Whose Words Are These?

“These are the words” (eleh d’varim). So starts this week’s Torah reading and the entire book Deuteronomy, which it introduces. But whose words are they, God’s or Moses’s? Many of our finest commentators suspect the latter, wondering, as a consequence, whether Deuteronomy is even God-given altogether. To be sure, says Abravanel (1437-1508), “There is no book in all of holy writ that Moses wrote all by himself,” but still, he opines, it does seem that “’These words’ are the words of our master Moses” albeit intended as explanations of commandments given by God elsewhere.

Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) goes further, however, by (famously!) pointing to passages Moses could not have written, like the verses at the end of Deuteronomy that presuppose Moses’s death, and had to have been composed by someone else (probably Joshua, Ibn Ezra concludes). We look back on Ibn Ezra as pioneering early “biblical criticism” – a scientific approach that sees Torah not as a singular revelation given word for word to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but a brilliantly edited set of documents that evolved over the course of centuries, culminating in a final version after the return from Babylonian exile.

So whose words are they — the words of Torah, I mean: all the words, not just those of Deuteronomy? If the scientific study is correct, they are the words of human writers over time.

Jews properly differ on the matter. Abravanel devotes a lengthy discussion to the issue and concludes, “This holy book [Deuteronomy] in its entirety and all its parts came directly from God who commanded it be written down word for word just like the rest of Torah.” The Malbim (1809-1879) is even clearer: “It was all written by God. On his own accord, Moses wrote nothing, not even the tiniest dot.”

Most Jews today side with Ibn Ezra – and with science – but maintain that the text remains sacred, no matter how it came into being. Attributing it all to God, they say, is troubling theologically, not just stylistically. If God indeed wrote every word, then every word must be correct; yet God appears sometimes as vengeful, cruel, and the author of some laws that boggle the modern mind (like “an eye for an eye” [Exodus 21:24] and stoning the rebellious child [Deut. 21:18-21]).

And not just the modern mind: the Talmud itself denied the literal validity of such things, “correcting them” with the notion of an oral law that successive generations of Torah scholars are said to intuit and then use to interpret the “real” meaning of the written text.

Modern scholarship can be seen as an extension of this rabbinic principle: revelation should be reimagined as ongoing throughout time.

What unites both sides of the debate is the assumption that divine truth comes from the study of Torah, no matter how it came about. Jews gather for Torah study, the way other faiths meet to meditate or pray. We start meetings with a d’var torah (“a word of Torah”), the way others cite the tales of Jesus, a statement from the Quran, or the American Constitution. What would a Jewish newspaper be without a column on “the portion of the week”?

Christianity left Judaism not when it proclaimed its faith in Jesus as a messiah – Jews have had many “messianists” over time without their becoming separate religions. Christianity left when it stopped reading Torah as the primary source of wisdom and began instead to read the Gospel portraits of Jesus as its tale worth telling and interpreting for all time.

It really doesn’t matter whether God gave us Deuteronomy through Moses on Mt. Sinai, whether Moses made it up himself, or whether God spoke somehow through the evolution of time to our many ancestors, who, in turn, put the Torah together. What matters is that however it happened, we somehow got it, made it our own, cherished and still cherish it, as the story of who we are and the model for how God wants us still to be.

Donkeys, Tongs, and the Coming of the Messiah

The talking donkey most familiar to Americans these days is the cartoon character “Donkey” from the hit movie Shrek (2001). But Donkey’s predecessor, Francis the talking mule, debuted in a 1946 World War II novel, and then seven follow-up films in the 1950s; and the unbeatable original is a whole lot older still — Balaam’s donkey of Numbers 22.

All three donkeys are noticeably smarter than the people who own them, and maybe that’s the point. A donkey is a jackass, after all, the archetypically stupid beast of burden; granting them intelligence is a favorite artistic strategy

The Rabbis, who think Balaam’s donkey was real, trace its origin to creation itself, when God fashioned a variety of things that history would someday require but put them aside until they were needed. One such item was Balaam’s donkey. Another was the first set of tongs

Yes, tongs!

A quintessential breakthrough in human material culture is metallurgy: first iron, and then the process of heating it above 800 degrees centigrade to “steel” it for tasks where ordinary iron breaks. But to manipulate iron, you need tongs, and in order to make the tongs, you first need other tongs! It follows, then, that alongside Balaam’s donkey, God must also have fashioned a set of primeval tongs, which humans eventually discovered and used to make all the other tongs.

Long before metallurgy, there was fire itself, of course, so another rabbinic tale traces that also to God. This story accents Adam, the human being who discovered it; celebrated its heat and light; thanked God for it; and used it ever after

To tongs and fire as benchmarks in human progress, we should add writing, the means of transmitting knowledge through the generations. Rabbinic tradition ascribes the discovery of writing to Enoch, a descendent of Adam. Legend pictures God allowing Enoch to live among the angels, so that he might attain their mastery of the natural universe, and write it down for humans to learn

The important lesson here is that all these tales picture God as welcoming human discovery — unlike Zeus of Greek mythology, from whom Prometheus, like some primeval industrial spy, has to steal these very secrets (metallurgy, fire and script) and give them to mortals: an act for which he is punished by being shackled to a crag, where every day, an eagle rips open his flesh to devour his liver. The God of the Rabbis, by contrast, willingly creates everything we need – writing, fire, tongs, and even (for a single cameo appearance) a talking donkey: and then glories in our discovering them.

Civilization requires regularized breakthrough inventions, but do we invent them despite creation or does the very plan of creation favor our inventiveness? Judaism’s answer is the latter: the cosmos and we are in sync. God welcomes curiosity. God wants us to uncover the world’s secrets

Judaism views the universe as massive beyond imagination, but created with order and logic – just awaiting human discovery. To be a Jew is to value the art of exploring the unknown. Adam stops to investigate fire; Enoch writes notes on what the angels know; some unknown blacksmith figured out how to use tongs; and Balaam marvels at, and listens to, a talking jackass.

God supplies the world with whatever we might need; we dedicate ourselves to finding it. That, the Rabbis say, is what God wants: we are in league with God in manufacturing progress.

Progress is slow, however, measured only in eons, so we must commit ourselves to this business called life, for the long haul. Only eventually will we, conceivably, discover miraculous solutions for such problems as intractable disease, endemic poverty, ecological disaster and war.

We call that eventuality the messianic age, which tradition describes as a messiah arriving on yet one more donkey. That too, perhaps, is a holdover from creation, deposited in the wings of history and awaiting its turn on the world stage. Stay tuned. Who knows

Things and Their Significances

Jack London (“To Build a Fire”) tells the chilling tale of a solitary hiker traversing the Yukon at 50 degrees below zero. “He was,” says London, “quick and alert in the things of life but only in the things, and not in the significances….The trouble with him was that he had no imagination.” He knew it was cold – knew, in fact, that it was fifty degrees below zero. But he did not then “meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general… and from there … to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”

Here are two levels of imagination. Elemental self-preservation requires the first: “to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature.” Religion raises the second:  “man’s frailty in general… and the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”

Religion is a sort of imagination. It is the study of significances. To be religious is to be alive not just to things but to their significances. It is a flight of fancy, but not fantasy. It is the positing of a connective tissue behind and beyond phenomena.


Until modernity, conversation was rife with religious imagination. When, by the seventeenth century, modernity pushed the scientific system for all it was worth, religion failed, at first, to keep up. Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did religion finally make the necessary intellectual advances, and in many places, it has yet to do so still. Where it has matured, however, sophisticated religionists acknowledge the validity of both science and religion: the knowledge of things and the imagination of their significances.

But when science came into its own, religion lost its monopoly on the imaginative process. Art had always been in service of religion, but as religion paled, art – itself, potentially, an exploration of significances — sprung itself free. Many artists conscientiously eschewed the task of imagining significances, but others developed their own alternative systems of exploring what things mean, and in so doing, became, by definition, religious once again, but independently and maturely so.


Identity is the name we give to the allegiance we have to one set of significances over another: to music, say, rather than religion; or to sports or business, for that matter. Any given set of facts can “mean” different things. A devastating tsunami may mean the market will go down (business); God is punishing humanity through a flood (one form of religion); we must find meaning in mortality (another kind of religion) and unite as a human community to do what we can to save one another (religion, again, but with an ethical component).

London’s Yukon hiker is a fictitious anomaly. Most human beings cannot escape the search for some underlying system of significations. The only question is what set of underlying significations any one of us espouses.



Having and Getting: They’re Not the Same


Once again, we reach the familiar story of the spies (or scouts) dispatched to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. Ten of its twelve members return with the devastating news that it is unconquerable; it is fruitless to go on. The two holdouts, Joshua and Caleb, demur. The land can be ours, they insist; don’t give up.

This is more than a case of a glass half full or half empty, the pessimists seeing problems and the optimists opportunity. Our commentators say it touches the heart of being human: the difference between a scout and a spy.

Elsewhere (Deut. 1:24), the reconnaissance party is recalled as “spying out” the land (vay’raglu); but as we see here, they were sent just latur – to “scout” it. Scouting and spying, says the Malbim, are dispositions of character, akin to “having” and “getting.”

When faced with something we might want, he says, we become “scouts,” simply checking out whether we really want to have it. If we decide we want it, we convert “scouting” into “spying,” the attitude of figuring out how to get it. Scouts look for positives: the reasons we might want it.  Spies ferret out negatives: the contextual flaws that may suggest a strategy by which to get it. As scouts, the biblical explorers saw a land flowing with milk and honey. As spies, they sought out Canaanite weaknesses – and finding none, they gave up hope of success. They were good scouts but bad spies. They properly saw the land as good “to have,” but could find no way “to get” it.

They weren’t supposed to be spies, however. How to “get” the land was God’s problem, not theirs. Their mission was simply to be scouts, to ramp up excitement at having a land of their own rather than being slaves in someone else’s land or wandering endlessly through the no-man’s land that is the desert. The Torah values scouting over spying. Politically or militarily speaking, the tactics of “getting” something do matter; but what counts is whether we want to “have” it in the first place.

American society today has forgotten that distinction. We are so enamored with “getting” that we spend our time figuring out how to get what we do not even want to “have.”

Take our obsession with shopping, for example — not shopping as a means of finding the best thing to have but shopping just to get what we do not need and will never use even if we get it.

Or, better, consider the difference between getting a job and having it. We equate success with constantly climbing the corporate ladder. Managers should aspire to become vice presidents, who, in turn, should dream of being president. But getting the job of president isn’t the same as having it. In 1969, author Laurence J. Peter gave us “The Peter Principle,” according to which, “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence until every post is occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.” The actual work is accomplished by “those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

That is bad for organizations, and worse for the people in them, those who get the jobs they wanted to get, but never really wanted to have. The Israelites wanted to have the land but mistakenly thought they couldn’t get it. Our society encourages us to get whatever job we can, even if we will not want to have it after we get it.

Life should be about having, not getting. At some point we ought to appreciate what we have, and, maybe, want to have even more, but our obsession with getting beyond what we can appreciate having is a sickness. Scouting out life’s opportunities is natural and healthy. Spying out the way to get everything in sight is a derangement well worth avoiding.


Having Children – Or Not

“I don’t know much about Judaism, Rabbi, but I know it shouldn’t needlessly hurt people.” So says a man to me many years ago. His words still haunt me.

He and his wife had been together for twenty years, but never had children. People treated them like Jewish failures.

Not having children is a personal matter — not something lightly launched as lunchtime conversation. So people attacked for childlessness just grin and bear it.

Some want children but cannot conceive or give birth, no matter what they do. Initial sadness becomes outright depression and despair, but social niceties prohibit frank disclosure, so they suffer silently lest the grief of infertility be aggravated by the stigma of infelicity.

Adoption is an option but not for the fainthearted. It is hard to conquer the fear that there is something wrong with you, and the adoption process is complicated, lengthy, uncertain, and expensive.

Then there are increasing numbers of people who decide not to have children — for many reasons which, again, are not the kind of thing you talk about when people give you glances suggesting you are not fully Jewish on that account.

Yes, having children is a mitzvah — usually. The Talmud argues that God created the world “to be inhabited,” so Jews should do their part to fill the world with inhabitants. But life is more complicated than any single rule about it. Especially when it comes to having children, individuals have to apply Talmudic calculus personally and, sometimes, painfully.

Case: a woman suffers from chronic depression. She wonders about becoming a mother.

Case: a man is sure he will make a bad parent. His wife concedes he is right, fears taking on sole parental responsibility herself, and suspects that having a child will destroy the marriage and the child as well.

Case: a couple decides that children are not right for them. They are good people who make a point of serving the world in other ways.

The judgmentalism encountered by childlessness can be devastating. “I put on armor, says one Jewish woman, “just to steel myself against what people are thinking.” Another says, “I was relieved to pass my childbearing years, so that I would no longer have to go through the agonizing feeling every day that I ought to ‘rectify’ what I knew was the right decision.”

Exacerbating this latent judgmentalism are the subtle institutional announcements that children are the only ones who matter. Synagogue budgets go overwhelmingly for religious schools and “tot-shabbats.” We send teenagers to Israel, but not ourselves. We favor kiddie-holidays like Chanukah; and dilute Seders to the Four Questions. Official programs and grants support Jewish parents; but not Jewish adults with no children to be Jewish for. Are Jewish homes just for Jewish kids, who grow up just to make Jewish homes for their own kids, and so on, and so on, and so on?

Fortunately, the synagogue reading this week offers a corrective. It announces, “These are the children of Aaron and Moses,” but then names just those of Aaron, leading the Talmud to say (San 19b), “Aaron’s sons are reckoned as belonging also to Moses, because Moses taught them Torah. From this we learn that if you teach other people’s children Torah, it is as if you had borne them yourself.” Maimonides writes, “If you teach people a single thing that raises their level of understanding, it is as if you bore them. That is why Scripture calls the disciples of prophets `sons of prophets.'”

People who want children should have them if they can and if it is the right thing to do. But many can’t; many shouldn’t; many don’t. People who can’t, shouldn’t, or don’t are not on that account second-class Jews.

Going childless is hard enough in a society where everyone is “supposed” to have them. We should be careful not to make it harder still, because Judaism shouldn’t needlessly hurt people, should it?



On Lions and Lambs: The Annual Spring Break and What Comes After

Passover is the Jewish People’s annual Spring Break from workaday worry, and it came especially late this year.

The issue is our Jewish calendar, which measures months by the moon but years by the sun. Since 12 lunar months (at 29.5 days each) are about 11 days short of the 365¼-day solar year, Passover (always the same in lunar time) arrives earlier and earlier (in solar time). When it threatens to be here before Spring, we add the extra winter month of Adar II to delay it.

Given our recent cold weather, at least here in New York, we needed the time. The shining message of Passover hope works best with the confirming evidence of long-awaited sunshine, warmth and flowers.

That positive message permeates the appointed Passover readings. Day One (like the Haggadah the night before) recalls deliverance from Egypt, and Day Seven has us crossing of the Sea on dry land – the twin biblical examples of unexpected miracles.

But in between Days One and Seven we strike a negative note: we begin counting the Omer, the name we give to the period between the second day of Passover and Shavuot. Tradition treats the Omer ominously – like a dark alley in time, with promise at the end but no guarantee of getting that far. It’s a Jewish obsession, perhaps: never let your guard down.

Still, the Omer aside, Passover itself is insistently messianic. Medieval Jews actually expected Elijah to arrive when they flung open their doors on Seder eve; and in case he dallied, the 8th-day Haftarah (Isaiah 10:32-12:6) envisioned a time when “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb”; when human rulers, imbued with wisdom and God’s spirit, would “judge the poor with righteousness.”

But Passover ends with wolves still eating lambs; righteousness in short supply; and Elijah’s wine poured back into the bottle until next year. The ongoing Torah narrative that we then resume provides crushing evidence that our Spring Break is over. It’s called Acharei Mot, “After the Death,” a reminder that Aaron’s two sons have died. And we’re only half way through Leviticus – we have to trudge through all of Numbers and Deuteronomy before getting to the Promised Land.

“April is the cruelest month,” said T.S. Eliot. Had he not been an outright anti-Semite, he might have gotten that from Jewish neighbors reflecting on aborted Passover promise and a return to the normalcy of sons dying young, lambs eaten by lions, and the poor being devoured by the rich.

Had Eliot asked me, I would have championed the message as a measure of Jewish honesty: Passover springtime promise along with counting our careful way through the alley of the Omer: they are both real. T.S. Eliot also said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and he was wrong on that one. Humankind has been bearing too much reality since Adam and Eve were forced from the Garden. The question isn’t whether we bear it, but how, and the Jewish calendar incorporates the “how” in its Passover/Omer contradiction.

We bear it by our heroism, but not the classic variety going all the way from Achilles and Odysseus to Batman and Superman. Jewish heroes inhabit the fullness of life’s dilemma: the Exodus — and Aaron’s sons; the messiah who hasn’t come yet — and the one that might arrive tomorrow; the governments we have — and the ones we still can hope for. Jewish heroes count the Omer, heading toward Sinai, but wary of the world along the way.

It is no small thing to get up each day with echoes of Passover joy despite the knowledge that we may someday be Aaron, grieving for our children. Elijah’s coming and Isaiah’s visions may not immediately materialize, but they are not just gossamer deception; they are the stuff of Jewish heroism, reminders of humanity at its best, the humanity we actually can become, even while doing our daily counting through life’s interminable Omers.


Medieval Physician’s Almanac or Body, Soul and Self

What does one do with a biblical reading that looks like a disappointing chapter in a medieval physician’s almanac:  first, the forms of blood impurity following childbirth; then the treatment, diagnosis, and transmission of skin disease (usually translated as leprosy)?

One obvious answer is to accept it as just that, but there doesn’t seem to be much gain in reading bad medicine — not just biblical but rabbinic, like Gersonides’ claim that breastmilk produced for daughters is thicker than it is for sons; or Abarbanel’s certainty that males have more heat than females so are formed more quickly. Rashbam properly despairs at how little his generation knows of such things,

So our commentators prefer a moral reading. The so-called leprosy, they say, is the quintessential punishment for lashon hara, “talking slanderously of others.” We applaud the Jewish denunciation of lashon hara  — a genuine Jewish value that appears ubiquitously in the Talmud and even the prayer book. But categorizing severe illness as moral punishment is objectionable, and wrong.

The best approach is to see the biblical account as a metaphoric treatment of the human body (and by extension, its opposite, the soul) because from beginning to end,it is a disheartening description of bodily functions (and dysfunctions); and the difficulty we have in coming to terms with the most obvious thing that we are, bodies running amok and running down.

We may laugh, or even be outraged, at our ancestors’ treatment of childbirth, but remembering how little they grasped the medicine of it all, we can at least understand their reversion to expiatory sacrifice as their way of facing the troubling reality that we are genetically conditioned to have children, but only at the terrible cost of labor pain and the after-effects upon the mother’s physical condition even in cases of successful labor – not to mention the frequency of stillbirth or of babies with bodies that are painfully defective from the start.

Labor at least produces babies. Nothing good can be said about disease, pictured here with all the intimate ugliness of skin abrasions and discoloration that may spread in ever wider circles until the body threatens to be overrun by them. That’s the problem with bodies, even for us, who eat well, get regular sleep, and exercise maniacally: at best, it is all a holding action, postponing the inevitability of our bodies heading toward uselessness, and then flat-lining into death and decay.

We live in a time that practically worships the body – to an extent unseen since the days of ancient Greece. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. Of course we should practice bodily hygiene, remain fit, and avoid obesity. And equally, we should be cognizant of the damage done by former eras that saw natural bodily functions like menstruation as shameful or downright evil.  But in the end, bodies are just bodies, the vessels of a larger “self” that we sense we are in our best moments. When our bodies abandon us, we still think of our “selves” as intact.

That mysteriously intact self should not be taken for granted. It is a distinctively human thing to know we have one. The self is separate even from the brain which may process thought and emotion but is nonetheless altogether bodily no less than our heart, skin, and lungs.

The brilliance of religion is its insistence on that “other” part of us, the “self” that is precious, irreplaceable, and undimmed by the ravages of time and circumstance. It is beyond scientific detection, altogether elusive, but not a mere delusion. This “self” we know we are is the most mysterious of all our certainties, a reflection of what Jews have called the soul. This soul, the Rabbis say, comes pure from God and remains intact no matter when, how, or how much our bodies turn against us.