This is why there is a special ‘Kohen room’ at the cemetery, where Kohanim stand while a funeral is in progress and why Kohanim must take care when visiting hospitals, etc.

The whole concept of ‘death defilement’ is alien to us. It is clear from even the earliest sources that it is to be considered some sort of transmission: there is no suggestion that the corpse actually physically contaminates someone in proximity to it. There are many discussions, some highly esoteric, as to the meaning of this body of laws. Of the modern authors, Rav Hirsch’s explanation is most well-known, but we will look at the reasons provided by two prominent earlier expositors – the Keli Yakar and the Ohr HaChaim.

The reason for the prohibition of impurity is because of the spirit of impurity that remains stuck to the human body. Therefore the verse says, ‘he shall not defile himself to any soul’ and it does not say ‘in the soul’. The soul is intrinsically pure and it has no element of impurity, yet the soul is the cause of impurity. For in every other life-form which does not have the intelligent soul, rather the animating soul, their death comes about simply by the dispersion of the four elements and the Angel of Death has no contact with them at all. Therefore, they have no serious impurity at all. (Keli Yakar VaYikra 21)

The Keli Yakar seems to understand that impurity of the body following death is a consequence of the purity of the soul that has left the body: a kind of testimony to the fact that spirituality once occupied this space. Recognising and sensing its significance is the purpose of the laws of impurity.

The difference between the Jewish people and the other nations was achieved through accepting the Torah, for without this, the House of Yisrael would be like the other nations.... Once they accepted the Torah, the Jewish people became an entity to which the low spirits like to stick. Since they have some element of holiness in their lifetime, so too in their death. In their lifetimes - for should they touch a corpse, adumbrate over it, or similar, the impurity of the corpse sticks to them and does not wish to depart without the great effort which the Torah prescribes: the mitzvah of the red cow. In their deaths - the impurity also is great…

I have already explained this in a parable. It is compared to two vessels owned by a householder - one full of honey and one full of waste. He empties them and removes them from the room. The one which contained the honey attracts a swarm of flies and insects; the one which contained the waste, although it attracts a few insects, it is not comparable to the honey. So too, when a Jew dies, since he was filled with sweet and beautiful holiness, when the soul departs and the body is emptied out, the unholy husks, which are the forces of impurity, gather without end. They always wish to stick to something holy to enjoy its sweetness. (Ohr HaChaim to BeMidbar 19:2)

Here, the Ohr HaChaim elaborates on the theme of the Keli Yakar and suggests that the nature of the Jewish soul, which is designed to attract holiness, is such that its absence attracts spiritual negativity.

We do not relate to these ideas very easily, but they formalise something that we feel quite profoundly already: the departure of a holy soul leaves a void in all sorts of ways. Apart from the absence of his or her presence, and the distress to the family, it seems that a spiritual vacuum is created by a person’s death, one that the Torah wishes us to feel in a real way.

Friday, April 20, 2007

A Strong Taboo (Aharey Mot 5767)

One of the strongest taboos still in operation in most societies is expressed in the revulsion that most people feel for incest. Apart from the obvious possible abuse that it may entail, most even non-religious people will support retaining its criminal status on the grounds that even consensual incestuous relations may lead to deformities. The Torah strictly prohibits an entire list of consanguineous relationships, as detailed in this week’s readings. Of particular interest is the Torah’s attitude to brother-sister incest:

If a man should take his sister - his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is chessed. They shall be cut off before the eyes of the children of their people. He has uncovered the nakedness of his sister - he shall bear his sin. (VaYikra 20:17)

These verses speak in euphemisms, but the perplexing part is the use of the word ‘chessed’, which normally refers to kind, altruistic acts, to a heinous crime. There are various classic attempts to resolve this difficulty. Rashi claims:

It is chessed - In Aramaic – disgusting. (Rashi ad. loc.)

This involves a certain degree of textual manipulation and is not the only solution. Noting the tradition that Cain and Abel were born with twin sisters (if not who did they marry?), the Midrash states:

Said Rebbi Shimon to him - does it not say, ‘If a man should take his sister - his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness?’ Rather by investigation, one can derive that they did not have other women to marry, so they were permitted to them, as the verse says, ‘the world is built on chessed’. The world was built on chessed until the Torah was given. Rebbi Yosef said - Kayin and Hevel had twin sisters as the verse says, ‘And she conceived and bore Kayin.’ (Pirkey D’Rebbi Eli’ezer 21)

This is based on the verse in Psalms that the ‘world is built on chessed’ (89:3), the simple meaning of which is that the world is built on acts of kindness. It is reinterpreted by this Midrash to mean that the world was founded on the incestuous relationship between Cain and his sister! This is reflected in the Aramaic translation of our verse:

If a man should take his sister - his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness - it is disgusting. For He acted kindly with the early generations in order to populate the world from them when there was no future for the world.... (Targum Yonatan ben Uziel ad. loc.)

A remaining question is obvious. What changed? Why did God wish to found the world on this type of relationship, which later became forbidden in the strongest of terms? After all, He could have created a number of families, which would have avoided the need for incest. The Ishbitzer Rebbe (1800-1854, Poland) offers a unique perspective:

This subject indicates to us that one should not say that since God loves me at my core I can do whatever I like. Rather, this love is similar to the love of siblings which is rooted in love which comes with no effort. For God wants Man, through his efforts and actions that God should love him. But should one say - but the beginning of creation was not through the actions of Man or impulse from him… For God wanted in His kindness without the input of Man as it was at the creation of the world. But after the creation of the world, God wanted that Yisrael should be chosen, but only through work and clarification.... Therefore it writes, ‘it is chessed. They shall be cut off before the eyes of the children of their people’ for if one does not make an effort with his actions and his Mitzvah activities, then God will remove His love from him and show before all that he is distanced from God. (May HaShiloach 2, ad. loc.)

This text is difficult, but in essence tells us that the brother-sister relationship is ‘too easy’. It’s not simply because there are no in-laws! No effort is required to form the relationship: godliness is brought into the world through the struggle and dynamic of relationship. In short, such a relationship strips away the purpose of existence. In the early stage of the world, humanity needed this ease to ‘get things going’, but once it matured, it became an anathema to the very purpose set by God for the world.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Halachic Child

In an attempt to catch the last moments of holiday spirit, my wife and I took our children to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in West London on the day after Pesach. It was a magnificent day, matched by the beauty and diversity of the displays at the gardens. I hadn’t visited Kew Gardens for many years and had forgotten just how glorious it is. Our children, while initially reluctant to be schlepped along, enjoyed themselves in the end. A couple of comments they made there prompted me to write.

We were visiting the palm house admiring the trees when my elder son, who is seven, pointed at a gigantic leaf and asked, ‘Daddy, if this were Romaine, how many kezaytim (olive-volumes) could you get from that?’ This was a reference to the quantity of lettuce required for bitter herbs at the Seder. The answer, of course, was hundreds, but that is beside the point.

A little later, we were standing near some steps leading up to a building. At the side of the steps was a smooth concrete incline topped by a horizontal slab. Two of our daughters, aged eight and seven, observed that the structure looked like the altar in the Temple. When I smiled uncomprehendingly, they kindly explained that the incline was the ramp leading up to the altar and the slab at the top was the altar itself. Obvious, really.

All this gave my wife and me much pleasure: we are blessed with great kids who are a credit to us and to their schools. My students constantly laugh at how much the children are like me. To a degree they are right, yet in so many ways, they see the world through very different eyes to mine. To be sure, I am the product of many years of intensive Yeshivah and Kollel education, yet I did not begin my development in the same type of family or schooling to which they are exposed and do not see the world in the same way that they do. We are fortunate to live in a Jewish community where we can provide our children with an outstanding, balanced education: their school day may cover a spectrum from a Rashi to arithmetic, Mishnah to music, cholent to Tchaikovsky. Nonetheless, they observe the world primarily though the prism of the Torah: their first understanding of every encounter involves a halachic (Jewish legal) or hashkafic (Jewish conceptual) perspective.

I do not, and probably never will, look at a tropical plant at Kew Gardens and automatically think ‘quantities for bitter herbs’. My eight-year-old daughter was slightly bemused by the fact that I did not instantly recognise the concrete structure outside the temperate house as a miniature altar.

‘Echad Mi Yodea’ (who knows one?) is a curious song appended to the Seder. It’s a little like ‘The house that Jack built’, progressing from one God, through two tablets, three forefathers, etc. and ending with the thirteen attributes of Divine mercy. The great Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, zt”l, offered a wonderful insight into why it appears at the Seder: it is a type of Jewish word-association game. In the regular version, I say ‘fork’ and you say the first word that comes into your mind, perhaps ‘knife’, and we continue from there. The Jewish version, sung after a long night of absorbing the wonders of Jewish national origins and praising God, is ‘Echad Mi Yodea’. When I say ‘one’, the first thing that should pop into your mind is ‘God’, ‘four’ should be ‘matriarchs’, ‘seven’ ‘Shabbat’, etc. It’s a kind of test as to how successful the Seder has been.

In the same vein, the development of what my wife cleverly termed ‘Halachic Child’ is a good indicator of the Jewishness of the child’s home and schooling. It’s not to say that the child will not also think of ‘The Beatles’ in response to the number ‘four’ or ‘wonders of the ancient world’ for ‘seven’, but it’s the first answer that counts. I’m so proud of my children.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Pesach And Jewish Continuity (Pesach 5767)

Can the message of Pesach retain its value and meaning in the world of 2007 – a world of MRI scans, al Qaeda and Richard Dawkins? This is not just a question about Pesach, but also about the whole of Jewish life and thought. If Pesach is no longer relevant to our children, then we have no hope of successfully promoting the concept that the Jewish past must inform the Jewish future. If we find ourselves unable to relate to the national life of the Jewish people, if we fail to be inspired by its achievements and governed by its rules, then we may as well shut up shop now, and go with the flow of assimilation. The Pesach experience, especially the Seder, is seminal to the process of what is sometimes called Jewish Continuity. In its true form, Jewish Continuity is certainly a precious goal, something for which we all strive and hope. Every person reading this wants to have Jewish grandchildren who are not merely Jewish by name, but have a sense of Jewish history, an appreciation of Torah concepts and ideals and at least a modicum of observance, all coupled with the will and enthusiasm to impart all of that to their children.

It is clear that in Anglo-Jewry we have not broadly succeeded in doing this. To be sure, the observant community is growing in leaps and bounds, but elsewhere, in the heartlands of Anglo-Jewry, the message is not getting through. To be sure, there are many notable exceptions: Shuls, communities and outreach programmes that have had a major impact, but many places, the prognosis looks dire.

One of the keys to success is persistence. There is a beautiful parable for this, which will make things clearer. (It also involves a frog, which makes it suitable for Pesach!) A frog once fell into a bowl of milk. It realised that it had no hope of survival, as the milk was deep and the walls of the bowl too high to climb – the best that could possibly managed would be to tread water / milk for a while until exhaustion would set in and drowning became inevitable. So, thought the frog, why bother – I might as well drown now and save all the trouble. He shut his eyes, stopped struggling and drowned. A second frog fell into a bowl of milk. After making the same assessment as his lantsman, he closed his eyes and drowned. A third frog fell into a bowl of milk, but this one was a fighter. He paid no heed to the hopelessness of the situation, and ignoring all evidence to the contrary, remained convinced that he would survive. So he paddled and kicked with all his might, determined to keep going. As his flailing became more and more vigorous, the milk began to turn into butter and when most of it had solidified, he simply climbed out, tired, but alive to jump another day. The application of the parable is clear – continuous efforts, despite perilous conditions, are likely to produce some results. The Haggadah tells us:

In every generation, one is obliged to see oneself as if one has personally come out from Egypt…. Not only did the Holy One, may He be blessed, redeem our ancestors, but He redeemed us with them…

Can we really see the exodus as a personal experience – didn’t it happen over 3300 years ago? The truth is that unless we see Judaism as an experience of the here and now, we are finished. History is interesting, but by definition, it lives in the past – in books and memories, but not in the present. We can’t sell people a history book as a lifestyle, unless the experiences are direct and meaningful today.

Pesach and the Seder represent for us the conjunction of history and present. Rabbi Berel Wein, a well-known contemporary Jewish thinker and historian, points out something very interesting about his own family Seder. He notes that as a child, he sat at his grandfather’s Seder, at which his grandfather recalled his own childhood experiences with his grandfather, a man who could remember the great 19th century ethical teacher, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. At Rabbi Wein’s Seder, he sits with his grandchildren, who will be able, in due course and God willing, to share stories about their grandfather with their own grandchildren. Thus at one current Seder, we can see an experience potential spanning several generations. As Rabbi Wein points out, very few (less than 20) such structures are needed to bridge the gap between the exodus and the present day.

But to create meaning across the generations, tremendous effort is required. Indeed this only has meaning if the imperatives, ethics and goals of the past are shared with the present. Otherwise, in our minds, grandfather’s grandfather is a dinosaur, an artefact from a long-dead age, while grandchildren’s grandchildren inhabit a future unimaginably different from the world of today. The redemptive spirit of Pesach seeks, through our own efforts, to redress this – it links us to our past and, perhaps more importantly, it helps to assure our future. Only if we take Judaism and its wealth of ideas and experiences seriously can we say that we ourselves have been redeemed. We always have the chance to start afresh – to be redeemed and commence the path of spiritual growth once again. If we are prepared to do this, we, like the frog, may be able to climb out of the milk once and for all and create an unshakeable link across the generations. This is true Jewish Continuity.