Monthly Archives: September 2014

Facing the Past to Better Face the Future

Rabbi Eliezer says: Repent one day before your death (Avot 1:2). Why not earlier? Perhaps there is virtue in looking forward rather than backward, so long as there is a prospective view, and so long as in the end one accepts responsibility for the past. A beraita (Shabbat 153a) reads Rabbi Eliezer very differently, however:

Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: Does a person know on what day he will die?

He said to them: All the more so, let him repent today lest he die tomorrow, and it will end up that all his days he is penitent.

Here the ideal is to look backward continually, and Rabbi Eliezer speaks of repenting only on the day before death as a concession, or perhaps merely as a rhetorical advice.

We might borrow from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and say that Rabbi Eliezer’s statement on its own generates a religiosity that seeks to achieve a destiny, while the dialogue with his students generates a religiosity that seeks to avoid fate. Or we might set out a chakirah distinguishing between repentance from and repentance toward (quoting Rav Kook extensively with regard to the latter). Or we might frame a practical question: Can one ever be done repenting? One purpose of atonement is closure. Is that ever the case with repentance?

The end of Sefer Devarim indicates that at least Mosheh Rabbeinu knew the day of his death in advance, and apparently provides us with an in-depth look at his last day alive. Moreover, Mosheh is told explicitly that his death will be caused by a past sin (32:5):

And die on the har toward which you are climbing, and be gathered to your people

as Aharon your brother died at hor hahar, and was gathered to this people

as a consequence of your having badly used me amidst the Children of Israel

at the Waters of Merivat Kadesh, in the wilderness Tzin

as a consequence of not having sanctified me amidst the Children of Israel

His last day should therefore have much to teach us about end-of-life repentance. But recreating Mosheh’s calendar for that day turns out to be a surprisingly complicated enterprise, and perhaps poses a stark challenge to Rabbi Eliezer.

Let’s start from the very end. The last twelve verses of the Torah describe Mosheh climbing Mount Nevo. Hashem shows him the Promised Land, but reminds him yet again that he will never reach it.

Hashem said to him:

This is the land regarding which I swore to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov,

saying “to your seed I will give it”;

I have shown it to your eyes, but thereward you must not cross.”

The last thing Hashem says to Mosheh is a statement—perhaps a command—that he will not reach Israel. This seems cruel, and utterly out of keeping with the immediately following descriptions of Mosheh as “the servant of G-d” and the apogee of prophecy. Perhaps it is a response to Mosheh’s repentance—still not good enough, or irrelevant to the decree—but it shows us no direct evidence that any such repentance occurred.

The last words ascribed to Mosheh in the Torah comprise the “blessing” that takes up all of Chapter 33. I don’t pretend to understand the chapter entirely, but it seems clearly to end on a triumphalist note, with Israel trampling the high places of her enemies. Here again there seems no reference to repentance.

I suggest, however, that these are not actually Moshe’s last words. The end of Chapter 32 is Hashem’s order to Mosheh to climb Mount Nevo and die, and the beginning of Chapter 34 is Mosheh perfectly fulfilling those instructions. There is no suggestion that anyone else is present during these dialogues. Furthermore, the blessing of וזאת הברכה is introduced grammatically as an insertion, rather than as part of a flowing narrative: “And this is the blessing that Mosheh (had) blessed the Children of Israel before his death,” rather than ‘Mosheh (subsequently) blessed the Children of Israel.’

The Torah’s narrative is often not in chronological order, and most commentators agree that the Torah does not necessarily acknowledge flashbacks or foreshadowing explicitly. In other words, the Torah is often written so as to create the initial illusion of a chronological narrative that falls apart only after close analysis. My suggestion is that the blessing is inserted here to demonstrate that Mosheh’s overall relationship to Bnei Yisroel was that of blesser, even though his actual final words to them were otherwise.

What then were Mosheh’s actual last words to Bnai Yisroel? Devarim 32:45-7 tell us:

Mosheh finished speaking all these words to all Israel.

He said:

Give your hearts to all the words which I am making a testimony for you today

which you will command them to guard and keep

all the words of this Torah.

Because it is not an empty thing from you, rather it is your life

and via this thing you will have extended days on the ground

which you are crossing the Jordan toward, to inherit it.

These last words emphasize that Mosheh did not allow his disappointment at being excluded from the Land to diminish his concern for his people’s long term survival there, or his enthusiasm for their success.

They do not make any explicit reference to repentance for the sin at Merivah. But these words are only the coda—they come when Mosheh “finished speaking all of these words to all Israel.” What was the actual speech?

I suggest that 32:45 is the closure of an envelope structure beginning at 31:1:

Mosheh went. He spoke these words to all the Children of Israel.

The problem is that a great deal happens in that envelope, much of which is clearly not part of a Mosaic speech. Haazinu is recited, and it or another poem is taught, and written, by both Mosheh and Yehoshua. At least one full Torah scroll is written, perhaps more. Yehoshua is blessed and charged, repeatedly, and so are some or all members of the Tribe of Levi. G-d tell Mosheh his death is near, and both G-d and Mosheh declare that the Jews will sin badly in the future. The Torah actually seems to be doing its best to confuse the chronology. Why would that be?

Perhaps to avoid making it obvious that Mosheh Rabbeinu does not spend his last day repenting his sin. It might even be said that he spends the day repeating it. Here for example is 31:27:

For I know your rebelliousness, and your stiff neck –

Indeed, so long as I have been living among you, you have been rebellious with Hashem –

so certainly after my death

This seems to strongly echo “שמעו נא המורים” “Hear ye O rebels” from the waters of Merivah (Bamidbar 32:10).

And yet, if I am right, the Torah still makes it possible for us to realize that Mosheh is not repenting, and therefore we must be able to learn something positive from that as well. Here’s my suggestion:

Ongoing, permanent repentance may be a fine way to live an individual life, but it is no recipe for leadership. Leaders who focus on making up for the past rather than preparing for the future end up fighting the last war, and they will constantly have more and more decisions to repent for.

And yet, leaders who fail to acknowledge their errors—who are incapable of genuine reflection and change—will inevitably repeat those errors, generally on a larger scale. The Torah properly protects the honor of the incomparable prophet and servant of Hashem, but leaves us the clue, in Hashem’s last words to him, that the sin of Merivah was still fundamentally unrepented.

By setting aside the Ten Days of Repentance, we indicate that Rabbi Eliezer’s students’ question is better than his answer. There is a time to face the past, but unless we have no future, the purpose of facing the past is to enable us to better face the future. May we succeed, then, in facing our pasts so that we may be inscribed in the book of those with meaningful futures.

L’shanah tovah tikatevu v’techatemu!

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To Heaven and Back, In Search of Torah

כי המצוה הזאת אשר אנכי מצוך היום

לא נפלאת הוא ממך

ולא רחקה הוא

לא בשמים הוא


מי יעלה לנו השמימה ויקחה לנו וישמענו אתה


ולא מעבר לים הוא


מי יעבר לנו אל עבר הים ויקחה לנו וישמענו אתה


כי קרוב אליך הדבר


בפיך ובלבבך


Because (ki) this mitzvah which I am commanding you today –

it is not too wonderful for you,

nor is it too distant for you.

It is not in the Heavens,

so that you might say:

“Who will rise to the Heavens for us and take it for us and enable us to hear it?

Then we would do it!”

Nor is it across the sea,

so that you might say:

“Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us and enable us to hear it?

Then we would do it!”

Rather (ki), the matter is close to you,

very –

in your mouth and in your heart –

to do it. (Devarim 30:11-14)

The standard formula for blessing the New Moon (Kiddush Levanah) includes the sentence “Just as I dance opposite you and am unable to touch you, so too my enemies should be unable to touch me for the sake of doing me harm.” After the first moon landing, Rav Shlomo Goren ruled that this sentence should be altered, since it was no longer true. Certainly it would be odd to pray that our enemies not be able to attack us—except via rocket.

If the moon is now accessible, what about the Heavens? Rabbi Yehoshua famously quoted “lo bashomayim hi” to deny the authority of Heavenly voices in halakhic disputes, but the parallelism with “the other side of the sea” seems to make clear that shomayim in our verse really means “the Heavens” rather than Heaven. Perhaps I am guilty here and regarding kiddush levanah of taking a metaphor too literally.

Or perhaps not. On Eiruvin 55a, the Talmud cites Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Dosa:

שאם בשמים היא אתה צריך לעלות אחריה

ואם מעבר לים היא אתה צריך לעבור אחריה

because when it is in shomayim, you must rise to go after it;

and when it is across the yam (sea), you must cross to go after it.

The Sheiltot d’R. Achai Gaon to Parshat Toldot adds:

מיכן לתלמיד חכם שיש לו הרב במדינת הים

שצריך לילך אחריו

From here we learn that if a student/scholar has a mentor in medinat hayam (literally “the land of the sea: generally “distant land”), that he must travel to go after his mentor.

The parallelism with yam suggests that if the Torah is in shomayim, we must go to shomayim and learn it, and that it is as possible for the Torah to be in shomayim as it is for the Torah to be across the sea. Now it may be that for the original audience of Torah, the Desert Generation, crossing the sea was unimaginable. But Sheiltot d’R. Achai Gaon sees the verse as grounding a very practical and concrete obligation.

How would one go to shomayim to learn Torah, and would Rabbi Yehoshua object to doing so? I think that we can answer the second question by distinguishing between psak and talmud Torah. In other words, Rabbi Yehoshua means that the Torah is no longer exclusively or authoritatively in Heaven; he does not mean that the Heavens are now a Torah-free zone. Indeed, the very existence of Heavenly voices with halakhic opinions suggests that in fact there remains Torah in Heaven. But how would one reach Heaven in order to learn it?

Perhaps one learns that Torah via mystical ascent, but it is hard to make mystical ascent a universal obligation. At the same time it is hard to believe that a verse in the Torah is intended to mandate that we pursue our Torah teachers if they wander off on hot-air balloons, or emigrate to other planets, which seems to be the implication of Sheiltot d’R. Achai Gaon if we translate shomayim as referring to the physical Heavens.

If Rabbi Yehoshua’s reading has a hard time with “not across the yam,” and the Sheiltot has difficulty explaining “not in shomayim” then perhaps these difficulties open the field for interpretations that take both yam and shomayim as metaphors for human psychological realities.

Back again on Eiruvin 55a, where Rava offers such an interpretation:

לא תמצא במי שמגביה דעתו עליה כשמים

ולא תמצא במי שמרחיב דעתו עליה כים

It (Torah) will not be found in one who exalts (lit: raises up) his mind with regard to it like shomayim

nor in one who widens his mind with regard to it like yam

But this interpretation itself requires interpretation. Perhaps Rava means that “one who raises his mind over it like shomayim” is arrogant, and “one who widens his mind with regard to it like yam” is hedonistic. The problem with this otherwise reasonable reading is that Rav Yochanan immediately follows Rava on Eiruvin 55a and says essentially the same thing: “one who raises his mind over it like shomayim” is from the גסי הרוח, which generally refers to arrogant people, and “one who widens his mind with regard to it like yam” is from the תגרים וסוחרין (merchants and sellers), which seems a reference to this-worldly focus. The standard Talmudic form here suggests that Rav Yochanan must be disagreeing with Rava, and therefore Rava must have meant something else.

Maharsha suggests that shomayim and yam refer to arrogance and complacency in the specific context of Torah study. “One who raises his mind over it” sees no need for teachers; “one who widens his mind over it” sees no need for review. However, I cannot find any other place in rabbinic literature where “wideness of mind” relates to complacency or failure to review.

The wonders of brought me to Parashat Mordekhai, by Eliezer Mordechai Altschuler, whom Wikipedia may tell me was among the founders of the Chovevei Tziyyon movement in late 19th Century Europe. Rabbi (I presume) Altschuler suggests that Rava is critiquing two types of reasoning about mitzvot. Some people presume that every mitzvah has profound mystical roots–and they spend all their time preparing to do mitzvot with proper intention, rather than doing them. Others presume that every mitzvah has clear rational purposes – and they may end up waiting forever for the perfect time and place to perform them with guaranteed proper outcomes.

Rabbi Altschuler does not deny that mitzvot have reasons both mystical and practical – in fact, he understands Rav Avdimi as creating an obligation to rise to Heaven and cross the sea for the sake of understanding both categories of reasons (although epistemologically one has to begin with the words of Torah as recited orally and engraved on one’s heart). But he argues implicitly that the entire phenomenon of time-bound commandments is a limit on mystical rationalization – at some point one has to stop thinking and do, or all the thinking will go to waste. (Presumably a traditional critique of chassidut is intended as well.) Next, he argues that an inherent flaw in practical rationalization is that it necessarily bounds mitzvot by time – no practical reason can always be true. (Presumably a traditional critique of Maimonides is intended).

The question Rabbi Altschuler leaves unanswered is how we can safely see mitzvot as more than meaningless rote without risking having intent or result become more significant than action. The answer to that question, I fear, is still in Heaven, if it exists at all.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Who is the Priest “Who Will Be in Those Days”?

Devarim 26:3 reads:

ובאת אל הכהן אשר יהיה בימים ההם

you will come to the priest who will be in those days

Leaving aside the possibility of time-travel, why does the Torah bother instructing us to bring our bikkurim (first fruits of the Seven Species) to a kohen “who will be in those days”?

An almost identical expression occurs in Devarim 17:9 in the context of legal judgment:

ובאת אל הכהנים הלוים ואל השופט אשר יהיה בימים ההם

you will come to the priests who are Levites and to the judge who will be in those days

The standard explanation of the phrase there is that it discourages nostalgia – the judge of your time is your legitimate Torah authority, even if you remember much greater leaders. Rosh HaShanah 26a states:

שקל הכתוב שלשה קלי עולם כשלשה חמורי עולם

ירובעל בדורו כמשה בדורו

בדן בדורו כאהרן בדורו

יפתח בדורו כשמואל בדורו

Scripture equated three ultimate lightweights with three ultimate heavyweights:

Yeruba’al (Gid’on) in his generation as Mosheh in his generation;

B’Dan (Shimshon) in his generation as Aharon in his generation;

Yiftach in his generation as Shmuel in his generation

Perhaps “’who will be in those days” has the same implication here. This fundamentally is the approach of Seforno. But while it is in some sense possible to hand legal decisionmaking over to the past–by binding present judges absolutely to precedent, or by deciding for oneself on the basis of precedent–a past kohen cannot lift a present basket of grain. (Think of the distinction between giving a disembodied soul an aliyah, and giving the same disembodied soul hagbah.)

Ramban also interprets “the kohen who will be in those days” as excluding a kohen who will be in other days, but applies it entirely differently. The entire group of kohanim was divided into 24 mishmarot (watches), with each serving a week and then waiting 24 weeks for their next turn. The verse tells us that it is illegitimate to time one’s arrival in Yerushalayim so that a particular mishmar will be on duty.

Perhaps the most common Rabbinic interpretation of the phrase is purely halakhic. How do we know that if a kohen is in the process of bringing a sacrifice, and it is suddenly discovered that he is invalid to serve, that what he has done to this point is valid?  “A kohen in those days” – even if in subsequent days if it is discovered that he was an invalid kohen throughout.

This interpretation has generated a fascinating and voluminous literature. Is this true about all priestly service, or only (specific elements) of the Temple Service? Is it true of all disqualifications, or only to those of lineage, those that apply only to kohanim, etc.? Discovered by whom–the kohen himself, the owner of the sacrifice, or a court with proper jurisdiction?

The Rogotchover Gaon, for example, thought that terumah (an agricultural tax given to a kohen) given to a kohen remains validly given even if that kohen is subsequently invalidated, but this is not so for items such as the ראשית הגז, the first shearing (which must be given to a kohen). His argument was that terumah is separated and acquires its legal identity before being given to the kohen, whereas the shearings acquire their legal identity at the very same moment that they are given to the kohen.

These legal conversations generally lack considerations of why a particular rule might or might not be a good idea. In a more pragmatic mode, G-d, Chazal, and we should all consider the consequences of allowing an error of fact about the status of a kohen to yield a reversal of law, and conversely the consequences of validating an action known to have been performed by an invalid kohen. One reason to validate sacrifices for instance, might be that sacrifices accomplish atonement, and one purpose of atonement is closure. Allowing for retroactive invalidation would mean that those people inclined to obsession would never be able to let go of their sins.

Chatam Sofer offers a possibly radical counterreading. “The kohen who will be in your day” is not contrasted with kohanim of past days, but rather with kohanim whose priestly status depends on their geneology rather than on their character. The kohen of the verse is superior rather than inferior. This seems peculiar, as priesthood cannot be earned halakhically. Understanding Chatam Sofer requires putting this detail of his interpretation in its context.

,נ”ל כי התורה מדבר עם צדיקים גמורים שאינם אוכלים בזכות אבות

,כי הם עצמם כדאים

-והכהן הוא מעצמו ראוי בלי זכותו ויחוסו של אהרן

-“ע”כ “ובאת אל הכהן אשר יהיה בימים ההם

,לא מימים קדמונים מימי אהרן, אלא בימים ההם הוא ראוי להיות כהן

‘וכן ענין מקרא בכורים שמספר חסדי ה

,כי בהיותם במצרים בלי שום זכות ומצוה

רק “ונצעק אך ה’ אלקי אבותינו” ובזכות זה נגאלנו

    “‘ועתה . . . זכיתי כי.. . הבאתי ראשית פרי האדמה אשר נתת לי ה”

,בזכות עצמי בלי זכות אבותינו

. . . ושמחת בכל הטוב אשר נתן ה’ לך” – דייקא”

It appears to me that the Torah is speaking with completely righteous people who do not eat in the merit of their ancestors,

but rather they are themselves worthy,

and the kohen is himself worthy, without the merit and ancestry of Aharon –

therefore “you will come to the kohen who will be in those days” –

not from previous days, the days of Aharon, but rather in those days he is worthy of being a kohen,

and the bikkurim declaration means the same, that he is telling Hashem’s acts of grace

because when they were in Mitzrayim without any merit or mitzvot,

only “and we cried out to Hashem the Gd of our fathers” and we were redeemed in that merit, but “ now behold I have brought the first of the fruits of the land which You have given me Hashem” –

in my own merit, without the merit of our ancestors,

“and you will rejoice in all the good that Hashem your G-d has given to you and to your household” – read it with precision.

Chatam Sofer apparently read the entire passage non-normatively, as dealing with both a kohen and a farmer who are completely righteous. The purpose of the farmer’s declaration is to contrast himself with the generation of the Exodus. They were redeemed solely because they called on the G-d of their fathers, Who responded out of his love for their ancestors, but he has earned these fruits entirely on his own.

This reading captures well the sense of spiritual self-assurance that pervades the bikkurim ritual, especially the narrator’s constant reference to Hashem as the G-d of the farmer, and the farmer’s reference to Him as the G-d of the specific kohen present. But I confess complete bafflement as to why it matters that the kohen as well be completely righteous, or why this is the true meaning of a ritual that is halakhically obligatory on every farmer regardless of their personal virtues and vices.

Rashi’s interpretation is enigmatic and opaque – “The kohen who will be in those days – כמות  שהוא = as he is.” One possible understanding is found in the following story.

The Lubliner Rav (R. Meir Shapiro) once visited the Chofetz Chayim (R. Yisroel Meir HaKohen) for Shabbat. He naturally asked the Chofetz Chayim to say some words of Torah, but the latter declined, pleading that ill-health made him unfit. The Lubliner responded by quoting Rashi – “as he is.”

The Chofetz Chayim chuckled and began speaking words of Torah.

There is tremendous beauty in past glory, and the Rabbis say that Mosheh placed the broken tablets in the Ark alongside the whole tablets to teach us that scholars whose capacities have waned must still be treated with respect. But it is nonetheless vital to distinguish the broken from the whole, and not grant authority even as we listen reverently to Torah pronouncements from great scholars whose lights have failed.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Michael Brown: Rebellious & Wayward Son?

Guest post by 2001 SBM alum Rabbi Avraham Bronstein, originally posted on Times of Israel:

(Note by R’ Aryeh Klapper: SBM 2001 alum Rabbi Avraham Bronstein has written a virtuoso derashah that is both an original Torah interpretation and a powerful argument for its real-world implications. I’m not sure I fully agree with his prescription, but I think it deserves attentive reading. It will no doubt stay in my mind and have many opportunities to convince me further.)

In a profile published before Michael Brown’s funeral, the New York Times referred to the unarmed 18 year old killed by a Ferguson, MO police officer as “no angel.” The response was fierce and the Times’ Public Editor called the choice of phrasing “a regrettable mistake.” But Michael Brown was in fact “no angel”; as an adolescent with a history of petty crimes and large appetites, he better fits the Torah’s description of the Wayward and Rebellious Son (ben sorer umoreh). But in the Rabbinic view, that makes his death more wrong rather than less.

Deuteronomy (21:18-21) describes a son who refuses to listen to his parents, despite their repeated warnings. They take him to the court and throw up their hands, accusing the son of being “a glutton and drunkard.” Astonishingly, for those seemingly insignificant crimes of vice, the son is then put to death by the court.

To understand the surprising harshness of the punishment, the rabbis of the Talmud add context. In their view, the rule of the Wayward and Rebellious Son is the logical culmination of the two sections of laws that precede it. The first describes the Beautiful Gentile Woman (yifat to’ar) who is taken at war and brought into the household of her captor as a wife. The second describes the laws of inheritance in a polygamous household; the father’s first-born is entitled to a double portion of the estate, even when he is the child of a wife the father dislikes.

Putting these three paragraphs together, the rabbis reconstruct an unfortunate series of events. A married man goes to war and is overcome by his passions, which lead him to abduct a woman and take her home. This naturally creates domestic strife, leading to a situation where one wife is “the loved one” and the other is the “hated one.” It is not hard to forecast that a child born into such a home would grow up to be a criminal. As the rabbis put it, “One sin leads to another (aveirah goreret aveirah),” almost inevitably.

In a separate bit of exposition, the rabbis explain that the sins of drunkenness and gluttony reveal deeply-rooted character flaws that need to be dealt with harshly before they cause real damage. He is judged not for what he actually did, for what he is likely to do (nidon al shem sofo). After all, a child with such appetites and so little regard for societal norms will eventually come to steal and even kill in order to continue to overindulge.

These two lines of interpretations intersect. Petty juvenile crimes can be trivialities, or they can be harbingers of the much worse things we know are to come. It depends on the background and circumstances of the person committing the crimes. But what if we get it wrong, or worse, what if our projection is self-fulfilling? The Wayward and Rebellious Son is punished more for who he will be than for what he did.

For a young man trying to overcome difficult circumstances, it might be frustrating know that a night on the town may be treated as a serious, even capital crime. It means that to succeed in the face of this particular set of challenges, he needs to meet a much higher standard than anyone else – and might even then fail. that might be reason enough to rebel angrily against a world so stacked against him.

Perhaps this is why the rabbis insist, in a near-consensus, that the law of the Wayward and Rebellious Son was never actually implemented in practice – and that they added enough technicalities, exemptions, and loopholes to ensure that would be the case.

One talmudic sage, though, claims to have seen a Wayward and Rebellious son executed. We, less fortunate, have seen several in recent weeks. Their names include Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Kejeme Powell, and John Crawford. They represent a segment of our society that is chronically over-policed and criminalized, whose young men are automatically suspected of being dangerous and threatening, born into a context of struggle against law enforcement instead of into a community protected by it.

Still in the Book and on the books, the law of the Rebellious and Wayward Son challenges us to see how unfair prejudice can develop against society’s most vulnerable, how we can end up collectively condemning those who most desperately need our support and encouragement. The need for us to be concerned about this tendency taking hold is reaffirmed with every press conference discussing surveillance videos of petty theft, every circulated cellphone picture depicting a possible “gang sign,” or every over-analyzed rap lyric.

Perhaps there were some in the days of the Talmudic rabbis who argued for a strong “law and order” policy. They might have claimed that failure to strictly enforce the law of the Rebellious and Wayward Son only encouraged similar behavior, ignored crime where it was most common, and would ultimately leave everyone less safe. They may even have called on the fellow’s family to change their “culture.” The Rabbis, though, were wise enough to legislate these laws out of practice. By doing so, they validated the humanity of someone born into difficult circumstances by giving him the chance to work his way through the challenges he faced, not by punishing him for them. We would be wise to follow their model.

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Soul inhabiting a body or body inhabited by a soul?

Are you a soul inhabiting a body, or a body inhabited by a soul? Most of us, I suspect, identify instinctively as the soul. But we begin each day with a prayer that presumes the opposite:

מודה אני לפניך

מלך חי וקים

שהחזרת בי נשמתי

I acknowledge before You,

Living and Enduring King,

that you have returned my neshomoh to within me

We can quibble about whether a neshomoh is a soul, but there is no question that the “I” of this prayer is the body.

There are good positive reasons for identifying our selves with the soul rather than the body. It leaves hope for personal immortality, enables repentance to completely undo the past, and enables us to state plausibly that all human beings are created equal.

But I suspect that the most powerful Jewish reason for doing so is a negative—to avoid anthropomorphizing G-d. We are nearly all Maimonideans these days (although Michael Wyschogrod is highly worthwhile reading) with regard to anthropomorphism, but we are also deeply committed to an understanding of Torah according to which human beings are created in the image of G-d. Identifying the human self with the human body makes it harder to reject the idea that G-d has a body of which ours is in some way an image.

We are less Maimonidean when it comes to anthropatheticism, which humanizes G-d by attributing to Him our emotions rather than our bodies. This becomes clear when we consider Rabbinic phrases such as כביכול or לולא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו –“as if such a thing were possible,” and “were it not written in Scripture it would be impossible to say”—which are used to permit or excuse apparently necessary but otherwise out-of-bounds theological statements. No one uses these phrases about physical attributes, because we don’t find it necessary to discuss G-d as if He were physical, but they are often used when attributing emotions to G-d.

The risk in losing physicality as even a metaphor for Divinity is that the human body becomes devalued. Thinking of ourselves as accidentally embodied souls is very useful, for instance, in extending equal rights to the physically disabled, but can be problematic when it comes to recognizing the value of the mentally or emotionally disabled, whether congenitally or as the result of trauma and aging.

Rabbi Meir Shapiro (1887-1933, founder of Yeshivat Chakhmei Lublin and Daf Yomi), dealt with the case of a convicted thief who died in prison, and who had no relative interested in burying him. The question was whether in that specific case the Orthodox community could relax its general opposition to autopsying bodies for the sake of general medical research, and incidentally permit some aspiring Jewish medical students to continue their studies.

Rabbi Shapiro’s response has three prongs:

1) The body and the soul are judged and punished independently after death, but the body’s punishment ends when it decomposes. Therefore it is even more of an imperative to bury the wicked than the righteous, as the bodies of the wicked will otherwise endure more suffering (This argument is based on Zohar Shemot p.151).

2) The halakhic obligation to bury someone devolves on the entire community when no relative is available. This is the case termed meit mitzvah, whom the High Priest must bury even at the cost of becoming tamei and be sidelined for a week from serving in the Temple. It is therefore harder rather than easier to allow autopsy for a man without immediate relatives.

3) The metaphor of the two twins in Sanhedrin 46a demonstrates that the prohibition against leaving someone unburied applies to bandits.

אומר ר”מ

משלו משל למה הדבר דומה

לשני אחים תאומים בעיר אחת

אחד מינוהו מלך ואחד יצא לליסטיות

צוה המלך ותלאוהו

“!כל הרואה אותו אומר “המלך תלוי

:צוה המלך והורידוהו

Said Rabbi Meir:

They made a parable: To what is this similar?

To twin brothers in one city

One was appointed king and the other became a bandit

The king ordered the (executed) bandit’s (corpse) hung up

Everyone who saw it said: “The king is hung up!”

The king ordered him taken down.

The obligation to bury, and the prohibition to leave unburied, are in fact originally commanded (Deuteronomy 21:23) in the context of executed criminals.

וכי יהיה באיש חטא משפט מות


ותלית אתו על עץ

לא תלין נבלתו על העץ

כי קבור תקברנו ביום ההוא

כי קללת א-להים תלוי

ולא תטמא את אדמתך אשר ה’ א-להיך נתן לך

If a man is convicted of a crime whose punishment is death

and is put to death

You must hang him on the post

You must not leave his corpse overnight on the post

rather you must surely bury him that very day

because the curse of G-d is the hung

and you must not make tamei

the ground which Hashem your G-d is giving you.

I can only speculate that R. Shapiro quoted the parable of the twins because he wanted not only to make a technical halakhic point, but also to force his audience to grapple with Rabbi Meir’s metaphor, in which the human body is so literal a representation of the Divine that it can be mistaken for Him.

Rabbi Meir’s is not the only possible meaning of the verse. The Mishnah sees the issue with the display as that it reminds people that the criminal dared to rebel, and especially if one takes the halakhic position that only the bodies of blasphemers or idolaters are displayed, this is a plausible reading of “because the curse of the G-d is the hung.”

However, Rabbi Meir’s metaphor picks up on one otherwise deeply puzzling detail of this law. Why does G-d first command the display of the executed corpse, and then forbid continuing that display overnight? His answer seems to be that G-d changes His mind when he realizes what reaction the display will engender. But this is certainly not plausible, as the law remains in place as-is–does G-d need to learn this lesson anew after each execution?

Perhaps the best explanation of Rabbi Meir is that the law encodes a permanent ambivalence about the human body. On the one hand, the purpose of displaying the executed body is to demonstrate that human bodies are subject to the law. On the other hand, every death is an outrage to His image. A king diminishes his own authority when he orders the destruction of his own statues, even if they have been previously defaced.

The halakhic analysis of autopsies has been properly and dramatically affected by the medical advances that forensic pathology has enabled in the past century. Our treatment of even the dead human body as the image of G-d should not supersede our valuation of human life. But something is lost when we no longer understand why that is a question.

Shabbat Shalom!

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