Monthly Archives: September 2017

Engagement with the Vague

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Blau

The standard “shira” in Tanakh can be boiled down to praise of God, usually in the context of miracles and some kind of salvation. The shira of Haazinu, however, does not match this rubric. While God is praised at various points in the song, there are no miracles or salvations to speak of.  The Torah describes it as God’s “witness” that when in the future Bnei Yisrael inevitably fall from plenty to ruin, they will have brought this end on themselves as a result of turning away from Him.   Why is this a “shira” at all?

The structure of Haazinu is also challenging.  The song moves first through an introduction by Moshe, then praise of God, followed by criticism of Bnei Yisrael.  It then transitions to a historical survey that starts with the specialness of God’s people, moves again to praise of God, and then a satiation of the people that quickly grows sour and becomes idolatry.  Corruption is, of course, answered with abandonment and punishment, although in 32:27 we read a sense of reticence to punish the people as described because of external perception.  The next 11  verses—all the way through 38— are about punishment, but it is unclear who is being punished: Bnei Yisrael. or their enemies, or both in alternating currents. Some verses seem to point one way, some the other, but really just about all of them could be interpreted in the opposite manner if one were pressed.  Haazinu then returns to (self-)praise of God, and end off with vengeance exacted against our enemies for what they have done in punishing the Jews.  Why the long ambiguous section?  If the entire piece were removed, the song would apparently convey the same message.

Like a halakhic witness giving hatra’ah, the song gives warning and accuses, ideally to prevent the crime but with the lurking possibility, or in this case certainty, of punishment. A human, however, is not punished in a vacuum; the punishment is meant to in some way repair what was done. Sometimes this reparation takes the form of monetary recompense; other times it is a metaphysical construct we know as kapparah afforded the convicted. Whatever it may be, the punishment is not, or should not be, focused solely on the past, but also on the future. Punishment is aimed at restoration in order to effect a renewed status, to restore one to a position in which a choice may again be made. This is the tenet of teshuvah; that, confronted with the same circumstance, the right choice be made in the wrong’s stead, tying the final knot in the securing rope of personal redemption.

Ha’azinu thus should also function as a call to national teshuvah, as a reminder that not only is God always there—even if sometimes behind a screen—but so is our potential to return to Him. Much like the crying sounds of a shofar, the sound of the shira on our tongues should be an inspiration to climb from the inevitable abyss of abandonment of God and once again bask in His guardianship.

Yet, a witness who gives vague testimony would never make it through the routine checks of a Beit Din. A muffled shofar cannot achieve its function, halachically or otherwise. How can a shira with a central portion that is confusing accomplish its goal of not only conviction but inspiration towards teshuva? A reader might perhaps experience some depth of punishment and believe it was meant for our enemies. At best, these eleven verses are distractions from a message that is fairly clear from the remainder of Ha’azinu.

Chazal do not resolve the problem. While various Rishonim take sides,  a cursory read through Torah Temimah reveals naught but words and phrases taken completely out of context to teach halakhot, or else random drashot.

Perhaps Chazal’s lack of address actually hints at a resolution. It should be well known to the entire People of the Book that there is little to inspire investigation and discussion on par with lack of clarity. Almost the whole oral tradition is based on the tenet of vagueness. In some sense, “imperfections” such as these are the driving force behind the Jewish people’s continuation over the course of millennia of tribulations and exiles.

Ha’azinu, while outwardly a convicting witness, is also one that knows a way back to God. Encoded in these elusive verses is a calling to be curious and questioning, to engage with the text and the Torah that we were lovingly presented with. This is a crucial part of the song we are commanded to remember, what Rashi interprets to be the entire Torah, and in this sense is; the necessity of being an active participant in Torah. Random drashot and interpretive arguments are a perfect symbol of this crucial responsibility that Ha’azinu can only hint at. More than hints, and it would miss its own mark. It is our role to draw out meanings like this one. Passive memory is not enough when it comes to Ha’azinu; it must be on the tip of the tongue. This is what it takes to remain close to God, but more, what it takes to return.

Joshua Blau (SBM 2017) is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University, where he studied math and computer science. He lives with his wife, Hodaya, in Brookline, MA.


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May a Chazan Lead High Holiday Services from a Wheelchair? Part 1

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi:

Mr. Toviah Goodman has davened 1st day Rosh Hashannah Shacharit and Yom Kippur Neilah for our shul since its founding in 1993.  However, he suffered several health setbacks this year, and now is in a wheelchair full time.  Should he continue to serve as shaliach tzibbur, or should we replace him with someone who is able to stand?


The Members of the Ritual Committee, Congregation Mevakshei Psak

Dear Ritual Committee Members,

I am answering you in writing and at length because of the broad issues involved here.  I encourage you to share my answer with your general membership.


The question of whether physical disability might be a disqualification for the role of shaliach tzibbur (communal prayer leader) was probably first raised by an anonymous questioner to Maharam (R. Meir of Rothenburg) in the 13th century).  Here is the question, with R. Meir’s response, as quoted from manuscript by Maharshal (R. Shlomo Luria) in the 16th century.


אם אדם שפגעה בו מדת הדין

שנפלו לו זרועותיו

ראוי להיות ש”ץ?

פשיטא דראוי וראוי הוא,

ואדרבה מצוה מן המובחר,

דמלך מלכי המלכים חפץ להשתמש בכלים שבורים,

ולא כדרך שרים בשר ודם,

שנאמר (תהלים נ”א י”ט) לב נשבר וג’,

דאין נפסל במומין אלא כהנים עכ”ל

That which you asked:

Whether a person who has been injured by the Attribute of Justice

whose arms fell

is fitting to be a shaliach tzibbur?

It is obvious that he is more than fitting

and just the opposite – he is an ideal candidate

since the Ultimate King wants to use broken vessels,

unlike the practice of flesh-and-blood officials

as Psalms 51:19 says:

A heart that is shattered and crushed – G-d, You will not despise.

because no one but kohanim are invalidated by mumim (physical blemishes)

Maharshal heartily endorses Maharam’s response.

ואני אבוא אחריו למלא את דבריו,

דהא אפי’ לוים שעבודתן בשיר בשילה ובית עולמים,

אפ”ה אין נפסלין אלא בקול, כמ”ש לעיל,

כ”ש ש”ץ שלנו.

I will follow in his wake to add the final touches to his words

that even Levites, whose Service was by singing (in the Tabernacle) at Shiloh and in the Temple

nonetheless were only invalidated because of vocal issues, as I wrote above

all the more so our shluchei tzibbur.

Two highly clever elements of this brief comment deserve explication.

1) Maharam’s Biblical prooftext was from Psalms 51, which is introduced as David’s response to the Prophet Natan’s criticism of him for first sleeping with Batsheva.  The opening sentence of Maharshal’s sequel is a reference to 1Kings 1:14

וַאֲנִי֙ אָב֣וֹא אַחֲרַ֔יִךְ וּמִלֵּאתִ֖י אֶת־דְּבָרָֽיִךְ

I will follow in your wake to add the final touch to your words

These are the words of Natan to Batsheva, concluding his plan to have her son Shlomoh become King David’s successor.  All’s well that ends well.

2)  Maharam simply asserted that prayer leaders are not subject to the same disqualifications as priests; but why not?  Isn’t prayer in place of sacrifice, as “our lips compensate for bulls”?  Maharshal argues that the shaliach tzibbur does not play the same role as the kohen.  He does not actually bring the sacrifice; he merely provides the atmospheric music, as did the Levites.

There are two obvious weaknesses with Maharam’s argument.  The first is that David is clearly not speaking of a physically shattered heart; he is using a metaphor, and the midrash is also using a rhetorical sleight of hand in making the comparison to flesh-and-blood kings.  The second is that G-d does require the kohanim who perform His physical Temple service to be mumless, rather than preferring them to be physically broken vessels.  Maharshal’s clever attempt to finesse the point is not very convincing, as the shaliach tzibbur is actually the one praying on everyone else’s behalf, not a mere musical accompanist.

These difficulties might be brushed aside on the basis of Maharam’s authority.  But did Maharam actually say this?  The footnotes in the printed Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomoh Chullin 1:48) refer one to #249 of the edition of Maharam’s responsum printed in Cremona.  However, the question in that edition reads


אם אדם שפגעה בו מדת הדין

ראוי להיות שליח צבור?

That which you asked:

Whether a person who has been injured by the Attribute of Justice

is fitting to be a shaliach tzibbur?

This version makes no reference to physical disability at all.  The question may be whether a person who clearly has suffered Divine Justice is a fitting representative for a community seeking Divine Mercy.  To which Maharam answers:  If the person has a broken heart, in other words if he has repented, G-d is pleased with his service.

Apparently unbeknownst to Maharshal, the question about physical blemishes was asked to Rabbi Yisrael of Brona in the 15th Century (Shu”t Mahari Brona #25).  He gave a very different, and somewhat odd, answer:

נשאלתי בקהלת ברונא מארץ הגר

אם למנות ש”צ בעל מום . . .

והשבתי שאין נכון בעיני,

רק ראיתי בא”ז שאין למנות ש”צ בעל מום

ושכחתי מקומו

אך נ”ל ראייה מס”פ האומר דקדושין (סז ב)

דמסיק בעל מום עבודתו פסולה בדיעבד . . .

וכיון דתפלתינו במקום קרבן, 

שנא’ ונשלמה פרים שפתינו,

א”כ אין נכון כלל למנותו לכתחלה לש”צ קבוע,

אבל באקראי יכול

דלא גרע מסומא דמתפלל לפעמים

אבל היכא דלא איפשר באחר –

אין לבטל תפלתינו בשביל זה,

כיון דכלנו מתפללים ביחידים והתפלה אינו אלא מדרבנן,

ואף על גב דכתיב ועבדתם בכל לבבכם,

ודרשי’ (תענית ב א)

איזוהי עבודה שהיא בלב? הוי אומר זו תפלה –

אסמכתא היא

או בעת צרה היא דאורייתא . . .

I was asked while in the community of Brona a question from Hungary

whether to appoint a shaliach tzibbur who has a mum . . .

I responded that it is not proper in my opinion

I have even seen in Or Zarua that one should not appoint a shaliach tzibbur who has a mum

but I have forgotten the location of that ruling

But it seems to me that proof can be brought from the end of Talmud Kiddushin Chapter 3

where it concludes that the Service of someone with a mum is invalid even after the fact . . .

so since our prayers take the place of sacrifice, 

as Scripture says “and our lips will compensate for bulls”,

therefore it is not proper at all to appoint him in the first place as a permanent shaliach tzibbur,

but this can be done on an ad hoc basis

as he is not worse than a blind person, who may lead prayers on an ad hoc basis

but where no one else can do it –

we should not idle ourselves from praying for this reason,

since we all pray individually now

and prayer is only a Rabbinic obligation.

Even though Scripture writes “you must serve Him with all your hearts”,

and we derive (Taanit 2a)

What Service is in the heart?  Say that this is prayer –

this is a mnemonic

or perhaps prayer in a time of crisis is a Biblical obligation . . .

Mahari Brona takes the comparison to priests and Service seriously – but how seriously?  Priests with mumim cannot serve ad hoc in the Temple!  So it seems at least possible that his prooftexts are marshalled in support of the missing citation from Or Zarua, rather than independently sufficient arguments.

But Mahari Brona’s claim to have forgotten the location of the Or Zarua is odd; at least in our editions, the seemingly relevant line appears in a collection of halakhot relating to shluchei tzibbur.

וצריך להיות צדיק וישר ונקי בגופו

ואם אינו כן עליו הכתוב אומר . . .

הקריבהו נא לפחתיך הירצך או הישא פניך.

והורה רב יודאי גאון

דשליח צבור סומא כשר הוא

ואין מסלקין אותו כל זמן שמעשיו הגונים.

He must be righteous and straight and naki begufo (literally: clean in his body)

If he is not such, Scripture says about him . . . (Malakhi 1:8)

Bring this (blemished sacrifice) to your baron – will he acknowledge you, or show you favor?

and/but Rabbi Y(eh)udai Gaon ruled

that a blind shaliach tzibbur is valid,

and that he should not be removed so long as his deeds are proper.

What does naki begufo mean?  If we read Rav Yehudai Gaon’s ruling about blind people as a contrast – “but R. Yehudai Gaon ruled” – it might mean that one’s body has to be clean of mumim.  Perhaps that is how Mahari Brona read it in his youth.

However, it turns out that Or Zarua was actually citing a Geonic responsum, and the texts of that responsum make it almost certain that naki begufo refers to a character trait, not a physical condition.  It may have meant simple cleanliness; or, as guf naki came to mean regarding tefillin, it may have referred to specific practices regarding bathroom issues.

So what we have so far is a Maharshal endorsing a Maharam that probably, but not certainly, preferred a disabled Shaliach Tzibbur to one who had not suffered any physical ravages; and a Mahari Brona that follows an Or Zarua that almost certainly says nothing relevant.

STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 NEXT WEEK!  (Spoiler: Mr. Goodman probably keeps his slot.)

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The Song of Torah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Noam Weinreich

During the course of God’s final commandments to Moshe (Devarim 30:14-30), he provides a warning that one day Bnai Yisrael will worship other gods and disobey him. As a response to this future calamity, God offers a puzzling solution. God commands Moshe to write down a song, a “שִּׁירָ֣ה”, and states this song will serve as a witness to God.

What is this song which Moshe writes?

According to Rashi, the song refers to Haazinu, the Parshah immediately following this episode. This is of course the simple interpretation, as the final verse preceding Haazinu describes Moshe as speaking a song to Bnai Yisrael. Ramban further points out that he verses in Haazinu are divided analogously to how verses in music are divided.

However, on Sanhedrin 21b, Rabbah derives the halakha that one is required to write a Sefer Torah from the verse where God commands Moshe to write down a song (Devarim 30:19). This interpretation only makes sense if Rabbah understands the song as a reference to the Torah itself! Corroborating this interpretation, the Ralbag notices that immediately after God’s commandment to write down a song, the verses describe Moshe as writing down a Torah, and then returns to the subject of the song before Haazinu. Ralbag takes this to mean that the Torah is being referred to as a song, including, but not limited to Haazinu. He further buttresses this point by challenging the notion that God would place so much emphasis specifically on Haazinu. The Ralbag believes that God would stress the importance of this song so much only if it referred to the entire Torah.

Why would the Torah be referred to as a song? Remember that Ramban suggests that Haazinu can be called a song because of the structure of its verses.  While the Torah as a whole does not share this structure, I’d like to suggest four models in which understanding the Torah as a song, or as poetry (these two will be equated here), provides distinctive ways of appreciating the Torah.

The first model is derived from the commentary of the Netziv, in his introduction to his Torah commentary, the Ha’amek Davar.  The Netziv writes that a defining distinction between poetry and prose is that poetry does not present its subject matter straightforwardly. Rather; it relies on allusions and symbolism, and requires commentary to extract the full meaning of its content. Comparing Torah to poetry tells us that even on a “Peshat” level, the Torah is essentially layered and symbolic, even before arriving at the “Remez” or “Derash” layers of the text.  

The second model is based on a Dvar Torah written by Rabbi Amnon Bazak. Why did God think that a song would be an effective solution to Bnai Yisrael’s future rebellion. Rabbi Bazak writes that the special feature of a song is how easy it is to memorize, and at the same time, to internalize. Therefore, when the Jews start to sin, they will have this song “engraved in the inner conscious of Bnei Yisrael”.  The Torah should be a part of us in the intimate way songs can be.

The third model draws on a passage from the philosophical work Sacred Attunement, by Michael Fishbane. In the course of developing his understanding of Judaism and Torah specifically as an enterprise in meaning creation (עיין שם), he discusses the value of poetry. When we study poetry, each word has significance beyond what it typically does. Paying close attention to each word and its meaning disrupts our habitual, often mindless way of interpreting the world, and causes us to reinterpret the world in a novel way. So too, the Torah can disrupt how we normally think of the world and construct meaning and structures from the random stimuli our eyes present to us, and to reconstruct meaning in a new light, based on the understanding it offers us.

The fourth and final model looks to a comment by the Aruch Hashulchan in his introduction to Choshen Mishpat .

וכל מחלוקת התנאים והאמוראים והגאונים והפוסקים….דברי אלוקים חיים המה… זוהי תפארת תורתינו….וכל התורה כולה נקראת שירה, ותפארת השיר היא כשהקולות משונים זה מזה, וזהו עיקר הנעימות.

In all the disputations of the [rabbis throughout the ages] . . . (each side) represent the words of the Living God….Indeed, that’s the magnificence of our Torah.  The entire Torah is called a song, and the magnificence of song is (the harmonization of) different and distinctive voices.   Indeed, that is the very essence of the pleasure we derive from it.

According to the Arukh Hashulchan, the Torah is like a song in that different people can have different interpretations and understandings, and yet their voices are unified in one harmonious output. In ordinary speech, when multiple people speak simultaneously, our ears hear chaos and cacophony. In a song, however, multiple voices can contribute their own unique sound to a harmony, which culminates in an enhanced and beautiful song. So too with the Torah. It is a positive development that we have so many different voices in our tradition, each contributing a distinctive sound.

So now we have four models for understanding why the Torah is metaphorically referred to as a song, or poetry. It draws attention to the necessity of interpreting the Torah beyond its surface level understanding. It points to how the Torah can be internalized and on the tip of your tongue. It indicates how we can use the Torah to draw attention to how we interpret the world around us, causing us to take a more active role in how we create meaning. Finally it emphasizes the ability of the Torah to incorporate so many different streams of thought and interpretations harmoniously.

Noam Weinreich (SBM ’14) is currently a senior at Cornell University, studying Philosophy and Mathematics.

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The Value of Lip Service

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

A cynical old salesmanship saw says that “Sincerity is everything.  Once you can fake that . . .”.  

We learn in this week’s parshah that the Torah is not distant from us.  Rather, “the matter is near to you, very – in your mouth and in your heart, to do/make it”.  Why does the mouth matter, and not just the heart?  Is there any value in having Torah only in one’s mouth, and not (yet) in one’s heart?  

Kiddushin 49b tells the story of a very contemporary-sounding court case.  A man planning on aliyah sells his home in galut.  But his plan falls through, and so he wants to reverse the sale.   Rava rules that if no explicit condition was put on the sale, it cannot be reversed, since “Words in the heart are not words.” All that matters is what comes out of your mouth.

How does Rava know this?  The gemara first suggests that he derives it from two cases of “coerced consent”.   Sacrifices and divorces must each be given willingly, yet the courts can use force until the sinner or husband say they are willing.  Doesn’t this prove that sincerity is unnecessary?  No, the gemara answers.  There is a presumption that people desire atonement, or to listen to the words of the Sages.  Coercion in these cases does not cause people to say things that they don’t mean; it enables them to say something they truly mean.  

This may seem like insincere legal legerdemain.  Obviously he doesn’t truly mean it, or he would have said it without being coerced to!  To understand how this can make psychological sense, we need to turn to a related discussion on Bava Batra 47-48.

Rav Huna there says that if a person is coerced into selling something at a fair price, the sale is valid.  Why should this be so?  The gemara first proposes that many sales are coerced in the sense that the seller would rather keep the object, but needs the money.  It concludes that this is not a valid source, since perhaps one cannot derive a case of coercion-by-others from a case of coercion-by-circumstances.  The cases of sacrifice and divorces are then proposed and rejected on the same grounds as above.  The gemara concludes that Rav Huna’s position is simply grounded in sevara, or practical reason.

What is Rav Huna’s sevara?  He believes that human beings prefer to have it all, and we trade goods only because necessity forces us to.  There is rarely if ever in human affairs an act that is absolutely autonomous.  Therefore, so long as a person gets what we believe he would acknowledge is fair value, the law regards trades as willing, regardless of whether we “wanted” to sell.  “אגב אונסיה גמר ומקני = As a result of his being compelled, he made up his mind to effect the transfer”. So too in the case of divorce, once the law determines that a person is getting “fair value” for surrendering their marital rights, they are considered to be acting willingly.  (The same would be true regarding marriage, except that the Rabbis stepped in to nullify what they considered to be an immoral outcome.)

We have come a long way from “All that matters is what comes out of your mouth”.  It seems that the law does not in fact accept insincerity; it just has a lower standard of willing than is commonly understood.  Indeed, the end of the sugya in Kiddushin makes clear that when there is absolute certainty about a person’s intent, and that intent was evident to the other party, sales are reversible even if no explicit condition was made.

With this understanding in hand, we can return to our opening question: Is there any value in having Torah only in one’s mouth, and not in one’s heart?  We will approach that question though an analysis of conversion.

A beraita on Yevamot 24b cites Rabbi Nechemyah as declaring that converts who are motivated by a human relationship, or by the hope of riches or position, or fear of Jewish power, are invalid.  Rabbi Yitzchak bar Shmuel bar Marta declares, however, that the halakhah is against Rabbi Nechemyah, and all such converts are validly converted.  Ritva asks: Why should insincere conversions be valid? His response deliberately evokes Rav Huna’s rationale: “אגב אונסייהו גמרו וקבלו = as a result of their being compelled, they made up their minds to accept”.

It seems clear that what insincere converts accept is the yoke of the mitzvot; but why are they under compulsion?  The connection to Rav Huna tells us that they see this as a transaction.  In order to obtain the spouse/position/security they desire, they must accept the responsibility of the mitzvot.  So they are sincere enough.

In Ritva’s account, lip service to Torah apparently has no value.  It is only because we believe that they meant their acceptance of mitzvot that we legitimate their conversions.  Ultimately it’s the heart that counts.

Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (Achiezer 3:26) makes this position explicit:

According to Rabbi Nechemyah, a convert for the sake of marriage is not a convert, because even though his mouth says that his intention is to convert, and “words in the heart are not words”, there is absolute certainty that his intention for the sake of marriage, and when there is absolute certainty because “these are words that are in the heart of every person” – they are words.  According to this, wherever it is not obvious to the whole world that his intention is for the sake of marriage, and there is room to doubt that perhaps he converted wholeheartedly, the rule should be like every other case of non-absolute certainty, meaning that words in the heart are not words, as Ketzot HaChoshen wrote, (and therefore Rabbi Nechemyah should accept them)!?

But we can say that for Rabbi Nechemyah, conversion is different than other transactions, because the essence of the acceptance of mitzvot and of conversion is “words in the heart”, and so long as he has not converted wholeheartedly, he is not a convert, and even where there is no certainty that his intention was for the sake of marriage or for some other purpose, if he in fact intended for some other purpose, he is not a convert, since “his heart is not with Him”.

However, according to the halakhah (rejecting Rabbi Nechemyah) that “They are all converts”, it is explained in the rishonim, and Ritva in the name of Ramban, that the reason for this matter is that since they converted and accepted (the mitzvot) upon themselves, there is a legal presumption that “As a result of their being compelled, they made up their minds to accept”.  The straightforward understanding appears to be that even though there is absolute certainty that his intention is for the sake of marriage, nonetheless because of the compulsion of desire he makes up his mind to “effect the transfer”, and accepted the conversion wholeheartedly, so there is certainty that he made up his mind and accepted the conversion wholeheartedly.

Rav Chaim Ozer concludes that if our legal certainty about their intent is factually incorrect, and they actually did not “make up their minds to accept the mitzvot”, then their conversion is factually invalid (although legally we have no way of knowing this).  He goes so far as to distinguish conversion from other transactions.  In financial issues, and perhaps even with regard to sacrifices and divorce, “words in the heart are not words” even if the spoken words are false.  But with regard to Torah, only the heart matters.

However, R. A. Y. Kook in one responsum suggests a radically different approach.  In response to a rabbi who sought to release a woman from a marriage by invalidating her husband’s conversion, he writes:

It is obvious that our default is to presume that he is a convert immediately after he is circumcised and immerses and accepts the mitzvot with his mouth.  Indeed, Scripture writes (Tehillim 78:36) regarding our ancestors that “They seduced Him with their mouth (at Sinai), but their hearts were not with him”, and the midrashim say that their hearts were turned to idolatry, and the idol of Mikhah was with them, but nonetheless, since they accepted (the Torah) with their mouths, the conversion (of the entire Jewish people) was completed.

For Rav Kook, it seems that Jewish history began with lip service.

The approach of the High Holidays properly leads to an emphasis on inner depth and authenticity.  We resonate with Rav Chaim Ozer’s claim that only the heart matters with regard to Torah.  But perhaps Rav Kook teaches that this should be true only for ourselves, not for others.  The lip service – and chesed, and tzedakah, and other maasei mitzvot – of the Orthoprax and Social Orthodox members of our community may be the truest recreation of Sinai, and attempts to ferret out ideological insincerity ultimately strike at our own legitimacy.


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Who Owns the Torah? Elitism and Democracy in Torah Perspective

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The Torah in numerous places appears to assume that halakhic knowledge and authority would be centralized in the tribe of Levi.

Nonetheless, throughout Jewish history Torah scholars have come from all tribes, and from converts. Was this part of the Divine plan? If yes, why does the Torah so often associate scholarship with Levi? If not, does making halakhic authority accessible to everyone replace the Torah’s vision of an ideal social order with anarchy and chaos?

Rambam (Laws of Shmittah 13:12-13) seeks to resolve this tension by turning all scholars into honorary Levites.

Why wasn’t Levi granted a share in the inheritance of the Land of Israel and its spoils
together with his brothers?
Because he was separated-out to serve Hashem,
to attend Him and to teach His straight ways and righteous statutes to the masses
as Scripture says:
“They will teach Your statutes to Jacob, and your Torah to Israel”
Therefore they were separated from the ways of the world –
they do not go out to battle like the rest of Israel
they do not inherit land and they are not granted property via the exertion of their bodies
rather they are the troop of Hashem
as Scripture says:
“Hashem blesses his troops”
And He the Blessed grants them (what they need)
as Scripture says:
“I am your share and land-inheritance”.
But this is not true only of the tribe of Levi;
each and every person from all those present in the world
whose spirit volunteered him and whose intellect made him comprehend
to become separated and stand before Hashem to attend and serve Him,
and to know Hashem,
and walked straight as the Divine made him,
and removed from his neck the yoke of the many calculations which human beings have sought –
He is sanctified as holy of holies,
and Hashem will be his share and land-inheritance for eternity and beyond,
and he will be granted in this world what is sufficient for him,
as He granted to the kohanim and Levites,
as behold David said:
“Hashem is my share and portion; You direct me as I choose my lot”

Turning Levi into a symbol or metaphor enables Rambam to maintain that the Torah intends there to be a social divide between the scholarly elite and the rest of the Jewish community. The elite give up all interest in money or power – G-d takes care of their minimal this-worldly needs – and as a result they can be trusted with Torah authority.

It is a pretty vision. Unfortunately, the politics of this world rarely turn out that way. G-d tends to provide for the this-worldly needs of scholars by way of non-scholars, who accordingly and properly have great influence over their Torah dependents. Scholars are not always satisfied with the bare minimum of physical comfort. Desire for power may be as prevalent among scholars as among businessmen. Scholars compete for the best fellowships, jobs, and students, not always nicely or with proper regard for ultimate ends. In sum: Concentrating authority in scholars does not successfully insulate Torah against the evils endemic to other political systems.

We might seek to insulate scholars from the direct influence of the rich by creating a government-sponsored fellowship, a National Endowment for the Metahumanities. Socialist Torah, rather than capitalist. After all, the Torah does not say that G-d will provide for the Levites’ this-worldly needs on an ad hoc basis; rather, it sets up a tax system to support them.

I think the best way to evaluate this theoretically attractive vision is to think about the Rabbanut in Israel.

An alternative vision emerges from a midrash cited by Rashi to Devarim 29:3.

“And Hashem did not give you a heart to know until this day” –
I have heard that on the very day that Moshe gave the scroll of the Torah to the Children of Levi
as Scripture writes (31:9):
”He gave it to the kohanim Children of Levi”
all Israel came before Moshe and said to him:
‘Moshe Rabbeinu,
we too stood at Sinai and received the Torah, and it was given to us,
so why are you giving the members of your tribe dominion over it?!
They will say to us tomorrow:
‘It was not given to you; it was given to us’.
Moshe rejoiced over the matter.
It was about this that he said to them (27:9):
“This day you have become a nation to Hashem your G-d” –
this day I have understood that you are cleaving to and desirous of the Omnipresent.

It seems from this midrash that Moshe Rabbeinu originally inclined to either the socialist or capitalist visions above, or perhaps to Rambam’s imagined Republic. But when the other tribes – all Israel! – came to him and protested that they too wanted to study Torah, he rejoiced.

This midrash is likely related to the dialogue between Moshe and Yehoshua about Eldad and Meidad (Bamidbar 11:28-29), where Moshe, to Yehoshua’s surprise and perhaps dismay, expresses comfort with the idea of a community in which everyone is a prophet, and therefore no one has more access to the Divine than anyone else. Moshe was comfortable in principle with both spiritual and halakhic democracy.

Comfort in principle does not imply endorsement in practice. Democracy, in both its pure and representative/republican varieties, has its own weaknesses. As Socrates loved to point out, democracy works well only when its constituents know the limits of their own knowledge, and prefer truth to power. In fact, only Eldad and Meidad were prophets, not the entire people of Hashem. By the same token, not all of us – even among those who live the life of Levi – are halakhically competent scholars.

Nonetheless, the democratic ideal properly has consequences. The chief of these are that scholars must be accountable to their constituents, must constantly seek to spread rather than hoard knowledge and authority, and must recognize the autonomy of individual men and women as a core religious value.

In the coming weeks I expect to publish several essays that have as their immediate practical aim the constriction of halakhic authority, and therefore might reasonably be seen as in tension with the last commitment above. So in the spirit of the first and second commitments, and of the month of Elul, I ask and invite you to look for them, read them carefully, and then hold me accountable.
Shabbat shalom

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The Second Berith

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eli Shaubi

Throughout Sefer Devarim, Moshe delivers a long speech in which he continues to teach the Nation of Israel all of the commandments, in addition to preparing them to enter the Land of Israel. In the beginning of Perashath Ki Tavo, that speech finally comes to an end, culminating with a number of commandments relating to crops in the Land of Israel.

After finishing his teaching regarding the final commandment within the covenant (ma’aser sheni), he concludes his speech with the following summary (Devarim 26:16-19):

טז הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, יי אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה–וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.
יז אֶת-יי הֶאֱמַרְתָּ, הַיּוֹם:  לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵא-לֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו, וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו–וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ.
יח וַיי הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו.
יט וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, לִתְהִלָּה, וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת; וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם-קָדֹשׁ לַיי אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר.

 Followed by a long list of rewards and punishments that the Nation will receive for abiding by or breaching the covenant, Moshe returns to the theme of the last pesuqim (Devarim 28:69):

סט אֵלֶּה דִבְרֵי הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יי אֶת-מֹשֶׁה, לִכְרֹת אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב:  מִלְּבַד הַבְּרִית, אֲשֶׁר-כָּרַת אִתָּם בְּחֹרֵב.

Two things stand out to me in Moshe’s concluding remarks:

  1. The repetition of היום הזה.
  2. The emphasis on the second berith besides the one made on Har Sinai.

The initial berith between God and Israel was established at Har Sinai (Shemoth 24). This berith serves as the basis for the entirety of the Tora. It was our decision as a Nation to enter into a binding agreement with God to follow His Law, and receive the Tora from Him. What makes that berith different from this berith?

The first berith can be understood as the commitment to enter into a special contractual agreement with God, the details of which were to be revealed later. It took forty years to reveal the entirety of the Tora, and some of the commandments even evolved during this forty year time period. The Theophany at Sinai, with God speaking to the entire Nation of Israel, was the catalyst for this covenant. It verified the prophecy of Moshe beyond any doubt, as we heard God speak with him with our own ears. Moreover, it inculcated within the Nation of Israel an intuitive understanding of God gained only via direct experience. With this experience, we were ready to commit to the contract that is the Tora, even without receiving yet all of its details.

The second berith in the desert of Mo’av was the sealing of this deal with all of the commandments and their intricacies. At Har Sinai, God promises us that we will be an עם סגולה and a holy nation if we follow His covenant.

ה וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי–וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.
ו וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

That happens, however, only *today* at Mo’av. At this point, we now have the Law that makes us a holy nation, if only we abide by it. Upon completing the berith, no more commandments were to be revealed. The two exceptions — Haqhel and Writing a Sefer Tora, both of which appear in Perashath Vayelekh, after the closing of the covenant — are recreations of the two berith events, summarizing the whole Tora. Haqhel recreates the experience at Sinai, and the Sefer Tora includes the entirety of the Law as signed with the completion of the second berith.

It was *on this day* that we received the Law. It is at this point, that we and God signed our final agreement, and put it to ink, putting all our scrolls together and forming the written Sefer Tora that we have to this day.

Each of these covenants symbolizes a unique aspect in our unique relationship with God, the personal and the national. A nation is governed by laws, and we are blessed to have a divine gift, which is the Tora, purely out of God’s חסד. However, a nation is made up of individuals who must each fulfill their commitment on a personal level. This gives the unique blend of a Tora which makes us a nation, by virtue of having a common Law, and allows us to develop individually in our service of God.

May we continue to praise and thank God for the amazing Tora which he has bestowed upon us, and celebrate it all of our days!

Eli Shaubi (SBM 2012) just completed his military service as a commander in the IDF, and will be beginning his MA in Arabic Language and Literature at Hebrew University this coming fall.

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Finding Spirituality Everywhere

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Batsheva Leah Weinsten

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Parshas Ki Seitzei, the Torah gives a scenario in which a soldier at war desires a female captive. The Torah then gives the laws of how it is permissible for him to take her as a wife. While reading through this passage, there are many words and phrases that appear to be extra, or not necessary to get the point across. The Or HaChaim has an interesting way of explaining these phrases by understanding this section of law as a parable of a person coming into the world. The war symbolizes that when a person enters this world, he has to be prepared to do battle with the Yetzer Hara, as it says in Pirkei Avos (4:1) “Who is strong? One who conquers his Evil Inclination.” The pasuk specifies that the war is “al oyvecha” – against your enemies (Devarim 21:10). In a general war, an individual can theoretically walk away from the fight and the other side, caught up in the battle, might not notice. However, if one is fighting with a specific enemy, he has to struggle constantly to maintain the upper hand – if he puts down his guard for even an instant, his adversary will gain control. Life follows the second scenario – we must always guard against the influences that will arise in our lives and tempt us to do wrong, even when we might feel secure in our spiritual standing. Thus the Or HaChaim rereads this passage about physical desires to be discussing the spiritual struggle of the individual human in this world.

The Or HaChaim also rereads the issur of not leaving a body hanging overnight to be a command about respecting talmidei chachamim. The physical hanging of a body shows that Hashem will not send down a lighting bolt every time someone sins, rather the courts must judge the people in order to create a stable society. The pasuk says, “If a man sins and is sentenced to death and is killed and is hanged on a tree” (21:22). Or HaChaim interprets “tree” as a talmid chacham, saying that it was his responsibility to rebuke the sinner and return him to the proper path; since he turned his eye away and let him die, the sin is hung, or blamed, on him. Nevertheless, “lo salin nivlaso al ha’etz” – you shall not leave his carcass hanging on the tree (21:23). “Nivlaso”, says the Or HaChaim, is a sin – you should not dismiss the sage for his sin, for perhaps he has done teshuva. The pasuk continues, “And you shall not defile the land that HaShem is giving to you as an inheritance.” The Gemara in Shabbos (119b) states “Lo charva Yerushalayim ela al she-hayu mevazim bah talmidei chachamim” – Yerushalayim was destroyed because people were not respecting the sages. His point can, however, be learned regarding all people – one perhaps should not hold people responsible for past wrongs when there is no proof that they have not regretted and resolved to change their former actions.

These are two examples of how the Or HaChaim interprets some of the many mitzvos in our parsha dealing with the physicality of society to be hinting about more spiritual matters, and he does it with others as well. Why does he feel the need to add extra meaning to these mitzvos?

Bnei Yisrael are on the brink of entering Eretz Yisrael and will, for the first time, have to live in a physical society which lacks open miracles. For the first time they will have to work the land to produce food in order to eat and fight battles for themselves without the obvious Divine intervention that they had in the desert. Somehow they must do this and not forget that it is all from Hashem. These mitzvos are meant to make even the most mundane of circumstances holy, such as obligation one to put a railing around one’s roof to prevent people from falling, thus showing that Hashem is present in ordinary lives and activities. Or HaChaim adds underlying spirituality to these mitzvos to emphasize that everything can be infused with spirituality and Hashem’s presence – we just have to find it. Even laws regarding material things have a deeper spiritual meaning. And if we search hard enough and find that spirituality in our everyday life, we can, in Rabbi Sacks’ words, bring Heaven down to earth.

During Elul, Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Yimei Teshuva, and Yom Kippur, we constantly pray and repent, strengthening our relationship with Hashem. The greatest struggle, however, comes afterwards when we must attempt to keep this deep relationship that we have created with Hashem during the everyday rush of life. By remembering that we can cause every activity that we do to be infused with holiness, we can maintain the spiritual level that we reached during these days.

Batsheva Leah Weinstein (Midreshet Avigayil 2015, 2016) is a rising senior at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School.

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