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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.

Some Thoughts for Rosh Hashana, the Hebrew New Year


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?


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


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.


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


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:


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.