Monthly Archives: March 2016

Did the Medean Empire Have an Obligation to Prevent a Jewish Genocide?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Emperor Achashverosh signed a decree authorizing the killing and despoiling of all Jews in the Persian Empire. After Esther exposes Haman, author of the decree, as an egomaniac who aspired to the throne, Achashverosh issues a new decree authorizing Jewish self-defense. He promises that imperial forces will not interfere on either side, and even imposes a no-fly zone over Shushan to prevent local militia from using their helicopters against the Jews. However, he does not open the borders to mass Jewish emigration.

Unfortunately, the Jews are still badly outnumbered and poorly armed in comparison to the anti-Semites. The small Jewish community in the Medean Republic engages in mass public fasting and other desperate measures to build support for armed intervention in Persia, at least via the creation of a “safe-zone” to which Jews can flee. Opponents suggest that such intervention will fail to save the Jews, that intervention will cause tens of millions of casualties in the chaos and anarchy that will inevitably follow the Persian Empire’s collapse into civil war, that Medean forces will suffer significant casualties, and that Medea’s overall geopolitical position will be damaged by its identification with the generally unpopular Jews. Finally, they suggest that even a perfectly successful intervention will simply lead to a mirror-image massacre of anti-Semites by Jews.

Does the Medean empire have an obligation to intervene?

In her powerful and troubling A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, published in 2003, current Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power laid out the post-Holocaust effort to mandate international intervention to prevent genocide, and the ways and reasons those efforts have generally failed.

The Anti-Genocide treaty was opposed in the United States. for fear that it would be used against our soldiers, or embroil us in endless and hopeless foreign wars. Once the treaty was ratified, US governments went to extraordinary lengths to avoid categorizing mass homicides as genocide, lest they trigger an obligation to intervene. More recently, the US has adopted an interpretation of the treaty that imposes no such obligation. We are therefore willing to use the term regarding ISIS, for example, although Ambassador Power has ironically been sent out to explain why we will not intervene in Syria.

In 2007 I began giving a shiur with the title “Is There a Mitzvah to Prevent Genocide?” (A version was published by Hamevaser in 2008.) That shiur made the following argument:

  1. The United States had an obligation to intervene militarily to stop the Final Solution even before Pearl Harbor, even if stopping the Holocaust served no direct national interest
  2. That obligation, even if framed in terms of the Seven Noachide commandments, cannot be asymmetrical among Jews and non-Jews. In other words, Jews must have the obligation to stop genocides directed against non-Jews, and it seems reasonable to conclude that non-Jews have such an obligation toward each other.
  3. For a variety of reasons, it would be best to frame that obligation, and its limits, in formal halakhic terms rather than leaving it as a vague and subjective ethical obligation.
  4. The most plausible halakhic framework is that of “rodef,” or “pursuit.” Halakhah imposes an obligation on third-party individuals to intervene to stop a homicide, if necessary by killing the person intending to kill. However, the third-party is not obligated to risk his or her own life.
  5. My suggestion was that halakhah also imposes an obligation on third-party groups to intervene to stop a genocide. Such groups would not be required to risk their own existence, but they would be required to risk the lives of individual soldiers.

Reading Ambassador Powers’ book last week, I was embarrassed by my failure to have done so earlier. Her work began before mine did, and ended well after, and the history she covers provides an extraordinarily valuable perspective on the uses and limits of law. Everyone should read it.

Ambassador Powers documents the tireless efforts of Holocaust survivor Rafael Lemkin to gain acceptance for the word genocide, and then to enshrine it into law. One fundamental challenge Lemkin faced was the tradition that sovereign nations have no right to interfere in each other’s internal affairs. Lemkin believed that genocide should be an exception to this principle, and very likely the only exception. He fought the prior adoption of a broader treaty regarding human rights on the grounds that no government would be willing to intervene on their behalf, and thus genocide would become just one of a variety of tools of diplomatic harassment.

Lemkin and his supporters also had difficulty defining the genus that had to be killed for the term genocide to be invoked. Must it have a unique culture, or biology? What if a significant percentage of the same group already lives beyond the reach of the killers, e.g. American Jews in WWII?

It was also not clear whether genocide should be defined by action, by intent, or by consequences. Is it genocide to sterilize all the women in a community? To ban a language and literature? Should the obligation to intervene be triggered by a situation which seems likely to slide toward genocide, even if the killing has not yet begun?

The Genocide Convention that emerged says the following:

Article I

The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.

Article II

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Article III

The following acts shall be punishable:

(a) Genocide; (b) Conspiracy to commit genocide; (c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide; (d) Attempt to commit genocide; (e) Complicity in genocide.

In practice, these definitions have run into all the problems opponents predicted. Accusations of genocide are used as weapons against Israel, the United States, and other open societies, while oppressive closed societies simply prevent investigations. It’s not clear that Pol Pot’s killing of millions in Cambodia fell under the Convention’s terms, since those killed had nothing in common but an education beyond seventh grade. Rwanda was engaged in an ethnic civil war at the same time as the butchery there. The Serbian attempt to exterminate Bosnian Muslims affected a very, very small portion of global Islam.

Finally, intervention in genocidal situations, however motivated, has a very poor record. The removal of Saddam Hussein, who destroyed several ethnic groups in Iraq, led to all-out sectarian warfare; Libya and Syria are in total collapse, and the jury is still out in Darfur/Sudan.

All this history needs to be taken into account by halakhists, and we need to benefit from the experience and expertise of those in other legal systems who have trodden these paths before us.

But, I still think that the Medes had an obligation to intervene, and that the neutrality of everyone else in Persia while the Jews fought for their collective existence was a moral failure. Your comments, pro and con, are more than welcome.

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Asham Talui as a Paradigm of Responsibility

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Matt Landes

Parashat Vayikra describes two sacrifices brought for unintentional sins, the chatas yachid (private sin-offering, Vayikra 4:27-35) and the asham talui (contingent guilt offering, Vayikra 5:17-18).

Rashi explains that the asham talui is brought when the sinner does not know whether or not s/he committed the sin (“ולא ידע”), but knows that s/he might have sinned, as opposed to the chatas yachid, where the sinner knows s/he accidentally sinned.

The problem is that the asham talui is a larger and more expensive animal than the chatas yachid.  Why should atonement for the possibility of sin require more than atonement for the actuality of sin?

Rashi’s example of an asham talui case is:

For instance: There are permitted and forbidden animal fats (shuman and chelev) before him,

and he believed that both were permitted, and he ate of one of them.

Thereafter he is told: ‘One was chelev,’ and he is unsure whether it was the chelev that he ate.

For this he brings a contingent guilt offering,

and this protects him for so long as he is not informed that he definitely sinned.

This suggests that one must have a particular instance of possible sin in mind when bringing the asham talui.  However, in Mishnah Kerisos Chapter 6, Rabbi Eliezer states that:

Anyone can dedicate an asham talui on any day and any time that they want, and this is called an “asham chasidim (guilt offering of the superpious).”

The Mishnah continues:

They said about Bava Ben Buta that he volunteered an asham talui every day of the year, except for the day after Yom Kippur.  He said: By G-d I would have brought it that day if they had permitted me, but they say to me “Wait until you enter the realm of doubt.”

The Talmud (25a) concludes that Rabbi Eliezer was not saying that the asham talui is purely voluntary. Rather, he was the one who told Bava Ben Buta not to bring the sacrifice on the 11th of Tishrei because one must be in “בית הספק”, the realm of doubt, to bring an asham talui.  On the day after Yom Kippur, there is no possibility that one has committed a sin and not atoned for it.

Still, Bava Ben Buta probably did not have a specific sin in mind as he brought the asham talui every other day of the year.  So it seems that Rashi was describing when one must bring the asham talui, but that one may bring it in situations where the doubt is much lesser.

Rabbeinu Yonah suggests that the asham talui is heftier than the chatas yachid because someone sure of having sinned can commit to full teshuvah, because they are recognizing exactly what it is that they did wrong, but that in a case of safeik the individual will be thinking of the possibility that they might not have committed the sin.

All this suggests a complex relationship with legal doubt.  One must be careful not to pretend uncertainty where there is none, and at the same time, it can be mishnat chasidim to treat even far-fetched doubts as real.  When we are in a clear case of safeik, it is important to take the proper responsibility, and to mentally bring the larger korban that Rabbeinu Yonah calls for.

Matt Landes (WBM ‘16) is a sophomore in Columbia College studying Philosophy. Matt formerly studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and SAR High School. 

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Feminism, Anti-Feminism and the Halakhic Process: Parashat Zakhor as a Case Study

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The discipline of legal interpretation has political value only so long as it can surprise. When judges are merely lawyers for client ideologies or classes, their predictable rulings have power but no influence, and courts lose the capacity to bridge over troubled waters. Witness our embarrassing inability to even consider a replacement for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. This often generates a vicious paradox. Critics will argue that the existing legal structures embody the values of the powerful, e.g. males, rather than of the full community. But since their arguments are framed as advocacy for a particular subgroup, they often kill the golden goose they are attempting to capture. Law’s authority depends on the perception it has legitimacy beyond power; why else would the powerful submit to its authority?

The Torah acknowledges this paradox when it bans judges from favoring the poor over the wealthy. Such favoritism is shortsighted, and leads to the wealthy buying the courts or else evading them. Courts that apply law evenhandedly are the best hope of the poor, unless the law is so corrupt that anarchy or revolution seem justified.

All the above applies to the discipline of halakhic interpretation and its role in the Orthodox community. To the extent that asking a sh’eilah is an assertion of power—I get to choose who decides for you—rather than a submission to the authority of Torah, psak becomes a tool of oppression. But Halakhah can enable a divided community to creatively address religious challenges. Relating to halakhic decisionmaking as nothing more than an assertion of power is a self-fulfilling prophecy that undermines the best hope of the marginalized to live as full members of a society governed by religious law.

Feminist halakhists understand themselves as advocating for a marginalized subgroup within Orthodoxy. My contention is that to be constructive and effective they need to sustain rather than undermine the authority of the legal system. They need to appeal to Torah rather than making claims on Torah; they need to retain the capacity to surprise with their Torah interpretations, and to be surprised by Torah.

The same is true of anti-feminist halakhists, who generate despair, and ultimately revolution or anarchy, when their psakim become ideological recitations rather than live engagements with Torah.

Let me illustrate my point via three skeletal model teshuvot about the following sh’eilah: May a woman make a berakhah on Parashat Zakhor when leining it from a sefer Torah for a minyan composed entirely of women? (Please assume that each skeleton would be halakhically plausible if fleshed out. R. David Brofsky assembles and synthesizes the sources at

Here is the first model, which aims to justify women’s maximal ritual participation:

Q. Are women obligated in the d’oraita mitzvah of Zekhirat Amalek?

A. Sefer HaChinnukh says no, but Minchat Chinnukh says yes, and offers a plausible argument for his position. Since we wish to eliminate distinctions of obligation between men and women where possible, we rule like Minchat Chinnukh.

Q. Does women’s obligation in the mitzvah of Zekhirat Amalek extend to an obligation, whether d’oraita or d’rabbanan, to hear Parashat Zakhor read from a Torah scroll in public?

A. Rabbi Nosson Adler, as cited by Binyan Tziyyon, held that women have such an obligation. Binyan Tziyyon suggests that this follows from the combination of Minchat Chinnukh’s position that women are obligated d’oraita with T’rumat HaDeshen’s position that the d’oraita obligation entails public reading from a scroll. Minchat Yitzchak attests that contemporary Ashkenazic practice is to have late-afternoon readings just for women, which shows we rule like Minchat Chinnukh.

Q. If women are obligated to hear Parashat Zakhor read in public, can they form their own minyan for that purpose, read for themselves, and make birkot haTorah in the process?

A. The default setting is that anyone obligated to perform a mitzvah in public can count toward that public. This is addressed regarding women in the contexts of kiddush Hashem, birkat hagomel, and keriat Megillah. Women can therefore make birkot haTorah when leining Parashat Zakhor for a minyan of women. They can certainly lein for other women, as even BHG’s odd suggestion regarding Megillah, that women have an obligation to hear but not read, does not apply here. However, this does not necessarily mean that women can say Barkhu before leining Parashat Zakhor, as that is a davar shebikedushah and requires separate analysis.

Here is the second outline, which seeks to limit what it sees as halakhic boundary-pushing:

Q. Are women obligated in the d’oraita mitzvah of Zekhirat Amalek?

A. Sefer HaChinnukh says no, because women are not obligated to fight the war against Amalek. Minchat Chinnukh objects that Amalek is an obligatory war, and women participate in obligatory wars. However, Sefer haChinnukh would presumably have responded that women’s participation does not involve combat, and therefore is unlikely to be improved by the emotion of hatred/revenge. Binyan Tziyyon notes that some historical women, for example Yael, were praised for playing combat-like roles, but these were exceptional horaot sha’ah, not models for ordinary women to emulate in ordinary circumstances. Indeed, the Talmud refers to Yael as engaging in a “Sin for the sake of Heaven”! In any case, as a rishon, Sefer HaChinnukh, has more authority than Minchat Chinnukh, and furthermore, some argue that Rosh and T’rumat HaDeshen clearly agree with Sefer HaChinnukh.

Q. Does women’s obligation in the mitzvah of Zekhirat Amalek extent to an obligation, whether deoraita or derabbanan, to hear Parashat Zakhor read from a Torah scroll in public?

A. The questioner in Responsa Torah Lishmah 187 suggests that even if women are obligated in the d’oraita mitzvah, they are not obligated in the public reading. This is because while the d’oraita mitzvah is constant, the public reading is a d’rabbanan obligation with a specific timeframe – annual or triennial – and thus constitutes a mitzvat aseh shehazman garma, a time-cause commandment, from which women are exempt. This seems compelling, in the following way: The mitzvah d’oraita is a private mitzvah, intended to make sure that children are reared to this hatred/revenge. The d’rabbanan mitzvah is to translate that hatred/revenge into martial spirit, and therefore must take place in public. T’rumat Hadeshen and Rosh demonstrate that Rabbi Adler was incorrect in stating that women are obligate in the public reading, or perhaps misunderstood – see below.

Q. If women are obligated to hear Parashat Zakhor read in public, can they form their own minyan for that purpose, read for themselves, and make birkot haTorah in the process?

A. We stated above that women are probably not obligated to hear the public reading, in which case the question is moot. However, even if one adopts Rabbi Adler’s position, the default setting is that any requirement for a “public” requires the presence of ten adult male Jews. While some suggest that women can form halakhically significant groups of ten for mitzvot in which they are obligated, such as Kiddush Hashem, birkat HaGomel, and keriat Megillah, others disagree, and traditional practice has followed the restrictive position. Even Minchat Yitzchak, while accounting for Rabbi Adler’s position, held that men should not make the blessing when leining Parashat Zakhor for women, probably even if a minyan of men were present but had already heard Parashat Zakhor that year. Women may choose to inspire their private sense of hatred/revenge by participating in the public ritual, and in some cases their participation may be necessary to inspire the men, or alternatively, prevent the men from acting on their hatred/revenge inappropriately. For these reasons, in some cultures there may develop an obligatory custom for women to attend the reading, and perhaps this is all that Rabbi Adler meant.

The problem is that these teshuvot are not in genuine dialogue with each other. Just about no one following A would consider following B, or vice versa, in response to a reevaluation of the argument about Rosh’s position, or to a demonstration that Rambam disagreed with Sefer HaChinnukh. The hypothetical authors and followers of these teshuvot seem incapable of being genuinely responsive to Torah that surprises them. They have raised shields, and nothing that conflicts with their ideologically preordained psak can get through. Here is a tentative fragment of a third response, one that I hope would have a better chance of generating authentic halakhic conversation:

Both Sefer HaChinnukh and Minchat Chinnukh assume that the purpose of remembering Amalek is to enable war in the moment. But perhaps the purpose of the mitzvah is not immediate inspiration but rather ongoing cultural hatred/revenge. In that regard, women are certainly vital, as they are vital to generating all the love of mitzvot and mitzvot of love (see the Rav’s essay “Two Categories of Tradition,” while recognizing that the sharp gender-role dichotomy the Rav sets out there is not descriptive of our social reality). This may be the understanding of the many rishonim who make no explicit distinction between men and women with regard to this mitzvah. Even if this is not the purpose of the mitzvah d’oraita, perhaps it was the purpose of Chazal in mandating a public reading of Parashat Zakhor. Even if the public reading is not a mandate of Chazal, but rather a communally adopted custom, it seems clear that at least Ashkenazi women adopted the custom. Perhaps, as well, the exemption of women from war is culturally bounded, and in a society where women serve in combat, they are obligated in this mitzvah as well. (Note that in both Israel and the US women do not have the same military service obligations as men, and that there are very good pragmatic reasons for even the most egalitarian of cultures to be more physically protective of young women than of young men.)

And yet, the notion of a mitzvah to hate and take revenge, to the point of genocide, is properly and deeply challenging and troubling. This is true even though the ethnic category of Amalek is halakhically defunct, and the mitzvah in any case applies only in Messianic times, and even then only when Israel is sovereign and completely at peace with all its neighbors. In contemporary times, the felt absence of G-d’s Presence has led to an increased desire for the pressure of His yoke, as Dr. H. Soloveitchik wrote. Two manifestations of this phenomenon are the search for chumra/stringency in the charedi world and the desire for increased obligation among women in the Modern Orthodox world – benot Yisroel hechmiru al atzman.

All stringencies inevitably lead to leniencies.

Both Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l and the Chofetz Chayim reached the conclusion that the mitzvah of erasing Amalek could be fulfilled only by someone acting for no motive other than obedience to Divine Command; rationalization turns mitzvah into murder. Shaul lost his kingdom not because he was merciful, but because by sparing Agag, he demonstrated he thought genocide could be rationally justified. If a mitzvah related to Amalek can be justified only in the context of commandedness, and all agree that women are fulfilling it, perhaps it is necessary to rule they are obligated. Or perhaps with regard to these mitzvot specifically, it is inappropriate or worse to seek obligation where it does not already exist.

While this third outline is clearly aware of and sympathetic to the concerns of both the first and second, it feels open to being surprised by Torah, and able to react without defensiveness to new sources and ideas that lead in unexpected and previously undesired directions. Unlike the others, it feels genuinely interested in the specific mitzvah under discussion. None of this guarantees success, or even influence. In a polarized environment, especially one with an existing power imbalance, there are always authentic and also projection-based reasons for seeing bridges as vulnerabilities rather than as opportunities. But the alternative too often has been mutual pyrrhic victory, so I think the effort is called for.

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The Case of the Added Elders: A Midrashic Mystery Tour

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Exodus 39:33 tells a seemingly straightforward story.

ויביאו את המשכן אל משה

את האהל ואת כל כליו

:קרסיו קרשיו בריחו בריחיו ועמדיו ואדניו

They brought the mishkan=Tabernacle to Mosheh –

the ohel=tent and all its accessories . . .

its hooks, its panels, its crossbars, its uprights, and its sockets

The ancient translation known as Targum Yonatan retells it as follows:

They brought the mishkan to Mosheh

to his house of study

there Mosheh and Aharon and his sons were sitting,

and he was explaining to them the order of the priesthood

and there the Elders of Israel were sitting

and they showed him the mishkan and all its accessories

its hooks, its panels, its crossbars, its uprights, and its sockets

Now every reader of Chumash must wonder why the mishkan was brought to Mosheh, rather than having Mosheh come see it, which presumably would have been easier. Targum Yonatan explains that Mosheh was in his house of study, where he was teaching Aharon and his sons the priesthood, so perhaps they did not wish to interrupt him. The Targum then adds that the Elders were also present. Why is that relevant? The implication of the passage as a whole is that the mishkan was brought into a court session, before the assembled Supreme Court/Sanhedrin.

Why and on what basis does the Targum suggest this? I think the road to the answer runs through Exodus 33:7, which takes place when G-d orders Mosheh to have the people leave Sinai, in the aftermath of the Golden Calf:

And Mosheh took the ohel

and planted it outside the encampment

distant from the encampment

and he called it ohel moed (Tent of Meeting-by-Appointment)

and it would be that anyone who sought Hashem

would go out to ohel moed

which was outside the encampment

Why does Mosheh remove the ohel from the encampment? Here is the midrashic anthology Yalkut Shim’oni 394:

“And Mosheh took the Ohel”

Resh Lakish said:

When Mosheh saw that they had lost out on a good gift, he too expressed anger at them,

as it says “And Mosheh took the Ohel”

A parable:

To a king who had one legion.

They rebelled against the king!

What did his general do?

He took the insignia of the king and fled;

So too Mosheh took the mishkan and left.

“and it would be that anyone who sought Hashem” –

It does not write ‘anyone who sought Mosheh,’ rather “anyone who sought Hashem” –

Even the angels and seraphim and gedudim would seek him to get authority to go out.

They would say to one another: “He is in the mishkan of Mosheh.”

When the sun and moon would seek permission to go out – they would always go to the mishkan

I absolutely love the reading of “all those who sought Hashem,” and the image of the sun and moon coming to seek permission. But it should be clear that they were not seeking Mosheh – they were seeking the insignia of Hashem that Mosheh had removed from the encampment.

Why did Mosheh remove the insignia? This text has Resh Lakish suggesting that he was angry at the Jews for losing out on a great gift, but why does that follow? For that matter, why would a general flee with the rebellious legion’s insignia because he was angry at them?

A look at Midrash Tanchuma (Ki Tisa 15) answers the last two questions.

“And Mosheh took the Ohel”

Why did Moshe express anger at them?

Rather, Mosheh said: One who is excommunicate to the teacher is excommunicate to the student.

Resh Lakish said: A parable:

To a king who had one legion.

They rebelled against the king!

What did his general do?

He took the insignia of the king and fled;

So too Mosheh, when the Jews did that deed, took the mishkan and left.

In this version it is clear that Resh Lakish offers the parable to disagree with the thesis that Mosheh was expressing anger. Rather, the general takes the emperor’s insignia in order to protect the rebellious legion – without the insignia, the emperor cannot punish them.

This is a radical and dangerous move – the general remains loyal to the king in theory, but in practice he usurps the throne himself. Thus in the end the angels, sun and moon will come to Mosheh rather than to G-d for authorization, since only Mosheh can now issue authorizations.

But what is the real-life parallel, the nimshal, to the royal insignia? Tanchuma and Yalkut Shim’oni both write that Moshe “took the mishkan and left,” suggesting that the mishkan was the insignia. The problem is that the mishkan was not yet built! Or was it?

I think it was not, and that the mishkan was not the insignia. Why do I think this? Let us look at the version of Resh Lakish found in Shemot Rabbah Ki Tisa 45:

This is in dispute between Rav Yochanan and Resh Lakish.

Rav Yochanan said:

Mosheh understood: One who is excommunicate to the teacher is excommunicate to the student! Therefore “and Mosheh took the tent”

R. Shim’on ben Lakish said:

A parable:

To a king who had one legion, and they rebelled against him.

What did his general do?

He took the insignia of the king and fled;

So too Mosheh, when the Jews did that deed, took the ohel and left.

In this version Mosheh took his regular ohel, not the mishkan. Why did the confusion arise? If you look back at our initial Targum Yonatan to Exodus 39:33, you will see that the Targum’s translation of the Hebrew ohel is the Aramaic mishkana – so that while the verse says “they brought the mishkan , , , the ohel,” the Targum has “they brought the mishkana . . . the mishkana.” So I suggest that Resh Lakish spoke in Aramaic, but was misunderstood.

But why would Mosheh’s regular ohel contain the insignia of G-d? Here we must turn to Targum Yonatan to 33:7:

And Mosheh took them and concealed them in his mishkan of Torah study

but he removed that mishkan from there and set it up outside the encampment

distant from the encampment of the people, because they had been excommunicate 2000 amot

and he would call it the mishkan house of study

and anyone who returned-in-repentance with a complete heart before Hashem

would go out to the mishkan house of study that was outside the encampment

admit to his sins, and pray regarding his sins, and pray, and he would be forgiven.

We learn two things here: that Mosheh concealed something in his tent, and that he called the tent House of Study. It follows that what Mosheh concealed in his tent represents Torah, which is the insignia of Hashem. Most likely in context this refers to the crowns that the Jews received at Revelation and abandon in 33:6. The argument between Rav Yochanan and Resh Lakish is therefore as follows: Rav Yochanan held that Mosheh was angry at the Jews for abandoning their Torah-crowns, and therefore moved his tent away from them. Resh Lakish, however, argues that Mosheh collected their crowns and then fled from the camp before G-d could take them back. (Note that on Shabbat 88a, Rav Yochanan says that Mosheh merited keeping all the crowns. (In another midrash, they are what illuminate his face), but Resh Lakish says that Hashem will eventually return them to us. Perhaps we have here another appearance of the motif of Resh Lakish as baal teshuvah.)

So now we know that Mosheh has a tent that he called the House of Study, and which was also called ohel moed. Did he study alone? Bamidbar 27:2 suggests otherwise:

And they (the daughters of Tzelafchad) came and stood before Mosheh

and before El’azar the Priest and before the nesi’im and the whole edah

at the entrance to Ohel Moed, saying:

On Bava Batra 119a we find the following:

Abba Chanan said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer:

They were sitting in his House of Study,

and they went and stood before all of them.

Now – full circle – we can understand where the extra elders come from in Targum Yonatan to 39:33. If the mishkan was brought to Moshe, he must have been somewhere else. Where else? In his House of Study, of course. Would he have been alone? Of course not – the priests and elders were always studying with him.

This solves the literary issue. But is there a message as well?

I think yes, and here it is: Why was it necessary to bring the mishkan to Mosheh at all? Why not simply erect it? Rashi cited the midrashic answer that the mishkan was too heavy to erect, but Hashem gave Mosheh the strength to do so.

The point is that ritual and spirituality cannot stand on their own – they need to be given meaning and purpose by the intellectual content of Torah.

(this dvar torah was adapted from a 2014 version)

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Mishkan and Midrash

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Yakov Ellenbogen

A midrash, in the Midrash Tanchuma to Parshat Pekudei records R. Yaakov b. R. Asi’s opinion that the construction of the Mishkan parallels the creation of the world. To summarize his theory:

  1. The ירעות of the Mishkan parallel the Heavens, which are referred to as יריעות in Tehilim
  2. The פרוכת, which divides sections of the Mishkan, is parallel to the רקיע which divides the upper and lower waters
  3. The כיור parallels the ocean
  4. The מנורה parallels the luminaries
  5. The bird sacrifices performed in the משכן parallel the birds
  6. The כהן גדול parallels the human being
  7. There are three parallels to the seventh day:
    1. Moshe’s completion of the Mishkan parallels G-d’s completion of the universe. Both completions use the verb ויכל/ו
    2. Moshe’s ברכה upon completion parallels G-d’s ברכה upon completion
    3. Moshe’s sanctification of the Mishkan parallels G-d’s sanctification

These parallels all portray the construction of the Mishkan as a microcosm of the creation of the universe. If this symbolism is taken to its logical end, upon completion the Mishkan becomes a portable universe in miniature, with humans as its makers instead of G-d.

Interestingly, all of the parallels in this midrash are taken from the first Perek in Bereshit, and the first creation story. However, other passages throughout Tanach create parallels between the Mishkan and the story of Gan Eden in the second creation story, which is covered in the second and third Perakim of Bereshit. These include:

  1. Adam is placed in the garden with the responsibility “to cultivate (לעבדה) and keep (לשמרה)” the garden. The work of the priests in the Mishkan is described using the terms עבודה and שמירה in various places throughout Tanach (Bamidbar 3:7-8, 8: 25-26).
  2. Yechezkel 28:13 says that in Eden there were the carnelian, topaz, and the emerald, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the carbuncle, and the smaragd, and gold. All of these stones are listed as included in the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol in Shemot 28:17-20, 39:10-13.
  3. The Mishkan was full of depictions of the Keruvim. The image of Keruvim appears on the Aron Kodesh, as well as the פרוכת, which separated the Kodesh Kedoshim from the rest of the Mishkan, and the יריעות, which served as a roof for the Mishkan. Keruvim also make an appearance at the end of the second creation story when G-d places them at the entrance of Gan Eden.
  4. The entrance to the Mishkan faced East. The Keruvim guarded the entrance to Gan Eden which was located in the East as well.

In both the details of the construction of the Mishkan itself and other sources in Tanach there are parallels between the construction and activity in the Mishkan and the story of Gan Eden. The focus on the first story of creation, to the exclusion of the Gan Eden narrative is somewhat strange then. What drove R. Yaakov b. R. Asi to focus exclusively on the first story of creation in his Midrash?

While I don’t feel qualified to offer a definitive solution to this question, I would like to propose two possible answers. The first is that paralleling the construction of the Mishkan to the second creation story, and especially the story of Gan Eden, would be unthinkable. After all, the Gan Eden experiment was a failed one, and the sin of Adam and Chava caused mankind’s expulsion from the garden. The Mishkan should not, and historically did not, suffer the same fate, and such a comparison would be implausible.

The second answer is that, instead of avoiding mankind’s failures, the midrash’s parallel is meant to emphasize the active human element in the construction of the Mishkan. The first creation story has G-d at its center. He creates the world in seven days, and no other character that appears has any major role to play in comparison. The physical construction of the Mishkan, on the other hand, is left totally to mankind. By juxtaposing the human construction of the Mishkan with the divine creation of the universe, the midrash highlights a tension in the human construction of a house for G-d. This tension is most obvious, perhaps, when the midrash reaches the seventh day, and Moshe’s blessing is equated to G-d’s. And yet, while this tension is apparent, the midrash does not fail to remind us that human construction can be equivalent, in some way, to Godly creation.

Yakov Ellenbogen (SBM 2013, 2014, 2015), a native of Sharon, MA, is a Junior at Yeshiva University. He previously attended Yeshivat Petach Tikvah, Yeshivat Sha’alavim and Yeshivat Har Etzion.

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Spirituality, Sexuality and the Science of Desire

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

There is as yet no science of desire. Aphrodisiac technology may well have progressed, but we have no biochemical or neurological understanding of the difference between love and lust, and limited if any capacity to demonstrate the objective existence of that difference.

Recognizing the limits of our knowledge, as opposed to our descriptions and commitments, has significant implications for the religious treatment of sexuality.

Many years ago, Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote (Igrot Mosheh OC 4:115):

למשכב זכור ליכא שום תאוה מצד הבריאה

וכל התאוה לזה הוא רק תועה מהטבע לדרך אחר

אשר גם רשעים בעלי תאוה שלא נמנעין מצד חטא ועון אין הולכין לשם

שיצר הרע זה אינו אלא מחמת שהוא דבר אסור

שהוא כמו להכעיס ח”ו

for gay male sex there is no appetite stemming from Creation,

and all appetite for this is only straying from nature to another path,

one avoided even by even wicked ‘people of appetite’ who do not hold back from any sin or violation, because this evil inclination is caused only by it being forbidden,

and it is as if intended to anger G-d, G-d forbid.

Rav Moshe believed that he was articulating a psychological truth deeply and broadly rooted in Jewish tradition, but this view is now largely regarded as false even within Orthodoxy. The textual evidence he cited now seems forced or partial.

This shift has occurred in highly significant part because of the deep and powerful exposure of Orthodoxy to the personal narratives of gay family, friends, and patients. Personal narratives are properly the raw material for evaluating current psycho-spiritual reality; we really have little other access to other people’s souls.

At the same time, we should also not allow ourselves to become fundamentalists – either way! – about the extent to which these narratives connect to underlying neurological or neurochemical realities, let alone to claims about what is objectively necessary for individual human fulfillment in any and all human societies. Nor should we abandon the notion that our tradition has valuable things to say about the relationship of love and lust, or about the origins of desire. In that spirit, I offer this brief, preliminary, and tentative treatment of an enduring rabbinic locus of reflection on heterosexual desire. Shemot 28:8 tells us that the Mishkan’s water-reservoir, or kiyor, was made of copper:

במראת הצבאת

אשר צבאו פתח אהל מועד

via the mar’ot of the tzov’ot

who tzav’u at the entrance to Ohel Moed.

Rabbinic tradition generally translates that the copper came from mirrors (mar’ot) donated by women-who-gathered-in-hosts (tzov’ot, tzav’u) at the Tabernacle. There seem to be two very different interpretations behind this common translation, however.

1)   The women donated their mirrors to express their abandonment of sexuality for spirituality.  In Ibn Ezra’s words:

,נשים באות תמיד להתפלל אל מקום האהל

,ועזבו כל תאות העולם

על כן נתנו מראותן

Women who continually came to pray toward the place of the Tent,

and abandoned all worldly desires –

therefore they gave their mirrors

Seforno – to my mind compellingly – sees the women as seeking to study rather than to pray, to:

hear the words of the Living G-d,

as Scripture writes:

‘So any seeker after G-d would go out toward Ohel Moed (=Mosheh’s tent, not the Mishkan).

2)   The women donate their mirrors, which they had brought out from Egypt, to commemorate their persistent sexuality under oppression. By seducing their exhausted husbands, they produced the hosts/tzva’ot of the Exodus, and perhaps their efforts were both generated by and generated Divine visions/mar’ot. (According to Baal HaTurim, Ohel Moed =Tent of Meeting is a tzanua allusion to the places where they met their husbands.) These interpretations can be seen as complementary. Their fullest integration is found in the Derashot of R. Yehoshua ibn Shuaib (1280-1340; student of Rashba).

,אותן הנשים ששלטו ביצרן והיו מתפללות יומם ולילה הביאו מראיהן נדבה

שמתחלה היו רואו’ בהן והיו מתקשטות

,והיו פרות ורבות ומעמידות צבאות רבות

,ועתה, כשפרשו מתאוות העולם, הביאום אל משה

ומשה היו מואס בהם

,אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה: קבל מהם, כי הם סבבו להעמי’ צבאו’ בישראל

אותה שעה קבל משה על פי הדבר

.ועש’ מהם הכיור הנכבד שמטיל שלום בין איש לאשתו

Those women who ruled over their evil inclinations and prayed and night donated their mirrors.

Originally they would look in them and adorn themselves

and thus be fruitful and multiply and raise up many hosts

but now, when they separated from worldly desires, they brought them to Mosheh.

But Mosheh was disgusted by them.

The Holy Blessed One said to Mosheh:

‘Receive these from them, since they caused the raising up of hosts in Israel’.

At that moment Mosheh accepted them on the basis of the Divine Imperative

and made of them the honored kiyor, which spreads peace between man and wife.

There are all sorts of wonderful subtexts here, for example: (a) Mosheh, who separated from Tzipporah, failing to recognize the value of sexuality; and (b) the sotah-ritual as a symbol of marital harmony rather than of unhealthy jealousy.

Each of these reverberates down the Tradition, and I hope we’ll have occasion to explore them elsewhere. But for now my questions are: What changed? Why was it proper for these women now to give up their mirrors? Why didn’t G-d, with deepest appreciation, tell Mosheh to give them back for use in producing the next generation?

One might suggest that the women in question were post-menopausal; that ibn Shuaib saw no value in non-procreative sexuality; and moreover, that he did not believe that post-menopausal women experience sexual desire. But the first of these premises is unfounded; the second contradicts Halakhah; and the third contradicts reality. So this would be simplistic rather than simple, and in any case would be a distortion of ibn Shuaib’s sources.

Instead, rooted in Akeidat Yitzchak’s understanding of the difference between the names Chavah and Ishah in Genesis, we can say that in Egypt women had no choice but to prioritize procreation over study or prayer, whereas in the desert they were given both the practical and religious option. At the same time, the mirrors were turned into a source of marital harmony and fertility to emphasize that Talmud Torah must always in some real sense be מביא לידי מעשה =a cause of virtuous action, and that those who choose to focus on cognitive or meditative paths to spirituality must not denigrate those who choose practical paths.

Now the phrase tzov’ot petach Ohel Moed also appears in I Samuel 2:22:

ועלי זקן מאד

ושמע את כל אשר יעשון בניו לכל ישראל

ואת אשר ישכבון את הנשים הצבאות פתח אהל מועד

Eli was very elderly

and had heard all that his children did to all Israel

and that they lay with the women-who-gathered-in-hosts at the entrance to the Tabernacle.

Rabbinic tradition suggests that Eli’s sons merely delayed bringing the sacrifices that women brought after childbirth, and thus kept these women from their husbands and delayed their next pregnancies. But Meshekh Chokhmah takes “lay with” literally, and Malbim as at least reflecting an underlying sexual intent. I think Malbim is fundamentally correct, and there is no ignoring the implication that women were sexually vulnerable when they came to the Tabernacle in Shiloh. And Shmuel’s use of the same phrase as Exodus suggests that this was true at Sinai as well.

Why, if these tzov’ot were the ones “who continually came to pray toward the place of the Tent, and abandoned all worldly desires”? Perhaps, very perhaps, noting again the spiritual and epistemological risks of suggesting anything in this area, the argument is that—at least with regard to women—heterosexual desire and spiritual yearning are closely related, and can be deflected toward each other by manipulative men. The Marc Gafni story should not have been surprising, and we need to stop being surprised by its ilk.

Such an understanding can lead to profound suspicion of female spirituality, and/or to a profound sanctification of female sexuality. Mosheh expresses the first when he seeks to refuse the mirrors; the Holy Blessed One expresses the second when He commands Mosheh to accept them. Halakhic tradition does not see the issue as settled. Some poskim suggest G-d overruled Mosheh only in this specific case, as a hora’at sha’ah (and therefore, perhaps a formerly-mirrored vanity should not become a Torah-reading bimah.) We are still searching for a fully mature way to acknowledge both sides of the tension.

Yes, sexuality can be modestly veiled spirituality, and spirituality can be cleverly disguised sexuality. No, we cannot reliably distinguish which is which, or guarantee that one will not become the other. There is no science of desire.

The dispute for the sake of Heaven between Mosheh and G-d endures as the subtext of many contemporary Orthodox conversations. But I suggest the following as a useful metaphor and precedent with regard to women’s access to the texts of the Mesorah and the physical environs of the Sanctuary. Even Mosheh, who tried to reject the mirrors, never discouraged women from gathering-in-hosts for prayer or study at the entrance to Ohel Moed.

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“As G-d Had Commanded”

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Matt Lubin

The final verses of Sefer Shemos are quite climactic, with G-d’s glory filling the Mishkan so intensely that Moshe himself could not enter, and a description of G-d’s intimate closeness (in the form of a cloud) with the Jewish people throughout their desert journey. However, the concluding section of Sefer Shemos, taking the final six chapters as a whole unit, is anything but dramatic. After already having detailed the specifications of the Mishkan and priestly garments earlier in the book as G-d had commanded them, there seems to be little reason for repeating over one hundred verses of architectural and sartorial minutia. One would have thought that one verse, “and the Jewish people did as G-d had commanded through the word of Moshe” suffices to replace these hundred verses.

When the Torah repeats, however, it rarely repeats verbatim, and the order of vessels in Parashas Vayakhel is not the same as that of Parashas Terumah. A rather well-known Midrash notes that in commanding the construction of the vessels, first Moshe was told of the Aron, then Shulhan, Menorah, and only afterwards of the curtains and tent-structure, while in their implementation, the structure was built before the vessels. The Talmudic version reads:

G-d told Moshe, tell Bezalel to make Me a Mishkan, Aron, and vessels, and Moshe went and reversed it, saying, “Make an Aron, vessels, and Mishkan.” [Bezalel] said to him, “Moshe our teacher, the way of the world if that a person first builds a house and afterwards brings inside the furniture, but you’re telling me to make the Aron, then vessels, then Mishkan! Where would I put the vessels that I made?! Perhaps this is what G-d had told you: make the Mishkan, then Aron, then the vessels.” [Moshe] said to him: “Perhaps you were in G-d’s shadow [bezel e-l, a play on Bezalel’s name] that you knew [and indeed you are correct]!” (Bavli Berachot 55a)

Why, according to this recounting, would Moshe have reversed the order of G-d’s command (and the Torah’s structure of Parashat Terumah reflect this ‘decision’) only to be corrected by Bezalel’s reasoning?

In comparing the descriptions of the building of the Mishkan and its vessels in Parashat Vayakhel with the account of the making of the clothing in Parashat Pekudei, one notes an interesting contrast: while the Mishkan’s construction consists almost entirely of dry details, except for the opening and concluding passages, Parashat Pekudei is sprinkled with constant references to the commandment of G-d; everything was made “ka-asher tsivah H’ et Moshe.” Why does this refrain appear so often (almost twenty times) in Pekudei but not in the Torah’s description of the Mishkan’s construction?

Without necessarily offering this as a textual solution, it is possible that the Torah intends for a particular impression upon the reader of these chapters. After Moshe tells the people of the general plan and they donate their resources for the effort of building the Mishkan, the reader first encounters lengthy details of the materials, curtains, pillars, and specifications, in all of their dry detail. That this is a holy endeavor, the product of religious inspiration, is all but forgotten. The abundance of specifications can be overbearing, and did, in fact, limit the religious devotion of many: an announcement had to be made in the camp that the donations exceeded what was needed “according to G-d’s command” (39:5). It is all too easy to imagine the crestfallen faces of those who were turned away, who had to walk away with the pain of rejection, wondering why G-d did not desire their donation. The specifications of “G-d’s command” could even be religiously stifling, not just tedious.

Reading on, however, the Torah text begins to brighten. After building the Mishkan structure, we are first reminded that all of it was all done according “what was commanded by Moshe” (38:21)—no, not Moshe alone, but “according to all that G-d had commanded,” (38:22) the doubling here seeming to slowly pull the reader out of the doldrums into increased religious awareness. The phrase “as G-d had commanded Moshe” then appears after the production of every article of priestly clothing and at the conclusion, a total of seven times in verses 39:1-31. Then, in the final scene of Sefer Shemos, this phrase is repeated over and over again as Moshe dresses Aaron and his sons and physically constructs the Mishkan (for a total of ten times between 39:33 and 40:33), with the final passage, of course, being the presence of G-d Himself (40:34-38). The ultimate purpose of the Mishkan, forgotten in its initial stages of construction, is realized with an increasing refrain that becomes a crescendo.

The building of the Mishkan began with the noblest of motivations; only donations made of pure intent were acceptable for the Mishkan (cf. Rashi to 25:2) and those who donated their materials or efforts were described as nidvei lev, of generous heart. It is easy, however, once one must be involved in the nitty-gritty of woods and metals, to forget these noble thoughts. Perhaps, then, Moshe first instructed Bezalel regarding the Aron, then vessels, and finally the tent, because although this is not the most pragmatic order, it is the proper axiological sequence: the Mishkan exists for the Shekhinah, which rests upon the Aron (cf. Rashbam to 25:10). One must begin a project with a vision of its end, even if that vision cannot be realized until the completion of a long and hard process; sof ma’aseh be-mahashava tehilah. Perhaps another built-in defense against losing sight of the aim of this construction process is contained in the opening verses of Vayakhel: all building was to stop on Shabbat, a weekly reminder of the G-d for whom this Mishkan is being built.

The mundane slog of everyday life hopefully begins with a vision, whether it was “making the world a better place,” building a Jewish home and family, or the like. Religious inspiration, however, is transient, and what accompany us after inspiration leaves are the nuts and bolts of fulfilling G-d’s command–those details that can be tedious at best, and stifling at worst. Despite the drudgery, however, the Parshah teaches that the goal does break through at the end, in all its divine glory.

Matt Lubin, a member of the inaugural Winter Beit Midrash (2016), is a senior at Yeshiva University.

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