Monthly Archives: March 2014

To what degree are public servants genuinely servants?

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At the YU Chag HaSemikhah this past Sunday, Rabbi Yosef Bronstein’s dvar Torah on behalf of the new musmkahim cited a story I was familiar with in a very different version, and I’m happy to honor the new rabbis by sharing with you what I learned from him.  I note that I spent the same evening honoring Rabbi Avi Weiss and his family by attending the YCT/Maharat dinner, and the dvar Torah below will relate to that experience as well, and to the broader question of the nature of ideal rabbinic leadership.

To what degree are public servants genuinely servants?

In a variety of famous narratives in the Mishnah and Talmud, Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh is depicted as an authoritarian ruler who brooked no dissent, especially from his colleague Rabbi Yehoshua.  A story on Horayot 10a, however, seems to creates a very different impression.

This is like the time Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua traveled on a ship.

Rabban Gamliel had bread with him; Rabbi Yehoshua had flour with him.

When Rabban Gamliel’s bread ran out, he relied on Rabbi Yehoshua’s flour.

Rabban Gamliel said to him: How did you know that we would be so delayed, that you brought flour?

Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: There is a star that rises every seventy years and misdirects the sailors, and I said: Perhaps it will rise and misdirect us.

Rabban Gamliel said to him: You have all this (knowledge), and yet you travel on a ship?!

Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Rather than being astonished at me, be astonished at these two students I have on dry land, Rabbi El’azar Chasma and Rabbi Yochanan ben Gudgeda, who know how to measure how many drops there are in the sea, and yet they have neither bread to eat nor clothing to wear!

Rabban Gamliel intended to place team at the head (of the academy?).

When he alit, he sent to them, but they did not come; he sent to them again, and they came.

He said to them: Do you imagine that I am giving you rulership?  I am giving you servitude,

as Scripture writes: “They said to him as follows: “If today you will bea servant to this nation . . .”

כי הא דר’ גמליאל ורבי יהושע הוו אזלי בספינתא.

בהדי דר’ גמליאל הוה פיתא; בהדי רבי יהושע הוה פיתא וסולתא.

שלים פיתיה דר’ גמליאל – סמך אסולתיה דרבי יהושע.

אמר ליה: מי הוה ידעת דהוה לן עכובא כולי האי, דאיתית סולתא?

אמר ליה: כוכב אחד לשבעים שנה עולה ומתעה את (הספינות) [הספנים], ואמרתי: שמא יעלה ויתעה [אותנו].

אמר ליה: כל כך בידך ואתה עולה בספינה?

א”ל: עד שאתה תמה עלי, תמה על שני תלמידים שיש לך ביבשה, רבי אלעזר חסמא ורבי יוחנן בן גודגדא, שיודעין לשער כמה טפות יש בים, ואין להם פת לאכול ולא בגד ללבוש!

נתן דעתו להושיבם בראש.

כשעלה, שלח להם, ולא באו; חזר ושלח, ובאו.

אמר להם: כמדומין אתם ששררה אני נותן לכם? עבדות אני נותן לכם,

שנאמר: (מלכים א’ יב) “וידברו אליו לאמר: אם היום תהיה עבד לעם הזה. . .”

The psychology of the final interchange is subtle and complex.  Rabbi Yehoshua’s students, though desperately poor, refuse to come the first time they are sent for, but not the second time – even though nothing changes in between.  Rabban Gamliel deduces that they are formally expressing modesty – they do not wish to appear eager to assume power.  He rebukes them for this, saying that their gesture is mistaken – public office is a burden, not a privilege, and there is no need to pretend that one is unworthy of it.   

The irony should be evident – by treating public office as servitude, he releases them from the obligation to demonstrate that they do not see themselves as superior. 

There is another, less evident irony.  The verse Rabban Gamliel cites is excerpted from the (rejected) advice the elders give Rechav’am sone of Shlomoh when he assumes the Jewish monarchy.  Here is the full verse

וידברו אליו לאמר

אם היום תהיה עבד לעם הזה

ועבדתם ועניתם ודברת אליהם דברים טובים

והיו לך עבדים כל הימים:

They said to him as follows:

If today you will bea servant to this nation

and serve them and respond them and speak positive words to them

then they will be servants to you for all time.

The advice the elders give is tactical – behave like a servant (at least at the outset, bow to public opinion) so that they willingly become your servants.  This seems to be exactly what Rabbi Yehoshua’s students are trying to do!

My very tentative thought is that Rabban Gamliel’s reaction is an extension of their gesture – saying that public office is servitude is also a necessary ritual performance of modesty, and his apparent reproof was actually endorsing and reinforcing the principle behind their behavior.  But underlying all the professed modesty is a clear belief that the community must in the end be led, not followed. 

Now here is the version of the story Rabbi Bronstein cited, from Sifrei Devarim 16:

“At that time, as follows” (Devarim 1:16) –

yesterday you were under your own authority, but now you are servants subordinated to the community.

A story about Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri and Rabbi El’azar Chasma

that Rabban Gamliel set them down (at the head) in the Yeshiva but the students paid no attention to them

Toward evening they went and sat among the students.

This was the nature of Rabban Gamliel.

When said “Ask!” upon entering , it was evident that no rebuke was coming

When he did not say “Ask!” upon entering it was evident that a rebuke was coming.

He entered and found Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri and Rabbi El’azar Chasma seating themselves among the students.

He said to them:  “Yochanan ben Nuri and El’azar Chasma! 

You have done wrong to the community by not seeking to assume rulership over them.

Yesterday you were under your own authority

From now on you are servants, subordinated to the community.”

“בעת ההיא לאמר” –  

לשעבר הייתם ברשות עצמכם; עכשיו הרי אתם עבדים משועבדים לצבור.

מעשה ברבי יוחנן בן נורי וברבי אלעזר חסמא

שהושיבם רבן גמליאל בישיבה ולא הרגישו בהם התלמידים

לעתותי ערב הלכו וישבו להם אצל התלמידים

וכך היתה מדתו של רבן גמליאל

כשהיה נכנס ואומר שאלו בידוע שאין שם קנתור

כשהיה נכנס ולא היה אומר שאלו בידוע שיש שם קנתור

נכנס ומצא את רבי יוחנן בן נורי ואת רבי אלעזר חסמא שישבו להם אצל התלמידים

אמר להם: יוחנן בן נורי ואלעזר חסמא!

הרעתם לצבורשאי אתם מבקשים לעשות שררה על הצבור

לשעבר הייתם ברשות עצמכם

מכאן ואילך הרי אתם עבדים משועבדים לצבור.

In this version Rabban Gamliel genuinely rebukes them, as their failure to assume authority was genuine rather than symbolic, and occurred after they had already been appointed.  The willingness to rule is the beginning of service.

Here is my best-for-now formulation of this semi-paradox.  Public office, or rabbinic office, involves subordinating personal ends to those of the community, while at the same time taking responsibility for means and exerting every effort to make sure that the community properly identifies its own best ends.

One can err in both directions.  One can, for example, mistake one’s own ends for those of the community – l’Torah c’est moi.  One can also mistakenly believe that the legal meaning of Torah is determined entirely by the majority vote of its lay constituency, to which scholars must humbly bow, or even by the majority vote of a particular self-organizing lay constituency.

In the end there are no easy formulae for effective religious leadership.  Each Torah scholar, and perhaps each Torah institution, must find their own balance between authority and servitude.  Perhaps the key is to never stop taking each aspect with great seriousness.







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Vayikra 10:8-11 juxtaposes a prohibition against kohanim entering the Sanctuary after drinking alcohol with a list of types of legal decisions.  The midrash halakhah reasonably concludes that making such decisions is also forbidden to anyone who has drunk alcohol. 

This conclusion is challenged in two ways.  On Eruvin 64a, Rav Nachman asserts that he achieves mental clarity only after drinking beer, while a beraita on Keritut 13b insists that some forms of Torah study must be permitted even after drinking.  I have difficulty relating to Rav Nachman’s objection (although I’m very glad this prohibition has not been Rabbinically extended to caffeine), but I can see why a culture in which alcoholic liquids are standard beverages would insist on the latter.

Which forms of Torah study are permitted?  The printed text, which seems also to have been that of Rashi, records two positions.  The first anonymous position (missing in several manuscripts) is that Mishnah is permitted, while Rabbi Yose bar Yehudah says that Talmud (other versions: gemara) is permitted.  The common denominator is apparently an attempt to distinguish forms of Torah study that generate hora’ah, halakhic rulings, from those that don’t.

Keritut 13b cites Rav as ruling like R. Yose bar Yehudah.  But, the Talmud objects, Rav himself refused to teach publicly after his Yom Tov meal, owing to alcohol consumption?  Why should he not simply have taught Talmud, without issuing halakhic rulings?  The final answer is

כל היכא דיתיב רב לא סגי ליה בלא הוראה

Wherever Rav sat, it would be insufficient without hora’ah.

Rashi explains

דכ”ע בעו מיניה.

Because everyone asks questions of him.

Rav therefore would not teach publicly after his Yom Tov meal, but he would be engaged in Talmud on his own

Maimonides, however, explains Rav’s exceptionality as follows in Laws of Entrance to the Temple 1:4:

ומותר לשכור ללמד תורה

ואפי’ הלכות ומדרשות

והוא שלא יורה,

ואם היה חכם קבוע להוראה לא ילמד

שלימודו הוראה היא.

Is is permitted for someone who is drunk to teach Torah

even laws and legal interpretations of Scripture

so long as he does not issue halakhic rulings,

but if he was a sage “established for legal ruling” he must not teach

because his learning is legal ruling.

Arukh HaShulchan YD 242 suggests that Rashi and Rambam differ only about the stature of the sage who is forbidden to teach: for Rambam it refers to anyone who is recognized as a decisor, while for Rashi it refers only to

אדם גדול שרבים שואלים אצלו שאלות ואין ביכולתו להמלט מזה

A great man whom many ask questions to and is unable to escape from this.

Kessef Mishnah, however, hints at a more fundamental disagreement 

ודברי רבינו מבוארים בפירוש’

ורש”י פירש בענין אחר: 

I confess that I cannot confidently translate what he says about Rambam (first line above), but he is clear that

Rashi explained it in a different manner, 

which I think refers to a more fundamental disagreement than the one presented by Arukh HaShulchan.

My suggestion is that Kessef Mishnah understands Rambam as forbidding all public teaching of Torah by all recognized decisors because their words are automatically taken as guides for practice, rather than as intellectual frameworks for discussion.  Recognized decisors lose the capacity to speculate publicly.  Here Kessef Mishnah anticipated the age of Twitter.

I want to make a further suggestion.  Rambam’s sociological reality drew a hard-and-fast distinction between recognized decisors and others.  In our world, however – for good or for ill – many people see the intellectual plausibility of an argument as sufficient to make it a guide for practice, regardless of the stature of the person making it.  This means that every speculation in Torah offered publicly by anyone should be subject to this halakhah, which we can frame epigrammatically as the “No beer before blogging!” rule.

A deeper point is that the current democratization of halakhic authority in some Jewish communities – leaving aside the questions of how far it ought extend, and whether it is likely to survive – must at the least be accompanied by a concomitant acceptance of responsibility.  One component of this is that everyone making a halakhic suggestion must think about what would happen not only if everyone adopted it, but also about what would happen if some people would adopt it while others would as a result see the adopters as beyond the halakhic pale.   

We must also realize that the combination of completely eliminating private Torah conversational space with the complete democratization of Torah authority may have the ironic effect of shutting down all capacity for serious halakhic deliberation (as opposed to polemical debate), and in the end generate and enable an effective authoritarian backlash. 

Very likely this is already happening.


Shabbat shalom!

Aryeh Klapper







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A Purim Paradox: Binyan Tziyyon on Mishloach Manot

Binyan Tziyyon famously suggests that mishloach manot must be given via agent/shaliach rather than personally.   According to this position, it can be argued that the mitzvah logically contradicts itself and can never be fulfilled.  Here’s why:  An agent halakhically cannot accomplish anything that the original person could not – thus, for example, a sane agent cannot effectively deliver a divorce to the wife of an insane man, as an insane man cannot divorce.   Perhaps, then, it is definitionally impossible to appoint an agent to fulfill a mitzvah that can be fulfilled only via agent, since the sender cannot fulfill the mitzvah themselves.

I have often presented Binyan Tziyyon’s position as an example of excessive literalism in Halakhah, and at the same time of an astonishing willingness to issue a creative Halakhic ruling on the basis of interpretation of the text of Torah.  Often, positions that lose their nuance over time when they become stand-ins for categories, and so I try to review them in their original contexts with some regularity. 

Here it turns out that Binyan Tziyyon really is an excellent exemplar, as a close reading of the teshuvah (see translation and original text below) shows that he creates an admittedly unprecedented halakhic  requirement on the sole basis of a Scriptural read, as he acknowledges that he cannot develop any rationale for the commandment that would justify such a requirement.  Mishloach manot, he says are intended either to show affection or to help one’s friend have sufficient for a Purim seudah, and either of these purposes can be accomplished by delivering food via an agent.

I note for the record that he may have given up too easily.  Mishloach manot may relate to a specific social moment – one is eating and feels compelled to share the bounty with a friend.  If you have to stop eating, the moment is lost, and so the mitzvah originally required a messenger.


Responsa Binyan Tziyyon 44

RAMO OC695 wrote:

“One who sends manot (on Purim) to his friend, but he does not wish to accept them or forgives them to him – he (nonetheless) fulfilled his obligation”,

and in Darkei Moshe he wrote this in the name of Mahari Brin,

But Pri Chadash wrote about this:

 “This is astonishing; where did he get this from?!”

 Korban Netan’el answered that this emerged for him from what is said on Nedarim 63:

One who says to his friend: ‘I swear that X if I don’t come and take to your son one cur of  wheat and two barrels of wine  – he (the other party) can undo his oath without the mediation of a Sage, saying to the him: Did you say this for any reason other than my honor? This is my honor’’

and Rashba wrote that the rationale is that even if he accepted it from him he could return it to him,

and this rationale applies to mishloach manot as well.

But to me this is difficult , as then regarding “gifts to the poor” as well, if he wishes to give to a poor person but the poor person does not wish to accept it, he should fulfill his obligation, so why does RAMO write this only regarding mishloach manot?!

Responsa Chatam Sofer  OC 196 already showed that this issue depends on which of two rationales for mishloach manot one adopts:

a)      To show affection and camaraderie, in which case you would fulfill your obligation (even if the recipient turned it down) since you have shown your affection (Matnot Levi)

b)      Perhaps his friend will not have enough for his meal, and this helps (Terumat haDeshen), in which case you would not fulfill your obligation (unless the friend accepts it)

In my humble opinion the rationale of Mahari Brin and RAMO is that the verse writes “mishloach (sending) manot (food portions)” rather than “naton (giving) manot”, as in “matanot to the poor”,

even though the verb natan can be used regarding manot as in “and he gave to Peninah and all her sons and daughters manot and to Channah he would give one choice manah (1 Samuel 1:5),

because Scripture cares only about the sending, meaning that it should depart from the sender, whereas something is not called a matanah until it comes to the hand of the receiver from the giver, as it can only be called a matanah if it came to the hand of the receiver,  and therefore if the poor person does not wish to receive it  – he has not fulfilled “matanot to the poor”,

even if it would be effective to fulfill an oath to give if the poor person would say “it is as if I received it”,  since he has not here fulfilled the command of Scripture and he can still fulfill it with a different poor person,

but here where it writes mishloach manot, so the mitzvah is only to send, he fulfills his obligation once it has been sent (even if it is not accepted).

On this basis I can resolve the doubt I had as to whether one who brings manot personally and gives them to his friend fulfill the mitzvah of mishloach manot, as we say “a person’s agent is equivalent to the person” but we have not found the reverse, that a person is equivalent to their agent, and since here Scripture writes “mishloach manot”, we should say that we require delivery via agent specifically, while in-person delivery is insufficient,

and I have been astonished that no decisors have made this point,

but according to what I wrote above we can say that both of the rationales I mentioned above are fulfilled even if one personally gives it into your friend’s hand, and therefore that one fulfills one’s obligation even via in-person giving, and Scripture uses the language of agency to make clear that one fulfills the obligation merely by sending, even if your friend does not wish to accept them, and therefore the decisors made no mention of a prohibition against direct giving,

but regardless nonetheless ideally it might be better to send the manot via a third party.

שו”ת בנין ציון סימן מד

ב”ה אלטאנא, יום ג כ”ח מרחשון תרכ”ד לפ”ק.

הרמ”א בא”ח סי’ תרצ”ה כתב: השולח מנות לחבירו והוא אינו רוצה לקבלם או מוחל לו – יצא

ובדרכי משה כתב כן בשם מהר”י ברין

והפרי חדש כתב על זה: תימא, דזה מניין לו?!

ובקרבן נתנאל תירץ שיצא לו ממה דאמרינן נדרים (דף ס”ג):

האומר לחבירו קונם אם אין אתה בא ונוטל לבנך כור א’ של חטין ושתי חביות של יין – ה”ז יכול להפר נדרו שלא ע”פ חכם, ויאמר לו: כלום אמרת אלא מפני כבודי? זהו כבודי,

וכתב הרשב”א הטעם שאפילו הי’ מקבל ממנו הי’ יכול להחזיר לו,

והאי טעמא שייך גם במשלוח מנות עכ”ד

ולענ”ד קשה, דא”כ גם במתנות לאביונים אם רצה ליתן לעני והוא אינו רוצה לקבל – יצא, ולמה כתב הרמ”א רק לענין משלוח מנות כן?!

גם כבר העיר בשו”ת חתם סופר א”ח סי’ קצ”ו דתלוי זה בב’ טעמים של משלוח מנות –

אם הטעם כמו שכתב המנות הלוי להראות חבה וריעות, דלפ”ז י”ל דיצא בשלוח דהראה חבתו,

אבל לטעם שכתב התרומת הדשן דאולי לא יספיק לו סעודתו והוא מסייעו, לא שייך זה.

ולענ”ד טעם המהר”י ברין ורמ”א כמו שכתוב ומשלוח מנות ולא כתיב ונתון מנות כמו דכתיב ומתנות לאביונים, דלשון נתינה שייך גבי מנות כדכתיב ונתן לפנינה וגו’ מנות ולחנה יתן מנה אחת אפים, מזה נראה דלא הקפיד הכתוב אלא על השילוח, דהיינו שיוצא מן המשלח, אבל מתנה לא אקרי רק מה שבא מיד הנותן ליד המקבל דרק אם בא לידו נקרא מתנה, ולכן אם העני אינו רוצה לקבל – לא יצא ידי מתנות לאביונים אפילו אם מועיל לענין נדר לומר הרי הוא כאלו התקבלתי כיון דלא קיים כאן מצות הכתוב ויכול לקיים בעני אחר, אבל כאן דכתיב ומשלוח מנות דאין זה רק מצות שילוח מששלח יצא.

ובהכי ניחא לי מה שנסתפקתי מי שמביא בעצמו מנות ונותן לחבירו אם יצא ידי ומשלוח מנות, דאנן אמרינן שלוחו של אדם כמותו אבל אפכא לא מצאנו שיהא הוא כשלוחו, וכיון דהכא כתיב ומשלוח מנות, נימא דדוקא בעינן ע”י שליחות, אבל על ידי נתינה לא,

ותמהתי שלא ראיתי לפוסקים שהעירו על זה,

אבל לפי מה שכתבתי י”ל כיון דב’ טעמים דשילוח מנות שכתבתי לעיל שייכים גם בנותן הוא בעצמו ליד חבירו, לכן יוצא גם בנתינה, ומה דכתיב לשון שליחות הוא להורות דבשילוח לבד יצא אפילו אין חבירו רוצה לקבל, ולכן לא הזכירו הפוסקים איסור נתינה,

ומכ”מ אולי לכתחלה טוב יותר לשלוח המנות ע”י אחר

כנלענ”ד הקטן יעקב.


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Purim, Anti-antisemitism, and Modern Orthodoxy

Purim, Anti-anti-semitism, and Modern Orthodoxy[1]

Megillat Esther opens with a massive all-male drinking party at King Achashverosh’s palace, then cuts to an all-female drinking party at the queen’s palace.  Disaster strikes when the king demands that Queen Vashti switch parties* while “wearing the crown of royalty, so as to show the nations and the officers her beauty”.  The midrashic suggestion that she was ordered to come wearing only the crown captures the atmosphere of the verse perfectly, although the specific facts necessary to create that atmosphere may well be culturally dependent. 

                Vashti refuses, and the king (at least) banishes her and removes her queenship.  It’s not clear whether we are supposed to sympathize with her (in which case her role in the story is to help establish Achashverosh’s character and explain Esther’s handling of him), ignore her, or celebrate her downfall (thus the midrashim which suggest that Achashverosh was essentially imitating her humiliation of Jewish women).

                A key question is whether Achashverosh’s demand of Vashti is a breach of Persian morals or not.  If it is, it generates a whole social breakdown, as all the virgins in Persia are now put on display for the king, and all the women are put on notice that they may not refuse any of their husbands’ requests.  Ironically, it is precisely this breakdown that enables the reversal of fortune at the megillah’s end – Esther invites the king and Haman to drinking parties, and Haman’s fate is sealed when the king reasonably suspects that such drinking parties lead to debauchery.

                Now how do the Jews relate to all this?  The midrash reasonably assumes that they participate in the party (the midrash also notes that no reason is given for the party, and suggests that it was about the failure of the promised Jewish redemption to arrive – thus the use of כלים מכלים שונים in 1:7, which the midrash identifies with the Temple vessels), and there is no hint in the text that they object to the chauvinist decree or the taking of the virgins.  To all accounts they participate כדת*, in accordance with the law – a term which appears in 1:8 (describing the drinking), in 1:15 (regarding Vashti’s fate), and in 2:8 and 2:12 (regarding the collection and preparation of the virgins, described as “in accordance with the דת of women”). 

                But Haman does not see it that way.  The Jews, he declares in 3:8, have different דתs than any other nation (ודתיהם שונות מכל עם – note that the word שונות recalls וכלים מכלים שונים, and is likely a basis for identifying those with the Temple vessels), and they do not follow the דתs of the king.  Is Haman correct?  Or is this an anti-Semitic projection?*  Regardless, in 3:15 the king’s דת becomes that the Jews are to be exterminated.

                The truth is that one Jew – Mordekhai – refuses to obey one order[2] of the king – bowing down to Haman.  I suggest that Mordekhai sees Haman as ambitious and a threat to the king, whose life Mordechai has already saved.  ונהפוך הוא – it is Mordekhai’s loyalty that exposes him to the charge of being a Vashti.  At the same time, we learn that Haman may be somewhat hen-pecked, despite the king’s banishment of Vashti.

                In 4:16, the plot turns when Esther agrees to approach Achashverosh אשר לא כדת, after protesting that all the people of all the nations know better.  In other words, she makes Haman’s charge true – her דת is not the king’s, and different from those of all other nations.  In 8:13 the king overwrites his דת of extermination, and in 9:13 we learn that the new Jewish דת involves hanging the ten sons of Haman.

                Is that all there is to Persian Judaism – does ונהפוך הוא (see 9:1) change only who’s on top and who on bottom, but not the nature of society?          

                As of 8:17, that seems to be the case – the Jewish reaction to victory is – a drinking party!*  In which they are apparently joined by many nonJews, who are now afraid of them.  In other words, they have become Achashverosh.

                But in 9:19, a new feature (mitzvah – דת?) is added to the day – now in addition to the drinking, there must also be mishloach manot, reflecting some recognition of community,  and in 9:22, a radically new דת – מתנות לאביונים, gifts to the poor.* 

                Until 9:22, the Megillah is a court farce, and one might be forgiven for thinking that the entire plot relates only to the wealthy elite –perhaps the extermination plan seemed total to them because they simply didn’t consider the poor.  But over time, the Jews – perhaps prodded by Mordekhai and Esther – recognize that this episode should cause them to question the whole moral structure of Persian society, and so their דתות in fact become different than those of other nations.*  .  (If I were a dyed in the wool liberal I would connect this to Mordekhai raising taxes as well, but I’m not.) 

                Most specifically, the Jews become the antithesis of Amalek, which attacks specifically the weak.*  We reject the evolutionary imperative and preserve those who cannot protect themselves.

                The challenge of this reading is that it makes anti=Semitism the spur of Jewish morality.  We are blessed to live in a society in which caring for the less fortunate or less able is an almost universally agreed upon דת, although we disagree strongly about how best to accomplish that.  But there are other areas in which there is profound pressure to fall into step with the immoral moral expectations – the דתות – of the society that surrounds us.         

This is especially true of Modern Orthodoxy.  I confess that the first chapter of the Megillah always puts me in mind of a group of male Orthodox college students I once knew who would drink themselves into oblivion each Friday night, but tried hard to send the female students home (to their own parties?) before they completely lost control over their behavior.

                Nonetheless, I don’t think that self-ghettoization is effective, and it has its own corruptions.  The yetzer hora (evil inclination) finds its way through cracks in the walls, and is all the more effective when unrecognized. 

But openness to influence must be balanced with a firm sense of identity and moral self-confidence – we must be willing to be out of step, even if that causes us to pay a heavy social price – even if we are no longer invited to the parties, or lose influence in political parties.  “Everyone thinks that” is no more an excuse for us than it was for Esther.

[1] I had the pleasure of listening as Rabbi David Silber taught Megillat Esther to one of my tenth grade classes at Gann Academy last year, and thought that several of his ideas deserved to be passed on.  So this dvar Torah is admittedly derivative, although of course I take full responsibility for any errors.  I have asterisked the points I recall specifically from Rabbi Silber.


[2] Which is, interestingly, never called a דת, but rather a צווי

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Why the deal allowing the BDA to determine Jewishness is a bad idea

The RCA on Friday released the following statement:

At no time have the RCA or the Beth Din (of America) proactively sought to reevaluate conversions; that is not our interest or desire. However, Halachah does have its standards, and we have acted and will continue to act as a source of information to those rabbinic agencies which seek to determine if halachic standards have been upheld. In creating the “Geirus Protocol Standards” system, we have facilitated the acceptance of U.S. conversions throughout the world. Furthermore, it is only natural, as a responsible local presence of halachic authority, that we are a resource for rabbinical agencies, in Israel and worldwide.

This statement is entirely true, but completely irrelevant.  Here’s why: Owing to their arrangement with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and the desire of the Religious Zionist community in America to ensure that its members can make aliyah without difficulty, the RCA and BDA do not have to be proactive in order to apply their standards retroactively.  In practice, most converts making aliyah, and many who wish to get married here, must apply to the RCA for certification of their Jewishness.  The same applies to their children.  Thus all these conversions are being reevaluated, and I can state from personal knowledge that many legitimate pre=GPS converts and descendants of converts live in fear that their Jewishness will be rejected.  This seems to me a violation of ona’at hager, “afflicting the convert”, even in cases where the anxiety is unfounded and the conversion would be approved.

In light of this discussion, I am appending here an op-ed I wrote some weeks ago but for various reasons had not published.

It is very good news indeed that the Chief Rabbinate has apparently backed away from its deal with the RCA on verifying the Jewish status of potential immigrants.  The deal resolved a standoff about the status of Rabbi Avi Weiss – but how rabbis treat rabbis is less important than how Halakhah treats people, and this deal would have traded the baby for the bathwater.

What do I mean by that?  The Rabbanut agreed to accept all personal status certifications from RCA members, including Rabbi Weiss, if those letters were certified by the Beit Din of America (BDA) as providing evidence of Jewishness in conformity with a new protocol.  In other words, allegedly to save Rabbi Weiss’ honor, the RCA will serve as the rabbanut’s proxy and decide which letters should be accepted.  Rabbi Weiss’ honor has been saved by making every other rabbi’s letter undergo the same process that was objected to regarding his own.

One can only hope that Rabbi Weiss’ letters will have a better fate under the new system than under the old.  A previous controversy involving Rabbi Weiss saw the BDA require reconversion because he had allowed a Rabbi who was himself a convert to serve on the original beit din (even though the argument that such conversions are valid at least post facto was easy to make).  Surely Rabbi Weiss’s future letters will be carefully scrutinized, especially when they acknowledge conversion in the maternal line.

But this new scrutiny, it can be argued, will be a good thing if administered evenhandedly.  A problem with the existing rabbanut system is that it relies on nontransparent personal rabbinic relationships, so that each rabbi uses his own criteria and rabbanut acceptance is a function of the name on the letter rather than of the process by which the letter was researched.  Now at least congregants will know what they need to do to be certified. 

That far I might agree.  But the proposed protocol has several unfortunate additional consequences.  The most important is that it requires the certifying rabbi to record not just the existence of a valid conversion in the maternal line (even several generations back), but the names of the rabbis on the beit din for that conversion.  This means that if, for example, it later turns out that a rabbi sometimes followed a non-BDA approved protocol (or was himself a convert), the BDA will be able to find and cast doubt on the Jewishness of the convert and of every maternal descendant. 

You might think that this fear is obviously overblown, as everyone understands that one cannot apply changing standards in personal status law retroactively.  Wouldn’t this be like challenging a get after it was given, which violates a cherem of Rabbeinu Tam and “casts aspersion on predecessors”?  But unfortunately members of the BDA have already applied such positions retroactively, even at the cost of forcing reconversions in cases where the original conversion was in good faith under irreproachably Orthodox auspices.

There is absolutely no reason for these records to be kept available, and this deal must be opposed until it is made clear that they will not be.  The RCA and BDA must declare that the system will function like the system for divorce, in which it is a violation of halakhah even to examine a get that has been used for divorce, lest one find grounds to question its validity.

There is another problem as well.  This protocol is modelled on the “GPS system” (gerut protocols and standards) that the RCA adopted several years ago for conversions.  That system has had the positive effect of expanding the availability of conversions that will reliably be accepted in Israel and across Orthodoxy, and prospectively, that gain may be worth the cost of excluding some potentially legitimate  converts from Orthodoxy altogether, or of creating a class of converts through unapproved batei din who will never be able to establish their Jewishness successfully.

But in my opinion, the system overreached by applying its criterion retrospectively.  This too has forced many unnecessary reconversions (giyur l’chumra, as opposed to giyur mi’safek, which is necessary) in cases where the original conversion was in good faith under irreproachably Orthodox auspices.  Worse, many such converts and maternal descendants of converts are unwilling to undergo these reconversions, for good and/or sufficient reasons[1].  We are therefore treating many genuine converts as if they were not really Jews, which violates the numerous Torah prohibitions against afflicting converts, to say nothing of our obligations to their descendants simply as fellow Jews.

It is also the case that in America, many families that have been Jewish for untold generations have no clear proof of that fact.  The BDA must make clear how it will handle cases of baalei teshuvah whose families have lived in areas where no one shomer Shabbat knew them, and the like, lest this protocol lead to the actualization of the claim that Orthodoxy recognizes only the Orthodox as Jewish.

For these reasons I suggest that the RCA seize the opportunity handed it by the rabbanut’s withdrawal to itself withdraw from this deeply flawed agreement.  We can and must do much better.

[1] a) For women, unnecessary conversion prevents them from being able to marry kohanim
b) Both men and women are legitimately unwilling to cast aspersions on the Jewishness of their mother or maternal relatives
c) All human beings reasonably resist going through rituals that require them to deny their own sense of self
d) They cannot honestly meet contemporary Orthodox conversion standards.

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The Center for Modern Torah Leadership Weekly Torah Exploration

with Rabbi Aryeh Klapper


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Is Judaism an island, entire unto itself?  Many readers of Halakhic Man emerge with a religious vision in which the meaning of Jewish law is entirely metahistorical and acontextual.  The highest purpose of this vision is to enable us to boldly go where we please spiritually and intellectually, to experience any civilization without fear that we will lose track of our true selves.  Halakhah thus understood is an immovable Archimedean point that enables us to influence without ourselves being influenced.

The problem with this vision is its fatal allergy to reality.  In practice, halakhic thinkers are human beings, and so are inevitably influenced by their surroundings.  The monadic fantasy therefore leads either to distorting overreactions, or to a constantly fugitive and cloistering virtue, and most often to both. 

Worse – since the other realms of our religion are admittedly not autonomous, but rather subject to intellectual and cultural influence, it becomes necessary to shield halakhah from contact with any other aspect of Judaism.  We use our books to protect ourselves from our poetry.

A radically opposite vision can be derived from the third book of the Guide of the Perplexed.  Here the meaning of ritual law – even explicit Torah ritual law – seems reduced entirely to the historical and contextual.  In its extreme version, all of Sefer Vayikra is nothing but a concession to the primitive religious conceptions which the Jews of the Exodus could not reasonably have been expected to give up immediately. 

This vision as well cannot be complete.  Culture has to come from somewhere, and is not produced solely by the backwash from other cultures.   The whole point of Maimonides is that the Jews were being educated toward truth, which means that there was a source of truth, and a standard for evaluating ritual, that was external to their context.  G-d conceded animal sacrifice, but would not concede human sacrifice, no matter how much cultural cachet the latter carried. 

In the absence of a Temple, the question of whether animal sacrifice would be meaningful in our context is moot, and we can speculate as to whether a Rebuilding would change the context so as to regenerate meaning, or instead grab on to the suggestion of Rav Kook (in one place) that the Third Temple will feature vegetable sacrifices exclusively.  But many of the other mitzvoth for which Maimonides gives similar reasons are still in practical force.  Sometimes the memory of context is sufficient to provide meaning, but sometimes not.  For example – I find it helpful to think of tzitzit as a fulfilment of “and you will be to me a kingdom of priests”, on the assumption that ancient near eastern priests wore tzitzit, but I don’t find it helpful to think that I don’t wear shatnez because ancient near eastern priests wore shatnez.  (I do find it interesting to consider the two rationales together.)

Let us take as another example the question of why Vayikra 2:11-13 bans sourdough and date honey (or other fruit-derived sweets) from all sacrifices (while requiring that they be salted).  Guide 3:46 explains this as follows:   

Because the worshipers of idolatry would not sacrifice bread, but rather sourdough, and they chose to sacrifice sweet things and to make their sacrifices gooey with honey.

At face value, this suggests that our rules of sacrifice are wholly reactive and have no inherent meaning.  Had the local idolaters required salt and banned honey, the Torah would have banned salt and required honey.

The problem is that the Torah itself might have influence, so that over time, the idolaters surrounding Israel might adopt its rules.  What do we do when the competing religions accept the Torah as their basis?

Now Nachmanides here cites Maimonides, with an interesting addition. 

וטעם השאור והדבש,

יתכן שהוא כדברי הרב במורה הנבוכים (ג מו),

אמר שמצא בספריהם שהמנהג היה לעובדי ע”ז

להקריב כל מנחתם חמץ,

ולערב הדבש בכל קרבניהם,

ולכן אסרם לגבוה.

וכזה אמרו רבותינו (ספרי שופטים קמו) במצבה

שהיתה נבחרת בימי האבות

ואחר כך שנאה השם מפני שעשאוה חוק לע”ז,

כמו שאמר “אשר שנא ה’ א-להיך” (דברים טז כב):

The rationale for the (ban on) sourdough and honey

plausibly is in accord with the words of the Rav in the Guide of the Perplexed,

where he said that he hound in their books

that idol worshippers had the custom of sacrificing all their flour-offerings leavened,

and to mix honey into all their sacrifices,

and therefore banned them (when sacrificing) to the Highest.   

 And our Rabbis similarly wrote (Sifrei Shoftim 146) regarding a matzeivah (monolith)

that it was a choice mode of worship in the days of the Forefathers,

but afterward it was hated by Hashem because they made it a rule for idolatry,

 as Scripture writes (Dvarim 16:22) “which Hashem your G-d hates”.

The analogy is not obvious.  Sifrei is trying to explain how the Torah can say that G-d hates monoliths when He apparently loved those that the Forefathers erected- the solution is that G-d hated them once they became standard ritual for idolaters.  Here, there is no evidence that G-d ever responded approvingly to sourdough or honey.  Possibly the argument is a kal vachomer– if G-d is willing to ban forms of worship He once loved because they have in the interim been associated with idolatry, then all the more so He should be willing to ban forms of worship that have no history prior to becoming  standard rituals for idolaters. 

The gap in the analogy is nonetheless important, because it does not commit Ramban to seeing the Sifrei’s treatment of matzeivah as paradigmatic – it does not compel him to believe that all forms of worship, no matter how worthy in and of themselves, become forbidden once they are adopted by idolaters.  Ramban’s only commitment is to the idea that G-d can “hate” a ritual because of its historical associations even if it is not intrinsically corrupt.  He does not suggest that G-d must hate every ritual that develops idolatrous associations.

There is a commonsense way to reach the same conclusion.   Sacrifice per se was a fixed idolatrous ritual, so why doesn’t the Torah ban sacrifices entirely?  Maimonides instead argues that the Torah includes ritual animal sacrifice because it was such a crucial element of the culture’s spiritual toolbox that it could not be eliminated.

A quick Bar Ilan search (version 18+, so not at the cutting edge of PED[1] bekiut) indicates that the Sifrei was rarely quoted before the 20th century.  But in the 16th century, Shut Be’er Sheva 71 followed a very similar line of reasoning.  Be’er Sheva explains that the practice of praying with “raised hands”[2] fell into Jewish disuse, despite ample Biblical precedent, because it became associated with Christian prayer.  He does not suggest that Jews discontinue prayer altogether because it had been adopted by Christians. 

The early 20th century Shut Siach Yitzchak 436, however, cites Sifrei to defend a halakhic prohibition against speaking Hebrew, which apparently had become associated with Zionism.  But with all due respect, this seems more a reductio ad absurdum against the ban than an argument for it, and in any case, even Siach Yitzchak uses this as a post facto justification, not as a basis for instituting a new prohibition.  (This is also true of Be’er Sheva.)

In other words, the mere fact that a religious practice is shared with idolaters cannot be sufficient to ban it, and I think the same principle likely applies to practices shared with nonidolatrous sectarians.  Rather, the standard is likely similar to that articulated by Maharik regarding the formal prohibition against imitating the ways of the Gentiles, namely that the specific detail being imitated must have no rational purpose.  Perhaps one might soften it to “must achieve no rational purpose that cannot obviously and as easily be achieved by other means”, but I suspect not much further.

I am therefore not enamored of Maimonides’ explanation of the ban on sourdough and honey in sacrifices, and I am similarly but to a lesser extent dissatisfied with Ramban’s explanation of why monoliths are prohibited.  For a contrasting position, which I would much prefer if I could only found it convincing, see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.  He argues that monoliths represent unaltered nature, which was how G-d was known prior to Sinai.  At Sinai, we learned to worship the transcendant G-d, and so switched to composite/manufactured altars.    

I am aware of two alternative approaches to the sourdough and honey issue. 

The first approach argues that both represent the yetzer hora – sourdough on the assumption that chametz on Pesach has that symbolism, and honey on the argument that sweetness= temptation to sin.     One can add a little sophistication to the latter by pointing out that halakhically the “honey” here refers to all sweets produced from fruit – echoes of Eden? = but again, this seems to me unconvincing.  If G-d had banned salt and mandated honey, I suspect we would easily have made salt represent the yetzer hora (perhaps because with regard to the meat-kashering process it is literally lifebloodsucking?), and honey the sweetness of doing mitzvot.  Note that R. Chaim Paltiel has a different schema in which the yetzer hora starts off but sweet ends up causing fermentation – obviously we could understand the symbolism as moving from sourdough to honey as easily as vice versa.

The second approach is kabbalistic.  Here something interesting may have happened.  Rabbeinu Bechayeh (Bachyah ben Asher, 1255-1340) writes the following:

וע”ד הקבלה:

השאור והדבש רמז למדת הדין

כידוע מלשון חמץ,

ולפי שהם דברים שיצאו ממזגם

לכך הם מרוחקים מן המזבח,

Using the interpretational method of the Kabbalah:

The sourdough and honey are hints to the Attribute of Justice,

as is evident from the use of the word chametz.

Since they are things that have left their (healthy range of) mixture

Therefore they are distanced from the altar.

Both sourdough and honey represent justice, honey because it is an extreme of taste.

But R. Menachem Rekanati (1250-1310) writes this (the translation may be inaccurate):

בעבור שהקרבנות באים לרצון לשם הנכבד

להשלים אלינו כל המדות,

על כן לא יבואו מן הדברים אשר להם היד החזקה

כמו השאור הרומז למדת הדין החמוצה והקשה,

גם לא יבואו מן הדברים המתוקים לגמרי כמו הדבש

רק מן המזוגים,

כענין שאמר בבריאת עולם [ב”ר יב, טו]

שיתף מדת רחמים עם מדת הדין ובראו.

Because all sacrifices come to appease the will of the Holy Name,

To bring all the Attributes into peace with us

Therefore, there must not come from things that have a strong effect

Such as sourdough, which hints at the Attribute of Justice, which is fermented and difficult,

and also  must not be brought from the things which are completely sweet, such as honey,

but rather only from those which are blended,

as Bereshit Rabbah 12:15 writes regarding the creation of the universe: 

“He combined the Attribute of Mercy with the Atttribute of Justice and created it.

Here sourdough represents justice, whereas honey represents mercy!

My suspicion is that R. Recanati is the original, and Rabbeinu Bechayeh somehow misidentified the antecedent of a pronoun in R. Recanati or some commentary both he and R.Bachyeh each had access to. 

I cannot prove this, however, and perhaps my suspicions arise from inadequate knowledge  or appreciation of the kabbalistic method.

So I don’t yet have a viable alternative to Rambam’s historical reductionism.  My sense is that a modified version of his thesis can be constructed in which the ancient idolaters had very deep symbolic reasons for using honey and sourdough, so that our ban against them is a rejection not only of their practice but of the concrete ideas that motivated their practice.   Your concretizations of that altered thesis are very welcome indeed.

Shabbat shalom! 

[1]Performance-enhancing database

[2] I believe there is an article in Minhagei Yisroel tracing the evolution of the phrase and associated hand positions based on medieval woodcuts, but I don’t recall for certain, and would welcome a specific citation or correction.

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CMTL will expand dramatically in September 2014

Dear Friends,

I’m enormously excited to announce that the Center for Modern Torah Leadership will be expanding dramatically.   

In the 2014-15 academic year, you can expect to see the Center build on its existing programs by:

  • Creating an SBM alumni network;
  • Running multiple conferences and y’mei iyyun for rabbis and educators;
  • Expanding the Center’s campus and synagogue presence nationally through lectures, Shabbatonim, and online classes and conversations;
  • Publishing two issues of Acharayut Ketuvah and at least one book;
  • Generating a steady stream of public commentary on issues such as day school tuition, proposed agunah solutions, the boundaries of normative halakhah, and the economic expectations we impose on our children;
  • Creating ethical discussion circles for lawyers, doctors, and other professionals;
  • Helping day schools create and teach curricula that simultaneously inspire commitment, provoke thought, and generate legitimate autonomy within Orthodoxy.


Within several years, CMTL will create semester and year beit midrash programs to nurture American-Israeli halakhic conversation and women’s creative halakhic contributions.  And there will be much more. 

As of September, I’ll be serving full-time as the Center’s Dean, with the mandate of expanding the Center’s impact on the Modern Orthodox community, the Jewish community, and the human community.  I am honored by and grateful for your ongoing friendship and support

The Center is a superb investment in the development, dissemination and implementation of creative, sophisticated, and responsible Orthodox ideas.  I look forward to our partnership in the years ahead,


Aryeh Klapper,



P.S. The Center already plays a vital role in our community’s critical discussions of halakhah and public policy.  Please see the next pages for some examples of contributions from the past month alone and for examples of the formal positions our alumni hold in the Jewish community.



Women and tefillin

The decisions by SAR and Ramaz to permit female students to wear tefillin generated a response by Rabbi Ethan Tucker.  Rabbis Avraham Bronstein, Joshua Strulowitz, and Shlomo Brody – all Summer Beit Midrash alumni – each published principled, honest, and widely read treatments of separate aspects of the issue that genuinely advanced the conversation.  In addition, Rabbi Klapper’s response to Rabbi Tucker was circulated on many listservs and generated at least two formal responses. 

The Kashrut Industry

Rabbi Klapper posted a blog about products that are kosher only when not hekhshered.  Within a week, the post had been read by nearly 11,000 people in 86 countries, and linked to on a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish sites.

Jewish Divorce and Agunot

SBM alum Rori Picker-Neiss published the op-ed “I Signed The Post-Nup. Why Haven’t You?” in the New York Jewish Week.  Rabbi Klapper’s shiur at YU last Wednesday vigorously asserted the immorality of an Israeli rabbinic court’s refusal to tell a jailed and confessed pedophile that he was religiously obligated to free his wife from their marriage.  The shiur was organized by SBM alum Tuvy Miller and attended by many alumni and their friends and chavrutot.  The shiur will be posted soon on YUTORAH.

Academic Approaches to Studying Torah

The Iranian Talmud by SBM alum Dr. Shai Secunda sold out at the SOY Seforim Sale.  An upcoming forum at Yeshiva on this issue will feature SBM alum Rabbi Jon Kelsen.

Partnership minyanim

SBM alum Rabbi David Wolkenfeld published a wonderful post in his own right while facilitating the general conversation on Morethodoxy.  SBM alum Jonathan Ziring made important points on his blog Shaashuim, while other SBM alums contributed significantly to discussions on various listservs.  Rabbi Klapper also treated an aspect of the issue in his weekly essay. 

Halakhah and Disability

CMTL’s announcement of the 2014 Summer Beit Midrash theme has generated immediate requests for access and participation from a variety of Jewish associations for the disabled.


Where are they now?

SBM alumni currently serve as:

  • director of the Nishmat Yoetzet Halakhah program in America;
  • as directors of Tikvah Foundation programs for high school students in America and for post—high school students in Israel;
  • as rabbis of prominent congregations such as ASBI in Chicago and WSIS in New York;
  • as Orthodox campus rabbi at Yale Hillel, Senior Educator at Berkeley Hillel, and Director of Southern California Jewish Student Services;
  • as faculty at Yeshiva College, Drisha Institute, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Northwestern University Yeshivat HaKotel. Yeshivat Har Etzion, Mikhlelet Emunah v’Omanut, Migdal Oz, and many others
  • as faculty and administration at schools such as  Maayanot, SAR, Kohelet, Maimonides, Frankel Academy, and Yavneh Academy
  • as directors of community education programs; as director of a rabbinic professional development program; as synagogue presidents; and much more


SBM alumni have also been instrumental in the founding of institutions such as Uri L’Tzedek and The Aspen Center for Social Values

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