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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 Shelach- Gaze Upon the Land


by: on June 14th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

I. The Politics of the Spies

Every community, every people, have in their history great leaders, as well as disastrous leaders whose choices threaten the very existence of the community. The Torah is not embarrassed to relate the failures of leadership of the emerging Hebrew nation, one can presume because it is intuitive that such situations would repeat themselves through history, and perhaps by presenting the failures of vision and failures of nerve, future generations and their leaders would learn how to prevent such errors from transpiring. This message may be particularly timely now, given the recent attempts by some of the ultra-Orthodox leadership to confront the technological and social issues of contemporary society by use of force and extreme coercion.

In our text, the Israelites are nearing their destination, and the decision is made (by whom? there are two alternatives given-in Devarim the people demand it, but here, it seems to be an ambivalent command from Gd) to send spies to check out the new land, Canaan. The spies secretly enter Canaan for forty days, and return with large fruits and sordid tales of unconquerable giants. Calev and Yehoshua take the minority position up against the other ten spies, but it is too late- the people’s spirit is broken, and a punishment, forty more years of desert time, is immediately meted out.

What went wrong? Why did the spies, all identified by the text as “leaders of the community” (roshei benei yisrael hema), show such a remarkable failure of nerve? Or was it more malignant than that?

There must be more to the story than the linear outline in the text; something deeper than simple fear was operative in the spies’ story. The Zohar suggests that underlying their distorted report was a realpolitik intention of prolonging the desert stay, maintaining the “status quo” so that they would remain as the leaders of the people. The spies, currently the political leadership of the desert people, sensed that settling the land would require an entirely different type of leadership, and as is usually the case with politicians, they were not interested in relinquishing control to a new generation. As is often the case, the disastrous decisions made by leadership are made as a result of trying to maintain their own control, rather than recognizing the new situation and adapting.


Torah Commentary: Behaalotcha


by: on June 7th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

Perashat Beha’alotcha I

A Perfect Circle, Like a Ring

What do we understand about desire? Other than being led around most of our life by desire, we have a hard time attempting to understand it, and harness it. A popular teacher has built an entire career around explaining and analyzing it; students of all sorts gathered around him to perhaps get a handle on “desire”, the “holy erotic”, etc, until this teacher himself entirely self destructed (taking some victims along with him down an ugly path). It is no wonder then, that Hassidic teachings on desire are found where one might least expect them, perhaps its an area that must always be approached by sneak attack. We too will begin with a classical teaching and then move carefully towards a more direct encounter with the subject, in two essays that grapple with the concept from different angles.

There is an often cited teaching of the Magid of Mezeritch, in teaching 32 of the Magid Devarim L’Yaakov. Verse 10:2 presents a command to Moshe, in which he should forge two horns, hatzoterot, made of silver, for various communicative purposes, such as calling the leadership together, or moving the camps, during the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert. The Magid presents an entire teaching based on three words in this verse that appear to be totally removed from any connection to the actual narrative.

He suggests that the term hatzotzerot is derived from the phrase “hatzi tzurot”, which means “half forms”-man alone, material man, is only half formed, only half actualized, is only “dam”, blood, physicality. However, with the introduction of Gd consciousness into one’s life, symbolized by the Hebrew letter “aleph”, which is commonly read to stand for the term “alufo shel olam”, meaning leader or teacher of the world, the word adam is formed (as opposed to simply dam), thus formulating a fully formed form. Thus, it is in the coming together of these two halves (dam and aleph) in themselves lacking, that a much greater unity is created. This, the Maggid explains, is achieved through “kesef”, silver, (the hatzotzrot are made of silver), the word kessef being derived from the term kissuf, desire; a properly directed desire towards Gd leads to a union, a state of oneness and wholeness, a mutual resolution of the yearning by both sides of the relationship.

This theme, of the unity being formed as the balanced encounter of two disparate elements which need one another, is developed in another section of the perasha by the Kedushat Levi in his discussion of the manna (I adopt the anglicised form rather than the Hebrew term man, due to its confusing homonymity). The manna is described in the text as having the taste of the “Gad” seed, “Gad” to the Kedushat Levi being an acrostic for Gomel Dalim (redeeming the poor): The manna is described by Talmud in Yoma 75. as bearing any flavor the eater desired for, thus, to the Kedushat Levi the manna was an meeting of a physical object, the raw substrate of the manna, in encounter with the desire of the Israelite eating it; one side provides the physical, one side the spiritual, just like in the interaction of the rich man and the poor man- the rich man gives a physical item, and receives spiritual quanta in return. So the manna is like the redemption of the poor, which is actually mutually constructive to all parties involved.

The problem is, that the awakening of desire can lead to unforseen results-in English the phrase “awakening of desire” can be rephrased using the term “arousal”, which suggests a whole other class of wants. “Desire” is a central concept to Lacanian analysis, in which “desire” is defined as a want that can never be fully satiated, as opposed to a “need”.


Torah Commentary: Perashat Naso: Gender Constructs as a Situation of the Sotah


by: on May 31st, 2012 | Comments Off

The transition to a new age in turn necessitates a new perception and a new conception of space-time, the inhabiting of places, and of containers, or envelopes of identity… (Irigaray , An Ethics of Sexual Difference)

This perasha contains within it a series of commandments which have been largely unrelated to normative practice for the last few thousand years. At least regarding one of these episodes, this is probably a positive thing; I’m referring of course to the Sotah text, the depiction of the ritual trial of the woman accused by her jealous husband of adultery. This ritual trial is devised for a husband, who suspects his wife of sleeping with another man, but has no objective evidence for this, rather, being seized by a jealous spirit, has recourse to a trial by ordeal, that is, he brings his wife to the Kohen, the priest, with a sacrifice of flour sans oil, sans incense. Then, the Kohen takes sanctified water, some dust from the floor of the Mishkan, reveals the woman’s hair, makes her swear to accept a series of curses which are written down and then erased into the sanctified water. If she is guilty, there is an immediate physiological reaction of no small nastiness, and if not, she bears a child. How are we to approach this text, if we can at all?

A good deal of contemporary feminist theory centers around the geographical-spatial metaphors, such as the margin, the boundary, the closet, etc., all of these which situate issues relating to the definitions of power and identity. To cite examples which relate to our project dealing with the Sotah text, Harvey, in the Condition of Postmodernity, presents a dichotomy between “real space”, or “material space”, which is concrete, fixed, and stable, and the “non-real” or “metaphorical” space, which is fluid, fertile, unstable, and obscuring. Needless to say, in general “real space” is masculine, and empowered, whereas “non-real” space, connected to the image, is situated lower in the hierarchical space, female, and determined largely by the desires of the masculine real space.

It seems to me that this might suggest an approach to the Sotah episode if one wants to maintain the literal sense of the text; we could assert the importance of the male gaze in initiating the chain of events, a purported hiddeness of feminine activity, brought under the male gaze, as symbolized in the revealing of her hair, the ordeal itself with the liquid test, where the male fixity of text is physically erased, made amorphous once internalized by the female; the outcome of the ordeal resulting in either a deterritorialization of the womb or its recentralizing in the realm of childbirth, and so on. However, this reading remains mired in an essentialist conception of male and female as man and wife, with the same unequal power structure still maintained. (Parenthetically, I would add that this inadequately-radical essentialist propagation of male: female power structures is a weakness to my mind of Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to these matters, as in the “Family Redeemed” collection, though I suppose I ought not be too harsh- for his time, in his milieu, and to his credit, he was viewed as pretty progressive). What I would like to do in this essay is present a Hassidic approach to these texts, in which the approach to gender is one transcendent of the essentialist and the biological.


Torah Commentary: Perashat Bamidbar


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.”


Shavuot: Sweet Dreams


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.


Weekly Torah Commentary: Perashat Behukotai- Walk This Way


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?


Tikkun Torah Commentary: Perashat Emor- The Priest Within


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?


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


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.


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


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:


Torah Commentary: Perashat Shemini — Food: Incorporation and Inclusion


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.