Wednesday, June 26, 2013

DOMA's demise: good for the Jews

If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of thousands of sermons being prepared for this Shabbat all over the United States. After all, the homily practically writes itself: the eponymous hero of this week's Torah portion, Phinehas, is a pure zealot, a champion of sexual morality, a warrior for traditional marriage.
Our javelin-throwing skills have deteriorated in the past few millennia.
Our javelin-throwing skills have deteriorated in the past few millennia.
Except he's not. At least not the way the Western world talks about it.
Now, we could argue about the simple meaning of the text, which indicates that God's anger is all about the idolatry and blasphemy, that the Peor incident is about (Baal) Peor, not his groupies. But let's follow the hermeneutical route, which takes Phinehas's action as a template. The Mishna (Sanhedrin 9:6) dictates:
He who has intercourse with a Syrian woman, the zealots strike him.
Maimonides also endorses this law a thousand years later; interestingly, R. Joseph Karo omits this from Shulchan Arukh, but R. Moses Isserles mentions it there twice. Of course, it does require the couple to be in flagrante delicto before a full minyan (quorum), which I believe only happens at the most debauched Purim parties.
In any case, Phinehas is not fighting for traditional marriage; he is fighting against interfaith intercourse--which may not even be a Torah prohibition, but that's a topic for another day. Of course, the Defense of Marriage Act never had a problem with that; in fact, it consecrated all unions between one man and one woman. This is particularly striking in the response of Agudath Israel of America to the ruling:
Society’s mores may shift and crumble but eternal verities exist.  One is marriage, the union of a man and a woman.  Its sanctity may have been grievously insulted by the High Court today, but that sanctity remains untouched.
So, is Aguda now upset that unions between Jews and non-Jews will not be recognized by the state? Does that wound them? Who exactly invests that with sanctity, in their view?
The response of the Orthdox Union is less oblique:
[W]e reiterate the historical position of the Jewish faith, enunciated unequivocally in our Bible, Talmud and Codes, which forbids homosexual relationships and condemns the institutionalization of such relationships as marriages. Our religion is emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Our beliefs in this regard are unalterable.
Ah, but you might say: we still want non-Jews to be good Noahides, and according to our laws, a Noahide man should not be marrying a male. Of course, he would have every right to marry as many females as he wants (including his daughter). But if we truly apply Noahide law, as codified by Maimonides, most of the world would be on death row:
This applies to one who forcefully robs an individual or steals money, a kidnapper, an employer who withholds his worker's wages and the like, even a worker who eats from his employer's produce when he is not working. In all such cases, he is liable and is considered as a robber... Similarly, he is liable for stealing an object worth less than a penny. Thus, if one Noahide stole an object worth less than a penny and another stole it from him, they are both executed because of it.
It is dangerous indeed for us to theorize about what laws Jews should support for society as a whole. For millennia we had the luxury of not being asked; Saladin's vizier was not asking Maimonides for legal opinions, but medical ones. Now, after emancipation, we have the vote and our say in democratic societies. But how should we use it?
While serving as a rabbi in Canada in late 2004 (at Kitchener's Beth Jacob Congregation), I was approached to take a stand against same-sex marriage. I thought long and hard about it, and then I stood up that weekend to give a sermon. It was Shabbat Hanuka.
I spoke of the amazing regard the sages of the Talmud had for Alexander the Great, whose name appears 18 times there. Indeed, the Yiddish version, Sender, is used to this very day. But why would this pan-sexual conqueror be a hero of Jewish history?
Maybe it was the peyos?
The answer, I still maintain, is that Alexander let the Jews be. That is all we have ever looked for from foreign rulers. Alexander may have been a true disciple of Aristotle, but he was not a zealot. That honor, of course, belongs to Antiouchus, the bad guy from the Hanuka story.
A Syrian dictator? Who could imagine! (Is that why the Mishna picks Syrian women?)
If you truly believe marriage is holy, then you should stop looking for the state to define it. If you demand that the state define it for you, then your holiness will ultimately be defined by the state. In our collective historical experience, that does not end well for the Jews.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Korach Crux Redux

A few weeks ago, DovBear re-posted a piece entitled "The Korach Crux," a colorful deconstruction of the first part of the Torah portion of the same name. (Don't worry, we'll get to this week's portion presently.) I didn't have a chance to respond to that post before that Shabbat, but the next morning, I did notice that the rest of the portion may be similarly divided. [Please note that the verse numbers refer to Chapter 17 in the standard Tanakh; your mileage may vary.]

Collection of the Fire Pans (1-5) "and he will not be like Korah and his assembly"
Complaint on the Morrow (6-8)
Plague & Intercession (9-15) "aside from those who died due to the Korah matter"
[Despair at the Tabernacle (27-28)]
Sign of the Staffs (16-24)
Aaron's Staff before God (25-26)

Note that I have moved the final two verses of the chapter. That is because the sign of the staffs clearly relates to Korah's claims against Aaron, and it seems to be in response to something, namely the fear on the part of the people about the "Tabernacle of the LORD" (NOT the Tent of Meeting; see above 16:9) being a danger to the people. Why is it written at the end of the chapter if it belongs earlier? Well, these two verses send us into two good-sized chapters (18-19) about who shall approach and how they shall do so. These two chapters clearly must have been stated earlier, as they deal with those two inevitable human experiences, taxes and death, and could not have waited until the second year in the desert. Also note the textual clues: God speaks exclusively to Aaron in Chapter 18, which we only find immediately after the deaths of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10; and Chapter 19 again uses that special phrase "Tabernacle of the LORD."

And speaking of tabernacles, we do have one point at which our antagonists meet, in "the tabernacle of Korah, Datan and Abiram" (v. 27). Of course, this may be an innocent term, but I believe that it is significant, especially considering the use of it earlier in the chapter (for the first time in Numbers). I would like to propose that Datan and Abiram are in fact in the proper place: their rebellion is all about "you haven't brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey or given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards," which would make sense right after the decree of forty years of wandering. It is Korah who is out of place. And where does he belong? This week's portion may tell us, as in 27:3, Zelophehad's daughters declare: 

"Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons." 
Now, why would the DoZ mention Korah, that tiny incident that is totally forgotten in Deuteronomy? There are many possibilities, but the simplest is that they initially approach Moses soon after Korah's rebellion; amid a census, yes, but not that of the 40th year. This would also help resolve an issue which has always bothered me: if we put Zelophehad's death in the first two years and the entire narrative of his daughters in the 40th, wouldn't they already be in their 40's and 50's at least? Did they remain unmarried through all this time? Why are the Gileadites so worried about their fertility in Ch. 36? However, if they approach Moses amid the Sinai census (and merely return now in the 40th year, cf. Joshua 17), soon after the Korah incident, the chronology works much better.

In essence, I am arguing that the Korah incident occurs, chronologically, in the end of Exodus, while the Tabernacle is under construction. (Note that "the entrance to the Tent of Meeting" is called that even while construction is still ongoing, Ex. 38:8.) Essentially, Moses promises the world to the Levites in order to put down the Golden Calf insurrection (hey, that was today!), and it's not surprising that Korah, as well as some other Levites and prominent Israelites, would resent the fact that Aaron, who made the Calf, is the one to receive the privileges of priesthood. This somewhat sullies the themes of redemption and repentance in Exodus, and the death of Korah and his men is in any case overshadowed by the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, who do something very similar, but have good reason to think they might get away with it. However, the middle of Numbers is a great place to insert Korah, as Datan and Abiram invoke his martyrdom in "the tabernacle of Korah, Datan and Abiram"--yet another honest man struck down by Moses' arrogance, in their view. This even gets a mention in this week's portion, 26:9-11.

Does this approach work, or is the fasting getting to me?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Neutering R. Neuwirth

It is with some trepidation that I sit down to write this. The family only arose from shiva a few days ago, and tomorrow we will begin our national mourning period of the Three Weeks, a time when we are particularly sensitive to issues of fraternal enmity.
However, it is not hatred for any group that motivates me to speak, nor a desire to champion "my side." Though it's been 14 years since I retired my black fedora and I haven't been in a haredi (usually translated "ultra-Orthodox") educational institution since I was 13, I still care what happens in that community. And the problems plaguing it are personified by the treatment of Rav Yehoshua Y. Neuwirth, who passed away 13 days ago.
No relation to Bebe. As far as I know.
Born in Halberstadt in 1927, this native-born German was forced to flee his home by some crazed Austrian. He and his family fled to Holland, but unlike Anne Frank, he was not betrayed by a neighbor, and the family survived the war. In 1946, they arrived in Israel, and young R. Neuwirth quickly distinguished himself as a star pupil of Rav S.Z. Auerbach. In 1962, at the age of 35, he published the most important work of Halakha (Jewish law) since the Holocaust: Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchatah, SSK for short.

In its English edition, this book would be subtitled "A Guide to the Practical Observance of Shabbath." And that is exactly what it was: practical, pragmatic, tackling the issues of observing the Sabbath in a world filled with stunning advances in medicine, science and technology. R. Neuwirth was a shining example of what the haredi educational system in Israel could achieve: a true scholar tackling contemporary problems, dealing with the tough questions of applying a millennia-old concept to the modern world. He even went the traditional route of receiving approbations from recognized authorities before publishing.

But apparently that wasn't good enough. Rav Y.Y. Kanievsky, known as The Steipler, led a chorus of strong condemnation for R. Neuwirth's supposedly kula-centric approach. Ah, but what is a kula? Well, in the most simplistic view of Halakha, a kula is a leniency while a humra is a stringency in a given case. As you can tell, this is a purely subjective formulation.
Not The Steipler, although they dress similarly.
This was the haredi world's Galileo moment. After all, Rav Neuwirth was not a product of prewar Europe or of Muslim lands: he was fully home-grown. He was, in fact, a true believer, disciple of a gadol ha-dor, a Torah great, a leader of the generation.

But we all know what happened to Galileo. And so R. Neuwirth, essentially, recanted. He put out a new and improved edition which made sure footnotes were the domain of the kula, while the body of the text was the domain of the humra. Years later, he put out a second volume dealing with the liturgy and ritual of Shabbat, and only three years ago, he put out a final, updated edition of SSK. In the meantime, he continued to serve for decades as the halakhic adviser for one of Jerusalem's major hospitals.
SSK: Evolution. Note that the editions progress from left to right, even though Hebrew goes the other way.
Why does any of this make a difference? The thing is that haredi Jews will tell you that they all (by which I mean, of course, the men) must stay in yeshiva, tens and even hundreds of thousands, because that is what it takes to produce a gadol ha-dor. Well, 65 years later, when the numbers have grown from 400 to 40,000 conscription-age students, where is the gadol ha-dor?

The answer is simple: a gadol ha-dor is someone who can make hard decisions, not chase after every humra. There is a reason that, even though the Mishna (Avot 5:21) is very skeptical of taking advice from people in their ninth or tenth decade, the senior Sephardic authority is almost-93-year-old Rav Ovadia Yosef, a former chief rabbi, three of whose sons are now vying for the position, while he maligns one of the candidates as a villain, idol in the Temple and enemy of Judaism. The senior Ashkenazic authority is 101-year-old Rav A.L. Shteinman, who replaced 102-year-old Rav Y.S. Elyashiv last year. It's worth noting that current Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, now suspended while being investigated for bribery, was appointed based on his commitment to decide nothing on his own and always defer to R. Elyashiv.

It's high time that the haredi world dedicate its yeshivot to producing scholars of the finest caliber and allowing them to lead. Otherwise, R. Neuwirth will be both the first and last of his kind.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bloodguilt and amnesty

As an American-born Israeli who has lived and worked in Canada, I have seen the issue of immigration from a number of different perspectives, but the biblical perspective is one rarely mentioned. The terms ger (sojourner) and toshav (resident) appear over a hundred times in Scripture, but it's hard to get a handle on exactly what these terms mean in each case, and the translations range from alien to stranger to convert to foreigner.
I would like instead to focus on a different term, one which appears for the first time in this week's Torah portion (Num. 25:4): hokaa. (See my guest post on DovBear's blog, "Impale Sunlight," for an analysis of who was supposed to receive this punishment; the answer may surprise you!) This punishment is one mentioned nowhere else in the Torah, probably best rendered "impalement", although others render it "hanging" or "crucifixion". Moses and the judges do not have the heart to apply it here (v. 6), and it remains a drastically cruel and unusual theoretical penalty--until we get to the Prophets, specifically II Samuel. There (ch. 21), we read the following:
Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. The Lord said, "There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death." So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had tried to wipe them out in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah... They said to the king, "The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel— let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord."
Scripture is rather cryptic about Saul's (attempted) crime, but the story of the Gibeonites is recorded in the Book of Joshua, Chapter 9, during the Israelite conquest of the Holy Land. Not wanting to suffer the fate of the other nations of Canaan, the inhabitants of the Gibeon region dress in tattered clothing and stock their bags with moldy bread, "And Joshua made peace with them, guaranteeing their lives by a treaty; and the leaders of the congregation swore an oath to them." Three days later, the subterfuge is discovered, "but the Israelites did not attack them, because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel." Joshua is furious, so he makes them "hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation."
Joshua 9:22, from The Brick Testament. However, recent archaeological discoveries indicate that the Israelites did have noses.
We do not know why Saul wanted to clear out the Gibeonites, but we do know that his own family hailed from the area. In any case, the famine occurs years after Saul's death in battle. Nevertheless, the Gibeonites demand the right to impale seven of his descendants, and David hands them over.
The Talmud is troubled by this story, but it explains (Yevamot 79a) that this was necessary in order to sanctify God's name publicly: Saul's family was of the blood royal and the Gibeonites were illegal aliens, but harsh justice was on the side of the latter. Even a thousand years after Joshua, their descendants, the Nethinim, were still an integral part of the Jewish community (Ezra 2:43; Mishna, Kiddushin 4:1).
Now, Joshua is clearly tricked into granting the Gibeonites legal residency; nevertheless, the idea of turfing those who have come to be a part of the nation, who have joined their destiny to that of Israel, is unconscionable. When Saul tries to do exactly that, he incites divine wrath. These people end up doing the menial tasks that the Israelites shun, and they thus become indispensable. (In fact, some Midrashic sources suggest that Joshua is following Moses' example, as even in the desert we find a segment of the Israelite camp defined as "the hewers of your wood" and "the drawers of your water," Deut. 29:10.)
The questions of immigration are certainly hard ones. But we must be very careful not to be so zealous for our own national homes that we follow Saul's destructive path.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Impale sunlight

There is much to discuss in the fascinating denouement of this week's Torah portion, Numbers 25:1-9, but I am particularly intrigued by the middle verses (4-6):

The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the heads of the people and impale them before the sun to the LORD, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.” And behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought close to his brothers a Midianitess, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the Children of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting.
To whom does the phrase "and impale them" (ve-hoka otam) refer? Every commentator I have seen, from Rashi, Rashbam and ibn Ezra to Daat Miqra, understands it as referring to the unnamed sinners. Indeed, this is the conclusion of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 35a). Some translations insert this interpretation as well, from the New Living Translation's egregious "Seize all the ringleaders and execute them" (imparting some sort of pejorative meaning to the totally innocuous term roshei ha-am, heads of the people) to the Living Torah's unwieldy "'Take the people's leaders, and [have them] impale [the idolators] publicly," a sentence with enough brackets to hold up all the bookshelves in my den. According to this view, God tells them to convene courts, and Moses transmits this.

I find it amazing that the masters of peshat unanimously embrace this approach. It verges on the comical to imagine in the midst of a plague rounding up numerous judges, clerks, bailiffs, witnesses, etc. The Talmud itself, before it gets into the hermeneutics, has a working assumption that seems undeniable in the text, asking "If the people sinned, how did the people's heads sin?" Clearly, in this view, God is ordering Moses to publicly execute the leaders. (Indeed, the term "impaling" only shows up one other time in Scripture, in the punishment of Saul and his family for the crimes committed against the Gibeonites, II Samuel 21). This is indicated not only by the immediate antecedent in v. 4, but the fact that there has been no plural noun used as yet. "Israel" sins (in the singular), and the term "Children of Israel" only pops up in v. 6. It seems that Moses fails to execute God's command, the judges (who are identified as heads of the nation when appointed in Exodus and Deuteronomy) fail to execute Moses' command, and the plague is not halted until Phineas does exactly what God initially ordered: he runs a tribal leader through. (As we learn below, Kozbi's father has a similar title as well.)    
This reading only gains more power when we consider that the "officers of hundreds and officers of thousands," along with Phineas, play a prominent role in the war with Midian (Numbers 31). These are the senior judges, the "heads" or "chiefs" described in both Ex. 18 and Deut. 1. They, more than anyone, should feel a need to expiate their sin, or "to atone for our lives," as they put it. 


Monday, June 17, 2013

The geek shall inherit the earth

Is Spock's resurrection on the Genesis Planet an affront to God? Is Gandalf the kind of sorcerer condemned in the Book of Exodus? How can Star Wars happen "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away" if the universe is less than 6,000 years old? Since Data was created by humans, how can he have a soul?
Also, what kind of Supreme Being would allow this to happen?
Also, what kind of Supreme Being would allow this to happen?
These are the questions that occupy the mind of a young religious geek, leaving you with no choice but to compartmentalize. Then, of course, you grow up and realize that religion might be more complicated than whatever your third-grade teacher says. (Hey, Rabbi Adler!) Still, the best you can hope for is neutrality, right? Battlestar Galactica might not push you away from God, but certainly it can't bring you closer, right?
So while I never stopped being a fan of genre fiction, that seemed irrelevant to being a rabbi. At most, I might slip in a reference in a sermon (or, much more rarely, in writing), but that was the limit. Who could dare to mix the two?
Cue swelling theme music...
Cue swelling theme music...
And then I discovered Geek Fights. I have heard many podcasts over the past decade, and I have made a couple (hundred) myself, but I never spoke as a geek. But this podcast, which sadly is coming to an end in the next few months, welcomed people from all walks of life. Yes, hosts Damon Shaw and Mike Ortiz are in Detroit, but they Skype all over the world, regardless of sex, creed or nationality. What unites the panelists on any given episode is passion about the topic. (You can catch me this week on Episode 158, Best War Movie.)
That's what defines geeks: the endless analysis of the supernatural, obsession with canon, vigorous arguments about how to appreciate source materials, fiery indignation about the misinterpretation of beloved texts and tales, the voracious desire to ponder utopian and dystopian realms, the preoccupation with questions of morality, mortality and meaning. Hm, sounds like another group I proudly claim membership in...
yonassan gershom
Not sure where to put this guy (Rabbi Yonassan Gershom).
Why do I bring this up now? Well, over the past few days, I've watched the reaction to the latest article by Britain's outgoing Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "Atheism has failed: only religion can fight the barbarians," in which he blithely condemns atheists as inherently immoral and fundamentalists as inherently barbaric. Civilization (well, civilisation) can only survive if we embrace his brand of Judeo-Christianity, which brings sanity to the world. Writers as diverse as the University of Chicago's Dr. Jerry Coyne and Jewish uber-blogger DovBear have pointed out the fallacies with this argument (with somewhat harsher language than I might have chosen), but it did get me thinking: what ultimately "sells" religion in the marketplace of ideas? High medieval theologians were convinced that the proper philosophical argument could prove the existence of God; at the start of the Renaissance times, the Catholic Church believed that science would strengthen belief, although it soon saw scientists such as Galileo as an existential threat. Just as the philosophical and scientific approaches fell by the wayside in the past century or two, the moral and societal argument are now withering on the vine.
However, Larry Alex Taunton's piece for The Atlantic, "Listening to Young Atheists," suggests an answer. When one actually talks to intelligent, educated people instead of at them, it becomes clear that overenthusiasm does not scare people away from religion; rather, it is the attempt to prune religion of all of its distinctive characteristics which turns the youth off. If you want to appeal to the next generation, you have to be serious about your faith. Don't be an aggressive proselytizer, but a passionate adherent. Not dour, not domineering, not dogmatic; instead, be enthusiastic, ecstatic, exultant. Your passion must match your commitment. Embrace fandom rather than fanaticism. In short, geek out about God.
So, thank you, Geek Fighters. In your "intelligent discussion of inane topics," you actually have some very profound things to say about the human experience. The overriding principle is this: never vote against your heart. Rava put it this way (Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b): "It is because the Holy One, blessed be He, requires the heart."

Friday, June 14, 2013

American idolatry

I don't know if it's OCD, years of Talmud study or a vagary of the English-teacher gene, but textual variances stick out to me like a sore thumb. Alert readers may have noticed, for example, that my previous post was titled "Swimsuit edition," but the link reads: the-6-year-old-in-the-sundress as I abandoned my original (creepy?) title for something punchier.
As a reader, therefore, I quickly noticed that a Hirhurim post ostensibly entitled "The Fine Line Between Science and Avodah Zarah" had a different HTML name: the-line-between-science-and-avodah-zarah. The distinction is important: the latter would suggest a reassuring piece for Jewish conservatives about how modern research and technology is not to be feared or shunned, while the former strongly implies that avoda zara (idolatry) and science are essentially indistinguishable.
I thought Coleridge fans were supposed to be mellow.
I always thought Coleridge fans were supposed to be mellow.
Indeed, that's precisely what the author, Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein, whose work I've addressed before, argues. Idolatry, he maintains, is the substitution of anything for God, and science precludes God because it does not take the miraculous into account. To put it bluntly:
Jews are required to believe in the real possibility of miracles, in our time, and not just those natural-looking events we define as a miracle, like the victory in the Six Day War.
I'd like to delve into what this means, but R. Rothstein does not really explain what this means, beyond applying "Hashem [God] could change it, miraculously" to medical tragedies and environmental disasters. He spends most of the article proceeding from a melange of Miqra, Midrash and medieval commentary (particularly based on Gen. 12 and Num. 15) to the tortured conclusion that most Jews are, in fact, literal idolaters. The technique apes Landovian or Feinsteinian responsa, but the great rabbis strived to free people from marriages to the living dead, to vindicate popular customs and to legitimate those marred by the stain of bastardy--not to define believers as heathens.
Ironically, not a bastard by Jewish law. But some people just earn it.
Ironically, not a bastard by Jewish law. But some people just earn it.
So R. Rothstein does not define what belief in miracles actually requires, nor does he even use the phrase. He does, however, refer to "belief in Mashiach" (the Messiah) and "belief in Hashem and Mashiach," phrasing that would send shivers down the spine of anyone raised in a majority-Christian country. It's no coincidence that the same institution which believes its leader speaks ex cathedra with the unerring voice of God also requires miracles for beatification. In fact, the only time the Torah tells us to expect miracles is in order for a prophet to establish his bona fides (Deut. 13): "When a prophet or dreamer of dreams will arise among you, he will give you a sign or a wonder." Indeed, the Talmud (Horayot 13a) uses this verse to establish that "Wonder means nothing but prophecy."
This rule does not appear in Shulchan Arukh, the classic 16th-century Code of Jewish Law, because prophets have not been among us for well over two millennia. Nevertheless, we may find a particularly relevant ruling there, in Yoreh De'a 376:2, where the Rema rules that engaging in philosophical mumbo-jumbo in a mourner's house "is like blasphemy, as he implies that if he could change it, he would do so; rather, he should accept God's decree lovingly." Blasphemy, by the way, is a term the Torah reserves for willful idolatry (Num. 15:30). Now, by the "God could" criterion, there is no difference between one who is deathly ill and one who is dead; God could bring back the dead. We do not pray because we expect miracles; we pray because of what it does for us and our relationship with God. We plead with God to draw closer to the divine, not because we might somehow say the magic password to eternal life.
Speaking of miracles, this guy could spring to life. Should I cast a stone for Mercuralia just to be safe?
I wrote a few weeks ago about the Great Knesset and the era of its activity. According to the Talmud, this body oversaw the end of prophecy (Megilla 18a), the canonization of Scripture (Bava Batra 15a), the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism (Avot 1:1), the elimination of the desire for idolatry (Sanhedrin 64a), and the codification of prayer (Berakhot 33b). Some view the contemporaneous nature of these elements as some great coincidence. I find that hard to believe.
More importantly, let's look at the final element: daily prayer. Were belief in miracles so important, you'd expect it to find it in those texts recited thrice daily before God. What do we in fact find in the penultimate Amida blessing? Those same miracles that R. Rothstein dismisses: "natural-looking events we define as a miracle" (or, as the Sages put it, "Your miracles which our with us daily, and your marvels and beneficent acts which are at every time") along with, on special dates, historical military triumphs "like the victory in the Six Day War." I'm not feeling the miracle envy.
All things being equal, I prefer the heaven of the Great Knesset. It may not be as exclusive as the alternative, but it's good enough for me.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

From Zin to Zered

As this is my first guest post here, I would like to thank DovBear for the opportunity to offer an opposing perspective. Yesterday, he shared on Facebook a post of his from 2 cycles ago ( about the nature of Moshe's sin. Let's look at the central argument:  

What I mean by this is perhaps Moshe, as he stood at the rock, stick in hand, was unable to see the people for what they were.

Instead of recognizing that the people in front of him were the children and grandchildren of the nation that had sinned so many times during the first eventful year in the desert, Moshe treated them as if they were their own parents.
Cogent, concise and compelling--predicated, of course, on the assumption that Moshe is addressing the new generation (G2), that the generation which left Egypt (G1) is dead. This, of course, is what we were all taught, based on Rashi's famous comment on Num. 20:1, "Then the entire congregation of Israelites entered the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died and was buried there." Rashi comments: "'The entire congregation'--the complete congregation, for the ones destined to die in the desert had already died and these were assigned for life." The source for this is Midrash Tanhuma (Hukkat 37), and thus it turns out that all of those condemned must have died by the last day of year 39. (The Ramban notes that the phrasing "the entire congregation" is far from unusual and offers his own explanation; indeed, the phrase appears more than two dozen times in this book alone.) 

It is not clear if Rashi here is presenting an alternative to what he writes in his Talmudic commentary. On BT Taanit 30b, he quotes the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 3:7), which describes the annual grave-digging ceremony on the 9th of Av: in year 40, no one died, so the last time G1 men died would have been 9 Av, 39, eight months before G2 arrived at Kadesh.

The problem is that this seems to directly contradict an explicit passage in Deuteronomy (2:14-16):

Now the length of time it took for us to go from Kadesh Barnea to the crossing of Wadi Zered was thirty-eight years, time for all the military men of that generation to die, just as the Lord had vowed to them. Indeed, it was the very hand of the Lord that eliminated them from within the camp until they were all gone. So it was after all the military men had been eliminated from the community.
This passage unequivocally identifies Wadi Zered as the Jewish Rubicon, the line between G1 and G2. When do the Jews cross Wadi Zered? Not in year 39, but in year 40!

From there they moved on and camped in Wadi Zered. (Num. 21:12)

Note that Aharon dies on 1 Av (33:38), and the Jews spend a full month mourning him (20:29). They would be crossing Wadi Zered sometime in the summer of year 40, about six or fourteen months after the Midrashic dates.

Moreover, this tidbit fits in beautifully with the picture given to us in Hukkat. Just three stops before Wadi Zered, we have the final episode in which the people resent the Exodus (21:5): “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread or water, and we detest this worthless food!" It is almost identical to the complaint at Mei Meribah, which motivates Moshe to call them "rebels" (20:5): "Why have you brought us up from Egypt to bring us to this dreadful place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink!” These are classic G1 complaints.

So how are we supposed to react to this? Certainly, intra-Midrashic contradictions are nothing new; they are not really contradictions, but differing opinions. Similarly, we often find the Midrash altering our view of the text by adding elements that are not written in it. However, in this case, the Midrash is actively sidelining the simple meaning of the text. Are we to ignore it? Is Deuteronomy irrelevant when discussing Numbers? Is Masei irrelevant when discussing Hukkat? I've been puzzling over this for 15 years, but perhaps the DovBear community has a solution.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Swimsuit edition

Friday night, as I arrived at my local synagogue, I saw a notice "for the parents of young children" from our city's chief rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai Nagari (we have two here in Maaleh Adumim). I girded myself for rebuke over noisy children, but no, it was about the apparently inappropriate dress of some preschoolers, urging congregants to maintain "the sacred value of tzeniut (modesty) of dress" for children they bring to services.
This was only one day after the news broke about Rabbi Elyakim Levanon's natatorial dictates, just in time for summer. In case you're wondering, fathers can bring their female toddlers to the pool, but swimsuits are OK only up to 36 months. After that, they must be fully dressed, and though they might be allowed in the water up to age 12,
Men feel uncomfortable swimming alongside young girls above the age of four or five, even though they are dressed with tzeniut.
Conclusion: once your toddler reaches 36 months, you can buy another 12 months by putting her in "modest dress," but that's it.
"Get thee hence, idle wench!" (from the Happily Domestic blog)
"Get thee hence, idle wench!" (from the Happily Domestic blog)
But it all got started on Memorial Day weekend with an interview with Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen on the Orthodox Union website, in which he is troubled by the fact that Orthodox Jewish girls "feel very warm about the mitzvah of taking challah and very cold about the mitzvah of tzenius."
Let's tackle these in reverse order. R. Kelemen speaks of "the mitzvah of tzenius", or, as one might have spelled it, the mitzva of tzeniut. Actually, one should never use that phrase, because while there is indeed a "mitzvah of taking challah," one of the famed 613, there is no mitzva of tzeniut. Sure, some count checking if locusts are kosher (Maimonides, Pos. 151) or settling the Land of Israel (Nachmanides, Pos. 4), but no one counts a mitzva of tzeniut. In fact, the root does not even appear in the Torah. We do find the root in the Prophets (Mic. 6:8) and Proverbs (11:2), but there it clearly is a synonym for humility, and R. Kelemen is not addressing the notion of enthusiastic humility.
But what of R. Levanon's halakhic analysis? Perhaps we need to look at the Mishnaic sources? We find tzenuim five times in the Mishna and five in the Tosefta, and in each case it refers to those who go above and beyond the letter of the law. How, then, can one define halakhic parameters for a concept which is metahalakhic? In fact, R. Levanon himself says that fully dressed girls should be allowed to swim with men up to age 12, but because men feel uncomfortable with preschoolers too, that somehow changes the halakha. We should count ourselves lucky that these men are not attracted to 2-year-olds.
Cover your knees, putana!
Cover your knees, putana! And what's that monkey wearing, anyway?
That brings us back to our original pashkevil. R. Nagari does not call tzeniut a mitzva or halakha, but rather speaks of "the sacred value of tzeniut of dress." That phrasing undermines his point, because the term "tzeniut of dress" appears nowhere in pre-modern halakhic sources. Certainly, tzeniut is a sacred value, but it is not solely or mostly limited to dress. Most of the times it appears in the Talmud, it refers, to put it delicately, to covering one's hindquarters, especially in the bathroom (Berakhot 62b; Shabbat 113b; Eruvin 2b, 100b). On one occasion, we find it in the moral context (Megilla 13b):
In reward for the tzeniut displayed by Rachel, she was granted to number among her descendants Saul; and in reward for the tzeniut displayed by Saul, he was granted to number among his descendants Esther. What was the tzeniut displayed by Rachel... She said: "I have a sister older than I am, and [our father] will not let me marry before her." So [Jacob] gave her signs. When night came, she said to herself, "Now my sister will be put to shame." So she handed over the signs to [Leah]. So it is written, "And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah"--are we to infer from this that up to now she was not Leah? What it means is that on account of the signs which Rachel gave to Leah, he did not know until then. Therefore she was rewarded by having Saul among her descendants. What tzeniut did Saul display? As it is written, "But concerning the matter of the kingship, of which Samuel spoke, he told him nothing." He was therefore rewarded by having Esther among his descendants.
Tzeniut is modesty, but it is also compassion, humility and conscientiousness. The best translation would probably be "decency." It is not quantifiable or judicable; it is a matter of character, morality which cannot be codified. I leave it to the reader to judge who, in these case, is being indecent.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Blue Woman Group

Juxtaposition is one of the most powerful tools in the exegete's toolbox, so it's no surprise that Midrashic sources connect Korah's revolution (Numbers 16) in this week's Torah portion to the commandment with which the previous portion concludes (ibid. 15:38):  "Speak to the Israelites and tell them to make tassels (tzitzit) for themselves on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and put a blue (tekhelet) thread on the tassel of the corners." According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 10:1), Korah makes a tallit "entirely of blue" for himself and each of his 250 followers, then confronted Moses with the question: "Does a tallit entirely of blue require tzitzit?" Moses replies that it does, and Korah concludes: "The Torah is not from heaven, Moses is no prophet and Aaron is no high priest!"
Bearing this story in mind, we can understand the reaction of some to the desire of the Women of the Wall (WOW) to hold a women's prayer service on this Sunday, the New Moon of Tammuz. Organizations such as Women for the Wall (W4W) see the tallit worn by WOW as analogous to the tallit of tekhelet worn by Korah: a heretical stunt for the purpose of undermining the Torah. 
They could have called themselves WFW, but that might have gotten this panda angry--and it's already taken down Hulk Hogan.
They could have called themselves WFW, but that might have gotten this panda angry--and it's already taken down Hulk Hogan!
Perhaps instead of considering the tekhelet of lore, W4W and their allies should consider the tekhelet of law. For 1500 years, even as they read the passage of tzitzit twice daily, Jews did not have a way of fulfilling it as written, for the simple reason that tekhelet was not available. Tekhelet is not just a color; it is a dye produced from a certain sea creature, the hilazon, and nothing else (Tosefta, Menahot 9:16). Under Roman persecution, the dyers of Dor (AKA Tel Dor or Endor), near Haifa, eventually abandoned the production of tekhelet, probably some time in the 6th century. (Check out:
Blue and white, militaristic, with horns--and that dye came from Endor? It's a Zionist plot!
Blue and white, militaristic, with horns--and that dye came from Endor? It's a Zionist plot!
Nevertheless, Jews continued to wear both the small and large tallit, based on the Mishna's ruling (Menahot 4:1): "The blue does not preclude the white, and the white does not preclude the blue." Even though tzitzit are supposed to be composed of some white and some blue strings, the unavailability of one does not invalidate using the other. The tallit remained, but the only memento of tekhelet was the black stripe across its body.
The search for tekhelet continued, as an academic curiosity, until about 30 years ago, when Otto Elsner of Shenkar College and Ehud Spanier of the University of Haifa managed to put all of the clues together and identify the process for extracting tekhelet from the Murex (Hexaplex) trunculus. This tekhelet was first commercially available in the 1990's, and that's when I started using it. I thought that the mainstream Jewish world would follow, but it has not. Why? Some halakhic objections have been raised, but it mainly boils down to a rousing chorus of: "Tra-DI-tion! Tradition!" Our holy rabbis weren't bothered by the lack of tekhelet, so why should we be? Why do we need this strange innovation when the old ways have served so well?
And that's what the objection to WOW boils down to as well. As the estimable Dov Bear has pointed out (, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OH 4:49), a halakhic authority whom no one would accuse of being feminist or liberal, ruled 40 years ago that a woman may wear a tallit and make the blessing over it, just as she may do so for the blowing of the shofar, as long as she has the intent to draw closer to God by this. The true objection comes not from Halakha, but from "normative Orthodox practice," whatever that means--the kind people kept telling me I was contravening by wearing this newfangled tekhelet.
Ironically, they consider 1500 years to reintroduce a snail to be moving too fast.
Ironically, they consider waiting 1500 years to reintroduce a snail to be moving too fast.
So now the death threats are flying back and forth, and it's not clear what will happen on Sunday. I'm sure there are plenty of sermons being written right now about the evils of egalitarianism. But I still have one question for those who feel threatened by WOW: why are you so convinced that they're wearing the tekhelet of Korah, and not the tekhelet of Moses?

Monday, June 3, 2013

Homosexuality and Pedophilia: False Equivalence and True Hurt

The Salute to Israel Parade is one of the most important events on the New York Jewish calendar. I haven't attended in a while (as I've lived in Israel since the late 90's), but my son often wears to sleep one of my old T-shirts, from the '93 parade. For those of you who don't remember, that's the year the LGBT Congregation Beth Simchat Torah wanted to march, and Orthodox schools objected. You can read the details about how that went down here.
Gays like parades? Who knew!
Jerusalem Pride, 2006. Gays like parades? Who knew!
But that was in the Dark Ages, back when being pro-gay meant getting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" passed, not repealed. We're now in post-Marriage Equality Act New York. Surely, the most prominent picture from the parade will be that of Israel's new American-born Member of Knesset, Dov Lipman, proudly marching--
Oh, never mind. It's this instead, courtesy of @AmiEden, JTA:
Would the Jews who refuse to buy German cars also refuse to marry German shepherds?
But would the Jews who won't buy German cars also refuse to marry German shepherds?
Here we go again. The great canard of equating homosexuality and pedophilia. If you march with gays, you shteig (study Torah) with pedophiles. Q.E.D.
This, of course, is a very extreme expression of a quite common comment which inevitably attaches itself, lamprey-like, to any discussion of homosexuality in traditional or social media. "If two men can marry, why not a man and a boy?" "Would you let a gay babysit your son?" "Pedophiles believe that love conquers all too!"
So let's examine this idea. Perhaps it's a legal argument. However, this would require the law to equate consensual and non-consensual sex, which no Western legal system does. Non-consensual sex is a crime, and minors cannot consent. (Nor can a cat or a house, for those who follow that line of "reasoning".) As for marriage, that is a union of two individuals for many reasons, none of which is rape.
What about the religious argument? Well, that falls short as well: homosexual sex, if you define it as anal sex between males, is prohibited in the Torah (see my previous post, how-homosexuality-is-different/), but pedophilia is not. That's not to say that Judaism endorses the idea, but it's just not proscribed in the biblical text.
So this ends up being simply a rhetorical argument, and not a particularly compelling one. But that doesn't mean it can't damage people. Most obviously, of course, it hurts gays. Equating their sexual orientation to one of the most unspeakable crimes in modern society is horrific. Much of the hatred, fury and violence directed towards gays can fester only when we set it on the same level field as abducting and raping children.
Moreover, it hurts the case of religion. It is just as legitimate for a religious group to not recognize gay marriage as it is for it not to recognize intermarriage. Halakha has no framework for a Jewish man marrying a Jewish man, but it also has no framework for a Jewish man marrying a non-Jewish woman. That does not give a congregation the right to deny the legal privileges of that marriage, and many Jewish organizations have found their way to being OK with mixed families. When we try to portray that loving union as equivalent to an adult forcing himself upon a child, that makes us--and by association, our faith--look silly. You'd have to be morally blind to see the rainbow flag and think white panel van.
Yeah, I'd stay away from this one too.
Yeah, I'd stay away from this one too.
Finally, and most insidiously, this false equivalency hurts society by helping pedophiles. If the most important factors in an act of sexual congress is the gender of the participants, not their ages, then pedophiles can much more easily be classified as "troubled" individuals, rather than predators. If homosexuality is viewed as some sort of mental defect, a criminal act can be redefined as some queer compulsion, to be solved by relocation, counseling and "guidelines" of conduct, rather than investigation, adjudication and incarceration.
It's time for this false analogy to die. Homosexuality is no more connected to pedophilia than heterosexuality is, unless we make it so. Let's find room in that receptacle where we toss concepts like "separate but equal" and "she was asking for it" for this misbegotten equation. Let's consign it to the dustbin of history.