Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Unexamined Faith

Last week my daughter Liav leapt off our bed when I wasn’t looking and landed head-first on the floor. She had a big bump on her forehead and she was bleeding from both nostrils for quite a long time. I took her to Terem, the emergency clinic, and after an hour of waiting to be seen, the doctor announced that she was fine. “Thank God, thank God,” I said instinctively – these were the only words I could manage at that moment. The doctor told me to sit in the waiting room for an hour so they could make sure that she did not vomit or lose consciousness in the aftermath of her injury, but I knew by then that she was going to be okay. I sat in the waiting room reciting all the psalms I knew by heart -- not because this is what I thought Judaism demanded of me, but because I was so full of relief and gratitude that the words of Psalms were, at that moment, the language of my heart.
            In moments of extreme emotion, I have always turned to God. I don’t think of myself as a person of deep faith, because it seems less a matter of credo than a manner of speaking: Religious language is the way I give voice to feelings too powerful to contain. When I am too anguished or depressed to do anything else, I open the siddur and pray. When something wonderful happens or I am miraculously spared from disaster, I instinctively thank God. “But how do you know God exists? How can you be sure?” In college my hallmates and I would stay up late engaged in long discussions about Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and whether agnosticism is indeed the most intellectually honest stance. I suppose that is the luxury that college affords – endless nights to engage with ideas on a purely theoretical level, without worrying about waking up for a job or being awoken by a baby who was dropped on her head when her mother was surely distracted by similar musings. These days I rarely think about what I believe and why – not just because I do not have the time, but because such thoughts seem irrelevant to my daily Jewish practice.
            It is commonly thought that Judaism cares less about what Jews believe than about what they do. This is the oft-cited dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity, a religion based on faith rather than works, at least as it was originally conceived. But tractate Sanhedrin shows that what we believe is very much relevant, and certain beliefs can place us beyond the pale. The question arises in the broader context of the tractate as a whole, as well as the two tractates that follow, Makkot and Shevuot, all of which are concerned with courtroom procedure. After discussing the types of courts and the basics of judicial proceedings, the Talmud turns to the four forms of capital punishment—stoning, strangling, execution (by sword), and burning—and the sins that would render the individual liable for each. The final chapter discusses those sins that are so grave that they deny the individual a place in the world to come. These sins are primarily lapses of faith. Thus a place in the world to come is denied to anyone who denies the divinity of Torah, or denies that the dead will be revived (90a).
            These are both fundamental tenets of my own faith, however unexamined that faith may be. (And the unexamined faith, I maintain, is still worth having.) I believe that Torah is divine. For me this does not mean that God handed the entire written and oral Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, as some more “traditional” Jews would have it. Or perhaps I should say that to the extent that God handed the written and oral Torah to Moses, that act was a metaphor for the way our tradition developed. I believe that Sinai is the human record of an encounter with God. As a human record, this document is historically contingent: It was written at a particular historical moment, and reflects the biases of its time. This record had to be adapted to later generations, both in terms of changing historical circumstances and in terms of changing theological understandings. Those adaptations are known as midrash – the creative reworking and retelling of Biblical law and narrative so as to render it ever-relevant. I remember learning in fifth grade about the difference between natural numbers and rational numbers. (I apologize to any mathematicians reading this essay, since I recognize that the terms may have changed in the last thirty years, but this is how it was explained to me in fifth grade.) Natural numbers are integers: 1,2,3… Rational numbers are all the decimal points in between, including 1.1, 1.12, 1.23378. Both sets are infinite, but only the rational numbers are infinitely dense, meaning that there are an infinite number of rational numbers between any two rational numbers. I think of Torah and midrash in similar terms. Between any two words—or occasionally even letters—in the Torah, there are an infinite number of midrashim, or reinterpretations, that are possible. The letters or the written Torah are fixed and unchanging, but new midrashim are written every day, and Torah resonates anew with each human encounter, each sermon, each d’var Torah, each academic article in Jewish studies. The Talmud famously states that the sage Nahum Ish Gamzu  could come up with a midrash on every “et” in the Torah. The word “et” is so insignificant that it is untranslatable; it is more a grammatical placeholder than a signifier of meaning.  And yet even the most minor word in the Torah can be adorned with crowns upon crowns of midrashic elaboration.
            The Talmud in Sanhedrin (99a) explains that it is not just someone who denies the divinity of Torah who is not granted a place in the world to come, but even someone who denies the divinity of any single verse in the Torah. I can identify with the impulse to deny certain verses; obviously there are parts of the Torah that are more problematic to my modern, egalitarian, pluralistic self. But I see no reason to excise particular verses because midrash offers us such a ready “way out.” Yes, there is an ancient and respected midrashic tradition that must be taken into account. But Torah is “infinitely dense,” and I have faith in our creative reading strategies. There is a fine line, I recognize, between extolling the creative possibilities of midrash and declaring that Torah can say anything we want it to say. But I believe too much in the former to allow the fear of the latter hold me back.
            The other lapse of faith identified in Sanhedrin as being so grave as to deny a person a place in the world to come is the sin of saying that there is no basis in the Torah for the notion of the revival of the dead. As the Talmud explains, this is a case of the punishment fitting the crime; surely any person who does not believe in an afterlife in which the dead will be revived should be denied a place in that afterlife. Even so, the Talmudic rabbis are hard-pressed to prove that there is mention of the afterlife in the Torah, since it is nowhere explicitly stated. One of several far-fetched proofs cited is the verse in which God tells Moses, “And I will fulfill my promise to them [the forefathers] to give them the land of Canaan” (Exodus 6:4). Since it says “to them” it must be that God will revive the forefathers after death so as to give them the land of Canaan. This is one of those cases when I raise my eyebrows while learning daf yomi and shrug, in awe once again at the ability of the midrashic imagination to find new ways of reading Biblical verses.
For me, the revival of the dead is simply another way of saying that this world is not all there is. What we see is not all of what we get. Or, as Herman Hesse wrote in Steppenwolf, “All we who think too much and have a dimension too many could not contend to live at all if there were not another world, if there were not eternity in the back of time.” Given all the injustice and oppression in our world--given all the bad things that happen to good people, to paraphrase the title of a book that my father always seemed to be reading when we were growing up--I must believe that there is another realm in which the scales of justice are recalibrated. This does not absolve me of the responsibility to pursue justice in this world, and indeed, I regard the messianic era as more of a challenge to humanity to pursue our ideals than as a divine promise that these ideals will someday be realized. And it seems that the Talmud does not disagree, at least according to one famous story in tractate Sanhedrin (98a).
The Talmud tells of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who once asked the prophet Elijah when the Messiah would arrive. “Ask him,” said Elijah, and he directed Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi to the gates of Rome, where the Messiah sat among the sick and wretched changing the bindings of his wounds. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi set off to Rome to meet the Messiah and ask him when he would come. The Messiah responded, “Today.” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi returned to Elijah and told him that the Messiah had promised to come that day, but had not held true to his promise. Elijah explained that the Messiah was in fact quoting a verse from Psalms: “Today, if you will heed His voice” (Psalms 95:7). That is, the Messiah will come the very same day that people do God’s work in the world. This work seems to involve sitting among the sick and wretched at the gates of the city and the margins of society, helping them find healing. The notion of the Messiah, then, is a metaphor for the redeemed world to which we aspire. The world will not be redeemed when the Messiah comes; rather, the Messiah will come when we redeem the world.
And so I believe in the messianic era and in the divinity of Torah, at least according to my midrashic understanding of these fundamental tenets of faith. But at the same time, I do not subject my faith to the rigorous scrutiny of the philosopher or the theologian – or the intellectually precocious teenager. I spent three summers teaching in an elite high school program for North American Jewish teenagers visiting Israel. The students would stay up all night unweaving the rainbow, asking the same questions about agnosticism and faith that had preoccupied me during my late nights in the college dorm. In the morning, when they came to class, they would press me to help them tease out the answers for themselves: “If the Torah is not divine, then why do we bother keeping the commandments?” Or: “How can I live my life by the Torah when the Torah calls my sexual practice an abomination?” Or: “How can I believe in Biblical miracles given our modern scientific understanding of the world?” These are all good questions, but how could I explain to my earnest and deeply troubled students that these questions no longer plague me? It is not that when we grow up, we stop thinking critically, or that we miraculously find all the answers. But on some level, as Rilke puts it, we learn to live our way into the answers in a way that does not stop us from going on with the rest of our lives.
Does religion contract science? Are the miracles of the Bible scientifically impossible? To my mind, these questions reflect a categorical mistake, because religion and science belong to two completely separate realms. I look to science to answer how the world was created, and to religion to answer why the world was created. Science can tell me if the universe is expanding or contracting, but only religion can inspire me to connect to other people in meaningful ways so that the universe does not seem so vast and lonely. I do not question my faith or subject it to rigorous scientific analysis because the proof is in the pudding, or in the Shabbat kugel: My life is richer and more meaningful because I am in an ongoing relationship with God. I perform mitzvot because they are my way of engaging in that relationship. A mitzvah, as articulated by theologian Arthur Green, is a man-made opportunity to encounter the divine: Saying a blessing before eating is a way of involving God in the meal, and praying in the morning is a way of infusing the day with holiness. Whenever possible, I try not to pass up those opportunities. Granted, not every mitzvah offers an obvious path to God, but I have enough faith in the system as a whole to suspend my doubt about some of its particulars. I believe that the more I live my life in accordance with God’s commandments, the more I will feel God’s presence in my life. Conversely, the more I doubt and question and run away from the tradition, the farther away God will seem. And so just as each morning I wake up and lift up the shades to let the sun stream in to my bedroom, I also try, each day, to open the gates of my heart and let God in.
And I try, too, to seek out the spark of God in others. One of the greatest gifts that Judaism gave to the world is the notion that human beings are created in the image of God. This is lesson I first learned at a very young age by witnessing my father’s interactions with the synagogue custodian. The custodian, whose name was Moses, was a slight Hispanic man who spoke broken English. Each Shabbat after the last congregants lingering over the remaining stale cookies and plastic cups of grape juice had gone home, my father would ask Moses about his family, his week, his health. He would remember what Moses had told him the previous week and ask follow-up questions, a sign that he had cared enough truly to listen. I was impatient to get home to the roasted chicken and warm challah that my mother had prepared for lunch, and I’m sure my father was hungry too. But he always took the time to chat with Moses before we left the building, treating the custodian with the same dignity with which he engaged his congregants.  The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (37a) teaches that coins are all minted using a single stamp and come out identical to one another; but human beings are all created according to the same template as Adam, and yet no two human beings are identical to one another. For this reason, says the Mishnah, every human being can say, “The world was created for me.” Each person alone is sufficient grounds to create the world, and no one can say, as we learn later in Sanhedrin, “My blood is redder than yours” (74a). We are all created in the divine image, though some of us spend our lives leading congregations or countries, and others clean synagogue floors.
When I was in elementary school we used to take class pictures every year. The photographer would first take a picture of the class, and then each student would be called in for an individual portrait. Before taking the individual shot, the photographer would direct his assistant to try out various backgrounds to achieve the ideal contrast. First they hung up a white curtain behind me, but I looked too pale. Next they tried red, but that clashed with my pink dress. Then they tried a pale blue, and the photographer decided that yes, this was the best background for me. This strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for what it means to view all people as created in the divine image. Not everyone looks beautiful against every background, and not everyone shines in every context. But I believe that each person contains a spark of the divine, and so I remain confident that for each person there is a context in which he would stand out. Even if I never see that person in the context that would make him shine—even if I know the custodian only as the custodian—I treat him with respect and dignity because I am confident that such a context exists. My belief in the divine spark in every human being is a direct corollary of my belief in God, and it is just as fundamental to my faith.
One of my favorite children’s book authors, Madeline L’Engle, wrote in her memoir, “I believe in God because I cannot live my life as though I did not believe in God.” This is true for me as well. I cannot prove to the existence of God in a way that would satisfy Richard Dawkins or my teenage summer students. Likewise, I cannot explain why following each and every commandment has the effect of making me a better person and the world a better place. But the totality of living a life infused with fear of God and obedience to God’s laws has enriched me in ways I can only begin to fathom, and in moments of wonder and awe it seems impossible to conceive of a world without God. I do not know if this is sufficient to merit me a place in the world to come, but it is certainly sufficient to inspire me each day anew to make a place for God in this world.
הדרן עלך מסכת סנהדרין

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Gan and the Sukkah: On Choosing a Temporary Home

These past few weeks I have been preoccupied with trying to choose a Gan for our daughters for next year. I want to find a place where they will feel loved and stimulated, but it also needs to be a place that is within reasonable walking distance from our home and that allows easy access to the wide double stroller in which I transport our twins all over the city. As I walk from one potential Gan to another, examining the physical spaces and chatting with the various caretakers in charge of each, I listen to shiurim about Masekhet Sukkah in an effort to keep up with daf yomi. As we work (and walk) through the first chapter, which is about the structure of the Sukkah, I find myself thinking about all the ways in which an appropriate Gan is similar to a kosher Sukkah, both in its physical properties and the intangible aspects that are so much more difficult to measure and gauge.

            For one, a Sukkah is intended as a temporary home reminiscent of the huts in which the Jews lived during their sojourn in the wilderness. As Rava says on the first page of the tractate, “The Torah says to leave your permanent home for seven days and live in a temporary dwelling place” (2a). As such, a Sukkah should not have the features of a permanent home; it is meant to be something constructed specifically for the purpose of the holiday. Likewise, a Gan is intended to be only temporary, a place where our girls can dwell from 8am-3pm five days a week. It is no substitute for their permanent home; the cribs will not be as comfortable (most likely they will sleep on mattresses on the floor); they won’t have all their favorite books and toys there; and no matter how caring the Ganenet is, she will be no substitute for two loving parents. At the same time, though the Gan is not permanent, it nonetheless must be a place where they are comfortable eating and sleeping, which is true of the Sukkah as well. And so I inquire about where the kids sleep, and for how long, and who cooks the food, and whether the kids are spoonfed or are expected to feed themselves.

            Rava’s statement that the Sukkah must be a temporary structure appears in a context of the Talmud’s discussion of the maximum height of the Sukkah, which the Mishnah sets as 20 amot. A Sukkah cannot exceed a certain height, in much the same way that good Gan should not try to involve kids in activities that are beyond their capabilities. I am looking for a Gan which engages the kids with age-appropriate books and games, while also giving them space to move around freely. Like a Sukkah that is less than seven by seven tefachim and hence too small to be kosher, I’d like to find a Gan with a nice yard so that the girls have the space to roam freely. The physical space should keep them secure and enclosed and protected from the elements, like a Sukkah that needs at least two walls and a little bit of a third. But they should also be able to lift their heads up and see all the way to the stars, and to reach for them.

            In addition to specifying the Sukkah’s maximum height, the opening Mishnah of tractate Sukkah also stipulates that a Sukkah must have more sun than shade. Although the Sukkah is covered by branches or pieces of wood known as skhakh, the light must still be able to shine through. Fortunately our girls have very sunny dispositions. Often I wake to find them standing up in their cribs playing peek-a-boo with each other, or craning their necks towards the door to watch excitedly as I walk in. They rarely cry unless they are hungry or overtired; as long as we keep them on a tight schedule, feeding them and putting them down for naps at the same time each day, they are generally quite content. I know that no matter where we send them to Gan, inevitably they will have their teary moments. I cannot expect them to leave my arms willingly every morning or to greet me with beaming smiles every afternoon. But I hope that I will find a Gan where there is, on average, more sun than shade, and more smiles than tears.

            And finally, a Sukkah is supposed to remind us of the clouds of glory with which God enveloped the Jewish people after we left Egypt. There is a debate in tractate Sukkah about whether the Biblical Sukkot were actual huts, or whether the term is metaphor for God’s protective presence (11b). But there is no doubt that the Sukkot we are commanded to build today are meant to offer both physical shelter and spiritual connection. Wordsworth writes of how all infants are born “trailing clouds of glory” which eventually fade as growing up takes its toll. Our girls are growing up, and they will continue to do so no matter where we send them to Gan next year. May they feel, no matter the physical space in which they find themselves, that they are always enveloped in a protective and loving presence, and may they continue trailing clouds of glory and flashing their beaming smiles for many years to come.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Yoma, Then and Now

The day I completed Masekhet Yoma, I had my cast taken off. Six weeks ago I broke my arm during the big Jerusalem winter storm, which began the same day we learned in daf yomi about Hillel’s ascent to the top of a snowy roof to listen in on Shmaya and Avtalyon’s class in Talmudic Babylonia (35b). I was heading out to the garbage to deposit a bag of dirty diapers when I slipped on black ice and tried to block the fall with my hand. Under ordinary circumstances, this would have been inconvenient; but with three kids under the age of three, two of whom can’t walk (and one of whom rarely walks where you want him to), it was nearly impossible. D and I joked that we had a one-working-arm-to-child ratio. I learned to carry the twins in the crook of my arm, to cut vegetables with one hand, and to fold laundry with my elbow. All the while I was following the high priest through the chambers and courtyards of the Temple, observing as he gathered up the incense to take into the holy of holies. He took a pan in his right hand and a ladle in his left, a task which I could not have completed without two working arms. Nor could I have performed kemitza, which involves scooping up the incense underneath the middle three fingers of the hand while extending the thumb and pinky (47a). The rabbis describe kemitza as the most difficult part of Temple ritual -- even without a cast extending from elbow to knuckles.
            I have broken two bones in my life, and ironically, the previous injury took place seven and a half years ago, when I learned Masekhet Yoma for the first time. Then it was my foot that I broke, probably from too much running and not enough stretching. I remember receiving the x-ray results just as I was learning the famous story in the Mishnah about the two priests who raced each other up the ramp of the altar to clear away the ashes; one pushed his friend in an effort to get ahead, and his friend stumbled and broke his foot. From this point, they decided to conduct a lottery to determine which priest would perform the various parts of the Temple service (22a). Presumably the priest who had broken his foot was then barred from the Temple on account of his injury, whereas I spent the next few weeks on my couch with my leg propped up and Masekhet Yoma on my lap, making my way into the holy of holies and then back out to read Torah in the Temple courtyard.
            In order to heal, bones have to set, and so I find myself wondering what has set in my life in the time between my two encounters with Masekhet Yoma. The word Yoma is Aramaic for “the day,” and refers, of course, to Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. But in Hebrew the word for “the day,” hayom, is also the word for “today,” which points to a significant difference between my study of Yoma then and now. Seven and half years ago, when I learned Yoma for the first time, I never had any doubts about how I was spending “today.” Each morning I would learn Talmud with a study partner at the Conservative Yeshiva and then head to my job (at the literary agency where I still work) from noon until 7pm. In the evenings I would attend various classes throughout the city – a parsha shiur one night, a discussion on Jewish philosophy the next. Other evenings I would go to my book club, where we read and discussed a different Hebrew novel each month. When I came home late in the evening, I would learn daf yomi and collapse in bed so that I could wake up early to jog the next morning (until I broke my foot, of course). Each day had its own schedule, mapped out like the order of the priest’s activities on Yom Kippur. And each day was full of activities I enjoyed – learning Torah, working with books, exercising, attending classes, spending time with friends.
Even so, I could not have told you where my life was heading – and it wasn’t just because I had one broken foot. I did not know if I would ever advance in my job, or fall in love again, or become a mother, or stay in Israel. All the big questions were still unanswered. I enjoyed how I spent each day, but I had no idea what life would look like someday in the future. Indeed, part of the reason I began learning daf yomi in 2006 was an attempt to shore up against a terrifying future in which nothing seemed certain except that I was getting older. If I learned a page of Talmud each day, I thought, then with each passing day I would not just be one day older, but also one day wiser. By the time I finished the cycle, I’d be 35. This seemed terribly old to my 27-year-old self. If I hadn’t had children by then, I thought, then surely I never would. And if I hadn’t reached a satisfying place in my career, I thought, then surely it was all over for me professionally. All future Yom Kippur observances would be full of regret at missed opportunities, and I would never be able to forgive myself.
Returning to Yoma for the second time, after seven Yom Kippur holidays have elapsed in the interim, I see it all in a very different light. The night before Yom Kippur the young priests were responsible for ensuring that the high priest did not fall asleep, lest he become impure from a seminal emission. If he started to drift off, they would beat him with their fingers and tell him to stand up and then lie himself down on the cold floor so as to jolt himself awake (19b). This is not unlike what Matan does when he wakes up before dawn and wants us to come play with him. D taught him that he is not allowed to wake up until the sun rises, and we leave his shade open a crack at night so that he can make this determination for himself. In this sense, Matan is like the high priests charged with determining exactly when the sun rises on Yom Kippur morning, at which point they would announce “Barkai,” the sun is shining (28a). Matan bounds into our room in his furry one-piece pajamas and announces, “Sun is up! Time to play! Get up, Imma” And before I can look at my watch or even open my eyes, he is tapping with his fingers on my forehead, encouraging me to come help him with a puzzle. The rest of the morning unfolds in a tired blur of diaper changing, nursing, dressing the girls in their pink (Liav) and purple (Tagel) outfits, and reheating the French toast that I fried in a pan the night before by dipping leftover challah in egg and milk and scooping in some cinnamon with my middle three fingers.
These days I have significant doubts and insecurities about how I spend each “today.” Rarely do I feel like I am using my unique talents to make a contribution to the world, nor do I feel a sense of satisfaction when I look back at any given day. When we drop off the three kids at their various Ganim at 8am, I feel guilty about the time I am not with them and concerned about whether I am doing what is best for them. I wish I could say that I forget about the kids entirely and immerse myself in writing and studying until 3pm pickup. But I continue to think about them as I edit articles, translate books, and proofread translations before submitting them to the original authors. I enjoy my work, but I would not say that I have discovered my true calling in life, or that I am engaged in divine service. From the moment the high priest immerses himself in the mikvah for the first time on Yom Kippur morning until the people of Israel accompany him to his home at the end of the day, the Talmud details every single step he takes. As such, Masekhet Yoma is a model for what it means for all our steps to be directed towards the service of heaven. In this sense I have a long way to go.
On the other hand (and I’m grateful to have just received that other hand back), while I can’t say I’m satisfied or proud with how I spend each and every “today,” many of the larger questions of “someday” seem to have resolved themselves. There is no doubt in my mind that when I married Daniel, I won the lottery. I could not imagine a kinder, wiser, more loving person with whom to spend my life – even if I rarely have time to tell him that anymore. Our children are beautiful and beaming and seem to be healthy, though not a day passes when I don’t worry about the one who refuses to feed himself, or the one who still won’t crawl. We have made a home in Jerusalem where, from our back window, we can see the Temple Mount where the high priests once performed the Yom Kippur service. If given the opportunity to enter the Holy of Holies and offer only a short prayer, as the high priest was instructed on Yom Kippur (53b), I would use those precious moments to thank God for all these blessings. It took two cycles of daf yomi, but I feel that I have finally learned the lesson of this masekhet, namely that Yoma is about the convergence of both meanings of hayom. It is about the day that “today” is “the day,” the most important day on the Jewish calendar. But it is also about realizing that this convergence happens every day– that our lives at this moment are not a prelude to a future someday, but that this is it, Barkai, the sun is up, Imma! No sooner does this realization dawn on me than I get out of bed, extend my arms to embrace my son, and step forwards into the rest of my life. 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masekhet Yoma, chapter 8

On Yom KIPpur, you can’t eat or drink
You can’t wash yourself off in the sink.
Or wear shoes on your feet
(Pregnant ladies can cheat)
Or anoint with perfume – which must stink.

“You must torture your souls” -- this does not
Mean go sit in the sun, burning hot.
It means don’t eat or drink
That is all, so we think
Say the sages: And that’s quite a lot.

Said the Israelites: Oh, how we wish
We could go back to eating that fish
For it tasted so yummy
In Egypt! (The mummy
Would also want some on its dish.)
The manna fell not once a year
But each day – to instill in us fear,
And to turn hearts with love
To the One up above,
For He sent it, yes that much is clear.
Shammai did not want to feed
Any food to a child. But heed:
For the sages say wash
And then spoonfeed kids squash
Kids don’t fast, so the sages decreed. 

A bride fasts but washes her face
Lest her groom think: My wife’s a disgrace.
And the king, who is seen,
By his subjects, keeps clean
While the rest of us smell up the place.

You can’t eat more than a big date
For apparently this satiates.
Hey, but how big is it?
Do we include the pit?
These are questions the Talmud debates. 

Bar Yuchni was quite a big bird
And his eggs were so large it’s absurd
And a person who bit
Into one, could not fit
The whole thing in his mouth. Oh my word.

If you eat food not fit for consumption
On Yom Kippur – what is the assumption?
Not real food, hence not bad?
But it’s food that you had
Rava says, “Like hot peppers” –with gumption.

Said a dame with a babe in her womb
“I crave food! You must let me consume!”
They must whisper – “Repast?
But my dear, it’s a fast.”
If she still eats, her child is doomed.

Said the sick man: “I really need food.”
Said the doctor: “Ignore his bad mood.”
The patient is right
So we give him a bite
(Better so, lest the doctor be sued.) 

If a baby is found in a town
Where it’s mostly non-Jews who abound
We assume the babe too
Is likely not a Jew
Wall collapses? Leave him on the ground.

How is a baby created?
Is it from its head that it’s instated?
Or else from its middle
Indeed, it’s a riddle
That sages at great length debated. 

If you sin but you then mend your ways
Don’t return to those sins when you pray
Like a dog who is sick
And its vomit then licks
God says: Ick! I don’t need this display!

If one says: I will sin, for the day
Of Yom Kippur makes sins go away—
Well, if only he’d known
That the day won’t atone
You can’t plan out your penance that way.

If semen is seen on the date
That Yom Kippur falls out, that is great—
Having such an emission
Is prove of contrition.
May God grant us all such a fate.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Confessions of the Tehillim Lady: Further Reflections on Learning How to Pray

            Yesterday I was walking along the park that lines the old railway tracks linking our home and the twins’ Gan when I ran into a friend from the neighborhood. He was standing with an older man who looked vaguely familiar. When my friend introduced us, the man said, “Oh, it’s the Tehillim lady.” When I looked back at him quizzically, he continued, “I hear you singing Tehillim every morning. You’re so devout!” It took me a few moments to realize what he was talking about, because as far as I know, I never chant Tehillim. But then suddenly I understood.

            Every weekday morning, as I push the girls’ stroller on our way to Gan, I “daven” aloud with them. I am putting the word “daven” in quotes because it’s a far cry from serious prayer. I do not have a siddur with me, and I do not recite the full morning prayer service, nor do I stand and sit at the appropriate points, since I am pushing a stroller all the while. Rather, I sing my favorite melodies from Psukei Dezimra as we walk: I recite Modeh Ani and Mah Tovu as we walk down the hill to Derekh Hevron, then I chant Barukh She’amar and Ashrei as we cross the busy highway, and I belt out a few Hallelujahs as we make our way through the parking lot towards the park. Many of these prayers are indeed psalms, which explains that older man’s misperception. By the time we get to the Gan, I am usually up to the blessings before the Shema. But at that point I stop to take out the girls from their strollers, deposit them in their high chairs, and bend over to kiss them goodbye on the tops of their heads.

            I did not realize until now that anyone overheard my morning davening, and I’m a little embarrassed by it all. After all, the proper way to daven is in synagogue with a minyan, while holding a siddur and bending and bowing at the appropriate moments. And yet my approach to prayer is not without precedent; in the third Mishnah of Berakhot (10b) we are told  of a famous debate between Hillel and Shammai about how to recite the Shema. Shammai says that at night one should recite the Shema while lying down, and in the morning one should recite it while standing, to fulfill the verse, “When you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Hillel, who is more lax, says that any position is acceptable, in fulfillment of the verse, “When you go along your way.” That is, Beit Shammai would never approve of the way I daven on the walk to Gan, but Beit Hillel would have no problem with my ambulatory Shacharit.

            My husband, too, has a hard time finding time to daven during our rushed and busy mornings, so he has come up with his own creative solution. He puts Matan in his chair with breakfast in front of him, and then brings his siddur and Tefillin to the table, where he davens while standing next to Matan. (I am usually nursing and dressing the girls in the bedroom at this time.) Matan loves singing along, though he knows that he is not allowed to touch the “feeleen” boxes until he finishes eating and washes his hands, after he and Abba have sung Adon Olam together. And Daniel is grateful for the opportunity to daven, even though he looks forward to the day when he can return to minyan and not have to worry about picking cheerios off the floor in between Psukei Dezimra and Shacharit.  

            When I think about where we are in our prayer lives, I am reminded of the first Mishnah of the fifth chapter of Berakhot (30b), which teaches that one should not begin praying except with koved rosh, a phrase that literally means “heavy-headedness” and connotes tremendous reverence and respect. The Mishnah goes on to state that the early pious ones used to wait an hour before praying in order to get into the proper frame of mind for speaking with God. Neither Daniel nor I are able to pray with any degree of koved rosh at this point in our lives. If we feel heaviness of head it not from our tremendous powers of concentration, but rather from major sleep deprivation caused by our three children under the age of two and a half. Nonetheless, I like to think of our prayer these days as analogous to that preparatory hour of the early pious ones. It is not really prayer, but a preparation for the rest of our prayer lives, when hopefully we will be able to focus better. If we were to stop praying altogether, it would be much harder to return to the discipline of daily worship. And so instead, we pray “along the way” or at the breakfast table. It is just enough to stay in shape so that when we do indeed have time to run through the full service properly, our bodies (and our souls) will not have forgotten how.

            The Talmud, in discussing the Mishnah about the early pious ones, relates that the Biblical source for the laws of prayer is actually the prayer of Chana, who wept in Shiloh for God to grant her a child, and then offered a beautiful and poetic prayer of thanksgiving after Shmuel was born. And so the rabbis derive the laws of how to pray from a parent. As Chana herself surely knew, praying as a parent is not easy, particularly not in the early morning hours when you are drunk with exhaustion and can hardly see straight. Even so, when I set off to Gan with the autumn wind blowing through my hair and my two gorgeous daughters sitting side-by-side in the stroller before me, I feel so full of gratitude that I cannot help but pray.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Trembling of the Veil: Weaving the Talmudic Tapestry

Last night I finished seven and a half years of daf yomi when I concluded Masekhet Shekalim. Perhaps appropriately, the last pages of Shekalim hearken back to Yoma, the first masekhet I learned when I started this cycle in the spring of 2006. The final chapter of Shekalim deals with items of uncertain purity status that are discovered in Jerusalem. What happens if you find spit lying on the sidewalk, as per the first Mishnah of the perek – do we assume that it belongs to someone who is pure or impure? This leads to a discussion of what to do when various holy objects in the Temple become impure, including the Parokhet, the woven tapestry that divided the Heikhal (sanctuary) from the Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of Holies). In Shekalim (21b), as in Yoma (72b), the rabbis describe the parokhet in elaborate detail, and as I read their words, I cannot help but remember that both “textile” and “text” come from the Latin word texere, to weave, such that it is not just the parokhet but also the Talmudic page that are being celebrated as masterpieces of intricate craftsmanship.
            First the rabbis debate the nature of the weave of the parokhet, which the Torah describes as “a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson strands, and fine twisted linen” (Exodus 26:31). The rabbis of the Mishnah assert that it was a handbreadth thick, and it was woven of 72 strands, and each strand was made of 24 crimson, blue, purple, and fine linen threads. But then the Talmud cites a baraita stating that in fact each strand was made of 32 threads, based on a more sophisticated understanding of the Bible’s use of משזר, twisted linen. Adding a further twist to the debate, a third sage asserts that each strand was actually made of 48 threads – and thus the parokhet is woven into an increasingly elaborate tapestry as the Talmudic text unfurls.
            This has been true, too, of my experience of learning daf yomi. If any page ever seems simple and straightforward upon first read, it is generally because I have not studied it carefully enough.   אם קרית לא שנית, ואם שנית לא שלשת....  Only as I look closer and begin to unravel the various strands of argumentation do I begin to appreciate the rich texture of the material. Where do the rabbis get 24 threads? Because had each strand been made of one thread, the Bible would simply have said חוט, a thread; had it been made of two threads, the Bible would have said חוט כפול, a double thread; had it been made of three threads, it would have said שזור, an entwined braid. But it said משזר, which must be double the שזור, and so there were six threads. Moreover, the Bible lists four different strands – crimson, blue, purple, and linen, and so we must multiply six by four, and so we end up with 24. This is quite a thick weave. Indeed, the Mishnah states that the Parokhet was so heavy that it took three hundred priests to lift it and carry it to the ritual bath when it needed to be immersed for purification purposes. I confess that often I found myself unable to untangle the more knotty Talmudic debates, and I was fortunate to have Rashi hemming most of the masekhtot I learned. I am grateful, too, for Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who helped me with much of the heavy lifting, as well as Rabbi Shalom Rosner, whose podcasts revealed to me the text in its true colors.  
            The Mishnah goes on to relate that the Parokhet was made of 82,000 myriads. The Talmud’s term is “ribo,” which, according to Rashi, relates either to the cost of the veil’s production, or to the number of threads from which it was made. But the Munich manuscript for the text of Masekhet Sheqalim 8:5 reads ומשמונים ושתים ריבו' נעשית, which is probably a shorted version for ריבות, meaning young maidens. Indeed, some commentators argue that the reason the parokhet required ritual immersion (by 300 priests) was due to the fear that one of the weaving girls began menstruating without noticing it, and consequently defiled the veil. In her Feminist Commentary on Maskhet Tamid, Dalia Marx cites an early Christian pseudepigraphic composition dated to the mid-second century which relates that the Virgin Mary was among those women chosen to make the parokhet for the Temple. But whether or not Mary was involved, it’s clear that many other women were, as the Bible itself tells us: “And all the women that were wise-hearted spun with their hands, and brought that which they had spun: the blue, the pruple, the scarlet, and the fine linen. And all the women whose heart raised them up in wisdom spun the goats’ hair” (Exodus 35:25-26). As one of an increasing number of women whose hearts raise them up in wisdom to study Talmud, I draw inspiration from the fact that women had a hand in weaving the parokhet textile, even if they are absent from the margins of the Talmud text.
            Continuing its description of the parokhet, the Talmud at the end of Shekalim states that the weave of the tapestry was double-sided; in this sense it was analogous to the text of the Ten Commandments on the two tablets, which could be read from either side. This conclusion is drawn from the juxtaposition of two Biblical verses, such that here too, it is the text that informs the textile. One verse says “work of the embroiderer” (Exodus 26:36), and one verse says “Work of a skillful person” (Exodus 26:31). This refers to the two facets of the parokhet, which are debated by the sages: Was there a lion on one side and a lion on the other side? Or a lion on one side and an eagle on the other? Regardless, there was one image that would have been seen by the high priest as he parted the parokhet to enter the holy of holies, and another image that he would have seen when he exited.
            The parokhet looked different from each side, and in this sense it is not unlike various Talmudic passages which I encountered multiple times in my daf yomi study. Academic scholars of Talmud use the term “maqbilot,” meaning parallels, to refer to Talmudic passages that appear in identical or similar form in various Talmudic contexts. Thus, for instance, the description of the parokhet appears not just in Sheqalim, but also in Hulin (90b) and Tamid (29b). And so I studied this passage not just now, at the conclusion of my daf yomi study, but also during my maternity leave after my son was born, when the parokhet reminded me of the various hand-woven blankets we’d received as baby gifts, and then again when we decided we were ready to have another child, when we thought about how to partition our second bedroom to make room for a new baby. As such, the parokhet was a veil marking my passage into various stages of life. Academic scholars consider how the text is informed and often even changed by its context; the same is true, perhaps, of the personal context in which I have encountered these passages. The text seems to change with each encounter because it resonates in a new way, and I, in turn, am changed by each encounter with the text.  
As a double-sided divider, the parokhet was both a way in and a way out, and thus it seems fitting to me that I encountered the rabbis’ description of it first in Yoma, when I was on my way in to the study of daf yomi, and now in Shekalim, as I exit this first cycle. I am reminded of the inscription on Dexter Gate, which I used to walk through countless times a day when I was a college freshman: “Enter here to gain in wisdom,” reads the side leading into Harvard Yard; “Depart to serve better they country and thy kind,” reads the side leading into the busy traffic of Massachusetts Avenue. The Parokhet, like the inscription on Dexter Gate, serves as a reminder that every point of entry is also a point of exit, and every end is also a beginning. This is why graduation ceremonies are called “commencement,” and this is why the traditional formula recited upon completing a large learning project such as daf yomi reads, “We will return to you, and you will return to us.” And so today I cracked open my worn volume of Yoma to continue learning, because the point of daf yomi is not the day one finishes, but every day in which one learns. How appropriate, then, that I started with Yoma, a term that refers to Yom Kippur (i.e. “The Day,” that is, the most important day on the Jewish calendar) but which literally means just “day,” as in every day -- because every day is an opportunity to grow in the wisdom of Torah.
Nonetheless, there does seem to be some majesty in this moment. Yeats titled his memoir “The Trembling of the Veil” after a quote from Mallarme, who said that his epoch was troubled by the trembling of the veil of the Temple. I feel a tremor as I pass through this veil of the conclusion and commencement of my learning, aware, perhaps, of just how much my world has been rocked by the texts I have studied. I am overcome by a desire to share some of what I have been privileged to learn, and to invoke that learning to better serve my country and my kind. Perhaps fittingly, the rabbis teach at the end of Shekalim that after the parokhet was woven by 82,000 virgins and then immersed by 300 priests, it was spread out to dry on the tallest place on the Temple Mount כדי שיראה העם את מלאכתה שהיא נאה, that is, for the entire nation to admire the beauty of its craftsmanship. And so here are my words, which are also the words I have studied and the words of those from whom I have been privileged to study, woven together and spread out before you with trembling hands. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ode to the West Wind: On Learning Shekalim in a Season of Change

It seems appropriate that we begin learning Masekhet Shekalim on the eve of the Jerusalem municipal elections. Indeed Shekalim, the only tractate of the Jerusalem Talmud included in the daf yomi cycle, seems surprisingly relevant to the Jerusalem of today. The tractate, which takes its name from the half-shekel coin that is the Biblically mandated annual donation amount, focuses on the financial organization of the Temple and the administration of Temple affairs. But the contributions collected for the Temple were also used for the general upkeep of the city. Moreover, the Temple officials were responsible not just for the Temple mount, but also for its environs. And so to some extent, the affairs of the Temple and the welfare of Jerusalem were bound up in one another.
The opening Mishnah states that the half shekel tax was collected during the month of Adar. During this daf yomi cycle, we are learning Shekalim not in Adar, but in another season of transition. If Adar marks the end of the wet season and the start of the dry, then Cheshvan marks just the opposite: We began saying the blessing “He Who Causes the Wind to Blow and the Rain to Fall” two weeks ago, and we await—either eagerly or anxiously—the Yoreh, the first rains of the season. The forecast was for rain last Shabbat, and so on Friday afternoon, we dug out our stroller covers and raincoats and told ourselves that we’d take the kids to shul only if it wasn’t pouring. In the end, it was dry run, but now we are prepared. In this season of transition, I always find myself quoting Rilke’s Autumn (“Lord it is time / The summer was immense”) and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“That time of year though mayest in my behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang”) though perhaps the poem that is most relevant to the current political climate is Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” in which the poet salutes the “wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being” and calls for change in more than just the weather: “Be through my lips to unawakened Earth / The trumpet of a prophecy.”
I harbor no illusions that Jerusalem will once again be a city led by prophets, but I hope that the candidates who win tomorrow’s elections care as deeply for the welfare of our city as their prophetic predecessors. There is so much that is in need of their—and our—attention. The first Mishnah in Shekalim teaches that Adar was also the month designated for various public works, including the uprooting of Kilayim (the cross-bred saplings prohibited by the Bible), the repair of roads, the fixing of Mikvaot (ritual baths), and the marking of graves so that individuals would not inadvertently step over a buried body and contract impurity. Granted, the Mishnah is describing a time before pavement and concrete, when the winter rains really did destroy the dirt roads and erode the public buildings, but the call for the repair of our public works seems no less urgent. Every day, as I walk through the streets of Jerusalem with my double stroller, I lament the many streets that do not have sidewalks, or that have sidewalks too narrow for two to walk abreast, let alone for a double stroller. Those sidewalks that are wider often have parking meters or poles stuck right in the middle, so that I have no choice but to wheel my stroller into the street and offer my silent prayer to God that the oncoming traffic in this holy city veers to let me pass. My neighborhood mikvah, too, is in dire need of repair, starting with the moldy peeling walls that look like they are afflicted with tzara’at habayit and more impure than any of the women who come to dunk.
As I was buttonholed this morning with leaflets promoting the various mayoral and city council candidates, I could only hope, like Shelley, that the season of Tikun is upon us.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Beware of Pairs (Pesahim 110)

Today the rabbis of the Talmud get drunk on Seder wine, leading them to engage in several long pages of aggada that take us far afield from the tenth chapter’s halakhic discussion about Seder ritual. It begins with their consideration of the Mishnah’s statement that a person should not have less than four cups of wine at the Seder, even if he is so poor that he has to rely on communal funds. “Four cups of wine?” asks the anonymous voice of the Talmud. “How could the sages legislate something that is so dangerous? After all, we are taught that a person should never eat two of anything, or drink two of anything.” As the Meiri explains, during Talmudic times there were popular beliefs in destructive forces that we today would regard as superstitious. One such belief was the danger of zugot (pairs), that is, that doing things in pairs was hazardous. And if so, how could we possibly be obligated to drink “two times two” cups of wine?
            The sages offer various justifications. Rav Nahman suggests that since the Torah describes Pesach as ליל שימורים a night of watching, we need not worry, because Pesach is guarded from demons and harmful spirits. Rava says that the third cup, used in Birkat HaMazon, is a כוס של ברכה, a “cup of blessing” used in the performance of a mitzvah; and such a cup could never combine for evil purposes. And Ravina posits that since these cups are a symbol of freedom, they do not combine in pairs with one another, but each stands independently in its own right.
            These explanations notwithstanding, the sages remain preoccupied with the danger of doing anything in pairs, and go on to relate several stories about the lengths they would go to avoid such behavior. Whenever Abayey would drink a cup of wine, for instance, his mother would immediately hold out two more cups, one in each hand, lest he inadvertently drink just one more cup and become susceptible to demonic forces. If a person accidentally stopped after two cups, and found himself besieged by demons, the Talmud instructs that he should hold his right thumb in his left hand, and hold his left thumb in his right hand, and say: “You, my two thumbs, and I make three!” But even so, there is no guarantee that he will be protected.
            The Talmud relates a story about a man who fell into danger because he drank in pairs:
There once was a man who divorced his wife. She went off and married a shopkeeper. Each day, the first husband would go to this shop and drink wine. The woman would try to perform witchcraft on him, but she never succeeded, because he would be careful not to drink an even number of cups of wine. But then one day, he drank so much that he lost count. For the first sixteen cups (!!), he could think clearly and take precautions; but after sixteen cups, he could no longer keep count. The woman bewitched him and caused him to go outside after drinking an even number of cups. When he went out on the street, he met an Arab merchant who said to him: This is a dead man. Trembling with fear, the man leaned on the trunk of a palm tree to steady himself. The palm tree dried out, fell over, and killed him.
            This is quite a dramatic tale, and one almost gets the sense that it was the kind of story the rabbis would relate while engaged in their own drunken revelry in a tavern late at night, the wine spilling over the edges of their glasses and the demons growing ever more real. And yet I can’t help thinking that as a mother of twins, I have a very different perspective on zugot.
            Just last week my friend Shira forwarded me an article written by the parents of twins. The article, entitled “25 Tips About the Horrors of Raising Twins That You Will Never Learn From Movies and TV,” reminded me of Pesahim 110 in that it enumerated all the dangers of zugot. The article warned that with twins, the pregnancy is harrowing, the early months of the babies’ lives are more than twice the amount of work, and the first year is so exhausting that the parents don’t even remember any of it. One quote is sufficient to give a sense of the tenor of the article as a whole:
You may think that changing diapers for two babies requires the same amount of effort as changing the diaper of one baby, times two. This is inaccurate. It's actually more than twice the effort, because while you are changing one baby's diaper, you will simultaneously have to keep the other baby occupied so that she will not steal the clean diaper you are about to put on or the poopy diaper you have just removed, or crawl over the head of the baby you are attempting to change, or run screaming through the house pulling wipes out of the wipes box and throwing them on the floor while using your phone to update your facebook status to "e29,28889xmn". (All of these things will happen. Regularly.)
            As I wrote back to Shira, I could not disagree more. Thank God, I was blessed with an easy pregnancy; I swam nearly every morning until the day before I gave birth. The girls were born naturally, one leading the way and the other following suit, and I felt indescribable joy when I sat there in the hospital bed holding one girl in each arm as they looked up at me bewildered and blinking under the harsh fluorescent lights and wondering just what shores they had washed upon. In the early months, I was always nursing, true. But I nursed the girls one at a time and held a book in my other arm, reading aloud to the twin at the breast and the twin in the bassinet in front of me. When one woke up hungry at night, I fed her and then woke her sister, so that I would not be awakened again a few hours later. By three months, they were (more or less) sleeping from 7pm to 6am, with just one “official” overnight feeding. (As my husband loves to point out, there were—and still are—several “unofficial” overnight feedings as well.)
            Perhaps we got lucky and our twins were easier than most. Or perhaps it’s just that my husband does the work of two parents combined. But I think that in many ways, having babies in pairs was inherently easier for me than having a singleton; and it was definitely easier than having two consecutive singletons. I am a person bent on efficiency. I find nothing more aggravating than wasted time. With twins, there is no danger of wasting time, because there are no moments to waste. If one baby doesn’t want to nurse, I simply feed her sister instead; by the time her sister is done, she’s usually worked up an appetite. Now that the girls are eating solid foods, I sit them in their high chairs and position myself between them. If one girl refuses to open her mouth, I hand her a toy and feed the other. There is always someone who wants to eat, even if it’s not the baby whose mouth I am dangling the spoon in front of at that moment.
            I have also found twins to be easier because they can entertain one another. I’ve heard horror stories about women who cannot go to the bathroom when they are home alone with their babies, or women who go days without showering because they have no time alone. This has never happened to me. If I need time to myself, I lay the babies on their stomachs facing one another, with a few toys between them. Tagel amuses herself by trying to catch Liav’s eye and cracking up any time Liav looks in her direction; Liav mostly ignores Tagel because she is intent on moving all the toys onto her section of the mat. Every so often I have to separate them because Liav does not realize that the “toy” she is yanking on with all her might is actually Tagel’s hair. But for the most part, they play together quite nicely, so long as they are well-rested and well-fed.
I would not say that twins are easy. All too often, we are beside ourselves with exhaustion, with food to cook, kids to bathe, diapers to change, and no time to work or sleep – let alone to enjoy a cup of wine. But the joy of observing our own zugot grow and develop and interact with one another remains indescribable, and even if our cup is overflowing, we never doubt for a moment that it is a כוס של ברכה, a cup of blessing.