Monday, August 23, 2010

A Womb of His Own

I have long been baffled by the choice of Torah reading for minchah on Yom Kippur. Why do we read the long list of prohibited sexual relations on the afternoon of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar? Yom Kippur is a day when we are commanded rise above the physical needs of our body. We do not eat or drink, and we dress in white like angels. Moreover, this is the one day of the year when sexual relations are explicitly prohibited by the Torah. Why then do we proceed to read about all those individuals whose nakedness we are forbidden to uncover?

Apparently I am not the only one troubled by this question. The new machzor from the Conservative movement, Lev Shalem, offers two possible Torah readings for minchah on Yom Kippur – the “traditional” reading about sexual unions, and an “alternate” reading that consists of the holiness code at the beginning of parshat Kedoshim. The latter choice is a compelling one, both because it dovetails with the shacharit reading from Acharey Mot (since these two parshiyot are consecutive and are often conjoined), and also because, as the editors of the machzor explain, “this passage has been called the holy of holies of the book of Leviticus” (and Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year). In defense of the traditional reading, the editors note that “in pre-modern societies, privacy in the family rarely existed. A public recitation of the rules that define and protect the family was deemed important on this day, when the entire community gathered for prayer and reflection.” They go on to surmise that the choice of Torah reading may have been associated with the custom of young men and women going out into the fields to arrange marriage proposals on Yom Kippur in the days when the Temple was still standing.

If these reasons seem too historically specific for our timeless tradition, they are at least more satisfying than the traditional explanations, cited in commentaries to Megillah 31a, where the rabbis establish the Torah readings for the various holidays. The Talmud states without elaboration, “On Kom Kippur we read Acharei Mot and the maftir is Ki Choh Amar Ram v’Nisa; at Minchah we read the Arayot (forbidden sexual relations) and the maftir is Yonah.” Rashi comments that “We read the Arayot – so that anyone who is sleeping with someone forbidden to him (literally: who has Arayot in his hands) will separate from them, because Arayot are a prevalent sin, because man’s soul enjoys them and his evil inclination wins him over.” According to Rashi, then, the minchah Torah reading is intended as a warning against this particular sin. The Tosafot offer a rather anti-feminist alternative to this commentary: “We read the Arayot—because women dress up in honor of the day, and so we need to warn the men not to fall into their trap.” The women are wearing their new white dresses and their holiday finery, rendering them particularly seductive. I might add that since Yom Kippur is a fast day, the women don’t need to be in the kitchen but can actually set foot in shul, for a change. Caveat gever! According to the traditional commentators as well, then, the minchah reading serves as a warning against sexual sins -- even though these are the sins that are supposed to be furthest from our minds on Yom Kippur.

This summer, when learning Masechet Shevuot, I was reminded of a rather startling connection between Yom Kippur at the Arayot. The second chapter of Shevuot deals with Yediot HaTumah, that is, with a person’s awareness (or his lack of awareness) that he is impure, or that he is entering a place of purity. There are several ways in which a person can sin in this regard. He or she may become impure but forget that he is impure and enter the Temple; or he may remember that he is impure but forget that he is in the Temple (apparently this was more likely the case for Babylonians, who did not have as strong a sense of Israel’s geography, and were therefore more likely to suddenly find themselves—oops!—in the Temple, of all places!); or he may forget both that he is impure and that he is in the Temple. In all such cases, the offender must exit the Mikdash by the shortest route possible and later bring a Korban Oleh V’Yored, that is, a sacrifice whose value depends on his financial state.

The Mishnah draws an explicit analogy between the way in which the impure person must exit the Mikdash, and the way in which a man must withdraw from a woman who becomes a Nidah during intercourse. In both cases, a space is entered under the assumption that this space is permitted, but it soon becomes clear that it is in fact prohibited. However, whereas in the case of the Mikdash, the person is expected to take the shortest path out, this is not the case in sex. There a man sins if he withdraws immediately, because to do so would render “his exit to be as enjoyable as his entrance.” Instead, as the Talmud goes on to relate, Rava advises that the man caught in such a situation should “stick his fingernails into the ground until it dies, which is good for him.” This is followed by a series of warnings to B’nei Yisrael to separate from their wives close to their menstrual periods. The Talmud cautions that “Anyone who does not separate from his wife close to her period – even if he has sons like the sons of Aaron, they will die.” (This is particularly interesting because as we read in the Torah reading at Yom Kippur shacharit, two of Aaron’s sons do in fact die young.) Conversely, “Anyone who separates from his wife before her period will have male children.” (The same consequence ensues if one makes havdalah, the Talmud goes on to say, underscoring the notion that separation is good.) This in turn leads to a consideration of the bizarre case of a man who is sure that he committed a sexual sin, but cannot quite remember whether he slept with his sister, or with his menstruating wife. This last case, of course, brings me back to the Arayot.

On Yom Kippur, the day we read the Arayot, much of the liturgy focuses on Temple ritual. This is especially the case during the Avodah service, which re-enacts the high priest’s activities on this day by quoting from the Talmudic tractate Yoma. Seven of the eight chapters of this tractate deal with every single step taken by the high priest as he prepares to enter the holy of holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple. The fifth chapter relates that the high priest would penetrate two levels of curtains, the outer and the inner (who says the rabbis didn’t know female anatomy?), and then heap incense on coals and wait until the whole house became full of smoke. Only after this climactic eruption did he withdraw from the Temple spent and triumphant, corresponding to the exuberant singing of “Mareh Kohen” in the Avodah service’s re-enactment.

In light of the analogy from Shevuot—in which entering the Mikdash is compared to penetrating a woman—the Yom Kippur leyning takes on a new level of meaning. The purpose of entering the Mikdash is to bring a Korban, that is, to be brought close (Karov) to God. This intimacy is analogized to sexual union. In this sense, the story of Nadav and Avihu’s death (on account of their coming too close to the altar when not in the proper state to do so) in the shacharit reading is analogous to all the improper sexual unions described in the minchah Torah reading. Entering the Temple when impure is like entering a woman who is forbidden, and in both cases, the consequences are dire. Moreover, the person enters into the Ezrat Nashim, an area named for the fact that women could not go beyond this point, but perhaps also significant because the whole Temple, with its nested chambers and vessels, was a very feminine space.

While these readings are my own, I am not the first to notice the analogy between the Holy of Holies and the womb. Bonna Devora Haberman, in her brilliant article “The Yom Kippur Avodah in the Female Enclosure,” offers a reading of the Avodah service as an erotic encounter: “The high priest may be understood as the symbolic instrument for attaining union of the Jewish people with the One...which culminates in orgasmic penetration into the holiest space.” Haberman argues that the incense is the aphrodisiac of the Avodah; and the sprinkling of blood offers atonement in much the same way that the shedding of menstrual blood allows for a new start, with the goat to Azazal cast off like a discarded egg. In learning Masechet Shevuot, I was struck by how Haberman’s reading of the Avodah service may be applied to other aspects of Temple ritual, including an ordinary person’s entrance into the Temple to bring a Korban—that is, to achieve closeness (Kirva) and intimacy with God.

The rabbis famously say that since the destruction of the Temple, our impulse to worship idols has been replaced by the sexual impulse. Instead of the temptation to enter into places of worship that are off limits, there is the temptation to sleep with those forbidden to us. The Minchah leyning about the Arayot is thus the contemporary counterpart to the Shacharit reading about entering the Temple in purity. In a nod to the psalm for Elul, the month of “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” both Torah readings remind us what it takes to merit to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives.

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Shevuot (chapters 1 and 2)

שבועות שתים :Chapter One

The Torah lists laws one and two
But a person who knows what to do
Keeps four. It’s the case
With oaths made to save face:
Bad, good, claiming you didn’t, did too.

You’re accountable for what you know;
Every school teaches that you can’t go
In the Temple when not
In a pure state. Forgot?
Bring a sacrifice as quid pro quo.

Not each blemish is equally white
Skin discolored is more or less bright
We will tell if you show:
It’s like plaster, wool, snow
Or like egg gook that gleams in the light.

(8a, with Rashi)
A woman who gives birth must bring
A sin offering. That’s a strange thing.
We assume that she swore
“Ouch! I won’t any more
Have these kids!” She atones for that zing.

Reish Lakish says the Rosh Chodesh goat
Is for sins of which just God takes note.
It’s Himself He impugns
For He lessened the moon
Cry the sages: That’s not what He wrote!

Ketoret leftovers can’t be
Disposed of indiscriminately.
We use them to pay
Artisans, so they stay
In the Temple to work dutifully.

A red heifer may not be fated
For worship, although designated.
You might find one that’s redder
Or one that looks better
(Of wives, too, this also was stated.)

Rabi lists sins for which people must
Do pre-Yom Kippur Teshuva or bust:
Keeping foreskins intact,
Casting God off your back,
Quoting Torah in tones of disgust.

ידיעות הטומאה: Chapter Two

The Temple courtyard renovation
Requires full participation
By prophet and king
And sanhedrin – and sing-
Ing by Israel, who join in elation.

If you’re impure, you shouldn’t go in
To the Mikdash, for that is a sin.
And likewise they state
You should not penetrate
Your dear wife when she’s bleeding within.

A Babylonian, who lives far away
Comes to Israel at last one fine day
He gets lost when impure
In the Mikdash, immured--
Is he blamed for not keeping away?

Yehoshua ben Levi would say
Torah verses, at close of the day
And then fall asleep
So that Torah would keep
Him from harm. But that’s not quite okay.

If you’re caught in the Mikdash, you must
Get out of there quickly or bust
Take the shortest way out
Don’t go running about
But with women, stay put, lest you lust.

If your wife becomes Nidah while you
Are inside her, what are you to do?
Dig your fingernails deep
In the floorboards, and keep
Them there‘til you are past it. Say “phew!”

When Havdalah with wine cup is said,
You’ll have sons with your wife in your bed.
But sleep with your spouse
When in Nidah – your house
Will be full of sons, but they’ll drop dead.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Sinking my Teeth into Torah

I am dentally unstable. Every time I go to the dentist, I discover a new problem with my teeth. Just yesterday, when I went for an appointment to follow up on the extraction of a top tooth in June, I learned that the two teeth next to it have now become infected, and they too will have to come out -- leaving me with only two teeth on my top left side. The dentist also reported that in spite of my years of orthodonture, I’m going to need a brace on my top teeth in order to pull down an impacted wisdom tooth. When I heard that news, my jaw dropped. Another wisdom tooth? I had six wisdom tooth extracted when I was in high school. I remember that the dentist seemed to keep finding more of them, assuring me each time that I was exceedingly wise, but that this time he was finally finished. Apparently I am even wiser than he thought.

It is not the wise son, but the wicked one, who has his teeth blunted at the Passover seder. What does all this stuff mean to you, he asks his father; and because he excludes himself from the collective, his father tells him that he would not have been taken out of Egypt. Is this a fitting punishment? He who would not have been taken out has his teeth taken out instead? It is not a fate I would want for myself, though I seem to be losing teeth left and right. The Talmud in Masechet Brachot (56a) relates that if a person dreams of his teeth falling out, then his sons and daughters will die soon. Sounds ominous. I suppose I am lucky that I don’t have any sons or daughters to lose. On the other hand, at this point I don’t have very many teeth left to lose, either.

Perhaps the best example of the connection between teeth and wisdom in the Talmud is the figure of Rav Yehuda, the third-century Babylonian rabbi whose teacher Shmuel nicknamed him Shinana. The term means either “toothy one” or “sharp, brilliant one,” depending on the root (no pun intended), which may be either the Hebrew word for tooth (Shen) or for learning (Shinun). Either Rav Yehuda had incisive incisors or an incisive intellect, or perhaps both. I like to think that he chewed over everything he learned, and maybe even broke his teeth on a few difficult Talmudic passages. This once happened to me. I was learning daf yomi while unconsciously biting my finger, when I inadvertently bit so hard that I chipped my front tooth. The tooth remains chipped to this day, leading me to wonder whether I, too, merit Rav Yehuda’s sobriquet.

I hope that when I broke my tooth on Torah, I was enjoying what I was learning. Because if so, then the harm I caused my tooth could be classified as Shen (tooth), which is the term used in the tractate Bava Kama for one of the three types of damages caused by an ox: Keren, Regel, and Shen. Keren (horn) refers to intentional damage caused by an ox’s horn. Regel (foot) refers to the damage that an animal inflicts while walking. Shen refers to the damage done by an animal in the process of enjoying something, such as eating someone else’s vegetables. For all of these damages, the owner of the ox has to pay Nezek Shalem, the full cost of the damages (assuming like me, he does not have dental insurance).

Far better than damaging one’s teeth, of course, is using them to flash a toothy grin. This is what the children of Israel requested from God. In a midrash on the verse from Jacob’s blessing to his son Judah, “His teeth are whiter than milk” (Genesis 29:12), the Talmud relates an explanation offered by Rav Dimi:

The congregation of Israel said to the Holy One, blessed be He: Lord of the Universe, wink to me with your eyes, which will be sweeter than wine, and show me your teeth which will be sweeter than milk. (Ketubot 111b)

Apparently the children of Israel did not internalize the message that Moses learned after the Golden Calf episode, which is that no one can see God’s face and live. Or maybe they thought that God would make an exception to flash His pearly whites. (Brace yourselves!) In any case, this midrash leads into the following statement from Rabbi Yochanan:

Better is the man who affectionately shows his teeth to his friend than one who gives bins of milk to drink, for it is said in the Torah, “and his teeth white with milk” – don’t read L’ven Shinayim (teeth whiteness) but rather Libun Shinayim (the showing of teeth).

I suspect that Sisera would agree with this aphorism, as would, perhaps, Og the king of Bashan, the mythical Biblical figure who survived the flood because no one could vanquish him – until his Achilles teeth did him in when he tried to destroy Israel. The Talmud (Brachot 54b) relates that Og measured the size of the camp of Israel, found a mountain that was just that size, and plotted to uproot the mountain and throw it upon the camp of Israel. But Og’s plans were foiled by God: Just when the formidable king lifted the mountain over his head, God sent ants which bore a hole in it, so it sank down around his neck, covering his head. Og tried to pull the mountain off, but his gigantic teeth projected into the mountain, and he could not free himself. The proof text for this story is a verse from Psalms (3:8): “You have broken the teeth of the wicked.” Reish Lakish explains, “Do not read Shibarta (you have broken), but rather Shirbabta (you have lengthened).” God miraculously turned Og’s teeth into fangs that bore their way into the mountain. We might say that Og bit off more than he could chew, because the story ends with Moses taking an axe, leaping into the air, and killing the hapless ogre.

When it comes to my own teeth, I can only lament that I wish I were like the lover in Shir HaShirim, who was told, “Ah you are fair, my darling…Your teeth are like a flock of ewes, climbing up from the washing pool. All of them bear twins, and no one loses her young” (4:3). My teeth, though, seem more to resemble the ewes that lose their young than their fertile counterparts. Still, I take some comfort when my dentist assures me that all the teeth he extracts will be replaced with implants and crowns, and that no one who looks at me will notice the difference. Leaving his office, I can’t help but wonder: Is that what they call a tooth for a tooth?

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Careful Use of Compliments: Further Notes Towards a Theory of Romantic Love

In moments of stunning clarity and insight, Isabel Dalhousie, the 40-year-old moral philosopher who is the heroine of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Careful Use of Compliments, contemplates her relationship with her lover Jamie. Isabel, once hopelessly in love with a dashing research fellow at Cambridge, knows all too well that “it was bad luck, just bad luck, to fall in love with the wrong person. People did that all the time; they fell in love with somebody who for one reason or another could never be theirs. And then they served their sentence, the sentence of unrequited, impossible love, which could go on for years and years, with no remission for good behavior, none at all.” But in Jamie, a man fifteen years her junior who tutors bassoon students in their beloved city of Edinburgh, Isabel has at last found a love that is requited. She and Jamie, though not married, are openly lovers, and they have a son together. Isabel is unable to believe her good fortune, particularly in those ordinary moments they spend together:

With the intimacy of a married couple--which they were not--but with the sense of novelty and awe of lovers--which they were--Isabel and Jamie prepared for their dinner with Cat. Isabel sat on the edge of her bed half dressed, examining a black cocktail dress and wondering whether it was the right thing to wear; Jamie came out of the bathroom wearing only a white towel wrapped round his waist, his hair wet from the shower, tousled, small drops of water on his shoulders and forearms. She looked up at him and then looked away because she did not want him to see her looking upon him. One looked upon with lust, or with something akin to lust, and one would not want to be seen looking upon one’s lover in the way in which a gourmet, sitting at the table, would look upon an enticing dish.
Jamie moved over to the dressing table and picked up a brush. Bending down to look into the mirror, he brushed his hair roughly, but it sprang back up, as it always tended to do.
"Don't worry," said Isabel. "It looks nice like that. Your hair sticks up naturally."
“It annoys me,” says Jamie. “Sometimes I think I’ll go to that place in Bruntsfield, you know the barbers near the luggage shop, and get a crew cut or one of those totally shaved styles.”
“You couldn’t,” said Isabel flatly. “It would be a crime.”
He turned to face her. “Why? It’s my head.”
She wanted to say, No, it’s not, it’s mine too, but she stopped herself. That was what she thought, though, and even as she thought it, she realized that Jamie was on loan to her, as we are all to one another, perhaps.

Isabel realizes that much as she loves Jamie, and much as she would like to possess him, he is ultimately not hers. He is her lover, but she does not own him. He is “on loan” to her, like a library book -- checked out and renewable, yes, but subject to being recalled at any moment. This notion reminds me of the famous story of Rabbi Meir and his wife Bruriah. The Midrash on Sefer Mishlei (31) tells of how Bruriah discovered that their beloved sons died suddenly on the Sabbath, but she hid their deaths from her husband so as not to cause him distress on Shabbat. She lay her sons on the bed, spread a sheet over them, and told her husband that they had gone to the study house. After he had made Havdalah, she posed this question to him: If someone were to lend her something and later come back to ask for it, should she return it? Rabbi Meir responded that of course she should return it. Bruriah then took her husband by the hand and led him to their bedroom, where she removed the sheet covering the bodies of their sons. Rabbi Meir began to wail, but Bruriah reminded him of his own assertion that one must return a pledge to its rightful owner. Her husband replied, “God has given, and God has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The notion that those we love are on loan to us, expressed by both Isabel and Bruriah, is one I feel in every fabric of my being. I identify with Isabel as she looks upon her freshly toweled lover. Like her, I wonder -- is it really my good fortune to be with you? Are you really mine? Can there really be someone who loves me in all my foibles and flights of fancy? It does not seem possible that such supreme joy could be my rightful lot. For a while I was certain that it was all just a dream, that you were a butterfly in a jar, and that the moment I unscrewed the cap you would flap your dazzling wings and fly away. I felt the need to keep you all to myself, to hide you away in a cupboard, to shield you from the prying eyes of others who would be eager to rejoice in a fortune that I did not believe was mine. On some level, I could not shake off the conviction that any expression of public joy would only become a public shame. I have never found it easy to graciously accept gifts, and I was wholly unable to accept the gift of you.

Paradoxically, it was only when I could adopt the notion of love “on loan” that I could allow myself to trust enough to be able to love you without fear. Only when I realized that you were not mine forever could I revel in the fact that you were mine for now. We have been married for six months, and every morning when I wake up beside you, watching as the sun streams in through the window and dances across your still-shut eyelids, I must pinch myself to make sure it is really true. I say Modeh Ani in the morning, thanking God not just for restoring my soul to my body, but for restoring you to me. For there you are, here with me on yet another blessed day! It is this sense of wild gratitude that enables me to love you without being paralyzed by the fear of losing you. It is, perhaps, the opposite stance of W.H. Auden, who writes of a lover who errs on the side of confidence in love’s endurance:

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

I know that love will not last forever, because nothing beautiful lasts forever. An inherent characteristic of beauty is that it unfolds in time: A real flower is more beautiful than a plastic one because the real flower will ultimately wither. This is why Rabbi Elazar cries upon seeing the beautiful Rabbi Yochanan. The Talmud (Brachot 5b) relates that when Rabbi Yochanan came to visit Rabbi Elazar on his deathbed, the former pulled up his sleeve and a brilliant light fell from his arm. Struck by his beauty, which the Talmud elsewhere compares to a glass of pomegranate seeds in the sunlight, Rabbi Elazar began to cry. Rabbi Yochanan asked: Why are you crying? He answered: I am crying for this beauty that will be ravaged by dust.

As this sugya reminds us, evanescence is beauty’s hallmark. A thing of beauty is not, in fact, a joy forever. It is the knowledge that the object of our love, in all its beauty, is not guaranteed to be ours forever that renders our love so precious and so prized. We are on loan to one another, which means that sometimes we must acknowledge that “God has given, and God has taken away.” We live in spite of those moments. But there are also the moments we live for, when the impulse for blessing comes from another acknowledgement, uttered in wonder and incredulity: God has taken away, but God has also given.