Shavuot 5768: Midrash love


When I think of Torah, the first thing that comes to mind is a divine, rigorous system of laws that guides an ethical and holy way of life.

The last thing I think about is whimsy and romance.

Yet, over the past few weeks, as part of the B’nai David-Judea Congregation, I have indulged in a poetic and literary aspect of Torah that has moved me in an unusual way.

It’s called the midrash.

Midrash is a mysterious part of the rabbinical literature. It comes in many forms, but the major idea is to seek a better understanding of scripture through stories, homilies, parables, poetry, word play and so on.

Midrash is an integral part of the haggadah tradition of Jewish learning, which emphasizes narrative and philosophical commentaries, rather than strict talmudic and legal analysis.

In the yeshiva world, midrash and haggadah are the granolas of Torah learning — not taken as seriously as the meat and potatoes of Talmud. They’re seen as being too wishy-washy, too flaky and open to wide interpretation. The law is grounded, the midrash and haggadah are “out there.”

Well, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a piece of “out there” midrash that has moved me to no end. Last Shabbat, I brought this midrash to B’nai David’s monthly “Nosh ‘n Drosh” class and shared it with a small group of shul members. Here’s the gist of the midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah):

A husband and a wife go to a well-known rabbi to get a divorce. They have been married for 10 years and do not have any children. Since they observe Jewish law, the man must marry another woman to fulfill the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.

The rabbi sends the couple away and tells them to make a “holiday” for one night. Since they were united in celebration, he explains, they must separate the same way.

The couple follows the rabbi’s instructions. During their private celebration, the husband, now a little inebriated and in a festive mood, tells his wife that she can have anything she wants from the house and bring it to her father’s house.

While he is sleeping, she orders the servants to pick him up and transport him in his bed to her father’s house.

He awakes at midnight and says: “My beloved, where am I?”

She says to him: “In my father’s house.”

He says: “What am I doing in your father’s house?”

She says: “Is that not what you said to me last night, ‘Anything you desire in my house, take it and go to your father’s house’? There is nothing I desire more in the world than you.”

They went back to the rabbi and he prayed over them and they had children.

The more I reflected on this midrash, the more it moved me. The couple was so obsessed with their obligation to “be fruitful and multiply” that they forgot how much they loved each other. The rabbi (in the actual midrash, it is the famous Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar), by sending them away for a one-night “holiday” — even though the law called for a divorce — liberated them just enough from their obligations that they could rekindle and rediscover their love for each other.

The rabbi could have given them a blessing for children at the beginning, but he wanted to test their love. He knew how important it was for children to have parents who love each other. When he saw how much the husband and wife wanted to be together, he saw they were worthy of the blessing.

For me, the midrash also spoke to a romantic notion of purity in relationships: The idea that “I want to be with you because I want to be with you.”

We don’t need to create something to want to be with each other.

I could have gone to any number of Torah classes on love and relationships and not absorbed as much spiritual nourishment as I did from this one little midrash. The quirky love story drew me in. It disarmed me. It didn’t preach to me or tell me what to do. It worked on my imagination and made it take off.

Even more, it made me marvel at our tradition.

How remarkable that a religion that is literally inundated with laws and codes of behavior can find the time for literature and parable?

How extraordinary that the same rabbis who pontificated endlessly in the Talmud on the minutiae of this law or that law, would find the mental and emotional space to explore the poetic and philosophical unknown?

When comparing the world of law (halacha) to the midrashic world of stories and philosophy (haggadah), the great Jewish poet Haim Bialik wrote: “Halacha wears a frown, aggadah a smile. The one is pedantic, severe, unbending — all justice; the other is accommodating, lenient, pliable — all mercy. The one is concerned with the shell, with the body, with actions; the other with the kernel, with the soul, with intentions. On one side there is petrified observance, duty, subjection; on the other perpetual rejuvenation, liberty, free volition.”

Lest you think Bialik favored one over the other, he concludes: “Halacha and aggadah are two things which are really one, two sides of a single shield. Aggadah is the plaintive voice of the heart’s yearning as it wings its way to its haven; halacha is the resting place, where for a moment the yearning is satisfied and stilled.”

Some days, the voice of the heart’s yearning is the one we hear the loudest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Jewish literacy Is a mitzvah — and not fulfilled with phonetics


For the People of the Book, literacy is a mitzvah, a sanctified behavior that draws us closer to God and the Jewish community.

Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, described a curriculum in the year 200: “A 5-year-old begins Tanach,” or scripture; “a 10-year-old begins Mishnah,” or rabbinic law; “a 13-year-old is obligated to accept mitzvot,” based on his/her ability to comprehend meaning; “a 15-year-old begins Gemarah,” or elucidation of Mishnah. (Avot: 5:28).

The desired outcome of this course of study is the development of a Jewish identity rooted in our connection to and knowledge of Jewish texts.

Fast forward to our day: In the past 30 years, the number of schools and the percentage of Jewish children receiving a day school education has risen to dramatic heights. Most of the schools are under the broad spectrum of Orthodox auspices; a smaller but growing number associate themselves with the Conservative and Reform movements or are in the expanding network of pluralistic “community schools.”

Yeshivot and Jewish day schools are uniquely positioned to deepen and expand Jewish literacy. Immersion in classical texts, the time commitment of students and the financial investment of families come together to give a 21st century meaning to Jewish literacy. As graduates of today’s day schools assume professional and volunteer leadership roles in Jewish communal institutions, renewed Jewish literacy may emerge as a characteristic of Jewish life.

A premiere aspect of Jewish literacy is fluency in Hebrew, whether classical or modern, spoken or textual. In our time, we have seen a huge growth of Jewish publishing of classical texts in English. Nonetheless, it is true that the meaning, nuance and message are lost in the translation and may lead to distortions of the original.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act reduced much of the discussion on literacy in American society to a focus on phonics – $900 million was distributed in 2002-2003 to develop “scientific, research-based” programs on this approach to reading – but the initiative has been stalled at that basic level.

Day schools and yeshivot need to resist the temptation of reducing their Hebrew literacy programs to phonetic decoding. That would miss a special opportunity of these schools.

Most modern day schools subscribe to the belief that they are engaged in fashioning a new kind of Jew: One who sees the world refracted not only by the wisdom of Western civilization but also simultaneously through the insights of Torah.

Jewish literacy promotes such philosophical and psychological integration; the yeshiva and day school that embraces this view can produce a student whose vision of the world and his/her community was described millennia ago by the midrash: “May words of Torah be spoken in the language of Yafet,” i.e. classical philosophy and science, “within the tents of Shem,” i.e. the ideas and ideals of the Jewish people. (Genesis Rabbah 36:8). Many hope that this describes the best of what it means to be a modern Jew.

There is a third dimension to Jewish literacy particular to the day school setting: To be Jewishly literate, immersed in the meanings and messages of 4,000 years of Jewish life and letters, conveys with it a moral imperative. We get “it” – the eternal truths of Judaism – when we look up from the page of text, peopled by the generations of giants that preceded ours, and say to ourselves, “What are the consequences for me of taking this seriously?”

The Mishnah teaches: If we achieve Jewish literacy, then our actions will speak louder than our words so that we treat people with a countenance that reflects God’s own. (After Avot 1:15). Jewish literacy does not permit a retreat from real life. What we read, study and discern ought to have implications for our attitudes and behavior.

In the Jewish schools of today, Jewish literacy can have new and special meaning. It calls for a refocus on the linguistic, textual and ethical dimensions of learning, which will be the legacy we leave our students.

Prolific Neusner Takes on Mishnah


 

“Making God’s Word Work: A Guide to the Mishnah,” by Jacob Neusner (Continuum, $29.95).

I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a conversation with a Christian who suddenly out of nowhere asked, “What do you think of Neusner?” They don’t even feel a need to mention the man’s first name, which is Jacob, assuming that as a Jew I would obviously be familiar with the rabbi and scholar who, for non-Jews interested in Judaism, is the No. 1 go-to guy.

When a Christian wants to know something about Judaism, which lately more and more do, a typical first course of action is a visit to Barnes & Noble, to the Jacob Neusner section of the Judaica shelves. His singularity is worth pondering.

As the book of Exodus puts it, Jews are meant to be a “kingdom of priests,” educating and uplifting other nations. It hasn’t always worked out that way, particularly when you consider the teachings of Judaic scholars, which tend to be known only to other Jews. In our time, the late theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a favorite with Christians, was an exception. Of rabbinic scholars still living and working, Neusner is pretty much the only other.

When I say he’s still “working,” I mean working. Author or editor of 909 books — yes, 909, that’s not a misprint — Neusner was one of my professors at Brown, before he got thoroughly disgusted with the place and left. A 71-year-old whose critical, owlish expression hasn’t changed in the 20 years since I last saw him, he greets me at the train station in Rhinecliff, N.Y., where he now lives and teaches at nearby Bard College.

He warns, “When you get past asking how I can write so many books, then we can discuss something substantive.”

Prolific, controversial and relevant, he was sometimes alarmingly forthright when I knew him back then. Since then he’s mellowed only somewhat. So let’s get past the matter of the books, mostly dealing with the period of about 500 years following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

He has translated the encyclopedia-length Babylonian Talmud — twice — plus the Jerusalem Talmud, the Mishnah and every midrashic work you can think of. His own works of scholarly investigation, many for a popular audience and many not, include “Judaism: An Introduction,” “Introduction to Rabbinic Literature,” “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus,” “Judaisms and Their Messiahs at the Turn of the Christian Era,” “The Classics of Judaism: A Textbook and Reader,” “Judaism: The Evidence of the Mishnah,” “Rabbinic Political Theory,” and so on and on. His latest, “Making God’s Word Work,” illuminates the philosophy he finds coded in the Mishnah’s seemingly dry and abstract rendering of Jewish law.

Neusner would seem to embody the Mishnah’s injunction to “say little and do much” — except that he somehow finds ample time, apart from doing much, to say much as well in a variety of media. Sometimes his sayings are in acidic tones that haven’t always won him the affection of other scholars, whose denunciations of him can depart sharply from the sleep-inducing norms of professorial discourse.

Perhaps the only other Judaic scholar with a semifamiliar name outside academia, NYU’s Lawrence Schiffman, explains that this partly stems from the fact that Neusner seriously shook up the field early on, defining the major questions that other professors would have to deal with for the rest of their careers.

“I had to invent what the field would look like,” Neusner says.

Schiffman doesn’t deny the credit-taking. In American university religion departments before Neusner, Schiffman says, “The missing element was Talmud, the real core of Judaism. You went right from the Bible to the Middle Ages.”

Neusner upset Israeli academics, among others, by arguing that the teachings given in the name of individual rabbis in the Talmud couldn’t, as a rule, be attributed to those individual rabbis. Schiffman, best known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, also speculates that “there are some who disdain him because he’s not a philologist,” an expert on the technical aspects of the definition and history of words.

Maybe so, although hating Neusner because he’s not a philologist calls to mind Lenny Bruce’s explanation of why the Jews killed Jesus: “We killed him because he didn’t want to become a doctor.”

One suspects it wasn’t anything to do with philology that made his years at Brown such a frustration. Over lunch with his wife, Suzanne, she remembers how faculty wives were always saying, “Oh, your husband said something controversial!” Neusner recalls finding certain faculty colleagues to be neither “cordial nor welcoming,” nor productive in their scholarship: “They were not book writers or continuing book writers. There was a sense that if you published a book you had to apologize.”

Probably, however, it wasn’t simply jealousy either that caused Neusner to be trailed for years by acrimony.

Whatever the case, there remains the man’s relevance, both to non-Jews and to Jews. Of his popularity with Christians, Neusner thinks “That’s because I work in the first couple of centuries. Their interest in Judaism ends about the year 33 A.D. [when Jesus died], but I’ve been able to persuade people that they should also take an interest in Judaism through its classical period. They respect me because, while I’m not asking them to stop being Christians, I do so say ‘I think you’re wrong. When your religion reaches its fulfillment, you’re going to adopt Judaism.'”

What he has to say specifically to Jews is crystallized in “Making God’s Word Work.” He recounts how in 1953, having graduated Harvard, he was a 21-year-old grad student at Oxford University. There he came across Gerald Reitlinger’s book “The Final Solution,” which brought the full extent of the Holocaust, with the resulting urgent need to recover and rebuild, into Neusner’s consciousness.

He realized that the “the age closest in its principal issues to the one in which I would make my life, an age of reconstruction and renewal, was late antiquity, when the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed and Jewry reconstructed its life on the foundations of hope.”

Lucky the person who discovers at age 21 the single “question that would define my life,” as Neusner puts it. In his case it was, “What next? Can there be another chapter in the biography of God’s people?” Starting with rabbinic school at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a doctorate at Columbia, Neusner has been working on the question ever since.

What’s his answer? The overarching theme of the Mishnah — a book edited at a time (200 C.E.) when the Temple was long ago demolished but describing a system of laws for a time when the Temple stands again — is an almost defiant insistence that Jews can be masters of their own fate.

But not only Jews, “the human being, through will and deed, is master of this world…. But the world in which the human being is the measure of all things is within: in intellect, imagination, sentient experience.”

At a time like ours when some Americans assert that human beings are morally free and thus responsible for our actions, while others deny it — which is the culture war in a nutshell — those are fighting words.

Neusner writes, “In the aftermath of the two world wars and defeats of millennial proportions, the message of the Mishnah cannot have proved more pertinent.”

Of his own message, you could say the same thing.

David Klinghoffer’s new book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History,” will be published in March by Doubleday.

 

Small Shul With a Big Heart


When comedic actor Larry Miller and his wife first went to Studio City’s Congregation Beth Meier 11 years ago, the very small shul’s Tomb of Rachel architecture was less inspiring than watching elderly Rabbi Meier Schimmel toss one back at L’ Chaim time.

“He pours himself a blast of vodka and — boom — knocks it back!” Miller said. “That always impressed me as a real emblem of his joy of life.”

Since opening in December 1958, Congregation Beth Meier has been a quiet, unassuming little staple of Jewish life near the corner of Moorpark Street and Colfax Avenue. The shul — its name honors not Schimmel, but Mishnah writer Rabbi Meier Ba’al Ha’Ness — has about 150 families. While Beth Meier’s exterior replicates the Tomb of Rachel, its brown, wooden interior intentionally was designed to resemble the Little Brown Church in the Valley, the Sherman Oaks church where Ronald and Nancy Reagan were married. Only on the High Holidays was Beth Meier’s cozy sanctuary traded for the larger Studio City Theater on Ventura Boulevard, now a Bookstar.

“I felt that the smaller synagogue is more spiritual than the big one,” the rabbi said.

Now 88, Schimmel doesn’t toss back vodka like he once did, but he’s still in the game, reciting opening and closing prayers at Shabbat services, and slowly handing over the reigns to Rabbi Aaron Benson, who came to Beth Meier in 2003.

The Modern Orthodox rabbi’s Traditional-Conservative congregation has been rare among Los Angeles synagogues; it never has had a building fund, does not ask potential members for personal financial information and has been run by the same rabbi since it opened in December 1958.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Studio City was home to young, assimilated families who attended synagogues on Laurel Canyon’s other side, such as Temple Israel of Hollywood or Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

“They were Reform and they were not advertising their Jewishness,” said daughter Selma Schimmel. “There was only one girl in the synagogue whose house I could eat at.”

When Congregation Beth Meier was still new, its Star of David was stolen and a swatiska was painted on one of its white walls. Rather than quickly paint over the Nazi symbol, Schimmel left the swatiska up for a week — to be seen by all, he said, to “let my neighbors feel what’s happening here.”

Later, holes from a BB gun shot into the shul’s 12 stained glass windows prompted Schimmel to make the repaired glass bulletproof, while still portraying the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

“It wasn’t like the synagogue was welcomed with open arms,” said Selma Schimmel, who also added that the Studio City Chamber of Commerce recently held its monthly mixer in Beth Meier’s meeting hall.

Schimmel turned down a request to sing a prayer in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” because he was too busy with Beth Meier commitments. When Miller was asked if skipping such an opportunity was a mistake for the rabbi, the actor said, “The core truth of a different way to live is that he didn’t miss out; there was nothing to miss out on. For him, each morning’s prayer is the richest moment in the world. So he wasn’t turning something down; he’s giving something greater.”

He is rare among Americans because he has stayed in one job for over four decades. Rebbitzen Rochelle Schimmel, who spent 40 years running the 125-student Beth Meier School across the street, died in 1981 (“For me, she never died,” said the rabbi). Now, Schimmel lives with his older daughter, Debby Bitticks, in Encino, surrounded by photos of his four granddaughters and six (soon to be seven) great-grandchildren.

He also is one the last of the pre-Holocaust generation of European-trained rabbis, a Frankfurt rabbi’s son who fled Germany in 1938, first eyeing America from the Queen Mary’s deck and, once here, becoming an Army chaplain.

Despite his theological pedigree, Schimmel embraces various definitions of family; when an elderly, childless couple’s parrot died, Schimmel bent Torah law and officiated at a little parrot funeral service, thus honoring the child-like affection the couple had for the bird.

Schimmel also wrote the, “Brotherhood Prayer” for his congregation. It sums up the small shul’s appeal to Jews and some non-Jews. The prayer reads, in part, “Father, I would open my heart even wider so that your love may flow through me to bless all whose lives I touch.”