Thursday, January 30, 2014

Home pagancy test

OK, maybe I oversold this. It's not a test of paganism, but of heresy. At least according to the neoharedim who daily tell us that you just can't be a good Jew unless you believe that the text of the Torah doesn't and has never changed. This is not the first time that I've addressed the issue, but it's relevant because of this week's Torah portion, Teruma. Teruma describes (most of) the vessels and the structure of the Tabernacle, with one shining (shiny?) example being the Menorah. This is the same one featured prominently in the Emblem of the State of Israel, not to be confused with the one we light on Hanukka, which is technically a hanukkia (with an extra set of branches). In fact, the Temple Institute has a new Menorah all set to go.
 Now, I'm not here to tell you that Maimonides would say that they made it wrong--although he would (see Menahot 3:7), and he even drew a picture of what it should look like.
Source: Wikipedia, from Kafih's edition of Perush Hamishnayot, 1967
Source: Wikipedia, from Kafih's edition of Perush Hamishnayot, 1967
No, I'd like to talk about the text of the command to make the Menora, which will be read in the second or third reading this Shabbat--depends on your Humash. What depends on your Torah scroll is what the sixth word of the Menora passage will be: תעשה or תיעשה? A minor difference? Certainly; it doesn't even change the pronunciation of the word "tei-aseh." But the presence or absence of that letter yud, that literal iota, is significant. Remember, Maimonides says that a one-letter difference is enough to invalidate a Torah scroll (Laws of Torah Scrolls 7:11). Still, it's more than that. Centuries after Moses' Tabernacle, Solomon builds his Temple in Jerusalem, featuring ten Menorahs.
He made ten gold candelabras according to the specifications for them and placed them in the temple, five on the south side and five on the north. (II Chronicles 4:7; cf. I Kings 7:49)
Where does he get this idea? Commentators attribute this to the extra yud, the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
So, too it says concerning the Menorah, "teiaseh ha-menorah," with a yud, and this is why Solomon makes ten candelabras, for it is inconceivable that the Torah would command to make one Menorah and Solomon would then make ten. (Rabbeinu Bahya, Ex. 25:10) I have seen copies examined by the scholars of Tiberias, and fifteen of their elders testified that they inspected every word and every dot three times, every plene and every defective, and a yud is written in the word teiaseh. However, this is not what I found in the French, Spanish and English scrolls. And the ancients expounded that the additional yud alludes to the ten candelabra made by Solomon. (Ibn Ezra, Ex. 25:31)
These two medieval Spanish exegetes refer to the same Midrash, which is not known to us. R. Bahya b. Asher does not seem to be aware of any variation; ibn Ezra, who lived earlier but was far more well-traveled, seems well aware of this issue. Maimonides is not conflicted at all: his Yemenite Torah text has no yud. What does yours have? And which Torah do you have, the authentic Mosaic one or the corrupted one? The theological and philosophical questions of how we relate to the Bible are complex and convoluted. But a good place to start is the realization that there is only one One. Everything else is commentary.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Sinai lie

My rebbe lied to me. I don't know if he was merely passing along what he'd been told or if he made a deliberate choice not to share truths that might shatter our young minds. (That's the reason they taught us the orbital model of the atom, right? Or were our science books just really out of date?)
If you received a traditional Jewish education, you were probably taught the same thing: the Israelites leave Egypt on the 15th of the first month (NIssan), and they spend the next seven weeks learning that in the desert, the food is terrible, but the portions are small. (Luckily, this had no lasting ill effects on the Jewish psyche.) Then, on the fiftieth day, the sixth day of the third month (Sivan), they receive the Torah. This is why we still count 49 days after Passover nowadays and celebrate the fiftieth day as Shavuot.
Yeah, not so much. Consider this verse from the end of this week's Torah portion (Exodus 24:16):
And the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud.
As the Talmud (Yoma 4b) explains:
Rabbi Akiva concurs with the view of Rabbi Jose, that the Torah was given to Israel on the seventh of the month.
Now, there is a dissenting view that the Torah was given on the sixth (Talmud, Shabbat 86b-88a), but we follow the first view (with its halakhic implications). Ah, you might say, forget the date, the important thing is the day, the fiftieth day after the Exodus. Well, according to that same passage, there's no argument that the Torah was given on Saturday, or that the Exodus took place on a Thursday. So according to everyone, the Torah was given on Day 51. (Of course, if we want to eschew the Midrashic path and just look at the textual evidence, it seems that it wasn't the sixth or seventh day of Sivan that God spoke to the the people, but rather the third, cf. Exodus 19:11-16.) Are we commemorating the wrong day?
This problem has been noted by various commentators, including the Torah Temima (on the cited verse) and Magen Avraham (OH 494), but it's not the only one that arises as we consider what Sinai was. We say that the Torah was given there, but what does that mean? Was Moses truly surprised by all of the bad (or good) things that happened over the next forty years, as detailed in the Torah that he had already received? Perhaps it's only the commandments that Moses received? But so many of those commandments are linked to events that occur later!
OK, let's just stick to the Ten Commandments. That's pretty cut-and-dried, right? They even have a fancy name, the Decalogue. We can unequivocally say that those Ten Commandments were given by God to Israel in the first week of Sivan, after seven weeks of wandering, and you can read them verbatim in Ex. 20:2-13. Well, actually there's a different version in Deut. 5. And the first time we mention the Decalogue, it's ten very different commandments in Exodus 34.
Very well. Whatever those Ten Commandments were, God gave them to Israel at Sinai directly, and ever since--wait, I mean God was going to give them directly, but the people panicked (Ex. 20:14-17) and asked Moses to transmit the message. Or they heard the first two, and then they had Moses transmit the rest. One of those three, anyway.
Fine, it was God or Moses or both of them who spoke to the people of Israel, 600,000 men strong, and gave them--I mean, "about six hundred thousand" (Ex. 12:37). And after the war with Amalek, and the Golden Calf plague, and the killing of "about three thousand" directly by Moses and the Levites (ibid. 32:28), there were left... 603,550 (38:26)--the exact same number to be counted the next year, after the construction of the Tabernacle, even though the 22,000 (or 22,300) Levites were excluded (Num. 1:46). Even though 600,000 able-bodied men was a level achieved by the modern state of Israel only in 1967.
Is Sinai historical? No, nor is it supposed to be, as the Torah is not meant to be a history book. But does it belong to the realm of myth, metaphor or mnemohistory? No; at least, I don't believe so. Sinai is not history; Sinai is a happening. It is an integral part of the Jewish people, as is evidenced by the Bible itself and all that comes after it. Sinai is continually referenced in Scripture, as are the Patriarchs and the Exodus. There are miracles intertwined in those events, but they take place in a world recognizable to us, unlike Eden, the Deluge and the Tower of Babel. Recognizing Sinai as a real event, an occurrence, a happening is essential to our Jewish identity. The details have been and will continue to be debated for a long time. But that doesn't change or challenge our identity as souls who stood at Sinai.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Great Dictate

The term mitzva has become so ubiquitous that it has made the jump from Hebrew to English. Still, there is a distinction between mitz-VA in the former and MITZ-va in the latter. In English, the word refers to a good deed, a nice thing to do. In Hebrew, the word refers to a commandment, one of the 613 in the Pentateuch.
However, not all mitzvot are created equal. One famous distinction is between mishpatim (statutes) and hukkim (dictates). As studiers of Daf Yomi read last week from the Talmud (Yoma 67b):
The Rabbis taught: "'Observe my mishpatim' (Lev. 18:4) -- these are the ones that were they not written, it would have been necessary for them to be written, and they are idol worship, forbidden sexual relationships, spilling of blood, stealing and blasphemy. "And keep my hukkim" -- these are the ones to which Satan and the nations of the world object, and they are eating pork, wearing wool-linen blends, unshoeing the levir, the purification of the leper, and the scapegoat.
Thus, we would expect in this week's portion, which is named Mishpatim, to find logical statutes. In fact, the first three chapters of Mishpatim contain a dozen more mitzvot than the previous seventeen full portions -- combined. But they are not all what we would think of as mishpatim: not eating treifa, sanctifying the firstborn, celebrating the festivals and observing the sabbatical year would not seem to be self-evident common-sense laws. In fact, elsewhere (e.g. Ex. 13, Lev. 23) many of these are referred to as hukkim. Not only that, we find the term mishpat (singular of mishpatim) being applied to ritualistic laws such as offering sacrifices (Lev. 5), pouring libations (Num. 28-29) and giving the priests their meaty due (Deut. 18). The paschal sacrifice is to be offered, simultaneously, according to its hukkim and mishpatim (Num. 9:3). And then we have, in the closing chapters of Numbers, the intriguing term hukkat mishpat (the statutory dictate?) applied to the laws of inheritance (27:11) and homicide (35:29).
This seems to indicate that the categories of hok (singular of hukkim) and mishpatim are in fact fluid. Just look back at the passage from Yoma, which is analyzing the terms, used in tandem, in the preface to Lev. 18, a chapter comprising an exhaustive list of sexual prohibitions, with a dash of idolatry -- both of which are explicitly placed in the category of mishpatim, the implicitly logical rules! If hukkim are mentioned in the introduction, it is clear that the line between them is blurred and subject to change.
In fact, how could it be otherwise? What sets the hukkim apart is that "these are the ones to which Satan and the nations of the world object." Obviously, the parts of the Torah which Satan (i.e., the devils on our own shoulders) and other peoples object change over time. We used to be those weirdos who opposed human sacrifice; now we're those weirdos who keep talking about rebuilding our Temple. Our concerns about predatory lending (Ex. 22:24-26), witness tampering (23:1-2) and political corruption (23:7-8) -- to mention just three examples from the middle of Mishpatim -- are no longer quirks of a tribal law code, but the fuel for today's headlines.
Indeed, our own intellectual and moral investigation can cross this line. The law of the red heifer is considered, in many ways, the prototypical hok, and this is what the Midrash (Num. Rabbah 19:3) says about it:
"This is the dictate of the law" -- Rabbi Isaac opened with this (Eccl. 7:23), "All this I tested by wisdom and I said, 'I was determined to be wise — but this was beyond me...'" Said Solomon, "I have understood all of these, but concerning this passage of the red heifer, I investigated and inquired and introspected. Then I said, 'I was determined to be wise — but this was beyond me.'"
There was only one great dictate which proved to be beyond the wisest of all men. He had transformed everything else into mishpatim, but this hok remained.
This brings us to one particular verse in Lev. 18, the 22nd. It (and its companion verse in 20:13) are the lone sources to discuss homosexuality in Scripture. Religious conservatives seem obsessed with these two verses. Just look at some of the nearly two hundred comments on a simple post on the popular Jewish blog DovBear about a U.S. District Court in Oklahoma finding bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Or consider the vile piece by Rabbi Yair Hoffman  on The Yeshiva World, "We Are Under Attack by the LGBTPed Community." Can you guess what "Ped" stands for? Hint: it's not pedestrian or pediatrician.
Yes, I hear some of you dear readers sharpening your quills already, preparing to liken homosexuality to pedophilia, bestiality and incest. Of course such people ignore the abhorrently offensive nature of such a comparision, as well as the evidence that no slippery slope exists; Canada, for example, will mark its tenth year of gay marriage this year, and there's been no uptick in any of these.
Let's admit it: the only reason to ever say that gays may not marry is a religious one. It is a hok. It's like not marrying your brother's, father's, son's or uncle's ex. It's like not having sex during menstruation. It's like not mixing wool and linen. It is not something we can grasp with our human minds. You can recast God as Nature or Traditional Values or Cultural Morality, but there is no argument there that can stand in a court of law (beit mishpat). Most importantly, it is not something we religious conservatives (yeah, I'm one too; I'm an Orthodox rabbi) can impose on others. Nor should we want to.
So here I am, saying it for the last time: if you truly find the idea of two people finding each other and choosing to create a household and a family together so similar to goatf*cking, I really can't help you.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

This ain't your dad's rabbinate

Over the past few days, there has been a furor about the issue of women serving in the Israeli armed forces, especially religious women. First, the new Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef reiterated their opposition to women serving in the army. Then Finance Minister Yair Lapid called for their dismissal. Then his number 2, Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron, backed up the rabbinate. "Rabbi Piron against Lapid: No halakhic authorities allow girls to enlist" reads the headline on Srugim, a national-religious news site.
Well, that's a lie. Don't take my word for it: read the actual article. A decade ago, Piron wrote, in response to a student's question, "I am not familiar with any halakhic authorities who allow girls to enlist." When asked about it this week, he stated: "There are virtually no halakhic authorities who allow girls to enlist." So, this all-encompassing halakhic ban has moved from reality to perception to virtuality.
This distinction is actually very important. You see, neither the Chief Rabbis nor Rabbi Minister Piron made this declaration unprompted; they were goaded into it by right-wing underlings. In the case of the former, it was Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, he of the "Don't rent to Arabs" ruling. His dad was Chief Rabbi too, from 1983 (when the current Sephardic Chief Rabbi's father finished his term) to 1993 (when the current Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi's father began his term). In the case of the latter, it was a former hesder yeshiva student of his, Ran Huri. R. Eliyahu wanted to know if our current CR's upheld the rulings of their predecessors; Huri wanted to know if the EM upheld his own "ruling."
I have been told by many friends and acquaintances that it is Lapid who is out of line here. They mainly rely on three arguments: a) freedom of conscience; b) precedent; c) secular (hiloni) Israelis' supposed disengagement from religion. Don't the Chief Rabbis have the right--nay, the responsibility--to voice their halakhic views? Aren't they just reiterating a tried-and-true principle? And why is that hiloni Lapid opening his big fat mouth? (We should note who his father was: Tommy Lapid, anti-haredi firebrand.)
That's why I think it's so important to consider how the paper which broke the story, Israel Hayom, concludes their coverage:
Officials at the Chief Rabbinate stressed that the ruling was not directed at women who chose to enlist, but rather at rabbis who have been using the Halachah to allow women to join the military.
This is not about freedom of conscience, which the Chief Rabbis are welcome to exercise in the privacy of their own homes. This is, unsurprisingly, a power play. More and more religious girls are serving in the army, and here's the response, as formulated at a heated meeting of the Chief Rabbinical Council:
During the discussion leading up to the decision, the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, infamous for instructing Safed residents not to rent to Arabs, warned that female enlistment threatened “to erase the identity of Israel as a Jewish state.” Beersheba’s chief rabbi, Yehuda Deri, framed the debate as a matter of life or death.
(No, Yehuda Deri's father was not a Chief Rabbi. Don't be silly! Although his brother is Aryeh Deri, head of Sephardic haredi party Shas. And his mehutanim are Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and his brother Rabbi Avraham Yosef. Mere coincidence, I'm sure.)
The problem is that the Chief Rabbis are symbols of the state. They're the ones who greet the popes, presidents and premiers who visit Israel. They're the ones who are present at official state ceremonies, when we honor all of our soldiers, including females and (gasp!) non-Jews. Is this the look they'll have on their faces when a young hayelet is publicly commended for her valiant service?
Source: Kikar Shabat
Source: Kikar Shabat
That's their reaction to a woman singing at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's funeral yesterday. Maybe they were overcome with emotion. At least they didn't run away.
But this is not about restating the Chief Rabbinate's opposition to drafting females, which dates back to the 1950's. This is about religious women enlisting and the rabbis who support them. It isn't the 1950's anymore. We are much more aware of issues such as sexual harassment, but more importantly, the workplace itself has changed. Women, including religious women and especially haredi women, are in the workforce, if not the breadwinners. When they finish their service/ education, most women do not leave the public sphere. Moreover, the army itself has changed. Over ninety percent of the soldiers are not in combat positions. Is it really so different for a religious girl to serve in an office building in green rather than in a hospital in white in the allegedly kosher framework of national service? Rabbi Eliyahu is busy dispatching letters to all religious high schools about the dangers of women in the army. Does the Education Minister support this initiative? Do the Chief Rabbis?
Secular Israelis have a stake in this, because their children go to the army. Not like Sephardic CR Yosef, who never served. Not like Ashkenazic CR Lau, who had his father arrange for him to become an army chaplain with the rank of major, but also in practice did not serve. This matters to hilonim, which is why Lapid supported a more moderate CR candidate. But the selections are essentially self-perpetuating, which is why the same names keep popping up. (You can read the law here.) I must admit to being confused as to what Lapid's opponents want: should he not criticize the CRs because he's not religious, or should he stop trying to get the Rabbinate out of secular Israelis' lives? It is profoundly disrespectful to tell hilonim to butt out of this, and it's abominable to patronize them by essentially stating (I paraphrase): No, it's fine for your daughters to serve, they're sluts anyway.
I'll end with a short anecdote. The same day this story broke, I was walking to my bus stop in Tel Aviv, across from the Kirya, Israel's Pentagon. I passed a group of soldiers, one of whom was a religious girl wearing a long army skirt (yes, they have those). What I thought then, and what I still believe, is the following: "That girl does more to sanctify the name of God every day by going to work than I will probably accomplish in my entire life."
Just don't tell her rabbi.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Lonely Manna of Faith

It's hard to know where to start when approaching Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin's screed, "Dividing the soul of Orthodox Judaism." R. Rocklin's basic premise is that we should stop crying about the attempts of Israel's Chief Rabbinate to delegitimize Rabbi Avi Weiss, since he and his Open Orthodox ilk have brought this misfortune upon themselves by not toeing the ideological line. It was certainly bad timing to post this the day before Haaretz reported "Avi Weiss is not alone: Israeli rabbinate disqualifies another U.S. rabbi." What was the thought crime of that rabbi, Scot Berman? Being an educator and not a pulpit rabbi. I wouldn't expect R. Rocklin to know what Haaretz is going to report, but this was not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the aggressive moves of the Chief Rabbinate (CR) over the past few years. Luckily, R. Berman is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, so I'm sure they'll--oh right, R. Rocklin is on the RCA's Executive Committee, and he thinks the way they're bending over for the CR is just peachy.
So the idea that the CR is just standing up for Torah and truth is demonstrably false. Even worse is the idea that they're applying some halakhic standard. The Talmud, Maimonides and Shulhan Arukh all state that "All of the families are considered kosher," which means that if someone says he's a Jew, we're supposed to believe him and let him marry. But that's not what happens in Israel. The rabbinical courts instead call in witnesses, especially the sort they would invalidate at any actual wedding: the female and the familial. To recap, the CR rules: women, fine; relatives, fine; educators, invalid; rabbis who follow Maimonides in Mishneh Torah as opposed to Maimonides in his Mishnaic commentary, invalid.
This brings us to a third point. R. Rocklin blithely characterizes Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber (whom he doesn't have the decency to name) as having "denied the divine authorship of the Bible." This is a lie. I have corresponded with Rabbi Farber, and he does not believe anything of the sort. If you actually click on one of the dozens of hyperlinks R. Rocklin provides, you'll find that they rarely bear out his accusations. Not that it stops him from presenting the opinions of some neo-haredi members of his organization as the authentic voice of the RCA and of Modern Orthodoxy as a whole.
This brings us to my final point (and a brief sermon). This week we read the passage of the manna, Exodus 16, which the Tur (OH 1) actually recommends reading daily. As the Beit Yosef explains (ad loc. 5), this helps strengthen one's belief in God and His Providence. Interestingly, there are two incidents in which the Israelites fail to follow the rules of the manna. First, some people leave the manna overnight; later that week, on the Sabbath, when no manna is supposed to fall, others go out looking for manna.
The sins seem similar, but the reactions are very different. In the first case, it is Moses who is wordlessly furious at this violation of his direct command; in the second, God speaks up, "Until when will you refuse to observe My commandments and My teachings?!" If we look at the text, we would be hard-pressed to understand the divine reaction. In the first case, Moses' direct order is countermanded; in the second, it is hard to pinpoint the exact transgression. Moreover, if this is supposed to be a pre-Sinai test run, "so that I may test them, whether they will follow My teaching (torah) or not," it would seem that leaving over the manna is much more significant, as the time-limit for eating sacred food is an oft-repeated principle, going back to the paschal offering in Egypt. Avoiding going out on the Sabbath is hardly an eternal value.
However, the psychology of the matter is enlightening. Why would anyone leave over manna, the miraculous food? Well, this generation is used to crying out to God with no answer; is it a great surprise that they are afraid to simply toss out their leftovers and hope that they will remain in God's good graces? The collectors, on the other hand, are doing something profoundly bizarre: if God is providing for them, why not believe Him that he won't do so on the Sabbath? If He isn't, then there would be no manna in any case! That, at least, is how a monotheist would approach this. In the ancient pagan world, on the other hand, the fact that the God of the Heaven rains down food does not affect how the God of the Desert will maintain it. They are looking for the manna to prove that the God who took them out of Egypt is one of many. This corrupted faith is the true danger.
Herein lies a lesson. The true enemy of religion is not an individual's inability to live up to a high standard of faith (even if that standard comes from the words of Moses Our Teacher, let alone one reading of the words of Moses Maimonides), but the willful corruption of that faith. Even if R. Rocklin's thesis were true, it would still be unpardonable that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is spending its time delegitimizing dedicated rabbinical leaders instead of defrocking the child molesters, fraudsters and felons in its own ranks. If the RCA will not stand up for its members and for its flock, it will cease to be relevant to Jews who actually care about what the Torah tells us to do, not who wrote it down.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Bleeding Cool

I should be used to the theological whiplash of reading those colorful printouts known as parsha sheets that clutter the entrance of every synagogue in the Jewish world. Before their advent, congregants had no choice but to listen to the actual Torah portion; now, it's pre-digested for them. At best, they are boring but inoffensive; at worst, they are boring and highly offensive. And sometimes they're both.
This Shabbat, my neighbor dragged me into a discussion of a particular article from Torah Tidbits, the thousand-issue behemoth that is second-to-none in telling you which Torah portion has the seventeenth-lowest total number of commandments but the seventeenth-highest number of letters per verse. This particular piece was written by Rabbi Gideon Weitzman of the PUAH (Fertility and Medicine in Accordance with Halacha) Institute. Now, PUAH does great work, helping couples navigate the treacherous waters where modern reproductive science and traditional Jewish law meet. He notes, apropos of the mitzva of circumcision mandated in the Torah portion of Bo, that the Talmud (Yevamot 64b) states that if a woman's first two boys die due to circumcision, the third must not be circumcised.
The mitzva of circumcision is a very important one: If a Jew wasn't circumcised as a baby and refuses to undergo Mila as an adult, he can be liable for the punishment of karet - being “cut off”, excluded - on a par with such sins as eating on Yom Kippur, eating chametz on Pesach, doing forbidden types of work on Shabbat, and various immoral sexual acts. Nevertheless, though in this particular Talmudic case we cannot know for sure that the third son actually has hemophilia - it is only a possibility, at most a probability - the concern for human life and the Rabbis’ comprehension of the possible risk of death override the obligation to circumcise the child.
Fair enough. R. Weitzman is making the point that human life is a halakhic value of supreme importance. That's not the whiplash part. That came with R. Weitzman's continuation, where he sets out the difference of opinion in the Shulchan Arukh regarding whether this applies even if the man remarries. The Mechabber, Rav Yosef Karo (YD 263:2) rules that it does, but Rav Moshe Isserles (the Rema) is not so sure. What does this tell us?
While the above reasoning is not in keeping with our modern understanding of medicine, the discussion does reveal how the Rabbis recognized Mendelian Inheritance as being sex-linked, and passed on from generation to generation.
The Shulchan Aruch then goes further and states that if two sisters were to have sons, and both babies died as a result of circumcision, the sons of any remaining sisters in the family would be exempt from the mitzva of brit mila.
The above discussion suggests a deep understanding of the existence of familial genetic abnormalities. The Rabbis’ rulings seem to be based on medical information similar to the complex family history drawn up during a session of modern genetic counseling, today.
So let's get this straight. The rabbis had a deep understanding of modern genetics? Well, hemophilia is X-linked, and since we Jews only circumcise boys, who are XY, the X must come from the mother. So one of the opinions cited by the Rema (that the hemophilia can only come from the mother) is correct  and based on science, while the other one, which is the one cited by the Mechabber, is what? Anti-scientific? Non-scientific?
Of course, when the Mechabber then says that we would consider two sisters as being evidence of carrying the disease, then he does line up with science. Did he discover genetics between one line and the next?
Even more laughable is R. Weitzman's contention that the Vilna Gaon's comment ad loc. about "the blood coming from the mother" is evidence of knowing about X chromosomes. That's ludicrous; he's quoting another Talmudic statement:
The father provides the white material from which the bones and the brain in the head are formed. The mother provides the red material from which skin and flesh are made. [Nida 31a].
Sorry, R. Weitzman, but turning the sages of the 6th or the 16th century into geneticists is an insult to your readers' intelligence. These great men were still men, and as human knowledge increases, the Torah must grow as well.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Grandpa Moses

Moses wears many hats in Scripture -- prophet and priest, lawgiver and leader, diplomat and general, king and servant -- but a role we rarely see him in is father and husband. In fact, we never see Moses directly speak or interact with his children or wife. Consider last week's Torah portion, in which Moses and Aaron are genealogized (Ex. 6): we hear about Aaron's wife, children, grandchild, father-, brother- and daughter-in-law, but Moses' family is entirely absent.
This makes the opening to this week's Torah portion, Bo, particularly striking (Ex. 10:1-2):
Lord said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants so that I may perform these signs of Mine among them; so that you may recount in the ears of your child and your grandchild how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and you may know that I am Lord.”
To whom does "your child and your grandchild" refer? It could be a broad, figurative term, much like three of the Four Children who appear later on in the portion. However, in those cases (12:24-27; 13:3-8; 13:13-16), the Torah makes it clear that we are referring to distant progeny, in both the chronological and geographical senses: "And it will be when Lord brings you to the land of the Canaanites... you shall keep this service seasonally from year to year." Grandchildren are not mentioned, presumably because the "children" include all descendants. In each of these latter cases, it is Moses who is speaking to the Israelites, while in the beginning of Bo, it is God speaking to him, without any command to transmit this to the nation. Finally, in the portion's opening, we find a unique verb which does not recur later in the portion: recounting, sippur, the special term for the retelling of the Exodus story at the Seder of Passover.
This suggests that God's command may have particular resonance for Moses. This is shortly before he makes his famous declaration to Pharaoh, “With our young and our old, we will go; with our sons and our daughters, with our flocks and our herds, we will go, because Lord's festival is ours!" The irony is that Moses will not go with his sons, Gershom and Eliezer, because his sons are back in Midian with his wife Zipporah and father-in-law Jethro. Instead, he will meet them at Mt. Sinai, when Jethro brings them. On that occasion, we are told (Ex. 18:5-8):
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, together with Moses’ sons and wife, came to him in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God. Jethro had sent word to him, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons.” So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down and kissed him. They greeted each other and then went into the tent. Moses recounted to his father-in-law all that Lord had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt for Israel’s sake...
This is the first sippur, the premiere recounting of the Exodus story, but Moses does not relate it to his sons (or his wife). Indeed, they utterly vanish from the Torah. We only find Gershom's name recurring in Scripture in a bizarre context.
There the Danites set up for themselves the idol, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land.
That's the version of Judges 18:30 that you'll find in many manuscripts and translations. Your Tanakh may have Menasseh (מנשה) instead of Moses (משה), but the nun (נ) will be in superscript, as there is little doubt that it was Moses' grandson Jonathan who served as an idolatrous priest.
The Midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah 2:3) maintains that Jonathan did not rely on or believe in this idol, and he would mock the fifty-year-olds who came to worship the fifteen-year-old statue. Why then did he do it?
He said to him: "This is the tradition handed down from Grandfather's house: better to sell yourself to foreign service (avoda zara) than to be dependent on others."
The Midrash goes on to explain that this was a garbling of Moses' message; still, is it any surprise that this was the message received by the grandchild in whose ears Moses was supposed to recount the Exodus? Ultimately, Jonathan concludes, it is better to be a prince of Egypt -- or a priest of Egyptian-style gods -- than to be a pauper-prophet of Israel.
There is a potent message here for all parents. Moses may have been the greatest prophet in Jewish history, but he would not have been a candidate for Father of the Year, 2448. The need to recount one's personal journey and experience of faith is a paramount parental obligation. If you cannot tell it to your children, how can you possibly tell it to the world?