Monthly Archives: February 2016

Two Cheers for Tribalism

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Defenses of particularism generally take one of two forms.

In the first, particularism is a necessary precursor for universalism. Human beings can escape the gravitational pull of self-love only through love of family, and love of humanity can be achieved only by expanding the definition of family.

In the second, particularism is necessary for diversity or pluralism; without particularism, societies that officially value diversity and pluralism rapidly, inevitably, and ironically become monolithic hybrids.

This week’s parashah suggests a third ground of defense.

When Mosheh saw the Golden Calf, he stood at the gate and cried out in a great voice: “Whoever is for Hashem, to me!” That is the dramatic scene as Ramban tells it, and as I suspect most of us envision it.

But the Torah does not say ויקרא, let aloneויקרא בקול גדול. It says rather ויאמר= “and he said.” Mosheh our Teacher spoke; he did not shout.

“All the Children of Levi” then assemble to Mosheh. Perhaps they were moved by the quiet intensity of his speech, or inspired by his iron self-control. But I prefer a different explanation. The Torah tells us that Mosheh “stood/stopped in the gate of the camp” when he spoke. Biblical gatesmanship can refer to mass gatherings, but it can also mark the quiet deliberations of tribal elders. Perhaps Mosheh had a “ground game” in Levi, a network of leaders who each swung their precincts/clans behind him. He did not need to shout, because he did not need to reach the masses directly.

Why Levi? Rishonim offer two basic approaches.

In the first, the Levites had in some way maintained a more pristine connection to Torah than the other tribes. They flocked to Mosheh because of a shared ideological vision.

The second, I confess, is hard for me to read, let alone accept. Here is Chizkuni, following Ibn Ezra:

:לפי הפשט

ע”י שהיו בני לוי קרוביו של משה

לא הסכימו להעמיד מנהיג במקומו

According to the peshat:

Because the Children of Levi were Mosheh’s relatives,

they did not agree to set up a leader in his place.

The Levites flocked to Mosheh unanimously out of tribal political self-interest. Had Mosheh been from Gad, it would have been the Gadites who were with him unanimously, and Tribe Levi would have had its representative share of idolaters. Had Mosheh been a genetically Egyptian convert, no tribe would have stayed fully loyal.

What are we to learn from this?

I suggest, very tentatively, that the Torah may be warning us that reason and moral passion, separately and together, are inadequate to consistently protect us against universal catastrophic error. Their arguments are inherently hegemonistic; by appealing to humanity in general, they seek to eliminate dissent. Not so self-interest, which almost inevitably generates conflict.

The arguments for making the Calf, risible as they appear in retrospect, must have made lots of sense in the overall cultural environment of the Ancient Near East. But Levi was immunized against the abstract power of those arguments and appeals, because of their concrete implications for its tribal political position.

Now it must be acknowledged that loyalty and terrifying zealotry can be closely related. Mosheh sends the gathered Levites out to commit a massacre. This massacre in some sense atones for their tribe’s eponym’s role in the massacre of Shekhem. Tribe Levi therefore (unlike Tribe Shimon) receives a blessing from Mosheh at the end of the Torah. But the Levite tribe is still ‘scattered in Jacob and dispersed in Israel,’ with no hereditary land. A balance of massacres is not a tolerable prospect going forward.

I want to expand on that claim briefly, because I think it may be of help in some very challenging contemporary situations. We are often tempted to engage in moral utilitarianism; in other words, to tolerate the evils a person commits on the ground that they accomplish even greater good. X is mekarev many Jews who (we believe) would otherwise assimilate, and so should be given a Torah platform despite theological monstrosities and practical errors. Y attacks many (we think) necessary targets, so we will overlook the occasional innocent victim and consistent delegitimization of worthwhile Torah interpretations and approaches. These justifications are most often deployed on behalf of zealots who advance the perceived interests of a community we identify with.

The opposite approach is problematic as well. Except in extreme cases, the wrongs human beings commit should not blind us to the good they accomplish, and I think preferably should not prevent us from acknowledging those goods. Teachers who are desperately cruel to some students may have positively transformed the lives of many others, without ulterior motives. Leaders and mentors who succumb to yitzrei hora for sex and power in some relationships may have shared great wisdom with selfless integrity in other relationships. This is true kal vachomer when the right and wrongs are on different axes entirely.

The Torah’s presentation of Levi sets out a challenging middle ground: Moral utilitarianism is much more valid retrospectively than prospectively.

This is particularly true with regard to zealots. I suggest that a generally endemic feature of קנאות= zealotry, which is closely related to the Rambam’s conception of חסידות, is the inability to keep perspective, to see things in proportion. The moral balance of a zealot’s life is often the result of luck, and their past performance has little predictive value. This is why G-d reacts to even Pinchas’ plague-stopping act of zealotry by seeking to impose a berit shalom on him.

Tribalism is also a moral wild card. But I suggest that it provides a vital insurance policy against unregulated spiritual passion and reason run amok. “The threefold cord cannot be broken rapidly.”

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Divine Intermediaries: the Holy and the Forbidden

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Alex Zaloum

At the giving of the Torah, the entire Jewish nation stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the Divine command: “I am the Lord your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me” (Shemos 20:2-3).

Just forty days later, upon seeing that Moses had delayed in descending the mountain, the people demanded of Aaron: “Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt – we do not know what became of him” (Shemos 32:1).

The question is simple: what were the Jewish people thinking?

According to Rashi, the people sought a substitute for Moses to lead them into the the land of Canaan. As a shepherd of faith, Moses had provided the people with a concrete connection to the Almighty. Without him, the people feared their conquest of the land would be unsuccessful.

But if they were looking to replace a prophet, why did they make an idol? As revered as Moses was, the Jewish people never worshiped him like a god. Why jump to idolatry? For what purpose was the golden calf intended?

On the surface, a prophet and an idol serve similar functions. Both are, in theory, intermediaries between the people and the Divine, bridging the gap between heaven and earth. However, there is a fundamental distinction between the two: while a prophet connects the people to the Divine, an idol interposes between them.

A prophet strives to uplift the people to spiritual heights from which they can develop a deeper connection to G-d on their own. By imparting their wisdom, the prophet seeks to make the people spiritually independent. An idol, on the other hand, never empowers its worshipers. Instead, it makes them perpetually dependent upon a physical object for what feels like spiritual sustenance. Whereas a prophet serves as a spiritual guide, an idol is merely a spiritual crutch. The people built the golden calf because they failed to recognize the difference between the two.

Though we may not desire to worship idols like the golden calf in our day and age, the concept of idolatry remains very much alive. For, in essence, an idol is simply anything to which we ascribe power besides G-d Himself. Today, perhaps more than ever, we experience an incessant flow of vanities vying for our attention. But often those people, possessions and experiences which advertise themselves as offering the greatest fulfillment leave us feeling the deepest emptiness.

How can we determine if we are being offered something of true value or just ephemeral satisfaction? A simple test: when something in this world seems to say, “Look at me,” it is like an “idol,” with nothing real to offer us. On the other hand, when something calls to us as if to say, “Look beyond me,” it is like a “prophet,” pointing us towards the One who cannot be encapsulated in any form or experience. Whenever we encounter something or someone that captivates our attention, we can ask: to what is this pointing towards? Itself? Or something greater?

May we each find the clarity in our own lives to distinguish between the “idols” which lead us astray, and the “prophets” which bring us closer to the one true Source of all there is.

Alex Zaloum (Men’s Winter Beit Midrash 2016) is a senior at Harvard, where he serves as one of the gabbaim of the Harvard Hillel Orthodox minyan and co-President of the orthodox student group on campus.

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Why Does Being Commanded Matter?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Why does being commanded matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is what emerges:

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

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

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

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

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

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

*this piece was originally published in 2015

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Garments of Holiness

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

In this week’s Torah portion Moshe is told to bring forward Aaron and his sons to function as Priests for G-d. Surprisingly, what follows is not an account of their service but forty-two verses that describe the garments the priests should wear. These garments are royal in nature, made from the finest of materials and gold. While one might expect instructions for dignified apparel, the detail with which G-d instructs Moshe regarding how to make each garment seems almost excessive and counterintuitive. In this holy space where man approaches G-d, why is such a great emphasis placed on clothing?

ועשית בגדי קדש לאהרון אחיך לכבוד ולתפארת

Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, לכבווד ולתפארת = for dignity and adornment.  (Exodus 28:2)

The words לכבוד ולתפארת seem to be the Torah’s justification for the elaborate priestly clothing.  Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim explains that those who ministered in the mikdash wore beautiful garments so as to receive great honor and be distinguished from the rest of the people.  This raises the public esteem for the mishkan.  Netziv writes that the garments of the priests helped create a distinctive aura within the mishkan.   Sforno adds that the Kohen Gadol specifically wore dignified garments so as to inspire awe among the Israelites, who were all his disciples with their names engraved upon his breastplate.

These approaches suggest that the priestly clothing exists not for its own sake, but rather to elicit a response from others, in other words to generate respect for the mishkan or for the Kohanim.  Sforno’s side point that the names of the Israelites were engraved upon the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol implies a third purpose for the bigdei kehunah. The priestly garments also came to remind the kohanim of their own role. Through constantly wearing the names of all twelve tribes, the Kohen Gadol was constantly reminded of that he was doing G-d’s work as an emissary of the people. Though the other kohanim did not wear the breastplate, perhaps one can deduce that wearing such finery also helped them realize that they were performing G-d’s work on behalf of the Jewish people when serving in the mishkan.

However, the Talmud in Zevahim 88b takes a radically different approach to the priestly clothing. It correlates each garment with a specific sin and explains that the bigdei kehunah serve as an atonement for these sins. This explanation gives value to the priestly garments in and of themselves regardless of the response they provoke. It also implies that the need for bigdei kehudah is not ideal, for if the Jewish people would not sin, these garments of atonement would be unnecessary.

Rabbi Isiah Horowitz’s in his work Shney Luchot Habrit offers a slightly different perspective.  He explains that Aaron symbolizes the completion of Adam’s atonement. Adam created a distance between himself and G-d, while Aaron represents the culmination of man coming close to G-d post-sin. This idea can also be applied to the clothing of these two men. Adam was given clothing at his moment of shame. His garment was not ideal but a response to his having misused the world around Him, falling prey to physical temptation and having taken what which was forbidden to him. On the other hand, Aaron’s clothing comes at a moment of glory and closeness, not shame. It comes at a point when Aaron is about to begin using the physicality of this world to serve G-d and bring His presence into this world.

The Torah refers to the priestly clothing as bigdei kodesh, sacred garments. While these garments can be viewed as a means to achieving a greater goal of respect or as coming to atone for sin, they can also be seen as holy in and of themselves. They represent how while physicality can alienate one from G-d, it can also be extremely holy when used to serve Him. The priestly clothing functions as a microcosm for the service of the mishkan and the maintaining of holiness in the entirety of one’s life. It reminds one that while physicality may often be a distraction that leads to sin and distance from G-d, when used in the context of serving and coming close to G-d, forty-two verses about clothing is far from shallow and excessive. It is a holy way of serving one’s creator.

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

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Uplifting G-d by Uplifting Ourselves

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Noam Weinreich

“Speak to Bnai Yisrael that they should take for Me terumah.

In context, terumah clearly refers to a gift or an offering, and G-d proceeds to list examples such as gold, silver, wools and precious stones.  However, it seems to be utilized specifically when giving gifts to G-d (see for example Shemot 30:13, Bamidbar 31:52).

The root “ramah” means to raise up.  Giving “Terumah” therefore means that the items themselves, once  gold and silver, are now gems in the service of G-d, serving a more uplifted purpose.

However, Rabbi Yaakov Nagen pointed out to me that the Bahir (97), a relatively old Kabbalistic work, interprets this verse differently.

Rabbi Berachiah sat and expounded:

What is the meaning of the verse “that they should take for Me terumah”?

It means, “Lift Me up with your prayers.”

The Bahir understands the commandment as G-d commanding the Jewish people to elevate Him.  While the Bahir refers to prayer specifically, in context the terumah is used to construct the Mishkan.

The question then becomes: In what sense can G-d be elevated by the construction of the Mishkan?  Quite the opposite seems true: the Mishkan serves as a “home” for G-d on earth. G-d says as much in verse 8: “veshokhanti b’tokham,” “I will dwell among them.” (“Shokhanti” has the connotation of establishing a home.) G-d is descending, so to speak, from the heavens to the His home on earth, the Mishkan.

However, one symbol in the Mishkan corroborates our understanding that the Mishkan involves a metaphor for “uplifting” G-d.  The Keruvim, which stood atop the Aron, were understood as the “seat” or throne of G-d (see Shmuel II 6:2 and Divrei Hayamim I 13:6, both of which describe G-d as seated on the Keruvim.)  If the Keruvim serve as a seat for G-d, why do they have wings? What do these wings symbolize? The simplest symbolic understanding of wings is that they are used for flight, to uplift something.  The metaphorical ‘seat of G-d’ was given wings so that it could rise.

Therefore: while the Mishkan serves as a location to which G-d can “descend,” its true purpose is to subsequently “elevate” Him. G-d descends to the Mishkan to instruct the Jewish people how to best conduct their lives. When we follow his commandments, not only do we uplift ourselves, but G-d Himself is “uplifted.”

There are at least two ways to interpret this metaphor. One way is that when we follow G-d’s commandments, we make our own world closer to “heaven,” or closer to perfection. By utilizing the Mishkan in order to actualize the ideals G-d has set for us, our world becomes “the heavens,” and G-d’s descent to us is no longer as much of a descent. Seen in this light, the primary purpose of the Mishkan is to ‘uplift’ ourselves, and only secondarily to ‘uplift’ G-d by making His ‘descent’ less deep.

A perhaps bolder explanation is that by following G-d’s commandments, we directly elevate G-d’s stature. As an analogy, the sign of a great teacher, or a great father, is the success of his students or children. While a teacher or father might have great potential, or great methods, their greatness as teachers or fathers only becomes actualized when their students achieve their potential. When we act in the way G-d commands us, we actualize G-d’s greatness as our G-d, and in a sense cause him to be greater than he was before.

Noam Weinreich (SBM 2014) is a sophomore at Cornell University, studying Philosophy and Mathematics.

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Immersion in Fire

 by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

This past Sunday was the levayah of David Wichs, a student who became a deep friend and wise adviser, and whose generosity made many of my dreams possible. One theme at the levayah which resonated with many of our conversations was the constant kiddush Hashem he made at his workplace. This week’s dvar Torah is dedicated to his memory as a first installment on a lifetime debt. יהי זכרו ברוך.

 The most recent episode of “Sherlock” included a scene at the Diogenes Club, where absolute silence is enforced. Watson attempts to communicate with the concierge via signs; radical misunderstanding and hilarity ensue. But is it truly funny?

I imagine that this scene is experienced very differently by those who speak Sign fluently. For most viewers, physical signs are terribly imprecise stand-ins for verbal signs. But for those who speak sign, any comedy of the scene results not from the inherent and inevitable imprecision of this mode of communication, but rather from Watson’s bumbling efforts to communicate in a foreign language. We are in the realm of “Ich bin ein Berliner” rather than the Three Stooges.

Reading Talmudic aggada sometimes makes me feel like Watson, in a world without living Sign speakers. The texts feel precise, but I don’t understand them well enough to capture that precision, and I don’t trust modern interpreters.

Why aren’t aggadot written straightforwardly? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented the Diogenes Club as an exercise in antisocialism, or privacy. Verbal speech imposes itself on all within earshot, whereas one can look away from visual signs. Somewhat analogously, Talmud imposes itself on all learning Jews, but aggadic esotericism protects them from truths they can’t handle.

The problem is that not everyone realizes their own linguistic deficiencies, and some go so far as to argue that the texts mean only what they appear on first glance to say. And, not everyone who speaks aggadic Sign can handle the truth.

Maimonides in an intended irony uses his own challenging metaphor, taken from Mishlei 25:11, to explain the Rabbis’ use of challenging metaphors: “Golden apples in silver filigree.” For Maimonides, codes that transform plaintext into gibberish are ineffective when everyone knows the text’s author was wise. What is needed is a code that creates an apparent meaning with enough value to pass for the true meaning. An effective code makes most people see a silver apple and never suspect that there is gold underneath. At the same time, the apple must be filigreed rather than silver plated, because there must be a way for the most perceptive to see through to the golden apple underneath.

At least, that’s what the metaphor appears to mean. But perhaps that meaning is intended to conceal as much as to reveal.

I want to take you rapidly through a Talmudic passage, which I argue is written in aggadic Sign, and several historical moments of interpretation; you can evaluate for yourselves which are gold, which silver filigree, and which dross. But I need two moments of introduction: First, Rav Ahron Lichtenstein zt”l wrote that the rabbinic command to “Know what you will say in response to a heretic” applies to the heretic within: “There is a snake lurking within the finest of Edens.” On that basis it seems reasonable to argue that Talmudic dialogues with minim etc., like the first Rashi on Chumash, are often projections of internal struggles within the frum consciousness.

Second, a deep truth that was esoteric in Maimonides’ day, but seems exoteric in our own, is the utter incorporeality of G-d. But the difference may not be as stark as we presume; contemporary affirmations of incorporeality may often be mere catechismic recitation. Here is the passage, from Sanhedrin 39a [edited on the basis of Ein Yaakov]:

A min said to Rabbi Abahu:

Your G-d is a Kohen,

as Scripture writes: “They must take me terumah”

and kohanim must not bury the dead,

and if they bury, they require immersion;

He, when He buried Mosheh, in what did He immerse?

If you were to say: In the sea.

But Scripture writes: “Who measured in his container all water,”

so what source of water would suffice for Him?

Rabbi Abahu said to him:

He immerses in fire, [as Scripture writes: “for behold G-d will enter fire.”

The min said to him:

Since when is immersion in fire effective?

Rabbi Abahu said to him:

The genuine immersion is in fire, and we only pass through water what would be consumed by fire,

as Scripture writes: “All which cannot go into fire etc.”

Tosafot (ad loc.) point out that the min does not ask why G-d was allowed to bury Mosheh, but only how he immersed afterward. This is because Scripture call us G-d’s “children,” and kohanim are not only permitted but obligated to become tamei when G-d forbid they bury their children.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explained that this obligation is an expression of mourning; the death of a close relative properly alienates us from the sacred, and so mourning kohanim must make themselves ineligible for Temple service. Tum’ah is a valid and necessary reaction to the scandal of mortality.

So G-d not only buried Mosheh; He mourned him, and recognized that Mosheh’s death diminished the sanctity of His name. Indeed, Mosheh’s mortality was seen as so scandalous that some kabbalists denied it, and argued that the Torah’s account of his burial was a silver filigree.

But Tosafot’s answer is insufficient. Firstly, G-d is presumably no ordinary kohen but rather a kohen gadol, High Priest, who may not become tamei for the burial of relatives. Secondly, doesn’t this logic require G-d to become tamei whenever any Jew dies? So the better answer is that Mosheh was a meit mitzvah, a corpse with no relatives available to bury him. Even a High Priest must become tamei if necessary to bury a meit mitzvah.

Yad Ramah, however, thinks this response still concedes too much:

Rabbi Abahu did not answer the min with precision,

so as to fulfill “Answer a fool in accord with his foolishness.”

What Rabbi Abahu meant was:

Within your assumptions:

Even if He needed to immerse,

I could say to you that He immerses in fire,

and you would not be able to challenge me from Scripture

the way you challenged yourself regarding water.

However –

G-d forbid that there is any tum’ah before The Holy Blessed One,

and nothing whatever sullies him so that He would need to immerse in fire or in anything else.

So far, so good. But Yad Ramah continues:


That which Scripture writes “He buried” –

it certainly did not happen via action,

rather it arose in thought before Him that he should be buried, and he was buried.

So if G-d had “touched” Moshe’s corpse, He would require immersion?! The brief flash of gold we saw in Yad Ramah’s first answer seems newly and painfully obscured.

And yet, perhaps it would be a mistake to remove the filigree. In the 14th century, a converso would-be returnee to Judaism was caught and burnt at the stake without being given the opportunity to immerse. R. Moshe of Zurich was asked whether this martyr could be buried in a Jewish cemetery, seeing as the general practice was to require immersion before reintegrating conversos. His response was taken from our passage: Fire is the lekhatchilah immersion, and we use water only as a practical concession to mortality. The contemporary R. Yitzchak Zilberstein suggests that this would apply as well to a would-be convert lacking only immersion. These seem to me proper halakhic conclusions, but they come from the silver filigree, not from the gold apple.

And yet, should the halakhah really be different for martyrs killed by fire and those killed by the sword? Literalist reads of metaphors give with one hand but take with the other. Perhaps all those who die to sanctify the Name should be considered to have passed through flames.

Furthermore, let us note that dying al Kiddush Hashem is an absolute atonement, so that all such martyrs pass through the flames of gehennom unscathed.

Furthermore, perhaps all those whose lives sanctified the Name, such as David Wichs z”l, merit His involvement in their burial, as His truest children, and it is not beyond the pale to suggest that – a thousand times kebeyakhol – He needs immersion thereafter, because the sanctity of our world has been much diminished.

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For Those Who Can’t Handle the Truth

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

May one give misleading Torah answers to someone who ‘can’t handle the truth’?

Exodus 23:7 commands us: “From a matter of falsehood you must distance yourself.” R. Chaim Paltiel neutralizes the peculiar formulation, seeing this as a straightforward prohibition against speaking falsehood. Most other commentators, however, acknowledge that the verb “distance” must have a specific valence. Thus Pesikta Zutrata records a prohibition against sitting on a court together with an ignoramus judge, and another against reading the work of fellow scholars’ hypercritically in order to increase one’s own reputation. Rashbam obligates a judge to withdraw from a case in which procedural justice seems likely to yield substantive injustice, and Ibn Ezra sees a mandate to examine witnesses carefully.

All these readings see the obligation of distancing as above and beyond a direct obligation to tell the truth. I want to suggest, however, that it may have the reverse implication as well. Sometimes direct truth-telling exacerbates the reign of falsehood, because the audience will hear it as a lie. In such cases the obligation of distancing may require one to utter an untruth for the sake of the truth.

Here is an example from my classroom experience. Students who understand the openings of Genesis literally are often bothered by the question of where Cain’s wife came from. Such students generally and properly cannot turn on a dime when a teacher suggests that these narratives are best understood as metaphors. For their sake, I would suggest that G-d was creating other human beings “off-screen” in Polynesia while Cain and Abel grew up, and that they built balsa-wood rafts and sailed to the Middle East just in time to provide Cain with a spouse. This enabled the students to believe that Genesis was not the complete literal history of the human race, but at the price of supporting their literalism.

Talmud Shabbat 31b seems to support the idea that Torah can be taught in accordance with the false assumptions of students, when directly confronting those assumptions seems fruitless.

They also sought to sequester the Book of Proverbs, because its words contradict each other.

Why didn’t they sequester it?

They said: Did we not analyze the Book of Kohelet and find a rationale (for its apparent contradictions)? Here too let us analyze!

In what way did its words contradict each other?

One verse reads “Do not answer a fool in accord with his foolishness”,

But the next verse reads “Answer a fool in accord with his foolishness”!?

There is no difficulty – this refers to matters of Torah, that to ordinary matters.

With the possible exception of Meiri, all commentators (and the print editions of the Talmud) assume that “answer a fool in accord with his foolishness” applies to matters of Torah. But what sort of answer is that?

This refers to a case like that time Rabban Gamliel sat and expounded:

“In the future, a woman will give birth daily, as Scripture says: “Pregnant and giving birth together.”

A certain student mocked him and said: “Does not Scripture say “There is nothing new under the sun”?!

Rabban Gamliel said to him: “Come and I will show you an analogue in this world.”

He went out and showed him a chicken.

(The same conversation then takes place regarding two other derashot of Rabban Gamliel; in each case, the student mocks a claim about Future agricultural fertility on the grounds that “There is nothing new under the sun,” and Rabban Gamliel shows him analogues in the existing physical world.)

Now without the Talmud’s programmatic introduction, we might not realize that the student was a fool, and we might take Rabban Gamliel’s response as serious and substantive. The initial claim that the physical world will become abundantly more productive seems to contradict Kohelet’s assertion, and the response is that Kohelet did not mean that old possibilities could not have dramatic new instantiations.

But the student is a fool. That suggests to me that he fundamentally misread Rabban Gamliel as making a literal claim, based on a genuine reading of Yirmiyah 31:7. But in fact Rabban Gamliel was fully aware that the verse meant referred to different women coming together, and he was using physical hyperbole as a metaphor for the joy and creativity of the world of redemption.

Rabban Gamliel has no hope that the student will understand this, and indeed, his rhetoric is aimed at precisely those students who cannot grasp the advantages of redemption in any terms other than physical. So when the sophomore asks the question from Scripture, he gives an answer within the student’s framework. The price he pays for not challenging the student’s core assumption is that he has to answer essentially the same question over and over. (The student demonstrates his foolishness by continuing to mock.)

Yad Ramah to Sanhedrin 39a makes this point explicitly regarding a similar story.

He answered him imprecisely, so as to fulfill Scripture’s saying “Answer a fool in accordance with his foolishness.” Meaning: ‘According to your own argument . . .

Thus far in the realm of aggada. Does this apply to halakhah as well? Should one answer the halakhic question of a fool within the fool’s frame of reference, or should “the law pierce the mountain” regardless of whether the audience can genuinely understand it?

Responsa Tashbetz 3:304 concludes as follows:

‘והוצרכתי להשיב על זה אף על פי שהוא פשוט משום דבד”ת כתיב ענה וכו

I was compelled to respond to this critique, even though the issue is obvious, because regarding matters of Torah Scripture writes “Answer . . .

The reference to Shabbat 31b is clear; but does he mean to tell us that his arguments do not reflect his true opinion?

In Responsa Shoel UMeishiv 2:1:13 we read:

In the matter of the cabal formed by the Jewish educators of our city Lvov, who turned the educators who came from other cities over to the (secular) authorities on the claim that they were harming their livelihoods

and then came to ask for a verdict on their behavior.

I screamed like a rooster: Those who do wrong – after they act they ask for an opinion?!

Now they say they acted in accordance with the law.

Now because the Sages said that in matters of Torah it is written “Answer a fool in accord with his foolishness”

I therefore showed them that in Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 176:6 Rav Moshe Isserles makes clear that elementary educators have the same legal status as scholars

meaning that they can establish themselves in any place, as is the rule regarding scholar-peddlers . . .

Shoel uMeishiv’s citation is perfectly accurate, but arguably irrelevant. Shulchan Arukh’s point is that we give elementary educators the same unrestricted right as scholars to compete with non-scholarly locals in other businesses; he says nothing about their right to compete with other educators and scholars in the business of education.

My contention is that Shoel uMeishiv objects to the whole idea that Jewish education can be seen as private business, rather than as a social responsibility. (I hope to discuss some other week whether this objection is compelling in either pragmatic or Talmudic terms). However, he recognizes that his interlocutors would reject this contention out of hand, and so answers in accordance with their assumptions.

We would be grievously mistaken to attribute their assumptions to him. But – recognizing this, can we also argue that he did not intend his citation of Shulchan Arukh to reflect his legal reading of that text?

This question has implications for a yet more serious halakhic issue. Chatam Sofer cites the phrase “Regarding matters of Torah it is Written: ‘Answer . . .” in three responsa. In one of them, Even haEzer 1:100, he offers several creative leaps to justify viewing a couple as married even though the designated witnesses at their chuppah were invalid; this responsum poses a challenge to those who seek to free agunot on the same grounds. Now without Chatam Sofer’s authority, the argument he makes would be rapidly dismissed in such cases. My suggestion is that attention to this phrase at least raises the possibility that Chatam Sofer’s authority does not attach to the argument at all; perhaps he was merely pointing out Rabban Gamliel’s chicken.

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