Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Modern davening, in one sentence

The weakness of a significant chunk of modern Judaism is reflected in one sentence I overheard after a Shacharit minyan several days ago:

Person speaking to Chazan: That was quick.

Chazan: I have things to do today!

[My point is not the speed; I didn't find the davening that day to be any faster or slower than the norm at that minyan. Rather, my point is the philosophy.]

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Nothing if not consistent

I was just preparing for the daf yomi shiur this Shabbos (Nedarim 34a), and having difficulty following the discussion. I noted that the Ran's edition was the reverse of the one that appears in the standard Vilna Shas, and I wrote in the margin, "לר"ן גירסא אחרת בכל סוגיין" ("The Ran has a different edition in our entire passage.")

After struggling further, I pulled out an old gemara, which I had used for Nedarim 20-25 years ago. I opened to that page, and found I had made the following notation, in the identical part of the page: "לר"ן יש גיר' אחרת בסוגיתינו" ("The Ran has a different edition in our passage").

Consistent, if nothing else...

...and I think I'm going to work with the Rosh on the passage.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Pun and The Primordial

A thought for Parshat Chukat:

At the start of the Jewish nation’s fortieth year in the wilderness, they again protested their desert predicament. “The nation’s spirit became short, due to their travels,” we are told, and they rejected the Divine gift of manna. The Divine reaction was harsh; G-d sent poisonous serpents, which began to bite and kill the wayward Jews. The nation admitted their sin, and called upon Moshe to pray to G-d on their behalf. Moshe interceded, and G-d told him, “Make a serpent, and place it atop a pole. All those who are bitten should look upon it, and live.” Moshe formed a snake of nechoshet [a copper alloy, either brass or bronze] and brought the plague to an end. (Bamidbar 21:4-9)

This story introduces obvious problems of theology, but a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 31:8) seizes upon an apparently minor detail to make a major theological statement.

Our midrash cites four cases in which G-d instructs a human being “Aseh lecha,” “Make for yourself.” In three out of the four – Noach’s boat of gopher wood; Joshua’s circumcision knives of stone; Moshe’s trumpets of silver – G-d specifies the material to use. In our case, though, no material is specified. [Our midrash omits Aseh lecha instructions that appear in Yirmiyahu 27:2 and Yechezkel 12:3. Perhaps this is because those items are not truly “for yourself”; they are only prophetic props, and have no further function.] And so our midrash asks: How did Moshe know to use nechoshet?

Medieval commentators noted the same problem, and offered a range of solutions:

  • Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra suggests that G-d told Moshe to use nechoshet, but the text did not record it.
  • Ramban offers that nechoshet would be a particularly good material for simulating a serpent.
  • Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoach (Chizkuni) contends that nechoshet was a practical choice, due to its visibility from afar.

Our midrash provides a different approach, though: A pun.

Rabbi Yudin explains in our midrash, citing Rabbi Eivo: “[Moshe] said: If I would make it of gold, the term for one [nachash] would not flow into the term for the other [zahav]. If I would make it of silver, the term for one [nachash] would not flow into the term for the other [kesef]. I will make it of nechoshet, language flowing into language.”

In other words: Moshe used a pun to determine that he should use nechoshet to form the serpent.

Of course, the use of the nachash in this story is itself a pun. The Hebrew word nachash refers not only to a serpent, but also to secret knowledge (see Bereishit 44:5 and Vayikra 19:26) – as seen in the Garden of Eden, and as seen with this serpent which conveyed the Divine cure. Moshe, then, layered pun upon pun.

While the midrash’s acknowledgement of a biblical pun is interesting, its next step is profound. Rabbi Eivo adds, “From here we see that the Torah was given in the sacred tongue.” Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Chizkiyah then cite Rabbi Simon, “Just as the Torah was given in the sacred tongue, so the world was created with the sacred tongue.” The association between serpent and copper alloy is fundamental to their natures, and it is expressed in the Torah’s Hebrew words for both of them, because Hebrew is the language of Torah and of Creation. [See, too, Bereishit Rabbah 17:4 and 18:4, and Shabbat 104a.] In other words: The Pentateuchal pun is pre-ordained, primordial.

What is the point of linking Hebrew with Creation? Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (Kuzari II 67-68) explains that this is evidence of the elevated character of the Hebrew language. However, one might also suggest that this link teaches the importance of the Jew, speaker of Hebrew, in the plan of Divine Creation.

Reading the Torah plainly, I could have assumed that Jews were the beneficiaries of a handful of superlative ancestors and serendipitous incidents. If not for the daring of Avraham and Sarah, we might have remained in Aram; if not for Eliezer’s prayer at the well, we might have been a one-generation wonder. This midrash argues for Jewish exceptionalism, claiming that Jews are no product of fortune; rather, the Jew is hardwired into the universe, his language the code of Creation, her destiny the primordial plan.

This perspective on the role of the Jew is at once daunting and inspiring. It demands that we view our next move as more than the expression of personal whim, and as necessary for the success of the Divine will. The universe, crafted with our tongue, is playing our song. Moshe’s decision to fashion the nachash of nechoshet teaches us that not only is Hebrew a tool of G-d – but so are we.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Women's Ordination: The Price of Choosing Rambam?

The headline isn't clickbait; hear me out, please, on what may be entirely wrong... but I think it's not.

Going back to biblical times, the attitude of Judaism toward foreign ideologies was uniform and simple: Keep them out. It begins with Avraham and the idolatries of Aram and Canaan, it continues when Yaakov's family requests a residence away from that of the Egyptians, and it certainly carries through into the ideology of the Jews who emerge from the wilderness to enter Canaan. Ditto in the time of the prophets, for whom many examples can be brought; the traditional Jewish ideology (whether practiced by all Jews or not) was to exclude foreign ideologies.

The same phenomenon appears in post-biblical times. Consider the reactions to Greek thought in the times of the Chashmonaim, and then the Talmud. Again, some might note that not all Jews were hostile to Greek ideas, and that there is even some respect in certain Talmudic sources for the Greek language. Nonetheless, the victors of that era in Jewish history are the ones who deny Greek culture any place in the life of the Jew.

The theme persists through early Christianity, as well as the rabbinic response to the Sadducees. Where things get interesting is with Islam, as well as the acceptance of certain Greek ideas by Arab thinkers. For the first time, we find serious Jewish thinkers, respected links in our masorah (tradition), defining Judaism in ways that include, rather than reject, apparently foreign ideologies. Rav Saadia Gaon, then Rambam, demonstrate harmonies between Judaism and Arabic/Greek thought.

Neither Rav Saadia Gaon, nor Rambam, accept Arabic/Greek philosophy wholesale, and they are clear about their disagreements. Nonetheless, their approach differs starkly from Rabbi Yehudah haLevi's outright rejection of foreign material. [Note, added in response to Avi's comment: Rabbi Yehudah haLevi does not reject foreign culture - his poetry makes that clear. However, he rejects foreign ideology.]

Fast-forward to the Jewish reaction to the Enlightenment, from the 18th century forward. Some Jewish thinkers rejected Enlightenment ideas entirely, but others - Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch most clearly - explained Judaism in a way that did not write out foreign ideas, which had the effect of leaving the door open for Jewish students of the Enlightenment to make their peace with Judaism. I am not suggesting that they were intellectually dishonest in the name of outreach; I believe that their vision of Judaism was really that broad.

And so we move into our own day, and the debate continues. Chassidim and some of the yeshivish continue the approach of Rabbi Yehudah haLevi, drawing a line between Us and Them. But Yeshiva University argues that Them can still join Us, without surrendering their Them-ish values. And in the world of kiruv, Chabad, Aish and NCSY all hold out that promise to newcomers: There is a place in Judaism for the ideas you bring to the table. Devorah is a feminist! Avraham challenges G-d! The Torah militates on behalf of the needy and downtrodden, and inveighs against unbridled capitalism! Torah can be harmonized not only with science, but with every altruistic ism you can name, from rationalism to egalitarianism to athleticism to universalism.

Which brings me back to the heading of this post. Reading the Times of Israel's piece on women's ordination, and the interviews with various proponents, it dawned on me that this truly is the logical result of choosing the approach of Rav Saadia Gaon and Rambam.

Jewish communities that have kept up the walls will never see this, for all of their problems and failings, because the values that set the table for it are verboten in their camp. But for the rest of us, well, we can't tell people that their egalitarian instincts have a place in Torah, and not expect them to take us at our word.

To be clear: Even though I believe that some of the move for women's ordination is terribly misguided, I am not promoting an exclusion of the modern isms which I mentioned above. I do believe that quite a bit that is modern can be compatible with Torah, and that one can even find their roots, to some extent, in Torah. Intellectual honest demands that acknowledgement.

My point is only to say that when those who are upset about women's ordination try to figure out where to point their disapproving finger, they might consider whether a community that embraced the approach of Rav Saadia Gaon and Rambam, over Rabbi Yehudah haLevi, and that told young men and women that the ideals of the greater world could be reconciled with Torah, didn't bring this upon itself.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Bruce, Caitlyn and the Death of Neutrality

I grew up seeing Bruce Jenner on Wheaties boxes for his success in the 1976 Olympic decathlon, but I had largely forgotten the name until Bruce emerged in the media this week as Caitlyn Jenner, having undergone transgender surgery. One question this has birthed is whether to identify Caitlyn Jenner as the winner of Olympic gold. However, everyone is clear regarding the present: Caitlyn expects to be called Caitlyn, and not Bruce. Using the name "Bruce" intentionally would be an insulting rejection of this new identity.

This is a halachic question. There is decades-old debate in Jewish law regarding the male/female status of someone who has undergone transgender surgery, but it is clear that halachah prohibits a male from undergoing such surgery, since the Torah explicitly prohibits the removal of male genitalia (Vayikra 22:24, Shabbat 110b). So if I were to meet Bruce/Caitlyn, would it be halachically incorrect for me to say, "Hello Caitlyn"? Would I be endorsing a biblical transgression?

The same question comes up in relating to the quite-common phenomenon of intermarried Jews. Is it appropriate to invite a Jewish man and his non-Jewish wife to a wedding, addressing the invitation to "Mr. and Mrs."?

Of course, a halachah-abiding Jew never wishes to insult and hurt people. And let's not be cynical; saying Bruce would hurt Caitlyn. I cannot imagine the depth of the feelings of a morphological male who believes himself to be herself, and who would go under the knife in such dramatic ways to gain a new image. But does that justify counterfeiting Jewish law, by approving of that which Jewish law forbids?

In truth, this question is old. In one example, a millenia-old mishnah talks about how a Jew should relate to another Jew who farms illegally during the shemitah (Sabbatical) year. This mishnah teaches that one may not "strengthen their hand" by encouraging them in their activity - but that one must promote peace and greet them with a "Shalom aleichem". (Mishnah Sheviit 5:9)

In other words, the mishnah instructs us to keep the peace, by greeting warmly but withholding approval.

However, there is a new, complicating element: the death of neutrality. Perhaps one could have maintained an inoffensive ground in the past and everyone would have understood, and hopefully respected, the tactful disagreement. Today, though, there is no middle ground; speaking with Bruce/Caitlyn and awkwardly avoiding use of a first name or a gender-specific pronoun would be perceived as an insult. [Indeed, don't we often expect non-Jewish society's approval, and reject their neutrality, for our choices as Jews?] And so we are told to choose: Are you with us, or are you against us?

I am not sure what to conclude on this point; I'm still looking for relevant halachic background, and thinking it through. [Update 6:50 AM: To clarify: My current inclination is to say that one would not be justified in using Caitlyn. But I think there are nuances to discuss - for example, is this surgery halachically irreversible, such that the problem of lifnei iver (causing the blind to stumble) might be less relevant)?] Either way, I think this new element - a modern intolerance and sense of entitlement, in which our personal decisions must be accepted and approved of by third parties - is worth contemplating. On one hand, I don't want to voice approval, coerced or not. On the other hand, isn't preservation of peace a great value?

How would you greet a transgender relative? And do you have a Torah source to back it up?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Why didn't Rav Soloveitchik make aliyah?

This week, I came across a remarkable letter, written by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik shortly after his Rebbetzin's passing, in 1967. An Israeli schoolteacher who had just taught her students Rav Soloveitchik's inspirational writings on Zionism wrote to him, to ask why he had not actualized his ideals by moving to Israel, and he responded most movingly.

The text of the Hebrew letter is found on Page רנד of מפניני הרב, as well as toward the end of an article available here. Here is my attempt at an English translation:

17 Tammuz 5767 (1967)
Her honour, Madam Miriam Shiloh, שתחיה,

Shalom uBerachah! I request forgiveness for not addressing her letter immediately, and delaying until now. It was difficult for me, and it remains difficult, to write. I am immersed in mourning for the death of my beloved wife, the pupil of my eye and beloved of my soul, of blessed memory. My world has collapsed and is ruined. Even now, I write with tears and with the blood of my torn and agitated heart.

I thank her for her words, and I accept her rebuke willingly. In truth, I have sinned against the Holy Land. I am among those who have been slow. Of course, many causes, which do not depend upon me, have delayed me – but I do not seek an excuse, and I do not justify myself. I have sinned, and the [prisoner's] chain hangs from my neck.

Last year we decided, my wife z"l and I, to come to the Land and to spend six months there, to see the land and the nation dwelling there. But many thoughts are in the heart of man, and what happened happened, and my sighs are many and my heart grieves!

Many of my acquaintances and friends who dwell in the Land and in the Diaspora encourage me to come now. Madam also emphasized in her letter that it is now a propitious time as well as a time of spiritual crisis. But our sages tell us of an "Arch of Accounting" which was situated outside of Jerusalem, because one who takes accounts and finds his account lacking is upset, and regarding Jerusalem it is written, "the joy of the entire earth". How much more so for the "Arch of Black Mourning" in which I am currently found, that it must be outside Jerusalem. How could I now ascend to Jerusalem, when I am a man of a harsh and bitter spirit? G-d is not manifest when one is depressed, upset and pained.

Madam need not justify her words. I, too, am a simple Jew. In the language of the Sages of Yavneh (Berachot 17), I would say: I am a teacher, and many work with the community in the field of Torah education, as teachers. My work is in the large city of New York, in an institution with many students, and their work is in Givat Washington or in another community in a small institution. Whether one does much or little, so long as one directs his heart toward Heaven. The work all of us do is dedicated to nurturing the values of Judaism, the ancestral tradition and the Torah of our masters, authors of the tradition and its sages.

With great respect,
Yosef Dov haLevi Soloveitchik


To this I can add nothing...

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Jewish Response to Nepal

In a message I sent to our Beit Midrash email list this week, I asked people to contribute to our UJA's Emergency Relief Fund for humanitarian aid, to be administered via the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

As I wrote the request, I remembered a brief exchange I had with a congregant about a dozen years ago. In the wake of another natural disaster, I had encouraged people to contribute to an aid campaign. My congregant said to me, "We need to use our money to help our own community; the outside world isn't going to help us, when we need it." He was factually correct; I don't imagine that the Nepalese will build bomb shelters in Israel (although Israeli relations with Nepal aren't bad), or support Jewish schools in Toronto.

I was also reminded of another congregant, who noted to me that the Torah's commandment to love others applies specifically to your fellow Jew (Vayikra 19:18) or to a non-Jew who comes to Judaism (ibid. 19:33). He, too, was correct.

I feel that both of my interlocutors were missing a key point, though.

It is true that the nations of the world will likely not come to view us as family, even when Israeli aid arrives in the form of a mission more than double the size of any other. And it is true that the Torah limits love - the state in which we identify with others, seeing them as part of ourselves, loving them "as ourselves" - specifically to those with whom we share the most intimate values and beliefs. [See, for example, Rambam to Avot 1:6, who specifies sharing of values as the highest form of kinship.] Nonetheless, our tolerance for suffering shouldn't depend on the identity of the sufferer. How can our pure soul not writhe in pain when it witnesses others in agony? How can it not be personally offended by the existence of unremedied suffering?

This is why we act on behalf of those who will not reciprocate and who are not "ours". As I once heard Rabbi Baruch Weintraub note, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 33a) writes that when we are sensitive to the pain of others, when we are personally offended by the suffering of others, then we are obligated to act.

Our sages taught us this lesson of action in numerous ways. They criticized Noach for failing to reach out sufficiently to his neighbours, and praised Avraham for attempting to influence the fate of his. (Bereishit Rabbah 30:9-10, although one could also read this source as a function of love for G-d) Rambam wrote that we dare not fall into cruelty; we aspire to the sensitivity displayed by G-d, regarding whom King David wrote, "His mercy is upon all of His creations." (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avadim 9:8 and Hilchot Melachim 10:12) Our Sages wanted us to understand that even when we don't share a common identity with others, we do share a common humanity with them.

I have made a contribution; I hope that the readers of this blog will be able to do so as well.