Monthly Archives: November 2014

Yaakov, Daydream Believer

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

“She . . . sheep!” the boy stuttered loudly.

“No need to shout,” his mom replied. “I can hear ewe perfectly.”

Genesis 29:10-11 contains the best pun in the Torah:

וישק את צאן לבן אחי עמו וישק יעקב לרחל

Yaakov waters (וישק=VaYiSHaK) the flock of Lavan his mother’s brother, and then he kisses (וישק=VaYaSHK) Rachel, whose name means “ewe.” Or for comic effect – was it the other way around?

Now you might think a young man in love would easily distinguish a she from a sheep, but Yaakov seems to confuse them from the very beginning. Their relationship began, after all, when Yaakov saw:

Rachel daughter of Lavan his mother’s brother,

and the sheep of Lavan his mother’s brother.

Nor is Yaakov really to blame for the confusion. His interlocutors had told him:

Behold! Rachel his daughter, coming with the sheep!

and the narrator chimed in:

Rachel, come with the sheep

What is the purpose of this constant blurring?

To answer this question, we need to back up a few verses, to where Yaakov notices flocks of sheep before Rachel makes her appearance:

Yaakov lifted his legs. He went toward the land of the People of the East

He saw

Behold! A well in the field

Behold! Three flocks of sheep there, pasturing near it

because from that well the flocks would drink

the rock was large on the mouth of the well.

All the flocks would gather there

They would roll the rock off the mouth of the well

They would water the sheep

They would return the rock onto the mouth of the well

to its place

In Bereshit Rabbah, R. Chama bar Chanina offers six different symbolic understandings of this scene. The three flocks of sheep represent the three forefathers, the three classes of Jews (priests, Levites, and Israelites), the three festivals, Moses Aaron and Miriam, the three rabbinic courts on the Temple Mount, the three judges of a standard rabbinic court, and/or the Persian, Medean, and Hellenistic empires. The stone represents the Torah, the Evil Inclination, and many things beyond and between. And so on and so forth.

What motivated this interpretational efflorescence? I suggest that R. Chama bar Chanina noticed first of all the use of וישא (=he lifted) and והנה (=behold), which are often markers of prophetic visions. Next he noticed the presence of an אבן (=stone), which recalled the אבן in the immediately preceding episode, which Yaakov first placed under his head and then erected as a monolith. By this point R. Chama was convinced that our scene is a continuation of that vision rather than a narration of subsequent events.

With that understanding, we can take a fresh look at the opening of Yaakov’s dialogue with the shepherds.

Yaakov said to them: My brothers, wherefrom are you?

This is presumably intended as a friendly greeting, but it is aggressively so, and a little off kilter – the stranger in town is asking the locals where they come from, as if he were the host and they the transients. Indeed, Yaakov is soon ordering them about:

He said:

Hold – the day is still large;

it is not time for the gathering of the herd.

Water the sheep and go graze!

This all seems socially implausible.

But let us now pay attention to the implicit irony. Yaakov is fleeing from his brother’s murderous hatred – and he greets strangers as brothers! His best hope seems to be Lavan – because Lavan is his mother’s brother! Lavan greets him effusively and hospitably, describing him as ובשרי עצמי =my bone and my flesh. This is spousal language taken from Adam’s reaction to his first sight of Eve, עצם מעצמי ובשר מבשרי =bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. The first rough spot in the relationship, however, comes when he addresses Yaakov as אחי עתה =you are my brother. So perhaps Yaakov should not be so eager to see all men as his brothers.

If we treat this too as part of a dream, however, we can understand why Yaakov would be looking for the loving fraternal relationship he never had, and even more than that, for a relationship more reliable than brotherhood.

The problem with this reading is that Yaakov really does spend many years in Lavan’s house, and he really does end up married to Rachel – so where does the dream end and reality begin?

Two possible approaches emerge from a dispute between Rambam and Ramban. Rambam holds that angels only appear in dreams – therefore, for example, the destruction of Sodom as told in Torah is a dream. Nachmanides objects vociferously on religious grounds—“These words are forbidden to hear all the more so to believe”—but also has powerful arguments: Yaakov genuinely limps the morning after wrestling with the angel, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is physically evident to anyone who visits the environs where they once flourished.

We can respond for Maimonides in two ways:

  1. The Torah’s report of the destruction of Sodom is Avraham’s dream, but that dream was a religious personality’s experience of a physical event. The Torah, however, is comfortable leaving us to infer that the physical event happened.
  2. Dreams can have consequences in the real world, psychosomatically or otherwise.

Each of these responses works reasonably well in our context.

But I want to suggest a third approach. Nachmanides reinterpreted the Rabbinic phrase מעשה אבות סימן לבנים =the deeds of the ancestors foreshadow those of the descendants to mean that the Forefathers lived fully symbolic lives. Everything they did would be reenacted in history by Bnei Yisroel. The question is how often they were conscious of this dimension of their lives.

My suggestion is that in the aftermath of his overpowering ladder vision Yaakov remained conscious of that dimension. But in this case what he saw was not (only) his descendant’s future, but his own.

So one, perhaps wild, suggestion: Most commentators assume that Yaakov’s single-handed removal of the stone is a superhuman feat. It seems clear that this stone was placed on the well precisely because it could not be removed by any one man, probably because water was scarce, and that Yaakov’s action breached a reasonable community protocol. Is it possible that the three flocks represent Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah, and Yaakov’s removal of the rock for the fourth flock, Rachel’s, symbolizes his favoritism for Rachel? Perhaps Yaakov realizes immediately that his love for Rachel is potentially tragic, for it distorts his sense of the morally and politically appropriate, and we can understand why he cries immediately after kissing her.

Nechama Leibowitz z”l used to enjoy saying that yeshiva students often knew twenty explanations as to why Yaakov was permitted to kiss Rachel when not married to her, but did not know the verse in the Torah which says “don’t lie.” I suggest that all twenty are incorrect; Yaakov was not permitted to kiss Rachel, but did anyway, and this symbolized the extent to which love was a problematic motive for action in his life. Deborah Klapper has noted that one should perhaps see much of Yaakov’s life as an attempt to learn lessons from his parents’ mishandling of the blessing and birthright, just as Yitzchak’s relationship to his children responded to the exile of Yishmael and the Akeidah. But children rarely learn the right lessons from their parents’ mistakes. Shabbat shalom!


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Our Father Was a Wondering Aramean Uber Driver, Who Missed the Exit for Israel and Ended Up In Egypt

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Benzion N. Chinn

I recently started driving for the taxi service Uber.  The logic behind this decision was that my main job as a tutor has me driving to different parts of Los Angeles.  When I’m already on the road but with time to spare, it makes sense to pick up a passenger to help pay for the economic privilege of owning a car. In addition, the job is an education on the myriad of personalities one can find in a city like Los Angeles, and I can always hope that the passenger will want to go the same way I was going anyway.

Murphy’s Law comes into play, though – passengers often turn out to be going in the exact opposite direction. Sometimes I take on rider after rider, hoping they will “take” me where I want to go, only to find myself going further and further in the wrong direction.

Being on the wrong path and stubbornly holding on in hope that it will magically turn out to be the right path has given me renewed empathy for our Patriarch Jacob.

The story of Jacob, in marked contrast to those of Abraham and Isaac, seems an exercise in history gone wrong. With Abraham and Isaac, the divine narrative of history seems, with only a few minor hiccups, to be moving in the right direction. But where Abraham and Isaac separated their children and ultimately avoided fraternal violence, Jacob’s sons sell their brother Joseph.  Avraham defeats the Four Kings, and Yitzchak reaches an accord with the Philistines, but Jacob feels compelled to disavow Simon and Levi’s devastation of Shekhem. While Avraham reaches Canaan, and Isaac never leaves, Jacob is first exiled to Aram and eventually goes down to Egypt, setting the stage for his family’s enslavement.

From this perspective, Jacob must be seen as the grand failure of the patriarchs. Geographically and eventually economically, Jacob lost everything that Abraham and Isaac worked so hard to gain.  Jacob was the patriarch who missed the exit for Canaan, refused to ask for directions, and drove Jewish history into a ditch, from where it needed rescuing by Moses.

This dark view of Jacob, though, is countered by the fact that unlike Abraham and Isaac, all of Jacob’s sons are counted as part of Israel. In the end, Jacob did not produce an Ishmael or an Esau. For this reason, the Israelites are called after Jacob and not Abraham or Isaac.

This forces us to confront the possibility that perhaps, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, Jacob was going in the right direction the entire time. By leaving the land, was Jacob building a Jewish people? By contrast, were Simon and Levi destroying a potential part of Israel by massacring the inhabitants of Shekhem? Could it be that driving down a dirt road, a field and off a cliff really was a short-cut?

Our judgment of Jacob is relevant to our understanding of Jewish history, a story which is fundamentally one of history gone wrong. We could not keep a land or a temple. In exile we failed to hold on to either Spain or Eastern Europe. In looking at the wreckage of Jewish history, do we turn around and say that, in some mysterious sense, we did something right? By right I do not merely mean that Jewish history will end in a messianic redemption. To truly redeem Jewish history, we must say that the various tragedies of Jewish history, along with the cultural and leadership failures that could be attributed to the different generations, were either the products of some Jewish strength (even if they manifested themselves as tragic flaws) or led to something intrinsically positive about Judaism that could make it worthy of redemption.

Benzion N. Chinn spent several years at The Ohio State University following what he thought was the proper path for him, attempting to earn a doctorate in Jewish History. Following certain unfortunate career mishaps, he has taken his life in a new direction, working as an academic and special education tutor. He lives in Pasadena, CA with his wife and son. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Jewish Values

What did Yitzchak know, and when did he know that he knew it?

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper on Parashat Toldot, November 21-22, 2014

Did Yitzchak know that Esav had sold his birthright to Yaakov, let alone that he had sold it for a mess of lentils?

Opposites attract, and yet birds of a feather flock together. Haste makes waste, but a stitch in time saves nine. In the proverbial economy, paradox does not diminish truth-value. We respond to contradictory proverbs by making space for both rather than by choosing among them.

The Talmudic rabbis treat legal traditions in much the same way. They find space for apparently contradictory halakhic statements by making okimtas. An okimta is the unspoken context of a text, the implicit case a legal statement addresses. Apparently contradicting texts may turn out to have completely disjointed spheres of influence, or one may relate to a narrow subscope of the other’s scope.

Something along the same lines may be suggested for interpretations of Torah narratives. Different readings of the stories exist in parallel, and the intent of the text is to generate multiple versions, and let us figure out which teaches us most when. Meir Sternberg’s amazing and vital The Poetics of Biblical Narrative advocates powerfully for this position, and it is possible that midrash makes the same point when it strings together chains of divergent interpretations.

Now halakhic okimtas may be descriptively accurate, in other words they may correctly convey what the authors of those statements actually intended. With regard to proverbs—since there is rarely an author whose intent might be fathomed—the question is rather whether the statements as popularly used are intended as absolutes, and I think the answer is clearly no. Everyone understands that sometimes haste is an efficient strategy, and that not all friendships or romances are rooted in similarity, nor do all opposites attract.

But with regard to Torah narratives, if one presumes the historicity of the Biblical accounts, it can only have happened one way. To take Sternberg’s parade example—either Uriah the Hittite knew that King David had slept with Batsheva, or he did not.

Similarly here—either Yitzchak knew that Esav had sold the birthright, or he did not.

The medieval parshan Rabbi Yosef Bekhor Shor offers a powerful reading of Genesis 27:1-4 that assumes he did.

בראשית פרק כז:א-ד

ויהי כי זקן יצחק ותכהין עיניו מראת

ויקרא את עשו בנו הגדל

ויאמר אליו: בני

ויאמר אליו: הנני

ויאמר: הנה נא זקנתי – לא ידעתי יום מותי. ועתה – שא נא כליך,תליך, וקשתך, וצא השדה וצודה לי ציד(ה), ועשה לי מטעמים כאשר אהבתי, והביאה לי, ואכלה, בעבור תברכך נפשי בטרם אמות

It happened when Yitzchak was old, and his eyes had dimmed beyond seeing,

that he called Esav, his older son,

and said to him: “My son!

He said to him: “Here I am.”

He said: “Indeed I have aged – I do not know the day of my death. So now – please lift up your equipment, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt me a hunt, and make me delicacies such as I have loved, and bring them to me, and I will eat, so that my soul may bless you before I die.”

בכור שור

לא ידעתי יום מותי – ואם אמות הרי הפסדת הכל, כי יעקב אחיך קנה ממך הבכורה, ויטול השררה כולה ועיקר הנכסים

I do not know the day of my death – and if I die you will have lost everything, as Yaakov your brother has acquired the birthright from you, and he will take all the authority and the key properties.

בעבור תברכך נפשי בטרם אמות – כי במתנה שאתן לך אינו יכול לערער כלום, דדין בכורה לא שייך גבי מתנה, ואתן לך כל השררה . . . דדין בכורה לא שייך אלא בירושה . . . ולפיכך אמר לו עשה לי סעודה, שהרי נתת בכורתך בשביל אכילה אחת, ואני אשיבנה לך בשביל סעודה ושם אמשילך, ועוד כי דרך השרים לעשות סעודה כשמקבלים שררה

so that my soul may bless you before I die – because he can make no objection to the gift I will give you, as the law of the birthright does not apply to gifts, and I will give you all the authority . . . as the law of the birthright only applies to inheritance . . . and therefore he said ‘Make me a feast’, as you have given your birthright for the sake of one eating, and I will return it to you for the sake of a feast and there I will give you dominion . . .

In Bekhor Shor’s universe, Yitzchak is an active conspirator who fully understands what he is doing and who he is doing it for. He knows that Esav has sold the birthright for a bowl of soup, considers the sale valid, and nonetheless seeks to evade the implications of that sale.

Ramban finds this both so literarily plausible and so theologically concerning that he feels compelled to reassure us that Yitzchak is not defying Hashem, because he has received no explicit Divine instruction that Yaakov should come out on top.

רמב”ן בראשית פרק כ:ו

ונראה שלא הגידה לו רבקה מעולם הנבואה אשר אמר ה’ לה ורב יעבוד צעיר, כי איך היה יצחק עובר את פי ה’ והיא לא תצלח

והנה מתחלה לא הגידה לו דרך מוסר וצניעות

כי ותלך לדרוש את ה’, שהלכה בלא רשות יצחק

או שאמרה אין אנכי צריכה להגיד נבואה לנביא כי הוא גדול מן המגיד לי

ועתה לא רצתה לאמר לו “כך הוגד לי מאת ה’ טרם לדתי” כי אמרה באהבתו אותו לא יברך יעקב ויניח הכל בידי שמים

והיא ידעה כי בסבת זה יתברך יעקב מפיו בלב שלם ונפש חפצה. או הם סבות מאת ה’ כדי שיתברך יעקב, וגם עשו בברכת החרב, ולו לבדו נתכנו עלילות

It appears that Rivkah never told Yitzchak ever of the prophecy which Hashem had said to her that “the elder shall serve the younger”, as how would

Yitzchak transgress the utterance of Hashem (by seeking to make Esav master) (which would never succeed)?!

Now initially she didn’t tell him out of propriety and modesty,

because “she went to seek insight from Hashem” indicates that she went without Yitzchak’s authorization,

or because she said ‘I don’t need to tell a prophecy to a prophet, since he is greater than the one who told (this prophecy to) me”,

and now she did not wish to say to him ‘Thus was told to me from Hashem before I gave birth” because she said ‘In his love for Esav he will not bless Yaakov and leave everything in the hands of Heaven’,

and she knew that as a result of all this Yaakov would be blessed from his mouth wholeheartedly and with a willing soul, and that these are causes from Hashem so that Yaakov would be blessed, and Esav too with the blessing of the sword (and He Alone has the capacity to plan effectively).

Here, though, Ramban unintentionally provides us with an opening. ורב יעבוד צעיר may mean “The elder shall serve the younger,” but it may also grammatically mean “The elder will be served by the younger.” So even if Rivkah had told Yitzchak of the prophecy, he might have heard only what he wished to hear, and perhaps that is why the prophecy was given with classical oracular ambiguity—so that Yitzchak could hear only what he wished to hear.

Many years ago, I was informed of serious allegations against a rabbi who had been kind to me. Some years later, I was informed of the same allegations, and I realized with deep disquiet that I had completely forgotten about the first time. I suspect that I am quite typically human in my capacity to forget facts that disturb me; i.e. to remember only what I wish to remember, and soldier on in blissful ignorance.

Perhaps that is the best reading of Yitzchak’s behavior here. He was told—by Esav himself, perhaps also by others—that Esav had treated the birthright with shocking disrespect. He then promptly forgot this, as often as he was told.

But willful ignorance is not the same as genuine innocence, and the repressed knowledge often leaks through into behavior. I find it hard to accept Bekhor Shor’s understanding that Yitzchak tried to give Esav the birthright in full awareness of his character. But asking Esav to bring food in exchange for the blessing may well have been an unconscious “tell” that Yitzchak’s ignorance was willful, and perhaps that underlying uneasiness is why Yitzchak is so easily manipulated into giving Yaakov the berakhot in the end. Shabbat Shalom!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The God of Rivka

This week’s alumni d’var torah is by Tobie Harris.

To make the prayer service more inclusive, egalitarian communities often attempt to add women back into the liturgy. One common example is amending the first blessing of Amidah to add the italicized words: “the God of our forefathers and foremothers, God of Avraham, God of Yitzchak and God of Yaakov, God of Sarah, God of Rivka, God of Rachel and God of Leah.

I have always been uncomfortable with this addition – not primarily because of a conservative hesitance to change the wording of the prayers, but more because I don’t think I know enough about the foremothers’ relationship with God to know what exactly I’m saying.

I can know, in some sense, what it meant to Avraham for Hashem to be his God. I can, in an even more limited sense, know what it meant for Hashem to be the God of Avraham. But I have much less of an idea of what, if anything, Hashem meant to the foremothers, since the Torah records almost none of their religious experiences. Although God frequently speaks about the foremothers and they frequently speak about Him, this week’s parsha contains possibly[1] the only record of direct interaction between them:

כב וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-יְהוָה.  כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ; וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”

It is noteworthy, however, that the midrash on this verse (adopted by Rashi) places a (male) intermediary between Rivka and God:

‘מדרש רבה בראשית פרשה סג’ פסקה ו

ותלך לדרוש את ה’ וכי בתי כנסיות ובתי מדרשות היו באותן הימים והלא לא הלכה אלא למדרש של שם ועבר אלא ללמדך שכל מי שהוא מקביל פני זקן כמקביל פני שכינה

Were there synagogues and houses of study in those days? Didn’t she just go to the house of study of Shem and Ever? Rather, this comes to teach us that one who welcomes a sage, it is as if he has welcomed the Divine Presence.

The midrash’s interpretation seems solidly based on the use of the phrase “going to inquire of God,” which is used frequently in the Tanakh to describe the process of going to a prophet to consult with God through Him (see, for example, מלכים ב כב). On the other hand, those sources seem usually to explicitly mention the prophet involved. Furthermore, the text has never mentioned a character outside of the Abrahamic family with a relationship with God (at least not by the four-letter Name used in our verse), a problem solved by the midrash by drawing on the recurring story of a house of learning set up by Shem and Ever, Noah’s son and grandson, where the forefathers periodically study.

The midrash leaves open the question of why Rivka sought out Shem rather than asking Yitzchak or Avraham. Various commentators suggest that they were unable to answer, or that Rivka or Hashem chose not to use them as intermediaries so as not to distress them with the news of Esav’s anticipated wickedness.

Ramban takes a different approach, translating the verse not as “to inquire of God” but as prayer (perhaps best translated “to seek out God” and as used in Tehillim 34:5 and elsewhere). However, the Ramban’s claim that this is the only meaning of the term drisha he has encountered seems to ignore many verses that would support the midrash’s interpretation. His reading also ignores that the surrounding verses have used a variety of other terms to describe prayer (most recently ויעתר) and does not explain the term “went”, which is not used in any of the parallel sources cited.

I would suggest that these verses can be better understood by realizing how unusual Rivka’s actions are in the context of the Book of Genesis: to the best of my knowledge, we have never yet seen a character initiate a dialogue with God.[2] Characters may pray for and be answered with Divine action; they may mention Him in blessings or call in His Name; they will respond to Him when He chooses to speak to them, but they never turn to Him and expect Him to answer.

In light of this, I would suggest a more general interpretation of the phrase ‘לדרוש את ה which would include both the Midrash and Ramban’s source texts: drisha is used to imply actively seeking out God – being the one to chose to initiate a dialogue, whether it be by direct prayer or via an intermediary. In our context, I suggest the phrase serves not to insert an intermediary, but to highlight the significance of Rivka’s choice; adding the term “to go” emphasizes the pro-active nature of her actions, as well as the sense of embarking on a quest.

Rivka’s relationship is thus marked as fundamentally different from that of the forefathers. God never chose to initiate a relationship with her; by marrying Yitzchak, she married into his faith and became a part of the story of his religious evolution. Rivka could have remained an ancillary character whose faith never becomes relevant. But instead she became the first person not to wait for God to chose her, but rather to choose Him.[3]

Tobie Harris (SBM ’05) lives in Jerusalem and works as an attorney for the Israeli Antitrust Authority.

[1]    Give or take an ambiguous pronoun in Genesis 18:15.

[2]    Credit to my friend Debbie Zimmerman for pointing this out to me about Avraham. Some sources I have seen read Genesis 18:22-23 as Avraham initiating the argument over destroying Sodom, but I think that the preceding verses make it clear that the contact has been initiated by God, even if Avraham choses to extend it.

[3]    It is interesting to contrast this proactive role with Yitzchak’s general passivity – the contrast of the first person to initiate dialogue with God and the first person born into a relationship with God.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Bnei Ketura and the Jews

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Jared Anstandig.

The ritual of brit milah, circumcision, represents something more significant than a mere ethnic marker of the Jewish people. It serves as a sign of the relationship that our people possess with God. It finds its biblical roots in the end of Parashat Lech Lecha, when God commands Avraham and his offspring to be circumcised.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin 59a-b wonders about the extent of this sign and marker. We know that the son Avraham had through Sarah (Yitzchak) required brit milah. Does the requirement to circumcise extend to the rest of Avraham’s offspring?

“מילה מעיקרא לאברהם הוא דקא מזהר ליה רחמנא “ואתה את בריתי תשמר אתה וזרעך אחריך לדרתם

,אתה וזרעך – אין, איניש אחרינא – לא

.אלא מעתה בני ישמעאל לחייבו

.(כי “ביצחק יקרא לך זרע” (כא:יב

.בני עשו לחייבו

.ביצחק, ולא כל יצחק

מתקיף לה רב אושעיא: אלא מעתה בני קטורה לא לחייבו? האמר רבי יוסי בר אבין ואיתימא רבי יוסי בר חנינא: “ואת בריתי הפר” (יז:יד) – לרבות בני קטורה

Initially, God warned only Avraham about circumcision, as it says, “And as for you, My covenant you shall keep, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.”

“You and your offspring” are obligated. Others are not.

If so, then the sons of Yishmael should be obligated!

They are not obligated, because the pasuk states, “For in Isaac the offspring will be called yours.”

If so, then the sons of Esav should be obligated!

They are not, because the pasuk says “In Isaac” which implies not all of Isaac’s children.

Rav Oshiya challenged: If so, then the sons of Ketura should not be obligated! Yet Rabbi Yosi bar Avin, and some say Rabbi Yosi bar Chanina, said that when the pssuk states, “And they broke my covenant,” that includes Bnei Ketura, the sons of Ketura.

The Gemara moves through the children of Avraham, delineating who is included in the mitzva of brit milah. The Gemara acknowledges that the children of Yishmael and Esav don’t make the cut. By contrast, the sons of Ketura, Avraham’s final wife (Breishit 25:1), are included in the obligation.

Rashi on this Gemara defines the referent of Bnei Ketura as the six sons born from the union of Avraham and Ketura found in Breishit 25:2 – Zimran, Yokshan, Medan, Midyan, Yishbak, and Shuach. According to Rashi, their circumcision does not necessarily reflect their inclusion in God’s covenant with Avraham. Rather, this could be the application of Avraham’s requirement to circumcise all the male members of his household (see Breishit 17:9).

Rambam’s approach in Hilchot Melachim 10:7-8, however, views this Gemara with more far-reaching implications. According to Rambam, when the Gemara includes Bnei Ketura in the obligation, it means all of her male offspring, including their descendants.

This Rambam leads us to wonder about the meaning of brit milah. Why should Bnei Ketura bear a sign of the covenant between God and our people, one of which they are not members? At first glance this is hardly significant to Judaism today. Yet, as we look at the ramifications of Rambam’s ruling, we see relevance.

On the level of halacha, what would be required of the circumcised Ben Ketura who comes to convert to Judaism? Would we require him to undergo another brit milah (actualized through the ritual procedure of drawing blood, hatafat dam brit)? Does his original circumcision reflect inclusion in our relationship with God on some level, exempting him from any additional actions? Or does his circumcision have no bearing on the Jewish covenant, necessitating a full conversion?

On a theological level, does this Rambam indicate that brit milah means something more than a sign of God’s covenant with the Avot, since Bnei Ketura are obligated too? What impact do Bnei Ketura have on our relationship with God?

One cannot include Bnei Ketura in our covenant extending through Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Nonetheless, they appear to play a role in our covenant, and investigating their relationship with God sheds light on ours.

Jared Anstandig (SBM ’11) is from West Bloomfield, MI, and is currently in his third year of RIETS.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Murder by Midrash: The Case of the Disappearing Father

A fun midrashic technique, especially for those who enjoy genre novels, is the construction of elaborate deaths for Biblical characters who disappear without notice. For example, Aharon’s nephew Chur is present when Moshe ascends Sinai but not mentioned when Mosheh returns; the midrash records that he was stoned by a Jewish mob when he sought to prevent the Golden Calf. Kayin’s death is foretold but never reported; the midrash has him die by means of a blind descendant’s stray arrow.

In this week’s parashah, the victim is Rivkah’s father Betuel. In 24:50, Betuel speaks, together with Lavan, but in 24:55 it is Rivkah’s sister and mother who apparently speak for the family. On the assumption that Aramean society was patriarchal, it seems reasonable to attribute his silence to his death.

Whodunnit? Rashi tells us that Betuel was struck by an angel. This may seem like an unsatisfying “mysterious stranger” solution, but actually kills two interpretational birds with one stone. In 24:5, Eliezer asks Avraham what to do if the woman he selects for Yitzchak refuses to come with him to Canaan. Avraham responds in 24:7 that the G-d of Heaven “will send His angel before you.” The angel is not mentioned explicitly again, but we now understand why its presence was necessary.

Furthermore, we know why Betuel had to die; he intended to prevent Rivkah from leaving with Eliezer. How did he intend to accomplish this, when in 24:50 he acknowledged that “the matter had emerged from Hashem”? Chizkuni cites a midrash which notes that Eliezer eats in Betuels house that night (24:54), and suggests that Betuel had poisoned Eliezer’s food. The angel, with poetic justice, switched the two plates.

A much more graphic suggestion, also cited by Chizkuni, is that Betuel was a despot who exercised droit du seigneur over all brides in Aram. His populace demanded that he do the same with his own daughter, Rivkah, and he agreed, and so an angel came and killed him to protect Rivkah.

This suggestion is worthy of study on its own, regardless of its merit as interpretation, for its wonderful capsule portrait of the limitations of power and of how evil can corrupt its victims. Betuel never planned on incestuous rape, and perhaps would never have begun this particular abuse of power had he known where it would lead. Those who achieve evil voluntarily often have great evil thrust upon them.

As interpretation, it highlights an erotic tinge to this episode that might otherwise be overlooked, even though it is clearly a romance. Rivkah is introduced to us as “very beautiful in appearance, virgin, and no man had known her.” The redundancy of “betulah (virgin) and no man had known her” drives Ibn Ezra to euphemism, and once pointed out, the resonance betulah/Betuel is hard to ignore. Perhaps there is a reason that the servant must swear an oath on a circumcision before being sent on this mission. (Note that in some midrashim Avraham explicitly suspects Eliezer, and in others his suspicions are all too justified.)

But our original suggestion seems the most organic fit with the story. Here Aviva Zornberg’s psychoanalytic sensitivity to suppressed narrative tensions may be at work. Why does the Torah spend so many words on Rivkah’s parting from her family, if not to hint that its smoothness is only apparent?

Perhaps another midrashic trope is at work here: “niba velo yada mah shniba,” the idea that characters often unknowingly prophesy, especially their own fates. Betuel’s only words (24:50) are “The matter has come out from G-d: we cannot speak to you about whether it is evil or good” (cf. 31:29). For the midrash, this must be taken as a statement of fact, and yet Betuel surely believed that his silence would be his own choice.

Betuel’s death is literarily demanded by his sudden disappearance: after 24:50 Lavan and Rivkah’s anonymous mother are the only family speakers, even in contexts, such as a leavetaking blessing, in which a father seems very much called for. But it is possible to explain his silence in other ways. After all, his only speech is about the futility of speech; why would he speak again? And nothing we have suggested thus far explains why even Betuel’s first speech is joint with Lavan, with Lavan mentioned first.

Here the pashtanim try their hand: Rashi suggests that Lavan was wicked and sought to speak before his father, while Radak suggests that Betuel was too old to handle such affairs. Radak’s suggestion seems to possess all the interpretational baggage of the midrash but none of its virtues: Betuel’s unmentioned sudden death is more plausible than his unmentioned ongoing disability. Rashi’s suggestion, meanwhile, embroils us in the question of whether we are supposed to realize now, before Yaakov comes to him in Parashat VaYetze, that Lavan is a trickster.

Bekhor Shor explains that Betuel is silent in 24:55 because he genuinely supports the match; realizing this, Eliezer give gifts and speaks only with Rivkah’s brother and mother, who might still oppose it. Laaniyut daati, it seems hard to believe that this interpretation is generated by more than reaction to Rashi; given the choice between hypothesizing Betuel’s opposition, or rather his enthusiasm, I prefer the former.

(I suspect that many other examples can be found of “peshat” interpretations that make sense only as reactions to midrash, rather than as resulting from unmediated encounters with Torah. Note also that Bekhor Shor argues that Betuel favors the match because Yitzchak is his family, but not his wife’s; Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z”l maintained in a completely different context that Eliezer’s major challenge was to overcome the family bitterness caused by Avraham’s physical departure and ideological estrangement.)

If Betuel is allowed to survive this encounter, psychoanalytically inclined readers will note that Rivkah seems to have been brought up in a family where the wife and son dominate the father, which may shape her relationship with Yitzchak. Rivkah’s mother and brother ask her (but not her father) whether she wishes to go – no one asks Yitzchak whether he wishes Rivkah, or any other women for that matter, to be brought. The disappearance, death, or disability of Betuel may therefore parallel the manipulability of the elderly Yitzchak. Perhaps there is some midrash in Radak’s understanding of Betuel’s silence after all.

At the same time, Yitzchak does not merely accept Rivkah passively. He brings her into his late mother’s tent, and he finds comfort in her presence. This may simply be the result of her innate and overwhelming chesed, as evidenced by her behavior to Eliezer at the well. But I would prefer an explanation that makes her specifically compatible with Yitzchak, rather than generally amiable.

More specifically – Rashi makes the eminently plausible claim, developed in numerous midrashic permutations, that Sarah’s death results from her inability to deal with the fact of the Akeidah. That same fact presumably dominates Yitzchak’s psychology and worldview. We should therefore look for something that makes Rivkah especially capable of dealing with it.

I invite your suggestions; additional murder and mayhem are of course welcome.

Shabbat Shalom!


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Rabbinic Authority and Public Policy

by Shira Hecht-Koller, Esq.

Introductory note from Rabbi Klapper: Shira Hecht-Koller has become an essential voice on issues of Orthodoxy and gender. I am deeply grateful for her wilingness to take the time to respond to my article.

Rabbi Klapper’s article, “Are Partnership Minyanim an Orthodox Phenomenon,” argues that although “it seems…reasonable to concede from the outset that an intellectually plausible argument can be made for the practice of giving women aliyot,” this does not suffice to make this practice “Orthodox.” For that, Rabbi Klapper says, the submission to authority is also needed, and it is not yet clear that partnership minyanim and the people who comprise them do in fact submit to rabbinic authority.

It is salutary that Rabbi Klapper makes it clear at the outset that the deepest issues in the ongoing discussion about partnership minyanim within the Orthodox community revolve primarily around issues of sociology and public policy. The leaders of these minyanim are committed to halakha and to the halakhic tradition, and from the beginning the initiatives have grown out of intensive study of the halakhic sources. As we know, the process of arriving at normative halakha is not a scientific one, and there has always been room for a plurality of halakhic opinions. This does not of course mean that any halakhic opinion is acceptable, but as Rabbi Klapper says, it does mean that there are legitimate halakhic views, that are “not demonstrably wrong,” that still may not be accepted as normative. The question, then, of course, is what allows a view to move from possible to normative.

The fundamental issue raised by Rabbi Klapper’s piece is the nature and source of religious authority. In order to articulate how important this issue is, though, let me begin with the question of terminology. As Rabbi Klapper points out, “There is no magic in the word ‘Orthodoxy’.” So a first step towards a deeper analysis of the explicitly sociological issues would be an attempt to better understand what is at stake beyond a mere word. Rabbi Klapper distinguishes between “Orthodox” and “religious” or “halakhic legitimacy.” This distinction is unclear, and this then clouds the rest of the discussion. If there are “halakhically legitimate” practices that are non-Orthodox, one begins to wonder what the value of “Orthodoxy” is as a label. Has it been reduced to just politics, to the question of membership in certain organizations? Perhaps this is obviously true.

Rabbi Klapper certainly agrees with this basic point: there is something other than pure halakha that defines Orthodoxy. I can well imagine a pure “halakhic man” looking quizzically at this statement. What is this “Orthodoxy” if not a group of Jews in the modern world who have committed themselves to not compromising on matters of halakha, to resisting the temptation to abandon the halakhic tradition, and to insisting always on rigor and depth of halakhic thought and analysis when approaching the world? But even a less rigid worldview may argue that halakha includes within itself numerous extra-legal categories and norms. These are not what Rabbi Klapper leans on, however. He concedes that within halakha, as expansively as that might be applied, there is a plausible case to be made for the legitimacy of partnership minyanim. It is outside of halakha that Rabbi Klapper’s concerns are to be found.

This then leads us to the central question raised by Rabbi Klapper’s analysis: the nature of the extra-halakhic authority on which “Orthodoxy” is said to depend. This authority is placed front and center by Rabbi Klapper in the discussion of what makes a practice Orthodox and legitimate (these terms are interchanged on p. 2). Rabbi Klapper refrains from using the term “rabbis” for those with this authority, presumably because of his stated belief that women with appropriate training and experience should have equivalent authority as their male counterparts – a belief that I think is so well justified as to be almost beyond question. (If only the reality reflected this already!) Instead, he speaks repeatedly of “Orthodox halakhic authorities,” whose approval is needed to make a practice Orthodox. But this brings us to the crux of the question: why should halakhic authorities, male or female, be authoritative on non-halakhic matters, on matters of public policy?

In my view, it is precisely this question that had led to the sense of a “break” within the community. Leaders of partnership minyanim often feel that many halakhic authorities are not sufficiently sensitive to some of the relevant policy and communal factors. When the issues are not halakhic in nature, on what basis do halakhic authorities have authority?

It should be clear that for halakhic questions that do not relate to gender issues (e.g., the kashrut of a sefer Torah, the latest time to eat se‘uda shelishit, etc.), participants in partnership minyanim respect rabbinic authority as much as anyone else. But when it comes to the question of women’s roles, my sense is that many participants in these minyanim feel that deferral to rabbinic authority simply means conceding that nothing will be allowed. This sense of alienation comes from exactly the point Rabbi Klapper makes at the beginning: rabbis forbid practices despite being halakhically permissible, because of their views on public policy, sociology, and a whole suite of other fields.

Of course, it was once true that rabbis (for then there were only rabbis) were entrusted with guiding the community in all sorts of matters. However, it is no longer necessarily the fact that rabbis are more educated than others in the community in anything other than Torah. A rabbi would be foolish to preach on matters of politics in front of the political scientists in his community, or to comment on the medical findings of the week without consulting the doctors. When it comes to Jewish public policy, too, there are professionals and there are experts, and these may or may not be the halakhic authorities. If the question is whether a practice is halakhically acceptable, the halakhic authorities ought to be the decisors. But if the question is one of policy, where does that authority lie?

I will conclude with a question, returning to the question of the terminology. Rabbi Klapper mentions that some people might just like the social networks afforded by the Orthodox community, but that for others the attraction is a personal commitment to halakhah. Is it important to people whether they are called “Orthodox” by others? If they live by halakhah but are judged to have left Orthodoxy, what would the results be?

Shira Hecht-Koller, Esq. teaches Talmud and Comparative Medical Ethics at SAR High School and is a Founding Member of the Orthodox Leadership Project. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized