Monthly Archives: November 2015

A Talmud Test

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Rashi to Genesis 35:13: “In the place where He had spoken with him” – I do not know what this teaches us.

“I don’t know what this teaches us”– why not simply be silent? I suggest Rashi is taking a stand for his methodology. One might think this unanswerable exception disproves the rule that every word in Chumash teaches something, undermining a fundamental basis of Rashi’s comments about everything else in Torah. No, Rashi says; I am sure this phrase and every phrase teaches something, even if I can’t figure it out what it is. Perhaps you will figure it out.

Lehavdil, I had a similar experience this week. I had the privilege of discussing how to teach Talmud with wonderful educators at two NY day schools. One sterling young mechanekh and I later glanced together at a sugya he was teaching, and I tried using it to instantiate one of the principles I evangelize for: that students cannot understand a Talmudic passage fully unless they precisely and rigorously understand the logical forms represented by the technical terms in the passage. A few minutes later, I blithely repeated the example to another thoughtful teacher. He pointed out that I had been thinking mechanically; in this case it was not clear that following the form increased rather than decreased understanding, and in my haste to make a point I hadn’t taken the time to think through the specifics of the text. This was great mussar to me, and a challenge as well. Is this really an exception? If yes, does my principle survive? Perhaps the general principle is correct, but I simply misunderstood the particular form.

I decided to honor these beautiful conversations, and try to follow in Rashi’s spirit, by committing to publishing about the specific case without knowing what conclusion I would reach. This happily generated another spirited and thoughtful conversation with Deborah Klapper, who insisted that I try to model a research path that high school teachers could reasonably use to test hypotheses similar to mine, and that high school students could be taught to use independently. Here is the first part of the suyga, as it appears in the Vilna shas on Kiddushin 30a:

  1. How far must a person go in teaching his son Torah?

  2. Said Rav Yehudah said Shmuel:

  3. כגון (=As in the case of) Zevulun son of Dan, who was taught by his father’s father mikra, Mishnah, and Talmud, halakhot and aggadot.

  4.  מיתיבי (=An attack question based on a text seen as more authoritative):

  5. If he taught him mikra – he does not teach him Mishnah.

  6. and Rava said: Mikra – this refers to Torah.

  7. Like Zevulun son of Dan, and not like Zevulun son of Dan.

  8. Like Zevulun son of Dan – in that he was taught by his father’s father.

  9. Not like Zevulun ben Dan –

  10. There it was mikra, mishnah and Talmud, halakot and aggadot

  11. whereas here it is mikra alone.

The fundamental structure here seems clear.

1-3: Rav Yehudah, citing Shmuel, uses the case of Zevulun ben Dan to instantiate a principle that answers the opening question. The problem is that Shmuel’s case has at least two possibly significant particulars: the grandfather as teacher, and the comprehensive curriculum. The Talmud initially understands Shmuel’s case as instantiating the principle that a father must teach his son all the things that Zevulun ben Dan was taught by his grandfather.

4-5: The Talmud attacks Shmuel by claiming that he is contradicted by a beraita (a Tannaitic text not found in the Mishnah. Tannaitic texts are generally treated as more authoritative than memrot of Amoraim, such as Shmuel’s statement here).

7-11: The Talmud responds that Shmuel and the beraita agree that Zevulun ben Dan’s grandfather taught him far more than he was required to. Shmuel was using Zevulun ben Dan only to instantiate the principle that grandfathers, and not just fathers, are obligated to teach children.

You perhaps noticed that this outline completely ignores line 6, Rava’s statement. Why does that matter? I was confident that the vav/and of “and Rava said” is formally a subordinating conjunction, by which I mean that it makes Rava’s statement part of the argument from the beraita. If this is correct, we should expect the attack on Shmuel to be valid if and only if we understand the beraita in the way that Rava understood it. But this seems not to be the case. The beraita clearly says, before any interpretation from Rava, that a father need not teach his son both mikra and mishnah, whereas we initially understood Shmuel to require both (plus Talmud, halakhot, and aggadot). Rava’s comments therefore seem irrelevant to the argument based on the beraita. Does this mean I misinterpreted the form, or that forms are less crucial than I had argued?

One way to test a claim that Talmudic literary form A = Talmudic logical form 1 is to look up a number of parallel cases. So I opened the Bar Ilan Responsa Project and asked it to search for the words מיתיבי and ואמר, in that order, and with no more than a 25 word gap between them. This yielded a total of other 15 cases, of which 11 were irrelevant (for example the ואמר was said by a character in a beraita rather than an Amoraic legal authority). Here’s what I found in the 4 parallel cases:

Eiruvin 29a: Rav Nachman states one can make an eruv techumin with a kav of tapuchim.  מיתיבי introduces a beraita that states that for the purpose of distributing the poor tithe, 5 afarsakim is considered “giving”, and Gorski bar Dari in the name of Rav Manashe bar Shkovli in the name of Rav said: The same is true regarding eruv. This attacks Rav Nachman, as our initial assumption is that tapuchim and afarsakim are alike for the purposes of eruv, and that it takes more than 5 tapuchim to make a kav. In this case, the attack question works only if one accepts the statement introduced by and X said; otherwise we would be comparing eiruvin and maaser ani with no basis, which would be like comparing apples and apricots. Score one for my hypothesis.

Bava Kamma 16a: The Mishnah has a list of animals including the bardelas. Rav Yehudah identifies the bardelas as the nafreza, and Rav Yosef (or the editor) identifies the nafreza with the afa. The מיתיבי introduces a beraita in which R. Meir adds the tzavua to the Mishnah’s list, and Rav Yosef said: The tzavua is the afa! This attacks our previous identification of the bardelas as the afa; in that case R. Meir would merely be repeating an item already on the list. Here, the attack question works only if we accept Rav Yosef’s statement that tzavua = afa. Score two for my hypothesis.

Meilah 16b: The Talmud reports that Rabbi Yose bar Rabbi Chaninah was praised by Rav Yochanan for reciting a beraita that declares that for both tum’ah and eating, less than an olivesize of sheratzim is sufficient. The  מיתיבי introduces a beraita which declares that for the purposes of tum’ah less than an olivesize is sufficient, and Rav Yochanan said: One only receives lashes for (eating) an olivesize. This attacks the earlier report that Rav Yochanan praised the beraita which did not require an olivesize. Score three for my hypothesis.

Pesachim 54a: Someone reports that Rav Yochanan agreed with a statement that one makes the berakhah over flame after Shabbat and after Yom Kippur. The  מיתיבי introduces a beraita that declares that one makes this berakhah only after Shabbat, with R. Yehudah commenting that one makes it together with the berakahah over wine rather than on the first flame one sees, and Rav Yochanan said: The Halakhah follows Rabbi Yehudah. This attacks the earlier report about Rav Yochanan’s position. Score four for my hypothesis. Four out of five isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t absolute proof, and of course one might suggest that my interpretations of the four cases suffer from confirmation bias (albeit a bias that seems to be shared by many rishonim.)

A second test was to check whether my hypothesis was shared by great classical commentators. A quick check of Bar Ilan’s mefarshim-acharonim tab showed me that the Pnei Yehoshua and Hamakneh along with many, many other acharonim make yeoman efforts to explain how Rava’s comment in our sugya is a necessary component of the מיתיבי  attack. However, I admit that I do not find any of their answers satisfying. Therefore, at least for now, I thank my colleagues very much for their stimulating conversation, and can only say, as per Rashi on Chumash, that I don’t know what Rava teaches us here, but I remain confident in my methodological hypothesis.

I am very open to discussion as to how high school students would react to this admission from a teacher, or to reaching this point themselves.

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The Art of Saying Sorry

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Jenna Englender

Parashat Vayishlach contains two moments of attempted reconciliation.  The first ends well; the second ends badly.  I suggest that these disparate outcomes have much to teach us, not just about the immediate process of reconciliation, but about how to prepare ourselves and live in a way that makes reconciliation possible.

The parasha opens with the well known encounter between Jacob and Esau, over twenty years after Jacob fled to Haran fearing for his life at the hands of the angry Esau. We watch with apprehension as Jacob and Esau approach each other and we breathe a collective sigh of relief as Esau seems to forgive Jacob and Jacob leaves in peace.

Jacob and his family then make their way to the city of Shekhem, where almost immediately Jacob’s daughter Dinah is kidnapped and raped by the prince of the land. Shekhem (Dinah’s rapist) decides he wants to keep her as his wife, and asks his father, Chamor, to speak with Jacob and his sons. This attempted reconciliation fails, with horrendous consequences.

Why?  In both stories, one party has transgressed against the other by taking something that does not rightfully belong to them (Jacob steals Esau’s blessing and Shechem steals Jacob’s daughter). Hamor’s negotiation with Jacob and his sons echoes Jacob’s approach to Esau earlier in the parashah.  Both speak respectfully, offer elaborate gifts and are genuinely hoping that in doing so, they will successfully appease the person they have wronged. And yet, Jacob’s meeting with Esau goes exceedingly, almost unbelievably well, while Chamor’s negotiation ends with the slaughter of the entire city of Shekhem at the hands of Jacob’s sons.

It is important to note that Jacob’s successful approach is actually his second try.  His first attempt, at the very beginning of the parasha, has none of the nuance of his second. When Jacob arrives from Haran, he sends angels to Esau with explicit instructions of what to say:

Bereishit 32:4-6:

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח יַעֲקֹ֤ב מַלְאָכִים֙ לְפָנָ֔יו אֶל־עֵשָׂ֖ו אָחִ֑יו אַ֥רְצָה שֵׂעִ֖יר שְׂדֵ֥ה אֱדֽוֹם׃ וַיְצַ֤ו אֹתָם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֣ה תֹאמְר֔וּן לַֽאדֹנִ֖י לְעֵשָׂ֑ו כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ עַבְדְּךָ֣ יַעֲקֹ֔ב עִם־לָבָ֣ן גַּ֔רְתִּי וָאֵחַ֖ר עַד־עָֽתָּה׃ וַֽיְהִי־לִי֙ שׁ֣וֹר וַחֲמ֔וֹר צֹ֖אן וְעֶ֣בֶד וְשִׁפְחָ֑ה וָֽאֶשְׁלְחָה֙ לְהַגִּ֣יד לַֽאדֹנִ֔י לִמְצֹא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶֽיךָ׃

And Jacob sent angels before him to Esau his brother to the land of Seir, the field of Edom. And he commanded them, saying: ‘This shall you say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob: I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now. And I have oxen, and asses and flocks, and men-servants and maid-servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favour in thy sight.

The reader can feel the sense of superiority in Jacob’s message. He sends the angels (see how far he has come – angels who do his bidding!) with no instruction to listen to Esau, but rather to present very matter of factly the deal he is offering. I have acquired many possessions (fulfilling the birthright that I stole from you). I will give you some of these possessions and then you will forgive me. Despite Jacob’ use of the words lord and servant, one can imagine Esau hearing it as intimidating and presumptuous. Thus it should be no surprise when the angels return from their journey with bad news: Esau did not concede, but is rather greatly angered and is on his way (according to some meforshim) to kill you!

And so Jacob rethinks his approach. He takes account of his life and everything he has accomplished so far, wrestles with himself, with G-d, with an angel (interpret the scene as you will) and prepares to face Esau with an open heart. We now arrive at his second attempt to regain Esau’s favor, which he does through an incredibly mature and beautiful approach built around the following five things:

  1. Time to heal. Esau is incredibly angry when Jacob steals his blessing. His distress upon hearing what he has lost is haunting (וַיִּצְעַ֣ק צְעָקָ֔ה גְּדֹלָ֥ה וּמָרָ֖ה עַד־מְאֹ֑ד Bereishit 27:32) and his intent to kill is real enough that Rivka is willing to send her favorite son away out of fear for his life. Certainly, we do not think Esau forgave Jacob because he was less angry than Shimon and Levi were at the assault on Dinah. Jacob, however, is able to give Esau time and distance, two incredibly important things that allow him to cool off and regain his pride by building a successful life separate from his family (וַיֹּ֥אמֶר עֵשָׂ֖ו יֶשׁ־לִ֣י רָ֑ב אָחִ֕י יְהִ֥י לְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁר־לָֽך I have enough my brother, you keep what is yours, Bereishit 33:9). Sometimes allowing the initial pain the time to heal is an important precursor to reconciliation.
  1. Let the aggrieved party speak first. Jacob sends his servants across the river ahead of him, laden with gifts, and under strict instructions:

Genesis 32:18-19:

…וַיְצַ֥ו אֶת־הָרִאשׁ֖וֹן לֵאמֹ֑ר כִּ֣י יִֽפְגָּשְׁךָ֞ עֵשָׂ֣ו אָחִ֗י וִשְׁאֵֽלְךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לְמִי־אַ֙תָּה֙ וְאָ֣נָה תֵלֵ֔ךְ וּלְמִ֖י אֵ֥לֶּה לְפָנֶֽיךָ׃ וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֙

And he commanded the foremost, saying: ‘When Esau my brother meets you, and asks you, saying: Whose are you? Where are you going? Whose are these before you? Then you should say…

Much like we do with a mourner, it makes sense to approach someone we’ve wronged without a preconceived notion of what we want them to feel or think. Yes, it is important to spend time formulating our thoughts and options of what we might say, but we need to let them speak first so that our apology can be in honest response to their needs as the wronged party. Jacob instructs his servants to speak only after Esau has started the conversation.

  1. Enter the conversation (as much as possible) without agenda. In Jacob’s first attempt, his ultimate goal of gaining Esau’s forgiveness is front and center. Even the second time around he is by no means able to leave this goal out entirely. When Esau asks what all the gifts are for, he answers honestly that it is to find favor in his eyes, but he does so only once he and Esau are already in dialogue. In the first attempt, he tells the angels to say this same line (לִמְצֹא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶֽיךָ) but here it has an entirely different effect when given as an answer to a question rather than as a precondition. To underscore the point, this time Jacob also sends his gift ahead of him, whereas with the angels he simply instructed them to list for Esau what might be his should he choose forgive Jacob. With this approach, Esau is more able to believe that Jacob wants to repay what he has taken, namely the blessing of wealth that Esau was supposed to have received, with no strings attached.
  1. Be prepared for a disappointing outcome. Jacob is appropriately fearful. He understands the heaviness of what he has done wrong and truly believes Esau may try to kill him. He awakes in the morning unsure whether he or any of his family will survive the day and it is possible that his wrestling match the night before is a process of coming to terms with this possibility. Jacob sends servants this time, not angels. He and his family prostrate themselves before Esau, a great gesture of submission and a position that offers no means of defense should Esau decide to attack. In a sense, Jacob has accepted that Esau may choose to attack him and is showing his acknowledgement that Esau has the right to do so. He thus gives Esau the space to freely decide whether he is ready to forgive.
  1. Don’t push it. Lastly, Jacob knows when enough is enough. Esau invites him to continue along with his camp, to essentially combine their lives. Yet Jacob is aware that when such a great wrong has been perpetrated and two lives have taken such different paths, even a moment of forgiveness cannot make everything whole again (see Radak and the Akeidat Yitzchak on 33:13). He essentially says: I will go my way, and you go yours, and that is okay.

The attempt of Shechem and Hamor to reconcile with Jacob and his sons looks much more like Jacob’s first attempt than his second:

Bereishit 34:8-12:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר חֲמ֖וֹר אִתָּ֣ם לֵאמֹ֑ר שְׁכֶ֣ם בְּנִ֗י חָֽשְׁקָ֤ה נַפְשׁוֹ֙ בְּבִתְּכֶ֔ם תְּנ֨וּ נָ֥א אֹתָ֛הּ ל֖וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃ וְהִֽתְחַתְּנ֖וּ אֹתָ֑נוּ בְּנֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ תִּתְּנוּ־לָ֔נוּ וְאֶת־בְּנֹתֵ֖ינוּ תִּקְח֥וּ לָכֶֽם…וַיֹּ֤אמֶר שְׁכֶם֙ אֶל־אָבִ֣יה וְאֶל־אַחֶ֔יהָ אֶמְצָא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵיכֶ֑ם וַאֲשֶׁ֥ר תֹּאמְר֛וּ אֵלַ֖י אֶתֵּֽן׃ הַרְבּ֨וּ עָלַ֤י מְאֹד֙ מֹ֣הַר וּמַתָּ֔ן וְאֶ֨תְּנָ֔ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר תֹּאמְר֖וּ אֵלָ֑י וּתְנוּ־לִ֥י אֶת־הַֽנַּעֲרָ֖ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃

And Hamor spoke with them, saying ‘The soul of my son Shechem longeth for your daughter. I pray you give her unto him to wife. And make ye marriages with us; give your daughters unto us, and take our daughters unto you…And Shechem said unto her father and unto her brethren: ‘Let me find favour in your eyes, and what ye shall say unto me I will give. Ask me never so much dowry and gift, and I will give according as ye shall say unto me; but give me the damsel to wife.’

Father and son list their demands and give no acknowledgement of the wrong they have committed. In fact, they rub it in by suggesting that Jacob’s family give them more daughters to marry. They state their goal, again our phrase of finding favor in Jacob’s eyes, without stopping to notice how Jacob and his sons are feeling. Jacob has not said a word since he found out what happened to Dinah, perhaps out of grief or a feeling of helplessness, and his sons are murderously angry. If Shechem and Hamor had stopped to listen or consider how this family must be feeling, how could they have thought a compromise was possible at this moment?

Moments of anger, reconciliation and forgiveness intimately shape the lives of individuals and the course of history. They are pivotal opportunities to shift course and yet they are also fraught with strong emotions and it is incredibly difficult to go into them with the wisdom and insight that Jacob does in this parasha (in fact we see that he doesn’t get it right every time). It is an ideal to strive for, perhaps first in the little moments: moments of prayer, daily apologies to our friends and loved ones, discussions in our communities, so that when the big moments come we will be well practiced in the art of apology and forgiveness.

Jenna Englender (SBM 2015) is a first-year student at Yeshivat Maharat. She graduated cum laude from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU. Following college, she was the Communications Fellow for the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and spent two years managing recruitment for Pardes.

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Science, Halakhah and the Halakhist’s Dilemma

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

“And afterward she gave birth to a daughter. She called her name: ‘Deenah’ (Bereshit 30:21).”

The Rabbis noticed that the Torah describes Leah as having become pregnant and given birth to her sons, whereas here only the birth is mentioned. One solution is that Deenah was the twin of the last male child, Zevulun. The second is that Leah became pregnant with a potential male, but gave birth to a female. This solution itself exists in multiple versions. In the simplest (Talmud Berakhot 60A), at least some pregnancies are gender-flexible, so that prayer can alter gender within the first 40 days after conception without requiring a miracle. In Yerushalmi Berakhot, prayer can affect the gender of a fetus even in labor. In Targum ‘Yonatan’, Leah and Rachel were pregnant simultaneously, Leah with a male, Rachel with a female, and their fetuses were miraculously switched at some point before birth.

In each version, the reason for the transformation is to enable Rachel to generate at least as many tribes as Bilhah and Zilpah, and the presumption is that tribes are determined patrilineally. In the Talmud Yerushalmi, it is Rachel who prays for her own interest; in the Bavli, it is Leah who prays altruistically. There is also dispute as to whether the male fetus in the last version turns out to be Binyamin or rather Yosef. One might reject all the above and adopt Rashbam’s position that Deenah was literally an afterthought, and then focus on whether Leah’s self-abnegating sexism is a crucial error and generates horrible consequences, or rather is a matter of course. But two areas of contemporary halakhah have taken respective versions of the second solution as a primary source.

The version in which the fetuses are switched with each other is used as evidence that halakhic motherhood is determined at birth rather than at conception. The version in which the gender of the fetus is switched is taken as a possible ground for halakhically recognizing the possibility of switching gender. This argument was introduced into contemporary halakhic discourse by Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg in Tzitz Eliezer 10:25:26:6.

Obviously, the argument is not a demonstration: any halakhic tyro can distinguish between miraculous, natural, and artificial gender transformation, and similarly between prenatal and postnatal; leaving aside the question of how substantial or comprehensive a physical, metaphysical, social or psychological transformation must be to affect any particular legal issue. But the impression that Rabbi Waldenberg was sympathetic to it lends it gravitas. I recall, however, Rabbi Mordekhai Willig telling his freshman YU shiur in 1984-5 that this responsum was an “error that came out of the mouth of a ruler,” a Biblical phrase used in Rabbinic tradition to completely dismiss a position while expressing great respect for the one who developed it.

One reason to dismiss the position is that it seems based on a third-hand report of an earlier responsum which bases itself on the empirical claim that female and male genitalia are indistinguishable except by location, external vs. internal, and which provides a scientific rationale for such transformation occurring spontaneously even in adults. Perhaps this claim is so divorced from reality as to be halakhically illegitimate, and perhaps it is even the distorted result of a game of telephone: Tzitz Eliezer is citing Zikhron Berit laRishonim citing Yad Ne’eman citing an anonymous manuscript. Here is Tzitz Eliezer’s citation, beginning after a long argument for the position that a transplanted heart would not change the identity of the recipient:

There remains however a great investigation to investigate

where there is an essential organic change in a person’s body

such as one who transformed from male to female or vice versa

and I have heard, and this is also publicized in various periodicals,

that today they carry out such operations in special cases (obviously rare).

Such an essential change genuinely creates many questions

that touch on the identity and human particularity of such a person

I will mention here what I saw in the book Zikhron Berit laRishonim

written by R. Yaakov Gozer (published 5652)

in the section of addenda from the publisher, chapter 5

where in the midst of his lengthy telling of case of tumtum and androgynous and other diverse creations

he brings what he found written in the book Responsa Yad Ne’eman (Salonika 5564)

in his miscellany on Yoreh Deah 64b

that he saw written in a manuscript compilation of a holy sage of Yerushalayim

that cites and tells of such incidents of transforming from female to male,

and he also explains the phenomenon

saying that we don’t find any difference between the characteristics of the male genitalia and the female

except that he has his organs external and she internal

(because a woman internally has a foreskin and eggs/testicles, even though they are not comparable to the male eggs/testicles)

and since this is so,

the compilation goes on to wonder whether that woman is obligated in circumcision or exempt . . . and concludes that she is exempt based on Scripture writing and a foreskinned male

which implies that a male-from-origin is the one obligated in circumcision,

but an original female who became male is not.

Through the wonders of, however, both Zikkhron Berit laRishonim and Yad Ne’eman are available. It turns out that Yad Ne’eman, published in Salonika in 1804, derived his claim about genitalia from “the discipline of dissection, also known as anatomy.” Zikhron Berit laRishonim is not satisfied with this, adding a citation from 19th-century French literature attesting to the phenomenon. In other words, this is not a case of a traditionalist deriving claims about the world from religious texts. Nothing in premodern Jewish texts suggested the possibility of postnatal gender transformation, or that transformation can be effected by means other than prayer. That claim was made, and buttressed, by moderns on the basis of exposure to and belief in the science of their day.

Tzitz Eliezer, at least in this teshuvah, is uninterested in the empirical reality; his concern is for the abstract question of whether a physical change subsequent to birth can change halakhic identity. That a serious halakhist seriously considered the possibility that a woman-become-man requires circumcision (or that the wife of a man-become-woman is free to remarry without a get), is relevant to that point, even if the cases discussed are pure fantasy.

The point I wish to make is that the issue of the integration of contemporary science into halakhah is a double-edged sword. Hermetically sealing Jewish legal tradition off from contemporary empirical claims can make halakhah seem ridiculous, or of purely antiquarian value. But extending that tradition on the basis of external claims about reality is likely to make halakhah that will seem ridiculous in a not-too-distant future, when our science becomes obsolete.

There is ultimately no choice; law must relate to reality, and the long-term fate of a cloistered law is complete irrelevance to life. The existence of many teshuvot such as this Yad Ne’eman is evidence that halakhists through the ages have taken the risk of directly relating to reality. At the same time, not every law derives its relevance from relationship to empirical reality. The laws of kashrut, for example, maintain their religious impact in modernity even for those who know that pareve products can trigger allergies to dairy, or believe that sodium chloride does not remove all blood from meat. Stability and continuity are often per se religious values. And I think it is very, very wise for halakhists to maintain a healthy and deep skepticism about the empirical beliefs of the culture in which they are embedded. Finally, claims that past halakhists had different empirical beliefs than we often turn out to be “reverse anachronisms.” Chazal knew that the earth was round, for example.

On a whole host of issues, gender transformation among them, my sense is that this balance should lead to great caution about halakhic arguments, especially arguments for halakhic change, that are framed directly as necessary responses to advancing scientific knowledge. We are often better off using the pressure of reality on the halakhic imagination as a spur to developing new understandings that are compatible with old assumptions.

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Living in the Moment and Living for the Future

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Dina Kritz
At the very end of last week’s parsha, Yaacov’s parents sent him to his family in Charan, each parent for a separate reason. Rivkah wanted her son out of his angry brother’s reach, and told him that if he left for yamim achadim, a small number of days, Esav’s temper would cool. Rivkah chose, as usual, not to fully confide in her husband, and implied instead that she would like Yaacov to find a wife from somewhere outside of Canaan. Yitzchak certainly wanted Yaacov’s journey to end in marriage. The Rav comments that each of the Avot was meant to lead with a partner: Avraham sent Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak as soon as Sarah died so that Yitzchak and his new wife could be the next generation of the blessing and promise. Here too, Yitzchak waits until Yaacov is on his way to find a partner until he passes on the brit avot to him.

The structure of the story also demonstrates that Yaacov’s departure from his parents and brother is intended to be the first step in starting his own family. Parshat Toldot ends with Esav marrying another wife, Parshat Vayeitzei opens with Yaacov heading to Charan, presumably to do the same thing. After all, Parshat Vayishlach ends with “v’ela toldot Esav,” these are the generations of Esav, and the second verse of Parshat Vayeshev begins “ela toldot Yaacov,” these are the generations of Yaacov. The two brothers seem to lead somewhat parallel lives: They fight to be born first, and after their birth, the Torah continuously compares them: Esav is a hunter, Yaacov stays in his tent. Esav is loved by Yitzchak, Yaacov is loved by Rivkah. During the twenty two years of their separation, each amasses wealth and a camp of people. Therefore, the Torah’s presentation of Esav and Yaacov’s actions in Perek 28 emphasizes that Esav is trying to find a suitable wife at home, and Yaacov is on the road to find his own partner. However, Yaacov seems to forget his future plans as time goes on in Charan.

The Torah then presents a story which sounds familiar: a man from Avraham’s household in Canaan arrives at the main well in Charan (though earlier in the sefer it is called Aram), meets a young woman descended from Betuel who rushes home to tell Lavan, and Lavan hurries out to greet the visitor and usher him inside. Here, however, the similarities end. While Eliezer immediately prays when he reaches the well that Hashem will help him find the right woman, Yaacov is more focused on finding his family, after running away from his murderous brother. We learn that Yaacov only seems to notice Rachel’s beauty a few weeks after meeting her (see verse 17). When they first meet, Rachel and her sheep make Yaacov cry because they are proof that the uncle he is coming to for security really exists. Eliezer dazzled the Betuel family with beautiful jewelry for the bride-to-be, while Yaacov arrives empty-handed. Indeed, the only thing he can do when he moves in with Lavan is offer his services as a shepherd. Lavan seats Eliezer at the table but Eliezer insists on settling the entire marriage deal before even eating, and we are given all of his words, and Yaacov says something to his uncle and then a month passes before they even speak about the future.

When Lavan suggests that he pay Yaacov for his shepherding, Yaacov, who has had a few weeks to catch his breath after running from Esav, seemingly remembers the other reason he is in Charan, and says he will work for Rachel’s hand in marriage. He then works for seven years which feel like yamim achadim, and some parshanim suggest that these are the small number of days his mother was speaking about when she sent him away.

According to Rabbi Chanina ben Pazi, in Bereisheet Rabbah, “Ma kan sheva shanim, af l’halan sheva shanim,” Rivkah must have meant that Yaacov should stay in Charan for seven years. Alternatively, Ramban suggests earlier in the perek that only Rachel took care of the sheep because she was too young to be noticed by the young men, unlike Leah. Therefore, perhaps Yaacov had to wait several years before marrying her. Finally, Sforno notes that a man has to be able to provide for his wife, and thus Yaacov had to work long enough to pay Lavan and also have enough sheep of his own for his future family. One reason this explanation makes sense is because at this point onward, Yaacov focuses on his Charan family, rather than his Canaan family.

Perhaps it made sense in Charan to work for so many years for a wife. However, after he has worked for seven and another seven years and his children have been born, Yaacov is convinced to stay in Charan for wealth. During a conversation with Lavan about his earnings, Yaacov insists he does not want to be given any money; rather, he wants to breed sheep and keep them, partly as a sign of his own G-d-given talents. He continues to amass wealth for himself until he realizes that Lavan and his sons are jealous, and begins to feel uneasy about staying in a home which is no longer welcome. He does not actually leave, however, until Hashem tells him it’s time to go home. Reish Lakish says in the name of Bar Kafra, in Bereisheet Rabbah, that Hashem came to Yaacov and told him that He and Yaacov’s parents were awaiting his return to Canaan. At this point, Yaacov hears the wake-up call. He begins speaking about Hashem and the importance of his homeland, and he packs up his family and possessions. Interestingly, he also seems to have a new attitude regarding the last two decades. Although the Torah implies that he has only recently realized Lavan’s lack of warmth, he confronts Lavan and insists that he has had to work in terrible conditions to build up his father-in-law’s herd, and he suddenly fears the man’s ability to take away his wives and children. Yaacov is able to snap out of his sheep-induced haze and stop living only in the moment. He is ready to leave the bad home he has been living in and return to Canaan. He is finally starting to be ready to be an av of the nation, and look to the future.

Life is not only about living in the moment. Certainly, we can understand that at the beginning of the parsha, Yaacov was only seeing a future in which he escaped from Esav (which explains why he is so traumatized at the beginning of next week’s parsha). When we’re not running from danger, however, it’s important to think about the real future. We must make plans, and we must also keep our goals at the forefront of our minds, whether they be acing a semester, returning to Israel, like Yaacov, or achieving a dream decades from now. Even when life takes us in another direction, we shouldn’t forget our ultimate goals. We shouldn’t concentrate so much on the sheep that we need Hashem and jealous in-laws to remind us that we don’t belong in Charan.

May this Shabbat bring the peace we’ve been craving this past week.

Dina Kritz (SBM 2015) is a senior at Brandeis University.

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Wells and Ways of Life

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Yeshayahu Ginsburg

Many a Drasha for Parshat Toldos has begun with the fact that this Parshah is really a place-holder between the stories of Avraham and Yaakov. We have three forefathers in Sefer Bereishis. Avaraham has three whole Parshiyos dedicated to him. A full half of the Sefer discusses Yaakov’s life. And then Yitzchak gets the one week in between.

Yitzchak’s life is not uneventful, though. In this week’s Parshah we see him run afoul of Avimelech on several occasions, including several disputes with Avimelech’s people over wells. Ramban famously comments that the three wells serve as hints to the future Batei Mikdash. The first two, which Yitzchak had to abandon, were destroyed. The third one, though, was untroubled and this represents the third and final Beis Hamikdash, which will last in perpetuity.

There are two defining features in the Pesukim about what made this third well unique. The first is that, unlike the first two, Yitzchak himself dug the third one. The other defining feature is that Yitzchak made extra space between himself and the Plishtim before digging this well. Maybe he would have been successful had he dug the third one closer to where he had camped previously, but it did not seem worth the risk for him.

Far be it from me to opine as to what life choices we should make based on what is related in Chumash, but it is clear that there are broad lessons to be learned from this. The first lesson seems to be that undertakings by holy and righteous people are more likely to succeed. Indeed, it never hurts to attempt to surround oneself with those who inspire us to be better, as both Jews and people.

The second lesson seems to be one that is much more open to interpretation. While the distance that Yitzchak traveled in the story was clearly literal, we could homiletically learn a variety of things from it. It could be, in its most simplistic form, a lesson in physical distance. Perhaps it is often better to physically remove oneself from a contentious area. Or the lesson could be something entirely metaphorical. We could take a lesson of perspective from this story; we could learn that a good way to avoid confrontation is to find where the other is coming from and what their side of the story is.

Ultimately, what we learn from the story may not matter as much as how we approach it. Stories in Chumash are not told for our amusement or for the sake of giving us something to ask children about at the Shabbos table. The stories are there to teach us life lessons. As is a common refrain among commentators on Bereishis, מעשה אבות סימן לבנים–the actions of the ancestors are signs for the descendants. We should find our lessons, whatever they are, from what we see in Chumash. As long as we are honest with ourselves, honest to the stories, and honest to the overall attitude that the Torah gives us, the particular lesson that we learn from each story will come out in a way that makes us grow.

Yeshayahu Ginsburg (SBM 2015) is a rabbinical student at RIETS.

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Our Orphaned Generation

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Tzipporah Machlah Klapper

Modern Orthodoxy suffered a great loss this year in the death of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz”l. In the aftermath of his death, we are still mourning. We have no one to replace him, not in intellect, nor in eloquence, nor in humility. For many, Rav Lichtenstein was the paragon of Modern Orthodox virtue: in love with Judaism and literature, excellent in both academic and worldly tasks, and a genuinely good and humble person.

Similarly, Sarah was a woman unparalleled in charisma and virtue. She converted unknown numbers of women to Judaism and raised her son Yitzchak while doing so, even though she was very old by then. She spent her life traveling and sacrificing to spread Torah among the nations, continuing despite multiple captures. When Sarah died, Yitzchak was bereft.
There was hope, though. Not long after Sarah died, Rivka arrived. There is a very famous Rashi (Bereishis 24:67):
האהלה שרה אמו: ויביאה האהלה ונעשית דוגמת שרה אמו, כלומר והרי היא שרה אמו, שכל זמן ששרה קיימת היה נר דלוק מערב שבת לערב שבת, וברכה מצויה בעיסה, וענן קשור על האהל, ומשמתה פסקו, וכשבאת רבקה חזרו
The tent of Sarah his mother: He brought her to the tent and she became like Sarah his mother; that is to say, just as when Sarah was alive the lamp burned from Friday to Friday, the dough was blessed, and the Cloud was over the tent (after her death, it stopped) – when Rivka arrived, [the miracles] returned.
When Yitzchak takes Rivka into the tent, he is comforted. The candles (representing sholom bayis), stay lit again. The dough multiplies, assuring material prosperity. The Cloud returns, as well, showing God’s open approval for the new matriarch.
Rivka replaces Sarah. She ushers in a new era of leadership for the Jewish people, but with the miracles of the past intact. In the new generation, too, peace, prosperity, and G-dliness are assured. If even so great a person as Sarah could be replaced, perhaps we, too, can hope: There will be new leaders, and we will be comforted.
Tzipporah Machlah Klapper (SBM 2014, 2015 and MA 2015) serves as program director for CMTL’s Midreshet Avigayil, an intense summer gemara program for girls.

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Avraham, Yitzchak and Intermarriage

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Avraham Avinu’s journey begins with clear instructions from G-d to abandon his land (eretz), his culture (moledet), and his family (beit av), and move to a new land, which turns out to be Canaan. His journey ends when he orders his servant to go back to that very same eretz, moledet, and beit av to find a wife for Yitzchak, and under no circumstances to marry Yitzchak to a Canaanitess. What accounts for this ambivalence?

There is a natural temptation to argue that G-d’s initial instruction was intended to make life more difficult for Avraham – to estrange him from all his support mechanisms – because loneliness and insufficiency naturally make one turn to G-d. But Avraham was already willing to listen, so this strategy seems redundant.

Alternatively, one might argue that G-d wished to remove Avraham from a corrupt and corrosive family and culture. But if Canaanite culture was superior to that of Clan Terach, why insist that Yitzchak marry in the family?

At least one Rabbinic tradition reflects a very complex approach to this question.

G-d refers to himself in Bereshit 15:7 as having extracted (hotzi) Avraham from Ur Kasdim. (Nechemiah 9:7 reiterates the point.) The Rabbis were fully aware that Ur Kasdim was a location, but they were bothered by the connotation of hotzi, which implies success over resistance; thus G-d was also motzi us from Egypt during the Exodus. They suggest, or record a tradition, that Avraham was rescued by G-d from religious persecution in Aram at the hands of Nimrod’s emerging totalitarian empire. To concretize this interpretation, Ur Kasdim was translated punningly as the (auto da fe) furnace of the Chaldeans.

In this reading, G-d took Avraham out of Ur Kasdim into Canaan to rescue him from religious persecution. Indeed, the Torah records no negative reaction to Avraham’s religion in Canaan. Quite the contrary. Malki Tzedek seems to be a co-believer, and even the Hittites refer to Avraham as a Prince of G-d.

Nor does the Torah record Avraham critiquing Canaanite culture. Again, quite the contrary: Avraham makes a covenant with natives Aner, Eshkol, and Mamrei, and in contrast to Egypt and Philistia, it seems that he considers Canaan a culture which possesses yir’at Elokim, fear of G-d. (Sodom and Gomorrah were not Canaanite.)

It therefore seems likely that Canaan was a culture of religious freedom, and more than that, a culture which was capable of appreciating at least some of what Avraham had to offer, and which enabled him to become his best self. It was a pluralistic culture. (Perhaps this is why there is no mention of Avraham and Sarah making converts in Canaan; in a culture where identity is fluid, conversion can become meaningless).

But in the Covenant Between the Pieces, Avraham is given a deeply pessimistic vision about Canaanite culture. Avraham’s children will eventually take ownership of Canaan, but not for several generations, “because the sin of the Amorites is not yet complete.” Not yet complete, but begun, and begun in such a way that completion is inevitable. In other words, the virtues of Canaan were genuine but not sustainable.

What if the original sin of the Canaanites, the reason that their culture was already decadent in the time of Avraham, was extreme pluralism? This formulation is deliberately provocative, but having (hopefully) grabbed your attention, I want to lay it out in detail.

There are two roads to homogeneity. One is totalitarianism/Nimrodism, which gives absolute value to a very specific and detailed set of cultural markers and seeks to enforce them on others. The other is pluralism/ Canaanism, which insists that all cultural markers have exactly the same value and denies the objective legitimacy of any values hierarchy.

Extreme pluralism is opposed to diversity. A healthy, diverse culture celebrates values clashes but develops robust nonviolent arenas for persuasive combat. In a culture of aesthetic diversity, some value classical music and others value heavy metal, and they argue about matters of taste. In a culture of moral diversity, some favor limited euthanasia and others see it as murder; but all agree to abide by a common decision procedure.

In a culture of diversity, identity is more than a source of grievance, more than the basis of a claim to equal rights; it is the basis of a claim to genuine moral superiority, which is the antithesis of extreme pluralism. It works in reverse as well; without a claim of superiority, no identity is sustainable long-term. Cultures of extreme pluralism will eventually be conquered from within or without.

This kind of identity can also develop under totalitarian persecution; revolutionary individualism goes easily with condescension toward the homogenized masses. And it seems the Ancient Near East had no genuine cultures of diversity, so Avraham could only develop under Nimrod.

But revolutions tend to replace one totalitarianism with another. The challenge is to maintain hierarchy without absolutism, to believe that something can be less correct without being wholly incorrect, less valuable but not valueless, not ultimate and yet not unnecessary.

In halakhic Judaism, this challenge is perhaps best embodied in various paradoxes about the relative precedence of Torah study and mitzvah action. In the Avraham narrative, it is embodied in the Akedah, where Avraham at least seemingly makes clear that he ultimately has only one value.

Yitzchak reacts against this. Yitzchak, as Rabbi Joshua Berman has argued well, never comes to terms with the expulsion of Yishmael. He cannot choose Yaakov over Esav, even though he knows that choice must be made. Yitzchak, in other words, is susceptible to Canaanism. For Avraham’s unique legacy to survive, Yitzchak therefore needs to marry a woman from home.

Marriage in the classical sense is a commitment to sustainability. Continuity is not an end in itself, but a culture’s purpose is not to be an ephemeral work of performance art. When continuity becomes its own justification, opposition to intermarriage is plausibly seen as racism. But it is more than evident that Judaism will not survive in America if Jews believe that it is one of a large set of equally valuable options.

Perhaps more dangerously, we need to recognize that both inclusion and exclusion always have costs. The cost of exclusion is the value of whatever and whomever is excluded; the cost of inclusion is the value of whatever difference you are ignoring.

The full arc of Avraham’s life, which values both his natal and adopted homelands, stands for the necessity of both hierarchy and egalitarianism.

I contend that the dialectic need not be extreme; every Jew need not oscillate between totalitarianism and latitudinarianism, nor need we alternate generations of chauvinists and pluralists. We can find both within ourselves as necessary.

The same is true on a communal level. It is possible and ideal to build a community which contains both these pulls, rather than dividing into absolutists and relativists.

The balance is always delicate; Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism, and Reform each claim to embody it. If the capacity to sustain the norm of endogamy is a fundamental measure of sustainability – and I believe it is – clearly the latter two have failed, and Modern Orthodoxy must profit by their example. Deep and sincere appreciation for the achievements, values, and beauties of other cultures, religions, and even denominations must not be allowed to reach the point at which the only reason to choose ours over others is inertia.

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