Tuesday, January 27, 2009
First, that it had so little Jewish content. Until the last three stories, these could have been told about any people and, I suspect, probably were. They were nasty stories even when the person being tricked had done nothing to deserve it.
Second, these stories read like slave fantasies showing the slaves getting even with their masters. Or like the high school brain trying to get even with the bullying jock. I think it tells something of the attitudes of the Jews toward themselves at that point in time. Many of the stories were from Lamentations Rabbah which suggests that the desire for revenge was very strong.
We so often forget that for much of history, we were outsiders and looked down upon in many areas where we lived. We should never forget that we live in a fortunate era and in good places. Our problems pale in comparison to what many of our ancestors had to suffer with.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
- Monday - 1:9:98-100 (The Cleverness of the People of Jerusalem)
- Tuesday - 1:9:101-108 (The Cleverness of the People of Jerusalem)
- Wednesday - 1:10:1-2 (The Years before the Destruction; Why the Land Was Destroyed)
- Thursday - 1:10:3-5 (Why the Land Was Destroyed)
- Friday - 1:10:6-7 (Why the Land Was Destroyed)
- Saturday/Sunday - 1:10:8 (Why the Land Was Destroyed)
The midrash explains that the Emperor Caligula had instructed that idols be placed in the Temple. The high priest Simeon the Mild told the people not to worry because God would perform a miracle and prevent this from happening. At that moment, they heard a voice from the temple saying that Caligula has been killed and the decree is nullified.
They midrash then tells about Caligula's soldiers traveling to Jerusalem with the idols. One (unnamed) Jewish leader instructs the people to meet the soldiers and try to stop them. The Jewish "notables" went out and told Caligula's emissary that they are ready to die to prevent the idols from being placed in the Temple. The notables kept "crying aloud and beseeching" the emissary, who apparently got quite annoyed, and asked why they didn't pray to their God in heaven rather than bugging him. As he went from city to city, people coming from the city to meet him. But when he went into the cities, he saw people in sackcloth and ashes in the marketplace. The then learned that Caligula had been killed and his decree nullified. The Jews dragged the idols through the streets.
The Jews employed two tactics to deal with this problem. The first was to ask God for a miracle. This was the approach of Simon the Mild as well as the Jews who put on sackcloth and ashes. The second was to confront the Roman emissary directly, as the notables and the people coming from the town were doing.
There is a nice parallel between this midrash and the Book of Esther. There, once the Jews learn of the kings decree, they took the same approach as the city people in our midrash: they put on ashes and sackcloth and wail.
And Mordecai knew all that had transpired, and Mordecai rent his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and he went out into the midst of the city and cried [with] a loud and bitter cry. . . . And in every province, wherever the king's orders and his edict reached, there was great mourning for the Jews, and fasting and weeping and lamenting; sackcloth and ashes were put on the most prominent.
The problem is that this strategy did not look like it would work. So Mordecai convinced a somewhat reluctant Esther that she needed to intervene. And she does, and that saves the day.
One of my teachers, R. Edward Feinstein, has explained Esther as an argument against the ashes-and-sackcloth approach and in favor of direct action and power. Mordecai's wailing does not work; only Esther's direct and very human intervention with the king works. But I think the relationship may be more complicated that that. After all, it was Mordecai's embarrassing behavior that caused Esther to get involved. (See Esther 4:4-17.)
The tension between these two approaches has continued through Jewish history. The Jews in our midrash may have avoided idols being placed in the Temple, but 25 years later Romans destroyed the Temple itself. The unsuccessful Bar Kochba revolt 65 years after that was the result of both poor political and religious thinking. The perceived Jewish passivity in response to pogroms and the Holocaust, the direct secular power approach of the early Zionists, the power of the modern Israeli military, and the current dispute over the Orthodox serving the Israeli military all center around the tension between how we respond to external threats: introspection, prayer, ashes-and-sackcloth on the one hand, or direct political or military power on the other. I cannot solve these problem (and am not even going to try), but I simply note that our midrash nicely captures the tension between these two approaches.
Friday, January 23, 2009
In Mishnah Sotah, the passage ends there, with the comforting of Agrippa, but by the tie we reach the era of the gemara, the rabbis have added to this, making Israel's response not an act of grace, but a wicked act of flattery, and say that Israel made themselves liable to extermination for this act of flattery. In the (bavli) gemara the full passage reads:
A Tanna taught in the name of R. Nathan: At that moment the enemies of Israel made themselves liable to extermination, because they flattered Agrippa. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta said: From the day the fist of flattery prevailed, justice became perverted, conduct deteriorated, and nobody could say to his neighbour, 'My conduct is better than yours'. R. Judah the Palestinian — another version, R. Simeon b. Pazzi — expounded: It is permitted to flatter the wicked in this world, as it is said: The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountifu — consequently it is allowed in this world. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: [It may be derived] from this text: As one seeth the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me. On this point he is at variance with R. Levi; for R. Levi said: A parable of Jacob and Esau: To what is the matter like? To a man who invited his neighbour to a meal, and the latter perceived that he wished to kill him. So he said to him, 'The taste of this dish of which I am partaking is like the dish I tasted in the king's palace'. The other said [to himself]. 'He is acquainted with the king!' So he became afraid and did not kill him. R. Eleazar said: Every man in whom is flattery brings anger upon the world: as it is said: But they that are flatterers at heart lay up anger. Not only that, but their prayer remains unheard; as it continues, They cry not for help when He chasteneth them. (BT Sotah 41b)
As we see, the rabbis take this act and turn it into an argument over whether flattery is evil or not. Now, this is all of a piece with the gemara's general trend towards xenophobia. It is unfortunate that there are more than a few passages in which the commentary by the Bavli adds to earlier commentary which was neutral or even favorable towards non-Jews and turns it into very strong denunciation (a notable example occurs in the first few pages of tractate Avodah Zara, in which the rabbis from the earlier Palestinia n talmud take the part of the non-Jews in objecting to their being punished for not accepting and obeying the Torah, and give voice to the nations saying at least we didn't accept it and the not obey it like Israel - a moment of some real bite, which the babylonian rabbis turn into an anti-Jewish screed)
One of my teachers pointed out that this likely came from a difference of surroundings: the rabbis in the West (Israel) largely lived in an environment in which they did not mix with non-Jews, while the Babylonian rabbis had to deal with non-Jews all the time. I find that an interesting comment only because it is so the reverse of what we find today. Like us,t he Babylonians lived in a place where Jews flourished and mixed with their non-Jewish neighbors quite a bit. Howeer, today, it is those of us who don't mix with our neighbors who are most likely to to talk trash about non-Jews. NO, but let's take another step back: in fact, perhaps it was parallel: for the rabbis were part of a relatively rarified society- the elite amongst the Jews of that era, and there weren't all the many of them, and they spent their time segregated with their studies, as opposed to out an about among non-Jews, whereas the common folk were the ones who mixed more? Well, it's an imperfect metaphor, since in those days the rabbis felt strongly that even scholars ought to work for a living and they did, so they must have had some commerce with locals. Still, overall, it gives one pause for thought.
The tendency for those among us to look around and see only enemies surrounding us, and read everyone who isn't perfect even inside our community as outside should squelched. Instead, let us give honor to the earlier thought: let us say to those among us who drip tears because they wish to be ours, "Fear not, you are our brother." We may well avoid much pain not only to them, but to ourselves.
Monday, January 19, 2009
The next mishnah (the end of our text in Sefer HaAgaddah) demonstrates an early and compelling example of making a ritual more accessible to the community. Originally, those who could recite the Torah passage by heart would, and those who could not would repeat it after the priest. However, this led people to avoid bringing their first fruits because they were embarrassed about having to repeat the passage. The community recognized this as a loss, and thus instituted the practice that everyone, regardless of their education, would repeat the passage after the priest so that no one would be ashamed.
This mishnah shows us that clearly, the issues of accessibility and education that we struggle with in our communities are not new. How many communities are willing to change a ritual so that all community-members can participate and not be ashamed of their lack of knowledge? How many communities are able to pay attention to the needs of those who are so disenfranchised they don't even participate? This is an example of truly hearing the silence of those who are absent. While there are other voices elsewhere in the mishnah that priviledge ritual skill or proficiency, here the highest value is placed upon inclusivity. Part of this may be due to the nature of the ritual; it is positioned as the crucial moment when each individual Israelite reaffirms his connection to the people and its history and land as a whole, so the participation of each person is key. Having each person repeat the whole passage after the priest may have made the ceremony longer and more cumbersome; those who had worked hard to memorize the passage may have resented having to repeat it. However, those disadvantages did not outweigh the importance of the ritual's accessibility. For communities that struggle with how to be more open, this mishnah can be a guide.
President-elect Obama has asked everyone in the country to dedicate today to community service, which I think is a similar kind of act to the bringing of bikkurim (first fruits). Since we don't have a Temple today, our acts of service/ avodah are often acts of community service that promote social justice. This national "day of service" is a way for all of us to reaffirm our ties to our larger community-- the people of the United States-- and our commitments to a shared historical narrative by giving to each other.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
- Monday - 1:9:72-74 (The Sheaf of the Omer; The Bringing of the Firstfruits)
- Tuesday - 1:9:75 (The Service of Yom Kippur)
- Wednesday - 1:9:76-81 (The Service of Yom Kippur)
- Thursday - 1:9:82-84 (The Lulav Cluster; The Water Libation)
- Friday - 1:9:85-92 (The Rejoicing at the Place of the Water-drawing; The King's Passage in Scripture; The Eighth Day Festival [Shemini Atzeret] and the Night Following the Seventh Day of Sukkot)
- Saturday/Sunday - 1:9:93-97 (Festival Pilgrimage to Jerusalem; Pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Time of an Adverse Decree)
Friday, January 16, 2009
The note the father of the young priest who is murdered comes out and says that his son is not yet dead, so the knife has not been made tamei. The rabbis say, "The cleanliness of their utensils,it seems, was of greater concern to them than the shedding of blood."
Somehow, at this time of war, I am reminded of our response as American Jews to the Gaza offensive. Whatever we believe about Hamas - and I don't think they're nice guys- the Jewish community's response - and especially the American Jewish community's response - has been a constant refrain of "Look how clean our knife is!"
IN fact, that has been a constant refrain of our community about the entire situation with the Palestinians. Instead of acknowledging what we have done, what actions of ours has been culpable, we constantly speak of the situation as if it's only and all about Public Relations, and if we could only present ourselves more television ready, then we would be washed white and clean of our share of the responsibility. Unfortunately, by doing this we are not only missing the point, we are putting ourselves in a worse position - because then, not only are we blinding ourselves from the ways in which we could move forward, but we also are abandoning in the one thing that makes us worthy of Israel - our moral relationship with God.
The Torah tells us over and over that Israel is not ours stam, but from two things - the merit of our ancestors (Something which we have to live up to) and that if we do not keep mitzvot we will be vomited out of the land. And keeping mitzvot is not simply a matter of shabbat and kashrut (that too, but not only), but also ethical behavior. Those knives are not tahor.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Those who win the battles are not always those who do the best job of ruling. What started as a religious battle becomes a battle against that same religion.
It shows how lucky we were that those that led the American Revolution, while far from perfect, did not take power as an end in itself. Those rulers established a country that allowed us as Jews to practice our religion in our own varied ways. Would those that established the State of Israel had been able to do the same.
Monday, January 12, 2009
When I began to read today’s long aggadah on Miriam and her seven sons, my first thought was: haven’t I seen this somewhere before? Indeed, the long narrative reproduced here from TB Gittin/Eichah Rabbah/Yalkut Eichah seems to follow essentially the same plot and moral as the Chanukah story of Hannah and her seven sons, familiar to us from the apocryphal Book of Maccabees. This parallelism raises for me a series of editor’s questions about how these twin stories came to be found in their various homes and why Bialik and Ravnitzky reproduce this version here. (I assume that the Book of Maccabees is neither sufficiently biblical to be referenced by the rabbinic midrashim, nor is it sufficiently rabbinic to be used as a source for this volume’s aggadot.) But lacking as I do the expertise in biblical criticism and history, I’ll bracket all these questions and take the midrash of Miriam and her sons as it’s presented here.
Simply put, this aggadah breaks my heart. There’s not much to deconstruct about the basic narrative: Miriam’s seven sons have their faith tested by the emperor, and each dies when he is unwilling to worship idols. The final scene of Miriam’s asking to die before her son and of the emperor’s denying her request is particularly devastating. One can only wonder in what sort of world the writers of the midrash lived when they ended such a story with the Psalmic proof text, “the mother of the children is happy.” Rather than attempt to reclaim or brighten up such a painful story, I’ll just point out a few interesting nuances in the very dark story.
As with any folktale starring multiple children, we know from the start that the youngest child is going to be the narrative focus. The emperor’s attempts to persuade the youngest son to worship his idol strike me as fascinatingly poignant, in particular one of his rationales for why the boy should preserve his own life. Your brothers have all tasted pleasure, the emperor says, and you are too young to have experienced the world. Why don’t you just bow down to the idol and allow yourself the opportunity to live fully in this world? The son responds that the kingdom of God is eternal, which doesn’t actually address the emperor’s temptation: this unwillingness to engage with the physical realities of an imperfect world seems reminiscent of many young zealots. This theme recurs frequently in rabbinic mythos of martyrdom, but rarely as plainly as it does here.
The emperor has other fascinating lines in this aggadah. It’s a classic midrashic trick to have the bad guy quote Torah back at the good guys, as when the emperor taunts Miriam by saying that it’s forbidden for him to slaughter a mother and her child in the same day. While his line did make me laugh—for the only time in this midrash—I wonder whether it’s another reflection of the despair felt by the rabbinic writers: they even use our own texts against us! The aggadah’s final section, where Miriam compares herself to Abraham and sees herself as more devoted to God, also stands as a bit of rabbinic provocation and self-commentary. We lionize Abraham for being willing to sacrifice his son, the narrator seems to be saying, but in our time, we’ve actually sacrificed our children, without praise or even recognition for the fact. By praising Miriam’s virtue here, the rabbinic writers comment on their own time’s tragedy in a story that stands just this side of twisted, troubling, filled with deep pain.
-- Sara Meirowitz
Sunday, January 11, 2009
- Monday - 1:9:40 (The Mother of Children)
- Tuesday - 1:9:41-50 (The House of the Hasmoneans)
- Wednesday - 1:9:51 (Herod's Temple)
- Thursday - 1:9:52-62 (The Service in the Temple)
- Friday - 1:9:63-68 (The Miracles in the Temple; Diligent Priests)
- Saturday/Sunday - 1:9:69-71 (The Paschal Lamb)
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Hygros ben Levi excelled in the art of singing but would not teach others. It is told of him that when he was about to make a high trill, he would put his thumb into his mouth, place his index finger between the two parts of his mustache, and produce all kinds of sounds at such high intensity that, to a man, his brother priests would be thrown backward
When we fail to teach others, we repel them. In the dark days of exile, we have a responsibility not only to learn, but teach.
Monday, January 5, 2009
Part of this lengthy section elaborates on the reversal of Haman's expectation that he would receive the honors of riding on the king's horse, garbed in the king's robe, etc. The elaboration, including details not in the biblical text, accentuates the humiliation of Haman, and shows Mordechai as adding to that humiliation. For example: Mordechai insists that he cannot don the royal garments until he bathes and has his hair cut. He cannot find a bath attendant or a barber, and Haman is compelled to be bath attendant, personal butler, and (bringing his own pair of scissors) barber. We infer that all of these are low-status occupations. When Haman groans over his plight, Mordechai taunts him: "Scoundrel, didn't I know your father, who was bath attendant and barber in the village of Kiryanus for 22 years, and those are his scissors!"
So far, Mordechai's adding to Haman's grief is edgily humorous rather than morally troubling. Then, Mordechai is ready to mount the horse and says, "I'm old, and the fasting has weakened me," and Haman bends down for Mordechai to use him as a step-stool to mount the horse. Mordechai steps on him, gets up, and gets on the horse. But then the midrash adds the last detail -- in his mounting, Mordechai kicks Haman, apparently gratuitously. Haman objects, quoting Scripture: "Mordechai, 'At the downfall of your enemy, don't rejoice (Prov. 24:17).'" And Mordechai responds, "Scoundrel, '[Your enemies shall come cringing before you] And you shall tread on their backs (Deut. 33:29).'"
This last part is perturbing. Haman's plea has some appeal -- gratuitous humiliation of even our enemies seems wrong on its face, and the Scriptural citation strengthens Haman's claim on our sympathy. Yet the midrash seems to present Mordechai's action as justified, and it backs up this presentation with its own Scriptural citation (even a Torah citation, which trumps the Writings citation adduced by Haman).
Sunday, January 4, 2009
- Monday - 1:9:1-10 (The Temple in its Glory)
- Tuesday - 1:9:11-17 (The Hiding of the Ark; The Crown of Priesthood; Simeon the Righteous)
- Wednesday - 1:9:18-19 (The Temple of Onias; Alexandria's Synagogue with the Double Colonnade)
- Thursday - 1:9:20-28 (Priestly Families)
- Friday - 1:9:29-35 (Alexander of Macedon)
- Saturday/Sunday - 1:9:36-39 (The Servitude under Greece and the Jews Who Betrayed the Covenant)
The idea here is that non-human things can take on certain normative qualities. They can in some limited way be holy or unholy, good or evil, objects that elevate or objects that denigrate. Mystics would ascribe supernatural characteristics to these things. I am more this-worldly, and I view this in terms of the meaning or attributes we ourselves ascribe to these objects.
Our midrash picks up on this idea and expands upon it. In this midrash, Haman pleads with Mordecai not to hang him from a tree, but Mordecai refuses. At that point, an argument breaks out among the trees as to which tree must bear the burden of having Haman hang from it. Each tree says no. The gravevine, fig tree, olive tree, palm tree, etrog tree, myrtle, oak, terebinth and pomegranate trees all explain why they should not have Haman hanging from them. Finally, the cedar says "hang Haman on me, on the tree that he in fact prepared for himself."
(For some reason, I seem to get all the midrashim involving trees with attitude.)
First, a quick clarification. This midrash comes from Targum Sheni, a later collection of midrashim on the Book of Esther. It is not clear from our text what precisely the cedar meant by "for himself." Did Haman prepare the tree for Haman? And if so, in what way? I was unable to find an on-line version of Targum Sheni to check this. However, after poking around the web a bit, it looks like Haman had prepared a ceder tree in some way to hang Mordecai. That makes sense, but it is not readily apparent from our text.
So here we have an object (the cedar) that was going to be used for a bad purpose (hanging Mordecai) but instead was used for a good purpose (hanging Haman). Apart from pleasant parallelism, why should this be? Why not hang Haman anywhere?
Importantly, Mordecai was not in fact hanged from the cedar, and so the tree was not actually used for bad purposes. (If it had been, I assume the tree would have been detroyed.) The cedar had only potential evil, not actual evil, associated with it, and so it not only was not destroyed, but could be used for good purposes.
Unlike objects, people can make moral choices. But some of the lessons from these animals and objects apply to us as well. Potential evil is a relatively easy thing to turn around: simply do not do it, and instead do good. But once we do wrong, it is much harder to turn things around. After all, if we had been objects or animals, we might have actually been killed or destroyed. But since we are not animals or objects, but instead are moral agents, we can repent and do t'shuvah.
Thursday, January 1, 2009
The second: I detected in reading this passage by the rabbis of a hint of sympathy for the other. Even though the rabbis would never say they have sympathy for those listed as having been slain in the Torah, it seems to me pretty clear that they did have some thoughts underwater about how it must have looked from the other side. It reminds me of a passage in the beginning of T. Bavli, tractate Avodah Zarah, where there's a discussion of why the nations should be punished for not keeping the Torah, even though the never received, and why shouldn't Israel be punished, since the did receive it and broke the laws over and over. In the Palestinian version, it's very clear that there's some sympathy for the nations, but by the time it gets to the Bavli, that sympathy has been turned into part of a longer section which paints the non-Jews as utterly wicked and without any redeeming features. My teacher speculated that in Israel, where the Jews weren't mixed with non-Jews in their day-to-day lives, sympathy for non-Jews could be imagined, because there was no threat of assimilation, whereas in Bavel, where Jews mixed with non-Jews constantly,and there was a constant danger of acceptance and assimilation, what was originally a rather sympathetic portrayal of non-Jews came to be more of a screed.
I have a secret preference for the major post-Biblical holidays: Purim, Chanukah, and Tisha b’Av – these are the holidays that most touch my heart. The Biblical festivals were declared by Hashem, but the post-Biblical holiday have a special connection with us because they have human (very human) fingerprints on them.
And today is a happy day as well because in the secular Gregorian calendar, it is New Year’s Day. In my mind, this is a day for hearing Strauss-family waltzes, watching the Rose parade (how improbable at this time of year – ah Pasadena), and watching really good football games (part of a glut of games making up for all those college games we lost on Saturdays in Fall).
And 2009 brings new promise with it as well – in the United States we are about to have a new President – and we are both hopeful and anxious about what his administration will bring.
What a happy time this is – so optimistic, to celebrate one of our most fun and joyous festivals, Purim, through study-seder of Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. (As an aside, I’d like to recommend Adele Berlin’s commentary on the Book of Esther in the JPS Commentary series – it is accessible and compelling and a nice scholarly take on the book of Esther, in which she convincingly argues for a comedic reading of Esther.)
This portion of the Sefer ha-Aggada deals with particularly nasty slander by Haman against the Jews to Ahasuerus. He takes particular delight in denouncing the Jewish festivals. But there is a response:
"Beside, 'their laws are diverse from those of every people' [Esther 3:8]--they do not eat with us, drink with us, or intermarry with us. 'Neither keep they the king's laws' [ibid.]--they spend the entire year dawdling and lolling about. They say, 'It is the Sabbath, it is a festival,' and thus get out of doing the king's work." Haman then proceeded to reckon the Jewish festivals: the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Tabernacles, New Year's Day, and the Fast of Atonement. At that, the Holy One said to Haman, "Villain, you would cast an evil eye on their festivals? I will cause you to fall down before them, and to celebrate your downfall they will add still another festival."
Let us remember, when we are in the darkness, that darkness is the seed of sunrise, and that through the wisdom of the Aibishter (the One above), our darkest moments lead to our happiest festivals.