Perashat Ki Tavo

1. Seeing With Doubt: A Meditation Derived from an Unlikely Source

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 Gd’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. 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 claim these passages as “predicting” the Holocaust and other such gleeful readings).

It is then surprising that this segment 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 Western literature, no?).

Here’s the Zohar’s literary framing of the teaching. R. Shimon Bar Yohai was hiding out from the Romans, and as per the legend, he was hiding out in a cave with his son, where the fruit of a carob tree nourished him, and a miraculous well provided him with water, and the prophet Elijah came twice a day to reveal secrets of the Universe. None of his comrades in the Resistance knew where he was. One day, his comrades (literally, chaverim) were discussing our Torah section, that of the curses, and they were perplexed as to why these curses were so bleak, as opposed to the earlier ones in Leviticus. As they couldn’t figure it out, they began to sigh, being certain that if R. Shimon Bar Yohai were not in hiding, he could explain it to them.  Then, they saw a group of birds fluttering about, and among them a dove. R. Yosi noted the dove, stated that the dove is frequently a metaphor for the people of Israel, and decided to ask R. Shimon Bar Yohai this question about the second group of curses, via the dove. He tied the message to the bird, and in fact, the dove brought the message to R. Shimon, who cried, saying that if he couldn’t get the message to the people, they would never know the truth. Suddenly Elijah the prophet appeared, saying it was hard for him to bear R. Shimon’s tears, and first gives a set of technical answers to the differences between the two sections, and makes a grand exit in a ball of fire, which doesn’t seem to comfort R. Shimon. Elijah reappears with the following teaching, which to my mind justifies this exquisite literary framing:

Fortunate are you, that Gd wants to honor you: All the promises and comforts of Israel are contained within this section. Check it out (pok u’chazei) A king loves his son, even when he needs to show anger in order to discipline him, he really deeply loves him (rehimu demayoi, loves him in his kishkis). Because this version of the curses was uttered out of love, as opposed to the first set.

The text continues with Elijah reading several of the verses in our section in this manner, with the last question of R. Shimon being, where is the redemption hinted at in this section? Elijah then responds, look at the darkest sentence and there it is- 28:66: And your lives will hang before you, you will fear day and night and have no faith in your own living (the word hayim is used both times). The word life, hayyim, here, explains Elijah, means redemption, and while the wise know that redemption is imminent, hanging before them, as it were, they maintain doubt about the actual time it will transpire, but the important thing is that they know it is dangling before them. At this point, a letter is written, and put in the beek of the dove, who then carries it back to R. Yosi, still sitting at the launch site; R. Yosi carries the latter back to his colleagues who cry but are consoled that even if they know not where R. Shimon Bar Yohai is located, they are still with him and learning from him.

Clearly, this was an insight the Zohar Hadash did not simply wish to share, but rather to stress, the literary framework implies a desire to shout it from the rooftops. It’s a revolutionary reading, and a welcome one, particularly as it is picked up by the Hassidic thinkers, whose hermaneutics on a broad scale can be expressed by this type of inversion of the most negative text possible into the most positive message. In fact, it is just this same verse that the Zohar identifies as crucial which provokes a teaching by the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, which will occupy us now.

Now when we look at the passages here themselves, what we see are a set of blessings which suggest stability as opposed to the multiple displacements implied in the curses section. The curses are full of movement, one is being chased all over the place, dispersions, exile, and particularly confusion. A telling phrase for me is 28:34, that one will be driven mad (meshuga is the actual Hebrew word here) for what one’s eyes see. Again, towards the end, we have the line about not having faith in our own existing (or existence). Rashi uses the term “safek”, which translates as “doubt”. Doubt in what we see or visualize.

Just this kind of doubt is much discussed in attempting to understand the information age we live in, where vast quantities of data and information are continuously passing before us in a manner previously unknown in human existence. What’s more, the form of this information, more and more of it digital, has itself raised challenges to our understanding of our own ability to understand or center ourselves in this world. The media theorist F.A. Kittler has noted that the concept of digitization, where all information is reduced to pixels, has altered much of our conception:

…The general digitization of channels and information erases the differences among individual media. Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to surface effects, known to consumers as interface. Sense and the senses turn into eyewash. Their media-produced glamour will survive for an interim as a by-product of strategic programs. Inside the computers themselves everything becomes a number: quantity without image, sound, or voice. And once optical fiber networks turn formerly distinct data flows into a series of digitized numbers, any medium can be translated into any other…

At first glance, then, we find ourselves in a world without mooring, where we have no certainty about any reality around us, images are no longer photographic units but rather collections of pixels to be manipulated. This is a world in which one can feel threatened and lost. However, as argued beautifully by Mark Hansen in his recent “New Philosophy for New Media”, perhaps this apparent challenge actually opens up a role for a more central human experience- in a world abuzz with digital information, which we can longer assume as real and “self-sufficient”, the role of the body as processor, of the human mind as crucially central to the act of perception and giving meaning-

When the body acts to enframe digital information-or, as I put it, to forge the digital image- what it frames is in effect itself: its own affectively experienced sensation of coming into contact with the digital. In this way, the act of enframing information can be said to “give body” to digital data- to transform something that is unframed, disembodied and formless into concrete embodied information intrinsically imbued with (human) meaning.

Through the concept of affection in Bergson, in which the act of perception is essentially a creative one, on through Deleuze, to whom perception is an assemblage of perception-images, action-images, and affection-images, Hansen notes that the epistemological challenge of the digital information age actually makes more clear to us our human role in creating reality out of indeterminacy. “The “image” itself has become a process, and as such, has become irreducibly bound up with the activity of the body…the image, rather than finding instantiation in a privileged technical form (including the computer interface), now demarcates the very process through which the body, in conjunction with the various apparatuses for rendering the information perceptible, gives form to or in-forms information.” (pp 10).  Deleuze sees this very clearly with regards to film, even before the digital age, much of our cinematic experience is ‘filled in’ by the viewer, such as relations between characters, motion, what transpires between cuts and outside the frame. The centrality of the viewer in the construction of the cinematic image, the “gest”, leads him to the following conclusion:

The reaction of which man has been dispossessed can be replaced only by belief. Only belief in the world can reconnect man to what he sees and hears. The cinema must film, not the world, but belief in this world, our only link. Restoring our belief in the world- this is the power of the modern cinema (when it stops being bad).   Deleuze, Cinema 2, 172

In fact, Hansen argues, the ability to expand the normal capacity for perception through new media actually leads to an intensified recognition of the humanity of affection. The artist Bill Viola captured the emotional responses of actors using high speed sensitive video played back at normal speed showed “supersaturated” emotional expression that goes beyond what we normally perceive, leading Viola to conclude that “emotions are outside of time” (pp 264).

This leads us to the Baal Shem Tov (Besht)’s reading of verse 66. The Besht read this verse (you life shall dangle before you… you will not have faith in your life) as a means to fine tune one’s self-determination and perception. Life is not a static image, he argues, quoting from the first chapter of Ezekiel, where the chayot (here read as chayim, life) were seen to flit to and fro, and thus one’s own spiritual life is ever changeable and indeterminate. Thus, one must always see ones “self”, dangling, as it were, before oneself. Thus, one must examine ones love or fear of Gd, or any activity one has done, and break it down to the tiniest constituents (pixilate it, so to speak) and seek out any inadequacies, any deficiencies, in order to rectify them.  Following the Zohar’s lead, the text read as the darkest existential threat is really an analytic technique to self modification and “supersaturated” self understanding. His son in law, the Degel Machane Ephraim thus reads this passage as teaching us a creative visualization, so that seeing one’s life before them means training oneself to be able to visualize Gds name before one, as in the mystical reading of the verse “shiviti Hashem linegdi tamid”, “I have placed Gd before me” as being a meditative ability to “see” the name of Gd in one’s field of vision (ok, one might say seeing as with a third eye).

Hansen ends his work with the argument that the challenge of digitalization and machine time should lead us to “explore this machinism as the very catalyst for an empowering technical transformation of the human (pp 271)”. It seems to me that the Zohar, with its argument that the darkest, most intense confusion is exactly where one will find the path to redemption, would be supportive of such an approach, and the literary framing of this argument in the Zohar, so cinematic, really, where a simple statement of the theory might have been adequate, is itself supportive of the role of the “soul”- the capacity of the individual to extract beauty from the apparently ugly, “cursed” raw data of empiric perceptions, and truly create a “blessed” world.

2. Amen for Humanity

Last week I began commenting on this perasha by discussing the Tiferet Shelomo’s stretchy and fluid conception of time, based on his reading of 26:3. This week I’d like to jump a little further into the perasha, over to the passage starting on 27:11, in which various vices are cursed and the entire community is to answer “Amen” to this. Curious word, this Amen. We all know of it, but what does it mean? Its only previous mention in the Torah is in the rather unpleasant episode of the Sotah. In our perasha, as well, the context isn’t exactly the most positive either; it is linked to this series of curses for various offenses, mostly of a sexual nature, though it begins with idolatry and ends with a curse that is fairly totalizing, against one who “does not maintain all the words of this Torah to do them”.

The Midrash takes this opportunity to list a series of positive teachings regarding the answering of Amen, most importantly for our purposes is the linguistic analysis making the use of “amen” to imply 1. an oath (as in the Sotah episode), 2. an act of affirmation (as in our perasha), 3. An act of belief, as in Kings I, 1:36. The Sefat Emet uses the Midrash’s musings on Amen to cite another important teaching on this term in the Talmud, BT Berachot 53: and Nazir 66.: Greater is one that answers Amen to a blessing than the one who makes the blessing. In other words, affirming the blessing is a higher level of devotion than actually making the blessing. Why should that be so?

In the early medieval period, the Hasidei Ashkenaz in Sefer Hasidim explained in a mystical manner: because when one makes a blessing, only one form of Gd’s name is invoked, but the numerical value of Amen is 91, which mathematically symbolizes the two most widely known names of Gd, used in esoteric circles to refer to both the giving and receiving elements in the Godhead. So one who answers Amen has a two to one advantage over the person making the blessing, because the term subsumes within it more aspects of the revealed nature of Gd. Another kabbalistic reading is given by Moshe Haim Luzzatto, “Ramhal”, who explains that the amen act serves to protect the spiritual quanta released by the act of blessing. Spiritual energy of this sort once released can veer off in any direction; by affirming it with an amen, one assures that it travels in the proper direction. Thus, since the lone blesser may inadvertently release spiritual energy in the wrong direction, a blessing with an affirmatory response is a far greater one.

The Maharal discusses the Talmudic teaching regarding Amen several times; his teaching is based on the premise that a response is a more thought through process than the initial blessing. In his Netivot Olam, netiv haavoda chapter 11, he explains that in order for the “amen” to properly function, the responder must intend the amen, whereas the person making the blessing has fulfilled his obligation (to make the blessing) even without intentionality. Thus the one responding to the blessing with an “amen” needs to be more conscious in order to have his or her speech act become operational, whereas even unthinking reflexive action is adequate to fulfill the requirement in making a blessing.

The Sefat Emet takes the exactly opposite approach. According to him (year trm”a), the “blesser” is in a lower spiritual situation, because within his or her prayer act is contained only their own conscious intentional activity, whereas the “responder” answering “amen”, which means “faith”, as in the word Emunah, is speaking out of an undifferentiated affirmation of faith open to all the possible interpretations that can be read into it. In other words, the person making the blessing has a specific spiritual approach in mind, that which they are intending at that moment, and thus the activity is in a sense limited by that intentionality. On the other hand, one who answers amen is essentially invoking all the potential spiritual affirmations that have been, or can be read into, the spiritual speech act.

The Sefat Emet’s reading is not only theological, but it is based on a textual matter. Why is this teaching regarding Amen invoked in this perasha, at this point in the text? Why this act of blessing, with the entire nation answering Amen narrated here? According to the Sefat Emet, the communal nature of spiritual response needed to be taught to the people who are about to embark on the creation of a new spiritual society. The former slave class are about to enter the land of Israel, where their goal will be the formation of a new and positive spiritual community, no longer a group of eremites, living in the “desert” of solely personal and unique apprehension of Gd; now faith will require acceptance of the community’s history and spiritual development. It will be the communities’ growth as a whole, with concern for all members of that community, not merely individual high achievers that will manifest the Jewish faith; this is Torah She’b’al Peh, the Oral Law, which we’ve seen is meant to reflect the lived experience and striving for justice of the entire community, not just of gifted or “holy” individuals, but that of the klal, the totality.

It is interesting, then, that Derrida in his recent book “Religion”, argues that “religion is the response”. In order to properly understand what “religion” means outside of a set of propositions about Gd, he argues that one must know

“what responding means, and also responsibility…and no responsibility without a given word, a sworn faith…a sworn promise, taking immediately Gd as its witness…with Gd, a Gd that is present…all attestation becomes superfluous…Gd would remain then one name of the witness, he would be called as witness…present-absent witness of every oath or of every possible pledge”.

Just as justice is by definition a social phenomenon, and religion is meant to be the foundation upon which justice can be achieved- the ability to believe one another. This amen, this foundation of trust in one another which religion is meant to instill, is foundational of all interaction, not only of theology and social structure, but that of science and research as well. When treating patients, or operating machinery, we choose to believe one another, to affirm that all we know is not false or a deceit. I am not compelled to go back and redo every clinical or scientific study, because we have incorporated the ability to “have faith” in one another, that is, to answer “amen” to the human endeavor. The personal act inherent in answering Amen to a personal blessing is meant to connect all people to a commitment to mutual responsibility. Hence the Talmudic focus on social law and justice rather than personal spiritual attainment. The ability to answer Amen is not only prerequisite for membership in the spiritual community, it is an integral part of all human achievement.


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