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Mark Kirschbaum
Mark Kirschbaum
Mark Kirschbaum, M.D. comes from a traditional yeshiva background. He writes a weekly Torah commentary attempting to fuse traditional and mystical readings with contemporary philosophical discourse.



A Thought For Yom Kippur

Oct3

by: on October 3rd, 2014 | 1 Comment »

One year, in anticipation of the Yom Kippur prayers before Kol Nidre, the community was reciting Psalms in an agitated fashion. R. Pinhas of Koretz (a contemporary of the Baal Shem Tov) turned to them and said, all this carrying on and your words are going nowhere. You think that if you speak sheker (falsehoods) all year, suddenly your words will make an impact above? So I tell you this: Take upon yourselves that you will no longer speak falsehood and your prayers will immediately rise up…


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Torah Commentary- Shabbat Nachamu: Hope means Justice in the Present

Aug7

by: on August 7th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope. (Walter Benjamin, Schriften I)

The world today is ugly, one in which we can read of children dying as a result of political battles in too many places in the world, without shedding a tear, or worse, justifying this outcome as valid or expected. We must cry out for an end to this kind of suffering and cry out for an end to these horrors.

This Sabbath is known traditionally as Shabbat Nachamu, The Sabbath of comforting. The Isaiah 40 (well known outside the synagogue as the opening of Handel’s Messiah) is a prophecy of hope read at this point in the calendar, just after the commemoration of the horrors of war which twice led up to the destruction of the Temple and the creation of millions of refugees. As a result of these experiences, traditional Jewish culture is marked by an emphasis on hope, on a belief that injustice will be overcome, and that the “weary will be given strength”, as the end of this chapter in Isaiah proclaims.

Hope seems one of the more lofty spiritual aspirations of mankind, yet one of the least frequently defined. Schiller seems to have summed it up for the Romantic era as:

Im Herzen kuendet es laut sich an:

Zu was Besserm sind wir geboren!

The heart proclaims it loudly within

We were born for better things!

What these better things might be is not detailed, as yearning itself was enough of a goal in the Romantic era. Whatever hope may be, it was usually something earmarked for future generations. Imber’s Hebrew poem, “The Hope”, later adapted for use as the Israeli national anthem, is built around a similar theme: “As long as within the heart/ A Jewish soul yearns…our Hope is not lost.” This hope is defined as (in the current official version, somewhat different from the original text), “To be a free nation in our land/ The land of Zion-Jerusalem.”

While perhaps in Imber’s time, a harsh time for Jewish existence, a free land may have been adequate to define “the hope”, there are few who would currently feel that hope has been fulfilled only with land ownership, which itself has brought with it some serious challenges, not all of which can be said to have been reached. Certainly we have no less need for hope. So what is it that we hope for? Furthermore, must hope always be something aimed at the future? Is it possible that we can define hope in such a way that it reflects a process which can be actualized in the present, in the here and now? Can we afford to wait for the future when the present is so filled with death and suffering?

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Torah Commentary Perashat Balak: Rising Above Being-Animal, Particularly Now

Jul3

by: on July 3rd, 2014 | 3 Comments »

Once again we find ourselves in a world of brutal murders, teenagers this time, with heart-rending images of mothers crying, on both sides of the political spectrum. The ensuing scenes of mobs calling for yet more violence, and the apparent “revenge” killing that occurred, make it likely that we will witness, and then become blase again, about the kind of violence that is truly endless- no parent can ever live normally after the death of children, it is an eternal sorrow that no human should need to suffer, and certainly not for reasons of “politics”. I submit that the point of this week’s Torah reading, which tells the story of a failed attempt by haters to do harm to innocent people (with “curses” prior to actual violence) foiled, in part, through a talking donkey, is meant to teach us just this lesson.

Perashat Balak, this week’s Torah reading, stands as a unique narrative segment in the Torah. For the first time, we are presented with a narrative episode which is entirely not experienced by the Israelites; a “behind the scenes” presentation, or to use contemporary film theory terminology, we are “sutured in” from an entirely different vantage point, outside of the usual concern with the Exodus. It can be assumed that if the Torah had not told us this story, no one would have ever known it, as it all takes place outside the horizon of the participants of the Exodus.

The film theory analogy may not be far off. In reading through this passage, one is struck by a preponderance of visual terminology. Again and again terms dealing with sight are used, even down to the description of the Israelite masses as covering “eyn haaretz”, the “eye of the land”. The Daat Moshe (son of the Magid of Kozhnitz, and an important thinker in his own right) suggests that even the name of the king of Moab, protagonist of our tale, Balak ben Zippor, reflects this, as the word “zippor” is akin to the aramaic “tzafra nahir”, inferring a certain type of clarity, as of daylight. Perhaps our text is trying to teach us a lesson in how to “see”?

This passage is so cinematic that there is even a novel special effect thrown in, when the bad guy Bilaam’s donkey starts to speak, a bit of “magical realism” tossed in, a sort of effect not found elsewhere in the Torah.

Now even if the Torah felt it necessary to give an historical perspective on how the surrounding tribal peoples responded to the emergence of the Israelites on the scene, and even if the resulting positive spin of Bilaam’s blessings are worth preserving, why tell us the odd story of the talking mule? The text never finds it important to present, for example, the rituals or political structures during the period of slavery in Egypt, so why do we need to know the details of Bilaam’s escapades? This type of story seems more reminiscent of those odd Midrashim that attempt to fill in gaps in the narrative, as in the details of Moshe’s adventures in Midian, etc. So what is this episode, and particularly the talking donkey segment, attempting to teach us?

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Torah Commentary: Purim- ‘New Dawn’ of Revolutionary Consciousness

Mar12

by: on March 12th, 2014 | Comments Off

1. Dawn of a New Age- The Book of Esther

I will admit that I’ve always had a certain hesitation when it came to Purim. It wasn’t that I was so influenced by Bible criticism or historical scholarship, it was my own sense that the Book of Esther, the focus of the holiday of Purim, read more like a novel than a book of prophecy. It is probably for this reason that if you ask many people which came first, Hanukka or Purim, they would say that Purim was later- there is something more modern about Purim and the Megilla than about the Hanukka story. The Hanukka story feels more biblical than does the Esther story for a number of reasons- it takes place in the land of Israel, there’s a Temple with sacrifices and ritual purity, but most of all, there’s a miracle at the core of the story, whereas with Purim, there is no miracle, it takes place in exile, the Jews are a persecuted minority, and a lot of political intrigue with all the attendant violence is involved. So, despite its being hundreds of years earlier, the Purim story feels more modern, more contemporary. More importantly, the book of Esther, the “megilla”, reads more like a novel than any other sacred Hebrew text, though it is included among the books of the “bible”. I would like to argue now that this novelistic quality, seemingly a detraction from the sanctity of the holiday, may be, in fact, literally, its redeeming quality.

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Torah Commentary: Perashat Vayikra- Who is Ritual For?

Mar6

by: on March 6th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

There is a lot of discussion these days in religious circles about “protecting halacha”, protecting the law, that if certain positions are taken by communities (usually issues related to the role of women, or modern scholarship these days), then “halacha” will be in “danger”.  I find this a curious new position. Is the role of Torah law to protect /elevate the people or is it some independent divine phenomenon that requires “protection”? Perhaps discussion of a more neutral set of Torah laws, those of sacrifice, neutral because they are no longer operative (itself an interesting development, and not without controversy at the time animal sacrifice was transmuted into prayer and other allegorical motifs). So how do we understand the purpose and function of the Temple rites and sacrifices?

My initial temptation was to play the phenomenologist, to compare our conceptions of sacrifice with those of other cultures, the use of language in Indian ritual, etc., but I was wary of the danger of explaining “away”, that is trying to give a good “excuse” for all this talk of korbanot, sacrifices. Rather than attempting to justify practices out of practice for two thousand years, and keeping in mind the suggestions of R. Kook that we may never sacrifice animals again, I would like to transform the question into one about the meaning of ritual in the human experience. So let us ask the central question of these questions, as does the Mei HaShiloach directly:

How can it be that if a person sins, he or she gets absolved from the sin by killing an animal?

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Torah Commentary: Ki Tissa- Text and Authority: Sinai and the Golden Calf

Feb13

by: on February 13th, 2014 | Comments Off

Another one of those periodic crises of authority that tend to erupt in the Orthodox world recently captured the attention of the greater community. In this episode, two Orthodox day schools allowed girls who wished to put on tephillin, the ritual prayer boxes traditionally worn by men, the right to put on tephillin during school prayer time. A salvo from the traditionalist camp was quick to follow, focusing not on the question at hand but on the question of authority, with the central argument being that decisions of this sort can’t be made at the local level, but rather require the input from those recognized as long standing authorities. In particular, in this response, the specific argument was that while everyone now has equal access to the full corpus of Jewish legal texts, by way of the internet and the Bar-Ilan database, it doesn’t mean that everyone had the rights of “authority”. I am not going to take sides in this argument, but I believe we get some insight into the problems of a concept like “authority” in both its presence and absence.

The central story of this week’s reading is the well known story of the Golden Calf. Just after all the miracles of the exodus, Moses goes up to Sinai to receive the Torah, and when he is delayed in returning, the people assume he’s dead, have a major freak out, and create an idol of a calf out of gold, which they proclaim the new god and leader of the people. When Moses makes his way back down the mountain with the tablets of the law, the “luhot”, he literally loses it, smashing the tablets. God reveals to Moses that the plan is to wipe out the people and start again, to which Moses regains his composure and advocates for the people. God accepts the appeal and Moses gets a second set of luhot. So was there any lingering result of the sin? We discussed one possible ramification, the idea of a dwelling place, which may have come about as a result of the people’s tragic error. This week we will look at another repercussion of the event, which may give us some insight into the motivations for what appears to us to be a very odd sin by the people given everything they had recently experienced. In other words, why did they make a golden idol of a calf?

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Weekly Torah Commentary Perashat Terumah: Art as Ultimate Failure

Jan31

by: on January 31st, 2014 | 1 Comment »

The world has seen some ugly battles fought recently over religion-related buildings. From the destruction of the Buddhist monastery at Bamiyan to the conflict over the so-called ground zero mosque, going back to Kristalnacht, the attempt at dehumanization of adherents to a religion frequently begins with a strike against the buildings associated with that faith. On the other hand, some of the most important architectural achievements of humanity across the globe, from Wat Phra Khao to Notre Dame, are a result of spiritual ardor manifested in stone. It would appear that religious structures can provide solace or evoke resistance. What does the Jewish tradition teach us about the role of buildings in spiritual life?

We will see that from the very start, from the Torah text itself, a conflicted reading of the importance or challenge of religious buildings per se is presented. The Torah text provides very lengthy and detailed descriptions for the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple carried by the freed Israelites in their journey through the desert. These details, with instructions regarding the building of the temple walls, roof, altars, ark, and other items related to the sacrificial service, are spread out over five perashiyot (Torah sections, as divided for weekly communal reading). We will see that this organization of the text itself teaches rather surprising and profound lessons about the values of sacred space and its rituals.

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Torah Commentary Perashat Yitro: I. Yitro’s Visit As Response II. Seeing the Sounds of Sinai

Jan17

by: on January 17th, 2014 | Comments Off

I. Yitro’s Visit As Response:

This week’s reading is a momentous one, it contains the narrative of the revelation at Mt Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, as described in the longer essay below. What is striking is that this week’s reading doesn’t begin with that crucial section, it actually begins with a family visit of Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, and in fact, this central reading is not known in traditional circles as “Sinai” or “Giving of the Torah” but as Perashat Yitro, by the name of an outsider, described as a foreign Priest!

Even if the division of the weekly readings is viewed as accidental, still, why is this the section immediately preceding the central section of the Torah, in fact, some of the medieval commentators argue that the meeting with Yitro actually happened after Sinai. Thus placing Yitro’s visit ahead of the revelation of Sinai is meant to be intentional.

The Tiferet Shelomo sees this meeting with Yitro as a prologue to Sinai, in a Buddhist like teaching. The Tiferet Shelomo explains that we must be like Yitro in the way we approach Torah. Every day, we must approach our Torah study and observance as though this moment is the first time we are hearing Torah; we must eternal present ourself to study as though we were complete outsiders with no preconceptions, in a state of humility and with an open mind. The Tiferet Shelomo supports this approach with a lovely textual proof, a de-contextualized reading of a verse from the story of Joseph and his brothers – The verse reads “The individual who shall be found with the goblet shall become my servant”. In the episode, this is a threat about an assumed stolen bit of silverware, but to the Tiferet Shelomo, the message of the verse is beyond the actual narrative and teaches us that the person who is like an empty container, into which spirituality and Torah can be poured, that individual is the true servant of the Divine. Without achieving self-effacement, an overcoming of the ego, there is no space in the mind, as it were, to see the world in new ways, to dream, to think clearly and envision novel insights. This approach to Torah, of coming to it every time with the excitement of an outsider, is, according to the Tiferet Shelomo, the message of the placement of the Yitro episode before the revelation of Sinai chapter.

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Torah Commentary- Shemot: Moses and Emancipation

Dec19

by: on December 19th, 2013 | Comments Off

I. The Challenge

Whereas the stories within the book of Genesis fall into atomizable story units, when encountering the book of Shemot (Exodus) it is clearly organized with a longer arc of narrative, with the episodes being more syncytial and interwoven. The themes I wish to deal with in these pieces do not find their closure in one verse or one commentatory, one might say they are “deterritorialised” across the arbitrary perasha divisions. One major theme encompassing a large portion of the book can be summarized as “how can one change the world for the better even in the face of a powerful evil empire?”

Insight into how one individual, like Moshe (Moses, as he is known in English) was capable of standing up to the dominant world power, and changing the course of human history, is not limited to one episode alone. “Speaking truth to Power” can serve as a subtext for virtually every narrative in the text from the book of Shemot (Exodus). How can one learn this skill, become a Moshe in the continuing fight against injustice?

Michael Walzer’s approach towards the book of Exodus as a blueprint for liberation is a very satisfying approach; here I would like to show how the prelude to political emancipation is more deeply rooted in a spiritual and epistemological ability to transcend the given reality, beyond the positive Marxist approach of Walzer. Furthermore, this ability is not only valid for political struggle, rather, following the approach of the Sefat Emet in perashat Va’era, the story of the Exodus illuminates the path to freedom for the individual trapped in their existential despair and darkness. So the goal is, not only to hear about, or venerate the biblical hero Moshe, but to learn how to “be” him, to actualize him in our own lives. With this in mind, we will try to undestand the route by which Moshe, the Hebrew slaves, all individuals who are exposed to this narrative, come to free themselves from the injustice of political, historical, and personal bondage.

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Essays on Yom Kippur

Sep12

by: on September 12th, 2013 | Comments Off

As the “Day of Atonement” approaches I invite you to reflect on two of my previously posted essays.

First, Yom Kippur: Time and Teshuva- A Place for Healing, which explores:

  1. The relationship between time and teshuva (repentance) and how we can change the past with actions from the present.
  2. The startling similarity between R. Kook and Nietzsche on the retroactive force of history- and healing the past.
  3. How Yom Kippur can provide a safe place for self-healing as it places us “outside of time.”

Second, Book of Jonah Dvar: Delivered at Temple Beth Shalom, Las Vegas, Mincha of Yom Kippur 2011, speculates:

  1. How a traditionally somber day is actually one of the happiest.
  2. Why we read the Jonah story on Yom Kippur.