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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: I. Devarim II. The Ninth of Av


by: on July 25th, 2012 | Comments Off

I. Devarim- The Courage to Critique

It feels a bit different to write about Perashat Devarim, akin to writing a review of a review. Perashat Devarim is the beginning of Moshe’s extended deathbed monologue, presented just as the people are preparing to enter the land, under a new leadership. In these perashiyot, we have a review by Moshe of the events of the Exodus, along with a repetition of many mitzvot and some theological statements, in a tone traditionally interpreted as critique or “tochacha”. This concept is one that deserves some elucidation, and towards the end will expound on the links between this concept and the tradition of reading this perasha at the time of Tisha B’av, the day commemorating the destruction of the Temple, the loss of life and loss of sovereignty that accompanied the failed rebellion against Roman hegemony.

In general, the Hassidic thinkers take a positive view of the concept of tochacha, which we might liberally translate as social criticism, particularly since it played so important a role in their own project. The Shem M’Shemuel quotes Psalm 51, which begins as a “Laminatzeach mizmor”, a musical work, as a reaction to the rebuke received by David from Natan the prophet after Batsheba-gate, as it might be called today. The Shem M’shmuel asks, is a musical piece the appropriate response to such a dark and serious situation? Perhaps, since as a result of this rebuke, David was moved to a critical moment of self examination, the process we call “teshuva”. The opportunity to transform one’s life and be brought to a closer relationship to Gd as a result is, to those with sensitive spiritual constitutions, a source for joy.

So here as well. There is less concern in the commentaries with the actual content of the critique contained within the perasha, which is primarily relayed in a cryptic fashion by a recitation of place names alone; there are some Kabbalistic attempts at decoding what those messages might mean for us today in the Degel Mahane Ephraim and the Noam Elimelech, but the predominant heuristic determinant is not the content of the tochacha so much as the way it is delivered. For example, R. Zadok, argues from the odd phrasing “These are the words that were spoken…” that the speech is still, as it were, being spoken today, and when one reads Devarim one is in a direct encounter with Moshe as if being spoken to directly. To the Kedushat Levi, sefer Devarim is Moshe’s straight talking, messages that do not need to be wrapped in metaphors nor stories requiring interpretation because there was a situation where the listeners, that is, the people of Israel about to enter the land, were at the appropriate level to understand him, (paradoxically, the Kedushat Levi explains, it is also the sign that the time of his leadership is over. When the leader is so clearly understood, or second guessed, then it is a sign that a new leadership, a new vanguard, must arise… On the brighter side, the Sefat Emet also adds that this speech was a sign that Moshe had evolved into his own highest spiritual point, because the loftier the spiritual achievement, the more it is palatable to the masses, that is, the greater the clarity of the spiritual conception, the more penetrating it is even to the common folk. It takes a great leader to reach “all Israel”.)

This recognition of the change of textual style, to one of less metaphorical complexity, prompts the Sefat Emet, in anticipation of Franz Rozenzweig, to insist that the route of the word “tochacha”, critique, is from the word “nocheach”, to be present.


Weekly Torah Commentary: Matot-Massei 2 essays


by: on July 20th, 2012 | Comments Off

1. Perashat Matot: This and Thus

In the second of essay of last week’s perasha, Pinchas, we discussed the episode of the daughters of Zelophad in terms of a paradigm for proper leadership. The handling of their complaint and its subsequent settlement with a Divine agreement was used to illustrate two necessary aspects of an ideal system- one in which the potentially ‘unvoiced’ are given full participation in the legislative process, and the other being the need for transparency, where the process of decision making must be open to all, in order for the differing needs of a diverse populace to be heard and recognized, in the formation of a truly just society.

This message is continued in the Hassidic commentaries to this week’s perasha, Matot, in response to several textual problems, not as clearly related to the matter as the Daughters of Zelophad episode. This week’s perasha begins with an unusual text, using a phrase not found elsewhere in the Torah:

‘And Moshe spoke through Rashei Hamatot, the Tribal Chiefs to the people of Israel saying, This is the matter which God has commanded’

The matter at hand is the technical handling of sacred vows, particularly how and when they can be undone or revoked. The general explanation of why the tribal elders are involved in this set of commandments is generally felt to be a technical one, in that it is authority figures who often have the right to undo an inappropriate vow. However, already the Midrash reads other messages from this verse, which has the superfluous clause ‘this is the matter which Gd has commanded’. Why this clumsy passive voice, why not just state the laws?

The Midrash states that from this verse one learns a qualitative difference between the prophecy given to Moshe and that of all other prophets- that of Moshe is couched in terms of Zeh, ‘this’, whereas the others receive prophecy in terms of Koh, ‘thus’ (in other words, Moshe hears ‘this is what God says’, whereas all others hear ‘Thus says the Lord’). This is a widely cited teaching, but why would anyone care about ‘this’ versus ‘thus’?

The Noam Elimelech suggests that the distinction between ‘this’ and ‘thus’ relates to an important aspect of the relationships between leadership and the people.


Torah Commentary: Pinhas- Response to Injustice: Two Episodes, Many Souls


by: on July 13th, 2012 | 1 Comment »

1. Death and the Maiden, Over and Over Again

- Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.
- Metempsychosis?
- Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
- Metempsychsois, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
- O, rocks! She said. Tell us in plain words’.
(from Ulysses, by James Joyce)

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, which is really the closure for last week’s story, we are told of the priesthood given as a reward to Pinchas for killing the insurrectionary leader of the tribe of Shimon and his consort, a Midianite woman. We are also told, finally, the names of the two who were killed. Surprisingly, on virtually every word in this episode, there is a midrash which registers the people’s protest against Pinchas’ action.


Torah Commentary: Perashat Balak: Becoming-Mule, Becoming-Human


by: on July 5th, 2012 | 2 Comments »

Perashat Balak stands as a unique narrative segment in the Torah. For the first time, we are presented with a narrative episode which is entirely not experienced by the Israelites; a “behind the scenes” presentation, or to use contemporary film theory terminology, we are “sutured in” from an entirely different vantage point, outside of the usual concern with the Exodus. It can be assumed that if the Torah had not told us this story, no one would have ever known it, as it all takes place outside the horizon of the participants of the Exodus.

The film theory analogy may not be far off. In reading through this passage, one is struck by a preponderance of visual terminology. Again and again terms dealing with sight are used, even down to the description of the Israelite masses as covering “eyn haaretz”, the “eye of the land”. The Daat Moshe (son of the Magid of Kozhnitz, and an important thinker in his own right) suggests that even the name of the king of Moab, protagonist of our tale, Balak ben Zippor, reflects this, as the word “zippor” is akin to the aramaic “tzafra nahir”, inferring a certain type of clarity, as of daylight. Perhaps our text is trying to teach us a lesson in how to “see”?

This passage is so cinematic that there is even a novel special effect thrown in, when the bad guy Bilaam’s donkey starts to speak, a bit of “magical realism” tossed in, a sort of effect not found elsewhere in the Torah.

Now even if the Torah felt it necessary to give an historical perspective on how the surrounding tribal peoples responded to the emergence of the Israelites on the scene, and even if the resulting positive spin of Bilaam’s blessings are worth preserving, why tell us the odd story of the talking mule? The text never finds it important to present, for example, the rituals or political structures during the period of slavery in Egypt, so why do we need to know the details of Bilaam’s escapades? This type of story seems more reminiscent of those odd Midrashim that attempt to fill in gaps in the narrative, as in the details of Moshe’s adventures in Midian, etc. So what is this episode, and particularly the talking donkey segment, attempting to teach us?


Weekly Torah Commentary: Chukat- The Meaning of the Red Heifer


by: on June 28th, 2012 | 3 Comments »

…Away with boundaries, those enemies of horizons! Let genuine distance appear! -Czeslaw Milosz

This weeks Torah portion begins with the laws of ritual purification mandated by contact with the dead. The ceremony, in days when the Temple stood, involved the ashes of a red heifer, which were reconstituted by the priest with purified water (an early “not-from-concentrate” product, I suppose, and in which no downer cattle could be used) and sprinkled upon the individual or object that needed purification. Curiously, while the formerly ritually defiled individual was now ritually pure, the priest that performed the ceremony became himself temporarily ritually defiled, as the Talmudic phrase goes, “the ashes of the red heifer purify the defiled and defile the pure”.

This ceremony is uniquely bizarre and the Torah itself identifies it as such, in the opening verse of the section, labeling the ceremony as a Hukka, traditionally translated as a “law which is beyond any kind of sense or interpretation”. While there are other laws, generally ritual ones, that are categorized this way, the red heifer ceremony is considered the archetypal Hukka. In fact, the Talmud and Midrash understand the passage in Kohelet 7:23, “I thought I would become wise but wisdom remained distant from me”, as being an admission from King Solomon, wisest of all men, that making any sense of this commandment was beyond his ken.

Needless to say, the moment a statement is categorized as being inexplicable, all the commentators will immediately rush to offer explanations. Rashi, after a disclaimer about the red heifer rituals being beyond comprehension, presents a complete reading of the ritual down to its small details, derived from an earlier source, R. Moshe Hadarshan.

So is this ceremony far beyond reason? Perhaps not far. The Midrash states that God gave Moshe a complete explanation of all the meanings of this ceremony, but instructed Moshe not to reveal the meanings to the people. Thus there are rationale, according to the Midrash, just they are not known to us. In fact, the Sefat Emet, derives from this Midrash a viewpoint more commonly known from Buddhist theology- he states that a hukka like the red heifer ceremony is a commandment that cannot be understood prior to its experience- its performance is the Vehicle to its understanding. After the ritual is done, one comes to a certain understanding that one could not have attained without the actual experience of the rite, the rite is itself illuminating experientially.

So then, what are these meanings, can they be known nowadays, when we no longer have the ability to perform the actual rite?


Weekly Torah Commentary: Perashat Korach- On Cynical Populism and Supernatural Punishment


by: on June 22nd, 2012 | Comments Off

How did the Earth Get Involved in Politics?

Just as the creator seeks solitude, the destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witnesses to his efficacy –Walter Benjamin, The Destructive Character

This week’s perasha is concerned with the revolt of Korach, a leading Levite, against the desert leadership of Moshe and Aharon. The story is a bit complicated; there seems to be more than one revolt, with more than one ensuing outcome–Korach and his crew are swallowed up by a gaping crater that opens in the ground, while the 250 would be usurpers of the high priesthood are consumed by an incense driven conflagration. I will not attempt to unravel all the difficulties in this text; I am concerned with essentially two pivotal matters, as we will see. At any rate, I believe there is more here than merely post-revolution factional rivalries, as those of the Mensheviks versus Bolsheviks, that Michael Walzer reads into the Korach narrative.

The text itself , in verse 16:3, states that Korach and his crew gathered before Moshe and Aharon, arguing:

You have taken upon yourselves too much; for the masses are all holy and within them is the Lord, (and if I may paraphrase into New Yorkese) Who made you such a big shot over Gd’s congregation?

The Midrash and Zohar add an entire series of issues into what appears to be a dynastic battle between Moshe and Aharon’s clan versus that of Korach’s for tribal and national domination. The Midrash Rabba states that Korach took a talit made entirely of blue material and claimed ‘should this all blue talit require an additional blue fringe to be proper? Does a study hall full of books require a further small supplementary text on the door (a mezuzah) to be acceptable?’ The Zohar adds that Korach had problems with the Sabbath and Torah as well. Why do the midrashim need to amplify Korach’s dissension from Moshe and Aharon beyond the political? Why turn a political disagreement into a heretical faction?

While we are on the subject of recasting the Korach story, was Cecil B. DeMille was on to something? In his uber-epic film, “The Ten Commandments,” DeMille decided to situate the punishment of the earth opening up as a result of the people’s worshipping idols,  that a more appropriate use of the punishment involving swallowing sinners into the ground would be as a consequence of the golden calf, where the people regressed back into frank idolatry. Is there a reason that this supernatural type of punishment should have been invoked after what appears to be a mere political battle, rather than after a much worse situation such as the golden calf?


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.”