That the Holy Blessed One practices social distancing, from where do we learn it (מנא לן)? As it is written (דכתיב): “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the ark cover, lest he die, for I appear in the cloud over the cover.” (Leviticus 16:1-2) And from where that God wears a mask? As it is written (דכתיב): “He shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over the [Ark of the] Pact, lest he die.” (Leviticus 16:13)
So as of yesterday we have officially passed over from the month of Kislev into the new month of Tevet, a month which features no holidays or festivals save for the tail end of Chanukah, but which does include a number of relatively minor fasts.
One of these fasts is the 8th of Tevet, an optional fast-day commemorating the date in 313 B.C.E. when the Torah was translated in to Greek at the behest of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, an event which has been described by one rabbinic source as “as bad for the Jews as the day on which the Golden Calf was made” (Masechet Soferim 1:6 – a non-canonical addendum to the Babylonian Talmud probably composed in the 8th century or so).
It might be instructive to take a look at how this translation came to be: The Ptolemaic kings (a dynasty of Greek kings, descendants of one of Alexander’s generals who ruled over Egypt after his death) were notable for their love of knowledge and learning. It was they who created the famous Library of Alexandria, devoted to collecting texts from all over the known world. King Ptolemy II wanted a copy of the Torah for the library, and for this purpose he commissioned a group of 72 Jewish scholars to produce a translation into Greek, the lingua franca of the Hellenistic world. According to tradition Ptolemy put each of these 72 scholars in a separate chamber and had them produce their own translation independently of all the others. Miraculously, the text each of them produced was identical. This text, the “authoritative” translation of the Torah into Greek, is known as the Septuagint (a Greek word referring to the text’s 72 authors), and was used as a holy text by the Greek-speaking Jewish community of Alexandria, as well as the Christian church later on. (For more details on the story, I suggest taking a look at Masechet Megillot 9a, as well as the Letter of Aristeas.)
When it comes to the question of why this act of translation was so bad, opinions are mixed. Some claim that Ptolemy’s segregation of the Jewish translators was an effort to trip them up, that if the translations had come out different it would have been held up as proof that the Torah was a human creation rather than a divine gift. Some focus on the problems inherent in translation, suggesting that the availability of an “authoritative” translated work cuts people off from the sacred original text. Still others regard it as a tragedy precisely because it made the Torah, which they see as being God’s gift to the Jews alone, accessible to other people.
Now as for me, as a rabbi I am certainly a strong advocate for reading Jewish text in the original language, because there are so many nuances, ambiguities and subtleties of expression that are difficult to render in translation, and because translation inevitably leaves us beholden to the editorial decisions of the translator. Nevertheless, there is something deeply uncomfortable about the idea that textual accessibility should be included among the great many threats to the Jewish people commemorated with a public fast. For all my love for the text in its original language, I can’t help but see accessibility as a good thing, both for Jews who may not have the privilege of an extensive education in the classical language of the Jewish tradition, and for non-Jews who may be inclined to explore Judaism and the wealth of wisdom contained therein. You can say what you like about the perils of cultural appropriation, but for me the bottom line is this:
Violence and misunderstanding increase whenever communication and mutual comprehensibility cease.
And so, as we enter this month of Tevet, I invite you to join me in turning this fast into a feast… of words! Do you have a favorite translation of the Torah, one that captures something interesting about the text and makes it accessible to those who don’t have mastery over the original language? What are some of your favorite works in translation?
I’ll start: My first ever encounter with Jewish text was Robert Alter’s translation and commentary of the Book of Genesis. His artistry and attention to detail really captured my imagination when I read it back in college, and may have set me on a path which eventually led to my conversion to Judaism!
Check out the first in a series of videos I’m doing about getting into Jewish prayer!
In this one, we explore the first blessing of the Amidah, the central part of the prayer service. It focuses on our connection with our ancestors, how we benefit from their acts of loving kindness, and how our own acts of loving kindness translate into redemption for our descendants!
I should have felt resentful toward the Hebrews, for whose sake the curses of their God had befallen my people, but in fact all I felt that night as I lay in my bed waiting to die was an immense sense of relief. I remember thinking, My life is about to be over. After tonight, I will never have to lie to anyone about who I am again. Perhaps that in itself is a kind of mercy.
When I awoke the next morning, I was filled with confusion. At first I thought it hadn’t happened, that the Pharaoh had defeated the Hebrews’ God after all. I felt a pang of sympathy for the Hebrew slaves. Ah well, I thought, it just shows that it is better not to hope, not even for release. But then I heard the wailing from outside, a cry of anguish rising up from the houses of my town such as I had never heard, and a kind of wonder crept over me, for I knew that it had happened after all. But why had I of all the firstborn sons of Egypt been spared?
I went to see their prophetess. I found her with a group of other women, face and arms covered with flour, hurriedly mixing dough in preparation for their departure.
“That will never have time to rise,” I observed.
She didn’t even look up, focused on her work. “We’ll make do. Now what is it you wanted? Better make it quick — as you can see, we’re in kind of a hurry.”
Haltingly, uncomfortably aware of the eyes of the women upon me, I told her who I was and put my question to her: “Why was I, of all the firstborn sons of Egypt, spared?”
Now she did look up, when her eyes met mine they crinkled up and she laughed. My heart went cold — somehow this daughter of slaves knew what I had never uttered to a living soul.
“Do you think anything is hidden from the eyes of God?” she said. “The firstborn son of your house is dead, but you were spared. If you ask me, I think you’ll be better off without him. Now come along and help me with this bread.”
Still smiling, I got down on my knees alongside the other women of Israel and began to knead.
The boy next door was about my own age. It’s funny, but I can’t seem to remember what his name was anymore. When we were small he would show up at our door every morning, politely asking if I would come out to play. I always did. His parents were Egyptian and mine were Hebrew, my parents slaves and his free, but that didn’t seem to matter… that is, until my brother Chayim was born. Nowadays when a woman gives birth to a son it’s a cause for celebration, but back then the prayer on every pregnant woman’s lips was that God would give her a daughter. We daughters, you see, were allowed to live. The Pharaoh’s men came for my brother Chayim on the day of his brit milah. After Chayim was taken, whenever the boy from next door came to ask for me I would hide and pretend I wasn’t there. I could no longer bring myself to play with a child of the people who had stolen my brother from me.
Then the man of God came. We watched as plague after plague rained down upon the Egyptians, and in my heart I was glad, for the sake of my brother who was never allowed to live. But after the darkness departed and the Pharaoh still refused to let us go free, the word reached us that God was planning to visit one more plague upon the Egyptians — the death of every firstborn male. Standing outside our house, watching my father as he painted the doorposts with blood to ward away the angel of death, I looked over at the house next door, and saw the boy I used to play with looking back at me through the window. From the look on his face I could tell he knew well what was in store for him. All at once the memory of our time spent playing in the courtyard came flooding back, and I knew what I had to do. I talked with my mother and father, and they talked with his mother and father. That night, when we celebrated the Passover feast, there was one more sitting at our table than there had been the night before. And when we departed Egypt the next day, my brother Chayim went with us.
The Hebrews came to our doors in the early morning on the day when they were to leave us, asking to borrow our fine clothes, our vessels of gold and silver, to be used for the festival of their God. We knew it was a lie, of course — the part about borrowing. And they knew we knew. And yet we gave willingly. Why?
I knew the woman who showed up at my door. She was much older now, her back bent with toil, face lined with years of hardship, but still I remembered her as she had been on that day long ago when the Pharaoh’s men shoved her roughly out of the very same door I was standing in now. “Egypt for Egyptians,” is what they called it, but the thing I remember most was the look on her face as she was cast out from the home she and her family had lived in for generations to make way for another family — my family. At first we felt guilty, of course, but what could we do? It was the Pharaoh’s will. And then over the course of the years the house began to feel less like someone else’s home and more like our own, and we thought less and less of the Hebrews whose hands had built these walls. Now, standing in the doorway of my home, with my son’s body growing cold in his cot in the kitchen and my husband’s in the bed in the back room, I looked upon the face of the Hebrew woman and remembered.
“Go,” I said as I handed her the vessels, among them items that had been left by her family when they were forced to leave in haste all those years ago. “And ask for your God to bless me also, for my heart is broken into pieces.”
“Ask Him yourself,” she said, not unkindly. “It is said that He is close to the broken-hearted.”
When the Hebrews marched out later that day, I followed them. I did not look back, nor did I bother to shut the door of the house my family had borrowed for a time.
Ran across an interesting discussion in the Zohar on parashat Tazria. If this kind of thing interests you, perhaps you should come by and study with us at RCBI for my regular Thursday afternoon class studying the weekly Torah portion through mystical text!
In this passage, the sages are discussing the question of how spirits end up in their bodies. One rabbi suggests that spirits issue forth as male and female together, but that they become separated into male and female. Assuming a person is worthy, they will be led in their lifetime to the male or female corresponding to the other part of their soul, and this person will be their appointed partner. But Rabbi Elazar objects:
“Rabbi Elazar said, Not so! For in every one male and female are combined together, and afterwards they are separated. But ‘and she gives birth to a male’ (Leviticus 12:2) – they are combined together from the right side. And if she gives birth to a female, female and male are combined together from the left side, such that the left side rules more over the right side, and the male on the right side submits such that it does not rule, and then that male which comes out of the female from the left side, all its ways are like the female, and it is not called male. But the male that comes out of the right, it rules, and the female that comes out of it submits because the left side is not ruling, and therefore it is written, ‘and she gives birth to a male.'”
(Note that in kabbalistic symbolism, the right side is strongly associated with masculinity whereas the left is associated with femininity.)
The language used here by Rabbi Elazar is somewhat complicated, but from what he says we can draw the conclusion that:
- The soul of every human being contains both elements which are male and elements which are female.
- That if a soul can nevertheless be said to have a gender, it is because one of these elements rules over and serves as an organizing principle for the others.
- That even if there are e.g. masculine elements in a female soul, we do not call that soul “male” because those elements emerge according to the (feminine) organizing principle.
Notably absent from this formulation is any indication that the soul’s gender is determined by the body’s physical form. Gender is, at least primarily, a spiritual phenomenon.
Happy International Transgender Day of Visibility!
This convening was scheduled to coincide with the International Transgender Day of Visibility, which falls on Sunday. In recognition of this fact, I would like to talk a little bit about the issue of visibility in Jewish tradition and in our own lives. Fundamentally visibility is about the possibility of being seen, a subject which immediately raises issues of power. Everything in our society, our culture, conditions us to understand seeing as a manifestation of power over the one who is seen – simply put, sight is connected to knowledge and knowledge is a kind of power. This is why the experience of being observed by another can feel so invasive and uncomfortable – we instinctively feel that the gaze of the other puts a kind of hold on us, pins us to the wall and lays us out as an object of the other’s understanding.
This is one way of understanding the relationship between the one who sees and the one who is seen, but it isn’t the only one. In fact our parsha for this week, parashat Shemini, contains a different approach to understanding the power dynamics of visibility. In chapter 9, verse 6 it says:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה זֶ֧ה הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה הה תַּעֲשׂ֑וּ וְיֵרָ֥א אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם כְּב֥וֹד הה׃
Translation: And Moses said, “This is what HaShem has commanded that you do, so that the presence of HaShem may become visible to you.”
This statement is somewhat confusing for two reasons: First, because we may not be in the habit of thinking of God as visible. Regarding this, it is important to remember that God’s presence appears often throughout the Torah as a visible phenomenon, most often as a “cloud” resting over or within the sanctuary. God’s visibility is also closely connected with the festival holidays. Deuteronomy 16:16 reads:
שָׁל֣וֹשׁ פְּעָמִ֣ים ׀ בַּשָּׁנָ֡ה יֵרָאֶ֨ה כָל־זְכוּרְךָ֜ אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י הה אֱלֹקיךָ
Which is typically taken to mean: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before HaShem your God,” except that, given the odd use of the object marker אֶת, it seems more appropriate to read yeraeh as yireh, in other words: “Three times a year all your males shall see the face of HaShem your God.” This reading had its supporters even during the rabbinical period, as in the opening of masechet Chagigah where it is used to justify a ruling that one who is blind is exempt from the obligation of making pilgrimage during the festival.
But there is another confusing aspect of our passage from Leviticus, and that is the way it reverses the equation when it comes to visibility and power. Here it is not the seer who gets to define the conditions of being seen, who gets to say, “This is what you must do in order to be seen.” On the contrary, it is the one seen, namely Ha Shem, who gets to define the conditions of Hir own visibility by saying, “This is what you must do in order for My presence to appear to you.” By reversing the equation, the dynamics of power between the seer and the one seen shift in surprising ways. No longer a position of command, the act of seeing here reappears in the vulnerability of desire, while God, the object of that desire, has the power to be seen or not seen according to conditions Zie Hirself lays out – in other words, the power to fulfill that desire… or to hold it in suspense.
An important concept to consider in this context is the role of the garment. To the ordinary way of thinking, the role of clothing is to conceal the nakedness which lies beneath. Nudity is a shameful reality, clothing a means of covering up that reality. Thus, the first man, in response to God’s call, replies, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” (Genesis 3:10) In making this statement, Adam reveals that he has completely failed to understand the spiritual significance of the garment, which is not in fact to conceal, but rather to reveal. It is an important, if somewhat paradoxical insight of the sages of the Zohar that one phenomenon which becomes “clothed” in another is not concealed, but rather revealed by its garment. The spiritual essence in itself, denuded of its garments, is too ethereal and abstract to grab hold of. It is the “garment” which encloses and gives form to an aspect of reality which had hitherto been completely internal with no exterior existence, and thus it is precisely in the act of covering itself that the inexpressible reality lays itself bare to the other, concealing its essence but opening itself up thereby to the outside, and therefore to a new possibility, the possibility of communication.
So – in the mystical tradition garments fulfill simultaneously the apparently contradictory roles of concealing and making manifest that which is concealed. But garments have an additional function – that of transformation. In the opening pages of the Zohar Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son Rabbi Elazar explore together the relationship between two different feminine aspects of God, described as Mi and Mah, “Who” and “What,” Mother and Daughter. Ordinarily separated by a vast metaphysical gulf, on the day of the festival assembly when the Divine presence is said to make itself visible, the Daughter is adorned with “her Mother’s ornaments” and then, clad in male garments, is revealed before the assembly of festival goers gathered together in the Temple’s sacred precincts. It is in this moment that the higher aspects of God’s essence are drawn down and made manifest here on Earth as a visible presence before the assembled worshipers. That this sacred moment, in which divine absence is converted suddenly into presence, rests on an act of gender transgression is, I believe, no coincidence. For what is gender transition if not the trick of taking an absent but deeply felt reality and making it manifest in this world we all share as a palpable presence? In both cases what is at stake is visibility, or to put it another way, the leap in the dark necessary to bridge the gap between an impossible interior truth and an unbearable external reality.
Given the degree of power associated with seeing in a society increasingly structured around systems of surveillance, it is valuable to consider for a moment that the reverse is also true: There is power in being able to establish our own conditions for being seen. This power, which in our tradition falls under the heading of tzniut or “modesty,” does not often register for us as a form of power because its strong associations with femininity tend to render it invisible or trivial in the context of patriarchy, which seizes hold of what could have been a source of power and leverages it as a source of oppression. Nevertheless, the power to set our own terms for visibility can be a deep wellspring of self-determination and self-affirmation for those of us who have spent so many years of our lives literally begging to be seen – by family and friends, by the healthcare professionals we rely upon to provide lifesaving care, by employers and government officials. In a world in which being seen is so often associated with vulnerability, there is something profoundly transgressive, not to mention revolutionary, about taking on the authority to dictate to others the conditions which must be met to get a glimpse of our own transcendent and ineffable presence.
The kavanah I want to leave us with this shabbat morning is that we, like God, have a presence which brings blessing to those who are privileged to look upon it, and that, like God, we are the ones who ultimately get to define the terms of our own visibility. May we all be blessed in our lives to behold the divine presence, and may we all give blessing to others by the light of our own presence in the world.