Monthly Archives: April 2015

Religious and Natural Law

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Jonathan Mansfield

The first of this week’s parshiyot, Acharei Mot contains God’s prohibitions on illicit sexual behavior. This chapter has come up frequently in discussions, where I live in Washington DC, as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments about same-sex marriage this week.

These laws on sexual behaviors are introduced with an interesting phraseology.

   4-5:ויקרא פרשת אחרי מות פרק יח

‘את משפטי תעשו ואת חקתי תשמרו ללכת בהם אני ה’ אלקיכם. ושמרתם את חקתי ואת משפטי אשר יעשה אתם האדם וחי בהם אני ה

 Leviticus 18:4-5

My judgments you shall do and my laws you shall guard, to walk therein, I am the Lord, your God. And you shall guard my laws and judgments, which a man shall do, and he shall live by them, I am the Lord.

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in his commentary on the bible, the Meshech Chochmah ( משך חכמה )  picks up the strange redundancy here, that we are told twice about משפט (mishpat) and חוק (chok), but in the first case we need to “do” the משפט (mishpat)  first and then “guard” the חוק (chok) afterward, whereas in the second case we need to “guard” both the חוק (chok) and then משפט (mishpat).

Rabbi Meir Simcha explains that the key to understanding this redundancy is understanding that, in the first case, God is addressing the Jewish people as a whole, collectively. In the second case, He is speaking to each of us as individuals.

משך חכמה

הביאור כך: דהאומה בכללה תכליתה שיתנהגו על פי דרכי התורה וה’ יהיה אלקיהם, כי אין ה’ מיחד את שמו על הפרטי, כי הפרטי בלא צירוף כללי אינו תכליתי כלל. והנה האומה בכללה נקל אצלה להיות נזהר בחוקים – המה דברים הדתיים – מלהיות נזהר במשפטים – המה הנימוסיים והמשטר, חוקות הקבועים בשכל ובהנהגה הנכונה. וכשלונה של ירושלים יוכיח, שהוכיחן הנביא (ישעיה א, יב): “מי ביקש זאת מידכם רמוס חצרי וכו’ ועתה מרצחים. כספך היה לסיגים וכו'”, הרי בחוקים היו נזהרים ומקיימים כל מצוות הדתיות, רק במשפטים היו סוררים

 Meshech Chochmah

Behold!  It is easier for the Nation as a whole to be careful with the חוקים (chukim) – the ecclesiastical matters – than it is to be careful with the משפטים  (mishpatim) the ethical norms and rules, laws that are established by logic and proper behavior.

The Meshech Chochmah brings proof from the verses in Yeshayahu:

ישעיה א

יב כִּי תָבֹאוּ, לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי–מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם, רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי  … כא אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה, קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה; מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט, צֶדֶק יָלִין בָּהּ–וְעַתָּה מְרַצְּחִים.  כב כַּסְפֵּךְ, הָיָה לְסִיגִים; סָבְאֵךְ, מָהוּל בַּמָּיִם

Isaiah 1

12 When you come to appear before Me – Who asked you to tread my courtyard (in Beit HaMikdash)?…. 21 How you have changed to a city of harlot, from a city of justice…to one of killers. 22 Your silver exchanged for tin and diluted wine with water.

The Prophet Isaiah is protesting; he says there is no point to fulfilling the religious laws when they act as killers and thieves.

In other words, it is easy for a group to follow religious rules, but it is difficult for a group to be moral. It is only when we are in a group that we feel jealousy, competition, desires for power and control. If we were all alone, we wouldn’t have those temptations. That is why when we are addressed collectively, the priority is given first to the moral behavior, משפטי תעשו .

However, the Meshech Chochmah emphasizes that the opposite is true for the individual, where morality comes naturally, everyone inherently understands some concept of the Golden Rule, but religious rules are less natural.

משך חכמה

.. אולם יחיד הפרטי לו לבדו נקל להיות זהיר במשפטים – שמשיגים מצד השכל ומצד הנימוס – וכמו (שבת לא, א) “כל מה דסני לך לחברך לא תעביד”, עד כי קראו בירושלמי (קידושין א, ז) מצות כיבוד אב ואם מצוה קלה, מפני שהיא מושגת מצד השכל הישר בלא ציווי דתי. ואמרו עליה (ירושלמי שם) שהיא כפריעת חוב…בזה הכתובים מאירים, שמתחילה מדבר על כלליות האומה, ולכן אמר “את משפטי תעשו” [שזה צריך להזהיר קודם אצל הכל, שבזה יפרצו תחילה] “ואת חוקותי תשמרו” [שבזה יעשו סייגים וגדרים] “ללכת בהם” – להתקיים בהם – “אני ה’ אלקיכם”. ואחר זה הזהיר הפרטי: “ושמרתם את חוקותי” [שזה נגד השכל וצריך להזהירו קודם] “ואת משפטי” – שבשניהם יעשה סייגים – “אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם” – שיקנה חיי עלמא, שיפה קורת רוח בעולם הבא יותר מכל חיי העולם הזה (אבות ד, יז). מה שאין כן בהכלל, התכלית באומה בעולם הזה, כאשר האריכו הקדמונים

As a community, we must emphasize moral behavior in the here and now, we must be this-world focused and concentrate on justice in our world today. Only after we establish a foundation of moral behavior can we add on religious stringencies. We don’t have the luxury of applying religious stringencies on a group that is morally lacking. But for the individual, for whom morality comes naturally, he does not require the same emphasis on matters of justice before realizing his religious obligations, and he has the privilege of being strict with himself, on an individual level, in both parts of his life.

Jonathan Mansfield (SBM 03) is a Business Process Improvement specialist at the Office of Comptroller of Currency (OCC).  When not traveling, he lives in Foggy Bottom, Washington, DC, around the corner from the Lincoln Memorial.

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Minding the Mashal-Nimshal Gap

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Parables (meshalim) are intended to make ideas or situations more comprehensible by analogizing them to ideas or situations we already understand. They are particularly popular in the realm of religion because G-d is beyond human comprehension, and so we are forever tying more and more rope-lengths together in the hope that our bucket will finally reach the water in the well.

The problem is that the mashal is often culturally bounded, and as it obsolesces, Torah becomes stranded in the past and the mashal replaces the nimshal as an object of study; it no longer points beyond itself. We spend our time seeking to explain the mashal rather than seeking to understand G-d. Or worse, we seek to stuff our experience of G-d into the straitjacket of an obsolete parable.

So when G-d is compared to a ruler with arbitrary power over life and death, we end up questioning His justice rather than understanding it. And when G-d is compared to a teacher with psychologically unsound techniques, we end up questioning His pedagogy. Is it our fault that we don’t learn, or His?

And yet, should we conclude easily that a text of the Tradition no longer has anything to teach us? Here is an example of such a parable, from Chatam Sofer in Chut HaMeshulash (available here):

The truth serves as a parable:

In the city of my birth, Frankfurt-on-Main, there was a teacher of children who did his work – the work of Heaven – superbly. He did not discipline his students with a strap, rather he would terrify them by threatening to throw himself from a window or hang himself by a string, so that the children would be scared and promise him to obey and learn.

Until one time, a corrupt but clever boy, when this teacher was threatening to throw himself from a window, stood up and said: “if you fall, won’t we get out free from school?!”

So too when The Holy Blessed One in His mercy has pity on us, seeking not to impose on us “a king with decrees as harsh as Haman’s” as the necessary antecedent of repentance and redemption, He as-if-it-were-possible seeks to terrify us with the prospect of the fall of His glory – if you look away slightly, in the end the Name of Heaven will be greatly desecrated…

So too – Hashem seeks to discipline us by warning us that our sins cause the desecration of His Name, and the removal of His attention from us. But when we respond by celebrating our new freedom, He is compelled to punish us directly and severely.

This analogy does not at first glance make G-d more comprehensible to me. I would argue, rather, that the teacher’s technique was risky in the first place; should children genuinely believe that they have that kind of psychological power over teachers (granted that they often do)? Is their learning in the end properly motivated?

At the same time, as Jeff Spitzer taught me, there is almost always a gap between the mashal and the nimshal. To properly understand a parable, we have to figure out what about the nimshal it does not fully correspond with, because that is what the composer of the mashal thought required explanation. Likely it still requires explanation.

In its original time and context, our parable is first and foremost a reading of Vayikra 20:1-4:

Hashem spoke to Mosheh saying:

To the Children of Israel you must say as follows:

Each and every man from the Children of Israel, or from the converts among Israel, who gives of his offspring to the Molekh, he must die, yes die – the people of the land will stone him with rocks.

And I will turn My face against that man and excise him from amidst his people because he gave of his offspring to the Molekh thereby defiling My sanctuary and desecrating My Holy Name.

But if the people of the land avert, yes avert their eyes from that man when he gives of his offspring to the Molekh. so as not to kill him, then I will place My face against that man and his clan – I will excise him and all those who stray after him to stray after the Molekh from amidst their nation.

The textual anomaly the mashal explains is that the rationale “thereby defiling My sanctuary and desecrating My Holy Name” appears only in the first section, where the Jews respond to Molekh-worship among them by extirpating it. It does not appear in the second section, in which the Jews avert their eyes from such worship, even though G-d’s reaction there is broader.

The mashal explains that in the first section G-d seeks to inspire the Jews to act out of regard for Him, rather than out of fear, while in the second section He has abandoned hope that they will respond to anything other than the rod.

But the gap is clear. In the mashal, the teacher threatens to cause himself harm. The teacher accordingly makes the choice to cease threatening self-harm and discipline the students instead. But does G-d have a choice as to whether His name is profaned by our sins, or is that profanation the inevitable consequence of our sins?

The available alternate explanation seems even stranger, however. Why would there be less desecration of G-d’s name if the people ignore the sin?

This Biblical passage contains two infinitive absolutes: “die, surely die,” and “avert, surely avert.” These emphatics are parallel, perhaps meaning that this is no occasion for the usual attempts to prevent the death penalty via technicalities, as any failure to punish will be treated as condoning the crime. But the Rabbis read the second sequentially, as saying that one aversion leads to another.

Among the more interesting slippery slopes proposed (Sifra Kedoshim 10:11) is:

If a lesser Sanhedrin averts its eyes from a crime,

eventually the Great Sanhedrin will avert their eyes, and capital jurisdiction will be taken from them

This likely relates to the puzzling claim (Avodah Zarah 8b) that forty years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin left the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple so as to avoid judging murderers, because “they saw there were so many murderers that they could not judge them, so they said that it was better to go into exile so that they would not be convicted.” Rav Aharon Soloveitchik zt”l explained that when the death penalty is no longer an effective deterrent, applying it, at least to non-Jews, is nothing other than judicial murder.  The question he posed is whether the death penalty can be an effective deterrent without dropping vital procedural safeguards, and if not, whether deterrence is worth the inevitable executions of the innocent. This question remains crucial to US-constitutional jurisprudence on the issue.

My preferred slippery slope is that proposed by the 17th century Sifra commentary Korban Aharon (available here), cited later by Chofetz Chaim in his own Sifra Commentary:

Once you have not admonished them about one thing,

you will find yourself unable to admonish them about other things.

Perhaps we have here an earlier version of the “broken windows” theory of policing, which argues that criminals are emboldened when they see “quality of life” crimes go unpunished. But I read the text as focused on the psychology of the courts, not the criminals.

Perhaps the proper understanding is this: When we fail to protest a small crime, we become complicit in it; and so protesting a larger version of that crime feels like self-indictment, or hypocrisy, and furthermore we fear that we may ourselves be swept up if it turns out that such crimes matter after all.

Such cover-ups generally fail eventually, and thus lead almost inevitably to massive desecrations of G-d’s Name. But ironically, we often justify them initially as an attempt to avoid that desecration.

Perhaps this is a better explanation of the anomaly that generated our parable. The reminder that sin is a desecration of G-d’s Name works only at the outset, to prevent the first level of complicity. Once that has been breached, once we have looked away, our calculus is so distorted that this reminder can no longer serve a deterrent purpose, even as the true consequences worsen.

Sometimes you really do have to sweat the small stuff, even if it means paying sales tax.

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Keeping Your Sins Up Your Sleeve

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Jesse Abelman

Tsaraat, leprosy, occupies a problematic place in our tradition.  It, along with a host of other negaim, plagues, that can appear either on the human body or on inanimate objects such as buildings or textiles, are a cause of impurity which can only be purged through sacrifice and immersion in a mikvah.  Unique among the causes of impurity, these plagues require the one stricken to leave the community for a designated amount of time before returning to take part in the purgation ritual.  Hazal uniformly agree that tsaraat is a punishment for slander, exemplified by R. Yochanan b. Zakai’s statement to that effect in Arachin 15b, though there are many more examples.  The value judgment imposed on metsoraim, those afflicted by tsaraat, by this opinion is remarkable.  As Nehama Leibowitz pointed out with typical clarity and succinctness in her fourth essay on Parashat Tazria, “the Torah does not identify the terms ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ with the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ or ‘saint’ and ‘sinner.’”  A mother is not in any sense wicked for giving birth, though she is impure afterward and the impurity must be purged.  There is no judgment cast against a person who comes in contact with the dead, though touching a corpse causes impurity.  Yet, in the case of tsaraat, we are asked to believe that it only afflicts the wicked, in particular slanderers.

The Haftara for Tazria cuts against Hazal‘s reading.  We are told about Naaman, the general of Aram, that G-d had granted him victory.  He was also a leper.  Naaman approaches  the prophet Elisha to be cured of his leprosy, and after a simple bath in the Jordan is cured, miraculously.  The point of this  story is to show G-d’s power to cure disease.  No rationale is provided for his leprosy, and no repentance for sin is required for its cure.

Modern Bible scholarship is also reluctant to see Tsaraat as fundamentally different from other causes of impurity.  Jacob Milgrom in his commentary on Leviticus argues that the overarching theme of the biblical impurity system is death.  Everything that causes impurity has some relationship to death.  Tsaraat causes the afflicted to have the appearance of a corpse, wasting away with his flesh coming off his body.   This links it to corpses, which cause impurity.  The loss of blood in menstruation and childbirth (paradoxically), as well as the emission of semen are the loss of lifeforce, which itself is a small step on the way to death.  However, even Milgrom acknowledges that the Torah often does see tsaraat as a punishment, in particular in the case of Miriam, Moses’ sister who spoke against him.  So we are left with the question:  What is unique about Tsaraat?  Why does it hold this particular place in our system of purity, that it alone is given to the sinner, to the person who speaks against another?  Why is it associated with, if not evil, then at least venality, when everything tells us it should not be.

John Updike, writing about his struggles with the skin condition psoriasis (a condition that, in the interests of full disclosure, I will note that I share) in his essay “At War with my Skin,” speaks about the intense shame that he associated with revealing his scabbed patches of afflicted skin.  The white flakes, the shedding, the unsightly red patches, they combined to create a distinct shame he felt he could not share with the world.  As a child, he did not go swimming out of embarrassment.  When he encountered his college swimming instructor thirty years later he writes that he “could scarcely manage politeness, his face so sharply brought back that old suppressed rich mix of chlorine and fear and brave grasping and naked, naked shame.”  The memory of that exposure still traumatized him, decades later.

Updike’s shame reveals a key element of the human condition.  He did not want to expose his unsightly skin to the world, but, as he writes, the world seemed relatively indifferent to it.  Children did not mock him as a child;  women did not seem to find him less attractive as an adult.  Though his condition was obvious to others when he rolled up his sleeves, the only person it made a difference to was himself.  This, I believe, is the secret of tsaraat, the key to its unique status in the purity system.  The metsora is banished from the community before he can be purged of his impurity, the impurity he contracted through his sin.  Tsaraat externalizes the sin, laying it bare for all the world to see, showing everybody that he is, however temporarily, an outsider.  But, ironically, as obvious as it is, others are indifferent to it.  They may notice the tsaraat, but they have no interest in creating shame.  The shame experienced is internal, the exile self imposed.  This is the power of tzaraat as punishment.  God punishes us, by having us punish ourselves.

Rabbi Jesse Abelman (SBM 2009) is working towards a Ph.D in Medieval Jewish History at Yeshiva University and teaches at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.

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Bearing the Weight of a Complex World

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

One of the first times I had the zekhut to learn Torah from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l—I believe on a Friday night in YU—his base text was Avot 1:2:

The world stands on three things: Torah, avodah, and gemilut chassadim.

In his endlessly imitable style, Rav Aharon asked:

  1. whether the world falls if any of these three is lacking, or only if all three are lacking; and
  2. if all three are necessary, is it because of their interaction, or rather because each has a wholly independent task?

Those deeply familiar with his methodology know that, given the opportunity for a comprehensive shiur, Rav Aharon would surely have considered as well the possibility that any two of three would be sufficient, or perhaps even one plus more than half of another. This might—here I say might—in turn have led him to ask whether or how one might evaluate quantitatively the extent to which these pillars exist in our world.

I want to ask instead: What precisely would happen were the world no longer to stand? Would we know it had fallen, or remain unaware until a stray hint of G-d’s Presence sent us scrambling to hide, overwhelmed by shame?

Keeping that question in mind, let us move to (my radical oversimplification of) an article by Rav Lichtenstein, found in Minchat Aviv that is relevant to this week’s parashah. (My thanks to the ever-wonderful Dov Weinstein for the sefer.)

In Vayikra 15:4 we read that anything that a zav (male with genital emissions) lies on becomes tamei. Mishnah zavim 4:7 records a dispute regarding a case in which a zav sits on a four-legged bed, with each leg resting on a garment. The anonymous initial position holds that all four tallitot become tamei, since the bed cannot stand on only three legs. Rabbi Shimon holds that none of the tallitot become tamei.

What is Rabbi Shimon’s logic?

Rambam suggests that Rabbi Shimon regards each of the tallitot as bearing only one quarter of the zav’s weight, whereas bearing a majority of a zav’s weight is necessary for them to become tamei.

Rambam thus assimilates this case to Rabbi Shimon’s explicit logic in a dispute in the previous mishnah. The case there is as follows: If a zav is in one palm of a scale, and multiple objects in the other, such that they collectively outweigh the zav even though individually each of them is lighter, the objects do not become tamei, since “no one of them is lifting the majority of his weight.”

Rashi uses a different analogy, drawn from the laws of Shabbat, to explain Rabbi Shimon’s position in 4:7. According to a beraita (Talmud Shabbat 92b), if an object too heavy to be carried by one person is carried by two people (from inside to outside or vice versa), Rabbi Shimon holds that neither is liable. Here too, the zav is being lifted by multiple objects, none of which is capable of lifting him independently, and so neither becomes tamei.

Rambam’s model seems superior for four reasons:

First, his analogy is drawn from within the field of tum’ah vetaharah, whose rules are often not generalizable to other halakhic fields.

Second, in the Shabbat case Rabbi Shimon exempts a carrier who bears 99% of the object’s weight, so long as s/he could not bear 100%, but as Rambam notes, in Mishnah zavim 4:5 Rabbi Shimon explicitly makes “majority” a relevant factor. (I do not see this point in Rav Lichtenstein, so perhaps it is mistaken.)

Third, the Talmud explicitly states that the rule regarding Shabbat is based on a Biblical verse that applies only to the transgression of negative commandments whose accidental violation compels the bringing of a sacrifice; it cannot be generalized to cases of tum’ah vetaharah.

Fourth, the rule in Shabbat relates to the responsibility of persons, whereas the rule regarding zav relates to inanimate objects.

So why did Rashi not adopt Rambam’s approach?

The simplest answer is that Rashi thought Rambam’s approach begged the question. Saying that Rabbi Shimon’ position in 4:7 depends on his position in 4:5 leaves us to ask: Why does Rabbi Shimon think all the tallitot remain tehorot in 4:5? Rashi’s answer is that he presumably derives this from Shabbat.

But how can rules of tum’ah vetaharah be derived from a verse that relates only to prohibitions? Rashi understands the verse as recording a halakhic outcome that depends on an abstract “prehalakhic” point, namely that an action with multiple necessary immediate causes is considered to be caused by none of them rather than by each of them. This naturally leads to Rabbi Shimon’s positions regarding the zav, and the verse comes to prevent us from thinking that we should not apply the same principle when we are dealing with human responsibility.

Those who disagree with Rabbi Shimon, if they disagree regarding both Shabbat and zav, hold that an action with multiple necessary immediate causes is caused by each of them. If they disagree regarding zav only, they believe that the rules for human responsibility are not the same as those for causality per se.

So why isn’t Rambam begging the question, or: from where does Rambam derive for Rabbi Shimon a principle that applies specifically to tum’ah vetaharah?

This requires us to investigate on what basis Rabbi Shimon introduces the category of “majority.” It turns out that we can ask the following question, is tum’ah created in an object by:

  1. the condition of supporting the weight of a zav, or rather by
  2. the action of a zav in putting his weight on something?

 Put differently, is tum’ah the result of:

  1. being a zav’s mishkav, or
  2. having been sat on by a zav?

If the relevant factor is “sat on by a zav,” the parallel to Shabbat works, because in both contexts we are discussing the character of an action.

But if the relevant category is “a zav’s seat,” the parallel breaks down. The violation of carrying on Shabbat clearly inheres in the human action of carrying the object, not in the object becoming something that has been carried by a human.

Now perhaps we can say that an object can be defined as “the seat of a zav” only if most of a zav sat on it. But if the question is whether it was “sat on by a zav,” the answer is yes if any part of a zav sat on it .

I suggest that we can apply the same analytic framework to our Mishnah from Avot.

Must the world be defined as “resting on Torah, avodah, and gemilut chassadim” in order to stand? In that case, each of these three pillars must relate to at least a majority of the world. Or is it enough for the world simply to rest on those three pillars, in which case each can support its own third of the world with no participation from the others?

Put differently, is the religion necessary for the world’s continued existence:

  1. a simple unity (like G-d), or rather
  2. a complex unity (like the human being)?

In our own day, there is a growing socio-religious gap between the realms of profoundly rigorous study of Torah, spirituality (avodah), and the aspiration for social justice (gemilut chasadim). Perhaps Judaism, medinat Yisrael, and the world can survive this trifurcation, as they certainly cannot survive if any of these three disappear. Perhaps complex unity is sufficient.

But Rav Aharon Lichtenstein modelled and created for us the gold, the vision, and the dream of a fully integrated religious life, in which Torah, avodah, and gemilut chasadim could never be pried apart.

Perhaps that simple unity never was a viable religious aspiration for everyone. But I suggest that the world requires the possibility of such unity to survive, or at least the genuine world of Torah. If that world yet stands, it is and will be in his merit. זכר צדיק לברכה

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Meaning in the Microscopic

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The principle that Halakhah ignores the microscopic is well-entrenched in the Orthodox mind. We have some debate about the tiny lobsters (cephalopods) that populate urban reservoirs and give NYC drinking water its pleasing if sub-audial crunch, but only because the largest of them can, under the right circumstances, be seen by the naked eye. But in a different kashrut context, most halakhists for at least 800 years have vehemently denied this principle and insisted on the relevance of the microscopic and even the infinitesimal.

I don’t as yet have a compelling resolution for this contradiction, or even a plausible articulation of what is/was at stake philosophically or practically. But developing such resolutions and articulations seems to me desirable and might be important, so I ask your indulgence for a presentation of the evidence, and look forward to suggestions and critiques.

The last two verses of Parashat Shemini read:

זאת תורת הבהמה והעוף

וכל נפש החיה הרמשת במים

ולכל נפש השרצת על הארץ להבדיל

בין הטמא ובין הטהר

ובין החיה הנאכלת ובין החיה אשר לא תאכל

This is the instruction-set for domestic animals and birds

and for every living creature that creeps in the water

and for every creature that swarms on the land to distinguish

between the tamei and tahor and between the living which is eaten and the living which must not be eaten

Rashi comments:

— “להבדיל”

לא בלבד השונה

אלא שתהא יודע ומכיר ובקי בהן

“בין הטמא ובין הטהר”

צריך לומר בין חמור לפרה והלא כבר מפורשים הם

אלא בין טמאה לך לטהורה לך

בין נשחט חציו של קנה לנשחט רובו

“To distinguish” –

not merely to study the verbal formula

but that you should know and recognize and be expert in them.

“between the tamei and tahor”

does it need to say this regarding donkeys and cows? They are already (distinguished) explicitly!? Rather it means between those which are tamei to you and those which are tahor to you,

between those which had half the windpipe cut and those which had most of the windpipe cut

Ramban cites Rashi and then seems compelled to warn sternly against a possible misinterpretation of Rashi’s source, which Rashi himself did not cite:

(וקתני התם (פרק יב ז

וכמה הוא בין רובו לחציו, כמלא שערה

(ולא תחוש בזה ממה שאמרו בגמרא (חולין כט א

רוב הנראה לעינים בעינן

שאין פירושו אלא להוציא מדברי האומר מחצה על מחצה כרוב

ולכך אמרו דבעי שיהא השחוט רוב ממש כדי שיראה לעינים

לא המחצה שנחשוב אותו בלבנו ונאמר רוב הוא השחוט

מאחר שאין במה שלא נשחט יותר ממנו

אבל כל שישחטו ממנו יותר מן החצי כשר הוא

ואפילו כמלא חוט השערה

כדמפורש בזו הברייתא

ואף בגמרא כך הוא עולה

It says further (in the Midrash Halakhah):

How much is the difference between half and most? The width of a hair.

Do not be concerned here about the Talmud’s statement (Chullin 29a)

“we require a majority which is visible to the eye,”

as that only means to exclude the position that an exact half counts as a majority.

That’s why they say that we require an actual majority that is visible to the eye,

not a half that we consider in our minds and say that most of it was cut

since the part which was not cut is no greater than it.

But so long as they cut more than half of it is kosher,

even if it is only more by the width of a hair,

as is explicit in that beraita and the Talmud works out that way as well.

Why is Ramban so concerned about this misinterpretation? Likely key is his admission that while the beraita is explicit that the difference between half and majority is a hairsbreadth, the Talmud’s language suggests that the difference be visible, and must be massaged to mean otherwise. Moreover, Rashi on the Talmud seems to be trying to preemptively exclude Ramban:

“רוב הנראה לעינים”

כלומר רוב גמור שהוא ניכר

“a majority which is visible to the eye” –

Meaning, an absolute majority which is recognizable.

Ramban on the Talmud is hypersensitive to this issue as well, and insists that neither Rashi nor Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi (RIF) could have meant otherwise.

והא דאסיקנא בשחיטה דבעינן רוב הנראה לעינים

פירש”י ז”ל שיהא רוב גמור וניכר

פי’ לפירושו לאפוקי מחצה על מחצה שאינו כרוב

שכל שהוא יותר ממחצה נראה לעינים הוא

ואין פירושו כענין שאמרו בברכות (מ”ח א’) רובא דמינכר בעינן

שהוא רוב גדול שניכר מרחוק…

ולא היה צריך רבינו הגדול ז”ל לכתוב בהלכות ודוקא רוב הנראה לעינים

[דהא תנן: חצי אחד בעוף ואחד וחצי בבהמה [שחיטתו פסולה

אבל נראה שהוא מסכים לפי’ שכתבנו ואין בו בית מיחוש

That which we conclude that regarding shechitah we require a majority visible to the eye,

Rashi explains that it means a majority that is absolute and recognizable

The explanation of his explanation is (that he means) to exclude half/half, which is not considered a majority,

as anything more than half is visible to the eye

and it does not mean something like Berakhot’s “we require a recognizable majority,” which means a majority that can be recognized from a distance . . .

and RIF did not need to write “and specifically a majority that is visible to the eye,”

as the Mishnah teaches that: “(if he cut) half of one (of the trachea and esophagus), in birds and animals, his shechitah is invalid,”

but it seems that he agrees with what we have written and there is no basis for concern about this.

Now Chullin 29a is discussing a dispute between Rav and Shmuel as to whether half counts as a majority. The issue for us is whether the category half/half extends to cases which are visually indistinguishable, or not. The Talmud says that Shmuel’s position that half is insufficient requires a visible majority, which on its surface means that an invisible majority counts only as half. RIF goes out of his way to emphasize that a majority means “specifically a visible majority” and Rashi adds his own adjectives: “absolute and recognizable.” Rashi’s use of “recognizable” is likely a reference to Berakhot, which requires a majority of seven to be obligated for a minyan to be valid, rather than six. Ramban nonetheless insists that everyone agrees that even an infinitesimal difference between halves makes the larger section the halakhic majority.

What motivates Ramban? His proofs for his position are: (1) the language “majority visible to the eye” is also the criteria for determining whether an animal can still be slaughtered if its windpipe has already been cut; and (2) the midrash halakhah asserts that the difference between half and majority is a hairsbreadth. But on examination, both proofs are circular. Regarding (1), why is it obvious that an animal which has most of its windpipe cut is a treifah, so long as the majority is not recognizable? And (2): the boundary has to fall somewhere; wherever it falls, only a hairsbreadth will divide the two sides.

Nonetheless, Ramban’s position and interpretation become, so far as I can tell, completely normative in the medieval period. The next suggestion that anyone ever held a contrary position is in the 16th century, when Maharshal to Chullin records the following:

ובמקצת הל’ שחיטה כתוב

בעינן רוב הנראה לעינים אבל לא רוב במדידה

וליתא. ובישינות כ’ ז”ל

בעינן רוב כשיעור, אבל לא המשוער בלב

Some versions of (a standard medieval) Laws of Slaughter have written:

“we require a majority visible to the eye, not merely a measurable majority.” But this is not so

and in the ?older versions? it is written

“we require a majority by quantity, not one which is merely estimated”

Note that Maharshal, like Ramban, not only disagrees with this position but denies its existence, attributing it to scribal error.

I eagerly await your suggestions as to why this issue seemed so vital to Ramban and Maharshal, and your reconciliations of this Halakhah with our disregard of the microscopic in other contexts.

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Shabbat Shalom!


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A Consuming G-d

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Eliav Grossman

The story of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu recalls another biblical tale, the episode of Noah’s drunkenness (Gen 9:19-29). Details common to both stories include:

1) Nadav and Avihu enter a “tent” (אהל מועד) in which their presence is unwanted; Ham inappropriately enters Noah’s tent (ויתגל בתוך אהלה) when his father is exposed.

2) Nadav and Avihu seem to violate the sacred boundaries of G-d’s domain; Ham intrudes on his father’s privacy.

3) Nadav and Avihu’s corpses are removed by their relatives, who carry them out in garments (בכתנתם); Ham’s actions lead his brothers to cover Noah’s exposed body with a garment (שמלה).

The Torah does not explicitly state the Nadav and Avihu were drunk when they entered the Tent.  However, immediately following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, G-d forbids Aaron and his sons from drinking alcohol. A midrash argues that this prohibition implies that Nadav and Avihu had consumed wine, and that this was the cause of their death.

This midrash suggests an additional thematic parallel between the two stories.

The prohibition for priests to drink alcohol concludes with a directive encompassing the general task of the priest:

ולהבדיל בין הקדש ובין החל ובין הטמא ובין הטהור

to distinguish between sacred and profane, pure and impure.

Noah’s incident of intoxication begins:

ויחל נח איש האדמה ויטע כרם

Conventionally this means that Noah began (ויחל) to work the land and planted a vineyard, but the rabbis offer another reading (Gen. Rab. 36:20):

נתחלל ונעשה חולין

he [Noah] degraded himself and became profane.

Thus, for both Noah and Nadav and Avihu, wine leads to behavior that crosses the boundary of profanity.

I suggest one further parallel between the two stories.

Noah’s night of inebriation is preceded (in the same chapter) by G-d’s granting him the allowance to eat animal meat (Gen 9:2-4), and the prohibition to consume the animal’s blood.[1] In Parashat Shemini, the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are followed (in the next chapter) by lists of kosher animals and the physical traits that characterize them.

We thus have two stories in which characters are “profaned” and sacred boundaries are trespassed after wine-drinking, with such boundary-violation textually proximal to restrictions on the consumption of animal meat. Briefly, I would like to suggest a possible explanation for the relationship between consumption and inappropriate intimacy with G-d.[2]

Jacques Derrida says:

Eating G-d’s words constitutes a parallel to the Holy Sacrament–here too, a divine transubstantiation takes place. And that has left its mark on modern hermeneutics, which of course has its roots in biblical interpretation…hermeneutics is, after all, precisely about assimilating that which is foreign. What is radically alien in the other doesn’t have a chance–it will be digested, melted down in the great tradition, wolfed down mercilessly.[3]

Eating involves integrating a foreign item into the body such that the item is no longer foreign. According to Derrida, eating can also characterize the interpretation of a divine (or any) text. The text is initially foreign and unknown. Interpreting the text involves making the text intelligible and ascribing it a meaning that its interpreter can understand.

Maybe Nadav and Avihu demonstrate the limits of Derrida’s metaphor. Eating as a mode of knowing the Other must not hold true for knowing G-d of the Torah (though Derrida obviously uses Christian imagery, the point holds here as well). Nadav and Avihu’s entrance to the אוהל מועד is an attempt at intimacy with the “radically alien” G-d. In Derrida’s words, they try to assimilate that which is ultimately foreign and transcendent (G-d) into a framework of familiarity and intelligibility. But they cannot; their offering remains an אש זרה, a “foreign item.” G-d will not allow divine Otherness to be wholly erased; there must remain something foreign and transcendent.

Nadav and Avihu’s attempt to familiarize the foreign G-d is motivated (according to the midrash) by excessive wine-consumption and is followed by restrictions on meat-consumption. The limits of the human relationship with G-d, our Parasha tells us, can be expressed well through a metaphor of restricted eating. G-d resists being “melted down” such that there is no longer anything “radically alien” to divinity. Not everything is food; likewise, G-d cannot be “digested” in a relation of immediacy.

[1] And see Lev. Rab. 12:1, which links wine and blood in the context of our Parasha:

יין ושכר אל תשת. הדא הוא דכתיב (משלי כג, לא): “אל תרא יין כי יתאדם” – מהו “כי יתאדם”? כי יתאוה לדם נדה ולדם זבה.”כי יתן בכוס עינו” — בכיס כתיב, לשון נקי הוא כדכתיב (שם א, יד) “כיס אחד יהיה לכלנו” (שם כג, לא) “יתהלך במישרים” — סוף שאשתו אומרת לו כשושנה אדמה ראיתי ואינו פורש.  אמר רבי אסי אם תלמיד חכם הוא סוף שמטמא את הטהור ומטהר את הטמ

I am almost certain that this midrash is poking fun at the Christian eucharist. It speaks of wine “becoming” blood (i.e. drinking wine leads to forbidden sexual activity with a menstruant), but satirizes this transformation, as the “cup” of wine (or, the chalice which holds the eucharist) is actually a symbol of female genitalia.

[2] This explanation addresses the meaning of the story of Nadav and Avihu. A similar explanation can be adapted for the Noah episode, but this is not the place for it.

[3] Jacques Derrida, “An Interview with Jacques Derrida on the Limits of Digestion.”

Eliav Grossman (SBM 2013)  is a junior at Columbia College majoring in Religion and Philosophy. 

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Pesach KiGerim

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Many elements of Torah have as either their purpose or their rationale the commemoration of the Exodus. Only six verses, however, focus not on the Exodus but rather on our pre-Exodus experience in Egypt. My thesis is that while the Torah is not in chronological order, it is in literary order, and that reading the first three consecutively generates a clear moral and psychological progression. The fourth and fifth at first glance seem anomalous, but I hope that by essay’s end they will seem to fit seamlessly into the same pattern.

Here are the first two:

Exodus 22:20

וגר לא תונה ולא תלחצנו כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים

Do not oppress or torment the ger, for you were gerim in the land of Mitzrayim.

Exodus 23:9

וגר לא תלחץ

ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים

Do not torment the ger,

for you know the soul of the ger, for you were gerim in the land of Mitzrayim

The first verse makes an abstract intellectual argument: what was hateful to you, do not do to someone else. The second verse, however, appeals to empathy: you know not only your own experience, but that of the ger whom you are commanded not to torment.

Leviticus 19:33-4

וכי יגור אתך גר בארצכם לא תונו אותו

כאזרח מכם יהיה לכם הגר הגר אתכם

ואהבת לו כמוך

כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים; אני ה’ א-להיכם

Should a ger be among you, do not torment him.

Rather, the ger among you must be treated just like a citizen,

and you must love him as yourself,

for you were gerim in the land of Mitzrayim. I am Hashem your G-d.

The third verse moves from empathy to identification, and commands positive love rather than avoidance of harm. I suggest that identification is the stage following empathy, and the verse states explicitly that the intent of the command is to erase the otherness of the ger. One must love the ger as oneself, just as one must love one’s רע as oneself.

At this point we move into Sefer Devarim, and the fourth verse can be seen as harvesting the summing up the progression of the first three:

Deuteronomy 10:19

ואהבתם את הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים

You must love the ger, for you were gerim in the land of Mitzrayim

Whereas initially the appeal to our experience could generate only avoidance of harm, now it generates love.

The assumption I have made throughout is that our experience of gerut was one of oppression, and that we progress from awareness that no one should be treated as we were to imagining and enacting to others how we would have wanted the Egyptians to behave toward us. This assumption is completely upended, even falsified, by the fifth verse:

Deuteronomy 23:8

לא תתעב אדמי כי אחיך הוא

לא תתעב מצרי כי גר היית בארצו

Do not abominate the Edomite, for he is your brother;

do not abominate the Mitzri, for you were a ger in his land.

Here the experience of Egypt seems to be recalled as positive; it generates an obligation to treat Egyptians as relatives rather than as strangers.

It is possible that we have simply been misreading all along. Perhaps our obligations toward gerim are modelled on the Egyptians’ initial welcoming of the Jews, rather than on contrast with our eventual enslavement. Now that we have read Devarim 23:8, I think that possibility cannot be dismissed.

But I also think that our assumption was warranted by the context of the first two verses. In the immediate aftermath of the Exodus, it would be unreasonable for anyone to expect the phrase “for you were gerim in Egypt” to carry a warm and fuzzy connotation. So we must be expected to understand it that way initially. In light of Devarim 23:8, we will go back and reread, but we cannot understand Devarim 23:8 until we have (mis)read the previous four instances.

How is this? Most theories of ethics ground themselves in sameness; I have obligations toward you because you are like me, and only insofar as you are like me. It is because you suffer as I suffer that I must not torment you; it is because we each flourish when loved that we are obligated to love each other as we love ourselves. If you are different than I, how can I know that you don’t valorize the experience of oppression, or see love as the enemy of reason?

The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas took a fundamentally opposite approach. Ethics should be grounded in difference, he argued, not in sameness. To the extent that we are the same, we are replaceable; our infinite value is a product of our uniqueness.

The Torah’s literary progression suggests a hybrid approach; Levinas is ultimately correct, but Levinasian ethics can best or only be reached by passing through sameness ethics. One can imagine a fully hybrid ethic grounded in the Rabbinic statement that the tzelem/mold of G-d, from which he casts all humanity, differs from every other tzelem in that each sculpture emerges unique. Ex uno, plura.

We can now notice that the verse in Deueronomy differs from its predecessors in one other way; it is written in the singular rather than the plural. Why is this?

I suggest that this verse is intended to refer directly back to the foreshadowing of the Egyptian Exile in the Covenant Between the Pieces, where the use of the singular was also unexpected.

Genesis 15:13

ויאמר לאברם

ידע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם

ועבדום וענו אותם

ארבע מאות שנה

G-d said to Avram:

“You absolutely must know that your descendants will be a ger in a land not their own –

they will be enslaved and afflicted –

for 400 years.

Of course the Jews were not enslaved for four hundred years. To maintain the historical accuracy of the prophecy, we must date the period of gerdom back to well before the slavery, and read the verse as sequential: first your descendants will be gerim, and afterward they will be enslaved. So this allusion confirms that our gerdom in Egypt should not be read narrowly as referring to the period of enslavement, but rather broadly to include the period in which Joseph’s Pharaoh welcomed us with open granaries.

The other use of the singular is in Exodus 2:22:

ותלד בן

ויקרא את שמו גרשם כי אמר גר הייתי בארץ נכריה

Tzipporah, the wife of Moses, gave birth to a son.

He called him “Gershom,” saying: “I have been a ger in an alien land.”

Here we have a very similar ambiguity. Some read the verse as expressing Mosheh’s realization that he had never truly been at home in Egypt. But others see it as referring to Mosheh’s time in Midyan, and expressing gratitude for his father in-law’s hospitality when he arrived as a fugitive ger.

In parallel with Levinas, Professor Michael Wyschogrod and Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argue that the institution of Jewish particularism was G-d’s protest against the idea that the Good is homogeneous and the good of humanity is homogeneity. The problem with their thesis is that Jewish particularism in practice is often about two kinds of sameness: the world divides into Jews, who share ancestry and the responsibility of Sinai, and non-Jews, who share their lack of either.

Avraham and Mosheh represent the familial and national origins of Jewish particularism, and the Covenant Between the Pieces is the blueprint of Jewish destiny. By tying our surprising obligations toward Egyptians to Avraham and Mosheh’s experience of gerut, and by defining in advance the experience of gerut in Egypt as antecedent to the slavery, the Torah seeks to ensure that our formative memory of our time in Egypt does not calcify into chauvinism, but rather serves as a constant reminder to appreciate both commonality and uniqueness. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher V’Sameach!

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