1. Death and the Maiden, Over and Over Again

- Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.
- Metempsychosis?
- Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
- Metempsychsois, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
- O, rocks! She said. Tell us in plain words’.
(from Ulysses, by James Joyce)

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, which is really the closure for last week’s story, we are told of the priesthood given as a reward to Pinchas for killing the insurrectionary leader of the tribe of Shimon and his consort, a Midianite woman. We are also told, finally, the names of the two who were killed. Surprisingly, on virtually every word in this episode, there is a midrash which registers the people’s protest against Pinchas’ action.

Even the mere narration of Pinchas’ lineage brings about ad hominem attacks from the people, “who is this outsider who dares kill a tribal leader?” What one sees from the various midrashic readings both defending and attacking Pinchas, is a sense of ambiguity about the episode and its potential implications when “learned from” in other situations. One can imagine what countless sermons in Brooklyn and the settlements will sound like. But what seems obvious to lesser minds remains problematic to Hazal.

Thus, what I would like to do today is temporarily side-step the idea of directly supporting or attacking the idea of zealotry, and look at two readings on this episode, that of the Izhbitzer in the Mei Hashiloach, and that of the Kozhnitzer Maggid in his Avodat Yisrael, both of which utilize the concept of gilgul nishamot, of transmigration, “met-him-pike-hoses”, as Mrs. Bloom pronounces it in Joyce’s Ulysses, and which, by placing the episode in a “metaphysical” context, make their points about zealotry without provoking violence.

A few words of prologue. Once upon a time, when I was at the Weizmann Institute, on my bench in the lab I found some books on gilgul nishamot (reincarnation of souls), which made me think that the Kabbala Research Center people had come around. On closer inspection, this nouveau Haredi looking book was actually a publication from the Israeli Hari Krishna society. So what does Jewish mysticism actually teach about the idea?

The idea of gilgul nishamot is a sort of fringe one in Jewish thought, frequently alluded to but rarely discussed seriously. Here we will not discuss the pros and cons of the idea but rather see how the idea was applied by the Hassidic thinkers to teach surprising lessons about justice.

In Hindu thought, for example, samsara is evoked in order to provide an answer for why the evil prosper and the good suffer–don’t worry, the sinful will get theirs in the next life. While this is very enchanting on its own, it has of course institutionalized racism and mistreatment of the poorer castes, who clearly, were born into that status to compensate for their sins in previous lives. Thus, feel free to oppress the downtrodden, it is payback for sins of some other time, and thus suffering becomes legitimized (on the other hand, contemplation of the idea that all life force is circulated among humans, animals, and plant forms, that we have all “been” these things throughout time, is an appealing idea and one, I admit, that resonates deeply for me emotionally).

In Judaism, the most developed usage of the concept is in Lurianic Kabbalah. In the writings of R. Haim Vital, student of the Ar’I, there are whole itemized lists of ‘who reincarnated as whom’ throughout the course of Jewish history. This concept (and its specifics) was popularized in several well circulated texts, but perhaps the most widely distributed was the work known as the Hesed L’Avraham, written by the grandfather of the famed Hid”a (Rabbi Hayim David Azulai), and I will quote from there:

Zimri reincarnated as Rabbi Akiva, and the 24,000 people who died in the plague (as a result of the Midianite women episode) were the 24,000 students of R. Akiva who died between Passover and Shavuout (the Omer period). The wife of the Roman general Turnus Rufus, was the gilgul of Cuzbi herself, who converted to Judaism and helped establish the yeshiva of R. Akiva afterwards.

The Rama M’Fano adds an intermediate step whereby Cuzbi is also Ahab’s foreign wife, Jezebel.

This information was used by the Izhbitzer in his reading of our episode in his work, the Mei HaShiloach. According to him, this structural maneuver, whereby a foreign woman of noble birth (Roman, in this case) needed to encounter a great leader of the Jewish people, and then enter Jewish history in a positive role, was preordained from the beginning of creation. Under appropriate circumstances, this could have been the outcome of the Zimri-Cuzbi relationship, which the Torah would then have narrated in an entirely different light. Zimri himself was, after all, according to our text, a great leader of a major tribe and not someone who should have fallen in such an ignominious manner.

In fact, the Izhbitzer explains, to some degree Zimri was being manipulated into this relationship, much the way Yehuda was led into marrying Tamar- Zimri was a holy man who was so amazed at the appearance of lust in himself that he was certain that it could be naught but part of Gd’s plan!

Pinchas, on the other hand, was not privy to such otherworldly operations- he knew that what he saw at that moment was wrong and acted accordingly. God reveals to Pinchas later that he didn’t just kill a sinning upstart, and revealed to Pinhas what the desired goal was, but agrees, so to speak, with Pinchas that the timing was wrong, rewards Pinchas for his correct reflexes, and reschedules this necessary historical moment for a more opportune time, at the time of Rabbi Akiva and the ex-wife of the notorious Roman general Turnus Rufus.

Assuming the Izhbitzer was not merely telling us the ‘facts’ of the story, the question is, what is he attempting to tell us about the incident by recourse to this whole back story about foreign women? This was the one teaching I ever had the opportunity to discuss with R. Shlomo Carlebach at a wedding many years ago; to my suggestions about of the role of doubt in the Izhbitzer, he replied, “Oh, no, the Izhbitzer was a very confident person”, but did not elaborate.

Thus, I will leave the abandon the reading I had at that time regarding doubt, and present my reading of this reading, as I see it now. I see this episode as illustrative of how even necessary actions can become contaminated when the players in the story become corrupted. This very same redemptive action, one which might have led to an alternative Torah text teaching us the beauty of outreach (akin to the way the episodes dealing with Yitro are read), became contaminated with lust, and the result was a cautionary violent text regarding temptation. I might suggest that this failure of proper action is present in the Midianite women episode as a whole. Is it possible that had the people acted differently there might have been an entirely different outcome? Could this encounter have become a mass precursor of the book of Ruth, with the transformation of the Midianite horde into a enlightened people? Is this text not a victory for Pinhas but a profound failure for the people?

The Ari himself apparently saw the purpose of this process in that light. In his teachings on the subject of the captive war brides narrated in the Torah segment of Ki Teze, he is quoted as explaining that the Torah ideal of the holy soldier, who is only qualified to go out into combat because he is on a high spiritual level, would never have desires for women taken in this manner in normal life. If, however, he finds that passion is aroused within him as a result of this encounter after battle, it means that the captured woman he is bringing into the people must be a soul that was intended to be a part of the Jewish people, but was meant to enter the people through this more complicated route, as suggested in the Saba episode in the Zohar on Mishpatim. (Hence the phrase there says, v’shavita shivyo, he captures his captive, that is, a soul that belonged once to the Jewish people but was “captive” among another people for some period).

The Avodat Yisrael uses the same Lurianic material regarding reincarnation to teach this lesson more overtly. He states that while on the one hand the events of this episode show that the encounter was a failure, much like in the Mei HaShiloach, on the other hand, there was a rectification in this ending, a happy end, so to speak, hence the repeated use of the term peace in regard to Pinchas.

According to the Avodat Yisrael, Cuzbi was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Dina, the rape victim, and Zimri a gilgul of Shechem, the assailant. According to the midrash, Shechem tried to defend his crime of rape by claiming that because he was the son of Hamor, and thus raised in a brutish society with primitive mores, he could not be held responsible for his coarse and violent response when he met Dinah and his desire was awakened, furthermore, Shechem claimed it was not his fault that Dinah resisted, since she was of holy stock, a daughter of Jacob who was raised in better society.

So, according to the Avodat Yisrael’s reading, in our episode, God reversed the roles, putting the souls of Shechem and Dinah in a new situation. This time, Shechem got to be the leader of a tribe in Israel, being reincarnated as Zimri, and Dinah’s spark was reincarnated as a Midianite, yet still, the same action is repeated (the Midrash states that Cuzbi was an unwilling victim, that Zimri took her by force and dragged her by her hair in front of Moshe). Neither genetics nor society is to blame; a person cannot find a defense from his own horrible actions in excuses, and, the victim is NOT to blame.

We see the concept of reincarnation is used here not as an independent metaphysical concept, but as a way to make certain points about a difficult text; the resultant reading from both commentators can perhaps be summarized by the following point- on the one hand that violence is really a sign of complete failure of other routes to the same end, that the cries of the victims are remembered and validated even over centuries, and a situation itself or some postulated greater ultimate good is not an adequate excuse for corrupt behavior (not everything can be tolerated for “kiruv”, for example). Perhaps that’s the certainty that the Izhbitzer had, that even the greatest ideals do not validate corruption and violence, and it is a lesson that we must be reminded of again and again and again…

2. Truth, Justice, and the Daughters of Zelophad

After the unpleasant events of the early part of this week’s perasha, we are presented with a census, and then with the following episode: 27:1 The daughters of Zelophad, of the tribe of Menashe, came forward to Moshe, and stood before Moshe, Elazar the Kohen, the tribal lairds, and all the people, at the entrance to the Ohel Moed, and declared that their father, who was not part of the Korach Insurrection, died without sons. They were concerned that only male offspring would inherit in the new land, and their family would be eradicated from the tribe. Moshe, instead of answering immediately, took their case before God, who ruled on their behalf, leading God to state that “correctly do the daughters of Zelophad speak” (not the kind of legitimation most of us will ever get at any point in our lives). Of all the legal issues brought before Moshe, this is the one that he needed divine intervention to answer?

Before getting to the central issue, the relationship of democratic process and Oral Law, I can’t resist presenting a teaching by the Or Pnei Moshe that is “cute” in terms of our contemporary fascination with the textuality of lived experience. The Or Pnei Moshe explains that the whole episode of the daughters of Zelophad was brought about because of a textual operation. In verse 26:33, we are told that Zelophad “didn’t have sons, only daughters”. However, in 26:46, the verse states simply, “the daughter of Asher was named Serah”, and as the Ramban points out, this is mentioned in order to include Serah’s family among those who will inherit land. Now, when the daughters of Zelophad “saw” that they were textualized in a manner different from Serah, that there were written up in the Torah as “only daughters”, they realized they had to act…

(While we are on a tangent, it is worth noting that Zelophad is one of those people who gets a bum rap as a result of certain readings. We don’t actually know anything about him from the text, but the Jerusalem Talmud quoted in Tosafot reads him as being the fellow who was executed at the end of Perashat Shelach for chopping wood on Shabbat. This has become a standard reading, and while the Midrash gives Zelophad a good intention, that he wanted to teach the people that Shabbat laws (and their punishment) apply in the Wilderness, it still seems a bit unfair to whoever the guy actually was. Hence, I was pleased to see the Bat Ayin reading the verse here in an interesting manner: He explains the name Zelophad as comprising the letters Zel Pahad, which in English would mean Shadow Fear, or as the Bat Ayin explains, it means that this Zelophad was one who was so struck by the transience of human existence (like a shadow), that he died, saintly, absorbed in the contemplation of every word of God (thus, his “dying in the midbar“, wilderness, the word midbar read as derived from the root “dibbur“, word). And Zelophad, we are told, died “b’het’o“, contemplating his sins, always attempting to repent. I just felt that it was nice to present a vindicating reading for a fellow who can’t stand up against the midrashic accusations against him).

So let us return to our original question. Why did Moshe have to turn to God to get an answer to this legal question regarding the inheritance of women in the new land?

In contemporary political theory, there is a tendency to link political goals with moral ones, rational and universalist in nature. This is certainly the well meaning agenda of Habermas, in which uncorrupted and uncorrupted communication can lead to a rational basis for society. However, with a site set on goals for society, lofty as the dream of a moral society is, lies inherently the risk seen in other ideal societies, as we saw in the Communist workers paradise, or the French Revolution, where ideals take the place of process. Rather than a moral society, or a perfect set of rules, contemporary political thinkers resist imposition of “any attempts at closure”, which will thus “guarantee that the dynamics of the democratic process will be kept alive”. Chantal Mouffe continues (in The Turn To Ethics, Routledge 2000, pp 93):

Instead of trying to erase the traces of power and exclusion, democratic politics requires that they be brought to the fore, to make the moment of decision visible so that decisions and their effects can enter the terrain of contestation, the great virtue of modern pluralist democracy is, as Claude Lefort has argued, its recognition and institutionalization of division and conflict.

She continues, arguing for a democracy based not on an ethics of harmony, but on an ethics of “dis-harmony”.

Returning to our episode, why is it that Moshe had to turn to God to get an answer to query of the daughters of Zelophad? The Sefat Emet explains that the goal of the giving of Torah was so that the life envisioned in the text must be carried out in actuality, not just as theory or text. For Torah to become a realistic blueprint for real life, injustice in society as a result of events that transpire in the course of history has to be immediately recognized, and a mechanism be in place so that these injustices be corrected (particularly if they emerge from ambiguities in the text itself).

The just society is based on the possibility of change, of process, of continually responding to the needs of the oppressed. The Sefat Emet explains that the action taken by the daughters of Zelophad, of altering potential injustice, was the first instance of the Oral Law, of the Torah She’b'al Peh. Thus, the Sefat Emet explains, Gd responds to their appeal by saying “ken benot Zelophad dovrot”, correctly have they spoken, with the word “ken” implying correctness as well as “so be it”–in other words, because of their words so shall the law be. This is what Jewish Oral Law is meant to be- a mechanism for achieving an ideal society based on the human striving for justice.

Thus, the operative definition of “Oral Law” must be to respond to injustice and create a structure whereby injustice can be minimized, or preferably rectified entirely. The case of the daughters of Zelophad provides a precedent where a legal oversight would have institutionalized suffering, but their outcry led to new legislation and established precedent. This precedent is cited in the Torah in order to integrate it within the Torah based legal system, as a preventative against oppression of “the expressionless (das Ausdrocklose)”, a phrase initially found in Benjamin, read by Shoshana Felman as including:

…those whom violence has deprived of expression; those who, on the one hand, have been historically reduced to silence, and who, on the other hand, have been historically made faceless, deprived of their human fac- deprived, that is, not only of a language and a voice but even of the mute expression alwasy present in a living human face… (The Juridicial Unconscious, pp 13).

The phrase is found in Walter Benjamin as follows:

“In all mourning there is the deepest inclination to speechlessness, which is infinitely more than the inability or disinclination to communicate”.

This “infinitely more” is what the Hassidic masters were concerned with in their reading of this episode. The Tiferet Shelomo, also taking note of the unusual phrase, “Ken benot Zelophad dovrot” cited earlier, points out that the phrase is repeated in the epilogue to this story. The tribe of Joseph, to whom Zelophad was a card carrying member, was afraid that if all these daughters got land and married members of other tribes, the tribe as a whole would ultimately lose this territory.

This tribal claim of potential injustice was also brought by Moshe before God (ultimately, every new legal ruling, potentially opens up whole new legal readings requiring new definitions which may themselves require fine tuning), and God once again agreed, responding with the same phrase- “ken mateh Yosef medabrim“, correctly does the leadership of the tribe of Joseph speak, and suggested that to prevent this from occurring, the daughters of Zelophad should marry within their own tribe.

The Tiferet Shelomo sees an additional message regarding justice within this unusual language. He reminds us that the tribal ancestor, Joseph, was the archetype of the unjustly prosecuted victim, having been locked up on false charges in the Egyptian prisons for twelve long years. In our contemporary conceptions of righteousness, we imagine that being like a long suffering Joseph, who bore his travails with silence and faith, would be an image worthy of emulation, that we should learn to bear injustice silently. However, the Tiferet Shelomo suggests that the phrase attributed to God is meant to teach a very different response to injustice.

The Tiferet Shelomo states that the word “ken” used here, often translated as “correctly they spoke”, should be interpreted as “hooray, finally the people of Joseph are correctly responding”. God wanted Joseph to cry out, to protest the injustice which had been perpetrated upon him. Perhaps had Joseph done so, cried out in protest to the unfairness of contemporary legal corruption, the system might have been changed and society would have evolved differently.

These readings suggest that evils of the system need to be fought, resistance and transformation are the preferred response, “grinning and bearing it” is not an appropriate response when people are suffering. Thus, when finally the descendants of Joseph, the stoic bearer of injustice, learned to protest rather than mutely, “expressionlessly” accepting human suffering, God expresses relief.

Both of these episodes, that of Pinhas and that of the daughters of Zelophad, demonstrate that the newly freed slave people were ready to begin a new society- a new society not willing to tolerate injustice, whether it emerges from the surrounding society, or perhaps more importantly, from within its own leadership.


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