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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.



Rosh Hashanah (New Year) Essays

Sep3

by: on September 3rd, 2013 | Comments Off

For Rosh Hashanah, I invite you to reflect on:

  1. The interrelationship between time and consciousness, and how they can be transcended and healed.
  2. How to relate to the holidays when one is in no mood to relate to the holidays.
  3. The meaning of this metaphor of the “book” of life. How do we relate to the “events” of our life (following Badieu) and can we transform these events into a narrative?

Click here to explore these questions through my 2012 Rosh Hashanah essays.

Weekly Torah Commentary: Perashat Ki Tavo — Amen for Humanity

Aug22

by: on August 22nd, 2013 | 5 Comments »

In the last few weeks there has been a nasty kerfuffle in the orthodox Jewish blogosphere, started when a Rabbi associated with the same progressive group that has been striving to create leadership roles for women within Orthodox Judaism attempted to take a balanced position on bible criticism. Shouts of heresy resounded across the internet, with one positive outcome being an excellent response on the part of Prof. Jacob Wright which is worth reading and can be found here.

After all the name calling, the question remains whether religious faith is based only upon the empirical fact of a text supposedly emanating word from word from God, or is there a deeper set of meanings for which an evolving spiritual community provides a set of answers. In this week’s reading the subject of communal response is paramount, as we encounter, for only the second time in the Bible, the unusual word “Amen”.

Curious word, this Amen. What does it mean when we respond “amen“? Its previous mention in the Torah is in the rather unpleasant episode of the sotah, related to marital infidelity. In our text, starting at verse 27:11, the context isn’t exactly positive, either; it is linked to a series of condemnations of various offenses, mostly of a sexual nature, beginning with idolatry and ending with a curse against one who “does not maintain all the words of this Torah, to do them”. Responsively, the text tells us, the people answered amen. What does this word amen mean?

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Torah Commentary: Shabbat Nahamu — The Meaning of Hope

Jul18

by: on July 18th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

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

 

Traditionally, the weeks after the ninth of Av, which is the traditional dark day of Jewish history commemorating the destruction of the temple, are considered weeks of hope, the weeks of being comforted. We frequently speak of hope. Hope seems one of the more lofty spiritual aspirations of mankind, but we must continue to redefine the question of hope toward what end?

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 outlined, yearning alone was enough of a goal in the Romantic era. Hope always seems about something that will take place in a distant future, for future generations. Imber’s Hebrew poem, “The Hope”, now adapted for use as the Israeli national anthem, opens with a similar line: “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) “To be a free nation in our land/ The land of Zion-Jerusalem”. While perhaps at the time this may have served to define “The Hope”, there are few who would currently feel that these two lines were a sufficient end goal of hope. Hope seems no less necessary now than it did in the past. So what is it that we hope for? Must hope always be something aimed at a distant unattainable fantasy 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? Hope for now?

In the Jewish tradition, the classic locus of hope is the Messianic hope. Is the Jewish hope for a Messiah a simple hope for a utopia in some mythological future? Is the hope that a Messiah will appear and transform the world into a happy place? I will attempt to demonstrate that a tradition exists, extending through the Hassidic masters on to Kafka and Benjamin, which places messianic-like responsibility upon contemporary generations, and views hope as a possibility for the present.

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Torah Commentary- Perashat Behar: Learning to Let Go

May2

by: on May 2nd, 2013 | Comments Off

Earlier this week, I was in a patient’s room, and this patient had a fascinating guest, who was a meditation teacher. She said that her approach to meditation was the only way to really find yourself was to entirely let go. Something about the way she said it, in the unexpected setting of a stem cell transplant unit, just stuck with me, and ‘letting go’ is the point of this week’s essay on the sabbatical and jubilee years, as related in this week’s Torah reading. The Torah reading begins,

“And God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and tell them that when they arrive in the land I am giving them, they shall let the land rest as a Sabbath for the Lord”.

Rashi, quoting the midrash Sifra, asks why specifically this mitzvah (commandment) of shemitta, the Sabbatical year in which the land is meant to be left fallow, is described as being presented to Moses at Sinai, alone of all the commandments. Rashi’s answer is an often cited teaching- while the general concept of the Sabbatical year was presented earlier, (in Perashat Mishpatim), with a more detailed repetition in this this chapter, both are ‘from Sinai’, the same is true of all the commandments- their general concept and their technical details, were given equally by God on Sinai. Similarly, the Avodat Yisrael uses this same Sifra to teach that all mitzvot must bring one to a state akin to that of being back at Sinai; one should reach as state through the vehicle of mitzvot as though one were once again standing as at the initial revelation of the Torah. In both cases, the teaching is based on the superfluous mention of Sinai here, but the deeper question is still unanswered, that is, why, of all the laws that could have been chosen, is the set of rules dealing with the Sabbatical year, Shemitta, singled out as being linked to Sinai? Is there something unique that we understand in comtemplating the Sabbatical year that merits a special connection to the Revelation at Sinai?

We will argue that there is a lesson contained within the concept of the shemitta year that merits this linkage to Sinai, that shemitta will define in various ways our relation to the world we live in and the people we live amongst. By way of definition, shemitta is the agricultural Sabbatical year, and yovel is the Jubilee year, years in which the land is left fallow, slaves are liberated from servitude, and ancestral homes return to their initial owners. Upon first glance, these shemitta laws seem to orient towards an almost nihilistic disregard for the free market, and all forms of commercial activity. All agricultural work comes to a dead halt, and in the yovel, all real estate transactions are voided.

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Torah Commentary- Perashat Emor: Priesthood People Peace

Apr25

by: on April 25th, 2013 | 3 Comments »

Nietzche was preoccupied with the question of where the “good” came from, and who was responsible for it, that is, what is its “genealogy”. Here is his summary statement on the matter:

The judgment “good” did not originate with those to whom “goodness” was shown! Rather it was “the good” themselves , that is to say, the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebian. It was out of this pathos of nobility and distance, as aforesaid, the protracted and domineering fundamental total feeling on the part of a higher ruling order in relation to a lower order, to a “below”- that is the origin of the antithesis “good” and “bad”‘ (The Genealogy of Morals, Kauffman edition pp 25-26).

Thus, to Nietzche, those who have power are those who create morals for a society. When, as in the ancient times, according to Nietzche’s myth, the leadership was in the hands of the aristocratic and noble, there was a different conception of morality than the currently accepted one in bourgeois society, which derives from the ressentiment of the herd, “perverted” towards concepts like pity and shame. The idea that morality as a concept and practice is the result of forces of power in society is developed in Foucault and others. Is this definition of power = morality the case in Jewish thought?

I propose that our perasha offers a test case in reading of these ideas.

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Torah commentary- Ki Tissa: Allure of the Golden Calf

Mar1

by: on March 1st, 2013 | 3 Comments »

In previous essays, in dealing with the dull repetitions of the mishkan (tabernacle) narrative, we discussed the idea of boundaries, of distance introduced as a result of the sin of the golden calf. The mishkan structure itself, and the garments of the priests, act as signifiers of, and simultaneously as a means of overcoming the boundaries and distance introduced by the sin of the golden calf. R. Zadok Hacohen adds an interesting comment, which would be incredibly radical except that the source of the quote is the Talmud (BT Nedarim 22: )

“If it weren’t for the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jews would only have received the Five Books of the Torah and the Book of Joshua”.

It was only with the second set of Luhot, not the first set smashed because of the golden calf, that we also received the Oral law. R. Zadok understands this to mean that had there not been the distance introduced by sin, our relation with the Torah text would have been an unmediated one, one that would not have required the supplemental hermeneutics of the commentaries and supercommentaries familiar to the student of Jewish studies. Our understanding of the Torah would have been akin to what Maimonides describes of Adam before his sin, that he would have had a pure objective relationship with God undistorted by subjectivity (which is why the forbidden Tree was known as that of “good and bad”, good and bad being purely subjective categories, liking something or not liking something, as opposed to the Tree of ‘Life’, which he reads as symbolizing empirical, objective knowledge, as in science (science as a medieval thinker would have seen it, including theological speculation).

The question, then, is, what was the ‘allure’ of the golden calf, what was implicit within that error that suddenly the five books of the Torah are no longer adequate and all that commentary is necessary?

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Torah Commentary- Purim: Esther- Dawn of a New Age

Feb21

by: on February 21st, 2013 | 9 Comments »

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 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.

This literary quality of the book of Esther is not a modern discovery; it is already a problematic in the Talmud. Recorded in BT Megila 7., is an argument as to whether the book of Esther is sacred enough to ritually impurify direct contact (the special state of holy books is preserved by necessitating ritual handwashing in any contact) as are other recognized books collected as Torah. Interestingly, it is exactly the novelistic qualities of the work that salvage its sacred status:

We have learned: R. Elazar states that “Esther” was written with the Divine Spirit, as it says “And Haman said in his heart”. Rabbi Akiva says that it was written with the Divine Spirit, as it says “And Esther found favor in all who looked upon her”…Shmuel says, I have the best argument- as the text states “the Jews accepted and took upon themselves”, meaning they kept above what they accepted below (Megila 7.)

All of these proofs of divine inspiration are based upon what is traditionally recognized as a literary technique, the imputation of what someone must have been thinking, what the reaction of characters must have been in a given situation. Rashi explains that the reaction of a critical reader to these passages could be “who says?” in which case either the book is a work of fiction or the information comes from a divine source of inspiration. What is critical to our argument is that one could better argue the sanctity of the text from its message, or the ritual practices described, but instead, the central argument for its sanctity are exactly the loci which a textual scholar would use to disparage the texts divinity and point to its literary evolution.

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Torah Commentary Perashat Mishpatim: Tikkun Olam and Tsunamis- Jewish Views on Science and Spirit

Feb7

by: on February 7th, 2013 | 2 Comments »

As is usual with events of the magnitude of tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes, at some point theologians, essayists, and pundits of various sorts will attempt to make some sense out of the catastrophe. One question which arises (usually sometime after the question arises as to who will pay for the damages) is the old theological question, “where was God when all this happened?” or, “how could a God let this happen”?

Usually, what appears prior to any deep sophisticated thought about God and nature, comes the obligatory placing of blame. Since it is always easier to blame one’s political enemies than challenge one’s faith, after catastrophic events invariably “sins” are identified meant to justify the carnage. Remembering that these sins are meant to justify the deaths of over a hundred thousand innocent people in the case of the tsunami, a large number of whom were children, one would require a pretty good whopping sin to justify this kind of mass death. The obvious “explanations”, that the people there are heathens, aren’t worth repeating, but some novel ones have been proffered after the tsunami in Thailand, for example, the area is a popular destination for young Israeli travelers and they shouldn’t leave Israel, or, from Hamodia, that the grievous sin of Jews using the internet has led to God’s wrath extending even among the gentiles. That one at least does not blame the local victims, in that it doesn’t fault the local populace, as did a Moroccan Islamic newspaper editorial, (which provoked riots in support of the paper), which blamed the tsunami on the South Asian sex trade.

It is interesting that in general the “explanations” tend to be very Eurocentric; one notable explanation blamed the Bush administration, even querying whether from God’s perspective wouldn’t it have been more appropriate had the tsunami struck the US, interestingly, there was very little of this sort of speculation when hurricane Sandy hit NYC. I didn’t come across many Western essays suggesting that God had attempted to bring about an end to either the Sri Lankan civil war or the troubles in Aceh; apparently God doesn’t trouble himself to bring about natural disasters to resolve Eastern conflicts that don’t involve the West. At any rate, clearly, there are very few “explanations” that don’t seem ridiculous given the terrible human suffering elicited as a result, much as the various Jewish attempts blaming other Jews (secularists, Zionists, etc) for the Shoah come across as very petty and hollow (The detailed tit-for-tat Holocaust explanation attributed to Avigdor Miller is a manifestation of a form of self-loathing not very different from that of Otto Weininger).

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Torah Commentary: Beshalach- Eating and Abjection

Jan24

by: on January 24th, 2013 | 1 Comment »

In a previous essay, http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2012/02/01/weekly-torah-commentary-perashat-beshalach-on-the-madness-of-creativity/ , we discussed the transcendent nature of the creative experience, how one must reach a unique overcoming of normal consciousness in order to transform a religious experience into an artistic act that can itself be counted as Torah.

In the latter sections of this week’s Torah reading, we have the presentation of two pivotal events; the miraculous feeding of the populace via the “Man”, and a reminder of the never ending cruelty of people against people, as represented by the Amalekite attack on the newly freed slaves.

A brief summary of the narrated events: despite the remarkable event of the splitting of the sea, which was, as the Midrashim point out, gloriously experienced by even the least ‘conscious’ member of the people, very rapidly the people start complaining about the lack of food on their journey. The people kvetch for food, and God provides them with a miraculous food from heaven, a food form which was not recognized by humanity prior to this moment (much like Tang in the 60s, I suppose), which the people named Man, from the Hebrew ‘man hu‘, which literally means: ‘what is this?’. It is clearly described as some sort of supernatural food, which had to be collected daily, as its shelf life was only a day, except for Shabbat, when a double portion collected Friday would stay worm-free and edible through Shabbat. Afterward receiving the man, the people demand water, and this time, the tone of the response is a bit more hostile; God has Moshe hit a rock, and water is procured through this violence. Why does the first request elicit a positive response and the second one elicit a response suggestive of violence?

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Torah Commentary- Perashat Bo: Dazzled By The Dark; Interpretation and Freedom

Jan16

by: on January 16th, 2013 | Comments Off

Perashat Bo I: Dazzled by the Dark

Rabbi Yosef Haim, better known as the Ben Ish Hai (born about 1834), wrote in his Aderet Eliyahu that the ‘plague’ of darkness we encounter in this week’s perasha is the last that Moshe and Aharon are responsible for (he builds around a Talmudic dictum that a prisoner liable for lashing can only receive a number divisible by 3, hence the maximum of 39, and thus the plagues have to be 9), while the tenth one, that of the killing of the firstborn, was a separate entity brought about by God alone, not in the category of plagues.

If the plague of darkness is the final and greatest plague brought about by Moshe, there must be a special and significant meaning intended with this darkness, meant to differentiate between plague level darkness and, say, some garden variety power blackout.

The Midrash does not confuse the plague of darkness with a state of just being dark. The Midrashists note the unusual phrase in Shemot 10:21, vayamesh hoshech, ‘and the Darkness materialised’. The Mechilta reads vayamesh as derived from the infinitive l’mamesh, to feel about, and states that the Egyptians were immobilised by this dark, that if standing, they were unable to sit down, and if standing, unable to sit. In the Midrash Rabba, the verb is derived from mamashut, “matter” (hence my translation above as ‘materialised’). So the Midrash asks, how dense was it, and replies, as dense as a dinar, which is a small coin. This, of course, is meant as a teaching about the blinding nature of money rather than about the ontology of darkness, so the Midrash attempts to understand the actual phenomenon and its source:

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