5th Candle: Shimon Ha-Tzadik and the Encounter with Greece, Part I

According to the Gemara (BT Megillah 11a) Shimon Hatzaddik was instrumental, along with Matityahu and the Hasmoneans (see the Gemara and Maharshal, ad loc, for some interesting textual variants), to God’s salvation of the Jewish people during the Ionian (=Yevanim – Fred will like that) domination. This is curious because Shimon lived at least a century before the events of Chanukah occurred.

[Note: All chronological references to the times of the 2nd Temple in this post will presume Chazal’s memory of that chronology. The goal is to understand how Chaza”l themselves related to and memorialized those events, and the historicity of the actual events is a moot point. In other words, I’m concerned with how Chaza”l viewed Shimon Ha-Tzadik, and not at all concerned about the actual historical figure. This shouldn’t be a shock to regular readers of this blog]

According to the genealogy in the first few mishnayot of Avot, Shimon Ha-tzadik is the link between the era of the Prophets and the Hellenistic era. His main pupil, Antigonus of Sokho, betrays Greek influence by his very name (not that Antigonus was himself a Hellenist – insert requisite # of ‘chas ve-shalom’s here – but that Jewish culture was already being penetrated by Ionian culture). Chaza”l therefore saw him as a crucial figure in shaping the Jewish response to Hellenistic penetration.

There are two Talmudic narratives that involve Shimon Ha-tzaddik. Both narratives have parallels in non-Rabbinic sources. By constructing these narratives around the figure of Shimon Ha-tzaddik, Chaza”l teach us something about the collision between Jewish and Ionian culture and an appropriate Jewish attitude/response to that collision.

a) Shimon Ha-tzadik and Alexander: A Reading of BT Yoma 69a

[When the Samaritans had obtained permission from Alexander to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, messengers] came and informed Shimon Ha-tzadik. What did he do? He dressed in the Priestly vestments, and wrapped himself in the priestly vestments. Some of the distinguished men of Israel were with him, and they had torches of light in their hands. All night, these were walking in this direction, and those were walking in that direction, until the dawn broke. Once the dawn broke, he asked them, “Who are they?” They replied, “The Jews, who have rebelled against you.” When they reached Antipatris the sun rose, and they confronted each other. When he saw Shimon Ha-tzadik, he descended from his chariot and bowed before him. They said to him, “A great king such as yourself bows to this Jew?” He replied, “The image of this man’s visage triumphs before me when I go into battle!”

This narrative was a later addition to the early Rabbinic work ‘Megillat Ta’anit’, a list of ancient Jewish holidays (which, incidentally, is the earliest record of the celebration of Chanukah). The original text, in Aramaic, consisted of a date and a very brief description of the date (like January 1st – New Year’s Day; February 6th – Groundhog’s Day; June 14th – Flag Day, etc.). Later, much longer narrative descriptions of the significant events which occurred on those days were added to the work. This excerpt is the later addition to the original, which simply stated “The 25th [of Tevet] is Mt. Gerizim Day, and it’s forbidden to eulogize on it.” This narrative is clearly a literary construction, as will be demonstrated, first of all, by comparing it with Josephus Flavius’ account of the same event in “Antiquities of the Jews”:

Now Alexander, when he had taken Gaza, made haste to go up to Jerusalem; and Jaddua the high priest, when he heard that, was in an agony, and under terror, as not knowing how he should meet the Macedonians, since the king was displeased at his foregoing disobedience… whereupon God warned him in a dream, which came upon him after he had offered sacrifice, that he should take courage, and adorn the city, and open the gates; that the rest should appear in white garments, but that he and the priests should meet the king in the habits proper to their order, without the dread of any ill consequences… And when he understood that [Alexander] was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens. The procession was venerable, and the manner of it different from that of other nations…Alexander, when he saw the multitude at a distance, in white garments, while the priests stood clothed with fine linen, and the high priest in purple and scarlet clothing, with his mitre on his head, having the golden plate whereon the name of God was engraved, he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first saluted the high priest. The Jews also did all together, with one voice, salute Alexander, and encompass him about; whereupon the kings of Syria and the rest were surprised at what Alexander had done, and supposed him disordered in his mind. However, Parmenio alone went up to him, and asked him how it came to pass that, when all others adored him, he should adore the high priest of the Jews? To whom he replied, "I did not adore him, but that God who hath honored him with his high priesthood; for I saw this very person in a dream, in this very habit, when I was at Dios in Macedonia, who, when I was considering with myself how I might obtain the dominion of Asia, exhorted me to make no delay, but boldly to pass over the sea thither, for that he would conduct my army, and would give me the dominion over the Persians; whence it is that, having seen no other in that habit, and now seeing this person in it, and remembering that vision, and the exhortation which I had in my dream, I believe that I bring this army under the Divine conduct, and shall therewith conquer Darius, and destroy the power of the Persians, and that all things will succeed according to what is in my own mind."

While the central elements of the stories – the High Priest and the Priestly vestments, Alexander at the head of a conquering army, threatening Judea, and Alexander’s dream and it’s role in the salvation of Judea – are identical in both, there are significant differences. It’s within these differences that Chaza”l’s contribution lies.

Whereas Josephus writes like a chronicler, giving names of people and places and vast amounts of detail (much of which I left skipped with ‘…’), the Gemara is much more terse. The Gemara employs literary devices – the interplay of night and day and darkness and light chief amongst them. In Josephus, the Jews of Jerusalem passively await Alexander’s arrival, whereas in the Gemara, the two groups are marching toward each other. Finally, the High Priest in Josephus’ account is Jaddua, whereas in the Gemara it’s Shimon Ha-Tzaddik. If I’m correct that Shimon, for Chaza”l, is a paradigm for encounter with Ionia, then his appearance in this narrative is more than simply a miracle-tale of salvation; it’s an account of the initial collision between these two great civilizations. It’s no longer an historical or quasi-historical story; it’s mythic.

To be continued – it’s 4 minutes before licht bentchen…


4th Candle: The Problem of Translation

It once happened that five elders wrote the Torah for King Ptolemy in Greek, and that day was as ominous for Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made, since the Torah could not be accurately translated
Minor Tractates, Soferim 1:7

When the work was completed, Demetrius collected together the Jewish population in the place where the translation had been made, and read it over to all, in the presence of the translators, who met with a great reception also from the people, because of the great benefits which they had conferred upon them. They bestowed warm praise upon Demetrius, too, and urged him to have the whole law transcribed and present a copy to their leaders. After the books had been read, the priests and the elders of the translators and the Jewish community and the leaders of the people stood up and said, that since so excellent and sacred and accurate a translation had been made, it was only right that it should remain as it was and no alteration should be made in it. And when the whole company expressed their approval, they bade them pronounce a curse in accordance with their custom upon any one who should make any alteration either by adding anything or changing in any way whatever any of the words which had been written or making any omission. This was a very wise precaution to ensure that the book might be preserved for all the future time unchanged. When the matter was reported to the king, he rejoiced greatly, for he felt that the design which he had formed had been safely carried out. The whole book was read over to him and he was greatly astonished at the spirit of the lawgiver. And he said to Demetrius, 'How is it that none of the historians or the poets have ever thought it worth their while to allude to such a wonderful achievement?'
From "The Letter of Aristeas"

Here we have two texts describing the same event: the original translation of the Torah into Greek, the Septuagint. The first account is from a beraita, a work of the Rabbinic Tannaim. The second is from an apocryphal work which was produced by the Jews of Ptolemaic Egypt, and was not included in the Jewish canon.

[Linguistic sidenote: the Latin word apocrypha and the Aramaic word Beraita mean basically the same thing – a work that remains ‘outside’ a canonized text]

Taken together, these texts present the basic problem of translation. The translation issues recently discussed by Gil and Krum (esp. in the comments) touch the tip of the iceberg – the difficulty in finding the right words to convey the literal sense of the original. In every act of translation, something is left behind and becomes inaccessible to the new audience. At the same time, that audience gains access to a previously unintelligible source of wisdom. I discussed some of these elements in a post about the relationship between translation and mysticism here.
Translating from Hebrew into Greek has much higher stakes. On one hand, it’s an attempt to bridge an unbridgeable gap, to convey the language of revelation in the terminology of reason. On the other hand, it made the Torah into something that the entire world could access (see F. Rosenzweig quotation here). Greek translation occupies a special Halakhic status as well, according to the Mishna in Megillah. The Greek language, the beauty of Japeth, belongs in the tents of Shem.
This task, the translation of the Torah into Greek, continues in our day. As a Rabbi in the USA, I often think of my job as that of a translator, and still from Hebrew into Greek, just Greek today happens to be English (unless you ask the French). It’s still hard to capture the Torah in English, but it’s something we must do if we are to open the hearts and minds of contemporary Jews (and I’m not talking about “kiruv”). I’ve often considered accepting the 8th of Tevet, traditionally the day that the Septuagint was completed, and not observed as a theme of the 10th of Tevet, in order to reinforce the tension inherent within the awful but necessary task of translation.

Rather than continuing to (poorly) articulate this challenge myself, I’ll recommend three essays by Emmanuel Levinas, for whom this is a major (if not THE major) philosophical theme. The first is his introductory essay to Nine Talmudic Readings. The second is called “On the Translation of Scripture” and appears in a book called In the Time of Nations. The Third is called “The Pact” and appears in both Beyond the Verse and The Levinas Reader.


3rd Candle: R' Nachman's Dreidel

I’ve only got a few pages left of Arthur Green's book “Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav”, and I hope to post a more thorough review when I finish and digest it. There’s one passage, Chanukah-related, that i really liked. It’s part of a segment on R’ Nachman’s critique of medieval cosmology, and is taken from Sichot HaRan #40, and p. 309 of Green’s book, whence the translation:

Their books contain questions as to the order of Creation: How is it that a star merited to be a star, or that a constellation deserved to be a constellation? What was the sin of the lower creatures, animals and all the rest, that consigned them to their lowly state? Why not just the opposite? Why is a head a head and a foot a foot?...

This entire pursuit, however, is a vain one. One should not ask such questions of God, who is righteous and upright. For in truth, the entire universe is a spinning top, which is called a dreidel. Everything moves in a circle: angels change into men and men into angels; the head becomes a foot and the foot a head. All things in the world are part of this circular motion, reborn and transformed into one another. That which was above is lowered and that which was below is raised up. For in their root all of them are one.

R’ Nachman locates the flaw of philosophy in its being static and bounded. In the real world, boundaries between objects are fluid, artificial, and often non-existent. Though R’ Nachman refers specifically to the cosmological world and its hierarchies, the same can be (and has been) said about social hierarchies. Medieval philosophy spent much time and ink justifying why kings are kings, nobles are nobles, serfs are serfs, women are women, and Jews are Jews. The real reason that nobles were superior to serfs is that a man on a horse can kill ten men on foot, but that wouldn’t pass muster with the morally-attuned folk, so a hierarchy had to be invented. This type of thinking (called essentialist in philosophical terminology) was the hallmark of philosophy from Plato onward, until it faded with the advent of modernity. Thus, R’ Nachman, a contemporary of Napoleon, is an early critic of essentialism.

A later but very well-known critic of essentialism in the social sphere wrote a passage which is strikingly similar to R’ Nachman’s in both content and literary power, though he saw an end to the non-stop ‘spinning’ that does not include God’s Unity:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.
-Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto”, 1848


2nd Candle: Chanukah and Commercialism

These thoughts aren’t fully articulated, but I feel like I’m on to something, and would be grateful if anyone can help me flesh this out. Two quick stories:

  • Last week, in one of my proudest moments as a Jewish parent, my wife took my 5-year-old daughter to shop for a Chanukah present for a cousin with whom she ‘exchanged’ gifts. She couldn’t understand why we were buying a gift. After all, this cousin’s birthday wasn’t until the summer. I was very proud that, for my little girl, Chanukah hadn’t yet been commercialized.

  • Earlier today, I bought a 21-oz. bag of Reese’s Tree-shaped milk-and-white chocolate peanut-butter cups for a mere 99 cents. Comparing that to the buckfitty (thanks, Fred) that the qualitatively and quantitatively inferior chocolate coins cost, one is tempted to consider baptism.

Of course, the sale is directly linked to the fact that the hyper-commercialization of the American/Christian (let’s not be fooled by wishes for ‘Happy Holidays’; the sales start of the 26th) holiday season has passed its climax, and stores are purging whatever they have left (so stock up on Sukkah decorations).

It got me thinking that there are elements of our celebration of Chanukah which have a particularly anti-commercialist bent. The notion of ‘pirsumei nisa’, so central to the mitzvah of lighting candles, seeks to counter the adverse effects of hyper-commercialization which is endemic to our culture, and perhaps to the urbane and market-centered Greco-Roman world (see my discussion of R’ Shimon b. Yochai’s critique of ‘marketplaces’ here).

Two points from the Gemara in Shabbat 21b-22a, which discusses the lighting of Chanukah candles, reinforce this point. The first relates to the time of lighting, which is formulated as ‘until the feet are done at the marketplace’. Indeed, ideally the lights themselves should be as close to the public domain as possible. It almost as though the candles are intended to stand in opposition to the market, to serve as a reminder to those who traverse it that there is something else, something beyond, that ought to be kept in view.

The second point is a strange reiteration of Rav’s position that it’s forbidden to make use of the Chanukah lights. R’ Assi formulates it thus:
“It is forbidden to arrange (i.e., tabulate) money by the light [of the Chanukah candles]”
The Gemara concludes that this would be a disgrace of the mitzvah (and not because of any inherent sanctity of the candles, to the contrary of what we say in the ‘Ha-neirot Halalu’ paragraph after candle-lighting). Of all activities that can be performed by candle-light, the Gemara singles out the counting of money as being most incongruous with the theme of the Chanukah candles.

Fame and Ambiguity

The JIB nominees are out and it seems I've been nominated for 'Best Religion Blog'. Here I ask, what does the word 'best' modify? 'Religion' or 'blog'? I already know that I blog about the best religion. I think it means that someone thinks that this is the best blog about the Jewish religion. I mean, someone besides me. And the ADDeRebbetzin denies that it's her. It's nice to be loved, though I need MONEY more than glory.

Day 1: Reading of Menachot 99b - on Learning Greek Wisdom

This will be the first in a 7 or 8 part series for each night of Chanukah, exploring some element of the interface between Judaism and Hellenism, the two great civilizations whose relationship has yielded the Western world.

The first ‘installment’ is a reading of the Gemara in Menachot 99b:

Ben Damah the son of R. Yishmael's sister once asked R. Yishmael, May one such as I who have studied the whole of the Torah learn Greek wisdom? He thereupon read to him the following verse: This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night (Joshua 1:8). [He continued], “Go and find a time that is neither day nor night and then learn Greek wisdom.”
This disagrees with R’ Shmuel, son of Nachmani, who said in the name of R’ Jonathan:
This verse is not an obligation or a commandment, rather a blessing. God saw that the words of Torah were beloved to Joshua, as it says, “And [Moses’] apprentice was Joshua ben Nun, a youth who would not depart from the tent (Shemot 33:11)”. God therefore said to him, “Joshua, words of Torah are so beloved by you? This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth!”

Though this passage is well known, there are certain elements which are often ignored. For example, R’ Shmuel’s position, that the ability to study Torah day and night was a reward granted to Yehoshua because it was so beloved to him, is not nearly as well-known as R’ Yishmael’s position.

More fundamentally, however, this passage seems not to be of a halakhic nature; it doesn’t view itself as a true dispute about the scope of the obligation to study Torah and the permissibility of studying ‘Greek wisdom’. For instance, the ‘disputants’ are R’ Yishmael, a tanna, and R’ Shmuel b. Nachman, an amora. The Talmud would not set them up on equal footing if this were truly a legal dispute; rather, the R’ Yishmael story would be marshaled as a prooftext against R’ Shmuel. There is a prior discussion in the Gemara about the minimum requirements of Torah study, and this passage seems to be associatively linked but remains a separate discussion.

Furthermore, the dialogue between R’ Yishmael and his nephew is not constructed as a halakhic conversation. Ben Damah’s question presupposes that he has mastered the Torah, a bold claim; he asks specifically about Greek wisdom, and not about absolution of the obligation to study Torah. It’s also very difficult to take R’ Yishmael’s answer seriously at face value. Does he really think that there is such a time? Is that what his prooftext from Joshua is trying to communicate?

Finally, the discussion is about how to understand a verse from the book of Joshua, which is not considered a source of laws and mitzvot.

Taken together, these elements allow for a literary approach to the conversation between Ben Damah and his illustrious uncle.

It would not be far-fetched to accuse Ben Damah of presumptuousness for claiming that he has completed the Torah. He is relating to Torah study as a field to be mastered, an obligation that must be discharged. Having done so, he wishes to move on to something, apparently an academic pursuit, of his own choosing. R’ Yishmael responds by denying Ben Damah’s assumption; there is no ‘end’ to Torah study. The job is never finished. R’ Shmuel would respond differently – Torah study is a reward, an opportunity, to be loved, not discharged.

R’ Yishmael’s attitude toward ‘Greek Wisdom’ is ambivalent. Is he euphemistically suggesting that it has absolutely no value, or that, relative to Torah, it’s insignificant? Is there a time which is ‘neither day nor night? And how would R’ Shmuel respond?

From a variety of sources (notably Tosafot in Sotah 49), ‘Greek Wisdom’ pertains to some sort of mode of thinking and speaking that was uniquely Greek, a mode of discourse or rhetoric. R’ Yishmael felt this mode of thinking and speaking to be antithetical to Torah and maintained that in a situation where the infinite obligation to Torah remains, there is no room for dual allegiance.
Except, of course, when it is ‘neither day nor night’.

Day and night often represent different modes of existence – clarity and confusion, redemption and exile, etc. Perhaps R’ Yishmael is suggesting that there really is a limited space in which ‘Greek Wisdom’ can – or must – be studied. At ‘night’, when the Jewish people are persecuted, overwhelmed, or enslaved, reaching out to the prevailing ‘high culture’ is entirely inappropriate. As long as there are survivors, Wagner will not be played in Israel. The dominating culture forfeits the right to set the language of debate and discourse when it’s used as a vehicle of control. The Jew, in this situation, is enjoined to remain exclusively within his own set of symbols and meanings.

Similarly, during the ‘day’ we may develop our own culture, our own modes of expression and discourse, and need not import a foreign one. Let others come and learn the language and discourse of Torah study. Let them absorb its values.

However, there are times, few and far between, when it is neither day nor night. We don’t have the good fortune of a redeemed, autonomous culture, yet are welcome and creative members of the broader world. In such a situation – early Moslem Spain, Renaissance Italy, contemporary America - the study of the disciplines of ‘Greek Wisdom’, cultural literacy, adoption of certain modes of discourse, becomes warranted.

And what about R’Shmuel? For him, the Torah is not a place to retreat to. It is completely open and inviting, demanding nothing but offering the world. For him, nothing is a threat to the Torah. All can and ought be absorbed into Torah, even Greek Wisdom itself. For him, the struggle between Torah and Greek Wisdom is resolved when one’s love of Torah ‘overflows’ – is blessed – and incorporates the totality of that person’s being, bringing the ‘beauty of Yafet’ into the ‘tent of Shem’.


Funny Stories (that might make you cry)

This past week, I was at a conference for professionals in Jewish organizations. The spectrum of people there was extremely diverse, pretty much in any way that you can think of it. There were three elements that really leap out as being, well, just bizarre.

1) They had posted quotes from a number of well-known Jews about their own relationship with Judaism. There were three adjacent to each other at the entrance to the main meeting hall, one from Barbara Streisand, one from R’ Soloveitchik, and one from Natalie Portman. It goes without saying that the opinions Yentl and Amidala are at least as significant as the Rav’s; I just didn’t know that the Rav was so famous…

2) There was a banquet toward the conclusion of the conference. The band played a mixture of pop-culture and Jewish songs (they could’ve brought in Matisyahu and knocked out two birds with one stone), and there was intermittent dancing (mixed) during which I and my colleagues got fat. At one point, the band played Carlebach’s ‘Im Eshkachekh’, at which point some of the younger crowd began slow-dancing. It’s like, ‘let my right hand forget it’s way to my partner’s tuchus’.

[side note: ever notice that the word ‘tuchus’ is so much funnier than any English alternative? It can get a message across without it being confrontational or crude. To wit, threatening to bust out a can of whupa** is far more antagonistic than turning to the equally potent but far more diffusing whuptuchus. Next time you feel like using the word ‘butt’ or ‘a**’, substitute ‘tuchus’ and see how different it is, ve-acamo”l]

3) There was a session for Rabbis on conversion and intermarriage. An Orthodox colleague of mine and I attended, along with three other, non-Orthodox Rabbis (I believe all 3 were Reform, but I’m not certain). It was a great session, and we articulated ourselves pretty well. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I recently posted thrice on this issue over at MY, and had put a lot of thought into these issues in general. Also from that session:
  • A surprising phenomenon, that my heterodox colleagues pointed out, is that as one’s level of observance increases, one’s acceptance of Jews of different ethnic or racial backgrounds also increases. I suggested – with the agreement of all in the room (which shocked me) – that this is because if one’s Judaism is defined solely on ethnic grounds, then someone from a different ethnic background isn’t ‘really’ Jewish, whereas one who understands their Judaism as something more content-driven is much more likely to accept someone with common values, regardless of language or skin color.

  • One of the non-Orthodox Rabbis presented a dilemma where a non-Jew who was taking ‘conversion classes’ was offered, and accepted, gelilah. She (the Rabbi) approached him and asked if he had already converted, and when he answered in the negative, instructed him to decline the honor. Her point was that there are times when we need to draw lines and be somewhat non-inclusive, as much as it might be awkward. My Orthodox colleague and I agreed that in that situation, we would have allowed the person to continue rather than potentially embarrassing him, because glilah, is an honor which doesn’t require any type of legal stature from the honoree. We wouldn’t have given it out like that a priori, and the gabai would’ve been approached at a later time, but we wouldn’t have stopped in mid-stream. Our non-Orthodox colleague was very thankful for the explanation; so, bizarre as it may sound, I gave a hetter to a Reform Rabbi. I never would’ve thought it possible.


Interesting New Books

With Chanukah coming up, and many of you wondering what to get for the curious Jew in your life, there are two new books that you may want to consider (for yourselves as well).

The first is of the 'cofee table' variety, and is called 'Sticking to Israel' by Elan Katz Mosbacher. It consists of 80 pages of photos of different Israeli bumper stickers and graffitti (with translation captions). It succeeds in capturing the tone and variety of Israeli religious, political, and social life as expressed through sloganeering, and perusing this book is both enjoyable and stimulating.

The second book I haven't yet gotten the chance to read, but I saw it for sale and was very intrigued. It's called Off the Derech by Faranak Margolese, and analyzes the phenomenon of people raised as Orthodox Jews who stop adhering to its regulations. I hope to get a chance to read it soon, but if you have comments on it, feel free to post. The topic is certainly an interesting one. The book wasn't written from an academic or scientific perspective, rather from that of an insider trying to understand a lamentable situation.



Shabbat 33b-34a: Part VI - R' Shimon and Eliyahu

Continued from here.
Thus they dwelt twelve years in the cave. Then Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave and exclaimed, Who will inform the son of Yohai that the Emperor is dead and his decree annulled? So they emerged.

Within this narrative, and throughout Rabbinic literature, the number twelve represents wholeness, recalling the twelve months of a year or the twelve tribes of Israel. The number is invoked regarding R’ Shimon’s first and second times in the cave, and his growth in relation to R’ Pinchas b. Yair. After 12 years, it’s time for R’ Shimon to leave the cave. Twelve years is also enough time for the attitudes to soften, for a generation to mature, and for Roman domination to feel secure enough to tolerate and even welcome the contribution of its fiercest critics.

This news must reach R’ Shimon through his only, tenuous connection to the world outside: the door of the cave. The door of the cave is where R’ Shimon’s total isolation is broken into by the rest of the world and humanity. If there is any hope of R’ Shimon rejoining the world of men, something must cross that doorway.

Elijah, always the harbinger of change, hope, and ultimate redemption, bears this news. The appearance of Elijah at this point in the story is striking on several levels, which must be understood by referring to Elijah’s own story:
1 And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying: 'So let the gods do [to me], and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to-morrow about this time.' 3 And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. 4 But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom-tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said: 'It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.' 5 And he lay down and slept under a broom-tree; and, behold, an angel touched him, and said unto him: 'Arise and eat.' 6 And he looked, and, behold, there was at his head a cake baked on the hot stones, and a cruse of water. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. 7 And the angel of the LORD came again the second time, and touched him, and said: 'Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee.' 8 And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meal forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. 9 And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said unto him: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' 10 And he said: 'I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.' 11 And He said: 'Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.' And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13 And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' 14 And he said: 'I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel
have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets
with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.'
(I Kings 19)
Elijah’s story bears remarkable similarity to R’ Shimon’s. Both are outspoken critics of the ruling order. Both are condemned to death for their outspokenness and are forced to flee for their lives. Both subsist on bare rations of bread and water, initially. Both hide in a cave. Both have been immortalized in Jewish lore, their influence continuing long beyond their lifetimes. Eliyahu stood at the opening of his own cave in the Biblical narrative, providing an image which makes a remarkable reappearance in the Talmudic narrative. Both are censured by God for their attitudes, which may be described as an idealism which is unwilling to meet reality. Thus, the composition of R’ Shimon’s story is, in a sense, superimposed over the earlier, Biblical story of Elijah. The stories end differently, though, as R’ Shimon manages to reintegrate with reality, whereas Eliyahu moves on to a place where his idealism need not be marred by human frailty.

Elijah’s story itself includes some difficult points to understand. The sequence of events from when Elijah reaches the cave is puzzling: he complains to God, then witnesses several cataclysms in which God is not present, until finally hearing God in the ‘still, small voice’, whereupon he emerges to the ‘entrance of the cave’ and repeats his complaint verbatim, after which he is commanded to appoint his successor, his mission concluded. The repetition of the complaint forces us to ask what happened in between the two complaints.

It seems that there’s a dual critique of Eliyahu: the first relates to his teaching methodology, which can be described as ‘evangelical’. Eliyahu’s sound and light show of the previous chapter ends in failure. It provides a temporary inspiration, but only lasts as long as the feeling lasts. The word of God is not heard in the whirlwinds and the earthquakes, but in the consistent, quiet voice.

The second critique, rooted in the first, relates to Eliyahu’s attitude toward his contemporaries; he is unable, or unwilling to understand their culture. The prophet’s role is to castigate the people, yet remain part of them. Eliyahu, in his own words, sees himself as utterly alone. His inability to communicate with his generation in a sympathetic manner moved him to use teaching methods appropriate only for the most immature audience, unable to draw its own conclusions. It is against this attitude that God calls Eliyahu ‘out of the cave’, but Eliyahu remains mired in disenfranchisement and loneliness.

In the Biblical text, Eliyahu’s fate is to be taken to Heaven while yet alive. As noted when describing R’ Shimon’s position earlier, idealist positions are rarely appropriate for the reality of this world. Eliyahu’s stance is better suited for a different, more ideal world. Thus, the punishment fits the crime.

Jewish tradition, however, as well as the Biblical book of Malachi, give Eliyahu a different fate: he is to remain a harbinger of hope and redemption. He is to eat the words that he uttered at the door of his cave. Whereas he insisted that Israel had forsaken its covenant, he is traditionally present at circumcision ceremonies, where that selfsame covenant is ever renewed. Whereas he felt that there was no hope for Israel to change, he will announce the ultimate redemption, the Messianic era, confirming the ultimate perfectibility of this world.

In our narrative, he is placed once again at the ‘door of the cave’, and heralds change. The world that R’ Shimon fled from, dominated by Roman culture and, for him, inhospitable to Jewish life, is itself in flux and open to change. J. Rubenstein points out that this segment of the story, the arrival of Eliyahu, is the structural center of the composition, the focus of its chiastic structure. Thematically, this is the moment that R’ Shimon learn that he will have something to contribute after all.


Hillel, Shammai, and the Converts

I've posted part 2 of the well-known (relatively) stories of Hillel, Shammai, and the 3 potential gerim, and it can be found over at Maven Yavin.


The Conversion Experience

How should the term ger be translated?
Find out here.

Good Acting or Wishful Thinking? Why I can Fake Being Yeshivish

I’m not chareidi. I don’t pretend to be chareidi. Or yeshivish. However, whenever I’m with chareidi friends, relatives, or colleagues, unless it’s a setting which would really allow my ‘true colors’ to come through, I’ll inevitably leave the impression that I’m chareidi as well. I’ve often wondered about my ability to do this.

I used to think that it was because I’m a good actor (‘faker’), but that can’t be the whole story. Having gotten a pretty yeshivish education through middle school, somewhat yeshivish through high school, and then 9 years in yeshiva, YU, and kollel, grown up in a fairly chareidi neighborhood, and had family which runs the gamut of Orthodoxy, I got pretty comfortable with the language, idiom, and cliché, and share the same girsa de-yankusa as much of the chareidi community. Moreover, I’m in the Rabbinic profession, and have a shtella in a location that would scare many off (and not because of lack of options).

However, I was never really trying to hide anything. I don’t dress ‘in uniform’, right up to the knit yarmulke, and will often take controversial positions in these discussions (like: television isn’t so bad; the internet is a great tool; there are heterodox clergymen who are as ‘le-shem shamayim’ as you and I; etc.). I also don’t hide the fact that I learned in yeshivot that are anything but yeshivish.

So it dawned on me that there’s something else going on. Namely, that they see me, a meticulously observant, learned Jew, and this translates directly, automatically, into being chareidi. There’s no alternative. MO is a way-station on the way to being Chareidi (BTW- I think that many MO probably think the same of Conservative Judaism). Everything about me that diverges from the model chareidi Jew would somehow be explained away – I dress this way to gain rapport w/ the balabatim, value secular learning because it makes me sound more intelligent and therefore gives me more credibility when I talk about why they should be frum, etc. They want to see me as one of them much more than I care to been seen as one of them.

Just a few minutes ago, I got a telephone call from AJOP, asking questions about the last conference and recommendations about the upcoming one. They asked if there were any issue that I felt should be addressed. I thought that the entire scenario was simply bizarre. AJOP asking me what I thought should be on the agenda for this year’s convention.

I responded that they should address issues of Torah and Science, writ large, since many of the methods offered to those of us ‘in the field’ have been rendered treif. I’ll be sure to report if they address it, and if I attend the conference.