Monthly Archives: May 2014

Presumptive Agency, Precedent and the Agunah Crisis

This past week, Dayyan Uriel Lavie of Tzfat published a ninety-three page teshuvah permitting a woman whose husband is in a permanent vegetative state, and therefore a potentially permanent agunah, to remarry.  The teshuvah has many components, but Rabbi Lavie’s key suggestion is that a get can be written, signed, and delivered to the wife on behalf of the vegetative husband via the mechanism of “zakhin le’adam shelo b’fanav”. That is, the halakhic principle that one can function as the presumptive agent of someone else if one’s actions will be for the benefit of the other.

At the end of the responsum, R. Lavie responds to various questions raised by colleagues, and it is common and proper for scholars to intellectually challenge creative responsa.  However, in general the preferred method of critiquing a heter agunah is to find ways to support the conclusion while rejecting the particular mechanism.  In this case there have also been attacks in the press that reject the responsum fundamentally even before reading it.

I too was taught in Yeshiva that zakhin is not a viable method for replacing a husband’s present conscious intention to divorce, and it was a matter of some surprise to me when some years later I came across numerous responsa that utilized it.  Rabbi Lavie has found the same responsa and more.  But I know from conversations with profoundly learned colleagues that these teshuvot, from among others an all-star roster of twentieth century poskim, are not on the radar of Modern Orthodox rabbis.  My suspicion is that at some point a proposal was made to use this mechanism broadly to solve the contemporary agunah issue, and that in polemic overreaction even the narrow uses were forgotten.

It is not my intention here to evaluate or endorse R. Lavie’s responsum – my opinion will not add or detract – and a ninety-three page responsum deserves far more sustained attention than I have thus far been able to give it.  But it seems worthwhile to note publicly that the underlying mechanism is well-precedented and to present as this week’s Dvar Torah a relevant excerpt from Rav Moshe Feinstein.

It may be worth noting that R. Moshe expresses here his willingness, for the sake of freeing agunot,  to rely on ideas that are not well-precedented, so long as they are intrinsically plausible and there is no precedent opposing them.

As it happens, I spoke at a conference yesterday where the common presumption was made explicit that halakhic marriage involved the husband’s acquisition of the wife.  I responded publicly by citing Rav Riskin’s to-my-mind convincing argument that the kinyan kiddushin is a kinyan acharayut, an acquisition of responsibilities, rather than a kinyan haguf, an acquisition of the person.  But some may suspect this of being mere Modern Orthodox apologetic, so it is useful as well to present Rav Moshe’s entirely different rejection of the marriage-as-acquisition-of-wife model, noting that he relies on this rejection halakhically.

Responsa Igrot Moshe Even HaEzer 1:117

In the case where the husband wrote to the rabbis that he should give a get to his wife

Erev Shabbat Kodesh Elul 5707

To my dear friend the famous gaon R. Mordekhai Shochetman shlita

In the matter of the woman Chayah bat Shimon Shterenberg whose husband Yitzchak Meir ben Shlomo Perelman, before being sent to the place where he had been sentenced by the Soviet army to serve ten years, and the place (where he was sent) is (still) not known, wrote via his wife to the local Rabbi, R. Yisroel ben R. Mikhael Mornis, with the content of his words being that because he is distracted because he will have to go wherever they direct him, and he is unable to divorce unassisted, therefore he asks him to be his agent in the matter.  These are his exact words:

“I the undersigned Yitzchak Meir ben Shlomo Perelman, who was born in the city Senetkov, make Your Honor a complete and meyuchad agent to write a divorce document for my wife Chayie son of Shimon Shterenberg who is married to me bua chuppah vekiddushinkedat Mosheh veYisrael”,

and afterward he added “From here on I consider she who had been my wide, Chayie bat Shimon, as divorced from me, and she is permitted to any other man.”  R. Yisroel received the letter and accepted the responsibility of arranging the get, but died before he had written it.

. . .

But in my humble opinion something original seems true, namely that if we conclude that the Rabbi R. Yisroel who was his agent to write the divorce document was able also to have it written by another scribe, and also to appoint another agent to deliver it to the woman’s possession, then she has a way forward, namely that someone should become the agent of R. Yisroel to write the divorce, and two to sign it, and someone the agent of R. Yisroel the first agent to deliver it to her possession,  as even though it is impossible to become the agent of the (dead) husband, since a get is not (per se) a benefit for the husband, and even though (here) he has made his intention clear that he wishes not to make her an agunah, nonetheless it is possible that now he would not wish it (the divorce), because he has the hope of being released soon, or perhaps he has already been released and hopes to find her, and were he to know that she had not yet been divorced, he would not divorce her now, but this relates only to the husband, but with regard to R. Yisroel the agent, who certainly like all rabbis in the Jewish community wishes the good of Jewish women and knows the greatness of the mitzvah of releasing her from iggun and the great prohibition of causing iggun when one has the ability to repair the situation but does not repair it, so certainly it is a benefit for R. Yisroel, and we (everyone) serve as witnesses that if he had not been distracted by his illness, and he had thought of it, he would have made anyone within hearing his agent to write the get and sign the get and to be a secondary agent in his place to deliver the get to her possession.

Therefore, anyone can become the agent of R. Yisroel for this purpose, even though R. Yisroel has already died, since it is as if we have witnessed that he made anyone within hearing his agent when he was alive, before he died, and if he had actually said this, it would certainly have been effective, even though the (new) agent would find out (that he had become an agent) after his death, just like the case of an agent who appoints someone else a subagent, who is an agent even if the first agent dies before he finds out, and since constructive-agency-for-benefit that is generated by we-are-as-if-witnesses lets us consider it as if he said this before his death – see Tosfot Ketubot 11 who write likewise regarding constructive agency if we understand it as version of agency generally, that since it is a benefit for him we are as if witnesses that he appointed him agent; see there – and this applies here as well to consider it as if he said this before his death, so that one who wishes now to be his agent is as if he was appointed in his lifetime but not face-to-face, just he only found out now that he can be his agent.

And (in our case) we certainly don’t have to worry lest the husband has nullified the (original agency), even though he never took an oath not to do so, as on what basis would we suspect this?   Especially as he thinks she is already divorced.

Don’t challenge me by asking whether this is like constructive-agency-to-benefit—by-transferring-property-away, which many say is ineffective, as marriage is not an actual acquisition of the wife by the husband (and therefore divorce is not transferring property away), and the proof of this is that the only reason that an attempt to marry an already-married woman is not effective is the principle that marriage cannot take effect when there is a Biblical prohibition involving keritut or worse prohibiting intimacy between the parties, as is explicit at the end of Kiddushin 67, and not because she already belongs to another.  Rather, certainly marriage is not comparable to a financial benefit, rather the marriage and divorce are a mere matter of prohibition and permission, and therefore we can apply here the mechanism of constructive-agency as agency, as we find regarding the capacity to become a woman’s agent to receive a divorce.

. . .

Therefore in my humble opinion in practice in our case, which is a case of great iggun, four people should engage with this to write and sign and transfer the get to the woman under the authority that R. Yisroel the original agent appointed them, and may Hashem help us that we not stumble in a matter of halakhah.


שו”ת אגרות משה חלק אה”ע א סימן קיז

בעובדא שהבעל כתב להרב שיתן גט לאשתו

.עש”ק אלול שנת תש”ז

.מע”כ ידידי הרב הגאון המפורסם מוהר”ר מרדכי שוחטמאן שליט”א

בדבר האשה חיה בת שמעון שטערענבערג אשר בעלה יצחק מאיר בן שלמה פערעלמאן קודם שנשלח להמקום אשר דנוהו צבא הסאוועטן /הסובייטים/ לעשר שנים ולא נודע המקום נתן כתב ביד האשה להרב דמתא ר’ ישראל בהר”ר מיכאל מורניס ותוכן דבריו

באשר שהוא טרוד שהוא הולך לאיזה מקום שיוליכוהו ואין ביכלתו לגרש בעצמו לכן מבקשו להיות שליח בדבר

וכתב בזה הלשון

אני הח”מ יצחק מאיר בן שלמה פערלמאן הנולד בעיר סניטקוב עושה את כ’ שליח גמור ומיוחד לכתוב שטר גירושין לאשתי חיי בת שמעון שטערענבערג הנשואה לי על ידי חופה וקידושין כדת משה וישראל

ואח”כ הוסיף עוד

.מכאן ולהבא אני חושב את שהיתה אשתי חיי /חיה/ בת שמעון למגורשת ממני והרי היא מותרת לכל אדם

.והרב ר’ ישראל הנ”ל קבל הכתב וקבל לעשות הגט ומת קודם שכתב

. . .

אבל לע”ד נראה דבר חדש דאם נחליט שהרב ר’ ישראל שהיה שלוחו לכתוב שטר גירושין היה יכול גם לכתבו ע”י סופר אחר וגם לעשות שליח אחר למסרו ליד האשה יש לה עצה, שאחד יעשה שליח של ר’ ישראל לכתוב הגט ושנים לחתום עליו ואחד שלוחו של ר’ ישראל שליח הראשון למסרו לידה

כי אף שלהעשות שלוחים של הבעל ודאי אי אפשר משום דגט אינו דבר זכות לבעל ואף שגלה דעתו שרוצה שלא לעגנה מ”מ אפשר עתה לא היה רוצה מחמת שמקוה לצאת לחפשי בקרוב או שגם כבר יצא לחפשי ומקוה שימצאנה ואילו היה יודע שלא נתגרשה עדין לא היה מגרשה עתה

אבל הוא רק לענין הבעל, אבל לענין הר”ר ישראל השליח שודאי ככל רב בישראל רוצה בתקנת בנות ישראל ויודע גודל המצוה להתירה מעיגון והאיסור הגדול לעגן כשהיה בידו לתקן ולא תיקן, ודאי הוא זכות להר”ר ישראל, ואנן סהדי דאם לא היה טרוד במחלתו והיה עולה על דעתו היה עושה שליח לכל מי שישמע לו לכתוב על הגט ולחתום על הגט ולהיות שליח שני במקומו למסור הגט לידה

ולכן יכול כל אדם להעשות שליח של הר”ר ישראל לזה. ואף שכבר מת הר”ר ישראל אבל הא הוי כאנן סהדי שעביד לכל השומע לו שליח כשהיה חי קודם מיתתו

דאם היה ממש אומר כן היה ודאי מועיל, אף שהשליח נודע אחר שמת, כמו בעשה לאחד שליח שהוא שליח אף שמת שליח ראשון קודם שנודע, וכיון שבזכיה מצד אנן סהדי נחשב כאמר כן לפני מיתתו – עיין בתוס’ כתובות דף י”א שכתבו כן בזכיה מטעם שליחות דכיון דזכות הוא לו אנן סהדי דעביד ליה שליח עיין שם – וזה שייך בכאן להחשיב כאמר לפני מיתתו והוי הרוצה עתה להיות שלוחו כנעשה בחייו שלא בפניו רק שנודע לו עתה שיכול להיות שלוחו

וזה ודאי שאין לחוש שמא ביטל הבעל השליחות אף שלא נשבע ע”ז, דמה”ת נחוש לזה? ובפרט שהוא חושב שכבר היא מגורשת

. . .

ואין להקשות דהוא כמו זכין מאדם שהרבה סוברין דלא אמרינן, דהא עניני אישות אינו קנין ממש לאיש באשתו

וראיה דהא רק מצד אין קידושין תופסין בחייבי כריתות אין תופסין קידושין בא”א, כמפורש בקידושין סוף דף ס”ז, ולא מצד שהיא כבר של אחר, אלא ודאי דאין ענין אישות כזכות ממון אלא איסור והיתר בעלמא שעושה בהקידושין והגירושין, ולכן שייך בזה ענין זכיה מטעם שליחות כדאשכחן בשליח לקבלה

. . .

ולכן לע”ד למעשה בעובדא דידן שהוא עיגון גדול שיזדקקו לזה ארבעה אנשים לכתוב ולחתום ולמסור להאשה מכח שנחשב שהר”ר ישראל השליח הראשון מינה אותם וה’ יעזרנו שלא נכשל בדבר הלכה, ידידו, משה פיינשטיין

שו”ת אגרות משה חלק אה”ע א סימן קיח

ומה שהעלה כ”ג שהוא זכות להבעל. לע”ד יש לפקפק טובא כיון שבעינן שיהיה זכות גמור וא”כ אולי זמנין דרחים לה טובא שהיה רוצה לחכות עליה עד שימצאנה. ומה שהביא כ”ג מספר בית ישראל להגה”ק מקאזניץ דבמי שעגן את אשתו ובמומר יכולים לזכות לה גט בלא הבעל משום דגם להבעל הוא זכות לגרש אשתו הרחוקה ממנו הוא דבר תמוה אצלי והספר אין בידי לעיין בו. והחת”ס שהביא כ”ג לא אמר אלא ביש לו אשה אחרת כשתשתפה שזה ודאי זכות הוא לו כדי שלא יהיה עליו חרם רגמ”ה אבל במתה או נתגרשה אשתו השניה כשתשתפה שאין עליו אחרים ואין כאן זכיה לא יתן לה השליח כשליתא שם הבעל. וסתמא כתב החת”ס שמשמע אף אם הוא במקום רחוק מטעם דעכ”פ אינו זכות גמור. וא”כ אדרבה ראיה קצת מהחת”ס שלא נחשב זכות אך ראיה גמורה ליכא דאפשר איירי דוקא כשהבעל הוא במקום קרוב רק איננו בפנינו אבל יותר משמע שבכל אופן אמר זה החת”ס וא”כ ראיה שלא נחשב זכות גמור כ”ז שאין לו אשה אחרת. וא”כ בעובדא דידן אפשר שלא נשא אשה אחרת עדין ולכן אין ברור שהוא זכות לבעל

ומצד הגלוי דעת של הבעל שהביא כ”ג מהגאון ר”א קלאצקין ומהגאון ר’ מאיר אריק שיש לזכות לה גט, הנה בעובדא דידן שכבר עברו איזה שנים הא אפשר שכבר עבר הטעם שרצה לגרשה דאולי כבר יצא לחפשי או שנשאר רק זמן מועט שע”ז לא גילה דעתו ול”ד לעובדא דידהו שעדין הוא במלחמה שבשביל זה גילה דעתו. ולכן יש לסדר הגט מצד זכיה להר’ ישראל שאותו עשה הבעל שליח שלו ודאי הוא זכות גמור כדבארתי.

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Reclaiming Tzeniut: Mosheh Rabbeinu, Divine Mercy, and Modesty

One of my favorite sports is intellectual judo.  The essential insight of physical judo (or so I learned years ago from Captain America) is that exerting force always makes you vulnerable, as the force can be redirected, and your momentum makes you redirectable.  Intellectual judo seeks to use the strength of an opponent’s argument to undo it.

This insight can be applied productively to the use of prooftexts.  Using a particular text to support or embody your position leaves you vulnerable to other interpretations of that text, whose authority you can no longer deny.  This is especially the case if the new interpretation is a subtle redirection rather than a blunt reversal.

One text with much cultural force in contemporary Orthodoxy is the first half of Proverbs 45:14

כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה

generally translated along the lines of

All the honor of a king’s daughter is within,

and applied as an imperative for women to stay out of the public square and generally to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

There is no denying that this reading has deep roots in our tradition.  The locus classicus is :מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת וישלח סימן ו

:א”ר יוסי

,כשהאשה מצנעת את עצמה בתוך הבית – ראויה להנשא לכהן גדול, ותעמיד כהנים גדולים

,’שנאמר כל כבודה וגו

Said R. Yose:

When a woman secretes (matzna’at) herself within the house – she is worthy of marrying a High Priest, and will raise High Priests,

as Scripture says: “All the honor etc.”.

An enthusiastic collection of similar statements can be found in שו”ת משנה הלכות חלק ט סימן שיא .

What, however, is the connection between tzeniut and High Priests?  The answer is in the continuation of the verse, ממשבצות זהב לבושה, which R. Yose understands as follows:

אם תכבד עצמה בתוך הבית, “ממשבצות זהב לבושה” – תנשא למי שכתוב בהן ושבצת הכתונת שש

If she honors herself within the house, then “from embroidered gold her clothes will be” – meaning that she will marry someone (i.e., a High Priest) about whom it is written [ושבצת כתנת שש[1.

It should be clear that this reading depends on a displacement that any feminist critique would call out immediately; the woman’s reward is achieved only vicariously, but she herself – in fact no woman – is ever allowed to wear the garments of the High Priest.

An underlying textual justification for the connection, but one subject to the same critique, is that the High Priest serves לפני ולפנים, within the House of G-d.

Talmud Yoma 47a cites a story that apparently concretizes the connection.

:תנו רבנן

.שבעה בנים היו לה לקמחית וכולן שמשו בכהונה גדולה

?אמרו לה חכמים: מה עשית שזכית לכך

.אמרה להם: מימי לא ראו קורות ביתי קלעי שערי

.אמרו לה: הרבה עשו כן, ולא הועילו

A beraita:

Kimchit had seven sons, and each of them served as High Priest.

The Sages said to her: What have you done that merits this?

She said to them: In all my days the walls of my house never saw the weave of my hair.

They said to her:  Many have done this, but it did not avail them.

Rashi makes the connection explicit:

:לא ראו קורות ביתי כו’ – ראיתי בתלמוד ירושלמי

 –”כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה ממשבצות זהב לבושה”

.אשה צנועה ראויה לצאת ממנה כהן גדול הלבוש משבצות זהב

“The walls of my house never saw etc.” – I saw in the Jerusalem Talmud:

“All the honor of a king’s daughter is within; from embroidered gold her clothes will be” –

A tzanua women is fit to have a High Priest who wears embroidered gold descend from her.

Gevurot Ari (1695-1750), however, argues (against Or Zarua and Meiri) that the Rabbis’ response to Kimchit implies a rejection of this textual reading, at least in the Bavli.  Perhaps in his understanding the Babylonian rabbis were in fact aware of many other women who had behaved similarly to no effect, or perhaps they shared the sense that a vicarious reward would be insufficient.  But I suspect their primary motive for rejecting Kimchit’s claim was that they opposed her behavior and did not wish to encourage others to pursue what they saw as excessive tzeniut.

Why was her tzeniut excessive?  For her walls not to have seen her hair, her husband must not have seen it either.  Kimchit therefore was concealing her hair because she regarded it as intrinsically shameful, not to preserve the intimacy of revealing it.  But the point of tzeniut is to preserve intimacy, not to preclude it.

This becomes clear when we look at a different reading of the verse, found in the Midrash Rabbah to this week’s Parashah.

…כל כבודה בת מלך . . .” – זה משה”

.ממשבצות זהב לבושה” – זה אהרן…”

 “All the honor of a king’s daughter (is within) . . .” this refers to Mosheh . . .

“. . . than the one who wears embroidered gold” – this refers to Aharon.

Here the king’s daughter is Mosheh, whom G-d honors by revealing Himself only within the Tent of Meeting.  Within is the place for meeting and for revealing oneself to another in perfect intimacy.

This midrash also reads the conjunction between the verse’s sections entirely differently.  The mem is contrastive, “than”, rather, than consequential.  The honor of intimacy within is greater than the honor of being allowed to wear the fanciest clothes.

If we take this reading back to the theme of women’s physicality – the verse now means that a woman is ultimately more honored by her husband’s private intimacy than by his buying her fancy clothes and jewelry.  But wearing such clothes and jewelry in public still follows the model of Aharon, and surely is not subject to criticism.

Rabbeinu Bechayeh on last week’s parshah (Vayikra 27:13) offers yet another reading, with perhaps even more radical implications for tzeniut.  In support of a mystical/symbolic reading of כל and כבוד, he writes the following:

.מדת הכבוד בת מלך היא מבפנים, אף על פי שהיא לבושה מבחוץ במשבצות זהב

The attribute of honor for a king’s daughter is within, even though she is wearing embroidered gold externally.

Here – and I suspect this may be the most straightforward reading of the verse – the embroidered gold is neither the reward nor the superseded competition, but rather the context.  Even when wearing embroidered gold, one should be aware that one’s true honor comes from within, and not from external perceptions.  “All the glory of a king’s daughter is within even when her clothing is from embroidered gold”.

Rabbeinu Bechayeh offers this reading as an explanation of various phenomena in which the feminine (mercy/rachamim) is embedded within the masculine (law, din), such as the angel within the fire at the Burning Bush.  I think his point, in a Maimonidean vein, is that one can conceal something by encasing it in a plain cardboard box, but sometimes equally or even more effectively by encasing it in something so independently attention-worthy that observers never think to look beyond the surface.

In other words – the truest form of tzeniut is not concealment of the body, but rather preservation of the self for intimacy, and external beauty can conceal as well as reveal. 

Now this reading is easily subject to reduction ad absurdum, and it is certainly not my intention to argue that Torah is or should be unconcerned about soulless sexual displays.  But I do wish to problematize this particular verse as a source for modesty codes, especially enforced modesty codes; to make clear that modesty practices are intended to exalt intimacy rather than to make it shameful; and finally, to recognize that the interrelationship of body and soul, and how they should affect physical presentation, deserves much more extensive and nuanced treatment than I have yet seen.

As always, your comments are invited and appreciated.

Shabbat shalom






[1]The printed citation here is Shemot 28:39, but I am confident this is an error, and the correct citation is from Shemot 28:13: ועשית משבצת זהב.


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If G-d is everywhere, how can exile be possible?

Philosophers speak of two fundamental modes of verification: Coherence and Correspondence.  Coherence tests whether something is true by whether it emerges from the proper use of an intellectual system; correspondence tests whether something is true by whether its results match something we know reliably.

Netziv’s minimalist theory of Oral Torah suggests that textual interpretation often combines the two modes.  We evaluate the legitimacy of a Torah interpretational tool by whether its results correspond to what we already believe; then we use that tool to produce new truths, which in turn become the basis or evaluating new tools, and so on.  Netziv suggests that in this way the vast corpus of Oral Torah could have been generated from one data point, a single Revealed correct interpretation.  If only one tool could generate that interpretation, then the tool was verified; it could produce other presumably correct interpretations; other tools could be evaluated by their capacity to produce interpretations consistent with those; and so on.

A generally accepted “truth” of Rabbinic theology is that the Divine presence goes into Exile together with the Jewish people.  This principle, found inter alia on Megillah 29a and variously derived, can then legitimate subsequent interpretations that presume it, and thus produce even more astonishing theological propositions.

My interest this week is in Vayikra 25:23 -24, which concludes a section setting forth the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years.

והארץ לא תמכר לצמתת

כי לי הארץ

כי גרים ותושבים אתם עמדי:

ובכל ארץ אחזתכם

גאלה תתנו לארץ: ס

The land must not be sold permanently

because the land belongs to Me

because you are gerim vetoshavim  with Me

and in all land that is achuzatkhem

you must give redemption to the land.

The statement that “you are gerim vetoshavim with Me” can plausibly be read as  consequence of the preceding clause – since the land belongs to Hashem, we Jews are only resident aliens in His territory, and therefore cannot sell the land permanently.

However, the principle that the Presence goes into exile with the Jewish people allows the interpretation that we and He are resident aliens together.  This may be first asserted by R, Menachem Recanati (1250-1310).  The problem with this interpretation is that it seems completely irrelevant to the literary context.

The Baal HaTurim (1269-1346), however, argues that it derives directly from the immediate context.  He reads across the verse break – “you are gerim vetoshavim with Me and in all land”.  Reading across verse breaks in a sense relieves one from the burden of overall context, as it is looking for embedded code rather than primary meaning.  R. Recanati as well describes his reading as following the method of remez.

But what if one does take the context seriously?  Baal haTurim actually quotes one more word of the verse – “you are gerim vetoshavim with Me and in all land that is achuzatkhem”.  Perhaps this was accidental, but R. Tzakok Hakohen of Lublin assumes otherwise.  How, he asks, can Baal HaTuirm use achuzatkhem to refer to exile, when it generally means “hereditary land”, i.e. Israel?  Furthermore, how can Hashem be a resident alien anywhere when the verse has just said that all land is His?

R. Tzadok responds that achuztkhem here does not mean the land that you have a hold on – rather, it means the land that has a hold on you.  This, he argues, refers to exile, which always in some way lays hold of the Jewish people.  We cannot be anywhere without developing a genuine relationship with our surroundings.

And Hashem is with us as we do this.  Why?  Well, in the Messianic era the entire world will be considered Israel, he argues – after all, all the land is really His.  So any land that is exile for the Jews is by definition in exile itself.    The purpose of our going into exile is to bring G-d to that land, and bring that land to G-d.  In other words –

because you are gerim vetoshavim with Me (in Israel) and all land that lays hold of you –  

you must give redemption to the land (that lays hold of you).

A section that apparently deals with Laws that Apply Only in the Land of Israel thus ends up being about the purpose of exile and the ultimate extinction of the distinction between Israel and other lands.

Now one can argue that this is so fantastic that it undermines our initial validation of the method – perhaps here it is not legitimate to read “with Me” as referring to the Divine Presence accompanying us in Exile, and so all subsequent deductions are invalid.  I have always been fond, however, of a third truth criterion – “coolness” – and by that standard perhaps R. Tzadok’s reading passes with flying colors, and we can only look forward to what yet more imaginative methods it will ultimately legitimate, and what truths they will generate.


Shabbat shalom

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Are Our Bodies Metaphors for Our Souls? Physical Blemishes as Halakhic Disqualifiers

Just about every Yom HaAtzmaut I give in some context a version of a sichah titled “The Necessity and Impossibility of Religious Zionism”.  The fundamental issue is the meaningfulness of Jewish history.  Professor David Berger argued powerfully in Tradition that the alternative to religious Zionism is that Jewish political history is meaningless – that whether we are in exile or the Land has no religious significance – and that cannot be; the Satmar Rebbe argued that accepting religious Zionism meant that Jewish religious history is meaningless – that whether we keep Shabbat or believe in Torah has no redemptive significance – and that cannot be.  Both are correct. 

One way of dealing with this paradox is to acknowledge that reality is ineluctably messy, and never fully conforms to the neat conceptual categories beloved of Briskers and geometers.  There are no perfect triangles, or shtarot.  This messiness can be easily accounted for on philosophic or kabbalistic grounds, and that done, we can talk about better and worse fits with abstact ideals, rather than holding out for the perfect, or about partial fits with multiple ideal constructions.

I think that we have a version of the same problem when we try to come to terms with the relationship between body and spirit in our evaluations of human beings.  It is untuitively compelling that there must be some such relationship – if the body does not reflect the soul, why did G-d bother giving us unique appearances?  Claiming that He did so only as a test – to see whether we could see beyond appearances, and realize that true beauty is unrelated to skin tone – is the equivalent of claiming that He buried dinosaur bones to test our faith in Biblical chronology, or that the State of Israel is an apparition of the Dark Side.  Claiming that the body accurately reflects the soul is untrue to both tradition and lived experience.

Perhaps the clearest recognition of this paradox is found in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Wilde’s antihero retains his unsullied beauty even as he descends deeper and deeper into debauchery, but only because he has a painted avatar that absorbs the effects of his wrongdoing.  Every sin etches a new line or wrinkle or discoloration on the painting, and when the painting is destroyed, all those effects revert to Dorian’s actual face, where they should have rested in the first place.  But not all innocent-looking evildoers have such paintings in their attics, and the temptation to allegorize Wilde is strong.

This week’s parshah raises a version of the same problem when it forbids kohanim with a variety of physical blemishes from performing sacrificial rituals in the Temple.  Why should this be so?  Surely unattractive or disabled men have the same religious drives and capacities as Mr. Universe candidates! 

The 2014 Summer Beit Midrash will discuss why these disqualifications are not extended formally to birkat kohanim, and how contemporary decisors and thinkers have addressed the moral challenge of the value of inclusion in contemporary birkat kohanim and classical and future Tempel ritual.  But this week I want to note only that the discomfort is not new, and to show one narrow example of how the range of  possible responses depends on how far one is willing to give up the idea that the physical is a model of the spiritual.

Ramban (12th century) notes that G-d tells Mosheh to teach the laws of blemishes to Aharon – usually it is to Aharon and sons – and that the laws apply to “any man of the descendants of Aharon”, apparently excluding Aharon himself.  Why?    Ramban answers that Aharon was so perfect a human being that there was no possibility that he would develop physical blemishes.  He then discovers a halakhic midrash that derives from these verses that even Aharon would be disqualified by such blemishes, but argues that this was included only because the Law never relies on miracles – the pshat remains that Aharon could never have developed such a blemish.  Other commentators note a midrash in which all blemishes were healed at Sinai, only to return after the Golden Calf.  Perhaps the overall approach is that one impact of sin is a disconnect between the physical and spiritual, so that in our world not only are there blemishes, the blemishes can appear random.  The problem of why good people are blemished is not different than why bad things happen to good people.

Meshekh Chokhmah (late 19th century), however , offers a radically different approach.  He suggests that sacrifices can be invalidated by a kohen’s lack of true belief, which is humanly indeterminable – but is it fair that A’s attempt at atonement should fail because of Cohen B’s lack of belief, which A had no way of discovering?  Now G-d could point out those who lack belief, but it would be beneath His dignity to function as an informer.  Instead, He creates physical blemishes randomly in human beings – even among the perfectly righteous – and makes such blemishes disqualifying.  Then He also makes sure that unbelieving kohanim develop such disqualifying blemishes.  Thus the sacrificial rules are fair to the sacrifices, as all nonbelieving kohanim are disqualified, but no particular kohen is spotlighted as a nonbeliever.

There is certainly a Rube Goldberg element to this solution, and I do not endorse it as sufficient or compelling.  What interests me about it nonetheless is its dogged insistence that the physical must at least sometimes be meaningful, even G-d deliberately prevents us from knowing when it is meaningful.  Physical reality is like a stopped clock, perfectly accurate twice a day, but when?  I have my doubts as to whether that form of accuracy is enough for those who need the correspondence, or a sufficient incentive for those who see the correspondence as generating grave moral difficulties. 

Perhaps the only solution is to abandon any notion of correspondence, even one that is theoretical and not humanly discoverable – to come up with a doctrine parallel to absolute hester panim.  This may also be necessary with regard to history for those, like me, who insist that our religious Zionism be nonMessianic.  But we should recognize that this is a great price to pay, and keep searching for a viable alternative.

Shabbat shalom

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