Category Archives: Weekly Devar Torah

Stop Thinking About This Dvar Torah!

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

A beraita on Berakhot 31a states:

אין עומדין להתפלל

לא מתוך דין, ולא מתוך דבר הלכה, אלא מתוך הלכה פסוקה.

One must not rise to pray 

neither out of din, nor out of dvar halakhah, but rather out of halakhah pesukah.

The problem is that din, dvar halakhah, and halakhah pesukah are virtual synonyms.  So we must be dealing with idioms.

There are three possible ways to go about understanding these idioms.

  1. a)one can try to find subtle semantic differences
  2. b)one can have a reliable tradition
  3. c)one can try to reconstruct the meanings from context

Let’s try them in order.

Teasing meaning out of subtle semantic differences works only if those differences are stable, so that we can confidently know which phrase means “the kind of Torah you should learn just before davening”, and which “the kind of Torah you should not learn just before davening”.  That is not possible here.

For example:

Chiddushei HaRa’ah to Berakhot has the text

אין עומדין להתפלל מתוך דין הלכה אלא מתוך דין הלכה פסוקה

One must not rise to pray out of din halakhah, but rather out of din halakhah pesukah.

and RIF to Berakhot has

 אין עומדין להתפלל מתוך דין והלכה אלא מתוך דבר הלכה פסוקה

One must not rise to pray out of din vahalakhah, but rather out of dvar halakhah pesukah

and Yerushalmi Berakhot has

אלא מתוך דבר של תורה

rather out of davar shel Torah.

Since the text exists in so many different versions, it seems unlikely that the subtle differences in any specific text can be helpful.

Do we have a solid and univocal tradition of interpretation?

Rashi to Berakhot translates halakhah pesukah as follows:

שאינה צריכה עיון,

שלא יהא מהרהר בה בתפלתו

that it does not require investigation,

so that he not be thinking about it while he prays

However, many geonim and Sefardic rishonim seem to translate the phrase as “decided”, or “no longer subject to dispute”.  Later rishonim tend to offer composite definitions, including both simplicity and unanimity.  Here for example is Rabbi Yehonatan of Lunil in his Commentary on RIF:

מתוך דין הלכה –

כלומר:

שרוצה להוציא דין אחד חדש מתוך עומק ההלכה ולהבין דבר מתוך דבר,

ולכך אין לבו בטוח שלא יהרהר בתפלתו

אלא מתוך הלכה פסוקה – 

שאין בה מחלוקת

“Out of din halakhah” –

Meaning: 

That he tries to extract a new law out of the depth of existing halakhah

and to understand one thing out of another

“Rather out of halakhah pesukah” –

which is not subject to dispute. 

The diversity of interpretations suggests that we are dealing with the results of attempts to use the third method rather than with a live tradition, or at least that we cannot know which stream of interpretation reports a live tradition.

We are left with context.

On Bava Kamma 102a, the Talmud suggests that we rule like a particular anonymous statement in the Mishnah, even though a different Mishnah presents the same issue as a dispute among Tannaim,

משום דקתני לה גבי הלכתא פסיקתא

because it was taught next to hilkhata pesikta.

Rashi here explains that our law was taught as part of the same literary unit as a unanimously accepted law, and therefore can be presumed to also have become the law.  Tosafot, however, point out that the Bava Metzia 77b presents the other law in the unit as a minority position!  Tosafot therefore translate hilkhata pesikta as “written in a form that suggests legal decisionmaking”.  If Tosafot is correct, perhaps hilkhata pesikta is an Aramaic idiom with no necessary relationship to the Hebrew halakhah pesukah.

The phrase Halakhah Pesukah appears in the Bavli only on Berakhot 31a.  Three examples are provided:

והיכי דמי הלכה פסוקה?

What cases fit into the category of halakhah pesukah?

 אמר אביי:

כי הא דרבי זירא, דאמר רבי זירא:

בנות ישראל החמירו על עצמן,

שאפילו רואות טיפת דם כחרדל – יושבות עליה שבעה נקיים.

Said Abayay:

Like that of R. Zeyra, for R. Zeyra said:

The Daughters of Israel accepted a stringency upon themselves

that even if they see a drop of blood the size of a mustardseed – they sit seven clean days.

רבא אמר:

כי הא דרב הושעיא, דאמר רב הושעיא:

מערים אדם על תבואתו ומכניסה במוץ שלה,

כדי שתהא בהמתו אוכלת ופטורה מן המעשר.

ואיבעית אימא:

כי הא דרב הונא, דאמר רב הונא אמר רבי זעירא:

המקיז דם בבהמת קדשים – אסור בהנאה, ומועלין בו.

Rava said:

Like that of R. Hoshaya, for R. Hoshaya said:

A person may use subterfuge with his grain and bring it into his house while still in its chaff

so that his animal can eat it while he is exempt from tithing it.

Alternatively:

Like that of R. Huna, for R. Huna said in the name of R. Z’eyra:

One who bloodlets an animal belonging to the Temple – 

it is forbidden to derive benefit from the blood, and one who uses it commits sacrilege.

The points of contact that exist among these halakhot seem purely random.  They are perfectly ordinary in their formulation, and certainly not unusually easy to understand intellectually.  This makes Rashi’s explanation very difficult – why should these halakahot be less distracting in a subsequent prayer than any other?

So it would be nice to discover that these halakhot represent an obvious consensus.  But on Niddah 66a, Rav Pappa challenges a statement of Rava on the basis of the statement by R. Zeyra cited above as an example of halakhah pesukah.  Rav responds:

אמינא לך איסורא, ואת אמרת מנהגא?!

היכא דאחמור – אחמור; היכא דלא אחמור – לא אחמור.

I speak to you of legal prohibition, and you speak of custom?!

Where there is stringency – there is stringency; where there is no stringency – there is no stringency

The simplest meaning of the last line is that R. Zeyra’s halakhah was only adopted in some places!  So how is it a halakhah pesukah?!

There are two possible answers.  The first is that Rava was limiting not the geographic scope of R. Zeyra, but rather the cases it applied to.  The second is that R. Zeyra’s rule became a halakhah pesukah only later.  Each of these is plausible, but not probable.

On the other hand, another Talmudic passage – peculiar in its own right – reinforces the idea that R. Zeyra’s halakhah is special.  On Megillah 28b, we read:

ריש לקיש הוה אזיל באורחא. מטא עורקמא דמיא,

אתא ההוא גברא ארכביה אכתפיה, וקא מעבר ליה.

אמר ליה: קרית?

אמר ליה: קרינא.

תנית?

תנינא ארבעה סידרי משנה.

אמר ליה: פסלת לך ארבעה טורי, וטענת בר לקיש אכתפך?! שדי בר לקישא במיא!?

אמר ליה:

ניחא לי דאשמעינן למר.

אי הכי, גמור מיני הא מלתא דאמר רבי זירא:

בנות ישראל הן החמירו על עצמן,

שאפילו רואות טיפת דם כחרדל יושבות עליו שבעה נקיים.

Resh Lakish was travelling on foot.  He came to a pool of water.  

A man came and put Resh Lakish on his shoulders, and began carrying him across. 

Resh Lakish said to him: “Have you read Scripture?”

The man replied: “I have read Scripture.”

“Have you studied Mishnah?”

“I have studied four orders of the Mishnah.”

Resh Lakish said to him: “You carved yourself four mountains, and you carry the son of Lakisha on your shoulders?! Throw the son of Lakisha in the water!?”

He replied: “I prefer to hear Torah from you.

Resh Lakish then said: If so, learn from me this statement of Rabbi Zeyra:

The Daughters of Israel accepted a stringency upon themselves

that even if they see a drop of blood the size of a mustardseed – they sit seven clean days.

However, the sugya gives us no clue as to why Resh Lakish made the statement of R. Zeyra his signature teaching.

If the intent of learning halakhah pesukah was to present something so uncomplicated and consensus that it would not distract one from subsequent prayer, I hope this dvar Torah has now made the term itself too interesting to easily permit this.  (All this aside from the substance of the examples – I’m currently ten thousand words into writing a responsum about one aspect of one example.)  Unless you’re about to daven, I hope the difficulties I’ve raised will linger in your mind.

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Charity vs. Security: A Jewish Analysis of a Moral Policy Question

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Does Judaism require relatively well-off people to give alms-collectors access to their homes and neighborhoods, even if this increases the risk of crime? In a recent Facebook exchange with me, Jewish social activist Aryeh Bernstein argued passionately that it does.  He cited as evidence a Talmudic passage on Bava Batra 7b, and the 13th century Spanish commentary of Rabbi Meir Abulafia (Yad Ramah) thereupon.

I grew up in a dangerous neighborhood.  Every apartment had multiple locks plus a security rod set into the floor; all first floor and fire escape windows were barred; even car windows and doors were kept locked and closed at all times when riding.  Anything less was an invitation to robbery and violence.  So Aryeh’s position struck me as implausible.

But I love and respect his eagerness to bring Jewish texts to bear directly on contemporary social issues.  I share his concern that zoning and safety laws are sometimes abused to protect the rich from having to realize that the poor exist. Moreover, one of the core values and virtues of halakhic Judaism is that we cannot dismiss arguments rooted in traditional texts simply because we find them implausible; we have to engage the texts ourselves.  So let’s read Aryeh’s arguments, and then the texts, and see if his claim stands up.

Here are Aryeh’s words:

“[This] implies a position that the obligations of people with means toward people lacking means do not apply if the other people with means in the neighborhood have reason to believe that that help endangers them. In that light, how do you read Bava Batra 7b, which takes for granted that Eliyahu haNavi cut off a relationship with an otherwise pious person b/c he installed a gate-house, which, as Rashi explains, cut off poor people? And not only does it accept this story at face value, but it imbues it with enough halakhic import as to put significant oqimtot on the mishna there which normalizes construction of gatehouses, insisting that it’s acceptable only if it is not actually locked and does not cut off poor people? How do you read the Yad Ramah there with regard to security concerns overriding concerns of the poor having access?  [Here Aryeh inserted an excerpted version of Yad Ramah.]”

I contend that his argument is wholly mistaken with regard to Bava Batra 7b, and that he has simply misread Yad Ramah.  Let’s learn them together.

Mishnah Bava Batra 7b rules that residents of a courtyard can be compelled by majority vote to pay for the construction of a gatehouse.  It records a minority opinion that this is true only for those courtyards that abut a heavily trafficked space.

Majority rule applies only to improvements, and it follows the Mishnah must consider a gatehouse to be an improvement.  The Talmudic editor challenges the Mishnah on the basis of a story.

There was once a pious man who was regularly visited by Elijah.  

When he built a gatehouse, Elijah ceased to visit him.

The challenge assumes that morally odious constructions cannot be considered improvements for the purposes of this law.  Therefore, since Elijah’s displeasure indicates moral censure, a gatehouse cannot be considered an improvement.  Why, then, does the Mishnah consider it one?

The Talmud responds by distinguishing among gatehouses.  The relevant distinctions are whether the gatehouse is built inside or outside the courtyard entrance; whether the gatehouse has a door at its entrance; whether the door has a lock; and whether the lock is on the inside or the outside.  Texts and commentators differ as to which factor or combination of factors make the gatehouse an improvement, and which make it odious.

Why would a gatehouse be odious?  Rashi explains that Elijah objected because “it is a barrier to the poor, who shout but their voices are not heard”.  So there is no question that the poor need to have vocal access to the courtyard.  What about physical access?

Why would a gatehouse be an improvement?  Rashi explains that it serves “so that the guard of the entrance can sit there in the shade and distance the public from looking into the courtyard”.  In other words, the assumption throughout is that the courtyard has a guard at its entrance who will prevent outsiders from gaining entrance.

Do those outsiders include the poor?  Rashi explains that a gatehouse built outside the courtyard entrance is fine, but one built inside “is a worsening, because the door of the courtyard is locked and the poor person shouts but the gatehouse within blocks his voice”.  An external gatehouse is not problematic, so long as it is openable from the outside, because the poor can still shout from the courtyard entrance.  This is true even though the courtyard entrance itself is locked.

In other words: No one considers allowing any outsiders physical access to the courtyard, let alone to the private dwellings that surround it.  There is properly a locked door to prevent that, and also a guard.  However, even if the guard sits in a gatehouse outside the courtyard so as to discourage voyeurs, he must still allow the poor to stand at the entrance and shout for alms.

A courtyard is a collection of private dwellings surrounding a shared public space.  The best modern analogy is a condo apartment building, or perhaps a gated community.  To satisfy Elijah, it seems that there must be an intercom system to which the poor have access.  No one suggests that the owners must give the poor physical access.

Rashi’s explanatory framework seems to be almost universally accepted.  The exception is Rabbi Abulafia, to whom we now turn.

Yad Ramah does not mention a guard.  He also contends, in contrast to Rashi, that an internal gatehouse is never problematic.  Presumably he is not worried that the internal wall will have a serious acoustic dampening effect.    An external gatehouse is problematic only if it has a door that cannot be easily opened from the outside.

Here Rabbi Abulafia wonders: How is an external gatehouse which can be easily opened from the outside an improvement?  If the poor can get in, can’t thieves and robbers get in along with them?!

His response is that we are discussing a case in which the courtyard itself has a door that locks from the inside.

But, he continues, if the gatehouse serves no security purpose, what use is it?!

He answers that even an openable door discourages animals and casual passers-by from entering – on other words it protects against vermin and violations of privacy.

So Rabbi Abulafia agrees with Rashi that a courtyard can physically exclude the poor; that Judaism insists only that they must be given vocal access to the rich; and even then only to their shared courtyards and not their private spaces.

I can see numerous ways to plausibly distinguish the Talmudic case from many of the cases that raised Aryeh’s ire.  For example:

  1. a neighborhood is not a courtyard, and nothing in the Talmud suggests that the poor can be barred from any public street
  2. the weather is much more severe in the contemporary Midwest than in the ancient Middle East, so that shelter is concomitantly more necessary, and people are less likely to spend time outdoors in their courtyards.
  3. The poor are generally less integrated into society than they were, and we need to compensate for that by giving them greater access.
  4. Surely it matters how much risk is entailed in giving the poor how much access.

These distinctions can serve to defend his social policy position against the Jewish sources he cited.  But to the extent those sources are relevant, they directly oppose his position.

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Teaching Hashkofoh

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

What should Modern Orthodox high schools teach their students to believe, and about belief?  These questions are brought into sharp relief by the data from Rabbi Dr. Zvi Grumet’s recent survey of graduates.  Among his key findings are large gaps between what graduates think they were taught to believe, and what they believe now; and a correlation between such gaps and declines in halakhic observance.

Rabbi Dr. Grumet deserves enormous credit for raising critical issues in a substantive and nonpolemical fashion.  Now we need to have real conversations about how to teach hashkofoh.

Let us take this week’s parshah as a starting point.  One of my beit din colleagues often asks conversion candidates: “What happened at Sinai?”  Educators should ask each other, and themselves: How would you answer this question?  How would you want your children or students to answer this question?  Should they all give the same answer, or even the same kind of answer?  Do you want them to give the same answer at 25, or 55, as they did when they were 15 years old?

Conversion candidates who were raised Catholic often talk about being turned off by a sense that key theological questions were out of bounds (they experience Orthodoxy in all its manifestations as much more open, in ways that can astonish those of us who have always lived within Orthodoxy), and they often cite their inability to believe critical dogmas as a key impetus for leaving Catholicism.  What can their experience teach us about our own pedagogy (bearing in mind that dealing with conversion in the US naturally gives one disproportionate exposure to the failure of other religious educational systems)?

One mode of theological education can be termed “catechistic”.  Students are taught to memorize verbal formulas, and to affirm belief in those formulas.  Understanding the formulas is a secondary goal, Sometimes, especially where the formulas are consciously designed to bridge mutually exclusive positions, or to contain paradoxes, deep understanding is davka not a goal for many teachers and institutions.

A very different mode can be termed “inductionist”.  In this mode, students are not taught beliefs qua beliefs, or that belief per se is a goal.  Rather, they are immersed in a way of life, and encouraged to discover what beliefs are necessary to make that way of life meaningful.

These modes can be reframed in a specifically Jewish context as “Maimonidean” or “Alboistic” approaches to the concept of ikkarei emunah, or root principles of faith.  Maimonideans see the willingness to affirm specific propositions as a necessary (and perhaps sufficient) condition for preserving a Jew’s automatic share in Olam Haba.  Alboists think it necessary to understand which propositions must be affirmed for the structure of Torah and mitzvot to stand in this world.

Alboists can concede that some non-ikkar propositions are nonetheless sine qua nons for a share in Olam Haba, and Maimonideans can concede that some ikkar propositions have no reverberations whatsoever.  The difference between them is not necessarily about which propositions one ought to believe.  It can be about whether the purpose of education is getting students to Olam Haba, or rather about enabling them to live with meaning in this world.  Maimonideans may also believe that the only meaning this world has is as a vestibule in which to earn Olam Haba, while Alboists may find it difficult to fathom how a meaningless life can deserve an infinite sequel.

While Maimonideans and Alboists can be in complete substantive agreement about what Jews should ideally believe, their differing priorities will generate substantive differences in terms of what sorts of mistakes they will tolerate educationally, and what sort of theological latitude they give students.

Let us go back to Sinai.  A Maimonidean might focus on having students affirm that every letter of the Torah today is exactly the same as the text that Mosheh wrote in a scroll at G-d’s dictation after descending from Sinai.  Furthermore, while Mosheh was on top of the mountain, G-d taught him every possible true interpretation of Chumash.   Mosheh then taught all these interpretations to the Jewish people, creating a live and comprehensive oral tradition that continues to this day.  There is nothing new in Torah, although things can be forgotten and then rediscovered.

An Alboist might focus on the goal of having students relate to the Torah as a text worth studying so intensely and rigorously that even changes in orthography deserve attention.  Students should find that the study of Torah through the lens of Rabbinic literature yields interpretations that consistently resonate with their souls in ways that no other interpretations can.  Students should find it necessary and rewarding to bring all aspects of their being to bear on the study of Torah, including their creativity.

I emphasize again that we are discussing strategies, not ends.  It may be that only students who believe in literal Divine dictation will relate to the text with ultimate intensity and rigor; that only students who believe that all of Rabbinic tradition was included in the original Revelation will find it a uniquely meaningful mode of study; and that only students who believe that all true interpretations were already given can use their creativity to uncover G-d’s intent rather than their own desires in the text.

I also need to make clear that these strategies are not opposed and incompatible. Students are unlikely to arrive at these kinds of meaningfulness purely by induction, without having their models and mentors expressly state their own beliefs. Different approaches are likely to work better with different students.  It may be possible and advisable to use different modes for conveying different beliefs.  Furthermore, propositions may move into and out of the Alboistic ikkar framework, depending on external pressures and internal plausibility structures.

And – students’ plausibility structures and sensitivity to external pressures change over time, as do their intellectual and spiritual capacities – hopefully for the better, at least for a very long time.  These inevitable changes have implications for both Alboistic and Maimonidean educational contexts.

In my humble opinion – a fundamental error made by many Modern Orthodox schools is that they educate their students ba’asher hem sham – as they are now, without sufficient thought for whether and how what they teach will age as their students grow.

For example – imagine a high school which teaches its students that the truth of Orthodox Judaism is logically demonstrable.  Every teacher affirms this, and experts are brought in occasionally to demonstrate or refute specific arguments, say in the fields of geology or cosmology or cryptography. If the school is at all competent at what it does, a strong majority of its students will graduate believing what it wants them to believe, with confidence and intensity.

Some of these graduates will go on to academically strong secular colleges. In those colleges they will meet very smart people who do not find the truths of Orthodox Judaism logically demonstrable; who are unimpressed by the arguments and evidence of the high school experts; and some of whom seem to be really good people.  A high percentage of these graduates will have crises of faith, and many of them will go OTD.  Is that their fault for choosing secular college, or the fault of their school or developing in them only a weak and cloistered virtue?

Secular college is a bugaboo.  What about high schools which teach students that the text of chumash is unquestionably and perfectly what Mosheh gave us – “kol haTorah shemetzuyah atah b’yadeinu hanetunah leMosheh Rabbeinu”, only to be devastated in yeshiva by the one-letter difference between Ashkenazic and Sefardic scrolls, or the Rav Akiva Eiger on Shabbat 5b that lists all the places where the Talmud seems to have a different text than we do?  There are academic and theological explanations for each of these that are compatible with the formulation in the ani ma’amins, but will students be able to accept them if they feel betrayed?

Issues of historical fact are rarely the key questions.  What about schools that teach their students that there is a clear answer to why bad things happen to good people, or that great Torah scholars always show excellent character and judgment?  These beliefs are likely to be falsified by experience later in life, and what will happen to their graduates then?

Most of our students will experience doubt and uncertainty at points in their lives. The ani ma’amins are generally aspirational rather than descriptive, or we would live in a very different world.  Many or most of them will also have long or short periods in which the practice of yahadut does not consistently provide them with meaning.  We need to educate in a way which will enable them to get through these periods without despair.  They need beliefs that can sustain their commitment when experience doesn’t, and experiences that can motivate them when belief wavers.

Bottom line: We do not necessarily want Orthodox adults to believe religiously exactly what they believed when they graduated high school.  (We should not want this in any other field either.) Recognizing this should have a significant impact on the way we teach hashkofoh.

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Who Gets a Vote in Orthodoxy?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Once upon a time the financial and religious elites discovered that they had shared interests.  Each of them also felt unjustly tied down by a democracy with broad suffrage, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. So they made a deal to support a constitutional amendment that would make eligibility to vote depend on having adequate property and education.

This is not a Marxist fable, but rather a sh’eilah asked to Rabbi Menachem Mendl Krochmai in the seventeenth century.  Here is the complete text of the question (Shut Tzemach Tzekek (kakadmon) #2):

I was asked

by a community whose practice forever has been to reach all communal decisions regarding the hiring/accepting of a rabbi, chazan or shamash 

on the basis of agreement of all taxpayers. 

Similarly, they chose heads and representatives of the community, and the gabbaim, and the beadles, on the basis of a lottery among all taxpayers.

Now some of the dignitaries of the city wish to establish a new practice,

that all communal matters will no longer be directed by all taxpayers great and small, as has been the case up until now,

but rather at the direction of those who are distinguished because they pay a great deal in taxes, or else that they are distinguished in Torah.

They wish to decide how much one must pay in taxes in order to be among those who count when determining whether the community has accepted a representative, or to stand as a candidate for the positions chosen by lot,

or at the least to require that a person be ordained as a chaver even if he is among those who pay the least in taxes,

so that people who are not bnei Torah and also pay little in taxes will be excluded from the lottery.

They offer this rationale for their words:

Since most communal needs involve decisions about spending money,

how can it be proper that the opinion of the poor should be equal to that of the rich?!  Also, how can it be proper that the opinion of an am haaretz should be equal to that of a chaver, if he has no advantage in wealth?!

They add a further peg for their words,

that all the great and important communities practice thus, and why should they be less than them?!

But the poor, the masses of the people, cry out

asking why their rights should be diminished when they pay their taxes and give their fair share,

and even though the rich give more,

still the little the poor give causes them more hardship than what the rich suffer by giving more.

The poor add

that the current practice is a continuous ancestral custom from days of yore,

and since custom can even uproot law, how can it be permitted to alter custom?!

Let our teacher instruct us as to whose position is legally correct.

נשאלתי

מקהל שמנהגם מעול’ לעשות כל הסכמת הקהל

בקבלות הרב והחזן והשמש

על פי הסכמת כל פורעי המס

וכן ברירת ראשי וטובי הקהל וגבאים ודיינים ושמשים על פי האנשים בוררים העולים מתוך הגורל מכל פורעי המס

ועתה רוצים מקצת נכבדי העיר לעשות מנהג חדש

שכל עניני צרכי צבור לא יהיה מהיום והלאה על ידי כל פורעי המס קטן וגדול שם הוא כאשר היה עד עתה

אלא על ידי אותן שיש להן מעלה שנותנים מס הרבה או שיש להם מעלה בתורה

ורוצים לקבוע שיעור כמה יהא ערכו בנתינות מס עד שיהא אחד מן המנוים אל הסכמת הקהל ולבא אל הגורל לברירת ההתמניות

או שיהא לכל הפחות מוסמך לחבר אף שיהיה מן הפחות שבמס

ולאפוקי אותן שאינן בני תורה וגם נותנים מס מעט לא יהיו מן המנויים

ונותנים טעם לדבריהם

מחמת שרוב צרכי הקהל הם עסקי הוצאות ממון ואיך יתכן שדעת העני תהא שקולה כדעת העשיר

גם איך יתכן שדעת של ע”ה תהא שקולה כדעת החבר אם אין לו מעלה בעושר

ועוד נותנים אמתלא לדבריהם

מחמת שכל קהלות הגדולות והחשובים נוהגים כן ולמה יהיו המה פחותים מהם.

והעניים המון עם צועקים

למה יהא נגרע זכותם אחרי שהם מפורעי המס ונותנים חלקם

אף על פי שהעשירים נותנים יותר

מכל מקום קשה עליהם המעט שנותנים יותר מן הרב שנותנים העשירים

ועוד

שמנהג אבותיהם בידיהם מימי עולם ושנים קדמוניות

ומנהג עוקר אפילו הלכה והיאך יהיו רשאים לשנות המנהג?

יורנו מורנו הדין עם מי:

Rabbi Krochmal’s answer begins with an idealistic defense of the poor’s equality.  His tag line is the concluding Mishnah of Masekhet Menachot:

Scripture writes regarding the olah animal offering “a burnt sweet savor”;

and regarding the olah bird offering “a burnt sweet savor”

and regarding the flour offering “a burnt sweet savor” –

to teach you that the one who brings more and the one who brings less are equal

so long as the person directs his intent toward Heaven.

נאמר בעולת הבהמה “אשה ריח ניחוח”,

ובעולת העוף “אשה ריח ניחוח”,

ובמנחה “אשה ריח ניחוח” –

ללמד שאחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט,

ובלבד שיכוין אדם את דעתו לשמים:

Rabbi Krochmal’s argument lays bare the awkwardness – really the indefensibility – of the anti-democratic coalition.  What sense does it make to equate financial and religious superiority?  This is obviously a power play with no underlying moral consistency!  Political voice should be proportional to religious sincerity, and since the relative size of one’s tax bill is no measure of sincerity, there is no basis for giving the rich more political voice than the poor.

But Rabbi Krochmal is not just an idealist – he is also an honest halakhist, and a realist.  As an honest halakhist, he acknowledges that there is halakhic precedent for giving those who pay more a larger voice in how the money is spent.  As a realist, he acknowledges that the rich must be given some advantage in a democratic system, or else they will overturn it completely. So he devises a compromise that should be very familiar to Americans – a bicameral popular assembly, in which no legislation or appointments pass unless they command majority support among both the rich and the poor.

So much for the economic elites.  But Rabbi Krochmal’s rejection of their argument seems to strengthen the hands of their strange religious bedfellows – if political power should be proportional to religious sincerity, shouldn’t chaverim gave more say than amei haaretz?

Here is Rabbi Krochmal’s response:

As for their desire to push aside those who are not bnei Torah – this is also not proper

The proof of this is from Chagigah 24a:

“Which tanna takes the risk of animosity into account? Rabbi Yose, found in the following beraita …

Said Rav Pappa:  

Which tanna justifies our practice today of accepting testimony from amei haaretz? Rabbi Yose”

and Rabbi Yose’s rationale (in that beraita) is “so that people don’t each go build private altars”.

So it is clear that we even accept testimony from amei haaretz out of fear of animosity

lest when they see that we are distancing them, they build altars for themselves

All the more so in our case,

if we go so far in distancing the amei haaretz as to not include them in communal deliberations

certainly they will feel antagonistic toward us, and they will build altars for themselves

and they will separate from the community,

and as a result divisions will multiply among the Jews, G-d forbid.

Therefore it is not proper to do this.

ומה שרוצים לדחות אותם מפני שהם אינן בני תורה – הא נמי לאו שפיר דמי,

וראיה מהא דאיתא בחגיגה פרק ג’ דף כ”ב

מאן תנא דחייש לאיבה? ר’ יוסי הוא, דתניא וכו’.

אמר רב פפא: כמאן מקבלינן האידנא סהדותא מעם הארץ? כמאן? כר’ יוסי

וטעמא דרבי יוסי כדי שלא יהא כל אחד ואחד הולך ובונה במה לעצמו.

הרי מבואר שאפילו עדות מקבלין מעם הארץ מפני חשש איבה כשיראו שמרחיקין אותם יבנו במה לעצמם

ומכל שכן בנ”ד, אם ירחיקו את עם הארץ כל כך שלא לצרף אותם כלל אל הסכמת הקהל –

ודאי שיהיה להם איבה ויבנו במה לעצמם ויהיו פורשים מן הצבור, ומתוך כך ירבו מחלוקות בישראל ח”ו.

לכן ודאי לאו שפיר דמי למיעבד כך.

One can distinguish between Rabbi Krochmal’s case and the situation of American Orthodoxy today.  One can outright reject his ruling.  But there is a strong case that he is halakhically correct, and that his law applies directly to our facts.  So the burden of proof rests on those who disregard him.

I suggest that Orthodox discourse – within our denominational community, on its margins, and with the Jewish community as a whole – would be dramatically improved if it started from two core principles of his responsum.

The first principle is that people react to being excluded by leaving and “building altars for themselves”, and that halakhic authorities have a responsibility to prevent this.  A corollary is that when people are building altars for themselves all around us, we need to figure out what we’re doing wrong, and change it, rather than blaming them.

The second principle is that it is legitimate and proper to bend halakhah in order to keep marginally observant people from leaving – not by justifying their nonhalakhic practices, but by treating them as full community members for other purposes, perhaps especially with regard to credibility.

I invite comments and discussions that test whether and how accepting these principles can generate positive change in our rhetoric and policies.

Shabbat Shalom

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Commandedness and Obligation: A Philosophic Excursion/Pilpul

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Thank you to the wonderful 2018 MWBM Fellows!  This week’s devar Torah is rooted in our study of the meaning of commandedness.

The Torah’s real beginning is in this week’s parshah.  This is the position Rashi apparently endorses in his opening comment to Torah.  “This month shall be for you the head of months” – Exodus 12:2 contains the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, and that’s where Torah should begin.  All the preceding narratives of genesis and exile are just background.

Rashi’s radical position must be based in a deep commitment to a vision of the Torah’s essential nature and purpose.

One possibility is that he understands Torah as a book of law.  On this understanding, his question really is why there are any narratives in the Torah, whether before or after the first Jewish mitzvah.

A second possibility is that he understands Torah as a book about the Jewish nation, and the Jewish people are constituted as a nation by being given a collective commandment.  Subsequent narratives are thus essential parts of Torah; Rashi only questions why prenational narratives or laws, such as the story of Creation or the obligation to circumcise males, are included.

“The month shall be” is the ideal first mitzvah because it is not given to all individual members of the Jewish people as individuals; rather, it is a mitzvah that is incumbent on the nation as a whole, and according to the Rav, it was implemented by the Sanhedrin in their role as the symbolic representative of the nation.  Moreover, the establishment of a new calendar is historically a common method of declaring cultural independence.

Ramban famously takes with great seriousness a midrashic statement that all mitzvot are essentially applicable only in the Land of Israel; G-d obligates us to keep them while in Exile only so that they will not seem unfamiliar when we are redeemed.  Possibly this means that all mitzvot are at core given to the nation as a whole, rather than to individuals, and therefore have meaning only when and where the Jewish people have full national existence.  Law and nationhood are intertwined; Israel is constituted by the commandments, and the commandments are made possible by the existence of the nation.

However, Ramban also adopts the position that the Avot kept the mitzvot before the Torah was given – but only when they were in the Land of Israel.  This suggests that mitzvot have value independent of nationhood, and also that the significance of the Land of Israel resides in something other than its being our national home.

Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Shiurim Kiddushin 1:71) explains Ramban as follows:

Every mitzvah has two components:

a) the reason for which sake we were commanded to do this.

This reason made it proper to fulfill the mitzvah even before it was commanded, as was done by the Avot

b) once we have been commanded, we must fulfill the command of Hashem.

However, this is true only in the Land, but outside the Land there is merely a command to act in accordance with the personal obligation, because the reasons for mitzvot apply only in the Land, and therefore the Avot did not fulfill the Torah outside the Land.

Rav Wasserman contends that mitzvot have rationales, or intrinsic meaning, for all individuals.  He further contends that these rationales apply only in the Land of Israel, but does not seek to explain why this is so.  Here we must note that for Ramban the Land of Israel is not necessarily a physical location rather than a state of consciousness.  For our purposes, the key outcome is that the fact that mitzvot are commanded creates an obligation to fulfill them even where the rationale for the commandment does not apply.  Why should this be so?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein held that the essence of Judaism is the construction of a commander-commanded (metzaveh-metzuve/ah) relationship between G-d and human beings.  Thus mitzvot fulfill a purpose even when they have no purpose.  However, Rav Lichtenstein strongly resisted Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s contention that mitzvot have no purpose other than establishing such a relationship.  Rav Wasserman would hold like Professor Liebowitz outside the Land, and like Rav Lichtenstein inside.

Rav Lichtenstein’s position further explains why mitzvot have to be commanded even inside the Land – it is the fact of commandedness that establishes the desired relationship.  Following the mitzvot because they are the right thing to do, or because G-d wants you to do them, or because they are the right thing to do and G-d wants you to do the right thing, would not generate a commander-commanded relationship.

But (why) is such a relationship the ideal?

In contrast to Rav Lichtenstein, some thinkers from both the Mitnagdic and Chassidic worlds appear to present commandedness as a bediavad, as a necessary evil or first-step that we should aspire to transcend.  In their view, the Avot did not lack anything religiously because they were not commanded.  All human beings ideally would intuitively understand G-d’s Will and act in accordance with it; they would have no need to be commanded.

This position seems to contradict Rabbi Chanina’s maxim that “greater is one who is commanded and does (metzuve/ah veoshe/ah) than one who is not-commanded and does”.

Rabbi Chanina’s maxim plays a very complex role in contemporary Orthodoxy.  On the one hand, the fundamental theological divide between Orthodoxy and liberal streams of Judaism is about whether heteronomous authority can ever be justified; where Orthodoxy differs is in the profound significance it gives to tzvui, commandedness.  On the other hand, the existence of mitzvot regarding which men but not women are commanded causes great consternation for those committed to the ontological and axiological equality of the genders, and even for those who simply believe that women have a justice-right of equal access to Heavenly rewards.

Rabbi Barukh Teomim-Frankel (18th century: Chiddushei Barukh Taam to Rosh HaShannah 28a) suggested that autonomous and heteronomous action each have unique virtues, and a Jew should aspire to achieve both.  His model is Mosheh Rabbeinu, who sought to enter the Land so that he could become obligated in those mitzvot which halakhically obligatorily, or commanded, only in Israel.   Rabbi Teomim-Frankel contends that Mosheh sought thereby to have it both ways – he would be voluntarily becoming commanded, and indeed, G-d responds by promising that he will in any case receive rewards parallel to those of the uncommanded Avot and of the commanded post-Sinai Jews.

This contention should yield a very different attitude toward the aspirations of some women to become obligated in mitzvot aseh shehazman garman than is currently regnant in much of Orthodoxy.   We could debate whether those aspirations are achievable – Moshe Rabbeinu was not allowed into Eretz Yisroel – but concede that regardless they are noble.

A different approach within Rav Lichtenstein’s framework is to say that the commanded/commanded relationship should be seen holistically rather than as constituted granularly and separately by each individual commandment.  The number and extent of commandments is irrelevant, so long as it is more than zero.

One problem with this approach is that it seems to suggest that a human being’s relationship to G-d is not enhanced when they convert to Judaism.  Why should going from “7” to “613” matter?  The likely answer is that the term “mitzvah” has more than one definition, and the Torah is commanded in a different way than the Noachide commandments.  The 20th century work Shiurei Rav Shmuel to Makkot 9a even suggests that nonJews can change their relationship to the Noachide commandments by formally accepting them as obligatory.

A potentially intriguing notion is that there are many different kinds of non-commanded relationships to mitzvot.  For example, Rabbi Mosheh Feinstein in Igrot Mosheh OC 2:25 suggests that while nonJews are not commanded to pray, they are nonetheless obligated to pray.  This is because prayer is an expression of belief in G-d, and belief in G-d is a necessary condition for commandedness.  Therefore, the fact of being commanded about anything depends on a prior obligation to act in accordance with one’s belief in G-d.

Rabbi Feinstein opens up the possibility that Jewish mitzvot as well can fulfill religious obligations even when performed by those who are not commanded.

Perhaps the practical difference between “commanded” and “obligatory” is that “commanded” actions can be significant even when performed without specific religious intent, or kavvanat hamitzvah, whereas obligatory actions must be performed in the consciousness that they express a core idea.

We can bring this dvar Torah full circle by suggesting that “commandedness” is needed for nation-building.  Since it is aimed at interhuman relationships, it requires objective action – everyone doing the same thing – rather than religious intent.  “Obligation”, by contrast, is wholly individual and aimed at human-Divine relationship, and therefore can be fulfilled only by actions undertaken with religious consciousness.

Much more can be said, and greater halakhic and philosophic rigor would be needed to say anything with confidence.  But I hope this brief essay makes a plausible case that there are more ways to conceive of the relationship between Heaven and Earth than you previously thought, or dreamed of.

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Rubashkin and the Fall of the Jedi

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Fantasy trilogies have a predictable structure.  The first book introduces the characters, their abilities, and the conflict; the third resolves the conflict on the basis of the characters’ growth or failure to grow in understanding the extent and limits of their abilities.  The middle book is mostly action scenes.  As with so many other forms of human literature, the origin of the fantasy trilogy is in Torah.  Parshat Vaera is that middle book.

In mediocre trilogies, the middle book could easily be replaced by an index card summary of the old silent-movie type (or scrolling text).  In great trilogies, the middle book makes you realize things you had completely missed in the first book, and is essential for understanding how the resolution can occur only when the hero comes to embody the initial conflict.  I suggest that great trilogies are implicit midrash, and this structure can help us recover an often-missed aspect of Sefer Shemot.

I’ll lead with this: The core conflict in Shemot is not between Mitzrayim and Yisroel, or between our G-d and theirs.  We understand from the beginning that only our G-d is real, and Benei Yisroel take almost no active part in the destruction of Mitzrayim.  (Even in the sequel, “Hashem will fight the battle for you; your task is silence”.)  No – the unresolved issue is whether Benei Yisroel can deserve redemption, or whether G-d’s love for them is unjustified nepotism.

This framing is captured by a brilliant and deeply unsettling comment of Meshekh Chokhmah.

Shemot 6:13 (for the gematriists among you, the verse that sums it all up) reads:

וידבר יקוק אל משה ואל אהרן

ויצום אל בני ישראל ואל פרעה מלך מצרים

להוציא את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים:

Hashem spoke to Mosheh and Aharon

He commanded them toward Benei Yisroel and toward Pharaoh King of Mitzrayim

so as to remove Benei Yisroel from the Land of Mitzrayim

Meshekh Chokhmah comments:

ייתכן כי גם אז במצרים

היו גדולי האומה אשר היו שרים נכבדים ואפרתים

והם היו משעבדים את בני ישראל לעבדים,

שמכרו המצרים להם . . .

לכן ציוה השם יתברך

שבני ישראל גם פרעה יוציאו את בני ישראל מהשעבוד.

It seems likely that even then in Egypt

there were greats of the nation who were honored aristocratic authorities

and they would enslave their fellows of Benei Yisroel

whom the Mitrziyim sold to them . . .

therefore Hashem may He be Blessed commanded

that Benei Yisroel and Pharaoh 

remove Benei Yisroel from the enslavement.

Mosheh and Aharon have a dual mission.  They need to destroy the Mitzri power structure that has legitimated systematic oppression.  At the same time, they need to reform the internal Jewish structures that legitimate oppression directly through collaboration and indirectly by undercutting the moral basis of the Jewish civil rights movement.

The verse implies that their mission to Benei Yisroel was primary.  I suggest that Mosheh and Aharon were not needed for the destruction of Mitzrayim, and the subsequent Exodus.  G-d could have handled those Himself, and would have done so in order to fulfill His covenant with Avraham.  But He needed Mosheh and Aharon because He hoped that the Exodus would be preceded by a moral awakening.

Meshekh Chokhmah notes that our verse is followed by a peculiarly partial genealogy that cover the tribes of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi through Mosheh and Aharon.  He suggests accordingly that these were the tribes that were most guilty of enslaving their fellows.  In other words:  Mosheh, as a prince turned civil disobedient, represents the possibility of Egyptian teshuvah.  Aharon, as the nasi of Levi, represents the possibility of Jewish teshuvah.

In this light we can see that the key moment of Parashat Shemot – the first book – is when Mosheh’s initial idealism is spoiled by the two Jews’ fighting, and their subsequent collaboration with Pharaoh to make him an outlaw.  The core conflict is whether he is right in deciding, as he does in the moment, that there is nothing to choose between the Jews and the Egyptians, and so he is best off on the sidelines in Midyan.

Readers who expect a full resolution are sadly disappointed.  The very first laws G-d gives the newly constituted Jewish nation – the preamble to whose Torah/Constitution emphasizes that G-d took them out of slavery! are about the regulation of intra-Jewish slavery.  Centuries later, Yirmiyahu haNavi (Chapter 34) tells us that these bediavad regulations were the basis of G-d’s covenant with us, and yet we could not even keep them – and so the Beit HaMikdash is destroyed, and we are sent back into exile.

So the initial trilogy is not the end of history; we’re in the middle of at least Episode 8 by now.  Chazal note that each previous Redemption has been characterized by a similar form of Divine ambivalence: does it happen because we finally deserve it, or because we’ve failed so badly that we need to be extracted lest there be no basis left for trying again?

If the pattern holds, each opening to redemption comes together with an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and to finally internalize the message that G-d loves the Jews, but he hates oppressive labor practices, and He – k’b’yakhol – wants these two emotions to be in harmony.

So far, I think, I’ve engaged in pure Torah interpretation; the ideas I’ve put forth can be judged on their fidelity to the text of Torah and/or to the ideas of Meshekh Chokhmah.   I hope that you’ll decide they are compelling interpretation, and develop your own applications, whether or not you agree with my own following application.

Mr. Sholom Rubashkin was recently released from prison.  There are compelling arguments that his sentencing was both procedurally and substantively unjust.  His family both loves him and needs him, and no one’s interests were served by keeping him imprisoned.  Every report that I have seen verifies that he did many good and important philanthropic deeds within his home community.  It is plausible that a core goal of his business was to make kosher meat more affordable, and we should be aware that his home community includes a high percentage of families that would be challenged economically even if being Orthodox carried no financial cost.

But it is also clear that Mr. Rubashkin’s business rested on a structure that allowed for and likely depended on the exploitation of workers, especially workers who were in a land not their own.  He prevented unionization; he gave workers no safe avenue to complain about bosses who extorted them or sent them into unsafe working conditions; and this despite knowingly hiring employees who were desperately vulnerable because of their immigration status.

I must make absolutely clear that I am not advocating here for either looser immigration enforcement (so illegal workers will be less vulnerable) or tighter immigration laws (so that there will be fewer undocumented workers to exploit).  My political analysis is that we have here (and in Israel) a “Baptists and bootleggers” situation, in which liberals and conservatives combine to create a moral situation much worse than either’s policies could independently create (the equivalent of making whiskey easily available but only from criminals).  But my political analysis has no claim to be Torah.

What I am claiming on the basis of Torah is that we should be very, very wary of celebrating a Jewish redemption that is not accompanied by a profound sensitivity to labor ethics.  One of the sequels to Vaera is Yirmiyahu 34.

Shabbat shalom!

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From the 2018 Women’s Winter Break Beit Midrash: Issues of Kavod

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Thank you to the amazing group of young women I had the privilege to learn with in WWBM this week!

Here’s a taste of the Torah we learned, as part of our morning seder on issues of kavod.  (Afternoon seder covered responsa on the “Heter Meah Rabbonim”, and night seder covered various aggadot.)

Mosheh Rabbeinu “hides his face” the first time G-d appears to him, because his yir’ah prevented him from gazing at the Divine.  Is this yir’ah praiseworthy, or blameworthy?

The Talmud and midrashim record opinions both ways.  This dispute can be framed in terms of the definition of the word yir’ah.  Yir’ah can mean either “fear” or “reverence”.  Perhaps we see Mosheh’s action as blameworthy if it was motivated by fear, but praiseworthy if it was motivated by reverence.

One might contend that in this framing there is no theological dispute; the issue is only factual, what was Mosheh Rabbeinu’s motive.  But it is also possible that the underlying question is whether reverence would explain Mosheh’s action.  One side assumes that reverence is properly expressed by hiding one’s face; the other assumes that this would be highly irreverent, so Mosheh’s action can only be explained on the basis of fear.

In many hierarchical societies, it is considered impertinent for people of lower social status to volitionally look their “betters” in the eyes.  “Hiding one’s face” is a gesture of subordination.  But in the same societies, ordering the “inferior” to “look you in the face” can be a gesture of total domination, and refusing such an order is a gesture of independence that defies rank.

This suggests that the right to privacy is a fundamental component of social standing.  “Betters” have the right to presume that “inferiors” will not violate their facial privacy; and they have the right to violate the facial privacy of “inferiors” at will.

In this light, we can understand Mosheh Rabbeinu’s “hiding his face” in two very different ways.  Was he trying not to look at G-d, or trying to keep G-d from seeing him?  The first would be praiseworthy, the second blameworthy.

We can also suggest in a Kotzker vein that the only way to see G-d is in your own tzelem Elokim, so that resistance to Divine Revelation is always at core resistance to truly seeing yourself, or to seeing yourself truly.

It is also the case that absolute privacy is a negative.  Living with absolute privacy means living without genuine relationship.  If no one wants to look you in the face, ordering them to do so cannot solve this problem.

Mishlei 25:2 seems to exacerbate this tension by describing both privacy and exposure as aspects of kavod, or dignity/honor:

כבד א-להים הסתר דבר

וכבד מלכים חקר דבר

The kavod of Elokim is the concealment of things

but the kavod of kings is the investigation of things.

The question is why kavod functions differently for G-d and Man.  Alternatively, we might contend that the difference is one of emphasis or degree, and that both privacy and sharing are essential elements of all kavod.

A dialectical framing of this position may emerge from Tehillim 45:14:

כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה

ממשבצות זהב לבושה

All the glory of a princess is within

Her raiment is greater than/from among those of embroidered gold

Embroidered gold garments inevitable bring to mind the High Priest’s resplendent uniform, and the Hebrew word penimah similarly alludes to the High Priest’s entry “lifnei velifnim”, into the Holy of Holies, on the Day of Atonement.  

The problem is that the High Priest does not wear his golden clothes at that point; rather, he changes into plain white.  Thus the princess represents the High Priest at a higher level than when he is wearing gold.

It is vital to recognize that in this reading the princess is not praised for remaining within, or for isolating herself from other people.  Rather, she is praised for achieving the inner sanctum.  In other words – the kavod of the princess stems from her capacity to share intimacy with G-d, not from her ability to avoid relationships with human beings.

Rav Soloveitchik argues that kavod is a function of self-determination.  This generates his radically original position that technological progress is a religious good not because it reflects better understanding of G-d’s deeds, but rather because it increases the overall dignity of the human race.  Integrating his idea into the schema above we can say that on the deepest level kavod is about the capacity to be self-determining in relationships, in terms of both avoidance and entrance.  Avoidance, however, can often be achieved by raw power.  Entry requires the genuine consent of the other party.

Thus far a philosophic and Biblical analysis.  Can this idea be integrated into halakhic treatments of kavod?

Halakhah ascribes kavod to a wide variety of things, ranging from individual people to informal groups to formally constituted congregations to mitzvot to Torah itself.  The kavod of one can conflict with the kavod of another.  Conflicts between human and Divine kavod seem likely to be philosophically productive.   

A sugya on Yerushalmi Berakhot Chapter 3 can be understood as an extended meditation on this issue. For what purposes can a kohen violate the prohibition against contracting corpse-tum’ah?  Let us take as given that they can do so for the sake of burying relatives, and for burying a corpse that would otherwise lie unburied (meit mitzvah).  What other grounds might suffice?

Two aspects of the sugya become rapidly clear.  The first is that none of the extensions are justified on the basis of Biblical prooftexts.  The second is that many of the possible extension are explicitly framed as “for the sake of kavod”, and it is possible that all of them can be understood in terms of kavod.  In other words, there seems to be an underlying intuition that kavod is a ground for overriding this specific halakhah.  What is less clear is whether kavod serves here simply as an example of a halakhic prohibition, or rather that this particular halakhah is especially susceptible to being overridden for the sake of kavod.

We might be able to lomdishly frame the issue as follows.  Rabbi Soloveitchik noted that a kohen must become tamei at the burial of a close relative, whether this is physically necessary for the burial or not.  By contrast, he may only become tamei for a meit mitzvah if necessary for the burial.  He argues in consequence that the actions have different significance.  For a meit mitzvah, becoming tamei is an accidental feature of the obligation to bury.  For a relative, becoming tamei, in other words surrendering one’s capacity to perform priestly functions in the Temple, is a necessary component of mourning.

This formulation may shed light on two issues raised in the Yerushalmi.

The first is that, on the assumption that kohanim may become tamei at the funerals of their teachers, can they eat meat and drink wine before the burial?  In other words, can they become tamei only if all the obligations of close relatives, in other words only if they regard themselves genuinely as their teacher’s sons?

The second is whether, on the assumption that kohanim may become tamei at the funeral of a nasi, whether they can also become tamei at the funeral of a nasi’s sister.  One might think that the idea makes sense only if we extend the “member of the family” conceit even further.  However, the Yerushlami explains it on the basis that “the rabbis made her the equivalent of a meit mitzvah”.

The underlying conceptual framework here may be that there are two types of kavod, one which stems from specific relationships, and the other which stems from the need to give kavod to humanity per se.  Moreover, it may be that the kavod of humanity per se is ultimately about the need to maintain one’s own dignity – no man is an island, and the loss of kavod for one – especially when that loss occurs ina  generic fashion, such as death – is a loss of kavod for all.  Similarly, the kavod of a public figure is actually the kavod of their consituents.  The kavod of a teacher, by contrast, can be understood either as honoring one’s own Torah heritage, or else as a genuine recognition of the value of another.

Today – the last day of the program – we’ll see whether these frameworks are helpful in the context of the mitzvah of kibbud av vaeim.  Stay tuned, and Shabbat shalom!

 

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