Monday, November 03, 2014
Last week was the first Shabbat that we could make Kiddush and Havdalah with the kids, thanks to what is known in Israel as shaon horef, the winter clock. For the first time this season, the kids were awake when the Shabbat siren went off and Matan could rebuke me with cries of “Muktzah, muktzah” when I tried to give our very congested Liav one more dosage on the nebulizer machine during the “eighteen” minutes. Soon we were all lighting candles together in front of an open window, watching the rainstorm abate and breathing in the scent of the freshly-washed earth, as if it too had bathed for Shabbat. The twins, now 1.5, saw me cover my eyes and started playing along, convinced that it was a game of peek-a-boo, known in Hebrew as “Cuckoo.” And so I blessed over the candles to cries of Cuckoo, and then we all made our way around the corner to the neighborhood shul. On the five-minute walk home Matan and Tagel delighted in splashing through the puddle-wonderful driveway; Liav simply took off her shoes and sat on the ground, waiting for someone to pick her up. We came home, took off the kids’ wet clothes, and made Kiddush and Motzi – and miraculously everyone managed to hold off on drinking or spilling their grape juice until it was time. It felt like an idyllic Shabbat -- until it was not.
On Shabbat afternoon we were all cooped up inside because it was raining again. The sky was dark and overcast and I was reminded of the first line of Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” For us, too, “the cold winter had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.” The kids needed constant attention and D and I were exhausted, and at some point I snapped at him unnecessarily. He snapped back. We kept carping at one another, and before long the storm outside was nothing compared to the tempest in our teapot. Arguing in front of the kids on Shabbat; it doesn’t get worse than that, I thought.
I am fortunate that D has a capacious and forgiving soul, and by the time we had turned off the lights and gathered around the havdalah candle—with the kids all washed and ready for bed, excited about the fire and the grape juice—we had more or less made up. But I was still reeling from our fight when I sat down later that evening to read through the following week’s parsha, Vayera. It is a parsha about family dynamics – about the relationship between Abraham and his wife Sarah, Lot and his daughters, Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac. No one has an out-and-out fight, but nor are these models of exemplary relationships.
When the parsha opens, Abraham invites three strangers into his tent, commanding Sarah to “Hurry, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” (18:6) He does not say please or invoke any terms of endearment, nor does he take the time to explain to her why he needs this food so quickly or invite her to join the messengers once they break bread. When Sarah overhears the news that she is going to have a son, she laughs: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?” (18:12) Later she realizes that she has insulted Abraham and covers up by lying, insisting that in fact she did not laugh.
In the parsha’s next scene, Abraham tries and fails to count out ten righteous men so as to defend Sodom from destruction. The angels arrive at the gates of the city and Lot greets them and welcomes them into his home. When the townsmen demand that he release these new arrivals so that they can abuse them, Lot instead offers his own daughters: “I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof” (19:7-8). It is presumably those same daughters who then go on to get their father drunk and sleep with him after the destruction of Sodom: “Our father is old… Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father” (20:31-32).
If these family dynamics weren’t awful enough, the camera then pans back to Abraham and Sarah, who have just arrived in Gerar. Abraham lies and says that Sarah is his sister so as to save his own life, since he is concerned that the king of the place, Avimelech, will kill him so as to take his wife. Following the episode with Avimelech, Isaac is born and Sarah insists that Abraham cast out his other son Ishmael, who is banished to the wilderness. And of course, after banishing one son, Abraham proceeds nearly to sacrifice his second son in response to a divine command in the parsha’s climactic final scene.
Taken as a whole, the figures who populate this week’s parsha seem to be far kinder and more sympathetic to outsiders than to their own family members. Abraham privileges the needs of strangers over his wife’s feelings, and Lot protects those same strangers by sacrificing his own daughters. Abraham listens to God’s voice, which makes him the patriarch of the Jewish people; but he does so at the expense of his own sons. Why?
Alas, I can identify all too well with this tendency. With our own families, we sometimes make the mistake of believing that we can get away with behavior that would be unpardonable with others. Our family members love us unconditionally, so if we fly off the handle on a particular rainy afternoon, then surely they will come around and forgive us. Perhaps it is also the case that we assume that our family members are part of ourselves; if we are rude to them, it is only because we are acting as a team towards some higher purpose – say, to be hospitable to angelic guests, or to perpetuate humanity after terrible destruction. We forget that the people we love have feelings, and that those feelings ought to be as dear to us as our own. When they hurt, we hurt. And it is precisely because they love us unconditionally that we must guard their feelings so carefully.
The midrash states, “Great is peace, for the great name that was written in holiness may be erased for the sake of peace between a man and his wife” (Vayikra Rabba 9:9). The midrash refers to the Sotah ritual, whereby a man who suspects his wife of adultery tests her by bringing her to the Temple, where the priest writes out the divine name and dissolves it in water. God allows for God’s own name to be erased so that there is peace within the house. My intention here is not to condemn our Biblical forbears, who are powerful if complex role models. But the next time I find myself about to lose my temper with the people I love most, I hope I will stop and count to ten. I may not be able to save the city, but hopefully I will preserve peace within the walls of our home.
Monday, October 27, 2014
On First Looking into Masekhet Yevamot in Summer 2007: A Retrospective
I was unmarried throughout the entire year and a half in which I first learned Seder Nashim, the order of the Talmud that deals with the relationships between husbands and wives. As I pored over Talmudic pages about who is permitted to marry whom, and how betrothal takes place, and what happens if a woman is suspected of being unfaithful, I was reminded of a story about Rabbi Akiva, who tried to come up with a midrash about the plague of frogs in Egypt. “There was just one frog,” said Akiva, interpreting the Biblical verse which literally reads, “The frog came up and covered the land of Egypt” (Exodus 8:2). His colleagues, upon hearing Akiva explain that this one frog in turn gave rise to enough frogs to cover Egypt, go on to chide him for expounding on matters of Aggada. Akiva’s expertise was halakha; he had no business coming up with creative midrashic explanations. As Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya rebuked, “Akiva, what are you doing studying Aggada? Desist from these words, and go study the laws of skin blemishes and impure tents” (Sanhedrin 67b). As a single woman living alone, I felt like I had as much business studying Seder Nashim as Rabbi Akiva had studying Aggada. But I too could not help but be drawn to fairy tales and make-believe, and often in my study of Nashim I found myself daydreaming about that one-and-only Frog who would overlook my blemishes and come to my tent in the guise of a handsome prince.
The name of the first tractate in Nashim, Yevamot, literally means sisters-in-law, and deals with the Biblical law of levirate marriage whereby a man is obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow so long as she is childless. This is the case even if the man already has a wife, since men in Talmudic times were permitted to marry more than one woman. The rival co-wives of polygamous men are known as tzarot, a word that also means troubles. And so when I began learning this tractate during the summer of 2007, I jokingly referred to this period as my summer of tzarot. If nothing else, there was the trouble of how to understand the complicated family relationships discussed in this tracate, such as the case of a man whose brother is married to his mother-in-law, or the case of two men who accidentally switch wives under the wedding canopy, and other confusing liaisons.
And then, of course, there was the trouble of being single. Officially I was still dating Omri, but our relationship was faltering, and by that point I was pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be. I probably ought to have broken up with him sooner than I did, but I was more scared of being alone than of being with the wrong person – and this says a lot, given that I’d been married to the wrong person just two years earlier. That summer in addition to learning Yevamot, I reread D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover when a used copy appeared in the rack outside my local bookstore. I recall being struck by several passages about the difficulty of finding a suitable mate: “The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few, in most personal experiences. There’s lots of good fish in the sea – maybe! But the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself, you are inclined to find very few good fish in the sea.” This lack of eligible single men in Jerusalem was a frequently-voiced lament among my female friends, who always seemed to far outstrip their male counterparts. Lawrence says this explicitly: “‘Go ye into the streets and by-ways of Jerusalem, and see if you can find a man.’ It had been impossible to find a man in the Jerusalem of the prophet -- though there were thousands of male humans. But a man! C’est une autre chose!”
If I found no one in Jerusalem, I resolved, I would head to Harpania, a meeting place for singles who had no luck in their home towns (Yevamot 17a). Rabbi Zeira says that the town Harpania comes from the two Hebrew words har (mountain) and poneh (turn). Harpania is the city that people turn to if they come from such bad genealogical lines that no one wants to marry them: “Whoever cannot identify his family and his tribe turns there to find a mate.” It is clear from the Talmud that the Jews of Talmudic Babylonia were very preoccupied with their family trees. They prided themselves in tracing their ancestry all the way back to the Babylonian exile in the days of King Yechonia (600 BCE). And they were interested in marrying only those of “pure lineage,” those who could construct family trees back for generations. Certain parts of Babylonia were regarded as genealogically “purer” than others, and apparently Harpania was the worst; as Rava goes on to say, “Harpania is deeper than hell.” And so anyone who could not find someone to marry was encouraged to try Harpania, home of the least eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.
Jerusalem was probably not quite as bad as Harpania, but even so, the dating scene did not look good for women. Once I accompanied a friend to a singles event--the only such event I ever attended--and was distressed to see that the women outnumbered the men by nearly two to one. And the gap was not just in quantity, but in quality as well. Most of the women were dressed in stockings and modest but flattering fitted skirts, with any gray hairs dyed, and any wrinkles or skin blemishes covered by painstakingly applied make-up. The men—their pants baggy, their hair disheveled—looked like they had just rolled out of bed. I imagined the men and women as items on sale in a supermarket: The women were the perishables, stamped with expiration dates that were rapidly approaching. The men were the canned goods; they didn’t look all that appealing, but they could remain on the shelves indefinitely until someone finally decided to pick them off the shelf. Everyone sat in a circle nibbling on stale cookies and drinking apple juice from a carton in plastic cups, playing silly icebreaker games led by a pretty woman in a bright purple dress, her hair wrapped in a colorful turban. Whenever it was my turn, she flashed me a smile that seemed kind but patronizing, as if I were a little child with a long way to go, even though I imagined that we were about the same age. I thought of her as the preschool teacher and the rest of us as her toddling charges. Since when did being single become so infantilizing?
Living in Jerusalem, I was surrounded by the assumption that everyone wanted to be married, and that those who weren’t were incomplete and longing that things were otherwise. Unlike New York City or Cambridge, there was no respect for the high-powered career woman or the superstar professor; so long as she was single, she must be unhappy. I could handle being incomplete, but the thought of other people’s pity made me recoil and cringe.
The Talmud, too, looks pitifully upon any woman who does not have a man with whom to share her life and, more specifically, her bed. Five times throughout the Babylonian Talmud, the sage Reish Lakish quotes a popular folk saying to this effect: Tav L’Meytav Tan Du M’l’meytav Armelo. The phrase literally means, “It is better for a woman to sit as two than to sit alone by herself.” The rabbis’ discussion of this folk saying unleashes a flurry of colorful comments attributed to various Talmudic sages about how much a woman is willing to put up with just so that she can have a husband (118b):
Abayey: Even if her husband is the size of a sesame seed, she is proud to place her chair among the free women.
Rav Papa: Even if her husband is just a spinner of wool, she will call out to him to come sit with her at the entrance to their home.
Rav Ashi: Even if her husband is a cabbage-head, at least she will not lack for lentils in her pot.
It seems the Talmud cannot imagine a woman who could be both happy and single. Even so, Abayey, Rav Papa and Rav Ashi are not granted the last word. The passage concludes with the following assertion: “And all these women commit adultery and attribute their offspring to their husbands.” That is, all these women who so desperately want to be married are really just interested in having a convenient excuse when they find themselves pregnant as a result of their adulterous affairs. Why do they need husbands? So that they can point to a legitimate father for their bastard children!
This closing line, astonishing in its flippancy and subversiveness, casts the preceding statements in a new light: According to the Talmudic sages, a woman needs a husband so that she can “place her chair among the free women,” that is, so that she can count herself among those women who are free to have adulterous affairs! And even if her husband is a cabbage-head, she doesn’t care, because she’s just using him as a cover so that she can gallivant off and engage in extramarital sex. For this reason it is better for a woman to be married than to be alone.
To some extent Omri functioned as a similar cover for me. He was not my husband, but as my long-term boyfriend, he enabled me to place my chair among those who were free from the torture of attending singles events and being “set up” by concerned, well-meaning strangers. “Are you looking to meet someone,” people would often ask me, and immediately I would rush to assure them that no, I had quite enough lentils in my pot, thank you very much.
Shortly after I studied this passage in Yevamot, my friend Aviva came for Shabbat dinner bearing the gift of a glass jar full of hard candy. “When you finish all the sweets,” she told me, “you can save the jar and use it as a vase for the next time Omri brings you flowers.” I smiled, knowing that I would do not such thing. Instead, I washed out the jar, filled it with two kilos of lentils, and placed it in my cupboard alongside my beans, split peas and other dried goods. I put a label on the vase with a quote from the passage in Yevamot: “she does not lack for lentils in her pot.” Most nights that summer I had lentil soup for dinner – alone.
In the Talmud it is clear that men have the advantage when it comes to marriage, which is described as a one-way transaction in which a man acquires a woman and may simultaneously be legally wed to several women at once. The Talmud speaks of the sanctity of marriage, but we hear other less conventional voices as well, such as the following account in Yevamot:
When Rav would visit the city of Dardishir, he would announce:
"Who will be mine for a day?"
And when Rav Nachman would visit the city of Shachnetziv, he would announce: "Who will be mine for a day?"(Yevamot 37b)
"Who will be mine for a day?"
And when Rav Nachman would visit the city of Shachnetziv, he would announce: "Who will be mine for a day?"(Yevamot 37b)
Rav and Rav Nachman, two great third-century Babylonian sages, apparently had a practice of marrying (or perhaps simply sleeping with) women for a single day. I understand what was in it for the sages, who presumably had to travel often and could not always take their wives with them. But I can’t help but wonder what sort of woman would be interested in such a one-night stand. Perhaps in Talmudic times, too, there were far more suitable women than men? Perhaps they were so desperate for companionship that they would rather have a man for one night than be alone forever? Or perhaps these women were excited by the notion of being associated with such a great rabbinic luminary?
Personally I am drawn to those Talmudic stories—few and far between though they may be—of women who have free reign to choose among various men, rather than the opposite gender dynamic. This is the case with Rava’s wife, who actively chooses her husband rather than waiting around like a wallflower to be hand-picked. She is introduced in the context of a discussion about marriage and fertility, in which the rabbis put forth principles such as the following (Yevamot 34b):
A woman does not become pregnant upon her first intercourse.
For the twenty-four months after a woman gives birth, her husband will sow inside and seed outside.
A woman who commits an illicit sexual act will invert herself after intercourse lest she become pregnant.
For the twenty-four months after a woman gives birth, her husband will sow inside and seed outside.
A woman who commits an illicit sexual act will invert herself after intercourse lest she become pregnant.
I remember learning these passages in the morning Talmud shiur I attended at a synagogue in Jerusalem, where mine was the only womb in the room. While I knew the Talmud wasn’t talking about me personally, the discussion on the page before us was certainly more about me than about any of the men in the room. And so when we came to these passages, I suddenly felt as conspicuous as Virginia Woolf traipsing across the green quads of Oxbridge.
Unfortunately it gets worse before it gets better. The Talmud goes on to assert, in the name of Ravin, that “any woman who waits ten years after the death of her husband before remarrying will never give birth again.” It had only been two years since Paul and I had separated, but already I was starting to worry about my dormant womb. It seemed that there was hope for me, and least according to Rav Nahman, who goes on to qualify that “This was taught only with regard to one who did not intend to remarry; but if a woman intended to remarry, then she will indeed become pregnant.” Rav Nahman suggests that a woman’s psychology may affect her womb (as we know from the nineteenth-century hysterics). If she intends to have intercourse again, her reproductive organs will not wither. I was reassured, but the subject matter at hand still seemed a little too close to home. I hunched over my volume of Talmud, hoping that none of the men in the room were familiar with my personal circumstances.
It is at this point in the passage that Rava’s wife makes her appearance, though it seems like she was there all along, sitting in on an all-male study group just like me. Unlike me, however, she was not able to remain anonymous. After hearing the discussion between Ravin and Rav Nahman, Rava leans over to his wife and tells her that the rabbis are talking about her. She, too, had been previously married and it seems she had waited a long time before remarrying and becoming Rava’s wife. “The rabbis are murmuring about you,” Rava tells her. Rava’s wife seizes upon Rav Nahman’s corollary and rushes to her own defense. She assures Rava that although she did not remarry for over a decade, her womb did not close up because she always intended to remarry, as per Rav Nahman’s corollary. Or, as she tells Rava somewhat romantically, “My eye was on you all along.”
I am impressed by the bravado of this woman who sits next to her husband while he is learning Torah with his colleagues and dares to confess that she had been interested in him for a while. She clearly has a will of her own, even though she remains nameless. We learn more about her elsewhere in the Talmud, where she is known as the daughter of Rav Hisda. The Talmud relates the following anecdote from her youth:
The daughter of Rav Hisda was sitting on her father's lap. They were seated before Rava and Rami bar Chama. Rav Hisda said to his daughter: "Which of these men do you want [to marry]?" She responded, "Both of them!" Rava said, "Then let me be the second one."
Rav Hisda's daughter, a girl young enough to still sit on her father's lap, is depicted here like a greedy child in an ice cream shop who wants both chocolate and vanilla, or like Shel Silverstein's Terrible Theresa who chooses the middle pancake from the towering stack. If given the choice between two men, she'll take them both! But Rava does not miss a beat. To the extent that he can still control his fate, he intercedes. He does not want to be the first of two men to marry Rav Hisda's daughter, which would mean that either he would die, or that they would divorce. He'd rather be the second, and so he wisely stakes his claim. Now it becomes clear how Rav Hisda’s daughter could have known in advance that she would become Rava’s wife. She had her eye on him all along because she had chosen him when she was just a young girl. She always knew that she would remarry, and so she is confident that her dormant womb will rally when she wishes to become pregnant again.
In Yevamot, the emphasis is not just on marriage but also on having children, which is of course the first commandment in the Bible – to increase and multiply. The Talmud in Yevamot (61a) discusses a debate between Beit Hillel, who holds that a man must have at least one son and one daughter to count as having fulfilled this commandment; and Beit Shammai, who holds that a man must have two sons. All the sages agree, however, that fulfilling this mitzvah is so paramount that a man may even sell a Torah scroll so as to have enough money to have children. The Talmud then goes on to cite the case of Rav Sheshet (62b), who was childless because the classes taught by his teacher Rav Huna went on for too long. Presumably Rav Sheshet found himself staying so late in the beit midrash that by the time he got home at night, his wife was already asleep! I, on the other hand, used to go to evening classes with the deliberate goal of staying out late, so that I would not have to come home to an empty house.
The tension between studying Torah and raising a family is dramatized in the figure of Ben Azzai, who captured my imagination when I encountered him in a conversation about procreation in Yevamot (63b). Rabbi Eliezer asserts that anyone who does not engage in this mitzvah is considered as if he has committed murder, since the commandment to procreate is juxtaposed in Genesis with the verse prohibiting bloodshed. Rabbi Yaakov then demurs that anyone who does not engage in this mitzvah is regarded as diminishing the image of God, since the commandment to procreate is also juxtaposed with the verse about man being created in the image of God. At this point, Ben Azzi chimes in and declares that anyone who neglects the commandment to procreate is regarded as if he both commits murder and diminishes the image of God. The other sages leap up and lambast Ben Azzai for his hypocrisy: “Ben Azzai, there are those who preach well and those who practice well, and those who practice well but do not preach well. But you – you preach well but do not practice what you preach!” Presumably Ben Azzai himself was unmarried, or at least he did not have children. And so he can offer only a faltering defense: “What can I do? My soul desires Torah. The world can be sustained by others.” Ben Azzai is so enamored of Torah study that he cannot bear the thought of sacrificing his study time for the sake of raising a family.
On those nights when I found myself walking back from class alone while all my friends with kids were ensconced at home, I sometimes pretended that I, like Ben Azzai, had made a conscious choice. Certainly I had far more time to study Torah than I would if I were saddled with responsibilities of raising a family. I enjoyed waking up early every morning and rushing out the door to my daf yomi shiur, and then coming home late after attending classes on the weekly Torah portion. At the same time, I couldn't help wishing that I'd known, back then, that it was just a temporary stage of life. If only I, like Rav Hisda’s daughter, had sat on my father’s lap as a young girl and hand-picked my two husbands. Then perhaps I wouldn’t feel a flutter in my womb each time I went out among the streets and by-ways of Jerusalem, looking despairingly at the thousands of male humans in search of my Frog. All herring and mackerel, it seemed.
Tuesday, September 02, 2014
The Enchanted Talmud: A Tale of Rabbis and Muggles
When I began studying Talmud in Jewish day school, my friends and I used to act out the cases discussed in the Mishnah: “If a man uncovers a woman’s hair in public… If a man leaves his jug of water in the middle of the street….” We relied on makeshift props – a cheerleading pompom for a head of hair, or a juice box from someone’s lunch for a jug of water. I was reminded of those junior high school plays when I read Enchantress (Plume, $17), Maggie Anton’s second and final book about Rav Hisda’s daughter and the Jewish community of fourth-century Babylonia. Anton dramatizes scenes from the Talmud featuring her eponymous heroine (also known as Hisdadukh), her second husband Rava (her marriage to her first husband was the subject of the previous book), and the rabbis and sorceresses with whom they interact.
Knowledge, in this novel, is highly gendered: Men study Torah and women cast spells. That is not to say that women do not also learn Torah—and indeed, in the book’s closing pages an aged Hisdadukh teaches Mishnah to her granddaughters and their daughters, “according to each girl’s capabilities.” But for the most part, it is the men who quote Mishnah and the women who write incantation bowls, wear special rings that enable them to understand the speech of animals, and cast spells to quell deadly sandstorms and turn men into donkeys. Midway through the book, in a scene reminiscent of countless middle-grade novels about preteen witches and their magic-making moms, Hisdadukh discovers that her mother, too, was a sorceress: “I’d thought it was Father’s study and piety that safeguarded our family all those years,” Hisdadukh relates, dumbfounded to discover that it was in fact their mother’s spells that had protected the family from harm. Several of these spells are included in the novel, as Anton draws on the astrological and demonic lore that is sprinkled like fairy dust throughout the Talmud’s pages, including vividly colorful curses such as “hot excrement in torn baskets.” At these moments the book seems to be a sort of “Harry Potter meets the Talmud,” with the Angel of Death as Dementor and non-rabbinic amei haaretz as muggles.
But Anton’s novel is also a romance, and quite a racy one at that. Hisdaukh and Rava have a passionate marriage, and they “use the bed” (Anton’s apt translation of the Talmudic euphemism) several times per chapter. Indeed, in one of her more daring and dubious leaps of conjecture, Anton suggests that Rava (meaning “great one”) received his epithet not due to his mastery of Torah, but on account of his spectacular endowment. Their sex life, for the most part, is charmed, except when the demon Ashmedai attempts to seduce Hisdadukh in the guise of her previous husband Rami, and Rava is consumed by jealous rage. This scene is perhaps a creative inversion of the Talmudic tale of Rava’s wife’s jealousy of his study partner’s wife Homa, an encounter which Anton surprisingly and disappointingly elects to domesticate.
Anton has elsewhere stated that her goal in writing these novels is to encourage more non-Orthodox Jews, especially women, to study Talmud. Towards this end she bridges an ancient text with contemporary academic scholarship on the Talmud’s Persian and Zoroastrian context, from magi to menstrual rituals. When at her best, she brings Talmudic characters vividly to life, as in her ingenious depiction of Rav Nahman’s imperious and importunate wife Yalta as a hawk-nosed lesbian. At times she seems merely to be dramatizing scene after scene from the Talmud, not unlike my amateur junior high Mishnah plays. But then Anton will let slip, say, that Rav Hisda’s daughter wore tzitzit, or that the rabbis gained their intimate knowledge of women’s bodies by consulting their wives, or that Hisdadukh’s vision of the world to come involved studying Torah with both her husbands simultaneously. Suddenly it becomes clear that only a twenty-first century feminist and critical sensibility like Anton’s could interpret the Talmud in just this way; and for this reader, at least, the novel succeeds in working its magic.
Sunday, July 13, 2014
In Memory of Phyllis Kurshan
Up until just a few months ago I would exchange emails with my grandmother on a weekly basis. I would tell her about what was going on with my work and my children, and she would respond with the latest news from the Jewish Center, an update on the current household repair project on 73 Random Road, and of course a detailed Princeton weather report. I looked forward to and appreciated her emails, each of which was signed with “All my love, Grandma.” She was always very attuned to what was going on in my life, asking just the right questions about which child was or was not walking yet, and how my latest translation project was progressing, and whether my husband’s semester was over yet. Grandma’s emails also served to update me about what was going on in the life of our family – she corresponded more regularly with the rest of my siblings than we corresponded with each other, and so it was through Grandma that I’d learn about Naamit’s upcoming exam, or Ariella and Leo’s wedding plans, or Eytan’s most recent flight around the world.
I don’t know of any other great grandmothers who are as comfortable with email as Grandma was, but she and Grandpa have always been early adapters. I learned about Skype from them; ever bent on thrift, my grandparents stopped using the phone to call me internationally the moment they discovered Skype. I remember that when Daniel and I decided to get married five years ago, I picked up the phone to call my grandparents because such momentous news seemed deserving of a proper call. I dialed their number in Princeton, and let the phone ring. “Hello?” Grandma answered. “It’s Ilana,” I told her, and immediately shared the good news: “We’re getting married!” I expected her to say mazel tov, but instead her response was, “What happened to your Skype?”
Grandma and I were in touch so frequently because we had a lot in common. We shared recipes – each week I would write with a full list of everything I was cooking for Shabbat, and she would compliment me on my industriousness and ambition and tell me what was boiling on her stove in Princeton. To this day, whenever I want to make my favorite lentil soup, I pull up the email I sent grandma in 2009, because I typed up the recipe for her, and that is the only place I have it saved. In addition to recipes. Grandma and I also shared melodies – Grandma loved to sing, especially in shul, and in the last decade of her life she began leading the Torah service regularly at the Princeton Jewish Center. I, too, led services regularly at my minyan in Jerusalem, and so I would ask her which tunes she’d use for the various parts of the service and share my own melodies. And finally, Grandma and I shared a birthday – almost. We were born 52 years and one day apart – she was May 21, and I May 22—and so each year we’d exchange birthday messages on consecutive days. For the first three decades of my life, she and Grandpa would send me Hallmark cards every year on my birthday; more recently, they \switched to animated e-cards which featured electronic music , dancing candles, and piles of presents that paraded across my computer screen. I did not always have the time or patience for such things. But With time I learned that I had to actually listen to the entire video, or else my grandparents would receive a message saying that the card had not been read, and I’d be outted.
Two months ago I tried to make a birthday cake for my son’s third birthday; it was a simple chocolate cake baked in an aluminum foil pan that tasted not nearly as good as the fudgey chocolate brownie squares I associate with her wooden dessert drawer on Random Road. I thought back to Grandma’s spectacular birthday cakes, which were unparalleled in their creativity and colorfulness: The cookie monster cake with turquoise icing, the M & M cake with rows hundreds of M&M’s organized by color. If only Matan’s mother were one tenth as talented as his great grandmother! In recent weeks, when Grandma’s health has been especially precarious, I invoked her by singing the songs she used to sing to me as a child, many of which I have not thought about in at least thirty years: Zoom Gali Gali (which I have a distinct memory of singing with her in the car over and over, counting each round, until our count reached over a hundred!). And then there was Grandma’s other favorite, a song that is so terrifying that I can’t believe I have taught it to my own kids: “I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor/ I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor/ I’m being eaten by a boa constrictorrrrrrrr / And it’s already up to my neck.” If only you were here so I could ask you now: Grandma, what were you thinking?
Grandma, there is so much more I wish I could ask you and share with you, and it makes me so sad to think that I won’t be able to send you emails anymore. I have one last message I wish I could send, and I’m typing it out here in the hope that somehow it will reach you.
I miss you so much and wish I could be closer now. E-mail has done a remarkable job of bridging the distance between us, but at times like these, I feel so far away. Even though it is the height of summer, I made our lentil soup recipe today. If it ever cools down outside, I’ll be able to taste it and let you know how it came out. How is the weather in Princeton? I miss you. I love you. All my love, Ilana
Tuesday, July 01, 2014
Learning How to Pray: Time-Bound Exemptions
Recently I noticed that most of my davening takes place in doctor's offices and hospital waiting rooms. Davening has become less a regular practice than a red telephone to God in times of urgent need. This goes against everything I have always believed most deeply about prayer – that one needs a regular discipline of prayer so as to keep the channels of communication open; that prayer is most effective in a communal context; that one should pray out of gratitude as much as one prays out of need. Instead, prayer seems less like a spiritual practice and more like a siren of alarm, or, when necessary, a howl of distress.
Have I become a less spiritual person? I suppose that the change in my prayer practice is largely due to motherhood – with three kids under the age of three, I cannot concentrate on davening in shul, and even davening in the morning seems impossible so long as the kids are underfoot. D somehow always manages to steal a few minutes to put on tefillin and mumble into his siddur, often with a baby on the bed before him playing with his tefillin cases or wrapping tzitzit around a finger, an image that reminds me of Psalms 119:92: "Were it not that your Torah were my plaything…" But unlike D, I have not managed to make davening enough of a priority to find a way to integrate it into my everyday routine. I am more likely to daven minchah at work—when I can close the office door for a few quiet moments—than shacharit at home with the kids.
And whereas I used to lead davening and read Torah regularly at a local egalitarian minyan, now I am more reluctant to accept when I am asked to take on a formal role in shul. First I need to make sure that I will have coverage for the kids—that either my husband will agree to join me in shul that morning (instead of attending his own shul with our son), or else that there is a friend I'll be able to ask to watch the twins for as long as I am standing in front of the congregation. I also have to feel confident enough that I'll be able to leave the house on Shabbat morning by a specific time, which does not always seem possible. And so although I want to contribute my skills to egalitarian religious prayer communities in Jerusalem, whose values I hold dear, all too often it just seems too difficult to orchestrate.
For a while I've been feeling like a bit of a hypocrite. I spent most of my adult life leading egalitarian minyanim, championing the cause of egalitarian davening, taking on the lion's share of the Torah reading, recruiting others to join the prayer groups with which I was involved. Many of my friends davened in Orthodox shuls, where women sat behind mehitzot and did not participate as equal members in synagogue ritual. These friends considered themselves feminists and regarded themselves as equal to men in all other aspects of their lives, but synagogue ritual remained somehow compartmentalized.
I write "somehow," but of course I understood why. Historically the ancient rabbis exempted women from positive time-bound commandments (Kidushin 1:7), and someone who is not obligated in a commandment does not have the authority to exempt someone who is (Rosh Hashanah 3:8). I will not go into the halakhic analysis here, because many others who are far more learned have done so before me; but suffice it to say that the Talmud and the most prominent medieval commentators held that women were indeed obligated in daily prayer, and it is not clear why the conclusion should be that women cannot serve as prayer leaders. Indeed, it was not until the seventeenth century that any major halakhic authority argued that regular prayer with a fixed liturgy was not obligatory upon women. It is true that for most of Jewish history, women did not lead services or fulfill certain ritual obligations that were regarded as the exclusive province of men; but in any case the women of today are different from the women of ancient times whom the rabbis had in mind when they issued these rulings. If today's women can sit on the boards of major organizations, run schools and banks and laboratories, and serve as the primary (or sole) wage-earners in their households, why should they be second-class citizens when it comes to Jewish ritual? Jewish law has to evolve to reflect the changing social reality, I argued (even though a close look at the halakhic sources would render even such arguments superfluous). And so I made it my business to become competent at all synagogue roles that had been historically reserved for men, and to daven in minyanim in which no ritual roles were specifically gendered.
And yet, look where I am now. I have not been to shul on Shabbat in several weeks. Our daughters still nap from 8:30-10:30 every morning and they refuse to fall asleep outside of the house. If I keep them home, I can daven in our living room while they sleep. If I schlep them to shul, I have two cranky toddlers to entertain and no hope of praying. So shul does not seem worth the effort these days. Instead I let my husband take my son to shul and I stay home, though I am already worrying about the gendered associations he will develop as a result. In theory my husband and I could switch off taking our son and staying home with the girls, and perhaps that is what we will start doing; but this only became an option very recently, when I stopped breastfeeding. I recall one Shabbat morning when I sat in our big armchair nursing one of the twins, trying to reach for a siddur on the bookshelf behind me as the baby, sensing my body's tautness, sucked even more vigorously in fear that I might be pulling away; then all the books on the shelf came tumbling down to the floor and I could not bend down to pick them up. At moments like this I began to wonder whether everything I had always believed about women's synagogue roles was collapsing as well.
And then I thought back to my bat mitzvah. I remembered how meaningful it was to me to chant my Torah portion and lead services and become counted in a minyan. It wasn't until nearly twenty years later that I became a mother. Would I have wanted to give up on twenty years of religious obligation—twenty years of deriving so much spiritual satisfaction from my active participation in egalitarian prayer services—just because I had a the potential to become a mother (a potential that, back then, I had no way of knowing if I would ever realize)? This seems like quite an unreasonable and unnecessary sacrifice. Yes, while raising young children, it is difficult to participate fully in Jewish ritual and prayer, and positive time-bound commandments pose a particular challenge. But would it not make more sense to exempt women for that period when their children are young, especially given that women are having children later and later these days – generally at least a decade after they become b'not mitzvah? Why deprive women of decades of meaningful religious practice?
Bearing all this in mind, I'd like to regard my retreat from active participation in synagogue life as temporary. It is a stage of life dependent on clear-cut physical signs, much as being a קטנה or a נידה are stages and phases of life. Like those stages, it too shall pass. I look to the example of my sister-in-law, who experienced a total transformation in her davening commitment and in her spiritual life in general when her youngest child (of five) turned four. Granted, the immediate impetus for this transformation was her commitment to saying kaddish three times a day with a minyan to honor her father's memory. But I do not think she could have made such a commitment—or have experienced it as more empowering than burdensome—if she still had a child in diapers.
I trust that when my twin daughters are a bit older—and I can't say what age, since (as far as I know) no one has codified the approach I am advocating, and I have not yet lived through it myself—I will be able to get up from that armchair and return to davening regularly, leading services, and leyning full parshiyot. I would like my children to have the example of a mother and a father who daven every day and stand up to lead the congregation in prayer. I would like to believe that I am living by my values and transmitting those values to my children. In the words of the Shema—which I consider myself obligated to say twice a day—"you shall teach them to your children." I hope that both my son and my daughters will share this sense of obligation, and that participating in synagogue ritual will be a source of spiritual meaning and fulfillment for them, as it has been for me.
Wednesday, June 04, 2014
In honor of Shavuot, Matan’s Gan issued instructions to the parents to send their children dressed in white, bearing a basket of Bikurim. They used the Biblical word for basket, טנא, as per Moses’ instructions to the Jewish people to bring a basket of first fruits to God: “You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest form the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket, and go to the pace where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name” (Deuteronomy 26:2). The only basket we had at home was the large brown wicker basket we used to carry out our newborn Matan during his bris, so we threw in a few peaches and nectarines, dressed Matan in a white t-shirt and beige shorts, and sent him off to Gan, relieved that we had remembered to follow the special instructions for that day. Little did we know.
We realized we had misunderstood even before we entered the Gan. Outside the gates leading into the playground we watched as the other toddlers filed out of their parents’ cars decked out in their Shabbat finery: White lacey dresses for the girls, and white sailor suits (or at least crisp button-down shirts) for all the boys. (Poor Matan, who is almost a size 3T, was wearing an old white 2T undershirt that bared his midriff when he reached his hands in the air.) It seemed they were all carrying identical delicate white baskets, about a fifth the size of the monstrosity that poor Matan could barely balance in his tiny arms. Their baskets were decorated in flowers and leaves; Matan’s was utterly bare. Daniel and I looked at each other and grimaced, cognizant, yet again, of how difficult it is to be new immigrants to the Jewish homeland, whose customs and mores seem both deeply familiar and incomprehensibly foreign.
As I left the Gan, my head hung in embarrassment for Matan and for myself, I was reminded of one of my favorite children’s picture books, Molly’s Pilgrim. Molly is a Russian immigrant to the Lower East Side. Just before Thanksgiving, her schoolteacher assigns all the students to make a pilgrim doll and bring it to school. When Molly’s mother learns the definition of a pilgrim—a new immigrant who came to America for religious freedom—she creates Molly’s pilgrim in her own image, a babushka-clad woman in a long skirt. The other children tease Molly because her pilgrim looks nothing like theirs, but the kind and sympathetic teacher assures Molly that “it takes all kinds of pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving.” And indeed, this is essentially what Matan’s Ganenet told me at pickup that afternoon, when I apologized that we had sent Matan in the wrong clothes, bearing the wrong basket.
Shavuot, of course, is a pilgrimage festival – one of the three holidays when Jews are required to come to the Land of Israel. Like Thanksgiving, which coincided with the American pilgrims’ first successful harvest, it too is a harvest festival and a time of thanksgiving, in which we offer our first fruits in gratitude to God. This holiday has particular poignancy for us as new immigrants to the State of Israel; we are pilgrims, and Matan is our first fruit. Perhaps it is somewhat appropriate, then, that the basket he paraded across the stage with at Gan during the Shavuot celebration was the basket we used to carry out our firstborn son at his bris. We are grateful to God for sustaining us and enabling us to reach this day; and we hope that by the time we reach this day with our twins, we will have learned from our mistakes.
Monday, May 12, 2014
Matan's Third Birthday (Rosh Hashana 2a)
I live my life against the backdrop of daf yomi, and so when my oldest son turned three on the first day of tractate Rosh Hashana, the coincidence was not lost on me. The opening mishnah of tractate Rosh Hashana lists four “new years” that occur throughout the annual cycle: There is the new year for kings, which determines what counts as the first year of a king’s reign; the new year for tithing one’s livestock; the new year in the sabbatical cycle; and the new year for trees. Much of the first chapter deals with how we measure time and date significant events, including the question of which month the world was created – or, to invoke the Rosh Hashana liturgy, when we can say ,היום הרת עולם“today is the birthday of the world.” For Matan, too, there were several dates on which we celebrated his birthday, each a reflection of the various ways we mark time, and each a reminder that the passage of time is joyous but bittersweet.
We first celebrated Matan’s birthday on the day after Yom Haatzmaut, which is the day he was born on the Hebrew calendar. And so Matan’s Hebrew birthday dovetails with Israel’s national birthday and serves, for us, as a connection to our adopted homeland. I will never forget sitting in the Jerusalem Theater for Hidon Hanakh, the three-hour long Bible quiz show that takes place each year on Yom Haatzmaut morning, watching as Jewish students from around the globe competed to answer questions about the finer points of Biblical narrative and history. During the lightning round the questions consisted of a series of dates listed in the Bible, and the students had to specify what happened, say, “on the first day of the first month of the second year.” As the tension mounted, my contractions became increasingly frequent, and I remember thinking that my son was surely excitedly reviewing all the Torah he had learned in the womb before making his exit into the world. And so I will forever associate his birthday with Hidon HaTankah and Yom Haatzmaut. This year, when Yom Haatzmaut rolled around, I began telling Matan stories about when he was born. Matan is fascinated by waterworks, so he was excited to learn that he once swam around in my belly – particularly when I told him that he got to swim there first, before his sisters took a turn. “And then I came out through the drain,” he told me, entirely unprompted. In a sense it is true, and so I just nodded.
The day after Yom Haatzmaut is the day I associate with Matan’s birth; I think of it as the birthday of my becoming a mother. But as a day to make Matan feel special and loved, we chose May eleventh, his birthday on the secular calendar. And so when I picked him up at Gan yesterday, I took him to the florist shop and bought him a colorful “happy birthday” helium balloon. Matan, whose current favorite picture book is about hot air balloons, was thrilled, and as we walked home, he looked up at the soaring balloon as if it were magical. “Don’t let go,” I warned him, “or the balloon will go up, up to the sky.” Ever obedient, Matan clutched the string with one hand and the balloon with the other, terrified of losing his precious new gift. I told him he could simply hold the string and let the balloon fly up, but apparently I had traumatized him with my stern cautionary words. Like me, Matan follows rules to a fault. He is so committed to doing the “right thing” that sometimes he misses out on life. I suppose we can both stand to learn to let go a bit. With every passing year I feel the string connecting us to one another growing longer, as Matan makes his own way in the world. When he was born I could provide for all his needs simply by holding him close to my body and letting him sleep and eat; now he has an intellectual curiosity that I cannot always satisfy (as I am reminded when he interrogates me, say, about how the fire is lit under a hot air balloon, and I have no idea myself), and emotional needs that I can sometimes only begin to fathom. I am aware of his limitations, but I remain hopeful that he will aspire to great heights so that I might follow him with the same wide, wondrous eyes with which he looked up at his beloved balloon as we walked through the streets of Jerusalem on that gorgeous spring afternoon.
In addition to Matan’s familial and personal birthdays, as well as the national birthday of the state, there is also the social aspect of celebrating a birthday, especially for a child. We will make him a little party next month on the date his Gan assigned to us when I asked, a week before his birthday, how we might mark the occasion. The teacher told me that they are all “booked” for May, but that I can have a date in early June. And so the celebration of Matan will continue. I feel bad that I did not think to ask the Gan sooner about choosing a date; it never occurred to me that the social calendar would fill up so quickly. This is ironic, given that Matan does not really associate with the other kids in Gan and tends to spend much of the day off in his own world, playing by himself or observing everyone else from a safe distance. When I dropped him off this morning, he asked if I could stay and play with him, and when I told him that he could play with Dariel or Yiftach or any of the other 25 kids in the room, he turned his head away shyly and looked at his feet, reluctantly waving goodbye as I walked out the door with a breaking heart. This is the first birthday on which I am aware of Matan’s social challenges. And so the occasion is somewhat bittersweet; I am excited that Matan is growing older, but I’m concerned for the struggles that lie ahead.
Not all of the new years discussed in tracate Rosh Hashana are celebratory occasions; the first of Elul, for instance, is merely a cutoff point for tithing. And birthdays, too, are not purely celebratory, at least not at my stage of life. I associate my own birthdays with growing older, with the sense that there is less time in which to reinvent myself or figure out, at last, what I want to “do with my life.” With each passing year I am aware that my parents will not be young and vibrant and deeply involved in my life forever; that my husband and I may not always enjoy good health; that my children may not always provide the gratification of making me feel that I am indispensable from the moment they wake up before dawn until the moment they fall asleep after dusk. With my twin daughters, who are “fifteen months,” we are still marking months rather than years, but each month, too, brings with it the heaviness of parental concern: The girls are developing slowly, at their own pace, and not a month passes when I do not find myself praying that they are healthy.
It is prayer, perhaps, that links Rosh Hashana with birthday celebrations. On Rosh Hashana we stand for hours in synagogue praying fervently that the coming year should bring blessing. On birthdays our prayers take the form of a wish made over a cake filled with candles as the whole room pauses for a moment of silence before erupting in cries of “happy birthday.” I pray that my son will always retain his sense of wonder at the workings of the world, but that he will also learn how to engage with his peers and make friends. I pray that my daughters, too, will develop healthily and continue to charm everyone they meet with their bright blue eyes and beaming smiles. It is hard to believe that it was just three years ago that D and I were blessed to become parents. So far at least, it seems that no amount of worry or concern could ever be as deep and profound as the joys that we have known.
Hezek Re’iya and Facebook: Overcoming the Fear of Being Seen
After nearly a decade of holding out, I have finally joined Facebook, overcoming—or at least casting aside—my fears of hezek re’iya for the sake of my children. Or so I told myself.
Hezek re’iya, which literally means “the damage of seeing,” refers to the notion that the invasion of privacy caused by looking at someone else’s property is tantamount to physical damage. The term comes up in the opening sugya of Bava Batra, in a discussion about two neighbors who disagree about the construction of a fence. One would like to build a fence so that the other cannot look into his yard, but the other neighbor does not want his yard divided. Is the first neighbor legally authorized to force the second to agree to the fence? Those rabbis who support the notion that hezek re’iya constitutes a real form of damage believe that a person can legally prevent a neighbor from gazing into his property by forcing his neighbor to assist in the expenses of building a fence. On the opposite side of the fence are those rabbis who argue that הזק ראייה לאו שמיה היזק – that is, the damage of being seen is not real damage, and therefore the neighbor who desires privacy cannot force his neighbor to join in the expenses of building a wall. Ultimately, the Talmud concludes that yes, there is indeed a notion of Hezek Re’iya – the damage of a being seen constitutes a very real form of a damage, and people have the right to protect their own privacy.
I live my life with the constant fear of being seen. Ever since I read Harry Potter, I have fantasized about owning an invisibility cloak – not because I want to be a fly on the wall and observe other people, but because I don’t want any flies on the wall noticing me. And so for me, the notion of joining a social network was tantamount to חבורתא מתותא. Why would I want all my “friends” to know what I am reading, how my children look, where my husband is traveling, and everything else that is going on in my life? Jerusalem is enough of a fishbowl already; I often feel that I live not in a sprawling city, but in a small village of overlapping social circles in which everyone knows (and talks about) one another. The street where I work is lined by a dozen small cafes with glass storefronts, and anyone who walks by can see everyone inside. When I meet a friend or client for coffee, I always insist that we sit at the very back table, furthest from the street, in an effort to avoid being seen. What if, say, that friend whom I had just told I was too busy to meet were to pass by and see me with someone else? What if someone were to see me through the window and come in, interrupting the intense conversation I am having with the person sitting across from me? In Jerusalem, perhaps the most popular tourist destination for Jews the world over, I am constantly running into people from earlier stages of my life: a classmate from my Jewish day school, an acquaintance from Harvard Hillel, an old friend from the Upper West Side. Everyone passes through Jerusalem, as my friend Sara once wrote as the refrain of a sestina. For better and for worse.
I suppose I can trace my paranoia about being seen to my early childhood as a rabbi’s daughter, growing up in a house on the synagogue property. Although we had a fence separating our part of the yard from the synagogue’s, anyone who drove into the shul parking lot could always look into our windows. My parents were vigilant about drawing the shades at night and keeping the front yard neat. In shul, too, my siblings and I always had to be on our best behavior, because we were conscious that our actions set an example for others. We grew up feeling the eyes of the community upon us at all times, an experience epitomized by one unforgettable weekend in which my parents declared that we were having a “Shabbat in.” My father had the Shabbat off, but my parents did not feel like traveling. Nor did they want anyone to know that we were home. So we drew the shades, pulled the cars into the garage, and spent Shabbat in Secret Annex mode, davening and eating together without leaving the house.
From an early age, my siblings and I learned never to reveal more than we needed to about our family. If someone called to speak to the rabbi, we were supposed to say that he “could not come to the phone right now,” and not that he “wasn’t home,” and certainly not that he was “at Mrs. Knecht’s funeral” or “at the supermarket buying more paper towels.” My parents are warm and welcoming hosts, as everyone who knows them will attest, but they instilled in each of us the value of privacy. For me it has become second nature.
Now that I am a parent, though, I suppose I have newfound appreciation for the value of transparency. Our son Matan has been having trouble at Gan, and the Ganenet encouraged us to find him an occupational therapist. I started asking around for recommendations, but everyone gave me the same answer: “Just ask on Facebook.” I didn’t quite know what this meant, and found myself imagining Facebook as some modern-day Urim v’Tumim that would miraculously deliver up all the answers I needed. Determined above all to help my son, I created a profile and started amassing friends – even though at present, I don’t think I have any friends who know anything about occupational therapy in Jerusalem. But I remain hopeful that Facebook, at the price of relinquishing some of my precious privacy, will connect me to the resources I need for my children. Being a parent has been humbling in many ways; it has made me realize how reliant I am on the experience, guidance, and advice of others. I try, whenever possible, to offer advice openly and freely to others, though I feel like I am still figuring out what this thing called parenthood is all about. If Facebook serves as a way of enabling me to give and receive help, then perhaps I’ll abandon up my dreams of donning an invisibility cloak. For the time being.
Wednesday, April 02, 2014
The Unexamined Faith
Last week my daughter Liav leapt off our bed when I wasn’t looking and landed head-first on the floor. She had a big bump on her forehead and she was bleeding from both nostrils for quite a long time. I took her to Terem, the emergency clinic, and after an hour of waiting to be seen, the doctor announced that she was fine. “Thank God, thank God,” I said instinctively – these were the only words I could manage at that moment. The doctor told me to sit in the waiting room for an hour so they could make sure that she did not vomit or lose consciousness in the aftermath of her injury, but I knew by then that she was going to be okay. I sat in the waiting room reciting all the psalms I knew by heart -- not because this is what I thought Judaism demanded of me, but because I was so full of relief and gratitude that the words of Psalms were, at that moment, the language of my heart.
In moments of extreme emotion, I have always turned to God. I don’t think of myself as a person of deep faith, because it seems less a matter of credo than a manner of speaking: Religious language is the way I give voice to feelings too powerful to contain. When I am too anguished or depressed to do anything else, I open the siddur and pray. When something wonderful happens or I am miraculously spared from disaster, I instinctively thank God. “But how do you know God exists? How can you be sure?” In college my hallmates and I would stay up late engaged in long discussions about Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and whether agnosticism is indeed the most intellectually honest stance. I suppose that is the luxury that college affords – endless nights to engage with ideas on a purely theoretical level, without worrying about waking up for a job or being awoken by a baby who was dropped on her head when her mother was surely distracted by similar musings. These days I rarely think about what I believe and why – not just because I do not have the time, but because such thoughts seem irrelevant to my daily Jewish practice.
It is commonly thought that Judaism cares less about what Jews believe than about what they do. This is the oft-cited dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity, a religion based on faith rather than works, at least as it was originally conceived. But tractate Sanhedrin shows that what we believe is very much relevant, and certain beliefs can place us beyond the pale. The question arises in the broader context of the tractate as a whole, as well as the two tractates that follow, Makkot and Shevuot, all of which are concerned with courtroom procedure. After discussing the types of courts and the basics of judicial proceedings, the Talmud turns to the four forms of capital punishment—stoning, strangling, execution (by sword), and burning—and the sins that would render the individual liable for each. The final chapter discusses those sins that are so grave that they deny the individual a place in the world to come. These sins are primarily lapses of faith. Thus a place in the world to come is denied to anyone who denies the divinity of Torah, or denies that the dead will be revived (90a).
These are both fundamental tenets of my own faith, however unexamined that faith may be. (And the unexamined faith, I maintain, is still worth having.) I believe that Torah is divine. For me this does not mean that God handed the entire written and oral Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, as some more “traditional” Jews would have it. Or perhaps I should say that to the extent that God handed the written and oral Torah to Moses, that act was a metaphor for the way our tradition developed. I believe that Sinai is the human record of an encounter with God. As a human record, this document is historically contingent: It was written at a particular historical moment, and reflects the biases of its time. This record had to be adapted to later generations, both in terms of changing historical circumstances and in terms of changing theological understandings. Those adaptations are known as midrash – the creative reworking and retelling of Biblical law and narrative so as to render it ever-relevant. I remember learning in fifth grade about the difference between natural numbers and rational numbers. (I apologize to any mathematicians reading this essay, since I recognize that the terms may have changed in the last thirty years, but this is how it was explained to me in fifth grade.) Natural numbers are integers: 1,2,3… Rational numbers are all the decimal points in between, including 1.1, 1.12, 1.23378. Both sets are infinite, but only the rational numbers are infinitely dense, meaning that there are an infinite number of rational numbers between any two rational numbers. I think of Torah and midrash in similar terms. Between any two words—or occasionally even letters—in the Torah, there are an infinite number of midrashim, or reinterpretations, that are possible. The letters or the written Torah are fixed and unchanging, but new midrashim are written every day, and Torah resonates anew with each human encounter, each sermon, each d’var Torah, each academic article in Jewish studies. The Talmud famously states that the sage Nahum Ish Gamzu could come up with a midrash on every “et” in the Torah. The word “et” is so insignificant that it is untranslatable; it is more a grammatical placeholder than a signifier of meaning. And yet even the most minor word in the Torah can be adorned with crowns upon crowns of midrashic elaboration.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin (99a) explains that it is not just someone who denies the divinity of Torah who is not granted a place in the world to come, but even someone who denies the divinity of any single verse in the Torah. I can identify with the impulse to deny certain verses; obviously there are parts of the Torah that are more problematic to my modern, egalitarian, pluralistic self. But I see no reason to excise particular verses because midrash offers us such a ready “way out.” Yes, there is an ancient and respected midrashic tradition that must be taken into account. But Torah is “infinitely dense,” and I have faith in our creative reading strategies. There is a fine line, I recognize, between extolling the creative possibilities of midrash and declaring that Torah can say anything we want it to say. But I believe too much in the former to allow the fear of the latter hold me back.
The other lapse of faith identified in Sanhedrin as being so grave as to deny a person a place in the world to come is the sin of saying that there is no basis in the Torah for the notion of the revival of the dead. As the Talmud explains, this is a case of the punishment fitting the crime; surely any person who does not believe in an afterlife in which the dead will be revived should be denied a place in that afterlife. Even so, the Talmudic rabbis are hard-pressed to prove that there is mention of the afterlife in the Torah, since it is nowhere explicitly stated. One of several far-fetched proofs cited is the verse in which God tells Moses, “And I will fulfill my promise to them [the forefathers] to give them the land of Canaan” (Exodus 6:4). Since it says “to them” it must be that God will revive the forefathers after death so as to give them the land of Canaan. This is one of those cases when I raise my eyebrows while learning daf yomi and shrug, in awe once again at the ability of the midrashic imagination to find new ways of reading Biblical verses.
For me, the revival of the dead is simply another way of saying that this world is not all there is. What we see is not all of what we get. Or, as Herman Hesse wrote in Steppenwolf, “All we who think too much and have a dimension too many could not contend to live at all if there were not another world, if there were not eternity in the back of time.” Given all the injustice and oppression in our world--given all the bad things that happen to good people, to paraphrase the title of a book that my father always seemed to be reading when we were growing up--I must believe that there is another realm in which the scales of justice are recalibrated. This does not absolve me of the responsibility to pursue justice in this world, and indeed, I regard the messianic era as more of a challenge to humanity to pursue our ideals than as a divine promise that these ideals will someday be realized. And it seems that the Talmud does not disagree, at least according to one famous story in tractate Sanhedrin (98a).
The Talmud tells of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who once asked the prophet Elijah when the Messiah would arrive. “Ask him,” said Elijah, and he directed Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi to the gates of Rome, where the Messiah sat among the sick and wretched changing the bindings of his wounds. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi set off to Rome to meet the Messiah and ask him when he would come. The Messiah responded, “Today.” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi returned to Elijah and told him that the Messiah had promised to come that day, but had not held true to his promise. Elijah explained that the Messiah was in fact quoting a verse from Psalms: “Today, if you will heed His voice” (Psalms 95:7). That is, the Messiah will come the very same day that people do God’s work in the world. This work seems to involve sitting among the sick and wretched at the gates of the city and the margins of society, helping them find healing. The notion of the Messiah, then, is a metaphor for the redeemed world to which we aspire. The world will not be redeemed when the Messiah comes; rather, the Messiah will come when we redeem the world.
And so I believe in the messianic era and in the divinity of Torah, at least according to my midrashic understanding of these fundamental tenets of faith. But at the same time, I do not subject my faith to the rigorous scrutiny of the philosopher or the theologian – or the intellectually precocious teenager. I spent three summers teaching in an elite high school program for North American Jewish teenagers visiting Israel. The students would stay up all night unweaving the rainbow, asking the same questions about agnosticism and faith that had preoccupied me during my late nights in the college dorm. In the morning, when they came to class, they would press me to help them tease out the answers for themselves: “If the Torah is not divine, then why do we bother keeping the commandments?” Or: “How can I live my life by the Torah when the Torah calls my sexual practice an abomination?” Or: “How can I believe in Biblical miracles given our modern scientific understanding of the world?” These are all good questions, but how could I explain to my earnest and deeply troubled students that these questions no longer plague me? It is not that when we grow up, we stop thinking critically, or that we miraculously find all the answers. But on some level, as Rilke puts it, we learn to live our way into the answers in a way that does not stop us from going on with the rest of our lives.
Does religion contract science? Are the miracles of the Bible scientifically impossible? To my mind, these questions reflect a categorical mistake, because religion and science belong to two completely separate realms. I look to science to answer how the world was created, and to religion to answer why the world was created. Science can tell me if the universe is expanding or contracting, but only religion can inspire me to connect to other people in meaningful ways so that the universe does not seem so vast and lonely. I do not question my faith or subject it to rigorous scientific analysis because the proof is in the pudding, or in the Shabbat kugel: My life is richer and more meaningful because I am in an ongoing relationship with God. I perform mitzvot because they are my way of engaging in that relationship. A mitzvah, as articulated by theologian Arthur Green, is a man-made opportunity to encounter the divine: Saying a blessing before eating is a way of involving God in the meal, and praying in the morning is a way of infusing the day with holiness. Whenever possible, I try not to pass up those opportunities. Granted, not every mitzvah offers an obvious path to God, but I have enough faith in the system as a whole to suspend my doubt about some of its particulars. I believe that the more I live my life in accordance with God’s commandments, the more I will feel God’s presence in my life. Conversely, the more I doubt and question and run away from the tradition, the farther away God will seem. And so just as each morning I wake up and lift up the shades to let the sun stream in to my bedroom, I also try, each day, to open the gates of my heart and let God in.
And I try, too, to seek out the spark of God in others. One of the greatest gifts that Judaism gave to the world is the notion that human beings are created in the image of God. This is lesson I first learned at a very young age by witnessing my father’s interactions with the synagogue custodian. The custodian, whose name was Moses, was a slight Hispanic man who spoke broken English. Each Shabbat after the last congregants lingering over the remaining stale cookies and plastic cups of grape juice had gone home, my father would ask Moses about his family, his week, his health. He would remember what Moses had told him the previous week and ask follow-up questions, a sign that he had cared enough truly to listen. I was impatient to get home to the roasted chicken and warm challah that my mother had prepared for lunch, and I’m sure my father was hungry too. But he always took the time to chat with Moses before we left the building, treating the custodian with the same dignity with which he engaged his congregants. The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (37a) teaches that coins are all minted using a single stamp and come out identical to one another; but human beings are all created according to the same template as Adam, and yet no two human beings are identical to one another. For this reason, says the Mishnah, every human being can say, “The world was created for me.” Each person alone is sufficient grounds to create the world, and no one can say, as we learn later in Sanhedrin, “My blood is redder than yours” (74a). We are all created in the divine image, though some of us spend our lives leading congregations or countries, and others clean synagogue floors.
When I was in elementary school we used to take class pictures every year. The photographer would first take a picture of the class, and then each student would be called in for an individual portrait. Before taking the individual shot, the photographer would direct his assistant to try out various backgrounds to achieve the ideal contrast. First they hung up a white curtain behind me, but I looked too pale. Next they tried red, but that clashed with my pink dress. Then they tried a pale blue, and the photographer decided that yes, this was the best background for me. This strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for what it means to view all people as created in the divine image. Not everyone looks beautiful against every background, and not everyone shines in every context. But I believe that each person contains a spark of the divine, and so I remain confident that for each person there is a context in which he would stand out. Even if I never see that person in the context that would make him shine—even if I know the custodian only as the custodian—I treat him with respect and dignity because I am confident that such a context exists. My belief in the divine spark in every human being is a direct corollary of my belief in God, and it is just as fundamental to my faith.
One of my favorite children’s book authors, Madeline L’Engle, wrote in her memoir, “I believe in God because I cannot live my life as though I did not believe in God.” This is true for me as well. I cannot prove to the existence of God in a way that would satisfy Richard Dawkins or my teenage summer students. Likewise, I cannot explain why following each and every commandment has the effect of making me a better person and the world a better place. But the totality of living a life infused with fear of God and obedience to God’s laws has enriched me in ways I can only begin to fathom, and in moments of wonder and awe it seems impossible to conceive of a world without God. I do not know if this is sufficient to merit me a place in the world to come, but it is certainly sufficient to inspire me each day anew to make a place for God in this world.
הדרן עלך מסכת סנהדרין