Monthly Archives: September 2015

Reading Bereshit Metaphorically and Meaningfully

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Joshua Skootsky

Each year, we return to the story of G-d’s Creation of the world, and the surrounding universe, a cosmic event mediated by the power of speech. These events are referenced each week as part of Shabbat, when we “remember” or recognize the active role that G-d took as the author of Creation. These events are both general and specific.

Perhaps, in the absence of other knowledge, we would attempt to understand this passage literally. But traditional commentators have noted the immense difficulty of sustaining even an internally consistent understanding of Creation, especially on the basis of a “simple” understanding of the verses.

Rashi to Bereshit 1:1, at the end of “bereshit bara,” comments that if we understand the first verse as “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth,” we ought to immediately be puzzled by verse 1:2, which describes the spirit of G-d hovering over the waters. When were the waters created? And if the “heavens” are a mixture of fire and water, as Rashi understands they are, when were the fires created? “Against your will, the verses do not teach what was created earlier and what was created later.”

Similarly, Ramban notes that the creation of the world is a “deep secret” that “cannot be understood from the verses themselves” without the traditional Kabbalistic knowledge taught to Moshe. “It is enough for Torah people to get by without these verses, and to believe in the general principle taught later (Shemot 20:11) “For in six days G-d made the Heavens and the Earth, the ocean and all that is in it, and on the seventh day He rested.”

The Ramban emphasizes the impossibility of verses  alone, without a tradition, providing a detailed understanding of Creation. Rashi even suggests that we cannot learn from the creation story the “order” in which things were created. These insights suggest a few guidelines for reading the creation story “metaphorically.”

  1. Some teachings ascribe significance to the order in which the Torah speaks about creation occurring. For example, “Humans were created last, to remind us that even a mere insect preceded our existence,” (Sanhedrin 38a) teaches humility, and perhaps ecological awareness. But this in no way commits us to understanding literally the order of the Torah’s verses as absolute or binding.
  1. A metaphorical understanding should be more than the absence of knowledge. Our baseline ought to be that a sustained “literal” understanding is impossible, and that therefore we are forced to engage in metaphorical readings. But these readings should not just be the absence of literalism, but rather a sustained attempt to “read for meaning” from the verses. The ba’araita on Sanhedrin 38a is one example of this. Rav Soloveitchik’s The Emergence of Ethical Man is another.
  1. Scientific truths should not be squared with the written text of the Torah. For quite some time in mathematics, attempts to “square the circle” – to construct with straightedge and compass a square with the same area as a circle – was viewed not as an impossibility, but rather as a goal. Now, with our more sophisticated understanding of mathematics, we understand that this is impossible. Similarly, with our sophisticated understanding of Torah, we ought to not try to read the creation of the light into the evolution of a quark-gluon plasma in the Plank seconds that followed the Big Bang.

There is much work left to be done. I believe it is quite critical that we eventually understand the main themes of Bereshit, with G-d the Author of Creation. Here is a simple goal: maybe we could eventually  understand why the metaphor of working in six days was used. We talk about this every week on Shabbat repeatedly in the liturgy, and in the 10 Commandments in Parshat Yitro, which the Ramban referenced. Perhaps most poignantly,  our lives are patterned on the same work cycle. I look forward to a new year, and a Modern Orthodox discussion of what a meaningful metaphorical understanding of Bereshit would be.

Joshua Skootsky has been part of the Summer Beit Midrash twice and is currently an undergraduate at Yeshiva University.

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Do Halakhic Husbands Own Their Wives? A Pre-WWII Chareidi View

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The kinyan kiddushin does not effect a one-way acquisition, but rather a unification of husband and wife, a blending of identity. The High Priest needs to be married, not to possess a wife. Only someone who is part of a private relationship of mutual obligation and shared identity—and perhaps, only someone who understands marriage in those terms—can properly stand as the public religious representative of the Jewish nation.

Some Jews have the custom of preparing for repentance by praying at ancestral or rabbinic graves; others fear that this custom borders on idolatrous ancestor worship. Perhaps a reasonable compromise, and one I enjoy, is to seek merit by studying the Torah of late great scholars whose Torah currently languishes in obscurity, thereby causing their “lips to move in the grave”; indeed I have rescued many their books from imminent burial in a graveyard genizah.

The argument I will share here is from R. Yitzchak Isaac Milikovsky. According to his son in-law Rabbi Yosef Leib Arnest, a longtime Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS (d. 1982), Rabbi Milikovksy was an intimate of Rav Elchonon Wasserman in Baronovich and had great influence on the top students who passed through Rav Wasserman’s yeshiva there. He was also a creative and broad-ranging scholar who lacked the means to publish, and only this one segment of what was apparently a longer treatment of halakhic marriage survived his death in the Holocaust. Rabbi Arnest published it toward the end of his own collection Torat Eretz Tzvi.

A brief introductory comment on intellectual history seems fitting. Moderns often presume falsely that their ideas and sympathies are unprecedented. Sometimes this leads to the resurrection of long-rejected heresies in sublime ignorance of harsh past experience; sometimes it leads to the wholesale rejection of tradition in equal ignorance of halakhic and hashkafic precedent; sometimes that same ignorance leads to the rejection of perfectly traditional ideas as heresy.

One of my goals in presenting Rabbi Milikovsky’s thoughts here is to challenge the notions, prevalent on both the Right and Left, albeit to very different ends, that the kinyan-act which effects marriage involves the acquisition of the wife by the husband, and that attempts to explain kiddushin otherwise within Orthodoxy are marginal feminist apologetics. Rabbi Milikovsky predates feminism, and exercised his influence in a perfectly mainstream Orthodox institution with the favor of a perfectly mainstream Torah great. Yet he too was unwilling to conceive of marriage as the kinyan of the wife by the husband. This should put the lie to both those who see such sexism as demanded by tradition, and to those who justify their rejection of kiddushin by claiming that it necessarily sanctifies subordination.

So here at long last is the argument.

1.a. On Kiddushin 6b, the Talmud assumes that a man who lends money to a woman on condition that she marry him does not thereby violate the prohibition against taking interest. Why not? Rashba explains that this is because the husband does not “actually acquire her body.”

b. Avnei Miluim 42:1, citing the above Rashba, suggests that even according to those who hold that a coerced purchase is invalid, a coerced marriage may be valid, because marriage is not the acquisition of the wife’s body by the husband.

c. Therefore it is clear that kinyan in the context of kiddushin does not involve the husband’s acquisition of the wife’s physical being.

2.a. Talmud Kiddushin 67b asks how we know that one cannot perform kiddushin with an already-married woman, and answers that there is a general rule that kiddushin cannot take effect when consummating the relationship would make the couple liable for karet. Avnei Miluim concludes from this that when kiddushin does not generate a karet liability for adultery, a second kiddushin can be effective. An example is the case of a non-Jewish maidservant in relation with a Jewish slave,

b. Terumat haDeshen 2:102 rules that the wives of men who ascend to Heaven while still alive are permitted to remarry. Why, if death has not broken the original kinyan?

c. It follows that kinyan kiddushin does not generate the prohibition of adultery by giving the husband rights over the wife, as there are cases when the kinyan is valid and yet the prohibition is not in force.

3. If the kinyan kiddushin does not generate physical or legal ownership, what is its nature?

a. The original Adam says that the end of marriage is that man and woman “become one flesh,” and the Rabbis say that literally “his wife is like his body.” This means, for example, that women married to kohanim are not only permitted to eat terumah, they have a mitzvah to do so, and should make a blessing when doing so.

b. It also means that when sacred rituals may be performed naked, they may also be performed in the presence of one’s naked spouse.

c. Therefore, we must say that the kinyan kiddushin does not effect a one-way acquisition, but rather a unification of husband and wife, a blending of identity.

I want to emphasize that my point in no way depends on Rabbi Milikovsky’s argument being convincing (and indeed Rabbi Arnest points out some cogent weaknesses, and offers an admirably ingenious and creative resolution). My argument’s strength is inversely proportional to the strength of his, as the weaknesses of his argument demonstrate the congeniality with which he regarded its implications.

Rabbi Milikovsky concludes by noting the requirement that the High Priest on Yom Kippur be married. This requirement is not satisfied by a relationship with a concubine, which might well be conceived of as acquisition; the High Priest needs to be married, not to possess a wife. Only someone who is part of a private relationship of mutual obligation and shared identity—and perhaps, only someone who understands marriage in those terms—can properly stand as the public religious representative of the Jewish nation. Gmar Chatimah Tovah!


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Zimun and Models of Communal Leadership

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Elli Fischer

The familiar “zimun” (or “mezuman”), wherein three people who ate together must recite Birkat Ha-mazon together, prefaced by a formulaic “invitation” to bless G-d, is introduced by the first mishna in the seventh chapter of Berakhot: “Three who ate as one are obligated to make a zimun.”

The Gemara (Berakhot 45a) begins its discussion of zimun by asking: “Whence is this matter [derived]?” Rashi explains that the inquiry is specifically about the number three: How do we know that three people are fit to jointly bless G-d? The Gemara offers two prooftexts:

Asi says, “For Scripture states: ‘Praise (plural) the Lord with me, and we will exalt His name together’ (Tehilim 34:4).” R. Abahu says, “From here: ‘When I call the name of the Lord, attribute (plural) greatness to our G-d’ (Devarim 32:3).”

In each verse, a speaker, in the first-person singular, exhorts others, in the second-person plural, to praise G-d. That is, three people, one speaker and an audience of at least two, are required to dramatize these verses.

Yet even if the two prooftexts achieve the same goal, they are far from identical. In the first place, the former verse is from Tehilim, whereas the latter is from Ha’azinu, Moshe’s parting poem at the end of Devarim—that is, from the Torah itself. Usually a prooftext from the Torah is considered stronger than a prooftext from elsewhere in Scripture, but in this case the prooftexts seem to be on equal footing. If anything, commentators from Rashi (45b s.v. “de-ika”) to Rav Soloveitchik (in the chapter titled “Ehad Mevarekh Birkat Ha-mazon Le-kulam” in Vol. II of Shi’urim Le-zekher Abba Mari Za”l) grant pride of place to the verse from Tehilim, all but ignoring the prooftext from Devarim.

Upon closer scrutiny, it seems that the two verses are also quite different in their content. They do not envision the same scene. In the verse from Tehilim, the speaker exhorts the audience to praise G-d along with him. In the verse from Ha’azinu, the speaker informs his audience that he alone will call out in G-d’s name, and that they should respond by giving praise. The verses model two distinct forms of leadership: in the Tehilim model, the leader’s job is complete once he has inspired his audience to join him in exalting G-d’s name. The hierarchy dissolves and the entire group offers praise together. In contrast, in the Ha’azinu model, the leader remains the leader. He alone calls out in G-d’s name, and the audience responds to his overtures by praising G-d.

It is no stretch to extend these models to other forms of communal leadership. After all, the requirement of zimum is itself premised on the principle that a communal meal generates a communal obligation to praise G-d. Three people who eat together form a mini-community, which in turn has an obligation to become a holy community. If they form a community around food but fail to elevate that community by praising G-d together, then the community is godless (Avot 3:3, and see R. Yona ad loc.), even if each member of the community prays individually.

The leadership modeled in Ha’azinu, and indeed by Moshe throughout his career, is one where the gap between leader and followers is immense, like that of a shepherd tending to his flock. The leadership modeled in Tehilim strives to eliminate the gap between leader and follower.

Historically, Moshe-style leadership is indeed most common. However, by giving primacy to the verse in Tehilim, perhaps the Gemara and our sages are acknowledging that the type of leadership it models is superior. Perhaps we are not yet ready for a society in which one can extemporaneously lead without being a “leader” and then immediately dissolve back into the community, but it remains something to which we may aspire.

Elli Fischer (SBM 97) is a rabbi, writer, translator, and Jewish heritage travel consultant who lives in Modi’in, Israel.

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Leadership in a Time of Possibly Radical Change

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Endings are hard, and I don’t believe that the collective wisdom of humanity will ever determine whether gradual or abrupt endings are easier to bear. Jewish tradition will not help either. The Rabbis tell us that illness entered the world when Yaakov prayed for a transition toward death. But Moshe Rabbeinu dies in defiant full possession of his faculties, “his eye undimmed and his moisture not fled.”

Transitions are also hard. Moshe Rabbeinu was a political leader and he and G-d seem to agree on the need for a political transition. The Rabbis tell us that Moshe was the sun and Yehoshua the moon, so Yehoshua needed Moshe to shine on him. The problem is that Yehoshua must become visible while Moshe is still shining, and then remain visible when Moshe’s radiance has ceased. One can play with the metaphor and suggest that for Moshe, death means only sinking behind the horizon, but this solution seems cute rather than compelling.

Moshe himself seems to tell the Jews, against the narrator’s later assertion, that he has aged. “I am aged 120 years as of today; I will no longer be able to go out and in,” apparently meaning that he can no longer lead the Jews in battle, and thus must be replaced. But this is an unconvincing argument, in two ways:  First, Yehoshua led the Jews in their very first battle, with Amalek, while Moshe prayed behind the scene, so why can’t that be the ongoing practice? Second, it seems likely that Moshe’s vigorous delivery of this speech would put the lie to his claim, just as no one reading his eloquent initial attempt to refuse G-d’s initial mission could believe that he was genuinely כבד לשון (heavy-tongued).

On Sotah 13b, Rav Shmuel bar Nachmeni in the name of Rabbi Yonatan suggests that Moshe is referring here to מלחמתה של תורה, the battles of the Beit Midrash: “to go out and come in – regarding Torah matters.” Why could he no longer lead these battles? נסתתמו ממנו שערי חכמה” – the gates of wisdom were closed off from him.”

I think it is clear that Rabbi Yonatan did not mean to suggest that Moshe lost his overall intellectual acuity, or that he forgot his Torah knowledge. Rather, as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe noted, Rabbi Yonatan is walking a delicate line. He needs Moshe to remain the sun, and yet must also make clear that the sun is setting. So t gates of wisdom must refer to a specific and bounded disability.

The problem (also noted by the late Rebbe) is that the text of Rabbi Yonatan’s statement is itself unstable. Shitah Mekubetzet reports that other manuscripts had מסורת חכמה = the tradition of wisdom. Manuscripts of the Ein Yaakov had מעינות החכמה = the springs of Wisdom. Rashi to our verse has מסורות ומעינות החכמה = the traditions and springs of Wisdom.

It seems plausible that each of these different versions reflects a different approach to the delicate line Rabbi Yonatan seeks to walk. What capacities can a Torah leader lose that will leave them radiant, yet point to the need for replacement, and allow for successors to become visible?

The text as we have it – שערי חכמה – suggests that a leader can lose their flexibility, their capacity to learn new things. Having myself sat willingly in the shiurim of at least two great scholars at that point in their careers, I find this an eminently reasonable suggestion. There was no question that they were the sun, and we students at best aspiring moons, and yet it was also clear that they could no longer make vital practical decisions for a community. Effective generals do not always fight the last war, and effective poskim (halakhic decisors) do not always pasken the last sheilah.

The version “springs” makes a somewhat stronger claim. It is not enough to be able to learn new things; you have to be able to adjust previous conclusions in light of new evidence. A leader who learns, but can no longer be creative, will just end up fighting one of several previous wars. Perhaps there is nothing objectively new under the sun, but no individual life is ever broad enough to preclude subjectively new experiences.

But it is very challenging to imagine Moshe Rabbeinu, or lehavdil any great scholar, maintaining their identity when they have lost access to their traditions of wisdom. For this reason among others the Rebbe zt”l suggested narrowing this term to traditions that have no point of origin in the text of chumash, the halakhot leMoshe miSinai that G-d for His own inscrutable reasons whispered to Moshe at Sinai. Without access to those traditions, Moshe remained great but was no longer irreplaceable.

Rashi, however, was satisfied with none of these. He believes that Moshe had to lose both the traditions and the spring, both the past and the future, if Yehoshua were to succeed and thrive. Why? Perhaps Rashi, better than any other version, truly does justice to Rabbi Yonatan’s task. Moshe had to lose access to the past, or else Yehoshua could not become visible. But he also had to lose access to the future, so that Yehoshua could become a sun in his own right. There had to be a recognizable limit to the questions Moshe could answer, so that Yehoshua could be recognized as a contributor and not merely as a sustainer.

The truth is that just about every halakhic decisor over time ossifies in both these ways. Initial intuitions become hardened into formal concepts and rulings, and new cases are more and more easily categorized as minor variants on established precedents. All this has a salutary impact with regard to predictability and accuracy, which are virtues of great significance, especially in stable communities and environments. But Bnei Yisroel were about to experience an enormous discontinuity as they crossed into Israel.

The problem is that in just about every generation there are those who see radical discontinuities, and those who see fundamental stability. Is postmodernism a passing fad or a seismic philosophic shift? Does the routine participation of women fundamentally change the nature of halakhic discourse? Do contemporary roshei yeshiva (be they from RIETS, YCT, or Bnei Brak) consistently relate to their lay communities differently than did the leading halakhic decisors of past decades and centuries?

I hope it is clear that the question of when these changes are radical, or not, it has not settled the question of whether they are positive or negative. But nonetheless matters a great deal how we answer that question. As a simple example: If post-modernism is a noxious but passing cloud we should not make painful sacrifices to combat it. If it is a healthy but passing cloud, we should not build our theologies on it. But if it is healthy and enduring, or noxious and enduring, then such sacrifices and constructions can be justified.

Perhaps we can argue further that in every generation there are radical discontinuities, but there are also exaggerated claims of discontinuity. I am tempted to assimilate this suggestion to the classic rabbinic categories of repentance. Radical discontinuities turn past vices into virtues while minor discontinuities simply allow us to correct and overcome those vices. But few things are more dangerous than a mistaken claim that a past vice is newly virtuous.

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The Universal and the Particular in the Book of Yona

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rivital Singer

There’s a machloket between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua in the gemara in Rosh Hashana about when the world was created and when redemption will come. Rabbi Eliezer says both dates are in Tishrei, but Rabbi Yehuda says they’re in Nissan. This machloket reflects a greater question: Is the universal or the particular more important in Judaism? Which aspect led to Creation, and will ultimately be the source of Redemption?

Passover, which takes place in Nissan, represents the national aspect. On Passover we celebrate the start of our particular nation. Non-Jews are not allowed to take part in the Passover ceremonies (although converts may). Tishrei (specifically Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), however, is a universal time. G-d judges the whole world in Tishrei, and makes decisions as to how the year will turn out for everyone. When we pray on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we pray for the whole world, and anyone is welcome to take part in this time of forgiveness.

We also see the universal aspect of tshuvah in the story of Yona that we read on Yom Kippur. Yona is asked to help the people of Nineveh, who are not a part of the Jewish people, with the process of repentance/forgiveness. Yona refuses to accept that he has an obligation to non-Jews. He thinks that Jews need to stick together and be a good moral nation, and that we should keep apart from other nations as much as possible. Throughout the story, G-d tries to convince Yona that there is more to Judaism. Our job is not only to have our own society, based on justice and kindness, but that we spread our moral code to the rest of the world. Even though Yona doesn’t want to, G-d makes him go through with helping Nineveh achieve repentance and forgiveness.

Amazingly, it doesn’t seem that at any point in the story G-d succeeds in convincing Yona. When he’s in the stomach of the big fish and he prays to G-d for three days, he never admits to changing his mind. He asks G-d to let him out, he praises G-d and he agrees to go through with G-d’s request, but he still thinks that he shouldn’t have to go to Nineveh. As he journey, he continues to question G-d’s judgment, and until the very end of the story, he is waiting for G-d to punish the people of Nineveh even though they repented.

Yona, who sees the Jews as a special “chosen people,”  feels very committed to his nation, and is unwilling to be a part of the universal world. He wants G-d to be the G-d of Pesach, who gives the Jews special treatment and saves us when we’re oppressed.  With Yom Kippur approaching, this is a good time for us to reflect on these two very important aspects of Judaism. How much should we be focused on making the Jewish community a better place, and keeping ourselves apart from the other nations, and how much should we be trying to be a part of the universal community and affect it, being “a light of the nations”? When asking for forgiveness, are we speaking for ourselves, for our people or for the whole world?

I hope that this Yom Kippur we can find the correct balance between caring about our nation the way Yona did, and caring about the world the way G-d wanted him to.

Rivital Singer (Midreshet Avigayil 2015) just began a year of pre-army Mechina in Israel.  

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When Majority Rule Breaks Down

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

If the Torah is “not in the Heavens” (Devarim 30:12), where is it? In the story of the Oven of Akhnai, the tanna Rabbi Yehoshua cites this phrase to reject Rabbi Eliezer’s use of a Heavenly voice (בת קול) as halakhic evidence, but he provides no explicit alternative. The amora Rabbi Yirmiyah fills the gap by claiming that at Sinai G-d handed the Torah over to human majority rule. What happens when majority rule breaks down? Does the Torah remain on Earth, or does it return to the Heavens?

Majority rule can break down in at least three ways. First, we can disagree as to whose vote counts, so that each side believes itself to have the true majority. Second, we can deny that the votes of those we disagree with are the result of genuine deliberation, rather than unreflective support of interests or ideologies; majority rule works only when minorities have a plausible hope of becoming majorities. Third, we can deny that the votes of those we disagree with reflect their free choices, rather than the implicit or explicit coercion of the powerful.

It is no secret that majority rule in Modern Orthodox halakhah has broken down in each of these ways. So we are left to face the question: Where should Halakhic authority rest?

The possibility that authority returns to Heaven is real. Tosafot point out that while we accept Rabbi Yehoshua’s rejection of Rabbi Eliezer’s Heavenly voice, the halakhah also follows Beit Hillel over Beit Shammai because a Heavenly voice said so. Tosafot answer that we accept Heavenly voices when they support the majority, but not when they oppose it. This seems trivial; what does the Heavenly voice add? The answer is that Talmud Yevamot tells us that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed as to which had the majority, as Beit Shammai thought many of the pro-Beit Hillel voters were unqualified. Heavenly voices can decide the meta-question of who gets to vote.

This solution has potentially broad implications; there are many potential meta-questions. Rabbi Norman Lamm in Halikhot VaHalakhot argues, for example, that majority rule does not apply to arguments about jurisdiction or authority. In the first Mishnah in Shas, there is a dispute between Rabban Gamliel and the Sages as to how late the evening Shema may be said: the Sages say until midnight, whereas Rabban Gamliel permits until dawn. Rabban Gamliel then rules in practice for his sons that they may say it after midnight, despite being fully aware (see Talmud Berakhot) that his is the minority position. How can he do this? Rabbi Lamm suggests that the Sages’ position was that a rabbinic decree had limited the acceptable time to midnight, but Rabban Gamliel denied the right of the Sages to make such a decree, and as a result felt free to disregard their majority. It might follow that according to Tosafot, this dispute as well was potentially subject to arbitration by Heavenly voice.

Now Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua are protagonists in Mishnah Rosh HaShannah of a different drama about halakhic authority. In that story, Rabban Gamliel crushes Rabbi Yehoshua’s attempted dissent by social force. When Rabbi Yehoshua seeks support afterward, he is told by his colleagues, on various grounds, that Rabban Gamliel’s decision is final, even if it does not accord with the truth, and in some versions—which fit well with the story—even if it deliberately fails to accord with the truth.

In this drama it is Rabban Gamliel who stands for social authority, and Rabbi Yehoshua who stands for the right to follow personal truth. In other words, Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua each believed that halakhic majorities do not have unlimited authority, although they disagreed as to what those limits were. The question for us is: did they return authority to the Heavens outside those limits?

The short answer is no. Rabbi Yehoshua ultimately agrees to publicly violate the day he held should really have been Yom Kippur. And in Talmud Berakhot, when Rabban Gamliel is temporarily removed from his office as nasi, he remains in the beit midrash and to the best of our knowledge accepts the outcome when his position on a conversion case is outvoted. Neither Rabbi, no matter how deeply convinced of their own truth, resorts to Heavenly voices or denies human authority when confronted by a majority of their colleagues.

I suggest that each of them understood that “not in Heaven” is not descriptive, but rather prescriptive. In other words: A goal and challenge for every halakhist is to make sure that authority is not ceded to the Heavens.

Why should this be so? Because a resort to the Heavens opens religion up to exploitation by charismatic frauds and sincere lunatics. It enables the worst of decisions to simply evade critical scrutiny, and indeed often to revel in their irrationality. It removes our responsibility to work together to build communities that implement the word of G-d as best we understand it.

All this is worse than almost any system in which human beings remain accountable to one another.

Of course, there are human systems in which human beings are not accountable to one another, and halakhah can fall prey to those as well. When majorities are consistently achieved by intimidation rather than persuasion; when psak in crucial cases is wholly predictable on the basis of ideology; or when eligibility to vote is determined by outcomes rather than abilities, nothing is left for dissenters other than secession, and ultimately, the claim that they have Heavenly authority for their spiritual or ethical intuitions.

Yet how long will their leaders remain accountable? Or, how will they be able to build community when real differences of opinion surface?

What kept Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua inside the system was their recognition that even if some things were going terribly wrong, overall there was still human accountability. Rabban Gamliel could rule specific votes with an iron hand, but he could be deposed; Rabbi Yehoshua was willing to submit himself when the alternative was anarchy. Furthermore, Rabbi Yehoshua did not force a confrontation on every issue, but was willing to tolerate Rabban Gamliel’s nonconformity about the time of Shema. Rabban Gamliel was properly deposed when he began seeking a formal ruling every time there was a whisper of dissent.

With its mechanisms of accountability broken, Modern Orthodoxy is more and more vulnerable to claims of direct Divine inspiration and non-accountable certainty (often well-disguised as their opposites). A natural reaction to this risk of anarchy is to double-down on eligibility, ideology, and intimidation; these work in the short run, but lead almost inevitably to schism (and intimidation is a very hard habit to break).

In the coming year, let us bless ourselves, and invite Divine blessing upon us, by working instead to rebuild our willingness to be accountable to each other.

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Apples and Honey, Repentance and Covenant

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Batsheva Leah Weinstein

We all know of the minhag to eat apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah. The reason most often given for this custom, and indeed we say this before we eat them, is that  it  symbolizes our desire for a sweet new year. However, as the Maharil points out, the language used to describe this minhag is ״נוטלים התפוח וטובלים בדבש״ — we take the apple and dip it in the honey. We do not say ״אוכלים דבש עם תפוח״ — we eat honey with an apple. This implies that the apples themselves are important. This can also be derived by the fact that we make a bracha ״בורא פרי העץ״ as opposed to a ״שהכל נהיה בדברו״, which tells us that it is the תפוח that is the עיקר, the main thing, and not the honey. We can now ask our question: why do we dip apples in honey?

When Yaakov, pretending to be Esav, comes to Yitzchak to receive the bracha for the firstborn, Yitzchak says, ״ראה ריח בני כריח השדה אשר ברכו ה׳״ — see the scent of my son like the scent of a field that was blessed by Hashem. רב יהודה בריה דרב שמואל בר שילת says in the name of Rav, ״כריח שדה של תפוחים״ — the scent of a field of apples. The midrash Bereishit Rabbah says that when Yaakov entered the room, the fragrance of גן עדן came in with him. Thus, the apples that we eat on Rosh Hashanah symbolize גן עדן, an appropriate reference for the Day of Judgement.

In the midrash בראשית רבתי, Rav explains this passuk in a different way. When Yitzchak saw that the children of Yaakov who rebelled against Hashem ״יתנו ריח טוב שיעשו תשובה״ — that they will give off a good scent, meaning that they will repent and return to God, the presence of the שכינה rested on him and he was able to give Yaakov the bracha. According to this interpretation, the field of apples refers toבני ישראל doing teshuvah. Consequently, when we eat apples, it is a reminder for us to do teshuvah.

Another reason for eating apples is from a passuk in Shir Hashirim which says ״כתפוח בעצי היער״ — like an apple tree amongst the trees of a forest, which refers to בני ישראל. R’ Tzadok Hakohen explains that בני ישראל are compared to apples because, just like the fruits of an apple tree come before the leaves, so too בני ישראל said נעשה — we will do — before נשמע — we will hear.  Overlooking the scientific accuracy of this statement, our point is, that just like the important thing of the tree — the fruits — come before the less important part of the tree — the leaves, so too בני ישראל put the important thing — doing what G-d commanded– before the less important thing — finding out what G-d wants us to do. Therefore, apples remind us of מתן תורה and our covenant with G-d in which we promised to obey His Torah.

Here we have a number of reasons of why we eat apples on Rosh Hashanah, all based on references to apples in the p’sukim. We dip them in honey for a sweet new year but the apples themselves are also symbolic and relevant to Rosh Hashanah.

Batsheva Leah Weinstein (Midreshet Avigayil 2015) is a sophomore at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls.

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