Sunday, April 26, 2015


Apologetics is hard. Arguing defensively for one's faith is always a dicey proposition, compounded by the fact that one is always fighting last generation's battle.
This was very clear to me growing up in 80s America in an Orthodox Jewish community. In 1985, we finally had an answer for the society of 1955. Now it's 2015, and we've come up with responses as fresh as 1985. (Sorry, as a child of the 80s, I can only think of time in Back to the Future settings.)
Hat, beard, peyos, jacket--1885 was such a mechayeh!
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way contemporary halakhic Judaism grapples with homosexuality. Whenever religious Jews try to talk about gay issues, they end up sounding like recent arrivals from another era. Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties make no bones about it: they won't even put a female on their lists, as part of their commitment to 18th-century ideals.
But it's particularly irksome when you encounter some of the opinions offered by members of Bayit Yehudi, the Jewish Home Party, ostensibly representing the dati (translation: let's just go with the barely serviceable "Modern Orthodox") perspective. Party Leader Naftali Bennett, a moderate, explained that same-sex marriage is as kosher as a cheeseburger, while Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan, once (and future?) Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs called it "a recipe for the destruction of the Jewish people." Yehudit Shilat, director of the Takana Forum dedicated to helping victims of sexual abuse, has stated that since most homosexuals choose to be that way, "advancing the gay-lesbian agenda legislatively" leads to "collective suicide." Bezalel Smotrich reported that he now regrets organizing the Beast Parade in 2006 to compete with the Jerusalem Pride Parade, but he's still a self-identified "proud homophobe" (see, proud is gay-eh in Hebrew; get it?) who declared ("normal," in modern Hebrew, is a synonym for "sane" or "free of mental illness"):
Any person can decide he doesn't want to live a normal life. That's his right. But they don’t have the right — just because they are uncomfortable being abnormal — to demand of us all to redefine the norm and claim "there is no such thing as normal."
And that's not even getting into the mortifying video of Bayit Yehudi candidates responding to the issue of same-sex marriage.

While Shilat did not get into Knesset and the Jewish Home lost 1/3 of its seats, the others are now proudly serving. If two of Likud's current members move on and Amir Ohana, number 32 on the Likud list, takes his seat, I wonder how the gay Tel Aviv lawyer will be welcomed by his party's "natural partners" in the Jewish Home.
For a man who ran on a platform of "No apologies," Bennett surely seemed apologetic when presenting his offer to the LGBT community, "Rights, yes. Recognition, no." He talked about how much he loves all Jews, even the gay ones, and how he served alongside them, but "Look, I've got a kipa on my head! Formalistic Judaism does not recognize same sex-marriage."
I might note that formalistic Judaism does not recognize weddings performed in Cyprus either, but I digress. What does formalistic Judaism actually say? And since it looks like the Jewish Home will, almost against its will, accept the Education Ministry, what will they teach?
It all starts with that perplexing pair of verses in Leviticus, 18:22 and 20:13, which we read yesterday in Israel and will be read by Jews abroad this week, prohibiting and penalizing "bedding a male the beddings of a woman." What exactly that means on the literal level is unclear, as I wrote two years ago (Rabbeinu Hananel seems to have suggested the same thing a thousand years ago), but halakhically it definitely forbids anal sex between men. But what if they're not men?
They must both be stoned if they are both adults, as it states: "Do not bed a man," whether he is the active or passive partner.
If a minor of nine years and a day or more is involved, the man who enters into relations or has the minor enter into relations with him should be stoned and the minor is not liable.
If the male [minor] was less than nine years old, they are both free of liability.
(Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Relations 1:14)
Here is where the apologeticists' heads explode. You see, they love to explain how the severe penalties for sex between men is really about pedophilia, launching into lusty descriptions of Greek culture. But the fact is that by Torah law, a man having consensual sex with an adult is liable to the death penalty, but one raping an eight-year-old gets off scot-free. This is explicitly laid out in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 54b. Maimonides himself seems bothered by this, so he concludes:
It is, however, appropriate for the court to subject the adult to lashing for rebellious conduct for homosexual relations although his companion was less than nine years old.
Well, that's something. Except of course that the Hinukh, a comprehensive listing of the 613 commandments based on Maimonides' count, thinks another party should be subject to lashing:
If one was a minor below thirteen years and a day, but above nine years and a day, the adult is stoned whether he was the active or passive partner, while the minor is biblically exempt but lashed by rabbinical law.
So, Naftali, I wear a kipa too. And if I lived in a Jewish state that followed this ruling, I would do everything in my power to burn it to the ground. I guess the question is when you're willing to apply the rule promulgated in the last line of the first tractate of the Mishna, Berachot (9:5):
And it says, “It is time to act for God, they have nullified your Torah.” (Psalms 119:126) Rabbi Nathan says, “'They nullified your Torah' – because it is time to act for God.”
The best way to avoid apologetics is to have nothing to apologize for in the first place.

Monday, April 20, 2015

My Rebbe is gone

This morning, we lost one of the greatest Torah minds of our generation, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, PhD in English Literature from Harvard, winner of the Israel Prize for Jewish Literature last Yom HaAtzmaut.
Studying under Rav Aharon and his fellow Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital (who passed away in 2010), was one of the greatest privileges of my life. It seems like yesterday that I was sitting in the moadon, the gazebo where he gave shiur, waiting for the lesson to begin, wondering if I prepared the sources properly with my havruta (study partner), trying to anticipate what paths this once-in-a-generation scholar would lead us down.
In particular, I recall how, nineteen years ago, we were studying the third chapter of Ketubot, dealing with some of the most dense, complex and sensitive topics of sexuality in the Talmud. We had reached folio 39a, which at its top deals with the contraceptive device known as mookh.  Rav Aharon was ready to go on to the next mishna, but I begged, “Rebbe, what about mookh?” “Ah, mookh,” he replied, and then launched into a meticulous analysis of the varying opinions, the parallel passages, the practical conclusions. All that was at his fingertips.
And yet he never relied on his superior memory. Many a time and oft he could be found at his makom, his modest seat at the front of the beit midrash (study hall), poring over another well-worn volume from his library, taking notes, stacking them one after another. Still it’s a wonder that he managed to get anything done there, as there were often students waiting to consult him on all manner of theological, halakhic and personal matters. Some were teenagers, some were middle-aged, but it was Rav Aharon’s way to help you find the answer (or at least refine the question) for yourself. He never sought to be an oracle; his only goal was to teach, to inspire, to challenge.
The first and wisest of them all professed  To know this only, that he nothing knew.  JOHN MILTON, Paradise Regained
The first and wisest of them all professed
To know this only, that he nothing knew.
JOHN MILTON, Paradise Regained

And those were challenging times. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on 4 November, 1995, Rav Aharon led us to pay our respects amid the long line of mourners. Then he delivered a blistering three-hour tour-de-force of a lecture, demolishing the twisted interpretation of Jewish law that had led a former yeshiva student to murder the prime minister while asking the troubling questions of how such a person could come from our midst. Exactly four months later, on the Fast of Esther, Rav Aharon cut short another lecture when he learned of the Dizengoff Center suicide bombing, saying: “This is the time for prayer, not study.” Five years later, when I was injured in the Sbarro suicide bombing in Jerusalem, Rav Aharon called me personally to check on me.
And now my rebbe is gone. Anything I can utter will pale in comparison to what his learned children and students will say tomorrow. Besides, we don’t eulogize on the New Moon, so instead I will offer a small devar Torah.
Today is 1 Iyar, the first day of the second month. It is a prominent date in the Hebrew calendar. This is how the Book of Numbers, which we’ll start reading later this month, opens:
Lord spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month of the second year after they had left the land of Egypt. He said, “Take a census of the entire assembly of the people of Israel, by clans and families. Record the names of all the men twenty years old and over who are subject to military service in Israel. Enumerate them company by company, you and Aharon.”
Aharon the Priest is explicitly included in this command. And yet when it comes time to count his own tribe, the Levites, the Talmud (Bekhorot 4a) tells us that “Aharon was not in that counting.” Malbim (Num. 3:39) explains that Aharon had a special mission among the Levites: speaking to the firstborn among them.
At this point in the desert, the holy duties of the firstborn are transferred to the Levites (3:6-12), as God says: “Summon the tribe of Levi, and assign them to Aharon the Priest… I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel in lieu of every firstborn… All the firstborn belong to me, because on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I separated for myself all the firstborn in Israel.”
The Levites replace the firstborn–but what about the Levites who were firstborn as well? Aharon was to help them “redeem themselves”–since he too was a firstborn Levite! (See Rashi and Tosafot ad loc.). Now, what did this mean practically? These individuals were holy regardless, either as firstborn or as Levites, so why was there a formal ceremony to redeem themselves? This indicates that as important as the “what” and “how” are in Judaism, the “why” and “wherefore” are equally significant. Aharon’s mission was to teach the firstborn Levites to see a new aspect of their identity, to realize the multiple worlds they held in their souls.
If Rav Aharon taught us, his students, anything it was to see the complexity of humanity and the world. There are always multiple facets, and we must strive to reveal them.
May his memory be a blessing.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Bless You

The most well-worn pages of our Haggadot are those in the section known as “Barech.” After the Seder night, we have no pressing need for the text of “Dayenu” or “Chad Gadya,” but we still have to say Birkat HaMazon, and as our leavened year-round birkonim have been put away, we pull out our Haggadot. After all, the version we say at the Seder is almost identical to what we say throughout the holiday week—with one exception. Many have the custom, as cited by the Aruch HaShulchan (O.C. 479:2), to say an extended HaRachaman, praying for “a day which is fully long, a day when the righteous sit, with crowns on their heads, enjoying the glow of the Divine Presence (Shechina).”
The first part of this insertion is a variation on a theme we know well. Every Shabbat and Yom Tov, we add a HaRachaman that makes reference to Olam HaBa, the World to Come; in each case, it is, essentially, a play on words, as in Midrashic sources, Olam HaBa is referred to as “a day which is fully restful (shabbat)” (Tamid 7:4, et al.) and “fully good (tov)” (Kiddushin 39b, et al). Thus, on the day of Shabbat, we admit that the true Shabbat is elsewhere, and on Yom Tov, literally “a day of good,” we admit that true good is elsewhere. Olam HaBa is also referred to as “fully long” (ibid), or eternal. However, we have already said the regular formula for Yom Tov, so what does this reference add? After all, if any holiday if called “The Long Day,” it is not Pesach, but Rosh HaShana!
Furthermore, what is the reference in the second part of this special HaRachaman? It seems to come from Rav’s famous statement (Berachot 17a): “The World to Come has neither eating nor drinking... rather, the righteous sit, with crowns on their heads, enjoying the glow of the Shechina.” As such, it seems quite out of place at the Seder—is there any meal in the Jewish calendar which involves more eating and drinking? Are we begging God to relocate us to a world where we won’t have to eat so much matza and drink so many cups of wine?
It seems that in order to understand this HaRachaman, we must reverse our hypothesis. We have assumed that it is connected to the day, and its placement within Birkat HaMazon is coincidental; this is, after all, the template for the ones we recite for Shabbat, Yom Tov, Sukkot, Rosh Chodesh and Rosh HaShana. But what if we were to start from the opposite point of view: that this HaRachaman is essentially connected to Birkat HaMazon, and its recitation on the Seder night is coincidental. This would indicate that there is something unique about this meal as a meal—but what could that be?
Let us return to the three-word source for Birkat HaMazon in the Torah (Devarim 8:10): “Ve-achalta, ve-savata u-verachta,” “You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless.” The Written Torah spells out an obligation only in the case where one has eaten enough to be fully satiated; the Oral Torah expands this to specific amounts, and very small ones at that. In fact, this is God’s response in a beautiful legend in Talmud Berachot (20b). The angels accuse God of being partial to the Jewish people, to which He responds: “How can I not show favor to Israel? I wrote for them in the Torah, ‘You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless Lord, your God,’ but they are so exacting upon themselves, even for an olive’s volume [of bread], even for an egg’s!”
In fact, for every meal we have throughout the year, whether for a mitzva or just for sustenance, we don’t even consider the issue of satisfaction, merely measuring the minimum amount. There is, however, one meal in which we cannot stop until we have fulfilled “ve-savata”—the Seder. We must eat our afikoman, our final portion of matza, which parallels the actual piece of the paschal sacrifice which our ancestors would eat, “al ha-sova,” being satiated. This is the one time when the entire nation fulfills the mitzva of Birkat HaMazon in its most literal sense.
With this in mind, we may return to our HaRachaman. It points out that the long meal of the Seder, where we literally drink and eat our fill, is only a reflection of the true sova, the ultimate satisfaction of being in God’s Presence. Thus, our proper fulfillment of the mitzvot of the Seder night allows us not only to reenact the Exodus, but to reconnect to those practices which define every day of our lives as Jews.