Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Carbfather

Say what you will about Yoseif (Joseph), he certainly does not shun the carbs. Every dream he encounters comes with a match featuring wheat in all of its alluring forms: sheaf, scone, stalk. Perhaps this is not surprising for the firstborn of the lone matriarch to be buried on the road to Breadhouse (Bethlehem).
Not to be confused with Bais Challah, the girls' school in Mendy and the Golem (Issue 19, April 1985).
However, the phrase which most bedevils the commentators features not a dream loaf, but a real one--or is it metaphorical?
And he left all that he had in Joseph's hand, and he knew not ought he had, save the bread that he ate. And Joseph was of a beautiful form and of a beautiful countenance. (Gen. 39:6)
This leads to a beautiful quadrivial dispute among the Big Four commentators.
  • Rashi (from Gen. R.):  Y. wasn't allowed to touch the lady of the house.
  • Rashbam: Y. was even allowed to prepare his master's meals.
  • Ibn Ezra: Y. was forbidden to touch his master's food, because Hebrews are icky.
  • Ramban: Y. used his power only to satisfy his basic bread-'n-salt needs.
However, I am reminded of the last 3 1/2 verses of Jeremiah (also Kings):
Evil-Merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, lifted up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah, and brought him forth out of prison. And he spoke kindly unto him, and set his seat above the seat of the kings that were with him in Babylon. And he changed his prison garments; and he ate bread before him continually all the days of his life. And his allowance was a continual allowance given him by the king of Babylon, every day a portion until the day of his death, all the days of his life. (Jer. 52:31-34)
Before Y. goes in to prison, the only symbol of his servile status is getting bread from his master. After Jehoiachin is released from prison, the only symbol of his servile status is getting bread from his master.
Now, once Y. is imprisoned, the same phrase appears, but with no qualifier (ibid. v. 23): "The keeper of the prison looked not at all to ought that was in his hand." Is that because there was no ceremonial master-bread? We do find that Samson spends his prison time in Philistia milling (Jud. 16:21), and the smiting of the firstborn goes from "unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill" (Ex. 11:5) in theory to "unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon" in practice (Ex. 13:29).
 According to the Midrash (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 7:8; Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 186), this is what happens to Sarah (or should that be Serah?) when she descends to Egypt. Is this why grain is בר and prison is בור?

Of course, once Y. is released, he is the one to apportion bread to the entire country (or world). He is the one giving bread to his former and current masters, as well as the father and brothers who scoffed at the idea of his lording over them. It seems like the question of who gives bread to whom is an essential one for identifying master and slave, or at least vassal and lord.

Is this why Passover requires making our own bread? Is this why the Jews receive daily bread from heaven on their way out of Egypt?

It's certainly food for thought.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lost in Targum?

A guest post by Y. Bloch

I found myself in Modiin this Shabbat, and randomly picking a synagogue (from four on the street) this morning, I had the pleasure of praying with our brand-new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. He spoke before the Torah reading, asking the question, "Why was Levi so special before they killed all those worshipers of the Golden Calf at Sinai?" The answer he discovered, after many years of searching, was that of the "Godly sage Yonatan ben Uzziel," in his Targum on Gen. 32:25. See, Jacob promised to tithe everything, and Levi is the tenth son. If you subtract the firstborns of each mother. And count Benjamin, who wasn't even conceived yet. And start counting again when you run out of sons until you get to ten. Which is not how tithing works, even if we did tithe children.

Um, OK. The Talmud (Megilla 3a) does make clear that YbU only translated the Prophets, while Onkelos is the one who translated the Torah into Aramaic. Yes, alternative Targumim existed, a number of which were known as Targum Yerushalmi, abbreviated TY, which some printer took for Targum Yonatan, since YbU was known as a translator. That's why the academics call it Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or Pasevdo Yonatan, as Hebrew-speakers pronounce it.

So am I alone in thinking Chief Rabbi Lau the Younger is not going to be big on reinterpreting traditional Jewish sources to meet contemporary problems?

Regardless, he seems like a really nice guy. He even apologized to the bar mitzva boy for making him sit through this speech before he read his portion. I guess that's what's really important.    

Search for more information about misattribution

Friday, November 15, 2013

Dinah wasn't raped, Tamar was

"The Rape of Dinah" is the dramatic heading given to Genesis 34 in many Christian and some Jewish sources. However, Torah scrolls don't come with chapter headings (or chapters, for that matter). On the contrary, a close reading of the text tells us that the Shakespearean text that should be coming to mind as we read the passage in this week's portion of Vayishlach is not The Rape of Lucrece but Romeo and Juliet.
Let's take the term used in modern Hebrew for rape, oness. As far back as the Mishna (Ketubot ch. 3-4), oness meant compulsion, including but not limited to sexual intercourse without consent. However, this is not a word extant in the Hebrew of the Torah or the Prophets.
So what does the text say? Genesis 34:1-3 reads:
 ותצא דינה בת לאה אשר ילדה ליעקב לראות בבנות הארץ
Dinah daughter of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob, went out to see among the daughters of the land.
וירא אתה שכם בן חמור החוי נשיא הארץ ויקח אתה וישכב אתה ויענה
Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, slept with her and debased her.
ותדבק נפשו בדינה בת יעקב ויאהב את הנער וידבר על לב הנער
His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman, and he spoke tenderly to her.
Let's examine these verses. Dinah is active in the verse, passive in the second (and thereafter), but does that mean that she is a victim? She goes out "to see among the daughters (bivnot) of the land," and she is, in fact, seen. What happens next?
Some are chilled by "and he took her," but this is the standard terminology for taking a mate. Of Isaac we read (24:67), "And he took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her." Shechem may reverse the order, but he takes Dinah, loves her and wants to marry her in 34:4ff.
What about "slept with her"? Some point to the fact that the preposition used is "otah" rather than "imah," indicating that Dinah was an object in this encounter. However, the two terms are used interchangeably, most notably perhaps in the case of the sota, the woman suspected of adultery (Numbers 5:13, 19). She has to swear that no man has slept with her (otah) willingly. 
This brings us to the third term, "debased her." Many point to the passage of rape in Deuteronomy 22; verse 29 tells us that the rapist must pay the price "because he debased her (innah)." However, only five verses earlier, the Torah sets down the death penalty for willing adulterers: "the young woman because she did not cry out in the town, and the man because he debased another man’s wife." So, while innui may be applied to rape, it is not a positive indication of it. After all, the Torah uses the same term for what Sarah does to Hagar (Gen. 16:6), as well as what the former's descendants will undergo in the latter's homeland (ibid. 15:13). On Yom Kippur, innui is what we are supposed to do to ourselves (Lev. 23:27-32), and the ani is a base person, in the original sense of the word: a person of humble origin or station.
Now we may understand the reaction of Shechem, his father and the people of their town. They do not expect retaliation because this is not a case of abduction and rape; it is a tryst which has become something more. This is why we find Shechem offering mohar (dowry), a term which only appears in one other place in the Torah: concerning the seduction of a virgin (Ex. 22:15-16). Indeed, though Dinah's brothers view it as "an abomination (nevala) in Israel to sleep with Jacob's daughter" and Jacob himself (as well as the third-person narrator) view it as defilement (tuma), the term innui is never mentioned again in the passage. On the contrary, Simeon and Levi are concerned that their sister will be regarded as a whore!
Rather, in order to find cases of biblical rape, we need to use keywords, those which serve the same role as oness in Mishnaic Hebrew. And we find them quite easily: the roots hazak (to grab) and tafas (to seize). We find them, invariably, in cases of forcible sexual encounters: the theoretical rapes of a virgin (Deut. 22:28), a betrothed girl (ibid. v. 25) or a married woman (Num. 5:13). We find it in actual cases: the concubine of Gibeah (Judges 19:25) and Tamar, daughter of King David (II Samuel 13:11, 14).
In fact, in the case of Tamar, we find exactly what we would expect: she pleads with her brother, Amnon, not to commit such an abominable act, but he overpowers her. Then, once he has committed his act of sexual violence, he casts her into the street.
So why does Dinah get the headlines? Partly, it's because her story is in the Torah, so we read it annually (in the pre-Hanukka doldrums). More than that, I think there is a deeper psychological reason. If we make Dinah the prototypical rape victim, it puts our minds at ease: the pure Jewish girl is kidnapped by the vicious heathen. It's the classic stranger-danger narrative. The case of Tamar is much more disturbing: she is raped by her own (step? half?) brother; in two-thirds of rapes, the attacker is an acquaintance or intimate. The greater peril is from within our communities, as crusading Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg revealed this week in a shocking article, "The Child-Rape Assembly Line."
Why is it that we are all too willing to speak out for Dinah, but not for Tamar?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Open-ended Orthodoxy

I'm not sure how to feel about Open Orthodoxy. As of 6 months ago, I had never heard the term. Now, it's all the rage, with the pages of Times of Israel, Tablet Magazine and filled with attacks, defenses and rebuttals (the latest being "Orthodox and here to stay" by Rabbi Asher Lopatin).
I'm still not certain what Open Orthodoxy means. Is it the new term for what used to be called, way back in 5773, LWMO, left-wing Modern Orthodox? (Personally, I'm LMFAO and I know it.) Is it the new term for Modern Orthodoxy as a whole, now that "modern" has become a term not be used in polite company, like "colored," "scientific fact" and "liberal"? Is it exclusive to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, its faculty, students, graduates and supporters? It's hard to know. Being an English major, I naturally turn to the dictionary (Random House, in this case). "Open Orthodoxy" isn't in there, and "open" has 88 definitions. However, "open-ended" seems to be more promising:
1. not having fixed limits; unrestricted, broad: an open-ended discussion.
2. allowing for future changes, revisions or additions: open-ended agreements.
3. having no fixed answer: an open-ended question.
Hm, discussions, revisions, additions and questions--that seems like prime OO territory. Let's work our way backwards. I find "having no fixed answer" extremely appealing. There are, after all, many ways to conclude the sentence "The Holocaust is justified by..." and every single one of them makes the speaker a horrible person. So if OO means a Judaism that doesn't try to attribute bus crashes to faulty mezuzot and hurricanes to gayness, I'm all for that.
What about "allowing for future changes, revisions or additions"? I think that anyone who is honest and knowledgeable about Judaism would have to admit that the Torah has undergone this process in the past, and if it couldn't continue to do so, what would be the point of publishing new Jewish literature daily? True, we may not have the legislative or interpretive powers of the Talmudic sages, but Judaism continues to evolve along with the world. I know: it's hard to imagine a great nation guided by an ancient founding document that can no longer be amended in practice, forcing us to argue endlessly over the text and the intent of its writers. I refer, of course, to Gondor. (Really, only the heir of Isildur can call himself king?)
This brings us to definition numero uno: "not having fixed limits, unrestricted, broad." It's here that I arrive at my problem with Open Orthodoxy. What are its boundaries, if indeed it has any? This was brought into stark relief by "Experiencing Faith," a recent post by Rabbi David Almog (ordained by YCT and pursuing a doctorate at JTS) at To the question "...if revelation at Sinai is a myth, why should I be observant? In what can I still have faith?" he responds:
My own answer to these questions is that I esteem my intuitive religious experiences over doctrine.  Whether or not the specific event of Sinai happened does not undermine my own experiences of the sweetness and goodness of Torah, or my sense of their prophetic nature.  Moreover, just as I have a particular love for my own family and the community in which I live, I have an affinity for my Jewish family and its approach to serving God.
This brings us to the crux of the issue. The question that I always have for those who are not invested in the revelation at Sinai is the following: then why keep these 613 mitzvot? Experience, community, affinity--that's all fine, but what if you're not feeling motivated to separate meat and milk, to avoid threading heddles on the Sabbath or to abstain from physical contact with your spouse for two weeks every month?
More importantly, how can the OO criticize people like Rabbis Avi Shafran and Gil Student for experiencing Judaism by condemning them? Do the OO think that those rabbis are insincere? They really believe that they are defending God's word, for what it's worth, out of their love for their own community and faith. Why is that less legitimate than the OO experience?
I have yet to see what the compelling evidence is for the Open Orthodox who believe that (and there may be OO who do not believe this) the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai could not have happened. Are they holding back? Do you only start to learn this stuff after getting your Master's in Bible? Textual analysis only gets you so far.
Now, Open Orthodoxy espouses a belief that God exists and that He speaks through prophets. However, what He speaks is couched in... lies? Half-truths? Untruths? I'm not exactly sure. When God made up a new mitzva and told the prophet to pretend it had been revealed at Sinai centuries earlier, how did he convince the people? Did God perform miracles and wonders to verify this fabrication? And if prophets had the courage to speak truth to power on pain of imprisonment and death, why couldn't they tell the truth about Sinai, namely that nothing of significance happened there?
I would love to hear from some of my OO friends (who may cease to be my friends upon reading this) what the answer is to this basic question: why fulfill these mitzvot? Why fulfill any mitzvot? From not mixing wool and linen to recalling the Exodus to putting leather boxes on our heads and arms, why? To fulfill the will of a God Who has been fooling us all along?
If I didn't believe in the revelation at Sinai, I would have to go with the atheists. They're far more convincing. But for further discussion and questions, OO, I'm open.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Black-hat evolution

I know that you may have heard, dear readers, that the “mar” in the current Jewish month, Marḥeshvan, means “bitter,” but it’s actually just the full name, from the Akkadian waraḫsamnu, literally "eighth month." Nevertheless, some have taken this folk etymology literally, particularly one of the freshest bloggers at Times of Israel, Rabbi Avi Shafran.
For picture of actual giraffes, see Varda Epstein's post.
Careful, R. Shafran. Evolution can give you a sore neck.
He may be new to this venue, but the longtime Agudath Israel of America spokesman has not dismounted from his heresy hobby horse. On the day after Rav Ovadya Yosef’s passing, he was back to hammering YCT with "True and tragic colors: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is simply not what it claims." Of course, you can also read it on his home website, Cross-Currents, but you can't comment there.
R. Shafran began by lambasting Rabbi Ben Elton's piece on the Grossgemeinde controversy. Let it never be said that any Orthodox rabbi co-operated with Reform rabbis in 19th-century Germany: no, there was some sort of Hyde Amendment to make sure that frum money was not used to fund heterodox activities.
He returned to many of his favorite YCT quotes, which he may or may not carry around in his wallet in laminated form. They prove that the yeshiva and its affiliates are nothing but a font of heresy, according to R. Shafran. Sympathy with gays, engaging with biblical criticism, reassessing the centrality of dogma in Judaism--truly, these are "tragic colors" to show. Personally, I avoid the tragic color section at Home Depot, but what do I know? I do know that R. Shafran and Agudah condemned every innovation introduced by Rabbi Avi Weiss, long before any of these opinions were voiced. Many of those innovations have become normative in modern Orthodoxy.
But back to the heresy:
Such positions espoused by YCT leaders (and those are but a few of many such examples) are run-of-the-mill notions in the non-Orthodox rabbinic world. They wouldn’t raise any eyebrows in non-Orthodox circles. But how do they comport with “car[ing] very much about Torah and mesorah”? There can be only one answer: they don’t.
See, folks, it's that easy. Your care setting must be set to "Torah and mesorah." There's no way to allow any other sort of considerations. That might cause your true, tragic colors to run, and it would be the saddest laundry day ever.
However, Ben Elton responded to Avi Shafran’s points, leading to a counter-response on TOI asking the question: "Open 'Orthodoxy'?" Now, it seems, he's arrived at a decision, this time at, no less: "Be honest: Open Orthodoxy is not Orthodoxy." I particularly enjoyed this paragraph:
But all those parts, for all their differences in orientation and practice, are unified by a belief system that embraces the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides (based on the broader three of Rav Yosef Albo, derived from the Talmud and other links in the chain of the Oral Tradition – our mesorah). An adherent of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, a Satmar hasid, a “Litvish” yeshiva graduate and a student of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary are all are unified by the essence of what the world has called Orthodoxy for generations. But “Open Orthodoxy,” despite its name, has adulterated that essence, and sought to change both Jewish belief and Jewish praxis (as in ordaining women or suggesting that problematic Jewish marriages can simply be retroactively annulled). 
See what you've done, YCT? You've made R. Shafran legitimize RIETS! But it's certainly a relief to know that Maimonides and Albo were really saying the same thing, which is just a distillation of "the Talmud and other links in the chain," and Lubavitch, Satmar, Yeshivish and Yeshiva Universityish "are all are [sic] unified by the essence of what the world has called Orthodoxy for generations." Thank you so much, The World, for telling us what Orthodoxy is. Otherwise we might have to study this stuff, but R. Shafran assures me that it's all boilerplate. Just read Ani Maamin, it'll suffice.
So, to get this straight, Maimonides’ (died 1204) 13 Principles were just an elucidation of R. Joseph Albo’s (born 1380) 3 Principles. Also, the latter’s vigorous denunciation of the former was an expression of their fundamental, super-temporal meeting of the minds. That checks out.
What this does answer for us is whether R. Shafran believes in evolution. Just over the course of October, he's evolved from challenger to defamer to excommunicator. That may be Lamarckian, but it's still evolution. I can't wait for November's series of screeds, which I'm guessing will be on the NYT op-ed page. Anyone know how to get past the paywall?