Weekly Torah Commentary – Aharei Mot-Kedoshim – 2 essays, Fire & Fragmentation, The Situation of Holiness
by: Mark Kirschbaum 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.
The text tells us, in Vayiqra 10:1, that during the overall celebration of the initiation of the Mishkan, after the people were overcome by the visible appearance of the Divine Presence at the Tent of Meeting, the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu spontaneously took censers, added fire and incense, and offered them before Gd, despite not having received a command to do so. A flame then leapt out from before Gd and devoured them fatally. Moshe subsequently turns to Aharon and says, now I understand what Gd meant when he said (according to Rashi in Shemot 29) ‘b’krovei akadesh’, that Gd will be sanctified by those close to him.
The Abravanel summarizes fully the accepted medieval commentators’ views regarding the sins which might have brought about the death of Nadav and Avihu ; and says that Nadav and Avihu were in some way guilty of all of them: Nadav and Avihu contradicted the halachic teachings of Moshe (as in BT Eruvin), they were drunk, they didn’t have children, they were missing part of the sacred vestments, they didn’t scrub up properly, they weren’t married, they were arrogant, etc. Most of these improprieties are already suggested in the Midrash.
A closer look at the way these suggestions are actually presented and edited in Midrash Vayiqra Rabba suggests a more complex approach to the episode. These sins are fully enumerated, but in a middle section of the Midrash; flanking them on both sides is a much more ambiguous approach to the tragedy. The Midrash actually begins with a lengthy exposition recounting many episodes where a tragic outcome is apparently unjustified and unfair, where more wicked motivations and outcomes are not punished at all, let alone so severely. There is a moving passage focusing attention on a mother, who, it is stated in our version, never had any joy in the world – this mother being the wife of Aharon, mother of the two sons who died- on this day her brother in law, Moshe, became like a king, her brother, Nachshon, was a nasi of his tribe, her husband the High Priest, her sons second in line, and her grandson Pinchas the war-priest. Yet, what should have rightly been a day of total joy was transformed into anguish. Similar stories of unfair joy to anguish are presented without any puerile attempts at theodicy. After enumerating several potential justifications for this dramatic punishment, the Midrash presents a series of teachings which link the death of the righteous to collective atonement, suggesting that the death of the sons of Aharon, was as efficacious as Yom Kippur, or the ashes of the burnt heifer, in that their deaths represented an ultimate sacrifice of the holiest, espousing a more sophisticated approach to the tragic combined with an attempt at deriving some kind of solace, rather than merely looking to fix the blame.
As I pointed out above, the medieval thinkers primarily focused upon the tragedy as a outcome of the sins of the sons, that is, emphasizing those middle section of the Midrash. My sense is that the Hasidic writers, who take a very different approach to this episode, seem to be more influenced by the flanking sequences in the Midrash.
The Ohev Yisrael sets the tone. He points out that the opening of this perasha states that after the tragedy, Gd speaks to Moshe, but there is no speech act detailed there, that is, we are not given any message or command; there being a command present in the next verse, but which has its own opening of Gd telling Moshe to command Aharon, etc. Thus, explains the Ohev Yisrael, the first verse, in which we are told of a communication to Moshe but not given any content, implies a pure speech act to Moshe. Perhaps this ‘pure speech act’, which conveys no content, is akin to the type of speech act Kristeva would label as ‘semiotic’, one meant more to express an emotion than to transmit information message (as opposed to the ‘symbolic’, one that transmits information of a textual sort). At any rate, the expressive communication was relayed in order to point out that these sons of Aharon were not merely sinners but had in fact demonstrated something great and transcendent: The Ohev Yisrael suggests that their greatness was in that they were unwilling to forestall drawing close to Gd even knowing that it would cost them their mortality.
The approach of the Tiferet Shelomo is striking for several reasons, and I would like to present it at length. His approach throughout is that the Nadav and Avihu episode has at its core the goal of total self sacrifice for the ultimate rectification of the community as a whole, and thus, is to be expounded mystically, with the attendant lessons and warnings, in the same manner one would read the trial of Avraham or the martyrdom of R. Akiva. He supports his reading by pointing out several textual superfluities: the verse (16:1) emphasizes a second time that they died ‘b’karvatam’, sacrificing (or coming close) to Gd, even though this fact is fully explained earlier in Shemini. Noteworthy as well is the redundant use of the term ‘and they died’, even though it stated earlier in the verse that they had died.
To ground his reading, he falls back to the Lurianic reading of this episode, wherein the souls of Nadav and Avihu being so lofty, were recycled, so to speak, later on, into the persons of Pinchas and Eliyahu, individuals so zealous and self sacrificing for the sake of the people that they were willing to risk their lives . His reading, then, is that Nadav and Avihu, at the moment of initiation of the Mishkan, wanted to make of themselves the ultimate sacrifice, thus ‘lubricating’ the machinery necessary to enable humanity’s absolution through sacrifice, so to speak (the Kabbalistic term used is ‘mayim nukvin’), the process and route by which all the holy sparks in everything could become elevated, enabling the transformation of this world into a utopian realm of holiness. They felt that the animal sacrifices brought up until this time, despite the heirophany described in Shemini, were inadequate for this lofty goal because the animals were not ‘conscious’ enough for their sacrifice to bring about this rectification. Thus, he says, is the reason for the repetition of the word vayamutu, ‘and they died’-, insinuating a second moment of death; they had, he suggests, the choice of turning back, while in the moment of ecstasy, to return to mundane existence after this ecstatic experience, much as did the Israelites at Mt. Sinai (who are described by the Midrash as being so overwhelmed that they died but Gd had their souls returned to them)- this death by spiritual overload transpired in the case of Nadav and Avihu as well, but this time, the sons of Aharon chose to remain disembodied, that is, they gave up their souls a second time and died. This is what the text means by their bringing what is called an ‘aish zara’, a strange fire- strange as in ‘stranger’, remote, a fired-up coming from afar, from somewhere outside of the realm of the holy. They connected to these spiritual flames, coming from outside of the ordinary perimeters of the holy, in a positive way, as representing the sparks waiting to be elevated and redeemed in the cosmic drama of human spiritual activity, which they hoped to bring along with them. Their only mistake was thinking that this transformation of humanity, this rectification of all being could be effected in one fell swoop; however, the bitter truth is that such matters are meant to be accomplished gradually (much like the disputes regarding enlightenment in Zen vs Tibetan schools of sudden enlightenment vs enlightenment requiring many kulpas and rebirths), and as a result of spiritual growth within all of humanity. Thus, ‘asher lo tzivah lahem’ ‘that was not commanded to them’- what was not commanded ‘lahem’, not commanded to them alone, was this sublation and transformation of all the remote aspects of existence, which was meant for all of human history and not solely for them to complete. This is how the Tiferet Shlomo reads the midrashic statement that ‘they did not take unto themselves wives’, the feminine being in Kabbalistic terminology a metaphor for knesset yisrael, the totality of human interaction with the divine, who they neglected to involve in their spiritual activity. The Tiferet Shlomo notes that this repeat mention of the death of the sons of Aharon is presented just after the completion of the laws of purity, particularly those related to genital emission. The Talmud also makes a connection of this sort, stating in Shavuout that those who are not careful about the laws of nidah, menstrual purity, even if the offspring are as great as the sons of Aharon, risk losing these children as a result. A further metaphorical linkage between the Temple and menstrual purity is found in verse 15:31 which warns the people to be careful regarding menstrual matters so as to not contaminate the Mishkan. Thus, for the Tiferet Shelomo, the linkage between the Mishkan and nidah (related, of course, to offspring) and similar linkages in the Talmud (when Titus desecrates the holy of holies, he takes a prostitute in with him), metonymically links them, creating a link between womb and the sanctuary; what is true of one is true of the other. As the desecration of the Temple is related to menstrual impurity, so too does the purification of one signify regarding the purification of the other. Thus, for the Tiferet Shlomo, the sons of Aharon could be read as attempting to become ‘mayim nukvin’ to bring about total universal transformation into holiness, as explained above.
Perhaps there is yet another sense to this linkage between offspring, womb, sanctity, sacrifice, and loss. I would like to suggest that perhaps this set of signifiers, linking the womb, birth, ritual purity, and death, may be revelatory of a deeper process. Would not the narrative, of a tragic event coming just at the time of a new stage in religious accomplishment, which should otherwise be marked by joy, be akin to every person’s passage through individuation? According to Lacan, the event that triggers individual differentiation and individuation, is known as the ‘mirror phase’, in other words, the baby sees itself in a mirror, and begins to realized that it is a separate entity, seen by others at a distance as it sees itself in the mirror, as an intact entity distinct from its mother. This recognition of individuality, while being the first step towards independence and autonomous function, also brings with it the sense of separation, distance, boundaries, which we know as civil behavior, proper social interaction, and the need for communication across this distance, which we know as language. While the attainment of language is a joyous event, according to Kristeva, at the same time it is also a rupture with the Desire of the Mother, that is, the loss of that state of secure wholeness with the surroundings (where the mother is regarded by the pre-individuated, pre-mirror stage infant as part of itself) and thus represents that ultimate rupture, known in Freud as the castration complex, or in Lacanian terms as the ‘Name of the Father’, that recognition that the Mother has other desires and claims upon her (other than the infant’s), thus bringing about that rupture necessary to become an individual.
Thus we can see how spiritual growth is a road fraught with potential trauma and danger, one in which frustration is deeply intermeshed with accomplishment. The Tiferet Shelomo continues, that despite the danger to ‘self’, the altruistic desire to transform all existence into something holy, is the ‘zot’, the mindset with which the priest (and consequently, all of us) is instructed by the verse with which ‘bezot yavo el hakodesh’, ‘with this one must enter into the holy areas’, that is, it is with this willingness to take risks, to stumble if necessary, to reach greater spiritual heights in our relationship with Gd.
If this approach is so desirable, then, why were Nadav and Avihu annihilated, if what they desired was correct and their spontaneous risk taking worthy? Why did they not glow like Moshe did after his divine encounter? The Tiferet Shlomo answers using the boddhisatva-like motif uncannily found in much Hassidic writing. He explains that Nadav and Avihu differed from Moshe in one critical regard- Moshe’s divine encounter was for the sake of all of Israel, whereas they served ‘lifnei Hashem’, before Gd- before Gd alone, on their own without involving the community. In this reading, that verse means that they were so caught up in their own spiritual trip that they failed the people.
The point of Jewish spiritual attainment is not just some personal metaphysical ‘trip’. This goal must be charged with a sense of responsibility for the entire community, with the goal of spiritual growth being the elevation of the entire spiritual congregation. This is meant to be the defining characteristic of both Jewish spirituality and Jewish leadership- a care for the concerns, even the most trivial, of every level of the community must infuse even the most personal spiritual communion. A mystic who does not feel for the spiritual needs of the entire populace is not a true mystic, and a ‘leader’ who does not care for the growth and success of the entire populace is not a leader, one might say that Nadav and Avihu were rather dramatically removed from office.
Thus, their lofty spirituality- seeking souls were ‘recycled’ in Pinchas and Eliyahu, two great leaders whose spiritual attainment also involved serious personal-risk, but this time around, were undertaking not merely for personal spiritual enlightenment as in the case of Nadav and Avihu, but on behalf of the people as a whole.
Withthisinmind, we can understand the reading of the Noam Elimelech of this verse. He wants to understand what drives and enables the great spiritual leaders to achieve such spiritual heights, to reach transcendant states of communion with the Absolute? His suprising answer (and the Tibetan Book of the Dead hadn’t appeared in the West yet): an overcoming of the fear of death. The ultimate stumbling block, the true test of spirituality, is the recognition that there is more to existence than the mortal phase we experience in this world. Transcending this fear is called by the Noam Elimelech the state of ‘aharei mot’, that is, he would translate as ‘post-mortality’, a spiritual state transcendent of, and no longer frightened by death. Upon attaining this aharei-mot consciousness, the “postmortal”, one is then spiritually intermediate between this world and the upper worlds, and thus capable of world transformation, signified by the rest of the verse, ‘bkirvatam lifnei Hashem’, they can now approach even unto the Divine, and be the vehicle by which all of the people are swept along with them into a greater more meaningful existence.
II. Perashat Kedoshim: The Situation of Holiness
The term holiness, or the infinitive of “being holy” has a certain meaning for the contemporary individual; use of the terms “holy brother” or “holy sister” immediately identify one’s spiritual sources and milieu. Indeed, in our post-auratic age (that is, when nothing bears an aura, neither that mysterium tremendum of Otto nor that of the work of art in Benjamin), we can still recognize an individual who is “holy”, that is, an individual who exists in a state which we no longer even link to a specific religious outlook, attainment, or worldview . In contemporary Jewish life we can readily identify individuals who we would consider holy even if we entirely disagree with their beliefs.
It was not always this way. Let us begin with Rashi’s commentary on the first pasuk in this week’s perasha. After the detailed description of prohibited relationships in chapter 18, chapter 19 begins with a command addressed to the whole body of Israel: Kedoshim tihiyu; be holy, as I, your Gd, am kadosh, holy. Rashi explains this enigmatic term by adding to the Sifra: The Sifra says: Kadosh, holy, means to be separated, ascetic. Rashi is more specific in his definition of asceticism, linking this verse to the preceding verses in the previous perasha, which deals with incestuous and other forbidden relationships. Thus, one is holy if one is abstinent from forbidden sexual relationships. This becomes the medieval paradigm for holiness: holiness entails a withdrawal and distance from sin. Holiness, now, has a negative definition; its attainment requires a distancing of oneself from temptation. This medieval conception, common to all three major religions of Europe, is actually a movement away from the original meaning of sacredness in Roman law, which, as detailed by Gregorio Agamben in his “Homo Sacre”, was a state in which an individual convicted of a crime was inappropriate for sacrifice but could be killed without the killing being considered murder (this remarkable book will be dealt with at length in a future shiur).
We can track the persistence of the negative definition of holiness through the major medieval commentators and theologians: Rambam has an entire volume of his Yad called Sefer Hakedusha, but rather than dealing with lofty spiritual matters it consists of the laws of forbidden relations, the laws of forbidden foods, and the laws of ritual slaughtering for food. The term is used one time, in Issurei Biah 21:10 to describe one who only has marital relations late at night. Rambam’s actual definition of kedusha is found at the end of Maachalot Asurot chapter 17. There, after enumerating many repulsive practices that one should refrain from, such as eating from chamberpots, or postponing the expulsion of waste products from the body, he explains: one who is careful about such things makes his soul holy (kadosh) and pure’ In Sefer HaMitzvoth, Klal four, he quotes the same Sifra quoted by Rashi to argue that the admonition “kedoshim tihiyu” comes to add no new content, only to emphasize the centrality of being holy, with the definition of holiness reading : “be kadosh by doing what is demanded of you, and keeping away from that you have been warned away from”.
The Ramban disagrees with Rashi’s reading, not so much because he has an alternative to the negative definition of holiness, but rather because he feels Rashi didn’t go far enough in the negative direction. As we pointed out earlier, the Sifra defines kedusha as perishut, keeping a distance, but doesn’t limit it to forbidden relationships, etc, as Rashi did because of the context. Rather, the Ramban defines the verse as meaning that one should not only refrain from that forbidden explicitly in the text, but even when involved in otherwise permitted activities, one should avoid becoming a “naval berishut HaTorah”, that is, drinking kosher wine to drunkeness, being with their wives “like chickens”, etc. The holy person is the ascetic person even in ways not specifically enunciated by the Torah.
A generation or so later, Rabbeinu Bachye, when he speaks of kedusah he also speaks of separation, along the lines drawn by the Ramban (cf. Shemot 19:10, Vayikra 19:6, and our starting text, Vayikra 21:2). The Zohar presents kedusha in this manner as well, see, for example, helek bet page 236: . Even within Kabbalistically oriented thinkers such as the Shel”a or the Maharal, one sees a continuation of the holiness-as-asceticism definition. The Maharal is willing to introduce an angle of transcendence into the holy, whereby it is not merely a denial of temptation alone but a transcendence of the physical in general, but the seperation motif is still dominant (look primarily at Derech Haim, his commentary to Pirkei Avot, chapter 5 mishna 9).
As far as my research has been able to identify, the first Jewish thinker to define kedusha in an alternative, non-negative manner is Ramchal (R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) .
Luzzatto offers an entirely different perspective on the concept of kedusha, most radically in Mesillat Yesharim, the book ironically most frequently perceived as being very “mussar” or “Litvish”, that is, of an admonishing and prohibitive nature. (For such a reading, see Prof. Yeshaya Leibovitch’s writings on this text. The publication of the earlier dialogue version of Mesillat Yesharim, places Leibovitch’s readings in an awkward position). In this work (a true gem of Jewish literature is that opening chapter with its keen literary depiction of the protagonists- not for naught is Ramchal considered the father of modern Hebrew drama), a Talmid Chacham, a religious scholar of a neo-Aristotelian, Halachic bent who has read everything there is to read and all there is to learn, is feeling frustrated and unsettled spiritually. The person who enlightens him, essentially the mouthpiece of Mesillat Yesharim, is what in contemporary parlance might be recognized as a “hippie”, part of a brotherhood who live on the outskirts of town, read Tehillim, sing songs; existing on the fringe of the “normative” Jewish community. In the greater communities perception, these “freaks” were not considered to be thinkers at all, hence the scholar’s tension in even engaging him in dialogue. This outsider’s answer to the scholar’s unrest makes up the bulk of the book, and all of its spiritual message.
At the very end of the text, the concept of kedusha is presented at length. First of all, holiness is relational in character. The individual strives for kedusha, but it cannot be attained without a corresponding divine gift. Secondly, the medieval asceticism, “perishut”, is only a prelude to kedusha, which is in fact a “state”, a way that a person “is” rather than merely an action. Ramhal argues that the pure person, the ascetic, the one who keeps away from all temptation and risk, would be happier if he could be purely spiritual and not have to relate and confront the material world at all. However, the individual who has attained true “kedusha” is at a much greater level and thus has a much greater role in the divine plan. The holy person is not removed, but is involved in society while being, at the same time, the “saddle” for the Divine presence. All the actions of the “holy” transform the world around them. When the holy eat, they elevate the core nature of the food from base materiality to spiritual mana. When they interact with people, their dealings with them are equivalent in spiritual transformative potentcy to sacrificial rites at the Temple. What is most critical to the state of kedusha, is that the holy are aware at all times that Gd’s presence is upon them, even as they maintain outwardly a normal physical, material life. This goal, in fact, as Ramhal points out at the beginning of the book (quite explicitly in the first chapter of the standard non-dialogical redaction of Mesillat Yesharim), and throughout Daat Tevunot, is the point of all existence- not an escape from the world as-we-know-it, along the lines of the Buddhist model, but rather, the point of human life is the ultimate transformation and rectification of this very same flawed material world that we live in. The World To Come, Olam Haba, will not be some mystical Nirvana in some distant “western lands”, but rather will take place within this world, actualized to its fullest potential.
With this recognition of the negative and positive definitions of kedusha, let us return to the beginning of Perashat Kedoshim. We saw, up until now, how Rashi and most other commentators link the opening of this perasha with the conclusion of the previous perasha, leading to the conclusion that holiness is defined as ascetic separation . The Ramhal, on the other hand, explains this opening verse of our perasha, that of kedoshim tihiyu, as being linked to the following portion, which largely deal with laws of social interaction in the soon to be settled land. Thus, then, the demand “kedoshim tihiyu”, “Holy shall you be”, is meant to serve as a precondition for the laws of social justice. The Ramhal explains, that the social laws represent the venue within which spiritual elevation can be attained, therefore, the commandment twoards kedusha must come first, the state of holiness must be attained first, for it is particularly social law which must be performed in the state of kedusha, as it is a community based on mutual respect and love which will properly effect this world transformation.
In the later Hassidic writings, this view of holiness is, of course, preeminent. The Meor V’Shemesh, for example, points out that this command of “Be Holy” is addressed to “all the community of Israel” because holiness, kedusha, is a positive state that cannot be attained without being part of the community. He quotes his master, the Noam Elimelech, as rereading the verse in Yirmiyahu 23:24, “Can a man hide in a secret place and Gd not see him?” as “If a man secrets himself away, thinking that ascetic monasticism is the highest route to Gd, in fact, Gd will refuse to see him, for the primary route to Gd is within an interactive community geared towards mutually transformative spiritual growth”. The Or Penei Moshe sees this argument as being obvious- for many of the mitzvoth cannot possibly be observed in isolation, thus one who separates off from the community cannot be possibly be observing the commandments. He compares this situation to that of the body, the limbs of which are useless when not part of the whole. As the commandments are frequently metaphorized by parts of the body (the 248 positive commandments are equivalent to the “248 organelles” and the 365 negative commandments to the “365 ligaments”), thus too, the state of holiness is related to the cumulative spiritual quanta of the entire community’s strivings and achievement. The Yismach Yisrael emphasizes that the phrase Kedoshim tihiyu, is presented as a command: be holy! The verb tihiyu, “be”, means to make it so, to make holiness come into Being, to transform the world into a holy place. Holiness is then a form of world rectifying praxis.
In summary, I submit that the choice towards which set of verses one chooses to link the verse of “Kedoshim Tihiyu”, “be holy”, identifies the way in which the world is perceived. Is the world view one of ascetism, of necessary restriction, disdain, repression and distance from the material world around? Then link the verse to the preceding passages. Is the perception of the world and human nature one which bears the potential for positive transformation towards the good and just? Then link the holiness-imperative to the subsequent laws of social justice and civil interaction.