Commentary Magazine


Jewish Images

To the Editor:

According to the second installment of David Gelernter’s mystical, Zen-like, free-association fancies, Judaism is fully definable in neither halakhic nor historical terms [“Judaism Beyond Words: Part 2,” September]. It is defined, rather, by “a still, small voice that is startling in its murmurous subtlety.” Mr. Gelernter’s hearing seems sufficiently acute to pick up these subtle murmurs, which have told him that the “essence” of Judaism consists not of deeds, words, beliefs, concepts, and values but of a “series of images that overhang its broad, deep, sacred literature like a mist over the sea.” Unfortunately, judging by what it has whispered to Mr. Gelernter, the voice is rather poorly informed.

Mr. Gelernter claims that “one of Judaism’s deepest thoughts is that the ineffable, transcendent reality of God can be closer to you if it is separated from you—by a veil, a tangible screen.” But this thought is not found or implied in the canonical texts of the Torah. Moreover, the Hebrew term for “veil” (masveh) that Mr. Gelernter has chosen to connote something that “symbolizes God’s transcendence” appears in only a single episode of the Bible (Exodus 34:33-35), rarely in rabbinical literature, and never in a symbolic sense. It is always just a simple, literal veil. The Talmud and midrash use instead the terms pargod (veil) and vilon (curtain) to denote the spiritual partition between God and His creation. Similarly, the term masakh (screen) appears frequently in the Bible, mostly with respect to the partitions of the tabernacle, and, unlike masveh, is also used symbolically in kabbalistic and hasidic literature (though not in the sense that Mr. Gelernter attaches to masveh).

Nor are the tablets and Ark of the Covenant, Torah scrolls, or the texts in mezuzahs and tefillin “hidden,” as Mr. Gelernter says. They are simply housed in their respective enclosures, just as families are not hidden in their homes, feet are not hidden in shoes, and towels are not hidden in linen closets. Only a strangely distorted perspective sees as “hidden” the countless things in the world that are encompassed by other things for purposes other than concealment.

In a similar vein, the Western Wall “has no openings and windows” not because it represents some profound symbolic mystery but because it needed to be solid to support the Temple Mount. “Standing right in front of it you have a vista of nothing”—which is precisely the vista one has when standing right in front of any opaque object. “What other religion focuses such tenderness on a (seemingly) overpowering blank?” The other religion is Islam, and the blank is the Qa’aba in Mecca, which with its black stone is also a sacred “blank” object touched and kissed by the faithful. Large blank stones were commonly used as pagan cult objects in the Roman Near East, and this is considered by historians to be the source of the Islamic practice.

Mr. Gelernter cites Gershom Scholem’s quotation of a minor hasidic rabbi to the effect that the Israelites at Mount Sinai heard from God only the first letter of the Ten Commandments, a silent aleph, thus transforming, according to Scholem, “the revelation on Mount Sinai into a mystical revelation, pregnant with infinite meaning, but without specific meaning.” This view contravenes the rabbinic consensus that the Israelites heard from God at least the first two Commandments, which do indeed have a specific meaning. Scholem spent most of his illustrious career attempting to undermine the historical normativeness of rabbinic Judaism, so selective and inconsequential quotations like this one should be discounted.

“Jews,” says Mr. Gelernter, “want to understand their sacred texts but also to nullify their meanings; to pass through the meaning and come out the far side”; they want “to achieve meaninglessness.” Perhaps there are a few Jews besides Mr. Gelernter who want (or think they want) to do this. But then what? Will they join with would-be mystics of other religions in a nothingess-affirming chant of “om” and then adjourn to dream of the void? Nahmanides, the great medieval scholar whom Mr. Gelernter drafts as a supporter of meaninglessness, would be appalled by this misuse of his Torah commentary.

Finally, the hasidic ritual of melaveh malkah described by Mr. Gelernter is, like most of his article, a figment of his imagination. There is no deliberate attempt during this end-of-Sabbath ceremony to “shake off” words or “pass through meaning and come out on the other side.” Nor do Hasidim seek to come “face to face . . . with the actual face of the Torah,” which supposedly comprises nothing but shapes and sounds, which in turn supposedly comprise “the beloved face and voice of the Jewish people . . . of the mothers and martyrs, heroes and fathers, scholars and children; and of their own departed.” Having lived among Hasidim, studied Hasidism, and participated in their melaveh malkahs for many years, I can attest that this is pure fantasy. Whatever else they may be, Hasidim are faithful to the Judaic tradition, the least anthropocentric of religious traditions, and no traditional Jewish practice involves contemplating the faces of other Jews, living or dead.

R.A. Foxbrunner
Silver Spring, Maryland

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To the Editor:

David Gelernter’s observations on the unspoken aspects of Judaism recall my own thoughts and feelings during my first encounter with the Western Wall. I had previously seen great cathedrals and Asian temples, and though I marveled at the devotion and virtuosity required to build such structures, there was no underlying metaphysical component. But the impact of the Wall is emotionally powerful enough to have pushed even this secular Jew toward a religious experience. In its silence and nothingness it encompasses the unknowable.

Arnold Flick
La Jolla, California

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David Gelernter writes:

R.A. Foxbrunner’s objections fall into two categories. The first has to do with a confusion between prose and poetry, or (in a sense) between p’shat (the plain sense) and d’rash (the deeper truth, or alternatively “free-association fancy”). A person unwilling to read Judaism as if it were poetry is unlikely to accept that a word (such as “face”) might have more than one meaning; that the number of times a word appears in the Torah is no measure of its importance, or of our duty to interpret it; that one act might be described in two different ways (say, as “enclosing” and as “hiding”), depending on your point of view; that an object like the Wall might have a utilitarian purpose and also a symbolic meaning.

Such misunderstandings (as they seem to me) are easy to refute. It is true, for example, that the Western Wall “needed to be solid to support the Temple Mount”—just as it is true that we “need” to kindle lights before the Sabbath-evening meal, because otherwise how could we see to eat?, or that the Hebrew words for “one” and “love” must have the same numerical value, because that is how Semitic orthography works, or that public health in ancient Israel might have been served (as many 19th- and 20th-century rationalists pointed out) by the halakhic ban on eating pork and shellfish. Only Mr. Foxbrunner’s conclusion—that things having utilitarian explanations cannot represent “profound symbolic mysteries”—is false. The ability to see further than merely the literal or utilitarian meaning distinguishes the poetic from the prosaic worldview.

Mr. Foxbrunner’s comparison of the Western Wall to the Qa’aba is especially painful—not just inherently, but insofar as it strongly recalls the Israeli architect Moshe Safdie’s readily understandable outrage when the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi proposed placing “a great black stone,” resembling “the Qa’aba in Mecca,” in the plaza in front of the Wall. Safdie held that Noguchi’s plan was “preposterous, reflecting a total misunderstanding of Judaism.”

The implied analogy between Wall and Qa’aba clearly struck Safdie as not quite right. For my purposes, the Wall is and the Qa’aba is not a “blank” (in the sense of “blank tablet,” “blank paper,” or “blank slate”). The Qa’aba is no “veil,” no “screen,” does not cut off your view, does not have a “far side” where there is nothing. It is an object you stroll around; you encompass it.

But the real issue is more general. Judaism has a million points of contact with other religions. It interprets such shared possessions in its own idiosyncratic way. You cannot read the objects of Judaism outside their Jewish context any more than you can read the Talmud without Rashi. The Babylonians had a flood story—whose meaning for them was nothing like the biblical story’s meaning to Jews. The Hebrew Bible is embodied verbatim in the Christian scriptures. And so on.

Mr. Foxbrunner’s second category of objection strikes me as irrefutable, not because it is right but because it is so far removed from plain logic that it is hard to know where to grab hold of it to toss it off the field. Do we discard Gershom Scholem’s scholarship because we dislike many of his attitudes and opinions? I agree with Mr. Foxbrunner that they are often objectionable, but the idea strikes me as absurd on its face—by which I do not mean to imply that it has a head (I am not speaking literally). Does Mr. Foxbrunner’s disagreement with me about the melaveh malkah mean that he knows more about Hasidism than I do, or has more direct personal experience with Hasidim? Would Nahmanides be “appalled”? The reader will have to judge for himself.

I agree with Arnold Flick: however much we admire and are moved by the great cathedrals (and I admire and am moved by them a lot), the Wall hints at the meaning of transcendence and stands as a kind of reproach to every cathedral-builder in history.

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