Jewish tradition takes pride in these words, we will do and heed-na’aseh v’nishmah and one Talmudic passage even have God wondering who revealed this great secret, these words to the Jewish People. The context of course is Sinai and these words are seen as the great acceptance of Torah. The technical term for these words is hysteron proteron, “latter before” where the first term actually occurs after the second term, for example, put on your shoes and socks, but is placed first to emphasize its importance. Israel commits herself at Sinai to the totality of practice, even without necessarily knowing the extent of the laws.
Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, author of the Netivot Shalom, offers an additional reading of these words. He sees na’aseh as a commitment to do God’s will, even in the absence of specific details or legal injuctions. While fully faithful to traditional Jewish practice as legally binding, Berezovsky still understands that even in the most strict attention to observance, one must ask am I doing God’s will. While one could use this idea in an antinomian direction, for Berezovsky the question might be as I observe a particular practice, am I doing it in a way pleasing to God and one that really reflects the will of the Divine?
One of the best examples where this insight can be seen is in the case of Maimonides. In his legal work, he discusses the laws of slavery. While many would initially recoil from imagining that such laws should play a role in our tradition, nonetheless they are firmly rooted in Biblical practice. While the laws associated with Jewish slaves serve as a way for a slave to pay off enormous debt, Jews were permitted to own non-Jewish slaves. Even while acknowledging this, and codifying it, Maimonides says as follows:
It is permissible to have a Canaanite slave perform excruciating labor. Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress. He should allow them to partake of all the food and drink he serves. This was the practice of the Sages of the first generations who would give their slaves from every dish of which they themselves would partake. And they would provide food for their animals and slaves before partaking of their own meals. And so, it is written Psalms 123:2: “As the eyes of slaves to their master’s hand, and like the eyes of a maid-servant to her mistress’ hand, so are our eyes to God.”
Similarly, we should not embarrass a slave by our deeds or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims. This is explicitly stated with regard to the positive paths of Job for which he was praised Job 31:13, 15: “Have I ever shunned justice for my slave and maid-servant when they quarreled with me…. Did not He who made me in the belly make him? Was it not the One who prepared us in the womb?”
Cruelty and arrogance are found only among idol-worshipping gentiles. By contrast, the descendants of Abraham our patriarch, i.e., the Jews whom the Holy One, blessed be He, granted the goodness of the Torah and commanded to observe righteous statutes and judgments, are merciful to all.
And similarly, with regard to the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He, which He commanded us to emulate, it is written Psalms 145:9: “His mercies are upon all of His works.” And whoever shows mercy to others will have mercy shown to him, as implied by Deuteronomy 13:18: “He will show you mercy, and be merciful upon you and multiply you.”
In effect what Maimonides has done here is to be honest with what exists within Jewish tradition in a specific case and then asked what really the will of God should be in this case. Looking at the tradition as a whole, Maimonides transform the question of what is permissible or forbidden to rather one of how does my behavior best reflect God’s will. For Maimonides it is to emulate God’s practice of mercy which effectively undoes what one is theoretically permitted to do. The righteous statutes and judgments, our commandments, must lead us to be merciful in all our actions.
This being the case, then we can suggest na’aseh v’nishmah is not a revolutionary call, but rather one of evolutionary development. It seeks to move us in a direction that does not undermine past practice as primitive or lacking authority, but rather pushes us to ask the broader religious question. It is not a commitment only to mechanical practice, but to a deep moral conscious behavior.
The Exodus from Egypt is considered to be the foundational/orienting event for our sacred history. Many commandments are attached to its memory and it can be argued that our experience there is a source for our ethics and morality. “Do not afflict the stranger because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” Morality is not only a product of reason, but of historical experience. Included in our tradition as well is a prohibition to return to Egypt. For some the Biblical source is Exodus 14:13, when just as the People came to the Red Sea and were being pursued by the Egyptians “Moses said to the people, Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity.”
There are a number of explanations offered for this prohibition, but it does appear that the Torah is wary of our returning to the place of intense degradation and suffering. Egypt is the place we left from in order to become a People. Does returning there somehow undo and reverse our sacred history? Should you return to a place of oppression and suffering? Can it ever be home?
We know that this prohibition was not followed and a Jewish community flourished in Egypt since the time of the Second Temple. Traditional commentaries wrestle with this seeming violation and offer a number of justifications for Jews living in Egypt. Indeed our source of so much knowledge of our history was unearthed in the past century from the riches of the Cairo Genizah.
This particular case of Egypt comes to mind for me because last week I spent two days in Berlin with rabbis from Chicago. Berlin is a magnificent city and while many buildings are new, many damaged during the War have been restored. As Jews, it is a city central to modern Jewish history. Berlin is also a city of over 130 Holocaust memorials, many of which were constructed as grass roots efforts by the residents of the city and are scattered in many neighborhoods. There is the striking Jewish museum visited by mostly non Jews. But the German Jewish community that thrived there is no more.
This is not however, the end of the story. Berlin is a city with a Jewish community that is slowly being reconstituted with Jews from the former Soviet Union. There are two rabbinical seminaries, one Liberal and one Orthodox. They are training rabbis to serve throughout Germany. Chabad is there as well. Yet one wonders: is this the place Jews should return to after the horrors of the Holocaust? Even as Germany has recognized itself as the perpetrator of the crime, should Jewish civilization reconstitute itself here?
In 1961, Gershom Scholem spoke in Israel at a program celebrating Martin Buber’s translation of the Bible into German, a project begun by him and Franz Rosenzweig in Berlin before the War. Scholem ended his speech with: “For many of us the living sound you tried to evoke in the German language has faded away. Will anyone be found to take it up again?” On my recent trip the German born Masorati rabbi in Berlin, when asked what it meant to live in a city and country that sought to annihilate us answered: Where else can you read Zunz, Buber and Rosenzweig in the original? And finally when asked why go into the rabbinate in Germany, one of the rabbis responded that they were engaged in the ultimate rebuttal of Hitler.
The State of the Jewish Union is… Meh, we’ll see.
Education is the beating heart of Judaism. Where the secular world sees wisdom as a means to power, Judaism sees wisdom as an end unto itself. “Torah L’ishma, Torah study, learning for it’s own sake,” for the shear holiness of the endeavor, is a distinctly Jewish goal. The Torah’s expansive rabbinic commentary, the Mishnah, the Talmud, all of the Midrashim, and all of the articulated Halachot, all of the ever-sprawling Oral Torah has at it’s central goal, to have holiness touch the heart of man.
Just as wisdom for Her own sake is a specifically Jewish concept, the Jewish approach to learning is likewise unique. Both learning and experience are expected: “Eim ein Kemach, ein Torah, Eim ein Torah, ein Kemah - Without a livelihood there can be not Torah, without Torah there can be no livelihood.” In such a concept there is a built in human dynamic because no two people can have the exact same experience. Thus the study of God requires the interaction between human’s. Why were human beings created in the image of God? Rabbi Heschel taught that it was a response to one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shall Not Make an Image of God? – Since man cannot live without God, God made man in God’s image to be a constant reminder. Yet no two of us are exactly alike. And this is the key to understanding the specific nexus that Judaism finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century: For us there has always been a necessary, incalculable balance between the individual and the whole. It is a paradox.
The traditional Jewish learning style is called Hevruta, from the Hebrew root, Haver, friend. Ideal study does not happen in a vacuum, but rather, with another opinion, another world view and set of experiences. Without a counter-balanced voice, one might have the hubris to believe that he or she is right – and one might vary well be correct. But Judaism believes in a multiplicity of correct views. Remember Fiddler on the Roof?
It was a horse!
It was a mule!
You’re both right.
How can they both be right?
You’re also right.
Two Jews three opinions -right? Of course right, but why? The Torah is like a diamond, one beautiful gem with countless facets. Each person is sees Her light refracted through the particular prism of his or her particular vantage. And it was meant to be this way. Only, we are asked to consider the vary truths we hold about the most sacred texts and ideas that we know ALSO from the perspective of the other. We are asked to collect perspectives of other peoples facets as a way of getting as close as we can to the ultimate light of this dazzling diamond. This is amazing. Amazing and scary and beautiful.
Today there is such a polarization of views: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic, Jewish- Buddhist, and my favorite, the quickly growing “Just Jewish.” My concern is that almost all perspectives on our beautiful religion have been poisoned by the often polarizing forces of modernity: Branding and expedience asks us to choose between competing ideas, this OR that, rather than the native Jewish mode of celebrating competing ideas, this AND that. The Torah commands, “You Shall have but one Torah,” which some have come to understand as “my way, and not yours.” Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is rampant – it weakens Judaism, it tears us apart. Where we once modeled how to deal with the paradox of competing values and perspectives, we have more often than not succumbed to the myopic view of “I” and “Me” forgetting completely that God is found in dialogue with the “Other.” If we continue to diminish the light of Torah by holding only our “truth” above other’s, one of the sad outcome of modernity’s denomenationalism, we fail to rise to the call of being a “light unto the nations.”
Thus lies the importance of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders mission: Pluralism is the only authentically Jewish way into the 21 Century. Different rabbis from varying perspectives support each other in their multiplicity of Jewish expressions. We disagree, we challenge, but we also always support each other. It is the only truly authentic way of Jewish learning, of being Jewish. Judaism will quickly sink into irrelevance if it cannot recover its central truth that ONLY differences that remain in dialogue are holy.
Here is the humbling truth of Judaism at the crossroads of the superconductor quickness of modernity: Jewish expressions that see themselves as “more authentic” than another ultimately subvert the light of the entire Torah precisely at a time when humanity needs Her as a beacon.
After hours of excruciating labor, the sweetest sound that can be heard is that of a crying baby. That first cry lets us know that this new child has working lungs and can breathe. But that cry doesn’t only represent physical health – it also symbolizes emotional sensitivity, the ability to connect, the desire to love and to be loved. When we read this week’s Torah portion – Parshat Shemot – if we listen closely, we just might be able to hear this cry. This is the cry that the midwives refused to turn their backs on, refused to silence, refused to discard. This is the cry that demanded a response, propelling the midwives to ignore Pharaoh’s command to kill Jewish boys. This is the cry of humanity, of justice, of a better tomorrow.
This is only the first of a handful of cries in our portion. The second comes from Moses, as he lies helpless in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter hears his sobs, and responds – feeling compassion for this small child. It is this cry that wakes up a young woman, removing her from the cruel ways of her father’s home, and softening her heart.
And then there is the cry of Bnai Yisrael (the People Israel), yearning for God to help elevate them from their misery. It is only after God hears these cries that God can respond. And likewise, it is only after God cries out to Moses – saying “Moshe! Moshe!” at the burning bush – that Moses can respond to God, and be God’s partner in freeing the slaves.
I love that this Torah portion falls right before Martin Luther King Day. A man who cried out for freedom and equality for all people, Dr. King articulated the necessity of the cry, and the urgency of the response. Both Dr. King and our Torah portion remind us that we cannot simply sit back and allow injustice to flourish. We must have the courage to cry out, from the top of our lungs, and from the top of a mountain. And we must have the conviction to respond, listening closely, making space for the small cries of those who are downtrodden, refusing to turn our backs on the pain, prejudice, and alienation that still exists in our very communities.
This Shabbat, as we read from the book of Exodus, may we commit to the tremendous task of making Dr. King’s dream a reality.
There is an oft quoted description of Torah being a combination of black fire and white fire and, perhaps surprisingly, the white fire is holier than the black fire. The black fire represents the letters of the Torah scroll and the white fire is the parchments upon which it is written. Meaning is derived from not only the letters and the words, but the spaces in between, the gaps between words, the interpretive possibilities the Text leaves open for us, the “seventy faces of the Torah.” While many may correctly debate the boundaries of possible interpretation, the tradition is rich with multiple viewpoints on just about everything.
In a certain twist, the Torah portion for this week, Parashat V’yechi, begins without the white fire, the usual open space between the conclusion of the previous week’s portion and the beginning of the new one. This anomaly also calls for interpretation and the Biblical commentator Rashi suggests that this lack of open space, this closure, alludes to the dimming and closing of the hearts and minds of the Israelites in Egypt as they began to become slaves to Pharaoh and lose their freedom.
The great Hasidic commentator, the Sefat Emet, points out that the actual slavery did not begin until some years later after the passing of all of Jacob’s children. He suggests that with Jacob’s death they suffered a deep spiritual loss, a loss of inner spiritual authenticity, of which they were not even aware. They became closed to their inner spiritual truth and this was the beginning of slavery and exile for the Israelites. They were not even aware of this closing. This inner spiritual loss is the true meaning of exile.
My friend Rabbi Josh Feigelson runs an exciting project for Hillel called “Ask Big Questions.” One of these reflective questions is “Where is home?” It is not really a question of geography, although one’s answer can certainly include certain geographical space. George Steiner, in a beautiful (and somewhat anti-Zionist) essay, Our Homeland, the Text (1985) asserts that home is the “…the ‘textual’ fabric, the interpretative practices in Judaism are ontologically and historically at the heart of Jewish identity.” There is no question that I feel most at home in that textual fabric.
The “big question” the Sefat Emet asks us is “Where is exile?” It is an important question to keep in mind and challenge us as we so often feel at home in so many places and environments that welcome us and engage us. It also compels us to ask that specifically in the places where we feel most comfortable are we remaining true to our inner spiritual truth. Given all that has happened the past couple of weeks in Israel, this teaching can remind us that one can be in exile even at home when our inner core is hidden and our concern for external appearance governs our behavior.
“What is Hanukah?” the Talmud asks and typically each year at this time we are reminded by a variety of writers what the “true” meaning of Hanukah is. From the pages of the Wall Street Journal to numerous websites, scholars, rabbis, educators, and the “man (sic) on the street” offer their take on the nature of Hanukah. To be clear, many of these pieces are quite engaging and informative and this year I have certainly profited from their insights.
It is in this vein, I want to share an approach of Rabbi Isaac Hutner obm. In one of his teachings R. Hutner suggests that the lasting impact of Greece on Israel was the development of machloket-differences of opinion as to the practice of Torah. The Greeks, through their decrees, caused Torah to be forgotten and it was this forgetting that created differences of opinions as to what the correct practice was and should be. It was the war with the Greeks and their defeat at the time of Hanukah that created the “war over Torah”, the sometimes acrimonious debates in which rabbis and sages engage in order to recover what was lost during the persecutions by the Greeks . The legacy of Greece is the legacy of the darkness caused by the accurate tradition of Torah being lost. However, this legacy of darkness and forgetting is compensated by the recovery project of the sages, the “war over Torah” which increased the knowledge of Torah itself. Debate led to new understandings and insights. Even the rejected positions had to be justified and explained. The legacy of Hanukah is the increased light of knowledge of Torah overcoming the darkness of the forgotten Torah. It was the forgetting caused by the Greeks that allowed Torah to expand exponentially in its scope and knowledge.
This rather inadequate summary of my reading of R. Hutner’s teaching I hope will lead the reader to explore it in depth in the original. To be sure not all agree with R Hutner’s understanding of the origin of machloket- differences of opinion. In the context of his teaching I do want to reflect on “war over Torah”. While the tradition itself hopes and expects that the “enemies” in this battle, who are after all sages, will become “lovers” in the end, there is a danger in intellectual/religious battle that one go overboard and flex one’s muscles in a way that ventures far beyond a search for truth to a destruction of civility. There are examples of this in the Talmud. We certainly see this problem pervading our own political and religious discourse. Perhaps even in this pursuit of truth we may have to stop sometimes and not use it as a license for slamming those with whom we may have even profound disagreement.
However R. Hutner asserts something that may appear at first as counterintuitive. True love he says only can emerge from those with whom you have disagreement. Becoming “lovers” is only possible because you had profound differences and were able to engage them in a way that brought you closer in the end. Becoming closer does not mean reaching full agreement, but it does mean having a deep attachment to your ideological opponent. What might our discourse look like if we retained this as a goal even while maintaining our deep convictions and commitment to pursuing the truth as we conceive it?
Is this true of our most intimate relationships as well? Might it be that learning how to truly argue without achieving full agreement is what can bring lovers the closest? The answer to that I leave to you, in the meantime Happy Hanukah.
It was dry inside the Avalon Theatre in Washington, D.C.’s Chevy Chase neighborhood. The audience for the 22nd Washington Jewish Film Festival sat mesmerized as they watched the opening night Israeli film, “Mabul” (“The Flood”).
“Mabul” tells the difficult story of an Israeli family whose eldest son is severely autistic. After 12 years of living in an institution, Tomer is abruptly sent home and arrives just before his younger brother’s bar mitzvah. Tomer’s presence creates havoc within the family and challenges the tolerance of the residents of the village where Yoni, the younger brother, lives with his parents.
Throughout this heart-wrenching drama — overflowing with scenes of bullying, infidelity and a near-death drowning experience — you see Yoni practicing his trope. His Torah portion is Noach, from Genesis 6. We experience the metaphorical emotional flood that comes in waves during the course of the film.
“These are the generations of Noach. Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted. Noach walked with God.”
Several months ago, Adam, an autistic 21-year-old had his bar mitzvah in our synagogue. Adam also sings in our temple choir; during rehearsal, he sometimes mimics other members. However, he is always in tune and on pitch. During his bar mitzvah ceremony, the cantor stood next to Adam for support as he chanted his entire portion without hesitation. The young man simply sang back the trope exactly the way his teacher had chanted it. Exactly. With the same intonation, the same rhythmic cadences, the same beautiful phrases. As a community, we experienced a miracle!
In “Mabul,” the bar mitzvah creates expectations and tensions for this family in crisis. As I watched the film, I pondered whether it was necessary to pursue this once-in-a-lifetime ritual given the family’s challenging situation. Who needs this bar mitzvah anyway?
We, the audience, need this bar mitzvah in order to celebrate. Yoni and Tomer’s family needs this bar mitzvah in order to function as a family again. The community needs this bar mitzvah in order to validate its traditions.
And as in every good film, in “Mabul” everyone is transformed and redemption takes place inside the house of worship. In spite of all the evil that surrounds these characters, just like in the story of Noach the good dominates.
“And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations.”
Yoni begins to chant his Torah portion and the sounds of his older brother, Tomer, follow his lead. Together, as brothers, they share this long-awaited bar mitzvah. Two by two. Heart to heart. Trope by trope.
A young man adorned with a black hat, a prayer shawl and phylacteries offers up his morning prayers in the same library where I study with my erudite Talmud teacher.
On Mondays, I infuse my mind and spirit with the insights of the Babylonian Talmud. Three Modern Orthodox male lawyers and I (a post-denominational female rabbi) find delight in analyzing the legal codes associated with voluminous pages of the detailed conversations and arguments of the rabbis.
Today I am the teacher’s only pupil. I concentrate on reading the Rashi script.
The man with the black hat paces back and forth in front of the room as he choreographs his prayer dance before God. He moves with quiet determination while he places his black and white tallis over his shoulders. He wraps the tefillin around his arm and on his forehead. He adjusts his black hat often and deliberately. I see him focusing on his paperback prayer book, but I cannot detect any sound.
My teacher, oblivious to the young man’s presence, continues to expound on the first sugya (passage). The man with the black hat is my distraction. Is he offended that a woman and a man are studying holy texts together? If so, why doesn’t he take his prayers to another place? Is he eavesdropping on our learning while concentrating on his blessings? Does he find it interesting? Or amusing? Is he surprised at my agility with the Hebrew text, or has he succumbed to the beauty of my teacher’s Talmudic treatises?
I longed to tell him my “Yentl” story.
My father, an Orthodox rabbi, had no sons to transmit his passion for Torah learning. Instead, when I entered rabbinical school at the age of forty and took my first Talmud class, I realized a dream. Every night after class, my father and I studied Talmud. The intimacy of our reflections opened up more than the secrets revealed on the written page. I immersed myself in the wisdom of my father, the greatest gift of my life.
The thrill of those intimate discussions flashed like lightning into my heart space as I held the Talmud in my hands and ingested the instruction of my tutor.
We have many teachers in life. Some remind us of other teachers, not by what they know,
but how they transmit what they know.
The attendance of the man with the black hat solidified the devotion and the dedication
the three of us sustained in the room filled with the books of our people. How could he not have stayed? He soaked up the deliberations of the Talmud just as I had done decades before with my father at my parents’ kitchen table in the Bronx.
Is it permissible to begin your morning prayers while the study of Talmud between a man and a woman is already in motion? According to the man with the black hat, it is permissible and precious.