Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

Understanding Rabbinic Notions of Love in Tamudic lore.

In Amnon, David, Jonathan, love, Rabbinic friendship, Tamar on February 27, 2009 at 6:57 pm

We are not always in harmony with ourselves. Rabbi Nachman of Breslav would often speak of himself as a microcosm of the universe and its accompanied cosmic eruptions. It was a way of contextualizing his profound unease both with himself and the world around him. He was tormented from without and within.

Paul Simon in perhaps his finest album “Graceland” echoes this sentiment, “There’s a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline and sometimes when I’m fallinflyin‘ and tumblin‘ into turmoil, I say whoa, so this is what she means…”

There is no greater culprit than love for the emotional chaos that Simon describes. As for Rav Nahman, the same rings true, but the object of his desire would be the Holy One.

Pirkei Avot, The Values our Fathers, is a potpourri of pithy aphorisms from early Sages that teaches what should truly be important. Love does not get a tremendous amount of attention in this relatively short work, but it does get some–

Any love that is conditional the love will cease when the condition upon which it depended ceases. Love that is unconditional will never cease. What would be considered a love that is conditional? The love of Amnon and Tamar. What is an example of unconditional love? David and Jonathan. Pirkei Avot 5:16
It is interesting to note that Amnon’s desire for his half-sister is considered a conditional love. The condition is his desire for her, and once that longing has been fulfilled by his rape, he not only ceases to love her but despises her.
The presumption of the rabbis–post-modern literary critics notwithstanding–is to see the love between David and Jonathan as pure, with no ulterior, or erotic overtones. Does this mean that all love that has an erotic component is by definition a love that is conditional and therefore, not enduring?
It’s funny that when people speak of Platonic relationships they mean to say it is not serious whereas the definition of a Platonic relationship is “purely spiritual love”, a love that is on a higher plane than erotic love. What one should say, when asked if a relationship is serious, is “No it’s just a sexual relationship.”
If it truly is serious, then the sex would be incidental–if at all, because the relationship would be like David and Jonathan where not only was the sex not the goal, but it was not even a factor in a relationship that was considered spiritual and pure.
David and Jonathan is one of the only friendships described in the entire Bible. The Rabbis take their relationship at face value, and view it as a truly Platonic one, totally apart from the realm of physical attraction.
Except they would never call it a Platonic relationship, but they may have labelled it a Rabbinic one.
According to this understanding of love, it is the conditions that get us into trouble. Once the love is conditional it is in constant jeopardy. “What if the condition isn’t met?” The irony is that as long as the condition is not met, the desire is constant, painful and full of anxiety, but constant.
As soon as the desire is met, it is replaced with either emptiness, or contempt. This is what Paul Simon describes in the song quoted above: “losing love is like a window in your heart. Everyone sees that you’re blown apart.”
The pure spiritual love only ends when life ends and then it is sad for the surviving friend. The Rabbis are idealizing their relationships with their learning partners in this Mishnah, when they say, “All we want from each other is the best understanding we have of the book in front of us. It does not matter who is better, or smarter or stronger, all that matters is that I am there to help you. It never occurs to them that they are to be helped in turn.
Husbands and wives often describe each other as “best friends”, as if that might be unusual. But, in fact, it may be the true definition of enduring love, a friendship beyond the kids, beyond the sex and, of course, beyond the self.

A Memorable Quote from a Master of my Youth

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2009 at 3:52 am

“The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show.”
–Leonard Cohen

Reverend Al Preaches to the Horizontally challenged!

In Al Sharpton, Pirkei Avot, Talmudic diet on February 25, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Jeff Goldberg gets a diet tip from an avuncular Al Sharpton!

“What’s your diet secret?” I asked him. After all, stripping weight away is somewhat easy, compared to keeping it off. Sharpton put his arm around my shoulder and said, “I’ll tell you the secret. You ready for the secret?” He lowered his voice. “Never, ever eat anything after 6 p.m. Never.

Just as Reverend Al channeled Pirkei Avot with his favorite mantra “No Justice, No Peace!”
Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three things, on justice, on truth
and on peace…(See Chapter 1:17)

He does so again when he channels Ben Zoma with his advice for a trim waistline:
“Who is considered mighty? One who can conquer his desires!” (Chapter 4:1)

Not only mighty, but THIN!

Rambam on fiscal responsibility with commentary

In Uncategorized on February 24, 2009 at 8:56 pm

Ok. I converted it to a Pdf file and now you can download it in living color. Two pages from the Susan Ordman of the Medieval Period–only better!

More than a Building Manual

In cherubs, Mishkan, Parshat Terumah on February 24, 2009 at 6:56 pm

After all the epic themes of Genesis, and the high pyrotechnic drama of nation building and revelation, we have Parshat Terumah. A place where many a Jew has been known to stop reading. After all, it’s hard to get cranked up over a Divine House instruction manual. With a little imagination, however, a healthy curiosity, and some patience,this building manual holds clues that do reveal more than meets the eye.

For instance, take the cherubs,

Exodus Chapter 25
18 You are to make two cherubs of gold, of hammered-work are you to make them, at the two ends of the purgation-cover.
19 Make one cherub at the end here and one cherub at the end there; from the purgation-cover are you to make the two sphinxes, at its two ends.
20 And the cherubs are to be spreading (their) wings upward with their wings sheltering the purgation-cover, their faces, each-one toward the other; toward the cover are the cherubs? faces to be.
21 You are to put the cover on the coffer, above it, and in the coffer you are to put the Testimony that I give you.
22 I will appoint-meeting with you there and I will speak with you from above the cover, from between the cherubs that are on the coffer of Testimony? all that I command you concerning the Children of Israel.

If you were trying to promote a religion that shunned the worship of graven images would you place two cherubs directly below the presence of your voice? On top of that, would you not give any explicit purpose for these cherubs? Click here for a lengthy look at what those little guys are doing there?

Rambam on fiscal responsibility with commentary

In Uncategorized on February 23, 2009 at 11:22 pm

Hebrew and English in readable fonts, plus some bon mots and pithy aphorisms from Yours truly. You can email me and I will be happy to send them to you!

They Should Have Listened to the Rambam…cont…

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Rambam Hilchot Deot Chapter 5 Cont…

And it is forbidden for one to give away all his property and then bother others [to care for them]. He should not sell his field and buy a house, and not sell his home and buy portable goods, or mortgage his home in order to engage in commerce. He should, however, sell portable goods to buy a field. The rule is: His recipe for success is always to exchange the ephemeral for the sustainable, and one should not look for small temporal benefits, or look to have a little gratification in exchange for things that cost him greatly.

Once again, the Rambam is talking about how an astute individual behaves with his finances. He sums it up by saying “he exchanges the ephemeral for the sustainable.”

Hundreds of years before social scientists saw a connection between deferred gratification and happiness, the philosopher, without the benefit of statistical analysis, speaks truth to a future society hell bent on instant gratification, spontaneity, and self indulgence. It ends up not only being unwise, but the source of great misery.

They Should Have Listened to the Rambam!

In Uncategorized on February 20, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Maimonides on Personal Finances Hilchot Deot Chapter 5

The way of people who know the ways of the world is that one first finds a profession from which he can make a living, after which he should buy a home, and after that he should marry, as it is written:

Who is the man who planted a vineyard, but had yet to consecrate it, who is the man who built a home but has not dedicated it, and who is the man who betrothed a woman but had yet to marry her. (Deuteronomy 20:6)

But fools begin by marrying, and afterward they buy a house if they are able, and only at the end of his days does he look to have a profession, or he becomes dependent on tzedaka. As it is written in the curses:

He will marry a woman, build a home and then plant a vineyard. (Deuteronomy 28:30)

In other words, the curse is that he will do everything backwards which will guarantee his failure, but when a blessing is offered, Scripture says:

And David was enlightened in all his ways, and the Lord was with him. (I Samuel 18:14)

The Rambam offers common sense advice that requires personal responsibility on the one hand, but does not remove the feeding hand of the community when one goes the way of fools. David Brooks in his column entitled was unwittingly channeling the twelfth century Physician philosopher rabbi. Yes, there is much foolishness, and yes they are still our responsibility. Just as cancer victims who smoked all their lives need health care, and the morbidly obese diabetic needs insulin, the financially profligate need to be reckoned with as well.

People need to be responsible and Rick Santelli’s Jeremiad on CNBC, has merit, but no civil society denies a person shelter because of his sins, especially when there is so much blame to go around.

By the way, the Rambam switches the order of the verse in Deuteronomy 20:6 where it mentions building a house before planting a vineyard. One opinion understands this “misquote” as being sensitive to the fact that a vineyard’s fruit cannot be eaten or sold until after the fourth year when the fruit is redeemed. The Rambam assumes that the vineyard is planted, but one could buy a house before the vineyard was turned into income.

Either way, the order of the verse that offers the curse is quoted exactly as it appears, and one might assume that the order of blessing is the opposite of the curse. Both readings infer that the fact that marriage is mentioned last in the more neutral context and mentioned first in the curses is significant. This is an interesting reading, but not a necessary one.
Loosely based on Scripture, the Rambam is imparting his own wisdom here, and it is wisdom for the ages.

Stay tuned for a posted file on this passage.

Beyond Welfare: A Clarification of Values

In curses of Ki Tavo, Esther Rabba, responsibility to the poor on February 18, 2009 at 2:08 pm

When analyzing a disagreement in the Talmud the first question one must ask is not “What is the argument about?”, but rather, “What can they agree upon.” Determining common ground is the foundation for discovering some facts. It may be that the argument is broader than one may surmise, but one knows that at least the argument goes this far. In other words, by minimizing the dispute, one does not only assert a common ground, but s/he actually arrives at a modest truth.

The modest truth being that at least they are arguing about this. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Parshat Ki Tavo enumerates a litany of curses that will fall on those who cross God. One of the more unnerving of those curses is:

And your life will hang (or depend upon) before you, you will be frightened night and day, and you will not believe in your life.

There is a disagreement in Midrash Esther Rabba on how one unpacks the verse, which is instructive:

The Sages taught: AND YOUR LIFE WILL HANG BEFORE (DEPEND UPON) YOU… this refers to a person who has grain for one year.

…AND YOU WILL BE FRIGHTENED NIGHT AND DAY…”this refers to a person who must buy his flour each day from the miller. “

…AND YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE IN YOUR LIFE.” This refers to one who must buy his bread from the baker.”

Rabbi Berachya, however, disagreed “AND YOUR LIFE WILL HANG BEFORE (DEPEND UPON) YOU…” This refers to one who has grain for three years.

…AND YOU WILL BE FRIGHTENED NIGHT AND DAY…” This refers to one who has grain for one year. “

…AND YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE IN YOUR LIFE.” This refers to one who must get his grain each day from the miller.

The Sages asked: What about the one who must get his bread from the baker?

Rabbi Berachya answered: The Torah did not address the dead.

Both opinions agree that the first clause of the verse is not a curse, but in fact, a positive statement of self sufficiency. They also agree that the last two clauses are curses. Their disagreement is one of degree. Is one anxious and insecure, if he “only” has enough wheat for the year? The Rabbis say no, and Rabbi Berachya disagrees.

One might argue that it depends on the individual and maybe Rabbi Berahya would also agree with this, but he is saying that one should be anxious if he is depleting resources throughout the year without necessarily replenishing them. A person should be anxious if he is not very conservative about his spending–if one does not assume this responsibility. In fact, if one is totally dependent on the system for even baking his bread (presuming he is incapable of doing it) Rav Berachya gives this caustic response, that a person who does not take minimal responsibility for his life is not considered to be “alive.” The system will not succeed in addressing his needs because the system needs something to work with.

The Rabbis say the Torah requires us to take care of everyone regardless of their (in)capacity.

Nobody is considered lost, but when the system is stretched, there is wisdom in placing ones resources where they will do the most good. How does one ascertain where, how and how much is a question for the ages, but here are two opinions, one conservative and one liberal operating under the same system, deciphering the same verse that have much agreement between them. Their disagreement, however, is profoundly fundamental eliciting images of two very different personalities and orientations.

This is a window on two opinions that are not often quoted in the literature. One can certainly find scores of references that unequivocally require us to care for the most vulnerable, but this is a window on framing how this is to be done and even for whom.

The question in the background is: When, if ever, does a person become a lost cause?

For more learning on this Midrash, click here.

Just Make Sure Not to Rub that Side of Your Face!

In anti-aging cream, circumcision, foreskins on February 18, 2009 at 12:47 pm

Want the latest in wrinkle free treatment? Here’s a tip for you.

The latest in wrinkle free treatment comes from foreskins of circumcised babies. Who Knew?