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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.

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


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.


Torah Commentary: Shoftim- Internal Judgement but Outward Love


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.


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


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


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 ?


Torah Commentary: Perashat Ekev- Feminist Theology Within Traditional Texts; Justice Underfoot


by: on August 9th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

Ekev I: Towards a Feminist Theology within Judaism

Devarim 8:9- “a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills are quarried copper”.

The Avodat Yisrael points us to a reading of this verse by the Targum Yonatan, an early Aramaic translation/Midrash (parts of which are quite ancient, others as late as the seventh or eighth century) in which this verse is read as “a land whose sages proclaim decrees as forceful as steel and whose wise men ask questions as solid as copper”. He then points us to a verse from Isaiah 49:18 referring to being dressed like a bride in ornaments and jewelry, which is read by the Alshich as also referring to the arguments of the sages. The AY goes on to explain that while arguments per se might be perceived as a negative phenomenon, in the end they will all coexist as part of a more complex structure, serving as the “ornaments of the bride”. He argues that the differing positions in Talmudic disputes reflect the limited nature of the individual soul operating within its own perspective; but in the future we will see how all the different positions taken on spiritual matters will all be part of one totality, like a work of art, like ornaments of a bride, which work not as individual objects but as part of an array, of a full image. (This position, of looking at disagreement within spiritual sources as itself constituting an “ornament” arouses within me a temptation to turn again to architectural theory and Adolf Loos, but this week I’m after a more foundational idea, so to speak).

The AY continues with this analogy in order to explain our verse. He explains that the word avanim, stones, described in our verse is also used in the Sefer Yetzirah to refer to the letters of the alephbet, and thus explains that these stones are composed of barzel, literally steel, but here can be read creatively as an acronym, the letters standing for Bilhah Rachel Zilpah Leah, the wives of Jacob. The link is that they too seemed to have arguments, but in the longer view their whole goal, together with Jacob, was to bring about the twelve tribes, that is, the ‘foundational moment’ which would in the long run create the world of scholars and wise men whose ‘ornamental disagreements’ are favorably mentioned in the Targum Yonatan. Here then, is a reading inclusive of the Matriarchs in the “soil” (almost literally) of the Jewish project.

Dr. Tamar Ross has pointed out that while many of the Halachic hurdles that prevent full participation by Jewish women in Jewish life can be overcome by proper analysis of the Halachic texts, there is still not yet an adequate theology of the specifically feminine in Judaism to provide meaning to the contemporary observant woman. For many years (even back in Seattle and Juneau, Alaska), I have been attempting to conceptualize just such a theology, without recourse to an essentialist argument, or one that derives from male defined gender roles.


Weekly Torah Commentary: Va’ethanan- Failed Prayers from the Desert


by: on August 1st, 2012 | Comments Off

This week’s Torah segment begins with Moshe (Moses) telling of his his failed attempts to persuade God to let him enter the land of Canaan. “Va’ethanan, And I beseeched the Lord at that time, saying…”. The Midrash reads a lesson about prayer from each word in this verse.

For example, the unusual first term, Va’ethanan, which contains the root ch-n-n, is linked to the similar root, chinam, which translates as gratis, free of charge.. From this word play, the early midrash known as Sifri, quoted by Rashi, teaches

“it is in the language of a free gift, for while the righteous could fall back on their good deeds, the righteous ask that Gd grant them their request as a free gift…”.

In other words, true prayer is not a negotiation with God, in which one reminds God of one’s merits and requests fulfillment as a tit-for tat, rather, when one asks something of God it should be from a place of emptiness, as though one had no merits at all.


Torah Commentary: I. Devarim II. The Ninth of Av


by: on July 25th, 2012 | Comments Off

I. Devarim- The Courage to Critique

It feels a bit different to write about Perashat Devarim, akin to writing a review of a review. Perashat Devarim is the beginning of Moshe’s extended deathbed monologue, presented just as the people are preparing to enter the land, under a new leadership. In these perashiyot, we have a review by Moshe of the events of the Exodus, along with a repetition of many mitzvot and some theological statements, in a tone traditionally interpreted as critique or “tochacha”. This concept is one that deserves some elucidation, and towards the end will expound on the links between this concept and the tradition of reading this perasha at the time of Tisha B’av, the day commemorating the destruction of the Temple, the loss of life and loss of sovereignty that accompanied the failed rebellion against Roman hegemony.

In general, the Hassidic thinkers take a positive view of the concept of tochacha, which we might liberally translate as social criticism, particularly since it played so important a role in their own project. The Shem M’Shemuel quotes Psalm 51, which begins as a “Laminatzeach mizmor”, a musical work, as a reaction to the rebuke received by David from Natan the prophet after Batsheba-gate, as it might be called today. The Shem M’shmuel asks, is a musical piece the appropriate response to such a dark and serious situation? Perhaps, since as a result of this rebuke, David was moved to a critical moment of self examination, the process we call “teshuva”. The opportunity to transform one’s life and be brought to a closer relationship to Gd as a result is, to those with sensitive spiritual constitutions, a source for joy.

So here as well. There is less concern in the commentaries with the actual content of the critique contained within the perasha, which is primarily relayed in a cryptic fashion by a recitation of place names alone; there are some Kabbalistic attempts at decoding what those messages might mean for us today in the Degel Mahane Ephraim and the Noam Elimelech, but the predominant heuristic determinant is not the content of the tochacha so much as the way it is delivered. For example, R. Zadok, argues from the odd phrasing “These are the words that were spoken…” that the speech is still, as it were, being spoken today, and when one reads Devarim one is in a direct encounter with Moshe as if being spoken to directly. To the Kedushat Levi, sefer Devarim is Moshe’s straight talking, messages that do not need to be wrapped in metaphors nor stories requiring interpretation because there was a situation where the listeners, that is, the people of Israel about to enter the land, were at the appropriate level to understand him, (paradoxically, the Kedushat Levi explains, it is also the sign that the time of his leadership is over. When the leader is so clearly understood, or second guessed, then it is a sign that a new leadership, a new vanguard, must arise… On the brighter side, the Sefat Emet also adds that this speech was a sign that Moshe had evolved into his own highest spiritual point, because the loftier the spiritual achievement, the more it is palatable to the masses, that is, the greater the clarity of the spiritual conception, the more penetrating it is even to the common folk. It takes a great leader to reach “all Israel”.)

This recognition of the change of textual style, to one of less metaphorical complexity, prompts the Sefat Emet, in anticipation of Franz Rozenzweig, to insist that the route of the word “tochacha”, critique, is from the word “nocheach”, to be present.


Weekly Torah Commentary: Matot-Massei 2 essays


by: on July 20th, 2012 | Comments Off

1. Perashat Matot: This and Thus

In the second of essay of last week’s perasha, Pinchas, we discussed the episode of the daughters of Zelophad in terms of a paradigm for proper leadership. The handling of their complaint and its subsequent settlement with a Divine agreement was used to illustrate two necessary aspects of an ideal system- one in which the potentially ‘unvoiced’ are given full participation in the legislative process, and the other being the need for transparency, where the process of decision making must be open to all, in order for the differing needs of a diverse populace to be heard and recognized, in the formation of a truly just society.

This message is continued in the Hassidic commentaries to this week’s perasha, Matot, in response to several textual problems, not as clearly related to the matter as the Daughters of Zelophad episode. This week’s perasha begins with an unusual text, using a phrase not found elsewhere in the Torah:

‘And Moshe spoke through Rashei Hamatot, the Tribal Chiefs to the people of Israel saying, This is the matter which God has commanded’

The matter at hand is the technical handling of sacred vows, particularly how and when they can be undone or revoked. The general explanation of why the tribal elders are involved in this set of commandments is generally felt to be a technical one, in that it is authority figures who often have the right to undo an inappropriate vow. However, already the Midrash reads other messages from this verse, which has the superfluous clause ‘this is the matter which Gd has commanded’. Why this clumsy passive voice, why not just state the laws?

The Midrash states that from this verse one learns a qualitative difference between the prophecy given to Moshe and that of all other prophets- that of Moshe is couched in terms of Zeh, ‘this’, whereas the others receive prophecy in terms of Koh, ‘thus’ (in other words, Moshe hears ‘this is what God says’, whereas all others hear ‘Thus says the Lord’). This is a widely cited teaching, but why would anyone care about ‘this’ versus ‘thus’?

The Noam Elimelech suggests that the distinction between ‘this’ and ‘thus’ relates to an important aspect of the relationships between leadership and the people.


Torah Commentary: Pinhas- Response to Injustice: Two Episodes, Many Souls


by: on July 13th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

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.


Torah Commentary: Perashat Balak: Becoming-Mule, Becoming-Human


by: on July 5th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

Perashat Balak 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?


Weekly Torah Commentary: Chukat- The Meaning of the Red Heifer


by: on June 28th, 2012 | 3 Comments »

…Away with boundaries, those enemies of horizons! Let genuine distance appear! -Czeslaw Milosz

This weeks Torah portion begins with the laws of ritual purification mandated by contact with the dead. The ceremony, in days when the Temple stood, involved the ashes of a red heifer, which were reconstituted by the priest with purified water (an early “not-from-concentrate” product, I suppose, and in which no downer cattle could be used) and sprinkled upon the individual or object that needed purification. Curiously, while the formerly ritually defiled individual was now ritually pure, the priest that performed the ceremony became himself temporarily ritually defiled, as the Talmudic phrase goes, “the ashes of the red heifer purify the defiled and defile the pure”.

This ceremony is uniquely bizarre and the Torah itself identifies it as such, in the opening verse of the section, labeling the ceremony as a Hukka, traditionally translated as a “law which is beyond any kind of sense or interpretation”. While there are other laws, generally ritual ones, that are categorized this way, the red heifer ceremony is considered the archetypal Hukka. In fact, the Talmud and Midrash understand the passage in Kohelet 7:23, “I thought I would become wise but wisdom remained distant from me”, as being an admission from King Solomon, wisest of all men, that making any sense of this commandment was beyond his ken.

Needless to say, the moment a statement is categorized as being inexplicable, all the commentators will immediately rush to offer explanations. Rashi, after a disclaimer about the red heifer rituals being beyond comprehension, presents a complete reading of the ritual down to its small details, derived from an earlier source, R. Moshe Hadarshan.

So is this ceremony far beyond reason? Perhaps not far. The Midrash states that God gave Moshe a complete explanation of all the meanings of this ceremony, but instructed Moshe not to reveal the meanings to the people. Thus there are rationale, according to the Midrash, just they are not known to us. In fact, the Sefat Emet, derives from this Midrash a viewpoint more commonly known from Buddhist theology- he states that a hukka like the red heifer ceremony is a commandment that cannot be understood prior to its experience- its performance is the Vehicle to its understanding. After the ritual is done, one comes to a certain understanding that one could not have attained without the actual experience of the rite, the rite is itself illuminating experientially.

So then, what are these meanings, can they be known nowadays, when we no longer have the ability to perform the actual rite?