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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.

Torah commentary- Ki Tissa: Allure of the Golden Calf


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?


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


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.


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


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).


Torah Commentary: Beshalach- Eating and Abjection


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?


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


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:


Torah Commentary-Perashat Vayehi: The Silence Is The Message


by: on December 28th, 2012 | Comments Off

I’ve chosen to repost this particular essay for its uncanny relevance to the recent tragedy at Newtown, particularly the final teaching by the Aish Kodesh, prefaced by an additional teaching not in the original, that resonates with the tragedy. One of the points made in the essay, which deals with a textual hint of silence on the part of Jacob when blessing his sons, is that there are times when language is not adequate to the task at hand, but rather there are times when action, not words, is the necessary response. Clearly this is one of those times. Interestingly, the relevant addition to this reading is also based on a lacuna, in this case a missing letter:

Rabbenu Bachye, a late medieval mystic and commentator, notes that in the blessing given to Judah, the blessing that most hints at a transformative “end” to history, all of the letters of the alphabet are present except for the seventh letter, zayin. According to Rabbenu Bachye, the reason is to hint that the world order of Judah will be one that will not seek its victory from tools of violence; in Hebrew the term for “weapons” is “kli zayin“, weapons will not be needed, because the ultimate society is to be one free of violence, based on spiritual and intellectual understanding, thus it will be a society of “Yehuda”, where the tools of violence are absent, but the letters forming the name of God are present (the Hebrew spelling of Judah, Yehuda, contains the four letters of the biblical name of God). It is time for us to act, to bring about the end of a gun society, and thus directly replacing a society of violence, and its daily body counts, with a society of peace, where children can grow free and with love. (MK)

“Disclosure, however, does not simply result in something disclosed as unclosed. Instead, the dis-closure is at the same time an en-closure…. Disclosure- that now means to bring into a sheltering enclosure….” Heidegger, Parmenides pp133.

Nothing regarding Torah goes unnoticed and unexamined by the commentators, not even spacing on the written line. This week’s Perasha (Torah reading) begins, “Vayehi Yaakov B’eretz Mitzrayim“; And Yaakov (Jacob) dwelled (lit., “lived”) in the land of Egypt. The authors of the Midrash note that normally there are nine letters between the end of one perasha introducing the perasha that follows, whereas here there are no extra spaces at all. This perasha is thus “setuma”, closed off, oblique, which is unique, usually there is some form of spacing in the written text that marks off the beginning of a new portion, here there is none. Is this lack of indentation itself a commentary, does it signify a silence or hidden-ness within the context of the story of the death of Jacob and the beginning of the enslavement of a people?


Torah Commentary: Perashat Vayera- The Non-Sacrifice of Isaac


by: on November 1st, 2012 | 5 Comments »

I don’t think I need to retell the story of the akedah, the “sacrifice of Isaac” by his father Abraham, following the word of God, I find it emotionally difficult to retell the tale in a literal manner. I do think the entire episode demands a dramatic reevaluation.

I suppose, if I wanted to put my problem with this passage in an inflammatory manner, I could ask, what kind of God is it that puts any person through this kind of “test”, and what kind of man is Abraham if he chooses to follow such a command? Eli Wiesel tells the story of a woman at the gates of Auschwitz (a story borrowed and corrupted in Sophie’s Choice) who is asked to choose which of her two children will be sent to the crematorium, her immediate response is a howling, shrieking insanity; her tormentors shot her on the spot.

No human being can or should ever be put through what may be the cruelest form of torture, the loss of a child, certainly not by a compassionate God.

Furthermore, if Abraham’s action is the apogee of the religious experience, as is commonly accepted particularly after the classic book of Kierkegaard on the subject, then why do we shudder nowadays when children are sent by their parents to die for a political cause? Are others truer to the words of our text than we are? Let us ask frankly, what kind of lesson are we supposed to derive from this perasha?


Torah Commentary: Bereishit- Being and Prayer


by: on October 11th, 2012 | Comments Off

…the Word is the Word,
the Word shows the extent of our
Verbal incapacity,
Cut off from reality,
The sound of these words serving us deceptively.
Yet the value of imagery,
What we put into these words… Antonin Artaud

The message of the opening passages of the Torah is a message about being.

As Rashi points out with his very first comment, the narration of the creation is meant to teach us not basic lessons in science and cosmology, but rather something about our being in the world. As this question of “Being” is so fundamental an aspect of contemporary discourse, it is worth addressing, right at the Beginning.

Heidegger posed the question most influentially when he asked, following Schelling: Why is there Being rather than nothing? To him, the most urgent and overlooked question was what does it mean to “be” in the world, what does our existence mean, this recognition of nothingness, of our own impending non-being, our personal sense of uniqueness in the face of a world of mute and unconcerned objects?

Heidegger posited that disconnection from this Being, which he labelled Dasein, was at the core of our angst, of our disconnection from our ‘authenticity’ in the universe to which we are thrown. This semi- mystical conception, which has a powerful hold on the imagination because it addresses that sense that we innately have, that there is something bigger and greater to our existence than a mere biological accident, became a full blown theological position in Heidegger’s later years, after the “Kehre”, the turn in his philosophy, where Being becomes described as an independent existing thing, that attempts to speak to us and through us (in Eco’s wonderful phrase: “this intensionally slippery being becomes a massive subject, albeit in the form of an obscure borborygmus wandering about in the bowels of the entities. It wants to speak and reveal itself”).


1. A Brief Meditation- Between Yom Kippur and Sukkot 2. The Social Space of the Sukka


by: on September 29th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

A line in Neila caught my attention at the end of Yom Kippur. It reads:

“our remains will be naught but dust, thus God has given us many prayers”.

Recognizing the emptiness of the confrontation with that void, that abyss of non-existence, we are given the chance to utter words which suggest a meaning for existence, prayers for life, for the existing world and the people which inhabit it. We know we are alive because we can still pray, still dream of beautiful things.

This brought to mind R. Pinchas of Koretz’s line, that it is our swaying during prayers which cause the winds to blow (the winds which then cause the grass to grow). Our gentle swaying, a part of our prayers, that aspirational speech that give us life and meaning in the face of an uncertain future.

R. Pinchas continues that this correspondence of the swaying in prayer and creative life is the point of the na’anuim, the waving of the four species during the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, which also evokes the winds of growth, as the four species are meant to symbolize the totality of life (the different species, the different types of peoples) and remind us of our responsibilities towards nature and one another.

May our prayers, all together, cause the winds of life, love, and peace to blow this year. Let’s make it a gale wind of change.

Making Space in the Sukka: Social Justice and Joy

The period of time in the Hebrew calendar reaching from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur is thought of generally as one unit, in English commonly referred to as the High Holidays, whereas Sukkot, the festival which follows four days after Yom Kippur, is generally thought of as a festive holiday, one of the three biblical Temple festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), entirely distinct from the Days of Awe which happen to precede it.

The mystics, however, view the period from Rosh Hashana until the end of Sukkot as one long arc, not as distinct notes on the page but as one continuous unfolding melody reaching its crescendo not at Yom Kippur, as we might guess, but at Hoshana Rabba (the last day of Sukkot prior to the final festival of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah). We will see that the purpose of the these holidays at this time is to develop a consciousness of social justice, viewed as higher than, or as a development of, the personal spirituality achieved during the more solemn High Holidays.

The first step would be to depart from our usual hierarchy regarding solemnity over joy.


Yom Kippur: Time and Teshuva – A Place for Healing


by: on September 24th, 2012 | Comments Off

I. Time and Teshuva

In the shiur regarding Rosh Hashana, we saw how the shofar connected us to a moment outside of time. This radicalization of the perception of time bears an even more immediate relationship to the concept of Yom Kippur and its central component, Teshuva, repentance, as the word teshuva is roughly translated. We will argue that Teshuva means a whole lot more, a restructuring of one’s narrative, an ability to step outside the linearity of experience in order to set things right in one’s life and in the world.

The un-linkage of our normal perception of the flow of time to the Yom Kippur experience is present in the original verse describing the day, as summarized in BT Pesahim 68:

Mar son of Ravina would fast on all the days of the year except for Purim, Shavuout, and the eve of Yom Kippur (the ninth of Tishrei, as opposed to the tenth, which is Yom Kippur), since it says (Vayikra 23:32) “v’initem et nafshotayhem batisha’ lahodesh“- “and you shall deprive yourselves on the ninth of the month”- Is the fast actually on the ninth? No, the fast is on the tenth (Vayikra 23:26)! So this text comes to teach us, that one who eats and drinks on the ninth, it is as if one fasted for two days consecutively…

Essentially, the text provides, within the space of several verses, two different dates for innui nefesh, the “soul deprivation”. To reconcile this contradiction, a special status was granted for the ninth, the day before the fast, in which the act of eating becomes consecrated. The noteworthy element is that the otherwise joyous act of eating is here considered an “innui“, so that eating becomes deprivation and suffering, rather than fasting.

So if the act of eating is considered an “innui”, then how is the day of fasting categorized? The BT in Taanit 26: explains:

There were no happier days for Israel than Yom Kippur and the 15th of Av, on these days the women would dance through the vineyards… Bishlama (This being a happy day is obvious) with regards to Yom Kippur, since it is the day of forgiveness, (“sliha and mehila“), …

In other words, here the Talmud considers the fast day, the day of “innui“, to be the happy holiday.The term “innui” to which we’ve referred several times is usually rendered along the lines of “torment”, “suffering”, “affliction”, etc. How can this type of term be applied to activities usually considered enjoyable, such as eating?

To reconcile these passages, I would suggest a reconsideration of what the goals of the day are. While some see the fasting on Yom Kippur as a kind of suffering or punishment, perhaps the act of fasting on Yom Kippur is not meant to serve as scourge or torture, retribution or punishment, but rather it reflects a joyous act of liberation, liberation from the bonds of the corporeal.