May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I go to visit congregants who are ill or recovering, I usually give a blessing when I leave, in the form of a prayer for healing. The first part is the usual mi sheberach formula in Hebrew (‘May the One who blessed…’) and the second part is a list of the things we are hoping will happen. A blessing is more than the expression of a good wish for someone: it has an element of the transcendent in it
This week I had the good fortune to hear a scholar with an international reputation speak about issues related to this week’s Torah portion. Dr. Ruth Calderon is a Member of the Israel Knesset who was invited by the Jewish National Fund to speak about her book, A Bride for One Night.
The book is quite wonderful, and does not lack for content directly relevant to our portion this week. Since our portion this week features the priestly blessing, however, I thought that I would share with you a selection from her work regarding the High Priest and a blessing.
In her work, Dr. Calderon draws from the Talmudic text, using a compact and enigmatic story from the Talmud as the basis of her extended retelling. In this case, she is relating the story of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, who had at one time, prior to the destruction of the Temple, served as the High Priest. In the story, Rabbi Yishmael tells of an encounter with God during Yom Kippur, when God was made manifest to him as another human being. Come and hear; this is his story.
“Yishmael senses a presence. Someone is watching him. He stands in place enveloped in the smell of the incense, his eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness. Someone is sitting there. Is there someone else in the sanctum? Did he make a wrong turn? His heart flutters as if caught in a trap. He does not feel like the high priest, on whom all of Israel’s hopes are bent; he does not even feel like an ordinary priest nor even like a regular human being.
“From behind the pillar of smoke, he sees light.
“‘Achatriel Yah Adonai Tzvaot,’ his lips murmur.
“Across from him is a high and lofty throne. Should he prostrate himself before it? He dares to raise his eyes and is greeted by a stormy visage.
“‘Yishmael, my son, bless me.’ He is being addressed by name, as a man addresses his fellow. ‘ Yishmael’ – pronounced just as his mother would say it. ‘My son.’ This is a face-to-face encounter, filled with grace, like a meeting between a father and son. But bless me? What could that mean?
“Yishmael does not understand what the One seated on the throne wants for him. The sound of his voice and the words that he speaks do not accord with his expectations. For a moment he fears that a foreign god has penetrated the inner sanctum and has sat upon the throne. But then the seated presence calls him by name. In that moment Yishmael divests himself of his role as high priest and becomes only himself. He listens. He tries to overcome his fear and his preconceived notions. He wishes to be fully attentive, freed from his anxieties.
“Suddenly he understands. Yishmael is showered in blessing, and he is ready to bestow blessing on others. The words come to him with love: ‘May it be Your will.’ The words follow one another without any effort on his part, like a person praying for the well-being of a friend. ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy overcome Your stern attributes.’ He enjoys this newfound generosity of spirit. He is happy that he wants to bestow goodness. He glances at the seated presence with a hint of embarrassment.
“He continues: ‘And may You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy. And for their sake, may You go beyond the boundary of judgment.’ The seated presence nods graciously. Yishmael’s doubts are assuaged. He knows what to do next. He comes to the ark and places the fire pans between the two cloths. He stacks the incense on the coals, enters an outer chamber and offers a prayer, keeping it short. He does not want to worry the people outside, who will be concerned about the fate of the priest in that holiest of chambers and the holiest time of the year.
“Truly how splendid was the appearance of the High Priest when he exited the Holy of Holies in peace, without any harm.”
An interesting aspect of this story is the shift from a ritual activity – the slaughter of animals – to the spoken word. According to this text, spoken blessings occurred even at the time of the Temple. And, as the story indicates, they were indeed welcomed by God. This could be a backward projection or a historical record; we do not know.
Nonetheless, the priestly blessing, a blessing that appears in the Torah, has long been a part of the liturgy of the synagogue, the institution that replaced the Temple cult. After the destruction of the Temple, the priests no longer sacrifice animals; they become, instead, the bearers of God’s blessings for the congregation.
In Reform congregations, the priestly blessing is often invoked in a sacred moment before the ark in the context of life cycle events. But it appears in a different form in more traditional contexts. Listen, for example, to the recollection of civil rights lawyer Rachel Farbiarz of its recitation in the sephardic synagogue of her youth: “At a specified time in the service,” she writes, “the community’s kohanim discreetly excused themselves to perform their preparatory ablutions. The faint sound of the priests’ shuffling was followed by a call-to-attention–Koh-Haahh-Neeeeeem!–summoning them to their posts before the ark. The men of the congregation gathered their children and their children’s children under the prayer shawls they had drawn over their heads.”
“The kohanim faced them, cloaked too in their billowing shawls. Their arms outstretched, their fingers extended and conjoined in the cultic v-shape.”
The ‘v-shape’ she mentions is one that any fan of Star Trek will recognize: Leonard Nemoy, also Jewish, adapted this hand-sign for use in a Vulcan blessing, ‘live long and prosper.’ What looks like a v-shape, however, is actually a different letter entirely. The ‘v’ is created with the pointer finger and middle finger on one side and the ring finger and pinky finger on the other. However, if you include the thumb, the fingers form the three arms of the Hebrew letter shin, the letter that appears on all mezzuzot, those little boxes we hang on doorposts. The letter references one of the names of God. Like the mezzuzot, the priests become the vessels for conveying God’s omnipresent blessing.
Ms. Farbiarz continues: “the priests swayed and chanted the blessing–distending its syllables, trilling its notes. Only after the kohanim had finished the blessing did the face-off of masquerading ghosts end: Modestly, the priests turned their backs to the congregation and took down their shawls, unveiling themselves before the ark.”
Note a key difference between this blessing and the one relayed by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha: this one is not done face-to-face, in a direct encounter. As she explains: “I actually was not supposed to have witnessed any of this. All of us, kohanim and congregation alike, were to have had our eyes closed or averted downward, to shield ourselves–it is traditionally said–from the awesome power that emanated from between the kohanim’s fingers.” One is expected to look away and not gaze upon this source of holiness.
Ms. Farbiarz has an interesting explanation for the reason why the blessing is chanted in this manner: “I have always suspected,” she writes, “that we protected ourselves not only from the Divine, but also from something very human: the tendency to turn an act of blessing into an act that invests one group with power at the expense of the other. The tented shawls, the downcast gazes, shield the community from the inevitable psychological contortions that easily transform a blessing into an act that underscores the hierarchy between blesser and blessed.”
Thus, in her view, this practice democratizes the distribution of blessing: “The kohanim cannot see those upon whom they confer God’s blessing and the congregation cannot identify the priests who have done so. Rather than simply given or received, the blessing is instead resident within a community of both givers and receivers.” There is no intermediary here.
Taken together, these two stories point to the fundamental paradox of blessing: in one sense the giving of a blessing is very much an interpersonal event, a face-to-face encounter with the other.
Yet, at the same time, giving a blessing is a profoundly transcendent act, otherworldly in its content, metaphysical in its transmission, for it references the Holy One of blessing.
May you experience shabbat peace.
 Ruth Calderon, “Yishmael, My Son, Bless Me,” A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales translated by Ilana Kurshan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013), pp. 141-2.
 Rachel Farbiarz, “Birkat Kohanim: Blessing of the Priests or of the Community?” in http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/naso_ajws3.shtml
March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? I mean, if God knew that it would one day change to another form of worship, why ask for sacrifices in the beginning? Why not identify the proper form of worship and require that of the Israelites?
As I explained last week, in the 12th century Maimonides argued that the sacrificial system was absolutely necessary: if God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.’”
The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompted God to provide an alternative:
“Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted.”
This early form of worship might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’s part, for it was an accommodation to the weakness of human beings.
This week I’d like to look at someone from the 19th century, someone who read Maimonides and agreed with him, someone who attempted to extend and update Maimonides’ medieval arguments so that they might be more in line with the philosophy of modernity.
Hermann Cohen was a philosopher and academic who was the chair of the philosophy department at Phillips University Marburg at the end of the 19th century into the start of the 20th. He was also proud participant in the Reform movement. In his major philosophical treatise, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, Cohen argued that the sacrificial system was an important step in the development of rational religion.
In his view, the sacrifices were the first step in the evolution of prayer.
Cohen argues that the catalyst for this evolution – from physical sacrifice to verbal prayer – was the searing words of the prophets, who would vocally criticize the sacrificial cult. Consider, for example, the following passage from the first chapter of Isaiah:
“The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me? – says the Lord – I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to Me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all My being. They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide My eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.’”
And why is God not listening, you ask? The next verse provides the reason, along with its remedy:
“Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
When we see this kind of criticism, it is possible to understand how the Israelites were able to let go of the sacrificial system when the Temple was destroyed. Isaiah and like-minded prophets emphasized the need to engage in ethical behavior, rather than the need to engage in meticulous observance of Temple ritual. Even without the Temple, it was indeed still possible to act in an ethical manner. So his words provided a clue as to how to respond when the Temple was no longer standing.
But that still leaves us with our initial set of questions: what was the act of sacrifice trying to accomplish? And why is it no longer necessary?
To answer those questions, Cohen cites a Talmudic concept: shegagah, the accidental or unintentional sin. Specifically, he is referring to the idea that an intentional sin might be reckoned by God to be accidental if a person makes a concerted and whole-hearted attempt at repentance. In Cohen’s words:
“To err, to go astray, is humanity’s lot, but therefore shegagah is the limit of one’s fault. Whenever this limit is overstepped, only God knows what happens to someone. Human wisdom is at a loss in the presence of the possibility of evil in humanity.” We don’t know how to respond to evil, and furthermore, we don’t know how to forgive sins.
Thus, Cohen argues, “The Day of Atonement maintains the fiction of the unshakable moral preservation of everything human: all human sin is shegagah. Therefore God can forgive without relinquishing God’s justice.”
Let me explain what that last line means. If God were always merciful, there would be no justice in the world because all things would be permitted. On the other hand, if God were always just, there would be no repentance, because nothing would ever be forgiven. So, to preserve both justice and mercy, one should say that all human sin is shegagah, accidental sin. Yes, it is a sin – hence the need for justice – but it is also an accident – hence the need for mercy. Is that a fiction? Of course: but it is a necessary one for moving forward with repentance.
It’s a radical idea that he is proposing here: God’s love is such that any sins we might commit should be reckoned as accidental. All we need to do is turn and repent.
But it’s one he firmly believes. As Cohen writes, “It is the essence of God to forgive the sins of humanity. This is the most important content of the correlation of God and humanity.” This is how God relates to the world.
We are, in essence, already forgiven, even before the act of turning toward God.
We are in need of rituals, however. A sinner is unable to achieve a sense of expiation and forgiveness through his or her own efforts alone.
Let me explain: if you have done something wrong, you want to make it right. But even after you have apologized and righted the wrong, there is this lingering sense of not-rightness. You need to be forgiven. For this reason, Cohen argues, you need a congregation and a ritual. As Cohen writes, “The individual needs the congregation for his or her confession, and within the congregation, sacrifice.”
Thus, the great glory of the sacrificial system was that it established the custom of public worship involving a set ritual. That’s a necessary step in the evolution of religious understanding.
But, to fully understand how this process evolved, it is also important to note here that the priest was not the one granting atonement. Rather, God was the one granting atonement, and doing so in response to a ritual act.
So when it was not possible for the priest to engage in this ritual anymore – after the Second Temple was destroyed – it was entirely possible that a different kind of ritual could be substituted for the sacrificial act. If it is God who is granting atonement, then the priest is helpful but ultimately unnecessary.
So, for example, in the case of the Day of Atonement, it was possible to replace the sacrificial system with the recitation of words – which is precisely what happened.
It was possible for the Israelites to change from one form of worship form to another in the wake of the destruction because the necessary theological structures were already in place. The prophets declared that ethical behavior was more important than ritual behavior. And the priests were clearly acting as a go-between rather than a replacement for God. So without the Temple, what is needed? The answer is clear: ethical behavior plus a ritual for achieving atonement.
What should we make of this evolution now? And what does it tell us about ourselves?
Prayer forms are always changing, and appropriately so. Our prayer looks different than it did a hundred years ago. At the same time, prayer must include elements from the past. Even when our needs change, we crave continuity. Our prayer has a lot in common with the prayers of a hundred years ago.
We also learn from this example that we are not so different from our ancient forebears. We need a ritual to release ourselves of that sense of wrongdoing. We are forgiven, of course, even before we ask: but we need some way of expressing our sorrow, our sense of wrongdoing, and our intention to make things right.
So, when we read the book of Leviticus, we ought to read it with that frame of mind: this is not an ancient book of Temple procedures; it is, rather, the timeless expression of our longing for God.
 Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Shlomo Pines, transl. (Chicago, IL and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1963), III:32, p. 526.
 See the Bavli: Rosh Hashanah 17b and Yoma 86b.
 Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism (Simon Kaplan, transl. Oxford and New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 223. I have changed the translation here to make it gender-neutral.
 Ibid., p. 213.
 Ibid., p. 200.