David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 34

Spring has arrived, as my allergies attest, but the last few weeks of Winter in Israel were cold and rainy. The season did not go quietly, but idiosyncratic as I am, I wore my waterproof Source sandals despite the weather – even when schlepping to shul through rain torrents in trench coat and rain pants.

At one point, the gabbai (beadle) came up to me and said, “You look like a Franciscan monk in black with those sandals and trench coat.”

Amused, I quipped, “Perhaps that’s why I’m so uncomfortable at services.”

* * *

My blogging makes shul-going more tolerable. Herein, I don’t pretend. My doubts, my discomforts, my misgivings – these are all part of my process and identity no less than my daily kaddish recitations. I am grieving traditionally and also honestly.

* * *

As the seasons change, more mourners complete their years of kaddish. The gentleman who had been most regularly leading shacharit (morning) services at Kehillat Yedidya completed his journey more than a week ago. I’ve led shacharit several times since, but not on Mondays or Thursdays – those are Torah reading days, when the service is longer and beyond the cusp of my spiritual comfort zone.

There are two other male regulars reciting kaddish. One of them shows up every day; the other shows up fairly often. I’ve noticed that the first is never interested in leading services, and the other noted to me last week that it’s not a requisite – he doesn’t want to lead either. Despite having learned that it’s not obligatory, I’ve unexpectedly come to prefer that a mourner lead the prayers so that he might recite the half kaddishes and full kaddish, which are not exclusive to mourners. After all, these do hold special significance for those who live from kaddish to kaddish.

Nonetheless, I strongly empathize with my two fellow petitioners – I prefer to stand at the back by myself and daven at my own pace. It’s actually liberating to be one of several mourners who aren’t leading services – I’m not alone in avoiding the limelight.

For now, I’ll maintain my new balance: I will lead shacharit on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays when Torah is not read, assuming that no other mourner takes the initiative.

* * *

As for my ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ series, I’ve recently settled into posting new entries once a week. Not a day goes by, however, that my writing doesn’t occupy me.

As I study the stanzas of Psalm 119 corresponding to the letters of my father’s name, I am simultaneously vitalized by the creative process of engagement with the text and challenged by the Psalmist’s traditional faith language.

This week, I turn to stanza ס (samech), the fourth letter of Papa’s name. The Artscroll Book of Psalms (published just last year!) provides the following tasty tidbit:

The letter ס, samach, literally means support; i.e., Hashem [God] supports all those who rely on Him. The very shape of this letter, which is in the form of a circle, represents protection and support from all sides… When a person is resolute in his faith and recognizes God’s Presence everywhere, he is protected from all sides. The wicked who are oblivious to God are סעפים (seiafim), irresolute, and do not merit Divine Protection.

I respond to this below.

* * *

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

PSALM 119:ס (verses 113-120)

[CLICK for glossary]

קיג סֵעֲפִים שָׂנֵאתִי; וְתוֹרָתְךָ אָהָבְתִּי 113 I hate them that are of multiple thoughts; but Thy Torah do I love.
קיד סִתְרִי וּמָגִנִּי אָתָּה; לִדְבָרְךָ יִחָלְתִּי 114 Thou art my cover and my shield; in Thy dvar do I hope.
קטו סוּרוּ-מִמֶּנִּי מְרֵעִים; וְאֶצְּרָה, מִצְוֺת אֱלֹהָי 115 Depart from me, ye evildoers; and I may keep the mitzvot of my God.
קטז סָמְכֵנִי כְאִמְרָתְךָ וְאֶחְיֶה; וְאַל-תְּבִישֵׁנִי, מִשִּׂבְרִי 116 Support me according unto Thy amirah, and I may live; and put me not to shame in my hope.
קיז סְעָדֵנִי וְאִוָּשֵׁעָה; וְאֶשְׁעָה בְחֻקֶּיךָ תָמִיד 117 Care Thou for me, and I shall be saved; and I will occupy myself with Thy hukim always.
קיח סָלִיתָ, כָּל-שׁוֹגִים מֵחֻקֶּיךָ: כִּי-שֶׁקֶר, תַּרְמִיתָם 118 Thou trampled all who stray from Thy hukim; for their deceit is false.
קיט סִגִים–הִשְׁבַּתָּ כָל-רִשְׁעֵי-אָרֶץ; לָכֵן, אָהַבְתִּי עֵדֹתֶיךָ 119 Thou removed all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Thy eidot.
קכ סָמַר מִפַּחְדְּךָ בְשָׂרִי; וּמִמִּשְׁפָּטֶיךָ יָרֵאתִי 120 My flesh stiffens for fear of Thee; and I fear Thy mishpatim.

 

* * *

I see a juxtaposition between the first two verses (113-114) of stanza ס and its last two verses (119-120). The word אָהָבְתִּי (ahavti), which means ‘I love’ occurs in both 113 and 119.

In the first instance, the Psalmist expresses love for God’s Torah, whereas the second use of ‘I love’ is in relation to God’s eidot. In the first instance, the Psalmist describes God as his ‘shield’ (verse 114), hoping for God’s dvar, whereas at the end of the stanza (verse 120) we find his very flesh stiffening in dread of God and his mishpatim.

Let us make use of the glossary that Radak (1160–1235) provides for greater clarity:

In verses 113-114, the Psalmist expresses love for God’s Torah, referring to the details of how God’s commandments are to be carried out. This is followed by an acknowledgement of God’s protection and an expression of hope for God’s dvar, which refers to God’s promise.

In verses 119-120, the Psalmist expresses his love for God’s eidot, which are commandments that testify to God’s supremacy and the revelation of Torah (in the general sense). This is followed by his fear of God and His mishpatim, which Radak understands as the the Divine laws that govern human interactions.

The first love is a love for the intricacies of God’s Law, which traditionally religious Jews face every day. This love of the commitment to Divine strictures leads the Psalmist to feel protected and to hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise. I’ve been there; an intensive focus on the subtleties of our own behaviors may create a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic reality.

The second love is a love for the collective Jewish memory, enshrined in our tradition, testifying to God’s sovereignty. Today this is unimaginable, and it would overwhelm humankind if realized. How would we live if we actually experienced God’s dominion? Such an awareness leads the Psalmist to fear God. The Almighty rules, aware of every action, and so the Psalmist is most concerned with the mishpatim – the Divine Laws governing his interactions with other human beings. (I’d like to think that God cares most about these.)

* * *

There is more to the story. What leads the Psalmist to love God’s eidot?

119 Thou removed all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love Thy eidot.

According to the Psalmist, God has taken tangible action against the wicked – He has “removed” them. This is something that flies in the face of my life experience, but it is the Psalmist’s context. For him, it is true. Certainly, if God were to “remove” the wicked I too would likely love and fear Him.

On the other hand, what is the context for the Psalmist’s love for God’s Torah?

113 I hate them that are of multiple thoughts; but Thy Torah do I love.

Those hated by the Psalmist are the סעפים (seiafim), the “irresolute”, which the Artscroll Book of Psalms describes as “wicked”.

As always, there is Rashi (1040-1105):

סעיפים שנאתי. חושבי מחשבות און, כמו ׳לכן שעפי ישיבוני׳ (איוב כ:ב), ׳על שתי הסעפים׳ (מלכים-א יח:כא) I hate סעפים: Those who think thoughts of iniquity, like (Job 20:2): “Therefore, my thoughts (סעפי) answer me” [and] (I Kings 18:21): “between two ideas (הסעפים).”

 

Rashi has made things worse for me.
I must take issue with the Psalmist and the rabbi both.

* * *

Where to begin?

First of all, according to the BDB Dictionary, the root ס-ע-פ has *nothing* to do with iniquity. It can refer to any of the following concepts: “cleave, divide; cleft; branches; divided, half-hearted, divided opinion”. In Biblical Hebrew, the singular סָעֵף (sa’eif) is simply: “a thought”.

In fact, neither of Rashi’s examples support the case for reading ‘iniquity’ into verse 113. The verse in the Book of Job is neutral: ‘Therefore do my thoughts answer me’ (Job 20:2). Verse 18:21 in the first book of Kings comes closer, but Rashi’s comparison still falls short:

כא וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלִיָּהוּ אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם, וַיֹּאמֶר עַד-מָתַי אַתֶּם פֹּסְחִים עַל-שְׁתֵּי הַסְּעִפִּים–אִם-יְהוָה הָאֱלֹהִים לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו, וְאִם-הַבַּעַל לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו; וְלֹא-עָנוּ הָעָם אֹתוֹ, דָּבָר 21 And Elijah came near unto all the people, and said: ‘How long limp ye between two thoughts? If A) the Lord be God, follow Him; but if B) Baal, follow him.’ And the people answered him not a word.

 

Here, the people’s סְּעִפִּים (thoughts) can be faithful to either A) God or B) Baal. The people have agency of choice; their thoughts are not inherently iniquitous! 

Secondly-

What else does the Psalmist attribute to the “wicked”?

118 Thou trampled all who stray from Thy hukim; for their deceit is false.

The word שׁוֹגִים – shogim (those who stray) has the root ש-ג-ג, as Rabbi David Altschuler (1687-1769) explicitly underscores in his ‘Metzudat Zion’ commentary: שׁוֹגִים is “מלשון שגגה”. 

Back to the BDB Dictionary: what can this root mean? The possibilities include: “go astray; commit sin or error; sin ignorantly, inadvertently; sin of error.” This root clearly connotes ‘error’; the Talmudic term שוגג (shogeg) refers specifically to one who commits a sin by accident, as opposed to one who does so deliberately. Of all the ways in which one might transgress God’s law, this is the most innocent.

And… which category of Divine commandments are these “wicked” people inadvertently breaking? The hukim! These, as we know from Radak’s glossary for Psalm 119, are the mitzvot whose reasons have not been revealed – the most impenetrable of all of God’s commandments!

It would seem that the Psalmist hates those who have multiple, potentially conflicting thoughts and believes that God actively punishes those who accidentally break His most inscrutable demands.

I cannot recite these words and mean them.

* * *

It was not my intention to pick fights with Rashi and the Psalmist, but what am I to do? Perhaps I would be less frustrated with the thrust of stanza ס if this strain of judgmentalism were only a biblical phenomenon.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983), the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, validates my sentiment in his book Basic Values in Jewish Religion, which includes a chapter on ‘Creative Doubt’. He writes (pp. 96-98):

The attitude of traditional religion towards those who doubt its tenets has been one of unqualified condemnation…

[However,] our Bible is not lacking in expressions of religious doubt… Notable is the fact that the Torah pictures Abraham, who is always taken as the exemplar of religious faith, whose faith, tested by ten trials, withstood them all, as nevertheless questioning the justice of God…

[Abraham’s] doubt wrings from him an exclamation of horror, but he expresses it interrogatively… His was ‘a faith that inquires’…

There is… a doubt that is an inseparable accompaniment of religious faith… [There is] a constructive doubt arising from the eternal refusal of the human spirit to acquiesce in evil.

It would be absurd for me to post Rabbi Kaplan’s chapter on ‘Creative Doubt’ in its entirety, but it’s tempting. Truer words have never been written.

* * *

Going back to Rashi, the great rabbi makes one subsequent point in his commentary on verse 113 (continued from above):

כשאתה קורא סְעִפִים הוא שם המחשבה, וכשאתה קורא סֵעֲפִים נופל הלשון על החושבים אותה When you read סְעִפִים (se’ifim), it concerns the thought, but when you read סֵעֲפִים (seiafim), the language refers to those who think it.

 

In other words, according to the language of the Bible, which does not include any vowels, the Psalmist may not hate anyone at all – he might find hateful only those *thoughts* that challenge the Torah’s veracity.

The rabbi is making a deliberate interpretive choice here, and let’s not forget the two biblical examples of סעיפים, which Rashi cites himself: Job 20:2 and I Kings 18:21. Both examples are referring *only* to people’s thoughts, rather than to those who think them.

I think this is a crucial distinction because the Psalmist is writing about *hate*.

‘Hate’ is a strong word.

* * *

As often happens, my learning brings me back to memories of Papa.

My father was a man of deeply rooted morality and intensely firm convictions, he was incredibly passionate and at times even fiery in debate, but he never harbored hate for any person. Certainly, he had disdain for particular ideas and schools of thought, but he would engage with those that he disagreed with – because ideas mattered to him.

Furthermore, Papa was genuinely curious to understand the people he differed with. I remember him proactively engaging ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem with questions while they were protesting against traffic on the Sabbath, querying animal rights activists in Tel Aviv as they campaigned for veganism, and sincerely wondering aloud at how otherwise intelligent family members could vote for the Labor party. He didn’t hate people for thinking differently than him; he simply found it perplexing.

The Psalmist felt threatened by complexity.
My father, confident in his morals and reasoning, wished to understand.

Papa would certainly have agreed with Maimonides (1135-1204) in his foreword to his ‘Eight Chapters On Ethics’:

One should accept the truth from whatever source it comes.

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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