An Auspicious Week

Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Headshot of Gail Labovitz
Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD

Professor, Rabbinic Studies
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

Rabbi Gail Labovitz, PhD, is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature and former Chair of the Department of Rabbinics for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She also enjoys serving as the Ziegler School’s faculty advisor for “InterSem,” a dialogue program for students training for religious leadership at Jewish and Christian seminaries around the Los Angeles area. Dr. Labovitz formerly taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) and the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Prior to joining the faculty at AJU, Dr. Labovitz worked as the Senior Research Analyst in Judaism for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and as the Coordinator for the Jewish Women’s Research Group, a project of the Women’s Studies Program at JTS. Rabbi Labovitz is also preparing a teshuva (rabbinic responsum) for consideration by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly on whether a person who is unable to fast for medical reasons may nonetheless serve as a leader of communal prayer on Yom Kippur.

posted on July 20, 2012
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

It is an auspicious week to be called on to contribute the ZSRS drashah. In the parashah this week, Vaetchanan, we read both the 10 commandments (Deut. 5:6-18) and the Shema and V’ahavta that have become central to Jewish liturgy (Deut. 6:4-9). This Shabbat on which we read this parashah is also every year the Shabbat known as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort. It is the first Shabbat that occurs after the mournful day of Tisha b’Av, and is named for the first words of the haftarah, the first of the seven “haftarot of consolation,” from Is. 40:1: “Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God.” A week that began in mourning turns to a decidedly more positive vibe also on Fri., the 15th of Av, sometimes called the “Jewish Valentine’s Day” – according to rabbinic tradition (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8), in ancient times this was a day on which women danced in the vineyards, and engagements were made and announced.

It also so happens that this week, on the 14th of Av (Wednesday night/Thursday), a number of Jews across the world will complete a cycle of what is known as “daf yomi” – the daily study of a folio of Talmud until one has been through the entire work from beginning to end: 2711 folios, in a process that takes nearly seven and half years. I – and one of my colleagues here at the Ziegler School – will be among them. Given the things I’ve noted above, it feels like an especially good week for this to be happening, but as I sit to write this, I want to dig deeper, explore a bit more the connections beyond just the coincidental.

First, we may say that Rabbinic Judaism, for which the Talmud may be considered the central text, is a direct outgrowth of the events commemorated by Tisha b’Av. Rabbinic Judaism includes several variants of an “origin story” for the movement that eventually produced the Mishnah, midrash, the Talmud – the works on which a Judaism that could survive for nearly two millennia in conditions of exile and often oppression was based. One such story traces the birth of the rabbinic academy to the Destruction of the Second Temple itself. There are several variants, appearing in several different texts (such as in Bavli Gittin and Avot d’Rebbe Natan, each told with somewhat different aims), but at the core is the figure of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, a sage in Jerusalem at the time of the Roman siege. As he comes to the realization that the immanent destruction of the city is nearly inevitable, he devises a means of escape (by faking his own death so that his disciples can carry him out of the walls in a coffin), and proceeds to the Roman camp and the Roman general, Vespasian, who is about to be named Emperor. Granted one request, the rabbi asks for “Yavne and its sages” – a place to establish a new center of Torah learning, one that will in time allow a new and adapted form of Jewish life and practice to rise from the ashes. To celebrate a major accomplishment of Torah study then – study of the capstone of rabbinic achievement, the Talmud, no less – seems, from this perspective, especially appropriate taking place in the shadow of Tisha b’Av and in anticipation of the comfort of this Shabbat.

But then, one might note, it has been a very long time since either the Destruction (first in 586 b.c.e., and then for the second time in 70 c.e.) or even the composition of the Talmud, a document that was begun in Late Antiquity and redacted at about the time of the Muslim Conquest or shortly before. Although the rabbis may be credited with setting Judaism on the path that it needed to survive, that path has grown and developed and changed in their wake; it has travelled into philosophy, legal codes, mysticism, commentary and more. Despite the thread that connects them, our Judaism is not theirs, their experiences and religious needs different from ours. How is a Jewish woman of the 21st century to read herself into this document? What is the point of trying to do so?

Here, I find an insight that helps explain my attraction and commitment to this task in the words of Parashat Vaetchanan. This parashah – and all of Deuteronomy, really – takes place at the end of long journey. The Israelite people have been wandering in the desert for forty years; an entire generation has died out and a new one come to maturity. But Vaetchanan – and the rest of Deuteronomy – is not the journey itself. It is the review, the summation, the valedictory address, Moshe’s final teaching and instruction and exhortation to the people. Although the Ten Commandments appear in this parashah, this is not the moment of Revelation. It would seem to be only a reminder of a past moment of glory, only a secondary reiteration of the original. Many of the people Moshe is speaking to weren’t even born at that moment, did not live through it themselves. Like modern Jews opening a 1500 year old volume of Talmud, how are they to connect to, let alone recollect, that moment? And yet, what does Moshe say to the people?

The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today. (5:2-3)

Further on in the parashah, when we come to the Shema and v’Ahavta, once again a variant of this message is conveyed to the Israelites:

Take to heart these instructions which I charge you this day. (6:6)

As a midrash in Sifre Devarim (and Rashi, who cites it) comments, “They should not be in your eyes like an old edict that one does not pay attention to, [but rather] as a new one that everyone rushes to welcome.” A tradition, a religion, is by its nature rooted in a communally remembered past, even as it moves ever forward in time. The key, the trick, is keeping past, present, and future all in balance; each needs the others. Without our past, we are rootless; without a way to take our past and make it keep speaking for our current moment and guide us into the future, it withers and disappears. This is the source of our obligation to make ancient texts like the Talmud part of our modern lives, to study them, confront them, be challenged by them. Here and there – maybe not as often as we hope, but not never either – the reward will be that we will experience it as if it has been revealed directly to us.

And yes, this moment is also bittersweet. Even with only a few days to go as I write this, I can hardly believe that this experience is coming to an end, and I am feeling both excited and proud, but also a bit sad. While my journey has not been quite so long as that of the Israelites in the wilderness (thank goodness!), nonetheless the passage of time and the changes it brought in its wake during my time of study are evident: both of my children became b’nai mitzvah, my mother and both of my in-laws and a dear friend passed away, there were graduations and new jobs and more during this time. Volumes of Talmud accompanied me on wanderings near and far, for business and pleasure. I am taking leave of something that has accompanied me for a long time. I am in need of some comfort as well as congratulations. In this vein, the Haftarot volume of JPS Bible Commentary, by Michael Fishbane, notes some important contrasts between the language of Eichah, the book of Lamentations that we read on Sunday, and Isaiah’s prophecy that we read on Shabbat. Where in Eichah, the author despairs that “There is none to comfort her” (Lam. 1:2 and similarly in other verses), Isaiah begins “Comfort, oh comfort” (Isa. 40:1). Where the exiles of Jerusalem “could only walk feebly (literally: without strength) before the pursuer” (1:6), Isaiah declares further on in this chapter (though beyond what we read as the haftara) “God gives strength to the weary… they who trust in the Lord shall renew their strength” (40:29, 31). While I would hardly dare compare the rigors of my journey to those of either the wilderness generation or the survivors of one of the greatest Jewish tragedies before the modern era, none of us experience lives that are completely free of challenge and travail, and Isaiah speaks to all of us who are sometimes in need of encouragement to persevere.

This is the classic Jewish wish with which we mark someone’s accomplishment: “May you go from strength to strength.” There are some who will end this cycle of daf yomi, and on the next day begin over again. Not me, at least not this time. Instead, I am delighted to know that a number of students, former students, colleagues are planning to start the new cycle. But I have no intent of giving up my practice of daily study, the habit I have worked and struggled to cultivate over these seven and a half years. Instead, I hope to move on to new texts and subjects, relying on the Holy One to keep my determination strong and renew me when I grow weary. So too do I wish for you.

Shabbat shalom.