Peace With Security: A Psychopolitical Meditation on Yitzchak’s Meditations

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

There are moments in life that initiate longitudinal bonds, the things that successful marriage and true friendship and discipleship and avodat Hashem are made of.  These bonds, like all dynamic things, require maintenance but have the capacity for growth, and there is nothing more important in life than maintaining, growing, and deepening them.

But there are also moments of surpassing beauty that initiate permanent and unchanging but tangential bonds, between lives that meet only at the one point.  The relationships they initiate may be of little intrinsic significance, but the memory of incandescence or transcendence is part of what sustains our belief in the possibility of shared experience, and thereby enables the relationships that matter.

I had a rather unusual such experience this week, and I’d like to share it with you, and think together about what it might mean.

My divrei Torah generally emerge from an encounter with a text rather than a pretextual agenda.  So I often prepare by scanning the parshah and hoping to be surprised.  This week the first thing that caught my eye was a phrase in 26:24:

וַיֵּרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו ה’ בַּלַּ֣יְלָה הַה֔וּא


אָנֹכִ֕י אֱ-לֹהֵ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֑יךָ

אַל־תִּירָא֙ כִּֽי־אִתְּךָ֣ אָנֹ֔כִי

וּבֵֽרַכְתִּ֙יךָ֙ וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֣י אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֔

:בַּעֲב֖וּר אַבְרָהָ֥ם עַבְדִּֽי

Hashem appeared to him during that night.

He said:

I am the G-d of Avraham your father.

Don’t be afraid, because I am with you,

and I will bless you and make your descendants numerous

for the sake of Avraham My servant.

It seems as if G-d is emphasizing Yitzchak’s unworthiness even as He reassures him that it will all be good.  What would that feel like?  As some acharonim note, it strengthens the reassurance – unlike Avraham and Yaakov, Yitzchak doesn’t have to worry שמא יגרום החטא, lest his sins prevent him from receiving an already-promised reward.  But what does it do to his self-image?

I started my research by using the phrase as my search term on the Bar Ilan Responsa Project’s Literature of Chazal database.  There were only ten hits, and fittingly, nine of them focused on Avraham’s status as G-d’s servant.  Only the very first result, found oddly in Tosefta Berakhot 6:8, related to Yitzchak.

ר’ דוסתאי בי ר’ יניי אמ’ משם ר’ מאיר

הרי הוא או’ ביצחק

“וברכתיך והרבתי את זרעך בעבור אברהם עבדי”

:’דרש יצחק ואמ

…הואיל ואין הברכה שורה אלא על מעשה ידי

,עימר וזרע


“ויזרע יצחק בארץ ההיא וימצא בשנה ההיא מאה שערים”

Rabbi Dostai son of Rabbi Yannai said in the name of Rabbi Meir:

Behold it says about Yitzchak:

“and I will bless you and make your descendants numerous for the sake of Avraham My servant

Yitzchak interpreted this and said:

Since blessing rests only on my handiwork . . .

so he harvested and planted,

as Scripture says:

“Yitzchak planted in that land, and he found in that year a hundred ?gates?”.

I simply couldn’t make head or tails of what was being said here.  What in G-d’s words teaches Yitzchak that his blessing is limited to “his handiwork”?  Why does Yitzchak harvest before he plants?

Very likely the answer to these questions is that the text is hopelessly corrupt. But before giving up, I found one more problem.  The text as we have it says that Yitzchak harvested and planted in reaction to G-d’s words in 26:24.  But we are told about the planting in 26:12!?

So R. Dostai must have read the text as out of chronological order.  What motivated him to do this?

The answer seemed clear.  26:24 tells us that Hashem appeared to Yitzchak בלילה ההוא, “during that night”.  Which night?  The previous verse tells us only that “Yitzchak went up from there to Be’er Sheva”, without mention of night.

But the truth is that there is no mention of night anywhere earlier in the story of Yitzchak. So which night?

Now that R. Dostai had alerted me, the problem seemed so blatant that I was sure all the standard commentaries would address it.  So I looked at Rashi, Rashbam Ibn Ezra, and so on – no luck.  Many of these commentaries noted other temporal anomalies in the narrative – obviously that Be’er Sheva is named three separate times, and it’s very hard to figure out which wells were dug when.  But no one at all seemed bothered by “on that night”.

At this point I began doubting myself.  Maybe the problem wasn’t real, and I was missing an obvious solution.  Maybe I had misread R. Dostai, or this difficulty was also the phantom offspring of a corrupted text.  What did that say about my ability to read Rabbinic commentaries generally?  How many of my previous Torah essays were based on invented textual issues or unnecessarily complex answers?

And then the moment happened.  Approaching desperation as I scanned through everything remotely relevant on Bar Ilan, I found someone who had shared my dark night of the soul.

 – “וירא אליו ה’ בלילה ההוא”

?כל ימי צעקתי על פסוק זה: מה ר”ל “בלילה ההוא”

.ולא ידעינן באיזה הלילה כלל, כי לא נזכר שום לילה

“Hashem appeared to him during that night” –

All my days I screamed about this verse: What is the intent of “during that night”?!

We don’t know at all which night, because no night has been mentioned.

These were the words of Rabbi Yochanan son of Aharon Luria in his commentary Meshivat Nefesh.  Bar Ilan tells me that Rabbi Luria was lived circa 1440-1514 in Alsace, but that his commentary was first published from manuscript in 1998.  Had I tried to write this dvar Torah twenty years ago, I would have been completely alone.

Rabbi Luria’s solution is that night here is symbolic, and refers to Yitzchak’s dark night of the soul while being chased from well to well by the Philistines.  The Torah finishes its physical narrative, which ends when Yitzchak digs the well at Rechovot (verse 22), and then fills in the psychological narrative.  There was a time when Yitzchak was too discouraged to try digging yet another well, so G-d appeared and encouraged him.  What else are your father’s friends for?

I don’t find this solution at all satisfying.  There is no hint here that night is metaphorical rather than actual, and no hint in the text that Yitzchak considered giving up.  But it really doesn’t matter – Rabbi Luria and I, though separated by five centuries, will always share that moment of being the only ones in the world obsessed with this question.

But there is of course the possibility that one of you had noticed the problem, perhaps years ago, and now reading this dvar Torah adds you to our bond.  So for you – and for everyone who understands our experience even if they don’t share it – I’ll provide my own very tentative solution.

I suggest that “during that night” means “during the same night that G-d previously appeared to Yitzchak”.  In other words, this revelation is a continuation of the revelation recorded in 26:2.

If we put those revelations side-by side, they seem almost identical.  What changes is that in the first G-d favors Yitzchak because of Avraham’s actions, while in the second He favors Yitzchak because of Avraham’s character.

Here I turn to my favorite insight from the great medieval commentator R. Yosef Ibn Caspi: When a prophecy appears to be repeated, it doesn’t mean that there was a new experience of revelation, but rather that the prophet gains a new understanding of the previous experience.  I want to take that one step further and say that the Torah here is telling us that Yitzchak had one experience of revelation, “during that night”, but that he understood it differently before and after the episodes of the wells.

When Yitzchak first arrived in Gerar, he thought G-d’s message was that he should imitate Avraham’s actions, and so he redug his father’s wells.  (Davida Kollmar suggests that this may help explain R. Dostai’s enigmatic notion that “blessing rests only on his handiwork”.) After that failed repeatedly, he realized that he needed to be like Avraham, not to imitate his actions.  One cannot be like an enormously creative person by imitating them.

When that happened, Avimelekh ceased quarreling with him and, recognizing that G-d was with Yitzchak, he reinstated the Philistine-Jewish accord first made with Avraham at Be’erSheva.  Perhaps the underlying message gives a new meaning to the slogan “Peace with security”: Those with insecure identities cannot make lasting peace, nor can lasting peace be made with them.  Yet even where longitudinal relationships cannot be formed, we should never surrender our faith in the possibility of shared human experience.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Rebeccah’s Pain

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Ezra Newman

Three verses into this week’s parsha the reader learns that Rebeccah became pregnant and that her pregnancy was not easy. [1] The reader is then treated to a partial verse of Rebeccah’s internal monologue, a statement that defies easy translation.

:כב) …ותאמר אם כן למה זה אנכי ותלך לדרש את יקוק)

JPS translates this as “…and she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’ She went to inquire of the Lord:” JPS then adds a helpful footnote, explaining “meaning of Hebrew uncertain.”

What was Rebeccah saying, and what did it inspire her to do? Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban gave three very different explanations.

Rashi wrote that Rebeccah, due to the pain of her pregnancy, prayed to God. This elicits a question; if Rebeccah’s monologue was really prayer to God, what was she doing in the final part of the verse, when “she went to inquire of the Lord”? Was that not also prayer? Rashi explained that it was not Rebeccah praying, rather her going to the beit midrash of Shem for him to consult with God on her behalf.

Ibn Ezra wrote that Rebeccah, due to the pain of her pregnancy, asked other women if this pain was normal. When told that it was not, she then went to inquire of God (through the medium of a prophet) why her pregnancy was unusual.

Ramban wrote that Rebeccah, due to the pain of her pregnancy, turned not towards God or other women, but inwards, towards herself, and lamented that she was still alive. In Ramban’s understanding, Rebeccah’s internal monologue consisted of her wishing that she died or was never born. Then she went to pray. Ramban is silent on whether this prayer was for her pain to end through birth or through her wish being fulfilled.

These three approaches of the commentators accurately reflect different human approaches towards coping with pain and suffering. In their hands, Rebeccah has become the paragon for the different ways humans cope. Some appeal to higher authorities, whether they are God, a rabbi, a prophet or others. Some ask their peers, many who have been through similar experiences, for consolation and assurance. And some turn inwards, occasionally with destructive consequences.

The JPS approach also reflects some truth with regard to human suffering. Often people want a combination of things when they are suffering, and that combination is difficult to distill into clear parts. Oftentimes as well people are simply incoherent or impossible to understand when they are suffering.

Any way it’s construed, this monologue of Rebeccah is unusual when compared with what a reader of Genesis would expect. Rebeccah’s female counterparts in Genesis are most often found grieving over their inability to become pregnant, not the pain they experience while pregnant. Rachel especially expresses tremendous frustration at her inability to become pregnant. [2] Yet Rebeccah expresses nothing verbally about her inability to become pregnant. The reader learns that Isaac prayed on Rebeccah’s behalf because she was barren, and then learns, immediately and matter-of-factly, that she became pregnant. The drama of becoming pregnant does not exist for Rebeccah as it does for Rachel and Sarah.

This should be especially unusual to some rabbinic thinkers, as the pain of lack of pregnancy has taken on unique meaning for them. Earlier this year, Rabbi Binyamin Lau and Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein engaged in a back and forth in Yeshivat Har Etzion’s weekly newsletter, Daf Kesher, over a responsa co-authored by Rabbi Lau and his wife, Rabbanit Noah, regarding supervision of women during mikvah immersions. [3]

Rabbi Lau, when challenged on the validity of the arguments in his teshuva, responded in part by appealing to a broader moral argument of needing to do better by women in general. He ended his response by quoting a Midrash which challenges Jacob’s harsh response to Rachel’s complaints of infertility, stating rhetorically, “כך עונים את המועקות?” Clearly, Rabbi Lau believed that the pain Rachel was feeling about her infertility was comparable in some way to the pain women felt about having to immerse with supervision.

Rabbi Lichtenstein took Rabbi Lau to task on this point. He argued that one can simply not compare the pain felt by women who are unable to become pregnant with the pain felt by women when required to immerse under supervision. The pain of the former is much greater than the pain of the latter.

How would Rabbi Lau and Rabbi Lichtenstein explain Rebeccah’s silence here then? Rabbi Lau puts stock in the pain of lack of pregnancy being representative of pains that all women feel that need to be responded to universally, and Rabbi Lichtenstein puts stock in the pain of lack of pregnancy being of a certain magnitude greater than other female pains. Yet we know Rebeccah had the ability to express pain, it’s written in the next verse. And we know Genesis knows how to convey pain over lack of pregnancy, Rachel managed to do it quite vociferously. So how come Rebeccah is silent?

Maybe Genesis is managing to convey a point that Rabbi Lau and Rabbi Lichtenstein seem to have missed in their back and forth. People are different from one another. People deal with pain differently and people experience pain differently. Maybe instead of large proclamations dealing with entire groups of people as monoliths, we need to traffic in recognizing the differences of the individual.

Making a large public statement on a topic is great for the people who agree with your statement, but is it worth it if you’ve ostracized others who disagree with you? Sometimes it will be and sometimes it won’t be. Assuming a fact about a large group of people works out with regard to the people it is true for, but is it worth it when it misrepresents many others? Sometimes it’s necessary and sometimes it’s not.

Maybe it’s time for us all to put more stock in understanding other individuals, instead of making decisions for or assumptions about larger groups. Healing sometimes comes through mass declarations and statements, but more often comes from understanding the pain and coping mechanisms of unique individuals.



[1] One could interpret “ויתרצצו הבנים בקרבה” differently, but read simply it appears to indicate that the pregnancy was difficult, or at least unusual, physically.

[2] See Genesis 30:1.

[3] Available for download here.


Ezra Newman (SBM 2013), from Silver Spring, MD, is an alumnus of MJBHA, Gush and Cornell and is currently a first year law student at Harvard.

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Responses to Rabbi Klapper on Halakhic Radicalism

Response by Dov Weinstein

In his CMTL Devar Torah Does “It’s Never Been Done” Imply “It Should Never Be Done?, Rabbi Klapper asked:

Whether Modern Orthodoxy is a safe haven for halakhic radicalism, then, should depend on whether our community is halakhically sophisticated.  I think that by historical standards it surely is.  Do you agree?

I agree that our community is relatively halakhically sophisticated.  But I don’t think that makes us a safe haven for halakhic radicalism.  If anything, the opposite is true.

The basis for halakhic radicalism is the principle that “‘We have not seen’ is not a proof.”  This principle, says Gemara Pesachim 51a, does not apply in places that “have little exposure to rabbis.”

Rabbi Klapper contends that it is “reasonable to take rabbinic exposure as a proxy for halakhic sophistication.”

I do not think this is correct.  

The classic Rabbinic term for one who lacks halakhic sophistication is am ha’aretz.  The Gemara in several places addresses the need to avoid publicizing certain halakhot in the presence of amei ha’aretz.

  1. On Chulin 15a Rav taught his students the lenient opinion of Rebbi Meir regarding deriving benefit from inadvertent chillul Shabbat.  But when he spoke in public, Rav taught the stringent opinion of Rav Yehuda “because of the amei ha’aretz.”  
  2. On Menachot 99b, Rebbi Yochanan says it is forbidden to tell an am ha’aretz that he can fulfil his obligation to learn Torah “day and night” merely by reciting Kriat Shema twice a day.  

In these cases, the underlying assumption is that the am ha’aretz will blindly accept the words of the sages, and therefore it is better not to teach them halakhot which will be to their spiritual detriment. 

But on Pesachim 51a, the Gemara does not say that those with “little exposure to rabbis” are amei ha’aretz.  Rather it says they are like Kutim.  And I think there is a significant difference between the two. 

If Kuti was just a stand-in for am ha’aretz, the concern would be a too-literal acceptance of the words of the Rabbis.  But here the problem is different.  As Rabbeinu Chananel explains, the problem is the slippery slope:

Because they [Kutim and, by extension, those with little exposure to rabbis] will go astray – they will say ‘We used to treat that matter as forbidden, but it was permitted; so too this thing is permitted’, and they will end up permitting the truly forbidden.

What makes a Kuti a Kuti is not a lack of Torah knowledge.  Rather, what makes a Kuti is that he does not accept the authority of Chazal to determine the meaning of the Torah.  In other words, he makes up his own rules.  

So, when the Gemara says that those with “little exposure to rabbis” are like Kutim, it does not mean that they are ignorant.  It means than they, like Kutim, are overly prone to drawing their own incorrect conclusions from the evidence presented.  Unlike Kutim, they accept the Talmud and Rabbinic tradition.  But, like Kutim, they do not accept that contemporary Rabbinic authorities draw the bounds of which interpretations may be properly put into practice.  And therefore the Gemara rules that such communities should not be exposed to halakhic radicalism, lest it lead them down the wrong path.[1]

Widespread halakhic sophistication does not ameliorate this fear, it makes it worse.  When apparently plausible halakhic arguments for anything are but a Google search away, the slippery slope becomes positively frictionless.  And, lest we forget, the slope is not exclusively progressive – tax-evasion, wife-beating, and a total ban on math and science education are not without their sources either. 

It is only the recognition that new approaches require both sophisticated halakhic argumentation and the validation of recognized authorities to become live options in practice that allows for appropriate innovation.[2] This is why we keep halakhic radicalism away from Kutim and those who have little appreciation for authority.

The question of whether Modern Orthodoxy is a safe haven for halakhic radicalism, then, comes down to this: what sort of a community are we?

A community of traditional amei ha’arets accepts authority unreflectively, and their authorities are properly paternalistic in their public psak.  There is no risk in halakhic radicalism, but there is no demand for it either.

In a Da’at Torah community, the halakhic sophistication of the people is coupled with a deep ideological deference to authority.  Halakhic radicalism is therefore both appreciated and safely wielded.  But it is necessarily limited to a small cadre of Gedolim.  Any innovation by others is swiftly rejected and its adherents ostracized.

Our community is neither of these.  In our community, relative halakhic sophistication is coupled with a reflexive rejection of heteronomous authority.  This has lead us to see Halakha as a smorgasbord of equally legitimate opinions from which we select based exclusively on our unreflective moral or political intuitions.[3]  This makes us both particularly vulnerable to the dangers of halakhic radicalism, and particularly disinterested in the limitations of Halakhic conservatism.

Only through the development of serious Talmidei and Talmidot Chachamim from within ourselves, and concomitantly the development of serious respect for, and even deference to, their authority will we be able to benefit from the halakhic radicalism we so desire, without the negative consequences it entails for those unsuited to it. 


Rabbi Klapper suggests that “hav[ing] little exposure to rabbis” means lacking halakhic sophistication.  That would make our current community fundamentally a safe haven for halakhic radicalism, although there may be external reasons for caution.[4]

I suggest that “hav[ing] little exposure to rabbis” means a lack of accepted Rabbinic authority.  That would make our current community fundamentally ill-suited for halakhic radicalism, although there may be external reasons to endorse it nevertheless.

In practice, however, I suspect the differences between us are small.  I tend to agree with Rabbi Klapper’s approach to halakhic and communal issues of the day.  Not only are his arguments usually convincing, he is also a Rabbinic authority worth recognizing.[5] 


[1] Conversely, a community which has among it authoritative Talmidei Chakhamim can, and indeed should, be exposed to halakhic radicalism.  The fear of the slippery slope does not apply because the people will see that, even though halakhically sophisticated arguments may be available to justify some never-before-seen practice further down the slope, the fact that the Talmidei Chakhamim among them reject it will put a stop to the slide.

[2] As Rabbi Klapper himself puts it in “Are Partnership Minyanim Orthodox?”: “One premise of mine should be clear – the existence of an intellectually plausible argument for a halakhic position does not ipso facto legitimate that position as an option for practice. … Rather, I believe that arguments generally confer legitimacy only in the company of authority.”

[3] Moral intuition is a legitimate element of psak, but it is not by itself sufficient to decide among intellectually plausible halakhic positions.  Mistakenly thinking that it is sufficient renders serious talmud Torah both unnecessary and meaningless.  After all, if you cast your net wide enough, there is almost always already a machloket haposkim on any topic of interest.  Why then should Modern Orthodoxy bother invest the financial and human resources necessary to develop our own Talmidei Chacahmim?   Add to this our tendency to be generous in our definition of “intellectually plausible” and halakha becomes a plaything in the hands of our desired outcomes.  Which, to me at least, is an obviously bad result.  Rabbi Klapper generously included my reflection on this topic in a post here.

[4] I granted at the onset that our community is halakhically sophisticated by historical standards.  But this may require qualification.  We are sophisticated in the sense that we have access to far more information than all but the greatest talmidei chachamim of previous generations.  But this doesn’t necessarily mean we are wiser.  As an example – above I quoted two Gemaras – one from Chulin and one from Menachot – regarding the proper approach to paskening for amei ha’aretz.  This gives the impression that I am well-versed in Gemara, and am able to apply my wide-ranging learning to the issue at hand.  But this impression is false. I found both Gemaras on the Hebrew Wikipedia page for הלכה ואין מורין כן subsection בפני עמי ארצות.  For all I know, there are dozens of counter-examples out there, but nobody has edited the entry to include them yet.  Does this qualify me as “halakhically sophisticated”?  Not so clear.

[5] The fact that he actively solicits counter-opinions from his students is further indication of this.

Dov Weinstein (‘Never) Missed attending SBM ’07 to woo the sister of an SBM alum.  They would soon thereafter wed.  They now live in Jerusalem with their four children.



Response by Rabbi David Fried

In response to Rabbi Klapper’s original article:

I don’t think one can refer to the modern Orthodox community as a single community.  Each rabbi has to decide for their own community whether they can handle halachic radicalism.  What that gemara shows us as much as that there are certain communities that can’t handle halachic radicalism is that we don’t ban something from the whole world because there is some community somewhere that can’t handle it.  We ban it only in that community.  (I imagine one could plausibly argue that a world of instantaneous communication makes us all one community, but I don’t buy it.)

In response to Dov Weinstein:

I think he offers a highly plausible alternative read to the sugya, and I appreciate his recognition that the slippery slope is not merely in the progressive direction.  However, with regard to the need for “gedolim” to endorse a radical shita, I would respond with Rabbi Klapper’s own words:

But this puts the cart before the horse. In much of contemporary Orthodoxy, the positions of gedolim (past and present) are in the hands of Procrustean censors who strive to ensure that nothing genuinely novel or idiosyncratic escapes, let alone anything “suspicious.” When such a position nonetheless escapes, the result is generally loss of gadol status rather than legitimization of the position.

In my mind, the reason why we can’t rely on shitot that would permit tax-evasion or wife-beating is not because the “gedolim” don’t endorse them, but because halacha needs to be in conversation with Agada.  We have certain metahalakhic values that will render certain shitot untenable, but those values need to be defended rigorously within the agada of our tradition, they cannot merely be asserted by “gedolim.”

Rabbi David Fried (SBM 2010) teaches Judaics at the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, CT, and is a musmakh of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.


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What if Avraham Had Lived in America? Thoughts on the Political Implications of Human and Jewish Being

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Kabbalah teaches that all difference is illusion, because everything is G-d, in Whom inheres no difference.  But illusion is necessary, as human beings cannot understand G-d as pure simplicity.  Human comprehension emerges out of analysis, or breaking things down into distinguishable components.

One can therefore argue: The difference between Jews and other human beings is a necessary illusion.  But just as the illusion of the world must be a means to comprehending the undifferentiated G-d, the illusion of Jewish difference must be a means to comprehending the image of G-d in all humanity.

This suggests that consciousness of being “different” is an essential aspect of Jewish identity, as in “They are a nation that dwells alone.”  Jean Paul Sartre in AntiSemite and Jew challenges this idea by distinguishing between “authentic” and “inauthentic” Jews.  Authentic Jews define themselves by who they are, without reference to others.  Inauthentic Jews define themselves by what differentiates them from non-Jews.  Anti-Semites by definition live inauthentically, since they define themselves in contrast to Jews.  Jews should strive to be authentic.

My question is whether Sartre’s authenticity is possible, or rather impossible because distinction is necessary for human understanding.  Could one be a self-conscious Jew if all human beings were Jewish?  Is it possible to be meaningfully Jewish without self-consciousness?

Rabbi Soloveitchik in his essay “Confrontation” opens up what can perhaps be described as a kabbalistic corrective to Sartre.  Self-consciousness is essential, and difference is necessary for self-consciousness, but difference does not require the presence of an external “other.”

According to the Rav, Jewish human beings properly perceive themselves as both fully human and Jewish.  It follows (my extension of the Rav’s argument) that one can define one’s Jewishness by distinguishing it from one’s own generic humanity, without having resort to an external “other,” and without denying that one remains a generic human.

This dual nature as both human and Jew is embodied in Avraham Avinu’s paradoxical self-description “ger v’toshav anokhi imakhem,” “I am (simultaneously) an alien and a citizen among you.”  The Rav understands these as discrete conditions.  A Jew qua human is a citizen of the world, and qua Jew is an alien.  Jews are both different from and the same as all other human beings.

Jews throughout history have lived this dichotomy as fiddlers on the roof, with varying degrees of success.  Sometimes we fell off on one side, losing track of our Jewishness; sometimes on the other, losing track of our humanity.  But there was never doubt that the roof was slanted on both sides.

Until 20th century America.

Here’s why.

In previous Diaspora cultures, Jews could participate as equals (when and where they could) only by giving up their particularism.  The “generic” cultural or political space might allow them to maintain their particularism in segregated areas of life, such as worship, but as citizens, they were required to be undifferentiatedly human.

Most often, this undifferentiatedness was an illusion, and the “generic” space actually reflected a dominant non-Jewish culture.  More sharply: Judaism was always posterior to the generic culture, whereas some other religion(s), philosophic system(s), ways of life etc. were anterior to that culture.  To enter that space as a Jew meant stripping off part of one’s prior being.

By contrast, for a post-enlightenment Christian, or a Golden Age Muslim, being a part of generic or universal human culture might mean living in a space where only part of one’s Christian or Muslim being could be expressed.  But this limit on expression was not a limit on one’s being.  One could be political as a Christian, or artistic as a Muslim, without in any way becoming “other.”  Generic humanity essentially meant the parts of Christianity or Islam that could be lived even by those who were not Christians or Muslims.

I contend that 20th century America was different in that Judaism was anterior to the generic culture.

But that claim needs clarification before being applies to the 21st century, as follows:

Judaism is anterior to generic Israeli culture in the same way as Christianity is anterior in Europe.  What makes America different is that Judaism is anterior to the culture in the same way as Christianity is within the same generic culture.

Here my claim can be understood in two very different ways.

(1). America is a Judeo-Christian culture (or, if one wishes to be more inclusive, an Abrahamic culture).

(2). America is a genuinely pluralistic culture, in which all religions and ethnicities are understood to be anterior to the generic culture.

The difference between these claims roughly maps onto the difference between conservatives (1) and liberals (2).

For conservatives, Jews participate in generic American culture as Jews because it is fundamentally a Jewish (and Christian, and possibly Islamic) culture.  So that others can participate, we restrain ourselves from fully expressing our Jewishness in the political sphere.  But we recognize and acknowledge that for some others, full participation in that sphere requires a contraction of being and not just of expression.  (For example: We might contend that democracy is a fundamental value of our religion, and that (cue Mendelssohn) Judaism has no need or desire for power, whereas other religions see the enforcement of G-d’s Will as mission-central.)

For liberals, Jews participate in generic American culture as Jews because it is a culture which is continually recreated in the image of all its participants.  No one should ever have to contract their religious being to participate fully, and everyone should have to contract their religious expression equally in the political sphere.

For conservatives, therefore, being a Jew and an American still allows the Jew to define him or herself against an internal human other.  The generic American is not a generic human.

For liberals, by contrast, there is no difference between the generic American and the generic human – there are no prior religious commitments or noncommitments that can constrict one’s relationship to generic American culture, and limits on political expression never constitute limits on being.  Therefore, the Jew and American has no internal other to define Jewishness against.  The Jew in America is by definition a toshav and not a ger, not because Jews specifically are toshavim, but rather because the category ger is not relevant to anyone with American citizenship.

One consequence of this analysis is that the project of liberal Jewish identity in America may be impossible to sustain.  But I am leery of making strong concrete claims on the basis of abstract philosophy, let alone kabbalah.  Perhaps absolutely authentic being is possible, and can be the basis of a viable mass program.  Perhaps differences in religious expression are sufficient to create the necessary illusion of difference.

I am more interested in exploring the consequences of this analysis for the generic American public space.  Here’s what I want to say:

The liberal position rests on the assumption that religious expression and religious being are wholly separable.  There is no restriction on religious expression that in any way impacts on religious being.  Or most sharply: There is no circumstance in which I can argue that a restriction on my religious expression in a public space is also a restriction on my being.

This yields a variety of easily recognizable results.  For example, banning prayer in public contexts, on the grounds that theistic prayer excludes atheists, or monotheistic prayer excludes polytheists, etc.  Or requiring Catholic photographers to work the weddings of divorcees without expressing their opposition in either word or deed.

The conservative position rests on the assumption that there are no generic humans, and every restriction of religious expression is presumptively a restriction of religious being.  Conservatives therefore are suspicious of attempts to extend the generic sphere beyond the political (thus the opposition to “political correctness”), and leery of expanding diversity in the political arena when that risks constricting their religious expression within it (as they think has happened too often already).

Now the “liberal conservative” recognizes that there is great value in building a polity that includes difference, lest we fall off the other side of the roof and forget our common humanity.  Liberal conservatives are therefore willing to sacrifice some of their religious expression, and consequently their religious being, for the sake of creating a generic political culture.  They may for example be willing to settle for generically monotheistic rather than explicitly Jewish or Christian or Judeo-Christian public prayer, or agree to decriminalize adultery.

But where liberals see diversity as a cost-free value, liberal conservatives contend that substantive diversity (meaning a diversity of values, as opposed to superficial diversity such as skin color or dress) always has a cost, for all members of the generic culture, and that a responsible society engages in ongoing cost-benefit analysis.  There is an at least theoretical point at which diversity-accommodation become a Procrustean bed, and multiculturalism eliminates all the substantive differences that made its constituting cultures valuable in the first place.

My own sense is that Jewish conversation about America should take place within the liberal conservative framework of ger vetoshav.  We should acknowledge the great value of building a diverse polity, but also the costs of diversity, and then argue passionately about how best to maximize the former and minimize the latter, and about how to balance them when there is no choice but to choose.

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Baal ha-Batim, the Avot, and the Imahot

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Michael Pershan

Where does one go for guidance on how to live the practical, Jewish life of a baal habayit?

In a 1979 talk, Rav Soloveitchik identifies two traditions that run through Jewish history. First is the familiar rabbinic tradition, passed from Moshe to each subsequent generation of scholars. Second is the practical tradition of the baal habayit, which originates from Yosef.

In contrast to the scholastic, the practical tradition is not one of concepts, thoughts, concepts, laws. It’s one of images. The continuity is something I see, I feel, I can reach out for it. It’s the tradition of the lifestyle of action. This tradition can be traced back to antiquity.

Many have written about rabbis, Rav Soloveitchik notes, but far fewer have written about baal habatim.

Why has so little been written about Jewish laity? We can partly point towards rabbinic interpretation, which consistently interprets Jewish excellence as scholarly excellence. The gemara (Yoma 28b) cites our parsha to teach that Avraham sat in yeshivah and kept the entire Torah. His servent Eliezer is a scholarly disciple, one who mastered Avraham’s teachings and offered them in turn to others. Both are, undoubtedly, part of the spiritual elite.

Perhaps there is no issue at all. It’s true, there is little said about the spiritual non-elite, but why should there be? Yes, we could imagine Avraham as a real estate agent who struggles (as many of us do) to find time for Torah, family or our communities. But that would eliminate the utility of Avraham as a role model. Avraham is an unattainable spiritual model — striving towards his standard is impossible for the average Jew, and that is what makes him an effective goal-setter for the laity.

There is a great deal of truth here, I think. Yet there is also something missing. I can’t think how Avraham or Eliezer — if we see them as geniuses of Torah — would deal with some of the issues I grapple with daily. Here is one that feels somewhat silly to admit: even after years of eating among colleagues in public, I’m unsure how to make berachos and bentch in the proper way. (Without seeming crazy, while having proper kavanah, without being rude, and without consistently explaining my practices.)

How would Avraham grapple with this? He wouldn’t even be bothered by the problem. Alas, I am.

As I look at this week’s Parsha more carefully, though, I notice that perhaps I’ve shown bias in my search for Jewish role models. There are, in fact, Jewish heroes who are not painted by Chazal as scholars: the women of the Torah. They feel the feelings that I regularly do. We learn from Yalkut Shimoni that Rivka became terrified upon seeing Yitzchak in the field; last week Sarah laughed in the face of an oracle. These are emotions that I recognize.

Could the tradition of baal habayit be found in the women of the Torah? Rav Soloveitchik says this would be a tradition of images, scents and feelings, rather than of intellectual matters. Perhaps, when trying to find ways to bentsch while sitting among colleagues who don’t understand prayer, rather than thinking of halachic heroes I should think towards the images the Torah provides of the imahot — Rivka, sitting on a donkey, covering her face with a veil and whispering to Eliezer.

Michael Pershan (SBM 2009) is a math teacher in New York City.

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May Sermons Discuss Politics?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
This article was originally published in 2013 on Jewish Ideas Online.
Question posed by Jewish Ideas Online: Is it appropriate for a rabbi (as a religious leader) to discuss partisan political issues either from the bimah or as part of a kiddush program in shul (synagogue) on Shabbat?
Rabbi Klapper’s answer: Torah should matter in the concrete, daily lives of Jews, and therefore Torah must speak to political issues.  Budgeting priorities, health care access and quality, legitimate grounds and tactics of war – these are precisely the types of issues that Judaism in particular cares deeply and has much to say about.
This remains true even when those issues become the subjects of partisan debate.  If Democratic policies will fund the abortion of many late-term fetuses that would otherwise be born, and a rabbi sees late-term abortion as murder, how can s/he not say so?  If Republican policies will deprive many people of their basic human dignity, how can a rabbi not say so?
It is true that political parties take positions on many, many issues, and individual politicians do not agree with all the positions of their party, so a religious claim that one must vote a particular way is always oversimplified.  I think it is almost always wiser to discuss and weight the values involved and let listeners reach their own conclusions.  But the job of a religious leader is to set priorities in complex circumstances.
It is also true that voting involves a judgment of consequences, not just of intent, and rabbis often have no particular qualifications to judge consequences.  But neither do politicians, and in any case, all legal and moral decisions require judgments as to facts and consequences.  We should train religious leaders to be expert in these areas, as much as or more as we train them to be expert at dealing with the emotional consequences of personal decisions.  (Of course, rabbis, like everyone else, should avoid speaking out of ignorance, or lecturing the more informed.)
Nonetheless, pulpit discussions of partisan issues are often unwise, and even unfair if an expectation has been set otherwise.  The Jewish religious community generally aggregates along ritual rather than ethical/political lines, and therefore it is practically necessary for rabbis to get along with members of both parties.  Rabbis who talk primarily about politics, and in partisan fashion, will reasonably be suspected of imposing their ideologies on Torah rather than deriving them from Torah.
This does not mean that ritual is more important, or naturally a more appropriate topic for rabbis, than politics.  Decisions to aggregate along ritual rather than theological grounds, or on ritual rather than Zionist grounds, do not require us to consider nusach hatefillah more important than the national existence of the Jewish people, or precise kashrut standards more important than precise standards of monotheism – they simply reflect practical judgments as to the best way of advancing our collective interests.  I suspect that much American Jewish rhetoric on the subject of religion and politics is a product of IRS regulations and of our status as a minority religion.

Bottom line: Rabbis cannot, and congregants should not, see political issues as offlimits.  Rabbis are wise to make such pronouncements sparingly, and with humility – they should make clear that even their wisest, most Torah-grounded judgments do not exclusively or unquestionably represent G-d’s true will.  But they are entitled, and sometimes obligated, to vigorously seek to persuade their congregants to act in accordance with their best judgment as to G-d’s true will, even when His will does not command a political consensus.

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Bully for Sodom

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Sodom was a halakhically sophisticated culture.  Everyone knew the law, and the difference between a violation of the law and what you could be sued for.  On Sanhedrin 109b, the Rabbis illustrate the evils of Sodom via the halakhic principle that one cannot be sued for stealing property worth less than a perutah:

If someone had a row of bricks – they would come and each steal one.

If somebody had put out garlics or olives to dry – each person would take one.

Rashi explains:

They would say to the victim: “What loss have I caused you? All I took from you was one clove!”

It is as if each person pulled one hair out of his head – the victim ends up bald.

Let’s think for a moment about this case.  Who were the perpetrators, and who were the victims?

I suggest that the rabbis are describing something all-too-familiar – malicious bullying.  Groups would get together and impoverish whomever they didn’t like, while making sure not to do anything that could provoke reaction from those with formal authority and official power. [1]

The analogy to the schoolyard is clear.  These are the clique of kids who pick on a classmate to torment.  No individual kid says or does anything particularly unforgivable, and anyway there are no witnesses outside the group – perhaps they even physically surround the victim so no one else can see.  The victim eventually overreacts to one seemingly minor offense, and then gets in trouble, since the attacker at whom he or she lashes out has not individually caused significant damage.

Sodomean bullies consciously manipulate society so that the victim’s acts of self-defense become punishable while their aggression creates no liability.  They take advantage of a morally intuitive “doctrine of proportionality”.

But is it possible that “each person stealing less than a perutah” is terrible not only when it consciously manipulates the system, but even, or perhaps especially, when it enables people to avoid realizing that they are causing harm?  Can we identify systems and environments in which this happens?  I suggest that conversation is one such realm.  Please allow me to explain.

Liberal cultures have a deep, understandable, and to some extent laudable reluctance to acknowledge that a conversation can be zero-sum, meaning that whatever one participant gains, another loses.

Talmudists, by contrast, understand this instinctively.  This is because Talmudic sugyot (=literary units) are often structured as disputational dialogues.  In disputational dialogue, a raayah (attempted proof) for one side of the machloket (dispute) is always a kushya (attempted disproof) against the other, and a kushya on one side is usually a raayah for the other.

It is important to recognize that a Talmudic dialogue is zero-sum on only one axis – which position wins, meaning emerges as more likely true.  Anything that makes one side more likely true, makes the other less likely true.  A raayah for one side (+1) is a kushya on the other (-1) – that’s zero-sum.  But both sides benefit in the sense that they have come closer to the truth.  So the way to avoid zero-sumness is to change the goal of conversation from victory to truth.

But – what if the other person has not made that change?  For them, it still feels zero-sum, no matter how much you tell them that they have been enriched.  If you “defeat” them in argument, they will likely disengage and decide that the modality doesn’t suit them.

Sometimes the zero-sum axis is not about persuading each other, but rather about the public authority of your respective positions.  In such contexts, total victory is achieved when the opposing position becomes untenable in your community’s discourse.  This can happen through pure logical or empirical demonstration, as when looking through a microscope proved that microbes exist.  But much more often, it results from effective rhetoric which makes use of or disguises itself as logical or empirical demonstration.

Disputational dialogue using formal arguments and verifiable evidence are rare in the public square.  What is much more common is what might be termed “affective debate”, in which a conversation is “won” when one side has made it more emotionally or politically difficult to disagree with it than the other.

It is often assumed that even thinking about affective conversations as zero-sum games is inappropriate.  Surely the goal is for each side to express itself fully to the other!  No one loses just because the other side got to express itself.

But this is true only when there is a shared goal of emotional transparency.  With regard to public affairs, affective conversations are often properly understood as (conscious or unconscious) battles for emotional dominance, with each side trying to make it difficult for anyone to express the other position.

Let’s imagine a conversation set on the midrashic planet EinMakom.

Some people on this planet find emotional fulfillment only by eating roast lamb in public.  Deprived of that outlet, they become terribly sad and lonely.  Many believe that their god cuts off all relationship with them if they fail to eat lamb in public at least once a year.

Other people on this planet worship sheep, and believe that killing them for food is sacrilege and a perversion of the natural order.  Watching people eat lamb makes them physically and psychologically ill. [2]

Now let’s imagine a group conversation space – say, a WhatsApp group for EinMakom’s communal leaders.  Nachshon, one such leader, opens a conversation by sharing the intense inadequacy and despondency he felt when work recently compelled him to spend months in a vegetarian community, where it was socially impossible to eat lamb in public.

Following Nachshon, another community leader offers profound gratitude to him for sharing the experience.  Another admires Nachson’s bravery and courage, and considers them inspirational.  A third expresses astonishment that such intolerant communities still exist.  A fourth declares with happy confidence that no one in this group would consider acting so intolerantly.  And so on.

Each of these follow-up notes seems positive and innocent – what could be wrong about supporting someone who has taken an emotional risk?  But their collective effect is to silence anyone on the listserv who worships sheep and wishes to protect themselves against the psychological and physical damage they experience when watching lamb-consumption.  Each individual note has minimal effect.  But the camel’s back is nonetheless fractured.

In another space, the roles might be reversed.  An initial posting about the psychological damage caused by watching lamb-consumption is followed by similar supportive postings, so that the notion of expressing one’s pain at being deprived of public lamb-consumption – let alone of demanding the right to consume lamb in public – becomes inconceivable.

As opposed to Talmudic discourse at its best, in which one argument generates the necessity for another, and stimulates its development and formulation, Sodomean conversations silence people and end genuine discussion.  The result is that people lock themselves into homogeneous communities, or bubbles.  (Homogeneity of opinion may be coincident with apparent ethnic or religious diversity.  This will tend to aggravate the difficulty of recognizing the problem of silencing.)

Too many conversations in too many spaces in the Jewish world today are conducted in Sodomean fashion.  Too many conversations in too many spaces in America today are conducted in this fashion.  Thus we keep locking ourselves into self-affirming bubbles, and are shocked to discover that our opinions are not universally held.

It would be an important step forward if we acknowledged – at least to ourselves – that in public conversations about controversial issues, affirmations and expressions of support are often powerful zero-sum moves, and when utilized en masse, can easily become instantiations of middat Sodom.

Acting on this recognition, we can take care that our conversations make space for genuinely different and surprising opinions.  Surprised often enough, we may rediscover how to argue ideas for the sake of truth rather than victory, and share experiences for the sake of mutual understanding.  As Jews, we can recreate the art of disagreeing for the sake of Heaven, and as Americans, the art of deliberative democracy.



[1] Deborah Klapper and Davida Kollmar both asked, with Avraham Avinu:  If there were victims in Sodom, didn’t G-d destroy the victims and perpetrators together?  I suggest that in a deeply corrupted culture, the victims are just wannabe bullies, and there is no essential difference between them.  Bad people can be bad to each other.

[2] One Rabbinic interpretation holds that the first Paschal sacrifice was instituted as a public defiance of Egyptian lamb-worship.

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