Monthly Archives: June 2016

Charisma Revisited, or: The Difference between Winning It All and Total Victory

Maybe – just maybe – this time is different.  In the wake of yet another dispiriting scandal involving a brilliant and charismatic Orthodox educator, I have been encouraged by a series of thoughtful, serious, and practical public responses.  Noteworthy among these was SBM alum Rabbi Elli Fischer’s “On ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Charisma in Jewish Education: Toward a Taxonomy of Risk”.  Rabbi Menachem Schrader then wrote this extremely valuable comment:

Rav Amital, the great rabbi Rabbi Fischer referred to, was crucially aware of his own charismatic potential. He diffused its dangerous side in 2 ways:
1. by insisting on his students’ obligation to think things out themselves, and come to their own conclusion, even if it contradicted his own.
2. by bringing Rav Lichtenstein in to be Rosh Yeshiva together with him, knowing full well they would frequently disagree on many matters. This created an intrinsic counterpoint to the charisma of his persona, requiring the talmidim of the yeshiva to weigh the conflicting views of their religious mentors, and deciding which if any approach should be adopted.

Now Monty Python fans are aware that approach number 1 does not work on its own – telling people that they “are all individuals” does not disaggregate the herd of independent minds.  So I want to focus on the remarkable second approach.

Rav Amital’s invitation to Rav Lichtenstein was humanly remarkable for the willingness to share power and influence (and let us not forget Rav Sabato’s similar invitation to Rav Rabinovich).  It was pedagogically remarkable because it seemingly squared a circle by emphasizing the value of intellectual and ideological diversity in the context of a highly ideological institution with a fundamentally intellectual agenda.

Could this model be transferred to day schools and high schools?

Let’s first point out the obvious objections.

Yeshivat Har Etzion was the rare pushmipullyu that could make up its mind which head to follow when, rather than freezing in place, or painfully splitting, or suffering from severe autoimmune diseases. 

Day schools can’t possibly afford the salaries of two heads of school, or two teachers in each classroom.

This kind of complexity is appropriate for high school students, but sixth graders need clarity and direction above all else. 

This kind of complexity is appropriate for the intellectual elite, but not for the masses.

And so on and so forth.  In many contexts many of these objections are well-taken.

So here is a radical suggestion.  What if we tried to transfer this approach to a larger rather than a smaller scale?  What if we tried to run the entire Orthodox community, or at least the Modern Orthodox community, with that value in mind?

Let me propose the following metaphor.  In some contests, the goal is to win as thoroughly and resoundingly as you can.  But in professional sports, this is rarely the case on the macro-level.  Sports require competitive balance, so richer teams accept self-imposed limits to allow poorer teams to compete.  This doesn’t diminish the intensity of any particular game, or season, or playoff series.  Each team tries to win every game.  But it means that everyone understands that total victory is self-defeating.

Many years ago, I asked a young woman just graduated from seminary whether her institution encouraged independent thinking.  She assured me that it did.  I responded by asking her to tell me about a time when her teachers had clearly disagreed about a matter of hashkafah.  After a few minutes, she said that she had the impression during a session on shiddukhim that one teacher had strongly favored looking for Torah scholarship as a first priority, while another favored looking first for excellent middot.  That is certainly a vital issue, but I think there should have been more. So: What hashkafic topics do teachers openly and passionately disagree about in your local school?

For example, I am very glad that there are Orthodox clergy who respond passionately and unselfconsciously to human suffering of any kind, even if their responses are not what I would have said or done.  I am glad that there are Jews who think Rashbam is the rishon closest to peshat.  I am glad that some Jews think the Rav’s philosophic framework is far too wedded to a past academic moment.  Now I generally prize deliberation and rational self-consciousness; I see Rashbam’s overall approach as a step back from the likeliest meaning of Torah; and my hashkafic positions live in constant productive dialogue with the Rav’s works.  But my world would be poorer, and Torah-interpretation would be less capable of approximating Divine will, if I convinced everyone to agree with me.

Of course boundaries are important, and obviously Rav Amital and Rav Lichtenstein had much in common.  But the purpose of boundaries is not only to wall out, but also to wall in, and for our own sakes we need to keep people in whom we strongly disagree with.

When Eldad and Meidad prophesy in the camp – in other words, when they show signs of being able to prophesy outside of the presence of Mosheh – Yehoshua asks Mosheh to punish them.  Mosheh responds with an idealistic vision in which every Jew is a prophet.  It seems that Mosheh is right, but is he completely right?  A midrash tells us, after all, that the content of their prophecy was that Mosheh would be transferring his position to Yehoshua.

I suggest that Mosheh was more right than Yehoshua.  In a binary game, spiritual anarchy is better than spiritual totalitarianism.

But Yehoshua had a point.  Constitutional democracy is better than either.  G-d chose not to make us all prophets, because G-d wanted us to be thinking about and through Torah.

Mosheh Rabbeinu was the sun; Yehoshua the moon.  To shed any light in the presence of Mosheh one had to be a supernova; Yehoshua could be the foreground for an entire galaxy.

The Torah tells us clearly that Mosheh’s model was nonrepeatable.  Perhaps it also means that we should not try to repeat it, but rather celebrate the responsibility imposed by the permanent absence of legislative prophecy, and the extended absence of any prophecy.

We should be patient in judgment – which means that we need to make sure to hear and encourage passionate disagreement;

We should raise up many students – even or especially if they will fight for positions we think are wrong (but we should tell them clearly when they are wrong, badly wrong, or culpably wrong);

We should build a fence around the Torah, so that we can have the freedom to err without fearing that every error will uproot our Tree of Life.

Here is a final thought exercise: What are the people, positions, ideas, practices, that you oppose with might and main, and still recognize are sometimes more right than you are?  Or if not more right, at least sometimes capture aspects of the holy or the good that your own positions cannot?

In a community which has genuine answers to those questions, I suspect that conventionally run institutions will nonetheless be more open, and I hope that teachers with natural charisma will be less likely to fall into negative habits.

Shabbat shalom!























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Taste and Text-ure

This week’s Alumni Dvar Torah is by Rob Golder

An oft-mentioned Rashi in this week’s parasha (Bemidbar 11:5, s.v. et ha’kishuim, quoting Sifre) describes how the manna we received in the desert could taste like almost anything its consumer would desire.  But I have great difficulty understanding how a substance shaped like coriander seeds could satisfy my craving for a steak or sushi.  For me, as a former mashgiach and avid foodie, taste and texture are absolutely inseparable.  Hence, Rashi’s manna evokes the experience of eating a meat- or fish-flavored jelly bean rather than a sophisticated and satisfying entrée.

This troubling disconnect between taste and texture intensifies when we attempt to taste any of the five types of Egyptian produce which we longed for in this week’s parashah, namely cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic.  (Bemidbar 11:5)[1].  The Rabbis suggest that we longed for these particular species because they were the exceptions to the general rule that manna could have any taste desired.  The precise mode of this exception was disputed on Yoma 75a: [2]

את הקשואים ואת האבטיחים

רבי אמי ורבי אסי: חד אמר: טעם כל המינין – טעמו במן;  טעם חמשת המינין הללו – לא טעמו בו

וחד אמר: טעם כל המינין – טעמו טעמן וממשן; והללו – טעמן ולא ממשן

(Bemidbar 11:5) “The cucumbers and the melons

Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi:                                                                                                                                 One said:                                                                                                                                                       they could taste the taste of all species in the manna,                                                                          but these five species – they could not taste in it.                                                                              But the other said:                                                                                                                                    they could taste the taste and substance (mamashan) of all species in the manner,             but these – only their taste and not their substance.                                                                 (Yoma 75a)

In Gilyonei HaShas (Berachot 48b), Rabbi Yosef Engel applies this machloket to a fascinating hypothetical:  whether one can fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah on the seder night by imagining the flavor of matzah while eating manna.  According to the first opinion in Yoma, eating the matzah-flavored manna is no better than eating a matzah-flavored jelly bean.  But, Rabbi Engel argues, according to the second opinion, manna that has both the taste and substance of matzah either is in fact matzah, or at the very least is a sufficiently similar substitute to be valid for the purpose of the mitzvah of achilat matzahRitva (Kiddushin 38a) disagrees, asserting that despite being alike in taste and substance to matzah, matzah-flavored manna is fundamentally different from real matzah because it is divinely created and not composed of the five grains from which matzah may be formed.

One of my favorite meforshim and poskim, the Rogotchover Rebbe (Responsa Tzofnat Paneach 3) pushes the first opinion in Yoma even further, asking whether one would be allowed to eat manna that tastes like a forbidden food.  He allows treif-tasting manna for two reasons: 1) a general principle that Hashem would not use a miracle to create food that is forbidden (using the motif of “ein davar tamei yored min ha’shamayim” found in Sanhedrin 59a) and 2) because the taste and substance of the food are so unified as an entity that the forbidden taste is consumed by the permitted nature of the physical substance (“davar ha’na’aseh mi’kama minim metziut achat hu.”)

Both the Ritva and the Rogotchover concur in minimizing the effect of our gustatory perceptions on the metaphysical status of food.  We internalize the lessons of the manna not through what we choose to taste, but through the experience of living by direct divine substance.  Manna is a gift with stringent terms and conditions, both physical and spiritual, and not an “any type of food you can eat” buffet.  Nevertheless, manna is also an avenue by which Hashem allows us to perceive the world from whatever perspective we choose – even if we seek to experience the taste of the forbidden – so long as we continue to act in accordance with divine law and with respect and appreciation for how our continued sustenance, whether by bread of the heavens or bread of the earth, is truly miraculous.

May we all soon be blessed with the experience of the taste and substance of the korbanot in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem.

[1] My wife and I have established the custom of serving an appetizer plate including these five foods at the seder in order to relive our culinary experiences in Egypt.

[2] Rashi (s.v. hallalu lo ta’amu) explains that the five Egyptian foods were excluded from the manna menu because of the danger that they supposedly posed to pregnant women and young children.  Although later commentators have suggested alternative reasons in light of our developing understanding of medicine over the generations, I am less concerned with the reason for the distinction than with the machloket that results from making the distinction.


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Daf Yomi and Advanced Learning, Especially for Women

A literate Jewish laity properly demands and eventually receives an even more learned rabbinate.  The Daf Yomi program (founded by my grandfather z”l’s rebbe Rabbi Meir Shapiro) is among the more remarkable lay literacy programs in history.  And a rising tide lifts all boats; it takes a rabbinate that knows Shas deeply to genuinely lead a community that has learned through Shas.

The corollary is also true. It is very hard for a broadly ignorant culture to produce genuine talmidot chakhamot.  As a passionate advocate of women’s advanced Torah learning, I recognize the urgent need to produce more learned ba’alot bayit, both lishmoh and because they will create the demand for profoundly learned women leaders.

Early last week, I noted on Facebook that YU was celebrating Daf Yomi’s completion of Seder Nashim with an all-male panel of scholars, adding several exclamation points after Nashim.  I did not mean to suggest that Seder Nashim is more about women than say Seder Taharot, which in Talmud includes only Tractate Niddah.  Nor was I pushing for the affirmative action inclusion of a woman panelist who had not taught the daf throughout that Seder.  I hope that everyone possible attended the event, to honor those who maintained this commitment and to inspire others to commit.

Rather, I wanted to focus attention on the extent to which women’s lay learning is still so far behind men’s, with relative attendance at Daf Yomi as a marker.  We need women learning the daf to demand women teachers who already know the daf – and then insist that those teachers take their earned place on the dais at the next siyyum.  We need women to learn through all of Shas if we want to produce women who command Shas.  Such women are needed among other things for their insights on issues of Gittin and Kiddushin, and Niddah, and Bava Kamma.

Not that daf yomi suits every learning style.  My only extended effort so far was a chavruta with Deborah Klapper that didn’t quite make it through Seder Moed.  But to affirm my support for its importance – and also to model some ideas about Talmud education – I will use this week’s dvar Torah to teach the opening of Seder Nezikin. (If you’re inspired to want to learn the masekhta or seder this way – please email me.)

Mishnah Bava Kamma opens with a mnemonic:

Four Father-Cases (avot) of Damages

followed by a list of the four:

Shor (=ox), Bor (=pit), Mav’eh (=?), Mav’ir (=burning). 

Talmud Bava Kamma’s opening focuses on a related statement by the Amora Rav Pappa:

Some among them are like them;

Some among them are unlike them.”

This is understood to mean that some toladot, or ‘descendant’ cases of damages, have the same consequences as the av from which they ‘descend’, but some do not.

Rav Pappa’s claim seems odd; why would a descendant case have different consequences than the father-case?  And why would only some of the descendant cases have those different consequences?

The Talmud begins by (re)constructing a literary justification for Rav Pappa’s claim.  The Mishnah uses the term avot in two other areas of halakhah: Shabbat, and Tum’ah.

With regard to Shabbat, there are 39 categories of prohibited labor, and the cases put in those categories entail the same punishment as the principle-cases.

With regard to Tum’ah, the terms avot and toladot don’t refer to categories and cases, but rather to higher and lower categories.  When an av source-of-tum’ah transmits tum’ah to an object, that object becomes a toladah source-of-tum’ah.  However, an av can transmit tum’ah to a broader set of objects than can a toladah.

The upshot is that in Mishnah avot and toladot may (Shabbat) or may not (tum’ah) have the same consequences.  So Rav Pappa’s claim about the toladot of the avot in our mishnah is literarily plausible.

That brings us to a deeper question: In what sense is a case a toladah if it has different consequences than its av?

To explore this question, the Talmud lists the toladot for each av.  Not surprisingly, we discover that each toladah shares all its abstract qualities with that av.  We therefore can find no justification for giving it different consequences.

Except in one case– chatzi nezek tzerorot (=paying only half-damages for damage caused by pebbles kicked up by an animal).  Chatzi nezek tzerorot falls under the category regel (=foot; commonly occurring damage), which is a subcategory of Shor.  However, while regel usually generates an obligation to pay full damages, there is a Halakhah leMosheh Misinai (tradition received by Moses at Sinai but not recorded in the Written Torah) that one pays only half-damages for tzerorot.  Nonetheless, according to Rav Pappa, tzerorot carries two other features of the category regel­, and therefore is properly its toladah: one is not liable for tzerorot kicked up in a public space (=reshut harabim), and one has to pay one’s liability for tzerorot “from the best”.  (Rava is unsure about “from the best”.)

So the Talmud concludes that Some among them are unlike them refers specifically and exclusively to tzerorot, and Rav Pappa’s statement essentially reduces to a mnemonic for tzerorot.  Note, however, that Rav Pappa’s statement no longer applies directly to the Mishnah.  Shor includes a subcategory, keren, that pays half-damages for first offenses, so tzerorot is not unlike Shor; it is unlike it’s av only because it is placed in the subcategory regel rather than in keren.

That covers the overall formal structure of the first two dafim.  However, the Talmud uses this formal structure as a scaffold on which it hangs as much halakhic information as possible.  Or if you prefer: The formal structure is a scaffold built to serve as a mnemonic for as much halakhic information as possible.

So in the course of its discussion of avot on Shabbat, the Talmud tells us that

  1. There is a Tannaitic dispute as to whether one is liable for multiple sacrifices for violating the same category on Shabbat in multiple ways, and
  2. The father-cases on Shabbat are derived from the Mishkan.

In the course of its discussion of avot regarding tum’ah, the Talmud tells us that

  1. an av can transmit tum’ah to humans, utensils, food, and drink, but a toladah cannot transmit tum’ah to humans or utensils.

The Talmud then conducts a Benjamin-and-his-brothers-search for the case Rav Pappa was referring to, making sure to bring up the correct case only after it has gone through all the others.  In the context of that search, it makes sure to offer a precise definition of each av, and also to list its toladot.  (Since regel appears early in the search, which initially follows the order of a beraita listing subcategories of Shor, the Talmud leaves tzerorot out of its initial presentation of the toladot of regel, and then revisits the category at the end.  So we learn along the way that

  1. There can be multiple av-cases for a single category, in addition to toladot
  2. Shor includes the av-cases
    1. keren (=horn), defined as intentional damage, whether or not the horn is “attached”;
    2. shen (=tooth), defined as damage which benefit the damaging animal; e,g, when it eats, whether or not the plant it eats will regrow;
    3. regel (=foot) defined as commonly occurring damage by an owned animal
  3. Bor includes the av-cases of pits deep enough to cause death, and pits only deep enough to cause injury. Bor is defined as damage by something that was created with the potential to harm. that belongs to you.

(Note that in this case “belongs to you” does not mean actual ownership, as the av-case is a pit dug in a public domain, but rather that we treat you as if you own it.)

  1. Rav and Shmuel dispute whether Mav’eh = Shen = tooth, which should therefore be removed from Shor, or rather Mav’eh = Adam = human.
  2. If Mav’eh = human, its toladot are damages caused by sneezing and spitting.
  3. Goring a human being makes an ox muad to gore other animals, but goring an animal does not make an ox muad to gore human beings.
  4. All humans are always muad to cause damage, even when asleep (because they stretch).
  5. The toladot of Mav’ir =Esh (fire) include dangerous objects left on a rooftop which then fall off and injure somebody.
  6. Mav’ir is defined as damage caused by a human being together with another force, by something that belongs to you, and that you must guard other people’s property against.

Among the Talmud’s brilliant achievements is the narrative voice that weaves all the above into a flowing conversation.  I hope many of you will be adding your voices to that conversation.  Shabbat shalom!

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