Friday, November 30, 2007

R' Tzvi Yehudah vs. R' Amital's reaction to the UN partition plan (60th anniversary on 29 Nov)

29 November marks the 60th anniversary of the UN partition plan which would have created a State of Israel recognized under international law alongside an Arab state (the Arabs rejected the plan, went to war with us, and the rest is the historical mess we are still grappling with). What is a religious Zionist to make of this event? Two different reactions:

Arutz-7 has an article entitles “haRav she-bacha b’29 November” which describes R’ Tzvi Yehudah crying over the partition plan while the country celebrated. Who could celebrate when so much was being given away?
בליל יום העצמאות הרצי"ה אמר: הרשו לי לומר דברים אישיים, לפני 19 שנה כל העם נהר לרחוב לחגוג את רגשי שמחתו, אך לא יכולתי להצטרף לשמחה, את ארצי חלקו, וישבתי ובכיתי, איפה חברון שלנו, איפה שכם שלנו ואיפה יריחו שלנו?".

R’ Amital of Gush takes a very different approach in one of his essays:
…In light of the Ramban's teaching in his comments on Rambam's Sefer Ha-mitzvot, they explained that the "beginning of the redemption" refers not to the Jewish nation dwelling in the Land of Israel, but rather to the absolute sovereignty of the Jewish nation over all parts of Eretz Yisrael… I do not believe in this approach. I can testify concerning myself that I recited the blessing of "She-hechiyanu" and I danced on the 29th of November 1947, at Be'erot Yitzchak, even though the U.N. had partitioned the land, and likewise in 1948. Our feeling was one of elation; it was as though there was an intoxicating drug in the air – Israeli independence. We weren't rejoicing because of what the Ramban taught, but rather because of the fulfillment of Herzl's vision. At that time, Rav Zvi Yehuda recounted: "I could not go out and participate in the festivities… for indeed, God's word – 'They have divided My land' (Yoel 4:2) – was being fulfilled… In that condition – my whole body shaken, wounded all over, cut up into pieces – I could not rejoice" (excerpt from "Eretz Ha-Zvi"). We – the simple Jews among whom I regard myself – didn't know about the Ramban. We knew that there was Israeli independence, Jewish sovereignty in our land – and we rejoiced over that.

All I can say is baruch Hashem we have such machlokesin to think about. As uncomfortable as it is not having a clear answer in hashkafa, with giants of klal yisrael in disagreement, I think leis man d'palig that we are far better off than we were 65 years ago.

patterns in lomdus: Yosef's punishment, haggadas eidus

Yosef haTzadik is criticized for asking the Sar haMashkim “zechartani v’hizkartani”, to remember him and relate his innocence to Pharoah. Because these two words showed a lack of bitachon, Yosef was punished with having to spend two extra years in prison. R’ Chaim once asked R’ Shimon Shkop what Yosef’s punishment would have been had he said only one word. R’ Shimon answered that Yosef would have received one extra year of prison, as the punishment seems to be one year per each word. R’ Chaim disagreed. R’ Chaim explained that had Yosef only said one word, he would have received no punishment, as one word would constitute an acceptable level of histadlus. However, once Yosef said two words and went beyond acceptable histadlus, he was punished for the entire statement of two words.

My son is learning Makkos this year and I told him this vort to illustrate a pattern to “lomdish” thinking. R’ Chaim (in the stencils) and R’ Shimon Shkop (Sha’arei Yosher 7:1 – note: I never believed the vort above was true because I cannot believe R’ Shimon would get the question wrong. For those who do believe the story, I guess R’ Shimon picked up the trick by the time he wrote Sha’rei Yosher : ) both pose the following chakirah: when two witnesses come before bais din to testify, is each witnesses’ haggadah independently a valid haggadas eidus, but the Torah says beis din needs a certain quantity of witnesses to act, or is each witness’ haggadah independently meaningless, and only the unit of two witnesses together constitute a believable haggadah. Or, to phrase it differently, is each witnesses an independent cause of ½ the punishment meted out by beis din (like in the Yosef story, each haggadah/word causes part of the total punishment), or is each witness independently meaningless, and only the corporate unit of two witnesses the cause of beis din meting out justice (like in the Yosef story, one word/haggadah itself is meaningless, but the combined unit of two leads to punishment).

Maybe more on how this chakira helps in hilchos eidus next week…

Thursday, November 29, 2007

kiruv: can Orthodoxy prove itself meaningful?

This article in the NY Times about new "minyanim" which are springing up and attracting young people looking for spirituality raised a bunch of questions in my mind. The service featured in the article is done in Hebrew, incorporates song and music, is led by laypeople, and is fully egalitarian. It attracts people who have not found a home in traditional synagogues of any denomination.

1) Why do people go? The article quotes a founder of one of these minyanim as saying people are looking for, “redemptive, transformative experiences that give rhythm to their days and weeks and give meaning to their lives.” Which means to say that organized religion, certainly Orthodoxy, has failed to provide such experiences. Look around you in shule – are people bored during davening, asleep during the “sermon”, eagerly counting the minutes until kiddush? If not in your shule, I am sure you know a shule like this. Is shule supposed to be a "redemptive, transformative experience", and if we don't have that experience, why not and what can we do about it?

2) From the article:

“The primary reason I am here is because of gender equality,” said Rebecca Israel, 25, who was raised in an Orthodox family. Ms. Israel attended D.C. Minyan and Tikkun Leil Shabbat, which she visited one recent Friday, until she moved a year ago to New York, where she goes to Kehilat Hadar. “If Judaism is central to my morality, then its practices needed to reflect the morality that I learned from it. In religious practices that limit women’s participation, Orthodox shuls were not living up to that equality that is important to me.”

I wrote a few posts ago about Ms. Haviva Ner-David and the changes to Orthodoxy she advocates. Well, if Orthodoxy is not going to radically change (and I don’t mean to suggest it should!), how should Orthodoxy address concerns like those raised by Rebecca Israel? Do we just dismiss these complaints as unfounded at the cost of another person leaving Orthodoxy, or should we be doing some soul-searching about whether we are even hearing the complaint and/or offering a meaningful response?

3) Why should we care? The article notes: “Kehilat Hadar’s e-mail list, however, has about 2,800 addresses, a sign of the transience of the young Jewish population in the city and the high level of interest.” 2800 souls who want an affiliation with something spiritual and meaningful; 2800 souls who are searching for G-d and say they can't find him in our shules. How should we respond? Are their claims to be dismissed as not genuine or their concerns moot because they deviate from tradition? Can Orthodoxy provide the spirituality and community they crave in a way that does not undermine halacha? 2800 people are not leaving the derech because they cannot square the age of the universe with braishis or because they cannot see how torah m'sinai fits the documentary hypothesis - they are leaving because established religion, Orthodoxy included, has proven itself spiritually irrelevant to their lives. That is a thought that should scare us.

a Munkatcher collection of halachic paradoxes

Is it too early to start thinking about Chanukah? The halacha is that a guest at someone else’s home fulfills the mitzvah of hadlakas neiros by being mishtateif b’priti – by giving some token amount of money to the homeowner so the oil is added on his/her behalf. The Minchas Eluzar (4:69) creates a wild paradox: what if the homeowner is mekadesh a girl based on the value of this perutah and oil? 1) If the oil has value, then the girl is mekudeshes; 2) if the girl is mekudeshes, she can fulfill the mitzvah of hadlakah through her husband; 3) if she fulfills hadlakah through her husband, the girl does not need oil and it has no value; 4) if the oil has no value, the girl is not mekudeshes; 5) if she is not mekudeshes, the girl needs to light for herself; 6) if she needs to light for herself, the oil has value…back to step #1 and repeat!

Similar paradoxes exist elsewhere. The halacha is that a parah adumah becomes disqualified if it is used for work or bears a burden, provided that these services are “neicha lei”, desired by or beneficial to the cow’s owner. The gemara (Pesachim 26) disqualifies a parah adumah which is mounted by a bull. Tosfos asks: since the owner would much rather have a valuable kosher parah adumah than a disqualified pregnant red cow, why is this considered “neicha lei”? Tosfos answers that since it would be neicha lei if not for the cow being a parah adumah, the cow is disqualified. In other words, explains the Minchas Eluzar, the din is based on a paradox: 1) if mounting is neicha lei to the owner, the cow is disqualified; 2) if the cow would be disqualified, mounting is not neicha lei; 3) if mounting is not neicha lei, it is not a disqualification; 4) if it does not a disqualification, the owner wants the bull to mount… back to step #1 and repeat.

At some point we enter the domain of “klutz kashe”. How does kiddushei kesef ever work? Since whatever a women takes possession of is transferred to her husband’s ownership – mah she’kansa isha kansa ba’alah - the following paradox occurs: 1) the groom presents his wife with a ring to become mekudeshes; 2) by becoming his wife, the kallah surrenders her rights to ownership; 3) since she surrenders her ownership rights, the kallah cannot take possession of the ring; 4) if she has not taken possession of the ring, she is not mekudeshes… back to step #1! Why is this a klutz kashe?... well, I guess you will be going in circles until you figure that out.

(You obviously need to step outside the paradigm of Litvishe learning and gavra/cheftza sevaras to appreciate the twists and turns here on its own terms, which is what makes this stuff fun to read!)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

derush: contemplating morality, not history

Interesting kashe raised by the Yerushalmi (Ta’anis 24, here with peirush of Yedid Nefesh): The gemara says that Rebbi darshened 24 aspects of the churban, but R’ Yochanan darshened 60. The gemara asks how it could be that R’ Yochanan, who lived after Rebbi, could possibly have had more to say about the churban than Rebbi, who was closer to the actual event. I don’t recall seeing a similar question ever asked in the Bavli and I’m not sure I fully understand the question. Would anyone be surprised if a gifted writer living who-knows-where 10 years from now could write a better description or analysis of the events of 9/11 than I could, even though I worked 10 blocks from the World Trade Center? Perhaps my analogy is flawed because while our understanding of history may improve in hindsight, our moral sensitivity to events dulls over time and we become less outraged, less upset, less sensitive. Derush is a contemplation of morality, not history.

I wonder if any beki’im out there have noticed a trend in the Yerushalmi to be more sensitive to these type of historical questions. If you are following the daf and continue into Megillah, the gemara asks (daf 3 here) how the takana of reading megillah for the kefarim could have been instituted to take place on “yom hakenisa” of Monday and Thursday when the Megillah predates Ezra’s takanah designating these as days for kriyas hatorah. Again, I don’t recall the Bavli being bothered by this issue.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

best intentions that lead to tragic errors: the Ibn Ezra on 'shema yigrom hacheit'

One last point on “shema yigrom hacheit”: the Ibn Ezra addresses the question of why Ya’akov feared when he had a promise from G-d and answers that Ya’akov was concerned lest he had sinned “b’machshava”, in thought, and become undeserving of G-d’s protection. What does the Ibn Ezra mean by a sin in “thought”? He gives us another example: when Moshe was commanded to return to Egypt as the redeemer of the Jewish people, he set out immediately at the cost of delaying the bris of his son. As a result, an angel attacked him along the way and almost killed Moshe before Tziporah came to the rescue and did the milah. Moshe certainly had acted with the best of intentions and undoubtedly considered his decision carefully before starting on his journey before performing the milah. Yet, whatever his calculations and thoughts were proved wrong.

Ya’akov Avinu had not consciously done any sin and undoubtedly had also planned his every move to be a fulfillment of what he took to be the ratzon Hashem. But, what one thinks is the ratzon Hashem may be completely in error. Perhaps we need look no further for an illustration than this upcoming week’s parsha, where the brothers of Yosef think they are doing good by eliminating Yosef and only years later realize their tragic error.

This approach of the Ibn Ezra is very discomforting. Does this really mean that a person can make cheshbonos and try to live l’shem shamayim with great sincerity and sacrifice only in the end to discover that misplaced intentions and sincerity cannot compensate for unforeseen (and perhaps unforeseeable) mistakes? R’ Chaim Shmulevitz in his Sichos Mussar accepts this approach at face value and counsels that the only thing a person can do is daven and hope for siyata d’shemaya. I prefer to read the lesson here in a bit more contextualized way based in part on the Shiurei Da’as (see the essay on Omek haDin). On the one hand, a person cannot be faulted for acting l’shem shamayim but somehow misreading the ratzon Hashem despite his/her best efforts. But on the other hand, “best effort” is itself a subjective bar. Perhaps a person has reached the correct conclusions in halacha and hashkafa based on where they are holding in life and how they read the ratzon Hashem, but had he/she pushed themselves to a higher level or been a greater or better person, he/she might have come to a different conclusion or not faced the dilemma at all. Problems exist only because we provide the context for them to crop up. We cannot be faulted for acting according to our best judgment to resolve them, but we can be faulted for providing the context for them to arise in the first place. Bottom line: this Ibn Ezra is a tough standard to live up to.

Monday, November 26, 2007

can worry and trust in G-d co-exist? - a realistic model of bitachon

Brachos 4 raises the question of why Ya’akov feared Eisav when Hashem had promised “u’shmarticha b’chol asher teileich”, protection in all circumstances. Surely Ya’akov did not lack bitachon! The gemara answers “shema yigrom hacheit”; Ya’akov trusted in G-d, but feared that he might have sinned and become unworthy of receiving G-d’s protection.

My wife showed me a beautiful Abarbanel on this issue. Abarbanel writes that there is no contradiction between Ya’akov’s fear and his trust in G-d’s promise. Trust in G-d cannot make a person impervious to the natural emotional reactions of worry and fear – that is not what bitachon demands. Bitachon means that despite having worries, one must be guided by Torah reason and knowledge, not by those worries. Ya’kov did fear Eisav, as any person would, but in his mind he never lost sight of the fact that G-d’s promise would protect him.

I think this Abrabanel provides a realistic model of bitachon. Most people think of true bitachon as some sort of state of nirvana through which one escapes life’s worries. I can’t deny that this idea is out there in seforim, e.g. the Chovos haLevavos seems to equate bitachon with “menuchas henefesh”, but at least speaking for myself, such a goal is so far removed from what I consider achieveable as to be of little practical relevance or value. I see the modern religious persona as a conflicted, tormented soul struggling to make sense of the world, not existing in a peaceful state of self assurance. The Abarbanel’s model of bitachon does not demand that we deny our worries and fears, our conflicted thoughts and emotions, but rather that we fulfill our religious duty despite those emotional doubts and turmoil.

Friday, November 23, 2007

yosef: dreamer or prophet?

The Rambam asks: why was Ya’akov afraid “shema yigrom hacheit”, that he might have sinned and be unworthy of G-d’s protection in his encounter with Eisav (Brachos 4), when we know that even a conditional promise of G-d for good is always guaranteed to be fulfilled (Brachos 7)? The Rambam answers that there is a difference between G-d’s promise which is given to a Navi to articulate, which is guaranteed to be fulfilled, and a promise which is privately told to a Navi, which can be revoked if the recipient proves unworthy (see previous post here).

I thought perhaps this was Rambam may explain a point of disagreement between Yosef and his brothers. Yosef insisted on telling over his dreams to his brothers. Later, when the brothers plot against Yosef, they remark, “Now we will see what will become of his dreams.” The Ramban (37:20) elaborates – “If Yosef can escape from our plan, then surely he will rule.” This seems like an unwarranted conclusion; just because he might escape death, why does that prove Yosef would rule? I would suggest that the brothers did not doubt that Yosef’s vision was more than a chance dream – there was an element of prophetic insight to what he saw. However, prophetic insight is not always meant to be expressed verbally as nevuah. It was not the dreams per se which the brothers objected to, but rather they objected to Yosef’s relating the dreams, transforming his private insight into formal nevuah which carries with it the guarantee of fulfillment. The brothers thought Yosef’s dreams were a private vision which they held he was unworthy of seeing fulfilled, but if he emerged from their plot unharmed, not only would it prove their judgment of Yosef faulty, but it also would imply that his dreams were indeed a nevuah which would come to complete and guanateed fruition.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Could Shlomo haMelech have invented the telephone?

I was learning the Shu”t Mahartz Chiyus and came across his suggestion (#11) that Bar Kamtzar who the Mishna (Yoma 38) says could write all the letters of the Shem Hashem in one shot was actually using a printing press. “On the Main Line” mentioned the tshuvah a few weeks ago, but in the section he scanned he left out the beginning sentences. The Mahartz Chiyus is not just saying a cutesy pshat in a Mishna, but is making a more general point about technology. He writes: “Is it possible that Moshe Rabeinu who spoke with Hashem face to face, or Shlomo haMelech who is described as the wisest of all men, could not have invented a printing press before one of the gentile nations did centuries later?” One could make the same argument about any innovation, e.g. do you think Alexander Graham Bell was smarter than Shlomo haMelech? Of course not. It’s just that the world did not need telephones in Shlomo’s lifetime or he would have invented it.

I have actually seen similar arguments in mussar seforim . I don’t have an exact mareh makom but vaguely remember an Ohr Yahel writing that the Rishonim could have advanced science as far as we have in our time but they instead devoted themselves to Torah. Anyway, this Mah”C is the first time I have seen it in a more traditional halachic work.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"Life on the Fringes": Haviva Ner David and Jewish feminism

I discovered at my local public library Haviva Ner-David’s book “Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination” and could not resist reading it. Ner-David is a feminist activist who aspires toward creating gender-equal Judaism within the framework of halacha (or her interpretation of halacha). It would take hours to comment on all the issues raised in this book, but for now I just want to highlight two points. First, a positive of sorts. I cannot but respect Ms. Ner-David’s commitment to learning and wonder if perhaps it is not even greater than my own. You see, when I open a gemara I view the Rabbis whose thoughts I encounter as people who have ascended to heights of greatness that I cannot even begin to fathom. I believe they possessed transcendent insight into the eternal human condition and that their writing was Divinely inspired. Ms. Ner-David has quite a different take, as she writes (p.155): “In order to be able to face these texts each afternoon, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that despite the misogyny and the lack of accurate understanding of female anatomy on the part of the Rabbis of the Talmud (as well as medieval and later Jewish scholars), we still use these texts today to determine the laws of taharat hamishpachah.” To be committed to the study and observance of laws created by misguided misogynistic authorities and rooted in errors uncorrected over centuries of study is truly an act of faith which defies my rational ability to understand.

Secondly, though Ms. Ner-David avoids committing to any denominational label, the title of her book clearly indicates her desire for “traditional” ordination. Throughout the book she professes a desire to work within what she perceives as the framework of halacha, and repeatedly references "modern orthodoxy" as her inspiration. Yet, apparently this committment has its limits. Given a choice between bowing to the authority of halacha or following one’s personal value judgment, Ner-David seems to clearly favor the later. She writes (p.155), “There are, however, halachot to which I simply cannot reconcile myself, and I advocate changing them in practice and on the books. These laws clash with fundamental ideals of what is moral and good and sully our religious tradition.” How Ner-David can square this approach with “traditional” ordination and halacha is never really explained. Is G-d's will to be obeyed only when we judge it sensible or when it makes us comfortable? For example, I guess whoever ordains her will not bother to include in her farher in hilchos nidah questions on bedikos, harchakos, proper time for tevilah, number of days to wait before tevilah, or proper mikveh supervision, all halachos found in shulchan aruch that she either does not observe, advocates leniencies in which have no traditional basis, or feels should be abolished.

There is some value to reading the viewpoint of those with whom one disagrees, so it was worth picking up the book. Her name dropping of authorities like Rabbis Avi Weiss, Emanuel Rackman, and Saul Berman, among others, does not convince me that these people share her understanding of the halachic system or would welcome her under the umbrella of their flavor of modern orthodoxy, but does raise the question in my mind as to whether certain flavors of modern orthodoxy have given too much weight to social forces as catalysts for halachic change given that someone like Ner-David can make a superficial case for legitimacy within their shadow.

There are women today who embrace greater shmiras hamitzvos and torah study within careful halachic boundaries and without substituting their own moral judgment for that of centuries of tradition. I believe much of the opposition, especially in more right-wing circles, to these feminist advocates acting l’shem shamayim, stems from a false association of their motivations and actions with the more radical agenda Ner-David advances. Ner-David dismisses opposition to her views that have been voiced even with Orthodox feminist circles as being more political than ideological, but I think she naively fails to recognize just how far outside the boundaries of tradition her thinking has carried her. Read the book and decide for yourself.

women reciting brachos on mitzvos she'hazman gerama (II)

I should note as a follow up to yesterday’s post that the Rosh rejects the opinion that allows women to say a bracha on a zman gerama mitzvah precisely because the wording of “v’tzivanu” does not apply to them.

Tosfos (R”H 33) discusses whether one can bring proof to the position that women may say brachos on mitzvos she’hazman gerama from the fact that a woman can theoretically get an aliya (if not for the reason of kavod tzibur) and recite birchas hatorah. Since birchas hatorah recited before an aliya does not contain the term “v’tzivanu”, it would appear that more is involved in this debate than issues of language. Those who oppose women reciting the bracha may hold that Chazal simply never instituted a concept of bracha recitation for those not obligated in the mitzvah.

The Halichos Beisa quotes an interesting discussion among achronim: assuming there is no problem reciting a bracha, are women simply permitted to recite the bracha, or are they obligated to do so? In support of the later position the Halichos Beisa suggests that a birchas hamitzvah may be part and parcel of the mitzvah itself. Since women are permitted to perform mitzvos she’hazman gerama, that performance by definition includes the obligation of bracha as part of the mitzvah act. Perhaps this issue hinges on the debate in Rishonim (Rambam/Ra’avad, Milah 3:1) whether a bracha is recited when a mitzvah is performed to avoid a safeik, e.g. is a bracha recited over a milah of an andogynus.

Monday, November 19, 2007

women reciting brachos on mitzvos she'hazman gerama

R’ Elchanan Wasserman quotes a the Ran at the end of Kiddushin as explaining that women can say a bracha if they voluntarily perform mitzvos aseh she’hazman gerama because these mitzvos are obligatory on men and women receive reward for their performance. Why, asks R’ Elchanan, should it make any difference whether men are obligated in these mitzvos to the discussion of whether women can say a bracha? Furthermore, getting back to the Ramban’s chiddush (see post here) that the Avos did not observe the Torah in chutz la’aretz even as ainam metzuvim, R’ Elchanan asks why women should get schar for performining mitzvos she’hazman gerama in chu”l as ainam metzuvim? (R’ Elchanan obviously took the Ramban’s chiddush to explain Chazal’s derush very seriously!)

R’ Elchanan explains that receiving schar is not sufficient reason to recite a bracha – how does the language of “v’tzivanu” fit? The action involved must categorically be defined as a mitzvah. The Ran mentions the fact that men are obligated to indicate (a siman) that we are dealing with actual mitzvos. The only difference with respect to zman gerama between men and women is that the former would receive punishment for violating these mitzvos, the latter do not.

Based on this approach there is no question from the Ramban. The Ramban’s distinction applied only pre-matan Torah when the only issue involved was the degree of schar obtained for fulfilling ratzon Hashem – there was no concept of mitzvah which existed yet.

(R’ Elchanan’s chiddush suggests that there is a chovas hagavra on women to perform mitzvos which are zman gerama, which I found very interesting [please see it inside – I may be reading too much into it]. I would have suggested a Brisker-like approach: the command of Hashem is categorically defined as a mitzvah viz a viz men and women, i.e. the cheftza of the dvar Hashem is a tzivuy; however, the chovas hagavra is different. The problem with my idea is how can one say “v’tzivanu” when there is no chovas hagavra?)

Friday, November 16, 2007

the essentials of tefilah - words or thoughts?

The aside in yesterday’s post about Eliezer’s tefila being an improper request because his words could have led to a bad outcome even though his thoughts were in the right place has an upside as well. The gemara in Ta’anis (8) darshens the pesukim in Tehilim (78:36-38) “Vayefatuhu b’fihem u’b’leshonam yechazvu lo… V’hu rachum yechaper avon…” to mean that even though the tefilah of the tzibur may be no more than mouthing empty words, Hashem still promises kaparah. This idea needs explanation – the essential component of tefilah would seem to be the kavanah and ratzon halev. What good is mouthing empty words without thought behind them? Why even theoretically should Eliezer’s request have led to wrong – doesn’t Hashem know what he meant in his heart even if he didn’t formulate the request properly? Something to think about.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ramban on Ya'akov marrying two sisters

The Ramban’s answer to the famous question of how Ya’akov could marry two sisters is that the mitzvos were kept by the Avos only in Eretz Yisrael. The Ramban elaborates on this theme in P’ Achrei Mos and writes that even for us the ideal of Torah can be realized only in Eretz Yisrael and our performance of mitzvos in Chu”l is merely practice so we retain our mesorah until the time when we can return to the Land.

R’ Elchanan Wasserman (Koveitz Shiurim end of Kiddushin) explains that there are two elements which motivate us to keep mitzvos: 1) the fact that mitzvos are G-d’s command; 2) the positive good which results from keeping mitzvos (see this previous post on yefas to’ar for a similar idea from the Shiurei Da’as). The good which results from shmiras hamitzvos can only fully be realized in a Torah society in Eretz Yisrael. Outside of Eretz Yisrael we still must keep mitzvos because of G-d’s command, but that fulfillment is a lesser accomplishment.

R’ Elchanan uses this approach to explain the Ramban. The Avos never were commanded in mitzvos, but they intuitively realized that fulfilling the will of Hashem is the ultimate good. That good could only be realized in Eretz Yisrael but not outside. More on this bli neder to come…

the avos pre-mattan torah and prohibited marriages

Ta’anis 4 relates that three people did not formulate their requests properly; in two of the cases things worked out anyway, and in one case it didn’t. The second case the gemara presents is Shaul’s promise to give his daughter to whomever killed Golyas without considering that a mamzer or eved might be the one to complete the task. The first case the gemara presents is Eliezer’s intent to give Yitzchak to whichever girl would draw water for him and his camels without thinking that the girl who does so may be blind or lame.

Tosfos asks why the gemara is concerned lest Shaul’s daughter be promised to an eved or mamzer but mentions only concern for physical features with respect to whom Yitzchak would marry. Tosfos answers in the name of Rashi that Yitzchak lived pre-mattan Torah and the issur of marrying a shifcha or mamzeres did not yet apply.

Rashi’s assumption seems to be that even with respect to laws of marriage the Avos behaved as bnei noach and not as if commanded in mitzvos, an assumption that seems slightly odd considering that Avraham specifically wanted a girl from his own family for Yitzchak. Remember as well that Rashi on chumash writes that Eliezer himself had a daughter which Avraham turned down as a match because Eliezer was an eved. The Maharatz Chiyus on the daf suggests that Rashi's chiddush might be true only with respect to marriage, as we see from Ya'akov marrying two sisters - an interesting idea, but it begs the question why. Be that as it may, I was very surprised that when I checked the index to the Parashas Derachim thay I have and thumbed through the first two derashos I could not find this Tosfos quoted in his discussion of the status of the Avos pre-mattan Torah.

A side point: Eliezer’s promise to take the girl who drew water first was stated in the context of a tefilah – he was asking Hashem for help in determining the right match. Even though his intentions were proper, since in formulating his tefilah he left open the possibility of a bad match occurring the gemara considers this an improper request. Just interesting that the particular words of tefilah carry such significance above and beyond the thoughts of one’s heart.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

ashreichem yisrael - even in suffering

Kesubos 66b tells the tragic story of the daughter of the wealthy Nakdimon ben Guryon whose kesubah was worth millions of dollars, but at the time of the churban she was reduced to picking through animal dung to look for food. R’ Yochanan ben Zakai exclaimed, “Ashreichem Yisrael! When the Jewish people obey G-d’s will there is no greater nation, but when they fail to obey G-d's will not only are they subjugated to the lowest nation, but they are lower even than that nation’s animals”.

The Maharal asks: we understand why R’ Yochanan ben Zakai would exclaim “ashreichem yisrael” at the glory of Nakdimon’s wealth, but why exclaim “ashreichem yisrael” over the tragedy of the downfall of the Jewish people?

The human arm seems wonderfully resilient – you can bang it, bruise it, cut it, and it will usually repair itself and you go right on living. You can break a bone, need stitches, and still bounce back. An amputee can go right on living, albeit with limitations, even without an arm. But if a small scratch on the brain is a different story – even minor damage can lead to devastating injury. A minor heart defect can pose a risk of death. Paradoxically, the more essential the organ, the more delicate and susceptible to injury it is and the greater the trauma to the body when it suffers damage.

Ashreichem Yisrael that when we are hurting the trauma is great and painful, for that pain and trauma proves that we are indeed the mind and heart of this world.

(Since I don’t want to distort the Maharal by using my analogy, here’s how he puts it: tzurah can impose itself on chomer and mold it slowly, but chomer cannot impose itself on tzurah without completely destroying it. The fact that klal yisrael suffers so greatly proves that their essence is the more lofty tzurah, in comparison to the other nations which are merely chomer. In other words (again, at the risk of distorting the point): when American soldiers are killed we don’t say there is less liberty in the world as a direct result – the people and the national ideals are two separate entities. The Jewish nation, however, is the embodiment of ruchniyus, and when the world is spiritually damaged we suffer as a direct consequence.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

kibud av and talmud torah

The Shi’iltos at the end of P’ Toldos presents a dilemma of competing values: a person is obligated to honor his parents and must attend to their needs, but at the same time feels compelled to travel away from his parents for the sake of learning torah – which takes precedence? The Shi’iltos cites the gemara Megillah 16 which explains that the reason the Torah informed us of the age of Yishmael at death is so we could calculate the years Ya’akov spent away from home. Ya’akov spent 14 years learning before he came to Lavan’s house for which he was not punished for not fulfilling kibud av, indicating that talmud torah takes precedence over kibud.

The Netziv explains that the Shi’iltos understood the pasuk of Yishmael’s age as a gezeiras hakasuv which teaches this din; without the pasuk, kibud av would be doche the mitzvah of talmud torah. Interestingly, Yevamos 6 tells us that kibud av is a “hechsher mitzvah” and would ordinarily not be doche other mitzvos, but here, apparently it would if not for the gezeiras hakasuv.

chiyuv of mezonos

Kesubos 2 explains that if the wedding date arrives and for some reason of ones a postponement is necessary, the ba’al is still obligated to support his wife with mezonos from the original date onward. The Divrei Yezechkel poses the following chakira: is this obligation of mezonos because we create a legal fiction of the marriage having occurred, or is this a separate chiyuv of mezonos above and beyond that which applies in a normal wedding case?

Monday, November 12, 2007

the status of the Avos as bnei noach or yisraelim: midrash, halacha, or history?

While on the topic of the Avos’ shmiras hamitzvos, my wife has a post on her blog on the episode of Avimelech discovering Yitzchak and Rivka “mitzachek”. Chazal derive (cited in Rashi 41:50) from our being told that Yosef’s children were born before the Egyptian famine that one is prohibited from having relations during a famine. If so, shouldn’t Yitchak and Rivka who were driven to the Plishtim’s land by famine have refrained from relations at this time?

Mizrachi answers that the prohibition applies only to areas afflicted; the Plishtim did not suffer any shortage and so no issur applied. Perhaps the issur does not apply to leil tevila (see MG”A). However, the Ta”z (O.C. 675) dismisses the whole question. The Avos were essentially Bnei Noach and were not bound to keep Torah law. What Yosef chose to do as a personal middat chassidut (Tosfos writes there is no formal issur) was not binding on others.

Based on some of our previous discussion, I don’t think it is out of bounds to suggest that the middat chassidut of refraining from relations is ascribed to Yosef as a form of asmachta to the later halachic standard, but not meant to be taken as a historical description of Yosef’s behavior. It therefore makes no sense to ask why Yitzchak did not behave in the same way. Makes sense?

One final point, which I made in passing before: do you really need to choose sides in terms of what approach you like better? I don’t see a problem is donning different hats at different moments and enjoying each approach on its own terms.

Were Chazal concerned with "hsitorical sense" in derash?

One comment to the previous posts raised the possibility that Chazal were not concerned with "historical sense". I don’t think that’s quite true and would like to focus on a sugya daf yomi learners may remember from a few weeks ago to make my case. The shakla v’terya: In Kesubos 10b the gemara suggests the term “almanah” is derived from the “manah” an almanah receives in her kesubah. Asks the gemara: the Torah’s use of the word “almanah” long predates the valuation of a kesubah as a manah – the term cannot possibly derive from a takanah which does not occur until hundreds of years later.

Two few points:
1) The gemara’s question shows an awareness of anachronistic reading.
2) I get the impression that some would dismiss all anachronistic reading as derash, and somehow that label renders all questions become moot. I do not understand that approach. The gemara’s reading can’t be pshat – the word “almanah” must have had some meaning to readers of the Torah before the takanah of 100 manah for an almanah was instituted (as the Rishonim on the sugya point out). Yet, despite it being derash, the gemara is still not willing to dismiss the anachronism.
3) Is this sugya an anamoly? We don't find this type of question raised elsewhere to the best of my knowledge. What to make of that - I don't know. I'm just raising the question.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

anachronistic readings and literalness of midrash

This is not a fully formulated idea, but as I wanted to seperate it as a seperate post (it came up in the comments to the previous post). I highlighed Rashi's statement that Lot celebrated Pesach as an example of Rashi's use of anachronism, and while that example can be explained away perhaps using a thematic reading, it is by no means an isolated occurance in Rashi. Look at one chapter in our parsha - 27:3 Rashi refers to Yitzchak commanding Eisav to use a sharp knife so his meat would not be neveila; 27:9 Rashi refers to Yitzchak eating korban pesach; 27:9 Rashi refers to Rivka's kesuba. I am sure a thorough review of Rashi can bring to light many other examples. To dismiss all these as non-literal takes Rashi out of his role as interpreter of local textual problems. It also simply does not work when we move beyond Rashi, e.g. what is one to make of a question like how the sale of bechora worked when it is a davar she'lo ba l'olam? Aren't we imposing later halachic standards of kinyanim that may not yet have existed onto the text? Nonetheless, some meforshim have no problem raising such a question.

What I would suggest is that Rashi and many achronim approached the text of Chumash and Midrash as a discrete and self-contained system. Limud haTorah to these parshanim is like working on a mathematical equation; kashes of historical context or practical concerns simply do not come into play. Just like 2+2=4 is true in all possible times and places, once halacha declares lo ba l'olam an invalid kinyan it cannot exist **as a unit of text** in a Torah which is true at all times as places. In other words, the issue is not how historically a sale of something which is lo ba l'olam could occur, but rather how Torah as a timelessly true could text contain such a phenomenon.

By way of analogy, logical positivists say that issues of theology or metaphysics are not cognitively meaningful because they cannot be investigated. When one learns gemara, one looks for consistancy within the text; questions like whether "tav l'meisav" is sociologically accurate or how Chazal came to these umdenot are outside the purview of the Bais Medrash. A Mishna is a unit of text, not a historical statement.

Of course, Ramban, Rashbam, and so many others do not read the Chumash in this way. One can undoubtedly dismisses a kashe like "How could Yitchok eat from Eisav's meat without concern for shechitas mumar - hashta behemtam shel tzadikim ein HKB"H mavi takalah al yadam, tzadikim atzaman lo ksh"k" as taking a midrash too literally or being too anachronistic. However, given that such a question was oleh al shulchan shel melachim (see the Yismach Moshe) forces an acknowledgement that some meforshim had a different way of looking at things.

I appreciate the difficulties with this approach raised in the comments, but I don't see another model that would explain what these meforshim are doing. I'm open to ideas - any other suggestions? Final point: even if one rejects their approach to parshanut, the pilpul and of these meforshim is often valuable in a larger context and is an excellent way to stretch one's thinking. Oneg Shabbos for some is a piece of kugel, for others it's a Yismach Moshe, a Parashas Derachim, etc. Not so terrible : )

anochi vs. Anochi

Sorry for the lack of posting this week... I have a bad cold.

The Berdichiver brings a kabbalah from AR"I that women who are tzidkaniyos suffer no pain during childbirth because they are excluded from the onesh of Chavah. The word Anochi is representitive of the 1st dibra of Aseret haDibrot, which (as R' Tzaddok writes in many places) subsumes within it all positive good and mitzvos that Hashem desires of us. Rivka complained of her pain, "Im kein lamah zeh Anochi", if I am suffering from the onesh of Chavah, what in my relationship to that ideal of Anochi is missing?

My wife noticed that aside from its mention at the opening to the parsha, "anochi" is a recurring theme. Eisav's constantly uses the term "anochi" in describing his shortcomings - "ayef anochi", "hinei anochi holeich lamus". Ya'akov on the other hand is "anochi ish chalak", and has to disguise his "anochi" to become Eisav - "anochi Eisav bechorecha".

There is also an interesting contrast later in 28:15/16 - Hashem reveals to Ya'akov "hinei anochi imach"; Ya'akov replies"v'anochi lo yada'ti". Does Ya'akov's anochi refer to himself, or is Ya'akoiv perhaps saying that he has not been aware of the presence of Hashem as revealed through Anochi, capital A for that first dibra and its middos?

(For the pashtanim who have grimaced through reading this, a question - I am not aware of a rule as to where the term "ani" is used and where the term "anochi" is used. Any sources?)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

rashi and anachronistic reading: did Lot really eat matzah?

It may be easier to come to grips with the question of anachronism with a concrete example. When the Angels come to Lot we are told that he served them matzos. Rashi comments (19:3): “Pesach haya” – it was the holiday of Pesach.

Rabbi Maroof commented on an earlier post – “Is it really rational to assume the Avot commemorated events that had not yet occurred? Most ritual mitsvot revolve around Yetsiat Mitsrayim which was centuries after their deaths.”

Fair point, but then what do we make of Rashi? Rashi seems to be addressing a simple textual question – why mention the seemingly insignificant detail of what bread was served. If you dismiss Rashi as “derash” and not pshat, what does that mean? – did Rashi waste his time composing “fictional” answers to explain troublesome details in the text? Or to put it another way, if Rashi knew it was irrational or improbable for Lot to have really kept Pesach and eaten matzah, then hasn’t Rashi failed to answer the textual question he posed?

literalism, midrash, and anachronistic readings of chumash

One of my favorite Shabbos reads used to be the Parahas Derachim, and some of the comments to a recent post brought the sefer to mind again. The sefer is a series of essays, each opening with a Midrashic theme which is used as a springboard to construct elaborate twists of pilpul by trying to impose the halachic system onto the chumash. You have essays explaining the “machlokes” Moshe Rabeinu and Pharoah, explanations of how the Avos kept mitzvos (a ben noach cannot keep shabbos), etc. When I would say over one of these my wife would almost always ask whether it really makes sense to say things like Pharoah held like the Ra’avad while Moshe held like the Rambam, etc.? Isn’t that anachronistic? By the same token, isn’t asking whether the Imahos observed non-zman gerama mitzvos (as discussed in a previous post) surrendering too much to literalism and anachronistically imposing the halachic system on past events?

But if one dismisses these approaches as overly literalistic, as anachronistic, as pilpul shel hevel, what is one to make of seforim like the Parashas Derachim… the Chasam Sofer… the Hafla’ah… the Netziv…the Yismach Moshe… the Meshech Chochma… and so many others which engage in these type readings?

In the same vein, what is one to make of Chassidic seforim which impose an entire system of meta-halachic concerns for tikunim and birurim on the acts of the Avos? Isn’t this an anachronistic reading as well, an imposition on the text which could not possibly be pshat or inherent in a “rational” understanding of the text?

I’m holding my cards for now and simply raising the question for comment.

short daf yomi highlights

A few items worth noting on recent daf yomi pages:

1) Kesubos 60a TD”H M’ma’achan – Tosfos holds that there is an issur of mar’is ayin by issurei derabbanan, but maris ayin b’chadrei chadarim applies only to issurei d’oraysa (perhaps extending the din that far by issurei derabbanan would constitute a gezeirah l’gezeirah). The Rama at the beginning of Hil Basar b’Chalav writes that if a milk-like product made from nuts is served with meat (e.g. non-dairy creamer), the nuts should be left on the table to avoid mar’is ayin (e.g. serve the non-dairy creamer in its container with the pareve label). The Shach (67:6) cites our Tosfos as proof that mar’is ayin still applies even though the Rama is speaking of basar b'chalav derabbanan (uncooked). If I recall correctly the Yerushalmi holds l'halacha that mar’is ayin never applies b’charedi chadarim, but I do not remember the last time this came up – anyone doing the daf yerushalmi remember?

2) Kesubos 61a TD”H Machlifa – Rashi’s opinion (quoted in Shulchan Aruch) is that passing objects, even without touching, is a harchaka. The language of the S.A. seems to indicate that this is not an independent din, but is a concern lest the husband and wife come in contact (e.g. passing a key), but most of the sources I have seen seem to be strict with regards even to large objects (e.g. moving a piece of furniture together).

3) Kesubos 57a RASHI d”h Ha KM”L – Rashi holds that we do not say “eilu v’eilu” if two Amoraim disagree as to what a Tanna. You cannot debate historical facts; “eilu v’eilu” applies only where multiple interpretations are possible.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Great editorial on Reform movement's new prayer book

Great editorial in the Wall Street Journal on the Reform Movement’s new prayer book. The Journal writes:
But seeing prayer books as a means to satisfy, and thereby validate, this diversity begs the question of whether the function of prayer is to affirm the individual's personal religious outlook. Perhaps worshipers should be encouraged to wrestle with traditional texts, even problematic ones, rather than edit them out of existence…. It is, of course, important that prayer resonate with a person's core beliefs. But the cost of achieving such a resonance, in an era when the colors of belief come in near-infinite shades, is high.

did the Imahos do mitzvos aseh she'hazman gerama?

I noticed the Netziv at the end of Chayei Sarah writes that the Imahos did not keep mitzvos aseh she’hazman gerama. I never really thought about it before, but why should this be so? The fact that women are not commanded to do these mitzvos is irrelevant because the Avos and Imahos had not been commanded to do any mitzvos.

Let me put it this way – is a woman who voluntarily does a zman gerama mitzvah, e.g. she listens to shofar, fulfilling the ratzon Hashem? If the answer is no, then why can she say a bracha and get schar, and if the answer is yes, then why would the Imahos have not done these mitzvos?

the Rambam's definition of nesu'in

I should have added to the previous post a further difficulty with the Rambam based on Kesubos 12: a woman who has had chuppah but no yichud is treated as an almanah (if her husband died and she remarries) and receive only a 100 zuz kesubah. According to the Rambam who holds that nisuin=yichud, the first marriage done without yichud was never completed. Why does this woman not deserve a kesubah of 200 zuz?

The upshot of all these sources is that acc. to the Rambam you have to posit different definitions of nesuin in different contexts. When speaking about rights or entitlements, mesira l’ba’al suffices for a woman to be considered married, both to her benefit, e.g. achilas terumah, as well as to her detriment, e.g. she would henceforth receive a kesubah only of 100 zuz and her property can be inherited by the husband. However, rights and obligations alone do not define marriage – nesu’in is incomplete until the marriage can be consummated, and in that context the Rambam demands yichud hara’uy l’bi’ah otherwise “harei hi k’arusa adayin”, meaning the couple cannot yet live together.

This resolves (I think) the Ran’s question from the din of chupah l’pesulos (Yevamos 57). Chupah in that context must refer simply to the legal status of nesu’in; a husband can never have a legal right to live with pesulos. The chiddush of the Rambam is that even chupas nidah, where there will be a heter to live together, is still invalid as a matir to live together so long as at the time of chupah there was an issur yichud.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

the Rambam's definition of marriage - yichud or mesira l'reshus

The Rambam famously defines chuppah as yichud – “yichud zeh hu hanikra knisa l’chuppah v’hu hanikra nisu’in” (Ishus 10:1) – and requires that a women be “re’uya l’biya” for marriage to take effect, to the exclusion of a nidah. The Rishonim point to two gemaras as possible sources for the Rambam's opinion:

1) Kesubos 56a discusses whether a women who had chuppas nidah is koneh tosefes kesubah despite the fact that the marriage is unconsumated. Does this mean that chupas nidah is not a full marriage? The many Rishonim who disagree with the Rambam understand the gemara to simply be saying that an unconsumated marriage is insufficient reason for the women to collect the money the husband added to the kesubah specifically for the sake of marriage. The very fact that the gemara raises the issue only in the context of tosefes kesubah and not as a general question of whether chupas nidah is koneh would seem to underscore their point.

2) Kesubos 2a debates whether a women has a right to mezonos (support) if due to some ones, such as nidah, the wedding date has to be postponed. The Rishonim again reject this proof - the gemara does not mean that chupas nidah is invalid, but simply that it constitutes a valid ones claim if the parties do not wish to go ahead with a chuppah on that date.

The great difficulty in the Rambam raised by the Ran is that chuppah works for psulos (Yevamos 57), women who are forbidden to their partner because of an issur lav, so why should it not work for niddah as well? What is more troubling is that the Rambam seems internally inconsistant. The statement that chupah is yichud and that is what defines marriage seems contradicted by a gemara we discussed previously. Kesubos 48 writes that once a father gives his daughter to her husband or his emissaries, she is legally his wife. The Rambam himself paskens that after this mesira has occurred the husband has the right to inherit (Rambam Ishus 22:1-2) and to absolve his wife's nedarim (Rambam Nedarim 11:22). Why then is a chupas nidah invalid? Even if the husband cannot have relations with his wife, it should be no worse than if a father hands his daughter over to the husband's emissaries?