Monthly Archives: March 2015

Korban: The Thing-Which-Brings-Closeness

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Avishai Gebler

Sefer Vayikra as a whole attempts to address the question of how to serve God. Parshat Vayikra begins this undertaking by spending several chapters going through laws of korbanot. In a bold shift, Parshat Tzav also deals with more details about korbanot. However, far from being a repeat of Vayikra, the different perspective in Tzav helps deepen our understanding of what role korban played, as well as offering a model for how we think about religious ritual.

Vayikra opens not with a conversation, but with calling out. As opposed to the usual model of God speaking to Moshe, here God calls out to Moshe from the ohel moed. Something is different. The Rashbam points out that once the mishkan was finished, the cloud settled over the ohel moed and Moshe could no longer enter. Now, Hashem must call from inside to Moshe who is outside. As it were, God is now locked in the ohel moed, and Moshe can’t enter.

The deep irony of the mishkan is that the very place meant to be a dwelling place for the Divine Presence also creates a barrier between people and God. The structures in place enable individual and communal growth, but the intimate and unstructured closeness that was once natural now needs a new avenue. This holds true for all our religious institutions.

The Torah offers the model of korban as an avenue for this closeness. Korban is not sacrifice, nor offering, but rather a thing-which-brings-closeness. It is framed as a universal impulse to come close: אדם כי יקריב – a human who wants to draw close (Vayikra 1:2). The rest of the parasha proceeds to detail different modes and times where someone may want to draw close – from voluntary expressions to required instances, personal and communal. The details focus on what an individual must bring, how it is brought, what the ritual act looks and feels like.

With all this as a backdrop, Tzav then shifts into procedural mode. It shifts focus from the bringer to the facilitator, the kohain. Aside from ensuring transparency as a check on potential clerical abuse, the text gives us a look behind the scenes. From the bringer’s perspective, Parashat Vayikra might have been enough. However, Tzav goes into detail about the underlying processes, how the proverbial sacrificial sausage gets made.

It is worth thinking about the roles we play with regards to religious rituals. As actors, it’s incumbent upon us to think about a notion of coming-closer. As facilitators, however, it is incumbent upon us to ensure procedures that are transparent and maximize the opportunity to bring growth and closeness. Korbanot are not about the kohanim. We should all find ourselves in both of these roles, at different times. When we have the opportunity to facilitate, our job is to be kohanim, to create experiences for those participating, not what we desire. In that way, ritual becomes korban, and becomes an avenue for deep closeness with the Divine.

Avishai Gebler (SBM 2009) is a rabbinical student at YCT, the rabbinic intern at both the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn and Anshe Sholom-Bnai Israel in Chicago, and a recent Jeopardy! champion.

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Diversity, Difference and Dignity

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Diversity is the spice of life, but the scandal, of science, philosophy, and theology. How can there be difference?

For physicists, all matter is made of the same stuff, and for many cosmologists, it all started at a singularity—so why do we have both hot dogs and buns?

For Maimonides, G-d is the only necessary existent and diversity can occur in contingent existence. But it’s not clear why this explains diversity, as all contingent existents relate to the Necessary Existent in the same way.

For the kabbalists, and perhaps for Kant, diversity exists in perception but not in reality. Everything that exists is the simple undifferentiated G-d, but we perceive Him through glasses rainbowly. But it is not clear why a homogeneous reality generates diverse perceptions, or how human perceivers exist, and I don’t fully understand what happens when a tree falls in the forest with no one there to hear it.

The challenge for each approach is to properly calibrate when to focus on unity and when on diversity. My dear friend Rabbi Yaakov Nagen argues in his new book, התעוררות ליום חדש, that this is a key to understanding the ritual of the Beit HaMikdash and its role in Judaism. As the place where G-d’s Presence is most manifest on earth, and therefore where the perception of diversity is most likely to be lost, it necessarily has rigidly defined roles and limited-access spaces as constant reminders of difference.

Rabbi Nagen fascinatingly develops his explanation by comparing and contrasting the Beit HaMikdash with the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, a religious community that he argues we should be building a relationship with. He argues (all descriptions of Sikhism here are my reading of Rabbi Nagen, without appeal even to Wikipedia) that Sikhism blends the monotheistic incorporealism of Islam with the tolerance of Hinduism, while rejecting the rigid caste system as unjust. Sikhism, he argues, is Judaism’s religious grandchild, and relationships with grandchildren are generally less fraught than those with children.

The Sikh Temple has sacred scripture at its core, and white-garbed musical attendants. Unlike ours, it is open on all four sides, and has a space specifically intended to host non-Sikhs. Unlike ours, it does not have crucial religious importance. Rabbi Nagen argues this is because Sikhism lacks Judaism’s sensitivity to the relationship between difference and holiness. Sikhs see their Temple as significant only because it houses their Book; the notion that some spaces are per se holier than others is alien to them. One of the rituals of the Golden Temple is that each visitor receives a portion of food to eat. This reminds Rabbi Genack of the Pesach sacrifice, which is eaten by all members of the Jewish community.

But here we reach a point that is perhaps somewhat elided in his presentation. Difference does not logically entail exclusion or hierarchy, and Judaism, specifically the Temple, institutionalizes both. Even the Pesach sacrifice explicitly excludes non-Jews. Why must the Beit HaMikdash be more holy than other places, rather than differently holy? (Mutatis mutandum, this point is also given insufficient attention in Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ Dignity of Difference.)

A recent online discussion addressed the question of whether one may invite non-Jews to the seder. One argument against was that since non-Jews cannot eat the Paschal sacrifice, it would be inappropriate to invite them to our symbolic commemoration of eating that sacrifice. A counterargument was that Halakhah demands that we make crystal clear that we are not in fact eating a sacrifice, so as not to convey the impression that sacrifices can be brought outside the Beit HaMikdash. The presence of a non-Jew therefore serves the positive function of demonstrating that no Paschal sacrifice will be eaten. Blurring distinction among humans serves to emphasize distinction among places.

The issue at the heart of the disagreement may be this: One side feels that the absence of the Beit HaMikdash generates a risk of flattening, that Jews will elide other vital distinctions when they no longer have a regular ritual connection to super-sacred space. The other side feels that those other distinctions are intended to be ancillary to the fundamental reality of sacred space, and so when the Beit HaMikdash is gone, there is much less meaning to the other distinctions. One can see the same conversation with regard to the social privileges and duties of kohanim post-Destruction.

Judaism of course has sacred time and sacred space, and the sacred space of Shabbat specifically may be largely unaffected by the absence of the Temple. Perhaps that persistence also serves to justify the persistence of human distinctions.

Rabbi Nagen emphasizes that Sikhs reject the notion of an untouchable caste, but he suggests that the price of their human egalitarianism is egalitarianism in time and space.

The emphasis on difference as a fundamental component of holiness is classically rooted in the notion that kedushah is really best translated as “separated.” In the classical form that separation seems almost always to be hierarchical, kodesh as opposed to chol. The philosophic and kabbalistic analyses seek to make kodesh and chol into aspects or perceptions of the same underlying matter, but it remains clear that kodesh is the goal.

The question for those with fundamentally egalitarian commitments is whether celebrating differentiation as enabling the perception of holiness, even if it entails hierarchy in the realms of time and space, can be transferred to human beings without the same hierarchy. This does not seem to have been a major Jewish concern historically, as hierarchical categories such as “form” and “matter” were often used in the context of Jewish chosenness or gender. But it is very much a modern concern.

To be specific: Some kabbalists respond to the scandal of difference by maintaining a dual consciousness, recognizing that one must relate to our reality as if difference exists while understanding that our reality is fundamentally an illusion. This may work well with regard to rocks and trees, but with regard to human beings, I submit, a recognition of underlying sameness does not justify maltreatment in the here and now.

I would prefer to go with Levinas and see difference as the ground of value and of ethical obligation. It is because you are different than me that you are infinitely valuable to me, not because of what you share with me. At the same time, this powerful argument doesn’t well account for family love, and perhaps even for human speciesism, both of which I have no interest in overcoming.

Celebrations of diversity per se must constantly slide toward notions of “separate but equal,” which tends more or less inevitably to “different but equal.” This can be resisted politically to some extent by libertarianism, which seeks to limit government to the negative role of preventing coercive imposition. This enables separateness to be choice rather than mandate, but on the other hand gives private prejudice free reign. It is unclear whether religious approaches celebrating difference can resist the slide to “different but equal.”

Perhaps such resistance is unnecessary. Contemporary America properly anathematizes “separate but equal,” and manages to celebrate multiculturalism at the same time without irony. But multiculturalism without separation consumes itself, as children raised equally in all cultures will grow up homogenized.

The tensions I’ve tried to outline throughout this discursus are at the heart of Pesach. G-d intervened in history to rescue one people, and that intervention justifies our religious particularism by giving Him a special claim on us. But the claim He makes on us is grounded in the universal claim that what was being done to us was wrong, not because of who we were particularly, but simply because we were human.

The difference in value created by relationship is inevitably hierarchical: a becomes more valuable to b as their (positive) relationship deepens. But in the best of such relationships, our acceptance of greater subjective value—we love each other—also heightens our awareness of objective value—other people are capable of love. The challenge for us is to use all the privileged religious experiences of Judaism as catalysts for appreciating the spiritual capacities of all humankind.

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Korbanot as a Live Option

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rachel Katler

There is a famous disagreement between Rambam and Ramban regarding sacrifices.  While Ramban (Vayikra 1:9)  thinks that sacrifices are a valuable method of worshiping Hashem in all times and places, Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:32)  sees their value as stemming from the forms of worship that Bnei Yisrael was already used to.  For him, they signify a continuity of sorts, with forms of worship that Bnei Yisrael was used to, allowing them to gradually ease into new paradigms.  They are not so much intrinsically valuable for him, as instrumentally valuable.

While certainly the question of whether or not the sacrifices are valuable in themselves is an important one (as Ramban’s strong language notes) I would like to address a slightly different distinction: that a belief may shed a different sort of light on this debate.  This is the distinction between living and dead hypotheses as suggested by William James.  According to James, a live hypothesis is one which appears to be a real possibility to an individual.  For example, both Rambam’s and Ramban’s understanding of sacrifices are probably live hypotheses to you—it seems likely that either of them could be correct (such a choice, between two live hypotheses, is a live option).  On the other hand, a dead hypothesis fails to have any such credibility.  It’s not that it’s considered and then dismissed, but rather, it fails to even make it to consideration. There is no sense in which it seems to be a genuine possibility.   Crucially, what is a live or dead hypothesis will be dependent on the person in question.  What is a live option for one person may be a dead option for another based on their time period or the place where they are living.[1]

Looking back at Rambam, he writes that telling Bnei Yisrael not to serve Hashem with sacrifices would be the same as telling someone nowadays not to serve Hashem with prayer.[2] It would just fail to make sense to them in some fundamental way.  To phrase it differently, being asked to serve Hashem with only thoughts and not with action or prayer fails to be a live hypothesis for us.  It is too great a divergence from what we’re used to for it to appear to be a genuine option at all—it is a dead hypothesis in every relevant sense.  Similarly, for Bnei Yisrael, the idea of serving Hashem without sacrifices was not a live hypothesis.  It was so beyond the bounds of experience in their time and place that they couldn’t even make it to the next step of deciding whether Hashem should be served that way or not.  It was beyond the realm of relevant possibility. In contrast to them, in our time and place, not serving Hashem with sacrifices is a live (if not ideal) option—it makes sense to us and is something that we can consider reasonable.

In light of this, it is possible to read Ramban’s disagreement with Rambam as an argument about whether or not sacrifices are a live hypothesis in all times and places, whether they are something that makes sense only against a particular cultural background or whether humans have an understanding of them that transcends particular times/places.  In citing the fact that Adam and Noah sacrificed even before the advent of avodah zarah, Ramban is showing not only that korbanot exist exclusive of their idolatrous connotations, but that they exist in a more fundamental way in the human consciousness.  They are, in a sense, always live hypotheses for people.

Rachel Katler (SBM 2010) is currently finishing her master’s degree in philosophy at Brandeis University.

[1] William James, The Will to Believe

[2] והיה נעשה זה אז, כמו אילו [שמז] בא נביא בזמנים הללו, וקורא לעבודת ה’, ואומר, הנה ה’ ציווה אתכם שלא תתפללו לו ולא תצומו ולא תשוועו לפניו בעת צרה, אלא תהיה עבודתכם מחשבה בלי מעשה כלל.

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Are Leaders More Likely to Sin?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Chapter 4 of Vayikra is organized around a list of three sin-offerings: those of the High Priest (the anointed priest, הכהן המשיח), of the Sanhedrin (the eyes of the generation, עיני העדה), and of the king (the one raised up, נשיא). Each offering is given a full legal exposition. The list is preceded by a one-sentence reference to the sin of a generic sinner, with no reference to a resultant offering. This introduction seems misplaced, as it apparently related to a series of cases in Chapter 5. It seems likely that the Torah interjects the sin-offerings of leaders to emphasize that leaders are human too, no less fallible than their followers.

One category of Jewish leader is missing from the list. Yirmiyahu 2:8 refers to the sins of four kinds of Jewish leader:

‘הכהנים לא אמרו איה ה

ותפשי התורה לא ידעוני

והרעים פשעו בי

והנביאים נבאו בבעל

ואחרי לא יועלו הלכו

The priests did not say “Where is Hashem?”

Those who grasp the Torah did not know Me

The shepherds breached their duty toward Me

And the prophets prophesied via Baal,

and after those who cannot be effective, they followed.

On the assumption that “those who grasp the Torah” refers to scholars, and that “shepherds” refers to secular political leaders, the category missing in Vayikra 4 is that of prophets. Why does the Torah not include a sin-offering for prophets?

Now Vayikra discusses accidental (שוגג=shogeg) sins, whereas Yirmiyah seems pretty clearly to be describing deliberate sins. So an immediately apparent possible resolution is that prophets cannot sin beshogeg. Why might that be? Let’s be clear that we are discussing sins that these leaders commit in their official capacities, not in their private lives. How might a high priest, member of the Sanhedrin, or a king sin accidentally in their official capacities?

Here I think it is necessary to retranslate shogeg. Non-deliberate sin occurs in many forms: one can act unconsciously out of habit, misexecute a physical plan, or have the consequences of one’s actions altered by unpredictable external forces. None of these is the referent of our verses. They relate at least primarily to errors of judgment.

Now it is pretty clear where judgment enters into the official roles of the Sanhedrin and king. What about the High Priest, however? I suggest that there is one circumstance in which the High Priest exercises official judgment unique to his position, which is when he reads the Urim veTummim.

In I Samuel 1:13, Eli the High Priest sees Channah praying silently and angrily accuses her of being drunk – עד מתי תשתכרין. Channah responds:



אשה קשת רוח אנכי

ויין ושכר לא שתיתי


my master

I am a woman with a hardened spirit

and neither wine nor intoxicant=שכר have I drunk.

Rashi in the current printed edition comments:

לא אדוני – לא אדון אתה

בדבר הזה גלית בעצמך שאין רוח הקודש שורה עליך

שתדע שאיני שכורת יין

“Not my master” – You are not a master

By saying this you have revealed that the Holy Spirit does not rest on you

or you would know that I was not wine-drunk.

Rashi makes two related radical claims. First, he removes the comma between “not” and “my master” so that Channah is not respectfully disagreeing with Eli but rather denying his authority. Secondly, Channah’s response is not limited to her case, but rather a broad assertion of Eli’s spiritual inadequacy. One problem with this reading is that, as Rashi points out, Channah pleads with Eli in the next verse, he blesses her, and the blessing bears fruit in the birth of Shmuel, who grows up venerating Eli to the point that he cannot distinguish between G-d’s voice and Eli’s. Why would Channah change her mind about Eli, when he had in fact accused her falsely? Indeed, Eli’s angry initial reaction to Channah seems wildly excessive.

The Vilna Gaon in Kol Eliyahu reports a version of Rashi which begins לא אדני – כשרה. In high school, I recall, this was explained to me as follows. Rabbi Yochanan (Yoma 73) says that the way the Urim veTummim conveyed G-d’s will was by having the letters carved into the stones of the breastplate light up, but that this would work only for a High Priest on whom the Divine Spirit rests. Why? Possibly the letters lit up simultaneously, and the High Priest had to rearrange them to determine their message. Here, Eli arranged the letters to form שכרה, drunk, when in fact Channah was כשרה, kosher.

However, if my memory is correct, I was taught incorrectly. The Gaon actually explains Rashi on the basis of a midrash which compares Channah to Sarah, Rivkah, and Rachel (all of whom had fertility issues). In other words, he reads כשרה as k’Sarah, like Sarah, not as ksheirah, kosher. Apparently my teacher as well lacked the Divine Spirit.

With trepidation, I venture to suggest an interpretation of this Rashi that differs from the Gaon’s. Rashi to Yoma 73 emphasizes that the letters would not light up at all for a High Priest who lacked the Divine Spirit. In other words, Eli’s error demonstrated the opposite of Channah’s accusation; it was an error that could be made only by one on whom the Divine Spirit did rest. Once Eli acknowledged his error, she was more than happy to accept a blessing from him, and rightly so. Had Eli insisted she was drunk, however, Channah would simply have rejected him; she knew this was impossible. The dialogue between Eli and Channah is a delicate dance of authority and suspicion. Channah cannot tell whether Eli is merely pretending to have the Divine Spirit with him until he admits error, which demonstrated his strength of character. To regain his status as אדון, ironically, he has to surrender any pretension that access to Revelation makes him infallible. Once Channah knows which letters have lit up, she is more capable than he is of interpreting their meaning.

The Sanhedrin, when it transforms Torah into law, and the king, when he carries out the Torah as law, are in the same position as the High Priest once it is known which letters have lit up. In other words, they may not claim that their interpretations of Torah are infallible. They too can sin accidentally by misunderstanding Revelation.

However, the errors of the High Priest and of the Sanhedrin will result from textual misinterpretations, whereas the errors of the king will likely result from political miscalculation. I suspect it is harder to admit political error. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (Sifra 5) notes that whereas the sins of the High Priest and Sanhedrin are introduced by the preposition כי, that of the king is introduced by אשר. He suggests that אשר=when is a play-on words with אשרי=fortunate, because a generation is indeed fortunate if it has a leader who will admit to making a political misjudgment.

To return to our opening question: why is there no sacrifice for an erring prophet? I suggest that the High Priest, the king, and the Sanhedrin are all interpreting objectively accessible data, even if in the case of the High Priest the data is obtained via some form of Divine Spirit. By contrast, a prophet cannot convey the objective content of his Revelation to anyone; the language he uses is already an interpretation of his experience rather than the experience itself. G-d can tell Yirmiyahu “You have seen well,” but no human being could ever determine whether this was so.

A classic parody of an admission goes as follows: “I have never been wrong. Once, I thought I had erred. But barukh Hashem, I was mistaken!” The point here is that an admission of past error is pointless unless it generates an admission of fallibility. To be sure that one was wrong, solely on the basis of one’s own judgment, is no less arrogant than one’s original certitude of correctness. Prophets are offered no ritual route to atonement for misjudgments. This, I suspect, is why they so often find their status painful. G-d in His wisdom and mercy has given the rest of us an objective basis for the study of His will, and we should be constantly grateful for the possibility of chavruta.

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A Community of Vision

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Tuvy Miller

As the Torah nears the end of describing the mishkan’s construction, it briefly includes a description of the kiyor (38:8):

 וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד

And he made the basin and base of brass, [out] of the mirrors of the serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting. (JPS 1917 ed. with slight modifications)

This  description raises several problems, perhaps the first being that much of this information is missing from the original command to build the kiyor in 30:17-21. There, the Torah spends a few words describing the construction and instead focuses much more on the kiyor’s actual function. But perhaps much more troubling than that is the exact explanation of this particular verse here. To whom, or what, does the text refer in the latter half of the verse? It is unclear what exactly is being described and what significance it has for developing a deeper understanding of the kiyor.

There are two dominant approaches found among the Medieval commentators in explicating this verse. Rashi, following Midrash Tanhuma, proposes that these mirrors were those used by the Jewish women in Egypt as a tool for enticing their husbands and ultimately ensuring that they would have children to perpetuate the nation. Thus, these mirrors were particularly dear to G-d and because they symbolized the possibility of a loving spousal relationship, they merited a place in the kiyor which also played a role in repairing such relationships through the sotah process. Though after a lengthy analysis[1] this suggestion might reveal literary depth, it does not obviously explain the verse in a compelling fashion. The word “tsoveot” most clearly means “those who gathered or served” and refers to what the women were doing in front of the ohel moed, but it seems unlikely that it refers to the “צבאות רבות” that the women birthed in Egypt. Furthermore, it seems strange to so prominently showcase the kiyor’s role in the sotah process when it presumably played a much more central daily role in preparing the priests for worship and should reflect that.[2]

The other main approach to this verse is offered by Ibn Ezra. He surmises that there was a group of women who had abandoned all worldly pleasure and gathered daily in front of the ohel moed to pray to G-d. As a symbol of their commitment to the spiritual, they gave away the mirrors which they had previously used to beautify themselves.[3] While this works better on a textual level in explaining “tsoveot” as “those who gathered,” it seems strange that the women would donate symbols of worldly hedonism to the mishkan when, unlike in Rashi’s construction, the mirrors had not been used for a noble, redeeming purpose beforehand.[4]

In the spirit of a constant search for new meanings in a timeless text, I would like to suggest a different explanation that will perhaps provide interesting material for further thought and discussion. Other than this particular case in Shemot, the word “mar’ot” appears five other times in Tanakh.[5] In each instance, the word clearly refers to the vision that the prophet receives from G-d. Given that this word is used in one way throughout the rest of Tanakh, it seems quite plausible to suggest that it should be read the same way in our section. Therefore, the verse should be understood to mean that the kiyor was constructed from copper as per the command in 30:18, but its form was in accordance with the prophetic vision received by the masses[6] assembled before the ohel moed. It may have been that they were, as Ibn Ezra suggests, people who consistently waited there and engaged in avodat Hashem, or it is possible that they were there contributing to the terumah and received a spontaneous vision.[7]

In this reading, the kiyor stands as a symbol of the central role that the nation plays in creating a metaphysical context in which the mishkan exists. Unlike the other aforementioned readings, this symbolism exists primarily for internal consumption within the mishkan. As the kohanim prepare for their daily service, they must be reminded that they serve, at least in part, as sheluhei didan and that the deep spiritual force inherent within the nation obligates the leadership to cultivate that power and harness it in the service of G-d. Spiritual leaders must be attentive to the unique religious potency that rests with the kelal and strive to give that expression in the daily life of the nation.

 Tuvy Miller is currently a senior at Yeshiva University majoring in English and Jewish History. He enjoys learning Tanakh with a potpourri of close reading, classical parshanut and a healthy dose of Holmesian imagination.

[1] Which is not possible given constraints of this presentation.

[2] For example, see Seforno and Ramban to 30:18-19.

[3] This position stands in opposition to Rashi’s for its ascetic attitude towards beauty and sexuality. This is a dispute that requires further explanation, but is beyond the scope of this discussion.

[4] While it is possible to claim that the mirrors would be metaphysically redeemed through their use in the kiyor, they would still maintain their practical negative symbolism in the eyes of the people and furthermore, it seems strange to place sexual abstinence and asceticism so prominently in the Mishkan.

[5] Bereshit 46:2, Yeheskel 1:1, 8:3, 40:2 and 43:3. The cases in Yeheskel clearly relate to his Merkava visions, while the example from Bereshit is when Ya’akov receives a vision before his descent to Egypt.

[6] Either just women as understood by many commentators, or perhaps men as well.

[7] It should not be surprising that the form of the kiyor was delivered in a vision given that Parashat Terumah contains a constant refrain that tell of Mosheh receiving architectural visions for the various keilim. Furthermore, it is possible that the comments of R. Shimshon of Sens (Sefer haTosafot ha-Shalem, vol. 10, pp. 215) provide at least a partial expression of this reading of “mar’ot”:

לפי שעל הכיור היה מצוייר עליו מעשה מרכבה, ולזה נקרא כיור לשון ציור וכיור

He claims that the word “kiyor” suggests that the image of the Merkava throne-chariot was engraved upon the basin itself. This assumes that prophecy was a necessary component for understanding how to construct the kiyor, though it does not necessarily entail that it was the people who received the vision. It is possible that R. Shimshon bases this on the description of what might be a later version of the kiyor in Melakhim Alef 7:33 and perhaps on the usages of “mar’ot” in describing Yeheskel’s Merkava visions.

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Our Faith and Our Facts

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Does existence matter? To non-philosophers the answer is almost certainly yes. But Kant famously undid the ontological argument, or at least some versions of it, by arguing that “existence is not a predicate” and changes nothing essential about the object of discussion, and therefore a perfect being need not exist to be perfect. The Rav (following Plato) at some points makes a similar argument about halakhic objects such as the rebellious son (ben sorer umoreh). It seems a small leap to argue that the same is true of stories, and that we should therefore be indifferent to the historicity of Tanakh.

This has been one common response to Joshua Berman’s recent article in Mosaic arguing for the historicity of the Exodus narrative in the Torah.

Now it is a pleasant luxury to have this discussion when the relevant evidence supports rather than opposes historicity, and for this alone Rabbi Dr. Berman deserves our gratitude. At the very least, those who profess to disdain his work on principle can later use that disdain as evidence that their indifference to negative evidence is not mere camouflage for an overeager intellectual surrender.

But I think their response is fundamentally mistaken. Here’s why:

A story may be no less meaningful if it is the product of imagination rather than recollection, if it results from genesis rather than from an effort at mimesis. But very often it will not have the same meaning.

Let’s take the case of the rebellious son (ben sorer umoreh) as an analogy. Halakhic Man endorses the Tannaitic position that the rebellious son “has not been and will never be,” and contends that the meaningfulness of studying its laws is not thereby impaired. But should we learn it the same way once we accept that position?

I think there must be changes. First, with regard to “factual” laws we have an obligation to read the text and decide the law in ways that make it practicable, physically and emotionally. For example, we cannot decide that only unicorn horns are kosher shofarot, and we cannot require people to fast consecutive days for Yom Kippur because of calendar doubt. But there are no such limitations with regard to the rebellious son if we accept the “nonfactual” position.

Second, the morals we derive from the law may change radically. As a pure hypothetical, we read it as hyperbole, which opens up the opportunity to understand the relevant sin as addiction rather than breach of filial duty, for example. Once we genuinely consider the possibility of executing someone for this crime, we have to make the crime at least conceivably fit the punishment.

I suggest that it is further vital to distinguish here between two kinds of fiction, the imaginary and the symbolic.

Imaginary fictions have no direct relationship to our reality; they educate about our reality by contrast. Some wonderful example are the alternatives to relativistic time in Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams.

Symbolic fictions, by contrast, are nonliteral descriptions of our reality.

Rashi to Genesis 1:1 cites a midrash in which G-d initially plans to create the world with justice alone, but realizing that it would not survive, He partners mercy to justice and creates. This explains the shift in Divine Names between the first and second creation stories. But it also contends that the first creation story is an imaginary fiction; it describes the world the way it would have been had G-d not allowed mercy to play a role in creation. The second creation story, by contrast, is a symbolic fiction. It describes human existence as we know it, even if one chooses not to believe that snakes once talked or had legs.

Imaginary fictions are often intended to inspire revolution. Tales of utopia instill in us the urge to make our world more like them; they challenge us to transform “is” into “ought.” This can be particularly dangerous if the “ought” they inspire us toward is not only imaginary but impossible.

Symbolic fictions are often aimed at education, at making us recognize truths and patterns we have missed in our reality.

For example, the mishkan is a microcosmos, or a symbolic representation of all Creation. This is based inter alia on the allusions to Genesis 1:3 in the parshiyot dealing with the construction of the mishkan, especially the frequent use of מלאכה in both, the parallelאת המלאכה ויכל משה/ויכל א-להים ביום השביעי מלאכתו. But which Creation does the mishkan represent: the imaginary Creation of the first story, or the very real Creation of the second?

A natural corollary of the mishkan as microcosm is that it should reach its apogee on Shabbat, and indeed, when Moshe gathers the people to do the work, he speaks about Shabbat. But here Chazal display a peculiar ambivalence. Construction of the mishkan must be halted on Shabbat, but the service must continue. Why?

Rishonim famously debate whether G-d originally commissioned the mishkan before or after the Golden Calf. Nachmanides holds before, but acknowledges that the meaning of the mishkan was transformed by that sin.

I suggest that the transformation is best understood in light of Genesis. The mishkan was originally intended to represent the first creation narrative, but after the Golden Calf it shifted to represent the second.

One difference between the two creation narratives is Shabbat. The first story begins with chaos and ends in perfection=Shabbat; the second story begins in perfection and never makes it back to Shabbat. I suggest that Halakhah marks and honors this shift by having the construction of the mishkan parallel the Six Days of Creation, but having the ritual of the mishkan parallel the task of human beings in the Garden of Eden – לעבדה ולשמרה. Thus the construction of the mishkan ceases on Shabbat, to honor the Creator of the first creation story, whereas the ritual continues on Shabbat, to symbolize the human responsibility set forth by the second creation story.

Thus the mishkan symbolizes both an imaginary world and our own, and these worlds differ greatly from each other.

By the same token, I contend, it should matter very much whether the overall Exodus narrative in Chumash is historical record or rather a symbolic representation of history. For starters, was there an actual tribe named Amalek whom we were commanded to exterminate? Note that there is a third possibility, which is that the story symbolizes a counter-historical Creation, along the lines of the first Creation story.

More generally, I think that it is a good idea to make one’s faith depend on the truth of as few “facts” as possible. But that should not preclude us from having a religious rooting interest in the confirmation of some “facts” and the disproof of others. Among my rooting interests is for the Exodus narrative to be a historical demonstration of Divine compassion for the oppressed rather than an illustration of a hypothetical counter-history.

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Taking the Pledge

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Jason Strauss

In preparation for Purim, the Orthodox Union is trying something new to combat substance abuse in the Jewish community during this fan-favorite of holidays. The OU is using an online pledge form, social media, and the hashtag “#purimpledge” to encourage adults to commit (1) not to serve alcohol to minors, (2) not to drink and drive or serve alcohol to those driving, and (3) not to serve alcohol to already intoxicated guests. Like many Jewish organizations, such as Aish and Chabad, the Orthodox Union has begun to respond to the widespread abuse of a statement by Rava in the Talmud that Jews are obligated to drink on Purim until they confuse blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman (BT Megillah 7a). As Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb noted in a 2012 article, every Purim, thousands of teenagers find access to and abuse alcohol. Many adults make similarly tragic mistakes, leading to hospitalization due to alcohol over-consumption and car accident injuries. Last year, Rabbi Yair Hoffman even tried to make the case that today it is halachically prohibited to get drunk on Purim.

The Purim Pledge idea to combat substance abuse is based on firm scientific evidence. Since the 1960s, social psychologists have written about the effectiveness of the “foot-in-the-door technique” in preventing self-destructive behavior. A 1993 study by Taylor and Butterfield resulted in statistically significant evidence that signing a petition against drunk-driving increases one’s own likelihood of taking a taxi home from a bar rather than driving while intoxicated. The “foot-in-the-door technique” relies on the idea that actively committing to something, even just verbally, can supply the necessary affective motivation to change your behavior.

The Jewish people used a similar technique to originally commit themselves to the Torah. Rather than wait to hear the commandments, the Jewish people respond to the divine encounter at Sinai with “Na’aseh ve-nishma,” i.e. they agree to commit to G-d’s Torah before they even know its contents (Exodus 24:7; cf. Exodus 19:8). However, not long after making this commitment, while still surrounding the very same mountain, the people fail to maintain their own standard. They build a molten calf made of gold and worship it, seemingly abandoning the relationship they had just begun with G-d (Exodus 32).

G-d’s response to this betrayal is understandably harsh; His first suggested solution to this problem is wiping out the entire people and restarting the nation with Moses as its sole progenitor. In response to Moses’ petition, G-d reduces the punishment but says the He can no longer make His Presence among the people; He was concerned that He would destroy them. His reasoning: the people are an “am keshei oref,” a stiff-necked people, unwilling and unable to change from the pagan and immoral behaviors ingrained in them during slavery in Egypt (Exodus 33:3). Strangely, Moses’ response is not to reject this label; he says that G-d should forgive the people because they are an “am keshei oref.” How can Moses use the prosecution’s argument as the people’s defense (cf. BT Rosh Hashanah 26a)?

Ramban and Ralbag, quoted by Abarbanel (Exodus 34), give similar answers to this question. Although the people’s stiff-neckedness makes it difficult for them to change, that same obstinacy is necessary for the people to do G-d’s will and fulfill their mission as his nation. Moses makes this observation explicit later in the Torah: “it is not for your righteousness that G-d has given you this good land to inherit; [rather, because] you are a stiff-necked nation” (Deuteronomy 9:6). Through thousands of years of persecution, the Jewish people have successfully maintained their tradition. They have had times in which they have made major mistakes and one would have thought that after the first destruction of Israelite society and, certainly, after the second time in 70 CE, there would be nothing left. Yet, time and again, the Jewish people survive. Even after the Holocaust only 70 years ago, not only have we survived, but our stiff-neckedness helped us re-establish the Jewish homeland and gather in much of the exile. Just this week, with our people again facing an existential threat, a Jewish prime minister had the audacity to speak on the greatest stage in the world and compare our fate today to the story of Purim and tell Congress “Never Again!” to thunderous applause.

The megillah itself attests to this tenacity, this “unbreakable bond” that the Jewish people preserve with G-d. Commenting on the words “kimu ve-kiblu ha-Yehudim,” the Jews kept and accepted the details of the holiday of Purim (Esther 9), the Talmud says “kimu mah she-kiblu kevar;” despite their having just barely avoided annihilation, the people recommit themselves to keep the pledge that they had made at Sinai centuries before (BT Shabbat 88a). Each year, we display this commitment by doing what we do best: learning (reading the megillah), giving gifts of food to neighbors and friends (mishloach manot), eating in celebration of G-d’s salvation (mishteh ve-simcha), and opening our wallets and palms to the poor, placing social justice at the center of our moment of bliss (matanot le-evyonim).

Obstinacy can hurt us and make change difficult. At the same time, it is this very potential for commitment that has helped us become a young and thriving nation once again, in the Diaspora and in our homeland. The OU is asking us to use our potential and get our “foot-in-the-door,” to pledge that we will be mindful of the warnings of Rabbeinu Ephraim and the Orchot Chaim regarding heavy drinking and that we keep our children and ourselves safe. May we have a healthy and joyous Purim and recommit ourselves to following in G-d’s ways and celebrate our continued relationship with Him.

Jason Strauss is currently in his last year of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, a student at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, and a part-time teacher at SAR High School.

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Some Taanit Esther Thoughts on Systemic Solutions for the Agunah Issue

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

There is a longstanding controversy as to whether the modern plague of get-refusal must be solved entirely within the halakhic system, or whether external forces should be brought to bear, even if those forces impose change on halakhah.  I want to offer a mediating position.

In America, where halakhah has no secular authority, a woman can be an agunah only if she chooses to remain part of the halakhic system.  Therefore, any solution must feel authentic to her and respect the sincerity and depths of her beliefs, for which she has sacrificed so much.  Solutions externally imposed on halakhah will likely not in practice free her, since she will be unwilling to remarry, and the men she wishes to marry would not see her as free.  This does not mean that all such attempts will fail, but there should be a bias against secularly constraining the discretion of halakhic authorities.  If for no other reason, we should fear the consequences generally for freedom of religion.

In Israel, by contrast, halakhah has agreed to become part of the state, and as a result has jurisdiction over many women who would never choose to be subject to halakhic authority.  Israeli agunot do not need authentic solutions; they need practical solutions.  The price of halakhah becoming part of the state is that the state may force its religious bureaucrats to choose particular halakhic options or accommodate particular halakhic policies, or else resign.  In particular, the state can legitimately force its religious court judges to ensure that no women are trapped by a system whose premises they do not believe.

More sharply – the use of get-refusal as a bargaining tool in divorce cases should be stamped out in all jurisdictions.  But in America this is the responsibility of the halakhic community; in Israel this is the responsibility of the government.

It is therefore deeply ironic that while New York State and Canada have enacted creative and somewhat effective get laws, in Israel the only legislative response has been to give rabbinic courts the power to coerce more effectively.   Such powers are welcome, but they are desperate last measures generally taken after extended extortionary or spiteful get-refusal.  I believe more creative and more effective measures are necessary and possible.

An ever-larger percentage of the American halakhic community is meeting its responsibility to end get-refusal by voluntarily signing the RCA halakhic prenuptial agreements, and I was pleased to read that Tzohar and the Israeli Bar Association have jointly released an apparently parallel agreement in Israel.  For now, I very much hope that it is effective and gains broad voluntary use.  But I believe that a version of this agreement can and should be mandated legislatively.

It should be clear that if the state seeks to impose halakhic choices that the dayyanim cannot in good conscience endorse, they must resign, and if the state goes ahead anyway, it will simply be creating its own form of civil marriage and divorce.

But I think there is an opportunity for more here – an opportunity for the entire Israeli community, and perhaps as well the international halakhic community, to think together about how authentic halakhah can reasonably and responsibly accept secular authority in a democratic Jewish state most of whose Jewish citizens do not feel bound by halakhah.

Nothing excuses the many years that get-refusal, get-extortion, and the implicit threat of get-extortion have corrupted the halakhic divorce process.  But if we can generate that sort of thinking together, perhaps there is hope that the agunot will not have suffered in vain.

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The Significance of Sinai on Purim

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasya (Shabbat 88a) is generally taught as claiming that G-d suspended Mount Sinai over the Jewish people to ensure their acceptance of the Torah. Many teachers further tell their students that Rav Avdimi is playing with words. Shemot 19:17 records that the Jews stood “betachtit hahar,” which plainly means “at the base of the mountain,” but he interprets it homiletically to mean “underneath the mountain.” I suggest that every aspect of this presentation is wrong. Every other use of tachtit in Tanakh refers to a lower section. And Rav Avdimi does not claim that the mountain was suspended over them.

Here are Rav Avdimi’s actual words:

:מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם

אם אתם מקבלים התורה – מוטב

ואם לאו – שם תהא קבורתכם

This teaches that The Holy Blessed one kafah aleihem the mountain like a rain barrel, and said to them:

“If you accept the Torah – better;

but if not – your burial will take place there.”

What does “kafah aleihem” mean? Maharsha explains that a kippah is a dome, so what G-d did was reshape the mountain so that it formed a dome enclosing the Jews. He did not threaten to drop the mountain on the Jews, but rather to leave them buried inside it, in its “tachtit.” “Your burial will take place there,” an otherwise odd idiom, means that the mountain will become their mausoleum. As is usually the case, the “midrash” takes the verse literally, whereas the “pshat” makes the text conform to preconceived notions.

Why are teachers so convinced that Rav Avdimi is not pshat? On the first level, because we have a resistance to adding miracles to the text. This is a fascinating sensibility; in a story which involves all the supernaturalness of Sinai, why can’t a floating mountain fit in?

But on the second level, Rav Avdimi is playing with words and counterreading the text. His underlying point that G-d coerced the Jews into accepting the Torah is conveyed by a pun: “kafah” also means coerced. But the plain meaning of the biblical narrative is the Jews willingly accepted the Torah.

Yet Rav Acha bar Yaakov and Rava both accept Rav Dimi’s implication. Rav Acha bar Yaakov notes that this midrash offers the Jewish people an out: they can claim to have accepted the Torah under duress. Rava quickly removes any contemporary implications by asserting that Esther 9:27 records a subsequent willing acceptance of Torah.

This past Shabbat in YI Sharon, Rabbi Pesach Wolicki of Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah offered a beautiful close read of Rava. The original Jewish willingness to accept the Torah is traditionally embodied in the phrase naaseh venishma, whereas Rava derives the subsequent willingness from the phrase kiymoo vekibloo. Rabbi Wolicki argued that the phrase in Esther is an intensification of the phrase in Shemot: asiyah, meaning practice, becomes kiyum, meaning firm establishment; shemiah, meaning obedience, becomes kabbalah, meaning internalization. Rava does not deny the significance of the original acceptance, but he sees it as the first step in a process.

Rabbi Wolicki pointed out, however, that Midrash Tanchuma (Noach 3) offers a very different solution: The threat of the mountain overhead related solely to acceptance of the Oral Torah, as the Jews had already accepted the written one.

Rabbi Wolicki read Tanchuma and Shabbat 88a synthetically, so that Rava’s reply relates only to the Oral Torah. Rather than depict First Temple Jews as completely unbound by Oral Torah, he suggested that the initial coercion related to the obligation to learn, while even Rav Dimi would concede that the Jews freely accepted the obligation to obey the Oral Torah. What changed in the time of Purim, or if one prefers the time of the Men of the Great Assembly, was the free acceptance of universal responsibility for the study of Oral Torah.

I agree with Rav Wolicki (barukh shekivanti) that this is an implication of Avot 1:1’s report that the Men of the Great Assembly emphasized the need to have many students, rather than the smallest elite group capable of ensuring continuity, and I love the message. I am not as certain that the Tanchuma is intended to be read together with Shabbat 88a. My own reading of Avot connected the new responsibility to the absence of prophecy rather than to a new, freer acceptance.

Happily, Tosafot HaRosh suggests a way of combining our two approaches:

ואומר ר”ת

דהתם נמי על ידי הדבור היה ובעל כרחם

אבל בימי אחשורוש קבלוה מאהבת הנס

בלב שלם מדעתם

Rabbeinu Tam says

That there too it was in accordance with a prophetic command, and against their will

but in the days of Achashveirosh they accepted it out of love of the miracle

wholeheartedly and of their own will

The problem here is that “love of the miracle” detracts from wholehearted willingness, and points to a fundamental weakness in Rava’s response. Rabbi David Silber argues that the enveloping mountain is a metaphor for an overall state of coercion; G-d took the Jews into a waterless desert, so that their survival obviously depended on His benevolent intervention. The Purim miracle emphasizes that their vulnerability was no less in Persia!

Ritva makes a further argument. The Jews are punished for their crimes prior to Purim, not least by exile to Persia. How can this be, if they really were not obligated? Ritva accordingly concludes that Rav Dimi is explaining the mistaken impression that led some Jews to believe themselves no longer obligated, and Rava is showing how to answer them leshitatam, in accordance with their own mistaken assumption.

Ritva’s position is actually a reaction to his grandteacher Nachmanides, who argues that the Jews’ initial acceptance at Sinai was transactional, trading obedience for land. G-d has the right to exile the Jews even if acceptance was coerced, since His promise of the Land was conditional. What changes at Purim is a willing acceptance of unconditional obligation.

Put more sharply, the exile of the Jews to Babylonia simply returned the Jews to the desert, and Haman’s plot was no more threatening than the risk of death by dehydration. The difference was that Babylonia was not explicitly a way station to Israel. The Jews nonetheless chose to remain distinctive, and thereby accepted their obligations unconditionally.

Ritva cannot accept this perhaps he believes that conditional obligation is not obligation; it’s a utilitarian decision. In Ramban’s schema, First Temple Jews would have the right to release themselves from obligation if they were willing to surrender the Land, and Shushan’s Jews had the right to assimilate. Ritva could not imagine this being true. Is not the whole point of the Esther narrative that the Jews have no real choice about being Jews? Isn’t Haman’s rise part of a Divine plan to make them realize this? How could Rava read the outcome as a new, free acceptance of their obligations?

Here is one possible answer: Haman’s plot is provoked by Mordekhai’s refusal to bow. It is halakhically permitted to bow to another person, and by not doing so, Mordekhai endangered Jews everywhere. So why did he do it? Perhaps G-d’s plan was not inevitable, it required the free-willed action of at least one Jew to work. At the end of the megillah, the Jewish people acknowledge Mordekhai was right, and that acknowledgement constitutes their acceptance of obligation.

Furthermore, Mordekhai knew that on the road to assimilation, red lines are always relative; with a gradual process, deviance can always be defined down, so that the next small step is not worth giving up life to prevent. Any line drawn as absolute will be arbitrary. By acknowledging that Mordekhai was right to draw such a line, the Jews specifically accept the legitimacy and authority of Oral Torah.

At the same time, the megillah is careful to note that a minority of Jews still contended that Mordekhai drew the line too early or too late. I suggest that this point is included to emphasize that the Jews also properly accept responsibility for the content of Oral Torah, and that unanimity, and especially the attempt to impose unanimity, are perversions rather than fulfillment of the obligations the Jewish people reaffirmed on Purim.

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