1/31/2006

Striking and Healing: Talmudic Reading of the R' Shimon b. Yochai Story, Part VIII

Continued from Intro, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII

A Heavenly Echo then came forth and said, 'Go forth from your cave!' Thus.'; they issued: wherever R. Eleazar wounded, R. Simeon healed. Said he to him, 'My son! You and I are sufficient for the world.'

R’ Shimon and his son, upon their first exit from the cave, were notified indirectly, by hearing that the world around them had changed. The second exit, however, they are by a Heavenly Voice which addresses them directly, signifying that this time, they themselves have changed. Hell has done its job.

R’ Shimon, the Idealist, went into the cave because the world didn’t meet his standards, or so he thought. He therefore felt no need to soul-search or experience Hell during the first period in the cave, and felt ready to leave when the world changed a bit for the better. Only during the second period in the cave does he learn that his idealism is tainted by rejectionism, and only when he learns how to constructively engage the world without sacrificing his ideal is he summoned forth from the cave.

Whereas after their first exit they destroyed, after their second exit only R’ Eliezer strikes, and R’ Shimon heals. Does R’ Eliezer need more time in the cave? Wouldn’t it be better not to strike in the first place?

This one line indicates that R’ Shimon and R’ Eliezer didn’t merely build a ‘tolerance’ for the evils and failings of the world, didn’t just calm down from their prior overzealousness. On the contrary, they maintained every last drop of their sensitivity to what’s wrong in the world, but found a more constructive method of addressing it. They have not rejected rejection; rather, they have gone beyond it.

Had the heroes simply ignored the wrongs they encountered, it would indicate that they had become impervious to them. However, they kept noticing it, identifying it, and fixing it. Before evil can be addressed, it must be identified. Every fight against evil must have these two elements – one which antagonizes, and one which rebuilds, a ‘good cop’ and a ‘bad cop’, one who exposes the full monstrosity of evil, and one who is willing to negotiate with it, to move it forward in baby steps. As a contemporary example, the Black Civil Rights movement had two faces: Malcolm X. demonizing the White Man and Martin Luther King Jr. calling for rapprochement and brotherhood. Alternatively, Zionists in Mandatory Palestine had the diplomatic face of the Jewish Agency, but also the fist of militias such as the Irgun and the Stern Gang. Like flexing muscles, a tear followed by a mend, differentiation followed by reintegration, striking followed by healing, yields improvement.

R’ Shimon now reflects on the irony of his own situation. He had rejected humanity, though he is himself human. It finally dawns upon him that his very own existence validates humanity! If he can achieve perfection, then humanity still has hope. As C. S. Lewis stated, “It’s more important that Heaven exist than that I ever get there.” The very possibility of the ideal, the perfect, the ultimate, gives meaning and purpose to everything that comes into contact with it. A world that can produce a R’ Shimon b. Yochai is not a futile world.

1/30/2006

Dilemmas Regarding Orthodoxy and Gays

I’m writing something for a program that the campus Orthodox community is running. They will be screening the film ‘Trembling before God’, followed by a breakout discussion section. I composed the following set of dilemmas for the group to discuss after the film. The goal is to get people thinking about the issues in a more complex way, and not, as is common, as a zero-sum game (see here for an earlier post on this topic). I’m curious what others have to say about these dilemmas, and feel free to propose other dilemmas as well.

  1. Should a shul grant a ‘family membership’ to a gay couple?
  2. If a monogamous gay man gets an aliyah, should he be allowed to make a mishebeirach for his partner? How would he refer to him? ‘Ba’ali (my husband)? shutafi (my partner)? Chaveri (my male friend)?
  3. Should the Orthodox community differentiate between gays with Jewish partners and gays with non-Jewish partners? Between gays with one partner and gays with multiple partners?
  4. Should the laws of ‘negiah’ apply to gays for members of their own sex? The opposite sex?
  5. What should a gay person do when in shul, if they are distracted by someone on their own side of the mechitza?
  6. Should gay women be encouraged to keep ‘taharat ha-mishpacha’ with their partners? What about gay men?
  7. Should our schools accept Jewish children of same-sex marriages?
  8. Should you pay a ‘shiva’ visit to someone mourning his or her same-sex partner?

1/27/2006

Rava's Hilarious Rat Joke



We Rabbis have notoriously terrible senses of humor. It’s anyone’s guess why, but I think that it stems from the fact that we simply make connections that nobody else does, or references that nobody gets. Sometimes we’re really funny, but can’t always say what we want.

Today’s daf (Pesachim 9) provides an excellent example of this phenomenon. The great Talmudic sage Rava makes a joke. During my shiur I asked if anyone caught it, and nobody did; personally, I thought it was pretty funny.

The joke is as follows: two Mishnas seem to contradict each other about whether we must concern ourselves that a rat (chuldah) may have taken some bread and left it somewhere else. Abaye resolves this tension by differentiating between a time when bread is abundant, when the rat would bypass a meager amount of bread, and a time when bread is scarce, when a rat would take anything it can get its filthy paws on.

Rava retorts: ‘Is the rat prophetic? Ve-khi chuldah nevi’ah hi?’ Does it know when bread will be scarce?

The joke, of course, is that Chuldah was the name of one of the small handful of prophetesses mentioned in Tana”ch (two others, Miriam and Deborah, are mentioned explicitly, and Chaza”l add another 4, Sarah, Chana, Avigail, and Esther, for a total of 7). Rava is playing on the name Chuldah which is also the word for a rat.

It’s funnier when it doesn’t have to be explained.
Ok, maybe not. But it’s still cool that Rava cracks a joke in the middle of a sugya.

1/24/2006

Just Doing My Part

A bit over a week ago, I posted the 'Vote Torah' logo and link in my sidebar and in the 'Maven Yavin' sidebar. I follow links back to the sites which link to me, to see who's been linking, and I was curious when I saw this link.

Well, it turns out (as you can see), that the #1 website referring to 'Vote Torah' is MY! #2 is ADDeRabbi! In fact, 10 of the top 30 referring sites are sub-pages of MY and ADDeRabbi (beating out the likes of ou.org, bneiakiva.net, and onlysimchas.com).

Conclusions:
1) We J-bloggers CAN make a difference in the 'real world'! (This vote impacts the disbursement of over $1 billion to Jewish causes)
2) We are credible sources for information and even reccomendations. If you believe that we should Vote Torah (or Mercaz, or whatever you believe we should vote for), then by all means, let the world know. It makes a difference.
3) Vote Torah should reserve a spot in the next election for an anonymous J-blogger.
4) If you haven't voted yet, what are you waiting for?

UPDATE:
If you wish to post the badge on your own site/blog, email me for the code, or copy it from the HTML source of this page.

1/21/2006

It's a Small (and Funny) World

Being an anonymous blogging Rabbi can create some funny scenarios. It can also create some headaches.

To the latter category belongs the bozo (who goes by the name ‘avichozeh’ on Hashkafah) who has now tried to ‘out’ me three times; once in my comments (which I erased and then banned the IP address), once by posting his reaction to something I wrote, with my real name, on Hashkafah.com (which, when I notified the moderator, was taken down), and most recently in a comment on Maven Yavin linking to another Hashkafah.com revelation of my identity (which also has now been edited by the Hashkafah.com moderator). I’ve written before that I’m not embarrassed by what I say, but in my line of work I can’t simply say whatever I want, whenever I want. I have much more ‘freedom of expression’ on my blog, so I like maintaining anonymity. I wish that bozos like avichozeh (BTW, isn’t that a reference to Moshe in the Motza”sh zemirot? Isn’t it a bit pretentious to call one’s self ‘Moshe Rabbeinu’? Didn’t the Ramcha”l get in trouble for that?) would respect that, even while disagreeing vehemently with what I write.

A funnier scenario occurred this morning. I was with relatives for Shabbat, and the Rabbi of one of the local shuls asked if I could give a short shiur after davening and before Kiddush. The shiur was based on my post from last week on the Midrashim about Israelite identity in Egypt. I made a mar’eh mekomos page and emailed it to the shul’s Assistant Rabbi earlier in the week. This morning, when I got to shul and went to say ‘gut Shabbos’ to the Rabbis, the Assistant Rabbi says to me, “you got this shiur from ADDeRabbi, didn’t you?” Taken completely off guard, I looked at him and didn’t answer. He continued, “I mean, it’s clearly the same sources, so either you took this from ADDeRabbi, or you ARE ADDeRabbi.” At that point I ‘outed’ myself to him. Turns out he’s a fan.

The second scenario involves someone who until recently was a member of my community. I wouldn’t say that we didn’t get along, but I could definitely sense that he didn’t, and wouldn’t, consider me his Rabbi, and probably could’ve been a bit more respectful, at least publicly. Nu, can’t win ‘em all.
Anyhow, this fellow is now a reader of my blog, likes what I write, but hasn’t connected my blog-identity with my flesh-and-blood identity (at least not when he began reading my blog). Had I said over one of my ‘Torah’s in shul, the fellow might not have stuck around.
Not only do I find the story highly amusing, but also to be an excellent nugget of mussar.

[if you’re reading this, and think that it might be you, send me an email if you’d like]

1/19/2006

Welcome, JIB voters!

NOTE: This will remain the first post until voting ends on January 19th. It doesn't mean that there's no new material below.

Over the next few weeks, I figure to be getting a bunch of hits via the JIB voting on the Best Jewish Religion Blog. Since I’m still working on turning my sidebar into an index (which includes some of my posts on Maven Yavin, nominated for Best Religion Blog as well as Best New Blog, Best Group Blog, and Best Series), I’ll link here to a sample of my best and most popular posts (the two don’t always coincide) that are not yet on the sidebar. If you’re interested in more, this will take you to a categorized list of stuff I posted between January and August. I’ll link to the ‘heavier’ stuff at the bottom. Unfortunately, Haloscan, which supports my comments, hides anything older than 4 months unless I cough up some bucks to get a ‘preferred’ account:

Review of ArtScroll Women’s Siddur
LGBT in a Halakhic Community
Happy or Pathetic?
Ultra-Orthodox vs. Ultra Sound
My Zaydie, the Swiss-Army Jew
On ‘Yeridat Ha-Dorot’
On Chumra
Against Jewish Evangelism
Inadequate Denominations
What is ‘Shekhinah’?
Holy Heresy
Jewish Sexual Education
The Little Things vs. the ‘Greater Good’
Reinterpreting the First Rashi
A Critique of Modern Orthodox Education: Reading Kiddushin 29b
‘Zoo Torah – ve-zu scharah?’ Reading Menachot 29b
Thou Shalt Not Be Stupid
Digengagement and the Tuition Crisis: A Common Thread
Waiting for the Messiah
Speak Softly, but Carry a Big Stick
Religious Meanings of Yom Ha-atzma’ut I, II
“What a Beautiful Tree…”
The Religious Value of Meat and Wine: Reading Pesachim 109a

This stuff is heavy, but really good (IMO):
Beyond Rejection: A Reading of the R’ Shimon Story, Shabbat 33b (this is part VI, and still not finished; you can follow the links back to the beginning)
Historically-Conditioned Exegesis as the Vehicle for Progressive Revelation
A Kinnah for the Azzah Evacuees
Why Do We Do Mitzvot?
Superstructures of Knowledge
Why McDonalds Should Have Bentchers
Broken Vessels
Eli vs. Chana (part 2), or Establishment vs. Renovation
Did God Offer the Torah to Other Nations?
Two Aspects of Holiness, and the Price of Tea in China
Absolute Truth (I, II, III)
Einei Ha-Edah and the Role of Narratives in Disputes

1/14/2006

The ShoweRabbi

Don't ask how I found this post. It involves following links of posters on my blog, and so on, so I wind up perusing the blog of someone in our Jewish sphere posting about things that seem a bit juvenile. Ok. That's fair.

Anyhow, the post reminded me of one of my favorite Rabbinic stories, involving my non-Rabbinic father. It's as he told it; I wasn't an eyewitness. He played racquetball at the JCC regularly for a number of years. He'd go to shul, then racquetball, shower and change, and head for work. Anyone who's been in an old-school JCC men's shower room will remember that it's a big square with no partitions and a bunch of showerheads coming out of the wall. As a kid, I rembember it being sort of horrifying. My peers and I definitely went the bathing suit route. The old men, however, had no such reservations (as a side note, my more recent JCC experience indicates that the generation of old men has, unfortunately, passed on, and been replaced mainly by Russians). Until there my story really doesn't diverge from singerz's story.

One morning, I believe it was a Monday, when my father was showering after racquetball, he noticed that one of the old men was belting out 'Ein Keilokeinu' as he rub-a-dub-dubbed, and needless to say, wasn't substituting the 'kuf' for the 'hey' in God's name. My father informed him (because le-hafrish min ha-issur is muttar even in a makom tinofet) that what he was singing contained God's name, that it's a hymn of praise, and that perhaps a shower-room full of nekkid alte kockers (no pun intended; ok, maybe a little bit intended) was an innapropriate venue for those words (in addition to the lousy acoustics).

The senior fellow thanked my father for the sage advice, and immediately ceased his cantorial rendition. However, from then on, my father became the unofficial Rabbi of the shower room. Every week, when my father would step in for his post-racquetball shpritz, the septagenarians would line up with their shaylas. Anything and everything you wanted to know about Judaism, you could just ask the ShoweRabbi. Feel free (if being in the buff isn't sufficiently liberating).

And while on the topic. A friend pointed out that instead of the Erev Pesach example that I concluded this post with, the mikve on Erev Yom Kippur would've been more apt.

1/12/2006

Holy Cities? An Argument for Iha"tz Kin"e Tvbb"a

There are four towns in Israel that are often followed by the acrostic ‘עיה"ק תובב"א’. Those four towns are Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron, and Tiberias, the ‘four holy cities’, which got that epithet in the 16th Century, during the rise of mystical circles which were centered primarily in, you guessed it, those four cities. The acrostic stands for ‘Ir Ha-Kodesh, Tibaneh ve-tikonein be-meheira be-yameinu. Amen’ – may it be rebuilt and established speedily in our days. Amen.

Without taking anything away from the other three towns (one of which is from Roman times, the other from the Crusader era), Jerusalem is the only one which I believe truly deserves the honorific of ‘the Holy City’, and even so, I make a habit of using a different acrostic, one which I invented: עיה"צ ק"נ תובב"א.

It stands for “Ir Ha-tzedek, Kiryah ne-emanah…” – the city of justice; trusty town. It’s based on Yeshaya 1:26, and is followed by immediately by ‘Zion will be redeemed through justice, and those who return to her through righteousness’.

Not to minimize the value of ‘holiness’ and its embodiment in the earthly Jerusalem, but for me, Jerusalem will never become the ‘holy’ city, unless it is first the city of justice and righteousness. Crimes of gross negligence on the municipal level, like the Versailles disaster of several years ago, completely preclude any claim to ‘holiness’. The dramatic and sickening story of manslaughter in the Temple, recorded in Tosefta Kippurim 1:12 and Tosefta Shavu’ot 1:4. The punchline of that Beraita is very telling: “Because of the crime of manslaughter, the Shekhina is removed and the Holy becomes contaminated.”

The Gemara in Megillah, which discusses the order of the Shmoneh Esrei, sees the following progression: ingathering of the exiles( bringing the wicked to justice (the bracha based on the verses cited above) ( extinction of evildoers (and heretics) ( the reputation of the righteous becomes exalted ( which will take place in the rebuilt Jerusalem ( the Davidic line will be restored.

So for all those champing at the bit to get the Messiah here already (stage 6 in this progression), y’all probably should get crackin’ on stage 2.

[Question for those who believe that we should return to Israel and/or establish a government/judiciary there only after the arrival of the Messiah: Do you have a different order in yous Shemoneh Esrei? Or a different version of that Gemara? Just checking.]

I recalled this issue when reading about the disaster in Mina. Just outside Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, this shrine is the site of what seems to be the Islamic equivalent to Tashlich or Se’ir La-azazel, though it also reminds one of the cult of Mercury as described in mSanhedrin 7:6 and mAvoda Zara 4:1. In this disaster, at least 345 people were trampled to death by coreligionists eager to make sure they fulfilled their religious duty before sunset (somehow, I can’t see this happening on the way to mincha). Although ‘Modern Orthodox’ Muslim poskim gave a hetter to do the mitzvah before Chatzos, apparently a whole lot of people decided to listen to the ‘Ultra-Orthodox’ wahabbi poskim, and with disastrous consequences.

Look, I understand that it’s tough to run a religion that has a billion adherents, including far too many that are willing to blow themselves up for its sake. And far be it from me to suggest that a site which allows this type of thing to happen – and to recur – is no ‘holy site’. However, one thing is clear – Jerusalem must become Iha”tz K”n before it becomes Iha”k. Otherwise, Erev Pesach will be a complete disaster.

R' Shimon b. Yochai: Part VII

Continued from Intro, I, II, III, IV, V, VI

So they emerged. Seeing a man ploughing and sowing, they exclaimed, 'They forsake life eternal and engage in life temporal!' Whatever they cast their eyes upon was immediately burnt up.

Thereupon a Heavenly Echo came forth and cried out, 'Have ye emerged to destroy My world: Return to your cave!' So they returned and dwelt there twelve months, saying, 'The punishment of the wicked in Gehenna is [limited to] twelve months.'
Though the world may be ready for R’ Shimon, he’s not yet ready for the world. R’ Shimon’s critique of Rome led him to his cave and his state of disconnect. Upon emerging from the cave, R’ Shimon seems to have broadened his critique to include the mundane acts of planting and plowing, activities which are rooted in humanity itself ever since Adam’s fall. Indeed, R’ Shimon’s problem, it turn out, is not with Rome per se, but with the imperfect state of humanity in general. Rome is not evil; Rome is human.

For R’ Shimon, who has achieved direct union with God and Torah (without the medium of ‘clothing’, much like pre-fall Adam and Eve), the world has lost its independent value. What can the temporal mean in relation to the Eternal? Ironically, R’ Shimon himself did engage in ‘temporal life’, as prayer is sometimes called (cf. BT Brachot 48b), and even prayer, though it’s not planting or plowing, acknowledges the distance between man and his Creator. From his words, it is clear that he assumes that his own vision is absolute, identical with God’s vision of the world. In this, R’ Shimon has not changed from the beginning of the story.

Here, for the first time, we encounter the effects of R’ Shimon’s ‘vision’, a theme which will recur. R’ Shimon’s worldview annihilates everything specifically because he has confused his view with God’s view. Everywhere he looks, he destroys. He insists that his own vision apply to all. Whereas Moshe goes to bat for his generation, R’ Shimon, like Eliyahu before him, and like the exiles in Atlas Shrugged, is willing to let the world go to hell.

In response, God reaffirms His ownership of the world, suggesting that R’ Shimon’s rejection of man is really a rejection of God Himself. Finally, the mask is torn off of R' Shimon's worldview; dismissal of humanity denies the image of God which humanity embodies. In R' Shimon's world, there's no room for anything less than perfection. God's world, however, is much more tolerant of human failure and frailty.

In order to rejoin the human order, R’ Shimon has a final lesson to learn; he must go through hell. Perhaps he’s in a reverse-hell: whereas purgatory, as commonly understood, is a process by which impurities are removed from the spiritual soul, here R’ Shimon must re-integrate with the impure. The cave becomes a Bizzaro-Hell where the pure and impure are forced back together. Alternatively, perhaps it allows him to understand that anything can be refined, given enough time. It is possible to educate and to refine. Purgatory itself takes some time. Evolution, not revolution, can lead man toward perfection. Or perhaps (and these alternatives are not mutually exclusive) R’ Shimon indeed must go through hell for his sin of confusing his own voice with God’s voice, or for being unable to acknowledge that God’s voice, like sparks flying from an anvil, is refracted through a multiplicity of human minds, of which R’ Shimon’s is but one.

1/08/2006

Twelve Cats

I just came across a blog called "On the Contrary: Don’s Mideast Musings". Seems like an interesting enough guy, who I'll probably meet in person at some point after Aliyah. The guy lives in the Shomron with eleven cats, plus himself, makes twelve. He's a cat, you ask? Well, yes. A copycat. Don't worry, guy; I won't sue.

Unrelatedly, it seems that Hanoch Teller has launched a new website all his own. I like his stuff because I think that he values the right things (especially in his book about RSZA; see page 333 for a laugh though, ve-hamaven yavin). The wierd thing is the way he self-promotes. Hey, the guy's gotta make a living; he has MANY, MANY mouths to feed (more than eleven, and they aren't cats).

1/07/2006

Put Down the Duckie

Just posted at Maven Yavin, a deeper 'reading' of three nursery rhymes/ kids' songs with Jewish themes. Good stuff.

1/05/2006

Reading of Brachot 48a: Where Does God Live?

Just posted over on Maven Yavin. This is one of my favorite Gemaras to teach.

Black Noise

Before all else: Please keep the well-being of Ariel ben Devorah foremost in your thoughts and prayers.

This isn't what I was planning on posting about today, my 1-year bloggiversary (yes, technically I could've been in one of the 'new blog' categories, as well as the Godol, but we've been around long enough that we seem too veteran. Perhaps the awards should be more often, like dog-years). This is too good, though.

Can I get a CD of a nightclub so that when I have a beer at home it feels like I'm out partying?

And the truth remains, as ever, far stranger than fiction.

1/02/2006

8th Candle: Broader Horizons

So as not to give any sense of closure, the final installment of this Chanukah series will be a list for further reading. Foremost, R’ Lichtenstein has some great essays on the topic, one in particular which takes a contrast between the figures/books of Job and Prometheus as a starting point for a contrast between Judaism and Hellenism. It can be accessed here. R’ Aharon’s writing is both proponent and paradigm of fruitful coexistence between Jerusalem and Athens. I’d also recommend this essay by R’ Lichtenstein, on a similar topic, but there’s a bunch to choose from if you go here.

Amongst the sources that R’ Lichtenstein refers to, there’s a well-known (the same was that certain Rashis are ‘well-known’) chapter called ‘Hellenism and Hebraism’ in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (I love free books). Arnold bears no relation to the protagonist of the Chanukah story who bears the same first name.

If I haven’t plugged Levinas enough, here goes again. READ LEVINAS. His three volumes of Talmudic Readings (which I linked to in this post) are wonderful examples of how the ongoing collision between Judaism and Hellenism yet bears fruit, as Levinas himself wrote, “The Septuagint is still incomplete”.

There are some wonderful books in English and Hebrew about themes of Chanukah, some of which are truly wonderful. My goal was to draw attention to the way that the mythic clash between these two civilizations has been understood and applied in different generations.

Next year, who knows? There’ll still be what to blog…

1/01/2006

7th Candle: Miracles of Medicine

This seventh installment of my Chanukah musings won’t contain a comparison of a Rabbinic and philosophic text, though, for me, it has a very strong symbolic meaning.

My home if full of medical equipment. I have mentioned this before (like when writing about why I think that poskim who discourage ultrasound are being irresponsible; I guess that theme has some overtones apropos of Chanukah), but my oldest child, about 5 years old, was born with some very severe medical issues. Last week, she underwent a minor surgery to close a gastrostomy that was necessary until relatively recently, when she began taking enough food orally. Most of the equipment that we’ve accumulated over the years is related to the g-tube, its maintenance, cleanliness, and how to move food through it. The ADDeRebbetzin and I should be able to skip a year or two of med school should we ever choose to become ADDoctors. One item in particular that we have many of and really made extensive use of is syringes. Any size or shape, we’ve got ‘em.

Well, this evening, I ran out of the little pre-filled glasses of oil (I save from year to year, so there’s no telling what I’ve got when). I had a bunch of empty ones, but couldn’t figure out how to get the oil into the little hole in the metal glass-covers. The ADDeRebbetzin suggested using one of the now-superfluous syringes, which worked like a charm. I know that there’s a custom to recycle items that were used for one mitzvah for another (I roast my hadassim after Sukkot and use them for besamim year-round), but this application of the principle was a very meaningful one.

and I will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks…”

Baruch she-hecheyanu ve-kiyemanu ve-higi’anu la-zeman ha-zeh

5th and 6th Candles: Part II

Continued from here.

Alexander set out to conquer to world. Like conquerors before and since, his goal was not simply world domination; he wanted to spread a certain message. He was motivated by a vision. More famously, the Roman Emperor Constantine beheld a vision of a Crucifix emblazoned with the words “in hoc signo vinces” before a major battle with a rival, in an episode which moved the Roman Empire toward embracing Christianity.

Alexander had a different vision. He had absorbed the best that Greece had to offer (Aristotle was his private tutor; not bad), and set out to introduce this anthropocentric worldview to the rest of humanity, overwhelming indigenous culture wherever he could.

The Jews, on the other hand, feared that they would meet the same fate as the rest of the world’s cultures: overwhelmed and all but eradicated by Hellenism. Shimon Ha-tzaddik dressed – enveloped himself in – the garb of priesthood. The garments of priesthood, for God’s ‘honor and splendor’, announce God’s presence within this world. They bespeak of a guardianship that the Jewish people share, that God’s Name, in this world, is dependent upon them; that they must carry themselves in a manner consistent with their mission. Israel’s role amongst the nations is indeed that of priest – to be a ‘kingdom of priests’ – and this, more than anything else, must survive the confrontation with Greece. It’s hard to know what the plan was when confronting Alexander, or if there was a plan, but it doesn’t seem terribly important.

Alexander, representing the best of Greece, and Shimon Ha-tzaddik, representing the Jewish priesthood, the meaning and role of the Jews amongst the nations, and the vision articulated by the ancient Jewish prophets, are on the road to confrontation, yet neither knows what to expect from the other; all are ‘in the dark’, though antagonism is presumed. As they near each other, once they can see each other, attitudes can begin to soften. Darkness can begin to lift. Daylight begins when each truly beholds the other.

At that moment, Alexander bows before Shimon, and recognized that Shimon, all along, is the vision that motivates him to conquer. Shimon represents that which is most noble about man, most godly about man, and it is this vision of man that truly motivates Alexander.

It must be noted that Chaza”l’s vision doesn’t really reflect any actual relation between Judaism and Hellenism; it’s their articulation of an ideal hierarchy, where Greek culture would acknowledge the Divinity that underlies Humanity and the Jewish role in bearing that message of Divinity.

b) Shimon Ha-Tzaddik, the Nazir, and the Narcissist: A reading of Nedarim 9b

[The Halakhic scenario that the Gemara presents is the subject of a dispute amongst the Rishonim; ayen sham, ve-acamo”l]

Simeon the Just said: Only once in my life have I eaten of the trespass-offering brought by a defiled nazir. On one occasion a nazir came from the South country, and I saw that he had beautiful eyes, was of handsome appearance, and with thick locks of hair symmetrically arranged. Said I to him: ‘My son, what [reason] did you see to destroy this beautiful hair of yours?’ He replied: ‘I was a shepherd for my father in my town. [Once] I went to draw water from a well, gazed upon my reflection in the water, whereupon my evil desires rushed upon me and sought to drive me from the world [through sin]. But I said unto it [my lust]: "Wretch! why dost thou take in a world that is not yours, with one who is destined to become worms and dust? I swear that I will shave you off [his beautiful hair] for the sake of Heaven."’ l immediately arose and kissed his head, saying: ‘My son, may there be many nazirites such as thou in Israel! Of you the Torah says, “When either a man or a woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a nazirite, to separate themselves unto the Lord.”

This story recalls the Greek myth of Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, and tragically dies because he can’t pull himself away. There are a number of versions of the myth, and though it seems likely that Chaza”l would have been familiar with some version of it (after all, they knew of Homer – see Mishna Yadayim 4:6). The myth of Narcissus describes a fatal inability to understand others in any way but as a reflection of one’s self. Narcissus, in many versions of the myth, is not even aware that the image that he is enamored with is his own. He is unable to break out of a mindset in which one loves the other only to the extent that he can see himself in the other.

In the Gemara, the youth succeeds in overcoming the fatal cycle of self love, by destroying his own beauty. Forcing himself to come to grips with a world that is ‘not his’.

The appearance of Shimon Ha-tzadik in a tale which closely parallels a Greek myth once again suggests that Chaza”l are trying to communicate an element of their attitude toward Hellenism.

The great sin of Western culture, the progeny of Greece, has been narcissism. There is an unwillingness and inability to evaluate others – other nations, other cultures, etc. – except to the degree that it sees itself within. It attempts to digest and reduce the whole world to the categories of its own thought. There’s no room for anything ‘other’. It can only contemplate itself.

Shimon is wary of this trend, wary even of nazirites who hold themselves aloof, who take upon these vows not for God, but because of self-consciousness (cf. this Gemara’s parallel on Ta’anit 10a and Nazir 4b). This Nazir demonstrates his disinterestedness in his own world by vowing to shave his beautiful hair. He sublimates his own beauty to God’s world, releasing himself from the self-destruction that would have resulted from his continued occupation of his own world. Shimon Ha-Tzadik is thus affirming disinterestedness, un-self-consciousness, and other-awareness as the antidote to the Narcissism inherent in Greek culture.

For further explanation, see the chapter entitled "The Youth of Israel" in Levinas' Nine Talmudic Readings, especially pp. 126-7.