Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Holiest Act

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Miriam Pearl Klahr

The miluim at the end of Parshat Tetzaveh appear to be the culmination of our last two Torah portions. After describing the keilim, the mishkan itself, and the priestly garments, the Torah tells of a seven-day initiation process for the kohanim, after which G-d will dwell among the Jewish people. Thus it is surprising to find that following the miluim, Parshat Tetzaveh discusses the mizbeach haZahav. In fact, many commentators ask why the command to build this mizbeach is stated after all the commandments regarding the mishkan and the miluim, isolated from the listing of the keilim at the start of Parshat Terumah.

Reading about the mizbeach hazahav after so many psukim concerning the preparation for the mishkan and then G-d’s dwelling within it, may cause the reader to feel that this altar’s service is the pinnacle of the avodah performed within the mishkan. Sforno suggests a similar idea, explaining that the laws of the mizbeach haZahav are stated last because they did not serve a utilitarian purpose. The other vessels and karbanot were meant to bring down the glory of G-d and provide a resting place for his shechina. But the purpose of offering the ketoret on the mizbeach hazahav was solely to give honor to G-d, without any specific benefit to the Jewish people.

Furthermore, the service upon the mizbeach HaZahav seems more elevated not only because of its dramatic placement within the text, but also by nature of the physical service itself. In contrast to the slaughtered animals and physical blood offered upon the mizbeach haNechoshet, incense was brought upon the golden altar. According to Rav Hirsch, the offering of the ketoret represents the Jewish ideal of an “earthly existence, completely permeated with spirituality, without leaving any residue,” just like incense leaves no residue.  Furthermore the ketoret’s fragrance was impalpable. According to kabbalah the sense of smell is considered to be more removed from physicality than the other senses; olfaction is deemed the sense of the soul.

Yet, on this golden alter, this place of almost other worldly non-physical worship, a very different service was performed once a year. On Yom Kippur, on the altar of the most spiritual of services, blood was placed on the mizbeach as an atonement for the Jewish people. And of all services, the Torah calls this one “kodesh kadashim hu laHashem.”

It is valuable to create sacred places and moments where one can almost escape the physical nature of this world and serve G-d only through the soul. But what G-d calls most holy is the acknowledgment of human imperfection, serving him with blood, the physical substance man is made of. As people, we need instants of pure spirituality to remember what to strive for, that there is more to life than the material world we see. But the holiest act is to use the inspiration of such moments to acknowledge our shortcomings and serve G-d with our physical imperfect selves, working to atone for and better the world.

Miriam Pearl Klahr (SBM 14) is currently a sophomore at Stern College studying Mathematics and Judaic Studies. She spent her gap year at Midreshet Nishmat.

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Why Does Being Commanded Matter?

By Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Annual essay in honor of Matt Eisenfeld Z”L

Why does being commanded matter?

Some Jewish theologians are comfortable with the idea that some ritual mitzvot are purely arbitrary and given meaning solely by the fact of being commanded. My question would not apply to such mitzvot.

More Jewish theologians follow Maimonides in believing that some mitzvot are arbitrary in form but not content; for example, it may be vital to ritualize the killing of animals for meat, but G-d could have commanded us to slaughter from the back of the neck rather than the front without changing the meaning of the mitzvah. Here commandedness serves to make a national language of ritual possible. But I am looking for a deeper answer.

So let me sharpen the question. There are mitzvot which many Jewish theologians describe as “fit to be commanded even had they not been,” implying that G-d would will us to perform them if He had not commanded us to perform them. Is there a difference between acting in accordance with G-d’s will, and acting in obedience to His commands?

Put differently: When the result is the same, (why) should we care whether the motive for action is an expression of autonomous ethical intuition, or rather acknowledgement of legitimate heteronomy?

One more formulation: Is it coherent to speak of uncommanded moral or ethical obligations, or are all human obligations by definition Divinely commanded?

In purely halakhic terms, I believe the legal consensus is that even those who understand the position “mitzvot tzerikhot kavvnah” in its most radical and fundamental sense—namely that mitzvah-acts are legally and spiritually inert unless performed for the sake of fulfilling a Divine command—do not apply that position to interpersonal mitzvot, such as charity. And yet, I think commandedness makes a difference in those mitzvot as well.

For many years, I tried to explain that difference to my high school students at Gann Academy via a very technical Talmudic passage (Kiddushin 31b). It never worked, and the truth is that I never succeeded in clearly expressing the difference. Nevertheless, I continue to think that passage is potentially a powerful demonstration that Halakhah itself recognizes the difference and considers it important, and so I will try to lay it out clearly here in the hope that it will inspire productive thought on your parts. I welcome your subsequent critiques and formulations.

The sugya reports an Amoraic dispute as to whether costs associated with the mitzvah of honoring parents (kibbud av vaeim) are borne by children (mishel ben) or rather parents (mishel av). The second beraita brought as evidence regarding that dispute goes as follows:

Two brothers, two partners, a father and his son, a teacher and his disciple – they may redeem maaser sheni for each other, and they may feed each other maaser ani (=poor tithe).

Our interest is in the last clause, for which some halakhic background is necessary. Maaser Ani is a Biblical tax that, in the third and sixth years of the seven year shemittah cycle, obligates Jewish landowners in Israel to give approximately 8.82% of their produce to the poor. (Nowadays biblical agricultural taxes are generally evaded via rabbinically approved loopholes, for reasons beyond the scope of this dvar Torah.) That percentage of the produce is understood to be held in trust for the poor as a class, although the landowner may distribute it to whichever poor person(s) he chooses.

Now the beraita cannot mean that all children can feed their parents maaser ani; rich people can never eat maaser ani. Rather, it must mean that children can feed their parents who are poor maaser ani. But even so, the Talmud initially argues, this beraita demonstrates that children do not bear responsibility for the costs of kibbud av va’eim. The argument is that otherwise the children would be using the same money to satisfy both their obligation to the poor and their obligation to their parents. This would be illegitimate double-dipping, as they would be satisfying their kibbud av vaeim obligation out of money that already belonged to the poor. The beraita therefore demonstrates the correctness of the mishel av position.

The Talmud rejects this proof by asserting that, at least according to the position mishel ben, the obligation to feed parents generated by kibbud av vaeim is measured objectively; one must provide parents with the amount of food consumed by an average person. Therefore, the obligation can terminate while parents are both poor and hungry, if they have large appetites. Under such circumstances, a child can provide the parents with additional food drawn from maaser ani without double-dipping, since they have already fulfilled their kibbud av vaeim obligation,

But, the Talmud goes on to say, this assertion seems not to fit the next line of the beraita. In that line, Rabbi Yehudah asserts that any child who feeds their parents maaser ani deserves to be cursed. Why should they deserve cursing, if they have already fulfilled their legal obligation of kibbud?

The Talmud answers that they deserve cursing because it degrades their parents to be fed from charity, so long as the children have other resources.

Here is what emerges:

1) According to the position mishel ben, the Torah sets a clear limit to the obligation of kibbud. This is in principle a legal but unenforced obligation, since the rule is that mitzvot for which the Torah explicitly promises an explicit reward for are not humanly enforced, and the Ten Commandments promise long life (which the Rabbis understand as referring to the Coming World) as a reward for kibbud.

2) However, Rabbi Yehudah declares that anyone who takes advantage of those limits is curseworthy! Rabbi Yehudah does not mean that it would be better to leave your parents hungry, but rather that one should feed one’s parents out of food that is not charity even after the obligation of kibbud has been exhausted. But why not simply extend the obligation?

In other words, Rabbi Yehudah believes that there are obligations that are law, and humanly enforced; obligations that are law, but not humanly enforced; and obligations that are not law, and not humanly enforced. (We will leave for some other time the question of obligations that are not law, but humanly enforced.)

My students generally had serious difficulty with the notion of humanly unenforced law. What makes it law, rather than ethics? They could resolve this by saying that Judaism formulates all obligations as Halakhah, which is not law in the ordinary-language sense. But this sugya eliminates that resolution, as it creates an obligation that is sharply distinguished from the halakhic obligation it supplements! (We know that it is an obligation because one is cursed, i.e. Divinely punished, for not fulfilling it.)

My suggestion is that the Rabbis saw value in preserving both motives for ethical behavior, the heteronomous and the autonomous. They tried to establish a system in which human beings recognized and responded to legitimate authority, but never defined their value and purpose solely through obedience, and never abdicated their responsibility to independently perceive value, and to act in accordance with that perception.

Modern orthodoxy is philosophically hostile to heteronomy, and modern Orthodoxy is often philosophically hostile to autonomy. Creating a religious and intellectual space that is genuinely hospitable to both autonomy and heteronomy is the central philosophic task of Modern Orthodoxy. May we succeed in doing so.

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Parshat Terumah: G-d Is In the Details

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Yakov Ellenbogen

In his first comment on Parshat Terumah, Ramban writes that

 כאשר דבר השם עם ישראל פנים בפנים עשרת הדברות… וכרת עמהם ברית על כל זה, מעתה הנה הם לו לעם והוא להם לאלהים כאשר התנה עמהם מתחלה… והנה הם קדושים ראוים שיהיה בהם מקדש להשרות שכינתו ביניהם…וסוד המשכן הוא, שיהיה הכבוד אשר שכן על הר סיני שוכן עליו בנסתר. וכמו שנאמר שם (לעיל כד טז) וישכן כבוד ה’ על הר סיני, וכתיב (דברים ה כא) הן הראנו ה’ אלהינו את כבודו ואת גדלו, כן כתוב במשכן וכבוד ה’ מלא את המשכן (להלן מ לד)… והיה במשכן תמיד עם ישראל הכבוד שנראה להם בהר סיני.

Once G-d spoke with Israel face to face… and he made a covenant with them regarding all this, now they were his nation and He was their G-d… And behold, they were holy and worthy for there to be a sanctuary in their midst for His Shekhina to rest amongst them…And the sod of the Mishkan is that the glory that dwelt on Mount Sinai should rest upon [the Mishkan] in concealment. And just as it is written there (Ex. 24: 17) “The glory of G-d rested on Mount Sinai” and it is written (Deut. 5: 21) “Behold G-d has shown us His glory and greatness,” so too it says regarding the Mishkan (Ex. 40: 34) “And the glory of G-d filled the Mishkan…” And the glory that had appeared to Israel at Mount Sinai was constantly with them.

This fairly well-known comment lays out both conceptual and strictly literary connections between the construction of the Mishkan and the Revelation at Sinai, and explains the placement within the narrative of the instructions to build the Mishkan. Directly after the experience at Sinai, according to the Ramban’s explanation, Bnai Yisrael got directions for a method with which they could continue the Sinai experience.

To be honest though, as a reader who is removed from the actual experience of both Har Sinai and participating in ritual in the Mishkan, I have a very different reaction to this parsha. While there is an attraction to seeing Ramban’s portable Har Sinai in the instructions to build the Mishkan, I find it hard to be inspired by the parsha. Put simply, while this Parsha might excite some of the more legally minded among us, others (including myself), find Parshat Terumah to be boring. After the thrills of the earlier part of Shemot, and its culmination with the Revelation at Sinai, going through the legal and ritual texts of Terumah and the parshiyot surrounding it seem to be a disappointing denouement.

I would like to propose that this is part of a normal reaction one should have when reading this parsha. After the constant upheaval of the Exodus, it is time to establish the steady basis for an eternal relationship with G-d through ritual practice and legal. This contrast, from the epic scope of the Exodus, to the minutiae of the Mishkan, may include sections which are tedious. However, G-d is in the details, so to speak, and we have to work equally as hard here to delve into and develop thoughts about the text.

Of course, this interpretation depends on the reaction of the reader to the text, and I myself don’t always see the beauty of this message. This being the case, I propose that we ask ourselves, as readers of the text, what we think when we examine Parshat Terumah, and what its placement in the narrative means to us.

Yakov Ellenbogen (2013, 2014), a native of Sharon, MA, is currently a Sophomore at Yeshiva University. He previously attended Yeshivat Petach Tikvah, Yeshivat Sha’alvim, and Yeshivat Har Etzion.

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When 1000 Words Cannot Describe A Picture

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Even the best of authors cannot really draw pictures or carve sculptures with words. Reducing an image, let alone a three-dimensional scene, to writing, inevitably involves a loss of detail. It follows that one cannot accurately produce an image or three-dimensional object on the basis of nothing but words. When G-d “looked in the Torah and created the world,” He was not merely painting by number; either He was creatively choosing among the multiple possibilities arising from linguistic ambiguities, or else He was following a pattern He knew independently.

I want to extend this argument via analogy. Even the best of authors cannot comprehensively describe a legal or social system with words. That can happen only in conjunction with lived experience. Therefore Halakhah cannot be produced solely on the basis of abstract textual analysis.

My purpose this week is to root the above in Netziv’s commentary to Shemot 25:9. Shemot 25:31-39 describe the Menorah in great detail. Nonetheless, Moshe is told in 25:40 to make the Menorah in the pattern which he has been shown. In other words, G-d provided Moshe with a visual pattern in addition to His linguistic description, and the rabbis argue that this means that Moshe was unable to accurately visualize the Menorah on the basis of the linguistic description. Netziv asks: If the Menorah was eventually constructed on the basis of the visual cue, why is it necessary for the Torah to include inadequate linguistic instructions at all?

Netziv answers: Language can be sufficient to reconstruct an image or object one has previously seen. Language can serve as a mnemonic, and this mnemonic can even be transferred; I can use language to create a picture of my experience in your mind, so long as you have had similar experiences and we have established common language. Once Moshe saw a hologram of the Menorah, he could convey in language what it should be like, and thereafter, people who had seen the actual Menorah, or had access to a live tradition, would be able to reconstruct it from the Torah’s language. So the Torah’s instructions were necessary and useful for future generations, not for Moshe himself.

However, Netziv argues, there is still an unexplained redundancy in the Torah’s account of the Mishkan. Moshe is specifically shown the patterns of the Menorah (25:40) and the altar (27:8), but he was also shown the patterns of the entire Mishkan and accessories (25:9). If Moshe received visual cues for everything, why are the Menorah and the altar mentioned separately? Netziv answers that the physical forms of the Mishkan and accessories were themselves a form of language. The Mishkan and accessories, as can be seen from the constant allusions to Bereshit 1 in the Torah’s accounts of them, symbolize the world, or the multiple worlds of the mystical tradition. In the same way that Moshe needs a visual cue to understand the linguistic instructions regarding the Menorah and altar, he needed a further cue to understand the symbolism of the entire Mishkan and accessories, even though he could visualize them himself. It was not enough for Moshe to see them; he needed to understand them.

But Moshe did not make the items himself. Rather, that task was delegated to Betzalel, who “stood in the lee of G-d” when He instructed Moshe and “knew how to combine the letters of Creation.” In other words, Betzalel was capable of constructing the Mishkan from the language of Torah without visual aids, and he understood its symbolism intuitively. Why was it necessary for Moshe to see and understand anything?

I suggest that while Betzalel could build things, he could not transmit his knowledge to anyone not directly in his presence; he was not capable of creating the linguistic mnemonics necessary for reconstructing them. That was Moshe’s role. Moshe did not need the additional cues in order to follow the instructions; he needed them in order to produce the instructions in a way that would allow others to follow them. With regard to the Menorah and altar only, he lacked the necessary visual imagination; but he needed explicit demonstration of all the symbolism.

Even Moshe’s instructions are an effective mnemonic only for those possessed of a live tradition. In the Second Temple, Netziv contends, even great Torah scholars and prophets no longer understood the symbolism of the Menorah, or of the Temple generally. Their attempts to reconstruct the Temple from the Torah produced only a simulacrum, something that looked like a Temple but was subtly lacking. It was not a microcosm, and therefore it did not merit the Divine presence.

So the Torah’s language, even when an effective mnemonic for a previous sensory experience, can be sufficient for architecture only if the architect already understands the meaning of the space or object to be constructed. The Torah’s language signifies, and the Mishkan and accessories are signifieds; but the building and utensils are also signifiers, and the signified is the world, or the multiple worlds of the mystical tradition. One who has insufficient knowledge of the world cannot construct the Mishkan even if they have perfect visual memory and a linguistic blueprint longer and more detailed than Moby Dick.

Netziv’s analysis sets out three levels: the language of Torah, the physical phenomena signified by that language, and the reality signified by those phenomena. He contends that language without prior referents is inherently ambiguous, and therefore cannot enable accurate construction; it can only enable accurate reconstruction. How does this approach work, and what are its implications, when Torah language signifies actions rather than objects?

I suggest that we can map what Netziv says about the Mishkan onto mitzvot. The language of Torah by itself cannot enable the accurate construction of Halakhah. Any legal interpreter must either have, like Betzalel, a Divinely granted intuition about the structure and purpose of the laws, or else, like Moshe, be engaged in reconstruction of something he once knew. A live tradition counts as access to Moshe’s experience; that is, when the Torah is not in Heaven, no one can pasken accurately unless they have a masoret or they are dealing with areas that tradition deliberately left ambiguous.

But it is not enough to have a tradition only about the form of the law. That would be equivalent to having been shown an image of the Mishkan, but not knowing what its forms stood for. Rather, it is necessary to understand what the law represents. In other words, to decide Halakhah requires one to understand the values of Torah.

Those who decide Halakhah on the basis of form, without reference to underlying values, end up constructing something like the Second Temple: everything looks right, but the Divine Presence is absent. I presume that Netziv thinks this is better than nothing. The question is: Is it better than any active alternative?

One consequence of modernity, kal vachomer post-modernity, has been the loss of confidence in traditional values. We are no longer sure that we know why the Torah commands us as it does, especially as we find some of its commands in sharp conflict with what we believe must be its core values. A natural and reasonable reaction is to retreat into the apparent safety of formalism. Much of contemporary Orthodoxy lives in a Second Temple, and as the Talmud records, anyone who did not see the House that Herod built has never seen beauty in their life.

A different approach is to do our best to reconstruct the values of Torah, recognizing that we may err, and that where our memory of the forms of law is crystal-clear, we may have to live with disjunctions between the form of the law and our understanding of what it stands for or is intended to accomplish. This approach is riskier, as erroneous reconstruction of values may lead to distortions of the forms of law, but it offers the hope of true Redemption.

My sense is that the Second Temple worked for a time, but eventually the absence of the Divine Presence made everyone recognize that their religion was hollow. Something like that may be happening in the beautiful Orthodoxy we have built in the post-Holocaust years. I for one would prefer if we tried to remedy the gap not by infusing halakhically disembodied, generic spirituality into our rites, but rather by seeking to restore the organic connection between law and values to the extent we can. Shabbat Shalom!


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Beyond Mishpatim

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Yedidya Naveh

The mishpatim described in Parashat Mishpatim include commandments that fall into familiar domains of law such as criminal law (Exodus 21:12-17), torts (ibid 18-37, 22:1-14), family law (ibid 15-16), fiscal law (ibid 24-26), procedural law (ibid 23:1-3, 6-8), and agricultural law (ibid 10-11), as well as some less familiar ones such as slave law (ibid 21:1-11). Some ritual law is also included (22:28-30; 23:12-19). Together, these comprise many of the types of law necessary for any just society.

However, even the aggregate of all the mishpatim outlined in the Torah is insufficient for the administration of a polity. For example, any society with motor traffic must have traffic regulations, but the Torah enumerates neither traffic regulations nor any clear precedent for formulating them. If so, the question arises: Who has the responsibility to fill in the legal gaps left by the Torah? Who has the authority to formulate the additional laws necessary and proper to the function of a Jewish state?

The most famous answer to this question is offered by Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona (Ran):

מינוי השופטים היה לשפוט משפטי התורה בלבד, שהם צודקים בעצמם, כמו שאמר ושפטו את העם משפט צדק, ומינוי המלך היה להשלים תיקון סדר המדיני, וכל מה שהיה מצטרך לצורך השעה. -דרשות הר”ן הדרוש האחד עשר

The appointment of judges was for adjudicating the laws of the Torah, which are just per se, as [the verse] states: “And they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. [Deuteronomy 16:8]” And the appointment of a king was to perfect the institution of public order and everything necessary for the need of the hour. (Derashot HaRan 11)

According to Ran’s hypothesis, judges (read: rabbis) are responsible for interpreting and judging only the laws of the Torah, which constitute absolute justice. Since absolute justice is insufficient to maintain public order, the king has the dirty work of legislating ordinances that are necessary at the time, if not truly just. This thesis is often invoked as a rabbinic support for doctrines such as separation of powers and separation of church and state, or as justification for a secular legal system in a Jewish state.

However, Ran takes a step back from this thesis in addressing a powerful prooftext against his claim, the talmudic dictum that “בית דין מכין ועונשין שלא מן התורה / a court may administer lashes and punishments not in accordance with the Torah” (Sanhedrin 46a). This appears to lay responsibility for extra-legal ordinances with the judges, not the king.  In answer, he first suggests that this statement applies only where there is no king. This assertion is difficult in light of the Talmud’s citation of the principle with regard to Shimon ben Shettaĥ, who hanged eighty women in a single day under the Hasmonean dynasty (Sanhedrin 45b), and Rambam (H. Sanhedrin 24:4) apparently disagrees, since he makes no mention of such a caveat.

Alternatively, Ran owns:

אפשר עוד לומר שכל מה שנמשך למצות התורה, בין שהוא כפי (הפשט) [המשפט] הצודק, בין שהוא כפי צורך השעה, נמסר לבית דין… אבל תיקונם ביותר מזה, נמסר למלך, לא לשופט…. נמצא ענין המשפט מסור רובו ועיקרו לסנהדרין, ומיעוטו אל המלך. -שם

One may also say that all ramifications of the commandments of the Torah, whether according to the just law or according to the need of the hour, are the purview of the court… but their ordering beyond this is the purview of the king, not the judge…. Thus, the matter of law is delegated in its majority and principally to the Sanhedrin, and in its minority to the king. (Ibid)

In sum, according to Ran himself, the legislative powers of the king are heavily circumscribed. He may formulate only ordinances that are not subject to Torah law or necessary for its application. If so, even traffic ordinances are arguably rabbinic domain, since they are necessary to fulfill the commandment: “ונשמרתם מאד לנפשתיכם / Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves” (Deuteronomy 4:15).

From those who have read until the end, I am interested in hearing historical examples of laws issued by Jewish kings or political leaders who were not also judges (either in statutory form/takkanot or any ruling that could constitute some precedent within a Jewish “monarchic” legal tradition) from the Bible or Rabbinic Literature before the Middle Ages. I cannot think of any myself.

Yedidya Naveh (SBM 2010, 2011) is a graduate of Yale University and a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Maĥanayim

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Keeping Heretics Safe and Out of Pits

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

There is a sort of analogue in Torah to the scientific suspicion of unrepeatable results. If only one scholar in history has ever seen a particular textual phenomenon as significant, or a particular conceptual approach as plausible, then I might well be hesitant to implement it as halakhah, or to give it a vital role in a curriculum. Conversely, if I find two great scholars widely separated in time and space independently coming up with the same approach, I have increased confidence that this approach has “real legs,” that it is a plausible or compelling read of the tradition.

One of the most famous modern rabbinic texts is Chazon Ish to Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Laws of Shechitah 2:16. As with many such rabbinic texts, the price of fame has been significant loss of nuance, even distortion. I intend here to reclaim its original meaning, make explicit the radical presumptions that generated it, argue that those presumptions are shared by a very different thinker, and, finally, argue that this convergence should give us more confidence in following them.

Among the more challenging rabbinic texts for moderns is the beraita (Avodah Zarah 26a) that rules that informers, heretics and religious rebels “we lower (into pits) but do not raise (out of pits).” Shulchan Arukh YD 158 codifies this ruling and adds the piquant illustration of removing one’s ladder from a pit on the excuse of a family emergency, and then conveniently forgetting to return it. The sense seems to be that the person is left to starve, although the literary resonances to the Joseph story seem an almost unveiled hint that actually implementing this ruling would be reprehensible.

To my knowledge there is no record of it being applied in practice to anyone other than informers, who could also be directly killed as dangers to the entire Jewish community in an environment of pervasive genocidal anti-Semitism. However, it nonetheless colored the relationship “Orthodox” Jews had to perceived heretics, and perhaps even more so, the relationship of self-perceived heretics to Orthodox Judaism. It is may be easier to disregard a law that is “merely on the books” when it relates to one as executioner than when it relates to one as executee.

Chazon Ish states that this ruling has no relevance in modernity. He is often quoted as adopting this position because all contemporary heretical Jews are tinokot nishbu, infants captured by Gentiles and raised in Gentile culture. Now the Talmud claims that such infants are exempt from punishment for their specific misdeeds since they had no real opportunity to make proper Jewish choices, and Chazon Ish allegedly extends this category to all contemporary nonobservant Jews so as to obviate our ruling.

This approach was adopted in a limited fashion by R. Yaakov Ettlinger in the nineteenth century, and extended in startling ways by Rav Moshe Feinstein in the twentieth. But it bears little relationship to Chazon Ish’s actual statement.

Here are Chazon Ish’s actual words:

חזון איש שחיטה ב:טז

. . . עיקר מורידין ע”כ הוא משום מגדר מלתא וכדאמר סנהדרין מו. מכין ועונשין שלא מן הדין והכא קבעו ב”ד הראשנים שאלו המומרין פורצין גדרי עולם ושעה צריכה לכך לעשות גדר לצורך שעה

ונראה דאין דין מורידין אלא בזמן שהשגחתו יתברך גלויה

 כמו בזמן שהיו נסים מצויין ומשמש בת קול, וצדיקי הדור תחת השגחה פרטית הנראית לעין כל, והכופרין אז הוא בנליזות מיוחדות בהטיית היצר לתאוות והפקרות, ואז היה ביעור רשעים גדרו של עולם שהכל ידעו כח הדחת הדור מביא פרעניות לעולם ומביא דבר וחרב ורעב בעולם

אבל בזמן ההעלם שנכרתה האמונה מן דלת העם, אין במעשה הורדה גדר הפרצה אלא הוספת הפרצה, שיהיה בעיניהם כמעשה השחתה ואלמות ח”ו, וכיון שכל עצמנו לתקן, אין הדין נוהג בשעה שאין בו תיקון, ועלינו להחזירם בעבותות אהבה ולהעמידם בקרן אורה במה שידינו מגעת

The fundamental law of “lowering (into pits)” must be for practical purpose (creating a necessary fence), under the same authorization as the statement on Sanhedrin 46a that “We flog and punish even when there is no formal legal justification for such punishment,” and here the early beit din established that those apostates who breach the fences of the world, when it is the need of the hour – therefore to create a fence and to meet the need of the hour (we lower them into pits) . . .

So it seems to me that the law of “lowering” applies only when His the Blessed’s Providence is evident,

because in the time that miracles were common and Heavenly voices were in use, and the righteous of the generation were under specific Providence evident to all, so that denying (G-d and His Providence) at that time required radical boldness and being turned by one’s evil inclination to lusts and license, so in that circumstance the excision of the wicked sets the fence of the world, because everyone knew the power of the straying of the generation to bring punishment to the world, and to bring plague and sword and famine to the world,

but in a time where His presence is obscured, when faith has been cut off from our poor nation, the deed of “lowering” does not fence the breach but rather adds to the breach, as it will seem in their eyes like an act of destruction and intimidation chas veshalom, and since our whole purpose is to improve , this law is not practiced in a time where it would not accomplish improvement, and it is our obligation to return them via the bonds of love and to stand them up in the realm of light to the extent that this is in our power.

Chazon Ish argues that extra-legal punishment can be justified only on practical but not religious grounds. Religious violations per se, however egregious, do not justify human reactions unless specifically mandated by Torah. In our age, where such punishments would be practically counterproductive, there is no excuse for implementing them.

I am unaware of any clear precedent for Chazon Ish’s analysis in the Talmudic context, or in Shulchan Arukh. But there is a parallel idea, perhaps even more radical, in Meshekh Chokhmah to Shemot 24:3.

משך חכמה שמות פרשת משפטים פרק כד פסוק ג

ויספר לעם את כל דברי ה’ ואת כל המשפטים

(דע דבני נח הוזהרו על הדינים (סנהדרין נו, ב

ושיטת ראשונים דהוא נימוסים שדעת האדם נותן עליהם

אבל לכוף ולרדות על חוקי התורה ונדריה הוא רק מצד ש’כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה’ (שבועות לט, א ועוד), ואם יעבור אחד, הוא מזיק לחבירו ולהכלל כולו, בזה יש לבית דין לכוף ולשפוט העובר את מצות השם יתברך, דבלא זה אין זה מהראוי שיתערב אחד במה שיש להאדם עם קונו

לכן מקודם אמרו (פסוק ג) “כל הדברים אשר דבר ה’ נעשה” – ולא קיבלו עדיין המשפטים, אבל כי זרק הדם על העם (פסוק ח) להכניסן בברית וכמו דאת אמרת במכילתא יתרו (פרשה ג ד”ה ויקח ספר הברית), אמר להם אתם קשורים ענובים ותפוסים, וזה “ספר הברית” (פסוק ז) שכרתו כל ישראל יחד, לכן אמרו “כל אשר דבר ה'” (פסוק ז) – בין ה”דברים” בין ה”משפטים” – “נעשה”, שהעובר מצות ה’ הוא גדר בין אדם לחברו, שמזיק להכלל ודו”ק

“He told to the nation all the words of Hashem, and all the mishpatim” –

Know that Noachides are commanded regarding denim (the obligation to establish an effective legal system)

and the position of the rishonim is that these refer to laws that appeal to human reason,

but to coerce and compel regarding the statutes and commitments of Torah is justified only on the ground that “All Jews are guarantors for each other,” so that if one transgresses, he damages his friend and the entire community, and therefore beit din is justified to coerce and to judge the one who transgresses the commands of Hashem the Blessed, as without this it would be inappropriate from one person to mix into another person’s relationship with his creator.

The Meshekh Chokhmah goes beyond Chazon Ish and argues that even the formal legal punishments authorized by the Torah for religious offenses can be justified only by the practical good of the community; otherwise, irreligion is by nature a private matter between each human being and G-d.

For both Meshekh Chokhmah and Chazon Ish, religious voluntarism is not a concession to modernity accompanied by a yearning for the halcyon days of religious coercion. Rather, religious coercion was a prudent concession to the reality of collective Divine punishment. Surely Chazon Ish looked forward to the restoration of explicit Providence, and Meshekkh Chokhmah, if he agreed with Chazon Ish’s diagnosis of modernity, to the restoration of genuine collective responsibility. But they also recognized the virtue and opportunity of a world in which religion and state are disentangled. Shabbat Shalom!

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For us or for G-d?

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Noam Weinreich (SBM 2014)

This week’s Parsha Yitro ends on a puzzling note. After giving the “Ten Commandments” and making some final narrative comments (20:15-18), it seems like a perfect opportunity to end the Parsha, and indeed a section break appears right there. However our Parsha continues for an additional five pesukim (19-23). In them, G-d says not to create “gods of silver and gods of gold.” Rather, Bnai Yisrael should build “an altar of earth” and make sacrifices upon them. Additionally, if they make stone altars, “cut stones” cannot be used and those who ascend to the altar must not expose their nakedness.

Assuming that the Parsha is a single unit and there should be some thematic connection between the various sections, how does this section fit with what preceded it? Granted, much of the Parsha dealt with Bnai Yisrael’s unique relationship with G-d, and the second commandment explicitly forbids idolatry, but this does not explain why these commandments should be found here, as an epilogue to the Ten Commandments. It seems the second commandment is exactly where the prohibition against gold and silver idols should have been included! Furthermore the specific commandments pertaining to the types of stones which are usable for an altar, and the proscription of nakedness on the altar seem out of place.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a fascinating explanation, but first it is important to mention another idea of his. In his comment on verses 19 and 20, he writes that after being given the commandments by G-d, and being spoken to directly by Him, Bnai Yisrael should realize we do not need to make representations of G-d and put them on this earth. After the revelation at Har Sinai, Bnai Yisrael should not feel the need for any intermediaries to connect to G-d. Rav Hirsch then asks, if this is so, why do we have so much symbolism in our tradition? He claims this symbolism is not to represent the Divine on earth, but actually to “show man the human traits that He demands of him.” In other words, the purpose of the many symbols found within our religious practice is not to try to make a model of heaven on earth, but in trying to learn the proper actions and behaviors here, on this earth.

Rav Hirsch claims that what these final verses are coming to teach us is that our worship of G-d (on the altar) is not about G-d Himself, but about our relationship to G-d, as well as our relationship to each other, and to ourselves. To further his point, he suggests that these final commandments are specifically in reference to the three “Cardinal Sins”: Avodah Zarah, Shefichat Damim, and Giluy Arayot. The commandment not to make gold or silver idols is obviously connected to Avodah Zarah, the commandment against using stones carved with swords is related to Shefichat Damim, and the commandment against revealing nakedness on the altar is related to Giluy Arayot.

What is the significance of these three cardinal sins? Rav Hirsch in general has a theory that these three sins are related to the three spheres of human relationships, between G-d and man (Avodah Zarah), between man and man (Shefichat Damim), and between man and himself (Giluy Arayot). Each of these three sins represents the ultimate perversion of one of these relationships. So these specific laws are coming to teach us that in the context of the altar, arguably the ultimate tool for expressing our relationship the G-d, we must emphasize that the purpose of the Torah is not to create a Divine figure on this earth, but to sanctify our concrete and real human relationships.

It is easy for us to think of religion as unrelated to the everyday life of man, merely confined to the supernal realms and divinity. However, this Parsha teaches us that fundamentally, the Torah is not about the heavens, but about earth. Even while worshipping G-d through the altar, the goal is not to be concerned with what happens in the realm of G-d, but rather the human relationship with Him, as well as all of our other relationships. This is arguably the theme of the Ten Commandments, and so makes for a perfect epilogue to this Parsha. This Parsha reminds us that even after revelation, our goal is to be human, albeit the best humans we can be.

Noam Weinreich is currently a freshman at Cornell University, studying Philosophy and Mathematics.

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