Monthly Archives: May 2017

CTML Shavuot Aseret HaKesharim: 5777 Edition

In honor of Shavuot, check out these 10 links from the Center for Modern Torah Leadership related to Shavuot and Talmud Torah!

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Learning Torah is Like Taking Deadly Poison: A Dangerous Shiur

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Numerous Talmudic statements extravagantly praise Torah study “lishmoh”, and/or denigrate Torah study Torah “not-lishmoh”.  However, the term “lishmoh” is never defined[1].  What is the proper motivation for studying Torah, and what motivations are improper?  More sharply: is there a mental state of motivation for Torah study that is both humanly achievable and unquestionably proper?

Let’s start from a passage on Taanit 7a. [2]

A beraita:  R. Bena’ah would often say:

Anyone who is deeply involved in Torah lishmah – his Torah becomes an elixir of life for him,

as Scripture says “She is a tree of life for those who grasp her” (Proverbs 3:18)

but anyone who is deeply involved in Torah not lishmah – it becomes an elixir of death for him,

as Scripture says: “My teaching will be oref like rain”,

and oref refers to killing,

as Scripture says: They must be oref (=break the neck of) the calf there, in the wadi.

The term “tree of life” identifies Torah with the original Tree of Life in Eden.  The implication is that Adam was expelled from Eden because he failed to learn Torah lishmoh.  Similarly, Rava teaches (Berakhot 17a[3]) that one who learns not-lishmoh “would have been better off not created”, i.e. has not fulfilled the purpose of Creation.

The problem with this interpretation is that Adam was expelled from Eden to prevent him from eating of the Tree of Life. Why would G-d want to prevent him from learning Torah lishmoh?!  Moreover, if the Tree of Life is in Eden, and human beings are banned from entering, how can it be possible for us to learn lishmoh?

One might suggest that it is not possible, that learning lishmoh is a category of religious experience reserved for an age in which the Light of the First Day of Creation is again revealed to the righteous.  But R. Bena’ah goes much further than excluding not-lishmoh from the Tree of Life.  Torah not-lishmoh, he claims, is not the absence but rather the antithesis of lishmoh, and is therefore deadly.

His prooftext for this claim seems badly forced. While the noun oref means ‘back of the neck’, and in the context of the Eglah Arufah the root ערפ means ‘to break the neck’, it is very difficult to assign it that meaning in the context of rain.  I am unaware of rain ever falling with enough force to literally break a human neck.  Moreover, in other places in Tanakh, rain seems to be a positive thing.

There is however an excellent literary reason to associate Torah with death.  Eden contained two trees, one of life and one of death.  The tree that brings death is that of “knowledge of good and evil”, and, Torah is the proper source of knowledge of good and evil.  It follows that Torah is the Tree of Death as well as the Tree of Life.

Moreover, in Genesis 3:3, Chavah tells the snake that G-d said not to eat from the tree that was in the midst of the garden.  Thus the tree of knowledge of good and evil must be the tree in the midst of the garden.  Yet Genesis 2:9 tells us that “the tree of life was in the midst of the garden”!?

I suggest that Chazal read the whole verse as follows: “The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, which was also the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  There was only one tree at the center of Eden.  Learned lishmoh – it gave life; not-lishmoh – death.

An apparent problem with this reading – and indeed, with the whole concept that learning Torah not-lishmoh is discouraged – is that it seems to leave those who do not already learn lishmoh with no access to the primary means of self-improvement, or to any way of knowing which actions are proper and which improper.

This difficulty is both intensified and addressed on Pesachim 50b:

Rava posed a contradiction:

Psalm 57 says: “Your Grace extends to Heaven”,

but Psalm 108 says “Your Grace extends above Heaven”!?

How can we resolve this?  Here (108) we are discussing those who do lishmoh, there (57) those who do not-lishmoh.  

This statement of Rava seems to disagree strongly with the idea that Torah learned not lishmah should be discouraged, or in any way disapproved.  G-d’s grace extends greatly to those who learn not-lishmoh, just not quite so far as to those who learn lishmoh.  This directly contradicts his statement on Berakhot 17 that a person who learns not-lishmoh would have been better off not created.

The Talmud continues by identifying Rava with a position cited by Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav:

This follows the statement of R. Yehudah in the name of Rav, for R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav:

A person should actually be deeply involved in Torah and Mitzvot even not-lishmah, 

because not-lishmah will lead to lishmah.

The import of this identification is that learning ‘‘not-lishmoh has instrumental rather than intrinsic value.  But this is not sufficient to reconcile Rava and Rav here with Rava on Berakhot 17a, or with Rav Benaah, each of whom evaluate not-lishmoh as negative.

This contradiction bothered all the Tosafist interpreters, who responded in their usual manner – by creating okimtot.  In other words, they say that there are different kinds of not-lishmoh.  There are three levels of motivations for learning Torah – lishmoh, not-lishmoh A, and not-lishmoh B.  Not-lishmoh A has instrumental value while not-lishmoh B is worse than worthless.

Here is a thematically arranged series of Tosafist-style categorizations:

Maharam Chalava Pesachim 50b[4]:

TYPE A = out of love or fear

to know the wisdom of Torah

TYPE B = lehitgader or lekanter[5]

Tosafot HaRosh Megillah 25b[6] complicates this taxonomy.

TYPE A =         out of love or fear of G-d.

TYPE B =         out of love or fear of punishment

It is not clear whether Maharam Chalava agrees to this bifurcation of “love and fear”.  He might instead hold that even learning out of fear of punishment or love of reward is instrumentally valuable.

 

Tosafot Sotah 22b[7]

TYPE A =         out of fear of suffering or love of reward

TYPE B =         not out of love or fear, but rather to compound his transgressions, making his accidental sins deliberate, for even though he knows that he transgresses he does not refrain from fulfilling any of his heart’s desires

This Tosafot contradicts Tosafot HaRosh above, which held that learning out of love of reward or fear of suffering does not have even instrumental value.

 

Tosafot Berakhot 17a[8]

TYPE A =         one who learns so that he will be respected

TYPE B =         one who learns only to attack his colleagues

Rivvan Pesachim 50b[9]

TYPE B =         not to become great and arrogant

The question is whether RIVVAN’s type B overlaps with TYPE A Tosafot Berakhot’s 17a.

 

Tosafot Pesachim 50b[10]

TYPE A =         no evil intent but is simply lazy[11]

TYPE B =         to be arrogant and attack and diminish his colleagues in the realm of halakhah, and doesn’t learn in order to practice

How would this Tosafot classify the TYPE A cases of any other position?  It seems likely that he resorted to his unparalleled case because he thought all others were TYPE B.    

 

It emerges that it is at least possible that, with the exception of Tosafot Pesachim 50b’s case of
“laziness”, every example offered of TYPE A by one rishon is classifies as TYPE B by a different rishon.

But Tosafot Pesachim’s suggestion is not a safe bet either, as it[12] seems contradicted by a statement of R. Eliezer bar Tzadok on Nedarim 62b[13].

R. Eliezer son of R. Tzadok said:

Do things for the sake of their Maker, and speak in them lishmah.

Do not make them a crown to be exalted through them, nor a shovel to dig with.

A fortiori:

If Belshazzar, who only used for his own benefit sacred utensils which had lost their sanctity, was uprooted from the world,

all the more so one who uses the crown of Torah for his own benefit!

Learning Torah to avoid other work seems to be an obvious instance of “making it a shovel to dig with” or “using it for his own benefit”!

Moreover, the entire Tosafist enterprise here founders on the rock of Nazir 23b[14]:

R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav:

A person should actually be deeply involved in Torah and Mitzvot even not-lishmah,

because not-lishmah will lead to lishmah.

because as a reward for the 42 sacrifices Balak the evildoer brought, he merited being the ancestor of Ruth

Presumably Balak’s sacrifices, which were brought with the intent of bringing out the annihilation of the Jewish people, do not match any of the criteria for TYPE A cited above!  Yet the Talmud identifies his not-lishmoh motive with the not-lishmoh that Rav said a person should engage in.

It therefore seems to me that the most likely correct explanation of the apparent contradictions regarding not-lishmoh is offered by Responsa Rabbeinu Chaim Or Zarua 163:[15]

Once shelo lishmah has come upI’ll say something else about it.

R. Tam said there are two types of not-lishmoh,one forbidden and one permitted.

But I, insignificant and small, say that all not-lishmoh is the same, and all are transgressive, but that transgression is permitted if it will lead in the end to a mitzvah,

like when a man saves a woman in a river or digs someone out of a pile on Shabbat.

This is also implied by the comparison (of a mitzvah not-lishmoh) to Yael (whose seduction of Sisera is called a “sin lishmoh”).  

But one who stiffens his neck, who will never do the mitzvah – better for him not to have been created.

Rabbeinu Chaim rejects the idea that not-lishmoh has instrumental value regardless of its actual consequences.  Rather, he holds that it has value only if it in fact leads to lishmoh.[16]  

In other words: A person who cannot yet learn lishmoh makes things worse if they nonetheless learn.  Every moment of learning is like taking deadly poison.  If they merit reaching lishmoh – they reach the antidote before the poison takes effect.  But it is perfectly possible that they will die without reaching lishmoh, and in that case the Torah they have learned will at best have been valueless.

Rabbeinu Chaim thus emphasizes a point that also emerges from the incompatibility of the Tosafistic solutions with each other: HALAKHIC RELIGIOSITY IS NOT A WAY OF AVOIDING SPIRITUAL RISK.  There is no way to achieve lishmohwithout passing through not-lishmoh.

Learning Torah is necessarily dangerous, but that does not mean that shev v’al taaseh adif, that we are better off playing it safe.  Indeed, there is no way to play it safe.  For human beings, who inevitably have mixed motives, every spiritual act is a double-edged sword.

I suspect that this point will be either liberating or obvious for many readers.  But for those who find it merely disturbing, here is a way out.

The Tosafistic approach is fundamentally incompatible with the Eden metaphor central to Rav Bena’ah’s statement.  The Torah mentions at most two trees “in the midst of Eden” not three.  Remember as well that Rabbi Bena’ah never explained how we can achieve lishmoh now that a flaming sword blocks the path to the Tree of Life.

Perhaps the sword only blocks the direct path.  In Eden, there were only two possible trees.  But in the world beyond Eden, intermediate motives are possible which make our study of Torah neither deadly nor life-giving.  Torah studied for such motives is instrumentally valuable, and may enable us to reach Eden through a back entrance.

For Rabbeinu Chaim Or Zarua, there is only one entrance, but the sword does not kill all who enter.  Perhaps that is why sword “revolves” – the blade sometimes faces away, as an invitation to the brave.  But only fools rush in where fearsome angels tread.

 

Notes:

[1] Prior investigations of this issue sought to define “lishmoh”, with “not-lishmoh” defined negatively as whatever occupied the remaining intellectual space. (See in this regard especially Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Torah for Torah’s Sake.)  My approach here will be the reverse, focusing on the definitions of “not-lishmoh” found in Rabbinic literature.

[2] תניא: היה רבי בנאה אומר:

כל העוסק בתורה לשמה, תורתו נעשית לו סם חיים, שנאמר “{משלי ג’} עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה” . . .

וכל העוסק בתורה שלא לשמה, נעשית לו סם המות, שנאמר “יערף כמטר לקחי”,

ואין עריפה אלא הריגה, שנאמר “{דברים כ”א} וערפו שם את העגלה בנחל”

[3] וכל העושה שלא לשמה נוח לו שלא נברא

[4]מהר”ם חלוואה פסחים נ:

תרתי שלא לשמה איכא:

דעביד מאהבה ומיראה או לדעת חכמת התורה – מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה,

אבל העוסק להתגדר ולקנטר – נוח לו שלא נברא

[5] The meaning of “lehitgader” is unknown – the other context in which it appears is “makon hinichu lanu avoiteinu lehitgader bo”, where it most likely means “to become great”, but I wouldn’t put very much weight on that.  “Lekanter” means to tear someone else down.  But “love and fear” are certainly praiseworthy.

[6]תוס’ הרא”ש מגילה כה: ד”ה מהו

דתרי מיני מאהבה ומיראה הן:

מאהבת שכר ומיראת עונש – אינו טוב,

מאהבת המקום ומיראתו – תרי מעליותא הם.

[7]תוס’ סוטה כב: ד”ה לעולם

עוסק שלא לשמה כגון מיראת יסורין . . . ומאהבת קיבול פרס, שאינו מתכוון להשלים רצון יוצרו שציווהו על כך אלא להנאתו . . .

אבל ההיא שלא לשמה דתענית ומס’ ברכות – אינו עוסק בתורה כדי לקיים לא מאהבה ולא מיראה, אלא להוסיף על חטאתו פשע, שעתה שגגות מעשו לו זדונות, שאע”פ שידע שעובר לא מנע מכל תאות לבו

[8]תוס’ סוטה כב: ד”ה לעולם

דהכא מיירי שאינו לומד אלא לקנטר חביריו

והתם מיירי שלומד ע”מ שיכבדוהו

[9]ריבב”ן פסחים נ:

לשם שמים ולא להתגדל ולהתייהר

[10]תוספות פסחים דף נ: ד”ה וכאן בעושים

ואור”י

דהתם מיירי כגון שלומד כדי להתיהר ולקנטר ולקפח את חביריו בהלכה ואינו לומד ע”מ לעשות

אבל הכא מיירי דומיא דההיא דלעיל “יש שפל ונשכר, דלא עביד כוליה שבתא ולא במעלי שבתא”, שאין מתכוון לשום רעה אלא מתוך עצלות, אפ”ה גדול עד שמים חסדו:

[11] Tosafot does not explain directly why laziness is a plausible motive for Torah study.  But it seems that this is evidence for early kollels.

[12] also RIVVAN

[13] נדרים סב. 

רבי אליעזר בר ר’ צדוק אומר:

עשה דברים לשם פעלם, ודבר בהם לשמם,

אל תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם, ואל תעשם קורדום להיות עודר בו,

וקל וחומר: ומה בלשצר שלא נשתמש אלא בכלי קדש שנעשו כלי חול – נעקר מן העולם,

המשתמש בכתרה של תורה – על אחת כמה וכמה.

[14]נזיר כג:אמר רב יהודה אמר רב:

לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצות אפי’ שלא לשמן, שמתוך שלא לשמן בא לשמן,

שבשכר מ”ב קרבנות שהקריב בלק הרשע – זכה ויצאה ממנו רות

[15] שו”ת מהר”ח אור זרוע סימן קסגושלא לשמה, הואיל ואתא לידן, נימא ביה מילתא –

כי ר”ת אומר:

שני עניני שלא לשמה יש, חד אסיר וחד שרי,

ואני הדיוט ופעוט אומר:

דכל שלא לשמה חד הוא, וכולם עבירה, א[ך] אותה עבירה הותרה, שסופה לבא לידי מצוה,

כמו מציל אשה בנהר, ומפקח גל בשבת.

וכן משמע בנזיר, שמדמה אותה למעשה דיעל.

אבל מי שמקשה ערפו לעולם לא יעשה מצוה – נוח לו שלא נברא.

[16] Or some other positive result.  I suggest that according to Rabbeinu Chaim, Balak’s sacrifices earn him the reward of being Rut’s ancestor only because his efforts actually lead to Bila’am blessing rather than cursing the Jews.

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Was Rabbeinu Gershom a Halakhic Progressive?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

First of a multipart series on halakhic solutions to male iggun (men who are in a dead halakhic marriage but are unable to remarry halakhically).

In the late tenth or early eleventh century, according to halakhic tradition, Rabbi Gershom of Mainz, known as Rabbeinu Gershom Meor HaGolah (“Luminary of the Exile”), enacting two decrees that radically changed the terms of Jewish marriage.

First, he banned polygamy.

Second, he banned divorcing women without their consent.

These decrees were accepted almost immediately throughout the Ashkenazic community, and over the centuries have largely become accepted by the Sephardic community as well.

Banning polygamy changes the emotional contours of marriage.  It defines the affective relationship between husband and wife as not only mutual but also exclusive.

Banning nonconsensual divorce changes the power contours of marriage.

What motivated Rabbeinu Gershom to make these decrees?

Three centuries later, Rabbeinu Asher (ROSH) offered this rationale for the ban on nonconsensual divorce (Responsa ROSH 42a):

אך כי ראה הדור פרוץ ומזלזלין בבנות ישראל בזריקת גט,

ותקן להשוות כח האשה לכח האיש

Because he saw the generation unbounded and degrading daughters of Israel by ‘throwing the divorce’, 

and so he decreed to equalize the power of the woman to the power of the man.

“Throwing the divorce” is an idiom for nonconsensual divorce; if a wife refuses to accept the divorce document from her husband, he can simply toss it at her or into her property.  This is Torah law, and the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud felt no need to change it.  ROSH asserts that a new social ill grew up in post-Talmudic Jewish Germany and impelled Rabbeinu Gershom to enact his decrees.  It is not clear what that ill was, or why Rabbeinu Gershom’s decree was so rapidly accepted in Ashekenaz.

Another way to frame the question is: Doesn’t the possibility of nonconsensual divorce necessarily degrade women relative to men?  Why did Rabbeinu Gershom think that only his and subsequent generations required the power of the wife to be equal to that of the husband?

In the eighteenth century, Chatam Sofer offered this pungent expansion of ROSH’s formulation:

When the unbounded ones who degraded the proper daughters of Israel grew numerous – 

“In the evening she came, and in the morning she returned” 

Chatam Sofer’s quote of Esther 2:14 strikingly compares a Jewish wife to a Persian virgin commandeered by Achashverosh for a one-night stand – here today and replaced tomorrow.  The problem with his explanation, as with ROSH’s, is that he doesn’t explain what changed in Rabbeinu Gershom’s time to newly create this issue.  Why was the decree against nonconsensual divorce a reaction to a new social ill, rather than a correction of a structural injustice?  Why wasn’t the possibility of nonconsensual divorce a per se degradation of Jewish women?

I suggest that ROSH and Chatam Sofer are placing Rabbeinu Gershom in the context of the Talmudic explanation for the institution of the ketubah.  The ketubah guarantees the wife support or a lump sum should she be widowed or divorced.  Talmud Bava Kamma 89b declares that the rabbis permitted marital cohabitation only in the context of a ketubah

So that she not be light in his eyes, to divorce her

In other words, the Talmud recognizes that the possibility of nonconsensual divorce makes women “light” in the eyes of men, and that this is a problem [1].  It presents the rabbis as trying to solve this by making divorce expensive.  In Rabbeinu Gershom’s community, this solution was apparently no longer effective [2], and so he banned nonconsensual divorce altogether.  But why didn’t the Talmudic rabbis adopt this method in the first place?

Here I think it is useful to look at the context in which ROSH’s explanation appears.  He is discussing the case of a man who discovers after two years of marriage that his wife is subject to a medical condition that makes living with her (in his opinion) impossible and perhaps dangerous, but who is also financially unable to pay her ketubah in full.  She refuses to accept a divorce without full payment, and meanwhile demands both financial support and conjugal rights.  ROSH responds as follows:

In the days of the Talmudic Sages, 

if a wife developed such a blemish – 

her husband would divorce her and be obligated to pay her ketubah;

he would pay whatever he had on hand, and the rest when he became able to.

But now that the Gaon Rabbeinu Gershom z”l decreed that he cannot divorce her against her will, 

it is implausible that he should be obligated to provide her support, clothing, and physical intimacy – 

if that were so, the power of the woman would be much greater than the power of the man,

as if such a blemish developed in a man – 

we would not compel her to remain with him, 

rather we would compel him to divorce her and pay the ketubah,

so how can we say that if such a blemish develops in a woman, 

we compel him to be with her and to support her!?  

If a man, who biblically divorces only by his free will, 

can be compelled to divorce and pay the ketubah if he develops blemishes, 

a woman, who biblically can be divorced against her will – 

shouldn’t this be true all the more so?!   

But Rabbeinu Gershom set a boundary in this matter.

But isn’t it a kal vachomer that he never even considered in such a situation “chaining the man” 

and preventing him from fulfilling “be fruitful and multiply”?!  

Rather, in this case certainly he may divorce her and pay her ketubah

because Rabbeinu Gershom’s enactment 

did not make the power of the woman so much greater than that of the man,

rather,

because he saw the generation unbounded and degrading daughters of Israel by ‘throwing the divorce’, 

and so he decreed to equalize the power of the woman to the power of the man:

just as the man divorces only willingly, 

so too the woman is divorced only willingly.

But it would be completely implausible to say 

that in a situation where the man would be coerced to divorce, 

he would not be able to divorce the woman against her will.

Even if you were to say

that he standardized the issue

so that no man could ever divorce a man against her will,

nonetheless

in a situation where the man would be coerced to divorce

the woman too is coerced to accept the divorce

and if she refuses to accept it – 

he may default on providing her with food, clothing, and physical intimacy,

and she cannot say “I do not wish to accept the divorce until he pays me my ketubah”,

as this is no claim,

since she is legally obligated to accept the divorce

as I have demonstrated. 

ROSH does not advance the egalitarian thesis that Rabbeinu Gershom sought to equalize men and women in order to justify a halakhically expansive understanding of the legislation.  Rather, he uses it as a ceiling, in order to reject an interpretation that, in his view, would give women more power than men.

ROSH makes us confront the reality that Rabbeinu Gershom’s legislation may have decreased inequality at the price of increasing unjustified suffering.  Rather than take the modern approach of no-fault divorce, which in theory equalizes marital power by denying either spouse the right to prevent the other from leaving the relationship, Rabbeinu Gershom increased women’s power over men.

For ROSH, I suggest, the Talmudic rabbis were unwilling to make this tradeoff.  Rabbeinu Gershom became willing to do so only because something happened to decrease women’s stature within marriage.  ROSH presents Rabbeinu Gershom as reactive, not progressive.

But it seems likely to me that Rav Mosheh Feinstein, in a responsum to Rabbi Shimon Trebnik dated 25 Tevet, 5721 (Igrot Mosheh EH 1:115), read ROSH and Rabbeinu Gershom quite differently.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series coming soon!

Notes:

[1] Why would the rabbis see this as a problem, if the Torah set up a system that permitted it?  The simplest answer. enshrined in our standard ketubah’s phrase דחזי ליכי מדאורייתא, is that the rabbis merely increased the amount of a Biblically mandated ketubah.  Why would they increase it?  I suggest that the rabbis understood the Torah as balancing the goal of protecting women from unjustified divorce with the risk of deterring men from committing to marriage.  The rabbis saw the balance shifting, either because women’s social bargaining position improved, or else because the risks of unjustified divorce increased, and responded accordingly.

[2] We can’t know how Rosh conceived of Rabbeinu Gershom’s community.  Perhaps he thought they were so rich that the ketubah-payment had become an ineffective deterrent to divorce; perhaps, as in some batei din in contemporary America, the ketubah was calculated by weight of silver and the price of silver crashed; perhaps clever lawyers or secular laws had made effective enforcement of the ketubah impossible.

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Taking Initiative: Rut’s Place Among the Mothers of Tanach

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dina Kritz

Towards the end of Megillat Rut, the people of Bet Lechem bless Boaz that his new wife should be like some of the women at the beginning of Jewish history.

וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָּל-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-בַּשַּׁעַר וְהַזְּקֵנִים עֵדִים יִתֵּן ה’ אֶת-הָאִשָּׁה הַבָּאָה אֶל-בֵּיתֶךָ כְּרָחֵל וּכְלֵאָה אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ שְׁתֵּיהֶם אֶת-בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל… וִיהִי בֵיתְךָ כְּבֵית פֶּרֶץ אֲשֶׁר-יָלְדָה תָמָר לִיהוּדָה מִן-הַזֶּרַע אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן ה’ לְךָ מִן-הַנַּעֲרָה הַזֹּאת:

All the people at the gate and the elders answered, “We are witnesses. May G-d make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel..And may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah—through the offspring which G-d will give you by this young woman.”

What’s so special about these three women, Rachel, Leah, and Tamar, that the city hoped Rut would be like them? Further, is it a blessing to be compared to three women who faced trying times?

Perhaps the people saw something in Rut’s actions and journey which reminded them of their foremothers. After all, they too left their father’s home in another land. When Yaacov informed them that he wanted to return to Canaan, both because he felt a growing distance between himself and Lavan and because he had received a vision from G-d telling him to return, they readily agreed, stating that they too felt unwanted in Lavan’s home, and ended their response, “Now, do everything that G-d has told you to do.” They wanted Yaacov to listen his deity and they were simultaneously done with living in a home in which they barely counted. They packed up and left their father, their people, and their culture (and, presumably, their religious beliefs) to follow a person they loved to a foreign land, just as Rut would do hundreds of years later.

The Iggeret Shmuel writes that because the elders recognized a similarity between Rut and the two mothers, they blessed Boaz that “all that Rachel and Leah had built, Rut should also merit to build,” i.e., the Jewish people. They blessed Boaz that Rut’s entire life and legacy should echo Rachel and Leah’s, not only her entry into the land and nation.

Here is an explanation for the first part of the blessing. Additionally, it’s wonderful to tell a woman who has just become Jewish that she will hopefully become just like the matriarchs. But why does the Megillah mention Tamar? There is no reason for the blessing not to read “may your house be like the house of Peretz the son of Yehuda.” And it seems strange to hope that the birth of Boaz and Rut’s children will be like the birth of Yehuda and Tamar’s children, who were conceived under very uncomfortable circumstances.

However, the commentators suggest that Tamar’s actions are the very reason for her appearance here. The previous night, Rut had come to Boaz’s threshing floor, laid at his feet, and asked him to fulfill his role as the family redeemer (and give her a child). Several commentators even propose that the elders mentioned Tamar to a worried Boaz as proof that Rut’s actions were praiseworthy, and not shameful or improper. As the Gishmei Bracha writes:

“אשר ילדה תמר ליהודה”: יתכן דהעלו עתה לפני בועז את זיכרון תמר ויהודה כדי לחזק רוחו, כי אולי צר לו על האופן הבלתי נימוסי שנתקרבה רות אליו. זכרו לו את תמר, שגם היא נתקרבה ליהודה באופן בלתי נימוסי, אך מפני שהיתה כוונתה לשמים היה זרעה קודש וברכה לבית ישראל, וכן יעלה ברות.

“Whom Tamar bore to Yehuda”: It’s possible that [the witnesses and the elders] reminded Boaz of Tamar and Yehuda at this moment to encourage him [literally, to strengthen his spirit], because perhaps he was concerned about the manner in which Rut had come to him. They reminded him of Tamar, who had also come to Yehuda in unusual/irreligious manner, but because she had had proper intentions, her descendants brought holiness and blessing to Israel, and so too should Rut’s descendants.

Perhaps, as Ralbag writes, they saw a similarity between Tamar’s and Rut’s lives, just as they had seen a similarity between Rut’s journey and Rachel and Leah’s journey.

“ויהי ביתך כבית פרץ”: ברכוהו בברכת אביהם פרץ שבא מתמר לסבה מתדמה לזו:
“May your house be like the house of Peretz”: They blessed him with the blessing of their father Peretz, who had been born from Tamar for a similar reason.

I’m not certain whether Ralbag means a similar situation or a similar reason when he uses the word סבה. I would like to interpret his interpretation as a sign the people of Bet Lechem saw what Tamar and Rut both believed they had to do. In each case, a woman who was stuck, without a husband or child, took initiative. Tamar decided to stop waiting for the day Yehuda might marry her to Shelah, and Rut decided to go to the field to glean, and then carefully chose her words when she followed Naomi’s advice and went to ask Boaz to marry her.

Rachel and Leah also took initiative; albeit in a less problematic manner. In addition to actively choosing to follow Yaacov, Rachel tried to become pregnant and Leah strove to build a relationship with her husband (and her call to Yaacov to come into her tent one night seems to have produced her three youngest children). Perhaps the people thought it appropriate to compare Rut to Rachel, Leah, and Tamar because they had created Bnei Yisrael through active decisions: Rachel and Leah left their home to allow Yaacov and his sons to start off in Canaan, and Tamar acted (and risked her life) to give birth to the David’s ancestor, and Rut continued Peretz’s line.

I do not believe that the point of Megillat Rut or the point of reading it on Shavuot is to portray active women in Jewish history, but I do believe it’s an important point to keep in mind. As we read the Megillah and as we accept the Torah once again, we should follow the example of these four women and chose to take initiative, not only in marriage but in all aspects of life. Judaism is a religion which requires active participation, and we should be like Rut, who actively brought about her marriage to Boaz but also actively chose to leave the past behind and become part of our nation.

Dina Kritz (SBM ‘15) is a participant in Matan’s Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute for Tanakh and Jewish Studies.

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The Rabbi and the Gabbai: A Horsetorical Bromance

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The gaon Rav Chasdai, who was known for his outgoing and generous nature, once came across a group of children looking crossly at one another.  He asked them what was the matter, and their reply was:  We all want to play horsey, but no one is willing to be the horse.  So he volunteered to be the horse.  The children tied a rope around him and rode him or led him around for a while.  When they got tired and hungry, they tied the rope very securely to a tree and told him to wait like a good horsey while they went home and returned.

Of course, they forgot about him entirely.  The gabbai of the shul found him half an hour later, and said he would come back with a knife to cut the ropes.  But Rav Chasdai insisted that he instead go bring the children back to untie him, saying that he did not wish to disappoint them.

Thus I heard the story from Rav Chasdai’s grandson, whose credibility is beyond question.

To my mind, however, his grandfather gave the gabbai an implausible rationale.  The children would not have been disappointed.  They had forgotten all about the game, and would never have expected their “horse” to still be there when they remembered.

I suggest instead that Rav C thought it was important for the children to understand and take responsibility for their actions.  What if the gabbai hadn’t come by for hours?  Plainly the knots were so tight that he was unable to free himself.   Children have to learn that games can also have real consequences.

But why didn’t Rav Chasdai tell the gabbai his true motivation?  First of all, the gabbai was prepared to destroy the children’s rope, and Rav Chasdai was gently calling to his attention that the children had legitimate interests here.  Second, perhaps the gabbai had no sympathy for children, and would otherwise have punished them severely.

That was my speculation.  But it happens that I shared it with a colleague who turned out to be the grandson of the gabbai, and he assured me that his grandfather was legendary for his rapport with children.

Why then did Rav Chasdai pretend to be concerned about the children’s disappointment?  My colleague had a very different perspective.  His family tradition was that Rav Chasdai loved to play with children, and would be sad when they grew bored of him.  So he suggested that perhaps Rav Chasdai really just wanted the gabbai to bring his playmates back.

I was rather taken aback by the suggestion.  Would the gaon Rav Chasdai have used the gabbai’s time dishonestly?  Would he want to play with children, any children, so much that he would simply waste time waiting around for them?

Perhaps there was no wasted time, and Rav Chasdai spend his wait-time reviewing Shas in his head.  Indeed, I wonder whether Rav Chasdai loved playing with children because their games, unlike the social play of adults, let him have human contact and relationships without distracting his intellect from Torah.  Chasidic rebbeim are often described as functioning on both levels simultaneously, but Litvaks may not have the same capacity.

Perhaps Rav Chasdai spent his days looking for excuses to get away from adults, and the errand he gave the gabbai was the best he could think of in the moment.  He viewed it as a white lie, as the alternatives were either insulting the gabbai or else wasting time better spent studying Torah.

With all humility, though, I’m not sure he was right.   The Talmud famously declares that even Hashem tells white lies in order to preserve marital harmony, but hopefully everyone understands that this isn’t a license to tell your spouse that you’ve gone to daf yomi when you really went in to work.  And this isn’t obvious, but I think it also means that you can’t tell your spouse that you’re going in to work when you’re really going to daf yomi.  Preserving marital harmony doesn’t mean deceiving your spouse so that s/he won’t stop you from doing what you want to do, even if you think you’ll be happier doing it.  I also suspect that preserving rabbi-gabbai harmony is not at the same level of priority as preserving marital harmony.

But what if it wasn’t about their roles, but about their very human selves?  Both Rav Chasdai’s grandson and my colleague describe their grandfathers as deeply intimate, almost inseparable friends.  Sometimes inseparability can become overwhelming, and one person’s unwillingness to enforce boundaries, added to the other’s inability to recognize them, can put a profound relationship into crisis.  Aggada recognizes that same-sex friendship can be as powerful as heterosexual love; perhaps halakhah does as well, or at least should.  Surely Rav Yochanan would have been right to dissemble rather than shatter his relationship with Resh Lakish.

Moreover, the Talmud reports that Hashem once did lie in order to preserve a beit midrash society.  When Rabban Gamliel was removed from office for abusing Rabbi Yehoshua, his successor Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah opened the Academy to hordes of previously excluded students, and Torah flourished.  Rabbi Gamliel grew depressed, so G-d sent him a dream in which the new students were shown to be worthless hypocrites.  The Talmudic narrator makes sure we know that the dream was false; but believing that  it was true gave Rabban Gamliel the emotional strength to return to the scene of his humiliation, and eventually to (mostly) regain his office.  (Perhaps he also eventually gained the strength to realize that the dream was false.)

So if Rav Chasdai really needed the space, and he dissembled to the gabbai, I think I might be fine with it.

Except that there’s a difference between a one-time falsehood in a crisis, and an ongoing habit.  At some point Avraham would have caught on that Sarah thought of him as too old to have children; at some point Rabban Gamliel would have recognized that his dreams were a little too convenient.

So maybe this story became so worth retelling because it in fact records a crisis passed, and a relationship saved.

But I need to emphasize that it’s very possible that neither the rabbi nor the gabbai ever really understood what had happened between them.  Maybe in the moment the rabbi projected his desire to play onto the children; surely the gabbai really thought the rabbi needed amusement rather than privacy.  Real people do real things for complex and ambivalent motivations, so maybe nothing wholly false was thought or said, and a friendship was saved.

One difference between halakhah and aggada is just that allowance for unclarity.  The Talmud states that one who learns Torah lishmoh has fulfilled the purpose of creation, whereas one who learns Torah not lishmoh would have been better off uncreated.  It isn’t until chassidut that we really consider the question of whether anyone learns purely one way or the other.   Assuming that we will always be somewhat but not fully lishmoh, are we better off learning, or not?

Another way of putting it is that halakhah teaches us how to act, but aggada teaches us how to be.

Note: This dvar Torah is a fictional riff on versions of a story sometimes told about a specific past rabbi.  Any resemblance to him, or to any other specific historical figure, is wholly coincidental. 

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With Distinction: Egyptian Exodus and the Levitical Letter of the Law

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier

Throughout Sefer Vayikra, including several times in this week’s double Parsha, we find an invocation of the Exodus to justify certain laws. To give one example:

ויקרא פרק כה

:לה) וְכִֽי־יָמ֣וּךְ אָחִ֔יךָ וּמָ֥טָה יָד֖וֹ עִמָּ֑ךְ וְהֶֽחֱזַ֣קְתָּ בּ֔וֹ גֵּ֧ר וְתוֹשָׁ֛ב וָחַ֖י עִמָּֽךְ)

:לו) אַל־תִּקַּ֤ח מֵֽאִתּוֹ֙ נֶ֣שֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּ֔ית וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְחֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ עִמָּֽךְ)

:לז) אֶ֨ת־כַּסְפְּךָ֔ לֹֽא־תִתֵּ֥ן ל֖וֹ בְּנֶ֑שֶׁךְ וּבְמַרְבִּ֖ית לֹא־תִתֵּ֥ן אָכְלֶֽךָ)

:לח) אֲנִ֗י יְקֹוָק֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם לָתֵ֤ת לָכֶם֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִֽים)

Exodus 25

35 And if your brother becomes poor, and his means fail, then you shall uphold him: as a stranger and a settler he shall live with you. 

36 Take no interest or profit from him; but fear your God; so that your brother may live with you. 

37 Do not give him your money with interest, nor give him foods for profit. 

38 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. 

The prohibition against taking financial advantage of one’s impoverished fellow by charging interest appears to be justified by God’s historical role in taking the People of Israel out of Egypt. Later in the Parsha, we find the manumission of an Eved Ivri (25:41-42, 54-55) also justified by the Exodus, and specifically by the fact that we are servants of God, and, as Hazal gloss (bKidd 22b), not slaves of one another. During both the blessings (26:12-13) and the mitigation of the curses (26:44-45) of the curses in Behukotai, again the Exodus is invoked. What is the significance of this oft-repeated assertion?

On the simplest level, the Exodus is part of the foundational covenant of the Jewish People. The Covenant at Sinai may have sealed the theological-national deal, but the special relationship between Israel and God was principally forged when God took Israel out of Egypt. It is of course relevant that the Ten Commandments begin with אנכי ה’ א-להיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים מבית עבדים, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slaves.” (Ex. 20:2). See the commentaries on this verse, including Rashi’s very clear note: כדאי היא ההוצאה שתהיו משועבדים לי, “The Exodus is sufficient to subjugate you to me.”

But the reference to the Exodus may offer an additional reason, as well. The Talmud (bBM 61b) has a fascinating and enigmatic comment pertaining to several cases of Egypt invocation, including one in our Parsha:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא מציעא דף סא עמוד ב

אמר רבא: למה לי דכתב רחמנא יציאת מצרים ברבית, יציאת מצרים גבי ציצית, יציאת מצרים במשקלות? אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אני הוא שהבחנתי במצרים בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור – אני הוא שעתיד ליפרע ממי שתולה מעותיו בנכרי ומלוה אותם לישראל ברבית, וממי שטומן משקלותיו במלח, וממי שתולה קלא אילן בבגדו ואומר תכלת הוא.

רבינא איקלע לסורא דפרת. אמר ליה רב חנינא מסורא דפרת לרבינא: יציאת מצרים דכתב רחמנא גבי שרצים למה לי? – אמר ליה: אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אני הוא שהבחנתי בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור, אני עתיד ליפרע ממי שמערב קרבי דגים טמאין בקרבי דגים טהורין, ומוכרן לישראל.

Babylonian Talmud Tractate Bava Metzia 61b

Rava said: Why did God mention the Exodus from Egypt regarding [the prohibition of] interest (Lev. 25:38); regarding [the commandment] of tzitzit (Num. 15:41); and regarding [the prohibition of unfair] weights and measures (Lev. 19:36)? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who “hangs” his money on a gentile and lends it to a Jew with interest [while the Jew thinks he is in fact borrowing from a gentile]; from one who hides his weighs in salt [at a disadvantage to the customer]; and one who ties kal’ilin (i.e. non-tekhelet blue) to his clothes and says it is tekhelet.

Ravina went to Sura on the Euphrates. Rav Hanina of Sura on the Euphrates asked Ravina: Why did God mention the Exodus from Egypt regarding [prohibited] crawling animals (Lev. 11:45)? [Ravina] said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who mixes non-kosher fish innards with kosher fish innards and then sells them to a Jew.

Here, the Exodus is invoked not for its historical value in understanding the relationship between God and Israel, but as an attestation to God’s extraordinary powers of distinction. The plague striking the paternal firstborn required not only great lethal power, but also the most precise paternity test known to man. The Exodus, proving this divine quality, can then serve as a cautionary tale for these cases. Do you think it doesn’t matter who is actually lending with interest? Well, it matters to God, and God is capable of finding out fairly easily. Who cares if it’s tekhelet blue or non-tekhelet blue? Can anyone determine if my 1 oz. weight is actually .9 oz.? Aren’t all fish intestines equally abominable? No! God has commanded these laws, and God has the capacity to make extremely fine distinctions, so you had better be careful!

As the Maharal (ad. loc.) puts it:

דברה תורה נגד יצר הרע, שיצרו של אדם גובר עליו לומר מי ידע דבר זה, ועל זה אמר אני הוא שהבחנתי וכו’ במצרים, אני הוא שעתיד להפרע, לפיכך יכוף יצרו [ה]מסית אותו לדבר זה

The Torah is responding to the evil inclination, which overpowers a person, asking “who will know [whether you did the permitted or prohibited action]?” In response to this, God says “I am the one who distinguished in Egypt etc., and I am the one to pay recompense.” Thus the evil inclination will be overcome.

There is a problem here, however. Many more than just these four commandments are occasioned by a mention of the Exodus from Egypt. Is there anything particularly holding them together? Why invoke particularly these four cases? Doesn’t this apparent arbitrariness weaken the claim? Some commentators, wishing to respond to this question, raise the possibility that all of these cases are interpersonal. You might think that you can con others by shaving off weights, hiding the true person behind the loan, or mixing up fish intestines, but God knows and is keeping score. (To a certain extent, this approach is similar to that of the string of Rashis on אני ה’ in Leviticus 19, which includes one of our cases.) This attempt has a major weakness – the case of Tzitzit. Given that the Gemara says nothing of selling these Tzitzit to unsuspecting customers, and only speaks of wearing them, it seems that not all cases are interpersonal and some relate to the and personal-Divine realm. The Maharal offers this rebuttal. But then we are left with our question: why are these the only examples provided?

In a related piece, the Maharal’s offers an answer in a characteristically brilliant disquisition:

חידושי אגדות למהר”ל בבא מציעא דף סא עמוד ב

יציאת מצרים דכתיב בשרצים וכו’. פי’ באלו ד’ מצות נאמר יציאת מצרים ולפי מה שמפרש בגמרא אצל כל חד אני הוא שהבחנתי וכו’ ולפי זה היה גם כן ראוי לכתוב אצל חלב אני הוא שהבחנתי בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור אני שעתיד להבחין מי שמוכר חלב ואמר שהוא שומן וכיוצא בזה וכמעט בכל (ה)מצוה ומצוה היה יכול לכתוב כך, אבל אני אומר כי מיוחדים אלו המצוות להבחנה כי אצל שקצים כתיב להבדיל בין הטמא ובין הטהור נמצא כי מצוה זאת מיוחדת להבדלה, וכן משקל הוא עצמו עשוי להבחין הדבר ששוקל וכן הרבית הוא להבחין ישרא’ דכ’ לנכרי תשיך ולאחיך לא תשיך והנה יש כאן הבדל, וציצית הוא להבחנה כדכ’ וראיתם אותו וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’ ועיקר תכלת הוא ההבחנה כמ”ש מאימתי קורין שמע בשחרית משיכיר בין תכלת שבה ללבן שבה. הרי אלו ד’ מצות הם להבחנה וכאשר יצאו ישראל ממצרים יצאו במדריגה העליונה ששם הבחנת הכל כי הוציא השם יתברך את ישראל ממצרים ולקחם לו לעם ובזה הבדיל השם יתברך בין ישראל לאומות. ולפיכך היה יציאת מצרים ע”י הבחנה עד כי היה מבחין הקדוש ברוך הוא בין טפה לטפה, שהכל היה בהבחנה.

Hiddushei Agadot of Maharal, Bava Metzia 61b

By each of these cases the Exodus from Egypt is mentioned, which the Gemara explains is based on God saying “I am the one who distinguished…” Therefore it would have been appropriate to include the law of prohibited fats: “I am the one who distinguished in Egypt between a drop [of semen] of a [paternal] firstborn and a drop that is not of a firstborn. I will thus take recompense from one who sells forbidden fats and says they are permitted fats!” And almost every commandment could have this [formulation]!? Rather, I think that these commandments are [chosen because they are] particularly focused on distinction. Regarding forbidden crawling animals it says “To distinguish between the impure and the pure” (Lev. 11:47). It emerges that this commandment is particularly focused on distinction. And similarly for weights – [the institution of weights] itself is based on distinguishing the [size of the] item being measured. The prohibition of interest is meant to distinguish Israel, as it says “Charge interest to the gentile, but do not charge interest to your brother” (Deut. 23:21), and here is a distinction! Tzitzit is meant to distinguish, as it says “And you shall see it and remember all the commandments of the Lord” (Num. 15:39). The primary point of tekhelet blue is one of distinction, as it says “From what time can one read Shema in the morning? From the time one can distinguish between its tekhelet blue and its white” (mBer 1:2). These four commandments are all about distinction! And when Israel left Egypt they left on the highest level, of absolute distinction, because God took them out of Egypt and chose them as God’s nation! Thus God distinguished Israel from the nations! Therefore the Exodus from Egypt was accomplished through distinction, to the point that the Holy One, Blessed be He, was distinguishing between every drop [of semen], as everything was distinguished.

The unifying theme among these commandments invoking Egypt is that they are thematically tied to the concept of distinction. It is not that one can imagine cases involving halakhically significant but nearly inscrutable distinctions.  One could likely do that for many commandments. Rather, these commandments are distinct, and therefore chosen by the Talmud, because they are all about distinction: weighing a precise measurement fairly; telling colors apart, separating Kosher from non-Kosher, and distinct economic laws for Jews and non-Jews. So of course the theme of “I am God, the one who distinguished,” will apply. And the Exodus from Egypt is emblematic of distinction beyond just the “Divine DNA test” to find the real firstborn Egyptians. The very process of the Exodus, where God takes Israel out of Egypt, is the greatest distinction one could imagine, and it is the nature of Israel’s chosenness! Of course, this fundamentally separation-based process will then be extremely precise in determining who is a firstborn Egyptian and who is not. The Maharal’s incredible re-reading of the Gemara, then, is complete: The Gemara only discusses symptoms of these four commandments and of the Exodus by finding particular cases of distinction; we are expected to figure out for ourselves that each of these not only are scenarios where minute distinctions may entail, but that their fundamental nature is all about distinction!

The Meshekh Hokhmah adds another piece to this puzzle in understanding the Talmudic passage:

משך חכמה שמות פרק יב פסוק ט

כיון שההשגחה חלה בפרטי פרטיות, תדע כי ישקיף ה’ וירא כל מפעל כל מצעד, ואז דבוק קנין האלקי בעם ישראל, שהוא בן בכורו, וקנה אותם לעבדים. כי פרעה וכל העם מהרו לשלחם מן הארץ, וחיוב כל המצוות תלה השם יתברך בעת הזאת.

Meshekh Hokhmah to Exodus 12:9

Since Divine Providence occurs at a level of such minute detail, one will know that God examines and sees every action and every step. Thus the Divine Acquisition of God’s nation Israel is complete. Israel is God’s firstborn, whom God acquired as a servant, after Pharaoh and his nation tried to speedily send them from the land. God ties the obligation in all commandments to this time [of Egypt].

The precision of these commandments and God’s enforcement thereof is no accident. Aside from encouraging Jews to be meticulous in their observance, it is also an important aspect of Jewish religious identity. God not only distinguished the Egyptian firstborn from their siblings, but also Israel, God’s own firstborn, from the nations. The degree of precision in this providential Divine Distinction defines not only these four commandments with particular focus on exactitude, but the entire Torah, and the relationship between God and Israel along with it.

I will add one short thought to the astute Acharonic assertions. Over the past 2000 years, Judaism has been much maligned as a hyper-legalistic religion, as focusing on the details of the law rather than on the its spirit, losing the forest for the trees. (At times that critique has even convinced Jews to reject their Pharisaic-Rabbinic heritage.) This Gemara and commentaries can be read as very much aware of the critique, and flouting it. As observant Jews, we “own” our attention to detail and hyper-legalism. In fact, we have no choice. We have been chosen by God, a God who applies infinite scrupulousness to every detail and demands from us the same (mutatis mutandis). The polestar of this focus on detail, in fact, is none other than the Exodus, that founding moment, where Israel was distinguished from Egypt. It precedes the law, and is in fact fundamental to what it means to be a Jew, God’s chosen nation! The exact color of our tekhelet and weight of our measures, the exact provenance of our fish guts and our firstborn, the details matter! That is what it means to be a Jew, that is what the Exodus means!

As the Book of Leviticus comes to a close, we can reflect back on the many distinctions that have been made throughout the book – Kosher versus non-Kosher, Israel and the nations, being Kadosh (=distinct) in one’s conduct just like God is Kadosh. The focus on these laws, and all of Jewish law, with its many distinctions and details, is no deviation from the “Big Picture” of the story of Israel’s Exodus and chosenness. In fact, that’s what it’s all about.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Shlomo Zuckier (SBM ’12) is co-director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University and a PhD student in Ancient Judaism at Yale University. Shlomo is a graduate of the Wexner, Tikvah, and Kupietzky Kodshim Fellowships, serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, and is a founding editor of Lehrhaus.

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Valuing Dissent in a Time of Celebration

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

When Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kochba to be the King Messiah, only one rabbi stood up to him. “Weeds will grow in your jawbones, Akiva, and still the Son of David will not have come”, said Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata.(Yerushalmi Taanit 4:5) His line was likely an ironic inversion of Yeshayahu 66:14, “and your bones will flourish like grass”.

But who was Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata (lit: “son of a cow”)? Let me tell you a story.

Once there was a pious Jew who owned a cow.  They worked hard together during the week, and they each rested on Shabbat.  Eventually the Jew lost his money and was forced to sell the cow to a Gentile.  The cow worked hard for the Gentile during the first week, but when Shabbat came she sat down and simply refused to move, no matter how much the Gentile yelled at her or how hard the Gentile prodded her.   

The Gentile came to the Jew and tried to cancel the transaction on the ground that the cow was defective.  The Jew, however, understood the problem.  He went up to the cow and whispered: “Dear cow, when you were in my possession we both ploughed during the week and rested on Shabbat; now because of my sins you are in the possession of a Gentile, and I ask that you stand up and plough!”  The cow obeyed, but the Gentile suspected witchcraft.  When the Jew explained what he had said, the Gentile reasoned to himself: If a cow has that much awareness of its Creator, am I not more obligated to do so!  Immediately he converted to Judaism.  (Pesikta Rabbati 14)

That convert was Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata.

There are many halakhic difficulties with this story. A cow being obstinate once a week is not grounds for reversing a transaction, and a Jew is not allowed to tell an animal to work on Shabbat. But aggadic narratives often rely on our willful suspension of halakhic disbelief.

Other rabbinic narratives celebrate the spiritual intuition of animals, such as the donkey of R. Pinchas ben Yair, which would refuse to eat untithed grains. Or learn human obligations via a kal vachomer from animals, such as the frogs who self-martyred by jumping into Egyptian stoves. Or have cows be religiously persuadable, as when Eliayhu haNavi convinces the sacrifice of the priests of Baal to accept its fate on Mount Carmel. So there is nothing unusual about this story.

But why (other than his name), is it told about Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata?

I can find only three other possible references to him in Rabbinic literature.

a)       Once, when Rabbi Akiva called him to the Torah, he refused the aliyah on the ground that he had not adequately prepared, and the Sages praised him. (Shemot Rabbah Ki Tisa 40:1)

b)      <He stated that the lips of Torah greats move in the grave when their words are cited. (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 7)

c)       <He stated that Shiloh was destroyed because sacred things were treated disrespectfully; Yerushalayim in its first form because of idolatry, sexual sins, and bloodshed: but that regarding the most recent destruction, we must acknowledge that the people were energetic in Torah study and punctilious tithers. Why were they nonetheless exiled? Because they loved money, and hated each other. (Tosefta Menachot 13:22)

It is tempting to connect each of these statements to a fundamental dispute with Rabbi Akiva about the Bar Kochba revolt:

a)       One must not be hasty to apply the words of Torah; perhaps one has misunderstood them, and Bar Kokhba did not fulfill the Messianic predictions.

b)      Eternal life is more important than this-worldly freedom.

c)       So long as these social ills persist, it is foolhardy to seek to reverse the destruction – and our people have not stopped loving money or hating each other

The first two connections are highly speculative, but I think the third has legs. It certainly fits well with the tradition that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they failed to treat one another respectfully.

Why was Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata the one rabbi capable of articulating this critique?

The story of the Shabbat-sensitive cow tells us that Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata converted not out of love of the Jewish people, but rather out of pure religious conviction. This is a situation that comes up regularly for conversion courts, and there are two ways to formulate the issue. One is pragmatic: Will a convert be able to sustain their commitment if they aren’t deeply connected to a community, or if they are regularly disappointed by a community? The second is fundamental: Is concrete ahavat Yisroel, love of the Jewish people as we are, with all our individual warts and collective flaws, an essential component of kabbalat hamitzvot? The story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata suggests that at least under certain circumstances we can make allowances for converts who are more connected to G-d than to people.

Moreover, there is something very striking about a convert who articulates positions that no one else is willing to say publicly. It takes courage to convert a person with courage, as one will likely be assigned some of the blame when they later take unpopular positions.

More sharply: Imagine that the Bar Kochba Revolt is beginning, and the rabbinic community is lining up behind him. The universally acknowledged gadol hador, the great scholar-leader of the generation, clearly believes the times to be Messianic. At this point a conversion candidate states during his interview that while he of course believes in the Messiah, it seems wholly implausible to him that the Messiah is anywhere nigh, and that the gadol hador – indeed the whole rabbinic establishment – has in his humble opinion succumbed to irrational exuberance. Would such a convert make it through the process?

One of the great beauties of Rabbinic tradition is its willingness to preserve even the sharpest of self-critiques, without allowing the possibility of error to lead to paralysis. I wonder if there were rabbis who specifically recognized the need for importing such a critique in a time of mass enthusiasm, and who welcomed Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata specifically because of his stance rather than despite it. I like to think that they did so even while disagreeing with him.

We should not need converts to fill the role of social critics; it is a terribly unfair burden to place on them. Happily our community today is sufficiently diverse that I don’t believe it is a necessary burden.

Moreover, it seems that the rabbinic community learned the wrong lesson from Bar Kochba’s failure, or at the least, that our political judgment is terrible. Bar Kochba failed despite rabbinic support, and Zionism succeeded despite rabbinic opposition. As a result, it is only in narrow sectors of Orthodoxy that messianic populism causes us to overlook ongoing social ills. Yet we cannot disclaim responsibility for those sectors.

Perhaps a subtle message of the Omer mourning is that Bar Kochba might have succeeded if he had paid more attention to Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata. At the very least, Orthodox Zionists, even as we properly and joyously celebrate the existence, success, and many incredible achievements of the State of Israel, need to ensure that we maintain a space and an open ear for the Rabbi Yochanan ben Torata’s among us.

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