Category Archives: Weekly Devar Torah

How Should One Relate to Modes of Torah Interpretation that One Does Not Believe In?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

How should one relate to modes of Torah interpretation that one does not believe in? I intend this question in two ways.

First, how does one relate to hermeneutical systems that one sees as imposed on texts rather than as organic to the text, as producing eisegesis rather than exegesis? Second, how does one relate to interpretations developed in the service of broad philosophic positions that one does not share?

The first question arises often for me when reading Chassidic commentaries. An underlying presumption of such commentaries is that the exoteric historical narrative of chumash (but not only the narrative, and not only Chumash, or even only Tanakh) is properly interwoven with, supplemented, and sometimes supplanted by an esoteric psychospiritual narrative.

The esoteric narrative often emerges by employing some of the more radical techniques of classical midrash. Here is an example, drawn from Toldot Yaakov Yosef1to Genesis 27:22. “הקול קול יעקב והידים ידי עשו” is generally translated as “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav”; Toldot Yaakov Yosef, however, translates “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, as are the hands, the (very) hands (previously) of Esav”. Exoterically, the verse describes Yitzchak’s confusion as to which son was standing before him to receive his blessing; esoterically, it tells us that involving one’s entire body in the ecstasy of prayer sanctifies the physical, specifically by clapping, so that the hands previously identified with the material become servants of the spiritual.

On a purely syntactic level, this reading requires us to read across the parallelism of the verse in a kind of slantrhyme. The identical tactic is given on Sanhedrin 57b as the basis for Rabbi Yishmael’s position that abortion is included within the Noachide prohibition against bloodshedding. Genesis 9:6 “שופך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך” is usually translated as “The shedder of human blood, by a human must his blood be shed”, but here is translated “The shedder of the blood of a human within a human, his blood must be shed”.

No claim is made in either case that this reading is the exclusive or even primarymeaning of the verse, and I think that playing with punctuation to produce multiple meanings is a standard poetic technique. So for me the fundamental question is not whether the literary tactic is compelling, but rather whether I think that the resulting interpretation is a plausible intent of this section of Chumash.

My answer to this depends to some extent on another question: To what extent is this interpretation interwoven with the exoteric narrative? For example: Does Toldot Yaakov Yosef claim that on some level Yitzchak intended this when exclaiming it, or would he be content to say that Yitzchak simply channeled the Divine intent unconsciously, he “prophesied without knowing what he had prophesied”, in the rabbinic phrase? I would be happier if the former were true, if this interpretation owed at least some fealty to the narrative context.

On that assumption, Toldot Yaakov Yosef must claim that Yitzchak was on some level aware of Yaakov’s deception. Even more strongly, he was celebrating Yaakov’s capacity to engage in the deception, to utilize the “hands” without losing his “voice”.

And I do think that a close reading of the exoteric narrative lends much support to the thesis that Yitzchak was a willing party to his own deception. Which means, in the end, that Toldot Yaakov Yosef’s reading is useful to me. And yet, I still find it hard to allow any validity to the claim that this verse is in any sense about the importance of being a clapper during davening.

Toldot Yaakov Yosef offers the above reading as a prefatory aside to a discussion of the opening of this week’s parshah. “Yaakov left B’er Sheva, and went toward Charan. Vayifga bamakom…” Any reader will notice immediately that “bamakom”, “(untranslatable preposition) the place”, is problematic, as the place has not previously been identified. Classical midrash identifies it either as Mount Moriah (on his way to the Akeidah, Avraham saw the place from afar – Genesis 22:4) or as G-d (the place of all existence). The former reading raises geographic difficulties, which are resolved in various ways. The latter fits well in context – a prophetic dream ensues immediately (although for Talmud Berakhot 28 it seems to refer to a separate act of prayer)  – but Ibn Ezra argues that it is anachronistic, in that G-d is not referred to as “the place” in Tanakh, only in rabbinic literature. Radak and Seforno accordingly postulate a well- known wayfarer’s station in that location, and indeed an entire institution of such stations on major roads.

Toldot Yaakov Yosef adopts the position that “bamakom” refers to G-d. He does not stop there, however – Be’er sheva refers to a kabbalistic Service known as the Seven, Charan refers to Divine Anger, and “vayifga bamakom” means that Yaakov became subject to the Divine Aspect of Justice as the result of leaving the highest level of service (in which he acquired the “hands”).

I cannot follow him down that path. This raises for me the question of whether I can legitimately use the product of his initial steps. But I want to explore that question in a broader context.

Over the years, I have had a number of friends who raved about the beauty and depth of kabbalistic thought without, so far as I could tell, in any way believing that the metaphysical structures described by kabbalah had any “real” existence. For them, the ten sefirot, the worlds of thought and deed, and the like were useful metaphors for aspects of the human psyche, and no more; they did not require any notion of transcendence or Divinity. I often wondered (aloud, and, no doubt irritatingly, to them) if this was fair to the texts and authors they studied and taught. More strongly, I wondered whether the key question was not belief but experience, whether it was possible to meaningfully read these texts without having had experiences that corresponded to their notion of reality – were they colorblind critics teaching about art? For myself, I remain unaware of having had any such experiences, and therefore I always resisted citing such texts.

So it is much caution that I end this devar Torah by citing a metaphor from the Zohar.

Zohar 1:148b

The other, younger (son of Rabbi Yitzchak) said:
“Vayifga bamakom; he lay over there because the sun had set; (he took of the rocks of the makom and put underneath his head” –
What is the meaning of “vayifga bamakom”?
This can be compared to a king who visits a lady – he needs to entreat her and to perfume her with words, so that she will not seem utterly available to him.
Not only that – even if he has a bed of gold and woven tapestries in his castle to sleep on, whereas she makes do with a stone bed on the ground in a fortress of straw, he should leave his and sleep on hers so as to give her satisfaction, so that their companionship will be unified without constraint.
This is as we learn here, for once he came to her, what is written? “He took from the rocks of the place and put under his head, and he lay down in that place” – so as to give her satisfaction, as even the rocks of her house are beloved to him to sleep on”.

The Zohar is plainly talking about the unification of various aspects of the Divine, about which I have nothing to say. But the courting/marital advice is beautiful, and there is one literary/psychological element that is tempting, namely the parallelism between Yaakov’s relationship with G-d and his relationship with Rachel, where he also saw hardship as joy in the service of love. Is it fair to extract those and leave the kabbalah behind? I welcome your comments.

This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2010


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Does G-d Write Thrillers? The Role of Suspense in Scripture

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

According to Bing, suspense is “a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen”, or alternatively, ”a quality in a work of fiction that arouses excited expectation or uncertainty about what may happen”.  This second definition is in error – nothing about literary suspense is affected by categorization as fiction vs, nonfiction. Life can be suspenseful, as in the first definition; and a retelling of life can be as suspenseful as an imaginary narrative.  

An author retelling a story from life, however, does not have to convey all the suspense of the original, or may choose to artificially create suspense where none existed. Do these choices matter? Do they affect the meaning of the story, or only the enjoyment and attentiveness of readers?

This question matters to me religiously because G-d makes the clear choice to heighten suspense in this week’s parshah.  He does this both artificially and by including the time element in the story. Pay close attention to Genesis 27:30:


כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר כִּלָּ֣ה יִצְחָק֘ לְבָרֵ֣ךְ אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹב֒


אַ֣ךְ יָצֹ֤א יָצָא֙ יַעֲקֹ֔ב מֵאֵ֥ת פְּנֵ֖י יִצְחָ֣ק אָבִ֑יו

וְעֵשָׂ֣ו אָחִ֔יו בָּ֖א מִצֵּידֽוֹ

It happened

when Yitzchak finished blessing Yaakov

It happened

Yaakov akh yatzo yatza (=had just left? was just leaving?) from the presence of Yitzchak his father,

and Esav his brother ba (was coming? had come?) from his hunt

The repetition of “vayehi” (=It happened) seems to serve no purpose at all other than to artificially heighten suspense by making us wait to find out what happened.  Similarly, even if Yaakov and Esav nearly met, that seems to have no effect on the substance of the story; what would have been different had Esav shown up ten minutes later? So why does G-d go to such literary and descriptive effort to make us feel this suspense?

The midrashei aggada do their best to make the story even more exciting.  According to Rav Ayvo in Midrash Rabbah, Yitzchak’s house had two doors, and Yaakov left by one as Esav entered by the other. But the Rabbis thought this insufficient.  Rather, the doors to Yitzchak’s house opened inward, and Yaakov hid behind one of them (in one version because he heard Esav’s footsteps) and slipped out after Esav passed. In Hadar Zekeinim’s version Yitzchak’s doors ordinarily opened outward, but the angel Gavriel reverse their hinges just in time. In any case, Esav delayed as long as he did only because angels kept untying the snares he set to catch the game for his father’s meal.

According to, “Suspense is a literary device that authors use to keep their readers’ interest alive throughout the work. It is a feeling of anticipation that something risky or dangerous is about to happen. The purpose of using this type of anxiety in literature is to make readers more concerned about the characters, and to form sympathetic association with them.”  So perhaps the sense that Yaakov was in danger from Esav helps us sympathize with him even if we have moral qualms about his actions. But that seems to me an insufficient justification. In any case, we may instead sympathize more with Esav, who lost out by only a second, and therefore clearly through no fault of his own.

So we need to step back and ask a more fundamental question. Was Yaakov in danger from Esav?  Rashbam here makes an astounding comment.

“ויהי אך יצא יצא” –

להגיד ניסים שנעשו ליעקב בא הכתוב, שאילו הקדים עשו לבא רגע אחד קודם, לא נתברך יעקב

“It happened as Yaakov was just leaving” –

Scripture here comes to tell us the miracles that were done for Yaakov

that if Esav had come one moment earlier, Yaakov would not have been blessed.

Rashbam apparently thinks that the blessing was at risk, but not Yaakov’s life.  His position is strengthened when we recall that Yaakov himself worries to his mother only about what his father will think of him if he is exposed, not about what his brother will do to him.

On the other hand, midrashim reasonably claim that the point of Esav coming directly “from his hunt” is to remind us that he was armed. Moreover, Esav reacts to learning of Yaakov’s deceit by planning to kill Yaakov after Yitzchak’s death.  I don’t think we can be certain that concern for his father would have restrained his vengeance had he caught Yaakov in person. Finally, Rashbam’s reading does not explain why the Torah tells us that Yaakov was just leaving, rather than sticking with the key point, which is that Yitzchak had just finished giving the blessing. So I don’t find his reading sufficient either.

We therefore need to step back again, to ask an even more fundamental question. Why doesn’t Yaakov express any concern to his mother about being caught by Esav? I think the simplest explanation is that he expects Esav to be gone for long enough to leave him plenty of time to receive the blessing.  This is supported by Yitzchak’s expression of surprise when Yaakov arrives so rapidly with his food.

If Esav arrived earlier than expected, we cannot have angels untying his snares to delay him.  Rather, as Yaakov posits to explain his own timing, the angels must have been driving the animals into Esav’s snares.  The purpose of the miracles therefore is not to prevent Esav and Yaakov from meeting, but to ensure that they almost meet.  Therefore – what prevents them from meeting is not that Esav comes late, but rather that Yaakov leaves in time.

Is his leaving in time a miracle?

Or HaChayyim offers a totally different perspective on the story, one that he acknowledges reads “yatzo yatza” differently than Chazal.  He suggests that Yaakov left because he heard Esav coming.  Moreover, he contends that the repetition of vayehi is not intended to convey suspense. Rather, he cites the standard midrashic contention that vayehi introduces misfortune.  The repetition is intended to emphasize the great pain that Yaakov was in throughout this episode.

ורמז אל הצער שחש יעקב

שימצא כגנב במחתרת בפני אביו

כשהרגיש בביאת עשו:

This hints at the pain that Yaakov felt

when fearing that he would be caught like a thief in a tunnel before his father

when he heard Esav coming.

Or HaChayyim’s specific textual arguments do not compel me. But his perspective opens up one more possibility.

Why would angels intervene to rush Esav back, if we’re rooting for Yaakov to leave in time to escape?  Why is it important for the Torah to create suspense, to make us feel that Esav could have caught Yaakov, with catastrophic consequences?  The best answer is that the issue was really contingent, that Esav might have caught Yaakov, and the outcome hinged on Yaakov’s free-willed decision to leave when he did.

Why would that matter?  In my reading, Yaakov believes that he has plenty of time, as in the normal course of nature Esav won’t arrive for hours. The ordinary and right thing for Yaakov to do is to remain in situ and thank his father, and to bask in his victory.  But he is terribly uncomfortable with what he has done; he feels, as Or HaChayyim put it, “like a thief in his tunnel”. So he rushes (yatzo yatza) out.

If Yaakov had stayed a moment longer than necessary – if he had had no pangs of conscience and seen his actions as untroubling, because the ends justify the means – Esav would have caught him, and very likely killed him.  G-d and his angels made sure that Yaakov had the slimmest margin of error. But he passed the test.

People who are paralyzed by moral complexity cannot lead.  Yaakov acted, and succeeded. But people who feel no pain when confronting morally complex situations generally should not be allowed to lead.  This is especially the case when leadership includes genuine power over others, as in the blessing Yitzchak gives Yaakov.


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If Sarah Imeinu had Died in Pittsburgh

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Rabbi Barry Kornblau posted the following this week, which expressed my thoughts and feelings as well: “At this time of our need and grief, our American Jewish community is currently experiencing an outpouring of love and support from others outside our community. In addition to thanking those who offer such assistance now, we Jews must also recommit, now, to our principled tradition of extending hands and hearts of love to other communities who, in their present and future times of grief and need, will appreciate our support.”

This devar Torah is in large measure an expression of the same idea.

You can learn a lot about your neighbors when it comes time to bury your dead, and also about your own place in society. But some of what you learn may be wrong.  What did Avraham learn when it came time to bury Sarah? How much of what he learned was correct?

When Avraham rises from his grief, he turns to the Hittites and says:

גר ותושב אנכי עמכם

תנו לי אחזת קבר עמכם

ואקברה את מתי מלפני

I am a ger and toshav among you

Give me a graveholding among you

and I will bury my dead from before me.

The meaning of the phrase ger and toshav is unclear.  To begin with, it may be a compound – “I am fully a ger and fully a toshav” – or else a hendiadys – “I am some hybrid of ger and toshav”.   Neither ger nor toshav is clear, either, and both must be contrasted with ezrach and with yoshev. Let’s assume that a toshav is more firmly entrenched than a ger, so we’ll call a toshav a resident and a ger an alien.

Avraham uses words that seem bold in context.  “Give me”, rather than ‘sell me’; “graveholding”, rather than ‘grave’; and “among you”, rather than ‘anywhere’.  A straightforward way of reading this is to see Avraham as seeing to upgrade his status. Until now he has had, and sought, no permanent connection to this land and culture; creating a family plot in the local cemetery will make him a local, and perhaps a citizen.

This reading is strongly opposed by traditional commentators, for both global and local reasons. Globally, the notion of Avraham genuinely wanting integration with Hittites seems a violation of Jewish destiny, and a failure to understand the message of the Covenant Between the Pieces that the cultures of Canaan are on an irreversible downward moral and religious trajectory.

Note however that Rashbam on last week’s parashah criticizes Avraham for making a pact with the Philistines, and even suggests that the Akeidah was a punishment for making it, because it showed a lack of faith in God’s promise that his descendants would inherit the Land.  Perhaps Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak proved his faith, but he never understood why he had been tested?

Locally, the negotiation ends, at Avraham’s insistence, in the purchase of Ephron’s cave as an entirely private burial ground. The burden of proof rests on anyone arguing that Avraham initially intended a different plot of land and/or a gift rather than a purchase.

But there seem to be real developments in the course of the negotiation. Avraham initially expresses interest only in the cave “which is at the edge of his field”, but ends up paying for Ephron’s entire field. Avraham’s last words to Ephron replace the phrase “bury from before me” with “bury there”. So there is room to argue that Avraham initially wanted integration, but somehow feels/is rejected, and changes his goal from to mere toleration.

We might blame this on Ephron. He is the one who introduces the field. He describes the cave as “in it” rather than “on its edge.” Perhaps the community was sincere in telling Avraham that any one of them would freely give him a burial space, and perhaps the Cave was close enough to an existing cemetery to be considered an annex. But Ephron’s introduction of the field made a gift obviously too extravagant.

Or we might blame this on the Hittites as a whole. They never agreed to give Avraham his own space, only to allow him to bury Sarah in any of their own graves. Their goal was to make Avraham a permanent refugee, with no rights except by sufferance.

Alternatively, the Hittites demanded that Avraham bury Sarah in one of their graves, with no distinctiveness at all. James Loeffler recently posted a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that sums this reading up:

The liberal world has sought to dissolve the prejudice between Jews and Gentiles by preaching tolerance and good-will… [But there’s] a curious, partly unconscious, cultural imperialism in theories of tolerance which look forward to a complete destruction of all racial distinctions…The majority group expects to devour the minority group by way of assimilation. This is a painless death, but it is death nevertheless.

Avraham recoiled, and chose full separation with tenuous tolerance over assimilation.

Or Hachaim, perhaps uniquely among traditional commentators, argues that Avraham was making a rights-based argument that depended on his outsider status.

ויש לך לדעת כי כל תורתנו הקדושה היא שכליית,

ובפרט בענייני ההנהגה הארצית,

וכמו שאנו מתנהגים בגר היושב עמנו,

כן יתחייב שכליות יושבי הארץ להנהיג ביניהם

להחיות אדם שהוא גר ותושב עמהם

ולתת לו מתנת חנם.

והיא טענת אברהם גר ותושב אנכי … תנו לי,

ודקדק לומר גר ולא הספיק לומר תושב,

המכוון לומר שהגם שאני גר ואיני מכם, אעפ”כ הריני תושב.

You must know that all of our holy Torah is in accord with reason,

especially in matters of national administration,

and (therefore) just as we practice toward the alien who resides among us,

so too reason requires the citizens of the land to practice amongst themselves

to sustain-the-life of a person who is an alien and resident among them

and to give him free gifts.

This is (the purpose of) Avraham’s statement “I am an alien and a resident . . . give me” –

his intent being “even though I am an alien and not one of you, nonetheless I am a resident”.

This suggests that Avraham was right to be disappointed by every aspect of the Hittite response – their demand for assimilation and Ephron’s desire for money.

However, Or HaChaim’s justification of Avraham’s disappointment comes with a challenging corollary; that Jews, whether in their own country or as part of a composite polity, have an obligation to freely give the necessities of a dignified life – specifically including burial grounds – to noncitizens who maintain separate identities.

This was too much for some subsequent commentators.  Here is the contemporary Rabbi M. Peretz in Otzar Haparshah:

והאדר”ת בספר סדר פרשיות הקשה

שלגר תושב מותר ליתן מתנת הנם בדבר שהוא להחיותו

אבל מקום קבורה ומתנה גדולה אין היוב


כשם שיש מצוה להחיותו

כך יש מצוה ליתן לו מקום קבורה

אלא שמקום חשוב, כמו מערת המכפלה – אין היוב ליתן במתנת חינם

וגם אברהם לא ביקש זאת

אלא כוונתו כיון שגר תושב אנכי עמכם – אם כן יש לי הזכות לקבל מקום קבורה בחנם

ואם כן, אני שמוכן לשלם במחיר מלא – ראוי ליתן לי רשות לקנות אפילו מקום חשוב כמערת המכפלה

לכן הקדים אברהם גר ותושב אנכי עמכם

The Aderet in his book Seder HaParshiyot challenged

that it is permitted to give a resident alien free gifts in matter that sustain-his-life,

but there is no obligation to give him a burial place or large gifts?!

But it seems

That just as there is a mitzvah to sustain his life,

So too there is a mitzvah to give him a burial place

Just that significant places, such as the Double Cave, there is no obligation to give for free

And Avraham did not seek this

Rather his intent was that “since I am a resident alien among you, I have the right to receive a burial place for free

Therefore, since I am prepared to pay full price, it is appropriate to give me permission to buy even a significant plot of land such as the Double Cave

That’s why Avraham began by saying “I am a resident alien among you”.

Rabbi Peretz contends that there must be boundaries to our obligations toward people who are not part of our nation.  It follows that there are boundaries on their obligations toward us. (But rights extend beyond obligations, so aliens have the right to purchase anything on the market so long as they pay full price, and we have the obligation to ensure that right.)

Not too many of our ancestors could have imagine a real-life situation in which we needed to make clear that the way Gentiles were treating us was lifnim mishurat hadin (beyond the letter of the law; expressing greater closeness to Hashem than required by Halakhah), lest our obligations toward Gentiles become too onerous. Not all Americans see us as neighbors, plainly, and this week we know far too well that some murderous anti-Semites live in our neighborhood. But sometimes you learn a lot from your neighbors when it comes time to bury your dead. We have  a lot to live up to.

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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.

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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,


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 

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 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.

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Should We Care How Long Creation Took?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Some people care a great deal about whether G-d created the earth and the heavens in literally seven days, meaning, 168 hours, or 10,080 minutes, etc.

By “some people”, I don’t mean specifically or primarily Orthodox Jews or members of other conservative religious denominations that venerate the Bible.  The people who care most are generally those who dislike such religions. They believe very strongly that the “fundamentalism” they define themselves by opposing is utterly dependent on this belief.  They believe that demonstrating that creation took longer or shorter, or didn’t follow the order laid out in the first chapter of Genesis, relieves them of the burden of taking traditional religion seriously.

Some people care a great deal about whether G-d created the earth and the heavens in literarily seven days, meaning in seven more-or-less defined periods of indeterminate length that can be conceptualized as having sequential segments of darkerness and lighterness.  These people will spend much time looking for electromagnetic wavelengths that could have functioned as timekeepers before the creation of the sun and planets, or for sub-sub-subatomic particles (tohu and bohu) that could be the building blocks of all matter.

These people may be brilliant, with superb scientific educations and scientific research experience.  They may as often be innumerates who fall for crude hoaxes.

Some people wonder a great deal about why other people care so much about whether the first chapter of Genesis is literally or literarily true.  After all, they reason, the mere fact that creation took place one way, or rather another way, has no moral significance.  All that matters is what values we can learn from the fiction of G-d having created the world in seven days. We can learn those morals regardless of the story’s facticity, just as (lehavdil!) we can learn about parenting from King Lear even though Shakespeare was not attempting to portray a historical character with historical accuracy.

Is Lear a fair analogy, even with all due disclaimers? It is easy to spot the flaw.  Lear does not teach morality directly.  It holds up an image of human nature, or of the nature of some human relationships, or of the consequences of certain kinds of decisions, that many of us find compelling.  We make moral judgments under the influence of those images, but we do not derive our morality from them. Torah, however, is presumably intended to be a source of moral judgment, and not (just) a touchstone for evaluating the factual or causal claims of moral principles derived from other sources.

Unless one believes in some form of “Natural Law”.  But natural law has long been in disrepute in Western circles.  Hume wrote scathingly that “from is to ought there is no inference”, and this is now seen as common sensical.

There are lots of good moral and logical reasons to buy deeply into Hume, among them:

To paraphrase Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, one can learn industry from ants, but also ruthless wars of extermination, or the insignificance of individual identity; modesty from cats, or how to play with prey.

We do not want to think that children born with profound medical challenges, or into awful social settings, deserve their suffering.

But we must understand that Hume is a deep problem religiously.  Leibnitz had a good point when he argues that believers in G-d must conclude that we live in the best of all possible worlds – so we should be able to figure out why this world is better, and apply that principle.  If the world is an expression of the Will of G-d, how can it not be an expression of His moral as well as His creative will?

Which brings us back to the first chapter of Genesis.  One reason that so many of us resist putting any kind of factual content into that chapter is that we have bought fully into Hume.  Therefore, there is nothing that Genesis can teach us about the material world that matters, since the material world contains no moral instruction.  “If they tell you there is Torah in nature – don’t believe them!

Yet it seems to me that there is no way to read that chapter in a way that generates direct moral instruction.  Whether or not it teaches us science, it teaches us some way of conceptualizing the material world, and it teaches us that in significantly more detail than can be reasonably explained as just being intended to teach the fact of creation ex nhilo.  Moreover, it doesn’t even do a good job of teaching that fact!  Most rishonim understand the first word of the Torah as describing a process that took place after some things, such as tohu, bohu, and mayim, already existed.  So the chapter must make more specific claims about the world.  But what claims about the world can matter, if there are no legitimate inferences from is to ought?

One possibility is to modify Hume, and say that “there is not always an inference from is to ought, and there is no perfectly reliable way of knowing when such an inference is valid, and when invalid”. This seems to me a reasonably accurate account of much relevant rabbinic thought, and a productive avenue, although I’m not sure anyone today will find it psychologically satisfying.

It’s fair and necessary to note that there are specific issues where the is-to-ought movement has significant influence specifically in modernity.  The clearest example is homosexuality, where many people find ascribe to a version of “G-d could not create a very significant percentage of the population with a sexual orientation that was morally wrong”.

Rabbinic literature has many poetic ways of capturing these difficulties. I like using the question of anesthesia during childbirth as an illustration.  Clearly G-d intended women to experience childbirth as painful, and yet no one sees it as a violation of G-d’s will for us to ameliorate or eliminate that pain.

One further problem with using is-to-ought as a basis for religious interpretation of Scripture is that it makes the truth of our value claims depend on the truth of our fact claims. If we learn the superiority of humans over animals because humans are created last, what happens if it turns out that dolphins emerge later?  And note that the argument seems to make a claim that goes beyond the text.  If it doesn’t matter whether something was really created later, then why does a text’s claim that something was created later have any values significance?  It seems unsatisfying to say that the lessons of Torah depend on the temporary suspension not only of historical belief, but also of philosophic argument.

On reflection, though, it’s not clear why the possibility that our premise is wrong should constrain us specifically here. All values claims grounded in Torah are based on interpretations of the text, and interpretations are not infallible either (unless one resorts to radical pluralism, in which interpretations, or at least those offered by recognized scholars, are definitionally true).  I may reach a wrong moral conclusion if I decide that the light of the first few days was actually a special form of gamma radiation.  I may err just as greatly if I base my morals on the claim that night came before day (as opposed to Rashbam, who argues that day must come before night because evening/erev  and morning/boker are gerunds, so that it “evens” after day and “morns” after night).

Perhaps what nonetheless bothers me about contemporary efforts to mesh Biblical interpretation with cutting-edge science is that they seem to want to put many of our eggs in a basket that preserves them only so long as both our science and our technical textual arguments are correct.  Moreover, I think that the temptation to go from is-to-ought is properly omnipresent, and I don’t like making such improbabilities the basis for anything beyond themselves.

At the same time, I am not willing to cede the realm of facts to science, and be content to live exclusively in the House of the Values of Hashem all my days.  Claims about morality and the good cannot be wholly separated from questions of human psychology, and such questions are more and more claimed as the province of science.  And so much of halakhah depends on claims about human nature!  If Torah can only talk about values, it will become a “Torah of the gaps”, forced back and back into narrower and narrower spaces by each advance in neuroscience and psychogenetics.

The underlying question is whether Torah scholars can participate openmindedly in an epistemically diverse conversation.  Can we admit that we might be wrong, or acknowledge that we have in the past been wrong, and that someone else got it more right? Or does our authority depend on belief in our infallibility?

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This is the Dvar Torah that Never Ends, Never Ends…

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Irony is a complicated thing.  It can be difficult to distinguish broad irony from obvious contradiction, or oxymoron.  As with sarcasm, our willingness to see it is often based on our presuppositions about a text, and those presuppositions often say more about ourselves than about that text.

For example: Do you think G-d appreciates sarcasm?  Then you probably think that Kayin said to Him in Genesis 4:13: “Is my sin too great for You to bear, i.e. to forgive? (After all, You control the whole universe, and what is man that Thou art mindful of him?)”  But if you conceive of G-d as above that kind of humor, you probably think Kayin said “My sin is too great to be borne“, and was utterly contrite.

Which brings us to King Solomon.  Proverbs can seem pedantic, but Song of Songs brims with the joy of linguistic play (e.g., swearing by the gazelles and the does, which just so happen to be (near-)homonyms for names of G-d.). Kohelet is famously dour, and contradictory.  Yet our understanding of the book may be significantly affected by whether we are willing to see its author as capable of empathetic self-mockery (making genuine and deep fun of yourself without losing your sense of self-worth).

My focus here is Kohelet 12:12.

וְיֹתֵ֥ר מֵהֵ֖מָּה בְּנִ֣י


עֲשׂ֨וֹת סְפָרִ֤ים הַרְבֵּה֙ אֵ֣ין קֵ֔ץ

וְלַ֥הַג הַרְבֵּ֖ה יְגִעַ֥ת בָּשָֽׂר has a fairly standard translation:

And more than they, my son,


making many books has no end,

and studying much is a weariness of the flesh.

The problem is that “more than they” has no antecedent: more than what?  There are no obvious objects of wariness in the preceding verses.  This drives the Jerusalem Bible to translate

And furthermore, my son,

even though “furthermore” seems to me an impossible translation of ויותר מהמה.

Koren’s  “The Israel Bible” even more creatively translates:

A further word:

Against them, my son, beware!

This seems to be an effort to have the “them” refer forward rather than back, but it’s not clear to me that there is a plausible postcedent either.

Some Rabbinic readers have the “them” refer to the 24 books of Tanakh, the Written Torah.  Everything else is Oral Torah, which it was forbidden to commit to writing, and so

More than those (books), my son, beware of making books

One problem with this is that at the time Kohelet was written, the Written Torah was not yet complete.  Another is that the verse seems to warn against “making books without end”, rather than against Book 25.

This second problem can be resolved by making infinity a reason not to publish.  The Written Torah can be bounded, but the Oral Torah has no bounds, so it cannot be contained in books.

I don’t find this convincing – why not write down as much as we can, as it develops (as we are in fact doing)? But here we have our first flash of humor, glinting from the crevices.  This interpretation is of course Oral Torah, and yet we find it in printed books!

We can seal this crack in our armor.  In the ideal world, Oral Torah would never be written. That we find this interpretation in a book reflects only a concession to our weaknesses, and the strain of a seemingly endless Exile (may Hashem be mechasev et haketz!).

But this seems to me to miss the point.  Let us concede that the interpretation should never have been written down.  The verse itself, by contrast, is unquestionably Written Torah.  Shouldn’t we be nonplussed by a written book that warns against the writing of books?

For this reason, Rav Shlomo Kluger joyously inverts the verse, and the concession.  One Rabbinic position suggests that the purpose of the world is to allow all possible souls to be incarnated; when the last soul has experienced (what we call) life, the world as we know it will end.  So too, perhaps the Exile will continue until and only until all potential interpretations of Torah have been given existence in our world.  It is only through the publication of infinite books that the endtime (ketz) can be brought.  So

More than those, my son,

Be careful to make (infinite) books so long as there has been no End!

By making the overall thrust of the verse positive, this interpretation goes some way toward providing an antecedent for “those”.  Verse 12:11 speaks of the “words of the sages”, so we can say that even more than heeding the words of our predecessors, we are commanded to write down our own creative thoughts.  (Netziv argues that the prohibition against writing down Oral Torah never applied to private notebooks anyway.)

Rava, however, goes further (Eruvin 21a).

דרש רבא

מאי דכתיב ויתר מהמה בני הזהר עשות ספרים הרבה וגו’

בני הזהר בדברי סופרים יותר מדברי תורה

שדברי תורה יש בהן עשה ולא תעשה

ודברי סופרים כל העובר על דברי סופרים חייב מיתה

שמא תאמר אם יש בהן ממש מפני מה לא נכתבו

אמר קרא עשות ספרים הרבה אין קץ ולהג הרבה יגעת בשר

Rava expounded

What is the meaning of Kohelet 12:12?

My son!  Be more wary of Rabbinic decrees (divrei Soferim) than of Torah law

as Torah law includes both positive and negative commandments

whereas anyone who transgresses Rabbinic law deserves death

Lest you say: If Rabbinic laws have substance, why weren’t they Written?

Scripture says: the making of books has no end…

There can be no greater demonstration of Rabbinic superiority than the transformation of sefarim=books into soferim=rabbis.  And to top it off, Rava’s answer as to why Rabbinic law was not written cheerfully reverts to sefarim!

Rashi thinks this goes too far.  While everything about Rava’s statement seems to me to indicate one should be more wary of the words of rabbis than those of Torah, Rashi translates Rava as saying:

and in addition to those (of Torah, which are primary), my son,

be wary of the word of the Rabbis (as well)

The danger of celebrating infinitely creative interpreters is that they may eventually overwhelm the text they interpret.

Maharshal, however, may offer a reading that validates the enterprise.  The sefarim produced by the soferim must never see themselves as the end of the process, as a definitive reading which subsequent scholars and generations cannot argue with and even reject on the basis of first principles.  Thus he rejects the Shulchan Arukh and all other works which present themselves as self-sufficient and self-justifying.

This reading incorporates many levels of irony.  The sefer in the (theoretically finite, but not yet complete) written Torah commands the soferim to produce (infinite) sefarim of Oral Torah, which because it is infinite cannot ever be contained in sefarim.  But that is fine, so long as those sefarim acknowledge that they are continuing a conversation rather than ending it.

I need to acknowledge that I’m far from certain that Maharshal actually suggests this reading; I may be projecting my love of irony onto him.  Readers are encouraged to look at any of Maharshal’s many introductions to volumes of Yam Shel Shlomoh and draw their own conclusions, and I would appreciate if you shared them with me.

In any case, it would be ironic to use this reading as the ending of this essay.  So I will conclude instead by acknowledging that Alshikh reads the verse simply as recommending brevity; one should not make books – or divrei Torah – that seem endless.

Shabbat shalom and moadim lesimchah!

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