Monthly Archives: October 2018

What to Sacrifice: God or Morality?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Steve Gotlib

The Akedah portrays a stark conflict between moral intuition and the direct, unquestionable word of God. Rav Soloveitchik commented that “God demands that man bring the supreme sacrifice, but the fashion in which the challenge is met is for man to determine” (Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch).  What should we readers choose to sacrifice as we finish reading the Akedah? Our sense of human morality, or our devotion to God?

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously argued that a human’s duty is to nullify his or her will before God even when that means suspending one’s ethical assumptions. Whatever God wants done must be done without question. When God tells you to jump, you can’t even ask how high. When God tells you to slaughter your son, you start sharpening the knife.

Kierkegaard’s view is in direct contradiction to that of Immanuel Kant:

Abraham should have replied to this putative Divine voice: “That I may not kill my good son is absolutely certain. But that you who appear to me are God is not certain, and cannot become certain, even though the voice were to sound from the very heavens. (The Conflict of the Faculties)

According to Kant, the only thing we know for certain is that it is utterly immoral to kill our children. No one can know with the same degree of confidence that God is communicating to them. It was therefore incumbent on Abraham to question the voice he heard commanding the akeidah and make no move whatsoever until proof of it being God’s voice could be ascertained – and no sufficient proof would be possible.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar) each wrote responses from within Jewish tradition to both Kierkegaard and Kant.

According to Rav Lichtenstein, a person cannot and should not suspend their own ethical judgement when faced with the word of God. They must rather work on themselves until they and God want the same thing. “One must nullify his own will and accept God’s will as the driving force in his life. Ultimately, one should strive to reach the level where he can translate God’s will into his own” (Mitzva: A Life of Command).

Rav Lichtenstein says more on this in a different essay:

…the grappling must all be done within the parameters of the understanding that, however much I wrestle, I do not for a moment question the authenticity or the authority of the tzav… I may grope, I may ask, and I may ultimately seek resolution.(“Being Frum and Being Good”)

This approach allows for Kierkegaard’s acceptance of God’s command as the be-all-and-end-all, while simultaneously allowing for a degree of Kant’s moral push-back. With this view, a person may search for the reason that they are faced with this apparent contradiction between God’s word and their moral intuition. They can wrestle with the command that they have been given and come to their own conclusions about the reason for it. But at the end of the day, a command is still a command. Upon reaching resolution, that command must be carried out as the will of God, and as their own will as well.

Rav Shagar by contrast gives doubt a legitimate and essential role in religious decision-making. He develops his position via a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:4) in which the Satan tells Abraham Avinu that it was really he, not God, who commanded the slaughter of Isaac.  God will accuse Abraham of being a murderer the very next day if he goes through with this crazy act. Abraham’s responds that he will go through with what he perceives as the will of God, even though he knows that he can’t demonstrate the truth:

[This answer] expresses Abraham’s unremitting dedication, his willingness to forfeit everything – not just his ethics, but even his very religion – which is his only path to unqualified devotion, if not utter certainty. In any event, it appears as though Abraham’s insistence on the divine origin of the imperative to slaughter his son can be facilitated only by the seed of doubt planted by Satan. This is what sets it apart from ordinary obstinacy, especially if we read Satan as a manifestation of Abraham’s own misgivings. Intransigence that does not take doubt into account is meaningless and false. (Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akeda)

Rav Shagar argues that one can achieve true religious devotion only be experiencing and overcoming doubt. A devotion that ignores doubt entirely can be very dangerous in an age where we no longer have direct prophecy. How are we to know that the path that we are on is truly the right one and we are not misguided? Furthermore, how do we know that what we are doing is truly the word of Hashem?

Rabbi Hayyim Angel answers this question:

The Akedah teaches several vital religious lessons. Ideal religion is all about serving God, and is not self-serving. Because we expect God to be moral, the Torah’s protest tradition also emerges with Abraham’s holding God accountable. We may and should ask questions. Simultaneously, we must obey God’s laws in our mutual covenantal relationship. We aspire to be extremely religious, and Abraham serves as a paragon of the ideal connection to God, an active relationship, and faithfulness. The Akedah also teaches the key to avoid what is rightly condemned as religious extremism, using religion as a vehicle for murder, persecution, discrimination, racism, and other expressions of immorality. Morality and rationality must be built into every religious system, or else its adherents risk lapsing into immorality in the name of their religion. (The Binding of Isaac: Extremely Religious Without Religious Extremism)

Judaism is about serving God, not about serving ourselves.  But since God is a wholly moral being, His commands must also be moral. The Akedah narrative demonstrates to us that we should love God enough to do whatever it is that He demands of us, but also that God does not want us performing immoral actions in His name. Reading the Akedah with this in mind makes clear that neither moral intuition nor trust in God should ever be sacrificed.

Steve Gotlib (SBM 2017 and 2018) is a recent graduate of Rutgers University. He is now in his first year of semicha at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah

Akeidah Moments

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Fathers are not supposed to sacrifice their sons, even if they think G-d is telling them to do so. Please seek psychiatric care immediately if you think G-d is telling you that. Let’s get that out of the way. Now we can talk seriously about the akeidah.

Avraham our Forefather did not seek psychiatric care when G-d told him to sacrifice Yitzchak. If we are to learn anything edifying from the akeidah narrative, we need to bridge the gap between his reaction and our understanding of what would constitute a reasonable contemporary reaction.

Here is a minimalist bridge. The story of the akeidah teaches us that G-d would never ask us to kill someone innocent.  That’s why anyone who experiences G-d telling them to kill an innocent person can be confident that they are insane.  But we should also learn from Avraham that anything G-d commands is binding, however horrible it seems to us, unless and until G-d tells us that He didn’t really mean it by issuing a specifically contradictory command.  It is not enough to show that a specific command violates a general value He has previously articulated; such values are parallel to G-d’s promises that Avraham would have many descendants etc, which did not stand in the way of G-d’s command to sacrifice Yitzchak.

Here is a maximalist bridge.  The story of the akeidah teaches us that G-d wants human beings to exercise independent moral judgement about anything and everything that appears to be His command.  That a moral giant like Avraham seriously considered slaughtering Yitzchak teaches us that uncritical obedience leads inexorably to pure evil.

Here is an intermediate bridge.  Many acharonim point out that Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak would not have been considered immoral by his contemporaries.  Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, and Meisha King of Moav sacrificed his son, and after all there was an entire religion called Molekh.  The akeidah is what taught Avraham, and eventually the civilized world, that human sacrifice is unjustifiable.  But it teaches us that one cannot rely on human moral consensus either, since the consensus of Avraham’s time would have approved of his going through with the sacrifice.  The real moral of the story is that we cannot stop listening for G-d’s voice when we first think we understand what He wants.  Had Avraham done so, he would never have heard the angel telling him to stop. (Frighteningly, it seems from the text that the angel had to tell him twice.)

Each of these bridges can be mapped onto our relationship with halakhah.

The minimalist bridge yields a system in which halakhah is the foundation of our values, and all elements of moral conversation need to be grounded in halakhic sources. The only way to critique a halakhic result is on the basis of another halakhic result. Contradictions are generally resolved in favor of the more specific law. For example, one cannot eat bacon to avoid embarrassing someone, despite the general halakhic imperative to be concerned for human dignity (kavod haberiyot).

The maximalist bridge yields a system in which halakhah has a voice but not a veto. Now that formulation may seem prejudicial because of its association with Mordekhai Kaplan.  But I think it is important to acknowledge that no account of Orthodoxy sees formal halakhic rules as absolutely controlling.  Even Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, who denied the concept of aveirah lishmah (transgression for the sake of Heaven) any impact post-Sinai, conceded the relevance of informal principles which can be semantically defined as in or out of halakhah. The differences between the maximalist and minimalist positions are about whether the informal principles must be derived by abstraction from specific halakhic rules, or rather can be sourced in other aspects of Torah or in human intuition; and about whether there is a presumption that formal rules trump informal principles.

The intermediate bridge yields a system in which conflicts between formal and informal principles yield an obligation for further study. The problem is that decisions often cannot be put off forever, and sometimes cannot be put off at all.  How does one decide when there isn’t time for the study and restudy one feels is necessary?  In John Kerry’s famous phrase, how does one tell someone that they may be the last person to die for a halakhic mistake?  Bottom line, the intermediate bridge still requires us under time-pressure to choose between the minimalist and maximalist models.

But it’s not obvious to me that this decision needs to be made the same way in all times and circumstances.

For example: It may be that informal rules have more power where/when there is a general sense of confidence within the halakhic community that halakhah conforms to human moral intuition.  It further seems to me that this confidence generally develops in one of two ways.  First, sometimes a halakhic community becomes isolated from other communities. In such circumstances, it is natural over time for intuition to accommodate itself within the confines of halakhah, and for halakhah to more consistently account for the community’s intuitions.  Second, sometimes the halakhic community is deeply integrated with the general human community that hosts it.  Such integration often results from a sense that Torah has a great deal in common with near-universal human values-systems.

By contrast: Formal rules may have more power when/where the halakhic community lacks moral self-confidence.

What sort of situation are we in?

It seems to me that Orthodoxy in the late 20th century was deeply integrated with its host American community.  This accordingly led to moral self-confidence and a general prioritization of informal principles over formal rules.

This claim may seem off if you’re accustomed to think of Modern Orthodoxy through the lens of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man, which sets out a system parallel to the minimalist bridge above.  I suggest that we recognize that the system was never intended to control practical decision-making in specific cases, and never did.  It was a model for the development of formal principles. A more accurate picture of practical Modern Orthodox halakhah emerges from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s regular reliance on informal values principles in his actual halakhic decisions, and on the oral record of his acknowledgement that in specific situations of moral challenge he would act first and find the formal justification later.

But – in the 21st century, the relationship between the halakhic community and its host American community has been changing.  Progressive morality may have evolved faster than a traditionalist community can follow with integrity. Given the broad and deep influence of progressive morality, it is very hard for conservative morality to present itself as reflecting universal human intuition.  So we should expect a movement toward greater reliance on formal rules.

But that is at least an oversimplification, and perhaps just wrong.  A community that has been highly integrated with its host community does not easily disengage, and properly so.  As the gap between the formal rules and the values of the host community grows, we should also expect a move to expand the power of informal principles to fill that gap.

I also think that America is and should be unique in Jewish history because it is a democracy in which we are genuinely full participants.  This means that the category “host” is not right; we are a part of a broader community, and it is an abdication of responsibility to simply disengage from the general moral conversation. This I suggest is why Orthodoxy by and large has not gone its own way, but rather different elements of our community have chosen to integrate with the conservative and liberal wings of America society, respectively.  Both sides have largely chosen to prioritize the informal over the formal, but they have chosen different informal principles.  The irony is that the laudable shared desire to remain part of American society threatens the cohesion of Orthodoxy.

Here lies the power of “akeidah moments”, places where we acknowledge that there seems no way to bridge the gap between what halakhah requires of us and our moral intuition.  Whichever model we pick to address them, a recognition that we each are genuinely committed to both horns of the dilemma has the capacity to hold us together. But only so long as we believe in the genuineness of each other’s commitment.

Leave a comment

Filed under Weekly Devar Torah

Was Lot Worse Than Esav? Parallels, People(s), and Property

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davey Schoenberg

Who was more antagonistic to our nation, Lot or Esav? We all probably learned in grade school that Esav is obviously the villain, our archnemesis, the literal manifestation of evil. And certainly from the stories in Bereishit, even if we limit ourselves to the text and ignore the numerous midrashim, Esav appears to be the winner of the malevolence match up. The Torah testifies that he planned to kill Yaakov, and we also learn that he “despised” the Abrahamic birthright. In contrast, the only problem between Lot himself and the Abrahamic line is that Lot’s shepherds fought with Avraham’s shepherds. If we add in all the midrashim about how evil Esav was—including one that Esav tried to murder Yaakov by biting his neck—it seems even more clear that Esav’s wickedness trumps Lot’s.

Yet when we look at the laws surrounding their descendants, we get the opposite impression.[1] While Esav’s nation (Edom) can marry into the Jewish people three generations after converting to Judaism (Devarim, 23:8-9), Lot’s descendants [2] can never marry in, even after ten generations (Devarim, 23:4). Additionally, while the Torah forbids the Jewish people from conquering either set of descendants, the language in regard to Esav is much stronger, using the phrase “and you shall guard yourselves very much,” an admonition that is absent when speaking about Lot’s descendants (Devarim 2:4-5, 9, 19). Moreover, there is a special prohibition regarding Esav that the Jews may not even set foot on his descendants’ land, a commandment that is again not applied to Lot (ibid). Finally, the Torah explicitly says we are not to “seek the peace” of Lot’s descendants, but in the very next pasuk says, “Do not despise an Edomite” (Devarim 23:7-8). We see, therefore, that despite our intuition that Esav is worse than Lot, the Torah commands us to treat Lot much more harshly.

To begin understanding this seeming incongruity, we will first take a step back to talk about the word “רכש” (rechush/rachash: property/to amass). According to a Bar Ilan Responsa Project search, the root of this word appears eighteen times in the entire Chumash. Of those, an astonishing sixteen are in reference to Avraham, Lot, Yaakov, or Esav.

Two appearances of the word involve almost identical psukim. When mentioning that Lot’s shepherds fought with Avraham’s shepherds, the Torah states:

וְגַ֨ם־לְל֔וֹט הַֽהֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶת־אַבְרָ֑ם הָיָ֥ה צֹֽאן־וּבָקָ֖ר וְאֹֽהָלִֽים :וְלֹֽא־נָשָׂ֥א אֹתָ֛ם הָאָ֖רֶץ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו כִּֽי־הָיָ֤ה רְכוּשָׁם֙ רָ֔ב וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ לָשֶׁ֥בֶת יַחְדָּֽו:

And also to Lot who travelled with Avraham there were sheep, cattle, tents. And the land could not sustain them to dwell together, because their property was [too] great, and they could not dwell together (13:5-6).

Similarly, when Esav goes away from Yaakov and leaves Israel to go to Har Seir, we read:

וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁ֠יו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֘ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו: כִּֽי־הָיָ֧ה רְכוּשָׁ֛ם רָ֖ב מִשֶּׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו וְלֹ֨א יָֽכְלָ֜ה אֶ֤רֶץ מְגֽוּרֵיהֶם֙ לָשֵׂ֣את אֹתָ֔ם מִפְּנֵ֖י מִקְנֵיהֶֽם:

And Esav took his wives, sons, daughters, and all the people of his house and his cattle and animals and all the acquisitions he had amassed in the land of Canaan, and he went to [another] land from before Jacob his brother. Because their property was [too] great to dwell together, and the land of their sojournings could not sustain them because of their flocks (36:7).[3]

Both Avraham/Lot and Yaakov/Esav, had too much property to be near each other, so they separated. Yet although these psukim are similar, there is a glaring difference between their contexts. In the context of Esav, the previous pasuk refers to his family members as distinct from his possessions: wives, children AND rechush. For Lot, in contrast, people are not mentioned as distinct from the property.

This difference between Lot and the Abrahamic line continues in the rest of Bereishit. When Lot is captured along with Sdom, the Torah notes that the conquerors took “the property of Sdom and Amorah and all their food … and also Lot and his property” (14:11-12). None of their people are mentioned. In contrast, when Avraham saves everyone who was captured, the Torah says he returned “all the property and also Lot his kinsman and his property and also the women and the nation” (14:16). The Torah, when referencing the exact same set of things, mentions “the women and the nation” separately when Avraham is the key actor, but includes them under “property” for Lot.[4]

Similarly, when Avraham leaves Charan, he takes his wife, his nephew, his property, and the “people they had made” (12:5). Again, the people are distinct from the property.

The first time rechush is mentioned directly in regard to Yaakov, when he leaves Lavan, the people are also listed separately (31:17-18). The other time, when the nation goes down to Egypt, not only are the people listed separately, but the Torah then goes into great detail, listing the names of the people who went with him (46:5-26).[5]

Thus, every time the word rechush is mentioned when Avraham, Yaakov, or Esav are the actors, people are treated as distinct from property, but when Lot is acting, people are considered property.[6] Indeed, Lot’s consideration of people, even his own family, as property is evident when the people of Sdom mob his house because of his visitors. Lot says to them, “I have two daughters who have not known a man; I will take them out to you and do with them what is good in your eyes” (19:8). Lot offers up his virgin daughters to be mass raped in order to protect his visitors. Part of the obvious utter revulsion we have towards this is certainly Lot’s casual treatment of his daughters as bargaining chips.

This is exactly the difference between Lot and Esav. Esav treats his own family well: there is a distinction to him between people and property. Lot, however, is a wildcard. No one is safe from him, not even family, because people are just another piece of property to mess with.

We can now answer the question with which we started. Esav can eventually marry into the Jewish people because once we are his family—say, after three generations—we trust him to be good to us. Even if the original Esav was terrible to the Jewish people, we know that if we are family, he will fulfill the basic minimum of treating us well. Esav doesn’t treat people like property. Lot, in contrast, does. Even after ten generations, when we would definitely be family, we cannot be assured that he will be good to the Jewish people because being family with other people means nothing to him: everyone is rechush.

While obviously not ideal, we can accept many negative—even reprehensible—character traits and still be willing to consider someone Jewish. This is not to say we should accept those character traits, but rather that given enough of a baseline, we may welcome someone into the community and then work on improving their actions. Comparing Lot and Esav, however, teaches us that negating the agency of other people must not be tolerated.

Notes:

[1] Admittedly, the only nation we are commanded to wipe out completely is Amalek, a descendant of Esav. Nevertheless, this is only one portion of Esav’s descendants. Esav as a whole is called Edom (Bereishit 36:1), and this is to whom I refer when I say Esav’s descendants.

[2] Moav and Bnei Amon.

[3] In this week’s sedra.

[4] The king of Sdom also separates people from property, saying to Avraham, “Give me people, and the property take for yourself” (14:21). I’d argue he learned this lesson from Avraham, as Rashi commenting on the section says that a miracle occurred to the king of Sdom, causing him to “believe in Avraham” (Rashi Bereishit 14:10, s.v. be’erot be’erot cheimar).

[5] Well, the names of the males plus Dinah. The women are only mentioned as groups. But that’s a whole different discussion.

[6] There is one more time where rechush is mentioned by Avraham, when Hashem promises him that his progeny will eventually leave Egypt “with great property” (15:14). While in this case, people are not mentioned separately, this is for a clear reason: Hashem is promising that the entire nation will leave Egypt, taking their property with them. There are no separate people for them to be taking along.

 

Davey Schoenberg (SBM 2018) grew up in Newton, MA and attended Maimonides School before spending two years in Gush. He is currently a Sophomore at Harvard College concentrating in Mechanical Engineering.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah, Uncategorized

The Kavanaugh Hearings and Torah Conversation

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

A rabbi recently asked a conversion candidate whether the Torah had anything to say about the Kavanaugh hearings. The question was a failure, because the candidate did not feel safe enough to express disagreement with the (wrongly) presumed political consensus of the beit din.  I think the presumption needed to be undone; it was vital to show that Torah conversation and Torah communities are intended to handle and even encourage open disagreement on such questions.

The great issues of the day often become political faultlines.  In a healthy society, the importance of those issues drives people to engage regularly in substantive if heated conversation across those lines.  In an unhealthy society, fear of social fracturing, moral disapproval, or economic reprisal; insecurity; and sheer disregard for the opinions and character of those one disagrees with, lead people to engage only with others who are demonstrably likeminded, and to shy away from authentic disagreement.

Genesis 14:13 describes Avram as an “Ivri,” and Rabbi Yehudah  (Bereishit Rabbah 48:4) understands that to mean that “The whole world was on one side=eiver, and he stood on the other.”  In other words, a Jew is someone willing to be ostracized for the sake of moral principle.  But the medieval exegete Rabbi Yosef Bekhor Shor points out that Genesis 14:13 itself locates Avram in the terebinths of his covenanted allies Aner, Eskhol, and Mamre; Avraham and Sarah had each other; and the Rabbis also describe Avraham and Sarah as making converts (“the souls which they made in Charan”). This combination of willingness to bear unpopularity for the sake of principle, while maintaining human relationships and engaging with others in the hope of convincing them, should make for a healthy society.

One test of whether it succeeds in doing so is the process of conversion itself.  Do candidates see themselves as entering a vibrant conversation which values the differences they bring to Judaism? Or do they see it as too risky to express political opinions that conflict with the apparent consensus of their intended community?

What matters is that we think seriously through the lens of Torah, not that we reach a specific conclusion. We should not pasken politics.

I’ll go further. Thinking through the lens of Torah should almost never lead to an absolutely definitive conclusion regarding an issue about which reasonable moral people have differing intuitions. (This is also true of economics, philosophy, and political science.) Hopefully. it enables us to make better, deeper, and more authentic judgments and decisions.  The Kavanaugh hearings modeled for me the breakdown of political conversation in the United States and reflected the ill health of American political society. I will take the chance here of trying to model a constructive Torah conversation about one aspect of the Kavanaugh hearings, in the hopes of contributing to the health of our community.

I found two Orthodox approaches on the web to the question of whether youthful sins can disqualify a person from public service.

The first, from a group calling itself The Coalition for Jewish Values, stated that

we should be judged on the totality of our lives, not merely on one alleged incident, and certainly not on an incident that is unsubstantiated and unprovable,

and

It is immoral to besmirch someone’s name in the court of public opinion on ‘evidence’ that would not stand in a court of law.

These propositions were taken as self-evident.

The second, by Forward columnist Avital Chizhik Goldschmidt, cites Maimonides.

Open the Mishneh Torah, where Maimonides unpacks the biblical descriptions of a judge in great detail. Judges appointed to the Sanhedrin, he writes, must be “mighty in their observance of the mitzvot, who are very demanding of themselves, and who overcome their evil inclination until they possess no unfavorable qualities, no trace of an unpleasant reputation, even during their early manhood, they were spoken of highly.” (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2:7, Translation by Eliyahu Touger on Chabad.org). 

Interestingly — the teenage behavior of a judicial candidate is relevant, Maimonides says. It is telling of one’s moral character, no matter how long ago it was.

But perhaps what is more interesting is the fact that Maimonides does not only require a judge to be righteous, or rather, sin-less — something that may be, somewhat, measured.

A good “name,” “no trace of an unpleasant reputation,” as elusive as that is, is important for Maimonides. A mere stain on one’s standing, a grave rumor with substantial weight, is enough to disqualify a judicial candidate from being confirmed — probably because a bad repute alone is enough to dangerously devalue a judge in the eyes of the people he serves.

Of these two approaches, I plainly prefer Ms. Goldschmidt’s. She provides textual evidence, and therefore makes space for disagreement. An outsider reading her article could reasonably believe that someone providing plausible counterinterpretations or alternate texts would remain part of her religious community. But I don’t mean to dismiss the CJV’s intuitions, which I think can be reconciled with traditional texts.

From a halakhic perspective, we must of course ask how broadly Maimonides’ position is shared.  For example, the requirement that a judge be “pirko naeh” = “that his reputation be pleasant even during early manhood,” is cited by Tur (Choshen Mishpat 7), but not in Shulchan Arukh. Perhaps Shulchan Arukh thought it was implicit in his citation of the requirement that judges be baalei shem tov = holders of good reputations.  But perhaps he thought it was going too far to require that reputation to have been established in youth.

Maimonides’ list is taken essentially verbatim from Tosefta (Sanhedrin Chapter 7, Chagigah Chapter 2). But the parallel text in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 88b) leaves out pirko naeh (this remains true in all manuscripts available at fjms.genizah.org and in Dikdukei Sofrim).

The pirko naeh requirement is also brought on Taanit 16b with regard to a yoreid lifnei hateivah, a prayer leader. There – as opposed to regarding judges – it has generated extensive discussion in the responsa literature over the past millennium.  (This can be found by searching for variants of the phrase pirko naeh on the Bar Ilan Responsa Project.) Decisors as early as Rav Hai Gaon struggle throughout with on the one hand a recognition that a prayer leader’s past misdeeds can legitimately diminish confidence in their capacity to effectively represent the community before G-d, and on the other hand a social need to reward penitence with acceptance, and a metaphysical claim that “where baalei teshuvah stand, those who have always been completely righteous cannot stand”.  They distinguish between leading prayers on fast days (and perhaps Rosh HaShannah) and on other days; between holding the position of chazan and leading prayers on an ad hoc basis; between prospective appointment and removal from office; etc.  All these distinctions are disputed.

Decisors similarly struggle with the standard of evidence needed to establish a genuinely bad reputation.  Surely one uncorroborated report is not enough – or is it?  The usual Halakhic category invoked is קלא דלא פסיק, a rumor that will not cease.  But sometimes the court feels obligated to do its best to make the rumor cease.

Furthermore, does pirko naeh require one to have now a reputation that one has been blameless throughout, or only to have escaped one’s youth with a perhaps mistakenly unblemished reputation?  At least one case in the responsa literature appears to involve new rumors of youthful offenses in which the accused both denies the worst claims and claims to have repented of the behavior that gave rise to the rumors of sin, as evidenced by his unblemished reputation ever since.

To summarize: Contentions made by both sides make their appearance in the halakhic tradition.  Intuitions held by both sides make their appearance in the halakhic tradition.

Our community would have benefited – might still benefit – from a full scholarly analysis of these materials and a better sense of how past cases were decided. But that would still not yield binding law, as halakhah is fully cognizant that new social arrangements require precedents to be applied thoughtfully rather than mechanically.

I don’t know whether such an analysis would have enabled genuinely healthy conversations in our community about the Kavanaugh nomination and hearings. Some issues may simply be too raw. Our communities of discourse may have sustained so much damage already as to be completely unable to handle an issue that pushes so many buttons so hard. Publishing this scrupulously neutral dvar Torah feels risky, as so many people seem committed to the approach that “anyone who is not the enemy of my enemy is my enemy.” Yet reclaiming our capacity for this kind of conversation seems urgently necessary, for America and for Torah.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

Where are Noach’s “Banim u’Banot?”

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Yair Lichtman

Following the Mabul, God blesses and instructs Noach and his family to procreate and repopulate the earth (Bereishit 9:1, 7):

(א) וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־נֹ֖חַ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֧אמֶר לָהֶ֛ם פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֖וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃…

(ז) וְאַתֶּ֖ם פְּר֣וּ וּרְב֑וּ שִׁרְצ֥וּ בָאָ֖רֶץ וּרְבוּ־בָֽהּ׃

(1) God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…

(7) Be fruitful and multiply. Increase abundantly in the earth, and multiply in it.”

Indeed, much of the Parasha is dedicated to the theme of the inhabitants of the ark as a remnant designed to reestablish human settlement on the earth. To note one explicit example (7:2-3):

(ב) מִכֹּ֣ל׀ הַבְּהֵמָ֣ה הַטְּהוֹרָ֗ה תִּֽקַּח־לְךָ֛ שִׁבְעָ֥ה שִׁבְעָ֖ה אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וּמִן־הַבְּהֵמָ֡ה אֲ֠שֶׁ֠ר לֹ֣א טְהֹרָ֥ה הִ֛וא שְׁנַ֖יִם אִ֥ישׁ וְאִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃

(ג) גַּ֣ם מֵע֧וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם שִׁבְעָ֥ה שִׁבְעָ֖ה זָכָ֣ר וּנְקֵבָ֑ה לְחַיּ֥וֹת זֶ֖רַע עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כׇל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(2) You shall take seven pairs of every clean animal with you, the male and his female. Of the animals that are not clean, take two, the male and his female.

(3) Also of the birds of the sky, seven and seven, male and female, to keep seed alive on the surface of all the earth.

It is therefore puzzling that Noach does not appear to fulfill this divine directive himself. The Torah painstakingly enumerates the descendants of each of Noach’s children, and notes how they served as the progenitors of mankind (9:18-19):

(יח) וַיִּֽהְי֣וּ בְנֵי־נֹ֗חַ הַיֹּֽצְאִים֙ מִן־הַתֵּבָ֔ה שֵׁ֖ם וְחָ֣ם וָיָ֑פֶת וְחָ֕ם ה֖וּא אֲבִ֥י כְנָֽעַן׃

(יט) שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה אֵ֖לֶּה בְּנֵי־נֹ֑חַ וּמֵאֵ֖לֶּה נָֽפְצָ֥ה כׇל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(18) The sons of Noah who went out from the ship were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham is the father of Canaan.

(19) These three were the sons of Noah, and from these, the whole earth was populated.

Note the absence of Noach himself from this list. Similarly, we later observe that, while the descendants of Noach until Avraham are said to father children beyond the ones named in the text, at no point does Noach take his place among them. Let us compare two entries:

(יב) וְאַרְפַּכְשַׁ֣ד חַ֔י חָמֵ֥שׁ וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־שָֽׁלַח׃

(יג) וַֽיְחִ֣י אַרְפַּכְשַׁ֗ד אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־שֶׁ֔לַח שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃

(כח) וַֽיְחִי־נֹ֖חַ אַחַ֣ר הַמַּבּ֑וּל שְׁלֹ֤שׁ מֵאוֹת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַֽחֲמִשִּׁ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃

(כט) וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ כׇּל־יְמֵי־נֹ֔חַ תְּשַׁ֤ע מֵאוֹת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַחֲמִשִּׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃

(12) Arpachshad lived thirty-five years and fathered Shelah.

(13) Arpachshad lived four hundred three years after he fathered Shelah, and fathered sons and daughters.

(28) Noah lived three hundred fifty years after the flood.

(29) All the days of Noah were nine hundred fifty years, then he died.

Where Noach’s descendants each contribute to the repopulation of the world, Noach simply dies.

Why does Noach, this consummate follower of God’s will (see 6:22 and 7:5), fail to obey God’s command in this regard?

Castration

This detail may have driven Chazal to understand the Ham incident as one of castration (Sanhedrin 70a):

רב ושמואל חד אמר סרסו וח”א רבעו…

Rav and Shmuel disagreed: One says that Ham castrated Noach and one says that Ham sodomized him.

How could Noach have failed to fulfill the command of procreation? It must be that he was physically incapable of doing so because of Ham’s actions.

Midat HaDin vs. Midat HaRachamim

A different interpretation suggests itself, however, when one considers how the antediluvian and postdiluvian differed from one another. Radak correctly observes that the flood serves as a kind of do-over, a repeat of the creation of the world:

ויברך אלהים, אע”פ שכבר היו ברוכים בתחילת הבריאה, עתה היה להם כתחלת הבריאה כי נתחדש העולם אחר שהיה תהו ובהו שהרי נתכסתה הארץ במים. והברכה מה שאמר להם פרו ורבו ומוראכם וחתכם.

ויברך אלוקים, even though they had enjoyed G’d’s blessing already ever since the creation of mankind, the renewal of life on earth reassured them by their receiving a new blessing also. The blessing consisted primarily of the promise that they would once again be fruitful and multiply.

As such, one would expect great similarities and only minor differences. For example, the extent of God’s command to procreate appears substantively identical when one compares 1:28 and 9:1, 7. Yet Noach obeys God’s first command while ignoring his second. What changed?

Let us compare the verses about the nature of mankind from before (6:5) and after the Mabul (8:21):

(ה) וַיַּ֣רְא יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכׇל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כׇּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃

(ו) וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃

(5) Hashem saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all day long.

(6) Hashem regretted that He had made man on the earth, and He was saddened in His heart.

(כא) וַיָּ֣רַח יְהֹוָה֮ אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹ֒חַ֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִ֠ף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כׇּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃

(21) Hashem smelled the pleasant aroma. Hashem said in his heart, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake, because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again strike everything living, as I have done.

In both verses, God observes that mankind is inherently wicked, and in both cases, makes a decision about the world as a consequence. But while the former verses explain God’s decision to destroy the earth, the latter explain the motive to refrain from destroying it anymore. While the former decision was motivated by a calculus of Din, the latter is inspired by the ideology of Rachamim.

Noach is motivated in his actions by Din. To hear the Torah tell it, he earned his place on the ark with hard work in the service of God, by being righteous in his generation and by fulfilling divine commands exactly as instructed. The prophet Yechezkel saw it the same way (Yechezkel 14:20):

(כ) וְנֹ֨חַ [דָּנִיֵּ֣אל] (דנאל) וְאִיּוֹב֮ בְּתוֹכָהּ֒ חַי־אָ֗נִי נְאֻם֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱהֹוִ֔ה אִם־בֵּ֥ן אִם־בַּ֖ת יַצִּ֑ילוּ הֵ֥מָּה בְצִדְקָתָ֖ם יַצִּ֥ילוּ נַפְשָֽׁם׃

(20) though Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, as I live, saith the Lord God, they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; they shall but deliver their own souls by their righteousness.

Noach’s life made sense to him in a world governed by Din, where the righteous survive and the wicked are wiped out. But that’s not how God planned to operate the world anymore (9:9-11):

(ט) וַאֲנִ֕י הִנְנִ֥י מֵקִ֛ים אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתְּכֶ֑ם וְאֶֽת־זַרְעֲכֶ֖ם אַֽחֲרֵיכֶֽם׃

(י) וְאֵ֨ת כׇּל־נֶ֤פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֔ם בָּע֧וֹף בַּבְּהֵמָ֛ה וּֽבְכׇל־חַיַּ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ אִתְּכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ יֹצְאֵ֣י הַתֵּבָ֔ה לְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(יא) וַהֲקִמֹתִ֤י אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתְּכֶ֔ם וְלֹֽא־יִכָּרֵ֧ת כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר ע֖וֹד מִמֵּ֣י הַמַּבּ֑וּל וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֥ה ע֛וֹד מַבּ֖וּל לְשַׁחֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(9) “As for me, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your offspring after you,

(10) and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the livestock, and every animal of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ship, even every animal of the earth.

(11) I will establish my covenant with you: all flesh will not be cut off any more by the waters of the flood, neither will there ever again be a flood to destroy the earth.”

This new covenant demands no service from mankind. It’s an unconditional promise to never again wipe out human life from the earth, one which cuts against the grain of who Noach is. Noach, like Yonah, despairs of a world driven by Rachamim, and has no interest in perpetuating the flawed and wicked human life upon it.

Yair Lichtman (SBM 2018) is a student at Yeshiva University, where he is pursuing rabbinical ordination and graduate degrees in Bible and Jewish Education.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah, Uncategorized

Are All Sins Ugly?

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Beauty is not truth, justice is not compassion, and loyalty is not holiness. Most of us understand that we have a plurality of value-sources, and that genuine values can conflict with one another. Yet we still have a hard time acknowledging that sin can be beautiful, and beauty sinful.

I don’t mean that we think all beautiful people are always good. What I mean is that we think that mitzvot must be beautiful, and that sins must be ugly. So it bothers us very much to acknowledge that a beautiful relationship can be sinful. Yet if we acknowledge that beauty draws from a different source of value than, for example, holiness, there is no reason to presume that sins can’t be beautiful.

The distinction between the beautiful and the commanded seems to be a key message of the story of Adam and Eve. Eve is not fantasizing when she perceives the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of God and Evil as aesthetically attractive, nor is she being fooled by an illusion. The Fruit really is attractive, both physically and intellectually. Eating it will enable her to experience that beauty and to enhance her appreciation of other forms of beauty. Nonetheless she behaves wrongly when she eats it. Adam’s loyalty to and love for Eve, expressed in his eating the fruit so as to share her mortality, is beautiful. Eating the fruit was nonetheless a violation of G-d’s command.

Recognizing multiple sources of value gives us a plausible and tantalizing conception of redemption as a time and space in which those values don’t conflict. This ties into the idea that eating the Fruit was not wrong per se, but rather only because Eve ate it too early, and was unable to wait until Shabbat. G-d’s plan was to include all beauty within human religious experience.

Perhaps more importantly, it gives us a way to think about conflicts between halakhah and the cultures we are embedded in without resorting either to easy black/white dichotomies or to denying that anything but a specific Divine command can generate value.

We must also acknowledge that this approach has its own false extreme. One might reach the conclusion that every decision has great value on some axis, and therefore end up with a position resembling relativism.

The story of Noach’s post-flood inebriation may offer a useful case study for navigating this Scylla and Charybdis. Do we see his decisions as basely motivated and resulting in squalor and cruelty? Or do we find noble motives and actual or potentially glorious results that are undone, inevitably or otherwise, by events?

Analyzing this question requires us to read the text closely and to examine our conceptions and assumptions about both alcohol and sexuality.

The story of Noach begins with his naming (5:29):

וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר

זֶ֠֞ה יְנַחֲמֵ֤נוּ

מִֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֙נוּ֙ וּמֵעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ

מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה

אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרְרָ֖הּ יְקֹוָֽק:

He (Lemakh) called him (his son) Noach:
“This (one) will menachem/console/ease us
from our actions and the fruitless toil of our hands
from the earth
which was cursed by Hashem.”

Rashi and others seek to find concrete technological contributions that Noach made to agriculture. But in the context of the narrative, it seems more likely to me that the first layer of meaning is ironic. Noach’s name is embedded in the verb yenachameinu, but he does not bring nechamah/consolation to any human being with regard to the earth. Instead, 6:6-7 suggests that his birth may be the catalyst for G-d wiping humanity off the earth.

וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְקֹוָ֔ק כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ

וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְקֹוָ֗ק אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֙אתִי֙ מֵעַל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה מֵֽאָדָם֙ עַד־בְּהֵמָ֔ה עַד־רֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם

כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם:

G-d vayinachem/regretted that He had made the human in the land
He was saddened to His heart.
Hashem said:
I will erase the human which I have created from on the face of the earth
from human to cattle to creeper to flyer of the heavens
because nichamti/I have regretted that I made them.

His father’s failure to understand Noach’s role is emphasized in the next verse, which informs us that Noach’s name is actually backward – “Noach found chen/favor in the eyes of Hashem. Finally, a possibly authentic meaning of the name emerges in 8:4 when the ark comes to rest/vatanach on the hills of Ararat. But that cannot be the end of the story, because in 8:9 the dove cannot find a resting place/manoach. A possible end is 8:21, when Hashem smells the reiach nichoach of the sacrifice Noach brings and

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְקֹוָ֜ק אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ

לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם . . .

Hashem said to His heart
I will not continue to curse the earth on account of the human . . .

The phrase “to His heart” reverses His decision to bring the flood, and the content of G-d’s declaration reverses His curse of the land. But there is no mention of nechamah.

Nonetheless, we and Noach might reasonably conclude that the task set out in his naming has been completed. The earth is no longer cursed, and human beings can now support themselves via agriculture. There is no longer a risk that G-d will change His mind about creating humans.

Or, he and we might conclude, the task is not done. Nothing Hashem says suggests that He has changed His mind again and is now pleased to have created humanity. G-d has undone His punishment of Adam for eating the fruit, but seemingly out of hopelessness rather than out of affection.

All this brings us to the peculiar events of 9:20-21.

וַיָּ֥חֶל נֹ֖חַ

אִ֣ישׁ הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה

וַיִּטַּ֖ע כָּֽרֶם:

וַיֵּ֥שְׁתְּ מִן־הַיַּ֖יִן

וַיִּשְׁכָּ֑ר

וַיִּתְגַּ֖ל בְּת֥וֹךְ אָהֳלֹֽה:

Vayachel Noach
a man of the earth
He planted a vineyard
He became drunk
He became exposed within his tent.

Commentaries on vayachel Noach generally focus on whether its root meaning is “to become desacralized,” “to become,” or “to begin.” I suggest that insufficient attention has been paid to 8:10;

וַיָּ֣חֶל ע֔וֹד

שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים

וַיֹּ֛סֶף שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מִן־הַתֵּבָֽה

Vayachel more
seven other days
He continued sending the dove from the ark.

Here there seems a consensus, based on context, that vayachel means that Noach waited. What was he waiting for? The previous verse told us that the dove had found no manoach; Noach is therefore waiting for the dove to find one. But the truth is that after these seven days the dove brings back an olive branch, and after Noach vayachel/waits another seven days (8:12) the dove simply fails to return. Neither we nor Noach can know for certain whether it has found its manoach.

I suggest that our vayachel must be parallel to Noach’s two previous vayachels. It reflects yet another effort to bring his name to fruition. To find his own manoach, he must try to bring about another nechamah on the part of Hashem, so that He will once again be happy to have created human beings.

Moreover, this attempt cannot be seen as the product of despair. Rather, as seems clear from the drumbeat of verbs in this section, Noach’s actions are patiently planned. Noach waits for his chance to become the man who redeems the land (perhaps recalling that the original sin resulted from impatience). He plants a vineyard, knowing that it will eventually produce wine. When it produces wine, he drinks it. Everything is going according to plan.

He becomes drunk – is that part of the plan? He becomes exposed within his tent – but there is an obvious paradox in becoming exposed within a private enclosure. Exposed to whom? In context it seems that he becomes exposed to his grandson Cham, but it also seems clear that Cham’s presence was not intended.

I often argue that Noach’s drunkenness is an attempt to undo Adam and Eve’s acquisition of the “knowledge of good and evil,” and that his nakedness is an attempt to recreate their prelapsarian shamelessness. Perhaps he planned to do this in the privacy of his own tent, so that no one would be damaged if it turned out that innocence cannot be recreated, or if losing the knowledge of morality turned him into a monster rather than a being higher than angels. But it all goes horribly wrong.

Those who celebrate the release from inhibitions that intoxicants bring, or the triumph of sexual attraction over legal or psychological barriers to its full expression, are not always wrong to see beauty there. But they are almost always insufficiently attentive to and aware of the ancillary damage this beauty does to the value-structures of their broader society, and the price It exacts from other people.

Moreover, sometimes they are just wrong, and there is no beauty there at all. Noach was tasked with bringing comfort to people from a Divine curse; that he ends up cursing people himself suggests that his final attempt was wrongheaded from the start.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Are We Not Worse Than Angels? Reflections on Human Complexity

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eliana Yashgur

The malakhei hasharet, the ministering angels, play a primary role in Chazal’s depiction of the mystery and irony of human creation. By contrasting the the deference of the malakhei hasharet to G-d and His human creation in Talmud Chagigah 12b with their attempts at interfering” with His creation of humanity in Bereishit Rabbah, we learn that G-d intended the struggle and strife associated with being human.

Resh Lakish on Chagiga 12b describes seven heavenly firmaments: Vilon, Rakia, Shehakim, Zevul, Ma’on, Makhon, and Aravot. These firmaments are described with majestic and ethereal language, and angelic behavior matches this aura.

מעון – שבו כיתות של מלאכי השרת שאומרות שירה בלילה וחשות ביום מפני כבודן של ישראל

שנאמר (תהלים מב, ט) יומם יצוה ה’ חסדו ובלילה שירה עמי (מס׳ חגיגה יב:)

Ma’on, habitation, is where groups of ministering angels recite song at night but are silent during the day out of respect for Israel, (in order not to compete with their songs)

as it is stated: “By day the Lord will command His kindness, and in the night His song with me” (Psalms 42:9).

It is as if angels step back from the world when G-d declares that their purpose is elsewhere. In reverence to G-d they do not seek to interfere in the dealings of Israel in the physical.

Similarly, the malakhei hasharet of Rakia are described as dwelling in their proper place under the supernal G-d, delighted in their spiritual role residing in the Skies serving G-d.

רקיע – שם אופנים ושרפים וחיות הקדש ומלאכי השרת וכסא הכבוד.

מלך א-ל חי רם ונשא שוכן עליהם בערבות, שנאמר (תהלים סח, ה) סולו לרוכב בערבות בי-ה שמו.

Rakia – There are the ofanim, the seraphim, the holy divine creatures, and the ministering angels, and the Throne of Glory.

The King, God, the living, lofty, exalted One dwells above them in Aravot, as it is stated: “Extol Him Who rides upon the skies [Aravot], Whose name is God” (Psalms 68:5).

The role of the malakhei hasharet is to praise G-d and not to challenge Him in any way.

דאמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אמר ר’ יונתן: כל דיבור ודיבור שיוצא מפי הקב”ה – נברא ממנו מלאך אחד,

שנאמר (תהלים לג, ו) בדבר ה’ שמים נעשו וברוח פיו כל צבאם (מס׳ חגיגה יב:)

As Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: With each and every word that emerges from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, an angel is created, as it is stated: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their hosts” (Psalms 33:6).

Angels are described as being created by the breath of G-d’s mouth, as if to say that angels are created as a corollary to G-d’s speech. Humans are created by G-d breathing “ruach” into their nostrils. Angels are described using the language of G-d, Who is referenced through the mouth that breathes. Humans are described in their own language, as beings into whose nostrils G-d’s mouth breathes.

These differences collide in Bereshit Rabbah’s description of angels in the context of their “participation” in human creation.

אָמַר רַבִּי הוֹשַׁעְיָא: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן טָעוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת וּבִקְּשׁוּ לוֹמַר לְפָנָיו קָדוֹשׁ.

מָשָׁל לְמֶלֶךְ וְאִפַּרְכוֹס שֶׁהָיוּ בְּקָרוּכִין, וְהָיוּ בְּנֵי הַמְדִינָה מְבַקְּשִׁין לוֹמַר לַמֶּלֶךְ דּוֹמִינוֹ, וְלֹא הָיוּ יוֹדְעִין אֵיזֶהוּ/ מֶה עָשָׂה הַמֶּלֶךְ? דְּחָפוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוֹ חוּץ לַקָּרוּכִין, וְיָדְעוּ הַכֹּל שֶׁהוּא אִפַּרְכוֹס.

כָּךְ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, טָעוּ בּוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת וּבִקְּשׁוּ לוֹמַר לְפָנָיו קָדוֹשׁ. מֶה עָשָׂה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, הִפִּיל עָלָיו תַּרְדֵּמָה, וְיָדְעוּ הַכֹּל שֶׁהוּא אָדָם. הֲדָא הוּא דִּכְתִיב (ישעיה ב, כב): חִדְלוּ לָכֶם מִן הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר נְשָׁמָה בְּאַפּוֹ כִּי בַּמֶּה נֶחְשָׁב הוּא. (בראשית רבה ח:י)

Said R’ Hosha`ya: In the moment that the Holy One created Adam Harishon, the first Human, the ministering angels erred and sought to say ‘Holy/Qadosh’ before him (to worship him).

This resembles a king and a governor who sat in a chariot, and the people of the land wanted to call the king “Sovereign” but weren’t sure which he was. What did the king do? He pushed the governor out of the chariot, and everyone knew then that he was king.

So too when The Holy Blessed One created Adam, the ministering angels erred and wanted to say Qadosh before hum. What did the Holy One do? ‘He cast upon him deep sleep’ [Gn 2:21] and all knew that he was Adam. As it says, “Cease from man in whose nostrils is breath, as what makes him significant?”

The angels do not have a concept of humanity to prepare them for his creation. The angels experience so much tension upon the mere creation of the human being that they begin fighting with G-d to Whom they are beholden. They begin to worship the human being, until G-d puts the mortal human being in his place and shows angels how lowly the human being is.

רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָן בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן אָמַר: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהָיָה משֶׁה כּוֹתֵב אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, הָיָה כּוֹתֵב מַעֲשֵׂה כָּל יוֹם וָיוֹם. כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִגִּיעַ לַפָּסוּק הַזֶּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹקים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ, אָמַר לְפָנָיו: רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים, מָה אַתָּה נוֹתֵן פִּתְחוֹן פֶּה לַמִּינִים?! אֶתְמְהָא.

אָמַר לוֹ: כְּתֹב, וְהָרוֹצֶה לִטְעוֹת יִטְעֶה.

אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: משֶׁה, הָאָדָם הַזֶּה שֶׁבָּרָאתִי, לֹא גְּדוֹלִים וּקְטַנִּים אֲנִי מַעֲמִיד מִמֶּנּוּ? שֶׁאִם יָבוֹא הַגָּדוֹל לִטֹּל רְשׁוּת מִן הַקָּטָן מִמֶּנוּ, וְהוּא אוֹמֵר מָה אֲנִי צָרִיךְ לִטֹּל רְשׁוּת מִן הַקָּטָן מִמֶּנִּי, וְהֵן אוֹמְרִים לוֹ לְמַד מִבּוֹרְאֶךָ, שֶׁהוּא בָּרָא אֶת הָעֶלְיוֹנִים וְאֶת הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים, כֵּיוָן שֶׁבָּא לִבְרֹאת אֶת הָאָדָם נִמְלַךְ בְּמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת. 

(בראשית רבה ח:ח)

Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: When Moses was writing the Torah, he wrote the happenings of every day. When he got to the verse of “and G-d said: ‘Let us make man in our image in our likeness’”, he said, “Sovereign of the Universe! Why are you giving an excuse to heretics?” G-d responded, “Write, and he who wishes to err may err.” G-d said to Moses, this man which I have created, do I not cause both large and small men to be born from him? If a great person goes to ask permission for something from some inferior to him, and the great man says, “‘Why do I need to take permission from one lesser than me?”, they will say to him: Learn from your Creator, for He created upper ones and lower ones, and when He came to create the human, He consulted with the ministering angels.”

Seemingly ironically, G-d consults with the angels are consulted with regard to creation of the human being. The notion that the angels were given room to assist in the creation of humans, while openly acknowledging the heretical appearance of such an idea, illustrates that the angels were meant to engage in a unequal partnership to create the human being. The human being, the product of such an unusual partnership, must be an ethically and existentially challenging construction.

אָמַר רַבִּי סִימוֹן, בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לִבְרֹאת אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, נַעֲשׂוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת כִּתִּים כִּתִּים, וַחֲבוּרוֹת חֲבוּרוֹת, מֵהֶם אוֹמְרִים אַל יִבָּרֵא, וּמֵהֶם אוֹמְרִים יִבָּרֵא, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (תהלים פה, יא): חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת נִפְגָּשׁוּ צֶדֶק וְשָׁלוֹם נָשָׁקוּ. חֶסֶד אוֹמֵר יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁהוּא גּוֹמֵל חֲסָדִים. וֶאֱמֶת אוֹמֵר אַל יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁכֻּלּוֹ שְׁקָרִים. צֶדֶק אוֹמֵר יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁהוּא עוֹשֶׂה צְדָקוֹת. שָׁלוֹם אוֹמֵר אַל יִבָּרֵא, דְּכוּלֵיהּ קְטָטָה. מֶה עָשָׂה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא נָטַל אֱמֶת וְהִשְׁלִיכוֹ לָאָרֶץ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (דניאל ח, יב): וְתַשְׁלֵךְ אֱמֶת אַרְצָה, אָמְרוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים מָה אַתָּה מְבַזֶּה תַּכְסִיס אַלְטִיכְסְיָה שֶׁלָּךְ, תַּעֲלֶה אֱמֶת מִן הָאָרֶץ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (תהלים פה, יב): אֱמֶת מֵאֶרֶץ תִּצְמָח. רַבָּנָן אָמְרֵי לָהּ בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בַּר אִידֵי וְרַבִּי פִּינְחָס וְרַבִּי חֶלְקִיָּה בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי סִימוֹן אָמַר, מְאֹד, הוּא אָדָם. הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (בראשית א, לא): וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, וְהִנֵּה טוֹב אָדָם. רַב הוּנָא רַבָּהּ שֶׁל צִפּוֹרִין אֲמַר עַד שֶׁמַּלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת מִדַּיְּנִין אֵלּוּ עִם אֵלּוּ וּמִתְעַסְּקִין אֵלּוּ עִם אֵלּוּ בְּרָאוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא. אָמַר לָהֶן מָה אַתֶּם מִדַּיְּנִין כְּבָר נַעֲשָׂה אָדָם. (ח:ה)

R. Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be God, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties. Some of them said, “Don’t create him,” while others urged, “create him,” as it is written, “Lovingkindness and truth met, justice and peace kissed” (Psalms 85:11). Lovingkindness said, “Create him because he will do acts of loving kindness.” Truth said, “Don’t create him, because he is full of lies.” Justice said, “Create him because he will perform acts of justice.” Peace said, “Don’t create him, because he is full of conflict.” So what did God do? God held Truth and cast it to the ground, as it is written, “And truth will be sent to the earth” (Daniel 8:12). The ministering angels said before the Holy One, “Sovereign of the Universe! Why do you despise Your seal [truth]? Let Truth arise from the earth!” Hence it is written, “Let truth spring up from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12)…While the ministering angels were arguing with each other and disputing with each other, the Holy One created the first human. God said to them, “Why are you arguing? Adam has already been made!”

Human life is necessarily complicated and challenging. For this reason, human beings were entrusted with the Torah, whose values they can actualize through the choices they make on the physical earth. In Bereishit Rabba, we see how G-d acknowledges that “Truth” is in fact seen in the existence of human beings, with all of the challenges and complexities of reality that brings about. Rather than a strict proper truth of Heaven, the physical world contains its own Truth defined by the ability of Divine life to translate to mortal life.

The foreword to the Ketzos HaChoshen sums up what our role is as human beings rather than angels.

אך לא נתנה התורה למלאכי השרת, ואל האדם נתנה, אשר לו שכל האנושי. ונתן לנו הקדוש ברוך הוא התורה ברוב רחמיו וחסדיו כפי הכרעת שכל האנושי, גם כי אינו אמת בערך השכלים הנבדלים.

The Torah was not given to ministering angels, but rather it was given to humans, who possess human intelligence. The Holy One, blessed be He, in His great kindness and mercy, gave us the Torah to be determined according to the discernment of the human mind, even though [that determination] does not reflect Ultimate Truth at the level of the disembodied intellects.

 Eliana Yashgur (SBM 2017) is a senior at Princeton University studying psychology.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah, Uncategorized