The Persistence of Memory: Sacrifice, Human Sacrifice, and Amalek

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The Bible has been a bestseller for thousands of years.  Leviticus as a stand-alone book, though, seems to have all the appeal of Magical Creatures and How to Slaughter Them next to a Harry Potter collection.  A little more humor, and a lot more explicit gore, and perhaps it could compete with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As best I recall, the Reader’s Digest Condensed Bible simply skips from Exodus to Numbers.

All these challenges are intensified if one deals with Parshat Vayikra alone.  Listen to the great medieval commentator Rabbi Yosef ibn Caspi in his Mishnat Kesef, believing that he is channeling Maimonides:

כבר התועדתי בפירושי זה פעמים,

ובספר הסוד ובספר במשל,

כי תכונתי חזקה בבחירת הקיצור בכל מקום.

לכן

כאשר ראיתי זאת הפרשה ורבות מהנמשכות אחריה סובבות על מעשה זבחים וקרבנות

אשר ידוע שמשרע”ה כתבו בספרו מוכרח ואנוס,

כי אין חפץ לה’ בעולות וזבחים,

רק הכרח מנהג האומות כולם בזמן ההוא הביאם לזה,

לכן

די לנו בידיעת מלות אלו הספורים

ואם לא נדעם – אין זה היזק בזה,

ורב במה שנמצא בפירוש רש”י וא”ע

לכן

אניח פרשה זאת, והפרשת צו . . .

I have already informed you twice in this commentary,

and also in my Sefer HaSod and Sefer HaMashal,

that my character tends strongly to choose brevity everywhere.

Therefore,

when I saw this Parshah and many that follow it focusing on the making of sacrifices,

which it is known that Mosheh Rabbeinu wrote in his book compelled and coerced,

because Hashem has no liking for sacrifices,

rather it was the compulsion of the universal custom of nations of the time that brought them to this, therefore

it is sufficient for us to know the meaning of the words in these descriptions,

and if we don’t know them – there will be no damage in this,

and more than enough can be found in the commentaries of Rashi and Ibn Ezra

therefore

I will leave this Parshah be, and Parshat Tzav . . .

But Ibn Caspi’s comment begs the question: why did sacrifice become a universal expression of religion?

One possibility is that sacrifice achieves atonement, and atonement is a universally recognized human need.  But I have always been bothered by the connection between sacrifice and atonement. What a waste!  An animal – a living thing, or at the very least a valuable natural resource – is reduced to its maximal carbon footprint.  What “sweet savor” could possibly waft from these pointless barbecues? Wouldn’t it be better to genuinely make amends?

Ok, I get it; atonement sacrifices are largely for commandments between man and G-d, and there really is no way to make things up to G-d.  Except there is – repentance, especially repentance out of love, which for some reason in G-d’s perspective transforms past sins into virtues.

You’ll tell me that sacrifices lead to repentance. The death of an animal is a significant thing – it makes one think that could’ve/should’ve been me, there but for the chessed or rachamim of G-d go I.  But honestly, anyone who would think that way probably doesn’t need a sacrifice to think that way – they’d react the same way to a dead squirrel on the sidewalk, maybe even to a pen that’s run out of ink.

History/anthropology seem to show that prescribed modes of repentance inevitably lead to cost-benefit analyses – is this sin worth a goat to me, or not? The equation tends to work out badly for the goats.

I read an article this week that tried to equate philanthropy with sacrifice. It is true that the Temple accepted voluntary sacrifices.  I suppose it’s even likely that there was a plaque somewhere with the names of the people who gave the most and best voluntary sacrifices – perhaps we’ll dig it up soon, which would seem to validate the initial investment in immortality. But I think the author was misled by the term in English.  The Hebrew term korban, means thing which is brought closer, or that brings closer – it has nothing to do with giving something up, let alone of giving something up voluntarily for a greater purpose. The same negative applies to words such as זבח and עולה.

In his commentary to Deuteronomy 12:30-13:1, Ibn Caspi raises a much darker possibility.  Here are the relevant verses, followed by his commentary:

הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֗ פֶּן־תִּנָּקֵשׁ֙ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֔ם

אַחֲרֵ֖י הִשָּׁמְדָ֣ם מִפָּנֶ֑יךָ

וּפֶן־תִּדְרֹ֨שׁ לֵֽאלֹהֵיהֶ֜ם לֵאמֹ֨ר

אֵיכָ֨ה יַעַבְד֜וּ הַגּוֹיִ֤ם הָאֵ֙לֶּה֙ אֶת־אֱלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם

וְאֶעֱשֶׂה־כֵּ֖ן גַּם־אָֽנִי:

לֹא־תַעֲשֶׂ֣ה כֵ֔ן לַה֖’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֑יךָ

כִּי֩ כָל־תּוֹעֲבַ֨ת ה֜’ אֲשֶׁ֣ר שָׂנֵ֗א

עָשׂוּ֙ לֵאלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם

כִּ֣י גַ֤ם אֶת־ בְּנֵיהֶם֙ וְאֶת־בְּנֹ֣תֵיהֶ֔ם

יִשְׂרְפ֥וּ בָאֵ֖שׁ לֵֽאלֹהֵיהֶֽם:

 אֵ֣ת כָּל־הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֹת֥וֹ תִשְׁמְר֖וּ לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת

לֹא־תֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֔יו וְלֹ֥א תִגְרַ֖ע מִמֶּֽנּוּ: פ

Guard yourself,

lest you be ensnared after them,

after they have been destroyed from before you,

and lest you seek after their gods, saying:

“How would those nations worship their gods?

I too will do the same.”

Do not do the same for Hashem your G-d

because all the abominations of G-d. that He hates,

they did for their g-ds

because even their son and daughters

they would burn in fire for their gods.

It is everything that I command you – that is what you must guard to do;

you must add nothing above it; you must subtract nothing from it.

הנה אלו יכול משה למונעם מהזבחים לגמרי,

להיותם נעשים לאלהי העמים,

היה השם חפץ בזה

ואחר כי לא היה יכול להעתיקם משרש

והעתק הסעיפים

ככל אשר יוכל

בעבודות המגונות,

כשריפת הבנים

אם שריפתם לגמרי או שריפת עורם או שערם בהעברם,

כי על הכל יאמר שריפה בשיתוף מה

Now had Mosheh been able to completely prevent them from sacrifices,

seeing as they were done for the gods of the nations,

Hashem would have desired this.

But since he could not remove them from the roots

he removed them from the branches –

to the extent he was able –

of the disgraceful modes of worship

such as burning children

whether completely burning them up, or burning their skin or hair by passing them through flame,

because all of them can be called burning, with some commonality

I suggest that Ibn Caspi sees “sacrifice” anthropologically as at core the dedication of an act of violence to a god.  What matters is not that the sacrifice is killed, but that you killed it, and the more significant the thing you kill, the better.  All sacrifice is at core human sacrifice, not self-sacrifice.

The Torah came along and, unable to extirpate this practice directly, tried to change its meaning.  Removing human sacrifice from the apex of the ritual pyramid opened up the possibility of understanding animal sacrifice as sublimating violence rather than as sanctifying it.  There is always a danger that the original meaning will break through.  But when violence is given no controlled religious outlet, sanctified violence often finds far more dangerous expressions.

Ibn Caspi’s understanding of the etiology of sacrifice does not mean that all those who endorse sacrifice at core endorse violence. Sublimation can be real and effective. Moreover, maybe the Canaanite meaning was not the original meaning either, but a later distortion, and the Torah restored sacrifice to its pre-Canaanite glory.

Preserving a practice while changing its meaning runs two risks: critics may accuse you endorsing its original meaning, and followers may come to adopt its original meaning.

A similar dynamic may occur with regard to the mitzvot of battling, remembering, and erasing the memory of Amalek. The urge to extirpate evil can be positive, but it can also be the inspiration for much greater evils than those it seeks to extirpate. Halakhah postpones the mitzvah to the Messianic age, noting that Yehoshua made a point to attack only combatants, and categorizing Samuel’s instructions to Saul as extralegal.  This in turn drives many commentators to find ways to “spiritualize” the mitzvah and expand the category of Amalek so that it can have contemporary relevance.  But this approach is subject to three kinds of misunderstandings.

  1. It is often misunderstood as reflecting an ethical difficulty with the halakhah, when instead it is a reaction to the practical irrelevance of the halakhah. Sometimes it is even an ethical protest against a halakhah that seems insufficiently exercised by the persistence of evil.
  2. Sometimes critics misunderstand such spiritualizing expansions as instead expanding the literal mitzvah of total war.  A recent article in an online Jewish magazine got there by mistranslating the Hebrew phrase במסירת נפש להריגה as “prepare to kill,” rather than correctly as “accept the risk of being killed.”
  3. Most dangerously, sometimes followers make the same mistakes as the critics, or worse, sometimes interpreters genuinely mean to expand the category so that the mitzvah can find practical expression.  It is therefore imperative to reiterate that not only is the mitzvah eschatological, the halakhic category of Amalek cannot apply to any people who have territorial conflicts with the Jewish people, and all ethnic Biblical categories were rendered halakhically obsolete by Assyrian population transfer policies.  Every attempt at giving contemporary relevance to the category Amalek must be must be monitored with great caution as a potential “stringency that leads to leniency.”

Shabbat shalom and Purim sameiach!

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They Might Be Giants

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The planks that formed the walls  of the Mishkan were 10 amot long, according to Exodus 26:16. Assuming that an amah is 18 inches long (the low end of the halakhic range of values), this means that the carpets that formed the ceiling and roof of the Mishkan needed to be lifted into place at least 15 feet above ground.

Not an impossible feat by any means.  For example, the carpets might have been attached to ropes and winched into place by a team of oxen.  Or the planks might have been lain on the ground, and the carpets placed on them.  When the planks were raised into place, again likely by oxen and pulleys, the roof and ceiling would have been raised into place automatically.

However, a hyperliteral reading of Shemot 40:18-19 tells a different story.  Mosheh first assembled and raised the walls of the mishkan.  Afterward, he spread the ceiling and then the roof over them. Assuming that these actions were all done by Mosheh personally, it follows that he was tall and strong enough to manipulate huge carpets more than 15 feet above ground.  On Bekhorot 44a, Rav uses this argument to conclude that Mosheh was at least 10 amot tall.

אמר רב:

משה רבינו עשר אמות היה,

שנאמר:

ויפרש את האהל על המשכן,

מי פרשו – משה רבינו פרשו,

וכתיב:

עשר אמות אורך הקרש

אמר ליה רב שימי בר חייא לרב:

אם כן, עשיתו למשה רבינו בעל מום,

דתנן:

גופו גדול מאבריו או קטן מאבריו!?

אמר ליה:

שימי [את]?! באמה של קרש קאמר.

Said Rav:

Mosheh our Teacher was ten amot

as Scripture says:

He spread the tent over the Mishkan.

Who spread it?  Mosheh our Teacher spread it,

and it is written:

ten cubits the length of a plank.

Said Rav Shimi bar  Chiyya to Rav:

If so, you have made Mosheh our teacher blemished,

as a Mishnah is taught:

(Among the blemishes that disqualify a kohen for Temple Service are:)

“If his body is larger than his limbs or smaller than his limbs”!?

Rav said to him:

Are you Shimi?! What I said was in plank-amot.

Rav’s initial argument is straightforward, but every line of his subsequent dialogue with Rav Shimi seems mysterious.  In what way does making Mosheh taller imply that he was disproportionate? And what are “plank-cubits”?

Rashi explains that an amah can be measure either objectively or subjectively (the length of a forearm). Rav Shimi initially thought that Rav meant that Mosheh was ten times as tall as his forearm was long, which would certainly have made him disproportionate.  Rav responds that he meant that Mosheh was 10 objective amot tall, just as the planks were, but that his limbs were proportionate.

This reading seems to make Rav Shimi’s question absurd.  Rav’s proof was that Mosheh must have been as tall as the planks, so obviously he meant objective amot!?

The Talmud records at least three other such dialogues between Rav and his grandson Rav Shimi bar Chiyya bar Rav.  In each of them, Rav Shimi objects to a factual claim made by his grandfather, who prefaces his response with “Are you Shimi?!” (The את is missing in our text, but present in the version in Yalkut Shimoni and one manuscript.) Rav then explains that either he or his prooftext has been misunderstood. The most directly parallel case is Menachot 29a, where Rav declares that the Menorah was only 9 tefachim high (maximum value = 3 feet). Rav Shimi objects that according to Mishnah Tamid 3:9, the priest who serviced the menorah stood on a rock that was three stairs high!? Rav responds that he was referring only to the height of the Menorah above where its branches began.

It’s unclear to me whether Rav’s preface “are you . . .” is intended to praise or put down his grandson. (Rabbeinu Gershom records a tradition that Rav did not look at other people and so had to identify them by voice, in which case it would be neutral.  But Rashi convincingly rejects this on the ground that Rav never refers to anyone but his grandson this way.)  Perhaps Rav meant to praise Shimi generally but claim that this question was uncharacteristically weak.

On Nedarim 38a Rav Yochanan appears to assume the truth of Rav’s statement, and the Talmud seems to find another ground for objection.

אמר ר’ יוחנן:

אין הקדוש ברוך הוא משרה שכינתו אלא על גבור ועשיר וחכם ועניו,

וכולן ממשה.

גבור –

דכתיב: ויפרוש את האהל על המשכן,

ואמר מר:

משה רבינו פרסו,

וכתיב: עשר אמות ארך הקרש וגו’.

אימא: דאריך וקטין!

אלא מן הדין קרא, דכתיב:

ואתפוש בשני הלוחות ואשליכם מעל שתי ידי ואשברם,

ותניא:

הלוחות – ארכן ששה ורחבן ששה ועביין שלשה.

Said Rabbi Yochanan:

The Holy Blessed One rests His Presence only on the gibor, wealthy, wise, and humble.

All of these are derived from Mosheh.

Gibor

as Scripture says:

He spread the tent over the Mishkan.

and a Master said:

Who spread it?  Mosheh our Teacher spread it,

and it is written:

ten cubits the length of a plank.

But maybe he was tall and narrow (and therefore not a gibor)!?

Rather from this verse, as it is written:

“I took hold of the two tablets; I threw them from my two hands; I shattered them”

and a beraita teaches:

“The tablets were six long and six wide and three thick.”

The anonymous Talmud here suggests that the lack of proportion was not between torso and arms, but rather between height and width.  Mosheh was giant but puny.  This also seems absurd, as it requires not only height but strength to lift and spread out a massive carpet. The Talmud however takes the suggestion seriously, and derives Mosheh’s gevurah from a different verse.

On Shabbat 92a, the Talmud has a third discussion of Mosheh’s height.

אמר רבי אלעזר:

המוציא משאוי למעלה מעשרה טפחים – חייב,

שכן משא בני קהת.

ומשא בני קהת מנלן?

דכתיב: על המשכן ועל המזבח סביב,

מקיש מזבח למשכן;

מה משכן עשר אמות – אף מזבח עשר אמות.

ומשכן גופיה מנלן? –

דכתיב עשר אמות ארך הקרש

וכתיב ויפרש את האהל על המשכן.

ואמר רב: משה רבינו פרשו.

מכאן אתה למד: גובהן של לויים עשר אמות.

. . .

דילמא משה שאני,

דאמר מר: אין השכינה שורה אלא על חכם גבור ועשיר ובעל קומה.

Said Rabbi El’azar:

One who carries something out (on Shabbat) above 10 tefachim is liable,

as that was how Bnei Kehat carried (the Mishkan and accessories).

From where do we know that Bnei K’hat carried above 10 tefachim?

As it is written: “[the cover of the gate was on the Mishkan and the altar around”

which compares the Mishkan and altar:

just as the altar was 10 amot, so too the altar was 10 amot.

From where do we know the Mishkan itself?

as it is written: ten cubits the length of a plank.

and Scripture says: He spread the tent over the Mishkan.

and said Rav: Mosheh our Teacher spread it.

From here you learn: The height of the Levites was 10 amot

 . . .

But maybe Mosheh was uniquely tall,

as a Master said: The Divine Presence rest only on the gibor, wealthy, wise, and tall.

Here height replaces humility as a condition for the Divine Presence, and is a necessary condition independent of gevurah.  Rabbi El’azar claims that all Levites were as tall as Mosheh, but the Talmud seems to rejects this on the ground that there would be no purpose in making them so tall, whereas Mosheh’s height was necessary for the Divine Presence to rest on him.

Later commentaries resurrect Rav Shimi’s question. If the purpose of excluding the blemished from the Temple Service is to prevent visual distraction, wouldn’t superhuman height, however well=proportioned, be a blemish? This might be why we prefer to have all Levites be that tall.  Some contemporary commentaries even try to argue that at 15 feet, the Levites in the Wilderness were only slightly taller than the average person of their time.

There are ideological countertraditions.  The Divine Presence rested on Sinai because it was not high and mighty, neither tall nor gibor.  Perhaps Rav Yochanan deliberately replaced “height” with “humility” on the list of qualifications for the Divine Presence, and reinterpreted gevurah from physical prowess to conquering one’s own urges.

Rav’s tradition puts Mosheh Rabbeinu’s greatness obviously beyond our reach and grasp. Rabbi El’azar suggests that the same is true of all the Levites of that generation, and maybe of all people then.  Perhaps Rav Shimi and the anonymous Talmud, and maybe Rav Yochanan, contend that such claims are definitionally false.  Superhuman greatness is a disproportion or even distortion, and allegedly superhuman role models are distractions rather than inspirations.

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The Logic of Things and the Work of Our Hands

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Stephen Belsky

It’s clear why G-d wanted us to have a mishkan – it’s right there towards the end of Parashat Tetsavveh (Shemot 29:45-46):

So I will dwell within the Israelites and be their Gd.  They will know that I am Hashem, their Gd, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, so that I may dwell within them; I am Hashem, their Gd.

But the question of the week is – why did Gd want us to build a mishkan? After all, it could have just fallen from heaven, like the מן and the quail that sustained our ancestors in the Wilderness; or as Rashi imagines the Third Temple in his commentary on the Talmud, “built by the hands of Heaven”.  So why do we have to build it?

To be honest, we had the same question last week.  And two weeks before that.  And yet another week back, as well.  Four parshahs – full of lists, materials, and measurements, describing clothes, structures, fixtures, and tools, in sometimes painful and repetitive detail.  And now that we’ve reached the end of the shopping list, the final page of the blueprints, the question remains – Why did Gd want us to build a משכן?

Perhaps the answers lies in the “us”, the builders. What do we know about the ones who did the actual building?

A few chapters ago, Gd instructed Moshe, “You – speak to all the wise-hearted [minded] whose heart [mind] I have filled with the spirit of wisdom.”  According to the midrash Leḳaḥ Ṭov, the word “all” means that both men and women were included.  But the most salient characteristic, repeated here in Gd’s instructions to Moshe, is that they must be wise.

Does that mean that Moshe got philosophers, gurus, and scholars to do all the sawing, weaving, and engraving?  Maybe… but we’ll touch on that later.

First, we need to take a look at wisdom, at חכמה.  What is Wisdom, besides a statistic on your Dungeons & Dragons character sheet?  In his introduction to the Da‘at Miḳra’ commentary on Sefer Mishley, Israeli educator Yehuda Ḳil explains that Tanakh refers to four types of חכמה.

One we can call Smarts.  Intellect.  This is the חכמה that we are told King Solomon was blessed with, which he used to govern Israel.

Another is the Wisdom of Ethics and Morality; of Torah; the teachings that guide us to live lives of meaning, kindness, and justice, rooted in the love and awe of Gd.

A third type of Ḥokhma is what the books of Mishley and Iyyov call Gd’s Wisdom – the Divine plans and calculations that Gd uses to create and oversee the universe.

The last type of Wisdom is Skills – practical competence with tools and technology. The kind of חכמה you need to saw a beam straight; to dye wool the proper shade of blue with Murex sea-snail extract; to beat gold from a lump of metal into a candelabrum.  Tanakh first mentions this fourth type of wisdom here, by the builders of the mishkan: “All those of wise mind, which Gd filled with a spirit of wisdom.”

Why are Smarts and Ethics not enough?  Why are intellectual achievement and moral refinement insufficient to commune with the Divine and connect to the Wisdom that preceded creation?  Why was this fourth type of wisdom so essential?  Why get down and dirty with our hands in the sawdust, our faces soot-streaked from the forge, our clothes splattered with the blood of animals and the mucus of snails?

In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft”, philosopher, electrician, and motorcycle mechanic Dr Matthew Crawford explores the value of artisanship, of craft, of the trades – all what we would call the חכמה of the builders of the mishkan – and he reveals a paradox in the relationship between the objects we make, we create, we repair; and our selves who, in the terminology of the Torah, design the מחשבותand perform the מלאכה.

On the one hand, he quotes the words of Hannah Arendt:

The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.

I can make ḳiddush on a cup passed down for generations.  You can build a space probe and launch it to the moon, like the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet that recently lifted off from Cape Canaveral; or to farthest reaches of the solar system and beyond.  We can appreciate art painted on the walls of caves by Neanderthals, 65,000 years ago.  The mishkan itself was built, assembled, disassembled, and reassembled, over and over again, and lasted for hundreds of years.

It’s an awe-inspiring power – I may be a limited human being, but my work can transform the world!

Where there were tree trunks, now there are קרשים, structural beams.  Where there were animal skins, now there are יריעות, tenting sheets.  Where there was gold and silver, there are now altars and tables and sacrificial tools.  The act of Creation is Godly.  “You have made [us] but little less than the divine”, wrote King David in Tehillim.  Humanity is so close to Divinity.

And yet, on the other hand, Dr Crawford continues:

The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self.  A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs.  At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption… Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things… practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on

If I’m a plumber, there is a single rubric by which my work can be evaluated – Does the toilet flush?  If I’m a mechanic, there is one way to know whether I’ve succeeded or failed – Does the car run?  And if I’m a volunteer in the great and holy national project of עם ישראלcalled “building the mishkan”, and I’m hammering out the כיור, the washbasin, or weaving the מגבעות, the turbans, or engraving the precious stones, or sawing the wall beams – I can’t do whatever I want with it; I have to submit to the design, to the blueprints, given by Gd through Moshe.  I have all the power, but I’m not in charge.  There’s a standard, a plan, an expectation; there are specs that must be fulfilled.

And so, through this worker’s paradox, this artisan’s dialectic – as our ancestors built the mishkan, בני ישראל came closer to Gd through והלכת בדרכיו, walking in Gd’s ways.  Just as Gd  creates and recreates the universe, so too do we make and remake the world Gd gave us.

And in those very same moments, with every swing of the hammer, the Israelites came closer to Gd also in humility, in recognizing that for all our powers, we don’t run the world.  There are rules for what the Ark of the Covenant is supposed to look like, inside and out; and there are rules for how we worship our Creator and for how we treat our fellow human beings.  As it says in both Tehillim and Mishley – the beginning of all חכמה is respect for Gd.

This week in parashat Peḳudey, we read how when the project is finished, and the Tabernacle, its fixtures, its tools, and the כהנים‘s clothes are all ready, Moshe blesses בני ישראל.  The Torah doesn’t tell us what he said, but according to Rabbi Me’ir as quoted in a number of midrashim, Moshe blessed the people, “May it be Gd’s will that the work of your hands be infused with the Divine presence.”  And then בני ישראל responded to the blessing with the words of Tehillim 90:17, just as we say almost every Saturday Night, as we leave that alternate dimension called Shabbat, and reënter the world of work, of מלאכה, of creative labor: “May the pleasantness of the Lord our Gd be upon us, when Gd establishes the work of our hands upon our efforts; oh Gd, establish it – the work of our hands!”

Rabbi Stephen Belsky (SBM 2012), a native New Yorker and a graduate of Pardes and YCT, currently lives in Suburban Detroit, where he teaches torah, builds sukkot, and works as a manufacturing manager and safety coördinator for a car wash supplies company.

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A Change of Heart

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Blau

Several weeks ago, at the beginning of Parshat Terumah, G-d commanded the Jews to donate gold, silver, and many other precious goods needed for the building of the Mishkan. The realization of this command in our parsha yields a more elaborate description in which men and women donate not only those goods but also personal items and skills to the cause.

The Torah emphasizes both the continuity and the differences by using  a leitwort in VaYakhel that builds on a word from  the initial command in Terumah: לב, “heart.” In addition to being paired with the root נדב (meaning “donate” or “contribute”) as in Terumah, לב is now used in conjunction with the roots חכם, “wise,” (a wise heart, referring literally to skill in crafts) and נשא, “lift” (literally an uplifted heart, referring again to skill in crafts). The commonality in meaning of the phrases is the intersection of motivation and ability that leads to donation.

Why does the Torah make לב the leitwort here?  One might assert that such a commonality is meaningless because these are simply the idioms. However,  I suggest that these idioms may exist because of the very overlap in the words and the use of the phrases together in this very location. This being assumed, the best way to uncover the thematic thread connecting these words is to parallel this section to another section that shares the same leitwort.

The section that immediately comes to mind as containing an abundance of instances of the word לב—and indeed is the only other concentration of the word in the chumash—is the events of the exodus from Mitzrayim, and specifically the plagues. One recalls that Pharaoh’s heart is “hardened” several times throughout the story, and that this point is both thematically and narratively important to the exodus arc. It is of note that there is very little variation here in the accompanying root; almost every instance is paired with the word חזק (“strong” or “steadfast”), with a couple of exceptional כבדs (“hard” or “heavy”).

The thought that first surfaces when comparing these two sections is that the לב is taken in two opposite directions. In Pharaoh’s case, the characteristic of the heart symbolizes obstinacy, while in Israel’s case, the various descriptions of the heart paint a picture of generosity.

Analyzing the לב’s accompanying words directly and their relationships can shed light on the underlying mechanism of these two directions of the heart. נדב, חכם, and נשא share a certain sense of mobility. Donation entails a transition of ownership from one party to another, lifting is a physical movement from one space to another, and wisdom may perhaps be described as an open commitment to truth, inherently requiring that one be flexible in one’s assumptions of what is correct. חזק, on the other hand, is an expression of steadiness that, although it can be positive at times (such as in the case of Yehoshua), can also lead to a certain rash stubbornness. כבד is likewise by nature a word that connotes immobility and an opposition to change.

Thus, the words used by the Torah in these scenarios result in a connection between generosity and flexibility on the one hand, and obstinacy and inflexibility (the more obvious pairing) on the other.

But this is not the end of the contrast between Pharaoh’s role in the exodus and Israel’s role in the building of the Mishkan. The two stories also contain diametrically opposed underlying themes. Both Pharaoh’s obstinacy and the people’s generosity are, after all, directed towards God. And if Pharaoh’s perspective is one of denial of God, then this contrast would direct us to assume that the people’s generosity with respect to the materials for the Mishkan comes from a need to affirm God.

With this, Vayakhel is simultaneously conveying Israel’s underlying motivation to be generous and the mindset required to do so. After the chet ha’egel, those who remained alive must have been devastated and eager to correct the mistake they had made. Whatever their miscalculation was, even a minor blunder can have disastrous consequences when it concerns a subject so fundamental as the role of God and His relationship with His people. Pharaoh also suffered as a result of his misguided notions of God and His relationship with His people. But the primary difference between Pharaoh and Israel—what allowed Israel to turn around and correct themselves while Pharaoh continued to doom himself—is the capacity to change. A willingness to have a change of heart spelled the difference between sharing space with God and being miraculously smote to make an example for the world.

 

Joshua Blau (SBM ‘17) lives in Brookline, MA with his wife, Hodaya, and daughter, Eliya. He teaches STEM classes in Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael and writes software on the side.

 

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How to Read Like Chazal: The Five Pillars of Peirush and the Mishkan

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Did Chazal have a reading methodology?

In a LookJed exchange with Dr. Avie Walfish some time ago, I argued that “we would be well-served by developing a mode of teaching for the next generation that focuses on reclaiming the methodologies of Chazal,” rather than teaching them to read like a particular understanding of a particular subset of rishonim. If the answer to my question above is “no,” my argument is stillborn. This is the objection that several great contemporary Tanakh teachers/scholars have raised in response to my contention. There is a sense in which that response strengthens my argument, in that it reflects our failure to teach even our best and brightest that Chazal did more than brilliantly but randomly impose their feelings, beliefs, and admonitions on the text.

Now there is a sense in which their response is likely true. The term “Chazal” encompasses at least hundreds of sages, who lived over a period of at least 500 years and in a diverse array of geographic and cultural contexts, and who were educated by schools and teachers who often saw each other as ideological opponents. Rabbinic literature itself records fundamental methodological disagreements, such as whether or not the Divine Torah’s linguistic efficiency is subject to the constraints of idiom (דברה תורה בלשון בני אדם) as well as those of grammar. So to claim that Chazal had a single method of interpretation would certainly be overbroad.

On the other hand – schools of interpretation are often recognizable in retrospect, and the recording of occasional methodological disagreements itself suggests a common core. For example, the dispute about idiom seems to arise out of the common belief that Torah is written with maximal efficiency. It is not unusual for a culture to record primarily disputes, and leave little formal record of consensus or common knowledge. The problem then is how to recover that culture when the consensus has dissipated and the knowledge evaporated. There is grave danger that the incidental will be mistaken for the central in any such project of intellectual archaeology. This has likely happened with regard to “No Scripture leaves the boundary of its peshat” (אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו), leaving aside the question of whether that statement has been properly understood (I discuss the statement here).

Here are what I preliminarily propose as the “Five Pillars of Peirush,” principles that may reasonably characterize the exercise of reading like Chazal did:

  1. Bias toward meaningfulness
  2. Risk-taking
  3. Literary context
  4. Cultural context
  5. Mythological sensibility

I will briefly explain what I mean by each, and then try to provide an illustration via Parashat VaYakhel.

1. Bias toward meaningfulness

If there are two ways of understanding an element of a text, whether a single word, a structure, or an entire narrative, one should choose, or at least fully explore, the interpretation that gives the element greater significance.

2. Risk-taking

Interpretation is an abstraction, a web of meaning that can comport with but never be demonstrated by data. As in science – that a theory fits with the known facts may reflect its truth, or else the theorists’ failure of imagination (perhaps another theory fits even better); and in any case the theory may be proven wrong, or less compelling, as previously unknown facts emerge. Recognizing that proof is generally a chimera, it is worth making suggestions that explain one thing well even if, looking at the evidence overall, they are highly speculative.

3. Literary context

Every word of Tanakh refers to every other use of the same word in Tanakh. This is parallel to, but not the same as, the deconstructionist insight that the meaning of a word in conventional language is constructed for each reader out of every previous meaning the word has had for that reader.

Every incident in Tanakh is presumed to happen within the same universe. Characters who live at the same time can therefore interact even if they are not explicitly mentioned in each other’s stories, and anonymous characters in one story can be identified with named characters from another.

4. Cultural context

Tanakh does not construct a self-sufficient universe de novo; instead, it records a perspective on a universe known to readers from elsewhere. Think of a history of the Vietnam War written for veterans of that war. It is therefore legitimate to see a verse as referring to an incident known to us only via oral tradition.

5. Mythic sensibility

I use the term “mythic” with trepidation, as it can be misunderstood in two ways. To be as clear as I can – “mythic” in no way implies fiction. Furthermore, I do not mean to reject the argument that much of Tanakh is intended to demythify the natural world. What I mean by “mythic sensibility” is that one sees history as either a recurring pattern or else as the playing out of a cosmic plan, or both, and understands specific events in light of that sensibility. Ramban’s concept of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים is a fine example.

Now on to Vayakhel:

VaYakhel opens by reporting that Mosheh congregated (transitive) that entire edah of the Children of Israel. He begins by announcing

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה

וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן לַיקֹוָק

כָּל הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה יוּמָת

לֹא תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת

There are the things which Hashem has commanded, to do them.

Six days melakhah will be done

But on the seventh day, it will be for you holy, a Shabbat Shabbaton to Hashem,

Everyone who does melakhah in it must die.

You must not kindle a fire in all your dwellings on the day of Shabbat.

We are then told again that Moshe spoke to “the entire edah” of Bnei Yisroel. This time he commands them to bring terumah for the construction of the Mishkan, and to construct the Mishkan and its accessories.

The entire edah of Bnei Yisroel then leave Mosheh’s presence.

Any sensitive reader must ask why Mosheh feels compelled at this point to assemble the entire community. A Rabbinic reader might ask in addition whether Mosheh did so on his own authority, or rather on Divine instruction, and would explore (but not commit to) the position that Mosheh did so on his own even if there was no evidence for preferring that option.

Any sensitive reader must further ask inter alia

  1. why Mosheh begins with instructions about Shabbat, when the topic du jour is clearly the mishkan
  2. why there is a paragraph break between the Shabbat and Mishkan instructions
  3. at what point in the overall Exodus narrative the assembly takes place.

The answer to the first two questions, laaniyut da’ati, is that instructions about Shabbat are also the topic of the last paragraph Hashem tells Mosheh to say to bnei Yisroel before He gives him the first Tablets (31:12-18); in other words, Mosheh now does what he was supposed to do then, as if the Golden Calf had never happened.

At the same time, the very word vayakhel recalls the Golden Calf episode, which began as follows:

וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן הָהָר וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל אַהֲרֹן

The people saw that Mosheh as delaying to descend from the mountain, vayikahel the people on Aharon.

(Note that the Golden Calf episode is framed by the people’s seeings: it ends with them seeing that Mosheh’s face is illuminated).

Perhaps Mosheh is mak’hil the people to demonstrate that the Golden Calf episode was not the fault of the people, but rather of weak leaders, who allowed them to assemble as a mob with no positive purpose.

Be that as it may, we must now ask perhaps more difficult questions: Why was Shabbat the last topic Hashem covered with Mosheh before giving him the luchot? And why are Shabbat and mishkan connected?

We can answer both questions with one presumption – Mosheh was originally intended to build the Mishkan as soon as he came down from Sinai (among other reasons, so that the luchot would have a storage place.) This was derailed by the Golden Calf.

From a Halakhic perspective, the question is: Is the juxtaposition of Shabbat and Mishkan intended to teach us that Shabbat suspends the Mishkan, or rather that the rules of Shabbat are suspended with regard to the Mishkan?

The rabbis end up saying that the Shabbat overrides the construction of the Mishkan, but that the activity of the Mishkan supersedes Shabbat. What justifies this apparent paradox?

My suggestion is that the Rabbis understood that the Mishkan had changed its nature as the result of the Sin of the Golden Calf. It had been intended to be a symbol that the first Sin was undone, that humanity was back in Eden. Instead, it became a symbol that we had sinned – an atonement, with cherubs at its heart guarding the route back to Eden.

Now the Rabbis understood as well that the Mishkan symbolized the world – there are linguistic markers of this throughout, of which the most prominent are the constant use of melakhah and ויכל משה. They knew as well that the world is created twice in Bereshit, once (1:1-2:3) without sin and once (2:4 – 3:24) with. It therefore seemed reasonable that the Mishkan as originally commanded – before the Calf – symbolized the world as it is presented in the first Creation narrative, whereas the Mishkan after the Calf also symbolizes the world as it is presented in the second Creation narrative.

The first Creation narrative ends with Shabbat. It follows that the construction of the Mishkan – which was commanded before the Calf – must not take place on Shabbat, lest in the very building of our symbol we deny the Creation it symbolizes. But in the second narrative, Shabbat is never reached. It follows that the work of the Mishkan – the work of repairing humanity so that the world can reach Shabbat – must never cease.

This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2013

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Was Making the Golden Calf a Violation of Halakhah?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

According to yibadel l’chayyim my father, my grandfather z”l did not sing the stanza “Tzeitkhem l’shalom” (Go in peace) on Friday nights, because he thought it was rude. My wife’s family sings Tzeitkhem, but omits the stanza “Barkhuni l’shalom” (Bless me in peace) on the ground that asking angels for blessings violates Rambam’s Fifth Principle of Faith.  We’ve agreed to disagree about this.

I sometimes frame the issue this way to our confused guests: Do you worry more about interpersonal mitzvot, or rather about mitzvot between humans and G-d?  About derekh eretz, or about avodah zarah? Then I justify my grandfather’s position by quoting King David: “Let us please fall at the hand of Hashem, for His mercies are numerous, and let me not fall at the hand of a person.”

There are other options.  We could sing neither stanza, and leave the angels standing there awkwardly (“In every other house they ask us to bless them?!?”) until they decide on their own to leave. Or we could add the fifth stanza “Shuvkhem l’shalom” (Return in peace), which at least mitigates the rudeness.

But it turns out that our eccentric pattern of sounds and silences beautifully models for our students the ability to disagree passionately and yet respect each other’s practices. (For our children, the punchline of the old Jewish joke applies: “That was the custom, to fight about it!”)

The truth is, though, that I started off thinking that Deborah’s objection to Barkhuni was simply wrong.  After all, Yaakov Avinu denies an angel leave to go “unless you bless me,” and he asks for his grandchildren to be blessed by “the angel who has redeemed me from all evil!” I discovered some years ago that the objection was reliably attributed to R. Chayyim Volozhin, but with all respect, could not understand how he justified it in light of the verses about Yaakov. The more serious theological problem with “Shalom Aleikhem,” it seemed to me, is that people tend to sing not “melekh malkhei hamelakhim” (King who is king of all kings) but rather “melekh malakhei hamelakhim” (King who is messengers of the kings, or: King of the messengers of kings).

Netziv’s commentary to Parshat Ki Tisa made me rethink this issue, and several others along the way.

Netziv starts from the classic question: How could the great Aharon haKohen have enabled idolatry by making the Golden Calf? He rejects out of hand the notion that Aharon was simply afraid for his life. Nor does he deploy his radical notion of aveirah lishmah(sinning for the sake of Heaven), according to which a violation of halakhah can sometimes be justified on consequentialist grounds. He does not cite the Midrashic claim that Aharon was surprised by the spontaneous emergence of a calf from the melted gold. Instead, Netziv argues that Aharon must have had a correct legal argument that justified making the Calf.

Netziv knows perfectly well that the Golden Calf becomes the archetypical avodah zarah in Tanakh. He does not suggest that Aharon’s argument is still valid. But he contends that G-d extended the perimeter of the prohibition against avodah zarah in reaction to the Calf.  Praying to intermediaries that can only carry out Hashem’s will was originally permitted, and the desire for mediation was a legitimate expression of fear of G-d. However, the experience of the calf demonstrated that intermediaries would inevitably be taken as substitutes. Perhaps it also created the social-religious will necessary for a ban on intermediaries to be effective rather than generating a worse counterrevolution.

This prohibition comes after the Giving of the Torah via the Ten Statements
“Do not make with me elohim of silver, and elohim of gold you must not make for yourselves”
meaning that they must not make a form of silver that would make it convenient for G-d to manage Israel and relate to their prayers and needs, or a form of gold that would make it convenient for Israel to constantly ask it to receive their needs from The Holy Blessed One.
This is not actual
avodah zarah, which was prohibited to them in the Ten Statements when He said “You must not have other elohim…” as there the meaning is an overseer with power, that we would chas v’shalom believe that The Holy Blessed One transferred His management to some middlebeing, but this prohibition, that comes after the Giving of the Torah, comes to add a ban even in a manner where the middlebeing will ask Hashem for our needs,
and this is actually permitted, as I explained regarding the above verse “Behold I send an angel…” (23:20)
as it is only when The Holy Blessed One is as close to Israel as he actually was with Mosheh that it is forbidden to transfer our request to angels even in that manner, as opposed to when he manages us via an angel, when even though it is possible to ask Him directly, nonetheless there is no sin
chas v’shalom in asking the angels to seek mercy for us from Him the Blessed…
This was the intention of Aharon the Righteous, which was an accidental violation of a prohibition that he had as yet no responsibility to know, but great corruption came from this…

When Yaakov demanded a blessing from the angel, he was clearly not on the level of Mosheh Rabbeinu, and the Calf had not yet happened, so his demand was legitimate.  However, after the disaster of the Calf, G-d ‘built a fence around the Torah’ by forbidding us to addressing requests to intermediaries even when the ultimate addressee of our requests is clearly G-d, Who alone has the capacity to fulfill or reject them. So “Barkhuni” can be forbidden even though by singing it we follow in the footsteps of Yaakov Avinu.

Netziv does not discuss “Barkhuni’ directly, and my wife Deborah considers this defense of her position more problematic than the challenge from Yaakov.  I too will cheerfully continue to sing Barkhuni rather than accept Netziv’s explanation, for both textual and theological reasons.

But having thought of this application of Netziv, I looked to see if anyone had made the argument explicitly.  I looked in vain. But the search led me to discover that the issue goes back much further than I had realized.  An excellent summary and analysis of the literature (relating to 32 separate piyyutim or tefillot!) can be found in an article by Rabbi Shlomo Sperber in  the journal Yeshurun, Volume 3 (5757), which I found on the Otzar HaChokhmah site but is publicly available at www.beureihatefila.com.

Rabbi Sperber’s earliest source is a responsum from Rav Sherira Gaon that accepts as a matter of course that one prays to angels for some matters, and directly to G-d for others. Rav Sherira uses this to explain why, when Rav states that one must not pray for one’s needs in Aramaic, Rav Yochanan explains that angels don’t understand Aramaic. (He concludes that one need not be concerned for this in practice, but raises no theological objections).  Nonetheless, such prayers are not found elsewhere in Geonic literature (with the possible exception of Siddur Rav Amram Gaon). But they are produced in a flurry in early medieval Ashkenaz, to the dismay of the Maimonideans, and the polemics develop from there.

Rabbi Sperber concludes by publishing a responsum of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that offers a valuable model for dealing with many contemporary conflicts, which so often depend on whether we are willing to read each other’s words and opinions generously.

בקשת האדם אצל המלאכים שיבקשו עבורו אצל הקב”ה הוא תופעה מצויה המובאת בחז”ל בסנהדרין מד:
“ר’ יוחנן אמר: לעולם יבקש אדם רחמים שיהו הכל מאמצין את כחו”,
ופירש”י “שיסייעוהו מלאכי השרת ושלא יהו מסטינים מלמעלה”.
גם בשבת יב: “לעולם אל ישאל אדם צרכיו בלשון ארמי וכו’ כל השואל וכו’ אין מלאכי השרת נזקקין לו וכו’ שאני חולה דשכינה עמו”,
ופירש”י “אין המתפלל צריך שיזדקקו לו מלאכי השרת להכניס תפלתו לםנים מן הפרגוד”.
עכ”ז משפטים אלו ניתנים להבנה כפי נטיית הרצון.
על כל פנים לפיוט מכניסי רחמים לבטח תמצא הצדקה לפי המאמרים הללו.

Human requests for angels to request from The Holy Blessed One on their behalf is a common phenomenon that is brought down in Chazal on Sanhedrin 44b
“Rav Yochanan said: A person should always seek mercy that all bolster his strength,”
and Rashi explains “that the ministering angels should assist him, and not oppose him from above.”
Also on Shabbat 12b: “A person should never ask for his needs in Aramaic… because the ministering angels won’t relate to him… but a sick person is different because the Presence is with him,”
and Rashi explains that “the (sick person) who prays does not need the ministering angels to relate to him
to bring his prayer within the Curtain.”
Nonetheless, these statements can be understood however one wishes.
However, you can certainly find a way of justifying the piyyut “Makhnisei rachamim” on the basis of these citations.

It would be absurdly disingenuous to present Rav Hirsch as a model of theological tolerance who prized communal unity over truth. Rather, he explicitly and compellingly self-identified with the zealotry of Eliyahu/Pinchas.

Moreover, Aharon’s error teaches us that compromise and unity are not supreme values. Sometimes there is no way to avoid calling out: “Whoever is for G-d – to me!” even at the cost of civil war, or of losing one’s representation in the Knesset, and even when the other side has a technically defensible halakhic argument.

But like Pinchas in the Book of Joshua, who prevents civil war by accepting the claim of the Tribes in TransJordan that their altar was not idolatrous, Rav Hirsch’s commitment to theological truth was tempered here by a commitment to human truth.  He sought to accurately understand others’ religious expressions in their own terms, and to defend them where a defense was available. Whether a person is capable of turning down opportunities to express their zealotry against fellow humans may be a useful metric of whether they are capable of making positive contributions to religious society.

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2019 Annual Essay on Commandedness in memory of Matt Eisenfeld

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

A human action that fulfills a Divine command/צווי is religiously different from the same action undertaken in response to Divine will/רצון. This proposition is central to contemporary Orthodox ideology.

The ideological centrality of commandedness manifests itself in three separate contexts, which may pull in opposing directions.  

1) Commandedness separates Orthodoxy from non-Orthodoxy. (This is Orthodoxy’s perspective – I am not evaluating here the efforts made in other communities to reclaim the language or substance of commandedness.)

2) Commandedness enables an understanding of chosenness that is rooted in responsibility rather than ontology.  “Here is contained the response to those who claim that the Jewish religion is a racist religion, Heaven forbid . . . we believe that our chosenness stems solely from our being subject to additional commandments, and anyone who accepts upon himself or herself the Yoke of Heaven is absolutely able to join our nation and is called by the name of Israel.” (Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, Emet l’Yaakov to Avot 1:11)   

3) Commandedness justifies gender non-egalitarianism.

The first two contexts are conducive to framing commanded actions as qualitatively superior. In the third context, however, such claims generate accusations of misogyny and the like. Women are אינן מצוות (not commanded) in a set of mitzvot that are experientially central to male Orthodox life, and as a result are excluded from serving as communal religious representatives for those mitzvot.

The primary textual hook for the claim of superiority is Rabbi Chanina’s statement that Greater is the one who is commanded and does than one who is not commanded and does.”  On Talmud Kiddushin 31a and Bava Kamma 87a, Rav Yosef initially assumes that non-commanded actions are greater than commanded actions, but is convinced by Rabbi Chanina’s authority or arguments to reverse his position.  (This may also be disputed between R. Abun and R. Levi in Yerushalmi Peah 1:1.)

Any number of acharonim further nuance the issue and explain that the metzuveh is superior in some ways and cases but inferior in others. Think for example of whether the mitzvah to love G-d is best fulfilled purely out of a sense of obligation. (Note that the Talmud seems to define R. Chanina’s “greater” as “receives greater reward.” See also Rabbi Francis Nataf, “Commandment, Coercion, and Modernity,” in The Tent of Abraham.)

Rav Yosef presumably remained within Orthodoxy even when he thought that acting without being commanded was superior, and I have not seen specific belief in Rabbi Chanina’s statement on anyone’s list of entrance requirement for the World to Come.  What is consensus, and I contend definitional to Orthodoxy, is that G-d commands human beings, and that His commands are binding.  It might or might not be best to be motivated by the fact of being commanded rather than by love or fear or awe of G-d and/or an independent sense of His will. But anything He commands must be done.

Moreover, some commanded actions may be forbidden and sinful if done for any motive other than fulfilling a command. The paradigmatic halakhic example is yibbum (levirate marriage), which may become incest if engaged in for other motives (at least according to the position of Abba Shaul on Yebamot 109a).  See also the position held by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l and the Chofetz Chaim that the erasure of Amalek is murder if done with any admixture of any motive other than the fulfillment of a command. Consider also the deaths of Nadav and Avihu for bringing “a zarah fire that He had not commanded them.”

Some Orthodox theologians have difficulty finding religious meaning in non-commanded actions.  Their banner is כל הפטור מדבר ועושהו נקרא הדיוט (Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:2: “He who is exempt in a matter and does it regardless is called an idiot”).

This default setting seems to run aground on such concepts as לפנים משורת הדין (going further in than the letter of the Law). But the apparent conflict may be an artifact of a false equation between “actions that halakhah requires” and “actions that G-d commands,” or may be resolvable by developing looser definitions of halakhah that include broad directives such as “You must do the straight and the good.” 

A more difficult challenge emanates from the position that women are rewarded for performing most or all of the mitzvot from which they are exempt. Many of the controversies around those issues are probably not about gender, but rather about our theological issue. Nonetheless, for understandable reasons, almost all halakhic or hashkafic conversation about them becomes entangled in, and not infrequently warped by, polemics one way or the other about gender.

What seems to me a notable exception is the treatment of these issues in Rav Yisroel Zev Gustman z”l’s Kuntres Shiurim – Kiddushin, Shiurim 19-20.  Rav Gustman’s analysis therefore seems an excellent point of departure for what I want to do here, which is to make a preliminary effort at analyzing the halakhic issues around women performing such commandments with an eye to the general philosophy of commandedness.  

Rav Gustman himself opens with a philosophic question, as follows: Tosafot and others provide psychological explanations for why a commanded person deserves a greater reward than an uncommanded person.  Rav Gustman asks: Why do we need such explanations? Let us simply say that a commanded action is intrinsically greater than an non-commanded action!

Now it is well-known that Talmud Eiruvin 96b records a Tannaitic dispute as to whether nashim somkhot reshut, meaning whether women can perform the ritual owner’s-leaning-of-hands on sacrifices. R. Yose and Rabbi Shim’on say they can, and R. Yehudah says they can’t. The Talmud records the rationale for permitting as כדי לעשות נחת רוח לנשים, which probably means something like “to assuage women’s feelings of exclusion.”

Why does Rabbi Yehudah forbid? Rashi explains that R. Yehudah holds that women performing this ritual violate bal tosif, the Biblical prohibition against adding to the Torah.  Tosafot by contrast contend that the concern is lest women support their weight on the animal and, because they are not commanded, thereby violate the prohibition against me’ilah (deriving benefit from animals dedicated as sacrifices).

Tosafot’s assumption is that even R. Yose does not permit women to do semikhah on the sacrifice in the same way as men, who are commanded. Rav Gustman contends, with the explicit support of Raavad’s commentary on Sifra 2, that Rashi disagrees and understands R. Yose as permitting women to put weight on the animal when performing the ritual.

Why isn’t this a violation of me’ilah? Rav Gustman responds by developing a category he terms רשות דמצוה, meaning “an optional act that nonetheless is commanded”.  (Rav Gustman is following Baal haMaor Rosh HaShanah 9b. Note that this sense of the phrase must be distinguished from its sense on Talmud Bava Metzia 118b of “an action authorized by a mitzvah,”.  See also Rav Tzadok haKohen miLublin in Meishiv Tzedek 54 and on, who may deliberately conflate the two senses.)

In what sense can an “optional” act be “commanded?” Rav Gustman argues that commandedness is a property of actions, independent of who is performing them. Leaning hands on a sacrifice is a commanded act whether performed by women or by men, even though only men are commanded to perform it. (In Brisker terms: Tzivui is a din in the maaseh, not in the oseh, and does not depend on the participation of a metzuveh.)

Rav Gustman can now explain why Tosafot need to provide psychological reasons for the greater reward given to the metzuveh.  Commanded actions are not intrinsically better than non-commanded actions.  However, G-d does not keep score based on the objective quality of actions, but rather based on the subjective merit of performers.  In Grantland Rice’s formulation, “When the One Great Scorer comes, to mark against your name, He marks not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.”

Rav Gustman also draws a far-reaching set of halakhic implications. For example: Remember that full semikhah must be either a mitzvah or else a sin of me’ilah – there is no in-between. It follows that a reshut d’mitzvah, the optional performance of a commandment, is sufficient to override what would otherwise be the sinfulness of an action. Rav Gustman notes that Raavad to Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:9 records a medieval dispute as to whether women who wear linen garments with tzitzit that include t’khelet (blue wool) violate the prohibition against wearing shaatnez.  He argues that the two sides reflect the original dispute regarding semikhah. If one thinks that women are permitted to perform semikhah, then one thinks that an optional mitzvah they perform is sufficient to activate the principle עשה דוחה לא תעשה (roughly: “when the performance of a DO definitionally requires the violation of a DON’T, the DO overrides the DON’T”).

Perhaps more radically, Rav Gustman draws an analogy between women’s relationship to mitzvot they are exempt from and men’s relationship to ma’ariv, the Evening Service.  Talmud Berakhot 27b records a dispute between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel as to whether ma’ariv is mandatory (chovah) or optional (reshut).  The halakhah follows Rabbi Yehoshua.  But on Shabbat 10a, Abbayay contends that if ma’ariv is optional, then once a man has “loosened his belt,” i.e. gotten ready for bed, we do not bother him to say it.  Rav Gustman deduces from here that a reshut d’mitzvah is not fully optional – one should always do it unless one has a good excuse or reason for not doing it. Therefore, he concludes, the Torah is not neutral about whether woman should perform commandments from which they are exempt. Women should not pass up opportunities to fulfill them unless they either have a strong excuse, or else face a strong halakhic counterpressure.

But we are not yet at the end of his deductive chain.  Rav Gustman sees no reason to differentiate between Jews and non-Jews, either – a mitzvah action is a mitzvah action regardless of the actor.  It seems to follow – although he does not draw this consequence explicitly – that non-Jews should seek to do all mitzvot which they are not explicitly forbidden.

Rav Gustman’s analysis does not fully convince me, nor do I find all his halakhic conclusions congenial.  His conception of “commandedness” as a property of actorless actions seems deeply odd to me. Nonetheless, or if you prefer: as a result, he compels me to acknowledge that my presuppositions about the halakhic and hashkafic implications of commandedness are challengeable.

Understanding and explicating the concept of commandedness, and the associated concept of heteronomy, should be a core task of contemporary Orthodox thought. Yet my sense is that we have made little progress.  Probably this is because of the opposing polemical tugs I outlined above.

Polemical fears around gender have also led some of Modern Orthodox communal leaders into the trap of demanding conformity in theoretical halakhic discussions, and an expanding array of practical questions. Each side frames its narrowing circle of legitimate influencers as a necessary response to the perceived threat of the other’s monolithicism, in a vicious cycle. The price of imposed intellectual conformity is always integrity. Moreover, a discourse based on fear in one direction often leads to alliances that leave one even more vulnerable to pressures from the other direction.

My hope and prayer is that bringing Rav Gustman’s analysis into public view helps stimulate a conversation that models what Orthodox halakhic discourse should be; open-minded and evidence-based with a wide range of legitimate, openly acknowledged, and often conflicting rooting interests.

 

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