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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 Bamidbar

May24

by: on May 24th, 2012 | 4 Comments »

I have just been notified that my mother has passed away, so I am reposting an essay I wrote previously as is. Interesting that the subject matter is appropriate.

I. Come In Under the Shadow of This Red Rock (or, Shelter in the Wasteland)

Bamidbar 1:1- And Gd spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert within the Ohel Moed (the Appointed Tent) on the First of the Second Month in the Second year from the Exodus from Egypt saying…

This week we begin the fourth of the books which comprise the Torah. This book, known most commonly as “Bamidbar”, “In the desert”, is also known as “Homesh Hapequdim” or as it is conveniently translated, as “Numbers”. In general, we have a return to the narrative of the wanderings in the desert of the Israelites, as well as some commandments, most of which, as pointed out by Ramban, are not of normative force today, though as usual we will attempt to derive emotive meaning from them as we encounter them. The opening perasha, which concerns us this week, has very little narrative or ritual, it consists almost entirely of the census taken of the people on the first day of the second month of the second year after the exodus from Egypt. I approached this perasha with great trepidation, given the fear I have of numbers since my grade school days; expounding, for example, on actuarial procedures in antiquity did not seem very inviting (OK, I can’t resist. One day the bookkeeper shows up at the office looking completely worn out. “You must have had had some busy evening”, said one of his co-workers. “It isn’t that”, yawned the bookkeeper. “I couldn’t fall asleep, so I started counting sheep. But I made a mistake somewhere, and it took me all night to find it.”).

This perasha consists primarily of this repeat census. The classical commentators wonder why a census is needed at this time. The Ibn Ezra explains that it was necessary in order to best set up the encampment and the flags. Rashi and the Ramban take a different approach. Rashi states that this census represents a counting of love, coming just after the erection of the Mishkan, as the Divine Presence was to rest upon the people. Ramban disagrees, as a census demonstrating love after the Mishkan was built should have been taken one month earlier, when the Mishkan was erected. Ramban’s conclusion, as stated in 1:45, is, well, that he doesn’t really have a good explanation of why these numbers needed to be related to us. Given this hermeneutic opening, the Hassidic commentators felt the liberty to take these passages in an entirely different direction, not being bound by a “normative” earlier traditional reading. I will present the readings of several authors, among them the Noam Elimelech and two of his disciples, the Or Pnei Moshe and the Maor V’Shemesh.

The opening verse, as presented above, is seemingly a trivial restatement of the date the command for the census was issued. To the mystically oriented, however, there is no such thing as a trivial text; if a time is given, it must come to teach something. Deleuze and Guattari name this kind of relation to time, such an individuation of a time experience as an haecceity; as they explain:

“A season, a winter, a summer, and hour, a date have a perfect individuality lacking nothing…concrete individuations that have a status of their own and direct the metamorphosis of things and subjects.”


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Shavuot: Sweet Dreams

May24

by: on May 24th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

The holiday of Shavuot is distinct among the major festivals of Jewish life in that it has no obvious distinctive ritual elements. Whereas Pesach has its seder and marror, and Sukkot has its, well, sukkot, Shavuot is not given any particular unique commandments, not in its Biblical textual source, nor in the halachic sources.

In the Rabbinic texts, however, this holiday was considered to be related to the date of the giving of the Torah at Sinai (although even that is somewhat problematic; the Talmud calculates the actual event as being the day after Shavuot).

Given that the holiday was felt to reflect the giving of the Torah, it became customary in many communities to study Torah all night and then read the text relating to Sinai in the morning service at dawn. The source for this is found in the Midrash (Shir hashirim Rabba 1:57 and Pirkei D’Rav Elazar 40), where it explains that the night prior to Sinai was short, and sleep was sweet, so the people of Israel slept that whole night. The halachists (Magen Avraham 494) understood this as a mistake on the part of the people, that they should have been awake in anticipation, and to rectify this, we stay up all night each year on that night.

R. Zadok HaCohen of Lublin felt that the source material did not support the idea that there was a sin committed by the people nor that staying awake is meant as a punishment or paybck; there is no suggestion in the Midrashic texts that an error was committed by this sleep. In fact, in a reading echoing the Lacanian inversion of the Freudian approach to dreams versus reality (which we dealt with at length in Perashat Vayetze), R. Zadok flips this reading on its head. In short, Freud argues that dream work is a defense mechanism by which continued sleep is ensured by repressing thoughts that may be disturbing to the individual, whereas Lacan argues that the opposite is the case–during dream activity we come face to face with our Real, whereas during the day we are able to maintain all our defenses in order to get through the day. This same Lacanian inversion is operative in R. Zadok’s reading.

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Weekly Torah Commentary: Perashat Behukotai- Walk This Way

May16

by: on May 16th, 2012 | Comments Off

Here we are, at the close of the book of Vayikra, “Leviticus”, the Book of Holiness, concerned primarily with what was intended to be the highest service, that of the Temple, the sacrifices, and the priesthood. However, as the Bet Yaakov points out, this Torah portion does not begin as do most of the others, with a speech act to Moshe, that is, with the usual “And God spoke to Moshe”. Here, the segment begins with Im behklotai tailaichu, “if only you would walk in My ways and keep My commandments and make them happen”.

This “if only” is read by the Bet Yaakov as describing not a command, but a prayer on God’s part. It is not a command that is needed after the presentation of so much holiness, for a command can not actualize holiness; what is needed to make holiness happen is a personal prayer.

This perasha, then, is God’s prayer, in which he prays, if only all people would listen to these words and embark upon the road to holiness. In this perasha God begs us to lead meaningful lives, with the blessings described later in this section serving as inducement, accompanied by curses as warning.

So what are these blessings offered for living a life of spiritual piety? Oddly, very naturalistic rewards – that the rain will fall, the earth will give forth produce, etc. Very natural, seemingly coarse physical rewards. Does that not seem a bit of a let-down, an anti-climax? After all, we have just concluded an entire book narrating a Temple service seemingly concerned with achieving an other-worldly, transcendent holiness. How then to reconcile these seemingly very material rewards for spiritual achievement?

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Tikkun Torah Commentary: Perashat Emor- The Priest Within

May11

by: on May 11th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

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

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

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

I propose that our perasha offers a test case in reading of these ideas. The way one explains the supplementary prohibitions of the kohanim (I don’t like the term “priesthood” loaded as it is with a set of meanings from our European history) in essence situates the concept of an elite within Jewish society.

The textual issues which give rise to this discussion in the commentators is found at the outset of our perasha. Perashat Emor begins with Gd telling Moshe to speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, instructing them not to be defiled by contact with the dead. The word emor, speak, is repeated twice in the verse. The Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 114. explains this duplication as instructing the priests to caution the adults to educate the children as well in the ways of ritual purity, so that the children don’t defile themselves either. The Hebrew phrase used to explain this is very concise and leads to several alternate readings “l’hazhir gedolim al ketanim”- translated literally, warn the big regarding the small. The Midrash adds that this repetition of the command Emor, is necessary because of the presence in humanity of an evil inclination, and thus, being easily corruptible, requires its warnings in duplicate.

The Kotzker finds this Midrash’s meaning to be adressed to the wrong audience. If a duplicated warning is mandatory for those in a lower state, then duplications should be present in commands relating to the masses, not the priesthood, the spiritual elite, as it is here! So why then is it directed at the Kohanim, instead of towards the masses?

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Weekly Torah Commentary – Aharei Mot-Kedoshim – 2 essays, Fire & Fragmentation, The Situation of Holiness

May1

by: on May 1st, 2012 | 2 Comments »

I. Perashat Aharei Mot- Fire and Fragmentation:

In the opening of this week’s perasha known as Aharei Mot (“after the death of”), we are once again reminded of the death of the two older sons of Aharon, who died, as was narrated in Perashat Shemini, while bringing a ‘foreign flame before Gd, of which they were not commanded’.

Here, where the central concern is with the Day of Atonement rites, a prologue is provided, narrating how Gd spoke to Moshe after the tragic incident, followed by the cautionary command to Aharon regarding the proper way to approach the holiest part of the sanctuary. What I intend to do in the course of this piece is detail the changes in orientation towards the Nadav and Avihu texts, how there is a change in reading from that of a cautionary and harsh tale of sin and its punishment to an entirely different reading, which regards the episode of the sons of Aaron as one of heroic but premature spiritual achievement.

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Weekly Torah Commentary: Perashiyot Tazria Metzora- Holiness as a Surface

Apr25

by: on April 25th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

Michel Foucault, in his ‘Discourse on Language’ states:

I am supposing that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers?

Foucault identifies a number of excluded areas of discourse found in contemporary society, such as sexual speech, or speech not residing within the truth values of currently accepted paradigms of science. This week we will see how the textual commentators identify and characterize a more fundamental type of problematic speech, the pathology it evokes, and steps that can be taken towards prevention and healing.

I. Marked and Marketing:

Our textual portion begins:

‘This is the Torah of the Metzora, the tzara’t patient on the day of his purification; he shall be brought to the Kohen’

The Midrash initiates its investigation of this verse with an oft quoted word play, where the unusual word ‘metzora’  (commonly translated as leper, though it is clear that is not the affliction described here) is viewed as an acronym for ‘motzi shem ra‘, gossip or slander. The anecdote used in the Talmud regarding the motzi shem ra, the malignant gossip, is that of an itinerant peddler, a ‘rochel‘, who like the snake oil peddlers of the nineteenth century, wandered among the towns around Zippori, proclaiming ‘who would like to buy the life elixir’?. The Midrash tells us that R. Yannai joined in with the gathering crowd, and tried to purchase some of this elixer from him. The peddler pushed him away, explaining that this product is not intended for people like R. Yannai, but R. Yannai persisted, and the peddler pulled out the book of Tehillim opened to verse 34:13 which reads: ‘who desires life should prevent himself from speaking evil’.

In other words, this peddler was an early example of a public health marketing campaign. R. Yannai is then quoted as responding:

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Torah Commentary: Perashat Shemini — Food: Incorporation and Inclusion

Apr18

by: on April 18th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

Foucault prefaces his book, The Order of Things, with a passage from Borges that leads him to the very same question which motivates this week’s essay on the classification of permissible and forbidden foods:

…This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopedia’ in which it is written that …animals are divided into (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that’is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that…

In this week’s perasha we encounter a taxonomy of “our own”, the classification of the animals permitted to us for kosher consumption, and those forbidden to us. A set of lists, with a unique set of inclusionary and exclusionary criterion. It would perhaps be desirable to fully enunciate an “archaeology” of how Jewish thought looked at the concept of taxonomy; my preliminary analysis here I hope will be instructive and leads to some surprising unexpected ideas about overcoming differences between peoples in a great striving for spiritual ascent.

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Torah Commentary: Seventh Day of Passover- Echoing Songs of Liberation

Apr11

by: on April 11th, 2012 | Comments Off

Eyes talked into
blindness
Should a man come into the world, today, with
The shining beard of the
Patriarchs; he could,
If he spoke of this
Time, he
Could
Only babble and babble
Over, over,
Again again
(Pallaksh. Pallaksh)
Paul Celan, “Tubingen, Janner”

The Seventh day of Passover is a holiday, much like the first day. This is true of the fall festival of Sukkot as well, where the last day is a holiday as well, however, in that case, it is considered a new holiday with a different theme and context. The seventh day of Passover, on the other hand, is thematically similar to the first day, dealing with redemption, but celebrates another stage of the deliverance from Mitzrayim (Egypt), that of the splitting of the sea, allowing the Israelites to cross, and then returned to its natural state in order to swallow Pharoah’s cavalry, which had been in pursuit of the former slaves. The goal, of course, of the pursuit by the Egyptians was to bring them back to bondage; once the armies were destroyed it was clear to the people that their liberation was complete, there were no further pursuers, and their new history as a free people had truly begun. As a result of this miracle a song erupted from Moshe (Moses) and the people of Israel, the “Song of the Sea” recorded in Perashat Beshalach of the Book of Shemot.

Most commentators (myself included) deal with this song in its place as part of the book of Exodus. However, given the return of this theme as central to the seventh day of Passover, there is a tendency to deal again with this song, however, this time, in the context of Passover, which, particularly after the seder, is a context of recreating the process of liberation and redemption. We too, will follow this model and examine the role of poetry as liberation, which follows neatly from a central theme of the seder.

The central theme of the seder, celebrated on the first night, is that of re-experiencing the liberation from Mitzrayim- ‘In every generation a person is required to see ones self as though they were themselves liberated from Mitzrayim’. There is the historical redemption of several thousand years ago, however, in the mystical and Hassidic teachings, this Mitzrayim is not merely historical “Egypt”, but rather is equivalent to the Hebrew word ‘meitzarim‘, which means straits, or inhibitions. Those aspects of ones life which restrain one’s spiritual progress and keep one in spiritual servitude must be transcended; one must deliver one’s ‘true self’ from bondage (a bondage which may indeed be generated by the individual him or herself).

The Derech Hamelech (better known by his later book, the Aish Kodesh, written in the Warsaw Ghetto) explains this concept of freeing ones self in every generation, with a valuable set of teachings for self-empowerment. He states that it is clear that when an individual embarks upon a spiritual path, it is often the case that the seeker finds that they have greatly exceeded their own assumed ability. Much as a person in an emergency situation can suddenly summon up unforseen strength and abilities, and are able to undertake physical tasks they would never have attempted under normal circumstances, so too the spiritual seeker in moments of exhilaration can reach heights of unanticipated grandeur. If the physical can be exceeded in moments of need, and the body built up through exercise, the spiritual can be progressively developed and at times reach a state where ‘one’s whole self is annihilated, as though exploding from the great light’. This is what is meant by the mystics when they talk of ‘liberation from Mitzrayim’.

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Torah Commentary: The Passover Seder- The “Four Sons”

Apr5

by: on April 5th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

The Torah tells us of four sons…

One of the central passages of the seder involves a presentation of the questions of, and the responses to four paradigmatic sons. We are told of a wise son, a wicked son, an innocent or naive son, and one who does not know how to initiate a question. Each of these “sons”  is uncertain, in one way or another, about the meaning of the ritual observances surrounding Passover, and for each one an appropriate answer is given, depending on the personality of the son.

This haggada aggada is problematic on several fronts, and one supposes that that is the reason for its inclusion; the haggada being zen-koan-like in its textual strangeness and paradoxicality,  a textual device clearly meant to provoke response (and thus perhaps the secret of its enduring popularity). Here, however, a set of responses are already given; what they actually mean remains puzzling.

From whence are these archetypical sons derived? Each of these ‘sons’ comes out of a biblical prooftext in which there is a reference to instructing one’s offspring. However, they are not presented, powerpoint style, in order of their appearance in the Torah, rather they grouped according to subject matter, implying that it is the meaning, rather than the textual derivation, which has priority in this usage.

There are other oddities; the question of the wise son and the wicked son are similar, and the answer to the wicked son and the non-questioning son are derived from the same verse, and these matters are dealt with in the classical commentators; perhaps we’ll elaborate more on them in the future.

I would like to share several interesting readings, followed by a novel reading of my own which synthesizes these in a contemporary context. An interesting reading comes from the Haggada of R. Yitzhak Isaac Haver, a second generation student of the Vilna Gaon, and a major conduit for the Gaon’s teachings regarding aggada and mysticism. This Haggada had been unavailable for a very long time, and was recently republished; as it is published it is somewhat controversial, as the family descendants decided to censor out all the mystical references and present only the non-kabbalistic readings.Even in “expurgated” form it is a text of great interest, in that the Haggada is read by him as a unified text, with a purpose behind its structure. He argues that the encounter with the Haggada is meant to teach two things:

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Torah Commentary Perashat Tzav- Burning Desires

Mar29

by: on March 29th, 2012 | Comments Off

I. Prelude, regarding speech and sacrifice:

This week we will discuss sacrifice, failure and speech. We’ll precede the longer theme with a short teaching that seems to forwshadow the Freudian slip (parapraxes). We will then present an unusual approach to the central Jewish concept of Teshuva, of rapprochement, particularly surprising given the rather ritual text sounding from which it is derived.

Our starting text, Leviticus 7:12, (following the interpretation of Rashi), describes the ritual procedure for the shelamim sacrifice, a peace offering, brought in a spirit of thanksgiving, for an arduous journey or a difficult cure after illness.

The Midrash Rabba, 9:5, reads the verse a bit differently, leading off with an colorful reading of Mishle 14:9, which is traditionally translated as ‘Guilt will mock the foolish, but good will will be found among the upright’. The Midrash reads the first clause, “evilim yalitz asham” as ‘fools will prescribe for themselves an asham, a guilt sacrifice’- in other words, a person will self-justify his sin in advance by thinking, “No problem, I’ll commit this sin, and get away with it by paying off God with a sacrifice”. If I do a religious, ceremonial thing, it will allow me some leeway to do something immoral or illegal and be pardoned, a tit for tat, so to speak. Although in contemporary legal theory there is a view suggesting that infractions are ‘paid for’ by the fines, that is, one can speed if one is willing to pay for doing so, certainly advance justification of a crime by bringing a religious offering can’t be the right thing.

An interesting interpretation of this verse in Mishle, of guilt betraying the sinner, is attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hassidic movement. He reads the Midrash as teaching:

Every sin that a person commits at night, he will surely betray before others the next day in his speech, although they will not be aware of what he is revealing, as he himself is unaware of what he is testifying to…

In other words, a parapraxis, or what is popularly known as a Freudian slip, is an unavoidable manifestation of the individual’s hidden thoughts and fears into language.

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