Tuesday, June 30, 2009

v'halachta b'derachav -- why only through gemilus chassadim?

Why is it that v'halachta b'derachav, imitating G-d, applies only to his acts of mercy? We are told (Sota 14) that G-d visits the sick, buries the dead, acts charitably, and we are expected to do the same. But no source suggests that just as G-d smites the wicked we should do the same -- a thought that undoubtedly occurred to many who were listening to the Madoff sentencing yesterday. Why not?

The Maharal (Nesiv Gemilus Chassadim) explains that when a person faces a situation that cries out for justice, s/he is forced by circumstance to respond. The same may be said for many types of charity. Giving a quarter to the homeless guy begging for change just to get him to stop annoying you or putting a coin in a pushka to avoid feeling guilty is also just a response to a situation, an means to avoid a negative feeling rather than a desire for constructive good. Situation and circumstance, not a person's inner character, is what motivates these behaviors.

G-d "has" everything; he does not suffer needs and is not compelled by circumstance -- and still he gives. We too can only claim to imitate G-d when we act not because of personal needs or circumstance, but simply because it is the right thing to do. In a word, imitating G-d demands altruism -- a selflessness that motivates one to do good for its own sake alone.

land for a piece (of terumah)

In Parshas Korach we learned that Kohanim and Levi'im do not receive a portion in Eretz Yisrael; instead, they are supported by terumos and ma'asros. The Rambam (Shmita 13:11) writes that this is only true of Eretz Yisrael proper, but if a Jewish king were to conquer lands beyond the boundaries promised to the Avos, then Kohanim and Levi'im would receive a portion. Ra'avad disagrees and argues that if Kohanim and Levi'im did receive land it would mean that they forfeit teru"m. While the Ra'avad viewed such an exemption as a reductio ad absurdum, the Kesef Mishne comments that the Rambam may indeed have held that there can be Jewish controlled land which is exempt from terumos and ma'asros. As proof, he points to the example of Surya, land conquered by David haMelech which was exempt.

The Parashas Derachim (derush 6) writes that the Ks"M erred in his reading of the Ra'avad. There are two seperate mitzvos involved in terumos and ma'asros: 1) seperating the ter"m from the tevel wheat; 2) giving the kohein the seperated portion. The Ra'avad meant that if Kohanim received a portion of land, they could not collect the tithed portion of the crop -- mitzvah #2 would not apply. But without question the farmer would have to still perform mitzvah #1 to remove the prohibition of eating tevel.

The example of Surya, writes the Parashas Derachim, is a red herring because crops in those lands are exempt from both mitzvah #1 and mitzvah #2, a clear indication that the exemption has nothing to do with Kohanim receiving a portion of those lands. The gemara tells us that Surya was a special case because David conquered those lands out of order (he should have conquered Yerushalayim first) and hence they had an incomplete kedusha.

The Parashas Derachim raises an interesting question: is the seperation of teru"m an independent mitzvah from giving teru"m or are they two parts of the same coin? For those who were not reading three years ago when we first discussed this, maybe a quick review with some new points next post.

Friday, June 26, 2009

b'derech she'adam rotzeh lei'lech

How could the Jewish people still think that Moshe was following his own agenda after they witnessed the earth swallow Korach? R' Tzadok haKohen (Tzidkas haTzadik #64) explains:

פעמים שרואה בבירור שהשם יתברך מסייעו ומסכים עם מעשיו, עם כל זה אינו ראיה כי מעשיו ישרים באמת, ועל זה נאמר ישעיה מ"ח י"ז) מדריכך בדרך תלך ודרשו חז"ל (מכות י' ב) בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך מוליכין אותו. [ואמר בדרך דרצה לומר בספר משלי דרך התורה כמו שכתבתי לעיל (אות מ"ח), כי אין השם יתברך מסייע אלא כשהוא על פי דעתו הולך בדרך התורה. ומה שלמדו מבלעם גם לפי דעתו של בלעם כפי סיטרא דיליה היה דרך זה ישר לו כפי מה שהוא,
. . וזה היתה גם כן התלוננות בני ישראל (במדבר י"ז ו') אתם המיתם את עם ה', אף על פי שראו הפלגת הנס באבדם, מכל מקום חשבו על זה כי לא בשמים הוא ואין לסמוך על זה שהדין עם משה ואהרן נגד קרח ועדתו, רק אתם רציתם לילך בדרך זה וזכותכם גדול ולכך המיתם וגו'

Hashem will assist a person along the path he thinks is "derech haTorah" even to the point of performing miracles on his behalf -- but that is no proof that the person is correct!

This same idea is found a few parshiyos earlier. Chazal (Shabbos 87) tell us that Moshe seperated from Tziporah of his own volition, based on his understanding of his role as Navi, and Hashem affirmed his assessment and choice of action. Why then was Miraim critical of this move? Tosfos answers that Hashem may have approved because "b'derech she'adam rotzeh leilech molichin oso", Hashem assists a person achieve what he thinks Torah requires even if objectively speaking he is misguided.

Looking back at last week's parsha, Rashi writes that the choice to send spies was Moshe's decision and not commanded. Ramban disagrees -- 'shlach' is a command, notwithstanding the extra word 'lecha'. In defense of Rashi perhaps we can say that 'shlach' indeed is a command, but such a command originated in Moshe or the people's perception that such a mission was necessary.

R' Tzadok haKohen on Korach's rebellion

Does a garment entirely dyed with techeiles still need a single string of techeiles on its tzitzis?
Does a house filled with seforim still need a mezuzah?

According to the Midrash these are the questions Korach used to make his point. Does a people perfect in yirah, represented by the techeiles which alludes to Heaven, and perfect in knowledge of Torah, represented by a house filled with seforim, need a single leader or kohein to rule over them?

R' Tzadok haKohen (Pri Tzadik, Korach 2) explains that Korach's error was not misjudging the level of the people's religiosity -- had there been no truth to his claim that "the entire nation is holy" it would never have been incorporated into the Torah's narrative. Rather, Korach's error was in assuming that this pinnacle of spiritual perfection is a self-sustaining safe landing point after which no further leadership or direction is needed.

Korach's punishment was to descend "chaim she'olah", into the depths of hell while still remaining alive. The lesson: Without leadership establishing safeguards a person can be spiritually "alive", perfected, "bshleimus hakedushah", as R' Tzadok writes, yet still find himself in gehenom.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

maharal on why is Ya'akov not mentioned in Korach's lineage

The Torah introduces Korah by recounting his lineage -- "ben Yitzhar ben Kehas ben Levi". Rashi asks why the Torah did not go one step further and trace Korach's ancestry back to Ya'akov Avinu. He answers that Ya'akov davened that his name should not be joined in partnership with evil.

The Torah usually does not trace back the lineage of heroes or villains all the way to the Patriarchs. Why here does Rashi see the omission of Ya'akov's name as significant? And even if Ya'akov's name is not mentioned, don't we all know that he is the father of Levi and therefore the great-great-grandfather of Korach?

Maharal explains that the Torah here is not simply introducing Korach, but condemning him. Because Korach was a descendant of a prominent family within the prominent tribe of Levi, his guilt is that much worse. Korach had excellent role models to learn from and failed to follow their example. That failure might have been further emphasized by highlighting Korach's failure to live up to the model of Ya'akov Avinu. However, Ya'akov did not want to be associated with the condemnation of his descendants, and therefore he is not mentioned.

How does a Korach come out of such an illustrious family? The Maharal explains that every tzadik has elements of "psoles" -- there are imperfections, however slight, in the character of even the greatest people. Children absorb everything, and flaws in a parent can be magnified many times over when passed to the next generation. Korach's parents and grandparents in this way all contributed in some way to shaping his flawed character. The only exception is Ya'akov Avinu, who reached a degree of perfection that did not allow for defects to pass to his children. The lineage which shaped Korach stops at Levi, for Ya'akov had no part in the flaws which later emerged.

Lost opportunities and the failure to live up to expectations can create a devastating burden of guilt. Yet, beneath those layers of failure there always remains the pure spark of Ya'akov Avinu that does not condemn. There is always a point within each person that remains disassociated from past failure which -- if the person chooses -- can be the foundation for new growth.

The Shem m'Shmuel (1910) writes that each of our Shabbos meals and tefilos correspond to one of the Avos: Friday night=Avraham; Shabbos morning=Yitzchak; Shalosh Seudos=Ya'akov. Unlike Avraham, who was the father of Yishmael as well as Yitzchak, and Yitzchak, who was the father of Eisav as well as Ya'akov, Ya'akov Avinu had no offspring who were outside the fold of Klal Yisrael -- there is no "psoles" that remained in Ya'akov which could corrupt any of his offspring. As a Jew goes through Shabbos, h/she reaches deeper and deeper inside him or herself to connect back to the spritual roots which the Avos planted within each and every Jew. On Friday night a person reaches into him/herself and connects with Avraham; at lunch he/she connects with Yitzchak. In each of these stages there is still something missing, there is still "psoles", there is still the taste of "chol" that interferes with Shabbos. But by Shabbos afternoon a person has absorbed enough kedushas Shabbos so that he/she can reach deeper still and connect to Ya'akov Avinu, a level of spirituality that is untainted and uncorrupted by whatever may have transpired in the previous week. Even though grammatically the third meal should properly be called "seudah shlishis", we refer to it as "shalos seudos", three meals, because this third meal can perfect and correct whatever was missing in the previous seudos and bring us to a mindset of "kulo Shabbos", without "psoles".

3 Tamuz

Maybe m'mah nafshach you skip tachanun this morning -- life doesn't have to be either/or.

3 Tamuz - yahrzeit of R' Shneur Kotler zt"l

3 Tamuz - yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt"l

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

is a female kohein included in the issur of zarus

The Rambam defines a zar in hilchos bi'as mikdash ch. 9:

ב איזה הוא זר: כל שאינו מזרע אהרון הזכרים--שנאמר "וערכו, בני אהרון" (ויקרא א,ח), "בני אהרון" ולא בנות אהרון.

The Minchas Chinuch on this week's parsha (390) quotes the safeik of the Parashas Derachim whether a woman kohenet has the status of a zar and is included in the prohibition of "v'zar lo yikrav aleichem". Is the exclusion of "bnei Aharon v'lo bnos Aharon" a giluy milsa that women are also defined as zarim or is it a seperate din, an issur aseh? From the defintion of zar which the Rambam offers -- all who are not male kohanim -- it does appear that woman are included in the lav.

R' Yosef Engel (Esvan D'Oraysa #19) points out that the gemara (Zevachim 15b) derives from "v'yinazru m'kodshe bnei Yisrael" that there is a seperate prohibition of performing avodah which defiles korbanos. Even if a woman is not included in the prohibition of zarus, because her avodah is invalid she would be in violation of this lav of defiling kodshim.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

knowing the molad in advance of rosh chodesh

The Mishna in Sanhedrin says that if one witness says he saw an event on the third of the month and another says he saw the same event on the fourth of the month we assume they are testifying about the same thing and one of them got the date wrong. Determining the correct date requires knowing whether the previous month was 29 or 30 days; that knowledge was often not well known until mid-way through the next month.

The Yerushalmi (5:3, 25b in Vilna ed.) quotes R' Asa as saying that he never davened musaf on Rosh Chodesh without knowing the date with certainty. Meaning, R' Asa made sure to know in advance whether Rosh Chodesh was be day 1 of the new month or still day 30 of the previous month and there would be a second day of Rosh Chodesh. The Tzion Yerushalayim notes that this gemara is a source for the custom (which I honestly had not heard of before) of checking the molad in advance to be aware of the exact day of the new moon's appearance.

Monday, June 22, 2009

difficulties and doubts

R. Johanan was sitting and teaching: The Holy One, blessed be He, will bring jewels and precious stones, each thirty cubits long, and thirty cubits high, and make an engraving in them, ten by twenty cubits, and set them up as the gates of Jerusalem, for it is written, And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles. A certain disciple derided him saying, 'We do not find a jewel even as large as a dove's egg, yet such huge ones are to exist!' Some time later he took a sea journey and saw the ministering angels cutting precious stones and pearls. He said unto them: 'For what are these?' They replied: 'The Holy One, blessed be He, will set them up as the gates of Jerusalem.' On his return, he found R. Johanan sitting and teaching. He said to him: 'Expound, O Master, and it is indeed fitting for you to expound, for even as you did say, so did I myself see.' 'Wretch!' he exclaimed, 'had you not seen, you would not have believed! You deride the words of the Sages!' He set his eyes upon him, and he turned in to a heap of bones.

Sanhedrin 100a, Soncino translation

Many persons are very sensitive of the difficulties of religion; I am as sensitive as any one; but I have never been able to see a connection between apprehending those difficulties, however keenly, and multiplying them to any extent, and doubting the doctrines to which they are attached. Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt, as I understand the subject; difficulty and doubt are incommensurate. There of course may be difficulties in the evidence; but I am speaking of difficulties intrinsic to the doctrines, or to their compatibility with each other. A man may be annoyed that he cannot work out a mathematical problem, of which the answer is or is not given to him, without doubting that it admits of an answer, or that a particular answer is the true one.

John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Part VII

Friday, June 19, 2009

three quick lessons on parshas shlach

Three quick Maharal's worth your attention in Parshas Shlach:

1) Rashi (12:3) explains that the term “anashim”, men of importance, is used with respect to the spies because they were righteous people and not sinners. Yet, Rashi later (12:26) explains that the spies already had their evil plan in mind when they departed, implying that they were wicked from the start.

Maharal answers that the spies were righteous prior to accepting the appointment to act as the people's agents, but from that moment onward they were tainted. "Shlucho shel adam k'moso" -- even a righteous person can become corrupt and lose his identity once he becomes an instrument of others plans.

2) Rashi (15:41) comments on "Ani Hashem Elokeichem asher hotzeisei eschem mei'Eretz Mitzrayim l'heyos lachem l'Elokim..." at the end of parshas tzitzis: "al menas kein... she'tikablu gezeirosai". In other words, the pasuk should not be interpreted as an independent sentence, "I took you out of Egypt to be your G-d." Rather, the pasuk is a continuation of the previous idea, "Lma'am tizkeru v'asisem es kol mitzvosai." We are compelled to accept specifically G-d's "gezerios" and mitzvos because he redeemed us, but his dominion and existence are given notwithstanding.

There is a relationship with G-d shared by all mankind that stems from G-d's role as creator. Belief in the existence of G-d and his dominion over the world are not an exclusively Jewish ideas. However, there is a special relationship between the Jewish people and G-d forged through our unique historical experience. That particular relationship obligates us in the performance of mitzvos.

3) Part 3 can be read on the weekly-chizuk blog (reminder that it is still out there).

tzitzis on shabbos (II)

I think the best answer to the question raised in the previous post (which I think Akiva aimed at in his comment) is that in the case of cotton the Chachamim declared the garment to be a garment which is obligated in tzitzis. In the case of sfeika d'oraysa l'chumra: 1) the Rabbinic mitzvah to fulfill a safeik Torah obligation is not a halacha in hilchos tzitzis, but an independent chiyuv on the person; 2) that obligation does not transform the status of the garment, as the safeik remains; it simply obligates the gavra.

If you would like a chakirah that gets to the heart of the matter: is sfeika d'oraysa l'chumra a siman that extends the original chiyuv to cases of safeik or is it a new independent obligation.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

tzitzis on shabbos

1. The Rambam paskens that only wool and linen garments are chayav in tzitzis m'doraysa; cotton tzitzis (for example) are chayav only derabbanan (O.C. 9:1) . 2. One is allowed to wear kosher tzitzis on Shabbos because the string is bateil to the garment. Pasul tzitzis may not be worn because they serve no purpose and it is like carrying string. 3. One is allowed to wear cotton tzitzis on Shabbos. Even though the garment mid'oraysa does not need tzitzis, the chiyuv derabbanan of tzitzis makes them bateil to the garment. 4. The Shulchan Aruch (siman 10:7) writes that if there is a safeik d'oraysa whether a garment is chayav in tzitzis one must put tzitzis on the garments but it may not be worn in a public domain on Shabbos.

I asked my son this question (based on a Pri Megadim in O.C. 13): Why can a garment which is chayav only m'derabbanan in tzitzis be worn on Shabbos, but not a garment which requires tzitzis because of sfeika d'oraysa l'chumra? Even if sfeika d'orasya l'chumra is only a din derabbanan, why is this derabbanan obligation to put on tzitzis different than the case of cotton tzitzis?

I think there are at least two good answers...

challah from tevel

Tosfos (Sukkah 35) writes that tevel is chayav in challah only if there is sufficient volume of dough to be chayav after terumos and ma'asros are removed. Since terumos and ma'asros belong to the kohein and levi, that portion of dough does not count as "arisoseichem". However, the Ras"h disagrees and holds that tevel is chayav based on the total volume of the dough without subtracting terumos and ma'asros.

The Minchas Chinuch (385) questions Tosfos' view. Dough which is owned in partnership by two people is chayav in challah and is considered "arisoseichem" even if each partner's portion is less the size which would be chayav in challah. Why is tevel different? Even if the kohein and levi "own" a portion of dough because of their terumos and ma'asros claim, the dough as a whole should still be considered "arisoseichem"?

R' Shmuel Rozofski z"l answers: the problem of a partnership is each party does not own a sufficient quantity of dough. In that case we say ownership of a part creates responsibility for the whole; therefore, dough is "arisoseichem". However, tevel poses a problem not just of quantity, but also of what is owned. Terumah is exempt from challah and therefore exempts the dough which it is part of from obligation.

The dispute between the Ras"h and Tosfos can be formulated in this way: does the terumah portion of tevel represent just a lack of quantity or is it an inherent exemption?

Monday, June 15, 2009

restoring the "true" text of Tanach

On Friday I was reviewing the parsha with the whole discussion of looking only for "truth" irrespective of the consensus of tradition echoing in my mind when I found myself looking at a pshat of R"Y haChassid (quoted in Pardes Yosef p.457) explaining that Yehoshua told Moshe to burden Eldad and Meidad with community obligations so they would become sad and cease prophesying, for prophecy only occurs when a person is happy. R"Y haChassid proves this from Melachim II 3:15, where Elisha says to play music so he can overcome his anger and restore his mental equilibrium; immediately "vat'hi alav ruach Elokim."

The same pasuk is referred to by the Yerushalmi in Sukkah, by the Midrash Shocher Tov, the same limud and pasuk are cited by the Ramban (Braishis 25:34) and by R' Chananel (Shabbos 30b). Not only is it thematically relevant to our parsha, but the words that describe the prophetic experience of Elisha match the words used in our parsha -- "k'noach aleihem haruach" (11:25), "vatanach aleihem haruach" (11:26), "yitein Hashem es rucho aleihem" (11:29).

One little problem: there is no such pasuk. Melachim II 3:15 in our Tanach reads: "vat'hi alav yad Hashem."

The Pardes Yosef notes that not only is the pasuk cited by Chazal and Rishonim with the text "ruach Elokim", but in all the early printings that he checked except one the text appears that way (it should be possible to more exhaustively investigate this for those who have time).

Interestingly, the Chavel edition changes the text of the Ramban so it matches the text of our pasuk, but that is going about things backwards. The evidence in this case is clear and compelling: the text that was used by Chazal, that was used by the Rishonim, that was even used by the printers, all point to the fact that the pasuk should read "ruach Elokim". The term "yad Hashem" must be a corruption that arose relatively late in history. Why change the Ramban when the real mistake is in the text of our Tanach?

Is it time to start reprinting an "authentic" Tanach based on what the evidence tells us the text used by Chazal and the Rishonim was, what their mesorah was, or do we stick to the "traditional" text accepted by a consensus of Jewish communities for the past few generations, the mesorah which has emerged in our time?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

you can't argue with success

A short while ago I was in my son's yeshiva for their annual gala siyum. Close to 50 mesivta boys finished Baba Basra, another group finished Sukkah, and another group finished reviewing Gittin again (which the yeshiva learned the previous year). I am happy to say that my son was not the only 9th grader who managed to get through all 175 blatt of Baba Basra, the longest masechta in shas. The yeshiva he attends is not on the far right-wing of the chareidi world; it has a mix of boys from the Far Rockaway and the Five Towns. Many of these boys will go on to professional careers of one sort or another after their yeshiva years. Yet, it is still a "black-hat" yeshiva in the traditional mold.

For all the discussion of the importance of "rationalism" and the touting of modern orthodox hashkafa, the bottom line is talmud Torah k'neged kulam; the achievements in limud haTorah of the yeshiva world are unparalleled in the modern orthodox high schools. The same level of accomplishment is simply impossible in an environment of co-ed classes and a Talmud period of an hour a day.

Sure, there are problems with the yeshiva system. The cookie-cutter mold disenfranchises many students who are just not cut out for the system. Students' questions in many areas are not addressed properly and lead to superficial conformity without depth of commitment (i.e. towing the party line). But these problems are not solved by the modern orthodox education system and a good case can be made that they are even exacerbated. Greater openness to secular knowledge and culture has not proven itself to be a more effective barrier to assimilation in and of itself.

For all the talk of kids at risk and the weaknesses of our institutions, I think once in awhile we need to take stock of our successes as well.

the significance of the ikkarim

Based on the chiddush of R' Chaim Soloveitchik we can better explain the significance of the ikakrim. The problem with the Rambam's list (as noted by the Sefer haIkkarim) is that if it means to include only fundamental principles, it is too broad; if it means to include all necessary beliefs, it is far too narrow -- not everything a Jew is required to believe is included in the ikkarim. So what makes these 13 special?

R' Chaim held that the ikkarim must be affirmatively believed. It is not the sin of denial which makes one into an apikores (in which case context and cause would be valid considerations), but it is the lack of positive affirmation, which no excuse can substitute for, which seperates believer from heretic. Even if one does not affirm the ikkarim because of a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge, that failure practically sets one apart from the Jewish people. Other beliefs may be no less fundamental, but it is only the sin of intentional denial which would violate the prohibition against minus.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

chiyuv of chinuch on ikkarei emunah

R' Chaim Brisker held that according to the Rambam a denial of the ikkarim due to misunderstanding is still considered apikorsus -- it is not the crime of denial which defines one as a heretic (in which case the context and cause of the crime would be relevant considerations), but rather it is the affirmative belief in the ikkarim which defines one as a member of the Jewish people. Excuses cannot subsitute for the affirmation of belief.

My son is learning Perek Cheilek and I noticed an interesting chiddush in the Birchas Avraham (Sanhedrim 91) based on this approach. Since the ikkarim must be affirmatively believed, he writes that there is an obligation of chinuch to teach children before bar mitzvah the meaning of the ikkarim so they understand and accept these beliefs. Unfortunately, most schools do not have a curriculum designed to accomplish this goal (yes, parents can do it, but parents can also teach kids gemara, halacha, and Tanach and schools go over that). It would be a nice idea for someone to pull together a program aimed at elementary school age children to accomplish this goal.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Was Miriam a heretic?

The Rambam counts as one of his 13 ikkarim the idea that Moshe Rabeinu was supreme among prophets; there can never be a prohpet equal to Moshe in stature.

At the end of Parshas Beha'alosecha the Torah relates that Miriam criticized Moshe Rabeinu's separation from his wife, equating Moshe with other prophets who did not take upon themselves such "chumros". Hashem punished Miriam with leprosy and told her that Moshe is in fact not like everyone else, hence her criticism was unjust.

The Rambam writes (Tumas Tzara'as 16:8) that we see learn from this episode the severity of lashon hara. Even though Miriam had watched over Moshe as an infant, had only the best intentions when speaking, she was nonetheless severely punished.

R' Elchanan Wasserman asks (Koveitz He'oros, Agados al Derech haPeshat 12:7) how this parsha can be the basis for a moral lesson about everyday lashon hara. Miriam's offense was unique in that aside from being damaging speech, it also undermined the cardinal belief in the supremacy of Moshe as a prophet. R' Elchanan goes a step further and notes that it seems in fact inconceivable that Miriam should have not accepted one of the ikkarim, the rules that form the very fabric of Jewish belief. Was Miriam a heretic (chas v'shalom)!?

R' Elchanan answers that Miriam was of course not a heretic because it is only through G-d's response to her offense that we learn that Moshe cannot be equated with all other prophets. Miriam had no way of knowing this basic tenet of belief before it was revealed in response to her offense.

I don't know if this is a question or an observation; take it however you like it. The Sefer haIkkarim (I:3) writes that the belief that no prophet can be greater than Moshe goes hand in hand with the belief in the eternity of Torah (he does so far as to ask III:20 why the Rambam counts them as 2 principles when they really are one in the same). Belief in the supremacy of Moshe excludes the possibility of another prophet arising and undermining Torah law. It follows that if Miriam was unaware of the supremacy of Moshe as a prophet, she was also unaware of the immutable nature of Torah; her "sevara" allowed for the theoretical possibility of new laws transmitted through other prophets. I don't know why, but I find this hard to digest.

Still more difficult, the Sefer haIkkarim (III:20) writes that the supremacy of Moshe as a prophet is established much earlier in the Torah. Moshe asks G-d while praying on Sinai "V'niflinu ani v'amcha" (Shmos 33:16), that both he and the Jewish people should be granted a special unique relationship with G-d. The pasuk is a double-request: a request that the Jewish nation be forever unique, and a request that he, Moshe, forever remain unique among prophets -- "ani v'amcha", I, Moshe, and the people, should each be unique. In defense of R' Elchanan, perhaps G-d's answer to this request was not publicly known until Miriam's offense, but that begs the question of why Moshe would keep to himself until this episode knowledge of a cardinal belief that establishes the eternity of Torah.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

why are you a rationalist?

My fingers are numb from responding to comments on Pesachim 94! Thank you all for the stimulating ideas and thoughtful feedback, and apologies if I have not responded to every detail. OK, granted that some of you are convinced that a great many of the Rishonim were rationalists and you find this view very appealing. Here is my simple question: Why? I have a Moreh Nevuchim on my shelf that I read once upon a time, but find so much more meaning in the world view of Nefesh haChaim or the Ishbitza (just to take random as examples) that I can't understand what is driving you people. And my impression is that not just the chassidic world or yeshiva ba'alei machshava, but even the modern orthodox world (I hate using labels, but it makes it easier in this case) has a preference for the mystical over the rationalist: the Young Israel closest to me hosts a Sefas Emes shiur, another modern orthodox shul hosts a Shabbos shiur in Zohar, one of the largest and most vibrant kehilos in the 5 Towns is R' Moshe Weinberger's Aish Kodesh, and among the neighborhood yeshivos certainly Sha'ar Yashuv is known for emphasizing chassidic style "machshava" as well as traditional gemara learning. Rav Kook emphasized the need to teach the "hidden" parts of Torah to our generation, and R' Soloveitchik critiqued Moreh in part IV of his Halakhic Mind. "Mysticism" does not mean belief in witchcraft or ghosts or new age healers or thinkers -- it includes a systematic way of looking at the world and one's relationship to G-d, as explained by seforim like the Ramchal, Maharal, Nefesh haChaim, Tanya, and others. What is so unappealing about these works?

To flip the question around: why reject rationalism? A few reasons off the top of my head:
1) Its explanations are not convincing -- do you think eating non-kosher is unhealthy? (Ramban VaYikra 11:13 cites the scientists to support this!) I can't have no way to know what is good or bad for my soul, but I can empirically test what is good for my body.
2) It makes religion the handmaiden to other values -- mitzvos are measured as "good" relative to other values (e.g. health, moral refinement, "justice") instead of being appreciated for their intrinsic worth.
3) Much in life seems mysterious and to defy rational explanation, and religion is no exception. The poet or painter speaks to us about deep human truths that the scientist or philosopher cannot capture or articulate.
4) Reducing Torah to a means toward moral or intellectual perfection alone robs it of its distinction from disciplines like law, philosophy, etc. which also stake a claim to these same goals.
5) Laws such as chukim are by definition inexplicable and point to a need for subservience to G-d without external justification - i.e. "because He said so".

This is not an exhaustive list, but a starting point. I'm not so much interested in responses to these critiques as much as an explanation from those who have both sampled Moreh Nevuchim or Ralbag or some other rationalist Rishon and also dabbled in the world of R' Tzadok and Maharal: Why does the former grab you and not the latter?

new issue of Kallah Magazine

The new issue of Kallah Magazine is now available around the 5Towns, Queens, parts of Brooklyn, and it is on the way to Teaneck. Pick up a free copy at the local shopping places.

ask the wrong question, get the wrong answer: reading a text as a historian vs. reading as a halachist

"She'eilat chacham chatzi tshuvah" - if you don't start with the right question, odds are you are not going to get the correct answer. In reacting to the previous post some of the comments suggested that Chazal in Pesachim 94 must be interpreted as being in conflict with science because in the historical context in which they wrote that is the more plausible meaning of the sugya. Putting aside whether this is in fact the case, the central problem with this argument is that it asks the wrong question. When confronted with a text that requires explanation, one can try to: 1) figure out historically what the original meaning of the text was, or 2) figure out what meaning text has to the reader in his/her present day context. The former is how a historian reads a text; the latter is how a halachist reads it. Even if it were theoretically possible to determine which reading of a Talmudic text is closer to its original meaning (answering question #1), that determination has absolutely no bearing on the meaning constructed and assigned to a text by its present day community of readers (question #2). We are halachists, not historians, and our interpretation is needs to be taken on those terms.

For example, I sincerely doubt (with all due forgiveness to Briskers) that the Rambam had in mind notions of tzvei dinim and gavra/chaftza when he wrote the Yad. Historically speaking, R' Chaim imposed his own system of thought on the Rambam; he did not uncover original meaning or authorial intent. Does that make his interpretation false? Only if you are a historian, but not if you are a halachist.

A halachist's concern is for the meaning of the Rambam's conclusion as an abstract philosophical or legal idea for himself and his community. The halachist acknowledges that this meaning is a construct and not a discovery of original meaning, but that does not matter, because Torah interpretation is validated and measured by communal consensus regarding those conclusions and not by degree of historical fidelity to some unknowable original intent.

Roland Barthes essay entitled "The Death of The Author" (thanks to my wife for her help with Barthes) makes the point that a text does not exist as a means to uncover or convey its author's meaning and voice -- "a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination" -- that destination being the reader and the meaning s/he constructs. The difference between lit crit and the reading of Torah is that in the world of lit crit it is up to the individual to construct his/her own meaning; in the world of Torah scholarship meaning is constructed by consensus of the chachamei hador. As that consensus changes over time, meaning changes and Torah evolves ("u'kmo she'hanefashos mishtanos m'dor l'dor *kein haTorah*, v'haynu hatorah sheba'al peh shemischadesh b'chol dor chadashos *al y'dei* chachamei yisrael" -- Tzidkas haTzadik #90).

When we have a halachic conflict between Rashi and Tosfos as to how to read a gemara, the fact that we pasken like Tosfos does not necessarily mean that the Amoraim had Tosfos' interpretation in mind when they wrote the gemara! What it does mean is that the consensus of talmidei chachamim looking at the issue in their own historical context have preferred Tosfos' reading.

As the overwhelming consensus of talmidei chachamim is to accept the idea of pnimiyus haTorah as a means of interpreting Talmudic text, that agreed upon communal consensus becomes the accepted meaning of the text vis a vis the halachic system, irrespective of whether it is historically more or less valid. It is subscribing to that consensus of interpretation which makes for identification with the Torah community.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

the relationship between birchas kohanim and tefilah (III)

The Yerushalmi (Ta'anis beg 4th perek) cites as proof to R' Yochanan's opinion that tefilas neilah is said during the day and not, as Rav held, at shkiya, a braysa which says that birchas kohanim is recited during neilah -- since birchas kohanim cannot be recited at night, QED that neilah must also not be said at night. Yet, the Magen Avraham (623:3) quotes a Mahari"l who held l'halacha that even if neilah is delayed until night, birchas kohanim is still recited. At first glance this statement of the Mahari"l is in direct contradiction to the Yerushalmi.

R' Soloveitchik (Shiurim l'Zecher Aba Mori vol2. p. 215) explained that birchas kohanim has a double role of a mitzvah in its own right and an aspect of tefilah. The recitation of birchas kohanim in shmoneh esrei is not just the context in which we fulfill the mitzvah of b"k, but indicates that b"k is itself part and parcel of the mitzvah of tefilah.

The dispute between Rav and R' Yochanan was not simply when to recite neilah, but was a dispute as to the character of the neilah prayer: is neilah categorically a tefilah associated with the day, like shacharis and mincha, or is neilah, like ma'ariv, a tefilah associated with night? The Yerushalmi's proves that the categorical nature of neilah is that of a day-prayer because otherwise birchas kohanim would have no basis as part of its text.

Maharil opined that if one begins the neilah tefilah late in the day and it extends into the night, the text of the tefilah as a day-prayer still can contain birchas kohanim because starting late does not change the fundemental character of neilah as a tefilah associated with the day.

dealing with conflicts between science and Chazal

I am breaking this off as a seperate post for clarity because the comments to the previous one seem to range far and wide of the main point. Here is the main idea in a nutshell:

Problem: you have a gemara which contradicts empirical evidence or common sense.
There can be only three possible solutions:

1) Accept the contradiction as legitimate and conclude that Chazal were wrong.
2) Accept the contradiction as legitimate and conclude that common sense or science is wrong.
3) Explain that Chazal and science are speaking of different aspects of reality and no contradiction exists.

Can someone please explain to me why 'rationally' option #1 is a better solution than option #3?

To use the example in the previous post, taken on the merits of the argument alone, why would you prefer to say Chazal held X about the sun and the secular scientists held Y, creating an irresolvable conflict, when you can just as easily say that Chazal said X speaking about pnimiyus and knew and would accept Y as true with respect to chitzoniyus, avoiding any conflict?

The advanatages of approach #3 are obvious. It preserves emunas chachamim, which given option #1 erodes, yet at the same time gives full legitimacy to scientific inquiry and its conclusions because that is not what Chazal were addressing. You can have your cake and eat it too!

Why in the world would anyone prefer to force a choice between competing truths rather than adopt an approach that acknowledges the truth of both?

Monday, June 08, 2009

the relationship between birchas kohanim and tefilah (II)

Tosfos (R"H 16b) asks why blowing shofar 2 times on R"H (tekiyos d'meuyshav and tekiyos in chazaras hashatz) is not a violation of bal tosif. Tosfos answers based on the halacha (R"H 28b) that there is no bal tosif if a mitzvah is performed at the wrong time, e.g. sitting in a sukkah in July would not be bal tosif. Since the mitzvah of blowing shofar is complete after the first round of blowing, the additional blasts are outside the chiyuv's timeframe -- it is like blowing shofar in July, and hence there is no bal tosif.

Tosfos rejects this answer because the halacha is that a kohein who duchens at one minyan may duchen again if he comes to a second minyan that is up to birchas kohanim -- the time of chiyuv is ongoing and does not end just because the mitzvah was fulfilled once. Here too, since during the day of R"H one can go from tzibur to tzibur blowing shofar multiple times, the entire day is considered the proper timeframe of the chiyuv.

Shu"T Chasam Sofer (O.C. 22) quotes a question from his father-in-law R' Akiva Eiger: Tosfos is comparing apples to oranges. The kohein who enters a minyan that has not heard birchas kohanim has a personal obligation to bless that tzibur; the fact that he has already blessed a different tzibur has nothing to do with this new mitzvah. However, once the ba'al tokeya blows shofar once during the day, his personal obligation has been fulfilled -- coming to a new tzibur does not in any way create a new obligation of tekiyas shofar for the ba'al tokeya.

The answer to R' Akiva Eiger's question is rooted in the relationship between birchas kohanim and tefilah. Chasam Sofer writes that birchas kohanim is inseparable from avodah/tefilah and can only be fulfilled in that context. Just as Aharon offered the original birchas kohanim after avodah, a kohein can only duchen in the context of fulfilling his obligation of tefilah. Therefore, a kohein who has already davened and comes to another minyan does not really have a new chiyuv of birchas kohanim because unlike the tzibur, he has already fulfilled his chiyuv of tefilah. Nontheless, as Tosfos writes, the gemara does not consider his repeating birchas kohanim to be a violation of bal tosif, and the same logic might apply to tekiyas shofar.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

birchas kohanim - part I

(I want to get away from the previous topic!) Parshas Naso contains the formula and mitzvah of birchas kohanim (6:22-27), but at least according to Rashi this is not the first appearance of birchas kohanim in the Torah. In Parshas Shmini, immediately after describing the inaugural avodah of korbanos performed by Aharon, the Torah tells us that Aharon blessed the Jewish people (VaYikra 9:22). Rashi reads that blessing as a reference to birchas kohanim.

Ramban is somewhat dissatisfied with this approach. If Rashi is correct, why seperate the mitzvah and formula of birchas kohanim found in our parsha from the description in Parshas Shmini? Why not place both in one parsha?

I think at least part of the answer lies in the relationship between birchas kohanim and avodah/tefilah. While we never find birchas kohahim recited outside the context of tefilah, it nonetheless is counted as an independent mitzvah. The difficulty of conceiving of b"k as a separate entity is underscored by the question of the Keren Orah (Sotah 38): Given that tefilah may not be a mitzvah, and even if it is a mitzvah to daven once daily, that one prayer can be recited even at night when birchas kohanim may not be said, when and how is the independent mitzvah of birchas kohanim to be fulfilled? The Keren Orah writes an amazing chiddush that the pasuk of "v'nikdashti b'toch Bnei Yisrael" obligates a tzibur to gather for the purpose of sanctifying G-d's name by hearing birchas kohanim!

Perhaps the Torah deliberately created two separate parshiyos of birchas kohanim to reflect this dual identity of the mitzvah: Parshas Naso treats the bracha as a mitzvah in its own right; Parshas Shmini records the bracha as a part of avodah, or as we fulfill it, a part of tefilah.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

nir'in divreihem m'divreinu -- did Chazal get facts wrong?

I shouldn't post this, but I will : ) Shu"T Binyan Shlomo (mentioned in this post before Shavuos) has a birchas hachamah tshuvah that is filled with interesting side tidbits. Among them is his discussion of the gemara's statements that refer to the sun travelling behind the world (Baba basra 25b, see Jewish Worker's post on this sugya) and other such ideas that scientifically make no sense to us. As everybody living today knows, the earth revolves around the sun. At the end of the day it becomes dark not because the sun vanishes behind some kind of screened off area in the sky, but because we are turned away from its rays. If you need any more proof that Chazal got the facts wrong just turn to Pesachim 94 where the gemara quotes a debate between the Rabbis and the non-Jewish astronomers and concludes "ni'rin divreihem m'divreinu" -- it looks like they are right!

Yet, apparently in Vilna it was not the practice to just toss out gemaras as "wrong" even where the discussion revolves around scientific material. R' Shlomo haKohen quotes the Rada"l's citation of Ramchal who explains that when Chazal speak of the sun or the stars or other heavenly bodies they were not discussing the physical bodies we call sun, moon, and stars, but were discussing the pnimiyus of these phenomena, their spiritual source in the world of sefiros. The GR"A in his commentary on Sefer Yetzira explains that this is exactly what the gemara means when it says "nir'in divreihim", it looks like the non-Jewish astronomers are right. Of course that's how it looks if all you see is physical reality and think that's what the whole discussion is about. Chazal, however, were speaking on a different plane entirely and discussing in their cryptic language the spiritual essences of reality and not the physical phenomena. (This is essentially a more sophisticated version of what R' Akiva Eiger alludes to in his Gilyon to that daf).

Apologetics? Bad pshat? I'll leave it to you to make up your mind. But consider this: if Chazal could be wrong about science, then why did R' Akiva Eiger, the GR"A, the Ramchal, the Binyan Shlomo and others need to say anything? One sevara (Chazal did not know science) answers all the kashes -- but that's the one sevara that these achronim assiduously avoid saying.

ben sorer u'moreh (II)

As discussed yesterday, R' Chaim questioned the gemara's hava amina that the pasuk's emphasis on "ben" sorer u'moreh teaches that a child under bar-mitzvah can be judged. Since a minor cannot server as a defandant in Beis Din, how could witnesses testify againt him or the court prosecute? R' Chaim answered that ben sorer u'moreh is different than other cases because the ben sorer u'moreh is not punished for what he has done, but rather for who he is -- it is the character of the ben sorer u'moreh which the witnesses establish, and the suspicion of potential future guilt for which he is killed. In this unique context even a minor may be tried and judged.

Many achronim (see Margolyas haYam citing the Rogatchover, Avi Ezri Hil. Mamrim) offer a far simpler answer to R' Chaim's question. The chiddush of the din of ben sorer u'moreh is not that a minor may be punished, but rather that in this context a 12 year old is no longer considered a minor!

Some other examples of a similar phenomena:

1) Kiddushin 46 Rav Huna's opinion is that a 12 year old who is viewed as halachically capable to making nedarim would receive malkos for eating a food that he made hekdesh. Even though one cannot testify against as minor or judge a minor, as R' Chaim noted, apparently since in the context of nedarim a 12 year old has the same rights as an adult he would be subject to the same penalties as an adult. In other words, a 12 year old who makes a neder is not viewed as a minor who has the limited capability of making a vow, but rather is viewed in the context of nedarim as a full adult.

1) Kiddushin 19a the gemara darshens from the word "ish" that a minor cannot be punished for adultery. Even though, as Tosfos notes, a minor is always exempt from malkos, and as R' Chaim would note it is impossible to testify against a minor or judge a minor, in this case a special derasha in needed to exempt a minor. Tosfos explains that since the adult woman having the illicit relationship would be killed, there is a hava amina that the minor who is an adulterer would be killed as well. In other words, the hava amina exists that in the context of adultery we should treat a minor as a full adult.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

ben sorer u'moreh (I)

R' Chaim Brisker (Hil Geirushin 6:9) question the gemara's (Sanhedrin 68) hava amina that a chiddush of the parsha of ben sorer u'moreh is that he can be judged and killed even before bar mitzvah. Beis Din can only accept testimony in the presence of the defendant and plaintiff. Since a minor is not considered capable of defending himself, there is no defendant present. How then can the court hear testimony and punish this pre-bar mitzvah boy?

R' Chaim answers that the punishment of the ben sorer u'moreh is not a direct consequence of the testimony brought against him. The witnesses do not and cannot point to any action the ben sorer u'moreh has done which would warrant capital punishment, and hence he is not a defendant against any crime. The parsha of ben sorer u'moreh is unique in that the Torah commands that he is killed al shem sofo, in anticipation his becoming a criminal, not because of any criminal act which he has already done.

By way of analogy, a snake may be killed because it is an animal which is mu'ad to cause harm (Bava Kama 1:4) -- the snake by definition is considered a dangerous animal; there are no need for witnesses to testify that this particular snake is prone to bite or caused any harm. Here too, the witnesses who testify against the ben sorer u'moreh merely establish his identity as a person on the road to criminal behavior -- the death penalty which ensues is a product of that identification, that legal status, not a result of the particular act the witnesses may have described or any current guilt.

There is a simpler way to explain the gemara's hava amina of reading the parsha that answers R' Chaim's question (which for some reason he avoids)... stay tuned.

Antony Flew on rational theology

For those interested in rational theology, get a copy of There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind by Antony Flew. Unlike Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others who are not specialists in philosophy or religion, Antony Flew is -- he spent his career as an analytic philosopher, and a notorious defender of atheism. That is, until he changed his mind. This book explains what he calls his "pilgrimage of reason" that led to his philosophical acceptance of G-d. Some of the information that he found persuasive:

1) There is no scientific explanation that accounts for how non-living matter could ever generate life.
2) The laws of the universe reflect a sense of order and against all odds allow for human life. The greatest physicists (Einstein, Hawkings, etc.) all refer to a spiritual greater mind that they have a sense of unveiling in their discovery of these laws.
3) The universe had a beginning; there had to be an antecedent cause that brought it into existance.
4) There is an inescapable sense of human consciousness that we feel which cannot be explained by or reduced to physical processes alone.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, so please read the book if you are interested in more -- it is fascinating.