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Meditations on Torat Emet: A Symposium
Arousing the Truth with Malachi and the Piacezner Rebbe
Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
All I can do is tell the truth. No, that isn’t so – I have missed it. There is no truth that, in passing through awareness, does not lie. But one runs after it all the same. – Jacques Lacan,
The phrase “Torah of truth” can be traced back to the single scriptural source of the expression, torat emet, in Malachi 2:6-7:
מלאכי ב:ו תּוֹרַת אֱמֶת הָיְתָה בְּפִיהוּ וְעַוְלָה לֹא נִמְצָא בִשְׂפָתָיו בְּשָׁלוֹם וּבְמִישׁוֹר הָלַךְ אִתִּי וְרַבִּים הֵשִׁיב מֵעָוֹן. ב:ז כִּי שִׂפְתֵי כֹהֵן יִשְׁמְרוּ דַעַת וְתוֹרָה יְבַקְשׁוּ מִפִּיהוּ כִּי מַלְאַךְ יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת הוּא.
|Mal 2:6 The Torah of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found on his lips. He walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and turned many away from iniquity. 2:7 For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek Torah (law) at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.|
The emet, the truth to which the prophet refers, is, in this context, the quality of ethical integrity in the teacher of Torah – in the priest whose lips keep knowledge – inspiring others to lofty values, to a life of truth, peace, and justice. There is no metaphysical claim here about the truth of Torah, but rather a moral claim on the teacher and the judge who administers Torah law.
Strikingly, the truth function of the priest is radically tied up with language: it lives on his lips, in his mouth. He acts in the role of a messenger of the divine. In classic medieval readings of this text, therefore, human language – the teaching of Torah – becomes the site in which the truth of Torah is manifested: on the lips and in the mouth of the authentic spokesman for God.
The Piacezner Rebbe Reflects on his Role
as a Mediator of Torah
This displacement of truth to the embodied teaching of a human being is subjected to a further interrogation in the anguished meditation of the modern Hassidic master, the Piacezner (R. Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, 1889-1943), also known as the Esh Kodesh (Holy Fire), the title of his most important book. Leading and teaching his community in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust years, he reflects on his own status as faithful mediator of Torah in a time of torment.
A Torah Teacher Must Be Like an Angel?
Reading Malachi 2:7 (quoted above), he notes that, according to the Talmud, one should seek out Torah only from the lips of one who resembles an angel of the Lord of hosts (b. Mo’ed Katan 17a).
הכי אמר רבי יוחנן, מאי דכתיב כי שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת ותורה יבקשו מפיהו כי מלאך ה’ צבאות הוא אם דומה הרב למלאך ה’ – יבקשו תורה מפיו. ואם לאו – אל יבקשו תורה מפיו.
|Thus said R. Johanan: What means the text, “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts”? [It means, that] if the Master is like unto a messenger of the Lord of Hosts, they should seek the law at his mouth; but if [he be] not, they should not seek the law at his mouth. (Soncino trans.)|
Instead of translating malach as messenger, the Piacezner understands it as angel, and sees in it a spiritual characterization of the true teacher, of the transfigured presence that qualifies the teacher to teach and lead the community.
What, then, he asks, is the case of R. Yehuda ben Illai, who resembled an angel of the Lord of hosts only on the Sabbath eve, after a hot bath? (b. Shabbat 25b)
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: כך היה מנהגו של רבי יהודה בר אלעאי, ערב שבת מביאים לו עריבה מלאה חמין, ורוחץ פניו ידיו ורגליו, ומתעטף ויושב בסדינין המצוייצין, ודומה למלאך ה’ צבאות.
|For Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: This was the practice of R. Judah b. Il’ai: On the eve of the Sabbath a basin filled with hot water was brought to him, and he washed his face, hands, and feet, and he wrapped himself and sat in fringed linen robes, and was like an angel of the Lord of Hosts.|
The Piacezner asks: Would R. Yehudah bar Ilai be qualified to instruct and inspire his people, if on other occasions he bore no resemblance to an angel of God? This question is really autobiographical, as the Piacezner is agitated about his own entitlement to his role.
He concludes that if the angelic persona appears at least occasionally, then on other “colder” days, in the absence of any such transfiguration, the community should solicit the teacher, seek Torah at his mouth; and thus arouse the dormant angel within him (Esh Kodesh, 113). If the angel is clearly manifest, the teacher has no need for solicitation; and if the teacher never manifests an angelic radiance, solicitation will not help. The community’s solicitation has power, specifically in times of spiritual paralysis.
By way of the idiosyncrasies of narrative, which the Piacezner invests with a power of validity, he questions his own authenticity; he knows himself to be a flickering medium for the divine teaching. In this narrative, his community, in seeking out Torah from him, plays a crucial role. It affects his spiritual metabolism – indeed, his spiritual survival. He is not a separate “subject,” but infiltrated by the presence of others in his world.
Reading Torat Emet through
the Piacezner’s Eyes
Although he does not explicitly quote it, the implicit subject of his narrative is, I suggest, the “Torah of truth” in the previous verse. He knows himself to be a flickering medium for the divine teaching. His narrative is provoked by failure. He knows the movements of his own spiritual barometer; he is aware of how he often seems to lose precisely that stability, that unwavering authenticity that should radiate from the teacher of Torah. Even this human virtue of authenticity no longer, it seems, goes without saying. As Jacques Lacan puts it, “I have missed it. There is no truth that, in passing through awareness, does not lie….”
“But one runs after it all the same.” There is a moment of revelation, of surprise, in this reflexive narrative: sometimes – lif’amim – the angel within himself is revealed; there are times – yeshnam z’manim – he says, when a truthfulness flashes forth. Even in the muddiness of reality, a clearing may arise for the occasional flare of inspiration.
Such a “true” moment is a surprise to himself as well as to others. A text about the truth of Torah moves inwards, into the volatile, valuable experience of a human being. If he can be the fuel for such occasional fire, then he can be aroused by the desire of others to manifest again, and again, now in the language of surprise, the hidden angel within.
 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (ed. Jacques Ellain Miller; trans. Alan Sheridan; The Seminar of Jacques Lacan book XI; New York: Norton and Company, 1978), vii [in the preface to the English language edition].
 See the commentaries of Radak, Ibn Ezra, and Rashi.
 When the ghetto was on the verge of being destroyed, R. Shapira buried the book in a canister, which was was found by a construction worker after the war. The book was published in 1960 in Israel. R. Shapiro himself was shot by Nazis in the Trawniki work camp during Operation Harvest Festival.
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