Wednesday, February 28, 2007

paradoxical faith

XGH links to the previous post and seems to think I am confused, as I am simultaneously a fundamentalist (his description), yet cannot abide Shafran’s apologetics. I’ve been trying to think of a good way to explain the paradox and I think I’ve got it. Imagine you are brought by a master engineer, the world’s greatest engineer, to see a beautiful new bridge constructed across a river, an engineering feat no one thought possible. “Great”, you say to your engineer buddy, “Let me see the plans to see how you figured this out.” While reviewing the plans you come across an equation crucial to the whole system that boils down to read 2+2=5. Now, you think to yourself, this just can’t be. The bridge is obviously standing, so the plans must make sense. Yet, you know 2+2 cannot equal 5. Your engineer buddy has gone home and left you alone so you can’t ask him. What do you do?

The Shafran et al solution is convince yourself that 2+2 really is equal to 5. If you keep at it long enough eventually you can convince yourself that forcing women to ride in the back of the bus empowers them (article), it is morally OK to cheat on taxes (post), and evolution=belief in randomness, randomness=safeik, gematriya of safeik=amalek, QED that evolution=amalek (article). None of these are part of halacha, but once you are convinced 2+2=5 works in one context, why not in another?

I think a far better approach is spelled out by Rabbi Dov Linzer in a quote trashed in the recent Yated article bashing YCT. Linzer wrote, “As an Orthodox Jew, I have to struggle not just with G-d ’s presence in the world, but with His commandments as well. Some of these do not seem to square with a good, just G-d. The command to destroy Amalek and the Canaanite nations, the death penalty for one who… [engages in toeiva], the inability of a woman to terminate a failed marriage—to pretend that these are not profound problems or that they are consistent with G-d’s goodness is, for me, not an option. I choose to take the path of Yisrael, to face these problems and to struggle with them…”

I’m not a big fan of YCT for other reasons (I’m still a fundie after all), but Linzer gets it exactly right. 2+2 does not equal 5. Period, full stop. Black cannot be white, left cannot be right. I know some of you are going to pull out the old “lo tasur” Rashi that “afilu omrim lecha al yemin shehu s’mol”(to explain why that is a misunderstanding see the Ramban’s hashaga on p. 14 of Sefer haMitzvos for starters, but it would take an entire post to reply in detail.) Yated in their critique accuses Rabbi Linzer of second-guessing G-d, which is ludicrous. Second guessing G-d would be like refusing to cross the bridge until you understood how the engineer worked everything out, or tinkering with things until they met your own design specifications, potentially ruining the original plans in the process. What Yated cannot fathom is the paradox of being able to have enough faith to confidently and unquestioningly cross the bridge, yet intellectually being honest enough to acknowledge questions that elude understanding without resorting to simplistic apologetics or distortions of moral and intellectual truth. Superficial palliatives are no substitute for that type of faith.

making peace with Amalek

The Torah instructs that before waging war the enemy should first be offered the opportunity to surrender peacefully. Rashi writes that this option is only given during a milchemes reshus, but not a milchemes miztva, such as the battle against Amalek or the other 7 nations living in Eretz Yisrael. Ramban and Rambam (Hil Melachim ch 6) disagree and write that this choice is always offered. Any nation, even Amalek, which accepts the 7 Noahide commandments and agrees to pay taxes and Jewish dominion can peacefully surrender and avoid war. The Rambam (see also Tosfos Sota 34b) writes that before Yehoshua began his wars in Eretz Yisrael he sent letters to the nations living there offering them the option of peaceful surrender, fleeing the land, and a warning that otherwise he would wage war.

Commenting on the Rambam’s position that even Amalek and the 7 nations may sue for peace by accepting servitude, taxes, and the 7 Noahide laws, the Ra’avad writes “zeh shibush, elah sheyachol lomar hashlimu l’kabeil mitzvos” – “the Rambam is in error, as they can say make peace by accepting the mitzvos.” The comment of the Ra’avad is very difficult to understand – the Rambam himself acknowledges that accepting the 7 Noahide mitzvos is a prerequisite for peace?

Most (see Radbaz, KS”M, Minchas Chinuch) interpret the Ra’avad as amplifying his own position. Ra’avad earlier writes that all nations other than the 7 of Eretz Yisrael and Amalek may sue for peace by accepting Jewish dominion and the obligation to pay taxes without the accepting the Noahide laws. The Ra’avad here makes clear that with respect to the 7 nations of Eretz Yisrael and Amalek more is needed – they must accept the 7 Noahide laws as well. The problem with this reading is it does not seem to explain what the Ra’avad objected to in the Rambam’s position other than perhaps his syntax.

The Chazon Ish (Y.D. 157:5) offers a brilliant explanation of this Ra’avad that seems to fit the words exactly. The Ra’avad thought the Rambam mistaken in saying the 7 Nations and Amalek are extended an offer of peace. However, Ra'avad agrees that these nations may voluntarily come forward and sue for peace based on their acceptance of the 7 Noahide laws. “Sheyachol lomar hashlimu l’kabeil mitzvos” – the 7 Nations can say of their own accord that they desire peace and accept the 7 Noahide mitzvos, and only under those terms can they be spared.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

some gems from R' Avraham Shapira

Some gems from the transcripts of R’ Avraham Shapira shlit”a’s shiurim on the Merkaz haRav website:

When asked if interrupting a woman's study of Torah is an issur of bittul Torah, R’ Shapira did not see why it should not be – a woman’s Torah study is no less significant than that of a man.

In response to a question of how to balance the study of gemara with that of hashkafa, R' Shapira retorted that “ain etzleinu hashkafa – yesh emunah” – we do not study hashkafa [outlook], we study emunah [belief]. Citing R’ Kook, he explained that emunah can be studied, developed, and reflected upon – it is not just simple faith that you inherit from your grandparents.

This story was offered in response to advice on choosing a yeshiva: In Volozhin, even though the Roshei Yeshiva were the gedolei hador, the Netzi”v and R’ Chaim, there were students of true geniuses who chose to spend the day in independent study rather than attend any lecture. One of these brilliant students was R’ Shimon Shkop, who went on to become a great Rosh Yeshiva in his own right. On one occasion, as the Netziv emerged from his room, R’ Shimon asked him about a Rashbam in Baba Basra which he could not understand. The Netziv replied that he too many times had struggled with this same Rashbam and had already twice gone to the grave of R’ Chaim Volozhiner to daven for Hashem’s help in understanding it, but he too was still stuck R’ Shimon said: the next day I chose to enter the Netziv’s shiur.

The moral of the story is that a teacher is not someone who has answers, but someone who is engaged in the struggle with questions. When I told the story to my wife Ariella she noted that people daven for refuah, for parnasa, for shidduchim, but how rare is the Netziv’s type of tefilah, a prayer for Hashem’s help in understanding Torah. That is true gadlus.

Monday, February 26, 2007

PETA and evolutionists = Amalek???

Avi Shafran writes:

In fact, asserts the chance-worshipper, he is no different from the animals whom he considers, through the lottery of natural selection, his ancestors. He may be more evolved, but in the end is no less an expression than they of purely random events.

Amalek’s credo is proudly and publicly proclaimed today. From “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” (PETA), which contends that “meat is murder”; to Princeton University’s Professor Peter Singer, who asserts that “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee”; to books like “Eternal Treblinka,” which makes the loathsome comparison of animals slaughtered for food with (one winces to even repeat it) the victims of the Nazis.

And it lurks, more subtly but no less surely, in the contemporary insistence that chance-based evolutionary theory is the only explanation for the diversity of species.

I’m sorry, but the equation of Amalek with PETA and evolutionists is simply ludicrous. No, Avi Shafran, belief in evolution does not necessarily entail espousing the position that life is meaningless, unless you start with the preconceived assumption that meaning is found only in some afterlife. No, Avi Shafran, evolutionists don’t think of their parents or grandparents as animals. No, Avi Shafran, Peter Singer does not morally equate killing all humans with killing animals (when asked if he does, he replied, “That’s a total misunderstanding. I’ve never said that – in fact, more than 30 years ago, in the first chapter of Animal Liberation, I said the opposite.”) No, Avi Shafran, the scientific question of human origins has absolutely nothing to do with the philosophical question of how to lead an ethical life given our current evolved or created state of existence.

I am really turned off by this stuff. Why do I care? Because people “out there” read Shafran and think his views are representitive of Orthodox Judaism, and I don’t care to find my belief system defined by half-baked apologist drivel. I haven’t read Singer, but think his widely quoted beliefs can be refuted by critical thinking without resorting to Biblical references to Amalek. Isn’t it ironic to condemn the moral devaluing of life at the hands of utilitarianism or science in the context of a commentary on a mitzvah that demands no less than the murder of every man, women, and child of Amalek who does not voluntarily surrender and accept the 7 Noahide laws? Does Avi Shafran think rationally it is more morally repugnant to euthanize an infant with no consciousness, born with a congenital disorder, than to murder a conscious innocent child simply because he is a descendent of the tribe of Amalek whose ancestors attacked yours a few thousand years ago and he does not agree to accept your dictates of morality?

R' Moshe Shapiro on the mitzvah of building a Mishkan

The Rambam opens Hil. Beis HaBechira by describing the mitzvah to build a Mikdash “muchan l’heyos makrivim bo korbanos v’chogigim eilav shalosh p’amim bashana”, a place where korbanos can be offered and the shalosh regalim celebrated. According to the Rambam the idea of Mishkan cannot be separated from the idea of sacrificial offerings; the telos of Mishkan is avodah. The Ramban in the opening to Parshas Terumah defines the purpose of the Mishkan/Mikdash quite differently. Ramban highlights the parallels between Har and the Mishkan and defines both as places of G-d's revelation of Torah.

The 5T had the zechus of hosting R’ Moshe Shapiro this past Shabbos, and in one of his shiurim that I caught he drew a parallel between thisissue and the machlokes Ramban and Rambam whether tefilah is a mitzvah d’orysa or not. According to the Rambam, avodah, be it tefilah or be it korbanos, is an independent value which defined the Mikdash; according to Ramban, avodah is only as a means to kabbalas haTorah, but not an end in itself.

RMS drew a further parallel l’shitasam with respect to whether remembering ma’amad har Sinai counts as an independent mitzvah or not. According to Ramban, the Mishkan had to be made as a model of Har Sinai because that experience of Har Sinai is integral to kabbalas haTorah and had to be preserved; according the the Rambam, the Mishkan’s role was entirely separate from that of Torah study or Har Sinai.

The Midrash compares the command to build a Mishkan to a King who offered his only daughter to a suitor, but asked that the couple prepare a small room for him in their home as he could not beat to live completely apart from his daughter. The daughter is the Torah which was wedded to the Jewish people; the room is the Mishkan, for G-d’s presence to dwell with us. R’ Shapiro noted that he connection the Midrash draws between Mishkan and the giving of the Torah seems to support the view of the Ramban over that of the Rambam – tzarich iyun.

Friday, February 23, 2007

terumah lishma - explanation of the shev shamytsa

Last year Chaim Markowitz beat me to posting a beautiful Shev Shmaytza on the opening of this week’s parsha which we had discussed together 16 (well, now 17) years ago. Rashi comments on "v’yikchu li terumah" that terumah for the mishkan had to be given lishma. Tzedaka is acceptable even if done for ulterior motives – why here does the Torah demand donations be given only with pure motives? See his post for the Shamytza’s answer.

the mitzvah to build a mishkan

The Rishonim count as one of the 613 mitzvos the commandment to build a Mishkan, but do not count as separate mitzvos the commandments to make a shulchan, menorah, etc. The Rambam (Sefer haMitzvos 33) writes that these kelim are just component parts of the larger mitzvah of building the Mishkan. While it may seem strange to view kelim as subsumed under the mitzvah of making a Mikdash considering that the Mikdash can still be functional even if kelim are missing - the gemara says that even if there is no mizbayach one can still offer korbanos at its location – it is perhaps no different than a mitzvah like tzitzis, which should ideally have strings of white and strings of techeilis, but can be fulfilled even if one component part is missing. The Ramban agrees in principle that the kelim are not counted as independent mitzvos, but disagrees with the Rambam’s reasoning. According to the Ramban, the command to make a menorah is subsumed under the mitzvah to light a menorah – it is a necessary hechsher mitzvah. Similarly, the command to make a mizbayach is a hechsher mitzvah to fulfill the mitzvah of korbanos, and the shulchan necessary to fulfill the mitzvah of making lechem hapanim, etc.

The upshot of the difference in reasoning between Rambam and Ramban is whether to count making the aron as a seperate mitzvah. According to the Rambam, the aron is just one of the subsections of the Mikdash subsumed in the command to build it (see the Minchas Chinuch and Megilas Esther on mitzvah #33 why the Rambam seems to omit entirely any discussion of the halachos of making an aron). According to the Ramban, the kelim are subsumed in the mitzvos of avodah that apply to them, be it lighting a menorah, offering korbanos, etc. Since no avodah is performed with the aron, it is counted according to Ramban as an independent mitzvah. This machlokes has many ramifications… maybe more next week bli neder.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

af hein hayu b'oso hanes (III) - zman gerama by a chiyuv derabbanan

The Mishna in Brachos (20) lists certain mitzvos which women are exempt from, like tefillin, and others, like tefillah, which they are obligated to perform. The gemara explains that women are obligated in tefillah because Divine mercy is something that all humanity shares a need to pray for. According to Tosfos’ reading, the gemara then asks why the Mishna even needs to tell us that women are obligated in prayer – this principle is so obvious that it goes without saying. The gemara answers that had the Mishna not explicitly informed us that women were obligated one might have exempted them because prayer is performed at specific times of day – it is a mitzvah which is zman gerama, time delimited, from which women are usually exempt. The Mishna teaches that this case is an exeption.

Rashi emends the text to omit this question and answer. Women are only exempt from mitzvos d’oraysa, Biblical commandments, which are zman gerama. Prayer is only a Rabbinic obligation, and therefore, even if performed only at fixed times, women would not be exempt. Why did Rashi posit this distinction between Biblical and Rabbinic obligations with respect to the exemption of zman gerama? One possibility is that zman gerama exempts women from positive commandments, but not issurim, not prohibitions. The Torah itself prohibits violating the edicts of a Rabbinic court. Therefore, any legislation of the Rabbis, whether the enactment is a time-delimited obligation or not, must be obeyed by women because they have no dispensation from the Torah prohibition of ignoring Chazal.

As we have seen, the gemara gives the reason of af hein hayu b’oso hanes, that women initiated or were affected by the miracle, to explain why women are obligated to light a Chanukah menorah, drink 4 cups on Pesach, and read the Purim megillah. If not for that reason, women would be exempt from these mitzvos because they are time-delimited, zman gerama. This is very difficult to understand according to Rashi. Why does the gemara need af hein to explain why women are obligated in these cases - women are never exempt from any time-delimited Rabbinic enactments according to Rashi, and these cases should be no exception?!

I have one idea on this one so far, but the question is better than my answer. Any thoughts?

the danger of trying to read G-d's mind

For those unconvinced of the hubris and downright danger of trying to read G-d's mind and attribute all kinds of disasters to consequences of the supposed sins of those with whom you disagree, read the following two articles, bolded emphasis my addition.

Dag posts the following article from the Jewish Press, reflecting on the fall from power of many of the Israeli political leaders who supported disengagement from Gush Katif:

One does not necessarily have to subscribe to the Divine Retribution analysis currently circulating in certain circles to be intrigued by the stunning fall from grace of so many Israeli officials on whose watch the Gush Katif tragedy took place.

Ariel Sharon, the architect of the plan, still lies in a coma – a fate many believe saved him from the ignominy of being prosecuted for financial wrongdoing. Ehud Olmert… [the article goes through a list of names, associating some wrongdoing and consequential punishment with each one.]

The breach of faith on the part of these officials and their cohorts was hardly limited to the deportations themselves or to the accompanying demonization of those who only sought to protect their homes and hold their government to its word. To this day, despite all of those official assurances that the displaced residents of Gush Katif would be resettled and accommodated, not a single displaced settler family has been relocated to a permanent home. Most of the displaced breadwinners are still unemployed and the initial financial payments have been spent for day-to-day survival in the absence of regular income. And many previously well-to-do settlers are being reduced to financial ruin.

Even those reluctant to acknowledge an otherworldly influence on human affairs should be fascinated by the turn of events outlined above. They should not have expected otherwise of the fortunes of those capable of such great national betrayal.

Compare that with the article Ynet News carries from B. Michael entitled “Is G-d a Leftist”, which compares the suffering of thousands of displaced settlers with the few leaders who have suffered setbacks:

Isn't the punishment of these thousands an act of God? Didn't he, with his very own finger, bring all these afflictions on them? Could there be another God working in the area serving the leftists?

Moreover, the five men of authority who were afflicted only account for five out of thousands who partook in the disengagement process. As these persons held posts of power it wasn't difficult to attach a small can of worms to each of them. Their affliction can therefore be attributed to that, rather than to the disengagement.

Contrary to them, nearly all the evacuated settlers suffered (besides those who decided not to suffer and managed quite well.) The avenging God didn't randomly choose five or six people from their ranks, but rather, struck at them all. Can anything clearer, more coherent, and more unequivocal than this be said?

It is worthwhile telling the community of revelers: If the heavy hand of God teaches us something about his opinions and stances – there is no doubt that he is a de facto leftist.

is a "leap of faith" an anathema to Judaism?


Does Judaism require a leap of Faith?

Both Christianity and Islam require a leap of faith in order to believe, but this is an anathema to Judaism. We base our belief on a priori evidence and reason, in the same way that you believe the earth goes around the sun even though you have not personally witnessed it to be so.

Wow! I would say that is an oversimplification! An “anathema”? Last week on A Simple Jew’s blog there was an interesting debate between Rabbi Maroof and others along with some recap of historical answers to the question of whether reason or simple belief (i.e. although these words weren’t used, “a leap of faith”) was the best route to faith - evidence exists for both sides. I don’t think even those who opine that faith must be rooted in philosophical proof and evidence would compare religious belief with scientific claims like “the earth revolves around the sun” which can be empirically verified. 2+2=4 is an a priori truth that is justified based on reason; belief in G-d is a categorically different proposition. I personally find the assertion that faith can be grounded in pure rationalism to be overblown and fraught with its own dangers, as I previously wrote, but do believe religious belief is not counter-intuitive or unreasonable, as a Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris would claim. Exactly what the relationship between reason and belief is requires more discussion and more nuance than this simplistic answer provides.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

on shopping and price labels

On a more mundane topic, this article on price tages posted on this morning caught my eye. I don’t know the law in NY State, but some states have strict price tag laws that obligate retailers to label each item with its correct price. Consumer advocates oppose weakening these laws, as “The basic right of consumers is to know what things cost.”

Both my wife Ariella and I dislike shopping of any kind, but the upcoming bar mitzvah of my son has forced us to spend more time than we like browsing and buying clothes and what-not for the family. I have noticed particularly in many stores that cater to jewish clientele clothing is either not marked with a price or is unclearly labeled. This phenomenon is not limited to people selling clothes out of their basement (is this phenomenon unique to orthodox neighborhoods?), but even to businesses with storefronts on major streets. It drives me nuts. For some people, I guess the only concern is whether they like what they see, and price is secondary. I first want to see the price, and then I will decide if I like it. I also don’t like the impression that ‘haggeling’ is expected, or that the price may depend on how much you like the item and are willing to pay. Even more fun is when you ask a salesperson how much something costs, clueing him/her in that you have some interest, and the response is, “Just try it on – for you, I’ll give a good price.” Of course, since no price is marked, “good” is relative, and “you” means anyone interested in buying that particular item. Fortunately most of our shopping travails are almost over…

af hein hayu b'oso hanes (II)

Yesterday’s comments stole my thunder on this topic. Women should theoretically be exempt from reading megillah because it is a mitzvah which is zman gerama, but since af hein hayu b’oso hanes they indeed are obligated. What is the conceptual difference between Rashi’s understanding of af hein, that women shared the experience of the Purim miracle, and Rashbam’s understanding, that they initiated the miracle? My thought matched that of Anon1 - this issue perhaps depends on the Brisker Rav's (stencil Archin 3) chakira: does the sevara of af hein hayu b’oso hanes simply remove the potential exemption of zman gerama, or is it itself a new categorical obligation? According to Rashi, women and men are equally obligated in megillah reading based on their shared experience of the miracle of Purim. Af hein simply removes the exemption from women. According to Rashbam, af hein is a categorically new obligation which stems from women being the initiators of the miracle. The Brisker Rav suggests that this explains the dispute in Rishonim whether women can read megillah for men. If they share the same obligation, theoretically this would be acceptable; however, if the obligation of men and women are categorically different in nature, a woman cannot be motzi a man in keriah. (Side question: all the Rishonim assume that men can be motzi women. If the chiyuvim are categorically different, why should this be true? I am not sure of the answer…)

I recently heard a shiur on this issue from R’ Friedman, R.Y. of Mesivta Rambam, and his explanation matched that suggested in the comment by R’ Tal Benschar. According to Rashi, megillah reading is simple expression of gratitude for being saved. According to Rashbam, reading megillah is much more than that – it includes an acknowledgment of the specific vehicle through which Hashem’s hashgacha was demonstrated to the world. The reading serves almost as a re-enactment of the event of the miracle itself, and is therefore limited to the participants (or their representatives) in the events which unfolded.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

miracles - af hein hayu b'oso ha'nes

The gemara (Meg 4) explains that although women are normally exempt from mitzvos that must be done only at specific times (zman gerama), they are obligated in the mitzvah of reading megillah because af hein hayu b’oso hanes. Rashi interprets the gemara to mean that women were also included in the miracle of being saved from the threat of Haman’s plans. Rashbam, however, interprets the gemara to mean that the concept of af hein to mean that women (or in this case a specific woman – Esther) were instrumental in bringing about the miracle, not just beneficiaries of its occurance. Tosfos attacks the Rashbam based on a textual nuance. The word af means even, secondarily. According to Rashbam, the gemara should not say even women were included in the miracle, as they were the primary agents in bringing about the miracle!

The Chasam Sofer (Toras Moshe, P’ Beshalach) suggests an answer to this question. One’s sense of what is miraculous is relative to one’s assumptions about what is to be expected in the natural course of events. Precisely because women had no doubts that G-d would bring about the redemption from Egypt, the escape of the Purim story, and the victory of Chanukah, they did not view these occurrences as miracles. Only those who doubted redemption were shocked at the remarkable turn events took and responded with hallel and praise to G-d. The gemara’s insight is that even women, who took for granted G-d’s help and initiated events that led to redemption, on some level af hein also felt something miraculous in the course of what occurred, and therefore are also obligated to celebrate.

Leaving this bit of pilpul and Tosfos’ linguistic nuance aside, what conceptually is the point of disagreement between Rashi and Rashbam?

Friday, February 16, 2007

emunah pshuta - or not? and the romantic poets

A Simple Jew has had two postings this week (here and here) from R’ Dovid Sears on the topic of emunah pshuta, which he frames as a debate of reason vs. faith – a question of whether one follows the rationalist position of the Rambam or rejects that type of philosophical speculation. Aside from my comment there, I wanted to give it a mention here. I take issue with trying to frame the split between Chassidim and Misnagdim as one that has anything to do with whether one follows the Rambam’s rationalist philosophy or not. Puk chazaei that the greatest opponent of Chassidus, the GR”A, rejected the Rambam’s philosophical speculations, and his student, R’ Chaim Volozhiner, composed Nefesh haChaim, a work steeped in mysticism. R’ Soloveitchik is very clear in “Ish haHalacha” in his critique of chassidus, yet him Halakhic Mind he is also critical of the approach of the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim. On the other side of the coin, Chaba”d chassidus (the emphasis on chochma, binah, and da’as in a giveaway!) understood that when the revelation to the Ba’al Shem that Moshiach will come when “yafutzu ma’anosecha chutza” meant to say that the concepts of kabbalah and chassidus must flow outward until grasped cognitively. Far from a rejection of reason, chabad sees reason as the telos of the Chassidic movement! The sources Rabbi Sears cites in defense of emunah pshuta do not reject the role of reasoning in spiritual growth – they reject the specific philosophical conclusions of rationalism which defined the Rambam’s philosophy, which is a completely separate issue.

The issue of emunah pshuta is elaborated on by the Piecezna (who Rabbi Sears strangely does not mention) in Mavo haSheaim ch. 5, his work dedicated to laying down the foundations of chassidus and its relationship to kabbalah (if you can’t get the original, see my brother-in-law’s article here for a summary of some of the highlights). He offers as a striking example of emunah pshutah the statement of R’ Ahron of Karlin, who said he was envious of the horses dragging carriages of people en route to bris milah. This is far more than a rejection of the rationalism of the Rambam – it is a rejection (as the Piecezna writes) even of branches of chassidus like chabad which emphasize intellectual achievement as the path to spirituality. What understanding of G-d does a horse have? Religion, in R’ Ahron of Karlin’s view, is not about understanding G-d, but about experiencing the ecstasy of fulfilling G-d’s commandments on earth; religion is not about raising the intellect to the Heavens (the goal of chabad), but about bringing the Heavens down to enrapture mundane life. To misnagdim who understand Torah lishma to mean Torah study is not just a means to dveiykus but an end in its own right, this idea in unfathomable - knowledge and understanding cannot be supplanted by the experience of a horse. Only the complete rejection of understanding and reason as a goal in its own right justifies such a doctrine.

The emphasis on emunah pshuta brings to mind some of the writings of the Romantic poets who saw reason as a danger to appreciating the beauty and grandeaur of nature directly. "Philosophy will clip an Angel's wing, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine..." warns Keats in Lamia, just before his memorable charge not to unweave the rainbow or one will be left with only shade. The imposition of cognitive structure on the religious experience, epitomized perhaps best by the Brisker Derech, risks losing the poet's appreciation of the beauty and rapture of G-d's presence in everyday life. I think this poet's vision (some passages in Likutei Mohara'n are especially striking in this sense), unencumbred by reason, is what chassidus sought to preserve and capture.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

definition of an eved ivri - part 3

What is the difference between causing someone a loss of $, and causing someone a loss of wages by testifying that they are a slave? R’ Chaim explained that slavery is more than a denial of wages or a halachic dispensation to marry a shifcha – these are simply consequences of slavery. Slavery is a class status, a social definition that devalues the individual relative to those who are free. It is not enough for eidim zomimim to compensate the accused for lost wages because that does not make amends for the loss of class status they tried to cause.

A married woman needs a get, a document, not just a verbal release from marriage, because marriage is not just a financial obligation, but effects issurim, e.g. she is prevented from marrying other men. In the case of a thief sold into slavery, being a slave permits his marrying a shifcha, and a formal document of release is needed to break that kinyan issur . But why, according to Rashi, does one who sells himself require such a release? He is not permitted to marry a shifcha – the consequence of his enslavement is merely a loss of wages? The answer here too is that the issurim effected in these cases are just symptoms of an underlying status - it is that status which is the cause of a formal release being required and simple mechila not sufficing.

Ki li bnei yisrael avadim” – it is not the obligations of mitzvos imposed upon us which make us different, but the fact that we are different, that we have the unique status of avdei Hashem, which obligates us to serve Him through those mitzvos.

honest kiruv and the world of jewish ed

I would love to attend a kiruv seminar not as a presenter, but to deflate some of the silly arguments brandished about in the name of a good cause. Here on a new kiruv website is a piece extolling the value of a day school education. Despite not coming from an Orthodox background and initially fearful of limiting his daughter’s interests and intellectual pursuits, the writer gushes:
We quickly discovered that our fears had no basis in reality. In Aleeza's first year, her class put on skits commemorating Thanksgiving and later one about Chanukah. I still remember her coming home so excited to tell us how she learned all about Mozart and Beethoven in school -- Jewish Day School. Even I, who played the violin as a kid, didn't learn about Mozart until college.

Two words: Get Real. If there is a yeshiva that offers a full limudei kodesh curriculum and has a parent/student body committed to rigorous observance of halacha that also offers (I would even settle for one that tolerates!) a rich secular studies curriculum with appreciation of arts, sciences, and the best of higher culture, will someone please let me know where it is so I can enroll my kids!!! The Jewish world and jewish education is unfortunately very polarized and it is disingenuous to suggest that one is not forced to choose between full commitment to halacha and an immersion in the world of Torah and and appreciation of higher culture and secular knowledge. I have daughters too and have tried it both ways. When we moved a few years ago we originally had our daughters enrolled in a school that you would describe as more-or-less modern orthodox, which offered what we perceived to be a rich curriculum. I too would like my daughters (and son) to learn about Mozart, to study literature from the canon of great works, etc. Unfortunately, one of the great failures of modern orthodoxy is that there is only a small minority of people (like myself) who are committed to it as a philosophy because of an admiration of the Rav or Rav Kook, a belief that secular studies and culture have value, an appreciation of Zionism, without sacrificing anything in the way of shmiras hamitzvos and committment to limud torah. Modern Orthodoxy for many means Orthodoxy-lite – keep the big stuff like kashrus and shabbos, but the little stuff is just details that don’t matter too much (this is obviously a generalization that does not apply to all people or communities). While my daughters were in this school they found themselves just about the only ones wearing skirts and long sleeves even on Sundays, the only ones with no TV at home, etc. So we switched. They are not in the most chareidi school in the neighborhood, but one which has taken a more rightward tilt as it has evolved. Thanksgiving is a half day of school (it is discussed by some teachers as well); Yom haAtzmaut is not marked on the calendar or noted (when my wife attended the same school years ago the former was a day off, the latter celebrated). Literature is filtered; music is Jewish only. But, I have no fears that our lack of TV or adherence to hilchos tzniyus is out of step with what the school reinforces. My kids can live without Mozart; they can’t live without commitment to halacha. Fortunately, education is still valued and a priority at the school they are in: girls are expected to study and do well within the somewhat filtered exposure to the outside world. But this is moderate by chareidi standards. Jewish Worker recently posted a piece from the chareidi press explaining the desiderium of the Bais Ya’akov movement – “We are not interested in teachers who have a good (secular) education for our daughters, we don't want teachers with degrees, rather we want teachers who know less (my emphasis), who are vessels full of fear of God who can influence their surroundings “. I personally wish I could have my cake and eat it too – I wish the world was more sympathetic to a vision of Orthodoxy that did not see a dichotomy between knowing more and fear of G-d. But alas, this is a world of dreams.

Just to be clear – I agree with the premis there is simply no way to raise a child with a strong Jewish identity without minimally a basic Jewish day school education (see here for a roundup of research, the most comprehensive of which is the Schiff survey which concluded “Extensive Jewish day school education is the most important contributor to the formation of strong Jewish identities”). But to imply that that commitment comes without sacrifice (and I have only written of ideological choices and have not even commented on the tremendous financial burden yeshiva ed places on parents) is wrong. And I have not even touched on boy’s yeshivos where the number of hours spent immersed in gemara is in direct proportion to the negativety conveyed toward all things secular, with no discrimination between Mozart and Rolling Stones, between Lear and Looney Toones.

The article concludes, “Many Jewish parents find it difficult to believe that it is possible to successfully educate children in both what Harvard wants from them and what G-d wants from them at the same school. Anyone who has genuinely checked it out has seen that it is completely doable.” Yes, it is doable if one minimizes G-d to the bare essentials and devotes the rest of one’s day to Harvard. I wonder what the kiruv workers who tout these articles would advise a girl in a Bais Ya'akov high school interested in medicine who desired to go to college away from home? Something tells me the message delivered would not be about the glory of aspiring to knowledge and realizing potential. For the overwhelming majority of students, our schools and society force a choice – Harvard or the Bais Medrash? Either/Or – but not both.

definition of an eved ivri - part 2

The gemara (Makkos 2) tells us that eidim zomimim, whose punishment is usually ‘ka’asher zamam’, to suffer the consequences themselves of their false testimony, are not sold into slavery even if they attempted to cause someone else to suffer that fate. Instead, they receive the punishment of malkos. Most Rishonim understand the case of the gemara as one where two eidim zomimim testify that a destitute person is a thief. Even though a thief who has no money to make restitution would be sold into slavery, the Torah tells us 'v’nimkar b’gneivaso’ – only a thief, but not eidim zomimim, can receive such a punishment. The Rambam (eidus 20:8), however, presents the halacha using a different scenario: witnesses testify that someone is a slave - instead of transferring the status of slave to the witnesses, they receive the punishment of malkos.

The Sha’agas Arye asks: why according to the Rambam can we not carry out the punishment of ‘ka’asher zamam'? In the scenario offered by most Rishonim, the witnesses tried to cause the accused to be sold into slavery – the Torah excludes eidim zomimim from suffering the fate of being sold. However, in the Rambam’s case the eidim are testifying that someone is already a slave – all that would occur as a result of their testimony is the accused losing his wages.

If witnesses testify falsely that Shimon does not owe Reuvain $100 as Reuvain claims, they are liable to pay Reuvain back $100 for the loss they sought to cause. If witnesses testify that Reuvain is a slave and does not get $100 of wages for his work, why is this any different – the witnesses should simply be liable ot pay Reuvain $100 for depriving him of his wages. What is the difference between these cases? Understanding the distinction is the key to the whole sugya of avdus...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

definition of eved - part 1

The opening of our parsha deals with the laws of an eved, a jewish slave. There is one yesod of R’ Chaim Brisker that is crucial to understanding this whole sugya; I’m going to try to present it and hope things don’t get too technical. There are two ways a person can become a slave: 1) by selling himself into slavery; 2) by being found guilty of thievery and having no money to make restitution, in which case the court sells the person into slavery. The halachos that apply to these two cases are not necessarily the same – see Kiddushin 15. There is a fundamental machlokes between Rashi and the Ritva (kiddushin 15) as to whether the heter of a slave to marry a shifcha applies to these cases. According to Rashi, only in the case of a slave sold against his will does the master have a right to offer the slave a shifcha to be his wife and produce children who will remain indentured as slaves themselves. If someone sells himself into slavery, he may not take a shifcha as his wife. According to the Ritva, a slave who is sold against his will may be coerced by his master to take a shifcha as a wife; one who sells himself may if he desires marry a shifcha, but his master may not coerce such a union.

The gemara (Kiddushin 16) explains that it is not sufficient for the slave’s master to be moichel the debt of the slave in order to free him – a formal shtar shichrur, an emancipation document, must be presented to the slave. The gemara explains that slavery is more than a monetary debt that can simply be forgiven – it is a kinyan haguf. Just as a woman who is married requires a get to release her because the status of being married carries with it far more than financial obligations, the most obvious of which is the prohibition of a married woman to marry another man, so too the status of slave is more encompasing, effecting even who the slave may marry - only a slave but not a free man is permitted to marry a shifcha.

According to the Ritva who holds that every slave is permitted to marry a shifcha, the reason all slaves require a shtar shichrur is because all slaves have this kinyan haguf component defining their status. However, according to Rashi, only a slave sold against his will is permitted to marry a shifcha. One who sells himself into slavery has not made any change to his ritual status in terms of who he can or cannot marry. If so, why according to Rashi does such a slave need a shtar shichrur? Why isn’t that form of slavery simply a monetary debt, with no kinyan issur or kinyan haguf, which simple mechila could cancel? Stay tuned for more…

does being an expert in torah make one an expert in finance or medicine?

Jonathan Rosenblum's article here makes a number of accurate observations about the negative attitude of the chareidi community toward outside experts, and I admit my surprise that it was published in chareidi venues. One of the tenets that the chareidi community seems to hold dear which is rejected by most in the centrist orthodox/modern orthodox camp is the belief that da'as torah affords a gadol b'yisrael some form of transcendent wisdom that enables him to have insight into any and all problems. A local Rabbi in the 5 Towns recently put it this way: “Da‘as Torah is the belief that this complete dedication and commitment to Torah has not only transformed them into great Torah scholars, able to decide upon halachic issues of every type, but has also transformed their thinking on all issues of daily life—whether for individuals, for communal problems, or for global matters—into genuine Torah responses with clarity and understanding.” (See Krum’s post in response.) I recall exchanging comments (see this post of mine on mishmar and the comments) once with another blogger who affirmed that he would not undergo surgery despite a doctors direct advice if a gadol counselled against it, and he would not (in Israel) take the precaution of wearing a gas mask during an attack if a gadol advised that it was not necessary. In my mind such behavior is simply assur - there is a mitzvah in the Torah to guard one's life and health, and presumably the experts who know most about those subjects are doctos or generals as the case may be. The approach of this 5T Rabbi and others stands in stark contrast to Rosenblum's conclusion: "As one of Eretz Yisrael’s major young poskim puts it, one must always know whether a shayla is one for a rav or a doctor (which itself is a shayla for a rav). But knowing Gemara does not by itself make us a doctor or an actuary or a financial wizard." I could not agree more, but I do not pretend to identify with chareidi hashkafa. I am not sure those that do will be as sympathetic to Rosenblum's point.

Pri Megadim: does rov apply to dinei ben noach?

Question raised by the Pri Megadim: if one has a mixture of chad b’trei, one piece of eiver min hachai mixed in with two pieces of regular meat, can a non-Jew eat from the mixture? Do we apply the principle of bittul b’rov, or since rov is derived from acharei rabim l’hatos which was said to klal yisrael, does it not apply to dinei ben noach? Perhaps we should invoke the principle of mi ika midi dl’yisrael assur ul’aku”m sharei, there is nothing which is permitted to a yisrael but assur for a non-Jew, so if rov works as a matir for a yisrael it must also work for everyone else?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

mitzvos aseh she'hazman gerama - eidus, retziya

The Mishna in Kiddushin tells us that women are generally exempt from mitzvos aseh she’hazman gerama, mitzvos which are limited to being performed only at certain times. There are numerous cases where at first glance one would have though a mitzvah is zman gerama, time-delimited, but the gemara in fact calls on another reason to exclude women or women are in fact included in the mitzvah. Rishonim and Achronim offer various explanations for these exceptions, some focusing on unique attributes of particular mitzvos, some focusing on honing the definition of what exactly zman gerama means. There are so many answers to these type questions that the answers themselves serve as a catalog of the different darchei halimud, the thinking and methodology of those who proposed them.

Although there is a mitzvah to give testimony, the gemara (Shavuos 30) derives from the word ‘anashim’ that only men and not women may serve as witnesses. The question is raised: since din, the judgment of court cases, may not take place at night, testimony may also not be given at night. If so, why should we require a separate source derasha to exclude women from being witnesses – isn’t this a time bound commandment?

My chavrusa suggested that although one cannot testify except by day, the obligation to testify is ongoing – a limitation on the kiyum mitzvah but not the chiyuv is not a zman gerama type mitzvah. I would put it more succinctly – the limitation of night vs. day is a halacha in bais din, not in eidus – it defines the parameters of when court sessions take place, not the parameters of the obligation to testify. My chavrusa and myself have been too influenced by standard Litvishe lomdus to even dream of a sevara like that suggested like the Maishiv Davar: since eidus is a form of chessed that is done on behalf of one of the parties, and women are obligated in chessed, one would have thought even women are obligated to give testimony if not for a specific exclusion. Different ways of thinking – different answers, and many others are possible as well (feel free to add your own in the comments!).

Another example from our parsha: the Torah says that if a slave wishes to remain with his master after his 6 years of labor are complete, he must have his ear pierced next to a doorway – the mitzvah of retziya. As Rashi explains, the slave’s ear which heard on Sinai that a Jew should be a slave only to G-d but not to his fellow man is pierced because this person has chosen to remain a servant rather than accept the gift of freedom. The halacha is that retziya may only be done at day and not at night. Nonetheless, the halacha of retziya applies to all slaves, even a slave owned by a woman. Why would the mitzvah of retziyah not be counted as a mitzvah which is zman gerama, time dependent, which would exempt a woman owner from piercing the ear of her slave? Again, many answers possible, but no hints from me on this one...

Monday, February 12, 2007

chatzitzah by tefillin and by mikvah - the ohr samaiach's question

The Torah says that one is not permitted to go to mikvah with a chatzitzah on one’s body. The definition of chatzitzah m’doraysa (see Sukkah 6) is something which covers most of the body (rubo) and which one is makpid on, which one would prefer removed. If a chatzitzah covers only part of the body and one is makpid on it, or it covers most of the body but one is not makpid (i.e. it fulfills only on of the two conditions of the Torah’s definition of chatzitzah), it is a chatzitzah m’derabbanan – one is Rabbinically prohibited from going to mikvah until such a chatzitzah is removed. The Rama writes that minhag yisrael is to be stringent about all chatzitzos and even remove that which is a miyut v’aino makpid, something that covers only a small area and which a person does not care about. For this reason women are very careful to remove anything, no matter how small, that would block contact between the mikvah water and their body during tevilah.

The gemara (Zevhacim 19) questions whether a kohein can wear tefillin shel yad on his arm while wearing bigdei kehunah and doing avodah. Rashi interprets the gemara’s dilemma as a question of whether tefillin constitutes yitur begadim, adding an extra garment to bigdei kehunah, which is prohibited. Tosfos, however, understands the question of the gemara as one of chatzitzah. The Torah commands that bigdei kehunah be worn directly on the body with no separation – do tefillin constitute a separation which violates this law? The gemara concludes that in fact tefillin shel yad may not be worn by a kohein.

The Ohr Samaiach (Issurei Biya ch. 4) is troubled by the gemara’s conclusion. With respect to mikvah the Torah defines chatzitzah as something which covers most of the body and which one would want removed – anything smaller or less obtrusive is not prohibited. Yet, with respect to bigdei kehunah the gemara assumes that even tefillin is a chatzitzah, even though tefillin is not a separation that covers most of the body. On what basis do we apply different standards to the definition of chatzitzah in these two different cases?

Ishbitza on the mitzvah of tefillin

My son began putting on tefillin yesterday, so we made a little breakfast in his school to celebrate. Some thoughts in the topic of tefillin: The Torah tells us in Parshas Ki Tisa that Moshe Rabeinu was afforded a glimpse of the “back” of Hashem, but was told he could not see Hashem’s “face” (Shmos 33:23). Chazal (Brachos 7, cited by Rashi) teach us that Moshe was shown the back of G-d’s tefillin, meaning only part of the connection between man and G-d was revealed to Moshe, but there still remained something which was concealed (see Rambam, Yesodei haTorah 1:10). This more complete vision was actually revealed later to someone else. The Midrash ascribes to R’ Akiva the pasuk “kol y’kar r’asa einai” – all of your glory my eyes have seen - referring to R' Akiva's insight into Torah which surpassed even that of Moshe Rabeinu. This word y’kar brings to mind the pasuk in Megillas Esther, "layehudim hayisa orah v’simcha v’sason v’yekar”; Chazal comment that this word "y’kar" refers to tefillin. Moshe Rabeinu saw only the back of G-d’s tefillin, but R’ Akiva witnessed “kol y’kar ra’asa einai”, the complete tefillin of Hashem.

The Ishbitza explains: Moshe Rabeinu as deliverer of Torah had to transmit to the Jewish people not only commandments, but also the punishments for transgression, implicitly acknowledging that there can be a break in the bond between man and G-d. The Mishna records that R’ Akiva said that had he sat on the Sanhedrin he would have been so harsh in his cross examination of witnesses that the court would never mete out capital punishment to a Jew. R’ Akiva refused to consider that a Jewish soul could be so distant, so torn from its root in G-d’s presence, as to be deserving of a penalty of death. R’ Akiva said, “v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha, zeh klal gadol batorah”, love of a fellow Jew is the greatest principle in Torah. The bond of tefillin is complete and cannot be broken.

The Ramchal and many others write that each letter of Torah corresponds to a neshoma of klal Yisrael. Moshe Rabeinu had the burden of transmitting the Torah with all the warnings of possible punishment – neshomos that could drift; Torah in those neshomos that could be lost and remain unrevealed. R’ Akiva saw the Torah in each and every Jew and refused to surrender any soul as lost, hence his Torah insight was all the deeper and richer than even that of Moshe Rabeinu.

The Ishbitza teaches that wearing tefillin is a key to being able to arrive at new Torah insights, chiddushim. The more one is aware of the connection between G-d and every Jew, the more one strives to attain the ideal of R” Akiva’s “kol y’kar ra’asa einai” the greater will be one’s insight and understanding of Torah.

Friday, February 09, 2007

visit to the museum, anyone?

The American Museum of Natural History opens the newly redesigned Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins exhibition hall tomorrow. From the museum website:

The innovative Spitzer Hall, the successor to the Museum's popular Hall of Human Biology and Evolution, combines for the first time anywhere the most up-to-date discoveries in the fossil record with the latest in genomic science to explore the most profound mysteries of humankind: who we are, where we came from, and what is in store for the future of our species.

The 10,000-square-foot Spitzer Hall of Human Origins offers the most comprehensive evidence of human evolution ever assembled, with over 200 casts of the rarest hominid fossils and artifacts documenting how modern humans evolved over millions of years from earlier species and showing how new DNA evidence reveals how closely related we are to each other and to our primate ancestors.

I’m asking for trouble, but I’ll throw out the question anyway – assuming you are a museum goer (I am!), do you visit something like this (esp. with kids) or not? Is human origins something that you explore only through reading the first chapter of Genesis, or should it also be explored in a setting like this, whatever you make of the evidence in light of your views on Biblical creationsim?

(Update: Just noticed the NY Times has a review of the exhibit here with a token paragraph on the evolution/creationism debate.)

accepting the rough spots with the good parts - vayichad yisro

Our parsha opens "Vayishma yisro…es kol asher asah Elokim l'yisrael u'lMoshe avdo…” Yisro heard all that G-d did for the Jewish people, the Exodus from Egypt, and decided to come join them in the dessert. A few pesukim later after we read that Yisro is reunited with his son-in-law Moshe and “Vayesaper Moshe l'chosno es kol asher asah Hashem l'Pharoah ul'mitzrayim..vayichad yisro al ko hatovah", Moshe related to his father-in-law all that G-d had done to the Egyptians and Yisro was overjoyed (see Rashi) . What exactly did Moshe tell his father-in-law that Yisro did not already know? The story of the Exodus was not new news – that was what motivated Yisro (al pi pshuto shel mikra) to rejoin Moshe in the first place? Was there something added by Moshe’s first hand blow-by-blow account?

I am negligent in only rarely writing over Torah of the Radomsker from the Tiferes Shlomo, which is one of my favorite Chassidic seforim. His vort here is a gem. The Radomsker notes a subtle difference in the description of what Yisro had heard vs. what Moshe related to him. Yisro heard what G-d did for the Jewish people – the good part of the story, the happy ending. True, there was suffering along the way, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Evil is contrary to G-d’s ultimate purpose and was whitewashed out of the spiritually uplifting story that Yisro took in. However, when Moshe related the story, he did not just include the happy ending of the Jewish people’s redemption, but also included the downfall and punishment of the Egyptians. More than just a means to an end, the challenge of grappling and overcoming evil is itself part of G-d’s plan and man’s telos. The Radomsker reads “vayichad Yisro” not just an expression of joy, but vayichad from the root “echad”, one. The full religious experience demands wholeness – not just celebrating the good, but finding G-d even in the experience of evil and its eventual downfall.

Perhaps one other lesson is implicit in the Radomsker’s approach. Some parts of Orthodoxy inevitably “sell” better than others. There are mitzvos that would strike anyone as rational and ethical and which have set the moral standard for humanity. There are parts of our history which are inspiring, uplifting, and glorious. But it is fair to acknowledge that there are other parts to the story that we are less intellectually comfortable with and require a further commitment of faith to accept. A Yisro may be drawn into a kiruv seminar, an outreach program, a Hillel, a Chabad, whatever, because there is a beauty to Judaism that is attractive and which we should “sell” persuasively. But at the same time, like Moshe did, at some point in Yisro’s journey he needs to be made aware of the downfall of the Egyptians along the way, the rough parts that are less easy to swallow but which are also part of commitment.

would you make a shidduch with Yisro's family?

The gemara (Baba Basra 109b) councils that one should try to marry “tovim”, someone who comes from “good” stock. The gemara contrasts Moshe Rabeinu, who married the daughter of Yisro, a converted idolater, and who ended up having a grandchild who was an idolatrous priest, with Ahron, who married the daughter of Aminadav and ended up having Pinchas as a grandchild.

I am perplexed by this whole discussion. Does behavior and attitude function like a recessive gene? Neither my wife not I have red hair, but my daughter does – could she also grow up exhibiting some behavior or attitude we don’t teach at home solely as a result of having some genetic mix from past generations? The Derashos haRan actually does offer such an idea to explain why Avraham insisted that Yitzchak marry a wife from his own family rather than any neighboring tribe who had become monotheistic and who were within his sphere of influence. The Ran says that Avraham’s family possessed “genes” of chessed which outweighed the commitment arrived at intellectually by those who surrounded him. I would chalk this idea up to misunderstood genetics, much like other explanations for mitzvos the rishonim offered (e.g. easting kosher is not healthful) which in hindsight we may find lacking or incorrect – if you choose to fit Torah into a “rationalist” framework, that understanding always needs refinement based on changes in secular knowledge.

Interestingly, when the Rambam formulates the gemara’s principle (end of Hil Issurei Biya) it sounds more like a moral idea – the Rambam warns of marrying a daughter of an ignoramus because one’s wife will be uneducated and will not be able to properly educate her children (the Rambam echoes a gemara in Pesachim but the Ein Mishpat on Baba Basra cites it on this sugya). This lesson contains a kernel of truth, but I fail to see how it emerges from our gemara. Yisro is a heroic figure – someone whose life was dedicated to the pursuit of truth until joining the Jewish people. His grandchildren were raised in the home of Moshe Rabeinu, the greatest prophet and teacher of Torah the Jewish people have ever had. Moshe’s grandchildren certainly came from a home steeped in Torah values and Torah wisdom. Yet, the punchline seems to be that because their grandfather once served as an idolatrous priest, that taint carries through the generations.

Should one walk away from this gemara (this would be a good topic for my wife’s blog) with practical shidduch advice? If someone like R’ Elyashiv’s daughter was a prospective shidduch to your son, and her grandfather was a convert who himself now is immersed in Torah learning, would it make sense to walk away from that match and say that all the piety and Torah learning is irrelevant because once-upon-a-time that girls grandfather was a non-Jewish idolater? I find that very hard to believe. If not to be taken literally, what is the moral or philosophical idea one should glean from this Chazal?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Conservative movement confusion

This week’s NY Jewish Week has an op-ed by R’ Jerome Epstein, a prominent Conservative Rabbi, reflecting on the recent survey within the Conservative movement which revealed great support for the acceptance and ordination of gay rabbis (there is also an op-ed by R' Michael Broyde, an Orthodox Rabbi, on the same topic). The ordination of gays and officiating at same sex unions has been approved by the Conservative Law Commitee, much to the consternation of a minority in the movement. In the same paper there is an article about Rabbi Plotkin, another Conservative Rabbi referred to as the movement’s “top kashrut kop”, who was “disappointed” to discover from the same survey that a majority of Conservative Rabbis and clergy eat hot dairy foods, including grilled fish, in non-kosher restaurants. This, Epstein feels, runs contrary to Conservative interpretation of Jewish law. He plans to write a paper and forward it to their Law Committee for consideration.

So let me guess this straight – homosexual unions are OK, but having grilled kosher fish in a treif restaurant is out? Something is not kosher here, and it ain’t the fish.

how NOT to teach about tefillin

My son’s class is learning the halachos of tefillin from kitzur shulchan aruch, which is the text of choice for most elementary schools despite its shortcomings (a different discussion completely). The choice of topic was clearly made with the intent to educate the boys, many of whom will become bar mitzvah over the next few months, about tefillin. This is the mitzvah which most symbolizes the separation of the “men from the boys”. I hate to be so constantly critical of my son’s school, but at times I honestly have no idea what they could be thinking. My son just got his tefillin and will soon start wearing them, but had no clue what to do with them – when to say the brachos, how exactly to position them, etc. So I asked him whether or not his Rebbe had brought in a pair of tefillin to show the boys what to do. Answer: No. I hit the floor, ceiling, and a few walls. True, I admit to learning hilchos shechita without ever killing a cow, but odds are I will never have to perform that task, and a cow is a bit more inaccessible than a pair of tefillin that a boy will wear every day! I know some stuff I have written about ed aims for ideals, but this is not about creative teaching or radical classroom ideas – it’s about basics. If a Rebbe sits in front of a classroom and drones for hours about hilchos tefillin and a boy doesn’t know what to do with a pair once he gets them in hand, then the teacher is simply not doing his job – sorry, no softer way to put it. Is it really that hard to figure out that to teach hilchos tefillin it might be a good idea to show the boys a pair of tefillin and demonstrate step by step how to put them on? Or to even go a step further and maybe call in one of the many sofrim who live in the area to do a presentation on tefillin and show the batim, the parshiyos, how tefillin are put together, etc.? Come on people in chinuch, this is no brainer stuff!

interesting new jewish population study

Hat tip to for a post that links to a Brandeis’ University study on Jewish population in the US. I’m not much interested in the science of demographics and how exactly you count heads, but some of the results are interesting. The Brandeis study claims that earlier studies overestimated the # of Orthodox Jews and overestimated the # of Jews receiving a day school education, and is critical of the NJPS survey of 2000 for undercounting the non-Orthodox. One interesting statistic (footnote 21 on p. 37) is the claim that over 80% of those who identify as Orthodox Jews were born and raised into Orthodox families. The survey considers this a lack of evidence of an upsurge in Orthodoxy. I guess that conclusion depends on your perspective, because to me the statistic that 1 out of every 4 Orthodox Jews are ba’alei tshuvah who chose to return to or embrace Orthodoxy without being raised in an Orthodox home is a very significant number. Yes, far larger numbers of Jews raised in Conservative homes switch to identifying as Reform Jews, but that simply reflects a loosening of commitment, not a choice of Reform philosophy over that of the Conservative movement; the choice to become Orthodox is clearly a commitment to greater religious practice and observance. Also interesting is the finding that esp. among Orthodox, there is a population bulge among 18-29 year olds, 53% of whom are married (shidduch crises?) compared with only 18% among non-Orthodox peers (who they claim have been undercounted). The conclusion I draw is that the Orthodox population is younger, larger, and bound to continue to grow (marrying younger increases your odds of being able to have a large family) faster than other segments of the Jewish world. I haven't read the full study too carefully, so have a look if you want more detail.

Update: After posting, I noticed this review of the survey from They are a bit harsh, but many of the criticisms strike me as valid.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

shechita without kavanah and isho m'shum chitzav

In the context of discussing tevilah without kavanh the gemara also cites a dispute among Tanaim whether shechita requires kavanah or not. The Rashba in Toras haBayis (Sha’ar 1, end of ch 1, page 11a in the middle) builds on the parallel between these cases and writes that just as it is clear from the gemara that if a nidah falls into a lake she has fulfilled the requirement of tevilah, so too if a knife falls off someone’s lap unintentionally and somehow kills an animal with proper shechita, the shechita is valid and the meat is kosher. We find this same idea, says the Rashba, with respect to laws of damages – if one leaves a knife atop a building where it can be blown off by the wind, and it ends up being blown down and hurting a passerby, the one who placed the knife is liable based on the principle of isho m’shum chitzav [a person is liable for arson even though the fire, not he, is the agent of harm because the person is the cause of the damage occurring, just as one who shoots an arrow is liable for the damage caused by the arrow because he is the cause – B”K 23].

The Ra’ah in Bedek haBayis disagrees with this entire line of reasoning. By the case of damages, the upshot is that one is liable for damages even though one is physically not the agent doing the harm. By the case of tevilah there is also no requirement that the mikvah dunk occur through direct human causation. However, writes the Ra’ah, by shechita the Torah demands ‘v’zavachta’, that a human agent be the direct cause of the animal's death. If the knife unintentionally is blown or falls off a person’s lap and kills and animal, the shechita has not occurred through human agency and is invalid.

What exactly is the point of disagreement between the two opinions? It is possible that the Rashba rejects the requirement that shechita occur through human agency. However, there is another possibility as well. R’ Chaim Brisker (on Rambam Hil Shecheinim) raises the question of whether isho m’shum chitzav creates koach gavra or not. IOW: a simple case of mazik would be if one took a sledgehammer and demolished a wall. An arsonist has not come in contact with his neighbor’s wall, yet he is liable for burning it down. Does the Torah mean to tell us that lighting a fire is as much a direct act of damage as taking a sledgehammer to the wall, or is the Torah telling us that even though one has not directly damaged the wall, one is liable for being the cause even indirectly of the wall’s destruction? According to the former understanding, there should be no difference between shechita, which must occur through direct human agency, and any case of damages. According to the latter understanding, it would seem to be a unique rule of torts (or murder – see Tosfos Sanhedrin 78a) that imposes liability even for indirect action, but shechita, which demands direct human agency, cannot occur through isho m’shum chitzav.

(Disclaimer: every time I touch on the sugya of isho m’shum chitzav I feel like it is a black hole that would demand hours of work to properly understand, which I don’t have right now. Hopefully I captured something worthwhile even on this superficial level. See BK 23, Sanhedrin 77, the R’ Chaim in Hil. Shechainim, and the Birchas Shmuel in B"K if you want more.)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

a worthy cause

Ariella already wrote about this on her blog, but in case you didn’t see it, I'll give it a quick mention too In addition to buying my son, who will be bar mitzvah in a few weeks, his own tefillin (which his grandparents get a thank you for getting), we decided to donate to Yad Eliezer’s program which sponsors the purchase of tefillin for bar mitzvah boys from needy families. We were very surprised to receive back from Yad Eliezer not the usual form letter and receipt, but a hand written note telling us the name of the boy who received tefillin through our donation and something about his background. In addition to making us feel good, I think that says something about the attention and care Yad Eliezer puts into what they do. See p. 13 of the winter edition of Kallah Magazine for details on their wedding sponsorship program for poor couples, and take a look at for the other charitable work they do providing food, loans, and job training for those in need.

mitzvos tzerichos kavanah and tevilah (II)

Very good comments on yesterday’s post. I should have noted that the Ohr Zarua actually does derive from tevila without kavanah a proof that mitzvos do not require kavanah, undermining the entire premis of my question! However, assuming (as other Rishonim do) that there is a difference between these sugyos, some thoughts: I am not fully convinced of the distinction suggested between 2 types of kavanah – kavanah to become tahor, and kavanah for a kiyum mitzvah. The mitzvah is to become tahor – by definition having kavanah for that effect is itself kavanas hamitzvah. The better answer seems to me to be that there are two types of actions: true mitzvos, like eating matzah (side point: I appreciated the gotcha that this was a bad example, shekein ne’hene), and acts which are just a hechsher mitzvah, like becoming tahor or shechita. This approach is taken by the Radbaz, who is just echoing a Ramban (Chulin 31).

R’ Elchanan Wasserman (K.S. Kesubos 247-9) quotes a chakira of the Chacham Tzvi whether the kavanah required (acc to some Tanaim) for chalitzah is kavanah for a kinyan or kavanah for mitzvah – overtones of the “two kavanah” theory above. R’ Elchanan argues that a lack of kavanas hamitzvah cannot invalidate chalitzah. Chalitzah by definition is an act which frees a woman from the obligation of yibum – to have intent to release the woman from the obligations of yibum yet to not fulfill the mitzvah of releasing her from that obligation is an oxymoron. I would suggest this echoes Yehudah R’s sevara mentioned yesterday with respect to tevilah. The act of eating is not by definition a mitzvah – it is intent which makes it so. However, the act of tevilah is by definition an act of becoming tahor; the act of schechita is by definition an act of proper slaughter; the act of chalitzah is by definition a release of a woman from yibum. Kavanah does not define the act as a mitzvah in these cases; the mitzvah emerges from the occurrence of the act.

R’ Elchanan goes one step further and suggests that the debate over mitzvos tzerichos kavanah applies only where the mitzvah is defined as performance of an action – e.g. eating matzah, reciting kerias shema etc. However, where a mitzvah is defined not by the performance of a specific act, but as achieving a certain result, kavanah plays no role – if the result is achieved, a lack of intent does not negate the accomplishment. For example, R’ Elchanan writes that the mitzvah of peru u’revu is defined by the result of having children – even if one did not have kavanah to fulfill the mitzvah in doing so, it does not negate the fulfillment of the mitzvah. (As an aside: I didn't double-check, but I believe the new edition of the Minchas Chinuch in the notes to peru u'revu quotes that when the M.C. was mesader kiddushin he would instuct the chosson and kallah beforehand to have kavanah that they were being mekayein the mitzvah of peru u'revu). The same would apply to yibum and chalitzah. He ends with an interesting question: if one dons tzitzis which are made of kilayim without proper kavanah to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzis, has one violated the issur of kilayim or not – is the mitzvah of tzitzis the act of donning the garmet, or the result accomplished in wearing it? For another time…

Monday, February 05, 2007

does tevilah require kavanah?

The gemara (Chulin 31) quotes a dispute between Rav and R’ Yochanan whether tevila requires kavanah [intent] or not. For example, if one fell into a mikvah by accident, or went to a mikvah for a nice swim on a hot day - is the act of dunking alone sufficient to make one tahor, or is that act meaningless unless one has specific intention to fulfill a halachic requirement? The Bais Yosef (Y.D. 198:48) rules leniently and says kavanah is not required, while the Rama l’chatchila is strict and requires kavanah. Two interesting conceptual points worth noting here – I’ll start with the easier one first.

There is a dispute many places whether mitzvos tzerichos kavanah – does the performance of a mitzvah act alone suffice to fulfill a commandment, or is intent a necessary condition of fulfilling commandments? For example, if one ate matzah on the night of Pesach because one was hungry, does this suffice to fulfill the commandment of eating matzah, or must one have specific intent at the time of eating that one is engaged in a mitzvah act? At first glance one might draw a parallel between this case and our case of dunking in a mikvah without proper intent. Radba”z (cited by the Badei haShulchan in his Iyunim), however, writes, “Know that this dispute [regarding tevilah] is not relevant to the issue of mitzvos tzerichos kavanah which is debated by Tanaim and Amoraim in many places, as tevilah and shechita are different because…” Sorry, no giveaways yet - How would you fill in the blank?

Friday, February 02, 2007

even the infants in the womb sang shirah

Just back from vacation and am trying to pull myself together at work, but how can I not post anything about Parshas Beshalach and Shabbos Shirah?

Rabbi Meir taught (Kesubos 7b) based on the pasuk “B’Makheilos barchu Elokim, Hashem m’mkor Yisrael” that even infants in their mother’s womb sang shirah when the sea split. Of course infants in the womb cannot literally sing out songs of praise to G-d, nor do infants have the intelligence or ability to recognize miracles. So what could R’ Meir mean? True, even those not yet born were impacted by the miracles of leaving Egypt as part of the collective destiny of the Jewish people, but this is true of many other historical events and begs the question of why R’ Meir's lesson was focussed specifically on the splitting of the sea and the shiras hayam.

My wife Ariella has taught writing for many years, but none of the many handbooks we have around the house really teach how to capture the crucial ingredient of the poet’s insight, the calling of the muses that great writers seem to be born with. How is it possible that the contentious, rebellious camp that stood on the banks of the sea – “...vayamru al Yam Suf” (Tehillim 106:7) - who had no training in poetry or prophecy, who had been raised in Egyptian culture and absorbed a slave-mentality, who were ready to head back to Egypt and abandon Moshe at the first sight of the pursuing Egyptian army, came to recite the sublime and prophetic song of shirah? R’ Kook explained that just as training alone cannot make a poet, a Jewish soul is not made by one’s environment, one’s education, or one’s upbringing. Even an infant in the womb who has not experienced the nurturing influence of Jewish culture or society is not a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which nothing is written, but is already imprinted with the unique poetic and prophetic Jewish soul. The experience of Yam Suf proved that within the heart of the infant Jewish nation, with all its shortcomings, lay the innate capacity of the Jewish soul to sing shirah.