Saturday, July 28, 2007

Transgressive Thinking

My chavrusa, Stu Feldhamer, gave the Pirke Avos shiur this morning in shul, talking about Mishnah 3:15. These are my thoughts on the mishnah, inspired by the discussion that ensued.

"Rabbi Elazar of Modin said, one who desecrates sacred objects, one who scorns the appointed times, one who whitens the face of his fellow in public, one who undoes the circumcision, or one who interprets the Torah not according to Jewish law -- even if he has Torah [study] and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come." (translation mine)

Note that there are five categories here, unlike the usual three which correspond to (following Maharal and Wessely) the mishna at the beginning of the book "on three things does the world stand - Torah, service and charity", corresponding to the self (one's Torah learning), the Divine (one's divine service), and one's relations with others (charity meaning that we interact with even those beneath us). What ties these five together?

Well, we can group them loosely into the three categories:

Self: interpreting the Torah

Divine: holy things, festivals, circumcision

Others: whitening the face

but that seems a bit forced. Perhaps we should look for a common thread. First off, what is "whitening the face"? It's usually interpreted as "embarrass", but that doesn't gibe with the usual literary readings of emotions. One turns red-faced with embarrassment or shame, but one blanches at a shock. The former is linked to rising blood pressure, the latter to a drop in blood pressure, such as leads to fainting.

It seems to me that the common thread here is "transgressing the boundaries". Judaism is nothing if not a series of distinctions: holy/profane, light/dark, Sabbath/weekday, Jew/non-Jew, I/Thou, man/God.

Each of these categories transgresses against one of these distinctions:

1) disgracing the holy - treating holy objects as if they were profane, mundane. Transgressing against human/divine distinction.

2) scorning the appointed times - making the Sabbath and Festivals no different than any other day. Transgresses the distinctions of time.

3) whitening the face - behaving in a shocking manner, disregarding the boundaries between me and you - transgressing the personal, showing no respect for the sensibilities of the other.

4) undoing the circumcision - removing the only mark of a Jewish man that remains even when naked, as King David said with relief when he realized he still had one mitzva object on him in the bathhouse. Transgresses the distinction between Jew and non-Jew, there is nothing special about being a Jew.

5) interpreting Torah against halacha - permitting the forbidden, transgressing the rule of law, making a law unto oneself.

One gets one's portion in the World to Come unless one violates certain sins, most of which have to do with belief in God and one's relations with one's fellow man (see Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah chapter 3, also Mishnah Sanhedrin chapter 10). These five categories similarly express transgressions of the boundaries which define our lives as Jews.

Stu then read the Tiferes Yisroel's comment on this mishnah, which expresses a similar sentiment, perhaps in part responding to the Reform Judaism that was then in its most radical period (1840s; the volume on Nezikin was published in 1845).

One who desecrates the Holies, does not recognize the existence of God - he regards holy and profane as the same thing.

One who scorns the appointed times, does not recognize God's influence in the world, His continuing (throughout time) sustenance of the world.

One who whitens the face of his fellow, does not recognize that Man was created in the image of God (see Avot, Mishnah 3:18 - beloved is Man in that he was created in the image of God). He sees no difference between man and animal.

One who undoes the circumcision, sees nothing special about being Jewish, disregards the statements that we were chosen for a special mission in this world, because of our willingness to work with God and accept His Torah.

One who interprets the Torah to rule against accepted Law, does not believe in the existence or authority of the Oral Torah.

Consider the innovations of Reform Judaism in the 1840s, as well as the depredations of assimilation after the Enlightenments:

+ moving worship from Saturday to Sunday (scorning the appointed times);

+ baptizing one's children for social or political gain, such as Disraeli's parents did, or Mendelssohn's children (undoing the circumcision, mark of the covenant with Abraham);

+ eliminating most of the "ceremonial law" and arrogating the right to interpret the Torah to make it compatible with a non-observant lifestyle.

The others may reflect the sins of other periods.

At any rate, an interesting Mishnah, one that leaves itself open to appropriate readings for all ages, unfortunately.

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