Monday, July 22, 2013


Tu beAv, the Fifteenth of Av, which begins shortly here in Israel, has a somewhat nebulous identity. The Mishna (Taanit 4:8) states:
Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel said: Never were there any more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on them the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments--borrowed ones, however, in order not to cause shame to those who had none of their own. These clothes were also to be previously immersed, and thus the maidens went out and danced in the vineyards, saying: Young men, look and observe well whom you are about to choose...
To archaeologists, it is a semi-Dionysian midsummer festival, celebrating fertility and fermentation. To romantics, it is the Jewish Valentine's Day. To traditionalists, it marks the repeal of various harsh decrees, as recorded in the Talmud ad loc. (30b-31a)--at most, a partial consolation for the ancillary tragedies of 9 Av.
However, the final answer in the Talmud (the only one voiced by two sages) may give us a clue. This relates it to the cutting of wood for the Altar. Earlier in the chapter, the Mishna lists a number of days set aside for different distinguished groups to bring wood, the simplest of donations, to the Temple. However, the 15th of Av is special because this is when "the priests, Levites and anyone who was mistaken about his tribe, and the family of the pestle-smugglers and the family of the fig-pressers" would bring. The priests and Levites mentioned here do not seem to be the high-ranking and wealthy Sadducees, as they would not associate with the unwashed masses. Tu beAv is the day for even the lowliest minimum-wage earner to bring something to the Temple. In fact, Megillat Taanit, which predates the Mishna by a century, lists this day specifically as a happy one. Its scholium (commentary) refers to this as the day designated for "the family of priests and Levites, converts, serfs, bastards and freed slaves" and notes that originally the day set aside was 9 Av, but with the great numbers of exiles returning, the Sages pushed it off a week, until the 15th. In Greek, it is called Xylophory, the Day of Wood-bearing.
However, it is at the time of the Great Revolt, in the year 66, when this day becomes truly remarkable. Josephus Flavius records (Wars of the Jews, Book II, Chapter 17):
5. Upon this the men of power, with the high priests, as also all the part of the multitude that were desirous of peace, took courage, and seized upon the upper city [Mount Sion;] for the seditious part had the lower city and the temple in their power; so they made use of stones and slings perpetually against one another, and threw darts continually on both sides; and sometimes it happened that they made incursions by troops, and fought it out hand to hand, while the seditious were superior in boldness, but the king's soldiers in skill. These last strove chiefly to gain the temple, and to drive those out of it who profaned it; as did the seditious, with Eleazar, besides what they had already, labor to gain the upper city. Thus were there perpetual slaughters on both sides for seven days' time; but neither side would yield up the parts they had seized on.
6. Now the next day was the festival of Xylophory; upon which the custom was for every one to bring wood for the altar (that there might never be a want of fuel for that fire which was unquenchable and always burning). Upon that day... they grew bolder, and carried their undertaking further; insomuch that the king's soldiers were overpowered by their multitude and boldness; and so they gave way, and were driven out of the upper city by force. The others then set fire to the house of Ananias the high priest, and to the palaces of Agrippa and Bernice; after which they carried the fire to the place where the archives were reposited, and made haste to burn the contracts belonging to their creditors, and thereby to dissolve their obligations for paying their debts; and this was done in order to gain the multitude of those who had been debtors, and that they might persuade the poorer sort to join in their insurrection with safety against the more wealthy; so the keepers of the records fled away, and the rest set fire to them. And when they had thus burnt down the nerves of the city, they fell upon their enemies; at which time some of the men of power, and of the high priests, went into the vaults under ground, and concealed themselves, while others fled with the king's soldiers to the upper palace, and shut the gates immediately; among whom were Ananias the high priest, and the ambassadors that had been sent to Agrippa. And now the seditious were contented with the victory they had gotten, and the buildings they had burnt down, and proceeded no further.
This helps us understand why Tu beAv is such a mystery in the Mishna. It represents the height of Jewish victory against Rome; under Caesar's rule, it can hardly be celebrated as such. The mourning of Tisha beAv conveys the foolhardiness of rebellion, but rejoicing on Tu beAv? That had to be concealed. Nevertheless, the core of it, the erasure of social barriers and the celebration of Jewish survival, remains to this day.
Isn't it time we start realizing what Tu beAv is really about?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Parents, prepare to be judged

As one of the foremost moral philosophers of our day, Adam Carolla, is wont to say, "We, as a society, could stand a little more judging." Indeed, in 21st-cenutry Western society, we have reached a bizarre point with our judging. We no longer judge people based on ethnicity, creed, gender or sexual orientation, but we do judge people who appear to do so. We no longer judge our politicians for their peccadilloes, but we do judge their attire, athleticism, humor and humility. And we no longer judge parents for their ability to keep their children safe, but we do judge them for their ability to keep their children smiling. Just try raising your voice (or, God forbid, your hand) against your child in public, regardless of how dangerous the child's actions may have just been, and see if you escape judgment.

This paradox makes it hard to digest the reactions to twin tragedies from earlier this week, infants who died after being left for 6 hours in parked cars by their parents. A similar incident happened earlier this month. To put this in perspective, since 2008, there have been more than 200 cases of young children found left in vehicles in Israel, including 188 injuries and 12 fatalities. In the United States, 12 is the annual average death toll. For comparison, America has 40 times the population, so per capita, this tragedy is about eight times (787%) as frequent in Israel.

Nevertheless, the responses, at least the ones I have seen, seem to share one guiding principle: don't judge. Numerous people have sent me the link to Gene Weingartern's Pulitzer Prize-winning piece on this phenomenen, Fatal Distraction (2009). A few days ago on this site, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, posted "What kind of mom forgets her baby? This Mom," which has been recommended 10,000 times. Later, Susie Mayerfeld added her voice to the chorus with "What is Wrong With Us?" Apparently, it's the judging, which she mentions 14 times in an 800-word post.

I, for one, respectfully disagree. I am haunted by the thought of the agony in which those children died and others like them languished; of the suffering shared by their families; of the guilt felt by those parents who, in attempting to take care of their children, made this fatal error.

But a fatal error it is. It is not force majeure, an act of God, a bolt of lightning from a cloudless sky. That would be an image I still cannot shake, of something I never saw, but which was shared in one of my wife's support groups, the story of a new father holding his infant (conceived after years of infertility) who suffered a sudden heart attack and collapsed on his child. He survived; the baby did not. Forgotten Baby Syndrome should not be lumped in with that case, or with SIDS, or with pediatric cancer. It is also not abuse or neglect, criminal offenses for which we prosecute perpetrators, even though they may have suffered trauma or be suffering from addiction. No, FBS lies in between these two spheres, and it is ludicrous to subsume it under either.

Now, where did I get such a crazy idea? As you might expect from a rabbi, I got it from the Torah. Consider the Mishna (Bava Metzia 7:8):
There are four watchers: a volunteer, a borrower, a hiree, and a renter. A volunteer swears for everything. A borrower pays for everything. A hiree or a renter swears concerning an animal that was injured, captured, or that perished; but pays for loss or theft.
As the Talmud explains (ad loc. 93 ff), there is a basic responsibility of all guardians to avoid peshia, negligence; ones, an overwhelming force, is the highest level of liability. However, most of us live in the intermediate realm, in between peshia and ones, dealing with unexpected but not unimaginable challenges.

This also carries over into the realm of the Temple; one is required to bring a sin-offering if, and only if, one may be categorized as a shogeg, an inadvertent sinner. The entire tractate of Keritot is dedicated to defining this category; gross negligence puts one in the category of willfulness, while force majeure puts one in the category of ones.

Finally, we may turn to this week's Torah portion, in which Moses separates three cities of refuge (Deut. 4:42):
There may flee a killer who killed his fellow unknowingly, without having hated him previously; he may flee to one of these cities and live.
As noted in Num. 35 and Josh. 20, the cities of refuge are designed for the shogeg. Indeed, the second chapter of tractate Makkot is dedicated to defining this status, splitting the difference between murder and tragic acts of God.

The point is that, from a Jewish perspective, we do judge. There is a gray area between legal liability and total innocence.

But surely there's nothing to gain by judging now? Isn't it sheer vindictiveness to discuss it in these terms?

No, there is something to be gained: the lives of innocents. Judging, as a society, has helped us change attitudes towards smoking around children, drunk driving, child abuse and sexual abuse. Perhaps we can do the same here, making it socially unacceptable to leave one's baby (or pet, but that's a discussion for another day) in a parked car for any length of time. Either you're in the car with your child, or your door (or gas cap) is open. We can change, but not if we're afraid to judge.

I welcome your comments on this matter, but I would appreciate it if you leave my 2 sons (aged 6 years and 6 months respectively) out of it.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Joshua--a spy like us?

The biblical phrase "Be strong and have courage" (hazak ve-ematz) may have adorned many a cubicle in Ancient Israel, but it is associated in Scripture with one man specifically, one of the few heroes of Tisha beAv: Joshua, son of Nun.

This expression shows up ten times, in various conjugations, in the Torah and Early Prophets, and in nine of those cases, it is directed to, from or about Joshua, chief of staff, aide-de-camp and star pupil of Moses. The first time is in this week's Torah portion, as Moses quotes God's words to him (Deut. 3:28):
But charge Joshua, and strengthen him, and encourage him: for he shall go over before this people, and he shall cause them to inherit the land which you shall see.
So with all this strength and courage, we would expect Joshua to shine in his first test, on Tisha beAv. Actually, it's the eighth of Av when he and his fellow spies return from their surveyal of the land of Canaan. Remember, when the twelve of them set out, "Moses gave Hoshea son of Nun the name Joshua" (Numbers 13:16). We expect Joshua to rise to the occasion when most of the spies, led by Shammua and Shaphat, give a discouraging report. But Joshua's name is not mentioned at all in the second half of the chapter. Instead, we find (vv. 30-31):
Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses, saying, “Let us go up and occupy it, for we are well able to conquer it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against these people, because they are stronger than we are!”
It is not Joshua who speaks up, but Caleb. In fact, the clear implication is that he is a lone voice against eleven spies... including Joshua. Joshua is older and more seasoned, and he has already led people in battle. He has already faced Amalek, and beating them was not easy. He would have reason to be worried. Moreover, he has already expressed concern about Moses' reluctance to confront challenges (Numbers 11:28).

Indeed, this would explain the initial decree (14:23-25) in response to the people's grumbling (Plan B, actually, as Plan A is to wipe out everyone except for Moses):
They will by no means see the land that I swore to their fathers, nor will any of them who despised me see it. Only my servant Caleb, because he had a different spirit and has followed me fully – I will bring him into the land where he had gone, and his descendants will possess it. Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites are living in the valley; tomorrow, turn and journey into the desert by the way of the Red Sea.
The initial decree is to turn back towards Egypt, precisely the way they came. This decree is addressed only to Moses, it excludes only Caleb, and it has no designated time.
However, this disaster is dynamic. On 8 Av, the people recoil; on 9 Av, the people revolt (14:4-10):
So they said to one another, “Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt.” Then Moses and Aaron fell down upon their faces before the whole assembled Israelite community. And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, two of those who had investigated the land, tore their garments. They said to the whole Israelite community, “The land we passed through to investigate is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, then he will bring us into this land and give it to us – a land that is flowing with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord...
This time, it is not only Moses who is targeted, but Aaron as well, thus making the offense far worse than that of the Golden Calf. The people now want to return to Egypt, but under new management. This stuns Moses and Aaron and shocks Joshua. He now, in fact, takes the lead, and both he and Caleb tear their clothing and beg the people not to rebel. The response is a threat to stone them.
This leads to the final decree, as delivered to both Moses and Aaron (14:30-33): will by no means enter into the land where I swore to settle you. The only exceptions are Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. But I will bring in your little ones, whom you said would become victims of war, and they will enjoy the land that you have despised. But as for you, your dead bodies will fall in this desert, and your children will wander in the desert forty years and suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your dead bodies lie finished in the desert...
In fact, Moses' recounting of the events in the first chapter of Deuteronomy gives the same impression: Caleb is spared because of his actions, while Joshua is spared because he must replace Moses (vv. 36-38; there as well, the forty-year decree is not mentioned until later).

This drastically changes our picture of the first Tisha beAv. We are used to seeing all of the players in stark black and white: the noble Moses, Joshua, Caleb and Aaron versus the vile quorum of Shammua, Shaphat & Associates. However, a close reading of the text shows us a different picture: Joshua, the man who will finally fulfill the promise of the Promised Land, is a conflicted individual. He recognizes the challenges of Canaan, but he also realizes that the greater danger is losing faith. At the end of the day, we too need to hear "Hazak ve-ematz!"

Monday, July 15, 2013

Early Tisha beAv

Tisha beAv is unique among post-Mosaic fasts in that it lasts a full twenty-four (and-a-half) hours, from sunset until nightfall. But one aspect of it starts earlier: not studying Torah. Let's consider the prohibitions of  9 Av, as recorded in the Talmud (Taanit 30a):
One must not eat, drink, anoint himself, wear shoes, or have sexual intercourse. The Torah, Prophets and Writings must not be read. The Mishna, Talmud and Midrash must not be studied, neither law nor lore...  one may read Job, Lamentations and the bad prophecies of Jeremiah, but the schoolchildren must be idle on that day, for it says, "God's directives are upright; they make the heart rejoice" (Ps. 19).
However, this refers to 9 Av itself. What about the 8th? Let's turn to the Rema, R. Moses Isserles, the Ashkenazi half of the Shulchan Arukh, specifically OC 553:2:
It is permitted to wash, anoint and to wear shoes until twilight... However, the custom has been not to study on the day preceding 9 Av from midday onwards, unless it is something permitted on 9 Av. Therefore if it falls on the Sabbath, one does not recite Ethics of the Fathers. Similarly, one should not loiter on the day preceding 9 Av.
So, even though one may eat until sunset, one must put down the Talmud at halakhic noon (which is usually closer to 1PM, what with DST and all). Indeed, I remember well in camp how the books would slam shut at midday: no more hermeneutics of torts, ports and warts--it was time for sports! Surely, what better preparation for a full-day summertime fast could there be than running around chasing balls?
Indeed, this custom is so powerful that it trumps the Sabbath itself: though many have the custom to learn a chapter from the Mishnaic tractate Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 9 Av's imminence trumps the eminence of Shabbat.

This is particularly astounding when we consider what the previous page of Talmud (Taanit 29a) tells us about the encounter between 9 Av and Shabbat. Of course, the fast is pushed off if they fall on the same day, but what of the Sabbath afternoon which immediately precedes the Fast of 9 Av (Observed)? The Rema tells us not to study Avot, but what of the traditional third meal?
If 9 Av falls on a Sabbath, or even if the eighth falls on a Sabbath, one may eat and drink whatever he chooses, and may place on his table even such viands as were eaten by Solomon while he was yet king.
So, you may eat your Beluga caviar, foie gras and venison, with a tankard of ale to your left and and a Burgundy glass of Pinot Noir to your right, but if you dare to talk about the weekly Torah portion, you are a sinner!
The problem, of course, is that people do not read that last line of the Rema's ruling: "Similarly, one should not loiter on the day preceding 9 Av." The term in Hebrew is tiyul, which has come in modern Hebrew to refer to hikes and school outings. However, that is not its original meaning, as we find it listed in OC 639:1 as one of the activities to be performed in one's sukka. Certainly, an ad hoc dwelling in a booth/ hut/ tabernacle is no place for wide-ranging travels. Rather, the term refers to relaxing, hanging out, enjoying leisure time. You know, the sort of things that people do instead of studying Torah.
Why are people so eager to apply the first half of the Rema's ruling? Perhaps there is a psychological element, the gotcha syndrome. There is something deliciously ironic about the Torah crying, in Carrollesque fashion, "Don't read me!" on Tisha beAv. It reminds me of the monomaniacal obsession that grips some people when Passover begins on a Saturday night. We stop eating leaven by the late morning, and touching matza before the Seder is akin to deflowering one's bride before leaving for the wedding hall, so with neither challa nor matza, how can we eat the third meal on Shabbat afternoon? Never mind that people are fine making do with a piece of cake, fruit, water or air on many a wintry Sabbath afternoon--now that Halakha says that we simultaneously must and mustn't eat bread, the game is afoot.
So maybe we just don't accept this ruling of the Rema. It wouldn't be the first time. However, I like to turn to the words of the Chafetz Chayim (BH 553), who writes:
I am inclined to allow, even on a weekday, to study until near twilight, and were I not apprehensive of my colleagues, I would say that even on the day of 9 Av itself, we should be lenient; for in our great sins, the generations have become corrupted, and on the day of 9 Av they loiter in the streets and engage in idle chatter, and even those who are literate and some of the scholarly are lenient about this.
If this sage had lived another century and witnessed Instagram, Twitter and Facebook loitering, I think he would have overcome his apprehension.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The naked truth

I'll start by stating the obvious: I am a man. Thus, I claim membership neither in Women of the Wall (WOW) nor in Women for the Wall (W4W). However, as a human being and an Orthodox rabbi, I do have a dog in this fight over women praying together at the Kotel, the Western Wall. In particular, I'd like to take a moment to address the slipsters.

The neologism "slipster" has many definitions on Urban Dictionary, but I use it to refer specifically to those who utilize the slippery-slope argument: in a debate over A, they will drag in the inevitable result of B, which everyone presumably would reject.

Over the past 48 hours, since Women of the Wall held their Rosh Hodesh services for the new moon of Av on Monday--not at the Kotel, but in the Kotel plaza, as their way was obstructed by 7000 seminary girls--I have heard many slippery-slope arguments via social and traditional media. One young scholar offered this: "...if someone walked in holding a pig which is the worst thing, the most traif thing, it is the exact same thing of a lady walking in wearing tefillin." (You can read a dissection of his rant here.) Today, on Facebook, one commenter challenged Phyllis Chesler's excellent article on this site with: "and when should the boundaries be set? When gays want to pray at the wall on the women's section?"

But sometimes, you don't want idolatry or homophobia confusing your palate--you want the heady taste of full-on misogyny. So let's turn to the Big One among slipster arguments, the one most oft-heard, in Hebrew and English. Even as I was composing this post, I learned of a new entry, and the title says it all: "Soon they'll ask to pray naked," by Dov Halbertal, "a Jewish law lecturer and former head of the chief rabbi's bureau." 

Well, he may lecture on Halakha, but Rabbi Halbertal does not seem to be overly familiar with many of the hottest topics in contemporary halakhic analysis. Let's take the core of his argument.
I don't see any possible justification for rejection the demand of the women's organization to pray at the Western Wall uncovered. On the contrary, self-expression in this case is even more impressive, as this is the way the world was created. Don't see this as a parody or – God forbid – as malicious joy, but as a possible and actual forecast.
OK, let's take this seriously, as R. Halbertal asks us to. He may not see any possible justification, but I do: Halakha, that subject in which he is an expert. Every one of the issues raised by WOW--women praying together, women reading from a Torah scroll, women wearing the tallit or putting on tefillin--is one of halakhic debate, among Orthodox Jews.

Take the tallit example for one. As well-documented by Dov Bear and other bloggers (see his analysis here), and as I have written on this site before, 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.

Or take tefillin. I'd recommend Dr. Aliza Berger's chapter in Jewish Legal Writings by Women (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 1998), "Wrapped Attention: May Women Wear Tefillin?" Dr. Berger is religious and covers her hair, but she is on the board of directors of WOW, so I guess R. Halbertal figures she'll be stripping down at the Kotel in the near future. I know that my rebbe, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, found the article very interesting (Jewish Action, Spring 2010). Or how about Or Sameach, Laws of Torah Study 1:2: "Women are permitted, and they have the right to put on tefillin, and it is an adornment for them."

Halakha is complex. It encompasses many views, some stringent, some lenient. I might mention the ruling of the Rema in Shulchan Arukh (OH 88:1) that menstruating women should not pray at all. Are we going to set up detectors at the entrance to check--wait, pardon me, I was talking like a slipster there. I apologize: actions should speak for themselves.

Women of the Wall has a varied membership: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc. However, they have chosen to worship in a way which conforms to Jewish law. They have never indicated a desire to pray in a mixed setting, to violate halakhic standards or to desecrate the holy. So why must others do so in the name of stopping their prayers?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The seven day itch

Chris Rock has yet to make a documentary about it, but hair is a big deal in the Orthodox Jewish community. Much has been written about what women put on their hair--wigs, hats, kerchiefs, tefillin--but men share pileous issues as well, mostly seasonal ones. Orthodox Jewish males usually shave (or trim) at least once a week, to honor the Sabbath. However, for two months out of the year, 33 days after Passover in the spring (Sefira) and 23 days in the summertime months of Tammuz and Av (the Three Weeks), the barbershop is closed.

At least, that's what I was taught as a boy. Then I arrived in Israel for my year abroad, and I discovered that our rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein (who was already remarkable for being generally clean-shaven) would shave during Sefira in honor of Shabbat, as well as during the last weeks of Tammuz. His logic was based on the approach of his father-in-law, Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the champion of Modern Orthodoxy in America.

The argument goes like this: the national mourning periods of Sefira and the Three Weeks are modeled after personal mourning. Personal mourning has three levels: the week of shiva, the month of sheloshim and the year of yud-bet hodesh. Similarly, the period of national mourning we are currently in has three levels, going in reverse: the Three Weeks, the Nine Days and then the Fast of 9 Av itself. At the lowest level, which is common to both the Three Weeks and Sefira, one may shave when one's stubble becomes socially unacceptable (presumably never in Brooklyn). Those who follow this view are very busy right now, since this evening we transition from the Three Weeks to the Nine Days. (You can read more here.)
There is beauty to this mechanistic approach. The halakhic mind craves order, and this method imposes order upon that most chaotic and unpredictable element of Jewish life, custom. We just plug in the formula, and it all works smoothly.

However, as I began my own studies for the rabbinate, I had to confront the sources myself, and things stopped being so simple. You see, the Mishna (Taanit 4:7) does not talk about restrictions of the Three Weeks; it merely says, "During the week in which 9 Av falls, one may not cut hair or launder." This, in fact, is what R. Joseph Karo writes in Shulhan Arukh (OH 551:3), and this is the Sephardic custom. As R. Karo stresses (12):  "During this week, haircutting--whether of the head or any other hair--is forbidden." It is the Ashkenazic authority R. Moses Isserles who glosses (4):  "With haircutting, the custom is to be stringent from 17 Tammuz." Are we supposed to assume that only the Ashkenazic custom uses the analogue of personal mourning? The implication seems clear: what you do with your shaver during the Three Weeks is all about your community of origin.

With Sefira, the issue is even thornier, as the ban has no source prior to the 14th century. In this case, for the most part, Ashkenazic and Sephardic custom are synced, and we find in Shulhan Arukh (OH 493:2): "The custom is not to cut hair up to the 33rd day." Now, however, we find an interesting distinction. While R. Karo specifically mentions that the ban applies to shaving as well for the period leading up to 9 Av, concerning Sefira he omits that fact. It is quite difficult to claim that he intends for the reader to refer to that law, because R. Karo orders his work by the months of the Jewish year. The laws of Sefira in Ch. 493 precede the laws of the Three Weeks in Ch. 551.

This led me to an interesting dichotomy: during Sefira, shaving should be allowed, while during the Three Weeks, it should be disallowed. This is a conclusion both more lenient and more stringent than that of R. Soloveitchik and R. Lichtenstein. It was and remains an uncomfortable position, conforming neither to common practice nor to the view of my rebbe.

Now, many may see this as the search for niggling minutiae, arcane details of tribal customs from centuries past. I disagree. As attractive as it may be to approach Judaism as programmatic and predictable, I see it as an organism, wild and spontaneous. It is a celebration of tradition and transcendence, revelation and revolution, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

At least it keeps my mind off this scratchy beard.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Perfidious Midian

The biggest number in the Book of Numbers, found in this week's Torah portion, is 675,000... sheep. Not exactly New Zealand ratios, but the spoils of the Midianite War are still impressive. However, the most staggering statistic is not the largest, but the smallest percentages of the booty, namely the virgin booty (31:35):
And thirty and two thousand persons in all, of women that had not known lying with a male.
This follows Moses' command (31:18):
But all the young girls, that have not known lying with a male, keep alive for yourselves.
This directive is perplexing. The Torah, in Deut. 20, defines two types of war.
  1. In fighting other nations, the Israelites may take captives from the non-combatants, i.e. the women and children.
  2. In fighting the Canaanites, the Israelites are to take no prisoners.
Who knew these guys were biblical scholars?
The rules of biblical warfare are quite harsh, but the world was a different place 3,500 years ago. Still, the rules for the Midianite War seem to fit neither template: under what circumstances would the Jews take captives, but only of the girls?
Nevertheless, there is one similar case in Scripture, in the very end of the Book of Judges (21:5-12), that of a war waged not against a foreign enemy, but a domestic one: the town of Jabesh Gilead, which failed to join in the fight of the eleven other tribes against Benjamin.
And the Israelites said: Who is there among all the tribes of Israel that did not come up with the congregation to the the LORD? For they had made a great oath concerning him who did not come up to the LORD to Mizpah, saying: He shall surely be put to death... For the people were counted, and behold, there were none of the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead there. And the congregation sent there twelve thousand of the most valiant men and commanded them, saying: Go and strike the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead with the edge of the sword... And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead four hundred young virgins, who had not known a man by lying with a male, and they brought them to the camp in Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan.
Not to be confused with the Shiloh which is in the land of Tennessee.
Thus, Jabesh Gilead is punished (just as Midian is, by a highly symbolic force of 12,000) for violating a "great oath" and failing to come to the aid of its fellow Israelite cities. The young girls escape the penalty of oath-breaking because of their unique status in this sphere, as detailed in the opening of our Torah portion. Of the fifteen verses analyzing vows, oaths and pledges, fourteen of them deal with females and their complex parental and spousal relationships. Num. 30 concludes by summarizing the laws as "between a man and his wife, between a father and his daughter, in her youth, her father's house."
This line, of course, immediately precedes the war with Midian, and the placement is not coincidental. Consider how the command to attack them is originally phrased (25:17-18): “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them. They treated you as enemies when they guilefully deceived you in the Peor matter.” Guile, deceit, enmity--is this the exclusive domain of Midian? What of Moab's far more prominent role in the same incident, as well as the hiring of Balaam?

What is unique about Midian is, quite simply, their perfidy. As Joshua 13:21 tells us, the same five kings of Midian killed in this war were in fact "dukes of Sihon." Sihon, of course, is the Amorite king defeated by Moses and the Israelites on the East Bank, whose territory becomes part of Israel. Somehow, when "Sihon gathered all his people and went out against Israel in the desert" (Num. 21:23), his Midianite vassals choose the other side. Fair enough. After all, Moses did make an offer to his Midianite in-law, Hobab (ibid. 10:29-32): “We are setting out for the place about which the LORD said, ‘I will give it to you'... If you come with us, we will share with you whatever good things the Lord gives us.” We also know from the beginning of the Book of Judges (1:16) that at least some part of Midian, the Kenites, the tribe of Moses' in-laws, took him up on the offer and settled in Judah.

However, the princes and elders of Midian take a different path. After Sihon's defeat, they begin to plot the downfall of Israel, one way or another. Their deceit, their guile, their faithlessness is unforgivable, and that is why they are subjected to a cruel fate, from which only the young girls escape. Indeed, the Sifre says concerning the soldiers (157): "Just as you are parties to the covenant (b'nei brit), so too your captives are parties to the covenant." These daughters of Midian will not be part of the next plot; instead, they will remind all what happens to a nation of oath-breakers.

In modern Israel, we live in a region of realpolitik, in which constantly-shifting alliances are the norm. Nevertheless, as this week's reading reminds us, there is ultimately a high price for perfidy.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The most jaw-dropping line in the Torah

Those who study the Torah portion day-by-day came across the most stunning line (Num. 31:17-18) yesterday, which a furious Moses addresses to the Israelite officers (chiliarchs and centurions, if you want to get technical) upon their returning from the Midianite War with captives:

And now kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by lying of a male; but all the women children, that have not known lying of a male, keep alive for yourselves.

As I see it, there are three issues here:

1) Genocide!
 It's easy enough to quibble over the specifics of terms which might have been offered to Amalekites and Canaanites. One can also understand the fog of war, in which distinguishing between combatants and civilians may be extremely difficult and dangerous. However, this execution of the Midianite boys is not happening on the battlefield, or even at the battlefield. It happens right outside the Israelite camp. The man who was saved from a decree of "Cast into the Nile every boy born, but keep alive every girl" is now applying the very same (except now including the mothers and big sisters). Now, the Torah does not state that this was carried out, even though it very meticulously catalogs the execution of the rest of the orders. I'm not sure if that is a mitigating factor, considering the next element.

2) Slavery!
Yes, we know that ancient peoples kept slaves, and this was true for Jews as well, at least into early Talmudic times. Still, there is a world of difference between the laws of keeping slaves in Exodus and Leviticus and the cruel calculus here. 32,000 virgin girls--so that's 16,000 each to the soldiers and the citizens, with the latter paying a 2% tax to the Levites and the former paying a 0.2% tax to God.

And the persons were sixteen thousand; of which the LORD's tribute was thirty and two persons. And Moses gave the tribute, which was the LORD's heave offering, to Eleazar the priest, as the LORD commanded Moses.     

Heave indeed. Eleazar, colleague and nephew of Moses, gets 32 virgin slavegirls, Midianitesses like his Aunt Zipporah. The Levites had to split 320 among their half-dozen families, and one wonders how many the Amramites, i.e. Moses' sons, got to take home to Mom. ("What, you're from Rekem? I'm from Rekem too!")

But perhaps the most confounding is the textual-sexual issue:
3) Orgy?
You see, what we have translated "lying of a male" is actually mishkav zakhar in the original, which is ironically used in Mishnaic Hebrew to refer to sex between males. What exactly is it supposed to mean here? When the Torah discusses sex between males (Lev. 18:22, 20:13), the term used is "mishkevei isha," lit. "lyings of a woman." Is it significant that mishkav zakhar is singular and uses a term of gender, while mishkevei isha is plural and uses a term of personhood? Are we to take the former to refer to all heterosexual intercourse and the latter to refer to all homosexual intercourse? Or perhaps mishkav zakhar refers to vaginal intercourse ("lying of a male" thus referring to the kind of sex only women can have) and mishkevei isha to anal intercourse ("lyings of a woman" thus referring to the only type of sex you don't need women for)?  Does any of this change how we read the prohibition in Leviticus?

I'm starting to wonder if Tosafot (Megilla 31b) are wrong: maybe we combine Mattot and Masei not to get the bad stuff out of the way before year's end, but so that we can bury the lead.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Of lesbians and levirs

In the days since the rulings of the United States Supreme Court on the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8, there has been a lot of hand-wringing as to what Judaism has to say about the issue. Despite what Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann may think, the Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament and what Jews call the Written Torah, can hardly be read as defining traditional marriage as between one man and one woman. After all, the favorite verses of those who attack same-sex relationships, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, mention men only, leaving our lesbian sisters (you know, like Edith Windsor, the widow who challenged DOMA) out in the cold. Moreover, the whole passage is about sex, not marriage, an issue which was settled a decade ago. What authentic Jewish source talks about gay marriage anyway?
This brings us to a source cited by Rabbi Micha Berger of the Aspaqlaria blog. Lev. 18:3 commands the Israelites to shun the practices of both Egypt, where they were born, and Canaan, where they are headed, then concludes "And you shall not walk in their ordinances." What does this mean? The Sifra (ad loc.) writes:
One might think that one may not construct buildings or cultivate plants as they do, so the verse says, "And you shall not walk in their ordinances" -- I have only said this regarding the ordinances ordained for them, their parents and their grandparents. What would they do? A man would marry a man, a woman would marry a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, and a woman would be married to two men.
There it is, black on white: not just gay men, but lesbians too; not just sex, but marriage as well. And this is not just midrash, exegesis; it is the Sifra, the volume of halakhic midrash for Leviticus. And everything in halakhic midrash is halakhic, right? As in legally binding? And we're talking about what the Egyptians were doing wrong, so it applies so to non-Jews as well, to all the children of Noah, right?
Ay, there's the rub. You see, halakhic midrash is NOT halakha. There are many opinions recorded in it, some of which are accepted and some of which are rejected. This formulation falls in the category of the rejected, because the Talmud in Sanhedrin 58a, as codified by Maimonides (Laws of Kings 9:5), actually allows a non-Jew to marry his wife's daughter, even though a Jew may not do so, even after divorcing his wife.
Woody, I've got good news and bad news...
R. Berger explains:
Again, even according to the Torah, the ban on homosexuality is Noachide, and was part of human morality before it was included in the Sinai Covenant... The question isn't whether halakhah forbids it, or even (which is what we're arguing here) the Torah testifies that natural law forbids it. (That the Egyptians who did contract gay marriage are held accountable because they should have known better.) The question is whether US law is in the business of enforcing morality.
R. Berger decides that morality is not the province of US law. However, I must dispute his formulation of "natural law" or "human morality" which the Torah only "testifies to" or has "included." Who decides what makes the cut? If we use Leviticus 18-20 as the template, how do we deal with the fact that there are sixteen forbidden relationships listed, only six of which are forbidden for Noahides as well? If these are all universal, and the Egyptians are held "accountable" for them, why do they get to stay in their land? Why does this concept get nary a mention in the Book of Exodus? What of all the great people born from relationships banned in Leviticus 18-20, including Moses and David? What of all the people involved in such relationships, including 3 out of 4 matriarchs and 2 out of 3 patriarchs? (Isaac and Rebecca, of course, were just first cousins once removed, which is fine; almost two dozen states don't even care about the "removed" part.) Are all Jews "natural" or "moral" bastards, born out of incestuous unions?

Let's take just one example from this list of moral/ natural laws: "You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife: it is your brother's nakedness" (v. 16). Pretty straightforward, right? Universal, moral, natural. Yet there is a mitzva of yibbum, of levirate marriage, already embraced in the Book of Genesis--and ultimately carried out not by the brother-in-law, but the father-in-law, another forbidden relation. His name is Judah, and there's a whole people named after him now. Is that unnatural?
The greatest strength of Judaism is that we have a morality ensconced in law: knowable law, revealed law, debated law. This law grapples with the changing reality every day. Undermining it in a search for something beyond is a fool's errand.