The Security and Continuity of Torah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Judah Kerbel

דברים פרק לא, י-יג

(י) וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה אוֹתָם לֵאמֹר מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת: (יא) בְּבוֹא כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵרָאוֹת אֶת פְּנֵי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר תִּקְרָא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת נֶגֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם: (יב) הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת: (יג) וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:

The 612th mitzvah in the Torah requires us to read the Torah publicly on Sukkot once every seven years. There are two questions I have on this passage. First, why is not listed among other mitzvot earlier in Devarim? If it has anything to do with Sukkot and/or shemitta, why not share it in Parashat Re’eh? Second, why only once every seven years? If the goal is “in order to hear, to learn, and to fear the Lord your Gd,” should we not be obligated to read the Torah much more frequently?

I suggest that the purpose of this public reading is not the immediate experience of Talmud Torah, or the short-term goal of conveying information. Rather, it is about ensuring the continuity of Torah and the teaching of Moshe Rabbeinu while simultaneously maintaining the superiority of the Torah over any future leader.

We know that Moshe is unique; in fact, he is the greatest prophet of all time. This appears explicitly in the description of Moshe upon his death (Devarim 34:10), and Gd also conveys this to Aharon and Miriam when saying that while Gd communicates with most prophets through visions, Moshe was privy to direct communication (Bamidbar 12:6-8). Furthermore, beyond his singular access to Gd, Moshe so far has been the only prophet or leader to teach Torah to B’nei Yisrael. All these factors combined might raise questions about the security of Torah and of the next leader – perhaps neither the Torah nor subsequent leaders could command the same authority that Moshe did. Or, a leader might try to assert authority by means of casting the Torah aside.  Thus, hak’hel upholds the authority of the Torah. It simultaneously supports the leader who fosters the observance of the Torah while serving as a check for the one who may try to circumvent it. The Torah holds its absolute authority in every generation, regardless of the will of any future leader or the will of the masses.

This would explain why these pesukim appear in this context and not earlier in Devarim. Before the mitzvah of hak’hel, Moshe provides extra support and reassurance to Yehoshua, which has already been described in the Torah (Devarim 3:28). The continuity of leadership is clearly of concern, so the Torah itself serves as a reassurance to Yehoshua. No matter who the leader is, the Jewish people and its leadership structure will be preserved through the authority of the Torah.

This seems to emerge also from the person who reads the Torah. The Mishnah (Sotah 7:8) describes the king as the one who reads the Torah, but Netziv points out (Devarim 31:11) that the original mitzvah of hak’hel is on Yehoshua, and in subsequent generations, on whoever the top leader is (be it the king or, if no political entity, the Kohen Gadol). The point is that whoever the leader may be, the Torah is in full force. If that leader furthers observance, his authority is to be maintained; but the leader himself reading it also serves a check. [1]

This may shed some light as to why the Torah is read only every seven years. Clearly, not much knowledge is to be conveyed in one presentation that takes place so infrequently. On a peshat level, it would seem that hak’hel is connected to shemitta because that is when people are physically and spiritually available to learn. But if what we have been saying is correct, another layer of hak’hel is to simultaneously preserve the authority of the Torah and its leader, and this needs to be conveyed only semi-frequently. Each generation should experience this continuity and be instilled with a יראה that inspires a general commitment to Torah (this goal of יראה is stated twice in the passage). While presumably, the details of Torah and its morals are still being communicated more frequently, this particular experience need take place regularly enough to be memorable but also sparingly enough to maintain its significance.

The reassurance that Moshe gives Yehoshua is that the invaluable teachings of the Torah do not expire with the death of Moshe. Likewise, the Torah itself is greater than any leader or any generation. The Torah bestows authority upon its greatest thinkers and practitioners, and they are invested with great responsibility to convey it to the people. When a great Torah scholar passes, it is necessarily of great anguish for the community – yet, the Torah continues to impact each subsequent generation. At the same time, leaders and scholars are not above the Torah; they answer to Torah, not the Torah to them. This model of checks-and-balances ensures the continuing integrity of the Torah, and thereby, the Jewish people. While the bulk of our relationship to Torah might be to learning its details and nuances, once in a while, we should step back and appreciate the distinctive role the Torah plays in every generation.

Notes:

[1] See Rabbi Elchanan Samet for related comments on this point.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is completing semicha and a master’s degree in medieval Jewish history at Yeshiva University. He is currently a Beit Midrash Fellow at SAR High School and has served as rabbinic intern at The Roslyn Synagogue and Young Israel of Plainview.

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Aseret Yemei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur Reader 2018

Check out the 2018 edition of the CMTL Aseret Yemei Teshuvah and Yom Kippur Reader for Divrei Torah from Rabbi Klapper and CMTL alumni!

Wishing you all a Gmar Chatimah Tovah!

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Portrait of a Nation as a Young Person

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

ויאמר יקוק אל משה

הנך שכב עם אבתיך וקם העם הזה

וזנה אחרי אלהי נכר הארץ אשר הוא בא שמה בקרבו

ועזבני והפר את בריתי אשר כרתי אתו:

וחרה אפי בו ביום ההוא ועזבתים

והסתרתי פני מהם והיה לאכל

ומצאהו רעות רבות וצרות

ואמר ביום ההוא

הלא על כי אין אלהי בקרבי מצאוני הרעות האלה:

ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני ביום ההוא

על כל הרעה אשר עשה

כי פנה אל אלהים אחרים.

Devarim 31:16-18

Hashem said to Mosheh: 

You will be lying with your ancestors, and this nation will arise

and whore after the alien gods of the land to which it is going there, into its midst,

and they will abandon Me, and nullify My covenant which I have cut with them.

My anger will burn in them on that day, and I will abandon them,

and I will conceal My face from them, and they will become prey,

and many great and terrible evils will find them.

He will say on that day:

‘Isn’t because my G-d is not in my midst that all these evils have found me?”’

I will emphatically conceal My face on that day,

 on account of all the evil which he did,

because he turned toward other.

These verses seem to be among the darkest passages in Torah.  They appear to end without any promise of either spiritual of physical redemption.  Is that possible?  Or is it our job to somehow find the light hiding beneath the bleakness?

Let’s focus in on the concept of hester panim, the concealment of the Divine countenance (k’b’yakhol).  My sense is that most yeshivot teach, as I was taught, that hester panim is an ultimate tragedy, and yet that even at its worst, G-d still so-to-speak “peeks”.  Thus the Pentateuchal hint that legitimates the holiday of Purim is “haster astir”, “I will emphatically conceal”, which punningly refers to Queen Esther (see Chullin 139b).  Otherwise the Rabbinic institution of a ritualized annual celebratory day would be a clear violation of “Do not add onto or subtract from (the Torah’s set of commandments”.

Rereading our parashah, however, I was very confused by the flow of the verses.  It seems that

a) the Jews abandon G-d, so

b) He conceals His face and terrible things happen to them, so

c) they realize and articulate that His absence is the cause of those terrible things, so He

d) emphatically conceals His face?!

Why does G-d “emphatically conceal” His face rather than turn back to His people when they turn back to Him?

‘Targum Yonatan’ [1] suggests that G-d continues His self-concealment only so long as the Jews’ punishment for their past sin is incomplete.  This is a reasonable literal translation of our verse, but seems to me a very difficult read of the whole unit.  Netziv (and Malbim works along the same lines) tries to solve the problem in the opposite direction, by claiming that the Jews’ use their recognition that G-d’s absence is causing their troubles as an excuse to abandon Him further, rather than as a spur to teshuvah.  He acknowledges that this leads to an ever-worsening spiral of sins, and it’s not clear how we are ever to escape it and bring Redemption.

Rashi and many other pashtanim suggest that the first concealment is not punitive; it is rather the looking-away of an authority figure who cannot bear to see his charge punished.  This seems to intensify rather than resolve our problem – what is the meaning and purpose of the emphatic second concealment?

Talmud Chagigah 5b records two rabbinic readings which apparently see the double “haster astir” as limiting rather than expanding the concealment.

אמר רבא:

אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא:

אף על פי שהסתרתי פני מהם, בחלום אדבר בו;

רב יוסף אמר:

ידו נטויה עלינו, שנאמר “ובצל ידי כסיתיך”.

Said Rava:

Said the Holy Blessed One:

Even though I have concealed My face from them, I will speak to him in a dream;

Rav Yosef said:

His hand is outstretched over us (Rashi: to protect us),

as Scripture says “and in the shadow of My hand I have covered you” (Isaiah 51:16).

What generates these readings?  Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2 draws a connection to Yeshayahu 8:17:

וחכיתי לה’

המסתיר פניו מבית יעקב

וקויתי לו:

And I have waited for Hashem,

Who hides His face from the House of Yaakov,

and I have hoped toward Him

The argument, in the manner of Rabbi Akiva rejoicing at seeing the fox on the Temple Mount, is that when the promise of deepest darkness has been fulfilled, surely the promise of dawn must be next.  Devarim 31:21 does after all promise that the Torah will never be forgotten by the Jews.

I prefer, however, to stay with Rav Yosef’s verse.  What is the meaning of the metaphor that Hashem “covered you with My hand”?  I suggest that this is a reference to Shmot 33:21-23, in which Hashem covers Mosheh with His hand so that Mosheh will not see His face (and die).  In other words, it is a reference to a verse in which the concealment of Hashem’s face is explicitly intended to protect rather than abandon.

With this in mind, it may be worth noting that Devarim 31:17 refers to concealing His face from them, whereas 31:18 speaks only of an objective concealment.  The Rabbis may have seen here the image of a concealed face, as they saw it in Shmot, as establishing the metaphor of Hashem as tallit-wrapped, praying for His people (on account of all the evil which they did, because they turned toward other gods).

Note also that many theologians have built on Rashi by noting that looking-away can be a parental gesture of granting autonomy, of allowing a child to grow up.  Hester panim, however regrettable, also represents an opportunity to take responsibility for our individual and national selves.  Under this reading, for G-d to rush in to rescue us as soon as we recognized the costs of His absence would be to permanently infantilize us, and so G-d assures us – emphatically! that He will not do so.

And yet – human beings grow up.  There comes a time in most lives when there is no longer room for concern that parental rescues will prevent or undo maturity – children can accept their help and constant concern as a beautiful part of the adult world in which they find themselves.  This is also enormously liberating for parents.

What remains to be seen is whether nations can also achieve maturity, or whether that is instead exclusively the province of individuals. Clearly nations do not have the biological development that individuals do, and in that sense it seems likely that any national maturity is much more reversible than individual maturity.  But it is possible that the accrual of moral, political, and social capital can have the same effects as maturity.  (See in this regard Yoni Appelbaum’s article in the Atlantic on how Americans are losing the habits of democracy.  My thanks also to the friend who called my attention to Reinhold Neibuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society).

In the specifically Jewish context, the question is whether profound maturity can genuinely be achieved in exile, or whether even millennia of exile at best brought us to bat/bar mitzvah age when we again achieved sovereignty.  At the same time, it seems unlikely that the best way of confronting those challenges is to reject the lessons of the exilic past, and to believe that one has nothing to learn from those who retain them.

May we merit reaching that condition of spiritual excellency and maturity that enables the end of hester panim, and the return of the Shekhinah from exile.

Shabbat shalom

Notes:

[1] (I grow more and more convinced that Limor Gottlieb is correct to identify this “targum” as a fairly late medieval commentary)

This Dvar Torah is a rewrite of a Dvar Torah originally published in 2011

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Rosh HaShanah Reader 2018

Check out the 2018 edition of the CMTL Rosh HaShanah Reader for Divrei Torah from Rabbi Klapper and CMTL alumni!

Wishing you all a Ketivah VeChatimah Tovah!

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Should Divrei Torah Take Sides in Political Disputes?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Teachers of Torah must continually choose between timeliness and timelessness.  Both options are legitimate.  When the political issues of the moment are genuinely important, Torah should have something to say about them rather than shrinking off to a neutral corner.  Involvement in politics is a great mitzvah when genuinely motivated by the pursuit of the straight and the good, as G-d gives us to see the straight and the good.

Yet under ordinary circumstances Torah itself must not become partisan. Legal interpretation (really all interpretation) loses its authority when it becomes subordinated to an external agenda. Even the perception of partisanship tends to greatly diminish moral influence.  (I say “tends” because there is a clear exception. The most passionate partisans may dismiss the words of anyone not clearly identified with their political sect. But such people are often open to influence only within a very narrow range. They will turn on prophets or scholars who presume to critique the partisan line of the moment.)

I faced this issue squarely when thinking about what to write this week. So many American political issues of the moment deserve Torah treatment that writing about something else seemed an abdication of responsibility – and yet is it possible to speak Torah about them in a way that deepens the issue rather than cheapening the Torah?

Torah Jews are subject to the same political passions as everyone else. As citizens, we – scholars and salts of the earth alike – naturally become progressive and reactionary, liberal and conservative, just like everyone else. So our timely Torah is likely to be under partisan influence, even if we try to be self-aware. 

My admittedly inadequate solution for this week is as follows.  Ten years ago, when John Roberts was nominated for Chief Justice, I wrote an op-ed about judicial character for Edah, which was picked up by the Milwaukee Chronicle.  It seems to me that it stands rereading in the context of the Kavanaugh nomination.  My hope is that the explicit recognition that it was not written in response to this moment will help readers evaluate the Torah claims on their own terms, and then make their own decisions about how those claims might play out in practice today.

(Note: The printed version was superbly edited by Dr. Alan Brill to make it more accessible, but I will take this opportunity to make available a version closer to my original.)

JUDAISM PROVIDES HELPFUL GUIDELINES FOR CHOOSING JUDGES

The prospect of an entirely reshaped U.S. Supreme Court makes it important that Americans have a serious conversation about our constitutional system. Jewish tradition can make a significant contribution to that conversation.

When Moses creates the first Jewish judiciary, God instructs him to appoint “men of strength, in awe of God, men of truth, haters of corruption” (Exodus 18:21). The first lesson Jewish tradition teaches is that judicial character is more significant than judicial politics.

Today’s nominees will likely make their most critical decisions about issues that do not yet appear on the legal horizon. What matters most is not their specific positions but their temperament and understanding of the responsibility of the court.

The purpose of a constitution is to place basic principles beyond the reach of the powerful.  ln a genuinely democratic society, power rests with the majority.  Paradoxically, a primary purpose of democratic constitutions is fundamentally antidemocratic, to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority.  Another purpose is to prevent other sources of power, such as wealth, from usurping the powers of the majority. Justices must understand that it is the court’s responsibility to enable the constitution to play these roles.  

The second lesson Jewish tradition teaches consists of a model for the long-term success of a text-ordered society. In Judaism, texts restrain power through authority, and texts gain authority because they have meanings that are discovered rather than produced by their interpreters.

When judicial rulings are perceived as reflecting judges’ political opinions rather than painstaking scholarship, they lose their authority. Thus the public perception, justified or not, that Gore v. Bush was decided on the basis of party affiliation cost the Supreme Court tremendously.

The Talmud records similarly that the Great Sanhedrin’s capacity to prevent disputes in Israel ended when its members were perceived as ruling on the basis of affiliation with the School of Hillel or the School of Shammai rather than on the basis of individual judgment.

The third lesson is that even though the Torah exhorts us to care for the poor, nevertheless it bans favoring them in legal disputes (Leviticus 19:15). This is because the rich will only concede power to the law if they see its interpreters as objective and impartial.

Over much of the latter 20th century, the federal judiciary tended to be more liberal than the electorate. Liberals accordingly sought to expand the discretion of the courts, especially with regard to constitutional interpretation.  (In the early 20th century, liberal policy goals were often frustrated by the discretion of a court they saw as too conservative.  Hence FDR’s threat to “pack the court”.)

Some of the important advances of the civil rights movement were made possible by these theories. The liberal gains, however, because they were enabled by creative but intellectually unconvincing readings of the Constitution, made the text less capable of resisting political agendas.

The fear inspired in liberals by the prospect of a conservative Supreme Court brings home the price that has been paid for those theories. If the text of the Constitution were seen as controlling, the political leanings of potential justices would have far less potential effect.

At the same time, if the Constitution had passed through the fire of the civil rights movement unaffected, if the text were not seen as genuinely responsive to the humanity of African Americans, it would be morally obsolete.  But how can a text respond to changing circumstances and contemporary moral insights without losing its authority?

Jewish tradition offers a straightforward if difficult prescription — stick to the traditional meaning of a text except when urgently necessary. The Talmud celebrates legal adaptation, but maintains its received lore with almost fanatic obsession with detail.

When teaching rabbinic students, I gradually bring them to the realization that authoritative interpreters have nearly absolute power over texts, and that real creativity is possible. At the same time, I teach them that this power must be used with extreme caution. If a text can mean anything, it means nothing.

Sometimes, as for example in the face of disaster, one must reread the text and find new wine in old barrels through legitimate legal interpretation. 

After the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis of the Talmud found creative ways to compensate for the loss of the sacrificial order; and in medieval times, rabbis found creative ways to justify commercial transactions banned by the plain meaning of the Talmud. But this creativity took place against a static traditional background.

Crucially, the rabbis were continuously aware that their capacity to innovate stemmed from their predecessors’ resistance to innovation and their own usual reliance on precedent.

They realized that judicial discretion is not an easily renewable resource, but rather a capital account built up by years of judicial restraint. When they used this resource, they spent it carefully and wisely.

In other words, the rabbis understood that the authority of law, and its capacity to protect the weaker members of society, depends on a combination of judicial humility and self-confidence.

The Talmud teaches that only humble people can learn Torah properly. Yet, it saw excessive rabbinic humility in a time of crisis as causing the destruction of the Second Temple. The complex task of a judge is to be exceedingly humble without being excessively so.

At the nomination hearings of any potential Supreme Court justice, the question we should be asking is not whether he or she agrees with our political positions.

Rather, Jewish tradition teaches that we should be asking whether that individual has the humility to bow before the text and its history of authoritative interpretation, and the self-confidence and ingenuity to stand against that history when necessary to preserve the authority of the text.

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Parents as People: The Relationship between the Obligation to Honor Parents and the Halakhic Concept of Human Dignity

 

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

A beraita on Kiddushin 30b presents one rationale for the halakhic obligation to honor parents.

שלשה שותפין הן באדם:

הקדוש ברוך הוא, ואביו, ואמו.

בזמן שאדם מכבד את אביו ואת אמו, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא:

מעלה אני עליהם כאילו דרתי ביניהם וכבדוני

There are three partners in the human being:

The Holy Blessed One, its father and its mother.

When a person honors (is mekhabed) their father and mother, The Holy Blessed One says:

I regard them as if I had dwelled among them and they had honored Me.

However, that beraita is being rapidly obsolesced by the wide variety of contemporary reproductive practices.  Doctors and nurses are partners in reproduction via IVF and most artificial insemination; gestational carriers are partners in surrogacy; mitochondrial DNA donors relieve the risk of some hereditary diseases; and random people may soon be partners in chimaeras.  All this on top of the traditional cases in which halakhah recognizes a child as having a legal mother but no legal father, such as when the mother is Jewish but not the father.

It does not matter whether we greet the multiplication of such cases with ambivalence, horror, or joy.  The fact remains that the “three partners” metaphor is no longer a compelling description on a physical level.  This is even more true if we look at the physiological explanation given in the version of the beraita found on Niddah 31a:

שלשה שותפין יש באדם:

הקדוש ברוך הוא, ואביו, ואמו.

אביו מזריע הלובן,

שממנו עצמות וגידים וצפרנים ומוח שבראשו ולובן שבעין

אמו מזרעת אודם,

שממנו עור ובשר ושערות ושחור שבעין

והקב”ה נותן בו

רוח ונשמה וקלסתר פנים וראיית העין ושמיעת האוזן ודבור פה והלוך רגלים ובינה והשכל

וכיון שהגיע זמנו להפטר מן העולם

הקדוש ברוך הוא נוטל חלקו וחלק אביו ואמו מניח לפניהם

There are three partners in the human being:

The Holy Blessed One, its father and its mother.

Its father generates the white,

from which emerge the bones, tendons, nails, and the brain in its head and the white of the eye

The mother generates the red,

from which emerge the skin, flesh, hair, and the black of the eye

and the Holy Blessed One places in it

spirit, breath, facial features, vision, hearing, speech, mobility, understanding and intelligence

When its time comes to depart from the world

The Holy Blessed One takes His share and leaves the share of the father and mother before them.

The fading applicability of this metaphor is a challenge, but also an opportunity.  The appeal and power of the human-Divine parental partnership metaphor may obscure and deemphasize important underlying halakhic principles of parent-child relationships.  These principles may be easier to discover and understand in our day.

One clue to such principles may be found in Devarim 27:16:

אָר֕וּר מַקְלֶ֥ה אָבִ֖יו וְאִמּ֑וֹ

Blasted be one who is makleh his father or mother

To be makleh probably means “to make kal (=lighter).  It is therefore the antonym of l’khabed =to make heavier, and a less intense form of l’kallel =to make very light =to curse.  The Torah obligates us l’khabed our parents, and forbids us l’kallel them on pain of death.  So what is added by this prohibition?

Fascinatingly, this verse is never cited explicitly in the literature of Chazal, so far as I can tell.  But Rambam (Hilkhot Mamrim 5:15) gives it a place of prominence:

ולא על הכאה ולא על הקללה בלבד הקפידה תורה

אלא אף על הבזיון,

שכל המבזה אביו או אמו

אפילו בדברים ואפילו ברמיזה –

הרי זה ארור מפי הגבורה,

שנאמר ארור מקלה אביו ואמו

The Torah was not insistent only about not-striking and not-cursing parents

but rather even about degradation

since anyone who degrades their father or mother

even verbally, even by gesture –

is blasted from the mouth of the Omnipotent

as Scripture says: “Blasted be one who is makleh their father or mother”.

Rambam seems to believe that “degrading” parents is not a violation of the obligation to honor them, or even of the obligation to revere/awe them.  This seems very peculiar.  His rhetoric “blasted from the mouth of the Omnipotent” also seems peculiar, as he is referring to the curses uttered by the people – albeit at Hashem’s dictation – on Har Eival.  Moreover, his position yields a very difficult halakhic result.

An Amoraic statement on Kiddushin 32a-b permits parents to waive their children’s obligations of kavod, and Rambam (Hilkhot Mamrim 6:8) seems to make this waiver obligatory:

אסור לאדם

להכביד עולו על בניו ולדקדק בכבודו עמהם

שלא יביאם לידי מכשול,

אלא ימחול ויתעלם

שהאב שמחל על כבודו – כבודו מחול.

It is forbidden for a person

to heavily impose his yoke on his children and to be picky about his honor with them

lest he cause them to transgress.

Rather he must waive and look away

since a father who waives his honor – his honor is waived.

Raavad (cited in Responsa Rivash 220) derives by analogy from the honor of scholars that a parent cannot waive the obligations of children to the extent of permitting severe degradation. However, now that we have a separate prohibition against degradation, it may be that parents cannot forgive anything negative.  Netziv further argues (Responsa Meshiv Davar 2:50) that this obligation is not subject to the limits imposed on other obligations toward parents:

נראה דהא דאי’ ביו”ד (סי’ ר”מ סכ”ה)

“וכן אם האב מוחה בבן לישא איזה אשה שיחפוץ בה, א”צ הבן לשמוע אל האב”

זה אינו אלא באופן שאין באשה שחפץ בה בזיון וצער לאב

It seems that what is written in Yoreh Deah 240:25

“So too, if a father objects to a son marrying the woman he wishes to, the son need not heed the father”

applies only in a case where marrying her would not cause the father degradation or pain

Note that Netziv adds “pain” to degradation, further expanding the scope of the obligation and limiting the space in which children’s right to autonomy can shield them against unhealthy parental domination.  (Netziv likely does this on the basis of Sheiltot d’Rav Achai Gaon 61, which in a manner similar to Rambam asserts that children are obligated to not-pain their parents, not only to not-curse them.)

I suggest that while Devarim 27:16 is not cited explicitly in Chazal, it is cited implicitly in at least one place, and its use there will give us a very different halakhic principle and outcome.

On Kiddushin 32a, the Talmud attempts the following proof for the position that parents must bear the financial costs of their children’s obligation to honor them.

A beraita rules that children may feed their parents out of the poor tithe.  This proves that children have no financial obligation toward parents, as otherwise they would be satisfying their personal obligation out of money that we conceive of as already belonging to the poor as a class.

The Talmud rejects the proof by suggesting that the beraita discussed a case in which the child had already satisfied the personal obligation of honoring, and yet the father wanted more.

But the Talmud challenges the rejection, as follows. The beraita continues by citing Rabbi Yehudah’s position that a m’erah (=blasting?) should befall one who feeds their parent poor-tithe.  Why should the child be cursed if the case is one in which the obligation of kavod has been satisfied?

The Talmud answers:

אפילו הכי, זילא ביה מלתא

Nonetheless, it is degrading to him

The obvious problem with the Talmud’s answer is: If it is degrading, then how can the obligation of honor have been satisfied?

We must answer that the obligation that generates the curse cannot be related to the regular obligation of honoring parents. But then what is its nature?

I suggest that the Talmud here is differentiating between honoring parents as parents, and honoring them as human beings.

Honoring them as parents – as G-d’s partners in creation – requires engaging in a set of formal activities that are not culturally contingent or socially derivable.

Honoring parents as human beings, by contrast, means treating them in the way that recognizes your human relationship with them.  It is a subset of the obligation to respect human dignity, which the Talmud acknowledges can vary depending on social position.  To feed parents out of poor-tithe degrades them because it treats them as human strangers, not because it fails to treat them as G-d’s partners.  (This obligation may therefore apply as much or more to adoptive as to biological parents.)

On this understanding, Rambam’s framing of the obligation is contingent on the conventions of one’s society, and children always have the right to choose their own spouses, although for most people in most places during most periods it would be wise and proper for them to consult their parents before doing so.

One framing of the Torah obligations toward parents depends on having children view their parents as creators in partnership with and therefore almost on par with G-d.  Another roots the relationship in a recognition that parents, like everyone else, were created b’tzelem Elokim and deserve social dignity.  As biological parentage becomes an ever more fraught concept, it seems likely that the second model will and should become more prominent.  At the same time, the formal and fixed Torah obligations toward biological parents should remind us of the grave social risks involved in the progressive separation of biological reproduction from human responsibility.

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Going to War with Biblical Monsters

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Benzion Chinn

This week’s portion begins and ends with two of the most morally disturbing commandments in the entire Bible. We begin with the Yifat Toar, the beautiful captive gentile woman that you can apparently legally rape if you follow certain legal procedures, and end with the apparently genocidal commandment to wipe out Amalek.

These commandments exemplify how the Bible allows, and sometimes even appears to encourage, practices that are morally reprehensible, while at the same time subtly undermining these very practices. Understanding the Bible in this way does not come cheap. For such a moral stance to be meaningful, and more than an exercise in apologetics, one must be prepared to pay a price.  Specifically, one must acknowledge that Biblical morality cannot be derived solely from Biblical law, with no moral preconceptions.

Take for example slavery.  The Bible clearly allows for slavery, even of Israelites in cases of theft and dire poverty. Why?  One might be tempted to say that biblical slavery was so “wonderful” that slaves did not want to be free. Yet the Bible punishes the slave for wanting to stay a slave, by having his ear pierced. The reason for this is that by desiring a human master, he is ignoring the commandment of “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2). This idea is made explicit in Leviticus: “for the Children of Israel are my slaves” (25:55). Furthermore, when this law is repeated in Deuteronomy, we are admonished to remember that we were slaves in Egypt (15:15). Remembering the Exodus from Egypt, the central act of Biblical faith, is placed in tension with slave ownership. Yes, it is legal to own slaves – just as God allowed the Egyptians to enslave the Israelites. Thus, any slaveowner, even as he acts within his legal right, faces the same judgment as Pharaoh.

What you have is a kind of Shylock dilemma. Yes, Shylock’s argument for his being allowed to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body is legally airtight.  But his attempt to exercise such a claim requires suicidal recklessness, as Shylock has to ignore the fact that has made himself vulnerable to a Christian legal establishment that will now seek to hoist him on his own legal petard. So too with slavery. Yes, the master may have a legal claim, but to exercise that claim is to make himself vulnerable to the full wrath of the G-d Who made that law.   

Nonetheless, denouncing biblical slavery has its own consequence. One must concede that Biblical morality cannot be contained within halakhah, but rather must transcend it. Halakhah will not stop you from owning a slave. Therefore, anyone who claims that halakhah is complete and the only necessary moral authority is implicitly endorsing slavery.  Anyone who opposes slavery honestly must recognize this. 

The law of the captive woman functions similarly. Rashi, basing himself on the Midrash Tanchuma, argued that the Bible only allowed the practice out of a fear that people would otherwise simply give in to their Evil Inclination. Lest anyone be under the delusion that anything good might come out of legalized rape, the text hints that eventually the man is going to hate this woman, and that such a union will produce rebellious children (another moral monstrosity).

That being said, honestly facing the monster of biblically sanctioned rape requires more than denunciation. We risk the very notion of chosenness in order to make this denunciation. 

The Bible forbids selling the beautiful captive into slavery “as compensation for your having afflicted her” (21:14). The extra-legal lesson of slavery is once again relevant here. If you cannot “even” sell her into slavery after raping her, how much more so will you be held accountable for having raped her in the first place, however legally?

There is something more going on here, though, as this acknowledgment of the woman’s feelings flips the moral script.  The Bible tempts us with a narrative of “You are God’s special chosen people and, therefore, it is only right that you plunder, kill, and even rape gentiles”.  But we learn from “as compensation” that this narrative is false.  Instead of the good guy Israelites who have defeated the evil “goyim,” it is the “shiksa” that God cares about, and it is you the Israelite who is the oppressor. The very act of assuming chosenness becomes its own refutation.   

This brings us to the commandment to wipe out Amalek. As with slavery and the captive woman, we are baited into a Shylockian legal trap that makes it impossible to follow through on the law. Consider the example of King Saul, who was punished for not killing Agag, the Amalekite king, and for sparing the Amalekite cattle. One way to view Saul’s crime is that he was willing to kill all the other Amalekites. If he had refused to go mass murder Amalekites, his sparing of Agag and the cattle would have been understandable. The fact that he spared only them showed that he was never really motivated by a desire to listen to God, the only conceivable justification for such an action. So not only did Saul disobey God, but he was a murderer too.   

The apologetic temptation is to spiritualize the commandment of wiping out Amalek, so that it refers to the defeat of the Evil Inclination rather than to murdering innocent women and children. This sounds like an easy way out until you recognize the full price to be paid for acknowledging, at least in principle, the possibility of spiritualizing commandments. This makes it possible for a person eating a ham sandwich to “spiritually” keep kosher, and for such kashrut, at least hypothetically, to be superior to many conventional acts of keeping kosher.

To find wiping out Amalek to be morally objectionable therefore means that you are willing to risk the destruction of the entire halakhic system over something that is purely hypothetical. Even though there are no actual Amalekites today, you must prefer to risk putting a kosher symbol on very real ham sandwiches rather than admit that, if there were actual Amalekites, we should kill them.  (There are implications here for how we respond to rabbis who proudly make a point of saying “politically incorrect” things about gentiles in the name of demonstrating their allegiance to “authentic Torah Judaism.”)

When dealing with the Torah, it is important to face problematic texts head on.  This enables us to see how Torah morality undercuts the apparent morality of its own legal structure. Slavery, rape of captive women, and genocide are horrific doctrines.  Challenging them risks the very notion of halakhah and of our being a chosen nation. Taking a moral stance against the Torah’s moral monsters requires making one’s peace with this.  But it also means being true to the Torah’s carefully and subtly expressed morality.

 

Benzion N. Chinn (SBM 2003) lives in Pasadena, CA with his wife, Miriam, and his two children, Kalman and Moshe Eli. He works as an academic and special needs tutor. In his spare time, he pontificates on religion, politics, and sci-fi/fantasy (everything he is not supposed to talk about at the dinner table) over at izgad.blogspot.com.

 

 

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