Monday, February 21, 2005

Zil Gmar!



Those of our Chevra who have followed the recent give-and-take between my snotty, opinionated self and an anonymous Ineterlocutor will note that we diverge over whether Moshe can be characerized as a Murderer, because he killed the Egyptian. I believe the general rabbinic line is: Yes. My Anonymous Ineterlocutor (henceforth: AI) takes virulent exception with my characterization and leaps roundly to Moshe's defense. AI's basis for his position is that Rashi states -- Shemot 2:12, the killing of the Mizri (="Egyptian" in Hebrew) -- the Moshe killed the Mizri by using the Shem HaMephorash, the mystical 72-letter name of G-d. This Name is used by the Cohanim in certain arcane rituals in the Beit HaMikdash -- principally in the Yom Kippur service when they use the Name in the blessing of the people. AI then takes Rashi's text one step further -- perhaps a logical reach, perhaps not -- and states that, since Rashi tells us that Moshe uses the Name of G-d to kill the Mizri, this must surely be a proper act, even a praiseworthy one, since Moshe prevented an innocent Hebrew from being murdered.

There are a few problems with this approach. In reverse order: the Hebrew is not identified. If not for the midrash quoted by Rash, I would not even suspect there may be any link between the assailant and his victim. Rashi: "he [Moshe] saw what the Mizri died to the Hebrew in the house and he saw what he did to him in the field" -- from the text "he looked here and there..." Rashi then, however, immediately corrects himself. Although this is from the midrash in Shemot Rabbah, Rashi then states, "but you should take the words in the text in their plain meaning."

The text gives no indication that the Hebrew was in danger of being killed, nor does Rashi even hint at the idea. The notion that the Egyptians were bent on killing the Hebrews, rather than exploiting their labor, is most likely out of place, within the text itself. Remember, these were the same people who built the cities of Pithom and Ramses for Pharoah. A slave was a piece of property and had definite monetary value. The gemara -- although not speaking of Hebrwe slaves in Mizraim -- goes so far as to state that slaves are in a unique economic category, somewhat between real property and moveables. Slaves can have the properties of both other classes of goods and, like real property, can be awarded to creditors out of the estate of the deceased, even to the detriment of the orphans who inherit.

There are several passages in the gemara, supplemented by writings of Rishonim and Acharonim alike, all of which accepts that there is a Biblical prohibition against cursing another human being, and that this prohibition explicitly extends to using the Divine Name to injure or kill another person. The fact that Rashi states that Moshe used the Name to kill the Mizri is merely like saying that Fred used a gun to kill George: the instrumentalilty is described for the sake of forensic completeness, not to lend credence to the act. If anything, in light of the extensive writings that make cursing or killing with the name of G-d a prohibited act, it damns Moshe that much more than if he had merely beaten the man to death. Rashi would surely have known of these gemaras, and of other writings that support this prohibition.

Now, however, we come to the truly Big Problem in all this. Rashi never said that Moshe used the Shem HaMeforash to kill the Mizri.

I have before me my own copy of The Stone Edition of the Chumash (travel-size edition), commoly called "The ArtScroll Chumash". And before I launch into my tirade -- (remember: Snotty and Opinionated) let me sincerely praise the ArtScroll project. I have heard talk over the years of the Spiritual Center of Humankind moving from India / Tibet / China... wherever it was previously thought to be... and coming to rest on the USA. (Funny that those who speak in terms neglect to mention other spiritual centers, many of which actually no longer exist -- Lublin, say, or Volozhin. No matter.) To the extent that Judaism has been able to thrive in the US, the ArtScroll phenomenon is a monumentally important undertaking. The profound level of dedication to Torah of those involved in ArtScroll leaps out from every page. The passion and the sense of learning Torah Lishmah -- for its own sake, the way it is supposed to be done -- is palpable in every footnote. For all the arguments I have heard against what many perceive as the doctrinaire approach of Hacham Scroll, it is safe to say that there are many practicing Jews today who would not be found within a hundred yards of a shul, nor within eighteen minutes of Shabbat, without the existence of ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications.

Those who were never new to Jewish practice may not properly appreciate just how forbidding it can be to walk into an Orthodox shul on Friday night. You don't know which page to turn to -- you probably don't remember how to read Hebrew, if you ever knew at all. You aren't sure when, or whether, to sit, stand, bow, turn (left or right?), kiss the book, put on a tallit, engage in conversation, say "Amen"... as to the tunes that everyone seems to be swingin' along to... forget it! It is no exaggeration to say that I am observant today -- a matter of personal definition, to be sure: many in my own community consider me so Orthodox they are afraid to invite me into their homes for fear I will be offended by their insufficient levels of Kashrut; by contrast, in Lakewood, where I am blessed to have two separate Chavrusas each week, I wear a black suit, white shirt, black velvet yarmulke, but I am considered unusual because I wear Techelet, a "hippie". Go figure... -- Anyway, I would not have been able to draw so close to Orthodoxy, and so quickly, and with such comfort, if not for the combination of the Jewish Catalogues and the ArtScroll Siddur, both of which were my first guides into daily practice in the late '70's.

Today I continue to purchase and use ArtScroll publications. I would be lost without their edition of the Talmud, and the various Bible publications offer a wealth of diverse commentary.

Which is not to say that they do not have an Agenda.

Which is where I personally diverge from Hacham Scroll. For example, I do not care for the volume which does not translate the Song of Songs, but retells it in a religious parable derived, so it announces, from Rashi's interpretation. Rashi's interpretation on Shir HaShirim is, itself, a book. Also, Rashi, and many of the other standard commentaries on this book, inject a political message, to wit: There may not be an inherent sanctity to the Land of Israel, and it is not proper for Jews to emmigrate en masse to the Land, nor to take up permanent residence prior to the coming of Mashiach and the ultimate Redemption. This gives rise to a knotty problem: Hacham Scroll probably does not want to be so blatantly controversial -- Hacham Scroll may, in fact, be a religious Zionist -- a Gush-nik. If I had to bet, I would lay my shekel on Schvartz. It's just a feeling... Besides, how bad do we want to make Rashi look to the contemporary Religious Zionists?

Sidebar: remember the first Rashi of all, on the first verse of Bereshit? (free translation) "In future generations they will say to Israel, 'You are thieves, because you stole the Land of Canaan from the tribes that lived there...' and we will say: 'The Land belongs to G-d. G-d created the Land, and it pleased G-d to take it from the former inhabitants and give it to us.'" Rashi is a genius. And it doesn't take a genius to see the slippery slope in this argument: that, if you say that G-d took the Land from the Canaanaties and gave it to us, then you must also say that G-d took the land away from us and gave it to the Romans, the Greeks, the Turks... the Palestinians... or is it only when it comes to us that we can perceive the hand of G-d?

To return to our theme: In my edition of the ArtScroll Chumash -- page 299 -- the footnote to Chapter 2, verse 12 reads, in its entirety:

"That there was no man. Seeing prophetically that no future proselyte would descend from the Egyptian assailant, Moses killed him by reciting the secret Name of G-d (Rashi) That the Egyptian died is proof that he was worthy of death, for the sacred Name would not cause the death of an innocent person. Moses' concern with future generations teaches that one must consider all facets of a complex situation before acting. Had Moses' responsibility to save a fellow Jew resulted in the loss of future Jews, he would have chosen another course."

[Snotty Opinionated Silver note: Hacham Scroll writes out the name of G-d with the letter 'o'. I choose not to. Not because I believe there is any sanctity to the word, but as a convention with its own meaning. There is a story told of Rav Moshe Feinstein z'tz'l who was teaching a section of Talmud concerning Judges -- the Hebrew word is Elohim -- and he kept saying 'EloKim', the euphemism for a name of G-d. After, some of his students asked, is it really necessary to say 'EloKim' when you are using the word, not as a name of G-d, but in its plain sense? His answer was: people will go home after the shiur, and all they'll remember was 'Rav Moshe said the name of G-d over and over again. Gevalt!' Not that I place myself on his level, Chas veShalom! But it is a worthy standard to strive to emulate.]

Rashi's actual comment on that verse: [my own translation, pretty literal] (Shemot 2:12) [on “and he turned this way and that way”] “He saw what he did to him in the house, and what he did to him in the field – this is from Midrash Shemot Rabbah, but the text is to be understood in its simple / common meaning” then, on the second part of the verse [“and he saw there was no man”] “… who would come from him who would convert – this is from Targum Jonathan.”

There is a midrashic statement that Moshe killed the Mizri using the Shem HaMephorash, but Rashi doesn’t bring it. Hacham Scroll sneaks in a redrafting of Rashi, all with a simple misplacement of a parenthesis, then compounds the intellectual sin by adding a value judgment which, because of its placement, could easily be construed as also coming from Rashi. In fact, Rashi says explicitly: "this is the Midrash, but you should read the plain meaning of the words."

In chapter 2, verse 12, the Hebrew word in the text – vayach – means “and he struck”. There are no shades of meaning there. It is an active, transitive verb and it means hit/strike. It is a physical act.

With all respect to Hacham Scroll -- I will continue to buy your books, but I will also continue to scrutinize your commentary critically, for this is not the first case of Revisionism I have come across in your work -- Judaism is not a set of moral principles. It is a closed system, based on Halachah. It fosters morality, it requires moral choices and an unshakeable moral stance, but its “purpose” is Avodat HaShem.

The "purpose" of Judaism, in fact, is explicitly NOT to create a just society – there are multiple paths that can lead to that outcome. Rashi reminds us forcefully at the beginning of Parashat Mishpatim, we are forbidden to take our disputes to a non-Jewish court, even if we know for a fact that they will come up with the same legal ruling, giving the same result as would be obtained from a Bet Din, a Rabbinic Court! Because, in the end, it is not the same. A non-Jewish court has a sense of Justice, of Right and Wrong. Of what we in Torah-speak call Tikkun Olam -- repairing the world. A Jewish court has Torah as its foundation. This is fundamentally and, literally, cosmically different. The outcome on the surface may match: Reuven will be judged guilty, and will have to return the money to Shimon; but the total outcome will be very different, because Din Torah, a Rabbinic Court, is also part of Avodat HaShem, serving G-d. Both the parties come away having performed a Mitzvah, and having preserved the integrity of Torah. In Din Torah, the outcome is supposed to make all parties happy. The one judged right is, if anything, the less happy. The one judged wrong -- Gevalt! This person was just prevented from committing a transgression! How overjoyed should that person be?!

Hillel uttered his famous dictum: "Zil gmar!" -- "Go out and learn!" He was hitting the nail on the head. Learn, study. The purpose of Jewish learning is to run as afar as we can in all directions with the inner meaning of the text. Thinkers as diverse as Rebbe Nachman to Yeshayahu Leibovitz agree that Judaism dwells in the Halachah -- and that, apart from that, our mission is to seek out the diversity of meanings that swell in our body of literature. If G-d created everything, then surely everything is to be found in G-d's word. If we seek less than the totality of meanings of which our literature is capable, then we are not Learning, but merely Memorizing. For this, G-d did not need to create humanity.

You may be familiar with the joke about two Yeshiva bocherim – one asks the other “Where is it written that you have to wear a hat when you go in shul?” After a long quest they finally come to the Rebbe. The Rebbe takes down a TaNaCh and reads to them -- ”And Shlomo the King walked into the Beit HaMikdash” They stare dumbfounded. The Rebbe slams his fist on the table and shouts, “Idiots! Would King Solomon walk into the Beit HaMikdash without a hat on?!”

We call it a joke; the rabbis call it a proof-text, and we lose many good people because too much of traditional Judaism is presented in this dumbed-down, all too transparent circular reasoning. “It is good to be a good Jew. I am a good Jew. I am reading the Torah, as a good Jew should. Moshe is the hero of the Torah, so whatever he does must be good. Moshe killed the Mizri – that wicked, wicked Mizri! Surely, he deserved it!"

Is this our vision for the future of the Jewish people? All this leads to is racism and internicene sectarianism. Which, by the way, are two of our biggest problems. Curious, for a people whose identity is based on the historical act of having been freed from slavery…

yours for a better world --



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