Monthly Archives: November 2016

What if Avraham Had Lived in America? Thoughts on the Political Implications of Human and Jewish Being

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Kabbalah teaches that all difference is illusion, because everything is G-d, in Whom inheres no difference.  But illusion is necessary, as human beings cannot understand G-d as pure simplicity.  Human comprehension emerges out of analysis, or breaking things down into distinguishable components.

One can therefore argue: The difference between Jews and other human beings is a necessary illusion.  But just as the illusion of the world must be a means to comprehending the undifferentiated G-d, the illusion of Jewish difference must be a means to comprehending the image of G-d in all humanity.

This suggests that consciousness of being “different” is an essential aspect of Jewish identity, as in “They are a nation that dwells alone.”  Jean Paul Sartre in AntiSemite and Jew challenges this idea by distinguishing between “authentic” and “inauthentic” Jews.  Authentic Jews define themselves by who they are, without reference to others.  Inauthentic Jews define themselves by what differentiates them from non-Jews.  Anti-Semites by definition live inauthentically, since they define themselves in contrast to Jews.  Jews should strive to be authentic.

My question is whether Sartre’s authenticity is possible, or rather impossible because distinction is necessary for human understanding.  Could one be a self-conscious Jew if all human beings were Jewish?  Is it possible to be meaningfully Jewish without self-consciousness?

Rabbi Soloveitchik in his essay “Confrontation” opens up what can perhaps be described as a kabbalistic corrective to Sartre.  Self-consciousness is essential, and difference is necessary for self-consciousness, but difference does not require the presence of an external “other.”

According to the Rav, Jewish human beings properly perceive themselves as both fully human and Jewish.  It follows (my extension of the Rav’s argument) that one can define one’s Jewishness by distinguishing it from one’s own generic humanity, without having resort to an external “other,” and without denying that one remains a generic human.

This dual nature as both human and Jew is embodied in Avraham Avinu’s paradoxical self-description “ger v’toshav anokhi imakhem,” “I am (simultaneously) an alien and a citizen among you.”  The Rav understands these as discrete conditions.  A Jew qua human is a citizen of the world, and qua Jew is an alien.  Jews are both different from and the same as all other human beings.

Jews throughout history have lived this dichotomy as fiddlers on the roof, with varying degrees of success.  Sometimes we fell off on one side, losing track of our Jewishness; sometimes on the other, losing track of our humanity.  But there was never doubt that the roof was slanted on both sides.

Until 20th century America.

Here’s why.

In previous Diaspora cultures, Jews could participate as equals (when and where they could) only by giving up their particularism.  The “generic” cultural or political space might allow them to maintain their particularism in segregated areas of life, such as worship, but as citizens, they were required to be undifferentiatedly human.

Most often, this undifferentiatedness was an illusion, and the “generic” space actually reflected a dominant non-Jewish culture.  More sharply: Judaism was always posterior to the generic culture, whereas some other religion(s), philosophic system(s), ways of life etc. were anterior to that culture.  To enter that space as a Jew meant stripping off part of one’s prior being.

By contrast, for a post-enlightenment Christian, or a Golden Age Muslim, being a part of generic or universal human culture might mean living in a space where only part of one’s Christian or Muslim being could be expressed.  But this limit on expression was not a limit on one’s being.  One could be political as a Christian, or artistic as a Muslim, without in any way becoming “other.”  Generic humanity essentially meant the parts of Christianity or Islam that could be lived even by those who were not Christians or Muslims.

I contend that 20th century America was different in that Judaism was anterior to the generic culture.

But that claim needs clarification before being applies to the 21st century, as follows:

Judaism is anterior to generic Israeli culture in the same way as Christianity is anterior in Europe.  What makes America different is that Judaism is anterior to the culture in the same way as Christianity is within the same generic culture.

Here my claim can be understood in two very different ways.

(1). America is a Judeo-Christian culture (or, if one wishes to be more inclusive, an Abrahamic culture).

(2). America is a genuinely pluralistic culture, in which all religions and ethnicities are understood to be anterior to the generic culture.

The difference between these claims roughly maps onto the difference between conservatives (1) and liberals (2).

For conservatives, Jews participate in generic American culture as Jews because it is fundamentally a Jewish (and Christian, and possibly Islamic) culture.  So that others can participate, we restrain ourselves from fully expressing our Jewishness in the political sphere.  But we recognize and acknowledge that for some others, full participation in that sphere requires a contraction of being and not just of expression.  (For example: We might contend that democracy is a fundamental value of our religion, and that (cue Mendelssohn) Judaism has no need or desire for power, whereas other religions see the enforcement of G-d’s Will as mission-central.)

For liberals, Jews participate in generic American culture as Jews because it is a culture which is continually recreated in the image of all its participants.  No one should ever have to contract their religious being to participate fully, and everyone should have to contract their religious expression equally in the political sphere.

For conservatives, therefore, being a Jew and an American still allows the Jew to define him or herself against an internal human other.  The generic American is not a generic human.

For liberals, by contrast, there is no difference between the generic American and the generic human – there are no prior religious commitments or noncommitments that can constrict one’s relationship to generic American culture, and limits on political expression never constitute limits on being.  Therefore, the Jew and American has no internal other to define Jewishness against.  The Jew in America is by definition a toshav and not a ger, not because Jews specifically are toshavim, but rather because the category ger is not relevant to anyone with American citizenship.

One consequence of this analysis is that the project of liberal Jewish identity in America may be impossible to sustain.  But I am leery of making strong concrete claims on the basis of abstract philosophy, let alone kabbalah.  Perhaps absolutely authentic being is possible, and can be the basis of a viable mass program.  Perhaps differences in religious expression are sufficient to create the necessary illusion of difference.

I am more interested in exploring the consequences of this analysis for the generic American public space.  Here’s what I want to say:

The liberal position rests on the assumption that religious expression and religious being are wholly separable.  There is no restriction on religious expression that in any way impacts on religious being.  Or most sharply: There is no circumstance in which I can argue that a restriction on my religious expression in a public space is also a restriction on my being.

This yields a variety of easily recognizable results.  For example, banning prayer in public contexts, on the grounds that theistic prayer excludes atheists, or monotheistic prayer excludes polytheists, etc.  Or requiring Catholic photographers to work the weddings of divorcees without expressing their opposition in either word or deed.

The conservative position rests on the assumption that there are no generic humans, and every restriction of religious expression is presumptively a restriction of religious being.  Conservatives therefore are suspicious of attempts to extend the generic sphere beyond the political (thus the opposition to “political correctness”), and leery of expanding diversity in the political arena when that risks constricting their religious expression within it (as they think has happened too often already).

Now the “liberal conservative” recognizes that there is great value in building a polity that includes difference, lest we fall off the other side of the roof and forget our common humanity.  Liberal conservatives are therefore willing to sacrifice some of their religious expression, and consequently their religious being, for the sake of creating a generic political culture.  They may for example be willing to settle for generically monotheistic rather than explicitly Jewish or Christian or Judeo-Christian public prayer, or agree to decriminalize adultery.

But where liberals see diversity as a cost-free value, liberal conservatives contend that substantive diversity (meaning a diversity of values, as opposed to superficial diversity such as skin color or dress) always has a cost, for all members of the generic culture, and that a responsible society engages in ongoing cost-benefit analysis.  There is an at least theoretical point at which diversity-accommodation become a Procrustean bed, and multiculturalism eliminates all the substantive differences that made its constituting cultures valuable in the first place.

My own sense is that Jewish conversation about America should take place within the liberal conservative framework of ger vetoshav.  We should acknowledge the great value of building a diverse polity, but also the costs of diversity, and then argue passionately about how best to maximize the former and minimize the latter, and about how to balance them when there is no choice but to choose.

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Baal ha-Batim, the Avot, and the Imahot

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Michael Pershan

Where does one go for guidance on how to live the practical, Jewish life of a baal habayit?

In a 1979 talk, Rav Soloveitchik identifies two traditions that run through Jewish history. First is the familiar rabbinic tradition, passed from Moshe to each subsequent generation of scholars. Second is the practical tradition of the baal habayit, which originates from Yosef.

In contrast to the scholastic, the practical tradition is not one of concepts, thoughts, concepts, laws. It’s one of images. The continuity is something I see, I feel, I can reach out for it. It’s the tradition of the lifestyle of action. This tradition can be traced back to antiquity.

Many have written about rabbis, Rav Soloveitchik notes, but far fewer have written about baal habatim.

Why has so little been written about Jewish laity? We can partly point towards rabbinic interpretation, which consistently interprets Jewish excellence as scholarly excellence. The gemara (Yoma 28b) cites our parsha to teach that Avraham sat in yeshivah and kept the entire Torah. His servent Eliezer is a scholarly disciple, one who mastered Avraham’s teachings and offered them in turn to others. Both are, undoubtedly, part of the spiritual elite.

Perhaps there is no issue at all. It’s true, there is little said about the spiritual non-elite, but why should there be? Yes, we could imagine Avraham as a real estate agent who struggles (as many of us do) to find time for Torah, family or our communities. But that would eliminate the utility of Avraham as a role model. Avraham is an unattainable spiritual model — striving towards his standard is impossible for the average Jew, and that is what makes him an effective goal-setter for the laity.

There is a great deal of truth here, I think. Yet there is also something missing. I can’t think how Avraham or Eliezer — if we see them as geniuses of Torah — would deal with some of the issues I grapple with daily. Here is one that feels somewhat silly to admit: even after years of eating among colleagues in public, I’m unsure how to make berachos and bentch in the proper way. (Without seeming crazy, while having proper kavanah, without being rude, and without consistently explaining my practices.)

How would Avraham grapple with this? He wouldn’t even be bothered by the problem. Alas, I am.

As I look at this week’s Parsha more carefully, though, I notice that perhaps I’ve shown bias in my search for Jewish role models. There are, in fact, Jewish heroes who are not painted by Chazal as scholars: the women of the Torah. They feel the feelings that I regularly do. We learn from Yalkut Shimoni that Rivka became terrified upon seeing Yitzchak in the field; last week Sarah laughed in the face of an oracle. These are emotions that I recognize.

Could the tradition of baal habayit be found in the women of the Torah? Rav Soloveitchik says this would be a tradition of images, scents and feelings, rather than of intellectual matters. Perhaps, when trying to find ways to bentsch while sitting among colleagues who don’t understand prayer, rather than thinking of halachic heroes I should think towards the images the Torah provides of the imahot — Rivka, sitting on a donkey, covering her face with a veil and whispering to Eliezer.

Michael Pershan (SBM 2009) is a math teacher in New York City.

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May Sermons Discuss Politics?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
This article was originally published in 2013 on Jewish Ideas Online.
Question posed by Jewish Ideas Online: Is it appropriate for a rabbi (as a religious leader) to discuss partisan political issues either from the bimah or as part of a kiddush program in shul (synagogue) on Shabbat?
Rabbi Klapper’s answer: Torah should matter in the concrete, daily lives of Jews, and therefore Torah must speak to political issues.  Budgeting priorities, health care access and quality, legitimate grounds and tactics of war – these are precisely the types of issues that Judaism in particular cares deeply and has much to say about.
This remains true even when those issues become the subjects of partisan debate.  If Democratic policies will fund the abortion of many late-term fetuses that would otherwise be born, and a rabbi sees late-term abortion as murder, how can s/he not say so?  If Republican policies will deprive many people of their basic human dignity, how can a rabbi not say so?
It is true that political parties take positions on many, many issues, and individual politicians do not agree with all the positions of their party, so a religious claim that one must vote a particular way is always oversimplified.  I think it is almost always wiser to discuss and weight the values involved and let listeners reach their own conclusions.  But the job of a religious leader is to set priorities in complex circumstances.
It is also true that voting involves a judgment of consequences, not just of intent, and rabbis often have no particular qualifications to judge consequences.  But neither do politicians, and in any case, all legal and moral decisions require judgments as to facts and consequences.  We should train religious leaders to be expert in these areas, as much as or more as we train them to be expert at dealing with the emotional consequences of personal decisions.  (Of course, rabbis, like everyone else, should avoid speaking out of ignorance, or lecturing the more informed.)
Nonetheless, pulpit discussions of partisan issues are often unwise, and even unfair if an expectation has been set otherwise.  The Jewish religious community generally aggregates along ritual rather than ethical/political lines, and therefore it is practically necessary for rabbis to get along with members of both parties.  Rabbis who talk primarily about politics, and in partisan fashion, will reasonably be suspected of imposing their ideologies on Torah rather than deriving them from Torah.
This does not mean that ritual is more important, or naturally a more appropriate topic for rabbis, than politics.  Decisions to aggregate along ritual rather than theological grounds, or on ritual rather than Zionist grounds, do not require us to consider nusach hatefillah more important than the national existence of the Jewish people, or precise kashrut standards more important than precise standards of monotheism – they simply reflect practical judgments as to the best way of advancing our collective interests.  I suspect that much American Jewish rhetoric on the subject of religion and politics is a product of IRS regulations and of our status as a minority religion.

Bottom line: Rabbis cannot, and congregants should not, see political issues as offlimits.  Rabbis are wise to make such pronouncements sparingly, and with humility – they should make clear that even their wisest, most Torah-grounded judgments do not exclusively or unquestionably represent G-d’s true will.  But they are entitled, and sometimes obligated, to vigorously seek to persuade their congregants to act in accordance with their best judgment as to G-d’s true will, even when His will does not command a political consensus.

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Bully for Sodom

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Sodom was a halakhically sophisticated culture.  Everyone knew the law, and the difference between a violation of the law and what you could be sued for.  On Sanhedrin 109b, the Rabbis illustrate the evils of Sodom via the halakhic principle that one cannot be sued for stealing property worth less than a perutah:

If someone had a row of bricks – they would come and each steal one.

If somebody had put out garlics or olives to dry – each person would take one.

Rashi explains:

They would say to the victim: “What loss have I caused you? All I took from you was one clove!”

It is as if each person pulled one hair out of his head – the victim ends up bald.

Let’s think for a moment about this case.  Who were the perpetrators, and who were the victims?

I suggest that the rabbis are describing something all-too-familiar – malicious bullying.  Groups would get together and impoverish whomever they didn’t like, while making sure not to do anything that could provoke reaction from those with formal authority and official power. [1]

The analogy to the schoolyard is clear.  These are the clique of kids who pick on a classmate to torment.  No individual kid says or does anything particularly unforgivable, and anyway there are no witnesses outside the group – perhaps they even physically surround the victim so no one else can see.  The victim eventually overreacts to one seemingly minor offense, and then gets in trouble, since the attacker at whom he or she lashes out has not individually caused significant damage.

Sodomean bullies consciously manipulate society so that the victim’s acts of self-defense become punishable while their aggression creates no liability.  They take advantage of a morally intuitive “doctrine of proportionality”.

But is it possible that “each person stealing less than a perutah” is terrible not only when it consciously manipulates the system, but even, or perhaps especially, when it enables people to avoid realizing that they are causing harm?  Can we identify systems and environments in which this happens?  I suggest that conversation is one such realm.  Please allow me to explain.

Liberal cultures have a deep, understandable, and to some extent laudable reluctance to acknowledge that a conversation can be zero-sum, meaning that whatever one participant gains, another loses.

Talmudists, by contrast, understand this instinctively.  This is because Talmudic sugyot (=literary units) are often structured as disputational dialogues.  In disputational dialogue, a raayah (attempted proof) for one side of the machloket (dispute) is always a kushya (attempted disproof) against the other, and a kushya on one side is usually a raayah for the other.

It is important to recognize that a Talmudic dialogue is zero-sum on only one axis – which position wins, meaning emerges as more likely true.  Anything that makes one side more likely true, makes the other less likely true.  A raayah for one side (+1) is a kushya on the other (-1) – that’s zero-sum.  But both sides benefit in the sense that they have come closer to the truth.  So the way to avoid zero-sumness is to change the goal of conversation from victory to truth.

But – what if the other person has not made that change?  For them, it still feels zero-sum, no matter how much you tell them that they have been enriched.  If you “defeat” them in argument, they will likely disengage and decide that the modality doesn’t suit them.

Sometimes the zero-sum axis is not about persuading each other, but rather about the public authority of your respective positions.  In such contexts, total victory is achieved when the opposing position becomes untenable in your community’s discourse.  This can happen through pure logical or empirical demonstration, as when looking through a microscope proved that microbes exist.  But much more often, it results from effective rhetoric which makes use of or disguises itself as logical or empirical demonstration.

Disputational dialogue using formal arguments and verifiable evidence are rare in the public square.  What is much more common is what might be termed “affective debate”, in which a conversation is “won” when one side has made it more emotionally or politically difficult to disagree with it than the other.

It is often assumed that even thinking about affective conversations as zero-sum games is inappropriate.  Surely the goal is for each side to express itself fully to the other!  No one loses just because the other side got to express itself.

But this is true only when there is a shared goal of emotional transparency.  With regard to public affairs, affective conversations are often properly understood as (conscious or unconscious) battles for emotional dominance, with each side trying to make it difficult for anyone to express the other position.

Let’s imagine a conversation set on the midrashic planet EinMakom.

Some people on this planet find emotional fulfillment only by eating roast lamb in public.  Deprived of that outlet, they become terribly sad and lonely.  Many believe that their god cuts off all relationship with them if they fail to eat lamb in public at least once a year.

Other people on this planet worship sheep, and believe that killing them for food is sacrilege and a perversion of the natural order.  Watching people eat lamb makes them physically and psychologically ill. [2]

Now let’s imagine a group conversation space – say, a WhatsApp group for EinMakom’s communal leaders.  Nachshon, one such leader, opens a conversation by sharing the intense inadequacy and despondency he felt when work recently compelled him to spend months in a vegetarian community, where it was socially impossible to eat lamb in public.

Following Nachshon, another community leader offers profound gratitude to him for sharing the experience.  Another admires Nachshon’s bravery and courage, and considers them inspirational.  A third expresses astonishment that such intolerant communities still exist.  A fourth declares with happy confidence that no one in this group would consider acting so intolerantly.  And so on.

Each of these follow-up notes seems positive and innocent – what could be wrong about supporting someone who has taken an emotional risk?  But their collective effect is to silence anyone on the listserv who worships sheep and wishes to protect themselves against the psychological and physical damage they experience when watching lamb-consumption.  Each individual note has minimal effect.  But the camel’s back is nonetheless fractured.

In another space, the roles might be reversed.  An initial posting about the psychological damage caused by watching lamb-consumption is followed by similar supportive postings, so that the notion of expressing one’s pain at being deprived of public lamb-consumption – let alone of demanding the right to consume lamb in public – becomes inconceivable.

As opposed to Talmudic discourse at its best, in which one argument generates the necessity for another, and stimulates its development and formulation, Sodomean conversations silence people and end genuine discussion.  The result is that people lock themselves into homogeneous communities, or bubbles.  (Homogeneity of opinion may be coincident with apparent ethnic or religious diversity.  This will tend to aggravate the difficulty of recognizing the problem of silencing.)

Too many conversations in too many spaces in the Jewish world today are conducted in Sodomean fashion.  Too many conversations in too many spaces in America today are conducted in this fashion.  Thus we keep locking ourselves into self-affirming bubbles, and are shocked to discover that our opinions are not universally held.

It would be an important step forward if we acknowledged – at least to ourselves – that in public conversations about controversial issues, affirmations and expressions of support are often powerful zero-sum moves, and when utilized en masse, can easily become instantiations of middat Sodom.

Acting on this recognition, we can take care that our conversations make space for genuinely different and surprising opinions.  Surprised often enough, we may rediscover how to argue ideas for the sake of truth rather than victory, and share experiences for the sake of mutual understanding.  As Jews, we can recreate the art of disagreeing for the sake of Heaven, and as Americans, the art of deliberative democracy.



[1] Deborah Klapper and Davida Kollmar both asked, with Avraham Avinu:  If there were victims in Sodom, didn’t G-d destroy the victims and perpetrators together?  I suggest that in a deeply corrupted culture, the victims are just wannabe bullies, and there is no essential difference between them.  Bad people can be bad to each other.

[2] One Rabbinic interpretation holds that the first Paschal sacrifice was instituted as a public defiance of Egyptian lamb-worship.

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The Way of the World is for a Man to Sacrifice Himself

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Tobie Harris

The story of Lot offers interesting parallels to the Avraham-centric stories directly before and after it.

Lot rushes to meet his guests, offers them food and rest, even bakes them matzot just as Avraham did. When the bloodthirsty mob storms his house, he goes a step further by risking his life for the sake of his hospitality.  Lot leaves the safety of his house and pleads with the mob:

.ויצא אליהם לוט הפתחה, והדלת סגר אחריו


.אל נא אחי, תרעו

.הנה נא לי שתי בנות, אשר לא ידעו איש – אוציאה נא אתהן אליכם ועשו להן כטוב בעיניכם

.רק לאנשים האל אל תעשו דבר, כי על כן באו בצל קורתי

Lot went out to them by the doorway and closed the door behind him.

He said:

Please my brothers, do not do evil.

See, I have two virgin daughters – I will bring them out to you and you can do with them as you like. Just don’t do anything to these men, as they have come under my roof.”

The text offers no direct indication whether Lot’s offering his daughters to the mob should be seen as an indication of the extent of his hospitality, or rather as a sign of unthinkable brutality and callousness.

Midrash Tanchuma, on the other hand, takes an unequivocal stance:

,בנוהג שבעולם אדם – מוסר עצמו ליהרג על בנותיו ועל אשתו והורג או נהרג

.וזה – מוסר בנותיו להתעולל בהם

:א”ל הקדוש ברוך הוא

,חייך, לעצמך את משמרן

“.ולבסוף תינוקות של בית רבן משחקין וקורין “ותהרין שתי בנות לוט מאביהן

:אמר רבי נחמן

?מנין שכל מי שהוא להוט אחר בולמוס של עבירה סוף מאכילין אותו מבשרו


The way of the world –  a man sacrifices himself for his daughters and for his wife, to kill or be killed – but this one – he sacrifices his daughters to be tormented. 

God said to him: 

By your life, you save them for yourself, 

and in the end schoolchildren will laugh and read “Lot’s two daughters got pregnant from their father. Rabbi Nachman said: 

From where do we learn that if one has a craving for sin, in the end he is fed his own flesh? 

From Lot.

This midrash not only condemns Lot, but also directly links this heartlessness to the end of his story, suggesting that his own rape by his two daughters is divine retribution for having offered them up for gang rape by the residents of Sodom.

While the idea of attempted rape being punished by actual rape is obviously horrific, Ilan Sandovski ( suggests a causal link between the two stories. He suggests that when Lot’s daughters said “ואיש אין בארץ לבוא עלינו כדרך כל הארץ,” “There is no man to come upon us in the way of all the land,” they did not believe that the entire world had been destroyed. Rather, they realized that they were no longer in a position to be made a decent marriage offer (for someone to take them “in the way of the world”). This left them alone and vulnerable, at the mercy of a father who had already proved that their virginity was an asset he would trade away for his own protection. They needed a way of securing steadier protection, particularly in the long term, while also ridding themselves of their dangerous virginity. They needed this to happen in a way that their father could neither deny nor use to punish them for licentiousness (as Yehudah almost did to Tamar). In their eyes, raping their father and thus upgrading their status from “virgin daughters” to “mothers of his sons”, was their only path to safety.

Immediately after the end of their story, we return to the narrative of Sarah being taken by Avimelech, which suggests another parallel: is the midrash’s scathing criticism of one who does not sacrifice himself to save his daughters or his wife any less applicable to Avraham, who (for a second time) surrenders his wife to ensure his own safety? Isn’t he, too, sacrificing her “to be tormented” rather than insisting on killing or being killed?

If so, the parallel to Lot’s story might suggest that we need to look for Avraham’s punishment, his own metaphorical “being forced to eat his own flesh”. I would suggest that we can find it in the next chapter, when Sarah forces him to send Yishmael away. While this demand is endorsed by God, there is no sign that it would have been commanded had Sarah not seen the need for it.

Avraham’s actions in Gerar made Sarah believe that her position in the household was precarious. (The prior story of her tormenting Hagar also directly follows her being sacrificed to propitiate Pharaoh). She realizes that safety in Avraham’s household is not absolute for a less-favored wife. Sarah, like Lot’s daughters, must shore up her defenses by securing her status as “mother of the [primary] sons”.  In a household where a wife can be traded away for safety, Sarah is right to believe that she must play power games to ensure her and her son’s safety.

But because these parallel stories of sacrificing others are both capped by the Akeidah, the lesson that the parallel is trying to teach is as murky as the lesson of the Akeidah itself (a problem I originally thought I would get around by focusing on the Lot part of the story). One can read the Akeidah as saying that sacrificing others for yourself is wrong, but sacrificing others for God is right. One can read the fact that the sacrifice was called off as saying that sacrificing others is always wrong.

But in whichever reading, I think there is one point that is significant: the Akeidah is the only one of these stories that begins with an affirmation of the value of the person sacrificed. Lot’s daughters are described only as virgins; Sarah isn’t described at all in this story and in the earlier story is described only as “beautiful”. Yitzchak, in contrast, is described as “your son, your only one, whom you love” and the narrative takes time to establish the closeness between him and Avraham. This point might suggest that the greatest evil – the evil that breeds reciprocal selfishness – more than the sacrifice itself, is to take away the humanity of the one being sacrificed, to reduce them to an object whose value lies only in its utility.

Tobie Harris (SBM 2005) currently lives in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem and is working as an attorney for the Israeli Antitrust Authority.

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Does “It’s Never Been Done” Imply “It Should Never Be Done”?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Part 2 of this series can be found here. Part 3 of this series can be found here.

Halakhic society, like all societies, properly has its radicals and its conservatives.  There are halakhic Avrams, ever willing to leave family and culture behind in pursuit of utopia, and halakhic Yitzchaks, who want nothing more than to keep drinking from ancestral wellsprings.

Halakhic radicals focus on the uniqueness of every moment, and seek the Divine Will as if the Torah were first given in that moment.  Halakhic conservatives focus on continuity and stability, and seek the Divine Will that emerges organically from past applications of Torah to life.

Halakhic society, like all constitutional societies, moderates the clash between radicals and conservatives by binding them to a set of procedural principles.  These principles themselves are understood and applied differently by each side.  Nonetheless, they provide sufficient common ground to enable decisionmaking, and they enable each side to accept defeat without admitting error.  At least, that is the hope; civil wars happen.

My goal in this essay, the first of an intended series, is to begin tracing the history of a phrase that lies on the fault line between halakhic radicals and halakhic conservatives.  That phrase is “לא ראינו” = “we have not seen” (alternatively “לא ראיתי” = “I have not seen”), meaning the attempt to prove halakhah via negative evidence.  It’s never been done that way, so it must be wrong to do it that way.  Does that argument have force in Halakhah?

It should be clear that properly answering this question has significant implications for contemporary conversations about women and Orthodoxy, and I expect to draw those morals explicitly in the course of this series.

Our starting point is Mishnah Zevachim 12:4 (cited partially in Eduyot 2:2).  I will make the conservative move of translating it loosely in accordance with Talmud Zevachim 104a.

.כל הקדשים שאירע בהם פסול קודם להפשטן –אין עורותיהם לכהנים; לאחר הפשטן – עורותיהם לכהנים

:אמר רבי חנינא סגן הכהנים

.מימי לא ראיתי עור יצא לבית השריפה

:אמר ר’ עקיבא

.מדבריו למדנו שהמפשיט את הבכור ונמצא טריפה – שיאותו הכהנים בעורו

:וחכמים אומרים

:אין “לא ראינו” ראיה, אלא יוצא לבית השריפה

All animal sacrifices that are discovered to be invalid

before their skinning –their skins do not go to the kohanim;

after their skinning – their skins go to the kohanim.

Said Rabbi Chanina the Executive Vice Kohen:

In all my days, I never saw a skin go out to the incinerator

[and therefore it must be that the skin goes to the kohanim even if the sacrifice is discovered to be invalid before skinning].

Said Rabbi Akiva:

From his words we have learned that if one skins a firstborn animal

(whether as a sacrifice in the Temple, or, if it was declared physically blemished by a qualified scholar, for the sake of food outside the Temple) –

that the kohanim may derive benefit from its skin.

But the Sages say:

“We have not seen” is not a proof, [1]

and the skin goes out to the incinerator.

Rabbi Chanina is conservative, and the Sages are radical.  The Halakhah follows the Sages.  This suggests that halakhists should not hesitate to argue for the necessity of unprecedented actions.

However, Talmud Pesachim 51a significantly qualifies that suggestion.

 – דברים המותרין ואחרים נהגו בהן איסור

.אי אתה רשאי להתירן בפניהן

:אמר רב חסדא

.בכותאי עסקינן

:וכולי עלמא לא?! והתניא

.רוחצין שני אחין כאחד, ואין רוחצין שני אחין בכבול

 – ומעשה ביהודה והלל בניו של רבן גמליאל שרחצו שניהם כאחד בכבול

“,ולעזה עליהן כל המדינה, אמרו: “מימינו לא ראינו כך

“;ונשמט הלל ויצא לבית החיצון, ולא רצה לומר להן “מותרין אתם

.יוצאים בקורדקיסון בשבת, ואין יוצאין בקורדקיסון בשבת בבירי

,ומעשה ביהודה והלל בניו של רבן גמליאל שיצאו בקורדקיסון בשבת בבירי

“,ולעזה עליהן המדינה, ואמרו: “מימינו לא ראינו כך

“;ושמטום ונתנום לעבדיהן, ולא רצו לומר להן “מותרין אתם

.ויושבין על ספסלי נכרים בשבת, ואינן יושבין על ספסלי נכרים בשבת בעכו

,ומעשה ברבן שמעון בן גמליאל שישב על ספסלי נכרים בשבת בעכו

“,ולעזה עליו כל המדינה, אמרו: “מימינו לא ראינו כך

“.נשמט על גבי קרקע, ולא רצה לומר להן “מותרין אתם


.בני מדינת הים נמי, כיון דלא שכיחי רבנן גבייהו – ככותים דמו

Things which are permitted, but others have practiced that they are prohibited –

you may not permit them in their presence.

Rav Chisda said:

The “others” referred to here are Cutim.

Is this not true regarding everyone?!  But a beraita teaches:

Two brothers may bathe together

(without concern for the appearance of sexual impropriety) –

but not in Kabul;

A story regarding Yehudah and Hillel, sons of Rabban Gamliel,

who bathed together in Kabul,

and the whole country gossiped about them, saying: “In all our days we have never seen such”,

so Hillel left and went to the outer room,

not wishing to say to them “You are permitted to do this”.

One may go out on Shabbat wearing loose sandals

(without concern that they will fall off, and end up being carried) –

but not in Beirut.

A story regarding Yehudah and Hillel, sons of Rabban Gamliel,

who went out in Beirut on Shabbat wearing loose sandals,

and the whole country gossiped about them, saying: “In all our days we have never seen such”,

so they took them off and gave them to their servants,

not wishing to say to them “You are permitted to do this”.

One may sit on “Gentile” benches on Shabbat

(without concern for the appearance of engaging in commerce),

but not in Akko.

A story regarding Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel,

who sat on “Gentile” benches on Shabbat,

and the whole country gossiped about them, saying: “In all our days we have never seen such”,

so he got off and sat on the ground,

not wishing to say to them “You are permitted to do this”.


The people in those foreign places are like Kutim, since they have little exposure to rabbis.

This passage suggests that halakhic radicalism is an option only in communities with a great deal of halakhic sophistication.  The rationale for this distinction is articulated clearly by Rabbeinu Chananel:

?מאי טעמא

 – משום דסרכי

‘,אומרין ‘הלא דבר פלוני היינו נוהגין בו איסור, והיה מותר; כן גם דבר זה מותר הוא

ויבואו להתיר האיסור

What is the reason (for the distinction between Cutim and others)?

Because they will go astray –

they will say

“We used to treat that matter as forbidden, but it was permitted; so too this thing is permitted”,

and they will end up permitting the truly forbidden.

According to this passage, even if “We have not seen” is not sufficient evidence for prohibition, it may be sufficient cause for prohibition – but only in some communities.

Which communities?  The Talmud distinguishes between communities that are regularly exposed to rabbis, and those that are not.  It seems reasonable to take rabbinic exposure as a proxy for halakhic sophistication.  In a halakhically sophisticated community, the acknowledgement of past error does not destabilize the authority of the system.  Perhaps this is because everyone sees the system as functioning through human reason and intuition, and therefore fallible.  In a halakhically unsophisticated community, the acknowledgement of one error may undo everything.  Perhaps this is because loyalty to the system is based on the belief that it is derived through some form of infallible direct access to the Divine[2].

Whether Modern Orthodoxy is a safe haven for halakhic radicalism, then, should depend on whether our community is halakhically sophisticated.  I think that by historical standards it surely is.  Do you agree?

But I also think that this is too easy a statement of the issue.  A community’s halakhic loyalty can be vulnerable for other reasons, such as attenuated belief in Torah min HaShomayim, or pressure from compelling external value systems, or serious ethical lapses on the part of its religious leadership.  All of these apply to Modern Orthodoxy, in spades.

Perhaps the more important question is whether these other causes of instability as well are best dealt with by halakhic conservatism, by reactionarily digging in and reinforcing our commitment to halakhic practice as-is.  Or are there times when one can only fight fire with fire?  Do we live in such times?

Shabbat shalom



[1] Literally “We have not seen” is not a seeing

[2] which may be termed ruach hakodesh, or daas Torah, etc.

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Should We Always Have Perfect Faith?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elliot Dine.

By the end of his life, Avraham is the paragon of faith, the man willing to follow God to the end of Earth, to submit himself fully to God’s will.  But in this week’s parashah, Avraham expresses exasperation towards God and demonstrates a striking lack of belief in G-d’s promises. Should we model our faith only after Avraham at the destination of his life’s journey, or are his stops on the way worthy of emulation as well?     

In 13:6, God promises Avraham that “his progeny will be like the dust of the Earth” (13:6).  The next time God promises to protect and reward him, Avraham states his skepticism about these promises, and he repeats his challenge — that he does not have anyone who will inherit — before letting God respond (15: 1-3).  When God repeats his promise that Avraham’s progeny will be numerous, Avraham seems to  believe Him (15:6), yet only two verses later Avraham exclaims “How do I know that I shall inherit it?!” (15:8). What explains Avraham’s initial disbelief?  Why does he demand a sign that God’s promise will come true even after apparently regaining trust in Him?

The Ran quoted in the Abrarbanel provides an insightful answer to these question based on his close read of the text. Picking up on God’s promise of a “great reward”, Abraham challenges Him at first hinting and then stating outright that a great reward does him no good if he has no offspring he can leave the reward to. Furthermore, Abraham cannot believe that he will have offspring to give over all his wealth since he and Sarah are already well past the age of child-bearing. Thus, God assures Abraham that he will in fact have offspring; that the reward and protection that Abraham receives will continue on to the next generation. Yet, Abraham remains unsatisfied; he needs to know if he will see his children inherit the land. He still feels uneasy due to his old age and knows he cannot assure his children’s proper inheritance of the land. Therefore, God makes a new covenant with Abraham where he specifies how and when Abraham’s offspring will inherit. In sum, Abarabanel argues that Abraham in naturally fearing for his legacy and for his offspring’s well-being charges God to make new and to make good on his promises. [1]

It is only once God does so, once God makes this covenant that Abraham can have complete faith. The covenant made here allows Abraham to accept the challenges that lie ahead, to sacrifice the only offspring who will inherit him, for he now has God’s promise that his offspring will inherit the land only after 430 years. This episode illustrates that for Abraham, and consequently for us, in some cases it remains an appropriate response to challenge G-d’s action even when our concern is personal and not universal.




Abarbanel commentary on Genesis, 15:1 question 3

והר”ן הרגיש בספק הזה וכתב שבמאמר הראשון השיב לענין השכר שלא היה צריך לו יותר רכוש כיון שהיה ערירי בלא בנים. ובמאמר השני התלונן שבמאמר האלהי הנזכר שנאמר לו לא באה הבטחת הזרע בהיותו יותר צריך אליו מהרכוש ולהיותם שני ענינים באו עליהם שתי אמירות

The Abarbanel himself does not like this answer because it does not explain the separation between Abraham’s asking for a heir, believing in G-d’s promise and then asking for a sign later. I am less worried about this issue because in both cases it is G-d who starts the conversation, and the conversation appears to be about two different issues. The first deals with having an heir to inherit all the “reward” Abraham receives, while the second deals with Abraham’s descendants inheriting the land specifically.


Elliot Dine (SBM 2010,2015) is currently pursuing a PhD in molecular biology at Princeton University.

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