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Notes from Limmud 2009

The God of Glass Wombs

Dr Raphael Zarum

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout.]

How can we be bound by the Covenant at Sinai if we weren't there to agree to it. On the one hand this is not a question at all; it's the case for every country. On the other hand, ...
The rabbis wanted to make meaning out of this.

There are two versions of this text. [Both were given in full on the handout, but in this session Dr Zarum quoted partly from one, partly from the other.] First, Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:23 (C8-C10):

"Draw me after you [מֹשְׁכֵּנִי], let us run" (Song of Songs 1:4)

Everyone knows that every love story is really about us and G-d. The rabbis use Song of Songs a lot to talk about going out of Egypt and Sinai. Sinai is a love story: G-d says "I brought you out on eagles' wings, I want you to be my people; what do you say?" (Rashi says: Why an eagle? Because eagles fly higher than other birds, and if they're shot their young will be protected.)

When you ask someone if they will marry you, they don't say, "Let me check your bank statement", they just say yes: נעשה ונשמע.

Rabbi Meir said: When Israel stood before Mt Sinai to receive the Torah, the Holy One, blessed be G-d, said to them: Forsooth,* shall I gave you the Torah? Bring me good sureties2 that you will keep it, and then I will give it to you.

1. אלעיקי. It's an oath, an expression of shock.

2. Or guarantors: עַרֵבִים. G-d wants guarantees/guarantors because he doesn't trust the Israelites to keep the Torah. G-d values the Torah; he doesn't want it to sit on the shelf and waste away once he's given it to them.

They replied: Sovereign of the Universe, our ancestors will be our guarantors.

The classic Rosh Hashana argument.

He said to them: Your ancestors themselves require sureties. They were like a man who went to borrow from the king, and to whom the king said: Bring me a surety and I will lend you. He went and brought him a surety, whereupon the king said: Your surety himself requires a surety. He went and brought a second surety. Said the king to him: Your surety requires a surety. When he brought him a third surety, he said to him: Know that for the sake of this man I lend you.

Normally when the midrash brings a story, it brings something you don't know beforehand. This story illustrates the point, but doesn't seem to add anything. So what's it adding? That the Torah is a loan. The Torah is on loan to us? What does that mean?

A gift you can do what you want with; a loan you have to look after, to give back at the end of the day.

[Audience comment: This reverses the normal relationship: It's not G-d offering the Torah to the Israelites but the Israelites trying to get it off G-d.]

So when Israel stood ready to receive the Torah, G-d said to them: I will give you My Torah, but bring Me good sureties that you will keep it and then I will give it to you. They said: Our ancestors are our sureties. Said G-d to them: I have faults to find in your ancestors.1 I can find fault with Avraham because he said, "How shall I know that I shall inherit?" [Gen. 15:8].2

1. אָמַר לָהֶם הקב״ה אַבוֹתֵיכֶם יֶשׁ לִי עַלֵיהֶם. Literally, "Your ancestors: I have something on them."

2. He didn't trust me; how's he supposed to be a guarantor?

With Yitzchak I can find fault because he loved Esav though I hated him, as it says "But Esav I hated" [Malachi 1:]. With Yaakov I can find fault, who said "My way is hidden from the Lord" [Isaiah 40:27].

Is this good dirt to bring on the Patriachs? What do all three critiques have in common? Are they analysing their religiousness? No; it's a lack of certainty in the future. Which is unfair, as they're human: how can they know the future?

("When you reach a midrash, never say, 'did it happen?' Say rather, how then shall I live?" —Sir Jonathan Sacks, Crisis and Covenant.)

So bring Me good sureties and I will give them to you. They then said: Sovereign of the Universe, our prophets will be our sureties.

Because they do know what's going to happen.

He replied: I have faults to find with them, as it says, "And the shepherds (rulers) sinned against him" (Jeremiah 2:8), and it is also written, "Your prophets have been like foxes in ruins" (Ezekiel 13:4).

Let's ignore the fact these prophets have not been born yet at this time; that's Midrash for you. :o) (Another reason not to take it literally.)

Both these prophets questioned their calling, doubted G-d and attacked other prophets. So this now leaves us without guarantors once again. Next comes the third level of sureties as in the parable near the start.

Still, bring me good sureties and I will give it to you. They said to Him: Our children shall be our sureties.

How can children be sureties?

To which G-d replied: Of course these are good sureties; for their sake I will give it to you. So it is written: "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings have you found strength" (Psalms 8:3). "Strength" refers to the Torah, as it is said "The Lord will give strength to His people" (Psalms 29:11).

The past can't be a surety for the future. Only the future can be a surety for the future.

Now let's switch to the other version, in Midrash Tehillim:

How do we know that G-d spoke thus? Because it is written, "The LORD made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day" (Deut. 5:3).

This is from Moses' five-week swan song. When G-d first chose Moses, he said, "Don't choose me, because I stutter": לֹא אִישׁ דְבָרִים, "I am not a man of words." But then Deut. begins "These are the words which Moses spoke unto all of Israel": The whole of the Torah is him learning to speak. Continuing with our text:

When the People of Israel asked, "Who are those not in debt to You?" G-d answered, "Infants."

These are the only people G-d hasn't got anything on. But this means the only people who are suitable to be guarantors—people legally competent—are people who are not legally competent!

(A midrash said: A man's will said: My child can only inherit the money when he goes mad. The son went to the house of the rov to find out the answer; when he gets near the house, he hears screaming noises. He looks through the window and see the rabbi is all fours with his children on his back jumping up and down. So he waits a bit and knock on the door. The rabbi answers, and when presented with the conundrum, replies, "It's easy: The child can inherit the money when he has children." When you are able to go mad, then you are sane.)

Whereupon the people of Israel brought sucklings at their mothers' breasts and pregnant women whose wombs became transparent as glass so that the embryos in wombs could see G-d and speak with Him.1 מיד הביאו התינוקות שבמעי אמו, ומשדי אמו, ועמדו כריסן כזכוכית, וראו להקב״ה מתוך כריסן, ומדברים עמו׃

1. "A womb with a view" (Noel Coward).

G-d doesn't speak to Moses or Aaron or the elders at Sinai; G-d speaks to embryos and infants. Do we really believe that G-d is everywhere?

"My mother and father have left me, but G-d gathers me up" (Psalm 27). Rashi said it's not about G-d looking after you when you've got old. It's talking about a man and woman in bed; they've just made love. He turns over and goes to sleep. And then she turns over and goes to sleep. [They're satisfied.] And who cares about the sperm and the egg and all the working out that needs to happen for the baby to be born. (יאספני [[G-d] gathers me up] in Hebrew has connotations of multiplying up.)

(See also Massive Attack, "Teardrop" video.)

The Holy One, blessed be G-d, asked the sucklings and the embryos, "Will you be sureties for your fathers, so that if I give them the Torah they will live by it, but that if they do not, you will be accountable because of them?"

I.e. if they screw up, I'm going to come after you!

They replied, "Yes".

This is like: One who goes on aliyah will be making their children fight in the IDF; they're possibly making their children die for their ideals. Some people wouldn't do this for this reason. And some people are bitter about their parents' having made aliyah, to make them grow up in a country with so many problems.

What is the point the rabbis are trying to make in this story? To understand that the decisions you make are going to affect your children directly, and you need their agreement on it. But how can you get their agreement? Would you be ashamed to say what you say in front of them?

In Saving Private Ryan, Ryan says to a dying soldier, "How can I repay you for what you've done for me?" The soldier replies, "Earn it." And then you see an old Ryan at the end. The Second World War was fought for us.

This turns it on its head: Make me proud of you, Dad; act right for my sake.

When G-d said to them, "I am the LORD your G-d" (Ex. 20:2), [the sucklings and embryos] replied, "Yes". When G-d said to them, "You will have no other gods before Me" (Ex. 20:3) they replied, "Yes." And so, as sureties for their fathers, at every utterance they replied "Yes", when G-d said, "You will..."; and replied "No," when G-d said, "You will not...".

In this midrash, the Ten Commandments were not given to the adults, they were given to the children and embryos.

So God declared: Out of your mouths, then, I give the Torah, as is said, "Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings You have ordained strength" (Psalms 8:3), "strength" here meaning Torah, of which it is said, "The Lord will give strength to His people" (Psalms 29:11).

The idea that there are only 600,000 souls in total [and therefore every Jew today has the soul of someone who accepted the covenant at Sinai] is a later, Cabbalistic idea. This is an earlier answer to the problem.

Why do this with the babies and glass wombs? Why does G-d not magically bring the next twenty generations in?

[At this point, Dr Zarum told a story about second innocence relating it to the piyyut אֵין כֵּאלֹהֵינוּ]: First there is childish innocence: "There is none like our G-d". Then doubts, once bad things happen as a young adult: "Who is like our G-d?". Then finally getting back to recognising G-d: "You are our G-d": A second innocence.

That's what's going on here. It's like the way you're not supposed to be a chazan if you're not married, for then you won't know about love. [Eh? I thought you weren't supposed to be a rov (in the sense of communal minister) if you weren't married, for then you wouldn't be able to relate to your congregants when they came to you requiring pastoral care to do with marriage.] In the Rambam's Hilchot Teshuva, it says at the end:

How much should you love G-d? Like a man loves a woman, and is obsessed by her, and cannot even eat and drink. You should love G-d more.

The only way to get to higher love is through physical love. How can you do this for a non-physical love?

This is the end of Maimonides first book. The second is סֵפֶר אַהֲבָה The Book of Love, which details the laws of tallis, tefillin and mezuzah. That's how to do physical love for G-d.

Now, back to the first narrative:

When a claim is made on the debtor and he is not able to pay, who is seized? Is it not the surety? This bears out what is said: "Seeing that you have forgotten the law of your G-d, I also will forget your children" (Hoshea 4:6).

Said R. Acha: The words "I also" signify, if one may say so, I also am forgotten. Who will say before Me "Bless you the Lord who is [to be] blessed?" Is it not the children? Thus through the neglect of Torah among you, your children are punished, as it says, "For your faithlessness have I smitten your children" (Jeremiah 1:30) . Therefore it is a man's duty to introduce his son to the study of the Torah and to give him a good grounding in order that he may live long in the world, as it says, "For by me your days shall be multiplied" (Proverbs 9:11).

By what right are we bound by the covenant of our ancestors? We can't be, because we weren't there. But forget about us; maybe G-d doesn't want to be bound by it. When you ask a question of G-d, G-d throws it back to you: What is your responsibility?

The point is that the camera is on you. you're watching the wombs become transparent, and you're watching G-d talking to the babes and the embryos. And you now have to act with the responsibility of what you're taking on because of the consequences it will have for your children.

Back to the second text:

Rav and R. Levi commented further: Rav said: Their mothers' wombs became like transparent glass

אספקלריא מאירה. The rabbis said that all the prophets saw G-d through a glass darkly, but only Moses saw G-d clearly: אספקלריא מאירה.

and at once the embryos let go of their navel strings, and the sucklings let go of the nipples. R. Levi added: Even greater than the first miracle was the one that followed: The mothers' wombs became opaque again; the embryos rejoined themselves to the navel strings, and the sucklings went back to the nipples, after having opened their mouths in song, as is said, "Out of the mouths of embryos and sucklings have You ordained strength".

Why is this an even great miracle? Suggestions from the audience: They have regained their innocence; they don't know once again. G-d is handing them back to their parents. They trust their parents now to act correctly.

Don't think that you've proven your respect to G-d in one moment; you prove your respect to G-d in how you live your whole life. Dying for G-d is much easier than living for G-d.

In some shuls, they give overdue women פְּתִיחָה. Think about the imagery.

Drinking a cup of wine on Friday night does not constitute making kiddush. Nor does making a בְּרָכָה. It's the meeting of the two worlds, the physical and the spiritual, that does.

Jewish learning notes index

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