Architecture, Divine and Human

This week’s Alumni Dvar Torah is by Yedidya Naveh

Parashat Teruma marks our yearly passage from the “interesting” narrative parshiyot, which recount the miraculous events of the redemption from Egypt, to the “boring” clerical readings that describe the planning and construction of the Tabernacle. At this point, it is easy to let our brains turn off during leining. But we shouldn’t. Within the architecture of the Tabernacle hide messages no less profound than the stories that precede and frame them.

R. Hayyim of Volozhin (1749–1821), writes in his philosophical-mystical treatise Nefesh Hahayyim (1:4) that the human body and soul are a miniature version of the Temple. At the same time, he claims that both are together blueprints of the divine structure that gives order to the entire universe.

For this too, let the heart of a member of the holy people tremble. For he contains within his architecture all powers and worlds, … which are the sanctum and the heavenly temple. And the heart of man, the core of his body, is the greatest totality, analogous to the Holy of Holies, the epicenter of the City, the Foundation Stone. It too comprises all the essences of the source of sanctity. The Sages of blessed memory hinted at this when they stated (Berakhot 20a): “One must orient his heart toward the Holy of Holies.”

The sketching of infinite iterations of microcosm and macrocosm is typical of the kabbalah. The basic idea is clear: The world, though it appears base, transient, and broken, is in fact sublime, eternal, and unified. But thinking of the Sanctum as an embodiment of ourselves and of the divine presence simultaneously goes beyond this generality. The materials of the Tabernacle, the scale and the structure, should all be thought of, in classical architectural fashion, as the embodiment of human and divine ideas. The logic of the sanctuary is not random.

Take for example, the case of the windows of the first Temple. The book of Kings (I 6:4) recounts that King Solomon built the Temple with windows that were “clear-opaque” (שקופים אטומים). The Sages (Menahot 86b) interpret this as referring to one-way mirrors that counterintuitively allowed light out but not in. This miraculously demonstrated that God in His abode needs no light from outside; He is Himself the light of the whole world. On the human scale, we are reminded of a person’s eyes. We normally think of one’s eyes as tools that allow light from outside into the body. But in truth, a person’s eyes are also windows into his or her soul, allowing one’s inner light out into the world.

If architecture were a form of poetry, then the Tabernacle and the Temple would be the Jewish people’s Iliad and Odyssey. But architecture is more than poetry. It is the creation of the spaces and places in which we live our whole lives. It therefore crucial for us to study the architecture of the Tabernacle as a paramount expression of who we are as a divinely chosen people. According to Frank Lloyd Wright, “all fine architectural values are human values.” The Torah commands us to look farther. We should say: “All fine architectural and human values are divine values.”

Yedidya Naveh (SBM 2010, 2011) lives with his family in Maale Gilboa. He is collaborating with Yeshivat Maale Gilboa on a “Guide to Jewish Law on Campus” for American college students.


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Stop Thinking About This Dvar Torah!

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

A beraita on Berakhot 31a states:

אין עומדין להתפלל

לא מתוך דין, ולא מתוך דבר הלכה, אלא מתוך הלכה פסוקה.

One must not rise to pray 

neither out of din, nor out of dvar halakhah, but rather out of halakhah pesukah.

The problem is that din, dvar halakhah, and halakhah pesukah are virtual synonyms.  So we must be dealing with idioms.

There are three possible ways to go about understanding these idioms.

  1. a)one can try to find subtle semantic differences
  2. b)one can have a reliable tradition
  3. c)one can try to reconstruct the meanings from context

Let’s try them in order.

Teasing meaning out of subtle semantic differences works only if those differences are stable, so that we can confidently know which phrase means “the kind of Torah you should learn just before davening”, and which “the kind of Torah you should not learn just before davening”.  That is not possible here.

For example:

Chiddushei HaRa’ah to Berakhot has the text

אין עומדין להתפלל מתוך דין הלכה אלא מתוך דין הלכה פסוקה

One must not rise to pray out of din halakhah, but rather out of din halakhah pesukah.

and RIF to Berakhot has

 אין עומדין להתפלל מתוך דין והלכה אלא מתוך דבר הלכה פסוקה

One must not rise to pray out of din vahalakhah, but rather out of dvar halakhah pesukah

and Yerushalmi Berakhot has

אלא מתוך דבר של תורה

rather out of davar shel Torah.

Since the text exists in so many different versions, it seems unlikely that the subtle differences in any specific text can be helpful.

Do we have a solid and univocal tradition of interpretation?

Rashi to Berakhot translates halakhah pesukah as follows:

שאינה צריכה עיון,

שלא יהא מהרהר בה בתפלתו

that it does not require investigation,

so that he not be thinking about it while he prays

However, many geonim and Sefardic rishonim seem to translate the phrase as “decided”, or “no longer subject to dispute”.  Later rishonim tend to offer composite definitions, including both simplicity and unanimity.  Here for example is Rabbi Yehonatan of Lunil in his Commentary on RIF:

מתוך דין הלכה –


שרוצה להוציא דין אחד חדש מתוך עומק ההלכה ולהבין דבר מתוך דבר,

ולכך אין לבו בטוח שלא יהרהר בתפלתו

אלא מתוך הלכה פסוקה – 

שאין בה מחלוקת

“Out of din halakhah” –


That he tries to extract a new law out of the depth of existing halakhah

and to understand one thing out of another

“Rather out of halakhah pesukah” –

which is not subject to dispute. 

The diversity of interpretations suggests that we are dealing with the results of attempts to use the third method rather than with a live tradition, or at least that we cannot know which stream of interpretation reports a live tradition.

We are left with context.

On Bava Kamma 102a, the Talmud suggests that we rule like a particular anonymous statement in the Mishnah, even though a different Mishnah presents the same issue as a dispute among Tannaim,

משום דקתני לה גבי הלכתא פסיקתא

because it was taught next to hilkhata pesikta.

Rashi here explains that our law was taught as part of the same literary unit as a unanimously accepted law, and therefore can be presumed to also have become the law.  Tosafot, however, point out that the Bava Metzia 77b presents the other law in the unit as a minority position!  Tosafot therefore translate hilkhata pesikta as “written in a form that suggests legal decisionmaking”.  If Tosafot is correct, perhaps hilkhata pesikta is an Aramaic idiom with no necessary relationship to the Hebrew halakhah pesukah.

The phrase Halakhah Pesukah appears in the Bavli only on Berakhot 31a.  Three examples are provided:

והיכי דמי הלכה פסוקה?

What cases fit into the category of halakhah pesukah?

 אמר אביי:

כי הא דרבי זירא, דאמר רבי זירא:

בנות ישראל החמירו על עצמן,

שאפילו רואות טיפת דם כחרדל – יושבות עליה שבעה נקיים.

Said Abayay:

Like that of R. Zeyra, for R. Zeyra said:

The Daughters of Israel accepted a stringency upon themselves

that even if they see a drop of blood the size of a mustardseed – they sit seven clean days.

רבא אמר:

כי הא דרב הושעיא, דאמר רב הושעיא:

מערים אדם על תבואתו ומכניסה במוץ שלה,

כדי שתהא בהמתו אוכלת ופטורה מן המעשר.

ואיבעית אימא:

כי הא דרב הונא, דאמר רב הונא אמר רבי זעירא:

המקיז דם בבהמת קדשים – אסור בהנאה, ומועלין בו.

Rava said:

Like that of R. Hoshaya, for R. Hoshaya said:

A person may use subterfuge with his grain and bring it into his house while still in its chaff

so that his animal can eat it while he is exempt from tithing it.


Like that of R. Huna, for R. Huna said in the name of R. Z’eyra:

One who bloodlets an animal belonging to the Temple – 

it is forbidden to derive benefit from the blood, and one who uses it commits sacrilege.

The points of contact that exist among these halakhot seem purely random.  They are perfectly ordinary in their formulation, and certainly not unusually easy to understand intellectually.  This makes Rashi’s explanation very difficult – why should these halakahot be less distracting in a subsequent prayer than any other?

So it would be nice to discover that these halakhot represent an obvious consensus.  But on Niddah 66a, Rav Pappa challenges a statement of Rava on the basis of the statement by R. Zeyra cited above as an example of halakhah pesukah.  Rav responds:

אמינא לך איסורא, ואת אמרת מנהגא?!

היכא דאחמור – אחמור; היכא דלא אחמור – לא אחמור.

I speak to you of legal prohibition, and you speak of custom?!

Where there is stringency – there is stringency; where there is no stringency – there is no stringency

The simplest meaning of the last line is that R. Zeyra’s halakhah was only adopted in some places!  So how is it a halakhah pesukah?!

There are two possible answers.  The first is that Rava was limiting not the geographic scope of R. Zeyra, but rather the cases it applied to.  The second is that R. Zeyra’s rule became a halakhah pesukah only later.  Each of these is plausible, but not probable.

On the other hand, another Talmudic passage – peculiar in its own right – reinforces the idea that R. Zeyra’s halakhah is special.  On Megillah 28b, we read:

ריש לקיש הוה אזיל באורחא. מטא עורקמא דמיא,

אתא ההוא גברא ארכביה אכתפיה, וקא מעבר ליה.

אמר ליה: קרית?

אמר ליה: קרינא.


תנינא ארבעה סידרי משנה.

אמר ליה: פסלת לך ארבעה טורי, וטענת בר לקיש אכתפך?! שדי בר לקישא במיא!?

אמר ליה:

ניחא לי דאשמעינן למר.

אי הכי, גמור מיני הא מלתא דאמר רבי זירא:

בנות ישראל הן החמירו על עצמן,

שאפילו רואות טיפת דם כחרדל יושבות עליו שבעה נקיים.

Resh Lakish was travelling on foot.  He came to a pool of water.  

A man came and put Resh Lakish on his shoulders, and began carrying him across. 

Resh Lakish said to him: “Have you read Scripture?”

The man replied: “I have read Scripture.”

“Have you studied Mishnah?”

“I have studied four orders of the Mishnah.”

Resh Lakish said to him: “You carved yourself four mountains, and you carry the son of Lakisha on your shoulders?! Throw the son of Lakisha in the water!?”

He replied: “I prefer to hear Torah from you.

Resh Lakish then said: If so, learn from me this statement of Rabbi Zeyra:

The Daughters of Israel accepted a stringency upon themselves

that even if they see a drop of blood the size of a mustardseed – they sit seven clean days.

However, the sugya gives us no clue as to why Resh Lakish made the statement of R. Zeyra his signature teaching.

If the intent of learning halakhah pesukah was to present something so uncomplicated and consensus that it would not distract one from subsequent prayer, I hope this dvar Torah has now made the term itself too interesting to easily permit this.  (All this aside from the substance of the examples – I’m currently ten thousand words into writing a responsum about one aspect of one example.)  Unless you’re about to daven, I hope the difficulties I’ve raised will linger in your mind.

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The Slave’s Eye

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Miriam Gedwiser

In Parashat Mishpatim, Ex. 21:26-27, we read:
וְכִֽי־יַכֶּ֨ה אִ֜ישׁ אֶת־עֵ֥ין עַבְדּ֛וֹ אֽוֹ־אֶת־עֵ֥ין אֲמָת֖וֹ וְשִֽׁחֲתָ֑הּ לַֽחָפְשִׁ֥י יְשַׁלְּחֶ֖נּוּ תַּ֥חַת עֵינֽוֹ׃ (ס)
וְאִם־שֵׁ֥ן עַבְדּ֛וֹ אֽוֹ־שֵׁ֥ן אֲמָת֖וֹ יַפִּ֑יל לַֽחָפְשִׁ֥י יְשַׁלְּחֶ֖נּוּ תַּ֥חַת שִׁנּֽוֹ׃ (פ)
If a master, presumably in the exercise of his authority, puts out his (canaanite) slaves eye or tooth, the slave goes free.  The verses frame this freedom as compensatory: תַּ֥חַת עֵינֽוֹ/שִׁנּֽוֹ – in exchange for his eye/tooth.  But unlike the proportionate compensation of the previous verses (עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת, verse 24), the master must “pay” more than the value of the injury.  Netziv explains this lack of proportionality as reflecting the mismatch of the original confrontation.  Violence between two free people (וְכִי-יִנָּצוּ אֲנָשִׁים, verse 22) may begin unilaterally but generally does not remain so – the person under attack will hit back, and either may end up injuring the other.  Part of the condition of slavery, however, is submission to the master’s corporal punishment without hitting back.  The disproportion of the original incident favors the master, so the disproportion of the consequences favors the slave to restore some balance.   
Implicit in this reading, and explicit in others, is that restitution for the slave is not the only, or perhaps not even the main, focus of the rule.  Instead, the potentially disproportionate “compensation” – a blow to the face could mean the loss of a slave – is structured as a deterrent.  In the words of Shadal, וזה יהיה סבה, שימנע מהכות את עבדו מכת אכזרי – this provides a reason for the master to avoid hitting his slave too cruelly.  (See also Ibn Ezra for a similar approach.)  
So far, even those of us who understand slavery as a moral evil can probably feel OK about these verses.  Coming as they do in a universe where chattel slavery was a given, the rules attempt to mitigate some of the worst abuses of slavery by creating strong disincentives for excessive violence on the part of masters.
But this is not the end of the story.  On Bava Kama 74b, for example, we read:
מעשה בר”ג שסימא את עין טבי עבדו והיה שמח שמחה גדולה
מצאו לר’ יהושע אמר לו אי אתה יודע שטבי עבדי יצא לחירות
אמר לו למה
א”ל שסמיתי את עינו
אמר לו אין בדבריך כלום
There was an incident involving Rabban Gamliel, who blinded the eye of his Canaanite slave Tavi, and he experienced great joy as a result. [Rabban Gamliel had long wanted to emancipate Tavi, but it is generally prohibited to emancipate a Canaanite slave. The injury provided a fortuitous opportunity for Rabban Gamliel to emancipate his slave, as blinding the eye of one’s slave results in his emancipation (see Exodus 21:27).]  
Rabban Gamliel encountered Rabbi Yehoshua and said to him: Do you know that my slave Tavi was emancipated? Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Why? Rabban Gamliel said to him: I blinded his eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said to Rabban Gamliel: Your statement is nothing, [and is not grounds for his emancipation]. (Koren transl. and selected explanation).
The non-compensatory nature of the biblical rule that mandates freedom for a slave’s lost eye (even though presumably the slave’s perpetual servitude is of higher monetary value than what would be fair compensation for his lost eye or tooth) places the rule in the category of fine, knas.  As such, it is subject to the general principle of מודה בקנס פטור – one who admits liability for a fine is exempt from that fine.  (The discussion in Bava Kama centers on whether that exemption applies even if witnesses come to establish liability.  The disagreement on that subject does not impact my discussion.)  
In the case of Rabban Gamliel, the principle of מודה בקנס פטור means that he cannot free a slave whom he really wants to free.  (Freeing a Canaanite slave violates Vayikra 25:46.)  Rabban Gamliel’s affection for Tavi makes this result seem especially perverse, as the masters very admission, a function of his desire to free his slave, prevents the outcome that both the master and slave want.  
At the same time, the rule can generate perverse outcomes of a different variety.  What if instead of a magnanimous master looking for a loophole to free his slave we were confronted with a knowledgeable but malicious master?  The master could injure his slaves with impunity, and then evade the Torah’s deterrence by simply admitting guilt.  (Assuming that either witnesses will not change this outcome, or are unavailable.)
This latter possibility is more disturbing than the former. Rabban Gamliel, after all, is looking for ways around a straightforward (for the rabbis) rule against freeing slaves.  His case is not the sort of case that the verse and its deterrence system seems designed for, and Tavi’s freedom would have been a happy accident of overinclusion.  The hypothetical malicious master is exactly the one for whom the rules were crafted, and yet their very status as knas (more than simple compensation) is what gives him, if he knows enough, a way out.  
Let’s imagine another hypothetical – the violent master who is not knowledgeable, but admits his guilt out of a genuine sense of remorse, even though he assumes it will lead to his slave’s freedom.  In such a case, we can imagine how the deterrent effect of the law will continue to operate even if the slave does not actually go free – the master is, in some sense, chastened.
It is only the maliciously devious master who undermines the purpose of the law.  He is the mirror image, in some sense, of Rabban Gamliel’s benevolent would-be manipulation of the rules, in that he manipulates them for his own benefit, not the slave’s.  
This hypothetical manipulative master has bothered me for some time because the workaround seems so obvious, but in truth no one has yet constructed an abuse-proof legal system.  Although the Canaanite slaves of Exodus 21 are a thing of the past, perhaps the difficulty of protecting them within a system that also ensures their domination can inform our thinking about our own world as well.
Miriam Gedwiser (SBM ‘02) teaches Talmud and Tanach at Drisha and at the Ramaz Upper School.  She lives in New Jersey with her spouse and children.  

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Charity vs. Security: A Jewish Analysis of a Moral Policy Question

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Does Judaism require relatively well-off people to give alms-collectors access to their homes and neighborhoods, even if this increases the risk of crime? In a recent Facebook exchange with me, Jewish social activist Aryeh Bernstein argued passionately that it does.  He cited as evidence a Talmudic passage on Bava Batra 7b, and the 13th century Spanish commentary of Rabbi Meir Abulafia (Yad Ramah) thereupon.

I grew up in a dangerous neighborhood.  Every apartment had multiple locks plus a security rod set into the floor; all first floor and fire escape windows were barred; even car windows and doors were kept locked and closed at all times when riding.  Anything less was an invitation to robbery and violence.  So Aryeh’s position struck me as implausible.

But I love and respect his eagerness to bring Jewish texts to bear directly on contemporary social issues.  I share his concern that zoning and safety laws are sometimes abused to protect the rich from having to realize that the poor exist. Moreover, one of the core values and virtues of halakhic Judaism is that we cannot dismiss arguments rooted in traditional texts simply because we find them implausible; we have to engage the texts ourselves.  So let’s read Aryeh’s arguments, and then the texts, and see if his claim stands up.

Here are Aryeh’s words:

“[This] implies a position that the obligations of people with means toward people lacking means do not apply if the other people with means in the neighborhood have reason to believe that that help endangers them. In that light, how do you read Bava Batra 7b, which takes for granted that Eliyahu haNavi cut off a relationship with an otherwise pious person b/c he installed a gate-house, which, as Rashi explains, cut off poor people? And not only does it accept this story at face value, but it imbues it with enough halakhic import as to put significant oqimtot on the mishna there which normalizes construction of gatehouses, insisting that it’s acceptable only if it is not actually locked and does not cut off poor people? How do you read the Yad Ramah there with regard to security concerns overriding concerns of the poor having access?  [Here Aryeh inserted an excerpted version of Yad Ramah.]”

I contend that his argument is wholly mistaken with regard to Bava Batra 7b, and that he has simply misread Yad Ramah.  Let’s learn them together.

Mishnah Bava Batra 7b rules that residents of a courtyard can be compelled by majority vote to pay for the construction of a gatehouse.  It records a minority opinion that this is true only for those courtyards that abut a heavily trafficked space.

Majority rule applies only to improvements, and it follows the Mishnah must consider a gatehouse to be an improvement.  The Talmudic editor challenges the Mishnah on the basis of a story.

There was once a pious man who was regularly visited by Elijah.  

When he built a gatehouse, Elijah ceased to visit him.

The challenge assumes that morally odious constructions cannot be considered improvements for the purposes of this law.  Therefore, since Elijah’s displeasure indicates moral censure, a gatehouse cannot be considered an improvement.  Why, then, does the Mishnah consider it one?

The Talmud responds by distinguishing among gatehouses.  The relevant distinctions are whether the gatehouse is built inside or outside the courtyard entrance; whether the gatehouse has a door at its entrance; whether the door has a lock; and whether the lock is on the inside or the outside.  Texts and commentators differ as to which factor or combination of factors make the gatehouse an improvement, and which make it odious.

Why would a gatehouse be odious?  Rashi explains that Elijah objected because “it is a barrier to the poor, who shout but their voices are not heard”.  So there is no question that the poor need to have vocal access to the courtyard.  What about physical access?

Why would a gatehouse be an improvement?  Rashi explains that it serves “so that the guard of the entrance can sit there in the shade and distance the public from looking into the courtyard”.  In other words, the assumption throughout is that the courtyard has a guard at its entrance who will prevent outsiders from gaining entrance.

Do those outsiders include the poor?  Rashi explains that a gatehouse built outside the courtyard entrance is fine, but one built inside “is a worsening, because the door of the courtyard is locked and the poor person shouts but the gatehouse within blocks his voice”.  An external gatehouse is not problematic, so long as it is openable from the outside, because the poor can still shout from the courtyard entrance.  This is true even though the courtyard entrance itself is locked.

In other words: No one considers allowing any outsiders physical access to the courtyard, let alone to the private dwellings that surround it.  There is properly a locked door to prevent that, and also a guard.  However, even if the guard sits in a gatehouse outside the courtyard so as to discourage voyeurs, he must still allow the poor to stand at the entrance and shout for alms.

A courtyard is a collection of private dwellings surrounding a shared public space.  The best modern analogy is a condo apartment building, or perhaps a gated community.  To satisfy Elijah, it seems that there must be an intercom system to which the poor have access.  No one suggests that the owners must give the poor physical access.

Rashi’s explanatory framework seems to be almost universally accepted.  The exception is Rabbi Abulafia, to whom we now turn.

Yad Ramah does not mention a guard.  He also contends, in contrast to Rashi, that an internal gatehouse is never problematic.  Presumably he is not worried that the internal wall will have a serious acoustic dampening effect.    An external gatehouse is problematic only if it has a door that cannot be easily opened from the outside.

Here Rabbi Abulafia wonders: How is an external gatehouse which can be easily opened from the outside an improvement?  If the poor can get in, can’t thieves and robbers get in along with them?!

His response is that we are discussing a case in which the courtyard itself has a door that locks from the inside.

But, he continues, if the gatehouse serves no security purpose, what use is it?!

He answers that even an openable door discourages animals and casual passers-by from entering – on other words it protects against vermin and violations of privacy.

So Rabbi Abulafia agrees with Rashi that a courtyard can physically exclude the poor; that Judaism insists only that they must be given vocal access to the rich; and even then only to their shared courtyards and not their private spaces.

I can see numerous ways to plausibly distinguish the Talmudic case from many of the cases that raised Aryeh’s ire.  For example:

  1. a neighborhood is not a courtyard, and nothing in the Talmud suggests that the poor can be barred from any public street
  2. the weather is much more severe in the contemporary Midwest than in the ancient Middle East, so that shelter is concomitantly more necessary, and people are less likely to spend time outdoors in their courtyards.
  3. The poor are generally less integrated into society than they were, and we need to compensate for that by giving them greater access.
  4. Surely it matters how much risk is entailed in giving the poor how much access.

These distinctions can serve to defend his social policy position against the Jewish sources he cited.  But to the extent those sources are relevant, they directly oppose his position.

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Teaching Hashkofoh

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

What should Modern Orthodox high schools teach their students to believe, and about belief?  These questions are brought into sharp relief by the data from Rabbi Dr. Zvi Grumet’s recent survey of graduates.  Among his key findings are large gaps between what graduates think they were taught to believe, and what they believe now; and a correlation between such gaps and declines in halakhic observance.

Rabbi Dr. Grumet deserves enormous credit for raising critical issues in a substantive and nonpolemical fashion.  Now we need to have real conversations about how to teach hashkofoh.

Let us take this week’s parshah as a starting point.  One of my beit din colleagues often asks conversion candidates: “What happened at Sinai?”  Educators should ask each other, and themselves: How would you answer this question?  How would you want your children or students to answer this question?  Should they all give the same answer, or even the same kind of answer?  Do you want them to give the same answer at 25, or 55, as they did when they were 15 years old?

Conversion candidates who were raised Catholic often talk about being turned off by a sense that key theological questions were out of bounds (they experience Orthodoxy in all its manifestations as much more open, in ways that can astonish those of us who have always lived within Orthodoxy), and they often cite their inability to believe critical dogmas as a key impetus for leaving Catholicism.  What can their experience teach us about our own pedagogy (bearing in mind that dealing with conversion in the US naturally gives one disproportionate exposure to the failure of other religious educational systems)?

One mode of theological education can be termed “catechistic”.  Students are taught to memorize verbal formulas, and to affirm belief in those formulas.  Understanding the formulas is a secondary goal, Sometimes, especially where the formulas are consciously designed to bridge mutually exclusive positions, or to contain paradoxes, deep understanding is davka not a goal for many teachers and institutions.

A very different mode can be termed “inductionist”.  In this mode, students are not taught beliefs qua beliefs, or that belief per se is a goal.  Rather, they are immersed in a way of life, and encouraged to discover what beliefs are necessary to make that way of life meaningful.

These modes can be reframed in a specifically Jewish context as “Maimonidean” or “Alboistic” approaches to the concept of ikkarei emunah, or root principles of faith.  Maimonideans see the willingness to affirm specific propositions as a necessary (and perhaps sufficient) condition for preserving a Jew’s automatic share in Olam Haba.  Alboists think it necessary to understand which propositions must be affirmed for the structure of Torah and mitzvot to stand in this world.

Alboists can concede that some non-ikkar propositions are nonetheless sine qua nons for a share in Olam Haba, and Maimonideans can concede that some ikkar propositions have no reverberations whatsoever.  The difference between them is not necessarily about which propositions one ought to believe.  It can be about whether the purpose of education is getting students to Olam Haba, or rather about enabling them to live with meaning in this world.  Maimonideans may also believe that the only meaning this world has is as a vestibule in which to earn Olam Haba, while Alboists may find it difficult to fathom how a meaningless life can deserve an infinite sequel.

While Maimonideans and Alboists can be in complete substantive agreement about what Jews should ideally believe, their differing priorities will generate substantive differences in terms of what sorts of mistakes they will tolerate educationally, and what sort of theological latitude they give students.

Let us go back to Sinai.  A Maimonidean might focus on having students affirm that every letter of the Torah today is exactly the same as the text that Mosheh wrote in a scroll at G-d’s dictation after descending from Sinai.  Furthermore, while Mosheh was on top of the mountain, G-d taught him every possible true interpretation of Chumash.   Mosheh then taught all these interpretations to the Jewish people, creating a live and comprehensive oral tradition that continues to this day.  There is nothing new in Torah, although things can be forgotten and then rediscovered.

An Alboist might focus on the goal of having students relate to the Torah as a text worth studying so intensely and rigorously that even changes in orthography deserve attention.  Students should find that the study of Torah through the lens of Rabbinic literature yields interpretations that consistently resonate with their souls in ways that no other interpretations can.  Students should find it necessary and rewarding to bring all aspects of their being to bear on the study of Torah, including their creativity.

I emphasize again that we are discussing strategies, not ends.  It may be that only students who believe in literal Divine dictation will relate to the text with ultimate intensity and rigor; that only students who believe that all of Rabbinic tradition was included in the original Revelation will find it a uniquely meaningful mode of study; and that only students who believe that all true interpretations were already given can use their creativity to uncover G-d’s intent rather than their own desires in the text.

I also need to make clear that these strategies are not opposed and incompatible. Students are unlikely to arrive at these kinds of meaningfulness purely by induction, without having their models and mentors expressly state their own beliefs. Different approaches are likely to work better with different students.  It may be possible and advisable to use different modes for conveying different beliefs.  Furthermore, propositions may move into and out of the Alboistic ikkar framework, depending on external pressures and internal plausibility structures.

And – students’ plausibility structures and sensitivity to external pressures change over time, as do their intellectual and spiritual capacities – hopefully for the better, at least for a very long time.  These inevitable changes have implications for both Alboistic and Maimonidean educational contexts.

In my humble opinion – a fundamental error made by many Modern Orthodox schools is that they educate their students ba’asher hem sham – as they are now, without sufficient thought for whether and how what they teach will age as their students grow.

For example – imagine a high school which teaches its students that the truth of Orthodox Judaism is logically demonstrable.  Every teacher affirms this, and experts are brought in occasionally to demonstrate or refute specific arguments, say in the fields of geology or cosmology or cryptography. If the school is at all competent at what it does, a strong majority of its students will graduate believing what it wants them to believe, with confidence and intensity.

Some of these graduates will go on to academically strong secular colleges. In those colleges they will meet very smart people who do not find the truths of Orthodox Judaism logically demonstrable; who are unimpressed by the arguments and evidence of the high school experts; and some of whom seem to be really good people.  A high percentage of these graduates will have crises of faith, and many of them will go OTD.  Is that their fault for choosing secular college, or the fault of their school or developing in them only a weak and cloistered virtue?

Secular college is a bugaboo.  What about high schools which teach students that the text of chumash is unquestionably and perfectly what Mosheh gave us – “kol haTorah shemetzuyah atah b’yadeinu hanetunah leMosheh Rabbeinu”, only to be devastated in yeshiva by the one-letter difference between Ashkenazic and Sefardic scrolls, or the Rav Akiva Eiger on Shabbat 5b that lists all the places where the Talmud seems to have a different text than we do?  There are academic and theological explanations for each of these that are compatible with the formulation in the ani ma’amins, but will students be able to accept them if they feel betrayed?

Issues of historical fact are rarely the key questions.  What about schools that teach their students that there is a clear answer to why bad things happen to good people, or that great Torah scholars always show excellent character and judgment?  These beliefs are likely to be falsified by experience later in life, and what will happen to their graduates then?

Most of our students will experience doubt and uncertainty at points in their lives. The ani ma’amins are generally aspirational rather than descriptive, or we would live in a very different world.  Many or most of them will also have long or short periods in which the practice of yahadut does not consistently provide them with meaning.  We need to educate in a way which will enable them to get through these periods without despair.  They need beliefs that can sustain their commitment when experience doesn’t, and experiences that can motivate them when belief wavers.

Bottom line: We do not necessarily want Orthodox adults to believe religiously exactly what they believed when they graduated high school.  (We should not want this in any other field either.) Recognizing this should have a significant impact on the way we teach hashkofoh.

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Israel and the Outsider: Amalek and Yitro

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Miriam Zami

Our parasha’s opening narrative about Yitro’s visit to Moshe appears right after the battle with Amalek and directly before the revelation at Sinai. While there is dispute among commentators over the chronology of these events, the fact that the Torah presents the narratives in this order compels us to investigate its significance.

Rabbinic midrashim pick up on the narrative sequence and connect the stories of Amalek and Yitro. The Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael explains Yitro’s arrival as a direct result of the battle with Amalek. Yitro heard “אֵת֩ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אֱ-לֹהִים֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ”, everything that God did for Moshe and Israel (18:1), which the midrash explains as the preceding episode with Amalek. Midrash Tanhuma explains similarly that what “Yitro heard” was the defeat of Amalek. Shemot Rabbah goes further, explaining that Yitro and Amalek were part of the Pharaoh’s council, but when Yitro heard about the defeat of Amalek, he repented and joined the nation of Israel. A later version in Midrash Shemuel draws on this idea and explains that Yitro was in fact part of the Amalek army, and came to Moshe to convert after their defeat.

Whether or not these midrashim describe historical accuracy, they elucidate an important connection between the figures of Yitro and Amalek. In fact, they’re highlighting a connection drawn by the Torah itself. The two successive narratives demonstrate notable literary parallels, as shown below, suggesting that they should be understood in light of each other.

פרק יח פרק יז

(ה–ז) וַיָּבֹ֞א יִתְר֨וֹ חֹתֵ֥ן מֹשֶׁ֛ה … וַיִּשְׁאֲל֥וּ אִישׁ־לְרֵעֵ֖הוּ לְשָׁל֑וֹם וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ הָאֹֽהֱלָה׃

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law came… each asked after the other’s peace, and they went into the tent.

(ח) וַיָּבֹ֖א עֲמָלֵ֑ק וַיִּלָּ֥חֶם עִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בִּרְפִידִֽם׃

Amalek came and warred with Israel at Rephidim.

(כה) וַיִּבְחַ֨ר מֹשֶׁ֤ה אַנְשֵׁי־חַ֙יִל֙ מִכָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל

Moses chose capable men out of all Israel

(יג) וַיְהִי֙ מִֽמָּחֳרָ֔ת וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב מֹשֶׁ֖ה לִשְׁפֹּ֣ט אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיַּעֲמֹ֤ד הָעָם֙ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִן־הַבֹּ֖קֶר עַד־הָעָֽרֶב׃

On the morrow, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.

(יד) …וְכָל־הָעָ֛ם נִצָּ֥ב עָלֶ֖יךָ מִן־בֹּ֥קֶר עַד־עָֽרֶב׃

… while all the people station themselves about you from morning until evening?”

(יח) נָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל גַּם־אַתָּ֕ה גַּם־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּ֑ךְ כִּֽי־כָבֵ֤ד מִמְּךָ֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר

You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you…

(יט) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶל־יְהוֹשֻׁ֙עַ֙ בְּחַר־לָ֣נוּ אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְצֵ֖א הִלָּחֵ֣ם בַּעֲמָלֵ֑ק מָחָ֗ר אָנֹכִ֤י נִצָּב֙ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ הַגִּבְעָ֔ה וּמַטֵּ֥ה הָאֱלֹקים בְּיָדִֽי׃

Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill, with the rod of God in my hand.”

(יב) וִידֵ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ כְּבֵדִ֔ים וַיִּקְחוּ־אֶ֛בֶן וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ תַחְתָּ֖יו וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב עָלֶ֑יהָ וְאַהֲרֹ֨ן וְח֜וּר תָּֽמְכ֣וּ בְיָדָ֗יו מִזֶּ֤ה אֶחָד֙ וּמִזֶּ֣ה אֶחָ֔ד וַיְהִ֥י יָדָ֛יו אֱמוּנָ֖ה עַד־בֹּ֥א הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃

But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.

(כג) אִ֣ם אֶת־הַדָּבָ֤ר הַזֶּה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְצִוְּךָ֣ אֱלֹקים וְיָֽכָלְתָּ֖ עֲמֹ֑ד וְגַם֙ כָּל־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה עַל־מְקֹמ֖וֹ יָבֹ֥א בְשָׁלֽוֹם׃

If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home in peace.

(טו) וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כִּֽי־יָד֙ עַל־כֵּ֣ס ה׳ מִלְחָמָ֥ה לַה׳ בַּֽעֲמָלֵ֑ק מִדֹּ֖ר דֹּֽר׃

He said, “It means, ‘Hand upon the throne of Hashem!’ Hashem will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”

The two stories are recorded using strikingly similar language, and are both enveloped by clauses about war, for the case of Amalek, and peace, for the case of Yitro.

Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah goes out of chronological order in order to juxtapose the episodes of Yitro and Amalek. Just after the Exodus from Egypt, these narratives depict two very different outside reactions to the nation of Israel. And the biblical connection here extends into the book of Shemuel: just before Shaul battled Amalek, he made sure to warn the Kenite tribe, descendants of Yitro (1 Samuel 15:6). There, too, the two figures are juxtaposed: the relationship between Israel and Amalek or Yitro lasts far beyond these encounters.

Yitro serves as the transition from the battle with Amalek to the lawgiving at Sinai, perhaps specifically because of his contrast with Amalek. The revelation is introduced by the notion that Israel will be a “סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים” and a “מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ” (Shemot 19:5-6) – indicating Israel’s duty, upon the acceptance of these commandments, to be a religious-moral compass to the world. Umberto Cassuto suggests that right after the battle with Amalek, Israel’s relationship with the outside world is tainted, and Yitro comes to replace those negative feelings with a positive sentiment. Where Amalek forced Israel to form into a military nation, Yitro helped them become a judicially and civilly organized nation, now ready to accept the laws at Sinai, creating a complete governing framework.

Yitro’s role in the formation of a judicial and administrative system right before the covenantal revelation also reminds us that even Moshe and Israel, on the brink of monumental national history, required assistance from an outsider. Israel is taught that even in this moment, they should not only be concerned with their self-contained circle. We should all be so able to recognize the wisdom and insight of others to allow us to develop and improve ourselves.

Miriam Zami (SBM ’15) is from Brooklyn, New York, and is currently a senior at Stern College for Women studying Psychology and Jewish Studies. 

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Who Gets a Vote in Orthodoxy?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Once upon a time the financial and religious elites discovered that they had shared interests.  Each of them also felt unjustly tied down by a democracy with broad suffrage, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. So they made a deal to support a constitutional amendment that would make eligibility to vote depend on having adequate property and education.

This is not a Marxist fable, but rather a sh’eilah asked to Rabbi Menachem Mendl Krochmai in the seventeenth century.  Here is the complete text of the question (Shut Tzemach Tzekek (kakadmon) #2):

I was asked

by a community whose practice forever has been to reach all communal decisions regarding the hiring/accepting of a rabbi, chazan or shamash 

on the basis of agreement of all taxpayers. 

Similarly, they chose heads and representatives of the community, and the gabbaim, and the beadles, on the basis of a lottery among all taxpayers.

Now some of the dignitaries of the city wish to establish a new practice,

that all communal matters will no longer be directed by all taxpayers great and small, as has been the case up until now,

but rather at the direction of those who are distinguished because they pay a great deal in taxes, or else that they are distinguished in Torah.

They wish to decide how much one must pay in taxes in order to be among those who count when determining whether the community has accepted a representative, or to stand as a candidate for the positions chosen by lot,

or at the least to require that a person be ordained as a chaver even if he is among those who pay the least in taxes,

so that people who are not bnei Torah and also pay little in taxes will be excluded from the lottery.

They offer this rationale for their words:

Since most communal needs involve decisions about spending money,

how can it be proper that the opinion of the poor should be equal to that of the rich?!  Also, how can it be proper that the opinion of an am haaretz should be equal to that of a chaver, if he has no advantage in wealth?!

They add a further peg for their words,

that all the great and important communities practice thus, and why should they be less than them?!

But the poor, the masses of the people, cry out

asking why their rights should be diminished when they pay their taxes and give their fair share,

and even though the rich give more,

still the little the poor give causes them more hardship than what the rich suffer by giving more.

The poor add

that the current practice is a continuous ancestral custom from days of yore,

and since custom can even uproot law, how can it be permitted to alter custom?!

Let our teacher instruct us as to whose position is legally correct.


מקהל שמנהגם מעול’ לעשות כל הסכמת הקהל

בקבלות הרב והחזן והשמש

על פי הסכמת כל פורעי המס

וכן ברירת ראשי וטובי הקהל וגבאים ודיינים ושמשים על פי האנשים בוררים העולים מתוך הגורל מכל פורעי המס

ועתה רוצים מקצת נכבדי העיר לעשות מנהג חדש

שכל עניני צרכי צבור לא יהיה מהיום והלאה על ידי כל פורעי המס קטן וגדול שם הוא כאשר היה עד עתה

אלא על ידי אותן שיש להן מעלה שנותנים מס הרבה או שיש להם מעלה בתורה

ורוצים לקבוע שיעור כמה יהא ערכו בנתינות מס עד שיהא אחד מן המנוים אל הסכמת הקהל ולבא אל הגורל לברירת ההתמניות

או שיהא לכל הפחות מוסמך לחבר אף שיהיה מן הפחות שבמס

ולאפוקי אותן שאינן בני תורה וגם נותנים מס מעט לא יהיו מן המנויים

ונותנים טעם לדבריהם

מחמת שרוב צרכי הקהל הם עסקי הוצאות ממון ואיך יתכן שדעת העני תהא שקולה כדעת העשיר

גם איך יתכן שדעת של ע”ה תהא שקולה כדעת החבר אם אין לו מעלה בעושר

ועוד נותנים אמתלא לדבריהם

מחמת שכל קהלות הגדולות והחשובים נוהגים כן ולמה יהיו המה פחותים מהם.

והעניים המון עם צועקים

למה יהא נגרע זכותם אחרי שהם מפורעי המס ונותנים חלקם

אף על פי שהעשירים נותנים יותר

מכל מקום קשה עליהם המעט שנותנים יותר מן הרב שנותנים העשירים


שמנהג אבותיהם בידיהם מימי עולם ושנים קדמוניות

ומנהג עוקר אפילו הלכה והיאך יהיו רשאים לשנות המנהג?

יורנו מורנו הדין עם מי:

Rabbi Krochmal’s answer begins with an idealistic defense of the poor’s equality.  His tag line is the concluding Mishnah of Masekhet Menachot:

Scripture writes regarding the olah animal offering “a burnt sweet savor”;

and regarding the olah bird offering “a burnt sweet savor”

and regarding the flour offering “a burnt sweet savor” –

to teach you that the one who brings more and the one who brings less are equal

so long as the person directs his intent toward Heaven.

נאמר בעולת הבהמה “אשה ריח ניחוח”,

ובעולת העוף “אשה ריח ניחוח”,

ובמנחה “אשה ריח ניחוח” –

ללמד שאחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט,

ובלבד שיכוין אדם את דעתו לשמים:

Rabbi Krochmal’s argument lays bare the awkwardness – really the indefensibility – of the anti-democratic coalition.  What sense does it make to equate financial and religious superiority?  This is obviously a power play with no underlying moral consistency!  Political voice should be proportional to religious sincerity, and since the relative size of one’s tax bill is no measure of sincerity, there is no basis for giving the rich more political voice than the poor.

But Rabbi Krochmal is not just an idealist – he is also an honest halakhist, and a realist.  As an honest halakhist, he acknowledges that there is halakhic precedent for giving those who pay more a larger voice in how the money is spent.  As a realist, he acknowledges that the rich must be given some advantage in a democratic system, or else they will overturn it completely. So he devises a compromise that should be very familiar to Americans – a bicameral popular assembly, in which no legislation or appointments pass unless they command majority support among both the rich and the poor.

So much for the economic elites.  But Rabbi Krochmal’s rejection of their argument seems to strengthen the hands of their strange religious bedfellows – if political power should be proportional to religious sincerity, shouldn’t chaverim gave more say than amei haaretz?

Here is Rabbi Krochmal’s response:

As for their desire to push aside those who are not bnei Torah – this is also not proper

The proof of this is from Chagigah 24a:

“Which tanna takes the risk of animosity into account? Rabbi Yose, found in the following beraita …

Said Rav Pappa:  

Which tanna justifies our practice today of accepting testimony from amei haaretz? Rabbi Yose”

and Rabbi Yose’s rationale (in that beraita) is “so that people don’t each go build private altars”.

So it is clear that we even accept testimony from amei haaretz out of fear of animosity

lest when they see that we are distancing them, they build altars for themselves

All the more so in our case,

if we go so far in distancing the amei haaretz as to not include them in communal deliberations

certainly they will feel antagonistic toward us, and they will build altars for themselves

and they will separate from the community,

and as a result divisions will multiply among the Jews, G-d forbid.

Therefore it is not proper to do this.

ומה שרוצים לדחות אותם מפני שהם אינן בני תורה – הא נמי לאו שפיר דמי,

וראיה מהא דאיתא בחגיגה פרק ג’ דף כ”ב

מאן תנא דחייש לאיבה? ר’ יוסי הוא, דתניא וכו’.

אמר רב פפא: כמאן מקבלינן האידנא סהדותא מעם הארץ? כמאן? כר’ יוסי

וטעמא דרבי יוסי כדי שלא יהא כל אחד ואחד הולך ובונה במה לעצמו.

הרי מבואר שאפילו עדות מקבלין מעם הארץ מפני חשש איבה כשיראו שמרחיקין אותם יבנו במה לעצמם

ומכל שכן בנ”ד, אם ירחיקו את עם הארץ כל כך שלא לצרף אותם כלל אל הסכמת הקהל –

ודאי שיהיה להם איבה ויבנו במה לעצמם ויהיו פורשים מן הצבור, ומתוך כך ירבו מחלוקות בישראל ח”ו.

לכן ודאי לאו שפיר דמי למיעבד כך.

One can distinguish between Rabbi Krochmal’s case and the situation of American Orthodoxy today.  One can outright reject his ruling.  But there is a strong case that he is halakhically correct, and that his law applies directly to our facts.  So the burden of proof rests on those who disregard him.

I suggest that Orthodox discourse – within our denominational community, on its margins, and with the Jewish community as a whole – would be dramatically improved if it started from two core principles of his responsum.

The first principle is that people react to being excluded by leaving and “building altars for themselves”, and that halakhic authorities have a responsibility to prevent this.  A corollary is that when people are building altars for themselves all around us, we need to figure out what we’re doing wrong, and change it, rather than blaming them.

The second principle is that it is legitimate and proper to bend halakhah in order to keep marginally observant people from leaving – not by justifying their nonhalakhic practices, but by treating them as full community members for other purposes, perhaps especially with regard to credibility.

I invite comments and discussions that test whether and how accepting these principles can generate positive change in our rhetoric and policies.

Shabbat Shalom

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