Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Poem for Parashat Noach

Each day the forecast says rain.
I sit on the edge of my bed with one leg outstretched—
Zip up high boots and go out in the dry,
Un-puddle-wonderful world.

Each night my galleon pillow tosses between trembling hands
In the stormy seas of our watershed weeping:

The end of all flesh has now come!
Let the world we have made be undone!

Remorseful, resigned until morning comes
Lift up the latch; let in the light
Welcome the dove with this olive branch offered:
Those who were saved came in two
By two
by two
by two
by me, too.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Gittin: Perek Bet המביא גט

"I saw this Get written, not signed"
Said the witness. We hold that's not fine.
We need witnesses two
Who avow: "It is true:
Saw them write it and sign on the line."

If two people dip in a sea
That has just enough water to be
Kosher – Can we then say
Both of them are okay?
If they dip simultaneously.

Three rabbis discussed in the night
Laws of Gets brought from far -- what's all right?
'Til a Persian priest came,
Put an end to their game,
For he took from them their only light.

If your niece one day becomes your wife
And she cheats, but you do not feel strife
You can pre-date a Get
Say, "I'd already let
Her go free. Do not ruin her life!"

An "old Get" is one that you write
Prior to a grand rendezvous night
With the wife you had written
That finest of gittin
For. That Get has no force or might.

If a man says to ten folks: "Hey guys
Write a Get for the wife I despise."
Must then all ten men sign
On the "witnesses" line
Many problems could therefore arise!

Write a Get in invisible ink
Or in fruit juice (how that Get would stink!)
You can't give it to her
So the sages aver
Yes, a Get must last – what did you think?

An illiterate witness can't write
His name on a Get. That's all right!
You can carve out his name
He can sign just the same
By inking his name bold and bright.

Says a man to his wife, "Here's your Get,"
Throws it into the river. Regret
Gets the better of him
Or perhaps, on a whim,
He says, "'Twas just blank paper – now wet."

Does a Torah scroll count as a Get
It contains the right verses; and yet
Would the Sofer aver
It was written for her?
Still, it won't say her city. Hence nyet!

"Here is your Get, but the paper
Belongs to me" – Some stingy caper!
That is not a divorce
(The poor woman, of course –
She's be better off with a [sic] raper!)

Write a Get on the hand of a slave
That is, one that the husband then gave
To his wife. That's Okay,
So is handing her, say,
A slave who in his hand the Get waves.

An edible Get – what's the deal?
Does it bear the kosher stamp and seal?
Yossi HaGlili says: "No!
Must be book-like, you know.
Did a book ever serve as a meal?"

A Get can't be stuck to the ground
It must be something carried around.
Can a tree or a plant
Be a Get? No they can't--
But an olive-leaf Get would be sound.

A tree planted in holy ground
Gets its sunlight from some land surround-
Ing Israel. This tree,
Do the rabbis agree?
Do we tithe from it? Where is it found?

Any Israelite may bring a Get
Save the deaf, blind, not Bar Mitzvah yet.
But what if he's blind
Then his sight he does find?
He could not see it signed, rabbis fret.

A blind man cannot see a thing
Thus no image can any bells ring.
Well then how does he know
It's his *wife* who does go
With him into his bed, not his fling?

Her own Get a woman may bring.
Yes, the rabbis allowed such a thing
When the husband said "Take
Up the Get when you make
It to that place." "I'm free!" she can sing.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Shofar of Theseus (Rosh Hashanah 27a-b)

The Mishnah in Masechet Rosh Hashanah considers the question of what constitutes a kosher shofar:

"A shofar that cracks and is put back together is not kosher. If one sticks together various broken shofar pieces to make a shofar, it is not kosher."

The first case refers to a shofar that is broken and then restored; the second case refers to a shofar made of the component parts of other shofarot. According to the mishnah, neither may be used in fulfilling the obligation of hearing the shofar blast.

The Gemara explores the ram-ifications of this ruling:

"If one adds on extra materials to put together the shofar, whether of the same type of material or a different type, it is not kosher. If one seals up a hole, whether with the same type of material or a different type, it is not kosher. Rabbi Natan says: With the same type of material it is kosher; with a different type of material, it is not.

With the same type of material it is kosher, says Rabbi Yochanan, in the case that the majority of the original shofar remains intact. And from these principles we can conclude that if it is put together with a different type of material, even though the majority may remain intact, it is not kosher.

Some apply this principle to the end of the statement [of Rabbi Natan]. With a different type of material it is not kosher, says Rabbi Yochanan, in the case that the majority no longer remains. And from these principles we can conclude that if it is put together with the same type of material, even if the majority no longer remains, it is kosher."

This mishnah calls to mind the ancient Greek paradox known as the Ship of Theseus, which deals with the question of whether an object which has had all its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object. Consider a ship that is comprised of wooden planks. One plank decays, and is replaced by a new plank. Then another plank decays, and it too is replaced. This process continues until none of the original planks remain. Is the vessel still the same ship?

This paradox was first recorded by Plutarch in the first century:

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”

In light of this philosophical paradox, we might refer to the shofar of our sugya as the Shofar of Theseus, since it, too, remains intact only by having its parts replaced (or at least re-assembled). When considered in this light, it becomes clear that this is a sugya about when things change and when they stay the same. When is a shofar still a kosher shofar, and when is it changed beyond recognition?

I find this an interesting way of formulating the question because the shofar, of course, is the instrument of change. We blast the shofar during the month of Elul and on the high holidays that follow so as to remind ourselves that the time of teshuva is upon us. We must mend our ways! This is the time to cast out all those parts of ourselves that we are better off without, and to replace them with smoother, shinier spares. How do we remain true to ourselves amidst this rigorous self-analysis and self-reconstitution? How do we, in spite of the many refrains of "we have sinned, we have sinned," view ourselves as more than just pieces of dust? To invoke the language of Humpty-Dumpty: When all the King's horses and all the King's men have examined our every inner chamber, how do we put ourselves back together again?

Perhaps the challenge of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is to be able to tear ourselves apart with our intense introspection, and yet nonetheless to remain whole. To remain true to ourselves even while changing ourselves. If this sounds like a paradox, at least it is not without philosophical (and prophetic!) precedent. From down in the bowels of Theseus' ship--from the belly of Sheol in whose depths we, like Yonah, are cast--may we learn to cry out to God in true prayer and may we be delivered.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Yishmael My Son, Bless Me (Brachot 7a)

My translation from Ruth Calderon's
Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

The sanctuary is silent. All alone, Rabbi Yishmael crosses the twenty-two cubit distance between the antechamber and the altar. Further and further inside, beyond the curtains that are always drawn, as if walking through water and coming ever closer to its source. He has already immersed himself five times in the ritual waters, and his body is as soft as a freshly-laundered garment. Now, dressed in four articles of clothing like one of the regular priests, he is conscious of his exposed forehead, which is usually covered with the gold plate bearing the words "holy to the Lord." In his hands is a firepan made of beaten gold containing finely-ground incense. Its smell enters his nostrils and the smoke rises like a pillar, parting the hallway before him. The smoke from the incense trembles and then is still, like a solid black candle.

His mind is filled with thoughts of the cows, rams, and sheep that passed before the priests in the evening in preparation for the sacrifices. He thinks of the Jerusalem elders who came to make sure he stayed awake all night, as was the custom. Their voices can still be heard in his ears, like the roar of a distant ocean inside a conch shell. His ears are no longer his; his eyes are no longer his; his sleep is no longer his. His whole body has become a sacred vessel. When he parts the last curtain, he can feel the tautness of the string that is tied around his right ankle. This is the string with which the other priests will drag out his body, should anything go awry in the Holy of Holies.

The inner sanctum is filled with the smell of the past. Yishmael has never been able to describe what it is like to his family at home. It is a different space than anything he has ever seen before. He walks inside, his heart quaking with each step. He can feel his own death like a ghostly presence. Dizzy and exhausted after a night of no sleep, he feels the weight of the day's labors on his shoulders. As if performing the steps of a complicated dance, his minds runs through the morning immersion to the confessional beside the sacrifical cow, and from there to the lottery box where the goats were designated—one for God and one for Azazel, and then to the cliff where the latter goat was sent off into the wilderness, and then another confession and sacrifice and another collection of blood in a bowl, followed by the removal of the firepans.

Although he is alone in the Temple, he feels beleaguered by the priestly elders who seem to be peering at him with expectant eyes, measuring each step he takes and each wave of his hand. He is seized by a sense of fear: What if he is not worthy? What if he makes a mistake? His mouth is filled with the words of the confessional prayer: "I have strayed, I have sinned, I have transgressed before you, I and my household. Because on this day I will atone for you to purify you of all your sins. You shall be purified before God." He remembers his hands resting on the head of the cow and the shudder that ran through the animal's body, its sharp smell, its vigor and strength. He had leaned with all his weight on its great back, trying to lose all his anxieties and doubts in the warm flesh.

The names of the various types of blood used in sacred worship are as strange to his ears as song lyrics in a foreign tongue: Blood of the skin, blood of the soul, blood of the essence. The meaning of these terms eludes him, though he has memorized what he must do: "The firepan is in his right hand and the spoon is in his left hand, until the high priest comes between the two curtains which separate the Holy from the Holy of Holies, which are a cubit apart. He walks between them until he comes to the northernmost part. Then he turns and faces south, and walks to his left along the length of the curtain until he reaches the ark." He can recite these words by heart, but they do not seem to accord with the dark hallway in which he finds himself. Where is the ark? He steps through the thick darkness into the Holy of Holies.

Yishmael senses a presence, as if someone is watching him. He stands in place enveloped in the smell of the incense, his eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness. Someone is sitting there. Is there someone else in the sanctum? Did he make a wrong turn? His heart flutters as if caught in a trap. He suddenly does not feel like the high priest, on whom all of Israel's hopes are bent; he does not even feel like an ordinary priest, or like a regular human being.

From behind the pillar of smoke, he sees light.

"Achteriel Yah Hashem Tzvaot," his lips murmur.

Across from him is a high and lofty throne. Should he prostrate himself before it? He dares to raise his eyes. The face of the One seated on the throne appears as if a storm is passing over it.

"Yishmael my son, bless me." He is been addressed by name, as a man addresses his fellow. "Yishmael" – prounounced just as his mother would say it. "My son." This is a face-to-face encounter, filled with grace, like a meeting between father and son. But bless me? What could that mean?

Yishmael does not understand what the man seated on the throne wants from him. The sound of his voice and the words that he speaks do not accord with his expectations. For a moment he fears that a foreign god has penetrated the inner sanctum and has sat upon the throne. After all, it was a well-known principle that heavenly beings never sat down. But then the seated presence calls him by name. In that moment Yishmael divests himself of his role as high priest, and becomes only himself. He listenes. He tries to overcome his fear and his preconceived notions. He wishes to be fully attentive, freed from his anxieties.

Suddenly he understands. Yishmael is filled with blessing, and he is ready to bestow blessing on others. The words come to him with love: "My it be Your will." The words follow one another without any effort on his part, like a person praying for the well-being of a friend. "May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy overcome Your stern attributes." He enjoys this newfound generosity of spirit. He is happy that he wants to bestow goodness. He glances at the seated presence with a tinge of embarrassment, aware that he is saying the right thing.

He continues, "And may You behave toward your children with the attribute of mercy. And for their sake, may You go beyond the boundary of judgment." The seated presence nods graciously. Yishmael no longer doubts himself. He knows what to do next. He comes to the ark and places the firepans between the two cloths. He stacks the incense on the coals and the whole sanctum is suddenly filled with smoke. He exits and then enters an outer chamber and prays a short prayer, so that he would not upset the people, who would begin to worry about what happened to him in that most holy of chambers at the holiest time of the year.

Truly, how splendid was the appearance of the High Priest when he exited the Holy of Holies in peace, without any harm.

This story is based on a sugya from Brachot 7a, translated here:

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha said:
Once I entered into the Holy of Holies
To burn incense in the Inner Innermost sanctum
And I saw Achteriel Yah Hashem Tzvaot
Sitting on a high and lofty throne of compassion
He said to me: Yishmael my son, bless me
I said to him: Master of the Universe
May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger,
That Your mercy overcome Your sterner attributes,
That You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy,
And that for their sake, You go beyond the boundary of judgment.
He nodded to me with His head.
And this comes to teach us
That the blessing given by an ordinary person should never be taken lightly.