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Friday, March 22, 2013

Magical migrations: the power of fantasy


I mentioned in my previous posting that the Rabbis of the Yerushalmi spare no feelings when it comes to describing graphically the events of 70 C.E. A fuller picture is that while they soundly condemn Bar Kochba as cruel, irresponsible, and abhorrent, and don’t hesitate to tick off sins committed by Israel that account for the brutality she endured at the hands of the Romans, the Rabbis also speak of God’s loving mercy. It appears that the Rabbis’ ideas and emotions are all over the board: God is punishing, but also loving. God ordains Israel’s suffering, but God also seeks to alleviate their suffering. Raw and painful emotions come through loud and clear. But so, too, we find glimpses of hope.

Amidst these passages, wedged in between one horror and another, is a fantasy that made me smile and even laugh.

R. Chanina said: Forty years before the Israelites went into exile to Babylonia, they planted date palms in Babylonia since they wanted to have something sweet to prepare the tongue to study Torah.

R. Chanina b. R. Abbahu said: 700 kinds of clean [i.e. kosher] fish, 800 kinds of ritually clean locusts, and fowl too numerous to count, all went into exile with the Israelites to Babylonia. And when [the Israelites] returned, all [the animals] returned with them, except for the fish called shibuta.

God has providentially seen to the people’s basic nutritional needs. Date palms planted more than five decades earlier would be mature and produce abundant fruit by the time the Israelites arrive in exile. Why date palms? So they can do what will sustain their spirits and traditions: study Torah. Date palms nourish their souls.

Dates were not the only sustenance God provided in exile. A myriads species of fish, locusts, and fowl (all kosher for eating) migrated with the Israelites. This fantastical idea speaks to God’s loving guardianship of Israel.

While we can go along with the fantasy and imagine locusts springing and vaulting their way from the Land of Israel 1000 miles to Babylonia, and birds winging their way to join the Israelites in exile, how could fish possible make the trip? There is no water route from the Land of Israel to Babylonia. Just to make this clear, here’s a map.


Israel is on the west coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which carve out ancient Babylonia, can be seen flowing southeast into the Persian Gulf. How did the fish get to Babylonia?!

R. Huna b. Yosef said: They went into exile through the t’hom (the primordial deep), and they returned through the t’hom.

Two uses of this unusual term — t’hom — jump out at me, each associated with a very different image and message, but taken together, speak to the present situation and the longed-for future.

We first encounter the term t’hom in the second verse of the Torah:

When God began to create haven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — (Genesis 1:1-2)

The t’hom is the great watery primordial deep. It precedes everything. It is the raw stuff of which God shapes the world. It is beneath the land, beneath the sea, and metaphysically beyond our world. It harkens back to the original creation.

The Flood arose from the primordial deep:

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open. (Genesis 7:11)

Mentioning t’hom not only solves the fantasy’s logical problem of how the fish could reach Babylonia, it evokes the primordial chaos before creation. The events of 70 C.E. are so great a cataclysm it is as if everything has returned to primordial chaos. How can there ever be order again?

We find the term t’hom in the book of Isaiah, as well. The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century B.C.E., long before the Destruction of either the First or Second Temple. Scholars consider chapters 40-55, however, to be the work of another author who lived through the Destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. This section (chapters 40-55) is attributed to an anonymous prophet scholars have dubbed Deutero-Isaiah, who prophesied the redemption of Israel from Exile in Babylonia, restoration to the Land of Israel eternally promised to them by God, and the unbreakable and permanent quality of their covenant with God. In this context, the Deutero-Isaiah uses the term t’hom with a strikingly different valence:

Awake, awake, clothe yourself with splendor,
O arm of the Lord!
Awake as in days of old,
As in former ages!
It was you who hacked Rahab to pieces,
That pierced the Dragon.
It was you that dried up the sea,
The waters of the great deep;
That made the abysses of the Sea
A road the redeemed might walk.
So let the ransomed of the Lord return,
And come with shouting to Zion,
Crowned with joy everlasting.
Let them attain joy and gladness,
While sorrow and sighing flee.
(Isaiah 51:9-11)  

Deutero-Isaiah evokes the primordial chaotic deep. Rahab and the Dragon are primeval monsters whom God tames, bring order to chaos — an integral part of the Creation of the world. In the passage from Isaiah chapter 51, the prophet speaks optimistically: the chaos of the destruction and exile in the 6th century B.C.E. is not forever. God will return the world to its former state of order, just as long ago God overpowered Rahab and the Dragon. God does not open the “fountains of the deep” as in Genesis 7:11 to unleash death and destruction, but quite the opposite: God dries up the deep to create a safe passage for the Israelites to return to Zion.

This is a powerful image of redemption that evokes the paradigmatic redemption from Egypt. It’s impossible to read about God drying up waters to make “a road the redeemed might walk” and not think of the Exodus from Egypt through the Reed Sea. The Rabbis descend from the Jews who experienced the trauma of destruction and chaos.  It is clear from the Yerushalmi’s account that their descendants also feel traumatized, even generations later. (We should not be surprised, given all we know about the children of Holocaust survivors.) In their fantasy of God’s providential care of Israel in Exile, the Rabbis’ use the evocative term t’hom, which both acknowledges the present reality but also points to a redemptive future. Order will be restored. Even more, Israel will be created anew.

Pesach is around the corner. The message of hope and the possibility of redemption never gets old. In our lives and in the lives of those we love, in the life of the State of Israel we cherish and in the life of the world and all its inhabitants, we need to keep hope and the possibility of redemption front and center, a guidepost to direct our lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Holier than thou... isn't holy

(Jerusalem Talmud, Ta'anit 4:6)

Just how far do we go with our grief and mourning? At what point is it appropriate, and when is it a form of extremism?



We have all seen people whose grief over the loss of a loved one knew no bounds, and barely diminished with time. Such people find it difficult to reclaim a full life and affirm life’s blessings. The genius of Jewish mourning rites and traditions is that they pave a path for us to move forward in stages from being sequestered at home in the depths of intense grief, to going back out into the world. The first seven days (Shiva) are spent at home. People bring food to the mourners, visit, and make a minyan for the mourners to recite Kaddish. The first thirty days (Shloshim) one returns to work, but abstains from entertainment, parties, concerts, and such. After that, one resumes activities, as it feels comfortable. In the case of the death of a parent, the mourning period extends for eleven months; during this period, mourners attend or avoid social events according to how they feel.



But what happens when the loss is not personal, but rather national, and not only that but also cataclysmic? The Destruction of the Second Temple was a catastrophe so great that the Rabbis can only convey its enormity in the most hyperbolic language. Throughout the gemara for Mishnah Ta’anit 4:5 we find claims involving unimaginable numbers and horrifying images:

·      Hadrian slaughtered 80,000 myriads in Betar.

·      More than 50,000 school children were each wrapped in the scrolls they studied and burned alive.

·      10,000 villages were obliterated.

·      80,000 apprentice priests were killed.

It is painful to read these passages. These are numbers we today associate with the Holocaust, a national cataclysm that is well within memory for us.



In this post, I focus on the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:6) alone. It begins by telling us, “When Av comes, rejoicing diminishes,” an ironic reversal of what we read concerning the run-up to Purim: “When Adar comes, rejoicing increases.” Our history continues to be part of our emotional experience; our national experience is also our personal experience, even centuries later. Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6 of the Yerushalmi (4:7 in the Bavli), laid out to reveal its structure:



·      When Av comes, rejoicing diminishes. In the week in which Tisha B’Av occurs, it is forbidden to get a haircut or wash one’s clothes. But on Thursday of that week, these are permitted in order to honor shabbat. On the eve of Tisha B’Av, one should not eat two dishes, nor should one eat meat or drink wine.

o   Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says: One should make some change [from the way one normally does things].

·      R. Yehudah says: one is obligated to turn over his bed —

o   but the Sages do not agree with him. (M Ta’anit 4:6)



Abstaining from haircuts, washing clothes, meat, and wine are all traditional signs of mourning. We engage in these practices during the initial period of mourning (Shiva), immediately after burial, but not subsequently (Sheloshim), and certainly not when the yahrzeit is commemorated on the anniversary of the death in ensuing years. The Mishnah elevates commemoration of the Temple’s “yahrzeit” far above the normal way of marking a yahrzeit. Tisha B’av is a national yahrzeit, yet it appears that the Rabbis encourage perpetual mourning for the Temple. For the Tanna’im (first- and second-century rabbinic scholars) who wrote this mishnah, there is no return to “normal life” because there can be no normality without the Temple. Given the centrality of the Temple and the trauma of its Destruction, this is understandable for the generations within memory.



R. Yehudah goes even farther in a direction I find disturbing. He tells us that one is obligated to turn over his bed. This was the custom when a person died. Ketubot 62b reports that when R. Yehudah b. R. Chiyya did not return home at the expected time from extended study away, his family presumed that the only thing that would have prevented his return was his untimely demise. They therefore overturned his bed.



Yehudah, the son of R. Chiyya, the son-in-law of R. Yannai, went and sat in Rav’s House of Study, but he would return home every [Friday eve at] twilight. Whenever he would come, people would see a pillar of fire [going] before him. One day his studies so captivated him that he did not come [home]. Because they did not see that sign, R. Yannai said to them: Overturn his bed, for were Yehudah alive, he would not have neglected the performance of his marital duties. It was As an error that goes forth from a ruler (Kohelet 10:5), and his [Yehudah’s] soul departed. (Ketubot 62b)



Shockingly, R. Yehudah’s dictate suggests that we go beyond mourning: on Tisha B’Av we should think of ourselves as having died.



How far is it reasonable and healthy to dive back into the sea of grief year after year after year? We are told first to mourn as if the loss were fresh. Then the suggestion is made to engage in a practice that suggests we actually died. It is therefore striking and important that the Mishnah contains within it two objections, two attempts to temper the wholesale rush into excessively intense grief each year.



The first objection comes from Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel. Rather than placing ourselves back in the “Shivah period,” he tells us to do things differently in recognition of Tisha B’Av. Perhaps this means foregoing dinner at a restaurant on Erev Tisha B’Av. Perhaps it means abstaining from activities that make it difficult to prepare for the day to come. I find it significant that Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel leaves it up to us to exhibit good judgment; he trusts us to make proper decisions based on our needs.



The second objection is to R. Yehudah’s suggestion that we overturn our beds, and thereby “throw ourselves into the grave with the deceased.” The Sages reject R. Yehudah’s opinion. This is going too far; they don’t want us to lose all proportion.



Taken together, the Mishnah presents the possibility  — and danger — of descending into the depths of extreme mourning, and gives us two lessons on moderation: (1) Use your good judgment to decide what you need to do to prepare for Tisha B’Av; and (2) don’t go too far.



These are rabbinic principles. Yet we see all around us Jews who have fallen into the pit of viewing all Jewish texts as Holy Rule Books — and infinitely expandable ones, at that. As a result they are growing increasing machmir (strict or severe about Jewish ritual matters) about everything to the point of utter absurdity: they worry about microscopic crustaceans in bottled water , fight over the legitimacy of hekhshers, bully little girls whose very modest clothing is not deemed modest enough , and insist on sex-segregated buses. And the very worst I’ve heard? It was reported in the New York Times that last Yom Kippur, the Bobov Hasidim of Borough Park, Brooklyn have encouraged and enabled hundreds of frail members of their community — people for whom fasting is medically dangerous — to receive IV fluids so they can fast, because, “It’s not considered eating if it goes through a vein.” Halakhah does not condone this: one is not supposed to risk one’s health to fast on Yom Kippur.



I mean in no way to condemn ritual observance; quite to the contrary. When we make our observance meaningful (and not a matter of racking up mitzvah points), we have brought more kedushah (holiness) into the world and built another bridge between heaven and earth. Observance for its own sake (or worse: to prove our religious superiority over others) impedes spiritual growth. Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel understood that exercising our best judgment insures that our observance will connect us to family, community, humanity, Jewish ethical principles and social values — fertile ground for a blossoming neshamah (soul).



When we return to our sacred texts, and read them thoughtfully and carefully, we see that extremism and belonging to the Chumrah-of-the-Month Club is inconsistent with Judaism’s basic principles. It’s not about rules; it’s about finding a path of integrity and kindness through the thickets of life. And it’s about seeking wisdom; wisdom does not come from mindless adherence to rules.



© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, March 1, 2013

Charisma + Messianic Identity = Disaster


(Yerushalmi/Jerusalem Talmud, Ta'anit chapter 4)

We use the word “charisma” casually these days. Someone who is a popular and commanding presence, whose opinions are revered (sometimes beyond reason), and who gains a loyal following, is considered charismatic.
In the realm of business, this can be an asset. But there is a down side too: Charisma can command blind fanaticism in the service of megalomaniacs with dangerous values and perilous agendas.[1] Similarly, in politics a charismatic leader can serve the needs of the society, or exploit the society to serve his narcissistic needs.

In the religious and theological realm, charisma is a divinely bestowed spiritual power or personal quality that lends an individual authority over large numbers of people. The notion of “divinely bestowed” authority elevates religious charisma to another ballpark. Max Weber wrote about this phenomenon in Economy and Society. Thomas Robbins, in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, writes:


The notorious David Koresh (née Vernon Howell) rose to the leadership of the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the earlier schismatic Davidian offshoot of the SDA Church (Bromley and Silver 1995, Pitts 1995). Koresh "identified himself as the Lord's anointed and saw the standoff at Waco as the literal fulfillment of an intensifying campaign by demonic earthly rulers to destroy the righteous remnant" (Boyer 1993:30). It is arguable, then, that the most potentially volatile form of personal charismatic leadership is the messianic pattern in which charismatic leaders "identify the millennial destiny of humankind with their own personal vicissitudes and demonize any opposition to their aspirations and personal aggrandizement" (Robbins and Anthony 1995:244). "Messianic" leadership combines the instability of charismatic authority with the potential for volatility and tension inherent in apocalyptic world-rejecting movements.[2]


Jewish tradition has spawned a number of charismatic, messianic figures, among them Shimon ben Kosiba, the subject of much discussion in masechet Ta’anit, chapter 4 of the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud). Bar Kosiba led the Jews of the Land of Israel into a disastrous revolt against Rome in 132 C.E. He is better known by the appellation Bar Kochba (son of the star) because no less than R. Akiba identified him as the long-await messiah. The Rabbis of the Yerushalmi, however, dub him Bar Koziba (“son of lies” or “son of disappointment”), explaining:


R. Shimon ben Yochai taught: Akiba, my master, would interpret the following verse: A star (kokhav) shall come forth out of Jacob [and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab] (Numbers 24:17). Shimon ben Yochai then interprets for us: A disappointment (koziba) shall come forth out of Jacob. (Ta’anit 4:5)


Initially, the rebellion spearheaded by Bar Kochba succeeded. Bar Kochba took on the title of Nasi (prince) and coins were minted with the dates “the first year of the redemption of Israel” and “the second year of the redemption of Israel.” The Roman Empire was compelled to commit 12 legions — nearly half its army — to fighting the fledgling third Jewish commonwealth; the emperor Hadrian experienced costly losses. Concerning the Jewish side, the Roman consul Cassius Dio, who published an 80-volume history of Rome, wrote that 580,000 Jews died in the war, 50 fortified cities were razed, and 985 villages were decimated. Even accounting for victor’s hyperbole, the revolt was an unmitigated disaster.


Surprisingly, the Rabbis recollection of Jewish losses was far greater. Writing generations after the cataclysm of Bar Kochba’s failed revolt, they tell us that in Bar Kochba’s fortress refuge Betar alone, 80,000 myriads were slaughtered by Emperor Hadrian. The Rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud don’t hold back: they view Bar Kochba with contempt, derision, and loathing. They recount bone-chilling legends that reflect their abhorrence of, and hostility toward, Bar Kochba.


R. Yochanan said: There were 80,000 pairs of trumpeters surrounding Betar. Each was in charge of a number of soldiers. Ben Koziba was there, and he required 200,000 soldiers to [cut off their] fingers [as a sign of loyalty to him]. The Sages sent word to him: How long are you going to turn Israel into a maimed people?


The Rabbis tell us that Bar Kochba, like so many charismatic leaders, did not countenance opposition to his authority and agenda. The story of how he murdered R. Eleazar of Modi’in is blood chilling.


R. Eleazar of Modi’in would sit on sack cloth and ashes and pray every day, saying, “Lord of the universe! Do not sit in judgment today! Do not sit in judgment today! Hadrian want to go see him. [The Talmud then describes how a Samaritan convinced Hadrian to allow him to spy on Betar on behalf of the Emperor and thereby pave the way for Hadrian to defeat the city. The Samaritan enters Betar through a drain pipe, finds R. Eleazar, and pretends to whisper into the rabbi’s ear. The Samaritan spy is caught and brought to Ben Koziba, and he confesses his mission.] [Ben Koziba] went to R. Eleazar of Modi’in. [Ben Koziba] said to him, “What did this Samaritan say to you?” He replied, “Nothing.” [Ben Koziba] said to him, “What did you say to him?” [R. Eleazar] replied, “Nothing.” [Ben Koziba] gave [Eleazar] one good kick and killed him. Immediately a heavenly voice broke forth and said, Woe to my worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock! May the sword descend upon his arm and upon his right eye! His arm shall shrivel up; his right eye shall go blind! (Zechariah 11:17) Forthwith Betar was taken, and Ben Koziba was killed.


The Rabbis continue to describe the slaughter that ensued in disturbingly graphic terms. For example, Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel recalls the massacre of school children in a manner reminiscent of the way R. Chananiah b. Teradyon was said to have been martyred at the hands of the Romans during the Hadrianic persecutions[3]:


It has been taught: Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says, “There were 500 schoolhouses in Betar. The smallest of them had no fewer than 500 children… On account of the sins, they wrapped each one [of the children] in his scroll and burned him, and out of them all, I alone survived.


The Rabbis next tell us that the Emperor, Hadrian, owned a vineyard that was 18 mil square (approximately 10 miles square, with a perimeter approximately 40 miles in length). The Rabbis tell us: The length [of the perimeter] was the distance from Tiberias to Tzippori (Sepphoris). Hadrian, they recount, surrounded his vineyard with a wall of the bones of slaughtered Jews that was as high as a man is tall, and as wide as one’s handbreadths. They hold Bar Kochba responsible for the deaths making that wall possible.


There is no end to the Sages’ contempt and scorn for Bar Kochba. With the divine imprimatur bestowed upon him by R. Akiba, he was inordinately dangerous.  Charisma can be dangerous; combined with a messianic overlay, it is deadly. Together, charisma and messianism often come packaged in a personality who is manipulative, exploitative, grandiose, callously unconcerned about human life, and excessively confident. Recall Shabbatai Tzvi, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Osama bin Laden.


Charismatic leaders are often described as “visionary,” but the ones who carry the label messiah harbor visions that are harbingers of death and destruction. Again, Thomas Robbins:

The absence of institutional restraints upon charismatic leaders interfaces with the lack of institutional supports available to sustain leaders' authority. "Charismatic authority," notes Wallis (1993:176[4]) "is a fundamentally precarious status" because leaders' claims to authority rest "purely on subjective factors." Followers' perception of the leader's extraordinary qualities may be situated and ephemeral. The charismatic leader must continually face the prospect that his special "gift of grace" will no longer be perceived and his authority will fade. Johnson (1979[5]) analyzes a spiraling process whereby the steps that Jim Jones took in response to challenges to his charismatic authority brought into play new factors that potentially undermined his authority, and that in turn required new defensive responses. The leader's increasingly frantic defensive measures to shore up his authority and the unanticipated consequences of his responses contributed to the cataclysmic end of the Peoples Temple settlement at Jonestown, Guyana.

Long before Max Weber and legions of sociologists and experts in business leadership wrote about the dangers of charismatic leaders, the Sages of the Yerushalmi were acutely and painfully aware and penned their prescient warning.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman




[1] See Jane M. Howell and Bruce J. Avolio, “The ethics of charismatic leadership,” Academy of Management Executives, 1992, Vol. 6 No.2; and Daniel Sankowsky, “The Charismatic Leader as Narcissist,” Organizational Dynamics, Spring 1995, Vol. 23, No. 4.
[2] http://hirr.hartsem.edu/ency/charisma.htm.
[3] Avodah Zarah 17b. As an aside: I recently attended a wonderful family event in Los Angeles where my family took a walking tour of downtown LA. I noticed that the public library has quotes concerning books and reading cut into sheets of decorative metal outside the library. I further noticed that one was in Hebrew, so I cross the street to take a closer look. I hardly knew what to make of what I read: Gevilin nisrafin v’ha-otiyot porkhot ba’avir (“The scrolls are burning but the letters are escaping to heaven.”) These are the words Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradyon is said to have uttered when the Romans wrapped a scroll of Torah around him and lit it on fire. Very unsettling.
[4] R. Wallis, "Charisma and Explanation," Secularism, Rationalism and Sectarianism , ed. E. Barker et al. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993): 167-179.
[5] D. P. Johnson, "Dilemmas of Charismatic Leadership," Sociological Analysis 40(1979):315-323.