Thursday, March 30, 2006

It Takes Two to Tan Du

We came to a phrase in our perek today that recurs throughout the Bavli. The rabbis are discussing the lengths a woman would subject herself to so that she might remain married. They comment that a woman will always be willing to put up with much more than a man because it would be so much more disastrous for her to be single again than it would be for him. In making this point, they cite a phrase that can be found in five different sugyot in the Bavli, always attributed to Resh Lakish:

Tav l'meytav tan du m'lemeytav armalo.
(It is better to sit as two bodies than to sit as a widow.)

In our sugya in Ketubot 75a, subsequent Amoraim then go on to illustrate this point in a sort of reductio ad absurdum:

Abayey: Even if her husband is as small as an ant, a woman will want to be able to put her chair among the chairs of the married women.

Rav Papa: Even if her husband is just a wool gatherer, she will want to sit with him at the gate of their house.

Rav Ashi: Even if her husband is a cabbagehead, she won't be lacking for lentils in her pot so long as she is married.

And then the sugya ends rather flippantly with a surprising brayta, the gist of which is, "Well, what the heck, all those women just want to be married so that they can sleep around but claim a father for their bastard children."

And so once again I have to wonder -- what did the rabbis really think about women?! Did they think that women were really so dependant on having husbands for their identity and self-worth? WERE women indeed so dependant on their husbands for their identity and self-worth? Were they really as promicuous as the rabbis seem to think, and if so, were there any efforts to reign them in?

I'm proud to say that I don't have a husband, cabbagehead or otherwise, yet I still have plenty of lentils in my pot. And I think that my bastard children are perfectly happy to run around fatherless, thank you very much.

Friday, March 24, 2006


Today I went to visit my colleague's baby. She gave birth on Monday, and ever since then, work has been completely crazy. I finally made it to her home today to see the reason for all the madness: less than two feet of skin and fuzz.

In truth, it is quite a beautiful baby. Long tapered fingers, sesame-seed-sized fingersnails, and two dark slits for eyes. I sat beside E on the coach and we ooh-ed and aah-ed for a good half hour. At least that's what I thought we were doing, until another friend who happened to visit a chicken farm today told me that the proper word is actually "brooding."

The first two dictionary definitions are relevant here: "To sit on or hatch eggs" (a la the mother bird brooding over her nest) or "to hover envelopingly" (a la the human mother brooding over the infant at her breast). The third meaning, "to meditate or be deep in thought," may also be part and parcel of the earlier two (or at least the second, since I'm not sure how much meditating a bird-brain is capable of doing.)

I suspect that the Hebrew equivalent of "brooding" is "m'rachef," because this term encapsulates all the above meanings. Examples can be found at the very beginning and at the very end of the Torah. In the second verse of Breishit, we are told that "the spirit of God hovered (m'racefet) on the face of the waters." God was brooding over the waters, perhaps pondering the nature of the world He was about to create. And then at the end of the Torah, God is compared to an eagle hovering over its nestlings in His concern for His people: "He found him [Israel] in a desert region...He engirded him, watched over him...Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, brooding over his young (al gozalav y'rachef), So did He spead His wings and take him [Israel]." God hovers lovingly over B'nei Yisrael in the incubatory world of the desert, waiting for us to hatch as individuals and as a nation.

But I personally think that all these meanings of "brooding" come together most beautifully in Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "God's Grandeur":

The world is charged with the grandeur of God. [k'vodo malei olam]
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. [shal na'alecha]

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. [m'rachefet]

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Don't touch that megillah!

We studied an interesting bit of Gemara (B. Megillah 7a) at my seudah today, and I wanted to share some of my insights into the text as the Jerusalem sun sets on Shushan Purim.

The rabbis are discussing whether Megillat Esther may be considered a sacred text since it does not contain the name of God. The term they use for a sacred text is "m'tamey et ha-yadayim" -- literally, a text that "impurifies the hands." Rav Yehuda says in the name of Shmuel that Megillat Esther is not a sacred text because it was not said with "ruach ha-kodesh." But then the rabbis bring a conflicting source in which Shmuel declares that indeed Megillat Esther is sacred. How to resolve the contradiction? The Gemara explains that the megillah as written does not impurify the hands, whereas the megillah as read does. But what is the difference between the megillah as written and the megillah as read, such that the latter is sacred but the former is not? I think the answer can be found in the second half of this sugya.

After a brief digression about other books of the Tanach are "m'tamey et ha-yadayim" or not, the rabbis return to the question of Megillat Esther. Various rabbis cite various proof texts to demonstrate that the Megillah is indeed sacred:

Rabbi Eliezer: Megillah is sacred because it says "Va'yomer Haman b'libo" -- how would we know what Haman said if not for ruach ha-kodesh?
Rabbi Akivah: Megillah is sacred because it says "V'tehi Esther noseit chen" -- how would we know that Esther found favor in the king's eyes if not for ruach ha-kodesh?
Rabbi Meir: Megillah is sacred because it says "And the matter became known to Mordechai" -- how would Mordechai have known about the plot to kill the king if not for ruach ha-kodesh?
Rabbi Yosey: Megillah is sacred because it says "Ushlalam lavoz" -- how would we know that no Jews anywhere touched the spoil, if not for ruach ha-kodesh?
Shmuel: Megillah is sacred because it says "kimu v'kiblu" (they confirmed and undertook upon themselves). From this we learn that God confirmed in the heavenly court what the Jews took upon themselves on earth.

In the next part of the sugya, the rabbis knock down the first four proof text above. In each case, they show how it is not sufficient justification for the claim that the Megillah was written b'ruach ha-kodesh. For instance, perhaps Mordechai knew about the plot to kill the king not because of ruach ha-kodesh, but because he spoke the same language as Bigtan Vateresh. Etc., etc. In each case, the rabbis are able to find a flaw with the proof text. Only Shmuel's reasoning is not dismissed, and the rabbi's conclude, "Shmuel's proof alone has no flaw -- this is analagous to what people say, 'One sharp pepper is better than a basketful of melons.'"

The Gemara then offers two more proofs that Esther was written with the divine spirit:

Rav Yosef: We know this from the verse "And these days of Purim shall not fail among the Jews."
Rav Nachman bar Yitchak: We know this from the verse "Nor shall their remembrance cease from their descendants."

Now, aside from suggestions as to how to fill a mishloach manot basket (it's all about the peppers), I think this sugya has something very interesting to teach us about the meaning of holiness in our lives. All of those verses that are ultimately accepted as proof that the Megillah is sacred deal with the way in which we (that is, you and I and all of us who are living today) take upon ourselves the mitzvot of Purim. Shmuel's text asserts that God ratified the Jews' acceptance of Purim; Yosef's text asserts that Jews continued to celebrate Purim; and Rav Nachman's text declares that Purim is forever remembered. In other words, we who observe Purim breathe the divine spirit into the Megillah.

This brings us to the answer to the question raised by the first half of the sugya. Why is the Megillah sacred only when read and not when written? Because the written scroll itself is inert and lifeless. It is only when we READ it that we breathe life into it. By reading the Megillah aloud--which is one of the four mitzvot of Purim (others are seudah, mishloach manot, matanot la-evyonim)--we bring life to the text. We are the "m'kablim" in Shmuel's "kimu v'kiblu"; we are the reason that the days of Purim don't fail a la R. Yosef; and we are the cause for their remembrance a la R. Nachman.

In Breishit 2:7, we read that God "formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul." The Megillah does not contain the name of God, so it is not a sacred document when it is simply lying there in the drawer. It is we who breathe life into it when we read it and when we carry out the mitzvot it instructs us to keep. We breathe life into the Megillah, infusing it with holiness so that it becomes what the other books of the Torah already are -- sacred writ.

Purim costume

Owing to a bad case of athlete's foot, I've been walking around wearing one sneaker and one flip-flop for the past couple of days. Fortunately, I do not look at all out of place in a city that has been totally co-opted by the Purim craze. When walking to work each morning, I felt like I was watching a costume parade -- instead of the usual groups of children making their way to their various schools, I saw princes, magicians, butterflies, and angels winding their way through the streets in colorful taffeta and satin.

Although adults do not get off from work for Purim, the schools give a three-day vacation that includes Ta'anit Esther, Purim, and Shushan Purim. Furthermore, for the entire week before Purim, kids come to school in costume. My colleague at the literary agency explained to me that at her stepchildren's school, the kids are given a theme for each day, and the parents have to come up with a costume that fits the theme. (Needless to say, the parents are none too pleased with this arrangement.)

There was an aritcle in Kol Ha-ir this week about how nobody wears home-made costumes anymore; kids want only fancy store-bought ones. I'm proud to say that in spite of this trend, I made my costume myself using only tinfoil, a Fedex box, and a bicycle helmet.

I dressed as the Nosei Kelim of the Rif. The Rif, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yaakov Alfasi (1013-1103), lived first in Morocco and then in Spain, where he wrote a legal code closely paralleling the Gemara. Several commentators then wrote commentaries and critiques on his code, and they are known as his "nosei kelim," i.e. his "armor bearers." Playing on this idea of armor bearers, I dressed like a knight and labeled each part of my armor with the name of another one of the nosei kelim, as follows:

Shield -- the Ra'avad
Sword -- Milchemet Hashem (i.e. RambaN)
Helmet -- Rabbeinu Nisim

I also wore a sign that said "nosei kelim mikelim shonim," which is a pun on Esther 1:7. And to add to the knight look, I borrowed a friend's army boots and covered them with aluminum foil as well.

I should note that I still have the athlete's foot, which did not go away with the end of Purim. Too bad that I can't get away with wearing one flip-flop any longer, because my toes still really itch.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Night vision

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
--A Midsummer Night's Dream (V:i)

I was reminded of this Shakespearean passage tonight when I came across a brief excerpt from the Pachad Yitzchak (R. Pinchas Hutner) about the connection between Purim and Peseach. R. Hutner comments that in a leap year, Purim always falls out in Adar Bet so that it remains close to Pesach. R. Hutner then goes on to explain that Purim and Pesach are connected in that both are ways of getting to know the "Anochi" [the I AM] of God. To contrast these two ways of coming to know God, he uses the metaphor of a person stumbling around in the darkness and trying to recognize a shape before him -- the very same metaphor invoked by Shakespeare above.

Pesach, says R. Hutner, is like the person who shines a flashlight (k'li or) in order to identify the shape before him. He holds up the light, and immediately he is able to apprehend the image. In the same way, the miracles of Pesach are overt and explicit; we are hit over the head (ten times!) with evidence of God's presence. God's outstretched arm is readily apparent in Egypt; the spotlight is upon Him as He works wonders in the eyes of Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and His own people.

But Purim, says R. Hutner, is like the person who has no flashlight and must therefore use "chush acher milvad chuch ha-re'aya," another sense besides sight. This night traveler needs to rely on a sort of sixth sense to intuit the identity of the presence before him. In the same way, we sense God's presence in the Purim story only intuitively and indirectly. God is never mentioned in the megillah. The miracle of Purim is not one of divine intervention -- there are no catastrophic plagues or dramatic sea-splittings. Paradoxically, God can be found in the Purim story only through "haster astir," the concealing of the divine presence. It is in the absence of God that we intuit His presence.

To know God in the Pesach/flashlight way is to live with 100% certainty of His presence. It is to live in a world of absolute black-and-white, where everything has its reason and everything is clearly part of a larger providential plan. It is, I would say, how you lived: You davened three times a day every single day; you talked to God openly and regularly; you saw God's presence before you at all times. We would be sitting at the dinner table when we'd hear the siren wail of an ambulance passing by, and your lips would automatically begin making their silent motion. "What are you saying," I once asked. "I am asking God to make sure that the person in that ambulance will be OK," you told me. At other times, I'd try to talk to you and you'd ask me to wait because you were in the middle of talking to God -- and then I'd notice that your lips were moving, and I'd wait patiently and reverently for you to finish. Oh, how pious is my husband, I thought -- God is always standing readily before him cast in a beam of light.

For me, it was never like that. I knew God--and I continue to know God--only sometimes, and only in the shadows cast by other people and other presences. When I see God, it is never because He is standing before me like a deer in the headlights -- it is because I sense something that is ever so slightly different, as if the contours of the world have been altered ever so slightly. Unlike you, I do not have conversations with God on a regular basis -- but sometimes I feel Him when I find myself dancing to an Anim Zemirot tune while putting away the chairs after shul. And sometimes I feel him when I discover a fascinating connection between poetry and Gemara. And sometimes--many times--I felt Him when looking into your eyes, oh you who are no longer here.

One time you asked me if I was ready to daven, and I said, "I'd so much rather finish this chapter of Don Quixote. I'm skipping maariv." And you became visibly upset, perhaps even agitated. "What's wrong?" I asked. "I just can't relate to a person who thinks it is more important to read Don Quixote than to pray to God." If only I had the courage to tell you what I know now -- that God, for me, was more likely to be found in the pages of Don Quixote that evening. My God is the God of haster astir, but He is no less real than yours.

Of course, I am thinking of you this Purim, the day I intuitively sensed that you no longer wanted to be my husband. And of course, I will think of you this Pesach, the day you told me in no uncertain terms--as I stood in the kitchen holding up a half-rotten apple--that you no longer wanted to be married to me. I sense your presence in the shadows everywhere I go. But deep down, there is a part of me that knows that things can become their opposites, and that even after great pain there is light again. Ken tih-yeh lanu.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Indecent Exposure

"For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Recalling the dreams that he had dreamed about them, Joseph said to them, 'You are spies. You have come to see the land in its nakedness.'"
--Genesis 42:8-9

Yesterday I was sitting in the Beit Midrash editing a biography of a jazz musician when I overheard some students in the afternoon Tanach class puzzling over the phrase "ervat ha'aretz." What does it mean for the land to have nakedness? The term "ervah" is generally used in connection to human beings. The phrase recurs most often in the holiness code in Leviticus 18, where we are given a whole list of those whose nakedness [ervah] we are forbidden to expose. According to BDB, ervah refers to a form of indecent exposure, particularly of women's bodies.

In thinking about Yosef's use of the term, I may have come to a deeper understanding of its meaning. Ervah, I would say, is any sort of intrusive knowledge of another's interiority. Ervah may be uncovered not just by removing a person's garments, but also by entering into another's home, catching him/her unawares, or even attempting to read his/her mind. To be m'galeh ervah is to walk off with knowledge about someone that this person did not necessarily want to share. An example: There are times when I do not want to invite someone into my home even for just a few moments -- not because I have anything against them, but because I do not want them to be able to walk off with the knowledge of what is in my home. I do not want my space to be part of their imaginative lives. I wish for this knowledge to remain somewhat exclusive; I do not want to bare the inside of my apartment in much the same way as I would not want to wear a bathing suit in public.

With time and with the trust that often builds with time, I am prepared to reveal more of my interiority to another person. I may share a secret dream, or relate an embarrassing story, or confess a silly mistake I once made. The growing trust is not just in the other person, but also in the longevity of the relationship. If I believe that a person will be there for a long time--not to mention forever--I am comfortable revealing more, because I have less of a fear that this person will "walk off" with my ervah. There are things I would not say to someone unless I thought he was going to be there for ever ever ever. There are things that it would destroy me to share with more than one person in a single lifetime. There are things that, once shared, forge a connection so deep that it can only be severed with tremendous pain. And then there is the pain itself.

Yosef uses the term "ervat ha'aretz," but I think it is really his own ervah that he does not want to reveal to his brothers. After all, at this point, Yosef is so important in Egypt that he is virtually synonymous with the land itself. After saving the nation from famine, Yosef IS Egypt. For the brothers to reveal the nakedness of the land, then, would be for them to see Yosef's interiority. It would mean that the brothers would be entering Yosef's new home, the home he made for himself after he was so cruelly cut off from the home he once knew. Yosef does not want to grant them this knowledge. He is not ready to bare himself quite yet. And thus we are told that "when Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them." He is not prepared to reveal his ervah to the brothers who dipped his cloak in blood.

Just before Yosef accuses his brothers of coming to see the nakedness of the land, he remembers the dreams that he dreamed about them (see verse 9 above). As a child, Yosef would taunt his brothers by telling them that they appeared in his dreams, always in subservient roles. His brothers, of course, were powerless to defend themselves against his claims. After all, what could they say in protest? "No, we were not in your dreams?" "No, we did not bow down to you like sheaves of wheat?" They could not contradict the world of Yosef's dreams, which was perhaps why they grew so frustratingly resentful of him.

In thinking about the connection between dreams and ervah, I am reminded of a story that my mother shared with me about ten years ago. Shortly after my maternal grandmother died, a member of my father's synagogue began claiming that my grandmother was figuring in her dreams. Each Shabbat in shul, she would relate to my mother another dream she had dreamt about my grandmother. I remember that my mother felt incredibly resentful of this woman's claims to have a special connection to her own dearly-missed mother. This congregant, in claiming to know more about my grandmother than her own daugher, was intruding into a landscape where she was most unwanted. And my mother was as powerless to counter her claims as were Yosef's older brothers who had to listen to his reports of his vainglorious dreams.

Philosophers of mind use the term "privileged access" to refer to our ability to know only our own thoughts. We always know what we are thinking with absolute certainty, but we can never know with any certainty what is going on in another person's head. There is a reason that we are designed in this way. It creates the potential for the greatest intimacy -- an intimacy that is given freely and voluntarily in the context of a loving and trusting relationship. But it also allows for a very dangerous and hurtful form of "gilui arayot," which we would all do well to guard ourselves against.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Parshat Terumah: Ode on a Grecian Kaporet

"You shall make a cover of pure gold . . . Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover. Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end . . . They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover . . . There I will meet with you, and I will speak to you, from above the cover, from between the two cherubim." (Exodus 25: 17-22)

God speaks to Bnei Yisrael from the space between the two kruvim [cherubim], which Avivah Zornberg characterizes as the locus of desire. These cherubim, which according to one midrash are male and female, are destined (condemned?) to forever gaze at one another but never to embrace. God speaks from the kaporet, the space between them. And so we learn that it is from places of concentrated potency and desire that the divine voice emanates; not from places of satisfaction and fulfillment.

John Keats recognized the power of unfulfilled desire in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," a poem about the lovers painted on the sides of an ancient urn. These figures are static on the painted surface and thus fated never to embrace. And yet there is a satisfaction to be had in the very lack of satisfaction, as Keats assures one of the lovers:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve,
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Although the Lover will never catch up with his "bride of quietness" on the other side of the urn, he can find comfort in the knowledge that her beauty will never fade. Since she is frozen in time, she is "For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd, for ever panting, and for ever young." The moment of ravishing will never come, and so the lovers may look forward to it forever.

We might say that it is in from the curve of the urn between the lovers that God speaks to Bnei Yisrael. And indeed, according to Keats, it is an altar that lies in this space:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

The priest brings the heifer to the altar between the fleeing lovers on the Grecian urn. In this finite space of infinite longing, the infinite God connects with the finite worshipper.

The Zohar teaches that when the Israelites behave righteously, the two kruvim face one another; when they stray, the kruvim are unable to gaze into each other's eyes. As proof, the Zohar draws on a pasuk from Shir Hashirim (1:4): "The straight-forward love You." The Zohar then goes on to relate that "When the keruvim turn their faces one to the other and look each one into the other's face . . . all the colors are repaired, the violet changes into a different color, and the green turns to gold, and thus in the changing of colors, judgement is turned into compassion, and so too compassion can be turned into judgment . . . in those colors that are included in one another, they are the beauty of them all."

The connection between straight-forwardness and beauty is of course not lost on Keats, who closes "Ode to a Grecian Urn" with the timeless affirmation that "beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

On reading the Hadar e-mails from Jerusalem

Much have I travell'd in Yerushalayim shel Zahav
And many goodly Batei Knesset seen
Round many minyanim, too, have I been,
Which gabbaim in fealty to egalitarianism hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Hadar ruled as its demesne
Yet never did I breathe its pure ob-scene
Till I heard its e-mails speak out from Jerusalem, loud and bold.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a familiar but suddenly unwanted planet swims into his ken
Or like some bat Kohen, when with eagle eyes
She stared out to bless the Kahal--and all her men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Apartment listings, beit midrash, Darfur rally, Shavuot retreat--
Ahh!!! Can't deal!!!----
Silence!!! Upon a peak in Jerusalem.

(with all due apologies to Keats in this season of parodies...)