Sunday, March 07, 2021

On Contemporary Idolatry


I'm thinking about Avodah Zarah.
Actually, I've been thinking about it not only lately, but for a few years now. As an halakhic and experiential religious category, Avodah Zarah has not played much of a role in Traditional Jewish Life, for at least two centuries. Islam has, with minor exceptions, always been viewed as a monotheistic faith. Even the attitude to Christianity has significantly softened. Whereas Maimonides and most early Ashkenazic authorities viewed Christianity as unadulterated Avodah Zarah, for five centuries now the dominant position has been that Christianity is not Avodah Zara for non-Jews. This, together with twentieth century religious relativism and syncretism, has taken the sting out of the traditional Jewish revulsion at Trinitarian Belief, the attribution of Divinity to a Human Being, and the various trappings of the more traditional Christian Churches. 
The result is that even the most traditional Jews have lost their spiritual 'sea-legs' when it comes to Avodah Zarah. 
Consider, when a prominent rabbi was obliged to participate in a church service, the opposition was largely an expression of the long, bitter and bloody history between Church and Synagogue. It barely echoed the genuine reaction of Traditional Ashkenazic Jews to Avodah Zarah (see, e.g., the various elegies and chronicles written the wake of the First Crusade or the Chmielnitzki Uprising). Or, when Jews visit India and the Far East, they have no problem visiting, admiring (or eating) sites that are indubitably unalloyed Avodah Zarah (at least according to Halakhah). We just don't know it when we see it.
And yet, Avodah Zarah is the polar opposite of the Torah.
It is the antithesis of everything the Torah stands for, and the fundamentum upon which our relationship with God stands or falls. The entire TaNaKh is infused with this binary, which Hazal pithily summed up: כל המודה בעבודה זרה כופר בכל התורה כולה וכל הכופר בעבודה זרה מודה בכל התורה כולה(ספרי דברים פרשת ראה פיסקא נד 
You may ask, then, why am I thinking about Avodah Zarah (unless I plan to travel to the Far East)? The answer is that we are living in a pagan age. We are confronted at every turn by Avodah Zarah, and we fail to realize it.
Avodah Zarah is not confined to the fetishistic adoration of images or of natural forces. In fact, the prohibition against idols is really (by most counts) only comes up in the Second Commandment, not the First. It is merely a sub-section of the more important injunction that we must have no other gods but the One True God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, the One whose Will we are bound to uphold under any and all conditions. On this basis, my teacher and friend, Rabbi Dr. David Berger offered the best definition of Avodah Zarah that I know of: Avodah Zarah is to accept or worship as god, someone or something who/which is not actually God. 
This begs the question: What makes the present age pagan?
The answer was provided, unknowingly, by the great classical scholar, Edith Hamilton, in her wonderful book, Mythology. In the introduction (pp. 14-20), Hamilton describes the novel features of Greek and Roman Mythology. Chief among these is that 'the Greeks, unlike the Egyptians, made the gods in their own image.' The gods of Greece were an exercise in human narcissism and human self-indulgence [and yes, I'm aware of Frankfurter's 'Before Philosophy' and Margalit and Halbertal's Idolatry].
Contemporary Western 'Enlightened' Culture, that which demands that we measure up to its demands and adjust to all of its values, is very much the successor of Greece and Roman religion. The difference is that the Greeks and Romans posited these ideal humans as being above them and that they owed them obedience and obeisance. We, however, have done away with that distinction and simply worship ourselves as a group and/or as individuals. Accepting Nietzsche's assertions about God, the West has posited that belief in God and adherence to Religion is either an opiate (Marx) or a Neurosis (Freud). The result is self-worship, self-adulation and epistemological, axiological and moral relativism. 
As Tara Isabelle Burton, in her book 'Strange Rites, notes: In the absence of God people create a plethora of rites and religions; self-centered, self-concerned, self-indulgent and morally unfettered rites that she herself (a PhD in Religion from Oxford) describes as pagan.
In his lectures on the story of Abraham, 'Abraham's Journey,' Rav Soloveitchik anticipated the West's move back to paganism (enlightened, sophisticated paganism, but paganism nonetheless). Everything he discerned has come to pass, and to a degree that I suspect would have surprised even him.
The trouble is that even ostensibly religious Jews too often don't recognize this new/old Avodah Zarah for what it is. They don't see the dissonance between many of its values and the Torah. They live in compartmentalized tension. Alternatively, they too often wish to resolve the points of disconnection between them by (to invoke and reverse an image of Tchernikhovsky) 'putting Tefillin on Apollo.' 
None of these responses are sustainable.
At some point, we will have to return to the realization that there are places to which Judaism and its adherents cannot and will not go. It will be a traumatic moment. There is, however, no avoiding it. The existential fact for the Jew is, as the Midrash says:
כל העולם מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד
)בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת לך לך פרשה מא)

The whole world is on one side and he (viz. Abraham) is on the other side.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

פרשת שקלים מלמדת: לכו להתחסן


           השבת נקרא בחוצות את פרשת שקלים (שמות ל, 11-16), הראשונה מבין ארבע הפרשיות המובילות אותנו לחג הפסח. הפרשה מתעסקת בחובת כל יהודי לתרום מחצית השקל לבית המקדש בירושלים, כסף שמימן את קרבנות הציבור לשנה החדשה. את הפרשה תמיד קוראים צמוד לראש חודש אדר, בהתאם לקביעת המשנה ש'באחד באדר משמיעין על השקלים' (שקלים א, א). אפילו אחרי חרבן הבית, תיקנו חז"ל שתיקרא פרשת שקלים כ'זכר למקדש' ומתוך כמיהה לבניינו מחדש (בב"א).

למרות שטעם קריאת הפרשה הוא כנ"ל, הקרבה בינה לבין פורים מעוררת עניין. היתכן ש חז"ל ביקשו בכל זאת לרמוז שקיים קשר בין תשלום מחצית השקל לבין אותו נס שאירע לעם ישראל בתחומי האימפריה הפרסית, עשורים בודדים אחרי חנוכת הבית השני?

           אחד שסבר שקיים קשר כזה הוא הרב עזריה פיגו, חכם איטלקי שחי בין 1579- 1647. הרב פיגו היה תלמיד חכם בעל שיעור קומה שחיבר פירוש ל'ספר התרומות' הנקרא 'גידולי תרומה'; חיבור חשוב ובעל השפעה המתעסק בדיני ממונות. אולם, הרב פיגו מפורסם במיוחד בזכות דרשותיו. הוא היה הדרשן מראשי לקהילת מגורשי ספרד ופורטוגל בגטו של ונציה, ודרשותיו משכו קהל רחב. אוסף דרשותיו, 'בינה לעתים,' נחשב נעס צאן ברזל של הסוגה ומעולם לא יצא מהדפוס, מאז צאתו לראשונה ב1643.

                 בדרשא לפורים (סי' כ), תוהה הרב עזריה מה הביא את המן הרשע לחשוב שיצליח במזימתו להשמיד את העם היהודי (שחי כולו בתחומי האימפריה הפרסית). הוא טוען התשובה נרמזת בדברי המן למלך, בהציעו לו כסף לביצוע זממו: 'יֶשְׁנ֣וֹ עַם־אֶחָ֗ד מְפֻזָּ֤ר וּמְפֹרָד֙ בֵּ֣ין הָֽעַמִּ֔ים בְּכֹ֖ל מְדִינ֣וֹת מַלְכוּתֶ֑ךָ וְדָתֵיהֶ֞ם שֹׁנ֣וֹת מִכָּל־עָ֗ם וְאֶת־דָּתֵ֤י הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ אֵינָ֣ם עֹשִׂ֔ים וְלַמֶּ֥לֶךְ אֵין־שֹׁוֶ֖ה לְהַנִּיחָֽם' (אסתר ג, אסתר ג, ח). הרב פיגו פירש את המילה 'מפורד' מלשון פירוד ומחלוקת. הוא קבע שליהודים מגיעה כלייה 'לאשר שלט בהם הפירוד ביניהם, וכלם מלאים קטטות ומריבות, ולבם רחק אלו מאלו.'  יסוד הפלגנות היהודית, הוא התאים, נמצא באנוכיות מופרזת ובחוסר התחשבות בצרכי הזולת. חיי 'אם אין אני לי, מי לי' הוא קרא לזה. המן קיווה שניצול נקודת תורפה זו, חוסר האחדות ולכידות המאפיינת את היהודית, יסלול את הדרך להשמדתם.

           אולם, הצהיר הרב עזריה פיגו, 'הוא, יתברך, הקדים רפואה למכה זו במצות השקלים, אשר היא ממש הוראת הפך כל זה, בהיותו מזרז לישראל על התאחדות ודביקות אלו עם אלו, להיות כולם אחדים כאיש אחד.' חובת מחצית השקל מלמדת שכל ישראל שווים, כל ישראל ערבים וכל ישראל תלויים זה בזה. זה המסר המרכזי של אסתר המלכה כשציוותה: "לך כנוס את כל היהודים"  (שם,

ד, טז). הלקח, כידוע, נקלט והתוצאות היו בהתאם.

           דברי הרב עזריה פיגו חייבים לעמוד לנגד עינינו בעמדנו מול מגפת הקורונה. הנטייה היהודית לפלגנות ולסכסוך, העדפת צרכים אישיים על חשבון (ומתוך שלילת) אלה של אחרים, יכולה להיות בעוכרינו (בדיוק כפי שהבחין המן). קל וחומר בן בנו של קל וחומר, הדברים נכונים בעת מגיפה כזאת כשהחלטה אישית שלא לקיים את הוראות הממשלה ואת דרישות הרופאים ( לחבוש מסיכה, לא להתקהל ומעל הכל להתחסן) מסכנת ישירות את עצמנו ואת כל העם כולו. התנהלות כזאת מקעקעת את יסודות התורה ומפרה גם את החובה לשמור על בריאותנו וגם את האיסור להזיק לאחינו ואחיותינו.

           במילה אחת, רק אם נפנים את המסר המרכזי של מצוות מחצית השקל נזכה לחגוג את 'פורים קורונה.'

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Divided and United: Some Thoughts on Parshat Shekalim


            This Shabbat, after the weekly Torah portion, we will read Parshat Sheqalim  (Ex. 30 11-16); which invokes the obligation to contribute a half-sheqel to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  The passage is always read on the Shabbat after the first of Adar because in Temple times public reminders to pay the half-sheqel began to be issued on Rosh Hodesh Adar (M. Sheqalim 1, 1). As with so many other things, the Rabbis ordained that the practice be continued in memory of the Temple (and in anticipation of its speedy rebuilding).

            Still, despite this obvious explanation, the proximity of Parshat Sheqalim to Purim is intriguing. Could it be that the rabbis wanted to highlight a connection between the commandment to pay the half-sheqel tax and the miracle that occurred in the Persian Empire, less than a century after the Second Temple was dedicated?

One commentator who thought so was the Italian Scholar, R. Azariah Figo (1579-1647). R. Azariah was a Talmid Hakham of the first order, the author of a halakhic work entitled Giddule Terumah. However, he is best known because of his collection of sermons, Binah Le-Itim which has remarkably never been out of print since it was published in 1643.

In his first sermon on Purim (no. 20), R. Azariah asks what was it that made Haman think that he could destroy the Jewish People (all of whom lived within the borders of the greater Persian Empire). He suggests that the answer is found in the deadly proposal that Haman made to Ahasuerus: ‘And Haman said to King Ahasuerus: 'There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed (mefuzar u-meforad) among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are different from those of every people; nor do they obey the king's laws; therefore it profits not the king to suffer them’ (Esther 3, 8). R. Azariah suggested that the vulnerability of the Jews lay in their disunity. He understood the words mefuzar u-meforad to refer not to the Jews’ geographic distribution, but to their being deeply divided. Each Jew put his or her own concerns ahead of the needs of the nation; living a life based on, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ The endless in-fighting among the Jews, Haman was telling the king, would be their Achilles’ heel. By exploiting it, they could be destroyed.

However, R, Azariah declared, God had already prepared the cure to Jewish disunity: the mtzvah of the Half-Sheqel. The fact that each Jew gives half a sheqel teaches us that half of us belongs to God. We are not allowed to devote ourselves solely to our own concerns. When the

chips are down, God commands us to transcend our selfishness and coalesce into a unified whole, devoted to the vision and purpose that He laid out for us at Sinai, which is achieved through unity, ‘as one person, with one heart.’ Happily, the lesson was not lost on the Jews of the Persian Empire. They responded to Esther’s call to gather ‘all of the Jews together,’ in fasting, prayer and in military self-defense.

            R. Azariah’s point should ring out loudly in our present situation, as we face the scourge of Corona. The Jewish penchant for divisiveness, for emphasizing our personal needs and desires while ignoring the general welfare, could God forbid be our undoing (just as Haman discerned). This is especially true in this time of plague, when a personal decision not to obey the rules directly, and malignantly, affects everyone around us. The Mahatzit ha-Sheqel teaches that our bodies belong to God. It does not ask, it demands that we wear masks, observe social distancing and above all be vaccinated, not only to save ourselves (which is a mitzvah in its own right), but because of the binding Torah obligation to save the Jewish People, as a whole. Irrespective of what others might say, only by internalizing the lesson of the Mahatzit ha-Sheqel is there any hope of our celebrating Purim Corona.