Monthly Archives: January 2015

Goshen and the Costs of Jewish Segregation

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Michael Pershan

This week’s parsha sees Pharoah and Egypt destroyed for their persecution of the Jews and their addiction to slavery. But the subjugation of the Jews in Egypt didn’t begin with slavery. Instead it began, in the best of intentions, with segregation in the land of Goshen.

This segregation was largely a self-segregation. Yosef and his brothers carefully rehearsed a plan to win for themselves a home apart from that of their neighbors.

“So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, ‘What is your occupation?’ you shall answer, ‘Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers’ – so that you may stay in the region of Goshen.” (Bereishis 46:33-34)

It was important for these early Jews to live apart from their neighbors in Egypt. The potential spiritual danger of assimilation must have been palpable. In fact, the Netziv attributes Jewish persecution in every generation to our unwillingness to heed the call of self-segregation:

The reason why “in every generation they stand against us to destroy us” is because we don’t wish to be like strangers, segregated from the nations.” (Shemot 1:7)

This is a familiar line of reasoning. We frum Jews have built incredibly self-sufficient communities. We send our children to Jewish schools, clubs and camps. We live in heavily Jewish communities. Even as we work for, study under, hire and associate with non-Jews, our communities remain remarkably closed off.

All this is well known. What should we make of it? The Torah, I believe, offers us two narratives of segregation.  Self-segregation might have saved the Jews from assimilation, but it destroyed Egypt. The crucial question for present-day Jewry is, do we more closely resemble the ancient Jews or Egyptians?

The answer, I think, is “it depends.”

An inevitable side-effect of the way that we have structured Jewish communal life is that most Modern Orthodox Jews have no meaningful relationships with Black or Brown people. Our communal segregation is also de facto segregation by race, and this separation has moral consequences.

The word that I’m dancing around is “racism,” and the concern is that our communities harbor a special amount of it due to our relatively high degree of racial segregation.

It is important to see ourselves in the ancient Jews of the Exodus story, but it’s crucial that we also see ourselves in the Egyptians. Like them, we have inherited a society not of our making. The Egyptians lived apart from their vulnerable minorities, and so do we. The Egyptians lost their empathy for the Jews, demonizing and subjugating them. Eventually this spelled the end for the Egyptians, and we wish to avoid this fate.

At the end of the Exodus story, we are left with a challenge: Is it possible to maintain our own Goshen without creating one for others?

Michael Pershan is a math teacher living in Washington Heights.

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And the Number One MO Meme Is…

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Designers of Modern Orthodox curricula need to think not only about ideas but about how to embed those ideas in memorable textual readings. What are the ten best Modern Orthodox vorts on the parshah? What are the three standard Modern Orthodox divrei Torah to give at a sheva berakhot?

One of my top 10 MO memes is that G-d stopped the angels from singing when He unsplit the Reed Sea. “The products of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you seek to sing?!” This sentence and setting beautifully capture and affirm the tension between universalism and particularism so central to Modern Orthodoxy. G-d loves us Jews, and protects us Jews, and yet He sorrows whenever His relationship with us comes at the expense of His other human creations.

So it was deeply upsetting to me when, in my freshman year at YU, I heard Meir Kahane claim that this midrash was a liberal invention, and that the midrash actually spoke of the angels being refused permission because the Jews were not yet fully across.

I found the overall experience of Kahane, in particular his capacity to insult his followers without consequence, simply terrifying. It gave me a lasting distrust and fear of charismatics and charismatic education. But what if he was right, and one of the foundations of my religious identity was hollow? Disliking a Torah claim is not sufficient grounds for rejecting it.

Here is the version of the Midrash found in Tanchuma Beshallach 13.

“ד”א: “אז ישיר

בשעה שהיו ישראל חונים על הים, באו מלאכי השרת לקלס להקב”ה, ולא הניחן הקב”ה

‘”שנאמר “ולא קרב זה אל זה וגו

(ואומר “וקרא זה אל זה” (ישעי’ ו ג

?למי היו דומיין

למלך שנשבה בנו. לבש נקמה באויביו והלך להביא אותו, ובאו הבריות לומר לו אימנון

אמר להן: לכשאני פודה את בני אתם מקלסין אותי


ישראל היו נתונים בצרה בים. באו מלאכי השרת לקלס להקב”ה, נזף בהם

!?אמר להם הקב”ה: בניי נתונים בצרה, ואתם מקלסין

“Then did (Mosheh and Bnei Yisroel) sing” –

At the time that the Jews were camped by the sea, the Ministering Angels came to extol the Holy Blessed One, but He did not give them leave,

as Scripture says (Exodus 14:20): “they did not near (karav) one to the other . . .”,

and it says (Yeshayahu 6:3) “and they called (kara) one to the other”.

To whom were they comparable?

To a king whose son was captured. He dressed for revenge against his enemies and set out to rescue his son, and the populace came to recite his glory.

He said to them: “When I redeem my son you may extol me!”

So –

The Jews were in peril by the sea. The Ministering Angels came to praise the Holy Blessed One, but He angrily rebuked them.

He said to them: “My children are in danger, and you are extolling Me?!”

It is indisputable that in this version G-d stops the angels from singing because the Jews are still in trouble, not because the Egyptians are drowning. The whole point is that G-d has not yet intervened, and so the Egyptians are not yet drowning. The clear implication is that the angel’s singing would be premature rather than inherently inappropriate.

On Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b the text is as follows:

?”מאי דכתיב (שמות י”ד) “ולא קרב זה אל זה כל הלילה

בקשו מלאכי השרת לומר שירה

‘!?אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: ‘מעשה ידי טובעין בים, ואתם אומרים שירה

What is meant by the verse “and they did not draw near one to the other all that night”?

At that time the Ministering Angels sought to say the Song before the Holy Blessed One.

The Holy Blessed One said to them: “The products of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you are saying the Song before Me!?”

Only the Egyptians were ever drowning in the sea. Furthermore, the Talmud in both contexts uses this statement to support the claim that G-d does not rejoice at the downfall of the wicked, although he allows those saved from the wicked to rejoice; thus Moshe and Israel sing, but the angels cannot. So clearly the Talmudic version cannot be read the way Kahane suggested.

But which version is correct?

The Tanchuma is almost certainly the original, because the prooftext – “they did not draw near one to the other” – discusses the night before the Jews even enter the sea, let alone before G-d drowns the Egyptians in it.

On the other hand, the Tanchuma cannot fit in the Bavli at all! So the “Modern Orthodox version” was accepted by the editors of the Talmud. In other words, if this version is a liberal invention, we can only conclude that the compilers of these sugyot, the stammas d’gemara, were liberals. The weakness of the exegetical argument strengthens the authority of its substance.

I would be very comfortable religiously if my universalism places me with the editors of the Talmud against Meir Kahane.

I want to suggest further that applying the phrase “products of My hands” to Gentiles is a Talmudic Modern Orthodox meme. Here is my evidence, from Sanhedrin 98b. The context is a discussion of why Joshua’s conquest of Israel was supported by miracles, whereas Ezra’s return was not:

“שאלו נא וראו אם ילד זכר – מדוע ראיתי כל גבר ידיו על חלציו כיולדה, ונהפכו כל פנים לירון”

?”מאי “ראיתי כל גבר

אמר רבא בר יצחק אמר רב: מי שכל גבורה שלו

?”ומאי “ונהפכו כל פנים לירון

‘אמר רבי יוחנן: פמליא של מעלה ופמליא של מטה, בשעה שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: ‘הללו מעשה ידי והללו מעשה ידי, היאך אאבד אלו מפני אלו

(Yirmiyah 30:6) “Investigate please, and see, whether a male is giving birth – why do I see every man with his hands on his loins like a birthing woman, and all faces turned green?”

What is the referent of “I see every man”?

Said Rava bar Yitzchak said Rav: He to Whom all male virtue belongs;

And what is the referent of “and all faces turned green”?

Said Rabbi Yochanan: The famalia above and the famalia below, at the time when The Holy Blessed One said: ‘These are the products of My hands, and these are the products of My hands – how can I destroy these for the sake of those?’

Rashi identifies the two famalias as the angels and the Jews, and makes the contextual meaning clear:

‘?מי שכל הגבורה שלו” – הקדוש ברוך הוא מצטער בעצמו כיולדה ואומר בשעה שמעביר העובדי כוכבים מפני ישראל: ‘היאך אאביד אלו מפני אלו”

“To Whom all male virtue belongs” – The Holy Blessed One is Himself in pain like a birthing woman and says, at the time that he removes the idolaters for the sake of the Jews, “How can I destroy these for the sake of those?”

Orthodox subcultures replicate successfully when their key ideas can be captured in viral rabbinic soundbites. Think “hechadash assur min haTorah,” or “avira d’Eretz Yisrael makhkim.” Each of these can be funny to sophisticates. After all, the Chatam Sofer’s use of the first phrase to oppose creativity was a creative pun, and contemporary Israel programs cite the second phrase to prove that true Torah learning can only take place in Israel, when the quote itself is taken from the Babylonian Talmud! But they are nonetheless the engines of cultural success.

The idea that G-d’s love of Jews does not exclude His regarding all humanity as His handiwork, and that He cries when forced to choose between them, is demonstrably the intent of Chazal, albeit not the intent of Shemot 16:20. One measure of a Modern Orthodox day school’s success should be whether every student knows the sentence מעשי ידי טובעים בים and its attendant vort.

I invite nominations for the other nine members of the top 10.

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Response to Rabbi David Fried by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz’s response to Rabbi Fried’s piece. Rabbi Katz is Chair, Department of Talmud and Director of the Lindenbaum Center for Halakhic Studies at Yeshivat Chovevi Torah Rabbinical School as well as Director of Judaic Studies at the Luria Academy of Brooklyn and Rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul.

עש”ק פרשת שמות, ח”י טבת, תשע”ה

 לכבוד תלמידי היקר הרב ר’ דוד שליט”א

I read your teshuvah, it was a pleasure reading it. Your essay is thorough, clear and comprehensive.

As for your critiques of my own Teshuva, האמת אגיד, I am a little surprised. Your arguments are 1) based on a diyuk, 2) an argument from silence, and, finally, on a misunderstanding of my own argument.

As for your actual critiques, אענה בקיצור על ראשון ראשן ועל אחרון אחרון:

1) I argued that according to shitat ha’tosfot the requirement for beis din to be present at the immersion is only a “soft” leketchila. I believe that is true because of the language the Rishonim use when quoting or formulating shitat tosfot; they use phrases like מצוה מן המובחר or הכי עדיף טפי.

I, therefore, fail to understand your critique. You found that Tosafot later on, discussing a related issue, uses the term לכתחילה. My response to you is אז מה. Tosafot in our discussion also uses the term לכתחילה, but as I said, this לכתחילה has to על כרחך mean a soft לכתחילה, given the other quotes that I mentioned.

Therefore, yes, there are certain things we impose on the convert because of the analogy to משפט, and we indeed have to לכתחילה adhere to them. However, unlike most leketchilas, this one is only a “preferred” requirement, one that can be mitigated or compromised under certain circumstances.

2) I argued, based on explicit language from the Ramban, that the reason the Rif requires three for tevila is not because the tevila per se requires the presence of three dayanim. Instead, the reason we need three people is because there is a requirement for a second kabbalat mitzvot and the beis din‘s presence is required for that second kabbalat mitzvot.

Your argument, from silence, is that since the Beis Yosef does not mention that caveat, he must have missed it. It is an argument that is hard for me to believe or accept, especially since there are quite a few Rishonim who say so explicitly, some of whom go even further than the Ramban, saying that the requirement of beis din is for kabbalat mitzvot exclusively. It is, therefore, clear to me that this is what the Ramban meant and that is also how the Beis Yosef understood him.

3) It seems to me that you misunderstood the thrust of my first argument (the לכתחילה argument). I am not relying here on the בדיעבר כשעת הדחק דמי concept at all. I am saying instead that even if such a concept would not have existed in halakha in general, here would be different.

The reason I think we can be meikil here is because this is not your typical leketchila, where you need a real dieved to be meikil. Given the way this opinion is formulated, it is rather obvious that this leketchila is unique in the sense that it is only a “soft” leketchila requirement. Therefore, since this is only a “soft” leketchila requirement, we can be lenient whenever we are presented with mitigating circumstances.

In my opinion, the problematics with tevila post the D.C. scandal satisfies the standard of mitigating circumstances required in this case, allowing us therefore to rely on a be’dieved approach.

 רבך מוקירך


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Mikvah and Beit Din for Conversion

A special CMTL blog installment by SBM alum Rabbi David Fried (SBM 2010) on Mikvah and Beit Din at Conversion followed by a response by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz. Rabbi Fried teaches Talmud at the Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, MI and is a musmakh of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

1. Introduction

In the wake of the recent scandal involving hidden cameras inside the DC mikvah to videotape women as they prepared to immerse, a national conversation has begun within the Orthodox community as to how we might prevent similar abuses from happening in the future.  As part of this conversation, many female converts have begun to speak up about feeling uncomfortable with the immersion process, even when done before honest batei din, doing everything כדת וכדין.  Even though the women are fully covered whenever the men are present, it is certainly understandable that given the high value Orthodoxy places on modest conduct between the sexes, one could feel uncomfortable not wearing the sort of clothing one would normally wear in front of the opposite sex, even if fully covered.  It is axiomatic that fidelity to Halacha requires us to obey the d’var hashem even if it makes us uncomfortable.  However, there is certainly no need to make people uncomfortable if the Halacha does not absolutely require it.  It is therefore commendable for us to see what steps we might be able to take within the Halacha to help alleviate some of the discomfort for female converts.  Some non-controversial steps would include designing clothes that would work for the mikvah process that look and feel more like regular street clothes[1].  Additionally, some women may like to have more women with them at the time of the immersion, and assuming there is space in the room, there is nothing in the Halacha that would prohibit this.

As part of this effort to alleviate the converts’ discomfort Rabbi Jeff Fox[2], and my teacher, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz[3], have put forth תשובות arguing that the Beit Din is not halachically required to witness the immersion at all.  What follows is an analysis of the arguments they make.  I stress that what I am writing here is not intended as a p’sak Halacha.  No one has asked me to rule on this question, and I would not see myself as worthy to rule on it if they did.  Rabbi Katz knows far more Torah than I do, and I’m sure he has a good response to each of the points I will raise.  However, תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך, so I therefore raise these issues in an effort to further the conversation and make sure all relevant Halachic issues are dealt with publicly before any final decision is made.

2. The Gemaras

As Rabbi Fox (Fox 3) and Rabbi Katz (Katz 1) both identify, the central question in resolving this issue is how to reconcile two Gemaras that seem to point in opposite directions on the question.  The Gemara in Yevamot 47b states:

אשה, נשים מושיבות אותה במים עד צוארה, ושני ת”ח עומדים לה מבחוץ, ומודיעין אותה מקצת מצות קלות ומקצת מצות חמורות. … ושני ת”ח עומדים על גביו. והא א”ר חייא א”ר יוחנן: גר צריך שלשה! הא א”ר יוחנן לתנא, תני: שלשה

This suggests that three Talmidei Chachamim (i.e. the Beit Din) must be present at the time of the immersion[4], albeit for women with precautions taken to make sure they will not actually see her naked.  However, a mere two pages earlier, on Yevamot 45b, we are presented with a story that points in a different direction:

?ההוא דהוו קרו ליה בר ארמייתא, אמר רב אסי: מי לא טבלה לנדותה? ההוא דהוו קרו ליה בר ארמאה, אמר ריב”ל: מי לא טבל לקריו

This Gemara suggests that a טבילת נידה for a woman or a טבילת קרי for a man, where presumably no Beit Din is present, could function to effect the גרות as well.  There are several different approaches in the Rishonim to how to resolve this apparent contradiction.  We will focus primarily on the two that come up most commonly הלכה למעשה: the approach of the Tosafot, and the approach of the Rif and the Rambam.

3. Shitat Hatosafot

There are various formulations of Tosafot’s approach, but the basic key is that לכתחילה the Beit Din should be present for all parts of the conversion process, but בדיעבד it is only מעכב if they are not there for the קבלת המצות.  There are, of course, various types of לכתחילה in Halacha: something can be לכתחילה מדאורייתא, לכתחילה מדרבנן, or a הדור מצוה.  Rabbi Katz takes the last of these three approaches (Katz 1-2).  He bases himself on the language of the Rashba in Kiddushin 62b ד”ה גר who uses the language למצוה מן המובחר, and the Tosafot in Yevamot 45b ד”ה מי who use the language דעדיף טפי.  If this read of the Shitat Hatosafot–that the Beit Din’s presence at the טבילה is a mere הדור מצוה–is correct, then it is not really required, and might be dispensed with on account of even a slight discomfort, at least for Tosafot.  However, if we want to know how Shulchan Aruch interpreted the לכתחילה of Tosafot, it behooves us to look at what he quotes in the Beit Yosef.  In the Beit Yosef Yoreh Deah 268, the only source he quotes for the Shitat Hatosafot is the Tosafot in Yevamot (ibid.).  While the initial language of דעדיף טפי sounds fairly weak, and could easily be read to mean a הדור מצוה, reading further in Tosafot will suggest an equally plausible alternative.  Addressing the questions of how a טבילת נידה could function for גרות when טבילת נידה is done at night, and גרות must be in the daytime, Tosafot write:

ומיהו קשיא דטבילת נדה בלילה ולקמן (דף מו:) אמר אין מטבילין גר בלילה אבל אי לאו כתיב משפט אלא אקבלת מצוה אתי שפיר והא דאין מטבילין היינו לכתחלה מדרבנן

This suggests that those laws about גרות which are derived from משפט, namely in front of Beit Din and during the daytime, apply מדאורייתא only to the קבלת מצות, but מדרבנן are extended to the טבילה as well.  This final formulation of Tosafot could easily be read to mean that they are talking about a bona fide חיוב מדרבנן and further proof is necessary to claim precedent for viewing it as a mere הדור מצוה.  This is not to say that even a bona fide חיוב דרבנן could never be put aside.  We have an accepted rule in Halacha of שעת הדחק כדיעבד דמי, and there might be times where we could justify setting aside the דרבנן (so long as the רבנן did not make it מעכב) and relying on the דאורייתא.  However, this would require more than minor discomfort, and further investigation would be required into what circumstances we could call a שעת הדחק of sufficient magnitude in the realm of גרות.

4. Shitat Harif V’harambam

The Rif in Yevamot 15b writes:

סוגיא דשמעתא הכין הוא ואי קשיא לך ההיא דרבי יוחנן דאמר גר צריך שלשה מ”ט משפט כתיב ביה וקי”ל דהלכתא היא לא קשיא הא דרב אסי ודרבי יהושע בן לוי דיעבד הוא דלא פסלינן לבריה הואיל וטבל לשם קריו דאי לאו גיורא הוא לא הוה טבל לשם קריו והא דר’ יוחנן לכתחלה דלא נהגינן ביה מנהג גר ולא מנסבינן ליה בת ישראל עד דטביל בפני ג

Similarly, the Rambam, in Hilchot Issurei Biah 13:9 writes:

גיורת שראינוה נוהגת בדרכי ישראל תמיד כגון שתטבול לנדתה ותפריש תרומה מעיסתה וכיוצא בזה, וכן גר שנוהג בדרכי ישראל שטובל לקריו ועושה כל המצות הרי אלו בחזקת גרי צדק, ואע”פ שאין שם עדים שמעידין לפני מי שנתגיירו, ואע”פ כן אם באו להתערב בישראל אין משיאין אותם עד שיביאו עדים או עד שיטבלו בפנינו הואיל והוחזקו עכו”ם

The simplest explanation for their approach is found in the Magid Mishneh:

וכי קאמרי מי לא טבלה הכי קאמרי היכי איפשר לחוש לא נתגיירו כראוי והרי הם נוהגים בכל המצות כישראלים גמורים וטובלים מטומאתן וטבילה דנקט לאו דוקא

This read is supported by the Rambam listing other Mitzvot that we see the woman perform in addition to טבילת נידה, such as הפרשת חלה, which obviously has nothing to do with the גרות process.  In addition, the Rif’s language of דאי לאו גיורא הוא לא הוה טבל לשם קריו also suggests that he views מי לא טבלה לקריו as a סימן that a valid גרות took place, and not as the סיבה of the [גרות[5.  It would follow from this approach that if we were to know with certainly that no טבילה בפני בית דין ever took place, the conversion would not even be valid בדיעבד.  Neither Rabbi Fox (Fox 6) nor Rabbi Katz (Katz 1) even mention this as a possible explanation of the Rif and the Rambam.  Rabbi Fox (Fox 5) goes so far as to state that the Nimukei Yosef is the only rishon who holds that a טבילה שלא בפני בית דין is not valid בדיעבד.  If this explanation of the Magid Mishneh is correct, then we have the Rif and the Rambam in that camp as well.

Rabbi Fox’s read of the Rif and Rambam is not without precedent.  He summarizes their position as follows:

“The רי”ף assumes that the presence of the בית דין at the immersion is a לכתחילה requirement, but that בדיעבד , the conversion is valid for personal matters[6]. However, if this person were to marry a Jew, another immersion in the presence of a בית דין would be required.

“The רמב”ם appears to follow in the footsteps of the רי”ף and distinguishes between an individual’s conversion status in personal concerns and his/her status as it relates to marrying into the Jewish people.

“They both agree, however, that if this woman were to marry a Jew, her offspring would be Jewish.” (Fox 6)

This approach is consistent with the second approach the Magid Mishneh offers, which he quotes from the Ramban[7]:

והרמב”ן ז”ל כתב דודאי לכתחלה צריך שלשה בין במילה בין בטבילה ואילו נתגייר בינו לבין עצמו לגמרי ואפילו דיעבד אינו גר דעכו”ם גמור הוא דמשפט כתיב ביה אבל אי קביל עליה בפני שלשה למול ולטבול והודיעוהו מקצת מצות כדינן והלך ומל וטבל שלא בפני ב”ד הרי זה כשר ולא פסלינן לזרעיה ולא מנסבין ליה לדידיה בת ישראל עד דטביל בפני שלשה משום דלכתחלה בעינן שלשה בין בקבלה בין בטבילה עד כאן דבריו ז”ל

This approach essentially sees the Rif and the Rambam in the same camp as Tosafot that the presence of Beit Din is only מעכב with regard to קבלת מצות and לכתחילה with regard to the טבילה.  However, they have the added חומרא that when the convert themselves is in front of us, as opposed to their children, and it is בידינו to do another טבילה now in front of Beit Din, we should do that and not rely on the initial טבילה that was not in front of Beit din.

The Beit Yosef (Yoreh Deah 268) quotes both of these approaches to the Rif and the Rambam and does not indicate a preference between them.  One who wishes to pasken like the approach of the Ramban is certainly on solid halachic footing.  However, we should make note of the consequences of this psak.  In the שו”ת מלמד להועיל חלק ב סימן פז, he writes:

ועתה ניחזי אנן אי מהני כשטובלין אותו עכשיו בלא קבלת מצוות. הנה בי”ד סי’ רס”ח סעיף ג’ כ’ דקבלת מצות אפילו בדיעבד מעכב אם אינה ביום ובשלשה, וא”כ מכש”כ דמעכב אם לא קבל כלל המצות, ואף שבסוף סי’ רס”ח כ’ דבדיעבד הוי גר אף שלא הודיעוהו שכר המצות ועונשן מ”מ קבלת המצוות מעכב אפילו בדיעבד וכ”כ בקונטרס וכתורה יעשה דף י”ב ע”א בשם בעל בית יצחק. אמנם לי אכתי הדבר צריך עיון דהא כתב ה”ה פי”ג מה’ א”ב הי”ז זה פשוט דאין הודעת המצות מעכב, ואיך יקבל המצות אם אינו יודע המצות, וא”כ משמע דגם קבלת המצות אינו מעכב בדיעבד

The מלמד להועיל is undoubtedly interpreting the Rambam like the first approach in the Magid Mishneh and not like the Ramban.  One cannot simultaneously claim that קבלת מצות שלא בפני בית דין is מעכב and then turn around and say that קבלת המצות is not מעכב at all.  Therefore, one who paskens like the Ramban’s interpretation of the Rif and Rambam can no longer rely on the מלמד להועיל to validate (בדיעבד—obviously everyone agrees that לכתחילה a proper קבלת מצות is required) a conversion with a less than complete קבלת מצות.  This is, of course, not a critique on Rabbi Fox.  He never suggested we should follow the מלמד להועיל, and I would presume holds we should not.  However, other rabbis, who might be inclined to follow the מלמד להועיל, must be aware that it is fundamentally inconsistent with Rabbi Fox’s approach.

Rabbi Katz offers a novel interpretation of the Rif and the Rambam (Katz 2).  He suggests that the reason why they require a טבילה בפני בית דין is because Beit Din’s presence is required for קבלת מצות and there is an additional requirement that קבלת מצות needs to be בשעת טבילה.  Based on this he suggests that if we could arrange a situation where Beit Din is close enough to hear the קבלת המצות בשעת טבילה, it would be valid לכתחילה, even if they did not witness the actual טבילה.  He bases this on a line from the Ramban (Yevamot 45b ד”ה מי לא), where he says:

אלמא בעינן קבלה בשעת טבילה ממש והכל בפני שלשה

While this may be a plausible explanation of the Rif and the Rambam[8], if we look at the entire piece from the Ramban, this line seems to be more of a parenthetical aside than the central part of his explanation.  The main part of the Ramban seems to read as we described it above.  In fact, as we saw above, the Magid Mishneh does not even quote this line from the Ramban, so he clearly did not see it as central to the explanation.  The Beit Yosef also does not quote this line when quoting the Ramban, so it seems difficult to say that this is how the Shulchan Aruch understood the Rif and the Rambam, which Rabbi Katz asserts (Katz 3).  Additionally, it is worth pointing out, as we did with Rabbi Fox’s approach, that such an approach would still preclude ever relying on the מלמד להועיל.  As with Rabbi Fox, this is not a critique of Rabbi Katz, as he never suggested we should rely on the מלמד חהועיל.  However, it is an important issue for other rabbis who are thinking of relying on Rabbi Katz to be aware of.

5. Shulchan Aruch and Acharonim

The Shulchan Aruch, in Yoreh Deah 268:3 quotes both the approaches of the Tosafot and the approach of the Rif and the Rambam:

כל ענייני הגר, בין להודיעו המצות לקבלם בין המילה בין הטבילה, צריך שיהיו בג’ הכשרים לדון, וביום (תוס’ ורא”ש פ’ החולץ). מיהו דוקא לכתחלה, אבל בדיעבד אם לא מל או טבל אלא בפני ב’ (או קרובים) (הגהות מרדכי) ובלילה, אפילו לא טבל לשם גרות, אלא איש שטבל לקריו ואשה שטבלה לנדתה, הוי גר ומותר בישראלית, חוץ מקבלת המצות שמעכבת אם אינה ביום ובשלשה. ולהרי”ף ולהרמב”ם, אפילו בדיעבד שטבל או מל בפני שנים או בלילה, מעכב, ואסור בישראלית, אבל אם נשא ישראלית והוליד ממנה בן, לא פסלינן ליה

It is not clear from here which approach to the Rif and the Rambam he is taking.  As Rabbi Fox (Fox 7) and Rabbi Katz (Katz 2) both point out, the simple read does seem to be that he is paskening like the Tosafot since he mentions their opinion first and without attribution.  This would indicate that he holds that בדיעבד a טבילה not in the presence of Beit Din would be valid.  Although, he does seem to say that it would still require two witnesses.  However, Rabbi Fox (Fox 8) quotes the Bach who says this is לאו דווקא and even one witness or an אשה נאמנת would also be valid.  The Shach (ס”ק י) quotes this Bach להלכה, so it seems to be on solid footing (even though the Shach does quote a dissenting opinion as well[9]).

The Shulchan Aruch, in סעיף ב’, describes the process for טבילת גר:

מטבילין אותו טבילה הוגנת בלא חציצה. ושלשה (תלמידי חכמים) (ג”ז טור) עומדים על גביו ומודיעים אותו מקצת מצות קלות ומקצת מצות חמורות פעם שנייה, והוא עומד במים. ואם היתה אשה, נשים מושיבות אותה במים עד צוארה, והדיינים מבחוץ, ומודיעין אותה מקצת מצות קלות וחמורות, והיא יושבת במים, ואח”כ טובלת בפניהם והם מחזירים פניהם ויוצאין, כדי שלא יראו אותה כשתעלה מהמים

Rabbi Fox (Fox 8) asserts:

“This is consistent with the opinion of רמב”ם that the מחבר quotes in סעיף ג which requires the presence of the בית דין. However the מחבר means to pasken against the רמב”ם in this area. Therefore, the מחבר must also presume that when we pasken like the סתם position of Tosafot in סעיף ג that the language of רמב”ם from סעיף ב is also implicitly rejected.”

However, since the position of Tosafot that the Shulchan Aruch paskens with in סעיף ג’ also maintains that לכתחילה the טבילה should be in the presence of the Beit Din, there is no reason to assume that סעיף ב’ is merely according to the rejected opinion of the Rif and the Rambam.  Rather, he is describing what is the לכתחילה procedure according to all opinions.

Even if the Shulchan Aruch is indeed paskening like the Tosafot, Rabbi Fox (Fox 8-10) and Rabbi (Katz 3) both point out that the Acharonim are divided about whether we should be concerned for the Rif and the Rambam בדיעבד or not.  Rabbi Fox (Fox 8) lists the Shach among the acharonim who are not concerned for the Rif and the Rambam.  However, there seems to be no clear indication from the Shach.  In סעיף קטן י’, which is the one Rabbi Fox references, the Shach explains the position of the Tosafot, however, there is no indication that he intends to pasken that way למעשה.  In fact, in סעיף קטן י”א, he explains the position of the Rif and the Rambam, so if explaining a position means you agree with it, then we have contradictory indications for which way the Shach paskens.

6. שעת הדחק

Even assuming we are willing to hold like those Poskim who are not concerned בדיעבד for the Rif and the Rambam, we still have seen no one so far who would permit לכתחילה not doing the טבילה in the presence of Beit Din.  The first way Rabbi Fox (Fox 10) and Rabbi Katz (Katz 2) suggest is based on the principle of שעת הדחק כדיעבד דמי.  A greater survey of the Halachic literature is required to see what situations the Poskim are willing to call a שעת הדחק in the realm of הלכות גרות.  In principle, though, this approach is well founded.  If an individual Beit Din, fully familiar with the woman or man they are converting and the circumstances involved, declared than in this case they would need to rely on doing the conversion in a manner we would normally only consider valid בדיעבד based on a שעת הדחק, we would have no a priori reason to doubt their judgment.  Rabbi Fox (Fox 15) and Rabbi Katz (Katz 4), however, go a step further than this.  They declare that the recent scandal at the DC Mikvah is sufficient to declare all conversions for the foreseeable future to be in the category of שעת הדחק (Rabbi Fox says this just for conversions in the Washington, DC area; Rabbi Katz seems to say it for everywhere).  Whether we can declare a situation a permanent שעת הדחק without any reference to the specific people involved in the case, or any time limit or indication for how long the situation might remain a שעת הדחק is a much more serious question.  The שרידי אש dealt with a similar situation in which the government banned performing שחיטה in the לכתחילה way, but would allow doing it in a way that would be kosher בדיעבד.  Some had suggested permitting doing the שחיטה in this matter on the basis of שעת הדחק כדיעבד דמי.  The (שרידי אש חלק ב סימן ו מכתב ד סעיף ב) writes:

אולם יש עוד לדון, דאם כ’ הפוסקים דמותר רק בדיעבד, והנה קיי”ל שעת הדחק כדיעבד דמי. אך מכל המקומות שהביאו דשעת הדחק כדיעבד דמי נראה רק במקרה כשאירע כן בשעת הדחק, אז מותר לכתחלה, כמו אם הי’ דיעבד, וכגון מ”ש הרמ”א (באהע”ז סי’ קכ”ז סעי’ ד’) ברמ”א בשם הב”י דשעת הדחק עדיף מדיעבד, כמ”ש בלשונו, כ”ש בשעת הדחק היינו כשאירע פעם אחת במקרה בגט שכיב מרע וכיוצא, אבל לא לעשות תקנה (כלומר קלקלה) לחתוך בכל ענין לכתחלה כל המפרקת, בכה”ג לא מצינו

Certainly, one תשובה is not a proof, but the case to disagree with the approach of the שרידי אש needs to be demonstrated and cannot just be assumed to be included in the general principle of שעת הדחק כדיעבד דמי.

7. ידיעה כראיה דמי

Rabbi Fox (Fox 12) offers an alternative approach to justify the Beit Din לכתחילה not witnessing the טבילה, based on the principle of ידיעה כראיה דמי, that a knowledge of something with a level of certainty can take the place in Halacha of actually seeing it.  One of the sources he bases this on is the idea of הן הן עידי יחוד הן הן עידי ביאה.  This is clearly not following the approach of the Rashba (שו”ת הרשב”א חלק א סימן תשפ) who requires direct sight even in forms of קידושין other than קידושי ביאה:

השיב עוד בשנים שהיו עומדים אחרי גדר בית אחד. ושמעו שאמר ראובן ללאה התקדשי לי באתרוג אבל לא ראו נתינה ממש. ואפילו ראו האתרוג יוצא מתחת ידה אין כאן חשש של כלום. ואפילו היא מודה שלקחתו לשם קידושין דעדות ראיה דידיעה בעיא ממש

The תשובות מיימוניות ספר נשים סימן א takes the same approach and elaborates on why הן הן עידי יחוד הן הן עידי ביאה is limited only to ביאה:

נ”ל דאפילו חזו סהדי שנכנס עמה לקדשה בכסף ולא ראו שקדשה לא בעיא גט כיון דלא חזו ממש שקדשה, דדוקא בביאה אמרי’ הן הן עידי יחוד הן הן עידי ביאה, משום דאיכא למימר אש בנעורת ואינה מהבהבת ועוד מפני שלבו גס בה, ועוד כיון דאי אפשר לראות כמכחול בשפופרת דגנאי הוא

This is the approach followed by the Rema as well in Even Ha’ezer 42:4:

וצריכים העדים לראות הנתינה ממש לידה או לרשותה, אבל אם לא ראו הנתינה ממש לידה, אע”פ ששמעו שאמר: התקדשי לי בחפץ פלוני, ואחר כך יצא מתחת ידה, אינן קידושין עד שיראו הנתינה ממש (תשובת רשב”א סי’ תש”פ). ואין הולכין בזה אחר אומדנות והוכחות

There are certainly those who disagree with this approach.  The Beit Shmuel (42:12) writes:

ועיין ברמב”ם פי”ו ה’ עדות ובח”ה ס”ס נ’ שם כתב בשם הרמ”ה דיני ממונות מתקיים בידיעה בלא ראיה לפ”ז י”ל בקדושין ג”כ מהני בלא ראיה

The Avnei Milu’im (31:4) elaborates on this approach[10]:

ועוד דעיקר עדות דבעינן בגיטין וקידושין אינו אלא משום דילפינן דבר דבר מממון ולא מהני שניהם מודים ומשום דיליף דבר דבר מממון במקום הכחשה דבעי שני עדים וגבי ממון גופי’ נמי מהני עדות בידיעה בלא ראי

If the Avnei Milu’im is right that even those who disagree with the Rashba regarding קידושי כסף, disagree only because the requirement for witnesses for קידושין is learned from דבר דבר מממון, then we have no reason to believe they would extend the principle of ידיעה כראיה דמי to the requirement that a Beit Din witness a conversion which is learned from משפט and not from a היקש to דיני ממונות.

Nevertheless, there appear to be some sources that do extend ידיעה כראיה דמי to the realm of conversions, and Rabbi Fox (Fox 9-13) quotes a number of them.  The earliest is Tosafot on Yevamot 45b, after the part we quoted above, where they offer a second answer to reconcile the two apparently contradictory Gemaras:

ויש מפרשים דכיון דידוע לכל שטבלה כאילו עומדים שם דמי

This appears not to be relevant למעשה for several reasons: 1) The Beit Yosef (Yoreh Deah 268) quotes this opinion, so he clearly knew of it, and yet does not quote it in Shulchan Aruch, indicating he intended to pasken against it[11].  2) If we are trying to make the conversion valid according to the Rif and the Rambam, quoting an opinion of Tosafot with no proof that the Rif and the Rambam would agree does not help us.  3) It is not clear if ידוע לכל means the same thing as ידוע לבית דין and whether Tosafot ever intended such an idea to be something that one could rely on לכתחילה.

Moving on to more modern times, Rabbi Fox (Fox 9) quotes the מנחת יצחק ד:לד who does say:

י”ל דנחשב להב”ד כמו ידיעה בלא ראיה

As Rabbi Fox correctly points out, though, the מנחת יצחק says this only בדרך אפשר and therefore cannot be relied upon למעשה.

Rabbi Fox (Fox 11) hangs most of his argument, however, on Rav Moshe (אגרות משה יורה דעה חלק ג סימן קיב), who does seem to extend the principle of ידיעה כראיה דמי into conversion למעשה[12.  We will analyze Rav Moshe’s approach more thoroughly in the next section, but it is worth quoting some key passages here.  He addresses explicitly why he thinks it is reasonable to learn from דיני ממונות to conversion:

ובעצם אף אם היה להם דין ראיה כעדים הא גם בעדות מעידין על ידיעה ברורה בלא ראיה כדכתיב או ראה או ידע כדאיתא בשבועות דף ל”ד ע”א ואף אם לא מועיל בדיני נפשות הא גר משפט כתיב שהוא לממון ולא לנפשות דהרי לא מצרכינן אלא ג’ ב”ד ולא כ”ג

He also explicitly addresses the fact that Tosafot’s position of ידוע לכל כעומדים שם דמי seems to be rejected:

ועיין בתוס’ דף מ”ה ע”ב ד”ה מי דיש מפרשים דכיון דידוע לכל שטבלה כאילו עומדים שם דמי, דלכן אפשר להקטין המחלוקת דכו”ע מודים לסברא זו דהי”מ ומה שפליגי הוא שלא מחשבי זה שמצד חיוב טבילה לקרי ולנדתה שאינו בעצם ידיעה ממש אלא מצד צרוף החזקה שראו שהם שומרי דיני התורה שאין להחשיב בשביל זה כאנן סהדי מצד ידיעה זו, ולא מצינו בעלמא שחזקת צדקות דאדם יתחשב כאנן סהדי דאדרבה הרי חזינן דילפינן מוספרה לה לעצמה שע”א =שעד אחד= ואשה נאמנין באיסורין ואי הוה מחשיב זה לאנן סהדי הרי איכא כו”ע לעדים וצ”ע שיטת הי”מ, אבל בידיעה ברורה מאומדנא מעצם העובדא לא מצד צרוף חזקות כו”ע יודו דנחשבו כעומדים שם וכראו בעיניהם ממש, לכן אין בזה שום חשש והיא גיורת כשרה

Assuming we have reasonable precedent to rely on for extending ידיעה כראיה דמי to the realm of conversion, we still need to clarify what would constitute sufficient ידיעה for this purpose.  We can place limitations on what can count as ידיעה כראיה דמי based on looking at other examples of ראיית בית דין in Halacha.  The Gemara in Rosh Hashanah 25b tells us we can do קידוש החדש on the basis of a ראיית בית דין:

ראוהו בית דין יעמדו שנים ויעידו בפניהם. ואמאי? לא תהא שמיעה גדולה מראייה! – אמר רבי זירא: כגון שראוהו בלילה

Likewise, on Bava Kama 90b we see that the same is true even for דיני נפשות:

והתניא: סנהדרין שראו אחד שהרג את הנפש – מקצתן נעשו עדים ומקצתן נעשו דיינין, דברי רבי טרפון; ר’ עקיבא אומר: כולם עדים הם, ואין עד נעשה דיין; עד כאן לא קאמר ר’ טרפון – אלא דמקצתן נעשו עדים ומקצתן נעשו דיינין, אבל עד נעשה דיין לא קאמר! כי תניא ההיא – כגון שראו בלילה, דלא למעבד דינא נינהו

From both of these sources we see that information garnered at night (i.e. when they cannot be assembled as a Beit Din) can only count as the ראייה of individuals and not as the ראיה of Beit Din, even if all of the individual Dayanim saw it.  This is not specifically relevant to our case, but should it come up in future conversion cases, it is worth pointing out that the Beit Din’s ידיעה would have to be garnered at a time when they are assembled as a Beit Din.  We can also see from here that all second-hand knowledge is in a separate category from ראייה.  Therefore, information garnered solely from hearing another person (such as, in our case, the בלנית) tell it cannot fall into the category of ידיעה כראיה דמי.  Of course, in קידוש החודש or דיני נפשות, second knowledge can be just as good, as long as we follow the proper procedures of עדות.  Nevertheless, we see that עדות and ראיית בית דין are separate tracks.  Therefore, when the Halacha specifically requires a ראיית בית דין, such as conversion, anything that falls into that category of עדות would not be good.  We can see this locally to the סוגיות on conversion as well.  Since, as we have discussed, a טבילת נידה can, at best, work only בדיעבד, and there would be a בלנית who witnessed the טבילת נידה and could verify it to the Beit Din, what is required לכתחילה must necessarily be something more than this[13].

We can similarly limit what constitutes ידיעה based on the Rambam הלכות קידוש החודש פרק ה הלכה ב:

ודבר זה הלכה למשה מסיני הוא, שבזמן שיש סנהדרין קובעין על הראייה ובזמן שאין שם סנהדרין קובעין על חשבון זה שאנו מחשבין בו היום ואין נזקקין לראייה

If this kind of certain knowledge of something always counted as a ידיעה כראיה דמי, why would we need the הלכה למשה מסיני to permit it specifically by [14]קידוש החודש?  Rather, it seems that the only ידיעה that can ever count as ראיה is direct sensory information relating to the specific event.  This would fit with the case the Beit Shmuel permitted by קידושין of:

לא ראו הנתינה ממש לידה, אע”פ ששמעו שאמר: התקדשי לי בחפץ פלוני, ואחר כך יצא מתחת ידה

It would also fit with the way Rav Moshe described it:

בידיעה ברורה מאומדנא מעצם העובדא לא מצד צרוף חזקות

Thus, Rav Moshe was lenient in a case where the Beit Din was able to hear the טבילה (Fox 11) or saw the woman walk into the Mikvah, and walk out with wet hair, even if they were not able to see the actual immersion[15], but beyond this we have no proof.

8. Rav Moshe

Since Rav Moshe is the only clear source we have to rely on for applying ידיעה כראיה דמי to conversion, we must now analyze more closely what Rav Moshe’s actual position on the matter is.  Rabbi Fox (Fox 10-11) quotes from three different תשובות that Rav Moshe wrote on the matter.  The first is אגרות משה יורה דעה חלק ב סימן קכח.  Rabbi Fox (Fox 11) summarizes his inference from this תשובה as follows:

The implication of the concluding sentence of this paragraph is that if we had full ידיעה , we could rely on that knowledge even without having actually seen the immersion. In this case, because there was not sincere קבלת המצוות , we cannot assume that she was attending the מקוה regularly.

In truth, we cannot really imply anything למעשה from this תשובה.  Rav Moshe is attempting to demonstrate that the conversion in question was not valid according to any opinion.  Had there been real ידיעה, we have no way of knowing whether Rav Moshe would have paskened it was valid למעשה or only valid according to one opinion that we don’t really hold like.

The second תשובה is אגרות משה יורה דעה חלק ב סימן קכז.  In this תשובה, Rav Moshe invalidates a conversion where the Beit Din did not witness the טבילה on the bases of the Rif and the Rambam, which he assumes we hold like, at least מספק.  Rabbi Fox (Fox 12) assumes that this תשובה is fundamentally at odds with the תשובה we quoted earlier (אגרות משה יורה דעה חלק ג סימן קיב) and we can therefore ignore it and follow the later Teshuva representing his final and more mature approach:

Rav Moshe, like many גדולים , appears to articulate two very different approaches to the same question. It is difficult to synthesize these two teshuvot. In any case, he clearly says something very different as his later and more mature approach.

There are certainly points on which Rav Moshe no doubt changed his mind from one תשובה to the next.  In the earlier תשובה, he takes the approach of the תשובות מיימוניות:

עיין בתשובות מיימוניות לספר נשים סימן א’ ולטעם אחד שם אף בידיעה כיחוד לביאה נמי לא מהני משום דהוא חדוש רק בביאה שאי אפשר לראות כמכחול בשפופרת

In the later תשובה, as we have seen, he has no problem extending ידיעה כראיה דמי from דיני ממונות into גרות.  However, if Rav Moshe is the only authority we have to rely on, we can only rely on what we have explicit precedent for.  It is therefore our obligation to try and reconcile the two תשובות as much as possible, and limit how much of what he says we have to ignore.  In the earlier תשובה, Rav Moshe is communicating with Rabbi Aryeh Leib Grosnas, a דיין on the Beit Din of London.  Rabbi Grosnas had suggested that טבילה בפני בית דין could be interpreted as a טבילה that is in the presence of the Beit Din, even if the Beit Din did not actually see it.  Rav Moshe rejects this possibility on two grounds.  The first is, as we have seen already, at this point in his career, Rav Moshe held that there needed to be ראייה ממש [16.  The second is that in the case in question, the Beit Din was not in the same room as the Mikvah, and therefore the טבילה could not even be called in the presence of Beit Din:

וגם אם נימא כסברת כתר”ה דאין הב”ד צריכין לראות הטבילה אלא סגי במה שיהיו שם בשעת הטבילה, הרי כיון שהיו בחדר אחר אין להחשיב שהב”ד נמצאים שם, דמ”ש ממה שלא מצטרפין חמשה מחדר זה וחמשה מחדר אחר לעשרה לאמירת דבר שבקדושה ואף בקטנה שנפרצה לגדולה איתא בעירובין דף צ”ב שרק ביחיד בקטנה מצטרף ואיתא שם בתוס’ דאף יותר מאחד אם הם המיעוט אבל חמשה בקטנה אין מצטרפין ואיפסק כן בש”ע /או”ח/ סימן נ”ה סעיף ט”ז, וכן לכל הדינים נחשבו שני מקומות כמפורש בעירובין שם שחשב הרבה דברים, ואף במראה פניו שמצטרף אף דרך חלון לרב האי גאון ואיפסק כן בסעיף י”ד הוא רק לצרוף לתפלה וגם רק יחיד דביותר לא מצינו, ועיין בערוך השלחן שכתב כן וגם חידש שם שדוקא מחצר או מרחוב ולא בעומד בבית בפני עצמה שלא יצטרף אף לתפלה אף במראה פניו כגון מעזרת נשים ובמ”ב /או”ח סי’ נ”ה/ ס”ק נ”ב אינו מחלק, עכ”פ הוא דבר חדוש רק לתפלה ולזימון אבל לכל הדברים לא יועיל אף מראה פניו. ונמצא שכיון שהב”ד היו בחדר אחר אף שהדלת היה פתוח לחדר המקוה אין להחשיבם להב”ד שעמדו במקום הטבילה, ולסברת כתר”ה אין להועיל אף כשיראו ב”ד הטבילה דרך הפתח כיון דהקפידא דב”ד אינו בהראיה אלא במה שנמצאים במקום הטבילה דכיון שהם בחדר אחר הרי אינם שם, ואם נימא שהקפידא היא בראיית הב”ד את הטבילה יש להועיל כה”ג, אך אולי תרוייהו צריך שיהיו הב”ד במקום הטבילה וגם שיראו את הטבילה

As we have seen, we have evidence that Rav Moshe backed down from the first of these points, and in his later years, no longer required ראיה ממש.  However, we have no evidence that he backed down from the second point.  It is noteworthy that the question in the later תשובה involved a case where the Beit Din was, in fact, in the room with the Mikvah, even though they could not see the immersion directly, as we can see from the formulation of the question:

בדבר הגרות שהיתה בפני שלשה דיינים כשרים שנכנסו להמקוה כשהיתה עומדת עד צוארה במים ומחמת שהיה המקום צר ולא יכלו לעמוד בשורה אחת באופן שיראו כולם היטב הרכנת ראשה במים אלא עמדו זה אחורי זה ראה רק הראשון דעמד אצל המקוה ושנים האחרים לא יכלו לראות אבל שמעו קול הטבילה בהכנסת ראשה בהמים

In fact, in the later תשובה, Rav Moshe seems to largely adopt Rabbi Grosnas’ approach (with his caveat that they need to be in the same room) and works to develop a conceptual explanation for why the presence of Beit Din is required other than witnessing the טבילה itself:

אלא נראה דקבלת המצות אינו ממעשה הגרות אבל מי שלא קבל המצות לא הוכשר להעשות גר, וסברי התוס’ דרק זה שייך לב”ד דנתחדש שהוראה זו דאיש זה ואשה זו כשרין להעשות גרים צריך שלשה דמשפט כתיב ביה, ולכן כשקבל המצות בפני ג’ וגם זה גופא למול ולטבול מורין לו שהוא כשר להעשות גר והולך אחר זה ומל וטובל אף שלא בפני ב”ד הוא גר כיון שעשה ע”פ הוראתם, ומדויק לשון הרמב”ן שהביא המ”מ בפי”ג מאי”ב ה”ט אבל אי קביל עליה בפני ג’ למול ולטבול והודיעוהו מקצת מצות כדינן והלך ומל וטבל שלא בפני ב”ד ה”ז כשר, וכוונתו בלשון והודיעוהו גם שקבל עליו וכמפורש בלשונו בחדושיו, דמפרש דהב”ד צריכין להורות שזהו ענין ב”ד היינו שקבל בפניהם המצות ולילך למול ולטבול, מורין שהוא כשר להעשות גר שהוא במה שימול ויטבול, וא”כ נראה שאף הרי”ף והרמב”ם והסמ”ג המצריכין שמעשה המילה והטבילה צריך שיהיה בפני הב”ד נמי הוא בדין הוראה השייך לב”ד אבל סוברין שחדוש התורה לא רק שיורו שנכרי זה כשר להעשות גר ע”י מילה וטבילה אלא צריך שיורו שהוא גר תיכף כשיטבול, וכן בשעת המילה צריכין שיורו שמעתה צריך רק טבילה, שלכן בשביל זה צריכין להיות ממש בשעת המילה וטבילה

The full implications of this approach require further analysis.  However, from the fact that he develops a way to explain why we require Beit Din’s presence in addition to fact-verification, it seems clear that he is basically working within Rabbi Grosnas’ paradigm. What he suggested as a possibility in the earlier תשובה,אך אולי תרוייהו צריך שיהיו הב”ד במקום הטבילה וגם שיראו את הטבילה, seems to be his conclusion in the later תשובה (with the exception of the change in how he defines ראייה).  The fact that he does not mention the need for being in the same room in the later תשובה should not be taken as evidence that he backed down from it.  Rather, since the Beit Din in that case was in the same room, he had no reason to mention it[17].  Rabbi Fox, therefore, does not have any clear proof from Rav Moshe to rely on when he asserts, “There is no reason for men to be in the room.” (Fox 13)

9. Conclusion

We all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Rabbi Fox and Rabbi Katz for starting to ball rolling on this important conversation of how we can make the conversion process more comfortable for the women involved and do everything we can to ensure that their first experiences as Jews are of דרכיה דרכי נועם.  As I stressed in the beginning, this piece is designed to raise issues and further the conversation, not to draw any Halachic conclusions.  I look forward to reading what Rabbi Fox, Rabbi Katz, and other rabbis, poskim, and scholars will say in response.

[1] Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 198:46 is clear that a woman may immerse wearing clothes.  While we do not generally rely on this לכתחילה for a normal טבילת נידה, most batei din are already relying on this for convsersion, so there is no reason the clothes they are using cannot be more normal, so long as any חציצה problems are avoided.



[4] On Yevamot 46b, Rabbi Yochanan gives the source for this ruling: אמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: גר צריך ג’, משפט כתיב ביה

[5] As for why it is a סימן only for the children and not for the גר himself, either we can say this is a חומרא מדרבנן משום מעלה ביוחסין or we can say, like the Rambam himself seems to suggest, that since he was מוחזק גוי we don’t really have a full-fledged חזקה that he is Jewish.  Regarding whether his חזקת גוי should be applied to the children or not, עיין ספר שב שמעתתא.  We should not, however, suggest like ש”ך does in Yoreh Deah 268:11 that we are only dealing with the children of a male convert with a Jewish woman who would be Jewish anyway, and mean only to say that they are not פגם לכהונה.  This may indeed be what the Shulchan Aruch is saying since he paskens in Even Ha’ezer 7:17 that the daughter of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father is פגומה לכהונה.  The Rambam, however, in Hilchot Issurei Biah 15:3 writes עכו”ם ועבד הבא על בת ישראל הולד כשר without exception, and the Rif concludes this way as well on Yevamot 15a.  Therefore, when they say the children are not פסולים they must mean to include the case of the children of the female convert as well.

[6] It is not clear that it would even be sufficient for personal matters when they relate to the convert him or herself and not to the children.  The Rif’s language is דלא נהגינן ביה מנהג גר ולא מנסבינן ליה בת ישראל עד דטביל בפני ג’.  The simplest read would be to say that לא נהגינן ביה מנהג גר means something different from לא מנסבינן ליה בת ישראל and therefore even for personal matters outside of marriage we would not treat the conversion as valid.  The Rema clearly understands it this way.  Regarding the question of whether a male convert whose circumcision did not take place in front of a kosher Beit Din would make wine he touches סתם יינם, the Rema (דרכי משה הקצר יורה דעה סימן רסח ס”ק ג) writes: ולי נראה דשתי הסברות אלו וטעם מחלוקתן תלוי במחלוקת שהביא רבינו אם טבל לפני שנים או בלילה דלרב אלפס לא הוי גר ולסברא ראשונה שהביא רבינו הוי גר.  Of course, the Rema could be interpreting the Rif like the first approach in the Magid Mishneh, and therefore we don’t necessarily know if he thought the Ramban interpreted the Rif that way as well.

[7] It is worth noting that the Ramban himself (Yevamot 45b ד”ה מי לא) offers his explanation only in the Rif, and acknowledges that he is interpreting the Rif differently from how the Rambam did.  He essentially reads the Rambam the same way as the first interpretation in the Magid Mishneh.  The Magid Mishneh and Beit Yosef (Yoreh Deah 268), however, bring the Ramban as a possible explanation of the Rambam as well.

[8] One is tempted to say that this cannot be the explanation of the Rambam based on Hilchot Issurei Biah 13:12, where he states: כשישתחרר העבד צריך טבילה אחרת בפני שלשה ביום שבו תיגמר גירותו ויהיה כישראל, ואין צריך לקבל עליו מצות ולהודיעו עיקרי הדת שכבר הודיעוהו כשטבל לשם עבדות. If a freed slave, requires טבילה בפני שלשה and does not require קבלת מצות, how can we say that the requirement for טבילה בפני שלשה is a function of קבלת המצות בשעת טבילה?  However, the דגול מרבבה on Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 268:3, regarding a גרות being valid בדיעבד if the טבילה was not in the presence of Beit Din, writes: היינו בגר גדול שאצלו קבלת המצות עיקר ולכך המילה והטבילה אינו אלא גמר הדבר וסגי בלא שלשה ואפילו בלילה אבל גר קטן שלא שייך בו קבלת מצות והטבילה היא עיקר שמטבילין אותו על דעת בית דין לכ”ע צריך להיות ביום ובפני שלשה.  Here too, we can say that regarding a regular convert, קבלת המצות is the essential part, but since קבלת המצות is not relevant to an עבד המשתחרר, the טבילה becomes the essential part and independently requires the presence of Beit Din.

[9] The Bach also quotes the other opinion.  He points out, however, that the other opinion can only make sense if you read the Gemara of מי לא טבלה לנדותה like the second opinion in Tosafot that since it is ידוע לכל, it is as if there were עדים there.  Otherwise, it is implausible to assume that a טבילת נידה would have been done in front of 2 male witnesses.  Since the Shulchan Aruch does not quote this חידוש of the second opinion of Tosafot, it seems more likely that the Bach’s first answer that two witnesses is לאו דווקא is the correct interpretation.  The Prisha (Yoreh Deah 268:18), whom the Shach quotes the other interpretation from, does not seem bothered by the assumption that there were 2 male witnesses present for the טבילת נידה.  This seems like a forced reading of the Sugya, and without proof that the Shulchan Aruch, in fact, read it this way, once again the Bach’s first explanation seems most likely.

[10] See also Ketzot Hachoshen 241:1 for an extensive analysis of this question.

[11] See above, footnote 9.  The Bach suggests a possibility for how to read the Shulchan Aruch as paskening like the second opinion in Tosafot.  However, that opinion is a big חידוש, and therefore it seems unlikely that the Shulchan Aruch would not say so explicitly if he intended to pasken like it.

[12] Though it is worth noting that he is still dealing with a בדיעבד case in this Teshuva and nowhere does he say that the approach he develops can be relied upon לכתחילה.

[13] Though it is questionable whether it is a historically accurate assumption that there would always have been a בלנית for a טבילת נידה in the time of the Gemara, Tosafot’s first answer certainly seems to be assuming this way.  See footnote 9 above.  Bach points out if we reject the second answer that we know of the טבילת נידה based on ידוע לכל, we must be assuming that we know about it because there was another woman present who can verify it to us.

[14] When discussing this source with Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, he suggested that perhaps the הלכה למשה מסיני is necessary because we can use the חשבון for קידוש החודש even if we know witnesses could never have seen the new moon, such as because the sky was consistently overcast.  I responded with a hypothetical question about whether we could do קידוש החודש on the basis of witnesses who saw the new moon from a helicopter above the clouds.  His intuition was that it would not work.  My intuition was that it would.

[15] I once heard someone suggest that perhaps we could build a Mikvah with two doors, and the only path from one to the other involved complete submersion in the Mikvah.  The Beit Din could thus ascertain that a proper טבילה had taken place by watching her walk into one door and out the other.

[16] As Rabbi Fox points out (Fox 12), Rav Moshe seems to have already have adopted the Beit Shmuel’s view of הן הן עדי יחוד הן הן עדי ביאה over that of the Rashba and the תשובות מיימוניות nearly 10 years earlier, in his תשובה on milk in America (אגרות משה יורה דעה חלק א סימן מז), where he writes: וגדולה מזה איתא בתוס’ יבמות דף מ”ה בשם יש מפרשים גם לדין ראיית ב”ד לטבילת גר עיי”ש. וזהו גדר אנן סהדי שמצינו בהרבה מקומות. ואף לעדי קיומא דקידושין שאף שלא ראו אלא היחוד הוא כראו הביאה ממש ונעשית א”א גמורה אף לחייב מיתה להבא עליה אחר אח”כ ושלא לתפוס בה קידושין אחרים.   It is possible he changed his mind multiple times on this matter.  It is possible that in each case he only meant what he said בתורת ספק, and was really relying on other arguments to form his central case.  It is also possible that, as in several locations, he is comfortable relying on different shitot for different questions depending on other circumstances of the case.

[17] Rabbi Fox (Fox 13) quotes the ספר משנת הגר who says, in his summary of Rav Moshe’s position: ולפי זה יש לומר, שגם אם יעמדו הדיינים חוץ לבית הטבילה מהני, ודי בכך שנעשת הטבילה בהוראתם ובזמן התכנסותם שם כבית דין אף שלא ראו.  In fact, in his entire analysis of Rav Moshe, he deals only with the later תשובה and not the earlier one.  This suggests that he is learning like Rabbi Fox that the later תשובה is fundamentally a rejection of the entire earlier תשובה, and therefore no attempt to reconcile any part of them should be made.  As Rabbi Fox also points out, though, the משנת הגר is not willing to follow this approach לכתחילה.  Rabbi Fox quotes the following line to summarize the bottom line for the משנת הגר: טבילת הגיורת נעשית אף היא בנוכחות שלושה דיינים, ויש שכתבו שדי בעמידתם מחוץ לבית הטבילה.  This one line makes it sounds like there are two שיטות on equal footing.  However, the entire rest of the chapter is clearly assuming that we follow the first approach.  Additionally, at the end of his עיון on Rav Moshe, he writes: אמנם, מפשטות דברי השו”ע נראה כפי שנתבאר לעיל שצריך שתטבול בפניהם ובראייתם דוקא.  It is therefore clear that what he said about Rav Moshe’s position was meant only בדרך עיון and not intended to be relied upon למעשה.

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Why Moshe?

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Sarah Robinson

Why was Moshe fit to lead the Jewish people? At first glance, Moshe is an unlikely choice. He was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, thus making him an outsider to the trauma of enslavement. He married Tziporah, a non-Jewess, thus compounding his remoteness from the cultural realia of the enslaved Jews.  And even further, Moshe was in his eighties when he embarked on his leadership career.  So why was Moshe fitting for the job?

While there are a multitude of excellent reasons why Moshe was deserving of the honor, I’d like to present a circuitous though unique approach: a peshat analysis of Ma’amad Har Sinai and Moshe’s first encounter with HaShem at the burning bush to explain why Moshe was most deserving of this honor.

In preparation for Ma’amad Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael are commanded to prepare themselves in various ways including a prohibition from touching Mount Sinai lest they suffer the death penalty as a punishment (Shemot 19:12) and during the revelation, Bnei Yisrael should climb the mountain upon hearing the sound of the shofar (Exodus 19:13).

But the Jewish People don’t follow the command as told.  Upon hearing the sound of the shofar, the people respond in fear instead of going up the mountain (Exodus 19:16). And again, the shofar sound intensifies  but the people respond with fear and do not go up the mountain (Exodus 19:19). What prevents them from following their command? Moshe provides G-d with a weak apologetic explaining that the people did not climb the mountain because they cognitively couldn’t undergo a paradigm shift where the mountain is forbidden and then becomes permitted (Shemot 19:23).

But here’s the rub: why can Moshe go up the mountain but Bnei Yisrael respond with fear? What makes Moshe different?  The answer to this question is the key to understanding why Moshe was an excellent fit for leading the Jewish people.

The key is to have a close reading of Moshe’s thoughts and actions upon seeing the bush, his first encounter with G-d and G-dliness.  It is appropriate to seek an answer from this narrative because it is thematically similar to Ma’amad Har Sinai.  Both narratives occur at Har Sinai, both are revelations (though the former is a national one whereas the latter is for Moshe alone), both involve G-dly fire, and supernatural occurrences (where at Sinai there was a series of thunder and lightning, and the bush itself was a miracle because it was burning but wasn’t being consumed).  Although the stories differ in that the Sinai Revelation was a planned event for which the Jewish people had advance notice and Moshe came across the Burning Bush unexpectedly,  the overwhelming commonalities between the two stories justify why we can look to the story of the burning bush to answer our question.

In this narrative, Moshe happens upon the bush and reacts with pause, a daring curiosity, and reflection.  He says, “I will turn aside and look and this great sight; why isn’t the bush burning?” (Shemot 3:3) It is precisely this curiosity and contemplation that indicated Moshe’s capacity for spiritual engagement, a trait which is absolutely critical as G-d’s representative on earth.  And it is for that reason that the text continues with “And G-d saw that because Moshe looked, [G-d called] ‘Moshe! Moshe!’ and he said ‘Here I am.’”

So the answer to our original question is now very clear: Moshe was fit for leadership because he reacted to holiness with a daring curiosity. Clearly the bush was a litmus test to determine Moshe’s spiritual capacity, and Moshe’s response warranted G-d’s calling out to him.  On the converse, the Jewish people reacted with fear upon engaging with G-dliness, implying their insufficiency for an intense face-to-face relationship with G-d.

In this is a key lesson for a Torah-observant Jew.  We are Halakhic Men and Women who can view every element of our surroundings as vehicles for G-dly engagement, like our own burning bush or Ma’amad Har Sinai. We walk through a doorway and we can think about hilchot mezuzah or the korban pesach. We look at the light-fixture in the ceiling and consider whether it has the halachic status as “fire.” We consider whether the words on a computer screen have the halachic status of “writing.” The list is endless because every single element of our world can be conceptualized as a vehicle to G-dly experience.  Like Moshe, it is our choice whether we want to respond with fear or daring curiosity.

Sarah Robinson is a senior in Stern College majoring in Jewish Studies and Psychology with aspirations of becoming a Yoetzet Halacha and a clinical psychologist. Sarah wants to thank Bracha Robinson and Mrs. Ora Derovan who first exposed her to this text.

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The Wonder of Wonders and Miracle of Miracles

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

If G-d split the Red Sea today, a flood of hydrologists would be sweeping toward the Middle East before anyone could make it across on dry land. If frogs overnight populated every oven in Egypt, or a plague chas veshalom killed firstborns exclusively, an ocean of virtual ink would drown anyone seeking to leave the event inexplicable. At least, I suspect, this would be the case within Modern Orthodoxy. Does this reflect a lack of faith, or religious maturity?

Maimonides notes brilliantly that the first thing Avraham does after arguing with G-d about Sodom is to wake up and smell the sulfur. Any time angels appear in a narrative, he insists, everything that happens is a dream. The destruction of Sodom as we read it in Torah is Avraham’s dream. But when Avraham wakes up, there really is sulfur in the air.

The Torah describes the destruction of Sodom from the perspective of a religious sensibility, but what happened could also be told in the driest objective materialist language. Perhaps it was a volcanic eruption, or a sandstorm, or a massive invasion of carnivorous fireflies, or whatever.

My question is whether Avraham could distinguish the dream from the reality; did Avraham know that he was imposing meaning on a naturally explicable order, or did he believe that Sodom had literally been destroyed by an eruption of Divine justice into an ordinarily self-contained universe?

Here’s why this matters. Many of us actively resist seeing tsunamis as different in theological kind from gentle beachside breakers. If miracles can be recognized only when physical explanations are impossible, then it would be miraculous for us ever to recognize a miracle. (This argument was made by Isaac Breuer.) We cannot relate to an Avraham who thought G-d’s anger meant that physical effects could proceed from exclusively metaphysical causes. But we should have no difficulty relating to an Avraham with experience of volcanoes but who had never before seen them as ignited by angels.

Every age develops its own naturalistic explanation of the plagues, and at least for Maimonideans, such explanations hold no religious terrors. But regarding another element of the Exodus narrative, there is an enormous nafka mina depending on whether one see an event as natural or not. I refer to G-d’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

Here is a naturalistic explanation, from Steven Spielberg (Prince of Egypt): Pharaoh’s late father had often called his adolescent son weak, and contrasted his mental toughness invidiously with that of Mosheh, the adopted son whose personality was far more suited to the throne. So the confrontation with Mosheh was really about proving his father wrong, and the more disastrously things went, the more determined he was to persevere.

Spielberg’s approach to this issue is anticipated by Shadal, who writes (7:3):

“ואני אקשה את לב פרעה”

אפשר לפרש כדברי הראשנים (רמב”ם ורמב”ן ואחרים) שהענין כמשמעו, כי לעוצם פשעי פרעה היה מן הדין למנוע ממנו דרכי התשובה.(עיין רמב”ם הל’ תשובה פרק ו)

רש”י ז”ל כבר קדם וכתב הפירוש הזה, אך הוא בקוצר לשונו הוסיף בו דבר נאה ונכבד, והוא כי מניעת דרכי התשובה מפרעה לא היתה לעצם פשעיו בלבד, אך נוספה לה סבה אחרת, והוא כי גלוי היה לפניו יתברך שאף אם ישוב לא תהיה תשובתו שלימה; עיין דבריו הקצרים כי נעמו

 ואפשר ג”כ לפרש כדעת רמב”ן שלא היה בזה ענש א-להי ונס ממש, אלא

כי פרעה עצמו הקשה את לבו, אלא שכל המעשים ייחסו אל הא-ל מצד מה, כי הוא הסיבה הראשנה

ואני מוסיף כי המעשים המיוחסים בספרי הקדש אל הא-ל הם המעשים הזרים שסיבתם בלתי מובנת לנו, וכן כאן קשי ערפו של פרעה אחרי ראותו כמה אותות ומופתים הוא דבר זר ומתמיה, ע”כ יוחס אל הא-ל

“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” –

It is possible to explain as do the medieval (Rambam, Ramban, and others) that the matter is in accordance with its literal meaning, that because of the vastness of Pharaoh’s crimes it was reasonable to deny him the paths of repentance (See Rambam Laws of Repentance Chapter 6).

Rashi of blessed memory already wrote this, but in his succinct language he added something attractive and worthy, namely that the denial of the paths of repentance to Pharaoh, was not solely owing to the vastness of his sins, rather there was an additional reason, namely that it was revealed before Him may He be blessed that even if he would repent, his repentance would be incomplete – see Rashi’s succinct words for they are pleasing.

It is also possible to explain in accordance with Ramban’s opinion that there was not here any Divine punishment or actual miracle, rather Pharaoh himself hardened his heart, but all actions can be ascribed to G-s in some fashion, because He is the Prime Cause.

I add that the actions which are ascribed to G-d in the Holy Books are those strange actions whose causes are not explicable to us, and similarly here the stiffneckedness of Pharaoh after he has seen a number of signs and wonders is something strange and astounding, so therefore it is ascribed to G-d . . .

Shadal and Spielberg (and perhaps Nachmanides) solve the theological problem of how G-d can interfere with free will: He does not. Exodus is a story of human choice. I believe it was Hume who said that we all believe in free will before we act, and determinism after. That we can explain compellingly why Pharaoh made a particular choice does not mean that he could not have chosen otherwise, or would not have chosen otherwise at least once if given infinite do-overs.

But can the religious sensibility to the Exodus survive this solution? Shadal’s Divinity is truly a “god of the gaps,” invoked only when science fails. Many before me have pointed out that the gaps are narrowing in modernity, so this is not a good survival tactic for religious belief. Moreover, many things are trivial but inexplicable, and I have no interest in ascribing to G-d the fact that my new ATM card matched the numbers in the weekly Powerball drawing (especially as I had not bought a ticket).

The medieval philosopher and exegete Yosef Ibn Caspi raises a different theological difficulty with the Exodus narrative. How can Moshe repeatedly decline the Divine mission, and why does it seem that G-d changes His plans in response to Moshe’s advice and lack of consent?

Ibn Caspi’s answer is that prophets are certain they have heard G-d’s word, but often unsure they have understood it right. What the Torah presents as dialogues between G-d and Mosheh are actually Moshe’s deliberations as to the actual intent of what he’s been told.

Like Maimonides on miracles, and Spielberg on Pharaoh (lehavdil), Ibn Caspi takes a story that is apparently about Divine intervention and psychologizes it, so the drama takes place fully within a human consciousness. But Ibn Caspi does not fully naturalize the story; there is still the moment of prophetic encounter which precedes deliberation, the mere sight of the unburning bush.

But unlike Avraham at Sodom, it is clear that Moshe is aware that every physical phenomenon is subject to scientific explanation. He turns aside to see “this great sight.” Why is the flame not consuming the bush? What makes him a prophet is his capacity to see it as a מראה גדול, a great sight, even while and after he seeks to explain it.

It is not a lack of faith to believe that everything physical can be explained physically, and everything psychological can be explained psychologically (nor is it a lack of maturity to believe otherwise, so long as one is willing to see the data). Maintaining a religious sensibility requires only that we be able to wonder when something wondrous happens, and be able to hang on to that wonder even after we have explained it.

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The Company We Keep

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Mendel Breitstein

It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic scene than Aaron versus the Egyptian magicians. Aaron’s staff miraculous transforms into a snake. The Egyptians then follow suit with their staffs, only to have their serpents consumed by Aaron’s! And yet, as powerful as the scene may be, what does it mean?  Is there an underlying idea beyond our Divinity being more powerful than their divinities?

Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag) argues that the transformation wrought by the Egyptians differed fundamentally from that of Aaron.  The Egyptians did not fundamentally alter the nature of their rods; Aaron’s rod, in contrast, was changed to the extent that for all intents and purposes it was truly a serpent.   Similarly, in the plague of Blood the Nile’s waters did not simply take on a reddish hue or the like, but were transformed so radically that the fish died. The water’s very essence was changed so that the Nile was now filled with blood.  The differing miracles expressed not just the greater power but the uniqueness of our G-d.

Rabbi Alexander Zusha Friedman in Maayanah shel Torah presents the very different approach of Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin.  Human beings are influenced by their environment. The worst person can find himself changed for the better in the right surroundings, just as the best person can become corrupted in the wrong ones.  The message to Pharaoh, according to Rav Shapiro, was that while the Jews were far from impressive, this could all change were they to be freed from their corrupt Egyptian environment. How is this evident in the miracle?  Etched into the staff was the Divine Name. When it was “before Pharaoh” it became a venomous serpent, but upon its return to Aaron’s[1] hand it reverted to its former, holy nature.

I would venture to add that the change mentioned by Rav Shapiro is at least as fundamental as that described by the Ralbag.  While a staff becoming a serpent is certainly miraculous, a debased person’s becoming honorable is, in its own way, no less miraculous.

What decisions affect this transformation?

The Rambam, in the sixth chapter of Hilchos Deos, goes into great detail describing the influence that our surroundings can have on us. So great is this influence that one must seek a good place in which to live.  Absent the ability to either find or move to such a place, one must isolate him or her self from the neighbors. Should the neighbors not tolerate such isolation, we are told that the neighborhood must be abandoned, even if that means moving to a wilderness. This whole description apparently serves in large part as an introduction to the commandment to cleave to G-d. Since this is fulfilled through a relationship with Torah scholars, from whom one can learn proper conduct, it is critical to stress just how much our behavior is impacted by those with whom we interact.

Perhaps the best advice I received when dating came from a rabbi with whom we’re all familiar. He felt that the single most important criterion was that “you like who you are when you’re with her”. Who we are is, in part, determined by those with whom we choose to associate. While a spouse is the single largest factor in this equation, neighbors, friends, and even acquaintances certainly play a role as well.

In today’s world where, for better or worse, we can invite the entire world into our living room via multiple devices, we make yet further choices concerning our environment and, by extension, who we choose to be. While I think that none of us has sworn off the use of the internet (we are, after all, reading an email or a blogpost right now) we must recognize that our electronic society shapes who we are just as our physical society that help shape who we are. May we all make decisions that help us become the people that we want to be.

 Mendel Breitstein grew up in Maryland (although not in Baltimore or Silver Spring). He learned in Y.U. for quite a few years before learning and teaching in Brookline and Chicago. He currently lives in Bet El with his wife and six rambunctious mascots. In Israel, he has worked primarily teaching English to Charedi men. He has, however, also had the opportunity (thank Gd!) to teach Torah for an online college and do some cartooning on the side.

[1] In truth, the citation reads משה של ידו אל בחזרו אלים-למטה שוב הופך נחש ואותו. However, given that Aaron was the direct participant in the events, I’m not entirely certain why he mentions Moses, unless the idea here is that Aaron is acting as his agent. Even so, the language of משה של ידו seems difficult. Perhaps it’s a printer’s error.

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