Monthly Archives: May 2019

The Torah’s View on Jewish Adulthood

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Drew Kaplan

When does one break out of childhood and into full-blown adulthood? This is a question that is on the minds of many young people: when do they count as adults?

In Jewish life, the answer seems to be 13, from Yehudah son of Tema’s famous statement that “בֶּן שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה לַמִּצְוֹת” (Avot 5.21), although it merely indicates an age of performing mitzvot, not necessarily an age of adulthood, per se.

While the monetary valuation part of the Torah reading seems rather quite skippable, it would seem that our parashah has something quite valuable to offer us in consideration of stages of ages in Jewish thought. With the various ages and genders being segregated out into monetary value (Lev. 27:1-15), we have an insight into what constitutes adulthood.

Setting aside gender discrimination issues or questions of ableism, etc., it seems that full adulthood in Jewish thought would be at the age of 20, since this age bracket extending up to age 60, receives the highest monetary valuation when one vows to God the equivalent of someone’s life (Lev. 27:3-4). Moreover, leading off the list would seem to indicate a significant place within societal ability, signifying adulthood.

And this is not the only time that 20 takes a significant place within the Torah. The half-shekel expiation money is only done for those between 20 and 60 (Ex. 30:1-16). Another example is the census that is to be taken up at the beginning of the book of Numbers is from 20 years of age and up (Num. 1:1-3), as well as later on in the same book (Num. 26:1-4).

In these places throughout the Torah, it seems quite clear that the age of Torah adulthood is 20 years old. The age of 20 is clearly an age of not only ability, but also responsibility. Even within our American context, various stages of adulthood begin at either 18 or 21, which is within a similar range as our dear twenty.

While people frequently refer to a girl who becomes a bat mitzvah at 12 or a boy who becomes a bar mitzvah at 13 as “becoming a Jewish adult,” anyone can see that that teenager is far from adulthood. Yet, perhaps, this is Yehudah ben Tema’s way of saying, “You are now officially a teenager, with responsibilities that are similar to those of adults, yet not full adult rights until you fully become an adult.” It’s almost as if Yehudah ben Tema was acknowledging the social awkwardness of one’s teenage years, yet religiously framing it.

Rabbi Drew Kaplan (SBM 2006) is a 2009 graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and a newly-minted real estate agent in Ohio. He lives with his wife and four children in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Is Our Covenant with G-d Egalitarian?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The opening chapter of Parshat Bechukotai (which Bishop Langton for some reason started at verse 3) has a seemingly obvious structure. Good behavior leads to rewards (verses 3:13); bad behavior leads to punishments (verses 14-38); but we will eventually repent, so the punishment will not be annihilation, and all will eventually be well (verses 39-45).  The final verse (46) wraps up a much larger literary section and is not related specifically to the content of the chapter.

Chizkuni makes the good/bad parallelism of the first two sections explicit by lining up each phrase of verse 15 with a partner from verse 1.

“ואם בחקתי תמאסו” – כנגד “אם בחקתי תלכו”.

“ואם את משפטי תגעל נפשכם” כנגד “אם את משפטי תשמורו”.

“לבלתי עשות” כנגד “ועשיתם אותם”.

“להפרכם את בריתי” כנגד “והקמותי את בריתי אתכם”

“If you despise My chukim” – parallel to “If you walk in My chukim

“If your soul reviles My mishpatim” – parallel to “If you keep My mishpatim

“to not do” – parallel to “and do them”

“to your hafarah of My covenant” – parallel to “I will uphold My covenant with you”

All very neat.  Except that the last phrase – “I will uphold My covenant with you” – is not actually in verse 1, but rather in verse 9.  Exploring this breach of symmetry may lead us to an entirely different conception of the structure of this chapter, and its meaning.

Let’s look at Chizkuni’s framework again.  Both the “good” and “bad” sides of the first three lines set a condition related to human behavior.  Not so the fourth line. One side discusses human action, “your breaching My covenant,”  while the other discusses Divine action “I will upstand My covenant with you.”

The surface reason for this asymmetry is that throughout Tanakh, human beings cannot upstand/meikim covenants with G-d; they can only guard/shamor them. This semantic point compels the deeper realization that our covenantal relationship with G-d is not symmetrical.  God can give/notein a covenant with us, whether we wish it or not, or He can be meikim a covenant with our consent, but we cannot initiate covenants with Him (although Yaakov may have tried, when G-d revealed Himself to him at Beit El).

Can we withdraw from covenants with Hashem, with or without His consent?

Verse 15 implies that human beings can be meifer a covenant. The root prr is used in regard to covenants, vows, and advice, which makes its precise meaning very difficult to establish. It seems clear to me that with regard to covenants,  prr does not mean “withdrawal,” with or without the other party’s consent. (I don’t know whether Biblical Hebrew has a term for withdrawal from a covenant). I suggest instead that it refers to violation of the terms of the relationship as if there were no covenant, while really the covenant remains in force.  This would mean either that we cannot withdraw from the covenant, or that we cannot do so without G-d’s consent, which He will not grant. (Admittedly, this explanation fits the context of vows poorly.)

What about G-d?  Can He withdraw from a covenant with humans, with or without our consent?

I suggest that He can, if we have already been meifer it by our actions. The nature of a covenant is a mutual (but not always symmetrical) commitment, and it makes no sense to hold one party to the terms of a deal that the other treats as a nullity. Human beings cannot directly withdraw from a covenant with G-d.  However, we can create a situation in which G-d has the legitimate option of withdrawing Himself, which would indirectly release us as well.

But G-d promises us that He will never choose to withdraw from his covenant with the Jews.

How do we know this?  Here we need to complicate the structure of the chapter again.  It turns out that verses 42-45 are not merely a coda that mitigates the disobedience/punishment cycle; rather, they hark back to verse 15.  They use despise and revile, reversing the referents from verse 15, so that chukim are reviled but mishpatim are despised.  And G-d promises that he will not despise and revile the Jews to the point of wiping them out, להפר בריתי אתם = to be meifer My covenant with them.

The repetition of despise and revile tells us that G-d had the option of being meifer His Covenant once we despised and reviled the obligations it placed on us.  But He chose not to.  Why? Here the Torah introduces another verb related to covenants – zakhor = remember/remind.  G-d remembers His covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov; this is enough to prevent total destruction, but, it seems, not enough to generate an ongoing positive relationship.  But in verse 45:

וְזָכַרְתִּ֥י לָהֶ֖ם בְּרִ֣ית רִאשֹׁנִ֑ים

אֲשֶׁ֣ר הוֹצֵֽאתִי־אֹתָם֩ מֵאֶ֨רֶץ מִצְרַ֜יִם

לְעֵינֵ֣י הַגּוֹיִ֗ם

לִהְי֥וֹת לָהֶ֛ם לֵא-לֹהִ֖ים

אֲנִ֥י הֽ’

I will remember for their sake/remind them of the covenant of the earlier ones

whom I took out of the Land of Mitzrayim

before the eyes of all the nationalities

to be for you God

I, Hashem.

The message of this verse seems to be that G-d will ultimately choose to renew the Covenant for the same reason that He initially instituted it; so that He could be our G-d.  Moreover, the manner in which He initially instituted this covenant bound His prestige forever to our behavior and success.  As Mosheh Rabbeinu pointed out to Him, starting over and being G-d for a different people is not really an option; the memory of His reaction to Jewish failure would taint any future attempt at building a particularistic relationship. No nation would ever escape from underneath the mountain to make a free-willed choice for Him. G-d has the right to withdraw; but He admits that he has no sensible option for doing so. All he can do is freeze the relationship until we return to it.

This leads us to yet another flaw in Chizkuni’s structural model.  He showed the parallels between verses 1 and 15; but the fulcrum of the unit, the transition from obedience/reward to disobedience/punishment, is actually verse 14.

אִם־לֹ֥א תִשְׁמְע֖וּ לִ֑י

וְלֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ אֵ֥ת כָּל־הַמִּצְוֹ֖ת הָאֵֽלֶּה:

וְאִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֣י תִּמְאָ֔סוּ וְאִ֥ם אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֖י תִּגְעַ֣ל נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם

לְבִלְתִּ֤י עֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹתַ֔י לְהַפְרְכֶ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי:

If you do not heed me

and you don’t do all these mitzvot

If you despise my chukim

and your soul reviles My mishpatim

to not do all My mitzvot

to breach My covenant.

Chizkuni is actually paralleling the first verse of the “good” section with the second verse of the “bad.” That seems very odd literarily.

Verse 15 also contains a phrase that seems redundant with verse 14: “not doing mitzvot.” I suggest that the best way to resolve this is to read the verses in a step structure, sort of like what the Talmud calls lo zu af zu = not only this but even that.  Verse 14 deals with simple disobedience.  Verse 15 moves on to disobedience combined with active emotional rejection. Only the second is considered a breach of the covenant.

In other words – covenants can contain punishments for disobedience. In such cases, the disobedience/punishment cycle cannot legitimate withdrawal from it; rather, it enacts the covenant. But despising and reviling the terms of the covenant can legitimate the other party’s withdrawal.

It therefore turns out that verse 46 as well is directly related to our chapter.  This is the verse from which Chazal learn that G-d can no longer alter the terms of the covenant by adding new mitzvot; “These are the mitzvot” – teaching that a post-Mosaic prophet cannot add new mitzvot (Yoma 80a). Freezing the covenant becomes a symbol of G-d’s unchanging commitment to it, and thereby to us.

G-d is bound by the covenant because He chooses to be, whereas we are bound willy-nilly. But G-d wishes us to choose Him as well. The only way He can do that is by promising us that He will stay no matter what we do, so that our choice is a function of desire rather than of fear of loss.  The Covenant begins with asymmetry, but its goal is symmetry.

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Why the Free Bird Sings

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

I know a bird
that sings when free,
but when caged
by you or me
it ceases to eat
and refuses to live.
Avraham Ibn Ezra, Commentary to Vayikra 25:10, as freely translated by Aryeh Klapper

The inscription on the Liberty Bell reads “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”  This excerpt (from the King James translation of Vayikra 25:10) makes several interesting translational choices. For example, why “throughout all the land,” when the Hebrew is בארץ, merely “in the land?”  Why “the inhabitants thereof,” rather than merely “inhabitants thereof,” when the Hebrew יושביה has no definite article?  These choices can seem odd even in English, and many internet sites quoting the Bell accidentally remove the first “all” and the second “the.” These imprecisions matter because  they license us to challenge the core translation: Is the Hebrew דרור/d’ror properly translated as “liberty?”

A translation can have any of three sources: tradition, parallel uses, and context. In the case of d’ror, the parallel in Yirmiyah 34:8-9 seems to make the meaning crystal clear.

הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־הָיָ֥ה אֶֽל־יִרְמְיָ֖הוּ מֵאֵ֣ת ה֑’
אַחֲרֵ֡י כְּרֹת֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ צִדְקִיָּ֜הוּ בְּרִ֗ית אֶת־כָּל־הָעָם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּירֽוּשָׁלִַ֔ם
לִקְרֹ֥א לָהֶ֖ם דְּרֽוֹר:
לְ֠שַׁלַּח אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עַבְדּ֞וֹ וְאִ֧ישׁ אֶת־שִׁפְחָת֛וֹ
הָעִבְרִ֥י וְהָעִבְרִיָּ֖ה
לְבִלְתִּ֧י עֲבָד־בָּ֛ם
בִיהוּדִ֥י אָחִ֖יהוּ אִֽישׁ:

The matter which came to Yirmiyahu from Hashem
after Tzidkiyahu cut a covenant with all the populace that was in Yerushalayim
to proclaim to them d’ror
to send forth each man his manslave and his maidslave
the Hebrew and the Hebrewess
to not work them as slaves
a Jew, his brother man.

It seems undeniable that a d’ror-proclamation sets slaves free. When the Jews fail to abide by the proclamation, G-d frames their coming destruction as poetic justice, declaring that He will grant His servants of destruction freedom to destroy:

אַתֶּם֙ לֹֽא־שְׁמַעְתֶּ֣ם אֵלַ֔י לִקְרֹ֣א דְר֔וֹר
אִ֥ישׁ לְאָחִ֖יו וְאִ֣ישׁ לְרֵעֵ֑הוּ
הִנְנִ֣י קֹרֵא֩ לָכֶ֨ם דְּר֜וֹר נְאֻם־ה֗’
אֶל־הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ אֶל־הַדֶּ֣בֶר וְאֶל־הָרָעָ֔ב

You did not heed me, to proclaim a דרור
Each man to his brother, and each man to his fellow
Behold I am proclaiming a d’ror regarding you, says Hashem,
to the sword and the plague and the famine

Yeshayahu 61:1 similarly reads

לקְרֹ֤א לִשְׁבוּיִם֙ דְּר֔וֹר

To proclaim d’ror regarding captives.

So d’ror plainly can refer to liberation from a previous state of constraint. Likely the King James chose “liberty” rather than “freedom” because the connotation of liberty at that time was “freedom from,” whereas freedom would be more likely understood as “freedom to.”

However, these are not the only Biblical contexts in which the word d’ror appears.

For example, Shemot 30:23 refers to “myrrh d’ror.”  Most commentators assume that the meaning in this context must be derived from the contexts we have already seen.  Thus R. Avraham ben HaRambam writes:

שם הטוהר והחרות

a term for purity/freedom (from impurities)

while BDB translates d’ror as “liquid” on the basis of “flowing; free run, liberty.”  Only Rashbam seems to take this instance as reflecting a different meaning entirely: חשוב, significant. I’m not sure that I’m understanding Rashbam correctly, though, and he may also see social significance as rooted in the capacity to resist others’ attempts to constrain you.

D’ror also appears twice in contexts where the intended referent seems to be a type or species of bird.

כַּצִּפּ֣וֹר לָ֭נוּד כַּדְּר֣וֹר לָע֑וּף

Like a bird to wander; like a d’ror to fly (Mishlei 26:2)

גַּם־צִפּ֨וֹר׀ מָ֢צְאָה בַ֡יִת וּדְר֤וֹר׀ קֵ֥ן לָהּ֘

Also the bird found a home, and the d’ror a nest for itself (Tehillim 84:4)

One might see these uses as stemming from a different root entirely. BDB, for example, simply identifies the species as “swallow.” Ibn Ezra to Mishlei 26:2 seems to adopt this approach:

טעם שמות העופות והבהמות אשר פרשו הראשונים
הם כחלומות בלי פתרון
והזכיר הצפור והדרור
כי הם דרות בבתים עם בני אדם
וצריכין לנוד מהרה ממקו’ למקום מפני העוברים והשבים

The rationales that my predecessors gave for the species-names of birds and animals
are like dreams that have no interpretation
it mentions the tzippor and the d’ror here
because they live in houses together with human beings
and they need to flit rapidly from place to place because of the passers-by

Here Ibn Ezra denies that the species-name d’ror has any discoverable etymology, or that the species has any relevant characteristic that distinguishes it from the tzippor.  He does however identify it as a bird that lives in a space it shares with human beings.

Ibn Ezra to Tehillim 84:4 takes a radically different approach:

דרור –
שם עוף מנגן
אולי נקרא כן
בעבור שאין מנהגו לנגן
כל זמן שאיננו חפשי
וזה העוף ידוע הוא בספרד

“D’ror” –
This is the name of a songbird
Perhaps it is called thus
because its practice is not to sing
whenever it is not free
This bird is known in Spain.

Ibn Ezra here provides an etymology for the species-name d’ror – the same kind of etymology he scoffed at in his comments to Mishlei 26:2! Assuming this is the same species, we now learn that its residence among human beings does not imply domestication, or at least not total domestication; the bird sings only when it is free. Its constant motion is likely for the purpose of avoiding capture.

Even more astonishingly, Ibn Ezra to Vayikra 25:10 – the Liberty Bell verse – reverses the vector of derivation.

דרור –
והוא כמו חפשי.
וכדרור לעוף –
עוף קטן
מנגן כשהוא ברשותו
ואם הוא ברשות אדם
לא יאכל
עד שימות.

“D’ror” –
The meaning is known
and it is like “free.”
(as in the verse) “like a d’ror to fly”
a small bird
which sings when in its own reshut
but when in the reshut of a human being
it will not eat
to the point of dying

Here Ibn Ezra argues that the species name is the etymology of the term “liberty,” or at the least that we derive the meaning of d’ror here from the species name.  Why would he take that approach, which requires him to assume that the name was known via tradition, when the meaning seems clear from context here and from parallel passages?

I suggest that Ibn Ezra thought the translation of “liberty” was not a perfect fit in our context.  Why? Because although Yirmiyahu uses d’ror to refer to freeing slaves, and Yeshayahu uses d’ror to refer to freeing captives, a careful look at the Jubilee law in Vayikra 25:10 reveals no explicit contextual reference at all to slavery or freedom.  Rather, the unit Vayikra 25:10-13 speaks about the need for people to return to their hereditary homesteads. Slavery may be mentioned in 25:14, but as an additional element. One can argue that people who sell their land will eventually end up enslaved, or that 25:10-13 refers to people who were sold away from their lands rather than people who sold their lands, but this is certainly not obvious.

How does Ibn Ezra resolve this?  Perhaps the key is that he frames the bird’s refusal to sing as about reshut, which can mean both “space” and “authority.”  The bird will sing only when it is in its own reshut.  Similarly, even if people are not enslaved, they do not have d’ror unless they have a space they can call their own.

The problem is that Ibn Ezra to Mishlei 26:2 defines the d’ror species as one that lives in human houses, and therefore finds its space continually intruded on.

I can only suggest this. We all live within the impersonal constraints of time, space, and our own physicality.  We can only dream of perfect, Divine freedom. Perhaps we can even dream of that freedom only when we are not subject to any other person’s will. Until then we are constrained to imagine only freedom from, not freedom to.

The d’ror dreams of its own space, but its physical needs and limitations compel it to live in human abodes. So long as it is not captive – so long as it is not subject to a human will – the dream seems close enough that it can be expressed in music.

The free bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still.
it sings of freedom.


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Living in Mutual Support

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elie Lerea

As active participants in a capitalist world, it is not uncommon for us to be filled with a sense of economic dissonance when we read the Torah’s economic legislation. Capitalism assumes that an incentive-based, market economy will result in the most efficient innovation and overall production. Yet much of what is expected of the people of Israel in Parashat BeHar seems to ignore these insights. Does the Torah have a different vision of human nature than capitalism? Or does it sacrifice innovation and efficiency to other priorities?  

For example: Rather than incentivizing innovation and production during every agriculture year, the Torah commands that every seventh year “ושבתה הארץ שבת לה׳” (Lev. 25:2). Rather than working one’s land in the sixth year of the seven-year Sabbatical cycle with the motivation of personal profit, the people of Israel are expected to erase that motivation from their minds by offering up all of the seventh year’s produce “לך ולעבדך ולאמתך ולשכירך ולתושבך הגרים עמך” (Lev. 25:6).    

The Torah also mandates redistribution of wealth. Every fiftieth year of the cycle, family fields are returned to their original owners as “ושבתם איש אל אחזתו ואיש אל משפחתו תשובו” (Lev. 25:10). Instead of incentivizing production by rewarding the successful individual, the Torah rewards all from the production of some. Instead of allowing success to endure, thus stimulating competition and active incentive to increase the value of one’s own property, the Torah redistributes wealth. Finally, instead of establishing a free market, stimulating efficiency through economically profitable decisions, the Torah calls for all family members to feel responsible for The Other by redeeming the field of their kin even if it is not the most lucrative investment for their own personal success.  

To claim that we must choose between the absolutes of a modern capitalist system and the Torah’s mutually supportive society would belittle the complexity and nuance of economic societies and the many factors that play into their success or demise. That being said, when confronted with something foreign to our sensibilities and assumptions, it is always important to consider the core advantages of such foreignness in order to be better able to think with more nuance moving forward.  

This week’s haftorah beautifully captures the undiluted value and advantage of the mutually supportive societies described in Parashat BeHar. 

Jeremiah relays the experience of G-d revealing G-d’s self to him, mandating that he redeem the field of his cash-poor cousin. This seems quite parallel to the law of our Parashah, despite a slight nuance in that he redeems the field directly from his family member. However, after a description of the transaction that occurred between the two members, the chapter concludes with what makes clear an entirely different, broader context to the sale, highlighting the Torah’s message about supportive economies. After concluding the purchase, Jeremiah concludes with the following: 


“כי כה אמר ה׳ צבאות אלקי ישראל עוד יקנו בתים ושדות וכרמים בארץ הזאת” 

“And thus said the Lord of Hosts the G-d of Israel: homes, fields, and vinyards will again be bought in this land” (Jer. 32:15) 


Jeremiah is purchasing this field with a vivid image of what the horizon looks like for Israel: they are about to be exiled. And thus, in terms of his own economic interests, there would be no purchase more foolish than to buy local real-estate. However, Jeremiah acts and articulates his actions with a broader sensibility in mind. Jeremiah understands that transcending his own interest will allow for a greater sensitivity to The Other, in this case his cousins, but in a broader sense, each individual in his vicinity and ultimately the broader nation of Israel. 

Immediately following his call of hope that the people will yet return to the Land of Israel, Jeremiah continues with a prayer to G-d, delineating G-d’s relationship with the world, G-d’s people’s sin, and, ultimately, a proclamation of G-d’s ultimate delivery of his people. Although the liturgy of the Haftorah cuts off in the middle of the chapter, the custom is to finish with Jeremiah 32:27, with G-d’s proclamation of dominion over the world: “הנה אני ה׳ אלקי כל בשר הממני יפלא כל דבר.” This conclusion connects Jeremiah’s willingness to come to the financial aid of his cousin with what is for him a nonsensical economic purchase with his broader ability to sense G-d in the world and look forward to the eventual return of Israel to its land. It is perhaps this, more widely scoped message that the Parashah, along with its Haftorah, is trying to convey: cultivating a heightened awareness of the people in one’s immediate surroundings is a prerequisite for developing a deep sense of hope in a better world and G-d’s ultimate presence in it. Jeremiah’s ability to tap into the needs around him (at his own personal expense, literally) inspires him to look beyond his own experience and articulate G-d’s dominion and future redemption.  

Thinking back to the economic tensions the Torah poses to capitalism, without choosing one or the other, thinking this way about the Parashah can hopefully help deepen our continual awareness of what is gained and lost in every ideology and model. In this case, it is my hope that keeping the Torah in mind will allow us to always consider the profound benefit of what it means to live in an economically supportive way, stimulating heightened attentiveness to our most immediate circles and beyond.  


Elie Lerea (SBM 2016) is currently learning in the Kollel at Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa. 

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Can Halakhah be a Desecration of Hashem’s Name?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֙ מִצְוֹתַ֔י וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם

אֲנִ֖י הֽ’:

וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֨קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל

אֲנִ֥י ה֖’ מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם:

הַמּוֹצִ֤יא אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵא-לֹהִ֑ים

אֲנִ֖י הֽ’:

You must guard my commandments, and you must do them

I am Hashem;

And you must not desecrate My Holy Name, and I will be sanctified within Bnei Yisroel

I am Hashem Who sanctified you;

Who took you out of the Land of Mitzrayim in order to be G-d for you

I am Hashem

Vayikra 22:31-33 can be read as a single Divine sentence, punctuated by self-identifying statements. We must keep His mitzvot, in order not to desecrate His Name, because He took us out of Egypt. On this reading, desecration and sanctification of His Name are merely functions of the other commandments, and have no independent substantive meaning. We sanctify by observing halakhah, and desecrate by violating halakhah. Similarly, the Exodus from Egypt is invoked only to ground G-d’s authority, and to explain why the status of His Name can be tied to Jewish observance of the mitzvot. Furthermore, the phrase “within Bnei Yisroel” suggests that observance of Halakhah is a purely parochial concern.

The Halakhic tradition itself adopts a much broader and more nuanced understanding of the categories Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem. Here are some of the variations the tradition introduces:

1) Under certain circumstances, there is an obligation of Kiddush Hashem to die rather than violate halakhah, even though generally the obligation to preserve life overrides halakhah.

2) For some purposes, Chillul Hashem is focused on Jews, and the obligation die requires a quorum of Jews (women count to this minyan according to most). For other purposes, the audience for Chillul and Kiddush Hashem specifically is nonJews. It is even possible to argue that the essential audience is always nonJews, and that a quorum is required because nonJews are more affected by Jews’ willingness or unwillingness to sin in front of their coreligionists.

3) Kiddush and Chillul Hashem can be associated not only with halakhah but with Jewish identity, universal ethics, and display of proper character. (See for example Rambam Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 5:11.) Public explicit denial of G-d’s authority by Jews desecrates His Name, but so does paying tradesmen late even though you have the funds, or being quarrelsome, or standing by the letter of the law even when that violates its spirit.

Broadening the scope of Chillul Hashem beyond halakhah untethers verse 32 from verse 31. This is especially important according to the Midrash Lekach Tov, which sees ushmartem mitzvotay as a commandment to observe mitzvot without regard to whether one finds them rationally appealing. “These are my commandments, and you have no permission to challenge them = להרהר אחריהם.

By contrast, Yerushalmi Bava Kamma 4:3 suggests that sometimes the halakhah itself can be a chillul Hashem.


ששילח המלכות שני איסטרטיוטות ללמוד תורה מרבן גמליאל

ולמדו ממנו מקרא משנה תלמוד הלכות ואגדות

ובסוף אמרו לו

כל תורתכם נאה ומשובחת

חוץ משני דברים הללו

שאתם אומרים

בת ישראל לא תיילד לעכו”ם אבל עכו”ם מיילדת לבת ישראל

בת ישראל לא תניק בנה של עכו”ם אבל עכו”ם מניקה לבת ישראל ברשותה

גזילו של ישראל אסור ושל עכו”ם מותר.

באותו שעה גזר רבן גמליאל על גזילות עכו”ם שיהא אסור מפני חילול השם . . .:

A true story:

The (Roman) Empire sent two officials to learn Torah from Rabban Gamliel

They learned from him Mishnah, Talmud, Halakhot and Aggadot.

At the end they said to him:

All your Torah is pleasant and praiseworthy

other than these two things

that you say

a Jewess must not midwife an idolatress, but an idolatress may midwife a Jewess

a Jewess mustn’t nurse the child of an idolatress, but an idolatress may nurse the child of a Jewess

in her space

An object robbed from a Jew is forbidden, but an object robbed from a Gentile is permitted

At that very time Rabban Gamliel decreed regarding the robbed objects of idolaters that they should be prohibited because of Chillul Hashem . . .

One aspect of this text seems impenetrably mysterious. The Romans refer to ‘two things,” but in the excerpt above there are three, and the ellipses conceals a fourth. Nonetheless, it seems fair to say that Rabban Gamliel responded to one of the Romans’ complaints by altering the halakhah, but not to all of them. If Rabban Gamliel is reacting to the Roman perception, why the difference?

Yet both in reason and in text it cannot be that Rabban Gamliel stands for the proposition that the proper reaction to an outsider’s moral critique of halakhah is always to change the offending law. There must be a basis for distinction. Indeed, it might be accurate to say that sometimes Gentile objections to Halakhah trigger the obligation to die al kiddush Hashem rather than transgress the law, while in other circumstances the proper reaction is to change the law. Surely the difference in outcomes is not arbitrary!

The simplest explanation is that it depends on whether, when confronted by the critique, we decide that we agree with it. The mere fact that outsiders dislike our laws cannot compel change; but fear of showing weakness cannot prevent change in the fact of moral critique.

The question then is why Rabban Gamliel found the Romans’ critique compelling in one case but not in the others.

One possibility is that the Romans’ other critiques were grounded in reciprocity rather than in objective right or wrong. They would have accepted a rule that required every nation to midwife or nurse its own mothers and babies, but they objected to allowing it only one way. Rabban Gamliel was not moved by pure claims of discrimination. If either result could be justified intrinsically, he was fine with having the results be asymmetrical between Jews and Gentiles.

This approach seems in stark contrast to Meiri, who claims that halakhah’s asymmetries are intended to mirror or compensate for discrimination against Jews in Gentile legal systems, and therefore do not apply to citizens of systems that give Jews equal rights. Note however that Meiri is commenting on the Bavli, which does not bring the midwifery and nursing cases.

Another possibility is that Rabban Gamliel thought the laws about midwifery and nursing were not intended to discriminate against Gentiles, but rather to avoid dangerous liability. The best of obstetric and pediatric care cannot prevent all deaths, and the deaths of Gentile mothers and babes under the most skilled and conscientious Jewish practitioners might have triggered pogroms. Allowing Jews to fence goods stolen from Gentiles, by contrast, had no aim but profit.

Yet a third possibility is that Rabban Gamliel saw chillul Hashem as a valid reason to prohibit what halakhah would otherwise permit, but not to permit what halakhah would otherwise forbid.

It is striking regardless that Rabban Gamliel reacted not to a critique of actual Jewish practice, but rather to a critique of the law per se. This suggests that the underlying issue of chillul Hashem is not so much the way that Jews are perceived by the world outside them, but rather by how Torah is perceived.

Yet it is also plainly the case that Torah cannot fold its hand in the face of moral censure or opprobrium. It seems reasonable to claim that those who enact laws against Judaism often find our laws immoral. Yet if they try to enforce their biases, we are likely to become obligated to become martyrs for the law as-is rather than change the law under pressure.

It is also striking that Rabban Gamliel did not claim that the Romans had misunderstood the law, or engage in other sorts of apologetics. He chose instead to explicitly override the law that irked them.

What seems to me the upshot here is that the Yerushalmi at least does not rule moral critiques of the halakhah out of bounds, and that we should be open to accepting moral critiques from any source. We should not claim that such critiques necessarily stem from a narrow vision and lack of broader halakhic context; rather, sometimes it is precisely the broad context that generates the sense that this particular law doesn’t fit well.

Openness to moral critique must not be either the result or the cause of a lack of overall moral confidence in the system. These are very legitimate concerns. But shutting ourselves off from moral critique carries equally serious risks. Our unwillingness to entertain and respond to moral criticism can cause others to lose their overall confidence in the system.


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Does the Torah Forbid Us to Lie?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Nechama Leibowitz zt”l often commented acerbically that Yeshiva students knew ten ways to explain how Yaakov really didn’t kiss Rachel, even though the Torah says vayishak Yaakov l’Rachel (Bereshit 29:11), but could not answer when asked whether the Torah specifically forbids lying.  The correct answer was yes, based on Vayikra 19:11, which includes the phrase lo t’shakru.

I wondered whether this was entirely fair. Nechama’s line was intended to critique an educational system that privileged knowledge of interpretations over knowledge of the text itself, and on that level was very often correct. But at least some students, perhaps the baalei keriah among us, knew the verse – we just didn’t translate it in our heads as a prohibition against lying per se, but rather in a more halakhically qualified way. In other words, we thought of this verse the same way we thought of vayishak Yaakov l’Rachel – through the lens of Rabbinic interpretation. Here, for example, is Rashi:

לפי שנאמר (ויקרא ה:כב) ונשבע על שקר

ישלם קרן וחומש;

למדנו עונש, אזהרה מנין?

תלמוד לומר ולא תשקרו

We learn from venishba al sheker(Vayikra 5:22) that one who swears falsely

(that they do not have the plaintiff’s property in their possession)

is liable to pay a 25% penalty (=a fifth of the total compensation due the plaintiff)

(In rabbinic legal exegesis, every statement of penalty must have an associated DO NOT):

We have thus learned a penalty, but where is the DO NOT?

So Scripture says: lo t’shakru.

We therefore argued that in fact there was no Biblical prohibition against lying, only against swearing falsely, and that this particular verse prohibited only swearing falsely as a defendant when accused of having the plaintiff’s property in your possession.  (Note that 19:12 explicitly prohibits swearing falsely by His Name – Rashi explains that this is intended to include all the Names of Hashem in the prohibition.)

Nechama’s line of course was also intended as a moral critique. The problem was not so much that many of us didn’t remember the verse, but that it wasn’t obvious to us that the Torah forbade lying, while ironically it was obvious to us that Yaakov did not kiss Rachel romantically. In each case, she thought that we needed to see Rabbinic interpretation as reacting to the plain meaning of the verse, but not as intended to deny that meaning.  (The reactions differ in kind: regarding Bereshit, they explain why a noble action by the hero might nonetheless not be a viable behavioral model for readers; regarding Vayikra, they explain why a verse stating a moral that should be obvious is not redundant in a formal legal context.)

Pedagogically, this is a very complex notion.  The beit din I serve on recently had occasion to emphasize the centrality of truthtelling in Judaism, and despite having Nechama’s line ringing in my head, I did not simply cite our verse.  Instead, my colleagues and I cited midvar sheker tidchak (Shemot 23:7), “distance yourself from falsehood.”  To some extent this was because “Distance yourself from falsehood” has a stronger moral valence than simply “Don’t say a falsehood,” as it seems to exclude even misleading truths or lies by omission.  And while we knew that Shemot 23:7 also has a limiting legal context – it specifically forbids judges in financial suits from approving a technically justified ruling that they know to be substantively false, or to serve together with judges they know to be incompetent – we also knew that Rabbinic literature cites its plain meaning as well.

Here, however, was a problem. The primary rabbinic citation of the plain meaning is on Ketubot 17a, where Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel dispute what one sings while dancing before a bride with objective physical flaws.  Beit Hillel say that one praises her beauty regardless – kallah naeh vachasudah – while Beit Shammai say that one praises her as she actually is – kallah kemot shehi.  Beit Shammai challenge Beit Hillel on the basis of Shemot 23:7; Beit Hillel respond that we sing from the perspective of the groom. Beit Hillel’s response leaves space for disingenuousness, and is itself a little disingenuous, as a purpose of the praise is to reinforce the groom’s faith in his perspective.

Similarly, while “the seal of the Holy Blessed One is truth,” we sometimes learn this is contexts where He sacrifices the integrity of His seal.  We are certainly permitted or obligated to lie for the sake of preserving marital harmony, as Hashem changed Sarah’s words when speaking to Avraham about Sarah’s laughter.

Chazal teach us that marital harmony is more important than pure truth, and more generally that pure truth is destructive to human society, but try at the same time to emphasize the critical social and moral necessity of almost-pure truth. This kind of dialectical pedagogy is extraordinarily difficult to pull off.

With this complexity in mind, I thought it worth briefly investigating whether the standard “peshat” commentaries on Vayikra 19:11 make any effort to preserve what Nechama claimed was the plain meaning.  Rashbam, I noticed immediately does not. He apparently feels that the immediate context of the verse demonstrates that it is limited to the context of financial suits.  The verse opens with lo tignovu = don’t steal, and continues with lo t’khachashu – don’t deny, a verb also used in Vayikra 5:21 in the lawsuit context.

Ibn Ezra and Bekhor Shor each maintain the financial context, but expand the field.  Ibn Ezra says the verse bans telling a creditor to obtain his funds from a third party, when in fact you have no account with that third party.  Bekhor Shor says that it forbids committing to fulfill certain conditions in exchange for a financial advance, and then failing to fulfill those conditions. (It’s not obvious to me whether he refers only to a case in which one never intended to fulfill them.  HaKetav VeHakabbalah however argues that the verb teshaker always refers to a statement that is false at the time it is uttered, and not to one that can be falsified later by nonperformance.)

Siftei Kohen (late 16th-early 17th century commentary by R. Mordekhai Cohen, a student of R. Yosef Caro in Tzefat) recontextualizes the entire verse to be about marital sexuality.  It is possible but not obvious that he means to make a claim about the necessity of emotional honesty in the context of intimacy.  Regardless, this seems less likely the plain meaning than the lawsuit context.

The only precedent I can find for Nechama is Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who contextualizes our verse as part of the parashah’s overall theme of kedushah (=holiness).  He argues that our verse is framed in the plural because it addresses not individuals but the community.  As a result, he contends, we are not referring to gross financial sins, which are surely always the province of a minority, and which the majority will always put down by force  Rather, “we are referring here to those categories of theft, falsehood, and false oathtaking that are capable of penetrating every aspect of commercial and social life; not only that, but they can become the dominant characteristic of a nation; and once they are broadly flouted, all signs of opprobrium are removed from these acts.  More than this – they become considered a skill, deserving of praise and honor.  Nonetheless, in the eyes of Hashem they are as lowly and despised as actual robbery and falsehood and false oathtaking.  These are what G-d prohibits here, Who seeks to sanctify His nation in the realms of commercial and social life . . .  lo t’shakru – the whole broad field of falsehood should have no place in commercial and social life, because truth, meaning the recogniition of things and relationships as they actually are is the foundation of peace and faithfulness to commitment . . . whereas falsehood becomes the tool of all wickedness and evil . . .”

In the end, I am not convinced that this is the plain meaning of our verse (as opposed to Shemot 23:7.)  But with apologies to Nechama, perhaps it would not be a terrible thing if during this Shabbat’s leining we all first thought of her interpretation, and of Rav Hirsch’s.

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Should Moral Intuition and Halakhah Always Agree?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi Klapper:

I identify as a passionate Modern Orthodox Jew, but there are things about the theory and practice of halakhah that bother me morally.  I’ve usually found ways to deal with these conflicts without violating normative halakhah in any way. Sometimes that makes me feel proud of my willingness and ability to put ego aside and submit to G-d.  But sometimes it just makes me feel yucky. Sometimes I feel that I really won’t be able to live with myself if I carry this halakhah out in practice, and I understand why it would be impossible for someone else to live the way I do.

Here’s the thing.

I believe that halakhah is the best method we have of transforming G-d’s will, as expressed in Torah, into specific instructions.

I believe that the Written Torah is the word of G-d, and that Chazal and the Rishonim and Acharonim were collectively the authentic bearers of the Oral Torah.

Should I feel religiously inadequate because I have these conflicts, or because it’s not obvious to me that I should always follow the halakhah no matter what? Should I just ask a great Torah scholar and let them make these decisions for me?       

In great perplexity,

Yosef Alceuta Judahson


Dear Yosef:

I was greatly impressed and heartened by your letter. These are the sorts of perplexities we should welcome nowadays. Even in communities that try to isolate themselves, people are under so much pressure from the changing moral perspectives of the world around us – progressing and regressing, but always changing – that it is almost impossible for conformists to develop authentic values deeply rooted in Torah, rather than grafting a veneer of Torah rhetoric onto a political or social program grown from very different roots. A spirit of rebellion and stubborn moral independence is a religious necessity in our day. Probably it always was.

Nevertheless, when one’s moral sense conflicts with practical halacha, it is usually shallow or arrogant to think that the choice is either/or. The first things any sensible person considers is that they might have missed a way of reconciling the two, or that there might be a way of ensuring that the conflict has no practical expression, or that they have either the morality or else the halakhah wrong.

Each of these modes of resolution can themselves be done shallowly and arrogantly. You are right to bristle at people who tell you that there is obviously no conflict, and that your perplexity is unjustified.

I’m also not claiming that there’s never an either/or.  Sometimes there is. I’m only claiming that usually there are other choices, and that it’s responsible to explore the other possibilities first.

But we need to address an underlying issue before we grapple with the questions you raise directly. How should we feel about feeling conflicted? I began by saying that we should welcome these sorts of perplexities – why?

My sense is that conversation about conflicts between halakhah and ethics focuses on two positions.

The first, sometimes called “Akeidah Orthodoxy,” sees these conflicts as nisyonot, as theological tests. Following one of Kierkegaard’s interpretations, which has important Jewish antecedents and echos, they argue that the message of the Akeidah is that sacrificing one’s independent notion of the good to G-d is a supreme religious act. We should celebrate such opportunities, while at the same time recognizing how excruciatingly difficult they can be.

The second position is that conflicts between ethics and halakhah always reflect a failure to understand halakhah properly.  Principles such as “all her ways are noam=pleasantness” are assigned axiomatic and a priori meaning.  They are fixed and certain points on the basis of which every halakhah must be evaluated, rather than as part of an iterative process in which our understanding of “pleasantness” is also influenced by its compatibility with halakhah.

Akeidah Orthodoxy holds little appeal for me. I much prefer to read the akeidah as teaching Avraham that his moral intuition was reliable.

But this doesn’t mean that all human moral intuitions are reliable, or that Avraham “failed the test” by not insisting on following his moral intuition over G-d’s command. The first claim seems ridiculous to me, and is why I don’t find noam theology attractive either. It’s also hard to read the Torah as fundamentally critical of Avraham’s performance. I think we can learn from the Akeidah that human moral intuition is valuable, and we should do our best to develop it, without succumbing to moral megalomania.

We also don’t have the direct access to G-d that Avraham did, so our chance of misunderstanding what He wants is much greater.  And Rashi suggests that even Avraham mistook His intent, which never included Yitzchak actually being killed! So a clash between moral intuition and halakhah should certainly send us to recheck with great thoroughness whether we have the halakhah right.

If we grant that we might have one or both of the values and the halakhah wrong, how are we to make decisions?  If we don’t endorse “akeidah theology,” is there a reason to prefer halakhah over intuition?

I suggest that there is.  Specifically in times of great moral ferment, when it is obvious that even the most strongly and broadly held human intuitions (whether correct or incorrect) are often the product of socially contingent factors, one of the attractions and advantages of halakhah is that it provides an Archimedean point for values, a fixed polestar we can follow when everything else seems mutable, fleeting, and invented. Halakhah – in its imperfection – is a desperately necessary bulwark against relativism and nihilism. Moreover, a moral tradition that has stood the test of time is much more likely to be correct overall than the creation of any particular society – kal vachomer ben beno shel kal vachomer when that tradition as a whole is authentically rooted in and nourished by the word of G-d.

In such times, the absence of conflict between one’s moral intuition and halakhah is disturbing.  It seems to indicate not that we have been עושה רצוננו כרצונו, but rather that we have been עושה רצוננו רצונו – that we have not subordinated our will to His, but rather attributed our will to Him.

This doesn’t mean that we should look to manufacture such conflicts by pretending that we have two opposing certainties when really we have none. But I want to argue for a middle ground. We should find such clashes comforting rather than disturbing.

Why? Because if you value both halakhah and moral intuition, and you recognize that both of them are inevitably unreliable, you realize that you must be doing them one or wrong if they never conflict. Different imperfect epistemologies cannot honestly yield identical results.

All of this is very abstract, and I hope serves as the introduction to many profoundly challenging conversations about specific issues that raise these sorts of conflict for you. But I owe you at least the beginnings of direct responses to the questions in your last paragraph.

You are not inadequate because your moral intuition is not in perfect accord with the halakhah as you understand it.  AderabbahI would worry if that were not the case.

Your understanding of what the halakhah is should not always take precedence over your moral intuition. First of all, you might have the halakhah wrong. Second, there are (rare) cases in which halakhah recognizes its own limits.

Asking a Torah scholar to make the decision for you is not a reliably safe way out. Torah scholars are also fallible.  You may not have the privilege of access to a genuinely great Torah scholar whose moral intuition resonates with yours and yet gives you confidence that it has much deeper roots in our tradition. The greatest Torah scholars will in any case often refuse to make these decisions for you, but instead seek to add depth and breadth to your decisionmaking process. But – you should make every effort to bring such scholars into your life.

The introduction to Shiurei Daat contends that Judaism recognizes three necessary and legitimate epistemologies: knowledge of the Torah, of the world, and of one’s own soul. When these come into conflict, the reason is a lack of balance, that we know one of them more deeply than the others. I find this a very useful and powerful framework for thinking about the kinds of perplexities you face. I hope that you’ll respond to them by seeking to deepen your knowledge of all three areas.


Aryeh Klapper

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