Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hear O Israel - God is our King

Sefasai Tiftach
Parshat Re’eh 5764
Jonathan Baker

Sanctity and Kingship, Kedushah uMalchut. Thus end Pesukei deZimrah, leading to the first bracha of the Shma. How do they relate? Where is G0d the King before the Shema, why say a Kedushah?

What is a king in Judaism? First, a king relates to his people. As the famous (phantom Chazal) maxim says, “ein melech b’lo am”, there is no such thing as a king without a nation. The human king rules his people, legislates with a word, and holds power of life and death over them. In return, he protects them from enemies, and leads them in following G0d’s word.

How is G0d a King? The analogy should be fairly obvious. In fact, the two are innately linked. G0d lends his power to human beings (as we say in the brocho for seeing a king); their power reflects His, and their honor reflects on Him. The Chronicler notes (I Chr 29:23): Then Solomon sat on the throne of the LORD as king instead of David his father, not that the throne was G0d’s, but that the throne, symbolizing kingship, drew from G0d’s power.

Honor and glory flow upward as well. The credit of the nation reflects well or badly on its king, and through the king to G0d, as David says, (Ps 110:1) The LORD saith unto my lord: 'Sit thou at My right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.' The psalm says of David that he is lord under the L0rd. David says similarly, after the conquest (2 Sam 7:22-26) Mi k’amcha Yisrael…Who is like Your people Israel… And let Thy name be magnified for ever, that it may be said: The LORD of hosts is G0d over Israel; and the house of Thy servant David shall be established before Thee. David praises Israel, whose glory redounds upon him, and thus also to G0d. [1]

Kedushahs appear in the daily morning services: in the Shema, in the Amidah, and in the conclusion of service. Each helps to explain the others; today we focus on the Kedushah deYotzer, in the bracha Yotzer Or.

The kedushos are based on the daily angelic choir described in the first chapter of Yechezkel and elsewhere. These choirs daily crown G0d and acclaim Him King, while accepting upon themselves His Kingship.

Why coronation? We say umamlichim”, the angels make Him King, but it is explicit in the Sephardi musaf kedushah, saying keter yitnu l’cha, a crown the angels will give to You. There are many ways of appointing kings. We anoint Israelite kings, and the community proclaims them by praise. The crown is a badge of kingship, of course, but its placement is not a part of our usual ceremony. That is liturgically reserved to G0d.

The coronation of the kedushah is complemented by the angels’ acceptance of the Divine yoke, umekablim ol malchut shamayim zeh mizeh, and also by our coronation of G0d, as the musaf kedushah goes on to say, malachei hamonei ma`alah, `im `amcha yisrael kvutzei mata, or as we say on Yom Kippur, darei ma`alah `im darei mata’ we crown Him along with the angels above, we accept Him along with the angels. There is no King without a nation, and He rules the heavenly hosts along with the physical realm. This compares to melech ha`olam in the basic bracha text, King of the universe, including the he`elam concealed, spiritual universe.

The coronation theme emerges from a variety of midrashim, both in the Gemara and later midrashic collections. The basic form is in Chagigah 13b, amplified here by variants from parallel versions in the other midrashim, particularly Pesiqta Rabbati 20, and the late Midrash Konen:

It is taught in a Mishnah (really a braita) that (the angel) Sandalphon … stands behind the merkavah and binds crowns (made out of the prayers of Israel) for His Master. Indeed? But does Scripture not say “Blessed is the glory of G0d from His place” (Ez. 3:12) indicating that nobody [including the angels, who speak this verse] knows His place? Rather, he recites a name on the crown and it goes and seats itself on His head. (When the crowns arrive, there is a moment of silence, punctuated by the roaring of the chayot. Then the legions say, quaking, Kadosh kadosh kadosh Then He passes by them, and they respond Baruch cvod H’ mimkomo. They all together say (Ps. 146:10) Yimloch H’ l’olam…)

Our prayers crown G0d. Our words form the core of the angelic coronation ritual. We join their daily crowning and acclamation of G0d the King, and prepare to accept His Sovereignty when we say, Shema … Baruch shem kvod malchuto l’olam va’ed. The Gra comments on et shem hamelech: “this is the Royal Crown” – hinting at the whole trope, of names corresponding to crowns, made from our prayers, ascending to G0d.

Where does the Kedushah fit into the Yotzer Or? We begin the bracha with praise of G0d for creating the physical universe. Then, both on Shabbat (Keil Adon) and on weekdays (Keil Baruch) we get a piyut, that starts with physical creation, concluding with angelic praise. We read, and join in with, the angelic coronation ceremony, return to praise of physical things, concluding with thanks for creating the light sources. Light is of this world, of the physical sun and moon, but light is also a spiritual energy, as the Infinite Light.

These midrashim link us and our prayers with the angelic choirs, and urge us to incorporate them in our daily acceptance of G0d’s Kingship. However, the angels have to praise Him. We choose to praise and crown and accept Him, through free will, and may thus rise higher than the angels.

(Originally published in the AishDas parsha sheet, Mesukim MiDevash)

Source: for the translations and the general idea of the two-phase coronation – Keter, by Art Green

[1] The Temple, by R’ Joshua Berman, Aronson, 1995,101-103.

Saving the Phenomena

R' Josh Waxman responds to my recent post, and comment, on his blog.

He echoes R' Dr. Berger's point about "the scandal of Orthodox indifference." But does indifference make ideas correct? R' Berger argues that it does not.

R' Wolpoe, who has been my teacher in many things, well, I don't see how his post really "saves the pheonomena," to use Duhem's expression. In the final analysis, "Abraham" is addressing his prayer to God, asking God to make the sound system work. When he asks the sound system directly to work, "Eliezer" corrects him gently. Machnisei Rachamim is addressing a prayer to the angels, who in his analogy are the sound system, asking that they convey our prayers accurately.

Now, the angels do convey our prayers to God, as intermediaries, as we say every day in the first bracha before Shma. But there, they are part of the process, taking our prayers and weaving them into crowns with which they crown God (watch for a post on this, originally published in AishDas' short-lived parsha sheet, Mesukim Mi-Devash). We do not pray to them, we only describe their role in the process of transmission. Praying to the sound system is animism, and right out.

R' Waxman indirectly charges the worldwide rabbinate with indifference on a more central point than the actions of a "fringe" group. As he notes himself, much of the yeshiva world has dismissed Lubavitch for decades. Lubavitch doesn't want to join with other groups, the other groups are happy to let them go their own way. But this is a question of OUR actions, the prayers WE say in our shuls.

Sure, most of the hamon am aren't into fine points of theology. We're more concerned with making a living, supporting our families, setting some time aside for learning, doing good works, etc. Fine points of theology, the apparent contradictions between Ani Maamin and Machnisei Rachamim, well, it's tradition that we say both, so we don't worry about it even if we might think about it. Anyway, there are far more mitzvos regarding actions than there are regarding theology. It's just automatic - Jews believe God Exists as One Alone, is the Destination of prayer, etc. What's the need to worry about the fine points of what some other guys are doing in their own synagogues, away from the rest of us?

But R' Waxman implies that the rabbis don't care either, that the rabbis don't make a point of having the chazzonim avoid Machnisei Rachamim. And some rabbis surely do think about it, and either find a rationalization, or don't have us say it. IIRC, we didn't say it at Slichos this Sunday, Stu (who is also an AishDas activist - AishDas, raising consciousness of mitzvah performance) whizzed right by it without giving time to say it. If some people said it to themselves, that was their own call.

It's in the printed booklets, but do people's shul rabbis make a point of skipping it? make a point of telling the congregation and/or chazan to skip it? Or is the Fifth Principle simply not part of the later understanding of halacha? For instance, read Yigdal (the author lived in Italy c. 1400)
- the idea that God be the sole destination of prayer is skipped. Clearly there was disagreement with the Rambam even among Rishonim on this topic.

R' Waxman's title is also misleading - I'm not arguing that bowing to rabbis as a god-window is OK, I'm arguing that it doesn't necessarily disqualify THEM as good Jews, because they have a plausible rationale within the halachic system, even if we think that rationale is wrong. I'm thinking in terms of the (questionable) teshuva of the Rema on the wine of the Moravians - not that their wine is itself kosher, but that since we can conceive a [false but plausible] rationale whereby they could have thought it was kosher, we can't dismiss them as trustworthy to tell us "this is wine we will drink, this is wine you will drink". It's wrong, but it doesn't cross the line of taking them out of the category of "kosher Jews".

R' Waxman wants to save the phenomena, by dismissing the Jews and their thoughtfulness. I'd prefer to save the phenomena by finding halachic precedent for allowing them, even if I personally wouldn't do so.

IANAR - nothing is to be taken as real halacha.

By the way, I just picked up a copy of Al haTzaddikim in the Kehot store in Crown Heights. I hope to read it soon, and see how heretical it really is, or isn't. If it's in the Kehot store, odds are the leadership considers it not too far from mainstream, although it's still the original printing from 1991.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Is the Pendulum Swinging Back

Or are Sephardim just more relaxed about this stuff?

We went to a wedding last night, Ashkenazic groom, Sephardic bride. Beautiful place, good food, lebedik dancing...

Oh, the dancing. The first round lasted an hour, and was the usual Jewish circle dancing, although oddly, some people came over the mechitza (potted tall plants) and found themselves dancing mixed, mostly the chassan & kallah, and their siblings.

During the second round, after the main course, the potted plants were cleared away, and the band (good band BTW, somewhat jazzy - trombone as well as the usual sax & cornet) played some slow-dance music. Debbie & I looked at the dance floor, the chassan & kallah were dancing together, some of the parents and aunts & uncles also started, so hesitantly, we did too.

And it was nice. It was the first time we had done so since the somewhat abortive mixed dancing at our own wedding 17 years ago (most people didn't get into it, so after a short bit, it switched over to the regular Jewish stuff, separate circles). After that we got ready to leave, but as we were passing the band, they broke into Numa Numa, and then another funny song, so I did a bad imitation of internet sensation Gary Brolsma, and we danced together for a bit, on the edge of tears it was so nice.

Is the pendulum swinging back? Or is Chaya's family weird? Or are Sephardim just more relaxed about this? As far as we could tell, it was just married couples, and some siblings, doing the mixed dancing - circles, or dancing together. I suppose most of us younger (premenopausal) people wouldn't want to, because it says "Hey! I'm Tahor!" which most women don't really want to advertise.

I once heard a shiur from R' Willig at Lincoln Square on mixed dancing, and his main objection was to men watching women dance, but I've never been to a wedding where anybody treated this as a real problem, aside from chasidim - men are always going over to the mechitza to watch the women who do structured group dances, and to wave at their wives. Even here, where there was the mixed dancing, the frummiest (guys who never took off their hats, and a few chasidim) didn't avoid watching.

We went to a bat-mitzva recently, Sephardic-modern family, from my shul. Towards the end, the little girls were all doing sorta sexy line dances, led by a woman who was with the band. I thought it was weird (this is little-girl time, this is not for me), and left; I think the rabbi also thought it was weird, and went outside for a while.

So is the pendulum swinging back, or are Sephardim and some families just more relaxed?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

We have met the Rubashkin and he is us

(adapted from a sermon for Shabbos Ki Tetze, 5768)

R’ Sokol spoke this Shabbos, speaking of the commands to help someone’s overloaded donkey. One version is stated here, that one must help one’s friend’s donkey that has collapsed under its load, the other version is stated elsewhere, that one must help reload the donkey of someone whom you hate.

How can this other version even exist, when it is a sin to hate another person (Jew?) in one’s heart?

The Meshech Chochmah makes a distinction: this version is at the end of the wandering in the desert, the version about the donkey of one’s enemy was given before, back at or near Sinai. How does that make a difference?

What does it mean to hate? One shouldn’t hate the person, that’s the mitzvah. But one can hate the sin in a person. If someone is keeping uneven weights or otherwise behaving abhominably, one can, in theory, hate them for their sin, for the way their sin is dragging us all down. However, that only worked at the beginning of the Desert experience. By the end of the desert wanderings, the Jews have made themselves full of sin, through the Golden Calf, through all the complaints, through all the rebellions against G0d, the questioning of God and Moshe. At that point, everyone is burdened with sin equally. So from that point forward, until today, the permit to hate someone, is a dead letter. Because how can we hate the sinfulness of another when we ourselves are equally burdened with sin?

Hence the version expressed in today’s parsha: to help the donkey of our brother, because everyone is our brother in sin.

Throughout all this Rubashkin/Agriprocessors business, and while trying to maintain objectivity and separation, it’s hard to say there’s nothing happening, between the safety violations, the immigration charges, and now the child-labor charges, we have tried to say that there are no moral failings on the part of the Rubashkins. Now, it’s possible with these new charges that there may have been moral failings. But there have been those who say they hate Rubashkins for what they have done. And that crosses a line that, according to the Meshech Chochmah, we cannot cross.

Because we, as much as Rubashkins, are sunk in sin. Can all of us really say that we have never cut corners, never sinned with money, never manipulated people to do things? Much as their actions, and perhaps moral failings, are reprehensible, they are also ours. And the Rubashkins are also tremendous baalei Chesed, baalei Tzedaka. Do their moral failings erase that? Then our moral failings also erase the good we do.

We cannot hate the Rubashkins, because Rubashkin is us.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Chabad, the Rebbe and God – How they are seen

R’ Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg is quoted on the cover, and on p. 105, of R’ Dr. David Berger’s book about Chabad messianism, based on the testimony of the party of the second part, as follows:

"Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, a rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, told an
enquiring student (even before the Rebbe's death) that he should pray
alone rather than in a Chabad synagogue because 'they pray to a
different deity [eloah]'.[82]"

This seems a remarkably dismissive remark, as well as astoundingly off-putting to any Chabadnik who might pick up Berger’s book. Berger himself didn’t want to believe it, until he saw some of the excesses of certain elements after the Rebbe’s passing.

It behooves us, knowing that R’ Weinberg was a major Talmid Chacham, to try to understand where he was coming from, and thus blunt the teeth of his assertion, if only to prevent Chabadniks from returning the dismissive favor.

In short – RSYW had a reasonable response to phenomena that he saw, but not being a devoted student of Chabad texts, did not fully understand.

I reviewed Berger's book. The quote was in context of a discussion of many activities and writings from Lubavitchers that look very much like avodah zarah (AZ).

Berger has an extended discussion of R' Avraham B. Pevzner's "Al Hatzaddikim", published in 1991 while the Rebbe was still alive and presumably compos, which attempts to explain the Rebbe's statement from 1951 that a rebbe is Divine Essence and Existence placed into a body. The line between that and avodah zarah is a very thin one, the distinction Pevzner tries to make is a very subtle one, and from a mainstream Torah perspective, is wrong and possibly heretical. I've tried to buy this book at the big seforim shop on Kingston, but couldn't find it.

It is fundamental to the Ari’s Kabbalah, that to allow Creation to take place, something happened called Tzimtzum, or Restriction. For some, the Tzimtzum is physical – that God’s Essence is Infinite, and for a finite universe to be created, a vacuole, a finite space free of God-stuff, was created within the Infinite Essence. Within that finite space, a finite universe could exist.

For the Chabad and most readers, the Tzimtzum is metaphorical – that rather than removing His Essence from some space, He concealed his essence by a series of veils, screens, conceptual barriers, so that those beings that are part of the created universe don’t see that they are actually entirely made of God-stuff. Everything in the physical universe is part of the unitary God, it’s only an illusion that we are separate intelligences, that the desk is a desk, the computer is a computer, etc. God remains One, Unchanged.

This concept arises out of the later strata of the Zohar, primarily the Tikkunei Zohar. The Ari himself is ambivalent, in two sentences on the same page saying that the Tzimtzum was in God’s Essence (the physical explanation), in another saying that the Tzimtzum was in God’s Light (the metaphorical explanation – the Essence remains unchanged). I don’t pretend to understand these in any kind of depth, but they are the two main positions on the Tzimtzum.

Pevzner discusses the idea of the Rebbe as a "joining intermediary", a tzaddik who has so nullified his individuality that the Divinity which makes up everything and everyone, whose essence is normally hidden by the veils of the Tzimtzum, is revealed, so that if one prays to the Rebbe, one IS praying to God. He adduces evidence from a Kedushas Levi (R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev), which an objective examination reveals to be a distortion of the Kedushas Levi, and from a 16th-century work called Nishmas Chaim.

Now, that idea is problematic on its face, but let's set that aside and assume that a Lubavitcher thinks that it's OK. After all, it was advanced originally by the late Rebbe, in an address during the interregnum year of mourning for his late father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe. Behaviorally, though, four things are prohibited as avodah-zarah when not directed to the Eibishter: prostration, incense, libation, and sacrifice. Bowing towards a person out of honor is OK, but bowing because of regarding that person as Divinity is a problem. Pevzner, however, spends a considerable effort justifying bowing towards the Rebbe.

Suppose an outsider sees this Lubavitcher bowing to the Rebbe, or to his picture. This outsider doesn't know the idea of atzmus umahus areingeshtelt in a guf, (the Yiddish form of the italicized description of a Rebbe above), it was not even that well known in Lubavitch until recently. And it's the Rebbe's own feeling, unprecedented in Torah, as the Rebbe says in his footnote on LS 2 p. 511. The outsider sees the Lubavitcher bowing to a person as Divinity. [This sicha is translated in the book Proceeding Together vol. I] How is the person not supposed to take that as "they're praying to a different deity"?

The Catholic, lehavdil elef havdolos, believes his cracker and wine are the body & blood of his god. The Catholic bows to them, because of that belief. Are we to take their word for it, or are we as outsiders bound to regard them as ovdei AZ, because behaviorally, they are, and we do not, as a matter of principle, accept their beliefs?

So too here, lehavdil, most of Torah Jewry does not accept these beliefs of a section of Chabad. And is it really just a section? Or is it the whole, given that it's based on a cryptic statement of the Rebbe himself from early in his tenure? The whole do at least tolerate this behavior, presumably because they know that it's not being done as AZ.

But this idea was clearly implicit in the Chassidic system from Day One, as it is the basis of the Gra's letter that worries that if they go on the way they are, they will be worshipping the trees & stones. Perhaps not the trees & stones, but some of them do effectively worship a person.

It's clear that there is some philosophical difference between this behavior towards the Rebbe and actually saying Boreinu, or else the central organizations would never have condemned the Boreinu-niks, from R' Marlow on down. There is a difference between a memutza hamechabeir, which seems to be analogous to a [closed?] glass window, and saying that the Rebbe actually is God.

See here and less seriously here for my earlier thoughts on this sort of stuff.

Given that RSYW was a Rosh Yeshiva, a major Talmid Chacham, but to Chabad an outsider, and a) could not accept the Chabad belief system, and b) of necessity regarded the issue behaviorally, was there any other position he could have reached?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Poskim and Styles of Psak

Listening to R' Jeremy Wieder's introductory shiur to teaching Yoreh Deah and Chullin this year. He was talking about supplementary materials one might learn in addition to Tur, Beis Yosef, Shulchan Aruch, Shach and Taz. Here's a paraphrase:

You can learn the Aruch haShulchan, you'll get a great review of the material, and a strong grasp of minhag. Many people think the Aruch haShulchan is meikil, compared to the Mishneh Brurah, but as Rabbi Broyde has shown, he's a defender of minhag, the way we do things. The Mishneh Brurah is full of his own chumras, contrary to minhag, phrased as "baal nefesh yachmir", the master of his soul should be strict here.

R' Schachter tells of R' Amital, who said that when he was a kid in yeshiva, learning Mishnah Brurah, he would come across stuff for the baal nefesh, and say "I'm no baal nefesh, that's not for me." Nowadays, everybody thinks they're a baal nefesh, and has to be machmir.

There was a late lamented Left-Wing Modern Orthodox group, part of whose mission was to translate the Aruch haShulchan, believing that that was the ideal halacha book for the Modern Orthodox. You know, I agree with that - if all of the Modern Orthodox behaved according to the laws in the Aruch haShulchan, Moshiach would come.

There are two kinds of poskim, you'll find - those that respond to the sho'el (asker) and those that respond to the sh'eilah (question). R' Moshe Feinstein was the first kind. You look at his responsa on hearing aids and microphones on Shabbat - the halachic principles are the same - and you see what he says about the hearing aids, it's clear he's trying to help the sho'el. R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, on the other hand, in Minchas Shlomo, his arguments are so clear, so lucid.

A hundred years from now, I don't think anyone will be learning the Igros Moshe. You all, well, were at best toddlers when R' Moshe died. I was a teenager, I never met him, but people around me treated him as this giant. Any talmid chacham in the beit midrash can poke holes in a lot of his arguments. But he was responding to the sho'el. RSZ Auerbach was responding to the question. I think, 2-300 years down the line, Igros Moshe may have vanished, but people will still refer to the Minchas Shlomo.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Us, God and Elul

Been a long time, eh?

A thought for Elul, adapted from Rabbi Paltiel* Jr. (InsideChassidus):

He was addressing yeshiva high school girls, who wouldn’t have a lot of big aveiros to worry about yet, in terms of teshuvah during Elul and the High Holidays. So what should they work on? Two things:

1) Think about God. You went to shul this morning, said a bunch of words on a bunch of pages, same words you said yesterday, same words you’ll say tomorrow, a little different on Shabbos, but when was the last time you thought about the Eibishter while doing so? Try to think about the Eibeshter while you’re praying – you’re praying To Him, after all. And you’ll see how it means more. And don’t worry if you can’t finish everything. I counted, Slichos is about 17 pages, and we say it in 35-40 minutes. If you only say 5 pages in that time, great. Think about what you’re saying and to Whom it is directed.

2) Ask God. He wants you to ask for things. Sure, he can sometimes say no, but if you don’t ask, he certainly won’t answer. And you can look for the answer in your life, but you have to ask. This echoes what R’ Yaakov Feldman has said at numerous AishDas events – get in the habit of talking to God, talk to Him a little every day, so that when you need something, you’re asking a friend, Someone with whom you’re already comfortable.

* Paltiel Jr. - There are two Rabbis Paltiel who have MP3 lectures on Chabad chassidus online, this one, and an older one, R' Abba Paltiel at YeshivaLive. So I think of this one as R' Paltiel Jr., not knowing if they actually are father & son, or cousins, or what.