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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: Perashat Vayera- The Non-Sacrifice of Isaac

Nov1

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?

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Torah Commentary: Bereishit- Being and Prayer

Oct11

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”).

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

Sep29

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.

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Yom Kippur: Time and Teshuva – A Place for Healing

Sep24

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.

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Some Thoughts for Rosh Hashana, the Hebrew New Year

Sep15

by: on September 15th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

  1. Shofar And Time

…If all time is eternally Present, All time is unredeemable… T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Central to, or lurking behind, if you will, any discussion appropriate to Rosh Hashana is the problem of time. For while we all talk of Rosh Hashana as a celebration of the “New Year”, the texts, biblical and talmudic, are rather ambiguous as to what the actual date of creation is. One thing is certain- Rosh Hashana is not meant to signify the date of the creation of the world per se, but more likely, to commemorate the creation of humanity, at best, according to a talmudic debate. The talmud offers the following alternatives: Was the world created in Nisan, half a year away from Rosh Hashana, or was the world created the week before Rosh Hashana, that is, Rosh Hashana commemorates the sixth day of creation, and as such is meant to celebrate the creation of humanity?

Perhaps this ambiguity about the events of the New Year, Rosh Hashana, which in the proof text of Psalm 81:4 is referred to as bakeseh, the “hidden” or “mysterious day”, is meant to teach a greater lesson about time and its unreality.

Let us ponder that verse, Ps. 81:4 for a moment, as it also contains a link to the other critical symbol of this holiday, the shofar- The verse reads:

Tik’u bahodesh shofar, Sound on the day of the new month the shofar, bakeseh, when the moon is hidden, l’yom hagenu, on the festival day.

The Talmud in BT Rosh Hashana 8. proves that the new year corresponds to Tishrei by virtue of the link in this verse between the shofar and the hidden moon, which as Rashi points out is astronomically related to this season. There is a link between the beginning of time and the shofar.

This link is compounded in BT Rosh Hashana 16. :

…and on Rosh Hashana say before me malchuyot, zichronot and shofarot- Malchuyot- you shall crown me King over you; Zichronot- your memory shall rise before me for the good; and how? via the Shofar!

In this text, an extra association is added. The New Year links God, memory, and the shofar. First of all, I should like to point out, as an aside, something frequently overlooked in the approach to this set of prayers, and that is its dialogical nature. By our act of ‘crowning’ God, via the shofar, we alter our relationship with God. The Talmud suggests that prayer is not just human lip service, not just something we do because we must do so, but rather defines prayer is a dialogical act which evokes a response. Our recognition of Gd’s “kingship” evokes a reciprocal recognition of our sentience. At any rat, returning to our discussion of time, note that the Talmud creates an association linking Gd, memory, and the shofar to our consciousness of time, symbolized by the new year.

Before we proceed, however, we should define a term. What does “consciousness of time” mean?

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Torah Commentary- Nitzavim 1. A Covenant of All of You 2. Face Hidden, Face Revealed

Sep13

by: on September 13th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

Nitzavim I. A Covenant of All of You

“Today you all stand before Gd, your chiefs, your elders…all of Israel, your children, wives, the strangers in your midst, from the woodchopper to the water carrier, to enter into a covenant with God…”

With these words, the covenant between God and the people of Israel is established. But a covenant with whom?  With rabbis? Scholars? What does a “covenant” mean or establish? The answer to many of these questions are implicit in the verse itself, and the answers are not what we might expect, and perhaps we will understand why this passage was chosen to be the one always preceding Rosh Hashana, the Hebrew New Year.

As usual, the verse itself is problematic in several ways. First of all, there is that unusual word, nitzavim, meaning “standing”. Furthermore, the segment lists all these types of societal positions, then sums them all up in the superfluous phrase “all of Israel”, a phrase doubly enigmatic because it uses a singular voice- kol ish yisrael- “every person, of the people of Israel”, after listing a range of professions.

Rashi presents three different readings of this passage. He begins with the “peshat”, the so-called literal reading of the text. He then offers two “midrashic” readings, the second of which explains the word nitzavim, “standing”, as derived from the word matzevah, monument, and explains that at this moment, Moshe transformed the people into a ‘monument’, in order to make them more ready to listen, or more obedient (Rashi points out that in later transfers of leadership this same  root of nitzav is used).

The Shem M’Shmuel riffs on this nitzav = matzeva similarity to derive a radical lesson. He explains that the mizbeach, the altar central to the service in the biblical Temple, was made up of many stones, whereas the matzevah, an earlier form of monument or altar, described as being used before the Temple was constructed, and forbidden after the Temple was constructed, was made up of one stone. Thus, for the covenant to be established, the people (all humanity, really), despite their individual differences, must come together like the single stone altar, as one people.

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Torah Commentary- Ki Tavo: Curses, Blessings, and Cinema Studies

Sep6

by: on September 6th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

Perashat Ki Tavo, read this week, is noteworthy for containing a lengthy restatement of a blessing and curse sequence. Not the cheeriest or most readable of passages by any means, rather a long recitation of all the nastiness that will overtake the people should they fail to hearken to God’s word. I suspect the custom of reading these sections fast and sotto voce was not one that needed to be forcibly impressed upon the community; one wants to be done with these passages. Especially as this is a repeat performance, in that there already was a full set of curses already presented in Leviticus. So it will come as no surprise to regular readers that specifically within this bleakest and most unwelcoming of passages, the mystical commentators will find a powerful contemporary message of hope and redemption, defining a concept of self with interesting parallel to themes in contemporary cinema studies.

Rashi attempts to differentiate between the two sets of curses by finding differences between them- the first set are divine while the second set is Moshe’s own set of downer predictions, the first set are national, while the second set here refer to individual sinners (this is supported by the use of the plural in the first set and the individual in the second). Either way, best to get done with these passages quickly and hope they remain in the realm of the potential (in the course of my life I’ve had the unfortunate experience of hearing rabbis gleefully claim these passages as “predicting” the Holocaust and other such unfortunate readings).

It is thus surprising that this segment of curses provokes one of the most beautiful passages in the Zohar (to be specific, in the Zohar Hadash). The point the Zohar wishes to make about this section is wrapped in one of those poetic narratives that are often so unexpected that they strike one as truly inspired (as an aside, Gershom Scholem was dismissive of the Zohar, to say the least, because it was pseudo-epigraphic and not actually written by R. Shimon Bar Yohai. To my mind, the fact that this wild poetic riff was actually written by an individual in medieval Spain makes it one of the great works of art, a classic of world literature).

Here’s the Zohar’s literary framing of the teaching:

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Weekly Torah Commentary: Ki Tetze- A Mezuzah for our Monitors

Aug30

by: on August 30th, 2012 | Comments Off

This week’s text presents a commandment that at first glance seems to be a straight ahead safety regulation, a precept not necessitating elaborate theological discourse:

(Devarim 22:8) If you build a new house, you must build a maakeh, a parapet or guard rail for your roof, lest you bring blood upon your house should someone fall off.

The midrashic and medieval commentators discuss some interesting points regarding predestination and punishment , (debating whether the person who fell was meant to fall, but even if he was doomed, don’t let it be your house that is the cause of death…), but today, I really want to think  about roofs, what they mean and symbolize.

Bachelard, in his “The Poetics of Space”, contrasts

“the rationality of the roof to the irrationality of the cellar. A roof tells its raison d’etre right away; it gives mankind shelter from the rain and sun he fears…We “understand” the slant of a roof. Even a dreamer dreams rationally; for him, a pointed roof averts rain clouds. Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear.”

In contrast to the dark mystery of the cellar, where even now in the world of electric lights, as in all spooky movies, we go down to the cellar with a candle, the roof is a symbol of intellectual clarity and reason.

After all, if there is one thing even the deconstructivist architects haven’t been able to remove, it is the roof. You can put a post in the middle of the bedroom preventing the entry of the bed, as Eisenman did in his celebrated House VI, but you can’t remove the roof. In fact, two well-known contemporary works over emphasize the role of the roof. Zaha Hadid’s Vitra Fire Station (1992-3) in Weil am Rhein has a huge accessory roof that serves no function, while COOP Himmelblau’s roof conversion for a legal practice in Vienna (1983)  has an elongated arch which menaces the street underneath, looking like some sort of hostile space organism, in counterpoint to the more sedate older buildings underneath.

In short, the roof remains above, and retains its function of sheltering; if anything, the sheltering aspect of the roof modality might be overblown to make statements about dwelling and interiority:exteriority.

Among the early Hassidic thinkers, however, there is a very plastic approach to issues of space and time. Up can be down, inside can be outside, and the future is readily accessible to the present.

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Torah Commentary: Shoftim- Internal Judgement but Outward Love

Aug24

by: on August 24th, 2012 | Comments Off

“Judges and magistrates shall you set before you at all your gates…”

While contemporary Jewry may seem like a top heavy organization with a bloated self appointed leadership proclaiming ever more severe rulings and extremist dogmas generally foreign to traditional texts and practices, and its concern with “Stadium Judaism”, Jewish mystical thought, and the Hassidic movement in particular, became popular because of their emphasis upon the spiritual uniqueness of each individual, giving universal meaning to every tear, every moment of pain of each individual. This way this week’s text, which seemingly deals with just that kind of bureaucratic process, is read by the mystics, is a perfect example of what the movement was once about.

Whereas in the classical medieval commentators these sections provided an opportunity to discuss political and social issues, from the Shenei Luchot Habrit (the Shel”a) onwards there is a tendency to internalize these commandments, reading them as referring to psychological states. Less concerned with the political workings of a society, the Hasidic masters turned these ordinances inward, into statements of inner governance. The Shel”a’s reading of the verse “judges and magistrates you shall set up at your gates” hinges upon the word ‘your’, thus understanding the verse as commanding a personal, internal critique at the portals of entry of sensory information to consciousness, that is at the senses. One needs to create an internal monitoring service to filter and process incoming information.

In a quotation attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, the Degel Mahane Ephraim gives specific form to the types of filters with which we must process the outside world- with “judges” referring to love of God, and “magistrates” referring to fear or awe of God; with love and awe filters on we must analyze every action we undertake (as opposed to the spam filters we operate on our emails). The Shem M’Shemuel suggests that there must be a master “chush“, a master sensory input filter, which integrates all the other senses into a spiritually correct vision, so to speak, to which this verse refers.

This approach can perhaps be translated into contemporary analytic language; this filter we might call the “super-ego”, a category that appears late in Freud’s writings.

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Torah Commentary: Perashat Re’eh- Change the World TODAY

Aug16

by: on August 16th, 2012 | Comments Off

I. Change the World Today!

“Reality does not exist on its own, in and for itself, but only in an historical relationship with the men who modify it.” Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks

“‘See, I have given over to you’- …the righteous with their words create new heavens and new earths, as the verse suggests: See, what I have done- I have given over to you that creating aspect of myself so that with your teachings you can create new realities of heaven and earth. Understand this.” Degel Mahane Ephraim, Perashat Re’eh

II.

This week’s text begins with a resounding cry (Devarim 11:26):

“See! I am presenting before you all today, a blessing and a curse! A blessing such that you shall keep my commandments…and a curse should you not hearken unto my commands and veer from the way set before you today…”

The commentators dissect virtually every word in this passage. The repetition of the word “today” is of note, but this connotation of immediacy is somewhat odd since the actual “blessing and curse” event was meant to occur at a much later date, after entering the land and reaching the mountains of Gerizim and Eval.

The Kedushat Levi assumes therefore that this set of verses is thus meant to be read atemporally; the blessing referred to here is not the one to be shouted out loud at Mt. Gerizim, but rather the verse is implying that any time the commandments are heard and kept, the relationship with God established as a result of hearing God’s voice through the commandments, is its own blessing.

Can we read the today of the verse with a reference to a time in a way that would be relevant to our lives ?

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