Thursday, February 25, 2010


Sometimes people do the right thing and disaster follows. It is disturbing and confounding, neither fair nor just. And yet it happens. In the aftermath there is a desire to find a reason, to bring understanding to that which is beyond understanding. Sadly, the tendency is often to find a way to assign fault, and that, in my opinion, often compounds the tragedy.

The tragic story of Uzza, found in 2 Samuel 6:3-8 and in I Chronicles 8:7-11, is one example. As a result of fighting between the Israelites and the Philistines the Ark remained in the home of Abinadab, who cared for it for 20 years. David came to move the Ark to Jerusalem. They built an ox cart which was driven by Ahio and Uzza the sons of Abinadab. They placed the Ark on the cart and headed toward Jerusalem. Tragedy happened along the way. “By the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumbled and Uzza reached out to steady the Ark. Adonai was angered and God struck him there for his error (Hebrew uncertain) and he died there alongside the Ark.” (II Samuel 6:6-7)

The death angered David, but it also made him afraid. He renamed the site “Peretz-Uzza”, the place of the strike against Uzza, but was afraid to move the Ark any further. He stored the Ark in the home of Obed-edom until he received a sign that it was safe to move it to Jerusalem.

Uzza’s death cries out for an explanation, but this is dangerous ground. Consider the motivation behind the search for an explanation. Is it to understand, offer comfort or to fix blame?

Four explanations by the sages concerning Uzza’s death can be found on Sotah 35a.

The first asserts that Uzza was punished for lack of knowledge. He should have known, the Gemara asserts, that the Ark takes care of itself. The story is a bit complex.
“"The Holy One said to Uzza, the Ark [when it crossed over the Jordan River into the Land of Israel] carried those who would have carried it, don’t you think it can bear its own weight.”
According to the account in Joshua 4, as the people prepared to enter the Land of Israel the Cohanim carried the Ark into the middle of the Jordan River. The waters split and the people crossed into Israel on dry land (haven’t we heard this story before?) When the waters closed after them the Cohanim remained on the Jordan side of the river. The text reads: ““When all the people finished crossing, then the Ark crossed with the Cohanim before the people” (Joshua 4:11), meaning the Ark carried the Cohanim rather than being carried by them. The sages claim that Uzza should have known from this very public miracle that the Ark had the power to care for itself. While his act looks responsible to our eyes, in reality it was an act of ignorance or worse.

The second accuses Uzza of even worse sins. Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Eleazar split on their opinions, one accusing him of neglect, other accusing him of relieving himself in front of the Ark. They ground their opinions on their reading of the Hebrew word, shal, which is of uncertain meaning. One tradition translates it to mean that Uzza erred, and they raise his error to the n-th degree.

Both of these approaches place the blame on Uzza. Despite what looks like an act of caring and concern, they assert, he really brought disgrace to God and the Ark.

The third explanation, also recorded in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, swings to the other side, not assessing blame, but noting a positive outcome.
“Rabbi Yohanan taught, “Uzza entered the World to Come, since it says [he was] “by the Ark of God.” Just as the Ark exists forever, so will Uzza in the World to Come.”
Here there is no attempt to assign blame. Rabbi Yohanan here assumes that for his positive, if misguided, action, Uzza earned a place in the world to come. It is the most comforting of the explanations offered by the sages.

The last explanation again seeks to assign blame, but now looks for another source. The text in 2 Samuel notes that David became very angry following Uzza’s death. Rabbi Eleazer builds a pun on the Hebrew to turn this tale back on David. The Hebrew asserts that David “yichar”, meaning he was burning up over this offence. Rabbi Eleazer envisions the moment saying, “his face turned black as a burned cake.” His pun turns the meaning of the Biblical text; David is no longer angry but stricken. The Gemara goes on to ask why he was punished and find that it was David, not Uzza, who was truly at fault. While the elaborate details of David’s sin will lead us astray, the thrust of this explanation is clear. Uzza is the unfortunate and inadvertent victim of David’s error.

I do not like any of these explanations, but I find the impulse behind them familiar. When an airline crash occurs, we wonder if it is pilot error, the result of sloppy maintenance, or an act of God. When a tsunami hits we wonder if it was inevitable or if there should have been earlier and clearer warnings. When tragedy strikes we hope for some path towards understanding.

Earlier I warned that we need to consider our motivation for seeking such explanations. Are we searching for understanding, comfort, or blame? No one could object if the goal is to seek understanding in order to prevent future tragedies. It is certainly a worthy goal to provide comfort for the bereaved. But if the goal is to assign blame, beware.

I believe we often seek to assign blame as a way to avoid accepting that our world is sometimes random, that there are events that defy our understanding. It is easier to scapegoat a person, any person, than to admit that our sometimes scary universe is beyond our understanding.

I wish our sages had not tried to explain Uzza’s death, but had simply lamented it. I wish that instead of trying to understand what defies understanding they had offered a way to live with the unsettling grief that accompanies tragedy.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Wild and Wonderful Water / Sotah 34a

I am struck by three accounts in our tradition that concern water.

We find the first, concerning the crossing of the Reed Sea, in sefer Shemot (Exodus):
Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the Israelites went into the midst of the sea on dry ground; and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand, and on their left… Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned (הים וישב – vayashov ha-yam) to its strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. And the waters returned (המים וישב – vayashuv ha-mayim), and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, even all the host of Pharaoh that went in after them into the sea; there remained not so much as one of them. (Exodus 14: 21-22, 27-28)
The second concerning the crossing of the Jordan River 40 years later. It is described in the Book of Joshua, and elaborated upon in the Bavli (tractate Sotah). Joshua suggests that the Jordan River crossing 40 years later was a replay of the Reed Sea crossing; the Sages envisioned it with enhanced special effects.
When the feet of the priests were dipped in the water [of the Jordan River], the water flowed backward; as it is said: And when they that bore the ark were come unto the Jordan … that the waters which came down from above stood and rose up in one heap (Joshua 3:5f). What was the height of the water? Twelve mil by twelve mil in accordance with the dimensions of the camp of Israel. Such is the statement of R. Yehudah; and R. Eleazar b. Shimon said to him, According to your explanation, which is swifter, man or water? Surely water is swifter; therefore the water must have returned and drowned them! It rather teaches that the waters were heaped up like stacks to a height of more than three hundred mil, until all the kings of the East and West saw them; as it is said: And it came to pass, when all the kings of the Amorites, which were beyond Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites, which were by the sea, heard how that the Lord had dried up the waters of Jordan from before the children of Israel until they were passed over, that their heart melted, neither was there spirit in them any more, because of the children of Israel (Joshua 5:1). And also Rahab the harlot said to Joshua's messengers, For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea etc. (Joshua 2:10); and it continues, And as soon as we heard it, our hearts did melt neither did there remain any more etc. (Joshua 5:11). (Sotah 34a)
The third account is not a water crossing, but involves water flowing backward (as the Talmud does in Sotah) comes from another Talmudic passage concerning Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus’ efforts to convince his colleagues that his view of the kashrut of the oven of Aknai was correct. Having exhausted all logical arguments, R. Eliezer worked three miracles (the second involves a stream of water), but his colleagues reject wonder-working as a valid halakhic argument:
[R. Eliezer] said to them [his colleagues in the Academy]: “If the halakhah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!” Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. “No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” they rejoined. (Baba Metzia 59b)
In each case, water defies its nature to accommodate the Israelites, or a rabbi in need of a powerful argument. In each case, water contravenes the laws of physics to serve the purposes of people who are pursuing God’s will. The natural world yields to their needs of the moment to enable them to do the extraordinary in response to God’s will.

In a sense, all three water accounts relate to key pillars of our relationship with God. The Crossing of the Reed Sea bespeaks redemption, which is the goal and promise of our covenant with God. Moreover, it was the redemption from Egypt that paved the way for Israel – as a nation – to enter into a covenant with God. The Crossing of the Jordan River bespeaks our relationship to the Land of Israel, which has from the beginning been integral to our understanding of the covenant and our relationship with God, as well as the importance of living together as a community. R. Eliezer’s pursuit in the House of Study was one of elucidating and applying Torah, and in fact generating Oral Torah, in response to our covenant with God. So too does each of us respond individually and personally to God and our place in the covenant, and when we do, we too generate torah.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, February 12, 2010

Off the Beaten Track / Thoughts on parshat Mishpatim

This posting is off the track of Talmud, an extra for Parshat Mishpatim that we share as a pre-shabbat gift.

Rabbi Rieser and I have been considering the meaning and role of circumcision in connection with studies we undertook recently at a rabbinic study conference. This posting is very long because it includes our full translations of passages in midrash Tanhuma, because translations are not readily available.

Tanhuma, parshat Mishpatim 3 is a remarkable and disturbing polemic about brit milah (the covenant of circumcision) that makes the claim that only those who are circumcised can study Torah and thereby gain access to God’s statutes that insure survival. The background is the conversion of Avtilas, whose uncle Andrinos recommends he seek his fortune doing business in natural resources, but Avtilas seeks Torah instead.
These are the rules (Exodus 21:1). So says Scripture: [God] conveys his word to Jacob… and not to everyone (Psalm 147:19-20 ). Akilas the son of the sister of Andrinos wanted to convert. He was afraid before Andrinos, his uncle. He said to him, I am seeking to make a purchase. He said to him: Perhaps you lack silver or gold? Behold the treasury is [open] before you. He said to him: I want to make a purchase, and to know the knowledge of creatures. And I wish to be directed by you concerning what to do. He said to him: all goods that you see that are natural resources, concern yourself with them because they will rise in value. He intended to convert, came to the Land of Israel and learned Torah. When R. Eliezer and R. Yehudah came to him after some days, they found his countenance changed. They said to one another: Akilas has learned the Torah. When they came to him, he became to ask them questions and they answered him. He returned to Andrinos and he said to him: Why has your countenance changed? Perhaps your trade in natural resources suffered a loss? Or perhaps someone has made trouble for you? He said to him: no. Then why has your countenance changed? He said to him: I have studied Torah, and not only that, but I have been circumcised. He said him: who told you [to do all this]? He said to him: I was directed by you. He said to him: when? He said to him: when I said to you I sought to make a purchase, and you said to me: all goods that you see that are natural resources, concern yourself with them because they will rise in value. I reviewed all the nations and did not find a single one devoted to the land like Israel. And their end is to rise in value, for Isaiah has said (Isaiah 49:7 ): Thus said the Lord, the redeemer of Israel his holy one: To the despised one, to the abhorred nations, to the slave of… His [Andrinos’] associate regent said to him: Those whom you have destined to be destroyed, the kings [nations] will come to stand before them, as it is said (Isaiah 40:16) Kings shall see and stand up. Adrinos slapped him across the face. He [the assistant regent] said to him: one only applies a plaster to a wound. Perhaps one applies it to healthy flesh and not to a wound. Now if [people] see a common soldier, they don’t stand before him. What did his assistant regent do? He went up to the roof, fell of it [threw himself off it] and died. The Holy Spirit cried out (Judges 5:31 ), So may all your enemies perish. Andrinos said to Akilas: why did you do this? He said to him: I wanted to learn Torah. He said to him: You could have learned but not been circumcised. He said to him: If a man is not circumcised, he cannot learn [Torah], as it is said (Psalm 147:19), He issued His commands to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel. To one among Jacob who is circumcised, his commands are Torah, and his statutes are the laws, as it says (Exodus 19:25), chok u’mishpat (a fixed rule). The Holy One Blessed be God said to Moses: I gave them the Torah; you give them the rules. The Holy One Blessed be God said: if you seek to survive in the world, keep the[se] rules because a person cannot survive without [these] rules. The generation of the flood perished only because they transgressed the rules. R. Eliezer ben Padat said: what is written concerning them? Shattered between daybreak and evening, perishing forever unnoticed (Job 4:20). That is the meaning of, These are the rules (Exodus 21:1).
We can more easily understand this radically particularistic Jewish perspective when we consider the historical background against which it was composed; we can read this midrash as a reaction to the vulnerable position of Jews under ascendant Christianity.

I view this polemical viewpoint as one end along a spectrum of views concerning brit milah and the covenant of Torah. I offer this passage -- reflecting the Jewish covenant amidst a far more universal framework -- from Arthur Green’s EHYEH: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow (p. 95):
[The Oneness of God] is a deeply universal teaching. It understands that there is a primal revelation, that of the single word, prior to all specific revelations, including our own Torah. All revelations are living truth only insofar as they serve as arks to contain and preserve that single word, their true source of energy and inspiration. In that sense both exclusivity (‘Ours is the only true religion’) and triumphalism (‘Ours is the best religion’) are distortions of reality and obstacles to the work we must do. The One as primal word needs to be accessible to all people in a cultural form that they can call their own; indeed the single Word of God must be implanted and discoverable in every human spiritual ‘language.’ To think any less would be to diminish or limit the holy spirit.”
I find far more comfortable with Green’s open and embracing perspective, but recognize that many will find it difficult to relinquish the exclusivity and triumphalism that are ingrained in so many veins of our tradition. We should worried about clogged arteries. Green’s view is deeply honest and hence profoundly liberating.

If radical particularism goes too far, we may still ask: What is the purpose of Jewish particularity? Why should I keep these laws and customs and practice these rites and traditions? Perhaps there is resolution in Tanhuma itself:
R. Alexandri said: two donkey-drivers were traveling along the road and they hated one another. One of their donkeys stumbled. When his companion saw him, he passed by. After he had passed, he said: it is written in Torah (Exodus 23:5), when you see the donkey of your enemy [lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him]. Immediately he returned and helped him. He began to have a conversation in his heart about the one who had treated him with love: I didn’t know [that this man was my friend]. They entered a tavern, ate and drank [together]. What caused peace between them? It happened because the one looked into Torah (Psalms 99:4), It was you who established equity. What is this? This is mishpatim (Torah laws).
Torah law is not meant to fuel feelings of superiority and separation from others, but rather to bring us together and help us see the tzelem Elohim in one another. Torah, understood this way, enables us to more than survive; it empowers us to build bridges of peace, even between enemies. Consider the possibilities of using Torah not to build walls against the outside world, but rather bridges to others.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, February 8, 2010


Hebrew National brags, “We answer to a Higher Authority”. Are their hot dogs really any better? I don’t know, but perceptions are important.

Perceptions play a role in the tales I want to highlight in this posting. Two brief accounts in this section of B. Sotah suggest the sages had access to a Bat Kol, a Divine voice, that gave them inside information about world affairs. The same theme is found in other stories, as you will see below.

Following the Hurban, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the Jewish community had little power. They were scattered and defamed. Although the Roman Empire often promoted diversity and supported the various religious cults spread across the Empire, successive Emperors refused to allow the rebuilding of the Temple or the restoration of Jewish sovereignty.

In contrast to their lack of political power we find a number of tales which claim that certain sages had inside knowledge of world affairs. Our section of Sotah (33a) includes the following tales:
A Baraita teaches: Yohanan, high priest, heard a Bat Kol, a divine voice, from the Holy of Holies, proclaiming [in Aramaic], “The young men who went to make war against Antioch have conquered.”
There was the further case of Simeon the Righteous, who heard a Bat Kol from the Holy of Holies, proclaiming [in Aramaic], “The decree which the enemy planned to bring upon the Temple has been nullified, and [in Hebrew] Gasqalges (Caius Caligula) has been killed and his decrees nullified.” They made a note of the exact hour, and it turned out [to be accurate].
In each case the Bat Kol, the Divine voice, reveals a matter of world politics. It is not clear that the information Yohanan received about the battle in Antioch affects the Jewish world in any way, though the oracle that Simon the Righteous heard would certainly have been welcome.

These are far from the only examples. The most famous such event involves Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. During the siege of Jerusalem he was secreted out of Jerusalem in a coffin and then made his way to the camp of the Roman general Vespasian. When he got there, according to Gittin 56a-b, he greeted Vespasian as king.
[Vespasian] said to him, “You are subject to the death penalty on two counts; first of all, I’m not a king, and you called me king; second, if I really am king, then how come you didn’t come to me up till now?”...
[Moments later] an agent came to Vespasian from Rome. He said to him, “Arise, for the Caesar is dead, and the citizens of Rome propose to enthrone you at the head.”
Vespasian offered ben Zakkai a reward. Make a request and I will grant it. He said, “Give me Yavneh and its sages…”
Again, it seems that this information was known only to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, though we are not told the source of his inside information.

Along the same lines we find tales of emperors seeking information from the sages. The Ceasar asked Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah about the nature of God (B. Hulin 59b-60a). This same Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah outwitted the sages of Athens, according to Bekhorot 8b-9a. Numerous tales record the Emperor Antonius asking questions of Rabbi Judah HaNasi, including why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west (B. Sanhedrin 91b) and about the secret spice of Shabbat (B. Shabbat 119a). It goes without saying that these engaging tales do not accord with academic history. So what function do they serve within our religious history?

I believe these tales balance our lack of worldly power in this world with the abundance drawn from the Divine world. Whether it is the Bat Kol revealing secret knowledge or the superior knowledge gained through Torah, the message is that the Jews hold a higher truth that cannot be gained through worldly power. Not only do we answer to a Higher authority [like Hebrew National], but that same authority provides us with insight.

A similar impulse, I believe, is implicit in the report that many of the archenemies of Jewish life or their descendants became Jewish. In B. Sanhedrin 96b (also recorded in Gittin 57b) we learn:
Naaman [the Syrian general who kills Ahab in II Kings 5] was a resident proselyte. Nebuzaradan [who destroys the Temple under orders from Nebuchadnezzar as recorded in II Kings 25] was a righteous proselyte. Grandsons of Sisera [who led the war against Deborah in Judges 4-5] studied Torah in Jerusalem. Grandsons of Sennacherib [who besieged Jerusalem in II Kings 18-19] taught Torah in public. And who were they? Shemaiah and Abtalion. Grandsons of Haman [from the Book of Esther] studied Torah in Bene Brak.
Why would these individuals who tried to destroy the Jewish people or their descendants join the Jewish people and teach Torah? Surely it is because they had discovered something greater. The power they could wield at the head of their armies was no match for the Higher power of Torah.

Do we make similar claims today? I believe so, but in a slightly different vein. We express our power in more temporal terms. We note with pride that the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners far exceeds our percentage of the world population. We point to the outstanding Jewish authors and artists who have earned international reputations. When Hanukkah comes around we click on YouTube and rock along with Adam Sandler as he recounts this year’s list of who celebrates Hanukkah. Don’t judge us by our numbers, we seem to say, but by our impact on the world.

Judaism teaches a universal truth. The early sages taught that the Torah was presented at Mt. Sinai precisely because it is a place owned by no particular people and is therefore accessible to everyone (Mechilta, Parshat haChodesh 1). Nonetheless, our universal reach contrasts with our physical presence and power in this world. So we sometimes need to remind ourselves, if not the world, not to be fooled by the present but to see the bigger picture. Like Hebrew National, we look to a Higher Authority.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

You Say Tomato, I Say Tomato / Sotah 32-33

One of Gautama Buddha’s criticisms of the practice of Hinduism in his time (6th century B.C.E.) was that religious leaders insisted upon conducting arcane religious rituals in Sanskrit, a language most people could not comprehend. He inveighed against ritual and promoted the use of the vernacular. When I explained this recently to Jewish students in a Comparative Religions class I am teaching, there were nods of assent and approval. Then I asked, what about Torah and the Shema? people grew quiet, and someone said, “That’s different.”

Talmud takes up the subject of the use of the vernacular, as opposed to Hebrew, in tractate Sotah. The mishnah in Sotah 32a, at the beginning of chapter 7, informs us that certain prayers and rituals may be recited in the vernacular, while others must be recited only in Hebrew, “the holy tongue.” The mishnah begins with those that may be recited in any language:
The following may be recited in any language: the passage concerning the suspected adulteress, the confession made at the presentation of the tithe [Dt. 26:13ff], the Shema, the Tefilah [the Amidah], Birkat HaMazon [grace after meals], the oath concerning testimony [against the withholding of evidence], and the oath concerning a deposit [that it had not been misappropriated]. (Sotah 32a)
The Sages discuss the Shema on daf 32a and 32b, providing a marvelous example of Talmudic argumentation and interpretation. Rabbi Yehudah haNasi holds that the three paragraphs of Shema, recited morning and night, must be prayed in Hebrew because Torah says “these words shall be” and the emphatic “these” means just as these words are written – in Hebrew. The Sages, however, hold that “Hear [O Israel]” means that the Shema may be recited in any language the worshiper speaks and comprehends.
The Shema. Whence do we know this [that Shema may be recited in any language]? As it is written: Hear, O Israel [Dt. 6:4] [means] in whatever language you understand.

Our Rabbis taught: Shema must be recited as it is written [i.e. in Hebrew]. Such is the statement of Rabbi [Yehudah haNasi] but the Sages say: in any language.

What is Rabbi's reason? Scripture declares, And [these words] shall be [Dt. 6:6] [meaning] they must remain as they are.

And [what is the reason of] the Rabbis? Scripture declares, Hear, O Israel [meaning] in any language you understand.
The Sages next explain that if Rabbi is relying on “and these words shall be” to limit the recitation of the Shema to Hebrew, and the Sages are pegging permission to the vernacular on “Hear,” we must explore how “and these words shall be” is interpreted by the Rabbis, and how “Hear” is understood by Rabbi. The first step is to ask how the Rabbis understand “and these words shall be”:
But for the Rabbis it is likewise written: And [these words] shall be! That indicates that one may not read it in the wrong order.

Then whence does Rabbi derive the rule that one may not read it in the wrong order? From the fact that the text uses these words and not merely words.

And the Rabbis? [What meaning do they ascribe to these words?] They draw no inference from the use of these words instead of words.
The Sages, we are told, learn from “and these words shall be” that one must recite the verses of the Shema in the prescribed order. It makes sense, then, to ask whence Rabbi Yehudah haNasi knows this rule. The answer is that “these” provides the emphasis that conveys correct order. If that is the case, what do the Sages make of “these”? We are told: nothing.

Above we learned that the Sages derive permission to pray the Shema in the vernacular from “Hear” – in whatever language you hear and comprehend. Having asked what the Rabbis do with “these,” it makes sense to now to ask what Rabbi Yehudah haNasi does with “Hear.” The answer is that for Rabbi, “Hear” means that I should recite the Shema audibly enough that I hear my own words (but not so loudly as to intrude on the prayers of others). The Sages agree with Rabbi.
But for Rabbi it is likewise written: Hear! He requires that for the rule: Make audible to your ears what you utter with your lips.

And the Rabbis? [Do they also require that the Shema be recited audibly?] They agree with him who said that if one has not recited the Shema audibly he has fulfilled his obligation.
The problem of language is a perennial one. Sotah discusses at length what may be recited in the vernacular and what may not. In general, instructions and prayers may be recited in the vernacular, but public rituals and formal rites must be recited in the original Hebrew. Prayer should not be formulaic, even if the prayers are prescribed. Prayer should be an experience in self-transformation, in which we reach into the deepest part of our soul, evaluate, and grow. We can hear God speak to us through the prayers. The term hitpallel (“to pray”) comes from the root meaning “inspect” or “judge” and since it is couched in the reflexive, it means “to inspect or judge oneself.” That is such a personal and intimate religious act that language should never be a barrier. For those who understand and are comfortable with Hebrew, all is fine. But for those who wish to use the vernacular, the goal of lehitpallel takes precedence. Happily, God is multilingual.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman